Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Saturday afternoon my husband and I went to a friend’s house for a birthday party. While we were there, one of the family mentioned they were going to an amusement park the next day, and asked if we wanted to come along.
“I can’t,” I said, “I’m going to help build a sukkah tomorrow morning.”
“Hey,” said our friend Ruth, turning to her fiancé, “You promised you were going to build me a sukkah this year!”
For those unfamiliar with the term sukkah, it is the Hebrew word for a temporary hut or booth. The Jewish holiday of Sukkot (the plural word for sukkah) started at sundown on Sunday, and runs for a week. Among the rituals of Sukkot, we are supposed to build a sukkah, eat meals in it, sleep in it, and invite friends to come enjoy it.
It reminds of the time the Israelites lived in temporary dwellings while wandering in the desert, and reminds us of our own vulnerability. It is also a nice way to get in touch with nature, since the roof of the sukkah is covered with organic materials and is supposed to allow us to see the stars and the sky.
Anyway, a conversation ensued about how the sukkah had to be built before Sunday night, but that the trip to the amusement park the next day would preclude it from being built on Sunday. I know we’re not supposed to do any work on Shabbat, but before I knew it, Ruth’s older son was looking up the specifications on the internet, and soon a contingent had left for the hardware store to buy supplies.
While they were gone, Ruth’s younger son rushed around, gathering greenery and scarves with which to decorate the sukkah.
The others returned from the hardware store with a collection of PVC pipes and connectors, burlap, twine, a thatch-like material for the walls, and lights to string up.
“Did you make a sketch or anything?” I asked them, amazed that they could figure out exactly what was needed, seemingly with so little effort.
“No,” they said, “we didn’t need one,” as they proceeded cut lengths of pipe and to lay out the frame.
“Well,” I thought, “these guys are video game designers. They think and draw things in three dimensions all the time. That must explain it.”
That sufficed, until we got to a certain point in the construction and discovered we didn’t have enough PVC pipe after all, leading to a second trip to the hardware store.
But in fits and starts, including a break for pizza and another break for birthday cake, the birthday-party-turned-sukkah-building-party resulted in a smashing success, with enough room inside the sukkah for the whole family to eat meals, and with space for some to sleep in it if they want to.
It was a lot of fun to participate in the first sukkah building experience for Ruth’s kids and fiancé. It truly did feel like a mitzvah. Plus, now that they have all the materials, in future years they will have a sukkah to erect every Sukkot, and to which they can add additional decorations as the years go by.
May they use it for many years, and in good health.
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September 25, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
During the High Holy Days, one of the words we hear about the most often is “T’shuvah.” This is the time to make t’shuvah. The Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah. Often translated as repentance, t’shuvah also means to turn, or to return. But from what are we turning, and to what are we invited to return?
As part of the Saturday morning liturgy, we say, “Elohai, n’shamah shenatata bi t’horah hi,” or, “God, the soul you have given me is pure.” In contrast to Christian theology, we don’t believe in “original sin.” We are all born with a pure soul, free of sin.
Then, of course, life happens, and we mess up. It is inevitable. We lie, we cheat, we steal. We hurt ourselves and others. We make poor choices. And, too often, we try to deny what we have done. These things may be called sins.
It is important to note, however, that although sins may be deeds, they do not constitute a state of being. Although I sin, that does not render me a bad person. It just makes me human. And, as a human, I have the opportunity at all times, and especially at this time of the year, to reflect on my sins, to turn from them, and to try to be a better person.
And if I am to be a better person, whom should I emulate? Should I try to be more like a famous person from history, such as Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr.? Should I try to be more religious, like Moshe Rabbinu? Should I try to be more like my rabbi, Michael Lezak?
There is a story in the Talmud about a rabbi named Zusya, who became deathly ill, and then became very frightened. When his students asked him why he was so afraid, he said,
If God should ask me why I did not act like Abraham, I can say that I was not Abraham. And if God asks me why I did not act like Rebecca or Moses, I can also say that I was not Moses.” Then the rabbi said, “But if God should ask me to account for the times when I did not act like Zusya, what shall I say then?”*
Or, as the aforementioned Rabbi Lezak told us he learned on a recent retreat with the Institue for Jewish Spirituality, “I am not a failed attempt at being you. And you are not a failed attempt at being me.” The person whom we should emulate, then, is not someone outside of ourselves.
