Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Albuquerque Walking Tour II: Downtown


Last week I blogged about our walking tour of Huning-Highlands Neighborhood of Albuquerque.
After we had coffee, and walked around the newly rennovated Old Albuquerque High School Complex, we crossed south of Central Avenue to wander the streets of the Near-East Downtown area, and then crossed the railroad tracks into downtown proper on the Lead Avenue Overpass.
As we walked through the First Baptist Church complex (it was the first non-Catholic church in the center of ABQ) at the edge of Huning-Highland, we could look west and see the old and new buildings of Downtown.

At the far left fore is the Sunshine Bank building, and behind it, the Quest Building. The skyscraper in the Middle is the Albuquerque Bank Building, and in front of it is the Convention Center. To the right is the Hyatt Hotel.

Looking west across the tracks from the Near East Downtown Neighborhood, we look directly at the the Old Alvarado Hotel--Harvey House area. This burned down in two stages. Long before we lived in Albuquerque, the hotel was lost, and about 20 years ago, the Old Train Station burned. Oddly enough, it did so when I was visiting family in Illinois. When I left, I left from the Old Train Station. When I came home, the station was a pile of burnt rubble.

The Near-East Downtown area has many graceful old homes that were rented by railroad workers and by the Harvey House management to board their employees.

The newly-built Alvorado Transportation Center on First Street south of Central Avenue, in Downtown proper, west of the tracks.

The Atchinson, Topeka and the Santa Fe (a.k.a. "the Santa Fe Railroad") was brought to Albuquerque by Oscar Huning, the tycoon who developed the Huning-Highlands neighborhood and the Country Club neighborhood further west.

The architecture of the old Occidental Life Insurance Building (now Tally Systems) was based on one of the Moorish building in Cordova, Spain. It has the graceful Arabic arches and stylized cross windows that mark this style, and yet inside the arches, the glass windows are thouroughly modern. This is typical of American city architecture from the Rococco period.

Albuquerque's first skyscraper, the Sunshine building is now home to the Sunrise Bank. The Sunshine Theatre still occupies the northwest corner of the first floor. In the lobby of the bank, a modern elevator with bronze doors stands right next to the old elevator that had cast-iron cage doors. One of the parents on the tour had a great-aunt who used to be an elavator operator in the Sunshine building.

At the bottom-center of the picture is the Boychick's friend A, in the green shirt. In front of A and to the left (next to the white truck) is the Boychick's back, jacket flung over his shoulder and the Fedora on his head.

At then heart of Downtown, on Fourth and Central, is one of the old Ilfeld buildings, now lovingly restored.
The Ilfelds were German Jews, who brought Reform Judaism to Albuquerque. They crossed the plains with the Railroad to Las Vegas New Mexico, which had the first Askenazi congregation in New Mexico. Some of the family, along with Albert Grunsfeld, and the Seligmans, founded Congregation Albert (named after the Grunsfeld patriarch), the oldest Reform synagogue west of the Pecos and East of the Sierra. Solomon Bibo, another founder, took an Indian wife and served as the first non-native governor of Acoma Pueblo.

The building now houses Nick's Diner--very good Greek and American food--and has apartments above.

Next week: The old Kimo Theater restored!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Baby and the Bathwater III: Losing My Religion

Recently, I have been writing about the concerns that the Engineering Geek and I have about our synagogue membership. I wrote about how the rabbi's sermon on Rosh Hashanah caused me to think about his assertion that the organization is indeed a community, and I wrote more about that in light of my experiences when it felt like community and how that changed.

In the first of these posts I also wrote this: "Reform Judaism has a well-developed set of traditions." And I said I'd return to this idea in a future post. This is the promised post.

"Reform Judaism has a well-developed set of traditions."
For those who know anything about the early Reformers, those in Germany, and those in the United States, this may seem like an odd statement. Many Jews, Reform and otherwise, believe that the early Reformers threw the baby out with the bathwater, that they not only deprived the past of a veto, but also of a vote. In short, many believe that the phrase "Reform tradition" is an oxymoron. The Pittsburg Platform (1885) threw out kashrut (the dietary laws), as well as the ritual laws, in favor of a focus on the uniquely Reform virtues of Ethical Monotheism. Thus the Reform Movement entered the period know as Classical Reform.
During this time the service was mostly in English, nobody wore kippot (yarmulkes), synagogues were called temples (the reformers were not waiting for the rebuilding of the original in Jerusalem) and we were to be Jews at home, Americans on the street. In short, it looked like Reform got rid of tradition entirely. Tevye the Milkman was an embarrassing Ostjude (Eastern European Jew); an example of all that was wrong with unenlightened Orthodoxy. Reform tradition? It's as antiquated as a fiddler on the roof!

But, what was once a reform, if it lasts a hundred years, becomes a tradition.
And as Reform Judaism has been taught and passed down from one generation to another, a certain worldview has developed. (I see it in my husband, who is fifth generation Reform--from Austria to Cincinnati to San Franscisco). Of course, the Reform I was taught, from the New Union Prayerbook, had evolved from the High Classical Reform of the Union Prayerbook. After the Shoah, we had all become Zionists, and we understood the meaning of the People of Israel in a more traditional way. Hebrew had become more common, Bar Mitzvah ceremonies had been restored, Bat Mitzvah ceremonies added, and the use of ritual objects was no longer discourged.

At the same time, important aspects of the Reform worldview continued to appeal. Ethical monotheism--the idea that the ethics of the prophets--justice, righteousness, acts of loving kindness--combined with the rational worldview of the Enlightenment, was held to be the standard of behavior. The ritual commandments that the early reformers threw out wholesale were to be observed by the educated choice of the individual. The Chem Geek Princess is old enough to have been taught Ethical Monotheism as the essence of Reform Jewish life, but she is young enough to have been brought up with more ritual than was common in Reform Jewish households in my generation. The Boychick's formal Jewish education has been sadly lacking in Ethical Monotheism, which might give the mishmash of half-understood ritual some organizing idea that would last a lifetime. (This is why I homeschooled his Jewish education and Torah Talk at the Shabbat table-- I taught him a more comprehensive way of being Jewish).

