Yizkor Etiquette (FYI)

There is a prayer in the Jewish holiday services, to honour the memory of people who are no longer with us. The widespread custom is that it is not said by people who still have both of their parents living. In many communities, those people do not even stay in the synagogue while the prayer is being said.

If I’m honest, I don’t really understand why that latter custom begun in the first place. When prayers are said by other parts of the community that I am not included in, (Men, Kohanim, those in mourning etc) I find it pretty self explanatory just to stand quietly and wait. After all, there is plenty of the prayer which is relevant to everyone, including a prayer for our soldiers and one for the victims of the Holocaust, something we all could benefit from being a part of. Surely it is an odd action in itself to get up and leave the building, basically abandoning everyone with the misfortune of having lost a parent or both.

Superstitious or not, I can however appreciate the reasoning behind it. And if your parents would rather you left the synagogue for those five minutes, or you yourself feel uncomfortable being there, then leave by all means.

But I do have a couple of small requests.

Given that we were standing having a perfectly normal interaction or sometimes even conversation 2 minutes previously, please don’t suddenly act like I have the plague. Yes, you’re being given a reminder that I once lost someone dear to me. I can understand your twinge of awkwardness. But not looking me in the eye? Stumbling over your words? Feeling the need to look apologetic as you leave the room? Bizarre. I do this four times a year, and sometimes it’s harder than other times, but I am in the same mood I was 4 seconds ago, I don’t suddenly need special treatment.

Which brings me to my second issue. The mad scramble for the door. This is different at different places, but in every congregation, there are the people who start gathering their bits and pieces together a good ten minutes before the guy shouts ‘Yizkor.’ They are standing by the door as soon as the Haftorah has finished, and they are pushing past everyone in their way to make it to the coridoor before heaven forbid, someone starts reading from their memorial booklet with them in the vicinity. What are you afraid of? That you might catch my dead parent virus? If its your custom to leave, then leave. In a normal manner. Exactly how you would regularly walk out a door, in a line, at a normal speed. Even if you disagree with me that it’s rude to leave in the first place, it’s certainly not polite to canter out the door virtually shouting silently that we shouldn’t confuse you with one of us.

I’m probably coming across kind of bitter, and it really isn’t that at all. And it certainly isn’t the fault of the people who leave. The custom should never have begun, because it feels to me almost anti what we stand for. Surely the very best part of Judiasm is that we are all accountable and responsible for one another, we share in each others joy and pain and we certainly don’t leave one of our own when we are in need. So where did this custom start, that we should segregate ourselves, even for twenty minutes a year into orphaned and not orphaned? Speaking for myself, and I only say one small portion of the service, it is a very lonely feeling to watch everyone hotfoot it out of the room at arguably one of my most vulnerable times. How must it be for the older members of the community who have so many dearly departed to remember and miss?

I don’t know where it started, and I hope that those who don’t mind either way, would start to make a point by staying in and standing quietly with their prayer books firmly closed. But even if you can’t, or simply don’t want to, I hope you’ll think twice before you push me out the way in your eagerness to leave.

Do you remember?

Waking up each morning, with purpose in your smile,
Feeling that hand picked for you, was every twist and trial.
Knowing that you’d taken time, out of your own routine-
To grow and change and learn it all, while you were still a teen.

To move with friends out of our youth, and into being grown,
To contemplate and sometimes change, which seeds had then been sown.
Standing in the sunlight, just talking, me and Him,
I’d never been so open, simply letting prayer in.

Hours of our days went by, we’d argue, talk, debate,
Discuss the meanings of our lives, the love, despair and hate.
That feeling when it came together, we knew our world was true,
I miss those bursts of energy, do you miss them too?

The passion and the zeal to learn, the way we had to grow,
It sometimes seems a distant me, a life from long ago.
Now, going through the motions, I long to be inspired
But life gets in the way somehow, and I just end up tired.

In some ways I have so much more than ‘six years ago me’ had,
A home, marriage, my baby boy, so much to make me glad.
But still sometimes I glance behind, and hope I’ve not forgot,
The girl I knew back then who felt, so strongly, at Orot.

Freedom of (not) speech

I’ve been acutely involved in a discussion this week on another blog. And it’s been on my mind for days. The blog was freshly pressed this week, and was excellent. It was related to parenting and teaching, and kids in general… and it was overflowing with expletives. I read the blog, enjoyed it, followed the blogger, and didn’t comment on the language. But a lot of other people did. The offended commenters encouraged the blogger into writing another blog this week, to inform the world that it is her blog, and she can write any which way she freaking likes. Except she didnt say freaking. This was met with nothing less than rapturous applause. And I have been shocked.

