Sunday, December 30, 2007

Chanukkah, Hanukkah, Chrismanukkah

This year, lots of people asked me to explain why everyone spells Hanukkah differently. More importantly, some asked why everyone seems to celebrate it differently.

This year, Ryan and I made a point to light the candles each night (though, I must be honest: we forgot to light them the last night). We were not able to light them at nightfall, which is probably not surprising as we don't tend to do anything the way we're supposed to. We also were not able to attend any services.

But out of any holiday, this one in particular has me intrigued and asking lots of questions, particularly about the Christianization of the Jewish life.

I really don't like the holiday season, mostly because of the rush to buy gifts. Yes, everyone knows that I love to buy gifts, and I love to think of the perfect gift. Finding the perfect gift is my way of communicating to the person: "Yes, I love you and know you almost as well as you know yourself. I listen to you in order to understand you and make you happy."

But in the month of December, we buy out of obligation as much as out of love. We worry whether we have to buy a gift for a certain family member because they might get us something. We worry if our wrapping and bows match. We have to get the gift tags to complete the ensemble.

It gives me pause that this secular mentality, which has become pervasive in Christian life, has seeped into Jewish life, too.

While I'm not excusing Christians for the glutton that is gift-giving, at least gift-giving is rooted in religious tradition. The three wisemen, according to the Christian bible, brought jesus gifts. Yes, I know it is traditional for Jewish children to receive gelt and use it as a wager while playing with a dreidel, a traditional Hanukkah game. But a large part of the gift-giving was done to assimilate into the extensive Christian culture in this country. And, of course, to show your friends and family love and all that jazz.

Jews want their children to not feel left out when their son's or daughter's after-school playmates talk about their wish list and piles of gifts at home. (Anyone remember Ross Gellar on Friends creating the Holiday Aardvark when his son told him of his affinity for Santa Claus?) But it's a slippery slope. Is it OK for me to put up an evergreen with all blue and white ornaments? I can find plenty of Hanukkah tinsel on the Internet after all...

I've read a lot of articles on this, and rabbis of all branches seem split. Some point out that Jews have been adopting other cultures for all of their long history as wanderers. Others say assimilating goes against the very message of Hanukkah when the Jews refused to take up the Greek and Syrian way of life.

Here is an article Ryan and I both read when we were discussing this.

I am not saying one way is right or wrong. Who am I to judge a religion that I am just beginning to practice? But as a relative newbie, I see things with brand-new eyes and I'm filled with all kinds of questions.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Kosher Living (our way)

Ryan and I have been trying to keep kosher since our two-year anniversary on Oct. 16. What does this mean for us? We don't eat pork, and we do our best not to mix meat and dairy.

Keeping kosher means very different things for everyone. Many Jews who keep kosher avoid meat altogether in order to follow the strictest kosher guidelines.

From Judaism 101 (one of my go-to Web sites):

1. Certain animals may not be eaten at all. This restriction includes the flesh, organs, eggs and milk of the forbidden animals.
2. Of the animals that may be eaten, the birds and mammals must be killed in accordance with Jewish law.
3. All blood must be drained from the meat or broiled out of it before it is eaten.
4. Certain parts of permitted animals may not be eaten.
5. Fruits and vegetables are permitted, but must be inspected for bugs
6. Meat (the flesh of birds and mammals) cannot be eaten with dairy. Fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables and grains can be eaten with either meat or dairy. (According to some views, fish may not be eaten with meat).
7. Utensils that have come into contact with meat may not be used with dairy, and vice versa. Utensils that have come into contact with non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food. This applies only where the contact occurred while the food was hot.
8. Grape products made by non-Jews may not be eaten.

What are the forbidden animals?

According to the Torah (Lev. 11:3 and Deut. 14:6), animals must have split hooves and chew its own cud. Also fish must have scales and fins, so lobster, shrimp and other shellfish are forbidden.

So why are we doing this?

Ryan and I have always talked about trying to keep kosher for at least a set amount of time for the experience. But, truly, Ryan and I often struggle with ways to live Jewishly. This is something that we can do that reminds us of our religion and way of life.

As I said before, Jews keep kosher in very different ways. The vast majority of Jews do not. The rabbi who is leading our classes keeps kosher, but also eats vegetarian because he is unable to procure kosher meat where we live. The rabbi who will marry us in eight months (!!!!) mixes meat and dairy, but refuses to eat pork. She explained to us that keeping kosher in this way was effective for her because when she goes to the grocery store and to a restaurant she is doing so as a Jew, and not buying or ordering pork products is a daily reminder of her faith.

Ryan and I are still stumbling around on the subject. We make mistakes every once in a while and eat a buttered roll with our roast beef. We don't know if we'll register for separate plates, cookware and utensils. This is truly an ever-evolving thing for us.

But so far, this has been one of the most rewarding experiences for both of us. It helps us challenge each other and when people ask us questions and challenge our beliefs, it helps those beliefs grow even stronger.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Hola from San Juan!

After lots of traveling and continual ear popping, Ryan and I are finally settled in at the Caribe Hilton.

The hotel has exceeded my expectations. Though I must admit, my expectations were fairly low considering we got this room through a conference discount. Ryan is here to cover the Razorbacks in a tourney, and I came along.

Our hotel room is on the top floor of a 20-story tower and it faces the ocean. (Above is the view from our balcony.) Our room was recently renovated to include a huge walk-in shower and double-sink vanity.

The only downside is that I was hoping to get away from all things Razorback, but it seems like everywhere I turn there is someone in Razorback gear talking about Houston Nutt. I'm even getting sick of talking about the Jayhawks. I need a break!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Pass the matzo!


I don't really have a particular penchant for it. There are people who consider themselves foodies now. (Or maybe this is an old thing I've just know picked up on.) For these people, eating is an event. They make reservations at fancy places and take their cameras with them, clicking pictures of every detail before devouring their dishes slowly. Some take notes and describe every bite of their meals on their blogs.

I don't understand these people. I'm the girl who will eat Cheerios with skim milk for two meals of the day and think of it as fulfilling and nourishing. If not that, then a Subway sandwich would be nice (six-inch ham on wheat, lettuce, tomato and low-fat mayo, please). And if I'm really being creative: pasta with marinara sauce. Gourmet pizza is my delicacy. Yum.

So, surprisingly, when I saw a flyer for the third annual Jewish Food Festival in Little Rock, I desperately wanted to go.

The Little Rock River Market

I didn't think I'd like much of the food, but I really wanted to make the trip and give it a go. I've had some traditional Jewish food before, but mostly shied away from it. Last Yom Kippur, I mostly stuck to the bagels (plain with plain cream cheese, please).

But I must say: Everything I tried at the food festival was delicious.

This is one of the many food stands
at the festival at the Little Rock River Market.

We only ate the non-meat items because Ryan and I are trying to keep Kosher (more on that in another post), but here is a sampling of what we tried (click on the name for a recipe):

1. Matzo Ball soup
This bland dish is probably my favorite. (That's key. The more bland it is, the more I like it.) I made a really good matzo ball soup for Passover this year. It's not Kosher though, because it uses chicken broth and butter. I'm sure you could substitute something for the broth, and it would be fine. Everyone liked it because it has onions and parsley in it. So I guess I don't like things totally bland.

2. Bagel with Lox
Who knew bagels were a traditional Jewish food? According to the Web site, Judaism 101: The bagel has been a part of Jewish cuisine for at least 400 years. According to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, there are references to it as far back as Poland in 1610. In America, bagels are traditionally served with cream cheese and lox (smoked salmon) or other fish spreads (herring, whitefish, etc.). They are also quite good with cream cheese and a thick slice of tomato.

3. Latkes
Most people know these as "potato pancakes." They are kind of like that, but I liken them more to hashbrowns. These are traditionally served during Hanukkah.

4. Kugel
From Judaism 101:

Kugel is another dish that encompasses several different things, and the relationship between them is hard to define. The word "kugel" is generally translated as "pudding," although it does not mean pudding in the Jell-O brand dairy dessert sense; more in the sense of bread pudding. The word "kugel" is pronounced "koo-gel" (with the "oo" in "book"; not to rhyme with "google") or "ki-gel," depending on where your grandmother comes from. Kugel can be either a side dish or a dessert. As a side dish, it is a casserole of potatoes, eggs and onions. As a desert, it is usually made with noodles and various fruits and nuts in an egg-based pudding. Kugel made with noodles is called lokshen kugel.

The kugel we had was of the traditional sort. I loved it. It was my second-favorite dish of the festival. I've had "sweet kugel" before, but I liked this better.

5. Blintzes
Again from Judaism 101:

Blintzes are basically Jewish crepes. A blintz is a thin, flat pancake rolled around a filling. It looks a little like an egg roll. As a main dish or side dish, blintzes can be filled with sweetened cottage cheese or mashed potatoes and onion; as a dessert, they can be filled with fruit, such as apple, cherry or blueberry. They are usually pan fried in oil. They are generally served with sour cream and/or applesauce.

