Friday, June 24, 2011

Talking Turkey About The Chicken Story

By Susan Esther Barnes

There's a post up at The Bloggess that's getting a lot of comments. It's called And That's Why You Should Pick Your Battles.

I ought to mention I haven't read any of the other posts on this blog, so I don't know whether this particular post depicts typical interactions between the blogger and her husband. This may just be an anomoly, although I doubt it.

Glancing through the first few of the over 1,000 comments posted so far, it sounds like everyone thinks this post is hilarious. I think it's kind of sad.

It starts out with the blogger arguing with her husband about towels. Later, when she's leaving the house to go shopping, he orders her not to buy any more towels. In retailiation, she ends up buying the enormous metal rooster (she refers to it repeatedly as a chicken in her blog post) pictured above. She seems to be proud of herself for getting back at her husband in this way.

What I find the most disturbing about this blog post is the lack of communication and empathy between the husband and the blogger.

He doesn't seem to understand the difference between bath towels and beach towels, and there is no indication that she made a real attempt to explain to him why she would want to buy the former after she had already purchased the latter.

The husband is obviously concerned about the amount of money being spent. Ordering the blogger not to buy any more towels is not a great way to communicate this concern.

My husband and I have a rule called, "No pronouncements." Neither of us is allowed to tell the other one what he or she (or we as a family unit) will do. We can each do our own thing, but if one of us wants the other one to do (or not do) something, we discuss it. Sometimes it's a short discussion and sometimes it's a long one, but neither one of us thinks we can tell the other one what to do (or not do).

Even though the husband erred in trying to tell his wife not to buy towels, she then errs further by buying something completely useless. I admit, the rooster is funny, and I can see buying it for fun, if it's something you can afford. But to buy something just to irritate someone else, particularly your significant other, is an unwise and hostile act.

I see so many missed opportunities in this story.

The blogger could have explained to her husband why it's important to have both bath towels and beach towels.

The husband could have taken the time to talk about why he's concerned about the cost of the towels, and to discuess their finances. Are they able to meet all their bills? Are they saving enough for the future? This could be a jumping-off point for them to sit down and agree on financial goals. If they agree on a household budget, there might be fewer arguments like this.

The wife could have told her husband how she feels when he orders her not to buy something. This could have been an opportunity for her to talk about how disempowering it is for him to do that, rather than jumping at the first possible opportunity to agressively reassert her power by purchasing something neither one of them can really use.

So yeah, I can see how some people would think this story is funny, but I think it's pretty sad.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Things I Don't "Get"

By Susan Esther Barnes

I make a conscious effort to look at things from the perspective of other people. Looking for alternate ways of interpreting situations has been particularly effective for me, especially when I come across something I don’t understand.

I think it all started back when I was a kid and my mother told me, “There’s too much milk going down the sink.”

I thought she was saying the milk was somehow harming the sink or clogging the drain or something, so I replied, in all innocence, “Maybe we should throw it in the toilet instead.” She was not amused, and I found myself trying to figure out why my clever suggestion made her angry.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve been traveling a lot lately on business and I’m feeling tired and cranky, but despite my best efforts, there are some things I have come across recently that I just don’t “get.”

***Please note: My husband was in no way involved in the following incident.***

As an example, I can understand how a guy who has never made microwave popcorn before might set the timer wrong and walk away from the kitchen, thereby allowing the popcorn to burn beyond all recognition.

What I don’t understand is how he can then leave the microwave looking like the one pictured at the top of this post without making any attempt whatsoever to clean up the mess.

Another thing I don’t get is why a fast food restaurant would need to have a locking mechanism on the inside of their restroom door that is so confusing they need to have a whole series of signs telling you to lock the door and how to do it:

Is this just a ploy to scare off people who are on a long drive and want to use the restroom without buying anything?

Then there’s this sign on the ceiling of a hotel room I stayed at recently:

How many people had to hang their clothes on the fire sprinklers before the hotel decided it was worthwhile to put these signs in all the rooms? Are there that many people who don’t know what a fire sprinkler is, or who aren’t able to find the closet?

