Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Penn Jillette on Celebrity Apprentice

By Susan Esther Barnes

I don't watch a lot of "reality TV," and I'm not a fan of the show Celebrity Apprentice. I've seen a few episodes, but never really liked the show. This season, however, I tuned in because George Takei was going to be on it.

Although I am a fan of the original Star Trek, I recently became a fan of George Takei, not so much because he played Sulu on Star Trek, but because he consistently posts hilarious photos and other things on Facebook. Seriously, friend him if you're on Facebook and you want a few laughs.

So there I was, watching Celebrity Apprentice, enjoying George Takei acting pretty much the way I thought he might act, and then I started noticing Penn Jillette.

Penn Jillette is half of the unique magic team Penn and Teller. I've seen Penn and Teller on TV. They have an interesting act. It isn't your run of the mill magic show. He seemed smart and funny, but I didn't have much of an opinion of him beyond that.

What surprised me about Penn Jillette on this show is what an amazing human being he is. It's not that I thought he'd be a mean person or anything, it's just that, on TV, people in general often aren't very nice. Especially when they are competing against one another. The Apprentice shows have certainly seen their share of cat fighting, lying, insulting, and back stabbing. Those are some of the reasons I don't usually enjoy watching the show.

If Penn Jillette is really as he appears on this show, however, he is by far the nicest person I've seen, on TV or elsewhere. He is incredibly generous to his team-mates. I don't mean this in terms of giving money, but in terms of complementing them, trying to make them shine, giving them credit for things they have done - things like that.

Often people can be nice when we feel safe and comfortable, but when we feel threatened in some way, our behaviour changes for the worse. Not so with Penn Jillette. Despite the competition, he is generous in his actions. Even when another member of the cast was verbally attacking him, (for no good reason, in my opinion), Penn Jillette remained calm, apologetic, and generous.

I still enjoy watching George Takei, who seems to be a perfectly nice person in his own right. But I seriously wish I could learn to be as nice a person as Penn Jillette.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Your Questions Answered #7

By Susan Esther Barnes

One of the fun things about getting website statistics for my blog is I get to see the search terms people use to get here. A lot of those search terms are questions. You have some great questions, and 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.”

Can you touch someone else’s mezuzah?
Yes! Of course, some people wear a mezuzah as a pendant, and I wouldn’t go reaching for a mezuzah hanging on someone else’s neck. However, any mezuzah on a doorpost is fair game – go ahead and kiss it!

Can you use the word “devout” to refer to Jews?
Of course you can. I’m guessing this question comes up because we often hear the phrase, “Devout Christian.” My handy Webster’s dictionary defines the word “devout” as “Devoted to religion,” so as with any religious person of any faith, religious Jews can be referred to as “devout.”

Do you have to tell people you weren’t born Jewish after you convert?
The short answer is no. Once a person converts to Judaism, he or she is considered to be a Jew just like any other Jew, with all the same obligations.

However, under some circumstances, a person may be asked to prove he or she is Jewish. I think this is wrong, and a person should be taken at his or her word about whether he or she is Jewish, but others disagree. If a convert is asked to prove he or she is Jewish, then the fact that he or she is a convert will inevitably come out.

Circumstances in which you may be asked to prove your Jewishness include applying for membership at some (most likely Orthodox) synagogues, enrolling your child in a yeshiva (Orthodox religious school), making aliyah (moving to Israel), and getting married in Israel (where only Orthodox Jews can be married – non Orthodox Israeli Jews often travel to Cyprus to get married).

What statement is written on the seder plate?
It depends on your seder plate. The seder plate is used for Pesach, or Passover. The word seder means “order,” and it refers to several different types of food that we eat in a certain order for this holiday. Those special foods are put on the seder plate, so many of them have the names of the special foods written on them. Some may also say “Pesach” or something else on them in Hebrew, relating to the holiday. If you want to know what your seder plate says, ask a rabbi, or bring it into a Judaica store for a translation.

Why do people visit others when they are sick?
When we talk about visiting the sick, we don’t generally mean visiting people who have a common cold or flu, or people who are contagious. We don’t want to interrupt people who are trying to get some rest, and we certainly don’t want to catch anything, or to spread disease to others.

