The Shovel and the Earth

September 23, 2013
Jewish Cemetery

Jewish Cemetery (Photo credit: elPadawan)

Today I officiated at a funeral. It is a mitzvah that I am both sad and honored to do, to help a family through a difficult transition.

Jewish funerals are simple, powerful rituals. We read a few psalms and passages from the Bible, we memorialize the person with a hesped [eulogy], we chant El Male Rachamim [God, Full of Mercy] and Kaddish.  We place the body of the person gently in the ground, usually in a plain wooden box, and we cover it up with earth.

The sound of the clods of earth falling on a casket are distinct and unforgettable. Even when the person in the grave is a relative stranger it is a sobering sound. It says, “This is final.”

Each mourner ladles three shovels full of earth into the grave.  They put the shovel back into the pile of fresh earth, and do not hand it to the next person. There are superstitions about this that mostly have to do with containing the “contagion” of death. Nowadays few people believe in a literal Angel of Death or that death is contagious, but they still avoid handing the shovel to another person, and in the shiva house, they cover the mirrors.

Sometimes people are shocked, when they hear that thus-and-so is “to keep the Angel of Death away.” But really, all these traditions are for making ritual so that people who feel lost will know what to do. Otherwise, how can anyone know what to do at such a time, except collapse and cry?

We tell stories about these things. It is always important to see the faces, to touch the hands, to be with people. The stories are just stories.

 


Disability & Mitzvot

September 16, 2013

I woke up this morning aching again. This has been going on for years, gradually getting worse. Some days it takes a couple of hours of warmup to walk. Since I have had minimal health insurance and have been terrified of losing it, I have not investigated the aches too closely. I hope that will change soon, now that my marriage is recognized by the Feds (no more DOMA, Thank you Supreme Court.)

Why am I bothering readers with this? Because the mystery aches, along with some old orthopedic problems, are the reason I am not building a sukkah this week. Putting it up and taking it down is just too much, especially with my classes coming so soon. I am quite certain I am not alone in this.

What do you do when a mitzvah is simply beyond you? I lean on my community. I will help a friend decorate her sukkah, and enjoy sitting in it with the people who come. And I can feel OK about that, because I will help make folks feel welcome there. Also I learn where the sukkah and sort-of-sukkahs are, and I help others find them.

I have been enthusiastic talking about Sukkot on this blog. I love Sukkot. But I didn’t want a reader to be sitting out there thinking that because you can’t afford a sukkah, or you have arthritis, that you are somehow falling short this Sukkot. Hospitality comes in many forms, and so does participation in this holiday.

Sukkot sameach! If you live in the East Bay, I’d be delighted to meet you in one of the several Sukkot available to us. Enjoy the holiday in all the ways available to you!


Torah vs. Magic: the Case of Kapparot

September 12, 2013
Chickens

Photo credit: Allie’s.Dad

Yom Kippur is almost upon us, and some of you may see news  stories about Kapparot, a Jewish folk custom for the day before Yom Kippur.

In the most colorful form of Kapparot (the kind that makes it into the news), Jews take a live chicken, swing it around their head three times, then slaughter it as a “ransom” for their sins, giving the chicken to the poor for them to eat. It’s a cruel practice, and distinguished rabbis have spoken out against it for centuries.

There are also Jews who practice a milder kind of kapparot, using money put in a white handkerchief, swung around the head, and then given to charity. This is still problematic, because it suggests that we can “buy God off” without doing the work of teshuvah.

First, don’t let anyone tell you that “all Jews” do this. Most Jews don’t do it.

Torah is not magic; it’s better than magic. Unlike kapparotteshuvah actually works to mend relationships and change lives. Kapparot is a superstitious old practice for warding off demons and bad luck. Real Torah challenges us to make changes in our behavior which bring about genuine improvement in the world.

May your remaining Days of Awe in 5774 be filled with tefilah [prayer], tzedakah [charity] and gimilut hasidim [deeds of lovingkindness], and may this year be a good year for you!


The Hospitality Challenge: I Dare You!

August 28, 2013
Welcome

Photo credit: alborzshawn

There’s a lot of kerfluffle in the Jewish press lately over the perceived shortcomings of the synagogue. “Services are boring!” wails one writer. “Millennials can’t relate!” writes another. “How do we attract the young people?” “We’re putting too much emphasis on youth!” “Remake the bar mitzvah!” “Get rid of the bar mitzvah!” and of course, “Did you see that video on YouTube?”

Feh!

I am not a congregational rabbi. I am a member of a congregation, and I believe that congregational membership is one of the greatest deals on the planet. I learned that not from a rabbi, but from other congregants. I love the feeling of extended family. I love knowing that if my life suddenly goes up in smoke, the Caring Community will be on the job. I love going to shul and seeing my friends. But what got me there was not an official program. What got me there was other people performing a mitzvah: hachnasat orchim, hospitality.

