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New Fruit

We just celebrated the beginning of the new Jewish year, 5778, Rosh Hashanah, literally “head of the year.” Jews celebrate not with frivolity and booze, but with contemplation and prayer. We are entering the period before the Day of Judgement, Yom Kippur. We want to think about what we’ve accomplished, how we treated others, our relationships with people and G-d.

New Fruits for the New Year. (c) JustHavingFun

New Fruits for the New Year. (c) JustHavingFun

Many include a “new” fruit as part of their new year celebration. This beautiful custom entails eating a fruit that one has not eaten in a while or one that has not been encountered before. After making a blessing on the fruit, there is a blessing thanking G-d for bringing us to this season. Then the fruit is eaten.

Our local kosher supermarket, Seven Mile Market, stocked numerous “exotic” options to choose from: lychees, fresh figs on the stem, golden berries, jackfruit, and prickly pear to name a few. This year I bought lychees. (I chickened out from buying a slice of jackfruit.) I can’t remember if I ever ate fresh ones before! It was a delightful experience.

New beginnings are the theme of this season, returning our thoughts to our core values and making use of the ability to turn ourselves away from directions we may have taken that stray from the true path. I have the opportunity to make amends, to look inside and see where I’ve erred. G-d allows me to start over again, freshly invigorated and reoriented if I’ve gone astray.

I feel doubly blessed this new year having started a new position and new career after a long job search. It’s a new beginning in many ways, working for a non-profit organization that strengthens our community by helping neighbors acquire and maintain housing… among other benefits. It’s a chance for me to give back in Gratitude for the many kindnesses bestowed on me.

I’m sending all wishes for a good, healthy new year in 5778.

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Happiness is My Choice, 14

With all the noise and clatter of today’s world, the incessant advertisements and social pressures, the still small voice of the authentic self—our souls—can be easily drowned out. We are sensual beings, experiencing the world through our skins.

Red Maple. © JustHavingFun

Listening to birdsong can lift my heart if I allow myself to pause, and recognize the miracle that it is. Birdsong is a gift. How can it be? A creature the size of my fist has the power to fill the air with song! Birds have a syrinx, a special organ to produce that multi-note trilling. We don’t have them. Do we lack?

What about the cricket song symphony of a summer’s afternoon? How is it that stridulations of an insect’s limb or wing, multiplied by a thousand, can blanket the air with sound? If I stop what I’m doing, I realize they are singing. It’s only in my silence that I hear their songs.

What message do the lightning bugs encode in their evening travels? I’ve watched them shape the dark with Morse code-like flashes. Their travels define a unit of space, their paths as distinct as a fingerprint; their flashes stutter a secret pattern as they fly through the night. To think as a child I trapped them in jars, quieting their dialogues forever.

And flowers, oh the abundance of flowers! Colors, textures, scents, foliage. From early spring to the beginning of winter, these bursts of color elicit deep sensations.

Hydrangeas

Hydrangeas. © JustHavingFun

When I desist from my busyness and resist the lure of my phone, screen, kitchen, and bed, I turn to the sky. The moon in her brilliance, the clouds in their majesty, the rustling of the wind in the trees gain my attention. My soul gets nourished by nature’s caress. My authentic self can breathe a bit deeper and savor the sensations.

Happiness doesn’t come from things. Rather, it’s events, experiences we share—or not. I relish simple pleasures like breathing deeply in fresh air, feeling heat prickles when I enter my car in summer,  the sound and feeling of snow crunching underfoot, the breeze ruffling the fine hair on my arms—things I notice when I’m not distracted.

I recall the scent of peonies and the fuzz on that juicy peach tickling my nose. The sounds of trains rattling down nearby tracks stitch through the night’s darkness. And the succulent sourness of a fresh-cut lemon puckers my lips. These pleasures have been described in ancient literature and we can still relate to them. They rely on nothing save our senses taking in the beauty of the world. They  speak to my soul, refreshing it, and bringing it back safe to this body for another day.

Simple pleasures? Yes.

Universal? Yes, oh yes!

Cholom Ra*

I had a bad dream, a חלום רע — cholom ra.

Its total duration seemed to have been a week though in reality probably no more than an hour. It lingered longer, however, following me into the daytime, challenging my reality, and painting my blue sky gray.

Dreams, in Jewish tradition, oppose the modern theory that dreams have no inherent meaning on their own. Contemporary research posits that neurological structures in the brain become activated while we are asleep and assess, process, and encode the day’s activities somehow. In contrast, dreams were thought to confer the power of prophecy on the dreamer in bygone days. The Talmud states that “dreams are one-sixtieth of prophecy,” while averring that dreams contain nonsense, and interpretations are up to the interpreter.

