Sunday, July 30, 2017

Decidedly UnOrthodox

Note – this post deals with a current event here in NJ. I’m not linking to any of the many news stories – you can google this all and see it if you would like.

The people of Mahwah, New Jersey don’t want me to live near them. I have been wrestling with this truth for a while now. I don’t know what I did to deserve their scorn. Maybe they don’t like that I like walking around in jeans and a t-shirt. Maybe they are afraid that my knowledge of classic rock trivia will negatively influence their children. Could it be that they don’t want empty pizza boxes in the paper recycling bin outside my house? I don’t know. But they have gone on record as saying that they don’t want “the Orthodox” to move in and take over.

Take over. Like I have any interest in anything outside my house.

But they are afraid of me and my dog Sparky. The Jewish community in that area has been working to put up an eiruv – a series of PVC pipes attached to utility poles which creates a legal fiction, an area surrounded by these poles and their wires which can then be treated as a single “private” domain so that those Jews who observe a certain understanding of Jewish law and limitation of behavior on the Sabbath can carry necessary items outside of their houses. An eiruv is what allows Orthodox Jews to push babies in strollers on the Sabbath, to carry house keys, to take a bottle of wine to a friend’s house. It doesn’t actually change anything in the nature of the area enclosed except shift its status under Jewish law. Many, many communities have eiruvs and I have no doubt that a bunch of you readers have traveled within the bounds of one in the past. You wouldn’t have noticed. The markers are not recognizable as anything. In fact, Jews living in neighborhoods surrounded by an eiruv often can’t see it – we rely on a map, and the inspection report of the small group of experts who know what to look for.

But in Mahwah, as has been the case in other areas within the last few years, residents are afraid that this accommodation will attract Orthodox Jews who would then want to move in to the area. Which is true. When looking for someplace to buy a house and raise a family, an Orthodox Jew would look for a house of worship within walking distance, schools close by, stores which carry Kosher food and, very often, an eiruv. So its presence would certainly be a lure for Orthodox Jews. And apparently, that’s bad. We are, I have heard, dirty, cheap, criminals on welfare who want to exclude everyone else from our neighborhoods and force others to abide by our rules. I didn’t know this and I have been Orthodox for a bunch of years. Was there a memo to this effect? I didn’t get it.

In Mahwah, they claim to love diversity and are afraid that letting Orthodox Jews move in will change the nature of the entire town. We will lower their housing values. We won’t send our kids to the local public school, but we will demand a say on the board of education that uses our tax money. We are clearly a feisty bunch.

And I have no doubt that if I were to meet face to face with a resident, he would size me up and say something to the effect of “Oh, we don’t mean you, just the other kind of Orthodox Jew, the Hassidics.” As if that clears everything up. Here’s some news – I need the eiruv as much as any other Orthodox Jew. You can’t claim to want to keep only certain types of Orthodox Jews out and still embrace others. You are rejecting a whole range of people. There is no “them” that doesn’t include “me.” When you are afraid of them, you are afraid of me.

I think that what this situation has done is highlighted that we, as Jews can’t afford to buy into this game of subdividing our religion. We, as “modern Orthodox” Jews, can’t say “those right wing, ultra-Orthodox ones are crazy and I wouldn’t want them to move in, either.” Yes, I know that it seems that some groups on the right look at us as lesser, not even really Jewish. I have seen it and heard it from their mouths (until they meet us as individuals and realize that we aren’t that different). Jews further to the right DO live in smaller, insular groups, because that's part of their understanding of Jewish life. And I DO send my kids to private school, but still feel that if the town government is going to spend my tax money, I should be represented in that process. And we do the same thing when we look at groups to the left of US. They are not really being the right kind of Jews. Well, you know what? We should all, collectively and as a single religion, just shut up about anyone else’s practice of Judaism for a short while and try, just try, to accept others and work together as a single entity, not a fractured one. There are criminals in every subgroup. None is immune to the evils that beset us through our human nature. When we put blinders on and try to find fault only in those others, we feed into the general anti-somebody tenor which puts hate above loving your neighbor.

