Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
We’ve all heard stories of people who were turned off from Judaism by negative experiences with a synagogue, a rabbi, etc. “He wouldn’t even meet with us to talk about our marriage because my fiancé hadn’t converted yet,” or “They wouldn’t let me into High Holy Day services because I forgot my ticket,” or, “They were rude to me when my baby cried during the service.”
We also know that, generally, one bad experience isn’t enough to drive a person away from Judaism or synagogue life. These stories are often more about “the straw that broke the camel’s back” than they are about one unforgiveable sin on the part of the congregation or clergy.
Yet for many of us, the opposite is true. Many good things happen to us over the course of our synagogue life, and we hardly even seem to notice it. The people are generally friendly, the sermons are often meaningful, the cantor’s voice is inspiring. Sometimes it’s hard to notice how many things are going right, day in and day out.
Sometimes, something happens that is right, and it stands out. This is one such story.
At our synagogue, we have a minhag (custom) on the first Friday night of each month. Toward the end of the service, before we break for the monthly congregational dinner, the clergy asks everyone who is having a birthday that month to come forward for a group blessing. It may not sound like a big deal, but it means a lot to some people. There have been a couple of occasions when the clergy have forgotten to give the monthly birthday blessing, and boy, do they hear about it when that happens!
Last Friday night, after the birthday blessing and the end of the service, I was opening the sanctuary doors so the congregants could walk over to the dinner. As I was doing so, a man came up to me and said, “Is the service over already?” For some reason, he had gotten the time mixed up.
I told him yes, it was, and he asked whether there would be a second service. I told him no, we only have a second service on the third Friday of the month. He asked, “Did they do the birthday blessing?” I said they did, about five minutes ago.
He looked so downcast that I asked, “Is it your birthday this month? Did you come for the blessing?” He said he had, so I suggested, “Why don’t I take you to the rabbi, to see if something can be done?” He said okay, and he followed me inside.
Now, at this point I didn’t know what the rabbi would do. For one thing, that night we had on duty the rabbi who has been filling in for the last couple of months while our senior rabbi is on sabbatical, so I don’t know him very well. Second, rabbis are, after all, human beings, so they are hard to predict in any case.
But the rabbi sure seems like a nice guy, so I brought the distraught congregant up to the rabbi, introduced them, and said, “He just missed the birthday blessing.”
The congregant asked, “Do you think you could give me a blessing anyway?”
The rabbi answered, “Of course.”
So the rabbi blessed the congregant, and the look on the congregant's face was so happy, I was deeply touched. I thought, “This is an example of the clergy and the synagogue getting it right. This story deserves to be told.”
May there be many more such stories to tell.
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April 5, 2013 | 2:43 pm
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
The Israeli news agency Ha’aretz has published a good summary here regarding what’s been happening in the last week or so in regard to the Women of the Wall.
The Women of the Wall is a group of women – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and other – who have been praying at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site, on the first of each Hebrew month for the last couple of decades.
Sometimes the women are allowed to pray unmolested. Sometimes, they have chairs and other things thrown at them. Sometimes they are detained and arrested, and sometimes individual members are ordered not to return to the Kotel for 30 days are more.
The latest chapter in the saga began when the police sent a letter to Women of the Wall, naming a list of actions that could get them arrested. One of the things the letter said they could get arrested for was saying Kaddish, the prayer we say for loved ones who have died. This created a good deal of concern, since nobody had ever been arrested for saying the Kaddish before. It looked like the police were going to impose even more onerous rules on the group than they had in the past.
After some negotiations – which, oddly enough, did not involve anyone from the Women of the Wall, the chief rabbi of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabiowitz, announced that no women would be arrested at the Kotel for saying the Kaddish. That’s good news on its face, but it leads to a rather ominous conclusion.
As Anat Hoffman, the leader of the Women of the Wall, is quoted as saying in the Ha’aretz story, the rabbi’s contradiction of the letter from the police “proves what we’ve been saying all along – the rabbi calls the shots.”
We Jews in the diaspora have been proud at pointing to Israel as a democracy in a sea of Middle East dictatorships. But whether or not a person is arrested, regardless of the law, is determined by the whims of a single man, even if that man is a rabbi, then that is not a democracy. It is a dictatorship.
The Women of the Wall, on the other hand, voted – that’s right, like one does in a democracy – to read Torah from a bound book at the Kotel this month, rather than read it from a Torah scroll, since that is forbidden by the rabbi.
Why should one dictator get to decide who can pray at the Kotel and what they can pray? Why were women allowed to pray unmolested one day (see my post about it here) and are arrested on other days? Because that is what happens when who the police arrest, when, and for what, is subject to the whims of a dictator. That is what happens when we surrender democracy to dictatorships.
