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Monthly Archives: January, 2011

Of Fridges and Men – originally posted Feb. 26, 2009

January 30th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

I have spent the last few days befuddled, bewildered and basically overwhelmed while shopping for a refrigerator to replace the one in my garage that whimpered its way to warming last week.

I have many reasons to be grateful. While deciding whether to call a repairman or not, an online search revealed that my old fridge had been a good and faithful servant for about twenty years. Even in its demise, it chose a relatively good time to die, when it wasn’t packed to the gills in pre-holiday mode.

Once replacement rather than repair seemed to be the issue, the search began. In the olden days, say ten or fifteen years ago, I would have gone to one or two local appliance stores and compared features and prices on what was in stock. In today’s time of Internet largesse, I instead researched brands and models on-line, which I quickly discovered could be a full time job. I remember hearing how immigrants from the old Soviet Union would sometimes become depressed by American supermarkets. Used to a system where you stood on line for hours and bought whatever was available, the dazzling array of thirty types of breakfast cereals and twelve varieties of apples paralyzed them.

I could empathize. Not only did I need to choose between top freezer, bottom freezer, side by side and French door as well as between stainless steel, black or white, I needed to make a guesstimate as to which brand was most likely to be reliable along with a slew of other issues.

The option that isn’t available to me is the “build your own.” I can’t take brand A with two features from brand B and the size and design from model number C. And the one feature that I crave, a built in odometer that will tell me when it’s about to break down isn’t an option I could find anywhere. All in all, refrigerator shopping is strikingly similar to the dilemma my daughter and her friends face as they navigate the dating world.

If they could only build their own future spouse they would be able to take the character of boy A and pair it with the hard working persona of boy B and top it all off with boy C’s height and boy D’s sense of humor. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t work that way. As they meet young men they are faced with a package deal. And while I might if I’m lucky spend the next twenty years with my fridge, they not only yearn for more than that with their spouse but the entire world of their future will be affected by their choice. Getting a lemon of a fridge is expensive and annoying; getting a lemon of a husband is devastating.

I made my refrigerator choice with the guidance and support of one of our four outstanding sons-in-law who happens to be in the building industry and who guided me. My single daughter and her friends are finding that their decisions might best be made in a similar fashion. After doing initial research on their own, they turn to people who love them, and whose input they respect, who have way more experience in the field than they do. There is a Jewish saying that if all your friends call you a duck, you should start quacking. In other words, listen to your parents, your (especially married) siblings, and trusted and tried friends. You don’t really want to invest in an expensive appliance, let alone a man, relying only on your own, limited vision.

Actions for All

January 26th, 2011 Posted by Thought Tools 3 comments

One of the families in the congregation I was privileged to serve had four children. Three followed in the ways of their parents while the fourth, a teenage son, did not. Although he was not behaving in a hostile manner, he declared himself an atheist and didn’t want the family imposing its values upon him.

He absented himself from family Sabbath meals, watching television in his room. He politely insisted that he had a brain to think out his own approach to life.

They consulted me. I advised them to spend two weeks agreeing with him that he alone could think through his own life philosophy. What is more, they were to acknowledge his right to his personal beliefs.

Once their son knew they respected his independent thinking, they should explain that there is a gigantic gulf between beliefs and actions. His beliefs were his, but while he lived under their roof, they would exert influence over his actions.

Needless to say, actions included speech. My congregants were concerned about their son influencing his siblings.

“But surely I have freedom of speech?” asked their son. “Constitutionally, yes”, they answered. But while they were thrilled to have him stay part of a united family, that meant voluntarily acquiescing to restraining his speech. Just as freedom of speech doesn’t translate into a right to a radio or TV forum, it also doesn’t include the right to say anything one wants in all settings.

Shortly afterwards, my congregants reported back to me that their son listened to their argument and accepted it. This brought welcome tranquility to their formerly troubled family.

