Friday, December 16, 2011

I and Thou

My son’s oral history project took him to a local landmark; a druggist turned ice-cream parlor, to interview the current owner. Along with the marble counter and barstools stood a wooden turn-of-the-(last)-century phone booth. Teens had been in the past week and puzzled over this oddity: why would anyone close themselves in a little room to make a phone call?

Even before technology changed our definition of personal, a dramatic shift in mores had begun. Women stopped wearing gloves; post-JFK, men no longer donned hats; soon, more than just arms were bared. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” said prevailing wisdom. It was just a matter of time before TV replaced the psychiatrist’s couch, as people shared the deeply personal with millions of viewers.

Judaism has always had a different ethos. Many of the peak moments of our heroes’ lives occurred away from the public eye, between man and G-d: Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah; Jacob wrestling with the angel; Moses on Mount Sinai; Aaron in the Holy of Holies. No klieg lights, no press or paparazzi, just “I and Thou.”
The same is true of the Jewish marriage. It’s not shame that keeps us quiet on matters of the bedroom, but the understanding that holiness and blessing dwell most harmoniously where there is privacy.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Hands-On, Back-to-the-Earth, Grow-Your-Own!

In the past three years, sales of home-canning supplies have risen 35%; sales of the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving have doubled over the past year. Bee-keeping, cheese-making, and backyard chicken coops are gaining in popularity. What’s behind all this hands-on, back-to-the-earth, grow-your-own? The latest homesteading efforts go far beyond making your own bread or putting up home-made soup instead of canned. While some might chalk it up to the weak economy, I suspect it goes deeper than that, to the very core of what it means to be a human being.

Chassidic teachings peek behind the mechanics of the digestive system to lay bare what’s really at the root of eating. We’re all familiar with the food chain, whereby entities at each level gain nourishment from the elements below; grass absorbs minerals from the earth, cows eat grass; people consume the cow and its milk. This food chain has its spiritual counterpart, too.
Traditional Jewish thought sees all of creation as inhabiting a particular kingdom: mineral, vegetative, or animal; above animal, hovers man. Trapped within each creation at every level are sparks of G-dliness waiting to be elevated back to their source. By preparing our food according to kosher laws, reciting a blessing to receive G-d’s permission to eat, and consuming our food in a mindful manner, we elevate all of these sparks.

Thus, eating kosher powerfully captures our mission on Earth, and G-d’s purpose in Creation: to transform the physical into the spiritual. Whatever we ingest literally becomes part of us, our flesh, our blood, our synapses and nerves. Eating kosher is a supreme service to G-d. So this urge to sink our hands into food preparation at its most elemental levels? Perhaps its a sign of our deepest need, to connect with the G-dly concealed within nature.
“The way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world. Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.” Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Kosher Eating

When I tweeted about the discovery of pork-flavored foie gras, a follower expressed disapproval: “Why would you want to make kosher pork-flavored anything?!”
The porky flavor of the Spanish goose-liver was confirmed by a number of European (non-Jewish) chefs. But…why try it?
“In the future a person will have to give a reckoning for everything he saw and did not eat” (Jerusalem Talmud, Kidushin 2:4).

Does this mean the Torah sanctions gluttony? Far from it! Food is our initial contact with desire and its uses and abuses. Many of us struggle with eating disorders, from bulimia and anorexia to overeating and junk-food addiction. And unlike other addictions, one can’t just go cold turkey on food. The struggle for “KOSHER” eating is always there.

The forbidden is perennially tempting – as King Solomon writes in Proverbs 9:17, “Stolen water is sweet and bread eaten in secret is pleasurable” – and perhaps for that reason, every non-kosher food has a kosher taste-equivalent. Judaism is about sanctification of our physical desires, not denial of them. There’s nothing wrong with the flavor of pork, bacon, or shellfish, so long as we enjoy it in a permitted way.

G-d could easily have created a world where our nourishment came solely through handfuls of vitamins; instead He presented us with a vast array of colors, textures and flavors. Taking control of our lives and our eating, making every bite an opportunity for sanctity, is deeply satisfying.
So… why try kosher pork-flavored foie gras? Why not?!

