Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Come to me, my Evil Minion!

First, an explanation about the cryptic, vaguely cruel, in-joke in the title:

Scene: Shiksa Girlfriend and me, and my dear anonymous roommate, at college about a year ago, discussing shul options.

Me: Yeah, the Reconstructionist Shul is ok, but I really like the once-a-month Carlebach Minyan.

Her: I know, I even wrote it down on the calendar so we wouldn't forget.

Roommate, inspecting the calendar: Um... you know you spelled "minyan" wrong, right?

Her: What?

Roommate: It has a y.

Me: And an a.

Her: This is bullshit! There's no y in "minion!" This is even dumber than the time you told me "baalchoova" has a t!

So we went to the "Evil Minion" the other week. This a pretty lively, young-ish Carlebach/Shir Hadash style minyan in town that's pretty cool. I was initially semi-intimidated by some of their semi-halachic language regarding seating arangements: they basically have a pseudo-to-tri-chitza, depending on the crowd and mood of the organizers.

This was our second time there. The first time was really, really busy, and we wound up getting in late, about the time people were doing lecha dodi. It was standing room only. A quick glance of the room gave me the basic specs- mostly mixed sexes in the middle, single-sexes to the periphery, and a few hard-core folks against the sides of the room. (One guy in a Breslov kippa was out in front bonking his head into the wall, which I thought was a little weird, but hey, he's entitled.)

So, SG sees a few spots free on the closest wall and tugs me towards them. Only one problem- I have already identified this space as the women's area. Everybody's singing and we don't have time to confer, so I wave her away and deliberately stand closer to the clump-o-everybody. She gives me a look and leans against the wall.
Brief mini-halachic explanation interlude:
I don't care about halacha. But I don't like making an issue for other people. In other words, I like to know and be deliberate about being an asshole (my roommate was very fond of yelling "rubber tires never break!" for the first line of the grace after meals), as opposed to inadvertently freaking people out, like the time SG scandalized some poor Orthodox girl into next week. For this crowd, it turned out I was probably being oversensitive- the Evil Minion is a far cry from Boro Park (which is good in just about every way except that it means much less facial hair).
Finally, a few songs/psalms later, SG joins me in the mixed-gender-stew-seating. "Sorry I couldn't explain it," I whisper. "You were standing in the women's section." She shrugs. "I figured it was something like that, and not that I smelled." She squeezes my hand. As we continue with Kabbalat Shabbat, another latecomer pops in. He immediately makes a beeline for the women's wall and spends the rest of the service there, seemingly oblivious to some of the dirty looks he receives.

Other highlights included the prayer leader, a Mizrahi-looking-and-sounding guy, doing the fastest stacatto rendition of Maariv I've ever heard. It was kind of cool, if a little weird. It sort of reminded me of this guy. "Be dibarta-bam, biddy-bum-bum-bam."

This last time was pretty good as well. Evil Minion has its own transliterated prayerbook (big plus), and even better, not-every-word-has-two-or-three-hyp-hens. While the halacha thing isn't an issue for me, I like that they're billing themselves as big tent nondenominational (at some point I should blog about denominationalism, and the presumption that nondenominationalism can actually exist in practice, over at Friar Yid). And we even ran into some people we know- Oyster and Chutzpaleh from Oy Bay (they recognized my super cool yarmulke) and an irritating former professor for SG. SG's professor, Mr. Ihateyou, is on Sabbatical and apparently knows some of the Evil Minion's founders. SG then made a Jewish Geography joke which Prof Ihateyou didn't understand. Irritated to hell, she silently cursed him with the dreaded Pulsa de No Tenure and went off to find me.

There were only a few downsides with Evil Minion:

A- No drash. Apparently I have to get used to this because most of the Kab Shabs we've been to in town don't do Friday Night Drashes, which is too bad because I miss hearing them. (I know, I know, stop whining, wake up early and come on Saturday. You imaginary readers are so critical.)

