Friday, February 27, 2009

Thanks for the Reminder

Don’t take this the wrong way, but I was pleased to see the picture of the flag-draped military coffins returning to American soil on the front page of today’s New York Times. Of course it’s beyond sad and awful and despicable and vile that our government has seen fit to put young people in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan because….hmmm, tell me again exactly why we’re involved and why they’re over there?!

So thanks to all you military guys at the Pentagon for lifting the ban on showing us photos of those coffins and for letting us see—time and time again--the true cost of the conflicts in which we’re embroiled in those faraway lands. Now, can you please do something to bring home the rest of the young people so they can get on with the business of living the rest of their lives?

Indeed, they have a lot of living to do—for themselves and for others. As Henry David Thoreau tells us, “On the death of a friend, we should consider that the fates through confidence have devolved on us the task of a double living, that we have henceforth to fulfill the promise of our friend's life also, in our own, to the world.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Eat a Falafel and Chips for Me

A number of my friends, in commenting about “The Schmuck Parade,” my escapades in the I’m-searching-for-a-good-guy-in-NYC quest, have told me that they’re happy to take a back seat and live the adventure vicariously through me.

Although I can certainly appreciate vicariousness in certain situations, if given a choice, it’s not the way I’d opt to visit Israel. However, since it doesn't appear that I'll have the opportunity to visit there anytime in the foreseeable future, it’s the only mode of travel I’ve got at the moment. Lucky for me, though, with 300-some Reform rabbis gallivanting around Eretz Yisrael attending a professional conference this week in Jerusalem, I’m certainly getting a good dose of virtual Israel through them.

For starters, every afternoon at about the same time a certain rabbi calls from the Inbal Hotel to check in on what’s happening back home in New York. Bizarre as it sounds, when we chat, some of the magic of Jerusalem comes right through the phone and lingers in my office until long after we’ve ended our call. Yup, that’s Jerusalem for you.

Others are posting regularly on Facebook and their blogs. And so it is that I know that today, many of the women visited the Wall, where, as part of the observance of Rosh Chodesh, they created quite a ruckus by singing, which, according to traditional Jewish law, women are forbidden from doing in places where it can be heard by men. Here's a first-person account from one of the women who was there. And here's another perspective from one of the men. Although I'm not a rabbi and although I wasn’t there to sing in person, I certainly was there with them in spirit.

And then there’s the falafel. Before they left, I asked a few of the travelers to eat a falafel and chips for me. One, a young rabbi from Minnesota, gave me, again with the help of Facebook, a delightful description of his culinary experience yesterday:

Young rabbi: “I wandered around Jerusalem this afternoon before the conference started and managed to find my favorite falafel place at the Mahane Yehuda market. I didn't take the most direct route, but I found it, and had falafel in a pita with chips and hot sauce for you!”

Me: “You're the best! Thanks...hope you enjoyed it.”

Young rabbi: “I did enjoy. My stomach, not so much. :) But I'm still glad I had one.”

Me: “Should I take a Tums?!"

Young rabbi: “I think we'll be okay. :)”

Me: “Great! Enjoy the rest of the visit.”

Another, who’s hoping to post a lot of photos and video during the trip said, “I’ll try and capture myself with a falafel and chips…or more likely a schwarma." (Mission accomplished...that's him over there on the right.)

To which I replied, “Schwarma’s good too…enjoy!”

Indeed, in addition to falafel and schwarma, I hope that all those rabbis eat and drink so generously of the indescribable electricity, magic and spirit of Israel that when they return safely home they've got plenty left to share with the rest of us.

Travel safely and Godspeed, my friends.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sunday Dinner

We Hermans are an old-fashioned family. After more than four decades, we still enjoy being together and we do it as often as possible. These days, it’s often over Sunday dinner – although not every week – at my sister’s apartment.

