TIME TRAVELING SLOWLY – Marilyn Armstrong

Without a machine or a wormhole, we travel through time every day of our lives. We don’t do it instantly, but every photo we take is a picture of us in the past. Recent past, long ago past. All our memories are from the past and with each breath, we move one lungful at a time into our future. It is time travel, but slow.

When I was ten, I read about Halley’s Comet. I learned it would be visible in the heavens on my 39th birthday.”Wow” I thought. “I’ll be so old and I will see the comet on my birthday Thirty-nine!” I couldn’t imagine being that 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 ten, our bridge club went out into the Judean desert to see the comet. It was Rosh Chodesh, the new moon. It has special significance for Orthodox Jews … and one of us was Orthodox, so he was up a long time because he had to get up before dawn to start praying. That’s Judaism for you. Lots of very long prayers.

The Jerusalem Post had published the exact times and position when Halley’s Comet would be visible as well as where on the horizon you should 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 43 years ago. I remember knowing the comet was coming and planning to see it on my 39th birthday. I didn’t know I’d be living in another part of the world by then. Now, as I approach my 73rd year, it’s a one-time memory. I have the perspective of a child, a woman, and a 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 lot slower. Life is a trip through time. Mine, yours, everyones. We won’t bump into our younger or older selves, but we carry each of these selves with us as a future, past or this moment in time.

FANDANGO’S PROVOCATIVE QUESTION #33

Fandango’s Provocative Question #33

It’s hard to talk about this stuff without sounding pious or self-righteous. Personally, I always wonder if I have a price too and it’s merely that no one has offered to pay it that I have managed to stay true to my fundamental beliefs. When you’ve never been tempted or at least not tempted enough, it is hard to know what your own boundaries truly are.

This question was plucked from my post, so to a large degree, I’ve answered it already. Still, it’s a valid question with many possible answers and even more questions that lie along its borders.

The question of whether morality is part of “God’s personal patch” versus being a basic human issue is old. It’s a question that goes to the heart of every religion and dogma — as well every set of personal beliefs. It’s older than our literature and for all I know, they were pondering some version of this in cave dwellings.

For at least most of my life, as a child, adolescent, and adult, I have believed that we are all born with a fundamental knowledge of good and evil, of right and wrong. It isn’t something we need to be taught. We know it. Actually, Genesis essentially says more or less the same thing.

In our bones, in our brains, in that strange space we have that is neither physical or “brain matter,” but rather a special place where we preserve our personal beliefs.

That we all know what is right and wrong from our earliest youth through all of life does not mean that we always adhere to it. We have all done the wrong thing, whether it was big and bad, or little but nonetheless, wrong.

The cynical saying that “Everyone has a price” means no matter what you believe — or why you believe it — if you are offered a good enough deal, you’ll fold and do the wrong thing. It insinuates that greed is ultimately the most powerful emotion of which man is capable.

I want to believe that this is untrue and some of us cannot be bought. But do I know that? Or have many of us never been offered a high enough price? After all, the payment doesn’t have to be money. It can be power: legal power or religious power. It can make us godlike or rich beyond the ability of our calculator to count.

Greed can be the lust for knowledge, power, drugs, or land, though somehow money seems to squeeze into the equation somehow.


To quote Gordon Gekko, “Greed is good.”


Do you agree that greed is good? Or only that greed is good within limits, to a certain extent, but not beyond? That it’s okay to be greedy as long as you don’t get excessive about it?

What is excessive?

Does it mean only if you aren’t killing or crushing other people to reach your greed level, it’s okay? Or are there other issues?

I don’t believe that greed is good. The concept that greed is good offends me. I understand why greed feels good, though. I understand everyone wants to be safe from hardship and live life in comfort and dignity. I don’t consider that greedy. More like survival with benefits.

I certainly don’t think survival is greedy until you have to murder other people to achieve it. At which point you need to put down the gun and think about it.

It’s the excessiveness of greed that’s the problem. Because once you’ve broken through the comfort barrier and moved into luxury, when is enough, enough? What amount of whatever is sufficient?

When everything the eye can see, a man desires and comfort has long been surpassed, at what point do you stop? Do you ever stop? Can you stop? When you have the greedy bit clamped between your teeth, is there an end to your run?


ALEXANDER LEARNS VIRTUE

Gold coins of Alexander of Macedon

When Alexander had flown on the back of an eagle to the gates of Heaven itself, he bangs on the door until finally, a wise man answers. Because he is a great and powerful leader, he demands the right to ask questions of the wise men. These are his questions:

“Who is wise?” asks Alexander.

