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.

 

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Not My Idea of Religion

Church Demonstration

The scene outside Victory Baptist in Sacramento last night

The Sacramento Kings basketball team has unveiled its new purple jerseys, featuring the logo “Sacramento Proud.”  Today, however, I am not proud to be a Sacramentan.

Right on our doorstep, the minister of a purportedly Christian church delivered a mean-spirited, hate-filled sermon on Sunday, in which he insisted that we should not be “sad or upset” about the mass murder at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.  In his depraved mind, this horror was very much in line with Old and New Testament verses that prescribe the death penalty for homosexuals.  When the Sacramento Bee interviewed Verity Baptist Church Pastor Roger Jimenez at home, he confirmed his pulpit remarks stating “all I’m saying is that when people die who deserve to die, it’s not a tragedy.”  He cited passages in Leviticus and Romans to back up his claims.

I looked up the address of the church on our way home from work this evening so that we could drive by.  (I was horrified to discover that some miscreant who apparently believes that two eir wrongs make a right had changed the Google label to read “Verity Satan Church.”)  It was located in a boring, cookie-cutter industrial park, where we saw close to 100 protesters demonstrating in front of the church with rainbow and American flags.  News crews and sheriff’s deputies were on the scene.  While I do hope that the church’s service was not disrupted this evening, I was pleased to see that more than a few local residents took time out of their busy schedules to register their disapproval in a public manner.

While I remain incredulous that anyone characterizing himself as a man of God could suggest that we not mourn the loss of our fellow man, I am heartened by the fact that his warped dogma is a very minority view.  I simply cannot allow myself to believe that many others surreptitiously subscribe to this brand of hate.  I always thought that God = Love.  God approving of murder?  That’s certainly not my idea of religion.

 

 

Eliminating Homelessness is Possible

I would like to take a moment to sincerely thank Shannon of Dirt ‘N Kids and Janon for their kind and insightful comments on last week’s post about paths toward ending homelessness and Utah’s successes in this regard.

I can summarize my thoughts on your responses in three general statements:

  • Yes, it’s all about money.
  • It is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.
  • You have to start somewhere.

Yes, it’s all about money.

Some say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.  I would add “poverty” to that short list.  As a man who unabashedly worships God, I think of the following Bible verse:  “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you:  Open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”  Deut. 15:11 (JPS)  The dual lessons here are:

  1. There is no such thing as “eliminating homelessness,” despite the appeal of the phrase as a sound bite. Even if it is possible to assure that those who are taken off the streets are provided with homes for the remainder of their lives, there will always be more individuals and families who will fall into homelessness due to the effects of the economy, mental illness and substance abuse.
  2. As homelessness is an ongoing issue, beating it back will require ongoing infusions of money. Even if we were collectively committed to ensuring that everyone has a roof over his or her head, that commitment must continue among those who come after us or we will quickly find ourselves right back where we started.  The Biblical command to “open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land” is an edict for all time.

Shannon, you are right to be concerned about taxes and utilities.  These are part and parcel of the costs of housing and must be covered by the public-private partnership that secured the house, apartment or single occupancy unit in the first place, as was done in Utah.  In terms of taxes, essentially the municipality must be willing to forgo the income that could otherwise have been collected on these units.  The loss of revenue is but a tiny fraction of the public funds that would have been expended on the individuals involved had they remained homeless.

You also ask about rules for sharing with others, medical requirements, hygiene and general cleanliness.  While all of these concerns make perfect sense to me, in the big picture none of them matter.  The philosophy in Utah is that when the keys are handed over, the newly homed individual essentially has free reign.  The home is treated as a gift of unconditional love, no strings attached.  The result of this is that there were a few cases in which the residence was totally destroyed and/or the beneficiary violated the law and ended up in custody.  This is why, in Salt Lake City, some of the homeless who were unlikely to be able to live successfully in an unsupervised environment were sheltered in single occupancy rooms in a location where they can be checked up on daily and where critical mental health and substance abuse prevention services are available on site.  As to the extremely rare cases in which the residence was trashed, I read that the individual was provided needed services and then given yet another home.  While the agape love nature of such actions is delightful to see, those are the situations that make everyone nervous due to the very real potential for negative press and public backlash that could bring the entire endeavor tumbling down like a house of cards.  Each time something like that comes up is a moment of collective breath holding accompanied by hope that the public realizes that, as the Jackson 5 sang back in the days of my youth, “one bad apple don’t spoil the whole wide world.”

