What’s the Blessing for Train Food?

Image: The Coast Starlight rounds a curve north of Paso Robles, CA. Photo by Loco Steve, who reserves some rights. Check his flikr page for details.

Wow! I just returned from a family trip to Southern California and found 42 replies to the questionnaire I posted day before yesterday. Thank you all for your answers; I will tally them as quickly as possible and get back to you with what I’ve learned.

Honestly, it was wonderful to take a day on the train and simply step aside from the news cycle. I rode the Coast Starlight and watched the scenery of California sliding by my window. I had no idea what shenanigans were going on in Washington. When I had cell service, I called a senator’s office and said, “PLEASE DON’T LEAVE PEOPLE WITHOUT HEALTH CARE!” and then returned to my reverie watching the world go by.

Trains are a lovely way to travel. They are slower than airplanes, and that slowness seems to translate to an increase in civility. I chatted with several people of various backgrounds and our conversations remained friendly. We were all interested in going somewhere but we weren’t in a hurry. Maybe that is the answer to something.

One thing I noticed was that while there are still economic differences on the train, they are not as wide as on airplanes. Everyone had somewhere reasonably comfortable to sit. No one was horribly crowded. The people in sleeper cars had prepaid for their meals, which came with some priority on meal signups. However, if people ate in the dining car, they sat at tables set for four. If your party had less than four people in it, you were guaranteed an opportunity to make new friends.

The dining car was not an option for me. I was in the “accessible sleeper” which allowed me to lie down (for my back issues) and do stretches while flying along at 60mph up the California coast. I could not ascend to the dining car, so my steward took my order and brought food to me. Since I don’t eat meat, I chose Kraft Mac’n’Cheese from the kids’ menu. They were out of the vegetarian dish for grown-ups, but I was fine with the mac and yellow stuff plus some salad.

I did have to think for a while about the blessing to say over food that I wasn’t sure was actually agricultural output. (What IS that yellow stuff? I am not convinced it is really cheese.) I finally settled on the blessing for snacks, which is also appropriate for a pasta meal in which there is no bread:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haOlam, borei minei mezonot.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of all that is, who creates various kinds of sustenance.

Whatever you are eating as you read this, may it sustain you, too.


The War Between Love & Prudence

Image: Two fire engines at the fire at Alco Iron & Metal Co. in San Leandro, CA. (Photo by Alameda Co Fire Dept, via SFGate.com) Notice the thick smoke.

Love the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:19

I participate in a local social media site called NextDoor.com. At its best, NextDoor is a way to share information and to make connections nearby, a rare and wonderful thing in this age of the World Wide Web. Like all social media, it has limitations, but it has great potential for good.

This past week I heard on the radio that there was a fire at a local salvage facility, Alco Iron & Metals. I was familiar with the business; I’d gone there a few times with my son, an artist who works in metals. I remembered it as a barely controlled chaos of all kinds of scrap metal and materials. A fire there had terrible potential.

I looked down the hill, and sure enough, a huge plume of smoke rose from the site. The wind was blowing south, not towards me. The radio warned local residents to shelter indoors and to keep pets inside, because the smoke was bad for people.

No kidding, I thought, thinking of the people downwind of the fire, choking on the burnt effluvia of the stuff I’d seen stacked at Alco. Most of it was metal, but metal is often painted or coated, or connected to plastic. Had I been downwind of that fire, I’d have flung my dogs in the car and gone seeking shelter away from the smoke.

A little later I checked in to the NextDoor site and saw that one of my neighbors had put out the welcome mat for anyone in the line of the smoke to come to her house to breathe clean air. I was dazzled by her hospitality – all she asked was for people to contact her privately and she’d send them her address!

I thought, “I should do that, too.” And then I hesitated. Thoughts flooded in: I did not know who might respond. I thought about all the times I have been warned against letting strangers in my home. I thought about the many times in Torah I am commanded to love the stranger.

I decided not to place a general invitation to my house. Instead, I thanked the other woman for her generosity.

I’m not happy with my response. This is not the person I strive to be.

I need to think through how I want to deal with people I don’t yet know in a time of trouble. I want to talk with the neighbor who opened her door. I want to think of more and better options for myself the next time something like this happens.

I know from my training that there are usually more than two possible responses to any situation. In this case, all I could think of was “open invitation” and “no open invitation.” I’m going to keep looking until I create a better menu for myself, so that when people are hurting nearby, I can respond more compassionately.

Have you ever faced a situation in which your desire to do the right thing and your fears were in conflict? How did you choose? How did you feel about your choice? In the aftermath, did you do any planning about future events?

