Sunday, May 21, 2017

Mother, May, she

While congress might not have voted on this just yet, it is a well known fact that this month is my mother's month. I say "well known" because I, well, know it.

May is my mom's month. I have just said that 10 times fast so that makes it official. You can look that up -- it is a true fact that I read in a blog I just wrote on the internet so it must be true.

Between Mothers' Day and her birthday (and other salient points) this month is set aside to celebrate the singular person who is my mom and in that vein, I take some time on a Sunday in May to write a poem to my mom. And I do this despite the first-world-problem I am wrestling with, the trouble my computer is having with the M key. I suffer in order to celebrate this lovely lady.

I call this poem "Motherc"

M is for the many months in which I was reportedly in your womb. I have no particular proof of this but lacking evidence to the contrary, I am forced to concede its probability

O is for the ovaries. If you need me to explain their relevance, you should probably not be reading this.

T is for the trouble that I got in as a youngster. I was pretty much a jerk.

H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. I learned that from my mother. Maybe. I might just have counted. But I give her credit to be sure, you know?

E is for the everyman, the spirit within us all that strives for survival in this dog-at-dog world, the drive to be accepted and loved and make our way through life. Truth is, E was voted "least likely to be for anything related to your mother" but I had to include it for certain contractual reasons.

R is for Rosen. Duh.

C is for cookie. Et cetera.


I think that the meter fails in the second half of the fourth line of the eighth stanza but I invoke poetic license, and essayists learner's permit.

So, in sum, happy May to my mum, the Dear Ol' Mom of email fame. May this month and year be yours for years to come.


Friday, May 19, 2017

I'm a traditional-ish

I wrote recently about traditions within Judaism and, unlike earlier experiences, writing has not cleared my mental cache -- instead it has spurred on more questions. Now, I have a site that I go to when I have to ask questions, but this is a bit too extensive for the format of that site so I will just place the whole ball o' wax here in the hopes that someone will read it and explain it all to me. I do, however, recommend the other site if you want to read up and enter the discussion about other topics related to Judaism.

So if you are not conversant in Jewish law and tradition, you can follow along. Sorry if you don't understand all the words and concepts -- I'll explain what I remember to, but I have spent so long not making sense that it is sort of my default and I don't always notice it. If you are a relative expert, chime in but please, please be gentle -- I am still a child in terms of my learning and am soliciting help because I am starting to come to terms with the volume of what I don't know.

I am confused about what exactly, under Jewish law, counts as a minhag. "Minhag" is a Hebrew word which is often translated as "tradition" but it isn't exactly just tradition. The word comes from the concept of "guide on a path" or something like that. In Jewish law, something that is a "minhag" is abided by often, very closely. A community minhag, a family minhag or a geographical minhag is often elevated to the level of ersatz-law and must be followed to that degree. Many well known practices are really the result of minhag which must be followed: the not eating of legumes on Passover is a minhag of Ashkenazic Jews ("Ashkenazic Jews" refers to Jews of European extraction and is not identical with "Minhag Ashkenaz" which is a tradition of people specifically from Germany, as opposed to, for example, minhag Polin for Jews from Poland. Both are Ashkenazic but still differ in some liturgical practices) and is considered pretty firm as a practice. [strangely, the minhag of adopting some prohibitions related to mourning during the Omer period between Passover and Shavu'ot can be altered year-to-year in terms of which days one applies it to, so the notion of a minhag's being fixed sees not to apply.

Many traditions are passed down from father to children and the abrogation of a practice received from a father might even require a religious exemption/voiding of a vow, an actual rite, assuming one has parental permission or some other mitigating factor. This is not stuff to be taken lightly. However, I do not feel comfortable with what exactly counts as a minhag and what doesn't, and I have a bunch of other questions about them, so if you have answers, let me know:

1. Is one bound by a parental minhag if the parent adopted it without any particular reason? [this begs the question of how we adopt a minhag if we have no communal or familial tradition -- if it is ever by simple diffusion and convenience, is it then binding on later generations?]

2. Is a subtle liturgical change (a girsah) tantamount to a minhag? There are many situations where different siddurim (prayer books) even ones which are all, ostensibly, from the same general tradition, have slightly different wording (the absence of a prefatory letter "hei", the shift from "b'fi" to "b'feh", the use of "yitgadel" vs. "yitgadal", "latet" vs. "leeten", "hameichin" vs. "asher heichin") or even more substantial wording changes ("ne'ima kedosha" vs. "ne'ima. Kedusha", "ishei yisrael - ut'filatam" and "bracha hameshuleshet - batorah") which bring up grammatical and meaning differences.

