Saturday, November 24, 2012


Part I- Planning a coup

Apparently my friend Abraham has a master plan for taking over Beth Elderly and turning it from "the friendly but ancient shul" into "the friendly shul with lots of old people and a bunch of young folks, too." Interestingly enough, a lot of it hinges on me and Carlebach-style davening.

Like us, Abraham and his wife used to frequent Evil Minion quite a bit. And, like us, though they enjoyed the davening style, they found it a little hard to connect with the community. So they kept looking, eventually ending up at Beth Elderly, where the people are friendly but the davening is, sad to say, kind of dead. The cantor has a penchant for warbling and the rabbi likes Carlebach but can't carry a tune. Some of the older folks are interested but they don't know enough to lead it themselves. So when Abraham found out I can sing quasi-decently and knew all the tunes to Kabbalat Shabbat from our several years going to Evil Minion services, he got very excited.

Basically, the plan is to start our own breakaway minyan... except instead of breaking away from Beth Elderly, we'll instead take it over.

There is a spare room in the shul that is in the process of being cleaned out. Right now we're thinking that we will be able to set up shop in there and start doing some Carlebach stuff by January. If people like it, we will hopefully be able to attract some of the regulars (and maybe even some new folks) out of the main sanctuary and into our clutches. The goal is to have two services, give people a chance to do what they like, and then have both finish around the same time for a joint kiddush/oneg. The key to the plan is that once the alternative minyan gets more attendees than the main service, the rabbi has agreed to have the two groups swap rooms. The hope is that eventually, most people would opt for the livelier service while still giving the old-timers the option to stick with their preferred tunes if they wanted to.

At first I was a little alarmed by this idea, since to me it seems a little mean to boot the old folks out of their sanctuary. But I also realize that if Beth Elderly is going to keep going, it needs fresh blood, and this might be one of many ways to make that happen. So I'm on record as a potential minyan member, and we'll see what happens come January.

Part II- An early start

Abraham and I had this conversation a while ago, so it's been in the back of my mind. What I wasn't expecting was to get a dress-rehearsal for it last weekend.

I should back up. Mrs. Yid and I went to our first ever shul retreat! It's a big tradition and we'd heard a lot about it. Usually we are both a bit on the shy side at shul so it was a little overwhelming to think about spending a whole weekend with 100-odd congregants, but we decided to be brave and go for it. As it happened, it was a wonderful weekend. We got to spend lots of time with different people from shul-- some we already knew, like Abraham & Sarah and the rabbi & his wife, and some folks we only knew by sight who we now know a little better. I was happy to have Mrs. Yid there to help me get out of my shell a bit, and I think the whole weekend was the better for it.

One huge thing that happened was on Friday night. We got into the hotel late (it was about 50 miles out of town and we were driving during a rainstorm) and were gulping down dinner when the rabbi came over and mentioned to Abraham that he was thinking of doing a Carlebach tune or two during services.  Within a minute or two, this somehow morphed into him turning to me and asking if I'd like to LEAD a Carlebach Kabbalat Shabbat! (My brain stopped working at that point so my memory is a little foggy, but I seem to remember Mrs. Yid having something to do with it.) I stuttered that I'd have to think about it for a minute and sat back down. Luckily I had insisted on bringing our transliterated siddurs to dinner, so I whipped one out and started going through the service to see if I could actually remember all the melodies. With some help from Abraham, I got through them all, and with lots of encouragement from my wife, decided to take the plunge and go for it.

I was quite nervous when we started the service, but I did my best to keep my eyes on my book (or closed during the niggun parts) and got through it. Half the time I even had some fun. And it was really interesting; a lot of the people seemed to really get into it. I had been worried some of the older folks would be annoyed that it was so different, but a lot of them were enjoying the energy of the davening-- especially the rabbi's wife, who said that loves Carlebach and used to go to a Carlebach minyan in Israel a lot when she and her husband were studying there, and has missed it a lot in the last few years. When we were done, one of the really active board members came up to me and said, "That was really great. Our services should be more like that. In fact, I think I services should always be like that!" Abraham and I were pretty happy after that.

The rest of the weekend was lovely and we had a lot of fun (though I got bested by an aliyah yet again!), but for me that was the absolute highlight. I've led Jewish stuff at my house before, but that's always been in a setting where I'm the most knowledgable one in the room. It's a very different feeling to be leading things in a group where people know what they're doing, in many cases probably more than you. It was nerve-wracking, exciting and special all at the same time.

