Monday, January 27, 2014

Shiva fun

Admittedly the words "shiva" and "fun" rarely -- if ever -- come in the same sentence. That's why I am feeling a little bad about the shiva call I made today. When I returned home from visiting friends whose father died this past week, my husband said: "how was it?" and without an instant of hesitation I said "fun".

Granted the role of visitors at a shiva is to keep the mourners company and raise their spirits. But after I heard myself respond "fun" I had this creepy feeling that that was a completely inappropriate answer.

Shiva, which means seven in Hebrew, is the week of mourning that follows the death of a father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister or spouse. During the shiva, the remaining family members usually congregate in one place to receive guests. It is a positive commandment to visit a shiva house.

So far so good. I visited the shiva house.

Here's where it got a little shaky: traditionally, one does not speak until spoken to by one of the mourners. (I think I walked in talking.) However, once the mourners engage you in conversation it is APPROPRIATE to talk about the deceased. Oops.

It wasn't that I didn't want to be respectful to the deceased. I did. But a few other factors came into play:

  • One of the daughters of the deceased is my grocery store friend. Although I don't see her there so often anymore, when I do see her we always have a short conversation about life that turns into a 30 minute blab-fest. Never fails.
  • She is Canadian and I instinctive feel comfortable with my Canadian friends and acquaintances. No, it isn't logical so don't ask me why that is. It's not like we start talking about the prime minster or what's happening at Yonge and Bloor. It just is and it's nice. 
  • The two people who accompanied with me to the shiva didn't know the mourners so well, so I felt, going in, that I was going to have to carry whatever conversation went on. It's not that either of them is conversation-incompetent, but rather, there was part of my brain that shifted into: I-am-on-a-mission-to-save-the-day-with-words mode.
  • The deceased, my friend's father, died at 92. I am not suggesting that death isn't sad, but frankly at 92 I think that a shiva should be more of a celebration of one's life. Death is sad -- agreed. Living until 92, having four wonderful children who love you and gave you grandchildren and great grandchildren, is a damn successful life. And, as far as I know, no one in the extended family is in jail for murder -- so it's a double blessing.
  • Mourners do not bathe or shower for a week -- I think keeping someone's mind off how grungy they must feel is also a positive commandment.
  • Mourners traditionally do not leave the shiva house for the week (except some go home to sleep) and no matter how sad you are, trust me, you get a little antsy and claustrophobic. I was happy to see total strangers when it was me sitting shiva and I was thrilled for all the people who did the talking and kept me entertained. I was just paying it forward today.
So yes, the shiva was fun. We talked about all sorts of things that people here normally talk about -- where we came from, our children, Israel, Jewish geography -- and I think everyone felt good when all was said and done. I am sure that my approach would be appalling to some of the people I know (you know who you are), but frankly they think that almost everything I do is appalling. Why should today be any different?

To my friends O and M, I am sorry I talked so much -- I doubt that either of you was really surprised.  And when I get your daughters husbands as a result of all the information exchanged today, then I am confident you will consider forgiving me.

And to the family of the deceased. The shiva was fun. I think your father would have enjoyed it.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

I think I just saw God on the job

I just saw one of those remarkable life moments that can only be explained by the existence of a higher being. He must have been scanning my grocery store today and happened upon this scene:

I went to the grocery store at about 1:30 p.m. to have some peace and quiet while I shopped. All the mothers' of young children were at home with said young children and all the working people who had stopped by to grab a few things for lunch were already back at work. There was only me, lots of seniors and this one mother-adult daughter combo who apparently, despite the strange hour, were in line to pay for what looked to me like some pointless grocery items (yes, I checked their cart).

My favorite cashier, Malka, was running their non-essential items through the scanner when she was called away for a mili-second by the cashier at the next register. Apparently cashier no. 2 could not get a reading on what looked like leeks. Malka kindly took the item, scanned them and returned them to cashier no. 2.

How long did this whole exchange take? Maybe two minutes. Maybe. Probably not that long.

