Blog: December 2014

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.

Mi Yodeya field trip: synagogue notes

I wrote previously about the Mi Yodeya celebration. I also joined Isaac and others for services while there, which was interesting and educational.

Friday we went to KMS (Kemp Mill) for kabbalat shabbat. There were several women there -- way more than I've seen Friday night in any Orthodox synagogue in Pittsburgh, where I've often been the only one (awkward!). The mechitzah (division between the men's and women's sections) was reasonably friendly -- down the center rather than pushing the women to the back, and not so high as to block view of the front of the room. There was a lot of singing (led by the youth group, if I recall correctly); I recognized some of the melodies and could sing along with pretty much everything, invoking my knack for singing along on the first verse with a song I've never heard before. The community felt warm and friendly. A woman gave a short d'var torah.

Saturday morning we'd thought to go to the other large synagogue (Shomrei), in part because their well-regarded rabbi would be giving the d'var torah, but logistics happened and we went to KMS instead. This time we were in the main sanctuary (we'd been in a smaller room the night before), again with a friendly layout. They run a very efficient service: the morning was about two hours, and that might be the first time I've seen a full (Orthodox) torah service come in under 45 minutes. Part of it is that they don't do long-winded mi sheberachs after each aliya like some places, and part of it is that people knew when they were supposed to be where and didn't dawdle. The leining (chanting) was also pretty fast.

They had the d'var torah after the end of the service. Since the service was over the mechitzah was no longer necessary, so they lowered it -- the top part could be lowered with the flick of a lever. I don't know if that is a reason for this timing or a consequence of it, but I took positive note.

The d'var was given by another woman and was excellent. She talked for about 12-14 minutes, starting by talking about Yosef, transitioning into the values of Chanukah, and ending up at education values. I haven't retained as much of it as I'd've liked and I don't know if she's published it anywhere yet. Bummer, but that part's par for the course on Shabbat. (Yes, I know I'm guilty of doing this to other people too. Sorry. I will try to be better about that.)

Toward the end of Shabbat we headed over to Shomrei for mincha (afternoon service) and ma'ariv (evening service), between which their rabbi was going to give a class about Chanukah. When we entered the building someone told me there are two women's sections, one in a balcony and one on the main floor. I headed for the downstairs one and almost immediately realized that was a mistake; it was tucked in the back corner of the room (so hard to hear), and the mechitzah was tall and opaque so I wasn't going to see anything either. No one else was there. So I found the stairs and headed up to the balcony, where I could sit in the front center and be able to see and hear. There was one other woman there, and a couple more came in later.

The rabbi's class was mainly a question-and-answer session about the laws of Chanukah, mainly things having to do with the chanukiyah (Chanukah menorah) and candle-lighting. We talked about what to do if you're not at home, about timing, about people who live in apartment buildings, and assorted other stuff. I asked one question (and felt welcome to do so).

Sunday we went to the earlier morning service at KMS so I could take my hosts out for breakfast and still drive home in daylight. We were in the main sanctuary again, and as on Shabbat, it was a efficient service. There were a few women. I was the only one wearing pants, oops. (I'd worn skirts on Shabbat, but I don't consider that practical for everyday wear -- what are you supposed to do without good pockets??)

A couple observations:

First, none of the services felt rushed, but I do not know how people pray that quickly. I couldn't keep up without vocalizing everything, while the service leader was spitting out the Hebrew cleanly and clearly. I guess it comes in time? But on the other hand, if I haven't gotten it by now...

They sure do a lot of kaddishes. If I recall correctly, at the end of the Sunday-morning service there was a bit of torah learning followed by kaddish d'rabbanan, and I came away with the impression that the former was there mainly to justify the latter. (Kaddish is said at certain points in the service, mainly to act as a division, but it also may be said after any learning.) Unlike in Reform services, kaddish is said either by one person or the mourners as a group. I found myself wondering how that's coordinated -- who gets which ones, how do they know, and if you particularly want one that day, how do you signal that?

