Thursday, May 28, 2009

Other books and June's theme

Recently I have also read Fannie Flagg's Can't Wait to Get to Heaven and am currently reading The Host by Stephanie Meyer.

My theme for June will be "The Perfect Place" I will begin by reading The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. My husband, a geographer, actually bought this book a few months ago for himself without realizing that it was also on my list. So we will be reading this one together.

Wrapping it up

My Jesus Year has a very good balance of the reverent and the irreverent. Cohen is funny and respectful at the same time as he experiences evangelical healing services, Christian Wrestling, going on missions with Mormans, and confessing in a Catholic church. I noticed that he did not write about any "mean for Jesus" types. I don't know if he didn't run into any, or if he chose not to write about them because it wouldn't have been funny. I also noticed that he writes about "twice a year" Jews, who attend services only on the high holidays - Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur, but not about their counterparts the "twice a year" Christians who attend church only on Christmas and Easter. This is a good read and will likely have readers contemplating their own religion, no matter whether they are or faithful or fallen.


To get the whole Christmas experience Cohen tries to do it all. He buys the gifts, fights crowds at the mall, goes to see the Nutcracker, attends midnight service on Christmas eve, and also experiences the inevitable post-Christmas letdown.

He is baffled by websites that offer Christmas advice such as "offer to babysit for a friend" without providing information about the real spiritual aspect of the holiday. As a person who has always celebrated a more secular version of the holiday, the offer to babysit makes perfect sense to me. Any suggestion to do something rather than buy something is what I look for at Christmas. I like visiting people at the holidays, and going to parties, but I don't miss the spending at all. Several years ago I exempted myself from buying gifts for anyone besides children (my own, and nieces and nephews) at Christmas, and likewise let those who normally bought me gifts know that they needn't bother. My goal was not to focus on the more religious aspect of the holiday, but rather to take away stress, and bring back "peace, joy and goodwill to all" - things I think Jesus the man stood for. With the money we don't spend of gifts we make donations to charity, and we try to see a Christmas show every year. I have seen the Nutcracker several times, and don't get tired of it, and last year took a day trip to New York City to see the Rockettes Christmas show, which was quite fabulous. However, the most moving Christmas performance I have seen was Black Nativity - the story of the nativity done through gospel music. I have seen it twice in Boston and it is more like a worship service than a performance - although it is quite professionally done.

Skipping the malls and having no presents under my tree to open on Christmas morning does make my Christmas different than the ones I remember from my childhood, which were indeed magical, but I enjoy and savor the holiday season much better this way.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Year of Buying Black

Today's Talk of the Nation program on NPR featured a story about a family that is experimenting with buying only from African-American owned businesses for one year. They are four months into it.

Stone Mountain

Cohen attends Easter Sunday at Stone Mountain in Georgia. I have seen Stone Mountain, a very impressive monument to some Civil War heroes. It is an interesting thing about the south that there are quite a few monuments to the losing side of the war. Cohen mentions that growing up he always heard the war referred to as the "war of Northern agression" and never even knew that the south lost. Growing up in Maryland, I never knew that I lived in the south. Of course Maryland is south of the Mason-Dixon line, and it was also a "border state" during the war. I realized much later in life how touchy Maryland is about its identity as a southern state. In school we were always lead to believe that we were really on the winning side because we weren't really in the south. A few years ago I looked up the words to Maryland My Maryland, the state song. I had never heard them growing up, although I knew the tune very well (it is the same tune as O Christmas Tree). When I found the words I realized why we never sang them. It is a a Conferderate song. This NPR story tells of a state bill that would change Maryland's song.

