Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Heard on the heights

The sukkah on the roof of my employer's building has been packed all day, as people try to sneak in a bite before the rain returns. While munching pretzels there, I happened to mentioned that someone had told me that his/her family's sukkah had fallen down, so they'd had to eat by the neighbors. Then I heard what I'd said: " . . . eat by the neighbors"?!!! Methinks I've been working for the frummies for too long. :)

A beauty from Chana

Sorry I'm linking so late, but here's her poetic post re Yom Kippur.

Ki avi v'imi azavuni . . .

Every year, from Rosh Chodesh Elul (the beginning of the month of Elul on the Jewish calendar) until Hoshanah Rabbah (or until Shemini Atzeret, depending on your minhag/custom), we recite the so-called Penitential Psalm, Psalm 27, L'David, HaShem ori v'yish'i. For many years, that psalm has meant something special to me, but not in a good way.

I'm talking about this post of mine from 2005, which I wrote based on this comment that I'd posted elsewhere:

“It was difficult enough when my parents made aliyah and left us to raise a child with disabilities without help and without grandparents.But I knew I was truly alone, and could never "go home" again, the day, some years later, that I asked my mother for some cooking advice and she told me to look it up in a cookbook.

Ever since then, I've considered myself a pseudo-orphan. My parents are both still alive, baruch ha-shem, but I no longer consider them a real part of my life. I grew up real fast that day.

But I still remember a day a few years ago when I was sitting in the shul choirbox learning an Israeli lullaby. It's probably a mental block, but I can't remember the name of the song ["Hitragut," with lyrics by Y. Karni and a gorgeous choral arrangement by P. Ben-Chayim], or very many of the lyrics. What I do remember is that the song spoke of a grandmother with her grandchild. I was choking back tears, knowing that my son had never had that kind of experience with either of his grandmothers, and never would.”

[ ¶ ]

The sad truth is that it was difficult for me to mourn for my mother when she'd already been largely absent from my life for over two decades. And my father, with no memory left, is, from my own perspective, as good as gone already, as awful as that may sound. I'm actually having trouble trying to figure out what to say when the time comes for me to sit shiva for him--he's been in decline for so long that we haven't been able to have a decent conversation for several years.

[ ¶ ]

So a psalm that says that "my father and my mother have deserted me" strikes a little too close to home.

Our friends' shul: Observations and reservations

See parts one, two, and three.

The good news
I just finished reading On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations, by Daniel Sperber, a work that would be better appreciated by scholarly readers who don't mind books with more footnotes than original text. One thing that Rabbi Sperber wrote did stick in my mind: He stated that there's no requirement to read the Birkot HaShachar/Morning Blessings aloud. This became relevant almost as soon as I read it, since the first thing that my husband and I noticed about Shacharit/Morning Service in our friends' synagogue was that the service begins with the "Rabbi Yishmael omer" quote from the Talmud [correction, courtesy of the Reform Baal Teshuvah--"Rabbi Ishmael omer" is from Pesikta d'Rabbi Ishmael], presumably so that the mourners can recite the Kaddish D'Rabbanan prayer that traditionally follows that quote when there's a minyan. All preceding prayers and quotations are recited bi-y'chidut, privately by each individual. This is a very smart move. Since the congregants recite these prayers silently, each individual can choose which versions of various b'rachot/blessings to say, which quotes to recite and which ones to skip, with no fear of causing offense. Hence, my husband could avoid the problem that I mentioned in the comments to this post: " . . . my husband is complaining that, if we became Orthodox, *he* wouldn't be allowed to lead services anymore--because he refuses to thank G-d for not making him a non-Jew and for not making him a woman, and substitutes the Conservative version, "who has made me Yisrael (a Jew)" and "who has made me b'tzalmo (in His image)." If we were to join this synagogue, no one would ever know about his choice of b'rachot unless he told them.

The not-so-good news
There's one aspect of the sanctuary's design that I do not appreciate at all--to balance the momumental-size Aron Kodesh (which I, personally, find a bit excessive), the architects gave this room an extremely high ceiling. Unless there are a significant number of people present to absorb sound and keep it close to the floor, the voice of the baal tefillah/prayer leader tends to wander off toward the ceiling. While I've certainly attended synagogues with far worse acoustics (unfortunately), I found it helpful to sit slightly ahead of the amud (Torah-reading and prayer-leading desk), so that the baal tefillah's or baal koreh's (Torah reader's) voice went pretty much straight into my ear. I wish that the architects, designers, and planners of the sanctuary had given as much thought to the needs of those with hearing problems as they gave to the needs of female worshippers. (In addition, I'd love to know how they remove the sifrei Torah/Bible scrolls from the top shelf of the Aron, which, by my husband's estimate, is roughly ten feet above floor level--surely there's a pulley system inside, because, without one, they'd need a ladder, literally.)

Compounding the problem with the acoustics is that, as far as I can determine, none of the men who lead services are either professional chazzanim/cantors or trained singers. The same was true of the women and men who read Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Put untrained singers into a room with a ceiling three (four?) stories high and no microphone, and it's inevitable that some of us will have trouble hearing them--none has been been taught how to "project" his/her voice, and some will simply not be loud enough.

Speaking of the lack of professional chazzanim, those of you who've read the recent Jewish Week article For Cantors, Season of Their Discontent will know what my next complaint is--too much Carlebach and company (by which I mean music new enough to be no older than I am) and not enough nusach. On one hand, I enjoy being in a synagogue that encourages congregational singing. On the other hand, I'm not sure how I'd feel about spending the next 30 years or so in a shul in which I'd rarely hear a "regular" Kedushah. And what's this business about skipping the hymn Yigdal completely at the end of Maariv (Evening Service) on Erev Shabbat and Yom Tov (Sabbath and holiday evenings) and replacing the hymn Adon Olam at the end of the Shabbat and Yom Tov morning services with Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem) ?

