Tag Archives: ritual

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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The Spirit of the Law and the Value of NOT Doing It All

"Sunrise Los Angeles" by Bryan Frank on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

“Sunrise Los Angeles” by Bryan Frank on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Things looked better on Shabbat morning. And fortunately, that continued for the rest of the day into our afternoon at home and our evening with friends. 

Things usually do look better in the morning, did you ever notice that? Something about sleeping on it really does help fix most of the problems of low spoons, lack of energy, and general overwhelm.

Of course, I was trying too hard. I was trying to live by every rule, everywhere, to be a perfect Jew, even as I had admitted that it’s okay not to be perfect. There’s a definite difference between saying it and practicing it, and G-d called me on it on Friday, I think. I was at the end of my rope, frazzled, tired, worn out, overwhelmed, and still thinking I could somehow put together the equivalent of a holiday dinner AND bake challah for the next day’s temple Kiddush service when I was almost completely out of cope and energy. I was convinced that I could still follow all the rules and make things somehow come out perfectly even though I was scraping the bottom of the energy barrel.

Reality. It hits you in the strangest ways. Obviously none of those things happened. I’m just glad that the fallout was a few pieces of dough hitting the coffeemaker and the carpet, and nothing worse than that (like a cut hand due to a knife accident, or a concussion because I slipped and hit my head on a wet floor). 

It occurred to me this morning that one of the things I find so healing about Judaism is that Reform Judaism is not a rule-bound system. I grew up with a strong and frightening sense that if I didn’t follow every rule perfectly, all the time, to the letter, then I was in big trouble. Yesterday’s experience at temple in the morning, where I participated in the mid-service Torah study, and where I was reassured that everyone has had kitchen disasters and not to worry – we’ll love to try your challah next week, showed me it’s the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that we’re trying to get at here. People (and G-d) don’t expect perfection. They expect an honest effort. They don’t expect me to do it all correctly the first time. They expect me to focus on doing my best to do a little bit better next time.

It’s not about perfect adherence to the rules. If that was all it was, any religion would do. 

My life before Judaism didn’t allow a lot of time for contemplation or doing things deliberately. Due to some disabilities I have, for example, getting dressed in the morning can be a very complicated process. If I put on my jeans before I put on my socks, it’s harder to reach my feet, for example, because that restricts motion enough that bending my knees far enough to reach my feet becomes almost impossible. But there have been times when I’ve been rushing because I feel like I’m late (I rarely am) and then I have to undress and start all over again, usually berating myself for not paying attention well enough. Eating deliberately? What’s that? I have still caught myself being halfway through the meal before I realized I haven’t really tasted it (and that I haven’t said the brachot yet), and then kicked myself for it. I wasn’t raised with the habits of deliberation or contemplation. I was raised with the habits of rushing, doing it quickly, getting it done, and getting on to the next thing. While going to church was calming, it was only one hour a week. That’s not enough to get used to being calm and quiet (and for me it was always upset in the middle by the angry sermons I had to sit through). 

But with Judaism (at least as I’m practice it), it’s not about rushing out of bed and running around like a headless chicken trying to get six things done before breakfast so that things are always perfect. It’s about staying in bed when I wake long enough to remember to say the Modeh Ani before I get out of bed. It’s about taking the time to remember to say the brachot over my morning coffee. It’s about remembering to slow down and take time so that those become things I remember before I need to do them, not after. It’s about taking an entire 24-hour period every week to NOT rush, to NOT hurry, and to let that peacefulness carry over into the rest of the week. It’s the complete opposite of what I was raised with – reflection, rather than rushing.

The rushing seemed to me to be required. If you aren’t running around “looking busy,” you’re lazy, aren’t you? But then I wonder how many people would call a Buddhist monk “lazy” for his meditation practices. I know a few Westerners who probably would, but that’s not the point here. The Type-A personality should not be setting the standard for what reasonable effort looks like – they’re at one end of a very long spectrum. It is possible to be unrushed and not be automatically lazy. It is possible to take time to think and contemplate and not be lazy. 

