Monday, November 21, 2011

The Sacred Duty of Answering the Phone

I carry a fancy touch-screen phone that doubles as a computer, mp3 player, camera and photo album, twitter machine, texting device, GPS, a movie screen.  It can set alarms for me and tell me where I am supposed to be 10 minutes from now on any given day, and probably do a dozen other things I haven't even found yet.  But for the past 10 days, my focus has been on the other phone in my pocket, the simple Cricket phone that only makes and receives phones.

The Cricket phone is full of love and it has been my sacred duty these past 10 days to take care of it.  The first day I saw the phone was when Fred was first in the hospital and the phone rang a few times.  He had 18 messages but had lost his glasses and couldn't see his phone.  With his permission, I listened to the messages, took notes, and helped him return the calls.  Fred had no idea how to save contacts or attach names to his contacts, so I took that on.  It was a nice way to pass the afternoon at the hospital.  "Freddie, who is this 616 number?"  "Oh she's a good friend named Dora.  Yeah, put Spanish for her name.  Did I ever tell you the time I ........ Yeah, that was Dora."  OK, Dora (Sp) Rodriquez is the 616 number.

Now who is this 457 number?  That turned out to be one of the old guys (75) who always needs Fred's help around the house.  (Fred was 82).  OK,  Do we know the old guy's name.  Ah yes, Gonzalo.  He speaks English or Spanish.  Got it.

The man who sings in Yiddish on his messages?  "Oh that's the reconstructionist rabbi, but you can talk to him in English.  It's OK."

Three hours later, we had the phone all sorted out and I had heard wonderful and nearly true accounts of their exploits with or without Fred.  One of the numbers was for the singer in his Yiddish Mariachi band, another belonged to the neighbor whose animals Fred loved to care for, but not at 4AM. I also got to hear about his mother and his grandmother, his father's experiences as a World War I veteran, the town of San Diego, TX, and I heard repeatedly about the devastation of his memories caused by the people who broke into his house in October.

ז״ל Fred Grant z"l
Then I went to home and later to work for the week, put the phone on the charger in the hospital room, and let  the nurse and other visitors know where it was.  Fred was doing fine, visiting with everyone who came by, and pretty much ignoring the fact that he owned a phone.  So I checked it again Tuesday morning and helped him return calls to his best friend, a lovely young lady who had once worked in his cardiologist's office, and we deleted a few messages.

Between Friday morning Nov 19th and Saturday of this week, his body began to shut down.  Organ failure, pneumonia, breathing tubes, the beginning of death.  I was there.  The phone rang and I answered it, mostly in Spanish but occasionally in English.  By 10AM Saturday, it was very clear that it would be his last day with us.  (I am not shomer-Shabbat and will gladly to for someone else what I would do for myself.)  In the ICU waiting room, I spent Saturday morning listening to a week's worth of messages and returning some of his 20 calls.  Two were in Yiddish, though we quickly switched to English when they heard the state of my Yiddish communication skills. Oy.  Two from organizations that didn't answer on the weekend, and about ten calls to his dear friends, telling them that today would most likely be the last chance to say goodbye.

And then, at 3:15 on Saturday, Freddie died.  The Yiddish, Mexican, German, Texas Caballero in tzitzit and a cowboy hat, flirting with girls and ladies everywhere and starting a conversation with anyone who would listen, carrying a Birnbaum Siddur wherever he went, he was gone.

Fred's body had died, but he still needed attending.  Somehow or other, I was the go-to-person for Jewish ritual. Which three psalms do we recite when we see he has died?  When do we cover him with a sheet?  Do we light a candle here or at the funeral home?

By this time, I now had a good list of Fred's phone contacts and had spent a whole listening to the phone messages he'd collected in the past week.  I started to return them yet again, and told everybody on the other end what the funeral arrangements were, how to find the cemetery and our section of it.  I gave everyone my number, but didn't turn off Fred's machine.

At the cemetary, I was easy to find.  The Jewish people in town knew who I was, and I had told all Fred's Mexican friends that I'd be the lady with the wheelchair, and they all introduced themselves.  Two other Spanish-speaking congregants helped me explain to them the differences between a Christian and a Jewish funeral, why the casket was closed, what language the singing was in, etc.

Thanksgiving and Sukkot

What could be more Jewish than surviving great difficulties and thanking God by having a large feast? Thanksgiving and sukkot may be a lot more related than you think.  My family's cornucopia was always made with exactly the same harvest decorations that we used for decorating the sukkah, but that is only the beginning.

 Here are some websites with good comparisons of the two holidays, and good explanations of why Thanksgiving is, indeed, a Jewish holiday.

