Category Archives: Holy Days

The Problem I Have With Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah, or The Day of Holocaust Remembrance.  27 Nisan.  It’s an Israeli holy day (rather than holiday), observed by Jews around the world, to remember the six million Jews who perished during the Shoah – the Holocaust. “Never again” and “Never forget” are common themes of the day. Light candles, say a prayer remembering those whom we lost. Sounds pretty simple, right?
2016-05-04 at 21.35.59

It’s not.

You see, the Shoah did not just kill Jews, although we were certainly the most systematically targeted. It also killed intellectuals, political dissidents, homosexuals, Gypsies, the disabled, Christians who disagreed with Hitler, and other groups that the Nazis considered less than human.

However, Yom HaShoah is specifically focused on the Jews who died. It is a Jewish-centric (and one might even argue Israel-centric) observance. There is an international day that recognizes all Holocaust victims in January every year, approved by some United Nations council or other. And that’s fine.

But as a Jewish man who is also a gay man, a disabled person, and an intellectual, I have some conflict about the way we observe Yom HaShoah, because only part of my personhood is included in that day’s observances. I cannot remember the Shoah without remembering all of the people who died in it. I cannot remember the Jews who died without remembering the gay men, both Jewish and Gentile, who died in the Shoah as well. I cannot remember the Jews who died without also remembering the disabled who were murdered just as systematically. And I cannot ignore the purging of intellectuals, because they were also part of the millions who were sacrificed on the altar of Hitler’s insanity.

When we partition out our grief, we risk losing empathy for those who are not like us. When we say “Today we’re only grieving for this group, the one that shared our peoplehood, even though lots of other groups died too,” we are drawing the boundaries of our peoplehood a little too closely for my comfort.

Remember the verses about welcoming the stranger?

Let’s do better with that.

Today I remember not just the six million Jews who died in the Shoah, but the five million gays, intellectuals, disabled, Gypsies, political dissidents (those brave people) and Christians who also died because a madman took over a nation and led them into calculated, planned insanity.

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Yom Kippur 5776, redux

Yom Kippur was overwhelming. But then, it’s supposed to be, right?

This year, I’d gotten permission from my doctor to actually fast! Yes, I was allowed to actually, really fast for the full 25 hours. I’m a diabetic, but my diabetes is completely diet-controlled, so there wasn’t going to be the issue of “regular medication suddenly sending my blood sugar through the floor”. All I had to do was test my blood sugar any time I felt lightheaded. (And this turned out to be a good thing medically, too, because what this told me, actually, is that I’ve probably been eating too much. My blood sugar was 133 when I woke up on Wednesday morning, and when it got down to the “normal” of about 100, at around 3 pm, I felt lightheaded, but I shouldn’t have. This means that I’m used to a higher blood sugar level, and that’s not a good thing for me, so now I need to really focus on my carb count and how much I’m eating for a while. Anyway, moving on.) The only exceptions to my fast were one glass of water to take my medications for other conditions I have, and a sip of water for a painkiller in the morning for my arthritis. Apart from that? No food and no water through the entire fast.

I made a list of the people I needed to ask forgiveness from that I knew about, and I messaged each of them with an apology. I also put up this message on my social media: If I have harmed or hurt you in some way that I am not aware of within the past year, please let me know, so that I can make amends. Thank you.

The reason I worded it that way is because I am not good with the blanket “I’m sorry.” It also doesn’t meet the standards for Yom Kippur atonement: you must not just apologize, but also offer amends and reparations.

In one case, I did have to make amends, and making amends was not easy. I had blown up at someone on a friend’s Facebook thread and made the friend very uncomfortable. When I apologized to her, she said that the way I had to make amends was to also apologize to the person I’d blown up at.

Ouch. I didn’t want to do that. I’d blocked the person I’d blown up at because I was that mad about what they’d said. But I took it as a lesson in apology – sometimes you have to just bear down and admit that you were wrong. So I sent that person a message apologizing and they responded back that they just didn’t agree, and that we didn’t have to fight just because we don’t agree. I’m still not comfortable around them, but at least I did what I had to do, to make amends to my other friend.

It did help to see the trickle of responses on my post saying “No, we’re good,” though.

My husband got home from work on Tuesday at around 2 pm, with a gluten-free challah in hand for us to have at the break-fast the next night. We cleaned up a little bit, and had dinner around 5:30. I’d been drinking extra water all day (advised by many people) to make sure that dehydration wouldn’t be a problem the next day, and so had he. We planned out how we were going to get through the fast – and as it turned out, both of us did just fine. After the meal, he went and got us huge sugar-free unflavored Starbucks lattes made with heavy cream, so that we could stave off the caffeine headache (also recommended by people who had gone through the fast before).

We put together our food donation bag for the food bank, made sure we had our tickets, got dressed in our beige-and-whites, and got out the door for Kol Nidre services.

