Blog: October 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.

Visit to Young People's Synagogue

Every week I walk past Young Peoples Synagogue on my way to my synagogue, so this week I decided to visit them instead. They're a lay-led Orthodox congregation.

When I got there they were doing mincha (silent Amidah, so not too late). There was no mechitza and no other women were present. All the men (about a dozen) were sitting in the pews on the far side of an aisle, so I sat on the near side at the end farthest from the aisle while trying to figure out where I was supposed to sit. A couple minutes later one of the men came over to do something to the memorial plaques on the wall near me, so I asked if it was ok for me to sit there and he said yes. A couple minutes later someone came around with copies of Yedid Nefesh for kabblat shabbat and he didn't seem to have any problem with me being there either. (I moved a few seats over as things progressed.)

(I don't particularly obsess over things like this; I'm just reporting.)

The siddur they use is Birnbaum, and they had copies in the pew racks, so no hunting around for one like I had to do at Young Israel. I don't know Birnbaum well (have used it; haven't studied it), but I found it easier to use than Artscroll. (Maybe I should acquire one.) When we got to the end of mincha a different leader took over (they passed the tallit) and we went straight into kabbalat shabbat. (I don't now remember if we started with Yedid Nefesh, but it was early. I vaguely recognized the melody, kinda sorta, but didn't know it.)

As I've come to expect from traditional services, all the psalms in kabbalat shabbat were sung with that mix of starting together melodically and then dropping into a quiet personal recitation until the leader picks it up a sentence or so from the end (then repeat with the next one). The melody for the first half of L'cha Dodi was familiar, but then they switched midway through to a different one (I understand that's not uncommon when doing all nine verses), and the second was harder to follow but I muddled through.

The rest of the service proceeded normally, efficient but not rushed. It's refreshing to pray in a community where no cues are necessary; people know when to stand, sit, turn around, etc and what page we're on. It's nice to be among the fluent. :-) The service ended with kiddush and Yigdal (not Adon Olam). I didn't note the time when we transitioned from mincha to kabbalat shabbat, but I got there at about 6:25 and we finished at 7:15.

Afterward some people greeted me (and vice-versa), and one asked if I was visiting. I said I live a couple blocks away and decided to come meet them; he said Friday night it's usually "just the guys" and I should come Shabbat morning when everyone comes. I thanked him and said I have a Shabbat morning minyan I'm fond of but I'd be back sometime. He asked where, I said Temple Sinai, and he said something like "hey, that's fine", which felt a little odd to me but I don't think he meant it unkindly or anything. I guess they're not used to getting Reform Jews walking in, especially ones who are fluent in the service?

I expect to visit them on Friday nights occasionally, especially when my congregation is doing some special service or other that doesn't appeal. I'm not likely to skip the morning minyan to go somewhere else without a really good reason, but there are times when our minyan doesn't meet (like when yom tov is on Shabbat), so I'll certainly keep YPS in mind for that. And I may just decide to go on a field trip some week; I'm curious in particular about the role women play there. (No mechitza? And women give divrei torah according to their web site. Anything else?)

Midrash session 1.13

(If you're reading the series and wonder what happened to session 12, it was fully consumed in preparing for a beit-midrash session we taught jointly on the stuff covered in session 11. I knew that the beit midrash that day would have three segments, with one rabbi involved in each; I did not know in advance that mine was the only team-taught one. So yeah, three rabbis and me... no pressure. :-) )

Anyway, we are now going to talk about the ram that's caught in the thicket. Read more…

Medicine, drop size, and vampire blood

A recent mailing from my employer's department of reducing health-insurance costs (that's probably not their real name) offered some advice that seemed questionable to me. They suggested splitting pills -- not, they hastened to point out, that we should take half the dosage we need, but rather, we should get pills that are twice as strong as they need to be and then split them. They suggested that a stronger drug doesn't necessarily cost any (or much) more to fill, so you can fill your prescription half as often, saving you half the copay and them a lot on the balance. (Aside: what bright person decided that your cost, if insured, should be per month rather than per some volume? If I take a medicine twice as often as you do, why shouldn't I pay twice as much for it?)

I wonder how the pill-splitting scheme could actually be implemented legally and what doctor or pharmacist would go along with it. I find it hard to believe that a large company would advise its employees to commit insurance fraud (in a manner that's traceable), so there must be a way to do it, but I'm puzzled. (The company self-insures; maybe that's why it's ok?)

I was telling this to Dani last night, and commented that even if it's kosher I can't benefit from it for my prescriptions -- the medicine I take for glaucoma is in the form of eyedrops, and I don't know how to get double-sized drops. (Nor am I going to ask my ophthamologist to write a bogus prescription.) This, combined with some recent TV viewing, led us to wonder how big a drop is, anyway. We didn't have an internet connection to hand; Dani tried to work it out theoretically while I tried to work it out empirically. (Things often fall out that way with us.) A medicine that I take once a day (two drops) comes in a 2.5ml bottle and lasts about a month (maybe a little more). Viscosity matters, of course; this stuff is closer to water than to syrup. So I posited about 25 drops/ml for my medicine. (Google later suggested 20 drops/ml of water as an approximation.)

And that's when we turned our attention to the amount by which a character in the True Blood episode we'd just watched overdosed. The character had a quarter-ounce vial of an illegal substance (vampire blood) that he was supposed to take one drop of at a time. Wikipedia tells me that the viscosity of normal blood is about three times that of water. It has no data on vampire blood. Assuming (and I don't know if that's valid) that drop size is directly correlated with viscosity, this suggests that the character overdosed by a factor of approximately 46. Ouch. :-) (Yes, it did hurt.)

