Sunday, April 27, 2008

Turning the Tables for Two: A Passover Story

Passover just ended--and this feels like liberation! We're now enveloped in the warm fuzzies of saying farewell to the many friends and renewed acquaintences we've enjoyed in this ten days at our Passover retreat.

I don't have much time now, as soon we'll go downstairs for the chumetz pizza and beer bash that concludes our holiday-- but I want to tell you about the Cohens. Mr. and Mrs. Cohen are an elderly couple, about four-feet-ten, he with a wisps of white hair and matching snowy beard, and she with a variety of brown sheitls. We saw them the first night at their table for two, conspicuous among the round tables for ten, and rectangles of gathered families of 20. The only little table for two--the couple hobbled to their seats, at first looking to us a bit pitiful, all alone. They chatted with each other a bit, but mostly sat quietly, dignified, munching their matza, sipping their wine, eating the courses we were all served, just the two of them, the miniature old couple that seemed so sweet and yet so apart.

Over the course of our ten days together, Mr. and Mrs. Cohen attended the lectures my husband and I gave to the crowd. They spoke in their thick European accents to our children. They got to know others and soon we saw them seated for meals, animatedly chatting, at a table of ten elders, the table for two gone. Mrs. Cohen approached me to comment approvingly after my lectures; she sat
down after lunch at our table one time to say how she enjoyed watching our family so attentive and loving toward my father-in-law, 82, with us for the holiday from Jerusalem.

I now complete this post at home. By the end of our ten days at the Passover hotel, the Cohens were thoroughly embraced by most everyone. At our final night of celebration, eating our just-prepared gourmet pizza and pretzels with beer, the little couple were in demand for photos, and happy to oblige. They seemed to be beaming, and freely shared how delighted they were to have enjoyed this time with such a congenial and warm group.

Passover at a hotel may seem like an indulgence, but it offers many benefits beyond just avoiding the chores of cleaning and preparing. Families unite from around the globe, as ours did, and together, the joyous assemblage of so many people realizing the specialness of this time creates a camaraderie and
closeness difficult to duplicate. As the days dwindle, the desire to stay, to dwell in this pocket of unreality, increases. Here are people not just gathered for a good time, but to observe God's rules for these elevated days.

And then, after the pizza and the packing, the taxis line up for the parade to the airport and the
matzah crumbs, photos and fables are all that remain. Perhaps we'll see Mr. and Mrs. Cohen next year in Jerusalem. If not there, at the same hotel at our table for lunch would be just fine.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

More Consternation about Jewish Rules

My last post was about my difficulty with all the minutia that goes into preparation for Passover--and here I am writing on my laptop at a Passover Resort hotel. The sun is shining brightly outside and I just came back to my room from a wonderful outdoor buffet brunch, where the cheerful mosgiach made me the perfect omlet on one of those little gas flame burners, and in the background I heard the whirrr of the blenders making choose-your-ingredients smoothies. Matza brei and platters of cheeses and lox and fake bagels that look like the surface of the moon (and probably taste just as good) were on tables in the shaded patio, with crocks of hot porridge, bins of cool yoghurt and other comestibles embarrassingly abundant. So how can I continue to feel that many details of mitzvot are, um, unnecessary and weird?

Coincidentally (if there is such a thing), my 15-year-old son joined me sitting on a comfy couch in the sun this morning and we devoured our perfect omlettes together. He told me that he was up late moderating a heated discussion between a young fellow who is an atheist and only performs mitzvot to honor his parents, and one of the rabbis supervising the food prep here. The upshot was that the moshgiach used all the "why there has to be God" arguments and the disbeliever was unmoved.

Meanwhile, I had a fascinating conversation with a young seminary graduate who posits that halacha, every fastidious detail, is meant to further man's interaction with God. By applying logic to new issues, derived by a posek from the vast array of Torah thought, we bring otherwise staid and stale pronouncements into our personal realms on a daily basis. It is halacha, then, that actually forges our personal relationships with God. Whether or not to put tin foil on the shelves of one's refrigerator puts our efforts to conform to God's will foremost in our experience.

I can accept that to a point; my reaction is that we have choices even within the tight confines of halacha, and exactly HOW tight those confines are is a matter of which rabbi you follow or how some view went akimbo several hundred years ago, and just kept billowing further into ridiculousness--but now, entrenched as either minhag or halacha, cannot be retracted or rethought or revised.

