29 November 2006

When in Rome...

This JOI blogpost about Rome's Jewish community and intermarriage brought up old memories. Some very good ones of our brief contact with Jewish Rome--the world's best gefilte fish (in sweet-and-sour-tomato sauce), as part of a Shabbat dinner cooked by a wonderful older woman who lived within walking distance of the pensione where we stayed; wonderful melodies at the synagogue we went to that Friday night (founded by Jews who came mostly from Tripoli); the beautiful main synagogue and its museum...and some not-so-good ones, which I was moved to comment on there & repeat here:

On a previous visit to Italy, however, we were turned away from synagogue in Milan: we were asked whether we were Jewish, and being the honest person that he is, he replied that his conversion would take place in 3 weeks but he was not yet a Jew. "Sorry," said the 2 men doing security detail. "since we don't know you two--we could let her in, but not you." (One might wonder: how does having my word that I'm a Jew, versus his that he's not yet but is becoming one, make me inherently more trustworthy: there's something of the "All Cretans are liars" paradox here...)

"Didn't we just read in last week's Torah reading, 'There shall be one law for you, both for the stranger and for the native citizen'?" They were unmoved, but I was beginning to cry. So we left, and rejoined the rest of my family sightseeing in Milan's cathedral on a Shabbat morning, instead of in synagogue.

Luckily, that was the only time in our visits to synagogues abroad (Israel, Greece, England) and in the U.S. as a mixed couple that we were not made welcome as a couple because one of us was not Jewish. But that one casual rejection cut deeply: I'm glad we didn't have to endure it in a place where we're looking for community, and I feel for those who do. And I thank all those in my Jewish community in Arlington, VA (at what is Congregation Etz Chayim) for looking at my non-Jewish father, Jewish mother, and us 3 kids and seeing a family who's part of their community--not an outsider, a transgressor, and 3 future "victims" of assimilation whose Judaism will never stick.

I'm not going anywhere. :)

But I'm also not going to reject or abandon the non-Jewish members of my family and my husband's family, or parts of our past experiences that have to do with non-Jewish religion, in order to be where I am or go where I'm headed.

01 November 2006

More on tallit, tefillin, etc...

[from a note to an interesting Yahoo Group just a few days ago:]

With an anecdote, and a promise to say more soon (I first wore a tallit & kippah at my youngest brother's bar mitzvah, Parshat Vayera in 1991, and am going to give a dvar torah for that parshah in 2 weeks that deals with women & time-bound mitzvot[TBM]/ritual garb).

I just came back from the USCJ Seaboard Region Biennial Convention--which was happenening at the same time as Youth Director/USY and Kadima (youth group) staff training, so all of us enjoyed spirited davening & Shabbat meals together. I was the youngest among the non-Youth Director types (I'm 32, the next-youngest was a 42-yr-old woman who's president of her congregation; one or 2 of the Youth Directors looked to be older than me), who generally ranged from mid-50s/60s up to near 90.

I noticed on Friday night that the convention women were ALMOST ALL wearing kippot (sometimes girly ones, wire with beads, etc--but definitely kippot, not doilies, and only a hat or 2 to be seen--one on the 90-year-old--sometimes for fashion & with some other kippah etc underneath), and none of the younger women (20s & 30s) except me were doing so. On Saturday morning a glorious array of beautiful tallitot were to be seen, not just on the women (though we have the best ones!) but also on the men--and not only were ALMOST ALL of the convention women (and our honored speaker/scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Naomi Levy) wearing tallitot, but I'd say the #s of non-tallit-wearers were almost equal among the men and the women: there were a few guys not wearing tallit (not their custom before marriage? left theirs at home & there weren't extras brought? don't always wear one & didn't feel strongly about it? I don't know!) and a few women not wearing tallit.

Among the youth director/advisor contingent, only 2 women were wearing tallit + kippah: one who looked to be in her mid-40s, and one younger woman (who had not been wearing a kippah Friday night); there were also a few guys in that contingent not wearing tallit, but the ratio was nowhere near the same. I was pretty fascinated by this difference between the age groups/contingents, and had some guesses about some reasons that might account for it...but I was interested in talking with the older women about why they wore tallit/kippah (and when/why they started) and to the younger women about why they didn't.

