Sweet Rosh Hashannah Memories

apples honey

When I was a child, Rosh Hashannah was always a mixed blessing.  Sure, we got out of school for two days and we would eat fancy meals on my mother’s good dishes.  But then there was all that shul.

I would be wearing my white shirt and clip-on tie, my sister would doff her school clothes for a cute dress and my mother would dress up smartly in a pant suit with a crisp blouse.  I would pretend to choke on the smell of hair spray as Mom made up her face in the bathroom mirror.  She would buckle my youngest sister into a stroller and we would all push out the door, around the corner and up the long Alexander Avenue hill.

We’d keep well to the side of the road and watch for cars. I would be wearing a colorful yarmulke, blue or green or purple, the gold inscription on the white inside commemorating someone’s bar mitzvah or wedding that my parents or grandfather had attended.

Mostly we’d walk along in silence, finally reaching the top of the hill and gliding down Williams Avenue to the highway.  We could hear Route 45 before we saw it, the cars whooshing by in both directions.  When we reached it, we’d leave our development and turn left onto the sidewalk.  It contained many cracks and it went up and down in places where tree roots had pushed from underneath.

A few more blocks and we would pass Liotta’s Italian Bakery, the intoxicating aroma of bread and cakes bringing smiles to our faces and reminding me of times my father had snuck out with me for a brownie with fudge icing or a lemon ices.  The Shell gas station and the big shopping center that had both Waldbaum’s and Grand Union, along with two kosher butcher shops, were on the other side of the street, so we didn’t have many cars pulling out into our path.

We crossed two main intersections, the first with Eckerson Road and then, just past Cinema 45 and Chicken Delite, the junction of Hickory Street.  We would press the button on the pole to stop traffic so we could cross.  Then came the final stretch to the big Jewish Community Center.

When we walked in the door, my mother would reach into the bin of white lacy head coverings that married women wore, affixing one to her hair with a bobby pin.

The members, who contributed lots of money all year long, sat in the pews in the main sanctuary upstairs.  We were definitely not members.  We rarely attended synagogue other than on the High Holy Days.  We were one of the downstairs people.

“Downstairs” was the auxiliary service, rows of folding chairs set up beneath the basketball nets in the gymnasium. A visiting cantor had been hired, and he would take turns with the regular cantor, running up and down the stairs to alternate various parts of the service.

Even in the downstairs exurbs, most of the folding chairs had been reserved by those who had a ticket.  We would always come in partway through the service and find some empty seats next to each other.  Before long, a couple or a family would come in with tickets bearing the seat numbers we were occupying.  Time to move.  As the gym filled up, we couldn’t always find four seats together.  At least we don’t need five seats, I would think.  My father always stayed home.

Lucky Dad!  He didn’t have to do all that walking and then sit through hours and hours of Hebrew prayers.  My father had no use for anything to do with religion, which, he would say, was the cause of most of the world’s misery.  I was in fifth grade and hadn’t yet learned the word “atheist.”

The first year or two after we moved out of a crowded apartment in New York City and into a beautiful suburban home, my mother griped and yelled and cajoled until my father came along with us to synagogue just to keep the peace.  Instead of walking with us, he would sleep late and walk over later.  He’d show up close to the end of the service and walk home with us.  Finally, my mother decided that bullying him into joining us “wasn’t worth the aggravation.”

Since I attended a very religious Orthodox yeshiva, I could (mostly) follow along in the Hebrew in the thick mahzor (prayer book).  My mother, who did not read Hebrew, followed along in the English translation and periodically asked me what page we were on.  I felt so grown up when I got to turn the pages of her book and show her where we were.

As the service droned on and on around me, I would zone out and mentally picture the map of South America, silently tracing the countries and reciting the capitals.  Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia.  Huge Brazil that took up most of the page in my social studies textbook.  Mr. Fisher taught us how to say the names of all the capitals with the proper Spanish accent.  “Carrrracas,” I would say under my breath, trying to roll the R just right.  “Asunción.”  All around me, the congregants were singing, and I knew they couldn’t hear me.  Mom would give me a poke.  Okay, I guess someone heard me.

“Congregation, please rise.”  We’d stand up, we’d sit down.  Stand, sit, stand, sit.  Here comes a family down the aisle in their holiday finery.  Time to move agains.  If we couldn’t find another empty seat right away, we’d stand in the back for a while.

My favorite part of the service was always the blowing of the shofar.  The little kids would be walked or carried up to the bimah to view as well as hear the spectacle, while I would stand on my tiptoes to see over and between the adults.  The long, twisted ram’s horn would be blown over and over, too-woo, too-woo, too-woo!  I would wonder how a ram managed to wear that huge thing on his head.  And then it was time for the long tekiah gedolah, where the ba’al tekiah would inhale and blow as long as he could, his face getting redder and redder and the quavering note seeming to last forever.  What a thrilling show!  People would call out Yasher koakh! in congratulations and would reach out to shake his hand.

I would count the pages remaining in the prayer book until the closing hymn.  Forty more pages.  Thirty more pages.  Ooh, the cantor skipped a couple pages, cool!

Like saving balm, I’d finally hear the closing hymns of Adon Olam and Ein Keloheinu.  Then it was up the stairs to the lobby, out the front door, down the entryway out to Route 45.  The long walk home.

