ICYMI: Passover Songs of Centuries Past

On March 27th, the National Post’s Religion blog ran a piece on Passover songs that had been briefly lost to history. Teens from the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy recently performed Passover music that had been translated into Latin in the 17th-century by Christian scholar Johannes Rittangel. It’s likely this musical arrangement hasn’t been performed in more than 300 years.

You can follow the path of the music’s revival from the post that captured the attention of Tanenbaum head of school Paul Shaviv, the On the Main Line followup post (with video!) of the music, and the National Post article.

I’m A Mitzvah [Film Short]

I’m not sure it’s healthy to adore short movies as much as I do. Much like a beloved album, it’s tempting to just play them over and over again. I am prepared to play I’m A Mitzvah over and over again. It’s one of those situations you’d pray would never happen to you: you’re stuck in a rural area of a foreign country, watching over your friend’s corpse for the night. The next day, you’re due to escort their corpse back to America. For the night, you’ve got a jury-rigged kaddish, a cardboard shipping container with your dead friend in it, and a lot of tequila. The film was successfully funded via Kickstarter last year.

Content Advisory: half-naked dead man, multiple graphic photos of a penis, a mostly naked late night swim, kissing.


Bikur Cholim, Virtually or Otherwise

I grew up watching family and friends die. In a weird, meta-level way I suppose everyone does. But I was watching a grandfather die in his house across the street, his body riddled with cancer. I would watch grandmothers die of cancer. Some of my friends would die of leukemia before I was even out of junior high. My father is chronically ill, as am I. Illness has suffused my daily life for as long as I can remember.

So, I have a lot of thoughts about the mitzvah bikur cholim. Visiting the ill among us,  that’s something that’s meaningful if it’s done right. And as much as wading through regulations sometimes makes me want to pull my hair out, I appreciate the guidelines that are set out around the mitzvah. Giving people a template makes it no less hard to embark on the mitzvah, but those guidelines keep us from being lost in the moment. If you visit the sick, you are helping relieve them of some small portion of the misery of being ill. By waiting to visit the ill by a few days, you avoid being part of the initial system-shock of being sick, and all the procedures surrounding an illness. By not being a burden on their caretakers, you don’t add to the stress being experienced by someone who is ill, or that of their family.

I’m not affiliated with a synagogue right now, so my experiences with bikur cholim are centered on family and friends, and those who are ill in their lives who I may not know myself. And I think that it’s important to consider how to integrate this mitzvot into your life when you’re not in a community with a bikur cholim committee. Same goes for congregations where the Rabbi is expected to shoulder much of the energy and thought of the mitzvot for the community at large. More »

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Bikur Cholim and Mental Illness

I will do amazing things in 5774. I will turn 30. I will get married to the love of my life, the person I am immeasurably excited to grow old with. And I’ll continue to pursue a life filled with words. I wouldn’t be alive for those milestones without medication and cognitive therapy. Without help and support, I would have died because of my mental illness. When I attempted suicide, my family and closest friends were a web of support that kept me going. But I never mentioned what had happened to my Rabbi. To any Rabbi. I’ve made friends in the years since then with their own mental health struggles, some of them fellow members of the Tribe.

Having the knowledge that there are other mentally ill Jews out there is at best, an academic comfort. I know so few ‘out’ mentally ill Jews that I still feel out of step with my community. While I was working as a Morah I refused to tell anyone from my temple, because I was afraid I would never be allowed to be a teacher again if the administration and students’ parents knew I had been struggling with depression and other issues for most of my life. To talk about it now means that I am taking that risk, even if my mental health has greatly improved in the last few years.

Medication has helped me immeasurably, by clearing my head, and keeping most of the depression at bay. It’s left me space inside myself to start slowly filling with prayer again. With energy for one of the cornerstones of Reform Judaism: social justice. It has given me a reprieve from drowning under my darkest emotions. Every night and every morning I say the Sh’ma, because my pain has lessened just enough to let G-d in again.

There are still nights where I am crushingly depressed, struggling and crying. But the promise of the next Rosh Hashanah keeps me going, as does the knowledge that when I wake up in the morning, that depression might be gone again. Mornings like that are perfect for the Shehecheyanu. Thanking G-d for my survival has taken on a certain poignancy, in these final days of Elul.

The High Holy days are times of great joy, and repentance.For redemption. I am joyful I am alive. That every day I make the choice to stay alive, and see the many years awaiting me.  But at the close of 5773, I feel the need to confess and repent for not being more open about being mentally ill. For not bringing the social justice I work for, for people like me, into temple, into my religious community. I have no good excuse, and there is no reason not to reach out to my fellow Jews, caretakers and fellow patients alike. There is no reason not to put light onto our often silent suffering, and to ask others to apply Bikur cholim to the mentally ill as well. To ask ourselves to apply the mitzvah to the aid and support of the mentally ill in our communities. To extend the mitzvah even to ourselves.

5774 is as good a time as any to help others find help, but to find help ourselves. Among G-d’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, G-d is said to be the abundant in kindness, and a preserver of kindness for generations. To embrace Bikur cholim for the mentally ill is to embrace more of G-d’s attributes of mercy into us, and our lives.

