Friday, March 30, 2012

A Good Marine Corps Day

So last week’s post was a little bit of a downer.  Sorry.  Some weeks are like that.

This week was awesome on the chaplain front.  While I still have no official office or work location, I get to work with a lot of different people on a few different bases.  Covering a huge swath of the 3rd Marine Logistics Group can be incredibly overwhelming, and that’s where I was writing from last week.  This week, on the other hand, was pretty great.

I didn’t save a single soul from eternal damnation, but I saved one Marine from making a truly terrible decision that could have had dire effects on his future career, his physical and medical health, and his family.  As my conversations are to the same level of confidentiality that one should expect from a Catholic priest, I cannot discuss exactly what I did and what we talked about: that said, he came up to me!  He didn’t have to, but he told me his whole story, his struggles, his problems: and he took my guidance!  It was awesome.

The non-military rabbis and chaplains reading this are probably going nuts now.  We’re taught in seminary to stay away from “solutions based counseling”.  The Navy and Marine Corps have a very different philosophy:

SgtMaj:  Fix my Marine, sir.
Chaplain:  Does your Marine want to be fixed?
SgtMaj:  Fix my Marine, sir.
Chaplain:  It takes time, and counseling, and dedication on all sides.
SgtMaj:  Fix my Marine, chaps.
Chaplain:  You seem to really want your Marine “fixed”?  Fixed is an interesting word, why do you think of him as broken?   What would fixed look like?
SgtMaj: Fix my Marine now, or I’ll fix him.
Chaplain:  Roger that, SgtMaj.

The Marine Corps expects results.  The command deck wants a chaplain on board who can help out immediately and get Marines back to work.  No command support = no ability to provide care.

If Marines don’t think you can fix their problems or provide aid, they don’t go to you unless they are forced to.  If you help one person and he/she feels that they had a positive experience – they tell their friends.  I got my ear into the rumor mill this week, and they’re saying pretty good things about me in the E-2 – E-4 group.  If they have a problem, they want to know how I can help them fix it.  The first example is the one above.  The second example, I’m more proud of.

A few days ago, a Marine walked into my office to ask me a lot of questions.  There were marriage questions and questions about transitions.  Near the end of our conversation, he asked me for guidance about premarital sex.  That never would have happened in the congregational world.  I loved the majority of my rabbis, but it is never an idea I would have brought to their attention.  This guy was not Jewish, not religious, and not a virgin. But he WAS prepping for his marriage and feeling that I was a safe guy to talk to about it!  He asked me as a religious leader, as a Jewish person, and as a man – what I thought about premarital sex. 

And that was a good day.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Living in a Bubble

I feel so disconnected:

I find myself reading the New York Times everyday, scanning and browsing for articles that might interest me even a little bit.  And yet – it feels as if the world is happening an ocean away.

The military has a very special way of keeping me informed about what is happening in the world.  I get a pretty thorough briefing on the unclassified events that are driving the world about once a week.  I don’t share and won’t share any of that information, but it’s not the really cool stuff that happens in locked away rooms in buildings that I don’t go to.   I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the briefing I get comes from Lance Corporals scanning their hometown newspapers and then cutting and pasting.  As for the juicy information that can only be found on WikiLeaks - you are looking at the wrong place if you are reading this blog expecting that kind of information.  Technically my clearance allows me to hear some of it, but I have enough problems with the stuff that I actually need to know.

I know Leora has written about the wonder that is AFN TV. While we often fast-forward through the commercials, during every commercial break there is some sort of news update.  The Pentagon puts out the Pentagon Channel update with a very severe Marine telling me what is happening in the military world.   The Navy puts out “All Hands Update:  Informing the Fleet”:  I have nothing but good things to say about PO2 Amara Timberlake and MC1 : these guys are alright.  The Air Force one wouldn’t be bad if it wasn’t Moustachioed March.  I’m not sure where it came from that everyone in the USAF needs a mustache in March, but getting my news from a creepy Senior Airman/70s porn star doesn’t inspire confidence in the news source.

But what they have to tell me is so military centric as to make me believe that nothing else is happening in the world.  I did a search to make sure that I could cover all the articles aired this week.  They include:
SecDef announces that there is no money in the budgets
A chaplain in the Maryland National Guard is doing really nice things for soldiers
It’s Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness Month
AsstSecDef announces that there is no money in the budgets
US/Japan marks 67th anniversary of Battle of Iwo Jima (and I was mad that I couldn’t go)
New Navy policies directed at alcohol abuse
Special Assistant to the SecDef announces that there is no money in budgets
Army Chief of Staff to congress: there is no money in our budgets.

