Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Blog Has Moved

In case you aren't following me on Facebook and you're wondering where I went, I am now blogging at the Los Angeles Jewish Journal at Religious and Reform. I am also still writing once a month at

If you want to know when I have posted new material, you can sign up for the RSS feed at the Religious and Reform blog linked above, or you can "Like" my new Facebook page. You can also follow me on Twitter.

I hope you will continue to read my posts, and comment on them. I love to hear from you!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

My Review of "The Good News Club" at TC Jewfolk

Read my review of the book "The Good News Club" at TC Jewfolk. It's amazing the many tactics Christian fundamentalists are using to convert grade-school kids in America's public schools.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"I've Never Been in a Place With So Many Women Who Don't Dye Their Hair" at TC Jewfolk

Read my new post at TC Jewfolk, about the amazing conference I attended last week. It was much more uplifting than one might have thought!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Haveil Havalim #364

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

Shira Salamone writes about her take on a controversial prayer in Shelo asani ishah/who did not make me a woman posted at On The Fringe - Al Tzittzit. You can read my thoughts on the same prayer here.

I present my latest installment of answers to questions asked by my readers at Your Questions Answered #9 posted at To Kiss a Mezuzah.

Michael Tzadok Elkohen presents The Purpose of Kabbalah posted at An Aspiring Mekubal.

On a ligher note, Roberta Elisheva Bianchetti offers a Torah-related art project in Parashah Beha'alotekha posted at our Jewish little place.

Eric presents an article by Anthony Reich about Gay Pride in the Holy Land posted at The Israel Situation.

Take a photo tour of some of Jerusalem in Jerusalem in June posted at The Real Jerusalem Streets

Batya treats us to some more photos of Jerusalem in New Views From Jerusalem's Old City posted at Me-Ander.

Ima 2 Seven writes about coping with the unexpected in Trust Fall posted at Ima 2 Seven.

Is this the generation when the son of David comes? See what you think after you read Was the Expulsion from Gaza Prophesized posted at Esser Agaroth.

Although the title overpromises, the narrative and photos are still informative in How to Understand the Middle East in 2 Minutes posted at The Real Jerusalem Streets.

Batya presents Where Do Our Prayers Go? posted at Shiloh Musings, although the post strikes me more as, "Where are the best places to pray, why and how?" than where they go after you utter them.

Batya presents Proud of Shimon Peres? Will He Help Jonathan Pollard? posted at Shiloh Musings.

Although I don't have the same level of sensitivity as Ester, I agree with her about the bad idea of scented packaging that she mentions in Scentsitivities posted at Northern Lights & Reflections.

Miriam finds a different way to spend her time in A Different Directon posted at Miriam's Words.

How You Can Participate:
To volunteer to host, join our Facebook Group.

To submit a post, use our submission form.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Your Questions Answered # 9

By Susan Esther Barnes

I love some of the search terms people use to get to my blog. A lot of those search terms are questions. Because they are such great questions, I think they deserve an answer. In addition, it turns out these posts are among the most popular ones on my blog. So here is the latest installment of “Your Questions Answered.”

Are there secular Jews who don’t observe shiva?

The word shiva means “seven” in Hebrew. It stands for the first seven days of mourning after the burial of a loved one. During shiva, observant Jews stay at home, people come over for prayer services, and several other customs may be followed.

I am certain there are secular Jews who don’t observe shiva. There are also non-Orthodox religious Jews who don’t observe shiva, and there are some who do follow some of the customs of shiva, but not for the entire seven days.

You never know when circumstances may get in the way with observing a traditional shiva period. For instance, when my father, alav hashalom, died last year two and a half days before Passover, had he been buried before the start of Passover, according to tradition the shiva period would have stopped when the Passover holiday started.

As it turned out, he wasn’t buried until after the end of Passover, allowing a full seven day shiva period, but I have to say that starting shiva 12 days after a death and thereby ending shiva almost three weeks after the death is far from ideal, and I didn’t do it even though I’m religious.

Do you attend Shabbat services every week?

I don’t know whether this question was for me specifically, or for Jewish people in general. I attend Shabbat services twice a week: on Friday night and on Saturday morning (Shabbat starts at sundown on Friday and goes until sundown on Saturday).

Observant Jews are expected to go to Shabbat services every week. In some Orthodox households, only the men (and boys who are old enough) go to Shabbat services.

Does the Torah say to kiss the mezuzah?

No. There is nothing anywhere in the Torah about kissing a mezuzah. It is a custom; it is not a commandment.

Do women have to kiss the mezuzah?

Nobody has to kiss a mezuzah. See above. It is a custom, and is not a commandment. Men, women, and children may all kiss a mezuzah if they want to, and it is the custom that Jewish men, women, and children all do so.

How do Jews follow commandments of the Temple?

There are 613 commandments in the Torah, and a whole section of them have to do with making sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, and other related Temple activities. However, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed (twice) a long time ago, and has not been replaced. In fact, where the Temple once stood, there is now a Muslim mosque, so it’s unlikely the Temple will be rebuilt any time soon, even though Jewish people now have (at least some) access to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

As a result, no Jews follow the commandments that have to do with the Temple. This is one of the reasons why I say it is disingenuous for Orthodox Jews (or anyone else) to claim they follow all of the commandments in the Torah.

Interestingly, the ancient rabbis tried to preserve some of the Temple traditions, as best they could, in the diaspora. For example, the times for prayer services throughout the day are set in order to coincide with the times of the day when sacrifices were made in the Temple in ancient days. Also, Jews all over the world pray while facing in the direction of the Temple Mount.

How do Orthodox Jews travel on ships?

The same way everyone else does. They buy a ticket, board a ship, and get off after the ship reaches their destination.

