Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jews on Planes

By Susan Esther Barnes

I’m not one of those people who strikes up conversations with strangers on airplanes. As a general rule, I tend to keep to myself, read a book, write something, or maybe even take a nap. The exception to this rule seems to be when I run into a Jewish person.

It’s one of those peculiarities of the Jewish people that, when we meet, our first reaction seems to be as if we have suddenly found a distant relative. I don’t know if it’s because we’re a minority group, or because we consider all Jews to be a “member of the tribe,” or it’s just a more common phenomenon having to do with finding someone with whom we have something in common, but whatever it is, when I come across another Jewish person on a plane, we end up talking as if we’ve known each other for years.

The first time I noticed this happening was years ago, when I was on a plane, reading a book about Jewish Life Cycles. The woman sitting next to me told me her grandson was going to have his bar mitzvah in a few months, and she wanted to know whether my book had anything to say about the responsibilities of a grandmother during a bar mitzvah ceremony. Sadly, it did not, but that did not stop us from talking about the upcoming ceremony, her family, and any manner of other subjects.

Most recently, this happened on a plane to LA, where I was traveling on business with my boss. He and I were speculating on which country had the most Jews outside of Israel and the United States, when the man on the other side of me gave us his opinion. It turns out he was and American Jew of Persian descent. Before we knew it, we were filled in on his family’s business, what happened when one of his relatives returned to Iran, and which synagogue he didn’t attend regularly.

Of course, it’s not always all smiles and roses. There was that one time on the plane to Israel when one of the black hat Orthodox men refused to take his seat because it was between another woman and me, and he just couldn’t get past the restriction against being in such close proximity to females with which he wasn’t related.

Still, it is noteworthy that, for a person who almost never talks to strangers on planes, my longest and most interesting conversations have turned out to be with other Jews.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Why the Current Use of the Term "Torah Jew" is a Chilul Hashem

By Susan Esther Barnes

We Jews seem to have a lot of labels for ourselves these days. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Chasidic, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Humanistic; the list goes on.

In some ways, the labels can be useful. If I’m visiting a synagogue for the first time, what label it gives itself can help me decide what to wear and how to behave once there. For example, in some synagogues I could probably show up in blue jeans and a t-shirt without feeling out of place. In some, I would be expected to wear at least a pair of slacks and a nice blouse. In others, I’d have to wear a long skirt, a long-sleeved blouse, and a wig or other hair covering.

Similarly, in some synagogues, I would be welcome wearing tefillin and a tallit, and in others I most certainly would not. In some, I would find women and men sitting together, and in others the men and women would sit in separate areas.

Therefore, knowing the denomination, or label, the synagogue identifies with helps me to prepare for my visit in a way that will lessen the chance that my clothing or behavior might result in an embarrassing faux pas.

On the other hand, even as the number of Jewish labels seem to be increasing, some people are rejecting such labels. Labels can be limiting. They can also lead to assumptions about the members which are not necessarily true. Some synagogues and prayer groups are using the terms “non-denominational” or “post-denominational” for themselves, although, of course, these too are labels.

One of the labels that has come to my attention in recent years is the term “Torah Jew.” My objection to this term is that currently it seems to be used only by Jews who others would most likely call Orthodox. The trouble I have with this is not that I think the Orthodox are not Torah Jews. It is clear to me that religious Orthodox Jews study and shape their actions according to their understanding of the Torah.

The problem I have with this term being applied only to Orthodox Jews is that it is equally clear to me that all other religious Jews also study and shape their actions according to their understanding of the Torah. We all read from identical copies of the same Torah scroll on Shabbat and at other services.

Applying the term “Torah Jew” to only one minority group implies they follow the Torah while the majority of religious Jews don’t. This is a falsehood, and a chilul hashem (desecration of God’s name). We may not all agree regarding how we interpret God’s intent, but we are all Torah Jews.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Haveil Havalim #316

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs -- a weekly collection of Jewish and Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by Jack.

Opinions expressed in the posts linked below are those of the respective bloggers and not necessarily endorsed by me.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat presents a lovely poem in A psalm for those who are in freefall posted at Velveteen Rabbi.

Mystery Woman reminds us there are things beyond our control in The Ultimate Matchmaker posted at Mystery Woman.

Batya writes about conversion and more in Converts to Judaism, Long Process posted at Shiloh Musings.

Mordechai Torczyner calculates the amount of time a man taking a certain path would study halacha before becoming a rabbi in How long does it take to become a Rabbi? posted at The Rebbetzin's Husband.

Ben-Yehudah presents How Ex-Haredi Artists Can Reapproach Judaism posted at Esser Agaroth.

Harry presents thoughts about Zionism in a thoughtful piece called At my most Zionist posted at ISRAELITY.

Read up on all the latest as Joel Katz presents Religion and State in Israel - May 9, 2011 (Section 1) and Religion and State in Israel - May 9, 2011 (Section 2) posted at Religion and State in Israel.

