27 May 2007

...sheg’malani kol tov (...who has granted me all kindness)

My husband and I got to "bentsh gomel" this morning at synagogue.

On Thursday night, returning after drinks with friends at a bar in theNew Haven neighborhood we used to live in (the "grad ghetto"), my husband and I were robbed at gunpoint. But we're fine--and that's the important part. His wallet, my purse and its contents, even my wedding ring (which is the loss that stings most to me right now: I'm just glad they didn't take my husband's, which is of the same design, commissioned from a jewelry-maker in Vicenza, Italy on a visit there a few months before our wedding, almost 10 years ago) -- these are just objects; these can be replaced or lived without. Human life? Irreplaceable.

Ritualwell posts the Birkat Ha-Gomel (traditional prayer of thanks recited by someone who has survived a dangerous situation) in both masculine and feminine God-language here.

May God bless and keep you...

There's a discussion going on over at the Shefa Network about Birkat Kohanim. Here's the 2 cents' worth I had to contribute:

For what it's worth, until 1991 (my first year of college) I had never been in a shul where Birkat Kohanim occurred at any point--and these were all shuls that DID give Kohen & Levi aliyot, not rishon & sheni.

At the student-led egalitarian Conservative high holiday services my roommate and I went to, she was apparently the only person (male or female) whose father was a kohen and so could perform Birkat Kohanim. Her parents had not been observant Jews and had raised her without much of a religious upbringing, but she had become far more interested in traditional Judaism and had in fact been keeping kosher since 10th grade (telling her parents she was becoming vegetarian, since bad blood between them & an Orthodox relative made her reluctant to thrust her new observance in their faces). In this case, the tradition of having the person pronouncing the blessing be "fed" it word by word had exactly the desired effect: having never performed this ritual before -- indeed, probably never having seen it performed before either -- she was able to convey this blessing to all of us, without concern about whether she would remember all of the words. It was a wonderful moment.

Since then, I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen birkat kohanim done in any shul of any sort*, but in many of those places it had been added to the practices of the shul or minyan relatively recently, having either never been done or not done within memory of anyone there.

Me, I can take it or leave it -- as with kohen-levi aliyot vs. rishon-sheni -- as long as all those whose fathers are kohanim or levi'im (i.e., including b'not kohen/levi) have these ritual roles/honors extended to them regardless of gender.

But I concur in the understanding that several have voiced here that birkat kohanim, which is extended through but not on behalf of the kohanim, need not be anathema in a shul that dispenses with kohen/levi aliyot -- as well as in thinking that other ways of conveying this blessing may also be valuable in making the members of the congregation feel the impact of receiving this blessing in some way that is more striking or immediate than its recitation by the shaliach as part of ordinary Amidah repetition.

* Those occasions were:
  • Rosh Hashanah at an egalitarian Conservative syagogue in Albany, NY (done by both women and men whose fathers are kohanim);
  • a Sukkot service of traditional egalitarian Conservative minyan members in a friend's backyard in Washington DC (both men and women whose fathers are kohanim -- though I heard some grumbling/challenging from some traditionalist men re: having a bat kohen up there);
  • high holiday services at a Conservative synagogue in Maryland (egalitarian shul, though only men were up there; according to one authority I asked afterwards, b'not kohen are also allowed to do so -- but I heard from others that at some point in the past a bat kohen had done so & then been given some grief about it);
  • chag services at Young Israel in Manhattan (Orthodox, not egalitarian, so only men);
  • Pesach services at a Chabah shul in Cleveland (ditto).

20 May 2007

"I Love Organized Religion"

You might think that all I do is rant about religious matters on some band's messageboard.

Some nights, I think you'd be right.

In response to one defense of Organized Religion, I felt moved to add:

In my circles, there are 20-and-30something Jews who are Too Cool For Shul and want to express their Jewish identity in various non-synagogue forms (which I have no problem with, and am sometimes part of) AND only talk trash about the established/pre-existing religious & cultural institutions (& why they can't be bothered to be part of them or work to improve them instead of Taking Their Toys & Going Home -- which I do have a problem with).

That's all well and good, while you're young & healthy & life's going well.

And yeah, you might rather hang out with each other right now than with the bourgeois mommies (and their aging mothers & dads) at the Big Suburban Synagogue I work at...

