My Father’s Yahrzeit

Today is my father’s yahrzeit (death anniversary) by the modern calendar. I have decided that, since he was not a Jew, I’m going to observe it by the modern calendar.

Normally, Jews observe yahrzeit in a couple of ways. They go to shul and say the Mourner’s Kaddish after naming their loved one who has passed on, and they light a yahrzeit candle at home. It’s just a small paraffin candle that burns for 24 hours. You’re supposed to light it at sundown on the erev, or eve, of the person’s death anniversary.

I can’t leave a candle burning unattended for 24 hours in my home. It’s too dangerous; we have cats, and I have to go to work before my husband gets home. So I am compromising by burning it for as long as I can before I leave for work, and lighting it again when I get home. I lit it last night after sundown, and cried some. It’s on my desk, next to a photo of my father and my grandmother holding my oldest child when she was an infant.

My father was my rock. He would have been proud of my conversion. He was just that kind of man. It’s because of him that singing is prayer for me. It’s because of him that I value my intellect. It’s because of him that I have been successful – he is my model for success.

Six years ago, my father died of cancer –  far too young. He was just 63. My dad had health problems all his life – headaches, back problems – but when he hit his 50s, he was diagnosed with type II diabetes. Shortly after that, he had surgery to remove a slow-growing kidney tumor.

When he was diagnosed with fast-growing esophageal cancer at 62, they did a scan to see how advanced the tumor in his throat was, and discovered his liver was raddled with it and that there was no point in doing any more surgery. They gave him a year. It was an estimate. What he got was about half that time. What eventually killed him was not the cancer, but the gangrene that set into his feet in mid-December.

It was horrifying. I still can’t think about it rationally.

But I can light a yahrzeit candle for him and say the Mourner’s Kaddish. I said it at shul on Saturday after mentioning his name. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to ask for his name to be listed in the synagogue bulletin with the family members of other shul members who have passed on or not, since my father was not a Jew. But I might – next year, when I’m a member of the shul and not just a conversion candidate.

Grieving is difficult. I didn’t really get to grieve when my father died. I had to help hold everyone else together. And then there was graduate school, and finding a job, and…. somewhere along the line I didn’t get the chance to really grieve. I remember saying on an old blog of mine at one point that I wished there was some kind of culturally accepted, structured grieving process for non-Jews like shiva. (Maybe that was a spiritual helicopter even then…?)

So every year, when January rolls around, the depression surges in and incapacitates me if I let it. I am hoping that burning this candle on my desk today will go some small way towards making this pain less bad.

Baruch dayan emet, they say. May his memory be for a blessing, they say.

Yes, his memory is for a blessing. Every time I think of him, it’s a blessing.

But I miss him more than I can say.

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Friday Feature: What are you thankful for this week?

This week I am thankful for many things.

I will be receiving my back pay from my raise that is retroactive to July 1 very soon. I filed grades for my intersession class and should be paid for that soon, as well. Then I can pay off some bills completely, which will be good.

I am continuing to get add requests from my students and my spring classes are almost full.

I saw the doctor today and my blood pressure is normal. Normal! Yay!

I see friends this weekend.

Our Intro classes are well underway and I’m loving it.

My husband got me a cute card and a tiny stuffed Kermit the Frog (my favorite Muppet) to cheer me up today. He and I have been married 84 days.

Life is good.

Shabbat shalom.

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Six Things Christians and Atheists Just Don’t Seem to Get About Judaism

In the last few months, between writing on Quora and going to my Intro to Judaism class, I’ve been struck repeatedly by people’s beliefs about what Judaism is, and how incorrect those beliefs really are. Most Christians assume that “religion” looks like what they do, and can’t imagine any other way. Most atheists I bump into on this topic either never had a religion, or they came from a Christian background and rejected it, but almost all of them are Americans, raised in the American tradition, which is steeped heavily in Christian motifs, beliefs, and ways of experiencing and explaining the world. So the atheists also tend to assume that Christianity is what all religions look like.