There is a strong thread which runs from the Israelite wilderness experience to that of the Pilgrims and the harsh years they endured as they strove to sink roots in this new land. Like the ancient Israelites of whom they read in the Bible, they were people of great faith who believed themselves to be sustained through God's great mercy and beneficence. That they should rejoice and give thanks at harvest time was as natural an impulse for the Pilgrims as it was for the ancient Israelites.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has written a special Thanksgiving prayer that can supplement the Birkat HaMazon. The English reads: "In the days of the Pilgrims, the Puritans, when they arrived at these safe shores, suffered hunger and cold. They sang and prayed to the Rock of their Salvation. And You, standing by them, roused the caring of the Natives for them: who fed them, turkey and corn and other delights. "Thus saved You them from starvation, and they learned the ways of peace with the inhabitants of the land. Therefore, feeling grateful, they dedicated a day of Thanksgiving each year as a remembrance for future generations, feeding unfortunates feasts of thanks. Thus do we thank You for all the good in our lives, God of kindness, Lord of Peace; thus do we thank You."
According to Rabbi Susan Grossman, the popularity of Thanksgiving among Jewish families should be of no suprise. In her blogpost, “Thanksgiving Is a Very Jewish Holiday,” Grossman says, “After Passover and Hanukkah, Thanksgiving is perhaps the most observed by American Jews.” Grossman points to the holiday’s intersection with core Jewish values as the reason for its popularity. “Thanksgiving, as in giving thanks, is a very Jewish thing to do,” she says. “According to tradition, Jews are to give thanks 100 times each day. We are to give thanks before we eat, for having food, and after we eat, for having been able to have food.” Another reason, she explains, is our Jewish history of immigration. “America has been good to the Jews,” she writes. “We have always lived here in relative safety. Our rights as a minority religion are protected by law and the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.”

And this is a wonderful new tradition you might want to consider: a short Thanksgiving Seder in which we bring the story of Thanksgiving right to the dinner table, just as we do on Passover, and in which we add specifically Jewish blessings to a meal of Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tying Tzitzit

My 7th graders at the reform temple got a chance to learn how to tie tzitzit today.  We were just practicing, so we didn't have kosher string, and we used brown for the shamash rather than techelet (blue) or white, but everything else was authentic.  They tied onto a key ring, and if this class is at all like the class I had three years ago, the key rings will stay on their backpacks through the next few years.

They can all sing the "vayomer" paragraph of shma, and kiss tzitzit at each mention, and they can answer these questions:

1)          What are tzitzit?
2)          What is the tzitzit commandment?
3)          Where in Torah does it come from?
4)          How is the tzitzit commandment different from some of the commandments God gave through Moses?
5)          What do tzitzit remind us of?
6)          What’s the name of the prayer that includes tzitzit? 
7)          Which paragraph is this?
8)          Why did the reform movement stop saying this prayer for 100+ years?
9)          Why was it added back in?
10)    Which section of the service includes this prayer?
11)    What color did tzitzit used to have?
12)    Why did they stop using the color?
13)    How many times do we kiss the tzitzit during the prayer?
14)    What is the name of the longest string we use when wrapping and then tying the knots for the tzitzit?
15)    Where else have you heard that word?
16)    In class, did we learn the Sephardic or Ashkenazi way to wrap tzitzit? Why?
17)    What do you like about tzitzit?  Are they a reminder?  Do you think you’ll like wearing them when you’re an adult? 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Typical Day in Hebrew School

Our first verse of Torah happens to be THE first verse of Torah.  Some of us can read the Hebrew, but some just now how to read the English and illustrate the first week of creation.

We have our first spelling word.  We know the letters and the vowels, we know where to put the dots, and we know how to draw three things that go with "Shabbat."

We take turns practicing our letters, vowels and words on the computer.

After so much learning, we need a break!  A healthy snack and 10 minutes on the playground.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sh'ma in Papua, New Guinea

I am Jewish.  Big surprise, eh?  OK, maybe not, but I feel the need to specify that before I tell you that you should watch this video of non-Jews in Papua, New Guinea singing שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל with as much kavannah as any Jewish worshippers I've ever prayed with.  Fewer clothes, but equal intensity.

So, via The Schmooze:

Video: Hebrew Prayer in Papua New Guinea

By Renee Ghert-Zand

At this point, the Shmooze is used to seeing videos posted on social networking sites of cute little Hebrew school or Jewish day school children reciting the Sh’ma. But this Sh’ma video spotted and published by Israel National News the other day is quite unusual. You will not see little ones dressed in blue and white or their Shabbat best, but rather people of Papua New Guinea in their native dress reciting — in Hebrew — the central creed of Judaism.
It turns out these are Christians who have been taught, presumably by missionaries, to recite the Sh’ma to demonstrate their love and respect for Christianity’s Jewish roots. The video appears to have been shot by Yakov Damkani, a Messianic Jew.
Watch Papua New Guineans Recite the Sh’ma:

Read more:

h/t Dorron Katzin 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Lech Lecha Observations by my students

We read this Lech Lecha book yesterday in our children's service and talked about the parsha.  A first grader observed, "Isn't it good that Hashem picked a night when it wasn't cloudy? It would be so sad if Avram went out to count the stars and he couldn't see them."

Her classmate replied, "Yeah. And it's good Avram didn't need glasses cause they hadn't been created yet.  What if he went outside and the whole sky was blurry and he couldn't see the stars."

Third classmate: "Yeah, silly.  But if Avram needed glasses and didn't have them, maybe Hashem would just make him count something he could see."

OK, whose rabbi gave a more thought-provoking dvar?  Or asked more inspiring questions?