Finally, Shannon, you asked about food.  This was handled in a number of different ways, and I regret that your wonderful idea of a community garden was never mentioned in the articles I read (I am definitely a fan of your “lasagna” worm fertilization technique).  Some of the newly homed are receiving job training and job search assistance in an effort to get them back onto their feet financially.  Many others were helped to apply for Food Stamps.  Finally, in some locations, such as the single room occupancy facilities, the local food bank made regular deliveries to the residents.

Janon, you incisively point out that “a Housing First program in a large city would require a large line item in the city’s budget directly associated with the program, and it will always be a target for cuts.”  As I mentioned above, the difference between a temporary fix and a permanent solution will be whether those who come after us remain committed to the same goals and are willing to fund them.  Ironically, when times are bad and programs are slashed to accommodate the shrinking public fisc, that is exactly when an increasing number of people are in danger of becoming homeless if homes are not provided.  This is why layers upon layers of protection are needed, not unlike Shannon’s worm composting program.  Housing First must be a joint effort of federal, state and municipal governments, religious organizations (like Loaves and Fishes here in Sacramento) and private philanthropy.  Like an extended family in which various members step in to help in different roles depending on what is required at the moment, each of these parts must be willing to step up when another falters.

It is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.

Last week, I wrote about Henry and a few of the other homeless people with whom we have recently had contact in this area.  They all have stories to tell, although not all of them are willing (or able) to tell those stories.  They all had mothers and fathers once; few were born homeless.  Homelessness, like so many things, exists at the intersection of chance and choice.  Many homeless individuals never really had a chance, having suffered through horrible childhoods and turbulent adolescences that saw them tossed out to the vagaries of the four winds at an early age.  I am fond of noting that mental illness seems inevitable among the homeless, including those who weren’t mentally ill when they first hit the streets.  A few years of being assaulted, arrested, robbed, starved, exposed to the elements and subject to the disdain of nearly everyone would be enough to catapult nearly anyone into abyss of mental illness.

As I pointed out in my post about Henry, rapidly gobbling down any food that comes your way is a common behavioral pattern among the homeless.  If you haven’t eaten in a while, I can’t reasonably expect you to observe Emily Post table manners and to say grace before chowing down.  If you don’t eat it all immediately, it will likely be stolen from you.  And, as if that weren’t enough, competing with you in your panhandling endeavors are those who are no more homeless than I am, but choose to take advantage of the opportunity to engage in a bit of fakery to see whether they can get something for nothing.  For those of us who would help the homeless, we are left with the difficulty of distinguishing between the truly homeless and the charlatans.  If we don’t want to “go there,” we can simply help anyone who asks (within the extent of our resources) without making judgment, or, more commonly, can resort to averting our eyes and helping no one.

The latter option is perennially tempting to government, as the cost of social services staff and programs to determine who is “deserving” of assistance can run nearly as much as providing that assistance does.  And when it comes to local governments, state legislatures and, yes, Congress, deciding whom to help, there are always Tea Party Republicans and naysayers back home in the district to provide ample chastisement about the waste of public funds.  After all, how appealing is it to spend money on an intractable problem?  Tomorrow, there will be more people who need to be helped, even apart from those “just looking for a handout.”

This is why it is imperative that those whom we elect to serve us remember that it is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.  Those of us who care need to write and call our legislators and testify before legislative and Congressional committees to let our representatives know that we are not blind to the suffering that is occurring all around us.  While we are limited as to what we can do as individuals, together we can move mountains.  Ending homelessness is not an election campaign issue or a line item in a budget.  It is forging a path through the rhetoric to put roofs over the heads of our neighbors who freeze, burn and are soaked from sleeping outdoors and show up at hospitals with hypothermia and pneumonia.  These are the people who are routinely abused, assaulted and killed as if they were some kind of trash rather than someone’s son, daughter, mother, father.