3. If I have my particular liturgy based not on explicit instruction from a parent but because of the habit of having used a specific text, does that make that combination of words my "minhag" or just my practice? Am I not allowed to choose a siddur which would have me say prayers that my father doesn't say because he uses a different siddur or use wording different from his practice?

4. In my Ashkenazic siddur, there are sections that are labeled "minhag Polin" and "minhag Ashkenaz" indicating that liturgical shifts ARE (nominally?) considered "minhag". Is choosing to say one or the other as binding as any other minhag? There are also sections (daily vidui/confession) which are NOT labeled as minhag, but presented as normative practice (as opposed to the Artscroll which says that the Ashkenazic practice is NOT to say daily confession). Mine also includes the phrase "morid hatal" but doesn't tie it to any specific group, just indicating that "some say" it. If I have adopted the siddur, have I adopted all the concomitant liturgical practices? Are they "my minhag" now? Are insertions the same as variations in terms of minhag? Are single word insertions the same as paragraph or full-prayer insertions?

5. Is not having the minhag to do something the same as having the minhag not to do that thing? If someone in my shul adds in "bizchut avraham/yitzchak/ya'akov avinu" during the repetition of the Amidah service and I like that, may I simply start saying that, or does the fact that I have inherited no tradition TO say it the same as having a tradition NOT TO say it? Is it easier to adopt than to drop a minhag?

6. If there was a standard practice in my school, or something done by my rebbe in school which I copied (not because of any research but because it filled the void of [passive] instruction or I was exposed to it from the age of 3 before my father explicitly taught or demonstrated his practice) does that become my minhag? What if it eventually contravenes the tradition of my father?

7. Are practices which are listed in codes of law as "minhag chassidut" -- a practice of piety, such as checking tefillin during the month of Elul, the same (as binding in the future) as another minhag? May I not adopt it if my father hadn't adopted it? Must I do it if he did do it?

8. Are other aspects of behavior considered minhag? Is dress minhag or just a communal practice? What about moving my head in a circle during the saying of the Sh'ma. Some people touch their tefillin at certain points during prayer while others don't. Are those actions minhagim and binding?

Maybe this stuff is obvious to you, but I am at sea, here. Any input and discussion is invited, welcome and appreciated.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A good, old fashioned rant

Warning -- this is just a rant. An absolute and angry rant aimed at nameless people (I assume they have names, but since I don't know who they are, I can't name those names so I use the shorthand "nameless" -- work with me) who have offended my sensitivities.

I'm at work right now (right now being when I am typing this, not any random time when I or you read this) and there is a platter which has leftover food from an event held here last night. The kitchen prepared these mini-muffin things: corn, chocolate chip, bran and like that. There were 4 left. Now, understand -- I wasn't going to eat them. I am on a strict diet of not eating anything which would make me happy so I was staying far away. But when I walked by, I noticed that someone (some nameless one) had taken the tops off the muffins and left the bottoms, in their little paper cups, sitting on the platter.

Before you start referencing Seinfeld episodes, please be aware that this is real life. In real life, someone walked by and broke the tops off for consumption and left the rest just sitting there as if he or she was doing the rest of humanity a favor by, after mangling food, leaving it for others to pick at. That is simply disgusting. Who does that? [note -- not rhetorical. Please tell me who does that so I can smack that person in the head]

Sure, I felt bad about throwing them out because I don't like wasting food. So I didn't. But fortunately, someone else did, after we commiserated about how horrible a behavior it was of that nameless person to break the tops off and leave the rest behind. Offensive and horrible.

So I turned the corner and walked into the local kitchenette to try and recover from the shock and there I saw a platter of double chocolate chip cookies. Again, I wasn't going to eat them because I might crack a smile, but I did look at them very intensely. I noticed that a bunch of them had pieces broken off of them. THIS IS EXACTLY THE SAME THING! Don't break a piece off of a whole cookie so you can eat your little bit and then leave the rest just sitting there! Here's what bothers me -- who doesn't eat a whole cookie? When I want a snack, I limit myself to only 7 or 8 cookies. In a pinch, I can survive with only 3 cookies. But fractions? Bad enough I am confronted with cookies that have some random fingerprints on them, but apparently I am surrounded by people who are unable to eat cookies in units of "1" and that's really offensive. What's up with just having a bite or a piece? Not everyone agrees with my sense that the one pound bag of peanut M+M's is a single serving but a cookie? A little, 2-inch in diameter (yes, I actually measured for the sake of accuracy) cookie needs to be broken in pieces and eaten incrementally? And if you have to break off a piece, break from a cookie that already has a piece taken out, not from another whole cookie! You all make me sick

