New Online Class: Sampling Judaism!

Image: Samples of food. Photo by Jose B. Garcia Fernandez | Pixabay

Sometimes a whole loaf is too much. Sometimes we want a sample. I’ve been thinking for a while about offering something for people who want to learn a little about Judaism, without a huge investment of time and money.

— What do Jews believe about God? How do Jews pray?

— Why are Jews called the People of the Book? Which book? What is Torah? What is in Jewish scripture? What is the Talmud?

— What is the biggest Jewish holiday? How can some Jews insist on their Jewish identity, and at the same time say they are “not religious”?

Starting November 9, HaMaqom |The Place is offering a new class, Sampling Judaism. It will be a three week series of one-hour classes with short presentations by a rabbi (me) with plenty of time for questions.

This class is a short dip into Jewish culture and practice, not intended to be the equivalent of a full “Introduction to Judaism” course. The content will follow a basic structure of Jewish ideas about God, Torah, and the Jewish People, but the details will be driven by students’ questions.

For more information about Sampling Judaism, take a look at its page in the HaMaqom online catalog. Tuition is on a sliding scale, and further financial aid is available to those who need it.

If you are curious about Judaism, or know someone who is curious, please share this information with them. I’ll see you (or them!) in class!

Chodesh Tov! It’s Cheshvan.

Image: A large ripe pumpkin is surrounded by dying vines. (wagrati_photo / Pixabay)

Chodesh Tov!  [Happy (new) month!]

That’s the traditional greeting for every new month. The moon is key to the Jewish calendar, and every new moon is a new month, a Rosh Chodesh.

The month of Cheshvan is the quietest month of the Jewish year – no holidays, no fasts, just quiet. The only exception is the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd, which is celebrated in Israel on the 29th of CheshvanSigd falls on the 50th day after Yom Kippur (just as Shavuot is 50 days after the first night of Passover) and in Ethiopian Jewish tradition, it is the day to celebrate God revealing Godself to Moses. For more about Sigd, there is an excellent article in the Times of Israel.

The name Cheshvan is short for Marcheshvan, the older name for the month, which comes from Waraḫsamnu, the Akkadian (Mesopotamian) name meaning “eighth month.” (In Mesopotamia, the month we call Nisan is the first month of the year, which is how the months were counted in Biblical times, too.)

At some point in the past someone noticed that Mar is Hebrew for “bitter,” and the tradition arose that Marcheshvan was “Bitter Cheshvan.” Indeed, there are bitter dates in the month:

12 Cheshvan – Assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin (1995)

16 Cheshvan – Kristallnacht (1938)

This year the United States will hold a national election on the 17th of Cheshvan, Nov. 3, 2020.

May this Cheshvan bring peace and clarity to us on many levels.

Sukkot Thoughts for 2020

Image: An Israeli street, with sukkot. (Shutterstock image; all rights reserved.)

It’s Sukkot, and on the rare occasions that I leave my house, Oakland looks like Israel this week.

As people lose their housing, the tent camps that already existed are growing. In Israel, the fact that there are sukkot everywhere would not be a surprise – of course there are sukkot everywhere! — but in the secular Bay Area, it is no holiday.

In a normal year, we use the sukkah to remind ourselves of the fragility of our daily lives. In 2020, we need the sukkah to remind us that the fragility we are currently experiencing is temporary.

In 2020, we need the sukkah to remind us that these should be temporary structures, not a permanent solution to anything.

In 2020, we need the table in the sukkah to remind us that the people in those temporary dwellings are hungry. We need to be reminded that while we may find the sight of the stars through the shakh (palm covered roof) quaint and lovely, there are people who see any hole in the roof of their shelter as a doorway for rain, cold, and illness.

In 2020, a study by Feeding America, a nonprofit dedicated to ending food insecurity, predicts that local food insecurity may affect 1 in 3 adults this winter and 1 in 2 children. The food banks literally do not know how they will meet the demand, especially with federal sources of food assistance drying up.

What can we do?