We left for shul more than an hour before the start time, because we knew the parking situation would be dreadful. And it was. We ended up parking quite far away and the walk took us 20 minutes. (And as we got close to the synagogue, we realized we’d forgotten our donation bag in the car. D’oh.) It was also a madhouse inside when we got there – people were showing up early and chatting in the foyer, a lot, which was kind of rude to the people in the sanctuary who were still at the earlier services. I finally had to duck into the library to escape the noise. We were fortunate, though – we got good seating and could see everything.

Kol Nidre is a two-hours-plus service. It’s not short, and it’s not meant to be. We were at the second service, which started around 8:30 pm. Both of us were thrilled that we could follow along in the siddur (which is the older 1984 Gates of Repentance siddur, which is lacking in transliterations). The rabbi called for people to do aliyot in groups – and the first group he called for was teachers, so I got to give an aliyah, which was neat. The music was astonishingly good – and the cantor surprised the rabbi and the entire congregation when, instead of the Yigdal for the final song, she sang a different piece. (One couple behind us apparently said “Well. That was different,” as we left – my husband overheard them – but you know what? I wouldn’t have known, because last year I didn’t get to go to Kol Nidre due to scheduling difficulties at home.)

Because I am a klutz, I managed to injure myself during services. Turning around to watch the Torah scrolls move around the sanctuary, and then into the social hall (which the back of the sanctuary can open up to connect to for events like this) was not quite possible because the space between the seats and the back of the next seat is so narrow. As a result, I managed to catch my hip on the seat, which then pulled a muscle in my back, and that was near the start of services. So most of my focus was “ow my back ow ow ow ow ow my back!” I found that putting my arm around my husband eased some of the pain, but it wasn’t until we got home and I was able to take a painkiller that it started to ease off. (Hence the preemptive painkiller the next morning; I wasn’t taking any chances about how to get through the whole day of services if my back was spasming.)

We went home around 11 pm and my husband went to bed very soon after. I stayed up for a while talking with a friend who is going through some rough times, but then I went to bed too. We were ticketed for the later services the next day, and both of us hoped to sleep through the worst of the morning hunger pangs.

Instead, we woke up at around 8 a.m. Oddly, neither of us felt any serious hunger pangs. (This turned out to be a good thing.)

I took a very quick rinse-off shower (required because of topical medication I have to take). My husband was still concerned that I might have a low-blood-sugar episode, so we put my glucose testing kit and a snack (cheese and nuts) into my tallit bag so that they were all in one place, just in case. Parking was not as bad as it could have been, but it’s still street-only parking in a residential area on the biggest temple attendance day of the year, so we assumed it would be bad. He dropped me off with the donation bag and my tallit bag about 45 minutes before services started, and went to find parking.

Yom Kippur for those of us who were at later services consists of the first service at 11, discussion forums about Yom Kippur-related topics at 1 (or so; ours ended up starting at 1:45 due to a lack of chairs in the discussion room), Yizkor at 3 pm, afternoon services at 4 pm and finally Neilah at 6 pm. Sundown was at 6:51 pm.

My husband got very emotional several times. For one thing, a group he is part of was called for the third aliyah and so he stood up when I pointed this out and gave his first-ever aliyah. He was in tears afterwards. I understood – it’s a profound thing. He also got choked up every time the choir sang the Avinu Malkeinu (which I think happened three times over the two days) and the L’dor Vador. He’s very responsive to music. He also got weepy any time “the stranger” was mentioned, as he still feels like a stranger in some ways.

He said he also learned a lot from the discussion he went to (we went to different ones – I went to one on forgiveness, and he went to one on giving people the benefit of the doubt). He often jumps to conclusions, and he said that the forum really opened his eyes about that and about how to stop doing it.

Mine was meaningful too, especially when someone said “If the person doesn’t ask you for forgiveness, you don’t have to forgive them. It’s on them to recognize that what they did hurt you and come to you to ask for forgiveness.” Since I know my mother will never do that, it means that the baggage between us is on her, not on me. It was a relief to hear it.

We also talked about feeling guilt for things that you didn’t actually do, or that you aren’t actually responsible for – which for me, was a flinch moment. Have you ever had one of those? It’s when you hear something that hits you hard and you have to admit ‘Yes, that’s me,” but you flinch while you’re admitting it because the admission is difficult, or embarrassing, or uncomfortable. This was a flinch moment for me because I always take on responsibility for everything – I was trained into that by my mother – and often, as it turns out, it wasn’t my business, responsibility, or fault.

And, of course, both my husband and I had different flinch moments in the list of sins we were confessing when the time came for the Vidui and other lists of sins. I may talk about mine later, or I may not. Suffice to say, I know I’m not perfect.

I was a good little diabetic in that I tested my blood sugar when we first got to shul. That was the 133. Then, around the beginning of the forums at 2, I tested again. 103. At six, I tested one more time. 98. So I never dropped down into the “dangerously low” range (below 70) at all. I did get sleepy a couple of times, and I got lightheaded more than once, but I was never in any serious medical danger. And the only time I felt anything like thirst was AFTER the break-fast and two cups of water. Then, suddenly, I had dry throat – when I hadn’t had it at all during the fast.

Weird.

