Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dry or not, it's just plan hot in Phoenix!

I’ve been taking cold showers and ice baths, but I’m still a little fried. The problem is the lovely Miss Wendy and I made the mistake of visiting our wonderful niece, Arlene and her hubby Jason over the weekend.

They were delightful, a special couple who enjoy life and one another, surround themselves with friends and family and do everything possible to make sure their special guests – that would be me and Wendy most recently – lack for nothing.

There was just one problem. They live in HELL! Well, some people call it Phoenix, but the devil apparently is the demon with his hand on the thermostat here and he likes it hot! We managed mostly to stay in the shade or underneath one of the ubiquitous water misters that can be found in front of restaurants, retail stores, shopping centers and theaters – just about anywhere people congregate.

But being the adventuresome sort, Miss Wendy and I still managed to keep our cool, at least long enough to visit such touristy sites as Old Town Scottsdale, kitsch and tchotchkes with a western accent; Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, nestled in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, surrounded by the Sonoran Desert; and Sedona, a picturesque little community that also has its own kitsch and tchotchkes, but also some of the most spectacular and breathtaking scenery in the world.

Did I mention it was hot? Why, yes, I think I did. It was on our way back from Sedona when I realized just how heated up things get in this part of the world. Jason, Arlene, Wendy and I managed to stay busy playing a few roads games – don’t worry Arlene, I won’t tell anyone that you managed to come up with the name of a body part for every letter in the alphabet.

Thankfully we made it back to Phoenix before we started trying to name the states and capitals again when I happened to notice the temperature. It was well after 5 in the afternoon and finally it was starting to cool down. If I recall, it was 102 – that would be Fahrenheit – and still hot enough to easily fry and egg on my bald noggin. And, yes, I know it’s a dry heat!

I’m told that in another few weeks the weather will actually be pleasant and the area will fill with tourists. I figure, however, that Wendy and I still came out ahead. Fall visitors might be able to walk around without melting. But they won’t have Arlene and Jason to show them the sights!

BREATHTAKING: The views around Sedona are spectacular (photo above), a land filled with a harsh, natural beauty that seems touched by the hand of God.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Little hut filled with big memories

It’s Friday, time again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories and Facts. The days are growing shorter and there’s a chill in the air. It’s fall and time to build ourselves a little hut.

Pine trees. That's what I think about each year as the Jewish festival of Sukkot approaches. The ancient holy day — it began Wednesday at sundown — was celebrated by the Children of Israel thousands of years ago to thank God for a bountiful harvest and to pray for God's blessings in the coming year.

Jews still ask for God's blessings during Sukkot, but also observe the holiday by building little huts — the simpler the better — symbolizing both the tents farmers would sleep in at harvest time and the temporary dwellings the Israelites lived in during their 40 years of wandering from Egypt to the Promised Land.

There are all sorts of esoteric rules that have been compiled over the years detailing the correct way to fashion a sukkah. Jewish law specifies the huts must be big enough to hold "the head and most of the body" of a person, together with a table at which to eat; the walls must be strong enough to withstand a "normal wind" and can be made of wood, stone or even canvas over a metal framework; and the roof covering — known as sekhakh — must be made of cut vegetation, such as tree branches, bamboo shoots — or pine trees.

The problem, at least when I was a youngster growing up in the Land of Cotton in the early '60s, is that someone had to leave the comfort of their home, trek out into the woods, cut down a bunch of pine trees, drag them onto a truck, bring them back into the city, and toss the mess atop the communal sukkah at our synagogue, Shearith Israel, on Wynnton Road.

My father, who actually liked fresh air and loved telling me and my three brothers about the cow and chickens his family kept in their backyard when he was a child, turned this annual project into a family outing for years.

He would borrow a truck from the "Uneeda Glass Company" on the Sunday before the beginning of the festival, pile us and a few of our friends, along with some saws and axes, into the cab, and head west on Macon Road to Harry Kaminsky's farm — a gentrified house, surrounded by dozens of acres of woodland, dotted with rusted out cars and tractors, an aging barn and decaying fences; dusty dirt roads and sagging power lines.

For the next few hours we would play at being lumberjacks, whacking away at pine branches and saplings, piles of fallen debris and underbrush. The limbs and smallish trees were lugged over to the truck and piled high, resting uncomfortably between the sides of the vehicle, towers built to hold glass securely, not the makings of a sukkah.

The one real thrill of the outing came on the trip back to the city, as we sat atop the fragrant pine chunks, bouncing about joyfully whenever we hit a dip in the highway. It was all sort of a holiday roller-coaster and the admission was simply a bit of sweat.

By late afternoon we were back at Shearith Israel, climbing the metal framework of the permanent sukkah that we’d crown with our day’s work. The rest is a bit vague – someone would cover the sides with canvas and youngsters would decorate the expansive space with bits of fruit and drawings made during Hebrew school.