Here are some photos from our afternoon together today:



























In addition to a scrumptious homemade meal prepared by Amy (spinach salad, lasagna, apple brown Betty with lowfat frozen vanilla yogurt and coffee perked in a 1956 copper percolator that was a second anniversary gift to my parents from my grandparents), today’s activities – as they often do – included tossing the football with six-year-old Ian, listening to his corny knock-knock jokes and playing a game. (Fast forward about 70 years from the Great Depression, subtract a few kids and grandkids and it’s the Waltons ala 21st century, with me playing the role of John-Boy, the chronicler of family tales.)

Bananagrams was today’s game and it was a hit with everyone, even Ian, who paired up with his mommy to play. It appears that we all were evenly matched, and each person won at least one round. Here’s my winning hand:
Like I said, we Hermans are an old-fashioned family, and today was an old-fashioned kind of day. And, although I’m not ready to go cold turkey on the email or totally forgo the iPod, there is definitely something to be said for simple, family time.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Facebook, Make Me a Match!

I’m continually amazed at how helpful my Facebook community can be.

Two cases in point:

Here’s the first one: This past Monday, having finished the reading for my econ class, but still baffled by the concept of “dead weight loss,” I posted the following status update: “Jane is hoping that someone out there in Facebook-land understands dead weight loss and can explain it better than Mankiw.”

Much to my delight, I received the following explanation from Dave, a guy who sat next to me in 10th grade algebra and with whom I’ve recently connected on Facebook:

“Jane, pretty simple if you think about it personally. Dead weight losses are those transactions that are not getting done because consumers factor in the tax of the transaction and decide, ‘no, that is just too much, i.e, sales tax.’ So if a Prada bag costs $2000.00 and that is all you had to spend, but then there was a 8.375 percent New York tax on it or an additional $167.50, you might choose not to buy it at all. Those lost transactions are the dead weight and create a surplus. Does that help?”

“Yes,” I replied. “It's a perfect explanation! Thanks! Do you teach economics? Where has life taken you since high school? Hope the years have been good to you...and thanks again for the clear and concise description of dead weight loss.”

From his response back to me, I learned that today, more than three decades after we were together in Mrs. Haley’s algebra class, Dave owns a technology contracting business and he has degrees in accounting and computer science. By his own estimate, he took something like five semesters of econ as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland and loved it. In today’s business climate, he says, everyone needs to be a micro economist. Hmmmm, Dave could definitely be my new best friend…

Here’s the second case in point: The next day, upon returning with painful shins from my fairly new, early-morning treadmill routine, I posted this status update: “Jane finished 20 minutes on the treadmill at level 3 (4 mph, top speed). Could have kept going except for the burning shins. Suggestions, FB friends?”

Within minutes, my Facebook friends came through for me again.

“The elliptical is much easier on body parts,” said one, a cantor I met last year at a L’taken seminar in Washington, DC.

Two Union for Reform Judaism trustees provided almost identical advice: “Check your shoes; you may need new ones…and after about 10 minutes, stop and stretch!” they said. One went on to email me a one-page, 30-minute treadmill workout that she's used successfully.

Someone else, a friend froam Lafayette College, whom I knew through Hillel, chimed in with this: “Hi Jane. My shins also bothered me when I started the treadmill. I spend about 2 or 3 minutes stretching out my legs before I start now and no longer have the problem. I Googled exercises for shin splints and saw a couple of videos on how to do the stretches. Good luck.”

All this relatively easy-to-come-by information (thanks, everybody!) got me thinking about other useful connections my Facebook friends might be able to help me make, and it wasn't long before I was connecting the dots...

As regular readers of this blog likely know, for some time now, I’ve been in search of (most unsuccessfully, I’m afraid) a 40- to 50-something (preferably someone born during Eisenhower's second term or the Kennedy administration), decent Jewish guy (single or divorced, with kids or without) for a meaningful long-term relationship. I'll spare you the details of my seemingly endless escapades in this endeavor, "lovingly" referred to by me as "The Schmuck Parade," but you can read about some of them here and here and here and here.

