The Yom Kippur Post

When I was a kid I was in awe of my parents and grandparents who had the privilege of fasting on Yom Kippur.

“Believe me,” said my grandfather, “it’s no privilege.”

But I knew he was just being modest.  To me, fasting was an activity that adults got to do, like driving or going to work instead of school.  I remember how my grandmother used to prepare for a whole day of atonement.  “I bring a sweater to shul.  You always feel cold when your stomach is empty.”  My mother would also have only the highest reverence for Yom Kippur, and every year would deny herself her morning honey cake.  “But the coffee is not negotiable,” she would say.  “I don’t want to get a headache.”  And my father would always say, “I feel better when I don’t eat,” a statement that always won him a lot of friends when he repeated it in the crowded temple throughout the day.

Then I turned 13 and at last had the privilege of fasting on Yom Kippur.

“Make sure you don’t eat too much the day before,” my father said to me.  “You’ll get an enlarged stomach.  It’ll think more food is coming on Yom Kippur and then you’ll get sick.”

Knowing that part of being a teenager was ignoring your parents’ advice, I stayed true to my age and the day before Yom Kippur I gorged myself on three times my usual diet of cereal, bread, and cookies.  I figured that if a gluttony could get a hibernating bear through the winter, the same approach could get me through the Day of Atonement.  And I had plenty of time to reflect on that logic while I was dry heaving in the mens’ room, my prayer shawl hanging on a hook in the hallway, while upstairs someone chanted the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale that obviously did not have the privilege of fasting that day.

The following year I was smarter.  I did not gorge myself the day before, but ate sparingly so that my stomach would shrink.  I sat through the whole Yom Kippur service, allowing the lightheadedness to enhance the spirituality and bring the fast-breaking buffet that much more quickly.

“Be careful when you break the fast,” my father said.  “Take little bites and see how each one goes before taking another.  Your stomach is too small to handle the usual portions.”

Knowing that my father was just kidding, as soon the sun went down and I was inscribed in, as it turned out, the Book of Life, I raced home and inhaled two blintzes and a bagel before I even one arm out of my high holiday jacket.  And as I took the other arm out I was racing upstairs to the bathroom where I got a second look at the blintzes and bagel.

The following Erev Yom Kippur I didn’t gorge myself and I didn’t starve myself.  I ate my normal diet and went to temple and focused my full attention on atoning for my sins of the previous year and how I was going to be a better person in the coming year.  So immersed was I in God’s glory that I did not think of food at all.  And at a certain point in the service, I looked over to my mother, and made a signal, and without a word we went outside, and got in the car, and drove to a bagel shop that was out of the way so that we would not run into anyone from the temple.  My mother stopped the car in the front, let me out, and then she drove around again, giving me enough time to scope out the bagel shop out and see if there was anyone from the temple before they could see me.

“Coast looks clear,” I said when she came around again.  We confirmed with the proprietor that there was a back door exit, and then took a table near the front so that we could see who was coming in before they could see us.

And when we were done we returned to the temple, checked our teeth in the vanity mirror, and took our seats among the congregation praying fervently for forgiveness.

The Rosh Hashanah Post

Sundown on Wednesday brings the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year.  In Hebrew, “rosh” means “head” and “hashanah” means “the year” – so literally it is the head of the year.  This is not all that different from taking the Latin word “ianua” meaning “door” to get “January” – the door to the year.  Why did the Jews use the word “head” and the Romans the word “door”?  Who knows.

It is a tradition on Rosh Hashanah to dip apples in honey.  This is to ensure a sweet new year.  In the United States it is customary to welcome in the new year with lots of alcohol.  I’m not sure what that is supposed to ensure.

Usually the apples are dipped in the honey by hand.  But the group in the short video below use a crossbow to shoot an apple through a balloon filled with honey.  It shows how Scripture is open to many differing interpretations, and this technique was, I believe, originally articulated by Maimonides, a 12th Century rabbi and commentator who also had an interest in science.  I found the video at  Enjoy!  L’Shanah Tovah!

Remember When Black Friday Took Place on Friday?