And the truth to be told, I also think the early reformers did throw the baby out with bathwater. There is much to be said for the beauty and symbolic importance of ritual in the lives of human beings. Ritual defines who we are and who are not as we rub up against other cultures. Symbols send powerful messages of the meaning of our identity as Jews directly to the soul. When I wrap myself in the tallit--the prayer shawl--and say in Hebrew: "Eternal One, you are very great! Arrayed in glory and majesty, you wrap yourself in light as with a garment, you stretch out the heavens like a curtain." I feel that I am wrapping myself in light, that I am clothed in the majesty and glory. That I dwell in the midst of endless possibilities.

And when I wrap my middle finger with the tefillin straps and say in Hebrew: "I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me with righteousness, with impeccability, with loving-kindness, with compassion; I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you shall know (physically, emotionally, spiritually) G-d"; I bind myself to G-d, Torah and Israel. But I bind myself also to those prophetic ethical precepts that I say--I bind myself as a Reform Jew with a very particular understanding of the prophetic values. I not only hear in them the voices of my rabbis and teachers, as well as the the voice of the long past; I also hear the call to be a moral human being, even in places where there are no moral human beings.

So although I understand the resurgence of ritual in Reform, I sense that I am losing my religion. The observance of half-understood ritual presented as an optional mishmash, combined with the loss of the organizing principle of Ethical Monotheism, is not a shortcut to a strong Jewish identity. The younger generation is losing an appreciation for both the baby and the bathwater. They are not being trained in the rubrics of ritual practice that will last a lifetime and uphold them during hardship and duress; and neither are they being given the ethical foundation that would give them the guts to stand up against evil and oppression. The moral fiber of Reform sensibility has been replaced with a schlock-rock, touchy-feely, short-cut to spirituality that is unlikely to survive assimilationist pressures from the dominant secular society.

Digression: In reading that last sentence, I see that I am placing myself squarely in the grand Jewish tradition. Ever since Jacob, who worried on his deathbed that his children would no longer be Jews, every generation has so worried. But will we hear the response, as Jacob did: "Sh'ma Yisrael . . . Listen, Israel (Jacob's G-d-given name), the Eternal is our G-d, the Eternal is One"? Will our children have the intestinal fortitude to so proclaim if they are pressed to the wall when they have not been taught the prophetic voice? When Judaism is reduced to an "our crowd" version of a country club?
See what I mean?

I see no harm in bringing back Hebrew. I see no harm in the use of carefully chosen ritual.
But I see great harm in losing the central tenents of Reform Judaism: Rational adherence to the Prophetic voice, crying out for Justice and Righteousness; in short, the precepts of Ethical Monotheism. Ritual observances should be carefully taught. The symbolic nature of the ritual should be elucidated, so that it is not misunderstood as a magic short-cut to holiness, or to the desired end of strong Jewish identity and the comcommitant moral absolutes and sensibilities that make up the Jewish worldview.

And speaking of those sensibilities: Reform Judaism has beautiful ritual and practice of its own. These include strong teaching from the Bimah, a firm tie to the American ideals of Liberty and Justice, and the ethical message expounded in beautiful English and a tradition of majestic choral music.

Nothing reminds me more of the Ethicial Monotheism inherent in the Reform tradition than these words, carried over nearly intact from the Union Prayerbook to the New Union Prayerbook:

" . . . Fervently we pray that the day may come when all shall turn to You in love, when corruption and evil shall give way to to integrity and goodness, when superstition shall no longer enslave the mind, nor idolatry blind the eye . . . then shall Your kingdom be established on the earth and the word of Your Prophet fulfilled . . ."

And I'd love to hear the majestic and beautiful old German-Reform melodies to Yigdal and Adon Olam, Especially the High Holy Day melodies.

Not hearing them for years on end: That's me in the corner . . . losing my religion.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Albuquerque Walking Tour: Huning Highlands Neighborhood


The Engineering Geek and I jumped at the chance to escort four boys from the EMHS Freshman Humanities class on a walking tour of Old Albuquerque. Although I had done a walking tour of the Presidio in Tucson once, I had never had a guided walk about in my adopted hometown.

This blog entry shows features of the Hunning Highlands neighborhood. Developed by Hunning, a railroad tycoon from Germany, this area lies east of the railroad tracks and west of the freeway. The houses were built in the late 1800s, and are wonderful exampes of how the merchant class of Albuquerque lived over 100 years ago.

This is a restored Queen Anne style house, but it also has some Craftsman features. Such houses were for the upper middle class of the day, and now the restored treasures are housing those who can afford to be part of the Near Downtown Revitalization project. This house is for sale!

The Old Albuquerque Public Library building on Central Avenue now houses the Geneology Collection. It is built in the Pueblo Revival style. The boys thought it looked like many of the buildings on UNM's Main Campus, and it does, as those buildings are also Pueblo Revival.

The Daily Grind Coffee Shop occupies an old house on Central Avenue, next door to the Artichoke Cafe. Chile Ristras hang from the gingerbread eaves, a common sign of autumn in the Land of Red or Green (chile, that is!).

After walking most of the Hunning Highlands neighborhood, the boys felt the need of a little caffeine. They felt very sophisticated, sipping their mocha's on a cool autumn morning during school hours.

That is the Boychick in the Fedora!

The last landmark before leaving Hunning Highlands for the Near East Downtown area was the Old Albuquerque High School Building. Built in the classic turn-of-the-19th century style, it boasted marble halls and wide staircases. Now being made into Condos and Lofts, it reminds me of the high school I graduated from in Illinois. In the right foreground is an apartment building made from one of later AHS annexes.

I was taken aback by how differently I saw this neighborhood on foot. I usually speed by on Central Avenue, or Lead or Coal!

Next week: Near East Downtown and Downtown.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Feeling the Chill?

