Friday, May 23, 2008

Friday, May 16, 2008

Last Post.

Last night I met with a few women friends in my class. All of us are older. We were in a lot of ways the long shots in the class, the “old ladies” with extra pounds or disabilities. All have survived serious losses of one kind or another. All of us were told, by someone, at some point, that we didn’t belong in rabbinical school, that the admissions committee had made a politically correct mistake in saying “yes” to us.

We got together in the backyard of a private home, around a hot tub that wasn’t originally intended as a mikveh. Like us, it didn’t look quite kosher but the truth is that it holds the ritually required amount of water, to which we added some frozen rainwater, to make it “living water” as required by Jewish law. A legal work-around, sure, but one that more official mikvaot use in very hot, dry places like Los Angeles. Like us, this funny-looking mikveh was the real deal (from a liberal Jewish point of view.)

We sat in the dark under the moon and talked for a long while about our years in school and the journeys that brought us there. We talked about supportive and unsupportive families, the friends and loving partners who got us through each day, the grit it had taken, and the losses incurred. We talked about what lay ahead.

Most of all, we listened to one another.

Then one at a time, we immersed in the awkward pool, saying the blessing, dunking until every part of the body was under, and at the end, helping each other out. We didn’t want any casualties, so close to the end.

We joked about the fact that none of us could afford a slip or a fall, not now, not with Sunday so close.

Two of us were exhausted from travel (job-hunting!) and went home to bed. The rest of us went for dinner at midnight.

It’s a holy time. It’s a joyful time. It is the end and the beginning.


I'm going to be ordained with my class on May 18, this coming Sunday. I began blogging in Oakland, just before I left for Jerusalem. I continued in Jerusalem, and here in Los Angeles. With this entry, I'm ending my blog.

Over time, I have found the format at to be more useful for motivating myself and for marking my progress. If anyone is still reading this, and still curious, by all means, check out my entries there at

May the Eternal bless and keep us all.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Five Years Ago

The fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq has come and gone, with 4000 dead American soldiers, and who knows how many maimed soldiers, dead and maimed "contractors," and dead and maimed Iraqis. Five years ago I was living in a basement in Jerusalem. I kept a blog for the purpose of connection with my family, and as war grew close, I kept the blog to distance my family from the my experiences. I've never written about those weeks, until now.

I remember saying to one of my friends, before I left the States in June, 2002, that despite the Intifada, I felt that I'd be quite safe "unless we get into a war with Iraq, and that just isn't going to happen." Then, after I got to Jerusalem, I watched my own government move steadily towards policies that seemed quite insane to me.

I was caught up emotionally on two levels. First of all, I was living in the Middle East, in Israel, where the memories of Scud missles in Tel Aviv were still very fresh. Secondly, in January, my eldest son saw fit to celebrate his 21st birthday by enlisting in the Navy Reserve. I was proud of him, terribly proud, because he did so out of the conviction that he could not take advantage of the contributions of others without making a contribution of his own. I was also worried half out of my mind, because by then the serious sabre-rattling had begun.

As the buildup began, we heard large planes flying quite low over Israel, on their way East. Every time I looked up and saw one, I would think about all the young people in it, young people like my son. I talked with Israeli moms, who were old hands at this. We had a new bond, since most American moms they knew did not have sons in the military. I learned about keeping my chin up in public, but that in private conversations with other mothers, I could talk.

By March, I was distracted by the training we received in preparedness in Israel. We were instructed in the fine art of preparing a "miklat" -- a sealed room in our own homes. Unlike the silly instructions to wrap entire homes in Saran and duct tape that circulated in the U.S., we were issued rolls of heavy-duty plastic and tape and told to go home, pick a room, and seal it up. We were given detailed instructions in how to do it, and told to stock the room with food and necessities for 10 days. Somewhere I still have photos of the plastic cocoon I constructed in the bathroom of my little apartment. I couldn't take a shower without pulling it all down, so for the period of the war scare, I bathed from the sink. The cocoon was stocked with canned tuna, peanut butter, chocolate, water, my radio, and the best bottle of Scotch I could afford. I honestly believed that if I actually had to use that thing against "WMD" I was a dead woman. Of course I couldn't write that to people back home.

We had bomb shelter drills, both at home and at school, and we were issued gas masks by the Home Front Command of the IDF. In addition to Hebrew, scripture, and rabbinics, we took classes in gas mask use. I was horrified to learn that if I had to use mine, I would be unable to see (I'm severely nearsighted, and you can't wear glasses in the thing) and unable to hear much of anything useful (I'm hard of hearing as well.) Breathing is better than either seeing or hearing, of course, but the idea of being stuck somewhere in that thing, unable to tell what was happening around me was a truly scary prospect.

