The Man’s Seder: The Backlash to the Backlash

 This is a guest post by Miriam Cantor-Stone. Miriam serves as the Education Program Assistant at the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, MA. When she’s not working at JWA, she teaches third graders about immigration and Jewish culture at the Boston Workmen’s Circle Shule/Sunday School and sings in Voices Rising, an all-female feminist chorus. 

 

I have had many experiences in my life that have involved spaces made just for women. These women-only spaces were not created specifically to exclude men, rather they were to give opportunities to women who might not have had them otherwise. For instance, I graduated from Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college in western Massachusetts. While I may have been initially drawn to a women’s college to escape the “dumb boys” of high school, I stuck with it for the excellent education and once-in-a-lifetime chances offered to me, like working abroad for a summer and directing plays as a non-theatre major.

 

So when I read the blog post entitled “Man’s Seder: The Backlash,” I was immediately skeptical. I imagined it was written by the same kind of person who would obnoxiously ask, “If there’s a ‘women’s studies’ major why isn’t there a men’s studies’ major?” As I read the post, by Rabbi Reuven Spolter of Israel, I couldn’t help but scoff and snort my way through most of it. It’s clear to me that he has little to no understanding of why events like women’s seders were created in the first place.  He makes this very clear when he says, “I wondered why only women were having such an event, and decided to organize a similar program for the men. Was there an outcry at the exclusionary tactics of the Federation for creating a gendered version of the Seder? Hardly. There was a need, and we created it.” Rabbi Spolter makes all sorts of assumptions about his readers that I find both laughable and a little bit offensive. When defending the idea of a Men’s Seder, he says:

 

“At your Seder, who recites the Kiddush? Who breaks the Matzah? Who makes the Motzi? At most Sedarim (although I wonder about those of the members of the “I’m also fed up with the way women are treated in Orthodoxy” FB group), a man makes the kiddush, breaks the Matzah at Yachatz, etc. In other words, he ‘leads’ the Seder. That doesn’t mean he monopolizes or controls it. He leads it. Wouldn’t it also make sense that in addition to the technical aspects of leading, that he also came to the Seder prepared to lead a discussion and engage in meaningful conversation about the Exodus? Yes? You agree? That’s the basic idea of the Man’s Seder.”

 

Rabbi Spolter seems to think that all seders everywhere are just like the ones he attends. While he’s making his case for a Men’s Seder, he’s perpetuating every reason why Women’s Seders exist in the first place. His argument is that because men have traditionally led seders in the past, then of course an all-male seder makes sense. Rabbi Spolter, you really don’t get it, do you? Women’s Seders were created for the purpose of giving women the opportunity to participate in a ritual that up until the last few decades has been exclusively a men’s zone. And when he mentions the Facebook group that lit the spark of criticism of Men’s Seders, he is completely disrespectful and hypocritical. He says, “You’re fed up? You’re angry? Can there be a more negative, nasty, distasteful group on Facebook? (It is the definition of what’s wrong with Facebook. While FB can be a tool to spread ideas and share constructive thoughts, too often it serves as a clearinghouse for venomous spewing of negativity and hatred).” Umm, HELLO?! You’re writing a BLOG POST, buddy. Don’t condemn people for online discussions when you’re writing in essentially the same manner. He continues, “What you end up with is a group of Feminists from across the religious spectrum who have gathered to criticize Orthodoxy. Great.” It’s not Orthodoxy they’re criticizing, dude, it’s the idea that people are creating ritual space for men that has been a space for men for centuries, and acting like it’s revolutionary and necessary.

 

I fully understand the need for an inclusive space. It’s important to have a group of people that understands each other’s situations and feelings and needs. Rabbi Spolter and all rabbis who have done or are thinking of hosting a Men’s Seder, please think about your intentions and about how women have been treated in the past in your chosen movement. Each branch of Judaism has had to work on (and is still working on) the full acceptance of women as full members of the Jewish community. No longer are women confining themselves only to the kitchen to prepare the enormous Passover meal; they’re also digging through scores of Haggadot to choose the best way to lead their Seders. And remember that Women’s Seders were not created to exclude men, so do not for a moment think that a Men’s Seder is needed to exclude women. However much Rabbi Spolter claims to support women in his community, it seems to me he’s got a whole long way to go, as do many other Jewish communities, not to mention people in general.

