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.
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. . .
5.6.13 at 11:01 am | Every cemetery that refuses the body is adding to. . . (36)
3.20.13 at 8:00 am | What struck me the most as Bialik spoke was how. . . (35)
5.15.13 at 8:00 am | The Big One is coming. Once the shaking stops,. . . (29)
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 | 8:00 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 | 8:00 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 | 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.