Pharaoh’s Dream of Seven Cows” © Sue Bentley/FreeBibleImages.org, CC BY-SA 3.0

In the Torah we read of Joseph’s dreams in the house of Pharaoh and their interpretation. In the first dream, he described his brothers’ wheat sheaves bowing his own upright sheaf. Further, he dreamed the sun, moon, and eleven stars, representing his parents and brothers, bowing to him. The brothers pejoratively call him a dreamer and conspire to throw him in a pit, sell him to traveling Ishmaelites, and end with Joseph being sold to Potifar in Egypt. Joseph was imprisoned, and while there, interprets two dreams for which events passed as he said. Then the Pharaoh had the dream of the seven emaciated cows consuming the seven fat cows which none of the magicians in Egypt could explain. Pharaoh gave Joseph a chance, and his interpretation so pleased Pharaoh, that Joseph became the chief minister in Egypt. Events came to pass as Joseph foresaw (Genesis 37-41) and the Israelites flourished.

Likewise, the Book of Daniel relates Daniel’s parallel elevation in status after his interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams.

Many other cultures have traditions of interpreting dreams. The Babylonians discuss dreams and perform dream rituals in The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2100 BC). Through ancient times, escalating with Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, to the modern Dream Interpretation Dictionary online, people want to know the meaning of these nocturnal visions.

Me, too.

Image: Laurence Horton via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I love to sleep, largely I suspect, because of my dreams. They defy Hollywood‘s brilliance. My dreams are in Technicolor. Sight, sound, smell, and texture surround me. Strangely, however, I see myself from the vantage point of an observer. I am the star of my own movie.  The dreams are bigger than life and often better than life. I can fly. I have power not experienced in the real. My dreams thrill and intrigue me. Sometimes, like on that night however, they are bad.

The morning of this bad dream, I awoke with the foreboding of terrible outcome. Someone dear to me would 1) lose her life, or 2) his fortune, or 3) their mutual respect and love. I’m not going to say which one it was, but you get the idea. I stood by watching myself in my dream, helpless to change an outcome. I didn’t stay asleep to see the actual thing happen; I awoke shaking, sweaty, desiring coffee.

Lucid Dream” by Wolf94114 , used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although I’m not a lucid dreamer, I would like to become one: confronting bogeymen, kissing handsome princes, and filling my arms with treasures. Other times I would want to be a benevolent teacher, directing others in my dreams to learn from me, instructing them in life skills that avoid evil and promulgate good. I’ve wanted this ability since childhood but don’t know how to cultivate it. One more item for the bucket list.

Ritual prayers exist to avert ill effects from bad dreams, like the paragraphs said under our breaths during the Priestly Blessing (birkat Kohanim). But mostly, we  Jews have a tradition: to learn the true meaning of dreams, we must be on a very high spiritual level. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.

May we all be blessed with only beautiful dreams, and banish the bad dreams forever.

 

Happiness is My Choice, 13

Waves Lapping on the Shore, ©Batya7, JustHavingFun

Writing this piece, on the eve of Passover, is the last thing most Jews would think is important. As Jewish holidays commence after sundown, the daylight hours before the Passover seder are easily the busiest for many Jews. The house has been searched top to bottom for chametz (i.e., leavened products). Ordinary year-round utensils are stored away and new ones designated for Passover use have been brought out. The whole house is topsy turvy. A yearly chaos, hated yet beloved.

Many preparations need to be performed during the day before the seder: calling friends and family to wish them a happy holiday, making sure the children have matching socks, last minute purchases because yet another guest is coming. And the cooking!

I used to spend the entire day before the seder cooking and preparing. I felt like an artist, carefully selecting my ingredients like colors, figuring quantities like determining to use a fine paintbrush or a trowel. My palate consisted of chicken and vegetables for the golden soup, and tan matzah balls to accompany it. Romaine lettuce provided the green. Red was the beef tongue I prepared, a delicacy saved for twice a year. Wine and grape juice provided rich burgundy and purple colors.

All of the busy-ness gave me so much pleasure. Then sunset would fall and I’d light my holiday candles, singing the ancient blessing. The men would come home from synagogue about an hour later, and we’d start the seder. The children would participate, the youngest saying the mah nishtanah. We’d all groan about the amount of food to eat at midnight and the late hour the seder would finish at. Somebody would retire to the sofa and fall asleep, inevitably. Strangely, I’d look forward to the washing up ritual, making sure the kitchen was in order for the next day’s festive noon meal, although ordinarily I dislike cleanup. I was very much “in the present” at those times in the past, not blindly participating in the ritual, but appreciating the ability to do what I was doing.