As long as I'm kvetching (complaining) about the replacement of Adon Olam by Hatikvah, I should say that one friend of ours with whom I spoke after our visit mentioned that the senior rabbi of this synagogue is an interesting combination of right-wing in his political views and, insofar as possible for an Orthodox rabbi, left-wing in his religious perspective, and is an activist in both areas. I tend to try to ignore politics as much as possible, and was none too happy to have the Season of Rejoicing marred by his mention of the unpronounceable Iranian's appearance at the United Nations, nor was I pleased with his plea, on the Day of Rest, for the release of Jonathan Pollard from prison. It's not that I disagree; it's just that I'm not crazy about political pronouncements from the pulpit on Shabbat or Yom Tov. This might be a problem, were we to settle here for the next 30 years or so.

As Too Old to Jewschool Steve commented here, "Were you to join an orthodox congregation, I have no doubt you will continue to find a multitude of issues about which to vent." My reply was, “Probably, but at least they'd be different issues. :)” Well, here they are. :)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Our Sukkot in an Ortho shul: Inclusion by action

See part one and part two.

In addition to the physical design of the building, there are other signs of inclusiveness at our friends’ synagogue, as well. During services, page numbers are called, and explanations are frequent. The "levush" ("dress code") is non-existent—the women wore everything from T-shirts and skirts to full suits, with sleeves ranging from short to wrist-length, while the men wore everything from polos to full suits. Head-coverings for the men were mostly kippot s'rugot ("knitted" [crocheted] yarmulkes/skullcaps) or, occasionally, a Bukharan-style kippah, while married women wore everything from kippot s'rugot (unusual in an Orthodox synagogue) to lace doilies, scarves, knitted caps, hats, and sheitlach (wigs). This “come-as-you-are” attitude comes straight from the top—the senior rabbi wore a plain dress shirt with neither tie nor jacket, and one of the assistants worn a dress shirt and tie with no jacket (even when leading the service), while the other assistant was dressed with unpredictable formality. It’s nice to know that this is not the kind of synagogue at which I’d feel like the worse-dressed woman in the room—an experience that I’ve had in the past and don’t wish to repeat—simply because I hate clothes shopping and don’t dress to impress.

No effort was spared to get people to introduce themselves in the sukkah. On the first night of Sukkot, when the sky suddenly opened and rain came pouring through the schach (organic, porous ceiling of the sukkah), the very hands-on senior rabbi simply shouted, “Everybody grab some food and get inside!,” and joined the rest of us slightly-soaked folks and the staff in helping to carry chairs and set up tables so that we could continue our meal indoors. Ex-Soviets and Israelis, locals and guests all shared songs and stories in the all-purpose room, and, on later occasions, in the sukkah, at the urging of the rabbis.

I see from the synagogue newsletter that there are a number of programs for the children, and that efforts are being made to determine the needs of families with children with disabilities and accommodate them.

Efforts are also made to ensure that persons with different perspectives concerning women’s participation in public ritual are accommodated. There were two separate readings of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on Shabbat Chol HaMoed, one with both male and female readers and one with male readers only. The “mixed” reading took place in the sanctuary immediately after the Musaf Service. Again, women and men entered the bimah separately, closing the gate after themselves when they left, so that the separation between the genders was maintained at all times. The “male-readers-only” reading took place in the sukkah between the Minchah and Maariv (Afternoon and Evening) Services, with a portable mechitzah placed between tables.

Our own experience at the shul was a good one. A number of people came over and welcomed us. And when I moved as close as possible to the amud so that I could hear more easily, and apologized to the rebbitzen (rabbi’s wife) for possibly having taken her seat, she assured me that I needn’t worry because there’s no such thing as assigned seats—“No one here will ever ask you to move.” I also got a kick out of the fact that I saw more women in tallitot/prayer shawls in this Orthodox synagogue than I’ve ever seen in my local Conservative one—I don’t remember there ever having been more than three women, including me, wearing a tallit there, even back when our local shul had hundreds of members instead of barely dozens, whereas there were so many women wearing tallitot in this Orthodox shul that I didn’t even bother counting. My husband, a bit shy about coming out of the closet as a Levi while a guest in someone else’s synagogue, was “outed” on Shabbat morning when he was offered a Yisrael aliyah and had to come clean, ending up with the g’lilah (Torah-wrapping) honor, instead—and got the Levi aliyah that very afternoon at the Minchah service. :)

Altogether, we had a wonderful time. Our shul experience was delightful, and we enjoyed our friends’ company and conversation between services. We also met a few other old friends whom we know from previous synagogues and chavurot (prayer and/or study groups) and who now live in that neighborhood. We hope to go back there soon, right after Shacharit (Morning Service) on a Sunday, to walk around a larger area of the neighborhood and see whether it might be a good place for us to move after the Punster retires.

Our Sukkot in an Ortho shul: Inclusion by design

Part one is here.

Our friends' synagogue gives inclusiveness a high priority, and that attitude is made clear by, among other things, the architecture and design of their building.

The first thing that one notices is the wheelchair ramp at the building's entrance. But what's really hard to miss is the unusual design of their sanctuary.

Make no mistake about it: This is an Orthodox synagogue, with a mechitzah separating the men's and women's sections. The side-by-side sections are equal in size, which is not necessarily unusual. What's unusual is that the bimah, the platform on which prayers are led and the Torah (Bible scroll) is read, was specifically designed to be "neutral territory." The T-shaped bimah, with its "top" in front of the Aron Kodesh and its "bottom" extending about halfway into the sanctuary, is surrounded completely by a mechitzah. There are four gates in this mechitzah, two from the men's section and two from the women's section. (In each section, one gate leads to a few steps, while the other leads to a wheelchair ramp.) During the 95% of the service which, by mesorah/tradition or halachah/Jewish religious law, is led by men only, there are only men on the bimah. When a woman enters the gate to speak or to lead a non-mandatory prayer, such as a prayer for Israeli soldiers or a mi-shehberach (prayer for the sick), all of the men leave the bimah (except for the man holding a Torah scroll between readings), closing the gate behind them. (The woman proceeds to the lecturn near the Aron Kodesh, while the man holding the scroll is separated from her by the amud/reading desk at the back of the bimah.) When the woman leaves the bimah, she closes the gate behind her, and the men return to the bimah.

