Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Good Person

I noticed what a difference religion makes in the grieving process. Now I see what a different religion makes in . . . everything. 

I discovered this when reading, of all things, an in-depth article about the show The Good Place. I don't even watch the show (yet), but I adore Kristen Bell and Ted Danson so I have plans to.
The show's creator, Michael Schur, fell headfirst into philosophy while creating and maintaining this series. Schur seems to be obsessed with niceness and ethics (he has a "no jerks" policy for anyone working for him). 
The idea that excited Schur, for his next sitcom, was both simple and infinitely complex: what it means to be a good person. It was an idea he had been obsessed with in different forms for many years — and that had crystallized for him back in 2005, when Jennifer Philbin, who is now his wife, got into a very minor traffic accident with a man driving a Saab. No one was hurt, and no visible damage was done, and yet the incident would become, Schur later wrote, “one of the most interesting and complicated events of my adult life.” When the Saab driver filed what Schur thought was an unnecessary insurance claim and demanded $836 for bumper damage, Schur countered with a grandly high-minded alternative. If the man would drop his claim, Schur said, he would donate the $836 to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Schur’s plan went viral, and friends and supporters jumped in to pledge more than $30,000 — an incredible philanthropic victory — and yet Schur began to feel a growing sense of unease. He suspected that his mission was not, perhaps, entirely righteous. There was an element of grandstanding to the gesture, of moral one-upmanship, and Schur spoke about it with his family and colleagues and even professors of ethics. He became fascinated by the ways people can rack up ethical credits and debits all at the same time. This, eventually, would become the subject of his show.
It made me realize that Judaism would have a relatively simple answer to this question. Yes, perhaps there would be "grandstanding" and "moral one-upmanship," but it doesn't matter what one's motivation is, as long as charity is going to the right people.  

A character says, "What makes us good is our bonds to other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity.” Sounds right. 
In a low moment, I mentioned to Hieronymi (the show's "consulting philosopher") that American culture seems to have abandoned ethics. She disagreed strongly. “It’s amazing to me how moralized and moralistic we seem to be,” she said, “especially right now. It’s just a cultural blamefest.” All the arguments that rage every day across social media and cable news — racism, reverse racism, statutes of limitations, reparations — are fundamentally about ethics. Even the top-down distractions meant to derail these conversations are conducted under the guise of earnest concern for right and wrong.
When people complain "how bad things are nowadays," they don't seem to realize that the world used to operate without any morals whatsoever. Lower classes were exploited and treated like chattel. Life was cheap. Existence was about getting ahead, at the expense of everyone and everything. 

Religion used to be the only source of ethics, and even then the supposedly devoted failed miserably. But contemporary agnostics, atheists, and those who follow organized faith all want to be good people. 
Schur told me he wants to stress, in his show, the hard work of morality. So much of our ethical life is about thankless grinding drudgery, daily feats of internal strength, a constant invisible resistance.
“It feels, all the time in life, like a bad decision is right in front of you,” Schur said. “No matter who you are, there’s the opportunity to make bad decisions and hurt people. And it takes work just to keep not making those bad decisions. It takes a lot of concentrated effort to do the right thing all the time. Hopefully, you get so used to it, and it becomes such a part of who you are, that it doesn’t take work — you’re on autopilot making good decisions. But not always, and for a lot of people, not ever. You don’t have to look very hard to see a group of people in this country who have given in and are just making the worst decisions you can make. . .”
That's the perk of religion. We are raised, from childhood, that certain behaviors are unacceptable, and it is second nature for many of us. Sure, each of us does struggle with certain not-nice drives, but we know that is what our purpose here is. 
In the face of so much badness, Schur said, it is always tempting to give up. But the heroic thing is simply to try.
“You have to work at it, every day,” he said. “It’s so hard. The temptation will always be there to go: ‘Oh, no one’s watching. No one’s looking. I’ll just do this.’ Whatever ‘this’ is. If you throw a coffee cup at a garbage can and you miss, you could just walk away. The amount of bad you put into the universe is very minimal. But someone else is gonna have to come along and pick that thing up, and it sucks. It’s not that person’s problem, it’s your problem. And it’s a very slippery slope. . . " 
We believe that we are watched, all the time. I heard a speaker once ask: "If you were alone in a room with a sandwich on Yom Kippur, would you eat it?" The audience was horrified. "But if you were alone in a room with a pile of money, would you take any?" The audience was now thoughtful. But we still do believe that we are never "alone in a room." We will always be accountable. 
“And now the next thing is like, whatever — you cheat on your taxes. And you get away with it, because government bureaucracy is bad at picking up on tiny errors people make. And you’re like: All right, nobody got hurt. Because you’re not thinking about the school 82 miles away that couldn’t afford new textbooks because they didn’t get enough tax revenue and had to lower the school budget. All you’re thinking about is, I saved $400 by cheating on my taxes, that’s pretty cool. The window just keeps shifting, and eventually you become the kind of person who is making the bad, selfish, wrong decision by default instead of the good one. And then 15 years have gone by.”
We also believe that every person can achieve salvation, even in the blink of an eye. 
". . . Do you give up or do you try? And they decide to try. And that is what the whole season is like. We’ll keep trying as long as we can. We’ll keep trying. No one is perfect. No one will ever win the race to be the best person. It’s impossible. But, especially since starting this show, I just think everyone should try harder. Including me."

