Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Hanukah and Christmas

Monday, December 12th, 2005

When I was in sixth grade, I got into an argument with a substitute teacher who didn’t believe me when I told him that we didn’t celebrate Christmas.  I was outraged, but more by his stupidity* than because I felt religiously persecuted.   This was New York City, after all, where the public schools close down for the High Holidays.

NaomiChana at Baraita has a really thought-provoking post up about the "December Dilemna" for Jews.  She writes:

"Apparently we American Jews are supposed to spend the month of Kislev engaged in a nonstop angstfest about — well, mostly how we will decorate our homes. Single candles in windows are out; nine-branched candelabras are in; seven-branched candelabras depend heavily on context. Greenery is dubious,* especially triangular shapes, and circles are questionable, but any medium which can reasonably be shaped into a four-sided top is cool. Blue lights are fine; clear lights are fine unless they look too much like the ones the neighbors have strung around their creche scene; multicolored lights are Right Out. Also, lighted reindeer forms are frowned upon; my search for a lighted elephant form (preferably stepping on a lighted Eleazar Maccabee) has so far been in vain, but I like to think that would be OK."

I don’t think the solution to the December dilemna is to stick a huge menorah up next to the Christmas tree in the middle of the park.  When you do that, Hanukah is always going to seem like an afterthought, a sop toward political correctness.  And Hanukah is a third-tier Jewish holiday in any case.  I’d be a lot happier if school districts were less careful to include "I have a little dreidl" in their Christmas Winter concerts, and more careful to give teachers a list of the dates of major Jewish holidays with a letter saying "please don’t schedule major exams or projects for these days."  And, like Tiny Coconut, I’d like to see more floating holidays so non-Christians don’t have to choose between observing their holidays and having a vacation.

NaomiChana goes on to argue:

"You want a real dilemma involving Judaism and American culture? Try "whether or not to run errands on Shabbat."….These dilemmas run up against Jewish fundamentals. What you tell your kids about the white-bearded, red-suited guy in the mall is probably not that kind of dilemma."

Ok, ok, point well taken.  But what do I tell my kids about the white-bearded, red-suited guy in the mall?  D attends a Jewish preschool, so December isn’t all Santa all the time, but he watches enough television that he’s definitely got the concept.  He knows that we don’t celebrate Christmas, but that his paternal grandparents do.  And when we’re with them on December 25, they hang stockings for all of us.  We’re not seeing them this Christmas, having schelpped out to Portland for Thanksgiving.  I’m not quite sure whether D is expecting us to hang stockings without them.  And I don’t know if we should, whether or not he’s expecting it.  (Even without the excuse of non-Jewish grandparents, my family did do Christmas stockings when I was little; I’d guess my parents gave it up when I was 9 or 10.)

* It’s ignorant not to know that not everyone celebrates Christmas, but it’s stupid to persist in that belief when confronted by a real live person telling you that she doesn’t.

A poem for Yom Kippur

Wednesday, October 12th, 2005

How Divine is Forgiving?

by Marge Piercy

It’s a nice concept
but what’s under the sculptured draperies?
We forgive when we don’t really care
because what was done to us brought unexpected
harvest, as I always try to explain
to the peach trees as I prune them hard,
to the cats when I shove pills against
the Gothic vaults of their mouths

We forgive those who betrayed us
years later because memory has rotted
through like something left out in the weather
battered clean then littered dirty
in the rain, chewed by mice and beetles,
frozen and baked and stripped by the wind
til it is unrecognizable, corpse
or broken machine, something long useless.

We forgive those whom their own machinations
have sufficiently tangled, enshrouded,
the fly who bit us to draw blood and who
hangs now a gutted trophy in a spider’s
airy larder; more exactly, the friend
whose habit of lying has immobilized him
at last like a dog trapped in a cocoon
of fishing line and barbed hooks.

We forgive those we firmly love
because anger hurts, a coal that burns
and smolders still scorching the tissues
inside, blistering wherever it touches
so that we bury the hot clinkers in a mound
of caring, suffocate the sparks with promises,
drown them in tears, reconciling.