I know there were services we attended and recall that each year one of the highlights of the holiday was receiving a length of sugar cane – go figure! It all comes together sweetly now, a euphonic blend of Judaica, Paul Bunyanesque work and family tradition.

The sweetest memory, of course, is the stuff I disliked the most – tossing aside briars and banging away at sticky saplings that had a way of whipping across my arms and face.

I hated the work, but loved the company and would give almost anything this holiday to be able to spend a few additional sweaty hours with my father. He died over a decade ago. But Dad continues to hover about, especially when the days grow short, a chill fills the air and little huts start popping up across the Land of Cotton.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Life, death and the importance of Yizkor

A deep blue sky and the smell of freshly mowed grass, a wobbly screen door and a plastic plate filled with bits of scrambled egg. If asked to describe my first memories of life, these are the details I would offer, a glimpse of a time that is more illusion now than fact.

The years have spilled away and I reach back occasionally to that distant time, managing to recall the past only in a vague, impressionistic fashion – bits of color and light; the sound of laughter and tears; the rich, sweet smell of my mother’s perfume and pungent stench of my grandfather’s cigars.

Those sights, sounds and smells have mixed with thousands of others over the decades, bumping up against the natural forces and man-made events of the years to fashion my life. Of course I was part of the mix also, deciding for whatever reason to walk through the door on my left, the one that led to the road, the street and city, the country, world and universe that defines my life.

Each door and choice is different, if only marginally, but the path we choose leads off to what appears to be a distant horizon. That horizon today seems to be just around the bend and the distant place is now my childhood memories, grown dim.

This melancholy reverie is the work of my rabbi’s Yizkor sermon. He’s good at opening that place where time stands still, the tender spot – perhaps our soul – where hopes and dreams, memories of the past and the people who once lived there now rest comfortably.

The High Holy Days are all about life and death, and Yizkor, the memorial service of remembrance on Yom Kippur, is for me the most spiritual part of this sacred time. It’s unsettling and emotional and raises all those existential fears that we, as humans, spend an enormous amount of energy pushing aside as we race through life.

The other prayers of the holidays are often chanted with little meaning, offered up in a fashion that provide little connection for me in a world hurtling into the 21st Century. The prayers of Yizkor, meanwhile, words spoken for the dead, are always filled with life and emotion.

My rabbi’s words once again played with all this stuff of life and death, reminding us that all our days are numbered. The time will come when the sand in the hour glass will ultimately run out, and in those moments when the light grows dim, perhaps our last thoughts will be the children’s verse he used to punctuate his point: Life is but a dream.

Then, the light that is offered up on Yizkor, is the knowledge that a family member will one day fill the tug of their own mortality and, hopefully, the remembrance of sweet memories from their distant past. And on that day they will stand in a shul, reciting El Male Rachamim, God full of mercy who dwells on high, Grant perfect rest on the wings of Your divine presence in the lofty heights of the holy and pure … for my beloved.

And for an instant, the memory of those departed is so real that immortality becomes more than simple hope. For a moment the dead live once again, in our hearts and souls. On Yizkor I recall my father and he lives. My wife recalls her parents – Roz and Joey – and for a moment their love and laughter fills her heart.

One day – but not too soon – my daughter will hopefully remember me. I’m counting on it.

STONES OF REMEMBRANCE: Jews place pebbles (photo above) on the graves of their loves ones, a small token of remembrance and love.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Little glitch turns into huge problem

My little computer has been just about right for me. I left the world of Mac when I left that place with the printing press 16 months ago and decided it just wasn’t worth the extra cost to buy an Apple product to surf the web, write a few e-mails and the occasional feature story.

For a year or so my thinking seemed to be right on the mark. My laptop has done my bidding with little problem. Occasionally there has been a tiny glitch, something that I’ve been able to easily fix by hitting the off button and rebooting.

That all changed a few days ago and I’ve found myself in computer hell, thinking right now that it might have been worth spending the extra bucks to stay far away from Microsoft and its vulnerabilities to the worms, viruses and hackers of the world who eventually will sneak into most every corner of the webified universe.

My problems started small – isn’t it always that way? I got a little message when I booted up a few mornings ago, something about an error loading a .dll program. I say program. Of course I didn’t have a clue what .dll stands for in computer talk – it’s all Greek to me! This wasn’t something they taught back when I was in school and they were still offering Latin as a foreign language option.

I, of course, have worked with computers for years at work, but whenever there was a problem – and that wasn’t all that usual since I was USING A MAC – the solution was just a phone call away in the IT department.

Turns out .dll stands for Dynamic-link library – who knew? And it’s Microsoft’s implementation of the shared library concept in Microsoft Windows and OS/2 operating systems. And even though I just typed that sentence, I DON’T HAVE A CLUE WHAT ANY OF IT MEANS!