An example: At the time electricity became available, I'm told, there was much discussion about its impact on Shabbat. Is turning on a light switch akin to opening a spigot? As water flows readily through pipes, electricity flows in an ongoing basis through a home's wires, and tapping into it for one's hot tray or electric blanket is no different from flushing the toilet to let the waiting water through.

It was decided that use of electricity was not similar to opening a spigot, and so Jews ended up with dark bathrooms and cold nighttime bodies and so many other inconveniences that arise from not being able to use electricity. One can say that this makes Shabbat special, if not more uncomfortable (which it certainly does) and that restraining from changing the world, which using electricity emphatically does, is the point of Shabbat, anyway.

OK, but let's say there's a new means of conveying energy that doesn't require electricity. I understand that in Israel, Jews can use the hot water from their faucets on Shabbat since the heating mechanism is solar, rather than via a gas tank that increases its flame when empty. Israeli Jews, then, regain the comfort of washing their faces on Shabbat with hot water--ahhh!--while I continue to shiver while spashing frigid water on my face. Is my experience of Shabbat somehow better because I have endured a throwback to discomfort?

Which takes me back to my disdain for halachic minutia. Yes, Torah is integrated with everything, every decision, every moment on our planet (and elsewhere!) But the amount of prescribed, mandatory behaviors is just toooooo encompassing, constricting and picayune. I contort my attitude with great duress to envision halacha as wondrous means to bind me to God. But, it's always my fault (God has none, of course) that I can't Pollyanna my way through many directives. In this religion, my view that many rules are over-the-top demanding and strange is by definition wrong, and it is my job to learn my way to seeing that fact.

Even as I write this, I am internally arguing the other side. That old yatzer ha ra is acting up, I tell myself! Also, being Jewish involves questions, so delving and questioning isn't so bad--as long as you keep following the rules. Still, there's that minutia. And then again--are we REALLY supposed to know why God tells us to so peculiarly celebrate matza, the bread of both freedom and affliction? Can we REALLY conceive why chumetz is such an anathema? And that's where I remain--stuck between reason and rebellion and acceptance.

So Rabbi Soloveitchik's "task of covenantal man" becomes a nearly impossible challenge:
“The Halakhah believes that there is only one world—not divisible into secular and hallowed sectors—which can either plunge into ugliness and hatefulness, or be roused to meaningful, redeeming activity, gathering up all latent powers into a state of holiness. Accordingly, the task of covenantal man is to be engaged not in dialectical surging forward and retreating, but in uniting the two communities into one community where man is both the creative, free agent, and the obedient servant of God.”

How do YOU solve this dilemma?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Troubled by Passover Minutia

It's just a couple days before Passover, and no time to have a crisis of faith.

Most people I know are too busy pouring pots-full of boiling water on their c
ounters, perhaps with towels on the floor below waiting for the overflow. They're taking blowtorches designed for creme brulee to their stovetops. They're boiling pans of water in their microwaves. They're taping pieces of tin foil on the grates inside their refrigerators, being sure to poke holes for air circulation. They're cutting pieces of thick plastic or aluminum and using lots of sticky shelf paper. And they're wrapping up all their cereal, flour, cookies, and just about all their regular food--and completing a contract selling it to a non-Jew.

Is this crazy, or what? Hours and hours taking a toothbrush to the grout. Sorting through toys for a stray stub of granola bar. Flipping through the pages of books, shaking them upside down combing for crumbs. This is indeed insanity. Is this really what God wants us to be doing? I thought learning Torah was the most important thing--or maybe praying, or doing kindnesses for others, or visiting someone alone and sick. No, for a week--or several--Jews are overcome with a fear of specks of leavened products.

And the job falls almost exclusively to women. Unless a guy lives alone, in which case he'll only attack this job if he's too poor to hire somebody else to do it, men have women to obsess about this. How many guys do you know who are diligent and compulsive about Pesach cleaning?

The bottom line for me is that--I will confess--my faith is shaken. Frankly, I am
of the privileged few who are spared this entire weirdness as I am hired as a staff person at a lovely and luxurious Passover hotel getaway, and I have no right to complain about the work that once again, I need not do.

Still, enough of my friends ARE doing it, and my memory of the process is fresh enough that I do wonder how any clever God would come up with this as something beneficial to His creations. A test of faith, you may say--God provides this so He can reward our loyalty and our effort. Then why threaten us with being "cut off" from our people, ie the end of our eternal souls--if we snatch a slice of pizza over Passover's eight days? Or if we sell all our chumetz except the bag of tortilla chips?