The Women of the Wall will be praying at the Kotel again on Rosh Chodesh, Thursday, April 11. Those of us who value democracy over dictatorship should be praying with them in spirit, if we cannot be praying at the Kotel with them in person.
April 3, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Last Saturday afternoon I went to a local retirement community to teach some of the residents about Passover. I told them the Exodus story, explaining that we retell this story every year for the holiday. I also talked about the seder, going over the ritual items on the seder plate, and illustrating for them where each item fits into the Exodus story I had just related.
At some point I mentioned that the Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim, and that it means “narrow place” (actually, narrow places). The woman immediately to my right asked, “What makes you say that?”
I told her it was a translation. She asked me where I was educated about these things. After I answered her question, she said she had lived for a while in Israel, and then said firmly, “You say it’s a translation? I doubt it!”
One would think I might be upset or annoyed by her act of contradiction, but I wasn’t. In fact, what I thought was, “I love this woman! This is a Jewish conversation we’re having.”
It reminded me a bit of a class on Judaism I took in my late 20’s. There was a woman named Tracy in the class, who often questioned what the rabbi said. He would offer one explanation, and Tracy would say, “Couldn’t you also interpret it this way?” or “Doesn’t another source say this opposite thing?”
Every time Tracy did this, the rabbi welcomed her questions with open arms. He not only tolerated her questioning, he encouraged it, and he encouraged the rest of us to follow her example.
It was such a departure from the Christian Bible study classes I had attended in high school with my Baptist boyfriend. In that class, it was abundantly clear that the leader was imparting unquestionable knowledge to the rest of us, and that nobody should, under any circumstances, even appear to be questioning the party line. It was also clear there was no way I was going to convert to Christianity – that kind of thinking just doesn’t work for me.
Maybe it’s a stereotype, but I like the Jewish culture of questioning everything. I like the truth behind the joke which says, “Ask two Jews a question and you’ll get at least three answers.” I like it when people listen, think critically about what they’re hearing, and speak out about what they think, without fear and without sugarcoating.
And that, to me, is part of what we’re supposed to be doing on Passover. Not just telling the Exodus story, but thinking about it, questioning it, discussing it. Was Egypt a narrow place? How or how not? Does the word mitzrayim have anything to do with the word tzar or “narrow?” How does the answer to that question change or enhance the Exodus story?
When it was time for me to go, I thanked everyone from the retirement community who had attended. But I especially thanked the woman on my right for her participation. I’ll take a little critical thinking and contradiction over vacuousness and indifference any day.
March 27, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
You may have thought the almighty dollar would be accepted everywhere in the US, but starting today, the famous Golden Gate Bridge between San Francisco and Marin County will no longer accept cash. Rather, the bridge is switching over to what they call “all electronic tolling.”
For years, commuters in the San Francisco Bay Area have had the option of using FasTrak, an electronic device that one attaches to a car windshield and which deducts money from an account preloaded with toll funds. FasTrak is accepted at all the toll bridges in the area, and can even be used to pay for long term parking at San Francisco International Airport.
Up until today, everyone crossing any of these bridges could choose to either use FasTrak or pay cash. On the Golden Gate Bridge, that is no longer the case.
It seems bizarre, doesn’t it? After all, the Golden Gate Bridge is a world-famous tourist attraction. People come from all over to see it, and countless numbers of them drive across it on an annual basis.
I suppose those who use rental cars from the area may be given rentals with FasTrak installed so they can cross the bridge, but what about those who drive their own cars there from elsewhere? What about those people who don’t want – or can’t afford – to plunk down the minimum deposit of $25 for credit card users (or $50 for cash) for a FasTrak? Will they be arrested if they try to cross the bridge?
They will not. There are several other options, listed on the Golden Gate Bridge website.
Those who use the bridge infrequently can use a “one-time payment” account. They can set up the account online, and pay the bridge toll up to 30 days in advance, or within 48 hours after they cross. In theory, this is the option that’s supposed to work for tourists in their own vehicles, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts most of these folks will have no idea about this system before their visit.
Anyone who doesn’t have one of these types of accounts will be sent a bill in the mail. That’s right, there is a camera set up at each toll lane, to snap a photo of the license plate of anyone who crosses without the benefit of FasTrak.
Sounds great, but it seems obvious there will still be some loss in tolls collected. Some cars which don’t have license plates will cross for free. Blurry, unreadable photos of some plates will result in an inability to send a bill to some people who cross. Others simply won’t pay their bills. Although those with California license plates won’t be able to renew their annual registration until they pay off their delinquent bill, I don’t think out-of-state tourists will care much if California never gets its toll money. How much effort will California put into tracking down someone from another state for $6? Not much.
