Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
It happens every year. Chanukah rolls around, and at some point the rabbi asks me about my latke consumption. Every year, I tell him I haven’t had any. Every year, he is horrified.
He’s a bit of a foodie, and for him, latkes are an integral part of the holiday experience. It’s not just him, either. It seems I’m surrounded by latke addicts who need to get their annual fix, and who can’t fathom how anyone could get through the season without one.
It doesn’t matter how many times I explain that I never had a latke as a child, so they bear no weight of nostalgia for me. It doesn’t help to suggest that latkes are an Ashkenazi custom and my family roots are Sephardic. It makes no difference when I assure people that I enjoy a full Chanukah experience by lighting candles with my husband, saying the prayers, etc.
I may even insist there is no commandment in the Torah or in halacha (Jewish law) related to latkes, yet those around me continue to treat me like I am some poor, lost orphan who needs to be shown the true path. They invite me to their home for latkes, they promise to bring latkes to the synagogue for me, they offer to send me their favorite recipe.
One person who couldn’t believe I would refuse these offers whispered, “You must be allergic to them, right?” Wrong. I’m allergic to fish, but, in my limited experience, fish and latkes almost never cross paths.
Looking at my calendar for the coming week, I realized, with great trepidation, that I will be at the synagogue or at other synagogue-related activities on seven of the eight days of Chanukah this year. “Here it comes again,” I thought.
Then it hit me: This year, I’ll cut them off at the pass.
So I went out and bought a box of Manischewitz latke mix, and on the first day of Chanukah I made my first-ever bunch of latkes. I would say that, unlike the experience of my fellow congregants, there was no emotional content involved for me, except I was appalled by the amount of oil the latkes soaked up.
My husband, who is not Jewish, came by, and asked me whether they were any good. “They’re kind of like bad hash browns,” I told him, and gave him a couple to try.
After I ate as many as I could stomach, I threw out the rest of the latkes and said to myself, “Seriously, if I wanted something like this, I’d rather buy some Ore Ida hash browns and eat those. They taste better, and don’t soak up so much oil.”
On the other hand, I thought, “Why eat something I’m not really interested in, just to fulfill the expectations of others? I’m being more true to myself when I stick to my guns and tell my incredulous friends that latkes simply aren’t part of my Chanukah tradition.”
Satisfied with my decision, I went downstairs, where my husband sat with his empty plate in front of him. “Those were good,” he said, “maybe next year you could make them with real potatoes, so they’ll be even better!” Sigh.
5.15.13 at 8:00 am | The Big One is coming. Once the shaking stops,. . .
5.6.13 at 11:01 am | Every cemetery that refuses the body is adding to. . .
5.1.13 at 8:00 am | I have to say, I’m not convinced I like this. . .
4.24.13 at 8:00 am | As one who often sits or stands in the back, I. . .
4.17.13 at 8:00 am | The interim solution can’t be separated from. . .
4.10.13 at 8:00 am | Sometimes, something happens that is right, and. . .
5.15.13 at 8:00 am | The Big One is coming. Once the shaking stops,. . . (65)
3.20.13 at 8:00 am | What struck me the most as Bialik spoke was how. . . (31)
5.6.13 at 11:01 am | Every cemetery that refuses the body is adding to. . . (19)
December 5, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
As part of services last Saturday, we had what was billed as a creative eating meditation. “In our all too-busy world,” the congregation weekly email explained, “the practice of mindful eating helps us bring our full attention to the process of eating – to all the tastes, smells, thoughts, and feelings that arise during a meal. And what better time to slow down and focus than Shabbat?”
Toward the end of the service, we moved from the sanctuary into the social hall, where tables and chairs were waiting for us. We were instructed not to talk, and were provided with note cards and pens with which to write down our thoughts as the meditation progressed.
We started with hot chocolate, and spent a couple of minutes looking at it, smelling it, and then slowly tasting it, holding it in our mouth without swallowing for a while, moving it from one part of our tongue to another.
We then proceeded through several types of bar chocolate, culminating with a completely different hot chocolate, one at a time, with plenty of time to spend with each one. Throughout the meditation, Rabbi Michael Lezak prompted us with several things to observe and to consider. “Look at the texture of the chocolate,” he would say, “Look at where it is broken, and how the break looks different than on the last piece. How fast does it melt? What ingredients can you taste?”