Part III- Aftermath

The rabbi sent out an email before Shabbat. He thinks we should start doing Carlebach style davening more regularly-- at least once a month! I don't want to take too much credit, but I know that at least part of this is thanks to last week's service. I did something and it made a difference. I did something that had an effect, if only in a small way. All of a sudden I'm feeling like I'm really part of the community... and that the community is a part of me. I'm very happy to have been part of that service, and very hopeful that this direction, along with other things the shul is doing, help make the community more vibrant, sustainable and engaging.

Part IV- Epilogue

The Saturday of the retreat I realized we were just one week past Zayde's 16th yarzeit. Even though I was past the date, I said Kaddish for him anyway-- for him and Bubbe. Together and apart, images and reality, all of it mixed up together, as always.

It's amazing to think it's been sixteen years since he died. Sixteen years of me growing up in a mental shadow, or at least reflection, of him. Sixteen years of doing family research, discovering so much about where he and the rest of the family came from. Sixteen years of trying to better understand his faith; of learning about Judaism, and then actually putting my knowledge into practice. Sixteen years of forging my own identity, one strongly, even intensely, rooted in my family's past, but focused on my future.

Sixteen years ago I didn't know what a kippah was. Sixteen years ago the only Jewish friend I had was as clueless and disengaged as I was. Sixteen years ago I had never observed Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, much less Sukkot, Shavuot or Tisha B'Av. Sixteen years ago I wouldn't have imagined I'd ever have a Jewish blog, belong to a synagogue, or lead a prayer service.

I'm not the kind of Jew my grandfather was, and in some ways I regret that, because I know how incredible important that identity, that practice, and that worldview were to him. But I also hope that if he were here, there would be a part of him that would see how far I've come, and how much of it is rooted, at least in part, in wanting to better connect with him, and that he'd be proud.

Because I am.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pulling in the family

Last night Mrs. Yid and I were hanging out with my brother Deacon Yid and his girlfriend, Mini. Mini is from the suburbs and her family seems to practice a fairly secular form of Protestantism. Like Deacon, she tends to lean towards the atheist side of things. She's come to a few of our holidays and seems to be ok with things (she's a little hard to read). At least she has less of a chip on her shoulder than Deacon, who made a big point of telling her at our seder, "You don't have to eat anything you don't want to, or read anything that you don't want to" (he always refuses to read or recite anything that mentions God).

Anyway, they were around, and we mentioned that we were going to be heading off to Havdalah at Abraham and Sarah's house. Interestingly enough, they said they were game to check it out. I had some hopes that they would find it kind of cool, but things didn't pan out quite as I had planned... we left kind of late, the house was a little crowded, Deacon seemed a little uncomfortable with people drinking, and unfortunately I hadn't mentioned to the rabbi ahead of time that they were coming or reminded him of my brother's extreme lack of knowledge/interest/comfort level with Jewish stuff. So we hung out for a while and then eventually did Havdalah, but it's hard to say whether they were really enjoying themselves. They were also pretty tired (Deacon keeps crazy hours and frequently doesn't go to bed until 4 or 6 in the morning) so who knows how they were doing by the end of things.

I feel like part of the reason Deacon doesn't really connect with Jewish stuff is because, 1- there's a longstanding lack of knowledge or connection due to our nonexistent Jewish education, and 2- the lasting ideal family images he has were largely created by popular media he saw as a kid and young adult--the overwhelming majority being secular and/or Christian. So for instance, if you ask him about his ideal family holiday, he thinks of a George Rockwell family sitting around a Christmas tree drinking cocao and singing Christmas carols-- though, to be fair, he is also into Hanukkah and asked for help getting a menorah and the right blessings when he was away at college. He certainly isn't into Christmas as a religious holiday, but I think he's attracted by the pageantry and imagery of it as compared to, say, Hanukkah. I don't think my brother necessarily "should" be doing Jewish stuff like I am but I do think popular media has played a big role in what kind of holidays and rituals he is or isn't interested or inspired by.

Honestly, I wish this hadn't been their first introduction to havdalah. If ritual or fanciness is your thing, you're not going to get a lot out of our havdalah. If it's deep spiritual insight, well there wasn't really any of that, either. It was really just some friends hanging out, talking shop about the shul, cracking jokes, and then doing the quick candle-spice-wine dip. Not all that impressive for your first time. I really wish they had come to the last one we had at our house, where they might have felt a little more comfortable. I'll have to check with Deacon in the next few days and see what he thought of it.

Still, it was cool of them to check it out, and maybe they'll come the next time we host Havdalah. We can always hope.

