Thursday, December 24, 2009

Finding a Minyan, Part 4

It is a Friday in Michigan in mid-November. I am planning to visit my (unbeknownst-to-me dying) mom in the hospital in New Jersey, just as soon as I get back from my trip to Sl Segundo and San Jose to audit two defense contractor sites the following week.

A newly arrived e-mail asks whether I can audit some landfills on the east coast. While I am reading the e-mail, my boss walks into my office, an intense look on her face. (I didn't even know she was in Michigan - she works in Boston). I look up.

"Respond to the e-mail and tell them you can go,"  she says firmly.  My billable hours have been low. I need the work.

After 4 1/2 years for this firm, I have never been invited to do any work near my folks.

"Absolutely," I say.

It's Thanksgiving week. I'm sitting shiva at my parents' house. I'm not supposed to be working. But I've got a new I-pod touch in my pocket and I'm receiving e-mails from someone in the Manhattan office all day long. By Friday, three audits have been scheduled.  The colleague I've been paired with to do the landfill audits is Australian. Thanksgiving and shiva mean nothing to him. It's all set. Next Thursday, I'll be auditing a facility that treats petroleum contaminated soils with bacteria that eat petroleum.



I get up from shiva on Monday. Gonna work in one of my company's offices in New Jersey. Lets try Cranbury.

I do a search. There's a minyan map available on line. There's a kollel (essentially a post-graduate religious school for married men) about a mile from the Cranbury office. Great.

It's Tuesday. I go to my dad's synagogue for morning services. I go to the Cranbury office to work, about an hour from my folk's house. The Cranbury Kollel has afternoon services at 2:10 pm. I call to verify there will be a minyan and that I will be able to get in (what do I know?). No problem, I am told, after telling the young man on the phone that I need to say kaddish for my mom.

I get there at 2 pm. After trying a few different doors, I enter the building and ask where mincha will be. I am led to a bais medrash. There are maybe a half dozen men of various ages learning in pairs. It is a big room with many tables and shtenders (lecterns).  Religious men like to pray while standing at lecterns where they can rest their prayerbooks. I have brought my own pocket-sized prayerbook.

Everyone is wearing black suits, white shirts, and black hats. I am wearing cargo pants, a plaid shirt, and a fleece vest, and a camo baseball-type cap. I have a beard. Everyone else has a beard. I fit right in.

Before I realize it, the place is now full and at exactly 2:10 someone starts leading the davening with ashrei. I get to say my kaddish. A few men come over and welcome me. I shake their hands, say goodbye, and go back to the office. I'll be able to say evening prayers after I get back to my parents' house - there's a late evening service (9 pm) at my father's shul.


It's Thursday. I am supposed to pick up my Australian colleague at 8 a.m. the train station near Edison, NJ.  The minyan map says there's a shul with four different starting times for morning prayers, 5:50, 6:30, 7:00, 7:20. Great. I plan to get there for the 6:30 minyan.

Notwithstanding my GPS, which is excellent, by the way (I have a lot to say about GPSs in future posts), I get there at about 6:40. Too late. I ask where the 7:00 minyan will be and I am shown the way. A big room with a lot of tables, each of which seats about four. Three tables are occupied. They are all talking about various subjects they are studying - from a distance it I can see it ts all talmud. They are dressed more American (for lack of a better word). They are studying before work (whereas, at a Kollel, studying is the work).

It is 7 a.m. Nobody has budged. My tallit and tefillin are on now. Many others have put theirs on as well. But nobody has parked himself at the lectern in front of the room. I look around - a trickle of men have been entering since I arrived and there's at least 20 people present. I see an older man, long gray beard, black hat, studying with a more casually dressed 20-something. Maybe he's the rabbi. (Probably half of them are rabbis, but he appeared to be the person to talk to.)

Pointing to my watch. "Excuse me, sir, but isn't there going to be shacharit at 7."