Our friends from Intro, D and D, found us before the forums (they had seen us the night before but couldn’t get to us through the crowd). We sat with them at the Yizkor and then again at the Neilah service. They’re a lot of fun – he’s so serious and she’s so vivacious. It was nice to not feel like a total stranger this year – to feel like I had some of My People among Our People, if that makes sense.

My arthritis also acted up, unfortunately. Holding the siddur caused my hand to cramp up to the point where I dropped it on the floor. Fortunately, what I did turned out to be the right thing to do – I picked it up, kissed it, and put it back. My hand still aches this morning. 😦 I need to find a better way to hold a siddur so that my hands don’t cramp up this way for next year.

And I noticed that the atarah on my tallit was sewn on the wrong side of the tallit. The colored corners were on the opposite side of the tallit, which means that wearing it with the atarah on the outside puts the colored corners on the inside. I don’t think that’s right. Fortunately it’s sewn on with basting stitches, which should be fairly easy to rip out so we can move the atarah to the right side of the tallit.

Just like last year, I noticed when the light began to go out of the window over the Ark, and just like last year, it was incredibly powerful for me. I was not quite weeping, but I did have tears in my eyes as it was ending.

And then we had Havdallah right there in the sanctuary with the light gone from the windows. It was funny that the cantor started singing “Shavuah Tov” (have a good week) and then course-corrected, “Oh, no, no, SHANAH TOVAH!” (have a good new year). We all laughed, but it was the laughter of relief, not mockery.

The only time I had any emotional “I’m losing it” episode was after it was all over, when we went out to the break-fast area and our gluten-free challah was nowhere to be found. After a little investigation, my husband found it in the kitchen’s refrigerator, which means it wasn’t that great (gluten-free challah does not chill well). But it was still FOOD. And we met two other people who are also gluten-free Jews, so we exchanged information with them and we’ll be seeing them again soon.

Then we went to the local deli, which has just started evening hours, and had pastrami sandwiches on gluten-free bread with the biggest diet Cokes we could get our hands on, for our break-fast meal. (Oy, how Jewish are we, I ask you?) And when we got home, the food coma hit us so hard that we both went to sleep almost immediately.


So, what did I learn from this year’s Yom Kippur?

Well, I learned that it’s not about perfection. I still feel I had a meaningful fast (despite the water I had to use to take medication and painkiller). From that, I learned a lot more about the way pikuach nefesh works.

I learned that you don’t have to forgive someone who hasn’t asked for your forgiveness. My mother has my cell phone number. She could call or text if she wanted forgiveness. She hasn’t, and so I can stop worrying myself about it so much.

But I also learned that I can handle a fast. I am capable of doing that. That’s exciting. I felt like I’d done something meaningful by completing the fast.

And I learned a lot about my husband’s approach to Judaism, and I am so pleased for him.

Speaking of which, today it’s been four weeks since I went to the beit din and mikveh. I’ve been a Jew for a month today. And in one week, my husband will join me as a member of the Tribe, and we’ll move on from there.

It’s been an amazing journey. I can’t wait to see what’s next for us.

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Rosh Hashanah 5776

So, first off – L’Shanah Tovah tikatevu! May your New Year be sweet and bring good things into your life.

Apples and Honey

My prayer for these High Holy Days is simple: May peace rise up beneath us like a river, and may joy fall down upon us like the rain. 

Someday, I may write a poem or a longer prayer based on that, but given the past year, peace and joy would be good things to have.


Now, I want to recap my first-ever Rosh Hashanah as a Jew (rather than as a hoping-to-be-a-Jew-someday).

Erev Rosh Hashanah
We had second-service (8 pm) tickets for Erev Rosh Hashanah, and even then it was a near thing, getting there on time. My shul is in a neighborhood, with street-only parking (we have no space for a parking garage or lot) and on the HHDs it’s always at a premium. In the evenings, when residents are home, it’s triple that premium. Add in that the drive is 15-20 minutes, that my husband was off work at 6:30 pm at about 40 minutes away, and that we would have to eat afterwards, not before, and you can see the stress levels. But we got there just as people from the first service were leaving, so we found a great spot about a block away when one group got in their car and left just as we pulled up. Score one for us, yay.

My husband was nervous about what he was wearing – he felt he wasn’t dressy enough – but I thought he looked fine. I mean, come on, there were people dressed like they were going to a business conference, sure, but there were also people in polo shirts and sundresses. My husband was in a button-down short-sleeve shirt and a pair of jeans with good shoes; he was middle-ground. I was wearing a faded pair of jeans (the only ones I own) with a t-shirt and a button-down, open, with the sleeves rolled up over that. I don’t think we actually stuck out.

I put on my tallit as soon as we got inside, and then I felt conspicuous. My tallit is mostly grey and a green which looks turquoise in some lights and emerald in others. In the light in the sanctuary it was on the more turquoise side. Most of the other people wearing tallitot were wearing the classic “white, with some blue stripes” style. It’s also a wide shawl-type tallit and I’m still not used to getting it settled on my shoulders, so until I did, it was a little awkward. But then I told myself sternly that nobody was judging me except me, and to cut it out. Which I did. Mostly.

