Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Is “Xmas” Disrespectful?

By Susan Esther Barnes

It being December, I’ve been seeing the word “Xmas” a lot lately. I have also been seeing the word “Xtian,” which I don’t remember seeing before. I’ve also been seeing some discussions on whether or not the use of these words instead of “Christmas” and “Christian” is rude or disrespectful. And it seems to me that all of these discussions are missing the point.

There seem to be two popular “common sense” explanations for the use of the “X” in Xmas. The first is akin to any common abbreviation, like “BFF” or “LOL”. In other words, it’s just a faster, less character-intensive way of saying the same thing.

The other popular belief is that the “X” was substituted by those who are trying to remove the word “Christ” from the holiday. Thus, writing Xmas is a way to secularize the holiday, to remove its religious connotations, perhaps even to make it more accessible to those who don’t identify themselves as Christian or religious.

Therefore, I was interested to learn that “Xmas” is not a modern word. It has been around for a long time, and originated because “X” is the Greek letter “Chi,” which is a common abbreviation for “Kristos,” or “Christ.” As a result, Xmas did not arise due to the texting generation, nor did it arise as an effort to erase “Christ” from the name.

The word “Christ” means Messiah, or “Anointed One.” Now, many Jews believe there actually was a man named Jesus back in the day, but that he was not the Messiah. That means Jews who are careful about their language refer to him only as “Jesus” or “Jesus of Nazareth” but not as “Jesus Christ,” since doing so would call him by an honorific to which we believe he is not entitled. If we really wanted to take the “Christ” out of “Christmas,” we ought to call it something like “Jesusmas” instead.

At any rate, many people argue that using the word “Xmas” is not at all disrespectful, because it doesn’t imply laziness on the part of the writer, nor does it in any way eliminate “Christ” from the word. I believe these people are missing the point.

One could argue that disrespect may be in the eye of the beholder. Thus, because so many people seem to mistakenly believe that “Xmas” removes “Christ” from “Christmas,” one could argue that the word “Xmas” should be avoided in order not to offend these people. Sometimes ignorance is not bliss.

Even if you don’t believe people should make concessions to the ignorant, the intent of the writer is being ignored in this discussion, and I believe it should not be. For instance, at least one writer says she felt “more comfortable” after hearing that writing “Xmas” was a way for Jews to remove “Christ” from the holiday.

Now, if that isn’t disrespectful, I don’t know what is. What gives her, or anyone, the right to try to remove the religious figure from another religion’s holiday? Plus, she says it’s the Jews who are responsible for it. What a way to give Jews a bad name for something that has nothing to do with us!

One of the things I love about Judaism is we don’t believe anyone has to convert to Judaism to be a good person or to earn a place in the world-to-come (what the Christians would call heaven). As long as a person follows the covenant God made with Noah (a subset of the rules Christians refer to as the “Ten Commandments”), they’re all set. As a result, there is no need for Jews to try to convert Christians, or to try to negate their religion or their holiday.

So I conclude, if you’re certain you won’t be misunderstood, and you acknowledge that the “X” is the same as “Christ” or “Kristos,” then go ahead and use “Xmas.” Otherwise, show a little respect, and spend the few extra keystrokes to say “Christmas.”

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Havail Havalim #297

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs -- a weekly collection of Jewish and Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by Jack.

Opinions expressed in the posts linked below are those of the respective bloggers and not necessarily endorsed by me. For instance, I am absolutely against violence directed at unarmed people who are simply going about their lives and not being agressive in any way. I'm not happy that needs to be said, but there it is.

Batya presents a drash at שמות Sh'mot Names, Yes, It's all in a Name posted at Shiloh Musings.

What do Facebook and the book of Sh'mot (Exodus) have in common (or not)? Find out where presents Mark Zuckerberg - Facebook Revisited posted at Views on the News.

Frozenchallah has a cautionary tale for parents looking for a teacher in 14 | December | 2010 | Frozenchallah's Blog posted at Frozenchallah's Blog.

Lady-Light presents "Chanukah Redux" posted at Tikkun Olam.

I talk about my evolving relationship with my new tefillin at My Tefillin Are My Friends - How Did That Happen? posted at To Kiss a Mezuzah.

Sunny writes about Kaballah in Kabbalah - Sephirot and Mysticism posted at Metaphysical light rays meditation.

Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver presents Chassidus Chabad: Not just for intellectuals posted at A Chassidishe farbrengen.

Chavi's Conversion Corner:
Chavi sent in so many posts about converting to Judaism that I'm making a special section just for her. All the posts in this section can be found at You're Not Crazy.

Read about the Orthodox dating process at The Orthodox Dating Process.

Get some answers to the question "Why convert?" at Why on Earth Would Someone Convert to Judaism?.

The Importance of Finding the "Right" Community presents some thoughts about finding the right community in which to live.

Learn about one of the newest requirements for Orthodox converts at Convert Issues: The Community Requirement.

Last but not least, a rose by any other name still would not be Jewish: Adventures in Semantics: Goy v. Non-Jew.

Should Israeli rabbis be immunized? No, what Mordechai Torczyner writes is not about getting flu shots. Read more at Immunizing the Rabbis? posted at The Rebbetzin's Husband.

Join Harry on a stroll through downtown Jerusalem in A walk on the wild side posted at ISRAELITY.

Yes, there is American football in Israel, says Batya in American Tackle Football, Very Israeli posted at me-ander.

View some great pictures as Harry brings us Foto Friday – Local Testimony 2010 posted at ISRAELITY.

Lady-Light talks about US airport security in comparison to Israel's in Here's a Good Idea for Airport Security posted at Tikkun Olam.

Joel Katz presents Religion and State in Israel - December 20, 2010 (Section 2) posted at Religion and State in Israel.

Yisraek Medad reprints a speech from 1922 in On The Arabs in Palestine posted at My Right Word.

Yisrael Medad presents The Medad Principle Justified posted at My Right Word.

Ariel Ben-Yochanan gives us a few words about the conversion bill in This IDF conversion bill is absurd posted at The Torah Revolution: Everything that Hashem has spoken we shall do (Ex. 19:8).

Cosmic X doesn't think Jews and Arabs should mix, in Voices Against Assimilation posted at Cosmic X in Jerusalem.

Ben-Yehudah has no sympathy for the hikers attacked in Israel, he says, in Christians Attacked On A Hike In Israel and he supports Jewish Israeli youths who attacked Arabs for no apparent reason in Teens Suspected Of Attacking Arabs posted at Esser Agaroth.

Daniel Ben Shmuel also doesn't seem to have sympathy for the hikers in Reflections On A Dead Missionary (audio) posted at THE JEWISH FIST: A Call to Resurrect the Jewish Scholar-Warrior of Old..

Ben-Yehudah argues against the RCA protest of the ruling for Israeli Jews not to sell or rent to non-Jews in Esser Agaroth On The RCA posted at Esser Agaroth.

Batya presents Good News, Bad News, Good-Anti-Israel Bus Ads Rejected, Bad-They Were Proposed posted at Shiloh Musings.

Galit Breen presents a heartwarming story about the right way to respond to bullying, Minnesota Mamaleh: For the Love of Star Wars | TC Jewfolk posted at TC Jewfolk.

Mulling over whether to have another baby? Ima2seven is thinking about it too in Another Baby? posted at Ima 2 Seven.

Chaviva writes about her less-than-stellar mikvah experiences in The Mikvah is Lost on Me posted at Just Call Me Chaviva.

