Thursday, February 22, 2007

Deep Skin

Question: How is it that Iran has taken one more step towards their program of annihilation of Israel and the media focus on a distraught woman in LA shaving her head?

My theory: There are surely many causes, but I think that one must be that our culture has a warped view of "beauty". We are, in fact, brainwashed.

How so? Watch this:

Are we stuck with this status quo or is there an alternative? Our first child born in the U.S. is named Emuna. Somehow we seem to have been able to shield her from much of that narcissism. Maybe by keeping her locked in the basement for five years? (Just kidding - Purim's around the corner!)

Now, for the past three years, Emuna has not put anything in her mouth that was not white, with the exception of spinach quiche. (All that is going to change on Sunday when she turns five. We've been building her up for a big rite-of-passage to raw vegetables.) Emuna's great selectivity is actually a sign of a gourmet. She regularly chews her food with her eyes closed, in order to savor it, and if she sees me not doing the same, she calls me on it (in a friendly tone): "Abba, close your eyes!"

Last summer, I returned home with a box of my bubbe's costume jewelry for the kids to enjoy. The next morning, her teacher called to ask if we knew that Emuna was giving all the jewelry away to her classmates (we hadn't).

We all know that giving and sharing are what it's all about, right? But sometimes it's hard to balance self-interest with altruism. A friend in Chicago named Susan Sneider has written a marvelous handbook to relationships. It was published by the American Bar Association and is called A Lawyer's Guide to Networking, but it's great for anyone interested in more and better relationships. Ms. Sneider's thesis is that focusing on the other person's needs will in the long run make you successful. She includes exercises to help the reader identify all of their current and potential networks, and how to build them:
You get no extra points for shaking hands with everyone at an event. The important goal is to make meaningful connections....

The Hebrew word for love - ahava - is built on the root hav, "give". And the other word for give, natan, is a palindrome, alluding to what a group of latter-day mystics crooned, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make...."

Here are two more very short videos on the topic for a real TGIF treat:

Shabbat Shalom.

Yiddish of the week:

Ikh leebeh dikh! – I love you!

Nu, do you remember these past words?

anee — poor person
koptsen — panhandler
ballaboss — homeowner; layman
nu — various meanings (see archives)
mishpocha — family
mameh — mother
tateh — father
mazal – (MAH-z’l) luck or fortune, as in, “It was good mazal that....”
beshert – (b’shairt) - meant to be, as in “It was beshert that...”
mine eltern – my parents
mine lair-er – my teacher

Friday, February 16, 2007

Whither the Storm

Dedicated to the memory of Chana bas Shmuel.

This winter weather reminds me of a story.

The Cast: Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, the late great Dean of the Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland, and 8 students.
The Setting: A few years ago during a snowy winter..

One of Rabbi Gifter’s students was getting married in New York and had sent nine tickets to bring his rabbi and friends to his wedding. They were leaving on an early morning flight to attend an evening ceremony. It was a very happy time for all of them.

Halfway to New York, the pilot made an announcement:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the Captain. The storm in New York has become an unexpected blizzard and all airports in the region are closed. No flights are taking off or landing. We are being diverted to Washington National Airport. I am sorry for the inconvenience.”

There was obviously nothing that Rabbi Gifter and his students could do. They were going to miss the wedding. This was not a pleasing outcome, but there was nothing they could do. They were not going to share this celebration with their friend.

Facing an indefinitely long wait in the Washington airport, Rabbi Gifter told his students, “Let’s go find a quite place to say the afternoon service.” Because of the storm, the airport was jammed full of stranded travelers. They could find neither nook nor cranny conducive to the intense meditation that yeshiva students prefer. Finally, one of the students stopped an airport custodian. His name tag said “Joe”.

“Is there a room here we could use to pray?”

Joe dropped his mop and gaped at them like they were from Mars. The student who had stopped him assumed that he didn’t speak English very well, so tried to communicate with a combination of monosyllabic words and sign language: “ROOM – FOR PRAY - QUIET – WHERE? QUIET ROOM?” he asked, gesturing.

Joe replied slowly and quietly, almost a whisper, “I have a work room you can use. Follow me.”

Pleased, they followed Joe into a room that was barely large enough for all of them, but it was quiet. They were grateful.

The entire time they conducted their service, Joe stood at the door and watched. When they had finished and were moving to leave, he asked, “Why don’t you say Kaddish?”

Needless to say, they were not expecting that question. Rabbi Gifter responded, “We need ten men to say Kaddish, and you see that we’re short one.”

Very deliberately, Joe said, “I am a Jew. Let me complete your minyan.” Then he became plaintive: “Please,” he begged, “Let me say the Kaddish.”