Monday, October 29, 2018

Love and Fear

I was reading Safy-Hallan Farah's tale of driving when this line made me laugh: 

"Like many immigrant daughters, I fear my mom more than I fear God, death or the police . . ."

I was born in the U.S., but Ma was not. And I feared her. 

Don't get me wrong: of course I loved her. 

But I feared her. I was more terrified of her than the pediatrician—I wouldn't scream in his office, because she did not condone "scenes." When we pulled up to the public high school building so I could pick up work papers, she bellowed at me to go get them on my own already (Luke was the only one who was able to resist her fury). If I (we) said one word out of line, hoooooo boy. 

Yet because of my relationship with her, I understand what it means to love and fear Hashem.

Ma was still cuddly. I would crawl into her bed when I was little (and not so little) and she would croon endearments in Hungarian. She cheerfully made our favorites for our birthdays. She was big on kisses and hugs.  

We are given parents, we are told, so we should know how to interact with our unseen Papa. We are required to both love and fear Him. So it would make sense that we should both love and fear our parents. 

Strictly loving our parents wouldn't be sufficient; after all, when love is divorced from awe, disrespect can creep in. 

Whereas only fearing one's folks leaves many a hapless adult on the shrink's couch.  

Rabbi Ephraim Stauber said that if you love something, you are afraid to jeopardize it. One doesn't disrespect someone they love, because they are afraid to damage the relationship. One guards that which they love—like my favorite pair of sneakers from my niece's questing eye—because they are afraid of it being taken away. 

I have seen many a parent make themselves into doormats for their kids, but from what I learned from my upbringing is that they aren't doing their kids any favors. Children have to learn the concept of parental respect because how else will they respect anything in life? How will they respect an unseen Hashem? 

And the parents who don't demonstrate their love, focusing on submission only, create an image of a cold, unloving Creator who spends all day sharpening His lightning bolts.  

It's all about balance.

Friday, October 26, 2018


  • "The soul is a verb . . .  not a noun."—The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Rams vs. Kudus

I was reading an interesting article about the various animal horns that have been used for shofars. The author described the kudu horn, which was utilized by the Teimanim as they didn't have ready access to sheep. He mentioned various ibex and antelope as well.
But he concludes with the reminder to his audience that while all these various horns seem alluring, the original mitzvah calls for a plain ol' ram's horn, so in this time of easy access, a ram's horn should always be used for official shofar blowing.
My nephew happened to have received a kudu shofar for his bar mitzvah, and he spent Rosh HaShana pottering around the house tooting away, to everyone's annoyance. 

It made me realize, again, how we can get so enthused with new, shiny things that we forget that nothing is new and shiny to Hashem. He said to use a ram's horn. 

