I cross my heart & hope to die but not this year

All my relations:  I had lunch today with my aunt, for the first time in awhile.  She’s had cancer since last Christmas and is still going through chemo, but she seems to be doing better.  She’s looking frail, but we didn’t talk about her illness; I asked a couple of open-ended questions and then let the subject drop, as she was more interested in giving me advice about my job search (this has always been one of her favourite activities).  Since we were eating, and since it’s been a pretty major new thing in my life, I told her that I’ve been exploring Judaism and I keep kosher now.  She had to ask what that means and what I can’t eat, which surprised me, but I tried to give a nice concise answer.  “No pork, no shellfish, and I don’t eat meat and dairy in the same meal.  But fish and dairy is okay.”

That sounds complicated, she said.  I explained that it wasn’t as onerous as it might sound, and that I eat very well, and in fact I cook more and  pay better attention to what I’m eating now than I did before.  This was the part that mattered to her–she worries after my eating.  And ordering food wasn’t difficult: chicken breast sandwich with lettuce and mayo, chips, that checks out.  Pepsi, pareve.  Cheesecake was out for dessert, but the apple pie was okay.

I’d been worried about telling her, because she’s often very blunt about personal decisions like that, and (like the rest of my maternal relatives) she’s a good Catholic.  But the only wince-worthy moment was when she earnestly asked if I’d done any networking at synagogue, because “Jewish people are very good with business.”  I just told her no, the people at synagogue were mostly retired or they worked in education, just like our family does.  No special Jewish financial bonuses for signing on.

Life is strange; I saw the sun last night, as I closed my eyes to sleep:  New mitzvot I’m trying to pick up.  I wrote out Modeh/Modah Ani on a card and taped it up by the bed, and Asher Yatzar in the bathroom.  This has helped me practice writing out Hebrew (I am very, very bad at this), and it also helps me read it as I try to focus on those letters and only look down at the transliteration if I have to.  I have pretty extreme anxiety attacks a lot, especially at night, and thanking G-d when I wake up alive and okay makes perfect sense to me.  I really am grateful every time and I love being able to say the prayer.  I did wonder whether I should say it after a substantial nap (like three hours or so), or if I woke up at sometime other than morning, e.g. shift work or just sleeping inverted days.  The impression I get from looking it up is that since Modah Ani does not contain G-d’s name, one can say it after any substantial amount of sleep, but is only obligated to say it when awakening in the morning.  If this is wrong, feel free to correct me.  I sleep weird hours, so it is relevant to my interests.

Asher Yatzar is a weirder one, but I really like it too.  We’ve all had Unfortunate Moments when the tubes and cavities are not in working order, and being grateful for their good functioning seems to me like a better spiritual hygiene practice than only praying for their repair when things are going wrong.  I like the way the blessing brings wonder to a totally mundane function, acknowledging the complexity of the human body.  And I can say it several times a day, which helps me learn.

We had a couple of thunderstorms here recently, too, which gave me the opportunity to say that beracha.  Those berachot on sights, smells and discoveries in nature are part of Judaism’s great beauty to me.  Yes, we can thank G-d in any language at any time for whatever is beautiful to us, but ritualising it gives it greater weight.  I bless G-d for his creations even when I personally don’t feel inspired or impressed, because my reactions and emotions are not what make thunder great.  The fact that I’m used to my digestive system’s functionality doesn’t make it less worthy of praise.  G-d’s activity in the world deserves blessing for the sake of what it is.

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.

Achievement Unlocked: First Time at Shul

So I decided this week that it was about time I tried going to Shabbat services.  I searched for the nearest Conservative synagogue, found the address on Google Maps, and set off early this morning.

I’m a pretty good walker.  I’m not fast or athletic in any way, but I have a lot of stamina and I like to take long, meandering walks for hours.  But in the sun it was rough, and that is my own fault for not thinking ahead and getting sunscreen.  It’s a beautiful walk, though, crossing the Experimental Farm and later through a park, down a flight of metal stairs installed on the side of a steep wooded hill.  And then a few streets of auto glass shops, because you can’t win them all.  Like a genius, I didn’t write down Google’s directions so I got lost at one point and had to stop in at a Canadian Tire to look at their maps.

Anyway, I was triumphant and got there in time.  My dad was always mortified if we didn’t make it exactly ten minutes early to church (preferably fifteen) and would fuss about the indignity of walking in on the procession, so that’s what I tried to do.  Instead I found that there was no big hurry, and the small group was still waiting for a minyan.  They have no rabbi of their own at the moment (Catholics can relate!) but they led the services themselves, playing it by ear (Catholics cannot relate).  Everyone was very chill and friendly, especially when I said I wasn’t Jewish and had never done this before, but was interested in converting.  They got me a Chumash and siddur, explained what the little squares mean in the Hebrew text, pointed out that we were using the version that included the matriarchs in the prayers, and generally made sure that I was able to follow along.

I was surprised by how much (spoken) Hebrew I knew.  I only recently learned the aleph-bet and am pretty slow picking my way through it, but during the prayers and Torah and Haftorah I could follow where we were in the English translation based on vocabulary words that I recognised.  Mainly I got confused during prayers that were sung to a melody that everyone else knew but I didn’t, but when those cropped up I just waited, looking at the English text or trying to soak up the melody for next time.  I was also thrown by the Torah scroll being carried through the congregation–I could see how the men were venerating it with the tzitzyot, but did the women do something different? Was I allowed to touch it as a non-Jew?  I didn’t know, so I defaulted to Catholic liturgical training when faced with a new and confusing ritual: do nothing and stand aside to let other people in the row do their thing.

