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June 18, 2012
Our congregation recently had a very interesting discussion on how varied Jews' beliefs are. Our synagogue serves a large, Southern, suburban area including Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist members; their Christian, Muslim and Atheist partners; and a very serious looking guy named Bob, who would like to remind us that the earth is our friend. So we were all in agreement that no two of us agreed exactly on theological concerns. In keeping with Jewish tradition, many of us disagreed with ourselves.
Also in keeping with Jewish tradition, no one agreed on Jewish tradition. For example, after lighting the Shabbat candles, the congregant hosting the event circled the candlelight with her hands in three swooping motions, then shielded the light from her eyes while saying the prayer. I have seen this done many times, but when I light candles at home, my only pre-blessing hand motion is usually shaking out the match. I do this strictly to scare my loved ones into allowing me a little personal space. To my knowledge, there is no commandment against blowing out a match before the blessing, but if there was, I would ignore it because I'm that kind of Jew.
I am not opposed to the wave-sweep-shield and may even use it the next time I'm asked to bless candles in front of the congregation. The gentle motion appeals to me in a tai-chi kind of way. I've been informed of the ritual's basis from several different "authorities."
First we welcome in light, or usher in the Sabbath bride, or shield the flame from air conditioning drafts, depending on who you ask. Then we circle with our hands once as we honor the one creator, or seven times to honor the seventh day of the week, or three times because seven seems a little excessive and our mother did it three times. The three probably has nothing to do with the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, but all guests should feel free to interpret at their own comfort levels.
Finally, we shield our eyes so that we can begin the Sabbath with this wondrous sight, or avoid gazing upon the light until the Sabbath begins whilst making sure not to conflagrate after the Sabbath begins, or keep from damaging our retinas. Bob just wants you to compost the match.
After the prayer, the hostess wished "l'shalom bayit" — Hebrew for "to a harmonious home." I like this phrase, but just learned it recently. I don't know that my parents (both raised in Orthodox households in New York) were consciously opposed to the concept, but I had never heard of it growing up. I am familiar with several other phrases of Hebrew and Yiddish origin that apparently work their way into my conversation, especially during religious gatherings. I automatically wish congregants "chag sameach" before realizing many prefer "happy holiday" due to language and/or phlegm management preferences. (Bob is always against water waste.)
The 32 people at this discussion probably had 32 different levels of Hebrew literacy, if not more. These range from "What's with those squiggly lines?" to "I can watch Waltz with Bashir without subtitles." I'm at the level of actually pronouncing the squiggly lines, but usually not having a clue what the words mean. I have a working vocabulary of a few dozen words and phrases, most commonly used in greeting, prayer or berating athletes. When a friend recently prefaced discussing her adoption plans with "b'ezrat hashem," I responded as sympathetically as possible with "what does that mean?"
It's literally "with help of the name," similar to the Arabic "insha Allah" I was familiar with, meaning "G-d willing." The words "the name" (hashem) are used as a substitute for "G-d" because some Jews don't voice that name, whereas some just use a dash when they spell it. Some substitute phrases in various languages meaning "lord," "holy one" or "creator" instead. Others will say the word "G-d" out loud, but never follow it with "damn" unless they are singing along with an Eagles tune, and then it's really Joe Walsh's sin. Others only speak the name prefaced with "oh," during situations we won't discuss here.
I don't actually believe lightning will strike me if I use an "o" instead of a dash. It's just something that was ingrained in me during my formative years and I can't seem to stop. That's probably the real explanation behind the myriad traditions a lot of us adhere to. Second runner up would be peer pressure.
I'm pretty sure my mother's choir friends influenced her recent cessation of leavened consumption at 10 a.m. the morning before Passover. She claims she has done this since she was a child. I wondered (yes, aloud — remember Mom isn't familiar with shalom bayit) why she stopped following this the 18 years I lived with her, because I had no recollection of this ritual. There is halachic basis for morning kitchen kashering, but I'm pretty sure I would remember if she ever did it. I remember separate sets of dishes, unspeakably bad soufflés with "bread of affliction" as a key ingredient and seeing a certain uncle dip into Elijah's cup, but nothing about 10 a.m. rings a bell.
I rely on modern dish-washing equipment instead of kashering, but many of my friends go with the dual plate sets. Bob would like to take this time to discourage using disposable paper products, and don't even get him started on styrofoam. I may be breaking with tradition, but don't think G-d will condemn me to h-ll for it, if there actually is one, which is a whole separate discussion.
So as we move on to the Kiddush, or wine blessing, or "tossback," let's raise a glass to diversity. If you are new in town, we welcome you to our congregation, we honor whatever traditions and beliefs you follow, we are unable to provide you with the address of the nearest kosher butcher, but we will give you a flier for our annual "bug boil" social. Don't even ask about a mikvah.