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?
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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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The Lie I Told Myself About Being a Good Jew

So today, scrolling through Facebook, I came across this article on Kveller:

The Lie I told Myself About Good Jewish Mothers

Much of it resonated with me – not because I’m a mother, of course, but because I’m a Jew who is also struggling with what it means to be a “good Jew.”

I’ve probably said before that I’m a perfectionist and that I want to do everything “right.” It’s hard to remember that “doing Jewish” means doing it the way I can do it, the way I am equipped to do it, and the way that I am able to do it – and that may not look like the way everyone else does it.

Before conversion, and even right after conversion, I really thought that I was going to be that Torah-reading, tallit-wearing, Hebrew-studying, reaaaaaally observant Jew who went to shul weekly, attended Torah study every Saturday morning without fail, and made my Judaism the first and most important thing about my life. But the world got in the way, and, well….

Since November, less than three months after my husband and I completed our conversion processes, we have had to be – paradoxically – far less active Jews than we were hoping to be. We haven’t been able to attend a real Friday night shul service in several months, because of his work schedule (he works for an amusement park; November to March is “peak holiday time” and lots of mandatory overtime for him) and the inopportune arrival of several illnesses that kept me and him both flat on our backs and unable to function. Due to a personal conflict at our Torah study group, we stopped going for a while because it made us uncomfortable, and we still haven’t really resolved that, either.

In short, we have not been good members of our community, and although the reasons are valid, guilt’s still a real thing and I’ve been feeling it.

Here’s the thing about feeling guilt for not measuring up to some standard that you or others have set for your behavior: it makes it less likely that you’re going to try to fix it. At least, it makes it less likely that I’m going to try to fix it. Every time I’ve thought about going back to shul, the guilt has come up and hit me with “but then people would ask you where you’ve been and you know that that would really mean ‘why are you only showing up now, you half-asser?'” That’s a deterrent, not an incentive.

We missed Purim entirely, because we were sick; but was that a good enough reason? We haven’t been to Torah study in months because of illness and over-stress; is that a good enough reason? We missed a concert at our shul with a Jewish musician that I love because of stress and exhaustion; is that a good enough reason? And of course there’s also the cost, and right now we’ve had to penny-pinch, so we haven’t had the money to buy tickets to concerts or food for Purim baskets or, well, pretty much anything.

And yet…

All during that time, we still managed to have Shabbat dinner with a friend at least twice a month, and take Shabbat pretty much “off,” even if that meant catching up on missed sleep the majority of the time.

I have still worn my kippah and my Mogen David, and I haven’t backed down when someone says something anti-Semitic.

I have still said the Sh’ma every night, and meant it.

I have still experienced the world as a Jew, even if I’m not especially active at my synagogue right now.

And that has to count for something, doesn’t it?

As the author of the Kveller article said:

Embracing Jewish motherhood (and motherhood in general) isn’t about following every rule and winning the game. It’s about showing up and staying in the game, even when you don’t know which rules apply to you, or what it even means to win.

I’d argue that the same thing applies to Jewish identity. Recently, I have not been able to follow every rule. But I have done what I can to keep my foot in the door, even if it’s been mostly outside of the community of Jews in my area. And once I have recovered from the stress, exhaustion, and overwork, I’ll be getting back in the game in more substantial ways. For starters, we’re going to a Seder on Saturday evening, and hosting one here the following Thursday, and ideally we’ll be going back to shul after Pesach is over.

But I also think Adonai will understand if, just at the moment, I can’t quite do it all.

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Differing opinion? That’s fine, but…

Recently I had someone do what I can only call an anti-Israel, pro-Palestine info dump in a comment to my post about why I’m voting for Bernie Sanders.

I realize not everyone will agree with me. That’s fine. You don’t have to.

But you do have to understand that I’m not interested in having a fight about this, especially when you sail out of nowhere and give me a broadside blast.

