Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Since costumes are involved in both events, it’s understandable that people who don’t know much about Purim may think it’s like Halloween. So, with Purim happening last weekend, I thought I’d outline some of the ways in which they differ.
First, while Halloween, or “All Hallows Eve” is about scary stuff like ghosts and demons, Purim is a celebration of the story in the Book of Esther. We read this book during the Purim service, and thus retell the tale of how Queen Esther risked her life and saved all the Jews in Persia.
Yes, there are costumes on Purim. There are several theories about why we wear costumes, including the idea that God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther, but is clearly a player in the story. Thus, God was masked, and we mask ourselves on that day.
The mood, though, is not one of scary ghosts and such, but of fun and silliness. The service is filled with alternate music for regular prayers (such as Micha Mocha being sung to a tune from a Broadway show) and alternate, amusing lyrics sung to familiar tunes.
Another way Purim differs from Halloween is that, rather than asking for candy (or anything else), on Purim, we give gifts of sweet things to those in need. For instance, on Purim morning, friends and I greeted families as they arrived to pack mishloach manot bags. These are bags with things like oranges, raisins, and other treats in them. The children decorated the bags, and then after services congregants delivered the bags to people who aren’t as mobile as others, or who might need a pick-me-up for other reasons.
Along those same lines of celebrating while taking care of others, during the reading of the Book of Esther it is traditional to make as much noise as possible to drown out the name of the villain of the story every time his name is mentioned. It’s a clever device, really, because it encourages everyone to listen carefully to the story, and it’s a lot of fun for the kids.
Traditionally, noisemakers called groggers are used. They are usually some kind of ratchet or similar device. Our synagogue, however, has adopted the tradition of having families bring boxes of macaroni and cheese to shake as groggers. Then, after the service, the boxes are dropped into a bin to be picked up by the local food bank. Thus, everyone has a good time, and participates in a mitzvah as well.
So, although Purim may look a bit like Halloween from the outside, on the inside it’s a whole different ballgame.
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February 20, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
This week I, along with about 70 other people, participated in a webinar about taharah leadership given by Kavod v’Nichum. Taharah is the act of ritually washing and preparing a dead body for burial, and Kavod v’Nichum is an organization that, according to its website, “encourages and assists the organization of bereavement committees and Chevra Kadisha groups in synagogues and communities.”
The webinar was hosted by David Zinner, the Executive Director of the organization, and the material was presented by the president of its Board, Dr. Michael Slater, and his wife, Dr. Shoshana Waskow.
The presenters did a couple of things which helped the webinar to be successfully interactive. First, they emailed a list of questions to the participants before the webinar, and incorporated some of the responses into the presentation. Second, they asked participants to use chat to communicate questions and responses to the presenter’s questions, and then they incorporated that material into the webinar as well.
One of the things that struck me about taharah leadership as it was presented is that a lot of the keys to success in leading taharah are the same as leadership in anything else. Things like respect, trust, a knowledge of the tasks at hand, and good communication skills are important components in any successful team.
In addition, as is true in many team settings, it’s the result that counts, so it isn’t always necessary to sweat the details. There is a set procedure that each taharah team follows, but since it’s mostly minhag (custom) and not halacha (law), there’s no reason to freak out if something is done out of order or a little differently than normal. As long as the prayers are said, the 24 quarts of water are poured, and respect is shown to the dead person, it’s all good.
However, some things make taharah leadership different than leading other teams. First, taharah teams are, usually, comprised of volunteers. Unlike a company in which one person is always “the boss” and the others are always the workers, in a taharah team, leadership can move from one person to another from one taharah to the next, or even during any particular taharah. As a leader, it’s always best to be respectful and polite, but with any volunteer group, it’s helpful to remember that nobody has to be there. If they aren’t treated well, they don’t have to come back to do it again.
Second, and not to be overlooked, is the emotional nature of the act of performing taharah. Some are more emotionally difficult than others. If the person is, God forbid, a child, for instance, that can be hard on the group. If you aren’t told the name of the dead person before you arrive, it could turn out you knew them, which could be difficult. Or they could remind you of yourself or someone else you love. Not to mention the fact that seeing a person who has died can be a sad experience, in any case.
The webinar reminded me that, as a result of the emotional nature of the work, a taharah team leader may need to be more sensitive to the moods and emotions of others than an average leader. In addition, a taharah team leader may need, more than other leaders, to make space for team members to express and process their emotions.
Overall, I felt the webinar was very well done, and I’m looking forward to participating in more of them in the future.
February 13, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Last fall, I wrote here about the Visioning process our synagogue is undertaking. Now that the first part of the process, namely the house meetings, is over, our community is reflecting on what has happened so far.
