Blog: April 2009

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.

God on Trial

There is a legend that, one night in Aushwitz, the prisoners held a court, putting God on trial for allowing the Holocaust to happen. As part of marking Yom HaShoah this past week, my congregation held a viewing of a PBS film, God on Trial, dramatizing this.

It's a powerful film, and at some point I plan to borrow the DVD so I can watch it again. (Viewing conditions weren't great.) It raises many of the usual issues of theodicy, or how God can permit evil in the world, about which I've written some before.

This isn't a review; it's some reactions, not necessarily well-organized. Read more…

Midrash session 5

Here's the next block of text (translation and commentary below): Read more…

Strange Pesach conversations

(Gentile) coworker: When we realized that the pot-luck dinner was during Pesach, we decided to try our best to accommodate the Jewish attendees. So we kashered the oven, boiled the utensils, used a foil pan, etc... but I didn't kasher the drill bit.

Drill bit?

Spade bit, he said -- for coring the pears.

Some of you probably sigh when software geeks like me go off on something. What makes software geeks sigh? Hardware geeks. :-)

(Ok, ok -- it's clever, and he says you can do a dozen pears or apples in under a minute so it's efficient for large-scale prep. I suppose if I happened to have a drill lying around in my kitchen...)

Another coworker caught the last part of this and asked if wood is kosher. (That being the only substance the bit had been in contact with.) I said it's a plant, so I guess so.

(Yes, I know -- none of this addresses whether the drill bit -- or anything else in this story -- has been to a mikveh.)

Someone: Is there a market for kosher-for-Pesach pet food?

Me: Surely. But I handle the problem a different way. The food belongs to the cats, who are not Jewish.

Someone: You sold the food to the cats?

Me: No, they aren't valid buyers. I gave it to them.

Me to guest for Wednesday lunch: Any food allergies?

Guest: I can't eat gluten -- bread, noodles, oats...

Me: So this is pretty much the perfect time for me to invite you?

(I didn't ask what she does about the matzah that must be eaten at the seder.)

Lots of interesting discussion in the comments.

Shabbat evening

Friday night I led services. My rabbi and our cantorial soloist were also on the bimah. It went really well; the three of us work well together. In his greeting (and explanation of why I was doing this) my rabbi said some really complimentary things about me, which was sure nice to hear.

Attendance was lower than usual; presumably some were away for the holiday and others were tired out from one or two seders. Many of the regulars were not there, but there were also people I didn't recognize. Most did not seem to be in a singing mood, though that improved as time went on.

Leading out of Mishkan T'filah poses some challenges, but it just means you have to plan a little more (at least if your congregation has strong opinions, and whose doesn't?). In previous siddurim your choices were the Hebrew text and the English adaptation, and readings they intended to be responsive were typeset accordingly. MT has Hebrew, the English translation (mostly accurate now), and (usually) two other English readings for each part (some intended for one reader and some that can work responsively); you're supposed to choose one thing from all this and then turn the page. So I had to meet expectations on the balance of Hebrew and English (left to my own devices there'd be a lot more Hebrew), but then within the English there were choices to make. Again, left to my own devices I'd stick to the translations, but people expect some "creative" readings, so I had to balance that too. I think I did a good job of balancing all this; I'll check that assumption when next I meet with my rabbi.

MT, unlike prior Reform siddurim, includes all the psalms that make up the kabbalat shabbat service, so I injected (in English) one we don't usually do. We're gradually increasing what we do in this part of the service, so I made a small contribution. I think we need to learn easy, singable melodies for more of them; that will help.

I rushed ya'aleh v'yavo, a seasonal insertion, and as a result stumbled a bit. Oops. (Done in by a kametz katan.) I knew I would have to be aggressive in starting it, else people would go on auto-pilot right past it, but then I needed to slow down and I didn't.

My rabbi announced from the bimah that I'll be leading again in June. I must find out when. :-) (We had originally talked about two date options for leading, this Shabbat and one at the end of May. I thought it was either-or. Maybe he didn't and is misremembering the latter, or maybe he has something else in mind. I have been asking him for more opportunities to do this, as it's been averaging once every nine months or so. I guess he agrees that it should be more. That'd be nice.)

Pesach (so far)

My friend Gail and her family invited me to their seder Wednesday night. I'm really glad; it was a wonderful experience. We did most of the haggadah, we sang, we had stimulating conversation, there was excellent food... what more could one ask?

Gail, her parents, one other participant, and I had a meeting in advance to go over the haggadah, decide what would be sung and to which melodies, assign some roles, and so on. They were very open to doing parts I suggested that they don't normally do, and I think people enjoyed it. (It's important to me, but I certainly don't want to be a burden at someone else's seder.) So we did more of Hallel than usual, and we sang some other parts that usually just get read, and it was fun. We used the generically-named "Haggadah for Pesach" published by the CCAR in the 80s; I gather it's now been superseded, but this one worked well for us. And it has the benefit of having sheet music in the back, though not always the sheet music as we know it. :-) (They can't win: they can do the kindness of providing the assistance, but any printed version cannot account for the folk process.)