For the record: I am not planning to vote for either major party candidate. In fact, I have voted in every presidential election since 1980, and I have yet to vote for a major party candidate. There have been a few elections during which I was mighty tempted to do so, but some messenger from on high kept me on the straight-and-narrow, and I have always voted for third party or independent candidates. In fact, I vote third party whenever I have the option. This year, I am planning to vote for Libertarian Bob Barr.
Yes, I know he will not win. I vote my conscience. Call it a protest vote.

Now to the post . . .
Today, with my DSL working like a charm, I read several blog posts about the smearing of Joe the Plumber. A Chill Wind Blowing over at the Common Room discusses the chill effect that such smear campaigns have on free expression. When I finally had the opportunity to check my overflowing in-box for the home e-mail, I found a message that left me wondering about the chill effect of using the race card in this campaign. The message implied that the reason that John McCain is doing as well as he is this late in the campaign is that, despite his far superior education, Barack Obama is black. Although I think the sender is actually an educational snob (state universities are not good enough), the implication is that if Obama loses, it is because Americans are racist.

Now the smearing of Joe the Plumber has had real world implications for the guy, precisely because Joe the Plumber is not the red-necked schlub the smears make him out to be. If he were, the smears would not matter to anyone.
But since this is a man who wants to be successful, who wants to build a business and get ahead in life, the smears serve as a warning to other Joe's out there: Do not ask the difficult questions whose answers require Obama to tip his hand. If you do, the press will dig up every bad thing you've ever done. They will make sure that your job security is threatened and that the IRS is on your tail. So you'd better make sure you are squeaky clean before you ask an intelligent question. Don't best the press.

If the smearing of Joe the Plumber has implications for him, and for free speech, imagine the chill effect the implications of the e-mail I received today has. Essentially, we are being set up. If Obama loses the election, this reasoning goes, it is not because his policies are irresponsible (although raising taxes and deficit spending during a recession are irresponsible), it is because Americans are racist. The question then becomes, how many people will vote for Obama, not because they believe he is the best man for the job, but because they are afraid of being called racist? By playing the race card as Obama has--he even implied that Bill Clinton was a racist during the primaries--he has set us up. If he loses, it is because America is racist. Here are the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's black liberation theology chickens coming home to roost.

But consider the implications if Obama wins the election. If so, there will be an unspoken question about whether he won because he was indeed the best man for the job in the minds of a majority of the electorate, or whether he won in some crazy reductio ad absurdum of affirmative action.

Either way, this country will be divided and the election will be in question.
Playing the race card in a presidential election is dangerous for the citizens of this country.
These kinds of smears on the American electorate have demonstrated to me more than anything else that has been said and done, that Obama is not ready for the presidency.
He is not a uniter of citizens. He is an intentional divider.
He is not a leader of all the people. He is as partisan as they come.
This is not about the American people, no matter how much he insists that it is.
It is about him winning at all costs.

A further implication of this dangerous use of race to win the election is this.
If Obama's supporters feel that they must smear Joe the Plumber for asking a pointed question, and if they feel that they must smear the American electorate by playing the race card, what will they do when their candidate, as president, faces opposition to his policies?

Such political opposition has been the fate of every President of the United States.
And that is proper.
Will those who oppose the Obama administration's policies also be dragged through the mud personally or smeared as racist?

This playbook is not about uniting people around a cause.
It is about conformity.
It is the boomer's culture-war chickens coming home to roost.
In the culture wars, politcal opposition is not about reason or evidence, it is about a vision of differential rectitude in which the opposition is not only wrong, but evil:

" . . .those who disagree with the prevailing vision are seen as being not merely in error, but in sin. For those who hold this vision of the world, the anointed and the benighted do not argue on the same moral plane or play by the same cold rules of logic and evidence. The benighted are to made "aware," to have their "consciousness rasied," and the wistful hope is held out that they will "grow." Should the benighted prove recalcitrant, however, then their "mean-spiritedness" must be fought and the "real reasons" behind their arguments and actions exposed." Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Annointed

I find myself simultaneously wishing that this election was over with and a the same time, worrying about what will happen to us when it is.

I am definitely feeling the chill.

I'm Ba-a-a-ack! (DSL is Up and Running)

Actually, it was up at the end of last week.

But it was Fall Break at UNM.
That meant that instead of doing my blog, we:
1) winterized the dog run
2) escorted a field trip--a walking tour of parts of Albuquerque for the New Mexico history course at EMHS--cool pictures will be featured on the Nearly Wordless Wednesday for the next few weeks!
3) spent time in the Sukkah
4) slept!

Last night I had planned to do some blogging. At 2:15 MDT, I got a call from the nurse at EMHS.
The Boychick had been tackled on the soccer field. His knee was alarmingly swollen. (Tackled? Soccer? It was an accident. Freshman boys are such baby bears!)
So I spent the remaining part of the day this way:
1)driving from UNM to EMHS
2) using the nurse's phone to make an Urgent Care appointment at UNM Peds Clinic
3) driving to UNM Peds with a stop for a teriaki bowl on the way because we knew it would be a long night
4) dropping the Boychick off at the entrance
5) parking and meeting said Boychick
6) limping to Peds
7) waiting to be triaged
8)waiting to have the knee X-rayed
9) waiting to see the Dr.
10) going to the pharmacy for pain meds and a brace

No time for blogging!

The Boychick has no fractures. His kneecap is badly bruised and may be sprained. Time will tell. In the meantime, he has been prescribed RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation).

So for now, I am at home. Cleaning out my clogged in-box and my equally messy desk.

Technology. It's great when it works.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sukkot: Shelter, Snow, and Saecular Winter

In Israel, they say that rain on Sukkot is bad luck. The winter rains should begin after the this autumn pilgrimage festival is over, so that travelers may get home from Jerusalem before the roads become muddy and impassible. In this year of worry and anxiety, all the signs seem pointed towards hard times.

Is snow on Sukkot then a sign of impending Saecular Winter? A time of crisis?
Like the Fourth Turning itself, the signs are in the minds of those who observe them.
At the cusp of a different turning, the snow on Sukkot would be given a different meaning.
For it is we who make the meanings. And this Sukkot feels like the "coming of the winter" in a way that past Sukkots did not.

