Category Archives: Jewish Culture

Shavuot: reminding me of who I need to be

It is hard for me to personalize Shavuot, though I know there is great spiritual meaning to be found within it.

Shavuot is one of the three major holidays named in the Bible.  As such, there is special designation as one of the Shalosh Regalim (literally three legs–meaning pilgrimage festivals). Then, it was a time of a huge in-gathering of the Jewish people who trekked to Jerusalem to celebrate the harvest. In later rabbinic times, Shavuot was designated as the time of the giving of the Torah.

Important, right?

But, embedded within the two other holidays, Passover and Sukkot, there are tools that help me imagine as if I was truly there. In the Haggadah, phrasing like “Avadim Hayinu” (we were slaves) helps me get back to that time of bitter slavery. The salt water, the charoset, the naming of the plagues…all those are brilliant memory instigators that tend to stick. The sukkah that my husband builds and we eat in during Sukkot is a substantial trigger of transport, to what it was like being in the desert and living out in the fields. The lulav and etrog are physical reminisces of the harvest.

Those are palpable reminders that help me take a journey back into my imagination, to a different time, and allows me to think of myself as part of a larger picture. Shavuot has no such tools for me.

“What about the Omer you say? Isn’t that tangible?” Right, yes, the counting of the Omer, sefirat haOmer, is a concrete way for me to bridge Pesach and Shavuot (the counting begins on the second night of the Seder until day 50, Shavuot), and offers me a spiritual time of introspection and momentum-building.

But yet, I am searching for a ritual that has some heft to it, and not the kind you get from eating cheesecake and dairy foods.

Shavuot is a much harder holiday to grab onto, and there are no built in ‘bells and whistles’ to easily awaken us to the grandeur of the experience. Shavuot demands something much more difficult and in some ways, more subtle.

We commonly refer to the chag as commemorating an event, the giving of the Torah, but we are discouraged from thinking of it as a one-time event. Instead, it is what we try to commemorate everyday as a constant unfolding of the Torah’s principles and teachings within our lives, as we commit to live by it everyday. Truly, it is an overwhelmingly awesome holiday.

In opposite ways, the desert and the fields during harvest were times of intensity, and brought us together as a people in distinctive ways that we get to revisit every Passover and Sukkot. But I need a way to bring me back to the time when I was part of that nation standing before Sinai….a nation, a people. A people united in spirit. With a message to offer that emanated from the charge to live life in an elevated way. To be holy. To strive to be something better. I need to experience that.

As a people, we face the experience of the Torah alone, but together. Each person is a witness of themselves, and what they know to be a higher standard of behavior.  But we are also responsible for one another. In these times, simply regarding our own journeys does not serve us as a people, and today, that might seem more challenging than ever.

We can not only ask “How do I measure up?” but “how do we measure up as a people?”

I need to regard myself as part of a people on a regular basis. I need to speak up when we are not living our highest ideals, even when it is difficult to do so; to put myself and my opinions ‘out there’. I need to be a participant and not a spectator.

Perhaps this Shavuot we will inch a little closer to the realization that Am Yisrael Echad, the people of Israel are one.

May you experience the blessings that Shavuot offers us.

 

 


Will you value your baggage more than a life?

What would you do in an emergency?

I heard something disturbing that I couldn’t shake off. This is not what I usually write about, but I feel compelled to not let this incident go by without a comment.

A Russian jet crashed, on the runway, the rear of the plane totally swallowed up by flames as it made its emergency landing. The circumstances and causes are still under investigation. Seventy-eight passengers were on the plane, 41 of whom died.

The whole event was upsetting, but what struck me was how the reporter ended her report:  “…..some were fortunately able to leave the front of the plane with their luggage”. This did not strike the reporter as odd, and there was not further comment as the station moved on to the next story.

It was the phrase “with their luggage” that got me sick. I couldn’t help visualizing the entire frantic situation (this is why I can’t watch violent movies)…people hysterically trying to get off the plane, escaping immanent death, while people were going into the overhead bins to get their luggage. 

