I don’t blog on Shabbas (the Sabbath)

Worth watching: The Big Lebowski

Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of movies online, which I haven’t seen for many years. It amazes me how little I remember of them; in many cases, it’s as though I’m watching these flicks for the first time all over again. Among them has been a popular cult classic, which I watched years ago (in 1998) when it was first released: ‘The Big Lebowski’.

This movie is full of hilarious moments and running gags.

One of these is that of supporting character Walter’s (John Goodman) commitment to his Jewish conversion, which he underwent back when he married his ex-wife. This character is a right-wing veteran of the Vietnam War with an explosive temper and propensity towards violence (he probably suffers from PTSD); and he is also, unexpectedly, as he puts it: shomer fucking Shabbas!

From a Jewish perspective (mine), one of the elements that makes this so hilarious is just how accurate Walter’s description of traditional Shabbas observance (I pronounce it ‘Shabbat’, btw, as it is pronounced in modern Israeli Hebrew) really is. Have a quick listen to this Jewish Supercut of the Big Lebowski below. For those of you who haven’t seen this movie, the word ‘roll’ in this context refers to bowling, which is the main character’s recreational activity of choice.


Partial transcription:

Walter: I DON’T ROLL ON SHABBAS!

Donny: How come you don’t roll on Saturday, Walter?
Walter: I’m shomer Shabbas.
Donny: What’s that, Walter?
Walter: Saturday Donny, is Shabbas. The Jewish day of rest. That means I don’t work, I um, don’t drive a car, I don’t fucking ride in a car, I don’t handle money, I don’t turn on the oven, and I sure as shit DON’T FUCKING ROLL!
Donny: Sheesh
Walter: SHOMER SHABBAS!

Walter: Shomer fucking Shabbas!

Donny: Hey Walter, if you can’t ride in a car, how do you get around on Shabbas


Shomer fucking Shabbas!

Yes, really: We don’t flip light switches

Living in Jerusalem, as I do, it’s entirely normative to observe Shabbat. The weekend in Israel falls on Friday and Saturday (Shabbat begins at sunset on Friday), and most who do not observe Shabbat have at least a general concept of what it is.

In principle, I would describe Shabbat as a day during which those who observe it refrain from engaging in physically creative activities (although procreation is encouraged). We aim to avoid causing physical changes to the world and focus ourselves, instead, upon spirituality, family, and the intangible.

The specifics of the restrictions that apply to the traditional Jewish observance of Shabbat were developed by our sages throughout the course of many centuries, and they are based primarily upon those physical acts that were necessary for the construction of the portable Tabernacle, which God instructed the Israelites to build after they had left Egypt.

Without getting into much detail, the Sages determined that there were a total of 39 categories of physical labor that cover the many restrictions of the Sabbath. One of these 39 categories is: the lighting of a fire, and another one is: the extinguishing of a fire.

Now, modern technology, and electricity in particular, was a game changer for the rabbis. When electricity entered people’s homes, the rabbis had to decide whether or not to permit its use on Shabbat, and ultimately the accepted mainstream ruling in the Orthodox Jewish community became that a spark of electricity is like a spark of fire, meaning, for example, that it is forbidden to flip light switches on and off on Shabbat.

Of course, from a scientific perspective, this is nonsense. Electricity is not fire.

A popular idea is that creating an electric spark is like lighting a fire, which is halakhically prohibited on Shabbat. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recounts that he was approached by young rabbis who asked him, “Is electricity fire?” The renowned physicist responded that electricity is not a chemical process, as fire is.

-Me, The Skeptic’s Kaddish # 12, Oct. 25, 2018

Regardless, this religious ruling took root and remains the norm today among the vast majority of Sabbath observant Jews. I do not flip light switches on Shabbat; I do not use my phone; I do not use my computer; etc.


I don’t blog on Shabbas

The lived experience

Growing up as a secular Jew, I knew nothing of these Shabbat-related norms, which is why it strikes me that some of you may find this intriguing. Actually, I first began thinking about writing this blog post after creating a Twitter account for myself in order to publish daily micropoems in 2021. After all, January 2nd was a Saturday:

To be honest, I am not interested in getting into the nitty gritty of Jewish religious law. Rather, I simply want to provide a sense of what our lived Shabbat is like. We have many religious restrictions, but the one which I think would be the most obvious to an outside observer is the limitation on using electricity.

