Sunday, October 30, 2005

It is Almost Erev Halloween- A Few Thoughts

Some of my fellow MOTs are reluctant to let their children observe Halloween. There are a variety of reasons why this is so and I admit to having been reluctant to get into it, but that is a different story for a different day.

I once heard Rabbi Ed Feinstein give a sermon in which he outlined some compelling reasons for taking our children out and wanted to share some of it with you.
"I take my kids trick-or-treating on Halloween. The truth is that you don't find many rabbis out on Halloween. Many of my congregants are surprised, even upset, to find their rabbi and his kids in costume celebrating a holiday that has definite Christian and pagan origins. And my kids certainly don't need any more candy in their daily diet. But something remarkable happens on Halloween, something I want my kids to see: On Halloween, we open our homes to one another. On Halloween, we come out from behind solid-core doors and dead-bolts locks and electronic burglar alarms. The doorbell is met, not with a gruff "Whose there?" and a suspicious eye in the peep-hole, but with a smile and sweets. On Halloween, and only on Halloween, we pretend we are a neighborhood again...families from disparate background who share common civic values, making life together in a common space. If only once a year, I want my kids to see what it's like when fear subsides, and people trust one another enough to open their doors."
Sadly there is so much truth in that. There are fewer and fewer neighborhoods that have that open, friendly, Leave it To Beaver feel in which you can let your children play unattended in the front of the house.

All too often you only know the neighbors on either side of you and you just barely recognize the man/woman down the street. So I see a lot of value in being able to show the kids something out of my past because I walked to school and reached a point at which my friends and I were allowed to trick or treat by ourselves. That is not something that my children are going to share with me and I am saddened by it.

Here is another snippet of the speech.

"The most destructive disease in America, wrote the New Republic magazine some years ago, is not AIDS, but "AFRAIDS" -- the pervasive fear of violence that steals away our freedom, our sense of community, our trust. What happens to a city when everyone is afraid of everyone else? What happens to us -- to our souls -- to our children, when fear of violence is constant and pervasive? Bombarded by a daily litany of baby-snatching, berserk gunmen, child molesters, drive-by shootings, school shootings, police shootings, what happens to us? what happens to our children?"
This is something that I do wonder about. I have a hard time believing that things are so much worse now than they were. Part of me expects, or should I suspects that the vast amount of instant information (read news) has made some events seem to be far more prevalent then they used to be in the past because the sad reality is that pedophiles, rapists and murderers have always been here.

But while I will go to great lengths to give to my children I am not willing to take certain risks because every time I think of the final line of that speech it reasonates with me

"When they finally fell asleep, my wife and I dumped out all the candy on the kitchen table, to inspect each and every piece for needle marks and razor blades and the pernicious, poisonous tampering of some sick mind. God help us."
So we do what we can to keep them safe and to provide a normal life because what else can you do. I try to do what I can to be a good neighbor and look out for those around here not just because it is my neighborhood but because if you do it here there is a chance that it might spread. A viral infection of positive action.

Crossposted at Jack's Shack

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Simchat Torah Memories

Rejoice with the Torah! Such is the proclamation for the holiday that finished this evening...and so mark the end of our chagim until Chanukah.

I've seen Simchat Torah in many forms, in many shuls throughout my years.

My earliest memories are of the shteibel we attended till I was about eight years old. Young and old alike in the basement of a house dancing in glee and carrying that glee upstairs and out of doors onto public property...proclaiming to any and limited passing car and foot traffic that the Torah is ours and it's here to stay.

My next memories are of the family shul, also an Orthodox minyan, where I could still join the men downstairs because I was not yet bat mitzvah age. Or else I stood with my mother and the other ladies and young girls in the balcony, looking down below and watching as certain shul members overexaggerated everything, helped by a little -- or a lot of -- liquor in their systems.

There was one year that I was with friends and we were downtown (the Lower East Side area of Toronto, called Kensington Market) at a shul that just happened to be egalitarian. Now that concept was far beyond me and what I was used to. Yes, we danced outside on the shul property with the Torahs, but when someone offered to hand me the Torah to dance with, I declined. And back inside the shul, when someone offered me hagbah, and then an aliyah, I declined again. It was so foreign to me, so far removed from the environment I was accustomed to, so NOT ME.

