Category: Culture

Almost the only Jew in town

I haven’t posted in awhile, because this fall I had to move from my happy city apartment (within walking distance from two Conservative shuls) back home to a rural village in Eastern Ontario.  When I told people that I was moving there, one of the old guys at the morning minyan said, “Oh yeah, the synagogue in [Nearest Sizeable Town] has been gone for years.  I was the last one to daven there.”  I heard of one family that was there at some point in the recent past, but apparently it’s like all the Jewish people here have been driven out of Spain.  Based on walking around my little village during Hanukkah and looking for lights in the windows, I can say that I seemed to be the only one observing it.  Kosher butcher?  Ha ha, no.  Population is around 3500 people (this includes people living further out in the country), but there are three churches, two Protestant and one Catholic.  At the little diner up the street, they put ground pork in the hamburgers.  (When I informed the waitress that I sorta keep kosher, she warned me about it.)

I know there are plenty of worse places to live, and I’m still in touch with my rabbi via email, but it’s tough for me to feel severed from the community.  I have to make my own Jewish experiences happen as best I can, instead of being able to observe and learn from the people around me.

I had to move on Shabbat, just as Sukkot was beginning–the moving company only gave me one other choice of date, and that was Yom Kippur, so I said no.  I couldn’t celebrate the holiday at home, too exhausted and busy with unpacking.  For weeks, though, I had recurring dreams that I was building a Sukkah.  It was a little every night, fleeting images of setting posts and beams, hanging canvas, laying branches.  Since I do so much reading during the day on Convert Stuff, I have related dreams pretty often (we’ve all had the Nazi dreams, let’s be real).  Sometimes I have feverish pre-Shabbat dreams about what I’m gonna cook, discovering in a panic that my menu won’t work because the dessert has dairy.  But this was slow and progressive, consistent from night to night.  Finally I had the last one: I dreamed that my job was finished and the Sukkah was built, and I was sitting down inside it to eat.  I felt accomplished, at peace.  And that was it.

Now in December, my Hanukkah went off without a hitch.  I learned the blessings and songs, set out my chanukkiyah, lit the candles, and cooked latkes, falafel, sufganiyot, perogies.  When the 7th night fell on Erev Shabbat, I carved the bottoms of regular Shabbat candles with a knife so they’d fit in the menorah, candles big enough to burn from the early, early sunset (4:05pm) to nightfall.  It was lonely, somehow lonelier than if I’d been alone in my apartment–I feel self-conscious singing the berachot in front of my mother.  But I still loved it and was sad when it was over.

“But this isn’t actually…a rejection of Jesus, is it?” my mother asked.  I was stunned, because I’d thought she understood what I was doing.  I didn’t want to tell her that yes, that’s part of the deal, because I knew it would hurt her feelings.  But I said yes, I have some theological problems with Jesus, and I’m not just doing it because Conservative Judaism is easier on homosexuality than Catholicism is.  I’m doing it because I love the whole religion.  I love the people.  This is how I want to live.

It hurts that people approved more when I was miserable and angry inside the Catholic Church–people who love me.  I know that this is just a communication thing and a time thing, and that everyone else will get used to it.  It will look less alienating and scary to my family as they realize that I’m not trying to deny my ancestors or cut myself off from their traditions, but meanwhile…meanwhile all I want is to go to shul on a Saturday night for Mincha, Seuda Selishit, Ma’ariv and Havdalah.  I want to sing the goofy setting of Adon Olam and head downstairs for kiddush on Shabbat morning, eating herring on crackers just because dammit I will start liking herring.  My friend the gabbai hugging me when he sees me in the crowd.  The sunlight coming through the windows at breakfast after morning minyan, shining on the transparent pink slivers of lox on the bagels, on the sliced melon and bowls of strawberries.  People calling out questions after a d’var Torah.

All I want is everything, I’m greedy.  And I’m lucky, because I live in the age of the internet and I can still find ways to not be alone. I wonder about how people did it in other periods of this country’s history, when they really were alone.  There’s a Jewish graveyard a few miles from here, and I think about those people.  How do we live without the others?