I know – na├»ve, idealistic and ultimately impossible, right? I am not advocating giving up our beliefs or even compromising them. I am pushing for practicing what we practice and recognizing that others understand the laws differently and act in accordance with that different take on things. Their practice doesn’t invalidate who I happen to be, and mine shouldn’t attempt to squelch theirs. And when particular practices cause some form of conflict, we can work it out coming from a place of mutual respect, not disdain. Is it impossible? I don’t know, but we won’t ever find out if we don’t try. If the residents of Mahwah see that we fight amongst ourselves, why should they worry when they pick on one group or another? We do the same thing!

Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, is coming. This saddest of days reminds us of what we lost because we couldn’t stand together as a people – we gave in to partisan bickering and infighting. Supposedly, we pray each day, week, and year for an end to this exile. And yet we are still fighting. What change have we made to address the specific problems of the Second Temple era? Why should we deserve any divine mercy when we look down on “them” because their practice of Judaism isn’t “right”? We should be inspiring others by our own integrity and not trying to dismiss others because of what label has been slapped on them. And I am speaking to Jews of all stripes, across the continuum that is today's religion.

I don’t have all the answers, and, truth be told, I have no interest in moving to Mahwah. But when they paint all of US with a single brush, our response shouldn’t be to distance ourselves and allow their offensive attitude and exclusionary attitude to be valid as it applies to some phantom “them.” Their hate won’t be solved by a court decision favorable to the eiruv’s exponents. But maybe, our goal shouldn’t be to fix their hate until we have fixed our own.

May we all take a moment this Tisha B’Av to look inward and resolve to act in a way which allows us to be one people. May our fasting, our prayers and our expression of our religion, in whatever way we find meaningful bring us closer to deserving to be treated with respect as we respect others.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

How to adult

In this digital day and age I am going to write today about some of the best old-school advice I can give. People seem to have trouble adjusting, when becoming adults, to having to keep track of all sorts of stuff. Since I am a hoarder, organization is key. So here is my decidedly non-21st century advice:

File folders.

Yup – manila folders in a filing cabinet and/or a fireproof safe. A lot of stuff is still done on paper and keeping track can be a daunting task. If it is a digital file or document, make sure to keep your virtual folders nested and labeled (and backed up both on-site and externally), but printing up hard copies isn’t a bad idea. Try as follows:

1. Important life-event papers – birth certificates (slip them into plastic sleeves), Social Security cards (plastic sleeve), marriage contracts (prenup, civil contract etc), Wills, powers-of-attorney, end-of-life plans

2. objects and projects – for each, have at least 4 separate files – Plans and Prices (research), Estimates, Manuals, Receipts. A “Miscellaneous” for associated or complementary paperwork like permits or correspondence is also useful. This might not have to be locked up. This is for both purchases of goods and for services. “Car tires” is a separate folder from “Car purchase” and both are separate from “car detailing.” Service/goods coupons can be clipped to the front so that they are visible, but should be flagged with a date.

3. Medical – a separate section for each family member. On the front, place a single piece of paper with blood type, conditions, conditions for which you have a family history, a list of allergies (food and medicine and reactions), prescriptions being taken (and having been taken in the last year), procedures (dates, Dr. names and procedure types). Update that paper as often as necessary. Inside, separate folders for conditions and procedures (which can be further broken down – diagnostic, procedural, billing or the like), and medicines.

4. Insurance – home/renter, life, medical/dental, car. Policies spelled out, appraisals necessary, contact people (including both agents and beneficiaries). Take pictures of objects insured (jewelry, car, house etc and date the printed pictures. Clip them to the other papers)

5. Biographical – a folder cover should have a short biography of each family member (important life dates, educational path, places lived). Inside, subfolders for education (including transcripts), work, awards, memberships

6. Clippings – printouts of articles by or about individuals/family members. Nice notes worthy of being saved.

7. Taxes – keep a copy of completed and filed returns along with the submitted documentation or other supporting information (receipts for donations etc) organized by year. Within each year, if you have more than one form (state, federal, other state) separate. For how many years? No idea.

8. Employment – an updated resume, contracts, other work-based paperwork.

9. Investments and financial documents – agreements and statements organized by account, receipts to be reviewed or held on to

10. A life summary – a master list of assets, holdings, accounts (with relevant numbers) contact people, important dates, numbers and so on. This master document should be in its own folder and should be updated often. You should also have a printout of online accounts, passwords and your electronic footprint.