Perhaps this question alludes to the fact that Orthodox Jews are not supposed to travel on Shabbat. That is why you won’t find an Orthodox Jew boarding a plane late Friday afternoon or during the day on Saturday. If it takes the ship more than six days to reach its destination, at least part of the journey will happen on Shabbat, and that may present a problem.

According to the Chabad website, apparently a Jew is allowed to travel on a ship over Shabbat as long as the Jew asks the ship captain to stop on Shabbat (even if the captain doesn’t actually stop), and as long as the crew members aren’t Jewish (since Jews aren’t supposed to work on Shabbat). This explains how many observant Jews were able to travel to the United States via ship from Europe and other distant lands.

Keep those questions coming!

I would love to answer more of your questions, so feel free to ask some in the comments section below, or just keep coming here via those interesting search terms.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"Buying" with the Intent of Getting a Free Rental

By Susan Esther Barnes

This week the planet Venus transited the sun, meaning that Venus passed between the sun and the Earth, allowing people to see what appeared to be a black spot moving across the surface of the sun. Of course, even grade school children know you can hurt your eyes by looking directly at the sun, so people used various devices to watch the event safely.

Someone I know asked me if I had seen the event, and excitedly told me that he had done so. I asked him how he watched it without hurting his eyes, and he replied that he had purchased a welding helmet. Then, he casually mentioned that he plans to return the helmet to the store now.

There is nothing wrong with the helmet. He simply purchased it without intending to keep it. When I suggested it might be wrong for him to purchase something, use it for the purpose he had intended, and then return it, he replied, “But it’s not like I welded anything with it on.” No, he didn’t weld anything, but he did use it, and it worked.

This reminds me of a story I heard back when I worked for I.Magnin, an upscale department store which has since gone out of business. The Beverly Hills store catered to many of the Hollywood elite. The manager of the store told me about a celebrity (who I won’t name here), who was notorious for “buying” expensive dresses (by expensive I mean on the order of $5,000 each), wearing them once, and then returning them for a full refund.

The store manager said she was watching the Johnny Carson show one evening, and it just so happened this same celebrity was a guest. The celebrity was wearing a dress she had recently “purchased” from I.Magnin, and the store manager knew she intended to return it.

So the next day, the manager stationed herself at the front of the store, and when this celebrity walked in with the dress, the manager gushed, “Oh, I saw you wearing this dress on Johnny Carson last night. You looked fabulous! Of course you need the dress dry cleaned. I will take care of that for you, and I’ll have it delivered to your home by this evening.”

Thus, the manager gracefully let the celebrity know that the jig was up – she demonstrated that she was aware of this habit of buying dresses, wearing them and returning them, and subtly let her know it was not going to be allowed to continue. But she did it without making an outright accusation, and in a way that didn’t embarrass the celebrity.

Ok, a dress can only be dry cleaned and worn so many times. If you “buy” a dress, wear it, have it cleaned, and then return it, the dress has suffered some physical wear and tear. But what’s the big deal in the case of the welding helmet? Unless the guy sweats excessively, it didn’t need to be cleaned, and it didn’t suffer any harm.

First of all, while the helmet was out of the store being used in this manner, it wasn’t available for anyone who wanted to actually purchase it and do some welding. Therefore, the store may have lost business while the helmet wasn’t in stock. It’s possible the potential buyer won’t frequent this store in the future, now that they have gotten the impression that the store isn’t well stocked.

Furthermore, what if a bunch of people had this idea of “buying” welding helmets for the viewing and then returning them afterward? This store, and maybe others in the area, would “sell” a bunch of these helmets. Seeing their stock depleted, they would order more.

Then, just about the time the reorders arrive, the stores get in a bunch of returned helmets. Suddenly, the stores have twice as many welding helmets as they need. Their money is tied up unnecessarily in helmets for an unknown period of time. Maybe they even end up having to sell some at a discount, just to get rid of the excess. In other words, they suffer a financial loss.

Even if the scenarios above didn’t actually play out, Jewish tradition tells us it is wrong to mislead people. Specifically, we are not supposed to mess with another person’s livelihood. For example, we are not supposed to enter and browse in a store if we know we are not going to buy anything, because it would be cruel to falsely get the hopes up of the store owner, who needs to sell things to make a living.

It troubles me that people like this celebrity and my acquaintance don’t understand why it is not okay to buy something, use it, and then return it for a full refund. Society only works if we follow the rules and treat each other justly. Pretending to buy something just so you can con the store into giving you a free rental is not my idea of acceptable behavior.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My First Experience of Shmira

By Susan Esther Barnes

This week, I had my first experience of shmira, guarding or watching over someone who has died. The Jewish tradition is not to leave a person alone from the time of his or her death until the time of their burial. A shomer (male) or shomeret (female) is the person who stays with the dead person during this time.

This case was a bit unusual. Because of the circumstances of his death, an autopsy had to be performed. Also, the person’s family said the deceased would not have wanted anyone to lose sleep watching over him. As a result, we only had people sit with him from the time he was placed in his coffin after the autopsy until the time I left to go home to bed that evening. We had three people do the shmira, in shifts.

I arrived early, so I had time to walk around the mausoleum. It is a large building, that appears to have been expanded over the years. Most of the dates on the markers showed they were for people who died in the 1900’s, but a couple were from the 1800’s. I imagine those may be for people whose remains were moved, because I don’t think the building is that old.

I was surprised to see that some people’s ashes were stored in containers in glass cases, which also contained other personal items, such as photographs, eyeglasses, and, in one case, a CD of the person’s memorial service.

At one end of the mausoleum are a couple of small chapels. The person with the shift before me was in one of them, with the met (the body of the deceased), who was in a plain wooden coffin with a Jewish star on it.

