Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Quote of the Week: Meaning

"There is so much more meaning in reality than my soul can take in!" -Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone

Monday, May 20, 2013

Mourning Online

Over the past few years, almost every time that my grandparents were in the hospital, I found out through Facebook. It was almost a miracle eight months ago that my mom got a hold of me by phone when my grandma died before I saw it online. I was not so lucky last week when I woke up to the news on Facebook that my grandpa had passed away. My immediate reaction was grief, followed swiftly by the angry thought, Who posts this news on Facebook at 5:30 AM? It is terrible to see your grandfather's death mixed in with a George Takei joke and a cat video. My parents would have had to call me in the middle of the night in order to catch me before I saw it on Facebook, not that they could have gotten a hold of me with my phone on silent for the night anyway.

News travels fast these days, but I don't think I'm the only one who still prefers to learn some news the old fashioned way. I think this article, Grief in the Age of Facebook, sums up how we handle death on Facebook very well. Mourning online is new and strange and I'm not sure that I like it. I can see some of the benefits. My grandpa's funeral is tomorrow and I live at least 750 miles away from anyone who knew him. My family members have posted their own eulogies of him online with dozens of sympathetic comments in response. It seems to be a good way to express grief and to be comforted by friends and family near and far. It's like a virtual shiva, without the food.

And yet, I have not participated in these Facebook status memorials, nor have I changed my profile picture to include him. I did when my grandma died, but the sympathy, no matter how sincere, felt hollow to me. Facebook is where I post interesting articles and weekend photos. It's where I "like" a friend's bad puns and argue politics with family. No matter how close a relationship we have in real life, a Facebook comment can't convey the crack in my voice and a "like" is not a hug.

Despite all this, I felt compelled to write this blog post, which is not so different from a Facebook status. Mourning is hard and everyone handles it differently. Eight months ago when my grandma died, I didn't know how to mourn, and I still don't know what I'm doing now. While this virtual world can't replace old fashioned mourning, I will share this story of my grandpa with you anyway in hopes that it will help.

The last time I spoke with him was last month, on what would have been his 57th anniversary. After telling me about how much he missed my grandma, we started talking about the last time we saw each other - at my wedding almost one year ago. It was a nice ceremony, he said.

"How do you like being Jewish?" he asked.

"I love it," I responded. I am very open about my conversion, but none of my extended family members have really asked me about it, so I haven't talked about it much with them.

"You know, the Jews don't believe the Messiah has come yet."

"No, we don't."

"The Catholics think he came already." My grandpa was a devout Catholic and I got nervous that this would turn into a conversation about my eternal soul, but it went in completely the other direction. He said, "But, you know, I think there are plenty of ways to get to heaven or whatever you believe in. I think your grandma is in heaven." My grandma was not a devout Catholic. "As long as you're a good person, you'll get there; it doesn't matter what religion you practice."

I agreed.

Then he asked, "Do you do all the blessings? You know, wash your hands before you eat and bless the wine and bread?"

"Yes! We have a new wash cup that we got in Jerusalem this winter on Birthright."

"See," he said, "I know things about Judaism."

And that's how I spent the last conversation with my grandpa talking about religion, practice, and the afterlife. z"l Grandpa Earl, I love you.

My grandparents at my wedding, June 2012
Photo by David Loeb, Edward Fox Photography 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Shavuot and Ruth

When I was little, I loved the stories from the Old Testament. My favorites were Daniel and Joseph, but I could recount the basic stories of others too. Noah and the flood, Sarah's barren woes, Moses leading people to freedom. But I couldn't tell you anything about Ruth. I learned most of my Biblical knowledge as a child from a book called My Little Bible, which told Bible stories from the Old and New Testaments in 10 sentences or less. The stories were meant to summarize complex Biblical people and events into lessons for toddlers. As you can imagine, summarizing the Bible in language for little kids can be hit or miss, but I think most of the stories did a decent job of getting to the general point. For example, here is the story of Esther:
Brave Queen Esther
Haman hated God's people, the Jews. He tricked King Xerxes into making a law to kill all the Jews. Esther was the queen, and King Xerxes loved her. But Esther was a Jew. She bravely told the king about Haman's trick. The king became angry and had Haman killed. Brave Esther had saved God's people.
Point to Esther's crown.
This story, and most of the others, explains who the main characters are, how they are related, and the motives for their actions. Haman is hateful and somehow connected to the king. Esther is Jewish and brave. Knowing these facts is essential to understanding what happens in the rest of the story. This, on the other hand, is the book's summary of Ruth:
Ruth and Naomi
Ruth married Naomi's son. But the son died. Then Ruth and Naomi moved to a country called Judah. Naomi's cousin Boaz lived there. He had a big wheat field. Boaz let Ruth pick up grain from his field to feed Naomi. Boaz soon married Ruth. And they had a son named Obed. Naomi took care of Obed.Do you know any babies?
I read these nine sentences over and over, but the story just didn't make sense to me. I wanted to know why Ruth lived with her mother-in-law instead of her own family and why they moved to Judah. I didn't understand why Naomi took care of Obed instead of Ruth and Boaz. Besides all that, I couldn't find a point to the story and every other Biblical story I knew seemed to have some kind of lesson. So I gave up on Ruth. I didn't come across her again until years later when I was planning to convert to Judaism and then suddenly Ruth had a point. The story of Ruth is a conversion story.
"For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God." Ruth 1:16
Today is Shavuot, when we read the story of Ruth (the whole story of Ruth), and thus it is a time to talk about Jews by Choice. Over the past week or two, your local Jewish paper likely featured an interview with a convert or an opinion peace about welcoming the "other" into our communities. You will probably also find a story entitled "Shavuot: The Neglected Holiday" or "What is Shavuot?"

