The Tenth Man

I remember being four and five years old, walking down the hill with my grandfather on a Saturday morning from our Bronx apartment building to the little shtibl (one-room storefront synagogue) where he prayed regularly with a group of retired men.  Many of them would fuss over me, and I knew there’d be sweet treats (honey cake and grape juice) waiting for me if I could only hold out and not fidget too much until the end of the seemingly interminable service.  It was such a relief when I would hear the sweet strains of Adon Olam and Ein Keloheinu that meant that we were nearly done.

Around the middle of the service, one of the men would solemnly take the Torah out of its ark, raise it up while everyone sang, and then set it down on the podium.  The cloth covering would be removed, the string would be untied, and the Torah would be unrolled to the proper place for reading that week’s portion of the Pentateuch.

What everyone knew is that there’d be no Torah reading unless a minyan, a quorum of ten men, was present.  Being under bar mitzvah age, I didn’t count.  Neither did the few old ladies who would show up and sit behind the mekhitzah (curtain) in the back.  It seemed we always had enough in attendance to do a proper Torah reading.

But that was in New York City, half a century ago.  Today, in northern California, there is no guarantee of a minyan.  In the synagogue that my elderly parents attended for about 20 years (they stopped going about a year ago), whether there would be a minyan or not on Shabbat (or, sad to say, even on a holiday) was a decidedly hit-or-miss affair.  My father, who has a marked antipathy to religion of any type, would chauffeur my mother to synagogue with the intent of heading to the public library for a few hours.  Inevitably, the rabbi’s son would come running out of the sanctuary, tzitzit (prayer fringes) flying, to implore my father to stay and make the tenth man needed for the minyan.

Orthodox Jews tend to take the rule of ten very seriously.  I believe the origin of the tradition is that ten men are considered representative of the community as a whole.  The Jewish jokes about this are legendary.

Of course, it’s not just any ten men who must be present to read from the Torah.  They must be ten Jewish men.  (My personal preference tends toward the modern egalitarian practices of many Conservative congregations, where both women and men count toward the minyan.)  And just what constitutes a Jewish man?  Well, traditionally the answer to this question involves far more than faith and practice.  A man is considered Jewish if his mother was Jewish.  I suppose fathers don’t count because the child develops and comes forth from the womb of the mother.  But what if your mother had a Jewish dad and a non-Jewish mom?  Then you’re not Jewish, at least according to Orthodox tradition.  So determining whether a minyan is or is not present may involve inquiries into the provenance of the tenth man’s grandparents.

I suppose the emphasis on pedigree arises from our heritage as the “children of Israel.”  Either you’re descended from the tribe or you’re not.  This has caused a lot of trouble for those of us who were born into other faiths, or into no faith, and later convert to Judaism.  It seems to me that those who wholeheartedly embrace our traditions should be counted as full members of our religious community.  In some places they do (many Reformed congregations, for instance), while in others, they don’t.  The disputes about converts that go on in some of the Conservative movement synagogues that I’ve attended remind me of the way many Christian churches tear themselves apart over whether to accept gays as full members of the congregation.

I started thinking about this topic earlier in the week when President Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would (eventually) move our embassy there.  My first reaction was “it’s about time.”  But I had to laugh, as Jerusalem has been the capital off Israel for millennia.  Trump deciding that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel is a bit like me declaring that Cheerios is a cereal.  It really doesn’t matter what we think.  Some things are just facts.

I’m sorry to see on the news that violence has broken out in Israel over the United States’ recognition of what has always been true.  Perhaps it is just another excuse to demonstrate ancient animosities among religious groups that are neighbors in the Middle East.  Yet I don’t see such garrulousness as an excuse to perpetuate a lie.  Tel-Aviv has never been the capital of Israel.  I heard a comment on TV that Tel-Aviv is “a lot more fun” than Jerusalem.  Perhaps Tel-Aviv is the industrial and technological hub of Israel, and perhaps its nightlife is better than Jerusalem’s.  But that doesn’t make Tel-Aviv any more the capital of Israel than it makes Portland the capital of Oregon or of Maine.

