Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day

My father's brother was a casualty of World War II, dying before his 20th birthday from shrapnel wounds that he probably would have survived in our era.  Ironically, VE Day would occur within six months of his injury.  Despite the custom on naming subsequent generations of children after those who had lived a long life, my sister derives her middle name in his memory.  Needless to say, my grandparents were devastated but there were some benefits to no longer having Nazism as a viable entity.   Her other relatives who had stayed behind in Plock were sacrificed in much larger numbers than her son, being deported to concentration camps in 1941.  In 1954, she had the pleasure of visiting a newly established State of Israel, something that may not have happened without the valor of her sons and many other's sons.

From other fallen soldiers we have:

  1. America
  2. Absence of threatening European invasions
  3. The Demise of Slavery
  4. A productive American industrial system
  5. Prosperity for the people of Germany, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam
There are still threats from aggression around the world that need attention from our soldiers, some of whom unfortunately will become part of future Memorial Day remembrances.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Ooky Coffee

Up early.  Lots of little projects on my plate that I do not want to pursue right now.  Some bills coming due, a major bank deposit to be prepared, my Aerogarden needs to be set out and my article on Leadership Generated Attrition has been languishing for some time.  I have another week to learn how to use my new camera with 24X zoom in time for my daughter's graduation.  But sometimes I need idle time.  My mind seems to be in gear right after my morning stretch, supplemented by coffee.

The Keurig machine, or actually a K-cup compatible Mr. Coffee impostor that I got with a 20% off coupon a few years ago, has upgraded my every morning except Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av.  While professional activities, child rearing and sometimes Jewish obligations hindered my development of more personal pleasures, I have taken a fondness to varietal coffee and varietal beer, both relatively economical indulgences compared to the alternatives of skiing and hedonistic electronics.  So the K-cups can be purchased in 48-cup variety packs while the 12-24 cup boxes can be acquired in innumerable varieties costing less that a visit to Brew Ha Ha, which I still do periodically, though more than brewing my own in a French press, which I also still do from time to time.  This morning I had Brooklyn Bean Roastery Vanilla Skyline and Tully's French Roast.  And then Betty the cafeteria lady can be relied upon to deliver a dispenser of pretty decent hospital cafeteria coffee to the Doctor's Lounge, there for the taking.

While the Vanilla Skyline blend was an extreme disappointment, too weak to justify another purchase of it at any discount, any large sampling is bound to distribute in the typical bell shape.  Most varieties fall within 95% of the gustatory mean, a few dreadful, a few superb.  Even though the Vanilla Skyline Blend left me unimpressed after two attempts, the remaining ten plastic containers will get consumed over time rather than wasted.

In a few weeks I allotted myself a few days \vacation tacked on to the Endocrine Society Annual Meeting in San Francisco.  I've always wanted to see Yosemite and visit the wineries, another source of immense variety.  A convenient base nearby to each might be Modesto, home to E & J Gallo, which I can get at any local store.  I will need to make a decision on witnessing wine made on an immense scale for a mass market like Gallo does, or more to my liking seeking out much more limited operations developed to allow expression of the winemakers' passion for their own individual craft.  It is the difference between a French press of commercial Martinson Coffee, which I still enjoy, or rolling the dice on a package of K-cups from a source that I have not heard of previously.  For the most part I will err on the more unique experience

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

No Rabbis Present

This past shabbat we had a dip in attendance with many people attending a Shabbat spectacle across town.  We had no clergy in attendance, not Rabbi, not Hazzan.  Even our cadre of Bimah performers was a little schvok.  But a core of capable volunteers led the liturgy from beginning to end, even starting on time.  Another person gave a thoughtful sermon of the right length and memorable insight.  Some women prepared a glorious Kiddush for us afterwards, complete with the unusual delicacies of roll mop herring and cheesecake plus the usually present scotch and Canadian whiskeys.  It was definitely the more shabbos-like place to be.  Might clergy be a deterrent to attendance?  Maybe even the impediment to kavannah?

.Rabbi Herring who established a now dormant project not that many years ago to make worship in the synagogue a more engaging experience than many of us find it posted a blog entry recently examining the changing role of the Rabbi in the synagogue.

Emcee, host, facilitator, Chief Resident, sage, CEO perhaps.  Would it be better for him not to be there or for me not to be there on shabbos morning?  The experiment with me not being there has been conducted innumerable times, making it pretty safe to conclude that my presence does not particularly matter one way or another.  Unless somebody takes attendance, my presence or absence really has no impact.  In some ways the congregation is like the army, there is a cadre of people who are needed and appear when needed.  A few get an honorable discharge from the congregation after the last child's Bar Mitzvah, a few go AWOL, but once the proper head count has been achieved and the technical expertise of the bimah participants has been put in place, the companies, battalions, and divisions have little impact in the sanctuary though quite a lot of aggregate impact on the finances.  That is why synagogue buildings for the last fifty years have been architecturally designed with relatively small amounts of sacred space and a lot more square footage devoted to classrooms or other areas of non-worship assembly.  But the Rabbi provides a focus.  Yes, the proceedings will go on in his absence but only to the extent that baalebatim insist on it by applying their personal skills.

