THE RETURN TRIP

When I was immigrating to Israel, I asked my friend — a rabbi — whether or not Jews believe in reincarnation.

He said “Which Jews? Where? When?” Beliefs in reincarnation transcend religious, ethnic and historical borders. Almost every known religion has incorporated it at some point and in some place.

Teepee as kaleidoscope

Since Jews have no dogma pertaining to the afterlife — or even if there is an afterlife — we can choose to believe as we like.

I’ll take Reincarnation, thanks. With a side of Heaven in case I need a vacation.

CHRISTMAS FROM THE OUTSIDE

Being a non-observant Jew is effectively no religion. It isn’t like being an atheist because it doesn’t imply a belief in no god. My mother was an atheist. I understand what it means. To me, atheism requires as much certainty as any other faith. You have to know something you can’t really know. It’s faith, even if it’s faith in nothingness.

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Given my upbringing and personal preferences, I’m mildly uncomfortable celebrating all religious holidays, including Jewish ones. I feel as if I’m wearing someone else’s clothing. Even when they fit well and look good, I know they aren’t mine. Every year when Christmas rolls through town flattening everything and everyone in its path, I bow to its power and supremacy. I enjoy the lights, music,  gifts and season while remaining aware it isn’t my holiday. When everyone is sharing their warm fuzzy memories of Christmas as a child, I have no equivalent memories to share. Not of Christmas or any holiday because my mother, atheist that she was, celebrated nothing. As a kid, I yearned to be part of Christmas. All my friends had trees and got a zillion presents. I would wander around to my various friends’ houses, stay a little while, aware I wasn’t really welcome. Then I would go home. I felt so left out.

When I married my first husband, his family was almost as religious as mine. They were pretty sure they had been — at some point in the past — something, but they weren’t sure what. They celebrated Christmas with enormous energy and enthusiasm, without any bothersome religious overtones. It was an alcoholic’s dream holiday featuring eggnog that might actually kill you. And very tree-ish. My father-in-law hauled in the biggest trees I’ve ever seen in a private home. Paul Bunyan would have been impressed.

That first Christmas (1965), they pulled out all the stops. They had a Jew to entertain. How exciting. A new audience. Jeff passed away twenty years ago, but his mother — she will be 104 in February — still sends a Christmas present. I have one in the living room right now waiting to be unwrapped.

The nine years I lived in Israel gave me perspective. There was no evidence of Christmas. Chanukah was a holiday, but not like Christmas. Passover and Sukkot were big festivals. It was comfortable to be a Jew in Israel. That sounds redundant, but the freedom to live by a Jewish calendar was no small thing. Even if you were entirely non-religious, you didn’t feel the pressure to be involved in what is — theoretically — a Christian holiday, but is — as practiced — Pagan. I like the Pagan part.

Basically, I have no religious affiliation. Jewish by ethnicity and history. And I know a lot about Judaism, admire it, but I don’t practice it and never have. I thought seriously about practicing it but it didn’t fit better than anything else. I’m skeptical of everything, certain of nothing. I have no answers.

So to all of you, Merry Christmas. Have a cool Yule and a grand Solstice. Whatever you celebrate, please — enjoy it! I’ll sing along because I know all the words.

Traveling slowly through time

Without a machine or a wormhole we travel through time every day of our lives.

When I was perhaps ten, I read about Halley’s Comet. I learned it would be visible in the heavens on my 39th birthday.

“Wow” I said. “I’ll be so old and I will see the comet on my birthday … when I am thirty-nine.” I couldn’t imagine ever being so old … or seeing Halley’s Comet.

96-Halleyscomet-1986

When my 39th birthday rolled around, I was living in Jerusalem. On my birthday, as I had planned when I was 10 years old, we went out into the Judean desert and saw the comet. It was Rosh Chodesh, the new moon which has special significance in Judaism. One of our group was Orthodox (the rest of us were not) and he had a lot of praying to do before we went to see the comet.

The Jerusalem Post had published the exact times when the comet would be visible and where on the horizon to look. Sure enough, there it was, low on the horizon over Bethlehem. It turned out, when we got back to the house, we could see it perfectly from our balcony. When we knew where to look, it was easy to locate. halleys-comet-1986

That was 27 years ago. I remember knowing the comet was coming and I planned to see it on my 39th birthday. I did see it on that birthday, in a different country on the other side of the world. Now, in my 66th year, I remember the knowing, the seeing. I have the perspective of a child, a woman, and the grandmother. I have traveled through time. Slowly. Without a machine, without a wormhole.

