Tips for Fasting on Yom Kippur

A dinner table with wooden chairs in a living ...
On Yom Kippur, no dishes to wash. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This coming Tuesday night begins Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. One of the ways Jews observe the day is by fasting. Here are some quick facts and tips for the day.

What exactly does “fast” mean? In common parlance, “fast” can mean just about anything. For observant Jews on Yom Kippur, it means refraining from these five activities for 24 hours:

  1. Eating & Drinking (yes, including water)
  2. Sex
  3. Anointing (using lotions or cosmetics)
  4. Washing
  5. Wearing leather shoes

Do all Jews refrain from all of these things? No. For the majority of American Jews, it means refraining from eating, drinking, and sexual activity. The last three items are less common, but are officially commanded for the day. If you are unsure about what goes on in your congregation, check with your rabbi.

What about sick people and children? Sick people are commanded NOT to fast. If you need food to take prescribed medication, or food for any other medical reason, it is a mitzvah (commandment) to eat as advised by your doctor. Children under 13 do not fast, but might observe the day by eating less or having a day without treats of any kind. Pregnant women do not fast. If you need to eat or drink on Yom Kippur, it is kinder to do it discreetly out of sight of those fasting.

Isn’t it unhealthy to go without food or water for 24 hours? A healthy person should be able to complete the fast. Those who are sick, pregnant, or underage should not fast. It is uncomfortable to fast, but not fatal unless you have a medical condition that precludes fasting.

Some tips for minimizing discomfort on Yom Kippur:

  • Eat a good meal before the fast, including protein and fat.
  • Do not eat very salty things for 24 hours before the fast.
  • Drink plenty of water before the fast, more than usual. If you are wondering how much water you should drink daily check out the Mayo Clinic recommendations.
  • If you get caffeine headaches, taper off your caffeine use for the month before Yom Kippur. If it’s too late for that, have a little caffeine at the meal before Yom Kippur if it will not interfere with your sleep.
  • Stay away from places with food during the fast. One advantage to spending the day at synagogue is that everyone there is in the same boat.
  • If you get a dry mouth, use this old cantor’s trick: gently bite the inside of your cheek. That will make saliva flow.
  • When the fast ends, hydrate first. Then get something light to eat. “Break-the-fast” should not be “break-the-belt.”
  • Decide ahead of time why you are fasting, and when you feel uncomfortable, remind yourself about it. Because it is commanded? In solidarity with other Jews? As a way of expressing sorrow for misdeeds? Because there are people for whom every day is a hungry day? All are good reasons to participate.

Two things you can wish a Jew who is fasting:

“Tzom KaSHER”  “A kosher fast” – wishing them a fast with no mistakes

“Tzom Kal” – “An easy fast” – wishing them an easy time of it. (Occasionally someone may tell you that it shouldn’t be an easy fast. However, the commandment is to fast, not to suffer. If they feel they get benefit out of the suffering, that’s fine for them. You did not say anything wrong. Next year wish that person a tzom kasher.)

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Justice, Justice Part Two

Unidentified Korean War veteran, Freeport, New...
Unidentified Korean War veteran, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Justice, justice you shall pursue. – Deuteronomy 16:20

 

This past month I helped out a friend and his parents, Joe and Hideko. He needed to be out of town, and his elderly parents, who live on their own, needed someone to watch over them and do grocery shopping. August is my least busy time of year, and I genuinely like his parents: no problem!

 

The day after Dave (I’ve changed all the names) left town, his dad took three falls and complained of dizziness and a headache.  I bundled the couple into my car and off we went to the emergency room nearest their home, as instructed on Dave’s “In case of emergency” instructions.  Good news: no injuries, and no stroke in progress (my big fear.) The doc said, casually, “Be sure and get him an appointment with his VA doc this coming week.”

 

It seemed so simple: I had a number to call for his doc, and I called it. The person answering the phone said they’d call me back with an appointment.

 

Days passed.  Three days.  I began to get nervous. Joe began to fret. I called again.

 

We had the same conversation, and I was told they’d call back.  “Ahh, wait a minute!” I said, “That’s what they told us last time.  WHEN are you going to call back?” “Oh, sorry that happened, ma’am, within an hour.”

 

Two hours pass. My blood pressure is rising.  I phoned back.

 

This routine continued during office hours for a WEEK. I talked with a different person each time. Some of them lectured me on “procedure” and got downright nasty when I suggested that I no longer believed in callbacks. One seemed sympathetic, and assured me that “the doctor will call tomorrow.” Whew!

 

No callback.

 

Then, out of the blue, we got a call from the VA, a doctor’s office, no less, but it was an office calling to set up in-home visits (which my friend had been trying to set up for Joe before he left town.) The nurse (a nurse!) on the other end of the line was very apologetic, but also VERY FIRM that I had to get Joe to the doc soon. I assured her I’d love to, but how?