Many of these misconceptions stem from an equally incorrect misconception: that all Christians are fundamentalist/evangelical Christians – and so all religious people are just like them, because that’s what religion looks like. Both Christians and atheists seem to believe this, and the misconceptions that grow in this fertile ground are kind of like kudzu.

Here’s a few specific misconceptions.

1. Jews are just Christians without Jesus/a Messiah. No. Sorry.

To be honest, I’m not even sure what that means, but I’ve found plenty of assumptions stemming from the idea that Christianity is what religion “looks like,” so the main difference in Judaism must be that it doesn’t have Jesus, but in most other ways it’s the same.

Certainly, Jews look for the Moshiach and the Messianic Age, but Yeshua ben Yosef (aka Jesus) isn’t him (or her), and this isn’t it. We aren’t counting on (or living for) an afterlife, and we aren’t really all that interested in making people believe the same way we do.

In Judaism, “Moshiach” is a title given to every secular political king we’ve ever had. It is NOT the title of a spiritual leader. There are a number of reasons why Yeshua ben Yosef is not the Messiah: the Temple has not been rebuilt, we do not have world peace, and the Jewish nation is not all located in Israel – among others.

2. Jews think that their religion is the only correct one and that all other religions should be eliminated/people forced to convert to the One True Religion.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I know that for most people, this is what “religion” means, but it’s hard to become a Jew, and we discourage conversion without a lot of thought and consideration. Compare that to the Christian conversion where you say “yes” and (possibly) jump in the ocean to get baptized, and you’re in.

Judaism isn’t about being better than other people, it’s about having more responsibilities than other people (that’s what “Chosen People” means, you know – not that we’re special but that we’re extra burdened). And as long as non-Jews keep the seven Noahide laws (look it up on Google), they have a place in the World to Come.

3. Jews reject science and proof in favor of blind faith and belief in a vicious, mean, petty God.

If you believe this, you don’t know any Jews. Jews are often scientists. We recognize that science is about “how” and religion is about “why.” Einstein (himself a Jewish scientist) said: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” Einstein also said about God: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.

You don’t even have to believe in God to be a Jew. So assuming that all Jews believe in a vicious, mean, petty God is kind of stupid.

4. Judaism is about belief that has no support in the real world or through science.

Nope, sorry. Judaism isn’t about belief; it’s about behavior. How are you treating people? How are you behaving? That’s more important to us than what you believe. Look at the variety of beliefs across the spectrum of Jews; no two of us experience God the same way and no two of us have exactly the same belief system. The important thing is that we treat each other ethically and respectfully.

5. All Jews believe that their religious texts are literal, 100% infallible, and 100% correct as written for all times, places, and contexts. 

A few Jews do, just like a few Christians do. That doesn’t mean all of us do. For me, the Torah is largely a set of metaphors and fables about how to deal with life, and deal with other people fairly and ethically. This includes the fables where the lesson about being ethical comes out of the story showing you what is unethical. It’s also the stories of fallible human beings doing the best they could in the contexts of their times.

6. Christianity has Jewish roots because Jesus was a Jew, so Christians believe the same things Jews do.

No. Sorry. Here’s a few things that Christians believe that Jews categorically do not:

a. A human god
b. Heaven
c. Hell
d. A need for personal salvation or a “savior”
e. Human sacrifice (sorry, but the crucifixion of Yeshua ben Yosef counts!)
f. The Messiah as a spiritual leader, rather than a political leader
g. “Original sin”
h. “Personal revelation” of truth

And yet I’ve had atheists throw many of those at me as if I believe them. Why? Because I’m a Jew, and Judaism is a religion, and all religions are just like Christianity, right?

Many of the stories that Christians think are definitive and important from the Torah are actually minor blips for Jews. Adam and Eve in the Garden? Relatively minor. For Christians, this is a Huge Big Deal. The Abraham and Isaac story? Important for Jews. For Christians? They’re not sure what to make of that.

If someone’s going to dislike me because I’m a Jew, I’d appreciate it if they’d at least get their facts straight.

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Dear Mr. Christian, please take your ball and go away.

The Intro to Judaism class was interesting tonight. We had a visiting rabbi because our rabbi was out ill. The class topic was nominally about Rosh Hashanah, but we went all over the place.