The first big surprise for me was the strong, emotional reaction I had to the smell of the first cup of hot chocolate. It immediately transported me back to the summer camp I attended as a child, as I pictured crisp, clear mornings at the dining hall, full of anticipation about what great fun the new day would bring.
The next big surprise was the taste of the Hershey’s Kiss. When I took only a small bite and let it melt slowly on my tongue without chewing, it tasted nothing like the thousands of Hershey’s Kisses I had eaten before it.
Several times Rabbi Lezak said, “Compare this chocolate to the others before it. Which do you like the best?”
Part of me wished he hadn’t asked that question. I would have preferred to appreciate each individual chocolate piece on its own merits alone, without judging it against the others. Why turn this experience of appreciation of the variety of God’s bounty into a competition?
It also felt like a bit of a setup, since we were comparing things like Nesquick hot chocolate and a Hershey’s Kiss, against Swiss chocolate and a chocolate bar which costs, we were later told, $8.00 for two ounces.
On the other hand, it is only natural for people to compare, contrast, and rate in a situation like this, when trying several different varieties of a certain type of food. And I must say, the last item was the very best hot chocolate I have ever tasted in my life. The Denver Post published the recipe online here, from "Cooking My Way Back Home" by Mitchell Rosenthal.
I was glad the meditation was done in silence, leaving me to explore my own thoughts and experiences, uninterrupted. My apologies to the rabbi and the other participants if my act of taking a couple photos for this blog during the event interrupted anyone else’s train of thought.
After the meditation, we returned to the sanctuary for Aleinu and the Mourner’s Kaddish. I was disappointed that we didn’t take any time to discuss our experiences as a group.
For me, it was an excellent reminder of how I normally eat my food without really stopping to think about it, and without slowing down enough to savor the taste of it, even when I’m eating something I consider to be one of my favorite things. And the smell of the hot chocolate was a powerful example of how a scent can summon vivid sights, memories, and feelings with just one whiff.
Was it a spiritual experience? No. But I have never been to a service in which every single moment felt spiritual. It was certainly a worthwhile one. You may want to try it at your synagogue.
November 28, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I was at the Safeway checkout counter this week, about to respond with my usual, “Yes, thanks” when asked whether I had found everything I need, when instead I blurted, “Oh, wait! Stamps!”
The cashier kindly charged me for stamps, reached into her drawer, and handed over a book. I glanced down as she placed them in my hand, while my mind registered the drawings of Santa and his reindeer. I inquired hopefully, “Do you have any that aren’t Christmas stamps? I’m Jewish.” Alas, the answer was, “Sorry, no.”
This isn’t a “War against Christmas.” If other people want to have Christmas stamps, Christmas Coca-Cola cans, and Christmas Oreos, that’s perfectly fine with me. But I don’t want them, and I don’t think they should be foisted on me against my will.
It does raise the question, however, of what the U.S. Postal Service is doing selling postage stamps with religious symbols on them. Does that not constitute promoting a religion, which is against the US Constitution?
Now, I know some of you will say Santa and his Reindeer are cultural, and not religious symbols. A cross is a religious symbol, and is displayed in most churches. But Santa?
Let me interject that I’m not one of those people who sees religion everywhere between November and January. In fact, I would be the first to argue that “Jingle Bells” is not a Christmas song. It does not mention anything that has anything to do with religion or Christmas. (Really, sing it in your head. Go ahead, do it now. I’ll wait.) …It’s just a sleighing song.
So, where did Santa come from? Some say “Santa Claus” is, if you will pardon the expression, a bastardization of “Saint Nicholas.” Are saints religious symbols? Only some religions have saints. Others, like Judaism, have none. Doesn’t that make a saint a religious symbol?
But let’s say you don’t buy into the theory that Santa is a Christian saint. Let’s say you think he’s just an imaginary jolly old man who gives gifts to kids. That would sound perfectly non-religious to me, if he showed up to dole out the gifts on New Year’s Day, or the kid’s birthdays, or anything like that. But he doesn’t. He comes one day only. On Christmas Eve.
You might tell me that many people give gifts on Christmas as a cultural act, not as a religious one. Therefore, you might say, Santa isn’t doing anything religious, and therefore he isn’t a religious symbol. He just happens to give gifts for Christmas. The alleged birthdate of Jesus, the alleged Christian savior. On the holiday that is, to religious Christians, on par with what the High Holy Days are for religious Jews.