In response, here is an inspirational piece by Melissa about her mikvah experiences: Reclaiming Mikvah posted at Redefining Rebbetzin.

Let's all wish Batya a fruit-filled year as we read TU B'Shvat is Coming, Yum, But... posted at me-ander.

For her perspective of the role of Jewish women, read self-proclaimed sexist Rachel Moore's Ima 2 Seven: Old friend, warm soup, healthy debate posted at Ima 2 Seven.

Mirj writes a sweet tribute to her father for his yahrzeit at Daddy?s Girl posted at Miriyummy.

Eli presents a story about the problem of child sexual abuse in Shame and Blame posted at

Sheva presents Love Letters and Air Guitar posted at My Shtub.

Elle shares some bittersweet thoughts about conversion in who I am posted at On Becoming Devoted.

I had high hopes for this weekend, as described in Is the US About to Get a Taste of Jerusalem? posted at To Kiss A Mezuzah.

Super mommy Galit Breen answers the question, Minnesota Mamaleh: So What DO Jews Do On Christmas? posted at TC Jewfolk.

Mordechai Torczyner reminds us of the need to be senstive regarding childless people in Childlessness in the Jewish Community – posted at The Rebbetzin's Husband.

Batya writes about a play in It Should Be Required Viewing! posted at Shiloh Musings.

You can see and read a tribute to the "Mendy Report" from Thejewishteen in Mendy Pellin IS Shnazzle posted at The Jewish Teen.

Cosmic X quotes a former Attorney General regarding Israel's request to release Pollard in Former Attorney General Mukasey: Pardon Pollard posted at Cosmic X in Jerusalem.

Amy Greenbaum marks the end of discrimination against gays in the US military in On the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell posted at Amelah's Blog (Thoughts from a Rabbi).

Harry tells us about a "destination" wedding in Israel in Ben gets married in Israel posted at ISRAELITY.

Yisraek Medad presents My Comment Has Been Removed from the New York Times' The Lede posted at My Right Word.

Cosmic X finds the birth of a new baby to be sad because the child's mother is Jewish but his father isn't, in Einat Wilf: The Plague of Intermarriage Hits the Knesset posted at Cosmic X in Jerusalem.

Lady-Light presents a video of a Christian from Lebanon talking about discrimination by Muslims in Where is the Church's Outcry Against This? posted at Tikkun Olam.

For new-school blogs on an old-school subject, read Jennifer Lynch's 20 Soulful Blogs for Vinyl Fans and Collectors posted at Top Online Colleges.

Mottel shares a recipe in Mottel Pizza posted at Letters of Thought.

How you can participate:
You may submit your blog post for the next edition of Haveil Havalim by using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Is the US About to Get a Taste of Jerusalem?

By Susan Esther Barnes

Thanks to the commenters at TCJewfolk, I was clued in to a nifty concept: Is the United States about to get a taste of what it’s like to live in Jerusalem this weekend?

One of the most lasting impressions of the City of Jerusalem on Shabbat is how the city transforms itself. Many people work Sunday through Thursday, so they are off on Friday and are free to do their last-minute shopping and cooking for Friday night’s festive meal.

Starting in the afternoon, businesses begin to close. As more and more shoppers and workers arrive at home, there are fewer and fewer cars on the road. By late afternoon, the normally bustling streets become empty thoroughfares, with only an occasional vehicle passing by.

As the city slows down, everything is more quiet. It’s easier to relax, to notice the plants and the flowers. A neighborly feeling emerges as couples and groups of people stroll toward their local synagogue for evening services.

On Saturday, many of the shops and restaurants are still closed. Younger kids play in local parks, older children visit with their families, parents relax.

Finally, on Saturday night, the sun sets, the cars and people emerge, and the city becomes a bustling place once again.

This year, Christmas Eve falls on Erev Shabbat, and Christmas Day falls on the day of Shabbat. This year, many Jews and non-Jews will have Friday off to prepare for the festive meal on Friday night. Others will leave work on Friday afternoon, and many stores and businesses will close early.

This year, many of those stores and restaurants will also be closed on Shabbat, for Christmas. Christians and secular Americans will be at home, unwrapping presents and enjoying time with their families. There will be few cars on the road. It will be easier to hear the birds and the wind in the trees.

Perhaps, after lunch with their families, a neighborly feeling will emerge as Jewish and non-Jewish families meet in local parks, and take a break from their normally bustling lives.

I miss Israel, and most especially I miss Jerusalem. I hope that this year, maybe a taste of Jerusalem will visit us here.

Friday, December 17, 2010

My Tefillin Are My Friends - How Did That Happen?

By Susan Esther Barnes

The last time I wrote about my tefillin, they had just arrived, and I was filled with mixed feelings about them. I wanted to make an appointment with my rabbi so he could help me feel better about them, but he was out of town for ten days. I was on my own until he got back.

I did some research on the internet and printed out a couple of different sets of instructions regarding how to put them on. This experience reminded me of the old joke which says, if you put two Jews in a room and ask them a question, you’ll get at least three answers.

There are many different opinions about how to wrap tefillin. If you’re Ashkenazi you wrap the strap around your arm in one direction, and if you’re Shephardic you wrap it in the other direction. Some instructions say to wrap it so the straps form the Hebrew letter “shin” on the back of your hand, and others don’t. There are various ways to wrap the strap around your fingers.

As if that weren’t enough, there are disagreements about how many prayers to say while putting them on, whether or not women should say the prayers, and when exactly to say them.

All this is actually one of the things I love about Judaism. There are many different customs, and as long as we don’t get caught up in the belief that there must be One Right Way and all other ways are Wrong, the discussion about why a person may prefer one way over the others can be quite interesting.

Because of the differences in the direction of the wrapping, as well as the order of the prayers inside the tefillin boxes, I had already made one decision by honoring my father and ordering a Sephardic set. The rest of the wrapping style to choose was wide open, though.

I experimented with the different ways to wrap the strap, and found that I very much liked making the letter shin on my hand. I did, however, have an enormous amount of extra strap left over to either tuck in or to hold scrunched up in my hand. I wondered whether the strap was made for a large-armed man and whether there is anything in halacha (Jewish law) that would prevent me from cutting off the excess amount.

I didn’t know how to tighten the strap on my head, due to the complicated knot in the back. The first time I tried it on, I read the entire morning service with the head box constantly slipping down from my forehead onto my nose. The box on my upper arm was a little loose, too. These issues made it pretty difficult to feel the tefillin were aiding my prayer experience in any way.

The next time I went to put on the arm box, I realized there was a plastic box protecting the actual tefillin box, and clearly I was supposed to take off the plastic box before I put on the tefillin. How I noticed and removed the plastic box from on the head box the first time and not the arm one, I don’t know. It was still a little loose and I still had a lot of extra strap, but it was better. I also figured out how to tighten the head box somewhat, so that was better, too.

And then a funny thing happened. The rabbi got back from his trip and I set up my appointment through his assistant. I emailed the rabbi to say I had a set of tefillin and the appointment was for a lesson on how to wear them correctly. He responded with, “Where did you get them? Are they awesome?” and suddenly, I discovered that all of my baggage about tefillin had somehow disappeared. Instead of making me feel like they were invaders of some kind like they had before, they had somehow become my friends. Awkward friends, but friends nonetheless. So I responded, “Yes, they are awesome.”