Clearly, great efforts were made, in planning this sanctuary, to help women feel welcome in public prayer. I salute the architects, designers, and planners of this building for the thought that went into the construction of this extraordinary Orthodox synagogue.

Our Sukkot in an Ortho shul: 'Twas quite a trip

. . . both figuratively and literally.

I was delighted when these fine friends were kind enough to invite us to sleep on their couch for the first two days of Sukkot plus Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot.

Naturally, our visit couldn't take place without complications. Unfortunately, the first one was serious--our hostess had a sudden medical emergency that necessitated a trip to two doctors on Wednesday. The prescription that she was given made her much more comfortable, but she has to see the doctor again on Monday. I hate having to put people back onto my mi-sheberach (roughly, prayer for the sick) list, but that's where Chanah Bloomah bat Devorah v'Yisrael is, at the moment. :(

The rest of the complications were of the Keystone Cops variety. First, my husband neglected to mention to me that he was seeing a tax client on Wednesday morning. That probably wouldn't have been such a big deal, if our laundry room hadn't chosen Wednesday morning to decide that it was time for a machine malfunction, thus sending my already-delayed husband to the local laundromat.

Even more fun ensued when my husband finally showed up at our friends' apartment with our suitcase and garment bag. Boy, were we surprised to discover that both of the brand-new skirts that I had packed were missing from the garment bag. Our hostess and I both protested vehemently when my husband insisted that he'd take a cab back to our apartment to look for them, forbidding him to do so because not even a taxi could get him home and back in time for the beginning of the holiday. So he said he'd retrace his steps back to the bus stop, instead. Fortunately, the halachah (Jewish religious law) against traveling on a holiday was on our side--while I was trying on my girlfriend's clothes to see what would fit, my husband found my skirts lying on the sidewalk, not much the worse for wear--they'd been the victims of a broken hanger.

I'm happy to report that the rest of our stay went much better. More posts to follow, when I'm awake.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sadducees among us (by Jeffrey Woolf)

I've been meaning to post about the latest round in the "conversion war," etc., but Rabbi Woolf, of My Obiter Dicta, did a better job than I could. See here.

From CNN: Where did waters part for Moses?

Not where you think. See here for scientific study's conclusion (about which the commenters are quite sceptical, I should note.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Chag Sameach: Enjoy your Sukkot!

Since I'll be shopping and packing tonight for our Sukkot adventure (mentioned here), I'll post this link to a Sukkot oldie but goodie now. I hope you'll enjoy it.

More poor design (secular division, this time) :(

Did you see that ugly, mud-catching netilat yadayim cup (and the beautiful, easy-to-clean one with which I replaced it) here? Well, designers of Jewish ritual objects certainly don't have a monopoly on poor design, as I complained in my post An eye for detail (where I published what's probably one of the best photos I've ever taken).

Both of these blouses are size mediums from Appleseed's. But look closely--the buttons on the crinkle-fabric blouse are spaced visibly farther apart than the buttons on the plain-fabric blouse. It's no wonder that I needed three safety pins to keep the crinkle-fabric blouse closed. Even the large size, though huge on me, won't stay closed--there's too much space between buttons. Appleseed's Returns department will be hearing from me.

See also Not all hats are created equal.

Not all hats are created equal

Start here.

[ ¶ ]

Worst: A baseball cap

The long visor of a baseball is really wonderful for keeping the sun out of my eyes, but it does such a good job of getting in the way of the bayit (box) of my shel rosh (head tefillin) that I have to turn the hat backward.

[ ¶ ]

Better: A dress hat with a turn-down brim

My white dress hat is delightful for dancing at a simchah/happy occasion, but the bent-down part of the brim actually gets caught on the front edge of the bayit! I have to be sure that the hat is set farther back on my head.

[ ¶ ]

Best: My black dress hat

The brim’s not too wide and isn’t bent down at the edge. Perfect, says Goldilocks. :)

[ ¶ ]

[ ¶ ]

Speaking of design, see also "Too Jewish," which you might find good for a chuckle.

[ ¶ ]

Update: Here's my current hat collection.

Monday, September 20, 2010

My post-Yom-Kippur posts

Here are links to my post-Yom-Kippur posts:

The walking wounded after Yom Kippur

First, the president had the brilliant idea to rearrange the synagogue's seating for the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays), with the amud (reading desk) in the center and the seats facing the amud, Sefardi-style. So every time we turned to face the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark holding the Torah/Bible scrolls), we were facing sideways, and had no chair backs in front of us on which to rest our machzorim (holiday prayer books). Good luck holding a machzor for a few 45-minute Amidah prayers: By the end of Minchah (Afternoon Service) on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), my right wrist--I was using mostly my right hand to spare my worse left one--was killing me. And it wasn't just Ms. Formerly-Broken Wrists, either--the woman next to me was having the same problem.

Then, my new non-leather shoes turned out to be a little too comfortable--they were just loose enough to slide around a bit and aggravate the ganglion cyst under the sole of my left foot. There'll be no Israeli folk dancing for me tonight. :(

I'm just full of complaints today. On the plus side, I've thankful that my complaints are minor ones.

There's an interesting report here on DovBear's blog regarding different "styles" of Kol Nidrei. Enjoy.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Too Jewish

Remember this post?

Well, my appreciation of good design applies to Jewish ritual objects, too.

As I've increased my observance level over the past few years, I've begun saying the so-called "bathroom b'rachah," the blessing/b'rachah recited after going to the bathroom--we Jews thank G-d for everything, including the ability to eliminate naturally and safely from the body the material that is no longer needed. For this b'rachah, one needs a netilat yadayim (ritual hand-washing) cup.