Cheese blintzes are the traditional meal for the festival of Shavu'ot, when dairy meals are traditionally eaten. Blintzes are also commonly eaten during Hanukkah, because they are cooked in oil.

The word "blintz" comes from a Ukrainian word meaning "pancake."

Yum. Mine was filled with cream cheese and served with jelly. Almost too sweet.

6. Falafels
Falafel is a traditional Israeli dish, and is popular throughout the Middle East. Our falafels were served in pita bread with humus.

The festival also featured gift shops and informational booths, including one about Jewish weddings.

The future Mr. and Mrs.

I think that was it for our Jewish fare. We took home a challah loaf for this weekend and some hamentaschan, which are filled cookies traditionally served during Purim.

All in all it was a good experience and gave me a sampling of some popular Jewish fare -- hard to do in Arkansas. But believe me, no one ever lets us forget exactly where we live.

I don't think this Razorback is kosher.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A Jewish New York

So last week I ventured to the Big Apple, home to scores of bagels, pizza and wedding dresses. My heaven, really.

But as any good Jew-in-training would do, I made sure to take in some of the more Jewish-centered sights as well. Because, frankly, the one shelf at the one store 30 minutes from me is all I've got.

A short recap:


On Saturday, after a tiring and somewhat disappointing day looking for "the dress," Marissa and I dragged our tired feet over to the Jewish Museum. It was free day, so I wasn't going to miss it, because I'm a budget traveler (one who was looking to spend her money on a dress I'm only going to wear and the 100s of times before the big day just to make sure it still fits).

Highlights of this stop:

• Getting scolded for trying to take a picture. Oops.
• The menorah with the red-white-and-blue Statute of Liberty.
• My first celebrity sighting: Michael Imperioli of the Sopranos. I didn't know who he was because I only watched one of the shows, and he happened to have been killed off by that point. But Marissa nonchalantly pointed at him. I thought she was saying he had a hook. Long story.
• The best part of the museum was a video that showed the sounding of an air horn for two minutes throughout Israel on Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was an amazing video of a busy intersection in Jeruselum coming to a complete stop while the air horn sounded. To see an elderly woman start to cry was enough to stir my emotions. It was an excellent video.

Overall this was probably my least favorite of our stops. It was still interesting, but mostly dealt with artwork and artifacts throughout Jewish history. I get the feeling I would have enjoyed it more had I picked up the children's guide.


On Sunday, our Jewish stop for the day was the tenement building at 97 Orchard St. in the Lower East Side, the original garmet district. This was recommended to me by many people, including Jody's friend Patty.


• Authenticity of our tour guide: She was definitely Eastern European and really knew her stuff.
• This was probably the most educational of our stops, because I really didn't know much about Jewish immigration into New York. We took the "Piecing it Together" tour, which took us into two apartments: one of a wealthy sweatshop owner, the other of a poor family.
• It had a super-cute gift shop, in which I bought these cards:


On Monday, Marissa and I hoofed it to our last stop of the Jewish tour: The Museum Of Jewish Heritage.


• Marissa studied Germany, so she was able to read a lot of the propaganda posters.
• This museum probably was the best we visited. They had gallery after gallergy of interesting facts and moving images. It had been a while since I truly studied the Holocaust, and it was all very overwhelming. My favorite installation showcased the faces of the dead. You walked into this area where you were surrounded on all sides by huge, billboard-sized panels containing 5x7 pictures of victims. They were all around you. As you walked from panel to panel, it felt like you were in a crazy house with all the mirrors. It was utterly overwhelming.
• This museum was in Battery Park, and the architecture really took advantage of the views of water and park. If I was a New Yorker, I'd definitely get married here. (Photo courtesy of the museum's Web site.)

Phew. That's my trip. Oh, and I bought a dress. More on that in about a year. :)

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Hooked on Phonics

I've cheated in school before.

It's hard to admit that to anyone.

OK, it was minor cheating. It was in Spanish II and my second semester of college. We were required to write a paragraph in Spanish. I loathed that class. Foreign languages are the hardest skill for me to master, and this perfectionist isn't used to B's.

We were allowed to use our dictionaries, so on the inside cover I wrote words to prompt me throughout the timed exercise. I probably didn't need them, but I was so intimidated and scared of not getting an A.

I got caught. Cheaters almost always do. I remember the teacher well, though I don't recall her name. She was a graduate student -- all of them are -- with red hair. She rolled her backpack behind her on the sidewalk. Some of the boys made fun of her for that. She was really nice.

I remember her telling me in an indirect way that she knew I had cut corners on the quiz and would I like to retake it in her office? She said it with a smile on her face, and somehow I knew it was going to be OK.

I got an A in the class that semester.

A few months later, I enrolled in Spanish III. I had to go to the GA's office that summer, too. Not because I cheated, but because I had to take an oral exam. He told me I should major in Spanish because I was a natural. I laughed with him, at him, at myself, silently recalling my last quiz I took in a GA's office.

I'm one who easily picks up on the parallels that run through life. Maybe that's why I love Grey's Anatomy so much. Every operation, every emergency room stay connects with the lives of the doctors.

On Monday, I tried to learn Hebrew. It was hard. Memories of Spanish made a reprisal in my brain, my eyes watered and I stammered over the lesson. I wiped away tears, hoping fervently that no one noticed.

At one point, I thought about giving up, about telling them to skip me, maybe even leaving the room to collect myself. But Ryan, the jerk, wouldn't let me give up and no one else would either.

So I said a few words and made a few sounds, and thank G_d it's over for now.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

New York, here I come!

So I'm heading to New York on Friday to visit my best friend Marissa.

The weekend is going to be devoted to: (1) hanging out with Marissa (obviously), (2) Trying on wedding dresses, (3) Seeing the city (I've never been before) and (4) checking out some Jewish stuff.

I figure, if I'm going to be in the city that has the most Jews outside of Israel, then I should at least immerse myself in it for an afternoon.

So I don't know who reads this anymore -- besides Jody ;) -- but if you're reading this and have a clue where I can go to find shops, markets, etc., to look around on a Sunday afternoon I would appreciate it!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Torah Conga

I did a Torah conga line last night.

I tried -- and almost failed -- to attend Simchat Torah services last night in Fayetteville. I say almost failed because I failed to take into account the absolute horrid event that is Bikes, Blues & BBQ. (Yes, that's BBBBQ. Sigh.) Plus ZZ Top was in town. So I followed a pickup with two people riding in the bed for about 30 minutes for what should have been a 10 minute stretch on I-540.

I was very annoyed.

But, in fact, I would have been even more annoyed had I got there on time because they hadn't started services yet when I got there -- 20 minutes late. So needless to say, I had to leave before services were over because I had to get back to work. My boss had given me a two-hour dinner to attend services.

Simchat Torah is a service on the eighth or ninth day of Sukkot (depending on what brand of Judaism you follow). According to the reform, it fell on Thursday, but because it's a small community down here, the temple combined regular Friday services with the Simchat Torah services. Simchat Torah separates both the end and the beginning of the reading of the Torah. Every year the synagogue reads the five books of the Torah, and during this service, the last section and the first section is read, symbolizing the circular, everlasting nature of the book.

It is traditional to bring out every Torah the synagogue has and dance with them. This consists of throwing them over your shoulder and kind of shifting along while the other members of the synagogue dance around you (such as in a conga line?). For those of you who haven't seen the Torah scrolls, they are fairly large, heavy and have lots of ornamental dressing, so they are hard to handle. And if you drop one, it requires a 40-day fast. It's serious business.

Last night a young girl of about 10 was one of the holders. The rabbi said on Simchat Torah everyone is welcome to dance with the scrolls regardless of faith or age because the Torah is for everyone. When the father placed the Torah over the young girl's shoulder, her eyes got wide and she said "It's so heavy." "Do NOT drop it," the rabbi's wife told her. And she didn't.

It was a good experience, though I had to go alone. Ryan had to cover a football game.

Some of you might wonder about Sukkot. Sukkot is the eight day holiday that celebrates the harvest agriculturally and also symbolizes the 40 years of wandering in the desert historically. It is customary to build a sukkah, which is a booth, during this time and eat your meals in it and some even sleep in it. The synagogue in Bentonville built one and they hosted a potluck in it on Wednesday night. Click here to watch a slideshow of the congregation building the sukkah.

Here's another link of interest: Yet another New York Times article about Temple Shalom.

OK, the game is back on! Rock Chalk Jayhawk!

Friday, September 28, 2007

A few more links...

Read another story about Temple Shalom and a Temple of Peace in the Jewish publication forward here.

Inspired to make a tax-deductible donation? You can do that here.

Since I last posted that link, the synagogue has uploaded a promotional video that you might enjoy. That can be found on the home page here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Along the same lines

A post from my friend Nathan's blog.

