Earning Egalitarianism

Leading tefillah for the first time is scary. Countless bar mitzvah boys, and increasing numbers of bat mitzvah girls, experience this fear as part of a rite of passage; facilitating  a community in prayer marks their coming of age, their full adult membership in this community. Despite my familiarity with traditional Hebrew prayers and innumerable hours spent in shul, however, I did not lead any element of tefillah, nor did I read from the Torah, until I was seventeen — three weeks ago.

Growing up in a Modern Orthodox community and attending Modern Orthodox day schools, I was given tremendous gifts of Jewish literacy. I can read Biblical texts and accompanying commentaries. I can look up and understand halakhic rulings. With the help of a dictionary or two, I can make my way through a page of Talmud. But these skills did me little good in the synagogue. At prayer, I was a silent observer, able to mutter liturgy quickly and fluently, but never with the knowledge, confidence, or — most importantly — the opportunity to lead.

As I began to move in the world and become active in creating Jewish spaces, especially as I agitated to ensure that egalitarian tefillah was provided in as many contexts as possible, my inability to serve as a shlichat tzibbur or to leyn became a serious hindrance. I could plan a prayer service, but not lead it, coordinate leyners but not read from the Torah myself. This surprised people; I seemed, apparently, to be a person who is comfortable and competent in Jewish leadership positions, so how could I be neither in the synagogue?

I’ve always been a nervous performer. For as long as I can remember, school plays and class presentations were a source of terror. As I have grown older, I’ve become confident presenting about World War I to my history class, happy to announce a club meeting at morning announcements in school; the vestiges of my stage fright, however remain. I still opt out of plays, preferring to applaud my friends from the audience, and when asked to speak in front of large groups, I often demur. This anxiety carries over to tefillah — though I am fluent in the prayers, the thought of leading them alone prompts trepidation.

Ideally, membership in a community requires participation. Investment in a shul or a minyan asks one to step up, to take on a role in facilitating services. But is this a necessary prerequisite for egalitarianism? Should I have to participate in them to ensure that there are services which meet my basic moral standard of treating me like a person? This has been a dilemma of mine for the past year, as I press for egalitarianism but could not act out those principles myself.

On one hand, if I want a certain type of prayer community, it is my responsibility to create it. I cannot simply sit and wait for others to carry out my values in any context, but all the more so religiously. On the other hand, however, my commitment to egalitarianism is as an issue of fundamental equality. Must I be shul-competent to earn the right to a prayer service in which I am counted and treated as an equal adult Jew? By what calculus does one earn accommodation of her moral principles?

Ultimately, my desire to be fully literate in the language of the synagogue won out over my fear of performance, and I’ve now led weekday maariv and mincha. I was spurred to learn to leyn by a friend who simply insisted that I do it; the expectation that I needed the skill to be a full member of my Jewish community was a new one, one that every Orthodox bar mitzvah boy experiences. Every time I do it, it gets easier. I have not resolved my internal conflict — I still don’t believe that I need to earn the right to egalitarian tefillah, but now I am more competent to create it.

The creation of a truly egalitarian community requires the community to internally encourage and expect women, who are often raised without the skill and comfort with liturgy and Torah reading that our male peers have, to learn (and then teach) these abilities. Egalitarian communities must offer women education paired with expectation. One does not need high-level musical skill to lead weekday mincha. Leyning is, for many people, not as hard as it looks. There must be a balance: one should never have to earn her place in the synagogue, to be treated as full member of the community, through liturgical skill. But women are shortchanged when we are not expected to attain the skills and literacy that almost every observant thirteen-year-old boy learns.

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. – See more at: jewschool.com/2014/03/24/31822/every-time-a-woman-is-seen-in-tefillin-or-tzitzit-the-jew-at-prayer-in-the-common-imagination-becomes-more-fluid-2/#sthash.MDuInwYE.dpuf
Avigayil is a 2014 graduate of the Hebrew High School of New England. She is an alumna of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships and The Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor’s inaugural class of Rising Voices Fellows, as well as Drisha Institute’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. Avigayil plans to spend the upcoming academic year studying at Midreshet Ein Hanatziv, after which she will attend Yale University.
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. – See more at: jewschool.com/2014/03/24/31822/every-time-a-woman-is-seen-in-tefillin-or-tzitzit-the-jew-at-prayer-in-the-common-imagination-becomes-more-fluid-2/#sthash.MDuInwYE.dpuf

Tuesday Night 17 b’Tammuz / Ramadan Break-the-Fast Event at Masjid Malcolm Shabazz

NYC-area Jewschoolers,

We hope you can join us tomorrow night (Tuesday, July 15) at 7:30pm for a special break-the-fast communal gathering in Harlem at the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque (Malcolm X’s mosque, located near the corner of W 116th St and Lenox Ave.).  Especially in light of the tragic violence besetting the Middle East, we want to come together as a community in the spirit of peace and unity.

