Friday, March 30, 2007

Help me apply S'firat ha Omer, PLEASE!!

Pesach. April. Aviv. Spring. Everyone around me is perking up. And it's getting so that I don't have to wear my thermal underwear every day. Yesterday I went outside in the sun on my lounger; the warm rays baked my hair and slid through my skin. I was content in the warmth that brought me back to summer days lying on a towel on Santa Monica beach, the rhythmic splash and hiss of waves my most soothing and serene memory.
Pesach brings with it the beginning of the counting of the Omer, the 49 days of improvement linking liberation from slavery with spiritual readiness to receive the Torah. I've been counting the Omer for lots of years; more than what I consider my age, actually, but I have yet to make the complete 49 day process without missing one. I'm determined; I've printed out my Rabbi Simon Jacobson daily Omer meditation that prods me to focus on the s'firot, the characteristics that embellish each day, and which I can tap into to uplift my own behavior. If only I could REALLY understand the true meaning of "netzach," which I suspect isn't really "endurance," or "yesod," which I doubt really means "bonding." I've got what chesed, kindness is--and even gevura (discipline, restraint). But when I get to the netzach of hod (translated as humility), this stuff gets too touchy-feely for me. And I'm a shrink!
A friend of mine did a doctoral dissertation on the application of the traits associated with s'firat ha Omer. She then gave a shiur on it for our community, last week. I wasn't here to hear it (busy watching the famed Off-Broadway production of "Made Up" with its luminous star) but I've been listening to the tape. Am I cynical or ignorant or crazy when I hear her talking about too-abstract differences between "tiferet of tiferet" (compassion of compassion--!!!) and "yesod of yesod," "bonding in bonding"?? I just start to laugh when such terms call up the notion of....forgive me; it's something I know next-to-nothing about...S & M???
OK, just focus on moving up. On getting closer to God. On each of the characteristics possible. One way is to look at it is through the idea of moving from barley to wheat--ie the most animal of grains to the most refined, the one from which we make bread, the symbol of human cooperation (as my children have heard repeated to guests at our Shabbat table innumerable times). We move from the flat, non-egotistical bread of affliction for Pesach to the risen loaves with their delicate texture.
HELP. This doesn't enlighten me. Humility is a basic Jewish aspiration. Why is it better to be "puffed up" at Shavuot when it's so derided at Pesach?
Then there's the kabbalistic association of the Omer with body parts--that first we work from the top of the body down to actualize the midot, (characteristics) so that in the end we have completion. NOOOOO, we don't actually get complete, because just a few weeks later we go into mourning, followed shortly by a month, Ellul, when we repent for our massive quantities of sins...maybe by then they're completed sins.

I hope this is not heresy. It is with the greatest respect, but sometimes with giggles at its silliness, that I approach this character refinement during the Omer. I know the readers of this blog will be able to enlighten me with their stories of being able to elevate themselves each day, conquering a new area of perfection...say, malchut of Tiferet.
After all, it's that wonderful time, that rebirthing time when we gather our families together and repeat the age-old tale of our release by God from the slavery of body and spirit in Egypt.
For me, the joy is in the daffodils, the trees that two weeks ago were sticks now woolly with white blossoms. The tulips opening with brilliant color, and the spring green of tiny leaves straining forth in new life. A time to refresh, a time to rejuvenate. A time to take LOTS of photos because these days are precious, these moments never to be repeated.
Pesach kasher v'sameach, and maybe you can help me as I struggle to apply all the learning I've done on s'firat ha Omer over countless hours--with far less satisfaction and progress than I'd like to attain.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Mugging a 101-year-old with a Walker riles New Yorkers

Having just returned last week from a jaunt from the left to the right coast, my view of New Yorkers has been refreshed. Walking the streets of mid-town Manhattan, I remembered why the City earned its reputation. Graffitti was abundant. Trash was piled up several feet high in garbage bags along the curbs. The lovely white snow that first greeted our family on Sunday turned by Monday into dirty slush, and as I noted in my previous blog, the incessant dripping from above as I walked down the street left my hair wet. The jovial friendliness of downtown Seattle was replaced by hurrying crowds who couldn't pause to say "excuse me" when they bumped and shoved and dashed past.

In other words, though New Yorkers can be loving and kind on an individual basis, as a group, in public, they're pretty tough. And rude. And unfriendly. Sometimes even menacing.