“He who can foresee the future,” answers the wise man.

“Who is a hero?” asks Alexander.

“He who conquers himself,” replies another wise man.

“Who is rich?” asks Alexander.

“He who rests content with what he has,” the wise men respond.

Alexander depicted on an ancient synagogue wall

Following this question, there is a story Talmudic legend about Alexander (who was a Jewish hero — a story too long to explain here), a balance scale, and a human eye.

The eye is placed on one side of the scale. On the other side, are piled mountains of gold, gems, and all other riches. Yet the human eye is heavier, no matter how many riches are put on the other balance. Finally, one of the wise men sprinkles a bit of dust over the eye. From that moment, even a feather is heavier than the eye.

Until a man is dead and covered in earth, he will always desire more. Only death can end his greed.

“By what means does man preserve his life?” asks Alexander.

“When he kills himself.” (Talmudist notes: By this, the wise men meant when a man destroys within himself all passion.)

“By what means does a man bring about his own death?” asks Alexander, referring back to the previous question.

“When he clings to life.” (Talmudist notes: When a man holds onto his passions and belongs to them.)

“What should a man do who wants to win friends?” asks Alexander. This is his final question.

“He should flee from glory and despise dominion and kingship,” the wise men conclude.

At the end of the Judaization process, Alexander is a humbled dictator. Although the lesson does not make him a wise man, the Talmudic dialectics bring Alexander the Great down a notch or two, make him a better person and a more benevolent leader.


If anyone assured me that one can be moral and hold a strong belief system without a formal belief system, my mother did that. She believed in virtue — goodness for its own sake. She believed in dignity, kindness, fairness, and equality. She was not a racist although she was positive that education made you a better person. If there was a break in her “system,” education was it.

She loved beautiful things for their beauty, yet before she died, she gave away or sold all her jewelry and art.


In the end, I do not believe anyone of any faith is incorruptible. We all have a weak spot. Something about which we feel so passionate, we would give or do anything to achieve it.

Incorruptibility is a choice. To find out if you are incorruptible, you’d need to be tempted by whatever it is that means the most to you. You would have to make painful choices and would forever wonder if you were a fool for choosing virtue over greed, especially if you urgently needed what you refused.

If you do not have a God about whom you can say, “His laws made me do it,” you will probably feel even sillier than the religious man who at least believes he is following the route God laid out for him.

A non-believer has only his self by which to gauge the rights and wrongs of life. Standing alone is hard. A good life is a hard life.

And no one ever promised it would be easy.

MOSES FOR WHOM THE GPS WAS INVENTED – Marilyn Armstrong

So, THE WAY THEY TELL IT, God wanted to get rid of all those who had experienced slavery. To accomplish this task, he made the twelve tribes walk around the Sinai wilderness for forty years.


Forty years? Seriously?

That area isn’t all that big. To keep walking for that many years, they had to have crossed their own paths repeatedly. Didn’t anyone shout out: “Hey, Moses. I’m pretty sure we’ve been here before. Levi, haven’t we already been here? Look, here’s where we put the tents. I think there are a few poles lying around  …”

By: Rick Baldwin

If the idea was to get rid of the “slave mentality,” why couldn’t they just make a nice camp and hang out until the time was up? Stop walking. Play guitars. Sing some songs. Play cards.

Why did they have to keep walking?

Was there a fitness or exercise requirement? Was it like a jail where you have this hour or two a day during which you have to keep moving? Why 40 years? That’s a pretty long time.

Garry says we have this same conversation every year, usually immediately following our ritual viewing of “The Ten Commandments.” But we didn’t watch it this year. It was the first time I can remember NOT watching it, but I think it’s possible I’m one viewing over the line, even for a Cecile B. DeMille classic.

This never stops making me laugh, please enjoy this short video of “Life with the Twelve Tribes.” I’m sorry I can’t embed the video, but it’s worth a few minutes of your time to give this a look. Not only is it funny, but it is oddly timely in this strange period in which we are living.


http://videocloud.aish.com/movies/Google%20Exodus.mp4

I know the holidays are over, but not by much, so forgive my tardiness. Whatever you celebrate, something or nothing, I hope the food was good and the company even better.

PEDIATRIC RELIGION – Marilyn Armstrong

When my first husband and I were getting married, he was something vaguely Protestant, though no one in his family knew what. They never attended church and while they were wild about Christmas, it was a very non-Christian version of it.

I’m not even sure they were Christian, but they weren’t anything else, either. I think it’s possible on the paternal side of the family, they might have been Jewish several generations back, then drifted into Christianity because they weren’t Jewish enough to hang with it.