From a technical perspective, it is very simple: instead of flipping light switches on Shabbat, we set timers for all of the electric devices and appliances that we need. Lamps and fans are set to timers, for example, as is our electric hot plate (‘platta’ in Hebrew) for heating up food for Sabbath meals. The food itself must be prepared before Shabbat but can be warmed up on the Day of Rest. Essentially, we cannot cause physical changes on Shabbat, but if we set timers before Shabbat, that’s kosher because the cause of the physical change occurred before Shabbat. Simple, right?

But providing you with this technical illustration is not my reason for writing this blog post. What I really want to do is describe, briefly, the impact of this lifestyle upon our family life.

The impact

Like many of you, my wife and I spend most of our days behind computer screens; also, our six-year-old loves watching Disney movies and other videos, having screen time with her extended family in Russia and the USA, writing prose and poetry on a computer, and playing the video games installed on her children’s camera (clever marketing idea, right?).

It’s not that we don’t do other things; it’s just that our telephones and computers occupy a tremendous amount of space in our lives. And – they serve to separate us from one another because we often end up interacting with our electronic devices instead of interacting with one another.

On Shabbat, on the other hand, we spend all day together (especially this last year of global pandemic when we haven’t gone to synagogue and haven’t been invited to friends’ Sabbath meals), and the quality family time is priceless, especially from a parenting perspective. We play card and board games, read books, horse around in the bedroom, etc., and I am certain that this unplugging is very healthy for us all. Of course, we do all get to missing our shows and news websites during those 25 hours every week, but I cannot think of many other facets of traditional Jewish life that have come to be so relevant in this modern era.

The sages who ruled against using electricity could not have foreseen this 21st century reality, and I still disagree with the logic they employed in issuing their religious rulings against it. However, truth be told, I don’t really care about that at all. Shabbat, as I have come to know it and live it, is one of the best parts of traditional Jewish life for me.

Blogging can wait for a day.

What we take with us when we die

Since my return to blogging in April 2020, following my year of mourning for Papa, I have searched for interesting and likeminded blogs with themes similar to my Skeptic’s Kaddish.

Just recently I was very gratified to come across a blog by Amanda Achtman called ‘Dying to Meet You’, in which she has taken to blogging daily in 2021 about death from an interfaith Christian-Jewish perspective.

The short video below is one that I found through Amanda’s blog. I was already familiar with this Jewish folktale, but I consider it a powerfully poignant and important lesson and often reflect upon it, for it applies to all of humankind. I’m very thankful to be able to share it with all of you here, on The Skeptic’s Kaddish:


Transcription

Edward Reichman was an Israeli billionaire and philanthropist who died a few years ago. When he passed away, he left a great fortune worth billions of dollars.

He left his family with two wills and instructions that one be opened immediately after his death and the other be opened 30 days after his death.

Among his requests in the first will was that he asked that he be buried with a specific pair of socks that he owned. However, despite the family’s best efforts, the burial organizers refused to let Mr. Reichman be buried with his socks on, as it was against Jewish law – one may not be buried with any item of clothing.

The family argued that Mr. Reichman was a very learned, religious person, and that he must have had a good reason for wanting to do this; however, as the rabbi explained to the family, “Although your father left that request when he was in this world, now that he is in the World of Truth, he surely understands that it is in his best interests to be buried without his socks.”

So – he was buried without his socks.

30 days later, the family opened the second will that allotted his wealth. In the letter, it read: “My dear children, by now you must have buried me without my socks. I wanted you to understand that a man can have 1 billion dollars in this world, but in the end, he can’t even take with him his favorite pair of socks!”

What really matters in life is not how much money you have in your pocket, nor how successful you are, but rather the good you can bring to this world; that is all you can really take with you, and that is all that will really live on.

Received: 2nd COVID-19 vaccine shot

… and I feel fine

It has been more than a week since my wife and I received our 2nd vaccination shots against COVID-19, and we are both in good health and feel well (I am 41-years-old, and she is 36-years-old). After both our 1st and 2nd vaccination shots, our arms were sore at the injection sites, but otherwise we experienced no noticeable side effects.

A younger cousin of mine (~38-years-old) who works in the entertainment industry here in Israel finally got vaccinated (even though she did not want to) because of the pressure put on her by her employer (and general society). To be honest, I didn’t have much sympathy for her vaccination skepticism, as I’ve written before. Simply put, these vaccines are the single best hope that our global society has for defeating COVID-19 and shifting back in the direction of normalcy.