One of my loveliest memories of the holiday is from about 10 years ago -- I was married and our oldest was about 6 months old. He was wearing a beautiful white and blue plush velour sleeper and was dancing in the arms of my husband, back in a shteibel setting of the shul my husband attended when we married and where we continued to daven until we moved northward. That memory of that baby being held is likened to a Torah in its mantel being held -- lovingly, adoringly and carefully -- and displayed for all to see.

Before a move a couple years ago we attended another small Orthodox shul and the last year we were there, one of the women pseudo-begged the rabbi for the men to pass the Torah over. Reluctantly he and the menfolk agreed and this woman held and danced with the Torah, crying like a baby. She said she'd been trying for over 20 years to get to hold a Torah. She truly rejoiced as she held the Torah like it were her baby and embraced it lovingly. Yes, I finally took the Torah where it was offered to me, but it wasn't as if it were a great achievement for me. I was indifferent, but not as against holding it as I'd been almost 20 years earlier. I just remember being v...e...r...y cautious when I held it.

The shul we attended for the past two Simchat Torah celebrations is very lively -- Bnai Akiva teens come from far and wide and add to the spirit with their singing and dancing. As well, in this shul, also Orthodox, the Torah gets passed over the mechitzah to the women. Women come from far because they know this shul gives women the right to hold and dance with the Torah.

It is clear that the glee shown on the faces of these women and teenage girls as they dance with the Torah is the same glee and wonderment that shone on my face when I was a little girl in that first shteibel my family attended. Then, I stood on the outside looking in on the men; these women stand on the inside and get to look out. There is a great joy in knowing that each of us is part of something bigger, of a community, of a people. And the Torah is our inheritance, our heritage.

May we all merit to share in the joy and dancing of Simchat Torah next year again.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

In My Pocket

On my way out the door today, this second cold day of fall, I grabbed my heavy leather jacket to wear. In its pockets were my gray gloves. It was nice to find them there. I didn’t remember where I had left them last February or March. Texas is the kind of place you can get through a winter season without gloves, though your fingers will be cold at times. It was reassuring to reach into my pockets and pull out my gloves. I put them on.

I’ve gone through one full cycle of the Jewish year. A year back in the fold. I’ve been reaching into my memory and pulling out many things, some I recognize with fondness, some with regret. Despite a lapse of two decades, the words to the prayers have never left me. I know them by heart. From Modeh Ani to Anim Zemirot, in synagogue or at home, the words are as familiar as if I had never stopped singing them. That’s frumkeit for you. Once trained, ingrained, you never forget.

Other things come back too. I remember now why it is hard to be a Jew. Not because of the many customs and laws, but because of the pain. It’s hard to read about young Israelis gunned down alongside a road outside Jerusalem, to see the photos of their beautiful, shining faces. It’s hard to face the hatred that inflates our enemies. The news from Israel is so often bad. Beyond bad; heartbreaking. James Joyce wrote: “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” But we know there is no escape. Our history is indeed a nightmare, a revelation of the darkest pits of human evil. It’s hard to carry that weight. It’s hard to watch my husband clean his plate at every meal, and wonder if he does that because his father was starved in Auschwitz. That is a lot of pain to carry. It is hard to be a Jew. It’s hard to care and feel so much.

Sometimes it’s overwhelming. I’m not sure I want to be back in the fold. I have my own neuroses and odd characteristics, and at times my rough edges knock hard against Judaism. I’m a shy person in a social community; a loner in an energetically engaged, socially-directive religion. I try to be neutral in politics, but it’s impossible to do that and also be on the board, or even a member, of a synagogue.

But I don’t want to divorce myself from Judaism again. Not like before. I carry a siddur now in my purse (along with iPod and cell phone). It’s good to be in contact with God again. I’m moved by the Friday night services and enjoy learning and listening to Torah. I feel like my day is worthwhile if it includes a little bit of learning. Far from seeing Torah as arcane knowledge, I’m continually amazed at how unchanged human nature is and how relevant and true Torah remains. We are the same people that crossed the desert with Moshe, except now we have laptop computers.