I could never tell whether the Israelis seriously thought we were in danger or not. There is a weird mix of hyperbole and bravado that takes over there when things are bad, and we'd been living in a miasma of it for months, with the Intifada. Either things were very, very bad indeed, or it was nothing at all, and I was not culturally savvy enough to sort it all out. We were told that there was nothing to worry about UNLESS we got word from the IDF to crack the seal on the gas mask box and try it on -- then we would know that the situation was very serious. We were assured that we'd get a call from the school about the same time.

We students reassured each other that no Muslim leader in his right mind would bomb Jerusalem, anyway. Given the press that Saddam Hussein had been getting, that wasn't terribly reassuring.

Purim came and went, and then, one night when I was home in the apartment, working on a translation, I suddenly got the feeling that something was different outside. The street had gone silent, at a time of night when it was generally rather noisy. I had no TV, only the radio, and when I turned it on, there was an official announcement of -- something -- that I couldn't make out. The announcer sounded upset and was speaking even more rapid Hebrew than usual. Panicking, I turned on the computer, and discovered that the IDF had indeed put out the word: open the box. Put on the gas mask. Adjust the straps. Then put it back in the box.

The news was confusing. Apparently the U.S. had invaded Iraq, and there was a lot of shooting. There were conflicting rumors about the fighting, where it was happening, and how it was going.

I realized, with a shock, that I had not heard anything from the school. I called the woman who acted as a sort of ombudsperson, and she was surprised I hadn't gotten a call earlier in the evening. It seemed that I'd been inadvertently skipped on the list. It seems silly now, but that fact drove me completely over the edge.

For the next week, we toted our gas masks with us everywhere we went. I remember going to a class, and putting it under my chair. It was one more thing to wigwag around, along with my Bible, my dictionary, my books, and assorted paraphenalia. Gradually we got used to them. About the time we did, it was time to give them back to the IDF.

Of course, it eventually became clear that there never had been any WMD in the first place.

I hope I am never again that close to a war. As it turned out, we were never in any real danger, but the perception of danger was an experience I will never forget. I know enough now to know that I cannot accurately imagine what it must be like to be a civilian in the middle of a real war.

It seems to me that we speak far too lightly about the effect that war has on civilians. In the service of being "patriotic" we speak piously about things that most of us know nothing about.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Why I Changed My Mind

The bumper of my car sports a John Edwards sticker. I haven't been able to bring myself to peel it off, because I had so looked forward to voting for Sen Edwards for president.

Until he bowed out of the race, I was fond of saying that I couldn't believe that there was a woman running for president, a woman I admire, with a real chance of winning, and I was supporting the white guy. But I really believed that Edwards was best for the country, and he was my guy.

Since he bowed out, I've been supporting Senator Clinton. I didn't trust Senator Obama's youth, his shorter time in government, but mostly I didn't trust all that talk about "change." It seemed to me that in every other election, we've got someone talking about "change" and then what we get, if we elect that person, is a mess of some kind. I voted for Bill Clinton because he represented change but what we got was eight years of the Arkansas mafia gunning for him, with the Republicans gleefully cheering them on. I remember people voting for Jimmy Carter, because he represented a change, and the Carter years were a wreck, reaping the various whirlwinds sown years before.

So I was skeptical about "change." I felt like I was too smart to fall for that again, and I felt rather sad for the young people I saw who were all excited about it. Here we go again, I thought, and wished they'd support Senator Clinton. Also, I hated the way the press and the public has accepted the misogyny directed at her; it seemed to me that it had become acceptable to be publicly misogynist, when it was at least not acceptable to be publicly racist. I identified with Clinton; she grew on me.

Then today I read Senator Obama's remarkable speech on race. I heard on NPR that this wasn't the product of a speechwriter, either: he wrote it himself. It is a risky, gutsy, honest, sophisticated speech (how's that for an interesting string of adjectives?) I would love to see this country engage honestly with the issue of race. I would love to see us all admit that we're suspicious of each other, but that we want our lives to be better than they are. I would love to see the lively discussion that Obama calls for; I would love to participate in it. I cannot imagine a better antidote to the Bush Presidencies Part Deux and their damage to our international standing than this intelligent, honest man with the very un-WASPy name.

I'm still rather skeptical about "change" as the theme for a campaign, but that's because I'm cranky and jaded and my move into political adulthood coincided with Watergate, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. But I am enthusiastic about voting for a wise and well-educated person of courage, and that's what I see in Barack Obama.

I don't know how much "change" he can really pull off. But I'd love for him to have the chance to try.

Friday, March 14, 2008

St. Patrick's Day

There's an interesting op-ed piece in today's NY Times about Irish-American heritage. Online, it's followed by an even more interesting argument, in bulletin-board form, about all sorts of related issues: Irish vs.Irish-American identity, the relevance of the Great Hunger, the Celtic Tiger, and more.