And lastly, the straw that “broke the camel’s back” and got me to make this blog post, why would a rental car company give the vehicle pictured below to a person who made a reservation for a compact car?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Leading My First Shiva Minyan

By Susan Esther Barnes

Last night I led my first shiva minyan. It was exhausting.

The word “shiva” means “seven.” For the first seven days after someone close to them has been buried, a family stays at home and observes a number of practices. One practice is to hold prayer services in their home. The prayer service requires a “minyan,” or a group of ten or more Jews.

Last year the Cantor offered a class on leading a shiva minyan. We have a large congregation, and often there can be more than one or two deaths in a week, so it’s hard for the clergy to be able to do all the shiva services. I attended the class, and my name was added to the list of people who can help do this.

I also was able to get some experience leading Tuesday morning services. The morning service is longer and more involved than a shiva service, so between that experience and the shiva minyan class, I should have felt fully prepared.

However, walking into the mourner’s house last night I felt completely unprepared. I was ready to do the actual service itself, but somehow I hadn’t expected everything else that goes on around it.

First, I hadn’t expected people to come to me for advice. One woman asked me where she could find a support group of people who are faced with ailing parents. I was able to point her to Jewish Family Services, but I wished I had a list of support groups with me.

Before the service I spoke with the sons of the women who died, and one of them asked how long the service would be. What popped into my head was, “I have no idea – I’ve never done this before.” I didn’t want to tell them this was my first time. However, there are some portions in the prayer book we can say or leave out, so I asked them whether they would like a full service or an abbreviated one.

Later, one of them asked, “Did you start to do this after your father died?” and I said, “Technically, yes” since that was true without admitting this was my first one.

I also found that the sons were looking for my approval. I kept thinking, “I’m not a rabbi. Who am I to approve or not?” but they needed me to tell them it was okay that many of their friends and family don’t speak Hebrew, and it’s okay that the funeral earlier that day was hard so they didn’t want to talk about their Mom again during the service that night, and it’s okay if they don’t want me to go through the whole prayer book. They were relieved by my assurances, but being the person to give them those assurances felt heavy.

Then the service started, and it was too hot. I was wearing a blazer, which I should have taken off. I could feel my face getting red, and I was starting to sweat, but I didn’t want to interrupt the service to take off the blazer. I hoped my appearance wasn’t too distracting.

We got to haskiveinu, which is a lovely song about God spreading a shelter of peace over us. I explained the meaning of the song, and suggested those present think about sending thoughts of peace to the mourners.

Then I started singing, and realized that only one or two other people knew the song, so it was virtually a solo. I know full well the song is too high for my voice, but usually when we get to the high part nobody can hear me because I sing softly and my voice is covered by everyone else. No such luck here. My voice was shaking anyway, I got to the high part and my voice cracked like I knew it would, and I just pressed on.

At the end I was hoping it wasn’t too awful. I thanked everyone for coming, and to my surprise a couple of people thanked me for leading the service, and said I did a good job.

I spoke with a friend about it afterward; particularly about why it was so exhausting. She pointed out that when you’re in a situation where you have to be hyper aware of what is going on around you, and adjusting what you’re saying and doing to fit what you’re seeing and hearing, it takes a lot of energy.

So although the next time I lead a shiva minyan it may not be less tiring, at least next time I think I’ll feel more prepared.

"Rabbis Don't Do Laundry" at TC Jewfolk

By Susan Esther Barnes

I'm very excited to have my first monthly post up at TCJewfolk. It's called Rabbis Don't Do Laundry, and is about how we project our stereotypes about authority figures onto rabbis and others. I hope you enjoy it!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Haveil Havalim #319

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.

I received very few submissions this week, so I added a few links I gleaned from some of my favorite websites. If you submitted something after Tuesday, it's not that I don't like you. I didn't get any submissions on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.

Opinions expressed in the posts linked below are those of the respective bloggers and not necessarily endorsed by me.

Request for Prayers:
For those of you who may know Rikismom from the blogosphere or elsewhere, please pray for her and her ill daughter, and add a note of support at Quick Update posted at Beneath the Wings.

Lizard presents The Season of the Giving of Our Torah posted at for Your honor.

Dov Bear writes says the anti-semitic comic book promoting San Francisco's circumcism ban is not liberal in The Comic Book Campaign Against Circumcision: There's Nothing Liberal About It posted at Dov Bear.