L’shanah tovah.

Recommended Fiction: Burning Girls

This week at speculative fiction publisher Tor Books’ website, an incredible novella appeared. Veronica Schanoes “Burning Girls” is ultimately a horror story, pitting the religious and canny women of a Polish family headed for America against a powerful demon that stalks them. Through sick children, a pogrom, immigration, sweatshop labor and more, the midwife Deborah struggles to hold her dwindling family together in the face of an evil she fears they will not survive. The twists were excellent, and the attention to history did new things with the backdrop of the era, instead of repeating literature that’s come before this. Anna and Elena Balbusso’s illustration is in the end, a heart-breaking match to the tale. It’s a lengthy but worthy read.

Socalled Tales From Odessa

From June 16th-July 7th, you can see Tales From Odessa at the Segal Theatre in Montreal, Quebec. Musical artist Socalled (Josh Dolgin) penned the music and lyrics for the production, based on the short story collection Odessa Tales by Isaak Babel. Tales From Odessa follows the life and rise of mob boss Benya “The King” Krik, who rules over the Jewish neighborhood in Moldavanka. Socalled maintains a blog about his work on the musical, and you can view the trailer for the production below.

A Socalled Musical

Music & Lyrics by Josh Dolgin AKA Socalled
Book by Derek Goldman
Based on the stories of Isaak Babel
Translated by Miriam Hoffman
Directed by Audrey Finkelstein
A Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre Production

In Yiddish with English and French supertitles.  Tickets start at $24.00. You can learn more about the artist Socalled at his website.



Still Jewish

I picked up Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America because I’m in an interfaith relationship, and reading it gave me something I didn’t know I needed. It gave me an academic but accessible text that said it is possible to be strong in my Jewish identity in an interfaith relationship, and that more than that—many women before me have and still do so. An interfaith relationship does not require one to set aside their Jewish identity.

Still Jewish follows the trends of Jewish women’s intermarriages in America, and the attitudes towards those marriages. McGinity stretches back to the interfaith marriages of immigrant women at the end of the 19th century, working forward to the mid 00’s.

The mythos of intermarriage says that once a Jewish woman intermarries, she’s lost to the faith. She assimilates, loses her name, ditches her faith, and joins a mainstream Christian majority, taking any children she might have with her. McGinity uses multigenerational studies, research and first person interviews to show it’s just that: mythos. The truth is more complex.

Something McGinity saw increasing over her research was a building trend in renewed Jewish identity on the part of intermarried women over time. Particularly when you cross into the Civil Rights era (50’s-60’s) that trend of strongly renewed sense of self-identification as a Jew starts to pick up. One of the things I found painful while I read the book was the ever-present, often vociferous opinions against intermarriage. It gets wince-worthy the closer the book comes to the present. In some ways it was easier for me to write off the anti-intermarriage sentiment of the late 1800s and early 1900s because it was so ‘long ago.’

The closer you get to the present day the more bullshit it feels that people still think these things. That a community could prioritize “in reach” to eliminate intermarriage over proactive outreach to keep intermarried families involved strikes me as particularly heinous. McGinity’s delivery is more nuanced and more mature than mine is here, but her dismay over the prejudiced reactions to intermarried families was clear. She did her duty to present both sides of the argument throughout her text, presenting a historic longview where each set of attitudes were in their proper contexts to each other.

The story of Jewish women in the States, is a one that is deeply influenced by it being a narrative that takes place in the U.S. Our identities as Jewish women here have been deeply affected by the Civil Rights movement, the many phases of the American Feminist movement, and the nationwide conversations over time concerning faith, individualism, and secularism.

As our rights have increased, there has been a corresponding growth in a renewed and strengthened Jewish self in intermarried Jewish women. We’re not “losing” intermarried women in droves to assimilation, as told in the hysteric polemic of institution conversation. Jewish identity and family have become complex, but plenty of women remain Jews in their intermarriages.

The data McGinity shows throughout her text would suggest to me that even more women will feel empowered and strong in their identities when the Jewish establishment stops its vicious inward conversation about whether “in reach” or “outreach” is more important than the other, and ascribing moral outcomes to either. Because these women are still Jewish.

A Return to Broken Branches

April 19th, 70 years ago, the Jews in the ghetto rose up against the Nazis. The day before Pesach, the day they were to be deported to certain death, they rose up and fought for as long as they could. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was ended on May 16th. I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately, in part because it’s the season, as it were, for remembrance and anniversaries.

I appreciate the extent of knowledge we’ve gained about the Shoah, but revisiting the past with no return to the future makes me uneasy. It ignores history since then, it makes us seem like a people who no longer live and breathe. So today, I wanted to highlight some Kickstarters that are telling the stories of Poland’s Jews, neither ignoring the Shoah nor focusing solely upon it.