And it is all right to take a day where rest, contemplation, consideration and thought take precedence over running around trying to do everything all at once. It is all right to live by the spirit of the rules as much as, if not more than, their letter. A blogger I follow on Facebook calls this “living hands-free” – to stop worrying so much about what everyone will think and start focusing on the moment, the process, rather than the goal. 

This is still very hard for me to grasp. We live in a culture that values speed and efficiency and the goal over reflection and deliberation and the process. But living a hands-free kind of life – which for me, more and more, means a Jewish life – demands adherence to the spirit of the rules over the letter of the rules, more often than not. It’s also about bringing that sense of reflection and consideration into the rest of the week, not just leaving it on Shabbat. I had had an entire week of no reflection or consideration, of feeling rushed, of trying to do too much at once, and I paid for it on Friday evening when things finally fell apart because I couldn’t keep all those balls in the air and the plates all spinning at the same time. 

This week, I will forgive myself for dropping the ball. This week, I will not punish myself for taking time to reflect and consider. This week, I will work on reducing my need to live up to every rule and stress myself out by rushing through every process. This week I will make room for contemplation. 

And next week will take care of itself. It always does – have you ever noticed that? 

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Shiva for a Six-Year-Old: Community and Shared Pain

25 Sivan 5774

An Internet acquaintance of mine very recently lost his god-daughter Rebecca to something that should not happen to children. She made it to her sixth birthday, but she had an inoperable brain tumor. She died on her birthday.

Naturally, her parents were hit hard by her death, and so was he. Apparently this little girl was a light to the world, funny, silly, snarky, and she deserved a much longer time here than she got. Saying “It was G-d’s will” or any of the other Standard Platitudes would be a shonda.

He’s been very open about what’s been going on as she went through her dying process, and recently he wrote about the week of shiva for her, and what it was like for him. I can’t do better than to link to it, so I’m doing that here: Shiva Is. Would that there were something more I could do for him beyond saying “Baruch dayan emet” and offering my condolences, but I live nowhere near him, and I’m just an acquaintance.

I never got to sit shiva for my father, because at the time I wasn’t Jewish. I will never have had that experience. Of course I will remember him on his yarzheit and say the Mourner’s Kaddish for him from now on. But too much of my memory of the time of his death was his disbelieving friends coming to his funeral and demanding to know what had happened to him, at a time when I was least equipped to deal with questions (especially questions that, to my ears, sounded accusatory). How different might it have been if the community I was part of at the time had had that process of shiva in place for us?

Oh, I had a community – don’t get me wrong. I had a blogging community that rallied around me while he was dying and afterwards, when I poured out my grief into my LiveJournal. But that is not the same as being able to sit with the pain and process the grief while trusting that others are taking care of food, and running interference between you and the questioners.

So it hit me hard, reading about him sitting shiva for her (and how he ended up being a comforter, rather than being allowed to really mourn). It hit me how much we really do depend on community to get through this kind of pain. Ursula LeGuin had a character say once that “brotherhood begins in shared pain,” and perhaps that’s part of what shiva is for. Another writer, Spider Robinson, had a motto for the bar he wrote about in many of his books: “Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased: thus do we refute entropy.”

When we visit the grieving or are grieving ourselves, isn’t that about sharing pain? Isn’t it about refuting entropy? And even sharing happy stories about the person who’s died is increasing shared joy, isn’t it?

G-d forbid you should have to sit shiva for a loved one now or anytime soon, but we all have pain, sometimes daily. What pain are you having today? What pain does your neighbor have? How can you help and be helped? What joy can you share?

How can we, as a people, make each others’ lives a little less painful?

Perhaps that’s what shiva is for. It’s a way of formalizing the ancient Greek axiom (variously attributed to Plato and to Aristotle): Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a difficult battle.

