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?

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Guest Post: A New Diagnosis in the Mix?

Image: Imani Barbarin. (Photo by Imani Barbarin)

Today’s guest post is by Imani Barbarin, an African American disability rights activist with cerebral palsy. She is a blogger, a scholar and a vocal presence on Twitter. Ms. Barbarin holds a degree in Creative Writing from Eastern Univerity and a minor in French from the Sorbonne.

If there is one thing that is a constant for us all, it is that nothing is constant. Especially not health. In an instant a life could irrevocably change and the people around that person will be lost as how to interact with the person before them. The prevailing wisdom when encountering a new diagnosis in a friend or loved one is to treat that person as though nothing has really changed. That’s simply inaccurate. They have changed. You can feel it in the hollow laughs and heavy silences. It’s alright to admit. So, how do you move forward together and keep your loved one in your life?

To start, you must come to the heart of the essence of your relationship and recognize that while the expression of your affection may change, the heart of it doesn’t always have to. Try to create a space to allow them to open up to you. Be mindful that they won’t always want to talk about it, but if you’re consistent in your ability to make them feel comfortable and cared for around you, that conversation will come. Don’t be forceful, just be there.

Be prepared for the frustration. Dealing with a new diagnosis means immediate changes in lifestyle that can be difficult for anyone to adjust to. Harder still is to determine how those changes might affect the things we love to do and the people around us. It’s easy to become agitated when we’re confronted with what we formerly loved and enjoyed is no longer able to fit into our lives. Wherever possible, try to examine the limits of what they’re still able to do. If their new diagnosis means sensitivity to flashes of light, forego trips to the movie in favor of trips to museums or parks. Should they now have dietary restrictions, allow them to choose the restaurant (or venue) so they can plan their food choices ahead of time. If they have ambulatory issues, consider low-impact crafts and artwork.

Make sure to plan ahead and keep those invites coming. One of the prevailing narratives is that we’re a burden to our friends and family and at no time do we feel that more than when we notice that the people who love us have stopped inviting us out. We know that accessibility is difficult to find in many public spaces, but do your best to plan ahead when asking us to hang out—make a concerted effort to see to it that we can participate if we wish to. Also, know that even if we can’t make it or cancel often, doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate being invited. Make sure to check in with us if you see this as an emerging trend, it could be a repeated accessibility issue.

Disability and chronic illness is not like it is in the movies. We’re just people. While media will lead you to believe that there are lessons to be had by being in the presence of someone dealing with a diagnosis, and that we’re all automatically inspirational, it sends the message that we need to be exceptional to be loved or taken seriously. Take us seriously regardless and stand up for our autonomy when others fail to do so. Our health will likely be a lifelong part of who we are with the expected ups and downs. Let life flow. The desire to make our story into something that fits an inspirational narrative is daunting for us and can lead to feelings of failure or further loss—which makes little sense given a diagnosis isn’t a competition.

When it comes to chronic conditions, you can manage symptoms, work hard to reach a place of inner peace, use the anger to change perceptions, but once you start trying to outrun or overcome a disability or illness, you begin to rip yourself apart from the inside out in that pursuit.

Remember that your relationship is unique to the two of you with markers and commonalities that only make sense in that context. It is important to communicate without violating the boundaries your friend has set into place regarding their health. Things may have changed, the expressions of love and friendship may have to be altered, but dig into your relationship down roots and fortify what is there. Accessibility is all about adaptation. Make your friendship accessible.

 

Questions, After Kavanaugh

Image: A person holds their face in their hands, tears dripping from their chin. (Counselling/Pixabay)

I’ve been thinking of how to talk about the news and the Kavanaugh nomination. I finally gave up on writing anything useful.

My opinions are colored by my own history as a survivor of sexual violence. I simply can’t think of this without being reminded of all the women I have known who were targets of sexual violence by men who knew that they’d never face any consequences for what they did. I’m not going to pretend I can be “objective” about this situation.

Nor do I think that anything I say is going to affect the vote by the Senate, or even anyone else’s mind. Let’s be honest – Americans have pretty much made up our minds about this, one way or the other, haven’t we?

Instead, I would like to raise some questions about the future.