Rather, when we contemplate to what are we invited to return at the start of each new year, I would suggest that it is to ourselves we must return. This is the season during which we look back over the past year, and find the forks in the road where we chose to be someone other than our own best self. This is the time to remind ourselves, “I was made in the image of God. God made me with my own uniqueness for a reason,” and to ask ourselves, “What can I do in the coming year to nurture and to set free the pure soul God has given me?”
*Translation from Blog Sameach
September 19, 2012 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
In my blog post on Wednesday last week I proclaimed that I was ready for the High Holy Days. “Been there, done that,” I thought, “I have done my usual activities, I know what to expect, and I am prepared.” Then God laughed.
Late Wednesday afternoon, I received an email from a friend who works at the JCC next to the synagogue. There was a local retirement community looking for someone to come lead High Holy Day services. Would I be able to help?
So, okay. I have led weekday morning services at the synagogue, and I have led shiva (mourning) services. Why not High Holy Day services? How different could it be? I was sure I could borrow prayer books and kippot from the synagogue. I figured I could get by without a shofar. Suddenly, though, I felt anything but prepared.
A friend emailed me a copy of the machzor (holiday prayer book) developed by synagogue members. It turned out the retirement home only wanted a 30 minute service, so I got to work on paring it down to a bare minimum. Would I be able to make it short but still meaningful, without missing any of the parts the participants would be expecting?
Then I showed up to services on Friday night, where I was reminded it was the first night of “Base Camp,” an experiment in trying, twice a month, to make Shabbat services more like summer camp. We had our usual pre-oneg before services, but we tried to keep everyone out of the sanctuary.
When it was almost time to go in, the entire congregation jammed into the foyer, where each family lit a Shabbat candle. It was crowded. It was noisy. It was awkward. Then everyone sang together as the synagogue doors were opened, and everyone streamed inside. It was lovely.
After services, we gathered outside for Israeli dancing, taught by a trio of enthusiastic teens. They tried to teach us too much in too short a time. The music was too fast for people who were just learning the steps. It, too, was awkward. Still, a surprisingly large number of people participated, and had a lot of fun.
The awkwardness continued on Saturday night, at the Civic Center where we hold High Holiday services, since the synagogue isn’t large enough to hold everyone. We had been informed the major construction project that was supposed to be finished by then was still in full swing, so we arrived to find the building’s main entrance blocked, and the parking lot festooned with temporary lights, pylons, and barriers.
We stationed various Board members along the routes people would have to navigate to travel from the parking lot to the side entrance. We also had Board members near the drop-off point for people who need to travel the shortest distance possible from car to door.
The route was a bit awkward, but our congregation took it all in good humor, and once inside, the services proceeded without a hitch.
When Monday morning services rolled around, I was feeling off my game. I didn’t know what to expect at the retirement home that afternoon, and I had a hard time connecting with God and the prayers.
Then, after lunch, I drove to the retirement home. I had been told there might be only two or three people interested in the service, but I brought 10 copies of the prayer book, just to be safe. It turned out I was several prayer books short.
I felt a bit awkward having to ask people to share. The room was too hot. A couple of the people routinely had trouble finding the right page. Some of them mentioned the tunes I was singing weren’t the tunes with which they grew up. Most of them didn’t know the Hebrew, so I had to improvise in places, in order not to subject them to me soloing the whole time. I felt pressured to stay on time, especially since it turned out there was a lecture scheduled for afterward.
Somehow, I got through it, and afterward the participants and the program director thanked me heartily. Apparently, last year some men from an Orthodox outreach group had come, and the result had been a disaster. I think, in the end, it was my effort to pay attention to, and to accommodate, the needs of the group that saved the day.
Still, I have to say, it was a relief on Tuesday morning when I was able to attend second day services in our usual synagogue, with no last-minute preparations, and no construction. Experimentation and improvisation are healthy and good, and I hope we continue to do them. But sometimes, what you want it is the people you know, in the place you know, without any awkwardness.
Now, am I ready for Yom Kippur? God only knows.
September 12, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Some say there are no seasons in California. But for those of us who live by the Jewish calendar, the holidays keep us grounded in the turning of the planet.