It reminds me of the Jews who claim they aren’t religious, but who have a seder during Passover, light candles for Chanukkah, or light candles on Shabbat. These are religious acts. Let’s call them what they are. You may think of yourself as secular, but you are observing religious holidays. You are practicing religion.
So, no matter how secular some people claim Santa is, he is inextricably bound up in a Christian religious holiday which I, as a Jew, do not celebrate and do not want to promote. You use your reindeer stamps if you want to, but don’t expect to see me casually distributing what I consider to be Christian symbols. I’ll hold out for the next batch of American flag stamps, thank you very much.
November 26, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Dear Diestel Family Turkey Ranch, I was willing to look past the name, reminiscent of diesel fuel, because of your claims of sustainability and range grown birds. I didn’t know the down-on-the-farm experience would include having to pluck parts of my turkey, which clearly had not been cleaned well before it was shipped to the store.
But the truly cruel part was your label. On it, you claim that an 6 to 10 pound stuffed turkey takes 2 hours to roast at 325 degrees.
Perhaps it is because you spend so much of your time raising turkeys, perhaps it is because you become personally attached to your turkeys, perhaps there are other reasons why you don’t cook very many turkeys. As a person who has been around the Thanksgiving turkey block a few times, however, let me assure you: Bigger turkeys take longer to cook than smaller turkeys. An 6 pound turkey will be done before a 10 pounder. Guaranteed.
Not only that, but if you take the time to do a brief internet search on turkey cooking times, you will notice that the consensus is that a 9 to 10 pound turkey takes 4 to 4.5 hours to roast at 325 degrees. According to my handy-dandy pop-up turkey heat-sensitive timer, as well as my contented guests, I can attest that my 9.5 pound Diestel turkey took 4 hours and 20 minutes to roast to perfection.
I was one of the fortunate ones who knew to give your 2 hour instructions the good, hearty laugh they so richly deserve. But what of those poor, young couples who may have taken you at their word?
I couldn’t help but picture these poor unfortunates, sitting around the living room, trying to entertain their parents and other hungry, grumpy relatives as the potatoes, green beans, and other side dishes slowly overcooked.
I could see in my mind’s eye additional glasses of wine being consumed, children whining, celery sticks being devoured, and arguments breaking out, as confused amateur chefs slowed down the cooking process further by continually opening the oven to check the turkey just one more time. For one hour after another.
Diestel, I don’t know whether the cooking instructions on your label are some kind of cruel joke, or you don’t think inexperienced cooks are worthy of your turkey, or you like to test the mettle of your customers under trying circumstances.
I find it hard to believe you could possibly be so badly mistaken about the correct cooking time. Seriously, Diestel, the holidays can be trying enough without adding this additional frustration and confusion to the mix. Please revise your label for next year.
November 21, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
On Friday I attended a funeral at an African-American inner city church. Normally, I would expect to put the word “predominately” in there, but frankly, the only people in the overflowing sanctuary who didn’t look African-American were people I recognized from work.
I was immediately surprised by the joyful demeanor of the congregation. One song continued for a long time, with many congregants standing, singing, and clapping. Two congregants passed a tambourine back and forth, one playing until she apparently got tired, and then the other taking over.
People seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves. Which struck me as incongruous, because at the front of the room was a coffin containing the body of a 26-year-old woman.
There were more quiet moments, such as when they did what they call “Praise Dances,” in which one or more people dance to religious music. But there was nothing particularly sad or mournful about the music. Any of the dances could have been done at any service, even the one in which a woman dressed to resemble an angel.
As I have seen at other funerals, a number of people got up to speak. A few spoke a little about their relationship with the deceased. Most, if not all of them, made sure to express thanks to God. There was nothing that I would call a eulogy about the person who had died, just a regular sermon about not sinning. The whole thing resembled a worship service more than a funeral service.
The part that was the most uncomfortable for me was when the dead woman’s father, a pastor, got up to speak. He said how happy his heart is that his daughter is in heaven, and even started leading the congregation in a little reprise of the earlier joyful singing.
I don’t like to criticize other religions or cultures. If folks really believe the dead woman is in a better place now, and that makes them happy and grateful, then more power to them.
