The Poodle Paradigm

Image: Gabi and Jojo, two toy poodles who know how to welcome a guest. Photo by Linda Burnett.

When guests arrive at my house, my little toy poodles go berserk with welcome. Jojo and Gabi knock each other over trying to greet the newcomer. They are indiscriminate in their love: if I let the person in the house, Jojo and Gabi overflow with love, be the guest a student or even from the U.S. Post Office!

I’ve gone to putting them on a leash before guests arrive, because they love guests so much that they are a bit scary to some people. I’ve tried to train them out of it, but excitement overcomes them and they can’t seem to restrain themselves. (I know. I know. I should be a better trainer.)

Back when I had a cat, it was different. Ms. Elizabeth would watch the newcomer suspiciously from a safe spot on her favorite chair. She’d cuddle up with someone she already knew, or hide under the coffee table and glare at the person who had entered HER house. If they approached her too quickly, she’d hiss something impolite. She was indiscriminate in her dislike of anyone or anything new.

People are more complicated than dogs or cats when it comes to welcoming guests. Sometimes we are very friendly, sometimes we are not. But it is worth asking ourselves when it comes to synagogue, am I more of a poodle or cat when I see someone I don’t recognize? Do I greet them enthusiastically, or do I eye them from a safe distance?

Too often we are “cats” at synagogue. We curl up next to our friends, we see the newcomers from a distance and watch them for a while. Then, when and if we greet them at all, we do it with questions: Who are you? Are you new? What brings you here? The questions say to the newcomer, just as Ms. Elizabeth used to say to strangers: “This is MY house. Explain yourself.”

Then we wonder why our synagogue has so few new members. “We need to grow!” people will say to their rabbi. “We need to grow!” the board says, looking at the budget. But come Friday night, we turn into a bunch of cats.

Let me suggest a new paradigm for welcome: The Poodle Paradigm. See a person you don’t know and run to greet them (run to do the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger) – say hello and offer them a seat or a drink or whatever’s on offer. Resist the impulse to figure them out. Tell them about yourself, make them welcome. Don’t quiz them! Instead, use your small talk skills. (If that thought makes you nervous, read The Power of Small Talk. a little post I wrote a while back on the subject. Small talk skills can change your life.) Whether they are a newbie or a longtime member you’ve never met, greeting them like a poodle will enlarge your circle and strengthen your synagogue, too.

Just don’t jump on them or sit in their laps.

Shabbat Shalom! Tzav

Parashat Tzav takes us deeper into the Book of Leviticus, and into the minutiae of Temple sacrificial practice. What can it possibly have to say to 21st century Jews? Take a look at these divrei Torah and see!

Leadership, Precision, and the Power of Ritual by Rabbi Rachel Sabath- Beit Halachmi

Ner Tamid a Nightlight? by Rabbi Eve Posen (VIDEO)

Tending the Fire by Rabbi Yaakov Reef

Video Parshah: Tzav by Rabbi Mark Borovitz (VIDEO)

Understanding Sacrifice by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Raising Up by Dan Glass

“Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes” by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Six Lessons from My Grogger

Image: A hand holding a grogger. Photo by Yonina, public domain.

I don’t know about you, but the news of late had really wounded me. I felt sad and angry for the poor people in Istanbul and Brussels, blown up and terrified. I have felt angry and helpless, watching certain candidates in the 2016 American election compete to see who could say cruel things about immigrants, African Americans and other underdogs in our society. I was angry with the behavior of my fellow Jews at the AIPAC Policy Conference, applauding speech that simply should not have been welcome there. (It is supposed to be a nonpartisan organization for improving relations between Israel and the U.S. Trashing the sitting President of the U.S. should not ever, ever be OK there.)

And I’ve done the things I do: wrote letters to my elected officials, wrote letters to Jewish community leadership, sent money to organizations that fight hate speech and ignorance.

Still, my heart was hurting. I felt blue. I did not feel like going to Purimshpiel last night, but I had promised to be there. And after all, it’s a mitzvah to hear the megillah. So I went.

