Monday, December 22, 2014

Spiritual Balm for a Jewish Woman's Soul - Part 1a

Yom sheni, 30 Kislev 5775, Rosh Chodesh, Sixth Day of Chanukah.

My good friend Rivkah and I have had a running discussion over several years regarding a woman's sense of belonging to and being accommodated fairly by the synagogue and by the Jewish prayer book.

Yesterday, Rivkah wrote a passionate and beautiful post about her feelings on the subject, and about her exploration of how she might relate in a positive and healthy way to the situation because, let's face it, this subject can eat out the kishkes of an intelligent, deeply thoughtful woman if it is not resolved. I hope that you will take a moment before going further to read what Rivkah had to say (Spiritual Balm for a Jewish Woman's Soul - Part 1). Don't worry: I'll wait for you. See you in a few moments.

In her post, Rivkah quoted me as saying that I see the shul as sort of a "Moose Lodge" for men, and the siddur as the Moose Lodge manual. I got ready to defend myself against attack -- after all, I have been attacked for saying that men should let their brides run the wedding planning, and for suggesting that men and women with issues in their marriages might want to communicate before baling out -- so I was a bit surprised when no one took me to task. Not unhappy, mind you. Just surprised. It could be that the venue of Rivkah's blog seems to draw only very polite women. But still -- I'm looking forward to a polite group discussion on the subject. Instead of defending myself, I'll offer an elaboration on my point.

Of course, I don't really see the synagogue as a Moose Lodge. I've never been inside a Moose Lodge, and have never actually observed a meeting. But my sense from stories and movies (and from men with whom I spoke, back in my rural America days) is that there are costumes and rituals that are taken very seriously, and these add to the camaraderie and sense of an organized unity among the members. My (hopefully) humorous reference was intended to explain how I see my place (or lack thereof) in synagogue ritual -- in what I hope is a healthy way.

I suspect (without doing the required study) that a hundred or two hundred years ago, women did not necessarily expect to attend synagogue services, except on those occasions when the entire congregation really is expected to participate, as on Yom Kippur. In the olden days, it was considered normal for men to go to pray in a quorum, and for women to run the critical spiritual world of the home. I believe that it is all part of the modern need to be counted as part of the homogeneous community of Jews, equal in all ways to their male counterparts, that has driven women to want an equal place in synagogue life.

Since this is supposition, it's better if I stick with what I know. Like Rivkah, I see that the service and the prayer book are built around men and men's issues. Men are expected to join in communal prayer. In fact, many prayers cannot be said if there is not the minimum of ten men joining together for the service. (Many have been the times I have felt sad that my presence could not help some poor fellow to say Kaddish for a deceased loved one.) Many of the references in the service and in the prayer book are exclusively male. Any reference to females seems like an afterthought.

The difference between my view and Rivkah's is that I am not troubled by this, because I see the synagogue as a men's club. And even if women are successful in making an equal place for themselves in that club, I would be very unhappy if I were suddenly required to take on all of the mitzvot of men related to prayer and communal worship. It's hard enough to persuade my guys to participate! And I have found that my relationship with God is very private, and is easier for me to facilitate outside of the distracting milieu of the clubhouse.

A rabbi friend pointed out to me the importance of Jewish socialization offered by the synagogue. I would agree -- if what he is speaking about is the kiddush afterwards, or the classes during the week. After all, how much socializing are we supposed to be doing in the sanctuary? While the communal davening experience may enhance socialization among men, women's sense of community comes not from shared ritual, but from doing what is forbidden inside the sanctuary: talking with each other, sharing joy and pain and solutions, processing together.

When my sons were growing up, my shul experience consisted of taking them to the shul playground, communing with other mothers, and taking them inside for a few minutes so that they could get a feeling of the sanctuary -- and then spiriting them outside again before they could disrupt the prayer of others. As they developed, the time they spent inside the sanctuary with their father increased. At times, they were even mature enough to entertain themselves -- outside, of course -- so that their hungry-for-Torah-wisdom mother could listen to the rabbi's speech (my favorite part of the Shabbat shul experience). When they were teenangels, my main shul experience was sitting by one of the corner windows (my husband had another) to keep an eye on whether our boys could be seen leaving the shul grounds, and then going after them, if necessary.