But even so, there IS a point beyond which bad behavior will not be tolerated. I just watched, on You Tube, the video of the mugger smacking the head of 101-year-old Rose Morat, who had been leaning on her walker leaving her Queens apartment building to go to church. I saw her speaking to a reporter afterward, face black and blue, expressing her pity for the criminal--who knocked her over, and her walker as well, and absconded with her purse containing $33.

Also in the news report was an interview with the 85-year-old woman, Solange Elizee, that this same moron attacked later in the day. She also expressed shock at the behavior of her attacker--who got $32 and her wedding ring. This time the perpetrator entered an elevator with the woman, exited a floor before her, and ran upstairs to bash her in the head as she emerged.

News of these crimes has brought out the sense of justice in New Yorkers, who have reacted fiercely--raising a reward of more than $18,000. An Associated Press article about the incidents quoted Joe Sarju, 59 in his feelings about the criminal: "I could hold him and let the woman beat him up," he offered. "I'd love to beat him, but then they would lock me up."

OK, I did chuckle reading that end part--Mr. Sarju's anger goes only so far. But what is heartening to me is New Yorkers' unequivocal reaction. To mug anyone is bad--intolerable--but to victimize the helpless is unforgivable.

My hope here is that indignation over the attacks on these feisty senior citizens will mobilize New Yorkers--and anyone else who is outraged--to permanently care a bit more for the welfare of his or her neighbors. And I also hope that the attacker is quickly caught, and that he receives the greatest penalty the law allows.

And to my friends who live in Queens--I know you'll be there to escort little old ladies with walkers wherever they need to go.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Stern College's play, "Made Up:" An Off-Broadway Triumph

New York, the city that never sleeps, offered for three nights last week a marquis featuring my daughter--my beautiful bachorah-- starring in her college play. Yes, that's STARRING, not only holding the lead part, but lighting up the stage with her presence, delivering the most difficult of lines--mostly sentence fragments--with personality that developed with her character's ascent.

I'll flip over all the cards, as my husband is wont to say, in an archaic reference to the beloved TV show, "What's My Line:" The play was produced by Stern College, and playwright Chai Hecht created a bizarre plot in which my daughter, playing Nattie Barton, a reticent 19-year-old makeup girl for a TV talk show, becomes the leader of a cult that, via her charisma, grows to hundreds of thousands of followers. The most virulent of these insist she's the Messiah, and aim to prove it by shooting her--to demonstrate her immortality. Unfortunately, Natty was preceeded by several "false Messiahs" who resigned their posts by proving their own unworthiness--first by killing another and then taking their own lives.

But never mind that, the jerky bits of sentences expressing pregnant thoughts bumps the audience along (early on, one false Messiah does express exasperation with the incomplete and frustrating half-starts in Nattie's speech pattern). And ultimately, there's a scary climax that, over the three days' performances, becomes somewhat comprehensible.
I did view every performance offered. Had to. I had a bit part in the play.
My part was, appropriately enough, an audience member for a talk show who proffers cult-leader and guest Natty an admiring question: "How do you keep your figure?" This ponderous query was preceded with its own jerky repartee that was the devil to memorize, adding to my admiration for the eight women who so seamlessly interrupted and interjected and paused and pondered their way through the plot. Delivering sensible, complete sentences in a logical order is difficult enough, but to keep straight seemingly unrelated fragments, the intelligence requirement elevates exponentially.

All in all, participating in and watching the three evenings' entertainment, expertly directed by professional Reuven Russell, was more fun than I could have anticipated. The Schottenstein Cultural Center was pretty darn close to Broadway, and gave the feel of a "real" off-Broadway production, and watching my daughter command the stage was a life-peak.
And during the days? Let's just say that cheapo clothes emporiums on Broadway anywhere south of 24th street probably saw my middle daughter's thrilled and delighted face as she sifted through racks of trendy styles, mother (me) in tow. The one store I can personally recommend to any female who enjoys a staggering array of fabulously-priced costume jewelry is Accessories Palace, on Broadway near 32nd Street. I strolled the aisles there, tray of bargains in hand, gleeful grin and delighted words evident, until daughters were nagging me to go.

