Wednesday, September 26, 2007

13 Things I Love About Sukkot

The Jewish holiday of Sukkot began Wednesday night. Here are some reasons that it's my favorite holiday:

1. The myrtle. It is part of the arbah minim, the four species, that we use to celebrate the harvest holiday. I love the smell of the brings me back to the Sukkot of my youth... (plus, the shape reminds us of the eye, through which we see the world...)

2. The etrog. A citron, bright yellow, it smells delicious. I love the feel of it in my hand, cold and heavy, bumpy and smooth... And it reminds us of the heart, a heart full of love and joy at the holiday of Sukkot!

3. The decorating. I am so loving the decorating thing...sometimes I wish we could put the sukkah in the front yard so the whole world can see it. (our front yard is too much of a hill but also that just isn't the custom!)

4. A chance to put up lights. Okay, I know that this isn't totally a typical Sukkot thing, but it's the chance for me to string up some pretty lights and turn them on at night...

5. The weather. It always cooperates by cooling down. Sometimes it chooses to rain (which is supposed to happen, actually, since we're now praying for rain) which does make it harder to celebrate outside in the sukkah. Whole holidays have gone by (it's a week long) without being able to eat in the sukkah.

6. The gourds. They always come out at the same time as we're decorating for Sukkot. They're so cool looking and fun and festive at the fall time.

7. Remembering Israel. Eating out in the sukkah reminds me of living in Israel, where most restaurants had their own sukkot in which you could eat during the holiday. How cool is that?

8. The Sukkah Trolley. Each year, our congregation takes a ride around town in a trolley to visit sukkot around our congregational community. Usually we go aroudn the synagogue, but this year, because of our construction, we are going closer to our temporary site for Religious School and so the trolley is coming to my house!

9. The food. Sukkot for me means the return of wintery food like chili, soup, stews, etc. Yum!

10. Our indoor sukkah. Our first year living in Chicago, we didn't have a sukkah so I put one up in the kitchen. I strung up decorations like leaves and fruit as well as a little string of shiny stars (you're supposed to see the stars through the roof, hence the stars on the ceiling). It's more of the decorating fun but it also means that we are eating *every* meal in a "sukkah" more or less, even though it doesn't really follow Jewish law, it still is fun. Plus, as I said before, it often rains (or even snows, like last year) and we can't get out to the Sukkah. This reminds us of the holiday's presence...

11. Thinking of those in need. The sukkah provides a great visual aid for teaching young children about what it means to be homeless. Imagine if you had to live in a sukkah all the time...

12. Singing Hallel. We sing the Hallel psalms on Sukkot. Bonia Shur has an incredible musical setting for the Hallel Psalms that is performed once a year at Hebrew Union College. We sing one piece of it at Am Shalom to celebrate Sukkot (and other holidays too).

13. The end of Sukkot is Simchat Torah, which might be my other favorite holiday. (Okay, regular readers of my blogs will note that I actually like them all!) That's next week's post, though so I'll hold onto it!

See more Thursday Thirteen here...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Building Our Sukkah

It is customary that, as soon as Yom Kippur ends, we begin to put up our Sukkah for the holiday of Sukkot. Sukkot is the "Festival of Booths," a harvest festival for which we build and "dwell in" small huts (usually in our backyards) to recall the wandering in the desert, during which we were transient and dependent upon God for our welfare. It also serves to remind us of those who don't have homes and are in need of our assistance. It is definitely one of my favorite holidays, it's a week long and I love building our sukkah.

This year, we put up a new sukkah, thanks to my dad (hi dad). He was tired of helping us put up our old one, which was great but very difficult to assemble each year. He created this new sukkah, which is so easy to put together, and as you'll see from the pictures below, so light that even my son can carry the parts!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Chatimah Tova...May you be sealed for life!

May your fast be meaningful and fulfilling. For more thoughts on fasting, see my other blog...

A tiny bit of Yom Kippur of my old favorites:

Gottlieb called his Rabbi and said, "Rabbi, I know tonight is Kol Nidre, but tonight the Yankees start the playoffs. Rabbi, I'm a life-long Yankee fan. I've GOT to watch the Yankee game on TV."

The Rabbi responds, "Gottlieb, that's what VCR's are for."

Gottlieb is surprised. "You mean I can tape Kol Nidre?"

Monday, September 17, 2007

Please check your weapons at the door...

This is why we do recommend that you leave your guns at home when attending High Holy Day Services. Read the whole blog commentary by Robert Wilonsky on this event here, and read the actual news report here.
An 81-year-old retired Dallas County Sheriff's Department officer who has a valid right-to-carry permit brought a .380 pistol to temple tonight -- why, beats me. At around 7 p.m. the man, who worked for the Sheriff's Department for 25 years, accidentally dropped the gun when he stood for a prayer, it fell to the floor and discharged, and a single round hit the man's 42-year-old daughter in the foot. The ambulance was called, naturally; doubtful EMS carries anything for the schpilkes. A couple in their early 70s were grazed by some from shrapnel, according to the chief. But they got a Band-Aid and were sent home -- and mazel tov, seriously.