Shavuot is a learning holiday. It is an all-night Torah fest. You come together with others to pray, read and discuss texts, eat cheesecake, and then learn some more. These are all things that I love. I also love Shavuot because it allows me to connect to the Jewish people in a way that is often difficult. Much of Jewish life is generational, but Shavuot highlights the idea that there is a Jewish soul within every Jew, whether they were born Jewish or chose Judaism, and that we were all at Sinai. It is also the favorite holiday of many converts to Judaism, because of its connection to Ruth. Since my conversion, I have come to understand and appreciate Ruth in a way that I never would have otherwise. So this Shavuot, I celebrate the Torah and Ruth.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Count the Omer: Days 47, 48 & 49

Day 47: Hod sheb'Malchut, Humility within Kingdom
The closer I get to God and spirituality, the harder it is to find the words to explain what I'm feeling. I think that's why so much of religious thought is expressed through analogies and metaphors. In that spirit, let's talk about stairs.
Around this time last year, I was on Mackinac Island in Michigan, hiking with my husband. Mackinac is a small, beautiful island, with plenty of hiking trails. Near dusk, we came to a winding staircase that disappeared up into the trees. We were tired from hiking all day, but decided to see where that staircase went anyway. We took it one step at a time, wondering where the stairs would lead and what kind of views we would have at the top. With the end in sight, we turned around to see how far we had come and it looked further and more twisted than it had seemed as we climbed.

As I reflect on Counting the Omer this year, I am amazed at how quickly and easily these seven weeks have gone by. It does not seem that long ago that we were celebrating Passover and counting day 1 of the Omer, taking that first step on the staircase toward spiritual improvement and Shavuot. I am humbled today by time and by our nearness to the top.

Day 48: Yesod sheb'Malchut, Foundation/Connection within Kingdom
We talked about the reverse of this combination last week. While malchut sheb'yesod is about the kingdom that you can build with a strong foundation and connections, yesod sheb'malchut falls in a week with the emphasis on kingdom. God was already there long before Abraham and Sarah first started wandering, before we received the Torah, before we created the traditions we hold dear today. The foundations of Judaism and our connections to each other have grown out of our relationship with God.

Day 49: Malchut sheb'Malchut, Kingdom within Kingdom
Well, here we are at the end. I am amazed by the difference that just one week can make. By taking the time each week to think deeply about my connection with God and how I can make better use of each of these seven attributes in my life, I think I have really found a way to be a better person and a better Jew. I'm sure that I will let some of these new-found ideas fall by the wayside in the coming year, but I always have next year to think about the in a new light and make them stick. So here's to continually reaching out to God and hoping that God reaches back.

Omer Recap

  1. Chesed - loving-kindness
  2. Gevurah - strength, power, justice, restraint
  3. Tiferet - beauty, harmony, balance, compassion
  4. Netzach - endurance, ambition
  5. Hod - gratitude, humility, majesty
  6. Yesod - foundation, connection
  7. Malchut - kingdom, leadership

Friday, May 10, 2013

Count the Omer: Day 46

Netzach sheb'Malchut, Endurance/Ambition within Kingdom
In God, I have found enduring love and community. In Judaism, I have found an encouragement to consistently learn and grow. In counting the Omer, I have found a path to self reflection and improvement, which ultimately brings me closer to God. It's a circle, a beautiful circle.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Count the Omer: Day 45

Tiferet sheb'Malchut, Harmony within Leadership
As a leader, how can you create harmony among those around you?

Count the Omer: Day 44

Gevurah sheb'Malchut, Strength within Leadership
Have you ever surprised yourself? Have you ever charged headlong into something, gotten halfway there and thought, "I'm in over my head," only to succeed in the end? Have you ever been thrust into a leadership role you weren't sure you were ready for, but then found a strength you were unaware of until given the opportunity to use it?