It always starts somewhere near the end of summer. Somehow, the approach of the High Holy Days gets mentioned. Sometimes it’s just the beginning of the month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. Sometimes, it’s the holiday videos on Facebook. This year, it was an advertisement inviting congregants to send a jar of honey to friends and family for the holidays. Regardless of how it’s first mentioned, my reaction is, invariably, “But I’m not ready!”
And that is, you see, exactly the point.
In a land where there is no shofar blowing at the appointed times, these signs become my wake-up call: “The High Holy Days are coming, and you are not ready. It is time to prepare.”
But how to prepare?
First, we have S’lichot services, to get us thinking in the right direction.
Next, I find myself copy-editing the synagogue’s memorial roll. It is a list of the congregation’s loved ones, which is passed out at High Holy Days services, and a copy of which is kept in the ark with the Torah scrolls throughout the following year. I check the names carefully, making sure none are missing, none are misspelled, none are out of order. It is a way to care for the dead, as well as the living. It makes me reflect especially on those who stood with us at Rosh Hashanah last year, but will who not be there this year.
I take out my small portion of the list of current congregants, and begin to make my phone calls. “Hello,” I say, “this is Susan Barnes from the synagogue. I’m calling to wish you a Shana Tova.”
If it’s a long-time congregant, they often say something like, “Thanks, you too.”
If it’s a newer member, there’s usually a pregnant pause as, I imagine, they wait for me to ask them for money. “That’s it,” I offer, “That’s all I called to say,” to which the usual response is one of surprise and delight.
The goal is for every congregant to receive two calls like this a year – one before Rosh Hashanah, and one before Passover. Because I receive the households I call at random, it helps me feel connected to people I don’t know. I can still name some of the people who sought me out to introduce themselves in person after the call. It reminds me to be thankful for what an amazing community we have.
This week, I get a surprise in my email box. I receive the list of answers I gave to questions asked by 10Q during the High Holy Days last year, which is the first time I participated in it. They asked one question a day for each of the 10 Days of Awe, which I answered online, privately. The question for day 10 was,” When September 2012 rolls around and you receive your answers to your 10Q questions, how do you think you'll feel?” I responded, “Disappointed.”
I was wrong. Instead, my answers made me think about how far I’ve come in the last year, the many challenges my husband and I faced in the past year, and how well we have gotten through them.
Lastly, I sit down with my husband to go over “The List.” This is a tradition we started before we were married. The first such conversation between us is actually what convinced me to start dating him. Some time in the week before Rosh Hashanah we go over anything that has happened in the past year for which we feel we need to apologize, or for which we feel the other person needs to apologize.
The real beauty of this tradition is that, throughout the year, it reminds us to apologize to each other in the moment, rather than putting it off. “I don’t want this to end up on The List,” one of us will say, as we check to make sure we have successfully made amends.
And then suddenly, almost magically, as the last days before Rosh Hashanah approach, I realize I am ready. I have reviewed the year and my part in it. I have considered what I did well, and what I want to improve. I have reminded myself of many of the things for which I am grateful. And I am ready to stand before God, in the midst of my congregation, and to ask for forgiveness.
September 6, 2012 | 10:47 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I was catching up on reading The Forward, when I came across an article called “Shomrim Don’t Want Police to See Security Video.”
If the shomrim (the private, volunteer security force) put up private security cameras on their own dime, I could imagine legitimate reasons why they wouldn’t want the police to view all the footage. It would be a matter of privacy, and they probably wouldn’t want certain embarrassing events ending up on You Tube, such as a person walking into a light pole while concentrating on a cell phone.
Except – wait a minute – these are public cameras being installed with public money. They aren’t private, at all. And they are being installed as security cameras, to reduce crime in the neighborhood. So of course the police should be allowed to view all the footage, right? It’s all public property, put there for the public good.
But the shomrim are against it, and not because they’re afraid of non-crime activity becoming public You-Tube fodder. To the contrary, their stated reason for wanting to keep the tapes from the police is that they want to withhold evidence of crimes.
Now, the shomrim have long been accused of withholding key evidence from police, including lists of suspected child molestors. But, in the past, they have always denied wrongdoing. This is the first time I know of that they have affirmatively stated, in the press, their intention to obstruct justice.
Here is the money quote from the Forward from Jacob Daskal, head of the Boro Park shomrim, “If it’s a public thing it might hurt a person who doesn’t want to arrest her husband for domestic violence.”