I let the person with the shift before me know I was there, and I allowed her a moment to say goodbye to the met. After she left, I greeted the met, and introduced myself. I thought it would be creepy to be in a big mausoleum by myself at night, but it wasn’t creepy at all.

The only thing even mildly creepy was the music playing in the background. It was like bad elevator music on Quaaludes – the very worst of what stereotypical funeral home music can be. The person with the shift before me said they tried to find a way to turn it off, but couldn’t, and decided against trying to disconnect the speaker.

Traditionally, people doing shmira read Psalms. The good news is that once I started reading the Psalms out loud, I could barely hear the awful music. I soon realized I should have brought a bottle of water. After only 20 or 30 minutes of reading out loud, my mouth started to dry out.

Other than that, the evening was uneventful. When it came time to leave, I felt bad about leaving the met there all alone, especially with that awful music playing all night. If I were him, that music would be driving me crazy - if dead people get crazed by things like that.

On the way home, I began to wonder why it wasn’t creepy at all being there. Maybe it’s just because of my experience with taharah and the time I spent in the adjoining morgue helped the surroundings to be more familiar and comfortable to me. Certainly, once you have washed and dressed a dead person, just sitting in a room with one you can’t even see is less of a formidable experience. But when you’re doing taharah, it isn’t in the dark of night, and you’re with other people, which helps to cut down on any potential creepiness.

I thought maybe it wasn’t creepy that night because the place isn’t haunted because all the spirits were long since chased away by that awful music.

It also occurred to me that if I had just been sitting there, and not reading out loud, it would have been easier for me to hear odd noises and to start to think about them. Also, by concentrating on my reading, I didn’t have time to dwell on the possible source of any odd noises, even when I did hear them.

Then I thought, maybe there is something to reading all those Psalms about “God will protect me” and “God’s love is steadfast.” Maybe reading Psalms actually does provide mental strength and comfort. Maybe it helped me. I hope the Psalms, and/or my presence, helped the met.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Overthinking Tzedakah

By Susan Esther Barnes

My beloved husband sometimes says I overthink things. I’m pretty sure this is one of those times.

Let me start by explaining that “tzedakah” is the Hebrew word for “justice” or “righteousness.” When we give money to a person who needs it, it is not an act of charity; it is an act of justice. All Jews are commanded to give tzedakah. In fact, the first thing a person is supposed to do when they receive tzedakah is to turn around and give tzedakah to someone else.

There is a wonderful story about two beggars in a little town. They were both having a bad day, and each one only had one coin to his name. When they passed each other on the street, the first beggar gave his only coin as tzedakah to the second one, and the second beggar gave his one coin to the first one. As they continued on their way, they each still had only one coin, but they were both richer for the experience.

So, here’s my story: There is a large strip mall near where I work. I often go there for various reasons, including to shop at Safeway or Costco, to get lunch, to do some banking, or to pick up something at the dry cleaner’s or the drug store. Often, there is a person holding a sign asking for money, standing at the parking lot exit.

My first bit of overthinking involves the sentence above. In this post I could call these folks “homeless people,” but I don’t know whether or not they are homeless. Sometimes they have a sign saying they are homeless, but often the sign doesn’t specify their living arrangements.

I could call them “beggars,” but that seems a bit derogatory. I assume these folks are just doing this temporarily – it’s not like it’s their vocation. What they are doing now shouldn’t become a label with which we define them. The term “beggar” seems to lessen their humanity. So, what should I call these people? I don’t have a good answer.

When I see a person asking for money, there is no question about what I should do. I know that no matter what I intend to buy that day, it’s going to cost me some extra cash if there is a person waiting at the exit.

I used to automatically give the person a dollar. But then I thought, “I’ve been giving people with signs a dollar for years.” During that time, the price of pretty much everything has increased. As a result, the value of the dollar I have been giving by rote has decreased quite a bit since I first started giving them out. So recently, everyone got a raise. I upped it to two dollars.

At any rate (yes, that was a bad pun – sorry about that), I noticed that every time I give some cash to one of the people at the exit, it’s a different person. There never seems to be the same person there twice. They seem to be on some sort of rotation. Why is that? I started to wonder if there is some sort of schedule that they have worked out.

Then, I started thinking, maybe it’s an experiment. I can imagine some professor dreaming up a study, and having different types of people with different types of signs standing on different days in the same place.

An unobtrusive observer would be taking notes about how many people stop and how much money they give, and then do an analysis based on the receiver’s race, gender, clothing, sign, etc. They could even do a cross-correlation based on the giver’s race, gender, clothing, type of car, etc.

The above scenario is probably just another object of my habit of overthinking.

The next bit of overthinking comes in when I use the second entrance to the strip mall instead of the first one. This is the entrance that goes by Costco, but also leads to a number of other destinations.

If I’m going to one of the other destinations, I have to pass by the exit from the Costco parking lot, where there is also often a person asking for money. The question arises (in my mind, anyway), if I’m not going to Costco, is, “Am I obligated to go out of my way to drive into the Costco parking lot anyway, so I can drive back out and give the person there some money?”

After all, even though it would be a bit out of my way, I can see the person standing there. They need money. I don’t think we’re only supposed to give tzedakah when it’s utterly convenient to do so.

Yesterday, it got a little worse. I actually was going to Costco, and as I drove by the guy at the exit and parked, I was thinking I would give him some money on the way out. But then I thought, “What if he isn’t there any more? What if he leaves while I’m in the store?”

We are told that we should run, not walk, to do a mitzvah, lest we lost the opportunity. I wrote a whole story about that a number of years ago. So, I actually got out of my car, walked over to the exit, and gave the guy some money before I walked back through the parking lot and into the store.

