Thursday, September 30, 2010

Simchat Torah 5771

By Susan Esther Barnes

When I arrived at the synagogue at about 10 minutes to 6 pm, there were a few bottles of spirits, as well as some cold water, on a table near the front door. I had my first taste ever of peppermint schnapps. I suppose that’s one way to loosen people up for dancing, particularly people like me who don’t drink much or often.

A little after 6, we went into the sanctuary. Most of the chairs had been removed. There was a line of chairs along the outer wall facing in, and a couple of tables with some chairs around them in the center.

We sat down at the center tables, and studied the last couple of chapters of the Torah. It was pretty hot in the sanctuary (we don’t have any air conditioning), so we turned on a couple of large standing fans. The fans made it harder to hear each other, but the breeze they created was welcome.

Some of the “regular” Saturday morning Torah Study group was there, but there were quite a few others as well. When you’re studying Torah, you never know what’s going to come up. For instance, last Saturday we read the part in which Moses asks to see God, and God says (I’m paraphrasing here), “You can’t see my face but I’ll shield you in the crevice of a rock with my hand as I pass by, and then you can see my back.”

We were talking about why God would do it that way, when it suddenly occurred to me how well that describes what happens when we’re in distress, like Moses was after he learned he wouldn’t live long enough to make it to the Promised Land.

In times of trouble, we generally don’t see God coming, but we are shielded by God’s hand during the worst of it, and it isn’t until later that we see God receding and are able to be thankful for the strength and comfort God gave us while we were suffering the most.

At any rate, a little after 7 we concluded our study and removed the tables and chairs from the center of the room. Children and others who wouldn’t mind doing so were invited to sit on the carpet in the middle of the room, while others sat on the chairs along the walls.

We sang some songs, and then two of the Torah scrolls were removed from the ark and completely unrolled. Adults held the parchment while children were invited to come up close to get a good look at the writing.

Over the past couple of years, people from the Torah study group have participated in the “pasuk project.” A “pasuk” is a verse. As we read through the Torah, when we were struck by a particular verse, we would write down which verse it was and why it meant something special to us, and this information was then posted on the wall in the room where the Torah study group meets on Saturday mornings.

I like the project for a number of reasons. First, it helps us to personalize what we’re reading, and to show how it is relevant in our lives today. Second, the room is used for various other purposes throughout the week, and the verses on the wall remind others of the importance of the Torah and learning in everything we do at the synagogue and in our daily lives.

We also used the project in our Simchat Torah celebration this year. After the Torah scrolls were unrolled, all of us present who had picked a verse stood near that verse on one of the scrolls, and one by one we told the congregation which verse we had picked and why.

Then it was time for the dancing. While the two scrolls were rolled back up, the remaining scrolls were taken from the ark, the band started up, and the dancing began, with one Torah in the center of each group. I was happy to see a Torah being carried to those still sitting because they are not able to move around easily, so they could participate too.

Later, one of the groups danced around a number of elderly people sitting in chairs, and another group danced around the sukkah outside. I heard yet another group danced out the front doors, and may have even made it into the parking lot. During the last dance, the woman next to me exclaimed, “This is the best Simchat Torah ever!”

When the dancing was over, we gathered on the bimah (or as close to it as we could get) while the white High Holy Day mantles were removed from the Torah scrolls and replaced with the mantles they wear for most of the year. As the last Torah made its way up to the ark, on an impulse I reached out my hand to kiss it, and was pleased to see several others, both adults and children, follow my example.

On the way out, we were treated to bowls of apples for a sweet new year, and we had our last chance to stand in the small sukkah out front before it and its big brother in the back are taken down and stored away again.

As one congregant remarked on the way out, “It’s not a bad way to start the new year, is it?”

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mezuzahs on the Doorposts of Gentiles

By Susan Esther Barnes

Because of the name of my blog, I just had to comment on this.

The New York Times recently published an article about Gentiles (non-Jews) in New York who have mezuzahs on their doors. Apparently, this is a result of Jews who put up the mezuzah(s), then subsequently died or moved out, leaving their mezuzah(s) behind.

For various reasons, the new occupants of many homes have left them up. Based on the article, it appears some like their decorative qualities, while others are concerned about the mark that would be left if the mezuzah were removed, particularly in places where the doorway has been painted over, leaving another color underneath.

At first, I didn’t see this as a big issue, but then I realized how irresponsible it is of the previous owners, or in the case of those who died, whoever was supposed to take care of their personal effects after their death.

