Shabbat Recap — And Sometimes the Wall Hits You

Well, I did not go to shul yesterday.  I had what could generously be described as a Week From Heck — I was busier at work than I have been in the last three months, combined; I put in a fairly large amount of overtime (alas, I’m salaried), plus various things happened that involved multiple types of bodily fluids ending up where they shouldn’t be.  It’s a bad week when you have to spend a significant amount of time cleaning blood off the floor.  Fortunately, it was my own.

So, when my special do-nothing Shabbat alarm went off, I woke up, took stock of just exactly how badly my fibromyalgia was cursing at me, and thought to myself, “Self, I need four hours more sleep much more than I need to go to shul today, really.”  I think HaShem would understand, as He seems to be tolerant of illnesses that confine one to bed, as I was so confined.  I wound up sleeping for around eighteen hours, all told, over the course of Friday night and Saturday. 

Today I’m feeling wonderful.  Ish.

Unfortunately, I think I have pretty much gone as far as I can go in terms of observing mitzvot and avoiding melachot during Shabbat right at this moment barring major changes in my living arrangements, other than maybe davening Shacharit on my own, although I don’t really feel comfortable enough with the service to do it well yet, and I’m afraid of messing it up.  I suppose bli neder is my emergency escape hatch there, too, but I really feel it’s important not to mess it up.  (I am the “old person who doesn’t program the DVR” of davening, I guess.)  Oh yeah, I should buy one of those darkness-activated nightlights for the bathroom…

I had a dreadfully hard time about remembering to use the Kleenex instead of toilet paper yesterday, but fibro makes you stupid.  Fact of life.  Hopefully when I’m in my new digs and not living with a housemate, I’ll be able to Shabbat-proof my house (like by taking the toilet paper off the holder prior to Shabbat), which I can’t really do right now.  That “furtive” thing again.  B”H I don’t lose my job in a month.


Also, unfortunately, I just got news that my good friend DE’s father passed away over Shabbat.  Baruch Dayan Emet.


I will try to write more this week, but doing my job and staying alive consumed pretty much all my time this week.



How to Make Chicken Soup, Plus Kitten

You will need:

1 kg chicken pieces (I like skin-on, boneless breasts)
1 large onion
2 large carrots
2 stalks celery
2 bay leaves
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 handful minced parsley
1 handful chopped dill (for that authentic Ashkenazi flavour)
1 tbsp deli kosher mustard
2 tbsp white vinegar

1 overly-clingy kitten

1. Buy the ingredients.
2. Put the grocery bags containing the ingredients in a high place where the kitten can’t get at them.
3. Rescue a fragment of an entirely other forgotten grocery bag out of the kitten’s mouth.
4. Get nervous about cleaning the litter box, vet bills, and the phrase “garbage gastritis” all at the same time.
5. Open the package of chicken pieces.
6.  Shoo the kitten off the lid of the kitchen garbage as his nose appears over the edge of the counter.
7.  Skin and de-fat the chicken pieces.
8.  Repeat step 6 as required.
9.  Put the chicken pieces in a large pot, and fill with water, and put it on high on the burner.
10.  Dissuade the kitten from trying to jump onto the stove.
11.  Add the garlic, parsley, dill, bay leaves, mustard, and vinegar.
12.  Rescue the chicken package from the kitten and put it away where the kitten can’t get it.
13.  Chop the celery, onion, and carrot. 
14.  Add the celery, onion, and carrot.
15.  Do not trip on the kitten on your way from the counter to the stove with the cutting board.
16.  Simmer soup until the broth is rich and the chicken and vegetables are finished.
17.  Finish with salt and freshly ground pepper, and serve.
18.  Remove the kitten from the dining table before he drinks all the soup broth.

Shabbat Recap — Special Occasions and Introspection

I did make it back to shul today.  Two special occasions in shul today — the rabbi’s eldest son (who looks to be in his mid to late teens — scary, as the rabbi is only four years older than I am!) is leaving to go to a yeshiva near Paris. 

