Note to software companies that host their annual user conferences in Vegas: I hate you.
If you’re going to plop a bunch of business and IT folks in the middle of Sin City, PLEASE have the decency to start your morning events later. After cruising around the Bellagio (starting to show its age, by the wasy) all night I really don’t need to try and be awake for an early morning breakfast followed by a droning CEO exlaining their latest innovations in buzzword-ese. Seriously. The morning sessions looked like something out of Zombieland without the cool banter.
On the other hand, I did get an IHR (Ironic Hell Reference) which I’m always a fan of. An IHR requires a few things. First, the person deliving the IHR has to go out of his or her way to get the attention of the Jew Who Will Burn. It can’t just be a passing conversation that you hear – they have to be targeting you. Seconod – it has to be situationally stupid – i.e. something about the way the comment was delivered or the situation itself has to make it look especially dumb. Previous IHR’s I’ve run into have involved things like wild, very uniformed ideas about Judaism that were so attrociously wrong that even gentile onlookers cringe at what a nincompoop the speaker is.
In this case I was at a slot machine (not much of a gambler but when in Vegas I’ll pick a machine and donate some money to Las Vegas economy) with a group of fellow travellers to the conference. We were having a good time when a small group from Somewhere With A Southern Accent saw us – and more specifically, me. They were smoking, drinking, gambling, and generally just doing what everyone else in Vegas is doing.
“Huh, I didn’t know a Jew was supposed to gamble. Thought that wouldn’t be allowed.”
“Well, what do you expect. It’s money isn’t it?”
Froma gentile in my group: “And what are you doing here? Starting a prayer group?”
“Well, all I know is if you’re going to Hell anyway you probably don’t worry about morals.”
Amazed looks from my group and then a couple of snorts of laughter,
“Um, You know how dumb that sounds when you’re walking around a casino?’
Confused looks. Apparently they didn’t get the irony. Then they left.
On the plus side, an IHC quite often leads to those around me learning something since they will often follow up (after the obligatory comments about the jerks) with a few questions about being Jewish – which allows me to dispel a few rumors and/or explain some of the differences between Jewish demoninations, etc.
And then I hit a nice progressive payout that covered dinner that evening for everyone in the group. Just to keep the good vibes going we went to a kosher Chinese restaurant off the strip and I treated everyone to their first kashrut-certified meal.
And now I’m back home and so tired after a week of conference and casino madness (those machines are EVERYWHERE out there and the noise gets very annoying) I’m tired enough to sleep through the rest of the weekend.
I try to look back at situations and events I’ve been in and pick out what the “best part” was for me. This started as a self-enforced habit to help me go out and do things that I didn’t want to do.
I used to avoid a lot of things because I could very quickly look at the surface of the proposed event/activity and know that I wouldn’t like it. Example. When I got to an age when everyone wanted to go clubbing I found every excuse in the book (and invented a few new ones) not to go. Reason? I “knew” in advance that being in a dimly lit club surrounded by deafening techno music, overpriced drinks, and overdressed drunks was something that held no interest for me. Puh-lease. I played D&D as a kid when I wasn’t learning to program with my Trash-80 (the Model 1. Cassette drive for data storage. No floppy disk. RF output so strong it put static lines on the family TV when I had it turned on) or reading a book. So I knew that I would not like a club. Eventually, of course, I got wheedled/cajoled into going. You know what? I was right. I didn’t like it.
At some point I started people-watching. Will that guy over there figure out that he has no shot with the girl he’s buying all the drinks for? Will that other guy be able to navigate to the bathroom without falling face-down? Eventually I met a few others who were there “at gunpoint.” We started betting on club stuff. 20 bucks says the idiot in the Ramones T-shirt is gonna barf after his next drink, etc.
I still don’t particularly like clubbing – but I can find something to take away from it.
Eventually I started applying my Best Part rule to almost everything – even things I wasn’t disliking in advance.
Today I went to a Community Gathering (focus group) at my shul bent on defining who we are as a congregation and where we want to be in the future. The purpose of the meetings is to help the Rabbinical Search Committee put together the parameters to find a new permanent rabbi. It was very well run and and I’m glad I went. The input from the various meetings will hopefully be of use to the committee. The fun for me was seeing the personality quirks and opinions that bubble out of people when they are discussing Real Stuff. People can politely chat about How The Kids Are Doing or the week’s Torah portion until the cows come home. But on the subject of What Our Shul Should Be? The answers are as varied as the congregants. On the macro level the conversations go as expected. More interesting to me are the little slips: a little comment gains whole volumes of meaning due to the tone of voice. Does eveyone ignore it? Or does someone counter with a polite riposte, also with a little bit of a tone?
The best part?
Before the meeting started I planted myself next to a very senior citizen. On general principle I tend to do that for a couple of reasons. The first reason is altruistic: if the person needs any assistance I can give it. What can I say? Show me a lady walking toward a door and I open it. Show me someone gathering stuff to carry and I ask if I can help. Where I come from that’s just par for the course. The second reason is self interest: I am addicted to the stories our elders have to tell. While in high school I was in National Honor Society and our group would go visit people in a local nursing home. They were just people like anyone else but they were people who had already lived through everything a human goes through and were still here to talk about it. More importantly, they wouldn’t be here much longer so you have to listen now or you may not get another chance. So the best part for me today was sitting next to a nonagenarian jewish guy and just letting him talk.