"But there are cooler things out there!" He knows. He still said to use a ram's horn.
"But get a load of this insane horn! Isn't it so much more interesting than the ram? You get the ram all the time! Let's shake things up a little. Give You some novelty."  

He created the insane horn. He's well aware there is one. He still said to use a ram's horn. 

How often do we fall into that trap? 

"Ah, a mitzvah! But it's been done this way so many times. God must be bored. Let's jazz it up a little!" 

God isn't bored. We're bored. 

If He was capable of boredom, He wouldn't have detailed the commandments with specific minutiae. God is not human, we can't ever make that mistake. He said that He treasures dutiful, punctilious service, under the parameters He requested. 

We cannot presume to know what He really wants. 'Cause He said what He wants. 

Monday, October 22, 2018

Married Guilt

I was born feeling guilty. Is it a European thing, this constant burden of guilt? I should have. I could have. If I did, why did I? 

My newest guilt is, of all things, being married. I feel like proclaiming whenever I meet a single, "I didn't get married at 21! I was a there's-no-hope-for-her-let's-get-her-some-cats 32 on my wedding day! Don't let the sheitel fool you: I'm really just like you!",c_limit/catladylede.gif
Which is totally, completely perverse.  

I wonder if, somehow, my very wedded presence grates on singles, the way some marrieds got on my nerves just by breathing. "Was it something she did? Did she go to the right shadchan? Did she act the right way? Did she do the right mitzvos and was so blessed? Or did she simply tranquilize a guy then drag him to the altar?" 

I was in a shtiebel I don't usually go to for Shabbos. I'm aware of, but not friendly with, the family of daughters who sat ahead of me. They happen to all look alike, so I had difficulty figuring out potential ages and whatnot. Another sister arrived, and I was marveling at her thick, luxurious hair until her left hand appeared and made it clear she was married.

Now that I realized her status, I noticed that she carried herself differently than her single sisters. There was an air of assurance, self-confidence, belonging. 

Her sisters' bearing was stiffer, less secure, more hesitant. Did I used to look like them? Do I look like her now? 

I don't like to think I wafted insecurity in my decade + of singleness. That even if I didn't feel it, I fiercely acted to appear assured, self-confident, and like I belonged. 

But did I? Was I fooling myself all that time? Did marriage magically grant me the aura that I had convinced myself I had attained through sheer will? 

In any case, I don't want to appear confident just because I'm married. I don't want singles to think they are so different from me, because, sister, I bolted through that gauntlet on repeat. I'm one of you. I'm still one of you, even though I may not look it anymore. 

Do you believe me? 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Powder to Correct and to Conceal

This was a usual scene following a date with Han: 

I breezily floated through the door, thinking, "At least my makeup was on point." Trotting blithely to the mirror to brush my teeth, the record needle scratched. 

My eye pencil had . . . migrated. Downward. Oh frack. I looked like this all night? The humiliation!
Well, maybe not this bad.
For years, my eyeliner did what it was told. I didn't understand what had changed. Was it my color corrector that I had fallen in love with? Was it making the territory under my eyes to greasy?

I tried applying lid primer. I tried setting the color corrector with the concealer powder. Nothing doing. 

"That it!" I wailed, as my pencil smudged yet again. "I'm done with eyeliner!"

The next morning I picked it up again. I love it so. And we used to get along so well. What changed? 

I don't know. But then I bought a color corrector powder. I then top it when with my trusty concealer powder. Then I apply the pencil on top.

Rewind: What is the purpose of color corrector? I have TERRIFYING dark circles. Like, zombie quality. Concealer alone simply mutes it to an unappealing shade of gray. Color corrector in peachy shades neutralizes the purple, then the concealer on top looks more like my skin tone. 