Thus when my granddaughter was hitting eight or nine and Passover/Easter was approaching, I asked Kaity what Easter was about. She had never heard of Jesus or Christianity — or for that matter, Judaism.  She was sure that Easter was about baskets of sweets. She didn’t love chocolate (who doesn’t love chocolate?) — but always preferred the hard-boiled eggs. Funny kid.

In a Jewish family, religion comes through mom, but in Christianity, it devolves from dad. In theory, she could have swung either way.

Owen was Jewish because he had a Bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem. In Israel, it was the natural thing to do.

Here, in a very Christian valley with dozens of churches and not a single synagogue, it made more sense to find her a Protestant niche. Later, if life took her into “choices of religion,” she could make up her own mind.

I didn’t feel, without any backup, that I could raise her as a Jew. I don’t practice Judaism. I like Jewish food, Jewish people, and deeply appreciate Jewish law and how far ahead most of most kind of law it is (and was).

I studied in Yeshiva in Jerusalem because I needed to know more, but I knew I would never be Orthodox. This was a big disappointment to my teachers who thought my interest and intellectual involvement preceded a religious commitment. They didn’t “get”(most people don’t) that I love learning for its own sake, but it doesn’t presage any follow-up.

A couple of “studies” have evolved from “learning” to hobbies. Photography. History. Literature. Ecology. Music. Some kinds of art. Technology. Other stuff.

Thus I knew a lot ABOUT Judaism, but not much about how to actually “be” a Jew. I also know a lot about Christianity, because I studied that too and even converted to it, though I practice it to the exact same degree that I practice Judaism — which is to say, I don’t.

Happy birthday at 15!

I am religiously non-dogmatic. I am pretty sure I believe in something, but I don’t know what. Not nothing, though.

Meanwhile, Garry and I felt some pediatric religion was necessary. I didn’t expect Kaitlin to make religion her life, but I thought she needed to know that Christ was not a chocolate bunny and Judaism is a religion, not a bad word you call someone.

You can’t make a choice if you don’t know anything.

To my great relief, she is happily practicing nothing, considers herself vaguely protestant — and prefers eggs to chocolate.

BEWARE OF MAN! – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC – Beware of Man!

Harking back to yesterday’s long discussion of ARE YOUR VALUES WORTH A SONG AND A MOVIE? – Marilyn Armstrong which was based on Fandango’s Provocative Question #18:

Man (as opposed to a woman) should not lead a nation. Men are unsuited to the task. A man can be seduced by the size of a breast or beer.
A woman cannot.

A Talmud Legend relates the remarkable tale of how Alexander the Great searched for and found the gates of Paradise on Earth. Upon his appearance, however, he was not greeted knowingly by the Guardian of the Gate. The story reveals that even the most powerful, well-known or ‘great’ men need to be humbled, just like all of us on Earth need to be.

The legend goes as follows:

Once arriving at the gates of Paradise, Alexander the Great knocked persistently on the doors and demanded to be let inside. An Angel finally came calmly to the entrance and asked ‘Who is there?’

Alexander boldly announced, “It is I, the Great Conqueror and Lord of the Earth. Open the gates.” The Angel (to Alexander’s surprise and disappointment), said “We know him not. This is the Lord’s gate, only the righteous enter here.”

Incapable of persuading the Angel to allow his entrance, Alexander the Great prepared to go. Unwilling to leave the gates without some sort of token for his accomplishment for at least discovering the location of the abode of the just, he bravely asked the Guardian of the Gate for a gift. Granting his wish the Guardian gave him a small valuable item and said, “Take this, may it prove useful unto thee, and teach thee wisdom, more wisdom than thou hast acquired during thy ambitious expeditions and pursuits.”

Realizing the gift was nothing more than a piece of bone, Alexander the Great was angered and threw it down to the ground. An accompanying wise and learned man hastened Alexander to reconsider the value of the gift from the abode of the just and offered to weigh it upon the scales. Alexander allowed the wise man to do so. On one side was placed the small fragment of bone. The other side was filled with gold. No matter how much gold continued to be placed upon the scale, the fragment of bone outweighed it. The more gold put onto the scale, the lower the bone sank.

Confused, Alexander asked what could outweigh the bone. The wise man proceeded to show him and covered the bone with dust from the ground. Instantly, the side of the scale with the fragment flew up.

It was realized, “The bone was that which surrounds the eye of man; the eye of man which naught can satisfy save the dust which covers the grave.”