If you have a differing opinion from one of mine, and you can’t express it without insulting people who hold my opinion, feel free to start your own blog to talk about it and make it public. I have no obligation to host your opinion on mine, and I reserve the right to delete and block any commenter who decides to push that particular envelope too far.

Have a nice day now.

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Torah Study: Yitro

Today’s parshah was Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23, which is the story of the giving of what we colloquially label the 10 Commandments. But it’s also the story of Yitro (Jethro), Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, telling Moses: “Hey, you know what? You’re trying to do everything. You need to delegate some of this work to other people.”

Let’s look at Moses for a minute, first. He’s been the (semi-reluctant) leader of the Israelites for quite some time now. He’s also his people’s head judge – everyone comes to him with their questions and their disputes to get them resolved, whether those are petty disputes or big ones. And, of course, he’s a prophet – he and God have conversations about the Israelites and what needs to be done or should be done.

You know, that’s kind of a heavy load to bear. When is he supposed to sleep, eat, bathe, spend time with his wife and kids? Is he supposed to do any of those things?

So when Jethro takes him aside and says, “Mose old son, you might want to establish a court system so that only the really big problems come to you to resolve,” Moses does just that.

Now hold that thought, “Moses delegating jobs to others,” while I bring in a few other thoughts and tie them together for you.

In our Torah study session today, someone brought up the question of when, exactly, the Israelites shifted to the belief that there was only One God – when did they actually adopt monotheism? Was it when HaShem stated here in Exodus that The Eternal was the only God and that the Israelites were to worship that God and no other?

This created a lively discussion. One of the participants brought up Maimonides’ conclusion that we cannot know the true nature of God, and it’s useless to try, so turn your mind to other things. Someone else pointed out that in the parshah (in verse 19:9), HaShem tells Moses “See, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will be able to hear when I speak with you and also to trust in you forever,” and asked why, after everything HaShem had already taken them through and preserved them from (the Egyptian slavery, the parting of the seas, manna from heaven) they would still need proof in order to trust Moses. My note here was that the move for the Israelites was to begin to have faith without necessarily having proof – that they were growing up and learning to hold contradictions in their minds, moving beyond concrete reasoning.

The third thing that came up in Torah study today was the question of the types of rules the Israelites were given in the 10 Commandments – some of them were “don’t do that” kinds of rules, or what we call “proscriptive law,” but others were “you must do this” kinds of rules, or prescriptive law. It made me think of the statement in the Ethics of the Fathers by Rabbi Tarfon, about tikkun olam: “You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to evade it.” Up to this point, most law was proscriptive – you are not allowed to do these bad things. But now, we have laws commanding people to actively do things that are good and that have good effects. To me, this means that HaShem was demanding active engagement with, and not just passive acceptance of, the Commandments (and indeed, the entire Torah). Again, this is demanding that the Israelites grow beyond their spiritual childishness and move towards adulthood, an active adulthood in which their behavior was oriented towards healing the world.

Now let me tie these three thoughts together.

Before humans knew about HaShem, humans figured that gods were like bigger people – but they still had to specialize. The work, in a sense, was delegated. This god took care of trees, that one took care of small animals, that one dealt with water and the other took care of weather. But no single god, in early belief systems, could possibly handle every process and every demand of the system we call the universe.

When HaShem became the God of the Israelites, that changed everything. A god that could literally handle everything? Unheard of. But that also put pressure on some human leaders to try to do everything, too. We still see this today – people who can’t delegate.

What I’m trying to get at here is, when we delegate, we admit we are not God. We are accepting that we have to complete a piece of the work and we’re not free to refuse that piece, but we are also accepting that we cannot do all the work ourselves, no matter how pressured we feel to do so. When Jethro points out to Moses, “You know, you have to give some of the work to others, here,” he was, in a sense, saying, “Hey, you’re the leader of your people – but you’re still not God.”

By taking our part of the work and taking an active part in the work, by following not just the proscriptive but the prescriptive commandments, we are admitting both the fact that we are not God, and that we are approaching the work as adults with the knowledge that we are not God.

