Prayers for the Survivors of Suicide

rabbiadar:

Prayers from the heart of someone who knows.

Originally posted on Reflecting Out Loud:

The following prayers are written in memory of my father, Lowell Jay Herman. He took his life on April 20, 2015. They are a reflection of the pain that my family & I have grappled with.

A Prayer for My Father

Adonai, darkness descended upon him;
cloaking and immersing him in a shroud of shame and sadness.
Mental illness took hold and metastasized into his soul
until he could bear the pain no more.

Adonai, we who loved him are left to navigate the murky waters, the tsunami of grief and the inexplicable pain of his suicide.
Help us not to lose ourselves in the unanswerable question of why, though it is a question we must ask; over and over and over again.
Strengthen us in the face of despair, guilt, shock, anger and overwhelming sadness.
Adonai, help us find the courage to speak the truth, his truth, our truth.

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“A Wasted Yom Kippur”

rabbiadar:

Yasher koach, Adam!

Originally posted on Wrestling With God:

The High Holy Days are just over a month away. The time of the New Year and, ten days later, the time of repentance at Yom Kippur are almost upon us.

As a Jew by choice who will be officially a member of the Tribe only sixteen days before Rosh Hashanah (if I’ve counted correctly), and who had a powerful, meaningful experience at last year’s Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days will probably hit me hard every single year.  Last year, part of what hit me so hard was that we aren’t getting singled out for our sin. We are all confessing, communally, as a community, to grave sins.

This is on my mind today partly because of an article in this morning’s New York Times.  This article is talking about the recent murders of Shira Banki and Ali Saad Dawabsheh by Jewish extremist fanatics. I could quote from…

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What Makes the Pig So Special?

Pigs from pixabay.com

But the following, which do bring up the cud or have true hoofs which are cleft through, you may not eat: the camel, the hare, and the hyrax — for although they bring up the cud, they have no true hoofs — they are unclean for you;  also the swine — for although it has true hoofs, it does not bring up the cud — is unclean for you. You shall not eat of their flesh or touch their carcasses. – Deuteronomy 14:7-8

Have you ever wondered why the pig has become such a primary symbol for Jewish dietary laws? People who know little else about Jews will tell you that Jews don’t eat pork. Jews who are not concerned about cheeseburgers or shrimp sushi will still feel a twinge (or frisson?) of transgression when they eat a slice of bacon.

How did the pig, which is listed almost as an afterthought in this passage from Deuteronomy, become so important a symbol of all that is not-Jewish?

Richard Redding, an archaeologist at the University of Michigan, has made a serious study of the role of the pig in the ancient Near Eastern diet. Wild pigs were indigenous to the ancient Near East, and we know from archaeological remains that they were domesticated and eaten in Egypt in the Old Kingdom period, (2700-2055 BCE.) His research suggests that pigs gradually declined in use wherever water was scarce, because chickens provided more efficient sources of protein. This has led some Jewish thinkers to ask, is THIS the real reason that pig was prohibited in the Torah? We’ll never get the definitive answer to that, but it adds another theory for those who are interested in such theories.

(In case you are wondering: there’s no evidence in the Bible text itself that pork is forbidden for being unhealthy, because of trichinosis, or because refrigeration hadn’t been invented. The only reason for the dietary prohibitions in the Bible is that old standby of deities and parents over the centuries: “Because I said so.”)

However, the question stands: why did pork take on so much more significance than any other of the forbidden foods?

Redding mentions in his article that the consumption of pig meat began to increase in the region starting in the 2nd century BCE, with the growth in Hellenistic populations. Greeks brought pigs with them and cultivated them. Romans loved their pork. So just as rabbinic Judaism was beginning to take shape, the foreigners most despised by the Jews, the upstart rulers who profaned the Temple and imposed ruinous taxes also made that particular forbidden meat fashionable! So there’s one thing: Pork was the meat of choice of Rome and Greece. No wonder the ancient rabbis regarded it as particularly nasty.

Secondly, as Christianity separated from Judaism sometime around the end of the first century CE, it embraced the Gentile world and its diet. Among the attractions Christianity had to offer was the fact that one did not need to be circumcised or eschew pork to be one of the elect. Later, when it became the established religion of the Empire and later of Europe, the fact that Jews avoided eating pork became a “tell,” a hallmark of Jewishness.

