Blog: April 2012

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.

Hunger Games

We went to see The Hunger Games this afternoon. I have read the first of the three books. I thought the movie was a good treatment of the book; they missed some opportunities but they added some nice bits too. (I don't think the rest of this post contains any spoilers that weren't in the trailer.)

The Rue plot in the book was very powerful, and I was disappointed that it was so highly abbreviated in the movie. I understand that a movie can't contain everything in the book and still be a civilized length, and they did a good job of trimming in general, but this one stood out as a misfire.

The book is written in the first person (first-person present tense, mostly, which is unconventional). This means that in the book you only see and know what the narrator knows. In the movie they showed some of what was going on "backstage" and I found those parts to be well-done, laying the groundwork for the political issues to come. They added rather than detracting -- not at all a safe bet when screenwriters decide to innovate.

Because of the POV, in the book the game-makers are largely invisible -- we see their work but don't see them. In the movie I thought the lead game-maker was particularly strong; seeing how what was going on in the arena affected him added a level of story not possible in the book. And oh, his final scene... nice touch.

A nit: I do wonder how Katniss was able to stay at full draw for so long, with a bow strong enough to kill a person, in that scene at the end. Especially given her state at that time. Just sayin'. (Also, what are the aerodynamic properties of silver arrows? The book referred to them as silver too, and it struck me as peculiar there too.)

The trailers I remember were:

  • The Avengers: meh
  • Spiderman: looked like it could be fun (but can wait for NetFlix)
  • (something like) The House at the End of the Street: no (horror's not my thing)
  • What to Expect When You're Expecting: looks very cheesy (that would be a no)
  • some Twilight movie: no
  • Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter: please make it stop!

Justice for Nikko

I was pleased to read in today's local paper that, finally, there will be justice for Nikko the husky. One good thing came out of a sad incident, at least.

Back in February, a local woman left her two-day-old child on the floor in her home and left the room for a few minutes. During that time, something happened (nobody knows what) and the dog, a young-adult husky, bit the child. The child died, and the neighbors started campaigning for this obviously-dangerous dog to be euthanized. (There had been no previous behavior problems with the dog.)

When the police arrived at the house they found that Nikko, the newest of the family's four dogs, had a broken leg and was in a home-made splint. The mother and/or boyfriend asserted that they had taken the dog to the vet for the broken leg, but nobody could produce any supporting evidence, such as the name of the vet they went to. The dog was taken by animal control and went into limbo while the courts figured out what to do.

I'm not a parent so I don't know these things, but I'm told that the mother should have known not to leave a newborn child completely unattended on the floor. (She has two other children, but she's also 21.) Nobody was charged with anything like negligence or endangerment of a child. Of course she lost her child, a terrible thing to be sure, but it seems like the legal consequences for the humans in this story were pretty light compared to what they could have been.

Not so for the dog. Nikko has been examined by experts in animal behavior who have said that this is not a dangerous dog -- neglected or abused probably, but not dangerous. But until yesterday the several court hearings on his fate have all ended with "dunno, we might still blame and kill the dog; ask again in a few weeks". Yesterday a judge ruled that Nikko would not be killed, but he would also not stay in the local area. Instead, Nikko is going to an animal sanctuary that specializes in dogs that need a little extra care, such as ex-fighting dogs. This seems like a good and proper outcome all around, and I hope Nikko lives out a long and happy life there.

This child was not killed by a dangerous dog; it died from human error. But it's easier to blame the dog. I'm glad the courts saw a solution in this case, and I hope the parents -- who have two children and three dogs remaining -- are more careful in the future.

It is not lost on me that a 21-year-old mother of three kids, the oldest 6, is probably not in a good place societally, educationally, or financially. I feel for her. She didn't mean for this to happen. But it did, and I hope she can figure out what to do differently next time.


This week was my congregation's annual shabbaton. We take over a cabin in the "suburbs" of Zelienople and have a grand time. This year was the largest I've seen at 42 people, and all of them seemed to be engaged in it. It was great.

When nobody feels pressure (got to get upstairs to the bar mitzvah, got to beat the lunch guests home, whatever), we can relax and just take our time with services. I don't get that very often and I treasure it. We had kabbalat shabbat out on the porch in the fading sun (plus there were porch lights). Saturday morning after the service we had an energetic discussion of part of the parsha (Tazria [1]), interrupted only by our need to walk up to the main building for lunch (but it continued later in smaller pockets).