So stop touching my food, eat like a human being and make sure to measure your cookies before you get angry about them.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Tradition? “tradition”

**Note -- sorry about the lack of hyperlinks. I wrote this in Word and C/P it here. I tried to make the included references into links but got bored.

A while ago, I was considering whether to go to Israel for an upcoming holiday, one that in the US would be celebrated for 2 days (, but only for 1 in Israel ( The practice of the second day developed outside of Israel because of a concern over the exact date of the new month ( declaration (which would in turn affect the certainty of the date of a holiday later in the month). In Israel, where there was no uncertainty, no extra day was needed. This practice was so established ( that when Hillel II fixed the calendar scientifically (, the 2 day practice was institutionalized. But what is still argued is whether someone visiting Israel has to celebrate two days, as his minhag ( (sort of “tradition”, sort of “accepted practice) would dictate, or one day because “when in Rome” ( The underlying question seems to be whether the tradition is incumbent on the person or the place and which, in any situation is dominant if the two practices are different.

Minhag avoteichem b’yadeichem (being careful about keeping family traditions) --

Minhag hamakom (customs that are based in adhering to a local practice) -

Certain practices are clearly subject to the location – if one goes to Jerusalem, even as a visitor, over Purim, one celebrates Purim on Shushan Purim, a day after when he would celebrate it were he in an unwalled city. His practice is dictated by where he is. Similarly, a Kohen who visits Israel from the US says the Priestly blessing daily as is the Israeli practice. Regardless of the law which applies to him outside of Israel, a change in location affects how he behaves. The law seems to be on the place, not the person.

I also wanted to donate plasma over chol hamo’ed. I spoke with my rabbi and he said that the understanding of the law dictated that something quasi-medical but not definitively life threatening that could be rescheduled should be. I pointed out that in Israel, the Magen David Adom actually encourages people to donate blood over chol hamo’ed and I’m sure that they do so with the knowledge of the rabbinate. He guessed that the difference is that in Israel, and reduction in donations (because of the size of the country and the constant concern of attack) would immediately and certainly become a life threatening set of conditions. I wondered then, if I were to travel there, would the local understanding of law and application of it apply to me as well – is the issue the way my authority rules or the way a law develops in relationship to the geography of the adherents.

This question also applies then to the question of kitniyot, legumes, on Passover. Ashkenazic Jews have developed a minhag/tradition/practice with the power of law not to eat them. One reason ( has to do with the confusion over grains when similar objects are stored with each other. Because one could not ensure that a given grain-type product was free of the 5 grains which must be guarded and controlled on Passover, the rule was established to eschew all similar looking products ( But in communities where the offending legumes were not mixed in, or were checked, the practice never took hold ( There was never any uncertainty about the unadulterated status of the legumes there so there was never any need to prohibit them ( This is the case with many communities within the Sephardic tradition.

So what if I were to visit some place which historically never established this minhag. Is the law on me or the location? I am not asking about my practice if I eat at someone’s house in Teaneck and the person is Sephardic and eats kitniyot but about being somewhere where there was never the worry which demanded that the tradition even exist. Shouldn’t I be able to eat legumes because the concern over their status – the exact reason why I am forbidden, is completely alien and assuredly not the case! If the law is on me specifically then it needs no reason: I can’t eat legumes simply because of an accident of parentage. But if other practices as listed above switch based on where I am, regardless of my birth, why shouldn’t this.

And then the question of 1 or 2 days of the holiday returns. If there is ample precedent for abiding by the rules of the location, then why would there be any reason for me to celebrate 2 days in Israel? Their understanding and application of the law didn’t have the development of the 2nd day in the same way that their location and conditions provide for a different day for Purim, and an allowance to duchen daily, or give blood on chol hamo’ed. Why am I subject to their practices in certain cases and not in the case of the second day of the holiday, unless one wants to say that the law is on the person, not on the place.