This event is part of the broader בוחרים בחיים – اختيار الحياة – Choose Life Ramadan-17 b’Tammuz fast to support a message of peace and coexistence.

Everyone is welcome to join in for prayer, food, and reflection. We hope you can join us for what we know will be a meaningful conversation.

If you can make it, please BYOS (bring your own siddur) and bring some nosh along to share.

Tzom Qal and let us pray for peace.

Bourbon Tasting as Jewish Community

It has been a very dark time for Jewish news over the past few weeks. War and war crimes, chants calling for our death, us calling for others’ deaths, and overall nastiness.  Often times, even on the storied pages of Jewschool, we simply ignore the rest of the Jewish world during the perennial security operations taking place in the name of the Jewish people.

Yet there are other things happening in the Jewish world and some of them are good.  In fact some are even fun.  While this post deviates from some of the hard hitting topics we often discuss in this forum, it is an important one for more than the obvious reasons. More »

Tamar Fox: Talking in Shul

Tamar Fox is one third of the team that brings you  “Talking in Shul,” along with Mimi Lewis and Zahava Stadler. Tamar is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. She has worked at MyJewishLearning.comHaggadot.comShma.com, and Jewcy.com, among others. Her writing has been published in the Washington Post, the Jerusalem Post, and Tablet Magazine. Tamar’s first book, No Baths at Camp, was published in 2013, and is a PJ Library selection.

Jewschool: Tell us about Talking in Shul and how it got started. 

Tamar Fox: Talking in Shul is a roundtable podcast featuring Zahava Stadler, Mimi Lewis, and me, talking about various Jewish political and cultural topics. It’s one of several podcasts in the Open Quorum family of podcasts–the other big one is SermonSlam, but there are many more forthcoming. David Zvi Kalman, who came up with the idea for OpenQuorum approached me about creating a podcast and I’m a total podcast fiend, so I was on board right away. I really love podcasts where a group of people bat around an idea for 10-30 minutes, so that’s the kind of podcast I wanted to create and we set about looking for other people to join the table, as it were.

Jewschool:  What do you think each of you brings to the podcast, in terms of background and perspective?

Tamar Fox: Zahava is pretty solidly modern Orthodox. Mimi comes from a Reform background, and I grew up going to Conservative and Orthodox day schools, and going to a non-denominational minyan, so between us I think we speak to a wide scope of Jewish experiences.

Jewschool:  How do you decide what to talk about?

Tamar Fox: We have a Google doc where we brainstorm ideas, and we sometimes come up with ideas for future tapings while we’re recording episodes. We also try to be at least a little newsy, and think about whatever stories are big in the Jewish news world.

Jewschool:  What do you think is unique about this podcast? Why should we listen to it?

Tamar Fox:  I didn’t set out to have it be only women, but I think it’s really wonderful that we are featuring women’s voices, and that’s not something that you see a lot in Jewish podcasts. Also, I think we’re really a fun, interesting crew, and it’s nice to have a Jewish news/culture discussion podcast. That’s not something that really exists otherwise, to my knowledge.

Jewschool: How can people find Talking in Shul? 

Tamar Fox: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, or you can list on the Open Quorum website.  Sermonslam is basically a poetry slam for sermons, where sermons are very loosely defined as “short performances on a preset theme.” They are similar to the Moth storytelling events, with winners chosen at the end, but we record all performances, and you can listen to them on the Open Quorum podcast stream.

Jewschool: Finally, what are you  excited about for  the future of the podcast? 
Tamar Fox: I don’t know for sure when we’re going to talk about it, but we’re thinking about doing a segment on Jewish social justice, and how sometimes Jews want to frame an issue as particularly Jewish, when really, it’s just a moral imperative, and maybe that’s Torah based and maybe not, but we should still act on it.

 

(P.S.  If you do a Google search for “Talking in Shul,” this comes up. Which apparently is the inspiration for the song “Don’t Talk, Just Daven,” by the Miami Boys Choir. When I did a search on You Tube for that song, I found this.)