All I wanted to know was if my computer was okay and/or was there anything I was suppose to do to rectify the glitch. So I posted a few notes on some social media sites, talked with a few experts – my son-in-law, brother and a guy I saw pounding away on his laptop at Dunkin’ Donuts.

The consensus seemed to be that my computer is looking for a program that, for whatever reason, it can’t spot. It’s probably some sort of redundant program that’s not even needed. That said, it’s simply irritating to get a message that something is wrong each time I log onto my laptop.

That’s the reason I went out onto the web – big mistake – and started looking for fixes. Of course I found lots of quick fixes. I simply searched .dll errors and immediately spotted several sites that promised to take care of my problem.

One seemed so promising that I downloaded it and my little problem immediately became much bigger. The program ostensibly began scanning my system and reported that I had all sorts of internal problems that it could quickly solve. It then sent me to a site where, for a few bucks, I could buy special software that would not only fix my computer but would re-grow hair on my shiny noggin, add a few inches to my height and other places I won’t be mentioning and provide me with Emeril Lagasse’s secret lasagna recipe!

Realizing I had, um, acted hastily, I uninstalled the program. But, alas, the damage had already been done. Apparently the very first thing such bogus programs do is shutdown any anti-virus programs running on your computer.

So the next time I booted up, I couldn’t get onto the web or into any of my word processing programs. After consultation with my IT team, all agreed that my laptop could be saved, but my computer license has been temporarily suspended and I can only use it now if a computer expert is within earshot!

So I’ll need to cut this posting short. My proctor for this hour is nearing the end of her lunch break and needs to get back to middle school. Now if I could just figure out where I stored my old IBM Selectric ii typewriter!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Chickens make for good jokes, bad rituals

It's Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today, let's focus on the connection between sin and poultry.

It’s Erev Yom Kippur and just a blink and a nod ago – that would be last year – I was in Jerusalem, enjoying the sights, sounds and spiritual vibes that can be found here if you know where to look.

As I wandered about the city, I zigged when I should have zagged and ended up in one of the most religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Mea Shearim.

On the corner, I spotted two young men – keeping it simple and modest in black and white, long beards, kippot and tzitzit. That was all familiar. It was the chickens they were waving about that seemed a bit odd.

I had a vague idea of what they were up to, but was having a little difficulty believing that the ritual of Kaparot was something more than a distant memory for Jews today. I was wrong. I was both amused and horrified that the practice is alive and well in the heart of Jerusalem.

In my little corner of the world, whacking chickens is generally followed with a dusting of flour and spices, a deep fryer and a cool glass of sweet iced tea. Fried chicken remains one of the delicacies of the Land of Cotton and it’s sinfully good.

In Jerusalem, the focus isn’t on eating chicken – fried, roasted or sautéed. Instead, ultra-Orthodox Jews believe poultry has some sort of magical power that in the hours before Yom Kippur can rid them of their sins.

It’s, well, a fowl Idea! The practice, a punch line for most of us, involves waving a live chicken above the head of a sinner while a special prayer is recited. If all goes well, a year’s worth of sins migrates from person to poultry. It’s a miracle!

The chicken is then quickly slaughtered, less the sins find their way back to the sinner. The more enlightened Heredim, thankfully, have put a stop to the butchery on the streets, shipping the sin-bedazzled chickens to food pantries and other such places to be pleasantly euthanized and offered to the needy after the holidays.

I don’t imagine I’ll spot too many of my co-religionists swinging chickens above their heads today in the ’burbs of the Land of Cotton. It’s not that we’re without sin here; we just have too much respect for, uh, chicken jokes to waste our time with foolish chicken rituals.

So Nor, why don’t you share one of those poultry jokes? Well, thanks for asking! Why did the chicken cross the road, roll in the mud and cross the road again? Because she was a dirty double-crosser!

On that note of levity, here’s hoping that you have a tsom kal, an easy fast, and that each of us manage in some small way to find meaning, a sense of peace and connection this Yom Kippur.

ANCIENT RITUAL: To get rid of their sins, some observant Jews (photo above) believe all they need do is wave a live chicken above their heads.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cheap Movie Index suggests economy is sour

Forget all those government studies that detail the ups and downs of the economy. I’ve come up with a new measure and, unfortunately, things aren’t looking great.

For lack of any other name, we’ll be calling this report Nor’s "Cheap Movie Index" (CMI) and the numbers seem to be moving in the wrong direction. The metrics involved are pretty straight forward. We pick a mediocre film at our neighborhood dollar theater, count the number of seats in the auditorium and divide by the number of people in attendance. The higher the number, the better the economy, the lower the number … well, you get the idea.