These parents had often heard me say that the best way of gaining understanding into how the world really works was through the secrets of ancient Jewish wisdom. They wanted to know where in Scripture this permanent principle appeared.
When Moses presented the Israelites with the God-centric worldview of Sinai, they responded enthusiastically on three separate occasions. The first two times, they responded ‘together’ or in ‘one voice’.

1: And all the nation responded together and they said, ‘All that God has spoken we will do’…

(Exodus 19:8)

2: And Moses came and told the nation all of God’s words and all the rules, and the entire nation answered in one voice, and they said, ‘All the words that God has spoken we will do.’

(Exodus 24:3)

Both these times focused on actions; doing. However, #3 is different.

3: And he (Moses) took the Book of the Covenant and read it into the ears of the nation, and they said, ‘All that God has spoken, we will do and we will hear.’

(Exodus 24:7)

This time, in addition to action there was an element of hearing. Hearing implies internal understanding. In terms of our personal relationship with God, we each appreciate Him in our own way. For this reason, the verse does not mention that they responded in one voice.

All Israelites heard the words and understood the covenant in individual ways but they all agreed to a group code of conduct. In Hebrew that code is called HaLaCHaH.

People with different beliefs can live together in harmony as long as they agree on standards of behavior. That is a central theme in the Constitution of the United States of America. That is also how successful corporations and other organizations operate. Common belief within a group is wonderful and converts it into a crucible of creativity, but it is not essential. What is critical is a common code of conduct.

Parents can’t impose God on their children. They can serve as models and create an appealing environment in which faith can flourish. But like the children of Israel, each individual must forge his or her own faith relationship. However, demanding certain actions is necessary for both families and businesses to remain cohesive.

This principle is one of those used by my colleague, Noah Alper, in creating a successful business. As his faith grew, in a departure from his family’s atheism, his actions, both personal and in business, changed. He chronicles this journey providing applicable business lessons for all, in his book Business Mensch, which we are delighted to make available to you.

More Fireflies; Fewer Computers- Originally posted Feb. 19, 2009

January 23rd, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

One Shabbat, when our five older children ranged in age from five to ten, we had the privilege of hosting a prominent business leader for Friday night dinner. As table conversation extended the meal, our children asked to be excused and promptly curled up or splayed out on living room couches with lots of reading material.

Our guest, who had long-ago emigrated from Jamaica to the States, looked wistfully at the children, each one engrossed in a book. He recalled how he grew up in intense poverty in a shack without electricity on the hills above Kingston.  Every night, his mother made the rounds of bars and lounges collecting stubs of candles. When her supply of candles was low she would take a jar and collect fireflies. All this effort, after a back breaking day of work, was that so he could study, become educated and aim for a better life than she had.

Her efforts paid off magnificently. Her faith in him and in education stayed at his side as he came to America, dedicated himself to his studies and then to diligent work. But his wistful expression while looking at our children wasn’t due to nostalgia or any tinge of resentment that our children’s path was so easy compared to his. He commented, in an incredibly sad and slightly angry tone, how heartsick it made him to see children in his community who had access to free libraries and schooling, wastefully scorn those opportunities.  I still remember his exact words—“Your people’s children read books while ours snap their fingers to obscene lyrics.”

This story came to mind as I read about the vast sums of money the “stimulus plan” will allocate to education. In the years that have passed since that night, the fascination with obscene lyrics has spread to all communities, and the feeling that education is a legal right rather than an incredible privilege has spread as well. I certainly wouldn’t suggest spending taxpayer money for firefly collection. But if we could manage to convey, to both parents and teachers, some of this gentleman’s mother’s passion for education, a reverence she shared with Abraham Lincoln’s stepmother and thousands of other poverty stricken and immigrant parents, we would be further along the path to producing successful future generations than any amount of technology or infrastructure improvement could possibly grant us.

 

 

Growing with Nancy

January 20th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings 2 comments

Superman comic books may not generally be considered advanced literary material, but the childhood hours I spent reading them did help me do well on my SATs. While I didn’t read the comics for vocabulary lessons, years later the spurious documents that one criminal used served me admirably when I needed to pick the correct multiple choice synonym for that word.