And then, there was the kosher food. Pizza--we in the northwest corner of the country are woefully without freshly-made kosher pizza, and at Circa and Jerusalem 2, we were able to replenish our pizza-starved appetites on thick crusted or exotica-topped choices. To live in New York and be Jewish is to drink of grease and goodness. Costs a bundle, but ummm, it's yummy.

So, as promised, that's the summary of my New York getaway. Oh, I could have mentioned our first day there, a Sunday, when our entire family enjoyed the Morgan Library (breathtaking medieval art) and a harbor boat tour to get up-close-and-personal with Lady Liberty. I could have saluted the friends we got to schmooze with (two girlfriends of my daughter's even joined us for a slumber party) and waxed eloquent about the street life and the ankle-deep snow we encountered (which soon became endless dripping from above that, with steadfast aim, plopped on head and even lip). But no, the trip's centerpiece was the play, "Made Up," and that was one production eminently worth traversing flyover country for.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Why St. Patrick's Day? I'll tell you why!

No, I'm not going to argue why Jews should celebrate Mr. Patrick's Day. He ain't no saint to ME. I like potatoes, and an occasional beer, but those are about the only affection I've got for anything Irish. Instead, I want to respond to the email newsletter of a certain national talk show host, in which he observes "the rise and fall of certain dates on the calendar" and speculates as to why St. Patrick's Day has gained such prominence while once-venerable holidays that still provide all of us with a day off are misunderstood and often ignored (eg--what's the difference between Veteran's Day and Memorial Day??? And which is WHEN??)

This talk show host waxes eloquent about why Patrick got the massively most important ethnic holiday, besting any recognition for the most populous immigrant group, German-Americans, and completely obliterating the Italians' Columbus Day and the Poles' Pulaski Day. He suspects that the fact that celebrants use ample DRINK to celebrate makes the occasion appealing. Though I doubt any Italian on Columbus Day or Pole on Pulaski Day would refuse some liquid lubricant for his revelry.
The host mentions that Cinco de Mayo has risen to its own with the arrival of so many Mexicans, but I say it's still not a REAL holiday. After all, the way you tell the level of acceptance of a holiday is by how many aisles in your local Duane Reade or Rite Aid are overrun by its colors.
(Duane Reade: I'm preparing for a trip to New York, imminently. Report to follow!)

No, the REAL reason why St. Patrick's Day and the wearin' o' the Green is so prevalent is...TIMING.

I'm sure you join me in thinking it queer that immediately after New Year's Day, the stores are overrun with RED. Everything instantly becomes hearts and chocolates and cupids--and, joy to retailers--jewelry and perfume and flowers. The business of America is business, and Valentine's day combines that with monkey business, which I first mistyped as "money business," leaving out the "k." It's irresistible to combine romance with retail. And then--BOOM, it's Feb. 15, and the aisles have shopping carts of half-off chocolate and what's a retailer to do?

Move on. From the red to the green, not, as the host mentioned on his show, as in Al Gore Green, but as in making money, not monkey green, by filling the newly available aisles with the next holiday's wares. And yes, Easter provides a convenient filler, with all those bunnies and pink marshmallow Peeps, but WAIT, that's not till April, and time Marches on first; time for St. Paddy, set to follow St. Valentine as the next excuse to party.
While Easter is cute, there's not enough for adults to buy, after all. Just some chocolate for the kiddies' baskets. That's why Mardi Gras has taken off as another purchasing opportunity, which works out well for those of us who decorate to the hilt for Purim. All those bright masks fit right in with our theme. But both Mardi Gras and Easter have dates that move around, and thus confuse people, so the buying frenzy isn't aimed at a particular, predictable day. No, our nation's economy needs St. Patrick's Day. As I wrote in my Valentine's Day blog--it's almost a patriotic duty to boost the economy.
Admittedly, St. Patrick's Day is not much. Nobody takes off from work, teachers don't even decorate their rooms in green. Well, some of them do, but that's just to fill the bulletin board time lag and satisfy primary teachers' innate urges to redecorate in bright colors. (If you've seen my kitchen, you know I must be a closet preschool teacher. OK, my spouse calls my kitchen "Romper Room.")
My point isn't that St. Patrick's Day is important, but that its prominence is not a slight of our nation's courageous veterans or the prejudicial elevation of one national minority over another, but rather a reflection of where it happened to fall on the calendar. I'm a Jew thru and thru, but for some reason I find myself joining in the spirit of the country and wearing green on March 17. It'll be a green Vayakhel-Pekudai this year. I bet not many people think to say THAT.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

No Violence, Suspense or Slapstick--or lesbian come-outs, PLEASE!