  1. If it is unfair for men to face accusations of sexual misconduct years after the fact, what are we going to do about making it more possible for victims to report sooner and with fewer negative consequences for reporting? I’m talking not only about the barriers in law enforcement and the court system, but the fact that many persons making such a report face blame and judgment from family and friends.
  2. What is it going to take for us to believe people who say they have been attacked? A study using FBI data over the period from 2006 to 2010 concluded that of the rape reports in that time period, only 5% were false or baseless. In other words, someone reporting this humiliating crime is highly likely to be telling the truth. Meanwhile, the majority of sexual assaults go unreported – meaning, no one is accused of them. They go unreported because victims are not stupid – they are aware of the facts I list above. Moreover, they are likely to encounter doubt and counter-accusations from friends as well as law enforcement. Even among the minority of perpetrators who are actually accused, they are highly unlikely to be prosecuted or convicted.
  3. When are we going to recognize that the phrase “ruined life” applies to the victim of a violent crime, even though we’re more likely to hear it in reference to the accused? There may somewhere be survivors of such crimes who just walk away unharmed, but I’ve never met one. Instead, sexual assault survivors often deal with a lifetime of PTSD, anxiety and phobias, huge therapy bills if they want to recover some semblance of peaceful existence, and many like myself have to deal with physical sequelae as well. Many of us choose brave language (like “survivor” instead of “victim”) as part of our recovery but our lives were changed forever by what was done to us.
  4. Why do we have to talk about “wives and sisters” when we plead for attention to be paid to these injustices? Why can’t a woman’s life matter on its own? Why do the male victims of sexual attacks have to be invisible?
  5. What concrete actions can we take to make things better in the future? How can we handle reports of rape or sexual violence so as not to demonize the person who reports? How can we change the system, or ourselves, so that we identify at least as much with the victim as we identify with the accused?

Especially if you feel that Judge Kavanaugh has been treated unfairly, I’d be very interested in your take on these questions.

 

 

The Fall Holidays of 5779: How were yours?

Image: Israeli Rabbi Stacey Blank blows the shofar. (Photo: Rabbi Stacey Blank)

So how has your Fall cycle of holidays gone this year?

We began back in August with the month of Elul, thinking upon our relationships and our own behavior, mending what we could.

Then with Selichot, things got serious: we said penitential prayers, the tunes changed, the clergy and the Torahs wore white.

When Rosh Hashanah came with all its pagentry, a combination of awe and celebration, we welcomed the New Year and hoped for a good year to come.

The Ten Days of Awe sped past, with so much to do and so little time to do it.

And soon it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement – how was that for you?

Now we are almost at the end of Sukkot. The weather is beginning to chill even as our hearts warm. It’s good to spend time with friends and family, good to be grateful.

As the ancient cycle turned this year, the world intruded again and again with upsetting news at home and abroad. A giant earthquake and tsunami wracked Indonesia; a different kind of earthquake rocked Washington, D.C.

As the final festivities of the fall cycle approach (Shimini Atzeret  Simchat Torah, anyone?) where are you? What about you has changed? What has gotten better? Any reflections to share with us here in the comments?

 

You! in the Pew! I See You. I Hear You.

Image: Jews Praying on Yom Kippur (Photo by Trodel)

When I began leading services, I was astonished at some of the things people did while sitting in the pews. They appear to suffer from the delusion that they are invisible.

Sometimes this can be funny, but usually it’s just weird, and not in a good way. If you are in the pew, and people are sitting on the bimah, they can see pretty much anything that you are doing: grooming yourself, grooming your child, picking your teeth, staring at the ceiling, whatever. It is almost impossible for the people on the bimah to avoid seeing you. So, um, please don’t do that stuff. Yes, you know the stuff I mean.

I’ve been mostly a Jew in the Pew myself these past eight years; I teach instead of serving in a congregation. So often I don’t think about these things anymore, except on the occasions when people decide to have a conversation in the pew behind me. Mind you, I am hard of hearing, so if I could hear them, they are LOUD. Usually it’s men who do it, and it’s some sort of discussion about the service. Why they think I can’t hear them – well, maybe they know I’m hard of hearing? Still.

I want people to come to services. I would rather that they came to services and picked their teeth and talked too loudly than that they stayed home. I think most rabbis feel that way. Congregational prayer doesn’t work without enough people to form a proper kahal (gathering.) In fact there are prayers we cannot say unless we have a minyan, 10 adults. So I would rather people were there than not there.

But think about it for a minute: would you like to be at services, mourning someone dear to you, and have to listen to two dudes argue about the relative merits of the Reform and Conservative services while the service is going on? Do you really want the rabbi to know that you pick your… let’s say teeth? And whatever you are looking for on your baby’s head, can’t that wait until you get home?

Really.

Definitely, let the synagogue be “a house of prayer for all people,” as Isaiah says. But let’s try to bring our best selves, shall we?

Rest in Peace, Holy Books

Image: Old machzorim (High Holy Day prayerbooks) being buried. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Joshua Franklin, Jewish Center of the Hamptons.