This last week we had our traditional Purim service and our excellent Purim Spiel, but today was the Purim Carnival – an event for the kids to dress up in their costumes, play games, and have a cookout. The Brotherhood always does the grilling so I went up there early today to help bring out the grill, set up the tables, and help get everyone served. It was a very nice time for the adults and since I heard lots of giggling from the kids I’ll assume they were having fun as well. Missing were the rabbi and his fellow travelers who took off today for their trip to Israel – hopefully they have a wonderful and moving trip and return to us safe, sound, and with great stories.
After the shut down and clean-up phases were done I headed back home to get my weekly chores done – groceries had to be bought and laundry had to be done. This last week was the annual incentive bonus at work so I stopped at an ATM to deposit the check. While I was standing there pressing buttons (yes I want to proceed, no I don’t want a printed receipt, yes please email my receipt, yes please give my card back, no I don’t want a danish but thank you for asking, etc.) a car pulled up right next to me and I heard “Shalom!”
I glanced up not really expecting to see a chasidic - there are lots of people, usually not Jewish, who say “shalom” on general principle to anyone wearing a kippah. This time, though, it was definitely one of us. I finally convinced the machine to let me have my card back and went over to say hello. It was an interesting conversation. He asked me who I was and if I was visiting. I told him I had lived here for ten years and that my shul was B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley. He asked if I was born Jewish or if I had converted (which I had always been taught was not appropriate to ask of people but I’m guessing the Segregationist crowd feels differently if they think the person might not be a “true” convert – meaning one who wasn’t converted by a Segregationist rabbi.) I told him I had converted. He asked if I was as B’nai Tzedek when I had done so. I told him no and told him the congregation and rabbi (Bernie King, of blessed memory). I had figured out at this point that this must be the local Chabad rabbi but he hadn’t said so, so I asked who he was and he introduced himself then. He gave me his card and asked for my email address so he could put me on their mailing list to keep me abreast of what was going on in town.
Over the past year or so I’ve met a number of his congregants. The conversations have always been pleasant enough though a bit strained as they learned that I preferred to drive several towns away on a regular basis to a shul rather than go to the local chabad center. When I mentioned that I’d met several of the locals he said that they had told him about me. I wonder how he will speak about me now. I am openly Jewish and in many ways more observant than a lot of jews of various denominations. I think besides him I’m the only guy walking around in town wearing a kippah which means when I meet people and talk with them and (when they ask, which happens a lot when you walk around “wearing it”) explain Judaism, I become the face of Judaism for them. And yet, according to his tradition I’m not Jewish. Yes the rabbi made me go through all the halachic requirements for conversion but since he isn’t part of the orthodox they disallow his actions.
If the conversation continues I’ll be interested to see how it goes. I have met Chabad rabbis before and their attitude ranged from nastiness (Ptooey, you’re not a jew!) to offering to “make it real” (If you want to really be Jewish you have to do it right. We could talk sometime…)
Wherever he is in that spectrum I hope he isn’t holding his breath for a big reaction from me. With Chabad I always take the subject of “Jewishness” with a grain of salt: it is, after all, a bit odd to be lectured to about Judaism from someone waiting for the second coming of Schneerson.
I clicked over to cnn.com tonight to see what was happening besides U.S. politics and found a couple of interesting tidbits.
The first was a look inside a political rally in Iran, where a lot of the basic freedoms we take for granted aren’t necessarily there. I used to work at a company owned by a couple of Iranian guys and a good number of my co-workers were from Tehran or its general vicinity. It was always hard trying to relate to the stories they told about life in their home country because their idea of what a government is allowed to was so radically different than mine. One day they were talking about a debate going on in Iranian circles about the morality of “ritual rape” – meaning the practice that forbids executing a woman if she is a virgin. To make sure this doesn’t happen, a condemned virgin would be married to someone the night before the execution so that she could have the marriage consumated and be executed legally. I have no idea how common the practice is, I just know how much it bothers me that something like that could even be a debate. It is practices like that which make me so glad to be here – and even more determined that one group’s views not be imposed on others – like, say, forcing a woman to have an ultrasound before an abortion.
The second piece that caught my eye was a story about a private Jewish school in Texas withdrawing from the playoffs because a game occured on the Sabbath. Another case of cultural differences, but happening here. Should the governing board change the game for the sake of one group that is different? I am (from a Reform standpoint, at least) Sabbath observant: I don’t shop, I don’t go party, I don’t conduct business. There are times (ranging from events that friends are having to car repair) in which it causes complications, but I am the one who decided to keep the Sabbath and I don’t expect the world to remake itself around me because of it. More interesting to me were some of the comments on the article – how absolutely caustic some people are about anything they don’t happen to agree with. Not content to just disagree, not understand, or walk away; they feel the need to attach and demean. Sad.