After all, a mezuzah is an important ritual object. Technically, although we call the container we see on the doorpost the mezuzah, my understanding is that the actual mezuzah is the scroll inside which has certain specific passages from the Torah written on it.

The mezuzah therefore has the name of God written on it, and nothing with the name of God is supposed to be thrown in the trash. If it is damaged or needs to be discarded for some reason, it is supposed to be buried.

It seems highly unlikely that a Gentile, no matter how well intended, will know the proper way to dispose of a mezuzah once it is no longer wanted. So, no matter whether the new occupant wants to keep it for a while, or gets rid of it right away, the chances are good the mezuzah will not receive the proper burial it deserves.

If someone puts a mezuzah up, then unless they know the home will subsequently be occupied by other Jews, they should take it down when they leave. When a Jewish person dies, if they are the only Jewish person in that home, their mezuzah(s) should be removed by their family members or whoever is taking care of their affairs.

And even if you don’t think it’s a big deal whether or not a mezuzah is buried once it’s no longer going to be used, read how the NYT article ends:

Connie Peirce… said she often wished she had inherited a mezuza like many of her non-Jewish neighbors did... To her delight, one of her Jewish neighbors recently hung a mezuza on her doorway. “Every time I come home and remember, I kiss it and touch it and then I bless myself, saying, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.’ ”

So, the mezuzah, the holy scroll which begins with the words, “Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai eloheynu, Adonai Echad – Hear Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one,” the central Jewish expression of God’s unity, is being caressed by someone while they are asserting that God is a trinity.

Now that’s just wrong.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Yom Kippur 2010/5771

By Susan Esther Barnes

Blogger Dov Bear posted a recap of five different kinds of Kol Nidre (Yom Kippur Eve) services he has attended in the past, and invited others to write about their Kol Nidre experiences. I wrote about one of my experiences from previous years (since it was not yet Kol Nidre this year).

Then he posted about his most recent Yom Kippur experience, and several of us posted about ours.

My previous post was about my Kol Nidre experience this year. Below is my Yom Kippur experience, somewhat modified from what I posted on Dov Bear’s blog.

9:30 am: Services start at both the synagogue and the local Civic Center auditorium, since our congregation is way too large to fit into the synagogue all at once. I choose to attend the synagogue service, which is mostly run by lay people (Senior Rabbi and Cantor, with choir, are at the auditorium).

I greet people at the front door until I can’t see anyone else approaching from the parking areas. I walk in and find a seat, but Marc comes over to get me, saying he and his wife have saved a seat for me. This is so cool. Usually I don’t like to sit alone for services, but sometimes it’s hard to find a spot next to someone else who’s sitting alone when I come in late from greeting.

Morning service is incredibly moving. Many of us are crying by the end. Highlights include confessions written anonymously by congregants, and beautiful music. Service is over around 12:30.

From 12:30 to 1:30 I greet those coming to children's services, and direct them regarding where to go with kids under 7 vs. where to go with kids 7 and over. There is a worker from the JCC who is standing nearby drinking a soda, which I find a bit rude since the rest of us are fasting, but I assume he's not Jewish and probably has no idea.

Frankly, I’m not being the world’s best greeter, because I’m still emotional from the morning service, and Donna comes over, notices, and doesn’t let me get away with “I’m fine.” What a mensch! So I get a chance to talk again about Rose, and how it’s hard being at the first Yom Kippur without her. On a regular Shabbat some part of my mind can pretend she just didn’t make it to synagogue this week, but on Yom Kippur it’s obvious she is missing, and I am missing her.

Around 2 I head over to the Civic Center for the 2:30 discussion with Rabbi Kahn. There are good number of people there. As his topic he chooses the Park 51 project. I am deeply disappointed by the number of congregants who speak out against the project, or who feel conflicted about it. It seems so clear to me that it’s wrong to say a whole religion should be banned from building something near where a handful of extremists did something horrible.

I gather from Rabbi Kahn’s remarks that he'd say I feel this way because I identify myself as a member of a minority group, which I do. I find it unfathomable that we don’t all, as Jews, recognize that we are a minority group, and that we need to stand up for the rights of other minority groups. I know it doesn’t help that there are Muslims who are virulently anti-semetic, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to be Islamophobic. This discussion does not contribute to the feelings of Sabbath peace and wholeness I want to experience on Shabbat.

