Rosh Hashanah – September 28-30

A very belated Shana Tova, everyone! So, for Jews, there are four new years. One is for the trees, one is for the harvest, one is for the planet, and one is for cattle.

I celebrated Rosh Hashanah – the birthday of creation of the planet – with my first expedition into Jewish Orthodoxy. My roommate Lauren and I spent Erev Rosh Hashanah at the UMN Chabad house, which is probably the most welcoming place around.

And, for my comfort zone’s sake, I was grateful everyone was so welcoming because I became instantly aware that was a very different group from who I’d been brushing shoulders with in Reformed and Conservative circles. Beards, for instance. Lots of them. And side burns. Several people had the tzitzit going on all the time, and, hey, mysticism is very In.

Once the service got going, though, I got pushed even more out of both my comfort zone and the main service by way of a gender segregating partition down the middle of the room. I’d imagine this partition’s presence might be part of why the fella’s side was better attended than the girls’ side, and unfortunately it impacted the quality of girls’ side services. For one, the rabbi hangs out mainly on the dude side, and that’s where the singing gets most raucous. I wasn’t even sure, at first, if I was allowed to sing along or read aloud at first because the girl’s side was so much more reserved. But, hey, to start the evening, the girls’ side got to light candles, led by the Rabbi’s wife Chavi. I’ll need to ask what exactly that meant, but it was lovely. I don’t know why, but I really love candles.

Honey, apples, and challah

Fast forward to dinner. Judaism is all about symbolism, and my favorite bit of symbolism is that sugar signifies sweetness in new ventures. At Bar Mitavahs and before couples get married, you toss candy at them. In Church! At Rosh Hashanah, you dip apples in honey! Try it guys! Cheaper AND, I’d posit,  more delicious than caramel. Also, you get to dip the challah bread in honey, which I was told isn’t a year round thing.

Gefilte fish, which is basically fish meat loaf

Also: gefilte fish. It’s poached and minced fish all crammed back together, and I’d recommend all you carnivores get on board.

Oh, and then there was the moment when I came out as a Mormon. One of the girls asked where I’m from (Utah, dude), and she responded with, “Oh wow. Is that kind of awkward since aren’t there a lot of Mormons there?” My cover was blown, so I reveled in it by responding, “Well, actually it’s not awkward at all because” dramatic whisper, “I am a Mormon.” She got a really horrified look that I assume was because  she thought she’d offended me. Later we got in a talk about Christian versus Jewish holidays (Jews have it way better, I think; except for the whole not-getting-them-off-work thing, which has to blow), and she said she’d always been jealous of Christian holidays, like making ginger bread houses at Christmas. I wanted to let her know that gingerbread houses are pretty secular, since Jesus didn’t live in one, but I thought better of it.

Okay, so day two of Rosh Hashanah, I was accompanied by Joe. I hadn’t been able to observe, yet, if it was appropriate for males and females to make physical contact here. So, we began the evening with a science experiment: he was to warmly extend his hand to the rabbi, and then I’d see if the rabbi moved on to shake my hand. We discovered that, no, the rabbi wouldn’t touch females. Right after that I heard a girl ask a male if he shook hands, and I decided that would be my appropriate question upon introduction, and so far it has gone well.

Okay, so the service was quite similar to the previous night, but quicker. Also, as a plus, there were more girls, and so our side was more vocal, which made it fun. This time, at dinner, I came out as a Mormon more quickly. There were tons more people in attendance, and so answering questions about being a Mormon felt less like I was talking to the whole room.

Some kids had met Mormons before, though, so we bounced back and forth about having our own planets and not using technology on Holy Days and visiting the Garden of Eden in Missouri and Woody Allen and South Park Musicals and pogroms and Jell-O and gefilte fish and Pioneers and how, hey, both orthodox kids and recently returned missionaries don’t know how to deal with the opposite sex! What I learned from this conversation is that every religion is weird and externally irrational. But, having a personal relationship with my Creator is something I wouldn’t trade for anything. Even being sorta normal. This is how I imagine Trekkies feel.

Also, Jews sing at and pound their fists on the table! Where’d we Christians go wrong with misplaced reverence?

A shofar

Okay, okay, okay, so I was really excited about day services. I worked through them on Day 1, but Day 2, I got in super early so I’d be able to take off for the Shofar. Man, Rosh Hashanah day services are nearly Mormon-length (3 hours), but minus any breaks. Basically, the chazzan (cantor) is singing prayers the whole time, sometimes aloud with us joining him, and sometimes to quietly. When the chazzan is praying silently, Rabbi Yitzi would squeeze in stories. But with all the necessary prayers, it took like an hour and a half for him to get out a story that’d take about 5 minutes without interruption. But in the end it was a great story! Also, occasionally, he’d sound the shofar (ram’s horn). Also interesting: the mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah isn’t to blow it but to hear it. One HUNDRED TIMES! That takes a while.