Of course, there were moments when I connected in communal prayer. This usually had to do with being enveloped in the harmonic song of my kehilla. For me, there will never be another shul experience like Rabbi Menachem Goldberger's Simchat Torah. Listening to the Rav sing... listening to the kehilla join together in beautiful "on the same sheet of music" communal harmony... watching my boys dancing (in part for my benefit), nothing -- until the Simchat Beit Hashoeva at the Holy Temple (bimhera v'yameinu!) -- will equal that experience. But even then, I heard that women who did not have sons to watch felt disconnected from the experience, and I sympathized with them. Had I been single, had I only or any daughters, my shul needs and experiences might have been different.

Now I send my young men and husband out the door, as I have done daily for many years, with the words, "Daven well. Bring Mashiach." I mean these words. I truly believe that their participation in the communal process keeps them directed and centered. I am slightly sad on those occasions when they opt out. And if I were required to be there, if my presence counted in the quorum, I would force myself to go, because I think it's that important. (Lest you think that I only say this because I don't have the burden, for a lengthy period of time in Baltimore, I got up to attend the 6:30 AM minyan in order to show my sons that it could be done -- and yes, a little mother-guilt can be an effective teaching tool. But because I was usually the only woman in the little ezrat nashim in the upstairs sanctuary -- we didn't use the main sanctuary for the weekday morning prayers -- I was never distracted by chatter during the service. So it was a pleasure to be there.)

Now I send them out the door, as I said, and I have wonderful testosterone-free time to focus on my ongoing conversation with God. I use the prayer book for a certain amount of structure -- how brilliant were our rabbis for lighting on relevant topics! -- and otherwise simply talk with God, as I have done since I rediscovered Him. He is my therapist when I am sad or angry (except when I am angry at Him, and then of course I need to speak with someone else); He is the One to Whom I can pour out not only my troubles, but my immense gratitude; He is the One Whom I expect to eventually repair all of the terrible ills of the world. I cannot imagine managing this conversation in the sanctuary, wherein there is the distracting hubbub of speed Hebrew, children demanding their mothers' attention, chatter among women who appear not to have opportunities to get together at other times.

The rabbis have said that I am naturally connected to God, without the need for all of the rituals men require. Rather than seeing this as patronizing, I choose to believe them.

I truly look forward -- with my dear friend Rivkah -- to that polite discussion on the subject.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Jewish Boy Meets and Falls in Love with Christian Girl. What Next?

Yom rishon, 22 Kislev 5775.

I was intrigued when I first saw the reviews of Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope. Minister of Music in a Texas mega-church meets and falls in love with nice secular Jewish boy from New York. And somehow they are supposed to work all of this out.

But I had about five books going already -- so I put the thought of reading Doublelife on a way, way back burner.

Then a good friend introduced Gayle to me. After one short phone conversation, I had a strong need to read the book right now.

My first impression is that I like these two people very much. Harold Berman and Gayle Redlingshafer Berman each write well. The device of love letters between them, used consistently throughout the book, is a delightful dance (even though I had to rely on my by now entrenched affection for them both to suspend my disbelief when the letters continued even after they were married and living in one house).

Our two characters are warm, intelligent, frighteningly talented. (An aside: my friend introduced Gayle and me in part because we are both musicians. I chuckled as I read about the classical and operatic music in which these two fascinating individuals immersed themselves... and wondered what they will think of Avi and me with our blues-country-old-time-rock-n-roll level of musicality.)

Gayle and Harold decide to marry, but without rose-colored glasses. They speak openly about the differences in their religious upbringings, their concern about child-rearing across the faith divide, their well-reasoned but still naive belief that love can conquer all.

And then the story gets really interesting, as they continue to write openly and lovingly of the difficult realities life throws into their plans. The largest and most threatening of these is Harold's increasing need to come to terms with what being a Jew means, and their mutual discovery that this is no small matter in the context of their happy marriage. The crises come -- as they often do in marriage -- when the couple is faced with a whiplash series of changes in direction neither of them could have anticipated when they carefully crafted their interfaith wedding ceremony and their subsequent life plans.

I won't spoil the story for you by giving you any more information. Suffice it to say that here are two people we should all aspire to emulate, if we want marriage to work. And if you need to feel the roller-coaster of joy and laughter and tears, Doublelife will give you plenty of opportunities for each.

However the story ends, the friendship and respect between these two fine people causes the reader to cheer them on to a happy ending.

In Israel, you can purchase the books at my personal favorite bookstore, M. Pomeranz Bookseller on Be'eri Street in Jerusalem. Drop my name, please. It won't necessarily get you a discount, but it will make Michael and Shira smile.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Chanukah... Hanukkah... Oh, heck. חנוכה TUNES!

