Yes we have had some rain

After years of little more than an occasional storm, we had quite a series of storms, and they were big ones. The Sacramento River is mighty once again!

riverfront-homes

The view is from Old River Road, which is usually high above the water level. So are those houses. Now they are really riverfront properties in a perhaps overly literal way.

The river does not flood its banks, however, due to a remarkable piece of 1916 engineering called the Sacramento Weir and its manually operated gates. Last week was the first time this had been opened in over a decade.

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(short video; click to open in a new window and play)

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That is Old River Road running over the Weir, and parallel to it, the Sierra Northern Railway.

When the river reaches a certain level, the gates of the Weir are open and the overflow spills into the vast tract of low land known as the Yolo Bypass.

yolo-bypass

The levees around the river and the bypass protect not only houses, but farmland. For instance, this recently planted nut grove (walnuts, probably) that is directly across Levee Road from the bypass. grove-beyond-levee

Below is a photo of the Sacramento River looking upstream. Those trees are growing on the steep bank of the normally dry levee.

sac-river-upstream-view

The Sierra Northern crosses another section of the bypass that is fed by a weir farther upstream. Here it is on a trestle that is normally high above the wetlands. A road runs through there, but at ground level, which is, for now, now well below water level. (View from the I-5 causeway.)

sn-railway-trestle

 

 

 

 

Tartu Torah

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Today at sundown begins Shemini Atzeret, which I alluded to in my earlier entry. In communities that mark one day of Yom Tov, this holiday is merged with Simchat Torah. In two-day communities (meaning non-Reform congregations outside Israel) the holidays remain separate. Or, more accurately, second-day Shemini Atzeret is the day on which Simchat Torah is observed. While I am more of a “one-day” person, this is the holiday(s) for which I make something of an exception. Both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah deserve their day in the sun (or in the rain, as the case may be).

In honor of Simchat Torah, I am sharing two photos of an amazing experience from Tartu, Estonia. The experience occurred more than six years ago, but for whatever reason I do not think I have ever told it (at least not on line). Tartu to the hometown of Rein Taagepera, and we were visiting him during one of this extended stays back in his original university home. We enquired about Jewish communities and history.

Estonia never had as large a Jewish community as nearby lands, but most of it was destroyed due to the Nazi occupation. We were able to meet with two women, one young (and English speaking) and another much older with memories of the war period. So we heard the stories if what was, and what little is. One of the more remarkable things we were told was that the University of Tartu library had a Torah scroll from the pre-war era.

With help of locals, we were able to get a librarian to retrieve it from the archive. It took a while to find. It probably had not been opened for a very long time. We unrolled it. What a beautiful scroll. I hope it can be used by a community again some day, or at least put on display. The Torah never deserves to collect dust in a basement. It is part of the cycle of life, and on Simchat Torah, we end. And we begin.

tartu-torah-open

Beautiful, and not so beautiful, fruit. And the coming of rain.

Today is the last day of Sukkot, the day known as Hoshannah Rabah. This day might be my favorite holiday, even granting that it is not technically a holiday (in the no-work, Yom Tov sense). Beating one’s willow twigs against a hard surface is quite fun and satisfying, actually. It has deep mystical origins.

Moreover, our forecast calls for rain tomorrow. Sometimes the rain really arrives on time.

Hoshannah Rabah, in Jewish tradition, is the day the world is judged for rain. And tomorrow, Shmini Atzeret, is the day we insert the prayer for rain every morning (till Pesach/Passover in spring).

We had some rain the day before Sukkot began, but it was just a tease. Fortunately it’s been great weather all week for dwelling in the sukkah, though it’s been quite chilly in the mornings! But a shift towards a wet pattern in the coming first post-Sukkot week week appears quite certain now.