Hanukkah, the Jewish eight-day festival of lights, begins this week.  Just as recognizing the fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel has touched off partisan bickering in the Holy Land, so has it been in our own capital of Washington.  President Trump was in attendance at the annual White House Hanukkah party this week, to which Democrats and others opposing his policies were not invited.  Latkes (traditional fried potato pancakes) were served, of course, along with kosher lamb chops (apparently an annual White House tradition since 1996).  The party was held the day after Trump’s proclamation regarding Jerusalem.  There was an after-party at the Trump International Hotel (more latkes, more Republicans, salmon, caviar), at which the president received even more congratulations.

I had a good smirk when the New York Times article about Trump’s Hanukkah celebrations mentioned that the president’s grandchildren are Jewish.  Oh, really?  Not by Orthodox standards, certainly.  True, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, is Jewish.  But Trump himself is Christian, and his daughter was raised as a Presbyterian.  Although Ivanka has converted to Orthodox Judaism and is far more observant than I, that won’t be enough for many congregations to recognize her kids as genuine members of the clan.

When it comes time to read the Torah, either son of Jared and Ivanka shouldn’t be too surprised if name dropping “my grandpa, the president” isn’t enough to make him the tenth man.  And that sort of clannish, non-inclusiveness seems rather sad to me.

We need to find more reasons to bring us together, not more reasons to drive artificial wedges between us.  I pray at this Hanukkah season that the people of Israel, and those who profess to be Jewish around the world, will find it in their hearts to renounce the evils of divisiveness and embrace the spirit of acceptance and love.

 

Images of the Past and Future

image

MADERA

I have a lot of vivid dreams. It is almost as if someone has reached deep inside my body, grabbed hold of my soul and then yanked upward violently, turning me inside out like a sweater. Thus exposed, my dreams take me to places I fear to go in the light of day.

Lately, I have dreamed several times of my father’s death. I wake grateful in the knowledge that he is very much alive, fearing the day when I shall dream of him and awake to find that he is just a memory.

My father is 82 years old and I am a grown-up who is very much aware of the circle of life. But, still.

Still.

Visiting my parents for Chanukah, I sat in their family room, reminiscing with my mother over old photographs in oversized albums that filled up her lap and spilled into mine. It seems all of us have been in a reflective mood since a childhood friend of my sister, who long ago was married to and divorced from my first cousin, was found dead in her apartment in New Jersey. No one noticed for a couple of weeks until the smell got so bad that the neighbors finally complained.

Three thousand miles away in California, we had heard not long ago that she was destitute, unemployable, abandoned by her two brothers and her two sons, and about to become homeless. No one knew what could be done for her and now no more needs to be done. I do not know how she died. Somehow, it doesn’t even seem important.

My sister in Texas calls my mother to talk about her childhood friend, now gone. My other sister broods about this while driving and plows right into the car in front of her. There is a lot of damage but no one is hurt, as the police reports say.

They’re right about the damage. I’m not so sure about the other part.

My mother serves potato latkes and she even makes one of them eggless so that her weirdo vegan son can have a taste of Chanukah. She lights the menorah and I don a kippa from a decades old bar mitzvah to recite Ha’nerot Hallalu and sing Maos Tzur, Rock of Ages.

The husband of my mom’s cousin, at the age of 84, announces that he will celebrate his “second bar mitzvah” in April. Although he is a member of three synagogues, none can book the simcha for the Shabbat corresponding to his Hebrew birthdate. And so, nearly four months out, he has begun preparing a different Torah portion than the one he chanted before family and friends 71 years ago.

My bar mitzvah photos turn up in the album that my mother and I are perusing. I look like a total dork in the bar mitzvah suit that cost a fortune and then had to be altered to fit. My father took me into Manhattan for the occasion, Barney’s at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 17th Street.