We forgive mostly not from strength
but through imperfections, for memory
wears transparent as a glass with the pattern
washed off, till we stare past what injured us,
We forgive because we too have done
the same to others easy as a mudslide;
or because anger is a fire that must be fed
and we are too tired to rise and haul a log.

From Available Light

L’shanah tovah

Monday, October 3rd, 2005

L’shanah tovah.

We didn’t get our act together to hire a babysitter for tonight, so our choices for services were either for me to go on my own while T stayed home with the boys, or for us all to go together and see how long the boys would last.  I like the idea of attending services as a family, but N lasted only about 20 minutes.  D lasted longer– over an hour — but that still meant we left in the middle of Avinu Malkeinu. 

My challah was something of a bust.  Someone told me that you could freeze the raw dough and let it defrost in the fridge before baking it, but I think the middle was still frozen when it went into the oven, and it never really cooked.  How long does it need to defrost?

I’ve got an apple and honey cake in the oven.  I don’t know how it will taste, but it smells awfully good.  It’s a bit of an experimental recipe — I started with the plum torte recipe from Marion Burros, but replaced the plums with apples and some of the sugar with honey.

May you be written in the book of life for a good and sweet new year.


Friday, September 30th, 2005

Last week, Phantom Scribbler asked me to post a bit about how I’m keeping shabbat

The short answer is "inconsistently."  But that’s actually a step toward observing it, not away.  In the past, I’ve let perfectionism get in the way — which means that I’ve been least likely to celebrate shabbat those weeks when I’m stressed and overwhelmed, most in need of a step back.

So two weeks ago, we lit candles and said motzi over sliced wheat bread because we hadn’t bought any challah and said p’ree hagafen over apple juice, rather than grape juice.  (I know, it should be p’ree ha-etz, fruit of the tree, not fruit of the vine, but we were pretending it was grape juice.)  And we went to tot shabbat services the next morning.  Last week, D had a sleepover with a friend, and I went out to dinner with my friends, so we didn’t really do anything.  It varies.

I’m actually baking challah this week.  Or rather, I left it to rise in the fridge this morning, and T should have put it in the oven sometime this afternoon.  I know, it sounds very Martha Stewartish, but it’s really not any more of a hassle than making a separate trip to the bakery.  But D loves challah — it will probably be all he eats for dinner tonight — and I love the feel of kneeding dough.

As I said last week, I’m trying to cut back on my computer time.  I should probably just turn it off, and not turn it on until Sunday.  I’m encouraging board games, but not banning television.  I’m willing to drive to services or the library, but trying not to run a million errands.

And tomorrow I’m spending all day in my training class. Oh well.

TBR: Quotidian Mysteries

Tuesday, September 27th, 2005

Today’s book is The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and "Women’s Work," by Kathleen Norris.  It’s a small book, 4" x 7", with only about 90 pages, and is the text of a lecture that Norris gave, the 1998 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality.  Based on the list of previous title in the series, it appears the lectures always focus on women and spirituality.

I requested the book because I read about it (can’t remember where, sorry), and the title intriged me.  And I often feel overwhelmed by the everyday (which is what both "quotidian" and "mundane" mean), so I thought it might be helpful. 

Overall, I can’t say I found the book illuminating.  Norris waxes enthusiastic about the possibility of finding spirituality in the midst of ordinary chaos, and praises "those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demands of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self" but fails to provide any guidance for how to do so. (Except for a nagging suggestion that "young parents juggling child-rearing and making a living" should, "if they are wise,… treasure the rare moments of solitude and silence that come their way, and use them not to escape, to distract themselves with television and the like.")

Norris writes that she knew "since high school, that whatever I was destined for, it was not motherhood."  And she is best known for her book about life as an oblate in a monastery.  I found her cheerleading for the joys of the quotidian a little bit like someone who hikes unencumbered up a mountain while I am carrying a huge pack.  When I trip in the mud and beg for help, she tells me, oh no, my journey will be so much more impressive than hers for having carried the pack.  Perhaps, but I’m not sure I’m going to make it at all. 