Staring

There’s an Orthodox shul somewhere close by in the neighbourhood of my Conservative one–I’ve never been there, and I’m not sure where it is, and I only know it exists because I see the Black Hats wandering in the neighbourhood at the same time as I’m heading to services.

I’m gonna hypothesize here that a lot of converts have a bad habit of staring at (or surreptitiously watching) anyone who’s visibly, observantly Jewish.  Especially if (like me) you grew up in a place where there just were none around, but maybe even if you didn’t.  Seeing a man in a kippa means that I will be subtly watching him until he’s out of my immediate range.  I still pay close attention to the other people shopping around me in the kosher section.  It just always represented something I was relentlessly curious about, hungry for.  In Catholicism, one of the reasons for the Roman collar and the religious habit is to make people remember that the spiritual world exists, to provoke that hunger if possible.  Visibility.

And added to that, with the Black Hats, there’s the more general curiosity about an insular group.  They look out of place next to everyone else on the street, they don’t acknowledge me if I give a little shabbat shalom nod as I pass them on the sidewalk, and they make me think of Chaim Potok novels, which were one of my first introductions to Jewish literature.  They’re also just visually interesting–there’s always a few in the crowd who are dapper and make the uniform look good, and some young guys who don’t really have beards yet but are trying hard, and some who are a mess of flapping coat panels and fringes and poorly fitted trousers.  And the old men look like ghosts.

I usually wear a hamsa necklace, and when I’m on my way to or from shul I wear a little crocheted beret, but not a kippa.  Lately I’ve started to sometimes wear a Magen David instead of the hamsa, as a more recognizable symbol, and I actually feel a little self-conscious about it.  Not unpleasantly so, but I wonder if people notice it, if it makes them assume different things about me than they otherwise might have, if (as teachers always told us before we left on field trips) I’m “being a good ambassador.”  Strangers seeing me on the bus or at the grocery store will see this visual cue and assume that I’m Jewish, and that’s new for me.  If I were on display to the degree that the yeshivish guys are, I think I’d be pretty neurotic about it, but maybe their thoughts and motives are different.

So I guess I shouldn’t be staring.  Sorry, bros.  But the other night, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I was walking home from shul by myself.  It’s a long walk, it’s not always well-lit, and really it’s probably not a good idea for me to take it after dark.  But as I turned onto the main road, this bunch of yeshivish guys were walking ahead of me.  Wherever they were headed, it was the same route as I was taking, so I trailed behind them as we walked through side streets, alongside city parks, under an overpass.  I would have been very nervous doing that with a crowd of secular young men–if I did it at all.  I’m not someone who worries a lot about this, compared to other women I know, and a few other dudes on the street won’t faze me, but a bunch of guys who know each other?  That’s trouble.  Even if all they do is yell something.  But I knew these guys wouldn’t touch me,  and they wouldn’t yell dirty shit at me, and I felt safe until we parted ways.

Sods and rinds to cover your flake, cake and tea for supper

I was a picky eater as a kid.  I still am in a lot of ways, but I’m more open to trying new foods, which has been one of the fun things about exploring Judaism and kosher food.  The traditional Ashkenazi stuff has all been new to me, and a lot is stuff I would never have considered trying otherwise.  Gefilte fish, it’s a problem.  I was delighted and vindicated to read that the British Jews do fry it, as that seemed to me like the only possible strategy when I first opened a package of it.  My people!  You understand!  Similarly, cold marinated herring in a jar just creeps me out.  But kippers, nice and hot and buttery, that I can do.

The meal above is one of my fusion attempts, trying to merge stuff that’s traditional for me with a Jewish diet.  Kippers with butter, toasted challah rolls with more butter and a dab of Marmite, and by G-d a cup of tea.  (The Guinness glass to the side is unrelated as it’s my all-purpose water glass.)  The challah rolls are working for me like gangbusters–putting out two full loaves every Shabbat is just wasteful for me, living alone, but a bag of the small rolls can last me pretty well in the fridge and they look cute.  It looks to me like having two rolls set out under the cover fulfills the obligation just like having two big loaves, since a roll is certainly more than the size of an olive and complete in itself, but I might be wrong.  If you already like Marmite or if you think you can appreciate the delights of a salty-yeasty table spread, then I can tell you that yeah, putting it on challah is a good idea.  Is it kosher?  Looks that way!

