Sunday, December 31, 2006

Captain Marbles and Christmas in San Driego

The first question Marvin asked me when I entered his palatial home in San Diego was: “Is yours as big as mine?”

He pointed to the humongous T.V. set in his living room. I already knew that he had 7 T.V. sets in his house. (And three of the rooms had an Elvis theme.) In fact, there was one just opposite this room, setting off the collectibles in his faux foyer. I often found his wife watching T.V. there in the mornings.

“How big is yours?” I asked, playing the game. “53 inches,” he remarked proudly. “Naw,” I answered, “Mine’s only 41.” He seemed rather pleased.

And without asking, he put on the first DVD of the Doo Wop shows, PBS specials that showed fifties’ artists performing as they are now. And that’s how my 2006 Christmas visit began.

I hadn’t been back for Christmas since Mom died in 2000. Actually, she passed away on Christmas day. I flew down two days later to start the sale of the house in Coronado. There was a lot to do.

And somehow there’s been a lot to do since. But on this short visit, five days, I promised my brother I’d come visit.

On the second night there, I attended his 66th birthday party at the Eagles. I picked up Rick after he got off work; thankfully he knew where the Eagles hall was. When we walked in, it was easy to recognize that I didn’t know a soul besides Marvin, Marvin’s wife, and Ricky. In fact, I didn’t even know the songs that the two bands played. Occasionally, or I should say “rarely,” the bands would go into English lyrics and play some ‘50’s song everyone recognized, like “Lil Darlin’.” And at that point, everyone would jump up and dance. But when the Captain told me they’d be playing oldies but goldies, I didn’t realize they’d be Tijuana oldies. I didn’t recognize most of the tunes.

But Captain Marbles sure enjoyed it. He sang two songs while we were there, and I understand he sang two songs after we left around 9:30. “Blue Christmas” was one song he sang, and it seemed to go on for about 5 minutes, 5 minutes of “decorations of red on a green Christmas tree….” I know Elvis sang other Christmas songs. You’d never know it by current record play.

The Captain wore a black Stetson hat and a black leather “Texas Hold ‘Em” jacket, both from Vegas. He was easy to spot, and ran around all night long saying hello to everyone. I have no idea where he gets the energy. And when the band resembling Los Lobos would play a song he recognized, he’d leap up and do some version of a modern twist.

I felt bad that I hadn’t brought my camera to record the birthday party. I did get a photo of me and him on my cell phone, though, and sent it to a few friends, those who know the Captain by reputation.

During the rest of the time, we squeezed a lot in. Ricky, Joel and I went to Disneyland, just for the day, and mostly for Joel. I got to visit Rick at his new job at the Coronado Senior Center, and a fine place it is. Marvin, Rick and I played the game of Life, a game I haven’t played in about 30 years. It’s amazing what you can do with a convertible and a couple of stick kids.

And I watched more Doo-Wop. We must’ve watched over 12 hours of those DVDs. It’s so weird to see people like that lead singer of the Fleetwoods singing “Mr. Blue.” He’s balding, he’s got a paunch, but he’s still got that sweet tenor voice. He’s older. How weird.

We’re older. But still connecting, somehow. Even if our T.V. screens don’t match.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Swimming in the Jewish Pool

The Beit Din for my conversion consisted of two of my congregational rabbis and the third was the director of education.

I prepared for the questions like an interview. Here is a list of questions I thought they’d ask, complete with the image of a 1,000-watt light bulb trained on my perspiring face:

1. What’s your favorite story in the Torah? Or, in a slightly different take, with which character did you identify? My favorite story? That’s a little tough, as Torah study has only introduced me to a few, and they’re in Judges. And most of what I found were pictures of human weakness, not people I admire, although there are qualities I admire in these very human characters. I chose Miriam for this anticipated question.

Did they ask this? No.

2. What would your house look like on Shabbat? Or, conversely, and I have to say I love this one, what would your house be like to a blind man or woman if they’re entering your house on Shabbat? I really thought about this one a lot, and, kind of after the thought, tried to make my home resemble this mental dream.

Did they ask this? No.

3. What do you like about Judaism, and what do think you dislike about it?
The answer to the first part of this one is in my essay as to why I chose to make this journey, so I didn’t really have to prepare for this one.

Did they ask this? In a way. The second part of the question was reformed to: What issue concerning Judaism do you struggle with? Is there anything you’ll miss?

My answer to the first concerned Jews fighting Jews. I will never understand that. And the second was: Christmas music. One of the rabbis, hysterically, agreed with me, not that he missed it but that there was an incessant song in his brain this morning that wouldn’t go away.

That’s pretty much what I prepared for. I had several questions about my story, how I came to Judaism. One particularly pointed question about passion, where my passion lay. There were other questions, but the rest is a blur.

Speaking of the Jewish pool, let me make one point about the mikveh: it was not at all how I pictured. The rabbi is nowhere near you, as the stairs leading down go away from her. But it was warm and pardon me for saying this, very womb-like.

Was I nervous about the court? A little. I tried to focus on the three of them, engaging them in an enjoyable conversation and not make my answers too long. I think I failed on the passion one. Too much passion.

I think when I go to synagogue in the future I look forward to a discussion very much like my beit din. An engagement of minds and exploration of ideas. Only this time, I’ll be a member of the club and not nervous at all.

The Star of David

I had been preparing for this moment for about 15 months. I started looking for a program to help me learn about Jewish stuff in August 2005. I finally got frustrated and leaned on family friend Dawn to point the way to an Introduction to Judaism class, which, after weeks of waiting, started earnestly in October.

