Thursday, September 30, 2004

School is delicious this term; I wish I didn't need to sleep.

I'm writing this after midnight on Sukkot, and the reason I'm up so late is that I came home from school yesterday and crashed into bed, after making the mistake of going to the grocery store while ravenous. I guess I need to work on the balance in my life.

I'd started the day at school at 7 a.m., doing some extra Talmud study with a senior student. I was skeptical of the time, originally -- ugh, do I really want to get up so early? -- but it was wonderful. There were a small group of us, lots of questions, and I learned a lot more about how to read a daf [page of Talmud]. Page layout is just the beginning of the puzzle: there are special words to let you know that "the following argument was brought up but ultimately defeated," and "the following argument resolved the question," and so on. There is a huge cast of characters to research, and it is hard to know what a sage is really saying if you don't have a clue who he is and when he lived. Gersh, our guide, was patient and encouraging, and by the end of the hour-and-a-half, I was jazzed: I can do this!

Then it was time for official school, with Prophets class. Dr. Eskenazi introduced us to Hosea and his "made-in-Heaven" marriage (which has to be one of the most horrible marriages on record.) We're reading Heschel on the prophets, and the prophets themselves, along with some commentaries, and it is very exciting, mostly because it's clear that I didn't know anything about those guys. I think I've had more of an acquaintence with them than most of my classmates, but as with the Torah class last year, I find that everything I thought I knew is at best only part of the story.

Then, history with Dr. Firestone. We looked at and compared the stories of the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22 in Jewish and Christian Bibles) and the "Intended Sacrifice" in the Quran (37:99-111). That gave us a gate through which to look at the differences between the three religions and how they tend to see one another. It was fascinating stuff, and there is a feeling of urgency to this learning for me. Given my own feeling that Jews and Christians do not understand one another nearly as well as we think we do -- that our communications are confused by misinformation and misperception and projection -- I think it is no surprise that things between us and Muslims are even more of a tangle. The question in my mind lately is, if I were able to turn off all the projections and preconcieved notions I've got about Islam, would there be anything left in my head at all about the subject?

I went to lunch with a classmate, who showed me a little vegan restaurant not far from campus. I've changed my practice of kashrut [Jewish dietary laws] removing meat from my diet altogether, and I'm on a learning curve about that. We had a nice chat about kashrut, and school, and our pulpits, and then it was time to head back to school for Talmud.

In Talmud class, the day came full circle. We studied the sugya [portion of Talmud] from Kiddushin that a few of us had gone over with Gersh in the morning. It is encouraging to realize that even so early as the time of the development of the Gemara (200 - 500 C.E.) students and teachers were already looking at the Mishnah and wondering what some of it meant! The language of the sugya was easy -- amazing how quickly we're adapting to Aramaic -- but there were subtleties upon subtleties in the discussion. Thus the school day ended at 2:30 pm.

That's when I went to the car, realized the larder at home was empty, and headed to the grocery. I came home, put stuff in the fridge, and fell asleep until I woke at 10 pm!

I'm glad for the long weekend. I've a sermon to write, preparations for next week at my pulpit, lots and lots of preparation for class next week, and the housework that piles up from a week of stumbling in the door, running to do a few things, and then falling asleep.

It's Sukkot, and I am feeling a different connection to the little booths this year. It is indeed harvest time, and I am harvesting in the fields of learning as fast as I can, making hay while the sun shines. I need to construct myself a shelter in these fields, a shelter of balance and routine, of family and love, to get the most out of the experience. Family and love I've got: I am blessed in that department! Balance and routine is one of this year's extra-curricular tasks, I think.

I wish you a chag sameach, a good holiday!

Thursday, September 23, 2004

I'm sitting on a balcony in Oakland, watching the sun rise over the Oakland Hills. Five palm trees mark the spot where the sun rises this time of year, pompom remnants of the "Borax" Smith estate, Arbor Villa. This city, like most, has layers: it's hard to visualize the elegant estates that became my lively neighborhood. Smith's estate is gone, except for a few buildings, but I still use 20-Mule-Team Borax in my laundry, and sometimes I think about the palm trees when I shake it into the washer.

This state is connected by all sorts of odd threads: Borax is one of them. Smith was an early mover and shaker in Oakland, but he made his fortune in the Mojave Desert. He left marks all over the state, from a city park in Oakland (see the Arbor Villa link above) to the borax mines down south, to a worked-out sulphur mine that was still eating the asphalt of Redwood Road in the Oakland hills in 1997. Some credit him with the development of Oakland into a real city, instead of a suburb of San Francisco.

I'm fascinated by ol' Francis Marion Smith, and not only because I like using borax in my laundry. I am fiercely fond of Oakland -- have been since the August day in 1986 when I got lost on the 580 freeway, and got off at the Grand Avenue exit to get my bearings. It was love at first sight, despite the sketchy reputation of Oakland pretty much anywhere outside Oakland, at the time. Apparently "Borax" felt that way, too: he was a one-man civic development engine with a passion for this city.

The sun's up now, and I'd better get to work.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Linda and I have been arguing about movies for 20 years. We both love movies, but we often disagree about them. Some of the best fun of a bad movie, particularly, is arguing with Linda about it afterwards.

When I realized that we could do a "team" blog, I set up Linda and Ruth Go to the Movies and sent her an invitation to join me in doing publicly what we'd done privately for so long. If you like movies, take a look (click the link.) If you want to join the conversation over there, just click on "comment" and send us your 2 cents' worth.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

l'Shanah tovah umetukah!

[To a good and sweet year for all of you reading this!]

I found something absolutely wonderful at the bottom of an email I got this morning from an Outreach colleague:

No matter our attempts to inform, it is our ability to inspire that will turn the tides.

The quote is credited to the Syracuse Cultural Workers, although the only place I find it on their website is a discontinued tee shirt and a button. That's nice, but I'd really like to know who said it! If anyone knows, drop me a line or a comment, ok?

Friday, September 03, 2004

The first week of classes has ended, and my "to-do" box is overflowing: life is back to normal at Chez Ruth. That vacation was wonderful, but it's over.

I like being a third year student: I know my way around, know what's expected of me, know that the impossible-looking workload is actually probably do-able if I work smart -- and that part of my learning task is to figure out how to do it! -- and perhaps most important, I have a clearer idea of what isn't important.
And I'm lucky that my weekends at my pulpit are hard work, but also a treat: I've learned to enjoy that drive, the quiet time, and I've learned how to pray and lead prayer at the same time, how to learn while I'm teaching.

Los Angeles still doesn't feel like home -- most of my family isn't here -- but I have a growing constellation of non-HUC friends and regular acquaintences here. The brother and sister who run my favorite used book shop, the lady (and she is a lady) at the dry cleaners, several folks at my synagogue, and assorted others -- they're all friendly, familiar faces, and we are glad to see one another.

I realized, the other day, why Shammai [one of the great rabbis of pre-destruction Jerusalem] said, "greet everyone with a cheerful face." (Avot 1:15) We need those cheerful faces! Human beings are social, and we need to feel that someone (on some days, anyone) is glad to see us. When we provide that gift to one another, we let the b'tzelem Elohim --the image of God -- shine through us.