Norris is at her best when she shares her enthusiasm for laundry (especially when hung on a line) and daily liturgies, and how she uses them to bring herself out of terrible blue funks (although she uses the archaic word "acedia" instead of admitting to depression.).   And I’m happy to have read the book if only for her discussion of collecting manna as the prototypical daily chore.  (As you may remember, the Torah says that God provided manna each day and the Israelites had to collect it each morning.  There was no point in collecting extra so you wouldn’t have to do it the next day, because except for the double portion provided for Shabbat, it all went bad overnight.)

Gretna, Justice, and God

Friday, September 23rd, 2005

Earlier this week, I turned on the radio and heard this NPR story about the bridge at Gretna.  My husband, who generally avoids the news as much as possible, hadn’t heard about this event before.  When the story was over, he looked at the handful of goldfish crackers that he had picked up, and discovered that he had turned them into goldfish dust from clenching his fists.

Rob at Big Monkey, Helpy Chalk faxed a letter to Mayor Ronnie Harris of Gretna, and Harris called him back.  Rob posted his transcript of their conversation.  It’s quite fascinating.

Rivka at Respectful of Otters suggests that cognitive dissonance leads some people to portray the victims of Katrina as bad people, who got what they deserved.  She writes:

Cognitive dissonance gets particularly ugly when reality collides with the just world hypothesis, the belief that "the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve." Faced with tragedy, victimization, or injustice, just world believers have four options to reduce the cognitive dissonance: they can act quickly to help relieve the victim’s suffering (restoring the justice of the situation), minimize the harm done (making the tragedy a less severe blow to their beliefs), justify the suffering as somehow deserved (redefining the situation as just), or focus on a larger, more encompassing just outcome of the "poor people will receive their rewards in heaven" variety.

When the NPR story on Gretna ended, I said "And when they die, they shall go to the Pearly Gates.  And there will be a bridge to get there…."

Unfortunately, I don’t really believe in a heaven/hell where everyone gets their just deserts.  So I’m left believing that the only justice in the universe is that which we create.  And that’s often a pretty weak justice.

The usually funny WaiterRant got all philosophical in the aftermath of Katrina.  He quoted a pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for his part in an attempt to assassinate Hitler, who said: “God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.”

The Waiter’s take on this was:

"But within Bonhoeffer’s words lies a challenge. Since God doesn’t come down in a blizzard of special effects to bail us out – we have to help each other. We recognize the suffering of others and are moved to relieve it. We can’t coop ourselves up in our apartments, churches, and mosques wishing all the bad things will go away. There’s no room for childish magical thinking. We have to act. The rescuers of 9/11 and the Gulf Coast understood this without all the fancy theological reflection. Bonhoeffer would say when we help each other that is God helping us."

That sounds about right to me.

I’m trying to make Shabbat more a part of my life, and (at least for right now) that involves staying away from the computer.  See you Sunday.


Friday, July 29th, 2005

"Does the Sabbath exist independently from the preparation, from the tradition?  Can you meet your family for a pizza dinner on Friday, relax together for the first time all week, drive home after dark, snuggle up to a video tape, feel happy to be alive, and call it Shabbas?  Can you go to the beach with your family on Saturday, enjoying the creation on a beautiful day, and fulfill the observance?  The rabbis rather firmly say no.  A tired man and woman might prefer yes.

"Here’s a puzzle: If you race home from the office, snap off the cartoons, shake your roast chicken out of a box, and light the candles exactly by sundown; if you bound out of bed next day though you desperately need your sleep, and then head out to services in the rain on foot when driving would be more restful; if you stand and sit in the chapel, your concentration constantly interrupted by children, and then you return home in the rain: this might pass for Shabbas, and the rabbis would probably confer their blessing.

Possibly religion is not appropriate for parents of young children."

– Elizabeth Ehrlich, Miriam’s Kitchen.

Making connections

Wednesday, July 27th, 2005

Tiny Coconut writes today about her tentative steps towards a spiritual practice that is compatible with her intellect and heart and sense of the world.  I posted a link that I thought she might like, and she wrote back asking if I had suggestions for books about progressive Judaism.