It's kind of hard to believe that in a post-Holocaust world that the architects did not have that intent, but maybe they didn't? And it's not like Google Earth is the only place to see the building's aerial look. There are airplanes, too.

What do you think?

Jewish Jokes and Such

Work is weird for me. My newsroom is not a place I feel totally comfortable being myself. I try to open up to people, be myself and often find myself the subject of ridicule. I think it's partly the fact that I'm a 24-year-old woman. I think it's partly that I have a job a few others I work with wanted. I also think it's partly because people know I have thin skin.

Anyway, the point of this blog is that someone made a Jewish joke in my general vicinity today. And, yes, it was directed toward me.

I won't repeat the joke here. But I will tell you it was made by a man who is married to a non-practicing Jewish woman. A woman who spent some time living in Israel as a child, but has all but abandoned religion. Maybe that matters. Maybe that doesn't.

What matters most is that I didn't know how to react. We all make jokes based on stereotypes. Sometimes it's a joke about a sorority girl. I know I've directed a few of those at my friend, who is a sorority alumnae. She laughs most of the time. Sometimes the jokes seem a little more personal.

So how did I react? Well, I guess you could say I didn't. I didn't join in the laughter that seemed coming from all sides at me in my workplace. I think I muttered a "heh" of acknowledgement.

Ryan says he would have told people it wasn't funny. I guess I'm not brave enough for that yet. I think I was scared to be seen as the crybaby in the newsroom, though I might already have that reputation. Luckily, it was at the tailend of my shift, and I was able to gather my stuff and leave work before my emotions got the better of me.

Ever since my decision to explore conversion, I've been faced with weird looks and ignorant questions. I know for the most part these acquaintences and co-workers do not mean harm. No one has said anything that would get them fired from a radio show, but the nuanced comments still sting.

I remind myself that my sensitivity is my Achilles' heel. But I also realize that jokes about certain issues -- race, religion, sexuality and gender chief among them -- might permeate even the thickest skin. I likely will be faced with these stereotypes throughout my life. Hopefully I'll know how to respond in the future.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

RH, YK and other things

This has been a crazy last couple of days.

As most of you probably know, the past handful of days made up the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the most important period of the year in the faith. The Days of Awe focus on taking an inventory of the past year, righting your wrongs and wiping the slate clean again before the Jewish New Year (Yom Kippur).

I won't try to get too deep here because my mind is still adjusting to the 24-hour fast I just completed (part of the Yom Kippur tradition).

I don't find this holiday particularly moving to be honest, but I think that's because it is SO HARD for me to slow down and reflect upon life. Ryan, however, takes it more seriously than one might expect. Last night before Kol Nidre services he listed all of his actions that harmed me in the last year -- from the minute to the large. I could tell by his demeanor that he had been thinking about this all day and that his misdeeds really weighed on him heavily.

It's interesting that this holiday corresponded to a wedding task that is also kind of like taking an inventory -- the wedding guest list. As I thought of people I needed to forgive or apologize to, it was easy for me to see a pattern. I don't have lots of friends. This doesn't really bother me, but I realized the minute someone hurt me in a devastating way, the friendship usually goes like this: First, I tell him or her that they hurt me deeply. Second, they (usually) apologize. Third, I never speak to them again. Even if I'm the one doing the hurting, usually I am so mortified that I retreat until the other person seeks to repair the friendship first. My good friends who I have hurt have always come to me and worked it out. The so-so ones end up by the wayside.

Is this healthy? Maybe not. But it works for me and has kept me a short list of friends I always know I can rely on. Sure, it would be nice if I had a lengthy list of friends that meet my criteria, but I (probably unfortunately) have high standards and would rather invest 100 percent of my energy in a few really good friendships then spread that energy around to many people. But that's just me.

Anyway, to bring this full circle, this holiday has made me realize that maybe I should have sought to maintain those lost friendships more. I honestly don't have any regrets, but I'll never know what might have been.

Tonight I am at an almost-friend's house. I say almost-friend because she is a girl I've "known" for years. We worked together briefly in Kansas City, and she was nice enough to let me crash at her apartment before a wedding-related appointment tomorrow when a friend got sick and I couldn't stay with her. We're on our way to being more than friendly ex-co-workers, but not quite. I won't explicate that here.

But I just want to say I love LOVE love her apartment. She lives in a loft in the River Market, and it's so eclectic. It's the style I want to have but I'm too scared to try. Nothing matches, but everything does. She manages to make a stack of books, a shelf of soup and a cart of shoes look chic. I love this style, but am intimidated by the artistry of it. Instead, if it doesn't match, it gets hidden away in those stupid leather boxes everyone buys at BBB for their coffee tables. You know what I'm talking about...

Saturday, September 15, 2007

It's been so long...

There has been so much happening in my life -- faith-wise and other-wise -- that I can't believe I haven't updated. But I guess I've just been too busy.

First of all, Ryan proposed! I'm sure all of you who read this know this by now, but I had to say it just to get it on the record.

I totally expected it, but it is still all so overwhelming. It's strange to go from being "just a girlfriend" in everyone's eyes to Ryan's "very important life partner." As morbid as this sounds, I go from not being mentioned in the standard obituary to being the first person listed. That's a pretty big leap. (Please excuse the morbidity. I used to write obituaries as a part-time gig!)

So obviously in regards to that, Ryan and I met with the rabbi who is going to marry us Aug. 31, 2008, in Lawrence, Kan. I couldn't be happier! She currently serves the congregation in Topeka, Kan., but she has ties to Omaha. What could be better? She seems so warm and loving, and she said it was very important for her to meet with us several times and for us to participate in a local congregation. She is reform, so she said she wouldn't require me to convert pre-ceremony, as long as I was exploring my faith. She seems like a perfect fit for us, and I love the fact that she is local for my parents in case they want to go to services or meet with her to learn more before the ceremony.

I think a lot of people expected us to ask the rabbi in Fayetteville to perform the ceremony. That's a good segue to my next thought...

Ryan and I have decided to explore the other synagogue in our area. We were about ready to submit our membership application when I realized I didn't feel comfortable at the synagogue where we have been attending Basic Judaism classes.

As I've talked about before, living in Northwest Arkansas and trying to be Jewish has some challenges. There are two major synagogues in the area. Both are reform. Both hold services only once or twice a year. The synagogue we've been involved with thus far only has Friday services. They hold Torah study on Saturday mornings, when most synagogues traditionally hold longer services. The other synagogue holds longer services on one Saturday a month. Because of my schedule, I would never be able to attend services on Fridays, so we're going to explore the other synagogue. We're going to try to attend Yom Kippur services at the synagogue next Saturday.

This makes me a bit uncomfortable. As anyone in a small Midwestern town knows, when you change houses of worship it tends to be a big deal. Even though we have legitimate reasons for exploring the other synagogue and likely joining, I feel guilty. We're paying for our Basic Judaism classes separately, so there's no obligation there, but it's still strange when the rabbi asks us how our membership application is going.

Speaking of Yom Kippur (sorry this post is a little stream of conscious), I'm excited to fast again for my second year recognizing the holiday. Maybe this year I'll have a clue why I'm not eating or drinking anything for 24 hours!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fixed Link

Last time I blogged about fundraising for A Temple For Peace. Well, for some reason the link didn't work. Here's a new one.

You can also send a check via snail mail:

Temple Shalom Building Fund
P.O. Box 3723
Fayetteville, AR 72702

You will receive a tax-deductible receipt via email for your donation, due to Temple Shalom's 501 (C)(3) tax exempt status.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Looking for a good cause?

Ryan and I attended a bar mitzvah this weekend in Columbus, Ohio. It was a great time. I enjoyed all the services and events of the weekend. I think attending a bar mitzvah, if possible, is a must for any Jew or non-Jew. It's a moving experience. Sure, it's a big party. But unlike the extravagent bashes you see on MTV's Sweet Sixteen, these parties (some are likely more plush than others) actually have meaning and accomplishment behind them. I was telling my co-worker that over the years bar mitzvahs have grown to resemble small weddings, complete with disc jockeys, full meals, open bars, etc. But when you think about it, there is more accomplishment tied to this event than any wedding -- at least for most couples.

It's amazing what goes into these events both for the bar/bat mitzvah and for the parents. Ryan's aunt told us she had to set the date four years in advance. And I'm sure Daley has been studying with the rabbi, his mentor and on his own for a good part of the year. I've seen video of Ryan's bar mitzvah, and he said it was one of the most stressful periods in his life.

Because of the bar mitzvah, Ryan and I missed a letter-writing campaign at the Hillel House to raise money for the new temple. In case you're looking for a cause or feel moved to contribute, here is a link to contribute. You can contribute here via PayPal by clicking on the left-hand side or send a check to the address provided.