But when I first bought a netilat yadayim cup for the bathroom, I was thinking more in terms of price than design.

Good grief, is it ugly!

Even worse than its appearance, though, is its design. The darned thing seems to have been designed deliberately to trap dirt. Even in this blurred shot, the "mud-catcher" on the handle is clearly visible.

[ ¶ ]

After cleaning off the "mud" with my fingernail one too many times, I'd had enough. So I went hunting for a netilat yadayim cup that was easy to clean, with as few hard edges to catch dirt as possible. I hoped to find one that wasn't too expensive.

I succeeded. More or less.

[ ¶ ]

Yes, it's brushed stainless steel, beautiful, and well-designed, with very few difficult-to-clean surfaces, and it wasn't too expensive, as these things go. But it's HUGE.
[ ¶ ]
Curious to see whether it was really as big as it looked, I poured some water into it from a measuring cup, and found that the dam-sized thing holds an entire quart (approximately 1,000 ML--does that make a liter?) of water, with about an inch to spare! I'm guessing that it was actually designed for use in a synagogue, Jewish day school, or other Jewish institution.
[ ¶ ]
A Conservative former rabbi of ours, a couple of rabbis back, once lamented that many of us non-Orthodox Jews don't understand that most of Judaism is actually practiced in places other than the synagogue. Boy, was he right--we're not used to having any ritual object in our bathroom, much less The Netilat Yadayim Cup That Ate Manhattan.

Not ready to hang up my blogger's keyboard yet, but . . .

I think I'll publish a few non-controversial posts, since some of the responses I've gotten lately to my controversial ones (and even to one or two that I didn't think were all that controversial) have been a bit upsetting.

Gender roles in Orthodoxy: Anatomy is destiny?

Start here, and follow the links, especially the one to "Who's on first: On raising a Jew."

Now to take up Miami Al's challenge concerning my question here about women leading Ashrei:
Miami Al said...

. . .

Two issues. Is the prayer an obligation of men in the minyan, if so, it needs to be led by someone obligated, a man having obtained his majority.

If the prayer is not obligated, there is flexibility in the issue.

To suggest that boys have "higher status" than women is just a meaningless statement, there isn't a status involved. Boys will grow up to be men, and therefore have the obligations. So certain parts of the service get used as an opportunity to teach the boys to be used to communal prayer.

Nothing magically happens on one's 13th birthday. Using the time before that to train [boys] is not treating women as children, it's accepting that we as a community have an obligation to teach the next generation [of prayer leaders].

While Partnership Minyanim can do all the adult self indulgence they want within the bounds of Halacha, there is a reason that they appeal to the single and DINK [dual-income, no-kids] families in NYC only, they simply aren't of practical interest to families with children.

Or, bluntly, for completely practical reasons, it is more important for the Jewish world to cultivate an interest in a 10 year old boy wanting to be an active involved Jewish adult than there is in appeasing your interest in filling your empty nestor days with an interest in learning this stuff.

Impractical Halachot have a short lifespan, practical ones last a long time. Practical/Impractical in this case is based on it's ability to transmit itself, so people have to get enough out of it to maintain it
it can't interfere in retention rates or birth rates.
I've talked about a number of aspects of parenting a young child and of parenting a young child with special needs, but not even in this post did I talk about the social isolation of parenting a baby, then a toddler, then a young child. Maybe my experience was atypical, since our son was borderline hyperactive and "blessed" with delays in developing age-appropriate social skills. But I find it impossible to believe that I'm the only mother who's ever been in this position.
[ ¶ ]

We moved to our current neighborhood when our son was just over a year and a half old, which probably didn't help--perhaps my experience would have been better if the other mothers in the neighborhood had known us and our son from birth. But, that said, it isn't every mother who sits on a park bench with other mothers for hours almost every good-weather day for over a year and somehow never manages to become a part of the "gang." My son and I were almost never invited to other toddler's homes for "playdates," nor were any other toddler's mothers interested in visiting us. Once my son developed enough "seichel" (common sense) not to run into the street or get his head clobbered by a swing, I started to bring a book to the park, because it seemed a waste of time for me to try to socialize with women who were clearly intent on excluding me from their circle of friends.

[ ¶ ]
My son and I were even politely "disinvited" from returning to a Jewish playgroup after our first visit because he persisted in running into the host's kitchen and opening her refrigerator. Even then, I couldn't blame the other mothers from banning us, but that certainly didn't make me feel any better.

Now picture me in an Orthodox community in the same predicament.
Our neighborhood has no eruv, which is true of some other smaller Jewish communities, as well, and therefore, we wouldn't have been allowed to carry anything or to push a stroller in a public place on Shabbat/Sabbath. (There are also Orthodox communities in which the very idea of an eruv is rejected--the rules against carrying anything or pushing a stroller in a public place on Shabbat applies in those communities, too.) So, while my husband disappeared every Shabbat for several hours to attend morning and afternoon/evening services at synagogue, I would have had to stay home alone with a hard-to-handle heck-raiser. After all, how long can one leave a house with a two-year-old without a diaper pack? That same problem would have limited whom I could have visited and who could have visited me.
In the dead of winter, even when my kid was old enough to walk there and didn't need diapers anymore, we couldn't have gone to the local fast-food restaurant with the indoor playground.
In the heat of summer, even when my kid didn't need diapers anymore, he would not have been allowed to push or pull any of his toys or ride any of his "riding toys" or his tricycle to the playground and/or back.
So I would have spent hours of Shabbat home alone with a "high-maintenance" kid who was far too young to participate in a discussion of the Parshat HaShavuah/Torah reading of the week.
Here's my challenge to you, Miami Al, and to all of my readers: How high a price should women be expected to pay in social isolation to ensure the survival of Judaism? Aren't we, too, entitled to some adult company and conversation? When do we mothers get a Shabbat?