I knew we’d have to do the same long walk and boring hours of shul the next day, but for now we were home.  Instead of eating in the kitchen, we’d sit at the dining room table, covered with a white tablecloth, the white holiday candles glowing in Mom’s brass candlesticks.  Apple slices dipped in honey would be served, along with Manischewitz concord grape wine for the adults and grape juice for the children.  We would wish each other a sweet year.  My mother would be up and down heating food and serving us, meat balls in tomato sauce or roasted turkey, with carrots (also a symbol of a sweet year), potatoes and string beans.  We would each dribble a little honey onto our slices of challah.  My father would boil water for tea, and out would come the golden sponge cake and the honey cake with the slivered almonds on top.

Stuffed to the gills, my sisters and I would have the rest of the day to play board games while my parents took a nap.  And there was no school tomorrow.  This was indeed a sweet start to the new year.

L’shana tova, everyone!  Happy New Year 5774.  May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet year.




A Factor of Cubes

factor of cubes

I was trying to help my niece with her math homework the other night.  She has just started her first year of community college (I am very proud to say) and is struggling with the factoring of cubes.

My weak efforts at assistance were necessarily over the phone, as my niece lives in northern California, more than 600 miles from our small-town abode out in the Sonoran Desert.  I would much rather have been sitting on the couch next to her, poring over her textbook and trying out tentative solutions on scrap paper.

As if the challenges of long-distance math aren’t enough, it has been decades since I last studied algebra.  I have no confidence at all in my memory’s accuracy regarding x and y, exponents and coefficients.  And in any event, I have no clue as to how they’re teaching algebra these days.  I recall my parents bemoaning the “new math” back in the day; who knows what’s in vogue in the twenty-first century.

“There are three main methods of factoring,” I began explaining to my niece.

“Wait,” she said, “let me get a piece of paper to write this down,” as if I were about to impart some type of profound wisdom that must be preserved for the ages.

I proceeded to explain a little about the greatest common factor, the difference of squares and the quadratic equation.  I soon discovered that knowing the theory is very nice, but of little value when faced with a flummoxing string of constants and variables.

I suggested that my niece notice the cubed exponent and then notice that all of the terms in the expression are perfect cubes.  And then I became stuck.  All I could do was urge my niece to try to remember the lecture, go over her notes again, and take the approach recommended by her teacher.  The problem, she related, is that the professor has more than a bit of an attitude, insisting that the material covered at the beginning of the semester is solely in the nature of review, and that he expects his students to already know how to handle factoring.

After I hung up, I was seized by regret that I couldn’t be of more help with my niece’s math problem.  And that’s when I remembered that we’re not back in the seventies anymore, where the best you could do was call a friend in the class to see if perhaps he or she had already figured out how to calculate the answer.  No, indeed.  Today we have the internet.  In a minute or two I had performed a quick Google search and found the holy grail.

Calling back my niece, I revealed my online discovery that factoring cubes has to be done by formula, albeit a formula that I had never seen in my life.  She dutifully wrote down the additive and subtractive formulas that I read off my screen, after which I explained how to plug in the terms of her problem to the variables of the formula.  Sure enough, we came up with the answer listed in the back of her textbook!

Over the long distance phone lines, I could feel a light go on.  Yes, my niece admitted, the professor had mentioned this very formula, but not until the very end of the session, after the class had flailed helplessly through similar problems for most of the hour.  She thanked me profusely and I signed off with a “Yay, Google!”

Alas, my nieces and nephews have all reached the age when I am forced to step off my pedestal, relinquishing that lofty perch in favor of admitting that I am not as smart as they think I am.  As fascinating as I find mathematics, it has never been my academic strong suit.  I would be a far more valuable resource as a proofreader of my niece’s term papers than as a tutor fit to plumb the mysteries of equations.  Ask me the meaning of a word, and I will likely provide a mini-lecture on its derivation from Latin or Greek or Hebrew, while pointing out its root and suffix and comparing it to similar words in our own language or in French or Spanish.  But when it comes to things like algebra, trigonometry and (heaven help us) calculus, I’ll just have to key the problem into a search engine and hope for the best.

In other words, dear niece, I will just have to learn right along with you.  And maybe that won’t be so bad after all.


Time After Time Clock

time clock

One could say that time is our Achilles’ heel; no matter how hard we try, we can never beat the clock.  We bemoan the fact that there is never enough time to accomplish what is important to us.  If we wish to get something done, we must “make time” for it.  We are forever running out of time.  The test proctor or the sports timekeeper yells “Time!”  Our days on earth are numbered; ultimately, we have only so many years, months and hours before the good Lord yells “Time’s up!”

We mark the passage of time with calendars, clocks, watches, the big display on the front screen of iPhones and the small one tucked into the corners of our PCs and laptops.  Our electronic devices all tell us when time’s up, from the alarm that wakes us in the morning to the beeping of the microwave and the buzzing notifying us that the laundry is dry.  Official documents list the exact time of our birth and of our death.

We wish that we could go back in time, that we could turn back the clock to recapture the halcyon days of our youths or to relive the good times of our lives or to undo mistakes that, in the wisdom that comes with age and experience, we now recognize.  Such fanciful ideas were restricted to the imaginative writings of science fiction authors until Einstein and other physicists came along to tell us that, at least theoretically, it is within the realm of the possible.

There is no shortage of aphorisms and bromides regarding time and the importance of using it wisely.  Time waits for no man.  There’s no time like the present.  Time is money.  Time is of the essence.  Time’s a-wastin’.

Some say that we should recognize time as a gift to us and that we should pay it forward by re-gifting some of our time to others.  Others say that there is too much pressure to devote our time to others and that we never have enough time for ourselves.

