How to comfort and be comforted


Consoling people after they’ve suffered a loss, especially when it’s the death of a loved one, is never easy. No matter what we say, we can never bring back the beloved to this world. How often do we sit by the mourner’s side in awkward silence, feeling completely impotent in our inability to remove the pain.

Tisha B’Av is the day that commemorates not only the destruction of the two ancient Temples in Jerusalem, but also all our people’s national tragedies throughout Jewish history. The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, because we recite the words of the prophet Isaiah (40:1): “Nachamu, nachamu, ami….” (“Be consoled, be consoled, my people….”) There will come a time, the prophet says, that your exile will end, and your future will once again be bright.

The seeming paradox is that on the very same Shabbat we read about the prophet’s consolation in the haftarah, we also read in the Torah portion about Moses’ personal tragedy, which seems to have no consolation. God tells Moses that although he’s faithfully led His people through the desert these past 40 years, and although the Jews are now standing at the very border of the Holy Land, Moses himself will never be allowed entry, and will die and be buried outside of Israel.

How is God’s refusal to Moses consistent with the theme of consolation on this Shabbat of consolation?

Moses was teaching the people a new form of consolation: Know, my brethren, that sometimes the answer will be “no.” Sometimes, God, in his infinite wisdom, must say no to our petitions. We may not understand how this can possibly be good, but I, Moses, assure you that it is ultimately for our benefit.

(Indeed, our sages on this passage go to great lengths to explain why it was in the Jews’ best interests for Moses not to gain entry into the land, which is a discussion that requires a separate essay.)

An additional lesson is contained in Moses’ words: When I asked God to enter the land with you, my brethren, it was because I had just succeeded in my latest mission of defeating those nations just east of the Jordan River. Perhaps, I reasoned, since we are so close to our goal, God will allow me to see it to its final stage and let me enter the land. But alas, even though I was so close, it was not meant to be. Sometimes, it may appear that we are so close to our goals, and then, at the last moment, our hopes are dashed and tragedy strikes.

Devastated though I may be, Moses continued, God did console me with one last wish: He is allowing me to go up to a mountain top where I will at least be able to see all of the Holy Land that you, my disciples, children and brethren, will inherit and enjoy. This, too, is consolation indeed.

In this light, Moses’ tale of tragedy is consistent with the consolation of the prophet. Sometimes, God’s answer must be “no.” But even when it is, God will find a way to give us a glimmer of hope for the future, that life will go on, our people will live on, and there will be a brighter tomorrow.

We have experienced, in our long national history, many misfires of messianic redemption and have heard “no” many times bellowing from heaven. We have witnessed, in our own generation, great hopes for peace in Israel, only to see those hopes dashed to pieces a short time later. But we mustn’t lose sight of the consolation contained therein: God is watching from heaven, and even when the answer is “no,” we are still provided with a vision, with a glimpse of what can yet still be. Imagine when the answer finally will be “yes,” how beautiful that “yes” will be.

There is no such thing as hollow consolation. The answer to one’s prayers might have been “no.” But when the mourner is embraced by his friends and family, when he or she is reassured that no one is ever alone and that life will go on with joy amid the pain, this is truly consolation.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy and director of synagogue and community services for the Orthodox Union’s West Coast region.

Gear Up for an Israel Vacation


With summer travel to Israel around the corner, now’s the time to plan your packing strategy. From new high-tech gadgets to easy-care clothing, from hybrid shoes to crushable sun hats, there’s plenty to choose from as gifts for loved ones and must-haves for your own comfort. We’ve identified select products to help with common travel dilemmas. Peruse our list for solutions to help you pack light, avoid sunburns, save on batteries and more. An added bonus: nearly everything — except for new prescription contact lenses — is available online or by phone.

Threads
Women visiting Meah Shearim and other religious sites need cool clothes for modest cover-ups. The hip, Pack-N-Go Cotton Crinkle Skirt ($59) stores in its own pouch and welcomes wrinkles; ” target=”_blank”>Sahalie.com, (800) 547-1160.