How, then, can a MAN lead a nation when nothing can satisfy him except his own grave? Beware the greed of man. Beware man and his hormones, his endless need for dominance, his demands for power and proof of his superiority. He will never be enough. He can never have enough.

Beware the creature who is a man!

99 New: Rumination

As a Jewish woman married to a Brown man, this really hits home. This whole week has been a bit of a nightmare for me. This is personal. It’s impossible to NOT see this as the start of a new period of nationalism and murder. Remember, folks, the actual name of Nazi was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Nazi is only how it came to be known, but Nationalist was always front and center. Guess who says he’s a “nationalist?” You got it on the first try!

Red's Wrap

Anti-Semitism isn’t just the stuff of white nationalist Neanderthals. Some of your best friends have anti-Semitic reflexes.

Oh, your friends would never admit to this. They’re too intelligent, too socially conscious. They wouldn’t be caught dead showing bigoted or anti-Semitic attitudes and they’d take great offense to the suggestion that they are unconsciously anti-Semitic. But some things a person can’t control and one of them is the reflex of anti-Semitism learned when they were children.

Who killed Jesus?

It starts there. Every kid in Sunday School learns that ‘the Jews killed Jesus.’ Later, when they grow up, they sometimes sort out who did what with Jesus; grown-up minds can deal with complexity if so inclined. If not so inclined, the original notion that the Jews were to blame for the agony of Christ’s suffering on the cross gets embedded in people’s psyches. Hence, the reflex business. And the Inquisition.

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GUILTY – BUT WAS I CHARGED? Marilyn Armstrong

BROUGHT UP GUILTY

To be brought up Jewish is to be brought up guilty. I think Catholics have a similar problem. We are guilty of different things, however. Catholics have the whole “sin” thing to deal with. Jews get to be guilty about all of Our People who were slaughtered in various parts of the world because they were Jews in the wrong country at the wrong political period.

Hofstra University 2014

Often, for us, there was no right period. Until relatively modern times — minus Nazi Germany, of course — Jews were anathema to most Christian monarchies.

And all the countries were monarchies. We did our best for the long years under Islāmic rule. They were fine with Jews as long as we didn’t tread on their religious sensibilities and tiptoeing through other religious ideologies is a very Jewish thing. We got lots of practice.

When I married my first husband, he had no religion. I mean literally none. They didn’t attend any church and I doubt anyone had ever been baptized. Jeff thought he might be a Druid and planned to return as an oak tree. I was a non-practicing Jew. So we got married by a minister that his mother remembered had buried some family member.

We didn’t have a real wedding. No church or synagogue. No wedding gown. Just a little get together with a minister (Methodist, I think) and a few friends. A couple of weeks later, my mother had a reception at their house, which was nice because it was casual. We didn’t need fancy invitations. After which, we got on with the business of being married.

Our house in Baka, in Jerusalem

So, when Owen was about to be born, we had to figure out what to do about religion. We didn’t have any and neither of us were believers in dogma. I had a friend who was also a rabbi and he said he was not a believer in pediatric Judaism.

Neither were we, so we just didn’t do anything … except we had Owen circumcised which gave him a whole set of Jewish godparents … then we had him Baptized and Garry became his godfather. And that is why Owen’s middle name is Garry.

The Dead Sea

When Jeff and I divorced and I took Owen to Israel, it seemed a good time for him to be Jewish, so he had a Bar Mitzvah there, at the only Reform synagogue in Jerusalem.

He got a 6-year dose of Jewish guilt, but then he went back to the U.S. and forgot all about religion.

I got to keep the guilt. He got to be American.

Summer afternoon on the Mumford

Guilt can be a mother’s best weapon to manage recalcitrant children, by the way. Owen may not remember much Judaism, but he sure does remember guilt. Not bad at using it himself, now that I think of it.

NAVIGATIONALLY-CHALLENGED: MOSES IN THE DESERT

So, THE WAY THEY TELL IT, God wanted to get rid of all those who had experienced slavery. To accomplish this task, he made the twelve tribes walk around the Sinai wilderness for forty years.


Forty years? Seriously?

That area isn’t all that big. To keep walking for that long, they had to have crossed their own paths repeatedly. Didn’t anyone shout out: “Hey, Moses. I’m pretty sure we’ve been here before. Hey, Levi, haven’t we been here before? Look, there’s where we put the tents. I think there are a few poles left over …”

If the idea was to get rid of the “slave mentality,” why couldn’t they just make a camp and hang out until the time was up? Stop walking. Play guitars. Sing some songs. Play cards.

Why did they have to keep walking? Was there a fitness or exercise requirement? Was it like jail where you have this hour or two a day during which you have to keep walking and walking and walking? Why does the idea of walking in circles for 40 years make me laugh hysterically?

