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 cafĂ© 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!

Thursday, October 14, 2010


By Susan Esther Barnes

One of my nieces, the one who started college this year, posted a "challenge" on Facebook. It had a list of things she would tell whoever pushed the "Like" button on her post. One of the items listed was "The animal you remind me of." I pressed "Like," and in the list of things she told me, she said I remind her of "A cat, like those two black cats you had."

Immediately I knew she was talking about her visit to my house when I lived in Henderson, Nevada in 2001. On my refrigerator, I still have a picture she drew of me on that visit. I thought, "That wasn't that long ago. I still have those cats. Why would she speak of them in the past tense?"

Then it dawned on me. That was 9 years ago. For her, that is literally half a lifetime.

That provides a little perspective, doesn't it?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tefillin Barbie

By Susan Esther Barnes

Tefillin Barbie. I must say, those are two words I never would have expected to put together. Which demonstrates how behind the times I am, since Tefillin Barbie has been around since 2006.

Tefillin are leather straps with boxes at the end of them. In the boxes are verses from the Torah. They are worn during prayer. One is strapped to the head so the box is on the forehead, and the other is strapped to the arm, with the box on the hand and the leather straps wound up the arm. There’s more to it than that, such as how many times around you wrap the straps, but you get the picture.

My gut reaction when I see tefillin is “Ugh.” I don’t like them. Nobody wears them during services at the synagogue I attend. So imagine my surprise and dismay when I emailed a link for Tefillin Barbie to my rabbi, and he hinted that maybe we should start encouraging congregants to lay tefillin.

The whole idea of tefillin comes from Deuteronomy 6:8. Deuteronomy Chapter 6 starts by talking about the laws, the one-ness of God, and our love for God. Verse 8 says, “And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.”

One of the things I like about Judaism is we often don’t take the words of Torah literally. We look beyond the literal to discover possible meanings on other levels. I was once told the reason we chant Torah rather than just read it is to make it sound like a song, to remind us that it, like a song, should not be taken it too literally.

On a figurative level, I like this verse. It can be a useful guide to our actions if we go around thinking that the commandments and our love of God are always on our hands and in front of our eyes, so no matter what we do or see, we shape our words and deeds accordingly.

The idea of people taking this verse literally and actually tying these words onto their foreheads and hands strikes me as a bit silly.

The main reason for my gut reaction against tefillin, however, is what I associate with them. Jewish law requires men to wear them for prayer; it does not require women to wear them. I have only seen them on Orthodox men, and in books that are clearly written only for men. As a result, the message I get when I see them is, “This is for us; this is not for you,” a message which plays into my issues with rejection.

When I was in Israel last summer, on the airplane and in every city we visited, there were men trying to get male tourists to try on tefillin, as part of their outreach effort to draw men into becoming more religious. These men had no interest in offering to lay tefillin with me, because I am female, and beneath their notice.

As a person who believes in egalitarianism, I have always seen tefillin as an outdated remnant of the old, sexist ways some Jews still cling to while I try to be a religious Jew in the 21st century. I have never viewed tefillin as religious objects. To me, they have always been a symbol of sexist exclusion.

Why would a woman want to wear a symbol of sexist exclusion anyway? We don’t want to adopt their outdated ways. We want to express our Judaism in ways that make sense in a modern, egalitarian world, a world which, I would venture to say, is a step closer to the World to Come than one in which one segment of society is excluded by another.

Just this past week, however, I began to read a book by and about the Women of the Wall, a group of women in Israel who have been fighting, since 1988, for the right to pray out loud, wearing tefillin and a tallit and with a Torah, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. I had never heard anything before about women wanting to wear tefillin.

In their book, the women explain that it is not against Jewish law for women to wear tefillin. It just upsets some religious men because they’re not used to seeing it, and many therefore are ignorant of the law regarding it, so they assume it is forbidden.

The knowledge that there are some women fighting for the right to lay tefillin puts the idea into a new light for me. Why should men claim the right to do this, and try to deny it to women? Especially Orthodox men, who claim to be bound by Jewish law? Suddenly, the idea of a woman wearing tefillin feels less like women taking on a symbol of exclusion, and more like a way to reclaim something which wrongfully has been denied to us.

Coincidentally (or not), while I was reading the book on the Women of the Wall, I came across a blog post that mentioned Tefillin Barbie.

It is particularly fitting that Tefillin Barbie was created by Jen Taylor Friedman, who, according to her website, is the first woman in modern times to have written a sefer Torah (Torah scroll, which are written out painstakingly by hand and, the Orthodox would say, only by men).

When I finally had a chance to think it all through, the rabbi’s suggestion that we lay tefillin transformed in my mind from something offensive to something that, like Tefillin Barbie, may be yet another step in the struggle of women to claim our rightful place in prayer and religious practice alongside Jewish men.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Shabbat Shalom

By Susan Esther Barnes
with photos by Dinah Lang

"Shabbat shalom." It's what we say to each other on Friday night and on Saturday morning. We generally think of it as wishing each other "Sabbath peace," but it is more than that. The word shalom means not only peace; it also means wholeness. Because God made the world in six days and then rested on the seventh, on Shabbat we attempt to rest as well, and to act as if the world is peaceful and whole and perfect just the way it is.

Last Friday evening I arrived at the synagogue as usual, about 45 minutes before services start. A couple of years ago, I was the only person standing at the front door greeting people as they arrived.

On this particular night, as on most Friday nights, Jeff greeted people at the top of the stairs, as did Ken. Judith stood at the sanctuary doors handing out the sheets with announcements and the list for the Mourner's Kaddish. Ralph helped to serve the wine, and later, as the sanctuary filled up, helped to make sure those sitting in the back had prayer books. Greeting on Friday nights is no longer something I do alone.

After services, we walked to the JCC next door for the community dinner the synagogue hosts, free of charge, on the first Friday of each month. After making sure the majority of the people were settled, I found a seat next to a couple I know. It turns out I spent most of the meal talking to the couple on the other side of the table, who I didn't know before.

This has happened to me before. I sit down to eat with people I don't know, and by the end of the meal I have new aquaintances, who greet me by name at services in the following weeks and months.

On the occasions when Dan Nichols plays at first Friday night services, after the dinner he leads "Shabbat Unplugged" at a congregant's home. Aviva and I used to both go to these evenings separately, but now we go together. Another friend send me an email Friday afternoon asking if she could carpool there with me that night. At dinner, two others joined us, so we ended up with five people jammed into my car. This is no longer an event I go to alone.

Imagine about 40 people, jammed into a living room. At first, it's like any weekend party, with people chatting while we snack on cookies or fruit and drink beverages. It's 10 pm when the instruments come out and the singing starts. That's when everything changes.

We sing in Hebrew. We sing in English. We sing without words, and sometimes we just hum. We sing about God and shalom, about peace and togetherness. We ask God if she can hear us sing; we ask for our lives to feel the echo of our praying.

At some point, Dan stops and begins to speak about how, during the week, our parents or partners or children tell us we're not doing well enough. He knows sometimes our boss at work tells us we're not doing well enough. He reminds us we all tell ourselves we're not doing well enough.

Tonight, it is Shabbat. The music is sweet. Words cannot describe the intense beauty of the harmonies as our voices blend togther. There is no such thing as one of us not singing well enough.

Dan points out, in case it is possible for any of us to have missed it, that in this moment, we are tasting the World to Come. In this room, at this time, there is peace. There is wholeness. Everyone here is not just a part of it, but is a necessary part. In this moment, right now, the world and everything in it is perfect.

Shabbat shalom.