Saturday, December 26, 2009

Back Off, Mama Bear

On Christmas Eve my husband received a Christmas card from his brother. Before this card arrived, John hadn’t had any direct contact with his brother for something like 20 years. This is because, in his teens, the brother began to spiral down into a world of drugs and alcohol, as well as the things that go along with people who are desperate to get money for more drugs and alcohol. John and his parents tried to save his brother, but you can’t save someone who isn’t motivated to save himself.

We knew John’s brother had been in touch with his parents over the last few years, we understand he has been clean and sober during that time, and we know he has asked about seeing John, so I suppose this card wasn’t a complete shock. However, once it arrived, I began to do what I do best when I feel surprised and threatened: I over-react.

Fortunately, the following night was Shabbat, and about a quarter of the way through services I felt my anger and anxiety disappear. I realized I don’t have to be the Mama Bear right now. My husband is not my cub. He is a grown man, and what he needs right now isn’t my protection; he needs my support.

So it looks like next month John’s parents will drive down from Oregon, and we’re all going to meet John’s brother and his fiancée for dinner. And then we’ll see what happens from there.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Judaism Creating Connections

By Susan Esther Barnes

On Friday night during services Rabbi Lezak told two stories about how living in Israel means living in an inter-connected community. The first one, here, talks about how the plight of Gilad Shalit, the Israel soldier who has been in captivity for three years, feels personal to all Israelis, since all of them have family members who were or are in the military.

The second story, here, is an amazing true story about the woman who is the mother of the first soldier killed in Cast Lead, who goes to a concert and by chance (or perhaps an act of God) meets a couple who named their baby after her fallen son.

To some extent these stories are possible because Israel is such a tiny country, where everyone (with some exceptions) sends their children to military or other national service. These stories, combined with something else that happened at services Friday night, got me thinking about how the practice of Judaism itself helps to create these connections.

One of the situations Judaism is particularly sensitive about is the death of a loved one. There are many customs and rituals that surround this event, and many of them create and rely on community connections. When a mourner returns home from the graveyard, he or she is not allowed to eat his or her own food. Rather, the community is expected to, and in fact bears the responsibility of, bringing food to the mourner. This not only relieves the mourner of having to think about mundane acts like grocery shopping and cooking when just walking across the room may feel like a monumental act, but it also makes sure the mourner is not alone during this critical time.

In addition, the mourner is to say the Mourner's Kaddish on a regular basis throughout the first eleven months after their loved on has died. And this prayer may only be said when there are at least ten Jews present. Again, this serves to ensure the mourner is surrounded by members of his or her community during the first year of mourning.

After the first year has passed, we say the Mourner's Kaddish for the anniversary of the loved one's death, called the Yarzheit. When worshippers come to services on Friday night they are handed a program that contains various bits of information, and on the back is a list of those in the congregation who have died recently as well as the names of those who are having their Yarzeheit.

On Friday night, I was sitting beside a couple, when another couple sat behind us. The woman next to me was looking at the Yarzheit list, and she turned to the couple behind us. She pointed at the list and said, "I see this person on the list with the same last name as you. Is this your father?"

"No," they replied, "That is our son."

"How old was he?" asked the woman.


"Oh, I didn't know."

And thus another connection was created, because when you know a couple has lost a son, an incredible tragedy in itself, and further learn the son died so young, it cannot help but create an understanding, a bond, from the acknowledgement that these people have walked through the fire and have the bravery to carry on.

And it strikes me this is one of the ways Judaism seeks to connect us. Yarzheit not only serves to comfort the mourner, but its public nature gives us the opportunity to ask the questions that bind us together, like "Who was she?" "What is your favorite memory about him?" and to make the statements that bind us together, like, "I remember him" and "I miss her too."

Monday, December 14, 2009

How Are You?

The question, "How are you?" is a common greeting among people I know. The expected answer is, "I'm fine, how are you?" I find I sometimes surprise people when, instead of giving the expected answer, I say, "I'm doing great!" This is generally the most authentic short answer I can give, since my life really is much better than I ever would have expected. It's not that everything is perfect, but all the most important pieces are in place: The world's best husband, a great community, friends, mostly healthy family, full employment, etc.

A friend of mine told me recently how much she dislikes the "How are you?" greeting, since most people seem to ask it in passing and then rush on without even pausing to hear the answer. If you're not going to stick around for an answer, why ask?

A woman who lost her husband about six months previously spoke to my Bikkur Cholim (visiting the sick) group about what to say and what not to say to a person in mourning. She said the one question she wishes people would stop asking her is, "How are you?" She says she doesn't feel comfortable answering, "Fine" when that's not how she feels, yet she knows most people who ask the question aren't really interested in hearing her real answer to it.

Another person in the group related a story about a family she recently visited who were sitting shiva (the first seven days of mourning after a loved one has died). She said part way through the evening the husband taped a hand-written sign to the door saying, "Please don't ask me how I'm doing." I can't even imagine how difficult it would be to try to respond to that question when one is in mourning, particularly in the first days and weeks, when the mourner is still struggling to understand the enormous change that has occurred.

Aside from greeting mourners and friends with something more along the lines of, "It's good to see you," or some such statement rather than a question, I don't know what I plan to do with this whole "How are you?" question. It is still part of the oil that keeps the social machine running. Substituting something like, "Greetings and salutations" is a bit awkward. I guess it's something I'll just have to work on.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Articulation and Flinging

By Susan Esther Barnes

In her book A Spiritual Life: A Jewish Feminist Journey, Merle Feld writes, “What is a prayer? A prayer is the articulatiion of something very particular at the core of one's being, flung out into the universe. Perhaps it finds a mark, perhaps not. The essential thing is the articulation and the flinging.”