Garry says we have this same conversation every year, immediately following our ritual viewing of “The Ten Commandments.” It must be pretty funny, because I’m still laughing.

And because this never stops making me laugh, please enjoy this little video of “Life with the Twelve Tribes.” I’m sorry I can’t embed the video, but it’s worth a few minutes of your time to give this a look. Not only is it funny, but it is oddly timely in this strange period in which we are living.


http://videocloud.aish.com/movies/Google%20Exodus.mp4

Happy whatever you celebrate!

COVET NOT YOUR NEIGHBOR’S ASS

So there we were in the car driving home. I was mentally shuffling the heap of miscellaneous stuff that passes for my brain and trying to remember all ten of the commandments.

Moses the Celebriduck

 

Why? Because I thought I should know them. They are supposedly the basis of all moral law, right? Why don’t I know them? Why aren’t they all on the tip of my tongue?

I found myself at a full stop around seven or eight, depending on how I divided the “How to behave to God” section which contains a lot of run-on sentences that could be interpreted as two or sometimes even three commandments but have — I suppose for convenience — been lumped into one.

I asked Garry if he knew the ten commandments. He replied, with some irritation, that he had to pay attention to the traffic. There wasn’t any traffic, except for one slow driver in front of us. I suppose Garry was trying to not ram him.

Finally, he admitted he didn’t know all of them, at least not in order.

“A sad state of affairs,” I pointed out, “When two educated souls cannot recite the ten commandments.”

“There’s a lot of stuff about not making idols. Not murdering or coveting.”

“Yeah, and taking one day off each week.”

When I got home, I looked them up.

Charlton Heston and the 10 commandments

It turns out there quite a few “proper behavior to God” commandments. Not all Christians — much less Jews — divide them the same way. You can count as many as fifteen (à la Mel Brooks in “History of the World, Part I”) or as few as eight. It depends on how you look at them — and punctuate the sentences.

Following are the Big Ten according to most Protestant sects, plus a second list containing my streamlined, easy-to-remember set.

Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17 NKJV)

  1. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.
  2. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My Commandments.
  3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
  4. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
  5. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
  6. “You shall not murder.
  7. “You shall not commit adultery.
  8. “You shall not steal.
  9. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Heston-Charlton-Ten-Commandments

I’ve always wondered how come we need laws from God to know that murder is not okay. Aren’t we born knowing this? Don’t we know without being told that stealing is bad? That we should take care of our parents and show them respect? Do we really need laws to tell us?

Modernization is all the rage, so here’s my take on them. Not etched in stone. Jealousy is mentioned once in the second commandment where it is good because it’s the Lord’s prerogative.

In the tenth, it’s covetousness, which is not good because jealousy is good for God, but not for us. That is also where your neighbor’s ass comes into the picture, one of the many things you are not supposed to covet.

A Streamlined Top Ten

  1. I’m God. The One and Only. Don’t forget it, not for a moment.
  2. Idols are O-U-T.
  3. Don’t swear using God’s name. Maybe no swearing at all. I’m not sure.
  4. Take a break on the seventh day of your week. It doesn’t matter what day you choose because when I started making the world, there were no calendars. So take your pick, then stick to it. Everyone gets the same day off, including your family, guests, slaves, servants, and animals. No work. Got that?
  5. Respect your parents. Take care of them.
  6. Don’t murder anyone.
  7. Don’t cheat on your spouse.
  8. Don’t steal stuff.
  9. Don’t lie.
  10. Don’t envy other people’s stuff, especially not your neighbor’s ass.

I’m just here to help.

LIFE AFTER CHRISTMAS: A SURVIVOR’S TALE OF RECLAIMING MEANING AT THE HOLIDAYS – REBLOG BY SEAN MUNGER

In 2015, I officially converted to Judaism. While I was not brought up in a particularly religious household, my family has no Jewish background; the reasons why I converted are complicated, but suffice it to say that it was the right choice for me. Like most Americans, my family had celebrated Christmas for all my life, though generally not with much emphasis on the religious aspects. Christmas and the holiday season had nothing to do with my decision to become Jewish, but once I did convert, the very next December I experienced an unexpected fringe benefit: I was suddenly absolved of the obligations, stress and baggage that come with Christmas, and this absolution was much more of a relief than I would have thought possible going in.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Christmas-hater. In fact in my childhood and early adulthood I liked Christmas a lot, mirroring the progression of how it usually goes for middle-class kids brought up in largely secular families. When you’re a small child Christmas is great because you get toys; as a teenager or in college you look forward to a lengthy break from school; as an adult you tend to enjoy the togetherness with family, the food, the festive atmosphere and the general pause in a busy year. But Christmas in modern America also comes with a lot of demands. There are financial demands, in buying gifts; emotional demands in confronting family; and, these days, even political and cultural demands, as Christmas has become politicized in the context of conservatives’ ludicrous assertions of a “War on Christmas” and weaponizing Christmas-themed greetings, symbols and icons in an ongoing and very tiresome culture war.