Benji Lovitt presents, as posted at Jpost, WE’RE BAAAAAACK! 63 MORE Things I Love about Israel posted at Benji Lovitt.

Batya questions the prominence of money in discussions about making aliyah in Is Money the Key to Promoting Aliyah? posted at Shiloh Musings.

A Walker in Jerusalem is frustrated with new construction styles in A tomb with a view posted at A Walker in Jerusalem.

Ben-Yehudah presents Christian sect seeks residency and settlement in Samaria - Jewish Israel posted at Jewish Israel.

Yom HaZicharon and Yom HaAzma'ut:
Tanya Tolchin writes about the importance of community in I Need a Siren posted at On the Lettuce Edge.

Rivkah Lambert Adler celebrates Israel's 63rd birthday in You turned my mourning into dancing (Psalms 30:12) posted at Bat Aliyah.

Batya writes about the holiday in One Very Large Family posted at Shiloh Musings.

Blue and white are the colors of the day as Harry presents Mourning in blue and white posted at ISRAELITY.

Mirjam Weiss presents May Their Memory Be Blessed posted at Miriyummy.

Mordechai Torczyner presents The Religious Significance of Yom ha'Atzmaut posted at The Rebbetzin's Husband.

Westbankmama presents Fighting on a Different Front ? Debunking the Arab Narrative posted at West Bank Mama.

Harry presents a piece about the celebrities who showed up in American celebrities help mark Independence Day in Israel posted at ISRAELITY.

Ben-Yehudah explains why he says Hallel for God saving the Am Israel/Eretz Israel from destruction even though he's not pleased with the secular government in Dear Ariel, Please Join Me In Saying Hallel On 5 b'Iyyar posted at Esser Agaroth.

On a similar note, Schvach presents Schvach - פני דל posted at Schvach - פני דל.

Jacob Richman shares a photo in "Lights of Hope", 720- meter-long flag on the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem posted at Good News from Israel.

Independent Patriot/Elise presents a story about whether "Israel" should be listed as the birthplace on the passport of a person born in Jerusalem in Jerusalem: SCOTUS, POTUS and Congress posted at Liberty's Spirit.

I write about how it's hard not to be able to write about some things in The Silent Scream posted at To Kiss a Mezuzah.

Mrs. S. writes about her grandmother, may her memory be a blessing, in Bobi a”h posted at Our Shiputzim: A Work In Progress.

Read about a tradition I wish we would all adopt as one of our own as Rickismom presents A Family Tradition posted at Beneath the Wings.

Batya presents Aliyah, A key to Success posted at Shiloh Musings.

I don't think this post is even remotely funny, but Heshy Fried submitted it under "Humor" so here it is: 61 really frum�things posted at Frum Satire.

Food Reviews:
Daniela presents Tirat Tzvi's New Thin Sliced Deli-Meat posted at Isreview.

Daniela presents Five's Sugar-Free Watermelon Gum posted at Isreview.

How you can participate:
You may submit your blog post for the next edition of Haveil Havalim by using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Silent Scream

By Susan Esther Barnes

Over the last year and a half, I have become a regular blogger. I write down whatever moves me, and post it for all to see. And over time, although not huge in number, my readership has grown in an encouraging way.

I did not realize how spoiled I was becoming. I have gotten used to being able to post about whatever moves me; about whatever I discover about myself and my world. This transparency, this not holding back of what is inside, has helped me to grow in confidence about myself and the inherent “okayness” of the person who is me.

It was a bit jarring, then, to discover in the last few weeks that this freedom I have been taking for granted is not as limitless as I had imagined. A couple of things have happened about which I cannot, in good conscience, post, since doing so would hurt other people.

I know I can write about these things, and then save what I write in a private place, or discard it, without risking the harm I wish to avoid. However, doing so still would not fulfill what I have become accustomed to, namely, not holding back in my blog, not covering up, not avoiding that which is hard to admit or discuss.

So despite the other options that may be available to me, what I am left with still feels a bit like a silent scream.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Second Week

By Susan Esther Barnes

On Monday evening I got the call, “The burial will be on Thursday at 11 a.m.”

Finally, I was able to make some plans and take some action. I notified my sister, my husband, my synagogue, and the folks at work. Time, which had been moving so incredibly slowly for the past week, suddenly snapped back into a normal pace.

On Tuesday morning I spoke with the attorney’s office that will be handling my father’s estate, and made an appointment to meet with them on Wednesday afternoon. Then my husband and I packed up the car, I sent an email to my father’s widow, Chris, to tell her we were on the way, and we headed out for the approximately seven hour drive to Mammoth Lakes.

We arrived at the hotel and I checked my email, but I didn’t have a message back from Chris. I was anxious to see her and to speak with her about what would happen at the burial. I sent her an email to let her know we had arrived. We tried to call her a couple of times, but her phone was busy.

The next day, there was still no email or call from Chris, and her phone was still busy. My husband and I drove by the house to make sure everything looked okay, which it did, but we didn’t want to just knock on the door unannounced.