Throw Back Thursday: Doing Better Edition

Tonight at the JCC in Manhattan, the Jewish Multiracial Network will co sponsor a panel called Mixed Multitudes: Race and Ethnicity in the Jewish Community in which panelists Erika Davis, Yitz “Y-Love” Jordan, Eric Greene, Tamara Fish, and Deborah Vishnevsky will discuss their  experiences being a Jew of Color in light of communal issues, such as  continuity and identity.

Here’s our 2012 interview with Erika Davis, about racism, real diversity, and the hard work of making change. 

 

Q: Tell us what we can find at Black, Gay and Jewish.

ED: I started to write Black, Gay and Jewish when I realized that converting to Judaism and talking about Jewish things was taking up a lot of space on my now defunct blog about lesbian  dating in NYC (I’d just come out). I started writing it as a sort of personal journal through the process of converting to Judaism and also because there was only one other blog penned by a black, gay and Jewish woman. (This isn’t to say that there weren’t awesome blogs out there about conversion; there are so many that it  boggles the mind. A few are written by gay Jews and by Jews of Color, but rarely did I find anything on the web that had all three.)  More »

Skirts in Context

This is a guest post by Avigayil Halpern.

One of my most vivid memories from elementary school is obstacle courses in gym class. Riding on small, flat, scooters and propelling ourselves with our hands we would wind our way through a series of foam pads and balance beams in relay races, an activity that I found more fun than the usual sports activities. I don’t remember these races for the fun, however. On a regular basis, my skirt would catch in the wheels of the scooters as I raced my peers through the obstacles, and this is what sticks in my head.

I’ve worn skirts to school every day since first grade. The skirts/school connection is so strong in my mind that I have had nightmares about accidentally showing up at school in a pair of jeans, the Orthodox day school girl equivalent of the showing-up-at-school-in-your-underwear dream. It has been such a part of the natural order of my world that back when my skirt got caught in the scooter wheels, I shrugged and pulled it out again, calmly, accepting that the dress code would make me fall a little behind the boy racing me from the other team.  More »

Goodbye, Reunions; Hello, Laboratories: On Social Media and Communities in the Flesh

Hey, Jewschoolers.  Check out my piece in Sh’ma Journal considering the consequences for community building and relationship nurturing of social media and virtual life.  I’ll tease it here, and you can click on the link to read the rest on Sh’ma.

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People are more mobile than ever; communities and jobs are more fluid, and relationships are taking on new shapes. While we are more globally connected, we are feeling ever more alienated and desperate for rootedness, connection, and community. For those of us in the expanding Zeitgeist of virtual communities, a number of questions require consideration:

  • How do people retain both their deep connections and the casual ones that enable the migration of ideas?
  • How do virtual communities affect our humanity and relationships?
  • Is commitment to physical place important?
  • What do we gain and what do we lose through so much mobility?
For the rest of this article, click here and check out Sh’ma.

We’ve Been Waiting for You: A Retrospective with Maharats

Just about a year ago, the first class of Maharats graduated. For those of you who haven’t been following the various stories over the last year or so, the term Maharat is a Hebrew acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, translated as one who is teacher of Jewish law and spirituality. In other words, an Orthodox Jewish female rabbi. But, you know, without the title of rabbi. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a webinar hosted by JOFA entitled “The Maharats’ First Year: A Retrospective,” where three Maharats and one soon-be-ordained Maharat spoke about their experiences thus far. Part of me was hoping for anger: these women are basically rabbis, don’t they deserve the respect of earning the same title for the same job that men do? Even though I was hoping for angry women ready to lead the way for change in their fields, I’m also relieved that this was not the case. Instead, Maharats Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Abby Brown Scheir, Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Rori Picker Neiss were enthusiastic, calm, and not bitter in the slightest.

Each woman spoke of the supportive nature her respective congregation and fellow clergy people. While there were minor displays of negativity, for the most part each Maharat was warmly welcomed into her community. Communities that for so long have denied women the opportunities to become leaders in their shuls. Now, these communities can see the full potential the women members of their synagogue have to offer. Maharat Abby spoke of how excited her community was to have her, and how interest in bat mitzvahs have increased since she began her position.  More »

Throwback Thursday: the Price of Jew$chool

Nearly all of the issues I raised in my 2011 post,The Price of Jew$chool,” which lamented the state of Jewish Day School tuition and the weaknesses of its alternatives in formal Jewish education, unfortunately remain quite relevant today.  Then again, statements such as the 25-year-old Greek Chief-Rabbi elect‘s recent reflection that the internet was his Jewish education, stand as sobering reminders that beyond the U.S. and Israel, Jewish education, even in its most modest forms, is a scare resourceAccording the 2013 Pew Report Forum findings on Jewish life in America, 23% of Jews report having attended Jewish Day School or yeshiva in their youth, and nearly 60% have attended some other form of (non-Day School) formal Jewish education. What does the future hold? How can we respond to this continuing crisis?