I thought about this the other day when my wife and I were sitting in Denny’s, waiting for our meals to arrive.  A young girl, about 12 or 13 years old, was sitting across from her father at the next table.  The girl was happily chattering away to her dad about the events of her day.  The father, meanwhile, made not the slightest motion to acknowledge his daughter’s remarks or even to look at her; he was engrossed in his cell phone.  When the girl finally realized that her efforts to communicate with Dad were futile, she stopped speaking in mid-sentence.  She knew she was wasting her time, so she simply gave up.

We were saddened at this scene, and I regret to say that it brought back memories of my own childhood.  Incensed, my wife said that she wanted to grab the man by the collar and give him a good shake.  She wanted to tell the man that if he continues to withhold his attention from his daughter, he would have no one to blame but himself when, in just a few short years, she ends up pregnant, addicted to drugs and in trouble with the law.

I had to tell my wife a story about a special type of sign language that my sisters and I had when we were growing up.  I had totally forgotten about this, but the drama playing out at the next table at Denny’s brought it all back to me as if it were yesterday.  My parents were both professionals; when they were home, they seemed to have no desire to do anything but talk shop with each other.  When one of my sisters or myself tried to speak to them about the events of the day, ask questions, tell them what we thought was important in our lives, we were rarely able to attract their attention.  They’d either continue with their own conversation or tell us to quit annoying them.  “Did you hear a word I said?” often came out of our mouths when we received no response.  My sisters and I would look at each other and make the hand motions of a wall going up between us and them.

This reminded me that “spending time” with someone has to mean more than physical proximity.  In the seventies, the term “quality time” came into vogue.  Simply being in the same room with someone is not enough to forge a viable relationship.  It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality.  Are you merely physically present, or are you “fully present?”  Are you paying attention, being fully engaged in the moment, showing you care?  If you are going to sit here and allow me to talk to a wall, please don’t insult me by bothering.

The gift of time.  We ration it, parceling it out in tiny doses.  “There are only 24 hours in a day,” we tell ourselves.  We have to work eight hours and sleep eight hours, which leaves us with only eight hours to get everything done, including spending some of that time on ourselves and on those who are important to us.

The first reliable clocks began to be installed in churches in England in the fourteenth century.  Before that, time was a much less exact science.  We marked time by the movements of the sun.  The economy of the civilized world was primarily agricultural, and the farmer worked from sunup to sundown.  We noted the phases of the moon and the changing of the seasons.

It has been argued that, more than anything else, the clock was the single invention that made the Industrial Revolution possible.  Factory work became possible because employers could set the start and stop times of their employees, and enforce them by summarily firing those who would not or could not fit squarely into the mold.  One could not leave the loom, the lathe or the mine until the foreman blew the whistle.  Indeed, one could say that the clock turned us all into wage slaves, a state of bondage from which no emancipation short of winning the state lottery has yet been invented.

Some of us fit in with the work world more easily than others because we are willing and able to suppress the natural desire for freedom sufficiently to wake up on time, punch the time clock on time, and generally play by the rules of hours, minutes and seconds.  Those of us at the opposite extreme, that is, those of us who are unwilling or unable to submit to the rigors of time, are deemed unemployable.  Those of us in this category may find ourselves homeless or at the mercy of public assistance.  “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” was how the old saying went.  And if you cannot regiment yourself to the clock, you probably won’t be able to work for very long.

Fortunately, in our day and age, there is a middle ground.  There are some jobs that, thank God, still allow people to work even if watching the clock is not very important to them.  There is freelance work, telecommuting schemes, and even employers who understand that in many positions it doesn’t make much of a difference if an employee arrives at ten minutes of the hour or ten minutes after.

This is important to me because I am not a morning person and generally like to take my time getting ready for work.  I am very fortunate that I have no boss on site to monitor my comings and my goings, and unless I have a meeting to attend, most days it doesn’t much matter whether I come in at seven or at nine, or whether, in the evening, I leave at five or at seven.  I put in way more than forty hours per week at work, and I am very grateful that I can “get away with” being flexible with my time.

My wife and I agree on most things, but sadly, this is not one of them.  We were definitely on the same page when it came to the father “spending time” with his daughter but “failing to give her the time of day.”  But I make my wife very angry when it comes to the fact that I often don’t show up for work “on time.”  I see her point; after all, I have worked for employers that liked to chastise their employees about “theft of time.”  However, I am pleased that I do not work for such an employer.  I don’t bother my employees if they come in 15 minutes late or have to leave 15 minutes early.  Big deal.

There are those who say that being an employee involves being a “good steward” of the employer’s resources, and that this includes making it to work on time every day.  I believe that this may have once been true, in the days of the Industrial Revolution through the regimented employer practices of the mid-twentieth century.  Be that as it may, however, it is simply not for me.  As long as I work hard and get the job done, the time I arrive at the office and the time I leave should simply not be an issue.  And, I might add, we are not homeless yet.

Clearly, this is a subject upon which my wife and I will simply have to agree to disagree.


Le Dégraissage

layoff notice

I finally received my layoff letter today.  I knew it was coming, but it is still deflating to view one’s fate in black and white.  We all know that our days on this earth are numbered, but none of us expects to know the date of our demise in advance.

It’s kind of like a Dear John letter, or whatever the modern equivalent of breakup protocol might be.  A goodbye text maybe?  A public kissoff in the form of a tweet?  Instead of “it’s not you, it’s me,” you get “you are aware of our current fiscal challenges amidst the national economic downturn.”  Instead of “we’ll both be happier” and “it’s better this way,” you get “you may apply for state unemployment” and “we appreciate all your hard work during your tenure with the company.”  And instead of “I’ll never forget you,” you get “we sincerely wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.”