I like Malka for many reasons. First and foremost, she speaks very good English which was important to me 10 years ago when I first started frequenting this grocery store. Second, she always tells me when there is a better price or sale that I missed. Third, she does not try to force me to buy the specials that I do not want or need. Fourth, she likes to have a little chitchat and discuss family life. Fifth, she reminds me of what I think Mortitia of the Addams Family could look like at 65 if she did not take care of herself. Sixth, she is just a nice person, plain and simple.... (who looks like Mortitia after a night of serious drinking on the wrong side of the tracks).

Apparently the woman trying to finish her shopping with her equally unpleasant adult daughter did not appreciate all the good things about Malka or the fact that she was helping a co-worker. This is how the conversation went from there (imagine it in Hebrew and assume that what I am describing is close to accurate).

Unpleasant customer: Hello. Hello. I am standing here. Why aren't you scanning my groceries?

Malka: I'm sorry, I needed a moment to help the cashier (nodding to cashier no. 2 at the next register).

Unpleasant customer: You can't help her; you are supposed to be here.

Malka: Yes, but she needed some help and I had to help her -- and you just had to wait a second.

Unpleasant customer: I don't care what she needs.

Malka: That's a shame.

After that, everyone had aired their grievances and gone back to what they were doing prior to the incident. And that is when IT happened.

The groceries were all bagged and ready to go. The unpleasant customer took out her wallet to pay and handed Malka several bills. Malka said: "No, this register only takes credit cards."

The unpleasant customer flipped out and started screaming: "How was I supposed to know that???"

Malka calmly pointed to the huge, unavoidable black and white sign hanging over her aisle that said: Credit Cards Only. Two points for Malka.

The unpleasant lady then said: "What am I supposed to do with all these groceries?"

Malka shrugged and pointed to another register.

The now totally disgruntled unpleasant customer dragged all her bags of groceries somewhere. I didn't bother to watch because I was pretty much exhausted from trying to hold in my guffaws of laughter.

As Malka started scanning my groceries, she looked up and she said in English: "Some people have no decency." I leaned in to tell her my theory about the Hand of God, and just then she said: "You know I am not a religious person but sometimes you just can't ignore the idea that there must be someone up there looking out for people like me."

I couldn't agree more.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Girls in (olive) green

It's that time of the year when 12th graders start wondering what they are going to do next year. Their parents have been thinking about it since the beginning of 11th grade but the kids are just starting to catch up now. The post-high school options, like everything in Israel, are moving targets that our kids understand far better than their immigrant parents.

For boys the choices are relatively simple: they are going to the army. The only question is how many interim stops can they make prior to their inevitable Induction. Some don't want to postpone the inevitable; they are chomping at the bit and raring to go. No pre-military preparation year(s) for them; they have been preparing and they are ready NOW. They were actually ready yesterday but this is Israel, and nothing happens in a straight, logical fashion.

This brings me to the girls; their post-high school plans are so much more interesting. Particularly religious girls. And particularly right now. (You didn't really think I was going to make a list of the boring options and leaving it that, did you?)

Since I arrived in Israel, religious girls traditionally do what is kindly called National Service rather than go to the army. I don't want to slam National Service because some of those jobs are mentally and/or physically difficult and I applaud any one who completes their assigned task. But therein lies my issue with National Service. If the religious girls drop out or choose not to do NS at all, there are no real consequences for their actions. If a boy left the army because he didn't like his job or didn't feel like being in the army any more, the shit would hit the fan; that kid would be labelled for life.

In the past few years I have noticed that more religious girls are choosing the army. Personally I like that because some of the jobs available to the women in the army sound interesting to me. If you are going to serve some bigwig coffee, then all bets are off, but if you are going to do something worthwhile for your country (and in turn, yourself) then I think that is the way to go. But that's me.

Plus the army isn't a whimsical place -- in fact, it is anti-whimsy. You have to show up on time; you cannot do a partial tour-of-duty; you always have to have your shoelaces tied; and you have to listen to your superiors even if they are jerks. There are rules and you must follow them whether you want to or not.

Unfortunately, once religious girls start choosing the army, the rabbis are right behind them trying to guilt them into staying away. They are using the same old tired arguments that it is not modest (and therefore not appropriate) for girls to be near boys, possibly wearing pants, and doing man's work.

