Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Keep the Sabbath Day

Oliver Sacks wrote "Sabbath," discussing his frum childhood and the basic ritual we observant are all familiar with. What I found to be illuminating was this
During the 1990s, I came to know a cousin and contemporary of mine, Robert John Aumann, a man of remarkable appearance with his robust, athletic build and long white beard that made him, even at 60, look like an ancient sage. He is a man of great intellectual power but also of great human warmth and tenderness, and deep religious commitment — “commitment,” indeed, is one of his favorite words. Although, in his work, he stands for rationality in economics and human affairs, there is no conflict for him between reason and faith.
He insisted I have a mezuza on my door, and brought me one from Israel. “I know you don’t believe,” he said, “but you should have one anyhow.” I didn’t argue.
In a remarkable 2004 interview, Robert John spoke of his lifelong work in mathematics and game theory, but also of his family — how he would go skiing and mountaineering with some of his nearly 30 children and grandchildren (a kosher cook, carrying saucepans, would accompany them), and the importance of the Sabbath to him.
The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful,” he said, “and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society — it is about improving one’s own quality of life.”
In December of 2005, Robert John received a Nobel Prize for his 50 years of fundamental work in economics. He was not entirely an easy guest for the Nobel Committee, for he went to Stockholm with his family, including many of those children and grandchildren, and all had to have special kosher plates, utensils and food, and special formal clothes, with no biblically forbidden admixture of wool and linen.
When I read articles about the joys of a peaceful "digital sabbath," or how great Shabbos is for the family unit, or how the Sabbath enriches personal relationships, I think that is missing the point. 

One side of the luchos bears the laws betwixt man and God; the laws on the other side are those between man and man. "Guard the Sabbath day" is bein adam l'Makom, not bein adam l'chaveiro.  

Shabbos was the day that Hashem ceased to create, and so we cease to create. I'm not fussing with the light timers and pre-tearing paper towel because I'm trying to remove unnecessary distractions from my life and be mellow for 25 hours. I'm doing that prep because Shabbos is the day that we announce: "Hey, the Eibishter formed us all. Word." 
Shabbos isn't about replicating the "togetherness" of Thanksgiving on a weekly basis, tables groaning with food and friends. It's a day to give a shout-out to the Above. Although the tables groaning with food and friends is a fun side benefit.

Friday, October 2, 2015

For the Scoffer

From my perch in the women's section, I can observe quite a lot, gentlemen; that lacy curtain is like a one-way mirror.
There is one fellow who spends davening browsing the room for another chatty soul, bouncing from tallis to tallis. This time, his eyes brighten as he thinks he has found a willing conversant, close to his age, too! He scurries up to him, and begins to yammer, a smirk distorting his face. 

However, it is in middle of Kaddish. He knows better, I'm sure, but hasn't managed to overcome that challenge just yet. 

But his mark has. Nodding politely while remaining mute, he fiercely answers the "Amein"s and "Brich hu"s. After last "Amein," he pointedly turns to the now somewhat-deflated interloper with "Now I am available" body language. The talker slinks away.

Years ago I had heard Rabbi Mordechai Becher speaking on the topic of kiruv. According to Rabbi Moshe Shapiro: "Just don't get in Hashem's way." 

After the Yomim Noraim, there are many around us who try to do better. But as Rabbi Wein once pointed out, their peers often don't let them. If they come to shul on time, on come the sneers. "Oh, your wife kicked you out of bed?" For many, that sort of mocking feedback cannot be carelessly ignored, and, disheartened, they slip back into their old bad habits.   

"Repression of the Sublime," as seen by Rabbi Weinreb. We know we can do better, but we deny it, with the help of the scoffer—the external scoffer and the internal scoffer.

Keep coming to shul on time; keep silent during Kaddish. The idiots will shut up soon enough, and may even copy your example, quicker then you think. For they will have been reminded they are capable of the sublime, and that no amount of scoffing can shift it.  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Irreverant or Serious?