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Why Shabbat? From My Readings: The Sabbath by Heschel, and Who Needs God by Kushner

24 Sivan 5774 (after sundown)

I’ve just finished reading Abraham Heschel’s classic work The Sabbath (and I recommend it, despite the somewhat dated writing style). In it, Heschel points out that the Sabbath is holy because it is sanctified time, rather than a sanctified object. Time is an unusual idea, according to Heschel – it is not something that exists in any one place, nor is it attached to any one thing. Shabbat is important because it is time set aside to recuperate and recover from the daily grind of work and business, and to reconnect – with G-d, with our families and friends, with ourselves. Instead of having to travel to a specific place in order to reconnect, recuperate, and recover, we create a sacred time that can be observed anywhere.

That reconnection can be fatiguing and even intimidating if you’re not used to it. Most of us have seen the family at the restaurant with everyone’s nose buried in their GameBoy, their Kindle, or their iPhone. When was the last time you actually sat down and had a meal with your family, without the distractions of the game on the TV or the GameBoy in your child’s hands? When was the last time you actually spent an hour with someone just talking, with your phone set to “off” rather than “vibrate”? And if you did, did you really connect with them? Or was all the discussion about mundane things like the weather and the latest sports news?

I also finished Kushner’s Who Needs God earlier today. He refers to “the iPhone problem” as it was experienced in an earlier time – with the transistor radio as the interfering agent – as one of the ways we can be together in body and still totally separate in spirit. Before that, I’m sure that it was newspapers, magazines, and books that interfered both outside the home and in it, and at home there was also the TV and before that the radio as interfering agents between ourselves and other people. Kushner talks a lot in this book about loneliness, and how we miss our connection with others more than we realize we do. We compete, rather than connect. We objectify, rather than empathize. And as a result we end up with what Kushner, referencing Martin Buber, calls the I-It relationship, rather than the I-Thou relationship. We see others only as “how can I get something from them/how will they benefit me”, instead of seeing them as human beings with families, or health problems, or crises of faith, or worries.

The concept of taking an entire day “just” to rest is pretty foreign to me, as it probably is to most Westerners who weren’t raised Jewish. I know of about three Christian sects that make a point of Sabbath being an all-day thing, but that’s it. For most people, taking an entire day to rest sounds like a luxury. To others, it may even sound sinful. For me, a day off is ideal for catching up on work – answering student e-mails, for example. Planning my next class. Working on my budget. Organizing my desk. It’s work time, not play time – and certainly not rest time.

I’ve had Shabbat evenings on Fridays. I’ve been to a few Shabbat services at my temple on Friday nights, but the next morning I fell right back into doing what I needed to do in order to get work done – emails, grading, and of course endless Facebooking. I couldn’t seem to conceive of doing Shabbat not just on Friday nights but all day on Saturday, too. Even thinking of trying to have a full evening and day of Shabbat was nerve-wracking to me. What was I supposed to do with myself? Study? How, when I’m not supposed to write (because writing is creation)? Read? What would I do if I ran out of books to read (a perfectly possible scenario for me)? What about my students, and their e-mails, and the homeworks I have to grade, and the classes I need to prep? Heck, what about Facebook? How could I just not be there for a whole 25-hour period?

And what, exactly, would my kids and I – and my partner, once he arrived home – talk about, exactly? How would that look? How would that work? They’re not converting to Judaism – so one of my main current topics isn’t an option for table conversation. Talking about work is sort of not what I had in mind for Shabbat conversation. But what else is there to talk about?

Like the idea of taking a day completely off to rest, the concept of connecting in person is also increasingly foreign to most Westerners. “Connection” has become a term that refers to e-mail, websites, and blogging – and believe me when I tell you that I recognize the irony here, as I write about this issue on a blog. What we used to mean by connection, in-person connection, has become largely shredded away, as if we never needed it or wanted it.

So I didn’t think I could do it. I thought for sure I’d go mad with the tension of not doing anything productive, not to mention the guilt about the aforementioned emails and students. But I had to try. If I’m going to truly live as a Jew, this is part of it. So I need to learn how, right?