Both of these synagogues -- and, now that I think about it, several other Orthodox synagogues I've been to -- had a bunch of different siddurim (prayer books). The content is basically the same in all of them, but sometimes there are minor variations, they may or may not include English translations (which may or may not vary subtly), they may or may not contain commentary, and so on. This has a few consequences:

  • You actually get, and have to make, a choice. Friday night I just took a book; it was all Hebrew, no English translation. That's fine for the prayers (I'm going to do those in Hebrew anyway), but I had to work a little more at navigation.
  • Some people bring their own, an option that simply had not occurred to me.
  • Because not everybody is using the same book, and also I assume because there's an assumption that if you're there you're fluent (which breaks down in some individual cases, of course), they don't call out instructions or page numbers -- you're just expected to be able to follow. I can do that for a Shabbat or weekday service, but might be challenged to do so on, say, the high holy days.

On Saturday morning I used the Koren siddur, which I've heard good things about. I actually found the Hebrew font just a tad hard to read, compared to Sim Shalom, Artscroll, and even Mishkan T'filah. It looked like a nice siddur otherwise, so maybe one to have available even if I don't use it regularly. Or maybe, were I to use it regularly, I'd find the font a little easier.

I'm glad I got the opportunity to experience all that.

Mi Yodeya celebration

This weekend I attended a celebration of Mi Yodeya's fifth birthday, hosted by the site's patriarch and his family, who had the decency to move this summer to within driving distance of my house. So I got to go. I had a great time!

Isaac and his family (names and details elided because he hasn't shared those online AFAIK) are wonderful people and kind hosts. I felt welcome from the moment I walked through their door on Friday afternoon. Friday night after Shabbat dinner we visited another Yodeyan family -- they'd just had a baby girl a few days earlier so they invited folks over to celebrate. I was a little disappointed, but ultimately relieved, that he did not give his daughter a polysyllabic Klingon name after all (and I'll just leave the ambiguity in that sentence hanging :-) ).

Saturday afternoon was the main event. We were joined by about half a dozen other Yodeyans and their families, all local (or approximately so) except for me. Some demurred about sharing their user names, so I still don't know who everybody is "on site", but that's fine. One printed out his "gravatar", the default, uniquely-generated image that's assigned to a user who doesn't upload something else. Another also found a way to display his user icon. I wish I'd thought of that -- but people knew who I was anyway, because (a) I use the image I'm posting this entry under and they could match it up, and (b) I was probably the only person none of them knew otherwise (so clearly I wasn't local).

Lunch was festive and included divrei torah (words of torah) from, I think, all the Yodeyans. Mine went ok -- several others were clearly more erudite, but some of those people are rabbis so I don't feel bad about that. :-) I've been woefully negligent about posting my divrei torah here lately, but I'll try to get this one (and the one I gave in my minyan the week before) posted here.

Shabbat morning at services we heard an excellent d'var torah on the themes of Chanukah and education. One key take-away for me was that in Jewish education we repeat topics all the time; we read the torah in an annual cycle, there's a seven-year cycle of studying the talmud, and students will visit some topics over and over. In secular education, on the other hand, this doesn't happen -- why would you ever repeat algebra or chemistry or freshman English, unless you'd had trouble getting it the first time around? (Sure, you may go more in-depth later, but that's different.) And while it might not make sense to revisit secular topics such as these over and over, there is much to be gained in revisiting torah and talmud and halacha and ethics and the rest. (This was part of a much longer discussion of educational values, not the whole talk.)

This matches my experience on Mi Yodeya, too. Any question that I could ask has been asked before, probably many times, by people way more learned than I -- yet there is value in me asking it anew, and value in others engaging with it instead of just saying "go read this textbook". And similarly, any answer that I could give to someone else's question would pale in comparison to what others have said on that topic in the past, yet I and others get something out of my offering those answers anyway. (Most of the time, anyway -- I've had some clunkers, as have we all.) Jewish topics are not just things to be learned, or looked up once, in books; that we engage with questions, turning the torah and turning it again and again to reveal its 70 faces, is important. And I get to be part of it.

Isaac had a really thoughtful gift1 for each of us: for each of us he found an answer (or question in some cases, I think) of ours that stood out, and that also fit the format, and printed it in a nice "certificate" format suitable for framing. I love that! And I like the answer of mine that he picked, which I'd kind of forgotten about (but now that I'm reminded of it, it was well-received). Very cool idea!

1 Technically not, as it was on Shabbat. It, um, involved a kinyan and, I think, his wife acting as agent for all of us. I don't quite know how that works, but I know a place I could ask. :-)

Vayeishev: why was Yosef the favorite?