We're taught that the inflation of flour by yeast represents the puffiness of our egos--i.e. arrogance. Arrogance is one of the two characteristics--midos--that we're told to eliminate from our personalities. And here, for eight days, is a means to symbolically eliminate this puffiness, both spiritually, as we relive Jews' transition from earthly bondage to spiritual bondage to the only worthy master,
God--and physically by never taking any leavened products into our bodies.

This doesn't wash for me. (I'll skip the Urchatz pun). Why didn't God say we could eat non-leavened stuff like cookies? We can have cookies, but they have to be matza meal or potato starch based--I know, I know, you'll give me the stuff about flour having the potential to be leavened. But it's not about flour--or else we couldn't have matza, which is--flour and water. We know that the already-baked matza can't rise; it's had no more than 18 minutes to combine its ingredients. But the pre-baked cookies can't rise either.

All the permutations of this chumetz-restriction are so way out there as to make Jews look primitive and brainless. Gentiles who enter a Pesach-dik kitchen think we've gone to the moon. I don't really care what gentiles think; I want to do what God wants, and I trust He knows better than I do how to maximize my spiritual potential. But when you spend hundreds--usually THOUSANDS of dollars, and days, WEEKS of work to very indirectly and obliquely tamp down our
egos--well, first off, I don't think it works any better than less intrusive means, and it just plain doesn't make sense. I know that God MADE "sense;" if He made everything, He can do whatever He likes. Still the "fences" around avoiding chumetz, and the complexities of it, and the potential punishment for NOT doing it, or doing it incompletely--is just too bizarre.

Tell me where I'm wrong. And in the meantime, have a Pesach kasher v sameach--if you ever get THROUGH kashering.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Appropriate Time for Sexy Lingerie

A couple days ago, I felt like a voyeur in an alien, sexy world.

Nothing inappropriate happened, mind you, just something for which I was unprepared. I was invited to a bridal shower for Laura, a young woman I've been honored to know since she was pre-pubescent. Her parents and my husband and I are simpatico, and our children clicked with each other from the time we met them eleven years ago. The girls were innocent and happy, enjoying dolls and games and toys. The two boys, four years apart, were like big-and-little brothers, my son looking up to the other kid as a mentor on coolness.

Our families were very close, though in one important area we differed: Our friends are committed, fervent Christians; we are serious, observant Jews.

That wasn't enough to divide us, however, as our friends were extremely respectful and accommodating. They joined us in our home for Shabbat so often they memorized the "bentching," the grace after meals. They were cognizant of Shabbat rules, stepping in as "Shabbos goyim" without being asked (it was for their benefit, too). They were conscious of kashrut, and though mostly they were our guests, when we went to their home, they provided food they procured from the kosher market, cooked in specially-purchased pans.

In more recent years, with the children teens and in college, they became wrapped up in their church activities and cohort, and we saw each other
far less. Our eldest daughter, after seminary in Jerusalem, became uncomfortable around them, knowing their beliefs (and, though they didn't talk about it, that they even spoke in tongues). Our middle daughter got caught up in her high school, and then college crowd, which didn't overlap with our friends'. And our son's "mentor" got his driver's license, his own place, a job, went to college and joined a band.

To me, the loss of our closeness was sad, but then again, all moms learn how sad it is when your home empties out as the kids grow up, and things just can't be the same.

And then Laura got engaged to Ben. Her whole family was thrilled, and we knew Ben must be as devout and wonderful as Laura. In their religious world, young couples were as "shomer negia" as the most Orthodox Jews. Laura had pledged many years before to save her sexuality until after marriage; she and her intended touched hands for the first time after their betrothal--which occurred
only after Ben had obtained the blessing of Laura's dad.

And so, I was invited to Laura's bridal shower, a celebration of this most pristine and pure of relationships, soon to be officially sanctified. The shower was at the home of a dear, close mutual Jewish friend, who had shared Laura's and my children's development as she, herself, matured, met her own b'shert, married and had children.

When I entered the familiar home, I recognized no one but the hostess, Laura and her mom. Animated chatter of about twenty-five young women, who to me looked far too young to be brides, arose from the cordial group, seated around the perimeter of the living room, paper plates of Italian food balanced on their laps. Everyone was dressed casually, in jeans, capris, t-shirts. The hostess and I were the only ones in skirts and fancier clothes.