Aside:  Le Juif et la France

I hope he stays safe, given how much antisemitism has been flaring up in France of late.  (Not that antisemitism ever really went away in France.  My friend RW was in France in the early 1970s and said there was still Vichy coinage in circulation!!  Unbelievable.)  A great number of French Jews have been moving to Israel of late; in fact, when I was in Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv, there were a great number of services (including an entire real estate agency on the ground floor of the complex housing my hotel) disponible en Francais.  (This was comforting to me, because my French is much, much better than my Hebrew.  I actually had to transact some business in French while there, because the woman minding the counter spoke only Russian, French, and Hebrew, and my Hebrew wasn’t good enough to cover it.  I speak no Russian.)


The second special occasion was the first real service participation of a new Bar Mitzvah.  He did very well, and has a reasonably good singing voice, despite being in that precarious mid-pubertal phase characterised by voice breakages and other vocal problems.


Elul — Getting Right With G-d and Humanity

The rabbi also gave the blessing for the new month of Elul, which starts on Tuesday and is the last month of the Hebrew year, leading up to the High Holidays.  It’s a time for introspection, prayer, study, and cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, in which you take stock of all the bad and good things you did in the past (Jewish) year, and try to find areas where you could improve.  I know I’ll be looking at improving my obervance of mitzvot, minding my temper and my tendency toward foul language, and improving my conscientiousness generally, and improving my relationships with certain people. On the other hand, in the “profits” column I think I can count beginning to observe many mitzvot, doing a lot of studying toward my conversion, improving my attendance at shul, and improving my relationship with my parents.  I actually recommend doing this at least once a year, whether you are Jewish or not.  I’ve been doing this informally around this time of year (because the end of summer always feels like the end of the year to me) for years now, and I think it’s a good and healthy practice.

Elul and the High Holidays are also a time to pay off debts, ask for and give forgiveness to people, and do personal “housecleaning,” that is, getting your life and your relationships with others beseder (lit: in order).  Although this time of year is solemn, it shouldn’t be entirely about self-recrimination, guilt, or shame, although teshuva is part of it (but can mean correcting one’s actions as well as feeling badly about them).

I’m actually vaguely sad about the coming of the High Holidays again, as it was just about a year ago that I made my first appearance at Beit Meshugge, and I’m still not even formally taking classes yet.  I wish I had my friend DA’s boundless faith that everything that happens, happens for a reason, but I’m still working on that one.  It’s very hard.  Also, I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to fully participate in the synagogue High Holidays services, so I’ll be sitting out.  (On the other hand, I likely will not be fasting on Yom Kippur — which falls on Thursday-Friday this year — but I also won’t be getting to do any of the fun stuff, either.)  *sigh*


Funny thing — there’s a woman who comes to Beit Meshugge periodically, and I’m sort of friends with her.  I think she’s a new baalat teshuva, so sort of engaged in the same process as I am, only from the perspective of a Jew who wants to become observant.  As we were walking back to where people usually break off and go their own individual ways coming from shul today, my friend M was explaining some things to her, and…I was actually helping to fill in the details!  I’ve done a lot of studying.  For some reason it came up in conversation, so one of the things I explained to her was how (in the Torah) G-d tells Avram and Sarai to take the ה from His Name into their names, to become Avraham and Sarah.  (My name is spelled the same way in Hebrew as the with-H Sarahs are in English.  Tangentially, I believe Elisheva and Elizabeth are probably the same name, which just makes me like the name more, as I also have a soft spot for the Queen.)  A, the BT, also thought I was a born Jew and not a conversion candidate.  (This keeps happening.  I’m not sure whether it’s because gerot are rare, or whether it’s because I look the part or something.)

I managed to do pretty well with my observances this Shabbat, aside from the usual things and using the phone a couple of times.  I just can’t seem to get past that “witching hour” without some sort of distraction, after I’ve napped as much as I care to, played with the cats as much as I can, and read everything I care to read right at that moment.  I really don’t know what to do about that, but it’s on my list of things to ask the rabbi.  If and when I can actually start studying.  Which, HaShem willing, should be in three months or so.  In the meantime, cheshbon hanefesh, surviving the depressing fall, and (b”H) keeping my job in the upcoming rounds of layoffs (which should be happening right around Rosh Hashana, nice).