We brought our gluten-free crown challah with us for the oneg, but we never found out what happened to it after we gave it to the kitchen staff before the service. It was supposed to be at the oneg afterwards, and it wasn’t, so I don’t know what happened there. I may ask to form a committee around making sure that people who have food allergies can still request, and get, at least some food at the oneg which they can actually eat.

My husband has a problem which our Yom Kippur is going to be addressing in one of the midday workshops: he tends to assume the worst of people – usually that they’re judging him or that they don’t like him. He was in a toxic social environment for a long, long time, and he’s still working on digging himself out from that. So I had to spend a few minutes reassuring him that no, people were not judging him, and to calm down, it was going to be okay.

We have a choir for our High Holy Days. I would have been part of it this year, but rehearsals were scheduled for the same time as our Intro to Hebrew classes, so I couldn’t be in both places at once. Our new cantor’s voice is amazing. She’s a coloratura soprano and she knows exactly how to use her voice to bring everyone to tears and joy.

Mostly, I experienced the service (reveling in the fact that, for the most part, I could at least follow along with the Hebrew!). Our rabbi’s sermon was about innovation and how we, as Jews, are always called upon to innovate. I’ll quote a few lines from his sermon here (I love that we have a livestream for our services):

“The Pharisees, the emergent rabbinic movement: as one of its early leaders, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai defied the self-destructive Zealots and negotiated with the Romans… He promoted a revolutionary new approach to Judaism. Torah – God’s instructions on how to live a holy life – was not limited to what had been written down in the Five Books of Moses. According to Yochanan ben Zakai and his fellow rabbis, Torah also consisted of generations of all teachings whose origins and authority stretched all the way back to the moment of revelation at Mount Sinai. Yochanan ben Zakai further embellished his movement’s claim that they were not breaking with the past, but conserving it, by adopting a variety of customs to be performed in the synagogue, that previously had been performed only in the Temple… Responding to a radically new reality, the rabbinic movement created an entirely new religious environment while claiming that these new teachings, customs and practices were conservations of what had endured for two thousand years…. This dynamic relationship between innovation and tradition lies at the very heart of Jewish practice and continuity across four thousand years of history. To innovate is a divine command which is inscribed in our daily liturgy. Twice a day we recite the Sh’ma, which in the third verse says that we should inscribe these words across our heart today…. Each day, we must treat Torah as new, as if we were meeting it for the very first time.”

Obviously, I’ve left a lot out, but that really spoke to me – that new is not bad, that new is necessary to keep Judaism going. (And the people who claim that they’re the real traditional we’ve-always-done-it-this-wayers? No, we haven’t always done it this way. We had to create an entirely new way, two thousand years ago, to get past what the Romans did when the Temple was destroyed, and I doubt any Jew except a few ultra-orthodox literalists want to go back to animal sacrifice, either.)

Anyway.

During services we saw a couple of our friends from Intro, D. and D., who waved and who met up with us afterward. But by then my husband was noticing I was getting a little loopy, so he excused us and we went to get dinner. We did not have any waiting at home; scheduling did not permit it. So we went out and grabbed breakfast for dinner and then came home.

Rosh Hashanah
This morning my husband was awake before I was. I was exhausted, but I managed to get myself together and get us out the door before we’d be late. This morning he dropped me off and went to find parking; I went inside and got us seats before the sanctuary filled up too much. Again, I put on my tallit. Again, he stressed out about being underdressed because his “dressy” clothes are mostly dark colors. Again, I told him to stop worrying so much.

I also spied two people with tallitot identical to the one he is going to get on his day, which he picked out but has not seen – and won’t until the day – and he was able to relax about his looking “too gay” for the congregation.

The choir was amazing, the cantor was more than amazing, and the student rabbi who gave the sermon did a very interesting d’var Torah on the issue of Isaac. He pointed out that each of the times we encounter Isaac – who is, after all, one of the patriarchs – the story isn’t about him. When he’s born, it’s about the end of his mother’s barrenness, not his life. When his father Abraham is commanded to go sacrifice him, the story’s about Abraham, for the most part. We never find out how Isaac felt, how old he was, how frightened he might have been, how stunned he was to find out his father was going to sacrifice him, or what kind of uncomfortable relationship they had afterwards. None of that is part of the story. When we see him get married, it’s all arranged by others. He barely appears. When he dies, it’s about the fight between his twin sons. At no point is Isaac ever a central or major character, even in his own stories. The d’var was to caution us to not treat people in our lives who should be important as if they’re not – to reduce a relationship to a mere transaction.

We got lunch on the way home – and again, it’s because making our own lunches at home wasn’t an option – and then came home to rest a while. We tried to not do work-like things, and mostly succeeded. Then we left again to go to Tashlich, with a bag of gluten-free challah crumbs.

The city we live in is right on the coast, so getting to a body of water wasn’t an issue for Tashlich. There were probably fifty or sixty people there at the pier – a good-sized crowd – and we had a little prayer-and-song deal before we all wandered down either out on the pier or out on the beach. I threw a lot of crumbs, because there’s a lot of things I’d really like to let go of. Not all of them are sins, but just things I want to either be less bad at or better at. Afterwards, we went to the grocery store to pick up some things for dinner (why couldn’t we eat at home? Because we were short on cash and time and couldn’t go shopping earlier). While we were in the store, an older man walked past me and murmured “Shanah Tovah,” and was gone before I could respond. Once we had dinner fixings, we stopped elsewhere to get ice, because it was still uncomfortably warm for September. Then we came home.