Friday, November 25, 2011

This Shabbat, the 29th of Cheshvan, is the third yahrtzeit of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivky Holtzberg.  Also murdered in this heinous terrorist attack were guests staying at the Holtzberg’s Chabad House. 
I found these videos and articles about the Holtzbergs moving.  Their example in love for their fellow Jews and  for G-d is very inspiring, and illuminates just how much we lost with their deaths.
May we very soon arrive at the day when G-d will wipe away our tears, with the revelation of the era of eternal peace and brotherhood.  Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

“Do not underestimate the blessing given by a simple person.” Talmud, Megilah 15a

Many years ago, noted author and lecturer Rabbi Nissan Mangel told this story to a group of students:
A childless couple approached their rebbe, hoping for a blessing for a child. To their bitter disappointment, the rebbe told them that their childlessness was a result of a heavenly decree which he was powerless to counteract. Hearing of this, friends of the broken-hearted couple sprang into action. Gathering in secret, the couple’s friends recited the entire book of Psalms and fasted. Within the year, the couple was blessed with a child.

Amongst Rabbi Mangel’s students was a group of women whose friend had been married many years but remained childless. They asked, “Can we do this, too?” Rabbi Mangel didn’t see why not, but suggested that they replace fasting with giving charity above and beyond their normal means. Within the year, their friend, too, was blessed with a child.

One of the women in the group shared their success story with me; I immediately called a third friend. We both knew a number of couples who were facing infertility or secondary infertility. We agreed to follow this model of Psalms recitation and giving charity, settling on Lag b’Omer for our efforts, a day traditionally associated with blessings for children.

We gathered together around the table and divided the Book of Psalms between us. After reciting the Psalms we read aloud the names of the couples — about ten or twelve. Then each of us gave charity to a single worthy cause, in an amount that was a bit challenging. Within the year, every couple except for one had a child.

While none of us at that table were kabbalists or great scholars, there’s a reason our efforts worked. Looking at others with a “good eye,” showing ahavat Yisrael, and sincere prayer, changes lives.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Crown of Shoes

It was the morning after Simchat Torah, and the Jews slumbered on, exhausted from the festive dancing with the Torahs. In Heaven, meanwhile, the angels waited, since they can’t sing hymns and praises to G-d until we do. As time ticked by, the angels decided to do some house-cleaning in Heaven.
As they did so, they found puzzling objects they didn’t recognize. These mystery objects were made of all sorts of material — felt, leather, plastic, even birch-bark and metal. The angels were used to finding mitzvah-objects in Heaven, like tefillin and Shabbat candlesticks, but never…these.

“Let’s ask the Archangel Michael. Maybe he knows.”
They schlepped their bulging sacks over to Michael. Sure enough, he knew all about it.
“Yes, this is my merchandise.” Pulling one out of a bag, he said, “This worn-out loafer belongs to a boy from Kansas who danced hakafot last night; these ripped cowboy boots are from a Texan who celebrated his first Simchat Torah ever…

These frayed tiny mary-janes came from the tiny feet of a little girl who also celebrated her first Simchat Torah. And this wheel is from the wheelchair of guy who never misses a Simchat Torah, and dances his way, rejoicing with the Torah.  They’ve all served their wearers well, and have now made their way to heaven!”
The angels stared. “What are you going to do with all these torn shoes?”
“I’m going to make a crown for G-d.”
“With scuffed and torn shoes?”
“Yep,” Michael boasts. “And it’s going to be even more beautiful than the crown Metat makes out of the Jews’ prayers.”
Adapted from Keter Shem Tov 114, by the Baal Shem Tov

Friday, November 18, 2011

Chevra Kadisha

Today’s post is by guest blogger, Sheindel Shapiro.

We took our places around the steel table upon which the body of Mrs. Berthe Berliner* lay.  I stood by her head. In unison, we said the first prayer: “Master of the universe! Have compassion on Beila, daughter of Moses, this deceased, for she is a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob….” Then we began our holy work.
For a number of years, I was privileged to be a part of the women’s branch of the Chevrah Kadisha, the volunteers who prepare the bodies of the deceased prior to burial in accordance with Jewish tradition.

Implements used during the taharah - purification of the body

You may think it strange to call the handling of a dead body a privilege, possibly because American culture has made death frightening. For many, our frame of reference is horror movies, Halloween, ghosts and goblins; we find death both intriguing and repulsive. Judaism, in contrast, teaches that we have a soul which enlivens the body and that when the soul is gone, the body that remains is still holy and must be treated with respect and loving care.
Ewer used by the Chevrah Kadisha

My experiences with the Chevrah Kadisha are among the deepest and most meaningful of my life. To be physically close to the dead body, to cleanse and to groom it, is to know without a doubt that the body is only a vessel for the soul. To cradle and embrace it, to purify it and send it off on its final journey ennobles you. You return to your husband, your children, your life, filled with appreciation for every breath you are granted.