Sukkot, the festival of the Ingathering Harvest, begins on the full moon six months after the full moon of Pesach.

Here the full moon sets on the first morning of the seven-day festival, and that is snow on the roof of the house!

On the previous evening, we ate in the Sukkah as the sun set. Although the setting sun was warm on our faces, the clouds were gathering. By the time we had waved the lulav, the wind had picked up, and we cleared up as a fine mist began to fall. In the morning, it was snow that fell on our mountain.

On Tuesday afternoon, it was clear that we would eat at the kitchen table, gazing out at the snowy Sukkah.
The commandment is to dwell in the Sukkah over the days of the festival. However, we are also commanded to rejoice in the fruit of our labor. But the Rabbis of the Talmud understood that rejoicing and getting cold and wet are not compatible states of being. Thus one may not dwell in the Sukkah when it rains. Or snows? Do they mention snow on Sukkot in the Talmud?

We have had strong winds and rain when Sukkot comes in mid-October, but this is the first time I have found snow on my Sukkah on the first day! Not to worry! The Chile Lights are outdoor-rated by Underwriters Laboratories.

Wednesday was damp and blustery.
Thursday, it was cold enough that we said the blessings and waved the lulav in the Sukkah, but ate indoors.

Yesterday, though was actually hot in Albuquerque and warm here at Sedillo. It was a calm, clear evening. So I dressed the Sukkah up for Shabbat.
We said the blessings as the sun set.

Ah! Finally, a comfortable, leisurely meal in our own Sukkah.
Sukkot is the festival of joy in the harvest, and in the Sukkah we remember with gratitude the shelter of our home, and the shelter of each other.

It was so fine an evening, that we lingered over the meal, sitting and telling stories well after dark. The Chem Geek Princess closed escrow on her first house Friday, so we talked about our past houses, aware that soon our family dwelling will be reduced from sheltering four humans to three. (The number of canines and felines and amphibians is expected to remain stable for the time being). So this is the last Sukkot with all of us under one roof.

As frustrated and worried as we all are about the state of our country's economy, we have banned political talk in the Sukkah. No discussions of stock markets, bail-outs, the election and (especially) temple politics are allowed under the Chile Lights.

As we helped each other stay within the ban, we found ourselves talking instead about how grateful we are for what we have. Our home is secure. We have food in the pantry, and supplies laid in for the winter (and for hard times, should they come). We are secure with each other.

We finally put on jackets as the Engineering Geek took up the lulav.

We wave it in the four directions, towards the sky, and towards the ground, singing Songs of the Ascents: Hodu l'Adonai ki tov . . . Give thanks to Adonai for G-d is good . . ."
"B'zeit Yisrael mi-Mitzrayim . . . When Israel came forth from slavery . . ." "Esa enai el-he-harim . . . I will lift my eyes up to the mountains . . ." "Ana Adonai, hoshiana . . . deliver us, Adonai . . ."

It is a primitive moment. And yet, modern though we are, and not farmers at all, we understand the sense of joy and satisfaction that comes from work well done, a harvest well brought in, and stores laid in for the winter. This year, we have begun to consider how to prepare for the Saecular Winter that is coming with the beginning of the season of crisis.

On Sukkot, we celebrate the harvest. In the shaky, temporary dwelling of the Sukkah, we remember the years of dwelling in the wilderness, the years of learning to be free. Part of the joy in the midst of uncertainty is the understanding that although life is short, the earth yields up incredible riches that can and will sustain us, and give us reason to celebrate the fruits of our labor, in good economic times as well as in bad.

During Sukkot, we read Megillat Kohelet--the Scroll of the Preacher (Ecclesiastes). The Preacher, it is said, is Solomon the Wise, who in his youth wrote the Song of Songs and in his age wrote this scroll. He laments that all that a human does appears to be vain, chasing after the wind that cannot be caught. That life is short and impending death makes human striving seem futile. But he sees that wisdom lies in rejoicing over what can and is accomplished. That rather than eat one's bread in bitterness because life is not endless, one should appreciate the work of one's hands thus:

"Behold, that which I have seen: it is good, yes, it is beautiful for a man to eat and to drink to enjoy the pleasure for all his labor that he works under the sun, all the days of his life that
G-d has given him, for this is his portion. Everyone also to whom G-d has given riches and wealth, and has given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labor. This is the gift of his life. For let him remember that his days are not many; that G-d answers him in the joy of his heart."

In the hard days that are coming what do we have? We have much if we prudently keep the fruits of our labor, and rejoice in what we have made and done. For the Eternal answers us in the joy of our lives, not in meanness and suffering.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Baby and the Bathwater Part II: Both Sides Now

Last week I began writing about our ongoing concerns with how we fit into our current religious institution. In The Baby and the Bathwater Part I, I talked about the idea of naming an institution a "community" even though it does not function like a community. It is likely that to those who are in the rabbi's inner circle, and those who spend a great deal of time there, it does feel like a community. I was more deeply involved when we had a different rabbi and power structure and I remember thinking of it as a community of sorts, albeit a somewhat dysfunctional one.

When the rabbi changed, the power structure changed, and many of us who had been deeply involved found ourselves on the outside. Much was done to create factions and circles within circles, that in my estimation has reduced the sense of community. For example, levels of membership based on the absolute amount of dues paid were established. Those who paid the most got certain perks and privileges--such as celebrating Channukah at the rabbi's house, or high tea with the muckety-mucks of the Reform movement. This is, by definition, Country Club Judaism.

This change was very painful to those of us who had more time and skill than money to give at that time. (Synagogue dues are a big-ticket item on most family budgets, costing well over a thousand dollars a year, not including religious education fees, the required building fund contribution, additional fees for youth group membership, brotherhood and sisterhood, life-cycle event fees, etc.) The relative value placed on my contributions in kind and in skill was made plain. For example, I was and am a skilled Hebrew teacher and I have given my services free of charge for many years. No high teas for me!
I have not seen the silver sisterhood tea service grace a table I have been invited to sit at since the days of the former rabbi.