In modern commercialized Christmas, days of (allegedly) heavy shopping have become almost like holidays unto themselves. I’m uncomfortable with this.

My Jewish friends, particularly those who have kids, are even more angsty about Christmas. It’s hard to tell a child that in your household December holidays (Hanukkah, which in 2017 is already over) are about lighting candles, saying prayers and maybe eating latkes when their non-Jewish friends are going on about the bikes, video game consoles or iPhones that they expect to receive on Christmas morning. One of my Jewish friends refers to the season as “Giftmas” and sees the commercialization of Christmas and its frenzy of stuff-buying as a significant challenge in maintaining Jewish religious identity in her household. (That it’s also a threat to Christian identity goes without saying). She’s not wrong. I don’t face the issue because I don’t have kids, but I certainly see the problem.

I’m in a bit of an odd situation because my family, who is not Jewish, still celebrates Christmas. What happened after my conversion was a sort of unspoken “truce.” No one in my family expects me to buy them gifts for a holiday I don’t celebrate; sometimes they give me gifts, which is fine, and quite appreciated, though there is no expectation of any. Frankly, receiving a very few small gifts from family members is vastly preferable to the way it was when I still “did” Christmas. The truth is, as much as I appreciate the giving spirit of Christmas, many Christmas gifts themselves are not very useful. Socks, underwear, a tie–okay, those are useful; but one year I received a little radio controlled helicopter that could hover indoors. (I was not a kid; I got this gift in my 30s). This kind of stuff piles up over time. I remember years ago moving out of an apartment and finding a big shopping bag full of old Christmas gifts, which had never been used or even taken out of the bag after I brought them home. “Oh, here’s Christmas 2003.” There’s something a little disconcerting about this.

Does the Christmas season for you include a lot of vistas like this one? Hopefully not, but for many people, trips to the mall are synonymous with holidays.

Ironically, being absolved of “Giftmas” was one of the best gifts I ever received. Not only are Star Trek coffee mugs and radio-controlled helicopters no longer piling up in the back of my closet, but I’ve been able to reclaim some real meaning for the holiday season. What does it mean to light a candle and recite a prayer that has been said, on this same night of the year, by others of your people going back 2,000 years? What does it mean to be with family–not buying or spending as some sort of symbol or cryptic communication, but actually being with them, on human terms? These rituals communicate so much more than whatever mixed messages might result from buying and giving material objects. This is the meaning of Christmas that has been lost.

Furthermore, I’m convinced that many–probably most–people who do celebrate Christmas would, deep down, agree. What does going to the mall at 3:00 AM on “Black Friday” have to do with the birth of Jesus? Why should I care when news commentators tell us how retail sales this Christmas are doing compared to the previous year? A faux-nostalgic film about a kid in the 1940s who wants a gun for Christmas is cute on some level, but running it 24 hours a day on cable, smashed between commercials for cars, electronics and toys, seems a bit much. The final irony is that I am not a Christian but I strongly agree with the sentiment, “Put Christ back in Christmas.”

My December holiday celebrates the resilience and endurance of the Jewish people as symbolized by the Hanukkah lights. Yours, if you’re a Christian, seems like it should similarly reflect upon the core values of your own faith. It’s hard for me to see how iPhones and HDTVs help make that picture clearer.

This is what December looks like for me now.

In becoming Jewish, I discovered that there is, in fact, life after Christmas. My Decembers, filled as they are with candles, family, wine and simple prayers, are actually more fun than they used to be when they were filled with toys and shopping. I wish everybody could make their holidays more meaningful, whatever faith they follow (or if they follow none at all).

THE HEADER PHOTO IS BY FLICKR USER RJCOX AND IS USED UNDER CREATIVE COMMONS 2.0 (ATTRIBUTION) LICENSE. THE OTHER IMAGES ARE IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN.

via Life After Christmas: A Survivor’s Tale of Reclaiming Meaning at the Holidays.

THE MIKVEH

In 1980, I got married. In Israel.