Yom chamishi, 19 Kislev 5775.

Well, it's that time of year again. Time to pull out the dreidels and the latke and sufganiot recipes, light up the menorot, and dust off the old favorite tunes.

Here is a new version I like very much, because it's performed so interestingly and so expertly by an a cappella group called Shir Soul.
(h/t Batya Spiegelman Medad)

From the traditional-with-a-twist to the very modern reggae beat of the ever-changing Matisyahu:

And here's an old favorite that I love only partly because Avi and I have had the pleasure of performing with the very talented husband and wife duo, Yoseph and Leah Urso.

Have a wonderful, joyful Chanukah/Hanukkah/Festival of Lights with family and friends. If you have family or friends with whom you've not connected recently, give 'em a call. If you don't have either, go out and make some. This is definitely a time to be with other Jews.

Feel free to add links in the Comments section to your favorite חנוכה tunes!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

There's a girl messing with my little boy's head.

Yom shishi, 21 Cheshvan 5775.

 And she's not quite a week old.

I had this philosopher, this Student of Truth. He's been growing as a new husband, admirably sharing his space and life with a wonderful young woman who is a perfect lifetime match for him. (May we be blessed to know them both and their children, in happiness and health, for long, happy years. And may everyone looking for his or her match find a life partner who is this "just right.")

So back to the little girl.

Suddenly my philosopher is acting very strangely. He tapped on a window yesterday to remind a young mother that she shouldn't be holding her daughter in the front seat without a car seat. In the past, he would have thought it was her business, not his. (To her credit, the young woman moved with her baby to the back seat. I guess she was planning to nurse, as she still didn't use the car seat. But at least she listened to this wise old daddy and moved to a safer place in the car.) I've informed him that -- according to Benji Lovitt -- getting in the middle of another Jew's life makes him automatically 37% more Israeli.

My big, strong son now holds up little candy-striped dresses and says -- with not a drop of sarcasm -- "Awwwww! How cute!" This mode of speech was never in his lexicon... but he's never been a daddy before.

Watching my sons turning into men, as husbands and fathers, has been (so far!) the sweetest part of a very sweet life.  My Mama, a"h -- who had a very not-sweet life -- would see this as a tikkun, a repair, for all the tough stuff she went through. I like to think of her smiling down from Shemayim (side by side with my dear mother-in-law, whom I was not zocha to meet), getting so much pleasure from watching these men with their lovely wives and children.

They are changing, these boys-becoming-men. They understand their parents more, day by day. They think about the cost of food and toilet paper. (Okay, fellow parents. Let's rise above the natural inclination to smirk ever so delicately at this point.) They are becoming very, very helpful when they drop by the parents' house...

In all fairness, I have to admit that their mother has gotten a little odd, too. I'm the lizard-chasing, fence-jumping, puddle-splashing, tree-climbing kind of mom. I'm learning "Girl 101" as if it were a foreign language. Wrapping presents (with tissue paper) matters. Shabbat dresses with Shabbat coats for babies matters. I find myself actually noticing "Hello Kitty" napkins and candy holders when I'm doing my shopping.

There's a lot of change going on in this family. We're growing up, the Dearly Beloved and I. Our kids have done a really good job of raising us -- and now they are passing the baton to the next generation.

May we share all the blessings that come with family.

If you have your own, enjoy the show. If you don't, follow the wisdom of one of my dearest friends, who has made herself as much an aunt to these boys (and a great-aunt to their children!) as possible. She tells me that she gets tons of Yiddishe nachas from them... and I remind her that she earned it.

Welcome to the world, Raquel Nitzan!

Today is the 4th yahrzeit of my friend and fellow blogger RivkA bat Yishaya HaLevi Matitya. May it be that her dear neshama is smiling at every new positive expression of life in the world, and that any good I do today will add to her account in Shemayim.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Forelle mit Baby-Knoblauch

Yom revi'i, 19 Cheshvan 5775.

Simple isn't always best. But most of the time, it is.

You can't make fish with the head still on attractive to everyone. (Sorry, Dearly Beloved.) But a little plating technique might work for those who have never seen a trout they didn't find beautiful. I left the little fellow nestled in his baking paper wrapper, surrounded lovingly by cherry tomatoes and fennel slices. See those cute little roundish things under the layer of bones? Those are baby garlic, which Marc Gottlieb of Culinart Kosher fame taught me to extract from the fresh garlic stalks most people toss out after they chop off the mature garlic head. Such a waste! There is a lot of flavor in those little garlics!