Ben-Yehudah asserts the proper response to the attempt in San Francisco to ban circumcision is to move to Israel in Circumcision-Hatred: What's Next? Why Wait Around To Find Out? posted at Esser Agaroth.

Ben-Yehudah also asserts the proper response to anti-semitism in Europe is to make aliyah European Jews Need To Wake Up, And Israelis Need To Help Them posted at Esser Agaroth.

Batya also makes a case for aliyah in The Little Red Hen, The Coming of the Moshiach (Messiah) and Redemption posted at Shiloh Musings.

Joel Katz gives us a rundown on what's happening in Israel in Religion and State in Israel - June 6, 2011 (Section 1) and Religion and State in Israel - June 6, 2011 (Section 2) posted at Religion and State in Israel.

Dave Bender asks some interesting questions about the recent clash on the Syrian/Israeli border in You Say 'Nakba,' I Say 'Naksa;' Let's Call The Whole Thing Off posted at Israel At Level Ground.

Rivkah Lambert Adler presents Deeply Mine posted at Bat Aliyah.

Mystery Woman writes about Unity in Diversity posted an Mystery Woman.

Miriyummy writes about another kind of diversity among the Jewish people in Jerusalem From Every Direction posted at Miriyummy.

Heshy Fried shows us how sterotypes don't always stand up to reality in You Say You're Conservative, But You're Pretty Frum! posted at Frum Satire.

Lizard makes a good case for not playing "Jewish Geography" in Jewish Geography is Assur posted at for Your honor.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink writes about the image of a community in Reputation Obsession: Taking Tov Shem M’Shemen Tov – A Good Name is Better Than Good Oil – to the Next Level posted at Fink or Swim.

Jenna Mitelman writes about J-Street in In the Tent, or Out: That is Still the J-Street Question posted at TC Jewfolk.

I write about how driving through an area can bring back memories in Pilgimage Through Time posted at To Kiss a Mezuzah.

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.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pilgrimage Through Time

By Susan Esther Barnes

A couple of times a year my job takes me on a road trip through time, causing me to drive past the towns I lived in years ago. Sometimes it’s hard to drive by those places without remembering what my life was like when they were my home base.

Last night I passed by the town where I lived with my ex-husband from the mid-80’s through the mid-90’s. Whenever I think about that place, I think of mitzrayim, Egypt, the narrow place from which the Jews escaped in the Exodus. Those days were unbelievably constricting. I felt like there were walls pressing in all around me, to the point that my spirit was almost crushed.

I used to think of myself as a person who would be married to one person all my life. It was incredibly difficult to give up on that vision. In the end, I mourned the loss of the marriage, but not the distancing of myself from the man.

It’s not that the vision was meaningless, or that I didn’t love my ex-husband, but the relationship we had never constituted a healthy marriage. In fact, I realized on our honeymoon that I had made a horrible mistake. In a way I was trying to cling to something that never existed. It reminds me of a line from a song by The Wailin’ Jennys called “Heaven When We’re Home” which says, “I’ve been hanging on to nothing when nothing could be worse than hanging on.”

Also last night, I drove by the town where I lived during and after my separation and divorce. When I think of that place it always brings a feeling of lightness. The heavy burden of my marriage was gone.

The walls, however, were still there. They were just pushed out a little farther away. It was like moving from a straightjacket to a room of unknown size with dense fog obscuring the walls. I didn’t know what my limits were. They felt close, but I didn’t know how close.

Like the Israelites who left mitzrayim, I was b’midbar, in the wilderness, and I didn’t know how to handle my freedom. I remember one evening, early on, pulling to the side of the road on the way home from work. I had to stop because I couldn’t decide what to have for dinner, so I didn’t know whether I should drive home, or to the grocery store, or to a restaurant. I had to decide before I could move.

Deciding was so difficult because, for ten years, deciding on what to have for dinner was about reviewing what we had eaten recently and then trying to guess what my husband wanted to eat. The penalty for guessing wrong was getting yelled at, and being told what was wrong with me.

On my own, when I tried to think of dinner, my mind kept going to what he would want, and I had to keep reminding myself that didn’t matter any more. It was just about what I wanted. That thought pattern was alien to me.