However, when someone is in the hospital or recovering at home from surgery or a non-contagious illness, it can be pretty lonely. A visit from a friend can help to pass the time, and can help keep the person’s mind off of their illness, at least for a while.

Jewish tradition says that when you visit someone who is sick, it takes away a small part of his or her illness. Also, just after Abraham was circumcised, God came to visit him. We visit the sick as one way to try to imitate what God does.

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, February 22, 2012

To Kiss a Mezuzah's Top 10 Posts of 2011

By Susan Esther Barnes

For those of you who are new to this blog, and want to know what you have been missing, below is a list of the 10 most popular posts on To Kiss a Mezuzah in 2011, based on number of views:

1. My most popular post last year was the debut edition of Your Questions Answered, in which I answer questions which directed readers to the blog. One of the questions answered here, "Can a person eat pork and then kiss a Jewish person?" is one that keeps coming up.

2. Number two on the list is Suspended in Mid Air, about what it was like for me shortly after my father died, may his memory be a blessing.

3. In third place is The 613 Commandments - Do We Follow Them?. The short answer is that all Jews follow at least some of them, but don't let any Jew, no matter how "religious," fool you into thinking they follow all of them.

4. Discovering Meaning in Ritual took fourth place. If you don't think rituals have any meaning for you, I suggest you read this one, and then see what you think.

5. Clearly, when you have questions, you want answers. Taking the 5th spot is Your Questions Answered #2. There are a lot of great questions in this one, including more on kissing!

6. In 6th place is a post which I wish more people would read, especially those who are using this term: Why the Current Use of the Term "Torah Jew" is a Chilul Hashem.

7. Showing up for a third time in the top 10 (yes, I get the hint, and I will keep writing these), is Your Questions Answered #4. This one has a kissing question in it too, but it has some things about mourning and a couple of common Hebrew phrases.

8. Speaking of common phrases, in 8th place is Glossary for People New to Orthodox Blogs.

9. Another personal experience, Leading My First Shiva Minyan, made it to 9th place. I still remember how hot it was that day, and how much I wish I had taken off my blazer!

10. In 10th place is Rabbi Kanefsky and "...Shelo Asani Isha," about the traditional prayer in which men thank God for not making them a woman.

Honorable mention goes to a post I wrote in 2010, which is still so popular it actually came in as number 11 on the 2011 list, just one view short of the 10th place post. It is A Reform Jew Discussed on an Orthodox Blog Reflects. It seems to me a lot of people are interested in how Orthodox and Reform Jews get along - or dont - while, in my reality, it seems we don't often think about or interact with each other.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Haveil Havalim #348

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.


I ask whether you recognize signs of God in your life in Signs of God posted at TC Jewfolk.

Please join me in saying "Mazel tov!" to Skylar, who recently completed her much-blogged-about Orthodox conversion. This week, among other things, she wrote about the different Types of Mikvaot posted at You're Not Crazy.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink presents an interesting look at Superstition and Religion posted at Fink or Swim.

Anti-Israeli and antisemitic propaganda is alive and well in the BDS movement, as shown in BDS conference at Penn met my worst expectations posted at JWeekly. Yes, I know this isn't a blog, but I thought people should read about the real motivations behind BDS.

Joel Katz fills us in on all things Israel in Religion and State in Israel - February 13, 2012 (Section 1) and Religion and State in Israel - February 13, 2012 (Section 2) posted at Religion and State in Israel.

Mrs S. fills us in about Israeli National Service in The Parental Guide to Sherut Leumi posted at Our Shiputzzim: A Work in Progress.

Batya presents The Truth About Coalition Power in Israeli Governments posted at Shiloh Musings.

Hadassah presents Spotlight on Gush Katif Education Week posted at Shiloh Musings.

Jacob Richman presents New Video Online: Learn Hebrew Phrases - Hotel Check-In posted at Good News from Israel.


Dov Bear questions why Meir Solivetchik testified about the President's plan to require free insurance coverage of contraceptives for women in Peek a Jew: Which one doesn't belong? posted at Dov Bear.