One of the things that Shabbat does is give us a holy time to see others as real people and human beings. I decided on Thursday night that I was going to make this Shabbat special, because my kids were going to be here. So I saw my doctor in the morning, I picked up my kids, ran my errands on Friday during the day, and then we prepared a real Shabbat meal. Even though the main dish just did not turn out right, it was salvageable without too many problems. I said the prayers before my older child and my partner came to the table (at their request – and I’m not about to push that on them), but my younger child decided to be there and participated with me as I sang the brachot and the Kiddush. We had even baked challah for the meal – grain-free, true, but it was still challah. We had a meal together as a family, we prepared it as a family, and we cleaned it up afterward as a family. At the table, each person shared something good that had happened to them in the last week. I haven’t had that much connection with my children in literally months.

This morning my younger daughter and I walked to the synagogue and found out that the Saturday morning Shabbat service included a bar mitzvah. Walking home, I felt such a sense of peace, just talking with my daughter, being disconnected from all my electronics, and feeling so connected to my kid and to the greater Jewish community. It was astounding. This afternoon, after I read for three hours from Kushner, my children asked me to play a game of Apples to Apples with them. Sure, it wasn’t entirely Shabbat-related, but in the spirit of spending time with my family, I dove right into it. I’m pretty sure HaShem didn’t mind.

I’m still not sure I can completely keep Shabbat the way the more-conservative Conservative Jews do. I’m not sure I can give up jotting notes down about things that I need to remember but which my somewhat distracted brain might otherwise forget, for example, or cleaning up my kitchen after a meal even if it’s still technically Shabbat by the clock and calendar. But I can’t deny I got something out of doing this. I didn’t quite make it to sundown, I admit, but when I did finally log into my computer about four hours before sundown, I found out that the e-mail and the students were still there. I was able to get the work that I needed to do, done, with a renewed energy and sense of peace that I’ve rarely felt even since I realized I need to convert. More to the point, I felt rested. I haven’t had that feeling in months, either.

So I guess the lesson I’m taking away from this experience is this: Being busy is fine – but being calm is necessary too, and making a sacred space and a sacred time for calm and study and meditation and connection is part of what we need, as human beings, to not just survive but to thrive.

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Ritual: The Language of My Spirit

12 Sivan 5774

One of the many reasons why Judaism pulls at me so strongly is that there are rituals for just about every event in life: birth, death, learning, confirmation, marriage, separation, beginnings and endings. My autism may be part of the reason why I am pulled so strongly to ritual. I’ve already got several of my own rituals that have nothing to do with religion or with G-d but which help me stay stable, sane, and calm. So a religion that has rituals is the obvious match for my needs, nu?

When my father died, I desperately wished that I had some kind of mourning ritual. I actually remember posting in my LiveJournal, about a month and a half after his death, that I wished I was Jewish just so I could sit shiva for him and so that people would understand that I was not doing well. I remember that the funeral was not about my Dad so much as it was about the religious beliefs of the church he attended (Episcopalian) and being angry that he wasn’t the focus of the ritual. I had nowhere to put my pain, because I had no structure for it. As a result, I had a pretty bad meltdown after summer came and my graduate work was done for the spring. For about a month and a half I was pretty much nonfunctional while I grieved.

Since then I haven’t known how to observe the anniversary of his death (yartzheit) or what to do with the grief when it still occasionally surfaces. Now, however, I have options. I can ask for his name to be put on a list for the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. I can say the Mourner’s Kaddish. That’s a big, big deal to me.

I suppose that the wish to be Jewish so I could sit shiva could be construed as a spiritual helicopter. I don’t know, but it feels likely.

What I do know is that in Judaism, first you do, and then you understand. More and more, the rituals of brachot, of Shabbat, and even of study have become deeply meaningful to me and I don’t want to give them up. Ritual is one of the things I really need from my religious and spiritual path for it to have any meaning.

Michael at Chicago Carless said in his conversion essay, which he shared, that one of the things Judaism gave him is a language for the things he’d always believed. It does for me, too, because for me, ritual (and music) are the languages of my spirit, and they’re languages I already speak, even if I’m still trying to memorize the alefbet.

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