Re-Dedicating the Small Sanctuary

Image:  During Chanukah 2015, the Intro class lit chanukiot together. This year I forgot to take pictures.

My house sits in a mostly Christian neighborhood, surrounded by bright Christmas decorations. I love my neighbors’ lights, and look forward to them every year. My house, though, is different: there are no Christmas decorations, only a little electric chanukiah winking in the window by the front door.

Every Chanukah I rededicate my home to be a mikdash me-at, a little sanctuary of the God of Israel.

  • Is it safe for visitors? Well-lit outside?
  • Is it safe for all: how do we speak to and treat each other here?
  • Does it look like a Jewish home? Are there things that shouldn’t be here?
  • Are people who work here compensated fairly?
  • Do I practice hacnasat orchim, hospitality to guests?
  • What can I do to make it more of a place of Torah?

Last night I had twelve students over for Shabbat dinner. It was a big celebration for me.

When I got sick last year, I cancelled such a gathering because I didn’t have the strength to do it. Since then, the thought of cleaning and cooking, then cleaning again was completely overwhelming. But two weeks ago a student asked me shyly: “Could I come see how you do Shabbat dinner sometime?” I said, “Sure!” and emailed the class.

I have rededicated my home, and my self, to hospitality. As with last night, it will need to be modest: potlucks, instead of me cooking everything. I asked for and got help with set up and clean up. Even with all the delegation, I was a mess today – but a happy mess, because the mitzvah of hospitality is dear to my heart.

As I told my guests, I hope that every one of them hosts a Shabbat dinner for friends or family sometime soon. I pointed out my less-than-stellar housekeeping and said, “If I can have people over when things are not perfect, you can too.” Hachnasat orchim (hospitality to guests) is an important way to build Jewish community, one relationship at a time.

To whom or what are you rededicating yourself this week? Chanukah is about memory, but it is also about dedicating ourselves in the here and now, meeting the challenges of being Jewish in the world.

10 Ways to De-Militarize Your Holiday Table

Image:  Two people duel with table knives over a table and desserts. (Photo: lolostock/Shutterstock)

Dreading arguments at your holiday table? Jewish tradition teaches us that it is the responsibility of both the hosts and the guests to make such a gathering as pleasant as possible.

From an article on hospitality in the Virtual Jewish Library:

In Judaism, showing hospitality (hakhnasat orchim) to guests is considered a mitzvah. When one knows of strangers who are hungry or need a place to relax, it becomes a legal obligation. Some rabbis consider hakhnasat orchim (literally the “bringing in of strangers”) to be a part of gemilut hasadim (giving of loving kindness).

Guests also have responsibilities to the host. They are obligated to express gratitude for what the host has done for them:

Ben Zoma said: A good guest, what does he say? The host went to so much trouble on my behalf! He gave me so much food! How much wine did he bring before me! How many loaves [geluskaot] did he bring before me! All the effort that he expended, he expended only for me.

However, a bad guest, what does he say? What effort did the host expend? I ate only one piece of bread, I ate only one piece of meat and I drank only one cup of wine. All the effort that the host expended he only expended on behalf of his wife and children.

With regard to a good guest, what does Ben Zoma say? “Remember that you magnify his work, whereof men have sung” (Job 36:24); he praises and acknowledges those who helped him.  – Berakhot 58a

Here are some options for navigating contentious discussions at the holiday table:

  1. Focus on what you love about the people at the table. Challenge yourself to see the spark of the divine in every person at the table.
  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 terrified 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 expresses a feeling of existential threat (“It could mean nuclear war!” “We could wind up in the poorhouse!” etc) focus on their feelings rather than their logic. Saying, “You are being silly!” 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, even if you think the thing that makes them feel hopeful is a sign of the coming apocalypse.
  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 says something you find bigoted, don’t feed the troll! Try, “Whew! I am sure you didn’t mean that the way it sounded! Let’s talk about something else.” Immediately offer a change of subject. Complimenting the food is always a safe change of subject: “This turkey is amazing, Aunt Ploni! What do you do to make it taste like this?”
  9. 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. “The last time I saw you, you were excited about math club. How’s that going?” [The principle in both (8) and (9) is to give attention to people who are doing something beneficial, and to remove attention from people who are being jerks.]
  10. 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.
  11. Remember: It’s only one day!

