Don’t Forget This Mitzvah!

August 29, 2013

22669_round_tin_tzedakah_box_with_jerusalem_and_lock_view_1

No matter what the holiday or special occasion, there’s an important mitzvah that should be part of our preparation. That mitzvah is tzedakah, money given for the relief of the unfortunate.

It is part of Jewish tradition to see to it that all Jews, no matter their income, are able to observe the mitzvot and enjoy the holiday. It’s also part of Jewish tradition to include non-Jewish people in our giving. My holidays always seem sweeter when I’ve remembered to perform this mitzvah.

Some options for giving tzedakah before a holiday:

– send a check to your synagogue, earmarked for the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund, or for any fund designated for assistance.  The rabbi or synagogue are required to use those funds  - you can feel secure that the funds will go to help someone.  The Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund might pay for dentures for an indigent member, or help with someone’s rent, or pay the fee for a child to go to Jewish camp who otherwise cannot go.

– go online and donate to the charity of your choice. It doesn’t have to be a Jewish organization; one of my favorites is my local Community Food Bank.  To locate the website of your nearest food bank, click here. But there are also many worthy Jewish funds; take the time to find an organization that speaks to your heart.

– Help a relative who is having money troubles. Yes, that counts as tzedakah, too. Just be sure not to hurt feelings or embarrass the recipient.

Not all needs are physical. Donations for education are tzedakah, too.

Important: The ancient rabbis emphasized that a small gift from a person who themselves were in need was just as important as a big check from a macher (big shot.) Everyone gives according to their means, so that all can enjoy the holiday. Don’t give beyond your means, though!

I hope that the upcoming holiday is sweet for you and your household!


“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.


Time for Shabbat, already!

April 19, 2013
shocked

(Photo credit: apdk)

I do not remember the last time I was this desperate for Shabbat.

This has been a dreadful week, beginning with the bombing of the finish line at the Boston Marathon. Even though I did not know anyone present, the images that came streaming at me from the television, the computer, and even my smartphone were pixillated nightmares. Even though I was nowhere near Boston, have only been to Boston a few times in my life, it felt personal.  I got angry, and made an appointment for a blood donation. I needed to act, rather than simply stew in stress hormones.

Random bits of horror in the news kept poking at me: ricin, the Senate’s choice about the gun loophole, news about local violence. It seemed to never stop.

Then, Wednesday night, when I got in my car at 9:30 pm after a class, I turned on the radio and  learned about the factory explosion in West, Texas. A dear friend is the rabbi in Waco, just 20 miles distant, and I had no idea where she actually lives. I worried about her until she posted on facebook that she was OK.

That relief lasted only a few minutes, when the other details about the disaster began to sink in: 5 city blocks destroyed in a tiny Texas town. Volunteer firefighters were probably trapped in the exploding factory. Why was there a nursing home across the street? Why schools nearby?

I donated blood. This, I can do.

Then late last night, after another class, more violence, more weirdness, in Boston. I turned off the electronics and cleaned house.  I thought about my sermon for this evening. I kept forgetting and turning something back on – and would turn it off again, because honestly, I’d had enough.

Douglas Rushkoff‘s new book, Present Shock, describes what has been going on with  me this week. Events come pouring in faster than we can process them. Narratives fracture before they are even formed. Conspiracy theories multiply and divide.  Email, facebook, twitter, the radio, the news, the news, the news demand my attention and in a bad news week it WILL make me crazy.

I’ve been reading Rushkoff’s book this week, too, and that’s why I finally turned everything off and began scrubbing the bathroom.  My baby-boomer brain as well as my baby-boomer heart and soul were overwhelmed. I recognized myself in his pages and declared, “TIME OUT!”

Of course, I had to start all over again this morning, wake up to more strange “breaking news” un-narrative from Boston, along with assorted bits nearer to home. The people in Texas seem to have dropped off the news cycle, which sort of worries me – will anyone remember to check on them?

But today, at sundown, Shabbat will come. I don’t know if she’ll be wearing bridal white or a nice nurse’s outfit this week, but she will come and gather us in her arms. The electronics will be off. The buzz will be busted for a while. We will catch our breath. We will gather our strength.

Blessed are you, O Holy One, Ruler of Time & Space, Master of the Now, Maker of  Shabbat.


Chanting my way into Torah

February 21, 2013
Torah

Torah (Photo credit: quinet)

I’m preparing to chant Torah this coming Shabbat.  It is not the easiest thing for me, but it’s good for me, because if I don’t use this skill, I’ll lose it. The process of preparing the portion to chant takes me into a deep analysis of the text, a dream-place where the text transforms before me.