I agree about the importance of articulation and flinging. Although one may or may not call what I write prayers, what I do when I write is exactly what is described above. I do it because I feel compelled to do it, not because I expect to get anything back. However, I do also spend time pondering what happens to my words after the flinging.

After I write something, which for me is the culmination of the articulation part, I then need to decide what method or methods I will use to fling it. There are a couple of people to whom I email a good number of the things I write. The main reason they remain on my tiny email list is they often respond with words of encouragement and/or enthusiasm. This gives me the idea they don’t consider my emails to be a complete waste of their time.

Sometimes I send something to someone because what I wrote was inspired by them or mentions them in some way. These are generally one-time-only flings and I don’t add these folks to my email list unless they specifically request it.

There are a number of people to whom I have sent my writing but from whom I have received no response at all. This leaves me with a bit of an awkward feeling. I don’t know what it means, and I suppose in each case it probably means something different. It is unlikely I will send any of these people more of my writing, however, unless I happen to write something else that mentions them.

On the other hand, on at least one occasion, something I wrote was forwarded by others to a number of different email lists – a sort of turbo-flinging which was quite interesting to watch.

Another method of flinging involves my efforts to publish things I have written. Without much effort on my part, I have managed to have things published in my synagogue’s newsletter, a local newspaper, and a literary journal. To a certain extent, these venues provide some validation to the value of my flinging, since if the editors didn’t think my writing would be interesting to their readers, they wouldn’t be willing to participate in my flinging by publishing it. Unfortunately, with this type of flinging most people who read what I publish have no easy way of telling me what they think about it.

My newest venue for flinging is this blog. The idea of a blog appealed to me because it has the potential for a wide audience and also provides a method for easy feedback. After three months of blogging, the statistics tell me I have a small but steady stream of people viewing the blog, and they’re staying long enough on an average visit to read one or more of my posts. However, even after I started to allow anonymous comments, almost none of my blog visitors posts a comment. I suppose that’s normal, but it does leave me wondering what my visitors like or dislike about the blog, whether they’re passing on to others anything I’ve written, or what other effect, if any, my articulation and flinging has had on them.

Like prayers in general, it’s a matter of faith, this articulation and flinging without knowing what, if anything, happens after the fling.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Unseen Impacts

By Susan Esther Barnes

I’m beginning to suspect few of us, myself included, has any idea the impact our words and actions have on others. The Torah tries to give us a hint about the power of words. In the very first chapter, God creates the world by using words, as in the famous, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

It’s not uncommon for me to think about words and their impact. I try to write things in way that will, as accurately as I can, communicate how I see things as well as how I feel about them. I feel best about my writing when I feel it packs a punch, leaving the reader with something to think about after they have finished reading.

A couple of weeks ago a friend was struggling because she felt she was failing to get others to see the importance of something very dear to her. She said she felt she wasn’t communicating to others about it in a powerful enough way, and she was contemplating using more powerful language, but she didn’t want to be hurtful. I told her it’s possible to use words powerfully without being hurtful.

Often it seems being powerful and hurtful is much easier than being powerful and constructive. And yet, there are times when we say or do powerfully constructive things without even realizing it. For example, two and a half years ago, a woman introduced me as, “My friend Susan.” She said it as if it were no big deal, and to her it probably wasn’t one. She had no way to know it was the first time I’d heard those words in 20 years, so she had no idea how powerful those words were to me.

Earlier this year a woman said to me, “I value your friendship.” I thought, “You value my friendship? Don’t you mean it the other way around?” I had been so wrapped up in how cool it was to have a bunch of friends around me, it hadn’t occurred to me it might work both ways. She didn’t know what a revelation it was for me to consider someone might view my friendship as a valuable thing to have.

Yesterday, I received an email from someone who said, “Thanks for being a good friend.” It made me feel great, but I was surprised. Sure, I think of him as a friend, but I have no idea why he thinks of me as a good friend. We don’t have dinner together; we don’t go to the movies or other outings together. I don’t even know when his birthday is. Aren’t those things all part of being a good friend? Obviously, I must have said or done something in the past that makes him feel this way about me. And clearly, at the time I had no idea the impact I had on him, just as he has no idea the impact his words, “Thank you for being a good friend” had on me.

Just before we say the Amidah, the central prayer of each prayer service, we say, “Adonai, open my lips so my mouth may declare your glory.” Rabbi Noa says we start with this prayer because we want the prayers that follow to come out right. Often, when I say those words I’m not thinking about the prayers coming up. Instead, I’m asking God to help me, throughout the week, to say and write things which will have a positive impact on others. Sometimes I know I’ve succeeded. Sometimes I think I’ve succeeded when I haven’t. And sometimes, I’m discovering, I succeed without even knowing it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Visit from the Shekhinah

Yesterday I felt like I was coming down with a cold, and I spent the whole day in bed napping with the cats and watching the "Deadliest Catch" marathon on TV. However, it was Friday, I missed Shabbat last week because I was in Hawaii, and I'm going to miss Shabbat next week due to our company retreat. Three weeks without Shabbat is three weeks too many as far as I'm concerned, so I hauled myself out of bed and went to the synagogue.

When services started the sanctuary doors were closed, so during the song/prayer "Lecha Dodi" I walked around the back of the sanctuary to the outside of the main sanctuary doors. "Lecha Dodi" is about welcoming Shabbat. Traditionally, during the last verse, everyone bows toward the doors of the sanctuary, thereby bowing to Shabbat as she enters. I'd say Shabbat can make it through the doors whether or not they're open, but it's more dramatic if the doors are open when the last verse starts, and it certainly seems more welcoming to Shabbat to open the doors for her.