The young nation was divided.  The Black Friday purists who insisted on Black Friday sales not starting until the morning of Black Friday had been unable—or unwilling—to reconcile with the block of states who insisted on starting Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving, no matter how much cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie still lay uneaten on the table, or how many relatives still passed out on the couch.

Abraham Lincoln had run for President on the Purist ticket, and his very election brought the dispute to a fevered pitch.  Shortly after his inauguration speech, in which the ol’ Turkey Splitter insisted that he had “no intention” of interfering with the institution of big box stores, the “Target” states, as they came to be known, declared their secession from the Purists and went back to greasing the wheels of their shopping carts.

Lincoln, seeing secession as unacceptable, and worrying that all the stove pipe hats would be gone from the shelves by the time Mary Todd hit the aisles at 5 a.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving, ordered the Union army to stop the Target States of America from seceding.  The Union had more ammunition, more railroads, and more coupons from Bed Bath & Beyond which were used to equip the soldiers with much needed towel warmers and memory foam slippers.  But the Target States had a passion for shopping and a general dislike of family events and an army of stock boys armed with box cutters ready to meet the Union forces.

The war dragged on and Lincoln needed a solution.  He had a meeting planned that morning with Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, and Lincoln paced his lanky frame about the Oval Office, preparing himself.  He tugged at his beard.  Mary Todd had wanted him to shave it for the holidays.  Said it was too scraggly.

“Over my dead body,” Lincoln said to himself, and double-checked the bowl of candy on his desk.  Yes, there were plenty of green apple Jolly Ranchers.

“I don’t think there’s any other way out of this war than to strengthen the blockade of the stores,” Stanton said, tugging at his own scraggly beard.  “They’ve pushed us to this point, and there’s no way I’m missing the Cowboys game to go shopping.”

Lincoln thought about it, tugging at his scraggly beard again.  The two men tugged at their scraggly beards.

“Violence is not the answer,” Lincoln said at once.  “I should know.  I used to hunt vampires.”

“But without violence, I won’t have a job,” Stanton said.  “How are you going to keep those Target States from being open on Thanksgiving without violence?”

Lincoln crossed his long legs, and leaned forward, and rested his chin in the crook between his thumb and forefinger.

“I’m going to make a speech,” he said, and, dismissing the Secretary of War, went to go sharpen his pencil.

The next day President Lincoln stood before a crowd in Leesburg, Virginia, known for its many outlet stores, and gave what would become known as the Leesburg Address.

“Four score and seven years ago,” he began, “I received a gift card to a well-known retailer, and now the retailer is telling me that the card has expired.

“But that is all past.  We are now engaged in a great civil war over whether it is proper that stores open for Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving.  It is not a question of whether a nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that it is never too early to start Christmas shopping, can long endure the helpings of turkey and inappropriate questions from distant relatives, like ‘When are you two getting married?’ or ‘Don’t you think it’s time to do something with your life?’ or ‘Why can’t you put that device down when I’m talking to you?’

“Rather, the question is whether one can really call it Black Friday if it starts on Thursday.”

The crowd stood stunned.  Abraham Lincoln had once again spoken an incontrovertible truth.  It was impossible to have Black Friday on Thanksgiving, which had always been a Thursday, and always would be a Thursday.  And until everyone recognized that truth, the civil war would never end.

So the name was changed to “Black Thursday,” and the stores offered turkey sandwiches and cranberry sauce at the register, and the States were once again United—now and forever, one and inseparable!

Remember When We Were Slaves in Egypt?

When I was a kid we didn’t have television or hand-held devices.  We had to make bricks from bitumen and pitch.  My friends and I liked to say “bitumen” over and over until our mothers yelled at us for being obscene.  She said we didn’t even know what it was.  But we found out soon enough.

I remember what it was like having to build the pyramids.  Talk about a fat-burning exercise.  There wasn’t even any Snapple.  If we were lucky our Egyptian taskmasters would give us water, and sometimes Gatorade when the Pharaoh and Players’ Association were able to work out a contract.

The work was horrible.  We had to mix straw with this sticky black stuff by stomping on it all day long for days and days.  At first it was kind of fun, and I would sing songs to go along with the stomping.  Then a taskmaster whipped me and told me to sing something in a lower key.

