Thursday, September 21, 2006

Mrs. Balabusta’s Rosh Hashana Primer

Here are some good holiday tips for parents, especially moms, from someone with extensive experience in the field.

After the practical suggestions comes the poetry:

"Remember that you are making memories here, and they should be warm, happy, good ones. I don't care if the silver is polished or not, no one remembers that. They remember singing in the kitchen, peeling massive amounts of potatos together and the smell of the soup when you walk into the house. Enjoy yourself, enjoy your husband and enjoy your family. Enjoy your life, it's a gift, a privlige and it's up to you."

K'tivah v'chativah tovah--roughly translated, may your name be written and sealed in the Book of Life.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The last Jews in __________

I just heard this song for the first time two nights ago. It's from the CD "Emunah," an old Shlock Rock album that Mark recommended--we bought it at last Sunday's concert. Sadly, the story that the song tells sounds all too familiar.

The Cycle

"In the beginning a few had said come on let's build a shul.
It was 1924 in Richmond Hill.
Many people started moving into the neighborhood.
And soon the synagogue began to fill.
Word had spread about the shul that had grown in such short time.
The Shabbos crowd flowed into the streets.
Children running round and round looking for their parents.
Who would try to keep them quiet in their seats.

I remember those times like they happened yesterday,
Said the Shammos to me with a twinkle in his eye.
And even though that was long ago, I still see it very clearly.
Let me tell you what went on during those times.

On Mondays and on Wednesdays there was Hebrew school at 4.
And every day Daf Yomi would be taught.
A Kiddush every Shabbos morning after we had prayed.
It seemed like a simcha every other day.
We watched the children grow up succeed and move away,
Getting married, having children, teaching them to follow in our path
The neighborhood began to change and with it the shul too,
People started moving out now I'm the last.

And as the sun broke through, the stained glass windows in the Shul,
He turned to me and then began to smile.
I've heard about a neighborhood that's growing very fast
To take our place and continue for a while.

And so a chapter ended in this neighborhood in Queens,
And the Shammos stood, and then he turned to go,
But in another place a cycle was beginning,
To keep the flame alive and help us grow."

My husband wanted to move to the New Jersey suburbs, but I'd grown up and gone to college in the Jersey 'burbs, and I was having none of it. I liked being able to hop on a subway train, and being able to wheel my shopping cart to a supermarket around the corner. I had no interest in going back to living in a place where I'd have to drive two miles just to pick up a quart of milk.

So we moved from Manhattan, for which we weren't wealthy enough, to one of the outer boroughs of New York City, still on the subway lines.

My insistence on staying in New York City (and our resultant move to this neighborhood) was one of the worst mistakes of my life.

I should have seen the writing on the wall when so few children showed up in synagogue for services on the average Shabbat (Sabbath) morning. I should have known that we'd moved to a dying Jewish community when the last kosher butcher moved out of the neighborhood a mere two years after we'd moved in.

My son has paid the price. By the time I realized that he would never have a true Jewish community in which to grow up--one with other Jewish children from families that took Judaism seriously enough to think that Junior Congregation was more important than soccer practice--we were no longer in a position to move.

There was a time, when we first arrived, that I used to have to bring my own machzor (holiday prayerbook) from home on Yizkor days because, when I tried to borrow one from the last row so that I could follow my then-toddler around the synagogue building, the folks complained that there weren't enough machzorim to spare. But slowly, the crowds shrank to such an extent that there was no point in worrying about the fact that the accordion doors separating the sanctuary from the ballroom could no longer be opened--there were no longer ever enough people for us to need to use the "back," even on Yom Kippur. Several years ago, we sold our beautiful big synagogue building and built a much smaller one. It's a stopgap measure, because the synagogue is still hemorrhaging members--within the past two years alone, we're lost 18 congregants to the Mal'ach HaMavet (Angel of Death). The odds are that, sometime within the next five-six years, we'll have to sell our new building and move into a house. We'll be a Conservative shtieble. And who knows how long we'll last, even there? The local Reform synagogue merged with two other syngogues and moved out of the neighborhood years ago. Of the three Orthodox synagogues in the neighborhood, one sold its building and moved into a house, so we already have one shtieble in the "nabe." A second survives only because most of its building is rented, on weekdays, to a special education school.

