Monthly Archives: September 2009

The new year cometh

by Chaviva Edwards (Storrs, CT)

Tomorrow at sundown begins Rosh HaShanah, one of four Jewish new years, also THE Jewish New Year by practical terms.  We feat this weekend and then, on Oct 1-2, we consider the trespasses of the past year; how we turned our backs in the field to a G-d so presently standing before us with openness.

I want to share a bit from my “A little joy a little oy” desk calendar. Every now and again it has something fruitful and funny. I always put my calendar a day ahead so I don’t get behind or confused when editing for tomorrow’s paper. In reality, I work a day ahead. But I was poking far ahead to see what the calendar had to offer, because I won’t be here this weekend because of the holiday. For Sept. 23, the calendar quotes Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels in his 2000 Rosh HaShanah sermon.

“… it’s time to put your hand in the hand of someone you love … and recognize that we only have a very short opportunity to be the humans upon the sand and not the pebbles. … It’s time to recognize that the real value of our lives is … experiencing the … seemingly insignificant things. It’s time to recognize that things don’t need to be the slickest … to be great … and appreciated. It’s time to repent but not wallow in repentance. … It’s time to take a stand for … what we believe. … It’s time to realize that we are as small and as very large as the pebble upon the sand, no matter how we count the years. Amen.”

I think it’s incredibly well written and speaks to the essence of the High Holy Days. I look back on the month of Elul at this point and think about a rebirth and renewal I wasn’t expecting. I’ve met someone who makes me feel alive and happy — someone who speaks to my heart without wanting to change me (Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li). As the new year approaches, I’m thinking about how life has handed me something precious, something to be truly thankful for as the new year approaches. Yom Kippur will give me a chance to consider the past year and some of the horrible, insane things that went on and that made me turn my eyes downward and away, into the dirt at my feet instead of the figure in the field. It’s funny how long and changing a year is and yet how we can catalogue its events like a shopping list. I intend to mark things off of the list and leave it in the dirt near my feet as I walk away from 5766 and into 5767.

In this week’s parshah, Moses sings to Am Yisrael, saying “Remember the days of old / Consider the years of many generations / Ask your father, and he will recount it to you / Your elders, and they will tell you” how G-d “found them in a desert land.” Moses tells them how G-d made them a people, chose them as His own and gave them a bountiful land. So I remember and give thanks for my people, past and present, not to mention the future of the Jewish nation.

Also something to consider: Ramadan begins on the second day of Rosh HaShanah. Two religions and nations in strife must share a day that happens to be holy in both spheres. I only hope that, with this in mind, perhaps the Middle East will sit still for a day, relishing in the gifts they’ve been given — the Jews for their Torah and Israel and the breath of life and the Muslims for the giving of the Koran to Muhammad. Neither religion or nation is blemish free. I’m not going to argue politics or history, for both peoples have committed crimes and acts that G-d would sooner mark us off than have to watch. But let us hope, and pray, that on Sept. 24 both groups — and all of those who live near — can calm their minds and hands to reach not for triggers but apples and honey.

Chaviva Edwards, currently residing in Storrs, Connecticut, is in her second year of the master’s program in Judaic studies at the University of Connecticut. In her past life, Chaviva was a copy editor for such publications as The Denver Post, The Daily Nebraskan, and The Washington Post. Alongside her master’s work, she is rekindling her insatiable desire to edit through special projects involving Judaism and Jewish topics. She is an avid photographer, devotee of her many blogs, and a Web 2.0 connoisseur.

This piece first appeared on Chaviva’s blog, Just Call Me Chaviva, www.kvetchingeditor.com , in September, 2006. It’s reprinted here with permission of the author.

You can find more of her work at www.kvetchingeditor.com, chaviva.yelp.com, www.twitter.com/kvetchingeditor, and
flickr.com/photos/kvetchingeditor

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On My Way To Hell

by Rami Shapiro (Murfreesboro, TN)

The man sitting next to me on a United Airlines flight to Denver was on a mission from God. A bumper sticker stuck to the side of his brief case said so. As we settled into our seats the flight attendant came on the overly loud loud speaker to remind us that, “If Denver is not your destination, now would be a good time to get off the aircraft.”

“I guess I should get off the plane then,” my neighbor said, making no move to do so.