This recently came to mind when I was shown an original Nancy Drew volume and one of the newer Nancy Drew: Girl Detective books. The “titian-haired girl” had transformed into a “strawberry blond,” she no longer “chafed at delays” and the sentence structure and plot were watered down. Even worse, her personality, character and intelligence had reverted to the median. Instead of Nancy Drew, role model, she had turned into Nancy Drew, one of today’s crowd.

How unfortunate. A story is told about one of the great 20th century rabbis and one of my husband’s teachers, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky, whose portrait hangs in the entrance hallway to our home. He was visiting a pre-school and noticed that there were mezuzot (scrolls with specific Biblical verses written on them) on the doorposts, in accordance with Deuteronomy 6:9. However, they were placed lower than mandated. When he asked why, the teachers responded that they were low so that they would be accessible from the children’s heights. The rabbi commented, “What we must do is put a stepstool in order for the children to reach higher — to the proper level of the mezuzah (singular)! Raise the child at an early age to reach the height of the mitzvah (commandment), instead of lowering the mitzvah to the child!”

I am certainly not comparing Nancy Drew to the mitzvah of affixing a mezuzah to one’s doorposts. But I do believe in parents strongly supervising what their children read. Rather than thinking, “Well, at least they’re reading,” my husband and I were acutely aware that what our children were reading would help form their characters, attitudes and intelligence. While we didn’t always manage to apply the supervision we knew was needed (our children were voracious readers), our goal was for everything they read to make them greater, not lesser people. That didn’t mean filling our home with uninteresting, pious tracts. It did mean hands-on library visits, occasionally not allowing a popular book or series into our home, and a great deal of children’s literature on our own bedside tables. It frequently meant using the books the children were reading, or that we read aloud as a family, as a launching pad for discussion.

I discovered the changes in the Nancy Drew series because one of my daughters showed me her ‘rejection’ pile after her children’s visit to the library. Her family’s shelves are filled with many of the books that she and her siblings loved as well as more recently written ones that she has discovered. There is little that can fill a grandmother’s heart with as much joy as knowing that her children are making sure that their own children reject the spurious values and prevalent trends surrounding them, for a greater goal than SAT scores.

Growing with Nancy

January 18th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings 1 comment

Superman comic books may not generally be considered advanced literary material, but the childhood hours I spent reading them did help me do well on my SATs.  While I didn’t read the comics for vocabulary lessons, years later the spurious documents that one criminal used served me admirably when I needed to pick the correct multiple choice synonym for that word.

This recently came to mind when I was shown an original Nancy Drew volume and one of the newer Nancy Drew: Girl Detective books. The “titian-haired girl” had transformed into a “strawberry blond,” she no longer “chafed at delays” and the sentence structure and plot were watered down.  Even worse, her personality, character and intelligence had reverted to the median. Instead of Nancy Drew, role model, she had turned into Nancy Drew, one of today’s crowd.

How unfortunate. A story is told about one of the great 20th century rabbis and one of my husband’s teachers, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky, whose portrait hangs in the entrance hallway to our home.  He was visiting a pre-school and noticed that there were mezuzot (scrolls with specific Biblical verses written on them) on the doorposts, in accordance with Deuteronomy 6:9. However, they were placed lower than mandated. When he asked why, the teachers responded that they were low so that they would be accessible from the children’s heights. The rabbi commented, “What we must do is put a stepstool in order for the children to reach higher — to the proper level of the mezuzah (singular)! Raise the child at an early age to reach the height of the mitzvah (commandment), instead of lowering the mitzvah to the child!”

