Friday, January 11, 2013

Wrapping up the Year

So, how about 2012? Here are some things I meant to blog about but didn't get to:

Personal stuff

- First of all, I prepared a gigantic Hanukkah presentation for my middle-schoolers and it went quite well. Highlights included funny music videos (Matisyahu, Maccabeats and Eran Baron-Cohen), lots of latkes and donut holes, and re-enacting the death of Elazar Avran with a student volunteer, an expo marker, and me as the mortally wounded elephant.

Some people object to an ecumenical Hanukkah message, pointing out that the holiday celebrates people who were emphatically not tolerant of others. I think the history can be presented either way-- in the context of a classroom, I think it's legitimate to frame it as a conversation-starter about personal and national rights-- specifically, the right to be different and live/worship as you please (or as I framed it, rather than seeing it as a Jewish Christmas, Hanukkah is better understood as a Jewish mash-up of July 4th and Thanksgiving-- combining national as well as religious significance and rights). Would Judah Maccabee have been ok with the various expressions of Judaism we see today? Probably not. Then again, I know plenty of Jews-- myself included-- who wouldn't be very ok with killing a guy for worshiping an idol or running around forcibly circumcising your neighbors. I reserve the right to pick and choose.

- On a related note, we visited Mrs. Yid's mispocha. We were informed we would be attending midnight mass with the family. We wore our respective Jewish headgear (scarf and kippa). As Mrs. Yid predicted, there were precisely zero questions and comments from my in-laws, so it's impossible to tell what they thought of it. (Note that this is the exact opposite of what happens with my parents, who are nothing if not vocal-- about everything.) To celebrate Christmas, the church rang bells and set off fireworks. Since this was 12:30 am, I'm sure this did not endear them with their neighbors.

This was the first time I have flown with a kippa on. It is the first time in a long time I have been "randomly searched." Mrs. Yid notes that she has been "randomly searched" every time since covering her hair a year and a half ago.

I find it much easier to wear a kippa in public when I am somewhere I have never been and around people who don't know me. Food for thought.

- Our friend Avraham had his adult bar mitzvah along with 6 other congregants. Half of the b'nai mitzvah class were converts, and many of them were dedicated, longtime members. It was very cool to see hear all the different stories and paths that have brought people to Judaism in general and our shul in particular. Also, after shul Abbot Yid called me and asked why I hadn't picked up earlier that morning. When I told him we were at services he scoffed, "Oh, I'm sorry, you were busy BEING HOLY!" I continue to wonder when he will get over this stuff. Probably never.

- I am leading Carlebach davening this Shabbat. Wish me luck!

National/Media stuff

- Dennis Prager has a university. Considering he spends his time writing crap like how "as a Jew, I love Christmas because it makes me feel tingly all over," this pains me greatly.

- Israel is having an election. All the candidates seem either outright incompetent or supremely unsatisfying. I am intrigued by the shake-up among the religious, left and nationalist right political sectors, though at this point it seems way too early to tell what will come from any of it. (Though big kudoses to Shas for managing to be racist against Africans and bigoted towards Russian converts in the same election cycle. Mazel tov, jerks.)

- With all the school shootings happening, it's a strange time to be a teacher. I find it very irritating that so much of the national media/random pundits feel qualified to blather on about what teachers "should" do during a school shooting without apparently knowing anything about school safety procedures. At every school I've ever taught at, the training focuses on putting classes into lockdown mode until the threat is identified and/or contained, then evacuating. As cold as it may sound to people, this procedure and training helped keep Newtown from being an even worse massacre. Can there be additional steps added? Sure. But don't tell me that teachers are should be pulling a Rambo when everything they hear from the school is, "lock your door and keep your kids safe." And yes, while I realize the issue may be more complicated than merely gun supply, that does seem to be a far more logical place to start than random pat answers like saying we should "focus on morality" (how?) or that it's because we've taken God out of schools (explain the 60+ US school shootings before 1962, Huckabee).

 I don't see easy answers to the school shooting issue, but I do think that some combination of increased gun control legislation, mental health resources and refocused school security systems would be a good start. I don't think arming teachers or passing blustery laws that score political points but don't change the reality on the ground are good answers.

- Lastly, conversations regarding Newtown and theodicy have helped me better articulate some aspects of my understanding of God. Namely, why the notion of God causing disasters makes so little sense to me. (Adapated from a Dovbear comment I made a few weeks ago.)

If you look around, the world does not seem to be controlled. If God is a factor, it seems to operate as an undercurrent, not an obvious force. As such, my conception of God is not focused on the idea of a miracle-maker or a punishment-dealer. My God is one of suggestion and hope. When I daven, I always take a moment to insert a personal prayer where I ask for blessings for my family, for my friends, for my coworkers, for the leaders of the world, and for myself. I ask for health, for happiness, for peace, and for wisdom. But those blessings aren't for miracles, and I don't expect them to be fulfilled miraculously.

For me, prayer is an articulation of hope, and by speaking to God I am trying, in some small way, to reach out to whatever forces may influence the universe. It may do nothing more than make me feel better. It may help reaffirm to me what my goals for myself, others and the world are and thereby spur me a little step closer to making them come true. I don't pray for God to move mountains, but to touch people's hearts, to make them care about each other and about doing the right thing. I pray that somehow, this force we call God will help influence good and brave people, so that eventually they outnumber and overcome the evil and apathetic and help tip the scales of history.

To me, that is God's job, not making it rain, helping me win the lottery, or shielding people from terrible events-- because I believe that those things by necessity will always happen. But if there is a God and he does influence the world, my greatest hope is that he will help us, impact us, empower us, to become better about preventing our own tragedies and reaching out to those touched by them. That's the God I believe in.

Shabbat shalom.

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