I have 5½ weeks to go until I pack up my footrest, my tea mug and my peg game from Cracker Barrel and sign off my company email account for the last time.  At least I will receive a couple more paychecks before I join the ranks of this country’s great cadre of unemployed workers.

Many of my employees were not so lucky.  I have already lost half my staff; their last day was Friday.  Most of us went out to dinner at a local Mexican restaurant Friday night, both those who were leaving us and those who had high enough seniority numbers to stay.  Not everyone showed up, however.  A few were out of town and at least one was ill.  The poor guy couldn’t make it through his last day of work.  As for me, when I reach that day at the end of September, I just pray that I can make it out the door without crying.

Sure, three years is rather an investment in a company, one that arguably should preclude elimination of one’s job and summary expulsion.  And yet, I have no right to complain about a thing.  My employee who had to leave in the middle of the day on Friday had been with the company twelve years.  And, incredibly, another of my people received a layoff notice after 22 years of faithful employment. It seems a ridiculous understatement to say that there is no longer such thing as job security.

I’ve been reading Jonathan Fenby’s sociopolitical work France on the Brink, in which he discusses the large number of immigrants from Algeria and Morocco who crossed the Mediterranean to work for good wages in France’s heavy industry half a century ago.  Those jobs, once plentiful, are now gone, although the immigrants and two generations of their descendants are still there.  Many live in deplorable conditions in high-rise, high-crime mass housing projects.  As in the United States, Europe has moved from an agricultural economy, to an industrial economy, to the modern information economy.  Lack of updated skills, insufficient education and cultural and language barriers is a recipe for unemployment.  But I learned an interesting French term from Fenby that, these days, seems to apply equally to Toulouse and California:  Le dégraissage.  Literally, this word means “defatting,” but it is the modern term for “downsizing” or just plain “layoffs.”

My employer has defatted, and some of that fat is me.

There were at least two dozen of us at the Mexican restaurant, and we occupied two long tables.  At my table, we dipped our chips into the ubiquitous salsa and guacamole while we perused the menus.  As the burritos and enchiladas arrived, we witnessed a steady stream of margaritas being delivered to the other table.  An hour later, I could not help but notice the presence of extreme merriment over there, displayed in raucous laughter fueled by many bottles of beer and shots of tequila.

It had been a difficult day, during which I was required to collect photo ID bages and desk keys from employees who had been laid off.  We talked some about unemployment checks and job prospects and going back to school and becoming househusbands or stay-at-home moms.  But mostly we tried to pretend that it was just like any other workday, with customers to be served and paperwork to be completed.

My last employee left a few minutes after five, packing a box with her laptop, her water bottle and the framed photos of her kids that had sat on her desk, just below their artwork that had decorated her cubicle walls for the past seven years.

With a knot in my stomach, I expressed my appreciation for her amazing contributions to the success of our operation.  I peered through the blinds of my office, watching her load her box into the trunk of her car before she pulled out of the parking lot and drove away.


Commanded to Be Kind


(Note:  The above saying has been posted on the wall of my office for the past three years.  Some days I need a reminder.)

My wife is one of the kindest people I know.  Kindness is certainly one of the many sterling attributes that attracted me to her in the first place.

Take today, for instance.  On the way to doing one kindness (running to the store to buy snacks for my employees because I texted her that they were out of candy bars), my wife noticed a woman trudging down the sidewalk carrying a bag full of groceries in one hand and a gallon of juice in the other.  The temperature?  113 degrees Fahrenheit.

No, we don’t live in the Sahara or on the planet Mercury, but here in the American desert southwest, it’s just your typical August day.

A few minutes later, on her way back from dropping off the goodies, my wife saw the woman still struggling along.  She stopped and asked if she needed a ride.

“Which way are you going?” the woman asked.

“I’ll take you wherever you need to go,” replied my wife.

The grateful woman hopped in our air conditioned SUV, dragging her groceries with her and explaining that she lived clear at the other end of town.  My wife was incredulous that this poor soul would even attempt to trek that far in the extreme heat, weighed down as she was.

They reached the top of the woman’s street, and she told my wife she could let her off there.  “No,” my wife said, “It’s too hot.  Let me take you all the way to your house.”  Over her objections about what the trip up the road and back would do to our vehicle’s suspension and tires, my wife jounced along the rutted, unpaved path to the woman’s humble abode.

This type of behavior is not at all unusual for my fair bride.  Not too long ago, she learned that a homeless dude who was hanging around by the supermarket needed towels and soap.  You can guess what she did.  That’s just the way she is.  Isn’t she wonderful?

Back in college, I remember reading about different levels of altruism, with the highest being the situation in which neither the donor nor the recipient knows the identity of the other.  Anonymous charity.  Something about that seems cold and sterile.  The subtext seems to be that there is something wrong with taking pleasure from seeing the needs of another satisfied with your own eyes.  Oh, but the recipient of your kindness might be embarrassed.  Um, would it be better for the guy not to be embarrassed and go without towels and soap or the woman not to be embarrassed and lug her food miles in the searing heat?

I like to think of three types of kindness:  Kindness to loved ones, kindness to fill the need of a stranger, and my favorite of all, random acts of kindness.  A few years ago, I read that the phrase “random acts of kindness and senseless beauty” was coined as a foil to the ultimate in ugly, random acts of violence.

Allow me to make a suggestion.  If you are feeling down one day, try committing a random act of kindness to pick up your spirits.  If you are filling your car with gas, also pay for the gas of the stranger who pulls up at the next pump.  If you are getting lunch at a fast food drive-through, pay for the person behind you and then quickly drive off.  It really is quite a kick, I must tell you.  And if you happen to catch the beneficiary’s look of shock and amazement in your rear view mirror, so much the better.