Yom Kippur. My watch stopped. Just as well.

We have a very-long-standing minhag/custom in our synagogue to light a six-candle candelabra in memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah/Holocaust, plus a yahrzeit (anniversary-of-death) candle for each synagogue member who died between the previous year's Rosh HaShanah/Jewish New Year and this year's Rosh HaShanah, before the Kol Nidrei prayer. My watch battery lasted just long enough for me to insist to the president that licht-bentchen/z'man hadlakat nerot/candle-lighting time had already passed, and that our Shabbos goy should light the candles. So that's what happened, and everyone was happy.

It may be just as well that I found my watch no longer functioning on Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement morning. There isn't really much point in checking the time on Yom Kippur, since the services will last as long as they last. They really are quite interminable, if I may say so. Given the (lack of) speed at which I read Hebrew, I'm sorry to say that my efforts to keep up make it difficult for me to pray with any kavannah (focus) to speak of.

My husband got through Minchah/Afternoon Service somehow, though I told him that, if he were Baal Tefillah/prayer leader for Minchah again next year, he'd be well advised to spend less time listening to the chazzan/cantor's nusach (traditional melodies) tape and more time practicing the Hebrew. I cheated, as usual, going back and forth between Hebrew and English, so I had an easier time of it.

My fast wasn't too bad, and neither was my husband's. I hope your fast wasn't too bad, either.

I'm looking to Sukkot. Chag Sameach!

There will be a short delay

See the September 19, 2010, 3:28 PM comment here.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Not in Kansas, Toto: Possible tornado strikes NYC

One person died when her car was crushed by a falling tree, and over 30,000 people are without electricity this morning after a thunderstorm packing 100-miles-per-hour winds tore through Queens, Staten Island, and Brooklyn yesterday. (See NY1 for a fuller report.) All evening, NY1 News television channel was playing reports of people running for their lives as trees fell toward them, of drivers running from their cars after the wind smashed their car into another, for fear that the situation might become even more life-threatening, of a storm that came in so quickly that homes were flooded in the minutes that it took for the residents to close the windows.

We're pretty lucky that the worst of the damage missed our own neighborhood, leaving only a downed tree or two and lots of branches on the ground. We're also lucky to be living in a neighborhood in which the electric power lines are buried underground, so we never lost electric power. But it's going to be a good long time before some neighborhoods get back to normal. I gather that many people lost their cars to falling trees, and some people may even lose their houses due to damage too extensive to repair.

May the rest of the year be a good one for all, and a better one for those who've suffered illness, tragedy, and/or disaster.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

My "Black Hat" experiment :)

Okay, so I'm cheating, but I got your attention, didn't I? :)

What I'm really talking about is my black hat, a catalyst for a wonderful Shabbat.
I'm having a bit of a problem with my black hat--it's too hot for warm weather or for simchas/s'machot/happy occasions such as this one, but, since it doesn't cover my ears, it's not warm enough for winter. It seemed that the poor thing was about to be relegated to "transitional-weather" status--meaning that I could wear it only when the weather was between roughly 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit--until I had an idea.
We may very well be moving within the next two-three years, and aren't sure with which denomination we'll be affiliating. But even a left-wing Modern Orthodox synagogue, such as the one to which our friends now belong, though it may tolerate women in tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin, is less likely to tolerate a woman in a kippah/yarmulke/skullcap, since many Orthodox Jews consider a kippah to be "beged ish," a man's garment, and thus forbidden for women. (The Torah/Bible prohibits cross-dressing by either gender.) Well, the other day, it occurred to me that I could take advantage of the fact that I have a hat that's black, and, therefore, hides dirt reasonably well, and try learning to lay tefillin around a hat, instead of a kippah. (My white hat would get dirty much more frequently if I wore it for davvening/praying every weekday morning.)
I've had two day's practice now, and have found that there are advantages and disadvantages to wearing a hat rather that a kippah when laying tefillin. On one hand, since the tefillin must be directly on the body, with no clothing intervening, it's nice not to have to check under the tefillin strap/r'tzuah to be sure that the edges of the kippah aren't stuck there: It would be a good trick, indeed, to get a hat caught under a tefillin strap. :) On the other hand, getting the tefillin on means that, after lifting the hat slightly and sneaking the bayit/box and r'tzuah underneath, I have to make sure that the strap is actually circling the head evenly rather than being off to one side, and, since that means moving the strap around more than I'm used to doing, spending a tad more time centering the box over the space between the eyes.
But the bottom line, I'm happy to report, is that it's doable.
Next adventure: Sukkot and Shabbat Sukkot with the aformentioned and afore-linked (did I just invent a new word?) friends, davvening/praying in their Modern Orthodox synagogue and enjoying meals in the shul's sukkah.
Update: Not all hats are created equal.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Adventures in Tashlich: A lucky break

When my husband arrived at my office this past Monday evening with siddur/prayer book and bread crumbs in hand, he said it was pouring rain outside. So we figured we'd try doing Tashlich another day, grab a bite at Kosher Delight, and continue uptown to Ruth Goodman's Israeli folk dancing session in the Kraft Center's Rennert Hall. But we forgot to get off the train at 34th Street, and decided to grab a full-meal bowl of soup at Estihana on 79th St. instead. Lo and behold, when we got off the train, it wasn't raining anymore. Since the sky was already wearing its sunset colors, we dashed westward to the 79th-street boat basin, on the Hudson River, as quickly as we could walk, and hit the Hudson just in time to say the psalms and toss the bread crumbs before it became too dark to read. The Hudson is a lovely place to say Tashlich. I'm glad we made it there in time to davven (pray) and see the last of the sunset.

