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.

Lag B’Omer: A Lesson on Plagues

Image: Mask, Gloves, and Hand Sanitizer (Klaus Hausmann / Pixabay)

It’s Lag B’Omer, and the year is 2020. It’s not an ordinary year.

Where I live, we cannot do a lot of the things associated with this minor Jewish holiday: no big weddings, no parties, no beach bonfires. We can have haircuts if we want, as long as we are willing to do it ourselves. This is the year of #COVID-19 and #StayAtHome.

Here’s a link to what I usually teach about Lag B’Omer. The short version is that it’s a break in the time of semi-mourning we call Counting the Omer.

This year, I’m looking at Lag B’Omer a little differently. Tradition teaches that the first half of the Omer is so serious because we are remembering a plague that killed many of Rabbi Akiva’s students. According to the story, the plague stopped on the 19th of Iyyar, so we pause today to celebrate.

A plague ended? And we are celebrating 2000 years later? Once I would have said that was a bit excessive, but that was before I experienced a pandemic.

Today, on Lag B’Omer, I’m taking the day to remind myself that this will not last forever. The plague among Rabbi Akiva’s students didn’t last forever. The Black Death didn’t last forever. The Spanish Flu didn’t last forever. COVID-19 will not last forever, either.

So today’s lesson is: it won’t go on forever. It will be over sooner if we treat it seriously. Many people talk about the conflicting needs of health and the economy: I say, those are a false competition. There’s no economy if too many people are sick, much less dead or dying. We need to follow the precepts of the scientists if we want to restart the economy successfully. We need to test, and trace, and treat the sick. We need to stop acting as if some people are expendable, because the core lesson of this horror is that we are not really individuals: our bodies are linked. Our survival is linked. We are all part of one human family.

Today, I remind myself that COVID-19 will not last forever, and I will work for the day when we see a FULL recovery: recovery from this plague, recovery of an ethical health system, recovery of a healthy economy, recovery to a true refuah schleimah, a healing to wholeness.

I await that day, and then I will celebrate.

(Lag B’Omer falls on day 33 of  counting the Omer, the count of days from Passover to Shavuot. (Follow the link if you want to learn more about the Omer and how to count it.) It gets its name from the number 33, lamed-gimel, which can be pronounced as “Lahg.”)

A Jew on Christmas Day

Image: My neighbor’s house is amazing. (Photo by Adar.)

My neighbor’s house is amazing, like a branch office of Disneyland.

My house has a menorah in the window. One of our poodles is mesmerized by the menorah; we don’t know why.

Many Jews are gathered for a family party, because this is the day that most of us have time off.

Some Jews are gathered with Christian relatives.

Some Jews are going to the movies, and out for Asian food.

Some Jews are feeling awkward about all the “Merry Christmas” greetings, and some are not.

Some Jews have really been enjoying all the wild lights in their neighborhood (that’s me.)

Some Jews are glad they don’t have to clean up the mess afterwards (again, me!)

Some Jews are working, having traded the day with Christian co-workers; they’ll be off for synagogue next Rosh HaShanah.

Some Jews hope the rabbi doesn’t stop by and see their Christmas tree.

Some Jews are feeling really conflicted about all of it.

Some Jews and many others are working today: cops, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, nurses, people at the power company, people working transit, clerks at the 7-11.  (Thank you!)

Some Jews are feeling left out.

Some Jews are ladling food at soup kitchens.

Most Jews and their neighbors wish for Peace on Earth, today and every day.

Because there is too much hunger, too much poverty, too much war, too much disease, too much pain, too much sorrow, too much tsuris in the world.

May the new secular year be a year in which we can find a way to work together against war, poverty, hunger, and pain.

May be new secular year be a year in which we have the courage to see new ways of listening and talking, walking and running.

May we have courage. May we have heart. May we have strength.

May we remember this feeling of being the Other the next time we are tempted to Other another.

Amen.

(Adapted from a previous post, in a different year. Time flies, and things change.)

Update #2: So Far, So Good

Image: The poodles say, “Gosh, the air stinks! What’s burning?”

We have power back here at home, as do both of our sons. Our niece, however, is still in the dark. All of us may lose power again tonight, depending on what PG&E decides. Yet another “wind event” is coming tonight, and PG&E is trying to prevent more fires.