Photos of my sisters with their friends from elementary school and junior high. Mom doesn’t remember the friends’ names, but I do. The one standing outside the tent is Sharon. Yes, that was the fateful camping trip on which it rained the whole time. No, she didn’t live in our neighborhood; she lived across the street from the school and was a “walker” who didn’t have to face the ignominy of riding the bus. The one with the cat is Debbie, from when we lived in Wappingers Falls. That one is Vitor, the exchange student from Brazil. We trip merrily down Memory Lane until Mom picks up her dying cat and it pees all over her.

Pictures of Dad, decades younger, displaying his chest hair on the beach in Florida. Me as a teenager, with a goofy grin, holding a seashell in Myrtle Beach. My sisters, bundled up in matching hooded parkas, in the snow in front of our house. My very young looking mother in a bathing suit on a chaise lounge at the pool. Me and my grandfather at my college graduation, two months before he died.

Photographic evidence of a life so far in the past that it’s a stretch to believe it ever happened. These Polaroids could just as well be a figment cobbled together into one of my colorful dreams, more real than the real thing.

My parents are discovering that one of the hazards of aging is that everyone you know dies. Parents, siblings, friends. Live long enough and there’s no one left but you.

And as the names are erased from the paper, one by one, with only old snapshots in oversized albums remaining as a reminder, I wonder how I will manage when the very paper itself disappears and, as in my dreams, I am left with nothing but memories and black and white photographs dated AUG 65.

Merry (Jewish) Christmas

ribbon

So.  Christmas Eve already, huh?

Having grown up Jewish, I harbored mixed feelings about Christmas for many years.  Even now, after fifteen years of marriage to a Christian woman whose mother pastors an evangelical church, Christmas doesn’t come naturally to me.

As a child, my family did its best to ignore Christmas even though it was, of course, happening all around us.  We had candle-lighting and latkes on Hanukkah, but we kept it very low key.  None of this eight nights of gifts stuff that is so popular now.

We lived in a suburb of New York City that had a very large Jewish community.  The public schools remained notably neutral, with holiday decorations almost nonexistent.

Then, in my junior year of high school, my mother took a job in the central Hudson Valley.  We had only moved about fifty miles away, but it was a bit of a culture shock.  Suddenly, I was in a high school that had tinsel draped across the hallways, colored strings of blinking lights, Santas, reindeer and the whole shebang.  I was a little uncomfortable at first, but my heart sang.  This was just so beautiful and it made me smile.

This was a huge high school (it was a quarter of a mile from one end to the other and was populated by well over 2,000 students), and I had heard a rumor that there was one other Jewish student in attendance other than my sister and myself.  I never did meet him.

I kept running into walls that I didn’t know were there.

When a fellow student asked me which was my favorite Christmas carol, my answer was something along the lines of “Um…”  Does Maos Tzur count?

I tried out for and was accepted into the school’s musical theater production.  One day I noticed that everyone seemed to have disappeared before a rehearsal.  As I went around looking for my cohorts, I opened a door and found them all crammed into a room holding a prayer meeting.

I made an effort to explain about being Jewish, but it was too foreign of a concept to resonate with my fellows.  I did my best to fit in, which wasn’t too hard since the holiday season was upon us and I was thoroughly enjoying the Christmas spirit.  I tried to remember not to mention this at home.

When my wife and I were married, we made a conscious decision to “keep things neutral.”  No crosses or Stars of David.  No Christmas or Hanukkah decorations.  This worked out just fine for a number of years.  Then my wife’s niece came to live with us while she was in high school.  My wife felt she had to give her a Christmas and I completely agreed.  We unpacked my wife’s boxes of tinsel.  We found a tiny artificial tree that fit well in our apartment.  And I caught myself smiling again.

I have long believed in the value of multiculturalism.  When I first moved from the east coast of the United States to California, I didn’t know what a tortilla was.  But I learned.  Somewhere along the line, I also learned most of the words to “White Christmas,” “O Holy Night” and a lot of other Christmas songs.  And I don’t think anything of eating tacos with my kugel.