I’m surprised this admission of intention to withhold evidence has not made a bigger splash in the Jewish media. Is it because they are “only” talking about withholding evidence of domestic violence? Is this a statement from the Jewish community that we think violence against women is okay, and should go unpunished?
If so, we are not only wrong, we are living in a fantasy world in which we think this is the only type of crime in which the shomrim will (and do) obstruct justice by keeping important evidence from the police. What if they held back a tape regarding a child molestation? A rape? A robbery? A murder?
What would it take, exactly, for the public to rise up and declare, “The shomrim are supposed to protect the public and help to identify and punish crime. Once they start covering it up instead, they are a menace to society.”
Why are they getting a pass on this?
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August 29, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I recently received the Fall edition of Reform Judaism magazine, and quickly came across the article, “What Do You Know…about Synagogues?” on page 10. The Editor’s note at the start of the article says, “This is the first article in a series designed to increase your Jewish knowledge in an interesting way.”
That sounded good, so I quickly began to read the series of questions. And I was thoroughly disappointed with what I found there.
Instead of a list of interesting questions that would actually have a chance – and I mean any chance at all – of increasing the reader’s knowledge about Judaism, it was instead a list of completely useless trivia questions. The kind I hate the most.
Rather than questions whose answers would help a person to learn about synagogue buildings, rituals, or life, they are mostly “gotcha” historical questions that have absolutely no bearing on Jewish life as it is lived today. What a wasted opportunity.
Then I thought, “Well, if I were going to write a quiz under that name, what would I write? Could I come up with ten questions that have some actual educational value, as well as relevance?” The answer is, “Why yes, I could.” See below:
1. What feature does a building need to have in order to be considered a synagogue?
a. A good sound system
b. A window
c. Prayer books in English and Hebrew
2. Who in a synagogue is considered to be part of the clergy?
a. The synagogue president
b. The rabbi
c. The cantor
d. Both b and c
3. Who may conduct a synagogue prayer service?
a. The rabbi
b. The cantor
c. Any knowledgeable Jewish person
d. All of the above
4. Where are the Torah scrolls kept in a synagogue?
a. The ark
b. The synagogue office
c. The synagogue safe
d. The geniza
5. Where in a synagogue are old, unusable documents with God’s name on them kept before they can be disposed of properly?
a. The recycle bin
b. The geniza
c. The ark
d. The supply room
6. What can you find in any synagogue over the place where the Torah scrolls are kept?
a. A chuppah (canopy)
b. A box of prayer shawls
c. An eternal light
d. A star of David
7. Is it proper to put a mezuzah on the doorpost of a synagogue?
a. Yes, but traditionally, only if people eat and sleep in the synagogue building
b. Yes, all synagogues should have one
c. No, no synagogues should have them
d. Yes, but only if a rabbi lives in the building
8. Is there a traditional prayer for a person to say upon entering a synagogue?
b. Yes, it is called, “The Sh’ma” and is about God being one
c. Yes, it is called, “Hinei Ma Tov” and is about how good it is to be together
d. Yes, it is called “Ma Tovu” and is about the loveliness of the dwellings of the Israelites
9. Who should wear a kippah (yarmulke) in a Reform synagogue?
a. Anyone who wants to
b. Only men
c. Only women
d. Only Jewish people
10. Who should wear a prayer shawl (tallit) in a Reform synagogue for daytime services?
a. Anyone who wants to
b. Only men
c. Only women
d. Only Jewish people
Answers: 1b, 2d, 3d, 4a, 5b, 6c, 7a, 8d, 9a, 10d
Tell me, honestly, which list, either the magazine’s or mine, do you think has a better chance to increase a person’s Jewish knowledge in a useful or meaningful way? Why isn’t the difference obvious to the editors of the magazine?
August 22, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Summer is always our busy time at work. For reasons I won’t go into here, this year it’s been even more busy than normal. I have worked into the evening more than I care to, and have even gone in on a number of Sundays.
Included in this work has been the fruition of a huge new project, some routine annual (but detailed) work, and a small crisis or three.
At the same time, I’ve been worried about one of my two cats, who underwent an ultrasound and a biopsy, and who is in the early stages of kidney problems, as well as some unexplained and possibly related swollen lymph nodes. We’re supposed to be getting new food for him from the vet this week, but twice in the last week I’ve noticed him not finishing his breakfast, which is, to say the least, not normal for him.