Belief, then, is not hard for me. But involvement, engagement – that is tough. Sometimes, when I talk to God, I ask him if he doesn’t think I would have made a better Buddhist than Jew. I have a natural tendency to try to step back and be the observer, to see all sides and choose none. But being Jewish means choosing sides, and quite emphatically. And we don’t always agree. In my own congregation, we all support Israel, yet I was one of only a handful that opposed – or even questioned the wisdom of -- the disengagement from Gaza.

In the end, it may all come back to learning Torah and to prayer. Because these are the tools we have to help us know ourselves. I was brought up as a religious Jew, and I have a solid ethical and moral foundation for my life. I value that. Though I still make poor decisions and many mistakes, I have a compass that brings me back around to where I should be. That sense of direction also gives me the strength to hold firm when I need to, to disagree with others, and be true to myself.

It’s been a full, busy and rich year. It’s a good start and we will see how Judaism grows within me, and what is next. This story is not finished yet.

cross-posted at Mirty's Place

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Why be Jewish

On my own blog there is a post in which I ask if religion matters anymore. Here I ask the simple question, Why be Jewish?

What do you think?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Kehilah Kedosha

On Yom Kippur, my rabbi accused us all of not being a Kehilah Kedosha...a Holy Community. She stood up on the bema at the Kol Nidre and told us all about Kehilah Kedosha and how we weren't even close.

Today, my husband went to Children's Hospital to see his cardiologist about that little incident that landed him in the hospital in September. Dr. Lee thinks he now has developed Coronary Artery Disease...something we'd always been told probably wouldn't happen but apparantly now, because of his diabetes, our worst fears are realized.

And to confirm this diagnosis, Anth needs a heart week!

I don't get very many days off...a total of 20 to be used to sick and personal and vacation. One year I used them up in the hospital with a kidney stone but usually I plan them out strategically over the be sure I have plenty if an emergency crops up and I need to use them. For us an emergency could be Anth being in the hospital and me having to take off to get Evan back and forth to school...or it could be me getting sick and being unable to work for a while. Or it could be the very worst we can think of.

But we won't think about that now.

And so, while I have 12 left as of today and I don't plan to use more than 5 between now and the end of the year...there's always the "what ifs" that I have to factor in.

So when Anth told me he needed a cath, I knew I'd have to spend one of those precious days...which was okay, I mean, I HAVE them, I should USE them...especially for something like this.


Well, Anth said "Don't worry about it, I don't want you to use those days if you don't need to. Let me see if Bob can go with me." (Bob is our adopted Ima's husband.)

So he called Ima.

And Ima told him that if Bob couldn't go, then not to worry, SHE would go.

When Anth told me this, I really, honest and truly started to cry. THIS was kindness, THIS was chesed, THIS was empathy and what people in a community do for others in the community.

Our rabbi was dead wrong.

Despite what she thinks and despite what she says, we ARE Kehilah Kedosha...we are a Holy Community. It's gestures such as this which reinforce that...these are people who genuinely care about one another, who are THERE for one another, who help when their help is needed.
Rabbi seemed to think that the definition of Kehilah Kedosha was a community that moved and acted as one...a bunch of Stepford Jews who were interested in the same things, who liked the same events and activities, who only saw sunshine and blue skies.

But this isn't Kehilah Kedosha, at least not the way I experience it.

Kehilah Kedosha is a community that genuinely cares about the people who form it. They don't ALL do the same things or attend the same events but they ARE just a phone call away. A new preschool in the shul? The ones who find this interesting call the teacher and offer to be aides. Sunday Clean Up? The men show up and climb up on the roof and throw off the debris that has accumulated. All of the men? No...some of the men. Others run the golf outing and still others run the big, annual fundraiser. Some we see once a year and some we see every week. It's a community. That's how communities work. We all have our lives and families and jobs and other interests that occupy us...but in our Kehilah Kedosha - we all find something to do. Maybe not all of it but somehow, somewhere we fit in.

