Blog: December 2013

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.

Excerpts from 2013

I haven't really prepared a "year in review" post, but here are some random notes and thoughts.

On the job front there have been ups and downs but the year ended on an up. After thrashing about earlier in the year, being moved from one short-term or ill-defined task to another while people juggled charge codes and contracts, I finally got to settle into something (a) interesting and (b) that takes advantage of my particular specialty, and I rocked. I got a new manager mid-year (my first remote one, too; he's in AZ), which always carries some uncertainty, but he and I really click. He specifically appreciates what I do and wants to help me find more opportunities to do it. Excellent!

The cats have settled in well. I was only without cats for about 4.5 months, but they felt really empty. I mean, Dani's and my relationship is strong (no worries there!), but there was still something missing. That Erik, Embla, and Baldur all died within a span of 10 months (and the last on the day I returned from a frustrating trip to Israel) may have had something to do with that.

I continue to really enjoy my job as a moderator on Mi Yodeya, and last winter I was also appointed as a moderator on Writers (both Stack Exchange sites). On both sites I get to work with great teams on interesting content. I'm still trying to figure out how to increase the tech-writing content on Writers. I need to ask and perhaps self-answer some questions to nudge things along, I suspect.

2013 was a terrible year on another Stack Exchange site. What was supposed to be an academic-style biblical-studies site turned into a cesspool of Christian dogma. I know it's possible for people of different religions to have civilized, respectful discussions about the bible (and other religious matters); I've seen it. (I have thoughts on what makes it work when it works, but I'll save that for another time.) This site was supposed to be non-religious (though obviously most of its members are religious), like a secular university. But it didn't work out that way, and the evangelical moderators (there's no diversity on that team) either can't see or don't care about the damage being done. Everything I did to try to help get things back on course was thrown in my face -- with personal attacks, offensive (usually anti-Jewish) posts, and assorted misrepresentation. So I'm done with that; I have better things to do with my energy. There are a few good people there who are trying to turn some things around; I wish them much luck, but personally, I'm done.

I've had ups and downs religiously and congregationally. My rabbi is fantastic and I like my congregation, but there have been changes in how we approach services, and too many weeks I just don't go on Friday night because they're doing something kid-oriented or entitled (sisterhood service, Reform-style bar mitzvah, etc), and that's frustrating. The Shabbat morning minyan continues to be excellent and the spiritual high point of my week, so that's all good. I'm just trying to figure out Friday nights, and some of it is bound up in questions about whether the Reform movement is right for me at all (except I have this fantastic rabbi and he's worth staying for). It's just that sometimes, being rather more observant than those around me and caring about the halachic and other details that most shrug off, I feel like a mutant.

This year was the last Darkover Con, so On the Mark re-assembled to do a concert. That was fun, and it was nice to see friends I haven't seen in a while at the con.

I'm sure there's more, but this is what I've got right now. Happy 2014 all!

Life with cats

Life with cats: the loud protestations of outrage over my betrayal -- picking them up only to put them in those boxes,1 to go to that place, hmpf! -- ended as soon as we reached dinner-time. As I suspected. :-)

And now Giovanni is extremely interested in my mug of chai. Previous cats were only interested in mint tea (mint being, I'm told, a member of the catnip family). Silly cat; you can't get your head far-enough into the mug to get that. (Please let that be true. Here, let me make sure you can't...)

1 Well, in Giovanni's case, more like a duffel bag. He does very badly in a conventional carrier ("bad" meaning "scratched his claws bloody on his first vet visit"), so I have a soft-sided, padded, zippered carrier for him and he likes that much better.

Adventure time (for moderate values of "adventure")

Originally locked because, well, travel plans -- I'm not in the habit of telling the whole Internet when my house will be sitting empty.

Dani has some use-it-soon-or-lose-it vacation time built up and we don't have a vacation habit, so he suggested that we sort of try out the idea by finding someplace within a few hundred miles that we could drive to in December or January. We looked around and weren't impressed (in another season would be different).

So I countered with: as long as we're going to get on a plane anyway (planes are not my favorite places, but what can you do?) we needn't feel restricted, and the Aurora Borealis is supposed to be lovely this year. Let's go to Finland (or maybe Norway) and see it. It'd be cool!

We actually entertained that idea for a couple weeks (I had no idea there were so many Aurora packages!), and I'd like to thank the LJ friend who helped me think that through (feel free to identify yourself if you like). But in the end he said that maybe as a first-time-out vacation that was a little too ambitious. So we went with his counter-proposal.