The biggest mistake of all is thinking that it can’t happen to you.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.

You have to start somewhere.

The jaded among us say that every public program, every act of generosity done by a church or an individual, is flawed (and likely motivated by some hidden agenda, as well).  Some of the “undeserving” will be the beneficiaries of our largesse along with those who are “truly deserving.”  This line of thinking is rather sad.  Those of us who attempt to walk in the path of God know that every act of kindness is perfect.  As your mother told you when you were little, it truly is the thought that counts.

While we’re on mothers, another thing that they like to say is “little kids have little problems and big kids have big problems.”  As Janon astutely points out, the same is true of municipalities.  It is a lot easier for a state with a relatively small population, such as Utah, to erase homelessness than it is for a more a populous place to do so.  I was recently pleased to read that Medicine Hat, Alberta is the first city in Canada to eliminate homelessness.  Then again, Wikipedia tells me that Medicine Hat has a population of just 61,180.  This is a far cry from such populous places as Los Angeles and California.  (On a side note, one might think that Canada, with its socialist-oriented policies, would not have much homelessness.  Anyone who reads Dennis Cardiff’s blog, Gotta Find a Home, on a regular basis knows that this is anything but true.)

One thing to consider is economies of scale.  First, large scale operations cost considerably less to operate on a per capita basis than smaller operations do.  Second, populous cities and states have larger tax bases than less populous places do.  There are more businesses and more people paying property and income taxes.  Generally, there are more churches and other charitable organizations in the area.  And hopefully, there are more philanthropic minded individuals available to assist than there would be in a more rural or remote area.

In places like California, where there are so many in need, the scope of the problem may seem insurmountable.  Providing housing for all of our homeless may seem an impossible dream.  Fortunately, Housing First is a big dream that is turning into reality.  However, it takes time, it takes resources and it takes commitment.  It can’t be done alone or by just a few, and it can’t be done in a day.  It takes the collective will.

We will never be able to convince all the naysayers that housing the homeless is a just cause, and we will always contend with competing priorities for limited resources.  But that doesn’t give us license to sit on our rears, turn the other way and do nothing.  We have to start somewhere.

As the Talmud teaches us, “whoever saves a life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.”

My Nephew, the Atheist

Apparently, my nephew is an atheist.

My sister informed me of this on the phone this evening, by way of explanation of why her adult son doesn’t want to attend a Passover Seder with her.  She says he doesn’t believe in God because he was “raised in science.”  I suppose this has something to do with having a father who is a computer engineer and a mother who was a biology major in college and now works in health care.  Still, he attended Hebrew school and had one of the coolest bar mitzvahs I have ever attended.  When my niece and nephew were kids, I spent countless Passovers and Rosh Hashannahs with them, attending synagogue and eating festive meals.

Regardless of how you were raised, I suppose you come to a time in your life when you have to decide matters of conscience for yourself.

My mother says my father is an atheist, but Dad denies it.  He says he doesn’t believe in an old man with a long white beard throwing down lightning bolts upon sinners, but that he does believe there must be some type of higher power.  He just has no idea what that might be.  Still, one would be excused for thinking him an atheist, as he claims to loathe religion, which he cites as the cause of most of the world’s problems.

One of these days, I’ll have to make a point of asking my nephew whether he’s really an atheist.  While having no need to follow the tenets of any faith may seem nominally liberating, I think it must be rather difficult explaining to others the absence of God in one’s life.  It’s one thing to have members of other faiths thinking that you’re going to hell for your beliefs.  That’s par for the course.  When you’re an atheist, however, I would assume that every faith would think you’re a sinner and a lost cause.

Of course, there is no need to explain one’s beliefs to anyone.  Many people of a variety of faiths or of no faith choose to keep their beliefs to themselves.  After all, it’s really no one else’s business.

While it is not necessary to believe in God to have your heart in the right place, to do things like helping the less fortunate and being active in one’s community, I find that it does help.  Although we all manage to justify whatever it is that we want to do, I suspect that it’s a little harder to stray off the straight and narrow when you know you’re being judged by the Divine and will have to answer to Him.  Personally, I find God to be a centering experience in my life, a means of reminding myself of what it’s all about.  And while I’ve known too many people without God in their lives who engage in repetitive destructive behaviors, there are plenty of believers who do this as well.