How could people think about taking their belongings at a time when seconds count? The aisles are narrow, people need to wait for others in front of them, any delay could be tragic. Would people value their own possessions over the lives of others? What does this say about how we honor ourselves as God’s creations? Everything in our Jewish tradition is about the preservation of life, not the preservation of things. On the holiest of days, even if it means breaking the rules of observances, we are taught that the value of life is above all else, a value that is known as “Pikuach Nefesh”.

I wanted to find out more information about evacuation procedures. Can people opt to hold up the evacuation process because they want to take their belongings? Doesn’t the Federal government have regulations about that? Google complied and with speed. Some things were upsetting but unfortunately not surprising.

This 168 page report, from the National Transportation Safety Board describes results of multiple evacuation procedural trials and sadly concludes “that most passengers seated in exit rows do not read the safety information provided to assist them in understanding the tasks they may need to perform in the event of an emergency evacuation, and they do not receive personal briefings from flight attendants even though personal briefings can aid passengers in their understanding of the tasks that they may be called upon to perform

The pertinent section for this discussion, Retrieval of Carry-On Baggage, states in passenger pre-flight briefing materials along with pictures, that “carry-on luggage should not be taken during an evacuation” (p. 78) making the message clear. In addition, flight attendants commanded passengers to “leave everything” during the evacuation. Despite these methods, passengers often took their belongings. In one episode, “nearly 50 percent reported attempting to remove a bag during their evacuation” (p.67). 

The report noted that flight attendants receive training on ways to efficiently maintain a constant flow of passengers out of the emergency exits, however, “flight attendants reported that their attempts were often thwarted by passengers’ insistence on retrieving their carry-on luggage before evacuating” (p.67).

This has me shaking my head: “Passengers exiting with carry-on baggage were the most frequently cited obstruction to evacuation.” (Ibid). “By retrieving luggage during an evacuation, passengers increase the potential for serious injuries or loss of life.”

It seems that other posts have been written about this issue: “Don’t Be Selfish And Do This is an Emergency Evacuation” is an example and offers video clips of passengers evacuating an emergency exit with their bags.

I hope and pray that I will never be in the situation that people found themselves in today. I can’t imagine how frightful it must have been to be in that plane. I am trying very hard not to judge those who left the plane with their bags. Maybe getting their bags was their security. Maybe they resorted to robotic behavior. Maybe in times of crisis, they weren’t able to think clearly.

I learned a lot about human behavior today, and was mostly saddened by what I read. I know that as human beings, we so often rise to the occasion to help others, and I will focus my attention on that.

 

 


How to Approach Passover Like a Teacher

crocus-flower-spring-buhen-55828

For those of us hosting a Passover seder, there are often so many preparations we need to do in advance: buying, organizing, cleaning and cooking are just a few things we’re involved with. Yet sometimes, planning for the seder itself gets lost in the mix. How do we encourage ourselves and our guests to feel what we need to at the seder? How can we enhance the retelling of the Exodus story as if we too, are in the midst of leaving a narrow place and entering an expansive place of freedom?

Why not spend some time now, before the activity rush hits, of planning what will occur at your seder? This might seem like a ridiculous notion, since the word “seder” already implies that there is an order to what will occur during the experience. The Haggadah pretty much spells that all out for us. Yet, often we settle for the time-honored (and boring) tradition of taking turns around the table, reading from the Haggadah.  Think about this for a minute——did you ever enjoy this practice or find it meaningful? For some, reading the entire Haggadah is the only way to fulfill the obligation to retell the story, which alone takes a lot of time, so this post will not be relevant for you. 