Wavelets, © Batya7, JustHavingFun

I’m not preparing a seder this year. I will be a guest. I will not have the same pleasures as previous years; I expect I will have new pleasures. I can enjoy another’s family customs and make new memories. I can be in the moment yet feel the echoes of years past lap against my mind like wavelets upon the shore.

I could choose to dwell on what I don’t have—but rather, I choose to enjoy what the present provides. If I live in the negative shoals I will only bring sorrow and misery to my life. I choose happiness, being present in the current day. I choose to open my eyes to the beauty that is every day and grab at the chances for being open to miracles. For isn’t each day a new miracle?

Redemption is near. Until then, I choose happiness.

Passover Pizza

Pizza for Pesach

Passover Pizza and Pizza for Pesach © JustHavingFun

Maybe it’s a symptom of me getting old, but I experience a moment of cognitive dissonance when I see “Passover Pizza” on the market shelves. You mean you can’t go 8 days without pizza? Is this a generational thing?

My Mother tells me about what Passover in Philadelphia was like growing up in the waning years of the Depression. They had eggs, fish, matzah, beets, meat, potatoes, nuts, fruit… and more eggs and potatoes. Kosher for Passover milk and dairy products weren’t readily available, and they didn’t have the wealth of prepared foods that we kosher consumers enjoy today whether for year-round or Passover use. Mrs. Hindy Krohn, also a Philadelphia native (and mother of Rabbi Pesach Krohn), describes the situation well in her 1989 memoir The Way It Was: Touching Vignettes About Growing Up Jewish in the Philadelphia of Long Ago.

Passover Pizza

Freezer case with kosher for Passover products. © JustHavingFun

I’m not quite that old but I remember my Bubba Goldie shaping gefilte fish loaves by hand, sliding them out of the oven, and serving them with a perfect circle of cooked carrot. I don’t know where the fish came from. She probably went to a fish man and asked him to grind it. She also had a special basin for the chicken to soak in. She sat in a chair in the breakfast room pulling the pin feathers from the skin before cooking it.

Passover wasn’t a big deal in our family. We were secularized; it was a time for family to gather. I don’t remember the family having Seder dinners, but I sure remember sitting at the big mahogany dining room table with the matching chairs and claw-footed legs.

Bubba Goldie’s chicken soup was the clearest golden broth with little “eyes” of fat on the top, and the matzah balls were light and fluffy. Well, really I can’t remember the matzah balls, but I like to think they were “floaters” because it fits well with the imagery of the golden soup. She’d serve it with a small portion of chicken breast meat. My other grandmother, Bubba Lena, cooked her chicken soup with lots of “junk,” as she called it. Vegetables peeked from a cloudy broth, and chicken chunks were liberally strewn through the bowl. Did she make matzah balls? I can’t remember, but if she did, I bet they were “sinkers.” I inherited her skills in making a fragrant, filling cauldron of soup and I don’t get complaints about my matzah balls.

Welch’s Manischewitz Kosher Concord Grape Juice is kosher for Passover. © Manischewitz

In the 1990s I saw Manischewitz kosher for Passover Quiche Mix (a product fad that didn’t survive); that was when the world changed for me. Now there is Welch’s kosher Grape Juice, too, another world changer. The products keep coming: marshmallows, chocolate chip cookies, mayonnaise, pizza sauce, macaroons (of course), and the list goes on.

I’ll forgo the Passover pizza. I’ll stick with unsalted whipped butter on matzah as the most exotic food choice.  Hooray for eight days of  limited choices!

Happiness is My Choice, 12

Expanded, ballooned, swelled—that’s how my heart behaved when I heard the announcement. Increased, surged, rose—that’s how my joy reacted upon learning the news.

One of my oldest friend’s oldest daughter just got married! I held this child when she was four hours old and now she and her beloved stood under the chuppah/marriage canopy as her parents did before her. I danced and hugged. My heart was full.

Other friends just became grandparents! The first grandchild, a girl, was born to their firstborn whose wedding I was privileged to attend last year. I delighted in the family’s joy at the wedding and blessed the new couple for a long, happy married life. Their well-being became my heart’s desire, their future as precious as that of my own children. Now the joy continues.

So why am I so happy some might wonder. Others might be jealous, blasé, or worse, bitter. I am grateful to have a heart that sings when others encounter happy tidings. Why not be happy for my friends? Their fortune, their gains, the fruition of their dreams does not detract from anything that is due to me. I am not losing anything or threatened.