But then, as I got ready to leave the store, I kept thinking, “I already gave him money. I’m not obligated to give him more on my way out. But if I just drive past him on the way out without giving him anything, and he doesn’t recognize me (and why would he?) then he may think, ‘There goes yet another uncaring person who won’t help me out.’ Ugh.”

I suppose, if I were a better person, I would have just given him another buck or two. But instead, I went out of my way to drive out another exit. And now I’m still thinking about it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

"Eternity Utters a Day" at TCJewfolk

Read my latest post, "Eternity Utters a Day," at

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Haveil Havalim #359

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 Eliyahu Fink writes about the upcoming rally against the internet, and some of the corresponding media coverage, in I'm Quoted in the Wall Street Journal Regarding the Asifa posted at Fink or Swim.

Carla Naumberg gives her perspective on the "Who is a Jew" question in Actually, I'm Jewish Even if You Don't Agree posted at Raising Kvell.

Shira Salamone presents some great food for thought in Both Sides Against the Middle posted at On the Fringe - Al Tzitzit.

Here's a handy tip you might want to consider before you write your next email: Rabbi Avi Weinstein presents A Public Service Announcement: "B'shalom" can mean "drop dead"! posted at Scorchin Torah and Strange Thoughts.

The Yiddishe Cup presents Shidduch Myth #2: Same Language, Same Age, Perfect Match! posted at The Yiddishe Cup. Warning: You may not want to pull up this site in a place where you would find it embarassing for anyone (including yourself) to see athletic cups on your screen.

Rae Shagalov presents How Will You Make Your Soul Shine Today? posted at Holy Sparks.

Heshy Fried presents Dvar Torah Emor: Moses and the Blasphemer by Drosenbach posted at Frum Satire.

I use advice from the Talmud to help interpret a fortune from a cookie in Let Reality Be Reality posted at To Kiss a Mezuzah.

The Real Jerusalem Streets presents Lag B'Omer Fire and Smoke posted at The Real Jerusalem Streets.

Batya presents Ariel Building Freeze Thawing posted at Shiloh Musings.

Esser Agaroth suggests we read the excellent idea presented in Instead of Burning All That Wood... posted at Life in Israel.

A Soldier's Mother presents The Politics and Lies of Chosing Death posted at A Soldier's Mother.

Esser Agaroth presents Aviner is At It Again, regarding the Rabbi's drash against protesting the planned expulsion of people from Beit El, posted at Esser Agaroth.

Batya presents Shopping Trip to a Giant Mall posted at Me-ander.

Esser Agaroth presents Settlers AND Do Not See The Real Threat posted at Esser Agaroth.

Rikismom reminds us of who is really in charge, and shares other important insights, in Enhancement posted at Beneath the Wings.

In a related story, Batya presents Just Take Care of Yourself posted at Me-ander.

Ima 2 Seven presents a beautiful story about her amazing youngest son in Shhhhhhh...... posted at Ima 2 Seven.

Ima 2 Seven asked me to pick which of her two posts to include, but with a writer like this, why chose? So here, as well, is Mr. Sendak posted at Ima 2 Seven.

How You Can Participate:If you have a Jewish blog, or have written a post about something Jewish on a non-Jewish blog, we would love to include your work in future editions. To submit your blog post, please go to the Havael Havalim Facebook Page, found here and use the "Docs" tab to look for the current week's host & how to contact him or her. Please don't just post your link on the Facebook page, or it may not make it into the next edition!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Let Reality Be Reality

By Susan Esther Barnes

After dinner with some friends at a Chinese restaurant lastweek (yes, it is very easy to eat at a Chinese restaurant without consumingeither pork or shellfish), one of them, Bruce, opened his cookie and received afortune which said, “Let reality be reality.” He didn’t know what to make ofit, and asked me to write a blog post explaining it.

My first thought was of the book, “Reality Isn’t What itUsed to Be,” which I don’t recommend. It did, however, have some interestingpoints about how reality is a social construct, and therefore is subject tochange over time.

For instance, the reality these days is that if you pull thecord on a public bus, the bus will stop at the next bus stop. There is no lawor mechanical necessity that causes this to happen. It’s just an unspokenagreement between the riders and the driver that this is how it’s supposed towork, and it does.

There is a certain wisdom and comfort in allowing reality tobe what it is. There are people who waste untold time and energy lamentingthings from the past. They can’t seem to get over a broken relationship, or thefact that they were born into certain circumstances, or any number of otherthings that they can’t change. For them, “Let reality be reality” might be good advice. Accept what is, and move on with your life.

On the other hand, our present-day reality includes manythings we shouldn’t just accept. People starving to death. Animals being huntedto extinction. Water and air being polluted. These are things we ought to change.These are examples of circumstances in which we can do something, and shouldnot just allow the past or current reality to continue as the reality of thefuture.

Which brings us around to the Serenity Prayer:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannotchange; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know thedifference
The Serenity Prayer is pretty good advice, but according to Jewish tradition, it doesn’t go far enough. It implies that if there is something that I, personally, do not have the power to change alone or in my lifetime, I should just leave it be.

In the section of the Talmud called “Pirkei Avot,” (“The Ethics of Our Fathers,”) the rabbis acknowledgethat the task is great and the day is short. There is too much for us to doalone, and, even with the help of others, there is more that needs to bechanged than can be accomplished in one human lifetime, no matter how young orenergetic a person may be.

However, say the rabbis, in that case we are still commandednot to just “Let reality be reality.” Rather, they tell us, “It is not yourresponsibility to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist fromit.” We are all responsible to do what part we can, be it large or small, eventhough we may not live to see the result.