The rabbi grimaces slightly and smiles. "Well, yes there is. Is there a problem?"

"My mother died last week and I have to say kaddish. And need to be somewhere at 8 o'clock."

"Hmmmph. Well, this is the kollel minyan. It is very slow. It won't finish 'til 8."

I must have looked pretty dejected. He gets up, says, "Don't worry. I'll get you a kaddish."

I have no idea what he means. He comes over to my table. Morning services still haven't started.

He starts saying something from a prayerbook. It's too fast for me to follow except the last sentence: "Hashem chafetz le'ma'an tzidko yagdiltorah v'ya'adir."  He looks at me and mouths the words "kaddish."

"Which one???"

"Whichever one you want."

I say a mourner's kaddish.

He then says something else, too fast for me to follow, followed by that look. I say another kaddish. The leader of the minyan starts. I say the first kaddish with the minyan, and then proceed at my own pace (as fast as possible) to say the rest of shacharit. I finish and leave without hearing the torah reading.

One of these days I'll need to learn about this kaddish stuff.  There's some magic words which, if said and heard in the presence of a minyan, trigger the saying of kaddish.

Finding Minyans, Part 3

It is Tuesday, December 22, 6:55 a.m.. Buffalo, NY. Light snow, temperature in the teens. I'm dressed in my BDUs and steel toes, my hardhat and safety glasses in the back seat. I'm supposed to pick up my colleague at Buffalo Airport at 8 a.m. and then head for the landfill for our audit.

The godaven printout says that Beis HaKnesses Hagodol Lubavitch, a shul that prays with the same prayerbook as mine, has morning services at 7 a.m. So that's where I am. It is reasonably close to Buffalo airport. I'll have no problem saying my prayers and my kaddishes, and meeting my colleague on time.

I pull on the main door to the building, which appears to be a school. A big one. So much the better (or so I think). The lights are out  except for a long wall of frosted, translucent windows, which appears to be the side of a big single room - probably the synagogue. The outside door is unlocked - a good sign.

I go into the school and guess which door might be the shul. It is unlocked. I peek inside. It is the rear door to the bais medrash (literally, a study hall, but in most cases is seems, also a shul). The lights are on. I see nobody there. "Is anybody here?" (no answer)

I go back to my car. Maybe it's another shiva? I hesitate. Maybe I should just go in, put on my tallis and tefillin and start praying - maybe the minyan will show up soon. It's 7 a.m.

This time, I walk in. A thin, pale boy, around 13 years old, black suit, white disheveled shirt, black fedora, crooked teeth, sits hidden from view of the rear door.

Me: "Excuse me, isn't there going to be shacharit about now?

Him (shrugging, sheepish grin, high (pre-teen) voice): "Well, it never really starts at 7. More like 7:30 or so."

Me, a wry smirk on my face now: "OK, I guess I'll just start and hope for the best."

I choose a seat (there are 50 or so, all empty). I take out my tallis and prayerbook. A man walks in, about my age, short, black suit, white shirt, tzitzit, very quickly walking to the lectern. He lights the oil lamps (even though there's an electric lamp on there as well) while I'm putting on my tfillin. When I'm done he comes over to me and tells me not to worry. There will be a minyan eventually.

Me: "I have to say kaddish for my mother. It's still sheloshim" (the first thirty days after burial).

Him (shrugging, sheepish grin, high (grownup) voice): "Me, too. Don't worry."

By 7:30, there's about eight men. I'm about 80% finished with my prayers. The men can see from my positions standing, sitting, feet together, feet not together, three steps back, three steps forward, etc., that I've already said sh'ma, shmonah esrei, and tachanun. The rabbi goes out into the hallway and rounds up the stragglers.

The rabbi starts. I say my first kaddish in time for my aleinu (one of the concluding prayers). The rabbi then comes over to me and shows me a page in the siddur. He gestures and points, makes various grunts while pointing at a prayer, flipping the pages, and then pointing to a "rabbi's" kaddish (he can't talk any more - he's at a point in the prayers where he can't interrupt his prayers).

