A Tale of Two Synagogues

I find myself in a mixed bag of denominations of Judaism, with the bag well-shaken.  I grew up attending an Orthodox yeshiva, attending a Conservative synagogue with my mother, and asking a lot of confused questions of my non-believing father.  Dad says he’s a Jew by ethnicity, not religion.  He claims to be agnostic, but Mom says he’s an atheist.

Labels!  They’re enough to drive you crazy.  At Kol Nidre services this year, the rabbi pointed out that labels are good for whiskey bottles, but not for people.

The only synagogue in my immediate area is a Reformed congregation that holds services just once each month.  For the High Holy Days, I generally attend a very Orthodox Chabad congregation, about a half hour drive away.  This year, however, I decided to split the difference by attending Chabad in the evening for Kol Nidre, and then the nearby Reformed synagogue for Yom Kippur services the following morning.
Admittedly, I had an ulterior motive.  Kol Nidre at the Reformed synagogue involved a musical performance by a cellist.  I attended such a service years ago, and it’s more than I can stomach.  (The cello seems to be popular for Yom Kippur in some circles, due to its sad and somber tone, matching the mood of the day.). Conservative and Orthodox traditions consider the playing of musical instruments on Shabbat and holidays to be a desecration of the holiness of the day.  While I like to think I’m more than a little flexible in my religious practice, the cello thing is where I draw the line.  It just feels wrong to me.

Several weeks ago, as Mom was preparing for her surgery, she asked me to locate a Jewish funeral home in the area, “just in case.”  I called up the rabbi at Chabad, whom I knew would have the information at hand.  Toward the end of our chat, he asked if he would see me for the High Holidays.  I hemmed and hawed, finally admitting that the Reformed synagogue is so much closer to my home.  “Well, come for the second day of Rosh Hashannah.  They don’t have the second day at Reformed.”  I remained noncommittal, not wanting to fess up to the fact that Mom would be having surgery on that holiday.  “Reformed isn’t really my cup of tea,” I admitted to the rabbi, mumbling something about wanting to support the synagogue in my local community.

The day before Yom Kippur, I visited both synagogues’ websites and made a modest donation to each.  I left work early, went out to dinner with my wife and her sister well before sundown (when we start our 25-hour fast), and was dropped off at Chabad. In some sectors, the local Chabad congregation is popular at High Holy Day time, as they have a policy of eschewing tickets and charging nothing for seats or attendance.  As many barely observant Jews attend synagogue only once a year, on Yom Kippur, it has become a standard practice among American synagogues to set a fee to purchase a ticket for a seat.  Not Chabad.  (The whole “pay to pray” concept is a complex subject that would require a post of its own.). So, to avoid paying, many essentially nonreligious Jews head for the free Chabad synagogue and, for one day, put up with Hassidism.  What exactly are they “putting up with?”  For one, they put up with men and women sitting out of sight of each other on opposite sides of the sanctuary, the mekhitza (divider) separating husbands and wives.  Also, if you’re male and arrive before the sundown start of the holiday, you’re likely to be collared in the vestibule (as I was) and asked to don tefillin (“phylacteries”), wrapping a leather strap around your arm and pulling another over your head to say a Hebrew prayer.  Then there are the Hassidic melodies, unfamiliar to many from other denominations, and a stern sermon that is likely to rankle the less observant Jews among us.

Last year at the Kol Nidre service, for example, the Chabad rabbi preached on the importance of following the dietary laws of kashruth, urging congregants to make a start by firmly committing to eat only kosher food for breakfast.  This sort of thing (and that was mild compared to the fire-and-brimstone offerings on tap at some Orthodox congregations) turns off many of our nonobservant fellows.

This year, by contrast, I felt that the Chabad rabbi went a lot easier on us.  In fact, after our recent phone conversation, it almost seemed that his sermon was addressing me personally.  I like to think that perhaps I even inspired the content of his sermon.