And as a Kehilah Kedosha, we make room and we find a way for everyone to fit in. Regardless of what or how much they offer. Sure, there are those members of our community who prefer to armchair quarterback the whole thing...sit back and do nothing except offer their sage advice. Others don't even do that. But even THEY are part of this community...for better or for worse.
And THAT'S a Kehilah Kedosha. It's not the shiny, perfect, cookie cutter community our Rabbi waxed poetic about (and insulted more than half us with her comments) - we are humans and we have flaws. But we DO have a common purpose...and when the chips are down, I truly believe we rally to the cause, whatever it is. We may not be the BEST Kehilah Kedosha but we ARE a Kehila Kedosha. It's what we do. And I, for one, am glad to be a part of it.

(crossposted at Jewview and Matzah and Marinara)

Friday, October 14, 2005

Thoughts from Somewhere Else

Hi, Chaim here, just putting up a post that Shloimy sent me. (Corrected)

Post Yom Kippur thoughts: Looking toward the future….

As I stood there praying on Yom Kippur, some thoughts started creeping into my mind as Neilah started.

Neilah: the last prayer we say on Yom Kippur marks the “ closing of the gates”. I realized with sadness that Yom Kippur was slipping away. Where had the day gone? This special day when we are so close to G-D that we are like the angels above and we can therefore proclaim out loud: “Baruch Shem K'vod Malchuso Lolam Voed” (Blessed be his name and his glorious kingdom forever and ever). When, until next year will I have this chance, I sadly thought?

These ideas certainly opened my heart and allowed me to pray with much more fervor and concentration. Before Neilah the Rabbi spoke to the congregation and pointed out that it was important not just to beg forgiveness but to change as a person from within.

Whatever promises we make to be better people, they should never be more than we can handle. “ A little bit goes a long way”, he said. Take upon yourself something such as benching from a bencher, or to be careful to wash when eating bread etc. I’m hoping that I can still hold on to some of the holiness that this Yom Tov brought me. To go back to “business as usual” is surely not what G-d is looking for. May we all merit to have our names sealed in the heavenly books for healthy and happy prosperous year.

Yom Kippur Thoughts and Musings

I am still tired from yesterday, or maybe I am tired because I haven't slept much this week. Or perhaps it is a combination of lack of sleep and mental fatigue.

This year I made a real effort to get into davening. For some communicating with G-d is easy, but for me davening can be challenging. On a side note, I have written about this a number of times, but that is the only link that I can find. It irritates me, I have to try harder to categorize things.

What is most challenging about davening is trying to decipher/determine whether my prayers are heard. We live in an era of instant gratification, we want answers now. When my mother first instructed me on how to make a phone call she told me that I should let the telephone ring at least six times so that the person I was calling had time to pick up the phone.

Now if I wait more than three rings to get a person or voicemail I am irritated. It is kind of silly, but it is true. There are many other examples of this, but we'll save those for another time. For now it is enough to say that like so many others I want a definitive answer, even if that answer is "no."

This year was easier and I blame my children for it. Just before I began to read Torah I took a moment to look out on the crowd and I caught my son's eye. The smile on his face lit up the room and I couldn't help but smile back. His excitement just propelled me. To those of you who were there I apologize for the crack in my voice, no water wreaked havoc on a weak voice.

Later on my daughter decided to take a nap on my shoulder. I wrapped her in my tallis and as I davened the Shmoneh Esreh I could feel her breath on my cheek and could hear nothing but her steady breathing. Daddy and twenty-three pounds of baby girl bowed and convened with the heavens. It just made sense and for a brief moment I felt as I was crossing a bridge into a different place and time.

To some of you it may sound silly, but I felt as if I was walking into Jerusalem. I was bound for the Temple and was surrounded by others. My daughter helped me set the tone and then I tried to stay there. I draped my tallis over my head and listened. There was a low roar emanating from the people around me. I felt like we were all pulling for a common cause.

It was special and it was meaningful. It was what it should be.

The holidays are here and I feel settled.

(cross posted on Jack's Shack)

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A Jewish Education Revisited and New Thoughts

There is a universal consensus that a good education is of paramount importance. The real question is where can you find the best education for your child. This past June I asked the question Do You Value A Secular Education?

I asked about it because in my interaction with many people who have attended parochial school there seems to be a distressing lack of focus on basic writing skills. Time and time again I read posts by educated and intelligent adult bloggers who seem to be unfamiliar with spelling and grammar rules and that concerns me.

Earlier this week PsychoToddler blogged a bit about paying for a Jewish education. In principle I agree with him that it is a very important piece of maintaining Jewish continuity, but I have a couple of problems with it.

The primary issue is my concern with the secular education that the students receive. I don't have any problem with establishing communities where there is access to Jewish needs (Kosher butcher, restaurants, shuls etc) but I am not a believer in isolating ourselves either.

I don't have hard numbers or data to share with you that provides any conclusive evidence to support my suspicion that some of these schools take the secular world less seriously than the Judaic studies.

What I have is my own experience in reading the blogs of those who went to these schools and the stories that I have been told confirming my beliefs. So it may not be conclusive, but it is enough to warrant concern.

The second piece of this puzzle refers to the cost of sending a student to private school. The problem is that the tuition is far too steep for many families. Just trying to send one child to a private school can be very difficult but sending more than one can for some be downright impossible.

This is not a new issue. I remember hearing my parents and their friends discuss this very thing some 25 or 30 years ago. So what are we going to do about it.

I can tell you what I am working on right now. I am in the middle of preparing a marketing blitz in which we are going to approach people who have the means and ability to support scholarships and ask them for their help. We are going to do everything that we can to drive down the cost so that this option is available to as many children as possible.

And there you have the short version of my thoughts on this. What do you think?

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Time to Read Torah

I read Torah every Yom Kippur. Each year since 1982 I am the first guy up there. I walk up to the bimah, wait for the blessing and then it is off to the races. The first few years I was self-conscious about it.

I don't have a particularly good singing voice. I found that out the hard way. In 1982, (yes, the same year) I had the lead role in a musical. I still remember the laughter and I see some of the faces of those who laughed at me.

Many of those people were there when I started reading and I remember wondering if they would laugh again. I was 13 and much more aware of myself in that awkward junior high way. Part of me very much wanted to get out of reading, but at the same time I was honored and so I did it.

In time it got to be quite easy. I knew it by heart. I didn't have to look, all I had to do was start chanting. It is fair to say that I got a little cocky, but my cockiness was shortlived.

Three years ago I was tripped up. I started chanting and then looked down only to realize that the scroll was in the wrong place. Someone had grabbed the wrong Torah. I stopped in midstream. There was silence as I tried to quietly tell the gabbai to stop coaching me from his Chumash. I knew what the problem was.

And I also knew that suddenly I felt like that kid again. I couldn't remember how it was supposed to go. I couldn't get started and for a moment I wondered if somehow, someway G-d was testing me or punishing me for not taking it seriously enough, for not paying attention.

Since that moment I have made sure to do a few things. I always start out by confirming that we are in the right place, but even before I get up there I make time to consider what is happening, why I am there and what I want. I wrap my son up with me inside my tallis and I silently bless him.

I ask G-d to protect my family to forgive me for the things I have done and offer myself in this service. I am not yet the man I want to be, but I am working on it. I try to remain humble and honest. I may not tremble, but I am aware of my place in the world.

This year I will take both of my children inside my tallis and bless them. I will kiss them both and then I will silently walk up and prepare to chant. In moments it will be complete, but during the time that I am up there it will feel like hours. I will be present in the moment and aware of things going on around me. I'll see my parents and the faces of others. I'll hear my son tell everyone around him that I am his daddy and I'll smile.

It will be over in a moment but during it I'll feel like I have lived a lifetime. In the end I always ask for the same thing. Take care of my family, worry about them and I'll worry about me.

Yom Kippur approaches and I feel unsettled.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Paying for Jewish Education

A topic that has been discussed multiple times on this blog is Jewish Education. If you've read my comments, you know that I think it is the single most important factor in Jewish Continuity. Many of you parents also know how incredibly expensive it is.

Jewish Action, the official magazine of the Orthodox Union (the ones who put the little "OU" Kosher symbols on your food) has an amazing series of articles on the subject here. (they are in PDF format, but worth the download)