The Price of Jew$school

Before you panic, rest assured: we’re not about to start charging you when you read more than 20 posts per month.  No, we’re talking about the ever-skyrocketing expense of sending children to Jewish day school in the U.S.

With $7,000 you might be able to fly back and forth to Israel six times, but for the same price you could stay put in Overland Park KS and learn at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy for one year.  One thousand dollars more will buy you—show them what they’ve won—one year of 1-8th grade education at the Cincinnati Hebrew Day School. If you want to send your child to the Solomon Schechter of Atlanta, be prepared to shell out upwards of $17,000 per year starting with first grade.  $26,650 might be a fine price for a Toyota RAV4 Sport, but did you know that for the same price, you can ‘kaneh likha rav’—or maybe even four—and enroll for one year of high school at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, PA? $29, 955 would be a steal for a small, foreclosed apartment in a depressed real estate market, but it could also buy you one year’s education at Milken community high school in LA.  These numbers don’t even include the usual “give and get” $1,000+ minimums typically imposed upon day school families on a yearly basis. More »

On Sexual Harassment and the Religious Pedestal

This is a guest post by Shani Ben Or, the Community Coordinator for Kol HaNeshama, Jerusalem’s flagship congregation of the Reform Movement, where she also serves as a cantor, studies Critical, Feminist Pedagogy at the Kibbutzim College, and is a fellow in the inaugural Jerusalem cohort of the Takum social justice beit midrash. Translated from the Hebrew by Aryeh Bernstein.

A few years ago, I volunteered in a youth center for teens at risk in south Tel Aviv.  The constituency served by the center represented the sectors most oppressed and discriminated against by Israeli society.  In many respects, this encounter was life-changing for me, but was also wound up with numerous challenges, among the most significant of which related to gender.  Every week, I was greeted with comments about my appearance, my beauty, and my body.  I received countless “offers”, of varying degrees of obscenity.  It was clear to me that these teenage boys were testing my boundaries in a smart and sophisticated way.  When push came to shove, they touched on my greatest place of vulnerability with regard to them.  In every other way, the power hierarchy in this youth center was clear and priviliged me: I was a volunteer and they were the troubled youth being mentored and counseled.  The power hierarchy in Israeli society was just as clear and to my privilege:  I am an Ashkenazic Jew in Israel from an American background. However, in one respect, the power relationship privileged them and put them in a position of power over me:  I am a woman and they are men.  They tipped the scales of the power balance to assert some power over a person who in many ways has power over them, and it worked:  as a woman, with my own experiences of gender oppression, I was affected by their actions.  They succeeded. More »

Press Release: In Victory for Open Hillel, Hillel International Announces Changes

Washington, D.C. – May 11th, 2014 – Following pressure from the Open Hillel campaign, Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut announced that Hillel will create an “Israel Strategy Committee” as well as a Student Cabinet. The Israel Strategy Committee will convene students and Hillel professionals to make recommendations on improving programing on Israel-Palestine, while the Student Cabinet will represent general student concerns in Hillel International. The Open Hillel campaign responded to these announcements with two statements commending Hillel International for these changes and urging Hillel to ensure that these bodies are more than just token gestures to students. More »

What Does a Jew Look Like? A Video by the Jewish Multiracial Network

(By Erika Davis, Board member, Jewish Multiracial Network)

Wait, you’re Jewish?

“Yes, I’m Jewish.”

“But you don’t look Jewish.”

“Well, what does Jewish look like to you?”

Silence.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to have that conversation, yet it’s a conversation I’ve had several times in my life. And I’m not alone. Most multiracial Jews and Jews of Color have been told that they don’t look Jewish, which always begs the question, “What does a Jew look like?” The Jewish Multiracial Network, a 17 year-old organization whose mission is to spread awareness about Multiracial Jewish families and Jews of Color through education has released a video that answers the “Jewish Question” in a minute-thirty seconds beautifully.  The fact is, there isn’t one way to look Jewish.

Open Hillel Presents: The Open Hillel Sandwich

Check out the latest from Open Hillel- this video reminding us there is indeed more than one way to be Jewish, and more than one way to talk about Israel/Palestine.

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.

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.

 

 

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 »

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.”
More »

“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.