Kippers do have a bone issue, so not so good for Shabbat, but the ones I bought fresh from the fish section had wayyyy more bones than the frozen Neptune-brand package which is boil in the bag–if those could be heated up and drained before candle-lighting and kept warm for dinner, they’d work.  All dat Omega-3 fo me, and apparently they’re not too mercurified to eat more than once a week.

Tea with dinner is a major comfort thing for me that reminds me of my mother; I don’t know how widespread it is outside the Maritimes, and it feels like it’s in decline, but when I was in the hospital here in Ontario it was served with every meal, so who knows.  I made tea ahead of time for Shabbat dinner this week (I like it strong) and it felt like everything clicked into place.  A nice warm teapot on the Shabbat table is, dare I say it, heimisch.

Oyyyy.

So one of my kosher exceptions (for now) is that I order delivery from non-kosher restaurants so long as the meal I’m ordering could conceivably be kosher: pizza with only cheese and vegetables, or shawarma/donair, etc.  One of the places I usually order from makes a low-rent Caesar salad with only lettuce and croutons.  Perfect.  Last night I bought some stuff (because TIRED and HUMIDITY), including a salad, which I put in the fridge for later.  Oh, the joys of having something saved for later that I didn’t cook myself.  It is a sweet secret to hold to one’s bosom.  I didn’t even open the box.

I just opened it.  Bacon bits.

I suppose the silver lining is that I have never, ever liked bacon bits so this is only a disappointment, not a temptation to fall off the wagon.  Even before I started going kosher I would have made a face and tried to flick them off the salad, but now I have to throw the whole thing out.  And my jonesing for garlicky lettuce will have to wait for later.

Lesson: always, always, always specify with Caesar salad.  Or move to a place with kosher restaurants.  Or don’t be lazy like me and make your own salad.

Lotta people won’t get no supper tonight

Man, it’s rough.  I don’t know where to start or where to begin:  So this was a week that needed a lot of running around on my part.  And by “running” I do mean walking, but I mean walking with my actual feet, you know what I’m saying?  I depend on public transport, which in my city is pretty good, but inevitably involves a lot of wandering around on pedestrian-unfriendly roads, crossing median strips, hopping the odd snowfence, and waiting for buses in the hot sun.  A complicated trip is fine once in a while, but more than once a week?  I start to feel like I should be walking with a retinue of half-blind cats and mumbling curses against the wicked provost of the last town who drove me out after I made his she-cows’ udders run dry.

One of these was for a job interview in the middle of a “neighbourhood” known as The Trainyards, which seemed to be populated mostly by trucks.  I had a bad feeling about it.  Telemarketing job, whatever, I’m not proud at this point, but when I googled the company name the very first term that popped up was “[COMPANY NAME REDACTED] scam”.  Picking through the search results, I determined that they weren’t so much a scam company as they were jerks who put the hard sell on people and convinced them to spend way too much on cookware.

So I wondered, at what point does it become unethical to work for a company?  If you let yourself fall for a sales pitch and you pay an inflated price, doesn’t caveat emptor put the customer at fault, not the seller?  But it was obvious from reading the comments that people felt jerked around by this company, and also that the sales tactics made them feel embarrassed.

Now that caught my attention particularly because Judaism takes the duty not to embarrass quite seriously.  (E.g. keitzad merakdim lifnei hakallah?)  I like this a lot, because it feels like a sensible and humane thing to take into consideration.  Aggressive sales tactics that make people feel like they’re stupid or poor, cornering people, forcing them to be rude, all of this seems (at best) like a sub-optimal way to treat customers.  I would rather those things didn’t happen.  I don’t blame the sales reps for this because I know full well that the higher levels of the hierarchy make them do it.