I never got close to many of my fellow Intro students. For one thing, most of them were couples. For another thing, each person had a different story: some were there to look into conversion because part of the couple was Jewish; many were doing it for their kids, to find out what their kids were learning in Jewish or Hebrew school. I think this class was beyond just the curious due to the cost and the length. The class was almost 6 months long, spread out over two synagogues in the East Bay and four rabbis (actually six at final count). Out of over 30 students at the first class, only 12 or so attended the last few classes.

I learned a lot in Intro. I was probably the only person who did all the readings. Come to think of it, that's probably not true: Tracy, who later became a friend when I would see him over and over at the same Sinai functions, absorbed everything like a youthful sponge even though he is the teacher of prepubescents during the day. And Scott, that mysterious man who showed up in a suit each time, talked as if he knew what was going on. The rest, I believe, tried to float on what the rabbi told them, and most of them were quick enough and clever enough to gather it all in.

Not me. I needed all the help I could get.

After Intro, I went through about two months of trying to find a rabbi. After one false move, I asked Rabbi Mates-Muchin, whom I had seen in a couple of Intro classes, and whose outlook was definitely Reform but not Kooky, to help me on this path and she graciously agreed. I don't know if you've noticed, but some of the rabbis kind of define "alternative." They're rather weird and like oddly put-together services. And I guess that's good for some but not for me. I don't want conservative or orthodox (although those are certainly interesting pursuits); I want modern, realistic Reform, something that makes sense to me and helps me live every day. And that's what I got.

I also got a really structured approach. (I can hear George calling, "And that's what you want!") She gave me a syllabus she constructed -- complete with questions to be answered, vocabulary lists, and an extensive but specific reading list (from 5 main books). Every three weeks or so we would meet and go over the questions I didn't understand. Quite often there would be a word I didn't understand (like "bris" vs. "brit" -- I'll never forget THAT discussion). And we would wend our way through the entire year so that I could experience the different events and holidays.

I have to stick in here that, well, I wonder if people set up meetings with the rabbis and don't make it through the whole year. You persevere, you keep going. You do the homework because to do otherwise would be insulting to the rabbi. I never missed one, and I was never late. I think you have to show your earnestness that way. And their time is so valuable and limited.

And throughout that process, I had a different kind of supervision. Every week Dawn and I would go walking around Lake Merritt and I checked in with her. I suspect she was checking in on me, but she's so low-pressure that I never felt it. And she would occasionally invite me over for shabbat dinner so that I could taste it and feel it. That really is the only way to do these practices -- you can't pick it up out of a book. And Intro can't teach you everything.

The hardest thing, I think, was learning the blessings and the songs. I still only have the basics of those down, so I will certainly continue.

My beit din was Wednesday, November 29th. On Saturday, December 2nd, I stood in front of the congregation and held the Torah. MY Torah. And gave a speech.

Today, one day after everything was over and I was beginning to come down from the high, a guy stopped me at the Montclair open-air food fair, shook my hand, and said congratulations. I recognized him as the president of the congregation. How nice of him to notice me and to take time to offer his congratulations. And he put me right back on that high for a few seconds.

I will begin wearing the Star of David necklace that Val gave me as a present for successfully completing this part of the journey. I feel I've earned it.

Today I am a Jew.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Just Tell Me When I Can Sit Down

"Do you have a hatchet?"

Those were Jamie's first words to me as he entered my house on Thanksgiving morning. Not, I thought, a great sign for tandem cooking.

It turns out he needed the hatchet to cut up the hickory chips to make them manageable for the smoker. (And, no, I do not have a hatchet.) But somehow he made do even though the little suckers kept catching fire.

I started out a little earlier, at 9 am, when I made the three pumpkin pies. Yes, they turned out great -- even the crust! Well, that's a slight exaggeration, as the same problems were present (not enough moisture, not enough dough), but it was highly edible. And the secret ingredient I apparently forgot in my dry run on Tuesday (evaporated milk) was very much present that morning and the pies turned out wonderfully.

We did have a couple of missteps along the way. I think one should expect them. The worst one was that the turkey was still partially frozen inside. He put it in hot water in the sink, discovered he had left the seasonings for the turkey in the condo and ran off to get them. In the meantime, I started peeling spuds.

That all being said, it all turned out WONDERFULLY! The turkey was a great flavor, nice and moist - way to go, Hatchet Man! The cranberries were fresh and cooked until they popped, and sweetened with Splenda. The stuffing was nice and crisp (thanks to the added butter on top). And the beans were a bit of a revelation, cooked with orange peel for a slight orangey flavor, al dente.

The menu was thus:

Smoked turkey
stuffing made from stuffing mix (but with sauteed-added celery and onion)
cranberry relish (from fresh cranberries)
mashed potatoes
biscuits (storebought ready-to-cook)
green beans - fresh with orange peel added
Pumpkin pie with homemade whipped cream

The mashed potatoes were the only real "problem" once we warmed up the turkey. I didn't have time to mash them, so Jamie took over and did a masterful job, adding cream and butter along the way. I think in the future, as much as I love potatoes, I'm going to leave these out: they're too much of a burden, and so tough to keep warm.

I told everybody we would eat at 3 pm which meant 5 pm, and, by golly, we ate at 4:30!! Terrific timing! Thanks to our in-tandem cooking, great communication, and the fact that you don't get upset when some things go wrong, it was a wonderful effort very much appreciated by those who joined us for the feast.

My feet hurt at the end from standing so many hours. My mother warned me such things would happen. I don't think, however, she expected I would ever, ever have that problem from cooking a Thanksgiving meal!