A convenient handbag is a woman’s travel must. The Space Saver Bag ($29.50) offers plenty of pockets to tuck it away with outdoor style; Sahalie. A microfiber Convertible Bag ($50) doubles as a compact backpack; Travelsmith.

For him, a Pre-Wrinkled Shirt ($45) works for daily and Shabbat wear; Sahalie. Cotton Kenya Convertible Pants ($69.50) double as shorts by zipping off the lower portion; Travelsmith. And the Intrepid Travel Hat ($52), a lightweight fedora, breathes, bends and repels water. Wrap it into itself for travel and then pop it back into shape upon arrival; Travelsmith.

For him and her, breathable CoolMax blended with cotton wicks away moisture while providing sun protection. A variety of styles, polos, tees, long sleeve shirts and undies, are available. Travelsmith ($40 and up). Avoid insect bites and sunburns with Buzz Off Convertible Pants with UV30+ protection for him or her ($79); Sahalie.

Footwear
Multipurpose sandals for hiking, touring and synagogue are the ticket. Chacos offer great support (even for those who usually wear orthotics) and come in a variety of designs. New thin-strap styles better conform to your foot. Lug soles offer great traction; ” target=”_blank”>REI.com ($60 and up).

Cool Mesh Low Quarter Socks ($9) keep tootsies cooler, drier and blister-free; Sahalie. And for shower wear and beach duty, Adidas ClimaCool Slides ($30) offer air mesh screening underfoot. Ventilated running shoes, warm weather sports tops and other products in the ClimaCool line are also available; ” target=”_blank”>Magellans.com, (800) 962-4943. And prevent carry-on security problems by packing the TSA-approved Personal Travel Kit ($70); Sharper Image.

For in-flight comfort, consider collapsible MP3-Enhanced Headphones ($35) and the ultra-cozy Nap Travel U-Pillow with Eye Mask ($25); Brookstone. Breathe in cleaner, fresher air with a personal Ionic Breeze Air Purifier ($30); Sharper Image. To relieve motion sickness, the watch-like ReliefBand ($89) sends gentle electrical pulses to interfere with nausea messages from the brain. Flight Spray ($15) helps relieve nasal dryness. And for bad backs and skinny tushies, select specially designed pillows and pads; Magellan’s.

In Israel, cool off Aussie-style with a Cobber Neck Cooler ($15), which features lightweight nontoxic crystals that stay cool for up to three days; Travelsmith. A Mini Misting Fan ($13) simulates playing in sprinklers — even in the back of the bus. The even larger Personal Cooling System ($30) fans the neck; Sharper Image.

Forget the need for constant batteries with electronic devices that you can crank up by hand. You “churn on” the Freeplay EyeMax Radio/Flashlight ($50) or juice up its solar cells in the sun; Sharper Image.Volunteering on kibbutz or studying abroad? Tune in with the AM/FM Grundig Emergency Hand Crank Radio ($50), complete with built-in flashlight and cell phone charger. ” target=”_blank”>rhythmfusion.zoovy.com, (831) 423-2048. Bird-watch with Micro-Zoom Binoculars ($99); Magellan’s. And take home memories with the Canon Powershot SD600 ($349), an economical solution for super high resolution in one tiny package.

A Prayer for Victims of Hurricane Katrina


Are You watching, God?

Have You seen the innocent swept away?

Are You listening, God?

Have You heard their cries?

Be with them, God.

Be their strength and their comfort.

Let them know You are near.

Work through us, God.

Teach us to be Your messengers on earth.

Wake us up, God,

Show us how to help.

Use us, God, shine through us,

Inspire us to rebuild the ruins.

Open our hearts so we can comfort the mourning.

Open our arms so we can extend our hands to those in need.

Shake us out of our complacency, God.

Be our guide,

Transform our helplessness into action,

Our generous intentions into charity,

Turn the prayers of our souls into acts of kindness and compassion.

Amen.

Rabbi Naomi Levy is spiritual leader of Nashuva (www.nashuva.com). She is the author of “Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration” (Doubleday, 2002)

 

Laser Heart Surgery


My only decent pair of glasses broke en route from Los Angeles to Israel, and I took it as a sign — it was time to for corrective laser surgery, a.k.a. LASIK.