The reasoning is simple. A full house at the dollar theater means consumers are holding tight to their hard-earned cash. Empty seats, meanwhile, suggest someone, somewhere has found a job, gotten a raise or won the weekend football pool.

Recently, the lovely Miss Wendy and I put the CMI to the test, and attended an early evening showing of “Grown Ups,” the latest Adam Sandler flick that safely falls within the parameters of mediocrity.

The movie, also starring Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade and Rob Schneider, finds the guys getting back together for a weekend of laughs when their childhood basketball coach hears the final buzzer of, uh, life. There are all the usual hilarious antics that you’ll find in most of Sandler’s films – farting, peeing, and jokes about boobs. But, well, everything works out really swell in the end – for everyone – and there are even fireworks.

But I digress. Early on, 15 or so minutes before the film began, it seemed the economy had made some sort of amazing comeback. The 200 seats in the house were only half full, meaning the day’s CMI was an astonishing 2 – that would be really good.

But then the bus arrived and over the next ten minutes, people were rushing into the theater like it was opening night for "Casablanca", "Gone with the Wind" and "Citizen Kane". By the time the lights dimmed, as far as I could tell every seat in the place was taken and there were even a few poor schmucks standing in the aisles.

When I managed to work out the figures – let me see, that would be 200, divided by 200 – I realized the CMI was at 1 and the U.S. economy remains in the toilet.

But there’s hope. Next week, our local cheapie theater is reaching back into its vault of golden goodies and plans a double bill of Jennifer Lopez’s and Ben Affleck’s star turn, “Gigli”, and Tom Green’s memorable “Freddy Got Fingered”. Even if the economy remains in the crapper, I’m thinking the CMI might soar to 200!

Monday, September 13, 2010

What does it look like when you're really at war?

My rabbi talked for 30 minutes or so on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It was a fiery sermon, filled with passion and rage. He built his talk around the idea that we’re at war, that we need to understand our collective home is ablaze – at least metaphorically – and it’s time for someone to have the courage to stand up and yell fire.

I could spend the rest of this post detailing the points he made, those I agree with and those I thought were off base or overstated. It’s worth noting that the congregation is large, filled with people holding a wide-range of ideas and beliefs. There was a great deal of head nodding and shaking and, somewhat surprising, spontaneous applause following the sermon.

I have no particular desire to debate my spiritual leader. There’s much he said I agree with and much he said I take issue with. That said, it’s the “we’re at war” idea that he continued to fall back on that lingers in my mind.

The U.S., of course, continues to battle insurgents and Islamofascists in at least two countries – Iraq and Afghanistan. Sure, I know, we’re in the process of pulling combat troops out of Iraq, but 50,000 soldiers remain in the country with no plans of removing them in the immediate future. The war my rabbi was referencing, however, covers a much larger area and many more fronts – here at home in the U.S., in Israel, across the Arab world, in parts of Africa, Europe and Asia. We’re talking – at least my rabbi and many others – about a global affair, essentially World War III.

And yet, despite all the sturm und drang, the fiery words and hand waving, it’s hard – in fact, nearly impossible – to buy into the cataclysmic picture that the world and, more specifically, the U.S. is teetering on the abyss. Why?

Nothing – and I mean, absolutely nothing – has changed in the Land of Cotton or across the nation since the World Trade Center in New York was toppled by terrorists nine years ago. There was an instant when I think the country was ready to mobilize, to listen and follow our leaders into battle, ready and willing to crush the evil that festers around the world.

But the moment passed and we were told to, well, go shopping. And we did. Today, despite a faltering economy – the issue that fills most of us with dread – we go about our lives, knowing that there are U.S. soldiers in distant lands, doing battle for, well, we’re not exactly sure.

Meanwhile, we work and play, shop for the latest designer duds at the mall and manage to eat out several times a week. We visit with family and friends; go to movies, the theater and, occasionally, the local symphony and area museums. This time of year, the weekends are spent in front of the TV, cheering our favorite football teams – here in the Land of Cotton it’s the Dawgs or Yellow Jackets on Saturday, the Falcons on Sunday.

Occasionally, I spot a soldier in battle fatigues, in the area on business or visiting family. At the airport just south of the city, I’ve seen dozens of soldiers arriving or waiting for flights. They wear those camouflage uniforms that have become common in recent years and they are often cheered as they come and go about their business. Yet there’s a disconnect, the sense that we’re traveling in parallel worlds – one fraught with danger, the other filled with the ho-hum stuff of life.

But my rabbi says we’re at war! And, on a certain level, I believe him. What he didn’t offer was any words on what we should be doing to prepare for the imminent invasion of our homeland or how best to battle our enemies.

Exactly a year ago I was in Israel, taking part in a volunteer program that had me doing menial labor on a military installation. The idea was that I and other volunteers would clean out warehouses, sort equipment and other such things, so the “real” soldiers could be released to handle more important duties.