But you know what?  This past Sunday was the second consecutive year that I was present for the annual Christmas service at our humble little church.  And this was the second consecutive year that I represented our extended family by singing songs in Hebrew.  Last year, I stuck to Maos Tzur, but this year I performed an Israeli folk song and a much-beloved melody from our Sabbath synagogue service.  By the comments I received, everyone seemed to enjoy it.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my wife and I traveled to the Central Valley to spend Hanukkah with my family.  And tonight, family and friends will gather at my sister-in-law’s house (with its beautiful Christmas tree) for popcorn, hot chocolate and Christmas movies.  Don’t be surprised if the board games come out and someone cranks up the karaoke machine.  In the morning, we will open gifts while the Christmas music plays from the docking station in the living room.  Later on, we will have Christmas dinner.

And I know I am going to enjoy every last minute of it.

Peace on earth, good will toward men.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

 

Festivus or Pfeffernüsse – Take Your Pick

festivus pfefferneuse

I learned something today.

I was listening to a local radio station in the car while my wife was in the post office when I heard the announcer say:  “Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, happy Festivus and happy Kwanzaa!”

It was one of those taped greetings that are played throughout the broadcast, and I wasn’t paying close attention.  But once I had processed what I had just heard, I did a double-take.

Um, excuse me?  Hanukkah?  Festivus?

I’m sure this greeting was recorded weeks ago and was the radio station’s (weak) effort at being “inclusive.”  But really!   Hanukkah has been over for more than a week.  I wonder what kind of strange looks I would get if I were to wish someone merry Christmas sometime, say, during the first week of January?  I’d expect him or her to say “aren’t you a little late, bucko?”  I’ll have to do some experimental research on this one a few weeks hence and get back to you.

And what the heck is Festivus?!

Hanukkah is the winter holiday that I grew up celebrating, and it would be hard to reside in the United States and not be aware of Christmas.  Kwanzaa I learned about back in the nineties; after all, the seven-day festival was created by a college professor right here in California.

But Festivus — well, I have to admit that’s a new one on me.  Not being one who enjoys ignorance, of course I had to look it up.

I could hardly believe what I was reading.

Apparently, Festivus is a “fake” holiday based on “The Strike,” an old episode of the TV show Seinfeld.  I have to admit, I get a kick out of the phrase “fake holiday.”  While it falls short of oxymoron status, I believe it qualifies as a non-sequitur.  How can a holiday be “fake” if there are some who actually mark the occasion and participate in its traditions?

If you don’t know anyone who celebrates Festivus, that makes two of us.  However, a Festivus pole composed of empty Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans is about to be
erected in the Florida State House alongside the menorah and crèche.  So you tell me who’s on first.

By the way, Festivus is celebrated on December 23 — coincidentally, also the date of National Pfeffernüsse Day.

Among those participating in Festivus are “secularists” seeking to call attention to their position that the U.S. Constitution requires a more complete separation between church and state.  Reports are that some atheists (I have recently started seeing the phrase “nontheists”) are adopting Festivus as an alternative to religious winter holidays.

Among the things I have learned is that the family of Dan O’Keefe, one of the writers of Seinfeld, had an alternative holiday tradition during his childhood, which he embellished for the show.  The rhyming tag line was “Festivus:  For the rest of us!”  The idea seems to be a parody of religious holiday traditions with particular emphasis on rebellion against the commercialism to which Christmas has succumbed.

The symbol of Festivus is a plain, unadorned aluminum pole, which appears to be an alternative to the candelabra of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and the Christmas tree.  In the Seinfeld episode, Frank Costanza says he “finds tinsel distracting.”  The starkness of the pole fits in with the theme of objecting to commercialism.

O’Keefe states that the family Festivus celebration of his youth also included “a clock in a bag,” the significance of which he cannot recall.

The “Festivus miracles” pointed out at the holiday dinner, a parody of the miracles in the Hanukkah and Christmas stories, can be any coincidental or everyday occurrence upon which one of those in attendance chooses to remark.