Although I don’t think I’m especially fussy with my “laundry list” of desirable qualities, thus far, even in this great city of more than eight million people, I can’t seem to find even one mensch who fits the bill as a potential partner for this happily divorced Jewish woman with no kids, manageable baggage and, I think, lots to offer the right guy. But, as a colleague of mine is fond of saying about various topics at hand, “It is what it is.” And so it is. Yet, I keep looking because ultimately I believe there is somebody out there for me -- somebody with whom I'll share an intellectual, emotional and physical conection -- but I just haven't bumped into him yet. And, while I certainly don't expect Mr. Right to be perfect (I'm not, by a longshot!), I do still hold out hope that someplace in this city (yes, even in the outer boroughs, Westchester or New Jersey) exists Mr. Right Enough for Me -- and that after some getting to know each other, the feeling will be mutual.

And, although I'm far, far from desperate (I'd rather be alone than with Mr. Wrong or even with Mr. So-So), I also believe that my already rich, full life would be even richer and fuller with someone special along for the ride. I am also of the mindset that while the pixels, bits and bytes of the internet are a fine option for some (yes, I've tried JDate, match.com, speed dating, and more recently some freebies including speeddate.com and plentyoffish.com, all to no avail), for others, a "fix-up" arranged by a real, live person is a far superior choice. Lastly, I believe that as with a job search, the more people you know who know that you're looking, the better off you'll be. Who knows which one of them might have a brother, a brother-in-law, a cousin, a nephew, a friend, a colleague or an uncle who's available and willing to invest an hour over coffee or a drink to explore the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we're right for each other?!

And so yet again, my Facebook friends, I turn to you. Help me out here?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Study Buddies Extraordinaire

When I started grad school two years ago (before Baruch became the school I love to hate), Stefani, my friend and colleague, told me that the best part of the whole experience would be the friends I’d make. Was she ever right about that.

Meet Amy and Michael, my Baruch study buddies. In January 2007, Amy and I met in Introduction to Public Affairs. The next semester, in Research and Analysis I (a euphemism for statistics), we met Michael, and the three of us have been inseparable in the halls of academe ever since. Research and Analysis II followed, and then Communication in Public Settings. Now, we’re muddling through Economic Analysis and Public Policy together on Tuesday nights. And, as if that’s not enough togetherness, Michael and I also share an independent study seminar on Thursday nights.

Reliable, trustworthy, fun and funny, they're the best. I couldn’t ask for better study buddies. Thanks, guys. And, oh, where do you want to go for dinner after class next week?!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Mah Jongg Mavens

Check out this article from today’s New York Times.

On Martin Luther King Day, my sister and a friend joined the mah jongg mavens at the East River CafĂ© for a chance to clack some tiles--cracks, bams, dots winds and dragons—to munch some M&Ms, and, with a bit of luck and some careful strategy, to win small change.

Indeed, Amy and I both came to mah jongg, as the story suggests, through the set that belonged to our maternal grandmother. It’s mine by inheritance, but has taken up residence at my sister’s apartment because she recently taught some colleagues and friends to play and, at the moment, she’s the one who plays more often.

I’m hopeful that’ll change in the near future and that soon enough, I’ll be clacking tiles, munching M&Ms and, with a bit of luck and some careful strategy, winning some small change from my own set of mah jong mavens.

Mahj anyone?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday, Al!

Yup, lots of movers and shakers were born on this date: Abe Lincoln and Charles Darwin in 1809 and, in 1924, Al Vorspan, among others. (Judy Blume, Lorne Greene, Joe Garagiola and Arsenio Hall also happen to have been born on this date, but I'm not concerned with them at the moment.)

For those readers who may not know about Al, he is the founding director of the Reform Movement's Commission on Social Action, and its guru, bar none, on matters of civil rights and social justice. You can hear and read about some of his adventures here.

Like Abe and Charles before him, Al helped to change the world as we know it and for that, and for so much more, we owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Happy birthday, Al…and many happy returns of the day!

Monday, February 9, 2009

People in My Neighborhood: The First in an Occasional Series

Remember the “People in Your Neighborhood” ditty from Sesame Street? Sure you do. The words go like this:

Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
Say, who are the people in your neighborhood?
The people that you meet each day.