Quite the contrary. The Creator wants us to be happy so He gives us opportunities to be happy. We need to recognize these opportunities and grab them with gusto! When we are happy with our own lot, the world looks brighter and everyone else’s good fortune rains upon us as well.

Ben Zoma says:
Who is rich?
The one who is appreciates what he has…
(Talmud—Avot 4:1)

Don’t I deserve happiness? Of course I do! That is the way Man is meant to live. Hashem gives me all I need; my needs will always be met. I know that everything coming to me will be provided… but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. My wants are not always in concordance with my needs. I need shelter, clothing, nourishment, health. I have all that. Maybe I also want that vacation trip, a newer car,  relief from bills, and the ability to eat anything I want when I want without consequences. (The former three are within the realm of the possible and the latter is a pipe dream for sure!)

So how do I stand it—no, bask in it—when others around me “get” something and I don’t? Reframe the situation.

Others receive no gifts that are being withheld from me. Others get what they deserve. For whatever reason, I am not destined at this moment to receive that same gift. That doesn’t mean I will never have the new car or the means to go on vacation. I understand that if I do what I need to do in this world to be a kind, moral, and righteous person, I will be showered from Above with all that is coming to me.

Sharing joy in the blessings my friends experience enlivens me and wraps me in the surety that there is a Presence for Good in the universe. It binds me to my people. It creates good will. Sharing someone else’s happiness grows and grows. When we can view the world with eyes focused on the bounty available to us, we can only increase our own happiness and satisfaction with our lives.

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Mikvah Mysteries

Mikvah Entrance in Djerba Tunisia-Avi AlpertMikvah Entrance in Djerba Tunisia
(by Avi Alpert, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I recently read a blog post by Lieba Rudolph, “What Makes the Mikvah So Mysterious?” She discusses misconceptions and perceptions of the ritual immersion that married Jewish women perform after their monthly menstruation cycle has finished.

My take on what makes the mikvah so mysterious is just that: mystery. Our secular culture infantilizes sexuality and our holy Jewish culture keeps it hidden and refined. Modern Americans do not sit easily with mystery and the sublime. We want facts, entertainment and unfortunately, enjoy titillation. Jewish children are not educated about mikvah until they are ready for marriage… or in the playground, if at all.

How can something associated with the duties of the High Priest be associated with family life? After all, in school they learn about mikvah in the context of the services of the Holy Temple. Readings in the Torah mention immersion numerous times. Any connection with marriage does not compute. I’m not an educator or a Rabbi so I do not have suggestions how–or if–to introduce the topic to our young adults with the needed sensitivity and seriousness. But I think there is a place for that type of education so we raise a community of people committed to marriage and not, G-d forbid, opting to choose divorce or promiscuity.

The real issue relies upon inculcating our children and immersing them in authentic Jewish culture (not low humor, nor bagels and lox jokes of the Borscht Belt). TV Jews are secular ones who can’t differentiate between customs and merchandising. Any Torah-observant (i.e., Orthodox) Jews in the media seem to be strange-minded, oddball characters, with quaint customs, or criminals with misconduct unbecoming anyone let alone a G-d-fearing Jew. The home atmosphere is important because we cannot shield them from outside influences. The more aware they become of how irreverently and ridiculed authentic Jewish practice is presented in modern secular media, the more they will value our way of life.

The mystery is part of us, and part of our connection with G-d.

 

 

Baltimore Burns

image

chametz, that is. Thousands of Jews raced to the famed Pimlico Race Track today, the eve of Passover, to burn bread, bagels, cereal, crackers, and pizza, boxes and all. City police wearing fluorescent green vests guided the cars into the parking lot and toward available spaces. City Fire Marshals stood by ready to prevent accidents. They even parked a fire truck for children to explore.

Entire families, young and old carry all sorts of containers laden with leavened products, or chametz, which Jews are forbidden to own or have benefit from during the eight-day festival.

People living in neighbouring houses watch the spectacle. Some people avoided the parking lot and parked on the side streets. Imagine the sight of three white-shirted young men sporting black fedoras emerging from a car. They are carrying garbage bags into the parking lot, joining the throng there. Following them is a young pregnant woman pushing a stroller trailing her husband and a few other children. They nod to and thank the officer guiding them in the crosswalk.