There's actually a very interesting slant to the building of this temple. A local Palestinian who owns a construction business has offered to build the temple -- at no charge except for the materials.

I'm including an article from the Chicago Tribune below. Pardon the copy and pasting, but the story no long is free on the paper's Web site.

Building a model for peace West Bank native leads temple project
By Ron Grossman
Chicago Tribune
April 03, 2007

This year as every year, the tiny Jewish community here will utter the age-old symbolic invitation for a needy stranger to share its dinner tables during Passover, which began at sundown Monday.

"For you know the heart of a stranger," as the Book of Exodus observes, "seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

But this time, the 50 Jewish families will intone the formula with a special poignancy: For now, it is they who have been in need and an outsider who came to their aid.

"Fadil is helping us open the door to a synagogue," said Jeremy Hess.

Fadil Bayyari is a Palestinian-American building contractor who is donating his services so Hess and other members of Temple Shalom can fulfill their dream of having a sanctuary. After an earlier plan to convert a residential home fell through -- a victim of not-in-my-back-yard syndrome -- plans are being put in final form to construct a new building on another site.

Despite Bayyari's background, it's hard for the congregation to think of him as an outsider. He's not the type to be a stranger.

"Hi, there, how you been, how's the missus?" Bayyari said, greeting a parade of well-wishers at a local restaurant while recounting how it came to pass that a Palestinian-American is a generous benefactor of a Jewish house of worship.

To others, it might seem an unusual gesture, given the two peoples' long and often bloody conflicts. But to Bayyari, it's a corollary of the dream that drew him to America.

"This is a land of milk and honey," said Bayyari, 54. "There shouldn't be prejudice or hatred here."

Hess sees the story in theological terms: "God, for some reason, picked us out of the pack -- a handful of Jews and Muslims out in the heartland -- and said: 'You're going to play this hand.'"

The congregation, formed in the 1980s, includes a few Jewish professors at the University of Arkansas as well as Jewish professionals and businesspeople drawn by companies such as Tyson's food products and Wal-Mart, whose corporate headquarters is nearby.

A member of the philosophy department, Jacob Adler, served as the congregation's unofficial spiritual head, then doubled back to theological seminary in Philadelphia and became a rabbi.

But Temple Shalom's 50 families didn't have a roof of their own. Services were held in a Unitarian church, and members met for Talmud study at the university's Hillel Center, where parents took turns teaching religion classes. The center is a squat wooden structure with a down-at-the-heels look. Over the doorway, faded Hebrew letters barely announce the congregation's presence.

Then the congregation learned a deceased member had handsomely remembered Temple Shalom in her will. Members went looking last year for a more suitable home and thought they had found one in an architectural gem and real-estate white elephant, sitting on a hilly site above the town.

Known as Butterfly House for its distinctive shape and designed by locally renowned architect Fay Jones, it is too large for a single-family home by contemporary standards. But that same scale made it suitable for remodeling into a sanctuary, while its soaring roof lines gave it the look of a sacred space. And having been long on the market, the price was right.

The local planning commission approved the conversion of the property, but neighbors kicked up a fuss and complained to the City Council. The Mt. Sequoyah neighborhood is home to movers and shakers who contended the synagogue would be inappropriate in a residential community.

"It's been referred to as a gated community without a gate," Adler said.

At that point, the city fathers urged -- some say 'leaned on' -- the congregation not to force a vote on the issue. By a narrow margin, Temple Shalom's members decided it would be wiser not to go where they weren't wanted and dropped their bid on Butterfly House.

Some smelled a hint of anti-Semitism. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based organization, wrote to the City Council and mayor saying: 'to deny this congregation's application to be the first Jewish synagogue in Fayetteville ... when Christian churches are located in other residential zones within the city would legitimately give rise to serious concerns' under federal anti-discrimination law.
For Bayyari, it didn't matter what motivated the opposition. In his eyes, it was simply wrong.

"To me, it's God's house," Bayyari said. "You don't resist having a house of worship in your neighborhood."

Troubled by the affair, Bayyari sought out a fellow member of the Rotary Club, Ralph Nesson, who he knew was a member of Temple Shalom.

"I could see Fadil was troubled," Nesson said. "He asked if there was anything he could do to help."

Some people were wary of the offer, but Bayyari's charitable efforts are widely known here. He's helped build a mosque and a church. His name is on a public school.

Bayyari suggested that Temple Shalom build a synagogue and said he would serve as general contractor without taking a profit.

The congregation agreed, and the new synagogue is estimated to cost about $1.2 million. General contractors here generally bill between 10 and 15 percent of building costs for their services, a fee Bayyari is waiving.

Bayyari explains his generosity on two grounds: He hates prejudice, and he's fascinated by the Jewish experience.

"I knew from the Koran that Jews and Muslims are children of the same God," he said. "When I got to Fayetteville and had the time to do some reading, I went over to Barnes and Noble and bought me a Torah, a Jewish Bible."

Bayyari came of age in the West Bank in the 1970s and said he had three choices: Work for the Israelis, which meant the indignity of crossing army checkpoints daily; join the underground resistance; or seek better fortunes abroad. He opted for the last, and his father bought him a ticket to Chicago.

Bayyari intended to study at Roosevelt University, but that plan foundered on his need to earn a living. So he went to work for a restaurant at 79th Street and Kedzie Avenue. Subsequently he got a job at McDonald's and moved from franchise to franchise around the country.

After a stint managing the corporate empire of an Arab business mogul in Bahrain, he came back to the States, found his way to Fayetteville and bought a waffle-house restaurant. A local business man who took his morning coffee there admired Bayyari's work ethic and brought him into the construction business.

"Mr. Willard Walker was a great man and a big charitable giver," Bayyari said. "He told me: 'Find somebody you like, and help him.' I've tried to honor that advice."

Though loyal to his Palestinian roots, he's no fan of his people's political leadership. His hero is the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who flew to Jerusalem in 1977 to extend a hand of peace to the Israelis. Now, he hopes and prays Saudi King Abdullah might make a similarly dramatic gesture.

"When you sit down with a man and look him in the eyes, it's hard to hate him," Bayyari said. "That's what we're doing here in Arkansas. Maybe they can do the same in Israel and Palestine. We need less hatred in the world."

He and his Jewish friends hope news of their experiment in mutual understanding might, in a small way, inspire similar efforts in the Holy Land.

"When you drop a pebble in the water," said Nesson, "you never know where the wave is going to ripple out to."

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Not much new to report...

We have our last class of the summer session two weeks from tomorrow. Then we'll be off for a while during the High Holidays.

Rabbi told me that the class will likely go for an entire year. That way we can learn about the different holidays and life cycle events as they occur. That seems like a good idea, but at the same time that seems like an awful long time.

Ryan and I are going to my first bar mitzvah in two weeks. It's for his cousin in Columbus, Ohio. I'm looking forward to it, though it'll be my first plane ride in 3.5 years! Yikes, how did I go so long. I guess when you really want to avoid something, you find a way.

In other news, Ryan and I began, ahem, training for a 5K in October. It's not really fair because Ryan's been working out pretty regularly while I sleep in and watch The View every day -- in bed. So needless to say, I'm totally out of shape. (But wouldn't that mean I was once in shape? Because I don't think I ever have been.) Anyway, I mention this because we're planning to run as part of the Temple Shalom team to support Habitat for Humanity. I signed us up because I thought it might be a good way to get to know some more people. We'll see how it pans out. So far I'm already tired.

I'll report more after the bar mitzvah and our last class.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

To all my fans...

All one of you.

I'm finally updating about my third class, which was July 8.

It was by far my favorite class. It's unfortunate that Ryan couldn't go, but he had to work. (Speaking of work, my boss is considering moving me to having weekends off, which would conflict with my conversion classes. Hopefully she'll let me leave early for class. Fingers crossed.)

In class, we talked about the Torah, and I learned a lot that I never knew before. First, for novices, I should state the Torah specifically is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible and Old Testement of the Christian Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The five books cover the creation through the entering of the Promised Land. The entire Hebrew Bible, including the Torah, is 24 books. They are broken up into three sections: Torah, Prophets and Writings. The last two books are considered lesser than and consistent with the Torah.

For example, the Christian Old Testament is arranged in a different order than the Hebrew bible. The order was set after the modern book was invented. Before that, the order was unneccessary because everything was written on individual scrolls.

In the Christian version, the Old Testement ends with Malakai. In the Hebrew bible, it ends with Chronicles II. Chronicles II ends with a direction: "Go back and build the temple." And if you go back to the beginning of the writings section, the Jews are establishing the temple. The Jews arranged it this way for it to be a cyclical story that has no beginning and no end. How different is that than the Christian version!

We also talked about Midrash, which are stories a lot of us know that don't appear in the Hebrew bible. One that the rabbi recounted that I learned at some point is the story of Abraham and the idols. Abraham's father left him to watch his idol-making shop. While his father was away, Abraham smashed all the idols but the biggest one. His father came back and yelled at Abraham. Abraham claimed the biggest idol smashed the others. Of course, Abraham's father had to admit that idol's weren't real and couldn't do that.