We finished our dinner (beef roast in the crockpot with apples, onions, pomegranate juice, and pie spices; salad with pomegranate pips; apples with honey) about an hour ago, and I just got in here to write all about it.

Two things were a little uncomfortable. There’s a fellow at our shul who, with the best of intentions, manages to put his foot into his mouth a lot. Today was not an exception; he said to me “So, how’s your first Rosh Hashanah feel?” and when I said that it was actually my second, he said “Yeah, but you weren’t a Jew last year.” *facepalm* I know he means well…

The other uncomfortable thing was that at both services the person next to me switched seats with the person on their other side. I don’t know if I was making them uncomfortable for some reason, or if it wasn’t even about me. I hope it wasn’t about me. I’d hate for it to be about me.

But for the most part, the start of our High Holy Days went off pretty well. Let’s hope that Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur go off equally so.

L’Shanah Tovah, everyone.

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Countdown -2: The 10th of Elul and Counting

Today was the 10th of Elul, which is two days from the day I officially become a Jew.

BlogElul 2015

It’s a little funny to me that today’s theme is “count.” But “count” can mean to tally up, or it can mean to matter.

I choose the latter meaning today. Isn’t part of Elul supposed to be figuring out what matters and what doesn’t matter?

So then: What counts to me? What doesn’t? What is really important, and what isn’t? What do I need to hold on to, and what can I let go of, while still remaining myself?

Well, of all the people in the world, my husband and my best friend count to me. My daughters count to me. My brothers and their families count to me, as does my father’s sister (my aunt), my mother’s brother (my uncle), and several of my cousins. My closest friends count to me. My rabbi counts to me. My students – new and old – count to me. My teacher and my chavurah group count to me. My new therapist counts to me.

And on a larger scale, of course every person on the planet counts to me, but not as personally or as viscerally. Some of them count simply because they’re human beings and dammit, tikkun olam, I should care about them.

And my cats count to me, because cats.

My health counts to me. My ability to earn a living counts to me. My home counts to me, although I’m thinking many of the things in the home may not anymore. I may need to find a place to pass on the people I used to be when those things did count to me, so I can leave those people I used to be, behind.

What doesn’t count to me any more? What doesn’t matter?

Making everyone like me no longer counts. Getting everyone’s approval no longer counts. Being perfect… well, that still counts, but not on every level. Only on some.

I’m tired, and it’s late, and I’ve been up since five a.m. with short sleep, and so in the interest of taking care of myself I’m probably going to cut this post a little short. But you get the idea.

Part of Elul is figuring out what counts to you.

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Countdown -4: The 8th of Elul and Hearing

Today was the 8th of Elul, which is four days before I officially become a Jew.

BlogElul 2015

So today’s theme was “hearing.”

When the Israelites received the Torah at Sinai, it is said that their response was “na’aseh v’nishma,” or “We will do and we will hear.” (Sorry, I can’t find the proper Hebrew spelling, so you’ll have to deal with transliteration. I trust this is not a problem.) Anyway. We will do and we will hear? Wha?

That’s really odd. Shouldn’t you hear the orders before you try to carry them out? This confused me when I first encountered it, and it still confuses me now. I mean, in Judaism the goal is what you do, not what you believe, and I suppose what you believe would come to you by way of what you hear, but…

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who was confused by this. According to one midrash, Moses said to the Israelites after this astounding, seemingly out-of-sequence declaration, “Is doing possible without understanding?” To which they replied, “We will do and we will understand.”

Some traditions translate this as, “doing and understanding will happen simultaneously,” rather than “by doing, we will THEN understand.” But there’s still that whole “hearing” thing to deal with up above. It seems to me that they just let it go without an explanation. Doing is more important than hearing. We’ll get to hearing later. Right now there’s stuff we gotta do, nu?

So what can we hear while we’re doing? What do we actually need to hear while we’re doing? Or is it that the process of doing leads us to hearing that “still, small voice” inside us? Perhaps – stay with me, here – we have to do in order to be silent enough to hear. Perhaps the process of keeping your body working and moving and doing is necessary in order to quiet the mind enough that it can hear. (I know this sounds very Zen, but there’s a fair overlap in the mystical traditions of Judaism and Buddhism, so I’m not going to worry about it.)

Sitting and trying to listen while doing nothing – trying to hear while your mind is noisy and anxious – is probably counterproductive. And doctor after doctor has advised people with panic, depression, and anxiety to exercise – to DO something. And it’s well known that people who have these conditions but make themselves move – or do – have fewer problems and a slightly less bad time of it overall.

It can’t just be the endorphins.

Maybe that’s part of why we had to do first, and then hear.