So, after having some nice conversations with the older women on the former point, I took the opportunity at a meal on Sunday to ask the regional youth director (who headed up that part of the program & had moderated a panel I was on that morning, and had led some of the davening on Shabbat) about what I'd noticed --

and she burst out: "You're the THIRD person who's asked me about it!!!! I don't wear a tallit & kippah & tefillin & I'm proud of it!!!!"

(later said it's not that she's proud of it or making a statement, it's just not the way she grew up & so she's not comfortable doing it, but she also thinks that for younger women who have always known it's an option it's not as big a deal as for these older women who are reclaiming something in Judaism that had always been denied them as forbidden to women)

But I just wanted to highlight the switcheroo there: she felt pressure because she was being asked by others "why aren't you doing these things?" (i.e., this is the norm for our crowd: involved egalitarian Conservative Jews who are women) rather than, as many of us have been asked in other contexts, "why are you doing these things?" (i.e., this is not the norm for involved/observant Jews who are women).

One person was asking her with a critical agenda, but I think others of us were just curious (though I would hope to persuade her to try wearing tallit--I'll certainly send her my dvar torah when it's done). But she got the message that the rest of us don't take it for granted that not being TBM-obligated is the norm (or that you can recognize yourself as TBM-obligated but particularly neglect the ones that have been or seemed traditionally male).

Similarly, when daveners (men or women, and it IS women as often as men!) choose to daven the amidah option without the matriarchs (since our siddur, the revised Sim Shalom ["Slim Shalom"], gives both options), I ask them why they don't. Their assumption often is that the default is without matriarchs--often, it has been for them, and so they're "not comfortable" or "haven't practiced" adding them (they don't usually have an ideological/halakhic reason, though they certainly could)--whereas in our community, it really is becoming (if it hasn't already become) the norm to include them, so that the dominant question becomes "why are you omitting the imahot?" (or, more neutrally "not using the names of the imahot":"not adding them" tips the rhetorical balance the other way) rather than "why am I including/adding them?"

Tefillin trials and triumphs

[written 10/15/06; another placeholder/catch-up entry]

I laid tefillin for the very first time today. M. and I got to services sometime in Birkhot HaShachar [the morning blessings--pretty early on but not the very first thing], and he took out his tefillin, and I took out "mine" (my brother's: he lives in Singapore, and the last time we were home in Louisville, where his tefillin have been languishing unused, I asked if I could take them to DC and borrow them for now--he said sure). I watched what he did, followed his lead on the shel yad [the one for the hand], listened for his whispered instructions when I wasn't sure; I discovered that my brother's tefillin shel rosh [the one that goes on your head] was way way way too big in circumference, and I didn't know how to make it tighter on the spot (didn't seem like a slip knot--needs un-and re-tying?), so I just settled for trying to tuck the back of it under my hair and keep the whole thing from slipping down onto the top of my glasses. I had just finished up the shel yad, got my nice letter-shin shape on the back of the hand, was figuring out how to tuck the last end bit under the wrapped sections on the palm side and feeling pretty pleased, looking forward to saying a shecheyanu for this new experience....

When A Man In A Position of Clerical Authority came up to burst my bubble. "You've got it on wrong. It's a slip knot--you need to go against the slip knot" (re: the shel yad, which I'd done as M. did it.) "And this is too loose" (re: the shel rosh; "I know," I said, "It's not mine and I haven't done this before, which you can probably tell.") So I took it off, reversed it (and so did M., even thought I think he'd probably been doing his wrapping however he's done it for the past X years, even if he hadn't done it recently?), and rewrapped down to the hand, only to be told, "You don't have it wrapped 7 times" (I didn't realize that doing one above the elbow didn't count) and "It's going to slip, because you didn't wrap it straight, and it's not tight" (actually, it didn't slip, and it was tight enough to be uncomfortable-ish and make me feel like my left arm was quasi-immobilized all through services: I figured if it wasn't turning red or purlple, though, I was probably okay). He took the straps and did the wrapping of the hand for me--"see, you want it to be loose over the finger"--doing a serviceable but much less aesthetically pleasing job leaving me a rather middle-heavy raggedy letter-shin shape on the back of the hand. I finished it up, and then went over to ask him in a whisper whether there was anything I could do to tighten the shel rosh: could he help me? "I can't deal with that right now," was the reply.