Confession: I am NOT a movie maven. I do not go to movies very often, like most of the American population. This is especially bizarre because I am connected by marriage to the movie biz, and my more interesting half attends several movies a week. Not necessarily alone, but without me. My criteria for movies, which I suspect applies to more women than care to admit it, are: no violence, suspense or slapstick. Which eliminates 98% of movies.

And, which leaves romantic comedy. We could go on and on about Borat, which I did happen to see, and which I did laugh at, but which I felt smarmy about. Borat, you see, fails in category 3: no slapstick. And why? Because I do not like to see people behaving stupidly, or taking advantage of others' goodness, and the premise of Borat does both. Brings out the lowest aspects of character: "Let's find some well-meaning, unsuspecting hick, trap him into being embarrassing or racist, or maybe WE can just embarrass him, and then the audience will laugh uproariously!" I find that, well, unfunny. Uncomfortable. Unethical.

OK, call me old-fashioned. Call me humorless. Oh heck, call me a spoil sport. But I feel badly that I laughed at various scenes in Borat. The scene where the kids at the park are scared witless when the ice-cream truck offers not frozen treats but a ferocious bear--that is the essence of comedy, the
epitome of "out-of-place," but to laugh at kids who are genuinely terrified? What kind of sadistic person is THAT?

But Borat is not the subject of my post tonight. No, it's the new "romantic comedy," Gray Matters. I actually accompanied my spouse to a pre-release screening of this "romantic comedy," and I found the film to be neither romantic nor a comedy. Why even bother to write about it, then? Because I was surprised by the film. It starts out innocently enough--a cute couple who live in the same apartment and share all turn out to be brother and sister rather than lovers. And they decide it's time to find mates; the guy (Thomas Cavanagh) has a too-cute meet with a happens-to-be-available dog owner in the park (Bridget Moynahan) and within two days they're engaged. The left-out sister (Heather Graham) gets jealous, and wants in on the relationship with the newbie, and her shrink says it's natural she'd be competing, given the inseparability the sibs had before.

So far, it seems like it could be cute, but it gets nasty when a drunken girl-to-girl kiss convinces the sis that she's gay. Could be a plot twist that gets ironed out in the end...or so I hoped, but NOOOOOO, THAT'S THE WHOLE MOVIE!! The point is that a girly-girl like bleached-blond Heather Graham is really gay, and becomes liberated by 1) casting off her shrink, and 2) going to a gay bar, picking up her boss, (cut to Heather emerging from boss' apartment next morning) and leaping with joy a la Mary Tyler Moore when yes, it's confirmed she LIKES "sex" with a woman! I feel cheated. Not only was Heather Graham the most unconvincing lesbian imaginable; not only was the message that "lesbians can be pretty" too far a stretch for this flimsy plot, but if you're going to make a pro-lesbian movie, don't make the transition, from dawning of the possibility to its ecstatic consummation, cover the space of two days. This was supposed to be a movie that meets my criteria; my night out at the cinema, and all I got was...disgusted! Oh, I don't care if some girl wants to be a lesbian...just don't try to wrap that up in the normality of some boy-meets-girl cover.

I think my husband owes me a better movie for our night out. And it better NOT be "300." Violates my criterion number 1.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Purim Gifts

We have the remnants of received shaloch manos (Purim gift baskets of food) all over our kitchen. For dinner tonight, I ate...I'll confess it...twelve hamentashen. That's all, just the hamentashen, nothing else.

Purim is past; can't believe it. What an intense weekend, with Shabbat, then immediately, Purim. The holiday in which we remember that God is hidden but constantly in control; where we are hidden in costumes, and can deceive via externals for either good or ill. Purim: The celebration where we get slightly inebriated (reminds me of the Almost Live skit of "songs of the slightly inebriated," my favorite of which is, "I'm gonna beat that train!") until we no longer perceive the difference between curse Haman and praise Mordechai. Or, we drink some, fall asleep, and while in dream-land fulfill the mitzvah by being basically unconscious.

So festive! So happy! Then what was the stress I felt? Could it have been...shaloch manos???