The recipe is nearly unnecessary -- but here it is.

Get your trout from the freezer section at Super Torjman (because it helps out my makolet, and the work of cleaning the trout is already done for you by very competent people).

1 whole trout
5-8 garlic babies
raw sea salt to taste

Wrap fish loosely in parchment paper after tucking into cavity garlic, and sprinkling surface with sea salt. Bake at 250 degrees Centigrade for 10-15 minutes (until it smells delicious, and is no longer translucent). Dress it up however makes you happy. Serve with a crisp glass of Emerald Riesling -- of course! -- and a nice green salad, or fennel slices and ripe red tomatoes.

Guten Appetit!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Elaine and the Soda Fountain

Yom rishon, 9 Cheshvan 5775.

I've been thinking a lot lately about Elaine Porter. My first boss, at the soda fountain in the back of Ephrata Drug. I was 15, so was working "illegally." You were supposed to be 16. She was a big, robust bottle-redhead, must have been in her fifties. Her hands were gnarled from arthritis. My mama said she ate a mayonnaise jar of pain medication -- just plain aspirin -- every week. (I think Mama may have been exaggerating; but she got the point across.) Elaine had the greatest attitude and throw-back-your-head laugh, and could handle any customer. Her famous line: "Ah, ha! Sani-Flush! If that don't work, use a brush!" She would toss that out whenever something worked that had been jammed, or when she had an inspiration, or when one of our regulars made a ridiculous remark designed to embarrass a 15-year-old girl. ("Hey, honey. Please give me a cherry on top. You know you can't recycle those things, right?" Unbridled laughter. How to begin the process of jading a teenager: be the fifth guy to make that crack this month.)

Elaine invented the Olive Nut and Cheese sandwich. If I remember correctly, this overly-rich but addictive concoction consisted of shredded cheddar cheese mixed with minced black olives and... hmmmm... chopped walnuts, maybe? And mayonnaise, of course, to hold it all together. I'll have to make a batch, to see if the taste buds will remember the flavor.

She was a good boss. I always felt that she trusted me and thought well of me, in spite of or because of my youth.

I think Elaine has been coming to mind lately due of her independent attitude and seemingly inexhaustible supply of good cheer, no matter how much her hands hurt her. (And what did I as a self-absorbed teenager know of her other aches and pains and worries?) As my hands remind me of old injuries, now that I'm in my fifties, her courage strengthens my resolve to avoid making a big deal about the increasing discomforts of age. I read that she had been working at another food counter in an Ephrata bakery at least as early as 1962. Somehow, it was comforting to me to think of Elaine as "always there," like a favorite character in a comic strip. I hope she had a good life, and that her aches and pains never became greater than she could bear with her customary good cheer.

It was something to think she may have still been alive in 2012... and perhaps still today!

I decided to try to call her -- and was blessed with success! She is "94-and-a-half years old," and still vital. "I still drive, and raise as much trouble as I can." She worked at the counter for 25 years, but had to give it up when her husband became ill with cancer. He passed away in 1980. She never remarried, because "he was my life partner.

"I live in the same house in Ephrata, where I garden every day. I can't get around without a walker, because my back finally gave out on me."

She still goes to the senior center, and enjoys when they sing the old songs together. One daughter lives near her in Ephrata, and the other in Maui. She has two grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren, most of whom regularly travel through her house. "It's Grand Central Station around here, and I love it!"

We had a pleasant conversation about family and what the young ones have accomplished. She said our conversation was interesting and "neat."

"Elaine, if you had a message for people, what would it be?"

"Just have fun. Look at the good side of things."

That is perhaps what I remember most about her. She saw the best in people, and in situations. It was a great life lesson, and I thanked her for it. She was very pleased. (I think she was a bit blown away when I told her I had converted to Judaism and moved to Israel... but what would one expect? And though she didn't remember me -- that didn't surprise me -- she did seem to enjoy that yet another person on whose life she'd had a good impact had decided to call and tell her so.) "You made my day!"

You made mine, too, Elaine. And you reminded me, as you have reminded me for more than 40 years, of the impact a human being can have on another. You're still one of my most important role models. May I have the same positive impact on others that you had on me. I look forward to checking in on you for long years, in good health.