Need a Seder?

כל דכפין ייתי ויכול כל דצריך ייתי ויפסח

“All who are hungry come and eat. All who are in need, come and enjoy the Passover seder.”

Looking for intellectually engaging seders in New York? Gabriel Wasserman is looking for guests. Anyone wishing to expand their familiarity with obscure ancient, medieval, and modern Jewish customs and texts should not ignore this invitation! He will supply lodging in Washington Heights, NY, for the entire two day Holiday, as well as meals for the lunches both days, besides the seders.

All are welcome, every level of observance or non observance. Pre, post, non, everything. Everyone will be welcomed and made comfortable.

Contact Gabriel through facebook, or gavrielwasserman@gmail.com, if interested.

If you go to Gabriel’s seder, you should come back here and report on it. It’s sure to be fascinating.

Filed under Passover

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Throwback Thursday: from the “why won’t this go away?” file

I noticed recently that polygamy and its presumed benefits seem to be making the rounds – unfortunately – once again, so I dug up this old fisking. Nope, still not a good idea.

…from what I can tell, her real complaint is that this younger generation prefers monogamy and childrearing to the raunch that she claims her generation championed. Look at the utter condescension:

Punishing the sexual woman is a hoary, antique meme found from “Jane Eyre” to “The Scarlet Letter” to “Sex and the City,” where the lustiest woman ended up with breast cancer. Sex for women is dangerous. Sex for women leads to madness in attics, cancer and death by fire. Better to soul cycle and write cookbooks. Better to give up men and sleep with one’s children. Better to wear one’s baby in a man-distancing sling and breast-feed at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him. Our current orgy of multiple maternity does indeed leave little room for sexuality. With children in your bed, is there any space for sexual passion? The question lingers in the air, unanswered.

Right. Just where does she think those babies come from… what, they were decanted from a tube? The irony is so thick – she seems to be arguing for people to uncouple sex and intimacy even while her subtext is that people are rejecting intimacy. I wonder if she actually remembers any of the people who were engaged in those wonderful open marriages?
- See more at: jewschool.com/2011/07/12/26564/not-bringing-sexy-backplease/#sthash.fLGNmfGM.dpuf

Filed under Feminism, Gender, Sex

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2014′s top 7 seder supplements and themed haggadot

I thought for one foolish moment that 5774 offered a shallow harvest for Pesach supplements. But I was totally wrong and many thought-provoking, educational, and even downright moving contributions to Passover religious life. Here Jewschool collected this year’s notables and even further below are more fascinating options from previous years. [Updated: Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps released theirs today. Make that the top 8.]

The Bard Prison Initiative at Bard College has produced a beautiful and moving supplement on an important American issue on mass incarceration and education. Highlight: “Our fellow citizens who are prisoners are incarcerated because of crimes they committed mostly as young men and women. They are individuals who did not have the privilege to learn and study. We Jews believe that learning is a form of prayer and that learning and studying are the foundation of judgment.”

Keshet’s truly inspiring seder supplement should receive a special award in my eyes. This short but deeply touching piece is based on a true coming out story and reworked to be read by anyone: “Several years ago, Keshet member Adina Koch came out at her family’s Passover Seder. In true Koch family fashion, she did so by offering words of Torah. [...] This Pesach, we offer Adina’s words of Torah as a teaching for all of our Seder tables.”  More »

Matzah, teachers, and labor unions (On the Perelman Jewish Day School Decision)

The story is told of a very prominent rabbi in Europe before World War II who was approached by a freshly minted colleague who had just been hired to supervise the baking of matzohs for Passover. The younger rabbi asked: “There are many, many laws governing the baking of matzah for Passover. Is there any one which I should be especially strict about?” The elder rabbi looked at him intently and said: “Make sure the women who roll the dough get paid a decent wage. This is probably a good deal of their income and they have many mouths to feed. If the matzah bakers are not paid well, the matzah cannot be kosher.”

It should not be surprising that there is such concern placed on the dignity and well-being of workers in the run-up to the holiday which celebrates freedom from slavery. The Babylonian Talmud itself quotes the fourth century Sage Raba as grounding a worker’s freedom to break a work contract in the idea of the Exodus from Egypt, the freedom from slavery.

It is distressing then, that in the weeks before Passover the Perelman Jewish Day School (PJDS) has unilaterally decided to cease recognizing the union that has represented its teachers for decades. (Stories here, here, here, and here) In a letter to parents, the board president wrote that the board had “voted to transition the management of our faculty from a union model governed by a collective bargaining agreement to an independent model guided by our school administrators under a new Faculty Handbook.” More »

On Gender and “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis”

This is a guest post by Miriam Cantor-Stone. Miriam serves as the Education Program Assistant at the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, MA. When she’s not working at JWA, she teaches third graders about immigration and Jewish culture at the Boston Workmen’s Circle Shule/Sunday School and sings in Voices Rising, an all-female feminist chorus.

In an age where fewer people seem to be joining, let alone attending, synagogues, the writers from the Forward call their list of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis, “an affirmation that despite the worrying mega-trends, our spiritual leaders are connecting with Jews and strengthening communities across America.”

I don’t think a list like this a bad idea. If anything, it might help connect people to their rabbis or potential future rabbis. It’s fair to say the Jewish people appreciate good press, and it’s nice to see Rabbis from all denominations represented. Frustratingly, what wasn’t very well represented was gender. The list features 28 rabbis from across North America (mostly New York, which isn’t much of a surprise) and only 9 women.

I’m sure the creators of this list will have plenty to say in their defense. But what excuse could they have? Women have quickly become an important presence in the rabbinate, even in Orthodoxy. Yes, women rabbis are still making new and crucial strides on the pulpit (see the fabulous Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl at NYC’s Central Synagogue) but women rabbis are more accepted today than in the 50 years since Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College.

It’s fair to say that people frustrated by this list aren’t asking for a re-do. The list features some incredible Jewish leaders who all certainly deserve to be recognize for the work they do. I just hope next time the Forward will better represent the women involved in keeping Judaism alive as best as they can, just like their male counterparts.

 

 

Boston launch party for “The Veterans of History,” a secular history for young Jews

From our friends in Boston comes a completely secular curriculum of Jewish history, designed by the long-time educator at Boston Workman’s Circle, Mitchell Silver. Join them at their launch party:

Come join us for dessert on

Saturday, April 12 – 7:30 pm
at Boston Workmen’s Circle
(1762 Beacon Street, Brookline)

for a book launch
to celebrate Boston Workmen’s Circle’s publication of

The Veterans of History:
A Young Person’s History of the Jews
by Mitchell Silver

“Written for young adults, The Veterans of History is a compelling narrative of Jewish history told from a Jewish cultural perspective. Covering biblical times to the present, it helps young Jews to identify with and place themselves in the broad sweep of Jewish experience.”

Buy it here and follow them on Facebook. Stay tuned for Jewschool’s review…

All That’s Left

This also appears at allthesedays.org

Not too long ago, members of All That’s Left (ATL) wrote about “Who We Are” despite the fact that we decided early on that we were interested in defining ATL’s aims not who ought to be in it. It reads:

All That’s Left members come from a variety of political, ideological and personal backgrounds, including non-Zionists, Liberal-Zionists, Anti-Zionists, Socialist-Zionists, Zionists, Post-Zionists, one, two, some, and no staters and everything in between. The common thread in our work, actions, and connections is our unequivocal opposition to the occupation and our focus on the diaspora angle of resistance to the occupation rooted in the notion that all people(s) are equal.

