Happy Yahrtzeit to You!

When the (Secular) New Year rolls around, two people in my house begin to get very excited, namely, Aviyah and Matan. Both of them have birthdays close to the beginning of the new year. We probably, as we have for most years of the lives of our children, have some kind of fun-centered celebration with them and a few friends (playing games, doing an art-and crafts activity, etc.), and then conclude with a most peculiar ritual. Inevitably, we will seat everyone around a table, dim the lights, and then bring out a cake covered in fiery candles (one candle per year and one to grow on), and then place the cake in front of the birthday child. After singing a well-known song (which is owned by the estate of Michael Jackson), we ask the child to make a wish and to blow out the candles, all in one breath, hopefully without adding any of their bodily fluids to said cake.

I am sure that this ritual rings very familiar to almost every reading this. The question that the kids ask (not every year, but some years) is: Why is there not a Jewish celebration of a person’s birthday? We do people say kaddish on the anniversary of a person’s death and not on their birthday? (Ok, that second question is not from the kids, but is a good question anyway.)

The only birthday mentioned in the Torah, where the phrase “Yom Huledet” appears once and one time only, is for the birthday of Pharaoh (Joseph’s Pharaoh to be precise). It is on this birthday “celebration” that Pharaoh releases his cup-bearer from prison, restoring him back to his former position, and executes the baker, restoring him into a considerably less life-life state. In this case, the birthday celebration becomes an opportunity for a king to exercise his power to mete out life and death. It may then not come as a surprise to us that the Rabbis generally thought of a birthday celebration as a non-Jewish custom, and thus did not think highly of celebrating the day of one’s birth. To further explain why, let me share a rabbinic parable.

There is a newly built ship about to set sail on a long voyage, and there are people gathered at the docks celebrating the ship’s launch. As the ship slowly leaves the shore, all the builders and family members of the crew are celebrating. However, amidst the celebration, there is one person who stands there not partaking in the celebration. After the celebration has died down a bit, someone notices the man just standing there, and asks him why he is not joining in the celebration. After all, is the building of such a fine ship and the start of a long voyage not a cause for celebration? The man replies, “Actually no. The beginning of a sea voyage is certainly a moment of note, but who knows what may happen along the way? The seas can be calm, but also stormy. A port can bring adventure, but also danger. I will save my celebration for when the ship returns to port after the journey has come to an end.”

This is why the Jewish people celebrate the life of friends and loved ones on the yahrtzeit/anniversary of their deaths, on the day when the journey has come to an end, and we can look back on the entire voyage, both the moments of joy and moments of challenge and sorrow. That said, most American Jews today, myself included, celebrate their birthdays in some way. During our weekly Shabbat Torah Service, we often hear people sharing during the good news of a milestone birthday of a relative or for themselves. But the date that we use to remember the entire life is the final day of their life, because that is the date that reveals the full journey of a person’s life.

This was not begun a piece to give another rationale why it is important to attend services at a synagogue. That said, coming to a service (be it Friday night, Saturday morning, or weekday) to remember the life of a friend or loved one in the company of a congregation is a fitting way to honor that person’s life and the impact that it had on us.

At every service we have, at least one person, if not a dozen, stands up to say kaddish for someone. We do this, not out of a morbid holding on to the past, but because we stand up to affirm the good that has come from that person’s life, from the way that their life impacted up, and how their life moved the world a little bit from the way it was to that way that it ought to be.

At the end of this month, my family will be celebrating one more complete trip around the sun for both Aviyah and Matan, but we all know that, God willing, their journeys are far from over.

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Oh Grocery Stores, Call Us Sometime to Talk About Jewish Food Culture

Food is a really important part of Jewish culture and religion. I mean, really important. Grocery stores, our main source of food, are place that we look to for filling our carts and tables with the traditional foods that help us mark Jewish time, and create festive meals. This might put a burden on some grocery stores that they are unequipped to handle. I don’t just want to complain (I will a little). I also want to propose a solution, which I will (a little).

