Peering Through the Screen

Image: World Map, by Grand_Scient / Pixabay.

I have known for a while that I have readers in some pretty far-flung places. Recently I saw a report from tweepsmap, a company that tracks twitter activity, about the location of my Twitter followers. It matches up very consistently with the information I get from wordpress.com about the readers of this blog. No surprise there, since I advertise articles using my Twitter account, @CoffeeShopRabbi.

Much of the info was unsurprising. I have many readers in the larger Jewish centers of population like Southern California, New York City, and Israel. But I also have readers in some places that surprise (and rather delight) me.

I must say, I’m curious and I’d love to hear from more of you.

Apparently there’s a regular reader in Cuzco, Peru. Are you Jewish? What brought you to the blog? I visited Cuzco once and found the people there to be extraordinarily kind.

There are quite a few of you in Dallas and Houston, TX – that makes sense, there are significant Jewish communities there. But what about you in Victoria, TX? How did you find me? Is the blog useful to you? How could I be more useful?

Mexico City was a nice surprise – more than one reader there – but in Guadalajara, too? Cool! How can I be more helpful to you?

I was astonished to find out there’s a reader in Dhaka, Bangladesh.If you are willing to tell me more, I’d love to hear from you.

I was excited to see that there is a reader in Shanghai, China. A number of European Jews took shelter in Shanghai during the Holocaust, and I understand the Chinese were very kind to them.

There are a surprising number of readers living in the Arab world, and in other places where there are very few if any Jews. Again, I wonder what you get out of this blog?  If I can answer questions that you wonder about, I hope you will ask.

Some of you I know. I know the reader in Karlsruhe, Germany. I have corresponded with the reader in Lyon, France. One of the readers in Norwich, UK, is an old friend from 43things.com.

I’m writing this litany because I want to encourage all readers to leave a comment or two. I truly would love to hear from you. I’m curious about your questions and about what interests you. If you are Jewish and isolated, I hope that I cut through some of that isolation. If you aren’t Jewish, how is this blog useful or interesting? Do you have questions I could answer?

Thanks to all of you for reading. I am grateful to you for doing so, and especially grateful when you comment. Torah is not a solitary activity.

Shalom, chaverim! Greetings, friends!

 

 

10 Ideas for Navigating a Contentious Thanksgiving Table

Image: Two people arm-wrestling. Photo by RyanMcGuire/Pixabay.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States. My radio and online reading tell me that people are very worried about discussions at the table, especially about politics.

Here are some options for navigating contentious discussions:

  1. Keep in mind that these are the people who let you in the door when you are on the doorstep. You actually do want some connection to them, especially if you are feeling threatened by the world.
  2. If your family enjoys argument, by all means enjoy!
  3. If someone at the table finds argument terrifying, be gentle with them. Just accept that this is who they are, and offer them a hug, more pie, or the TV remote. Don’t be mad at them for not arguing; it just isn’t their game.
  4. If you are the person feeling threatened by arguments, remember: A person who seems angry may just be avoiding admitting (to themselves?) that they are afraid.
  5. If someone at the table is feeling an existential threat (“We could die!” “We could starve!” etc) focus on their feelings rather than their logic. Saying, “You are a silly goose because you think such-and-such” is actually quite cruel. They are scared.
  6. If someone at the table feels hope for the first time in a long time, respect their relief if only for the peace of the day.
  7.  Leave words like “bigot” or “idiot” out of the conversation. They never add value. The rabbis of Pirkei Avot tell us to “give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
  8. If someone is being a bully, don’t engage with them. Instead, turn to the person on the receiving end of the bullying and change the subject to something more pleasant.
  9. If all else fails, say “It’s Thanksgiving and I want to enjoy your company, not fight.” On Shabbat, I have been known to say, “Not on Shabbes. Next topic!” when a subject seemed likely to bring out the worst around the table.
  10. It’s only one day.

 

Thanksgiving Interlude

Image: Gabi and Jojo are hungry. Photo is mine.

Sorry, folks, my back has been out again. Sitting at the computer aggravates it, so I am limited to my smartphone for posts.

Right now there are two poodles bouncing around on the bed, trying to convince me that it is dinner time. They haven’t adjusted to the change from daylight savings time. Weeks have passed but they are still quite sure all their meals are one hour late.

So life goes on. My back is messed up again (I fell off too many horses as a kid) and the dogs are hungry. Some things go right on no matter what’s in the news or how I feel about it.

Torah doesn’t change, either. It’s still my job and yours to be a mensch. That means looking for opportunities to do mitzvot. We should not stand by while someone else bleeds. We should give tzedakah according to our means. We should not attempt to use tzedakah to control the recipients or to benefit ourselves. We should be honest in business, and pay the people who work for us in full and on time.

Those are just a few mitzvot. Go and study – that’s a mitzvah, too.

I wish you a Thanksgiving holiday of peace and gratitude. May we all continue to recognize our blessings despite aches and pains and whatever gets in the way.

My Sukkah is Soggy :-(

Image: A rain-soaked pergola. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

My sukkah (soo-KAH or SOOK-uh) is soggy. Actually, the sukkah-stuff is still in the garage; what you see in the photo above is the very wet pergola that becomes my sukkah every year with a bit of presto-change-o.  A big storm is blowing through the Bay Area, with heavy rain and strong winds, and bits of it are going to blow through for a couple of days more.

On the one hand, frustrating: NOW is the time to set the sukkah up, and frankly, unless I want the walls and the rugs and so on to blow down the hill and over into the neighbors’ yards, it’s better to wait. On the other hand, my back is still out from Yom Kippur (too much sitting in synagogue) so maybe this is a gift in disguise. Anyway, I am a Californian, and it’s against the law here to complain about water that falls from the sky for free!