So there I was, in the foyer, listening to the singing through the closed doors, waiting for the last verse, and I started thinking, "Hmmm, if I'm standing out here waiting to let Shabbat in through the doors at the last verse, then Shabbat must be out here in the foyer with me now." So, I looked up over my shoulder, and felt the Shekhinah, God's presence, hovering over me.

When the congregation reached the last verse and sang, "Come in, bride," I opened the doors, and the Shekhinah swept past me into the sanctuary.

I know God is with us all the time. I know I can feel God wherever I am. But there is something special about the Shekhinah on Shabbat that I truly miss whenever I'm away.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Using Christmas Cards as a Weapon

Last night I was going through all the emails I received while I was on vacation, and the title of one caught my eye: "Put the CHRIST back in CHRISTMAS." Clearly not from someone who knows anything about me.

The email encouraged its readers to buy Christmas cards and send them to an organization that fights for equal rights - I forget whether it was the ACLU or the ADL - in order to disrupt their activities. The idea was they will have to open all the Christmas cards because otherwise they won't know which envelopes just have cards and which ones have donations or other correspondence.

It amuses me to think the recipients of all these cards might be surprised at the outporing of Christmas well-wishers this year, at least until they learn, if ever, that it is all just an attempt to slow down their operations.

It also strikes me as ironic that, in this case, Christmas cards are being used as a weapon. It's particularly ironic that the organization being attacked is one that fights for human rights, rather than one that espouses hate, terrorism, or any one of the many other evils I would hope the caring people out there would want to slow down or stop.

I wondered how I should respond to this email. At first I thought I would reply with a curt, "Please take me off your email list," but I thought if I did that I should at least provide an explanation. I didn't want to start a confrontation, however, and I don't know any more about the woman who sent the email than she knows about me. I certainly don't want to suddenly find my email box full of Christmas e-cards.

In the end, I took the easy way out, and hit the "Spam" button, which removed it from my Inbox and presumably will prevent me from receiving future emails from this woman. Now, however, I'm not so sure I did the right thing. Part of me wishes I had replied to the email with the following:

"I find it ironic that you are encouraging people to use Christmas cards as a weapon. Please remove me from your email list. In the future, before you send an email, you may want to ask yourself, 'Will this email help to create peace and harmony in this world, or will it do the opposite?' If the answer is the opposite, I hope you will choose not to send it."

Alas, the email is not in my Spam box or in my Trash folder, so I have lost the opportunity to reply to the missive. Insterad, I hope I will continue to try to ask myself the same question in the future before I hit the "Send" button on my emails.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Daily Blessings

I received an email from a colleague informing me she will arrive to work late today because her refrigerator stopped working, and she’s waiting for a new one to be delivered. There are many ways I could respond to a piece of news like this. “That sucks,” springs to mind, or “I’m sorry you have to deal with that today,” or “I hope they deliver it on time!”

Although these responses may seem natural, and have some sense of sympathy for her situation, they all focus to some extent on the negative side of the experience.

In Deuteronomy 11:26 we read, “See, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse…” Yes, I am taking this quote completely out of context, but so often in life we have the choice to see something as either a blessing or a curse, and which one we choose to focus on can make all the difference in how we feel about, and respond to, the experience.

We have so many chances to choose a blessing, and too often we let those opportunities slip by. So I responded to my colleague’s email with, “May your new fridge bring you many years of coolness, and storage of much that is good to eat.” Today, I chose the blessing over the curse. May I chose wisely again tomorrow.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Remembering Grandma

By Susan Esther Barnes

This week I finished taking a class series on walking people through the process of dying, as well as visiting people in mourning. On the last night of class, Rabbi Lezak asked us to tell stories of a time when either someone visited us while we were in mourning, or a time when we visited a mourner.

The first thing I thought was I’ve never received a visit while I was in mourning. We come from a small family, and both my grandfathers died before I was born. The only family members who have died in my lifetime were my two grandmothers and my two Great Uncles. In no case did anyone come to our house to comfort us after their deaths.

The next thing I thought about was how, after my father’s mother’s funeral, we gathered for lunch at the apartment she had shared with her brother, my Great Uncle Mitch. At some point during lunch my father’s wife Sonia said, “One story I remember about Pearl is – “ but Uncle Mitch cut her off. He would not permit anyone to talk about Grandma. I don’t remember anyone in my family talking about Grandma after that day. Whenever I think about that lunch, I feel like I was cheated. How many stories about Grandma would I have heard if Uncle Mitch had let us talk about her? What would I have learned about her that I will never know?

Last summer, I said the Mourner’s Kaddish for the 25th anniversary of Grandma’s death. As far as I know, it was the first time anyone had said Kaddish for her since her funeral. She was too strong a force in this world to be forgotten easily. She is still a positive force in my life. So although I can’t go back to that lunch to try to convince Uncle Mitch to let us speak, here are the stories I want to preserve about her.

Grandma was about five feet tall, in her 80’s, and bent over from osteoporosis. Her whole body shook all the time, like Katherine Hepburn’s does now. When I asked her why she shook like that, she told me a rat suddenly jumped out at her when she was a girl, and it scared her so badly she’d never been able to stop shaking.

Anyone who knew Grandma would immediately know her rat story was a complete fabrication. She might look small and frail, but she was a warrior. She was a woman of action. Nobody would believe something as insignificant as a rat would scare her for long. When she was living in Hungary and Hitler was rising to power, she went to see him speak so she could size him up for herself. She didn’t know German, but what she saw and heard alarmed her. Rather than cowering in fear, she gathered up her husband and son (my father), and got the heck out of Dodge. They would not be among the six million killed.