B- The room is small and gets very, very hot, even when it isn't a mega-Shabbat. Also, by the time everything is done and you've gotten to kiddush and motzi, it's so loud and crowded it's damn hard to kibbitz decently. I'm not a big mingler to begin with, but with crowds, I really lose all interest and tend to run for the door as soon as I can. I know, I should work on it, and possibly get some body armor, mental or otherwise.

C- Again relating to mingling and meeting fellow shulies: The age group is just a bit ahead of mine, about 5 to 10 years, which shouldn't be that much of a deal, but at the moment is a little weird, if only because a lot of these folks seem to be in a different mental space regarding their lives right now. They seem to be more established regarding jobs and homes and I couldn't help noticing that a few of them seem to be in the early stages of parenting. (Though I have faith that they won't slip down the dark path of Bnei Hippy.) I'm also a little suspicious as to how many people at Evil Minion are there for the "kosher meat market," a-la the roving gangs of Jewish singles that seem to pop up at the monthly, "Please, for God's sake, marry Jewish!" Shabbat over at Temple Touched By God. For some reason the age gap doesn't seem to matter as much at Beth Elderly. I anticipiate that I will probably get over this if I go often enough.

So yes, we will be going back to the Evil Minion. Between Evil Minion, Beth Elderly, Temple GLBT and the one good Carlebachian Shabbat a month at Temple Ol' Faithful, we just might get ourselves into a semi-regular shul schedule.

One last fun name-nugget. I was explaining the concept of Evil Minion to the Yidden at home, and they were less than enthusiastic.

Me: "It's based on a liberal, Modern Orthodox model, and they sort of have separate seating but not really.

Mother Superior Yid: Why does it have to be ORTHODOX? Why would you want to go somewhere ORTHODOX? That's so unfair to SG.

Abbot Yid: Yeah, and why a minyan? Why can't you ever do anything normal? Even if you're going to be Jewy, do you have to go a minyan? It's just so... ugh!

Me, very confused: whaa?

Later Mama Yid explained that "minyan" has a very specific (and not terribly complimentary, apparently) connotation for them (presumably involving emotionally scarring flashbacks to assorted angry old men). Good to know, I guess.

(Incidentally, this isn't the first time my folks' lack of knowledge about Jewish terminology has prevented them from having an opinion about it.)

Monday, October 1, 2007

Sukkot Silliness

First, let's get it out of the way. I think Sukkot is stupid.

Don't get me wrong, I can see how it could be modified to be meaningful- a drash on how we should be thankful about having a roof over our heads, be kind to the homeless, etc, the kind of tikkun olam stuff I usually have very bad knee-jerk reactions to- but if I'm honest? I just don't really get it. Maybe it's because, like Purim, like Shimni Atzeret (can someone PLEASE explain that one to me?), it wasn't one of the Jewish holidays I grew up sort of attempting to emulate at home. Also, "Festival of Booths" sounds absolutely moronic, and half the time people either don't hear the "th" and think you says boobs or something, or they assume it's you and your friends reinacting your favorite scenes from the Phantom Tollbooth like the pathetic fanboys you are. At least on Lag B'Omer you get to burn things. (Incidentally, while Jewing out at college, I explained Sukkot to the clueless with the pithy, "It's the Shantytown Holiday", and people almost always understood fairly quickly. Let's face it, the sukkah looks a damn lot more like a shack than it does a "booth". Who do we talk to about changing this translation?)

My hatred of Sukkot is, more than anything, related to my absolute ineptitude when it comes to construction or, frankly, any real handyman-related activity. One year at college, it somehow fell to me to construct the entire sukkah myself. This was, of course, after a last-minute freakout from the frumer members of the not-Hillel (supposedly, we were like, way cooler than Hillel, and didn't need them! Also, they said we weren't big enough to have funding, so we refused to adopt the name just to spite them. I suggested "Shammai" at a bunch of meetings, but people didn't get the joke- or rather, refused to give me the satisfaction of saying it was funny) about whether or not our sukkah was kosher. You see, we bought it online and it turned out that one of the big-name sukkah vendors was holding out on giving his wife a get (that's a divorce for you there Gentiles). As a result, there were various bans put in place against him. To make matters even more complicated, just about every online sukkah vendor sounds exactly the same- SukkahWorld, SukkahMart, Heshy's Sukkah Emporium, House Sukkah o'Sukkahs, etc. I told them that if we had gone with my choice, CrapShack.com, this could have been avoided, but as usual, people told me to shut up. It turned out that our sukkah was kosher, but frankly, at that point, I wouldn't have given a crap. Worst came to worst, I would wait until after the holiday and then lug the crap back to NY and set up a protest tent sukkah outside the bastard's house.