Unsurprisingly, the rabbi was an enormous help in showing me how to tighten the head strap so it fit even better than I had already managed. He also helped me to discover how to wrap the arm strap so the box isn’t loose and so I don’t have so much extra left over to tuck in at my hand.

The next challenge is that I’m not very fond of praying by myself, and I’m not a morning person, so the thought of getting up early in the morning to pray with my tefillin by myself is not very motivating. It would be much easier to get out of bed early if there were other people to pray with.

So, with the rabbi’s blessing, I’m going to see if I can get together enough people to come to a lay-led weekday morning service at the synagogue on some kind of regular schedule, to give myself, and others, a chance to lay tefillin and pray. I know of two other people who are interested in doing this. Only seven more, and we have a minyan. Wish me luck!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Orthodox Jews in Space – The Real Questions

By Susan Esther Barnes

Recently I wrote a critique of a novella that purported to be about Orthodox Jews who go into space in an attempt to find and populate another planet. Unfortunately, the novella appeared to have been written and edited by people who know very little about Jews in general, let alone the Orthodox.

Since that time, I have continued to wonder, if Orthodox Jews actually went on a long journey in outer space, what kinds of issues would they need to address?

One thing I mentioned in my other post is the issue of whether there would be any maintenance or other work that would be required on Shabbat, since normally no work is allowed on Shabbat. As one person pointed out to me, perhaps the concept of pikuach nefesh would apply. The Talmud says that certain laws, including those concerning Shabbat, may be broken in order to save a life. Therefore, one might think that if neglecting to do certain work on Shabbat would result in the death of one of more people on the space ship, that work would be permitted.

However, it is my understanding that pikuach nefesh only applies when the specific individual who would die has been identified. For example, if you see a person drowning on Shabbat, it is permissible to do things to save that person that would otherwise be forbidden, such as using a motor boat to reach them, using a phone to call for help, etc.

In a space ship, if, for example, an air filter breaks down on Shabbat and some people might die if weren’t replaced before the conclusion of Shabbat, but it is unknown which people might die from it, there might be some question regarding whether this work is permitted (no specific individual whose life is at risk has been identified).

On the other hand, if it is a person’s profession to save lives (such as a doctor or fire fighter), that person is allowed to work on Shabbat. So perhaps it would be determined that anyone who maintains or repairs life support systems would fall into this category.

Clearly, this is one of the kinds of issues the Orthodox Jewish inhabitants of a space ship would be wise to anticipate and come to an agreement on before embarking on their trip.

Another Shabbat issue, which appears to be more easily solved, revolves around the prohibition against carrying things outside one’s home or community on Shabbat. In some areas where a lot of Orthodox Jews live, they use an eruv, or enclosure, around their community. This allows, for example, a person to carry a house key with them to synagogue. I would think it would be easy to declare the space ship’s hull as an eruv, thereby allowing all of the space ship’s inhabitants to carry items throughout the ship on Shabbat.

Whether they would actually want to do so, however, is an interesting question. If they can carry anything anywhere on the ship at any time, then when their descendants finally reach their destination, those descendants will have never experienced the prohibition against carrying on Shabbat, and may even have forgotten all about it. It seems highly possible that they, then, would be at risk of carrying things on Shabbat on their destination planet. Therefore, I can see this, too, as being an interesting topic of discussion before the ship leaves.

One issue this all leads up to is the question of sacred time. For Jews, one day of each week, namely Shabbat, is separate in time and holiness from the other six days of the week. Shabbat starts at sundown on Friday and continues until three stars are visible in the sky on Saturday night. In a space ship, there is no sundown, nor an appearance of the first three stars, to mark the beginning and the end of Shabbat.

In addition, certain other holy days (or holidays) are set aside in time as well. These days are fixed according to a lunar/solar calendar, meaning they are set based on the phase of the moon, with adjustments made in order to ensure that they don’t drift from one season to another. For instance, Pesach is always observed in the spring, and Yom Kippur is always observed in the fall. With no lunar or seasonal cycles, how should these days be set in the space ship’s calendar?

One possible option that might be considered would be to tie the ship’s calendar to the earth’s calendar. The ship’s clocks and calendar could be synchronized to a specific place on earth, such as the country where most of the ship’s original passengers came from, or with Jerusalem, for instance.

However, that would be harder to do than it sounds. Anyone who reads a fair amount of science fiction likely is familiar with the concept of how time changes with speed. Many stories have been written about people who make a journey that appears to be only a short amount of time to them, but when they return home they find many more years have passed at home.

Therefore, if a space ship tried to synchronize its time with a spot on Earth, as the ship moved faster and faster, the ship’s days and hours would get shorter and shorter. I don’t imagine a ship full of Jews being content with observing a two-hour-long Shabbat every 14 hours. That really isn’t enough time to get in all the traditional prayers, let alone to have enough time in between Shabbats to appreciate the break from work.

Even if the space farers came up with a satisfactory way to establish the correct time to observe Shabbat and the other holidays when en route, once they reached their destination planet, they would have to examine all these questions of time and calendar once again.

The length of the days, the years, and the seasons on the new planet, and whether or not it has more than one sun or more than one moon, will present a new host of questions to be answered by everyone concerned with establishing the correct placement of Shabbat and the holidays in time.

These are all questions that I think could be incorporated into a very interesting story about what might actually happen if Orthodox (or other observant) Jews endeavored to take a long journey in space to find and populate other planets.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Attack of the Latke Lovers

By Susan Esther Barnes

It was the seventh night of Chanukah. The meeting of our Chevra Kadisha (group of people who visit the sick, ritually wash and prepare people for burial, etc.) had barely begun when the rabbi asked, "Who here hasn't had a latke yet this year?" I raised my hand. Nobody else did.

There was a round of gasps. "You haven't had a latke? Seriously?"

"No," I answered, "I never have latkes."

"Susan Barnes," he said, "You must have a latke before Chanukah is over. You think what we are doing here is a mitzvah, but having a latke is a more important one."

"What," I retorted, "I'm going to Hell because I haven't eaten a latke?" (Yes, the rabbi and I actually talk to each other like this).

"Tomorrow night," he asked, "you're getting home early enough that you can make latkes?"

"No," I explained, "tomorrow night I'm volunteering here at the homeless shelter."

He looked distressed.

By this point, the conversation had gone on longer than I wanted. I was blushing. "What's the big deal?" I thought, "Eating a latke isn't actually a mitzvah, a commandment from God. Maybe eating latkes is the tradition of the rest of the Chevra Kadisha, but it isn't mine."

The word "latke" is Yiddish, not Hebrew. When I was growing up, nobody in my family spoke Yiddish. My father and his parents were from Hungary, not Poland or Russia. Apparently, my ancestors spent some time in France and Germany after they were thrown out of Spain in 1492 and before they settled in Hungary, but my father insists we're still Sephardic.

Nonetheless, latkes are associated with Chanukah because they are fried in oil, and Chanukah is about the miracle of the light that lasted for eight days even though there was only one day's worth of oil.

One would think it would be sufficient for me to say, "It may be your tradition to eat latkes on Chanukah, but it isn't mine," and that would be the end of it, but it wasn't.

Ironically, at one point, after the discussion had finally been deflected off of my latke deficiency and had made its way to visiting the sick, one of the women described some advice she had gotten when she was volunteering at a hotline to prevent child abuse.