Israel is a funny country. A democracy and also, a theocracy. Family matters fall under religious courts, including marriage. To get married in Israel, you have to be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. If you want a non-religious wedding, you have to go somewhere else. Another country. People of mixed faiths who want a neutrally religious ceremony have to leave the country to get hitched. The good news? An out-of-country marriage is honored in Israel. If you’ve made the contract, it’s legal, but a lot of people would prefer not having to go overseas to get married.

Mikveh in a modern hotel in Israel

The guy I was marrying was a Jew. Not much of a Jew, but to be fair, I wasn’t much of a Jew either. Not religiously, anyway. I had done a lot of reading, so I understood what it was about. I was good with it. It was medieval, but as medieval stuff goes, it was a good kind of 14th century.

Since the destruction of the Temple (by the Romans, in case you were wondering), the Mikveh’s use is almost entirely for the purification of Jewish women and men, and as part of the tradition for converting to Judaism. And before you ask, yes, people convert to Judaism. Not only because they are marrying a Jew. Some people do it because they find Judaism a religiously logical structure. As I do, even though I don’t practice it.

The Mikveh is used to purify people and sometimes, things. Like a body for burial, utensils for use in a Kosher home. But mostly, it’s for people.

An ancient Mikveh

Most forms of impurity can be fixed by immersion in any natural collection of water, but some things require “living water.” That is to say, moving water, such as springs or groundwater wells. The Mikveh is designed to simplify the whole process by offering a bathing facility that is permanently ritually pure and in contact with a natural source of water.

Back in the old days — like a couple of thousand years ago older — rivers and lakes were the place to go. But that water was cold. There were no hair dryers. You couldn’t get your fingernails done after your ritual bath. What about those lovely warm towels? The modern Mikveh doesn’t merely purify. The water is skin temperature and very comfortable — and clean. You exit to heated towels. Hair dressers. Manicures. And, of course, there is food and you can bet it’s Kosher.

“I have to do what?” I asked.

La-mickve-de-besalc, Spain

My friend, who was religious and regularly went to a Mikveh, was patient. She told me she’d make sure I went to a good one, where they would treat me properly. By which she meant they wouldn’t question me very hard about my level of religiosity. Which was fortunate. I didn’t have much to say except that I quite liked the way Judaism believed winning God to your side was more about doing the right thing and a lot less about repentance. You could repent your ass off as a Jew, but if you weren’t kind to the poor, diligent in your prayers and all that stuff, God was not going to be impressed. You might not get to be part of the rising of the dead to …

Well, maybe heaven. Maybe … something else. Judaism doesn’t have anything at all to say about the afterlife. Believe whatever you choose. It’s not in The Book. I like that. It was sensible. Although I didn’t practice, I appreciated it. Also, she told me to not tell them I was getting married because they were a lot stricter when you were getting married.

Stricter? About what? I’d been married before, after all.

“No,” she explained. “It doesn’t count. You didn’t marry a Jew.”

It was dizzying. She also explained that you had to walk into the water and take a complete dip. Every single inch of you had to be under the water. Including the top of your head and if you missed, they’d make you do it again until you did it right. You had to do it right so they would stamp your official purity ticket. The one you had to show to the Rabbi to prove you were pure enough to get married.

Say what?

In my lifetime, purity was not an issue. I’m pretty sure we abandoned purity sometime during the 1960s, right around the time when we smoked pot, but didn’t inhale. Oh, don’t be silly. Of course we inhaled.

Purity is not something you can ignore in Judaism. It’s a very big deal. Before I could get married, I had to be purified. Whether or not I’d ever do it again, I was going to do it at least this once. I was supposed to be peeved about this reversion to medievalism, but actually, I was intrigued. I’m a history buff. I like ancient rituals and this was an honest-to-God ancient ritual of which I would be a part.

Did I mention that you also have to be incredibly clean to be purified? Your fingernails and toenails have to be as clean as the day you were born.

A modern Mikveh — much like the one I used in Jerusalem

I did it. I was confused, especially because they spoke only Hebrew and mine wasn’t good, which is an understatement. But I cleansed, dipped, and got my stamp of purity approval. I liked it. It felt good. I felt cleansed. I thought if I’d been in a different place …

I left the Mikveh wishing life was offering me other choices. But I was missing the point.

Life always offers you other choices. The hard part is seeing them and doing something about them. Recognizing options can be extremely complicated, but the choices are always there. Grab those choices before they get away.

But I didn’t see them. Time passed and life moved on.

HOLOCAUST EDUCATION – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Today is Tisha B’Av — a good day on which to talk about The Holocaust. Tisha B’Av, the Fast of the Ninth of Av, is a day of mourning which commemorates the many tragedies which have befallen the Jewish people. It began yesterday evening and continues through today.