Plus, it’s hard for me to believe that the cost of taking and reading all those photos, processing all that paperwork, mailing all those bills and collecting the checks, etc. will cost less than the salaries and benefits of the toll takers.
Beyond the loss in revenue, I have to say I’m going to miss the toll takers themselves. A trip across any bridge in the Bay Area used to mean a smile at least, along with a wish to “have a nice day.” It may not sound like much, but it does add a bit of humanity to the drive.
I’m also old enough to remember when we used to have “pay the toll for the car behind you” days. Ultimately, everyone except the first car in the line (which pays twice) and the last car in the line (which goes across for free), everyone who participates pays the same toll. But the fact that some stranger in the car in front of you paid your toll, and the fact that you are paying the toll for some stranger behind you, created a feeling of goodwill for everyone involved. Including those now-unemployed toll takers.
With this new cash-free system, the option for such altruism is gone.
The Golden Gate Bridge has always been known for its wind and fog. Today, however, it just got a little bit colder.
March 20, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
This weekend I attended an event called, “Free Ranging Communities: Jewish Life in Marin and Hollywood” at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael. The keynote speaker was Mayim Bialik, of “Blossom” and “Big Bang Theory” fame.
What struck me the most as Bialik spoke was how refreshingly grounded and genuine she seems. She comes across as a person who is comfortable in her own skin, while acknowledging that who she is doesn’t always fit in with others in the industry in which she is working.
She spoke about the following seven values she carries with her:
First, she spoke about complex families. She called the Torah a “handbook for life” and pointed out there are many stories of dysfunctional family relationships in the first two books in the Torah. As a result, it sounds like she doesn’t expect herself or others to be perfect all the time.
The second value she holds is routine. In particular, she spoke about the routine of Shabbat, and how it reminds her that, from Friday night through Saturday, nobody else “owns” her. She doesn’t work, she turns off her electronics, and she engages with her family in a way that is difficult to do during the work week.
The third value is joy. In particular, she spoke about the joy of the holidays throughout the year.
Fourth is character. She voiced her desire to be honest and compassionate in her interactions with others. In particular, she spoke about the amount of deception and gossip contained in conversations in Hollywood, and how hard it is not to engage in lashon hara. She quite touchingly described how she will leave a conversation that turns to gossip, even though she thinks doing so makes her come off to others as unsocial or unfriendly.
She also spoke of modesty as part of this value. She does not wear pants outside of her home, she covers her elbows, her skirts are at least knee-length, and she doesn’t wear anything with a plunging neckline. She lamented that when she was nominated for an Emmy, her standards of dress made it difficult to find and appropriate dress for the ceremony. Many designers, she said, would not supply a dress that fit her needs.
Next, she spoke about otherness. Despite the fact that there are plenty of Jews in Hollywood, very few are Orthodox. Thus, she says, especially in the fall, people think she’s making up holidays. She talked about the tension created when others want her to work on days on which work is forbidden.
The sixth value she spoke about is God. She regularly studies Torah and engages in others with conversation about God.
Last but not least, she mentioned Israel as a value. She has family there, and goes there every other year.
The most quotable moment of the day came when she exclaimed, “I was not put on this planet to win an Emmy.” Rather, she says, she was put here to pass on to her children the traditions that people have died for over thousands of years. That certainly sounds like a fine purpose to me.
March 13, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I’m not big on making plans. I tend to be an in-the-moment kind of gal. And when I do make plans, I usually hedge. In general, I won’t say, “I’ll see you on Shabbat,” unless I add, “God willing.” Or I say, “Yes, I plan to be there,” rather than, “Yes, I will be there.”
I do this because I know plans can change. It seems a bit haughty to act like I know for sure what I will be doing at any point in the future, because I know there are a million things that could happen to change all that. So, it was a bit uncharacteristic for me to post on Twitter, as I did a while ago, a Tweet that said, “I’m looking forward to my Shabbat nap tomorrow!”
That was the plan. Fittingly, God rewarded my indiscretion by changing it.
The next morning, I was standing at the door to the synagogue before services, handing out programs and answering questions from visitors, when a congregant came up to me and said, “The rabbi wants to see you. It’s a bit of an emergency.”
I went into the rabbi’s office, where she explained that a congregant had called about a death in the family. The congregant wanted to talk about having us do taharah (ritually washing and preparing the body for burial) for her loved one, but with services about to start the rabbi didn’t have the time to speak with her just then. Neither did she want the bereaved family to have to wait three hours for a response.