[Aside: If you are one of my liberal and/or rationalist oriented readers, the idea of a ritual and prayers about rain probably strike you as… weird. So, let me ask: Do you recognize that our collective acts can have impact on the climate? So do I! And so have the scribes and teachers of the Jewish religion. So much so that one of the central statements of this idea appears in the Torah, at Deuteronomy 11: 13-17, and has been part of daily Jewish prayer services for generation upon generation. it is also “inscribed on the doorposts” via our homes’ mezuzot. These passages about climate consequences are in the second person plural in the Hebrew for a reason. The link at the end of the first paragraph above concludes with a personal postscript by the author about how this day’s service at one time did not sit well with his rational instincts, but has become a favorite, as it has for me.]

Of course, Sukkot is a seven-day festival. I am doing this blog post from our sukkah, enjoying the light patterns and rustling from wind in the trees.

In addition to the willow and myrtle twigs and palm-frond spine that make up the lulav, the festival is closely associated with the etrog (citron). Jewish tradition demands the finest examples of this unusual but beautiful citrus for use during Sukkot.

I never knew that there was some chance that the Christmas fruitcake tradition had some connection to the etrog before reading a fascinating post on Hard Core Mesorah.

I do want to correct one thing in the post, however, which is based on a common misconception about fruit hybridization.

[The etrog is] a fruit that must be grown intentionally, with careful planning involved. It is not incidental at all. This is because the etrog is a pure species of citrus fruit. It is one of the only three pure species of citrus fruit, the fruits that are only indigenous to Asia; they are the Mandarin, the Pomelo and the Etrog (citron). All other species of citrus fruits from our navel oranges to our tangerines are just crosses of these species. Citrus fruit so easily cross pollinate that there are a myriad of varieties of citrus fruit. Those of you who have citrus trees in your backyard know this, if you have various kinds they often mix and your tree comes out covered with mutations of orange and lemons for example.

Mostly fine, except that last point. If you have backyard citrus, you may indeed have seen a tree that produces both whatever you expected (an orange, a mandarin, a grapefruit, etc.) and some ugly hard-skinned lemon-like fruit. But that is not because of cross-pollination from another nearby type of citrus. If this happens, it is probably because the variety was grafted on a rootstock of ‘rough lemon’ (which is very commonly used, especially in older plantings). If the rootstock sends up a sucker from below the graft union, any resulting limb will produce a fruit that lives up to the name, rough lemon. (Cut these suckers off before they get that mature!)

Cross-pollination does not change the nature of the current generation of fruit that a tree produces (unless we are talking about something like pollination-variant persimmons, but we are not). The hybrid that might result from cross-pollination can be seen only when the fruit of the tree that grows from the seed of the current tree appears.

So it is not correct that “Pollination from afar can take hold and mutate the fruit until it not at all distinguishable, and surely not fit for proper use as food or in ritual.” There are many reasons an etrog might be unfit for ritual use. It might grow too close to another fruit or branch and be deformed. It might get attacked by insects as it is developing. Most authorities would not permit an etrog from a grafted tree (which implies one indeed must take care to avoid cross-pollination with a different citrus if one is propagating trees for future generations of etrogim.)

OK, that is this year’s fruit and Jewish ritual post. (I used to do a lot of these; may I be inspired to do more in the new year.)

Chag sameach.

 

 

 

 

 

Last day

It is the last day of baseball season, and also the last day of the Jewish year, 5776.

Actually, it might not be the last day of baseball season–depending on what happens today. I am writing this just before all the “final” day’s games are about to begin. We could still have a tiebreaker game tomorrow in either league, and those count as regular season games. We could even have a game from the original 162-game regular season tomorrow–the Indians and Tigers will make up a rainout if either the Tigers remain in contention for a Wild Card slot or the Indians need the game to decide seeding in the Division Series. And, while the Mariners’ loss yesterday ended the dream of a four-way tie for the AL’s two Wild Card berths, a three-way tie is still possible. That scenario would mean the regular season make-up game tomorrow, followed by tiebreaker games Tuesday and Wednesday to eliminate one of the three. We’ve never had a three-way tie for a postseason berth. The Tigers (and their rivals) have to cooperate both today and tomorrow to get us there. Why not cling to the 2016 regular season just a little longer?