I am certainly not comparing Nancy Drew to the mitzvah of affixing a mezuzah to one’s doorposts. But I do believe in parents strongly supervising what their children read. Rather than thinking, “Well, at least they’re reading,” my husband and I were acutely aware that what our children were reading would help form their characters, attitudes and intelligence. While we didn’t always manage to apply the supervision we knew was needed (our children were voracious readers), our goal was for everything they read to make them greater, not lesser people. That didn’t mean filling our home with uninteresting, pious tracts. It did mean hands-on library visits, occasionally not allowing a popular book or series into our home, and a great deal of children’s literature on our own bedside tables. It frequently meant using the books the children were reading, or that we read aloud as a family, as a launching pad for discussion. 

I discovered the changes in the Nancy Drew series because one of my daughters showed me her ‘rejection’ pile after her children’s visit to the library. Her family’s shelves are filled with many of the books that she and her siblings loved as well as more recently written ones that she has discovered. There is little that can fill a grandmother’s heart with as much joy as knowing that her children are making sure that their own children reject the spurious values and prevalent trends surrounding them, for a greater goal than SAT scores.

 

 

Remember the Titanic – originally posted May 28, 2009

January 16th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

Have you noticed that among the obituaries that newspapers publish of famous or influential people, ordinary folk also get mentioned if they were the last of their kind? So, we were informed when the last Civil War soldier’s widow passed away a few years ago as we will hear when the last survivor of the Titanic dies. Note is taken of regular people who through a quirk of fate become our last link with an extraordinary time or event.

Now the above mentioned widow, Maudie Celia Hopkins, had no recollections of the Civil War; she was the nineteen year old bride of an eighty-six year old veteran. The sole survivor of the Titanic doesn’t have any first hand remembrances to share; she was nine weeks old when the ship went down. Yet, for some reason, their physical presence in the world matters.

I am surely not the only parent shocked when something that I have vivid recollections about, such as the Kennedy assassination, lives in my children’s mind only as history. While the day that President Reagan was shot is etched in my memory since it coincided with going into labor with my eldest child, I can’t reasonably expect her, let alone her younger siblings, to recall that day.

Our educational system has a tendency to suck the oxygen out of vibrant, multi-faceted events that impacted millions of lives, instead, presenting them in history books as dull, insipid lists of names and dates. In a relatively recent attempt to liven the subject up, textbooks sometimes highlight one individual or group, but the bottom line is that human history is so complex and intertwined that the simple fact of putting it down on a finite amount of paper automatically limits and distorts it.

Could our fascination with those who were even somewhat tied to a historical event be an acknowledgment that history is not an academic subject but the building block of our lives today? Do we clutch at those connected to the past in a vain attempt to realize that the impact of the past flows unceasingly into the future? Does knowledge of the Civil War veteran’s widow’s death make us realize that we are not as distant or as immune as we would like to believe from the type of cataclysmic upheaval that overturned the lives of Americans in the 19th century? If our absorption with otherwise obscure individuals serves these purposes, that indeed makes it worthwhile.

 

 

Brownies, Anyone?

January 11th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings 7 comments

I am definitely more oriented towards paper and pen than to electronics. Which is why it was rather disturbing when twice recently I turned to an Internet search engine for help. Faced with a new cut of meat and an unfamiliar vegetable, a quick search brought up enough information and recipes to start cooking with confidence.

I am pretty sure the necessary data is somewhere on my shelves of cookbooks or in the bulging accordion files that I have filled with kitchen tips and recipes. But the computer was ever so much quicker. Therein lies the problem.

Since I am in the middle of a ‘de-cluttering frenzy,’ my supper related activity precipitated some soul searching.  In my zeal to give away or throw out superfluous items I have been asking myself, “If we were to move, would we pay money to store or ship this?” That standard of judgment is yielding boxes filled with books and bags stuffed with clothing.  But I never considered that technology just may have made recipe clipping obsolete.

You see, I have three accordion folders crammed with recipes in categories ranging from your basic “chicken” to “cooking with kids.” Most of them will probably never make it to my kitchen. I collect them even as I am aware of the statistical improbability that they will ever be used. For example, my husband doesn’t like brownies and my kids think Duncan Hines ones are great. Why then, do I have dozens of brownie recipes? I have no idea. I am not likely to ever try many, or even one, of them.