“Make sure on the day of surgery someone comes with you,” the Israeli receptionist said to me after I set my appointment.

Great. Who would I call on to come with me? If I lived in Los Angeles, someone in my family would have shepherded me. But I wasn’t comfortable asking my family in Israel to escort me.

Since I’d be wearing eye patches after the surgery, I’d at least need someone to pick me up. And since I’d be done at 4 p.m., I asked my friend Tovy to leave work an hour early to pick me up. She said it was no problem.

The surgery day arrived. As I waited on the sofa in the main office, I saw a young woman leave the surgery room with her eyes covered, her boyfriend holding her hand, guiding her.

How nice, I thought. He’ll probably make her tea when she gets home and sing her a lullaby.

I don’t need anyone, I thought. However, I did need a valium, and lucky for me it was procedure to give patients one before the surgery.

The nurse sat me down outside the surgery room and dropped an anesthetic into my eyes. I saw the blurred image of a teenager across from me.

He had just had his eyes zapped.

“How was it?” I asked.

“Scary,” he said.

“Really?” I asked, surprised.

The doctors, technicians and receptionists all made it sound like the surgery was simple, quick and painless.

Then his father took his hand and led him out. That’s OK, I thought to myself. I still didn’t need anyone to hold my hand.

When it was my turn on the operating table, the doctor pried my eyelids open with a metal tool and then stuck some sort of lens onto my eye.

“You shouldn’t see anything now,” he said. “That’s normal.”

A round cylinder latched onto the lens and mechanically cut a flap on my cornea; this created a window for the laser to enter. As the machine cut my cornea, I saw black and white circles, as if it were twisting and turning my eyeball.

He repeated this procedure on the other eye. I dug my fingers into my thighs to channel the pain elsewhere.

“Now, we are moving onto the laser portion of the surgery,” the doctor said. “This will be less painful.”

“You mean it’s not over?” I asked.

“Almost.”

I stared above and green and red dots of light seemed to shower my bullied eyes. As the laser sculpted my cornea to perfection, I heard a buzz and felt hot splatters my cheeks.

Done but dazed, I limped to a reclining chair in a post-op waiting area.

“Keep your eyes closed,” the nurse said. “Is someone here with you?”

“She’s supposed to come,” I said.

It was 4:15 p.m. and no sign of Tovy.

Unable to look outside, I looked deep inside: Wouldn’t it be nice to have a dedicated boyfriend right now? A real partner? Why have I shut out love for so long? Wouldn’t life in Israel be easier if I opened myself up to love — not just a romantic thrill — but to a supportive, loving man who will hold my hand in times like these?

Where the hell is Tovy?

Tears started gushing down my face. They were supposed to be a natural side-effect of the surgery, but they seemed exacerbated by my momentary, stinging sensation of loneliness.

“Tears are pouring,” I told the nurse.

“Excellent,” she said. “Make yourself cry.”

This was one of those rare moments when it’s good for your physical health to bawl.

Tovy had trouble finding the office. When she finally arrived, she held my hand and comforted me. The tears continued to stream, but they had transformed from tears of loneliness to tears of healing. I had my health, I had good friends and I no longer had four eyes.

Maybe now that my eyes are fixed I’ll be able to envision a true and lasting romance. But it will probably take more than 10 minutes with a laser beam to smooth out my heart’s irregularities. And yet as I begin to see the world and myself more clearly, I think maybe it’d be nice to have someone hold my hand and, sometimes, wipe my tears.

Orit Arfa is a freelance writer based in Tel Aviv.

 

So Uncool, It’s Cool


 

I favor the type of acrylic French tip nails that are considered fashionable only by midlevel porn stars. I still wear Uggs. Pink is my favorite color. I’ve seen the movie “G.I Jane” twice, and not for camp value. I thought it was good.

Today, I embrace my uncool preferences.

I used to have to fake liking Raymond Carver novels and understanding Neil LaBute movies, but now I’m free.

This is a profound change. And I understand that seismic personal shifts are rarely associated with Demi Moore movies, but hear me out. The things that truly appeal to us are a reflection of our genuine personalities. Like it or not, the real me has some really cheesy taste. The more I’ve come to celebrate the tacky things I love, the more comfortable I’ve become with myself.