Passover is the consummate educational event in many households, and there are so many opportunities to infuse the meal with intentionality. If we approach the seder with the attitude of a Jewish educator, we might think of it the way we would plan a lesson, and the best lessons offer these components:

  • A set induction, or commonly called a trigger to set the stage for the lesson. It can be thought of as a commercial for what’s to come. An example: Which of the symbolic items on the Seder plate do you most relate to and why? A deeper question:  Like Pharoah, has your heart ever been ‘hardened’? . Another option: make a ‘Haggadah gallery‘ by displaying  all the different Haggadot you own on a table, vote for favorites and explain why. Alternatively, you can ask guests to bring their favorites from home.
  • Essential questions to  frame the lesson (also called Questions of Meaning). Examples might be: What is your Egypt (what ‘narrow’ place do you need to leave behind that is ‘enslaving’ you)? “Let My People Go” is a powerful statement in the Torah, yet it is not recounted in the Haggadah.  Why do you think this is so?  OR “Let My People Go” is only a partial part of what Pharoah is asked to do. What is the second part of that phrase? Why is that often left out?  (you can find this phrase  here and here. You can also discuss the differences in the text. 
  • Learning Outcomes: what will people be walking away with? What deep learning will occur? An example is: How did the notion of obtaining a people’s freedom spur on different revolutions for self-determination, which have ripple effects even today? For some background on this idea see “What’s Your Exodus Story?  Powerful statements have often rallied people behind a cause. Think also of: “If you will it, it is no dream”, ‘I Have a Dream”, or “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” . Is there a call-to-action today that resonates with you? Why or why not? What other sayings can you think of that would inspire others? What theme resonates with you: Being a small minority among the majority? Holding on to your traditions despite any danger this might hold? Enjoying the predictability of life versus the freedom of self-determination? The idea of freedom with or without responsibility? 
  • Learning Activities: what will your guests be doing to get them to the end point? Examples might be new sensations of taste, or a twist on traditional customs (after the dipping of the Karpas —parsley or potato—why not offer other dips?). What simulations can spur on discussion? Who can act out the best scenarios of the each of the plagues? What debate can you engage in?

Our opportunity at the seder is to tell stories and pass them on through the generations. It is part of the reason why the tradition is so compelling, year after year….and why Passover is the most celebrated holiday by American Jews (according to this source, 70%). This is what brings us together as a people. 

May your seder experiences be fulfilling.

Chag Kasher v’sameach!

haggadah1   haggadahhaggadah2 haggadah3


Make Your Mornings Special

How do you wake up every morning?

Do you have a particular ritual? In Judaism, we have a tradition of waking up with a declaration of gratitude. It’s not really a prayer, it’s more a statement of deep appreciation. We say the Modeh Ani in the morning to express our appreciation for waking to consciousness.

What we say is: “Modeh Anee Lefanecha Melech Chai v’kayam, She-he-chezarta-bee Nishmatee B’chemla Raba Emunatecha”.

I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great(For the Hebrew, please click this link to see the source; some computer programs do not show the Hebrew properly.)

The word Emunahtecha can be translated in several ways but most commonly, Emunah means faith, persistence, and a sense of steadfastness. Emunatecha means your faith, your steadfastness—in me! 

Let’s dwell on this concept a bit. Each and every morning, upon waking from sleep, we take a moment to appreciate the miracle of life, of wakefulness and that The Holy One has faith in us.  Faith that we will make the best of every day. We express thanks and appreciation for our soul (nishmatee), for that which makes us human. We’ve been given yet another chance to prove we are worthy of this life. Every day, a new start.

We begin again in our quest to be a better person, and The One Above is giving us another shot at life.

This video might inspire you to begin this practice everyday. There are many melodies for Modeh Ani, see which one resonates with you. Try this one by David Paskin or this Hasidic melody by Avraham Fried, or this, with English translation by Elana Jagoda.

Wishing you special mornings of appreciation,

Ruth

 


Easy Ways to Create a Sensory Passover Seder Experience

Nice Seder, but not intensified

Same Seder, intensified!

What will you do to construct meaningful memories at Passover this year? The Seder sweetly builds fresh memories upon old remembrances. We can think of the layers and layers of promises to our people coming forth, cemented by memories of miracles and plagues. Death and rebirth. These are incredibly powerful images that we need to mediate for our Seder guests so that they walk away with their own special Seder-connection.

