Blog: May 2008

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Friday's service

I helped to lead the service Friday night. (Someone later asked me what the occasion was; I said "I asked". Also, it's part of my continuing education.) I'm happy with how it went.

My rabbi and I divided up the service, the way he usually does when there's a second rabbi on the bimah. (Now that our associate rabbi leads another service earlier that night, he's not usually there now.) In our pre-service huddle with the cantorial soloist, for a couple things that she normally does she asked if I was doing them and I said no, the goal was to fit into a regular service rather than being "the Monica show". That might have scored me some points. I mean, yes, I enjoy leading an entire service (and loved the chance to run services, including a bar mitzvah, one week when we had no rabbi present), and I've got the skill to do the cantorial parts too, but part of leading a congregation is fitting into the structures already in place. We've had services where some special-interest group (like the sisterhood, or the 9th grade, or the social-action committee) takes over a service completely, and they have not been satisfying. (In the last year or so my rabbi has come up with a good solution to that problem.)

I led kabbalat shabbat and kri'at sh'ma. We did one non-standard thing (at my rabbi's suggestion), singing ahavat olam instead of just reading it. Enough people know the tune that we thought that would work, and from what I could see, it did. (The accoustics of the bimah, and my vision, are such that I couldn't actually tell if people were singing, but either they were or they were engaged in listening.) My rabbi led the t'filah and most of kri'at torah, except I did the opening (English) reading we always start that section with. I chanted torah, and he gave the sermon and led the concluding prayers. We came in about 10 minutes longer than usual, which I judge to be roughly: 2 minutes for starting late, 3 minutes for a slightly longer sermon (it was good and definitely worth it), 1 minute (delta) for singing ahavat olam -- and several extra minutes for the longest hakafah (torah procession) we've had in a while. (Usually the rabbi carries the scroll and sets a fast pace, but this time one of the aliyot did, taking a more stately pace. I do not have a problem with this; I'm just noting it, as the cantorial soloist did to me when we got back (she'd had to sing more songs than usual).)

A larger proportion than usual of my part was in English; we do the t'filah (which I've gotten in the past) mostly in Hebrew, but do a fair bit of the earlier parts in English (or English and Hebrew, in the case of sh'ma/v'ahavta). I find that leading English and Hebrew are different. (I think I mean diction here.) I can't really explain it; they flow off the tongue differently, and the Hebrew actually comes more naturally to me, once I'm past the parsing stage. (Give me unfamiliar Hebrew and I will either read slowly or stumble.) Anyway, this is probably a good reason to practice leading English in a public service. I got a lot of positive comments on my reading; good to hear. (Also on the torah chanting, including from the native speakers. I'll take that. :-) )

I had mostly figured out the mic (personal clip-on), until the torah service. I have a problem my rabbi doesn't have: a lack of (ahem) a smooth expanse of level real-estate down the front. He can just clip the mic onto his tie and he's good; what are you supposed to do with (err) hills and valleys? The first time I did this I wore a buttoned blouse and clipped it there, but the mic kept wanting to slide under the cloth. Now I usually clip it to the tallit, and that worked fine until it came time to chant torah and I leaned over the table to see the scroll, which caused some rustling. If it weren't for the hearing-challenged congregants who rely on the sound being piped to headphones, I would be tempted to just skip it -- I can make myself heard in a 400-seat sanctuary, after all. Oh well; we'll figure out a better approach to chanting torah next time. The cantorial soloist doesn't read torah, so I can't learn from her experience there. (There is a standing mic available, but using it tends to block my view of the scroll.)

(Yes, I would rather not be using a mic on Shabbat. Minhag ha-makom, the custom of the place, is a significant factor.)

The associate rabbi was sitting in the congregation (which I only noticed during the torah procession). Afterwards he said he'd be happy to have me lead the early service any time I want to. I said I would love to take him up on that in the fall, when that service is a little closer to sunset, and asked if that would be ok. He said yes, so I'll check back with him in four months or so.

Overall, I'm pleased with how it went. My rabbi will be away for all of July; I wonder if there are opportunities there to do this again. (This week had the benefit of having him see/hear me, so he can give me constructive feedback. Filling in is also good. :-) Our third rabbi starts July 1; I don't know if they're going to have him dive into an unfamiliar-to-him pulpit for a month. He will not be primarily a pulpit rabbi, but he's certainly capable.)