Hey, I got my brother to participate in a Jewish ritual...does this make me and Mrs. Yid kiruv workers now?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sometimes a plateau isn't so bad

The High Holidays have come and gone, and while nothing went perfectly, plenty of things went reasonably well.

Let's back up for a moment. Since leaving college, we have shul-hopped nearly every year:

Year 1: Temple Ol'Faithful with my high school buddy and his family- lots of English, no connection with the shul, and a particularly awkward invitation to lunch on Yom Kippur.

Year 2: Beth Elderly with a college friend- this was during the year we spent a lot of time there while they were trying to keep themselves going without a regular rabbi. During the high holiday services, their aging rabbi emeritus came back so they would have someone to lead. A lot of Hebrew, very little transliteration, a gigantic age gap, etc. We were trying very hard and so were they, but something wasn't quite clicking. (Though they do get two awesome points for inviting us to open the dark during Avinu Volcano Malkeinu.)

Year 3: Our first year of living in the Mission and our only time going to Evil Minion for the Holidays. Zero transliteration, very hard to follow. Also I got sick and couldn't fast. Not very fun.

Year 4: Temple GLBT. Decent mussar but a little overly political for my tastes; also more English than I would have preferred. Was feeling depressed and didn't fast.

Year 5: Temple GLBT, round two. First year with Machzor Eit Ratzon! Finally had the ability to pray as much of the service-- in a traditional way-- as I wanted, which made a huge difference in my experience. Got sick again. No fasting.

So this was year 6, which makes us feel very old. Since we've decided to shore up Beth Elderly's young guard ranks, we returned to the shul for the holidays, and I have to say, it was actually very pleasant. In some ways, not a lot has changed: the building has still seen better days and most of the congregants are as old as my parents, if not older. But in the four years since our last HHDs there, the tone of the shul has really started to develop, at least for us. The rabbi and his family have made a huge difference, as has the appearance of a handful of younger people our age. The shul has invested in new partially-translated siddurim and machzorim, as well as some basic cosmetics like new chairs for the congregants. The regulars are clearly working on trying to make the shul appealing and inviting to younger members.

More than that, though, this time around we've really been trying to invest some time and effort to connect with the shul, or at least key members of the community. We aren't always successful (Shabbat attendance is still a challenge, especially with my new job taking up so much energy), but it's definitely making a difference. People know who we are, and we're getting a little better at knowing who they are, too.

On a deeper level, too, I feel like we're finally starting to get some sort of idea about where we want to be-- or at least which direction we want to go in-- in terms of observance. We certainly aren't at the point where we're going to become shomer mitzvot but I think we're developing a greater awareness of Jewish values (such as kashrut, shabbat, tzedaka) that we want to honor and take seriously, though we're not yet clear about what form that might take.

Feeling more confident and educated about davening as well as greater Jewish identity made a huge difference in my High Holiday experience this year. Also, I'm happy to report that for the first time in a while, I was able to fast! (Unfortunately the next day I came down with a bad cold that I'm still getting over and which caused me to miss Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Having all these holidays coincide with being exposed to tons of child germs is a really bad mix.)

I'm sure I'm reading too much into all this, but I feel like this High Holiday cycle is a decent metaphor for where we are with our lives generally (community/observance-wise, job-wise, housing-wise, and family-wise): no, things aren't perfect, but they're better than they've been in a while. So here's to enjoying getting to a halfway-decent plateau. I'm hoping things will only get better from here.

Monday, July 30, 2012

New experiences, some conversations, and choices

Since Mrs. Yid and I have joined Beth Elderly there have been a bunch of developments:

  • I successfully attended morning minyan (next one will be this week) and davened with Zayde's tefillin. Between the tefillin and my Moses-eqsue beard (hooray for summers off!) I am definitely rocking some impressive Ortho-vibes. 

  • For our one-year-anniversary, I got Mrs. Yid a new siddur and she got me my own tallis. In related news, we are huge Jew-nerds. 

  • I have slowly gotten more comfortable attending Young Guard Havdalah stag. The most recent one was held on top of a fountain and included the rabbi's candle burning through his kiddush cup. I think this will be the last time we use a beer pong cup for this purpose. 

  • I have started using Ayn Keloheynu as a basic Hebrew primer. It's slow going, but has been very satisfying to finally see some progress with my reading ability. I'm actually able to sound some words out-- and was sort-of able to follow along with the chanting of Lamentations at Tisha B'Av in the Hebrew.