By the way, if you should happen to be tagged as the recipient of a random act of kindness yourself, don’t forget to pay it forward.  If you don’t know what that means, go now, immediately, and download the Kevin Spacey/Helen Hunt (and Haley Joel Osment) movie of that title.

One of my favorite blogs in our WordPress world is The Gratitudenist, on which Julie Richie (wonderful writer that she is) recently waxed poetic about the importance of kindness in a post titled “How to Make the World Better.”   As she points out, it’s not about money.  It’s about making connections, about really listening and paying attention to people, about making others feel that they are not alone in the world, about being a friend.

Julie’s post led me to the commencement speech that George Saunders recently gave at the Syracuse University commencement, soon to be published as a book.  He argues that we tend to be strivers, go-getters and accumulators when we are young, and that we mellow out and become less selfish and more other-centric as we grow older.  Saunders suggests that we simply ratchet the timeline backward a bit, beginning our career of kindness earlier in life since we are just going to graduate to it eventually anyway.  As Julie points out in her blog, kindness is indeed the way to make the world a better place.

The many varieties of kindness available to us struck me hard when I was reading this week’s Torah portion, Parshah Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 through 25:19.  This lengthy section is packed so full of kindness, it could easily be the subject of an entire book.  I was amazed to discover that seventy-four of the Torah’s 613 commandments are contained in this one section that is read on the Sabbath this week.

When you really think about it, why shouldn’t God require us to be kind when you consider how kind He is to us every minute of every day?  Note that we aren’t asked to be kind.  Kindness is not a preference or an option.  God commands us to be kind.  The following is just a partial list of the kindnesses that God requires of us in this week’s Torah portion.  The general theme is kindness to those less fortunate than us:  The poor, the employee, even animals.

While some of these “kindness rules” may not seem to be particularly applicable to our busy, modern lives (who keeps slaves or takes prisoners of war anymore?), peeling away the layers of meaning reveals a kernel of pure kindness that is both universal and timeless.

  • Kindness to prisoners of war.  For millennia, savage tribes would treat women as spoils of war, summarily committing rape and other violent atrocities against them.  God recognizes the frailty of human nature and says:  Don’t act like this!  Instead, be kind.  If you really must take a captured woman for your wife, at least give her the decency of 30 days to grieve over the family she has lost, provide her with new clothes, and take her in as a full member of your family, entitled to all the benefits thereof.
  • Kindness to the slave.  If you come across a slave who has run away from his master, do not return him to the cruelty from which he has escaped.  “He shall dwell with thee, in the midst of thee, in the place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best; thou shalt not wrong him.”  Deut. 23:17  If you really must have a slave, be kind!  Provide him or her with all the benefits and comforts that you yourself enjoy.
  • Kindness to the employee.  When you hire employees to harvest your field or your vineyard or orchard, do not refuse them the right to pick a vegetable or fruit and eat it while they are working.  This applies even if your “employee” is a draft animal; do not muzzle the ox to prevent it from grazing while it is doing your work in the field.  Pay your day laborer at the end of the day.  He expects his wages and you have no right to delay them.  Oh, and by the way, treat your employees with the same kindness that you would expect.  “Thou shalt not oppress a hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates.”  Deut. 24:14
  • Kindness to the buyer.  When you are the seller, you have superior power in that you know how much items really weigh.  Do not cheat the buyer who does not know any better by using false weights and measures to unjustly enrich yourself.
  • Kindness to the poor.  When you reap a field or harvest the fruit of your trees, do not go over the field or the trees twice.  Any leftovers are for the poor to come and help themselves.  And if you accidentally leave a sheaf in the field, do not go back and retrieve it.  It, too, is for the needy.  Share the wealth!
  • Kindness to the debtor.  If you lend money to one in need, do not extract interest.  It is bad enough that he in financial straits; do not make it worst by making it difficult or impossible for him to pay back his debt.  (This is the sin of usury, without which much of modern business would not be possible.  But then again, kindness never does have much of a place in the world of finance, now does it?)  If you take a poor man’s coat or blanket as collateral, you must return it to him by sundown so he does not fall ill or freeze to death for lack of a proper covering.  If a debtor does not repay his loan and you go to his house to reclaim his security, do not shame him by going into his house and seizing it; instead, wait for him to bring the item out to you.
  • Kindness to (the belongings of) others.  I love this “lost and found” provision!  If you find your neighbor’s garment or any lost thing of his, you must return it if the owner is known or take care of it until the unknown owner comes looking for it.
  • Kindness to animals.  Do not ignore an animal who has wandered off or who is found sick by the side of the road.  “Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ass or his ox fallen down by the way, and hide thyself from them; thou shalt surely help him to lift them up again.”  Deut. 22:4  If an animal has wandered off, you shall return it to its owner.  If you do not know who the owner is, you shall take it home and care for it until the owner comes to claim it.  Respect parenthood, even among animals.  If you must take eggs or baby birds from a nest, chase away the mother bird first.

Although the theme of kindness appears throughout the Old Testament and is continued into the New Testament, I have long been disappointed by Christians (and, alas, many of my fellow Jews) who dismiss the kindness rules of Deuteronomy as no longer being applicable in modern times or as not applying to those who are “under grace” rather than “under the law.”  In my humble opinion, they are missing the boat.

Wishing a good and sweet Sabbath to all!

For more information on this week’s Torah portion, click here.


In My Father’s House



My father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  John 14:2 (NIV)

I began writing this blog six months ago.  In that short time, I have attended three family funerals.