The third? Well, that's an interesting story. When our shul sold its big building, the Orthodox yeshiva (Jewish day school) housed upstairs had to find another home. The third Orthodox synagogue packed up its Torah scrolls and followed the yeshiva. The cycle does, indeed, continue--you'll be happy to know, Lenny, that Jews are now moving back to Richmond Hill.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Nafshi ke-afar lakol ti'hye—Let my soul be like dust to all.

I know this is probably not the first time that I've linked to this. It's still one of my favorites among Mark's songs (along with another dozen or so :) ).

I don't know who wrote the prayer "Elokai, netzor l'shoni mei-rah, My G-d, guard my tongue from evil"—the first line is based on Psalm 34, verse 14—but it's a beauty. We are, indeed, privileged to have this prayer to recite immediately after the final brachah (blessing) of the Amidah ("Standing" Prayer, recited while standing), also known as Tefillah ( The Prayer).

"My G-d, guard my tongue from evil, and my lips from speaking guile. And to all those who curse me, let my soul be silent. Let my soul be as dust to all. Open my heart to your Torah, and your mitzvot (commandments) may my soul pursue."

I've had occasion to consider these words, of late. In the process of attempting to open my heart more to the Torah and the pursuit of mitzvot, I seem to have lost track of the spirit of the earlier words: I'm sorry to say that, as my level of observance increases (slightly, at least), my level of tolerance has decreased. In a word, I fear that I'm becoming arrogant.

It's Elul, and I'm trying to improve my behavior and my attitude. I must absorb the spirit of Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who is quoted in Pirkei Avot (Verses [Ethics] of the Father) thusly: "If you have studied much Torah, do not take credit for yourself, because that is what you were created to do." The same can be said for observance of the mitzvot: That's what a Jew is supposed to do. So, if I succeed in becoming more observant, I have no business being too proud of myself.

I never was a patient person. (Ask my husband and son—they'll tell you all about it. Oy.) But I think that, if anything, I've gotten even less patient with age. Having spent so many years as a religious misfit hasn't helped. Guarding my tongue, speaking constantly with diplomacy and tact, is something that does not come naturally to me. Standing out like a sore thumb as a woman in a tallit and tefillin advocating what's clearly a lost cause (egalitarianism in my own synagogue) to a congregation in which the hard-core egalitarians are, for the most part, not regular shul-goers and the hard-core shul-goers are, for the most part, not egalitarians has just plain worn me out after over 20 years. I'm sorry to say that the stress of constantly having to censor my words and of having to explain, over and over and over, to folks who think that one can't be both an egalitarian and a Conservative Jew that the Conservative Movement has been ordaining women as rabbis for almost exactly as long as we've been members of our current synagogue has taken a toll on my tolerance level.

The contradictory behavior of our congregation hasn't helped. Several years ago, we started counting women for a minyan, not because of our collective principles, but in spite of them. Some of our most dedicated synagogue attendees are opposed to egalitarianism, but went along with the move for the sole reason that we're literally running out of men. If, perchance, the congregation, chooses to give aliyot to women, it'll be for the same reason. (There was considerable unhappiness when, in the absence of the rabbi and cantor due to illness last winter, a woman cantor [and synagogue member] leyned torah [chanted the weekly Bible portion[ and lead Musaf [the Additional Service] on a couple of Shabbatot/Sabbaths.) Many of my fellow and sister congregants are perfectly comfortable with having an Orthodox rabbi as our current spiritual leader despite the fact that the number of truly observant members—and I can't count my husband and me in that category—can probably be counted on one hand. Truly, our synagogue fits the old stereotype perfectly: As the joke goes, a Conservative synagogue is one whose rabbi is Orthodox and whose congregants are Reform.

So what's an impatient egalitarian who's long since run out of patience to do? I've found myself losing my temper in synagogue with increasing frequency over the past couple of years, and even more so in recent months, arguing constantly in shul and behaving in a disrespectful fashion toward others.

Sigh. I guess Elul is that time of year—I'm simply going to have to make a major effort to clean up my behavior and keep a civil tongue in my head. I've already apologized to the rabbi for speaking to him in a disrespectful manner. I guess that's a start.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Shlockers rock!

Well, there we were, running a serious version of "Jewish time"--the poor Punster having just returned from teaching an accounting course in the farthest reaches of Brooklyn, we left half an hour late. Oy. And walked into the Shlock Rock concert the same half an hour late. Double oy. (Not for nothin' we'd rented a car--there was no way in heck that we could have gotten there even that "soon" if we'd gone by subway and bus.)