I remember being introduced by the current rabbi to a well-known rabbi and speaker at the annual Jewish Book Week Book Fair. He was to speak about his book, which was about dealing with catastrophic illness. I was undergoing treatment for cancer at the time, and I would have loved to have heard his take on this subject. The guest speaker asked me if I would be coming to the talk. But it was one of those aforementioned perks. Along with high tea. I was embarrassed to say that no, I would be sitting outside with the rest of the erev rav*.
I admit that I used the derogatory term intentionally. It had the intended effect.

*Hebrew idiom that means the same thing as hoi polloi in the derogatory sense.

This is not community.
Certainly it was not in the I-Thou sense the rabbi was pushing this Rosh Hashanah. And even in a limited I - You institutional model or a straightforward commercial transaction (I -It), the congregation could have offered the lecture to the erev rav for a fee. Although I was not able to pay above and beyond the minimum dues, I could have skipped lunch a few days and bought a ticket.

In fact, I'd prefer the straightforward individual commercial transaction. The color of my money would have been the same as that of the hoi olgoi.

And when Bruce and I married, and we began to make the kind of contributions that put us in one of those highly valued circles, we chose to boycott the special perks and privileges, precisely because both of us still think that they are divisive. Thus I stand outside the favored faction, and having been critical of it, there is no way that I will be invited into it. I want to be clear that this was my choice.

And that's why I have never been to the current rabbi's house.
And I still have not sat at a high tea. At least, not at our temple err, congregation.

So I have been on both sides of the issue now.
I have known what it was like to experience my religious institution as a community.
And I know what it is like to see it as a place to obtain specific services.
And to be completely fair to the rabbi, these are very different experiences, indeed.

When I experienced the inside, I felt that my life was bound up with the temple; I was there a lot because I wanted to be. I was proud to be a part of this something great that we were building together. I understood that each person so involved was bringing the offering of his or her heart, her voluntary best, her own piece of Torah, to build up the community. I understood that we were exchanging values that included material things, as well as mutual aid and support in times of trouble.

Now that I am on the outside, I see that I live much of my life elsewhere. I pay for the educational programs for the Boychick and complain about the quality--actually, lack thereof--of the education he is getting, because I do view it as fee-for-service. I contribute my time to specific programs, such as the Interfaith Hospitality Network, but I ration my involvement.

Why do I ration my involvement?
Precisely because I learned a painful but valuable lesson from experience.
It does not matter how much of my money, my time and myself that I give, it will not be enough to make any difference should my circumstances change.

Communities have memory.
They look at each other, as the machzor says, and know who they are.
Individuals and their unique contributions are important.
A person's value is based on what they have done in the community over time.

Institutions have no memory.
There are no individuals, people are interchangable.
And if your circumstances change, then it is as if what you have been and done within the institution never was.
A person's value is based on the expediency of the moment.

On that day that I was embarrassed before the visiting rabbi, I learned exactly what determined my value to this institution.
It was not about every unique thing that I contributed over time.
I had become an "it."

At a congregational meeting, I heard myself being excoriated, along with the other "its," for not taking financial responsibility to support the synagogue.
Never mind the other ways we made our contributions.
The rabbi--the moral authority of the congregation--did not rise in our defense.
Instead all of us "its" received a letter that began with the following line:

"Im ein kemach, ein Torah."
"If there is no flour, there is no Torah."

But if a person falls upon hard times and has no flour to give, surely if she bakes the bread made from the flour given by others, surely that has value? Is that not also Torah?

Quite conveniently to someone, I suppose, the letter left off the second half of this saying from Pirke Avot--The Widsom of the Fathers:

"Im ein Torah, ein kemach."
"If there is no Torah, there is no flour."

If Jews do not follow the precepts of Torah, then we are no longer Jews.
And if we lose our identity, we lose our values, and then we lose the community that that identity and those values forge.
The synagogue becomes just another country club.
In Torah we are commanded to take care of our own, to look at each other and see who we are, to affirm our identity in how we treat each other.
The Holiness Code read on Yom Kippur afternoon affirms this.
"Be Holy, as I Adonai, your G-d am Holy."
It means: Be different. Be separate. Be unique.
Don't give in to the values of the moment. Be Torah.

Im ein Torah...

There is no Torah when some of us are "it."

So why am I still here?
Because rabbis come and rabbis go.
I live here.
I became Bat Mitzvah at this Bimah.
My children were named here. They became Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah here. I was married at this Bimah.
I expect I will be buried from it.

And there are Jews--mostly the old ones--with whom I can share a gaze and know who I am.
They are here.
And I am here. Stiff-necked. Willful. WIldly in love with who we are. And who we are meant to be.

I stubbornly hold onto the fact that I am not and never was an "it."
Not when I was comfortable, not when I was poor, not when I was sick, and not now that I have wealth and health.
And none of the rest of us are "it" either.
And though I am on the outside, I am still responsible to Torah.
Even if I am standing opposite to the Bimah.

We need four kinds of Jews: Those with Torah. Those with Righteous Acts. Those with neither. Those with both.
We need both sides of the perek:
"Im ein kemach, ein Torah,
Im ein Torah, ein kemach."

I am still here.
I am the Jew with none of the above. I can be the Jew who can use the flour and bake the bread so that there can be Torah. Which in turn means there can be flour. I think that's called lifting sparks.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Hidden in Plain Sight: Yom Kippur the Aspie Way

Yom Kippur happened (and believe me, it is a happening!) for the 25 hours from sundown Wednesday to Thursday night.

The services were beautiful and the Erev Yom Kippur/Kol Nidrei sermon was good. It does seem as if the choir reaches towards perfection as the Holy Days end. I imagine that can chalked up to the practice effect.

The Boychick does not look forward to Yom Kippur, however, because it involves more lengthy services and a much larger crowd than a regular Shabbat service.
I make him go, nevertheless, because this is part of his identity, and because he needs to develop his sitzfleisch--his ability to deal with these situations.