My weekends were free to travel, which gave me the opportunity to see parts of the country I had only seen from a distance on previous trips. I was working on a huge base outside of Tel Aviv, but managed to make my way to Jerusalem for Yom Kippur – an adventure I’ve written about here in earlier posts.

After the holiday and the long weekend, I needed to return to Tel Aviv to meet up with friends and other volunteers. I arrived early at the central bus station in Jerusalem, just as it was opening and workers were setting up the ubiquitous security checkpoints that can be found at most public places here – malls and shops; restaurants, clubs and movie theaters; grocery stores, offices, museums, stadiums and government buildings.

After only a few moments, a car pulled to the curb and a soldier hopped out, opened the back door and took hold of an overnight bag and some sort of automatic weapon. He leaned back into the front seat area, kissed the woman behind the wheel, then waved a final goodbye and made his way to the nearby security area.

A minute later a city bus came to a stop across the street and at least a dozen soldiers – young men and women, all in uniforms of one sort or another and all sporting colorful berets and an assortment of weapons – crossed the street and entered the bus station.

These scenes were played out dozens of times over the next 30 minutes, hundreds of Israeli soldiers – husbands and wives, sons and daughters – saying goodbye to someone, hustling passed the nearby checkpoint on their way back to a base, an outpost, a command post somewhere in Israel.

I recall thinking that this is probably how my parent’s generation lived their lives during the darkest days of World War II. And it was this memory of soldiers going about the business of soldiering that came to mind last week as my rabbi talked about us being at war.

Life can be filled with ho-hum stuff in Israel also, but it’s a normalcy surrounded with all the trappings of war. Such a way of life – troop trains and convoys moving through our major cities, our sons and daughters carrying around weapons and waving a melancholy goodbye as they return to nearby bases and command centers after a weekend at home, security checkpoints not just at our airports but in front of all public buildings – may one day become part of the landscape in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And on that day I will believe what my rabbi said on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in 2010.

EVER VIGILANT: Israel is filled with the ho-hum stuff of life, but it’s also a country of citizen soldiers (photo above) that is armed and ready to protect its people and way of life.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Mr. Spock and the Priestly Blessing

It's Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). The High Holidays have just begun, so obviously this is the perfect moment to write about Mr. Spock.

There is much high ritual associated with Rosh Hashanah, but certainly one of the most mesmerizing moments is the Priestly Blessing. It’s a bit of spiritual theater handled by the Kohanim, the class of Jews believed to be direct descendants of Aaron, the Kohen Gadol and the brother of Moses.

At our synagogue, members of the congregation turn their backs on the Kohanim, mysteriously shrouded in their prayer shawls, as they gather together on the bimah in front of the Ark. The prayer leader slowly chants the ancient words of the iconic blessing – May the Lord bless you and keep you; May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you; May the Lord lift up His face onto you and give you, shalom, peace.

The choir of Kohanim responds to each phrase, chanting the words as they wave their arms about, their hands held high and their fingers splayed out in a very, ahhh, Vulcan-like fashion. Actually, truth to tell, it’s the Vulcans – specifically Mr. Spock – who came up with the idea of using the look and style of the Kohanim.

Most everyone knows the story of Spock, aka Leonard Nimoy, coming up with the Vulcan greeting based on what he recalled seeing as a youngster attending High Holiday services with his grandfather. About all I have to add is a bit of shameless name dropping. Consider this, then, a New Year’s gift.

Several years ago, when I was still working for the place with the printing press, I wrote a news brief about a little controversy brewing in the Jewish community. Apparently some local rabbis were upset with a new art exhibit at the Jewish community center, featuring nude photos of women draped in religious garb – tallis, tefillin – and not much else.

The exhibit was drawn from a book of photography, Shekhina, created by, you guessed it, Leonard Nimoy. Some critics found the photos revolutionary, others salacious. Most in the Orthodox community in the Land of Cotton were outraged and demanding that the JCC shut down the exhibit and, if possible, beam Mr. Spock far, far away.

The following morning, when I checked my e-mails, I had a note from an LNimoy asking if I was interested in hearing the real story of the Shekhina. In utter amazement I realized that, well, Mr. Spock was trying to reach me.

After jumping over a few minor logistical hurdles, I eventually hooked up with the Vulcan on the Left Coast and had a delightful conversation that became the focus of an expansive feature story. I do recall Mr. Nimoy telling me in detail how he sat next to his grandfather as a child, enthralled by the pageantry of the High Holiday services, especially the moment when the Kohanim blessed the congregation.

Years later, it was that memory, he said, that led to his developing the Vulcan greeting – hand held out in front of his face, the middle and ring fingers spread apart in what is now a very familiar pose.