Another interesting difference we talked about was the concept of a high-context book versus a low-context book. The rabbi said the concept of a low-context book is tied to Protestantism. A large belief in Protestantism is that the Bible is extremely user friendly and literal more often than not. The Jews disagree with that. They consider the Torah a high context book, which requires a teacher for understanding.

We also discussed the "oral Torah." Almost all Jewish sects acknowledge laws that aren't written exclusively in the Torah but are interpreted from it. For example, the Torah tells you how to get married, but not divorced. Throughout history, rabbis have studied and determined what those oral laws are. There is a sect of Jews, called Karasites, that do not acknowledge the oral Torah. The name of the sect comes from the word meaning reading.

We talked about a lot more, but that's a (somewhat) brief recap. I don't mean to bore you with it, but I want to recount as much as I can and flesh out my notes.


I also wanted to add a little something regarding my last post about the mourner's kaddish. I don't know if I could have participated (since I'm not Jewish) had I remembered, but it occurred to me later that the 15th anniversary of my sister's death was on Wednesday. Maybe next year I'll be able to participate.

It's also my grandparents' 65th wedding anniversary this Saturday! I spent the weekend with them. My grandpa told me meeting my grandmother was the best decision he has ever made. I assumed that of course, but it means something to hear him say it. Of course, if she had heard him say it, she probably would have rolled her eyes and swatted him.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

More than a Minyan

This morning, Ryan and I attended a Kaddish service in remembrance of the rabbi's father passing away two years ago.

We hadn't planned on attending. We live about 30 minutes north of the Hillel house, and it seemed a bit cumbersome to drive there for a 10-minute prayer recital. But the rabbi called me yesterday, saying he was one short of a minyan, and he hoped Ryan could make it. How could we say no to that?

Minyan is the requirement of having 10 adults present for Jewish services. Ryan has told me that the synagogue in Joplin often didn't have services because of this requirement. The most common origin of the requirement dates back to the 10 brothers of Joseph who went to Egypt to get food during a famine.

So we made the short trek to Fayetteville and found a full house.

I could tell that the rabbi was pleasantly surprised so many people showed up. He said a few kind words about his father, said the prayers and it was over. Then I poured the juice for the blessing and only spilled a few times...

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Second Class

So far so good.

We did our homework. Showed up on time. I even made some banana bread.

There were a few new people in class on Monday; some people from last class didn't return. So it evened out. All told, about the same amount of people showed up.

We talked a lot about basic differences between Judaism and Christianity. Some people struggled with talking about those differences in a positive way. Obviously, a lot of people convert to Judaism because they were turned off by some aspect of their "inherited" religion.

The main difference we talked about was Judaism's lack of focus on G_d.

I've mentioned this before. It's a weird concept to wrap your head around. In Christiaity we talk about G_d (and Jesus) A LOT. What ELSE is there to talk about, right? You're raised to follow G_d's will and get out of G_d's way, so to speak.

The rabbi explained that Jews consider G_d more of an experience and not something that needs to be talked about. In fact, talking about G_d takes away his or her otherworldiness.

So instead of reciting a creed every week, Jews profess their belief in G_d by acting in a godly way.

Jews don't think of themselves as sinners, which is unlike the Christian view of Original Sin. Jews believe humans weren't born bad, and there is no quest to save ourselves from damnation.

In fact, the rabbi said, Jews believe you can use your bad qualities to do good. If you're greedy, for example, you'll work hard at your business and perhaps provide a needed item at a good price.

The rabbi gave the example of the rabbi featured in the TLC show, "Shalom in the Home." Rabbi Jacob said he had met Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and it was clear that he loved to be the center of attention. Some may see that as a negative, but he has been able to turn it into a positive by reaching people through a television show and becoming a "rabbi to the stars."

Well, that's about it. More next week.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

From The Washington Post

Jewish Faithful Expanding Their Flocks
By Matt Zapotosky
(c) 2007, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Joel Cohen wanted his kids to receive instruction in their Jewish faith. But the closest synagogue was half an hour from his house in suburban Waldorf, Md. So Cohen did what any good dad would do: He opened the phone book and called everyone in the area with a Jewish-sounding name he could find, hoping others might help him form a social group to teach the Torah.

Sha’are Shalom, which began with a dozen memberships, now counts 36, many of them families. And more than 15 years later, members of that original Charles County group plan to break ground for a synagogue in Waldorf in August. The building will mark the culmination of steady growth within small Jewish congregations, an increase in numbers that has been a piece of the Southern Maryland region’s swelling population.

In Prince George’s County, the Shaare Tikvah congregation sold the synagogue it had occupied since 1967 and plans a new building in Upper Marlboro to target the budding Jewish presence in Southern Maryland more effectively. It has 34 memberships, including many families. And the Beth Israel congregation farther south in St. Mary’s County has about 55 memberships, including 40 families, after a boost when the Patuxent River Naval Air Station expanded in the late 1990s.

Southern Maryland’s small congregations have little resemblance to their big-city counterparts that can count more than 1,000 dues-paying members. These groups of no more than 60 families often meet in such places as a church classroom or a member’s home, using part-time rabbis or rabbinical students.

All struggle with the fact that it requires serious commitment to be a Jew in Southern Maryland. Some amenities that come with big-city life, such as kosher delis, good rye bread and Jewish neighbors, are few and far between.

“Even the supermarkets that do try to provide certain things, especially before Passover, they don’t get it,” said Lisa Shender, membership coordinator for Beth Israel, who moved to St. Mary’s from the Philadelphia area. “Coming down here, we found ourselves in a distinct minority. It was quite a change.”

Cohen, who now works near Columbus, Ohio, plays down his phone book exploits but remembers the challenges that his small Waldorf congregation faced in its infancy: deciding whether to teach children about the Holocaust, or how important it was to provide adult and youth classes. By comparison, Cohen said, asking 60 strangers if they wanted to form a Jewish group was easy.

Cohen’s experience is typical of small congregations, said Karen Falk, curator of the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore. She studied small Jewish communities in Southern Maryland and found the groups were driven by the dedication of their key members, who often join or form congregations so their children can receive Jewish instruction.

“Jewish life in the small community is not easy,” Falk said. “It’s a conscious choice on the part of every individual Jew in these communities to remain Jewish.”
That’s exactly how Shender prefers it.

“Being part of a huge community, you don’t have to work very hard at being Jewish: It sort of just is,” she said. “Those who have joined our community find that they are part of a family.”

Some Jews find small-town existence too formidable. Christine Arnold-Lourie, a history professor at the College of Southern Maryland, lives in Silver Spring, Md., where many of her neighbors are Jewish and she belongs to a congregation with thousands of members. She said she would never have thought to raise her children in Southern Maryland because of her concerns about a lack of tolerance for Judaism.

“Most of our students have never seen a Jew,” she said. “There’s a real lack of understanding and, in some cases, a lack of tolerance.”

Practicing Judaism in a small town can be a struggle, but a happy one, said Klaus Zwilsky, head of the Beit Chaverim congregation in Calvert, Md. He might be chief cook and bottle washer in addition to president, but he is willing to work long hours as long as congregation members remain enthusiastic.

“It’s a struggle, but we seem to be able to make a go of it,” he said.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

First Class


Ryan and I went to our first Basic Judaism class last night. There was 10 of us there: One other couple, who we think might be already Jewish. A middle-aged woman who began studying Talmud six years ago with the rabbi. (She admits she's kind of going at this out of order). A woman who moved here from Tulsa just last week who'd like to convert. She was raised Jehovah's Witness. She's married with a young son. A young man who attends temple functions regularly who has a young family. He says he was raised "fundamentalist Christian." Rounding out the group is Miriam, who I think runs the women's group in the temple. (I love the way Miriam's Hebrew just rolls off her tongue. I think my tongue is too short for all the inflections and quick syllables of Hebrew and Yiddish.) And the rabbi's wife.

She and the rabbi just married last May and it was interesting watching her re-learn Judaism through her new husband's eyes. At one point she even got a tad emotional listening to her husband lead a discussion about what Judaism is. (Some responses: a culture, a religion, a faith, a way of life, a counterculture, a family, etc.)

We spent most of the 90 minutes in the class going over that exact question. Then some others asked their own questions. (Do I have to convert my toddler? Why do my Christian friends think they need to convert me? Why are some Jews skeptical of converts? Do Orthodox Jews see Reform Jews as Jews?)

I think Ryan and I learned a lot from the first class. I'm excited for the next one.

One thing I did learn last night that doesn't involve Judaism: Ryan laughs at his own wisecracks... Just like someone else I've known for 24 years. (Read: My dad.) Oy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


From Rabbi Jacob:

Dear Friends,

My Basic Judaism class will begin on Monday, 8:30 p.m., at Hillel House.