Yes, this smacks of obsessiveness. Really good organization does require a level of obsession, but the ounce of prevention will really prevent huge headaches later on. Also, if you take something out, make sure to put it back quickly and properly. Important papers will only be where they are supposed to be if you put them there. At the beginning this will all seem overwhelming, but once the file system is established (and if you keep it updated frequently), the amount of time it will take to maintain will be minimal and the amount of time it will save will be huge.

Some material will be obsolesced (who needs that old manual when we have a new item?) so folders can be emptied eventually. But don’t be overly aggressive in throwing things out. Sometimes, old stuff is still worth documenting. Even if that means for some things making an “old” file so that you have a basis for comparison, it is worth it to save some apparently outmoded documents.

Are there area I forgot? Sure – add discrete ones for separate topics. If you need a separate folder for “Military documents” make it and break it down into pieces to keep it organized. Are there other ways to organize these? Sure. Choose one. Will material overlap requiring judgment calls? Yes. Be consistent and clear (and notate within a file if content can be found elsewhere). Does everything have to be hidden or under lock and key? Maybe not – some can be out and accessible at least sometimes. Should you separate between “current” and “old”? OK. Maybe even a third category “timeless.” As long as you have a system.

And if you were wondering this is not at all my innovation. I’m the guy. I have spent a lifetime watching women set up and keep these files. I’m just catching on now.

Changes in Jewish practice

I started populating a list today, a list of practices in Judaism that share something in common. While many practices are biblically ordained and many are rabbinic expansions, innovations or such, there is another category: practices created specifically to deal with an already emerged problem. I am being careful about using the English word "practices." Some of these are rules, some traditions, some something else. Here is my list:

1. Kitniyot -- the prohibition against eating legumes on Passover. Because of concerns regarding certain agricultural confusion, legumes were forbidden in some communities.

2. Saying Sh'ma in the beginning of prayers each morning -- when a Persian king outlawed the saying, and sent spies to check, the spies arrived later, when the prayer was usually said. So the sages incorporated it earlier, before the spies arrived. This also accounts for the saying later in prayers on the sabbath.

3. Kiddush in synagogue on Friday nights -- guests were staying in the synagogue and needed someone to say the blessing over the wine on their behalf so it was added then for the service leader to say.

4. Baruch hashem l'olam during weekday evening services and Me'ein sheva on Friday night -- to stretch prayers so latecomers would not have to walk back from the fields alone, these prayers were added.

5. The haftarah -- when reading from the 5 books of Moses was outlawed, related sections from the prophets were read instead.

6. Repetition of the Amidah -- as many (some? most?) people couldn't read the prayers, having a prayer leader repeat the text out loud exempted those people who could not do so on their own

7. Mayim megulim -- because of the possibility of snakes' crawling into water and leaving venom behind, water uncovered overnight was not allowed

8. Second day of Yom Tov -- the confusion over the date was solved by having communities outside of Israel celebrate 2 days.


The thing is, in (I think) all of these cases, the societal pressures which drove the sages to innovate the changes/additions/limitations were resolved. The Persian king died. The agricultural confusion between grains was resolved. We no longer pray in fields in dangerous areas. We can read the Torah. The calendar was set so we know when holidays fall. In most of these cases, though, the practices have remained. [Note, I am not discussing Yayin nesech, wine used for idolatry, even though there is an opinion that the non-Jewish worship of today is not identical with the types that counted as Avodah Zarah so the concern that shaking or spilling wine would be a form of worship has been obviated]. The only ones of the examples above that I have heard are no longer normative are Mayim megulim and, in some communities, the saying of Baruch Hashem l'olam in evening prayers. From what I have read, the former is not in effect because there is no concern about snakes. I can only assume that the latter is not followed is because the prompting concern is lo longer a concern. But that line of thinking has not served to overturn the others.

I know that we have a strong tradition of tradition -- holding on to the teachings of previous generations. We feel (as per religious law) unequipped to undo pronouncements of earlier, greater generations. Except, apparently, when we do.