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.
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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.
February 20, 2013 | 7:00 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 | 7:00 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.
January 30, 2013 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Rabbi Daniel Gordis recently published in article called, “The Letter that Natanyahu Should, but Won’t, Send,” in response to Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.
He throws out the common trope that intermarriage will spell the demise of Reform Judaism, despite the fact that Reform Judaism continues to thrive in the United States. One would think that the old claim that Reform Judaism will necessarily die out after three generations would, itself, have died out by now, since Reform Judaism is still going strong after many more than three generations, but there it is again.
At any rate, he also claims that “virtually no young Jews are conversant with Jewish texts,” and goes on to lament that most non-Orthodox homes don’t have a Mikra’ot Gedolot or the Talmud. The claim about the Mikra’ot Gedolot strikes me as a technicality. I would venture to guess that most Reform Jewish homes have a Tanach, the Hebrew bible, and many have a Chumash, or Torah commentary. So even if we don’t have the commentary Rabbi Gordis wishes we had, that doesn’t mean we don’t have any basic Jewish texts at home. There are, of course, basic Jewish texts that one may find in a non-Orthodox Jewish home that one may not find in an Orthodox Jewish home.
I do agree that it would be great if more non-Orthodox Jews had more familiarity with ancient Jewish texts. For those who already have a Chumash, however, I still wouldn’t recommend that the next thing to do would be to run out and buy a copy of the Talmud. I’m not sure whether this is what Rabbi Gordis was recommending, but I know at least one person who took it that way, so I’d like to address the idea here.
Why not run out and buy a copy of the Talmud? First, it’s a big, expensive series of books, especially for those who aren’t fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic and therefore need to buy a copy that includes an English translation. Second, the Talmud isn’t something that one just picks up and reads. It is obtuse and confusing. Nobody is likely to get through it the first time on his or her own. It is meant to be studied with others; having one sit on a bookshelf untouched is useless.
Third, a lot of the Talmud is about the minutiae of halacha, or Jewish law. If you’re an Orthodox Jew and you need to know whether the oven that you took apart, moved, and put back together is still ritually pure, the Talmud can be very useful. If you’re interested in how the ancient rabbis argued about such matters, the Talmud can be quite interesting. If you’re not Orthodox and you’re looking for ways to have a more meaningful Jewish experience, most likely these halachic discussions are not going to provide that for you.
There are, of course, many parts of the Talmud that can help any Jewish person to find ways to have a more meaningful Jewish experience, and many discussions that are not halachic in nature. Does God get angry, and if so, for how long? Does God pray? What are the ethics we should follow? How should we treat our workers and each other? These are the passages many non-Orthodox Jews would find the most engaging. Unfortunately, purchasing a Talmud will not go very far in helping them to find the information they seek.
So, what is a Jew to do?
If you’re interested, I would suggest that you look in your area for a class on the Talmud or other ancient Jewish texts. Many synagogues and other organizations offer them on a regular basis. Usually, you don’t need to be a member of a synagogue to take classes at one. Be sure to check out the content of the class. Is it just on halacha? Is it on ethics? Is it on theology? Look for something that appeals to your interests.
If you don’t have a Chumash, buy one. Buy a copy of “The Bedside Torah” by Rabbi Bradley Artson for an accessible interpretation of the Torah. On a weekly basis, read the Torah portion and commentary for that week. Better yet, join a Torah study group, or form one of your own. Approach a local rabbi to ask for recommendations about other Jewish texts to read.
There are a lot of different ways into the Jewish texts. The best ones involve studying with others. The worst possible thing you can do is to waste your money buying a huge, obtuse text and have it do nothing more than weigh down your bookshelf. Instead, get out and engage. Then, once you’re familiar and comfortable with the Talmud, go ahead and consider buying a copy of your own.
January 23, 2013 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
A funny thing happened at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem last week. According to Our Quiet Prayer at the Kotel on the Women of the Wall (WoW) website, just shy of a dozen women prayed out loud at the Kotel, wearing tallitot (prayer shawls), and nothing bad happened.
Such a thing would be quite unremarkable in any other place where Jews live freely. But to anyone who has followed events surrounding the Women of the Wall and the Kotel, this was something extraordinary.
For decades, the Women of the Wall have gathered at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of each Hebrew month, and have been met with everything from flying chairs and diapers to detainment and arrest. Just recently, the women were told they couldn’t even bring their tallitot and other ritual objects into the Western Wall area, even though there is no law prohibiting it. Indeed, the law says a woman may wear a tallit at the Kotel, as long as she does not wear it like a man.
So how is it possible that, after decades of struggle, suddenly a group of women were able to pray as they wish at the Kotel with no fuss or bother?
First, it wasn’t Rosh Chodesh, so nobody was expecting them. Second, they made sure they didn’t all arrive as one group, making them less noticeable. But, once they gathered, put on their tallitot and began to pray, people must have noticed, right?
Indeed, they were noticed. But instead of attacking them or complaining to the authorities, some of the onlookers joined them in song. Nobody seemed to mind.
So, what does this mean?
Detractors of the Women of the Wall might say this proves that the Rosh Chodesh prayer ceremonies are deliberately provocative, while this one was not. They might say that WoW invites the media and others each month to create a big show, and they aren’t there for a meaningful prayer experience at all.