It is no secret that I am anti foul language. I think it is crass, uncreative, lazy, offensive, mostly unnecessary and frankly boring. And I think it makes the user seem ignorant. That’s just my opinion. You are entitled to yours.

However, as far as I have power over any kind of language, I do not put up with it. As an editor, if a manuscript comes my way with cursing in it, I barely give it a second glance before throwing it into the reject pile. If you are lazy enough to resort to bad language when you are blessed with a language so vast, I’m pretty certain that the rest of your descriptive capabilities arent going to be worth my time. It’s totally your choice as a writer, but if you need the literary crutch of expletives, then I doubt I can help you.

Of course, there will be times when a decision is not mine to make. A manuscript already approved has been placed on my desk. Unlucky you if you like your foul mouthed characters. Mark Twain has been famously quoted as saying “Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be” and that is exactly what I would do in both cases. In my mind, the same lack of expression is in both kinds of writing. I wouldnt let an author get away with writing ‘very’, and I equally wouldnt let them get away with using swear words.

Why am I so militant about this issue? This is a question that has been tossed my way this week by people who think I am old fashioned and ‘fuddy duddy.’ As a writer and an editor, the answer is simple, which is that your work is better without it. Art is simply better without it. As a person, and now a mother, it is more complex.

People will argue that swear words are ‘just words.’ That the only reason we are offended by them is because of arbitary meanings that people have placed on curse words rather than other words. That it makes no sense that we can use certain words in one way, and yet by changing the meaning, the same letters become abusive. Other people will shout from the rooftops that freedom of speech is what seperates us from slaves, and that we have a right to say whatever we choose, and be free of judgement or censorship for that choice.

I will argue that on the contrary, you are limiting yourself by using those words. I have said before, that I believe that Language creates reality. A great friend reminded me at the time, that God is said to have created the world with ten utterances, literally creating our reality with language. Everything we say, as much as what we do, matters. No more can I say that cursing is ‘just words’ than argue that punching is ‘just action.’ Being proud of using your language in an offensive and hurtful way, whether expletives are used or not, is just promoting anarchy and thoughtlessness amongst people. Being able to say what we want in whatever words we choose is definitely a sign of our freedom, I agree. So why abuse that freedom by limiting ourselves to words that mean nothing really, and are at best, even when not offensive, just unnecessary.

My son is just getting a basic understanding of language, and the wonder on his face when he repeats a word we say, or makes a sound that we interpret correctly and act upon, is a true miracle. For him, language is a new tool, a magic key into an unfamilliar world. Every day he comes a step closer to being able to make himself understood and to understand others. I don’t really care if it makes me old fashioned, or prude-ish, I no more want him using foul language to others, than I would want him using dangerous actions towards them. Because to me that danger is the same. I want him to be able to use his words to create his reality, where he expresses himself with prethought and intention, and has the freedom not to curse. So why would I expect anything less from myself?

How many calories are in this asprin?

A little bit of everything in moderation. This time of year, with new years resolutions flying out of everyone’s mouths carelessly, it is easy to get carried away with goals and hopes for the year ahead. My new years resolution started in November, with my healthy eating and getting into better shape kick, and it’s actually going really well.

However, I started it because I felt very strongly that I didnt want my son growing up with the same bad habits as I have. Whatever the reasoning, my own mother didnt have those worries. She talks of how my grandmother had very little idea about calorie content or healthy choices, perhaps because she grew up in wartime, or after losing her family in the Holocaust, simply had more important things to worry about. A story my mum loves to tell is how her mother would cut a large slice of cake, and offer it to one of her family, Upon being told it contained far too many calories and was bound to make the eater put on copious weight if consumed, she would lift the cake in her hand, testing the physical weight, and announce “Light as a feather!”

Amusing. Two generations later, not so much. My own family cannot plead ignorance. We are beaten to death with statistics of obesity in this country and abroad, it is hammered into us how important getting your ‘5-a-day’ is, and we are all aware that if Calories > Exercise = Not fitting into that new dress.

We have the knowledge. My parents generation had it also, but somehow, in my case, it failed. I struggle with the same eating patterns as my mum does. When I grew up at home, it was perfectly acceptable to finish supper and then go decide what snack to munch on throughout the evening. A packet of biscuits was rarely left unfinished once opened, same with a stack of pringles or a box of chocolates. One was never enough.

And so my ‘healthy eating’ or weight loss kick, or whatever you want to dub it, is more complicated than everything in moderation. Because that very idea battles a lifetime of bad habits that are far harder to shift than my weighted hula hoop. Indulge in one doughnut on the first night of Chanukah, and I’ve found myself craving one each day. Open the snack cupboard which I’ve ignored for 6 weeks, and suddenly I find myself being gravitationally pulled in its direction each time I enter the kitchen. For me, going cold turkey is the only way to keep it up. And once I do that, it becomes easy.