So, Bruce, what I will say to you is your fortune wastelling you to accept things as they are. For things that cannot be changed atall, by anyone, no matter the effort, that may be good advice. But foreverything else, our tradition says to keep doing what you’re doing, and to continuein your efforts to make the world a better place. Personally, I’ll take theadvice of the Talmud over the advice of a fortune cookie any day.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How to Blow Up a Demon

By Susan Esther Barnes

We’ve all seen it in the movies, and we’ve read about it in books, too. Demons have been released, and the hero of the story has to get rid of them. If you were to believe these tales, it’s hard to get rid of a demon. It involves pentagrams, or circles, chanting, candles, and all sorts of fancy stuff.

Imagine my relief when, in Talmud class last Sunday, we were reading about how pairs attract demons, and I learned how easy it is to get rid of one. As a Public Service Announcement, I present to you the Talmud’s solution on to how to get rid of a demon (Quoted from Daf 110 Amud A, translation by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz):
The Gemara asks: And if one forgets and it happens and he goes outside after having had an even number of cups to drink, what is his solution? The Gemara answers: He should take his right thumb in his left hand and his left thumb in his right hand and say this: “You, my thumbs, and I, are three,” which is not a pair. And if he hears a voice that says, “You and I are four,” which makes a pair, he should say to it, “You and I are five.” And if he hears it say, “You and I are six,” he should say to it, “You and I are seven.” The Gemara relates that there was an incident in which someone kept counting with the demon until a hundred and one, and the demon burst in anger.
One more reason, I guess, to be thankful for our opposable thumbs. It’s also a good explanation of why we don’t run into demons much these days. All it takes is a two-handed person and a little persistence to blow one up.

It’s easy to make fun of something like this, if it is taken literally. But as a religious Jew, I am challenged to determine if I can get anything valuable out of it. And, taken in a non-literal sense, I have found there is some wisdom in this story.

I find it interesting that if I say, “We are three,” and the demon says, “You and I are four,” I am not supposed to stick to, “We are three,” but instead I move on to five. Similarly, the demon doesn’t stick with four, but goes on to six.

I can see this sort of non-repetition in the kinds of arguments we have with our own personal demons. If the demon stuck to one thing, it would be easy for us to stick with one answer. But instead, they keep trying different arguments, to which we must continue to invent different answers.

For example, consider a person fighting against a personal demon of alcoholism. First, the demon might say, “Let’s get drunk,” to which the person might reply, “No, I don’t want to do that any more. It always ends badly.” At this point, the demon won’t repeat, “Let’s get drunk,” but might say, instead, “Ok, let’s just have a couple of beers then,” to which the person might counter, “No, if I have a beer, I’ll start to get a buzz, and then I’ll lose track of how much I’ve had, and I’ll end up drunk.” Then, the demon might try, “How about just a glass of wine. That won’t do anything.”

The bad news is that our personal demons can be persistent. If one argument doesn’t work, they are likely to try another, and then another, in order to get us to do what we know we shouldn’t do. We need to stay on guard so we can recognize when it is our demon doing the talking, trying out a new way to lead us astray. We need to continue to find new ways to resist.

The good news the Talmud is trying to teach us is that we can be as persistent as, and even more so than, the demon. If we continue fighting the demon, if we keep listening for it and answering it, eventually, it will give up. Persistence will conquer our demons. It may seem to take one hundred and one tries, or even more, but it can be done. I have blown up a demon or two that way, myself. Maybe you have as well. Suddenly, the Talmud story doesn’t sound so silly, after all.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Win a Free Copy of 'Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life'" at TC Jewfolk

Here is your big chance to win a copy of the book "Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life," which includes a fabulous six-word memoir by yours truly. Just go to my article at TC Jewfolk and submit your six-word memoir on Jewish life for your chance to win!

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Three Best Things About Passover This Year

By Susan Esther Barnes

The best thing about Passover this year is we had a seder! Last year, my father, alav hashalom, died two and a half days before the start of Passover, and although I had most of the ingredients already, I just wasn't up to cooking a big meal or making a seder. Don't worry, the unused food went into the bin at the synagogue for distribution to those who needed it.

The second best thing was the greeting I got from Ralph the morning after the holiday ended: "Pizza, pasta, or hamburger bun?" He asked this question, of course, because during the week of Passover we don't eat food with leavening in it, and many people include pasta in the list of forbidden foods, for reasons I won't go into here. So for a week, we get no bread, no pizza, no burger buns, no sandwiches. For a carb lover like me, it's tough, even though I do like matzo. My answer was, I ended my week-long bread fast with mushroom pizza!

The third best thing was the matzo ball soup reaction I've been getting at work. A few years ago, as Passover was approaching, one of my colleagues, who is Jewish but not observant, and I somehow started talking about matzo ball soup. I agreed to bring some in for her during the holiday. Other (non-Jewish) people saw it and wanted some, so I started a tradition of bringing some in for everyone each year.

Last year I was in mourning so I didn't make any matzo ball soup, and I when I mentioned it this year, people got so excited. In fact, there were a couple of people who were not going to be in the office on the newly announced Matzo Ball Soup Day, so I put aside one small container of soup (and matzo balls) for each of them to eat the next day.

And for next year: We've been using the same Passover haggadah (the book that lays out the Passover rituals and takes us through the Exodus story) forever. I have ordered two new versions, and I'm looking forward to looking through them, in order to have an even better seder next year.

What were your three best things this year, and what are you planning for next year?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Haveil Havalim #355

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.

I am sorry there aren't more posts included here. I only received a couple of submissions, and some of my favorite bloggers weren't posting during the Pesach (Passover) holiday last week.

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

A Soldier's Mother presents Why Israel Was Created posted at A Soldier's Mother.

Batya presents A Mountain of a Mole Hill, Herodian posted at Me-ander.

