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 mitzvahbikur 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 »
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.
The following is a guest post by Efrem L. Epstein. Efrem is the founder of Elijah’s Journey, an organization focusing on the issues of suicide awareness and prevention in the Jewish community.
For several months now I’ve joked about the potential lawsuit I could file against Matthew Quick, author of the novel “Silver Linings Playbook” from which the film nominated for eight 2013 Oscars is adapted. On first glance, Pat Peoples (renamed “Pat Solitano” in the film) could only be based on me. We’re both die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fans, who took up dancing as a hobby, spent time living in Baltimore, wrestled with issues of life’s purpose and idealized love and battled the demons of depression and won (K’eyn Ayin Hara). In reality, I am hardly the only person in the world who can relate to Pat. Depression affects 350 Million globally and, in the U.S. alone, there are 1,000,000 suicide attempts annually. Many are surprised to learn that reported suicides outnumber homicides by more than a 2:1 ratio (and if one were to account for unreported/unconfirmed suicides the ratio would likely be closer to 3:1). In thanking David O. Russell after her SAG-AFTRA Best Female Actor win, Jennifer Lawrence proclaimed, “You made a movie for your son so that he wouldn’t feel alone, and so that he could feel understood. And I think I can speak on behalf of most of us and say that you helped more than your son. You’ve helped so many sons and daughters, husbands, wives, everybody.”
The positive lessons that can be learned from Silver Linings Playbook are so numerous that at times it feels like an entire social justice curriculum…and a good one at that! Not only does the movie enlighten us about tolerance and acceptance but it also offers some fresh and rich insight on how we as a society can move past many of our stubborn stigmas regarding depression, mental illness and emotional disorders (three cheers for Pat’s character being portrayed as both desirable and dateable even with his demons and flaws). And let’s not forget the lesson about how so many of our personal relationships (romantic, platonic and family) can be improved through more open and honest lines of communication. Silver Linings Playbook has also been a wonderful conversation-starter that has prompted many public figures to further share their own stories. I strongly recommend reading former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy’s piece from The Daily Beast.
But the movie is especially poignant in my eyes for offering up a “playbook” of sorts for handling life’s curves. Life is, and should be, full of dreams but the dark side of dreams is that they often get shattered! Six months before Pat Solitano appeared on movie screens, Vice President Joe Biden gave many of us in the suicide awareness/prevention movement our own “Jackie Robinson moment.” Recalling the tragic accident which claimed the lives of his daughter and first wife, he recounted, “”For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide…because they had been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again.” As we watch Pat move on from his old dreams to build new ones, we realize a truth of life: Bad things do happen to us and sometimes REALLY bad things happen to us, but even amongst our most shattered dreams there is always a road back to happiness. “Folks, it can and will get better,” Biden told the audience later in his speech.
In the world of Israel advocacy, there’s a popular campaign aimed at halting people’s criticism of Israel’s policies by listing all the excellent and innovative technologies Israel has invented (and/or talking about it’s worse to be a woman/queer person in a place that’s not Israel and usually rhymes with Schmalestine).
To add to the list of things Israel has invented (in addition to cell phones, instant messenger, radiation free breast cancer diagnostics) is the Anti Date Rape straw. The straw can detect two most widely-used date rape drugs: ketamine and gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB) in a drink and the change of color alerts the person drinking of the presence of those drugs.
Let’s hope that distributing this straw doesn’t become a substitute for not having conversations about consent, power, rape and communication. And if it’s going to become a staple of the kind of Israel advocacy that I mentioned above, let’s also take the opportunity to talk about the current position of women in Israeli society (shitty), and MAYBE EVEN that rape and sexual assault happen in the Jewish community. It would be a great opportunity to elevate the sad state of Israel advocacy (on campus and otherwise) and talk about something hard that we don’t like to talk about, as a community or otherwise.
Of course, the existence of said straw is good regardless of whether or not nuanced conversations about it happen. But you know, not better than just not raping people.