I knew what was coming. Two years ago I attended a seminar on the art of evangelizing sponsored by a local Baptist church. There were about 25 people enrolled in the class, and the gist of what we learned was how to find openings in otherwise banal conversations that would allow us to shift the conversation toward the topic of salvation through Jesus Christ. Curious as to whether or not the man had heard the opening and was about to finesse it into a proselytizing moment, I said: “You’re not going to Denver, then?”

“Oh, Denver is on my way, but my final destination is heaven.”

There it was! Of course now I had to deal with the opening gambit. So, I smiled, maintained eye contact, and raised my eyebrows in feigned curiosity.

“You know there is only one way to heaven, and that’s through faith in Jesus Christ. Are you saved? Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

So clumsy! He shouldn’t have hit me with a declarative statement like that. He should have engaged me a bit more in actual dialogue. Amateur.

“I wouldn’t presume to say I am saved,” I said. “In fact I suspect that those who are certain of their personal salvation are actually falling victim to the sin of spiritual pride. I leave salvation up to God. But I do agree there is only one way to heaven. I just don’t think faith in Jesus is it.”

Having taken the proselytizing class I knew I was pushing every spiritual hot button my seatmate had. He reached for his Bible and was, no doubt, about to quote from the Gospel According to John. I could feel him girdling his loins that he might defeat me in spiritual combat, but I wasn’t looking for a fight. I laid my hand on his for a moment and said softly, “Jesus says, ‘Be compassionate, even as your Father is compassionate.’ That’s Matthew 3:36, right? Compassion is the way to heaven. To mistake the messenger for the message is like mistaking the menu for the meal. You will never taste the truth of what God’s offers. I don’t want to argue with you about Jesus, I want to walk with you on his path.”

This line from Matthew should be the hallmark of Christian teaching, just as it is the hallmark of Jesus’ message. The reason it isn’t is that you can’t build a religion around it. You don’t need priests, pastors, rabbis, gurus, imams, or any other clergy person to practice loving-kindness. You don’t need churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, altars, or sacrificial cults to practice loving-kindness. All you need is loving-kindness. This is what makes the way of loving-kindness so frightening to so many religious people.

Religion gives lip service to loving-kindness, but in the end the final arbiter of your fate is not kindness but loyalty to this or that tribe, denomination, ritual, creed, etc. And do not think I am talking only about western religion. The history of every religion is riddled with violence, sexism, jingoism, and xenophobia. No organized religion is free from violence, because violence is intrinsic to the nature of organized religion.

As long as there is a hierarchy to maintain, a power-elite to support, and a populace to control, the propensity for violence— physical, psychological, political— is always going to be present. But none of this pertains to the way of loving-kindness. There is no hierarchy, no privileged elite, no one to keep in line. There is only you and the world you encounter moment to moment. Will you engage this moment with kindness or with cruelty, with love or with fear, with generosity or scarcity, with a joyous heart or an embittered one? This is your choice and no one can make it for you. If you choose kindness, love, generosity, and joy then you will discover in that choice the Kingdom of God, nirvana, this-worldly salvation. If you choose cruelty, fear, scarcity, and bitterness then you will discover in that choice the hellish states of which so many religions speak. These are not ontological realities tucked away somewhere in space, these are psychological realities playing out in your own mind. Heaven and hell are both inside of you. It is your choice that determines just where you will reside.

“You are going to hell,” my seatmate said flatly after I had shared with him the thoughts I have just shared with you, his voice cracking just enough to let me know this is not the fate he would wish for me.

“I know,” I said just as flatly, “but without loving-kindness we are in hell already.” Then I smiled, powered up my PowerBook, and quickly typed out the conversation you have just read.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award winning author, poet, essayist, and educator whose poems have been anthologized in over a dozen volumes, and whose prayers are used in prayer books around the world.

Rabbi Rami received rabbinical ordination from the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and holds both PHD and DD degrees. A congregational rabbi for 20 years, he is currently Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at Middle Tennessee State University.

In addition to writing books, Rabbi Rami writes a regular column for Spirituality and Health magazine called “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” and blogs at rabbirami.blogspot.com. His most recent book is Recovery, the sacred art (Skylight Paths). He can be reached via his website, rabbirami.com/.

This essay is reprinted with permission of the author. It originally appeared on Toto: Behind the Curtain with Rabbi Rami (http://rabbirami.blogspot.com).