The Snyder-Kepler family invited me to dinner. Then they invited me to holidays at their home. I met other people there, who invited me to their homes. We ate together. We did dishes together. We hung out together. Friendships were born. Kids grew up.

I am in the process of moving into a new home. I’m organizing it with two goals in mind.  First, it needs to be accessible enough that my honey and I can get old in it, and disabled friends can come to visit with dignity. Secondly, it needs to be set up like the Tent of Abraham: we are going to welcome friends and strangers (soon to be new friends) for Shabbat dinners, for lazy Shabbat afternoons, for holidays, and for study. And the house is going to be set up so that people’s children will be welcome, too.

I am a teaching rabbi, and I admit, part of it is that I need to do more of my teaching in an environment that gentler on my own disabilities. But more of it is that I know this works, because it worked on me. Our home will not be a synagogue or a substitute for a synagogue. It will be a Jewish home, hospitably open to other people.  We’ll find them at synagogue, we’ll find them in class, we’ll find them when they wander into our lives. And they will be welcome. And then we will teach them: you can do this. Invite someone over.

Linda and I are both introverts. This is going to require some stretching. That’s why I’m writing about it under the #BlogElul topic “Dare.”

Because committing to serious hospitality requires daring from my introverted soul.  I worry that I’m an awful housekeeper, I’m not a very good cook, I tend to run around barefoot at home, the dogs will misbehave, what will we do if they don’t leave? what will I do if they criticize me? what if what if what if … and it simply doesn’t matter. I’m going to give this mitzvah a go.

Because I know that it works. It worked on me.

Now: to any other Jews that are reading this: I dare YOU. When was the last time you invited another Jew over? I’m not talking to the congregational rabbis, I’m talking to the folks like me, Jews-in-the-pew.  You don’t have to commit to it as a way of life – not now – just commit to doing it once. Then again. Invite someone over for dinner and Scrabble. Or lunch and the ballgame on TV. Or gardening. Or making brownies. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have them over. What matters is that you practice the mitzvah of hospitality. If you have a home, however humble, it’s fine.

I believe that this can transform our congregations, if enough of us do it. Because we will then not be a group of people consuming services, we will be a real community, people who have eaten together and washed dishes together, who have maybe even seen each other at not-at-our-best times. We will have compassion for one another. We will have bright ideas. We will show up.

I dare you.

This post is part of the series #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. Participants mark the passage of time during the month of Elul with social media meditations on topics connected with the High Holy Days and the month of Elul.


#BlogElul – Animals: A Sacred Trust

August 18, 2013

shoulder

Gabi is my little dog. I met her one Friday afternoon after I’d spent the afternoon doing some pastoral visits that left me angry and sad. I did not want to bring that energy into Shabbat with me, so I called my friend Julie and asked if I could stop by her place and play with the dogs for a bit.

Julie is one of the good angels of Poodle Rescue of Las Vegas, and she often has a foster dog or two around. That day she had a silver toy poodle with a big white bandage. The tiny dog was found on the street in Las Vegas sporting a huge tumor under one foreleg. She was filthy and her fur was matted from months of neglect.  Animal Control notified Poodle Rescue, and Julie and Colleen saw to it that she got the health care and the grooming she needed.

When I walked into the house, that tiny dog began bouncing and trying to get my attention. I picked her up, and she snuggled into my shoulder as if she’d been my doggie forever.  I was amazed by her trust, despite neglect, despite the cruelty of the street. She trusted me.

In the book of Genesis it says:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

Many human beings have used that verse to support the idea that animals are here to serve us, that we can do whatever we want with them. That’s not how I read it. I believe we have been given our power over animals in trust. We are responsible to see to it that they are treated with decency, with respect, with the same care that their Creator would give them, no less.  Judaism traditionally recognizes decency towards animals as a mitzvah.

If we have animals in our lives, if we have pets, or if we eat animals or animal products, how do we carry out that responsibility of trust? How can we as individuals and as a society do better?

Something to ponder this Elul.

If you are interested in acquiring a pet, consider adopting a rescue animal. Your local shelter has many animals that need homes. If you want a specific breed, try Googling “rescue” and the name of the breed. Your BFF may be waiting in a foster home near you.

This post is part of #BlogElul 5773 / 2013, a month-long themed blogburst orchestrated by imabima, the mother of this great idea. I can’t promise that I’ll post every day, but I hope to share at least a few posts on these themes over the month to come. For other people’s posts on these themes, search using the #BlogElul hashtag.


What’s a Mezuzah?

July 24, 2013

Polski: Mezuza

 

– A mezuzah (meh – ZOOZ – zah) is a box or case which we attach to the doorframe of a Jewish home.