Jews have great respect for our seforim, our holy books. Those include everything from the Torah scroll itself, to the Bible, to the volumes of Talmud, to the prayer books we use every week in services. We handle them reverently. If we make notes in them, we do so neatly. If we mark a spot, instead of turning down a corner, we use a bookmark or a Post-it.

Holy books are our companions in study and worship. They are also repositories of the lashon kadosh, the “holy tongue,” the Hebrew language, and especially the written Name of God which we do not ever say aloud.

We have a long history of our holy books being mistreated by anti-Semites. The Romans burnt a rabbi alive, wrapped in a Torah scroll (Avodah Zarah 18a.) In 1242, 24 wagon loads of Jewish books were burned in Paris. In 1933, German university students burnt Jewish books as well as books by Jews at the behest of the Nazis.

We treat our holy books gently and with respect, and when they are finally worn out, or have no more useful life, we bury them gently as we would beloved friends. Sometimes they are temporarily stored in a genizah (safe storage place) until there are enough of them to bury.

Here are some photographs from the Jewish Center of the Hamptons. Rabbi Franklin tried to find a home for the old machzorim (High Holy Day prayer books) but he was unable to find a synagogue who needed them. The Jewish Center no longer uses this machzor, so the proper thing to do with the books was to bury them where they could not be defaced.

Some might say, “Why not recycle them?” If they can be recycled for use in another place, that is appropriate. But recycling them by sending them to a paper recycler would not be respectful – they could end up as tissue, or something else disposable and bound for the garbage pail. Better to put them respectfully in the ground to decompose.

Geniza2

 

The Most Beautiful Sukkah of All

Image: A wooden door with a rusty padlock. (Pixabay)

There was once a man in Anaheim named Yacov who built a beautiful sukkah. It had an expensive carpet, and golden furniture, and Israeli art on the walls. It was so beautiful, that the man decided after the holiday that he wanted to keep his sukkah forever.

Still he worried. What about the golden furniture? What about the carpet?

So he put a door on his sukkah, and a great big lock, and he locked that sukkah up tight. He slept on a pallet in the sukkah every night.

The sukkah was a kosher sukkah.  It had a flimsy roof of palm fronds. He worried about that roof, and thought to himself, “Thieves may come in by that roof!” So he got some lumber, and he nailed a roof on the sukkah to keep it secure. He closed that roof up tight. And he slept in the sukkah every night.

And when he was in the sukkah, he noticed that he could no longer see the stars, or the moonlight, and he felt a little sad, but he had to keep his sukkah safe! For he loved his sukkah very much. And he slept in the sukkah every night.

Then a neighbor complained to the city, and a building inspector came. The building inspector said to Yacov, “Yacov! You have no permit for this structure!” And Yacov said very importantly, “This is a sukkah! You can’t penalize me for a sukkah! It’s my religion! First Amendment!”

The building inspector said, “I think I need a note from your rabbi.” And Yacov lay awake in the sukkah that night.

The next day, Yacov went to his rabbi, and said, “Rabbi, I built the most beautiful sukkah. Would you come and see my sukkah, and tell the City of Anaheim that they have to let me keep it?”

The rabbi said, “Yacov! It’s almost Chanukah! What are you doing with a sukkah?”

Yacov said, “Rabbi, come see it. It’s the most beautiful sukkah ever.”

So the rabbi shook her head, and visited Yacov’s house. She saw the structure in the yard, with the big lock on the door and the wooden roof above. “Is that your sukkah?” she asked.

“Yes, and it’s beautiful!” Yacov said, beaming. “Come in and see!”  He unlocked the door, and opened it, and the rabbi peered into the dim interior. She saw the golden furniture, and the art, and the carpet. She saw the pallet on the floor. She looked up at the roof.

She sighed.

“Yacov, my friend, this is not a kosher sukkah.”

“What? It’s the most beautiful sukkah in the world!”

“No, Yacov, I cannot see the stars. And whoever saw a sukkah with a lock on it?”

“But I have to keep it safe, Rabbi! I love this sukkah, and I am going to keep it forever!” The rabbi sighed again, even deeper.

“Yacov, my friend, the day you decided to keep it forever, it stopped being a sukkah. The sukkah is here to teach us that nothing is permanent. We cannot keep things forever. We must appreciate beauty in the here and now, for we do not know what will come tomorrow. Let me ask you this: What treasure have you been neglecting, while you tried to keep the sukkah?”

Yacov began to cry, and the rabbi cried with him. They sat on the golden furniture and cried.

So Yacov took the sukkah apart, and put away the furniture. He rolled up the rug and went inside, where his wife was waiting, and his children.

Note: I have published this story in a slightly different form in years past.