That said... there are a couple of stories, both from the Forward, that have come across my e-desk that strike me as just plain 'off'.
The first one was back in July when a female artist wrote an ode to her new creative business enterprise, which combined her love of gluing random bits of broken pottery with her talent for making people uncomfortable. Presenting the Mosaic Urn.
For years, I’ve been designing mosaic art objects in the French style known as pique assiette, nipping dishes into tiny shards and combining them to create one-of-a-kind tables, vases, picture frames and candlestick holders. Some months ago, I turned this into an online business. While working, I watch cable news, so my background noise is a parade of political scandals, financial frauds, and national health care and unemployment crises.
In the early 1970s, I became a comedy writer. I was now inspired to use mosaic to express political satire, finding red, white and blue plates with flag images for what I called my Breaking News Series. I assembled pictures of my bêtes noires — Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, John Edwards and John Ensign, Kenneth Lay and Bernie Madoff, the National Debt Clock and corporate logos. To add bite, I’d set the mosaics on cremation urns.
I submitted one such urn to an edgy Brooklyn art show. At the opening party, I watched guests studying the piece, identifying the right-wingers to one another as if it were a party game. Photos and text inserted into the mosaic made a cutting political statement, but I began to consider whether the aesthetic might have a wider — and more functional — application. With this process, I could animate an urn for actual usage that would visually tell the story of a life. It would be highly personal and have a celebratory quality.
A few months ago, as I was setting the table for dinner, I surprised myself by blurting out: “You’ll be most affected by this, Nick. Would you prefer that we be buried or cremated?”
He shot me a puzzled look. “Uh, any reason you’re asking?”
“How about I make urns for Dad and me? I can cover them with fun photos — family vacations, birthday parties, graduations,” I said.
He didn’t answer immediately.
“They’ll be pretty and about life!” I urged. “I’ll use our dishes. It’ll remind you of the dinner table.”
It felt like forever before Nick said, “Sounds good.” Martin remained silent, which I interpreted as enthusiasm.
And now she's selling them online and somehow convinced someone at the Forward to let her write one big advertisement for her kooky home business based on the premise of being Jewishly edgy, or something. Also I like how this started as personal art, morphed into sneering political "satire" (Get it? It's Sarah Palin on an urn!) and now has transcended its humble beginnings into being creepy, inappropriate burial accoutrements. Bra-va, I guess?
Here's the thing: I respect that this lady has made a choice in a way that feels meaningful to her. At the same time, her attitude about the whole thing, "Check out this cool thing I came up with to hold your ashes! Ain't it cool!" to be quite off-putting. My father has mentioned he will probably want to be cremated, and while it isn't my cup of tea, I know that I'm much happier with the idea of scattering someone's ashes than keeping them in an urn that looks like a kindergartener's collage project. Maybe I'm just a fuddy-duddy, but to me it feels really inappropriate to try to make someone's urn "pretty" or "remind you of the dinner table."
Some who believe that death requires a somber approach question my upbeat spin. I explain I hope a beautiful urn that honors memories of a loved one can take some of the sting out of death.Here we have a critical point: for me the idea of trying to "spin" death does not remove the sting. Death is supposed to have a sting. That's part of it. It doesn't mean you need to go into full on ashes and sackcloth, but I don't think "upbeat" is the way to go, either. It's not about being "somber" specifically, but it's about taking the moment seriously.
So that was July. Now this week we have this woman, who wrote an article high-fiving herself for only going to shul to get free food.
I’m one of those synagogue goers who arrive pretty much just in time for the “Amen!” as we raise our mini plastic cups of wine before elbowing our way — er, gently sauntering over — to the food. My timing is never quite exact, of course, so there are days when I get there and my fellow congregants are still singing “Adon Olam,” the last song of the service. I’m happy to sing along — in fact, I like it if I’m in time for Kaddish and the announcements; makes me feel very much a part of things. But for shallow, antsy and kind-of-cheap me, going to synagogue means going to lunch with friends, there, in the social hall.
And how important is the quality of that lunch? Let’s just say that a tray of hummus and carrot sticks makes my spiritual aura shrink to the size of a store-bought gefilte fish ball. You could pierce my soul with a toothpick. But a glistening mound of bar mitzvah lox — the Holy Grail, as it were, of Kiddushes — maketh me skip through the Valley of Death and cartwheel over to the scallion cream cheese. It restoreth my soul and maketh my kids a lot happier about my bringing them along, too. In fact, it getteth them psyched to come again, the way a random shower of slot machine nickels getteth bubbe back to Atlantic City. And I know that I am not the only congregant who peruses the synagogue calendar to see who has a great big spread — er, great big simcha — coming up, and precisely which Saturday we are talking about.
My worry, of course, is that the Divine One is probably not thrilled with the attendee who arrives when the audience is filing out of the theater. Come to think of it, the rabbi probably isn’t, either. But I do believe there is something more than just lip service (and Tam Tams) being offered when a congregant arrives in time only to eat and shmooze. And, I am glad to say, some folks agree with me.
The writer then goes on to quote various people who have written various things about kiddush. No introspection, no thoughts on other ways she expresses her Jewish identity, other approaches she could use to get something out of the service, nothing. She's a Bagel and Lox Jew by self-definition, and she's proud of it, thanks very much.
I understand that this is this lady's reality and I... suppose I admire her willingness to be honest about it? And while I don't think she necessarily should be embarrassed about this, I really don't understand the mentality which says this is something to celebrate, rather than wrestles with. I don't understand the thinking that says, "Yeah, I fully admit I just show up to get free food, and these are the values I'm passing on to my kids. That food is awesome." To say nothing of the fact that the writer's behavior-- both barging in late, as well as adopting a "schnorer" attitude to her fellow congregants-- strikes me as just plain rude.
It's one thing to acknowledge one's imperfections in a public forum as a way of calling attention to things you have to work on and areas where you can grow. It's another to use them as a platform for advertising how awesome, enlightened, or creative you are and suggesting that people should follow your example.
Sometimes I just don't get people.