Taking the Decision

I can remember exactly where I was when I decided that yes, I was going to convert to Judaism.  I was walking across a brick-paved courtyard in Jerusalem overlooking the Old City, getting ready to dive back into the shuk for another day’s exploration and wanton spending of filthy shekels. 

I don’t actually remember any real thought process happening, just that between one step and the next, I realised what I was going to do.  I felt vaguely elated and I probably smiled like an idiot, although that isn’t a remarkably unusual thing for me to do when I’m in Jerusalem.

The first time I was there, I went to this store called Tree of Life in the Old City, and bought a bunch of things including a tiny silver hamsa pendant, which I’m wearing right now.  I wanted something to remind me of Israel, since I had always wanted to go there, and I was so affected by my trip, and the hamsa seems to be the one thing all Israelis can agree on.  After I decided I was going to convert, I put the hamsa pendant on and I’ve hardly taken it off since.  It serves as a tangible reminder of the commitment I’ve made with myself and G-d, and to the Nation of Israel, as well as a reminder of the physical place.

I know I’m still struggling with some aspects of my new life under that commitment, even as I’m finding more and more areas of congruence between my (pre-existing) values and Judaism itself.  I actually almost wish I had some sort of just-so story to tie it up in a nice neat narrative bow (I’m fond of narratives, and everyone loves a good story with a happy ending), but I don’t.  (Although I actually am adopted, as far as I know, there’s not a neatly-braided skein of narrative that gives me a cryptic Jewish ancestress or something, unlike the local Reform rabbi!)  Which, I suppose, makes my story even less of a story and more inexplicable.

When I figure it out, I’ll post it here.

Transom decoration of a menorah and Star of David, Old City, Jerusalem

In the meantime, have a nice picture of a transom decoration from Jerusalem’s Old City.

Shabbat Recap — Blown Off

I did not go to shul today.  My alarm went off at 8:30 as usual, and I sort of mentally took stock of my body, got up, fed the cats, made ablutions and said Modah Ani and various other things, and then went right back to bed.  I wound up sleeping for 13.5 hours, so I don’t really regret it.  I did kind of miss going to shul, though, to be honest, but physically, I feel so much better than I did yesterday, I think it was worth it.

Unfortunately, I pretty much blew my practice for this week.  I started off in perfect form, lighting my candle on time and saying the appropriate bracha and everything…and then my phone started ringing off the hook.  I still feel like I can’t really afford to just unplug the phone, not with an 89 year old grandmother who is still recovering from a broken ankle (although mending well, thank G-d) and everything else.  If I missed something important, I’d have some serious explaining to do, and I am not ready to do that explaining yet, not until I’m more firmly on the derech to my actual conversion, at least.

So that’s how i wound up going out to lunch and doing a little shopping with a friend in the afternoon.  I got home around four-ish and immediately got depressed, so I had a nap, and then got up, said, “Aw, screw it,” and went on Facebook and chatted with my friend RH in Israel for a while.  (Usually I don’t as a rule go on Facebook — for one thing, with all my Israeli friends not doing anything, very little happens anyway — on Saturdays, and these last few weeks, I’ve been trying — with mixed success, but mostly succeeding — to stay off the computer altogether on Shabbat.)

While chatting, I read some of the (excellent) war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon,  as I had seen a video with a title that referenced one of his poems, but I couldn’t remember which one.  (It was “Suicide in the Trenches,” and the line is “The Hell where youth and laughter go.”)  Then I wound up putting on a video about an archaeological expedition concerning Vimy Ridge, where Canadian soldiers fought and won a major WWI battle, and formed some of the earliest Canadian identity of ourselves as a separate nation.  They showed some amazing images of carvings Canadians had done in the chalk walls of a “subway,” a vast underground tunnel system used for transporting men and materiel to the front lines, safe from shelling. 

