Friday, October 31, 2008

Rain, Rain Go-Away

"So, do your kids celebrate Halloween?"

That's what someone asked me this morning.

I said, "Sure, but we do it in February and we call it Purim."

He laughed. "I guess once a year is enough, right?"

"It's not only that. Think about what you're teaching your kids. On Halloween, people teach their kids to ring doorbells asking for gifts of food. On Purim, people teach their kids to ring doorbells to give gifts of food."

That's the thing about spiritual values. When you really start to plumb them, you often find that they are the diametric opposite of modern mores.

Question for your table - did you ever find yourself wanting to go against the grain and march to a different drummer than your neighbors all around you? Did you ever succeed? (and did they think you were crazy?)

By the way, last week - in my zeal to tell the story, I left off the punch line. After all that effort to rain-proof our sukkah - for the first time in 6 years, it didn't rain!

My neighbors gave me credit for the beautiful weather.

Anything like that ever happen to you? Where you go to a lot of trouble to prepare for some "rain", and the weather turned out fair? (post your answer below)

Watch (Purple Rain)Superbowl Halftime Performance - Prince in Music Videos  |  View More Free Videos Online at

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Winter Begins

If you were wondering why I did not blog last week, I have a story to tell.

It has to do with Sukkot, aka Sukkos, that holiday that when I was a kid didn't exist except as some quaint harvest-celebration that meant nothing to a town-mouse like me.

If the High Holidays are like a meal, then Rosh Hashana is the first course, YK is the second course, and Sukkos is dessert.

Why anyone would want to leave the table before dessert is beyond me.

It reminds me of when my friend BJ joined me at a family wedding in Oakland. He only stayed for the reception after the chuppa, then left with some disappointment - "That wasn't no wedding! There was no wedding cake!" Boy was there cake, but you had to linger a little longer....

So here's the story:

The problem with Sukkos in Baltimore is that in our first five years here, we got rained on. Rained on hard. It ain't fun sititng in a sukka when it's pouring rain. People here try to rig up some kind of tarp to pull over the sukka quickly when the sky opens up. We tried this for five years and for five years had a wet sukka. I suppose our standards of comparison (Jerusalem and Palo Alto) are a little high.

Anyhow, this year I decided I was ready to have a dry sukka where I could live like I live in my house (that's what they say you're supposed to do). Complete with furniture, carpeting, books, artwork on the walls, etc.

The plan was to build a fiberglass roof that opens up on a hinge with a pulley.

Sounds simple enough, but the carpenter I hired to build it disavowed any responsibility for the mechanism. That part was up to me.

"No problem," I told him. "With a couple pulleys, a child will be able to lift it."

The problem was that he didn't get his part done on time. In fact, he only finished around 2 pm the afternoon before the holiday. At 2:05 I realized I was going to need a winch, and the closest winch dealer was down in Glen Burnie, a good 40 min drive.

No problem, I still had 4 hours.

The guy who sold me the winch also sold me a 25 foot cable with a hook on it - strong enough to pull a boat out of the water, definitely strong enough to lift a few pounds of wood and fiberglass.

On the way home, I made my umpteenth stop at Home Depot "just in case". By then, most of the swarms of Jewish people who had filled the aisles earlier in the day had left. Why not pick up an extra steel cable and ropes, "just in case"?

I arrived home at 4:00 and somehow had to thread these cables through the roof's trap-door and eye-hooks on the side of the house 20 feet up. I roused the troops for the job.

Avrami (11 years old) went to the upstairs window while Goldi (9) stood guard at the foot of ladder. I heaved open the heavy trap with a 2x4 and gingerly slid onto the fiberglass. The door is so wide that I could only reach one side of it from that position. I then had to go down, outside the sukka, up a different ladder, and hook on the other cable.

Then I tied the loose ends of the cables to a string that ran up to Avrami's window. He pulled them up to the window.

I ran upstairs and, using a long bamboo stick that Avrami had found two years ago near the Puget Sound, I leaned out the window and threaded the first cable through it's eye-bolt (I had duct-taped the cable to the stick).