During the Middle Ages, pork became not only a way to identify a Jew, but a way to humiliate and torture Jews. Jews were starved, then offered pork to eat. In Spain, those suspected of being hidden Jews were called Marranos (“pigs.”) In the 20th century, we know that in at least one camp the Nazis fed Jews dried pigs’ feet (Elie Weisel, Night.) Centuries of this association forged a strong connection between the non-consumption of pork and Jewish identity.

Many American and Israeli Jews today choose not to keep kosher, and they consume pork as well. However, even the most secular will attach a certain angst to pork consumption that they don’t attach to shrimp cocktail. Pig meat, an afterthought in Deuteronomy, became a potent symbol for Jewish identity. The reason? History.

Yahrzeit of Michael Brown

forget-me-not- 737408_640

Today is the yahrzeit of Michael Brown.

Unsurprisingly, his parents are still mourning him. They will never stop mourning him. Parents whose children die do that.

His story has been back in the news, and I’ve watched today as social media has argued about his death, and about the movement that began with his death, #BlackLivesMatter.

I don’t have special access to the facts about Michael Brown. I’m not going to defend him here, nor am I going to defend the policeman who shot him.

Right now, it’s the anniversary of the death of a boy who represented hope and promise to his family. It’s the anniversary of the death of a young man who was their pride and joy.

A year ago these people lost their child to a violent death.

Let’s pause for a moment of human sympathy.

A Little Tip for Hebrew Learners

overcoming difficulty

There is a common sound in Hebrew that is a dead giveaway that an English speaker didn’t grow up with the language. It’s the sound associated with the letters  ח and  כ. We often transliterate it with “ch” or “kh” (that’s been my practice here) but the sound simply doesn’t exist in English.

People who learn Hebrew as children pick up the sound pretty easily, but for adults it can be harder.  We usually tell adult students “it’s like the ch in Bach” which is only much help if they speak German. Here’s what I tell students:

  1. Lift the rear part of your tongue to your soft palate. Blow air out around it.
  2. Think of a cat hissing. Now make that sound very short.
  3. That’s ח and  כ.

If you practice it, it will come. Most adults have trouble at first, and then it gets easier. Make silly games with it to practice in private.  Substitute the ח sound for H in the sentence below:

Hi, I’m here to see Harry. (Khi, I’m khere to see kHarry.)

It sounds ridiculous, but if you keep doing it, your mouth will get used to it.

If you have tried, and you are quite sure you cannot make that sound, here’s another tip:  do not substitute a K sound for it. I get the impression that in some college Hebrew classes teachers allow that, and the trouble is that it will stand out like a neon flasher in synagogue.

Instead, substitute an H for it.  “H” is not completely correct, but it will get you closer to the sound. It also puts your mouth close to the right shape for the sound. “K” builds a bad habit. “H” leaves room for improvement. You may find, over time, that you will pick up the sound naturally.

If you are making the effort to learn some Hebrew, good for you! Every bit of it that you learn will help you feel more at home around Jews. More than almost anything else, the Hebrew language is our common ground. Every scrap of Hebrew that you learn will pay rich benefits in Jewish connection.

I learned Hebrew as an adult; started in my 40’s. It can be done, and if you are making the effort, kol hakavod – all honor to you!

Upon the 70th Anniversary of Hiroshima & Nagasaki

Hiroshima Japan

70 years ago this week the United States dropped the world’s first nuclear weapon on the city of Hiroshima. Three days later, we dropped a second bomb on the city of Nagasaki. This week, I’m thinking about Mairi Cain. Mairi grew up in Fukuoka, halfway between the two cities. She was a young woman in 1945.

Mairi died a little over a year ago. I got to know her in August of 2012, when she and her husband needed someone to shop for them and look in on them; her son and my son were out of town for a month, working, and I volunteered to help. One day, something came on the TV that reminded her of the bombing and she was very upset. Mairi did “upset” by getting angry; her husband explained to me what it was all about while she had stomped off to another room.

Another day she talked about it a little bit; her English was shaky at best, my Japanese nonexistent, so I was glad I knew the basic outline of the story ahead of time. It was clear to me that she was still suffering from the terror of the experience, and from the memory of starvation during the war.

I’d never met anyone who had been in Japan in 1945. All the WWII survivors I knew were either American vets or Europeans. I had learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki in school, and learned the standard explanation that the nuclear bombing “saved lives.” I’d never questioned it – and then I met this tiny old woman, who was still feeling the terror of it 60+ years later. I’d never thought much about what it meant for the civilians on the ground, besides the recorded fact that it killed 120,000 people immediately and many more over the weeks, months and years to follow.