Late comment on an interfaith Sept. 11 commemoration

I used to be more open-minded and/or less traditional about not attending the religious ceremonies of those of other faiths. Years ago, I used to go to Catholic mass with friends, considering myself a respectful observer, not a participant, and thought nothing of it. But I have to admit that, when they started chanting Hare Krishna, I felt compelled to leave the room.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Punished in perpetuity

See the comments.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The 39 melachot ("work" forbidden on Sabbath)

We met an old buddy (formerly a member of our synagogue) at a mutual friend’s Rosh HaShanah dinner, and had quite an interesting conversation. Since she’s currently preparing for her upcoming marriage to an Orthodox man, she’s been studying [clarification--in a class taught by a rabbi] the 39 melachot, actions that the rabbis ruled are forbidden on Shabbat (Sabbath) because they are/were used in farming, in building the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting/Tabernacle in the Wilderness), and in basic work activities. As luck would have it, either she misunderstood some of the rules or she’s studying with someone more machmir (strict) than the rabbis of the Orthodox Union—I thought that some of what she told us was incorrect, and, when I checked the OU website’s 39 melachot page after Shabbat, I found that I was right. Here’s some of what I learned:

20. Selecting (Note 37)

This includes separating unwanted portions of food by hand.

Thus, for example, if one is eating berries, he may not pick out the bad ones before eating the good ones.

One may, however, eat the good ones and leave the bad. It is likewise permitted to peel fruits and vegetables for immediate consumption.

[Our friend had told us that one is not permitted to peel fruits. I didn’t think that was true, and it’s not. ]

This category also forbids one to pick the bones out of fish. This is one reason for the custom of eating Gefilte Fish on Shabbos, since its bones are already removed.

If one must remove something inedible, a small amount of food should be removed along with it.

[Our friend had also said that one is not permitted to eat any fruit that has a part that isn’t edible, such as a pit. I remember that my brother, when he was Orthodox, served us watermelon on Shabbat with instructions not to pick out the seeds before eating it, but to pick them out while eating, and had deduced from his instructions that I could pull the stem from a cherry only after putting the cherry into my mouth. So I didn’t think that this was true, either.]

The spirit of this category also forbids all sorts of sorting and filing activities.

[You have to choose your clothing before Shabbat, as choosing it on Shabbat is a form of selecting or sorting.]

21. Sifting (Note 38)

This includes separating the unwanted portions from food by means of a sieve.

It includes the sifting of flour and the straining of liquids.

[Does this mean that we’d have to stock up on bottled water for Shabbat, in case we ran out of water in our water-filtering pitcher? It appears that one is not allowed to filter anything that wasn’t already filtered before Shabbat.]

22. Grinding (Note 39)

This includes all grinding and milling operations. The prime example is milling grain.

Grinding coffee or pepper, filing metals, and crushing substances in a mortar, all fall under this heading.

Its spirit also forbids the grating of cheeses and vegetables and the grinding of fish and meat, as well as herbs used for medicine.

[Is mashing tuna or eggs considered grinding? Would we have to make tuna salad and/or egg salad before Shabbat?]

The Sanhedrin therefore legislated to forbid the use of all nonvital medicines and treatments except for a sick person.

An initial exception, however, was made in cases of acute pain and actual illness, where necessary medical treatments may be used.

Where life is actually in danger, the Sabbath may be violated in any necessary manner. Our sages teach us that it is better to violate one Sabbath in order that another may live to keep many.

34. Shearing (Note 52)

This includes removing hair, wool or feathers from any living creature.

Also included are such things as haircutting, shaving and cutting one's fingernails. Eyebrow plucking is also forbidden.

The spirit of the law also forbids the combing of hair on the Sabbath, since this normally also pulls out hairs. Using a soft brush, however, is permitted.

[Ah, here’s where the prohibition against combing hair appears.]

[ ¶ ]

I’d like to learn more about the 39 melachot, but I’m not interested in being any more machmir (strict) than the rabbis of the OU, or in following any chumrot (extra stringencies beyond what’s required)—I just want to learn the basic prohibitions. Can anyone recommend a book or online source that presents a moderate approach?

!#$%^&*!!!!!!! Stupid Blogspot!

I had an entire post completely written, and when I clicked on the "Publish" button, not only did the post not get published, it got deleted! I'll have to re-write from scratch. :(

Sunday, September 12, 2010

My post-Rosh-HaShanah posts

Here are the links to my weekend posts:

A new prayer-service-learning challenge

Since I don't read Hebrew very quickly, I've made it a personal practice never to recite all of P'sukei D'Zimrah, an early section of the morning service that consists largely of psalms and biblical quotes and is not as "required" as the Matbeiah. However, I've now been put on notice that I'll be relieving my husband for PD every now and then, with the Ritual Committee's recent vote to allow women to lead PD, and I led PD yesterday for the first time on a Shabbat/Sabbath.

I can more or less manage to stumble my way through most of the sections of PD that I don't usually say, taking about 10 minutes longer than my husband. But I found out the hard way yesterday that I don't know Psalm 90, Tefillah L'Moshe, at all! I have between now and next Saturday to learn it, as I don't know whether I'll be drafted for PD on Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement, since my husband's already "booked" for Minchah/Afternoon Service.

Update: Well, at least I know the last verse--it leads into Yoshev b'seter elyon, Psalm 91, in Sefer Tehillim/Book of Psalms, in PD, and in the Maariv/Arvit (Evening) Service on Saturday night.