I understand long-term prisoners have the same problem when they get out of jail. When someone else decides everything for you – what you wear, when you wake up in the morning, when you go to sleep, what you eat – it is hard to decide those things for yourself. These decisions seem simple and easy to most people, but it’s hard to train yourself to employ new and different patterns of thinking.

Like the ancient Israelites, I was physically free, but still wandering in the wilderness, trying to make sense of my new circumstances and trying to learn a new way of being.

Finally, last night I drove to the area where I now live. This place feels expansive. It’s not that there are no walls; it’s just that they are both further away and more clear to me. These walls are so far distant that I don’t run into them often, but unlike the hardly-seen walls after my divorce, their presence isn’t a mystery.

In the middle I live in a safe place, with a husband who loves and supports me, and who gives me a solid home base from which I can take the risks necessary to explore the placement, the strength, and the height of the walls.

I’m not convinced it’s possible to live in this world with no walls. We all have limitations. They are physical, or financial, or spiritual, or emotional. The difference is, these walls aren’t stifling. They don’t interfere with my daily life. I know where they are. And I know that if one gets in my way, I can give it a good shove, and it will likely move aside.

I don’t know where the next place will be, or how it will feel. I don’t know what the walls will be like there. But I know it will be where I’m supposed to be. It brings me back to the same Wailin’ Jennys song, with its refrain, “It’s a long and rugged road, and we don’t know where it’s headed, but we know it’s going to get us where we’re going.”

Friday, June 3, 2011

Heart Study Tries to Give Me a Heart Attack

By Susan Esther Barnes

For 25 years or so I’ve been a participant in a study about heart disease called Cardia. I wrote about my most recent exam here.

I was picked for this study randomly – not because there was any reason to believe there is anything wrong with my heart. The idea is to get a bunch of folks in their early 20’s and follow them through their life, taking various measurements over time. Then, as we age and start having heart issues, they can compare their data on us over our life span, and look for correlations between the various measurements and who has heart trouble, to see if they can identify predicting factors and/or identify habits people can change to minimize their risk.

Being in the study has made me feel pretty confident about my cardiovascular system, because test results in the past have shown that I have no calcium built up in my heart, no signs of plaque buildup in the main arteries in my neck, decent cholesterol levels, etc.

I was looking forward to seeing this cycle’s test results in particular because this time they gave us a diabetes test. My father, alav hashalom, struggled with diabetes, so it’s something I think about, and want to avoid. But if I have it, or am heading in that direction, I want to know so I can start taking care of it right away.

The first page of the results, which I just received, showed my echocardiogram results. I assumed this page would just be a quick glance for me. After all, I know already that my heart is in good shape.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read, “The purpose of this letter is to let you know that one or more reported values of your echocardiogram fall in a range that requires clinical follow up for your age group or gender.” (Emphasis in bold in the original). That doesn’t sound good. I was starting to worry.

So I looked down at the chart which shows the various measurements for my heart, compared to the values Cardia considers to be worthy of a person seeking medical advice. Dimensions are fine. Septal thickness is fine. Amount of blood being pumped is fine, etc. So, what’s wrong? Add frustration to my concern. I could feel my blood pressure rising. This can’t be good for my (apparently ailing) heart.

I read the offending sentence aloud to my husband, “The purpose of this letter…” to which he replied, “So, they’re saying one or more of the values is bad but they don’t say which one?” Finally, I noticed one sentence at the bottom of the chart, in small print. It said, “Other: Mitral valve prolapse with mild mitral regurgitation.”

Oh, for goodness sake! I was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse when I was in college, before I ever entered the Cardia study. As I was told at the time, and as confirmed on the Mayo Clinic website, “In most people, mitral valve prolapse isn’t life-threatening and doesn’t require treatment or changes in lifestyle.” I am one of those people. The only symptom I ever have is an occasional irregular heartbeat, but that doesn’t happen often, and it doesn’t hurt. In fact, it kind of tickles.

In other words, there is no reason to worry about these results, or to see my doctor.

So I finally got to turn the page and see that all my other results were normal, including the glucose test. I don’t have diabetes, or pre-diabetes, and my cholesterol levels are good, too. Baruch hashem.

