Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Blogging Elul 5771 – Day 2


One can argue the American self-help or self-improvement craze really took off towards the end of the 20th century. According to at least one study by Marketdata, by 2006, the self help market was worth an estimated $9 Billion dollars including but not limited to infomercials, self-help books, stress management, weight loss and the like. Needless to say, we as Americans seem to really be into self-improvement.

However that pales in comparison to our love affair with fast food, by which we spend more than $110 billion a year, which according to CBS, news is more than we’ll spend on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music combined.
So in a sense, we tend to still be more into self-destruction than self-improvement, or as Freud described it, the Todestrieb or “death drive.” This can also be understood as our capacity as individuals and as a society to make choices that lead us towards self-destruction.

This is in part why Elul is so very important to the Jewish psyche. As long as we continue down the path of self-destruction through our little choices – be it our diets, our words, our habits, our work, or the like; our path towards self-destruction can feel inevitable.

But Elul allows us to reset the clock, to get out of old patterns. As I mentioned in Elul – Day 1, it is not easy to do, but well worth the effort. To speak metaphorically, think of the High Holy Days as a chance to put down that burger and fries and to make and instead to pick up sushi or a light turkey sandwich. Little positive daily choices ultimately can have a much larger lasting life impact, but only if we become aware of them and are willing to make them.

So maybe it is time to start thinking of Elul as God's spiritual self-help guide. And that guide is free and open to all.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Blogging Elul 5771 – Day 1


Last year I set out the ambitious goal of blogging every day during the month of Elul. Elul, for those who are not familiar, is the last month of the Hebrew calendar leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the start of the new Jewish year.
Traditionally we sound the shofar every morning, except on Shabbat helping to prepare ourselves ritually, spiritually, and emotionally for one of the most challenging part of the year.

The overarching theme during Elul through Yom Kippur (though some argue through Shemini Atzeret which is a one day festival at the end of Sukkot), is that of teshuvah. Teshuvah is often defined as repentance, though a return of the ways of Godliness is a better translation.

The question is, why do we spend so much time and emphasis on Teshuvah? One of the possible reasons is because change is hard. I often say the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, because we as human beings usually keep doing what we have always done. To really change ourselves, to break out of bad habits, and to set new life goals is a constant struggle. And when faced with doubt, uncertainly, stress and the like, we more often than not, revert to past patterns.

Thus I think this year I will focus on the ideas of how we can change ourselves for the better as individuals, as members of family, and as members of a community.
Down the road, I’ll lay out some of my ideas for my own changes and transformations, but in the meantime, what are some of your goals?

In the meantime, you can also follow some of the links to my fellow bloggers who are also blogging Elul as well.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Gastronomic Judaism


Apropos of really nothing, after celebrating my wife’s birthday at a very nice restaurant, I began to ponder all of the really great meals I have had over the recent few years. I think this has been inspired in part by all those shows on the Food Network and the Travel Channel where they visit interesting countries, cultures, and of course dine at some of the best … and sometimes the worst restaurants.

I am deliberately not including breakfast places or other nice meals, but instead this is a list of just some of the truly great dining opportunities I have been fortunate enough to have had. There is no scientific foundation to this list, just great food, great service, great company, and lots of fun.

#1 – Hands down – Tru in Chicago with my wife and our friends Renee and Mike. This was by far the best dining experience. It was five star all the way in terms of service, presentation, and taste. They even introduced me to Rieslings which have quickly become my favorite wine varietal.

#2 – NOLA in New Orleans. Say what you will about Emeril Lagasse, I have to say dinner with Joy, Dan and Melissa was fabulous. It truly embodied the taste, sights and sounds of New Orleans.

#3 – Janos in Tucson with Joy. I have had the chance to enjoy Janos’ fine cooking at several fundraisers, and his take on Southwestern Cuisine is simply divine.

#4 – Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore with Joy and my parents. Woodberry uses local ingredients in creative ways, and the service was about as good as we have had in recent memory. Plus it was fascinating to watch by the kitchen staff as they prepared and served dishes in almost a quiet ballet opposite of those kitchens run by such ‘celebrity chefs’ as Gordon Ramsay.

Some of our other favorite meals included a great steak dinner at the Precinct in Cincinnati with Dan and Melissa, and dining with friends at the Imperial Fez in Atlanta including Yair, Marissa, Dan and Melissa. Not only was the food great, but the belly dancing really adds to the all evening of fun dining experience.

Yes just about every culture and religion gather around for food, but there is also something inherently Jewish about eating as well. Even during our six fasts (Fast of Gedaliah, Yom Kippur, 17th of Tammuz, the Fast of Esther, the 10th of Tevet and the 9th of Av, (not counting the fast of the first born male which only applies to the first born male if they are the first born of the womb), we spend most of our time contemplating what we will eat after the fast. So even though eating Jewishly does not necessarily make one Jewish, it is a great way to celebrate one’s Jewishness.

What are some of your favorite dining experiences?