Intro to Judaism is not technically just a “conversion” class, although most of the people taking it are either already Jews who want to brush up on their own heritage, or people moving towards conversion. But there’s a guy in this class who just can’t seem to stop talking about how he’s a Christian. He mentions it, oh, every third sentence at least – and he really likes to talk. Makes a point of reminding us that his savior is a Jewish carpenter. (Because, you know, we don’t already know this from the last twenty-six times he’s said it.) Every single time he opens his mouth (and he opens it a lot), it’s to tell us how what was just said relates to his religion. As if this isn’t a class on Judaism so much as a class on the Jewish background of his religious beliefs.

I truly don’t think this guy is here to learn about Judaism. It feels like he’s there to screw up the class. He keeps derailing the conversations, and I’m frankly sick of it. Yes, okay, fine, you’re learning more about your religion by learning something about ours. That’s not the point of this class – were you aware of that? Do you get that this is not a class about Christianity, and that you’re annoying at least half the people in the room?

I hope he got the message tonight, but I don’t know. We got on the topic of Moshiach, and the visiting Rab talked about a few of the various pseudo-Moshiachs we’ve had over the years (such as the Bar Kochba, whom even Rabbi Akiva was skunked into believing in). And yes, the rabbi mentioned “that Jewish carpenter” as an example.

The Rab made a point of saying to Mr. Christian that he was doing his best not to give offense, but he still shut him down, all very politely, with some pointed explanation. He covered a) why Jews do not believe the Moshiach has come, b) an explanation about what that word ACTUALLY means (king, not spiritual leader), c) how Saul of Tarsus was an opportunist who rejected everything taught in Torah, pretty much, d) how Jews don’t practice human sacrifice and, sorry, that Yeshua ben Yosef qualifies as an example of that very thing, and e) that the title Moshiach has been part of the titles of every Jewish political king in our history – “Moshiach Adonai,” to be exact.

Frankly, given this guy’s pushy behavior, I am impressed that the visiting Rab was so compassionate. But I’ll be honest: even he couldn’t resist getting a little snarky: “Yeah, Jesus of Nazareth had a few followers – twelve of them.” Which then segued into the point that most followers were not of Jesus but of Saul of Tarsus…

After that whole discussion, Mr. Christian was very, very quiet. Apparently he’s now facing that Judaism is not just “Christianity without Jesus.” And he doesn’t seem particularly happy about it.

He may be there to learn, but I just get the sense that his constant mentioning of his own religion qualifies as at least being pushy, if not quite evangelizing. And in fact, the Rabbi also said that, that most of the Christians Jews have had to deal with have been very pushy. I don’t think he liked hearing that, either.

And the Rabbi talked about why – because it seems that Christians think we’re stupid for not accepting their beliefs. And yet we don’t think Christians are stupid for not accepting ours. The guy then objected “Well, evangelicals do…” and the Rab agreed, “Yes, and fundamentalists, too.”

Did I mention this guy’s faith ends in “Orthodox”? It’s a fundamentalist faith.

(I also thought it was in supremely bad taste that he told the Rabbi – before this happened – that he had bought a used copy of the book this Rabbi wrote for use with this class, and was proud of it. That’s another thing he’s mentioned every single class so far, that he found all the books used on Amazon. To me that just seems tacky, especially in front of the author of one of the books.)

I don’t want to be annoyed by this guy any more. And I don’t want to come into the room in dread. And I don’t want to be flinching every time he opens his mouth, because I know what’s going to come out of it.

But the fact that it bothers me, bothers me. I want to be a compassionate person, but how far do I have to go with the compassion with a person who is trying to derail the class? Does it change the requirement for compassion if the person is malicious instead of clueless? If he’s doing it on purpose, instead of because he doesn’t know any better? I honestly can’t tell if he’s being clueless or if he’s being passive-aggressively malicious. Even writing about it here makes me feel like I’m committing lashon hara, but I need to work through this somehow.