Seeing a movie in Silver Lake makes me feel like the rest of the world is Beck and I’m Josh Groban. I like the Valley, the blown-out look of the flora off the side of the 101. I relish Studio City with its strip malls and Mystic Tanning salons and La Salsas. When I visit my aunt in Northridge, I savor the cul-de-sacs and minivans as much as the Santa Ana winds.

Speaking of which, last time I was visiting my aunt in the 818, I said to my college-age cousins as they stepped out to go dancing, “Are you going to get your groove on?”

I was sort of being ironic, but mostly, I was just being earnest. And earnest is the most uncool thing you can be.

“Teresa,” my cousin Josh said. “You can’t say that anymore. In fact, could you not say that again, ever? Why don’t you just ask us if we plan to ‘bust a move?'”

Even my lingo is lame.

I can’t play pool or play poker. If it’s time for a leisure activity that reeks of wealth or coordination, I’m out. I’ve never skied, been within a gurney’s distance of a snowboard, played soccer, played blackjack or gone surfing. There are two “sports” at which I’ve excelled: ballet and Ping-Pong. While I truly can play a mean game of table tennis, I notice there haven’t been many movies celebrating the dark, defiant world of the pong hustler. Daredevil ballerinas? Those are just the girls who don’t throw up lunch.

If there is any occasion for nonchoreographed “freestyle” social dancing, I will “bust a move” on out of there. Social dancing is for the uninhibited. I am uptight. Today, I don’t fight that. I gladly sit out this dance and every other, no matter who grabs me by the arm and squeals, “C’mon, it’ll be fun. This is my song!”

Sometimes, my true tastes happen to intersect with something that actually is hip; as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

I’ve always enjoyed single malt Scotch, for example. I drink it straight up, which seems to impress people. This isn’t because I’m too fashionable to imbibe Chablis or a “so two years ago” apple martini; I just like the taste of top-shelf booze and I don’t like ice melting into my good liquor. I also happen to live in Koreatown, which if I’m not mistaken, falls into the category of being so uncool it’s cool. I’m just here for the cheap housing and decorative gang tags, but folks seem to find this aspect of my lifestyle surprising, in a good way, like I’m gritty and urbane.

What’s more, Judaism seems to be in a chic phase. Is Teri Hatcher not the hottest of the “Desperate Housewives”? This year, everyone wanted to “Meet the Fockers,” making it one of the highest-grossing comedies of all time. The Fockers were cool.

I notice when people ask where my column appears, I no longer say “in a local weekly newspaper,” thus avoiding the J word, like I did for years.

But this isn’t just because hipsters throw out Yiddish words now and Ben Stiller and Barbra are machers. It all goes back to Demi, and to deciding to figure out what I truly like, not what I should, and to accepting all of it. I’m not talking about meeting strangers and bragging about the pink and the Ping-Pong and suggesting we sit down for a screening of “Striptease: the Director’s Cut.” There are some things you can keep to yourself, or let out in time. What I’m describing is an inner comfort with the totality of what makes you, from the accidentally cool to the supremely kitschy.

When you stop wasting time trying to figure out what’s cool so you can convince yourself to like it, you can begin what is, in a way, a spiritual practice. You can know that if last year’s Ugg fits, wear it.

Teresa Strasser is an Emmy Award-winning writer. She’s on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.

 

Predictions


There was a moment there, from, say 1972-2001, when worldevents seemed if not consistently predictable, then at least not so consistently unsettling. The common wisdom is that Sept. 11, 2001,changed all that, replacing the Age of Torpor with the Era of Oh — @’%&! –Now What?!

The common wisdom is right.

A decade before 2001, the increased availability of thepersonal computer and the Internet revolutionized our world, but it hardlywhipsawed our sense of well-being. We expect leaps in technology. We predictthe world of things, even nature itself, will fall more and more under ourmastery. But 2001 was a leap in dread, fear and anxiety, all things we havemanaged to medicate but not master.

What changed in 2001 was the comfort of predictabilityitself. Now we all walk around with a sense that the other shoe will not onlydrop at any time, but it might also drop on us.