She was told, "When you're talking with someone, picture that you're riding in a car with them. The person you are talking to is the driver, and you are the passenger. They are driving their own life. You can point out the view to them; you can even suggest they might want to take a different route, but you never try to grab the wheel."

Clearly, at least some of the others in the room had a lot of energy about the fact that I hadn't eaten a latke. The message I got from them was, "You are not okay because you have not eaten a latke. There is something wrong with you. The only way to fix it is for you to eat a latke, and then you will be okay again."

I felt as if suddenly a whole room full of people had tried to grab the wheel from me all at the same time, and I had to try to wrestle it back. I realized how fortunate I am that I am in a place in my life where I know I'm okay. There is nothing essentially wrong with me. I could not eat a single latke for the entire rest of my life, and I would still be okay.

Still, after the meeting, one woman said to me, "You must be allergic to something in latkes."

"No," I said, "If I were allergic, I would have said so."

On the way to the parking lot, another woman offered hopefully, "I'll be making latkes on Sunday. You're welcome to come over and have some."

After I declined her invitation, another person said, "I'll be making latkes on Thursday. I can bring one to synagogue for you on Friday night."

"What?" I said, "You think I want a cold, congealed latke?"

"I'll heat it up for you," she said.

"No thank you," I insisted, "I don't need a latke."

As I said to these folks in the parking lot, I'm not anti-latke. If I were at someone's home and they were serving latkes, I would have one. But I don't need a latke to feel like I have properly observed Chanukah.

What is it that makes us go beyond simple hospitality and causes us to go to such great lengths to try to foist our traditions onto people who clearly do not feel compelled to partake in them? And how can we make it stop?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Orthodox Jews in Space

By Susan Esther Barnes

For many years now I’ve been a reader of a magazine called, “Analog Science Fiction and Fact.” I’m not a hard science kind of gal, and I don’t always like all of the stories in the magazine, but I find most to be well written, plausible, and entertaining. I find it a welcome way to take a short break from the more serious reading I do about Judaism and related subjects.

Imagine my delight when I thought the two areas that take up most of my reading time would come together when Analog published a story titled “The First Day of Eternity” by Domingo Santos, as translated by Stanley Schmidt. On the third page of the story it says, “Project Diaspora was originally conceived, developed and financed by the great Jewish lobbies of Earth as a second Exodus from the incomprehension of gentile societies, to spread Judaism throughout the Universe. So the pilgrims chosen for the first Diasporas … were all strictly Orthodox.”

I thought, “Cool, Orthodox Jews in space. If everyone on the ship is a strict Orthodox Jew, then they’re going to, for the first time in a long time, experience what it’s like to be in their own community without any outside influences or temptations. I hope they don’t need to do any important ship maintenance – such as to life support systems - on Shabbat!”

I suppose I should have been tipped off to the author’s lack of knowledge about Judaism when he went on to say the ship’s inhabitants “venerated the menorah” and “celebrated” rather than “observed” Yom Kippur, but on the title page the story says it was translated, so I set those issues down to a probable poor translation.

Setting aside any qualms I might have about the reference to the “great Jewish lobbies,” I thought, “Well, the author must know that the poorest group of people in Israel is not, as certain activists might have us believe, the Muslim Arabs, but it is the ultra-Orthodox Jews, because the men in those families spend all day studying Torah rather than earning a living for their families. So it must not be the ultra-Orthodox who are on the ship. It must be the Modern Orthodox, since they would be more likely to be able to raise the funds.”

I suppose maybe the Modern Orthodox and other Jews might be willing to raise money to send the ultra-Orthodox off in these ships, but that starts to smack just a little bit of people raising money to ship the Jews off in cattle cars. Maybe this story takes place so far in the future that the Jews have become de-sensitized to the horrors of the Holocaust, but we Jews have long memories, particularly about our collective tragedies.

It also struck me as particularly odd that the Jews would flee from “the incomprehension of gentile societies.” Are these Orthodox Jews giving up on being a “light unto the nations?” Sure, they’re supposed to “spread Judaism throughout the Universe,” but since the ship’s mission is to discover and colonize a new, unpopulated planet, this clearly isn’t about proselytization. Still, maybe they yearn for a chance for their children to grow up without gentile influences. I suppose that’s plausible.

But wait a minute. On the first page of the story, one of the inhabitants of the ship says, “We should give thanks to the god of the stars for that,” and a short time later adds, “and to the god of the ship for bringing us this far.” So, this ship full of formerly Orthodox Jews is now a ship of pagans? How did that happen?

The author explains that the ship’s computer decided to make itself a god, and over time influenced the ship’s humans to change their religion. On page four the story says the computer made itself “their prophet, the Moses of the new Exodus,” and goes on to say, “It was the ship, and the ship was it. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the electronic mystery of the Holy Trinity.” Uh, I’m sorry. I do try to suspend my disbelief when I read science fiction, but, frankly, I don’t think the author has any idea what he’s talking about.

Judaism is the world’s oldest living monotheistic religion. Jews are very accepting of the presence of other monotheistic religions. But Judaism has survived as long as it has because Jews are very good at not taking on the beliefs of the religions around them. After being surrounded by pagans in its early years and Christians for two thousand years after that, and not bending from the belief that God is one, there is no way a bunch of Orthodox Jews in a space ship are going to change all that to suddenly believe in a Holy Trinity just because their computer says so. Rather, if the computer started spouting religious nonsense at them, they would quickly recognize a flaw in the computer and immediately set their programmers to the task of fixing it.

It strikes me that the author must know very little about Jews. Perhaps he is unaware that every day, when we lie down and when we rise up, we say the Sh’ma, confirming that God is one. Perhaps he doesn’t know that throughout the space ship, on nearly every doorway (save the ones leading to the lavatories), there would be a mezuzah, and in each mezuzah would be a scroll with the Sh’ma, confirming that God is one. Perhaps he does not know that the Sh’ma is called “the watchword of our faith.” The last thing an Orthodox Jew would ever abandon is the understanding that God is one. This understanding was our greatest gift to the world.

According to the story, this complete change in religion took only seven generations, and then “the brain that was the ship rested.” Really? So a religion that has lasted thousands of years, through pograms, the Crusades and the diaspora, surrounded by other religions and by enemies sworn to wipe it out, suddenly crumbles, in less than seven generations, in a completely closed environment where everyone except the computer starts out as a “strictly Orthodox” Jew? I don’t think so.

Which leaves me wondering, why did the author chose to say the ship was paid for and populated with Orthodox Jews? His tale of the ship creating a religion for the people would have been much more plausible if the original ship inhabitants had been secular scientists without any strong religious beliefs to hold onto. Or even a bunch of people from a host of different religions who would undermine each other’s beliefs.

Why pick a homogenous group of people with the longest running, most resilient, most time-tested belief system? It seems like an incredible blunder, one that renders his story completely unbelievable before it even gets past page four. This is not the kind of mistake I’m used to seeing in Analog. The only explanation I have is that the author and the editor know so little about Jews that they don’t even start to have a clue about us.

Which leads me to suggest to them the oldest rule in the book for authors: Please stick to writing about what you know. And if you have to write about something else, please at least do some basic research first. Otherwise, you blow your credibility out of the water, and it’s hard for those of us in the know to take your writing seriously, no matter how good the rest of the story might be.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Haveil Havalim #292

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs -- a weekly collection of Jewish and Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by Jack.