Thinking about my remark that Reformed services aren’t exactly my cup of tea, the essence of the rabbi’s remarks were that we are all Jews and that we should strive for unity rather than fomenting division by pasting labels and raising walls at every turn.  I wholeheartedly concur.  But I’m still not a fan of the cello service.

The following morning, I attended the Yom Kippur service at the Reformed synagogue nearby.  When I arrived, the service had already begun.  The rabbi was a woman, a refreshing change in my view, and not something you’d ever see in an Orthodox congregation.  In attendance were eight old ladies and two old men.  Not that I’m young or anything, but a congregation composed of octogenarians, and not many of them, can’t survive for long.

Reformed congregations tend to hold a more abbreviated service, with most of the prayers read in English rather than Hebrew. But the prayer book they used had more than a bit of a hippy-dippy cast.  To be fair, many traditional prayers appeared, with interwoven alternate, modern verses.  For example, there was a prayer for Mother Earth that referenced climate change and global warming.  (Which isn’t to say that this is not a vital topic of public discourse; it’s just that, when found mixed into my religion, it comes off a bit like a fly in my soup.). And the traditional Al-Het prayer, in which we confess our sins by name, made reference to sins of disrespect committed “because I was drinking.”  This falls about six standard deviations from what one can expect to see in a prayer book used by Chabad.  Ultimately, it’s a matter of preferences, and a matter of what you’re used to.

In her sermon, the Reformed rabbi referred to her dysfunctional upbringing by an alcoholic father.  The previous evening, by contrast, the rabbi at Chabad told the story of a Jewish woman going to the post office to buy stamps.

“What denomination?” asked the postal clerk.

Raining Tacos in Scrabble Land

CLACKAMAS, OREGON

“Jews don’t eat tacos.”

We were on the way to Oregon for a Labor Day weekend Scrabble tournament and I was trying to come up with a plausible excuse for my wife regarding why I am totally clueless when it comes to taco-eating etiquette. The depths of my ignorance in this particular realm is so deplorable that I can’t even manage to eat a fast food taco out of its wrapper without making an unholy mess all over the place. Shredded lettuce everywhere. Taco meat stains on my pants. Grease running down my chin onto my shirt.

My wife tried to tell me something about holding the taco by the wrapper on one end while taking bites from the other end and pushing the wrapper up as I go. This seems fine in theory, but I always seem to have trouble making allowances for the effects of gravity. And anyway, what am I supposed to do about the avocado shooting out of the top like some sort of perverse green lava while I’m trying to take dainty little nibbles out of the side?

The obvious reason that traditional Jews don’t eat tacos is that tacos have long been an integral part of the cuisine of Latin America, while most American Jews are of eastern European ancestry. I would no more expect tacos on the menu in Poland or Russia than I would expect kreplach, kugel and cholent to show up on the menu in Mexico. In other words, there is a cultural disconnect.

America, of course, is famous the world over for its cultural heterogeneity. While my forebears feared that the ocean crossing to the States would effectively obliterate all traces of our cultural identity in the bubbling American melting pot, the former assumption of assimilation eventually yielded to a celebration of multiculturalism. No one thinks it a bit odd to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day or to go out for margaritas and enchiladas on Cinco de Mayo, even if we have lack any Irish or Mexican ancestry. Chinese, Thai and sushi restaurants are everywhere for all to enjoy. And yes, non-observant Jews do eat tacos.

However, I grew up in a kosher household in New York in the 1960s. I never even heard of a taco. There wasn’t a Taco Bell in every neighborhood. Our community had no Mexican restaurants. And who would even think of such a goyishe thing, anyway? Feh!

The result was a bit of culture shock when I transplanted myself to a heavily Mexican-American area of California’s Central Valley in the mid-1990s. Never mind that I didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t even understand the minhag ha’makom, the cultural lingua franca. I embarrassed myself well and truly when I sheepishly admitted to not knowing what a tortilla was.