 

– The little box or case contains a piece of parchment called a klaf. (See photo below.)

 

– The parchment has Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 written on it by a specially trained scribe, in Hebrew:

 

Hear, O Israel: The Eternal our God, the Eternal is one.  Love the Eternal your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them.  Then theLord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you.  Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates,  so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.

 

– By putting the mezuzah up, the Jews who live in this home fulfill the commandment to “write [these words] on the doorposts.”

 

– The box and the parchment serve as a reminder that a Jewish home is a holy place.

 

– Some Jewish homes have mezuzot (plural) on all the doorways except the bathroom doors. Others put a mezuzah only on the main entrance.

 

English: The Shema parchment of a Mezuzah.

A typical Klaf

 

For more about the mitzvah [commandment] of the mezuzah, read more in this article in the Jewish Virtual Library.

 


“Oy! What To Cook for Shabbat?” said the Non-Cook.

July 19, 2013
Shabbat Dinner Table

Shabbat Dinner Table (Photo credit: feministjulie)

I got a request this week from @farrahudell on Twitter: “How about 8 easy recipes next? I’m good on ritual, cooking not so much…”

Guess what – I am not much of a cook, either. I have a few things I do well, but that’s it.  The question behind the question, though, is one worth asking: what to do, if you are not a very good or a very confident cook? What if you hate to cook? Here are some ideas for those readers:

1. IT’S A TRADITION! - Is there a meal you and your household like and that you are comfortable cooking? Make that Shabbat dinner every week! If someone asks, tell them it is your tradition. If your tradition is to eat grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for Shabbat, that’s lovely. A guest who criticizes the menu is way out of line: don’t invite them back. (If it is someone you must ask back, maybe add a green salad next time, or her favorite dessert.)

2. BUY A GOOD COOKBOOK – If you like to cook but don’t know any “Jewish” recipes, buy a cookbook! There are some great Jewish cookbook writers: Joan Nathan, Leah Koenig, Arthur Schwartz, to name a few. Epicurious.com offers a list of “Our Seven Favorite Jewish Cookbooks.” But also keep in mind that the food does not have to be a particular kind of “Jewish” food to be great for Shabbat. Jews have lived just about everywhere – the real question is, is it something your household enjoys?

3. FOLLOW A JEWISH FOOD BLOG – If you like to find your recipes online, and want something a bit less traditional-Ashkenazi, check out Michael Twitty’s Afroculinaria. Michael’s recipes make me want to cook. Even more, they make me want to eat.  There are lots of good Jewish food blogs – just browse around on wordpress.com or any of the other places bloggers do their thing.

4. ASK AT SYNAGOGUE - Suggest to your synagogue that a cooking class would be fun. Or just ask around and find out who’s a good cook, and ask him/her for some lessons. As Rabbi Hillel said in the first century, “The shy will not learn.” Ask!

5. JOIN WITH OTHERS - If your life is stressful and you’d really like to just “come to dinner” three Shabbats a month, what about forming a Shabbat chavurah? If you rotate among households, then it’s less work and everyone can pitch in together to do the dishes afterwards. Or rotate houses and bring potluck.

6. NO SHAME IN TAKEOUT – If you hate to cook, don’t have time to cook, or you don’t have anywhere to cook, there is no shame in takeout for Shabbat. Again, get something you like, that your household likes, and don’t stress over it. This is Shabbat, you’re supposed to enjoy it! Home made challah is lovely, but challah from the store isn’t bad, either. I recall one very special Shabbat dinner when we ate cheese pizza and  salad.

Also: keep in mind that through the centuries, while Jews have tried to make Shabbat dinner a special meal, sometimes it was also a very simple meal. Some of the nicest Shabbat dinners I’ve had were very plain: soup and challah, salad and challah, a roasted chicken and some salad, etc.

One last note, but an important one: Shabbat is not a time for scolding and nagging. It’s not a great time to introduce picky toddlers to new foods, or to insist that your 8 year old eat her Brussels sprouts. It’s absolutely not a time to nag someone whose diet you’d like to change, even with “hints.” Let it be a gentle time, with easy things to eat, pleasant conversation, and love.

This blog came about in response to someone who wanted recipes, and I’ve pretty much weaseled out of the recipes. (Trust me, you are not missing anything.) But here is one recipe I’ll share:

RABBI ADAR’S EASY CHICKEN SOUP

Count your guests, and put that many chicken thighs (with skin and bone) into a large pot (1 per guest.) Add one peeled and quartered onion, a handful of peppercorns, a small bunch of fresh dill, and some celery tops. Cover with water. Bring almost to a boil then simmer until the chicken is falling apart. Strain the whole thing through a sieve or cheesecloth, saving both the soup and the stuff you drained out. Pick the meat off the bones, chop it or tear it into manageable pieces and replace in the soup. Salt to taste. Serve.