I can search the news on my own, and I do.  That is the only way that I keep abreast of the Republican Primary News and the current state of Tebow-mania in Jersey.  I can live without Tebow-mania, but without my personal news perusal I would not have heard of the horrible events in France this week.  I am able to talk about it with some people on an intellectual level, but I miss the presence of other Jews with whom I can connect to about this on an emotional level.  Skype and Vonage are great, but not quite there.

Tonight is Shabbat.  We’ll be at the chapel in just a little bit of time; there’s a pot-luck dinner and we will be staying late to talk with anybody and everybody.

I hope to reconnect tonight.  I hope to feel part of the people of Israel again. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

わたしのにほんごのクラス (my Japanese class)

One of the things that scared me the most about moving to Japan was the complete impenetrability of the Japanese language. I’ve always been good with languages, but Japanese?! How could anyone possibly even begin to conquer Japanese?! But here I am, in Japan, and so I figured that I’d try.

Now, don’t get me wrong – there are definitely some things you can learn to say without taking a class. For instance, by my second or third day here, I was very good at saying good morning, good afternoon, good evening, and thank you. Why, you might ask? Every time Yoni and/or I enter a military installation (often many times a day) we are required to show our military IDs; 9 times out of 10, the guards checking IDs are Japanese. It’s not too hard to repeat back what they’re saying to you. In case you’re interested, here’s how it goes:

good morning: おはようございます (o-ha-yoo go-zai-mas)
good afternoon:こんにちは (kon-nichi-wa)
good evening:こんばんは (kon-ban-wa)
thank you: ありがとうございました (a-ri-ga-too go-zai-mas)

While I was happy to know how to be polite to our guards, I wanted to learn more than how to say good morning, so I enrolled in an actual class. The one I chose was a college-level Japanese course offered by University of Maryland – University College, a U of M extension school.  The semester was only 8 weeks long, but we met twice a week for three hours at a time. I guess you could call it a Japanese ulpan.

The class was not easy. For one thing, my teacher really didn’t like me, which is not exactly a position I’m accustomed to being in. Also, we covered a lot of material in each class. Missing a class or day-dreaming was not an option; if I had stopped paying attention for five minutes, I would have been lost for sure. And don’t forget that I had to learn two new alphabets! Yes, two. Actually, Japanese has three separate reading and writing systems: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. There are 46 basic characters each in Hiragana and Katakana, and thousands and thousands of Kanji. Our (very introductory) class did not touch Kanji, but we did learn to read and write Hiragana and Katakana almost immediately. We also learned some basic sentence structures and a lot of vocabulary, as you might imagine in a beginning language course.

Did I enjoy the class? I really did. It felt good to put my mind to use. It also feels good to be able to read some of the signs along the road; every once in a while I can even understand something! I can fluently ask “where is the bathroom” (two different ways!) and “how much does that hat cost”, and, if you give me a minute to think, I can even tell you that, yesterday, Yoni and I went to a restaurant to eat sushi. And, while she never came to like me exactly, by the end of the semester my teacher had come around a bit. But while I know so much more now than I did when I started, speaking Japanese still feels a million miles away.  I’m hoping to take the next session over the summer. In the meantime, I’m enjoying my basic decoding skills and creating sentences in my head. I'm not sure I'm ready to actually use my sentences out loud yet…but hey – one step at a time, right?

p.s. – if you are interested in more blog posts about learning Japanese, leave a comment and I will happily do a follow up post or series.

Friday, March 16, 2012

please check back on sunday

I had a really long day…and it ended with me accidentally (and unbeknownst to me) setting off our fire alarm. No, we didn’t have a fire, but the smoke detector is too close to the stove. Our apartment is currently full of Japanese firefighters and Yoni is being questioned by the military police. All of which is to say – I can’t really put together a blog post right now. But I promise to put something up on Sunday, so please check back then.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Short Conversation with the Command Chaplain

Sir, it’s possible that in the coming days you will hear reports of me dressed as a panda.  It’s possible there will be a picture in the OkiMar or Stars and Stripes.

A panda?

Yes, sir. A panda.

A panda?  The bear?

Yes, sir.  The black and white variety.

Were you dressed as a panda?

Yes, sir.  A panda with a red bow tie.

Why were you dressed as a panda with a red bow tie?

Religious observance, sir.

Religious observance?

Yes, sir.  Purim.