Maybe this all depends on the notion of “law” vs. “tradition” vs. "minhag" and maybe the gradations between and within each are too fine (and they are certainly beyond my understanding), but it seems almost arbitrary to require that certain practices stay with the individual no matter his location while others are flexible if he changes and eliminates the condition of uncertainty which inspired the distinct practice.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

To the big guy:

No, not the "Big Guy" but certainly the big guy. To the big daddy, the papa doc, the DOD, RAR, the Imperious Loudmouth, the man who taught me what "prolix" means, and who taught me to study before I spend, the guy who got me hooked on leftover casserole, who still teaches me about morality and mortality, the man who proved that righteous indignation is genetic and a man of whom Rabbi Akiva would be the man who was an early adopter but a believer that new is always good, who serves the public good and who models being a good person, rather than lecturing about it, to the daddy-o who got me to cherish the word, and almonds and who thanks the world for not someone who never stops surprising me and makes me want to be better at being who I am, who has been a curmudgeon with a heart of gold for as long as I can remember, and someone who made decisions upon decisions so that others would be the intellectual who laughed at Monty Python with me (though he might not remember it, he really enjoyed the Crunchy Frog sketch and I won't let him forget it) and who enjoys movies with explosions and unmemorable the trail blazer who taught me to try things once, do what needs to be done and get it done right (but if it isn't right, own up to it and fix it), eschew the spotlight and focus on results, to the celebrity who never quite made it onto Italian television, to the armchair grammarian, the pilot, the story teller, the man who taught me to love the clutch and use him often, to someone who understands what it means not to like people but to love his People and who made sure that I could do what it was I wanted to the doctor who diagnoses gout every day, the teacher who knows that the biggest challenge is helping people learn on their own and to the student who still has worlds to conquer

to my dad:

Happy birthday. To 120 and six months.

[and yes, I know that today is not exactly his birthday, but when the muse strikes, the iron is hot]

Monday, April 3, 2017

I'm an Idiot

Sometimes I find myself alone, sitting, and thinking about life. Car rides are like that. Rainy afternoons at home when there is nothing on but old cooking shows and movies I either have seen too many times, or have no interest in seeing. I let my mind wander and inevitably it fastens on some completely and unforgivably stupid thing that I have done. And there are plenty to choose from.

By word of preface and apology, this post will be introspective and vague, often because the idiocy in which I engaged would still have consequences were it discovered now. Not all the consequences involve the penal system but those that don't invoke embarrassment beyond what I can handle. So I shall repeatedly avoid specifics.

But trust me, I'm an idiot.

I really did dumb things. I ran around and climbed where I shouldn't climb. I put myself into physically dangerous situations and I could have been killed. More than once. It is starting to sound like a confessional litany in here. In fact, instead of going through each case, I can just make a list of some of the the things that could have happened to me had the world been an ever so slightly different place.

I could be dead, in jail, dead in jail, alone, in pain, insane, excised, despised, lost, tossed, ignored, abhorred, reported, deported, chased, maced, laced, erased, ashamed, blamed, named, defamed, fired, fried, tired, tried, afraid, flayed, hated, hurt, muddied, sullied, and a bunch of other things I can't even think of now.

By all rights, and according to the laws of the universe, I should be dead, or sad, or something even worse. I have been so lucky so far and I think that part of growing up is the admission that I was a jerk, a joke, a fool and a failure and I somehow got away with most of it.

I am trying to change, but so many of my stupidities only appear in the rear view mirror of life, so while I hope not to be such a reckless and wreckful idiot in the future, I issue blanket anticipatory (first strike) apologies. I want to live a life worth living and full of opportunities to rise above not crash and burn. I guess we'll see.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Purim Dvar Torah

Purim is, in certain ways, the absolute, unequivocal and unquestioned winner of “Most depressing holiday of the year.” The underlying facts surrounding it paint the bleakest possible picture. Consider other holidays

Channukah: the temple had earlier been destroyed and Antiochus is trying to finish the job, but a rag tag band of ne’er do wells rises up and, in the Cinderella story (well, the version where she kills all the bad people) they win and eat fatty food. Awesome. Today, we won’t let anyone “finish the job” because we really appreciate fatty food!

Passover: We were slaves in Egypt and things were bad, but then a charismatic leader inspires us and we, a rag tag band of ne’er do wells up and walk out so that we can complain for 40 years even though we get breakfast in bed EVERY SINGLE DAY! We aren’t slaves like that anymore so the story won’t happen again. And Chopstix delivers.