The four-word greeting, almost always uttered by Mr. Spock in his oh-so emotionless manner, also nicely echoes the Priestly Blessing – “Live long and prosper.” I could wish nothing better for all of us as we begin the new year.

A footnote. After much give and take, the executive director of the local JCC announced at the time that he had spoken with all interested members of the Jewish community and would be taking their views into account as he decided the future of the Shekhina exhibit. Apparently he was still trying to figure out how best to handle the issue when the show finished its scheduled run six weeks later.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A new year and the slate is wiped clean

We should be singing. This evening is the birthday of the world, Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the first month (Tishrei) of the Jewish year. It’s that seminal moment in the distant past, the mystics among us believe, when God spoke the world into being. It begins the High Holy Days, a solemn period of introspection when the faithful stand before their maker, confess their sins and pray to be inscribed once again into the Book of Life.

This is big stuff. Maybe much too big for most of us to understand or believe. My hope is that in some fashion – osmosis, perhaps – that the cosmic prayers and rituals being recited and carried out about me over the next ten days, will magically become part of the fabric of my life.

The smaller stuff I can handle. I can take a few moments and think about the past year, the things I did right and the things I could have done better; the people I helped and those I ignored; the mitzvot I accomplished and the stupendous mistakes I committed.

And my hope is that in the thinking about these things, that in the coming year I will continue doing the good and learn from the not so good. I also like to spend time focusing on the remarkable idea that the High Holy Days in some magical way wipes our collective slates clean.

It’s human nature, I fear, that many of us lose ourselves believing that there is simply no reason to move forward, that the pit we’ve managed to fall into over the years is just way too deep, the distant light much too far away to reach.

So we continue making the same mistakes – eat too much and exercise too little; ignore our friends and relatives who have grown distant because we’ve pushed them aside once too often; play too hard or too little; ditto work. The yin and yang of life!

Such abuse is all part of the routine that we’ve created for ourselves, a prison that has no walls and yet is inescapable. Rosh Hashanah, I like to think, offers an out. If you’ll excuse the cliché, it’s the proverbial first day of the rest of our lives.

Each year, at some point when I’ve lost focus and the holiday liturgy has become an annoying buzz, I make my way to the small chapel in my shul, a comfortable and comforting little room where daily minyon is held.

I spend a few moments in quiet reflection and then I find a copy of Siddur Sim Shalom and turn to page 135. Once upon a time, I use to be one of the regulars at morning prayers. One of the most meaningful parts of the daily service, at least for me, was Tahanun. The liturgy here is filled with traditional readings and psalms that set a tone for personal reflection.

During difficult times I often found myself turning to this portion of the prayer book and focusing on Psalm 6. For all I know, this same psalm might be a central focus of the High Holy Day liturgy; I get a little lost when exploring the liturgical fine print. A bit flowery and overstated – hey, it was written in Hebrew thousands of years ago – the psalmist manages to capture the heart of the Days of Awe, a loud cry for help in troubled times.

I find it oddly comforting that the human condition remains essentially the same as in anicent times, that poetry written long ago continues to have meaning in the 21st century. I offer the psalm here with no additional commentary, other than to wish all of you a healthy, happy and meaningful holiday. L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu.

Chastise me not in Your anger. Lord, chasten me not in Your wrath. Be merciful to me, for I am weak. Heal me, for my very bones tremble. My entire being trembles.

Lord – how long? Turn to me, Lord; save my life. Help me because of Your love. In death there is no remembering you. In the grave who can praise you? Weary am I with groaning and weeping, nightly my pillow is soaked with tears.

Grief dims my eyes; they are worn out with all my woes. Away with you, doers of evil! The Lord has heard my cry, my supplications; the Lord accepts my prayer. All my enemies shall be shamed. In dismay they shall quickly withdraw.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A night of treif with family, friends and Yrral!

Just about the entire Grebnief clan said “cheese” all together Sunday night when we met at an iconic pizza parlor deep in the Land of Cotton. It was a lovely evening, the proverbial cherry on the day’s ice cream sundae – if you can excuse my mixing metaphors and food groups.

Earlier we had brunched at the Villa Grebnief in the ’burbs, celebrating the lovely Miss Wendy’s day of birth with blintzes, lox and bagels, tuna salad, and kugel, an assortment of pastries, cakes and cookies.

We took a few hours off, then those interested in doing some serious carbohydrate loading gathered at the Mellow Mushroom. First we had to push our collective weight around and pull together three tables – there were 14 of us.

Did I mention it was a lovely evening – low humidity and the temperature diving into the high 70s. There was actually a little chill in the air, a very tiny taste of what we can expect in coming weeks as the torrid days of summer here in the deep south give way to the bliss of autumn.