Speaking of which: the torah says that when a woman gives birth she is ritually impure for some time, but how long depends on whether the child is a boy or a girl. We read a feminist Orthodox commentary on this that a lot of people weren't buying. Pointers to commentaries on this difference would be welcome. There are actually two time periods, a week (for a boy) or two weeks, followed by 33 (for a boy) or 66 days. I don't quite understand this second period of time. For the first, I was struck by a thought that is probably unrelated, but what the heck: when someone dies soon before a holiday, the seven-day period of shiva is terminated when the holiday starts. I wonder if this first period is "supposed" to be two weeks, but the circumcision on day 8 terminates it. Just a random thought.

Friday night we had a study session around the second chapter of Pirke Avot (teachings of the fathers, where a lot of the sayings we "all know" come from). We broke into pairs or trios to study for a while and then each group shared something it learned. We've used this study method before and I find it works well; it's harder to do in-depth study with 42 people all together, but by doing it this way I learned things both from my group and the larger group.

Saturday afternoon we tried something new. My rabbi asked a few of us to prepare chugim, short sessions to run concurrently, so people could learn what they want. I taught (well, lead a study of) a section of talmud -- how various rabbis concluded their individual prayer at the end of the t'filah. (B'rachot 16b-17a, for anyone following along at home.) I approached this from the prayer context, not the talmud context -- we have this fixed text that we say every service and then we're supposed to say our own prayer, but maybe not everybody is comfortable doing that. The idea was to present a range of things that are recorded in our tradition; maybe people would get some new ideas.

I had not realized, and did not think to ask at the beginning, that no one there other than me had actually studied any talmud before -- maybe they'd seen material that came from the talmud, but they'd never looked at a page of talmud before. I, not knowing this, gave only the scantest of introductions to talmud itself (here's what the full page looks like, here's where we are, here's an interlinear translation to follow 'cause nobody here including me is going to read the Aramaic straight from the page). When I learned at the end that this was new to everybody, part of me wondered if I should have given more of an intro -- but I think not, on reflection. I helped a group of people just dive in to something that many consider intimidating; I think that probably left them all feeling better, and more confident, than a "talmud 101 using this text as an example" class would have been. I am becoming a big fan of the "just do it" school of teaching.

[1] Orthodox and many Conservative congregations outside of Israel read Sh'mini this week (the one before Tazria). This is because the seventh day of Pesach was a Friday, so those who follow the rule to add an extra day to holidays outside Israel had a holiday reading last week and got to Sh'mini this week. Our minyan decided to minimize the time out of sync by splitting the double portion Tazria-Metzora that others will read next week, so we'll be caught up next week. The Reform movement apparently suggests instead splitting Sh'mini into two parts (half last week and half this week), I guess because that works every year and splitting Tazria-Metzora only works when they've been combined (which is most years). Meanwhile, I learned recently, Israel, which like Reform does not have an extra day of holiday, is doing something different -- they read Tazria-Metzora this week and we won't all be in sync again until mid-May.

Keeping the enslaved down

Recently some local congregations have been banding together for yom tov services. Friday's service for the last day of Pesach was pretty unsatisfactory in a lot of ways, but in this post I'm going to write about just one practice, something I have seen in other congregations too and that needs to end.

Most blessings begin with a six-word formula, followed by the text that varies. The morning service contains a bunch of these, thanking God for making us free, lifting up the fallen, giving strength to the weary, and more. (There are 15 of these in a row.) The congregation says these together. In Friday's service, the leader decreed that the congregation would chant these in "Hebrish" -- first six words in Hebrew, then chanting the varying part in English.

I previously wrote about the horror that is chanted English prayer. This isn't that. This "Hebrish" practice, I've been told when I've asked, is motivated by a desire for inclusion: people don't know the Hebrew, the reasoning goes, so this makes prayer more accessible. Sounds admirable, right? But it's misguided and, dare I say, harmful. First off, the transliteration is right there in the siddur next to the Hebrew, precisely to make the Hebrew more accessible. But, more fundamentally, this practice serves to keep people down. How are they ever to learn the Hebrew if we never do it? Are we supposed to settle for the current state and never move past it? How would I have become proficient in the Hebrew prayers if, when I was trying to grow, my congregation had kept me on the English?

The Rambam (Maimonides) famously taught that the highest level of tzedakah (charity, loosely) is to help a poor person to get a job, rather than to give him money. Giving him money sustains him for a time; getting him a job helps him break out of the clutches of poverty (we hope). The Reform movement holds this up as a key value, even placing it in the section of the siddur where we study torah in the morning. Why, then, do we refuse to apply that same principle to those who are poor in knowledge? Why is it better to give them the handout of English prayer instead of helping them to pray in Hebrew?

