“There’s No Place Like Home”

Image: Ruby Slippers (XiXinXing/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

It’s a famous line from a famous movie: “There’s no place like home.” Sometimes I wish I could click my ruby slippers together three times and be magically returned to the world before the arrival of coronavirus and COVID-19.

The message of the movie The Wizard of Oz is that home is a shelter from the storms of the world. That theme is Jewish to its core; in Judaism, we talk about the home as a little sanctuary, a mikdash me’at. For Jews in the Diaspora (outside of Israel) the world outside the home runs on the calendar of the dominant culture, the holidays are the holidays of the dominant culture. Even the clocks are not Jewish: days in the United States begin at midnight, not at sundown. Outside the house, the Jew is to some extent a stranger, trading time off for Rosh Hashanah with a colleague who would like an extra day after Christmas, and rolling their eyes at the “Happy Yom Kippur” food display in the local supermarket.

Home is a holy place, a Jewish place, even if we are not religious Jews. It’s the place we don’t have to listen to Christmas carols unless we like them.

Now home is also the place we are supposed to stay unless we have important business out in the world, keeping some critical part of the society running. The nurse, the doctor, the banker and the grocery checker go to work out in the perilous outside world while the rest of us #StayAtHome, working at our laptops, trying to remember enough from the sixth grade math to help our children learn.

Under these circumstances, home can acquire a rather unholy feeling: it’s a workplace, a schoolroom, and a bit of a jail, with an angry virus buzzing outside. Days slide one into the other, forming a fog.

Jewish tradition can help us in dealing with this new situation:

  1. Shabbat – Even for the most thoroughgoing secular Jew, Shabbat can be an antidote to the foggy “What day is this?” feeling. It can be a night for a nicer-than-usual meal, or an easier-than-usual meal, followed by a day of a change in routine. Shabbat can be about permission: permission to not work, permission to abandon the algebra puzzle, permission to watch a movie together. Synagogues everywhere are streaming services online – you can visit a different synagogue in a different city every week, or reconnect with a familiar community near home. Shabbat runs on Jewish time, sundown to sundown; we begin with candles and finish by looking for three stars before Havdalah.
  2. Shabbat can be nontraditional. If traditional ideas about Shabbat have bad connotations for you, try some variations on a theme. Maybe Shabbat is the day for a long walk around the neighborhood (socially distanced, natch.) Maybe it’s the time for a No-Nagging Zone. Shabbat can be the day to look for tiny miracles.
  3. Shabbat routines – Shabbat can give shape to the days before and after, too. Since Friday night is Shabbat, have a Thursday night or Friday morning routine to get ready for Shabbat. It might be preparing to make challah – or it might be something as simple as cleaning the kitchen and setting out the Shabbat candles. Use the post-Shabbat “burst of energy” to get chores or work done.
  4. Jewish learning opportunities abound during these weeks of #StayAtHome, and many of them do not require Hebrew or any prior knowledge. I am offering free classes on Saturday mornings and Thursday nights, and HAMAQOM is offering a Spring Festival of Jewish Learning – free tastes of our offerings via Zoom. If you’ve always wanted to learn some Hebrew, there are apps for that and online programs for it as well.
  5. Jewish values and mitzvot can inform how we treat one another in the home. Kindness (chesed) is a Jewish value. Caring for the body (shomer haguf) is a Jewish value, everything from brushing our teeth to getting exercise. Here is a list of 50 mitzvot, most of which have analogs in this time of pandemic. Oh, yes. and did you know that hand-washing can be a mitzvah and there is even a blessing for it?

Most of all, Jewish history gives me hope. Our people have been through horrific difficulties over the centuries, and we have endured. This is the worst pandemic in our lifetimes, but it is only one of many plagues our people have survived, from the last terrible plague in Egypt, through the Black Death, influenza, smallpox, polio and now this. Our customs and values got us through those, as a people if not always as individuals, and they will get us through COVID-19 as well.

We do not have ruby slippers to carry us back to a happier time, alas. What we do have are the tools to survive this moment in history. Lean into your Judaism, and make your home even more a Jewish home, a little sanctuary, a safe haven in a dangerous world.

A Pre-Shabbat Mitzvah?

