Thursday, September 29, 2011

10Q 2011 Day 2

By Susan Esther Barnes

10Q is a website that sends you a question once a day for 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You answer the questions online, and can choose whether or not to share your answers.

The site stores your answers each year, so you can look back at your responses from each year, to see how you have grown and changed over time.

Below is the question for the second day this year, and my response.

Is there something that you wish you had done differently this past year? Alternatively, is there something you're especially proud of from this past year?

I wish I had seen my Dad once more before he died. I wish I'd had one last conversation with him in the hospital, when he knew he was dying. I wish I'd had one last chance to look him in the eye, to hold his hand, and to tell him I love him.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

10Q 2011 Day 1

By Susan Esther Barnes

10Q is a website that sends you a question once a day for 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You answer the questions online, and can choose whether or not to share your answers.

The site stores your answers each year, so you can look back at your responses from each year, to see how you have grown and changed over time.

Below is the question for the first day this year, and my response.

Describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful? Relieved? Resentful? Inspired?

In the past year, I performed taharah for the first time. This is the ritual in which we wash and dress a dead person, and place her in her coffin.

The biggest affect it has had on me is that it has made it easier for me to see life all around me. When I look at a tree now, I don't just see a trunk and branches and leaves. I see life. Life is everywhere, all around us, all the time. The earth is teeming with it.

I am both grateful for, and inspired by this experience, and plan to continue to do this mitzvah in the future.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Transgender Kids

By Susan Esther Barnes

CNN recently published a story called Transgender kids: Painful quest to be who they are. It’s about kids who insist, at an early age, that they are the opposite gender from the gender of their anatomy. These aren’t kids with malformed or unusual anatomy – they are just boys who insist they are girls, or girls who refer to themselves as a boy.

As the article explains, on the one hand, there is anatomy, and on the other hand, there are cultural things attached to gender, such as clothing (skirts or pants), toys (dolls or trucks), color preferences (pink or blue), etc.

This article caught my attention for two reasons. First, I know a couple with four kids. Three of them identify with the gender that matches their anatomy, and one does not. I’m not going to use names here, to protect their privacy. The one child, who insists he is male, is known to his friends and schoolmates as male, and I’m certainly not going to “out” him.

This couple has had to navigate a unique path, as they try to accept reality at the same time that they try to support their transgender child’s feelings. At times, they have had to deal with people who have not been helpful, such as when one of the child’s siblings said to his friends, “He’s not a boy. He’s really a girl.” Fortunately, in this case the friends thought this was just normal sibling teasing, and they didn’t believe it.

Then, there are others that are too helpful. For instance, someone changed the transgender child’s medical records to read “male” instead of “female.” The child’s mother insisted they change it back. Unless and until the boy has surgery to become male anatomically, having “male” on his medical records could cause problems.

For instance, what if the child is rushed to the emergency room, and his medical records say “male” but he is anatomically a female? The hospital will think they have the wrong child, and won’t know whose parents to notify. Similarly, what if he goes to the school nurse complaining of abdominal pain, and they’re thinking appendicitis, when maybe it’s actually just cramping because of a first monthly cycle?

The other reason this story caught my eye is that, although I have always identified myself as a female, and have never wanted to be a male, I show a lot of male tendencies. In elementary school, I didn’t want to wear a dress. I started wearing pants as soon as I was allowed, and instead of playing with the girls, I played kickball with the boys.

In high school and college, at the annual Super Bowl party I attended, I went outside and played touch football with the boys while the girls stayed inside at halftime. I cared so little about fashion that I won “Most casually dressed” in my high school yearbook. I’ve been told I run like a guy, give directions like a guy, and even to this day I prefer video games that are mostly played by men.

So what differentiates me from transgender people? Why is it that my tendencies skew strongly toward the culturally male, yet I am confident in my identity as a female? To me, the difference feels like a razor’s edge. There but for the grace of God go I, and my heart aches for the struggle of those who feel they have somehow been assigned the wrong body.

At the end of the CNN piece a transgender kid named Mario is quoted as saying, “Just be you and be happy.” If only life were that simple.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Do Jews Believe in An Afterlife?

By Susan Esther Barnes

Recently, someone asked me, “Jewish people don’t believe in life after death, right?” I can certainly see how someone would get that impression.

When I’m channel surfing, sometimes I come across Christian songs or programs, and they seem to talk a lot about the afterlife. It seems like they’re always admonishing you to accept Jesus and be good or you won’t get into heaven, or they’re looking forward to their reward in heaven, or, on occasion, they mention non-Christians or sinners going to Hell. It’s pretty clear they believe in an afterlife.