In the past I have remained silent to avoid the appearance of challenging our leaders. I have tried and failed to persuade leaders who do this to reconsider. Friday, when they announced this and started into those prayers, I said to myself quietly "no more" and proceeded to chant the prayers in Hebrew. The long-time member of my congregation sitting next to me said "good for you!" and joined me. We were not disruptive, but I have high hopes that maybe, next time, he'll be sitting next to someone else and he too will say "no more" and forge ahead, and maybe someone sitting next to him will follow. And maybe, eventually, we'll be able to help people break out of the bonds of illiteracy, instead of continuing to keep them down by catering to their current weaknesses. We've just celebrated z'man cheruteinu, the season of our freedom, and it is time to apply that to our people now and not just looking back at Mitzrayim.

If reading the Hebrew text directly is too challenging for some, the transliteration is readily available. Or they could quietly read the English the way I quietly read the Hebrew. (I do that when I'm at services that are above my level, like last week at Village Shul.) But let's stop telling our congregants that they're too uneducated to handle the Hebrew; that only serves to reinforce the idea until they no longer want to try.

Somebody asked, in a comment, why the choice of language matters. This is how I answered:

Thanks for commenting, and never worry about asking questions. We're all about questions. :-)

There are a few factors. First, by putting those first six words in Hebrew, the people leading the service in this way are already saying that Hebrew is important -- but not important enough to learn. I think I would be less bothered by English-only prayer than I am by this. It seems contradictory. (Mind, I wouldn't continue to pray in an English-only synagogue, for reasons I give below, but I'd be less bothered, I think.)

Second, short and/or common Hebrew prayers are the "gateway Hebrew" to other texts. If you learn the prayers you'll start to recognize some of those words and phrases when torah is read, which may lead you to learn more words, which can eventually lead to an understanding of scripture that is just not possible in translation. I'm not there yet by any means, but because I learned some Hebrew I notice nuances in the torah text that either add meaning or lead me to ask more questions -- and questions are good; they lead to deeper understanding. So by cutting people off from that "entry-level" Hebrew text we're also cutting off all but the most curious from a lot more.

Those are reasons that apply to everybody. Speaking just for myself now, there is quality to the text that just doesn't come through in translation -- a combination of the word-roots feature another commenter mentioned, and a meter that lends itself a little more to contemplation (hard to explain, but it's "calmer"), and probably some other factors I haven't yet figured out. Additionally, there is something "connecting" about saying the same prayers (in the same words) that Jews have said for thousands of years. I realize that the Reform movement breaks that in places, but it's still largely intact.

God hears prayer in any language; you don't need to pray in Hebrew to stay in right relationship with God. But working a little harder to pray in our language feels rewarding to me. I imagine that this is similar for Roman Catholics who pray(ed) in Latin, and for Greek Orthodox who pray in Greek, and Muslims who pray in Arabic, and others.

Pesach services

We were in Toronto for the first days of Pesach. I had previously had an excellent experience at Beit HaMinyan (not just the one, but that's the one I wrote about), so I was looking forward to going there for Shabbat/Pesach morning. I checked their web site before leaving Pittsburgh to make sure they were in the same place; thus reassured, I went there Saturday morning empty, locked building. They're very friendly and welcoming when they're there, but maybe not so great at updating their web site. Bummer. :-(

So I fell back to the Village Shul (Aish HaTorah), a place I'd been once before. This time, as last, I found them to be not too welcoming; this time I knew where to go in the building so the indifferent man standing at the entrance didn't hinder me, but nor did he respond to my greeting. At the kiddush (which was a standing-around affair this time, not a sit-down one), not a single person greeted me, even when I made eye contact. It can be hard for me to approach random people and start conversations; I greeted some and usually got responses but no one engaged. I don't know what (if anything) I was doing wrong; think it was fairly obvious that I wasn't a regular, but I wasn't inappropriate in any way I could determine.

But all that said, I'm very glad I went for one reason: Tal.

Ok, I need to back up. T'filat Tal, aka the prayer for dew, is said exactly once during the year, on the morning of Pesach, in the musaf service. I had never heard it before. The Reform movement doesn't do musaf and didn't import that part into another part of the service (like is done with some other parts), and when we're in Toronto I don't always make it to Yom Tov services (but I insist on Shabbat). It's possible that I was at a Conservative service for Pesach once, and if so either they didn't do it or they didn't do anything special with it and I didn't notice.