Oh, the postman always brings the mail
Through rain or snow or sleet or hail
I'll work and work the whole day through
To get your letters safe to you.

'Cause a postman is a person in your neighborhood
In your neighborhood
He's in your neighborhood
A postman is a person in your neighborhood
A person that you meet each day.
After the postman came the fireman, the baker, the teacher, the barber, the bus driver, the dentist, the doctor, the grocer, the shoemaker, the cleaner, and the trash collector (played, of course, by Oscar!).

And then, the grand finale:
They're the people that you meet
When you`re walking down the street,
They`re the people that you meet each day.
So, now that I’ve got a digital camera, I can introduce you to some of the people in my neighborhood.

People like Raulston Daley, a member of the IT team at the Union for Reform Judaism. Although technically he’s not a postman, he does make sure we get our email every day. Today, when there was a problem with my delivery, he fixed it. Thanks, Raulston. (And while he did that, I practiced using my new camera.)

Sure am glad that Raulston’s a person in my neighborhood,
He’s in my neighborhood,
He’s in my neighborhood,
Yes, Raulston is a person in my neighborhood,
He’s a person that I meet, when I’m walking down the street,
He’s a person that I meet each day!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Say Cheese!

My parents and sister (thanks, everybody!) bought me a digital camera for my birthday, which I actually purchased yesterday (with lots of input and advice from my Facebook friends, my shopping buddy Andi, and a low price at J&R Electronics). It’s a Canon PowerShot SD1100 IS ELPH and it’s my first digital camera. It has LOTS of bells and whistles, especially when you consider that my previous camera was a Kodak Cameo, which was my one and only 35mm camera. Before that, I had a Vivitar that used 110 film. Does anyone even sell 110 film anymore?! Maybe in the same stores where vinyl records and 8-track cassette tapes are sold?

In any event, I charged the battery overnight, read the “Getting Started” sections of all the documentation and managed to figure out how to take this photo and upload it here. Even with the shade pull (that black tire-looking thing floating above the buildings), that's definitely progress. Stay tuned for more…

Friday, February 6, 2009

A Bat Mitzvah Anniversary

Today is 33 years since Friday, February 6, 1976, the day that I became a bat mitzvah. Wearing a simple, powder blue, to-the-floor dress with black patent leather Mary Janes (for which I still have the BankAmeriCard receipts, as well as other keepsakes from that evening), but neither a tallit nor a kippah, I led nearly the entire service (in English), chanted from the Torah and the Haftarah (having memorized and quickly forgotten the text), and delivered a speech. I still have that speech, too, handwritten in bold seventh-grade script on ruled three-hole punch notebook paper. Before I reveal what those pages contain, however, a word or two or three of warning.

Warning #1: Hindsight and education have taught me that back in the 1970s, my synagogue’s religious school and congregational practices provided me with a Jewish education and experiences that today I would describe as "severely lacking." Although I now know that neither the Torah nor the Haftarah are read on Friday evenings, such was the congregation’s minhag and hence the circumstances of my own bat mitzvah.

Warning #2: Given no instruction about my speech or its content except that I could write "whatever I wanted," as you’ll see, it contains no reference whatsoever to the Torah portion, about which I was taught nothing (surprise, surprise) regarding its content or its meaning, either to me or as part of the grand story of our people. What a missed opportunity...

Warning #3: Perhaps most distressing to me personally, a yekke from the get-go, was my discovery—just last night as I reviewed my bat mitzvah documents and prepared to write this post—that although I chanted from parashah Terumah (Exodus 27:17-19) in Hebrew, the text I was given to read in English—the supposed translation of that portion—was, in reality, from the previous week’s parashah, Mishpatim (Exodus 23:1-13). Had I been required to write and speak about the portion itself, perhaps this error would have been discovered in 1975, when I began my bat mitzvah studies, rather than today in 2009. Oy vey

In any event, here’s what I had to say:

I am on a journey. Journeys contain many doors and windows to be opened and explored. The first door of my journey was opened for me on January 29, 1963 when I was born. Since then, I have opened many doors and windows, some with hard to conquer places behind them.