Also, my favorite things about Rosh Hashanah is the bowing. So, apparently back in temple days, Jews would go bowing in the temple, all the way to the ground, every day. But, since early Judaism was so temple-centric, Judaism since the destruction of the second temple of Solomon has had to adapt a lot. Anyway, the bowing is pretty much gone nowadays. EXCEPT on Rosh Hashanah, which is such a holy day that it’s almost like being in the temple. So we got down on all fours and bowed our heads to the ground to God. Bowing jives with me because of its implication of absolute vulnerability and obeisance. And, since Rosh Hashanah is when you’re supposed to be thinking all about what you’ve done this year, and God is writing in his book everything that he plans to do with us over the next year, it seemed fitting. He’s making the plan, and we’re sort of responding, Hey, I’ll take it. Gladly. Thanks for creating me!

Stay Tuned for: Yom Kippur!


A Prairie Home Companion – September 24

Sound guy Tom Keith, and voice actors Tim Russell, Sue Scott, and Garrison Keillor on set of A Prairie Home Companion

Seeing A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor live was the fulfillment of my childhood dreams. Growing up, we did a lot of driving between my mom’s house (Centerville) and my dad’s house (Salina). My dad wasn’t a big fan of our favorite roadtrip pastimes (Such as this game where you replace one of the words on a billboard with the wordbooger. For example, the McDonald’s slogan would be transformed from “I’m lovin’ it” to “I’m lovin’ boogers.” Endless fun.), so he would turn on NPR to shut us up. Hence, Garrison Keillor became something of a non-interactive, third parent who was present on all road trips.

We even had tales from Lake Wobegon cassettes. I remember countless afternoons in the hammock on the back patio, eating fudge sickles and listening to stories about the rhubarb pie, the Sidetrack Tap, Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, et al. I’ll admit that Garrison Keillor was a factor that made my move to Minnesotan tundra far more palatable. A state inhabited by good natured people like the hot-dish-giving Krebsbachs couldn’t be too bad.

The Guy's All-Star Shoe Band with Nick Lowe

With all this anticipation, hearing Garrison start a story with, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…” and interrupting his story every so often with his soft nasal wheezing, well, it was probably like it would be for some other member of my generation to finally see The Spice Girls live or something. Basically, it was incredible. The set is designed to look like a Midwestern porch front. The sound effects are all one guy. The voices are all done by three people, plus a few guest stars. The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band really are all stars! I couldn’t stop being impressed by how few people were involved in making this thing happen. Talent!

I’m not going to go into detail about the particulars of the actual show because I won’t do it justice, and the whole thing will be far more enjoyable if you simply give it a listen here or on iTunes. Suffice it to say, the evening was every bit as delightful as is this three minute clip:

Basilica Day – August 14

Basilica Day celebrated of the 96th anniversary of the dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary as well as a celebration of the assumption of the Virgin Mary. A big day!

We hit the 7:30 AM mass, and apparently the priest was impressed by our devotion and apparel, as he asked if Joe and I would carry “the gifts.” Not knowing what that meant, we diffused the situation by saying we weren’t Catholic and sitting down. We later learned that presenting the gifts would have made us part of the procession that brings forward the emblems of the Eucharist, which I imagine is something an actual Catholic is supposed to do.

Anyway, the service was lovely. I loved the acoustics: everyone sounds good singing in a Basilica, especially after being drowned out by a microphoned cantor.

Next, we moved out of doors, where we were treated to Immaculate Confection (virginal pun!!!) ice cream provided by Sebastian Joe’s. We also navigated a grass-labyrinth which, surprisingly, was not a maze. You just wound all about to the center, and then followed the same path back out. It was a very inclusive activity.

Fool-proof grass labyrinth

Talmud Class on Atonement – August 11

I’ve been really into Judaism lately – I just finished reading some great books about the topic by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Viktor Frankl, and Stephen J. Dubner – and I’ve been all over learning more. So, using new-age internetwork technology, I connected to the calendar at the Temple of Aaron and found some free Talmud classes. In case you don’t know, the Talmud (part of the Oral Torah) is a book of rabbinic discussions about Jewish law, customs, and beliefs. It comes in two parts – the Mishnah (which is oral law) and the Gemara (which discusses the Mishnah and other topics) – and I know very little about either.

Unfortunately, what I’m going to tell you next will be less well-documented than future posts on the topic. This is because I forgot to bring a note-taking materials on this day. I believe, though, we were in the Ta’anit, which is in the Mishnah. We were learning about the ideas of atonement and restitution.