I always have suggestions of books, but as I told TC, I’m not sure that’s the right way to go about the quest.  For all the talk of Jews as "people of the book," Judaism really can’t be practiced in isolation — for one thing, many of the key prayers require a minyan, a congregation of 10 adults (traditionally, 10 men), in order to say them.   Orthodox Jews also don’t believe in driving on Shabbat, so they’re forced to live within walking distance of their shul.

More broadly, other than the central idea of monotheism, Judaism doesn’t care so much about what you believe, as what you do.  If you went to a rabbi and said, "Rabbi, I follow the commandments, I go to shul, I keep Shabbat, but I don’t know if I believe in God, can I still be a good Jew?" my sense is that most rabbis wouldn’t hesitate to say you can.

I also thought of something I read over on a blog called How to Save the World.  Dave Pollard writes (at the end of a long discussion of something called social network mapping):

"An application of all this that intrigues me is in assessing how we should (and can) change ourselves…. So do we start by a navel-gazing process that entails some personal, individual decisions and bold actions? Or, if our relationships and networks define us, do we start by first finding or redefining the circles, the communities to which we (and others) belong and then let those new and altered communities redefine and change us? For example, if we want to solve global warming or end world poverty do we first launch into personal study, self-improvement and individual activism, or do we first connect ourselves with those who can teach us and show us what needs to be done, and just get carried along with the collective wisdom of their activities?"

That made a lot of sense to me.  So I suggested to TC that she ask her local friends who are practicing Jews if she can go to shul (synagogue) with them, maybe wangle an invitation to Shabbat lunch.

Looking for a spiritual home

Thursday, June 9th, 2005

Almost two years ago, the shul (synagogue) I had been attending moved across town.

The move made sense for the congregation as a whole, but it meant that attending shabbat services there would be an hour drive each way for me.  Not something that made it feel like a day of rest, especially since I never knew how long the boys would let me stay before melting down.  So I’ve been looking for a new shul ever since.

D attends preschool at the local Reform synagogue, and loves it.  I grew up belonging to a Reform synagogue (and identified myself as a Reform Jew, rather than a Jew), so it would be the natural choice.  Except that after 6+ years of a participatory havurah, Reform services feel too much like sitting in the audience, rather than being part of a congregation.  Plus, they don’t offer any babysitting during services, except for the High Holidays, so I couldn’t really go to services anyway.  They offer a tot shabbat twice a month, but that’s Jewish gymboree, not a spiritual experience for an adult.

There’s another shul that I’ve heard good things about, and looks like they might have child care during services.  I keep meaning to check it out, but haven’t done so yet.  One of the things that’s stopped me is the religious school pages on their website where they warn parents that children who don’t attend class at least 75% of the time (Sunday mornings, 9:30-12:30) may not be promoted to the next grade level. 

So Jody’s post a couple of weeks ago about the low priority that people place on church hit home.  She compared parents complaints about the expectations at church v. sports, and wrote:

"It’s not that parents won’t tolerate strict demands on their kids’ time, it’s just that they don’t think church is important enough to make those demands."

I do think shul is important.  But I know too many kids who never set foot in shul except on the high holidays between when they had their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs and when their own kids started religious school.  I don’t want my sons to resent religion for making it impossible for them to participate in sports, or to ever sleep late.  But I want them to know enough to make educated choices.  I attended religious school regularly as a child, but it was on weekday afternoons, which seems much less burdensome to families.  That doesn’t seem to be an option around here.

I’ve been going intermittently to another havurah, closer to my home.  They offer a low-key tot shabbat service once a month, and babysitting the rest of that morning.  And they don’t mind the boys wandering around the back of the room.  Their religious school is a "one-room schoolhouse" with mixed grades, meeting late Sunday afternoons.  It seems like it might be a good fit for us. 

Belief and practice

Friday, April 8th, 2005

I realized that I never got around to writing about this story I heard on Morning Edition on Monday.  It’s about a series of radio broadcasts from the 50s, hosted by Edward Murrow, of various people, famous and anonymous, talking about their personal values and where they came from.  NPR is reprising the effort, and inviting people to submit their essays.

I particularly liked this passage from Martha Graham:

"I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit."