Thursday, June 25, 2015

Parshas Chukas: Why you need darkness to feel the light

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Have you ever wondered what it's like to be blind?

Picture yourself in a world of darkness, groping around, not knowing where - or what - anything is. 

Last month, I got to go to the Dialogue in the Dark exhibit at the Israel Children's Museum in Holon.  You're immersed in a darkness so intense you can't see even the outlines of the other people in the room.

Our blind superhero

You're lost in a hopeless, unsolvable maze.  Are you near a wall, a door?  Are you about to bump into something?  Your only hope is to trust in the skills of your guide, an all-seeing miracle worker who can somehow navigate her way through total darkness.

Our guide was Michal.  Michal is blind, but there, in the dark, she was strong.  She knew her way around better than the back of her hand.  She memorized our names and called them out throughout the tour to make sure we didn't get lost.  She warned us about obstacles and coached us to "look" around ourselves with fingers and hands.

In the dark, Michal was strong, and we were fully dependent on her to get out of the maze alive - or at least, within the promised hour.

After the one-hour tour, we finally "met" Michal in the light.  She was shorter than most of us had pictured.  Smaller, too.  In the dark, she'd seemed like a superhero, but there in the light, she was just a little blind woman with a cane.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Parshas Shlach: Facebook & the meraglim, what are you hiding?

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Maybe you think this is the age of “let it all hang out,” when Google rules, your friends post their snacks on Facebook, and there are no secrets left in the world.

Believe me, there are still plenty of secrets. And this bold new world may have more in common with the world of the Torah than we’d like to believe, as this week’s parsha, Shlach, shows us.

That’s because what we share on Facebook and other social media is only a redacted version of our true selves. 

This isn’t a bad thing, but we tend to forget.  And then, we envy other people’s lives, just the way the Aseres Hadibros tell us we shouldn’t. 

If you’ve ever looked at a friend’s Facebook status and wished that was your life, you know what I’m talking about.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Where I disagree

NOTE: One year after my brother Eli's death in 2014, I published a book about the intertwining of our lives and his struggle with schizophrenia. This post and many other writings are included, in slightly different form, in that book.
Please wait until the ride has come to a full and complete stop is now available in print and Kindle editions.


Through laughter and tears, I invite you to come share my final journey with my brother.
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In light of the school shooting on Friday in Connecticut, a mother named Liza Long has released a heartfelt article saying, “I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza's [Friday’s shooter’s] mother. I am Dylan Klebold's and Eric Harris's mother. I am Jason Holmes's mother. I am Jared Loughner's mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho's mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it's easy to talk about guns. But it's time to talk about mental illness.”

She says something I agree with wholeheartedly:  “it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people.”  Canada, too.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Ancient Auction Secret: If Chinese auctions are racist, why do Jews love them so much?


Ah, Jews, Jews, Jews, Jews.  You sure do love your Chinese auctions, don’t you?

It seems that even in an era of political correctness, within certain circles, this term just will not die.
And frankly, I’m mortified.

I’m not Chinese, but I have family who is Chinese.  Some are Korean, as well.  I guess this makes us more ethnically diverse than many Jews, but I suspect most Jewish families are moving in this direction.  Still.  Even if we don’t know a single Chinese person, we should still stop calling it that.

First of all… is it actually racist to call it a Chinese auction?

I figured I’d let Chinese people decide.  But when I turned to Google to find out how Chinese people feel about Chinese auctions, what I found was mostly… nothing.  Silence. 

I did find some debate (presumably among non-Chinese people) over whether it was too far in the direction of political correctness to refer to these as a “silent auction” or (as in some parts of the States) a “tricky tray.”  (Okay, that’s just weird.)

One guy reacted by saying, “You say something ‘Politically Incorrect’ and people look at you in horror as though you just killed a kitten.”

However, another person on the same thread said, “the term is tied up with a lot of other negative characterizations of Asian culture as being mystical in contrast to Western culture being rational.”

That’s my understanding as well – that Chinese people (and Asians in general) were assumed to be sneaky characters, always hiding something.  Hence the racist “ancient Chinese secret” TV commercial (see the video below).

