Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Blog Has Moved

In case you aren't following me on Facebook and you're wondering where I went, I am now blogging at the Los Angeles Jewish Journal at Religious and Reform. I am also still writing once a month at

If you want to know when I have posted new material, you can sign up for the RSS feed at the Religious and Reform blog linked above, or you can "Like" my new Facebook page. You can also follow me on Twitter.

I hope you will continue to read my posts, and comment on them. I love to hear from you!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

My Review of "The Good News Club" at TC Jewfolk

Read my review of the book "The Good News Club" at TC Jewfolk. It's amazing the many tactics Christian fundamentalists are using to convert grade-school kids in America's public schools.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"I've Never Been in a Place With So Many Women Who Don't Dye Their Hair" at TC Jewfolk

Read my new post at TC Jewfolk, about the amazing conference I attended last week. It was much more uplifting than one might have thought!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Haveil Havalim #364

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs -- a weekly collection of Jewish & Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by different bloggers each week and jointly coordinated through our Facebook Group.

Shira Salamone writes about her take on a controversial prayer in Shelo asani ishah/who did not make me a woman posted at On The Fringe - Al Tzittzit. You can read my thoughts on the same prayer here.

I present my latest installment of answers to questions asked by my readers at Your Questions Answered #9 posted at To Kiss a Mezuzah.

Michael Tzadok Elkohen presents The Purpose of Kabbalah posted at An Aspiring Mekubal.

On a ligher note, Roberta Elisheva Bianchetti offers a Torah-related art project in Parashah Beha'alotekha posted at our Jewish little place.

Eric presents an article by Anthony Reich about Gay Pride in the Holy Land posted at The Israel Situation.

Take a photo tour of some of Jerusalem in Jerusalem in June posted at The Real Jerusalem Streets

Batya treats us to some more photos of Jerusalem in New Views From Jerusalem's Old City posted at Me-Ander.

Ima 2 Seven writes about coping with the unexpected in Trust Fall posted at Ima 2 Seven.

Is this the generation when the son of David comes? See what you think after you read Was the Expulsion from Gaza Prophesized posted at Esser Agaroth.

Although the title overpromises, the narrative and photos are still informative in How to Understand the Middle East in 2 Minutes posted at The Real Jerusalem Streets.

Batya presents Where Do Our Prayers Go? posted at Shiloh Musings, although the post strikes me more as, "Where are the best places to pray, why and how?" than where they go after you utter them.

Batya presents Proud of Shimon Peres? Will He Help Jonathan Pollard? posted at Shiloh Musings.

Although I don't have the same level of sensitivity as Ester, I agree with her about the bad idea of scented packaging that she mentions in Scentsitivities posted at Northern Lights & Reflections.

Miriam finds a different way to spend her time in A Different Directon posted at Miriam's Words.

How You Can Participate:
To volunteer to host, join our Facebook Group.

To submit a post, use our submission form.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Your Questions Answered # 9

By Susan Esther Barnes

I love some of the search terms people use to get to my blog. A lot of those search terms are questions. Because they are such great questions, I think they deserve an answer. In addition, it turns out these posts are among the most popular ones on my blog. So here is the latest installment of “Your Questions Answered.”

Are there secular Jews who don’t observe shiva?

The word shiva means “seven” in Hebrew. It stands for the first seven days of mourning after the burial of a loved one. During shiva, observant Jews stay at home, people come over for prayer services, and several other customs may be followed.

I am certain there are secular Jews who don’t observe shiva. There are also non-Orthodox religious Jews who don’t observe shiva, and there are some who do follow some of the customs of shiva, but not for the entire seven days.

You never know when circumstances may get in the way with observing a traditional shiva period. For instance, when my father, alav hashalom, died last year two and a half days before Passover, had he been buried before the start of Passover, according to tradition the shiva period would have stopped when the Passover holiday started.

As it turned out, he wasn’t buried until after the end of Passover, allowing a full seven day shiva period, but I have to say that starting shiva 12 days after a death and thereby ending shiva almost three weeks after the death is far from ideal, and I didn’t do it even though I’m religious.

Do you attend Shabbat services every week?

I don’t know whether this question was for me specifically, or for Jewish people in general. I attend Shabbat services twice a week: on Friday night and on Saturday morning (Shabbat starts at sundown on Friday and goes until sundown on Saturday).

Observant Jews are expected to go to Shabbat services every week. In some Orthodox households, only the men (and boys who are old enough) go to Shabbat services.

Does the Torah say to kiss the mezuzah?