When I was an Irish-American kid in Catholic school, the main thing on St. Patrick's Day was to remember to wear green so you didn't get pinched. I remember asking my grandmother about it, she who went to great lengths to impress the family's Irish heritage on me. I was surprised to find that she didn't have much use for St. Patrick's Day. St. Patrick himself was fine -- she was down with most saints -- but the American celebration seemed to her to be an opportunity for Irish-Americans to make themselves appear to be superstitious, drunk, and harmless. She wasn't interested in leprechauns; she wanted me to appreciate a great heritage of scholarship, poetry, and toughness. Specifically, she drilled it into me that our ancestors had had to be tough, simply to survive to come to America. Peter and Bridget Carroll nearly died on the coffin ship, and were so anxious to put it behind them that the family forgot the its name. She told me they were from County Roscommon, that they had survived a great disaster, and that when they got here, all they wanted was to have a farm of their own. Peter worked on the railroad, and Bridget made lace, and they traveled with the railroad until they had enough money to buy a rocky little "holler" in Dickson County, Tennessee. They lived there all the rest of their lives and are buried there today. They were not wanted in America, and they came anyway. They spoke Irish, as did their children, and by my grandmother's generation, it had become a weird little private language that was spoken by no one except the Carrolls and Cunniffs of Dickson County Tennessee.

The Civil War was not their war, as far as they were concerned, and they stayed clear of it. Living in the battlefield of Middle Tennessee, they fought their own war ingeniously: every time an army came through, Peter and the boys would hide in the root cellar, and Bridget and the other women would go to the door and try to convey that their men were off with That army -- Confederate, if it was Rebels at the door, and Union, if it was Yankees. It was not their war, and they wanted no part of it. They survived.

My grandmother's memory inspired me to take a course in Irish History in College, and to keep reading ever since. The best book, though, is out of print: Harp, by John Gregory Dunne. It made sense, for me, of some of the tensions in family life that I hadn't realized were also a legacy from the dark entry our ancestors made to the Promised Land of the United States.

I am sad that so many Irish Americans are ignorant about our history. I would like for some of my cousins (the ones with names like Hannity or Limbaugh) to remember that there was a time when our great-great-grandparents were not welcome here. Did we learn nothing?

I'm proud to be Irish-American. I still feel like JFK is "my" president, in a way that none before or since ever have been. I notice names that might be Irish, and I follow Ireland in the news. But if you want to buy me a beer on March 17, make it a proper Guinness, not that silly green stuff.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

It's done.

I am sitting at my kitchen table right now, listening to the printer clatter out one page at a time on the "Best" setting. My thesis is done, and I'm printing out the two copies I need to deposit with the school registrar, with my advisor's signature.

"Money & Menschlikeit: A Jewish Ethics of Personal Finance" has taken me most of a year to write. At the moment, I have no profound thoughts. I just want it to finish printing so I can get a few hours of sleep before I have to meet Dr. Adler at 10:30 a.m. Maybe I'll have profound thoughts tomorrow. Or maybe I've used up all my profound thoughts writing the thing. I have no idea.

One of the people who has known me longest, Jim Scott (my ex-father-in-law, not my son) said to me a few months ago, "You've been working on this subject all your life." That's true. I don't have all the answers now, but I've got some dandy questions.

Friday, February 22, 2008

I'm angry. published an article this week entitled The Gay Marriage Slump.
It's a rather vapid little piece wondering why, after all the fuss about "gay marriage" gay couples aren't storming the courthouses to register as domestic partners in states that allow it. (Notice that word, "allow." Says a lot. Harumph.)

This was my letter in response:

"Why we aren't registered"

My partner and I have chosen to get married in a religious ceremony, but not to register as domestic partners here in California. Our reason? The Registered Domestic Partner thing is NOT the equivalent of a civil marriage. If we register, we get to file the nightmare tax returns that another letter writer mentioned (one set for the state, jointly, and another set for the feds, individually). We get "marriage taxed" by the state, but we still don't get a lot of the rights of married people.

Add to that that my partner is a retired federal employee. Thirty plus years in the U.S. Navy and in federal law enforcement, and I'm ineligible for her health insurance and any other benefits a REAL spouse would receive.

Why would we pay extra taxes, when we get fewer rights? Forget that!

We've married in the eyes of our religious community. We're together until death do us part. But I will not cooperate in the government's marginalizing of our lives, and I sure as heck will not pay taxes for "rights" I am denied.


Why post this letter again here? Because I realize I'm really angry about this. I'm tired of being a second-class citizen. I'm sick of people imposing their religious views or (let's call it what it is) their bigotries upon me and my beloved.

I pay taxes. I am married to a woman who spent her entire adult life serving her country. Yet we do not get the same rights that any straight couple who go to Vegas for the weekend can have simply by saying "I do."

I am a Jew. I don't eat pork because I believe I am commanded not to eat pork. I don't insist on a law that won't let anyone eat pork just because I think the Bible says "Don't eat pork." Meditate on that, the next time you chow down on a pulled pork sandwich or shrimp cocktail -- I am not imposing my religious beliefs on you. Don't impose yours on me.

It's called the separation of church and state, folks.