I attended one of the house meetings as a participant, and two more as a facilitator. I also participated in a meeting regarding High Holy Days services that was partly inspired by the house meetings, as well as a wrap-up meeting with Visioning meeting hosts, facilitators, and scribes. As a result, I think I have a reasonable idea of what was said in the meetings, although the official results are still being tabulated.
One thing I already knew, but which came up often in the conversations and bears repeating, is how much we love our clergy. Many people were enthusiastic about them in our meetings, and on several occasions we had to say, “Ok, we’ve heard about our clergy. What other strengths do we have?” Our amazing clergy is a huge blessing, and I hope the final report helps them to know how much we appreciate them.
We are also blessed with a world class Executive Director as well as an outstanding Director of Community Connections.
One of the more prominent challenges is one, unfortunately, is one for which I don’t believe we will be able to find a solution that will please everyone. It is about High Holy Day services, and we already had a meeting about it which clarified for me why it can’t be completely resolved.
Our congregation is so large that we can’t hold High Holy Day services in our synagogue, because the sanctuary isn’t large enough for everyone. Instead, for years we have rented the local Civic Center Auditorium, which seats 2,000 people. On Erev Rosh Hashanah and on Kol Nidre we fill the auditorium. Many congregants love the feeling of being in such a large space filled with praying Jews.
Others, however, feel the auditorium seating and large space are alienating. There are other things about the more traditional, tending toward Classical Reform service that doesn’t fulfill their needs. So, with the blessing of the clergy, a group of congregants began an alternative service in the synagogue sanctuary on the morning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Over time, the morning alternative service has grown every year, so that now the sanctuary is filled to capacity. As a result, the Civic Center is no longer filled to capacity on those days. Some of the people who attend the Civic Center services are starting to feel abandoned. Some families are split, as some members prefer the Civic Center services, and others prefer the sanctuary services.
We talked about the possibility of changing the Civic Center services to be more like the sanctuary services, and combining the services once again. The “trouble” is that the Civic Center people love their services there, and the sanctuary people love theirs. If we change one to be like the other, we’ll just end up with a bunch of people resenting what they gave up for the other group, and neither one feeling they’re getting what they need any more. In other words, it would be a real lose-lose proposition.
The next steps in the Visioning process will be to scout what’s happening in other synagogues, and to report back findings to the congregation. I’m curious to see what possible solutions and initiatives will come out of this process.
February 6, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
A new study called “Victims of Our Own Narratives?” was just published which claims “Dehumanizing characterizations of the other are rare in both Israeli and Palestinian school books.” If true, that’s great news. Dehumanizing characterizations of other people should have no place in school books, and I hope that, however rare they may be, any remaining ones will be removed post haste.
One of the odd things I find about this study is they chose to examine certain kinds of books, and not others. For instance, they didn’t look at books about biology, math, physics, etc. That would make sense if one assumed that math and science books are objective, and therefore there would be no special narrative information in them.
However, such an assumption could easily be false. Who hasn’t heard about Palestinian math books asking questions like, “If you have 10 bullets and you shoot 3 Jews once each, how many bullets do you have left?” This study could have told us whether such math books still exist, if they ever did. Instead, math and science books were excluded from the study with no explanation as to why.
Another of the study’s conclusions is, “Both Israeli and Palestinian school books…chronicle negative actions by the other directed at their own communities…” The study backs up this finding by counting up and listing examples of negative things that each side has to say about the other.
The problem I see, however, is that the study adds up these claims of “negative actions” without, it appears, applying any weight to whether or not these claims are false, skewed, or inflamed in some way.
In other words, if the researchers were studying Japanese school books, and came across a statement that said, “During World War II the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing many people,” the researchers would count this as a “negative” or “very negative” action the Japanese are claiming the United States directed at their community, without regard to the fact that the statement is 100% factual.
Additionally, there would be no difference in how it were counted if the statement instead read, “During its imperialist war in 1945 against our homeland, the American killing machine remorselessly incinerated, crushed and maimed many innocent and peace-loving unarmed men, defenseless women, and terrified children by dropping the most evil weapon yet invented on our beloved Hiroshima.”
At this rate, I don’t see how counting these kinds of statements proves anything. History books are about reporting the facts, whether or not those facts may make a particular group look bad. If we don’t examine the emotional content, if any, we’re losing an important part of the picture.
Nor would it necessarily make sense to remove all these “negative” statements about the other from each side’s textbooks. If the statements are true and stated factually rather than emotionally, censoring them isn’t the answer.
Rather, the question is whether the books give a fair and even-handed account of the events being discussed. The study concludes that the Palestinian school books fall short of this goal significantly more often than the Israeli secular school books. It also says, “Books from Israeli State schools included more positive portrayals of the other, more self-criticism, and more information about the other.”
This, I believe is the core of the issue, and it’s a shame that it gets lost among the other study conclusions, as well as its misleading title.