Hey, God! I hope you're there. 
I want you to hear my prayer. 
That graven image on my shelf:
Is it really You or just myself?
Well, anyway here it goes:
Please keep me on my toes.
Help me past my worst mistakes, 
Doing it for both our sakes, 
For an example of perfection
To the Proctors in my section;
Or merely for the Heaven of it,
Like bread, for the leaven of it. 
For whatever reason may incline, 
Please act for Yours and mine. 

      — Chapterhouse: Dune, Frank Herbert

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Brooks' Inspiration

Yom Kippur may be over, the war isn't done. "The Moral Bucket List" by David Brooks:
I came to the conclusion that wonderful people are made, not born — that the people I admired had achieved an unfakeable inner virtue, built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Diatomaceous Earth

"What was that now?" I inquired faintly. 

"We, er, um, well, so, yeah, have . . . bedbugs." 

"Nosferatu! Nosferatu! Out! Out!" 

My paranoid mind scrabbled to recall how many times she had entered my house in the last few months. I attacked the internet, my hysteria growing at the inflammatory articles available.
There was one comforting one on Slate; bedbugs are, apparently, not so contagious, nor so necessarily impossible to vanquish. I managed to suck in a few breaths. 

However, I still wanted to comfort myself (and be unafraid to cuddle once again in my own bed) by taking some precautions. But if I didn't yet have a visible problem, I didn't want to poison myself with pesticides. 

With a little more digging, I came across diatomaceous earth. It's clay, and some even nibble on it for the silica content (it's also used in pools, so make sure to get the "food grade" D.E.). Harmless to humans (and kids), the dust is murderous on bugs of all kinds, being hazardously sharp on the microscopic level.
Once applied, it can be easily vacuumed up, along with the remains of any it has annihilated. 

Peering at the options, I decided on one that came in a squeeze bottle for easy dispersal. I dusted areas around furniture legs, my mattress, and tossed some around the basement where crickets were making an unwelcome appearance. 

After a few days, I felt secure enough to hose up my preventative measures. The powder from pillows, mattresses, rugs disappeared without a trace up the vacuum.   

Analyzing the fine print, I discovered other uses, like absorbing stains and removing odors. So after an einikel wet my bed (that's right, my bed) I sprinkled it on top and left it there for the day. I vacuumed it up in the evening, and sniffed—no smell whatsoever. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Visit

Courtesy of "Metropolitan Diary": 

As he pulled the car away from the curb at my hotel, my Uber driver, Chaim, who looked to be in his late 20s, cleared his throat: “Would you mind if I asked the purpose of this trip?” His electronic instructions were to bring me to Beth El Cemetery, just over the George Washington Bridge.

“Sure,” I said. “I’m going to visit my grandfather’s grave; no one from our family has been there since 1959, about a year after he passed away. That’s when we moved from New York City to the Midwest. I had just turned 2 years old.” I then added, “It’s not that we haven’t been back to town — we all have always visited New York City frequently. I think we’ve just always been a family who studiously avoided cemeteries — you know, the ‘creep out’ factor.”

“Why now, then?” the driver asked? 

“I’m not completely sure,” I replied. 

And then in a bashert moment if there ever was one (Yiddish for “meant to be”), Chaim smiled at me in the rear view mirror and gently said: “Well, I happen to be a rabbi in case you’d like me to say a blessing or read the Hebrew on the headstone.” 

A couple of hours later, as we were headed back to the City, and after Chaim had done exactly what he had offered (a beautiful recitation from Psalms and some help with the Hebrew inscriptions), I must admit, this basically secular Jew couldn’t help but feel that Grandpa Jack, a deeply religious Jew whom I never had the chance to know, had somehow sent this lovely man, Rebbe (Uber) Chaim, from above.

Jacqueline Jacobs Caster

Monday, September 21, 2015

Love is Not All I Need

There is a lot of conversation nowadays about "love." I don't mean romantic love, although I do find that rather tediously oversold. I mean love in terms of how God loves you, loving the whole entirety of humanity, and so forth. 

From what I am hearing in his music, Matisyahu is awash in awareness of Hashem. Interestingly, the lyrics on Matisyahu's most recent album, Akeda, got a lot of "love" in 'em.

I began to wonder if that is where our kiruv focus possesses a weak spot.