This past year’s news hardly did much to prove us wrong.Though one would assume we’d been inoculated to headline shock, I for one stillmanaged to feel sucker-punched by what has been happening: the Iraq War, SARS,the recall, the Al Qaeda bombings, the Space Shuttle Columbia, terror in Israel.

An end-of-year column in the form of list is the birthright,it seems, of anybody who writes a column, and as this issue goes to press onDec. 30, I feel entitled. So, here goes: my list of predictions, in noparticular order, for 2004. Against the ferocity of change and happenstancethat seems to describe our post-Sept. 11 world, I doubt I’m correct on morethan one or two of these. Okay, one. But in this day and age, graded on acurve, that may be close to perfect.

Arnold v. Hillary in 2008 I wouldn’t dare predict theoutcome of the next presidential election, but consider the possibilities afterthat. A popular and effective California governor (I believe he’ll be both)inspires a slight change in the Constitution, while a popular and effectivesenator seeks personal redemption in an Oval Office of her own.

The Rise of the One-StateSolution

Even leaders of Israel’s right, like Ehud Olmert, aretrumpeting the necessity of the Israeli Left’s Plan A — a withdrawal from muchof the West Bank, else the Arab population overtake the Jewish population inGreater Israel. Meanwhile, many Palestinians have moved on to Plan B — abinational state between Jordan and the Mediterranean. They have seen Olmert’stwo-state solution and raised him one. Israel’s unilateral steps, such as theseparation fence and partial withdrawal, may actually backfire by solidifyingPalestinian resistance to any negotiation and letting the demographic time bombgo boom.

Yasser Arafat Will Die

Ailing for some time now, the man whose policies of terrorensured that so many innocents would die before their time may finally reachthe end of his own. Many analysts believe that Israeli leaders took thisinevitability into account when they refrained from arresting or assassinatingArafat earlier this year. Arafat will leave behind a Palestinian treasury muchdepleted through his own greed and graft, and a legacy of leadership that ledto both the creation of a Palestinian identity and the needless destruction ofgenerations of Palestinians.

Flagel’s Rule

In Manhattan this past week, I popped in to Nussbaum and Wu,a bakery on the Upper West Side, and came face to face with the future: theflagel. The flagel is a flat bagel, with more of the crusty goodness of a greatboiled bagel (and all great bagels are boiled before baking), and less of thedoughy interior. According to The Forward, the flagel has long been popular atinstitutions like Montague Street Bagels in Brooklyn Heights and H & HMidtown Bagels. In a world gone Atkins — where office garbage cans fill up withsquished balls of gutted bagel innards — it is only a matter of weeks or monthsbefore the flagel conquers both coasts.

There Will Be No V-ME Day

Victory in the Middle East will not come this year, or anyyear soon. Whatever you think of the war, only the most idealistic would saythat the root causes of terror, despotism and fanaticism in the Middle Eastcould be resolved militarily. The most astute students of the region and itspredominant religion (see Reuven Firestone, p. 8) have long understood that theWest can only hope to encourage the kind of change that ultimately must come,slowly if at all, from within.

Jews Will Face a Crisis

I know I’m not exactly going out on a limb here, butconsider: the rise of nondemocratic forces in the republics of the formerSoviet Union, including Russia itself; the increasingly anti-Semitic actions ofMuslim populations in Europe and elsewhere; the likelihood that Al Qaeda willuse Jewish targets as a way to provide a scapegoat for its brutality; thechance that just one mega-terror attack against a target in Israel willsucceed.

There Will Be Good News, Too

I hate to end the first editorial of the new year on a sadnote, so take heart in what 2004 will bring as well: a new season of “Curb YourEnthusiasm,” a superb Albert Einstein exhibit this September at the SkirballCultural Center and a full year for us to make the world a little better thanit is, and much better than we expect. Anyway, as Einstein himself said, “Inever think of the future — it comes soon enough.”

Shabbat Nachamu


The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, after the haftara that is read: “Nachamu, nachamu ami” (Be comforted, be comforted my people). Why is the word nachamu repeated? To offer consolation for both Temples, which were destroyed.