This is my first time hosting it. Since I've been reading it for several months and and have met a number of new blogging friends through it, I thought it was time to step up and host. Opinions expressed in the posts linked below are those of the respective bloggers and not necessarily endorsed by me.

Batya presents Jericho and Joshua, Why Did the Walls Come Tumbling Down?.

Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver submitted a post I could have put under a heading of "Let's get metaphysical" but I suppose it's Torah in the broad sense of the word: The purpose of creation.

Joshua Waxman presents How Eliyahu Segal can learn a Yerushalmi better than Rav Chaim Kanievsky.

When to light the Chanukkah candles in relation to the prayers and other issues of halacha are discussed by Yechezkel at Ohver L'Asiyasan.

Converted and think nobody will know? Chavi suggests you be prepared to be "outed" in her humerous post titled Rule #1 of Conversions: You Can't Hide that You're a Convert.

Benji Lovitt wrote a thoughtful piece about a conversation he had at a US university with a pro-Palestinian college student at I Debated an Iranian Dude and All I Got Was This Crappy T-shirt.

Rabbi Ariel Burger shares what the placement of the Chanukiyah means to him at On the Threshhold -- What Chanukah Teaches Us About Inclusiveness.

Schvach presents Schvach - פני דל.

If you've never heard a Rebbe described as a bulldozer - in a positive way - here's your chance. Read Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver's post The Rebbeim paved the way.

Do you shake hands with, or hug, those of the opposite gender? Chavi tells us her answer to a "touchy" question at The Most-Thought Yet Least-Asked Question: Are You Shomer Negiah?.

A Simple Jew passes along a great idea for those of us who don't want to appear crazy in "One of the greatest inventions".

Cosmic X relates intermarriage with a lack of Jewish education at Intermarriage Statistics and Torah.

Rabbi Michael Lemming presents The Rabbi Lemming Show # 3- "Back From The Dead".

Daniel Ben Shmuel presents Rabbi Meir Kahane Remembered (audio).

Susan Barnes (that's me!) wrote about a new set of tefillin at The Trouble with Tefillin.

We're all invited! Jacob Richman is having a party. See the details at Invitation to my Virtual Chanukah Party.

In another invitation, Batya invites us to celebrate Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh Tevet at Chanukah, Ladies, Rosh Chodesh Tevet in Shiloh!.

See pictures of the Temple Mount by Rahel at A Visit to the Temple Mount.

Risa will raise your spirits at Creativity in the face of challenge.

It's time to celebrate! Batya tells us about an anniversary at MAZAL TOV to the IBA!.

Joel Katz presents a whole lot of information about Israel at Religion and State in Israel - November 15, 2010 (Section 1) and Religion and State in Israel - November 15, 2010 (Section 2).

Jacob Richman shares some new Israeli postage stamps with us at New Israeli Educational Stamps including Bible Stories.

Harry gives movie fans an extra reason to visit Israel in Leo buying Israeli property.

Take a trip to Gedara with Risa in Memories and Music in Gedera (of all places).

Batya presents Are The Religious Taking Over The IDF, Israeli Army?.

Read about Rivkah Lambert Adler's experiences and thoughts about making aliyah in We Are Here.

They may say you can't take it with you, but if you're making aliyah or going to visit someone who has, Rivkah Lambert Adler has some suggestions for you at Kraft and Hershey's vs. Osem and Elite.

And while you're shopping, Harry has some information on group buying in Israel Online group buying comes to Israel.

Cosmic X gives us an interesting reason to visit Israel, in Harry Potter is Buried in Israel.

Ben-Yehudah presents some sweeping generalizations of Jews and Muslims in HASHEM's Blessing and Moslem Jealousy - 01.

Daniel Ben Shmuel opposses the latest settlement freeze at Netanyahu's Freeze Continues (audio).

Ben-Yehudah writes about Jewish expulsion in Guest Post: Moderate Rabbis Become Most Extreme.

SnoopyTheGoon presents Al-Qaeda recognizes Israel as Jewish and democratic state.

Independent Patriot/Elise presents US State Department, Israel and the Jewish People: Delegitimization, Double Standard and Demonization.

SnoopyTheGoon presents Jean-Luc Godard and his critics.

Diane Diego says, "Twitter offers a quick and easy way for theology professors to offer insight and advice and even advise about upcoming events. Here are twenty theologians, pastors and theology professors worth a follow on Twitter.:" 20 Theology Professors Worth Following on Twitter.

Shira Salamone describes a modesty problem relevant to all women, regardless of how frum we are or not, in Cheap manufacturers, or anything to save a buck :(.

David Levy points us to the November edition of the Jewish Book Carnival, which featuers links to blog posts about Jewish books from around the web at November Jewish Book Carnival.

Food and Music:
Enjoy a nostalgic walk down memory lane regarding Reese's peanut butter cups and then end up with a fabulous solution in case your synagogue, like mine, is a peanut-free zone by reading Mirjam Weiss's post and recipe at Kiddush Club.

Harry treats us to a persimmon salad recipe perfect for fall at Sharon Fruits.

Mirjam Weiss also has a corn muffin recipe for us. Be sure to heed her warning to melt the butter first! Feeling Flush.

Bridget Nicholson presents 50 Best Blogs for Exploring Classical Music .

You just can't get a deal in the US like the one Benji Lovitt shows us at I Swear I Don't Make This Stuff Up.

Heshy Fried uses humor to discuss a proposed new law to ban circumcision in San Francisco Brit Milah�Ban.

For those suffering from Heblish, Mrs. S. offers some help at Heblish: Support group edition.

Tim Dalton gives us some humor, although it's not exactly Jewish, at 50 All-Time Funniest Church Marquee Signs.

Yechezkel says this belongs under the category "Humor" so that's where I'm putting it even though I don't get the joke: Reform's New Direction and Orthodoxy.

Sometimes we make the right decision for one reason, and then are glad of it later for other reasons, as Mordechai Torczyner shows us in The man who mistook his religion for a hat.

Batya also talks about a decision she made at Priorities, Why We Left The IBA Party Early.

Speaking of decisions, what you decide to call yourself and/or your children can have repercussions for years to come, as told by Hadassah Sabo Milner at What’s in a name? | In the Pink. Don't miss the interesting stories in the comments section as well.

Cosmic X writes about the passing of an artist, may his memory be a blessing, at Artist Morris Katz Passes Away.

Rickismom shows her problem-solving skills in The Screw That Wouldn't Screw.

Hadassah Sabo Milner tells us about her experience as a panalist at a social networking event at Shmoozing.

How you can participate:
You may submit your blog post for the next edition of Haveil Havalim by using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

The Trouble with Tefillin

By Susan Esther Barnes

I'm fortunate. I don't have a lot of "Jewish baggage," those bad feelings that stem from negative early experiences with synagogues or rabbis or Hebrew school or whatever. All the Jewish stuff I remember from my childhood (and, I admit, there wasn't much of it) are positive memories.

But when I think of tefillin, the first thing I think of are stern, old men with white beards who think I'm beneath their notice. When I remind myself that is an unfair sterotype, the next thing I think of is the young men in I saw Israel in public places trying to get other men to lay tefillin, and ignoring me.

When I try to push myself past that, the third thing I think of is the Women of the Wall wanting to wear tefillin at the Kotel and being told they can't. And they don't even count themselves as a minyan.

That's a lot of negativity to lay on two little ritual objects that have never done me any harm on their own.