Heshy Fried shows us why it's a bad idea to jump to conclusions in Facebook says Israel doesn’t exist, big deal! posted at Frum Satire.

Batya presents As A Jew... It's a "No Brainer;" Jewish Law Trumps Secular Philosophy posted at Shiloh Musings.


Ever wonder what it feels like to jump out of a plane? If so, read A Soldier's Bird's Eye View from Outside the Plane posted by rutimizrachi at Ki Yachol Nuchal!

Miriam presents a poem inspired by her mother, may her memory be a blessing, in On Moetzi Shabbat posted at Miriam's Words.

I write about a class for people who plan to volunteer to walk with people toward the end of their life in Bay Area JHC Kol Haneshama Classes 3 and 4 posted at To Kiss a Mezuzah.

Jennifer presents Parsha of the Week: Mishpatim posted at Kosher Nice Time Cartoons.

It's not too early to start thinking about cooking for Purim, and Miriam is asking for your special hamantashen recipe in Purim is Just Around the Corner... posted at From Miriam's Kitchen.

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.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Bay Area JHC Kol Haneshama – Classes 3 and 4

By Susan Esther Barnes

Last weekend, I attended days 3 and 4 of the Kol Haneshama class series given by the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. The purpose of the class is to train volunteers to work at the Jewish Home in San Francisco with people who are approaching the end of life. The class is also open to people like me who don’t live in San Francisco, and who will be using what we learn in our own community.

I was glad that, after breakfast together, we started Saturday morning with Shabbat services. We were told we were welcome to bring a tallit, so I wore mine, as did the rabbi leading the service, and a couple of other people.

Saturday was all about loss. There were two activities that particularly stood out for me that day. For the first one, we were each given 16 post-it notes: a set of four each of four different colors. On one color, we were asked to write one activity that is important to us on each of the four post-its of that color. For the second color, we wrote four roles we play that define us. On the third color, we wrote the names of four people who are important to us, and on the last color we wrote four physical objects that we own that are important to us.

Then, we were asked to select one post-it of each color, and to place it in a bowl. At first, I didn’t know what the activity was about. I thought maybe the trainer was going to read out loud a selection of the things we had written. Foolishly, I picked the four things that were the most important to me, and put them in the bowl.

We were then asked to look at what we had left, and I began to realize that what we were being asked to do was to imagine what it would be like if we lost some of the things that are important to us – activities, roles, people, and things. The activity was helping us to see what kinds of things people lose when they become ill and/or elderly, and to imagine what that would feel like.

Next, we were asked to pick four more post-its, of any color, and place them in the bowl. This time, I chose more wisely. I held on to the things I had left that I would least like to lose. Once again, we spent some time contemplating what we had left.

The trainer then announced that he was going to come around and take some of our post-its. This was the same trainer who did the photo activity with us on the first evening, and similar to what he did at that time, when he gave different numbers of photos to different people, he took different numbers of post-it notes from different people. At least one person was left with all eight remaining post-its, and at least one person was left with only one.

Once again, he asked us to look at what we had left. He asked us, “Is it enough?” and someone else answered what I was thinking, “It has to be.” All in all, it was a sad and sobering experience to contemplate being left with so much less than I have now, especially in terms of activities and roles.

When the trainer asked what it was like when he said he would take some post-its rather than allowing us to pick them for ourselves, I told him, “I was thinking, ‘That’s too bad, I used to like you.’”

The other activity that stands out for me was at the end of the day. Each of us were asked to think about someone we knew who had died, and to write on an index card three things: Something we regret, something we would like the person to know, and something we wish for the person. On my card, I wrote to my grandmother who died in 1983.

One by one, we stood up and read what was on the card, then dropped it into the bottom of a ceramic pot, while the other members of the class said, “Amen.” Once everyone was done, together we all put dirt into the pot, planted a houseplant in it, and watered the plant. The plant is going to be brought to the Jewish Home, where most of the people in the class will be volunteering.

What surprised me the most about this activity is how emotional I felt, even though it has been so long since my grandmother died. She had the same disease as Katharine Hepburn, so that her whole body shook all the time. It always seemed to me it must be hard to sleep in that situation. My grandmother always seemed so strong, self-reliant and capable, it had never before occurred to me to wish for something for her. What I wished for her was the ability to be still when she wants to be.