I guess the rules don't consider charades to be an interruption.

First he points to one page, running his finger down the page and says "uhhhhhh?" Then he flips to the kaddish page and points at the kaddish and says "uhhhhh." I look at him quizzically. He repeats his wordless explanation. I nod. I get it. I say the first line of the prayer out loud, then the middle silently, breaking my teeth trying to do it quickly, then the last sentence out loud, and then I say the rabbi's kaddish, to which the minyan responds appropriately.

The Rabbi then comes back with a book of psalms, and opens to psalm 20, running his finger down the page and says "uhhhhhh?" Then he flips to another kaddish page in the prayerbook and says "uhhhhh." I nod, I say the psalm, I say the mourner's my kaddish. The men reply.

I quickly take off my tfillin, wrap them up, fold up my tallis, say to the rabbi when he glances back at me, "todah" (thanks), and head for my car. Was it my imagination, or did he wink?

I pick up my colleague at 8:10. Getting there late gave him time to buy me a cup of coffee at the airport while he was waiting. I just blame it on "traffic."

Finding Minyans, Part 2

In my previous post I mentioned that any synagogue that you choose to visit for your services and kaddish may have an element of unpredictability in connection with the minyan schedule.

This past Monday, I drove to Buffalo. Before I left for Buffalo, and as I said before, trust but verify. I planned my trip, which took me across Ontario, Canada, including two border crossings, so as to arrive at Young Israel of Buffalo 15 minutes before mincha.  I arrived in plenty of time for mincha, and was the only person there. I sat in my car in front of the synagogue, watching for other cars to arrive.

At mincha time, one car parked behind mine and the driver did the same thing. And then another two pulled around the side of the building and parked. I went to the front door. No lights turned on and I saw no movement.  I went around to the side door. There were two men and several young boys reading a sign posted on the door. Mincha (and shacharit) would be at a shiva house this week, at suchandsuch address, with a little google map to show us where.

One of the men, a frummie in black coat and hat with tzitzit says to me, "do you know vere is suchandsuch address maybe?" (I was wearing my BDU pants and steel-toe shoes - I was dressed for auditing a hazardous waste landfill this week.)

"Nope. I'm not from around here."

"You have a GPS, maybe?"

"Yup. Follow me."

They started mincha a little late, so we were just in time. I had afternoon and evening prayers and got to say kaddish three times on Monday (around 8 of them if I remember correctly).

Remember what I said about "trust but verify?"

Finding Minyans, Part 1

When you're trying to find a minyan of 10 men with which to say kaddish at morning, afternoon, and evening services, it is a challenge to be away from a home or from home base. And sometimes it is even a challenge when you are home and live about 100 yards from your shul.

Many tools are needed, or at least sometimes helpful, to find these services. Even when you do, they are not always what you expect.

Among the tools I have found somewhat helpful:

Regional minyan schedules, see, e.g., a minyan map (so far so good) or godaven ("trust but verify")

You will need to know not only where there is a place to pray, but also something about when to pray.

Permissible prayer times are all connected to the various times of day when the sun is at this or that position in the sky. Which also means that where you are physically (your latitude and longitude) matters.

  • There's dawn, and then there's the earliest time you can put on a tallit and tfillin.
  • There's the latest time you can say the morning sh'ma and fulfill that obligation.
  • There's the earliest time you can say afternoon prayers (mincha) and then the latest time you can say mincha and still be able to say the evening prayer before evening (no kidding!).
  • There's sunset, and then there's the latest time you can say the evening sh'ma (you are supposed to say it before "halachic" (i.e., legal) midnight.
See, e.g. my shul's calendar (note that you can change the date and location) and this other calendar I found after a 10 second google search.