But that Big Suburban Synagogue has, among other things:

-- clergy who always take care of community members, visiting the sick in the hospital and the ill at home;
-- an active Social Action Committee whose projects feed the hungry, clothe the needy, cheer the wounded and lonely, and try to make the world a better place;
-- a Caring Committee that brings meals to members who are sick or who are in mourning;
-- a Special Needs Committee that tries to make sure that no one in the community is kept from being part of Jewish life & activities at the shul because of physical, developmental, or other handicaps or challenges

... and these forms of organization help its members care for one another.

Trash-tralking hipsters have the luxury of ignoring this structure in part because they expect it to be there for them if/when they need it -- not considering the fact that if they keep themselves aloof from it, it may not be.

Yeah, I know -- sounds like the opposite of my complaint 2 posts ago about the Organized Jewish Community not getting what 20-and-30-somethings are up to & why it won't kill them. Eilu v'eilu ("these and these [are the words of the living God]"; Eruvin 13b) -- there's truth to both.

"Be A Proud Jew": MiriyaB Gets Mad

She was a vixen when she went to school,
And though she be but little, she is fierce.

I put these lines from A Midsummer Night's Dream on my senior yearbook page. I have the feeling they continue to apply.

When I get mad, I get mad. And I just got mad.

Another Jewish member of one messageboard I'm part of posted this, under the heading ""Be a Proud Jew", So Says Ron Blomberg.......":

For those who never heard of Ron Blomberg, he played for the Yankees from 1969-1976. He was the first DH in MLB history, and happens to be Jewish.

He was doing a signing today in White Plains, NY and I took Sammy [his 6-yr-old son] to go see him. Sam has no idea who he is, but I do, and we got an autograph. We greeted him by saying Shalom, and I had told Sammy that he is Jewish. When we left Ron looked at Sam and said "be a proud Jew". It was great to hear this from a ballplayer of my youth, and even greater to know he has not forgotten his roots.

Among the replies from one of the other members of the board was the following:

"I thought most peeps had moved beyond ethno-cultural identification as a determinant of self.

I guess I was wrong."

I was Not Pleased. And let my Rather Extreme Displeasure be known in more or less the following words:

I thought most peeps might understand if another peep finds it meaningful that a childhood hero encourages them & their progeny in positively embracing an ethno-cultural identification that has, in the past century alone, been the basis for subjecting members of that group to legal discrimination, lynching, and genocide.

I guess I was wrong.

Besides that -- there's also nothing wrong with valuing a cultural, ethnic, and/or religious heritage for particular and specific positive elements within it. To say "Be a proud Jew" [Mexican, Pole, American...or heck, other identifiers of whatever distinguishing sort, particularly if ever stigmatized by others: queer, fat girl, weirdo] is, to me, a perfectly acceptable shorthand for not hating what others have used as a reason to hate, and finding the elements in that identity (which is never, and need never be, your sole identity or an impediment to your individuality--it is, rather, a part of your individuality) that you value and embrace.

I'm sure it means different things to different people -- me, my husband (a convert to Judaism), any kids we may have, etc. -- but to be free to embrace that aspect, along with others? Not to think of it as something negative to hide? Yeah, I do hope for that.

Sorry: I think you Just Don't Get It.

I'm really kinda p.o.'d (maybe you can tell?) -- I don't hold it against you personally -- and I'm far from saying that as a Jew growing up in DC & KY in the '80s & '90s & living in 21st-century America, I have it sooooo tough as compared to Lots Of People (especially members of more "obviously Othered" groups, particularly if based on highly visible identifiers like skin color) -- but I'm guessing that you're not part of a minority/historically discriminated-against ethno-cultural group.

How would you like to wonder if your new school-friend, who's African-American, is going to hate you when she learns you're Jewish, because of fraught public interactions between the Black & Jewish communities that have nothing to do with these 2 like-minded 7th-grade girls -- but could still give her a reason to see you as an enemy? (Thankfully, that wasn't how she saw it.)

How would you like to grow up having nightmares--not often, but now & again--about being dragged first off of the hijacked plane, along with all the others of Your Kind, because you're singled out as being hated?