It is no less time traveling than in a science fiction story … just a great deal slower.

Life is a trip through time. Mine, yours, everyone’s. We won’t bump into our younger or older self, but we carry each of these selves. They are as real and alive as the memories we keep.

Jewish Jokes

My father was not a really nice guy, but he was a salesman and spent a lot of time on the road. Consequently, he had an enormous repertoire of jokes. Some I can’t repeat, not because they are dirty, but because they were mostly in Yiddish and they don’t translate, but others are universal.

That’s the thing about ethnic humor. It really isn’t “Jewish” or “Italian” or any other group. It is human. From group to group, there is often more truth in the jokes we tell about ourselves than in any other form of communication.

Mea Shearim in 2006 — Photograph by Ahron de Leeuw

The Nature of the Jewish Husband-Wife Relationship

So one day, a surveyor comes to the home of an Orthodox couple and asks if it would be alright if he asked a few questions about male and female roles in the household.

“Sure, why not?” says the Lady of the House.

“My first question is,” says the surveyor, “Which of you is in charge of making the important decisions about your family or do you split them up?”

“Oh,” says the wife. “We are very traditional. I do the unimportant decisions and he takes care of the really important ones.”

“What unimportant decisions do you make?”

“I decide how we will pay the bills, where to send the children to school, whether or not we need to move to a different neighborhood, how we will handle our healthcare, what we will eat, making sure the children learn about God and attend to their religious duties. That sort of thing,” she explains.

The surveyor is puzzled. “So what,” he asks, “are the important things your husband handles?”

The wife smiles. “He decides what relationship God has with mankind, how we achieve peace on earth, and the nature of righteousness.”

Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee — Israel Ministry of Tourism

Judaism and Jews

Twelve Jews are stranded on a desert island. They are there many years. When finally a ship comes by and they are rescued, the rescuers are surprised to discover that there are 13 synagogues on the island.

The ship’s captain is puzzled. “I can understand,” he says, “why you might have 12 synagogues, but what’s with thirteenth?”

Replies everyone in concert “That’s the one nobody goes to.”

(Note: Whether or not you find this funny depends on your ethnicity.)

Dead Sea – Israel Ministry of Tourism

An Israeli Joke

An Israeli man who studied in Texas gets an email from his old school mate saying that he’s going to visit Israel and can they get together?

Avi is delighted and prepares to show his country to his Texan friend. But while he’s giving his friend  “the tour,” every time he shows something to his friend, the friend says that his father owns, or has built something bigger and better in Texas.

He shows him the Old City in Jerusalem and his friend says “why we’ve got ghost towns on our ranch bigger than that.” When looking at the Sea of Galilee, the Texan comments that “there are puddles bigger than that on our ranch.”

Finally, in near desperation, Avi takes his pal to the Dead Sea.

“You see that?” he says, pointing at the body of water.

“Yup,” says the Texan.

“My father killed it,” says Avi.

Happy Chanukah!

Chanukah, Chanukkah or Chanukah), also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE.

While not one of the major Jewish festivals, it’s proximity to Christmas has given it more prominence than it’s religious or historical importance would normally support. But for all that’s, it’s a fun holiday, especially for children and lovers of jelly donuts and potato latkes.

Angels and Oxymorons Abounding

I love this time of year. The holidays bring out the pious hypocrite in us. It’s delightful watching people mouth platitudes in which they obviously don’t believe. There we are, deploring the crass commercialism of the holiday season, how they have become nothing but a huge excuse for everyone to spend too much money. Then we jump in the car and race to the mall to buy those last-minute gifts.

Truth is as bright and flashy as the trees we love to decorate: we adore commercialism. Our national sport is shopping. Christmas is one humongous discount bargain bin and everyone accepts credit cards. All that glitters is not gold, but we don’t care.

What we deplore is not commercialism. We just hate not having enough money to dive into the season and pile those gift boxes high. To quote Tom Lehrer, “Angels we have heard on high, tell us to go out and buy.” If you live in the U.S., it’s inescapable.

When I was a kid, I so envied my Christian neighbors. They had Christmas trees and lights and presents to open. They had Santa Claus. I wanted it too.