Forget clocks. You need to divide the duration of the night by 12 to get the duration of a halachic hour, then take half of that amount of time and add it to the time of actual sunset. See this explanation. So in the winter, an hour at night may be more than 60 minutes long at night and less than 60 minutes long in daytime. And of course, in some places, day (or night) just doesn't end.

So unless you are very handy with these calculations, rely on the internet tools.

If the Iranians ever use an EMP weapon on us, we are so screwed.

And then there are different traditions that don't all calculate these things the same way.

And then there's an infinite number of unpredictables and intangibles. I'll have plenty of these to report about, as I have started a diary in order to remember some of the stuff that has happened.

And you also need prescience and a sense of humor. I found myself very angry this morning. I showed up at my shul for shacharit at 6:45 for the usual 6:50 a.m. morning services scheduled for Mondays and Thursdays when we read the torah and need a little extra time to get finished before going to work.

I found myself alone, the only one there. Nobody came. When 6:55 rolled around, I walked home very angry. I went to my e-mails and there was the daily shul e-mail indicating that today (December 24) and tomorrow, morning services would be at 8 a.m. When I returned at 8 a.m., there was a bar mitzvah. We did not finish until 9.

I guess nobody else had to go to work today.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Keeping Tabs

Rabbi Tarfon says: The day is short, the task is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house is insistent. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:20.

It's a big job praying three times a day. Do what you can to make that job a little easier.

I use these plastic removable stick-on tabs in my prayer books. My dad does, too.

(Actually, I think we did this independently.)

The psalms that I say frequently are marked. In some of my prayer books, all of the kaddishes are marked.

I keep my own prayer book in my shul with all the tabs. And the prayer books I travel with are also heavily tabbed.

Whatever it takes to get the job done. There's a lot to do, and who has time to fumble around looking for the right page?

Note that all but one of the pictured books is Nusach Ha'Ari and one is Nusach Ashkenaz. I travel with  one of each - I never know where I'll need to find my next minyan. I'd better be able to find the kaddishes quickly as well. And I want to mark who says what kaddish and when they say it.

What's Wrong With OJT?

Imagine starting a new job. You walk in one day on at the office. Everyone knows where their office is, where the men's room is, where the coffee room is, the water cooler, their phone extension, the short cuts, the password to the copier, etc. Someone from human resources or your new boss will meet you shortly after you arrive. You are given 5 seconds or 5 minutes or 5 hours or more of orientation. You still forget a lot of stuff and can't find the men's room without asking.

Do you get mad at everyone there because you are new and don't know as much as them?

OK, you have a right to expect someone to answer your questions.

And some thoughtful person may walk over and offer to walk you to the conference room where the staff meeting is about to be held (you didn't even get a chance to read the announcement, so you knew nothing about it). Thank goodness, someone was thoughtful! Everyone was in a hurry so they would not be late and you could have walked in late or not at all. You could have been terribly embarrassed. Those SOBs!

Welcome to the real world. Nobody owes you a job. Some people will take a minute and fill you in. On some occasions, someone will virtually hold your hand. You are grateful to that person. Do you resent everyone else that did not do so? If so, whose problem is that?

You got a basic education to read and write and interact with people. Now it's time for OJT - on-the-job training. You take that OJT seriously and learn to get along at work. You don't blame and resent and despise the employees of your new employer and you don't hate the company. You chalk it up to the fact that you are new and have a lot to learn. If you don't, you will quickly find yourself unemployed.

Secular people thrown into a world of Jews that pray every day should learn from that example. 

I am not religious from birth. That means that at some point in my life, I had to make an effort to learn stuff. I have an awful lot to learn. Some people spend time in a yeshivah or seminary and some, for whatever reason, decided to get OJT. That's me, the OJT guy. And I am still learning.