One other thing that struck me about day 3 is that we were told that our lunch hour would be a silent lunch. I took this to mean that none of us would speak during the lunch break, yet several people from the class spoke to me. After I ate, I left the building and took a walk around the grounds, which include lovely paths like the one picture at the top of this post, but I found myself spending more time than I would have liked feeling annoyed because people had spoken to me. When I returned to the building, again, people from class spoke to me even though the lunch break was not yet over.

When class resumed, we were asked what the experience of the silent lunch was like for us. At the risk of alienating various people in the room, I spoke about how frustrating it was to me that so many people spoke to me, when I had been anticipating having a chance to spend the hour in silence.

Later that afternoon we had another, 15 minute, silent break, and once again someone from the class spoke to me during the break. Believe it or not.

So Saturday was focused on ourselves and on loss. Sunday was focused on serving others. We did some text study and learned a bit about listening skills, and did some roleplays of what we would say and do when we were visiting residents at the Jewish Home.

The best part of the day, for me, was a video of Jewish Home residents, centered around a performance they put on of songs they had written. The documentary started filming in the week before the performance, which had been scheduled to be on September 12, 2001, adding an extra dimension to it because of the September 11 tragedy.

As you can see, day 3 was much more impactful to me than day 4.

Worse, I’m afraid I won’t be able to write about the classes on days 5 and 6, because I came down with a nasty intestinal flu, and was unable to finish the class series. I don’t yet know what that will mean to my potential future as a volunteer.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Signs of God" at TC Jewfolk

How open are you to recognizing the signs of God surrounding you? Read my latest post, Signs of God, at TC Jewfolk.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Bay Area JHC Kol Haneshama – Class 2

By Susan Esther Barnes

Thursday night, I attended the second evening of the Kol Haneshama class series given by the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. The purpose of the class is to train volunteers to work at the Jewish Home in San Francisco with people who are approaching the end of life. The class is also open to people like me who don’t live in San Francisco, and who will be using what we learn in our own community.

I arrived early, and used the time to walk the labyrinth on the grounds of the Mercy Center where the meeting was being held. I had never walked a labyrinth before, and I was curious what it would be like. This particular labyrinth is in a beautiful setting, surrounded by bushes and trees, as well as chairs and benches. Unfortunately, it is a little too close to a road and parking lot, which led to traffic noise interfering with an otherwise idyllic setting.

I found the experience of walking the labyrinth to be a bit distracting. On some of the longer stretches I found myself thinking about one thing or another, but then I felt interrupted every time I had to make a U-turn to continue to follow the path. As a result, I didn’t find the experience to be either restful or helpful. I found myself thinking I would have preferred to just sit on one of the benches to think.

When I walked into the gathering area for the class, I realized that, when I arrived for the first class, I had felt like an individual walking into a room with a bunch of other individuals. Walking in the second evening, I felt like a person walking into a group of people of which I am a member. This tells me the trainers did something right the first time, to help us to feel like a group.

After dinner, one of the trainers talked for a while about silence, and then gave us an opportunity to just sit in silence for a while. This allowed me to experience what I had found myself wishing for when I had been in the labyrinth earlier.

Next, we were asked to think about an experience that we found to be spiritual, to write down what the experience was, and to write what was spiritual about it. Everyone then shared what we wrote, and we discussed spirituality in general, as well as how diverse our experiences were. One thing we had in common, though, was a sense of awe.

We were reminded that what is spiritual for one person may not be for another, and that even if two people say the same activity is spiritual, each one may find different aspects of that experience to be spiritual. For example, what I find spiritual about Chanukah may be lighting the candles with my husband, while for someone else it might be the smell and taste of latkes.

Toward the end of the evening, we broke up into small groups to discuss what the class experience has been like for us so far. One person asked whether it was intentional that we weren’t asked to introduce ourselves to the class, and weren’t asked to tell each other what brought us there.

I let her know I found the experience refreshing to allow people to form a picture of who I am based on what I say and do, rather than what labels I may put on myself if I were asked to introduce myself formally.