The task of making my shaloch manos started last Tuesday, when I spent all day combing my fave cheapo stores for ingredients to put in the baskets. And my ultimate happy hunting ground of all stores is Big Lots--does anybody else (beside my partner in crime Doubletee) love BIG LOTS like I do? This is the store where everything is cheap and some things are CHEEEEAP (stupid ideas that nobody should have manufactured in the first place) and a LOT of things are good-and-cheap.
This store has zero ambiance. Maybe negative-two ambiance. The premise of Big Lots is to sell stuff that is repackaged, discontinued, got on the wrong train, or purchaser couldn't pay--and so carloads of respectable and weird goods get shlepped to this bargain store that is, in itself, slightly akimbo.
And so I approached Big Lots with the noble mission, nay, MITZVAH of filling shaloch manos! And indeed, goodies were laid in wait for me...candy, cookies, tea, condiments...and of course I would only stuff my shaloch manos with ingredients that I myself would love to receive! Two Hundred Thirty dollars later, I emerge from Big Lots, shopping cart overflowing with expensive-looking treats bought a fraction of their worth. And a floor lamp that uses full-spectrum bulbs (see previous post about searching for bright light) and face cream with Dead Sea Minerals and band-aids and two kinds of shampoo and a fiberglass pot for the garden...
Then, a stop at DOLLAR TREE! Such glee at the 'Tree! Where everything costs..what do you think? Where I find computer paper with swirls of turquoise and hot pink, goop to clean grease, aisles of fringed and ribbon'd gift bags, aluminum pans and shaloch manos ingredients galore! No, this is NOT shlock manos! It's great stuff, like jars of salsa, sundried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, hot sauce, tortilla chips! All kosher! And gaily-colored wire wastebaskets to hold it all!
The final destination--do I dare? TRADER JOE'S! Wild for that kosher selection! And, since I eschew the brown paper lunchbag, or paper plate with a napkin-type shaloch manos, I go for the gold--KOSHER FRENCH WINE! A full-sized bottle, not those whussy mini-sized ones--of merlot, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon! And granola, coffee, chocolate-covered pretzels, kalamata olives, soup and cheeses! Heart be STILL! Gimme that hot, hot, hot SHALOCH MANOS!!'s the Fast of Esther, but I must get those Shaloch Manos ready to go, because tomorrow I cook for Shabbat!
The family room is the staging area. To do: Twenty big baskets for the "A" list and 10 for the "B" list (no wine for them!) Make the assembly line: separate piles of jars of sundried tomatoes, Twizzers, boxes of fruit rolls, the cases of wine, the salsa. The cluster of unusual ingredients for the special baskets--the rabbi who needs all pareve, the friend with an allergy.
THE TAGS! Run up to my computer and call up the template saved from last year with the wacky font; print on canary yellow paper, cut out the tags with crazy-edged scissors; affix three colorful star stickers to each one.
Now get out the ladder to retrieve the bag from the top of the closet with the shredded straw to pad the baskets! The straw saved from the big cellophane'd fruit gift tray with a foot of filler-straw at the bottom topped with three pears, two apples and an orange. The straw pulls apart, sticking to the front of my clothes with magnetic force, shredding further to become irremovable stick-lint in my carpet.
Time to fill each basket, and now my hands and my heart focus on the task at hand...and the recipients of each basket. I think of each person, each family for whom I carefully craft an assortment....her child can't eat peanuts...she gets two pounds of Starbucks coffee since she hosts my Thursday class...that family likes health food...this family loves chocolate...he likes olives... Each of them is special, and as I balance the wine upright, and arrange the jars and bottles and packages, each collection is about the individuals who make up my community, who make up my context. The people whose kindness, sincerity, effort and generosity elevate our little world with sweetness, with cohesiveness.

I enclose each heavy basket in a white plastic bag, and cut lengths of gold, turquoise and magenta ribbon. I tie each in a bow, and pull the ends past opened scissors to make cascading curls, twisting the ribbon so it falls just so, with the shiny side out, the happy side out.

And that is the essence of Purim. We hide our selves, our gifts, in costumes, and offer from our inner selves gifts to others--money as charity for the poor, and shaloch manos to our friends. And this way, perhaps with a bit of lubrication, we allow our shiny side, our happy side, to face outward.