  1. Ask for help if you need it. Many people who were secure last year are insecure this year. Covid-19 and federal policy have destroyed jobs and left many people in a terrible spot. If you are one of them, it may be very difficult to say to the people who’ve always thought of you as a helper, not a helpee. Just remember, this year is different in ways we have never seen before. If you are in trouble, it is OK to reach out and ask for help. Remember, when we ask for help, we are giving someone else an opportunity to do a mitzvah.
  2. We can support our local food banks. Government aid takes time to mobilize, but the charities are already up and running. They know their stuff. Find the food bank nearest you, or near some community you love, and give them whatever you can.
  3. We can support our local food banks with volunteer labor. Many of the volunteers that have staffed food banks in the past are elders who cannot continue that work because they are at high risk for Covid-19.
  4. We can support organizations that help people who don’t have homes. There are a number of good lists online, both local and national. For instance, the SF Chronicle publishes the SF Homeless Project, listing local programs. Your local Jewish Family & Community Services organization has such programs which serve both Jews and non-Jews. You can also check with Google to get an idea of local organizations.
  5. We can support organizations that serve victims of domestic violence, which has been on the rise. Locally, the organization Shalom Bayit (“Peace of the Home”) continues to do great work with very little money. Use Google to find local organizations you can support with donations or volunteerism.

No money to donate? Or, like me, are you unable to get out and volunteer?

  1. Educate yourself on local issues. What’s going on in your town? Who is helping, what is making matters worse? What bills are in the state pipeline that address these issues? What’s on your ballot that might make a difference?
  2. Write letters to local elected officials (think “mayor, city council, state representatives”) insisting that the care of the hungry and homeless is important to you. Write letters to the editor of your local paper (there’s one I need to do!)
  3. Make your contacts personal. That’s what the staffers of politicians tell us: signing a big petition may be satisfying, but often it makes little impression. Write to YOUR state rep, to YOUR mayor, to YOUR city council person, and explain that they need to do something or they won’t get YOUR vote next time.
  4. Reject NIMBYism. Building lower-cost housing is an absolute necessity, but often after a developer is persuaded to include it in their plans, the neighbors have a fit. Sure, insist on sufficient planning regarding parking and transit! Insist that things be done properly! But don’t be the person who starts talking about how “their kind” aren’t wanted in your neighborhood, and call it out when you hear it.
  5. Pray. If there are solutions or people that scare you, try praying about them before you utterly reject them. Ask God’s help in being part of the solution; ask God’s mercy on those who are suffering.
  6. And I repeat: Ask for help if you need it. Remember, this year is different in ways we have never seen before. If you are in trouble, it is OK to reach out and ask for help. When we ask for help, we are giving someone else an opportunity to do a mitzvah. They may need the mitzvah every bit as badly as we need the help. It is OK to ask.

I’ve run on long enough; these are my Sukkot thoughts today. I wish all my readers safe shelter from the scary world, and blessings in all that you do.

A Map through the Wilderness

Image: Old map and compass. Image by Ylanite Koppens from Pixabay)

I’m feeling pretty wild around the edges lately, and I gather from social media that I’m not the only one. I’ve been on Covid Confinement since March 10, and here it is September 24th! My world got a little bigger in June, when we merged bubbles with our son and daughter-in-law so that we could help with childcare after maternity leave ran out. Hugging the baby every morning is one of the best parts of my day, along with limping out to the car to go home every afternoon.

Diapers and teething have been a big help to stay grounded. It’s funny, the same stuff that made me wild as a young mother (repetitive icky tasks) are now the things keeping me sane.

I’m also still teaching online, and will have news about a new class for you soon, once the powers that be at Hamaqom have figured out details like pricing.

AND here we are, in the middle of the Days of Awe, approaching Yom Kippur, during the unholiest time in my memory. We are living through some ugly stuff: pandemic, government corruption on what used to be an unimaginable scale, a bitter election, unrest around the world, and an attempt in our country to come to terms with our history of institutionalized racism. Antisemitism is on the rise, and white supremacy is putting up a fight. That is too much stuff to deal with all at once, but it seems we have no choice but to deal.