As soon as we were inside the synagogue we were greeted by excited kids and grown-up “kids” getting ready for the Purim show. We admired each other’s silly outfits. I wore a top hat with a big pink scarf knotted around it – not a great Purim costume, but something. I’m so glad I did, because dressing up connected me to the healing silliness of the night.

First we gathered in the chapel to hear the Megillah. Cantor Keys did it beautifully, and I got caught up in listening to the story (learning Hebrew really does enrich Jewish experience!) I anticipated the mention of “HAMAN” so that I could cue the roar of groggers.  Cantor Keys is a scholar and a cantor, and it was a treat to hear her do the Esther chant with all the little trills and ornaments. It was fun to try to catch the HAMAN’s.

There was something therapeutic about the sound of my grogger. It GROWLED. It growled out all my pent-up frustration, all my fury at world events and stupid politicians. It gave a sound to the feeling in my heart. It expressed my anger at all the Hamans in the world.

Then we ate pizza. (“They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”)

Then we had a Purimshpiel, a crazy riff on Star Wars that made no sense at all, but which had all of us laughing at the ridiculous puns and inside jokes.

Purim Wars: The Farce Awakens (at Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA) Photo by Susan Krauss.

I woke up this morning with my heart was in an entirely new place. I’m still not at all happy about those things I mentioned above, but I no longer feel defeated by all the evil in the world. I feel ready to fight for goodness and Torah. I will write more letters, I will write an op ed and send it to the paper, I will teach and I will get in faces and I will do what I can. In June, I’ll vote in the California primary.

I’m ready to be an agent for good in this world.

So, my lessons from the grogger?

  1. The obligation to hear the megillah is what got me to synagogue last night. Had I stayed at home, I’d still be feeling blue. Sometimes it is good to be commanded.
  2. Groggers are fun, but they are also expressive. My grogger said what words could not say about my feelings.
  3. Sometimes we need to get mad. Anger can be a motivator.
  4. Haman is all around us these days, but he will lose if we fight him. Evil will only prevail if we allow it.
  5. Silly is good. Silly heals.
  6. Purim works in mysterious ways!

What is Gefilte Fish?

Image: A platter of gefilte fish, topped with carrot slices. Photo by ovedc. Copyright via CC-BYSA 3.0.

If you live in a community with mostly Ashkenazi Jews, at holiday time you are likely to see a lot of traditional Ashkenazi foods. Gefilte fish is perhaps the most mysterious to those who didn’t grow up eating it.

“Gefilte” (geh-FILL-teh) is not a species of fish. The word is Yiddish for “filled.” Gefilte fish is a fish loaf: boned, minced white fish mixed with matzo crumbs, chopped onions and root vegetables, eggs and seasonings. (Think “meat loaf” only with fish.) Then it is formed into balls and the balls are poached either in water or more usually in fish stock.

Gefilte fish is served cold, often with horseradish and a carrot or egg garnish.

As with many Ashkenazi foods, gefilte fish developed in response to regional food availability and ritual requirements. Fish is an especially flexible menu item in a kosher diet, because it is parve, that is, it can be eaten with either flesh or dairy. Moreover, mixing the fish with crumbs of matzo or bread crumbs stretches the expensive protein.

However, fish is tricky on Shabbat, since boning it is viewed by many traditional sources to be a violation of the Sabbath. (Sorting or picking one thing out from another is called borer and is one of the 39 forbidden classes of activity.) Therefore the bones must be removed before Shabbat! Gefilte fish work nicely for this, since the boning happens before Shabbat, and the dish is eaten cold – one less thing to keep hot for the Sabbath meal.

Advice for Beginners: Horseradish helps!

Where is God in Megillat Esther?

Image: A masked person. Photo by madeinitaly.

The name of God appears nowhere in the text of the Book of Esther [Megillat Esther.] What are we to make of this? Is Purim a godless holiday?

There are a number of ways to read this absence. Chapter 9 of the scroll says that the story was copied onto scrolls and sent far and wide to be read by the Jews. Perhaps the writer (traditionally, Esther herself) felt that it was better not to put scrolls with holy words into general circulation where they could be desecrated. So she chose to omit the name of God, in order to protect the holy Name.

However, modern scholars are fairly certain that Esther is a novella, a fiction, not a history. It has a number of assertions about the Persian court that any Jew of the time would recognize as fake. It is more likely a parable about life in Diaspora.