Every year we get the chance to reinvent this consummate educational event and solidify our own connection to our past, present and future –gifting our guests with that opportunity at the same time. It is an opportunity that we shouldn’t pass over. 

We can go beyond our usual limits, and immerse ourselves totally in the story of redemption, enacting all our senses in the process of calling up the bonds of slavery in order to release ourselves and become free, and in doing so reaffirm our faith in The One.

We can make sure that we take each opportunity in the Seder to ramp up our spiritual connection with what’s occurring. You need to become comfortable going ‘off script” and taking a dive into the unknown, to discover new treasures in what was already there.

 

Think experiential. For every sensory experience, think about how you could maximize the intensity of the taste, the smell, the feel.

What if everyone at the table had their own dish of salt, and salted their own water to the maximum that they could tolerate?

What if, along with the dipping of the Karpas, there was more dipping to be done. Think raw vegetables and dips of guacamole, ajvar (red pepper spread), baba ghanoush, and pesto (pareve).

Would closing the eyes help intensify the taste of the Maror? What if everyone peeled their own piece of horseradish?

What if, after the recitation of the Four Questions, everyone thought of a new one to ask? What types of questions might stimulate conversation and discussion? What was the spiritual purpose of marking Jewish houses? What is so compelling today about marking our houses with Mezuzot? You were there….what questions would you be asking before you went on the journey? 

Help your guests identify with the larger themes of Passover by asking a few provocative questions.

What does the safety of slavery conjure up versus the risk of freedom?

Think of  the way that Pharaoh described the Jews and how we describe ‘the other’ today–what are the similarities?

What does it means to be a powerless minority amidst a totalitarian power?

What does it mean when we opt for predictability instead of self-determination?

Why does Judaism not present freedom as the only goal, but pairs it with responsibility?

Just think about the rich conversations that could be going around your table!

I hope you decide to try at least one or two of these ideas and then please, please, share your feedback with me. I’d love to hear from you and will share some stories I receive with you, here.

May you and your loved ones enjoy a Chag Kasher v’Sameach!

 


The global power of Jewish community

venice synagogue

The incredible beauty of the Venice Synagogue. The intricately carved mehitzah (separation) is on the far left.

The rabbi’s D’var Torah was an odd blend of Italian and Hebrew, and other than hearing “Balak” a few times, its meaning was lost on me. What was incomprehensible wasn’t the speech. It was that I was sitting a few arms’ lengths away from this kind, bearded man and participating in the Shabbat morning service as a member of a global community, in a Venetian synagogue that was hundreds of years old—in the Jewish Ghetto, the very first one ever.  

This synagogue was built in a place once relegated to Jews in the 16th century because it was the least pleasant part of the city to live in due to frequent flooding. Yet, just one year past the 500th year of the ghetto’s founding–I am experiencing a vibrancy to this community that no one would have predicted. The Venetian Jewish community was the first ever to live on the site of what was a geto, meaning iron foundry in Italian. (The word was originally pronounced with a “soft g” as in Gepetto or George, but the later German immigrants could not pronounce it properly, so it became a “hard g”).

In 1516, with strict conditions of not living beyond a closed off area, obeying curfews and marking themselves with either a  yellow hat or a yellow badge, among other discriminatory laws, the Venetian Republic granted Jews the right to settle here in this condensed area.

 

venise-quartier-juif-1520

The synagogue is on the left, through the small black door. It’s hard to believe the beauty that reveals itself once you walk inside (above).

Would anyone living at that time have imagined this? World travelers in the hundreds, coming to Venice, wanting to honor Shabbat and be with each other?  Here, in a synagogue hundreds of years old, the words “Am Yisrael” and “Klal Yisrael” were not theoretical terms, but were embodied in the faces of the Israelis, French, British, South Africans, Canadians, and Americans who I sat among.