We wrote the note in order to clarify that the collective is made up of folks from a spectrum of backgrounds who are working to end the occupation. In the end, the “Who We Are” note essentially says: “We aren’t defining who we are.” Instead, we define ATL in a sentence (All That’s Left is a collective unequivocally committed to ending the occupation and focused on building the diaspora angle of resistance) in order to create a way for people to self select.

It’s important to note that ATL is not an organization; it is a collective of individuals that come together around our unequivocal opposition to the occupation and focus on building the diaspora angle of resistance. That’s the only statement we have or will make as a collective. All of the actions we do are actions that members of ATL have done, not an ATL organization (no such organization exists). It is an important distinction to make here because I am only really speaking for myself as a member of ATL. I am in no way a spokesperson or official rep.

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Throwback (belated) Thursday: The dawn of Jewish hipsterdom

I have to applaud Aryeh Bernstein for this idea. This blog has covered the first sparks of many Jewish movements before they were worth reporting by others. And looking back 10 years later, we can see how the debates of last decade are, largely, over. Intermarriage acceptance? Won. Independent minyanim? In every major city. (Come check out Selah in Seattle.) Pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace? Now a real force in Congress.

But what about Jewish “hipsterdom,” perhaps better expressed as the burst of hybrid Jewish arts, culture, music, creativity and expression in the early 2000s? Remember the early days of HEEB, Jewcy, JDub Records, Kavod House, the Jewish Fashion Conspiracy, and Storahtelling? Simultaneously, the first waves of philanthropy aiming to “fight” intermarriage washed ashore. Nine years ago (oh yes, nine) this community was debating the pros and cons of accepting “continuity” funding for our new ideas.

Just take this post back from December 29, 2005, by Dan Sieradski, “NY Jewish Week Knocks Jewish Hipsterism.” Said Sieradski,

All of the grant money available to Jewish cultural projects fall under the auspices of Jewish continuity — recently rebranded “renaissance & renewal.” These are merely euphemisms for getting Jews to shtup other Jews. It seems to be the only thing big-wig Jewish philanthropists find themselves concerned with, with the few exceptions of those focused on Jewish education and social action. In this climate, the only way for innovative Jewish projects to get funded is if they present themselves within the context of Jewish continuity. It’s a dirty game, but it’s the reality.

The landscape is different. Some of these initiatives stand tall: Hadar has spawned an successful institute, Mechon Hadar. And the field features notable graves: JDub Records (z”l). But the big picture matters more than the specific instances: emergent groups are institutionalizing into permanent features, displacing and replacing older ones. No accident that the very term “emergent” was coined by Jewish Jumpstart, whose Shawn Landres you can see there in the comments of Sieradski’s post.

Take a trip in the wayback machine and read it here.

A Few Thoughts on the Roots of the Identity Discourse

The Roots and Structure of the Identity Discourse in Contemporary Jewish Life

by Rokhl Kafrissen, a journalist, attorney, and Jewish world gadfly in New York City.  This article was given as a paper at last weekend’s Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education conference at Brandeis and is cross-posted at Rokhl’s blog, Rootless Cosmopolitan: Dynamic Yiddishkayt for the New Millennium

The question of identity has both personal and intellectual interest to me. Unpacking the identity discourse is part of my larger personal project of situating my experience as a born again Yiddishist within the larger context of American Jewish history. Why do I need Yiddish? and why didn’t I have Yiddish?– those have been two of my guiding questions. It’s impossible to answer these without stumbling over the related question of identity.As I’ve written elsewhere, studying Yiddish brought me to a deeper understanding of my own family and the Jewishness transmitted within my home. Similarly, the study of American Jewish sociology has helped me understand the larger Jewish American milieu in which I grew up, and how I ended up with my middle class, suburban, Conservative Hebrew school, shma and hatikvah, bacon is ok but ham isn’t, 1980s Long Island Jewish identity. You only have to look at the Pew study to see that for the majority of American Jews, that kind of minimal observance, minimal education, maximal pride, is very much the de facto American Jewish identity today. More »