Then there are recipes that compete with frequently used favorites. I have two meatball recipes that fit my stringent cooking requirements: everyone likes them and they are easy to make. So, why do I keep cutting out more meatball recipes? Beats me. But I do.

Hardly a week goes by without some recipe catching my attention.  I tear recipes out of magazines, clip them from newspapers and even print them from my computer.  I clip at a faster rate than I file them. Filing them is, of course, quicker than actually trying them. If I can pull up dozens of recipes with one tap of a finger, what is the purpose of all this activity?

I don’t know. I do know that I’m not ready to answer that question yet. Right now, I can toss my college edition of Seneca or the skirt that has yet to come back into style into the Goodwill bag with aplomb. Perhaps one day my recipes might find themselves just as casually discarded in the recycling bin. For now, I will keep scissors at the ready and choose not to resist the siren call of seductive words like sugar, chocolate and ‘freezes well’.

 

 

 

 

Bringing Down the House

January 11th, 2011 Posted by Thought Tools 2 comments

What do Danny Kaye, Barbra Streisand, Jerry Seinfeld, Goldie Hawn, Kirk Douglas, and Bette Midler all share? Along with a disproportionately large number of other entertainers, they are of Jewish background.

There is something else which most Jewish comedians, actors and singers share: they are rarely religious. They have little connection with God or with His Torah. Could there be something spiritual about the desire to entertain which lingers even after the nurturing springs of Jewish faith have largely dried up?

One of the roles entertainment plays is distracting us from silent contemplation. This can occasionally be painful but it nearly always stimulates growth. Like alcohol and cocaine, the plug-in-drug of entertainment helps take our mind off serious thoughts.

But this fails to explain why people possessing remnants of special spiritual sensitivity are drawn more to entertainment than, say, agriculture. It isn’t enough to say acting pays better than farming or that it offers more applause and adulation. Most of today’s big names endured many grueling years of rejection and poor pay yet stuck at their craft. What lies at the core of their commitment to their work?

Ancient Jewish wisdom offers a clue in the life of a great Jewish judge—Samson. But, in common with so many personalities today, his life deteriorated in the wake of some really bad decisions. He ended his life as an entertainer.

When their hearts became merry, they said, ‘Call Samson and let him entertain us’… (Judges 16:25)
Recognizing that death was near, Samson prayed for one more chance to attack the Philistines: My Lord, remember me and strengthen me just this time, Oh God, and I will be avenged a revenge from the Philistines for one of my two eyes.
(Judges 16:28) one of my two eyes?” Huh?

Very few English translations get it right. Most say, “…that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.” But though I understand and sympathize with why the translators made that change, they are plain wrong.

Here is what the Hebrew looks like.

Reading the six words one-by-one (right to left) we have [and I will be avenged]; [a revenge of]; [one]; [from the two of]; [my eyes]; [from the Philistines.] Notice that beneath the third word, meaning one, (yes, still from the right) you see a curved line with a dot inside it. These curves and dots add meaning to the verse. By facing towards the next word, the curve reveals the unmistakable intent to join the two Hebrew words: ‘one’ and ‘from the two of’.

The strange language in the Hebrew verse above expresses Samson’s intent. He is acknowledging the aptness of being punished through the loss of those eyes since it is through those eyes that he previously emphasized body over soul and yielded to inappropriate women. Nevertheless, he pleads that he might have gained enough merit from enduring the Philistine torture when they put out his eyes, to have his strength restored one more time.

However, his language shows that he now places his soul above his body. Rather than using up the cosmic credit from both lost eyes, he prays to be able to retain credit from one eye for the World to Come.

Samson knew the Blueprint, strayed from it, and ends his life after returning to it.
We all possess a deep although sometimes subconscious desire for a blueprint that makes utter sense of the reality in which we live. It is enormously satisfying both to gain such a worldview and to share it. This is why parents enjoy teaching their children.

