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Who Are You Calling Names? by Judy Gruen

I am delighted to share this platform today with my good friend, Judy Gruen. I think it’s a great reminder that each of us can choose to add kindness to the world with a simple act. 

Recently, I attended a memorial tribute for an elderly friend named Maurice. I had met Maurice and his wife, Mildred, back in the late 1980’s, when my husband, Jeff, and I had joined Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, the “Shul on the Beach.” We had been drawn there by the teachings of Rabbi Daniel Lapin and his wife, Susan, and their dynamic leadership that had begun to revitalize a once-thriving Jewish congregation.

Now, Maurice was a big man with a big personality, brash and bluntly opinionated. A strong baritone, Maurice usually seized the opportunity to begin prayers and hymns with his melodies of choice. His commanding voice and musical selections helped define the spiritual atmosphere of the synagogue for nearly 40 years.

Maurice was a colorful character, yet as people reminisced and eulogized him, it was clear that he had touched people by always remembering synagogue members’ full names, bellowing out his greetings: “Jacob Israel!” Or, “Leah Emunah!” His loud acknowledgement became one of his trademarks, but it didn’t end there.

He also remembered the names of extended family members, and he also remembered what troubles or issues they were dealing with.

As I sat listening to the tributes, I nodded in recognition. Long ago, I told Maurice that my sister was about to undergo her seventh spinal surgery for complications of severe scoliosis. For years afterward, he’d regularly ask me, his brow furrowed with concern, “How’s your sister Sharon doing?”

One speaker said half-jokingly, “I thought Maurice only remembered the names of my parents and siblings. Now that I know he did that for everyone, I’m feeling a little less special.”

The little girl named Leah Emunah is now a young mother in her 20’s. She said, “Even though the synagogue was overflowing with children, Maurice knew all our names. We all understood that in a small congregation, we were each important. Only later did I realize that a big part of this feeling came from Maurice always addressing us by name.”

I decided to honor Maurice’s memory by making a point of greeting people by name. I first tried it at the grocery store. As the cashier rang up my purchases, she glanced at me and asked, “Did you find everything you were looking for today, ma’am?”

I expected the question — it was company protocol to ask. Even on occasions when I hadn’t found quite everything I had looked for, I’d still answer blandly, “Yes, thank you.”

That day, I decided not to answer by rote. I read her name tag and said, “Yes, thank you, Toni.”

She looked back at me for a just a second and visibly brightened. “Glad to hear it!” she answered with a smile.

With only one word, I was able to infuse a predictable and commonplace interaction with a small spark of personal connection. She was not just a cashier ringing up groceries during a long shift. She was a woman named Toni.

Since then, I try to always call sales clerks or service reps by name, both in person and even in online chat sessions. In person, I always am rewarded with a smile, a straightening of the shoulders, an appreciative look. I wish I had thought of doing this on my own, but I was prompted to do it because Maurice had set a gold standard in carrying out this mitzvah, a good deed commanded by God. I had known it was a mitzvah to greet people with a pleasant demeanor. What had I been waiting for?

You never know where a kind greeting can lead. My friend Barry not only chatted with the manager of a local mailbox store, calling her by name, he asked her out on a date. They were married within the year.

In today’s society, too many people feel invisible and lonely. Increasingly, even when we’d like to smile or nod or make small talk with another person in public, we can’t. Too often, they are in the addictive clutch of their phones, an impenetrable barrier. These small losses add up to a much larger fracturing of the social compact.

I discovered through my little experiment, and Maurice proved, that the simple, old-fashioned practice of greeting others with a kind expression and acknowledging their names when we can isn’t such a small thing after all.

Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith”  (She Writes Press, 2017). (3 Guesses who the Rabbi in the title is.) Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, Boston Globe, Aish.com, Jewish Journal, and many other media outlets.

This Week’s Featured Items

Tower of Power: Decoding the Secrets of Babel – on sale Tower of Power: Decoding the Secrets of Babel – MP3 on sale The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith

My colleague crossed the ‘acceptable behavior’ line at a company party.

Last weekend I went for my company’s trip. As part of the agenda, there were dinner, dance and drinks. So a colleague of mine (we are not close, just working level) who is of an opposite sex started dancing with me on the dance floor and then pulled me aside and danced solo with me. Once he pulled me to one side, he started confessing to say that he has been “checking me out without me knowing”; he treasured the one time lunch we went out together (it was a working lunch discussion) 2 years ago and he always finds me pretty. Immediately felt very uncomfortable and I pulled him back to rejoin the group for dancing.

Not long after, the function hall started turning off the lights and shutting down the AV. So a group of us adjourned to a nearby bar to join our other colleagues who were there earlier. Upon arrival at the bar, he started holding my shoulders and hands and once we reached the table where our other colleagues were, he tried holding my butt. I was so shocked I don’t know how to react  and didn’t want to make a scene, my immediate reaction was to flight. So I immediately left the scene and hid in the toilet of the bar. My friend noticed my disappearance and called me to ask where I was. I said I am in the toilet and will come shortly. We left the scene right after I came out from the toilet.