But once we got there, it was party time!

I never even bothered sitting down. :) I just spent the entire concert dancing my feet off in the back of the room. The poor Punster, meanwhile, was trying to figure out how to get the flash on our digital camera to work, Sonny Boy having so kindly lost the instruction manual when we sent the camera to him at college for use in documenting a lab project. Fortunately, the rockin' doc rescued him during the intermission. (He showed the Hubster the famous PHD ["push here, dummie"] button :) The poor Punster still doesn't know what button he wasn't pushing before.) I'm sorry to say that almost none of the photos of the performance itself came out well, though the Punster did get a couple of decent off-stage photos of Mark and one of bandleader Lenny.

Since the concert was co-sponsored by the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), we came prepared with a scarf to hold so that we could dance together without breaking any of the shomer n'giah rules by actually touching one another. So we were able to do something remotely resembling the jitterbug to that wonderful parody song "Abarbanel". (Check out this MP3 --since "Abarbanel" is from Shlock Rock's first album, "Learning is Good," that's definitely Mark Skier, the band's founding bass player, playing bass. And yes, obviously, a former syngagogue choir singer is guaranteed to go bonkers over any song with multi-part vocal harmony, so I was glad that both Marks were there--Mark Infield is a wonderful falsetto singer.) The Punster and I also got a two-person conga line going for the parody song "Into the Sea," letting the kids who were running around the back of the room pass under the scarf as if we were singing "London Bridge" or "Yesh Lanu Tayish."

Our favorite blogging musician physician got to sing one of the songs that he'd written for Shlock Rock back when he was a "full-timer" with the band. So we had the privilege of hearing "Someone Else's Place" straight from the singer/songwriter's mouth (to G-d's ear). (You can hear the whole song in the radio blog here--just keep a-scrollin' 'til it shows up).

Judging by the way he was bouncing around onstage, I would say that Mark had a wonderful time, too. We got to say hello to him, and also to his mother and his sister F. (whom we'd met previously under sadder circumstances), and we spotted a few of Mark's nephews, as well. Photos were taken all around. Everyone had a grand old time.

A funny thing happened to me while I was "cutting a rug" in the back of the room. Another woman came back there and joined the act. She was quick on her feet, and a quick learner, too--I showed her a Yemenite step (not the best description--someone should post a video) on the spot, and she picked it up right away. After the concert, we were talking, and I mentioned that I'd heard about the concert from my Internet buddy, the bass player. When I asked where she'd heard about the concert, she told me that she was Lenny Solomon's sister! You can't top that one! :) J. said that her brother always puts on a good show. Amen to that!

If there were any other bloggers there, they stayed in the closet. So much for a blogger meeting. Oh, well. You missed a great time. Don't miss the next one. Shlock Rock is a really fun group for the whole family. The adults crack up and join in on the parodies, and the kids get their jollies listening to the good music, and singing and dancing along. Join the party--it's guaranteed glatt by the Kosher Police! :)