Yup. It still tastes the same, even with Israeli green olives. (I can't bring myself to use the dyed American black olives any more.) I'm sure it's not particularly good for me. But macaroni and cheese is comfort food for some. Elaine's sandwich filling tastes like high school memories.

Elaine Porter's Olive, Nut and Cheese Sandwich, Israeli-Style

1/2 cup yellow sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 cup pitted olives, minced
1/4 cup walnuts, chopped finely
1 tablespoon mayonnaise

Mix together. Spread on whole wheat bread and serve with a bit of salad, just to convince yourself that you're eating something healthy. Smile a lot. And look at the good side of things.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Depth of "Modah Ani" on My Birthday

Yom shishi, 24 Elul 5774.

Lovely artwork by my dear daughter-in-law, Tova.
The days of our years among them are seventy years, and if with strength, eighty years. ~ Psalm 90, a prayer by Moshe Rabbeinu

So it's my birthday.

And on my 57th birthday, it suddenly occurred to me at about four in the morning that unless I get special dispensation, I can only expect about 13 more years of life. (And that's without any disasters happening.)

This is not meant to be morbid. Nor is it intended to frighten my friends who are closer to seventy (and with strength, eighty) than I. It wasn't fear of death that waked me in the wee small hours.

It was the need to assess. How do I want to spend my last decade and slightly less than a half?

A short commercial announcement for my very religious friends in the Kine Hora Puh-Puh-Puh Club. Of course I believe that God will decide when each of us moves on to our next adventure; and of course I will be delighted to stick around until a hundred and twenty -- but only if it's in good health. And I hope that my speaking the words in the paragraphs above does not trigger your fear that I will make it so by saying it. I like to believe that God is not troubled by words, if they are used thoughtfully.

End of commercial.

Thirteen years to be all I can be. To do everything I ever wanted to do as Ruti. The mind boggles at the shortness of the time to do so very many things!

While I have no intention to quit my job and go off to hike the Alps or volunteer to save babies in Ethiopia -- though I have a certain admiration for those who do -- I hope I will live with more keen awareness of the value of every day.

A country song comes to mind. (Doesn't it always?) This song, written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman and performed most famously by Tim McGraw, says it well.

For the usual reasons, I prefer the version by my son, Aryeh... but until I can record it, here's the original.

Seems like a nice message for the upcoming Days of Awe, too. For my birthday present to you, I give you the blessing that you will live your nice, long, healthy, happy life... like you were dyin'.

He said I was in my early 40's,
With a lot of life before me,
And a moment came that stopped me on a dime.
I spent most of the next days, lookin' at the x-rays,
Talkin' 'bout the options and talkin' 'bout sweet time.
Asked him when it sank in, that this might really be the real end.
How's it hit ya, when you get that kind of news.
Man what ya do.
And he says,


I went sky divin',
I went Rocky Mountain climbin',
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull name Fumanchu.
And I loved deeper,
And I spoke sweeter,
And I gave forgiveness I've been denying,
And he said someday I hope you get the chance,
To live like you were dyin'.

He said I was finally the husband,
That most the time I wasn't.
And I became a friend a friend would like to have.
And all the sudden goin' fishing,
Wasn't such an imposition.
And I went three times that year I lost my dad.
Well I finally read the Good Book,
And I took a good long hard look at what I'd do
If I could do it all again.
And then.


Like tomorrow was a gift and you've got eternity
To think about what you do with it,
What could you do with it, what can
I do with with it, what would I do with it.

Sky divin',
I went Rocky Mountain climbin',
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull name Fumanchu.
And I loved deeper,
And I spoke sweeter,
And I watched an eagle as it was flyin'.
And he said someday I hope you get the chance,
To live like you were dyin'.

To live like you were dyin'.
To live like you were dyin'.
To live like you were dyin'.
To live like you were dyin'.

Thanks, kids! Loved the candles, too!
Dear Young People: You can tell the elderly by the fact that they like to talk about their health, the weather, and how the weather affects their health.

Stay tuned for a post about the weather. ;-)

And thanks for the love!

Stayed overnight at my recently marrieds, and was met with these lovely gifts. Deluxe, five-star accommodations!

Lovely artwork by my dear daughter-in-law, Naomi.

The shot glass was to add to my collection. But the award from his peers in 20 countries was probably inspired by his midot as much as his skill. And that is a pretty great birthday present for a mother.