Grandma was the embodiment of unconditional love. She was a refuge and a protector. That doesn’t mean she never got mad at us. When my sister and I got into trouble, boy, would we know it. Just the look on her face would make the bravest person back off fast. No sane person would ever cross her twice.

She taught me that when it comes for sticking up for what is right, size doesn’t matter. She regularly walked to the Opportunity Shop in her neighborhood, where she volunteered raising money for Israel. She never learned to drive, but she lived in San Francisco, knew all the Muni routes, and had no trouble getting wherever she wanted to go. When she got on a bus and found all the seats were taken, she would stand in the middle of the aisle, look down the length of the bus, and announce in a loud voice hardly impeded by her small shaking body, “As a rule, it used to be that when an old lady got on the bus, a gentleman would give her his seat!” Immediately, a half dozen shame-faced people would leap to their feet and offer her their place. Some of them were so embarrassed they never sat down again even after they realized they could. My sister and I got some good seats this way.

Aside from her unconditional love, the best gift Grandma gave me was a sense of connection to my Jewish heritage. Although we grew up in a secular home, Grandma consistently made sure to write “Happy Hanukah” on the presents we unwrapped at Christmas. She had a hanukiah in her living room year round, and a Jewish calendar in the kitchen. If we wanted a snack, in her home matzo was always available. These may seem like small things, but as I was growing up, whenever I heard someone say the only way to get to Heaven was though Jesus I knew it wasn’t true because Grandma wasn’t Christian and there was no way a fair and decent God would, for even a moment, consider keeping her out.

So this is how I remember Grandma. Every year, from now on, I will be saying Kaddish for the anniversary of her death. And from time to time I will wear something that has Tweetie Bird on it. Because, like Grandma, to the uninitiated Tweetie Bird may appear to be small and helpless, but anyone who knows anything knows Tweetie, like Grandma, is well capable of taking care of himself.

For Pearl Singer, may her memory be a blessing.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Funny Things People Say

I just love it when people blurt out what they're thinking without taking the time to censor it first. For one thing, it's an honor that people feel comfortable enough talking with me to say whatever comes to mind. Plus, sometimes it's pretty amusing. Below are two things people recently said to me, both related to me standing at the front door of the synagogue greeting people.

First, from a man I was speaking with Monday night:
"You're better than a mezuzah!" (I'm pretty sure he doesn't know about my blog)

Second, in the synagogue parking lot tonight from a woman who was picking up her kids after class:
Somewhat astonished: "I've never seen you leave here before!"

I seriously love these people. Seriously. Love. These. People.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Two a.m. Conversation

My husband and I have some of our best conversations at two or three in the morning. This is not a story about one of those conversations.

It’s a story about snoring. My father snores. My father-in-law snores. Because of this, John’s father and mine each sleep in a different room from his respective wife. John does not want us to have separate bedrooms. One of the privileges of marriage which he wants to continue to enjoy is sleeping in the same bed with me. You can’t blame a guy for that.

Unfortunately, like our forefathers, sometimes John also snores. So we have reached an agreement. When he snores, I have his express permission to make him roll over so he’ll stop snoring, even if it means waking him up. On many nights, snoring isn’t an issue. On most nights when his snoring keeps me awake, I can fairly easily get him to roll over, and all is well.

Every once in a while, though, we experience something like what happened around 2am this morning:

Him : Snore, snore, snore
Me: Nudge
Him: Grunt, snore
Me: Nudge
Him: Snore
Me: Push
Him: “What?”
Me: “Roll over.”
Him: “What?”
Me: “Roll over.”
Him: “Why?”
Me: “You’re snoring.”
Him: “No, I’m not.”
Me: “Roll over.”
Him: “I did!”
Me: “Sigh.” (Because he most certainly did not roll over)
Him: Snore

This scene was only slightly less amusing than the time he insisted he knew he had not been snoring, because he had been awake, and had seen me reaching over to poke at him. It wasn’t until I said, “What, you were lying there in the dark staring at the ceiling?” that he realized he must have dreamed seeing me reaching for him.

So for the second half of the night I slept on the couch. At least we don’t have separate bedrooms.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Zero Sum Game

By Susan Esther Barnes

I remember, when I was a teen and I felt like my life was a mess, I thought that somehow each of is allotted only a certain amount of happiness in life, and that if we are happier in part of our life, we’ll necessarily be less happy in another part. So I remember making a deal with God, saying, “Ok, things suck right now. Go ahead and let the first part of my life be awful, because I know later on it’ll all balance out, and I’d rather be unhappy now and happy when I’m old, than the other way around.”

Over the last several years, as I experienced large changes in my life and everything seemed to be getting exponentially better, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. “Things can’t really stay this good for long,” I thought, but then I’d also think, “On the other hand, most likely I’m in the second half of my life now, so maybe now I finally get to enjoy all the happiness I ‘paid’ for in my youth.”

During services this morning, I kept thinking about the man who recently told me he’s looking for a good way to kill himself. I kept thinking, “My life is so good right now, in so many ways, and his isn’t. If only I could take some part of my happiness and give it to him. I have more than I need; it would be worth it to have a little less if it would help him.”

Then suddenly it dawned on me: That isn’t the way happiness works. The more good feelings and caring I have shared with others over the last few years, the more happiness and caring has flowed back to me. It’s like throwing a little yeast into dough. Sprinkle some around, and before you know it, it starts expanding. When I try to give this distressed man some of my caring and happiness, I don’t have less. I have more. For the first time in my life I finally understand it’s not a zero sum game.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Trying to Save a Life

Because I spend a lot of time standing in front of the synagogue greeting everyone who approaches, I meet a lot of people. A good number of them have become my friends, some are acquaintances, and some have faces I recognize but I’d have trouble putting a name to them.