Brother Yrral – I think he’s a distant relative of Superman’s Dad, Jor-El – set the tone for the evening when he managed to scarf down a few Pizza Pretzels before settling in and looking at the menu. Yma, his darling wife, lovely and, ahhh, svelte, sat quietly at his side as he downed the twisted pizza dough. Meanwhile, the rest of us grazed on greens.

Okay, so there’s only a small measure of truth in any of this. But, hey, Yrral asked that he be mentioned in my blog. Okay, now you’ve been mentioned!

The big truth is that it’s always nice to dine with family. And if there was a prize for gluttony – especially of the sort involving the eyes being bigger than the stomach – then me and my son-in-law, whose initials are JOSH, would have lapped the group.

Forget the salads, calzones, hoagies and other munchies that circled the table. It was me and Joshua – obviously in carb and meat denial – who ordered up the “Mighty Meaty” pizza. In deference to our wives, we agreed to share the pie.

Here’s what it featured: Pepperoni, ham, bacon, ground beef, sausage and extra cheese, thank you very much. We’re talking a super serving of treif that will have me pounding my kosher chest until I’m black and blue and the High Holidays are history.

The good news is that Yrral, Yma and their son – my nephew – Nayr, are headed back home to Odnalro. For such great relatives and good friends, they sure have weird names.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

It's the lovely Miss Wendy's special day

The lovely Miss Wendy turns a lovely 62 today and I’ve been lucky enough to share, well, many of those years with her – we’ll be celebrating our 35th wedding anniversary in November.

We’ve managed to celebrate her birthday in a variety of ways – surprise parties and a few that were planned; festive meals with family and friends; small, intimate dinners for two! Each was special, a nice memory that collectively, I think, define what we call life. And it’s been a good life that remarkably can only get better.

We’ll gather again today with a few special friends and much of our family – they’re friends, also – to offer our cheers and love to a woman who has always been sweet and gentle and kind.

For whatever reason, my much better half has decided to stay close at my side, balancing out my introspective and world-weary nature with a disposition filled with laughter and smiles, good words and good works and an attitude that always – and I mean always – views the glass of life not just half full but spilling over with joy.

It being my nature, I’m inclined to say, “bah-humbug” at such an upbeat personality. But it’s the lovely Miss Wendy’s special day, so I openly proclaim myself a lucky man and promise to smile, well, until it hurts. Truth to tell, her smile and warm embrace of life – and me – is a present I receive each day.

So happy birthday, Miss Wendy! In my book, you’re lovelier than ever.

Friday, September 3, 2010

High Holidays same, yet different in Israel

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories and Facts (IJS&F). The High Holidays begin Wednesday evening, so I thought this an opportune time to share how I observed the holidays last year. BTW, click on illustration above for a little surprise!

Each year, in the final moments of the Yom Kippur service, Jews around the world promise to return to the heart of the Jewish homeland in the coming year. Next year in Jerusalem, we say. And last year I kept that promise – Rosh Hashana in Tel Aviv, Yom Kippur in Jerusalem.

The trip was an interesting adventure, part of a three-week program – sponsored and coordinated by an organization called Sar-El – that had me working on an IDF base with other volunteers from around the world.

Certainly one of the highlights was the opportunity to attend several shuls, taking part in services that weren’t dramatically different from what I’ve experienced in the Land of Cotton. If my Hebrew was better, I imagine I could have closed my eyes and felt completely at home.

In fact, that’s one of the gifts of being a Conservative Jew. Smack in the middle of the theological give-and-take of Judaism, we’re reasonably comfortable sitting through the modernity of the Reform movement or the Torah-based beliefs of Orthodoxy.

On this trip I had the opportunity to experience both and the spiritual payoff at times was transcendent. I managed to attend services at four different synagogues – one in Tel Aviv and three in Jerusalem. Each was unique – one tiny and a bit gritty around the edges; another massive, filled with stained glass windows and known for its world-class choir. The other two could have easily been part of the suburban landscape of any American city. Go figure!

It was actually outside the shuls, before and during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that I came to appreciate the rich Jewish fabric of Israel and why it remains a beacon for Jews around the world.

On Erev Rosh Hashana, I spent much of the day walking around Tel Aviv, enjoying the metropolitan vibe of the place. The city spreads out along the Mediterranean, the beaches on this day filled with local residents and tourist.

Only minutes away, along the wide boulevards and streets – Dizengoff, King George, Frishman, Ben Yehuda – there was a bustling, festive mood in the air; businessmen and women, students, tourists and shoppers taking care of business. The place had the feel of New York, just busier and filled with more people.

At first I thought Tel Aviv was simply a happening place. But slowly it dawned on me that all the hubbub was a holiday thing, people picking up last minute items – flowers, food, and other such goodies – they might need before the city shut down for Yom Tov.