The two Tus: In Sh’vat we talk about how great plants are, and Av, where ladies, dressed in white, run around in the meadows with no fear of getting their clothes dirty, for lo, they are protected by God and an invisible barrier available now, in new and improved Dreft.

Purim is such a downer because of something that I have missed until this year – at one point, the king, Achashveirosh, enacts a rule that people have to bow to Haman. Mordy refuses and the rabbis explain in Esther Rabba 6:2 that Haman was wearing a symbol of idolatry around his neck so Mordechai didn’t want to bow to idols. Depressing fact one – Jews are put in no win situations.

But hey, he gets away with it. For a while.

Then, in chapter 3, verse 4, the servants who observed Mordechai’s refusal finally tell Haman. Wait – what? He had an idol around his neck. He would have to have been facing the people when they bowed to him so that they would see the idol. How could he not have known that Mordechai was not bowing? Maybe he was not paying attention. Maybe he had bad eyesight. Maybe his people were pointing out that even in the future, Mordechai didn’t intend to bow. Who knows; all I know is that we would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids! Depressing fact two – when Jews are getting away with living their lives according to their faith, others narc on us and get us in trouble. And later, when Haman sees Mordechai doesn’t even stand or move (5:9) he decides to hang the guy. It isn’t that Mordechai didn’t bow anymore – he didn’t even rise. All Mordy was doing was SITTING THERE. Depressing fact three, even when Jews try to lie low and avoid conflict, it finds us.

And finally, when things do turn around, Esther, and her trusted sidekick Mordechai approach the king and ask him to rescind his order. Things are looking up, right? The king sees the problem and will let people defend themselves, right? Not so much. He shrugs his shoulders and says “there’s nothing I can do.” Depressing fact four – the people in charge don’t really want to help us. Sure, he tells Esti that she can think of something, but he wants no active part in helping.

OK, so if this is a depressing holiday, marked by the randomness of a lottery and the unfairness of arbitrary anti-Semitism (all of which echoes in this day and age) then what is the celebration all about?

It isn’t about “God saved us” that I can tell you. But, underneath it all, Judaism has never been about “God did the saving.” We learn in Pesachim 64b, Lo Samchinin Anisa, more popularly said as “Ein somchin al haness”, we don’t rely on miracles. And Purim reminds us that we are partners in our own salvation.

At the sea, the Children of Israel saw the Egyptians behind them and the water in front of them. They could have just prayed. They were supposed to have faith that God would save them, right? But they learned a lesson from Yaacov, who, when faced with Eisav’s army didn’t just pray, he also took proactive steps, sending gifts and preparing for battle. Simple faith isn’t enough! We have to take action. And at the sea, the medrash reports that Nachshon, instead of waiting for a miracle, walked in to the water up to his neck. This act is what triggered the sea’s splitting. The Maccabbees were stirred by the rallying cry of Mi lahashem eylai – whoever is for God is with me. But that cry was a call to arms – faith was demonstrated through action, not a crutch.

Mordechai was a man of faith. He was really informed of all things Jewish, including prayer. But while he dons sackcloth and ashes and cries, he doesn’t stop there. He stirs people to pray and fast. But is that enough? He could have dropped it at that and just let God, you know, do his thang. Instead he tells Esther that she has to act, and act now. Wait, she says, I’m gonna get in so much trouble – can’t we just wait and let the big man in the sky take care of this so I don’t get dead? He says, “NO.” We have to initiate the action, even at personal risk. You have to walk into the sea to get it to split. Yes, you have to pray, just to make it today, but the song doesn’t say “you ONLY got to pray” -- you also have to send gifts and prepare for war. Esther understands this allusion thousands of years before MC Hammer is born (possibly the true Purim miracle) and says “I’ll fast, but I’ll also take action” and it is the action, the plan (the plan was rock solid) which leads to the salvation of the Jews.

So what is the message of this horrible, depressing holiday? Is it that we will always be victims and that when the world conspires against us, we can sit back, do some prayer and rely on God to bail us out.


No, the message is that we can bring about our own survival by being proactive. Give charity, be friendlier and don’t wait til things get horrible and then start praying, expecting miracles. And when things get bad, as they generally do, don’t sit back and cry. Get on up and do something about it.

Purim reaffirms not just that God is God and that he will save us, but that we have to be Jews, rising up and accepting our responsibility, and carrying the burden of acting, being involved like the Maccabbees instead of demanding others solve our problems for us.