Yet I can’t ignore my firm belief that the sudden death of a young woman is a tragedy. Her family and her closest friends were visibly saddened, which is perfectly understandable and appropriate. However, I got the feeling that it was expected that everyone would stick to the program of praising God and not talking about the death as a bad thing.
As a person who studies and engages in Jewish burial and mourning practices, I see funerals, burials, and memorial services as venues in which people can start, however slowly, to heal. Different people can have very different reactions and needs in the aftermath of a death, and I believe strongly in the importance of tailoring services to meet the needs of the mourners.
It feels to me that a joyful funeral is not a healthy thing. I believe it is important for those mourning a death to be able to express their sorrow over the loss of their friend or loved one. I believe that talking about the person who died – rather than focusing solely on God – is a healthy way to allow people to start to express what they have lost.
I don’t know what other rituals or practices the folks in this church normally practice before or after this kind of funeral. Maybe they have other ways to process and express their grief. But the public and joyful denial of these feelings during the funeral just doesn’t feel right to me. What do you think?
November 14, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I was recently watching an episode of “Breaking Amish,” an unscripted show about four young Amish and one Mennonite person who go to New York to decide whether to give up the ways of their families and to become “English,” or, in the language most of us would use, to adopt the American culture instead.
I discovered this series late in its run, and became fascinated by the stereotypes and misconceptions the Amish in the show have about the rest of us. In particular, when two of them decide to get married, their Amish and Mennonite (respectively) Best Man and Maid of Honor throw a bachelor/bachelorette party, to which they invite a stripper. The Amish couple are upset, while those throwing the party seem confused.
“We thought you wanted an English wedding,” they say, “and this is what the English do. Why are you so mad?”
In contrast to my experience with bachelor and bachelorette parties, they seem to assume that all such celebrations must involve strippers. They seem to think that all non-Amish or non-Mennonite people are sexually loose. They seem to have absorbed a lot of stereotypes about American culture that may be true for some of us, but which most assuredly are not true for others.
I found myself wishing there were someone there who could point out these stereotypes to them, and say something like, “Sure, some people have strippers at these parties, but many don’t. Here are some other things people do at these parties instead.”
One of the opportunities I saw in writing this blog is to dispel some of the common myths people seem to have about Reform Judaism. For the most part, my plan – and my practice – has been to simply write about Reform Jewish life as I experience it, and to hope that by doing so, some readers may learn some things they didn’t know, and thereby learn the error some of those incorrect beliefs.
I know there are false beliefs out there, but sometimes I am still stunned when I see them. The vitriol that some people fling at the Reform movement is something I have difficulty taking in stride. A recent example of these kinds of false accusations are contained in the comments section of a recent online article I read titled, “Can Reform Judaism Get Its Mojo Back?”
One comment, for example, asks rhetorically, “Will the sect calling itself Reform Judaism survive after having jettisoned the Torah…What a silly question, why of course not!”
This isn’t the first time I have seen the claim that we have “jettisoned the Torah.” What a surprise it would apparently be to this writer to discover the many Torah Study groups in Reform congregations, the Saturday morning services in which Reform congregants read from the Torah scroll, the Simchat Torah celebrations in which we dance with the Torah scrolls, etc. And people have continuously been predicting the demise of the Reform movement in the next generation or two for a couple hundred years, yet it is still the largest Jewish movement in the US.
I actually copied a whole list of comments I could dissect here for their various incorrect assumptions about the Reform movement, and that might make me feel a little better, but I’m not convinced it would be productive.
What I take out of all this is how readily we seem to accept stereotypes and inaccuracies about the “other.” Whether we are the Amish exploring the world of the English, or one political party looking at the other, or one Jewish stream criticizing another, it seems easier to argue based on our incorrect but closely held beliefs of the other than on facts. We seem so mired in what we think we know about others that we don’t take the time to investigate what is fact and what is fiction.
How much better the world would be, if we would just step back for a moment, and make an honest effort to see each other as we truly are.
November 7, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
As a rule, I don’t write about work. But rules are meant to be broken, and some things cannot, or at least should not, be ignored.
On Monday morning I learned that a bright, well-liked 26-year-old employee had died. She is survived by three small children. She seemed fine at work on Friday. On Saturday, she didn’t feel well, and went to the doctor. The doctor sent her home. Then she died.
It’s really hard to know what to make of this. I’ve heard it said that one must be aggressive in seeking medical attention – that if you know something is wrong and the doctor doesn’t seem to recognize it, you need to insist on getting further tests or seeing someone else.