About a year ago I was watching a young Israeli physician examine an Eritrean boy at the Physicians for Human Rights clinic. The boy sat looking at the ground as his cousin explained that he wasn’t sleeping at night, often waking up sweating in terror. He said the boy was wetting the bed and that he couldn’t keep his food down. When he was asked to get up and walk to the examination table, he wrapped both his hands around his thin right thigh and lifted- left, lift, right, left, lift, right. Only 13, he was thin and weak because of his trek across the Sinai desert. Along the way he was kidnapped and held captive for three months by a Bedouin criminal organization where he was tortured, deprived of food and water and forced to wait as his family in Eritrea was extorted of thousands of dollars. That day in the clinic, wearing donated clothes that hung off his frame, was his second day in Tel Aviv. More »
A few weeks ago, my good friend Mordechai Levovitz mentioned on Facebook that he would like to see a debate between myself and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the subject of circumcision. I was aware of the fact that following a brief back and forth on CNN, Rabbi Boteach had challenged Lloyd Schofield, the man behind the ballot initiative in San Francisco, to a longer form debate. I was also aware that Schofield had declined the challenge. I wrote to Rabbi Boteach suggesting that he debate me instead. Much to my surprise, I received an email a few days later saying that Rabbi Boteach was interested. The terms we agreed upon were that there would be 10 minute opening statements followed by 5 minute rebuttals, and an hour and a half of Q&A. We also agreed that I would be provided with an unedited copy of their video in addition to which I would be able to shoot my own video of the event. The debate was scheduled to take place at the Manhattan Jewish Experience on July 18th. I prepared for the debate and flew out to NY with my camera and tripod in tow.
A few hours before the event, I was having lunch with my mother and sister on 72nd street when I got an email from Boteach’s people requesting that I call them urgently. They informed me that I would not be allowed to shoot video of the debate and that no cameras other than the MJE’s official camera would be allowed in the room. No explanation for this change was forthcoming and I had to take it or leave it. Despite advice from close family and friends to pull out on account of this blatant breach of terms, I went ahead with the debate and at the last minute, set up an audio recorder. The debate itself was spirited and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience despite the glaring absence of a moderator. But my absolute favorite moment of the evening came just after the debate was over. Rabbi Boteach came up to me and by way of apology for all of the drama said “You have to understand. No offense, but I just didn’t know who you were.”
Upon returning home, I asked Boteach’s people for an unedited copy of the video as per our original agreement. They refused. Luckily, I had my audio recording which I posted on the Cut website and on YouTube. It was not long before Boteach’s people posted their video, which turned out to be the first 40 minutes of the debate shot from a bizarre dutch angle at knee height and compressed to within an inch of its life. Here are the two versions of the debate:
My first year at camp as a kid was great: Sports, Arts and Crafts, Lake Front, Advanced Swimming and, of course, the coveted first dance with a girl. All of this was set against the bucolic setting of the NJ-YMHA-YWHA Jr. camp, Camp Nah-Jee-Wah. Two years later I would be off to California with my family but Camp Nah-Jee-Wah has always held a special place in my heart and so did that dance with Rachel Cohen-Stien-Berg-Steen (clearly it was much more important at the time).
All kidding aside, Jewish summer camp changed my life for the better. I learned more in five years as a camper at Camp Alonim than I did in more than a decade of religious school. I met my wife and a number of our lifelong friends at Greene Family Camp. I went into Jewish Community Work all because of the things that happened to me at camps.
The most important thing I learned at these camps besides being one of the best sports players at a Jewish summer camp really isn’t so impressive when you come back home, was that our traditions teach us to respect ourselves, our bunkmates and camp, to stick by our bunkmates when they sneak out at night and get caught and that if you kill it you fill it. Take these concepts to a more mature conclusion and you get respect for sanctity of life and environment and the importance of sticking to our values in the face of hardship (and really if you kill it you better fill it, I love the tater tots).
So when I read in the Forward this week that New Jersey’s YMHA-YWHA Camps have leased their land for hydraulic fracturing a little piece of my childhood became filled with carcinogenic waste, naturally occurring radioactive materials and devastated shale. More »
I’ve long agreed with the sentiment of this Wall Street Journal article- that Borscht is an underrated, under-appreciated food among the under 40 set. Though I know Russians my age who enjoy a bowl now and then, most of my generation has never heard of it let alone tried it. It is a low calorie, no-fat food but it somehow never has caught on as an item either among hipsters, health-niks or beet-niks (couldn’t help myself..). The Borscht Diet! Borscht-tinis! Hey, did you hear that new eastern european brass band, Borscht!