I was glad to be laying tefillin, but it wasn't much of a fun experience. It's a good thing I have a thick skin (only figuratively: my literal skin is quite thin & subject to bruising, probably more so than my ego etc.), but this was not a first-tefillin-laying that's likely to encourage anyone, especially women (why are you doing this? you've never even handled these before: what makes you think you have any clue?), lay tefillin. I don't recall whether any other women there besides the ones who are ordained clergy of one sort or another were wearing tefillin there this morning: I think not.

Since the time that I wrote the above, I have layed tefillin 2 more times. Each time has gotten better. I'll keep going!

And for anyone who missed Tefillin Barbie, you really do need to check her out. (There's still time to make a bid in her eBay auction!)

Joy and Its Opposite(s)

So busy, such ups and downs: moments of transcendence, moments of utter banality, moments of near-despair.

As a consequence, I haven't blogged things I'd like to. So I guess for now what I can do is offer bits & bobs of things I've been saying, but meant or wanted to say more eloquently. And may someday.

But the best is the enemy of the good. And done is better than not done. So here's something I wrote on a friend's blog, in response to his post on Joy
[I begin by quoting a piece of his post]:

this goddamn soul-crushing American fear of wasted time—the relentless drive to be productive at every moment of the day. Not to oversleep. Not to take a vacation that is longer than ten days, lest your life fall apart completely in your absence.

Two thoughts, one negative, one postitive:

1) When I read this section of your post, I thought immediately of what Auden diagnosed in us moderns--what I recognized all too well in myself on first reading it--in "In Praise of Limestone":

Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell.

But I also take comfort in his solution/offer of another perspective:

In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

2) And yet, there is a positive version of the desire to make each moment productive--not unreflectively productive of more Gross National Product, but of whatever it is that one most truly values. Love. Joy. Freedom. Choice. Beauty. It can come at too high a cost--and many devotees of Pater's gem-like flame could use some of Auden's relaxed approach--but I have always been drawn to his appeal to make each moment a significant one:

Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, -- for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world.... Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.
(Conclusion to The Renaissance: online at http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/pater/renaissance/conclusion.html)

On another note, I find this simple language of the natural world almost unbearably poignant:

on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening

or, from the Biblical prophetic writings (Jeremiah 2:2; loose translation):

you followed after me in the wilderness, in a land unsown

I've often felt that I don't know what to do, scarcely know who to be, or how I am to make my way in this world.

But as long as there are such words, such feelings, in it...I'll be all right, we'll be all right.

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

(I love Hopkins so much...poor God-wracked GMH, crying so often not What I do is me but rather, out of those depths the psalmist knew as well, the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed...)

And yet another way of seeing it, from the chassidic tradition:

Reb Zusya said: In the world to come, I shall not be asked, "Why were you not Moses?" I shall be asked, "Why were you not Zusya?"

I know I'm not Moses, or Elizabeth Bishop, or Helen Vendler, or Abraham Joshua Heschel...

I may not be sure of what it means to be Rebecca B. (and I've had different conceptions of the matter over time) -- but I do have some sense...and I owe it to myself and to others to try to find out...

rather than to try to remake myself in some ready-made, readily-approved form -- a doll, or series of dolls, plastic but not pliable: Successful Lawyer Barbie, Star Professor Barbie, Mother of Precocious Darlings Barbie, Big-Shot Mover and Shaker Barbie...

Hold fast to that joy. And to the search for it. And to what it makes you. Hold on.

Hazak hazak v'nithazek: let us be strong and let us strengthen each other.