So I was feeling some ambivalence on Friday as I swung by the Post Office to trade in the "we have a package for you" delivery slip for the box I knew contained the tefillin I had ordered.

It had come all the way from Ashdod, Israel, and apparently it was not an easy trip. I was a bit alarmed to see the box was smashed and even ripped open on one end. It was then wrapped in US Post Office tape and stamped with a disclaimer that it had been received damaged.

I not only had to sign for the package, I also had to sign something to acknowledge that the US Postal Service said they had received the package already damaged. The nice Post Office lady told me shipments within the US are insured, but she has no idea how I'd make a claim about a smashed international package if the contents were damaged. Oh, joy.

Fortunately, (sort of - I'm still feeling ambivalent), when I got the box home and opened it, everything appeared to be in good shape. Like I'm a tefillin inspection expert, but the boxes with the prayers in them don't look broken, the leather straps are still attached, and the Certificate saying they're Kosher isn't wrinkled or torn.

The unfortunate part is, now that they're here, I need to face all that baggage I've been carrying around. I was going to say "...carrying around about them," but some helpful part of my mind is insisting that my baggage is not about these tefillin, it's about those tefillin I've seen on men who thought I had no business wearing them.

So, one day soon, maybe tonight, I'm going to take a deep breath, unwrap these tefillin, and try them on. And pray a little. And see how it feels.

Then next week I'll make an appointment with my rabbi and bring them in, so he can confirm I'm putting them on correctly. And we'll talk about them, and how I'm planning to use them.

I hope that, slowly, over time, these tefillin will help me to set aside my baggage and to make peace with those tefillin. I hope I'll learn not to feel silly praying with a box on my head and on my arm. I hope I can get comfortable with them.

Because until then, they feel a little bit like invaders from the world of "These aren't for you. You aren't good enough." I can't even begin to discover whether they have the potential to become a meaningful part of my ritual practice until I can make peace with them and welcome them into my home as friends. And that is so not where I am right now.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pet Peeve: Business Hours

By Susan Esther Barnes

Disclaimer: My husband says sometimes I get too hung up on a single word or phrase. I suspect this is one of those times.

Today I needed to talk with my email provider about my account via live chat. It was some nonsense about how when we moved two years ago they closed my old internet account and opened a new one, but my email account wasn’t moved so my email would be disabled unless I gave them permission to transfer my email account to my active internet account.

That was mildly irritating in itself, but then they told me the issue would be corrected in “24 to 72 business hours.” What the heck does that mean?

I spent 15 years managing customer service call centers, and any time I noticed a phone representative referring to “business hours,” I reminded them that all of our timeframes were given in “business days,” not “hours.”

Why? Because everyone knows what a business day is. If I say, “This will be done in one to three business days,” you know it will be done one to three days from now, unless a weekend or holiday intervenes, in which case you don’t count the weekend or holiday days. Simple.

If you say, “24 to 72 business hours,” I’m left wondering, “Do you mean one to three business days? If so, just say so.”

Because you didn’t just say so, the logical part of my brain says, “Well, if he/she didn’t use the common ‘business days’ term, he/she must have meant something else. If their business is open 12 hours a day, then 24 to 72 business hours must be two to six days, not counting weekends or holidays.”

But of course, I may not know what hours your business is open unless I ask, so I don’t know how to translate your “business hours” into “actual” days or hours. And why should you make me have to translate anyway?

In this case, just last night I saw a TV ad that says the company that provides my email has live customer service representatives available to me 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. So for them, “24 to 72 business hours” not only means “one to three business days,” it actually means “one to three days” period, because they work all day and night, every day of the year.

Why can’t they just say so?

Friday, November 12, 2010

She is Pure

By Susan Esther Barnes

My day started with the strangest shopping trip I’ve ever been on. The evening before, I had been at the phone bank where we were calling congregants to ask for donations to our annual Tradition of Giving Campaign.

While I was there, Rabbi Lezak called me into a private room to let me know a member of our congregation had just died. She had been suffering from cancer for some time, and I had agreed to be one of the people to perform taharah for her, the ritual washing of her body and preparing her for burial.

I had been preparing for this for about a year, ever since Rabbi Lezak had said we were planning to expand our Bikkur Cholim group, a group of people who visit the sick, to become a Chevra Kadisha, a holy society or group of friends, to perform taharah. Although our congregation was formed over 50 years ago, to my knowledge we had never before had a Chevra Kadisha there.

I read about it, and I attended a seminar on it in San Francisco. I also attended the series of classes Rabbi Lezak offered to us at the synagogue. One evening, Sue Lefelstein, the Associate Executive Director of Sinai Memorial Chapel in Lafayette, came out to give us a copy of the procedure manual they use, and to explain the process.

The night before the congregant I mentioned above died, about 20 to 25 of us went to Sinai Memorial Chapel where Sue led us as we performed taharah on a manikin for practice.

When I first thought about doing taharah, it really freaked me out. It seemed like an incredibly scary thing to do. Then, last summer, my friend Rose died, may her memory be a blessing. I sat with her in the morning on the day she died, and suddenly taharah seemed much less frightening. How could Rose’s body ever be scary? But she had chosen not to have taharah done for her.

As I got closer to actually doing it, it became even less scary. While I stood in the room at Sinai Memorial, watching the washing of the manikin, I found myself feeling completely calm. I was prepared.

Except we as a Chevra Kadisha weren’t entirely prepared. We had only just finished the training the night before when we learned of this congregant’s death. If she and her family had chosen Sinai Memorial, or any Jewish establishment, as her mortuary, they would have had all the taharah supplies available to us on hand.

This family had chosen a non-religious mortuary, however, which meant we couldn’t be sure what supplies they would have available to us. And because our tradition is to bury people within 48 hours of death whenever feasible, that meant we would be doing taharah on her the next day. Thus, my sudden shopping trip for taharah supplies.

Fortunately, Sue, the angel from Sinai Memorial, had given us a list of things we would need. I grabbed my list and headed to Target, arriving just as they opened at 8am. For all I knew, the mortuary might be ready for us as early as 9:30 or 10, and I didn’t want to hold things up.

As I walked down the aisles, I thought about my odd list and how I didn’t want to say anything that might get me arrested. For instance, when I asked a clerk where I could find nail polish remover, I thought, “If she says something like, ‘We recommend this one because it has aloe which is good for the long term health of your nails,’ it would probably be a bad idea for me to respond with something like, ‘Oh, I’m not worried about that. We’re only going to be using it on dead people.’”

As I was at the check-out counter, Rabbi Lezak called on my cell phone to tell me the coffin delivery was delayed due to it being Veteran’s Day, and therefore we wouldn’t be able to do taharah until the afternoon. So it turned out there had been no need to rush.

Although my heart was racing as I drove the last few blocks to the mortuary, as we met with Rabbi Lezak and talked about the woman who had died and what we were going to do, I relaxed.

When we walked into the preparation room (without the rabbi, since only women are allowed to wash women), I found I was perfectly calm. I thought I would feel a jolt of anxiety the first time I saw a real person covered by a sheet, but I didn’t.

So we washed her, and one of us said the prayers, and we poured the ritual water over her while we repeated three times in Hebrew, “She is pure, she is pure, she is pure.” Then we dried her and dressed her. It was all done with deliberate, loving care.

She had been ill for so long and had lost so much weight that we didn’t need to use the electric lift to move her into the coffin. I had the privilege of being one of the three people to move her.