Needless to say, Rabbi Gifter and his students agreed. Joe put down his mop, moved to the center of the room, and took a deep breath. “Yisgadal v’yiskadash...” His voice trailed off, for he did not know the Aramaic by heart. So Rabbi Gifter coached him through every word and he and the students responded at all the appropriate times.

Then Joe told his story. “As you can see, I am not a completely ignorant Jew. I was brought up practicing. But as a young man I rebelled against my parents, especially my father, and stopped being observant. This caused an even bigger fight with my father and we didn’t speak for nine years until he died. I didn’t even go to his funeral last week.

“But last night I dreamed about my father. In my dream he spoke to me and said, ‘Yosaif, I know you’re angry at me! You didn’t even come to my funeral! But you must say Kaddish for me! You’re my only son!’

“In my dream I said back to him, ‘But how can I do that, I don’t know the words, and anyway you need a minyan!’

“He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get you a minyan. Tomorrow!’ And then I woke up. And then the next day, that’s today, the nine of you show up, Heaven sent!”

Rabbi Gifter then told Joe their side of the story, about the wedding and the storm. “You see,” he said to the students as much as to Joe, “that literally nothing happens by chance. Not the wedding, not the nine invitations, not the snowstorm. Someone is looking out for you!”

Joe didn’t take much persuading to find a local minyan and continue saying Kaddish for his father for the duration of the eleven months, and on the annual Yarzeit thereafter.

For your table – Have you ever felt that events in your life were being orchestrated or that you were being tested?

Shabbat Shalom.

PS – if you would like to arrange Kaddish for a parent or other loved one, almost any yeshiva that has a daily minyan will make sure that it is said on your behalf in exchange for a small donation.

Yiddish of the Week.

mazal – (MAH-z’l) luck or fortune, as in, “It was good mazal that....”
beshert – (b’shairt) - meant to be, as in “It was beshert that...”
mine eltern – my parents
mine lair-er – my teacher

Nu, do you remember these past words?

anee — poor person
koptsen — panhandler
ballaboss — homeowner; layman
nu — various meanings (see archives)
mishpocha — family
mameh — mother
tateh — father

Friday, February 09, 2007

Ain't Growin' on Trees

This weeks Table Talk is sponsored by a friend in Washington, DC. To dedicate a future Table Talk, please send an email.

A question and a story for your table.

The question:

Why don’t people grow on trees?

Before you laugh, think about it for a minute. Why do we have parents? I don’t mean biologically. What I mean is, from a Jewish perspective where everything under the sun has a purpose and a place, why would we be made with parents? Couldn’t God have created a world where we sentient beings grow on trees?

The story:

A few days ago, a young man approached me outside a local synagogue and shyly asked, in Hebrew, if I could give him a ride to a certain bus stop. Sure, I said, let’s go! Baltimore sees many Israelis who come to collect tsedakah for all kinds of causes: to support a yeshiva, to help someone with medical expenses, to feed poor families, and so on. But the collectors are almost always older. This guy looked too young. And maybe a little sad. Or was that a look of contentment?

So I asked, “What’s your name and what brings you to Baltimore?”

“My name is Yishai and I’m getting married.”

“Mazal tov! That’s wonderful. When’s the wedding?”

“Next month, in New York.”

“Hmm, so now I have two questions – if it isn’t until next month, what are you doing here now? And why are you here and not in New York?”

And so Yishai explained that his parents have disowned him and so he came to the States early to look for work in order to help pay for the wedding and to support his family afterwards.

I was flabbergasted. I’ve heard of many sorts of feuds and disputes, but I’d never heard of a case so bad that the parents wouldn’t even attend their eldest child’s wedding. Yishai told me that not only do they refuse to speak with him on the phone, they have forbidden his younger siblings from communicating with him.

And what is the great evil that soft-spoken Yishai committed to warrant being banned from his family? What was his abominable sin?

His great unforgivable offense was that he decided at age seventeen that he wanted to wear a yarmulke, keep kosher and stop working on Saturday.

Yishai is now twenty-one. He’s on his own. When I looked into his face in the frigid February air, I saw forlorn perseverance mixed with real joy.

Many people who change their level of observance from their families end up inadvertently cutting ties. The unspoken message seems to be, “I’m changing because your way is bad” when in fact the change does not need to be judgmental. It’s just a change. But even towards parents who over-react, one always has the mitzvah of “honor your father and your mother”. We always have to remember what our parents did for us, despite their human faults.

“Why don’t you write them a letter,” I suggested. “A letter is better than a phone call because it gives you the time to express yourself and them the time to hear you. But don’t talk about the pain in the letter. Talk about how much you appreciate them and all that they’ve done for you, and how happy you are to be getting married and how much you love your fiancĂ©e, maybe even enclose a photo and how much you yearn for them to be at your wedding (on such-and-such a date at such-and-such a place). Speak from your heart.”