Image: Box of food for the hungry. (135 Pixels / Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Pirkei Avot is a section of the Mishnah which is full of pithy advice. Pirkei Avot can be translated “Verses of the Fathers” but I prefer to think of it as “Advice from the Uncles.” (Alas, there are no women quoted in it!) Here’s one of my Top Ten from the book:

Ben Azzai said: Be quick in performing a minor commandment as in the case of a major one, and flee from transgression; For one commandment leads to another commandment, and transgression leads to another transgression; For the reward for performing a commandment is another commandment and the reward for committing a transgression is a transgression.

Pirkei Avot 4:2

This verse is the foundation for Living on the Mitzvah Plan, the plan for living I use when depression knocks on my door. It reminds me that our lives tend to spiral in whatever direction we choose to aim them: if you choose a good path, it will go up and up, but a bad path will lead to compounding disasters.

This time of year, there is lots of winter cold left, but the donations and goodwill of the December holiday season are past. Consider looking up your local Food Bank and sending them a buck or two; they will turn every small donation into an astonishing pile of healthy food for their clients. According to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, they turn every $1 donated into SEVEN DOLLARS worth of food!

Here in the Bay Area of California, housing is expensive and many people are going without food — or with less healthy food — in order to keep up with rent or house payments. You may have neighbors who are food insecure and hiding it. By supporting the local Food Bank, you help the working poor eat better, and you may help keep a neighbor from sliding into homelessness.

Linda and I support our local food bank, the Alameda County Community Food Bank. If you don’t know who helps the hungry in your area, check this link: Find Your Local Food Bank.

Friday is a great day to give a little tzedakah (money to relieve suffering or deprivation) since we are just about to enjoy Shabbat. Consider sending any amount to your local food bank, to spread the joy of Shabbat!

Surpassing Civilization: Heschel’s “The Sabbath”

Image: My dog-eared copy of The Sabbath.

Is our civilization a way to disaster, as many of us are prone to believe? Is civilization essentially evil, to be rejected and condemned? The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world, but a way of being within and above this world; not to reject but to surpass civilization. The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.

– Abraham Joshua Heschel

The paragraph above is from the book The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, written by Rabbi Heschel in 1951. Periodically I reread this book, because it always has something new to teach me.

In the midst of all the political turmoil of the present, with climate change looming and so much meanness on social media that every visit there makes me want to cry, this passage comforted me even as it challenged me. The task of the Jew – my task – is to live a life of Torah within the world, to live a life that elevates this world, or at least my part of it.

I often talk about Shabbat in very practical terms, talking about the benefits of connecting with loved ones, or the need for actual rest from work. Those are definitely a part of Shabbat, strengthening our families, our bodies, and our souls, but Shabbat is much, much more.

Done properly (and I would argue that “properly” will be different for every person and every household and for every stage of life) Shabbat affords us a moment to will into being a better world. I aspire to a home of light and love; on a well-kept Shabbat, I make an extra effort to make that happen. Perhaps I cannot pull it off for a full 24 hours, much as I would like, but every moment of it that I can manage will transform me and my household in ways that will not disappear when Shabbat is over.

Even more, this passage reminds me that Judaism is not about a rejection of this life – it advocates engagement in life, living fully and present to all that life brings. Judaism is not about looking down our noses at the rest of the world, nor is it about sitting in judgment on the rest of humanity – it’s about saying, “Hineni!” – “Here I am!” – both to my loved ones and also to those whom it is hard to love.

This is only a tiny scrap of what this little book has to offer – if you haven’t read it, you are missing out. For those who have read it, share your favorite passages in the Comments!

What are Zemirot?

Image: Young woman playing guitar and singing with friends. (bbernard/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Zemirot (singular is z’mirah) are Jewish songs with an association with Shabbat or holidays. Many zemirot are sung to several different tunes, and for the most popular, new tunes are being written all the time. Some Sephardic Jews also use the term to refer to the series of psalms in the morning service prior to the Barechu prayer.

The Zemirot Database is an online collection of zemirot with lyrics in the original language (Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, etc), and a translation into English. It also lists information about the origins of the song and links to recordings.

Another place to find zemirot is on YouTube.com. If you know the title (often the first few words of the song) you can search and find recordings on YouTube.