Monday, September 11, 2006

The World Trade Center as I knew it

Here’s my 9/11/2005 post.
This year, I want to do something different. Since I live in New York City, and, especially, since my sister lived almost literally across the street from it at the time of the terror attacks of 9/11/2001, the World Trade Center was not just a city landmark to me. So here are some of my other memories, culled from notes made within months of the attacks.
Travel directions to my sister’s apartment via subway train, as of September 10, 2001:
Take the E, A, or to C Chambers St./World Trade Center, or the 1, 9 [no longer extant] or R to Cortland St. Since the Trade Center is the last stop, just follow the crowds out the main doors, which empty directly into the World Trade Center Concourse (the underground shopping area). You can stop off and pick up a paper at the newsstand directly to your left just as you leave the E train platform. (There’s at least one other newsstand in the concourse.) If you’d like to get a little something for my sister, try the Lechters housewares store or the Borders Books and Music store [one of our son's favorites] just a few steps forward on your right. I recommend that you make the first left after those stores. This will take you around the PATH (Port Authority Trans Hudson commuter train) “plaza” where the escalators discharge bazillions of commuters from New Jersey every morning. It can get pretty hectic if you’re caught in the crowds during rush hour. Follow the signs that say “World Financial Center.” Before you get to the revolving doors, you can stop off at the Citibank on your left and pick up some cash from the ATMs. Walk through the revolving doors and past the elevators (on your left) leading to the Observation Deck and the offices in the tower—I can never remember whether that’s 1 or 2 World Trade Center, even though I’ve temped in both buildings. Make a right through the open “doorway,” and take the escalator (or elevator, if you’re in a wheelchair or have a kid in a stroller) up to the walkway. This enclosed pedestrian overpass, at least twice as wide as my livingroom, takes you over West Street, and constitutes what’s probably the most heavily used entrance to the World Financial Center. There’s an elevator on your left, but, if you can handle the stairs, it’s a nice walk with a fine view. Overhead is an arched glass ceiling, and straight ahead a wall of glass, about 4 stories high, enclosing the Winter Garden. This so-called garden consists entirely of about 8 palm trees—a dumb idea, if you ask me—at the bottom of several flights of beautiful rounded stone stairs (which are a prime wedding-photo spot). If the weather is nice, go out the nearest door and down the Financial Center Plaza steps to the Hudson River. There’s a fence trimmed with brass letters quoting the American poet Walt Whitman, followed immediately by the boat basin. When you’re finished ogling all the yachts that you can’t afford to buy, make a left back up the stairs and go through the garden. Make a right after you leave the garden gate. My sister lives in the first apartment complex to your right. Built even before the World Financial Center, it’s the oldest residential complex in Battery Park City, and the one closest to the World Trade Center.

[My sister was standing with the crowds at the boat basin, watching the tragedy unfold, when the first tower collapsed. She literally ran for her life, and ended up being evacuated by construction barge to New Jersey across the Hudson River. It was roughly midnight before she was able to call and tell me that she was still alive.]

Further notes:
According to my “Interviews in 2000” file, I was interviewed on 7/7/2000 for a possible temp-to-perm job as an administrative assistant for the Port Authority at One World Trade Center, 88th floor South. Thank goodness I didn’t get the job. I wonder whether the 2 women who interviewed me are okay.
My Temp. Agency work records show that I worked for Aon Risk Services, 2 World Trade Center, 105th floor, Mon., 6/19-Fri., 6/23/2000 and Wed., 1/3/2001. Here’s a note from my file:
When working in WTC, always get there early—you will need to be checked in by security every day! [How’s that for a bitter irony?] When working/AON, get on the special AON line/security check-in.
When I worked at Aon in January 2001, I ran into my supervisor from my June 2000 assignment. I was embarrassed because I couldn’t remember her name. Now I’m upset that I couldn’t remember her name the last time I saw her, because I’m 99% sure that that was the last time I’ll * ever * see her—everyone I worked with at Aon is almost undoubtedly dead.
October 5, 2001
Watching the news is a strange experience. The pedestrian overpass leading to the World Financial Center is still standing—but the building at its eastern end is gone. . . .
“The New York Times Magazine,” Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001 edition carried a photo of the Winter Garden with the ceiling windows as shattered as our delusions of safety.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Mme. Szclarczyk

I should have known. My sister warned me that our high school didn't have a reputation for being top-notch. But I couldn't quite wrap my brain around the idea that the A's and B's that I was getting in French, and my membership in the French National Honor Society, were nothing but a sham.

So it was pretty embarrassing to have to explain to my parents and grandparents that the results of the college's placement test indicated that I needed to be placed in Intermediate French II, a non-major course. But the worst was yet to come: When the department held its welcome meeting for freshman French majors, I was mortified to realize, watching all the other students laughing and nodding their heads, that I was clearly the only person in the room who had absolutely no idea what the professors were saying. So I did the only logical thing: After the meeting, I spoke to the department chair and asked to be placed in Intermediate French I. I spent my entire college career a year behind my fellow and sister French majors. And when I chose to spend my senior year in France, rather than doubling up and taking 19th and 20th Century French Literature in one year . . . well, let's just say that, while I wouldn't have given up that year in France for all the tea in China, my knowledge of 19th century French literature still has a huge hole where Victor Hugo ought to be.

But there was a silver lining to this cloud, and her name was Mme. Sczlarczyk. Mme. Sczlarczyk was a French phonetics professor with a peculiar attitude toward grading: She would never fail a student—but she wouldn't let any student pass, either, until his/her French pronunciation was good enough to warrant at least a B. She would simply give an Incomplete, semester after semester, until the student met her exacting standards. Some students were in her "course" for as long as four semesters straight! And how, exactly, did the students remain in her "course?" It's simple: She tutored them. She would see us between classes, in small groups and/or individually, until our pronunciation met her standards. She continued to tutor students at no cost until her husband became ill and she no longer had the time. I feel fortunate, indeed, to have benefited from her dedication.