Birthday blog

Today is my 45th birthday. I notice that very few of the "year of" books I read mention the author's birthday, although we can safely assume that they all had one during the course of their year. A great birthday celebration was discussed in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, who celebrated her 50th birthday during the year she writes about. You can see some of the recipes from the book at this website:

Yesterday, of course, was my attainment day. Many people are unaware that they have an attainment day, and it allows them to spend two days celebrating their birthday. Your attainment day is the day you attain your new age, always the day before your birthday. This actually matters to a small group of people who were born on the first of the month. The federal government determines benefits for retirement starting the month you attain your new age. So if you happen to be one of the lucky "ones" your retirement benefits will start the month before your birthday. I know all this because my father worked for Social Security and it was something he dealt with all the time. Celebration of attainment days was an important tradtion in the Hayes house when I was growing up, although none of us had a birthday on the first of the month.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Taking Communion

Cohen has mentioned "prentending" to take communion several times. When I was about 11 years old I attended a Catholic church and took communion. I mentioned it to my sister later who told me never to tell our mother, who apparently freaked out when my sister had done the same thing a few years earlier. In very serious tones my sister explained to me that you can't just take communion, you're supposed to have classes first. I felt like I was going to be arrested, (sort of the same way I felt when I cut the tags off my pillows). To atone for this sin I decided never to take communion again, even when invited, or even if it is in a Unitarian church (some do have this ritual). This caused me to have a fight with my Greek Orthodox high school boyfriend when I attended Christmas eve service with his family in 1981, and has left me to be the only person sitting in the pews on more than one occasion, but I don't care. The trauma my sister left me with is worse than anything of these other things.

People who write books shouldn't knock librarians

Each month in American Libraries magazine there is a feature called "How the World Sees Us." In it one might see something like: "In an effort to get a good seat in the sanctuary...I walk next door to the other building. No sooner do I open the door than a woman who looks like a librarian in a jean jumper and shoulder pads unexpectedly leans in and kisses me on the cheek" (p.84).
Of course the magazine would provide a full citation as well!

I read this passage to my colleague in the office next to mine, who happened to be wearing a jean jumper at the time. She assures me that she would never kiss a stranger. To be fair, in an earlier post I mention that when I go to library conferences I often think that we librarians deserve our stereotype (See January 8). I will also admit to having a wide selection of sensible shoes.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Creating wealth

A collection is, of course, de riguer in any church service, and the Megafest Cohen attends is no exception. He observes that most of the people there are probably in no position to give the suggested $111 when the collection envelope goes around. They have all already paid an admission fee as well. There are also plenty of other things (T-shirts, etc.) for attendees to spend their money on. At the same time there are workshops going on to help people manage their money. The prosperity gospel is "the notion that God wants his followers to be rich." There are those nay-sayers though who spout that stuff about camels having an easier time going through the eye of a needle than a rich man getting into the kingdom of heaven. (I've heard the counter argument to this is that the Bible never mentions how big a camel or needle we're talking about.)

When I was in Brazil I met an American who studied evalgelicals in the Amazon. It is a fast growing religious movement there. Although there are more people in Brazil who claim to be Catholic, on any given Sunday morning there will be more people attending evangelical services than Catholic ones. The scholar explained to us that one of the reasons so many people were converting was because they were told they would become more prosperous if they did. And then discovered that that was indeed true. When one stops spending his paycheck on alcohol and gambling he finds that he can afford things like a nicer home and a refrigerator.

For a fabulous, award-winning sermon on Jesus and economic sharing, I recommend Saving Souls by my friend, and UU minister, Joanne Giannino.

T.D. Jakes

It never ceases to amaze me how out of touch with popular culture I am. Cohen visits "Megafest" in Atlanta, Georgia and describes the preacher T.D. Jakes, "America's favorite pastor", who apparently has been featured in Time magazine, has weekly television broadcasts and is one of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals. I never heard of him. I used to know all about the televangelists (Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson) back in their heyday of the 1980s, but I just don't know about these new guys. For anyone as out of touch as I am, here is Jakes' website:

Blessing of the bathroom

So apparently there is a blessing that Jews are supposed to recite after using the bathroom. Our church needs to have some heavy renovations done on the restrooms. Apparently a squirrel has been getting into the building via a hole in the men's room and wreaking havoc. I also recently learned that when the bathrooms were originally installed there was some discussion as to whether they should be put in at all, after all, would you even do such a thing in God's house? Interestingly, this debate took place back when church services were much longer than they are now, and apparently when more Unitarians actually believed in God. It does seem that the Jews are more in tune on this one. If God created us, then wouldn't he know that we use the bathroom?