Joel Katz fills us in on the news with Religion and State in Israel - April 9, 2012 (Section 1) and Religion and State in Israel - April 9, 2012 (Section 2) posted at Religion and State in Israel.

Batya presents Passover Memories, Not Just Kneidelach posted at Shiloh Musings.

I respond to a request from a reader by explaining the Top 10 Mezuzah Facts posted at To Kiss a Mezuzah.

Popular Culture:
Dov Bear wants to know more backstory of a new character on the TV show Mad Men in Mad Men Spoiler Alert posted at Dov Bear.

How You Can Participate:
If you have a Jewish blog, or have written a post about something Jewish on a non-Jewish blog, we would love to include your work in future editions. To submit your blog post, please go to the Havael Havalim Facebook Page, found here or try the new(ish) web page here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

I'm Sorry, I Have Kittage

By Susan Esther Barnes

“Having kittage” is something that I suspect every cat owner has experienced, although they may not have used this term. That’s because I coined it, but it hasn’t gotten much publicity yet.

Kittage happened to me again last night.

I was sitting in my chair at my computer, when Amber kitty jumped up into my lap and proceeded to take a nap. After a while, I got hungry and wanted to get a snack, but I didn’t want to disturb the cat. In a word, I had kittage.

It’s a word we’ve been using around my home for a number of years now. It is much more economical, word-count-wise, than saying, “I have a cat on my lap,” or “I don’t want to bother the cat.”

Instead, when the phone rings and my husband says, “Will you get that?” I can simply say, “I’m sorry, I have kittage.” This works for answering the door, getting him a beverage, turning on the thermostat, etc. The uses of this term may seem endless.

Except, as I discovered last night, “Honey, will you get me a snack? I can’t get it myself because I have kittage” didn’t seem to work. Instead, I discovered a new phrase: The kittage diet plan.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Top 10 Mezuzah Facts

By Susan Esther Barnes
Photo by Kim Press

Someone came to my blog recently by using the search term, “Top 10 mezuzah facts.” It struck me as a reasonable list for a person to seek, but my response would be too long to include in one of my “Your Questions Answered” posts. As a result, I have dedicated this post to answering this reader’s question.

1. What is a mezuzah?
The word mezuzah means “doorpost” in Hebrew. Commonly, this word refers to an object that Jewish people put on the doorposts of our home, or other places where we sleep or eat. Some people put one on every doorpost of their home, except for restrooms and closets. Others just put one on the front door. Currently, I have one on my front door and on the door into my home from the garage (which is the entrance I use the most frequently).

In Israel, many hotels have a mezuzah on the doorpost of every hotel room, and there is a mezuzah on each gate into the Old City in Jerusalem, as shown in the photo above. Some people also wear a mezuzah on a necklace.

2. Is a mezuzah just a decorative box?
No, inside every mezuzah is a scroll. To be kosher, the scroll must be made of parchment, although some cheaper ones are sold with a paper scroll. There are specific words from the Torah written on the scroll.

3. What is written on the mezuzah scroll?
The scroll contains certain passages from the Torah. I won’t write it all out here, but the passages form a prayer called the “Sh’ma,” which is sometimes referred to as the “watchword of our faith.” First, the Sh’ma declares that God is one. This may not sound like a big deal these days, but it was a radical statement when Judaism was in its early days and the Greeks, Egyptians, and others worshipped multiple Gods. The prayer goes on to talk about loving God, and commands us to teach the words of the prayer to children and others, and to “inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

4. What is the purpose of the mezuzah?
First and foremost, the mezuzah is the fulfillment of one of the 613 commandments in the Torah. We are told to “inscribe these words on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Placing a mezuzah on one’s doorpost is a literal way to fulfill this commandment.

Some people say it is good luck, but I don’t believe in good luck charms, and mainstream Judaism generally frowns on this sort of thinking.

5. Where on the door should a mezuzah be placed?
Traditionally, the mezuzah is placed on the right-hand side of the door, about two-thirds of the way up. This makes it easy and convenient for able-bodied and average-sized adults to reach with their right hand. On some large buildings with oversized doors, where two-thirds of the way up would be hard for most people to reach, it is placed at the same height as it would be when two-thirds of the way up a normal-sized door.

In some places, the mezuzah is placed lower, to make it more accessible to children, shorter people, and people in wheelchairs.

Often, the mezuzah is placed so that the top is tilted toward the inside of the home. Like with many aspects of Judaism, there are many theories about why it is tilted that way.

6. What is the proper way to kiss a mezuzah?
Some people kiss their fingers, then touch them to the mezuzah. Others touch the mezuzah with their fingers, and then kiss them. Either way is fine.

7. Why do people kiss a mezuzah?
Some people use the kissing of the mezuzah on the way into their home as a way to remind themselves that, before we can make peace in the world, we must first make peace in our own home. I kiss my mezuzah on the way out of my home to remind myself of the kind of person I want to be when I go out into the world. Others use it as a reminder of God’s commandments.

8. When should a mezuzah be placed on a home, and when should it be taken down?
A person moving into a new home should put up their mezuzah as soon as possible after moving in. When a person moves out, the mezuzah is often the last thing to be removed.

9. What prayers are associated with a mezuzah?
There is no prayer for when we see and/or kiss a mezuzah, or for when we remove one from a doorpost. When we put up a mezuzah, we say a Hebrew prayer that means, “Blessed are you Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who sanctifies us with your commandments and commanded us to affix a mezuzah.”

10. What do you do with a broken mezuzah, or one you don’t want to use any more?
Because the scroll inside the mezuzah contains God’s name, it should not be throw away. Rather, it should be buried, like all other items with God’s name on them.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Your Questions Answered # 8

By Susan Esther Barnes

I have to say, I absolutely love some of the search terms people use to get to my blog. A lot of those search terms are questions. Because they are such great questions, I think they deserve an answer. In addition, it turns out these posts are among the most popular ones on my blog. So here is the latest installment of “Your Questions Answered.”