If I’m going to put a blog up it apparently means I have to write things to post on it.
On the plus side, I couldn’t be happier with my new job. When you go in for you 90-day review and your manager says “Don’t worry, this won’t be so much a review as it is an ego-stroking session.” that’s a good thing. Very good. Baruch hashem and so forth.
I’m not sure whether to count the rest of this on the minus side or not. Today I met after work with a couple of members of Brotherhood to discuss the annual Yom Hashoah candle project. Each year the Brotherhood buys, packages, and sends all members a Yom Hashoah candle along with a return envelope for those who wish to send a donation in thanks. Those who can’t do so get a free candle for the holiday and those who can give us a source of revenue for our efforts to support the synagogue. Pretty straightforward and good and all that and I’m glad to be a part of it. We discussed the details, made sure those of us doing it this year know how to go about it, and decided how to divide up the major tasks – my biggest job, being of relatively sound mind and body (and having a truck and being capable of lifting things without blowing a knee) is to get the wrapped candles delivered to the post office.
However, any gathering of more than one Jew tends to lend itself to discussions of What Things Should Be Like At The Shul. Especially at times like this when the synagogue’s founding Rabbi is retiring and everyone is gathering around to See What Happens Next. There are few things you can count on happening, I am told. There will be those who know that things will undoubtedly change and they want to always remember what it was and so they just call it quits. There are those who have problems with others in our community and will use this as an “excuse” to call it quits rather than join together, which requires effort. And because of this, there has to be an effort to get others involved in caring for and nurturing the shul as we move forward.
This is where I’m not sure what to do and how to feel about it. It was noted that there are precious few of us in the Brotherhood who are not in danger of needing denture cream sometime soon. That’s an overstatement, but not by much. I should know: until the past year you couldn’t pay me to be a member of a synagogue. Why? Because in the view of a lot of Jews my age synagogue are for Old People, Old People’s Parents (found in synagogues and Florida), and people my age who have kids and whose parents have guilt-tripped them into showing up on Family Service night.
In a Reform congregation I’m an oddball and I know it. In the past that’s why I was never there. What were my options? I was raised by a mother who is very outspoken about how women are treated and am constitutionally incapable of going to a shul where she would have to go sit behind a wall. Just can’t do it. I got very tired of showing up at a place and being asked (sometime directly, sometimes nicely) Why I Was There. The easy answer was to not be there.
At some point I realized that I’m an oddball all over the place. I’ve come to accept it, even embrace it. Oddballs (sometimes this is good, sometimes it isn’t) don’t do what Everyone Else does and when we do it’s often not for Everyone Else’s reasons. I’m a person of principal, deciding that I believe X and therefore I will do Y because of it. That’s quite often lonely, but it makes a difference. The world doesn’t get changed by everyone else, it gets changed by oddballs. I don’t know that I’ll change the world. Probably not. But I do know that shuls have died out in times like this because of not enough people being willing to stick it out and make it work. I’ll do what I can.
Tonight I was in the mood to play. I’ve always liked the standard baked acorn squash, but I’m also intrigued by any vegetable or fruit that presents me with a cavity that just begs to be stuffed. Tonight’s experiment (after a day of laundry, watching a soccer game (Liverpool vs Chelsea), and a couple of beers) is acorn squash stuffed with mango, brown sugar, and walnuts. Yummy.
Ingredients: 1 Large Mango, 1 Acorn squash, 3 Tbsp. brown sugar, 3 Tbsp. vegan margarine of your choice (softened), 1/2 cup chopped walnuts, 1 Tbsp tawny port.
Pre-heat oven to 400.
Peel and dice the mango.
Cover a small baking dish with foil. Brush a little softened margarine on the foil. Put the diced mango on the foil. Spread remaining margarine over the top and sprinkle with 2 Tbsp. of the brown sugar.
Bake for around 5 minutes.
Remove from oven and mix in the port wine and walnuts.
Cut squash in half, remove seeds and fibers, and place in a baking dish.
Spoon 1/2 of mango mixture into each half of squash. Sprinkle remaining brown sugar on top of each.
Bake for around 1 hour.
I am really enjoying my new job so far. Seems like a good group of people and the role is interesting and challenging. Of course, I’m a geek, so handing me a bunch of disparate underdeveloped systems and saying “fix all this” is something I find fun. When the layoff at my last company happened, a former boss (who had left the company a few years ago) told me not to worry and that maybe it would end up being a good thing. Not to jinx it, but so far she seems to be right.
This is also the end of my first year at my synagogue. Not as a member, but it has been a year since I first started attending there. It was the Veterans Day service a year ago that I first attended. At the time I was not at all excited about synagogue life. My Jewish life had mostly been spent in independent minyans, seeking out a shul for the occasional service or the High Holy Days. Still, it seemed like a nice crowd and I really didn’t relish trying to seek out or create another minyan.
One year later not only am I a member of the shul but vice president of our brotherhood group which was sponsoring this year’s Veterans Day service.