Some zemirot that may be familiar as Shabbat table songs:

Shalom Aleichem
Eleh Chamda Libi
Hinei Ma Tov

Another way to learn zemirot, the best way, is to learn with a bunch of Jews singing them together – learn around a Shabbat table, or at services at your synagogue.

Shabbat: After One of Those Weeks

Image: Pouring a cup of tea. (Photo: dungthuyvunguyen /Pixabay)

It’s been one of those weeks. My personal list of small woes includes a broken tooth, a twisted knee, a forgotten AC adapter for my computer (oops – no power,) and a blood pressure spike. These things are all related, and they are all manageable, but still, it’s been a week. It wasn’t the week I planned, that’s for sure.

Those are just my personal mishaps. The news feeds have been full of horrors: more people dying in the border camps, a crowd at the president’s rally shrieking racist chants, an Israeli government official telling us what he really thinks about diaspora Jews, a ghastly story about a pedophile who may be or have been buddies with the president, building tensions between the US and Iran. There’s more, but that’s enough!

Such weeks are not unusual any more. I spent some time this week on an effort to be empathetic, imagining what it would be like if I had different feelings about politics, and I think it’s probably been a crummy week for them, too. I take no joy in that.

So in a few hours it will be Shabbat. I’m going to turn off the news. The computer will turn itself off, until my replacement AC adapter comes, and I’m going to choose to see that as a good thing. I’m away from home, in a pretty comfy hotel, and I’m going to stay “home” this Shabbat. I will not try to navigate an unfamiliar synagogue.

For Refuah (Healing): to allow my knee to heal and my blood pressure to subside under my new meds. (Which is not a crisis – I’d been on the same old low dosage meds since 1997.)

For Anivah (Humility): I will let go of all things over which I have no control. Anivah, humility, is a valuable middah (virtue.)

For Tefilah (Prayer): I’m going to spend some serious time praying for the people trapped at our border, and for the souls of the people guarding them. I will listen for inspiration: what I could do that I’m not already doing?

For Menuchah (Rest): I’m going to let my body and soul breathe a bit. Sleep more, stress less.

For Ahavah (Love): I will call the ones I love and touch base, reassure them that I’m OK, listen to what’s happening with them, and tell them I love them.

An ideal Shabbat? Maybe not. But it’s the Shabbat I’ve got, and I’m going to make the most of it.

How was your week? How are your body and soul doing? What’s your plan, this Shabbat?

I wish you healing and prayer, rest and love. Shabbat shalom!

What does “Goot Shabbes!” mean?

Goot SHAB-bes, more properly transliterated, Gut Shabbes, is how a Jew says, “Good Sabbath” in Yiddish. It is the equivalent of “Shabbat Shalom” in Hebrew.

Yiddish is a Jewish language used originally by Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. There are many Jews in the United States who speak at least a little Yiddish.

What’s the proper response to Gut Shabbes? That’s easy: just say Gut Shabbes right back!

Shabbat Sababa!

Image: Children dancing (Shutterstock / CherryMary)

Shabbat is nearly here. I’m getting excited, because I love the shift from yom chol (ordinary day) to yom kadosh (holy day.) Life doesn’t so much slow down as it shifts.

When I was a student rabbi, the first child I met in my first congregation was a little kid who would hear the word “Shabbat” and begin twirling and dancing and laughing. She was an enchanting child – and she’s off to college this coming fall. Time passes.

As a toddler, Rebekah had a deep understanding of Shabbat. She knew that whatever was going on, Shabbat was happy and good. Shabbat was something to celebrate. Her parents had taught her that by celebrating it themselves, having a special meal, singing songs, and enjoying it themselves. All I had to do was say, “Shabbat shalom!” and she would take it from there!

At the congregation I attend today, there’s a monthly children’s service they call “Shabbat Sababa.” Sababa is Arabic for “cool” and it is a common loan-word that Hebrew speakers use. The kids go to this very noisy, celebratory service and learn that Shabbat is about joy.

That’s really all one needs to know about Shabbat – joy, release, happiness. The command that we rejoice is a reminder to find something to bless in the detritus of ordinary life. We slog through the days, horrified by things in the news, depressed by other things, but on Friday afternoon, I start looking for something to bless, something to give thanks for. It is in itself a spiritual discipline, and it is simple enough that a toddler can get a grip on it.