The other night I was in a local chain grocery store, and what did I see as I walked in but a very neat and full food display for Hanukkah! Now, we do live in the part of Syracuse that has a large concentration of Jewish people, and three of the four synagogues in town are within a mile (if not across the street) from this particular location, so I was not surprised to see a food display. What did surprise me for a moment was what they had on the display. I know that most people know that Hanukkah is associated with latkes (potato pancakes for everyone else), topped with applesauce and sour cream. (Please do not start the Applesauce/Sour Cream debate. That is for another post.) So I was not surprised to see packages of latke mix and jars of apple sauce on the shelves. But also was able to imagine that just those two items might not have filled enough shelf space to make for an impressive display. They also had out the standard boxes of hanukkah candles, and some boxes and bags of gelt (chocolate coins, which is also another interesting topic). But that was also not enough. I imagine some very thoughtful and creative minds getting together to ask themselves: What else should we put on the shelves? What else do Jews eat on their holidays? What foods come to mind?

There is probably not a unit of time small enough to measure the gap between the question and the classic response: matzah. Oh yes! Nothing screams Jewish holiday food quite like matzah. After all, who else in the world eats matzah? (Answer: everyone, it is just a big water cracker. Ok, not “just,” but a really detailed water cracker.) Then they must have gone into the back to pull out anything that had the same company label on it: Manischewitz. They just put out everything that even looked remotely Jewish on to that display. And it looked like they were trying so hard to be awesome and thoughtful and creative.

Don’t get me wrong: I felt seen and appreciated. I just wish that they had said: Hey, I have an idea. There is a synagogue across the street (and there is). Let’s call them and ask them for some advice about what we should put out for Hanukkah. Maybe the Jewish people have some ideas about what they are looking for when they go shopping for food for Hanukkah. That would have been such a simple idea. We could have helped them pull of the shelves other items that might not have occurred to them, and for items that they might have been able to order that they would never have thought of: oils, olive oil, different vegetables for making contemporary versions of latkes, donuts, donut holes. I don’t know. We would have had some ideas. First and foremost: Take down the matzah. It’s just not the right season.

This remind me of the time in Louisville, KY, when I found a floor display for Passover at a local chain store there (God bless them), and there must have been an empty shelf or two. So they went looking for some more Jewish food. And do you know what totally awesome thing they found? He-brew! That’s right. Beer. A beverage that is made from a mixture of grain and water, which would be the one thing on Passover that we avoid like the plague. But they put it there, and it looked nice, if not completely ironic. The got the irony points, and again, should have called someone from the Jewish community to ask a few simple questions, like: Is beer a Passover food? What are some other Passover foods we might put on such a display? Simple questions that would have gone a long way to create a feeling of understanding in the grocery store.

Before Purim this year (or next year if we are looking at the secular date), I will give them a call and make some gentle suggestions. Might be worth picking up the phone.

Vayishlach: Jacob, Dinah and Vulnerability

Like father, like daughter. In last week’s Torah portion, Jacob “goes out.” He goes out from all that is familiar to him, to the larger world, to his family’s native land, to his mother’s household.

When he leaves home, he feels vulnerable. He has nothing but the shirt on his back. When he camps for the night, he uses rocks on the ground as his bed and pillow. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he feels truly vulnerable. Anything could happen to him out in the larger world beyond the familiar comfort of the tents of home. Out in the world is where Esav, his opposite-in-all-respects twin, felt at home, out on the hunt, out on the trail, with the smell of the field on his clothes. But not Jacob.

But still, Jacob is a man. Jacob may have felt vulnerable, and he was to an extent, but when a man leaves his home on his own and goes out in to the larger world, there is no overarching sense of anxiety, no feeling of foreboding, of looming danger. We often portray this kind of man as being on an adventure, as a pioneer, as brave and true.

Alas, this is not the case for a young woman who does the same. After Jacob returns back to the land, after a twenty-one years absence, his one and only daughter does just what her father did. She “goes out.”

Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, goes out from all that is familiar, from her tents, from her father and mother’s presence, from her brothers, from home. We know that Jacob was going out from a murderous and angry brother and going towards the possibility of finding a wife and starting a family. What is Dinah going out towards and what is she going out from?