The third funeral was for my wife’s cousin, who passed away unexpectedly in his early forties after suffering from many medical problems for most of his life.  The service was held on Saturday morning in a rented hall.  We made the eight-hour drive on Friday and stayed over with my parents, who live about half an hour away.

My golden-voiced nephew sang two songs, the deceased’s sister gave a moving eulogy and we all leafed through a memory book full of pictures and poems.  The preacher’s message began with the above verse from the New Testament, emphasizing not only that Ricky had gone to a much better place than we can ever hope for on earth, but also that he had gone on ahead to prepare a place for us in advance of the day when it is our turn to join him.

We unfolded tables and chairs, and we shared sandwiches and macaroni salad while we reconnected with family and friends.  We caught up on the lives of children and grandchildren and we found out who’s getting married, who’s sick, who lost their job.  Cell phone numbers and email addresses were exchanged, Facebook friend requests were made.  My immediate family drove over to see my parents; dinner plans were finalized.

In the middle of the night, I awoke in one of the several usually empty bedrooms in my parents’ house.  It took me a minute to remember where I was.  I did not grow up here; my parents lived in New York for most of their lives and had this house built when they retired to California two decades ago.  The house sits in a development many miles to the west of town, bordering the rangeland where the cattle munch hay contentedly and the waving grass extending as far as the eye can see reminds one of Kansas or Texas.  If I listen closely, I will hear a horse neighing or a rooster crowing or one of the bulls next door mooing.  In the evenings, my parents drag folding chairs out of the garage and sit in the driveway, enjoying the cool breezes and the nightly star show.

I haul myself out of bed and pad around on the pink and blue carpeting.  I walk from room to room, stepping on the throw rugs in the living room and family room and on the marble flooring in the entryway and the tile floor in the kitchen.  I sit down on the love seat, on my father’s overstuffed chair, on the straight-backed oak chair over by the wood stove that is never used anymore.  I look over the wall hangings — the framed sheep and horse prints, my mother’s oil paintings and her shell mosaic, my parents’ college and graduate school diplomas.

I once lived here for nine months.  It was not a happy time of my life.  I had just moved back to California following a short stint in New England, and I couldn’t find a job.  As if being out of work and broke wasn’t bad enough, I got sick.  And we had one of the worst winters the Central Valley had seen in years, with torrential rain and widespread flooding.  Then I found work two counties away and started commuting 3½ hours a day.

No, I do not have good memories of this house.  Could I ever live here again?  My parents will be 80 years old in just a few months.  We already have a big party planned for my father’s birthday.  How much longer will they be able to live here?  My parents have 2½ acres of grass and trees that have to be mowed and watered.  They are forever planting something or pulling something up.  They take the pickup to town and come back with loads of bricks, lumber, potting soil, fertilizer.  When the weather turns cold or rainy, my mother can be found working on one of her two sewing machines or sitting on the couch knitting, always with the radio on, tuned to her news and politically conservative talk shows.  My father will be in the office, looking at old cars on the internet or watching BBC productions on the little TV with the sound up loud.

My father has recurring growths on his now nearly bald head; he keeps having them removed.  Now he’s got one on his leg that needs to be treated.  He claims he can still mow the whole property as long as he has a cold beer afterward.  I can’t fault my parents for living the life of their choice, but I can see that this can’t go on forever.

Sometimes, late at night, my wife and I will start talking about what we can do to help our aging parents.  When we leave the desert this fall, we will be moving in with my mother-in-law.  But what of my parents out in the country?  A funeral makes one think about things that are normally banished from our minds.  What if one of my parents dies in the next few years, moving on to prepare a place for us in the better world to come?  Surely we can’t leave the other parent alone.  Would we ever considering living there, out in the middle of nowhere?  That house and property is too much work for two people, much less for one.  Would the house be sold, the surviving parent coming to live with us up north?

I think of these things as I move about in the stillness of the night, the familiar and the unfamiliar merging and separating as we stand on the cusp and peer over the edge.

My father’s house has many rooms.


The Happy Interview Dance

happy dance

Today I am… Doing the happy interview dance!

My wonderful wife brought my lunch to work today, along with a letter that arrived in the mail this morning.  I immediately saw that it was from one of the many employers I had applied to, and my heart sank.  Of all the applications I have completed over the past month or so, this one took me the longest to complete and cost me the most money to send out.  My email has been full of dispiriting rejection letters lately, so it was with disgust that I folded up the envelope and stuck it in my pocket.

Let me tell you something about applying for management positions:  They want to see how well you write.  Or maybe they just want to see whether you can sling the bull.  Or perhaps it’s all just a big perseverance contest, which makes me feel like a trained dog.  Let’s see how many hoops we can get him to jump through!

Five, seven or even ten essay questions is not unusual for a management position application posted online.  I am expected to describe what I have accomplished in the past, what I am doing now and what I plan to do in the future.  I am expected to discuss how I will save the company money, how I will treat the employees and how I will improve public relations.  And somewhere around the fourth or fifth essay question, I will need to describe my management philosophy, my ideas for bringing peace to the Middle East, the last book I’ve read, my favorite teacher from elementary school and whether I’m a fan of Right Twix or Left Twix and why (in 600 words or less).

Take it from me:  Grappling with these weighty questions night after night and looking for just the right words to impress a prospective employer is enough to drive you bonkers.  My only saving grace is that I still have a job to go to in the morning.  For the next few weeks, anyway.  After that, I will have the unique pleasure of pursuing this sadistic hobby of mine all day, every day.