Of course, this also assumes that the Hebrew was meant linearly – that it meant something to say na’aseh before they said v’nishma. There could easily be other reasons why the words were in that order, including accident. My rabbi told us that the first words of Genesis, Bereshit, when you translate the Hebrew in literal order, come out “In the beginning created God, the heavens, and the earth.” And that’s normal Hebrew grammar – the word order is usually object verb subject. But! The Kabbalists have said “What if “In the beginning” was referring to Something BEYOND God, and grammar isn’t the reason for the word order, and the word order actually matters to the meaning? What if Something created God, and the heavens and the Earth? What then?”

I seem to be taking the flip side of that argument here: what if the word order didn’t mean anything, and it was just easier to say “na’aseh v’nishma” instead of “nishma v’na’aseh“? Haven’t you ever had that happen with names, for example? Charlene and Rick, but not Rick and Charlene. Joanna and Todd, but not Todd and Joanna. It is perfectly possible that they said it that way because to say it the other way was just clunky.

But we won’t know if there’s meaning unless we can calm down the interior voices enough to listen to the interior Voice of the Eternal, either. So I’m going to leave this conundrum as an exercise for my faithful readers.

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“A Wasted Yom Kippur”

The High Holy Days are just over a month away. The time of the New Year and, ten days later, the time of repentance at Yom Kippur are almost upon us.

As a Jew by choice who will be officially a member of the Tribe only sixteen days before Rosh Hashanah (if I’ve counted correctly), and who had a powerful, meaningful experience at last year’s Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days will probably hit me hard every single year.  Last year, part of what hit me so hard was that we aren’t getting singled out for our sin. We are all confessing, communally, as a community, to grave sins.

This is on my mind today partly because of an article in this morning’s New York Times.  This article is talking about the recent murders of Shira Banki and Ali Saad Dawabsheh by Jewish extremist fanatics. I could quote from all kinds of places in this article, but I think this is probably one of the best ones, from Donniel Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi:

“The interesting question for all of us is, ‘Is this going to be a growth moment or is it going to be another wasted Yom Kippur? Oh, we’ve sinned, and we feel so righteous for saying we’ve sinned.’”

Mouthing the prayers is not the same as meaning them. It’s not even close. It’s the difference between keva (saying the words) and kavanah (feeling the words). And although I have seen many Christians mouth the words of repentance and then turn around and hurt people (what are sometimes called Sunday-only or Christmas and Easter Christians), it never occurred to me that many Jews might do the same thing.

So what is Yom Kippur about? Repentance and atonement? Or feeling prideful that you’re at the service, and fasting, and look how impressive you are? That’s not attractive to me. I doubt that anyone at my shul does this, but I don’t know for sure. And I’m going to be remembering what the words mean when I say them on Yom Kippur, because on that day the community confesses together:

Ashamnu: We have trespassed.
Bagadnu: We have dealt treacherously.
Gazlalnu: We have robbed.
Dibarnu dofi: We have spoken slander.
He’evinu: We have acted perversely.
V’hirshanu: We have done wrong.
Zadnu: We have acted presumptuously.
Hamasnu: We have done violence.
Tafalnu sheker: We have practiced deceit.
Yaatsnu ra: We have counseled evil.
Kizavnu: We have spoken falsehood.
Latsnu: We have scoffed.
Maradnu: We have revolted.
Niatsnu: We have blasphemed.
Sararnu: We have rebelled.
Avinu: We have committed iniquity.
Pashanu: We have transgressed.
Tsararnu: We have oppressed.
Kishinu oref: We have been stiff-necked.
Rashanu: We have acted wickedly.
Shichatnu: We have dealt corruptly.
Tiavnu: We have committed abomination.
Tainu: We have gone astray.
Titanu: We have led others astray.

A couple of those are general enough that a lot of sins can fit into them. V’hirshanu, for example. Tainu, as another example.

And frankly, this year, given what happened to Shira and Ali, in a nation where the police could have stopped the man who killed Shira and the men who killed Ali, all of Israel should be admitting “Hamasnu, Tsararnu, Tiavnu.” Because those murders were violence, they were oppression, and they were abomination.

Now, as a Jew in the United States, do I bear a share of the responsibility for those murders? Yes. Every Jew does. Every Jew should be saying “The murderers were Jews, and how horrifying and shameful that they were Jews.”

But if we simply say “that was shameful and horrifying,” and mouth the Ashamnu on Yom Kippur, have we changed anything meaningful? Or are we just feeling righteous for saying we’ve sinned?

I don’t know how I can help as a non-Israeli Jew, but there has to be something I can do to bring about tzedek (justice).

Justice is one of the things that brought me to Judaism. It has to be one of the reasons I continue in it.

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About Tisha B’Av in the modern world

By Anthony Baratier (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Tisha B’Av is one of the holy days you don’t hear much about if you were born and raised a Gentile. We hear about Hanukkah for sure, and some of us might be aware enough to know about Passover and maybe even Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur (especially if we read Judy Blume books set in New York City). But some of the lesser-known holy days are still surprising to those of us who weren’t born and raised Jewish.