  • I ordered some knit kippot and have started wearing them more. This one is my favorite. I told Abbot Yid I was contemplating wearing one when I start my new job-- if Mrs. Yid can cover her hair it seems only fair I do something, too-- and not surprisingly, he's really, really not a fan. I also got a tallis katan but have concluded that even in San Francisco, that stuff is too darn hot for the summers. Maybe I'll try again come winter.

Also in the mix have been several "community events" bringing together multiple liberal congregations in the city. The first one was Shavuot, which included Temple Burning Bush, Beth Elderly, Temple Old Faithful, and B'nai Hippy. Rabbis from each community led study sessions on different topics and people chose from a programming "menu" to decide where they wanted to go. Mrs. Yid and I attended a session on Hasidic storytelling and a discussion of whether the Torah can be considered true by rational Jews. The second session, led by the rabbi from Burning Bush, was quite fascinating. The rabbi is from an Orthodox background and has a major axe to grind with literalist interpretations of Torah. Funnily enough, much of the talk involved more liberal congregants arguing with him that he was treating the text super-literally in order to set up a straw man. The Reform and Renewal people were actually arguing for the integrity of the Torah against a Conservative rabbi! Very fun. (It made me think a little of the Oven of Akhnai, actually.)

The second community event was Tisha B'Av, which, like Shavuot, neither Mrs. Yid nor I had ever celebrated. Apparently the liberal community in the city had been abuzz by how many people came to Shavuot, because this time in addition to the four original congregations, there was Beth Halfpipe as well as three or four indie minyanim and kehillot. This time the rabbis opted for a whole-group approach. After dinner we had short drashot alternating with some singing. When we were moving into the sanctuary to read Lamentations, one of the singers came up to me.

"I liked your singing."

"Yes, I could see that it moved you."

"So, are you, like, an Orthodox guy?"


"Ah, I thought that you might be Orthodox because of your beard."

"No, but my grandfather was Hasidic."

"Ah, so you have some Hasidic DNA in you."

"A pintele!" (This got a chuckle.)

Then Mrs. Yid came up and said hi. Looking at both of us, the guy remarked, "You both look very Hasidish." We shrugged.

Turning to Mrs. Yid, he asked, "Do you also have Hasidic ancestors?"

She replied, "No, but I have very venerable Protestant ones!"

"Ah," he said. "So you're a Jew-by-choice?"

I looked at her for a minute.

"Yes," she said, taking my hand. "And honestly, so is he."

Later I went home and Googled the guy. Turns out he's an old friend of Shlomo Carlebach. Zayde would be so proud. (Abbot Yid, not surprisingly, had never heard of Shlomo.)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Traditional but Alternative

Mrs. Yid and I have enjoyed our time shul-hopping but are happy to have found a congregational home. What we hadn't expected was that the shul-hopping would continue after we joined the shul. Case in point: last week's Kabbalat Shabbat with a new Reform minyan start-up (they call themselves a kehillah, which I guess sounds more friendly to Reform ears than a minyan- maybe it's generational; my parents still have visceral reactions to that term). There were guitars (fine), a harmonica (not bad, actually), and a mercifully brief use of bongos (cue irritated glowering from Mrs. Yid). The drash was pretty rambling (please don't end each point by saying, "I just thought that was interesting,") but at least people were engaged. Ultimately the visitors were nice and friendly, but the services encapsulated all the ways in which, as Mrs. Yid put it, "We've been ruined on Reform."

This isn't exactly new-- loyal readers will recall our first minyan at college was Carlebach-inspired at a Conservative shul, and we spent many enjoyable services at Evil Minion which is a Conservadox partnership minyan par excellence. Still, what with us slowly starting to take more mitzvot (or pseudo-mitzvot) on, the idea of belonging to a community that actually purports to follow some version of halacha-- in both positive and, perhaps, "restrictive" ways, no longer feels quite so at odds with our own philosophies. Mrs. Yid told me shortly before we got married that for her to feel connected, she needed to feel like she was actually doing Jewish things, and I think there's something to that.

There was another interesting moment the other week: towards the end of the service we started talking with an older gay man I'll call Irv who hops between Beth Elderly and Temple GLBT. We mentioned that a lot of the visitors seemed to come from the Reform tradition (some of them mentioned being current or former members of Temple Touched by God, and I recognized their photocopied siddur from Mishkan T'filah). Irv commented that he had noticed that, but added that given that background, he was surprised at how non-inclusive the service was. He said it was one thing for a place that does traditional liturgy to stick with that, but that he didn't understand why you would leave people out if you specifically do liberal liturgy. We knew what he meant; Temple GLBT alternates pronouns during Hinei Ma Tov, and also adds a section about different orientations during some choral prayers. It doesn't always resonate with me personally, but it's nice that it's there.