Even if traditional Judaism had not built bulwarks against the multicultural environment so prevalent in the United States, our religious proscriptions could never have tolerated the taco. Meat and cheese together? Hass v’shalom! You should wash your mouth out with soap! Jewish dietary laws prohibit eating meat and dairy products at the same meal, much less in the same tortilla. And who could even find a tortilla not made with lard? Remember, we don’t eat anything that comes from a pig.

Oh, how times have changed. Packaged tortillas bearing kosher certification are now available at your local supermarket. And thanks to the fake meat revolution spearheaded by industry leaders Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, and the host of non-dairy cheeses now on grocery store shelves, it’s perfectly easy to prepare a respectable pareve (non-meat and non-dairy) taco that even vegans can enjoy. Inevitably, the fast food industry has begun to get on board this train.

Much has been written about the Beyond Burgers sold by Carls Jr. and the Impossible Burgers on the menu at Burger King. Could the taco be far behind? Not a chance. While Taco Bell seems to be holding out, competitor Del Taco has zoomed forward with its Beyond Meat tacos. The avocado version, which eschews the cheese, even claims to be vegan.

While no Orthodox Jew would be eating fast food of any kind, those of us raised in middle-of-the-road, suburban, Conservative Jewish kosher households now find it possible to join the crowd in indulging in fast food tacos. All of which brings me back to my dilemma: How are you supposed to eat the darned things without making an unholy mess? Put them on a plate and use a knife and fork? I remain clueless.

To make matters worse, I arrived at the Scrabble tournament in Oregon to learn that the entrance fee included lunch on Saturday and Sunday. Guess what was served at the first lunch? Someone was about to make a great big mess in front of his fellow competitors.

The night before the tournament, I had trouble sleeping. Not unusual for me when at out-of-town hotels. In bed, I picked up my phone and began perusing the day’s news. A story that caught my eye described a new tactic employed by the City of West Palm Beach, Florida to discourage homeless persons from sleeping on the lawn of one of the city-owned properties. All night long, the city blares from its speakers an endless music loop consisting of the children’s songs “Baby Shark” (doo doo doo doodoodoodoodoodoo) and “It’s Raining Tacos.” This tactic, known as “the weaponizing of sound,” has been roundly criticized by many.

My curiosity got the better of me. A song about tacos? This I had to hear. I pressed “play.”

Um, bad move.

Take my advice: Don’t do it. If you’re not familiar with this Parry Gripp ditty, you are better off remaining in blissful ignorance.

Okay, don’t listen to me. But don’t blame me when you can’t get this catchy tune out of your head for days. (Shell! Meat! Lettuce! Cheese! Cheese cheese cheese cheese cheese!)

And whatever you do, try not to think of this song while you’re making an unholy mess eating tacos with several dozen fellow Scrabble fanatics. If you bob your head and start humming while you’re spewing shredded lettuce everywhere, someone is going to wonder what’s really in that water bottle.

Sanctuary

I’ve been reading lately that President Trump has been considering transporting Central American immigrants from our southern border to so-called sanctuary cities and dropping them off there.  “They should be very happy,” Trump allegedly said, referring to those of us who believe that we should welcome those who seek refuge in our country.

Here in California, we appear to be at ground zero for this proposal.  Not only do we have plenty of asylum-seekers showing up at the San Ysidro-Tijuana border crossing, but former Governor Jerry Brown declared California to be a “sanctuary state.”  Furthermore, Los Angeles, San Francisco, my own home in Sacramento County, and ten other counties have declared themselves to be sanctuaries.  I am quite pleased with this.

My understanding of a sanctuary state, county or city is one that refuses to summarily turn over undocumented immigrants to the feds for deportation.  This humane treatment of immigrants who are already here is vastly different than opening the door to those who have not yet entered the United States.  I believe that our president is an intelligent man who understands the difference between the two, yet chooses to pretend otherwise for the purpose of creating maximum drama while seeking to emphasize his prejudice toward Latin American immigration.