Contrast that to some professors today (Hubster, CPA and newly-appointed full-time college Accounting instructor, excluded) who won't give a student in need of extra help the time of day, much less free tutoring. Granted, there are limits: No amount of private tutoring in a specific subject is going to help a student who enters any class without basic reading, writing, and/or math skills. For those students, remedial education is needed. But a student who knows the basics shouldn't have to go begging for help if some of the material being studied is a bit challenging. How does one deal with a college professor whose first reaction to a student who has the basic skills and a strong interest in learning but appears to be falling a bit behind is to tell him/her that he/she is a poor student who should hire a private tutor and will probably fail anyway?

I know what my own experience was, when I was falling a bit behind. That's why, some thirty-five years later, I still remember Mme. Sczlarczyk.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Time bomb: A question for settlers

You live there. You’ve seen the demographics up close and personal. Is there any truth to the theory that the Arab population in, for lack of a better description, “Greater Israel” (or Eretz Yisrael HaShalem, the entire Land of Israel, if you prefer), which includes those lands currently being governed by the State of Israel without international recognition, will eventually outnumber the Jewish population? How can the Jewish State remain Jewish if the majority is not? I’ve always believed that, in the long run, a Palestinian state was as necessary for the sake of the Jewish people as for the sake of the Palestinians: As the saying goes, home is the place where, if you go there, they won't turn you away. On the other hand, how can Israel make peace with people who won’t stop shooting at them long enough to figure out how to govern themselves?

My usual rules apply: All opinions are welcome, but they must be stated in respectful language. The only thing that I won’t tolerate is intolerance. Insulting comments will be deleted.

The floor is open.

On taking an obligation upon oneself voluntarily (and why I began wearing a tallit)

You might want to start here, then check out this guest post by Chana over at Serandez.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m swiping from my own comment to Chana's post:

"One of the hazards of participating in the Jewish blogosphere is that so many J-bloggers, particularly of the Orthodox persuasion, base what they write on the assumption that every reader had the good fortune to attend a Jewish day school.

For example, Anonymous said: "Is a man who chooses to wear tzitzit all day under his shirt looked down upon? Do we say he should focus on his obligations and not his right to perform more mitzvot?"

Whoa, back up! As recently as a few weeks ago, I myself, being among those not blessed with a yeshiva education, was unaware that a man is not, in theory, obligated to wear tzitzit unless he *chooses* to wear a garment with corners, thus voluntarily obligating himself. It does, occasionally, become distressing that you fortunate few just take it for granted that every J-blog reader knows what you're talking about.

Okay, now that I've cleared that up . . .

[. . . or not: Here's an explanation of tzitzit. ]

Anonymous pretty much "nails" the argument re ritual garments: "from where do we know a person who desires to perform a mitzvah, even though they are not necessarily obligated in it, is condemned? Is a man who chooses to wear tzitzit all day under his shirt looked down upon? Do we say he should focus on his obligations and not his right to perform more mitzvot? I understand the Mishna Berurah states regarding the mitzvah of tzitzit and women that a woman could technically put on a tallit and recite the beracha but more then likely they are doing it because of 'yuhura' roughly translated as religious arrogance and therefore should abstain. Is it truly out of the realm of possibilty that a woman would choose to wear tzitzit for anything else other than religious arrogance? Or do the realm of motivational options only apply to the male gender?"

I've been thinking about blogging about this, so maybe I will: The reason why I originally began wearing a tallit [here's an explanation] was that, as a member (at that time) of an egalitarian synagogue, I figured that rights came with obligations. The reason why I continued to wear a tallit after we moved and became members of a non-egalitarian synagogue was that it just didn't make sense for me to suddenly stop wearing a tallit when I'd been wearing one for roughly a decade. What's interesting about that is that I was working on pure logic: It wasn't until many years later that I heard that, once one has accepted a mitzvah upon oneself, one is not permitted to stop performing that mitzvah. Clearly, my motive was not halachic--how could it have been, when I didn't even know the halachah?! But was it "wrong?" Please think twice about assuming the worst regarding anyone's motives for accepting an obligation voluntarily.

9/01/2006 12:40:55 AM

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