Then they had me moving these giant blocks on rollers.  On the third day I developed a persistent ache in my left calf and asked the nearest taskmaster where I could find some cortisone.

“You Hebrews are always complaining,” he said.  “Get back to work or I will whip you to death and then make a note in your file.”

“But why do these blocks have to be so big?” I asked.  “Couldn’t you build pyramids with small bricks?  Or maybe wood planks or vinyl siding?  I hear vinyl siding does very well in the desert.”

The taskmaster raised his whip again and I made the sound of it cracking and threw myself back violently, leaving the taskmaster looking confused.

In the evenings I would hang out with my friends.  It was always a big debate about where we would go.

“How about your place?” I would ask my friend Yaakov.  “What’s going on there?”

“My parents are sitting around exhausted from back-breaking work, and are praying for the deliverance that is supposed to be coming.”

“What about you, Naftali?  Anything cool going on at your hut?”

“My parents are sitting around exhausted from back-breaking work, and are praying—”

“Okay, okay.  Hmm.  Let’s see who’s at the Dairy Queen.”

It wasn’t easy coming of age during this time.  Everyone was depressed because we were slaves, and the rumor that we were going to be saved by divine intervention was starting to sound like one of those stories parents tell their children when they won’t go to bed.  I myself was pretty skeptical and suggested that we Hebrews all go on strike until we were released from the house of bondage and given a lower co-pay on our health insurance.

“We could do it during the holidays,” I said.  “All the last-minute shoppers will be screwed.  The store owners will lose millions!”  But then the elders cited a law that said any striking Hebrew would be tossed into the Nile and then barred from attending the annual picnic.

And then one day we were told to pack everything up because we were leaving.  Apparently this guy Moses and his brother Aaron had performed some dog and pony show for the Pharaoh and gotten him to agree to let us go.

“Go where?” I asked.

“To the Promised Land.  The land of our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

“Well my father’s name is Steven,” I said, “and his land is right over there behind that pile of animal dung.”

But it was true—we were leaving Egypt and I had to spend the whole day going through all the boxes filled with all my notebooks and artwork from school.

“Mom, look,” I said to my mother who was racing around the kitchen shoving food in cloth bags.  “Here’s a story I wrote in second grade.  Didn’t I have fantastic penmanship?”  Then she shoved a piece of unleavened bread in my mouth and told me to hurry up.

I’ll spare you the boring details of the days that followed.  It’s all written down somewhere anyway.  We left Egypt and wandered around the desert for years and years, and I was surrounded by all these smarmy teenagers who knew nothing of the Pharaoh or what had been like to be slaves.  I tried to tell them about it, about the history of our people and what it meant to be free.

But all they cared about was their rock music and who was going to the Dairy Queen.

Remember How You Used to Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

My first Valentine’s Day  involved a second-grade class and a sheet of perforated Valentines.  We had to give them out to every other kid in the class, and I’m pretty sure I gave them out to the boys as well as the girls, and signed “Love, Mark” at the bottom of each one.  Even in the midst of Freud’s latency period I felt a vague uneasiness, but did not see how I could discriminate.

My phrase of choice that year was “Holy Baloney,” which I said every time the teacher told me I answered something wrong, or assigned another project involving construction paper and paste.  One girl in my class laughed out loud every time I said it, and on her Valentine to me wrote “Holy Bologna” just above the salutation.  I was touched by the thought, and figured that I could accept her even if she did not know how to spell.

Valentine’s Day was so simple in the second grade.  No flowers, no dinner reservations.  I even think my mother bought the sheet of perforated Valentines, and instead of chocolates we snacked on those little hard and powdery candy hearts that said “Be Mine,”  “I Luv You,” and  “We Need to Talk About Your Choice of School Bag.”

But Valentine’s Day was not always this romantic.  There were many a year where Valentine’s Day was spent seeing how many beers I could drink before the pile of dirty laundry in the corner of my bedroom looked like a work of modern art.  If was lucky, there would be a friend who was also single, and we would go to the local dive and watch ESPN with the sound off, hoping that with each round we’d forget our loneliness and be able to read Mike Krzyzewski’s lips as he yelled at his players and, sometimes, the referees.