Still, I say bring it on, Mr. President.

Those who belittle the fact that we care about our fellow man say that sanctuary cities should not expect any assistance from the federal government as we help our newest neighbors to establish a new life in our communities.  Fine.  All we ask is that you grant asylum to our brethren from the south so that they can lawfully obtain employment in the United States.  We’ll take it from there.

Some have suggested that our fellow Californians Nancy Pelosi and Gavin Newsom should take in several immigrants to their gated mansions.  Ignoring the implicit sarcasm in such remarks, I actually think it’s a fine idea.  Let our leaders lead by example.  But if our elected officials choose to pass up this opportunity to show their mettle, no worries.  The rest of us will step up and set the example for them.

It’s no secret that we have plenty of jobs in California that are going unfilled.  It is difficult not to notice the “help wanted” signs in nearly every retail establishment.  There are so many physically taxing jobs, dirty jobs, low-paid jobs that American citizens don’t want to do.  Those who have walked more than a thousand miles to reach our borders, those who have spent their life savings to be transported here, those who have risked their health and their lives to make it to the United States, these are the immigrants seeking entry whose valiant efforts should be rewarded by a welcome with open arms and an opportunity to fill our vacancies and to become productive, tax-paying Americans.  As for those immigrants who become unable to work due to age or disability, we have state income maintenance benefits available to provide them with the basics of shelter and food.

Turning away those born elsewhere who are desperate to join us is un-American. How can our president say “turn around, America is full?”  We are not full!  To many throughout the world, the Statue of Liberty is a welcoming symbol of the United States.  The famous Emma Lazarus poem at its base says it all:  Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.  I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

So once again I say, bring it on, Mr. President.  You claim to be a Christian, so surely you can understand our welcoming position.  You know, that stuff about loving your neighbor as yourself?

The Easter and Passover season has arrived, reminding us that we, too, were once strangers in a strange land, relying on the kindness and humanity of others.  Remember, faith without works is dead.  This is our chance to step up and show what we’re made of.  So let us swing open wide the doors of our churches, our synagogues, and our homes.

We’ve got you covered, Mr. President.  And you can count on us to do you proud.

 

 

We Are Squirrel Hill

I feel the need to say something about the horrific mass murder at Etz Chaim synagogue in Pittsburgh that occurred during Shabbat services yesterday.  Unfortunately, anything I could possibly say will necessarily be inconsequential and, quite possibly, both insipid and stupid.  I simply don’t have the words to make it better.  All over the world, our hearts go out to the families left behind, to the congregants and to the community at large.  But thoughts and prayers, lovely as they are, don’t seem nearly enough.  Neither does the condemnation of the accused and his actions, as voiced by President Trump.

Our president, like many others, says that gun control is not the answer, despite the fact that the same high-powered weapons of war used by our military are readily accessible to anyone with a little cash.  In fact, some believe that more guns is the answer, suggesting that this tragedy could have been avoided by an armed security guard posted at the door to the synagogue.  As it is, the falling rate of participation in organized worship, combined with competition from other synagogues in the area, has necessitated renting space at Etz Chaim to three different congregations (all of which were conducting services at the time of the murders).  Considering what it takes to make operating the building viable in today’s world, where would the money come from to hire an armed guard?  The necessity of that expense may well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, a financial stress sufficient to close the building entirely, to cause it to be sold to buyers intending to use it for other purposes, leaving three congregations without a place of worship.  Indeed, most small congregations are unable to bear such an expense.  Then there’s the dampening effect on the spirit resulting from our admission that, no, we can no longer fling open the doors of our religious sanctuary to all who wish to worship God, and that, yes, we recognize that we live in a world of such madness that families worshipping together is no longer a safe act, that our Constitution’s first amendment is being held hostage by its second.