The Israel Conversation We Aren’t Having, But Should, And Still Can

Working for Resetting the Table: Open Conversations on Israel the past month has reinforced something I’ve suspected for a while, but have been timid in confronting.  Too many American Jews are afraid to talk about the Israel/Palestinian conflict outside their immediate social circles and I’d really like to understand why.  Are we so entrenched in our positions that it is simply too painful to hear another perspective?  Most of the pulpit rabbis I know won’t talk about Israel in their own shul because of how it polarizes the community.  These rabbis refer to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as the ‘third rail’ meaning if you touch it, you will get electrocuted.  Disagreeing without demonizing has become surprisingly difficult. How did a conversation about Israeli politics become so taboo?  If you are interested in supporting a project to help young Jews reclaim the ability to talk constructively through differences on this vital topic, please join the conversation at Resetting the Table’s Town Square this Sunday April 6th at the @Brooklynlyceum in Park Slope (227 4th Ave) 4-7pm.  Specifically for Jews in their 20′s and 30′s.  Tickets can be purchased here for $10.  For a discounted rate or more info email rebezramh@gmail.com Catered by Brookly’s own Mason and Mug

Trampling Torah and perpetuating antisemitism on the 700 Club

Jews are more successful financially, Pat Robertson said on his TV show, because they are “polishing diamonds, not fixing cars.”

I’m not sure who is worse in this clip, Robertson or his guest, anti-gay wacko Rabbi Daniel Lapin. In the jaw-dropping segment of Robertson’s 700 Club , courtesy of Right Wing Watch, Lapin was stumping for his book about how the Bible wants you to get rich:

“When you correctly said in Jewish neighborhoods you do not find Jews lying under their cars on Sunday afternoons, no, I pay one of the best mechanics around to take care of my BMW, I’d be crazy to take my time doing it myself,” Lapin said. “Or for me to mow my lawn, I’m the worse lawnmower in the world, but the young man who lives down the street from me, he’s one of the best and he’s happy to do it and I’m happy.”  More »

FASHION ALERT: In U.S., SS Guard uniforms “aus;” in Israel, KKK “glory suits” “in”

You may have seen the controversial photos released this past week: patrons of a German restaurant in Minnesota decked out in SS Guard uniforms; Harel High School students in Mevasseret Tzion parading in Klansmen “glorysuits” before an Ethiopian absorption center.

"Nazi Party" at Gasthof zur Gemütlichkeit (photo credit: City Pages)

Whereas the local city council did nothing official to condemn the high school students who on Purim masqueraded as members of the KKK for such an egregious display of racism, a group of local Minnesotans banded together to express their disappointment and hurt at the Minneapolis restaurant’s shocking display of insensitivity in hosting the now-notorious annual “Nazi Party.”
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Dear social change field: give Rabbi Andy Bachman his dream job

I’ve been startled by some of the laments following Rabbi Andy Bachman’s announcement that in a year’s time he’ll leave the pulpit of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn.

When I moved to New York in 2005, Bachman was already a recognized force. To me and other young Jewish communal professionals, he was proof that not all people over 30 were out of touch with the Jewish community of the future. He set a new standard for openness, creativity, and passionate progressive principles. When I left the city seven years later, he had become an indispensable ally and inspirational role model for me.

So when he announced just a day ago that he wouldn’t renew his pulpit contract in 2015, it struck me as wonderful that he would now turn his capable skills to benefiting directly those in need:

Last year, the combination of watching our community’s response to Hurricane Sandy as well as the fortuitous and inevitable rite of passage of turning 50, I began to explore the idea of moving beyond strictly Jewish service and contemplate seriously the idea of serving disadvantaged communities broadly throughout New York City.  The issues of poverty, hunger, homelessness, education, and violence remain central to my own concerns as a citizen of New York.  And so as I thought of another chapter to my professional life, I became increasingly inspired by the opportunity to serve communities in need in Brooklyn and beyond.