My question is, should I report this sexual harassment to the the company through the appropriate channel? My intention is not to humiliate/embarrass him,  but I don’t want other to fall as victim.

I didn’t tell anyone in the company yet because I don’t want this to spread as a mere gossip. At the same time, I felt obligated to report this incident and  share this other girls who closely work with him.  Help, I need wisdom. Thank you in advance.

Serene

Dear Serene,

It is a little jarring that the incident you describe is in opposition to your lovely namethat certainly wasn’t a serene encounter you underwent. What an unpleasant experience that must have been.

We need to preface our answer by saying that we are neither lawyers nor human resource experts. We did run our answer by someone who heads H.R. for a large company, but the words you are reading are ours, not hers. We are quite sure that you would get a very different answer if you asked this same question in a different venue.  And while we are not going to blame you for the incident, we would like to empower you in the future. Let’s start there.

If you are going to be at parties where liquor is flowing, we strongly advise you to practice extricating yourself from awkward situations. You say that this man, “started dancing with me on the dance floor and then pulled me aside and danced solo with me.” In front of a mirror or role-playing with a girlfriend, practice not letting yourself be passively led into this situation. As soon as you start feeling uncomfortable, you can forcefully say something along the lines of, “Excuse me. I’m going to sit down now,” and walk off the dance floor to join a friend. If he said something that makes you uneasy, tell him on the spot. The minute someone touches you, be it on the shoulder, elbow or anywhere else and you don’t want them to, you should feel perfectly comfortable saying, “Please don’t touch me again.”

As a side note, women often do need practice in being both pleasant and assertive. This is a skill that will stand you in good stead in many areas of your life, both personal and career-wise. At work, in particular, learning to set boundaries is necessary. If you don’t do so, others will take advantage of you, leaving you overworked and as such less efficient.

You may have decided for career reasons that you should be at parties with your co-workers, but if you are going to do so then we recommend you dress and act in a way that places an invisible shield of respectability and distance around you. We know feminists will shriek that women have no responsibility to do this, but quite frankly, there will need to be a new and different creation of humanity for that to be true.  You will be better off living in the real world.

You show great character by understanding the damage that gossip can do as well as by your concern for other women down the line. We also think that you are seeking the high road by not wanting to turn this into a potentially career-ending move for this man. We would like to encourage you to deal with this privately.

We recommend approaching this man in a public place (maybe the lobby of work) and saying something along these lines: “You may not remember because everyone was drinking, but at the party in XXX, you spoke to and touched me in an unacceptable way. I don’t want to ruin your career, but I do want you to know that this is not all right. I have documented it and should I see you behaving in a similar manner to any other woman in the company I will have no choice but to report this to HR. I’m sure it was an aberration and won’t happen again and I’d like to put this behind us with this conversation.” Then smile and walk away.

You should, meanwhile, document what happened so that if you need it in the future, you will have it. There is no question that this man acted badly, but if you can change his behavior rather than having him potentially fired for an act that occurred when he had been drinking, you will be operating on a higher plane and giving him a chance to self-correct. He may very well have misread your signals when you didn’t react and say something at the early stage of the encounter and not be a bad guy in general.

If it is at all possible, we suggest that if others agree with you, you might recommend to the office that rather than dancing parties with drinking, alternate entertainments can be safer and more fun. The situation as is, is an invitation for problems.

Wishing you serenity,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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Tower of Power: Decoding the Secrets of Babel 
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Pebbles and Panoramas

My children constantly fascinate me when we hike in breathtakingly beautiful British Columbia during the summer. Some of them visibly thrill to the vast vistas and magnificent landscapes revealed as we crest a hill.  Others seem oblivious to the large scale spectacles but will stoop to pick up a pebble which can absorb their attention for twenty minutes.  Similarly, when boating, one child gazes endlessly at the wave pattern stretching to the horizon.  Meanwhile, her sister lies on her tummy on the edge of a dock peering down at a school of tiny fish darting around as if being signaled by an invisible choreographer. 

We learn much from the patterns of larger arrangements such as the earth’s upheavals that created the mountain ranges and the erosive forces that carved majestic canyons.  However it is just as important to understand the microscopic forces that help atoms to form molecules and the characteristics that shape those tiny molecules into complex substances.

Just as understanding both the macro of mountains and the micro of molecules helps us relate to physical reality, so understanding both the macro and the micro of the letters, words, and texts of the Bible helps us relate to spiritual reality.

Whenever we probe the inner meaning conveyed by a word or letter in the Lord’s language as we often do here in Thought Tools, we are exploring the micro.  However, when we examine patterns that reoccur in different parts of Scripture we are allowing the macro to reveal its secrets.

Let’s wrap our souls around four famous parallels linking God’s Garden of Eden with the desert Tabernacle and its successor, the Jerusalem Temple, both constructed by humans.

1.   God walks in both the Garden of Eden and the Tabernacle.

And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden…
(Genesis 3:8)

And I will set my tabernacle among you…And I will walk among you…
(Leviticus 26:11-12)

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2.  Water flowed out of the Garden of Eden and also out of the Temple.