Then I wound up watching a docudrama on the sinking of the Lusitania.  The other night, I watched a cheesy Canadian docudrama called Shattered City on the 1917 Halifax harbour explosion (fellow Canadians will remember the Heritage Minute featuring our dear departed friend Vince Coleman, who had a small appearance in Shattered City as well), so I must be in the mood for such things.  (I don’t recommend Shattered City; it could have been great, and it was really only good in about four places — badly written, mostly badly acted, and really historically inaccurate — but the costumes and period props were great.)

This does not mean I’m abandoning my practice, just that I didn’t manage to do much this week.  I’m still trying to figure out how to do this Shabbat thing, and still experimenting with it.  Apparently other things I need to learn to compensate for are overtiredness and depression.  I had a hard week, and the weather was absolutely grotty today — rainy, windy, and far too chilly for the middle of August, really more like late September today…and my employer announced on Thursday that they’re going to be laying off 8% of the global workforce sometime between now and mid-October (which could nicely derail my house-buying plans, and certainly has shelved them for now).  I understand that Shabbat is supposed to be a time for setting aside all worldly concerns, but that’s harder for me than for many people, I reckon, and as I’m still isolated here (no family to talk to, and I can’t go and hang out with other members of the kehila (Jewish community) yet, I’m not dealing well with enforced idleness.  When I’ve read everything I want to read at that moment and slept as much as i can, and entertained the cats as much as humanly possible, I’m rather at loose ends about what to do with myself still.  I’m going to have to work on that, and it will be something I’ll be discussing with the rabbi once I start my classes.  (In a sense, documenting all these difficulties and trying out the Shabbat thing is great, because I hope I will know where all the pitfalls are before I really have to start doing it as an obligation, and I know exactly how to address these things with the rabbi.)

In the meantime, thank G-d for cheesy docudramas and bli neder, and I hope I can be forgiven for moments of weakness, now and in the future. 

Changing My Mind

One thing I’ve noticed about this process, such as it has been, is how it has affected my thought processes and my mental habits.  (I’m still developing new habits, but I’ve already noticed some changes.)

Having to be conscientious about what I eat and when (because I’m starting to watch out more for hechshers on products, and because I’m enforcing temporal separation between eating CYA halavi products and meat, and other things) has made me somewhat less likely to engage in mindless grazing.  This hasn’t really started to show up on my waistline too much yet, but it feels like it’s starting to.

As I’ve become more conscious of how I dress and why, I’m becoming…not exactly more judgemental about things other people are wearing, but I’m noticing how tacky some people’s outfits look, and it has definitely reinforced my you-kids-get-off-my-lawn aversion to showing bra straps and things (I’m old enough that I can remember my mother hammering home about how You Just Didn’t Do That).  On the other hand, dressing tzniut (inasmuch as I do, given that I am very fond of highly-saturated colours, which is frowned on in certain tzniut circles — but I look sick in pale colours) has made me more comfortable with my own body, which is an interesting result.  I don’t tend to feel like anybody’s gaze object anymore, which is definitely nice.  And I was never one much for showing a lot of skin anyway (I am often chilly and I sunburn at the drop of a hat), so it’s not like I’m terribly put out by all of this.

Also, trying to become somewhat shomeret Shabbat has helped me keep my house clean.  It’s traditional (almost mandatory, in the sense that it is the Done Thing) to clean one’s house thoroughly before Shabbat, so the Malkat Shabbat will feel honoured when she visits, metaphorically speaking.  Shabbat is holy time, and your house should reflect appropriate Shabbat preparations, including cleaning.  Lately, it’s been a lot easier to keep things clean and tidy because I just say to myself, “If you don’t clean this now, you’ll have to do it before Shabbat,” and I’m almost always short of time after work on Fridays due to my usual Friday evening outing with friends, so I wind up rushing around on Thursday night and Friday morning to get the sort of last-minute things done.  (This morning, I washed the last few dishes, cleaned the kitchen sink, and changed my bedding.  Turns out my outing is cancelled, so I wonder what I’ll do with All That Time tonight!)  My friend Ed remarked that “the house looks like you shook it.”  I’m also not as behind on cleaning stuff as I could be, which is also nice.