No. There is nothing anywhere in the Torah about kissing a mezuzah. It is a custom; it is not a commandment.

Do women have to kiss the mezuzah?

Nobody has to kiss a mezuzah. See above. It is a custom, and is not a commandment. Men, women, and children may all kiss a mezuzah if they want to, and it is the custom that Jewish men, women, and children all do so.

How do Jews follow commandments of the Temple?

There are 613 commandments in the Torah, and a whole section of them have to do with making sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, and other related Temple activities. However, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed (twice) a long time ago, and has not been replaced. In fact, where the Temple once stood, there is now a Muslim mosque, so it’s unlikely the Temple will be rebuilt any time soon, even though Jewish people now have (at least some) access to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

As a result, no Jews follow the commandments that have to do with the Temple. This is one of the reasons why I say it is disingenuous for Orthodox Jews (or anyone else) to claim they follow all of the commandments in the Torah.

Interestingly, the ancient rabbis tried to preserve some of the Temple traditions, as best they could, in the diaspora. For example, the times for prayer services throughout the day are set in order to coincide with the times of the day when sacrifices were made in the Temple in ancient days. Also, Jews all over the world pray while facing in the direction of the Temple Mount.

How do Orthodox Jews travel on ships?

The same way everyone else does. They buy a ticket, board a ship, and get off after the ship reaches their destination.

Perhaps this question alludes to the fact that Orthodox Jews are not supposed to travel on Shabbat. That is why you won’t find an Orthodox Jew boarding a plane late Friday afternoon or during the day on Saturday. If it takes the ship more than six days to reach its destination, at least part of the journey will happen on Shabbat, and that may present a problem.

According to the Chabad website, apparently a Jew is allowed to travel on a ship over Shabbat as long as the Jew asks the ship captain to stop on Shabbat (even if the captain doesn’t actually stop), and as long as the crew members aren’t Jewish (since Jews aren’t supposed to work on Shabbat). This explains how many observant Jews were able to travel to the United States via ship from Europe and other distant lands.

Keep those questions coming!

I would love to answer more of your questions, so feel free to ask some in the comments section below, or just keep coming here via those interesting search terms.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"Buying" with the Intent of Getting a Free Rental

By Susan Esther Barnes

This week the planet Venus transited the sun, meaning that Venus passed between the sun and the Earth, allowing people to see what appeared to be a black spot moving across the surface of the sun. Of course, even grade school children know you can hurt your eyes by looking directly at the sun, so people used various devices to watch the event safely.

Someone I know asked me if I had seen the event, and excitedly told me that he had done so. I asked him how he watched it without hurting his eyes, and he replied that he had purchased a welding helmet. Then, he casually mentioned that he plans to return the helmet to the store now.

There is nothing wrong with the helmet. He simply purchased it without intending to keep it. When I suggested it might be wrong for him to purchase something, use it for the purpose he had intended, and then return it, he replied, “But it’s not like I welded anything with it on.” No, he didn’t weld anything, but he did use it, and it worked.

This reminds me of a story I heard back when I worked for I.Magnin, an upscale department store which has since gone out of business. The Beverly Hills store catered to many of the Hollywood elite. The manager of the store told me about a celebrity (who I won’t name here), who was notorious for “buying” expensive dresses (by expensive I mean on the order of $5,000 each), wearing them once, and then returning them for a full refund.

The store manager said she was watching the Johnny Carson show one evening, and it just so happened this same celebrity was a guest. The celebrity was wearing a dress she had recently “purchased” from I.Magnin, and the store manager knew she intended to return it.

So the next day, the manager stationed herself at the front of the store, and when this celebrity walked in with the dress, the manager gushed, “Oh, I saw you wearing this dress on Johnny Carson last night. You looked fabulous! Of course you need the dress dry cleaned. I will take care of that for you, and I’ll have it delivered to your home by this evening.”

Thus, the manager gracefully let the celebrity know that the jig was up – she demonstrated that she was aware of this habit of buying dresses, wearing them and returning them, and subtly let her know it was not going to be allowed to continue. But she did it without making an outright accusation, and in a way that didn’t embarrass the celebrity.

Ok, a dress can only be dry cleaned and worn so many times. If you “buy” a dress, wear it, have it cleaned, and then return it, the dress has suffered some physical wear and tear. But what’s the big deal in the case of the welding helmet? Unless the guy sweats excessively, it didn’t need to be cleaned, and it didn’t suffer any harm.