We've just booked flights and a hotel for London at the end of January. We've scoped out some theatre and museums and first-timer city tours (recommendations welcome on all that). And we've had it pointed out that Paris is a 2-hour train ride (my mental map of European travel does not account sufficiently for the Chunnel), so maybe we'll do a day-trip and find out if Dani's vestigial Canadian French helps or hurts. :-) We'll see what happens, but whatever we do, it'll be fun!

Implementation note: we used Travelocity and Expedia to find flights and hotels, but booked directly with the providers to eliminate the middleman chaos factor. We did not pay more doing it this way.

A talmudic lesson (Yoma 41)

On Yom Kippur the kohein gadol (high priest) takes two goats and casts lots over them, with one becoming an offering on the altar and the other designated "for Azazel". (Azazel is a place in the wilderness where the other goat is sent.) The previous mishna described exactly how the lots were to be cast (drawn from a container, one in each hand). A mishna on today's daf explains that after this, he would bind a thread of crimson wool on the head of the one that is to be sent away and placed it at the gate, and also "the goat that was to be slaughtered at the place of slaughtering". This leads to a discussion in the g'mara: is this saying that he places the second goat at the place of slaughtering, or is it saying that the second goat also gets a strap that is placed around its neck -- the place where the slaughtering cut is made? The g'mara here concludes that it's the latter -- two goats, two straps that aren't the same in appearance. Why would that be? Because not only do we need to distinguish these two special goats from each other (for which marking one would be sufficient), but we must also distinguish them from any other goats that might be around as intended offerings. (Yoma 41b)

This reasoning demonstrates an important point: offerings require specific intent, so it's not enough to say "they're all going to the same place anyway". When offering each animal you need to know who or what, specifically, that animal is being brought for.

Neshama Carlebach

Fascinating. According to this article (tweeted by R' Gil Student), Neshama Carlebach, daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and a singer of whom I'm fond, went to the URJ biennial last week and decided (on the spot?) to join the Reform movement. Given her Orthodox background that's a bit of a surprise, though I always did wonder how she reconciled Orthodoxy's prohibitions on women singing in front of men with her career.

Perhaps ironically, while she feels drawn in by the Reform movement, I've been feeling pushed away from it in recent years. I could imagine the possibility of ending up Orthodox someday. I know of two factors at play right now, one in each direction, that prevent my serious consideration of the idea. And neither of them is theology.

What keeps me in the Reform movement and, specifically, my congregation, is my absolutely wonderful rabbi (and by the way our Shabbat morning minyan, which he leads, but not just that). Despite all the other problems that sometimes come up -- "entitlement" services that are more about performance than about worship, the disregard by many congregants for those of us who actually are observant, lowest-common-denominator practice, and others -- I have a spiritual and learning home there, at least so long as my rabbi is leading things.

And what keeps me out of the Orthodox movements (there's more than one) is not theology but the limitations I would experience as a woman. Being told that I can never represent the community, never lead prayers nor read from the torah, never fully engage spiritually except in women-only groups -- I can't go there. So the article about Neshama Carlebach and the challenges she faced in that community struck rather close to home for me.

Vay'chi: what makes Yosef so special?

Yaakov never learns, does he? When Yosef was young Yaakov singled him out for special favor, leading to brotherly strife and many years in which Yaakov thought his favorite son was dead. And now, here at the end of his life, as he delivers his final words to his children, once again he singles Yosef out. Several other brothers get one-liners (some not even seeming to be blessings), but blessings are heaped upon Yosef. Again.

It seems that the brothers assume that Yosef hasn't changed either; once their father has died they cook up a story about how Yaakov wanted Yosef to forgive his brothers and not take revenge. But Yosef has changed. He's the one who breaks the cycle of dysfunction in the family. Yosef has held onto torah values like family peace, honoring parents, not holding grudges, and fearing God, despite everything that's happened.

It's not just the family strife I'm talking about. Yosef has at this point been living in Egypt for about 40 years. He's been given an Egyptian wife and Egyptian home, and he's a top official in the court of the Egyptian king -- a king who is also a god, according to them. Yosef has been immersed in this culture, and as Paro's #2 he doesn't really have the option to separate himself from it. Despite all this, Yosef doesn't become an Egyptian at heart.