I was delighted and proud for him. In fact, I felt the same desire. But then the moaning started. Haaretz’s article announced his “quitting” and I heard both crowing and bemoaning that he was “leaving the Jewish community.”

This is bullshit. Bachman isn’t converting to Hinduism and he’s not issued a smackdown of Jewish communal service. He has not issued a refusal to return to Jewish employment later, nor is it clear that his institution of choice won’t be Jewish in nature. (A number of excellent organizations come to mind.)

It’s clear to me that anyone so dedicated to (and so successful at) imbuing social action in others that he would want to take a leadership role directly. Hell, I know because I feel it myself. There is only so much talking, educating, writing, cajoling, recruiting, extolling, and lauding about bettering the world before we just want to do it. Our faith community in particular is some of the wealthiest, well-fed, well-housed populations in America. Yes, there are Jewish poor and sick and homeless, especially elderly and immigrants from the Former Soviet Union.

But if you are truly ambitious about solving the world’s ills, working only with or within the Jewish community might just be too small. Too narrow. Too underachieving. We are only .2% of the world. Dream big, my parents told me, and go for broke. Find those truly in need — those next door or across the ocean — and go where you can make the biggest difference. And despite my wishes otherwise, the singular might of the Jewish people is not enough to go it alone.

Because there is really no difference in my heart between my Jewish passions and my desires for a more healthy, peaceful humanity. As we’ve learned from Jewish Jumpstart’s recent studies of Jewish philanthropy, the loyalties that motivate Jews to donate to their law school, the Met, the ACLU and their local homeless shelter are the same values that move the to give to Jewish organizations. In fact, most Jewish dollars go to non-Jewish causes; even those who give the highest ratio of their charity to Jewish organizations still apportion less than half to explicitly Jewish institutions.  Similarly, I am lucky that my day job does reflect both my Jewish and nonsectarian passions — but really, there is no such division.

There should be no value judgement on Rabbi Andy Bachman’s getting his salary from an explicitly Jewish organization, because regardless of his paycheck he is and will always be an Jewish agent of change for a better world. Many of us young professionals will emulate his journey into and out of Jewish and nonsectarian institutions. (Many activists are Jewish professionals in their hearts, if only there was a Jewish job available.) And that movement weaves us tighter to our communities and into the fabric of the global justice movement. (And if you’re worried that changemakers are in scarce supply in our community, hey, I have a few amazing friends for hire.)

And so I say to every capable social change organization out there:  Give Rabbi Andy Bachman his dream job. He deserves it and you’ll need more like him to change the world. And we younger professionals are not that far behind him.

Throwback Thursday: Kung Fu Jew on “Why I Post the Worst of Israeli News”

Here at Jewschool we have a long, illustrious history, 11 1/2 years of rambunctious, playful, earnest, free-thinking, alternative riffing on contemporary Jewish life.  It’s worth taking stock of where we’ve come from, and in that light, the Jewschool editors are now inaugurating a new feature:   Jewschool Throwback Thursdays.  Every week, one of us will dig up a classic post from the Jewschool vault that we think is still timely and relevant, or that would benefit reconsideration, with some years of growth and maturity.

One of the signature features of Jewschool culture is criticizing things we think are destructive in the Jewish world, airing our dirty laundry out of the belief that it can be cleaned.  This becomes especially contentious when it comes to criticism regarding Israel. In recent months, the Jewish world has seen a  great deal of mudslinging and controversy over “Open Hillel” battles, un-invitations of speakers deemed too critical of Israel, or not critical enough of advocates of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, etc., and Jewschool has covered this closely.  For this kick-of Throwback Thursday, we bring you a classic piece from five years ago by our current Editor-in-Chief articulating, in as clear and forceful a way as I know, why we criticize the Israeli government when we feel it deserves it.  The piece drew a blizzard of comments in its time; we hope it stokes conversation again now:

Why I Post the Worst of Israeli News

by Kung Fu Jew, Thursday, February 19, 2009

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“Every time a woman is seen in tefillin or tzitzit, the Jew at prayer in the common imagination becomes more fluid…”

This is a guest post by Avigayil Halpern. Avigayil is a senior at the Hebrew High School of New England. She is a Bronfman Youth Fellow for 2013, a Rising Voices Fellow, through the Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor, and an alumna of Drisha’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. She maintains a personal blog at theprocessofthetaking.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter at @avigayiln.