At the beginning of this week's parsha, in Gen 37:3, we're told that Yaakov's favorite son was Yosef because Yosef was "a son of his old age". But wait, I wondered upon reading this -- his brother Binyamin is even younger! Further, Yaakov's beloved, favorite wife died in childbirth with Binyamin, so in a sense he's an especially precious gift to Yaakov. Why isn't he the favorite "son of Yaakov's old age"? Curious and finding no help in the commentaries to hand (mainly Rashi), I asked on Mi Yodeya. I learned a few opinions there:

  • The Chizkuni says that Binyamin is a reminder of Rachel's death, which counts against him (through no fault of his own, of course, but still a painful memory). I had wondered about that possibility.
  • The Ralbag (among others) says that Yosef was the long-awaited son of the beloved wife, Rachel. Rather a bit of time passed while Leah was having child after child. Along similar lines, the Sifsei Chachamim says a lot of time passed between Yosef and Binyamin, so Yosef was "the youngest son" for a long time and the role stuck.
  • Radak says Yosef had the wisdom of an older man.
  • And finally (for now), the Ramban (Nachmanides) says that Yosef was the son who served his father in Yaakov's old age -- he was the one who was always there to take care of his father's needs, so naturally they formed a special bond. Binyamin was too young during these critical years and the other brothers were busy shepherding.

Skype is customer-hostile now?

I have a personal Skype account, which I use very rarely via my personal tablet. That's all fine, or was the last time I checked, anyway.

I also need Skype for work, so to prevent mingling I created a work account (6+ months ago), using my work email address for the account name. I log in to Skype using that email address and password on a (work) tablet all the time. That's all fine.

It would be convenient for me to also have a Skype client on my work laptop, so I went to download one. Along the way I tried to sign into the Skype web site, using that email address. Whereupon it told me that my account name can't be an email address and I need to either give it a proper account name or sign in with my Microsoft account. I've no idea what they think the former is nor do I have one of the latter so far as I can tell. There's a "forgot user name?" link, but it leads to a login page for a Microsoft account. After making a few failed guesses about all of this I found my way to their support page.

Their help pages are useless for this particular situation (no I didn't forget my password). They don't publish any email addresses for support, of course, but there was a link for "support request page". Great, I thought -- so I clicked on it. And it demanded that I log in.

Earth to Skype: If you require login for people to get support, you aren't providing support for identity/password issues! Sheesh.

I verified that I can still log in on the tablet, then went back to their web site for one more try at "forgot account name". At which point it told me I've tried too many times and come back tomorrow.

By the way, neither nor is a valid address. I'm not even going to bother with postmaster or webmaster; most customer-facing sites I've tried to contact send those into a black hole, never mind that at least the former is supposed to always be defined.

Grumble. It was to be expected that Microsoft would be bad for Skype in the end, but this particular set of failures puzzles me.

By the way, I tried downloading the Windows client anyway just to see if I could log in there with my email address -- break the tie vote between the tablet (yes) and the web site (no). But it wants to make Bing my default search engine (no obvious way to turn that off) in every browser on my machine, so, um, no thanks. It has a checkbox (on by default but can be unchecked) to change my home page (again, in all browsers), but there's nothing about disabling the Bing thing. I'm willing to give IE over to Microsoft (and/or corporate IT) to violate however they like, but I draw the line at inviting tampering with the browsers I actually rely on.

Skype: this is not the way to build customer engagement. Maybe I'm better off just using my cell phone.

Yodeya Con

Mi Yodeya (the Jewish Q&A site on Stack Exchange) will be five years old in a couple weeks, and the founder is hosting a celebration. Mi Yodeya is a worldwide community, so no matter where it's held only a small portion of users could come, but fortunately for me the founder now lives within driving distance of my house. (This is a recent-ish change.) Woot! I get to spend a shabbat with somebody I'm very interested in meeting and talking more with, and his family, and a dozen or two others. This'll be fun! And attendees are being encouraged to give short divrei torah (torah talks), so as soon as I finish preparing this week's, I'll need to give that some thought. First impressions, you know. :-)

On a side note, I'm glad Google Maps tells me which roads along a path are toll roads, and I'd be even happier if it told me the toll.