Afterwards, Mrs. Yid commented that Irv seemed to have been testing the waters with us; our clothes were probably reading as uber-frum (which has happened before), but he saw Mrs. Yid using Mishkan T'filah, and when he mentioned Temple GLBT we responded positively and even mentioned that we had gone to services there several times. From there he felt comfortable enough to come out with mild criticism. But that what it really came down to, in her eyes, was that both we and Irv are outliers, "alternative," and that she saw the Kehillah folks, and their home community of Touched by God, as "mainstream" par excellence.

It's a little counter-intuitive to think of the poster-child for liberal Judaism in the city leaving people out, but Mrs. Yid was basically saying that because they're so big, and so establishment (and have been since their founding), some people fall through their cracks. A mega-shul can do some things really well and cater to lots of niche groups, but since they've never needed to struggle for members they've never needed to think about "misfits" like us or Irv-- whereas Beth Elderly and lots of the small shuls are basically almost all misfits at this point. That's not to say we wouldn't be welcome, but it's not the same as a small place as Beth Elderly, which is really motivated to get to know its members and make sure it speaks to them (and where there seems to be more awareness about how diverse and wide-ranging the congregation is).

Though I'm still not exactly sure how much halacha I'm prepared to personally accept, I think I'm becoming more comfortable with the idea of being part of a community that at least seriously considers what halacha has to say, and I think worship style is part of this evolving sensibility as well. However, some of our foundational core values are also inclusiveness and diversity, so I think balancing those two elements is going to be an ongoing process as we try to take our Judaism and our community-building more seriously.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Growing Up

Mrs. Yid and I have decided to join Beth Elderly! (I'm still trying to figure out a better name for them, but for now, it is what it is). I sent the shul admin guy an email saying "after five years, it's time to make it official."

As part of this making things official business, we decided to finally attend a Saturday morning service. It was fine, maybe not as fun as Friday night, but nice. Lots of people were out of town for a shul event so we definitely stood out, but we got lots of encouraging smiles from the regulars. One fun (?) moment came when the shammes handed me an aliyah card. I had about fifteen minutes to totally overthink things and decuple-check the transliteration of the blessing in my siddur, and was feeling fine as I went up to the bimah. I have done aliyot before at a few cousins' Bar Mitzvahs, so I wasn't exactly going in blind.

And yet, as soon as I was up there, I became a stumbling boob. It was as though I'd never read transliterated Hebrew before (granted, it was written old-school Ashkenazi style, but still-- I've seen that before). I think it might have been a little stage fright (which also never happens to me, but go figure). I stumbled through the blessing, stood around awkwardly during the reading, and then tried to run away as soon as I could (the cantor ordered me back up for the rest of the reading, go team!) When they finally let me slink away, everyone on the bimah shook my hand and the shammes said, "See, you got through it!" Technically, I suppose.

Telling the rabbi about it the next weekend at Young Guard Havdalah, I said, "You know that part in Judges where 'the spirit of the Lord entered into Samson'? It was like the opposite of that."

Still, I think this was healthy. For a long time I've had low-to-mid-level anxiety about wanting to appear like I know what I'm doing. For better or worse, when people see my beard, my hat, and Mrs. Yid's scarves (and lack of pants), they make some assumptions about our knowledge or observance level, and sometimes I feel a little embarrassed to admit how little I know. It's important to me to not only be Jewishly literate and competent, but also to not feel like I'm somehow putting people on by wearing a frumish costume or something when I can't even read Hebrew. While I know eventually I really just need to get over the embarrassment/anxiety factor, I think part of what's going on here is also that it's hard to do things out of your comfort zone. It's hard to admit you don't know as much as other people. It's hard to acknowledge your own shortcomings. But that's also how you grow. So, while we may not go every week, I think I'll be sticking with Saturday services. I'll even go up for another aliyah when they ask.

Which I hope will not be for a while.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Putting in the Work

Since last we spoke, there have been quite a few developments in our relationship with Beth Elderly. First of all, this Young Guard Havdalah thing has been a modest but regular success, which is a big deal for us, given that we usually fail to stick with things, and particularly given that the demographics of Beth Elderly are strongly against a YGH having a sizable enough turnout to regularly perpetuate itself. Yes, numbers have trickled off following the inaugural Havdalah night, but the smaller group has allowed Mrs. Yid and I (ok, I'll be honest, it's mostly me) to get over a lot of our initial shyness. Hanging out with Abraham, Sarah and Batsheva the President's Daughter (TM) has helped a lot. It's also been nice because now we have some friendly faces (and the names to go with them) we can seek out at shul if there's a lull in social interaction.