After a while, you start to dream about job applications.  While this may seem to indicate an unhealthy obsession, in your dreams you can sometimes come up with creative ideas for answering your next set of essay questions.

Rejection is a part of life, but trying to keep yourself employed by applying and applying may lead to a pile of rejection letters high enough to spur a less than sterling self-image.  It’s just plain depressing.

So as I unwrapped my fast food burrito at my desk, I pulled the envelope out of my pocket, unfolded it and tore it open with the intent of feeding the contents to the shredder.  After all, I knew what was coming.  Good news only comes via telephone.  What shows up in your mailbox usually contains the phrases “we had many qualified candidates” and “best of luck in your future endeavors.”

I nearly choked on my burrito when I read that I have been selected for an interview and that the human resources department looks forward to meeting me.  Someone loves me after all!  Sure, I am probably one of a dozen applicants selected for this honor, but at least they think enough of me to consider the possibility that I could be worthy of joining the team.

Once I have my interview, they may like me or they may not.  They may think I’m a good fit for the company, or perhaps not so much.  But at least they’re giving me a chance, a chance to put my best foot forward and maybe, just maybe, get that foot in the door.


To Be or Not to Be (Employed), That is the Question


It’s been almost three years since I’ve seen the snapper guy.

We were brand new in town and we couldn’t seem to figure out which end was up.  Just getting phone and internet service turned on was an ordeal.  We’d call one company and they’d send us to another that would send us back to the first.  Then there was the little matter of water.  When you move to the middle of the desert, you quickly discover that, well, there isn’t any.  Not the kind you can drink, anyway.  You have to have a tank installed in your home and find out how to get in touch with the water guy so he can drag a hose through your back door on a regular basis.  We called the number for the only water delivery company listed in the phone book and found that it had been disconnected.  And on and on.

Knowledge is power and it didn’t take us long to learn that the only way to gain local knowledge of who does what is to ask someone who might be inclined to share information.  Like Blanche Dubois, we had to depend on the kindness of strangers.  We finally hit pay dirt by asking the ladies who serve food at the local cafés.  Then I read the blog of a quirky local guy who, as it turned out, worked in the bank; we opened an account with him and got some more information.  Coming from a big city, the importance of knowing people in a small town was new to us.  Anytime a friendly person struck up a conversation, we’d take the time to talk.  After all, he or she could have a piece of critical information unavailable to mere mortals who have just moved to town.

On the day we met the snapper guy, we had headed out into the Sunday morning heat to go see the omelette guy.  Once we figured out where to dump our trash and how to get our lawn cut and our cars serviced, we had turned to the important matter of where to find the best meal in town.  The bank blogger guy had told us about the made-to-order omelette guy, so we headed out to brunch.  While we were standing around waiting for him to finish his sizzle and flip thing, my eyes met those of an older gentleman at a nearby table.  He motioned me over and we had a nice little chat.  After introducing myself as a newcomer, we quickly found common ground in our love of eating fresh fish.  I nodded and mmhmm’d and generally let him talk about the best kinds of fish and how to prepare them.  We agreed that our mutual favorite was red snapper, and he invited us to come visit sometime so that he could prepare a fantastic fish dinner for us.  I was amazed by his generosity and told him I’d really like that.  It was time to tip the omelette guy and go eat.

I ran into the snapper guy just once after that, and we merely waved at each other.  We never did go visit him, which I regret now that our time in the desert has come to a close.  I also realize that I should have visited our tiny local bookstore more than once or twice and that I should have supported our local library more and that, despite my dislike of outdoor pursuits, I should have gone down to the river a few times.

There is no sense in having regrets, however; when it’s time to move on, I just go.  Due to a complicated situation with my employer, about half the staff received layoff notices, including yours truly.  So, as the taxi driver said, where to?

In a few weeks, we will be moving in with family in northern California, more than 600 miles away.  Meanwhile, I have set my résumé adrift on the sea of bits and bytes that is the internet and, at the risk of mixing my metaphors, I sit with my iced tea behind the screen of my laptop and watch the letters and phrases and pages of my job history and references fly across the miles at the whim of the four winds.

What washes up on the beach has been interesting, to say the least.  Rather than smooth sea glass, starfish and clam shells, I seem to be harvesting proposals from every mass marketer, franchiser and get-rich-quick scheme our great nation has to offer.  Insurance companies want me to set up brokerages right in my hometown!  And I did receive a proposal from a recruiter at a very large tech firm about two thousand miles away, in the heart of the American Midwest.  If they want me to come for an interview, I told them, send me a plane ticket.

The most disconcerting aspects of my job search to date have been how few jobs are out there, how little they’re paying and the extent to which much of my previous work has been blitzed into obsolescence by modern technology.

Since I have to change jobs, I want to do something that’s a little more fun than being a boring manager.  My favorite jobs have always been those that feed into my predilection for being an adrenalin junkie.  I want to pick up the pace, work all night on a tight deadline and emerge bleary eyed at dawn as the courier rushes the completed work out the door.  I want to watch the automatic call distributor queue start to back up and then rush around moving people and pressing buttons while simultaneously pushing calls from one switch to another and calling in staff for overtime.  I loved working in the publishing and telecom industries, but alas, automation has zapped much of the zip and jolt out of what we once had to do manually.

And now, as I stare down the barrel of double nickels, the big five five, I wonder whether it’s time for this old dog to throw in the towel and, as my father likes to say, pass the torch from failing hands.  Anti-discrimination laws notwithstanding, who is going to hire an overeducated, over the hill, overeager middle manager?  We are a dime a dozen.  The young guy who cleans the bathrooms and vacuums the carpets in my building is more likely to get hired than I am.