Where to find God in all of this? I have no idea where God is right now; I’m flying blind. However, I do know how to find holiness: I have a map, called the Torah, and I have instructions for interpreting it: Jewish tradition and my own conscience. Here’s my Pocket Map for Finding Holiness:

  1. Prayer. I put my worries and my hopes into words, and I either write them out or say them. When I have no words, I listen, in case God or the Universe or somebody wants to communicate. I also say the prayers of Jewish tradition that help me navigate, that remind me of my path.
  2. Charity. The Hebrew words is tzedakah, but it means giving from the cash resources I have to alleviate the suffering and privation of others. This reminds me that there are many people in the world worse off than I am AND they have to worry about all the other stuff too. Tzedakah helps me keep my perspective.
  3. Acts of Kindness. These are also known in Hebrew as gimilut hasidim. It isn’t enough for me to give money. I spend some time doing acts of kindness, which have gotten tricky in the age of Covid. Used to be, I did volunteer work. Now that I’m sequestering away from the virus, I do acts of kindness by being a better listener when someone needs comfort. After all, I’ve still got the phone and the computer.
  4. Study. Torah study serves several purposes. If I aim high enough at difficult material, studying completely occupies my brain, and gives me relief from worry. I can’t translate Aramaic-infused Hebrew AND perseverate over the government at the same time — I’m just not that smart! — and by studying Torah, I am learning more about that map I’m trying to follow.
  5. Busy Hands. This takes several forms: cleaning the house is mundane self-care, but it also reminds me that I am responsible for my corner of the universe. Gardening gives me a sense of connectedness to the natural world. Knitting literally keeps my hands busy, so that I don’t eat my emotions, and it gives me things to give away to friends and the many support people in my life.
  6. Saying “I love you.” I try not to let a day go by without letting the people I love KNOW that I love them. I might say it straight out, or I might tell them something specific for which I’m grateful. It lifts them up and it lifts me up, too.
  7. Care of the Body. Eating right, keeping clean, and exercising are not glamorous activities, but they are another way of acknowledging my place in creation. I’m a bodily creature, and I’d better take care of this body if I want to keep living in it.
  8. Music and Art. I try to read something good, or look at art, or listen to good music every day. Knitting lets me play with colors, but I also need the art of others. The arts affirm what’s best in humanity, including in me.

Looking back on this list, it seems so mundane! But it’s the truth, it’s what keeps me going. What keeps you going in these difficult times? What is your map to holiness?

Mourning for RBG in our Pluralist Society

Image: The body of former Chief Justice Earl Warren rests on a black draped bier in the Main Hall of the Supreme Court, on July 11, 1974. (Associated Press)

The recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, z”l, has brought up some curiosity and a number of myths about Jewish funeral practices.

Jewish mourning practice and Christian morning practices are quite different, and I am interested in seeing how the two sets of expectations are balanced during the coming week. One example of the difference came up the night after she died, when the crowd that gathered spontaneously outside the Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C. began to sing “Amazing Grace.” Jewish observers found this jarring, because the hymn is Christian and the lyrics make explicit reference to conversion to Christianity. However, this hymn almost more than any other is associated in the American public mind with mourning (see its use in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, for example.) It was certainly intended as an expression of sorrow and respect, whatever the lyrics.

Timing of the Funeral – Sometimes you will hear that we Jews bury our dead within 24 hours of death. In real life, that may mean the next day and it may not. Funerals may be delayed by a number of factors: for instance, we allow time for family to gather, and if the local law requires an autopsy, the funeral may be delayed for as long as officials require. In summary, the body of the deceased must be laid to rest as quickly as secular and Jewish law allow, with time for family to gather if needed.

Justice Ginsberg died on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the day before Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is one of the holiest days of the Jewish Year, and as such, we do not bury the dead that day. Most observant Jews will be in synagogue for at least one day, and many for two. Sunday is also a holy day for Jews who observe two days of Rosh Hashanah, so the earliest day on which interment could take place is Monday, Sept 21.

The New York Times outlined the plans as of Sept 19:

A ceremony inside the court is expected as early as Tuesday, according to someone familiar with the plan, followed by an outdoor viewing that would adhere to social distancing guidelines. A small funeral service is also expected to be held for Justice Ginsburg, who died on Friday at 87, as well as a burial at Arlington National Cemetery later in the week. Her husband, Martin D. Ginsburg, was buried at Arlington in 2010.

New York Times, accessed 9/19/2020

“Viewing” is another practice that is differently understood by Jews and Christians. Generally speaking, Jews do not have a public viewing of the body, because we feel it violates the privacy and modesty of the deceased. Moreover, Jews absolutely do not embalm our dead unless required to do so by the state. However, Justice Ginsberg is not an ordinary citizen, and the public secular mourning in the United States almost always includes some sort of “lying in state.” I speculate that the Court and the family will make a compromise, and that her closed coffin will be present for the “outdoor viewing.”

Burial with family is a Jewish custom, indeed a Jewish value.