How would you like spend your childhood knowing that with a move of countries or decades, you could have your opportunities and freedoms curtailed (Soviet refuseniks, anyone? not to mention that even here, many fields [including academia], jobs, neighborhoods, social clubs, etc., remained closed or limited in their acceptance of Jews until at least the 1960s) -- presuming that you weren't just killed outright?

How would you like to be told you're going to hell because Your People believe the wrong thing?

Or how would you like being told -- in 1996, in Oxford, by a female grad student from Northern Ireland for crying out loud! who you would think would know better -- to watch out when you go to Israel because "you know, those people are supposed to be so clever with money." (Hello? Are you totally unaware that I and one of your best buddies in the college are Jewish? Apparently so!)

How about having to wonder whether it's safe, in a particular time & place & context (Berlin, Budapest, Paris, Istanbul; bright daylight, nighttime; lots of people around or just a few), to be an Identifiable Jew -- to be wearing a kippah, or be seen with my kippah-wearing husband, or whether we'd better wear hats over them?

Funny? Or just sad? Hard to say...

The Continuity of Discontinuity

That's the title of Steve M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kaplan's study on "How Young Jews Are Connecting, Creating, and Organizing Their Own Jewish Lives," which I just read about in Kaplan's JTA op-ed. Maybe now the institutional Jewish Community machers will Get It:

Rather than concluding that these new endeavors are weak or competing versions of existing institutions, we will do better to understand them as expressing an alternative vision of what Jewish communities can look like and how they can serve the needs of their members.

One hundred years ago, young immigrants and allrightniks built the American Jewish infrastructure that we have today -- from both AJCs to the landsmanshaften to nightclubs and shuls with pools. Now we are seeing smaller, more localized but no less provocative efforts to rejuvenate, engage, practice and live Jewish lives organized on their own terms by people younger than 40.

In cities across the country they are creating their own minyanim instead of joining synagogues; they are writing and publishing their own journals instead of just subscribing to existing ones; they are playing their own music, putting out records and producing their own concerts. They are hosting salons and movie screenings. They are involved in the creation of Jewish life that is thoughtful, popular and exists largely on the margins of mainstream Jewish organizational life.

These new endeavors do not look like their predecessors because they are responding to the perception that the offerings of synagogues, federations and JCCs are simply too narrow and do not adequately address the diverse needs of American Jews.

This translates also into practice, as the organizations typically resist anything hierarchical, denominational, exclusionary or judgmental. This resistance is partially a critique of mainstream Jewish organizations and partially an expression of deeply held beliefs in pluralism, as well as an understanding of the fluidity of identity in general.

These are some of the lessons that Steven M. Cohen and I address in "The Continuity of Discontinuity," our newly published study on this phenomenon. In the study we explore the ways in which these new organizations represent a response to institutional Jewish life by offering a variety of responses to it.

The organizations we highlight -- and there are many more across the country -- are the result of creative, thoughtful, dissatisfied people who had no desire to join committees, take over sisterhoods or participate in the young leadership branch of local or national communal organizations. But they understood that the landscape of Jewish life could sustain a greater diversity of organizations and experiences.

Today there is much communal anxiety over the behaviors, attitudes and activities of American Jews between 18 and 35. Members of that age cohort are not following their elders into the halls of existing institutions, which could threaten these institutions.

But what we are seeing is not the loss of Jewish practice in North America. We are seeing young people who want to build something new that follows a different vision of what an institution can be and that will cater in a different way to the needs of American Jews for meaningful Jewish engagement.

You can download the study here -- I've done so but haven't read it yet.
Also downloaded but just glanced at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research's new report "Jews in Britain: A Snapshot from the 2001 Census", for those of you who like yer stats... it's been briefly blogged over here at JOI (and no doubt elsewhere, but, y'know, these are the only ones of which the news has come to Hahvahd/There may be many others but they haven't been discaaahvahd).

18 May 2007

On My Soapbox Again...

Question asked on WeirdJews (a LiveJournal group) hit on my Pet Peeve #143:
otherwise egalitarian Jews not using both parents' names in their Hebrew names for No Particular Reason. So here's what I wrote:

Why not both parents' names?

If I were calling you up as gabbai, I'd love to call you up as Chaya bat Yehudit v'Nachum -- or, for those times when you're in need of a mi-shebeirach, to wish you a speedy recovery as same.