Some good/fun news first:

  • As mentioned before, YGH has been going well. Your humble correspondent even played host to the gang this last time around-- and did it solo, to boot, since Mrs. Yid's store is starting to make her work crazy hours again. Fun times were had by all (particularly when I added the shot of Bacadri 151 to the Havdalah wine after pouring it out so that the candle made a pretty flame).

  • We have started going to Beth Elderly's Kabbalat Shabbat services and monthly potlucks again. Davening quality continues to vary; the rabbi keeps trying livelier Carlebach tunes, and while his heart is in the right place, his voice really isn't. Still, despite the Friar's better/critical nature, I have started to steel myself against griping about it every time and instead am doing my best to carry the room with what my wife says is a halfway decent voice.

  • I went to a Lag B'Omer BBQ at the rabbi's house solo and didn't turn into a pillar of salt.

  • I took a month-long Tanakh class (also solo) taught by the rabbi's wife and had a lot of fun and even learned a few new insights into the text (biggest take away for the book of Ruth: how pure are Naomi's intentions when she sends her daughters-in-law away? The rabbi's wife, for one, not so sure). Again, despite being a little nervous to do this alone, it worked out just fine, and now I have a few new names for my mental rolodex (sorry, that's dated, isn't it? I meant my mental contacts list).

And now for (a little) griping! Just because it wouldn't be TCfS without it.

  • Figure out this singing thing, please!
This may be unfair since rabbis and cantors are two separate professions, but I really wish the rabbi would either go to a few Carlebach services/listen to some tunes online as a refresher, or ask someone in the congregation to help him out with this. Because, honestly, it's hard enough to get the kavannah going with the old dirgey stuff without having not very good Carlebach on top of it.

  • Random people have nothing better to do but come talk to me, apparently.
There is one lady in her late 50s who I'll name Masha the Meshuggener who is always rambling about something. The first time we met her, it was that there was nowhere for her to shop that she liked. We offered various suggestions and she shot each of them down. "That one mistreats its workers. That one doesn't have a union. That one isn't organic. I'd die before I shopped there!" Luckily we had other people at our table to talk to, so we did. I wasn't as lucky at Lag B'Omer, however. Masha came up to my table and started complaining at me. Apparently her day canvassing the neighborhood for petition signatures was tiring. I reached deep into my soul and resisted the urge to either run away or make small talk. I just wasn't going to engage. I had a beer, I could just tune her out. I managed to keep that up for about a good 15 minutes, while she ranted about city council this and local opposition that and some political opponent of hers who wasn't as good as her and about how there should be a law about pre-requisite political experience, though apparently that wasn't an issue when the President got elected so why should it matter now...

That's right, people. Even in San Francisco, even among the crunchiest of the crunchy, you can find old Jewish ladies with an Obama axe to grind. Viva diversity, I guess?

It was at that point that Masha became interested in my drink. She wanted to know what it was. As it happened, it was a nice ale produced by one of my favorite Canadian-influenced breweries. She wanted to mix a shot of it with her organic apple juice. Since I had only brought so many bottles, my first instinct was to be annoyed, but then I remembered that Unibroue's beers are about 9% ABV, more than twice that of a standard beer like Guinness or Newcastle. So I figured, if I can't make Masha stop talking, at least I can make her entertaining. I poured her a good solid shot and she liked it so much she had me save her another one for later. Unfortunately she didn't become any more entertaining, and even after I left the table and sat by the bonfire to make room for lots of young families she insisted on following me, helpfully recalling all her bitter and tragic memories relating to fireplaces and the contents therein (I am not making this up; I heard about this lady's inheritance and how it connected with fireplaces).