Festivus events appearing in the Seinfeld episode include “feats of strength” and the “airing of grievances.”  The former involves the head of household challenging a guest at the Festivus dinner to a wrestling match.  The holiday celebration is not done until one of the guests successfully pins the head of household to the floor.  As for the “airing of grievances,” those gathered are supposed to gripe about the specifics of each other’s conduct that has disappointed and annoyed them during the course of the year.

In light of the above, it appears that Festivus is not complete until invective is spewed, everyone is crying and someone is rushed off to the hospital for the treatment of wrestling injuries.  Sounds like good will toward men, wouldn’t you agree?

Et in terra, pax.

 

References

Chumley, Cheryl K., “Christmas secularists get 6-foot beer-can Festivus pole at Florida State House,” Washington Post, Dec. 10, 2013.  http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/dec/10/christmas-secularists-get-6-foot-beer-can-festivus/

FestivusWeb – Comprehensive description of origin and traditions of Festivus, including song lyrics.  Includes the script of the Seinfeld episode “The Strike.”

Salkin, Allen, “Fooey to the World:  Festivus is Come,” New York Times, Dec. 19, 2004.  http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=F30616FD3E540C7A8DDDAB0994DC404482

Wikipedia article:  “Festivus” –  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Festivus

 

A California December

electric blanket

It has gotten really cold here.

I know.  It’s December.  It’s supposed to be cold.

Not here.  I mean what the heck?  This is California, for crying out loud!  When I lived in New York and New England all those years, everyone spent the winter whining about the snow and cold, wishing they could live in a warm place such as Florida or California.

California, in particular, was mythic.  The home of Schwarzenegger and Mickey Mouse.  Everyone there was either a movie star or a surfer dude, and we’d all seen the romantic photos of couples walking along the beach and enjoying the ocean at any time of year.

Joe Dee Messina sang “Heads Carolina, tails California, somewhere greener, somewhere warmer.”

The Mamas and The Papas were busy California dreamin’.  “I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.”

Even in L.A., the weather people are calling for 41°F tonight.  But here, two-thirds of the way up from Mexico to Oregon, we’re going to have a hard freeze tonight, 23°F.

Just for kicks, I checked the forecast for some of my old haunts back east.  They may hit the low forties tonight.

Somehow, being in a place that is significantly colder than New York seems to defeat the purpose of living in California.

I am reminded that we don’t have blizzards here.  Sure, how often did that happen back in NYC?  Once per winter, maybe?  I remember my last winter on the east coast very clearly.  We barely had two flakes of snow to rub together the entire winter.

Be that as it may, this type of weather does not bode well for the homeless in our area, particularly those unable to reach a shelter or unwilling to stay there.  I am told that our homeless friend is still sleeping in his sister’s car, inside a fleece-lined sleeping bag, wearing a coat and covered by blankets.

I think what I’m supposed to do is smile and be glad it’s the holiday season.  It’s the eighth and final night of Hanukkah, and Christmas is just around the corner.  Cold weather is supposed to be a part of the whole ambience.  Mittens, scarves, hot chocolate and all that.  We wouldn’t want Frosty the Snowman to melt, now would we?  And perhaps, as we see our frozen breath while running about shopping, a taste of the North Pole will encourage empathy for the hardships endured by Santa and his elves.

I suppose that’s all well and good for the children and the Christmas carolers.

As for me, I stand with my bloggy friend, Vagina.

I want my electric blankie.

 

Gift of the Magi

Dad
My dad has always been a loner. With a house full of family to celebrate his birthday, I found him sitting out in the back yard, alone with his thoughts.

After five days away, we were very happy to arrive back at home this evening.