Minhag Yerushalmi is my new minhag

I heard several years ago that the Jerusalem custom (minhag Yerushalmi) is to pray at least the Birkot HaShacher (Morning Blessings) before going to synagogue. I've decided to do something similar. Now that my husband, instead of our speed-davvening former rabbi, is leading P'sukei D'Zimrah (Verses of Song--mostly psalms and other biblical quotations), I can almost keep up, and I'd like to show my husband some respect, too, so I'm now shocking the shul by showing up at the beginning of services on Shabbat (Sabbath) and Yom Tov (a major holiday), something that I haven't done for probably at least five years. (For several years, I prayed up to the Torah Service at home. In recent months, I've started praying through P'sukei D'Zimrah at home and showing up in shul for the Matbeiah/required prayers, in the hope that they'd get a minyan in time for the Amidah prayer, at least.) As a compromise that enables me to davven/pray at least part of the service at my own pace, I'm praying from the Birkot HaTorah/Torah blessings up through the Mizmor, Shir Chanukat HaBayit, L'David psalm, at home, then continuing from Baruch ShehAmar when I get to shul. That way, I keep everybody happy. :)

Ashrei--please explain

One of the comments made on another blog during the recent discussions about a woman leading the Kabbbalat Shabbat (Welcoming the Sabbath) service in an Orthodox synagogue was that no one seems to be concerned that women leading English prayers on Shabbat morning might slip and accidentally lead Ashrei. I don't get it. What would be the big deal if a woman led Ashrei? It's just a psalm, like the ones in Kabbalat Shabbat. Does Ashrei have some special status? Kindly enlighten me.

Our neighborhood's newest church: Our shul :(

The president spent yesterday's kiddush bragging about having gotten yet another renter for our synagogue to help pay the bills: As of this morning, we now have a Baptist service in the sanctuary at 9 AM, in addition to Pentecostal services in the sanctuary later on Sunday and on two weeknights. Sunday-morning "minyan" now takes places downstairs in one of the rented-out offices created from the space formerly occupied by our chapel. So the five of us attendees had the privilege of davvening/praying among the file cabinets this morning. No, I'm not the only one who's unhappy with this arrangement--one of our other members refuses to attend services in an office when there's a perfectly good sanctuary upstairs, and will no longer join us for davvening on Sunday morning, prefering to pray at home alone.

Since we now run only Friday night, Saturday morning and afternoon, and Sunday morning services on a weekly basis, some of them in the "dungeon" downstairs, we now have more Christian services than Jewish ones being run in our sanctuary (excluding holidays.) It's sad, to see what we have to do to keep a roof over our heads. I hope we get an acceptable offer for our building soon--as far as I'm concerned, the sooner we move into a house, the better.

Rosh HaShanah report

A precautionary measure
I davvened Minchah (prayed the Afternoon Service) on the subway ride home on Wednesday afternoon because I was afraid that I wouldn't get to services at the synagogue on time. Since I decided to take a last-minute shower, so as to sneak in one last shampoo before Yom Tov, that turned out to be a wise move--as expected, I missed most of Minchah at the shul.

Still munching a hard-boiled egg (after reciting full Sh'ma) after all these years
See the link above. I still refuse to go to shul on an empty stomach on Shabbat or Yom Tov, because I don't see how one can enjoy one's Sabbath or holiday when one is hungry.

Surprise, surprise
It was only a few weeks ago that our Ritual Committee voted to allow women to lead P'sukei D'Zimrah (an early section of the morning service which consists largely of psalms and other biblical quotes). The president said that I should probably refrain from leading PD at the High Holiday services this year and start thereafter, so that, if I lead PD at next year's HH services, I can claim, to any complainers, that this is now our shul's minhag/custom.

Imagine my double surprise, then, when, at the last minute, the president hired a female cantor to lead Shacharit/Morning Service and yet another female to blow the shofar. Both did very well. And, as far as I know, no one complained.

It's official--I'm a show-off :(
For years, I complained about High Holiday cantors who didn't sing the Yigdal that I learned for the Yamim Noraim in my parents' shul. Finally, they got tired of hearing me kvetch and gave me the honor of leading Yigdal on the Yamim Noraim. In the beginning, it really felt like a big honor. But I have to admit that as my "audience" of 200 or so slowly shrank over the years . . . Somehow, singing to roughly 20 people on the first night of Rosh HaShanah just didn't cut it.

It really helped that I got a decent night's sleep on the first night, and a nap in the afternoon. Come the second night, I was determined to put some real kavvanah (focus) into my Yigdal, even though there were only 14 people there. The second night's Yigdal felt much more meaningful, and I was pleased that I'd made the proper effort.

Doing very nicely, thank you
My husband's been giving the "sermons" on Shabbat, and a couple of volunteers spoke on Rosh HaShanah. Thus far, no one's complained about the fact that we no longer have a rabbi to give sermons.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Wrist action: I'm back to making my own tzimmes!

Remember my Kulanu M'subin Seder Chicken recipe, based partly on a variation on my mother's parve tzimmes recipe? I wasn't able to make homemade tzimmes for Rosh HaShanah last year because it was less than a year since I'd broken both wrists, and I wasn't really ready for sweet-potato "surgery." So we managed with a batch of tzimmes from ye not-so-local glatt-kosher take-out place.

This year, though, I did the whole thing myself. I really should have had my husband cut the sweet potato, but I didn't have the heart to ask him, since he was busy commuting to and from the basement, doing the pre-Yom Tov/holiday laundry, at the time.

The problem is that, being the only one of my parents' four kids who did not inherit my late mother's wonderful cooking and baking skills, I don't enjoy cooking and, consequently, don't own a decent cooking knife or a cleaver. My puny knife invariably gets caught in the sweet potato, making me feel like one of the hapless knights in the King Arthur legend trying to pull the sword from the stone. But somehow, I managed to get the sweet potato cut into chunks without hurting my wrists too much.

Well, enough about me. Here's the recipe, good for Rosh HaShanah (sorry about the timing), Sukkot, and Pesach. It can be cooked in the oven, well covered, where it would probably cook more quickly because you can use a larger pan and spread out the ingredients. But the thought of turning the oven on while it's still above 60 degrees Fahrenheit doesn't appeal to me--our apartment gets hot enough from turning on the stove, much less the oven. I use a three-quart pot--my newest pot says that's 2.8 L, if I'm reading it correctly--and cook the tzimmes on the stovetop. The cooking time is approximately forever, which I'm guessing is about an hour and a half (or perhaps more, depending on the size of the sweet potato), though I haven't timed it--I just check every 10 minutes or so until the sweet potato and carrots are soft, then remove the pot from the stove and put it on the hot-tray. This recipe should make approximately four servings.