At least if I go wrong, I know that I’ll be able to ask God for forgiveness.  Real contrition, at least to me, doesn’t happen in a confessional.  It happens when you recognize the error of your ways, vow to take a different path, and follow it up with action toward living a more upright life.

Praying is great, and I do it daily, but I believe that it has limited value if you don’t “put feet on your prayers.”  It’s not enough to talk the talk; you also have to walk the walk.  We’ve all known those whose credo seems to be “church on Sunday, business as usual on Monday.”

Among my saddest experiences was the time I encouraged a coworker to attend religious services with me, but he refused due to his believe that God hates gays.  He obviously didn’t know God very well.  God doesn’t trade in hate, only in love.  If a particular house of worship doesn’t want your presence due to your sexual orientation, that means that the hearts of those involved are in the wrong place.  It has nothing to do with God.

But I can certainly see how those who feel rejected by churchgoers, or who feel that they’ve gotten the raw end of the deal all their lives or who feel that their prayers were never answered might deny the existence of God and consider themselves atheists.

Some atheists might believe that I am indulging in self-delusion by placing my faith in God.  They may find that believing in God is illogical and fails the test of science.  I wonder whether my nephew truly feels this way, or whether he is confusing God with religion.  Every religion has certain precepts that might be difficult for the modern man or woman to believe.  The faithful have all types of explanations for such things, but I fail to see why one must equate the rejection of dogma with the rejection of God Himself.

Ultimately, people come to God (or not) on their own terms.  Finding faith often requires just the right combination of life experiences.  I hope that, as my nephew makes his way through his young adulthood, he eventually finds his way back to the joy that I associate with faith in God.

I’d hate for him to miss out on that.

A Prayer of Thanks

What is your family’s Thanksgiving tradition for giving thanks at the table?  Do the assembled family and friends bow their heads while one person says a prayer?  Do you have everyone hold hands in an unbroken chain while grace is said?  Do you go around the table and have everyone describe what he or she is thankful for this year?  Or do you dispense with the formalities and just dig in as soon as the turkey is carved?

As a moderately observant Jew, I come from a tradition where there is a blessing for everything.  Although the Hebrew prayers over different types of food were ingrained in me as a child, I did not begin saying an English language prayer over meals until after I got married and my wife started to encourage this.  I was delighted, but this meant that I had to come up with some brief, appropriate words to use for the occasion.

The blessing that I now use before we eat is pretty much the same on Thanksgiving as it is on any other day.  The only difference for a special occasion is that I might add a reference to my appreciation of particular individuals among us, particularly if we have been blessed by the presence of one or more honored guests.

My basic prayer goes something like this:  “Thank you, Lord, for the food we are about to receive and for the many gifts you have bestowed upon us.  Thank you for the blessings of our home, our health and our family.  Thank you for all your help at my job.  And thank you for all the work you do in our lives every day.  Amen.”

Admittedly, it’s a fairly plain vanilla prayer.  But I think it covers the important things.  Of course, if a particular family issue happens to be going on at the moment, I feel free to add a divine request for the complete recovery of a sick person (I still get an incredible kick when my wife refers to this by its Hebrew name, refu’ah shlemah), the safety of one who is away on a trip or the success of someone at school or work.

Among my favorite things about this prayer is the “innocuous factor.”  Over the many years that I have been saying this blessing (including in public), I have never heard anyone object to it on religious grounds.  I believe it reflects the gratitude that we all feel, regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof.  Who isn’t grateful for having a roof over his or her head, food in his or her stomach, a loving family and meaningful work?  As one who recently suffered through a year of unemployment, this last one hits close to home for me.  “Establish the work of our hands for us — yes, establish the work of our hands.”  Ps. 90:17 (NIV)

I suppose an atheist might object to this blessing, but then any type of prayer at all might be offensive to one who prefers that I do not address the Lord.  There’s not much I can do about that.