So I say to you, as Shabbat is about to begin, “Shabbat sababah!” May your Shabbat be cool. May your Shabbat be filled with whatever blessing you can find to hang onto. If life has dealt you bad cards this week, throw them in the air for a few hours – it’s Shabbat! For those of us in pain, let’s take our meds and be grateful for whatever good they do. For those who are in mourning, reach out and touch the remaining people in your life. For those who are numb from tragedy, allow the helpers to give you whatever help they can. For those who are exhausted, let Shabbat give you permission to rest, or to ask for what you need in order to rest.

Sadness is all around. The world is a mess. There is plenty to complain about, plenty to criticize. But on Friday at sundown: it’s time to count our blessings, to celebrate that there is still oxygen to breathe, to touch the hands that will reach back to touch ours. It’s Shabbat.

What’s Shabbat Like At Your House?

Image: Potluck Shabbat dishes ready to travel to a friend’s home. (Photo: Ruth Adar)

From time to time I sit on a beit din, a court of three rabbis that meets with a candidate to decide if they are ready for the final steps of conversion to Judaism. At the risk of giving away too much, this is one of my usual questions: “What’s Shabbat like at your house?”

This isn’t a pass/fail question. Rather, I want to encourage the about-to-be Jew to be deliberate about their Shabbat practice. Shabbat is one of the keys to a happy and full Jewish life, and I want that for every Jew!

If your answer to the question is “Gee, I dunno” let me offer you some questions that may help you think through what you want from Shabbat:

  1. If “work” is activity that drains your soul, what parts of your life feel most like work? Is there any way that you can structure your life so that you can put down that activity or thing for at least part of Shabbat?
  2. If “rest” is activity that feeds your soul, what parts of your life are truly restful? How can you bring more of that into your life during Shabbat?
  3. Do you want a richer Jewish life? Shabbat offers lots of opportunities for growing Jewishly and spiritually, from synagogue services to freeing up time to read.
  4. Does connection with other people feed your soul? Shabbat can nudge us to make time for our families and friends. It can also help us to make friends, at synagogue services and other Jewish activities. It can be a day to invite someone over or to visit (or phone) someone sick.

I am not suggesting that you do everything at once. Let’s say, you decide to get to know more people at synagogue by going to Torah study. That’s a definite addition to your Saturday morning. You will learn a little Torah, and by listening to others, you’ll get a sense of who they are. They’ll get used to you, too, without either of you having to do a song-and-dance. Give that new activity a solid chance – say, four weeks in a row – and then sit down to think about how you feel when you are doing the Shabbat routine. Better? Worse? Making new friends? Mad at the world? Then, if it isn’t working for you, try something else.

If it is working, consider adding a new wrinkle. Say, you’ve lit Shabbat candles for the past month, and you enjoyed it. Consider inviting someone over for Shabbat dinner, and give that the 4-week trial. It doesn’t have to be fancy. See how it goes.

Shabbat is the treasure of the Jewish people. It is a day for enjoyment, for learning, for sharing, for reflection, for prayer, for getting enough sleep, and for love. Shabbat is a little different in every Jewish home.

What’s Shabbat like at your house? What would you like it to be?

The Map Home: Why I Attend Services

Image: A hand traces a route on a map. (Milada VigerovaPixabay )

My health problems have made me less regular at services than I’d like. Last week I was falling into a dreadful funk: I was cranky, I was fed up with the world, I had made a couple of stupid mistakes that were really bothering me, and generally, I was an unhappy camper. I decided I had to get to services, despite the aches.

Some people wonder why anyone goes to services. We make the trip to shul, we sit in the pews, we see friends, we sing songs, and we say the same prayers every time. What is there that heals my soul?

Truth is, I never know what I’m looking for: I just know that I will find it in the service. There might be a line in a prayer that I haven’t noticed in a while that speaks directly to my troubles of the moment. We say a lot of prayers on Friday night, and I’ve said all of them thousands of times, but if I come with an open heart, there will be something that fits my need.