It saved American lives. Japan was a particularly cruel enemy. Those were the things I had learned in school, and in conversations with my parent’s generation.

I am part of the Baby Boomer generation who grew up with “nuclear drills,” in the shadow of our imaginings about The Bomb. Mairi didn’t have to imagine: she’d been Bombed. I could not understand a great deal of what she had to say about it, but I know trauma when I see it.

There are articles in the news this week that question Truman’s decision to drop the Bomb, and other articles that defend it. What I notice is that his decision is always cast as “drop it” vs “don’t drop it.” This bothers me.

As Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer put it to us when I was a rabbinical student, our human brains tend to reduce choices to binaries, especially under stress. It all goes back to that first important crisis: fight or flight? Fight the big scary predator or run like mad? There was never much time to make that decision (the third option being “stand there and be lunch”) so our brains adapted to it. We go there quickly, and we tend not to see other options.

“Don’t start analyzing until you have brainstormed at least five options,” he said to us. “Force yourself to do it, and force the people you advise to think of more options than the two they bring to you.” It has been valuable advice to me time and time again: almost always, there is another, better option than the first two.

So I wonder: what if Truman had brainstormed three more choices, besides “drop it on Hirshima” and “don’t drop it on Hiroshima?” Could we have made it clear to the Japanese what a destructive weapon it was by dropping it on a deserted atoll? Could we have described it to the Japanese, and said, “We will use this unless you sign?” Could we have come up with another option?

I don’t know, and at this point it is done. What we do know is that the bomb that terrified Mairi unleashed a new terror upon all of us.

May the tragedy of that day serve as a warning to all of us, in decisions great and small, to stop, to think, to look for options. The Torah tells us to “Choose life.” Sometimes it is very hard to know behind which door it lies.

Image: US government, Post-Work: User:W.wolnyibiblio.org a collaboration of the centerforthepublicdomain.org  Effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. View from the top of the Red Cross Hospital looking northwest. Frame buildings recently erected. 1945  Public domain.

Ask The Rabbi: Working at the Bar Mitzvah

Photographer by jarmoluk

I recently had a lovely email exchange with a young person who had been hired for his first job working as an artist for a bat mitzvah. He had a lot of questions, and I thought that the answers might be useful to others. Thank you, Benjamin, for asking good questions, and making me think of other things that might help!

What is a bar or bat mitzvah? A bar mitzvah (bat for girls) happens when a young person turns 13. It actually happens whether there is a celebration or not; a Jew over age 13 is bar or bat mitzvah regardless. The usual celebration in North America has two parts. First, a synagogue service at which the young person leads the service, or reads Torah, or both. This is serious business and requires years of study and preparation. Secondly, there may be a party, which can range from a very low-key affair at home or the synagogue to something quite fancy at a hotel or other venue.

How big a deal is it really? For the young person, the synagogue service requires a year or more of preparation. For a Jewish family, this is a life event on a par with a wedding. Relatives travel from far away to attend, and most families save for a long time to pay for the party.

What is proper dress for a bar or bat mitzvah? Dress professionally. Unless you have heard otherwise from the parents, a suit and tie for men, a professional dress outfit for women.

What terminology should I know? Bar mitzvah is for a boy. Bat mitzvah is for a girl. B’nei mitzvah is plural, unless there are only girls involved, in which case it is b’not mitvah.

Is there a customary greeting that I should know? As a non-Jew, you are not expected to know any Hebrew. “Hello” and “Congratulations” are fine. However, these are nice phrases to know:

  • Mazal tov!– (MAH-zel tov) – “Congratulations!” suitable either for the young person or for family members.
  • Shabbat Shalom! (Shah-BAHT shah-LOHM) – “Happy Sabbath!” – suitable from sundown Friday till sundown Saturday.

Who is actually in charge? In the synagogue, if the rabbi or cantor (clergy) tell you to do or not do something, you are wise to comply. During the service, ushers may remove someone who doesn’t follow the rules set by the congregation. (If they tell you no photos, or no flash, during the service, believe them.)  At the party afterwards, the hosts are in charge.

Good luck! And if you are reading this and have other questions, I hope you will ask them in the comments, so I can continue to improve this resource!