What I fear most is complacency, the acceptance born of numbness, the sentiment that “oh, it happened again,” followed by shoulder shrugging amidst the conclusion that the horrors of mass murder, whether motivated by hate or otherwise, are an unavoidable consequence of a free society.  It is out of self-preservation that most of us choose to think of more pleasant things, else how could we go on tending to the needs of our jobs, families and communities?  I know.  I was deeply affected by the Sandy Hook massacre of innocents, and yet here I am still writing, six years later.  Our very sanity would be in peril unless we put such nightmares out of our minds.  And soon enough we forget, at least until the next one occurs, and the next one, and the one after that. Except for the mothers and fathers, the wives and husbands, the family members and friends.  They are the ones who are never able to forget.  The rest of us, however, throw up our hands and move on.  So is it really any wonder that bigots, racists, and assorted demented individuals continue to shoot up synagogues, mosques, churches, schools, workplaces, and music concerts?  There are days when I think that the primary reason they do it is because they can.

The answer, of course, is to make it so that they can’t.  When there are little children present who do not know right from wrong, we remove all dangerous objects from their reach.  The time has come to wake up and acknowledge that we no longer live in a rational society, that there are many children among us who, left to their own folly, will surely hurt themselves and others.  Congress needs to open its eyes and act in loco parentis and remove legal access to guns once and for all.  Otherwise, we can just forget about freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of religion in a world where printing political cartoons in a newspaper gets your newsroom shot up, where speaking out on the issues leaves you riddled with bullets, and where attending Shabbat services to worship our Creator and fellowship with our communities ends in a bloodbath.  Before you vote in the midterms nine days from now, think about which candidates favor gun control and which candidates support the gun lobby and the prospect of more and more mass murders.

And so today, just as many carried signs and wore buttons announcing “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” three years ago, instead of murmuring thanks that it wasn’t our community that suffered this tragedy, instead of burying our heads in the sand, instead of hoping that we’re not next, we need to loudly announce “We are Squirrel Hill.”

For I am reasonably certain that if I lived in Pittsburgh instead of in California, I would have been present at one of the services at Etz Chaim on Saturday morning.  And I might not be here to write this.

 

 

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.

 

Three Visits With My Parents

Mahzor

Have prayer book, will travel . . .

Among the effects of having one’s children early is that when you’re old and would like your kids to take care of you, they’ll be old, too.  Granted, they won’t be as old as you are, but old nevertheless.  As in you’ll be able to go out to eat together and both of you will get the senior discount.  Both of you will be getting Social Security checks in the mail.  I mean, think about it.  When you’re 85, they’ll be 65.

I visited my parents three times during the month of September.  That’s a total of 18 hours of driving.  The first time was a birthday party for my wife’s little niece.  Then came Rosh Hashannah.  And finally, Yom Kippur.

My parents are 83 years old and they don’t go to synagogue anymore.  My father never went to synagogue to begin with (being somewhere on the agnostic/atheist spectrum) and my mother has had some type of falling out with the synagogue she had been attending.  There are three synagogues in her area, and she finds them all to be money-grubbing.  I am inclined to agree.  I appreciate the need of a synagogue to pay the light bill and the expenses of keeping up the building, not to mention the cost of running its programs, but the strong-arm tactics that they use to squeeze money out of attendees are a bit much.  These days, many synagogues have financial directors who want to see your tax returns to determine how much you earn and to calculate how much you should be paying toward support of the congregation.  It has become fairly standard in the United States for synagogues to charge non-members hefty fees for attending High Holy Day services.  And even organizations like Chabad that claim never to require payment of participants hold an endless round of dinners and speakers before or after services, requesting that attendees pay hefty fees for attendance.  Disclosure:  I do support one of our local Chabad congregations and, frankly, I’m getting sick of their constant emails begging for money.