In Judaism, ritual where bread becomes flesh?
Great question. If you’re having trouble finding that ritual, it’s because there isn’t one. We say a blessing every time we eat bread. Translated from Hebrew, it says, “Blessed are you Adonai, ruler of the universe, who makes bread grow from the earth.” Of course, we know bread doesn’t grow directly from the earth – like many Hebrew prayers, it’s symbolic. At any rate, the bread remains bread. Anybody can eat it, whether or not they are Jewish.

We don’t turn loaves into fishes, either. We do, occasionally, turn bread into toast, but that’s not a Jewish ritual.

Similarly, we say a prayer over wine, “…creator of the fruit of the vine,” and the wine remains wine that anyone can drink. It doesn’t turn into blood or anything else.

Is it okay for Jewish people to bow to other people?
Yes. Jewish people may bow to people, but we may not bow to idols. If a person is holding an idol, or wearing a symbol of an idol on his/her clothing, a Jewish person isn’t supposed to bow to that person.

If Jews don’t believe in heaven, why lead a good life?
Some Jews believe in heaven, and some don’t. But what exists in this world, right now, is real. It matters. We lead a good life because we believe it’s important to try to make this world a better place for ourselves and for others. Many of us believe it’s what God wants from us. Many of us believe God commands us to lead a good life. Many of us just think it’s the right thing to do, and is worthwhile in its own right, whether or not we will get some other reward for it later on.

Can Jews eat pork before their bar mitzvah?
The term bar mitzvah means, “son of the commandments.” When a boy or girl reaches a certain age, he or she (whether there is a ceremony or not), becomes responsible for following the commandments. So, technically, a Jewish person could eat pork before then, and not be held responsible for it.

However, observant Jewish parents want to raise their children to follow the commandments, and not eating pork is one of the easy ones. So, they tend to start with the easy ones like not eating pork or shellfish, not murdering anyone, etc., and then help the kids to work their way up to doing the harder ones, like comforting mourners, and not gossiping.

Why is it important to study the Torah in Hebrew?
It’s absolutely true that something always gets lost in the translation. When you’re talking about Torah, a lot gets lost in the translation. As the saying goes, “Reading the Torah through a translation is like kissing someone through a towel.”

Even the names in the Torah give the text a deeper meaning. For instance, the name “Ya’acov” is usually translated in English as “Jacob.” Jacob is a twin, and when he is born, he is holding onto his twin brother’s heel. If you have only read the Torah in English, you may have forgotten that (seemingly unimportant) fact. But if you read it in Hebrew, you would be reminded about it over and over, because the name “Ya’acov” means “heel” in Hebrew. It makes you wonder, “What about holding onto his brother’s heel is so important that it became his name?” Something that may seem trivial in translation suddenly reveals itself as a central idea.

Sometimes, people make a big deal about something from the Torah, using a translation, without realizing that the translation may not be accurate. Many people are familiar with the translation, “Thou shalt not kill,” when it really says something closer to “Don’t kill someone illegally,” or “Don’t murder.” Similarly, many scholars believe the commandment not to “covet” your neighbor’s wife is probably actually saying not to “take” her. That makes much more sense in the context of the other commandments, which are all about actions – not feelings (which we can’t control, anyway).

There are many other meaningful names, word plays, and hard-to-translate words and phrases in the Torah that we might miss or that can lead us astray if we’re only reading a translation. So learning and studying in Hebrew is the best way to go.

However, if you don’t know Hebrew, don’t give up! A good Torah commentary and a good Torah study partner or group can help you to notice some of the things you may otherwise miss.

Keep those questions coming!
I would love to answer more of your questions, so feel free to ask some in the comments section below, or just keep coming here via those interesting search terms.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Freedom Doesn’t Mean Everything is Perfect

By Susan Esther Barnes

When I think about Passover starting at the end of next week, I feel a bit broken, like the headset pictured above, which got into an altercation earlier this week with our cat, Thomas. Passover is one of my favorite holidays. I love the food and the celebration of freedom from slavery. I especially love matzo, which I associate with visits to my paternal grandmother when I was a child. I love the rituals of the seder plate and the four cups of wine.

I’ve always thought of Passover like the dandelion pictured below that I saw on a walk I took this afternoon: Delicate and short-lived, yet perfect.

But last year my father died just two days before the start of Passover. From now on, thoughts of Passover for me will always be connected with thoughts about his death. From now on, part of me will always feel a bit broken during this holiday.

It helped me to realize, though, that freedom is not about perfection. Just as the Israelites were afraid to enter the promised land after escaping from Egypt and had to wander in the desert for 40 years, just as the country of Israel represents freedom and self-determination for the Jewish people and yet has struggled for survival ever since, so too we remove 10 drops of wine from our cup at Passover to commemorate the 10 plagues and to acknowledge that our joy is lessened by the pain of others.

Freedom does not mean perfection. It does not mean unbridled joy. It does not mean all our problems are solved. Passover does not mean these things, either. And I’m okay with that.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My Email to "This American Life"

By Susan Esther Barnes

I've been a big fan of This American Life, known as "TAL," ever since I got my iPhone last year and started listening to its podcasts. They pick a subject each week, and do about an hour of reporting, often looking at the subject from different angles. The show is both entertaining and informative.

This week, for the first time in their history, they had to retract a story. You can hear about the retraction by listening to this week's TAL podcast, available on their website, linked above.

The do such a fantastic job in general, and also did such a classy job with their retration, that I sent the following email to them today:

I just want to thank everyone at This American Life, and Ira Glass in particular, for the great work on this week's retraction of Daisey's Apple story. I'm sure it's been a difficult time for everyone there, and I want to let you know I appreciate all your hard work.