Yes, there are some texts that bore me, at least before I’ve studied them. This one is a case in point: Exodus 30, the directions for the small golden altar for burning incense.  The Torah goes into excruciating detail about its dimensions and construction. When I first read it, I sighed. Not only do I need to chant it, I need to preach on it, and I had the feeling it was going to be a job to get a good drash out of a small piece of furniture.

So I began: first translating the passage for myself. It’s very straightforward, almost a cookbook. Nothing catches my eye. Then I begin to chant from the tikkun, the book that has all the marks to designate vowels, punctuation, and melody (the Torah scroll itself has none of those.)  I go one short phrase at a time, singing it over and over until I’ve got it. Periodically I stop to figure out how to fit phrases together.  Still boring: details, details.  Details, details, details.  Yawn.

Then I begin to notice how the melody comments upon the text: emphasize this word, that phrase.  Make a sort of soprano hiccup (geresh!) on one little preposition.  Gradually the text warms up, or I warm up to it. The little incense table begins to take shape, and glow.

Sometimes Torah is transparent. More often is it opaque.  All I know is that if I will spend time on it, invest my heart in it, open my soul to it, every time it will come to life before my eyes.

 


More Etiquette for Bar & Bat Mitzvah Guests

February 10, 2013
English: House of the People is a multi-purpos...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, you’ve been invited to a bar mitzvah. You’ve answered the invitation promptly, you know to dress modestly, and you’ve decided what you are going to do about a gift. All those things were covered in an earlier post, Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners.  One kind reader pointed out to me that I hadn’t given enough detail about how to behave during the service, and I’ve decided to add more information. After all, if you are bothering to read this before you attend the service, you care! Thank you for caring about behaving well at a service that is, for a Jewish family, a major life event.

1. YOU ARE A GUEST. One important principle to keep in mind: you are not just a guest of the family at this event. You are the guest of the synagogue at which it occurs. A bar or bat mitzvah at a synagogue at a regular service  will include not only people who attend because it is Suzie Cohen’s bat mitzvah, but regular congregants who attend because it is Shabbat and they want to pray. The party that comes afterwards will be a private affair, but the service itself is for the congregation as well as for the family and their guests.

2. NO ELECTRONICS. It’s rude to play with your cell phone, or to allow it to make any noise at all. Turn it off, or make sure it is absolutely silent. Keep it out of sight. This is particularly important in a synagogue on the Sabbath, a day when Jews refrain from a number of activities in order to experience the holiness of the day. A “ding” (much less a ringtone made from your favorite pop song) will mar the day, no matter how quickly you squelch it.  So turn it off, and put it away. If you are a physician on call, set the thing to the least annoying possible setting and sit on an aisle near a door, so that you can easily move outside to deal with it.

3. NO PHOTOS. For the same reason as the electronics, photography during a Shabbat service is disrespectful. Depending on the family’s observance and the synagogue rules, there may be a videographer or a professional photographer present, but they have been given very strict boundaries for their work; you do not have that information. Don’t assume that because the videographer is there, it’s OK to whip out your iPhone and take a few shots. Do not take photos during the service, and ask before you take any photos before or after the service.

4. NO APPLAUSE. This is a religious service, not a performance. Applause is inappropriate and unwelcome. You can best express your appreciation for Bobby’s Torah chanting skills by sitting quietly and attentively and not dozing off.  The best appreciation you can give: remember some aspect of his drash (speech) to comment on it to him or his parents later.

5. YOUNG CHILDREN & INFANTS. If you have a very young child, it is fine to bring something to keep them quietly occupied. “Quietly” is the operative word: books are fine, but toys that inspire or require noise are not. Electronics are absolutely out (again, see #2 above.) If your child is going to be miserable in the service, you may want to consider getting a sitter for the occasion (if you let the family know ahead of time that you are considering getting a sitter, you may be able to share a sitter with another family in your situation.)  If you bring an infant, everyone understands that babies sometimes fuss. Everyone also expects that in that circumstance, a parent will immediately scoop up the baby and head for the nearest exit. Many synagogues have “crying rooms” that allow parents to see the service while dealing with a fussy infant – if you think you may need such a place, ask one of the ushers where it is when you enter.

For a Jewish family, a bar or bat mitzvah can be as significant a lifecycle event as a wedding. At such a time, we invite the people who are important to us to be with us. By inviting you to join them in their synagogue on their important day, your friends have told you that you are important to them. Thank you for honoring them by taking the trouble to educate yourself about how to behave in the service!


What is Hateful

November 30, 2012
Intro1009-10

An Intro class photo. I’m wearing the red jacket, in the middle.

What is hateful to you do not do to any person.  All the rest is commentary. Go and study. – Hillel (Talmud, Shabbat, 31a)

Let me ask you, my intelligent reader, one simple question: do you like it when random people tell you what they perceive to be the error of your ways? Do you in fact hate it when people do that? How about when people make fun of you, or people like you? How do you feel about that?