A Jewish Halloween?

Image: Two jack o’lanterns grinning in the dark. (fotomek/pixabay)

There’s a big bag of candy in my refrigerator, so it must be the week of Halloween.

Before I was Jewish, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. I loved wearing a costume, and I loved handing out candy at the door. After I became a Jew in my 40’s, it took me a while to sort out what I was going to do with Halloween.

My thoughts went like this:

I love Halloween! I am not going to give it up!

Halloween has its roots in both pagan practice and Catholic practice – it’s not for Jews.

— But I love Halloween!

Halloween is a holiday when we basically license people to do mischief – not very Jewish!

— But I love Halloween!

We have Purim for costumes, without the whole “trick or treat” protection racket.

— But I love Halloween!

… and so on.

I had no problem whatsoever letting go of Christmas, partly because it carried some bad memories, and partly because the religious aspect of it was quite real to me. Halloween was a lot harder to give up, because I had a lot of great Halloween memories, both as a child and as an adult, and its religious content was not as immediate to my experience.

However, I could not escape a simple fact: It isn’t a Jewish holiday, and there are things about it that are simply not right from a Jewish point of view.

After a lot of years of study and thought, I decided to celebrate Halloween as a time for hospitality. I don’t dress up. I don’t decorate. However, the kids who come to my door know that they can depend on me for some really high-quality candy – stuff that they like, or can trade to others for things they like more.  And I let my non-Jewish friends know that they are welcome to bring their children by for a safe treat. I admire their costumes, I hand out the goodies, and it’s a day of goodwill all around.

But come Purim – look out! You never know what crazy thing I’ll wear!

RavAdar
Who IS this guy?

Two Rabbis in a Parking Lot

Image: Rabbi Suzanne Singer and I took a very awkward selfie while we watched over the polling place for Election Protection. 11/8/2016

I was all set to write an elegiac post about my day working at the polls in Georgia. I spent the day sitting in parking lots, 150 feet from polling places, smiling and watching for people who were distressed.  My first shift was at a place where things ran properly and there wasn’t a lot to do (which is the best possible scenario.) At the second place, in the evening, I was helping at a poll where there were some small issues, but everything was resolved. There was beauty in the sight on so many people, rich and poor, brown and white, educated and not, each completely equal in that moment of casting their vote.

I met some wonderful people: pastors in Macon, folks who drove down from Atlanta to help, rabbis from all over the country. I forgot to bring business cards, so we exchanged emails so that we could stay in touch.

Then I drove off, to this hotel just south of Atlanta, because I have an early flight. I watched the election returns in this hotel room.

I spent the day with one America: a diverse group of people who banded together to protect the rights of citizens. I’m a lesbian, a Jew, a rabbi, a woman, and I’m white. I chatted over lunch with a white Christian pastor and an African American Christian pastor, and we made friends. We don’t agree about everything (we found a few of those things while we were chatting) but we can work together despite the differences.

Then tonight I saw another America: an America that chose to elect a man for President who talks about rounding up Muslims, who has been endorsed by the KKK, who has breathed new life into white supremacist organizations. He gave speeches in which he dog-whistled anti-Semitic tropes. I don’t think he actually believes many of the horrible things he said to get elected, but he appealed to the lowest impulses of my fellow citizens and they chose him.

I commit to reaching out: reaching out to all the people I know who will be panicked about this election. I’ve already sent notes to Muslim friends, to some transgender friends, to others I know who are feeling vulnerable. I don’t know exactly what lies ahead, but I know that we will need one another.

 

To Welcome the Stranger

Image: Modern day Bedouin offer us a window into the past. Photo by hbieser on pixabay.com

This article by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs is beautiful, and it is made even more so because it is offered in honor of my friend and teacher, Rabbi Ferenc Raj. Rabbi Raj made me welcome years ago when I was a stranger with a “funny accent” in the Bay Area of California. In the process he taught me by example much about what it means to follow in the tradition of Abraham our father.

Rabbi Fuchs, thank you so much for this wonderful and timely teaching!

