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.
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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.
October 24, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Our synagogue is launching a visioning process this fall. We are using what looks to me like the Action Research Model. The plan is to hold a series of community conversations in which we ask as many congregants as possible what our strengths are, what our challenges are, and what people would like the synagogue to be like in the future.
The information will be gathered using the Facilitator/Recorder method championed in the book “How to Make Meetings Work” by Michael Doyle and David Straus. It’s a great model, in which one person is the facilitator, paying full attention to the group, while another person is the recorder, writing down the ideas which the group generates, using chart paper so everyone can see their ideas are being heard and captured.
It’s a deceptively simple, yet effective, model. Unfortunately, the person training the facilitators didn’t seem to recognize the importance or the complexities of the recorder role, so she spent virtually all her time walking us through the meeting agenda and training the facilitators, with only a few comments devoted to the recording role.
As a person who has experienced working with poorly trained recorders, I know this is a mistake. Poor handwriting and a poor choice of marker colors can make what is being read difficult to read. Even worse, a recorder who doesn’t properly understand his or her role can create chaos by jumping into the conversation inappropreiately, or, as happened to me once, he or she may even passively aggressively refuse to write down an idea with which they disagree.
A poorly trained recorder isn’t a disaster, since a good facilitator can overcome many of these issues, but it requires them to work a lot harder, and will likely reduce their overall effectiveness.
I believe the community conversations will be helpful, and will help build an even greater sense of interconnectedness and community. So if that is all that happens, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
Next, the data from the meetings will be consolidated into themes, then reported back to the congregation, and additional input will be solicited before a report is generated. It is a time-consuming project that is as much art as it is science. I have helped with this process in other circumstances, and it takes a big leap of faith, since I won’t be involved in it this time, to trust that those carrying it out will do it well. It is so easy to miss subtleties because we all have our own biases that we need to try to keep out of the process as much as possible.
Even more importantly, I am concerned about what will happen after the data is compiled and the report is published. At that point, we will engage in a process to make an action plan based on the information we received, and then, we hope, put the plan into action.
We went through a very similar process around community organizing a number of years ago.
After the data was presented and the initial plan was formed, communication to the congregation dropped off. As a result, even though many meetings and other action was taking place as a result of the data received, many congregants didn’t hear anything about it, and thought nothing was happening. A large amount of energy was generated in the community conversations, which quickly dissipated as the action process moved forward. We don’t want to let that happen again this time.
It will be interesting to see how the process unfolds. Stay tuned for future developments.
October 17, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I don’t remember how I heard about it, but several weeks ago I signed up for CERT training, which I just finished this weekend. CERT is an acronym for “Community Emergency Response Team.”
The idea is that, in case of a large emergency like a major earthquake, the professional first responders will need to concentrate on the big population centers, leaving smaller neighborhoods to fend for themselves for the first 4 or 5 days, until mutual aid can arrive from elsewhere. In the meantime, CERT volunteers can help take care of their neighborhood by doing light search and rescue, first aid, etc., as well as by assisting elsewhere in larger shelters or as needed.
CERT was inspired by the Japanese emergency response system. It was first brought to the US in Los Angeles, and has since spread to all 50 states, as well as a handful of other countries.
I have to say, my first impression of the training was that it was quite poor. The trainers had trouble getting the audio to work for the videos, and a couple of them admitted they hadn’t reviewed the materials they were teaching in advance. We were told the training started at 8:30, but some of the trainers thought it started at 9. The whole thing seemed unorganized.
And that was before we got to the presentation on first aid. As the EMT teaching that section moved from abrasions to things like lacerations and impalements, I felt my blood pressure begin to drop steadily. I went from sitting up straight, to leaning forward, to pushing my chair back so I could rest my chin on the table in front of me, all in an effort to allow more blood to reach my brain.
I have never fainted, but I have come close once or twice, and I know the warning signs. I thought I was going to make it through okay, though. Then he got to the part about what to do if something is impaling a person’s eye.
Now, understand, when I was a kid, I had my eyeball scratched. It hurt like crazy, and I had to wear an eye patch for a while. So I may be sensitive about blood and such, but I’m geometrically more distressed by anything that has to do with eye injuries.
Luckily, I was sitting on an aisle, so I was able to turn in my chair and put my head down by my knees. As this point, I was thinking it would probably be best if I left the room so I couldn’t hear the trainer any more, but I realized that if I tried to get up at that point, the rest of the blood would rush out of my head. There was no way I could make it to the door on the other side of the room.
I was sitting in the second row, hanging out into the aisle, so I thought the trainer, or maybe any of the other 20 or so people in the room, would notice and ask if I was okay. At the same time, I didn’t want to interrupt the training. As I was wondering whether I should say something, one of my classmates asked the EMT, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”
“No!” I exclaimed, keeping my head firmly rooted by my knees, “Don’t answer that question!” He didn’t, baruch hashem, yet still nobody, in this whole room of people in the middle of being trained to provide first aid – including an EMT, two nurses, and three nursing students – seemed to notice I was not completely well.
Soon enough it was break time. I was eventually able to move my head back onto the table, and in time I could sit up again like a normal person.
I’m glad to say the rest of the training went along fairly smoothly, and the search and rescue simulations were both fun and very informative. I think I’m going to try to take the Advanced Training on how to manage a shelter, and I’ll steer clear of the medical stuff as much as possible.
As the CERT folks say, there’s a place for everyone, and I’m glad it’s clear to me where my strengths and weaknesses lie. When the next big emergency comes, I will be much more able to be a rescuer rather than a victim.
October 10, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I have been working all kinds of extra hours, stressing about deadlines, workflow processes, what is going to fall between the cracks, how bad it’s going to be when we discover what we missed, etc. But I’m not feeling overwhelmed. Part of the reason for that is I’m naturally resilient. And part of the reason for that are the islands of sanity that keep appearing in my life.
Sometimes the island is something unexpected and spontaneous, like when I came to work on a Monday morning after working on Sunday, and found an email from a client saying, “As always, thanks for your prompt support and kind nature.” People often don’t understand what an impact a note like that can have on someone.
Sometimes the island is something planned and expected, like Friday night after services, when I went to the house of a friend and spent the evening singing with Dan Nichols and my community. It’s on nights like those that, no matter what is happening in my life, I can lose myself in the sweet harmony of the music.
When I’m lucky, I may get an extra treat like the recent Simchat Torah celebration, with kids, elders, and everyone in between dancing and laughing, hugging the torah and lifting it high, spinning and clapping and holding hands.
Or it may be what happened the other night, when I came home with a real need to speak with my husband about something I thought he might not want to hear about, and he immediately dropped what he was doing in order to attend to what I had to say.
I realize that although some of these islands may seem random, and some may seem scheduled and thus readily accessible, it’s not as simple as either of those things. I am grateful that these islands are here for me because of the community I have helped to build.
They are here, at least in part, because I have left behind people and organizations that were toxic to me, and I have added relationships that are nurturing. They are here, at least in part, because I give when I can, and, because what goes around comes around, that helps me to find opportunities to find what I need.
The islands are here for me because I live in a caring community, where we look after each other. When I hear people say, “Why join a synagogue? I’m not a joiner,” I feel frustrated. My answer is, “Because, when you find the right synagogue, it is a boat that will help you find the islands. Please don’t miss the boat.”