Monday, August 24, 2009

Julia Child, Good Food, and a Mitzvot

This will be a longer blog than normal.
I promise, this one is worth it. It might even change your life.

(I know that’s manipulative. But I’m a preacher. Without manipulation, how could we do our work? Give me a break!)

My daughter, Talitha, wanted to see a movie the other night. Julie and Julia, a chick flick if ever there was one! I agreed. I love her and wanted to spend some time with her.

I prepared to be bored.

“At least it is a true story,” I said to myself.

The advertisements and trailers all had their time and then the chick flick began.

A young lady named Julie is turning thirty. She compares herself with her friends. They all have promising and ego-enhancing careers. She doesn’t.

The weeks go by. She moans to her husband: “Life isn’t going anywhere. I have no focus. I’m a failure.”

One evening, as her husband oohs and ahhs over her beef bourguignon, she begins telling a story from her childhood. Her mother, in a panic about what to fix her husband’s boss, had prepared a recipe from Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking. Julie remarks to her husband how proud she was of her mother that night, how delicious the meal had been ,and how much she loves Julia Child.

Suddenly, she gets an idea: she will work her way through every single recipe of Julia Child’s book. She will also blog about her experience.

So she begins. Each day she prepares a new dish.

The weeks go by.

Her only reader, apparently, is her mother. Her blogs are going out into the blogoshere without provoking a response. Her workday has become difficult because of her self-inflicted burden. Her husband is eating Tums and angry because of the diminished quality of their sex life.

Meanwhile, we are treated to flashbacks from Julia Child’s life. We watch her trying to convince first the French, then the Americans, that anything good will come from sharing the culinary delights of Paris with Middle America.

For Julia Child the years go by without acclaim or recognition. The same thing is evidently happening to Julie.

Bored yet?

Well, watching Julie and Julia waste their lives on such trivia without a sex scene, a car chase or some gruesome destruction of a human body to break the monotony– that is a tailor-made movie disaster! How can I expect you not to be bored with this blog about such a movie?

Ok, then. The punch line.

Gradually, Julia Child trains Julie how to cook. The task Julie flippantly undertakes in order to have a subject to blog about, teaches her how to become a real cook.

A. J. Jacobs did this same thing, twice. First, he decided to read the Encyclopedia Britannica – all of it! The notes he took while reading became a wonderful and very funny book, The Know It All. Then, after a rest, he decided to read through the Bible, obeying literally every single commandment and teaching of the Holy Scripture, Old and New Testaments, for a year. His notes from that experience became The Year of Living Biblically.

So there’s something going on in our culture about people assuming tasks and experiences that promise to expand their lives in some way.

The Jews call it a mitzvot. It is a path or a discipline one undertakes for a season in order to “put on” some new habit, skill, or knowledge.

Now that I think about it, I have had some experience with this.
The year was 1979. I was 26.

I had not completed high school and was wondering around the world speaking to little churches in North and South America. I was married. I had a young child to support. I had to find a job for a few months, make some money to tide me over until my next preaching appointment.

My father had once sold insurance. Maybe I could do that too. However, the woman at the office said that I needed a high school diploma.

So, I went to the Kanawha County Board of Education building. I talked to some woman there dressed in a pant suit and pearls about getting a GED. She told me where and when the next test would be administered.
I don’t remember the taking the test. I just remember how nervous I was the day I returned to get my score. I wondered if I had passed. The woman with the answers didn’t help me at all. She just stared at me and shook her head.
“Did I pass? Did I get my GED?” I asked her.
“Sir,” she replied as she glared at me over the tops of her glasses, “these scores tell me that you should be in college. Don’t waste your life doing menial and low-paying jobs! Do what you have to do and go back to school!”
“College? Me?” I wondered as I went home to tell Trish.
Anyway, the main thing was that I could now sell insurance!
A few days later, Trish showed me an article in the Reader’s Digest. It was about adults who had earned college degrees through self-study. The University of the State of New York had a program for people like me.
“You should do it,” Trish said. “The woman at the Board of Education said that you should do it. You read all the time. Why not try?”
But where would I begin?
A few days later, I saw an advertisement in a magazine from The Book of the Month Club. They were offering Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization in 11 volumes for only twenty-five dollars. All I had to do was agree to purchase a number of books over the next few years.
That was a good deal. I bought tons of books anyway! So I filled out the card. I dropped it in the mailbox. Then I waited.
When the volumes arrived at my house, I just stared. The huge, thick, heavy volumes just stared me in the face, mocking me, just as Goliath must have taunted David in the Valley of Elah.

(Ok that’s a bit of melodrama. It’s just to keep your attention.)

Sometime that week, I began volume one, Our Oriental Heritage.

Several months later, I began volume two, The Life of Greece.

We moved to Montreal. The books went with us.

I kept reading.

Nearly four years later, I finished volume 11, The Age of Napoleon.

By that time, I had also passed a GRE subject examination. The University of the State of New York rewarded forty credit hours for that accomplishment. I was well on my way to earning a B.A with an emphasis in History.

In 1982, I received my B.A. I had earned 210 credits. The University had to send me a registered letter asking me politely, “don’t you ever intend to graduate?”

I had only needed 120 credits for my degree.

Oh, well. Now I had specialties in History, Sociology and Spanish Literature!

The following year, I began my M.A. The California State University was offering a Masters in Humanities for people like me, who studied on their own while working and raising a family.

I have never stopped learning since.

I am convinced that the foundation for all my graduate and post-graduate training, my brief career as a college professor , the books I have written – everything I have done professionally for over thirty years – all have their roots in the mitzvot I assumed that day I opened the box of books from Book of the Month Club.

A mitzvot, undertaken joyfully (and carried through until its mentoring role is complete) is transformational.

After seeing Julie and Julia, I have been wondering: what would happen if hundreds of people in our church would carefully chose a mitzvot for 2010? What if we would chose some challenging but doable task, commit to that task for the specified amount of time, make ourselves accountable to a friend or group of friends, give continual reports of our progress, and persevere through the inevitable boredom and ‘I-want-to-give-up times” until it is finished.

What would that do?

I think we should find out.

We have several months to choose a good mitzvot. Each of us can think of something we have always wanted to do, something we have intended to learn, some way we have planned to serve, some action that is deeply connected to our passion for life. We keep putting it on hold.

But why not this year? Why don’t we do it this year?!

Give it a date to begin, tell our friends – so they know what to get us for Christmas – and just do it, finally!
What’s in it for me?
Well, I was thinking; perhaps someone will chose to work their way through a cookbook and ask me over several times a month.

1 comment:

stacy beam said...

Great blog! I'm thinking about my Mitzvot right now.