First of all, while the helmet was out of the store being used in this manner, it wasn’t available for anyone who wanted to actually purchase it and do some welding. Therefore, the store may have lost business while the helmet wasn’t in stock. It’s possible the potential buyer won’t frequent this store in the future, now that they have gotten the impression that the store isn’t well stocked.

Furthermore, what if a bunch of people had this idea of “buying” welding helmets for the viewing and then returning them afterward? This store, and maybe others in the area, would “sell” a bunch of these helmets. Seeing their stock depleted, they would order more.

Then, just about the time the reorders arrive, the stores get in a bunch of returned helmets. Suddenly, the stores have twice as many welding helmets as they need. Their money is tied up unnecessarily in helmets for an unknown period of time. Maybe they even end up having to sell some at a discount, just to get rid of the excess. In other words, they suffer a financial loss.

Even if the scenarios above didn’t actually play out, Jewish tradition tells us it is wrong to mislead people. Specifically, we are not supposed to mess with another person’s livelihood. For example, we are not supposed to enter and browse in a store if we know we are not going to buy anything, because it would be cruel to falsely get the hopes up of the store owner, who needs to sell things to make a living.

It troubles me that people like this celebrity and my acquaintance don’t understand why it is not okay to buy something, use it, and then return it for a full refund. Society only works if we follow the rules and treat each other justly. Pretending to buy something just so you can con the store into giving you a free rental is not my idea of acceptable behavior.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My First Experience of Shmira

By Susan Esther Barnes

This week, I had my first experience of shmira, guarding or watching over someone who has died. The Jewish tradition is not to leave a person alone from the time of his or her death until the time of their burial. A shomer (male) or shomeret (female) is the person who stays with the dead person during this time.

This case was a bit unusual. Because of the circumstances of his death, an autopsy had to be performed. Also, the person’s family said the deceased would not have wanted anyone to lose sleep watching over him. As a result, we only had people sit with him from the time he was placed in his coffin after the autopsy until the time I left to go home to bed that evening. We had three people do the shmira, in shifts.

I arrived early, so I had time to walk around the mausoleum. It is a large building, that appears to have been expanded over the years. Most of the dates on the markers showed they were for people who died in the 1900’s, but a couple were from the 1800’s. I imagine those may be for people whose remains were moved, because I don’t think the building is that old.

I was surprised to see that some people’s ashes were stored in containers in glass cases, which also contained other personal items, such as photographs, eyeglasses, and, in one case, a CD of the person’s memorial service.

At one end of the mausoleum are a couple of small chapels. The person with the shift before me was in one of them, with the met (the body of the deceased), who was in a plain wooden coffin with a Jewish star on it.

I let the person with the shift before me know I was there, and I allowed her a moment to say goodbye to the met. After she left, I greeted the met, and introduced myself. I thought it would be creepy to be in a big mausoleum by myself at night, but it wasn’t creepy at all.

The only thing even mildly creepy was the music playing in the background. It was like bad elevator music on Quaaludes – the very worst of what stereotypical funeral home music can be. The person with the shift before me said they tried to find a way to turn it off, but couldn’t, and decided against trying to disconnect the speaker.

Traditionally, people doing shmira read Psalms. The good news is that once I started reading the Psalms out loud, I could barely hear the awful music. I soon realized I should have brought a bottle of water. After only 20 or 30 minutes of reading out loud, my mouth started to dry out.

Other than that, the evening was uneventful. When it came time to leave, I felt bad about leaving the met there all alone, especially with that awful music playing all night. If I were him, that music would be driving me crazy - if dead people get crazed by things like that.

On the way home, I began to wonder why it wasn’t creepy at all being there. Maybe it’s just because of my experience with taharah and the time I spent in the adjoining morgue helped the surroundings to be more familiar and comfortable to me. Certainly, once you have washed and dressed a dead person, just sitting in a room with one you can’t even see is less of a formidable experience. But when you’re doing taharah, it isn’t in the dark of night, and you’re with other people, which helps to cut down on any potential creepiness.

I thought maybe it wasn’t creepy that night because the place isn’t haunted because all the spirits were long since chased away by that awful music.

It also occurred to me that if I had just been sitting there, and not reading out loud, it would have been easier for me to hear odd noises and to start to think about them. Also, by concentrating on my reading, I didn’t have time to dwell on the possible source of any odd noises, even when I did hear them.

Then I thought, maybe there is something to reading all those Psalms about “God will protect me” and “God’s love is steadfast.” Maybe reading Psalms actually does provide mental strength and comfort. Maybe it helped me. I hope the Psalms, and/or my presence, helped the met.