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

Thoughts shared at Kirchengemeinde, Schulensee, Germany, October 9, 2016

(In Honor of Rabbi (Dr.) Ferenć Raj, who has exemplified these ideals throughout his distinguished career)

We Jews are incredibly proud of our Torah! But we never claim that Torah was history’s first Code of Law. There are several that came before. The Code of Hammurabi was the most famous.

But we do claim that Torah was the first code to grant equal protection under the law to the non-citizen. “You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It may surprise you to know that this idea, so beautifully read for us this morning, does not appear just once in our Torah nor even twice.

The Torah emphasizes this crucial revolution in human thinking no fewer than 36 times. No other commandment appears so frequently.

We find the roots of this commandment in the…

View original post 572 more words

My Evening At the Iftar

Image: Medjool dates in a dish   Copyright: forden / 123RF Stock Photo

Last week, my friend Muyesser sent me a text message: “Would you and Linda like to come to Iftar on Monday night?” Linda had plans, but I was free and very excited; I’d never been to an iftar.

We are in the middle of the month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from food, water, and intimacy from sunrise to sunset. Just after sunset, they break the fast with a meal called iftar. Usually it is a meal just for the family at home, but it can also be a community occasion, a big party. This iftar would be a gathering of Muslims from many different parts of the Bay Area, meeting at a high school over on the peninsula, south of San Francisco.

As the sky turned various shades of red, men and women carried in huge platters of food and put them on a buffet table that ran down the center of the room. Children ran around excitedly, and adults who were done with their tasks gathered at tables, talking. Then the organizer stood up with a microphone and welcomed us. He then passed the mic to me for a short blessing. I prayed for all the children of Abraham and Sarah to be blessed with insight, courage, and open hearts to see us through challenging times. After that an imam taught for a few minutes about the spirituality of Ramadan. Then a young man came forward to chant from the Quran.

Suddenly the sun slid below the hills and it was time to eat. My neighbor, a very sweet woman, offered me a medjool date from a little plate on the table. People were moving towards the buffet table, nibbling dates. Others were still standing by their tables, drinking from bottles of water.

The potluck was delicious and it reminded me of many Jewish potlucks I’ve attended. There was a huge platter of quartered pita, followed by salads, hummus, roast vegetables, dolmas, roast chicken pieces, and many different concoctions of rice and legumes, some with nuts. Dessert was on a separate table.

Where before the atmosphere had had a nervous energy (everyone was hungry!) I could feel the room relax as we ate. I sat with a group of women who became more and more playful, stopping every few minutes to make sure that I’d gotten some of a delicacy, or that I had enough to eat, or did I need water? One mother sent her daughter to the dessert table (“Bring back a plate of them!”) They were very sweet, and we laughed and talked.

Iftar1
These were my dinner companions for the evening. I’m so glad we took a photo!

Then, as the children got up to play, people began to visit. Several people came by the table to thank me for the blessing. The terrible murders in Orlando came up, and the women around me were emphatic in their disapproval. They and I were on much the same page: how was it that a man was able to buy a military type rifle with a large magazine, when he had been under investigation for terrorism and was a known wife beater?

It was a peaceful evening, a friendly evening. Eventually it was time to say my goodbyes. The organizer and my friend were both very kind, and we agreed that we needed to bring our communities together in the near future.

I made my way to the car. The Strawberry Moon, the full moon of the Summer Solstice, hung in the eastern sky above my home.

StrawberryMoon

Hospitality is a Mitzvah

Image: A welcome mat, with a friendly dog sitting on it. Photo via Shutterstock.

All the world is a narrow bridge. The important thing is not to panic.

-Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav

Yesterday I wrote about being welcoming at synagogue. However, don’t stop there! The mitzvah of hospitality commands us to open our homes, as well. Before you panic, read on!

BIBLICAL ORIGIN – There are many examples in Torah of the patriarchs observing the mitzvah of hospitality. Possibly the most famous is in Genesis 18, when Abraham ran to meet his guests at Mamre, and hurried to feed them, even though he was still recovering from his circumcision.

LIFE AND DEATH – Hospitality in the Bible was not just an issue of friendliness. If travelers could not find a safe place to rest, they could die. It was part of the social contract of the wilderness to welcome strangers. It was also part of that contract for strangers to behave themselves as guests. In much of Jewish history, Jews were not safe except in the homes and settlements of other Jews, and so it has remained a sacred duty to care for visitors, and to cherish hosts.