As for 5776, there is no question it is the last day, ready or not. We will get to mark the new year, Rosh HaShannah 5777, with first fruits from our land. The bowl shown here contains the first two pomegranates and jujubes of the season, picked today. The ‘Bartlett’ pear is also the first, though these need to ripen of the tree; I picked it several days ago, and it is just now about ready to enjoy.

29 Elul 5776 fruits//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

The bowl also contains small bunches of each of the red grapes of our property. I believe they are, from left to right, Syrah, Barbera, and Zinfandel. They were planted by the previous owner, so I am going by the map of the vineyard, which is not the easiest to read. The grapes are not “first” fruits, as we have been harvesting them for several weeks and are near the end now.

The pomegranates are, at top, an Ambrosia. It has split, as pomegranates often do, and may not actually be ripe yet. The other is an unknown variety–we have three, planted by the previous owner, and for only Ambrosia did a tag survive–and should be ripe. Here are some more Ambrosia on the tree, which set heavily this year, while the second photo below shows the other one, with a few of its lighter set.

Ambrosia 2//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Pom 2Oct2016//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

The jujubes (‘Jew Jew Be’) are the first ever to ripen here, on a tree planted two years ago. They are of the ‘GA866’ variety. Not the snappiest name, but a great-tasting variety that I also grew when we lived in the San Diego area. The tree has grown well; look closely at this photo and you might see the one remaining fruit. Yes, its first crop was just three fruits. One must start somewhere.

Jujube 2Oct2016//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js 

Shanah Tovah. May we have a sweet and fruitful 5777! And an exciting end of the (extended) regular season and postseason!

JD’s Switzerland trip (with photos!)

In February I spent a weekend in Switzerland with a friend. We toured Basel and Bern, visiting the Federal Assembly and the legislatures of two cantons, and also witnessed campaigning for a number referendums (and more!) that would be held the next week.

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On electronic displays this poster showed up as a gif, with the trucks rushing through

On the federal level (and in similar terms in most Cantons and municipalities), Switzerland has two types of citizen-initiated referendum:

  • Votes on ‘popular initiatives’, which amend the constitution. These require the gathering of 100,000 signatures in no more than 18 months. To be approved in the referendum, they require both an overall majority of those voting and a majority of Cantonal votes.
  • ‘Optional’ or ‘facultative’ referendums, which concern recently-enacted federal laws (I like to call these veto-referendums). These require the gathering of 50,000 signatures (or 8 Cantons – though I don’t think this happens in practice) in no more than 100 days from the publication of the act in question. For the act to be vetoed it merely requires to be rejected by a majority of those voting.

    IMG_6591

    A striking multilingual poster near the Basel docks

When we visited there were four federal referendums about to be held, of which three were popular initiatives and one was an optional referendum. As it happened, all four votes would follow the government’s official recommendation: rejection of all the initiatives and approval of the federal law.

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Central Bern, a protest against the popular initiative for the deportation of criminal migrants

The campaigns were very visible and there were posters were everywhere, both in public places alongside regular commercial advertising and on apartment balconies and small shops’ doors. We also saw many different leaflets, including some published by political parties. Far more visible than in the UK, which I also visited during the recent referendum – in London, the only sign I saw of the campaign were some flyerers at a tube station at rush hour on the day of the referendum.

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Cantonal referendum posters in Basel. Note the middle one, sponsored by the Liberal Democratic Party

(As a side note, Switzerland has virtually no regulation of campaign finance, either on the federal or cantonal level. I wonder if that had anything to do with it.)

A number of Cantonal referendums were held on the same day as the federal ones, and we saw posters for these in both Basel and Bern.

We visited three legislative buildings:

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Basel-City’s Canton/City hall

Basel-City’s late mediaeval rathaus (city hall), home to the cantonal legislature which also serves (with the exception of a handful of members) as city council. Unfortunately, we were not able to see the chamber, as the tour clashed with our visit of the Federal Assembly in Bern.
Secondly, Bern’s legislature, the Grosser Rat/Grand Conseil. As far as we could tell there were no regular tours; we were let in by the janitor.