In an egalitarian context, there is -- to my mind -- no compelling reason to be only your father's daughter in ritual contexts & only your mother's daughter when in need of healing/divine mercy. I understand that there are those who find it meaningful to perpetuate this distinction between using ben/bat father's name in pretty much all "official" Hebrew name contexts and ben/bat mother's name in prayers for healing... but to me, the latter is just a small sop offered in a context that otherwise was seldom giving women their due.

But, as said above, there's not necessarily any reason for anyone to be "weirded out" by your having previously given your name as Chaya bat Judit, because you could be giving it that way because:

1) your mother is Jewish, your father is not, and it's in a context where you find it appropriate to include the former and not the latter, as would be the traditional practice (unlike sirleebutler choosing to use both*)
--this is what I do in my usual Conservative shuls/minyanim, and the way my name appears on the ketubah, because my father is not Jewish -- Rivkah Leah bat Yehudit Sarah

2) you are a farbrente feminist and hoping to add a few specks of sand on one side of the balance, weighed against hundreds of years of men coming up for aliyot with dad's-names-only + plenty of men and women even in egal contexts continuing to only give dad pride of place in these Official Name non-mishebeirach contexts (not my reason for doing it, as said above -- but I wouldn't mind anyway if people thought it was my reason, b/c I'd be sympathetic to it on some level!)

3) it's not their business, but because of whatever set of circumstances you do not wish to use your father's name (absent; abusive; birth father not in your life ... I know of someone who uses his father & stepmother's names, rather than father + late mother's name: she died when he was tiny and his stepmother is, in his life & community, his mom).

*English names are fine. In some contexts where it seems not inappropriate to include the name of my father, who raised me as a Jew, I add "v'Danny" (that's his given name--not Daniel--so I have no intention of improving on what his parents gave him or trying to disguise the non-standard aspects by Judaising/Hebraicizing it for him). Another Rivkah Leah I know is "bat Charles v'Edith."

Jews for centuries--indeed, millenia!--have used names that come from the cultures & languages that surround them: female Jews particularly had these kinds of names. Think of all the women from the Old Country whose names are Yiddish and not Hebrew-derived: Shayna, Golda, Toybe, Glikl, Perl, Rayzl, Feyge, Yente/Yentl [actually cognate with "gentle"--in the sense of noble/highborn: one from the Romance-language rather than Germanic component of Yiddish])... and, among the Sefardim, names like Reyna/Reina...as well as men's names like Sender (from Alexander) and Hirsh/Hershl, Berl, etc....

Now, I'm not saying that there's no reason to have or create Jewish/Hebrew name for yourself if you don't have one and want one other than YourName ben/bat Dad'sName v'/[or] Mom'sName. But it infuriates me that some Hebrew-chauvinist rabbis & educators have told Jews with Perfectly Good Non-Hebrew Jewish (usually Yiddish) names that they should have a "real," i.e. Hebrew, name & give them one. Fer cry-yay, if yer great-grandma was named Golde, most of the time it wasn't the case that her "real"/Hebrew name was Zahava (which is really a Modern Hebrew creation rather than a traditional name, as far as I can tell--just from translating the Yiddish name). If you want to be Zahava, fine--but don't let anyone tell you these other names aren't Jewish.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: any name a Jew has is a Jewish name.

Think about some of the Hellenistic rabbinic/commentator names: Kalonymos ben Kalonymos? That's not Hebrew or Aramaic, that's Greek!


12 May 2007

Shavua tov!

As a coda to the previous post, here's the comment I just posted on that article:

Lovely piece!

I'm glad that observing Shabbat made you feel, "for the first time, like the Perfect Jew." If the traditional view is that Shabbat is a taste of the World to Come, then perhaps it's not surprising that observing Shabbat in a way we can find meaningful can give us a glimpse of our best Jewish selves -- the Perfect Jews we might wish and strive to be... though one of the things I like best about our Jewish tradition is that it understands imperfection so deeply! (Sin, kheyt, is literally "missing the mark" -- and we try to get closer to getting things right, while acknowledging our limitations. Every Yom Kippur we confess and repent our sins, knowing that we will still be confessing and repenting next year, and the year after -- but we also have the prospect that each turn of the cycle gives us the chance to begin again, to try again -- even if this means that we will, à la Beckett, "Fail again. Fail better.")