There’s a lot of anger at PG&E these days. There is no doubt that management there has bungled by deferring maintenance and paying themselves bonuses. However, something should be said about the whole business of dividends. Investors, including small investors as well as bigger fish, hold utility stocks because they are known to pay good dividends. (Click link for what those are.) So it isn’t just the PG&E bigwigs who have pocketed money that should have been trimming trees and undergrounding lines – it’s anyone who has invested in PG&E stock in the past decades. That includes many small investors, many funds in which small investors invest, and many funds that benefit people who don’t directly invest in the stock market — foundations that operate charitable funds, etc. (Full disclosure: I’m one of those small investors.)

This is just to say that as usual, Pogo was right: We have met the enemy and he is us. Or as someone once told me, if I point my index finger at someone, notice that three other fingers are pointing back at me.

We are going to have to look at our choices, not only here in California but also in other places where climate change is beginning to shift balances. Things that worked in the past are no longer working. Privately held utilities with stockholder owners may have worked in the past, but do we need a different system now? If we want the state to do more, who is going to pay taxes to make that happen?

Also, as tempting as it is to yell at the PG&E employee who works on the local lines to get the power going, remember that their family is likely in the dark, too, and they are not making a zillion bucks as they climb up utility poles. We can write the corporate offices to tell them how mad we are, and that will be much more effective: here’s their contact info.

I’m grateful for all the first responders. I cannot imagine being a firefighter; the dangers they tackle boggle my mind. I had a roommate for a while who was an EMT, and sometimes he would come home hollow-faced from the horrors he’d witnessed and assisted.

I am also grateful to all the people who have checked on me and Linda, and who have expressed concern. We really are ok, although I am cautious and like to say, “So far, so good.” Fire weather is still all around us, and I don’t like to tempt fate.

Update: The Lucky Ones

We’ve been without power for 24 hours and I must say this is a very strange experience. I’ve never seen anything like this windstorm: there is no rain, no clouds, but the wind comes in ferocious gusts which tumble patio furniture and rip stressed trees to bits. It truly is a storm, only with sunshine.

I titled this “The Lucky Ones” because I have to acknowledge our good luck. So many people around the region are now under evacuation. They won’t know if their homes were spared until they are allowed back. Some know their homes are gone. Some survived only with the clothing on their bodies and maybe a dog or cat.

We’ve tried to make the best of the quiet here at home. I finished a knitting project during the daytime, and tonight, like last night, I’ll go to bed early. I’ve checked in on friends via text message, but had to cancel my afternoon online class. I have no Internet, and trying to teach from an overcrowded Starbucks… no, better to wait!

Such situations as these fires raise theological questions. Why do some people suffer, when others are lucky? Why does God allow these destructive winds? Did we do something bad? Are we being punished?

Jewish tradition has lots of different answers to these questions. The book of Deuteronomy seems to suggest that bad things happen only to people who deserve them — but you and I both know that that can’t be right. Bad things happen to both the innocent and the guilty.

Every human being will experience tragedy sometime in their life. These days every Facebook feed seems full of good luck and virtue, but if you look deeper than the PR, pretty much everyone has troubles. Many people have pain they don’t advertise.

And yes, some people seem to enjoy boundless luck. It isn’t fair. All I know to say is that we never know as much as we think about other people’s lives.

Jewish tradition teaches us that the relief of suffering is OUR job. Waiting around for miracles isn’t likely to succeed – miracles are very, very rare. God does not usually fiddle with the laws of nature.

So if you feel lucky, look for someone to help. If you feel unlucky, look for someone else unlucky and help them. If you feel grateful, express that gratitude by helping someone.

We are God’s hands in this world.

Fire Season

Image: Sunset over San Francisco Bay.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area we are in the midst of another fire and weather emergency. Another fire burns up in Sonoma County, to the north. A dry, hurricane speed wind is lashing us all over the region. Because of that, the utility company has turned off the power to many homes, including mine.

Frankly, I do not begrudge the power outage. It is inconvenient but if it can lower the likelihood of a firestorm in my neighborhood, I am grateful.

Don’t worry about me. My family and I are ok. There are thousands of people displaced by the fire, and a number who have lost their homes. There are firefighters putting their bodies on the line, fighting the Kincade fire. They are the ones who need our support and our prayers.

I’m posting using my smartphone, and I need to conserve power. I will post as I have the power to do so.