Use this power only for good

For the last several days there has been an increasingly-tedious discussion on the (SCA) kingdom mailing list about an incident involving another kingdom's monarchs and the corporation. Well, was until yesterday, when a tedious discussion of chocolate milk took over the mailing list. (The prompt for that is that the dairy farm that produced the chocolate milk sold at the Pennsic site has gone out of business.)

Lesson learned: you can't necessarily make tedious discussions go away, but you can displace them. I must remember this. Maybe I should choose a few likely topics to start discussions of, when needed.

It might be past time for me to just shut down the moderated version of the mailing list. (I run a mailing list that receives all the traffic from the open list, and I send along the subset I deem to be appropriate. Some days that's everything and some days, like today, it's 10%.) There aren't a lot of subscribers, so the moderation effort per subscriber is high, and don't most of us have procmail or gmail auto-sorting or Outlook rules or suchlike by now? The mailing list can overwhelm an inbox at times, but it doesn't need to go to the general inbox. I have a few lists that pile up until I clean them out every week or two. Is that approach common now? It takes more effort for me to moderate a message (either yea or nay) than to just delete it from a mail folder, and if most people don't care... (If I decide I'm inclined toward this I will of course bring it up with my subscribers; I'm just thinking out loud here.)

SCA: war practice

Yesterday after I got home from services we went up to Cooper's Lake for AEthelmearc War Practice. This is a multi-day event (I think it's up to four now, maybe five), but, well, only Pennsic is worth the hassle of camping, so we just went up for the day. And it's been raining all week, so I would have punted even that, but we had reasons to be there.

New since last Pennsic: they finally put a traffic light at the end of the exit ramp from I-79N onto Route 422. Yay! That left turn (onto an often-busy 55MPH road) is the worst part of my drive to Pennsic. (The left turn out of the campground is the worst part of the drive home. No, I didn't get that lucky. :-) ) There seems to be some small amount of development along that stretch of 422; there is another (new) light before getting to the campground, at what used to be an open field sometimes occupied by a farmers' market, and now occupied by a gas station, a McDonald's, and a Subway. Hmm. If they add a beer outlet and grocery store, the two weeks of Pennsic business might pay for the rest of the year.

I attended part of the artisans' forum, where people display their work and are supposed to stay at the table so they can talk to folks about it. (This is different from most arts-and-sciences displays in the SCA, where you just leave your stuff and your documentation on a table all day.) The turnout was smaller than I expected, but there was interesting stuff.

I figure an artisans' forum has done its job for me if I learn about one new-to-me area. This time it was glass. The baron of Delftood talked with me about the stained glass he had on display, showing me the tools he had made to work with it and describing every step of the process. The way you get sheets of glass surprised me: to make a flat piece of glass, he said, the medieval glass-maker first blows something that looks like a bottle, and then cuts it lengthwise and flattens it out while it's still hot enough to do that. I had assumed that molten glass was poured into sheets. I had also assumed that when forming a leaded glass window, the lead was hot and maleable. In fact, the lead is cold; you place the glass and the lead and then solder the joints. The solder (an alloy) has a lower melting point than the lead, so this works without deforming anything.

At the end of the forum there was an apprenticing ceremony for a friend -- Hraefna, an accomplished scribe, was to become apprenticed to Master Broom, a Laurel. Her persona is Viking-age Icelandic and his is 14th?-century English, and they managed to use elements of both. The contract was his wording (she calligraphed it); the legal maneuverings were reminiscent of Icelandic law. Noted in passing: the contract calls for Broom to pay her five pounds of gold florins in a year. We'll come back to this. Read more…

Upcoming torah portions

I am reading torah this Shabbat. The portion, Behar, is part of the double portion that is arguably "my" portion -- the week I acquired a Hebrew birthday we read both Behar and B'chukotai, which are sometimes doubled up and sometimes not. So to the extent that I have a designated portion, it's either Behar, B'chukotai, or the combination. This year they are not combined, and since I was semi-randomly picking a week to read anyway, I picked one of those.

