Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Happy New Year, One And All!

Maybe it's because I spent a lot of time this week in pursuit of tickets for the Holy Days, but I've been thinking about the upcoming new year in terms of an amusement park ride. It's the cyclical nature of the year, with the same peaks and valleys every time, like a roller coaster or a Disney-esque storybook ride.

At least, that's how it goes on paper.

In reality, we all enter and exit at different points. There's no preset boarding area; we don't get time to securely fasten our seat restraints before the train starts moving. In some ways the better comparison is the lazy river; lots of entry points, and it's up to you to jump into the flow of things. Once you get in, though, it's the same path for everyone, every time you go 'round.

I don't like calling the year "lazy", though. Plus, moving slowly up a big hill before a sudden drop sounds a lot like how most years begin. What is needed is some ride that's halfway between the two. Or maybe one that changes back and forth, because some years the path is smooth and gentle, and others it is rushed and a little bit frightening.

I hope that your year combines a little bit of each of those - smooth gentleness when you need it, with enough fast drops and big loops to keep things interesting.

L'shana Tovah, everybody! May your year be sweet as honey, filled from end to end with living and joy.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Last Ten Years

A few years back my sister introduced me to a musical called The Last Five Years. It tells the story of a relationship from first date to break-up. What makes it memorable is that the woman's story is told in reverse chronological order while the man's is told chronologically, so we see her broken heart overlying his excitement about meeting her, and his eventual good bye matches up with her anticipation of seeing him "tomorrow".  This juxtaposition makes the pain of their break-up especially poignant. (It's possible I've mentioned this musical in an earlier post; like I said, it stuck with me.)

I had somewhat the same feeling this weekend watching the 9/11 memorial programming, Especially when they showed people's reactions at the time, contrasted with their feelings today. I remember one reporter talking about the "effects of this day staying with us for weeks and months to come", and feeling slightly mournful for his optimism. Another time a clip showed one of the survivors rejoicing to be alive a week after the attack, and I couldn't help but notice she was conspicuously absent from the interviews with her saviors today.

We didn't know how much worse it would get.

We didn't know that it would eventually get better.

Such is always the way, right? As we sit here, nearing the top of the cycle of the Jewish year, we are reminded of both how similar and how different this coming year will be from the last. Some who are with us today will not be; some new people will take their place. Are the 9/11 attacks different? Were our dually misplace optimism and pessimism something unique, or just...bigger?

It's hard to say. Leon writes about seeing the day as an outsider, an ex-pat at the time. I had in many ways a similar experience. Safe in central Illinois, I never worried that I might be next. I forgot my uncle actually worked in the building until after I'd heard he was ok, leaving nothing to fear but what might have been. Other than that, all it was to me was something happening on tv.

No; that wasn't all it was.

I remember the day. I had the day free, so I was sleeping in and taking a lazy morning of it. After showering I turned on the radio and heard, "The president will be making a special address momentarily regarding this morning's acts of terrorism."

My first thought was, "What did that moron do this time?" I jumped straight to a conspiracy theory smokescreen to distract us from what a bad job Bush was doing as president. So I went to the living room and turned on the tv.

Just in time to see the second plane hit.

In moments of extremity, I tend to go emotionally cold. I have dispassionately cleaned and bandaged my own lacerated arm while simultaneously reassuring those around me and organizing them into helpful tasks. Useful as survival instincts go, but it also means I tend to ask questions like "How are you feeling?" only when I come to them on my checklist. That includes asking the question of myself. By the time I checked with my own emotional response the dust (literal and figurative) had somewhat cleared. I knew I had seen not only the deaths of thousands of people, but also of a chapter in American history. It was obvious we would be going to war, and quickly; the only question was how soon we'd be able to get out of it.

Ten years later, we are still asking that question.

We have been a nation in mourning for the past decade. Every conversation about our country, no matter the topic, eventually is about that day. Watching the coverage this weekend, I think it's possible we as a nation have post-traumatic stress disorder; to paraphrase the West Wing, we need to be able to remember that day without reliving it.

It is my hope that today will mark the end of this decade-long shiva. Remember, always remember, but hopefully now the healing can truly begin.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Siyyum represents one of my favorite concepts in Judiasm, one of the things that, I think, really sets us apart and reminds me why I am still Jewish as opposed to, say, another religion more in keeping with some of my other...interests.

According to, siyyum is:
The formal ceremonial act of completing the writing of a scroll of the Law, or the formal conclusion of the study of a division ("massekta") of the Mishnah or Talmud. In the former case the ceremony is called siyyum ha-Sefer; in the latter, siyyum massekta.
Either way, it's the celebration of the completion of a book. What a marvelous concept, especially for a people that highly value education and language, and claim to be of the book!

Now obviously not just any book is grounds for celebration; stopping for a party every time I finished a comic book on a Sunday afternoon would get exhausting, and some books I have celebrated completing only because it meant I didn't have to read them anymore (I'm looking at you, Wide Sargasso Sea!). The concept originates in the Talmud and clearly carries the implication that one has been reading sacred books (and really, what else would one want to read?). I believe, however, it is allowable and proper to expand the concept to include any well-loved book or rigorous course of intellectual development. I would not look askance (much) at a friend that had a siyyum upon completing the Harry Potter series, especially, at this point, if the point of the celebration was finally catching up on the past 15 years. Likewise, a friend that had just finished working through a MCAT prep book would be well justified in throwing a siyyum.

A more interesting question would seem to be, in our increasingly multimedia age, does it have to be a literal book or will any similarly challenging academic pursuit qualify? If one has a siyyum for the Potter books, what about for the Potter movie? For completing a difficult post-graduate course? I am torn on this. On the one hand, the siyyum is celebrating learning, which would suggest the medium is unimportant; on the other - and this might be because I am a sentimentalist - it seems to lose much when divorced from the concept of a book. I therefore have somewhat of a compromise position: I would personally only hold a siyyum for a book, but would not begrudge a friend that wanted to celebrate something else.

I also see value in embracing the siyyum as a national practice, regardless of religion. The siyyum could make reading cool again. I referred to the Potter books because when they first came out many people were thrilled that they were getting kids to read again. Rather than wait for the next mega-popular book series to come along, the siyyum heightens the concept of reading itself, regardless of what one reads. I can see teachers using this in school; would students be more willing and eager to read the classics if there was a class party waiting at the end?

The modern book club could be seen as a form of siyyum. In theory, most book clubs select works of some academic or social importance (it's debatable which of these Oprah's imprimatur would be). The group then comes back together to celebrate and discuss; that seems to be exactly what the sages were describing.