I stop thinking about junk food and eating between meals, and focus my attention on what to have for breakfast lunch and dinner instead. If I know that food for the day stops at 9pm, I’m not even envious when I see C reach for the minstrels bag at 9.30. It’s about changing my mindset.

And with it, I think I’m changing the way I feed my son. I’m much more reluctant to reach for the cheerios because he’s being a pain. I don’t hand out treats every time I go in the kitchen with him. I focus on making sure he has what he needs at mealtimes, which include a mid morning and mid afternoon snack, and because he doesnt see me eating at other times, he doesnt want anything either.

Regimented? Yes. And I’m not saying it would work for everyone. Some people need to know they can have that 2 squares of chocolate at the end of the day, or make the exception because it’s a special occasion. But those people tend to have healthy eating habits ingrained already, and have just overdone it over the festive season, or had a change in situation which led to less activity or attention to meals. Not to belittle their efforts, but I think it’s a much easier battle, because it’s only against the food they eat, rather than the lifestyle and habits which theyve adopted.

I hope that because of what I’m trying to do, that when my own grandchildren start their ‘healthy eating kick’, new years resolution circa 2052, they are those type of people.

Tree? Check. Santa? Check. Presents? Check. Let’s light those Chanukah Lights.

I have nothing against Christmas. Why would I? As an orthodox Jew, It’s basically a non-event for me. Some years I don’t even remember what day it is until I try to go buy something and realise the outisde world looks like a better version of 28 days later. I even have lots of favourite things about the Christmas period; Starbucks gets all red and white and makes up new and delicious drinks, people seem to get a whole lot friendlier, and I’d never complain about having some time off work. Above all, I’m glad that the non Jewish world has a time of year where they can spend some quality time with their famillies, and I think the spirit of goodwill to all men and being generous to others is a lovely sentiment, especially when done well.

But it isnt for us. We’re Jewish, we have more than enough of our own holidays to celebrate. With incredible opportunities for fun and enjoyment for kids of all ages. Why are so many Jewish people encroaching on a Christian festival?

I’m not talking about famillies who have one Jewish parent and one Christian. That’s a whole other topic, one I’m certainly not venturing into any time soon! I mean famillies, who range from entirely irreligious to what I would call orthodox, who seem to indulge in what’s being dubbed Chrismukkuh, (Thank you OC.) and which is more and more frequently being glorified by Hollywood and TV characters alike.

You know you’re Jewish, you’re proud to be Jewish, your kids may or may not go to religious schools, they certainly have religious friends, you’re often seen at synagogue, and yet somehow, you are proudly displaying a xmas tree in your living room. You’re looking for the least busy time to take your kids to see Santa, and you’re ‘stocking’ up on stocking fillers and crackers.

I probably have a strong opposition here, but I think this is at best unnecessary, and at worst, extremely dangerous.

Unnecessary, because however much you argue that Christmas is not a religious festival anymore, and that it has been secularised to the point where it can do no harm, our kids just dont need it. Judiasm is such a rich culture with so many festivals and celebrations, and Chanukah is at the same time of year! They dont need to feel left out from their non jewish friends, they have something just as wonderful to talk about and look forward to. You want to spoil them with gifts? Great-no need to put them under a tree. You want to take them on a fun outing? Use your bank holidays wisely and have Chanukah outings to wherever you please. Even if you do use the queuing time for Father Xmas to explain to your kids that this is for Christians and not for Jews, but you’re indulging as a special treat, the very best you’re going to come away with is a child who thinks you do things that you arent supposed to do. Then spend the remainder of their childhood telling them what they should  and shouldnt be doing, and see if those mixed messages get you very far.

On the other hand, if you dont tell them that Santa and all the trimmings aren’t meant for Jewish people, then what are you saying? That it’s ok to celebrate both? That you believe in both? Or that it’s fine to celebrate something even if you dont believe in it?

Increasingly, I see parents mxing the two holidays in the oddest ways imaginable. I had a kid who I teach tell me that he has to be as good as possible, otherwise “the Maccabee Soldiers wont leave any presents under my Xmas tree.” I’ve heard people who dub their holiday props “Chanukah Bushes,” call Santa “Chanukah Chaim” and there is even a tree ornament called “Happy Bagel.”

Genuinely, I don’t get it. Unless you dont care if your children remain religious and committed to your faith or not, how can you dangle something like Xmas in front of them at their most vulnerable age and not expect them to come away at best confused.

I’m sure there are plenty of stories of those of you who had trees and stockings and maybe even a full Christmas dinner and have come away faith unscathed. But whatever your arguments for this odd mash-up of religious observance, you cant say it isnt risky.