So, the rabbi called the family back, introduced me, and then handed me the phone. I assured them that we would be happy to do the taharah, and that, as volunteers, we don’t charge anything to do so. I said this despite the fact that the body was at a funeral home at which we had not yet done a taharah, and I wasn’t sure how that was going to work out.
After we got off the phone, I left voice mail message for our other rabbi, who is the clergy contact for our chevra kadisha, the group of people who does the taharah work. I wasn’t sure how we normally coordinate with a funeral home for taharah, let alone a new one with which we’d had no contact yet.
After I left that message, I walked out of the rabbi’s office to find an overflow crowd at services. I helped to put out additional chairs, and to give everyone a prayer book. By the time I had gotten the latecomers settled and had finally taken a seat myself, my cell phone vibrated (silently), and I ducked out of services to answer it.
It was the other rabbi calling back, confirming that we don’t have a relationship with that particular funeral home, but he would contact them to try to make arrangements. He also told me that, although we normally have a congregant volunteer to coordinate the taharah team each month, we didn’t have anyone signed up to do so that month. I told him I would take care of getting a team together for the taharah.
By the time I sat down again, it was only a few minutes before the Torah service. I had promised to help on the bimah with that part of the service, since the cantor was out of town, and with two b’nai mitzvah taking place that day, it helps to have a second person to make sure the family members get to where they need to be, to hold up the card with the aliyah prayers on it for them, etc., so I jumped back up to help with that.
After services, I picked up a text message from the rabbi in charge of the chevra kadisha, with the name and phone number of the person at the funeral home. I called the funeral home, and discussed possible times for the taharah. I also garnered some necessary information about their facilities.
I loaded up my car with the necessary taharah supplies. Then I headed for home and, instead of hitting the couch for my Twitter-announced nap, I headed to my computer (which usually remains off on Shabbat) to pull up the list of people trained to do taharah, and I started making phone calls.
By the time I had a team together, had confirmed the date and time of the taharah with the funeral home, had communicated with the chevra kadisha (some of whom I had left messages for but had not spoken with yet), and had notified the deceased’s family and both rabbis that we were all set, it was early evening. Too late for that nap.
Rather than the relaxing day I had planned, it had been a whirlwind day. I realized I hadn’t gotten a whole lot of praying done, either, let alone napping.
Still, I like to think I was able to bring some measure of shalom into that Shabbat.
March 6, 2013 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
In less than three weeks it will be Passover. That means in a less than three weeks it will be the second anniversary of the death of my father, alav hashalom. I’ve been thinking a lot about him these days. That’s likely why this past weekend I made lecho, a Hungarian dish he taught me to cook.
My father was born in Hungary in 1931; not a particularly safe time to be born Jewish in Europe. Fortunately, his parents brought him to America circa 1938, before Hitler entered Hungary and started murdering the Jews there.
An only child, one of the many things my father learned from his mother, may her memory be a blessing, was Hungarian cooking. In turn, he passed down to me the conviction that sweet Hungarian paprika is good on pretty much anything, as well as the family recipes for dishes like goulash, chicken paprikash, and lecho.
I’ll tell you the recipe for lecho the way my father told it to me, because the recipe contains a veiled story in itself.
“Saute an onion and a bell pepper, and sprinkle them liberally with paprika,” he told me, “Cook them until they are soft. Then add some tomatoes and more paprika. Simmer until the tomatoes are soft and the sauce thickens.” Then, he said, almost as an afterthought, “And if you have enough money for meat, you can add some sausage.”
Now, my parents were both professionals who made a good living. We weren’t rich, but we lived in a nice house, and we never worried about where our next meal might be coming from. My father didn’t make lecho often, but I don’t remember him ever making it without polska kielbasa in it. When he told me this recipe, it was the only time I ever heard the words, “If you have enough money for meat” come out of his mouth.
Clearly, this is a recipe that had been handed down for generations. Clearly, it carried the memory of those ancestors of ours who weren’t middle class Americans, and who often didn’t have enough money for meat.
Continuing to tell the recipe the way he did feels to me like a way to honor the generations who came before me, whose struggles and decisions allowed me to live in a world in which I don’t worry about whether I can afford to buy meat.
So this past weekend I bought an onion, an orange bell pepper (because the green ones didn’t look so good), some tomatoes, and – oh yes – a package of (non-dairy, non-pork) turkey polska kielbasa, and cooked up a fragrant batch of lecho. Which I ate with some new-world sourdough bread.
Thanks, Dad, and all who came before you, for the gifts that live on even after you are gone.
February 27, 2013 | 7:00 am
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.