Variations: At the end, you can add any of these to the soup:  (1) cooked noodles (2) chopped greens (bok choy, kale, etc.) (3) other vegetables.  Add enough veggies and it’s a one pot meal.

Whatever you decide, enjoy! Remember that Shabbat is for rest, for joy, for sharing. If your current practice leaves you feeling guilty, stressed-out, angry, or overwhelmed, it needs adjustment.  Do whatever you need to do to make Shabbat what it is meant to be, an oasis of joy and rest!


Five Tips for a More Meaningful Shabbat

July 5, 2013
Shabbat meal

Shabbat meal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some Tips for Making the Most of Shabbat:

IMAGINE what you think Shabbat should be.  Traditional observance for 25 hours? Or a more liberal approach? Let your imagining be very specific. Then, even if this is not something you could do every week, make that imagined Shabbat happen, just once.  See how it feels, tastes, smells.

STUDY Shabbat. The observance of Shabbat is really an art that merits a bit of study. If you haven’t read Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Shabbat, you’re in for a treat. If some other book appeals to you, give it a go! Survey other Jews you trust: how do they observe Shabbat?

SHARE your desire for a more meaningful Shabbat with your partner or spouse. Maybe they are wishing for more, too!

DECIDE ahead of time what you are going to do or not do on Shabbat. Make a plan and commit to it for one week. Shabbat will take place whether you “show up” for it or not. Torah tells us to “keep Shabbat” and “remember Shabbat” – both verbs suggest that we take action towards Shabbat, not simply let it roll over us.

EXPERIMENT if you are not satisfied with the way you currently experience Shabbat. If you don’t usually attend synagogue, give it a try. If you never turn off your smartphone, turn it off! If you find that traditional observance leaves you grumpy, take a good hard look at what you are doing and why.  Maybe it’s time for a change.


Home Sweet Jewish Home

July 2, 2013
English: Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIX...

English: Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIXth century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keeping a Jewish home is an important part of Jewish life.  Here are some reasons:

HOME RITUALS Many of Judaism’s key rituals take place in the home: Shabbat candle-lighting, Shabbat dinner, Passover seder, Chanukah candles.  Even one lifecycle event, the bris [ritual circumcision] is most often performed at home.

JEWISH IDENTITY Everywhere except in Israel, Judaism is a minority religion. Even in the United States, which has a number of large Jewish communities, we are only 2% of the population.  For Jews, home is the key place where Jewish identity is formed and nurtured, not only in children but in adults.

HOME MITZVOT – There are Jewish commandments that pertain specifically to the home.  We hang a mezuzah in the doorways of the home.  Cooking and meals have many different mitzvot [commandments] associated with them: blessings, dietary laws, even some rules for cooking. Those may occasionally be performed in a synagogue, but they most often are observed in the home. Even certain safety rules for the home are actually commandments from Torah.

MIKDASH ME’AT means “little sanctuary.” Ever since the destruction of the second Temple in 70 A.D., our sages have regarded the home as a primary worship environment for Jews. Torah is a set of instructions for living our daily lives, and those lives take place at home, not at synagogue.

If a visitor came to your home, would he or she recognize that it is a Jewish home? What would be the tipoff?

How many different ways is your home identifiable as a Jewish home?


Synagogue Hebrew 103

May 31, 2013
Birthday cake written "Mazal Tov" in...

Birthday cake written “Mazal Tov” in Hebrew on it (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For other quick and easy Hebrew lessons in this series, check out Jewish Greetings 101 and Synagogue Hebrew 102.

B’vakeshah - [beh-VAH-keh-SHAH] Please, also “you’re welcome.”

Todah - [toh-DAH] Thank you.

Todah rabbah - [toh-DAH rah-BAH] – Thank you very much.

B’seder - [beh-SAY-der] OK, in order.

B’vakeshah - [beh-VAH-keh-SHAH] Please, also “you’re welcome.”

Todah - [toh-DAH] Thank you.

Todah rabbah - [toh-DAH rah-BAH] – Thank you very much.

B’seder - [beh-SAY-der] OK, in order.

B’hatzlacha – [beh-HATZ-lah-CHA] Good luck! (Remember “ch” is a gutteral, somewhat like the German “ch” in Bach. If you can’t make that sound just go with a spitty “H” sound.)

Slichah - [slee-CHA] Sorry! or Excuse me!

Yom huledet sameach – [Yohm hu-LEH-det sah-MAY-ach] Happy Birthday

B’teavon – [Buh-TAY-ah-VOHN] Bon appetit!

Ta’im! – [Tah-EEM] Tasty! Delicious!

L’hitraot – [Leh-HEE- tra- OHT] Goodbye!


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