Today I was asked to read the other one next Friday night. Clean sweep. :-) I'm glad to finally be at a level where my reaction to "can you read in 8 days?" is not "aiiieeeee!" but "sure". (My congregation only reads one aliyah -- the sixth, this year -- so we are usually talking about 10-30 verses, not several chapters. Both of these ones are short, so that when they're doubled up the reading is not burdensome. I can read or chant, but, honestly, the chanting is easier for me to learn.)

I won't actually start learning it until Sunday, probably -- don't want to distract myself from this week's, and there's an SCA event on Saturday. But that still gives me six days.

This grew out of something more general: I'll be helping to lead services next Friday night. So we knew I'd be involved, but we didn't actually talk about division of labor until today. (Yay! I get to lead services again!)

How good do we have to be?

I attended a talk tonight by Rabbi Harold Kushner, who is best known for When Bad Things Happen to Good People. This talk was based around a different book, How Good Do We Have To Be?. The talk was engaging, and motivates me to seek out the book.

I'm not going to try to summarize. Instead, here are some short takes (my attempts to capture what he said):

The torah tells us that in Gan Eden, there were two trees in the center of the garden. A midrash asks: how can two objects occupy the same spot? The torah does not, after all, say that the two trees were near the center; it says in the center, and the torah speaks precisely. So, according to this midrash, the tree of life grew from the center of the tree of knowledge of good and evil -- you need knowledge to gain life. Interesting midrash -- at odds with those that say that had they not eaten from the one they would have had eternal life, but midrashim sometimes contradict each other.

Pop quiz: what is the first use of the word "sin" in the torah? It's not eating the fruit; original sin is a Christian concept. (This sentence inserted to give you a chance to answer.) Ready? Kayin (Cain) -- not the murder of his brother, but the jealousy that led to the murder. Interesting.

Guilt is about what you did. Shame is about what you are. For minor guilt you can sometimes talk people out of it; for major guilt you can't, but can sometimes temper it by giving the person something to do (giving tzedakah, etc). Shame doesn't work that way; people need acknowledgement that yes, we know you're like that, and that's ok. Best response he's seen to shame: 12-step programs.

There are four people in every marriage: the man, the woman he thought he was marrying, the woman, and the man she thought she was marrying. A marriage doesn't survive on attraction; it survives on the ability to forgive, to put happiness above righteousness (maybe he said "rightness", but I don't think so).

If you can't get angry at someone, you can't love him. Moshe is angry at God in D'varim and then tells Yisrael "v'ahavta..." -- you shall love God with all your heart, with all your might, and with all your being.

This sounds like kind of a hodge-podge. The talk wasn't, and I'm guessing the book isn't. I wish this had been in a setting where taking notes would have been seen as appropriate. (It was a synagogue sanctuary, not a classroom or lecture hall.) I jotted down a couple things on the back of my ticket, but the rest is from memory.


This Shabbat was my congregation's annual retreat. Another congregant put it well: this morning (parshat Emor) we read about the appointed times of the calendar (the festivals), and to many of us, this retreat is another such time. I haven't missed one of these retreats since joining the congregation, and it's hard to imagine something that would cause me to miss one now. Read more…

A celebration

This summer marks 20 years for my rabbi with our congregation, so there was a celebration this past weekend. It was fun, and I could tell that he was touched. Yay!

The organizers arranged for Debbie Friedman to come in. She was his songleader when he was a teenager, and he's fond of both her and her music. She joined our cantorial soloist, choir, and band on Friday night, and gave a concert Saturday night. The concert (with associated sponsorships) was a fundraiser for the congregation, and from the turnout and size of the ad book it looks like it was effective. (Of course, I don't know about the costs.)

I don't know how this has been for other converts, but my education did not cover Jewish fundraising (beyond the JNF), and it's different from what I was used to before. When the letter about the ad book came, I thought "I have nothing to advertise" because I don't own a business (unlike a lot of my fellow congregants), so I didn't send anything in. There was an option for "greetings", but that didn't register. When I saw the book Saturday night I understood -- it's more like a memento (think college yearbook, perhaps). A lot of families bought display ads that said "mazel tov" or "thank you" and then just had their names, and some people wrote little testimonials. Oh drat; I would have written something if I'd had the clue that this was appropriate. My rabbi is fantastic, and is largely responsible for my being (1) a member of this congregation and (2) a Reform Jew, and if I'd known I would have praised him in print. Now that I know how this works, I feel kind of bad that I didn't do something as an individual. (The morning minyan bought an ad as a group, so I was part of that. And they listed my name on the committee even though I didn't really do anything.)