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The Mezuzah

By Gloria Scheiner (Sarasota, FL)

“Ouch! Oh no, not again.”

My son, Adam, got another cut on his finger kissing the mezuzah.

When Adam’s kids were small, he carried the children on his shoulders so they could kiss the mezuzah when they entered the house.

Now they are four and seven years old, and each has a mezuzah within easy reach on the doorpost of his or her room.

What is it about the mezuzah?

It has become a magnificent work of art.

Sometimes I think it’s a symbol for how so many of us live our Jewishness.

We keep it beautiful. We build beautiful buildings. We respect the talent and artistic drive that creates these structures, and we try to identify with the great Jewish writers, Nobel Prize winners and musicians. But it appears we are searching for our Jewish identity by association.

I’ve learned that many people don’t even take the time to insert the prayer.

We need to be careful lest the mezuzah become a mirror of the empty vessel through which we live out our Jewish identity.

Other times, I think maybe the magnificent, empty mezuzah is needed on some level to remind us that we are in process. The message is coming. It just doesn’t come at once.

Each of our grandchildren has a mezuzah. We chose each one carefully for its art and meaningfulness and we paid extra to have the prayer inserted so that the mezuzah would be kosher.

The mezuzah helps remind each of the children who they are and where they came from every time they enter their homes.

I’m not certain they engage in the ritual of kissing the mezuzah like Adam when they enter their homes.

However, when they enter their homes, and when their friends enter their homes, they know it is a Jewish home.

I’m sorry Adam cuts his finger every now and then. But I guess therein can be found the historical message.

No matter how many times he gets hurt, he continues to kiss the mezuzah as he shares his love for his Jewishness with his family.

Gloria Scheiner is a member of “The Pearls,” a group of six women who meet every Monday in Sarasota to write. “We choose a word and write for about ten minutes. If we like it, we are free to expand it, edit it, or just hone in on a particular phrase or idea. What I love most is how one word evokes such a different chord in each of us.“


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Marrying Jewish

by Norri Leder (Houston, TX)

I got married at 33, just two months shy of 34, and, let me tell you, it was cause for celebration.  My sister and I have five first cousins.  Between the seven of us, one cousin and I are the only ones currently married.   Two others were married, but are now divorced, and both of those unions were interfaith.  They married non-Jews.  My grandmother would say to people in her thick Georgia drawl, “If you have five grandchildren, you’re lucky if two of them are married.”  And I married a nice Jewish boy.  I hit a home run.

My husband Jason and I knew each other as young children.  Photos of us exist from a family friend’s birthday party at a miniature golf venue.  I remember having a crush on him as a kid.  His big brown eyes looked like Speed Racer’s.  But we were never at the same schools, and our families weren’t in close contact.  He reemerged at the same friend’s birthday party – but this time the friend turned 30 instead of 7.   Jason and I noticed each other, finagled an introduction, and the rest moved incredibly smoothly.  He called when he said he would.  Our conversations were long and effortless.  He displayed great sincerity, integrity and smarts.  Dating around for well over a decade had jaded me,   but Jason leaped through every ring of courtship.  After six months or so, I realized, “We’re never breaking up.”  This was it.  I felt peace, and upon our later engagement, elation.

Companionship – to me – always seemed like a huge bonus in life.  Truth be told, I was frequently angst filled over the years worrying about whether I would ever find that “special someone.”  I now shudder to think of the time wasted fretting about this issue, and can only hope my daughters are spared the anxiety.  Ever since I hit late adolescence, I longed for a companion.  I wanted a friend, a partner, a romantic “soulmate.”  And I always wanted that person to be Jewish.  At first, I wanted Jewish because my parents told me it was so important.  Their reasons were manifold.  Judaism was a beautiful, vital part of our lives, and I would want someone to share that with me.  It would profoundly disappoint them, and even hurt them if I married a non-Jew.   My grandparents would be crushed.  Marriage is so much harder when the husband and wife have different religions; matrimony has enough challenges.