Let me refute their myopic, misogynistic views once again:

  • Perhaps some religious men like themselves have no self-control but what makes these rabbis think that every young woman working next to a man is likely to find herself in the broom closet rubbing up against him in the throes of passion before the end of the average day? In my personal experience that does not happen unless you are on a Thursday-night TV drama. Most of us manage to get through the day without fondling the person working next to us. YUP, everyday without fondling.
  • If you don't want to wear pants then opt for a skirt. The army has a lovely selection of drab olive skirts from which to choose. If there is one thing you can say for the army, it's that there are copious fashion choices. Have you seen all the different coloured berets out there? Or the lovely snowsuits for the soldiers in Golan? Or those navy whites????
  • And now for my favourite issue: rabbis don't want women to use their brains unless they tell them to. Rabbis want to maintain control over women folk and they believe that if women do meaningful work heaven knows they may never step foot in a kitchen or bear children again. Of course, all this women-in-the-kitchen thinking goes out the window if the woman marries a man who wants to learn Torah all day. Then the rabbis want the women to do all the kitchen work, bear children AND go to work to support their families. 

The more the rabbis stick their noses into things that in my mind are not directly related to their jobs, the more they alienate many of the people they expect to follow them. And in turn, the more young religious Jews who start to question the rabbis' role in the big picture of their lives. At some point in most Israelis lives, the army is their religion. It has to be and it is sad that the rabbis can't understand it and support it.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

And you call me low-class?

Every Wednesday I begin wondering what I am going to write here on Thursday. And then, miraculously, every Thursday morning something happens -- either in the news or in my life -- that fits the bill perfectly. Today's post is brought to you compliments of the media.

The first story is about cream cheese -- or g'vina levana as it is known here. This is an excellent example of Israeli logic at work. Ynet recently reported that because cream cheese is on the list of products that is scheduled to experience government-imposed price reductions, the reduced price will affect consumer perceptions and will, going forward, be seen as a product for poor people. That's not all. As a result of its new image, comparable to gruel, Israelis, not wanting to look poor, will start to buy more high-end (read: imported and specialty manufactured) cream cheese.

Okay, now you can comment.

Are you finished?

Then let's continue.

Here's the second story. CNN reported today that Ralph Lauren's niece caused an international air incident when, as a result of her very bad behaviour while intoxicated, forced a Delta trans-Atlantic flight en route to New York to land in Ireland. Before I continue, let me state for the records that I am no fan of CNN unless it is serving my purposes -- which it is doing today. Do not, and I repeat, do not get your Middle East news coverage from these people unless you have a hankering for the anti-Israel bias it so readily and willingly offers.

Back to my story.

Where did the holier-than-thou attitude come from? Are Israelis so worried about how they "look" that they are willing to spend money they do not have to save their cheese image? And don't you think that some people who are middle class or higher like to save money? You can call me poor or low-class any day you want. And if you want to look down on me for buying the cheaper cream cheese, you just go right ahead.

Now some of you will say (and with good reason): "but you are the cheapest person I know." When it comes to my cream cheese buying habits, I agree. That cheapness extends to schlepping to Petach Tikva for grape juice, paper towels and garbage bags. And when it comes to my ability to sniff out a pair of sample-sized Ferragamos on EBay for a ridiculously low price, it's also true but, I think some of you are secretly impressed.

But here's the catch. For all the misinformed, imaged crazed Israelis out there, this is what low-class really looks like. A wealthy Jewish woman behaving so badly on an airplane that the airline is forced to bring the plane down for an unscheduled stop. The thoughtless behaviour of someone who has had a life a privilege (and can buy any cream cheese she wants if she ever deems to enter a grocery or gourmet food store) inconveniencing 250 other people because she cannot hold her liquor for eight hours.

As for you cheese-image angsters (when you have your own blog, you can make up words) I suggest you spend a small portion of your cream cheese savings on a fake container so you can look the part of the upper-class cheese eater without blowing your bank account. That, or you can take some time and rejig your moral compass ... maybe on a plane.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Don't answer that iPhone

I had intended to write about the IDF today but ever since I read about Rav Chaim Kanievsky's announcement last week that anyone married by a rabbi with an iPhone was not legally married, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. It's bothering me.