As I spoke, I could see the tension evaporate from Yishai’s face. He began to beam and thank me for the idea. I hope I didn’t give him false hope.

+ + + +

Back to the question:

So why parents?

Maybe at your dinner table tonight you can come up with a dozen benefits of parent-based human biology as opposed to any other conceivable system.

To me, it seems as though one benefit of parents is that it gives everyone someone to look up to. Even if it doesn’t last beyond childhood, we need the experience of love and awe that parents can give us. And good parents discipline themselves to help the children relate to them with both love and awe. We – as children - need to master these feelings in order to be able to approach the Divine.

We live in a country that trumpets “very accomplished woman in tragic local story” (to borrow Jon Stewarts headline), because she’s an astronaut, and who hasn’t dreamed of being an astronaut?
Who hasn’t dreamed of being a billionaire?
Who hasn’t dreamed of being famous?

But you know, when I ask young people, Whom do you admire? I typically get two answers.

Most young people name someone wealthy or a great athlete.

But young Jewish people I ask, surprisingly, more often than not name one or both of their parents, or a parent-figure in their life.

Go figure.

Shabbat Shalom.

Yiddish of the Week.

Mishpocha – pronounced “mish-PUH-khuh”. It means family. Try getting everyone at the table to use it in a sentence.
MAmeh - Mom
TAHtee - Dad

Nu, do you remember these past weeks' words (see the archives if you need to)?

anee —
koptsen —
ballaboss —
nu —

Friday, February 02, 2007

What Nu Is

This Table Talk is dedicated to the memory of the last fluent Yiddish speaker in my family, Yehudis bas Alexander Ziskind.

Yiddish of the Week

The fastest way to start sounding like a Yiddish speaker is to learn the big little word, Nu.

Nu has many meanings that are determined by context and your tone of voice. Here are some examples [inflection in brackets]:

“What’s up?” - “Nu?” (alt: “So, nu?”)
“The usual” - “Nu-nu.” [high-low]
“I know you’re waiting for an answer but I don’t have one yet” - “Nu-nu.” [high-low]
“So, tell me what happened!” - “Nuu-u?” [low-high]
“What would you expect?” - “Nu.” (tilt head, shrug shoulders and turn palms upward) [high]
“No, really, tell me!” - “Nu-nu!” [high-low]
“Whatever happened, happened, let’s change the subject!” - “Nuu!” (tilt head forward, turn palms upward)
“All right.” - “Nu-nu.” [high-low]
“Shall we go get a pizza?” - “Nu?” (with head or hand gesture in direction of exit)
“Sure, why not.” - “Nu-nu.” [high-low]
“Hurry up!” - “Nu-u!” [high-low, insistent]
“I’m coming!” - “Nu-nu!
“No really hurry now! We’re late!” - “NU!
“Stop!” - “NU!!
“May I help you?” - “Nu?
“Listen:” - “Nu:
“So what are you waiting for?” - “So nu?
“That’s the way it goes.” - “Nu-nu.” [quickly]
“Are you a fellow MOT (member of the tribe)?” - “Nu?
“I am, and I appreciate your discretion.” - “Nu-nu.

One way NOT to use “nu” is “what’s nu?”You will embarrass any Yiddish speaker who overhears you if you attempt this.

Do you remember what these words mean from last week?

anee (“uh-nee”) —

+ + + +

The last time that I wrote about global warming and terrorist nukes, some people replied with a pledge to start planting trees in order to make their lives carbon-neutral. Others said they were going to start investing some surplus income to save children.

If you have not yet got on one of these bandwagons, the time was yesterday, please get going.

If you have gotten on the bandwagon, the next step is to tell your friends about it. If you want to copy and paste from the link above, feel free – you don’t even need to credit me. Let’s just get the job done.

And if you are not planting trees to replace the tons carbon you are dumping into the biosphere (especially when you fly), your excuse is ...?

A site that calculates the number of trees you should plant per mile traveled
A site that will plant trees for you
A site where you can help starving families

These are small steps that may or not make a difference. But they will at least give you a modicum of defense if your grandchildren are being raised in an underground UV shelter and ask you, “So how did you not foresee this happening? Was it such a surprise? Why did you guys mess up the world?” With advances in medicine, the odds of you living long enough to face such a question (assuming WWIII can be avoided) are

Speaking of trees, tonight and tomorrow is Tu Bishvat - New Year of the Trees, which is celebrated in our family by going to the grocery store to create a centerpiece on the table of as many different kinds of fruits as we can find, to remind ourselves what a wonderful world we live in with such bountiful goodness. Safe to try at home! Then, ask each person, old and young, to take a non-binding pledge to make one new change next week for our planet. Even if that change is to send a copy of this Table Talk to one friend, we’re in the end-game here. Every yard counts.

So nu?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year