Also at Lag B'Omer, a 90-year-old Russian guy came up to me with a photocopied pamphlet he had written extolling the virtues of veganism. At a meat BBQ. Oh-kay. When he ran out of pamphlets, the older gentleman stood in the middle of the rabbi's backyard singing O Solo Mio, followed by a few old Yiddish songs. Since he was surrounded by mommies and grand-mommies who have long since lost any critical thinking abilities, every time a song ended their response was to manically clap and yell, "Yay, yay!" as if they had just seen a two-year-old blow out a birthday cake. Which is funny, because after Old Man Veganism finished, a mother dragged her 7-year-old up, brought out his music stand, violin and songbook (which they had just happened to bring?) and he performed an impromptu concert. Again, the "Yaying" crowd wouldn't stop, so the kid just kept going, probably for close to half an hour. The whole time his mom was sitting a foot away from him in a folding chair, taping the whole thing on her iPhone. I'm not saying the kid wasn't talented, I just don't know that I really needed to know the jazzy version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

  • Something is personally inconvenient to me!
Your shul is in the middle of nowhere and when I get there early for Tanakh class there is nowhere to sit or hang out that doesn't result in me being blown around by gale force winds like a rag doll. Not really Beth Elderly's fault, but still, yesterday I wound up spending an hour and a half reading my book under a bush like a hobo just to get out of the wind. And then I had to shlep home after. It was lame. Worth it, but still lame.

Despite all this, though, it's become quite clear to me that Beth Elderly is the only shul that's ever really felt welcoming to us, and even though things there aren't perfect (as the grass-stains on my pants can attest), we feel pretty sure that our next big step will be to formally join the shul. Which, as no one in my family (besides Uncle Milt) has been official members of anything Jewish in over 40 years, is kind of a big deal. Even though there are things I'd like to change there, and even though we may be leaving the city in a few years, I've finally realized what everyone has been saying to me: if you want a community, you have to work at it. If you want things to be better, you have to participate. That's what a community is. So, fine. I'm game. Let's keep the momentum going.

This weekend: Shavuot!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Building Bridges

Our adventures with the Not-So-Elderly from Beth Elderly continue! This month we had Young Adult (defined as under 40) Havdalah at another couple's home. The rabbi and his wife brought their two kids, which was fun for a while, but got pretty chaotic pretty fast (one and three years old are not ideal ages for hanging out multiple hours after sun-down). Aside from that, there were a handful of young folks we had met last time. We did Havdalah, chatted about the shul, and just generally spent time getting to know each other. Mrs. Yid and I wound up staying past midnight talking with the host couple Abraham and Sarah about their practice and journeys with Judaism. As a fellow young couple of eclectic religious background and practices it was a lot of fun to trade stories and experiences without feeling that we were weirding each other out. (Abraham was raised Episcopalian, eventually found out he was halachically Jewish through his maternal grandmother, and spent time at college Hillel, Reform Judaism, Chabad and Evil Minion before finding Beth Elderly; Sarah is a practicing Catholic and the two of them are active in both communities-- very busy weekends!) Compared to them, Mrs. Yid and my religious affiliation and practice are almost uncomplicated, something we haven't felt in... ever?

There have been a few times over the past ten or fifteen years when I made a close friendship that wound up having a big impact on my Jewish education and practice. The first was in high school, when I found my first Jewish friend that was religious enough that he could at least take me to High Holiday services at his shul. The second was in college, when my best friend and roommate was a rabbi's kid and really knew what she was doing, and gave me the anchoring I needed to take the things I had been learning from books and putting them into practice. With these new friends, I feel like there's the potential to have some fellow travelers who understand the challenges of wanting to take a tradition seriously (or at least more seriously than not at all) while not being judged for the choices you ultimately make or don't make.

Here's hoping that our new acquaintance with Abraham and Sarah will turn into a long friendship-- and maybe encourage us to take our path(s) as seriously as they do theirs.

And also that next time, the rabbi and his wife will get a baby-sitter.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Darkness and Light

In Parsha Bo we hear about the plague of darkness. The Etz Hayim has an interesting commentary. If the darkness was only a lack of physical light, it says, couldn't people have just used candles? This question, while kind of bizarre, leads to an intriguing suggestion: the darkness could also have had psychological, emotional or spiritual dimensions. While I'm not sure I buy that reading in the context of the text, I think lots of people can relate to emotional darkness-- whether feeling like you've fallen into an abyss, or just struggling with general dissatisfaction.

I've been feeling some of the latter lately, and though it may sound overdramatic, I absolutely agree with designating it as a "plague." If life is supposed to be about joy and satisfaction, not having those things can definitely feel like a curse or affliction. It sucks when things suck, not just because bad things are happening, but also because they have a way of creeping in and nullifying, or at least diminishing, the good stuff. Etz Hayim quotes the Midrash connecting the Darkness/Light metaphors with Heaven and Hell: "Just as the light of Shabbat is a foretaste of the world to come... the darkness of the ninth plague is a foretaste of Gehinnom..." Powerful imagery for people engaged in an intellectual examination of depression, though I don't think I'd use it to cheer someone up.