The Holocaust was a big deal in my house when I was growing up. I was born in 1949, just a few years after WWII ended. The Holocaust was fresh in Jewish people’s minds. Friends and relatives were still searching for people dislocated and lost in the chaos of the war. My grandmother still had hopes of finding a nephew who was at college in Moscow while the rest of the family was wiped out by the Nazis back home in Minsk.

Survivors of the camps were still being relocated and were just acclimating to normal life again. The State of Israel had just been created in 1948, which was a needed refuge for displaced Jews from all over the world.

I was lucky. Most of my family from Russia (on both sides) had already moved to the States when the war broke out. My grandmother’s sister and her family were the only ones in the immediate family who stayed in the old country. They, and all the other Jews that the Nazis could round-up, were locked in the local synagogue. It was set on fire. Anyone who ran out, was shot.

None of my immediate family were in concentration camps. But we knew people who were. Every Jew knew someone who knew someone. Two twin friends of the family, Irena and Elena, were from Czechoslovakia. They were fifteen when they entered Auschwitz and seventeen when they were liberated. Auschwitz was known for its inhuman medical experiments and tests on twins were one of their specialties. A camp guard saved our friends. He took pity on them because his wife was a twin. When they were being checked into the camp, he whispered to them to lie and say that they were a year apart in age. That spared them from a certain and gruesome death in the camp ‘laboratory.’

My mother and grandmother believed in “There but for the Grace of God go I”. They brought me up to feel that it was sheer luck that it was my grandmother who left Russia when she did. It could easily have been my branch of the family in that burning synagogue or in a concentration camp.

Armband Jews had to wear in Nazi occupied territory

Many Jews, even in America, didn’t feel totally safe, even after the war. Antisemitism was still rampant, all over the world. America had refused Jewish refugees during the war. America had also waited to enter the war after they learned about the extermination programs and the camps and refused to bomb the camps when they could have done so early in the war.

So my mother exposed me to Holocaust stories from an early age. When I was eleven, she considered me old enough to handle a graphic book on life in the concentration camps. So I knew all about families being separated. I knew about the cattle cars that transported people to the camps. I knew about the initial selection process – camp or gas chamber. I knew about the medical experiments and other forms of torture used on inmates on a daily basis. I knew about the daily possibility of random death that could come in many different forms. I knew about the starvation, the disease, the beatings. All this before I was twelve.

Concentration camp uniform with identification number

I used to lie in bed and plan what I would take with me if the knock came at the door in the middle of the night, to cart me away. I wondered if I would be the type of inmate who shared my food and tried to help others, or the selfish kind bent only on self-preservation.

I think my mother should have waited until I was older to burden me with the reality of man’s inhumanity to man. I think all this exacerbated my existing anxieties. I think it made me more fearful and left some serious scars to my psyche. I don’t recommend exposing young children to real life brutality. I didn’t let my young children watch horror movies or any kind of graphic violence. I didn’t even let them watch Bambi since I was traumatized when I saw that movie.

Concentration Camp

But I did become a passionate advocate of “Never Again!” I made sure my kids, when they were older, understood what the Holocaust meant in human terms. They will tell their children about the atrocities perpetrated in WWII. I talk to my non-Jewish friends about it and make sure that they understand it on a visceral level. I live the saying, “Never Forget!” That is the first step towards “Never Again!”

There just may have been a better way to mold me – when I was old enough to handle it. If we are ever old enough to wrap our heads around the horror of the Holocaust.

FORTY YEARS: MOSES, WALKING IN CIRCLES

So. God wanted to get rid of all those who had experienced slavery and to accomplish this, he made the twelve tribes walk around the wilderness for forty years.

Forty years? Without meaning to be picky, the area isn’t that big. They must have crossed their own path over and over again. If the idea was to get rid of the “slave mentality,” why couldn’t they just make a camp and hang out until the time was up?

Why did they have to keep walking? Was there a fitness or exercise requirement? Was it like jail where you have this hour or two a day during which you have to keep walking and walking and walking? Why does the idea of walking in circles for 40 years make me laugh hysterically? Garry says we have this same conversation every year, immediately following our ritual viewing of “The Ten Commandments.” It must be pretty funny, because I’m still laughing.

And because this never stops making me laugh, please enjoy. Life with the Twelve Tribes … with WiFi. If it doesn’t play, try http://videocloud.aish.com/movies/Google%20Exodus.mp4


Happy whatever you celebrate!

THE RETURN TRIP

Aside

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.