I remember reading somewhere that Judaism is a religion for adults, not for children. This seems to support that point.

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My father’s yahrzeit

Today is my father’s yahrzeit. He has been dead seven years today. I lit a candle this morning, but I didn’t have a clue what to say while I did it, so I just stayed silent.

I have been really emotionally down all day. Yesterday was my first day back at work after the winter break, and although it went well, it also wiped me out. We haven’t been able to go to shul since last month because of an ongoing dental issue that finally got resolved last Friday (I broke a molar; don’t ask). I was in a lot of physical pain this past month or so, not to mention the ongoing feelings of guilt that I haven’t been at shul regularly.

So I am not exactly in the best of shape to remember and mourn my father today.

He would have been proud of me for my conversion, I think. I wish he’d lived long enough to see it.

He was a deeply religious man. I hope someday to be a little like him in terms of my certainty that God won’t punish me for the life I’ve lived. We’ll see.

I just needed to mention that it’s his yahrzeit today.

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Hyper-religiosity

My mother-in-law is an awesome person. She’s done a lot of growing since I came into her son’s life. She’s accepted that he’s gay, that we’re married, and even that we’re Jews. It’s been a lot for a conservative, Catholic Republican to take in, and mostly, she’s managed to take it in.

But I still can’t take the hyper-religiosity. With her it’s mainly through Facebook. Around this time of year, I know I’m going to be using “Hide Post” quite a bit when it comes to her posts.

My husband’s mom and one of his older aunts LOVE Jesus, okay? They don’t just think Jesus was a good guy, or even just that he was the son of God. They LOOOOOOVE him the way teenage girls LOOOOOOVED Elvis back in the day, and they’re militant about it.

It’s disturbing to me.

So far this morning, I’ve had to hide three posts my mother-in-law made to Facebook which were so Jesus-y that even the other Merry Christmas posts from fairly religious friends were mild by comparison. The cross-shaped birthday cake, for example, was just… over the top for me. The memes that demand a “Merry Christmas” instead of a “Happy Holidays” were downright offensive. But that’s not something I can say to my mother-in-law without hurting her, because she wouldn’t understand. She’s hyper-religious.

Hyper-religiosity and fundamentalism aren’t the same thing, for me. Fundamentalism is Mike Huckabee, or the W*stb*r* Baptists, or Hamas/Daesh/Hezbollah, or the haredim who are zealously guarding the Western Wall from – gasp shock horror – women who want to pray with a Torah scroll. Fundamentalism is the attitude that “I have the ONE TRUE WAY and if you don’t agree with me I will, at minimum, make your life miserable.”

Hyper-religiosity may go along with fundamentalism, but it’s not the same. Hyper-religiosity is the sense that of COURSE you’ll agree with me! Why WOULDN’T you agree with me? It makes no SENSE that you wouldn’t agree with me, because this is just The Way Things Are, don’t you see? How can you have a problem with a Nativity scene on the front lawn of City Hall? Why can’t you understand that saying anything other than “Merry Christmas” is offensive? What’s wrong with you for not understanding that Jesus Is The Reason For The Season? Well, bless your heart, as they say in the South. You’ll understand eventually.

Unlike fundamentalism, which is generally in-your-face and usually aggressive about your refusal to accept their views as the One True Way, hyper-religiosity is passive-aggressive. It never comes right out and says “You must believe what I believe,” but it’s patronizing and condescending. A gigantic cross-shaped birthday cake? A meme saying “It’s MERRY CHRISTMAS, not HAPPY HOLIDAYS”?

Those are hyper-religiosity.

In a way, it’s like dealing with fans of a certain sports team, or even in the sci-fi/fantasy fandom world (fights about who was the better captain – Kirk or Picard?). You don’t want to get on the wrong side of someone’s fandom. And the hyper-religious Christians like my mother-in-law and my husband’s aunt are Jesus fangirls. It’s almost like they’ve turned Christianity into a cult of personality, where Jesus is the focus.