Jews, on the other hand, don’t talk about the afterlife much. I can’t tell you when was the last time I heard a sermon that even mentioned life after death (if ever), which is saying something, since I generally hear about three sermons a week (two in synagogue and one via podcast).

Like many subjects in Judaism, there are different opinions about what happens after we die. Some people think once you’re dead, that’s it. It’s over. Others think the spirit lives on in some form or other, and some believe we will be resurrected when Moshiach (the Messiah) comes.

Rather than focusing on the uncertain afterlife, most Jews instead focus on the current world. It is our job in this world to perform God’s mitzvot (commandments), and to try to make this world a better place. We’ll worry about what happens in the afterlife, if any, if and when we get there.

Part of the uncertainty arises because the Sefer Torah, or the Five Books of Moses, doesn’t have much to say on the subject. It does mention Sheol a few times, which seems to be a pit or underground place, and it generally refers to someone going “down to Sheol,” but Sheol isn’t described in any detail.

According to Heaven and Hell in Jewish Tradition posted at, Ecclesiastes and Job “insist that all of the dead go down to Sheol, whether good or evil,” so it isn’t like the Christian version of Hell which is only for the bad folk.

Later, rabbis began to use the term olam haba (world to come) to refer to the afterlife. This is generally understood to be the place we go after Moshiach comes and the dead are resurrected, and it may be kind of like Heaven.

So what happens in between?

There is a belief that when a person dies, their spirit hovers near the thing that is most familiar to it, namely, the body that so recently housed that spirit. That is one of the reasons why we have a person sit with the body of a dead person for the entire time between death and burial. We don’t want the spirit to think the body has been abandoned. It is also one of the reasons why we treat dead bodies with care and respect.

In theory, once the body has been properly buried, the dead person’s spirit is relieved that the body has been well cared for, and that the body has been returned to the earth. The spirit is then free to move on to whatever comes next.

Of course, none of us can know what, if anything, happens after death, until we experience it. I like that Judaism doesn’t claim to have all the answers to mysteries like these. I like that, rather than dwelling on the unknowable afterlife, we focus on this life.

L’chaim,” we say as a toast, “To life.” Jewish tradition tells us that if we save a life, it is like saving an entire world. “Choose life,” God tells us. Ask a Jewish woman if she has a necklace with a Hebrew word on it, and she will probably show you one that says chai – life. Life is the focus of this world.

As for death, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

"Whose Eggs Are They, Anyway?" posted at TCJewfolk

See my latest post at TCJewfolk, called Whose Eggs Are They, Anyway? examining a story about a 17 year old girl who died, and whose parents chose to harvest her eggs.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Review of "The Book of LIfe" on TC Jewfolk

If you want to know what not to read this fall, you may want to read my review of the "Book of Life" at TC Jewfolk.

Haveil Havalim #330

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.

As a general rule, I don't post more than three submissions by the same person, so if you sent in more and you don't see them here, that's why. Opinions expressed in the posts linked below are those of the respective bloggers and not necessarily endorsed by me.

New Blogger to Haveil Havalim:
The first post this week is from Avigayil, because this is her first post to Haveil Havalim, and I like to encourage new writers. Please welcome her and her post, On meeting Rabba Sara, why I freaked out, and why I probably shouldn't have had to posted at Fabulosity.

The Upcoming High Holy Days:
If Gilad Shalit came home for Rosh Hashanah, what would you feed him? Mirjam Weiss gives us one idea in Like Talking To A Wall posted at Miriyummy.

Uncomforatble with the High Holy Days? Maybe you can find something to like in What the High Holy Days Mean to Me posted at To Kiss a Mezuzah.

Find holiday fun for the kids as Jennifer in MamaLand presents FREE ראש השנה / Rosh Hashanah Colouring Pages & Activities! posted at Adventures in Mama-Land.

Yisrael Medad writes about the month of Elul in In the Month of Elul posted at More From The Admor.

What does the Wide World of Sports have to do with Elul? Cosmic X explains in Elul: The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat posted at Cosmic X in Jerusalem.

Jacob Richman showcases some Rosh Hashanah stamps in New Israeli Stamps for Rosh Hashana posted at Good News from Israel.

Sheyna Galyan presents Shame as a sin posted at Books and Beliefs.

Jacob Richman has linked a new Rosh Hashanah video at New: Learn Hebrew Rosh Hashana Video posted at Good News from Israel.