I don't know everybody's prayerbook. When I walk into someone else's shul (synagogue), I know I might not know what page we are on - I'll have to figure it out. I either have to ask or rough it. Some thoughtful person may notice that I am lost and come over and tell me what page we are on and whether to stand or sit. Great. And if they were in the middle of a prayer and did not notice my travail? Then I just have to patiently find a way to find out. Should I resent everyone else in the shul that is trying to do their job (praying) and didn't notice me struggling?

Shiva for Mom threw people together in one living room for a week, all mourning for my mom. Members of the community came at various times, on schedule for morning and afternoon prayers. People that do that normally go to synagogue to pray. They were kind enough to some to the shiva house to be sure there was a minyan of 10 men so that I and others could pray and say kaddish. But they also have a "job" to do: say their prayers. And they have to be at work by a certain time, or be home for supper.

Some of the people thrown together in Mom's living room know their way around a prayer book well enough to figure out where the group is in its prayers, even if the supplied prayer books were not the same ones they were used to. Great.

Some of the people are new. They need help. Someone should help them.

But if the newbees need to learn the job, is everyone present obligated to get to "work" late for the benefit of the newbee?

And is the newbee right to resent the whole congregation, or for that matter, all people of a particular branch of Judaism for not doing so?

I was reminded during my shiva is that unfortunately, we Jews are a very divided people over things that should not divide us. Some Jews were blessed by being observant from birth, that is, "frum from birth" or "FFB." Some of us made the effort over many years of OJT to be able to walk into just about any synagogue anywhere and figure out what is going on. So, wonderful, we manage to find our place in the prayerbook and get the job done.

Yet we are deeply resented because we, as a class, have failed to hold the hands of all the newbees. Or rather, we have failed to read their minds so that we could tell when an offer of help would be considered "pushy."

Friday, December 18, 2009

16 Kaddishes

I will have a lot to say about the "kaddish" on this blog. It has been a source of stress and exasperation for me since Mom died.

Let me begin here by giving some introductory remarks.

The traditional Jewish belief is that after death, the soul of a person (the "neshama") will eventually get to "gan eden" (whatever heaven is). The process of getting there is beyond my understanding. But we are taught that the path to gan eden for the soul is not always an easy one. To help ease the path, which is said to be painful, people say a prayer called the kaddish on behalf of the departed.  Technically, it takes a year to get to gan eden. And for a person that lived a good life, saying kaddish for eleven months is said to make that path less painful. (A not so good person needs 12 months of kaddish. So we say it for eleven under the assumption, or delusion, as the case may be, that the person we are saying kaddish for was a good person.)

There's more detail about it here.

Now I have no doubt Mom's going to gan eden. And I don't know much about the tribulations of the soul on the way there. But what I do know is that Mom went through enough in her lifetime, being very sick for many years. And the thought of her suffering further for the next year is almost more than I can take. My eyes are tearing as I type this.

So it is important to me that someone says kaddish for Mom

So I plan to see to it that kaddish will be said for Mom. I will say it as much as I can and get others to say it when I can't.

There are many challenges to getting this done. That is because I believe in the traditional view that, for kaddish to work, 1) it must be said by a Jewish man; 2) it can only be said in the presence of a "minyan" (a quorum of 10 Jewish men); 3) it can mainly be said only in conjunction with daily prayers, which occur three times a day; 4) ideally, it can and should be said sixteen times a day.

For the son of the departed, this is a terribly daunting task. But I get no small measure of relief when I personally am carrying it out. (Does that mean kaddish is really for the survivors and not the departed? Who knows?)

Some people are ignorant of this issue. Some don't believe any of this mumbo jumbo or don't care whether it is true. Some people care a little but make excuses. Maybe they think they can say kaddish without a minyan of men. Or maybe they've been sold a bill of goods about kaddish.  The one that gets me is "I don't have to worry about kaddish because my mom was good and she will go to heaven anyway."

That misses the point entirely. All I can say is, OK, fine, be that way.

I guess I just can't take the chance. This will be an adventure. I'll share my experiences and thoughts about this along the way.