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The Bernese legislature, the Grand Council

Switzerland generally has relatively large legislative chambers. Basel-City, with a population of just under 200,000, has 100 seats, almost double what it should have per cube root; Bern, with a population of  just over a million, has 160, 60% over cube root. The Confederation as a whole is just right with 200 in the lower house for a population of 8.3 million.

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The Federal Assembly’s National Council 

The federal legislature is spectacular. The picture here is of the lower house, the National Council. The upper house, the Council of States, was more difficult to get a good photo of so here’s a link; the wall painting is of a traditional ‘landsgemeinde’ or popular assembly that used to be common in rural areas. Today the practice persists as the form of government of two cantons, where the citizens meet once a year, while the agenda for that meeting, and most details of legislation, are prepared by an elected assembly. One of the members of the Council of States is still elected by their canton’s popular assembly every four years.

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Poster with the candidates of the Socialist/Social-Democratic (depending on whether you translate from French or German) Party in the executive by-election of February 28th (and ultimately also April 3rd for the second round)

Lastly, in Bern, we saw a poster for another campaign – we weren’t sure when we saw it, but it turned out to be for a by-election over two positions in the cantonal executive. Unlike the federal government, the cantonal executive councils are directly elected, mostly (as in Bern) through a two-round system, though proportionally in some cantons. The unusual thing in Bern is that there is one seat reserved for the French-speaking minority of the Bernese Jura – and this seat was one of the two up in the by-election. But, even more interestingly, it turns out this seat is not just reserved to candidates from that region, but the winner is the candidate with the higher geometric mean between the vote total in Bernese Jura and the canton as a whole – a fascinating and likely unique arrangement!

 

 

Interesting cloud feature today

It’s been a mostly cloudy day. But really, only here. Most of the Central Valley and northern California region has actually been clear. This narrow cloud band has been parked over our area almost all day.

sat_narrowband_clds_10june2016
(Screen shot from NWS satellite image)

Here is what it looks like from ground level.

Narrow cloud band 10June2016

With the help of the satellite image, I can now be certain that the straight line direction down the middle of this cloud band is looking more or less right at Marin County. At the tiome that I took the photo (around noon), the band was crossing the shore just between Point Reyes and the Golden Gate. It has been slowly creeping southward, but very slowly. We are now (almost 3:00 p.m.) just under the band’s northern edge, and a re-check of the satellite imagery shows it is crossing the shore directly over the Golden Gate–and also even narrower.

Underneath it here, the temperature has been in the lower/mid 80s, a welcome relief from the 100+ temperatures we had earlier in the week. The fruit trees are certainly a lot less stressed today.

Shemini Atzeret, 5776

Shemini Atzeret is a holiday dedicated traditionally to a core Jewish principle–so core it is at the center* of daily morning prayers (although not in a Reform prayerbook, unfortunately): that our actions affect the climate, including whether we get the rainfall we need. It’s not a crazy liberal-lefty idea; it’s an ancient religious one, more relevant toady than ever.

An article in JTA, “Why Shemini Atzeret is the pinnacle of the High Holidays season“, summarizes why I find the “closing” holiday of this season so meaningful. It is sad, in a way to me, that it starts with the phrase, “You might not know it…” Indeed, the holiday seems almost unknown to many Jews who do not engage in synagogue life or who do so through a Reform framework.** Knowledge of the meaning of the holiday is not helped by the fact that Simchat Torah–which really just originated as a way to celebrate second-day Shemini Atzeret in the Diaspora–has taken over the original holiday’s purpose, especially but not only in Reform Jewish communities in the US. Yet it is actually a holiday with a very important, central message, to be celebrated and taken seriously in its own right.

Chag sameach.

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* See the section at that link that is from Deuteronomy 11.

** Nothing against Reform, per se. They get many things right, including not having two days of holidays (other than Rosh HaShannah).