* A pseudonym

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sanctify to Me All Firstborn Males

"Sanctify to me all firstborn [males] that open the womb of the children of Israel" (Exodus 13:2.)  "And you shall surely redeem the firstborn male (Numbers 18:16.)

Photo by Sheindel Shapiro

The first pidyon haben (ceremony of the redemption of the first born) I ever attended was my son’s. At twenty-two, I had been to the usual complement of Jewish lifecycle events: baby naming, brit milahs, bar and bat mitzvah, some weddings, but never this. In fact, my son’s was the first pidyon haben in the family for at least three generations. Although my husband and I are both firstborns, neither of us had the ceremony, me because I’m female, and he because his mother is the daughter of a Levi. My mother was doubly disqualified, as both a female and a C-section baby; my father was a second-born and grandson of a Kohen. My mother-in-law was not a firstborn and was the daughter of a Levi, and my father-in-law was the second son in his family.
Before the ceremony, we women draped our jewelry over and around the baby.  The mound of jewelry is meant to show the Jewish women’s love for G-d’s commandments and stand in contrast to our refusal to donate our jewelry to the construction of the Golden Calf.
Photo by Sheindel Shapiro

Along with the festive meal, we distributed “party favors” of garlic cloves and sugar cubes for attendees to take home.  Our sages equate eating from the pidyon haben feast with the spiritual benefit of fasting for eighty-four days!  We want to share this huge spiritual power with as many as possible, so we give garlic and sugar, ingredients that last, and can flavor large batches of food. So, if you’re lucky enough to have received one of these, don’t save it as a souvenir; use it!
It was over two decades before I had occasion to attend another pidyon haben. 
If you're looking for pidyon haben coins -- or are a coin collector -- see here and here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

“His Face was Horned from the Conversation of the Lord”

Driving north from Florida, we stopped somewhere in the Carolinas to buy drinks at a convenience store. As we traipsed back to the car, a man approached our family in the parking lot, flipped my ten-year-old son’s kippah up and asked in astonishment, “Wher’ yuh horns?” My astonishment equaled his: that anyone really believed this old canard! A quick Google search reveals that these sorts of interactions are less uncommon than we’d hope.
The Jews-have-horns myth may be confirmed by Michelangelo’s Moses, glaring with ropy beard and throbbing veins, about to rise to dispense justice, but I think that the misimpression left by the mistranslation in the Vulgate was clinched by the observation that Jewish men wear skullcaps – why else, but to hide their horns?

And horns evoke images of lecherous satyrs who prey upon innocent women, goat-like in their pursuit of physical pleasure. This was certainly the image the Nazis painted of Jews. They may have discarded the idea of horns, but the Jew as something not quite human was the basis of all that followed.
"The Poisonous Mushroom," a children's book from the Nazi era

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the 1938 attack against German Jewry that we now recognize as the beginning of the Holocaust, whose horror still casts its long shadows upon us. As we refute these old myths, I hope it will lead to a repudiation of these villainous stereotypes as well, leading us to an era when each man shall dwell ‘neath his vine and fig-tree and none shall be afraid (Michah 4:4).

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Here’s Wishing You Happy Trails

This week’s Torah portion begins with G-d’s call to Abraham, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). The quest – and its modern incarnation, the road trip – is one of the oldest and most beloved storylines in world literature.

The hero jumps onto his trusty steed (or into his rusty car) and rides off into the sunset. While he focuses on his destination, his journey becomes the story – the people he meets, the adventures he encounters, the lessons he learns. But what is it about the quest story that beckons us?

Rashi comments on the above quoted verse, “Go forth – for your benefit and for your good.” A comment from the Midrash sheds light: “What did Abraham resemble? A vial of perfume; sealed and in a corner. But when opened, and carried from place to place, its fragrance wafted about” (Genesis Rabbah 39:2).

The quest is the idea that one travels away to find one’s true self; that at home, surrounded by the familiar, you aren’t aware of your own fragrance, of all the untapped potential that lies within, waiting to be released by the friction of the road, the unstopping of the self, the exuding of one’s true essence.
“The longest journey is the journey inwards” – Dag Hammarskjold.
(Hat tip to Masha Shollar for a great line.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Deliver Us!"