I will never forget the feeling as I cradled her in my arms and gently lowered her into her coffin. The only way I can describe it is it felt purely, wholly right. We covered the coffin and asked her forgiveness for anything we may have omitted, or any error, or anything we may have done to offend her.

I thought, “This is such a beautiful thing. How could anyone who knows about taharah not want it done for themselves and for their loved ones? Why would anyone want this done by strangers, no matter how competent they may be, rather than by their own, loving community?”

Afterward, we spent about 20 minutes talking with each other, as a transition before we hugged each other and got into our cars to leave.

Because we had started so late, it was already getting dark. Usually I equate darkness with lifelessness, but as I drove home I found myself feeling deeply aware of the incredible abundance of life all around me.

As I navigated my way through the rush hour traffic, I found that whereas when I drive I normally think of the cars around me as just vehicles, I was suddenly acutely aware that inside each vehicle was a person. As I drove I was part of a stream of living, breathing, human beings all heading in the same direction down the freeway.

On several occasions I have heard Rabbi Lezak say, “Get close to death. It will bring you closer to life.” I thought I knew what he meant, but now I finally understand.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Surprises Come in Threes

By Susan Esther Barnes

It's been a month of surprises.

First it was Thomas-kitty, poor thing, who had to take two trips to the vet. Both of our cats get pretty freaked out at the vet, and who can blame them? They get shoved in a box, take a car ride, during which Thomas gets car sick, then some stanger pokes & prods them and sticks a needle into them.

So Thomas, who at home assumes every human who walks through the front door must be there to pet him, hisses and spits at the vet staff. They are very nice people, and they try to pet him and make friends before they do whatever they have to do, but both our cats have large, clear warning labels on their file to tell the staff to watch out.

One time after we boarded the cats there, the summary from the staff said of Thomas' sister, "We tried every day to pet Amber, but she let us know that if we tried to touch her there would be a fight, and she made it quite clear who would win."

So, after eight years of the vet staff unsuccessfully trying to make nice with Thomas, on his last visit they determined they couldn't get him to stay still enough for the x-ray he needed, and they had to muzzle him.

Lo and behold, as soon as the muzzle was on, Thomas relaxed. Note in this picture how his ears are up, not flat back as they would be if he were scared. Note how relaxed his right paw is. He is not using it to try to push himself away. In fact, the staff says he was purring. They were so amazed, they took this picture. To paraphrase an old saying, blind cat finds a bone. Go figure.

The second surprise was on Monday this week when I found out that the husband of someone I know had hit her so badly she had to spend a couple of days in the hospital. Sure, it's something you hear about, but it's completely different when it happens to someone you know.

Of course she feels embarrassed about it, and of course she has absolutely nothing to be embarrased about. She says he has yelled at her before, but this is the first time he's hit her. The only good thing about it is it looks like it'll be the last time. There's a restraining order against him and she acknowledges the marriage is over.

The third surprise is my oldest niece started a blog. Pretty cool, huh?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Four a.m. Conversation

By Susan Esther Barnes

Readers of my blog may recall that sometimes my husband snores, which keeps me awake, so I end up sleeping on the coach downstairs. You can read about it here and here.

He feels guilty about it, and on more than one occasion he has suggested that instead of going downstairs myself, I should send him out to go sleep on the couch instead. Below is the dialogue that ensued this morning around 4 o'clock, the first time I decided to take his advice:

Him: Snore, snore.

I reach over and try to get him to roll over.

Him: Snore, snore.

Again I try to get him to roll over. He very gently slaps my hand away, and says, "Cut it out."

I say, "Roll over please, you're snoring."

He responds grumpily, "I am not. I'm not even sleeping any more."

I say, "You will be soon, and you're snoring. Why don't you go sleep on the couch downstairs?"

He responds, in a shocked voice, "That's mean!"

I remind him, "You told me I should tell you to do that."

He retorts, "That's stupid. Don't do things I tell you to do that are stupid." Immediately he falls back asleep and starts to snore again.

If our relationship were different than it is, I suppose I would feel angry or betrayed. Instead, I think it's hysterical, and as I head downstairs to the couch, I can't wait to find out later what, if anything, he remembers of the conversation. Which, of course, turns out to be almost nothing.

Still, we both had a good laugh about it. And you can bet that some time, when he least expects it, he's going to ask me to do something, and I'm going to say, "That's stupid. And you told me not to do things you say that are stupid." It's our newest "inside joke."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Homing Pigeon

By Susan Esther Barnes

This morning, as I was getting ready for work, I could feel that my blood pressure was significantly higher than normal. I know high blood pressure is called the “silent killer” because most people can’t feel it, but I can. One day I expect to write a post about how feeling God’s presence is like feeling your blood pressure. You can learn to sense it once you discover what to pay attention to.

I took one of my cats to the vet last week because of an inconvenient but non-emergency issue that arose. They did an exam and sent some samples to the lab. Today, I had to take him back so they could do some more lab work and take an X-ray. I’m worried about the cat.

Also, Thursday before last, I went to seek some medical advice for myself due to something unusual I noticed, and I ended up getting an unscheduled mammogram. At first the nurse practitioner said she’d call me that afternoon with the results. Then, after the mammogram lady looked at that day’s images, she said they were going to order copies of the images from my mammogram from last year to compare, and it would take three or four days before they got back to me.

After a week I still hadn’t heard anything, so I sent an email asking what was up (I made the appointment online so I didn’t have the phone number). The next day I got an email back saying they don’t know, but they’d call me back that afternoon. Monday I sent another email. As of Monday night I still hadn’t heard anything. So, yeah, my blood pressure was high.

This morning I was in the car, driving the vociferously unhappy cat to the vet, knowing he’s got something wrong with him but not being sure whether or not they’ll have an effective way to treat it, while at the same time wondering whether I have breast cancer, and whether the delay in getting the results to me is giving it extra time to grow and/or spread. I know I tend to over-react to this sort of thing, but that’s where my head was.

I exited the freeway, and suddenly realized I had gone one exit too far, mistakenly taking the exit to the synagogue, not the exit for the vet. Even with the cat crying in his carrier in the seat beside me, like a homing pigeon I had subconsciously headed to a place of comfort rather than my intended destination.

I very much wanted to drive to the synagogue and go sit in the quiet sanctuary, soaking up God’s presence and the serenity and strength of community permeating that special room. Just ten or fifteen minutes could have done wonders.

I’m pretty sure the cat wouldn’t have appreciated that, though, so I turned left and headed down the road to the vet. I then turned on some cheery music in the car as I drove to work, where I settled in to wait for results for both of us.

Then I decided, “screw that,” and I dug around online until I found a phone number for the medical office I’d been to and I talked to a nurse, who looked at my results. She said the mammogram looked "pretty normal" and they recommend a regularly scheduled follow-up mammogram in two years, which is what I believe they recommend for every woman my age. She says they mailed me a letter with the good news yesterday.

I’m still going to take those ten or fifteen minutes in the sanctuary later on this week, though. As a wise person once said, if you only hang out with God when you’re worried about something or want something, what kind of relationship is that? Certainly not one fit for a homing pigeon.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Man and the Food Barrels

By Susan Esther Barnes

On Erev Shabbat I was standing by the closed sanctuary doors. Inside, the congregation was singing Lecha Dodi to welcome the Sabbath Bride.