In my mother’s case, the discomfort engendered by this situation is exacerbated by the fact that she drags my reluctant father with her every time she attends synagogue.  This is mostly because my mother doesn’t drive anymore (she’s perfectly capable, but has chosen to have my car-loving father do all the driving for the past 20 years or so), but also because she won’t go anywhere alone.  She says it makes her feel like a widow.  (In some respects, she is.  My father won’t admit that he’s lost a large part of his hearing, which has already resulted in some dangerous situations in which he could not hear my mother calling him.  Also, they sit in separate rooms and do their own things most of the time.)

At age 83, my parents seem to feel that they are at the stage of life when they can pretty much say whatever they want without consequences.  This has borne some interesting results.  It has caused a number of ugly moments between Mom and my wife, for example.  And when it comes to synagogue, my father, a nonbeliever, feels compelled to comment on the rabbi’s teachings or even challenge them outright.  The rabbi’s young son doesn’t help the situation by running out of the sanctuary to loudly announce to his mother “He’s at it again!”

Patio

On the patio at Mom and Dad’s.  Notice the hummingbird at the feeder.

My mother says she’s tired of “getting it from both ends” (the rabbi and my father).  Under the circumstances, I don’t blame her for passing on synagogue attendance.  For both Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, I made the trip down to the Central Valley, mahzor (prayer book) in hand and held my own little service for Mom’s benefit.  On Rosh Hashannah, we did this at the kitchen table (with my uninterested father sitting out on the patio), and on Yom Kippur, outdoors.  The weather was fine (unlike the freezing cold temperatures that we remember from High Holidays of yore on the east coast) and we got to watch the hummingbirds at the feeder and the sheep next door while we atoned for our sins and prayed for forgiveness.  It was a kick to get my cantorial singing voice on and, all told, it was a rather moving experience to spend this time with Mom.  I can’t help but wonder how many more opportunities I will have to do this.

Sheep

Mom had a large container full of salad that was past its prime, so I got to feed the sheep next door.  There were only three rams and the entire flock of ewes was pregnant.  Baaaa!

The weekend after Rosh Hashannah, still hanging out at my parents’ house, Mom decided to lay a heavy on me by providing instructions for her burial.  This is not as simple as it sounds.  She wants to be laid to rest with her parents at the family plot in New York City.  My wife and I visited the graves of my grandparents there both this year and last during two trips to the eastern seaboard.  Two plots occupied, six more vacant.  It was hard not to think of a time when two more plots will be occupied.  I now know that my mother wishes to be buried directly in front of her mother.  I also know which funeral home to use, as well as a little about what must be done to fly a body from Fresno to LaGuardia.  Uh, um, I guess I wasn’t really ready for this.  But guess what, it looks like the time has arrived for me to grow up and face the facts.  My parents aren’t going to be around forever.

Perhaps the most intriguing factor in this little drama is the uncertainty involved.  Will Dad go first?  He keeps pointing out that, statistically, the husband usually dies before the wife.  My mind fills with pictures of supporting a grief-stricken Mom on a cross-country flight, preceded by taking a screamer down the 99 in the middle of the night when we get the news.  How fast can we throw a week’s worth of clothes in a suitcase?  Yikes.  And then, what would become of Mom?  She doesn’t want to live all alone in that big house way out where the cattle graze on the rangeland.  There is no room for her to live with us in our rented tiny house, where my wife and I are barely able to keep from tripping over one another.  She could always go live with one of my sisters (either the one in the Bay Area or the one in Boston), which I know would not be a particularly pleasant experience for her.  She wants me to retire so my wife and I can come live in her house and take care of her.  Let’s just say that this is unlikely.  There are too many reasons to count.

But what if Mom went first and Dad were left all alone?  He is a loner by nature and probably wouldn’t mind being in that house by himself.  But he doesn’t cook and, despite everything, I suspect that he’d be horribly lonely.  My wife and I were discussing this recently and we agreed that he probably wouldn’t live long if Mom went first.