So, this is either the first time I've encountered this prayer or the first time it registered. And it did in fact register. A resonant text (which I am unable to find online, help?), a beautiful and fitting melody (which I can't find a good version of online), and just the right amount of congregational engagement (a few words sung together at the end of each stanza) all came together into a heartfelt but not over-the-top prayer that felt entirely right to me. Wow.

And I think it needs all of those. As I said, the Reform movement doesn't do this text -- but let me predict how it would go down if we did. Because it's unfamiliar and people can't be assumed to be fluent, we would read (not sing) it, in English. Perhaps responsively, alternating stanzas. And it would fall completely flat, done that way. I'm not fluent and I'd never seen this text before either, but I listened to it in Hebrew while reading the English translation, and that worked. If I didn't need the translation then that'd be even better, but the text I read and the text I hear don't need to be the same language and that's just fine. Alas, mine seems to be a small-minority position in my movement, so I will probably not get the opportunity to experience this prayer in that setting, which makes me sad.

Back to Village Shul, a little service anthropology: this time, as the last time I visited, they had a class concurrent with the torah service. About half the women left for it; I didn't see how many men did. I was kind of underwhelmed by the class last time; Aish teachers seem to have a tendency to want to prove that torah is true by using "bible codes" and other such constructs, and that's not my thing. I don't need somebody to prove torah to me. So this time I stayed for the torah service instead.

On holidays there is a special torah reading (shorter than usual this time). I found the right passage in the chumash on my own; they did not announce chapter/verse or page number at the beginning of the reading, but they did for every aliyah after the first so I conclude that this was an oversight, not policy. (They had been announcing page numbers in the siddur from time to time, and always when there was a jump.) The reading was pretty fast, and while each aliyah got a misheberach (an individual prayer from the service leader), which isn't part of my usual experience, it was efficient -- we were never stuck waiting and wondering, like I have been in some services that draw this out.

Throughout the service the melodies were recognizable (usually Carlebach) and usually not the ones I'm used to. I have retained none of the specifics, alas.

Verizon, surely you can do better than this

Dear Verizon,

Thank you for the phone message alerting me to the impending expiration of the credit card I have on file with you. Unfortunately, the URL you gave in the phone message does not exist, and when I searched your site for "pay" and "credit card" I did not find the page (that you assured me exists) where I could update this information. Your URL contained "pay online", so I had high hopes for "pay".

So then I tried your "contact us" link, which tried mightily to direct me to chat, forums, help, and all manner of unsatisfactory-to-me (but easy-for-you) destinations. (Let's hear it for crowd-sourced support, eh?) When I reached the "send email" option I found a form (not an email address) that, among things, asked for my name, phone number, and email address (twice). It also asked for an account number, but since you bill my credit card directly I've never seen a paper bill and have no idea what that number is -- so that "sample bill" image didn't help. Your form required that I type something there and wouldn't let me type letters, so my plan to signal this with "unknown" was foiled. It wouldn't accept "?" either.

So, I'm sorry that my "account number" of 0 will slow you down, but you left me no choice. I hope you can still manage to respond to me, as otherwise we'll have to wait for Visa to decline a payment to you. On the plus side, I'll bet that will get you to talk to me.

By the way, I'd be happy to refer you to web-site developers who could greatly improve the usability of your site for a small investment.

Oh, also, I'm still waiting for the opportunity to spend more money with you each month for FiOS. Surely my neighborhood full of geeks, university folks, and the like would make it profitable for you to run fiber over here. Practically everybody else in the east end seems to have it...

Shabbat: Rabbi Shefa Gold

Shefa Gold, a prominent rabbi in the Renewal movement, was in Pittsburgh this weekend. I went to the Shabbat morning service that she led. It was...different.

I went to the Renewal movement's national kallah a few years ago, and most of what I know about their ideas and worship styles comes from that. (Much of the rest comes from reading the Velveteen Rabbi's blog.) At the kallah I encountered a lot of worship motifs that I think of as "new-age", such as drumming, movement/dance, yoga, meditation, and an abundance of creative English readings displacing set liturgy. But I also encountered well-done music that enhanced worship, and a focus on core kavannot (intentions) behind the prayers. At the time I described the kallah as a whole, including both worship and learning, as "decent with a high standard deviation".

So with some trepidation, and a resolve to leave if necessary, I went to the service. There were a couple good ideas there, but also some things that turned me off, so I'm glad this was a one-shot. I didn't walk out, but nor would I go again.

I'm not going to give a detailed chronology, but I have some observations of things that stood out: Read moreā€¦