I still prefer the finish of the cream correctors and concealers, but we can't have it all.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Fear the Face

I don't usually read interviews with drag queens, but sometimes one is desperate during breakfast and the magazine was lying there: 
Q:There’s something interesting about your drag, which highlights how femininity is very unthreatening up to a certain point, but then it becomes terrifying if there’s too much of it.
A: It’s sort of like when you go to Sephora. When I worked in makeup, I learned that if you were a girl, and you were at work, and you looked great, customers almost expect you to be mean. They’re scared of you. 
I find it funny how people think my fascination with makeup means I'm overtly feminine and girly. I'm not. I spent my youth wishing I had the hand-eye coordination, reflexes, and basic interest in sports to be a tomboy. 

I fought makeup (and Ma's wheedling) until I entered my 20s. It was then I slowly accumulated and gradually slathered on, in gradual layers, what I have previously referred to as "war paint." 

People may mistakenly think that makeup is about ensnaring men. Oh no no. Many men (many many men) found my Face disconcerting. 

Terrifying, even.
That's the way I like it. Muahahahaha. 

Some mornings I think, "I'm just running out for five minutes, no need to apply any Face." You would not believe how I am disrespected. On the road. While driving.

When I have a bold lip? I'm surrounded by meek cars.

I read an article a few years ago by a bitter woman complaining that once she and her friend entered their 50s, they don't get respect no more. Waiters ignore them (when they are loudly drunk). Oh, the travails of ageism and sexism. 

I asked Ma if she ever felt like that. "Never," she asserted, wielding her eyeshadow brush. She was in her 60s then. 

I like being feared. I don't get any flack on the subway or the city streets. Salespeople are deferential to my "leave me alone" demeanor. Checkout girls don't bruise my fruit. Little children are fascinated, from a devout distance. (I suppose it does help that I pair my goop with the "touch-me-and-you-die" Face.)

Then, if I so choose, I can allow my sunny disposition to shine through my mask, and put the other at ease. I find it's better to start with respect then ease into camaraderie, as opposed to being underestimated then grappling for lost footing. Few people will retroactively respect you. It has to be established from the beginning. 

It all begins with mascara. Two coats, minimum. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

Shidduch Flicks

1. Remember when I was gushing about TooYoungToTeach's book recommendation, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? So Netflix has a movie adaptation of it.
My initial reaction was EEEEEEEE!, and I may have talked myself into staying home sick (I kid, I was actually sick as a dog) in order to watch it. 

You will enjoy it if you haven't read the book first. Books tend to ruin movie adaptations (any exceptions, please let me know). 

There was so much more delicious backstory and character development in the book that I was left wanting after the credits rolled. Yet I must honestly mark it as a "Shidduch Flick," right? 

2. I have wanted to see Rama Burshtein's second film, The Wedding Plan, for a long time now. It helped that there was a glowing NY Times review. Now available on Amazon Prime!
I was ensnared by the opening scene, when the 32-year-old Michal meets with a—well, I'm not sure. Ayin hara lady? Kabbalist? Mystic?

The woman asks her bluntly, while performing a kinda gross ritual that I hope is not remotely based in Judaism: What do you want? 

Michal answers standard responses: I want to get married. I don't want to be alone. Love. To please God. To each, the kabbalist scoffs and says, "Stop lying." 

Eventually pushed, Michal bursts out: "I want to be normal. I want to be respected. I want people to respect me because I have a spouse. I'm sick of feeling humiliated."

She becomes so overwrought in this freeing honesty she can't stop: "I want to invite people over for Shabbat. I'm sick of being invited. I want to make Shabbat with a man. I don't want to be alone anymore. I want someone to sing to me. I'm sick of being handicapped. I want stability. I want to live. I want to give and I want to receive. I want to love and be loved back."

This scene spoke to me as, for many of us, it's true. It's not only about being lonely or love or fulfilling a mitzvah. It's also about belonging, not standing out in a "nebachdik" way. Our world doesn't permit singleness past a ridiculously young age—and singles are just so flipping tired of being viewed as abnormal freaks. 

Perhaps that is why Michal becomes slightly unhinged when her engagement is called off. She has had enough; she's going forward with her wedding anyway, firm in her belief that if she books the hall, sends out the invites, and dons the gown, her chassan will show up, too. 