Yosef will live several more decades in Egypt, and they won't be good years. If you do the math, it's clear that Yosef sees the beginning of Israel's slavery in Egypt. One commentary says that the enslavement began immediately after Yaakov's death, as if Yaakov's presence was the only thing that stayed the divine hand. I noticed in the text that when it's time to bury Yaakov, Yosef approaches Paro's house, not Paro directly; perhaps Yosef was already out of favor in Paro's eyes at this point and Paro wouldn't see him. Remember that the famine is long ended but Yosef's family is still living and multiplying in the choice land of Goshen; perhaps Paro is starting to think of them as the houseguests who just won't leave.

So Yosef has had highs and lows, both of which challenge his Jewish identity, and yet he holds onto those values. Not only holds onto them but transmits them. Yosef strikes me as kind of a bookend to Moshe, who hundreds of years from now will be immersed in Egyptian culture and the royal court, barely know his people's values and history, and yet live those values and be God's instrument in saving his people. Moshe and the rest of his generation might not have their Jewish identity had it not been for Yosef working so hard to hold onto his.

We don't face Yosef's trials (I hope!), but we too live in a foreign culture with its own values and its own gods, a culture that sometimes seeks to marginalize us. What do we do to hold onto our Jewish values despite all that? What do we do to transmit those values to those who come after us? This is a question for each of us to answer on our own, and it starts with being aware of how easy it would be to assimilate into the surrounding culture and lose our identity.

Yaakov singled Yosef out again at the end of his life as if he were somehow special. Maybe Yosef is special -- a model for holding onto what matters no matter where we find ourselves. Are we following in his footsteps?

Bread and torah

This past Shabbat we had as visitors the two rabbis from Bread and Torah. He's a baker; she's a soferet (scribe) who is currently writing her first sefer torah (torah scroll). They led a variety of interesting activities -- challah-baking Friday afternoon, a couple text-study sessions, and some parchment-making and more baking Saturday night.

Question: How many deer do you think go into a torah scroll? (Picture on the linked page.) I'll come back to this at the end of this entry.

Shabbat afternoon, after services and lunch and a study session, I was talking with Rabbi Motzkin about parchment-making. She makes her own parchment, starting from deer skins, because most suppliers of kosher parchment are Orthodox and hold that women can't write torah scrolls, and she won't begin a holy project like that by misleading a seller. I said I've taken a couple informal classes on parchment-making but never started as far back as the fresh deer skin. (The workshop she would be leading that night involved soaking, scraping, and stretching a piece that had already had significant work done on it -- same as what I've experienced.) We got to talking; I said I'm not a very good calligrapher and I came at this through illumination (painting). She asked in what context and I said there was this group that studies the middle ages and renaissance.

She paused, and then asked if the person I'd learned about parchment from was Aengus MacBain.

Why yes, I said. Before I could ask the obvious question, she said that she'd found him online and they'd corresponded quite a bit; she considers him one of her teachers but hasn't met him. (I said "he lives nearby, if you want to try to rectify that on this trip", but their schedule was pretty full.)

Small world -- she's never been in the SCA and only knows about it through a parchment-maker she found online, and I'm not a soferet but know a little about it through the SCA. :-)

So back to the number of deer in a torah scroll. My estimate was way off, even though I read from these scrolls fairly regularly so should have an idea of the number of seams. I'd been thinking probably 25 or 30. Her answer: 60 to 80.


I went to the final Darkover convention this weekend. There'll be another convention in the same place on the same weekend starting next year, but this chapter is ended. (The founder and consistent organizer of the con died this past year.)

It seemed like there were more people there this year, some for the memorial and some because it's the last one, I assume. I hadn't been there in several years, but they asked if On the Mark would be interested in doing a concert, so we came out of retirement to do that. One of our members lives four hours away now, so rehearsals were challenging (and alas, Google Hangouts didn't work out for us), but we made it work and had a good time. I think it was a good concert and they seemed to like us.

This was also the final Clam Chowder concert. They've been a fixture at this convention for ages, and they were my inspiration when thinking about building On the Mark. They, too, have geographic problems, which are about to get worse, so I believe them when they say they're done this time. (They retired once before, but it didn't stick.)

I enjoyed the Homespun Celeidh Band concert. They have some fine individual musicians and their group really holds together. They're fun to watch. There were also some fun informal music sessions (jam session, choral singing, etc). Darkover is unusual among SF cons in having this much folk and instrumental music. It's a big part of why I went to the con for so many years. (I'm not actually a fan of the Darkover books -- but Darkover is such a small part of the programming lately that that doesn't matter.) It was nice to be able to reconnect with some folks I haven't seen in a while.

Note for the future: while the drive to the convention is 4.5 hours (maybe less, but when is there not traffic on I695?), the drive home from the convention is way longer. Two hours to get through the Breezewood interchange today -- ugh!