In Broken Branches, animator Ayala Sharot tells the story of her grandmother, Michal Rechter. Rechter was sent from Poland to Israel by herself, on the eve of WWII. She never saw her family again. In a mix of line drawing animation, animated scenes, animation adapted photographs and oil paint-glass animations, she tells the story of her grandmother in 25 minutes. Sharot’s work that we see in the trailer is talented and well-suited to how she’s framed the story being told. The project has squeaked into being funded, but still has a few weeks to go.


In Adam Zucker’s documentary The Return, the documentarian takes his skills to Poland. Jewish life is still reviving, defining itself, exploring an identity that stretches into the past, but the future as well. In his project’s description it says “The film tells the very human story of acknowledging the past without being beholden to it.” The women the documentary focuses on are all negotiating identity, in a Jewish community devastated by a war from before they were born. The Return has a few weeks to go as well, but still has more than $25,000 to go. What footage is in the trailer looks like it was shot with a keen eye, and I look forward to seeing where the project goes.

Endeavor to Repair

Credit: Elsa Sjunneson-Henry. Used with permission.

One of my best friends went dark when Hurricane Sandy crashed into the States. I kept her Twitter and Facebook open, vainly hoping for an update. Pushing refresh on her pages. Checking my text messages, voicemail, e-mail. Anything. I couldn’t think of a good prayer. I said the Sh’ma, to reassure myself. To remind myself of holiness even in a very scary, terrible, fearsome time. When she called Wednesday, I cried. She was unharmed during the storm, but had been without power and any way to contact the outside world.


The aftermath of Sandy is everywhere, including the Jewish press. JTA’s been liveblogging Hurricane Sandy and the aftermath. JD Forward’s done some stuff already. Torah scrolls have been damaged, mezuzot retrieved from who knows how many doorways already. And only G-d knows how many have been destroyed or lost in the storm.

Homes were destroyed. Places of worship. New York and New Jersey and Staten Island and Coney Island are just a few of the places that got hit. A part of the places the dead of Hurricane Sandy called home.

I’ve never been to Haiti,Jaimaca, Cuba, the Bahamas. They were hit. Death tolls and damage numbers are things that stretch—and they never seem to go down. Only up.

I know you’re aware of places you can donate money. That you are smart enough to vet relief funds on a basic level so you know your money is going to where the need is.

I know not all of us are on east coast. Or even in the States. But giving aid, comforting the sick and dying, doing right by the people around us. Those are Jewish values. I’m a big believer in prayer, and hope. In doing what you are able to, and to the best of your ability. I expect no one to give more than they can, and if you look at the tradition of charity, we are not to give so much of ourselves, particularly monetarily, as to beggar ourselves. But we live in a modern era.

Money is not the only thing we have to give.

Ask other people to give a shit—and to get together with you to help.

Write an e-mail. Send a text. Pick up a phone. Follow an east coast newspaper on Twitter, or Facebook, and keep up with what is going on right now, on what is going on months from now—and  how much or little has changed. Join the conversation and become knowledgeable about the scientific, fiscal, and cultural issues that must be faced.

Do whatever it is you are good at, that you can give of yourself, to help the people left in devastation’s wake. Most importantly, do not harden your heart to this. Don’t just let Hurricane relief become something you let go of, like a trend.

Do one thing, one real thing, to help.

You start in whatever way you can, in the Jewish community, outside of it, whatever place you can take the first step to act with compassion. Ask for donations, cook meals, give blood, find ways to put people with money or resources in touch with the people who need them so much right now.

And after that first step, you don’t stop walking. If you have never been involved with tikkun olam, or if you think it’s dumb to say hurricane relief helps repair the world, I’m asking you to consider something.

When we rebuild a city, we rebuild the spirit and hearts of its inhabitants. If we aid them rebuild, and do not harden our hearts to their voices, we have started to understand what it truly is to repair the world.

Where Were You?

On Monday, October 22, more than 120 viewers logged on to watch a ProZion UK live webcast of Anat Hoffman being interviewed by Deborah Blausten. All over the world, watching and listening, live tweeting and asking questions, people watched Hoffman talk about religious freedom, women’s rights, and democracy.

Anat Hoffman is part of Women of the Wall, a women’s prayer group that started in Israel in 1988. Arguably, she is the most recognizable face of WoW, particularly in the Diaspora. She is the woman whose name I’ve been hearing since my teens, connected to concepts like equality, religious freedom and religious pluralism. She is the one whose name I remember connected to repeated arrests, because a woman praying in a tallit is so threatening as to be a crime. More »

Almost Everything I Know (Just Might Be Wrong)

If I’d written this before July, I’d be saying different things.

On my mother’s side we are mixed race, and descended from Jewish refugees who fled to America. On my father’s side, we are mixed race, and there is an intertwined narrative of Irish Diaspora and life after the Indian Reservations were left behind. My family is expert in the words and story of exile and Diaspora, loss and flight. I grew up as a part of that narrative, and for years it was both pride and a source of comfort. I was encouraged to pass for white whenever possible, and we attended Protestant Christian services. No one breathed a word of being anything but white, claiming English ancestry and being coached by the generations before us to speak with practiced diction and without accent.

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Filed under Ethnicity, Family