My husband says “You can be compassionate because this is another human being who is trying to learn. And you don’t have to like it that he keeps saying ‘Well, MY god does this and this and this.’ You’re being compassionate by listening to him. You don’t have to agree with him.”

That’s true – and I don’t agree with this guy at all. But how obligated am I to treat this person kindly, when he’s trying to make the class all about HIS religion instead of OUR religion? And frankly, there are several people who are LEAVING his religion in this class – is he even aware that his constant mention of his religion is harmful to that group of people? To me?

No, I guess he’s not aware. But now I don’t know how to handle this. I’m considering a email to our rabbi, but it’s going to have to have a light touch. I’m honestly not sure how to say it other than bluntly: “This guy is making the class very uncomfortable for me in ways that are harming my ability to learn and listen to the lessons you are teaching.”

I mean, I have to deal with evangelizing Christians all the time. I shouldn’t have to put up with it in the class I’m taking to convert to Judaism, should I? Is that part of what I have to be compassionate about to be a Jew? Is there no good way to draw the line?

Edited to add: A friend, on reading this, said that he’s like the guy who takes a Women’s Studies class to say “But not all men do that!” But what it’s really like is a guy who takes a Women’s Studies class to say “Wow, this class is teaching me so much about how to make women like me!” Which has a Creepy Factor of 10/10.

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On Religion, Humor, and Extremism

I believe it was Ray Bradbury who once said that God has to have a sense of humor. After all, God invented the ostrich, the platypus, and humankind. If that’s not a sense of humor, then I don’t know what humor is.

Judaism has a long tradition of humor that includes, to some extent, humor about God. Leo Rosten, Hershey and Linda Friedman, the inimitable Mel Brooks, and many others have documented and created Jewish humor that includes laughing at and/or with God.

Unfortunately, there are those who believe that any humor about God (or religion) is the same thing as blasphemy.

Today, three armed terrorists entered the Paris, France office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, shouted “Allahu akbar!” (God is great!) and murdered twelve people, injuring eleven more. Among the dead were four cartoonists for the magazine, a guest, and at least one law enforcement officer. Statements made by surviving witnesses say that the attackers said the attack was in retribution for cartoons the magazine had published that depicted Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam.

Let’s go over that again. Twelve people were murdered today, over a few cartoons.

CartoonsYou know, drawings? On paper?

And these cartoons were enough of a threat to these murderers that they felt they had no choice but to murder people over them.

Those of us who live in the West have immense trouble wrapping our minds around this. Freedom of speech is such a central and paramount value in our culture that the idea that there are some things that must not be said is a foreign idea to us.

But let’s also make this quite clear. This wasn’t about religion. This was about control. This wasn’t about cartoons. It was about tyranny.

This was about people who are so uptight that if you shoved coal up their rear ends, you’d have a diamond in a matter of minutes. This was about people who are using a religious system as an excuse for their anger, hate, and fear. This was about people who cannot handle difference. This was about people who are ideological to the point that they cannot see outside of their ideology. They live in an echo chamber, not the real world. So when that echo chamber interfaces with the real world – as it must – their inability to deal with the collision results in violence against the real world.

The terrorists who murdered 12 people at Charlie Hebdo today in Paris, France, are not Muslims. They are just extremists, and all extremists fit into the same box regardless of their ideology. They can claim to be Muslims, but they are no more Muslim than the Westboro Baptist Church is Christian. They’re just extremists using a religion as an excuse for their extremism.

It is the flaw of the overly-serious and overly-ideological – the extremists – that they cannot bear being made fun of or laughed at. And sadly, their reaction is too often an overreaction, like this one was – out of proportion to what happened and, sadly, often fatal.

I grieve for the twelve people who were murdered by these extremists. I hope the Paris police catch them and bring them to justice. I pray for their families. Baruch dayan emet, and may all their memories be for a blessing.

But let’s not forget that their murderers are extremists – and because they are, they are just like the Ku Klux Klan or the Westboros or any other group that attacks instead of talking, that refuses to see any way but their own.

The only way to fight extremism is to refuse to become like the extremists – to value difference and diversity and ideas that we don’t like as much as those we do.