Somehow, outside of pockets of immigrants, this delicious cold soup has never made it to the culinary heights of other foods. Its interesting to read the inner workings of the Gold family struggling with the flagging sales of their flagship product. With all the Jewish foodies out there, I’m wondering if maybe they’ve missed something or if any has some sage advice for Borscht producers (hey- sage in Borscht?).
If we’re going to talk about sex, we have to make sure it’s more complicated and honest than simply “don’t do it.” What are you waiting, or not waiting for? What information are you basing your decision on? Is it about pressure from your partner, your parents, or your community? Shame, confusion, or fear of your sexuality? “Facts” about sex that are actually wrong?
You can find all this (and more) on the OU.org‘s website. First of all, condoms are bad. They don’t protect you from everything, so don’t even bother. Neither does the Pill, or Depo, or the patch. Of course, because the goal of the website is abstinence, there’s no suggestion that using two forms of birth control might actually be a great option. In case you’ve sought out this website as a guide to protecting yourself from pregnancy and STI’s…good luck. There’s no practical information for you here. We hope you don’t get pregnant!
Also noteworthy-suicide! According to the study credited (“Adolescent Depression and Suicide Risk Association with Sex and Drug Behaviors.” American Journal of Preventative Medicine, vol. 27 no. 3.), “sexually active boys are therefore EIGHT TIMES more likely to attempt suicide!” Girls who are sexually active are three times as likely. I’m going out on a limb here, but maybe it’s because they’ve gotten false/bad information about sex, STI’s, pregnancy prevention and might find themselves in a horrible situation beyond their control? Maybe because they feel ashamed, alienated from their communities, like they can’t tell anyone and have no resources?
If this all weren’t disconcerting enough, there’s gender policing going on. In the section on Messing Around, it’s spelled out for us: Girls are vulnerable. Girls think sex means love, it’s how we get boys to love us. It’s not about pleasure, or exploring sexuality. Boys want sex. All boys, all the time, and they’ll do anything to get it. At least both girls and boys are vulnerable to the “non-physical effects of sexual activity.Guilt, worry, regret, shame, depression and other emotional consequences remain the same, regardless of any contraceptives that may be used.”
I know I’m asking for something that I’m not going to get, which is for the OU to behave as if it were an entirely different organization-one which is sex positive and inclusive. So I’ll set the bar even lower and ask that it be a responsible organization, and give young folks accurate information about sex, as opposed to ignoring reality in exchange for scaring them into abstinence.
…to discuss the legal, medical and ethical ins and outs of Proposition 19–California’s ballot measure to
legalize the recreational use of marijuana. And it was pretty fascinating.
The panel discussion was held at a Reform Synagogue in Beverly Hills and involved a distinguished and well-informed group of experts including former LA County Prosector Sheldon Lodmer (who was involved in landmark cases such as the Manson murder trials and was the prosecutor in the Deep Throat case), Allison Margolin (an LA attorney who focuses her legal work on defending clients in marijuana related cases), Bernadine Fried (the founder and manager of two LA sober living facilities) and Rabbi Elliot Dorff (the rector of the American Jewish University and world renowned ethicist and theologian, and the chair of Committee on Laws and Standards of the Conservative Movement).
Many topics were discussed directly related to Prop 19 and some under the general category of drug use/abuse, civil society and the Jewish perspective on healthy living. Mr. Lodmer was the only panelist who was outspoken in his opposition to Prop 19 not only because of its implications, but also because of what he referred to as the fact that it is “written poorly.” Since this is a Jewish blog, I want to focus on Rabbi Dorff’s perspectives and open the comment field to our reader’s responses (especially those who may be voting next week in CA). More »
Hey everyone, this awesomeness is brought to you by the Gan Project.