But let’s face it. When you’re 26 years old, even if you feel bad, you don’t think you’re going to die. It’s not like she was in a car accident or something. I have no idea what felt wrong to her when she went to the doctor, or how bad it was, but I don’t think it would be right to blame her for following the doctor’s advice and going home to rest.
Nor is it necessarily the doctor’s fault. I don’t know what she said to the doctor, or how serious she thought the problem might be. I don’t know whether she died of something that is hard to detect and diagnose. I don’t know what the doctor did in order to check her out.
Although I have lead shiva services, attended funeral and memorial services, and washed & dressed dead people, this is only the second time I had to tell anyone that someone had died. The first time was after my father’s death, may his memory be a blessing, and, aside from telling my husband, I did it all long distance: over the phone or by email.
This time I had to stand up in front of a group of employees and say it in person, in public. It’s hard to know what to say at a time like that. The employee who died worked in another building, so some people at the building where I work knew her fairly well, while most had never met her. Plus, each person reacts to these kinds of things differently, anyway.
After the announcement, and after everyone had returned to their desks, I went to the area where the people who had known her the best were sitting. They weren’t working; they were talking about what had happened. The first thing I said to them was, “I’m glad you’re talking about this,” and then I joined them for a while.
If nothing else, it’s a reminder that life is short. We don’t know when death will come, or when our lives will be threatened. We don’t know when it might be dangerous to follow the advice our doctor gives us, or when the advice really is the best thing for us.
It is a reminder to show those around us how much we love them, right here, right now, while we still have the chance. Because one day, they, or we, will be gone. And it could happen at any time, without warning, and without regard to age or youth or seeming vigor.
October 31, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I recently came across an article by Sarah Sentilles called, “Rape and Richard Mourdock’s Semi-Omnipotent God.” In it, she takes Richard Mourdock to task for his statement that a pregnancy caused by rape is “something God intended.” She’s in good company there. What intrigued me about this article, however, is the focus it places on what is, or is not, God’s will.
As Sentilles rightly points out, nobody really knows what God’s will is. We have plenty of texts, sacred and otherwise, which we hope will point us in the right direction. We have thousands of years of discussion, recorded in the Talmud and elsewhere, about what we think God does and doesn’t want us to do. But nobody really knows.
Sentilles puts her finger on the pulse of the theological problem with Mourdock’s statement when she writes, “If God allows certain things to happen and prohibits others—if God intends certain things instead of others—then it follows that God approves of what God chooses.”
The logical conclusion, then, is that everything that happens, including rape, is something God approved. It makes no sense for someone who believes God has this power to pretend they can pick and choose which things that happen are God’s will and which things are not. They all are.
Many people run into a theological crisis because they believe God is three things: All powerful, all knowing, and good. If that is the case, how can God allow bad things, like rape, murder, disease, etc. to exist?
One answer to this question is that it doesn’t make sense to believe God is all three of those things. Instead, you have to pick two. If God is all powerful and all knowing, and God allows so many terrible things to happen, then God can’t be good. If God is all powerful and is good, then there must be a lot of things happening God doesn’t know about, or God would stop them. If God is all knowing and is good, then God must not have the power to stop the bad things from happening.
I happen to believe in the third choice. Maybe it’s because God gave up some of God’s power in order to give human beings free will, or maybe it’s some other reason, but I believe God is not able to stop bad things from happening. I believe pregnancies, both those that are wanted by the people involved and those that are not, are a result of biological processes, not God’s will.
This doesn’t mean God has no role to play in our lives. Even if there are many things, like biological processes, that proceed on their own without interference from God, and even if human beings (and animals, perhaps) have free will, God’s will can still influence us.
Even if God can’t (or won’t) make us do certain things or stop us from doing others, I believe God gives us hints about what God wants us to do. Maybe that tickling of your conscience when you’re about to do something wrong is God’s hint. Maybe that great idea which popped into your head was really God’s idea. Maybe the reason life seems to go easier for you when you’re on the right path is God throws some stumbling blocks in front of you when you’re on the wrong one.
So no, I don’t think it’s okay to respond to anything with, “It was God’s will,” but I do believe God is able to nudge things in the right direction. Our job, then, is to listen to that small, still voice inside us, and to act on it.