When I look at it like this, I can relax a little bit. It’s just the way they are, and they’re not going to change.

But it’s why I’m glad that Facebook comes with a “hide post” option.

 

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White Wine in the Sun

I won’t deny that I miss Christmas.

There, I said it. I miss Christmas. I missed it last year, and I miss it this year. And I’ll probably always miss it, at least a little.

See, I grew up on Christmas being a Really Big Deal. Catholic family, you know. Catholic church musician family, to put a finer point on it. My mother was an organist and pianist, and my dad was a choir leader, music director, and cantor (yes, the Catholics call it that – but in the Catholic sense it’s more like “soloist,” rather than “song leader”). My dad composed Masses and we used his music in church.

Christmas week was always incredibly hairy and stressful. There was Midnight Mass, and then Christmas morning Mass, and then the big family Christmas dinner in the afternoon, which both of my parents practically killed themselves to pull off every year.

So it was a Big, Big Deal, okay?

When something is part of your childhood, and you were deeply involved in it, of course you will miss it. I miss the songs. I miss the decorations and the anticipation and all the little holiday rituals my parents had built up over the years:

  • Buying the tree at a tree farm on the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend (back before they started calling it “Black Friday”) and then picking it up/cutting it down on the anniversary of my father’s father’s death, on December 18, to put it up in the house…
  • Christmas cookie and fruitcake baking on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend…
  • Putting up the house decorations on the first of December, including the lights all over the outside of the house; the mantelpiece (which my mother covered with juniper branches from the juniper bushes in the front yard, and then filled in with lots of kitschy decorations, including a Santa head candle that got progressively more smooshed, damaged, melted, and unrecognizable as the years went on – but it was tradition); the handmade Advent calendar that my father built – an enormous three-foot-tall by five-foot-wide rectangle of green-and-white-and-red plywood, with impossibly detailed day markers for the four weeks of Advent, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Epiphany; green garlands up the stair railing, Hickory Dickory Dock (the Christmas Mouse) sitting on the grandfather clock, the Santa candy jar on the dining table, my mother’s little “old-fashioned” fir in a pot with bubble lights and gingham bows and hand-crocheted snowflakes…
  • Hanging our stockings on December 6th, because it was St. Nicholas’ Day, and picking Secret Santas for the remainder of Advent out of the Santa candy jar…
  • The tree-raising party my parents held on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, where everyone had to bring a potluck contribution, have a cup of soup my parents prepared (French onion or split-pea, or both), and hang at least three things on the tree – and to which they invited all the neighbors for three blocks around, because at about 9 pm my mother would sit at the piano and the sixty or so people in attendance would belt out the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah in four-part harmony (they were all music people)…

And, of course, there were rehearsals with the choir and the professional vocalists and small chamber orchestra that my father contracted every year to perform at the church for the Masses and the pre-Midnight Mass concert, which included the aforementioned Messiah oratorio.

Like I said, Christmas was a Big, Big Deal.

Last year we had our first Hanukkah. I was determined to celebrate it as Jewishly as possible, to kind of gloss over missing Christmas, and since it ended only two days before Christmas, it wasn’t that big of a loss for me that year. It covered up the things I was missing. I considered an Eitz HaMoed (Tree of the Seasons) and then decided against it, feeling it wasn’t a properly Jewish thing to do. All the decorations I’ve lugged around with me for years stayed in a box in the back of the office closet. We exchanged Hanukkah gifts and lit the menorah, sang the songs and spun the dreidel, learned how to make latkes and went out for Chinese and a movie on the day itself… and it seemed to be a relief not to have to do all the hoopla.

But this year, I don’t know. I’m a Jew, I know that in my heart, and as such the religious meaning of Christmas is no longer relevant to me. I don’t miss the pontificating or the moralizing or any of the trappings of the faith I was raised in.