I leave early and walk back to the synagogue for Yizkor at 3:30. Another Yizkor service is also happening at the Civic Center at the same time. I’m a bit disappointed that the service is not more participatory. One congregant reads aloud what was probably a lovely bit of prose, but in several places it mentions food, and I’m distracted. The fast has been easy for me so far, but I still don’t want to be reminded about food.

The synagogue service ends a little early so we can all walk together over to the Civic Center for N'eila and Havdalah. The plan was for all of us to walk into the Civic Center singing together, but somehow that didn’t pan out. I find a seat on the right side in the front section, and sit next to a couple of congregants I see on a regular basis.

I enjoy the service, until near the very end, when the rabbis read a long selection in English. I don’t remember them doing that before. We’re all standing up, my feet hurt, I’m starting to get a headache, and I find myself wanting them to just move along already. I don’t feel hungry, but I’m certainly getting grumpy. Dan Nichols makes up for it by singing, “May I Suggest,” and I sing along with him.

Immediately after Havdalah we have the break-the-fast. I don't get in line for food. Instead, I head to the doors and direct people to where the tables and chairs are outside where they can sit and eat. It's still light outside. I continue to direct people and chat until the sun goes down.

I call my husband, and he meets me at a local Mexican restaurant. This is our tradition because I love Mexican food, plus they give you a bowl of chips and salsa right when you sit down, so you don't have to wait to eat something. I indulge myself by ordering the nachos for dinner (no meat of course).

Sunday morning I get up early and go to the synagogue to help build the large sukkah in the back and the small sukkah in the front. I enjoy hanging out with the guys. This year, as last year, I am the only woman there. I think the guys are starting to catch on that they don’t need to treat me differently just because I’m female. At least I hope they are.

Once again, I’m reminded how much I love this community, and how much I feel I belong here.

Kol Nidre 2010/5771

By Susan Esther Barnes

Blogger Dov Bear posted a recap of five different kinds of Kol Nidre (Yom Kippur Eve) services he has attended in the past, and invited others to write about their Kol Nidre experiences. I wrote about one of my experiences from previous years, since it was not yet Kol Nidre this year.

Then he posted about his most recent Yom Kippur experience, and several of us posted about ours.

I thought I’d add my Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur experiences from this year here as well. Kol Nidre is in this post, and Yom Kippur is in the next one.

5:30 pm Final meal before Kol Nidre: I have French toast and milk for dinner. This is my version of carbo loading for the fast ahead (no food or drink from sunset on Friday night until three stars are in the sky on Saturday evening).

This is the second year Nita is offering High Holiday services. Nita is a project of our synagogue, reaching out to unaffiliated Jews in the county. I have been hearing rave reviews about Nita all year, but have stayed away from their services because I know they’re trying to build their own community and I don’t want to get in the way of that.

When I went online to buy the Nita “Lift Kit,” which includes tickets to the Nita High Holiday services, I was simply intending to make a donation, however in the week prior to Kol Nidre I decide to be selfish this year and check out the Nita Kol Nidre service.

I am wearing all white, the traditional color we wear on Yom Kippur, because it is the color we wear when we are buried. I am also wearing white canvas sneakers and no belt because we don’t wear leather, which is considered to be a luxury, on Yom Kippur. Orthodox men wear a kittel, the Jewish burial garments. Rabbis Noa and Michael also wear them on Yom Kippur.

6:30 pm: I arrive about a half an hour before services. Almost nobody else has arrived yet. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with myself, and I figure there’s no reason not to greet, which is what I’d normally do if I were at services on my “home turf.” Jane, the Development Director, asks me to help direct people to the sign-in table.

I notice a number of familiar faces, members of the synagogue, who have also chosen to attend this service instead of the “regular” one at the Civic Center. Noa’s parents also attend, and her Mom gives me a hug. I’m flattered that she recognizes me. Most of the people, however, I’ve never seen before. Many of them have kids with them.

Around 7 pm services start, and I feel torn. I came here because I was hoping to engage in a more intimate experience than I would have at the Civic Center, and I want to go in and start to get into the mood being created in there. But there are people still arriving, and I want them to feel welcome when they walk in. Helping the unaffiliated to feel like there is something for them here is important. I continue to greet until the trickle of late arrivals peters out.

I walk in, and there are few available seats left. The only ones that look viable are a group of five or so in the very back, in the middle, with no other chairs around them. I sit in one of them, but I feel isolated from everyone else. I move my chair to the right side, so I’m sitting behind someone I know. Eventually a family comes in and moves the rest of the isolated chairs next to me, and they sit down. I’m glad to feel less like I’m sitting there alone.