Still, the main event is in the parking lot by the 20-or-so barrels blazing behind safety rails. I feel the mad heat as I toss in a Trader Joe’s bag with my leftover chametz. My bag hits the target and plops into a raging turmoil.

image

Other people aren’t as neat about it. All sorts of bread products litter the base of the cans. Since care is taken to not burn plastics, people try to pour cereal into the fires but found the heat too hot to keep their hands there. So the cereal, or bread, pouring out of the plastic bags landed on the ground. I saw one enterprising man spear a bagel through its center hole and toss it back into the fire.

Before I leave I pause to say the formulaic nullification of chametz in Aramaic. These words connect me with millions of Jews throughout history who have said this very same declaration. I am here and now in Baltimore, and I am there and then in Babylon. The year is not a circle. Rather, it is a spiral through time. We celebrate our Redemption from slavery in Egypt on this night. And this day we remove our are puffed up egos burning leavened products. Next year in Jerusalem!

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Happiness Is My Choice, 11

Windowsill

Looking up and outside all I see is possibilities.

Sitting on the sofa, glancing outside: the window blinds are open, sunlight illuminates the plants on the windowsill, the sky is blue, and  a mug of coffee steaming on a coaster — life is good.

I woke up. Yikes, those birds are loud!  Look! It’s a whole hour earlier than I’d planned to wake up. Better turn off the alarm clock so it doesn’t startle me later. Don’t want the toes to be cold; slide feet into the fuzzy slippers. My knees creak as I walk across the room. The mirror catches my eye. My hair looks like the rooster’s pride!

I woke up.

I woke up.

The furnace clicks on and the blower purrs warm air. An unseasonable freeze grabbed the region last night. I’m warm and decently clad. Heat some water for the coffee. Breakfast choices? I’ll settle for oatmeal, my old favorite.

Thank you G-d for starting my day with comfort and optimism. Did I ever thank you for the color green? Thanks. And thank you for hair I can simply tame with the pass of a hairbrush.

Happiness is My Choice, 10

There’s a lot to be said about the practice of contemplation and self-improvement. In these days between the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur—the so-called Ten Days of Repentance—we turn our thoughts toward our actions and character traits which have allowed us to act in a particular manner. This period is a time for appreciation of our freedom to use our wills for good or for selfish ends. We don’t flagellate ourselves when we find ourselves lacking; rather, we contemplate the means to change ourselves for the better.

I liken this week to an employee performance review. Like the yearly progress assessment, we review our success in achieving goals set in the previous season and we formulate future goals. Where do I excel? How can I parlay this strength toward future endeavors? Where can I be better? What tools can I use to improve what is sub-par? Have I failed utterly in any area? What is taking me off track? And if I just can’t proceed in that positive direction yet, what is holding me back? On Yom Kippur, we give a full accounting to the Boss and state how we may improve ourselves toward fulfilling the Company’s goals.

Rather than castigate and flagellate myself for perceived imperfections, I can choose to look at this annual review as an opportunity to learn more about myself. Others may quake in their shoes, fearing punishment and retribution, but I choose to take the opportunity to reboot myself as it were, and get a fresh start.

Rabbi Ezra Schwartz reminded us on Rosh Hashanah that we are not bad people. We just need improvements.

Improvements. This thought makes me … happy. Otherwise, I would be so despondent all of the time, wallowing in guilt and unhappiness for my failures and inconsistencies. If I could not take the opportunity to move on from today into an improved tomorrow, I would feel like the executioner’s sword was inching closer and closer—sure doom—defining my fate. We have so many characteristics that make us who we are. Some are expressed at the wrong times, others are not expressed often enough. Our characteristics are many, like the seeds of the pomegranate which—once you find them and use them—can be a delight for the eye and palate.

Instead of facing severe punishment, we are given a chance to take our measure accurately, and alter the pattern. The Hebrew word middah (מִדָה) literally means “a measurement,” and also refers to character traits. How poorly clothing would fit if the tailor could not make adjustments to the pattern. So, too, we are given the ability to contemplate the pattern and adjust the reality. We are given a new chance at life, forgiveness, and our eyes are opened to our true characters!

Yeah, it’s scary facing our shortcomings. I don’t like admitting where I’ve failed, fallen short, not risen to the moment or shown the darker side of myself. but rather than quake with trepidation, I’m calculating, building, planning, adjusting. I’m using my Ten Days of Repentance to adjust the template and shift the pattern.

Hope! Everyone gets a second chance; not everyone can use it properly. I’m taking this opportunity to increase my internal awareness and assess how good it can get. This is my choice, leading to happiness.

For all of my friends and not-yet friends, I wish you a meaningful period of contemplation, leading to a fulfilling Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement, to be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year!

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