Ever wonder why New York and California seem to have so many exciting and fresh, lefty and liberal, progressive and oatmeally Judaism and Jewish community events while the Midwest gets the short change of traditional, conventional, Vanilla flavors of Judaism? Three Chicago Jewish women are hoping to improve the assortment of Jewish expression here in the Midwest by way of Jewish action oriented environmental and agricultural programming, cycling workshops, and gardening. The Gan Project is in its first year of operations. It is a board run organization composed of three founding members Jill Zenoff, Anne LaForti, and Suzanne Nathan. Their inaugural workshop season is underway and includes a fermentation and food preservation series, DIY natural bath and body products, urban gardening, and more.
Their first workshop, Food Preservation 101: Strawberry U-pick, Picnic, and Making Jam was a huge success with 11 participants and 34 jars of strawberry preserves and was featured on Chicago Public Radio’s website. The Gan Project’s website, www.theganproject.org, explains that their mission is “to create a vibrant, sustainable, and healthy Chicago Jewish community. Through working the land as our ancestors did before us, Jews from all walks of life can revitalize their connection to some of the most basic principles of Judaism. By providing positive experiences in nature we can breathe life into old traditions, explore the foundation of our faith, and foster a greater understanding of Torah.” While it might sound like it is geared for the Shomer Mitzvot, it is really pan-denominational, and open to non-Jews as well.
The Gan Project has been fortunate to be able to tap into the much-needed but undeserved “greening” of Chicago’s Jewish communities. The Chicago JCC has generously donated office space and Chicago’s Birthright NEXT has agreed to co-sponsor some of the summer workshop series. Also, Hazon has been instrumental in helping the new non-profit take off.
Their next workshop is set for July 11, at a community kitchen space, to teach and learn how to make lacto-fermented pickles out of season-fresh, local cucumbers. Crunch, crunch, crunchy time!
If you are a facebook user, you’ve likely received some sort of hack invitation recently to join or ‘like’ a page entitled Fact, all girls tell these 10 lies to men when they are cheating. (Note: the males are men while the females are girls.) Even if you have not seen this page on the internet, you still have an opportunity to engage in cultural myth-making vis-à-vis women’s chastity with this week’s Torah portion.
In biblical times, there was a different kind of over-the-top forum for humiliating public disclosure, equally intrusive, but with much higher stakes: the Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, if you skip ahead to Chapter 5 of Numbers, you can read first-hand of the kind invasive intimidation tactics routinely used to “deal with” women whose husband’s suspected them of marital infidelity.
Because such a spectacle is better seen than described, I have taken the liberty to sketch out this rather involved procedure (see below). Interestingly, the text does not include any kind of formal questioning about the suspected woman’s partner(s). Considering how terrifying and demeaning this whole ritual must have been to the accused woman, one can rather safely assume that the desired effect was that she buckled under pressure and disclosed her tawdry secrets, if, indeed, such secrets existed.
The isha sota (or ‘deviant woman’) episode is disturbing on so many counts; one barely knows where to start working through these issues. If the woman proves innocent, she must resume her marital life with a man who has caused her such shame (if this is the case, the man is expected to give an offering as well—but this is only a gesture to God, not to his wife whom he falsely accused). If she is guilty of the charges, her “stomach distends and her thighs sag.”
Fast-forwarding to the Haftorah (Judges 13:2-25) which accompanies this week’s Torah portion, where we read of Manoach who, interestingly, appears suspicious of his wife when she comes to him and reports that an unnamed man appeared before her when she was out in the field all by herself and announced that she would soon become pregnant. While Manoah’s suspicions do not appear to reach the level of jealousy described in the Torah portion, he does insist on seeing the “man” himself. Particularly interesting with regard to this tale is that the son born to this couple as a result of the aforementioned annunciation is a strapping young fellow whose thunderous passion for the wrong woman leads him to his undoing.
What is to be learned here? One should exercise restrain not only in one’s actions, but also in one’s judgments of others.
Click on thumbnails for full-sized images, a step-by-step instruction on testing your woman:
Upon setting out to write this dvar Torah, I had grand visions of talking about the halakhic status of coed toilets. If a woman is ritually unclean, how can other members of her family use the same toilet, for example?
There was going to be a blow-out Foucauldian analysis of the halakhic sources, followed by a lengthy exegesis on Melanie Klein’s partial object; Kohut’s narcissistic transference, and Freud’s paranoia “syllogism” as taken up by Lacan. And then the ground-breaking revelation that we have been/are currently/always will be sinning.