Mourning for Justice Ginsburg will be a process, both for her family and for the nation. Her family would normally “sit shiva” for up to seven days after interment, then observe sheloshim, a period of lighter mourning, for 30 days. Her children may choose to mourn publicly for the next eleven months by saying Kaddish. For the nation, I fear that it will not be such a calm process, because there are many political repercussions to her passing.

I hope that all who cherish her memory will do everything they can to be kind and respectful to her family. When she was alive, they shared her time and attention with the public service to which she dedicated much of her life. Now that she has died, theirs is the greatest loss.

Knowing that Justice Ginsburg was a practical woman who was well aware of the approach of her death, I imagine that she has left instructions as to her wishes.

(Which reminds me: are there things you would want family to do or not do at your passing? If you don’t leave those instructions in writing that meets the standards of your state, you are leaving things up to chance. It is always a good idea to make a written Advance Directive Form or Power of Attorney for Health Care, as well as a will and funeral instructions, and to let those close to you know your feelings and the location of those documents. Otherwise, nothing is sure. Forms for such documents are available online – but don’t stop with a form. TALK to your loved ones.)

High Holy Days for Beginners, 2020

Image: Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel of Temple Beth Am in Framingham, MA blows the shofar. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Sobel.

The High Holy Days are coming!

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 18, 2020. It will begin the Jewish Year 5781. Here are some basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”] The proper reply is also “Shanah Tovah.” For other greetings, see A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings.

First, Prepare!

Preparation for the High Holy Day Season began at sundown on Aug 20 with Rosh Chodesh Elul. Jews worldwide take the month of Elul to examine their lives in the light of Torah, looking for things about ourselves that need to change. For more about preparation, look at Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days and Teshuvah 101.

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even accidentally, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”] Teshuvah 101 explains this concept in more detail – it isn’t about beating ourselves up, it’s about change for the better.

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against God. We atone for sins against other human beings through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you put into this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to look for classes and services online.

This High Holy Day cycle of 2020 will be like no other. Synagogues are streaming services, and most services will be streamlined a bit. If you want to attend, check the synagogue website for information.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5780!Advertisements

Online Class: Learn About Jewish History and Texts!

Image: A group of people studying together. (Pixabay.com)

Have you ever wished you could take a class to sort out what words like Torah, Tanakh, Gemara, Mishnah, and Talmud really mean? Wondered how “Jewish law” is related to the Torah text? Ever wished you could learn more about the history of Israel and the Jews?  Ever hoped to go to a Torah or other text study class with confidence? Here’s your chance.

Starting on Sunday, October 18, 2020 and running through Dec 13, I will teach a class on the history and texts of Judaism. No Hebrew is required; this class is geared for beginners to Jewish study. Classes will meet from 3:30 – 5pm Pacific Time via Zoom.

Class Sessions:

Oct 18 — Welcome and Shabbat Texts

Oct 25 — What is the history of Ancient Israel?

Nov 1 — What are Torah, Tanakh & Midrash?

Nov 8 — What are Biblical Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism and how are they different?

Nov 15 — What are Mishnah, Gemara, and the Talmud?

Nov 22 — What are Codes, Responsa, and Jewish Law?

Dec 6 — What is Antisemitism?

Dec 13 — History of Zionism & Modern Israel

Besides lecture on the history and concepts, we will also engage in Jewish text study, encountering these texts first-hand.

This class is part of a series, Intro to the Jewish Experience, but students are welcome to take the class as a standalone class.

For more information and to register, check out the class page in the HaMaqom online catalog. Tuition is on a sliding scale, and financial aid is available.

HaMaqom creates inclusive communities through Jewish learning and practice. We have deep roots in the Bay Area. We have been the leading provider of transformative adult Jewish learning experiences since 1974. We offer courses and programs from leading Bay Area Jewish educators and take seriously our responsibility to serve the most diverse Jewish community in the world. We welcome all who wish to learn with us and do not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, sexual identity, or national or ethnic origin. HaMaqom was previously known as Lehrhaus Judaica.

Jewish Mourning in the Time of Pandemic

Image: Jewish cemetery/ (Michał Buksa /Pixabay)

I just taught a class on mourning in Judaism, and it was a sharp reminder of how strange times are right now. Funerals are strange right now: we cannot gather in a chapel, we cannot crowd together for comfort at graveside. Some of my colleagues have officiated at funerals with only themselves and cemetery staff present, using a smartphone camera to allow the mourners to see. Shiva tends to be virtual these days, too, and I weep for the mourners who have to sit at home, alone.