We spent last weekend with my in-laws and my husband’s uncle and aunt (aunt-in-law?), all of whom are perfectly nice people. However, it meant I was out of town for Shabbat. Also, as an introvert, spending so much time in the company of people I don’t know well can be a strain, even in the best of times.
And ever since last Thursday, I’ve been worried that I have absolutely no good ideas for what to write about on my blog this week.
All this stress has manifested itself in my body, including certain symptoms you don’t need to know about. I’m pretty sure that if I had my blood pressure taken, I would be severely scolded by the nearest medical professional, and perhaps offered some medication.
I know I don’t need medication. What I need is to slow down. What I need is some time for rest, relaxation, and contemplation. What I need is a space in which to remember myself and all the things I have for which I am deeply grateful. What I need is to be surrounded by a community I love, and which embraces me.
What I need is Shabbat.
August 15, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
A couple of weeks ago I was going through a presentation for a couple dozen people, and I mentioned I’m Jewish. I was surprised when the reaction included more than a few gasps. I wondered what they were thinking. This was in a city on the main freeway between San Francisco and Sacramento, so it’s not like we were in some place where Jews are unheard of.
Did it mean they had never knowingly met a Jewish person before? Were they surprised because I didn’t fit some stereotype they have of what Jewish people look, dress, or act like? Were they surprised that I would say such a thing out loud?
Needless to say, it wasn’t an appropriate venue in which to voice those questions out loud, nor to seek answers to them. I certainly didn’t (and still don’t) have a close enough relationship with them to expect entirely frank answers, in any case.
It did remind me, however, of the interesting place held by minorities whose differences are not apparent at first glance. Unlike some other types of minorities, we can – and often do – make decisions about when, and when not, to “out” ourselves. It’s one of the things we Jews have in common with those in the LGBTQ community.
I remember many years ago I conversation I had with a gay colleague, who was telling me how great it felt to be at the San Francisco Pride Parade. “On one hand, I think I shouldn’t feel that way,” he said, “I feel very assimilated, and people where we work don’t care one way or the other that I’m gay. But for some reason, it felt liberating to be surrounded by other gay people.”
I assured him there was nothing wrong with feeling that way. “At the Pride Parade,” I offered, “you know nobody’s going to ask you something like, ‘Why aren’t you married yet?’ that shows they assume everyone is straight. I feel the same way in December, when I’m at the synagogue. Even though I’m very assimilated, it’s nice sometimes to be someplace where I know nobody is going to wish me a ‘Merry Christmas.’”
Although I generally have no problem telling people I’m Jewish, sometimes it’s hard to decide whether or not to bring it up. A number of years ago I had lunch with a client in Monterey during the week of Passover. Of course, he suggested a seafood restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf.
It just so happens that I’m allergic to fish. It’s God’s little joke that I’m only allergic to “regular” fish, not to shellfish. So, in a nutshell, if it’s kosher fish I’m allergic, and if it’s treif I’m not. So there I was, in a seafood restaurant, not eating “regular” fish because I’m allergic, not eating shellfish because it isn’t kosher, and saying, “No, thank you” to the bread because it’s Passover. Do I explain to the guy why I’m eating chicken, and little else, in a seafood restaurant, or do I just let it pass unless he asks?
A similar situation happened while I was at dinner as part of the interview process for the job I now hold. I was eating pasta with red sauce, and the vice president’s wife was next to me eating pasta with green sauce. “Look,” she said, “together we make Christmas!” I thought about mentioning I’m Jewish, but wondered, briefly, if it would hurt my chances of being hired. Then I thought, “If they’re the kind of company that doesn’t want Jews around, I’d rather find out sooner rather than later,” so I spilled the beans.
Her response was, “Oh, you’re in a mixed marriage, too!” To this day I don’t know whether she was referring to the fact that she’s Catholic and her husband isn’t, or whether she was commenting on the fact that she’s black and he’s white. Either way, I knew I was going to be okay.
Although I’ve had such positive experiences with “coming out” as Jewish, those gasps I heard in the training class give me pause. What do they mean? What were they thinking? Will there be a time when declaring my Judaism will result in something worse?