The first time I wrapped tefillin was on Masada, in Israel last summer as a Bronfman Youth Fellow. It should have been highly meaningful: I was watching the sun rise, standing in the ruins of a final Jewish stronghold, and I was with tremendously inspiring peers and teachers. Instead, when my counselor handed me the green velvet bag, I stood holding it, nervous and unsure of what to do with myself. As a childhood friend of mine wrapped the straps around my arm and hand and helped me adjust the head-tefillin, I stood still, repeating the brachot after him. When I prayed, any concentration that might have stemmed from the tefillin was canceled out by the strangeness of the physical sensation; the tefillin were powerful because of what they were, not because they grounded me.

My prayers that morning were punctuated by quibbles between my friends — the chazzan was going too fast, a more slowly praying participant was “backseat leading” — and repeatedly counting to make sure we still had a minyan as people wandered away. After we finished, my friend helped me unwrap the tefillin.

It was not until three weeks later that I was taught properly how to don tefillin myself. It was in a rush, the afternoon before my program left Israel, when we were all dashing around packing stray socks and squeegeeing the tile floors. Judith Rosenbaum, a program faculty member, Jewish women’s historian, and personal mentor, took me aside and taught me how to put on tefillin. She showed me how to twine the bands around my fingers, needing to practice on herself; it is not often that one wraps tefillin around another’s hand.

These anecdotes, my first tefillin stories, aren’t simple and spiritual. My experiences were confusing and mundane. Those moments did not ring with feelings of empowerment or reclamation. My Orthodox background, contrary to what I had expected, did not make the tefillin feel taboo — by the time I actually wore them, I had long been considering the idea. What sticks with me about these experiences is how natural it felt to be taught this mitzvah by a woman. I didn’t feel alone, as I had expected; I was part of a chain of tefillin-laying women.

My experience when I began wearing tzitzit was radically different. While I had previously considered wearing them, my first pair was an impulse buy. I was shopping on Ben Yehuda Street with a friend, and wandered into one of the tourist-geared Judaica shops that pepper the boulevard. I began to pick up packaged tallitot katan, examining them to see if I could find a small size. When the only pairs out were in a men’s medium, I asked the store’s proprietor (a friendly-looking, white-bearded, American-sounding Chareidi man) if they had tzitzit in smaller boys’ sizes. He answered in the affirmative, and began to hold up very small garments. “I’m looking for one that would fit a twelve-year-old boy,” I said. My friend added, “It’s for her little brother.”

I walked out of the store, three pairs of tzitzit in hand, grinning. I wore them for the first time the very next day. It was a Friday, and my group was venturing to Tzfat for Shabbat. As we walked through the city’s narrow stone alleyways and blue-painted synagogues and cemeteries, I grinned each time I caught sight of my fringes. They were both very strange and intimately familiar, totally new and yet totally me. Several times over the course of the weekend, I was approached by friendly strangers inquiring as to why I, a woman, was wearing tzitzit. The first time this happened, two young Chareidi woman came over to me at Kabbalat Shabbat. I wasn’t prepared to answer their question, and simply stammered out “it’s a mitzvah!” The twenty-somethings smiled, and one of them said, “That’s so interesting, I’ve never seen that before. Does your Rav think it’s okay?” I grinned and assured them that yes, my rav permits it. I didn’t attempt to explain to them that the community of people I consider to be my “rav” is large and diverse; while not everyone around me approves of my tzitzit, the people I look to for religious guidance, my “rebbeim,” are supportive.