The class is intended for a wide audience: potential converts, Jews who want to know more about Judaism, and interested non-Jews.

There will be a modest fee (yet to be determined) for the class. It is intended that financial hardship should not prevent anyone from taking the class.

Please let me know if you plan to be there.


Friday, May 25, 2007

It's fixed!

I think.

I just realized recently -- thanks to Laynie -- that no one who subscribes to my Google Group has been getting updates. It took some tweaking on my part, but I finally figured it out.

So hopefully you guys are getting it now? Yes?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Still waiting for the welcome

Last e-mail sent Saturday night. Still no response.

I'm starting to think of other options. I figure I'll give this rabbi a few more weeks to get his act together before I look elsewhere. And by elsewhere, I mean the only other rabbi in the area who actually lives in Tulsa and commutes in to perform services, etc., in Bentonville. Yikes.

Ryan, of course, recognizes how hard this is all on me. And reminds me he'll marry me any shape, size and religion. My mom has reminded me I can convert any time. And, I agree, I don't need to set a deadline. But then I worry that I'll regret not having a traditional Jewish wedding if I don't convert.

But maybe the rabbi will pull through when it matters most? I'm trying not to get my hopes up.

Right now, as a young girl in a new city searching...for something, I remininsce about the pastor who came to our Topeka apartment, armed with a basket of chocolate chip cookies and a smile. We had been attending the Methodist church in Topeka for a few weeks, and the pastor came to our home, a welcoming gesture. I don't know if my mother remembers that. But it's stuck with me, how your faith family can be so important.

It's impossible for me not to compare that with the cold feeling I get here. When we moved here, Ryan e-mailed the synagogue president. He got a quick welcome e-mail in reply. Shortly thereafter we got a membership form in the mail, asking us to pay our dues and join.

As a young girl in a new city struck me. And not in a good way. Where were the cookies? The welcome wagon? Anything? True, it's a small Jewish commmunity. And with smallness, generally comes less organization. I guess I feel forgotten, abandoned.

This is a precarious part of my life and I want to feel welcomed.

So I've decided it's now on my shoulders to make myself feel welcomed. Swallow my pride and find ways to get involved even if my schedule makes that difficult.

I'll try to stop whining and start doing. Even if that, admittedly, isn't in my nature.

Monday, May 21, 2007

This is a test...

I've been a bad blogger.

Granted, I could write a lot about mundune things: what I thought of Desperate Housewives last night, lamentations on my awful gardening skills, my grandpa's 84th birthday... But I'm trying to keep this all on topic. And frankly, there hasn't been much on topic to write about.

Ryan and I just finished reading about practices in Basic Judaism. My favorite point was that traditionalist Jews fear adding practices and traditions just as much, maybe more so, than subtracting them. Once you begin to add or adjust traditions, it becomes easy to subtract the important ones and forget what they all mean to begin with.

Last week Ryan and I went to an acquaintence's house for a barbecue. They served pork and turkey. It was so sweet that they thought to make the turkey especially for Ryan and me. Ryan and I don't keep kosher but I've been thinking about trying it for a certain short period of time, just for the experience.

I'm hoping to get some movement on my classes soon. I e-mailed the rabbi on Saturday and haven't heard from him. I know he's been busy planning the Blintz dinner and Tikkun marathon classes tomorrow. We'll see... As soon as classes start, I'm sure I'll have lots more to write about.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

It's been awhile.


I've been busy with the most mundane things: cleaning, caretaking, working, exercising, cooking, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.

The problem? I still haven't met with the rabbi. I feel like my religious journey is stunted. Yes, Ryan and I have continued our weekly Shabbat readings. We (I) even read aloud our way to Kansas City last weekend.

And I've read about wonderful things: prayer, Jews views of Jesus and other religions and good deeds. But I haven't been able to muster a sentence about it because I haven't had much give and take.

The rabbi says we'll be starting a group class as soon as school is over. And because graduation was today, I'm hoping I hear from him soon.

One thing I've been thinking about lately is prayer. And how I don't do it. The only time I have no thoughts in my head is when I'm in the bathroom, and I somehow don't think that's the right time to strike up a conversation with G_d. Not that I haven't before. (Sorry for the image.)

I'm curious what other people do to clear their heads before prayer? Do you set a timer? Meditate? Listen to music? Or are you all so calm that you can do it easily?

I'm also curious about those people who aren't so religious. I wonder -- is prayer one of those things you just hold onto? A habit when you've foresaken all other modes of spirituality? Or is it the first thing to go?

I think my lack of prayer has something to do with my openness with people. Granted, I don't tell one person every single thing. But if there's something I can't tell Ryan, I can usually tell it to a friend and vice versa. Or my mom. Or my sister. Or a coworker (poor things).

Plus, I'm pretty in tune with reality. I don't ask G_d for things, and I don't think to thank G_d when things go my way. In fact, I don't even think about being thankful for the good things, which I guess tells a sad story about me. For example, when my grandpa is sick, I don't think to prayer for his wellness. I just hope he gets better and hope I can handle it if he doesn't. Maybe that's a form of prayer? When Ryan and I won a journalism award, it didn't occur to me that I needed to thank anyone but my boss for entering me us in the contest.

So is it that I just don't need prayer? Have I conditioned myself against it? How can I change that? Is it OK not to?

Friday, April 27, 2007


Still no word from the rabbi about a group class. We haven't met in more than a month.

I am officially annoyed.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Two quick thoughts and a correction

Thought 1: Rabbi Jacob e-mailed me on Saturday to get times I would be available for a Basic Judaism course with other people interested in converting or learning more about the religion. Part of me is upset he didn't do this months ago, but I'm trying to be happy that he's gotten this far.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that my crazy schedules will be able to work with other people's crazy schedules. Here's hoping.

Thought 2: My friend went to a literary festival in Little Rock this weekend. A prominent writer on atheism was there. She wasn't sure, but she gathered from the talk that he was a born-Jew, because he talked about how Judaism was the most secular religion. I'm definitely find some truth to that, but I think a lot of religious Jews would find a lot of fault in that as well.

A correction: Last week when I wrote about the afterlife, I mentioned that Thursday was the 15th anniversary of my sister's death. That is wrong. Thursday is her 22nd birthday. I must have been writing faster than my brain was processing. I just wanted to clear that up. This summer, July 11, will be the 15th anniversary of her death.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Solo Shabbat

This Shabbat Ryan was in Athens, Ga., so we had to do our Shabbat time by ourselves.

Quick aside: How funny is it that Ryan called me from the Holiday Inn parking lot upset over the notion that barhoppers had used up all the parking spaces? (Damn kids.) When did he get so old?

Anyway, I did the best I could. I lit the candles without burning myself, and muddled through the blessing, mispronouncing every fourth or fifth word.

I didn't want to get behind so I copied the latest chapter in Basic Judaism and gave it to Ryan for his trip. He sent me his notes this morning, like the good student he probably never was. :)

It was a chapter I had been looking forward to for a while. The chapter discussed dogma, G_d and evil.

The overarching theme? Do and believe what you want. The only absolute is that G_d exists (in whatever form you want to believe) and that G_d is one, not two, not three like in the Christian trinity and not none.

The book waged a written debate over the merits of a Judaic dogma. Apparently Maimonides wrote a Jewish dogma, but no one could agree on it. Some say that without a creed, isn't Judaism the "jellyfish of faith?" And if there is no creed, what did the martyrs die for? What holds us all together?

Steinberg writes that the Jewish principle of questioning G_d and free-thinking about G_d comes into direct conflict with the idea of having a formal creed of faith. He also writes that Jews are not Jews by faith alone. Unlike Christians, Jews are Jews for cultural and historical reasons aside from religion, whereas Christians unify around a singular faith in Jesus. Therefore, it also would not make sense to have a singular formal creed.

Because Basic Judaism was written before the founding of Israel, I did some quick research to make sure he was still up to date in regards to the creed topic. The only Jewish creed I found reference to is the Shmah creed, which simply states: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G_d, the Lord is One."

In terms of who G_d is to each person, Steinberg writes that Judaism takes a libertarian approach to that as well. Same goes for evil on earth: Steinberg lists numerous reasons for evil's presence on earth and then says "the Jew is free to make his selection, adopting the response or combination of responses which best satisfies him."

What I thought was the more important message: "That man's ignorance of God is greater than his knowledge..." Steinberg here quotes a Proverb: "In all they ways know Him." His commentary: Nowhere is it written: "In all His ways know Him."

My first reaction to all this chapter: What? It's that easy? I get to choose what I want to believe?

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how many questions such a free-flowing idea of G_d requires.

How do you all feel about have set requirements for what you believe? How are creeds and dogmas used in different religions? (Here is a copy of the United Methodist creed.) Is it something you learn at a young age? Something you gloss over? Were you taught that you could believe in your own version?