Entertainment is satisfying because provides people with an encompassing picture of life, even though it is overwhelmingly false. Often, it is the opposite of a true and comprehensive matrix of reality. For an in-depth look into life-affirming versus soul-killing laughter, see my audio CD set, Clash of Destiny: Decoding the Secrets of Israel and Islam. It also delves into another alternative view of reality – that of Islam. It is a great avenue to understanding how the world REALLY works and is available online this week for $5 off the regular price.

Mysteries of Love – Originally posted on Sept. 30, 2009

January 9th, 2011 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

My husband picked up some groceries for me last week, which led me to ponder one of the mysteries of love. One of the signs of a healthy marriage is when you relate to behavior from your spouse with amusement or even affection, while that same action would irritate you if it came from anyone else.

Let me elaborate. There is no rational reason that I can’t tell one car from another. Early in our marriage if we needed to take two cars somewhere, my husband would say, “Just follow me.” After a few times when I ended up miles away, trailing a stranger, it became clear to both of us that color is just about the only distinguishing characteristic of cars to which I relate. I can tell a Volkswagen from a Hummer, but anything more subtle eludes me. Living as we do in an area where people frequently leave their cars unlocked, that means that I have been known to sit down in the wrong vehicle at the mall or airport. Objectively, I see how this could drive a man wild.

Back to those groceries. The day began with a “to do” list that was not going to fit into the available hours. So, when I needed only two items from the supermarket and my husband was going to be passing by there anyway, I asked him to run in and get them.

A short while later he came in with the groceries. The bananas I needed were indeed in the bag, but the big, black, mushy spots meant they weren’t exactly what I had in mind. When I caught myself smiling at the discolored, unusable, fruit the thought flashed through my mind. I wouldn’t have smiled at the same occurrence had it happened early in our marriage. Why not?

Well, because at the early stages of marriage I wouldn’t have known how to interpret the mushy banana. Was I seeing a sign of passive-aggressive resentment on being asked to go to the market? Perhaps the mushy banana reflected a lack of appreciation for the hard work I put into making meals? Or maybe I had married someone totally lacking in basic common sense. Any one of those three choices would have left me feeling less warmly to my spouse.

By this point I knew exactly what the spoiled banana meant. It meant that while he truly wanted to help me, my husband’s brain was overloaded with dealing with other issues. Maybe he was figuring out how to help one of our children, or maybe he was concerned about an unanticipated repair bill. Perhaps he was troubled by a problem a friend was facing or maybe his own overloaded to do list was overwhelming him. The reason didn’t really matter. I knew it reflected nothing about our relationship, his respect for my work or his level of competency.

As a young bride I would have known none of those things. This means that a conversation about the banana would be a high priority discussion item. The trick would be for me not to assume I knew the reason for the failed shopping nor for my husband to insist that this was a silly conversation.

Similarly, my car confusion could easily have caused my new husband to question my intelligence or think that I was deliberately not being helpful. Again, neither of those conclusions would lead to affectionate thoughts.

He still doesn’t understand how I have no idea what our rental car looks like when we are traveling, but he does know that this is a quirk, not a statement. And if cars were important to him, I would work on it. After all, I did learn the difference between ketches, schooners and yawls as well as identifying the direction a ship is traveling at night by analyzing the visible lights.

Being madly in love when you get married probably doesn’t correlate at all to the length of the marriage. It can even be a negative if it means that the hard work necessary in those first years of marriage gets ignored. But down the road a bit, being madly in love is wonderful. A good measuring device for the health of the relationship is whether your first response is a smile or chuckle to what an outsider would view as an infuriating, disappointing or aggravating action.

 

 

Mysteries of Love

January 9th, 2011 Posted by Thought Tools No Comment yet

My husband picked up some groceries for me last week, which led me to ponder one of the mysteries of love. One of the signs of a healthy marriage is when you relate to behavior from your spouse with amusement or even affection, while that same action would irritate you if it came from anyone else. (more…)