The hardest part of our practice these days is how inconsistent things are, and that mostly has to do with us still not having found a community we really connect with. Mrs. Yid's schedule continues to be pretty crazy, and I spend most Shabbats alone. It's hard to be consistent when I'm missing my partner in crime (and Yiddishkeit). Most of the time we're too busy to really notice it, but it still pops up from time to time-- for me, particularly when I have to spend Shabbat alone, but also on the rare occasion where we wind up doing a lot of Jewish social stuff.

This week is a great example. This week my cousin came from Israel on a speaking tour and invited us to come hear her talk. We met her beforehand, had dinner, and then went to the event. Despite the fact that initially I was rather anxious about meeting new people, things actually turned out totally fine. I even had a chance to talk Israeli politics/anthropology with a few folks.

At the end of the night, my cousin mentioned she was going to be spending Shabbat speaking at a synagogue in the East Bay, Beth Funny Name to be Determined. Mrs. Yid and I have been interested in checking out BFNtbD for a while now but haven't made it across the bay, and I mentioned I would try to check it out.

But then I remembered that Mrs. Yid was working that day. As soon as I realized that I would have to go alone, I got a sick feeling in my stomach. It festered over the next few days, and I realized that even though I wanted to go there and see her speak... I was also kind of terrified of going by myself. And that feeling didn't go away, even after talking about it multiple times. I kept waffling back and forth about "maybe I could go," and then retreating. And every time, I was also beating up on myself for this even being an issue in the first place. I didn't wind up going, and I was pretty irritated with myself.

The week didn't end too badly, though. My cousin was chatting with some of her rabbinical colleagues and remembered that we had spent some time at Beth Elderly a few years ago. It turned out that the new-ish rabbi there was organizing a young adult Havdalah. Would we like to come?

Going to services alone at a shul where I've never been before is tough. Trying to chat up random strangers in a super crowded room after services at Evil Minion is tough. But a few young adults at the rabbi's house? This, I can do. So I said yes, and we went, and things actually were really, really nice. It turns out that since we stopped going the new rabbi has been working hard to encourage more young people, and they're now experimenting with more Carlebach stuff in their services, as well as trying to make more opportunities for the young folks to meet and hang out outside of shul, too.

This was like music to my ears. One young married couple-- who had also gone to Evil Minion many times and found it really hard to meet anyone-- had even joined the board!

As with anything involving Jews, there were things that weren't perfect. Mrs. Yid had several wardrobe malfunctions and had to battle the city's various inept transportation systems and wound up coming late. There wasn't much for me to eat because no one knew my food allergies. There were people there who I wouldn't choose as my best friends (did you know Canada has bad weather? Now I do, too. In excruciating detail.) But all those things actually had a bright side. I had to go in and schmooze for an hour with strangers by myself, something I had all but convinced myself I was incapable of doing. I got to see that there are plenty of other young-ish people out there with worse social skills than me. (I'm only moderately awkward! Go team!) And the fact that I didn't get much food gave us an excuse to go out for dinner afterwards to celebrate.

On the way home, I told Mrs. Yid that I had just had an epiphany.

"It's terrible!"


"I think... your Dad may be right."

"About what?"

"About that stupid Gandhi quote he likes so much. 'Be the change you want to see in the world.'"


"I think it means... we can't spend all our time banging our heads into the wall trying to shoehorn ourselves into someone else's community... if there's a place that's welcoming to us, and they're trying to grow their young members... maybe what we need to do is get involved, and build it into the kind of community we want to have."

"Funny, I feel like I've only been saying this for the last five years."

I love my wife.

Mrs. Yid and I have talked a lot about anxiety this week, and we've concluded that my anxiousness about talking to people may be a bit beyond the norm-- and that it may be something worth looking into with a therapist. Plenty of people in both our families take anti-anxiety and anti-depression meds, so it's not out of the question that I might have some funky brain chemistry going on, too.

But maybe it's also that, given the choice, I'd rather meet people in small doses. Maybe it's about needing to not bite off more than I can chew.

Even though this has been a really tough week, I'm starting to feel hopeful. There's a little more light in the tunnel.

It's nice to know we have options. It's important to remember that there is a community that has continually welcomed us, without pressure and without preconditions. And it's fantastic that there seems to be the seeds of a change happening there where all the pressure won't be on us to save the shul.

So who knows, maybe by this time next year, I'll have a new name for Beth Elderly. Maybe Beth Median (math joke!) Maybe Beth Boardwalk (it's by the beach).

Or maybe, Home.