For those who harbor concerns over the potential ill effects of receiving these vaccines, I recommend watching the following video, which is neither too long, nor too complicated to understand:

As of today, the State of Israel has now vaccinated more than 4.4 million people (48% of its population). Of the overall figure, more than 3 million people (33% of the population) have received the 2nd dose of the vaccine.

For those who are wondering how Israel was able to jump the cue when so many other countries are now struggling to get vaccines, the answer is pretty straightforward: some chutzpah… and a small population (1/33rd the size of the US). Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s embattled Prime Minister, has basically staked his career on the vaccine rollout, and he convinced Pfizer to supply Israel with enough vaccines (around 10 million) to cover the whole population, in exchange for sharing data in a kind of real-world vaccine trial…

Jamie Magrill, Times of Israel, Feb. 22, 2021

Putting aside whether or not I am comfortable with our Prime Minister sharing the Israeli public’s health data without its consent, which I am not, the fact remains that the State’s deal with Pfizer is now a fait accompli. Either way, the vaccine was made readily available to me and my family, and I did not hesitate in the slightest to take advantage of that privilege.

I’m aware of that privilege every day now: as I walk through the rainy, wintery Jerusalem streets, my body is working for me, building up immunity to COVID-19 and significantly lowering the chance of me becoming a super-spreader at work or in public.

-ibid.

Given that all human beings are in this boat together, as I see it, the major challenge now facing humanity is: how do we get the COVID-19 vaccine into the bodies of every human on the planet?

Especially in those countries lacking reliable and effective health infrastructures?


Introducing… ‘Green passports’!

The State is finally easing out of its 3rd lockdown (our daughter returned to preschool on Tuesday of last week, thank goodness), but now there’s a caveat: for full access to all of Israel’s recreational facilities, one must hold a ‘green passport’. These ‘passports’ are chief among the reasons that many Israelis are getting the shot (including my cousin, mentioned above).

The Israeli government has been campaigning hard, for its part, on all the benefits that vaccinated citizens will enjoy. These include access to leisure and cultural facilities (including gyms, sporting events, hotels, and swimming pools); and -in the future- mass events and travel. All Israelis who have been fully vaccinated or who have recovered from the disease are eligible for a ‘green passport’.

The government, you see, cannot force its citizens to get vaccinated, but it can make life very inconvenient for those that do not. Some may consider this draconian, but I am fully supportive of this initiative. Simply put, vaccination against COVID-19 is humankind’s greatest hope for defeating this global pandemic. It was certainly my privilege to get vaccinated early (compared to the rest of the world) because I live in Israel; but – I also consider it to have been my responsibility.

Six-year-old burgeoning poet

A couple of days ago, you provided me with an outpouring of wonderful advice, as to how I might nurture and develop my six-year-old daughter’s poetry talents. Truly, the many suggestions for approaches, games, techniques… were simply amazing. Thank you so very much.

By coincidence, the very following day my six-year-old told me that she wanted to write a free verse poem with me (“a poem that doesn’t rhyme,” she said). I explained to her that poetry doesn’t have to follow the rules of grammar and that lines can break wherever the poet so choses. Also, I emphasized that poetry is intended to express feelings ~ that the most important thing is to feel the words.

Shortly after completing our first collaborative free verse poem (which she deliberately wrote in a silly way), she asked me if she could try to construct a poem with me online on MagneticPoetry, as she had seen me do several times myself. To be honest, I was somewhat hesitant about this because I thought that the aspect of playing with the magnets would distract her from attempting to construct a poem, but many of you (and my mother) had suggested than I just let her play and learn by doing… so I agreed.

Below are our latest pieces, both free verse:


Two poems, a collaboration

by David (41) and Liorah (6)

1.

The car found a cat
The bar found
a bat
The bat was hanging
The cat was
banging
The bat said “can you stop that?”
The cat said
as he walked
on the bar to the car, “I
don’t want to!”
“Why?
Are you not going to stop that?”
Atop the car, beside
the bar, the cat
stared at the bat
from afar
He said to the bat, “I do not want to
because I like it.”
He banged on the bar; it
made the bat cry.
“I am so 
sorry!”
For the cat was now
worried about 
what he did.
The 
bat 
said, 
“Why 
did 
you 
do
that?”
The cat sat
then lay flat
on a mat
near the bat;
put on his hat
and said to the bat,
“Sometimes
it’s hard to control
myself, you see.”
The bat
said, “Yes
I do see.”