Who is this people who are drawn to be with each other, who live thousands of miles apart in their everyday lives but for whom the lure of Shabbat evokes its power to gather together? For the two little Venetian girls in the corner, excitedly chattering in Italian, this is just what is–an ordinary Shabbat. For me, the experience is a testament to our strength, our resolve, our commitment to history yet our deep refusal to let it just be history.

In another winding cobble-stoned street of the ghetto is Chabad of Venice, where we davened Kabbalat Shabbat and had our meals.

chabad entrance

The building’s exterior is drab by any standards, but the spiritedness of the people overshadowed it easily.  Close to 200 people gathered to be part of this communal experience, filling a portion of the piazza.

jewish ghetto

While I often spoke to peers and students about the ‘global Jewish community’, I never felt it as clearly as I did on this Shabbat. The experience was so hyper-real that I still can’t comprehend the depth of feeling I had. You are not alone. There are countless souls who you are connected to, with whom you have a shared history. All you need to do is dip into the river of connection once, as I did, to discover its power.


This is Not the Climate Change You’re Thinking About

Sloppy Words & Food

Sloppy Words, Sloppy Food

At times, I resist writing a post because I just don’t want to spend the time doing all the research it might take.  I also think that no one would want to spend their valuable time just reading another opinion.  So, to be fair to you, this one’s for me. It’s just something that I want to have noted somewhere, and this is the place I picked.

You probably won’t like what I have to say.

The climate change that I’m experiencing is not related to weather. It’s related to how we see ourselves as human beings in the world. More often than not, my experience of living in today’s society seems to affirm that we think less and less of ourselves.

Our behaviors on a daily basis are less refined. More is done without proper thought or intention.

For one, our speech is less dignified. We’re sloppy with words and they have become more angry, more vindictive, more explosive.  Name-calling is not unusual. We pay less attention to accuracy, and often speak first, think later. Sure, online fact checking exists, but who wants to do that all the time?

I am most bothered about this because it goes against my understanding of our numerous laws and cautions regarding speech. (There have been volumes of commentary written about the laws of speech but for an extremely quick introduction read this and/or this).  According to our tradition, the world was created with words which is why we place such an important value on the spoken and written word.

The very thing that is often associated with Judaism, the Ten Commandments, is really an awkward translation of the Hebrew, meaning “Ten Utterances” (Aseret HaDibrot, the root D-B-R meaning words and speak, reinforcing the elemental connection between the two).

Our way of eating has become on the one hand more conscious, on the other much less so. We might be paying a lot of attention to what we eat (gluten-free? fat-free? organic? all natural? free range? no GMO’s?, no growth hormones? dairy free?–really, I just touched the surface here) but we certainly aren’t paying attention to how we eat.

The food packaging industry has burgeoned with food (?) that can be eaten as quickly as possible, no eating utensils or table needed. Machines can pulverize our food beyond recognition. There are outrageous food contests where thousands gather to watch people gobble as much food as they can without actually regurgitating. There are people who try to win these competitions.

We eat on the run. In a car. While on our devices. In a rush. Often alone.

The way we treat our food is the way we treat ourselves. All the research points to a society that is making itself sick by the way we eat, yet changing those habits is very difficult. There are many laws in Judaism about what we eat and how we eat. They are all structured for us to resist the passive ingestion of substances, and elevate the activity that honors us as human beings.

As much as I think that the world agrees with me on how different we are from animals, that just isn’t so. A recent article in the New York Times has the primatologist Frans de Waal outlining why he believes there is little distinction between human beings and primates.  You can read a rebuttal to that here in the online “Evolution News”.  Denying the fact that we are imbued with a special capacity to make moral and ethical choices minimizes who we are and robs us of what our potential is on this earth.

It is difficult in today’s society to intentionally slow down enough to pay attention to behavior that might elevate our souls, instead of denigrating our core.  The spark that I believe is in all of us, and what makes us special creatures should inform our behavior more often.

May we be blessed with the awareness that comes from knowing that and the opportunity to be able to practice it.