"Get ready, Goldi," I called down to her. "I'm going to try to throw this stick through the bolt and it will fall down to you. Are you ready?"

1-2-3 - I threw the stick and it went about 90% through the bolt then got jammed.

"Someone get me a long stick" I called back into the house (remember, at this point, I'm halfway out the window.

Avrami ran to get me a giant 2x4. In the meantime, Yosephi (4) who had until now been on the sidelines, stepped up to help, handing me a yardstick. It was perfect, enabling me to push the rest of the stick through the eye-bolt. It went through and dangled, and with a bit of additional prodding with the yardstick, it went down to Goldi.

Well, almost.

It turns out that the cable was too short. There was no way around it. It was not going to work.

We were now about an hour before the holiday.

I remembered the two 50-foot ropes I had picked up, "just in case."

Back to inside the sukka, up the ladder and out over the fiberglass to unhook the steel cable and tie on the first rope. Then out to the second ladder to the other side of the trap to tie on the second rope. These I tied to the useless steel cable and had Avrami pull it slowly up to the window.

Back upstairs, we had a mess - the two ropes somehow got tangled. What a mess. We got them untangled and then I tried the same trick with the bamboo staff, leaning out the window and threading it through the eyebolt.

"Are you ready, Goldi?"


"A-one, and a-two, and a-three!" I jabbed the staff as hard as I could. It sailed right through the bolt then, just like before, jammed on the last 10 percent.

"Where's the yardstick?"

Yoseph had it ready and waiting.

This time, when I tapped it through, instead of falling to Goldie, it just hung there, dangling. Out of my reach.

"Maybe if I could lean a little farther out and tap it..."

I did. It swung. Finally it swung enough to come back to me so I could grasp it and give it a really good toss down to Goldie.

"Hang on to that rope, don't let it go!" I yelled to her.

I ran down to get the staff and she was holding on to that rope as if her life depended on it.

Back up the stairs to thread the second rope through its eye-bolt. Same thing, same jam, same swing, and finally the two ropes were threaded.

That may have been the hardest part, but it wasn't done yet.

The guy who sold me the winch told me he wasn't sure it would work with a rope. The clamp for the cable wasn't big enough for a rope.

At this point, about 30 min before the holiday, I was out of options. If my boy-scout knots at the other end of the ropes are going to work, they oughtta work at the winch end, I thought. So I tried it.

At this point, I was all alone. Everyone else was in some stage of showering or getting dressed. If this didn't work, we and our guests would be joining our neighbors in their sukka.

The crank seemed too easy to turn. And as I turned, nothing was happening. Then suddenly, the trap door over my head began magically to lift. Magestically. It was really quite awesome and most gratifying.

Sukkos, as a dessert to the High Holidays, can be boiled down to one thing - internalizing a deep happiness that should endure the entire year.

We have no more Torah holidays until the spring (Passover). Six months of winter. Six months of focusing on our daily lives and worries and not having to "worry" about Jewish stuff (except the "minor" holidays of Hannuka and Purim that were added later).

I find there are two kinds of people out there. As the economic pain deepens, there are those who say, "Thank God the holidays are over, I have too much else to worry about!" And there are those who say, "Thank God for the holidays, without them I would never stop worrying."

Question for your table: What type are you?

(and what are you going to do about it?)

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Bottom Line

A story, a thought, and a question (and a P.S.)

There is a lot of worry about the bottom line right now.

Let’s see if we can find a “karmic” response to our plummeting “securities”.

The story:

Yesterday during Yom Kippur I found myself in shul beside a fellow Jew who happened to be deaf. A couple times there were announcements or stage-directions that he was unable to hear so I (and my son) clued him in via a combination of gestures and oral interpretation (he’s a good lip-reader).

The thought:

It seemed to me not a big deal, no different than helping anyone anywhere who needs a hand at something.

Evidently it is a big deal.

Evidently, people who are deaf, even members of our Jewish community, often feel excluded from the community because:

1. Many people do not say “Hello” to them, let alone strike up a conversation.
2. Some people interrupt a conversation between a hearing person and a deaf person.
3. Few people go out of their way to let a deaf person know what was announced in public.