The other day, one of these acquaintances responded to the question, “How are you?” by saying, “I’m looking for a good way to kill myself. Do you know a good way?” I told him I hope he won’t do that, and that a lot of people would be upset if he did, but that didn’t seem to be enough. I asked a rabbi for advice, and was told to try the local suicide prevention hotline.

Calling the suicide prevention hotline was a little surreal. The voice of the person who answered was very soft and calm. In fact, it was so soft and calm, I had to switch to a better phone so I could hear what the man was saying. In addition, he put me on hold a few times, which gave me the impression he was a new person just learning the ropes, and therefore he had to confer with his trainer from time to time even though what I was calling about wasn’t particularly complicated.

At any rate, the suicide prevention person suggested I try to find out how serious the person was with regard to his comment about killing himself. He also suggested I try to find out why he was considering that option.

I found the man’s phone number and address in the phone book, and gave him a call. I told him I was worried about him, and wanted to know how serious he was. He told me, very matter-of-factly, that he was not sure he was going to do it, but he was thinking about it, and was looking for a good way to do it. “Something not too messy,” he said.

I reiterated that I hoped he wouldn’t kill himself, and I asked him why he was thinking about it. He told me about some of the frustrations in his life, and ended by saying he felt like he wasn’t any use to anyone anymore, including himself. I was able to interest him in a meeting on Sunday, so I have some reason to believe he won’t kill himself before then. In the meantime, I’m looking for more ways to help him get involved in the local community, so he can see that he’s needed and has value.

I understand intellectually that I’m not responsible for saving this man’s life, but if I can help him add some value to it, and he sticks around a little longer because of it, it would still be a relief.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Pleasant Surprise

With my lunch today I got a fortune cookie that says, "A pleasant surprise is in store for you soon in the coming week," and I thought, "That's not new news. I get a pleasant surprise every week."

For instance, last night I had to drive out to a board meeting in Galt on Hwy 12 (a one-lane, notoriously dangerous road), and although it was raining on the way out, I was pleasantly surprised that the rain had stopped before I had to drive back. I was also pleasantly surprised at the board meeting when my client, without any prompting from me, asked that my item be moved up on the agenda since I had a long drive back.

I would expect that all of us get at least one pleasant surprise per week, if we'd only keep our eyes out for them and recognize them when they happen.

On a related note, I'm compiling comments from a survey we mailed recently for a recreation & park district. Some people are saying, essentially, "Why should I pay for something I don't use?" while other people are saying, "I won't use this, but I understand the value parks have to the community so I'm willing to pay for them anyway."

I'd rather live in a world where we all try to enjoy our pleasant surprises and are willing to do things to help one another even when those things may not benefit us directly, than live in a world where we spend too much time focusing on our own self-interest.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Today Was a Much Better Day Than it Might Have Been

This morning I encountered much heavier traffic on the freeway than I expected. Not only that, but when I was filling my gas tank, I noticed one of my tires seemed to be low on air. When I looked closer, I discovered a large crack on its side. Its twin on the other side didn't look too good, either.

So far, this doesn't sound like a great start to the day. But the fact is, I spend a lot of time driving on the freeway. This morning, I was able to drive to the tire place without mishap, and I was able to get both tires replaced. It's possible that the unexpectedly heavy traffic on the freeway helped to keep my tire from blowing out. It certainly would have been possible for me to shrug and decide not to further investigate what looked like a slightly flat tire.

When I compare the inconvenience and even the expense of some bad traffic and the need to replace two tires, it seems like nothing next to the possibility of blowing out a tire at 65 MPH and possibly injuring or even killing myself or others.

So, I have to say, today was a much better day than it might have been.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Standing Together

By Susan Esther Barnes

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

- Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller

The poem above is a cautionary tale about what can happen when we don’t stand up for each other. On October 25 we will hold the Founding Convention for the Marin Organizing Committee (MOC), an organization of religious and secular institutions dedicated to standing together for the public good.

One of the issues the MOC has been working on for the past two years is the need for a permanent open shelter for the homeless in the County. Unfortunately, progress on this issue hasn’t been as fast as we would like, and there isn’t enough time left to put such a shelter in place before winter comes this year. As a result, about a dozen churches and synagogues in the County have agreed to step up and provide a rotating temporary shelter for the homeless for this winter.

The County supports the plan for a permanent shelter, as well as the plan for an emergency rotating shelter for this winter, as long as the churches and synagogues providing the temporary shelter in incorporated areas obtain the necessary approval from their own cities and towns. The only place where this appears to be a problem is the City of San Rafael.

Apparently, the City of San Rafael is the only jurisdiction in the County that requires a Conditional Use Permit to provide a rotating shelter for the homeless. This means that the five churches in the City which want to participate in this program each need to pay between $6,000 and up to an estimated $9,000 or more to the City in order to get the City to process their application. Even if they pay these fees, for a total of $30,000 to $45,000 or more, there is no guarantee that any of the permits will be approved. This strikes me as particularly ironic. Since taking care of the homeless is a public good, it seems the City should be paying the churches to do this; the churches shouldn’t be paying the City.

Last night on the agenda of the San Rafael City Council was an item to discuss the possibility of waiving the fees for these churches. Before the City Council meeting, the MOC held a pre-meeting to prepare for their presentation to the City Council. The room was full. When those who were there from the five San Rafael churches were asked to stand, less than half the people in the room stood up. Why? Because MOC is not an organization in which individual member institutions stand alone. More than half the people there did not attend in their own institution’s interest, but were there to support those churches facing this dilemma.