If that is the case, then the absence of God’s name perhaps has a more deliberate meaning. Jews in Diaspora do not live in Jewish space. The Jews of Megillat Esther live in Persia, under the rule of a Persian king and his court, and as the story illustrates, powerful men can turn on them at any time.

When this happens to Jewish communities, it is natural to ask, “Where is God?” And the Book of Esther directs us to ask that question: where is God, when our enemies slander and betray us, when they imprison and kill us for no good reason other than hatred?

We cannot “see” God in the Esther text. God is apparently missing, and in the context of this story, that poses a theological question: Where is God?

Esther and Mordecai do not have the luxury of waiting for God to appear. They do not have the luxury of miracles. This is not a Red Sea moment, when the waters pass and we all walk to safety. Rather it is like so many other moments in Jewish history, when God seems to be somewhere else, and it is up to good men and women to improvise salvation. Esther married a non-Jew, and Mordecai was the architect of the massacre in Chapter 9. We can disapprove of them if we wish, but once Haman turned on them, they had very few alternatives.

Where is God in the text? We can say, “Thank God!” that Esther was queen, married to the heathen Ahasuerus. We can say, “Thank God!” that Mordecai saw a solution to the problem of the king’s ring and seal. God IS in the text, in the courage and ingenuity of Esther and Mordecai!

Where is God? God resides, as always, in the hearts and hands of good men and women.

Enjoy your Purim!




Home Safety is a Mitzvah

Image: Life preserver hanging on a wall. Photo by tookapic.

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. -Deuteronomy 22:8

We often think of spirituality as a high and lofty subject, but Jewish spirituality can be a gritty pursuit. At its best, it permeates our daily lives, for the mitzvot [commandments] often address very practical matters.

The commandment above is one of my favorites. It addresses the question of home safety: put a railing on your roof so that no one will fall off. The rabbis extended this to include the principle of all home safety matters: if I have a loose stair, or an unlighted entry, or a tricky throw rug, the Torah commands me to fix it, lest someone be injured.

I’m engaged with this mitzvah right now, because I’ve begun my Passover preparations. Every year at this time I check my “earthquake supplies” (really, emergency supplies) to make sure that I can take care of myself, my family and my two elderly neighbors should a big earthquake hit or some other disaster complicate life in the Bay Area.

I do this as part of my Passover prep because it’s very convenient time to do it. One of the things I do is cart last year’s canned tuna and peanut butter to the Food Bank. It’s all still good, and someone will benefit, but when/if there’s trouble, I won’t be stuck eating ten year old peanut butter for a month. I promptly sell the renewed supplies to my non-Jewish son, who is the official owner of my emergency stash, so I can still observe a kosher Passover.

Silly? Nope. I have vivid memories of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which was not “The Big One” but was certainly the Bad Enough One which wrecked our home and disrupted our lives for more than a year. The next big quake may very well cut me off from water and food for an extended period, so I prepare.

If you don’t live in earthquake country, you still need to be ready for emergencies. Should something bad happen in your neighborhood, can you lay hands on these things?

  • Clean (probably bottled) water (1 gallon per day per person)
  • Nutritious food (high in protein and/or calories)
  • Can opener
  • Flashlight, with extra batteries
  • Battery-operated or crank radio
  • First aid kit
  • Prescription meds
  • Emergency blanket or wrap
  • Shoes
  • Copies of essential personal documents (whatever you’d want to have if the house burned down, God forbid)
  • Chargers for electronics like your cell phone
  • Phone numbers and contact information
  • Copies of passports and driver’s licenses
  • Cash in small bills (ATMs may not be working)
  • Baby supplies (if needed)
  • Pet supplies (if needed)

I also have a roll of duct tape, a multi-tool knife, a bottle of detergent, a whistle, my ham radios, spare eyeglasses and a spare bottle of propane.

There are also things I don’t keep around, because they decrease the safety of anyone in my house: guns and cans of gasoline top that list.

I hope that we’ll never need this stuff. I hope you will never need your emergency supplies, either. But if you need a push to update your kit, now you’ve got it: it’s a mitzvah!