Assistant Chief Ron Waldrop says the temple doesn't actually have signs posted prohibiting licensed guns on the property. He also says the gun fell out of the man's suit when he stood for a prayer. "It's fortunate more people weren't seriously injured," Waldrop says, adding that no criminal offense report has been filed since it was an accidental discharge with a permitted weapon.

Why the man felt the need to bring a gun into Rosh Hashanah services is still a mystery. At least it wasn't during Yom Kippur, as day-long fasting can make a man extra cranky. I believe the proper response is: Oy gevalt.

File under: Things You Never Thought You'd Read

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Remembering 9/11 - 6 years later

Today at 7:45am, we gathered at the Am Shalom flagpole for our annual 9/11 commemoration. We were joined, as usual, by Glencoe firefighters and police officers. We are one of the only remaining yearly commemorations.

The day was beautiful. Clear, cool, the blue sky absolutely stunning. So much like that Tuesday six years ago.

One of our students played Taps on his trumpet. He is a Bar Mitzvah student, about 13 years old. His beautiful playing prompted me and others to give him a hug. It's not often that you give a 13-year-old boy a hug, but in that moment, I was overwhelmed by the realization that he was only 7 years old when the 9/11 attacks happened.

May we remember on this day.

I share these beautiful words from Karen Maezen Miller at her blog, Cheerio Road:

In this hush
between the rising and dusk
of one minute and month
a season arriving
a circle recycling
we see sharp and know cold
that not one thing stands
or stands still
Not one thing untouched
but all carried intact
by love
deep, far and beyond.

Remembering the day, the year, the people, the passing, the wide open darkness and then, the light.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Tips for a Great Year of Sunday School

It's that time of year is our opening Teachers' Meeting for Religious School, and our Kindergarteners and First Graders have their Orientation. Here are my tips for making a successful year of Religious School....

Breakfast. So many of our students come in without eating a solid breakfast. Please view this like any other educational experience. It works so much better on fuel.

Show up! Attendance and timely attendance matter to the classroom environment and to your student's experience.

Be positive. Encourage your student to see this experience as good. This means that you need to be excited about what is going to happen, and interested in what did happen afterwards. It also means a pep talk (for yourself and your child!) in the car on the way over.

Place value. Just like attending regular school, on which you likely place great value, remind your student of the importance of what they are doing. This also might mean...don't schedule birthday parties, family outings, etc, to coincide with Religious School. Don't say "oh, it's just Sunday School"...think of the message you are sending to your child.

Volunteer. Even if it's only an occasional Sunday morning, this demonstrates to your child that you think this is important for them and for you.

Pay attention. Read the materials sent by our school. Know the dates and events that are happening. You probably know what's going on in regular school -- this is just a supplement to that, and is jsut as important (if not more!)

Talk Jewish. Further your own Jewish education by reading a book, watching a movie or tv program, attending a class or lecture. Tell your student all about it.

As we say each year...if we have 30 Sundays at 2.5 hours each, that is 75 hours of Sunday School each year (how's my math?). Figure you'll be absent for 2 weeks this year, we're down to 70. Add in snack time, walk time, other times not spent "learning" and it's even less...then think about how many hours each week our students spend in regular school. And add up their whole Jewish education (30 Sundays a year, 2.5 hours a Sunday)...and I think you'll see that it comes out to less than one year of regular school. Not a lot of time for us to educate your children Jewishly. The rest is up to you...

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Mikveh...13 Things I Loved About It

The Mikveh is a Jewish institution shrouded in mystery and confusion for modern Reform Jews (and probably some Conservative ones too!). The mikveh is defined as a ritual bath, used not for purposes of physical cleanliness, but rather ritual purity or spiritual cleanliness. According to the Wikipedia entry, (which is actually pretty accurate - thumbs up!)

Its main uses nowadays are:by Jewish women to achieve ritual purity after menstruation or childbirthby Jewish men to achieve ritual purity
as part of a traditional procedure for conversion to Judaismfor utensils used for food

It's the first one that makes many modern women crazy, the second that less people know about, the third that is the most well-known in most Reform circles, and the last that is also less well known. But what is not accurate in the Wikipedia entry is the brief entry about Reform Jews and their lack of use of the Mikveh for anything other than conversion. Okay, maybe this is somewhat accurate, but we are working on it! Organizations like Mayyim Hayyim in Boston are making mikveh more accessible to modern Jews.

Okay, so all that said...where am I going?