(ADDENDUM: When you post on Thursday, you get to hear what everyone is thinking about your post on Friday while we are all out doing our pre-Shabbat errands. And one of my own personal Gedolot B'Schuna told me today that she thinks that Rav K didn't make this announcement, but that rather someone asked him a tangentially related question and then extrapolated what they wanted from his response. She said this because "the way it was publicized in all the newspapers is not the way Gadolim announce such important statements." And she continued to say that Rav K really is a Godal Ha'Dor. I see what she means and in all fairness I do not have concrete proof that Rav K said this -- I read it in the papers as well. So, while he may not be the one who said it, the fact that one of his misguided followers may have taken something someone as important as Rav K said out of context and proportion is even worse. That person is besmirching his good name. Plus the fact remains that it seems that rabbis with iPhones are OUT, but rabbis without iPhones who are criminals of a worse kind are still IN. Riddle me that please.)

What I didn't realize until last week was that if a Jew owned an iPhone or had unfiltered internet access on a smartphone, then that person could not be a chazan (a cantor in a synagogue), blow the shofar, or HEAR the shofar in certain synagogues. That is ridiculous but it doesn't get me riled up because a) I don't want to be the chazan, b) I don't want to blow the shofar and c) unless I plug my ears and go running from the services on Holy Days, it's hard to miss the sound of the shofar.

And then last week, an 85 year-old rabbi, who, with all due respect, probably is a little behind on technology advances in the past ... 50 years, decides that if the rabbi who married you also happens to own an iPhone then you are not legally married... and your children are born out of wedlock. Oops.

Frankly I think it is an excellent loophole for anyone who wasn't happy in their marriage but didn't want to go the expense and effort of getting a divorce. I guess, for them, it was literally, a gift from heaven.

According to the Jerusalem Post (Sept 24, 2012), Rav Kanievsky is one of the five most influential rabbinical authorities. That's nice. I have a few questions:

  1. Most influential where? Israel? Jerusalem? Mea Sharim? His own mind? Minds of equally misguided people?
  2. Most influential by whose standards? Jews in Israel? Jews worldwide? Haredim in general? Haredim in Mea Sharim? Jews for Jesus? Reform Jews? Conservative Jews? Modern Orthodox Jews? Extreme, cloistered Jews who still wear their ancestors hand-me-down clothes from Poland in the middle of the Israeli summer? Or with the Iran-loving extremist Neturei Karta and the Ayatollahs?
  3. When was he influential? In the 50s? In the 60s? In the 70s? In the 80s? In the 90s? In the 00s? At some vague point-in-time in the past when he was lucid? When Jesus was knee-high to a grasshopper?
  4. How influential is/was he? Is he more influential than the other rabbis who steal from the charities they pay lip service to? Or perhaps, the rabbis who either hide pedophiles or are pedophiles? Or the rabbis who run around with lead pipes beating up the scumbags who won't give their wives gets ... for a price of course? Or the rabbis taking drugs? Or the rabbis who tell people who do not observe as they do that they aren't Jewish? 
  5. And finally, why is he influential? Because he knows the Torah and Gemara inside out? Because he has the longest beard? Because he won the title in a poker game? 
I am pretty sure I am going to go to hell for writing this, but before I leave on my journey to the ninth level of whatever Dante was describing, I have to say one last thing.

Whatever happened to the idea that Jews are here for the sole purpose of leaving the world a better place than they found it? What about Isaiah 1:17 (I know I am scaring some of you now, spouting off chapters and verses like I know what I am talking about):  "Learn to do good, seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan and plead for the widow? 

Chief Rabbi (UK) Sir Jonathan Sacks once said: "One beginning from God. One source of morality and truth. Oneness first, with rich diversity evolving from that initial Divine creative burst. Faith — not blind but searching, questioning — is at the heart of what it is to be a Jew."

The God of Abraham is a God of Justice, a God that inspires His people to do great things. I have a funny feeling that I am going to have lots of Jewish company in Hell.