Anyway, this thing was nice enough- canvas walls, steel pole frame, a ringed shower-curtain style door system, it even had a plastic window peephole with a flap to cover it (to keep Cossacks out, presumably). If it wasn't for such a stupid occaission, it could have been a fun fort.

The problems began when it came time to build the damn thing. As usual, everyone bailed, so me and a buddy, who I'll call well-meaning-but-spineless Joe, or Jello for short, got stuck with it. First we had to pick it up from the campus mailroom and lug the damn thing across the quad- easier said than done considering we were schlepping around a 14-foot long cardboard box filled with steel pipes. Out of my way, trustafarians!

That done, we unpacked and studied the directions. It was here that things turned into a major melt-down. The sukkah could only be assembled via a particularly fiendish device known as an Allen Wrench, or what I call Satan's screwdriver. Allen Wrenches are a pain in the ass, and this particular one was tiny and had to be grasped with the whole hand to turn. To make things even better, there was only one.

I spent the better part of a day building this piece of crap, on my own. Jello wanted to help, but since he didn't have a Satan Screwdriver, all he could do was hold the pipes and get me a chair when I had to connect high things. If it's true that you get bonus mitzvah points for doing crap on your own, then I'm riding this damn accomplishment for the next decade. We stuck left-over pine-tree leavings on the thing and called it a Sukkah. And even then, almost nobody went in the damn thing.

Next year: my roommate and I decide to build our own sukkah, as I'm boycotting the sukkah from Hell (also the not-Hillel was maybe going to use it, though this wound up not happening after I declared a mandatory 5-person minimum minyan for construction to occur and we only got 3- Jello, me, and the incoming student leader after the rest of us graduated). We decided to forgo steel or wood, and instead went to Home Depot to try to get PVC pipe.

Oh my God. Major mistake. First of all, those guys couldn't understand what the hell we wanted to do. "You want to make, like, a giant box?"


"With PVC pipe?"



"Look, never mind. The question is, what do you recommend we use?"

"I'd recommend you don't do it."

And other fun misadventures. We needed to pick pipe widths, and lengths. We needed them to cut them. They didn't have the right joints; we had to come up with crazy-ass combination joints on the fly. Finally, we got all the crap we needed and came to the fun part: getting all this PVC into the 4-door-sedan (I sat behind my roommate, human-rubber-band style, holding onto dear life as the pipes, stuck diagonally through both front and rear windows, wobbled precariously on the 25-minute ride home. Also, at some point it started to rain. Again, major mitzvah points.

Once we got it home, assembly again proved to be a bitch, as not everything quite fit right on our patio, and of course since some of the PVC was pretty thin (1/4 inch?), it wobbled like crazy. Also, we had nothing to go around the frame, something SG thankfully fixed by stealing some spare fabric from the theater department and making us some cool curtain walls. And it rained most of the week, as it tends to in that part of the country at that part of the year, and so it was only very occasionally we got to spend any time in the thing, which, if I'm honest, I wasn't that broken up about (though I did feel cheated for not riding along to the Chabad to pick up the lulav and etrog).

Long story short, I have very mixed feelings about this damn holiday. It is, IMO, one of the biggest pains-in-the-ass outside of Passover, and, like that illustrious holiday, I get very resentful of the subtle ways in which the spirits of long-dead rabbis start to seem like they're just making shit up to screw with you the longer the thing goes on. (I get mental pictures of Rashi saying to a scribe, "And then say they have to stand on their heads! And put their socks on their noses! And if they fall off, they have to eat them!")