It Was 30 Years Ago Today…

Image: Aerial image of the collapsed Cypress Structure in Oakland (USGS)

The engineer who came to take a look at my house said to me lightly, “Well, I wouldn’t trust it in a major earthquake, and you really ought to get that foundation fixed, but it isn’t an emergency.” I had called her in to check out a crack in our basement wall. That conversation took place early in October, 1989.

When the shaking began, I was working in my home office. One child was upstairs playing, and the older, a first grader, was chatting with a friend on the kitchen telephone. The longest 19 seconds of my life began with that jolt. All I could think was that I had to get the children out of that house.

I scrambled to the kitchen, snatched the phone out of Aaron’s hand, and threw him out the front door onto the lawn. Then I ran back to get Jim. I remember that the frame of the house was groaning, and the china cabinet was shuffling away from the wall in the dining room. Jim was strolling down the stairs, singing, and I grabbed him up. We ran out into the yard just as the shaking stopped.

Car alarms were going off. A few people came out of the houses, looking around. I clutched my children and whispered to the house, “OK, you can fall down now.” It didn’t, but it would be two years before the repairs were finished just in time for the Oakland Hills Fire.

That was the beginning of a long, tense evening. Linda was missing. This was before cell phones, and she should have been on her commute home from SFO. My heart flipped over when the radio said that the Bay Bridge was “down.” It would be more hours before we heard about the horror of the Cypress Structure.

Turns out, Linda had an appointment at the eye doctor’s, and had just had her eyes dilated. It was a while before she could see well enough to drive home. We were lucky, though: the optometrist’s office was in downtown Oakland, so we were all on the same side of the Bay. Other couples were separated for days because with one bridge down, the other bridges suspect, BART halted, and no ferries in operation, there was simply no way home.

Over the following days, we found out about all the dreadful things that had happened around us. Ours was the most-damaged house in our immediate neighborhood, but it was nothing compared to the pancaked Cypress Freeway, where 42 people died in their cars, or the entire Marina District of San Francisco, which burst into flames when the ground liquified and gas lines burst.

Most frightening of all to me was the aftermath in Santa Cruz, near the epicenter of the quake. Robin Ortiz worked behind the counter at the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company. Her co-workers escaped the building as the un-reinforced brick structure collapsed, but she was missing under the rubble. Rescue workers toiled for hours to find her, but gave up late in the evening, convinced she was dead. Her partner of five years, Ruth Rabinowitz and their friends begged the workers to keep going and eventually police were called to pull them away from the wreckage.

What chilled me was the way the media treated Robin’s partner Ruth. She was portrayed as a nut, a hysterical lesbian fruitcake. A widow would have been a tragic figure: hysterical perhaps but understandably so. This “friend,” as they kept calling her, was just a nuisance, as were her friends. Police arrested five people, including the widow. Robin’s body was found late the next day.

It was a sobering lesson in second-class citizenship. The message was clear: our relationships were not real in the eyes of the public or the law. It would be 24 years before same sex couples in California would enjoy the protection offered by civil marriage.

Thirty years have gone by, and a lot has changed. The Cypress Structure and similar double-decker freeways are all gone from the landscape. The new eastern span of the Bay Bridge is a thing of beauty. Ferries now crisscross the Bay every day, revived in the wake of disaster. And since 2013 same-sex marriage has been legal not just in California, but all over the U.S. When I refer to “my wife,” nobody even blinks.

Rest in peace, Robin Ortiz.

From the Sublime to Whatever This Is

Image: I’m glad that knitting requires no electricity! A knitting project in progress.

I hope that each of you had a meaningful Day of Atonement. Services at Temple Sinai were beautiful today, and I am full of post-Yom-Kippur energy.

I am writing to explain that things are a little strange in San Leandro tonight. We have been warned about a possible power shutoff, because high winds are predicted.

At the moment there is almost no wind and two shutoff times have passed by. In short, I have no idea what is happening. My desktop computer is unplugged to keep it safe from surges, and I’m posting this from my phone.

I’m unsure when I shall post again.

Whatever happens, get ready for Sukkot. If you have a sukkah, put it up. If you want to learn about Sukkot, this blog has a search function. I will be back soon, I hope.

L’shana tovah umetukah! To a good and sweet year!

Online Rosh Hashanah Services!

Image: Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA

Not everyone can get to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah services. Because of my health issues, I will be able to attend in the daytime, but the evening services (in a hall where the chairs hurt my back) are impossible.