So how can we help, those of us who want to observe the mitzvot of comforting mourners?

First, we can check with our rabbis about how they are handling funerals right now. They will have directions about what is helpful and what is not. Please don’t argue with the rabbi, or tell them that you have a great idea for a better option. I promise you, they have agonized over every bit of the arrangements already.

We can help by letting others know about the shiva, or about the death itself, without adding gossipy bits.

We can help by not criticizing the family about arrangements that are not ideal. They are already aware that things aren’t normal, and they should not be bothered with things that are out of their control.

We can help by attending the virtual funeral, if that is the arrangement. If it is not set up as a virtual event, we can help by not causing a fuss if we are not one of the very few who are invited to attend in person.

We can attend virtual shivas, even if we’ve already spent six hours on Zoom that day. Mourners need to see that they are not abandoned at such a time. They need us to be present, even if the only possible presence is virtual.

We can help by checking in with mourners by phone, or by text message, or by email.

We can help by not complaining if they take a while to answer.

We can help by sending notes of condolence – you know the old fashioned kind, on paper?

We can help by sending mourners our good memories of the person who died.

We can help by sharing photos, if we have some.

We can help by offering to bring food by, to drop off no-contact style, by the door.

We can help by sending food via a local restaurant or deli.

We can help by continuing to keep contact, even after the first week or month.

We can listen, and keep listening. Sometimes mourners need to tell stories again and again. One of the kindest things we can do is to say, “It’s OK, don’t worry about it” when they worry that they are talking too much about their loved one.

We can help by notifying clergy, if we get the sense that the mourner is getting depressed or otherwise suffering. Rabbis and cantors want to know when a member of the congregation is suffering, but they can’t know if no one tells them.

The day will eventually come when we can have proper funerals and shiva again. But until then, our mourners need us, the people they may only barely know in their Jewish community, to be there for them.

Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5780

Image: Israeli Rabbi Stacey Blank blows a shofar. The shofar is blown each day during Elul to waken our souls.

Tonight is the start of the month of Elul, the time of year when Jews take stock of our lives and work to mend relationships. This Elul, like everything else this year, will be different: we in the U.S. are living in the midst of a pandemic. We are living on a planet suffering climate change. We are living through a political crisis unique in our history.

The central theme of Elul remains: what is out of whack in my life, and how can I improve? What if I died tomorrow: what unfinished business, what unsaid words would I leave behind? What is the state of my relationships? What, in short, is the state of my soul?

It’s a tall order for one short month. No time to waste! May this Elul be fruitful for you, a month of insight, healing, and blessing.

For Abuse Survivors: The Most Comforting Verse in the Bible

Periodically I post resources for incest and abuse survivors. This is part of that series. If such content is triggering to you, please just click on by.

כִּי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי וַֽיהוָ֣ה יַֽאַסְפֵֽנִי׃

When my father and mother abandoned me, YHVH gathered me in.

— Psalm 27: 10

If there is a single verse of the Jewish Bible that speaks most directly and compassionately towards survivors of incest and domestic violence, it is this verse in Psalm 27. I remember the first time I read it, I read one of the conventional English translations, which softens the first clause into a conditional: “Though my father and mother abandon me, YHVH will take me in.” (JPS translation) Even in that weakened state, the verse jumped out at me: I felt seen by the psalmist.

When I learned how to translate Hebrew for myself, I learned that the translator had chickened out, softening the verse. As the scholar Robert Alter has written in his commentary on Psalms, this is perhaps the most shocking line in Psalms, and maybe in Tanakh. Parents abandon a child? Unthinkable!

The hard truth is that sometimes parents fail their children in disastrous ways. The infant-parent bond fails, or a parent is deeply troubled by abuse in their past, and acts it out upon their own child. These things do happen, and apparently the psalmist knew of such families. Maybe he or she had been such a child – we will never know.

I find this verse comforting to say aloud. I can say it in English or in Hebrew. If you would like to say it in Hebrew, here is a transliteration:

Ki avEE v’eeMEE azaVOOni va’AdoNAI ya’as-FAH-nee.

When my father and mother abandoned me, the Holy One took me in.

To me, there is no more comforting line in all of Scripture. Is there another verse that speaks particularly to you?