We agreed that, instead of a host of different people expressing different opinions and possible solutions to the City Council, we would have just two people speak. Those two people read their prepared statements to us. Not everyone in the room agreed completely with those statements. But we all came to the City Council meeting to support them. Why? Because we are practicing the discipline of standing together.

In the City Council meeting, we sat quietly while the City staff presented their case about why the permit process and the fees were necessary. When the time came for our two representatives to speak, about 80 of us stood to show our support. We stood respectfully and silently through their statements, and when they were finished, we respectfully and silently left the Council chambers. Unlike the infamous town hall meetings held throughout the country over the summer, there were no outcries, no shouting matches, nobody attempting to stop anyone from being heard.

In San Rafael last night, we stood together for decency and for the common good. And for the first time in my life I felt that if, God forbid, some time they should be foolish enough to try to come for us, it is possible that we may not stand alone.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Third Thoughts

Right after I started this blog, I had second thoughts about whether I should do it.

Today, I saw a post on my friend Willow's blog, at in which she wrote a beautiful piece inspired, in part, by my most recent blog entry.

It brought tears to my eyes. Partly because what she wrote hits so close to home. She and I certainly have some things in common in regard to having stayed too long in a toxic relationship and then learning how to do the work of moving on.

I also found it moving because if my blog can, in some small way, help other people to make their lives better, then I couldn't possibly ask for anything more.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Confessions and Forgiveness

By Susan Esther Barnes

Because our congregation is so large, we have two services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. One is at the local Civic Center auditorium, and the other is in the sanctuary at the synagogue.

It has become the custom at the sanctuary service on Rosh Hashanah for congregants to write down, anonymously, things they have done about which they feel guilty. A selection of these confessions is read aloud by other congregants ten days later at the sanctuary service on the morning of Yom Kippur.

This is a particularly moving, and sometimes brutal, part of the service. It is heartrending to hear of members of one’s community berating themselves for feelings which are only natural, or confessing to alcoholism, or blaming themselves for being molested as a child.

I can’t say I’m immune. Sometimes I catch myself beating myself up for things which, intellectually, I know are not my fault. This public reading of confessions on Yom Kippur certainly places my petty self-grievances in stark contrast to those that deeply matter.

It also reminds me that even though we might feel it’s appropriate sometimes to say, “There is nothing you need to be forgiven for,” there is great importance and power in transcending logic and engaging in an annual time for us all to hear, simply, “You are forgiven.”

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Can a Pony Tail Save the World?

At services on Friday night there were two women with long hair sitting toward the front of the room. It was hot, and both women wanted to put their hair up, but neither had a pony tail holder. One woman managed to put her hair up with a paper clip. The other braided her hair, but the braid fell out. Then she tried to tie it into a knot, but that came out, too.

Then, a woman sitting behind them dug into her bag and found a pony tail holder. She could have just handed it to the woman in front of her, but instead she gently took hold of the woman's hair and made it into a pony tail for her. She did a remarkably good job, too, considering she's the mother of men, so I imagine she doesn't have much practice putting up other people's hair. Nevertheless, she understood the situation, and made sure to fashion it in such a way that the hair was held well off the other woman's neck, allowing the air to circulate comfortably.

I believe there's a midrash that says every day God sends out an angel to destroy the earth, but then God sees an act of loving kindness from one person toward another, and calls the angel back. Putting aside the issue of a God who can't make up his/her mind, and an incredibly slow angel, there's something I like about the notion that even one small act of loving kindness can save the world.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Last Night's Silent Prayer

By Susan Esther Barnes

Last night was the evening of Rosh Hashanah. As I stood on the steps greeting my fellow congregants, I marveled at the number of faces I knew.

Once I was seated inside, I looked around the room. I remembered how, three years ago on this day, I sat in a room full of complete strangers, and felt so alone. I remembered how, two years ago on this day, I stood at the microphone in front of about 1,500 people and told them how alone I had felt, what I had done to change that, and how good it felt to no longer be alone. I thought about how good it felt this year to be among so many friendly faces, to be part of a community where I feel safe, where I feel loved, where I feel I belong.

In every service, there is a time for silent prayer. Sometimes I use the time to talk with God in words. Sometimes I use the time to talk with God in images or feelings. Sometimes I use the time just to listen. Last night, something completely new happened.

Last night, during the time for silent prayer, the only words I was capable of conjuring in my mind were, "Thank you." The words repeated in my head, over and over, as if of their own volition. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you." And each time the words repeated, a new image from the past year formed in my head. "Thank you," and I pictured a time when a woman held my hand. "Thank you," and I saw people bussing tables after a Sulchan Shabbat dinner. "Thank you," and I saw us gathered in a congregant's home one Friday night, singing together.

The words repeated and the images came, one after the other, all these experiences and all these people I did not have in my life three years ago, but who are now an integral part of my life. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," the words and the images came, one after the other, effortlessly and seemingly without end, until Fred began to sing "Osey shalom" and the moment passed.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The List

By Susan Esther Barnes

Tonight is the evening of Rosh Hashanah. This is the time when we seek forgiveness from God for our transgressions over the past year. We also seek forgiveness from each other, because God forgives us for our transgressions against God, but for our transgressions against other people God does not forgive us until we make peace with one another.

Around this time in the year 2000, I was living in Nevada and talking on the phone with my best friend John in California. For the first time, I explained to him what happens this time of year, and I asked him if there were any transgressions for which I needed to seek forgiveness from him. To my surprise, he was able to come up with a list of items. Perhaps it should not have been a surprise. After all, this was the first time we had engaged in this discussion, but we had known each other for 15 years.