Two years ago, I spent three months on bed rest, a month of that in the high-risk maternity ward. My condition threatened the lives of our baby and myself, although thankfully it was painless. The doctors from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit sketched out survival rates and made it clear that every day brought the baby closer to life.

Away from my family, with many of my familiar and favorite activities contraindicated, my various selves and roles sloughed off, narrowing down to an essential few, most prominently, gestator.
As I waited to reach the magic number of weeks, I internalized a new level of patience, appreciating that I had no choice but to operate on G-d’s time, that simply by progressing another day in the pregnancy, I was “doing” something. I suddenly found myself with lots of time for introspection; I devoted more time and concentration to my prayers, instead of my usual cursory prayers as a working mother of a lively household.

On Hoshana Rabbah (the seventh day of Sukkot, the eve of the festival of Shemini Atzeret, considered the final day of the new year’s divine “judgment”) my husband brought me a bunch of willows. One of the primary observances of Hoshana Rabbah is the recitation of the poetic Hoshanot prayer, followed by the taking of a bundle of willows and striking it against the ground, symbolizing the “tempering of harshness.”

I have to confess that I’d never recited the Hoshanot prayers before, busy as I always was with all the physical holiday preparations. As I read through them, I was struck by their beauty, and saw echoes of my own search for surety. “A heavenly voice is heard by all the inhabitants of the earth – the voice heralds: ‘Israel, His people, tended by Him from the womb, has been newly born as a babe from its mother’s loins.’ The voice heralds: ‘She has travailed and given birth to a people that shines forth as the dawn.’
Today is Hoshana Rabbah; yesterday Gilad Shalit returned home. His gauntness and haunted air pains me, even as I rejoice for his rebirth. I can’t begin to imagine what Gilad endured these past five years, but from the little I’ve read and seen, he has deep internal reserves; he said that he never gave up hope on being returned.
I wonder what Gilad learned about himself during his 1,940 days in captivity. Did he think to himself each evening, “I have survived another day,” or, “One day closer to salvation”? Did he pray? I hope that in the days and months ahead, once Gilad returns to full health, he will share his story. I am sure there is much we can learn from him.
As we all search for surety, for the knowledge of G-d’s embrace and protection, I find comfort in the words of the Hoshanot. “Deliver Your people and bless Your heritage; tend them and exalt them forever… Remove the iron barrier that sunders us from You… Seal our judgment in the Book of Good Life.”

For more about these mystical prayers, see here.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Sukkah Round-Up

Here's a little Sukkot fun to get your holiday rolling. 
  • For those of you flying, have no fear, the TSA knows about the four species and will not stop you from passing "Go." 
  • In spite of Egypt's ban on selling lulavim to Israel, the holiday will continue!
Ancient mosaic floor from synagogue in Tiberias, Israel
  • Hoping to grow your own etrog after Sukkot?  It helps to live in the right clime.
  • Wanted to ask someone to shake lulav and etrog but were unsure?  Click here.
  • Wanted to shake lulav and etrog but were too shy to ask?  Click here!
CT Scan of Etrog

Friday, October 7, 2011

Peace Unto You

“Anyone I ran into on the bus would want to know where I had been, and where I was going, and what I had been doing, and what did I think. What would I say? That I had been in the war? That I had met my own self there?”

Rabbi Haim Sabato’s roman à clef takes us back to the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Childhood friends and study-partners Haim and Dov leave the synagogue services to join their tank battalion. Separated in the chaos of soldiers searching for their gear and divisions, Haim faces battle alone, all the time wondering what happened to his friend.

Sabato captures the confusion and fear that war brings, as well as the comfort that religion and ritual offer. His lyrical writing draws youinside the hearts and minds of young men fighting for their lives and the life of their country, documenting how even those who survive war must mourn a part of themselves that dies, as a new part is born.

Sabato conveys the preciousness of Shabbat observance under grueling conditions, how he searches for hot water to bathe in honor of Shabbat and saves a little of his army rations to make a Shabbat feast. We meet soldiers in pain who turn away from G-d, and those for whom war is the impetus to connect with Him. We struggle with Haim to climb the hills to new understandings about fear, war, and the meaning of life. With spare and beautiful writing that interweaves childhood memories, snatches of songs and chants, and Judaic texts, Sabato crafts a whole world. The author does not try to resolve every question he raises, but leaves us – as does real belief – with powerful questions existing alongside equally powerful connections to G-d and faith.