 

An Unusual New Year

Image: Waveform of a heartbeat, artwork by geralt via pixabay.com.

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not…

– The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, read on Rosh Hashanah

I’ve been distracted for the past several days. My brother Albert lies in the hospital after a very bad accident. He has not regained consciousness yet, but I am happy to say that we have gotten good reports from the doctors.

Obviously, the circumstances are extremely stressful. The family has gathered at the hospital, waiting for news and wishing we could do more. It’s a time of spiritual yearning. As most of you know, I converted to Judaism as an adult, so I don’t have any Jewish connections in this town. While I know rabbis in many cities, Nashville isn’t one of them. I arrived on Shabbat and Sunday evening would be Rosh Hashanah.

I staggered back into my hotel room after the first day and left a message for my rabbinic colleagues about the situation, including the fact that I needed somewhere to pray on Rosh Hashanah. One of my rabbis back home, Rabbi Yoni Regev, was ahead of me – in a few minutes I had phone calls from two rabbis at Congregation Ohabai Sholom, known as The Temple in Nashville. Rabbi Mark Shiftan invited me to services and Rabbi Shana Mackler made sure I had everything I needed. Both were very comforting; I was barely coherent when we first spoke.

(For my non-Jewish readers: We Jews are a communal bunch. There is comfort and strength and better prayers when a group of us are gathered together. While I have wonderful family here, for prayer I really needed a minyan. It is hard to put into words, but for an observant Jew, there is nothing quite like praying in the midst of ten or more other Jews.)

Because I am a teacher, of course, this is also a lesson:

  1. Every Jew needs a rabbi, and the usual way to have a rabbi is to join a congregation. My rabbi at home used his network to make sure that I had somewhere to go for Rosh Hashanah and pastoral care nearby. When I was too upset and scrambled to take care of myself, he made sure I had support. Without my congregation, I’d have been lost.
  2. It is OK to ask for help – it is imperative that we ask for help when we need it. Had I not put the word out that I was in distress, no one would have known I was hurting. It’s my responsibility to reach out when I have tsuris [trouble.] Privacy is fine, but secrecy festers.

My brother isn’t out of the woods, but the signs are good. I feel better about him, knowing that he has excellent care. Praying for him at services was a great comfort, too. If you would like to pray for him, your prayers are welcome; his name is Albert. He’s a big, sweet, strong man and God willing, he is on a path toward healing.

Wow, what a beginning to the new year! I wish each of you a Shanah Tovah, a good year, a year of blessing and peace, kindness and wisdom!

albert
Albert Menefee

 

 

 

Obama in Dallas

Image: President Barack Obama (pixabay.com)

President Obama gave a remarkable speech in Dallas yesterday. If you did not have a chance to listen to it, you can find the text of the speech here.

Usually when U.S. presidents give speeches at memorial services, the content is fairly innocuous. They seek to comfort, and avoid controversy at all costs. That was what I expected today when I flipped on the radio to listen.

Instead, I heard my President speak to many different constituencies, seeking to draw them together despite a week in which events have driven us apart. He spoke respectfully and very personally of each of the fallen police officers in Dallas. He acknowledged that they were killed as they watched over a peace march, a march that called the nation to witness the deaths of two men at the hands of police. He spoke to their families and fellow officers, but not only to them. He spoke as well to all those who marched peacefully under the #BlackLivesMatter banner, acknowledging that all is not well and that we all need to do more.

I am sure that there were some who heard that speech for whom it was “too much” or “not enough.” I can only imagine the care that went into crafting those words, walking the tightrope of agonies, but it was clear to me that he was trying to bridge that gap and bring us all together again.

So if you didn’t hear the speech, read it. Don’t settle for soundbites on the evening news; the whole thing ran to 40 minutes. It’s all worth hearing.

“We do not persevere alone. Our character is not found in isolation. Hope does not arise by putting our fellow man down, it is found by lifting others up. – Barack Obama, 7/12/16

What is Bedikat Chametz?

Image: Compost Recycling Can, by Alexas Fotos. Pixabay.com

The night before Passover, there’s a traditional Jewish ceremony called Bedikat Chametz.

Bedikat Chametz means “checking of chametz” and it has to do with making a last check for all the chametz in the house. That’s the stuff we’ve been cleaning out for the last month – all the products of the five forbidden-for-Passover grains: wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye. By the last night, there shouldn’t be any left, but the traditional thing is to save a bit back so that you can “find” it and destroy it. I have a half-package of fettuccini pasta waiting for bedikat chametz at my house. Now I’m waiting for sundown – traditionally, 40 minutes after sundown on the evening before Passover is the proper time for it.

Traditionally, you take it outside and burn it. I live in fire country in California, and even in the springtime, my neighbors would rightly call the fire department if I started a fire outside. So I put the last chametz in the compost can, which technically isn’t mine – it belongs to the city. I thereby move it off my property, outside my domain.

(An alternative: My friend and teacher Rabbi Stephen Einstein reminded me that for families with children, bedikat chametz can make an enduring Passover memory. If you have children, consider making the hunt for chametz a hunt for hidden chametz (pieces of bread, perhaps) through the house) then either burn them up or deal with their removal as safety demands. Some families even offer a finders prizes for chametz.)

Then I say the prayer for nullification of chametz:

All leaven and anything leavened that is in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have observed it or not, whether I have removed it or not, shall be considered nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.

And once I’ve done that, any chametz left in my house is inedible trash.

We’re almost there: Countdown to Pesach!