This episode has made me feel even better about listening to, and supporting, TAL. In this era of websites and press departments rushing to get stories into print or on the air as soon as possible, it often feels like fact-checking has become a thing of the past, leaving us simply with "he said/she said" situations. This is a horrible turn of events, making it difficult for anyone to discover the truth.

But listening to all the fact checking TAL did on the original story before it aired gave me great confidence in TAL's fact-checking on stories both past and future. Yes, you didn't follow up on trying to reach the interpreter in this one case, but clearly you did a lot more fact-checking on the other aspects of the story than I believe most news agencies would have these days. I am confident you will do everything in your power to make sure this kind of thing will never happen again.

I only wish other news organizations would follow your lead, and act with the integrity and dedication to finding the truth that you have.

May you continue forward in strength,

Susan Barnes

"Message of Hope from Israel" at TC Jewfolk

Read my lastest post, Message of Hope from Israel, at TC Jewfolk.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Haveil Havalim #351

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.

There are some fabulous Purim photos at Purim Favorites and other lovely photos of daily life in Israel at 15 Real Photos of Arab Girls posted at The Real Jerusalem Streets.

Batya presents Life Under Fire is No Way to Live written by Sara L. Shomron, posted at Shiloh Musings.

Esser Agaroth asks Why is Rabbi Druckman Getting the Israel Prize? posted at Esser Agaroth. I must agree, from what is written here, it is hard to tell what the rabbi's position really is in regard to IDF soldiers and insubordination.

Bat Aliyah writes about some of the diffculties she has found since making aliyah, in In America, I Drove a Camry, and also shows us some photos of common Israeli scenes in Walking With An Ayin Tova: A Photo Blog posted at Bat Aliyah.

Ima 2 Seven writes about her family's preparations for aliyah in her Post-Purim Post... posted at Ima 2 Seven.

American football in Israel! Batya writes about it at More Than Just a Game posted at me-ander.

Batya writes about an incident that, really, could have happened on the street rather than on a train, in Jerusalem Lightrail, The Honeymoon is Over posted at Shiloh Musings.

Ruti Mizrahi illustrates an interesting perspective in What Can I Do? Am I My Brother's Keeper? posted at Ki Yachol Nuchal!

A Soldier's Mother presents A Message to Iran and Obama and Us posted at A Soldier's Mother.

Other Interesting Posts:
Because, even though everything submitted to Haveil Havalim this week was from and/or about Israel, there were some other interesting posts out in the blogosphere as well.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink wrote Turns Out Tapps is a Bunch of Bigots posted at Fink or Swim.

Shira Salomne wrote Bewildered by some brachot (blessings) posted at On the Fringe - Al Tzittzit.

Heshy Fried has an interesting perspective in the book that keeps on selling in Feldman Hate Campaign Used to Sell More Books posted at Frum Satire.

Dov Bear writes about what he calls A Bizarre Frum Wedding at Dov Bear.

How You Can Participate:
If you have a Jewish blog, or have written a post about something Jewish on a non-Jewish blog, we would love to include your work in future editions. To submit your blog post, please go to the Havael Havalim Facebook Page, found here.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Lessons from Purim

By Susan Esther Barnes

This month is Adar, the Hebrew month in which we are supposed to be happy. Last night was Purim eve. On Purim we give edible gifts, read the story of Queen Esther, dress up in silly costumes, drink alcohol, and have a good time.

This year, I bought a “mad scientist” costume. I wore a nametag that said in big, bold letters, “BEST INVENTOR EVER,” with an asterisk. At the bottom of the nametag, in very small letters, it read, “*Except for God.” It is, after all, a religious holiday!

With me I carried the “Ultimate Machine,” a device invented by Claude Shannon based on an idea by Marvin Minsky. It is now available online in kit form from The Frivolous Engineering Company. My fabulous husband bought one and assembled it for me.

The machine is simple. It is a plastic box with a toggle on/off switch. When you push the switch to the “on” position, the box opens, a plastic finger extends and pushes the switch to the “off” position, and the box closes. That’s it.

So I went to the dinner and services at the synagogue, and the party afterward, dressed as an inventor, introducing the Ultimate Machine as my latest invention. I asked people if they would like to try my invention, telling them, “You turn it on, it opens up, tells you everything that is inherently wrong with you, and then it turns itself off.”

At first, I was concerned that people would refuse to turn the box on, thinking it would say something mean, or something that might embarrass them. So if enough people wouldn’t do it, I had in mind a back-up plan, consisting of a different story about what the box did. I didn’t need it. The first lesson I learned this Purim is that people are more willing than I expected to take a chance concerning a risky subject.

The second thing I learned was that children were much less reluctant to try it than adults. Often, adults would say something like, “That box will be talking for a long time!” or “I don’t think I want to hear what it’s going to say,” but kids just went ahead and flipped the switch. I don’t know whether it’s that kids are more curious, or that, the older we become, the more we doubt ourselves. Or maybe it’s something else.

So the person would turn it on, and of course it would immediately turn itself off without saying anything, and I would exclaim, “The soul that God has given you is pure!” (which is a line from the Saturday morning liturgy) – “There is nothing wrong with you!”

The third and most important thing I learned was from the reactions of people afterward. I was amazed at the number of people who sincerely said things like, “Thanks, I needed to hear that.” Many people’s faces lit up, some hugged me, others became teary-eyed. I was continuously surprised by how many people acted as if I had just done them a huge favor.

There is an important lesson to be learned in how badly we need to hear that we’re okay. Truly, we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and there is nothing inherently wrong with any of us as human beings. Clearly, we need to remind ourselves, and each other, of this more often.