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.

I am a fat woman.  I’ve spent an amazing amount of my life and money trying to be a thin woman, and folks, it is not going to happen. And no, I’m not open to arguments: if a diet was going to change my body permanently, if exercise were going to change it permanently, I would be thin.  And I’m not. (Nor am I alone. Did you know that the most extensive study of weight loss diets ever done revealed that 5 years out, 95% of dieters regain whatever they lost? That over 41% wound up heavier than they began?)

In my personal life, I am blessed with friends and family who love me as I am. I think they are mostly relieved that I finally let the dieting go and have settled into a routine of regular exercise and healthy meals.

But let me turn on a TV, or the computer, or for that matter, go out in public, and I and other fat people face a world that never heard the words of Hillel and certainly never heard of kindness. They think it is perfectly fine to moo at a woman exercising outdoors. They write hateful things to us and about us. They think it is perfectly fine to make TV shows about the humiliation of fat people.  You know. You’ve seen it, too.

So here’s all I have to say: What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. If you see a fat person, you don’t need to be extra nice. You just need to be as polite as you’d be to anyone else. Making jokes or giving advice, under the guise of “humor” or “for their own good” is just cruelty in a clown suit or a fake white coat.

If you are tempted, just remember the last time someone said something useless, ignorant or cruel to you.  Re-live the feeling. Then find something else to talk about. Your words will not help any more than the latest fad diet will – in fact, they might do a great deal more harm.

Just for today, try saying nothing hateful about your own body or anyone else’s.

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary. Go and study. 


Jewish Greetings 101

November 10, 2012
English: Just a pic of the ways to say welcome...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You walk into a synagogue for Friday night services, and an usher hands you a prayerbook, a sheet with announcements, and says, brightly — something in Hebrew. Or… something.  Then someone else says… something… to you as you take a seat.  You don’t know any Hebrew. You’re paralyzed. What to do?

If you are a little intimidated by the Hebrew phrases spoken casually around Jewish communities, you are not alone.  Here are some tips for coping, and some of the most common phrases you’ll encounter:

1. MOST PHRASES ARE ROUTINE. Most of the phrases like “Shabbat shalom” (see below) do not require more than a smile or a repetition back.  No one is going to ask you a real question in Hebrew. Most American Jews do not speak Hebrew. (This makes rabbis sad, but it is the truth.) No one will say “The building is on fire” or “Your car has its lights on” in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Ugaritic.  I promise. It’s almost certainly some variation on “Hi.”

2. PEOPLE WHO TALK TO YOU ARE POTENTIAL NEW FRIENDS. They are friendly. It’s OK to say, “What does that mean?” In fact, that gives you an opening for a real conversation, which is how you get to know people.

3. YOU GET POINTS FOR TRYING. When you begin learning greetings, you may mispronounce things, or use a phrase incorrectly. That is OK. Mistakes are how you learn. Your best bet is to develop a sense of humor about it.  Two examples:

- When I first became a Jew, several people came to me and said, “Mazal tov!” (Congratulations!) I was not sure how to reply so I said, “Mazal tov!” back to them. Eventually someone explained to me that “Thank you” might be better.  As far as I know, everyone thought it was, at worst, a little dumb but sweet.

- My spouse, Linda, mis-heard “Boker Tov” (Good morning) and when she tried to say it to someone else the first time, she said, “Boca Raton!” The person she greeted did burst out laughing – she had inadvertently hit on a very entertaining pun, since lots of retired Jews live in Boca Raton, FL.  But again, she got points for trying. And ever since, at home we say “Boca Raton!” because it’s fun.

4. IT IS OK TO REPLY IN ENGLISH. Below, when I write “you can reply” I mean “you can if you want, or you can reply in English.”

Here are some common phrases you may hear, with possible replies:

Shalom! means Hello! or Goodbye! and you can answer: ShaLOM!

Shabbat Shalom! means Happy Sabbath! and you can answer: ShabBAT ShaLOM!

Boker tov! means Good morning! and you can answer: BOker TOV!

Lie-lah tov! means Good night! and you can answer: LIE-lah TOV!

Toe-dah rabbah means Thank you very much! you can reply: b’VAHkaSHA

Mazal tov! means Congratulations! You can reply Toe-DAH! (Thanks!)

Some phrases are not Hebrew, but Yiddish:

Goot Shabbes! means Happy Sabbath! and you can reply Goot SHAbes!

On holidays, there are special greetings:

Shanah tovah! means Happy New Year! you can reply Sha-NAH toVAH!

Chag sameach! means Happy Holiday! you can reply Chag saMAYach!

Goot Yuntif! means Happy Holiday! you can reply Goot YUNtif!

There are more greetings connected with particular holidays, but those are the basic ones. There are words for things you may often hear, but I’ll do a separate post for them.