But it’s not the religious meaning that I miss. It’s the traditions that I miss. And those traditions are not necessarily religious. They’re just… family. Memory. Things I grew up with, that I don’t know how to translate into a Jewish setting. Yet.

It’s things like the smell of evergreens and hot apple cider. It’s the white lights twinkling against glass balls hung on a tall pine tree. It’s the train set my father set up under the tree every year and delighted over. It’s humming along with songs that are part of me to my bones.

And it’s missing my dad, too. It was one of his favorite times of year – the entire month of December, really. And he was told the day after Christmas in 2008 that he had about two weeks to live. (It turned out to be a month.)

So, I’m a Jew who doesn’t celebrate Christmas. That’s not going to change. I shy away from singing any Christmas carol that references the religious aspects of this increasingly secular holiday in any way. I admit to singing along with Deck the Halls at my daughter’s high-school choir concert earlier this month, because that’s just a song that celebrates the winter holiday.

But next year, I want to find a way to have some of that feeling come back to me. I want to find a way to make December a month of celebration again. I mean, learning Hanukkah songs has helped, but there’s only so many times you can sing O Hanukkah before it all starts to sound the same.

Here. Have a song from Tim Minchin. Apart from the Dawkins bit, it’s pretty much how I feel.


I want to thank my readers for hanging on and hanging in with me after the overwhelming experience of having gone to the mikveh and the beit din a few months ago. I’ve been slammed with work and very tired most of this fall, but I hope to get back to this blog now that things are easing off. In the meantime, I hope you have or did have a great holiday-of-your-choice, and I’ll hope to be back in the swing of things soon. 

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How Can We Talk About Israel?

I can’t say it better than Rabbi Adar said it, so I’m not going to try.

Coffee Shop Rabbi

A reader asked, “How do you talk to non-Jews about an Israel that’s less than perfect?”

I live in the capital-L Liberal San Francisco Bay Area, just a few miles south of the University of California, Berkeley. I get the question on a regular basis: “How can you support Israel, and call yourself a decent person?”

In many ways I’m a typical resident of the “East Bay” – my politics are liberal. I didn’t start out that way, but various life experiences have made me into a definite social democrat.

I’m also a fervent Zionist, by which I mean that I believe there needs to be a place on the planet where Jews are in charge of our own fate. I think that because there’s a massive pile of evidence that when other people have power over us, especially if there is an established religion, they’ll treat us very badly. In the 20th century, nearly…

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Bernie Sanders, Israel, Palestine, and Me

I need to make a few things clear, here.

Today, I saw a meme on Facebook that said something along the lines of: “How to Make Young Liberals Vote for Palestinian Genocide” with an image of Bernie Sanders and a speech bubble that said “Free College.”

This meme is both offensive and factually incorrect. It implies that Bernie Sanders is anti-Palestine. He isn’t. But he’s not anti-Israel either. It is possible to be both pro-Israel and to recognize what’s going on with the Palestinians at the same time, and that as a displaced group, they deserve a two-state solution, which Sanders supports. So let’s go down this list of reasons why I am pro-Israel (and pro-Bernie Sanders) and why I feel a two-state solution is the correct solution here.