Friends of the bride had prepared some games--such as memorizing the contents of a table-full of Laura's stuff (including a Bible, cell phone, high heels, stethoscope, as she's training to be a nurse, toothbrush and an item I didn't know and would not have chosen to display--a "pimple popper" that the aspiring Florence Nightingale uses on her beloved. Ouch.) The bride and groom were asked Newlywed Game questions about the other; Ben's pre-recorded responses were played at appropriate moments on a laptop. A festive polka-dot ice cream cake was served, the hostess provided moving D'vrai Torah--and then came the gifts.

Mine was opened first--household items I'd picked out. Graciously received. And then came my surprise.

It had been assumed that all the gifts would be lingerie. None of the bridal showers I attended in the Jewish world were undergirded in that presumption. But this is what the girls in that polite, well-churched circle do.

One after the other, Laura cooed at the contents of gift bags--a parade of Victoria's Secret-type push-up and bare-it satiny and silky and even leopard-print baby-dolls, bustiers, teddies and thongs. Merry widows, garter-slips and the black stockings to match. Slinky camisoles and teddies and lace panties. Black with shocking-pink trim. Black with peek-a-boo cut-outs. See-through and underwire and halter.

Even Laura's mom presented her with a see-through ivory baby-doll, with matching see-through ivory slit-arm flowy "jacket." It couldn't have been in case she gets cold.

I was amused. Admittedly a little embarrassed, because my table runners and
platter just weren't the right gift, far from it. But the invitation didn't say "lingerie shower," but "bridal shower." Bridal must mean "finally I have someone to be sexy for."

The good news is that Laura will never,
ever, have to buy another baby-doll push-up again. And she has enough thong underwear to last a good, long time.

The shower was a festive event for a delightful girl, and I left with a glimpse into a different world. And that in itself was worthwhile. Congratulations on your marriage, Laura and Ben, and I hope you enjoy each and every gift you received!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Sock It To Me...In Matching Pairs

Sox. I have a huge drawer full of them. I like them to match my clothes, and also to match each other. But WHY? This kiosk in New York's Grand Central Station suggests otherwise. Why NOT wear two different sox? I even saw an article in the New York Times Style Section, my guide to the trends, that featured non-identical footwear.

There's the squishiness issue, of course. You don't want a fat, furry anklet on one foot, and a thin, smooth knee sock on the other. It could give you a gimp.

You don't want a warm winter hiking sock on one foot, and a summer rainbow shortie on the other. You could get befuddled. Or, with one foot, walk in a puddle.

combining halves of pairs causes other complications. If you're the type, like me, who has enough trouble deciding what to wear--which shirt, which bottom part (skirt? jeans?) having to make TWO choices about sox just adds to the frustration. Then, you have to decide if the sock you pick actually matches or clashes with the other sock you're considering, and seldom do you find mismatched socks that actually harmonize.

There's also the bravery issue--if you DO find two compatible halves, is this something to be proud of, or keep
secret? In other words, do I wear the two new-found friends with my low cut flats so they reveal my non-conformity proudly, or does such a daring maneuver call only for the discretion of high boots?

The orphan issue also arises. Is this a means to employ members of the lost-sox pile that grows after each laundry day? Or do I intentionally relegate the unused member of a perfectly synchronized set to that sad fate by calling its buddy to service?

I have a plastic box that is populated with socks that are mate-less, though many are so similar that without scrutiny, they could be combined. I've got the sport sock with the ribbing that's thick, and the similar one with the thin ribs. The lo-riser with the logo, and its nearly identical twin that goes nameless. The gym sock that looks big enough for a man's size 12, and another abandoned individual that is its exact replica, though sized for a petite feminine pied. Dare I plumb the depths of the plastic box for exciting near-perfect but curiously off combos?

But look! The kiosk cunningly called "Little Miss Mismatched" displays...only matching sets of socks! What a boo-boo I've made, it isn't "mismatched," but "Miss Matched!" The sprightly miss is MATCHED! The name is a clever come-on, designed to bring sock-crazed ladies lured by stripes and dots and rainbows and vibrant hues! Well, they got me...and I'll keep buying those dynamic duos and maintain them in rolled-together bliss in my bountiful sock-drawer, because life is always more fun in pairs.