Tisha B’Av is the day commemorating a lot of different Jewish tragedies, including the destructions of the First and Second Temples. It also commemorates the expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492, the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, and more recently people have connected it to Kristallnacht and even 9/11. (The Shoah is not one of the days mentioned – it has its own day, Yom Ha’Shoah, for memorials and remembrances.) For most people, it’s also focused on the loss of the Temples – and the hope that the Third Temple will someday be rebuilt in Jerusalem.

Tisha B’Av is never observed on Shabbat; if the 9th of Av falls on Shabbat the fast and observances are postponed until the next day. Jews observe similar fasting and restrictions to those observed on Yom Kippur: an all-day fast from food and water, no leather shoes, sitting on low stools. People who are ill are not expected to fast, but the general expectation is that the day should not be a happy one.

The point of the day is to remember the ways in which Jews have been mistreated and harmed, in ways that have affected the entire kol Yisrael (the people Israel) over the years. Although anti-Semitism is frightening when we see it happening in a grocery store in France, this is not what we’re talking about on Tisha B’Av. Instead, we are looking at the non-Shoah tragedies that the entire Jewish people have gone through – things intended to shatter and disperse our community.

As a diabetic, I cannot fast all day, so I must find other ways to observe. I am leaning towards the same method that is outlined here: How Should Reform Jews Observe Tisha B’Av? I will fast from food and water from sundown until noon (i can do that much safely). But after that, I will be meeting with friends for a preplanned lunch because one of them is moving out of the area. When we get home, I will spend some time with the Book of Lamentations, while still being aware that the Judaism of the Temple is not the Judaism of today – because Rabbinic Judaism moved us away from a worship focused on animal sacrifice towards a worship focused on personal and community sacrifice aimed at building a better world. And that’s the Judaism that I follow.

I am ambivalent about building the Third Temple. Would it mean we’d all have to go back to living in the agrarian society of the Torah to be good Jews? How would a city dweller who works as an engineer fulfill the Temple-sacrifice mitzvot? Would we see the moneychangers return to the Temple? (Those moneychangers were largely people selling animals for the various sacrifices, and the bankers who would “moneychange” for people to have enough cash to buy those animals.) Will the ability to complete these mitzvot be based on a person’s net worth (if you have to buy your sacrifices)?

I can’t see that being a good development for modern Judaism. I also don’t see it as much in line with the ethic of tikkun olam – how would that be sustainable?

We can already see how the ultra-Orthodox treat what’s left of the Second Temple – the Western Wall (aka Kotel). They have turned it into a Haredi-only synagogue. Is that a meaningful way of addressing our need to heal the world? Is that a meaningful way of rebuilding a scattered community?

sjewindy had some pointed things to say about the meaning of Tisha B’Av for Secular Humanist Jews – and as a Reform Jew, I find a lot of wisdom in what he says. Here’s that link: Tisha B’Av and Secular Humanist Judaism – and here’s the important quote for me: it is “a holiday that can squarely address the question of our obligations to one another and the power of humans to aid one another in times of crisis.

The lunch I’ll be going to is the last one we’ll be having with this friend, who is moving to the northern part of California to attend college. We won’t see her much after this. She’s a part of my community, and reaching out to her is a good thing for us to do on Tisha B’Av. Finding ways to help people on Tisha B’Av, whether it’s donating to a charity or a fundraiser for people in need, or working in a soup kitchen, or calling a friend who is depressed, also seem to be appropriate ways to observe the day. Taking some time to think about what obligations we have to others is also a good idea on this day.

In addition to commemoration of the horrid things that have happened to our community, creating connection and acknowledging our obligations to one another should be at least one focus of the modern Tisha B’Av.

So that is how I plan to spend the day on Sunday.

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Chag Pesach Sameach!

As my husband says, we went to two and a half Seders this week. The first one probably doesn’t “count” as a Seder, which is why he is saying “a half.”

First was our practice Seder with our Intro class. That happened on Wednesday night. Rabbi walked us through it with a haggadah that I don’t think my husband and I will use; it’s aimed at families with young children, and we don’t really qualify. Mostly, that Seder went all right. We brought our own gluten-free matzah and nobody had a problem with it. We also brought a salad (my husband put it together). Of course, Mr. Christian had to interject inappropriate questions and comments, but we’ve gotten used to that. We also brought three jars of horseradish to use as maror. Note to self: jarred horseradish is mild compared to the maror we had later in the weekend.

Then we held our own Seder for a few friends on Friday night. It came out well, but I’m not using the Maxwell House haggadah again – it’s just too preachy. As it was, my best friend and I spent a lot of time changing, editing, and taping-in changes over the text, and it was still too much. I have one started at haggadot.com for next year’s Seders. We made the mistake(?) of using fresh, refrigerated pureed horseradish for the maror; when I took my tablespoon of it I couldn’t hear anything for a minute or so as I struggled not to show that it hurt. It made my eyes water and my ears ring, and wow do I know that I have sinuses now. It’s almost as bad as my friend’s dad’s completely fresh ground-that-afternoon maror – oy!