However, my synagogue streams services, and I invite you to join me for the evening service Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sunday night, Sept 29!

Services will stream at the Temple Sinai Community Facebook Page beginning at 7:30pm, Sunday, September 29, Pacific Time. I will be watching from home as well, so we can wish each other a “Shanah Tova!” before services begin.

The next morning, Rosh Hashanah services will stream at the same Internet address (see link above) at 8:30am and 11:30am Pacific Time. My wife and I will attend the 11:30 service in person, so I will not be watching the service from home.

Watching long distance is not ideal, but a whole lot better than nothing! I hope that some of you will join me in watching and participating from home on Sunday evening.

Insight on White Supremacists, and an Action Plan

Image: Dayton police released photos of the weapon and drum magazines used in the attack on August 4, 2019. (From CNN.com)

There is a remarkable article in a recent issue of The Atlantic. Yara Bayoumy and Kathi Gilsinan interviewed Christian Picciolini, a reformed white nationalist. They wrote A Reformed White Nationalist Says the Worst Is Yet to Come.

Picciolini joined a neo-Nazi hate group more than 30 years ago. Now he works to help people leave such groups. In the interview, he made some connections that I found really helpful in understanding what we are up against. I recommend you read the article, but here are some high points that stuck with me:

  1. The standard against which the violent white nationalists gauge their success is Timothy McVeigh, the anti-government terrorist who blew up an Oklahoma City federal building and killed more than 100 people in 1995. High body count is the point. In Dayton, the attacker used the equipment pictured above to kill 9 people and injure 27 within 30 seconds – more than one person hit per second.
  2. Revisions in the gun laws will help to limit the violence, but they will not solve the problem. Right now guns are the easiest way to kill large numbers of people. McVeigh used a car bomb and Islamic terrorists have used cars and airplanes as weapons, to name just a few deadly options. We need to get weapons of war away from hate groups, yes, but we also need to recognize that they will adapt.
  3. Racism and white supremacists have been part of the USA from the beginning, but conditions have changed. With the advent of the Internet, it is no longer necessary to recruit new members in person – young men looking for meaning in life find this philosophy online, and radicalize without ever meeting anyone in person.
  4. When we watch the videos with the attached ads, we are funding the hate groups. Many of these groups and individuals make their operating funds via advertising attached to their videos. So think twice before clicking on their websites, their videos, and any other such media.
  5. People who leave white nationalism behind do so because they have an emotional experience that changes their perceptions. For instance, they get to know someone from the targeted group. Arguing with racists does not change their minds, no matter how many facts are at hand. Experiences and time are what open hearts.
  6. Picciolini says, “There aren’t programs being funded to help people disengage from extremism.” In other words, our government is doing exactly nothing to counteract this movement and its ideology.

The quote that knocked me off my feet was this:

Typically what I found is, people hate other people because they hate something very specifically about themselves, or are very angry about a situation within their own environment, and that is then projected onto other people.

– Christian Picciolini, quoted in A Reformed White Nationalist Says the Worst Is Yet to Come , in The Atlantic, 8/6/19, accessed 8/10/19.

If this is true, then the meanest haters out there are filled with misery and/or anger. Nothing I say is going to persuade them of anything, because they will simply read it into their narrative. Dealing with actual violence or plans for violence is a job for law enforcement, and we need to insist that law enforcement step up their game.

Finally: some action items for myself – feel free to join me in any of them that appeal to you:

  • I am going to write and call my elected officials and ask for funding for research and programs for helping people untangle themselves from extremist groups.
  • I am going to insist that my representatives press the FBI to put a priority on white nationalist domestic terrorism.
  • I will continue to contribute money to organizations that track hate in America.
  • I will control any urge I have to make snarky comebacks to any such people I encounter on social media. Nothing I say in that environment is going to change their minds; it may serve to harden their position. Instead, I will work to encourage the good I see, taking as my inspiration from Hillel’s advice below.
  • I will correct false information I see spread about, but I will do it calmly and politely. I will not engage.
  • I will continue to search my heart and my behavior for my own racism and participation in racist systems.
  • I will maintain my awareness that all of us who are hated by white supremacists are in this together. I will not let that awareness be disrupted by side-trips into other political issues.

Hillel used to say: be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.

Pirkei Avot 1:12