Today, on February 6, 1976, I am passing through an important doorway. It is the doorway of my bat mitzvah. I cannot be sure what lies ahead, but I do know some things. I would like the road beyond the doorway to lead to becoming a committed and faithful Jew and a loyal American citizen as well as a caring human being.

The doorway opened tonight is not the last, but rather one of the first in my journey, since there will be others for Confirmation, college, and all the important events of my life. Tonight is not just opening up a door, but really a whole new world.

I would like to thank all of you here tonight, especially my parents, grandparents and sister for helping me celebrate my bat mitzvah as I set off through this new and
exciting doorway.

Note: Walk down steps and sit with parents.
After I finished, Rabbi Landsberg (this one, not this one or this one) also delivered a speech. Here’s what he had to say:

Jane, I should like to congratulate you upon becoming a Bat Mitzvah, -- a daughter of the commandment, and upon the significant fashion in which you conducted the service, reading from the Torah and Haftarah, -- the sensitivity contained within your original prayer, and the thoughtfulness expressed within your creative speech.

The other day I received an invitation from a Rabbi-type friend of mine who is the head of the Yeshiva in Brooklyn. It is a small academy called B’nai Avodah Zarah, -- formerly incorporated as Baala Narishkeit. It seems that his wife had recently given birth to a baby girl, and in order to find a good name for the child, he decided to ask his mishpocha for suggestions. One of the relatives said: “I think that you should name the child Sarah, Leah, Rachael, Rebecca, Deborah, Esther, Judith. These are all great women in our Jewish tradition, and by naming a child after them, you will be setting a goal for the child to strive after.” --- “No,” replied the Rabbi. “That would not be good, for if a person does not set her own goals, she may find herself to be a highly qualified swimming-instructor – living in the middle of her own personal desert.” --- So a second relative spoke up: “I think that you should name the child Zonah Bat Gernisht, in honor of your grandmother’s friend’s sister’s niece-in-law who died without leaving any children, --- not even a single Kaddish.” --- Again the Rabbi replied: “No. I do not think that would be good. A name should not be a peripatetic tombstone, -- four hundred pounds of back-breaking marble encomia, which rupture the living with guilt for the dead.” --- Then still another relative arose and said: “I do not think that you should give her any name at this time. A name is something that must be very carefully constructed over a period of many years, and is always subject to revision. I think that she should be called “Hey You!” until she is at least 80 years old, -- and we can see what she is really like.” ---“No,” replied the Rabbi. “I do not agree. A person should always have a name, --- so that we can distinguish her from a Social Security number, from an Area-Code, from I.B.M. effluvia, -- and, of course, to prevent her from being mistaken for a summer re-run.” –- “Well then,” demanded the relatives, becoming rather apoplectic,“What are you going to name the child?” --- The Rabbi thought a moment and replied: “I shall call her – ‘Rose Hidden Within the Thorn,’ – for after all, what is a person—except for a few pennies-worth of chemicals that have learned how to dream?” --- Jane, you are as a rose, -- a glorious bud just waiting to spring forth into the magnificence of adulthood. But as you do move forward, do not forget to take your dreams with you. It would be a terrible thing for you to be “all grown up,” yet dreamless. It would be as though the great marble statue of Moses, --- formed and shaped by the mind and hands of Michelangelo, --- were to split open, and we were to discover that it was hollow, -- or stuffed with old Italian newspapers. Do not spend your life trying to become a perfumed aerosol spray which will hide the stench of existence, -- yet not wage war against its cause. --- Jane! To become a genuine Bat Mitzvah is not some ritualistic foolishness; it is the taking on of a tremendous responsibility, -- a responsibility to move reality closer to your dreams.