Of course some of the prayers were in English, and I was even asked to read one, which was awesome.  (It was this one, roughly, adapted for Canadian use in our siddur.)  The dvar Torah given by one of the congregation was far more erudite than I’m used to from Catholic homilies–my family were always tough critics, and I learned to dread sermons read word for word at the pulpit.  This guy spoke from notes but they were actually necessary, since he was citing sources and making a scholarly argument.  The other difference I noticed is that it was an argument about liturgy and history, rather than an exhortation to feeling a certain way.  (I get that a dvar and a sermon aren’t the same thing, I’m just comparing because they occupy a similar sort of place in the liturgies.)  My talks with the American Woman about Mormonism have made me more sensitive to religious activities that try to whip up and manipulate the emotions, and the services here were very much not about that.  There were opportunities to focus in on your own feelings, particularly during the silent parts, but no pressure to feel a certain way or to display outward signs of “spiritual feelings”.  This is exactly what I want.

I didn’t feel too out of place.  All the other women wore kippot and most wore tallitot, but no one drew attention to the fact that I wasn’t.  Everyone introduced themselves or introduced me around to other people, made conversation and invited me for kiddush afterwards.  I was awkward and nervous, like I usually am with new people, but it was a pretty forgiving environment.  (I failed to politely escape taking some gefilte fish, even though I cannot deal with that stuff cold.  “Oh, no thanks, not for me.”  “No, HAVE SOME.”  So I did.)  A very motherly rebbetzin said I was brave to come and was surprised that I was trying to keep kosher already, which, my heart grew three sizes that day.  It was really, really great to have encouragement.  She introduced me to her husband, who’s led conversion classes before, and he was also super supportive and suggested I get in touch with him.  Nobody tried to discourage me three times or anything.

In short, OMG WHY DID I NOT TRY THIS SOONER.

Beautifying the mitzvah

Because I eat Shabbat dinner alone, I take pictures of my table when it’s set before lighting the candles.  Otherwise I feel like all my work just vanishes into the ether.  It’s not as gorgeous as it could be, but I still feel proud of getting things together in time.  This summer has been hot.  Hot.  The American Woman lives in Utah, and has never really experienced humid weather like we get on this side of the continent.  When I was out there I found the dry desert heat pretty okay, as per the commonplace dictum, but here I wilt in summer.  My place doesn’t have air conditioning, so there will be no cholent until the weather cools off.  Instead I’ve been rolling out karaite-style, eating sliced vegetables and cream cheese on whole wheat challah (hidden under the shawl I use as a cover) and yeah, vegetarian sushi last week.  It’s not certified kosher, but it doesn’t contain any treif and that’s good enough for me right now.  You wanna go?  I’ll fight you.  My tablecloth (it’s actually a curtain) is wrinkled because I couldn’t face ironing in this heat.

What is hiddur mitvah? It literally means the adornment, embellishment, or beautification of a mitzvah, a practice that can put us in relationship with G., however we understand G.

In practical terms hiddur mitzvah is a personalizing, giving of ourselves, and opening our hearts in any number of ways that allow us to make unique, meaningful, beautiful contributions that connect us to G. This might look like buying a challah that’s a little nicer than others. It might mean setting the Shabbos table with extra care and using nicer dishes. During the sit-ins, hiddur mitzvah was practiced by those who wore their best suits. It is adding a different quality, attention, and level of holiness to one’s actions.  [*]

I’m an artist, and also a geek for religion, so this is a topic I feel pretty strongly about.  Rituals, liturgy, art, music, sermons and homilies, texts, printing, vestments, sacramentals, jewellery, anything and everything religious that can be made beautiful–I’m all over it.  Hiddur mitzvah is a great nutshell term for something that’s always been deeply important to me.

Fish-shaped havdalah spice-box, European, 19th c. Skirball Museum at Hebrew Union College. Me, I have some bay leaves and nutmeg in a little cardboard ring box. This is a great injustice.

My inclination for the hiddur-est mitzvot of all can get me in financial trouble, in fact, so it’s good for me to hold back a bit and focus on kavana and like, actually doing the mitzvot.  Instead of scouring the city for nicer candlesticks.  On Wednesdays now I start thinking about Shabbat, what I want to eat and what I should try to incorporate.  Without Shabbat, my tendency is to eat whatever whenever, to clean when the apartment is breeding wildlife, and to not stop reading tumblr while I aimlessly shove food toward my face.  It’s not easy to put the laptop aside even for Shabbat dinner, but I do.  (I read from my siddur or the Bible instead, because I have to be reading something, okay.  I can’t sit here alone and stare at my plate.)

There’s a lot that I don’t do yet, and I try to add something else every week.  This week I tried the “pre-tearing the toilet paper” thing, but let us say I underestimated my needs.  I flipped switches without thinking and twice thought “the hell with it, I’m supposed to break Shabbat anyway, I’m a gentile.”  I write on Shabbat.  Sometimes I watch TV (which I actually don’t do much the rest of the week).  It’s not perfect, and it’s not even imperfect in the ways I want it to be.  But I try to make it as nice as I reasonably can, because closeness with God deserves effort.  I beautify the mitzvot and the mitzvot beautify me.