Another issue, maybe, is geneivat da’at. This company reportedly told customers its products were made by a famous manufacturer in Germany, but when they arrived the packaging said otherwise.  If true, this is a pretty clear-cut example of the principle as I understand it.  The problem in geneivat da’at is not just financial, since it can apply even to gift situations, and the problem is also not solely that it’s misrepresentation–otherwise saying that the ugly bride is charming and beautiful would also be wrong.  (Well, Shammai thinks it is, because of course he would, but Hillel disagrees.)  What’s the difference between paying a compliment that you don’t mean and misrepresenting a product?

“Any words or actions that cause others to form incorrect conclusions about one’s motives might be a violation of this prohibition. One does not have the right to diminish the ability of another person, Jew or Gentile, to make a fair and honest evaluation, whether in business or interpersonal relations.” [*]

Okay!  This explanation makes it clearer.  When we compliment a bride (or someone’s new shoes or whatever), the key choice has already been made.  The person exercised their judgement in choosing to marry or in choosing to buy.  You’re not persuading them to do something based on bad intel, you’re just being nice.  This matches up pretty well with our pre-philosophical intuitions: most people feel like “white lies” are morally neutral and occasionally required, but we don’t feel that way about shady sales tactics.

I’m not sure it’s possible to avoid buying from or working for any company that does geneivat da’at.  It would be even harder to avoid companies that treat individuals in an undignified way, particularly big corporations.  Workers at the lower levels just don’t have as much control over how they sell, and what they sell.  But I do think it’s something worth considering.

So anyway, all this reading and thinking made me give the job a whole lot of side-eye, but I went to the interview despite it.  And they wanted me to work Saturdays and also didn’t pay that much (I have a realistic idea of how persuasive I actually am over the phone, which is not a whole lot) so forget about it.

Them belly full, but we hungry: Due to this roaming around the city for bad job interviews, and getting sunburned twice, I didn’t make it to shul again for Shabbat morning.  But I did fast for Tisha B’Av.  Sat on some cushions on the floor, didn’t wear shoes, read Lamentations, thought heavy thoughts and watched The Pianist because I hadn’t seen it in a long time.  Fasting is tough.  And may I say, fasting in the Catholic tradition in no way prepares you for Jewish-style fasting.

The law of fasting requires a Catholic from the 18th Birthday [Canon 97] to the 59th Birthday [i.e. the beginning of the 60th year, a year which will be completed on the 60th birthday] to reduce the amount of food eaten from normal. The Church defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity. Such fasting is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The fast is broken by eating between meals and by drinks which could be considered food (milk shakes, but not milk). Alcoholic beverages do not break the fast; however, they seem contrary to the spirit of doing penance. [source, bold for emphasis]

A meal and two snacks (collations is the proper Latinate term) is barely a diet, let alone a total fast.  And those are the strictest fasts of the year, while the rest are just eating salmon instead of steak.  If I’d even been allowed water it would have been easier.  But I made it!  Now excuse me while I continue to demolish this frozen cheesecake.

Heavy Mysteries

This classic old George Carlin bit sums up one of the things I love most about both Catholicism and Judaism: both have a concern with rules that gives them a huge capacity for generating convoluted questions and answers.  They approach questions with very different methods, and take them in different directions, but Thomists and Talmudists both make a meal of them.

A rare case where both took a similar approach to a very stupid question is, of course, the barnacle goose, whose medieval legend reads like a version of the famous Canadian house hippo PSA:  the Irish felt that since the birds grew from barnacles or maybe from trees (seems legit) they were technically fish, and therefore okay to eat on Fridays.  Sed contra est:

…Bishops and religious men (viri religiosi) in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting, because they are not flesh nor born of flesh…. But in so doing they are led into sin. For if anyone were to eat of the leg of our first parent (Adam) although he was not born of flesh, that person could not be adjudged innocent of eating meat.

I admire this effort, but it’s only partially convincing.  Rabbis, meanwhile, were trying to determine if the birds were kosher.  From what I read it seems like there was some appropriate scepticism: “birds growing on trees, if it be true they grow on trees, are not forbidden food.”  Another rabbi declared that since they grew from barnacles they were shellfish and therefore treif, thus agreeing with the categorization of the Irish clerics.

I guess I could draw some larger epistemological point from all this (perhaps that legal reasoning isn’t very useful when your science is shit) but really I just find the barnacle goose delightful.