Perhaps she is going out from a home life dominated by men, by boys, where women play an important but minor role by sheer force of numbers. Perhaps she is looking for a peer, a friend who understands the life of a teenage girl. Perhaps she is going out just for the sake of going out, to find something new, something different, something that she has never seen before, a city with all the trappings that come with urban life. She has lived her entire life in the tent or in the fields with sheep. This might be her first time in the “Big City.”

Whether she knows it or not, when she goes out into the world, even for all the right reasons, she is vulnerable. But she does not feel vulnerable. Unlike her father, this does feel like an adventure, like a woman blazing a new trail for herself. But, society sees her a vulnerable. In an ironic inversion of Jacob’s going out, where he felt vulnerable, but was not as much as he thought, she is far more vulnerable than she realizes.

To be a young women unaccompanied by either her father, a brother or a trusted servant (think back to Rebecca and Abraham’s servant) is to risk being taken advantage of by men, who may or may not have her best intentions at heart.

What meaning can this story have for us? When do we leave the comfortable, the familiar, and go out into the unknown? What are the factors in our decision to either stay at home or to venture out into the larger world? When is it worth being vulnerable? What makes us vulnerable? Is it an internal vulnerability, like with Jacob, or an external vulnerability, like Dinah?

May this Shabbat be one where we reflect on the times when we made ourselves vulnerable, and one where we consider when in our past we might have been over-confident and where we could be been more confident. May our going out of the week, out from the familiar and into Shabbat, be one of blessing.

When Ten Is Not Enough

This past Sunday morning, I was counting people as they entered the sanctuary. 4. 5. 6. 7. OK, since it was now 9 a.m. and we had seven people in the room, that was enough to begin our regular Sunday morning service. People often roll in a bit late on Sunday. No worries. Even if I had to skip a couple of parts to the service as we anticipate ten people arriving, that’s ok. As long as we get ten by the Amidah, we don’t skip much, and we will be able to include Mourner’s Kaddish, which is for some people the reason why they come. But, this is the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Many people are saying final farewells to out-of-town family this morning, and I have an inkling that we will be hard pressed to make ten.

We begin. Morning blessings. 8. 9. Verses of song. And then the tenth person comes in the room. Oy. Ellen has been working on her conversion to Judaism for almost two years now, and is taking a long time because of her commitments to school and career. I am the second rabbi she has been working with. My advice to her was to do what she can for now, get as involved as she can, and when she is able to and wants to make more time for the study and engagement I am asking of her, we can move the process forward. I don’t see her too often. She came to tashlich during the High Holidays, I met her Jewish boyfriend, and she has come to an event here and there. During one of our conversations, I asked her about her anxieties about the conversion process. One of them was the fear of doing something wrong and not having any idea that she was. This is a completely reasonable fear, one that many native-born Jews have as well.

What enters my mind at this moment as Ellen walks in the room is that despite the face that we have ten people, we don’t have a minyan. For those of you who do not know, a minyan is a group of ten or more people over the age of 12 (for women) or 13 (for men). In Orthodox or non-egalitarian communities, this is limited to men. And when I say “people,” I mean Jews, either by birth or by choice. So even though we have ten people in the room, we do not constitute a minyan.

However, since Ellen is only marginally known at best to most members of the community, no one in the room knows that she is not (yet) Jewish, except for me. There really is no decision to make here. I know what to do. It is only the presence of ten members of the community (yes, that means Jews) that enables us to do a full service, to publicly as a community praise the Creator of the Universe, the Holy Bountiful One with particular prayers. I omit a hatzi kaddish, a bridge between sections. We skip Barkhu, which is the formal calling of the community to begin praying together. We do a private Amidah, rather than an expanded public one where we see ourselves as beings integrations of both human and divine. We skip Full Kaddish, which asks for our (public and private) prayers to be received. In the end, we skip the Mourner’s Kaddish. And all of this is increasingly a curiosity to the people in the room. They have no idea why we are doing this abridged service. I did have options. I could have paused and said to the room, “Hey, I know that it looks like we are a minyan, but really we are not because of Ellen, who has not yet completed her conversion.” I can’t do that; it would mortify her.  I decide to carry on with the service, and to pray for one more person to enter the room. Just one more Jew. I could make a call or text someone. Since I am the one leading the service, I don’t feel at liberty to make a phone call or even to text someone to get to the shul ASAP. The pause would have singled her out all the same. So I decided to trust that the people who have gathered there this morning know that I can count to ten, and that I know the people in the room.

