Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ramping Up

The days before Rosh HaShanah ... everyone wishing me a Shanah Tovah. Asking, "So, are you ready for the holiday?"

Ummm. No. Not really. Cooking for dinner-yes, ready for my guests. For the holidays, no. Never. High Holy Days, kinda not my thing. Sukkot-enjoy Sukkot. But ready for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Nope.

These are remnants of the canned answers I gave to the question, "So are you ready for the holiday?" Internally, I kept thinking/questioning. Stream of Consciousness: work - lot's to do on that checklist, cleaning-a little every day, planning dinner menu, starting soup, shopping for cooking ingredients. I'm lonely right now - not entrenched in a synagogue community. Wish I were in Dallas for the holidays. Should I go to Dallas? Maybe New York. No - travel too much, stay here-here is lonely. Have to go get tickets. Tickets for the holidays, sucks. Membership dues for shuls - sucks even more. Have to get tickets. Need to go to synagogue. Not sure why I need to go, not a huge fan anyway. Consider riding the couch for the weekend. No, get tickets. It's the right thing. Don't forget to pay mid-month bills.

It makes no sense to be going about your daily life, worrying about daily stresses, and wake up one day "ready for the holiday." And then, for the first time ever, it hit me. That's the point of Elul. Elul is the Jewish month preceding Tishrei (the Jewish month that starts with Rosh HaShanah). Elul ... 29 days preceding the Holy Days. The point of Elul - 29 days of ramping up.

As a Jewish educator, I know that there are rituals that some people perform during Elul.
  • hearing the Shofar blow each day - the blasts awakening us, calling us
  • reciting Psalm 27
  • reciting Selichot
  • and less traditionally: reading special books and poems, journaling, meditating, etc
But I have never participated in them (other than attending an occasional Selichot program the Saturday before RH). [Note: This year, I went to a local congregation that was performing the staged reading/play "Standing at Sinai" which was written by my dear friend, Jeff Bernhardt. But I bailed before services.]

So - lesson learned. I need Elul. And while going to shul every day for Shacharit (morning prayers) to hear the Shofar blow might not be "my thing," I need to figure out what my thing is. Maybe finding someone to blow the Shofar for me on my own time schedule (even over the phone or Skype), maybe some guided journaling, and maybe spending a few minutes on each day of Elul calling one person I haven't talked to in a while (idea taken from a friend of mine!).
Whatever it is, one thing is for sure, I need to ramp-up. I can't just drop into the holidays and expect to feel something. I need Elul.

Wishing all of my friends and family a Happy and Healthy New Year and a Yom Kippur of meaning.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


For weeks, I read friends' Facebook status updates touting the movie Inglorious Basterds, so I decided to take myself to see it.

When I posted that I was headed off to the movies to catch this flick, many people commented on my status - again saying what a great movie it is, some even saying it was the best movie they had seen.

I have to say, I completely disagree. First of all, I spent a good chunk of the movie hidden behind my own hands, eyes tightly shut, and in several cases, even closed my ears. The shear gratuitous violence gave the movie it's first negative in my opinion. (Apparently, this is a trademark of Tarantino, but I haven't seen the majority of his movies so I had no clue this was the case.) The second, and more important perhaps, reason I didn't like this movie is inextricably linked to my opposition to the death penalty.

There are many reasons I am opposed to the death penalty:
  • it's irreversible and sometimes we make mistakes in who we identify as the guilty party
  • in the American court system it can be more expensive than life imprisonment which is a bad way to spend taxpayer $$
  • for the guilty - it's an easy way out - not having to live with the crime
  • for the family of the guilty (who are often completely innocent in their loved ones choices) it is yet another emotional blow
  • it's not our job to "play G-d"
  • Judaism strongly advises against using it
Whenever I get into debate about this issue, people always throw out Hitler - stating "If you had the chance to be the one to push the electric chair button on Hitler, you would do it." Truth is, I wouldn't. No one believes me, but I am THAT opposed. I don't have a problem locking him in a 5x5 concrete isolation cell with pictures of the people he tortured wallpapering the cell and no human contact and no sunshine ... but I do have a problem ending someone - anyone's - life.

Jewishly, the rabbis who wrote the Talmud created huge barriers to actually using the death penalty that in practical terms made it almost impossible to punish anyone by death.
  • The defendant may not be put to death unless two (or in some cases three) eyewitnesses testify against him or her
  • Each witness must be so certain of his testimony that he personally would be willing to carry out the execution
  • (Mishnah Makkot 1:10): "A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: even once in seventy years. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon say: had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death...."
Personally, I have a relationship to the question of the death penalty. Remember the episode of West Wing, where the President is being asked to stay an execution? He calls in Charlie (his assistant) whose mother had been murdered to get Charlie's opinion. He asks Charlie, would he want his mother's killer to get the death penalty (Charlie says "yes" and admits he would be willing to push the button) ... but enter what happened in my house that night.

When my mother was 13, her father was murdered; they never caught the person who did it. I turned to her at the end of that scene and took that opportunity to ask my mother the same thing the President asked Charlie. "Mom, if they had caught the guy, would you have wanted him to get the death penalty? Would YOU be willing to push the button?" My mom hesitated - the answer wasn't clear for her. It doesn't get more personal that this - and she wasn't sure.

On the other side of the victim coin .... when I was 16 I had a friend whose brother murdered someone. The entire process ... finding out he had done it, dealing with the trauma that he was even capable of it, and his trial, were so hard on my friend and her family - it almost destroyed them. In a real sense, they were victims of the crime, too. Then came time for sentencing and death penalty was an option. She was so completely distraught. Her pain in that moment was so raw and while she recognized he was guilty, and needed to be punished, but the thought of having him die increased her pain exponentially.

So now back to the Basterds ... this movie was really about the death penalty. About taking lives of Nazi soldiers and even Hitler, as retribution for their killing of Jews. Then add in the pure gratuitous violence ... and you get a movie that I just find Inglorious.