Noa gives a fabulous sermon that starts by her talking about the Container Store and moves on to talking about how we contain ourselves, and somehow ties in a story about a man named Yosi who Elijah finds praying in a ruin and why Elijah tells Yosi he shouldn’t pray in a ruin but should pray by the road, even if it means he may be interrupted.

She explains about how we should not pray in places of despair but should pray in the real world with all its messiness. I’m always impressed by how a good rabbi can pull in all these seemingly disparate things and make it seem obvious in hindsight how they all go together. I suppose that’s the kind of thing you learn to do when you start to get an understanding of the one-ness of it all.

I enjoy the rest of the service. I’m surprised how much of it is in Hebrew. I had imagined there might be more English, in an attempt to not intimidate folks who rarely attend services. I don’t end up with nearly as intimate a feeling as I expected; not nearly as intimate a feeling as I felt on Rosh Hashanah morning at the synagogue sanctuary service, where there were more people, but also more people that I know.

I realize that even though the Nita service is a good place to be, it is not my place. My place is at the synagogue, with the community I have joined there. I am grateful to have a place that is so good that even a place as good as Nita cannot transcend it for me.

After the service, I rush to the doors to say goodnight and Shabbat Shalom to people as they leave. Usually after synagogue services, a good number of people stay to chat, but many people leave right away, and I want to get to the doors first. I find myself standing there alone for some time. Everyone else is still inside the room where the services were, talking with each other. I feel great. It means there is a community there, in that room, and Nita is doing what it set out to do.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

My Visit to Yad Vashem

By Susan Esther Barnes

It’s been more than two months since I was at Yad Vashem, the museum of the Shoah (Holocaust) in Jerusalem. It is not an oversight that I have not written about it before now.

I was there with a tour group from my synagogue, and it says something about my trust in myself and in the others in the group that I didn’t even consider trying to hide my feelings as we made our way through the exhibits.

We had an excellent tour guide, but the deeper we went into the museum, the less I listened to him and the more I made my own decisions about where to turn my attention. The numbers are staggering, and the geography and political history are obviously relevant, but what was most meaningful to me was hearing and reading the stories of the survivors.

In many areas there are screens showing excerpts of interviews with survivors. I found these to be deeply moving. Not just because of what had happened to them, but because any of them could have been talking about my family. My Jewish grandparents left Hungary with my father in 1938. Some others in my family left, too. Many didn’t, and many died.

As I walked through the museum, tears rolled down my face. I didn’t try to wipe them away. They belonged where they were.

I kept expecting someone in my group to stop and say something to me. I wondered whether they just didn’t know what to say or do. I wondered whether they were so engrossed in their own thoughts and feelings that they didn’t notice my tears. I wondered whether they saw the tears but chose not to interrupt my, or their own, processing of the experience by asking about them.

About half way through the museum, one of our group’s youth guides asked me how I was doing. I told him I didn’t know how to answer that question. I told him my father and grandparents had escaped from Hungary. Talking to him about it brought more of my feelings to the surface, and I had to fight to keep from breaking down. Suddenly I was glad nobody else had asked. Yet I am grateful that he did.

Upon leaving the building, as the narrow place filled with horror opened up onto a beautiful, green panorama of the Israeli hillside, my heart almost burst. I know that’s a cliché, but I don’t know a better way to describe it.

I thought I was doing an admirable job of holding myself together, and I entertained the belief that I would be able to just cry later in private. Then we made a stop at the restrooms, and while I was standing in a stall I heard a strange, strangled sound in my throat. I tried to hold back the flood, but then I thought, “to what end?” and let it out.

I didn’t know what to do next. I knew my group would be waiting for me. I didn’t want to hide that I was crying – in no way was I embarrassed or ashamed – but I didn’t want to create a scene either. I started to leave the restroom, changed my mind and went back in, sat on the floor, put my head on my arms, and wept.

In time, a woman from our group came in, rushed over, and put her arm around me. She said the group was worried about me, and asked for permission to go tell them where I was.

When she came back, she asked me to come out with her, since the rabbi didn’t want to come into the women’s room. (Side note to men: Unless she’s specifically avoiding you, it’s okay to come into a women’s room to comfort a woman who’s crying. It’s not like a men’s room. We do all our business in stalls, shielded from view).

So I went out, and cried on Michael’s shoulder, until the tears stopped. Even though there was nothing I saw or heard in Yad Vashem that I didn’t know about already, I haven’t finished crying about it yet. I don’t know if I ever will.