This was interesting and different. Life in the Land of Cotton pretty much continues unchanged during the Jewish High Holidays. As I learned over the next several hours, in Israel – yes, even in Tel Aviv, the secular heart of the country – life first slows to a manageable pace, then pretty much comes to a complete halt.

As night fell over the city and the Jewish New Year approached, there was an eerie calmness about the place – shops had closed and the streets were empty. A few tourists walked along the promenade, but virtually all the restaurants, bars, ice cream and novelty shops that line the Mediterranean were empty.

The following morning I could have ignored the sidewalk and strolled down the middle of Ben Yehuda Street on my way to Kehilat Sinai. Even though I had missed the introductory service, the small synagogue was only half full when I entered – and, no, I didn’t need a ticket!

By the time I took a break and made it back to my hotel, the Adiv, just a block or so from the Mediterranean, the city was showing signs of life again. Apparently, many Israelis sleep in on Rosh Hashana, then make their way to the beach. All those people not in shul had spent the morning with family and friends and by mid-afternoon were enjoying the good life offered up by this vibrant city.

A week later I was in Jerusalem, exploring the secrets of the Old City and preparing for Yom Kippur. By the time the sun set on the Day of Atonement, I had managed to attend three different synagogues, spending hours engaged with the life and death themes that fill this spiritually-rich time.

Did I mention I didn’t need a ticket at any of these shuls, including the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, a massive structure whose chazzan, Chaim Adler, is a cantorial rock star?

Simply being in the city, praying with Jews from Israel and, much like me, visitors from Jewish communities around the world, was special. But it was the previous evening that ultimately captured the uniqueness to be found in observing the High Holidays in Israel.

I had been invited by my rabbi’s sister, Orah Lipsky, to share the pre-fast meal with her and her husband, then attend Kol Nidre services at their shul, Kehilat Moreshet Avraham (KMA), in the southeast corner of the city.

The melancholy notes of Kol Nidre are no different in Israel then the Land of Cotton. The power of the service, at least for me, is taking part in an ancient ritual that plays out in the same fashion year after year, and being part of a community that shares the burden of collectively crying out to God that we have sinned.

The Day of Atonement spilled out over Jerusalem as we left the shul, the city shut down completely for this holiest of days. It so happens that KMA is just a block or so from the Tayellet, a promenade that offers a breathtaking view of the area, including the ancient Old City and surrounding neighborhoods. The same eerie calm that I had experienced a week earlier in Tel Aviv, now filled the City of David.

Orah’s husband, Shim, had picked me up earlier in the day, but I’d be walking back to my hotel, a 30-minute stroll that proved momentous. Shim mentioned in passing that Kol Nidre was also known in Israel as “The night of the Wheels.” I had no idea what he was talking about.

We said our goodbyes, wished one another an “easy fast” and I began my walk. After only a few moments, the empty streets began filling up with families, strolling along, enjoying the evening. Then I noticed the wheels. There were kids on bikes and skateboards, small wagons, skates and rollerblades. The somber tone of the night was momentarily broken by the youngsters, excited to have the roads of Jerusalem to themselves – at least for a day.

I continued on, having no problem finding my way back to the center of the city, mostly lost in thought, replaying and rethinking the events of the last few days. That’s when I heard singing.

At first I thought I was having problems with my hearing or I had just become a prophet and God was trying to tell me something. There was no mistaking, however, that the sound of singing was growing stronger with each step I took, now only a block or so away from my hotel – actually, the Agron Guesthouse, part of Israel’s Youth Hostel Association.

The mystery was solved when I crested the hill I was gamely trudging along and I spotted about 100 or so teens, all comfortably plopped down in a circle in the middle of the road, singing holidays songs. Most of them were also guests at the Agron, part of a year-long program sponsored by a Jewish youth organization in America.

Add to this festive mix several hundred congregants from The Great Synagogue, only a block away on King George Street, who were attracted by the music and stuck around to enjoy, and you have the makings of an only-in-Israel High Holiday happening.

The mini-concert was both joyous and melancholy. It was that iconic Zionist dream that is the stuff of legend – streets filled with Jewish kids singing Jewish songs in a land that is strong, free and theirs!

I stood quietly on the side of the road, filled with a sense of awe and delight that I was experiencing this perfect moment. Then I realized only one thing was missing.

I reached for my cell phone and surreptitiously attempted to call the lovely Miss Wendy back home in the Land of Cotton, wanting to share the special moment with her. But, alas, despite my best efforts I couldn’t manage to make the connection. Perhaps there was a cosmic hand at play; after all, it was Yom Tov!

I would reach her later and be able to relive the evening, at least for an instant, playing out the joy of finally, after six decades of life, keeping the simple promise many of us make annually on Yom Kippur – next year in Jerusalem. The words are easy to say. Turns out they are also easy to keep.

L’Shanah tovah Tikatevu. May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for a good year.