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I have no idea what this post will be about.

I’ve been feeling a pull towards good Jewish art lately. I have a touch of the art bug myself, but one of the main venues I used to use to indulge it is no longer available to me (by my decision) so I’ve been a little bit… at loose ends about it. I might come back and indulge that once I’ve looked at more Jewish art. I don’t want whatever I do to be cliché (menorahs, dreidels, hamsas, and Mogen Davids come to mind). What says “Jewish Art” to you? I’m curious.

We’ve adopted two cats this past weekend, and I am happier, although the one we thought would be “my” cat keeps hiding whenever we’re in the room. The other is demanding, social, and apparently believes his job is to make sure I hold him. Like, a lot. This might be why I’m not doing a whole lot of writing lately.

Our Introduction to Judaism classes start on Wednesday – tomorrow. I’ve been waiting for it and now it’s finally here; I can’t quite believe it. My husband is in negotiations with his job to switch his shift next Wednesday as the schedule he has will interfere with our second class. This reminds me that I need to do the filing and locate our receipt for the class. The temple has a deal, financed by one of its wealthier members, that subsidizes part of the cost of the class for people who have been attending and intend to convert.

I thanked my husband for being willing to fight to get that day off, and he said “Honey, I’m doing this for me, not just for you.” Which really means a lot to me. We went to a morning Torah study on Shabbat morning this past weekend as well, and he had some fantastic insights. He didn’t realize it until afterwards, but I pointed it out to him. I’m so glad and so proud that he’s doing this with me and for himself.

Shabbat this weekend is going to be pretty quiet for us. We’re going to go to morning services on Saturday morning, but other than that (and lighting candles on Friday night of course) we don’t have a lot planned. And maybe that’s better. I’m buried in work; prepping classes for this coming semester that starts a week from Monday, so it’ll be nice to have a Shabbat that really is for rest.

That said, I should get back to work.

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Thoughts on God

Atheists: Don’t bother. Your comments will go to the bit bucket. Thanks.

There are lots of atheists on Quora, and many of them are anti-theists.

I’ve discovered that there seems to be a link between absolutist thinking and denial of other people’s reality, as well as intolerance to ambiguity, that is common across certain groups of atheists and certain groups of religious people. So I know not to bother getting into an argument with an atheist about the existence of God, or any of the proofs that have worked to convince me that God exists.

But when I find a way to express my proof in another way, in another set of words? That’s awesome to me.

So here’s the quote:

Joshua Kaplan’s answer to Why do Jewish people keep believing in God after all the bad things that happened to them? Can’t they see that God is either non-existent or immoral?

There is a saying from an 19th century Jewish thinker Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk thats says “A God that I can understand, is not a God I would be able to believe in”. God is an infinite being and therefore humans – with our finite minds – could never fully understand Him or His ways. To fully know God would mean that we are God.

I’ve always said “I think it’s sort of arrogant to assume that just because we can’t prove it YET means either a) it doesn’t exist or b) we will never have that proof.” But I like this way of looking at it, too, and I’m going to look up Rab Mendel.

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Hanukkah Redux, and a poem.

What do you say about Hanukkah when it’s your first-ever celebration of it?

Well, first, you might want to look up the order in which you’re supposed to put the candles in the menorah. The first two nights, I did it wrong, as you can see from the photos. My Jewish best friend, who is very tolerant, said nothing while we lit the candles on the first night, which she was here for, and for which she sang the brachot (although I sang the Shehecheyanu with her).

First Night of HanukkahSecond night of Hanukkah

After that, it got better:

Third Night of HanukkahFourth Night of Hanukkah

Getting my phone to take photos that were clear seemed to vary from night to night.

The fourth night was Shabbat, and we had friends over. That was the first night I tried to sing the bracha (apart from the Shehecheyanu on the first night). I didn’t quite succeed. That was one of the three gift-giving nights. I gave my husband gifts on the first day and the fourth day: a new sheet set, a small pillow he liked, a book, silicone baking sheets, and other stuff. The friends who came over got tea, wee books, pens, and a couple of other silly gifts that, in my Catholic days, I would have identified as stocking stuffers.