Abe Greenwald writes about anti-semitism, ant-americanism, and 9/11 in Israel, America, and the Lessons of 9/11 posted at Jewish Ideas Daily.

Josh Waxman presents Thou shalt not sleep with the fishes posted at parshablog.

Joel Katz gives us his usual, interesting rundown of Israeli events in Religion and State in Israel - September 12, 2011 (Section 1) and Religion and State in Israel - September 12, 2011 (Section 2) posted at Religion and State in Israel.

Etana Hecht writes about girls being harrassed as they try to go to school in Bet Shemesh in A Personal Account of the Events In Bet Shemesh posted at Frum Satire (and no, this post is not satire).

Job hunting in Israel? Jacob Richman shares some tips in Job Hunting Tips posted at Good News from Israel.

Listen to the sounds of Jerusalem with Harry in Listening to the sounds of silence in Jerusalem posted at ISRAELITY.

Sharon A shares photos and a commentary of life in Israel in New Season « The Real Jerusalem Streets posted at The Real Jerusalem Streets.

Read about programs for Israelis between high school and military service as Harry presents The “mechinistim” posted at ISRAELITY.

Batya dislikes a statement from an Israeli MK in Treason? What 1967 Tragedies? posted at Shiloh Musings.

Iris shares a conversation between two Israelis who have lost their homes in "Yeah, Me Too" posted at Shiloh Musings.

Batya writes about the relationship between Israel and Egypt in Is This "New Egypt" Still A Peace Partner of Israel? posted at Shiloh Musings.

Cosmic X presents More on Secular Coercion in the IDF posted at Cosmic X in Jerusalem.

Cosmic X presents Video Exposes UNRWA 'Right of Return' Summer Camp posted at Cosmic X in Jerusalem.

Should Rebbes always stick to the official course content for children? Mordechai Torczyner presents some interesting thoughts on this subject in Wanted: A 7th Grade Rebbe posted at The Rebbetzin's Husband.

Mirjam Weiss and her husband have some thought-provoking things to say about what we call ourselves in Miriyummy Guest Post: I?m An Apology For A Jew posted at Miriyummy.

Not exactly culture, but Harry presents an interesting look at how others view Sept 11 and the United States in Nostalgia Sunday – 9/11: The international view posted at ISRAELITY.

Allan Nadler writes about Harvey Pekar in Enmity; or, Yiddish in America posted at Jewish Ideas Daily.

steve ornstein presents Palestinian Statehood Initiative:A Guide for the Perplexed posted at

Satiricohen submitted this post under "Humor," but some may consider it to be offensive, since it stereotypes Palestinians as liars: "The Joy of Lying" - New Book Explains Pathological Lying in Palestinian Society posted at Israeli Satire Laboratory.

Remembering September 11, 2001:
Leah-Perl Shollar remembers the World Trade Center in Windows on the World posted at The JLI Community Blog.

Mrs. S. presents Ten years later posted at Our Shiputzim: A Work In Progress.

Mordechai Torczyner remembers what he did as a young rabbi in What could a rabbi have said on September 11th? posted at The Rebbetzin's Husband.

Batya writes about a plant in her garden in Transplant, Horticultural Success? posted at me-ander.

Food Reviews:
Daniela presents Telma's Mixflakes Plus Cereal posted at Isreview.

Daniela presents Loacker's Rose Of The Dolomites 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.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

What I Get Out of the High Holy Days

By Susan Esther Barnes

This post was inspired by a comment by “CA” on a post called Another Aish Video Insults Our Intelligence on Dov Bear’s blog.

CA, like many other people, has some trouble with some of the High Holy Day themes. He compares God during this time to Santa Claus. Presumably, this is because Santa, in theory, gives coal to the bad boys and girls, and only brings good stuff to the good ones. Similarly, Jewish tradition says that the High Holy days is the time when God writes our names in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the coming year, and that our actions can influence which book God will choose for us.

“Naughty or Nice,” he says, “you get what's coming to you.” That’s the theory, anyway, but as CA observes, “Unfortunately, this bears no relation to reality…The undeniable fact is that sooner or later the big G-guy is going to write everyone for the book of Death.”

Because of this, as well as long services and “pompous rabbinical sermons,” CA doesn’t like the High Holy Days. “About the only thing I like is the food,” he says. Which strikes me as odd, since Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, but I’m sure he must be talking about the Rosh Hashanah food, and anyway, that’s beside the point.

I really can’t argue with CA when s/he points out that no matter how good we are, we’re all going to die. Not only that, but every year there are people who die even though they seem to be living a reasonably righteous life, and others continue to live even though have done some pretty nasty stuff.