Converting to Judaism

Cohen explains that a rabbi is "required to rebuff" three times those who wish to convert to Judaism. I'd heard this before, but I thought it was a myth.

Christians, of course, are always looking for converts. The altar call at the end of the service is always an option. My husband has told me about people in his father's former church who answered the call every Sunday, even though they had already been baptized.

Monday, May 18, 2009

New Book

My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of his Own Faith by Benyamin Cohen comes to me by way of Southworth Library in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. I am hoping that since the cover features a bobble-head Jesus figure that it will be funny.

Trying on religion

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross' memoir only scratches the surface of his religious development. This book is different than Jacobs' book in that his year is not deliberate. In fact the book really spans much more than a year. Gartenstein-Ross explains his secular upbringging with hippie parents in Ashland, Oregon and his personal growth in social activism as un undergraduate at Wake-Forest College in North Carolina. Much of this is due to his friendship with al-Husein, a Muslim who is vocal about racism, and other social justice issues. His own conversion to Islam seems rather abrupt, however. His year with "radical Islam" begins after he graduates when he begins working for a Muslim charity called Al Haramain in Oregon. The men he works with (he is completely segregated from women) scrutinize virtually everything he does and let him know whenever he is doing anything that does not please Allah. This includes listening to any kind of music, wearing shorts, and playing computer games. He also points out, no fewer than three times, that Islam proscribes everything, including how to "wipe after you go to the bathroom." While he does question many of these, he also researches them, but always follows the set rules explained to him. Even after he moves to New York for law school he continues to follow the rigid brand of Islam he had been following for the previous year. He begins to question his faith while away, and eventually converts to Christianity, which makes his Christian girlfriend quite happy. Again, while Gartenstein-Ross is honest about his doubts regarding Islam, and makes it clear that he does quite a bit of research about both faiths, I was still left wondering about the conversion. Why didn't he just return the the more moderate form of Islam he converted to in the first place?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

My Year Without Spending Blog

I just discovered another "Year of" blog My Year Without Spending by Angela Barton.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Next book

My Year Inside Radical Islam by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross arrived from the Mansfield (Massachusetts) Public Library. Like A.J. Jacobs the author was raised a secular Jew, unlike Jacobs his quest did not come about by making a decision to follow the teachings of Islam to see what would happen. His memoir is about a true conversion.

Wrapping it up

Jacobs realized early on that it was impossible to follow all 700 or so rules that he found in the Bible everyday. He had to pick which ones to follow at different times. He uses the term "cafeteria" to describe this picking, and explains that even fundamentalist Christians and Jews are following a cafeteria brand of their religion. One cannot follow all the rules, and many of them are contradictory or open to interpretation. Even after a year of trying to follow all the rules at least part of the time, he realizes there are some he never got to. He does, however, realize that he gained much during his quest and learned quite a bit about himself and to how to be a better person. He becomes more self-reflective, empathetic, and grateful. The book was a good reminder for me to work on these three attributes. I am glad that I could learn this simply by reading the book, rather than going through what Jacobs did.


Jacobs year is framed by the conception and birth of twin sons. At the end of his sojourn he describes the bris of his eight-day-old sons. He also discusses the circumcision of his two-year old son which he was much more ambivilent about at the time. His wife had put her foot down at the time, but he would have been just as happy not to have done it, and hides in the bedroom during the procedure. He watches this time.

I am glad I had a girl. My husband and I never did decide what to do about a circumcision. I was squarely on the no side, but he was not. We could have saved ourselves a lot of anguish if we had asked during any of my eight sonograms what the sex of the baby was, but we wanted to be surprised. We never did completely agree on a boy's name either.


In biblical times the proper way to greet a guest was to offer water for his or her feet. Jacobs tries this, but no one takes him up on it. I found that when traveling through the deforested Amazon, an extemely dusty and humid place, it is not uncommon to greet a guest with the offer of a shower. Just taking taking the bus makes one dirty and sticky. I quickly learned to take people up on this.