As John went through his list one item at a time, I listened, we discussed it, I apologized, he forgave me, and then he insisted that I tell him my list. I don’t think I was able to come up with much, but we discussed what I had, and I forgave him. It was a bonding experience. At the end of the discussion, he asked, “Explain to me again, why aren’t we dating each other?” I was at a loss. We began dating, and in January we will celebrate our 7th wedding anniversary.

As in all relationships, from time to time, things come up. We say something snippy; we don’t pay enough attention when we should; we do any number of things that hurt the other’s feelings. Whenever these things happen in our relationship, John and I immediately talk it out and seek the other's forgiveness. In these cases, it is rare for one of us not to say, “Are you sure we’re okay now? When Rosh Hashanah comes, I don’t want this to be on The List.”

Thus, The List, and our desire to be sure there is nothing on it, marks our days and focuses our intention regarding how we want to interact with each other. The last thing we want to have happen is to reach Rosh Hashanah and to find out the other has been harboring some hurt that has been festering over the past weeks or months. Instead, the threat of The List helps to ensure that we solve issues in the moment, as they arise. It reminds us that openness and honesty, as well as the willingness to broach uncomfortable topics, is one of the pillars on which our relationship is built.

Now, when Rosh Hashanah approaches and we sit down to discuss The List, it is empty. Once we confirm its lack of items, we take some time to talk about our relationship and our appreciation of each other. It is always a good beginning for the promise of a sweet and happy new year.

L’shana tova.


I'm not a poet, but here's something I wrote last year, less than two weeks after my husband was hospitalized for a couple of days with an infection in the sack surrounding his heart. It was a scary time, and about a month before Rosh Hashanah, so I was feeling a bit dramatic.

By Susan Esther Barnes

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed
Who shall live and who shall die

Each year I fear death will come
Before Rosh Hashanah
When I sit down to ask you
Is there anything I have said or done
In the past year
That has hurt you
I say the words and hang over an abyss
I fear the valley of the shadow of death
How could I have hurt you
So much worse
To have hurt you and not even notice
But how can I breathe if I have hurt you
And not only have I not noticed
But have committed a far greater sin
By not providing a safe place
For you earlier
To tell me what I have done
And instead allowed it to root in your soul
To fester there

If somehow I live through it
It is for this I shall repent

Monday, September 14, 2009

On Keeping Kosher

By Susan Esther Barnes

I’ve heard a lot of people who are not Jewish say they know very little about Judaism, but one thing they do know is we have dietary laws that say, among other things, that we can’t eat pork. When we follow these laws (kashrut in Hebrew), it is said we are “keeping kosher.” (I don’t know why it’s called “keeping” kosher instead of “eating kosher,” but that’s a matter to explore at another time).

The ironic thing about this being one of the few things people know about Jews is that most of the Jews I know don’t make any attempt to keep kosher. I certainly didn’t, until just over two years ago. I didn’t have any intention to start, either, but one day I was standing in line at a Mexican restaurant, and I thought, “I can have cheese on this, but if skip the cheese, it will be kosher.”

Technically, an Orthodox Jew would still not call it kosher, for a whole list of reasons which I won’t go into here. With apologies to those who disagree, I’m going to refer to “keeping kosher” in this discussion as following the basic dietary rules laid out in the Torah (the Hebrew Bible). Namely, eating only those animals that have hooves and chew their cud, eating only those fish with fins and scales, and not eating pork. And for good measure, I’ll even throw in not eating meat or fowl together with dairy, although this strikes me as being a big stretch from the admonition in the Torah to not “boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Especially since no fowl’s mother has milk.

So I was standing in line, thinking “If I don’t have cheese on this, it will be kosher,” and I ordered my lunch without cheese. Later that day when I was deciding what to have for dinner, it occurred to me that I had the same choice to make: For this meal, will it be kosher or not? Once again, I chose, for that one meal, to go with kosher. I made this same choice, one meal after the next, until, after a week or so, I decided it was enough of a pattern that it was time to tell my husband what I was doing.

I never made a commitment to keep eating kosher, and I still haven’t. I may keep doing it for decades without ever making a long-term commitment to it. But at some point over the last couple of years it changed from a whim, to an experiment, to a mild annoyance, to a habit.

Often, people around me have no idea I’m keeping kosher. It’s easy to order kosher food at a restaurant or to make kosher choices at a buffet without mentioning what I’m doing. When in doubt, vegetarian fare fits the bill without raising eyebrows.

When the subject of me keeping kosher does come up, I have received two kinds of responses. The first, from Jews and non-Jews alike, is curiosity. The two most common questions I get are, “Why are you doing this?” and “How does it feel?” I still don’t have a good answer to either question. To the former, I generally shrug and say something like, “I was standing in line at a Mexican food joint and I decided to give it a try.” To the latter, I generally say, “Not as annoying as it did in the beginning.”

I find the question about how it feels to be an intriguing one. Why do people think it would feel different? I suppose some people think it’s healthier, so perhaps they think I’ll say I feel more energetic or something. I don’t. Cutting out unhealthy foods like bacon and sausages still leaves plenty of room for potato chips, pie, cake, and other yummy, fatty, unhealthy foods. Maybe they think it would make me feel closer to the Jewish people, but it doesn’t. More on that later. Maybe they think it would make me feel closer to God, but there are a lot of other things that make me feel close to God with a lot less effort.

The second kind of response I get when I mention I’m keeping kosher is one I have received so far only from other Jews. It is open hostility. This is why keeping kosher definitely does not make me feel closer to the Jewish people. Rather, it distances me from some of them. I don’t know where this hostility comes from, but it must be from baggage these folks are carrying around from earlier in life, most likely from their childhood. Whatever the cause, even though I make it a policy not to even suggest that anyone other than myself ought to keep kosher, there are those who seem to respond to any mention of keeping kosher as if it were a personal attack.