The other fundraising aspect, at least, I grokked. You could buy a concert ticket, or you could make a (specified) bigger donation and also attend the dessert reception, or you could make an even bigger donation and also attend the pre-concert "meet and greet", or you could make a big donation and also attend a private function (held a few weeks ago) with the rabbi's family. I usually avoid hoity-toity dinners and the like; I neither enjoy playing dress-up nor want that big a chunk of my donation to go toward paying for the food. (It also feels a little immodest to me -- I'm not criticizing anyone else, just talking about how it would make me feel to participate.) But the concert add-ons felt different to me; they were just little receptions, not a multi-course formal dinner and all the trappings. I actually paid more for the evening than the price of the gala dinner I wouldn't go to a few years ago, but it felt more appropriate to me. Now, it turned out to be fancy desserts and elegant appetizers and wine beforehand, but ok. It didn't trip my "ostentatious" sensor.

But all that aside -- my rabbi seemed to really enjoy the weekend, and he was clearly touched by things people said, and his parents and other family members were able to be there with him, and those are the important things.


In response to a comment:

It might not be exclusively Jewish, but I've been told this is normative in synagogues and other Jewish organizations. That and special appeals with designated goals and pledges and so on (like PBS, but with direct individual solicitations).

In contrast, the school fundraisers I grew up with all involved either selling things at inflated prices or sweat equity (car washes, etc). I don't know what went on behind the scenes in my parents' church, but the public-facing part involved passing the plate and making general appeals. So maybe my parents received targetted letters asking for donations, but I don't recall anyone ever paying a visit for that purpose.

I knew about $100/plate fund-raising dinners and things of that ilk, but they seemed to be more for political campaigns in my prior experience. The "ad book" concept was completely new to me.

This morning's service (Yom HaShoah)

Today was Yom HaShoah and also my day to lead the morning minyan. I reviewed the siddur (Sim Shalom) in advance; there was one insertion into the Amidah (in sh'ma koleinu), and there was a section of readings in the back that seemed intended for a special-purpose service but not a general one. (That is, if you're specifically doing a Yom HaShoah service, which some communities do (usually in the evening), that would be good stuff to include, but that wasn't the intent here.)

When I arrived I consulted with the person who is more or less in charge of these things, and we agreed that we'd just do the Amidah insertion. That didn't end up being what happened, though, because members of this minyan are not shy. :-)

First, when we got to the end of the Amidah and I was getting ready to do the chatzi kaddish that goes there, someone shouted out "page 40!", which was that insertion. (I had made sure to point it out to people earlier in the service so they wouldn't automatically skip over it like usual.) I hesitated and then shrugged and said "ok", so we read that paragraph together in English. (After the fact it occurred to me that he'd probably assumed that people had read it in Hebrew, perhaps lacking comprehension.)

Then, during the torah service, as the torah reader was getting ready to do the mi shebeirach (prayer for healing), that first person came up and asked people to turn to the back and we did a couple readings there. (Ok, he must have changed his mind.) They were good choices; one was an E- Malei Rachamim specifically about the Shoah, and the other was a modified kaddish with names of camps interspersed. (It's intended for two readers, clearly. It was done responsively.) The reader, who is old enough to remember, was openly crying during both. I found that while the words affected me a little, his reaction to the words affected me a lot more. (As someone whose family was not affected, nor in a persecuted class, I realize that I have an unusual position in the community.)

In place of the usual "daf bit" I ended up using an excerpt from a sermon given in 1942 by the rabbi of a community that was then under attack. The sermon was given on Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Pesach. (This site does not say where he was writing from nor what became of his community.) This is the part I used:

I recalled what the great sage the Chatam Sofer had expounded on the seder song "one little kid". For the cat thought it could consume the kid but in truth, they will never consume us, because our father bought us for two zuz... So, inevitably there will always remain "one little kid"... For the Holy One will also make miracles for us. And the dog came... and the stick... all because of one little kid, Israel. And in the end what remains is the Holy One and the one little kid, after the Holy One consumes and smites all those who hate us. -Rabbi Shlomo Unsdorfer