But I alter the requirements. He must stay through the Amidah (the standing prayer) for the evening service, but he is free to leave when the rabbi rises for the sermon.
In the morning service, he must stay through the Torah service, and again, can leave for the sermon and closing prayers.
The morning service is longer than the evening one because of the Torah service, but he has more energy to deal with it all for a longer time in the morning.

Even with these alterations, the services are difficult. After Kol Nidrei was sung on Wednesday night, the Boychick became clausterphobic. He was able to stay in the service, only by lying back in the seat as I rubbed his shoulders with deep pressure. After about two pages in the Machzor--the High Holy Day prayerbook--of shoulder rubbing, he went to sleep.
Sometimes, he will become restless and engage in body stereotypies (tic-like behaviors such as the classic hand-flapping seen in Autism Spectrum Disorders). Many times, even in the smaller and shorter Machon services (fifteen minutes at the end of religious school), he will be unable to sit up and follow the service attentively--he will shut down.

All of these things are very difficult for me, as well.
I look around the sanctuary and see kids a few years younger than he, dressed in suits whereas the Boychick wears comfortably worn clothes--neatly pressed--and truly atrociously worn tennis shoes rather than oxfords. Those other kids are sitting up straight, following the services, and I feel like an inadequate mother.
I get those looks from people around us. Some of you know which looks I mean.
Looks meant to tell me that I am an inadequate mother. That I should discipline my son and make him behave in the expected, neurotypical fashion.

I even get such looks from the Bimah.
These looks come from the rabbi and the cantor--people who are aware of that the Boychick is not neurotypical, that he does have an ASD, and that being an Aspie results in differences in neurological functioning.

I think the problem is that disabilities like Asperger Syndrome are hidden. They are hidden in plain sight, so to speak.
Although I can tell when I am seeing AS behaviors in others, this is because I am acutely aware of the symptoms. And in my professional work in neuropsychology, I deal with the differences in brain functioning that result in the neurobehavioral differences.

But other people do not automatically connect the behaviors with the disability, even though they have been made aware of the disability.
Kids with AS just look too "normal." There is no cane, no wheelchair, no obvious cognitive deficiency. No physical manifestations point to differences in functioning.
To make it all the more difficult, neurological behavioral symptoms tend to be extremely variable. The nature and extent are determined by a host of environmental factors that change how sensory input is received and processed by the brain.
This variability is often misinterpreted to mean that the difficult neurobehavioral manifestations can be controlled.

For example, the Boychick had great difficulty at the beginning of the Yom Kippur morning service. He was using stereotypies, he needed to lean against my shoulder, and he could not keep his kippah on at all. But during Yizkor and Neilah (the late afternoon services), he was able to sit up straight, read the prayerbook, and follow the service. He looked much more competent and put together. So it is that people who do not understand the nature of neurological disabilities tend to think "see, he can behave, if he sets his mind to it, so he should do so every time." And if he doesn't, they believe that it is a deliberate choosing not to behave on his part.

Thus those looks.
They are directed at the Boychick and they are directed at me.
They are the reason that the Boychick's considerable talents are largely dismissed at our synagogue.
Other kids past Bar Mitzvah age are often given Bimah honors at certain services.
The Boychick is not ever asked.
Although the Boychick has shown excellent skills in mentoring younger kids at camp, at Scouts and in other settings, it is very unlikely he will be selected as a madrich--a teacher's assistant--in the Hebrew school.

He just looks too normal for his Aspie behaviors to be placed in context by neurotypicals.

It all grates.
On me.

The Boychick doesn't seem to notice.
He is developing in his atypical, Aspie way.
But he is developing.
This Yom Kippur, he did better than last.
He is hugging people. he has learned to respond to them when he is greeted, even if he doesn't look them in the eye.
He told me "yasher koach (may your strenth be straight)--you chanted beautifully" when I came back to our seats after chanting the Yom Kippur morning Haftarah.

And I?
I practice not comparing him to the other kids.
I enjoy rubbing his shoulders through the book of Jonah.
I try not to take those looks seriously.
"If you only knew," I think back at the grimmacers. "If you could only see how differently these kids think, if you could only experience their peculiar genius, how much richer your life could be! These kids are the Einsteins, the Edisons, the Glenn Goulds of the future." (All of these great people, as well as others whose genius has enriched human life, are thought to have manifested signs of Asperger Syndrome).

It did appear as if the Boychick was shut down through parts of the services.
But he was far more aware than we knew.
This morning, while reading the Sunday paper, he mentioned that Mosul, Iraq, is in Ninevah province. And that Christians there are being driven from their homes there by Al Quaida.
"No wonder," he said, "that Jonah did not want to go there. His book is right. The Ninehvites cleary don't know their right hands from their left. That great city."

And that is why I will keep taking him to services.
Even though his odd behavior is sometimes disturbs the prejudices of neurotypicals.
He is a Jew. And an Aspie. Both are his identity.

In part of the Vidui, the confession, on Yom Kippur we say:
"We shunt aside those whose youth or age disturbs us."
I silently add: "We shunt aside those whose odd way of being disturbs us."
And we all say together:
"Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonenment."

For dismissing those whose differences disturb us.

Computer Problems

This weekend, we experienced technical problems on two fronts.

One involves our DSL.
I had been missing messages from my home account this past week, and some people to whom I sent messages were not getting them.
I thought this was a server problems until the DSL service from our phone provider quit completely yesterday.

We had bad weather both last weekend (1.5 inches of rain in 12 hours) and this weekend (0.5 inch of rain in 1 hour, thunder and lightning), so I wonder if that has something to do with it.

Last night, I spent over an hour on the phone with our ISP and then in three way conference call that the ISP tech support geek arranged with The Phone Company (TPC). I am pretty sure that the TCP techie was in India--and he could not contact the regional TCP Network Operations Center. So I can only hope that a ticket was made out to fix our problem.

This morning, I thought I'd pack up the laptop and head to UNM Student Union (SUB) to work on two different projects that I have half-done and on my computer. The SUB has wireless internet access. So I started up my computer and almost immediately, it crashed on me.
I hate that blue bios screen that says that Windows was shut down for it's own good.