And a river went out from Eden…
(Genesis 2:10)

…and a fountain shall issue from the house of the Lord…
(Joel 4:18)

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3.   Cherubs appear in both places to guard and protect.

…and he placed cherubs at the east of the garden of Eden…to guard the way to the tree of life.(Genesis 3:24)

And the cherubs shall stretch out their wings on high to cover the covering with their wings…(Exodus 25:20)

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4.  Special garments [ketonet] are required in both places

For Adam and for his wife the Lord God made leather coats [ketonet]…
(Genesis 3:21)

And these are the garments which they shall make…an embroidered coat [ketonet]  
(Exodus 28:4)

Recounting the four parallels, we see:

1   God walks in His garden and in the places we create.

2   Water flows out of His garden and out of the places we create.

3   Spiritual forces protect the way to the Tree of Life and to the Tablets of the Covenant.

4   God made clothing for humans in His garden; we emulate Him in our holy places.

Today, in our current conditions, we are obviously unable to locate the Garden of Eden let alone enter it.  However, God did provide us with blueprints to create our own substitute.  Moses and the Israelites used them to build the Tabernacle and later Solomon used them to create the Temple. 

As long as we recognize that both the Tabernacle and the Temple were human replicas of the Garden of Eden, we too become capable of erecting our very own Garden of Eden substitutes right in our own homes.  We merely need note the four parallels.

One, our homes must be places where God walks and we walk with Him.  We don’t sit with Him or stand with Him, we walk with Him.  Meaning we and our families are on the move; we are never in exactly the same (spiritual) place. 

Second, water, (associated with spiritual sustenance in Torah nomenclature) must flow out of our homes.  Regularly inviting guests to share our meals and participate in uplifting conversation allows our ideas to flow and spread.

Third, we must ensure that spiritual forces are in place to protect our most cherished attributes, namely our faith and our families.  With the same enthusiasm that we invite the right people to enter, enjoy and contribute to the atmosphere of our homes, we must also keep out those people and influences that could harm it.

Fourth, and finally we must always, even in the privacy of our home, clothe ourselves in the garments of human dignity. Clothing is holy because God bestowed it upon His children as a way of distinguishing us from the animal kingdom.  Almost all of us look better clothed than naked and for all of us, being clothed protects our sense of self.  This is why the first thing Nazi concentration camps did to Jews upon their arrival was strip them naked.

It is all too easy to figuratively ‘let ourselves go’ when we’re at home.  It is so tempting to slide into poor behavior, abysmal manners, inadequate clothing and other unwholesome self-indulgences when we’re in our own homes.  In reality, in order to build our own Garden of Eden we need to resist these allures.

It is never too late to turn our own home into a Garden of Eden, a Tabernacle, or a Temple.  The rewards are incalculable and more than worth the effort it takes.  Keep both the mountain and the molecule in mind.  The former is the larger vision for the kind of home you’d like to live in while the latter are the details that keep you on that road.

On of humanity’s first moves away from Eden was the Tower of Babel. Only nine verses in Scripture, but the ideas behind them reappear in the pattern of history over and over again. They are in ascendancy once again in our days. Understand what is happening, how it affects you and how to oppose it with our 2 audio CD, Tower of Power: Decoding the Secrets of Babel. On sale this week, it will give you a wondrous glimpse into Scripture as well as today’s headlines.

Tower of Power: Decoding the Secrets of Babel
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Tower of Power

This Thought Tool was first published in October, 2014.

Book Review: A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen

At the time a new movie about Marie Antoinette was released, our high-school age daughter made a comment to a friend about the Queen’s youth at the time of her dramatic encounter with the guillotine. Her friend was quite peeved at how our daughter had ruined the movie by giving away the ending.

Ignorance of history portends unhappiness for a civilization. If citizens are able to internalize the concept that, “There is nothing new under the sun,” by recognizing repeated trends and ideas, they are less vulnerable to the “newest and greatest idea” that falsely promises to provide universal freedom, peace and prosperity.

This is one reason that boring history tomes are a menace. History that is dry and lifeless makes no impression. Good historical fiction that creates imaginary characters while faithfully presenting events is a valuable resource. The minute that anyone, whether Marie Antoinette or the family that grew the wheat used in the royal kitchen, catches one’s imagination, the important occurrences of their lives and the applicable dates and locations become unforgettable.

With this in mind, I’d like to recommend a book for pre-teens and up entitled, A Night Divided. The story starts in 1961, on the night that the Berlin Wall dividing East and West Germany was erected. Eight-year-old Gerta, her fourteen-year-old brother and mother are trapped in their home in the East while another brother and their father are on the other side, aware that returning home is no longer an option due to their political leanings. The bulk of the book takes place four years down the road as Gerta and her brother begin plotting to escape to the West and reunite their family.

Read as an adventure story, the book is gripping. Adding some historical context gives it great value. It is a good sign that even in our times, this book received positive reviews from various newspapers and organizations that prefer not to focus on the evils of Communism.  I would recommend either reading A Night Divided aloud or at least discussing it with children after they have finished it, making sure they understand that the depiction of control and fear exerted by the East German Communists, as well as the dreariness of life under their rule, was real. 

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