It is customary, in that second idea up there, that "men" go to the mikveh to achieve ritual purity. These days, anything the men can do, so can the women! Often, people (okay, men) will go to the mikveh before Shabbat or holidays in order to fully prepare themselves physically/spiritually. I've never used the mikveh in this way (I've only been once before, right before my wedding). This year, I decided to go to the mikveh to prepare myself for the High Holy Days. As a rabbi, I spend these weeks before the holidays stressing and preparing and basically running around like crazy and I rarely have the time to prepare myself in any meaningful way. (In an earlier post, I referred to teshuvah, which is the Hebrew word for repentance...the "work" of the High Holy Days)

So the mikveh it was for me...and to describe it, here is a list of
13 things I loved about it...

1. The quiet. It was in the evening, and it was dark. It's traditional to go at night to show humility and to increase privacy (of course, blogging about it doesn't make it too private, does it). It was quiet. I had a few moments before all to myself to breathe and just be.
2. The reminder. The mikveh lady (a technical term) reminded me of the special nature of this moment. She knows that I come all the time to the mikveh with conversion candidates but she reminded me to take my time, to pay attention to each item of clothing or jewelry or act like brushing my hair, to realize that this was more than just a shower and then a dip in the pool, and more than just getting ready for bed.
3. The words. I hummed the tune for Hashi-veynu, one of my favorite penitential prayers that we sing at our Selichot service this coming Saturday night. To me, that tune really "kicks off" the holidays. Hashiveinu Adonai elecha v'nashuva, chadeish yameinu k'kedem...Help us to return to You, O God, then truly shall we return. Renew our days as in the past. I felt like this helped to remind me why I was doing this.
4. The washing. As I washed my eyelashes (the purpose of the pre-immersion cleansing is to remove all "barriers" to the living waters of the mikveh, so you wash carefully all your crevices -- like blowing your nose and cleaning your navel -- and you wash the parts you might not normally wash, like eyelashes, as well as comb out all snarls and tangles in your hair so the water can fully reach every part of you.)...I thought of how unusual this was, and how much more special it made it, and different from other shower/washing/hygiene experiences.
5. The privacy. Once I was prepared for entry into the mikveh, the mikveh lady was so careful to ensure my privacy. She is required to "guard" my immersions and to help make sure I've gotten the stray hairs from my skin, but she takes such care to be modest and private about the experience. She takes the towel and holds it up in front of her face until I'm fully immersed in the water.
6. The water...ah, the water. It's warm and wonderful, embracing and uplifting. As I stepped into the middle of the small pool, I realized how deep it actually is -- just about my height! The water didn't weight me down, though, in fact, it buoyed me up, encouraging me to float. When I was prepared, I took my first immersion, deep under the water, spreading my fingers and toes to get water into every nook and cranny of my being...these living waters holding me up and filling me up with their powers of personal purification.
7. The second immersion...this is the one where the mikveh lady takes a step outside the room following the immersion to offer the dipper a few moments of personal prayer or meditation. It is a mitzvah to ask for something for yourself, and as I floated in the water, feeling how safe and warm and comfortable I was, I was reminded of the title of a book by Rabbi David Wolpe - "Floating Takes Faith" -- and I knew that to be there in that moment, I was truly renewing my own faith.
8. The third immersion. To say shehecheyanu, the blessing for a first time, it was as though I were new again, reborn so to speak. If you think about it, the last time we were so surrounded by water like this was in the womb...this is a re-creation of that living water, a chance to be spiritually re-born for this new year.
9. The exit. As I stood in front of the mikveh lady, with my back to her, she wrapped the towel around me. She is a very traditional lady, and she avoids personal touch throughout the whole process. But as she wrapped the towel around my shoulders, she gave my shoulders a little squeeze. It felt like a whole hug, as though she were giving me her most heartfelt wishes and prayers. I really believe that she feels that what she does is truly one of the most precious jobs in the world -- and she acts like it. This squeeze was, I feel, her way of telling me that. And I am grateful.
10. Getting dressed. I put on all my clothes, my jewelry, my contact lenses...and then I examined myself in the mirror. Am I different now? Somehow more pure and more ready for the holidays? I decided the answer is yes. I did look different. I looked relaxed and happy and ready to face the holidays with a whole heart.
11. The drive home. To know that I was going back out into a world unchanged, but I, I was different somehow. I felt more calm, more prepared. With Rosh HaShanah only one week away, I could face the moment with far more ease than I had felt all day long. I felt refreshed, washed clean.
12. The work. I'm not done with the work of teshuvah, repentance, just because I washed clean in the mikveh. Jewish life doesn't work that way! I still have the obligation to ask forgiveness and work on my own spiritual and personal faults and shortcomings. But somehow I feel that it will be made easier or more do-able for me after this visit to the mikveh.
13. The blogging. I was so excited for the opportunity to share this experience with those who read this blog as well as my other one,, so I could share a different and new way of welcoming the Jewish New Year. As a rabbi, my preparations are often different than other Jews. This was a great moment for me to have a personal opportunity to expand my own spiritual practice.

See more Thursday Thirteen posts here...
Crossposted on