A computer geek friend met me here to see if he could help.
First, we he thought it was the memory stick that was corrupt.
It wasn't.
Then he thought it was the wireless card.
Probably not.
It seems likely that some program I have at start up has a corrupted registry.
I have instructions to take the computer home and boot it up.
It will run a hard-drive disk check, which will take hours.
Then I should erase uninstall all of the extraneous programs.
And hope.

He did say that my computer is "long of tooth" and that I probably need to get a new one soon!
Oy. When it rains, it pours!

I'll probably be doing more lurking than posting until next weekend.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Baby and the Bathwater Part I: Pseudo-community

It is no secret that the Engineering Geek and I have been questioning the value of our temple synagogue membership in the past two years. There are many issues, some of which are big on their own, and some of which are niggling little problems that annoy--like an itch that no amount of scratching will relieve. For us, the list of concerns spans numerous areas of temple synagogue life, including education, religious practices, and communication. I had thought that the overall issue was our loss of a sense of ownership in the institution; the experience of being discounted as decisions are made that affect the quality of our membership with little regard to our concerns. I still think this is true. However, I also has a moment of clarity last week during Rosh Hashanah. The dawning of clarity began with the rabbi's Rosh Hashanah sermon.

The rabbi used Martin Buber's I and Thou psychology to posit that most of us were coming at our membership from the standpoint of commerce; that is, our approach is to pay our dues as if we are paying for services, and we are disappointed if we do not get quality for our money. This he said, is equvalent to Buber's I - It relationship, in which we enter into a fleeting relationship (?) with another person for the purpose of the transaction. Such a relationship does not require any sharing of the self at all, and no energy is expended by either party on more than a formal and passing recognition of the personhood of the other.

The rabbi then jumped to Buber's I - Thou relationship, suggesting that this most intimate and holy of ways of relating is appropriate to the relationship of a Jew to her religious institution. According to Buber, the I - Thou relationship requires each person to view the other's unity of being; that is as a whole and complete individual; as a subject rather than an object. And it was at this point in the sermon that the whole metaphor began to fall apart for me.

Perhaps I am flawed in some way, but I really have difficulty imagining myself relating to an institution as if it were a dear friend or lover. And, try as I might, I do not see this particular institution operating as a community. I think such an equation as this is a great example of Mark Twain's aphorism, "saying so don't make it so."

The politically correct notion is that if you change the name of something, you change it's nature. Thus we have had a whole string of politically correct name changes at our Temple Congregation. Starting with the name of the organization. We also no longer have rabbis and cantors, we have clergy. We no longer have a Director of Education, we have a Director of Life-Long Learning. But the changes must go deeper than the cosmetic name change if they are to be taken seriously by the membership. Buy-in requires a more intimate and closely argued discussion in which all members have a voice and consensus is reached at the grass-roots level. As it stands, the politically correct changes do not even scratch the surface of what has become a monument to certain egos to which the membership is expected to acquiesce without question or complaint.

One example: Reform Judaism has a well-developed set of traditions. (I will discuss this issue more thoroughly in a future post). One is that the religious services require a certain formality. But that formality is balanced by brevity. Adults are expected to sit through the entire service, something that is not true for other expressions of Judaism. However, at the High Holy Day evening services in recent years, the stark beauty of the anthem following the sermon has been tampered with, and schlock rock songs, an additional sermon by the president of the congregation, and a 'kum-ba-ya' hand-holding encounter have been added. These additions of questionable taste add at least half-an-hour to an already long (for Reform) service. But the membership, many of whom have already worked a full day prior to services, is expected to remain awake and in their seats. When too many people either take a break, bail-out completely, or go to sleep, we are subjected to much finger-shaking from the bimah (pulpit). (This temple synagogue seems to have problems allowing people to meet the most basic need of a bathroom).

Even in the most holy and intimate of I - Thou relationships, marriage, a contract is made and it is expected that something of value is exchanged. The covenant--the brit--requires the participation of both "thou's." Such a covenant involves the exchange of both material and spiritual goods and services between and among the parties. Commerce-in the form of material value such as money--is not foreign to such a relationship; it is simply not the exclusive form of value exchanged. A contract is considered null and void if one of the parties reneges on such an exchange. (For example, a marriage is not a marriage if there is no intimacy between the partners and lack of such is grounds for divorce). Thus, it seems entirely proper for the membership to withhold money if they feel that the institution is not returning something of value in the exchange. It seems to me that the rabbi's scolding is an attempt to distract the membership from the institutional side of the bargain. It is an evasion of the contractual responsibility of the temple congregation towards the membership.

And this is where the metaphor completely falls apart for me. The I - Thou relationship requires a deep level of responsibility from both (or all) parties. There must be give-and-take happening at all levels. I - Thou is not a completely different way of relating to another, rather, it adds additional layers of complexity to the relationship.

I do not, and cannot imagine something of this nature happening between an institution and an individual. And this is one, but only one, of my objections to the rabbi's attack on what he calls "radical" individualism. I will discuss this more another time, but I find it rather frightening that he equates Jewish identity with the subsuming of one's individual identity into a collective. Certainly, the Israelite religion of the Bible was based on such an ideology, but modern Judaism, and especially Reform, recognizes the voluntary nature of the relationship between the Jew, Torah and the people Israel. It is a contradiction of the concept of intimacy, and of the I - Thou nature of intimacy, to demand that individuality be lost. (I am NOT talking about ecstasy. In ecstacy, the temporary nature of the loss of boundaries is necessary to the experience).

Rather, I once heard a teacher who suggested that an intermediary form of relationship be added to Buber's construct: I - You. Such a relationship is more like an acquaintanceship; the individuals acknowledge one another's humanity on a deeper level than in the fleeting moments of a commercial encounter, but the kind of intimacy required for the I - Thou relationship is not expected. Encounters with others in this intermediary relationship do require a commonality of purpose for particular endeavors, but it does not extend to all areas of each individual's life. Such a relationship sets limits on expectations from all involved.