We had 16 adults and one child too young to ask the four questions. The teenager present didn't want to sing them, so we sang them as a group and he read the English. A few people brought supplementary articles, poems, or teachings. One person brought a nifty set of illustrations on "Chad Gadya" from early last century, done by some famous artist (sorry, I'm not up on my famous artists) who was a contemporary of Chagall, if I'm not mixing up my references.

The only people I knew in advance were Gail, her parents, and (minimally) the other person who'd been at the meeting, but due to fortunate seating assignments that were surely intentional, I got to know some other folks by the end (and got to know that other person from the meeting better).

I gather that the seder ran a little longer than they're used to, though only some of that was the extra bits we added. More was the schmoozing, I think, and since schmoozing is a sign of a successful gathering, why fret? We started around 6:30 and I think I left around 11:15.

Thursday I had three guests for lunch, which was fun. (Tried for a few more but ran into conflicts. One couple will come on the last day of the holiday instead. I hadn't been planning for guests for that day, but now that I have some I will invite some more.)

Menu from lunch: chicken in a tomato sauce (with oregano, garlic, pepper), roasted veggies & potatoes (white, gold, red-skinned, sweet; plus carrots and onions), roasted asparagus, fruit salad, and these semi-cookie semi-candy toffee-like things I bought on a lark (never seen 'em before) that turned out to be a huge hit. Someday I will learn to make vegetable kugel, but this wasn't the day. (I figured people might be too loaded up on matzah to want farfel or the like.)

Tuesday I had received an invitation from a neighbor and former coworker to a second-night seder, but Thursday afternoon he called to say that his wife had injured herself and they'd decided against doing it. I hope she's feeling better soon. Some other time, then. (She edits her own haggadah every year and I enjoy reading siddurim, haggadot, and other liturgical materials. That's how I ended up with an invitation. I assume she'll save this one for next year.)

I didn't try to find another seder for last night; I don't observe a second day of the holiday so it's not necessary, and while I would like to broaden my experiences (I go to other synagogues sometimes too, just to see how other folks do it), walking around Squirrel Hill knocking on doors really wasn't appropriate. If I'd been seder-less on the first night, sure, but not for this. (Aside: most people who would hold a second seder also wouldn't answer the phone on a holiday.)

Shabbat will be quiet (no guests, no invitations). I'm leading services tonight, and there's no bar mitzvah tomorrow so our morning service can be leisurely.


Wednesday afternoon I walked upstairs to find a small (baby?) mouse, dead and intact, laid out in front of the bedroom door. One of the cats was presenting a trophy, it seems.

This morning I found a second small mouse, alive but dazed, scampering around in and around the linen closet. Baldur (!), the cat I thought would be least inclined, took interest. With a few false starts and some luck, I was able to get it into a paper bag so I could take it outside.

Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence. I sure hope we don't get to enemy action. (I did inspect the linen closet afterwards and didn't find any more, or any evidence of nesting. But they could be anywhere, right?)

Pantry cooking (of a sort)

This weekend a friend celebrated his 50th birthday with a day of gaming. Byron and Ariella hosted the festivities at their castle. I had offered to bring something vegetarian to eat. Pesach starts this week, so I approached this a little differently than I might have otherwise. It went something like this:

I had two frozen pie crusts and wanted to use at least one. What did I have to go in them? I thawed out about three-quarters of a bag of spinach and half a bag of diced onions (using them up). I diced up the remainder of a hunk of smoked swiss cheese, maybe 4oz, and mixed that in. Quiches have eggs, so I started by beating four and adding them. In went a couple of ounces of cream, several shakes of cinnamon, one of nutmeg. (Completely failed to consider ginger. I hope they don't revoke my fan-club membership.) Stir. Ok, this looked about how it should, and it was definitely more than one crust's worth. Was it two? There's only one way to find out.

After dividing it between the two crusts I concluded that there was enough vegetable matter but not enough overall volume. I beat four more eggs and divided them between the two crusts, stirring gently. Then I baked the pies at 375 for, oh, about 45 or 50 minutes, until everything was firm. Several people asked me for the recipe (err, this is as close as we get), so I'll call that a success. (I made these the day before and served them cold, though presumably they could also be reheated.)

Probably because of that second batch of eggs, I got an interesting swirl of whitish-yellow on the top of each pie, instead of a more uniform appearance. I like the effect and everything tasted fine, so perhaps I'll do that intentionally in the future.