True, some Christians might object that I make no reference to Jesus, but everyone is of course free to add the flavor of their religious preferences at the end.  All I ask is that those assembled remain respectfully silent for the 30 seconds or so that it takes me to pray over our food.  I have never experienced anyone doing otherwise.  Some dirty looks from fellow diners in restaurants, yes.  The occasional flummoxed server who brings over the iced tea at just the moment that I am praying and doesn’t quite know how to behave, sure.  There will always be those who will roll their eyes at the holy roller over there.  And there will always be those who believe that praying over the food is a quaint relic of the past that has little relevance today.

Thankfully, many of us realize that, in these difficult times, prayer arguably has more relevance than ever.  And fortunately, gratitude is a universal language that all of us can understand.

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Ghosts of Halloweens Past

I have always been rather ambivalent about Halloween.

I tend to think of Halloween as primarily a kids’ holiday that, as a childless adult, doesn’t really have that much to do with me.

Then there’s the whole religious thing, both the Jewish one and the Christian one.  I get a good laugh reading novelist Adam Langer’s description of how kids in Hebrew school are told that this is a Christian holiday named for St. Halloween.  He’s kidding, of course, but if you’ve been through a Jewish religious education, this is funny in a bitter sort of way.

I remember being five and six years old and being allowed to go collect candy from a few old ladies who we knew on various floors of our walkup in the Bronx.  After that, however, I was supposed to be old enough to understand, via my Orthodox Jewish education, that trick or treating is just not something that Jews do.  We have Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Passover.  The goyim have Christmas, Easter and Halloween.  On Thanksgiving, all of us eat turkey, although “theirs” is a Butterball and “ours” is an Empire.

I had been an adult for a couple of decades before I began to understand the Christian objection to Halloween as a Pagan festival that glorifies a host of images related to the occult.

So if the Christians and the Jews are both opposed to Halloween, why do we still celebrate it?  Considering the objections of most of the United States’ major faiths, one would think that this holiday would have faded into obscurity long ago.

I think it comes back to the kids, to our nation’s insatiable sweet tooth and to the boost in the economy resulting from the purchase of everything from tacky Halloween costumes to candy corn to plastic jack-o’-lanterns.  I was in the Goodwill store today to make a donation, and they had all the racks set up neatly by category — angels, devils, witches, vampires, feather boas.  (Feather boas?)  The place was packed.

It’s always about money, isn’t it?  It’s not much different than the commercialization of Christmas, about which I expect to encounter much hand-wringing in the next couple of months.  No one seems to care who you worship these days, as long as we all worship money.  (Goodness, I am getting bitter in my old age!)

I suppose there is some part of me that longs for a more innocent time when there weren’t so many Christian radio stations decrying Halloween as a tool of Satan and when the Jewish and Christian kids of suburbia ran about the streets in packs, dressed as hobos, witches, black cats and pirates, all collecting Tootsie Rolls and Bit O’ Honeys along with pennies for UNICEF.  The days when we’d load up the station wagon and head up to Dressel Farms for donuts and cider fresh from the press, bringing home pumpkins to cart into our elementary school classrooms on the school bus.  The days when you could still hang a bunch of Indian corn on your door and light a candle inside a pumpkin shell on your front step without being a sinner.  Sure, things weren’t perfect.  We weren’t allowed to take any apples because they might have razor blades hidden inside.  But all the neighborhood kids stuck together and no one worried about being lured into a strange car and being kidnapped by a rapist.  We all ended up back at home, safe and sound, with a huge load of trick or treat candy that we fought over with our brothers and sisters even though the vast sugar haul would last us at least until Thanksgiving.

Back then, Halloween was still fun.  None of us were scared out of our wits by Freddie Kruger or bloody apparitions jumping out at us from the darkened interiors of “haunted houses.”

The only thing we had to be afraid of was our next dentist appointment.

Something Good About Facebook

My wife and I are sitting at a gray Formica top table in the tiny diner that we always seem to find our way back to, the one with the black-and-white diamond parquet floor, a vague nod to the middle America of the mid-20th century.  We already know what’s on the menu, but we listlessly take a cursory glance anyway.  The only thing that’s changed over the years is the prices.

I order a salad with oil and vinegar (no croutons) and a baked potato — no butter, no sour cream.