Of course, my CT scan results aren’t in yet, so there’s still an opportunity for Cardia to try to give me another heart attack.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Your Questions Answered - #3

By Susan Esther Barnes

One of the fun things about getting website statistics for my blog is I get to see the search terms people use to get here. A lot of those search terms are questions. You have some great questions, and I think they deserve an answer. In February and April I answered some of your questions. Below are answers to some of the questions you have asked since then:

Can Jews Eat Pork Before Their Bat Mitzvah?
Jews are not supposed to eat pork, ever. I think this question alludes to the fact that when a person becomes a bat mitzvah (for a girl, or bar mitzvah for a boy), the purpose of the ceremony is to welcome that person as, literally, a “daughter (or son) of the commandments.” The community recognizes that this person has reached a point, by virtue of their age and, we hope, their education and wisdom, so that they are now responsible for following the commandments.

This does not mean they shouldn’t follow the commandments before then. It is just that, before the age of bat or bar mitzvah, they are children, and as such they can’t be held liable for their own actions. Of course, their parents or guardians are still responsible for them, and ought to be teaching them to follow the commandments all along, starting with the ones children are capable of doing, such as not eating pork.

Do I have to be Jewish to follow the Torah?
No, you don’t have to be Jewish to follow the Torah. Anyone can read the Torah, study it, read related texts, and follow the commandments. If you are not Jewish, whether or not you follow the Torah is voluntary. If you are Jewish, then you are commanded by God to follow the laws of the Torah.

Do Jews kiss after getting married?
Yes, Jews kiss after getting married, and do all the other things that married people do, including the things that can lead to having babies. Otherwise, the world would have run out of Jews a long time ago.

What’s the point of halacha?
The Torah contains 613 commandments that we are supposed to follow. Of course, we can’t follow about half of them, for reasons mostly having to do with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, but that still leaves us with a few hundred commandments to follow.

Over time, various questions arose over what some of the commandments mean. For example, on Shabbat we’re supposed to rest, and not do work. But what constitutes work? Is it only something I get paid to do, or does it include volunteer work? Does it include folding the laundry, or carrying a book next door to my neighbor’s house?

In addition, the rabbis worried that if people only tried to follow the commandments in the Torah as written, they might break a commandment by mistake. For instance, if you are supposed to rest on Shabbat, and Shabbat begins at a certain time, you can work up to a fraction of a second before that time. But what if you lose track of time and go over? Or you miscalculate? Or your watch is wrong?

For this reason, the rabbis decided to do what we call “building a fence” around the Torah, adding rules to make sure we don’t come close to breaking a Torah law. If you’re told to light Shabbat candles 18 minutes before Shabbat actually starts, it’s pretty safe that you won’t lose track of time so long or miscalculate the time so badly that you’ll actually end up doing it after Shabbat has started.

Halacha is the system of laws the Jews established in order to take care of both of the issues above: To give guidance about what the various laws mean, and to build a fence around those laws to make it unlikely that anyone will break them by mistake.

Of course, halacha was written by fallible men, and there are all sorts of things we could say about how various improvements to halacha are long overdue, but the point of halacha is to help us follow the commandments.

Is soy bacon kosher?
Soy bacon can be kosher, if it contains no pork or other non-kosher substances, and doesn’t contain both meat and dairy. It isn’t the word “bacon” that makes bacon non-kosher; it’s the fact that it is a pork product. So if you make something with kosher ingredients and call it “soy bacon,” or “turkey bacon,” or whatever, it’s still kosher.

The objective of Jewish prayer
The English word “pray,” according to my Webster’s Dictionary, means to “entreat” or "implore,” implying that the objective of prayer is to ask God for stuff. The Hebrew word for prayer, T’fillah, means to judge oneself.

The objective of Jewish prayer, then, is to look inside oneself and to think about how we’re living our lives and what we can do to improve. It’s not that we don’t ever ask God for stuff, it’s just that asking for stuff isn’t the main focus. In fact, on Shabbat we’re not supposed to ask God for stuff; we’re supposed to be content, for that one day a week, with the world exactly as it is.

Keep those questions coming!
I would love to answer more of your questions, so feel free to ask some in the comments section below, or just keep going with those interesting search terms.