Friday, September 28, 2012

Happy Un-Yom Kippur

I don't much like birthdays. On one level, they do nothing but remind me that if I'm not exactly closer to dying, I certainly am getting closer to the only benchmarks left, things like moving up in a category on a survey, or getting mail from AARP. A birthday, it seems, is all about taking a day to recognize one person and celebrate him. Buy gifts, eat cake, let him use the remote. Stuff like that. But here's what I say to my family: "Why not just be a little nicer to me every day of the year?" I don't need one particular day to be made to feel special -- I want a little more consideration every day. In Alice in Wonderland, this sentiment popped up in the celebrations of unbirthdays. Instead of having just the one party, each character could celebrate every day.

I realized that Yom Kippur should be like that. As of now we take one day and make it special. We focus on our prayers, we fast, beat our chests, we wear Crocs just like they did in biblical times. We then run as quickly as we can from it to resume our humdrum lives. Well, mine isn't humdrum, but I'm thinking of all you people. But in the same way that we shouldn't run from synagogue after services, and the same way that the Children of Israel disappointed God by running from Sinai after the giving of the Torah, we should not run from Yom Kippur. Its effect should be lasting, and its presence, felt constantly. We should be trying to make every OTHER day of the year a celebration of Yom Kippur as well.

God gives us elements in our ritual and practice to make this apparent. On Yom Kippur, we fast. Well, Orthodox Jews do not eat in the morning until after prayers. And every time we eat, we make sure to say a prayer asking permission: without that permission we must not eat. On Yom Kippur we confess. But confession and supplication are an important part of the daily prayers. In every Shmoneh Esrei we strike our chests in a reminder of the confession of Yom Kippur (some even say an actual daily confession identical to the text in the Machzor). On Yom Kippur we abstain from sexual contact with our partner. This same sense of exerting self control is expressed throughout the year in terms of the time of separation during a woman's time of Nidah. Yom Kippur may be a temporary intensification of these ideas but it is not a stand alone moment.

In fact, this tendency to spread our Yom Kippur into other contexts is integral to our other holiday performances. We wear a kittel on Pesach, thus drawing a connection to Yom Kippur. We also eat matzah, lechem oni (a bread of affliction) which reminds us of the commandment to afflict ourselves (v'eeneetem, same root) on Yom Kippur. Even at a time of our greatest joy at the remembrance of (and anticipation of) our redemption, we connect to the somberness of Yom Kippur. And the rabbis make a connection between Yom Kippurim and Purim. The overlapping names allow us to see Yom Kipur as a day of joy (and, conversely, Purim as a day of judgement) and this would then drive us to infuse the rest of the year with the same religious joy.

So today is my unbirthday. Tomorrow is also. Day after that as well. They might be yours as well. If so, a very happy unbirthday to you. But remember, it is also your un-Yom Kippur. This doesn't mean that we live life with reckless abandon and wait until next August to start the process of repentance over. It means that we should take every day as an opportunity to do a little better and bring the concerted effort which we all expressed on Yom Kippur into our daily practice.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Auto mation

Here is my fear. I see all these news stories about cars with sensors and computers in them; they can see in the dark and apply the brakes before a driver can and they can keep us from bumping into the cars around us on the road. Heck, they can even parallel park for us. This, my friends does not pose a threat to our safety on the road. It does, however, pose a real threat to a major part of our way of life - the motion picture industry.

Imagine watching a film in which the teenagers accidentally hit the stranger on the highway and then horror ensues. That cannot happen anymore. Movie done in the first 10 minutes. Chase scenes where one car bumps the other off the road? Sorry Mr. Bond but your car won't let you do that. Comedies which have the inept driver bang up the other cars when trying to fit into the tight spot? Gone once a computer takes over. This spells doom for many major genres! How many cop chase scenes would be interrupted by audible alarms from proximity sensors? How would we hear the witty banter?

Computers have their place, no doubt: spaceships to Jupiter, chess matches and the Jetsons' apartment. I just don't want them stealing from me my freedom to run over Cujo if the need arises.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Insomnia Chanted Evening

Insomnia means something very special to me. Actually, after not sleeping all night, nothing means anything to me anymore. My sense, dulled to a sharp point and my understanding of complex math gone, the world promises to be a bright blur following an extended dark blur today. But insomnia means never having to watch TV shows in prime time.