Although the whole Books of Life and Death thing is part of the High Holy Days, it’s only a part. If that part makes you uncomfortable, fine. There is still plenty more to the Days of Awe than that, and the fact that you don’t like one part doesn’t mean you should write off the whole thing.

In fact, the High Holy Days start out with Kol Nidre, which means “All vows.” It starts out with us being forgiven for any vows we made (or are going to make, depending on which interpretation you follow), which we are unable to keep. A holiday that starts out with forgiveness can’t be all that bad, right?

Later, we ask God for forgiveness for a list of stuff we have done wrong and, presumably, we receive God’s forgiveness. That sounds good to me, too.

It’s not all automatic, though. We are reminded that God forgives us for sins against God, but for sins against another person, God forgives us only if we have made peace with that person. I like this part, too. It encourages us to ask for forgiveness from those we have wronged, and to forgive those who have wronged us.

CA says, “I don't see why I need forgiveness from God if I do something wrong, and why I should wait until one time a year. If I hurt someone, I prefer to apologize right away and clear the air quickly.” The good news for CA is, there nothing in the liturgy that says we need to wait. I agree that whenever someone’s feelings are hurt, the best thing is to make peace as soon as possible.

What the High Holy Days provide, however, is an opportunity to reflect on the past year, and to ask ourselves, “Have I made peace with everyone I need to, or do I still have some baggage lying around to which I need to attend?” It also gives us a deadline. The holidays remind us we don’t have forever to make peace. We may die next year, or even sooner. The time to make peace, the holidays remind us, is now.

I also happen to like the High Holy Day music, and I’m lucky enough to be a member of a synagogue in which the sermons are, as a general rule, thoughtful and moving. The services are long, but I’m never bored; in fact, I enjoy them. Plus, I find the long services help to distract me from my hunger during the Yom Kippur fast.

So although I don’t believe who lives and dies in a given year is based on a Divine moral judgment, I find I get a lot out of the High Holy Days every year. I hope that CA, and others of a similar mindset, will put aside the parts s/he doesn’t like, and will instead focus on the parts of the holidays that have the opportunity to provide him/her with a sense of meaning.

Friday, September 9, 2011

How to Make a Fantasy Football League Draft Holy

By Susan Esther Barnes

My husband has been in the same Fantasy Football League (FFL) since 1990. Some people have come and gone in the league, but the core of the participants are guys with whom we went to high school. Every year, before the season starts, they gather in someone’s home to hold the draft, and every year at a party during the Super Bowl they gather to award the trophy to that year’s FFL winner.

A number of years ago, Mark, one of the participants, moved to Los Angeles, but every year he still came up to the Bay Area for the FFL draft. Mark’s a bit of a football fanatic, a big Vikings fan. He and his brother Ray know more than anyone else I know about the teams and the players in the NFL.

Mark is also a bit of a fanatic about the FFL. One year, he made himself a football jersey in his FFL team’s colors, by piecing together a couple of jerseys from NFL teams. Then, each year he started giving a jersey to one of the other guys in the league, representing his respective team. You can’t really tell from the picture above, but each guy in the photo is wearing a specially made FFL team jersey, courtesy of Mark.

A couple of weeks before the scheduled draft for this year, we got an email from Mark’s brother Ray, who is also in the league. Mark’s cancer had been acting up, and he wouldn’t be able to make the trip up here to participate in the draft. There were suggestions about how he could participate in the draft by Skype or other electronic means, but an FFL draft without Mark there would be like a hot fudge sundae without the fudge. Serviceable, maybe, but still a disappointment.

Instead, five of us decided to take a day off work and hop on a plane to LA, so we could do the draft at Mark’s apartment. His Mom had been visiting, and she changed her flight so she could meet us near the airport on her way out as we were on our way in.

Of course Mark’s Mom has known us since our high school days, from the time when her sons used to throw parties at her house and we’d be up until all hours of the night, before we’d fall asleep sprawled across the living room floor. It was in their living room that I first fell in love with my husband, dancing to “Life’s Been Good to Me So Far” by Joe Walsh.

So Mark’s Mom met us by the airport, and we ate some sandwiches and shot the breeze, and before she left she told us how much it meant to her that we had come down for the draft, as if it were possible that we might make any other choice once the trip had been suggested.

Then off we were to Mark’s apartment, to play Halo and to hold the draft, to eat chips & dip and to reminisce about old times, to complain about how much Mark’s cat was shedding and to make each other laugh.

And that is how you make a Fantasy Football League Draft holy.