And then one Valentine’s Day I proposed to my now-wife, and my perception of this day of flowers and chocolate changed forever.  I don’t see Valentine’s Day as an obligation.  I see it as an opportunity.  For 364 days of the year (or 365 days in a leap year, like this one), I sit in my house and look at my wife and think to myself, “She’s so beautiful and wonderful.  I’m such a lucky man.  I wonder what she’s annoyed at me for this time.”

I wish there were answers in the back of the book, or a teacher’s edition, but there are not.  I have to make educated guesses of how to make my soul mate view me as less of a parasite who watches football.  Could it be the glass I left on the kitchen counter instead of putting it in the dishwasher?  Could it be that bowl with four floating Cheerios that I left in the sink instead of washing out and putting in the dishwasher?  Could it be that pair of dirty socks that I left on her laptop instead of washing them out and putting them in the dishwasher?  The greatest fear in any relationship is the fear of the unknown, and for a marriage that fear is codified in statute.

But for one day a year I am relieved of that fear, and handed a game plan with three simple steps: bouquet of roses, reservations at a nice restaurant, and then…you know…HGTV.  It is as simple as snap, crackle and pop.  My grandfather used to say that problems that can be solved with money alone are the kind of problems you want to have.  I’m sure that he had Valentine’s Day in mind when he said that.

So fellow husbands and boyfriends, my brethren in arms and credit cards, do not fear Valentine’s Day, but embrace it and its obligations with gusto, and be thankful that for one day you get to enjoy the greatest pleasure you can enjoy in a relationship: not having to think.

And to the ranks of the single who complain that there is no single person’s day, I respond: every day is single person’s day.

Happy Valentine’s Day, especially to the students of Mrs. P’s second grade class.  I meant what I wrote on those perforated cards.

Remember Trick-or-Treating on Halloween?

For today’s post I’m going to cheat a little and direct you to a piece of mine, “When Halloween Was the Ultimate Treat,” that was run in my local newspaper, The Times Union.  It ran a couple of weeks ago, but I thought it would be better to post about it closer to All Hallows Eve.  Plus it gets me a free post without having to come up with any original material, which is always a good thing.  Especially on mornings in October when I wake up to snow on the ground and below-freezing temperatures and I haven’t planted my hydrangea bulbs yet.  But as the clerk at Zack’s Guns & Ammo told me yesterday, “We don’t have to like it.  We just have to live with it.”

Happy Halloween!    Remember to stock up on Butterfingers this weekend.

P.S.  I had a spike in page views on Wednesday.  Anyone have any idea that might have happened?

Remember When You Didn’t See Christmas Decorations Until After Thanksgiving?

Remember when you did not see any Christmas decorations in stores until after Thanksgiving?

I do.

There were limitations to the shopping seasons.  No red hearts until February 1.  No pastel colors and chocolate bunnies until April 1.  Red, white and blue began last week of June.  October was all about Halloween.  Then the Thanksgiving stuff came out as the costumes were put away.  And then after Thanksgiving, the big one, the big shopping Kahuna got trotted to make us remember that the only true way to show you love someone is to buy them things.

I remember the year my parents made me freeze my rump off at the Thanksgiving Day parade.  Santa Claus on his sleigh was the final float.  I thought about how clever it was of the parade people to insert a smooth transition to the holiday season.

But smooth transitions are, evidently, a thing of the past.  There was nothing smooth about the purple shiny tree I saw parked in the vestibule at Borders today.  No warning, no apology.  Just fake shiny trees and a wall of stuffed reindeer.  Isn’t there a law against this?  Isn’t there something in the Constitution about not being to display Christmas merchandise until the first Tuesday after the first Monday in December?  Are the stores really that shameless that they will play that Christmas card as early and as often as possible?

Sometimes I want to curse the corporations’ dilution of the Christmas spirit, blast the marketers’ commercialization of a solemn celebration, and indict the retailers’ sickening zeal to cash in at the expense of the defined seasons that gave structure to our chaotic lives.

And then I remember that I’m Jewish.