 

She said we could just go to the walk-in outpatient clinic in Oakland.  No one else had mentioned it.

 

So, the next business day, I bundle the couple into the car (this time with my partner in tow, because I’d learned that these two intrepid elders tended to wander in opposite directions in public places.) We got to the second floor of the building in Oakland and walked into a mob scene.

 

Lines and lines of men (mostly men) waiting to talk to someone. There was a line for people with appointments (I wanted to ask them all, how DID you get those?) and a line for people with no appointments. Joe and I got in that line. Hideko and Linda sat in the chairs.  We were only the second in line; I figured we’d gotten our first break.

 

This eighty-something gentleman, veteran of three wars — WWII, Korea, and Vietname — and I stood in the line for thirty minutes.  This gave me time to observe the room. The person handling our line seemed to spend most of his time staring at a computer screen and shaking his head. All around us there were vets, many of them elderly, and most of them, judging from their clothing, not well off financially. They  interviewed one another about the wars they’d been in (WWII? Korea? Nam? Desert Storm? Iraq? Afghanistan?). They waited, patiently.

 

Finally we got to the head of our line. At Joe’s request (his hearing is so poor that communication is difficult,) I explained to the guy behind the counter what the nurse had said: Joe needs to see a doc, and soon. He shook his head.

 

“No can do. You need to call for an appointment.” I explained that we’d already tried that, that the nurse said he could come to the outpatient clinic.

 

“This is an outpatient clinic,” he said, talking slowly, as if I were perhaps not quite bright, “For a post-hospital-discharge visit, you need an appointment.”  Then because I continued standing there, silent, trying to keep a grip on my temper, he said, “Why don’t you go over to the guy in the other line and talk with him?” He pointed us to the line that was marked clearly, “Only enter this line if you have an appointment.”

 

I looked at Joe.  Joe looked at me. We walked over to the other desk. That fellow immediately waved us off. “This is for people with appointments.”

 

“Have some mercy!” I said, loudly, “We’ve been phoning for a week!”  I marched up to the counter, past the line of guys waiting and stood at that counter. Joe stood next to me. I riveted my gaze on the guy behind the desk.  “I have to get this veteran to Dr. Marcetti. The nurse said so.  A doctor said so. And I don’t know what else to do, so I’m just going to stand here.”

 

There was a little silence.  He typed at his computer some more. He tore something off the printer.

 

“Here’s an appointment for next Monday.”

 

 

Now, what I want to know is, why do we treat veterans this way? Joe was trembling from standing so long (I was trembling from holding my temper.) This is a man who spent most of his eighty two years serving this country. He’s the veteran of multiple wars. His wife followed him around the globe; they’d lived the peripatetic life of military people. THIS is their reward?

 

I hear from Dave that things have actually gotten better in the last few years. The Obama Administration has reinstated some veteran services that were eliminated or curtailed during the Bush years.  That fact left me speechless.  This is better?

 

Justice, justice shall you pursue. 

 

I ask you, where is the justice for men and women who come home broken and hurt? Where is the justice for those who devote their lives to our protection and care? If you call the VA asking for justice, well, just know that no one ever calls back.

 

 

Justice, Justice, Part One

English: Logo of the .
Food Stamps, if you can get them, will provide $31.50 a week. After that, it’s time to go find a line for the Food Bank. Can you live on $31.50 a week for food – indefinitely?

Justice, Justice you shall pursue. – Deuteronomy 16:20

Twice in the last month I have had experiences that made me wonder where justice might be found.

One was this morning.  I went to register voters at the Emeryville Community Action Program, where folks were taking numbers and lining up for a distribution of food from the Alameda County Community Food Bank. Everyone I talked with was already registered to vote, but I had some interesting conversations.

My politics are way left of center, but I try to challenge my assumptions. This was a golden opportunity to do just that: I’m at a place that is literally handing out free food and free (used) clothing. I looked at the group and asked myself, “Where could each of these people get a job, if there were jobs to be had?”

The only person I saw there under the age of 60 was a charming young man who was setting up.  I did not ask if he was a volunteer or a paid worker, but he was definitely working. Everyone else looked quite a bit older than me (57). I also noticed that every hand I shook was callused; these people had done some hard work in their day. Many were both elderly and disabled. There were also a fair number of Asian elderly ladies who did not speak English — but even if they had, I can’t picture them working at Starbucks.

For the life of me, I can’t imagine what any of them would be doing without help from someone, nor can I imagine that there’s anything wrong with them getting help. But I’d rather see them at the grocery store with food stamps than standing in line on the street, waiting for the Food Bank handout. Old people should be treated with dignity, or so I was taught.