What's unique about this recipe is that it's fruit- and juice-sweetened exclusively--it contains no sweetener of any kind. It's probably still too high in fruit-sugar for diabetics and hypoglycemics, but it might keep your dentist happy, at least. :)

  • 1 fresh apple, with core removed (Do not peal--the skin keeps the apple from falling apart during the cooking process.)

  • 1 20-ounce can of pineapple chunks--since you want to be able to taste the pineapple, chunks work better than crushed pineapple or pineapple tidbits--in unsweetened juice (no syrup allowed!). Dole brand is kosher.

  • 1 one-pound bag of baby carrots (easier on the wrists and fingers than cutting full-size ones), or 1 pound of full-sized carrots (sliced or cut into chunks)

  • 1 large sweet potato or yam (at least 1/2 pound), cut into quarters lengthwise (the difficult part of the "surgery"), then into medium-sized chunks (If you cut the chunks too small, they turn into mush.)

  • 1/3 cup-1 cup of orange juice, depending on how sweet you like it--the more juice, the sweeter--and on the size of the sweet potato. You might want to taste periodically to see whether you'd like to add more.

  • ground cinnamon to taste
Place cored apple in the center of the pot. Sprinkle the inside of the apple with ground cinnamon, stuff it with pineapple chunks, and sprinkle exterior of stuffed apple with cinnamon. Spread the entire pound of carrots and the sweet-potato chunks around the stuffed apple. Pour the remaining contents of the can of unsweetened pineapple over everything. Pour orange juice over everything. Sprinkle cinnamon on everything. Mix a bit, if possible, without dislodging the apple from its pride of place. Cook on low heat until carrots are soft. Have a good and sweet year!

Update, about 3 minutes after publication: That'll teach me not to check my previous posts--I published this recipe last year! (And, apparently, I did manage to perform sweet-potato "surgery" at that time). Oh, well.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Shanah Tovah u-M'tukah!

A Good and Sweet Year! I wish all of you a happy and healthy (and, I hope, prosperous) new year.

I ask forgiveness of anyone whom I have offended, which I seem to have done a bit in the recent past, and I will try to maintain the standard of respectful writing that I set for myself when I started this blog.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Saved by the, er, Post Office

Much to my pleasant surprise, my new skirts arrived today! Looks like I'll be spared the necessity of wearing those "hip-huggers" for Rosh HaShanah after all.

You can't keep a dancer down

I noticed something a bit unusual at Haim Kaufman's Shorashim Labor Day Weekend Israeli Folk Dance fest when we went to a workshop on Sunday--the teacher for that workshop, Israeli choreographer Dani Dassa, was paying an extraordinary amount of attention to one particular student as he taught us his own dances. I couldn't figure out why--until I remembered that the student used to come to dance sessions with a dog, who has since died, and now comes with a blind-person's white cane.

Someone who was better acquainted with the blind dancer told my husband and me that she's an alumna of the Cejwin Camps, the sadly-no-longer-extant camps that, if I understand correctly, were designed to be experiential-education havens for Jewish culture. Our "informant" told us that Cejwin "graduated" many fine Israeli folkdancers, among them master Israeli-folk-dance teacher Danny Pollock, another of this weekend's workshop teachers, who's known the blind dancer since childhood--they attend Cejwin at the same time.

During Dani Dassa's Sunday workshop, either he or Danny Pollock was at the blind dancer's side at almost all times, talking her through the dances. Watching Dani Dassa walk her through a partner dance was certainly an interesting experience--though he was able to talk her through the footwork, he had to take her arms and physically move them to show her how to do the arm motions so that she would end up with her arms and hands in the right place and position. She was a quick learner.

I assume that the blind dancer was not always blind. Physically moving someone's arms to show what to do with them is one thing, but physically moving a standing person's feet without having the person fall over is another matter entirely! Judging by the fact that she responded immediately and correctly to footwork descriptions such as "Yemenite right, Yemenite left" and "Cherkassia" correctly, I think it's reasonable to assume that she learned those steps while she was still able to see them.

And here I thought I was having a tough time dancing with a ganglion cyst under the sole of my left foot, pains in the neck and shoulder from those compressed disks in my spine, and a fear of falling from having broken two wrists. After watching a blind person dance, I could only be grateful that I'm not in such bad shape after all--and, apparently, neither is she.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Fashion: Bah, humbug! :(

A couple of years ago, a girlfriend offered to take me shopping for some nice new skirts. Knowing that I will no longer wear skirts that don't cover at least half of my knees, she took me to a Jewish shopping area.

Unfortunately, the shop she chose turned out to offer clothes of the "frum but funky" variety.

Big mistake.

Every single skirt in the store was a "hip-hugger," with the "waist-band" (if any) riding at least an inch below the waist.

Folks, no amount of weight-loss on my part is ever going to change the fact that my hips are a clothing-size larger than my waist. In my experience, we "pear-shaped" women look terrible in hip-hugger skirts. The skirts that I bought look gorgeous on the hanger, but don't flatter my so-called figure in the least. And these are the skirts that I'll have to wear for Rosh HaShanah, since the new ones that I ordered online probably won't arrive in time.

I want my old-fashioned waist-hugging skirts back!

Friday, September 03, 2010

Taking it for a spin

See here.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

All or nothing :(

I suggested to my husband that he might want to ease into retirement by ditching his tax and accounting practice after 2011 and just continuing as a college accounting instructor. I wasn't too happy to hear the reason why he thought that wouldn't be a good idea: He said he'd still have to keep up with the latest developments in the accounting field by taking Continuing Professional Education (CPE) courses--and without the "extra" income from his practice, the CPE fees would have to come out of his measly teaching salary. Ouch. :(
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