So last shabbat, we had some very good baalebatim supplemented by a general attendance that valued their experience in our sanctuary more than they valued the prospect of being amid anyone who's anyone at the synagogue across town.  I think many of the people who remain loyal to shabbos and to worshipping at their synagogue most weeks acquired that habit through their Hillel experiences in college or Jewish camping experience, both largely devoid of professional clergy, as are the increasingly popular transdenominational experiences.  They are the people who make shabbos happen, though not necessarily every week.  If you really want it every week, you need to hire a professional.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Did not count Omer this year or last but did the previous few.  Heart just not in it or given up trying to upgrade myself or maybe what the Rabbi said about the effect of the Omer on upgrading personality just wasn't true.  It is one of those festivals which, while important as the beginning of Torah study, comes at an awkward time in the calendar.  In the younger years it came at the time of class trips, later at exams, later at graduation and finally at the transition from spring to summer when vacation anticipation or planning dominates.  It typically gets buried between Mothers Day and Fathers Day, subservient to both.  There are no mandated symbols like an etrog or matzoh.  Despite the seven week preparatory season, the yontiff itself only lasts two days.

Still there are attempts by synagogues over a generation to keep this holiday afloat.  Many have used this occasion for their Hebrew school graduations.  As Hebrew school enrollment has depleted and many parents object to keeping their tykes home from school during prime study season, the communal observance has absorbed a night of study, traditionally conducted after dark into the wee hours.  People seem to be willing to do that.  And there are dairy meals, blintzes and cheesecake and some savory variants as well.

My own observance this year will be a largely culinary one with a respite from recreational computer.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Observer Status

My finale at AKSE seems an appropriate challenge:  Aliyah #4 of Parsha Naso which describes the procedures for dealing with a suspected unfaithful wife and with a Nazir.  Difficult reading and lengthy.  What follows is nothing.  It is time to step aside.  I have been invited back to my remaining committee and I have been asked to participate in the next congregational Torah reading, one far less difficult than what I am currently preparing.  But the time has arrived for me to transition from participant to observer.  The leadership really needs to develop new people of talent.  They have neglected this vital task over a considerable time frame, choosing instead to pick the low hanging fruit.  And my first observation is that they will not pursue this part of leadership unless some external force compels it.  And so I have taken the first step on saying no, I will not be part of the bimah pool and if they wish to have the thus far successful AKSE Academy progress to a congregational signature event they will need to find another person, or even better, a real functioning subcommittee to assure its success.

In one of my favorite books, The Search for God at Harvard, the author Ari Goldman discusses his role as a correspondent with an alternate role as Rabbi.  The reporter looks and analyzes.  The Rabbi finds himself immersed in the events that the religion correspondent writes about.  Both are expected to have a measure of objectivity though in very different circumstances.  And both contribute, though in different ways.

So as I take my final lap as an AKSE participant in a few weeks, at least for a while, I will need to make a special effort in the months that follow to pay attention.  Re'eh: see.  Sh'ma: Listen.  Then report back what I have learned.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Impromptu Haftarah

Once a month our Hazzan, who is paid per diem, opts to stay home for the weekend, leaving us to assemble volunteers for Torah reading and davening, which we are usually able to do.  Being one of the more experienced readers, I will usually take a mid-sized section, usually one I've not done before to help maintain my skills, and spend a few weeks preparing it.  A crew of 5-7 readers will accomplish the weekly reading, usually done well by all participants.  Since it takes a few weeks notice to pull this off, we are still very much dependent on a paid reader who can prepare an entire parsha in one week, something none of us the congregational members can do adequately but we have by far the most capable bimah bench of amateurs in the state.

This week the scheduled Haftarah reader failed to appear.  He had left a message with the synagogue office the day before that a family emergency required him to be elsewhere but the message was received after the office had closed on Friday so no contingency plans could be made.  As the Torah reading proceeded, there was still no reader for the Haftarah so I went over to the Gabbai and volunteered.  Over the past thirty years, I've done most of the Haftarot at one time or another so I can usually get by on short notice, with a little off-form Hebrew, though I am familiar with most of the vocabulary and phrasing that commonly appears.  And so it went.  The portion of Yechezkeil got chanted capably on about fifteen minutes notice.  Experienced listeners could probably pick up a few variations in the cadence when I came to long or unfamiliar words, but generally it fit in the mainstream of what those who attend our shul on shabbos morning would expect.

As our congregation's  membership swoon proceeds at a fairly steady pace, discussion among the baalebatim on managing this have supplanted Bingo as the focus of the congregational governance.  The destiny can take a number of forms from extinction to merger to revival.  But what I witnessed this past month are features that make us unique, from AKSE Academy which contained classes with subjects and expertise that no place else can duplicate, to a shabbos morning service that proceeded under difficult circumstances with only minimal input from paid clergy.  Other places have their unique features as well, no doubt, but they do not duplicate ours and should not replace ours.