Remember, it’s just people being friendly: the universal reply to all of them is a smile.

Related articles


8 Easy Steps to A Simple Shabbat Dinner

October 22, 2012

How can your household begin to keep Shabbat? One way to do it is with a simple Shabbat dinner.

Note:  If you are new to Shabbat, make only a few changes, or even one change, at a time.  Try things and notice what happens and how you feel.  Adjust as necessary. This is a lifetime project. Blessings may be said either in Hebrew or in English. Do what is comfortable for your household.

  1. MAKE IT SPECIAL:  “Special” will mean something slightly different for every household. Perhaps you will use a tablecloth, or invite a friend. Whatever you do, make sure it is food that you like and that will not add stress. If cooking is hard for you, have good takeout. Many Jews eat challah, a sweet egg bread, on Shabbat.
  2. YOU WILL NEED:  Two candles, wine or juice, bread, yummy food.
  3. SET THE TABLE Put the candles in candlesticks and bread on the table. Cover the bread with a napkin.
  4. LIGHT CANDLES:  A. Light the two candles B. Say the blessing: Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who commands us to light the candles of Shabbat. (I’m assuming here that English is more comfortable for you. If you want Hebrew, or to sing it, you can find a recording here.)
  5. BLESS THE WINE: Lift up the cup of wine or juice and say: Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine. Take a sip. (If you want Hebrew, or to sing it, you can find a recording here.)
  6. BLESS THE BREAD: Uncover the bread, touch it, and say: Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. (If you want Hebrew, or to sing it, you can find a recording here.) Then tear or cut a piece of the bread, and eat it.
  7. EAT DINNER:  You already know how to do that!
  8. SAY GRACE AFTER MEALS: Stay at the table until everyone is finished. Then give thanks for having eaten: Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Who nourishes us all. There is a longer, beautiful blessing which you can learn by googling “Birkat Hamazon” and about which I’ll write in some future post. For now, for a simple Shabbat for beginners, this is enough.

The most important thing is to keep things low-key and pleasant: don’t use this meal as a time to remind anyone of work that needs to be done, or for unpleasant arguments. And keep in mind that since Shabbat comes once a week, it doesn’t have to be “perfect.” If there is something you’d like to be different, try that next week!


Why I Belong to a Congregation

October 13, 2012
English: Exterior of Temple Sinai - First Hebr...

English: Temple Sinai – Photo credit: Wikipedia

Today I was reminded again why I belong to a congregation.

My partner is out of town, enjoying a long-planned trip with friends. The friends with her are good friends of mine, too — but the three of them are doing something that I wouldn’t enjoy. So I don’t begrudge her being gone, nor do I begrudge them. Truly, it’s all good.

Only I’ve been lonesome. It’s been a stressful week, for a lot of reasons that are not for a public blog, and I was a bit sad and a bit lonely.  I’ve been following my instincts when lonesome and stressed-out, which is to watch more TV than is good for me, and to work more than is really necessary. In other words, I’ve been hiding.

But today I had a commitment to keep: I had promised to read the haftarah for services this morning. This morning, as I got dressed up to go, I wished I didn’t have the commitment. I wished I could just hide some more. But I got up, dressed up, and went to services at Temple Sinai.

As soon as I walked in the door, most things were familiar. I noticed that the prayer books and chumashim (books with the Torah and haftarah in them) were jumbled on the shelf, so I tidied them up. I chatted with a acquaintance, and met a couple of new people. I reconnected with a recently widowed person with whom I hadn’t really talked in years.

The service was nice. Some of the words blew past me, but others reminded me of the person I would like to be, the person I intend to be.  We learned a little  Torah, and the chair of the Green committee told us what that committee does (encourage recycling and improve water use around the shul.)  The music was excellent, although I was a trifle annoyed that I didn’t know all of it.

At kiddush (the Shabbat meal) afterwards: more friends, more little conversations.  Nothing earthshaking, just a reminder that I’m part of a community. I’m needed, if I will just step up and straighten the books, or volunteer for something. I’m needed to pay attention, too. Other people have troubles, bigger troubles than mine: I heard about recovery from surgery, and new widowhood, and disappointments in business.  I heard a few jokes, applauded a couple of impending birthdays, complimented someone’s Torah reading. I resolved, as I left, that I need to be more present in this place, because it connects me to other Jews, to people with Jewish values.

This is the real reason I belong to a congregation.  I came home reconnected to the Jewish people.  That is almost always what happens to me when I go to shul (synagogue). Some of it was good, some of it was boring, some of it was trivial, but it was centered on Torah. I am reminded of who I am, what I want to do in the world.

I am a Jew.  I am part of a People. I remember that best when I can touch base with other Jews, and the best way I know to do that is with my congregation.

Thank you, Temple Sinai.  I love you.


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