I believe that such a relationship is possible between individuals and their respective institutions, precisely because the limitations stress the voluntary nature of the association. Everyone expects to receive something of value from the association and understands that demands among the parties cannot be infinite or unqualified. The powers that govern such an institution understand that they have a responsibility towards all members that is equal to that demanded of the members towards the institution. The members of the board of directors understand that they are to represent not only their own wants and needs, but also those of different individuals in the institution.

Frankly, Rabbi, I am not about to give up the "I" in the I - Thou relationship you propose. And I am not even sure I want to deal with the temple synagogue in this manner. At this point in the history of this congregation, I would be happy overjoyed to see an evolution towards an equal exchange of goods and services in a more bounded I - You relationship.

Maybe this would work better if we go at it step-by-step. I don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but I am not at all comfortable drowning the little darling, either.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Doormat of the National League


A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request by Steve Goodman

I am thinking of apostasy. Can I convert to the . . .
Nope. I can't even bring myself to write it.

Aspen Gold & Shofars Blow: Week of Mixed Blessings

Autumn comes to the High Country.
Rosh HaShannah.
Bad Filters.
The Cubs.

This past week has been one of great changes in moods and meanings. And only today, as the new week begins, did I notice . . .

The Aspens have turned gold and the oaks are brown and orange in the high Sandia Mountain Front. (One golden patch of Aspen is just below the leftmost patch of cloud on the mountain peak).

The Holy Days began Monday evening--
Erev Rosh HaShanah.
Wednesday morning, (second day)
the Holy Congregation
assembled the lovely tents of Israel
at Oak Flat, in the South Sandias.

"Ma tovu ohalecha, Yisrael . . ."

"Oh, how lovely are your tents O Israel,

Your dwelling places, O Jacob!"

Shofar, Torah, and Challah, which is round for the Holy days, in a mishkan--a portable sanctuary--the east meadow at Oak Flat.

Rosh Hashanah is called Yom HaZikaron--a day for remembering. Remembering the power inherent in creation, the birth of the world, the binding of Isaac, the sweetness and goodness of life.

But it was hard to forget what was going on outside the sanctuary in town or the mishkan in the mountains: Financial Meltdown, the high treif (unfit food e.g. pork) bail-out, the meanness and division of this political season.

Blowing the Shofar:
the powerful tekiah--calling the assembly;
the broken shevarim--for mourning and remembrance;
the staccato truah--for warning and battle;
the long tekiah gedolah--that ends abuptly.
"Areshet s'fateinu . . .
Accept the offering of our lips, the sound of the Shofar."

By the end of the service I felt sunburned and grumpy,
beautiful though it all was.
I stayed too long.
I must remember: come in peace (I did--I opened the gate for everyone) and go in peace (I didn't).
And in the evening, I had to return to work.

Full force, it all returned: the campaign sniping, the smears on the candidates, and the disenfranchisment of the tax-payers by vote-selling in Congress, the Cubs lost the first play-off game, Joe Biden's teeth, once the service was over. Filtering. I need to learn it.

The end of the week was a blur of catching up at work, getting angry at Congress, and dealing with a broken water-heater and a flooded laundry room. Friday afternoon, the Boychick and I arrived home to find the water-heater leaking and flooding the garage alcove where it stands, as well as the laundry room on the other side of the wall. It was the strangest Shabbat we've had in six-and-a-half years of marriage. Bad news: the breech and the flood. Then good news: it was a nipple on a T-joint of the valve--no need to buy a new water heater. Then the bad news--the was impossible to remove the nipple--it was that corroded. Then the good news--a trip to town to get the right tool and a replacement valve would solve it. The bad news--no water to the house until the new valve was replaced. Good news--we could make Home Depot before closing time, if we hurried. A mixed blessing: Shabbat dinner at a Sonic Drive-In on Central Avenue after getting the tool. (Bad--very un-shabbosdik, good--hunger is the best sauce). Good news--I managed to be flexible enough to roll with it all by this time. More bad news--the Cubs lost. Good news--the Engineering Geek--every my anchor during household disasters--got the water back on by midnight. As Ma Ingalls would say: All's well that ends well.

Saturday night went well.
The Boychick had his first high school dance.
It was also the first homecoming for East Mountain High School. And the first dance in their new gym.

In honor of all the firsts, the Boychick wore his Fedora and ironed his jeans.
He's too young for dating, so he met friends there. And he danced with the charming L., his first dance with a girl other than his sister.

So the week ended well after all.

Except the Cubs lost. Three games against the Dodgers.

It's going to be a rough year.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Mother of All Bail-Outs! Shame on the US Senate

Look what happens when I take a few days off from the news for Rosh Hashannah!

The US Senate gave in to everybody EXCEPT their constituents.
We know who the pigs are, lipstick or no.

Go over to Consent of the Governed for a list of who voted AGAINST the Bail-out. Anyone NOT on the list should be voted out of office. In New Mexico, we must vote against Senator Bingaman at the next opportunity . Senator Domenici will be out of in January anyway. I am going to vote for the fiscal conservative running to take his place.


And for a video refresher about who is responsible for the construction of this paper empire and the looting of the American taxpayer check out this video:

And call your congresspeople. They still have to vote.
Let's give Nancy Pelosi another vote of no confidence--if she is foolish enough to bring this bill to the floor as loaded with pork as it is!

You can find the entire text of the bill here. It is very long and laden with special interest pandering.

I'm so mad at this attempt to make the next generations of Americans tax-slaves that I can barely type.

For more background on the crisis, see this week's Objectivist Round-Up.

Disclaimer: My link to the Objectivist Round-up does not imply that I endorse their philosophy in whole or in part, nor do they endorse mine. Objectivists almost certainly consider me evil for several reasons, my religious affiliation among them. I do not advise posting comments on Objectivist blogs that use words like "selfish" or "greedy" because these words have a different connotation in the Objectivist universe: doing so unadvisedly will get your figurative clock cleaned out before you know what hit you. And even though most O-bloggers are entirely earnest and without a sense of humor, realize that they are top-notch composers of rational arguments--do not comment if you live in any kind of glass palace! However, because they are rational and do great research, you can count on their research even if disagree with some of their conclusions.