Wikipedia has a pretty exhaustive creed entry with links. There is also

Friday, April 20, 2007

What are your beliefs?

One of my friends sent me his results from Beliefnet, so I thought it might be appropriate to revisit my own:

1. Liberal Quakers (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (96%)
3. Reform Judaism (89%)
4. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (88%)
5. Neo-Pagan (77%)
6. Secular Humanism (74%)
7. New Age (66%)
8. Mahayana Buddhism (63%)
9. Orthodox Quaker (63%)
10. Bahá'í Faith (62%)
11. Sikhism (60%)
12. Theravada Buddhism (58%)
13. Orthodox Judaism (56%)
14. Jainism (52%)
15. New Thought (51%)
16. Islam (50%)
17. Taoism (48%)
18. Scientology (44%)
19. Nontheist (44%)
20. Hinduism (41%)
21. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (38%)
22. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (38%)
23. Seventh Day Adventist (38%)
24. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (31%)
25. Eastern Orthodox (31%)
26. Roman Catholic (31%)
27. Jehovah's Witness (26%)

I found myself rating many of the questions as a low priority. A few of the social questions I did rate as a high priority. I wonder how much that really affects your results. The first two religions are fairly liberal and accepting of divergent beliefs. The next three — Reform Judaism, Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants and Neo-Pagan — all seem intrinsicly different from each other, at least in a theological sense. When I read the descriptions, it seems they all coincide with my social beliefs. Theologic beliefs versus social beliefs seems to be a reoccuring theme throughout this process.

I think it would be interesting if a bunch of people took the quiz and posted their results here.

I'll write about The Chosen and the rabbi situation soon.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What's next?

When people find out that I am considering conversion, they always have lots of questions. Probably things they have always wondered about Judaism, but never had an "in-between" to go to for answers. It's often intimidating to ask questions about different people's beliefs, because you never know what is a sore point for each person.

One of the many questions people ask me is about Judaism's beliefs in heaven and hell. I think a lot of Christians ask this question because of the teaching that the only way to heaven is through a belief in Jesus, and obviously, that would be a sticking point in Judaism. Also, people who were raised Christian and no longer consider themselves so tend to ask because the idea that non-Christians are banished to hell is generally a hard pill to swallow.

Just like in Christianity, there is a wide range of Jewish beliefs on the concept of afterlife. There are opinions on cremation, burial, funeral services and even reincarnation. But here's the basic gist from

"The highest good in Judaism is living a moral life; that is its own reward. The concept of an afterlife is emphasized in Orthodox Judaism, where it is usually referred to as Olam Ha-Ba, the world to come. The Jewish idea of heaven is generally known as Gan Eden, or as the Garden of Eden, and hell is called Gehinnom.

"All righteous people, not just Jews, get a place in the world to come, but not all places are equal. A person's status in Olam Ha-Ba depends on actions in this life. Before going to Gan Eden, many people first have to spend time in Gehinnom, which is described by some as a fiery place of harsh punishment and by others as a place where the soul contemplates its past life and repents misdeeds. Except for the worst human beings, the maximum stay in Gehinnom is one year, after which the soul ascends to Gan Eden.

"There is debate about virtually every aspect of Jewish views on the afterlife, including the question of whether Judaism has a concept of an afterlife at all. For those who believe in Olam Ha-Ba, there is debate about whether the term refers to heaven and hell (Gan Eden/Gehinnom) or whether it refers to this world as it will be in the messianic era after the resurrection of the dead (tehiyat ha-metim)--or whether it is something entirely different."

I really like Beliefnet because it gives you a very basic understanding of a lot of different religions, and doesn't paint all Christians and Jews with a broad stroke. It points out the differences between say a Southern Baptist and Episcopalian and a Reform Jew and an Orthodox Jew. It also has an interesting, fun quiz. You answer questions about yourself and it matches you up with a religion. Has anyone used this site before? What did you think of it? Is it fairly reliable?

The afterlife has always been a curiousity for me. My sister died when I was 9 years old. In fact, next Thursday is the 15th anniversary of her death when she was only 7 years old. Naturally, as I child, I focused a lot on the afterlife to get me through my grief. My mom did, too, and started collecting angels. I never really worried about going to hell, though I'm sure some do. I never really thought it was a possibility that God would allow that, no matter what I did wrong.

I never was really taught that non-Christians were intended for hell. I don't think I even understood this concept until I had a Jewish friend in high school. In our tight-knit group of friends, she was the only non-Christian, and I could tell for some of the girls with more fervent, traditional beliefs, that her faith might be an issue. I never really heard it talked about much, but it was brought up maybe once or twice. My friends respected her religion, even went with her to services from time to time, but that didn't change what they were taught to believe.

It was hard for me to rationalize that. Part of me wanted to believe in everything I was told. And another part just couldn't.

I started thinking about all of this these past 36 hours after the shootings at Virginia Tech. I'm usually very detached from tragedies. I guess it's part of the job. I have to take a 20-inch story about a bus plunging off a mountainside in Mexico and turn it into a 50-word bite every day. But I guess my recent time in college and my fondness for the KU campus made this all touch home a little bit more. I've never felt truly depressed after a major event -- even 9/11 -- before. I just still haven't been able to shake this.

And I find it hard to believe that if there is a God, he would keep some of those 33 -- yes, even the shooter -- out of heaven for eternity. I don't believe we're here on Earth as part of a test. We're here to do as many good deeds as possible before our time runs out.

Sorry for the long post, but I've felt the need to ramble today. I'm almost done with The Chosen, and I've been marking it up like I'm a freshman in high school again.

But until a later post, I'd love to hear you all's struggles with the after life, beliefs or questions... Thanks for reading.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Out, Thoughts, Out

The rabbi suggested that Ryan and I take time each week to observe Shabbat in whatever way we can. Traditionally, Shabbat would begin with a Friday evening meal at sundown, which would include candlelighting and prayers. Depending on how you observe Shabbat, the following 24 hours are intended for prayer, soul-searching and rest.

When I first thought about observing Shabbat, I was incredibly intimidated. I am definitely incapable of not making mental lists in my head of all the things I need to do. I often use Ryan as my springboard. I ramble things to him, hoping that by doing so that I'll remember them tomorrow. I can't even imagine praying! My mind can't stay quiet long enough to have any persisted thought. The minute I start to think of something to meditate on, my mind sprints to something else. Thoughts are constantly crawling around in my head, driving both me and Ryan insane.

One of my friends says she sets a timer every time she wants to connect with G_d. I think if I did that I would keep looking at the digital numbers and just grow frustrated as lists upon lists keep formulating and time keeps dwindling.

I think the rabbi understands my confusion/frustrations regarding prayer and G_d, so he kept it simple. He said our Shabbat should be a time for us just to enjoy each other as human beings and not housekeepers, landscapers, dishwashers or any other kind of taskmaster. He discourages us from even talking about the things we need to do around the house. The rabbi himself observes Shabbat by not talking on the phone during the period. To each his own, I guess.

Because I work every Friday night and Saturday, we obviously can't observe Shabbat in any traditional way. So we've taken to having Saturday brunch. I light the candle, Ryan recites the prayer and we have whatever breakfast entree I have come up with at the last minute. This morning -- French toast and scrambled eggs.

We follow the Shabbat meal by reading aloud from Basic Judaism, one of the three books the rabbi has suggested I read. The book is interesting, but a hard read. It was written just before the founding of Israel, so we find ourselves stumbling over words and grasping at meanings.

Today's reading was about the Torah, which is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible -- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It mostly delved into the two interpretative theories -- traditionalists and modernists. Traditionalists believe the entire word of G_d was delivered to the Jews on Mount Sinai, and that the Talmud and even the rabbinic writings were predetermined at that point. Modernists believe in flexible interpretation of the Torah, that it can mean something different today than it did in the last generation.

Ryan and I are going to Great Bend for a few days, so I'll be away from the computer for a while. It'll be a nice break for someone who is on the computer at least half the day for work or leisure. I plan on speeding through The Chosen this weekend, so I'm sure I'll have some thoughts come Tuesday.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

My Rabbi

The rabbi for the southern half of Northwest Arkansas is a little flighty.

We've met twice now in his office at the University of Arkansas. Both times he has been late, mostly because of his habit of biking to work every day. He is a professor of philosophy and studied at Harvard. He's an interesting guy, but our personalities don't mesh very well. I like to be on task and know exactly what I need to be studying to prepare for our meetings. His lessons tend to wind around in circles and finally end when he's forgotten where he's started about three times.

He became a rabbi about a year ago. He took a sabbatical in a recent semester to study in Israel. He knows a lot about a lot, I think. He just doesn't do a very good job of filling me in.