That brings me to the second experience: at the Veteran’s Administration. I’ll blog that one tomorrow.

Justice, justice you will pursue.

Where is the justice? It sure isn’t standing out there on San Pablo Ave, waiting patiently for a little food.

New Year, New Classes

We are now in the midst of the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe.  It’s a time of serious spiritual work.  It’s also, for many of us, a time of getting ready for the fall activities that will begin after the holidays are past.

I’m preparing for these fall classes in the San Francisco Bay Area now:

Exploring Judaism – This “Intro to Judaism” class meets on Sunday mornings from 10:10 to 11:10am at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. It’s a year long course, but you can sign up for shorter parts of the class, too.  Non-members are welcome. For more information including registration arrangements, check out the class description on the Temple Isaiah website.

Intro to the Jewish Experience (aka Jewish Foundations) – a Lehrhaus Judaica course for newcomers and others who are interested in getting the basics about Judaism in the context of a class community.  We’ll meet on Wednesdays from 7:30 – 9pm at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA.  You can learn more and register on the class page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog. Begins Oct 17.

Homer & Moses, Poets of their People – a Lehrhaus Judaica course for theater lovers (or Torah lovers!) who are interested in exploring two ancient blockbusters, the Iliad and the Torah via lectures by a classics teacher and a rabbi (yours truly) and a performance of the Iliad at the Berkeley Repertory Theater.  Why do we love the Iliad so much? What is it about the Torah that captures the imagination? You can learn more and register for the three-session class on the class page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog. Begins Oct 18.

I wish you a sweet and happy year of learning!

 

Good and Evil

Random Crazy Hat Girl!!
Photo credit: rileyroxx

We learned it as kids: Good has the white hat, Evil the black hat. But along comes some nut in an orange and yellow sombrero, and the whole thing falls apart.

Perhaps the answer is for me to quit checking out other people’s hats and look quietly inside my own heart for a while.

Seven Tips for Finding Your Rabbi

Rabbis are individuals, no two quite alike.

יהושע בן פרחיה אומר עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות

Joshua ben Perachiya used to say: Get yourself a rabbi, and acquire for yourself a friend, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. – Avot 1.6.

The Sayings of the Fathers, from which this saying is taken, are a collection of friendly advice from the rabbis of old.  This one, “get yourself a rabbi, a friend, and give folks the benefit of the doubt” is great advice, especially for a person who is or wants to be connected to Jewish community.

If you want to become a Jew, if you want to get married by a rabbi, if you want a rabbi for a funeral, if you want reliable advice on Jewish custom, law, or tradition, you really need a rabbi. Advice from Jewish friends, relatives, and people in the grocery store line is not reliable! (I say this from hard experience of my own: I made my first inquiries about becoming a Jew when I was in my teens.  My Jewish friends were absolutely certain that one had to be born Jewish. I didn’t inquire further, and wasted years when I might have been happily Jewish, as I was destined to be.  Oy!)

So you want to find your rabbi.  Here are seven bits of advice:

1.  ASK YOUR FRIENDS. If you have Jewish friends, ask them for referrals. If they don’t have a specific rabbi to recommend, ask them for referrals to synagogues (where you will often find rabbis.) If they can’t help you, ask them if they know someone who can make a referral.

2. CHECK THE LOCAL SYNAGOGUES & JEWISH INSTITUTIONS.  You want a rabbi nearby, not one you can only contact through email. Check out your local rabbis via synagogue websites and by sitting through services they are leading. Other local Jewish institutions may have rabbis on staff – check their websites, too. Also — this is important! — if you find a synagogue that feels like home to you, their rabbi is a good bet to be your rabbi, too.

3. CALL A RABBI AND MAKE AN APPOINTMENT.  You are not “wasting the time” of the rabbi when you make an appointment to meet with them.  Most rabbis like meeting new people (they would not stay in this line of work if they didn’t.)  You don’t have to be “sure” about this rabbi.  This is a “getting to know you meeting.” There should be no charge for a meeting of this sort.

When you meet the rabbi, be sure to both talk and listen.  Talk to her about your project (learning more, converting, marriage, whatever). Answer his questions as honestly as you can.  Ask her the questions on your mind.

4. LISTEN TO YOUR KISHKES.  Kishkes is Yiddish for “gut.” Are you comfortable talking to this person? Some people want a scholarly rabbi, some want a warm rabbi, some want a fun rabbi, some prefer a rabbi who doesn’t feel too chummy to them.  Often we don’t even know what our idea of a rabbi is on the front end; it’s only when we’re sitting in the room with that person that we say, “Oh, that’s a RABBI!”  So meet the rabbi and see what your kishkes say to you.