NOTES:

I was not the one who began this poem ~ she deliberately wrote something silly about a car finding a cat because she liked the concept and because the two words sound similar. Following her lead, I wrote: “The bar found a bat.” After all, fair is fair – am I right? 😉

Liorah and I took turns with this piece, and upon writing the ending, she asked me, “Do you like my ending?” I smiled. “Very much,” I said and hugged her.

2.

Liorah’s first Magnetic Poem (Feb. 16, 2021)
bluest sky the girl sees
spring goddess in diamond red
gown let storm beauty soar
sweeter and music mist spray
on those forest lake winds

NOTES:

I had to teach her about the magnets with word endings like ‘est’, ‘s’, and ‘er’, as well as how to manipulate the mouse to drag the virtual magnets to the left side of the screen.

Also, when it was my turn to add some words to the poem, she became a bit impatient as I scrolled through all of the available words looking for some that spoke to me. I had to explain to her that this is how I personally write Magnetic Poetry, but she remained rather irked with me. I guess I’m just an old fuddy duddy.

Teaching poetry to children? Help!

Despite have been born in and growing up in Israel, my six-year-old speaks, reads, and writes English better than she does Hebrew. In fact, I think she also writes and reads (and maybe speaks) better Russian than Hebrew, thanks to her mother’s efforts.

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned in passing, our little girl is well aware that I write poems for this blog of mine; and she’s taken to rhyming words all day long herself. Sometimes she’ll unintentionally make off-rhymes, pause thoughtfully, sound them out to herself aloud, and then say, “well, that’s just an off-rhyme, but we could still use it in a poem.”

Now, I have done all sorts of fun writing exercises with her in English, and my mother in America has also taken to writing snippets of short stories back-and-forth with her on Facebook Messenger. Her grammar and punctuation aren’t perfect, but she’s learning very quickly. Just recently, for example, she asked me to show her how to write lowercase letters by hand because she knows that her penmanship needs work too.

Several days ago, out of the blue, she asked to write some poems with me on my computer (we used Microsoft Word) and was very intent about having me share them on my blog. She even asked me, “So what tags are you going to assign them? When will you decide? When will other people read them?”

Our three poems are below, in case you’re curious; but I am actually drafting this blog post primarily because I want your feedback: how do I teach her to write poetry?

Here’s where she’s at right now:

  • As I mentioned above, she is very comfortable with rhyme
    • For example, for one of the poems below, she suggested the word ‘coffee’ instead of ‘tea’ because she realized that the second syllable of ‘coffee’ rhymes with ‘tea’, and we had already used the word ‘tea’ in the previous poem.
  • She is less comfortable with rhythm and counting syllables per line, although I tried demonstrating those concepts to her while we were writing the short poems below. This is something that I don’t quite know how to get across to her.
    • I tried explaining these concepts by counting the syllables aloud with her and tapping my fingers on the table, while saying, “bum, bum, bum-bum, bum.”
    • Still, she tends to write lines of inconsistent lengths and rhythms if left to her own devices, as long as they include (and especially end with) rhyming words.
  • Also, I am having difficulty with teaching her about creative imagery and devices like alliteration, assonance, etc. She’s very bright so when I manage to explain things well, she usually gets them, but it’s not so easy for me to convert and upload my thoughts into her child brain.
    • To her credit, she was able to understand what I meant by ‘metaphor’ when I explained my last nature haiku to her and pointed out that the language of the poem was making a comparison between plants and poetry with its use of the word ‘seeding’.
  • Lastly, since she’s so focused on rhyming, she doesn’t quite understand how to write non-rhyming poetry. She has finally accepted that such a concept exists, but it remains fairly hard for her to grasp. How would she go about writing a non-rhyming poem, she wonders?

Three poems, a collaboration

by David (41) and Liorah (6)

1.

The dog found a log 
that fell from a tree 

She sat on the log, 
happy as can be 

Then there was a fog 
‘twas too hard to see 

She sobbed in the fog, 
wishing she could flee 

She got off the log, 
squinting hopefully 

Wind blew away the fog; 
dog whistled happily

2.

Then there was a squirrel, 
sipping a cup of tea 

Squirrel saw a girl 
swimming in the sea 

Then the waters whirled 
very dangerously 

Quickly, ran the squirrel, 
reaching desperately 

Stretched out her hand, 
poor girl, begging – please save me! 

They ate ice cream swirls 
once he pulled her free

3.

The cat found a hat 
and thought, “This is for me!” 