Then there was the genuine guilt of marrying outside the faith.  Jewish organizations have commissioned studies that show how intermarriage drains the number of Jews worldwide. The studies include statistics showing overwhelming odds that your children, grandchildren, and certainly great grandchildren will not be Jewish if current intermarriage rates continue.  Rabbis, Jewish professionals, and practically all identified Jews know these numbers, and they expend tremendous energy trying to retain Jewish culture – and yes – Jews.  This issue resonated with me as an identified Jew, a Jew who actually took part in at least some religious traditions and felt connected to her culture.  I didn’t want to diminish a three thousand year old heritage for which my ancestors had endured hardship and persecution.

On a personal note, Judaism was always an integral part of my upbringing.  My sister and I attended very integrated public schools and had friends from a variety of backgrounds, but we always had a family Friday night Shabbat dinner, kept kosher, and observed Jewish holidays.  We had passionate dinner time discussions, many times involving Israel, Bible stories and the merits and drawbacks of religious observance.  We had friends over to share holidays or Shabbat with us.  At Passover time, we were all enlisted in a massive effort to clean the house and switch out our dishes so nothing was “contaminated” by bread.  My sister and I attended Hebrew school three times a week, studied for a year to prepare for our bat mitzvahs, and attended Jewish summer camp.  In our family, Judaism was fun, social, warm and relevant.  Its absence in life – and certainly family – would be palpable.  So, I invested myself in trying to meet a Jewish man.

One way I tried to ensure I would marry Jewish was by only dating Jewish.  Many people I knew hoped to find partners from their same cultural background,  be they Jewish, Indian, Catholic or Latino, to name a few.   But I was particularly disciplined.  I remembered my father saying that if you don’t date a non-Jew, you won’t fall in love with a non-Jew.  This comment generated lots of teenage rebellion in me during middle school and high school.  But as I got older and experienced heartbreak on my own, I knew I didn’t want to endure it more than necessary.  Ever since my college years, when I met a non-Jewish man I was attracted to, I forced myself to let it go.  In some cases, I set him up with close non-Jewish friends, in the hopes that two great people might find happiness where I took a pass.    And I continued to wait for my Mr. Right.

But as my late twenties were starting to take hold, dating was getting older and older.  Oh, the bad dates – how do I recount them all?  The set up with the guy so big he could barely fit in my Honda Civic.  The car actually tilted once he finally got situated.  (I’m too picky, complained my cousin/matchmaker.  In time I wouldn’t see his weight at all.)  The brother of someone who took me out a couple times and said approximately 20 words combined on both dates.  (I’d regret it, said the brother.  He was very successful.)  The overly slick, combed back guys who drove sports cars and wore clothes that screamed of mid-life crisis before mid-life.  And, of course, those I found compelling, but they didn’t feel the same about me.  My mother would always say, “You like them more than they like you, or they like you more than you like them.  When it’s even, you get married.  That’s the way it is.  You only need one.”  Her words were meant to comfort, but the search was starting to take a real toll.

By around age 30, I started to wonder if it was really possible.  Maybe I would never meet anyone at all – forget the Jewish element altogether.  My first cousin, a single man, would panic me even more, telling me that odds were terribly low that I would meet anyone I wanted to spend my life with at all.  “Meeting someone Jewish is even less likely.  Statistically, everything is stacked against you,” he warned.  He may have even pulled out the old, “You have a better chance getting killed in a terrorist attack than meeting a man, much less a Jewish man.”  It felt overwhelming, and depression would take hold at times.  I would call my sister and close friends, chanting what was becoming a mantra:  “Do you think I’m ever going to meet someone?” One of those friends was a non-Jewish buddy from law school.  We were very close, and there had always been a pull between us, but he was one of those I let go.  Suddenly, I began to wonder.  What if I was making a terrible mistake?  Work was nice, friends were great, but I didn’t want to spend my whole life alone.  What if my cousin was right?  What if I was passing up my small statistical chance for happiness?   It haunted me.

And what if I took action?  How would my family react?  Would I feel shame?  Could I sacrifice personal happiness for heritage?  But soon, the questions shifted.  Would I be happy with a non-Jewish partner?  What would I personally be giving up?  How would I pass my traditions and beliefs on to my children?  Would I sing the songs and prayers by myself?  With whom would I carry on the passionate debates about Israel, religious observance and history?  Who would care with me?  Would my children, as the statistics predicted, disappear into the American melting pot?  I ultimately realized that I wanted a Jewish partner.  I needed someone who cared about the meaning.  I needed someone who saw it as a beautiful gift – something worth handing down.  Parents, guilt, and Jewish continuity all took a backseat to this.