The last time that I lost my job, I was unemployed for eight months and applied for 133 jobs in 27 states before I finally was hired.  I sigh at the thought of running this maze again.  Last time, when the plumber at our apartment complex came to fix our toilet, he asked me why I wasn’t at work.  Rather than expound upon the joys of unemployment, I simply told him that I had retired and was now a house husband.  I threw a dish towel over my arm and started a load of laundry to act the part.

It was an act last time, but now I wonder whether the time has come to do it for real.  I remember how my grandfather eased into retirement by going part-time first.  He had been with his employer for an insane number of years and finally stopped working at the age of 80.  When he did, he drew a pension and Social Security.  My parents retired much sooner, at about the age of sixty, also with pensions and Social Security.

But this is the 21st century, and there is no pension for me.  I have worked on both the east and west coasts of the United States for a variety of employers, never staying in one place for more than six to eight years, certainly not long enough to draw a pension.  This rolling stone has gathered no moss.  And I am not old enough to draw Social Security yet.  One could postulate that retiring earlier and earlier with each successive generation is a measure of progress.  But when retirement is not altogether voluntary, driven by a weak economy and galloping technology, one must question how much of a leap forward it really is.  This is particularly so when few arrangements have been made to support those who are pushed out of the workforce.  And there are too many of us sharing this misfortune to dump us on a nearby ice floe and cast us out to sea.

So what is one to do?  Well, there is the social safety net, such as it is.  There are unemployment benefits, but they will constitute only a small percentage of my wages and are generally cut off in a matter of months.  Then what?  They say the national rate of unemployment is starting to fall, but those figures are known to be biased by the fact that they fail to account for the growing ranks of the long-term unemployed who have exhausted all benefits and have simply stopped looking for work.  Meanwhile, my mother called this morning to tell me to apply for Food Stamps.  I told her that we’re not totally broke yet, but she retorted that some food aid is available to the unemployed even if their resources haven’t been totally depleted.  Yowza, imagine me at Wal-Mart with an EBT card.

It isn’t as if we haven’t planned.  But the savings we have will not last us forever and the 401(k) plan I’ve been contributing to for years will be taxed from here to Timbuktu because, in the eyes of the federal government, I’m still a spry young thing.  In reality, of course, I am neither spry nor young.  I wonder what to put down on the ubiquitous disability questionnaire that appears in the EEO section of every job application.  It’s bad enough that I have to admit to being a white male and hence bereft of attributes that could contribute positive mojo to an employer’s diversity statistics.  Should I take the opportunity to come across as a disabled applicant?  Will this help or hurt my chances of being hired?  When completing the inane application forms that most employers continue to use, do I really want to get into the details of my diabetes and hypertension problems?  Should I admit that I injured my hip in a car accident and some days I hobble around like a gremlin?  Should I mention my intimate familiarly with the painful cramps colloquially known as “the charley horse?”  I’m sorry, but I am not going to mention my disgusting gastrointestinal issues, nor will I discuss my sleep apnea and the Martian gear I wear at night so I won’t stop breathing and die in my sleep.  I grit my teeth and check no, not disabled, no reasonable accommodations needed.  And then I start to worry about what I’d do if they actually hired me, how I’d handle the walking involved, whether there’d be a handicapped parking spot on my side of the building, how much traveling they’d expect me to do.

I think of my nephew, age 22, not working.  I think of my niece, age 28, not working.  We have friends with adult children who sit at home, unemployed, living off of Mom’s generosity and begging for her debit card so they can go out for fast food.  So it’s not only those of us who have advanced to a certain age who find ourselves unwanted by the work world.  The younger set is having trouble grabbing a toehold in the workforce, as years slip by in which they amass neither savings nor equity in retirement programs.  And if the young and able-bodied can’t make it in this economy, then I don’t hold out much hope for us older blokes.

My wife and I sit across from each other in the living room in the evenings and talk about what comes next, choosing our words ever so carefully.  In a few weeks, we’ll be living with my mother-in-law.  Won’t it be nice to have our extended family within a few minutes’ drive instead of eleven hours away?  Yes, indeed.  (I try not to think too much about our loss of privacy, nor about the depression that inevitably settles over me like a heavy cloud once I’ve been out of work for a while.)  We’ll get to babysit my little grandniece while her mom is at community college during the day or working at Taco Bell in the evening.  We’ll get to help out with the church.  We’ll get some rest.  We’ll get to “regroup,” my wife says.  We’ll get to take a break.

The question is just how long that break will be.  Will I apply for hundreds of jobs for which I am really not qualified and do not particularly interest me anyway, begging pathetically like a cat scratching at the door?  Will I collect rejection emails for a year or more and then take a low-wage nothing of a job, working alongside high school students so that we can pay our car insurance?  Or will I, with time, settle into another mode of life, that of the funny old uncle with too much time on his hands, always available to babysit or drive someone to the grocery store?  Will I mellow out and be content with playing Scrabble online, tap-tapping away at my blog and occasionally making a halfhearted effort at applying for a job that I don’t really want and am not likely to get in any event?

We all like to feel that we have some measure of control over our lives.  So rather than slip into the silent masses of the long-term unemployed, perhaps it would be better to declare my independence from the work force right now and announce my retirement.

It’s either that or find a new career altogether.  I was thinking about that last night while we were having dinner in our favorite dive bar across the river in Arizona, just as Nickelback’s song “I Wanna Be a Rock Star” came on the jukebox.

I’ve got a decent singing voice and I suppose it’s not too late to learn to play the guitar.  Hey, you never know, right?