This past week it was a line in the prayer that caught my eye while we were reading something else:

Days pass, and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.

I realized why I’d been feeling so cranky: my world of late has constricted terribly. I’m busy with tech problems at work, problems that have to be solved but don’t really interest me. I’m frustrated with chronic pain. I’m frustrated by the news: I don’t like much of what I see on the TV or hear on the radio. I realized that I had allowed myself to “walk sightless among miracles.”

I can fix that, I thought.

On Sunday, I did my work, but I took time to go out in the yard and just look around me. I saw the hummingbirds doing their work. I saw my dog examine a bug. I saw a hawk flying high above the hillside. I felt a lot better.

Nothing had changed, but everything had changed. I spent the time I might have spent catching up on news catching up on the hummingbirds. I had to return to the tech problems, and the physical problems, and all the other stuff, but I did it with a lighter heart.

That’s what services do for me. They remind me how to return to myself.

Potluck Shabbat!

Image: An assortment of foods in colorful bowls. (Photo: fotosunny/Shutterstock)

I’m so excited! I love inviting my students to a potluck Shabbat evening, and I’ve sent out invitations for later this month.

I thought I’d share my “to-do” list here, in case any readers are interested in inviting friends for a potluck Shabbat. Hospitality is a mitzvah, remember – this is something you can do that will enrich your life, enrich your Shabbat, and build your community.

If you are thinking, “Oh no, my house is cluttered!” I will share with you that I am a haphazard housekeeper and practically a Queen of Clutter. I have decided not to let that stop me. If some room needs to be off limits, I shut the door.  If they see that I’m cluttery, well, that will let them feel better about their own housekeeping!

  1. Decide who to invite. If you are anxious about entertaining, keep it small. If you are comfortable feeding numbers, go for it. Either way, decide if you are also inviting significant others and children. If your house isn’t baby-proofed, you should warn parents about that.
  2. Choose a way to send invitations, and how you’ll keep track of numbers. I used Eventbrite, since I was inviting 36 people plus possible family folks. You might choose an online invitation service like Evite, or just do it via email or paper invitations. Or phone calls (for that retro feeling.)
  3. Plan your menu. I generally make a vegan main dish (black beans and brown rice  this month) and have challah, wine, and grape juice. I invite guests to bring a vegetarian side dish, salad, or dessert. I personally do not like to try to track what everyone is bringing, so we get what we get. I usually have a box of cookies ready if no one brings dessert. If you are not a cook, cheese pizza makes a nice main dish.
  4. Make your grocery list. Be sure to add to it paper napkins and plastic silverware and cups if you will need them. Also butter and/or honey for the challah.
  5. Check your kiddush cup or other ritual objects well ahead of time. Can you find them? Do they need polishing or de-waxing? Have you got Shabbat candles and matches?
  6. Got pets? Decide what their situation will be during the evening. Also, warn guests who may be allergic that you’ve got them.
  7. Have extra serving utensils ready. It’s amazing how many people get here and then realize they didn’t bring forks to serve their salad.
  8. Decide where people will put the food when they arrive. I have them put it directly on the table. Some people then sit at the table, and if there are more than 12 people (the max I can seat at one table) then I make sure I have chairs for the rest. They’ll spread out in the living room and on the patio.
  9. Plan some place where people can put coats, etc. I usually have them put them on my bed.
  10. Make sure you have a bentcher or other text for the blessings. Don’t rely on memory unless you are really sure of it.

On Friday:

  1. Set the table.
  2. Have the food ready. Be sure to have wine, grape juice, and water on the table.
  3. Welcome your guests!

One other thing it’s good to decide ahead of time; do you want help with clean up? What specific jobs can people do to help you with it? That way, when someone offers, you’ll be ready with something for them to do. I usually put a pot of water on the counter for silverware, so it is not piled in with everything else in the sink.

The first time I did hosted Shabbat dinner for friends, it felt like a huge big deal. I was nervous about the house, the food, the everything. And then, as my disabilities became more of a challenge, I quit doing it for a while, until the idea of a potluck occurred to me. Now I look forward to these evenings, which let my students get to know one another in a way they can’t in the classroom.

Shabbat shalom uv’tei avon!  

(Peaceful Sabbath and bon appetit!)