The basic ideas of the class were these:

  1. If you’ve offended God, sacrifice, fast, and do whatever the law requires to make things right with Him.
  2. If you’ve offended man, don’t you dare simply go along sacrificing, fasting, and praying about it and think that fixes things. Make it right with the person you wronged! You didn’t offend God (except in offending your brother, which, of course, isn’t God’s favorite), so your debt isn’t with Him. Your debt is with your fellowman. Do what is necessary to repair the situation.
  3. Make right before someone dies. You can’t apologize to the dead. I’m not 100% sure how this works, but there is a workaround if you don’t get a chance to make restitution before someone dies. You can take a minyan (which is 10 men in traditional Judaism or just 10 people in less traditional Judaism) to the graveside and say Kaddish (which is a mourner’s prayer), and I think that lets you off the hook.

Also, we read a story that was quite interesting. Two rabbis were in a tiff, and one of them (who happened to be a butcher) was in the wrong. The victim-rabbi decided he didn’t want to wait around for butcher-rabbi to apologize, so he went over to the butcher shop to talk it out. The butcher rabbi was busy cutting up an ox and refused to talk about it. Unfortunately, as the other rabbi left, the butcher-rabbi had a butchery-mishap and was killed when a bone from the ox stabbed him in the neck. The moral: never delay restitution.

I loved how rational and utilitarian this lesson on restitution and atonement was. Debts ought to be paid to the person you’ve wronged. Even though God is unhappy when we offend our fellowmen, He doesn’t simply want you to apologize to Him and think things are cool. We ought to make amend to the wronged party, and we ought to do it promptly. And we can learn from the butcher-rabbi that we should make amends as soon as possible – it requires humility and perhaps taking time away from things that seem more important – but we’ll never regret mending a relationship with either our brother or our God.

Niagara Cave and Harmony – July 30

Statue in honor of pigs whose untimely deaths brought about the discovery of Niagara Cave.

Approximately 2.5 hours southeast of the Twin Cities lies a very deep cavern that was discovered (this is true) as a result of the Roaring ’20s when rich Amish swells would go there to toss money and pigs down the sink hole. (Pigs were a big sign of wealth back then!). Then when times got hard during the depression, they came back and excavated the hole to find their money and to see if there was anything left of the pig meat, and they found these super cool caves. But after the electric light took off, the Amish got muscled out of the cave business when the fat cats at GE took the caves wickless (as in candle wicks), and so they had to move up the road and start selling baked goods and old-timey home decore.

A chapel for people who wish to keep their marriage on the "down low." (insert sympathy chuckle)

Now that you know the history, here’s a bit about the experience. So, this is also true. People get married inside this cave! Which I find very disrespectful since it’s also a dinosaur grave-yard. Also, there is a really big waterfall in this place, and you’re not supposed to touch the walls – lest you ruin the experience for everyone (Even though there are scientist footprints up one of the walls where some scientific swell decided to go exploring and knock loose prehistoric dirt right in plain sight. Pff. Typical scientist.) – but the walls are very narrow, so I accidentally touched the walls a lot of times. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the presence of mind to “accidentally” touch any fossils.

All that's left of a dinosaur.

Additionally, we were warned that it was going to be really cold in the caves, and we should bring sweatshirts, which frightened some of our group to purchase Niagara Cave hoodies, only to find that it was everyone’s favorite temperature (room temperature) down there, and covering up wasn’t really necessary. Scammed!

Then we drove into Harmony where we got some really great lunch and pie at The Village Square of Harmony. I had a cup of the soup of the day, which was something really cheesie, as I recall. AND which came with the best bread sticks I can, at the moment of writing this, remember eating  at any other time in my entire life. They had this amazing soft but firm thing going on on the outside and fluffy but moist thing going on the inside. And normally I don’t like the idea of buttery breadsticks but in this case I was passionately for it. Wow. So so good.

 Also, they had a zillion flavors of pie. I got the sour cream and raisin pie which was exactly like raisin cookie dough on a pie crust (but without an overdose of raisins) – in a really good way. It was insanely dense, though, so I didn’t finish it, since I needed to save room for tastes of everyone else’s pie. All of which were good.

Then we looked at some Amish-made, old-timey home decore and various antiques at a store called Hometown Variety  and some other touristy boutiques I can’t see close-up enough on Google Maps to get the names of. We also drove around Amish country and stopped in at some shops. I bought some food made by an Amish family, which – the rumors are true – was delicious. Rhubarb jam, granola, and a really incredibly good doughnut. I hope you don’t mind that I’m not putting up pictures of any of these purchases, as photographing them is considered offensive.