Let us not forget that there is, at least from my perspective, a third scenario.  As I started off this post my mentioning, when you have children early, they get old right along with you.  I am no spring chicken myself.  Nor am I in the best of health.  What if I shuffle off this mortal coil before my parents do?  My wife knows that I am adamant about being buried here in California rather than having my dead body dragged across the country to a final resting place in (ick) Queens.  (My sisters don’t want to be buried there either, with the likely result that the remaining four plots will remain unoccupied for the next hundred years or so.)  But what of my parents then?  My father, who has long since informed me that if I die he will never forgive me (?), might not last long due to grief.  Perhaps the same is true of Mom.  I certainly hope not, but there it is.  I suppose my sisters will be particularly angry with me for dying when they realize that they now have to deal with Mom and Dad.  I giggle thinking of this.

Sigh.  The whole situation brings on a feeling not unlike that of an impending train wreck that cannot be avoided.  We are clearly heading down that track and all I can do is close my eyes and hold on tight.  I keep telling my parents that, considering their relatively good health, there is no reason that they should not live to 100.  I seriously hope they do.  I figure that things will eventually fall into place, one way or another.

In the meantime, my parents solicited my assistance in planning a celebration in honor of their 65th wedding anniversary.  Sixty-five years of fussin’ and fightin’.  Sixty-five years of bickering and cussin’.  (Mom is bewildered that Dad goes around muttering “Shit!” and “Pain in the ass!” under his breath all day, failing to realize that he is referring to, um, her.)  Their anniversary date is Christmas Eve, just 78 days from this evening.  My sister and her husband are expected to be in California for other reasons around that time, so we’re hoping to arrange for all of us to be together.  We are planning to split the festivities into two parts.  One part will be with my sisters and some of the grandkids near my parents’ home in the Central Valley.  The other part will be with my wife’s family near our home in Sacramento (most of them live 40 to 80 miles north of here).  They are thinking of having a dinner at a Golden Corral, a family buffet place just down the street from us.  They want streamers and balloons.  And invitations.  Thoughts of printing costs and hand calligraphy flashed through my pea brain before I broke the news to Mom about a little thing called Facebook Events.  She knows we do most things electronically these days, but doesn’t want to know about it.  Fine, whatever works, she says.

By the way, I have been trying to convince my parents to purchase iPhones.  They have pre-paid cell phones, although they don’t know how to use most of the features (neither do I).  I think I made my best pitch yet when we were discussing the anniversary party.  Mom says she doesn’t know when it will be held exactly, as she doesn’t know when the school at which my sister teaches will be on vacation.  It’s a Jewish school, so she thought that Sis might be off during Hanukkah rather than around Christmas.  My sister recently moved from Dallas to Boston, so I am not aware of her current employer.  “What school is that?” I asked Mom.  She didn’t know either.  So I whipped out my phone, Googled Jewish day schools in Boston, and checked out a couple of links before Sis’ pic popped up on her school’s website.  Then it was just a matter of clicking around a bit to find the school calendar.  You’re in luck, Mom, she’s off between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

My parents were appropriately impressed by what can be done with a smart phone — at least enough to allow me to show them the simple icons and the ease of accessing features.  “We’d never use most of that stuff,” my mother protested.

Guess what you’re getting for your anniversary, Mom and Dad!

 

Passover Food Challenges

With the eight days of Passover starting Monday night, I find myself feeling a bit nostalgic.  I first led a Seder, the traditional family dinner at which we recite the story of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, at the age of six.  Neither of my parents were able to read the Hebrew and Aramaic from the Haggadah, and I had already been attending an Orthodox Jewish school for two years.  We hold two Seders, on each of the first two nights of the eight-day holiday, and I have attended at least one nearly every year of my life.

This year will be an exception.  I thought about driving four hours to visit my parents and attend a Seder at their synagogue, but that would have required me to take two to three days off work.  I could attend a communal Seder at one of the area synagogues, but even then I’d have to take at least a day off work.  The Seder can’t start until sundown, and usually lasts until well past midnight.  That makes it tough to get up for work at 4:30 in the morning.  So I will have to skip the Seder this year, although that doesn’t mean that I will “pass over Passover.”  The holiday comes with many dietary restrictions and I plan to honor as many as I am able.