“Peace unto you.”  “And unto you peace.”  “May there be a good omen and a good Mazal for us and for all Israel.  Amen.”  With these words, Sabato concludes his tale of Yom Kippur 1973.

In some spiritual sense we find ourselves spiraling back thirty-eight years, as the United Nations considers Palestinian attempts to get a land without peace; this time the weapons pointed at Israel includes the world media.  And so my prayer this Yom Kippur is that we all be sealed for a good year, with Israel in the forefront!  Peace unto you.  And unto you peace.  May there be a good omen and a good mazal for us and for all Israel.  Amen.

Rabbi Haim Sabato was born in Cairo and hails from an illustrious Syrian rabbinical family. Following the Suez Crisis of 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled the Jews of Egypt. The Sabatos immigrated to Israel, living in a transit camp that was a melting pot of Jewish ethnicities. Today, Sabato heads the Birkat Moshe Yeshivah in Ma’aleh Adumim, and is the author of four books. Tiyum Kavanot (Adjusting Sights) was translated into English by the gifted author Hillel Halkin, and won the Sapir Prize for Literature and the Yitzchak Sadeh Prize for military literature.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Today is the yahrtzeit (anniversary of passing) of Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, of blessed memory, mother of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It is also the yahrtzeit of my bubbe, Zissel Reichel bas Akiva HaKohen. They both passed away on “Shabbat Shuvah” (the special Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), the 6th of Tishrei, albeit thirty-four years apart.  Four days after Rebbetzin Chana’s passing, on Yom Kippur of the same year, my other grandmother, Perl bas Yehoshua Dovid also returned her soul to G-d. Every year I think about this congruence and wonder what lesson I can learn from it.

Bubbe Zissel was born in a small town in what’s now Ukraine. Although there were no Jewish schools for girls and her parents struggled to feed their family, they scraped together the money to pay a knowledgeable woman to teach their daughters Torah. This treasure stayed with my grandmother her entire life. She’d often quote our Sages: “If you want to eat on Shabbos you have to prepare on erev Shabbos!”  Bubbe looked at every situation with a good eye, even taking the jingle of a popular radio commercial, “Don’t get mad, get glad,” as a slogan for life.  By example, Bubbe taught me to be careful with possessions, with time, and with words. Once, a woman Bubbe hadn’t seen for a year stopped by to say hello.   The last time they’d met, she had been pregnant but now she didn’t have a baby with her -- Bubbe noticed and refrained from commenting. When Bubbe later found out that the baby had not survived, she repeatedly said how happy she was that her silence had spare the woman sorrow and pain.
Bubbe and Zayde at their 60th Wedding Anniversary

My grandmother Perl was born to a religious family in turn-of-the-century Philadelphia. At a time when many American Jews were leaving Judaism, her parents strove to give their children a Jewish upbringing, even if it meant walking 20 blocks in the winter to pray at the Hungarian shul.  Among the few pieces still remaining from my grandmother’s artwork, is a small painting of her family observing Sukkos.  The greenery roof and brick floor frame her parents, sisters, and herself sitting inside (I do wonder about her brothers, who are not shown.)  Although orphaned as a young woman, Perl carried on these lessons from home and made sure to do all that a Jewish woman should.

One of these three girls is my grandmother, Perl

So, what is the connection to Rebbetzin Schneerson?

In spite of my bubbe and grandmother’s religious childhoods, in spite of the sacrifices their parents made, they were not successful, for whatever reasons, in transmitting all this to their children. In the short gap that existed between my great-grandparents and my parents, so much was lost. But the self-sacrifice of my great-grandparents was not. The seeds they planted did grow – just not in their lifetimes.

Instead, it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rebbetzin Chana’s son, who coaxed these seeds to sprout and then blossom. Rebbetzin Chana’s deep devotion to Jews and Judaism flowered in full-force in her son, the Rebbe, who endeavored to gather every precious Jewish child and grandchild and bring them back to their rightful heritage. And in so doing, Rebbetzin Chana became the bubbe of hundreds of thousands, across the world. May her merit continue to protect and inspire us.

Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, of blessed memory

And so, over the next four days I will be observing the yahrtzeits of three of my grandmothers . . .