I will say quite frankly that communicating with a person who cannot hear, or hear well, is more difficult than with a fully hearing person. Sometimes you have to speak louder, sometimes you need to repeat yourself, sometimes you need to enunciate better.

So what?

I cannot even imagine what would prevent someone from helping another who needs help for any reason.

In my opinion, it’s not a question of deaf/hearing, it’s a question of general sensitivity to others, sympathy and empathy.

Are we all just too busy to pause and do a little kindness?

I don’t know about your town, but in our town there are numerous elderly people who are not able to get out of the house. Most of them are widow(er)s. Loneliness is one of the greatest afflictions of old age. And if that’s not enough to get you away from the TV/internet/golf course/etc., think about the tremendous amount of wisdom that comes naturally from a long life.

Someone once said that the best measure of how Yom Kippur went is how a person thinks and acts after Yom Kippur.

The question for your table: How did your YK go?

Shabbat Shalom.

The P.S. – Monday night is the start of Sukkot. You can now get an affordable, easy-to-install sukka (no tools needed) that can give one a true dessert to the 2 main courses of the High Holidays.

First, try your local Judaica shop – they usually have the best ones and they usually will ship just as readily as anyone else, plus it helps to have a local dealer in case there is a problem AND it helps your local economy to shop locally.
If for some reason your local shop cannot get you one, there are online locations. I do not have any particular recommendation because there is so much competition and I am not familiar with all of the outlets. However, here is an example of one that will show you the various options.

Make sure you get the schach (or cut your own)!

PPS – if you didn’t enjoy vid #3 there is still time! It can be seen here.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Why K?

Well, how was it?

Was your RH different this year than last?

Should the holidays be the same each year or different? Justify your answer in 20 words or less.

All tongue-in-cheekiness aside, seriously - why go through this routine again? Moreover, what are you going to say to an 18-year-old who asks you, "Why should I care?"

Isn't it true that most of us are emotionally driven?

I'll give you an example.

This week, for the first time I ran something we called "The Concise Traditional Rosh Hashana Service". We wanted something that had a lot of tradition, but that was simultaneously exceedingly user-friendly. That means we kept the pace up, did not drag on for hours and hours, had a kiddish in the middle, and lots of pauses to explain what's going on and how to enjoy the next part of the service.

On the traditional side, we wanted to make sure the environment was conducive to intense meditation and not socializing or distractions. Therefore we kept a symbolic (but not opaque or overbearing) separation between men and women. This set-up allowed husbands and wives to see each other (and sit practically beside each other) but not get distracted by each other.

Most of the participants were not used to this kind of service or set-up. Yet the proof was in the pudding - everyone came back for the second day.

But get this - I know of at least one woman who would not attend because she heard that women and men would be sitting separately. This is inherently an emotional reaction. There was nothing "unequal" about the service (unless you think that my being male and leading made it unequal). But she, in my opinion, missed out on what could have been uplifting for her and her family, for emotional reasons.

There is nothing wrong with emotion-based decisions. But they don't tend to lead us to greater success. In fact, success, whether in the market or in my job or in my personal life, is correlated to using my reason. Emotions should inform my reason, but not guide it.

At the same time, this anecdote teaches us how to help young people connect Jewishly - make sure they enjoy it.

If you did not see my attempt on Monday to find some some mental and emotional spiritual meaning in the current business news, you can still read it online here

There you will also see film #3 – or you can click here.

...and please send your feedback.

In the meantime, what’s the best way to transition from RH to YK? How can we connect the two holidays in a meaningful way?

In my opinion it comes down to two things:

1. An ideal RH gives us clarity on the kind of life we want to start leading this new year
2. An ideal YK helps us grow spiritually in order to start leading that life.

For most of us, #2 requires getting rid of some egoism and increasing altruism.

Therefore, this transition time is a time to start giving.

It’s a great, unifying project for the family, to sit down together and decide where to give.

Bottom-line: buck the trend – stop worrying so much about our own assets and focus on helping those who are really suffering.

Here’s a link to my Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur posts from last year, which includes some amazing films and some recommended charities:

Shabbat Shalom