My best friend and I served up a great dinner of brisket (yes, an actual brisket – the first one I’ve ever cooked, and which turned out beautifully), cauliflower-leek soup, gluten-free challah, grape juice, and lemon-Worcestershire Brussels sprouts (don’t knock it until you try it!). Oh, and of course latkes with sour cream and applesauce and, for the brave, cranberry sauce (because it’s wintertime, that’s why).

And my husband made a bread pudding that, with vanilla ice cream, was to die for. Even with Los Angeles Friday-night traffic, we had a splendid time with good friends who are like family.

Bread Pudding!Fifth night of Hanukkah

The next day the husband and I made it to services at the shul for the first time in a month due to work schedule conflicts. We got to see a very poised young Bat Mitzvah lead the Shabbat Hanukkah service, which was wonderful. After that, we picked up my kids and brought them back here for an overnight visit.

That night, the fifth night, my older daughter reluctantly gave up the desk for us to light the candles (right after we did Havdalah). We gave the kids books that they loved and which they spent most of the next day with before they went home, and we had a mean game of dreidel (which my daughters won).

Dreidels and Gelt

The sixth night, it was just me and the husband again. but I think this is the best of all the menorah pictures we got.

6th Night Hanukkah

On the seventh night of Hanukkah, we had another guest over to dinner, a friend of mine from grad school. She got there early with a ready-to-cook chicken in hand (which I roasted for dinner), asked question after question, put up with me playing music and singing and reading from the siddur, and stood by and witnessed me and the husband lighting the candles (him) and singing the brachot (me).

7th Night HanukkahFinally, on the last night of Hanukkah, my best friend was here again. I sang the first bracha and she sang the second while my husband lit all eight candles. (Sorry about the blurriness of those flames; I tried several times and I couldn’t get the picture to be clear no matter what I did.) My best friend told me later that she watched me sing, and saw and heard a Jew singing, which is an enormous compliment in my opinion.

8th Night Hanukkah

So, how was my first Hanukkah?

Well, here’s a poem for you.

I sing the brachot
Shocheradam

I sing the brachot
In a voice that harkens back to no Uncle Hazzan
In stumbling Hebrew syllables not learned from a Grandfather Rebbe
In hope that my humble offering will be accepted

I sing the brachot
Knowing I am not a Jew yet but a certain seeker
Knowing I am now a ger but someday soon mishpachah
Knowing I am the stranger that will become a brother

I sing the brachot
In memory of those who have gone before me
In appreciation of those who support me
In anticipation of those who will one day follow me

I sing the brachot
Honoring eight nights of miraculous light
Honoring my ancestors of spirit and of bloodline
Honoring my family both those given and those chosen

I sing the brachot
To bring light to the darkness
To bring fire to my purpose
To bring spirit to my being

I sing the brachot:
Baruch atah Adonai, Elocheinu melech ha’olam,
Asher kidshanu b’mitvotav
vetzivanu l’hadlik ner
shel Chanukah. 

For eight days and eight nights
For memory and for history
For the past and for the future

I sing the brachot.

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Six nights of Hanukkah

It’s been special for me and for the husband.

Last night our kids were here. We played dreidel for two hours. We had a successful Havdalah. When we lit candles, the hubby stated his intention for the evening’s candle to be for both our girls to grow up into successful and happy young women.

He’s a peach. I’m keeping him.

Tonight we both had intentions for our daughters – me for one of them and him for the other.

Tomorrow a friend visits and we have the seventh night.

The last night, my best friend will be here, just as she was on the first night.

I have pictures and no doubt they’ll make appearances, but it’s been very special for our first-ever Hanukkah.

Tonight, we looked at tallitot.

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3rd Day of Hanukkah

Today we realized we’d been doing the lights backwards, so we switched them. Hubby read the siddur (in English, after stumbling over “b’mitzvotav” one too many times) and I lit them.

Third Night of HanukkahTonight our intentions were said as the candles were going out. Mine was for my students, and hubby’s was for our marriage and its success.

A continued Chag Chanuka Sameach to you all.

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