Han's nerves were shot. "This is a real nail-biter," he said worriedly, more than once. Michal is told that this is not how Judaism operates, but she still stubbornly plows forward. She is fierce yet vulnerable, and she doesn't apologize for who she is. I alternated between wanting to hug her and throttle her.

She doesn't just want a proposal. She wants, as she says, "the real deal." Not a marriage for the sake of marriage. She wants the whole loving package, by the 8th night of Chanukah.   

Will she get it?   

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Brownie: A Saga

I grew up with something we adoringly referred to as "Shabbos Cake." Shabbos cake was a brownie, baked in a huuuuuuge pan, cut into two rows, sliced in half, then swathed with heartless layers of non-dairy whip, and deliciously stored in the freezer. 

It was heaven. As can be seen by the name, reserved only for Shabbos. My siblings and I yearned for Shabbos morning with all of our beings. 

Then, we learned that non-dairy whip is naaaaaasty. Like, epically bad for you. It's pure trans fat, the kind that the body doesn't know how to metabolize so it sticks around, clogging arteries and padding thighs. So that went out the window. But the brownie recipe remained as I attempted to find other alternatives (like cashew cream). 

We were going to be hosting guests for a meal a number of years ago, and Ma didn't want to make her usual brownie in the huuuuuuge pan. She asked me to find a recipe for a smaller cake. 

On my first search, I found the below (the original link no longer exists): 

Whole Wheat Brownies (Vered DeLeeuw)
•    4 large eggs, lightly beaten
•    1½ cups sugar
•    ½ cup oil
•    1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
•    ½ cup white whole wheat flour
•    1 cup high-quality unsweetened cocoa powder
•    ½ teaspoon kosher salt

1.    Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray an 8-inch square pan with nonstick spray.
2.    Lightly whisk together the eggs and the sugar, just until incorporated. Whisk in the oil and vanilla, again whisking just to incorporate - you don't want too much air in the batter or it will be cake-like and not dense and chewy as a brownie should be.
3.    In another bowl, use a fine-mesh strainer to sift together the flour, cocoa and salt. Gradually add to the egg mixture, whisking to combine. Batter will be thick.
4.    Pour the batter into the prepared pan, using a wide spatula to get it all out of the bowl.
5.    Bake 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in center comes out not wet and not completely dry, but with a few moist crumbs, keeping in mind that when it comes to brownies, it's always better to err on the side of a little under-baked (moist and chewy) than a little over-baked (dry).
6.    Cool about 30 minutes, in pan, on a wire rack before cutting and serving - brownies are best at room temperature.

It was a HIT. "That's it, then," Ma decreed. "This is our brownie of choice from now on."  

This recipe is also very tolerant. To make it gluten-free for family members, I replaced the flour with half oat flour and half ground teff. Dope. I've even fiddled with it for Pesach, but that's another post. 

Then one day recently, I comprehended that this recipe sort of has a staggering amount of sugar for its size, so I experimented with cutting back. If cutting back on the sugar, then the cocoa has to be cut back too, or else it'll come out bitter. So I tried reducing the sugar by a third, and then the cocoa by the same. To make up for the missing bulk, I added an additional quarter cup of flour. 


4 large eggs 
1 cup of sugar
1/2 cup oil (you can replace half with unsweetened applesauce) 
1 tablespoon vanilla extract 
3/4 cup white whole wheat flour (or other. I use whole wheat pastry flour, but any flour will do) 
2/3 cup cocoa
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt 

It came out quite lovely too. Grownups seem to dig it. Although kids will probably demand the sweeter version.

I top mine with walnuts, simply because Han likes nuts. Chocolate chips are another option, if so desired. 
This baby is stored in the freezer. That's how we like it. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

To Judge Favorably

One morning, I was off to the cleaners. 

I hadn't had a very restful night. I had a vivid dream about Ma, and after awaking in the wee hours, couldn't fall back asleep. So I was driving rather single-mindedly, dimly focusing on the bumper in front of me and no further. 