Still, I ask myself, “Why not do a full service? Even though she has not completed her conversion, Ellen has clearly expressed the desire to cast her lot with the Jewish people. I have personally witnessed her sincerity and dedication. Here she is on a Sunday morning, coming when she can, doing what she can do, to become more involved and more engaged. Why should I not count her in the minyan?”

“Good question,” I reply. Then I answer myself, “Because there is halachah, Jewish tradition, which I understand to be a concretization of our core values and theology. Whereas I value every human being as being made in the Image of God, no matter who they are, I also understand that the Jewish people have a unique commitment to each other and to bringing the world a little closer to the ideal, bit by bit, day by day. Becoming part of that covenant is a powerful statement about one’s role in the world, and we have a process for bringing people into the covenant. In fact, some people in the room have undergone the conversion process themselves. In the room, is Jeanine, who underwent that process years before, and is now one of our most beloved members and teachers in the congregation, and in the room is Jack, who underwent that process with me a few years back, and now comes to Sunday morning minyan every Sunday, and in the room is Tim, whose wife Lisa is going through that process with me right now. To include Ellen in the minyan would not only violate the process of conversion, but would also trample on the years of study and action that these other people have undertaken. This is an easy question to answer, but the fallout is hard to grapple with.”

As we move through the mysteriously shortened service, I wonder: Why does the presence of a non-Jew, also a being created in God’s Image, not make it possible to fully praise the Master of All Worlds? Are they less than us? Are they so Other that people are being denied a full Sunday morning service? So Other that people are denied the opportunity to say Mourner’s Kaddish in memory of a deceased loved one? I know in my hear that they are not less than, but that they are different, and that different is not a bad thing. Drawing distinctions is one of the core practices in Jewish life.

I am praying for that eleventh Jewish person to walk in to the room. But it’s Thanksgiving morning. There is no religious school in session to grab a teaching assistant from. There is no one in the office to call down to help make a minyan. There are just the ten of us praying together in the sanctuary.

We end the service, and I am sure that there are questions. I pray that people just trust that I know how to count to ten and that I know how to count a minyan, which are not always the same thing. Then someone asks, “Why did we do a shorter service? Why did we not say Mourner’s Kaddish?” I wish that the person had asked me the question quietly on the side, but now there is no avoiding the issue. I gently answer that this morning, we had nine Jews in the room, and Ellen who is not yet Jewish. I almost don’t use her name, but it would have been obvious who I am talking about, even without the name. I see Ellen’s eyes look up at me. How is she feeling in that moment, that moment when it becomes clear that they thought that you were Jewish, and now realize that you are the person in the room who was different, not enough, who was less than, who was not one of us, and kept us from fully praising God’s name. Ellen made a beeline for the exit in what I read was embarrassment (and I am likely wrong on this, but not sure), and I would not blame her one bit if that were the case.

I have been sitting with this tension since that moment Ellen left the room. How do we balance the particular and the universal? We are all made in God’s Image, every human being, no matter what race, religion, creed, gender, sexual orientation, no matter what. Yet, Jewish particularity is important to me, in that actively living as a member of a covenant is one of the most important facets of my life. Ellen is in between. Not them and yet at the same time not yet one of us. For a variety of reasons, I know how hard it can be to live in shades of gray, and not have the comfort of absolutes.

I emailed Ellen to reach out to her, to discuss her experience of Sunday morning, whatever it may have been. I hope that we can use the experience to depend her appreciation for the covenant that she is in the process of embracing.

May it be God’s will.