Instead, we drove to the cemetery. It is very small. We tried to find where my father’s grave would be, but there was no hole dug yet, and it was impossible to tell.

I called the synagogue to test the phone reception, which was good. This was important, because in order to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, it is required to have at least ten Jews. I knew I wouldn’t be able to gather ten Jews at the cemetery, so we planned to do the next best thing. Nine of my friends were going to gather in Rabbi Lezak’s office the next day to say Kaddish with me over the phone.

We continued on the Bishop, where we had lunch and met with the attorney. He explained that because of the long processes involved, including three weeks of newspaper notices before I can be appointed officially as the executor, as well as four months for any creditors to file claims against the estate, there is no way the estate will be settled until some time next year. At least that means there isn’t anything much I need to run out and do right away.

We tried to call Chris again, got a busy signal again, and drove back to the hotel. We left a message at the hotel desk for my sister to call when she and her family arrived, made a few more unsuccessful calls to Chris, and settled in to wait.

When my sister, her husband, and her older daughter arrived (her younger daughter chose not to come), we went to her hotel room to discuss what we ought to do. Why wasn’t Chris answering her emails, and why was her phone busy? Did she just not want to deal with us? Was she okay? It seemed unlikely that she had suffered a heart attack or stroke or something, but it wasn’t completely out of the question.

Finally, we decided we would all drive over to the house to see what was up. She came to the door and welcomed us in. We told her we had been trying to get ahold of her. She looked surprised, picked up the phone, and discovered she had no dial tone. She didn’t know her phone had been out of order.

We all went out to dinner, and I sat next to Chris. I told her about my plan to say the Mourner’s Kaddish at the burial, as well as to ask her, my sister, and my niece to read something from the rabbi’s handbook. She said that was fine; she didn’t seem to care one way or the other. At least she didn’t object, as I had feared she might.

On Thursday morning, Rabbi Lezak called my cell phone just as we were arriving at the cemetery. He said some comforting and rabbinic things but I didn’t take any of it in; I was too keyed up.

The people gathered in his office introduced themselves so I would know who was there. I walked to where my father’s coffin was poised over the open grave that had been dug sometime after we had visited the previous day. The rest of the family in attendance arrayed themselves in a line to my right, and were joined by a neighbor who had unexpectedly come as well.

I said the Mourner’s Kaddish. It was hard, and I stumbled over the words in some places. Hearing the voices on the other end of the phone saying it with me was of incalculable value. I’m not sure I could have gotten through the whole prayer without them sustaining me. Afterward, they told me they loved me, and I told them I loved them too. It was a huge, huge deal.

Chris looked so alone, so I went over and I held my arm around her as the coffin was lowered into the grave. It is Jewish tradition that the next of kin be the first people to toss dirt onto the coffin. I didn’t want the first dirt to be thrown onto the coffin by strangers. At my direction, Chris tossed some dirt onto the coffin, then my sister did, and then I did. I should have asked my niece to toss some dirt in too, but I didn’t think of that at the time. I don’t know why. I regret it.

There is something final about the sound of dirt hitting the top of a coffin. I had never heard it before, and it is not a sound I will forget. It is an effective way to drive home the notion that all this is real.

Chris said she hadn’t brought her reading glasses, so I read the passage I had chosen for her, then my sister and her daughter read the passages I had chosen for them.

I know we didn’t do things in the traditional order. For instance, the Mourner’s Kaddish should have been at the end, but I didn’t want to keep the folks on the phone waiting for an unknown amount of time. I felt awkward leading the proceedings, but I was glad I did, because otherwise nobody would have. It would have been too lonely and sad to just stand there and not have any kind of service at all.

On the way out of the cemetery, I followed the tradition of ceremonially washing my hands, and Chris washed her hands as well. My sister chose not to wash her hands. She said she wanted the dirt to become part of her.

Chris thanked me for leading the service. She said she appreciated that it was short and honest. I had been so anxious that she wouldn’t want there to be any prayers or anything; it was a big relief to know she actually found it to be helpful.

Then my husband and I got into the car and we began the long drive home. The next afternoon, a group of people came over for the traditional meal of consolation. It was helpful to have the opportunity to talk some about what had happened over the last several days, and to say the Mourner’s Kaddish again with a room of people.

I was able to participate in services on Friday night to a much greater extent than I had the previous week. As happened the previous week, on both Friday and Saturday, I was flanked by members of my community who didn’t want me to sit alone.

Traditionally, when we say the Sh’ma, the central prayer asserting that God is one, we gather the fringes from the four corners of our tallit (prayer shawl) into one hand. I did not do so either last week or this week. I still acknowledge that God is one and that everything is one, but right now things are still feeling a bit too blown apart for me to gather all the fringes together.

Still, I know I am healing. It is a huge relief to know that my father’s body is buried and his spirit is free. I know that, slowly, the fringes will start to come back together.