My cleaners has a parking spot on their property; if occupied, one has to turn into the metered lot behind it. A large van had its blinker on in front of me; in my fugue state, I thought it was turning into the lot, not the spot. So I slid in to the spot. 

The furiously waving arm cut through my mental fog. Apparently, the van was intending to back into the spot, and I had stole it. He then blocked me in, glaring all the while. I knew I should have been apologetic, but I was taken aback by his anger and I was also very tired, compromising my judgement. 

He stomped into the cleaners after me, banging as he went. I was scared to engage with simmering resentment, smiled cheerfully at the owner, and scurried out. He probably intended to take his time leaving to punish me, except that would delay him too. 

This incident made me think of dan l'kaf zechus. If he knew my explanation—not excuse—would he have been more understanding? "I had a dream about my dead mother last night and I couldn't fall back asleep so I wasn't a very aware driver this morning so I didn't realize you were backing in." 

I doubt he was dan l'kaf zechus me. Yet it made me realize how much more I should cut others some slack. Because we just don't know what goes on in other people's lives. And we hope others don't bear us ill will for a bad night's sleep.

Friday, October 5, 2018


You know those ginourmous chocolate-nut platters that people send that never get touched? 

So I had a pile of walnuts sitting in my fridge. They had a minty (blah) flavor after being parked in the platter for too long, but I didn't have the heart to throw them out. I thought to search how to get the stale out.
Via sixburnersue
Just bake 'em for a few minutes. Which I did. 

The results were . . . OMG amazing.

When I told my sister, she laughed. "Duh! I made a salad once with toasted nuts. Everyone was like, 'WHAT is in the dressing?' and I said, 'It's the nuts,' and they didn't believe me." 

Now I toast the walnuts even when they're fresh, to put in brownies or muffins or to munch on. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

How to Stay Sane While Dating: XVII

For those who have been dating for a while, there will inevitably come the suggestions to try something a wee bit more "alternative." Dating websites and dating events are the top two. 

To be clear, I have no objection to dating websites or dating events. What I do object to is their revered status as magic bullets. 

They aren't. They are merely another potential means to meet your special someone. Or the potential means to meet many, many stalkers. 

I kid. 

Sort of. 

I was once coaxed (make that bullied) into joining SYAS. I was uncomfortable with the whole enterprise to begin with, because the internet is the perfect smokescreen. One can make oneself look perfect (as the Instagramers know) and conveniently gloss over the more human details. 

I was on it for approximately 48 hours. Besides for the fact that I had no idea how to categorize myself (I'm not "Yeshivish Modern" nor am I "Modern Orthodox MACHMIR"), I am relying on a faceless someone who doesn't know me to set me up with another faceless someone she doesn't know either. My first suggestion couldn't even manage to tie together the contradictory details between his photo and his written description, and I realized I don't have the koyach for this. I deactivated my account to save my sanity. 

OK, why didn't I join one of those non-shadchan websites? Because it made me feel gross to sift through profiles and judge people ("Ew, he's nasty," "Gah, what a loser," "Is he kidding me?" "Oy, what a nebach"). I might as well go to hell now. And how would I gracefully fend off unwanted advances? Xanax, please.

Singles events. Oh dear dear dear. I went to two that I wished I hadn't gone to, and one that was tolerable but pointless. Everyone blended together to the point that I couldn't differentiate between the men or the women. And the organizers couldn't stop being annoyingly condescending.

Then the Shabbos meals. PSA: Do not serve hard liquor at the table. The women guests do not appreciate being interrogated by drunks. 

People encourage, "Step out of your comfort zone." But there is a reason why I have parameters for a comfort zone: To keep my stress levels from triggering acid reflux.   

There are some people who don't mind these alternative means. That's great. I mean, really. They can join in these activities and even enjoy themselves. But I didn't. I was tormented. And nowhere is it written that I must terrorize myself in order to get married. 

So you don't have to step out of your comfort zone. If you are meant to meet him, you'll meet him. Hashem works out the how, no one else.