Is Wonder Woman Jewish?

Image: Directors Patty Jenkins and actors Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and Connie Neilsen talk about Wonder Woman at San Diego Comic Con, 2016 (Photo by Gage Skidmore.)

I’ve waited for this movie for 50 years.

When Linda and I sat down yesterday in the theater, I was wary. I’ve had my heart broken in movie theaters before. The first time I was nine, when Walt Disney tarted up Mary Poppins (1964) beyond all recognition, drenched her in sugar, and perverted P.L. Travers’ books. I felt I’d been robbed, and I left the theater sobbing.

I feel strongly about certain characters in literature.

So when there has been talk about a Wonder Woman film, I’ve perked up my ears, but I’ve not let myself hope too much. Hollywood has a way of messing up good stories, especially good stories with female protagonists. I was encouraged to hear that Patty Jenkins was directing; her writing and direction of Monster (2004) were miraculous.

I was even more encouraged when I heard that Gal Gadot had been cast as the lead. She is beautiful, she is strong, she can be very funny, and I liked the idea of the world hearing an Israeli accent in that role. A Jewish woman as a super hero? Oh, yeah!

I saw the poster and dared to hope. WonderWoman

As sexualized as the comic book figure was, as campy as the TV show, the image in the poster is that of a warrior. She is kneeling on a beach, at the edge of her world.  The sun behind her is either rising or setting, with no clues as to which it is. Is she at the beginning of a journey, or recovering from battle? Is her grave expression sadness or something else?

I won’t spoil the film for you. I spent quite a bit of it in tears, watching a brave woman do terrifying things in defense of innocents. Some of those tears were that I was finally seeing the movie I’d wanted to see ever since I first found a Wonder Woman comic book discarded on a sidewalk in Nashville 50 years ago and recognized her as mine. Some of those tears were the tears of a graying feminist who finally got to see a great movie about a wonderful woman, directed by a woman. Some of them were because the movie is genuinely moving, and occasionally pretty scary (take that PG-13 rating seriously, please.)

Does the film have Jewish content? You bet. It stars a Israeli woman. Wonder Woman may have a Greek name but she learns a very Jewish lesson: humanity was born good, with a terrible capacity for evil. The fight is to free that which is good while curbing that which is evil. It is not a simple task.

Go. See the movie. Let me know what you think in the comments.


Nine Years Ago

Image: Rabbi Steve Chester,my sponsoring rabbi, speaks to me at my ordination on May 18, 2008 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Nine years ago today, I was ordained a rabbi. It was a long strange journey getting there, and it’s been a curious journey ever since. Lately I have been reminded by illness how much I love being a rabbi, and how grateful I am for meaningful work.

To all of you who have been with me on that path, thank you. ❤

Sickroom Exegesis

I’d been feeling below par for a while. I kept imagining reasons that might be so, but mostly I pushed the feeling aside. Then one morning while working out, I realized something was truly wrong. My trainer took me to the emergency room and after a bunch of tests, it emerged that I had blood clots in my lungs again.

A lot of people don’t survive their first pulmonary embolism. I’ve now survived two.

I am grateful: for the doctors and nurses at San Leandro Hospital, for CT scans and science, for my trainer Brittany, who did not let me shrug it off again, and for good health insurance. Without any one of those messengers of the Holy One, I might be dead now.

Once they wheeled me into the room where I am now picking this out on my phone, I saw the sign in the photo above. It says “Goals” and under that, “No S.O.B.” and “No Pain.” Just as with Torah, I see this text as having levels of meaning.

The pshat, or simple literal meaning, is that the doctors hope for me to get to the point that I have no shortness of breath (S.O.B.) and no pain. Those are certainly my goals, too!

But on a deeper level, I wonder, what is it telling me? I am in a situation where I have little control. Indeed, I’m here because my body is out of control. I’m scared. I’m annoyed. I’m tethered (via needles!) to machines I only dimly understand. It would be easy to be cranky and whiny. But there in front of me is a mitzvah, a commandment: “Don’t be an S.O.B.! Don’t be a pain!”

I am reminded of a sermon I once heard. A chaplain was speaking to a group of residents in a Jewish nursing home. He said, “I hear some of you say, ‘I am retired! I have no job any more!’ but the truth is, a Jew always has a job!” He looked around the room. “Anyone know what that job is?”

They looked back at him blankly. He said, “A Jew’s job is to be a mensch! No matter what your body can or can’t do, you can be a mensch.”