It was going to be fabulous.
Perhaps fortunately for you, Masechet Niddah, Masechet Khullin, and Masechet Keilim (11:2) took me to school. Once again. We can use the same toilet as someone who is ritually unclean because the toilet is “מחובר לקרקע” (it is connected to the ground)—this is the loophole. (For those following at home, this is the same term used in reference to mikvaot, or ritual bath pools.) Furthermore, I learned that in our times–i.e. post-Temple times–we are all tamei met already, and thus this is a non-issue.
Now that we’re all breathing comfortably…
I will tell you, instead, about how I first learned about sex. (What does this have to do with tazria metzorah, you ask? Just wait. You’ll see.) More »
I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.
What are they code words for, Professor Beck? Please, enlighten us.
Communists are on the left, and the Nazis are on the right. That’s what people say. But they both subscribe to one philosophy, and they flew one banner. . . . But on each banner, read the words, here in America: ‘social justice.’ They talked about economic justice, rights of the workers, redistribution of wealth, and surprisingly, democracy.
Right. Clearly, the heinous policies we associate with the Nazis were the result of their social justice programs. Therefore, social justice leads to gas chambers. QED. More »
Think for a second about the e-mail subject line you’ve seen that is the most evocative of American Judaism. I wouldn’t want to presume that all American Jews are Ashkenazim so let’s refine the search to Ashkenazi-American culture.
I just got an e-mail over a Jewish listserv with this title:
health question – pickled herring during pregnancy?
From topic, to phrasing, to foods it has to be in the running for the most American-Ashkenazi Subject Line, Ever. What would the other contenders be?
Also, does anyone have an evidence-based answer? I am sure the original e-mailer would be interested to know.
Shabbat at the Hazon Food Conference is an exceptional experiment in pluralism. I wish I had the time to comment on it, but perhaps that will be saved for reflections tomorrow evening once I’m back home. For now, I will report on the sessions I sat in on today. The first involved a private meeting with current and future rabbis (and the occasional educator) and Nigel Savage, the director of Hazon and a true visionary. The second session, titled “The Vegetable Monologues,” after “The Vagina Monologues,” focused on the stories of three Jewish, female farmers. Before Havdallah, I attended a session of the status of Genetically Modified Organisms in Halakhah put on by Zelig Golden, an environmental lawyer with the Center for Food Safety and Rabbi David Seidenberg. More »
Here’s an old question: How can you be religious when there is zero evidence to support the idea of Gods and no reason to think such a thing exists? Is it not foolish to act so illogically?
And here’s one perspective.
I live with depression. Depression is very clever at erasing evidence. You can list all sorts of reasons for being glad and enjoying life, and depression can knock down every last one of them. When depression is masking your brain, it truly seems as though there is no reason at all to keep going.
But you keep going nonetheless, because you have some hazy idea that there’s something beyond what the evidence suggests. Some days faith in that idea is the only thing that keeps you from giving up and swigging lethal quantities of codeine and whisky.
Most people around one agree that giving up is a bad idea. They encourage you to keep it up with the blind faith, against all perceptible evidence and rational analysis. Thus, apparently, sometimes blind faith, against the evidence and contrary to logic, is not wholly a bad thing.
I live much of my life on the basis that there is a state of being better than the one I presently perceive, even though the depression in my brain makes me unable to reason out how this could be. Even though all the available evidence suggests that such a belief is entirely unfounded, I choose to believe it, and no-one would say me nay.
As a religious person, I also live much of my life on the basis that there is a state of being beyond my present perception, even though reason and observation cannot support it.
Just as sometimes the depression lifts and life can be enjoyed, sometimes life’s perspective widens and transcendence can be experienced. Both of these add value to my life.
The frames of mind which lead to each are precisely similar. One does not require any more suspension of disbelief than the other. It is not about living one’s life entirely by rational scientific principles and then having a whole different set of rules for religion that require reason to be abandoned; from this perspective, it is simply about how much one concedes may be beyond the available evidence. If it is not unreasonable to live with irrational faith concerning the one, it does not seem unreasonable to live with irrational faith concerning the other.