The word nachamu means comfort. God is saying: with all the hardships you and the rest of the world have gone through, you can still find the deepest of comfort inside yourself. Have you ever felt so sad that you thought you would never stop being sad? Did your dog die or did your best friend move away? But you didn’t remain sad forever. You moved on — you got a new dog; you visit your best friend in the summer. You learned that there was a deep part of you that could heal the pain.

Remember that next time you have lost something very close to you and you feel like you will never be whole again. The feeling won’t last. You will “be comforted” and you will be happy again.

Too Close for Comfort


Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Louis Freeh recently had some ominous words for Congress, but legislators and many Jewish leaders weren’t in a listening mood.

At a hearing on counterterrorism, Freeh described the rise of independent, well-financed foreign terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, and warned that these rogue operators might soon have access to chemical or biological materials.

Several Jewish groups responded with statements endorsing his warnings on international terrorism, but they largely ignored the second part of his message, which was this: There are disturbing changes taking place in the loose coalition of homegrown extremist groups that could turn to terrorism as well.

“With the coming of the next millennium, some religious and apocalyptic groups or individuals may turn to violence as they seek to achieve dramatic effects to fulfill their prophecies,” he warned.

He described changes in the loose network of “patriot” militias and anti-government groups, which he said are beginning to absorb more explicitly racist elements.

And he said that the “Christian Identity” movement – a hate philosophy that provides a religious rationale for virulent anti-Semitism – is on the rise, and that it is being absorbed into the militia movement and other far-right ideologies.

So what did Jewish groups have to say about that part of his message? Not much.

The Anti-Defamation League, which led the 1996 fight for a controversial anti-terror law originally intended to bolster the nation’s defenses against both international and domestic terrorists, issued no press releases. Officials of the group declined to comment on Freeh’s assessment, saying only that the right-wing network in this country had gone deeper underground since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and therefore was harder to study.

Several prominent Jewish leaders, queried about the Freeh report, brushed it aside, preferring instead to talk about the foreign terror threat.

The reasons for the silence reflect both the difficulties the nation will have in meeting this new menace and the concerns of a Jewish community that is one of the potential targets of these metastasizing groups.

One explanation is simple fear. Foreign terrorism is scary, but few Americans believe it will ever touch their own lives. But the idea of cults seeking to hasten the apocalypse by releasing nerve gas in the New York subways, or anti-government, anti-Semitic groups mailing packages of anthrax around the country, brings the threat home in a way that makes people want to avert their eyes – especially because effective countermeasures are so difficult.

It may also be that Jewish groups are uncomfortable dealing with expanding gray areas as these groups expand beyond their traditional boundaries.

Increasingly, the distinctions between politically active evangelical groups, hard-right groups of the John Birch Society variety, white supremacists, militant pro-gun groups, anti-government militias and bizarre apocalyptic cultists are getting blurrier, with more ideology held in common.

“It is getting harder to tell where we draw the line,” said the leader of a major Jewish organization who declined to speak for attribution. “Everybody agrees that armed white supremacist groups are dangerous, but what do we say about popular evangelists who warn Christians to gather arms to prepare for anarchy on the streets? There’s a coalescence taking place that’s hard to quantify but is very disturbing.”

Jewish leaders recognize that the threat is expanding, but they also recognize the real dangers of broadening their attacks to encompass the more mainstream religious and political leaders who endorse just enough of the extremist ideologies to give these groups a new measure of legitimacy.

Another reason for the silence among Jewish leaders is the fact that Jews remain more firmly committed to civil-liberties protections than most groups. Even when they were in the forefront of pushing the omnibus anti-terrorism act of 1996, Jewish leaders were uneasy about the measure’s apparent erosion of some basic civil liberties.

If Freeh is right and the extremist underground is increasingly radical, racist and violent, there will be strong pressure for even more Draconian laws, and the Jewish community will find itself caught between its nervousness as the preferred target of many of these groups, and its distaste for stepped-up law enforcement practices that will inevitably trample on some constitutional protections. The Jewish community’s relative silence on the subject reflects the difficulties the nation may have in heeding his warnings about a threat that is too close to home for comfort.