When I finally gave up trying to sleep, and finished shaving (3:48 hack)I went to watch television. None of the 3 movies I have any interest in fast forwarding through has come to on-demand yet so I started scrolling through the regular shows. I found 2 shows I hadn't watched but about which I had heard claims of existence. I dove in.

First up was Animal Practice. In a nutshell, the plot involves a guy who doctors animals. How crazy is that? I mean, animals. Really. He's like House but with not-people. They could have called him "Zoo." The show was actually very funny. I especially liked the fact that he's a sociopath but is very good at being a sociopath. Role models are important. The writing was crisp and slightly burnt at the edges. In the end, he had a heart but I'm hopeful that the heart will be fired when they retool the show for the second season.

Then I watched 2 episodes of Mr. Matthew Perry's new sitcom, "Go On." I held back the vomit every time I thought about the show's name, but it was also really amusing. It is about a guy whose wife died so it is a comedy. The second episode already felt tired at spots and I foresee a pattern of "he tries to do things his way and things get worse so in the end he gains a little respect for the group leader." I found that same pattern in the Star Wars movies except with more limbs.

I realized something -- what makes a show really good is not having to care about characters over extended story arcs. I don't want to delve into their crises and see how they deal with challenges. I want the wittiness of superficial knowledge during character establishment. I believe that the greatest season in television history would be one in which one network did nothing but run failed (or untested) pilots, week after week. New characters, new zany plots. And at the end, the audience could phone in and vote on which one should be produced, and then, pizza for everyone.

Yes, this is my plan. I can't wait for this dream to be over.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A sabbath of sabbaths

For Jews, this is a very intense time of year. From the start of the month of Elul through the end of the holiday of Sukkot we focus on repentance and self improvement. We use this time of year to recharge ourselves spiritually for the rest of the year. We increase intensity in our prayers and spend more time shedding the errors that cling to us from the previous year and prepare to go out and have an even better year to come.

But almost two months of this? Really?

Yup and here's why.

This time isn't just two months. It actually works out to (in Israel, where the lunar month holds sway and Sukkot is 8 days long) 51 days: the 29 of the month of Elul and the 22 from the 1st of Tishrei to the 22nd at the close of Shmini Atzeret. That 51 is close to one seventh of the 354 day lunar calendar. This period is a Sabbath for the year. It is the one out of seven which clears us up, helps us refocus ourselves and preps us for when we go back into the world. Our religious shift during this Sabbath mirrors the weekly pause that refreshes.

And outside Israel, where the lunar calendar is less prevalent than the solar, 365 day one? The extra day of Sukkot makes the time of repentance 52 days. Almost exactly one seventh of 365.

No matter where we are, let's experience this Sabbath of our souls, immerse ourselves in the spiritual rejuvenation and come out ready to take that uber-sabbath straight through the next "week."

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The mandatory 9-11 post

Well, another 9-11 has come and almost gone and the question is, why should I, you, or anyone else really care. Eleven years have gone by. America has become enmeshed in huge crises foreign and domestic and a new generation of youth is growing up never having really paid attention to the twin towers and never having known a world where you can go through airport security with shoes on.

What is important for everyone here is to understand something which I think we have already forgotten -- "Everything Changed on 9-11".

I know. It's a cliche. We all say it, but really, wasn't the point of our so-called victory over terror that ultimately, nothing changed? Isn't the point that we still go on with our lives? Shouldn't that be our cold comfort? The terrorists lost because everything has remained the same? Maybe, but it rings hollow in the face of the truth that Everything Changed on 9-11.

I don't mean this as a joke. I think that every year, we should go through a particular intellectual exercise: think about life before and after 9-11 and reflect on what changed. See how the world is no longer the same because of the events of that morning. It isn't nothing. It is everything. Change was forced on us and we can't deny it.

I know I changed. I can't look at people, places, politics, travel, professional sports, or the trivial bits which separate people the same way. I can't look at a skyline of any city the same. I can't watch a fireman walking down the block the same way. I can't cross a bridge, pray to my god, or watch a child smile the same way. I can't watch the TV news, enjoy a tourist attraction or look at a stranger on a train the same way. I am a radically different person. 9-11 aged me. It wore me down and yet it restored my faith in humanity. It made me appreciate what I have, who I am and where I live. It made me reconsider the importance of the freedoms I have and hold dear. It made me a better driver, friend, husband and a better father. It made me love my fellow man more sincerely and made me more aware of the need to be sensitive to all around me.

9-11 changed everything, and because of that, the terrorist lost.