Supporters of WoW might say the only reason their monthly services become a disturbance is because the authorities make it into one by detaining and arresting the women, and by making up new rules as they go along. They may say that if only the police protected them against attack as they would protect praying men under attack, the fuss would have died down long ago.
But no matter which side you support, the fact remains: This is a turning point. Those eleven women proved last week that women can pray out loud, wearing tallitot, at the Kotel without creating a disturbance. They proved that there are others ready and willing to join them, if only they are allowed to do so in peace.
To arrest or detain even one more woman at the Kotel for “disturbing the peace” for doing no more than what these eleven women did so publicly and so peacefully last week would be the height of hypocrisy. The claim of disturbance no longer holds any water.
It will be interesting to see what happens next.
January 16, 2013 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Last weekend we were privileged to have Rabbi Sharon Brous from Ikar speak at our congregation and at a couple of other events in the area. We all agreed she was fabulous, but it got me to wondering what, exactly, sets her apart from so many other rabbis?
I’ll start out by saying she is well versed in Torah. That should go without saying in regard to any decent rabbi, but if I didn’t say it, I can just see readers skimming through this post and then commenting at the bottom about how nothing she does matters if it isn’t based in Torah. So I thought I’d just nip that one in the bud.
The first thing Rabbi Brous brings to the table that some rabbis do not is a clarity of vision. She sees Judaism as it has been practiced in the recent past, and she sees where it could go. Her vision includes the desire to create a sense of surprise, to foster innovation, and to create a sense of connection to God and to others in the community.
Not only does she have this vision, but she is able to communicate it to others in a way that is convincing and easy to understand.
But she doesn’t just talk about this vision. Rabbi Brous has been able to bring these ideas to fruition by founding Ikar, which says on its website that it is “a religious approach that fuses piety and hutzpah, obligation and inspiration, tradition and soul.” In other words, she isn’t just writing and speaking about what needs to be done to reinvigorate Jewish life; she is taking it to the next level by putting her ideas into practice in the real world.
What Rabbi Brous brings to the table besides her vision and her action is her integrity. You can tell by the way she speaks that she is speaking from the heart. She isn’t interested in platitudes. She isn’t interested in catering to what she might think others want her to say. No. It is obvious that her energy and her focus come from a place of honesty and integrity that make her at once both vulnerable and powerful in a way that only the courageous can be.
One would think all of the above, taken together, would be more than enough to raise her above the level of an ordinary rabbi, and you would be right. But she adds one more important skill to all of this. She is able to spiritually inspire groups of people, even strangers.
For instance, during services on Saturday morning, she led us in a niggun, a wordless melody. But first she explained that prayer is both about connecting with God and about connecting with other people. She made it clear that in order to have a complete, deep prayer experience, both elements must be present.
As we began to sing and connect, she encouraged us to reach out to those around us who might be at a lower state of connection, and to pull them up with us. It is hard to describe what happened in that room, but in the space of a few short minutes it left several members of the congregation in tears.
I know I haven’t done justice to Rabbi Brous and what she has created at Ikar, especially since, as a Northern Californian, I haven’t had a chance to attend services there myself yet. If you live in Los Angeles and haven’t been there, I urge you to visit Ikar to check them out. See for yourself what makes Rabbi Sharon Brous so special.
January 9, 2013 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Last week my husband and I reached our 10th wedding anniversary. One might expect me to say we “celebrated” it, but I avoided that word on purpose. We both worked a full day that day, after which I participated in a meeting at the synagogue. I then came home, chatted a bit with my husband, and then went up to bed. Not exactly a celebration.
You see, we don’t make a big deal about our anniversary. It would be a mistake, though, to try to read much of anything into that.
Ten years into our marriage, my husband still brings me flowers on random days. Not because he did anything wrong, or because we had a fight, or anything like that. He does it just because he knows I love flowers. That means a lot more to me than compulsory flowers delivered based on some date on the calendar.
After then years, we still have “slumber parties,” lying in bed at 2 or 3 am on a weeknight, sharing stories, laughing, and saying, “Ok, we have to go to sleep now,” before launching into another round of giggle-filled chatting.
For ten years, we have stuck meticulously to our “honesty policy,” meaning not just that we don’t lie to each other, but that we tell each other what we’re really thinking and feeling, even if we’re concerned the other person may not like it.
A corollary to this is the policy that we never make an offer we don’t want to fulfill. And we don’t say, “Would you like steak or chicken for dinner tonight” if we’d be upset about the other person choosing one over the other. All offers must be genuine, or they aren’t made.
Being married for ten years has given us both the opportunity to demonstrate that, any time the other one needs us, we will drop whatever we’re doing to give the other what s/he needs.
Being married to him means we tell each other, sincerely and often, how much we love each other. It means that when, a couple of years ago, the ER doctor called to tell me he thought my husband was having a heart attack and I thought, “If he dies before I get there, what was the last thing I said to him?” I was able to confidently assure myself it was, “I love you.”
These ten years have flown by so fast that, subjectively, I would have said we couldn’t possibly have been married for more than a year or two. It means I was surprised when someone said, “I guess you got past the seven year itch” and I realized we blew right by that one without a second thought. It feels like we’re just getting started, and, God willing, we are.
Happy anniversary John Barnes, and thanks for the best ten years of my life.