WHAT ABOUT TODAY? – Today hachasat orchim (literally, “bringing guests in”) remains a mitzvah. You might say, well, rabbi, we have hotels and restaurants for that! We have Jewish institutions for that! But today many of us are aching for personal connection. We are not nomads like Abraham, but often our families of origin and our old friends live far away.  We human beings are social creatures, and we crave connection to others.  There are few ways to better get to know someone than to visit them in their home, or to welcome them into yours. And yet many of us only see other Jews in synagogue, or maybe at events.

THE HOST – A Jewish host is responsible for making their guests welcome, and to see to it that guests are not embarrassed in any way.  It’s good to offer food or something to drink if that is possible, but it doesn’t have to be fancy food. A box of cookies or a bowl of canned soup tastes wonderful when someone has invited you to have it in their home. The host also watches out for the emotional comfort of guests. It can be as simple as changing the subject when someone seems uncomfortable.

THE GUEST – A Jewish guest should do his best not to be a burden to his host. (This is not accomplished by prefacing demands with “I don’t want to be any trouble, but…”) Say “Please” and “Thank you.” Do not embarrass the host by asking rude questions or criticizing. After being a guest, send a thank you note, or at least an email. For more about being a guest, see 5 Ways to be a Great Shabbat Dinner Guest.

THE MAIN THING Rabbi Nachman of Braslav said, “All the world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to panic.” It is easy to get stuck thinking that I don’t want to have anyone over because my apartment isn’t nice enough, or my cooking isn’t fancy, or because I fear some other judgment that a guest may bring.

To conquer these fears, start small: invite someone to share an event of some sort, or invite a person you are sure will be kind. If they say “no” don’t take it personally – people say “no” for a lot of reasons – but invite someone else. If you really can’t see opening your home, invite them for coffee! But I challenge you (and myself!)  to reach out to other Jews. And if you have a big success, come post in the comments. If it’s a disaster, yell at me in the comments!

Vegan Vegetable Soup

I’ve been learning about vegan cooking. Many of my guests are vegetarian or vegan, so I find that it is helpful to have a few simple recipes for main dishes at the ready. However, a dish had better be tasty dishes, or my carnivorous family will turn up their noses!

This soup is on my stove right now, as I write. It’s very easy to make and quite delicious:

4 cups vegetable broth (I use ready-made)
26 0z canned tomato (pureed, sauce, doesn’t really matter)
2 medium onions
1 bunch celery, including the tops!
olive oil
2 russet potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces
4-6 carrots, cut into quarter-inch rounds
1 cup chopped collards or other greens
Any leftover vegetables on hand
Pepper sauce (optional)
Ground pepper (optional)
Salt (on table, optional)

  1. Put  vegetable broth and tomato in soup pot over low heat.
  2. Chop onions and celery, soften in a skillet over low heat in olive oil.
  3. Add onions and celery plus any oil remaining to the pot.
  4. Add other vegetables to the pot.
  5. Cook over low heat for 1 hour after assembled.
  6. Serve with pepper sauce on the table, also salt and pepper. Let folks add what they want.
  7. Serve with good bread.

This can serve as many as 10, depending on how hungry everyone is and what else is on the table. Folks who want spicy soup can add lots of pepper sauce, folks who prefer mild can eat as is.

This is a good soup for freezing for later or for giving to friends who need some soup.

For a graceful way to gift food to someone who has a hard time accepting “charity” or a gift, check out More Hospitality: “I cooked too much food!”

 

10 Ways to be a Great Potluck Guest

I give a lot of potluck parties. I have made a commitment to the mitzvah of hospitality, but due to some chronic health issues cooking a big meal for a lot of people isn’t in the cards. Also, I find that it actually adds to the warmth of the table for guests to share food with each other.