Jacobs spends most of his year following the Old Testament, but also dips into the New Testament for the last four months. He considers what it means to accept Jesus Christ, but does not go so far as to do it, instead he accepts the moral teachings of Christ, and cites the Unitarians in this. The "Jesus as a righteous dude" brand of religion is probably closest to what I follow. It allows me to masquerade as a Christian because I go to church on Sunday, and celebrate Christmas and Easter. Sometimes this can be beneficial, since a lot of people don't know what UUs are. Some find us rather dangerous. In 2000 I was traveling in Rondonia, Brazil and visited a missionary village. A woman asked me if I was Christian, and did I have a church. The answers are no, and yes. She became very suspicious of me, but eventually composed herself enough to explain that she'd never heard of Unitarian Universalists and asked me to tell her about it. I told her that we followed many religious teachings, including Jesus, the Buddah, and others. She cut me off explaining that that was dangerous and that I needed to read the Bible. She gave me one of hers that said "Good News for Modern Man" and asked me to read Mark, especially. I promised I would, so far I haven't gotten around to it yet.


Jacobs sure spends a lot of time worrying about germs. He loves getting out of shaking hands, and discovers that "Levitius says that a man shall be unclean for the day after his 'emission of seed' which gives him a handy excuse not to shake hands with men since he cannot know who may be unclean. He finds that many men are willing to share this information with him when he explains why. And learns that "men of [his] vintage aren't having a whole lot of sex." This does not surprise me having read 365 Nights.

I have met a few people who I think qualify as germophobes. The most egregious was a woman selling apple cider at a farmer's market. My husband and I had our own mugs and asked if we could fill them. She insisted that we first fill on of the paper cups and empty it into the mug. Since the farmer's market was part of a sustainability conference this seemed especially odd to us. When we asked why she told us that we might have put our mouths on our mugs already, and then the cider might splash into the mug and then splash back up onto the spigot of the cider.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Eating bugs

The Bible allows for eating locusts, crickets and grasshoppers. Jacobs orders some chocolate covered crickets and shares them with a friend. In Oaxaca, Mexico crickets or "grillos" are a staple of the diet. People sell them by the kilo in the open-air markets. I ate some at a restaurant, where they were put out on the table as a matter of course for snacking. They were not chocolate covered. I should add that I had spent the morning touring a mezcal factory and drank some mezcal right out of the still before going to lunch.

Interested in eating a cicada? See this link

Children and God

One of the reasons that Jacobs embarks on his journey is because he is not sure what to say to his two-year old son about religion. This was a problem for me as well. When my daughter was five she started asking questions about where babies came from. When I realized that she wouldn't be put off I explained it to her, and she didn't believe me. Then I brought her a children's book that explained it, with pictures. At which point she believed me, but was sorry she asked. Shortly thereafter she started asking about God and angels and heaven. I really didn't know what to tell her having no real defined beliefs myself, and I wished we could go back to the "where do babies come" from question. At least I knew the answer to that one.

Freedom of Choice

Jacobs learns that there is a proscribed (Jewish) way to put on shoes: first right, then left, then tie the right, and tied the left. There is no reason for this, other than it allows the shod person to not have to think about it, so he can "concentrate on more important things."
Americans are convinced that more choice is better. I find that there are some people who are stymied by their freedom of choice. Always worried that they didn't get the best product or the best deal. How much worse can second best really be? When we bought our house we needed to have some contractors come in to fix some things before we moved in. I interviewed none of them. Instead I asked my friend Laura who she used, knowing that she had done a lot of work interviewing contractors. Maybe someone was better, or cheaper, but I'll never know and I am quite satisfied.

You shall not steal

Jacobs claims his father follows the 8th commandment "to the letter...he refuses to pull over at any old Holiday Inn or McDonald's to use the bathroom, not unless we buy something. Otherwise...we'd be stealing their soap and paper towels." I don't see it this way at all. People need to use the bathroom, and public restrooms are there for the purpose.