On a less secular note, I’m also finding that my daily time-outs for prayer and blessings calm me down and help me to sleep.  I don’t know if they make me feel particularly holy or anything, because I’m not sure what that should feel like, but I am definitely renewing my sense of connection to, well, everything, which is something I used to have years ago and then kind of lost somehow.

In any case, I have 25 minutes before a Big Important Meeting, so I’d better finish my lunch and get on with my day.  Shabbat shalom, kulam!


Do You Mind If It’s Kosher?

When I’ve been in Israel, a few people who know me and know I’m not Jewish have asked me this about meat.  Apparently there’s some kind of meme going around in the Jewish world that goyim don’t like kosher meat because it’s not as tasty, or is tougher, or something.  I’ve personally never had a problem.

In fact, I’m always delighted to be in Israel and eating kosher, because I have a pretty severe dairy allergy, as well as being lactose intolerant (so I get the fantastic gastrointestinal symptoms, plus coughing, wheezing, and an itchy rash on my hands, feet, and face), and as long as I’m eating things that are basari or pareve, I know there’s no chance I’m going to be “lactosed” by stray modified milk ingredients slipped into some meat product (as is disgustingly common in North America) or something.  Even before I made the decision to convert, I’d deliberately seek out a lot of products with heckshers, as they’re an easy, “don’t-have-to-read-the-label” way of determining if something has dairy in it or not, with the exception of some dairy heckshers, which signify “pareve products made on dairy equipment,” or what I refer to as “CYA halavi.”*  Osem baked goods, while slightly on the “edible oil products”  side of things, are wonderful, and they make excellent pareve chocolate chip cookies.  (Whoops, guess I’m going to need to tag this entry under “shameless plugging” too.)  North American food manufacturers could really learn a few things from Osem, especially now that Hollandia has started putting whey powder and things in their products (noooooooooooooo!).

One of the best things about getting to go to my work’s Jerusalem office two and a half years ago or so is that they have two large cafeterias, meat and dairy, which meant I was able to go into the meat cafeteria and eat anything I wanted without having to worry about whether or not it contained dairy, which I absolutely cannot do pretty much anywhere at home.  The only way I know I’m absolutely “safe” is if I make things myself.  (Of course, after I start keeping kosher for real, this is also going to be the only way I’ll be able to eat much of anything here, since we have no kosher restaurant.)  Even Israeli hotel breakfasts, which are generally dairy and/or fish meals, have lots of reliably pareve options, as long as you don’t mind eating tuna (or other fish) and salads for breakfast, which I emphatically don’t.  (Although, the tuna is packed in oil, so it tastes a bit funny to those of us who eat water-packed at home, and is higher in calories than a North American person might expect.)

Just as an experiment, a while ago, I broke my ethical rule against buying kosher meat here in town to try some kosher hot dogs, and they were really good.  They tasted like, you know, actual food, instead of (how we’d joke about them in my misspent yout’) “lips and assholes.”  My friend RH opined that it probably was because kosher hot dogs use a better class of meat than the non-kosher kind.

Also, as a related note, the non-dairy meal (which was also probably de facto kosher, but not marked as such) I had on the plane coming back from Israel the last time (meaning it was prepared and loaded in Israel) was much better than the non-dairy meal I had going to Israel (prepared and loaded in Canada), as apparently to Air Canada’s Canadian operations, “non-dairy” also means “gluten-and-everything-else-including-taste-free”.  It was, you know, normal food, and not some kind of grudging approximation of food as dreamt up by a sadistic airline caterer.

So even though I’m still slogging through my Laws of Kashrus book, I feel like I’ve been relatively deep in the exploration of practical kashrut for a while now, and it’s quite manageable, and even has some unexpectedly pleasant side effects.  (Though kosher-for-Passover chocolate is horrendous beyond the telling; worse than Hershey’s.  But that’s okay, even I can live without chocolate for eight days!)


* Some readers may be more familiar with the Yiddish terms fleischig (meat) and milchig (milk) instead of halavi and basari, their Hebrew equivalents, but I’m pretty much Hebrew all the way through.