Then came out a bat 
and offered her coffee 

On her head she sat 
stirring daintily 

Then came out a rat 
Sniffing greedily 

They said, “GET AWAY, RAT!” 
and he cried tearfully 

When they noticed that, 
they felt so, so sorry!

Jewish and normal

I had an unexpected flash of insight the other day regarding the following themes:

  • My Jewish identity
  • Living in Israel
  • Blogging on WordPress

My Jewish identity

While I only encountered Orthodox Judaism and gradually began to adopt a religious lifestyle in college, I have always strongly identified as a Jew. If I were to sort the many facets of my identity out into a hierarchy, I would put the label ‘human’ at the very top. My second tier would include: ‘brother’, ‘father’, ‘heteronormative male’. ‘husband’, ‘Jew’, and ‘son’ in no particular order.

For several reasons, the many strictures of religious Jewish life have always appealed to me. In part, I feel that I am simply being outwardly true to my core identity by presenting myself as a Jew publicly in the most apparent way possible.

Mind you, I began college more than twenty years ago; and my religious journey has had many ups and downs in the many years since. There were periods when I reverted to a secular lifestyle, and there were periods when I managed to convince myself that the God of the Torah existed and strived to follow His laws to my utmost accordingly.

I have been up, down, and all around on the spectrum of religious Judaism. However, throughout those years during which I turned back towards secularism, I always missed the outward trappings of traditional observance. The personal inconveniences of keeping strictly kosher, keeping Shabbat traditionally, praying thrice daily, etc., never bothered me ~ it was, rather, always a question of the extent to which any of these practices actually mattered.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note that while I never minded the demands that traditional Judaism made upon my life, I did find myself wishing that my religious lifestyle wouldn’t create such barriers between me and all other human beings on earth who were not attempting to live a traditional Torah lifestyle.


Living in Israel

Not religiously comfortable for all Jews

From a religious perspective, Israel is not necessarily a comfortable place for all Jews to live.

For political and historical reasons, the Chief Rabbinate is Orthodox, rather than heterodox (Conservative, Reform, etc.), and its religious monopoly over Jewish life operates with the full weight of the government behind it. For example, Jewish weddings performed in Israel outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate are granted no legal status (and civil marriage does not exist). Also, the Chief Rabbinate’s state-empowered religious monopoly grants it the exclusive right to certify Israel’s food establishments as “kosher”, unlike everywhere else in the world.

Also, questions of Jewish status are decided by the Chief Rabbinate for religious purposes. This decides whether or not citizens of Israel can get married in Israel at all, where they can be buried when they die, etc., etc. Therefore, Israeli citizens whose mothers are not Jewish, as required by religious law, are considered “not Jewish” by the Chief Rabbinate, and they cannot legally marry Jews in Israel without first undergoing religious conversions under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate (even if they are secular).

Religiously comfortable for me

While I 100% oppose these infringements and all others on freedom of religion in Israel, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious Jewish life does not much inconvenience me on a personal level because I happen to live an Orthodox lifestyle (my wedding, for example, was conducted through the Chief Rabbinate).

Also, while I have explored and flirted with non-Orthodox religious communities, they do not feel like home to me personally. Therefore, as the vast majority of Israeli synagogues are Orthodox, my religious preferences are not marginalized in most public prayer spaces. Further, even when my commitment to my religious practices vacillates, it is always fluctuating on the spectrum between Jewish secularism and Orthodoxy, both of which are mainstream in Israeli society.

All of this is to say that I feel very at home in Israel from a religious perspective. Kosher food is – and kosher food establishments are – abundant, synagogues are available everywhere, the national holidays are my own religious holidays, etc., etc.

Living here in Israel (especially in Jerusalem) dramatically lowers the religious barriers between me and all the other people around me.


Blogging on WordPress

I have been increasingly enjoying the sense of community that I have discovered here on WordPress.

Bloggers from around the world share with – and are supportive of – one another, and for the first time since moving to Israel I have been feeling significantly less divorced from global society, which is predominantly not Jewish.

The unexpected insight that I had last week is that our virtual WordPress community grants me something not entirely dissimilar from that which living in Israel grants me: a sense of normalcy.

Of course, I am aware this comparison has many flaws. For one, every blogger chooses whom to interact with on their blog and on other people’s blogs. My virtual community is entirely self-selected and filtered according my preferences… and, of course, writing and reading blog posts is a far cry from in-person interactions… but… well…

Here on WordPress, I feel simply human.