It is good to be reminded of these things when I feel scared and uncertain. I can be a mensch. Or as my little sign puts it in a negative commandment, “Thou shalt not be a pain.”

We are living in uncertain times. Many things frighten some of us. We realize how little control we have of much of life. It is tempting to lash out, to behave badly.

But even under the most difficult circumstances, a Jew has a job. We are commanded to live lives of Torah, to be kind to the vulnerable, to deal honestly. We are commanded to care about our impact upon others.

My nurses were amused by my exegesis of the sign in my hospital room. I like being reminded that even in an undignified hospital gown, even with scary news, even with small and large irritations, I have a job that I can do.

That’s what it means to be a Jew.

Detour Around the Riot

I was in Berkeley to teach my regular Wednesday night Intro class. We had a nice class, then I had to figure out how to get home. A riot had erupted at a protest on the campus. The protest began because a controversial speaker had come to campus. The riot happened because some people are stupid.

The big mess blocked most of my usual routes. I had plenty of time to think about demonstrations as I made a wide detour around the violence.

I get it: Milo Yiannopoulos is a sleazy purveyor of hate speech. The student Republicans had to know he was an incendiary choice of a speaker. Other students protested his presence. That much is fine by me: hear what he has to say, then if his ideas are foul and unworthy of a great university, say so. As the kindergarten teachers say, use your words.

Whoever chose to “protest” with violence did no favors to free speech.

I hate to see us going down this path. Milo Yiannopoulos got exactly what he wanted from UC Berkeley last night: great visuals of a riot to splash across TV screens from Bangor to Santa Barbara.

What has this to do with Torah? I pondered that as I took the long way home at 9pm. My students and I had spent the evening learning Torah. I hope that in doing so, we were equipping ourselves to make better decisions, to meet challenges with wisdom and courage.

Women’s March, Oakland

Image: Family photo at the Oakland Women’s March. Linda, Marisa and I are center; Jim is the guy in the sunglasses taking the selfie. Photo by Jimbo Scott, all rights reserved.

The March would officially begin at 11. At 9:30, the the Jews of the SF East Bay began to gather at a tiny Chinatown park by the Lake Merritt BART station in Oakland, and at 10 we began singing. At 10:30, with wall-to-wall humanity surrounding us, we began a short Shabbat service. Rabbis David Cooper, Steven Chester, and I led prayers.

Jews rarely go out to do political things on the Sabbath. I am not sure how many Jews were there, but we were there in force (at least 200 from Temple Sinai, Oakland, plus Kehilla Congregation and Congregation Beth El Berkeley, and maybe more.)

Early on, I was anxious about safety: my own safety, on a tiny scooter in a big crowd, and the safety of everyone marching with Temple Sinai.

My scooter-eye view

Gradually my anxiety lifted, as people kept pouring out of the BART stations, from the buses, from everywhere. The small park in Chinatown where we’d been told to gather was a mass of humanity. Total strangers greeted each other like old friends. We were all so tired of being alone with our TVs and computers, so glad to find out that we were not really alone.

My mood and the mood of the crowd was warm, almost joyful. We were standing together after the last few weeks of transition to an Administration that alternately shocked and confused us.We held downtown Oakland in the embrace of an absolute gridlock of bodies. The age range ran from the seventies (at least) to infants in strollers. One very old lady smiled and waved down on us from a Chinatown apartment, showing us “V for victory” with her fingers.

Linda and I were together on scooters, and our son Jim and his wife Marisa joined us. I thought about all the times I’d gone to peaceful demonstrations of one kind or another holding tightly to his hand; now he and Marisa were watching over us two aging boomers: sweet role reversal. They were kind enough not to mention that they were looking after us.

Eventually the crowd began to move, slowly. No one was upset or angry; we were all happy to be together. The March was marching! By 3pm, police were suggesting detour routes to those who were getting tired. One cop said that he estimated the crowd at 100,000. There was no violence at all.

A gentle rain fell. I don’t know how many made it to City Hall for the rally, but many of us dispersed as gently as the rain. We’d made our point.

Some great signs today:

Cheerful marchers, serious messages. (Photo Ann Thomas Seitz)

“Paul Ryan Health Care Plan: Die already, and hurry up about it.”

“Not My President”

“This is NOT a DRILL”

“Sing for our Rights”

“It’s Not a Hot Flash, It’s Climate Change”

“Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue”

“Freedom and Justice for All.”

“Nurse Practitioners against Trump: Leave Pussy Grabbing to the Professionals”

All day I kept thinking about the Holly Near song, “We Are A Gentle Angry People:”