Purim?  Yes.  I saw the flier about it.  How did it go?

Pretty well, sir.  We had a turn out of about about 25-30 including kids.  Leora made hamentashen in the kitchen with most of the kids and some of the parents.  The megillah – the scroll from which we read the Book of Esther - came from California on time, and now we have a megillah on island for good.  And the shpiel went really well.


Yes, sir.  In our case it was a dramatic retelling of the story of Esther with brief pauses for classic Purim songs like “Once There was a Wicked, Wicked Man” and “In Shu- Shu- Shushan Long Ago (to the tune of Polly Wolly Doodle)”.  We also brought in clips from “Old Jews Telling Jokes”.

Old Jews Telling Jokes?

Yes, sir.  It’s awesome.

What kind of jokes?

They tell all sorts of jokes – some are inappropriate to the setting, but really funny (see: “The Confession”) – but they’re mostly Borscht Belt kind of jokes that you would expect old Jewish people to say.  I find them to be highly entertaining.

Would I find them funny?

It’s worth looking into, sir.

I’m sorry, why were you dressed as a panda?

Because it was Purim, sir.

Do all Jews dress up like Pandas?

Oh, no, sir.   Some dress up like characters in the Purim story, some dress up like it was Halloween without the ghouly aspects.  Leora dressed like a 1950s housewife; I dressed up like a panda.

A panda.

Yes, sir. A panda.

Very well.  Happy Purim.

Happy Purim, sir.

Friday, March 2, 2012

adventures in Japanese cooking

During our recent trip to Tokyo, Shula and I were lucky enough to stay with Rabbi Antonio DiGesu, the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan. A former student of my father’s, Antonio was pre-disposed to be a dutiful host, but he was so much more – gracious and welcoming and fun! He also made delicious, Japanese-style food.

Antonio has been in Japan since 2009, and does not have the luxury of living on a military base when it comes to easy access to American foods and ingredients. He has, however, applied a significant amount of time to becoming proficient in reading and speaking Japanese, and he uses those language skills to shop worry-free in Japanese supermarkets.

After Shabbat ended on Saturday night, Antonio took Shula and me on a “here’s what’s safe to eat at the supermarket” tour that was incredibly instructive. Some things were obvious: vegetables are vegetables (even if they’re different types than you’re used to, they’re safe to eat) and pork is still pork. But some foods that you would assume would be safe from a kashrut perspective are not. For instance, apparently all yogurt products in Japan contain gelatin. And almost any American snack food purchased in a Japanese supermarket (think Pringles, Ritz Crackers, etc) contains shrimp paste or something of the sort. It’s crazy and unfair all at the same time.

When it came to Japanese cooking ingredients (sauces, mixes, etc), I mostly resorted to taking pictures of the products Antonio declared safe, and hoping the same brands would be sold in our local supermarkets back on Okinawa. While having access to an American supermarket is a huge lifesaver, Yoni and I both really like Japanese food, and as long as we are here and have easy access to ingredients, I can’t find any reasons not to do a little experimenting. Also, Antonio had made a delicious tofu/vegetable soup that I found totally inspiring, and wanted to re-create at home.

When I got back to Okinawa, not all the products Antonio had pointed out were available, but some of them (including fabulous sweet and salty rice cakes) were. With a little extra help and the magic of the iPhone (one day I’ll write a blog about how magical my iPhone feels here), I was able to put together a Japanese soup that was similar in taste to the one Antonio served us.

What was in it, you ask?

The base was made of だし (dashi), a fish-stock that’s ubiquitous in Japanese cooking. There are many ways to make dashi, but I made it using what were basically tea bags.

I brought a big pot of water to boil, and then added the “tea bags” (one for every 3 cups or so), and allowed the boiling water to steep for 3-4 minutes. That’s it! Into the dashi went a seriously random assortment of vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, dried shiitake mushrooms, lotus root, really anything I could get my hands on), a bunch of dried kelp (for flavor, apparently), and some big chunks of tofu. Per Antonio’s instructions, I let the whole thing simmer for about an hour, and then took it off the heat and stirred in some miso paste.

To finish it off, I added a little bit of soy sauce, and removed the kelp. You can eat it, but it was in very big pieces and leaving it in the soup didn’t seem practical. And, by the way, the soup was delicious!

My next Japanese cooking project will, I think, be おにぎり (that would be Onigiri for all you non-Japanese readers out there). They look like this…

…and I love to eat them!

As to making them, though – I’m not sure. I’ll let you know how it goes. :)