Gift giving

Haukkah and Christmas are not mentioned as holidays in the Bible, so Jacobs is "sitting out" the holiday season, except where buying gifts for his wife is concerned, which he explains will be pretty easy. "Julie is so absurdly organized, she always hands me a stack of catalogs with the gifts she wants circled in red Magic Marker and marked with Post-it notes." I've heard of many couples doing this sort of thing so as to make sure they get exactly what they want on gift-giving occasions. My husband and I have simplified this process to just buying for ourselves what we want, if we can afford it, and celebrating in other ways on holidays and birthdays. It makes for a much more calm holiday season. If I happen to see something my husband would like I just buy it and give it to him for no reason.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


Jacobs attends a couple of atheist meetings. The leader of the group uses the same language that I hear in Unitarian Universalist circles that leading a group of atheists is "like herding cats". "...go to an atheist meeting" says Jacobs "and you'll see why the religious lobby doesn't have to worry about the atheist lobby quite yet...It is hard to be passionate about a lack of belief." I was interested to read this, shortly after I read "More Atheists Shout it from the Rooftops" in the New York Times. Are more people getting passionate about it in the few years since Jacobs wrote his book, or did two different writers see the same thing in different ways?

Giving Thanks

As an agnostic Jacobs begins his biblical year very hesitantly when it comes to prayer, but within a few months he grows into it. He is especially adept at prayers of thanksgiving (as opposed to those of adoration, confession, and supplication) and says grace before his meals. He does not stop, however, with thanking God. He continues "I'd like to thank the farmer who grew the chickpeas for this hummus. And the workers who picked the chickpeas. And the truckers who drove them to the store. And the old Italian lady who sold the hummus to me at Zingone's deli and told me 'Lots of love.' Thank you." This passage actually brought a tear to my eye, and a smile to my face. It is reminscent of a poem (Food Meditation) by Barbarajene Williams that I read the first time I attended a Quaker meeting in South Texas. It remains my favorite poem. Jacobs and Williams both explain how food tastes better if you remember those who brought it to you. Thanking everyone who brought the food also slows down the meal, so it can be enjoyed better. My family sometimes remembers to do this, and sometimes not. My husband and I do always try to remember to "thank the farmers" when we have our morning cup of joe.

Remember the Sabbath

Jacobs has a hard time keeping the Sabbath. The temptation to check his e-mail is just too strong. I do not have this problem. I rarely check my e-mail on the weekends. It is hard in America for anyone to keep the Sabbath, regardless of which day of the week one observes as the Sabbath. Since I am not an especially religious person my desire to keep the Sabbath has little to do with setting aside time to worship (although I do attend UU church on most Sundays) and more to do with having a "day of rest". When I was in college I worked in a bookstore that was closed on Sundays, as were most retail establishments in Maryland prior to 1987. I loved Blue laws. I knew I would always have Sunday off (except for at Christmastime). Petitioners started showing up at the mall though and getting people to sign asking that the blue laws be repealed. They told us that we had "right to work on Sunday" - huh? Anyway, eventually they got their way, and I got a regular office job with weekends off. I rarely shop on Sunday even now. I think people should have more time off.

Monday, May 4, 2009

50 Memoirs

Library Journal reviews 50 memoir titles. At least two are "year of" books - now on my list.


Jacobs is a self-admitted germophobe, so he particularly likes the rule not to touch women who are menstruating. Since in most cases he has no idea who has her period and who doesn't he takes this as a "brilliantly convenient excuse not to touch 51 percent of the population." I guess if a person is going about following all the rules that he is attempting to follow that people will just stop questioning what his reasoning is and just chalk him up to someone you don't want to hang around.

Spare the rod

Sometimes when I am having an especially trying time with my daughter I tell her I wished I believed in spanking. I only personally know two families who spank their children (or only two who admit to it anyway). It seems to be extremely un-PC, but recent surveys I have seen actually put the number at something like 30% of families who spank. Jacobs has a hard time with this rule. He doesn't want to spank his two-year old, but also wants to follow the Bible. He also wants to discipline his two-year old, and admits to being the pretty weak in that department, much to his wife's chagrin. This appears to be pretty common. I often find myself reminding my husband that he is being a pushover where our daughter is concerned. When she was born the nurse pointed out her little finger to us and correctly predicted that that was the one she would "wrap daddy around".