So all of that is background to last Shabbos. Shiksa Girlfriend and I went to Beth Elderly for Friday Night, only barely remembering that it was Sukkot. When we got there, they had more folks than usual, which was nice, though we were still pretty much the only 20-somethings (hell, we were practically the only ones who still had pigment in our hair).

Services were nice enough, at this point we pretty much know how these guys operate. It's not quite as Carlebach as I like, but it's pretty good, definitely in our top three in the city. And afterwards we all file outside to the Sukkah.

Ok, this is where things get weird. First of all, these people are basically in a giant wind tunnel because they're pretty close to the Pacific, and second, their roof leaves a lot to be desired. Clearly the focus was on getting the kinderlach to show up and help, not on structural integrity. I'm not saying it's going to collapse on us, just that it's not much of a shelter. As we all stand outside and freeze our butts, the cantor announces that she and some other brave and hearty souls are going to spend the night out there, in the synagogue alley sukkah, in sleeping bags, and have a nice catered, hot breakfast the next morning.

I poke the GF. "If you ask me, they'd be better off skipping the breakfast and getting some space heaters."

We continue to discuss the matter as we shuffle back inside for the potluck. We sit next to an old man, who was singing very off-key during the kiddush but seems nice enough (he makes a point of telling us that the Two-Buck-Chuck won an award a few years ago, and we pretend he hasn't told us three times before), and two, later three, older yenta types.

One of them quickly annoys me. Overhearing us discussing the vegan options, she inquires as to our eating habits. I explain that I'm lactose-intolerant and the kind allowances SG has made for me in order to keep up with her love of cooking and baking.

"That's great," the woman says. "I don't eat dairy because of the cholesterol," she announces proudly.

Um... great?

Things get weirder. As she heard us discussing some of the Sukkot laws (the number of required sides, the issues with the roof, the potential loophole I'm sure other people have contemplated of building your sukkah underneath a skylight), she starts asking me, "So how do you know all this stuff?"


She gives me a stare. Who ever heard of such a thing?

A few minutes later, she's asking me about kashrut. "So, is soy cheese, like, you know, cheese? Is it dairy?"

Uh, not as far as I know.

"It depends how you're counting," Shiska Girlfriend interjects. "Some things have a little bit of dairy that don't really affect their nutritional count, or the Friar's digestion, but would technically be considered dairy under kashrut."

I feel a little twinge of pride coming on. Or something.

The woman nods, impressed or maybe just comatose. "So, is soy milk... is that dairy?"

Sigh. We run through this again, culminating with my trump card, "And since soy ice cream is pareve..."

"Oh, yeah. You know, I never thought of that. But then again, I don't eat ice cream, because it's not good for you."

Uh huh. Have another guilt-free blintz and tell me more.

The woman turns back to me. "So, do you keep kosher?"

"No." I exchange a look with SG. That was bizarrely direct.

"Do you observe the Sabbath?"

What is this, a kiruv workshop? Or a National Geographic Special? And who calls it the Sabbath? Are you the freaking reincarnation of Cotton Mather?

Finally, the woman asks me about my education. I tell her I went to a private high school in the city. "Oh, yes, I've heard of it. Now tell me, is this, uh... Catholic?"

At this point my eyes leap out of my skull, run across the table, and kick her in the nose.

"Sorry, sorry, I meant... uh, what's the word... a yeshiva?"

"No. Not even close. Nondemoninational, private... I guess about 1/3 Jews. Very, very, Reform, Jews."

And with that we ran off, to get our bus.

Upon reflection, I'm thinking maybe the woman was reacting to my clothes- I was wearing gray slacks, a white button-down shirt, and a navy blue sports jacket. Plus my new, super-Ashkenazi-style yarmulke.(which SG was kind enough to modify for my tiny pinhead). Maybe this already demonstrably-not-very-sharp woman just got really confused and figured that anyone with a hat that tall had to be frum?

Whatever. The point is that I should probably only use my newfound Chabad impersonation powers for mischief and entertainment. Who's down for crashing a shiur?