Opposite the sanctuary doors, near the main synagogue doors, there are two food barrels: One for the county food bank and one for a Jewish food pantry. I saw a man leaning over a backpack by the food barrels, a box of graham crackers at his feet.

At first I thought he was trying to extricate some items he had brought to put into the barrels. Soon, however, it became apparent that he was taking food out of the barrels and placing it into his backpack.

I considered going over to him to say something, but I thought, "How badly does he need the food to be doing that right in front of me?"

I knew if I said something to him, he would be embarrassed. Our tradition teaches us that if we cause someone to blush - if we make blood rise to their cheeks in shame - it is as bad as if we had shed that blood.

I thought about the people who had put the food into the barrels, trusting it would go to the food bank or pantry, to be distributed to those in need. By saying nothing to this man, was I betraying their trust? Or would they be glad to know their donation went to someone in our community with an immediate need?

As all these thoughts tumbled through my head, I turned my back to the man, to give him some sense of privacy. Clearly, staring at him wouldn't help anyone.

He finished gathering the items he had chosen, picked up his backpack, and left without either of us uttering a word. I wish now that I had said something kind to him, if only, "I wish you well."

As he made his way out into the cold world with its overcast sky threatening the rain that soon would begin to fall, the congregation reached the last verse of Lecha Dodi. I opened the sanctuary doors, and the Sabbath Bride rushed in to greet those inside, even as she reached out in the opposite direction, out through the synagogue doors, so seek out others in need.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Sliding Scale of Kosher

By Susan Esther Barnes

Earlier this week, the tour guide we had on our trip to Israel last summer came to our synagogue to give a lecture. Those of us who were on the Israel trip were invited to come for dinner with him before the lecture, as a kind of reunion.

It was a Tuesday night, when there are a bunch of teens there for classes the synagogue holds weekly for kids who are not in Jewish day schools. Before classes start, the kids are treated to a pizza dinner. So that’s what we had too: pizza and Caesar salad, plus a nice spinach salad one of the women on the Israel trip brought.

As we were talking, I noticed our guest from Israel was not eating. I heard him mention cheese to one of the other people. I asked him, “Do you not eat cheese?” and he replied, “I eat cheese, but not just any cheese.” Oh, right.

He’s Modern Orthodox, so although there were three flavors of vegetarian pizza offered, and therefore no mixing of meat and dairy, the cheese itself was not kosher. Plus, since the pizzas were made in a place that also cooks meat, in an oven where meat is cooked, the pizzas weren’t kosher even if the cheese on them had been kosher before it was used. Similar issues apply to the cheese on the two salads.

Luckily, the rabbi ran over to the café at the JCC next door and bought our guest some tuna salad and a bag of Fritos so he wouldn’t have to go hungry. It did remind us, though, that what passes for kosher at a Reform synagogue doesn’t cut it with an Orthodox person, no matter how Modern they may be.

Last night, I went to a cafeteria-style burrito restaurant, where you walk down the line and point out the various items and condiments you want in your burrito (or rice bowl).

The woman in line in front of me happened to be from my synagogue. The man behind the counter grabbed the spoon in one of the two containers of beans and asked her, “Do you want beans?”

She said, “The other kind of beans, please, it needs to be vegetarian.” So he added the vegetarian beans, and then she asked for chicken on the burrito. He looked at her, startled, and repeated, “Chicken?” He was obviously confused, because she had just insisted on vegetarian beans. It made no sense to him that she would ask for meat with vegetarian beans.

Of course, to me it made perfect sense. In Mexican restaurants, the non-vegetarian beans contain either lard, or bacon, or both. The woman is Jewish, so she doesn’t eat pork, thus she wanted the vegetarian beans. But she’s not a vegetarian. Chicken is fine.

Along these same lines, which an Orthodox Jew might dub issues of “fake kosher,” I’ve also been contemplating the issues of “fake treyf,” or items that appear not to be kosher but are.

Probably the most common example of this is turkey bacon. Readers of my blog may recall that the thing I miss most about my non-kosher life is the bacon. (Please pause for a moment of silence while I reflect wistfully.) When I mention this to people, sometimes they ask, “Why not just eat turkey bacon instead? It tastes about the same.”

One helpful person even pointed out you can now get kosher bacon-flavored seasoning because, as the company’s slogan reads, “Everything should taste like bacon.”

Aside from my assumption that turkey bacon and fake bacon flavoring can’t be any healthier than “real” bacon, it seems to me to be missing the point. Why keep kosher if you’re going to eat things that appear to be, and taste like, forbidden foods?

Sure, one can argue we keep kosher because we’re commanded to, and since God didn’t command us to avoid eating kosher foods disguised as non-kosher foods it’s perfectly okay, but I’d like to think it’s deeper than that.

I’d like to think there’s something to the idea that we’re also learning a lesson about taming our desires. I’d like to think that by denying ourselves certain things, maybe we can learn to have a little empathy for others who have to do without things they would like to eat or have.

I would like to think that paying attention to what we eat reminds us of our covenant with God, and that we shouldn’t look for ways to weasel out of keeping kosher by using technicalities any more than we’d want God to look for technicalities to weasel out of God’s end of the bargain.

The same thing applies to Passover foods. On Passover, we’re not supposed to eat foods made with leavening, to remind us that when we fled Egypt we didn’t have time to let our bread rise. Yet the Passover section of the supermarket is filled with “kosher-for-Passover” cake and cookie mixes that look and taste like they have baking soda or powder in them even though they don’t.

In the end, it comes down to the letter or the law vs. the spirit of the law. Those who eat the turkey bacon and the Passover cake seem more interested in the former, while those who eat the vegetarian pizza seem more interested in the latter. And that’s how we get the sliding scale of kosher.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Worst Free Calendar Idea Ever

By Susan Esther Barnes

When I picked up the mail tonight, I found a large envelope that said, in large letters, "Your free 2011 calendar enclosed." It was from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Anyone who knows me well knows I have a soft spot for free stuff. It's really hard for me to pass it up. I see those commercials from Kashi offering to mail me a free snack, and I want so badly to go to their website and have them send me one, even though I still have the unopened free box of cereal they sent me two years ago.

Not only that, but somehow I never picked up one of those free Jewish calendars at the synagogue this year, so I still need a calendar for 5771. I ripped open the envelope in anticipation, expecting to not only get something free, but a free thing I would actually use. A double win!

I pulled out the calendar and flipped to February, my birthday month. It's arranged like you'd expect, with a picture and caption on the top and the calendar part on the bottom.

To my dismay, the quote on the top part of the page with the picture starts, "Again we sleep on the barren floor - no blankets -" while the caption at the bottom starts, "Michael Kraus had just turned 14 when he was imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau with his parents. After witnessing the deportation of his mother and then the death of his father..."

This is what I want to look at and read about while I'm celebrating my birthday? And every page is like this, with quotes from diaries of people in the Shoah (Holocaust) and bits of their bioagraphy.

Ok, it's from a Holocaust museum, what did I expect? Remembering the Shoah is important, but it's not something I want to be reminded of every single day of my life. It would be a little hard to celebrate anything with that staring you in the face every single day. And we deserve a chance to celebrate. We didn't survive just so we could go on grieving forever.

Plus, it isn't even a Jewish calendar! The Jewish months are not marked on its pages. Not even the phases of the moon are shown to give a hint of when each Jewish month starts.

I want to throw it away, because I will never, ever use it. But part of me wants to keep it as an example of what can happen when marketing goes very, very, wrong. Plus, it was free!