  1. As I have said before, you cannot expect a nation not to defend against armed insurrection at its borders. This is especially true when said nation is in a war-torn and violent area, such as the Middle East. Let’s be real, here, okay? If we told the armed forces of Libya to stand down, do you really think they’d listen? How about the armed forces of the Ukraine? Please recognize that saying “Israel has to be the one to stop shooting” is ridiculous on its face. Israel is under attack, both by terrorist groups and by front groups for Arabic nations in the region that want Israel to stop existing. It has a right to defend itself.This does not mean that I support any of the terrorist actions undertaken by Israeli settlers in the West Bank or in Gaza. I don’t. Those settlers should be ashamed of themselves, and they should voluntarily repatriate themselves into the inside borders of Israel. However, it must also be said that…
  2. Palestine is not a real place. It has no historical nationhood. It is not an ethnicity. “Palestine” was a label placed on the area that is now Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, first by the Romans when they occupied it, and more recently by the British when they occupied the Middle East as a functionary of the United Nations. “Palestinian” is a political label, not an ethnic one. There were plenty of Jewish Palestinians right there in the same area as the Arabic/Muslim Palestinians. What the media are calling “Palestinians” are simply Arab Muslims who lived in the same area that is now Israel. Most of them are not from that area; they are from the Arabic nations surrounding that area.
  3. Israel fought wars for that land, won those wars, and by the standards of war recognized around the globe, that land is and has been Israel’s since 1948. At the time the wars were fought, the Arabic nations surrounding the area that is now Israel could have absorbed the Arabic refugees from those wars. They actively refused to.You know why? Because their goal is to make things as difficult for Israel as possible and to, ideally, wipe Israel off the map.
  4. Saying you will not vote for Bernie Sanders for President in America, because he has voted for Israeli funding packages in the past is being incredibly blind. Let’s be clear about this: An American politician cannot make another country do what he wants it to do. There is no magic wand labeled “American President” that can somehow convince Netanyahu and Hamas to work for a peaceful solution here.Nevertheless, Sanders has stated his support for a two-state solution. It is documented that he said this in August: “Palestinians are entitled to a state of their own, and the United States should do what it can to make sure that state has a strong economy. Israel is entitled to live in security, not be attacked.” 

    Can he force Netanyahu to accept a two-state solution? No. Can he force the Arabic world around Israel to accept a two-state solution? No. Can he make sure Israel continues to exist? Yes.

    So what, exactly, would you expect him to do in order to get that two-state solution in place?

  5. I had an acquaintance say “Voting for Bernie Sanders when he has supported funding for Israel is exactly like voting for an anti-GLBT politician when you’re GLBT.” Sorry. No. That’s incorrect. Americans, no matter how much we think we can, cannot make other countries do anything that they won’t already do. Trying to compare a foreign-policy issue (Israel and Palestine) to a domestic issue (LGBT rights in the United States) does not fly. They are not comparable.A person who votes against my rights here at home has power over that situation, and they will not get my vote. A person who states that they think that another country should take certain actions has done as much as they have the power to do, and if I agree with their position, they will get my vote.

This really is not that difficult to understand. What’s driving me wild is how other people think this is simple: you should only vote for a politician who will somehow fix the situation in Israel. Well, that’s fine, but you need to understand that it’s unrealistic. Americans (and people from anywhere else, frankly) can’t fix the problems in Israel. We can advocate for a certain solution, but apart from that, there is nothing else we can reasonably do about this issue. Hamas is part of the problem, and nobody seems to be talking about that. The Arabic nations surrounding Israel are also part of the problem, but nobody seems to be talking about that, either.

Everyone has to own their own responsibility, here. It’s not just Israel’s responsibility. Other nations are contributing to the problem, too. And despite what many Americans seem to think, America can’t make Israel do anything that Israel isn’t already prepared to do.

So get off your BDS high horses and look at reality, please, because there are three basic options and none of them lie in the hands of an American politician:

  1. A two-state solution is reached, and Israel and the Palestinians have a truce. Israeli settlers are withdrawn from the newly established Palestinian state’s territory and repatriated to other areas in Israel, and Palestinians stop attacking Israel with guns, knives, and rockets.
  2. Israel throws all Palestinians out of the area claimed by Israel and the Arabic nations absorb the refugees, as they should have done back in 1948.
  3. Israel ceases to exist and the Arabic nations around it overrun it and kill all Israelis.

That third option? That is never going to happen. Jews all over the world need a place that is a refuge in times of trouble, where we won’t be carted away to extermination camps again. That place is Israel.

So pick one of the other two. But get this straight: you have no influence over what happens. 

And neither does Bernie Sanders.

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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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