Traditional Words of Comfort

These are the traditional words of comfort said to Jewish mourners during the first 30 days after burial of a loved one:

המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים  

HaMakom yenachem etchem betoch shs’ar aveilei Tziyon V’Yerushalayim

"G-d will comfort you (plural) among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."

I've visited mourners during their first week of mourning. I have said the English translation for these words to mourners. It does not matter what language you use but it is what we are supposed to say. 

The worst catastrophe to ever happen to the Jewish people was the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and exile of the Jews in 586 B.C.E. and again in 70 C.E. If the Holy One, Blessed Be He, with his infinite knowledge and ability, were to say words of consolation, no doubt they would work. We don't know what those words would be, but we would want to hear words that really really work. Like a magic elixir.

So I guess we are supposed to feel better because a person says these words.

People that don't know the line in Hebrew read these words in Hebrew off a piece of paper. So they don't look at the mourner - they look at the paper. Others say the translation, and they may know what the English words mean.Others say the words really fast, in a mumble. I have no idea what they may be thinking when they say it. When I say it, I am thinking that I am saying what I am supposed to say. If that's all I say, I may be cheating someone (myself, the mourner, or both).  So many people add, "may you know no more sorrow," or "may you have only simchas (happy occasions) in the future."

Frankly, I think the traditional words are for the people that say them. As a mourner during shiva, my mind was on too many things. The main thing in my mind was, "when can we get this over with?"

Let me know when someone comes up with something that really works. In the meantime, my son and nephew went out erev shabbat (sabbath eve) during shiva and brought home some Gentleman Jack, which I found to be somewhat better of an elixir at our shabbat table. Thanks, guys.

Happy Chanukah

My mom passed away on the 7th ("zayin") of Kislev 5770 (November 23, 2009). Hence, the name of this blog.

Many things have occurred to me in the nearly three weeks since mom died. I hope to write about many of them and many other things.

My mom died right before Thanksgiving. It was a difficult and problematic shiva (a week-long mourning ritual in Judaism), in part because I was away from home and people could not visit due to the difficulty of traveling in the U.S. around the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. But because of many other things as well. I will write about that. It has been difficult and problematic sheloshim (the thirty day period after burial). I will write about that as well.

In the Jewish religion, the month of Kislev is supposed to be a happy time, because Chanukah is in the month of Kislev. For obvious reasons, I am not particularly happy this Chanukah.

Nevertheless, there are things I must do on Chanukah, including lighting Chanukah lights (be they candles, an oil burning menorah, or light bulbs). Due to the nature of my job as an environmental consultant, I must travel to see clients and client sites that, for one reason or another, may require my particular expertise.

For whatever reason, clients decided my services were urgently needed in Kislev. I have been to two solid waste disposal facilities and one petroleum refinery in Kislev. I will be at a hazardous waste facility and two more solid waste facilities in the month following Kislev (Tevet). (Today is the first of Tevet, so Chodesh tov!).

So I was on my way driving home from a landfill in Pennsylvania, about 5.5 hours from home, and got a call about a project in Tulsa. I had to be there during Chanukah. Which meant I had to light candles there. I did not want to lug around one of my home menorahs and did not have time to look for a small cheap menorah. Fortunately, I had lots of ingredients to make my own. So I did.

Here's the recipe.

Ingredients: 8- .45ACP spent shell casings, 1- .44 special spent shell casing (I had .45 Colt and .454 Casull shells but the .44  looked better) , 9- ¾” wood screws, 1-8” piece of 1x2

1. Poke out the primers with a punch or small nail;
2. Drill out the primer pockets to accommodate the screws;
3. Mark 9 evenly spaced holes for the shell casings;
4. Attach the shell casings.

Uses standard small Hanukah menorah candles.

Keep away from the motel smoke detector!

In subsequent posts I will explain how it is that I have spent shell casings in many assorted calibers.

Kol tuv.