Our Seder plate (center of the table) had:
– Italian parsley for karpas
– A lamb shank that my best friend roasted and brought (z’roa)
– A roasted hard-boiled egg that we roasted here (beitzah)
– A tangerine (we couldn’t get oranges) for inclusiveness
– Endive for hazeret
– A spoonful of my charoset
– A spoonful of the fresh-jarred horseradish, for maror

On the individual Seder plates, we replaced the lamb shank with chicken wings that had been roasted in the oven along with the roasted boiled egg. Those were easy: toss them with olive oil, three spoonfuls of minced garlic, salt, and pepper, and then just put them on a cookie sheet and bake for an hour at 375F. I know that on some Seder plates, gefilte fish is traditional, but I’m allergic to what they make it with, so we substituted.

Here’s my charoset recipe.

2 Asian pears
1/2 cup dried cherries, minced
1/2 cup pinenuts
1/2 cup pomegranate pips
1/2 cup kosher red wine
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon each of ground cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon, and 1/3 teaspoon of ground ginger

Dice the Asian pears fairly small, and mince the dried cherries. Combine all the ingredients and refrigerate. That’s it!

There wasn’t a lot to the cooking; the charoset was the hardest part. We had two roasts in the crockpot that I’d marinated since Wednesday with ground ginger, cloves, some red kosher wine, salt, pepper, and dried onions. Those cooked all day in a little more red wine and were fall-apart tender when we got them out of the crock (we still have one of them in the fridge!). My husband made his amazing salad, our friends brought gluten-free egg noodles that had been tossed with garlic and olive oil, and I made a quickie asparagus that I’ve always been good at. And of course, we had matzah.

Gluten-free matzah doesn’t hold its shape very well. It’s more brittle than regular matzah, and it tends to show up if you have it shipped with no whole pieces. In four boxes, we found three whole matzot. Next year we’ll buy it from a local Jewish grocery my husband found in our city. (I recommend the Yehuda brand matzah; the Manischewitz is very, very dry and bland.)

Running the Seder was stressful for me but worth it. Like I said, though, we need a different Haggadah. I also need to learn when it’s okay to skip ahead; that’s an art form, I think. It was also really awesome to have my friend D there – he’s Israeli, and he read the Hebrew flawlessly. (Someday….) I asked a couple of questions that didn’t really go anywhere – what is your personal Pharaoh?, for example. Eh. I’ll get better at it, I’m sure. Still, we got through it, and we still have leftovers.

Last night we went to the last Seder we’re going to go to during this Pesach. It was at my best friend’s father’s house. This was the Seder that my husband and I went to last year at this time, when I was just beginning to think that Judaism was for me and my husband was humoring me and going because I was going. This time, we showed up with our kippot on our heads, our Mogen Davids around our necks, and ready to fully participate instead of just spectate. Everyone who was part of the regular Seder group congratulated us both on our decision and on our wedding (157 days ago today, by the way) as we got in the front door, and several of them wanted to make sure that we hadn’t felt pushed or proselytized into it by them or anyone else. (Such a refreshing thing, that was.)

My charoset was very well received, and the maror hurt all of us (my friend’s dad grinds his own from fresh horseradish root while wearing an Israeli gas mask made in Germany). After Friday, I’d learned my lesson and I think the bit of maror I put on my plate was about the size of a marble. My husband loves horseradish, however, and he had so not learned his lesson – he had tablespoons of the stuff. However, he had been struggling with a knee injury, and after having two or three tablespoons of the maror he said “well, my knee doesn’t hurt much any more…” A, one of the seder regulars, opined that it was because the fresh maror kills off the nerves that tell you something hurts.

My friend’s dad runs the Seder by having people read bits and pieces in a round-robin sort of way. I did something like that at our Seder, but I wish I’d had a better haggadah. Eh. I have to get off that topic.

Anyway, one of the seder regulars asked about how we had time to take all this wealth away from Egypt but not bake full loaves of bread or get any provisions together. I pointed out that any culture that holds slaves has much of its wealth invested in those slaves, and perhaps what we took away as wealth was ourselves. That got raised eyebrows and some good discussion.

At one point one of the other seder regulars misread “beasts” as “breasts,” and she and my husband got laughing so hard that we were worried that he’d choke or something. That was probably the high point of the seder for me, watching him laugh and eventually laughing with him.

During the festive meal, my husband and I both talked about our intro classes, and people asked questions, and it was good. It felt very much like “this is my place and these are my people,” to me.

At the end of the Seder, when we came to the point where it talked about the Omer, one of the other guests asked about that, and my friend’s dad looked to me and said “Go ahead, tell it.” I was kind of shocked, but I explained about the Omer as best I could, and it seemed to go over fine. That meant a lot to me that he was willing to let me talk about it.

Finally, when my friend’s dad was trying to read his paragraph of “Chad Gadya” and kept blowing it, my friend (sitting next to him) took away his wineglass, and then for good measure I reached over and took away the wine bottle, and everyone cracked up. So there was a lot of good laughter and fun and teasing, which made it fun.

Her dad said to both of us, “We’ll see you next year.”

Today is the second day of the Omer. Hayom sh’nei yamim l’omer.

Chag sameach, everyone.

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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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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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