As for my law school friend, after much hand-wringing, I decided to take a chance.  I knew I wanted a Jewish partner, so – I thought – perhaps he would consider converting to Judaism.  As a general rule, I can’t say I endorse converting to a religion for the sake of romance.  But we were close friends, and I thought it might work in our case.  Regardless of the outcome, I was terrified of losing the friendship.  And, truthfully, I was also very frightened at the thought of rejection.  I went over to his apartment.  I shakily confessed my feelings, with the caveat that he should not even kiss me unless he could consider building a hut in his backyard once a week each year and hanging fruit from it (in celebration of the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot).    It was a scary moment, because I knew he had feelings for me, but didn’t know if he would be willing to jump this far.  Additionally, I knew that if he reciprocated, my Jewish life would be different and possibly more challenging than I had anticipated for myself.  Ultimately, he opted to date someone else he had been seeing.  And he didn’t bother to share his choice with me until weeks later.  It was very disappointing for me initially, and I was back to ground zero in terms of finding Mr. Right.  Still, the process crystallized the importance of culture and religion to me personally.   This realization is with me to this day.

I met my husband within a year or so of this event, and everything — miraculously —  fell into place.  We have a strong, happy marriage full of humor, affection and joy.  We also share a lovely Jewish connection with each other.  We have beautiful Shabbat dinners with our children and parents each week.  We build our sukkah in the back yard each year and invite friends over to share the fun with us.  Jason and I attend lectures on Jewish topics, debate Israeli politics and belong to a chavurah (a group of Jewish friends that meet regularly) through our synagogue.  Our kids keep kosher and attend a Jewish day school.  It wasn’t easy getting here, but I have to say, it’s truly wonderful.    And what about those years of anxiety spent finding a partner?  What of all those failed attempts, lost opportunities and psychological stretch marks?  The impact runs deep.  Almost a decade into marriage, I still have this recurring dream.   Jason has left me.  Maybe he met someone else.  Maybe he’s just rejected me.  My parents are asking me what I’ll do.  Where will I work?    I’ll have to move out of the house.  And even more pressing, at least in my dream, is how will I meet someone new?  My mind races with the realization that I’m alone again.  I have to start dating, looking, trying all over.  I’ve returned to the same agonizing spot I was in before. Then – I wake up.

The dream makes me appreciate the life I have.  Work is good, friends are great, and I’m not alone.  For me, it’s an incredible feeling, especially because I wasn’t sure I would land here.  I never took it for granted.  As I write this, I realize some might think my dating approach was backward and impractical.  In this enlightened age of diversity, why limit myself?  “Be open to everyone,” they might say. “Give yourself the chance to meet everyone.  Religion is only one aspect of life; it isn’t everything.”   Others might think my insistence on dating Jewish men to be lacking in spontaneity or somehow squelching the natural way we meet people in life.   Some might even consider my approach to be racist.  Did I somehow think my background was part of a special pedigree that had to be preserved?  As for the racism charge, I can decidedly say I feel no superiority to others.  How could I?  My family’s story is one of poverty and oppression, of faith and endurance, just like millions of others in America.  The Jewish people’s story, while unique and compelling in some ways, is no more special than many other ethnic and religious groups’ tales.  As for the natural development of relationships, I obviously chose to let mine progress only with lots of forethought.  I consider it perfectly valid, thoughtful and sensitive to think through expectations for a relationship.  I think I would be naïve if I didn’t recognize that practically any date could turn surprisingly into a romance, and therefore any romantic relationship could develop into a marriage.  As for diversity, some of my most valuable  experiences in life have been in highly integrated schools and through my many friendships with people from different cultural backgrounds. In fact, I would have been completely open to dating and marrying a Jew from Ethiopia, Iran or India.  My question is how do we slide into the melting pot without forgetting who we are?  For me, marrying Jewish – or trying to – was a way to remember who I was, and not melt away.  I’m glad I didn’t.

Norri Katzin Leder lives in Houston, Texas.  A graduate of Brown University and the University of Houston Law School, she worked in management consulting for over six years, and is now a full time mother of two amazing, wonderful, brilliant daughters.  When not packing lunches, she is active in the Houston JCC Jewish Book and Arts Fair and other sundry organizations.  She enjoys writing, and hopes to do more of it in the near future.

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