My experiences of tzitzit and tefillin are unique. Some women wear tzitzit under their clothes, as a private reminder of the Divine. Some women have been laying tefillin since their Bat Mitzvah. Some women find these practices radically spiritual, while for others they are entirely mundane. Each woman’s experience is different. But we share a common bond; every time we perform these mitzvot, we shift Jewish practice a little bit. Every time I explain to a little girl that “yes, girls can wear tzitzit too, isn’t that cool?” as she curiously twists the strings between her fingers, she is more likely to feel that she, too, can own this mitzvah. Every time a woman changes her Facebook profile picture of one of herself praying with tefillin, the cultural image of the praying Jew becomes a little more female. Every time a woman is seen in tefillin or tzitzit, the Jew at prayer in the common imagination becomes more fluid, less likely to have a beard.

The Jewish world needs to hear women’s real experiences with these mitzvoth. It is for this reason that I have founded V’Tzivanu: Women, Tefillin, and Tzitzit, (v’tzivanu translates to “and has made us a mitzvah”) a blog project which will publish women’s writing on tefillin or tzitzit twice a month. Recent uproar in the Jewish blogosphere about women and tefillin has led to an increased presence of women’s voices and stories, but this is insufficient. V’Tzivanu is a project for my past self, the tenth grader who Googled “women and tefillin” and found only an explanation of why women’s spiritual superiority leads to our exemption from mitzvot. This is a project for older women, who have been laying tefillin for decades and have faced obstacles of which I have never dreamed. This is a project for Bat Mitzvah girls, who will see that Jewish womanhood is so much broader and deeper than a set of candlesticks. This is a project for the Jewish people.

Darosh Darash Moshe: Thoughts on Halakha and Rabbinic Responsibility through Parashat Shemini

Most attention paid to Parashat Shemini focuses on the divine fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu when they tried to offer a strange fire on the brand new altar at its triumphant moment of inauguration (VaYikra 10:1-2).  No fewer than twelve explanations  are offered in Rabbinic literature to explain why God took their lives.

However, it seems worthwhile to me to focus more on the aftermath of this shocking event.  After Moshe’s bizarre poetic eulogy (v. 3), after the immediate removal of the corpses (vv. 4-5), after Moshe’s rapid-fire, sober instructions to the kohanim for the immediacy and for the generations (vv. 6-15), Moshe returns to check in on the other business of the day:  what is the state of the goat that had already been offered as the national sin ?  The mood may have gone haywire after Aharon’s sons were killed in the line of duty, but Moshe played it cool, unswayed by his nephews’ death, mind still on the urgent business of the day of managing God’s housewarming party.  Let’s take a look:

VaYikra 10:16-20: More »

[Livecast from] Jerusalem, CAP and Molad host “Israel, the U.S. and the Middle East: New Visions”

[Update: This conference will now be livecast to those of us in the Diaspora. Watch here on Tuesday, April 1st from 8 am - 1 pm ET.]

Jewschool has mentioned previously the work of Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, a new progressive institution in Israel aiming at rebuilding and rebooting the Israeli progressive camp. It’s no accident that Molad, as a “think-do tank,” resembles some of the preeminent progressive think tanks in America, like the Center for American Progress. CAP, among others, successfully injected progressive policies into American public debate.

Now movers and shakers in Israeli society have seen the need to combat the damage done by Israel’s lop-sided political conversation. Right-wing and far-right think tanks like the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the Shalem Center, the Center for Strategic Zionist Studies and others, funded largely by American right-wing money, have operated uncontested for years. Now, bold Israelis are anteing up to provide the body of policy research, media monitoring and intellectual backbone to halt Israel’s march towards anti-democratic and anti-peace policies.

Thus Molad and CAP invite you to their first policy gathering, “Israel, the U.S., and the Middle East: New Visions.” Moderated by Matt Duss and Eric Alterman, the day-long event addresses the two largest American-Israeli shared interests: an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord and a deal with Iran. Speaking are Knesset opposition leader Labor MK Yitzak Herzog, social protests leader MK Stav Shaffir, founders of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, security and human rights experts, and more.

Full details below, RSVP here.

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