Today is about getting a chance. It's about that untapped potential and erasing self-doubt. When you get a chance to do something a little above and beyond what you think you're ready for, you might be surprised by what you can do. So apply for the job with slightly higher qualifications than you think you have. Put your hat in the ring for president when you were planning to run for secretary. And when you get the opportunity, don't second guess yourself. You can rise to the occasion.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Count the Omer: Day 43

Chesed sheb'Malchut, Lovingkindness within Kingdom
We are in the home stretch of counting the Omer, with only one week to go until Shavuot! Naturally, we start the week of malchut - kingdom and leadership - with love. How can you extend your domain, your kingdom, your reach, to include new people? How can you reach out to those who may need a little kindness?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Count the Omer: Day 42

Malchut sheb'Yesod, Kingdom/Leadership within Foundation
Judaism is founded on our relationship with God and the laws of the Torah. Building your home and personal life with these ideals at the core is hard enough, let alone trying to build a nation and being a leader on the international stage. I think Israel does a pretty good job of it, even as they continue to work on finding the right balance between religion and state. I am interested to see how the Chief Rabbinate decision turns out.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Count the Omer: Day 41

Yesod sheb'Yesod, Connection within Connection
Together in the Desert
We are so close to Shavuot. The Israelites and "mixed multitudes" who left Egypt 41 days ago have won a war together against Amalek and begun to create a societal structure by appointing judges to help Moses. In connecting with each other, they bring themselves closer to their spiritual connection to God. In turn, receiving the Torah at Sinai will make them a "people," the people of the Book, God's chosen nation.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Count the Omer: Days 39 & 40

Day 39: Netzach sheb'Yesod, Endurance within Connection

"'Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.' And He added, 'So shall your offspring be.' And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit." Genesis 15:5-6
This promise exemplifies endurance within connection. Through Abraham's connection with God, he gave birth to a nation as numerous as the stars, a nation that has endured the tests of time. Nowhere, however, does God promise that those offspring will remain Jewish. Two years ago, Rabbi Eric Yanoff in the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia, gave a d'var about passing on Judaism.

"Every generation," he said, "fears that it will be the last generation of Judaism." Not through some horrific event, like the Holocaust, but through a failure to connect with the next generation. Every generation fears that they will somehow fail to pass on their Jewish values, to engage the incoming generation in Jewish life in a meaningful and long-lasting way.

We are quickly approaching Shavout, a holiday that is all about connection. Shavuot celebrates the receiving of the Torah at Sinai, the establishment of a lasting relationship between God and the Jewish people. Each year, as we celebrate by eating cheesecake and staying up all night to learn and study, we create that connection with God all over again.

Day 40: Hod sheb'Yesod, Majesty within Connection
The Torah is a guide for our lives. It details relationships between individuals, between tribes, and between Israel and God. In just ten days we will celebrate the day that God gave us the Torah, thus providing us with a manual for how to connect with God and with others, and how to incorporate Judaism into our daily lives.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Count the Omer: Days 37 & 38

Day 37: Gevurah sheb'Yesod, Power within Connection
Attaining power and influence is all about who you know and who you can connect with. Day 37 of the Omer should be a day to think about how you can improve your networking skills. Check out these tips to get you started!

Day 38: Tiferet sheb'Yesod, Harmony within Connection
There has been a lot in the news lately about combating stereotypes.

Two weeks ago the music world was a-buzz about "Accidental Racist" by Brad Paisley and LL Cool J. There are a lot of problems with this song and I will quote a few of the worst parts, but I don't want to dwell on it here.

  • "I hope you understand when I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I'm a Skynyrd fan." Paisley's opening line, referring to the Confederate flag t-shirts you see throughout the South. Using the Confederate flag is not ok, even if it is supposed to symbolize something else. The fact is that it will forever be associated with slavery, oppression, and the deadliest war in American history. If it represented "Southern pride" before that or musical taste after that, it is completely overwritten by the Civil War. Besides that, plenty of people still use it today for racist reasons, so it is still a terrible symbol. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people try to defend this flag. 
  • Pretty much everything LL Cool J says in this song is terrible. 
  • "RIP Robert E. Lee, but I've gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me." LL Cool J's last line of the song. Seriously? You don't have to justify loving Abe Lincoln and you certainly don't have to mourn Robert E. Lee. 
But really, what did you expect from a guy whose biggest hit two summers ago was "Water," a four and a half minute song about how great water is? All that said, I am a Paisley fan and in the hundreds of interviews Paisley and LL Cool J have done since the song hit the fan, they have stressed that all they meant to do was start a conversation.

In other news, the German Jewish Museum has an exhibit dubbed "Jew in a Box," part of an exhibit called "The Whole Truth." This part of the exhibit is just a Jewish person sitting on a stool answering your questions about Judaism.

Both of these things are controversial, but in the spirit of conversation-making, let's have a conversation about racism and stereotypes. We're all guilty of stereotyping others and I think/hope that most of us would agree that that is bad. "Accidental Racist" and the "Jew in a Box" exhibit are attempting (though their success is debatable) to connect two cultures that have had their issues and that continue to be ignorant of each other. The message? The hope? The goal? To create understanding and eventually harmony by connecting people and breaking down stereotypes.

"Water" by Brad Paisley