The trainer said it was intentional, and is done that way partly because, when we walk into a room as a volunteer, we may know very little, if anything, about that person or their background. We need to be able to do our work despite this lack of knowledge, knowing that in some cases, even the person we are visiting may not be capable (due to language, physical or mental reasons) of telling us about themselves.

Next up will be two full days – Saturday and Sunday – with the class. I was pleased to learn that Saturday morning will include a prayer service, as well as Havdalah at the end. I’m sure the weekend will be tiring, but I’m hoping it will be energizing, as well.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bay Area JHC Kol Haneshama – Class 1

By Susan Esther Barnes

Earlier this week, I attended the first evening of the Kol Haneshama class series given by the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. The purpose of the class is to train volunteers to work at the Jewish Home in San Francisco with people who are approaching the end of life. The class is also open to people like me who don’t live in San Francisco, and who will be using what we learn in our own community.

The class series consists of two evenings this week, two evenings next week and one full weekend in between. That is a lot to pack into a short period of time, especially considering the evenings are from 5:15 until 10 pm and the two weekend days are each from 8:30 am to 7 pm.

We were told that the evening sessions would include a meal, but I was a bit surprised when the meal started at 5:30 and continued until 6:30. This meant we had an hour and 15 minutes, plus whatever extra time beforehand for those of us who arrived early, to do nothing but talk with each other and to eat.

Later, when one of the trainers went over a list of things to keep in mind during the sessions, I realized what was going on. We were told, “The process is the content,” and I realized that part of the plan must be to help us to slow down from our busy day, as well as to give us a chance to get to know each other a little, before the training started.

In keeping with the “process is the content” idea, we continued with an ice breaker activity, a little text study, and a meditation. By that point, frankly, I was getting a bit impatient. I know many human beings require more time to get to know other people than I do before they feel safe enough to start talking certain things, but I wanted to move on.

Finally, we got to the last activity of the evening, which I found fascinating.

One of the trainers passed out one photo to each of us, face down. He explained that these were all photos of people who had been in hospice. We turned them face-side-up when he told us to do so, so we could look at the person in front of us. We were sitting in a circle, and he told us to pass our photo to the person on our right whenever he said, “Next.”

As we looked at the photos, he told us to notice certain things about them, such as, “What is surprising about this photo,” or “What do you see in the person’s environment?” From time to time, as he talked, he said, “Next,” and we passed the photo we had and took another from the person on our left.

At one point – and this was brilliant – he handed a couple of extra photos to some people, so they had three photos at once. He also took the photos from some people, so they had none. Then, he started to talk about things like how, while we are doing this work, we may go on vacation, expecting to see the same people when we return, but by the time we get back, one or more of them may be gone. He also talked about how some volunteers would form deep relationships with people we may never spend much time with, or may never even meet.

At the same time, he started occasionally saying, “Next,” much more frequently. As a result, some people, especially those with three photos, barely got any time to see the photos they had, while others had no photos to look at, at all. I thought this was a great way to model how unbalanced this work must feel sometimes.

Afterward, we talked about the photos, and we had a chance to say which one startled us, or which photo we fell in love with, or which one made us uncomfortable, etc.

One photo we talked about for a while was of a young man holding up his driver’s license. We discussed how patients sometimes feel a loss of identity as well as mobility, and the driver’s license symbolizes both. We also mentioned how different he looked from his license photo, and how challenging it must be, when one becomes ill, to find oneself looking so different.

I was particularly struck by the fact that most of us don’t like our driver’s license photo, but that if we lost a bunch of weight, and/or our hair, or suffered other changes in our looks due to illness, how most of us would dearly love to look like that license photo again. As they say, sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

I was also captivated by a photo of a woman with her eyes closed and her mouth open. It reminded me of my friend Rose, may her memory be a blessing, on the morning of the day she died. She, too, was unresponsive, and just lying there, breathing with her mouth open. I would have liked to sit with the woman in the photo, as I sat with Rose that morning.

I am looking forward to what the rest of the training has in store, although I’m sure much of Thursday night through Sunday will pass in a blur. Stay tuned.