Which makes this a perfect time for me to annoy you by pointing out what everyone already knows: Christ was not born at Christmas. Current thinking is probably sometime in the spring.  The Yule celebration predates Judaism and Christianity. Our most beloved seasonal  symbols — Christmas trees — have no religious significance for any living religion. It’s a symbol of a faith long since faded to fable. We love the trees, the lights and those stacks of boxes wrapped in pretty paper and bows. Let the games commence. The holidays are upon us. Spend today and figure out how to pay it off tomorrow. Holidays bring out the pagan in us. Just admit it already.

Not being brought up with Christmas has given me a running start on understanding the spirit of the season. I got to celebrate Christmas because my first husband, may he rest in peace, was not Jewish. He wasn’t much of a Christian either. To the best of my knowledge, his family had never attended any church, but identified themselves as vaguely Protestant, though which denomination they could not say. But they were very big on Christmas. It was my introduction to nominal Christianity and non-denominational Christmas. It was years before I realized that there was more to Christianity and Christmas than stringing lights and making killer eggnog. They really did make killer eggnog. Unimaginably lethal.

So indulge me for a moment on the subject of faith. I have been accused of being anti-religious, anti-Christian, unGodly and on the fast track to Hell. How ironic when I am boringly obsessed with religion and have been for my entire life.  I’m not unGodly, just anti-dogmatic and not Christian. Jews consider me un-Jewish so I am out of step with everyone and everything. I am very far from atheistic or anti religious. Au contraire, I’m just not your coreligionist. No matter what you are, I’m not that. I’m something. If I had a label, my problems would be over. I could answer that aggravating question: what are you?

So what’s with the whole faith thing? How dare I say you can’t prove God‘s existence?

When I say faith is not proof, I don’t mean to imply that faith is bad or wrong, only that you can’t prove anything by it. It’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it, but it would never hold up in a court of law. Any judge on any episode of Law and Order would throw your case out of court. So my advice is to stay out of the court. Keep government out of religion.

Faith gets us through the day. We  have faith that the world will keep turning on its axis, that the car will start, that our computers will do what computers do. There are people who believe it’s faith that makes our technology work. Because we believe in it, it works. Should our faith in technology flag, it will no longer work. It’s magic. Or God. One way or the other, it’s faith in action.

English: Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, &q...

Thomas Nast’s most famous drawing, “Merry Old Santa Claus”, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly. Thomas Nast immortalized Santa Claus’ current look with an initial illustration in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, as part of a large illustration titled “A Christmas Furlough” in which Nast set aside his regular news and political coverage to do a Santa Claus drawing. The popularity of that image prompted him to create this illustration in 1881.

As for religion making us good or bad people, poppycock. We all know right from wrong whether we receive a religious education or are raised by wolves. Education and family values will provide a coherent belief structure, but only sociopaths have no conscience. That’s what makes them sociopaths.

The rest of us know it’s wrong to kill, steal, lie and cheat. You don’t have to be a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or subscribe to any special set of rules. We can argue for eternity about the details and we probably will, but the basics are the same across the centuries, cultures and continents. Don’t kill, don’t steal, tell the truth, take care of the poor, widows and orphans, and be nice to old people, especially your parents. (Unless that group of people over there call God by a different name — them, you can kill.)

But I digress.

That being said what you believe is what you believe. Nothing more. Nothing less.

You can’t prove or disprove anything — which is why scientific “laws” are called theories, like the theory of relativity, for example. When a theory works, it’s a law. If we make a breakthrough and our previous theory no longer fits, we devise a new theory which we’ll hang on to until something else comes along. At which point we’ll revise it again. That’s why I say that all belief is all faith-based. It can’t be proved or disproved. It just is.

Then there’s doubt. Skepticism. Disbelief. Imperfect faith.

Whenever anyone tells me he or she has no doubts, I start to twitch. Doubt is normal; absolute faith with never a trace of doubt? That sounds more like brainwashing than faith. I’ve talked with ministers, pastors, priests, rabbis, Wiccans, wackos, one self-declared reincarnation of Jesus and a Cardinal with strong Jesuit leanings. I’ve talked with born-again Christians and born-again Jews (it isn’t a solely Christian phenomenon). Everyone wrestles with doubt. Life tests faith. I think it’s supposed to. We all have to find our special path through doubt and difficulty to whatever floats our spiritual boat.

I am tired of asking politely for everyone to let me be myself, whatever that is. So I hereby demand the right to do my own thing, make my own decisions, and find my path through the thorny thicket of life. I’m happy to share this freedom with everyone and their Uncle Bob. If perchance I don’t wind up walking down the same road as you, it’s a big world. There’s room for all of us. No one owns the truth.