Let me tell you a Bat Mitzvah allegory. – Do you know what an allegory is? An allegory is a socially acceptable way to cheat on a Rorschach Test. – Once upon a time there was what seemed to be a stage. Some called it the world; others called it home; some people thought it was infinite; still others viewed it as the last vestige of a vaudeville show. Anyhow, there was a person who claimed that she wanted to go out on the stage, -- do her song and dance, -- read some poetry, blow her nose, have a baby, and use Ajax the foaming cleanser. The stage manager called ut: “You’re on!” – but the person replied: “Wait a minute! I have not yet memorized my lines, and I am waiting for my horoscope to say ‘A-OK,’ and besides, I am still putting on my makeup.” So the manager came back later, and the person had deteriorated into an actress, and her hair had grayed a bit. “You’re on!” said the manager, and the actress replied: “I am not sure that this is the right vehicle for my talents, and the producer is an antidisestablishmentarianist, -- and I have to go to the bathroom, -- and as I told you before, -- I am still putting on my makeup.” So again the manager disappeared, only to return a millennium later in a wheelchair. “You’re on!” he called out in a vacant-stare voice, and the actress had makeup upon makeup upon makeup, and had degenerated into a thing, -- for the makeup had dried out her skin, and blood-shot her eyes, -- and given her pimples. – “I am not yet ready!! I have not yet finished putting on my makeup.” But the stage manager said: “It is time to go, like it or not, anyone around my base is ‘it’ – and he was dressed in black, drove a Cadillac, and carried a shovel. “Where are you taking me?” she called out. “I am taking you to play out the part for which you have been preparing. I am taking you to the cemetery.” – “To the cemetery?” she screamed. “A cemetery is for dead people.” – “Not necessarily,” replied the stage manager. “A cemetery is a place for people who spend all their time putting on makeup, -- but who are afraid to stand in front of the footlights.”

Jane, that is your Bat Mitzvah message. You may say to yourself: “That is not a very happy story. Should not a Bat Mitzvah story be light and frothy and meaningless, taking up the slack between Tzena Tzena and Oneg Shabbat?” – I like you Jane; I would not do that to you. – This evening you have become a daughter of the commandment.

A Bat Mitzvah is someone who realizes that not even God is strong enough to stop the pendulum from swinging, -- that the clock which ticks the count-down of our existence cannot be silenced, -- and that wrinkles can be caused by worrying about wrinkles;

A Bat Mitzvah is someone who understands that although make up may be used to cover blemishes, -- there is no greater blemish than losing our own reality under the suffocating paint of a need for society’s applause;

A Bat Mitzvah is someone who is an integral human being, -- writing her own lines and wearing her own face, -- rather than being an understudy for a god, -- sitting in the wings, waiting for a mishap;

A Bat Mitzvah is someone who knows that the world is not a stage, -- that we are not puppets who mouth someone else’s lines, and marionettes who dance to yet another person’s tune, -- that we need not be ashamed of our own face, our own mind, and our own choices, -- that we do not have to hide from ourselves and the world under a blanket of corrosive makeup which not only quickly becomes indelible, but which also hardens, becomes cold to the touch, and does not allow any room for growth.

Jane, now is the time; now is the time to be the person you really are. Always remember: A Bat Mitzvah is not someone who worships at the altar of appearances; rather is she someone who bows down only to a god who says: “I wish to hold your hand, -- not your glove.”

Perhaps now, 33 years after the fact, I understand, at least in some small way, what it was that Rabbi Landsberg was saying to me on that oh-so-long-ago evening. Then again, as so often was the case when he spoke, perhaps not…

Monday, February 2, 2009

Reform Judaism: It's the Right Brand for Me

A short piece on the Dallas News religion blog last week reported on a survey that indicates that most Protestants are more loyal to their brand of toothpaste and toilet paper than they are to their denomination.

Hmmmm…I wonder if that’s true for Jews, too.

As for me, although I definitely prefer Crest (the tartar protection paste) and Scott (the safe-for-septic-systems kind, not the fluffy kind), if push came to shove, I’d trade them both to hang on to my good ole liberal Reform Judaism. With its belief in informed choice and personal autonomy, and its wide array of free-thinkers who opine on everything from tzitzit and Limmud NY to communal prayer, the environment, this week's Torah portion, and our bonds to the history that brought an African-American to the presidency, it is, for sure, the right brand for me.