I think he's a bit overwhelmed (aren't we all?) because he has eight candidates for conversion. He wants to arrange a group class, which I'm all for, though I worry I'll miss out on one-on-one interaction I think is necessary. Additionally, my schedule is crazy, so I'm not able to attend Shabbat services or other group activities.

I keep telling myself that this will only make the experience better for me personally. Like shopping for Passover, this teaches me how to be independent in my faith wanderings and not rely on someone so much. I keep telling myself that.

Here's hoping the rabbi will finish his taxes and get together a group class soon, because I have lots of questions.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Chosen

No, I'm not going to get into a theological debate (at least not yet) regarding one of the fundamental principles of Judaism.

Instead, I'm going keep this short and recommend a book.

For those of you who have known me for a decade -- and there are a few of you -- you'll remember sitting in Miss Emert's class (or the other teacher...I can't remember her name) and highlighting and marking up The Separate Peace by John Knowles. It was our first introduction to dissecting a novel, and most of us, if I remember right, loved the book. There's just something about a story about boys attending schools post-World War II and forging unusual friendships. I don't know what it is.

My friend JT, who I had morning drinks with the other day and who is trying to be Epsicopal, told me about the book. She adored it so much, and the book that came after, that she had already given them away to pass them on to others.

So we trotted over to a used bookstore that rivals The Dusty Bookshelf on Mass Street and found some copies. The sales clerk, an older man in his 70s, added up the cost of the books on a piece of paper and I gave him my credit card. Old style met new-fangled and now the books are mine.

I'm starting to read The Chosen, and I love it so far. If you love a good coming-of-age book, you'll love this. It's about a boy from a Reform synagogue. He meets a boy from a Hasidic neighborhood when their yeshivas (Hebrew schools) take on each other in a baseball game. The Hasidic boy taunts the boys from the Reform neighborhood, telling them that his team will kill them all because they speak sacred Hebrew instead of Yiddish, because they don't wear their tzitzit on the ballfield, because they were "apikorsim," secular Jews. Like Buzz said in an earlier comments, even Jews can be anti-semitic.

It really is a great book, and touches on so many issues within Judaism that translate to the world at large.

Oh -- and I ate bread for the first time after Passover last night. The pizza buffet was delicious!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Hillel, Methodism & The Darn "ch"

First I want to share a story I've read in nearly every book or article:

"A man went looking for Rabbbi Hillel and said to him, 'I want to become a Jew. But only on the condition that you teach me the Torah, all of it, while I stand on one foot.' Hillel looked at the smart aleck and said, 'What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. That is the entire Torah -- all of it. The rest is commentary. Go and study.'" (Choosing a Jewish Life)

Funny that the simplest message of the Torah isn't all that different from the New Testement I grew up with.

I should explain where I am coming from in order for anyone to understand where I'm going.

I think some people, especially those who still identify as Methodist, wonder what I meant in my first post when I mentioned "anything goes Methodism."

What I meant to imply is that being Methodist in modern-day Christianity doesn't have as strong of an identity as some other religious affiliations. For example, Catholicism, Baptist, Judaism, Mormon, etc. I know a lot of Protestants who choose their denomination based on the pastor, not on its beliefs. Yes, I know this is not the case for all Methodists, or Protestants in general, but I do believe in recent times denominations' beliefs are falling into more and more grey areas. And maybe that's a good thing.

My family, on my mother's side, is United Methodist. I grew up going to the Methodist church all my life, and some of my fondest memories are of Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. I often find myself asking Ryan if he had any of the same experiences in Hebrew school as I did in Sunday School. ("Hey, Ryan, did you guys have the felt boards with the felt characters for story time?"..."No? Oh that's too bad...")

I stopped going to church in 2003 while I was in college. I mostly felt that our local Methodist church didn't seem to have any relevency in my life anymore. It was a time of change for me, and as it is with people in every faith, sometimes spirituality goes by the wayside when dealing with stress.

I feel very lucky that my experiences with Christianity have been in a United Methodist home. In fact, I think there are a lot more similarities between Methodism and Judaism (especially the Reform branch) than some might think.

Like Judaism, Methodism is based on service to those less fortunate and to the broken world at large. The denomination is known to stress service and charity work. It is a very socially aware and one of the most liberal denominations of Protestant Christianity.

Like Judaism, it is against the death penalty. It also takes no definitive stance on homosexuality and abortion rights. (I heard many "Methodists on the fence" jokes growing up -- usually during Methodist sermons.) And the denomination stresses the importance of peace over war. Now let me make clear -- these are the denomination's stances, not necessarily the stances of parishoners themselves. (And I should say I'm describing these all from memories and through the purvue of past teachers and pastors, so I'm sorry if I've misconstrued anything I have been taught.)

To round out my list of three topics -- the dreaded "ch."

I chose the Hebrew name "Michal" as some of you might remember. Well, that's all fine and good except I CAN'T PRONOUNCE IT! There's something about that "ch" or "chet" sound. I just can't do it, especially when it is followed closely behind by the dreaded "L" (Think: challah...yep can't do that one either).

So I think I'm in trouble. I'm going to have to learn to say the name, or it'll just be silly for the rest of my life. But it's ridiculous to have to repeat rudimentary words to your boyfriend. It just makes you feel dumb.

For the record, I can't roll my Rs either.

Monday, April 9, 2007

G_d or God?

I've gotten tons of feedback on my blog so far. For everyone who has written, commented or called: Thanks for the feedback. For those of you who have just read, thanks, too, and I hope to talk with you soon.

The most frequent question I've gotten so far is about the spelling "G_d." In truth, I didn't fully know the rationality behind spelling it that way. In the last few months, I have been reading a lot of articles about Judaism and I noticed that almost everyone wrote "G-d" or "G_d." So I simply adopted it here without thinking much of it.

Then my non-Jewish readers started to question me. (Which is the exact purpose of this blog, so it is already a success.) So I decided to do some more research on the topic.

It appears that the practice is limited to mostly Orthodox and some conservative Jews. Jews leave out the vowels in words referencing the creator as a way to show reverence. (Also while speaking, Orthodox Jews don't use the word for Lord in much the same way. Instead of saying "Adonay" -- usually translated as Lord -- they will say Hashem -- trans. "the name." Instead of Elohim, or God, they will intentionally mispronounced it "Elokim.")

Here are some references:

So what do you think? Which spelling should be used?

Also: Some of you have asked to be e-mailed every time I post, so I created a listing on Blogger. If you're reading this and would like to be on that list, shoot me an e-mail or comment below.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Passover and Vodka

There are a lot of rules in Judaism. According to Basic Judaism, there are 365 prohibitions, one for every day of the calendar year.

I think I broke a few Saturday morning.

This year, in my attempt to immerse myself in as much Jewish culture as possible, I am observing Passover. For those of you who were as clueless as I was a few years ago, that means no leavened bread, or chametz.

The story of Passover is the story of the Jews exodus from Egypt. (For those of you raised in Sunday School, that's the story that involves Moses and the parting of the Red Sea.) It is called Passover because one of G_d's numerous plagues involved the killing of the firstborn, but Jewish children were passed over.

So as the Jews fled slavery in Egypt, they didn't have time for leavened bread (bread that rises). So during the eight days of Passover, those who observe the holiday abstain from eating it to remember the hardships and sacrifices of the ancestors.

Passover began on Monday night at sundown and ends at nightfall Tuesday. It's a loooooong eight days. I've eaten fruit -- lots of it -- and lots of matzoh sandwiches.

For someone who almost entirely subsists on bagels, cereal, pasta and sandwiches, it has been especially long. Add in the smorgasboard of goodies from the Mexican bakery that appeared at work last week and the snickerdoodles (!!!!) that are about five feet away from me right now, and I'm sweating it.

This my second Passover, but the first I'm trying to take seriously. It has gone well for the most part, but I have not been without my slip ups -- namely my Bloody Mary at brunch this morning. As soon as I sipped it, I knew I had screwed up, but I kept on slurping anyway. It was just too good.

But the holiday is not lost on me. In fact, it has a special meaning for me.

As Ryan and I prepared for the week, it has brought us closer together. It has also brought me further into the Jewish fold. Try shopping for matzoh the week before Easter in the Bible belt. There's one place to get it, and they just have a few boxes. Try finding a shank for the seder plate. Try finding a copy of the Haggadah. Try explaining to co-workers on a daily basis why you won't eat the goodies that you usually gobble up without prompt.

I'm starting to understand that trying to learn to be Jewish in an un-Jewish place is a blessing. It makes it that much harder. I have to explain things just a little more. And it makes this process all the more purposeful.

Here are some photos from our Monday night seder:

This is our seder plate. Note the comical size of the "shank." When Alex went to the butcher, he didn't have anything resembling a shank so he gave him a lamb femur for free. Clockwise from top: The Shank, haroset, bitter herb, vegetable and the egg.

Our seder dinner table.

Our guests Alex and Liz peeling the hard-boiled eggs.

Ryan and I before the seder.