“You want it plain?” the server asks quizzically, uncertain whether she didn’t hear right or whether I’ve lost my mind.

“Yes, please.”

The salad consists of a small pile of lettuce in the center of a glass plate, flanked by two cherry tomatoes and two slices of cucumber.  The gold and red shakers that are my salad dressing appear in their little silver holder.  We bow our heads and say grace.  We are quiet about it and most often no one notices.  Occasionally, out of the corner of an eye, we catch someone at a neighboring table gawking or making a whispered remark to his or her dining companion.  But we’ve been doing this for years and we’ve long ago ceased to care what anyone thinks.

We each have our iPhones out, swiping and scrolling at our tiny screens in between bites.  Watching us seated next to each other but bent over our phones, seemingly transfixed by the characters and images, people often get the wrong impression.  They don’t understand what they are seeing any more than they understand what they are hearing when we pray over our food.  We are not holy rollers, but we do worship God, and not the god of technology either.  We are not using our phones to avoid talking with one another, nor are we using them to text each other about the garish outfit of the woman sitting alone near the door or about the bratty kid misbehaving at the next table.  Quite the contrary, our phones have become the source of subject matter that has made for some of our most interesting conversations.  The medium of choice?  Facebook.

My wife has an account on Facebook; I do not.  I was once on Facebook for a spell, before backing away about four years ago.  For a little while, I had been thrilled with the prospect of keeping in touch with former coworkers, former subordinates, college acquaintances whom I hadn’t spoken to or thought about in 30 years, and all those “people you might know” — mostly members of churches that my wife attended as a teenager.  My initial enthusiasm waned as I became increasingly disappointed with everyone I knew on Facebook, most especially myself.  I find it convenient to say that what finalized the divorce between me and Facebook were the profanity-ridden, hateful comments posted by my nieces and nephews.  I like to say that I was tired of feeling as if I were back in junior high, a voyeur to an endless stream of bickering and vitriol.  But I know better.  That wasn’t it.  It was me!  I could no longer tolerate the way I had begun to treat Facebook as a talisman, the first thing I did when I opened my eyes in the morning and the last thing I did before going to bed at night.  I was so embarrassed with the way that I had allowed myself to be sucked into entirely too many games on Facebook.  And I became disenchanted with the superficial quality of my online relationship with people whom I barely knew, and in some cases, never knew.

These days, I take every opportunity to point out the downside of Facebook.  My wife says that my antipathy toward Facebook is no different than my promotion of vegetarianism; in both cases, I act as if I am better than everyone else.  She’s right, of course.  I do tend to harbor a rather smug attitude.  But I also believe that it is everyone’s right to pick his or her poison.  Although I no longer waste my time on Facebook, I now waste it on other things (like what I’m doing right now, for instance).

In spite of the above, I am pleased to relate that my wife and I have found a use for Facebook that we can both agree on.  And it is this in which we were engaged at the little table in the diner as we munched our dinners.

First, my wife opened her Facebook feed and passed me her phone so I could read about what’s going on with several members of our family.  This led to discussions about nieces and nephews, our little grandniece and upcoming plans.

Then she flipped to a screen on which she showed me a photo of a little old lady at a sewing machine, explaining her devotion to the charitable organization Little Dresses for Africa.  This is a woman who spends her time making one dress per day for penniless African children.  She hopes to reach a total of 1,000 dresses by the date of her upcoming 100th birthday.

But not all the stories that my wife shares with me from Facebook are so encouraging.  Next, she showed me the photo of a grisly auto wreck in our former hometown of Fresno.  Apparently, a woman strung out on meth had stolen a car and ran a red light, crashing into three vehicles.  26-year old Matthew Harkenrider was killed on his way to work as a radiology technician at a local hospital.  He had recently graduated and purchased a house; his wife had announced her pregnancy that very day.  Then my wife showed me the Go Fund Me campaign taken up for the man’s widow, an effort that has already raised thousands of dollars.

Whether inspiring or tragic, family-related or world news, my wife has probably read about it on Facebook.  And she shares it with me on her iPhone over a meal at a little diner, often leading to some of our deepest conversations.

And that tells me that there is indeed still something good about Facebook.