So, in this Saturday night/motzei Shabbes state, I'm hoping you'll give us an update, Jon: how was your Shabbat this week? Which of Rabbi Green's 10 commandments of Shabbat did you take on this time, and how'd it go? (And Erin and/or Steve: how's by you?)

My Shabbat observance doesn't make me feel like the perfect Jew, but it does give me a chance to be a more perfcct Jew--and human being--than I think I would otherwise be. It can be hard to feel like putting in the extra effort -- to make a nice Shabbes dinner at home, or to make plans with friends or family -- but it's worth it. This week my husband's out of town, and I wasn't sure what if anything I'd do for Friday night--but I picked up the phone, called a friend, and ended up contributing challah & ice cream as the bookends of dinner with her & with another friend, who made salad & a main dish. Sure, I'd be just as shomer(et) shabbat if I made kiddush & hamotzi & had dinner here by myself (okay, also with the 2 cats, who do get tuna on Shabbat as a special treat -- but that's not the same as human Shabbat community, nice as they are...) -- but it wouldn't have been nearly as Shabbesdik.

So whether you're as "shomer-f***ing-shabbos" as The Big Lebowski's Walter, or just starting to figure out how to "remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy" in a way that speaks to you, I hope you'll find ways to make Shabbat Shabbesdik -- to make it feel like Shabbat inside and out... and then to carry a little bit of that peace and sweetness back into your week, into our regular lives, into our experiences as imperfect Jews in an imperfect world.

Shavua tov -- a good week -- to all!

11 May 2007

Shabbat Shalom!

...and I'd also like to recommend this li'l piece from Jewcy about Shabbat observance:
"Hardly Working: And on the seventh day, our Jewish guinea pig rested" -- part of Jon Papernick's quest to be the Perfect Jew, and so far the only one that's made him feel like it!

Shabbat shalom, everyone!!!
(in, er, about another 4 hours...ah, summertime!)

To Begin Again?

[just thought I'd share here what I posted as a comment over at Jewcy.com]

1) I love Shavuot! It's true that I never did anything for it in my Conservative shul growing up -- until I was in 10th grade and we had Confirmation (a term I dislike intensely: if we insist on having it, can't we give it a good Hebrew name instead of sounding like Catholics?) on Shavuot, which is probably the most press it usually gets in the Reform & Conservative synagogue life-cycle -- but all of my celebrations of it in the past 10 years have been in non-Orthodox environments. And they've been pretty great!

The Shefa Shavuot Reflections put together last year might be of interest -- my contribution also has a nice recipe for galaktopita zarka, baked cream custard (from the Cookbook of the Jews of Greece).

I've also counted the omer each of those past 10 years, but only done anything cool for Lag B'Omer twice:

1) A Masorti (Conservative) Lag B'Omer retreat in the Lake District of England with folks from our Oxford Masorti group & those from Leeds Masorti. That's the only time I've learned any Lag B'Omer songs, though they were pretty weak ("Esh, esh" and "Hayom Lag B'Omer"): teaching me the round "Black socks" has given a more lasting addition to my repertoire...*

2) when we dropped by to visit my frummy Cleveland cousins & their 5 kids on our way home from Michigan -- we had the good fortune to be joining them on the 33rd day of the omer, so we got to enjoy a fabulous cookout in a local park with folks from one of the kids' schools. (Mmmmm, delicious kosher hamburgers!).

Maybe I'll be more motivated to do Lag B'Omer stuff when I have kids who want to toast marshmallows, etc...

2) Hey, Anonymous: I just finished reading Rabbi Naomi Levy's book To Begin Again -- I wonder if you would find it, and what it has to say about God and Judaism, to be helpful or interesting in your current state of confusion.

But being confused--or at least not satified with easy institutional answers--isn't such a bad thing...

*P.S. Also inspiring a parody about phylacteries:

Black box, with straps are tefillin,

Lubavitchers ask you to put on a set,

Someday, I'm going to get me some--

So far, like Rosenzweig, I say not yet,

not yet, not yet...

(This is no longer exactly true...though I'd still be interested in getting a pair written by the soferet who's the maker of Tefillin Barbie...)