As a child, I was not taught that the essence of Judaism was love. Yes, there is "Thy shall love your friend like yourself," but that love was never depicted as the hugging, smooching, drunken "I love you, man" kind of love. 

"Love," in essence, has lost it's meaning. "I love fish" means I yanked a happy salmon from its home, whacked it over the head, gutted it, steamed it, and savored it with a sprinkling of dill. It is the same thing when some claim to love their partners, but harm and control their spouses. "Love" is often mistranslated via the satisfying feeling I get. 

But Jews believe we are judged on our actions, not on our feelings. So "love" must be a verb. Like Rabbi Hillel said: “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another.” It's about doing, or in his case, not doing.

There is a string of videos on Rabbi David Fohrman's Aleph Beta website where he shows that the basis of Judaism is not love. It is respect.
Respect is all about action. While gals nowadays may not be touched if their significant other breathes, "I respect you," that phrase possesses a few more guarantees than "I love you" ever will. 

I don't need anyone to tell me they love me; chances are, I won't say anything about love either, because to me such words are meaningless. I make a point to show it, however. How could a child not know that I love him when I scour the house for the softest of blankets for his bed, when I cook her favorite supper, when I read The Berenstain Bears until I'm hoarse, when I stroke and kiss his rumpled hair?

When it comes to kiruv, those who are spiritually awakening may be initially drawn to the concepts of love, but it is vital to familiarize them with the concepts of respect. Respect to elders, for starters, as that has fallen by the wayside in general. Respect to pretty much everyone. And to know that there are many times that respect will trump perceived religion. 

Friday, September 18, 2015


As a child, I was never instructed to say "Sorry." When I became a professional aunt, I never instructed a child to say "Sorry." 

Note a typical spat between two rugrats. One offended the other. The other is silently furious. The attacker says "Sorry, let's go play." The hurt one is immovable. Huffily, the transgressor complains, "But I said 'Sorry'!" 

Hear her words: Not that she is sorry, merely that she said sorry. Not the same thing, cookie.

I don't tell the kinfauna to say "Sorry" to each other, because that cheapens the process of regret. If possible or appropriate, I insist upon acts of kindness or affection. A hug, a kiss, make nice, help packing away the toys. Or I simply separate them until they wish for their irritating company back.
Etgar Keret's "Taxi Driver" is a beautiful example of the redeeming power of "sorry," when done right.  

Teshuva is the act of contrition, whereas Tefilah is the "saying Sorry." If they were one and the same thing, they would have been conflated together. But they aren't. 

To say it, and mean it . . . oy.   

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Go to the Source

"Enriched white flour." When I see that on a label, I politely put the box down and move on. As I understand it, "enriched" means that in the processing, all the nutritional value is sucked out, than added back in. Not exactly ideal.
"Vitamins Hide the Low Quality of Our Food" by Catherine Price explains that food manufacturers know that chucking in a little supplementary nutrition into their quasi-edibles will bump up sales. Sure, you may be getting your vitamins, but it's from junk that isn't exactly health-friendly. 
Nutritionists are correct when they tell us that most of us don’t need to be taking multivitamins. But that’s only because multiple vitamins have already been added to our food.
Fortification is everywhere, like fluoride in the water and iodine in salt. 
But the very processing that’s necessary to create long shelf lives destroys vitamins, among other important nutrients. It’s nearly impossible to create foods that can sit for months in a supermarket that are also naturally vitamin-rich.
Consuming the actual vegetable, however, as opposed to various isolated vitamins: 
And adding back vitamins after the fact ignores the issue of synergy: how nutrients work naturally as opposed to when they are isolated. A 2011 study on broccoli, for example, found that giving subjects fresh broccoli florets led them to absorb and metabolize seven times more of the anticancer compounds known as glucosinolates, present in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, than when glucosinolates were given in straight capsule form. The researchers hypothesized that this might be because the whole broccoli contained other compounds that helped people’s bodies put the anticancer chemicals to use.  
"A Handful of Health for Rich and Poor" by Jane E. Brody reports on the miraculous qualities of nuts. Across the board, risk factors included, consuming nuts reduced death rates. Wild.
That should be the snack of choice—not the prepackaged, fortified stuff.