I can report seeing a few unexpected things on this trip to California’s Central Valley:

  • More than twenty members of a motorcycle club roaring down Blackstone Avenue in Fresno on Black Friday.  A few cyclists had passengers with them, one of which was a child.   One bike came about an inch from rear-ending a car and likely going flying over the handlebars.  The lead biker was a reckless dude who annoyed the crap out of drivers when he showed off by popping front and rear wheelies in heavy traffic.  Lucky for him that cop didn’t see the guy flip him off.
  • Trader Joe’s with nearly empty bakery shelves.  We had hoped to purchase a challah for Hanukkah Kiddush on Friday, but no dice.  The staff said they received no deliveries “due to a misunderstanding” that had something to do with the store being closed on Thanksgiving Day.  What, they expected the store to be open on Thanksgiving?  Please!
  • Motel 6 with a giant electronic sign out on the road that quoted a price more than ten dollars less than the price actually charged for a room.  A flyer was posted in the office indicating that the electronic sign is broken.  Again, please!  Cover the damned thing up then, will ya?
  • Restaurant Wars!  Many customers were seated on the benches outside Outback Steakhouse waiting for a table to become available.  Meanwhile, employees from Tahoe Joe’s across the street walked over and began handing out coupons for free appetizers, stating that there is no wait at their nice, warm restaurant, so why wait out in the cold here?  Um, do you think there might just be a reason why a couple dozen people were willing to wait patiently out in the cold evening for a table at Outback while its competitor had no wait?  You’d better believe we told the manager what was going on right in front of her nose.

Other things were more expected.  Like my sister arguing with my mother about the former’s cat vomiting in multiple corners of the latter’s pretty pink carpet.  And arguing with my mother about who is permitted to keep her soy milk in which refrigerator.  And arguing with my mother over the choice of restaurant for my father’s birthday dinner.  And bringing up forty year old childhood slights, real and imagined.  That’s my sister for you.

I am glad we all managed to make it for my father’s eightieth birthday.  My mother says he had been dropping hints for the past year about wanting to do something special for this landmark occasion.  Turning eighty really means something to him, she told me.  For example, she says, he likes to mention to grocery clerks that he can still carry his own bags out to the car.  “After all, I’m only eighty.”

My father, on the other hand, denies it all.  He says that celebrating his birthday was nothing but a smokescreen of my mother’s, designed to get the kids and grandkids together for Thanksgiving dinner.

If it weren’t Hanukkah, I’d call it the gift of the magi.

 

Hanukkah and the Big Eight-O

cake
menorah

MADERA

My parents presented each of us with Hanukkah gifts.  Not a first, but sufficiently rare to have been a surprise.

Even when my sisters and I were children, gift-giving was generally designated for birthdays.  For Hanukkah, we typically received a little mesh bag of chocolate “gold coins,” perhaps accompanied by a handful of real coins, essential to the playing of dreidl.

But Hanukkah was still special to me.  The lighting of the colored candles, the singing and the latkes with applesauce and sour cream constituted sufficient pageantry to make an impression.

Although those celebrating Christmas with enormous piles of presents under the tree might beg to differ, we lacked for nothing.  If we hankered after something reasonable in, say, March or August, one way or another we usually got it (sooner or later).  And avoiding mindless shopping based on the page of the calendar helped us to avoid destructive habits of acquisitiveness, avarice and poor money management.

So it was a bit of a surprise when my mother brought out a box of wrapped gifts and began distributing them.  There were puzzles, lotions, sachets, candy and, for me, a bag of coffee ice cream flavored coffee, already ground.  I know it will be delicious.

Meanwhile, my sister and her husband outdid themselves in the kitchen.  This was my first taste of broiled tofu (we usually sautée it), which was heavenly.  And there was a homemade apple pie, vegan and gluten-free.  For the second day running, we ate until we were stuffed.

In addition to Hanukkah, today was my father’s eightieth birthday.  It is difficult for me to believe he has reached that age.  As must be common to most children, I will always think of him as a young man in his thirties and forties.

It is strange how, as we grow up, time seems to stand still in regard to our parents.

My parents specified that we should bring no gifts to this occasion, but we ignored that request.  Not that my father is easy to buy for.  He has become proficient in the use of the internet in recent years, and he buys the books and movies he wants online.  New clothes just don’t do it for him, as he prefers to wear old duds, even after they’ve sported holes and stains.

But all is not lost.

Thanks, Sam Adams!

 

>NaBloPoMo November 2013