Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I made no New Year’s resolutions this year. Which is nothing new. I don’t believe I have ever made a New Year’s resolution. If you had asked me ten years ago why I don’t, I probably would have said it’s because if I see something I want to change, I work on changing it right away, instead of waiting for the start of a new year. And I suppose that’s true to some extent.
However, I suspect the more compelling reason is my dislike of making commitments. I take my commitments very seriously – maybe a little too seriously.
After I got married the first time, I realized during my honeymoon that I had made a terrible mistake. But I had just stood before God and made a serious commitment to this man. I said to myself, “I can either give up on this commitment now, or I can try to make it work anyway.” And I tried my hardest, for five years, until even the marriage counselor could see it was no use.
My lack of comfort with making a commitment is exemplified in my relationship with kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. In August of 2008 I was standing in line at a Mexican restaurant, and I thought, “If I don’t have cheese on this, it will be kosher.” (Ok, I know it still wouldn’t be strictly kosher by Orthodox standards, but it would be according to a plain reading of the Torah scroll).
So I didn’t have cheese with my lunch, and then when it came time for dinner, I had a similar decision to make: kosher or not? I chose kosher. Since that day, I have studiously avoided pork, shellfish, and meat with dairy. But I am quick to point out that I have not, to date, made any commitment to either God, or to myself, that I will continue to eat like this for any period of time in the future.
This despite the fact that I have even gone so far as to attend two holiday turkey meals at a friend’s house this past month, at which I didn’t eat any of the delicious-smelling turkey. This because all the side dishes and desserts contained dairy, so I saw my choice as either turkey and nothing else, or everything else with no turkey. Not that I’m committed in any way.
This tendency of mine to avoid commitments like the plague just goes to show the patience and persistence of my fabulous husband of ten years. Not only did he have to get me to agree to date him, he had to get me to make the commitment to move from Nevada back to California to be with him, and then to – gasp! – marry him despite my previous painful experience. God bless him.
So if you made some New Year’s resolutions this year, that’s great. I hope you take your commitments seriously, and that you keep them. As for me, I’m going to try to keep my options open this year.
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December 26, 2012 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
There was no bar or bat mitzvah ceremony at my synagogue this weekend, so the chairs in the front row, normally occupied by the bar/bat mitzvah families, were empty. At the rabbi’s request, some of us moved up to the front row.
In the moments before we say the Amidah, the central prayer of the service, I usually follow the tradition of taking three steps back, and then three steps forward. The reason for the three steps back is to acknowledge that we are about to approach God through prayer, and to show our awe by stepping back. We then prepare ourselves mentally and spiritually, and take three steps forward to show we are ready to speak with God.
Often, I’m standing between rows of chairs, so, by necessity, I can only take three very small steps back and forward. Because I was on the front row on Saturday, I could still only take three small steps back before I hit my chair, but then I was able to take three normal-sized steps forward.
Sounds great, right? Except, apparently, I was the only one standing in the front row who follows that tradition. Suddenly, I was standing three full steps out in front of everyone else, with no other people near me.
I quickly found myself feeling completely exposed. I didn’t want to mess up my participation in the tradition by taking three steps back to my seat again. More importantly, I didn’t want to retreat from God. That is when I realized that how I was feeling that moment – unprotected, completely visible, and vulnerable – is exactly how I want to feel when I am standing before God.
I don’t, I realized, want to feel like I’m hiding anything from God. I want to feel like I’m standing alone and completely open for God to see and hear the real me. I don’t want to feel hidden or protected by other people, by rows of chairs, or by anything else.
On one level, my desire to feel that way seemed ridiculous. God can see and hear me perfectly well no matter where I am or what I’m doing, whether or not I try to avoid it. From one perspective, whether or not I feel exposed to God makes no difference.
On the other hand, I liked the visceral experience of feeling that openness and vulnerability, rather than just knowing of its existence intellectually.
There is an old story of a rabbi asking a thief why he is more afraid of what people think of him than what God thinks of him. When the thief asked why the rabbi would think we felt that way, the rabbi said, “Because you only steal when you think people can’t see you. But God can always see you.”
Perhaps the world would be a better place if we all remembered more often before whom we stand.
December 19, 2012 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
On Friday night last week, the seventh night of Chanukah, dozens of families arrived at our synagogue, each with a chanukiah (Chanukah menorah or candelabra) and a box of candles. The chanukiot were set up on long tables in the middle of the overflowing sanctuary, where the light blazed forth with glorious abandon.
It is no secret why Chanukah happens at this time of year, as the days become the shortest of the year and the nights become the longest. It is during these darkest days that we most need to be reminded of the light.
On Friday, we also were just beginning the task of mourning the terrible losses that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. How could so many bright little lights be extinguished all at once? What light could possibly guide us out of this kind of darkness?
Coincidentally, or not, on this Friday night two men, Richard and Marty, were scheduled to speak to the congregation as part of a new custom. Once a month, a speaker tells us about an “olam haba” moment in their lives – a moment in which they received a taste of the world to come.
Into this darkness, their faces lit by a multitude of candles, Richard and Marty stepped forward to tell us about the day they met. “We were just young men looking for a fun night out,” they told us, “Neither of us was looking for a relationship. But the moment our eyes met, without either of us speaking a word, we knew we were meant to be together.”
They met on a Saturday night. By Tuesday, they had moved in together. Two days later, they opened the same joint checking account that they still use today, almost 40 years later. They wanted to get married, but when they met in 1975, even making love to each other was a criminal act according to California law.
But they stayed together, and when, briefly, same-gender couples were allowed to marry in California in 2008, they knew this was their chance. They weren’t active in a synagogue, but they spoke to one of our rabbis, who performed their marriage, in the sanctuary, under a chuppah, with their friends and family surrounding them. Exactly as it should have been back in 1975.
And somehow, in the process, they became connected to the synagogue. They started attending services. Each of them has since read from the Torah scroll on Saturday mornings. Marty recently joined the Board of Directors. As a result of their involvement, the love and light they have shared with each other for so long is now being shared with our synagogue community.
There is nothing that can erase the darkness of the murder of school children and the adults who served them. But Chanukah, Judaism, Richard and Marty can, and do, provide a shining light in the darkness. They remind us that all is not dark, and sometimes things can be the way they are meant to be, if only we persevere. May we all find a way to be a light shining in the darkness.
December 12, 2012 | 7:00 am
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.
December 5, 2012 | 7:00 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 | 7:00 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 | 7:00 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 | 7:00 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?