5. RABBIS VARY. Rabbis are individuals. Each has a personality, opinions, and ways of doing things. No two rabbis are alike, not two Reform rabbis, not two women rabbis, not two Orthodox rabbis. So if the first rabbi you meet doesn’t feel like “your rabbi” that is OK.  If he or she has opinions or rules or a manner that you find upsetting, just keep looking.

6. WHAT’S A GOOD TIME? August through mid-October is a frantically busy time for rabbis with congregations, and many other rabbis as well. Call after the middle of October, or before August begins. Call the office phone during office hours, or email if you have an email address for them. It’s nice to give them a “head’s up” about the topic: “Hi, Rabbi Levy, my name is Ruth Adar. I’m considering conversion and looking for a rabbi.”

7. IF YOU HIT A SNAG: If a rabbi says he doesn’t have time, or she feels “wrong” to you, or if your Jewish friend thinks you are crazy for even wanting a rabbi, take the advice that opened this essay and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. There are lots of rabbis around. The one who isn’t a good fit for you, or who didn’t have time when you called, might be a good fit for someone else. Your Jewish friend may be reacting out of some bad experience of his own.

If you are in the United States or Israel, you’re in luck – there are lots of rabbis. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can check out the local rabbis via BecomingJewish.net.  If you keep looking and asking and listening, you’ll find your rabbi.

Happy hunting!

After Trauma, what?

Image: Arial view of the Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks. Photo by TSGT CEDRIC H. RUDISILL, USAF ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Years have passed since Osama bin Laden sent 19 hijackers to murder 2,977 human beings in an act of infamy. I remember thinking that the High Holy Days would never come around for me again without those memories.

Some experiences mark us forever. Any American over the age of six on September 11, 2001 will never forget that date. Any American my age or older will never forget  November 22, 1963. I was only a little girl, but I remember exactly where I was the moment the news came through of President Kennedy’s assassination.

As with moments of national trauma, there are moments of individual trauma that mark a person forever. No one ever “gets over” a rape or the murder of a loved one. The man who discovers that the savings of a lifetime have been swindled away, leaving nothing but insecurity for the future will never forget the moment when he understood what had been done to him.  The parents who lose a child will never be the same.

In a little over a week, we will read the prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, which begins, “We will ascribe holiness to this day.” It affirms that we do not know what lies before us in the year ahead: we do not know who will live, and who will die, or by what means any of this will happen. The prayer is graphic and dreadful. It pulls no punches; it reminds us that none of us are immune to tragedy.

Many find this prayer upsetting and troubling. It seems to say that God punishes the wicked with sorrows, and that the good will not suffer.  Any reasonable person knows that is foolishness. Bad things happen to good people all the time, willy nilly. When the towers fell eleven years ago, they fell without reference to the morals of the people killed inside them.

What shall we do, then, with the line in the prayer, “But teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree”? (See below for the translation.) It comes almost at the end, just before a paragraph on the mercy of God. But for those who have suffered a terrible loss, where is the mercy?

I do not believe that we can ward off misfortune even with teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah. I believe, instead, that those are the means with which we may  work towards a life after tragedy.  There is no “meaning” to be had from suffering except the meaning that we build out of it, if we so choose.    Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the tools with which we can build that meaning.

Teshuvah involves taking responsibility for our own actions and changing our own behavior as needed. It reminds us what is in our control, and what is not. Tefillah is prayer, which can power and shape the changes we choose to make. Tzedakah is giving for the purpose of relieving the misery of others: it takes us outside ourselves and our troubles, to notice and act to relieve the troubles of our fellow human beings.

Our immediate instinct when terribly injured is often to seek revenge. When the wrong done is so great that there is no way to make it right, we want to lash out and make the agent of that wrong suffer as much or more than we. History shows, though, that revenge rarely settles anything. We may intend to “teach a lesson” but in fact all we do is set off another round of wrong. If you don’t believe me, look at the Hatfields and the McCoys, at the Treaty of Versailles, or at the action in any schoolyard in town.

If, this Elul, you are carrying the burden of a tragedy, first of all, my sympathy. You didn’t sign up for it, and you didn’t deserve it.  I do not believe that God “sends” misery to people to test them, or to punish them, or any such thing. We cannot avoid  falling victim to these things, but we can choose our response to them. I have personally found teshuvah (personal responsibility), prayer, and charitable giving to have remarkable healing power, not to “get me over” my private sorrows but to carry me back into life.

No one who lived through September 11, 2001 will ever forget it, nor should we. It is up to us, learning what we have learned, knowing what we know, to find a way forward, towards a future of peace, of shalom. So it is for individuals who suffer individual trauma,  not to forget, but to find a way, at last, to choose life.