No one has all the answers.

Except me. I have all the answers. If you want my answers, please enclose a check and a stamped self-addressed envelope. I will send you a key that will unlock the mysteries of the universe. The bigger the check, the better the key.

I need the money to spend on Christmas presents.

Those Old Catskill Comedians …

I got this post from my husband and who knows how many places it has already traveled. But it made me laugh and this is one of those days when a laugh seems exactly what I need. So here they are …

Those Fabulous Old Time Jewish Comedians!

Maybe you remember the old Jewish Catskill comics. Some of them went back to the really old days of Vaudeville, others were more recent and a fair number of them are alive and well and still working. Except that the center of the action is Las Vegas. Maybe, the Catskills will rise again. There are people trying to create a revival, so time will tell.

Red Buttons,  Totie Fields, Joey Bishop,  Milton Berle, Jan Murray,  Danny Kaye, Henny Youngman,   Buddy HackettSid Caesar,  Groucho Marx, Jackie Mason, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, George Burns, Allan Sherman, Jerry Lewis (mostly at Brown’s Hotel),  Carl Reiner, Shelley Berman, Gene Wilder, George Jessel, Alan King, Mel Brooks, Phil Silvers, Jack Carter,  Rodney Dangerfield,
Don Rickles, Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Mel Brooks, Mansel Rubenstein and so many others.

There was not one single swear word in the ” family” routines, but elsewhere on the road, these guys were (and are) as blue as any other comics. Also, when the punchline was in Yiddish, you knew it was too blue for English.

I always tried to get my mother to translate for me, but she said the lines were “earthy” in Yiddish, but really dirty in English. So mostly, I never did hear the punchlines.

Here are a few  oldies, but goodies:

I just got back from a pleasure trip. I took my mother-in-law to the airport.

I’ve been in love with the same woman for 49 years! If my wife ever finds out, she’ll kill me!

What are three words a woman never wants to hear when she’s making love? “Honey, I’m home!”

Someone stole all my credit cards but I won’t be reporting it. The thief spends less than my wife did.

We always hold hands. If I let go, she shops.

My wife and I went back to the hotel where we spent our wedding night; only this time I stayed in the bathroom and cried.

My wife and I went to a hotel where we got a water-bed. My wife called it the Dead Sea .

She was at the beauty shop for two hours. That was only for the estimate. She got a mudpack and looked great for two days. Then the mud fell off.

The Doctor gave a man six months to live. The man couldn’t pay his bill so the doctor gave him another six months.

The Doctor called Mrs. Cohen saying, “Mrs. Cohen, your check came back. ”  Mrs. Cohen answered, “So did my arthritis!”

Doctor: “You’ll live to be 60!” Patient: “I am 60!” Doctor: “See! What did I tell you?”

Patient: “I have a ringing in my ears.”  Doctor: “Don’t answer!”

A drunk was in front of a judge. The judge says, “You’ve been brought here for drinking.”
The drunk says “Okay, let’s get started.”

The Harvard School of Medicine did a study of why Jewish women like Chinese food so much. The study revealed that this is due to the fact that Won Ton spelled backward is Not Now.

There is a big controversy on the Jewish view of when life begins.
In Jewish tradition, the fetus is not considered viable until it graduates from medical school.

Q: Why don’t Jewish mothers drink? A: Alcohol interferes with their suffering.

A man called his mother in Florida , “Mom, how are you?”  “Not too good,” said the mother. “I’ve been very weak.” The son said, “Why are you so weak?” She said, “Because I haven’t eaten in 38 days.” The son said, “That’s terrible. Why haven’t you eaten in 38 days?” The mother answered, “Because I didn’t want my mouth to be filled with food if you should call.”

A Jewish boy comes home from school and tells his mother he has a part in the play. She asks, “What part is it?” The boy says, “I play the part of the Jewish husband.”  “The mother scowls and says, “Go back and tell the teacher you want a speaking part.”

Question: How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: (Sigh) “Don’t bother. I’ll sit in the dark. I don’t want to be a nuisance to anybody.”

Short summary of every Jewish holiday – They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.

Did you hear about the bum who walked up to a Jewish mother on the street and said, “Lady, I haven’t eaten in three days.”  “Force yourself,” she replied.

Q: What’s the difference between a Rottweiler and a Jewish mother?
A: Eventually, the Rottweiler lets go.

2008