Ok, fine -- what have you done with your science education lately? :-)

There is a lot of interesting discussion in the comments, including comments from pharmacists.

D&D: character optimization

I commend this response to a discussion about optimizing RPG characters, by Akitrom, to my role-playing-gamer friends. This captures a big part of what made Ralph's D&D game such a fun campaign: it's primarily about the character development, not the power development.

When I want to play an optimization game, I'll go for one of the German-style games of that sort, like El Grande or Merchants of Amsterdam or Hermagore. Optimization games can be fun for several hours. But when I play D&D (or similar games), that's not the kind of game I'm looking for.

Ralph's game ended several years ago, and I still enjoy remembering and telling stories from it. I've played in, and enjoyed at the time, RPGs that were less about character and more about optimizing power; I don't even remember the names of most of the characters I played in those games. I enjoyed it then, but it didn't stick and it's not very interesting to me now. What attracts me now is the role part of "role-playing game".

Which is kind of funny because I'm a pretty inhibited player, and not very good at role-playing, until I've been with a group and a set of characters for a while. My character in Ralph's game was pretty under-developed for the first several months, while some others sprung to life in the first session or two. Keeping the game journal actually helped a lot.

Simchat Torah

Simchat Torah went well for me this year. I felt more included than in past years; our rabbis are doing a better job of making it not just about kids. There was still a lot of kid stuff, but this non-parent adult did not feel as alienated as at some times in the past.

Friday night (we follow the Israeli calendar, so Friday rather than Saturday) was pretty packed, and also pretty rowdy because of a large number of kids. There wasn't a lot of actual dancing with the torah, but that's normal for my congregation and people had a good time regardless. Everyone who wanted got multiple chances at carrying either a torah scroll (adults who felt up to it), a scroll of the prophets (adults who wanted something lighter), or one of the small stuffed torah toys (kids). There was a lot of singing.

On Simchat Torah everyone who wants one gets an aliya. We do four, two at the end of D'varim and two at the beginning of B'reishit. (I don't know if that's the usual number, though those are the usual readings -- finishing and starting again being the whole point.) The way my rabbi makes sure everyone gets an aliya is to divide it up by birthdays in batches of three months. That works.

We had previously agreed that I would read (well, chant) the beginning of B'reishit. I had wondered how this would work -- if my rabbi did D'varim and then I did one aliya in B'reishit and then my rabbi did the last one, wouldn't that look a little funny? (I had offered to do as much of B'reishit as he wanted; I'm doing the whole thing next week for Shabbat.) Not to worry, though -- it turned out we had all three rabbis there, so each rabbi and I took one aliya. I really liked hearing from all three of them; one of them is very rarely on the pulpit. (His focus is education.)

My birthday was in the last batch, so after I finished reading I stayed up there for an aliya. So my rabbi handed me the other sefer torah to hold. (I don't know who was holding it before -- possibly the rabbi who was about to read.) None of the rabbis seemed interested in taking it back afterwards, so instead of going back to the congregation I (at the urging of the third rabbi) stayed up there for the conclusion of the torah service. Standing in front of the ark with all three of our rabbis felt indescribably special.

Saturday morning the crowd was smaller and mostly adults. It was also fun, with lower decibel levels. :-) I read again -- possibly a little better, as the previous night I had learned that with that scroll and that desk and a portion that (of course) starts at the top of a column, I couldn't get close enough to see well for the first several lines. (I pulled more of that torah reading out of my head than is, strictly speaking, proper.) After the service Friday night I found out where they keep a small stepstool -- ah, much better!

We have a beit midrash after services on the second Saturday of each month, and the rabbi in charge saw no reason to change that just because it's Simchat Torah. So we had a nice little study session around some midrash about the death of Moshe and his numerous appeals to God (and the angels, and the sun and the moon, and...) to get to go into the land. I'd heard some of this before but not all of it. Interesting stuff.

And thus ends the marathon of fall holidays.

A comment describes the usual (Orthodox) structure of the torah reading for this day.

Morning minyan

Today I led morning services. That's not unusual. Today this included Hallel; that's kind of unusual, and something I've only done about three times before. During Sukkot, Hallel includes some extra stuff, which I had not led before and was a little uncertain about. In particular, since I always just follow the leader on when to wave the lulav, and since work commitments prevented me from getting a refresher earlier this week, I wasn't sure I knew it correctly -- and in fact, Joe had to point out one place where I would have missed it otherwise (that final Hodu). There is also the small matter of not being able to hold the siddur at a good reading distance (for me) while also dealing with the lulav, so I did the best I could but had also memorized the key passages there. (For those who are wondering, David the torah reader always leads the special Sukkot processions, so I didn't do that.)

Before the service I asked Joe (the usual Hallel person, until he pushed me) a couple questions and he agreed to come up on the bimah with me for that part. But aside from that one correction he didn't have to do anything. I am pleased. Joe seemed very pleased, which makes me happy because he's my teacher there. Joe is the person who pushed me to start leading a weekday Conservative service at all, years ago, and more recently is the one who pushed me to lead Hallel (I'd always deferred to him).

(It's not that I don't want to lead services; I enjoy that and would like more opportunities in my own congregation. But even though I'm a regular I still think of myself as a visitor to this congregation; I'm not a member there nor even a member of that movement. I'm comfortable in this minyan but am mindful of the norms of hospitality, including that guests don't try to take over.)