In the process, I’ve learned a lot about giving these parties, and I have also learned what makes a great potluck guest. Here goes:

  1. Bring everything you need. Maybe I have balsamic vinegar, and maybe I just ran out. I probably have enough serving spoons, but if you bring one, you won’t have to stress over getting the slotted one your dish requires. Be safe and bring what you need.
  2. Do your cooking at home. My kitchen is small. Too many people trying to use the same appliance is a problem. If you must, let me know well ahead that you will be cooking and what you will need (oven, cooktop, microwave.) Then I can plan for it.
  3. Assemble your dish at home, or if there is last minute prep, make it something you could do on the coffee table if six people are already in the kitchen.
  4. Bring what you say you will bring. If you need to make changes or substitutions, let me know.
  5. There’s no need to show off. Bring something you know how to make, or bring take out. Science experiments don’t add to the pleasure of the meal.
  6. Takeout is great. I invited you because I enjoy your company. If stopping by the deli for potato salad is easier than making it, that’s really OK. I am not a great cook myself and often go that route.
  7. Be honest about your dish. If there’s dairy, or gluten, or whatever, that’s OK, just say so if asked. If you aren’t sure, say so.
  8. If you have allergies, etc, please let me know well ahead of time, so that I can make sure there is food that you can eat. I don’t want to poison my guests or starve them. I respect those who make ethical or religious food choices and I promise I won’t see you as a problem unless you spring it on me after the food is on the table.
  9. Please take leftovers home with you! When I say that I can’t keep all the leftovers, I’m not kidding. At least take home leftovers of your own dish.
  10. Come anyway, if something happens and you can’t bring your dish. As with #5, I invited you because I enjoy your company. Just let me know, if you can, so that I can arrange for enough food.

Is there anything you’d add to this list? Tell us about it in the comments!

The Isolated Jew: What to Do?

A reader asked: How can I enhance my Jewish life when there are few Jews living nearby?

Being Jewish can be pretty lonely, especially at holiday times of the year. That’s true even in cities with a significant Jewish population. But what are the resources for a Jew in a small town or in the country? After all, much of Jewish life is experienced in community – what is an isolated Jew to do?

Here are some possibilities for you. None of them is “one size fits all” – your situation is individual, and your solution will be individual too.

Is there a synagogue nearby? Your best hope for Jewish community is a nearby synagogue. “Nearby” may be 50 miles away (or more!) but let’s be honest – how far is it to the doctor’s office or the “good” shopping center? It may be worth the investment of your time and money to connect with those Jews, even if you can only make it to services or events once a month.

“Yes, but…” …They are too goyishe, too frum, too expensive, totally inaccessible, too expensive, too whatever.  OK, so they really are not for you… or the nearest congregation is 150 miles away.  Let’s keep going.

Start a chavurah. Is there one other Jewish household in your area? Invite them over to Shabbat dinner. Get to know them. Find out if they know of any other Jewish households. If so, invite those folks to the next Shabbat dinner, maybe next month. Keep it going. See if anyone wants to have a Chanukah party. See if anyone is interested in a book group or a bowling team.

A chavurah also works if you have a local congregation but there is a barrier of some kind. Are there other disabled Jews in your area? LGBTQ Jews? Jews that the synagogue Jews don’t recognize as Jewish? Whatever it is, make the community you need. Many great congregations started this way: Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf started in 1953 because Deaf Jews were not recognized as Jewish adults by any of the congregations in the Los Angeles area. Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco started because LGBTQ Jews were unwelcome elsewhere in town back in 1977. Neither started with a rabbi or a building. They began with individual Jews who wanted community.

But what if there is no other Jewish household?

What about online Jewish community? Here are some resources to check out if you don’t live near a synagogue:

OurJewishCommunity.org provides the most comprehensive online access to progressive services, rabbis, and Jewish community. Rabbi Laura Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr serve both OurJewishCommunity.org and the brick-and-mortar Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, OH, near Cincinnati.

ReformJudaism.org maintains a list of congregations that live-stream Shabbat services, with information about access. Services are currently available in four US time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific) and at least one congregation archives services on YouTube.

JewishWebcasting.com offers a wide variety of Jewish experiences online, with links to news, podcasts, and opportunities for prayer.

Lehrhaus Judaica based in Berkeley, CA offers some of its classes online. Click this link to see the current list of courses on the Hebrew Language, Introduction to Judaism, Jewish texts, and other topics. (Full disclosure: I teach one of their online courses and am on the board of LJ.)

I hope this helps. Every Jew deserves a Jewish community. Sometimes we have to make our own community, but Jews have been doing that for centuries. I have total faith that you can do it, too.