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.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

American Atheist Billboards in Hebrew

By Susan Esther Barnes
Photo by the American Atheists

According to a story on the CNN website, the American Atheists are putting up billboards (pictured above) in Arabic and Hebrew in neighborhoods where religious people who speak those languages live.

I’m mentioning it because, since I’m a religious Jewish person, I’m guessing at least some of my readers would assume I’m against these billboards. I want to let you know I’m not against them, and why.

True, I disagree with the message “You know it’s a myth.” Nobody knows it’s a myth. People may suspect it’s a myth, but the non-existence of God can’t be proven any more than the existence of God can be proven. I may believe wholeheartedly that God exists, and someone else may wholeheartedly believe that God doesn’t exist, but neither of us actually knows 100% for sure.

However, I do agree with the message, “You have a choice.” If someone feels stuck in their religion, if they feel it isn’t working for them but there is no way out, then it’s a good thing to remind them that they do have a choice. Although it would be painful to do so, they can and should leave their religious community, if doing so would be what is best for them in the long run.

Insincere worship; suppressing of one’s inner beliefs; conforming to norms that make a person feel trapped, unappreciated, and undervalued is not a healthy way to live. I don’t believe God wants us to do live in an environment that is unhealthy for us.

If these billboards help people who feel trapped in their community to seek a way out, and they are able to find a more healthy environment for themselves, then that is a good thing.

I can’t see these billboards having any effect on anyone who is confident in their own religious beliefs. If a person believes in God, a billboard like this isn’t going to change their mind. And, as far as I can tell, that isn’t the aim of the American Atheists, anyway. They aren’t trying to convert believers into non-believers. Rather, they are trying to reach out to non-believers who feel trapped. You might not think this is the best way for them to go about it, but they aren’t harming believers by doing this.

And what about those who aren’t sure? Shouldn’t I be afraid that the billboards might sway those who are questioning God? No, I’m not. Questioning God is a good thing. It’s one of the things Jews have done for thousands of years. We ought to ask questions. We ought to examine all sides. We ought to listen to differing opinions.

As I have said before, beliefs aren’t worth having if they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

One other thing, though. The Hebrew billboards have on them, in Hebrew, the name of God, as God revealed it to Moses. This is the name that in ancient times was only spoken by the High Priest, and only in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and only during the High Holy Days. Because saying it out loud was so rare and special, we don’t even know any more the proper way to pronounce it.

Religious Jews believe that when this name of God is written on a piece of paper, and later the paper is no longer able to serve its purpose (such as when a book that contains the name is too old, worn and/or damaged to be used any more), that piece of paper should not be thrown away. Rather, it should be buried, with respect.

So my question is this: This billboard will be seen by many religious Jews. They will see the name of God written in Hebrew on it. They know that the written name of God should not just be thrown away. Will any of them think to contact the American Atheists or the billboard company, to request that once the billboard comes down, that the paper with God’s name on it be given to them so they may bury it properly?

If not, then I wonder about their true beliefs and priorities.