The High Holidays – At My Home Away From Home

The shofar made me cry this year.  I was sitting between Ellie and Steve like any good daughter, and the hush of readiness came over the sanctuary. The Rabbi chanted the first “Tekiah” and the shofar’s clarion call rose through the hall and touched the souls of those assembled.  Without warning the tears jerked forth from my eyes like a faucet turned up too high, too fast.  For centuries Jews have gathered together at this time of year to thank God for the gift of last year, pray for another year of life, confess sins and beg pardon.  It’s a part of my life as much as putting on shoes to go out – whether I’m thinking about it or not, being Jewish is part of my identity and heritage.

One of the things I love about being Jewish is the idea of continuity – of belonging.  I was hearing that shofar at 11am in Washington DC.  At 11am Tokyo time, thirteen hours prior, my husband and children had heard the same call, said the same prayers, heard the same call.  My tears, naturally, were for them, mourning that I was not with them to hear it, nor they with me.  I have such vivid memories of both of my children’s very first Rosh Hashanahs.  I held each of them as babies as the sudden blast of the shofar startled them and I comforted them, whispering the promise of connection they would feel whenever they hear that sound.  It connects them to generations past; it connects them to generations in the future. This year we are not connected physically, but with that shofar blast, I could feel them there with me, reminding me that with God’s good help, we will be together next year at this time.  And so, the tears.

Ellie and Steve’s synagogue, B’nai Israel in Rockville, is a big place – 1500 member families.  I had been there before for various events, so it was mildly familiar with its beautiful wood and stone sanctuary and center area from which the Torah is read.  Having grown up in a large, Conservative synagogue, the atmosphere, as well as the liturgy, was familiar.  In fact, I’d venture to say that despite its large size, the synagogue was welcoming to me.

The two rabbis of the synagogue welcomed everyone to services, and on erev Rosh Hashanah, (the night before – all Jewish holidays begin at sundown the night before) as well as on both days of Rosh Hashanah, spoke of welcoming – of belonging.  Their sermons sounded like they were written for me, aimed at me, spoken in light of my situation.  They spoke of gratitude, of making every second count.  Rabbi Schnitzer referenced a book by Joan Lunden, saying that people might not remember who won the Pulitzer Prize or the Heisman Trophy, but they do remember the kindness of a friend, the encouragement of a teacher or the touch of a loved one.  He gave us the number of seconds in every day and urged us to make every one of those seconds count – every single day.  He spoke of a righteous man on his deathbed not saying that life had been good to him, but rather, saying that he was good to the world.  Rabbi Safra continued the theme, discussing how God had made the world, but made it to be imperfect, and thus God shows faith in man in his ability to repair the world, and so we are in partnership with God. As we are faithful to God, so is God faithful to us.

Perhaps these sermons seem predictable to you, even proscribed. To me, fighting cancer every day, this entire holiday – indeed this SEASON of holidays – reminds me to be grateful for the people around me, the life that I have, and the self-awareness to be so thankful.  Jews around the world are listening to similar sermons, repeating the same exact prayers, and to me it’s a comfort.  These ideas and practices were around long before my birth, and will be around long after I’m gone.  Continuity.

My Grammy used to say that a human being’s greatest need is to belong.  I believe her.  At that moment, hearing the shofar in Maryland while sitting between two extra parents, even though I was sad because I wasn’t with my husband and my children, I still belonged.  Indeed, it was the community that sustained me and nurtured me to reach this point.  Ellie and Steve, my mom and dad, my friends, my family, my doctors – all of them are the community on which I rely for my very existence right now.  I am grateful to each person who comprises that community for helping me along this journey.  I welcome the year 5774 with a grateful heart – grateful to hear the shofar, and grateful to belong.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah –  may you be inscribed for a year of health, love prosperity and peace.

Following Directions

This week I learned something rather important.  I learned the importance of following directions.

It all started with a slab of meat.  Last week was the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah – and in addition to going to the synagogue for services, I planned a big meal for my family and the other two families that make up our big, extended family here in Tokyo.  I bought a huge slab of meat for the occasion.

Before making the actual purchase, however, I had poured over a few cookbooks.  I enjoy cooking enough to have many well-used cookbooks.  The one that most often strikes home is the Paula Deen Country Cookbook.  I bought it when I was at her restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, and it is a signed copy.  It hasn’t failed me yet.

When in Japan, I cannot always procure the exact ingredients that a recipe calls for.  I do my best.  So this recipe called for a round eye roast.  I got a roast, but for all I know it had square eyes or whatever.  It seemed okay, but I’m not a meat expert.   Perhaps if I’m doing this much cooking for this many people, I should become one, for safety’s sake, but as of yet, I’ve relied on my instincts and have not gone too far astray.

When I got home from the store, I re-read the recipe.  It was a simple one.  It called for taking the meat and marinating it in a mixture of burgundy wine and soy sauce.  Now, let’s be perfectly clear.  At the store, I was not able to get burgundy wine.  I could get Bordeaux, or I could get what seemed to be a good, red, French table wine.  I closed my eyes, pointed my finger, and went with the table wine.

The day before the holiday, I pulled the meat out of the freezer, then set it in the fridge to defrost.  By that night, it was most of the way thawed.  I made the mixture of wine and sauce, put the meat in a glass baking dish, then poured the mixture over the meat.  After just looking at it for a few minutes, I put plastic wrap over the dish, put the dish in the fridge and promptly forgot about the whole thing.

I didn’t think about it again until nearly 2pm the next day, well after synagogue and lunch.  The recipe was specific about timing.  The roast should be cooked at 5 minutes per pound, uncovered.  Then, I had to turn the oven off, cover the meat with tin foil and leave it in the oven for another 45 minutes.  After that I could cool it and slice it.

I may have mentioned already that I am not so great with meat.  I can do all right, but I’m no professional.  So I decided to really do it the right way – by the book.  I checked the weight of the meat, calculated the proper time to let it cook and followed the rest of the instructions.

What resulted was a perfectly cooked roast beef with a pink center and hint of sauce-taste on the top.  The wine had steeped all the way through the meat making it soft and succulent.  It was a crowd-pleaser.

Now, several times in the process of this meat, I was tempted to take a short cut.  Did the thing really need to marinate overnight or would it do to throw it in the marinade in the morning?  Did I have to calculate the cooking time or could I just estimate?

But I didn’t. I followed the directions to the letter to the best of my ability, and the result was a perfect piece of meat.

Why am I telling you this and does it at all pertain to writing? I would say absolutely. My mentor professor, Dr. Dulce Gray, and other professors in my life always said that one must know the conventions before breaking them with impunity.  A writer can be certain that when following the rules to the fullest extent he can, the result will be a good piece – it still needs polishing – cutting and serving, if you will, but it will be a good start right out of the oven.  Even experienced writers who break the rules regularly, know this, or are at least aware of it.

It just struck me that the simple act of following directions could impact life, meat, writing, and everything in between.

A happy, healthy, sweet new year to those who celebrate.