As bad as I feel about not attending a Seder, the whole matzo situation makes it even worse.  Matzo is the traditional crackerlike flatbread that we eat for eight days to remind us of the unleavened bread pulled abruptly off the hot rocks of Egypt before the loaves had time to rise when the Jews were thrust out into the wilderness without a moment’s notice.  Granted, it gets old after four or five days, but I know I will miss it.  Made of only wheat and water and baked for less than seven minutes, it’s not a food for the gluten-sensitive.  Sure, I could order an expensive box of gluten-free matzo online, but it wouldn’t be made of wheat and therefore wouldn’t satisfy the ritual requirement of the mitzvah.  So what’s the point?

At the Seder, we eat many traditional foods, including a green vegetable (always celery in my family) dipped in salt water, super hot horseradish, and the delicious haroseth (apples and walnuts chopped up fine, seasoned with cinnamon and a dollop of grape wine).  We drink four cups of wine or grape juice.  And then there is the dinner, which at my parents’ house always included hard boiled eggs (dipped in the salt water left over from the celery), chicken soup with matzo ball dumplings, gefilte fish (cold fish patties with salty fish jelly), homemade borscht (beet soup, usually served cold) and then meat, potatoes, carrots and dessert.  My mom usually served homemade applesauce before we put the tea on to boil and broke out the honey cake and coconut macaroons.  It’s hard to leave a Seder without being utterly stuffed.

Of course, as a vegan, I no longer eat most of these things.  And being gluten-free clearly does not help the situation.  Traditionally, on Passover we eat no bread, corn, rice, cereal, pasta, legumes or anything that might become leavened.  This means no corn, including any prepared item containing corn syrup.  It means no beans, including soybeans, which means no tofu.  In other words, most of my vegan protein sources are off-limits for the next eight days.  Most Passover desserts contain dairy, eggs or both, so those are out for vegans.  It makes an already difficult holiday just this side of bearable.

So what do observant Jews eat during Passover?  Lots of meat and fish, lots of eggs and lots of dairy.  Good luck, vegans.  We do eat fruit and some types of vegetables.  In my case, I go through many pounds of potatoes and carrots, plus some eggplant, zucchini, spinach, broccoli and mushrooms, and lots of salad.  My favorite fake burgers, made of pea protein, are out.  So is my fake cheese and anything made with vinegar (think mustard, salad dressing, pickles, olives, hot sauce).  I flavor everything with black pepper, garlic and lemon.  I eat lots of plums, apples, bananas and citrus.

In the old days, my Passover breakfast might be cottage cheese with fruit and matzo with cream cheese or fried eggs or matzo brei (pieces of matzo dipped in egg and fried).  Now, it’s potatoes.  In the old days, my Passover lunch would typically involve tuna on buttered matzo and hard boiled eggs with maybe a slice or two of tomato.  Now, it’s potatoes.  Maybe with some carrots or plain salad with lemon.  Very boring and largely protein-free.  I try to remember to eat spinach or broccoli each day, as they each contain a small amount of protein.

My mother has always referred to Passover as “a hard holiday.”  However, the difficulties are tempered by many delicious traditional foods and lots of Passover sweets.  None of those benefits accrue to those eating a vegan, gluten-free diet.  True, you can be creative, particularly if you cook.  I don’t.  I am highly fortunate that my wife is willing to boil pounds of potatoes and roast vegetables in the oven for me.

And yet here I am, with Passover not yet begun, already looking forward to the holiday being over.  I suppose I should look at the bright side.  Perhaps I will gain an improved perspective on the hardships faced by my ancestors who, having escaped slavery due to the Lord splitting the Red Sea, wandered in the desert for forty years.

Eight days seems mighty reasonable by comparison.