This discussion on a Jewish site yielded absolutely no philosophical depth whatsoever.  When asked if it was racist, the first guy just said, “No.”  Another volleyed back by asking if a Dutch Auction is racist.  (I had never heard of this, but apparently, it’s mainly an investment thing.)

Here’s the thing.

While “Chinese Auctions” may have once been common, today, many English speakers outside the religious Jewish community don’t even know what these are.  That’s because almost everybody calls them something else these days.  Meaningless political correctness or not, they have moved on and nobody really minds all that much.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Visiting a synagogue for the very first time? 5 things you MUST know.



Maybe you’re invited for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  Maybe you’re drawn to Judaism and want to find out more.  Or maybe you just want to support a Jewish friend or family member?

Whatever the reason, if you don’t know an alef from a bet (those are letters!), you might be wondering about going to synagogue and what you might see there… especially if you’re bringing kids with you. 

Here are 5 important guidelines that’ll help you get grounded.  They’re adapted from my new book, Now You Know:  Rosh Hashanah for Kids, on sale for 99 cents until the end of June.

The least you should know:

  1. Most synagogues ask men and boys to cover their heads, using a yarmulke (kippah) or some other type of hat. (Do this even if you’re not Jewish.)
  2. Girls and women should dress modestly, wearing skirts that fall below the knee.
  3. Most Jewish men wear a tallit - a striped white shawl that covers their shoulders. (In some communities, only married men wear a tallit.) Some synagogues provide these near the entrance, but don’t wear one if you’re not Jewish.
  4. Ask someone to show you in the siddur (prayer book) where in the service you are.  (Everyone gets lost sometimes!)
  5. Look around to make sure you’re standing and sitting at the appropriate times. (Hint: stand up when the Holy Ark is open.)

Holy Ark?  What’s that???  More stuff you might want to know.

Most people who visit a synagogue for the first time say it looks very much like a church or any other place that they have seen people praying.  The main prayer area of a synagogue is called the “sanctuary.”
You’ll see two things when you walk into the sanctuary that you might not see anywhere else:

  • Eternal Lamp - ner tamid - most synagogues have a lamp or light near the front that stays lit either all the time or whenever the synagogue is being used.
  • Holy Ark - aron kodesh - this is a “closet” near the front of the synagogue where the Torah scrolls are stored. It is usually covered with a velvet curtain with fancy decorations. (In most synagogues, when the Ark is opened, everybody stands, out of respect.)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Jews and Jobs: MAMALAND REVIEW of Can I Wear My Kippah on Job Interviews?: Career Guidance for Sabbath Observant Jewish Professionals, by Lavie and Rachel Margolin

Can I wear my kippah on Job interviews, by Lavie Margolin & Rachel Margolin

Should you wear a kippah to your job interview? Well, yes.  In the year 2015, except in some places in the world (most of which don’t speak English), if you're a person who wears a kippah, you shouldn't NOT wear it if you're going to a job interview.  I mean, who would do that?

When I saw a book called Can I Wear My Kippah on Job Interviews?: Career Guidance for Sabbath Observant Jewish Professionals from two authors who have built a business creating business- and employment-consulting books, it caught my attention right away (which I think is the point of the title).  I eagerly requested a review copy, and the author, Lavie Margolin sent one along.

First of all, the book isn’t really about wearing a kippah or not.

I quickly came to the conclusion that the cover question is mainly an attention-getting trick.  The Margolins never advise removing your kippah for a job interview – perhaps because they know that that would alienate too many readers. 

(At one point, the book even mentions wearing a kippah or headcovering specifically for an interview or at a job, even if you don’t normally wear one, if it will make you more comfortable or better accepted working in a religious setting like a school or shul.)

The title sure does make a splash, though.  When I mentioned the book on facebook, one person simply saw the title and replied “OF COURSE! ARE YOU ASHAMED OF BEING JEWISH?”  Others were more calm, but immediately pointed out the inconsistency, with a few saying something along the lines of “it would be dishonest to present oneself as non-religious and then make any religious demands of the employer once hired.”

Someone suggested that “It doesn't have to all come out in the first meeting, but probably at some point in the interviewing/hiring process,” which is exactly the line taken by the authors of this book, who discuss at which point in the hiring stage it’s best to ask for Shabbat and holidays off.

So if the book isn’t just about whether or not to wear a kippah to a job interview, what is it about?