So we are left with the question of why am I still doing this, more than two years later, if it doesn’t make me feel any different, and if it sometimes upsets other people. At this point, the only explanation I can offer is this: Keeping kosher is a mitzvah, a commandment. There are many other commandments that I keep. Every other commandment I do, be it giving money to a homeless person, observing Shabbat, or visiting someone in the hospital, makes me feel good. Therefore, to some extent, I do these things in order to feel good. Keeping kosher doesn’t make me feel good; most of the time it doesn’t make me feel anything at all. And that’s how I know it’s the only mitzvah I do only for God.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

After S'lichot

Last night I attended a beautiful S'lichot service. If the blowing of the shofar during the month of Elul has not yet prepared us for the High Holy Days, S'lichot, which occurs on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, is meant to give us a good shove in the right direction.

The High Holy Days, also known as the Days of Awe, are usually my favorite time of the year. I enjoy the majesty of the services, the music, the drawing together of Jews all over the world. For me, it is normally a time of forgiveness, in which I strive to forgive myself and others. It is a time of renewal and a time for hope.

Somehow, this year is different.

Although I rarely have nightmares, last night I dreamt of torture. Not torture for the sake of eliciting information, but torture with the goal of keeping the vicitms alive so they could suffer as much and as long as possible.

Then I dreamt I was with friends on an island utterly unfamiliar to me. I joyfully explored the island, until I turned to look for my friends and found they were departing on the last transportation out, leaving me alone, lost, confused.

Why are my thoughts turning to these images at this time of year? Is it because, as we approach the day when our names will be written in the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the coming year, I reflect on this past year, when for the first time in a long, long time, people I know have died? Is it because I see the rise of anti-semitism in Europe and elsewhere, and it frightens me? Is it because I see the Jewish people fighting amongst ourselves about Israel and about which Jewish denominations are superior to the others, and I know it's this kind of in-fighting that contributed to the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem?

To what extent is my inaction responsible for the things that are troubling me? Perhaps this year I need to seek forgiveness not for the things I have done, but for the things I have not done.

Friday, September 11, 2009

How Does God Know We're Praying?

By Susan Esther Barnes

On the home page of our synagogue website is something that has caused a small amount of controversy. Over the word “prayer” is a picture of a young man, head slightly bowed, his chin gently resting on one hand curled around the other. What is this? Jews don’t traditionally clasp our hands when we pray, nor do we necessarily bow our heads. Is this a true representation of how we pray? On the other hand, this is a person, authentically immersed in a conversation with God, not bothering to think about decorum or tradition or what praying is “supposed” to look like. This is a prayer on a personal, fundamental level.

It got me to thinking: If we’re not generally bowing, kneeling, or holding our hands together in a particular way, how does God know when we’re praying? Many of our prayers start, “Baruch ata Adonai” (Blessed are you Adonai), but they don’t all start that way, especially the spontaneous ones. I suppose some of us may start our prayers by getting God’s attention: “God, could you help me out a minute here?”

There is a tradition that for certain prayers, we must have 10 Jews, called a minyan. There is also a tradition that even for private prayers, we say them out loud, with just enough volume so we can hear what we are saying. Does this mean God only hears the prayers we say out loud?

That doesn’t feel right to me. Certainly, whenever I address God directly, I get a response. For instance, if I just think, “Hey, God,” I get the feeling of at least a “Hey” back. Sometimes, I’m not even thinking about God; I’m thinking about something (or someone) else. Suddenly, a great idea will pop into my head, or I’ll suddenly remember something important that I’d forgotten. Where did that thought come from? Was it God helping me out? But I wasn’t even praying! Or maybe I was.

If God can hear our thoughts, then maybe everything we think is a prayer. Maybe that is how God knows when we’re praying.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Second Thoughts

I've been thinking about starting a blog for some time, but after I went to bed last night, I wondered whether I had made a mistake in doing this. Do I really want to put my thoughts and my writing out into the universe this way?

Then I had a dream. In it I had a new job and a new boss, and he said he may need to hire someone else to do my job. My feeling in response to him was, "I was born to do this. Just wait; you'll see."

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

To Kiss a Mezuzah

By Susan Esther Barnes

In my daily life I try to practice what Carl Rogers calls holding people in "unconditional positive regard." In most situations this requires little effort on my part; it really just means giving myself a mental nudge in the right direction if I begin to think critically about someone. In some situations, or around certain people, it takes a good deal more conscious effort and energy on my part to maintain my positive regard.

When I kiss the mezuzah on the way out of my home in the morning (or when I encounter one elsewhere during the day), I try not to touch it automatically or without thought. Rather, I always try to do it with intention. For that moment, while my hand travels to the mezuzah, I think about how I want to be in the world, and my intention to treat everyone I meet that day with unconditional positive regard. As I bring my hand to my lips, I remind myself that it is my intention to strive toward being the very best that I can be.

Sometimes, at some point during the day I walk into what is a difficult situation for me. It may be that I'm working with someone whose personality hits my hot buttons, or I'm feeling stressed, or it's a situation in which people have differing but passionate views. In those situations, I try to focus on the intention I had when I touched the mezuzah that morning. Sometimes, I find in that place in time there is nothing but me, and the others in the room, and my positive regard for them. And what flows from that is always good. It is as if when I touched the mezuzah that morning I drew out a little extra bit of the will to do good from it, and when I touched my lips I placed that will and ability inside me. In those moments I know, for that day at least, that I have truly have kissed the mezuzah.