TBT: Remembering Lou Reed, a Year Later

Throwback Thursday has been dark here for a while, with holidays falling on Thursdays, but with the holidays over, we’re back. Today, we recall legendary rock and roll poetic grouch, Lou Reed, front man of the Velvet Underground and prolific soloist, who died last Oct. 27, after which I wrote this piece, cross-posted in Heeb and on our blog, reflecting as a Jew on Reed’s cultural significance.

 

Being Judged as Newborns — a Rosh HaShanah Intention

The dominant Rabbinic tradition is that Rosh HaShanah marks the creation of the world, as our liturgy reflects:  “This is the day, the beginning of Your creation, a memorial of the first day” —   “זה היום תחילת מעשיך, זכרון ליום ראשון” (introduction to Zikhronot in Musaf); “Today is the conception of the world” — “היום הרת עולם” (Shofar service).  Our Day of Judgment, our accountability, zeroes in not on reception of the Torah, but on our very creation as fragile human beings with clean slates.  

On the first day of Rosh HaShanah, we read the Haftarah of Hannah’s suffering over her barrenness, her prayer for a child, and the birth of her son Shmuel, the prophet — on Rosh HaShanah, according to the Rabbis.  Hannah, the outcast, is scorned by the religious establishment, which mistakes her sincere, vulnerable prayer for drunken blathering in violation of Temple decorum and public decency.  But the Rabbis in the Talmud (Berakhot 31 a-b), stylize her prayer as the legal paradigm.  To pray according to halakhah, we must bring out into the open our inner Hannah — our vulnerable, heartbroken, and rejected self, despite the fear.  

On the second day of Rosh HaShanah, we read Jeremiah’s promise that exiled and broken Israel will see new life.  The current agony of exile is poetically personified as Mother Rachel, bitterly weeping for her lost children.  Rachel, like Hannah, suffered for years through barrenness, so the pathos of her wailing over her lost children rings especially intense.  There, too, the Rabbis see something else in the Matriarch’s emptiness.  She is not עקרה (barren, uprooted, maimed, hamstrung), but עיקרה, the essence, the chief, the core of her household (Bereishit Rabbah 71:2).

This Rosh HaShanah, let us create safe spaces for dangerous prayer, to be present as though our prayer is the most important thing for us to do at that moment, because healing the world requires perceptive and audacious consciousness, rooted in vulnerability, and believing in our ability, and each other’s, to be better than we have been.  The consciousness of our continual rebirth requires preparation, inclusivity, and support as we draw out the pain, regret, and joy of our inner Hannahs and Rachels.  Some scholars have suggested that “היום הרת עולם”  should be translated not, “today is the conception of the world”, but, “Today is pregnant with eternity”.  God sees us as newborns, with infinite potential.  Dare we see ourselves that way?

Tzitzit, the Deviant Body, and Male Entitlement

 

I’m a young woman who visibly wears tzitzit. The public nature of my observance of this mitzvah means that when I leave my home, I become public property to many; in the same way that people feel free to comment on the bodies of or even touch pregnant women, people with noticeable tattoos or piercings, and, as has been written about extensively, black women’s hair, when I wear tzitzit in public, my deviant body — at least for those who recognize my fringes — suspends normal expectations of courtesy and privacy. I’m often approached in inappropriate contexts, and even have had my tzitzit grabbed.

 

Is there any context in which it is ever appropriate for an older man to approach a young woman and inquire about what she’s wearing under her shirt? (Let’s put aside, for the moment, that male teachers and administrators at Orthodox day schools DO police girls’ clothing, as has most recently been brought to light by a senior at the Yeshivah of Flatbush.) Yes, my fringes are visible, but the violation of my privacy I face on a regular basis about my tallit katan is appalling. The typical interaction of “Excuse me, can I ask you a question?” followed by an awkward fidgeting and mumble about my tzitzit as the asker realizes that they hadn’t actually formulated a question is always unpleasant for me as an introvert, and irritating in its assumption that my unusual garment means I am open for conversation in otherwise rude contexts. (See: the Israeli police officer who interrupted a date to ask.) Curious women are one thing; while I’m often disturbed to be questioned by strangers in public, part of the reason I wear my tzitzit visible is so that the image of a woman in tzitzit will become normalized — when I first began to consider tzitzit, the one image of a woman I’d seen in tzitzit at a partnership minyan flashed again and again in my brain and strengthened my resolve. Even when strange women approach me and ask if I’m wearing standard “boy tzitzit” or a garment made specifically for women, I’ll answer; this question about what is in some ways my underwear gives me a chance to share my views on the mitzvah with more women, and to share with them the resource that is Netzitzot.

 

Men, however, take a different tone when they want to know about my tzitzit. Even if the interaction begins typically (“Excuse me, can I ask you a question?”), it always escalates to a confrontational tone, if not one of outright hostility. I’m consistently shocked by the way men — never peers, always older and better-educated due to their age — feel entitled to confront and debate me. It is as if my tzitzit suspend all of the courtesy, privacy, and in some cases the basic feeling of safety I should be entitled to in any interaction.

Sometimes, the way men use my tzitzit as an opportunity for harassment is obvious – my deviant body provides an opening for creepiness. On a recent evening on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, I was walking alone when I was approached by a man in a black velvet kippah and scruffy beard. He began (in Hebrew) with the usual: “Can I ask you a question?” I nodded unenthusiastically, and he said “are you wearing tzitzit?” “Yes,” I responded. “Are you a man or a woman?” (His use of the feminine “you” in Hebrew made it clear that he was not really confused about my gender.) “Woman,” I said curtly, and moved to walk away. The man then picked up one of my fringes and kissed it – in the process, brushing his hand along my leg. At that point, I began to walk away in earnest. “Wait!” he said, “I want to talk to you more!” “No,” I told him, and began to cross the street. “But I really want to talk to you!” “NO,” I said, and walked away as fast as I could. Later in the evening, I was subjected to a drunken pun from another man about “tzitzit” and “tzitzim” (the Israeli equivalent of “tits”).

Not all interactions I have with men about my tzitzit are as immediately recognizable as creepy. A few months ago, on a summer program for students in or recently graduated from high school, I was sitting in a common area in a college Hillel, studying my Torah reading for Shabbat afternoon. A male peer from the program, who was sitting opposite me, asked a casual question about my beliefs, with an apology if he had disturbed me and an assurance that I wasn’t obligated to answer if I was busy or uncomfortable with the question. I happily engaged in debate with him, but a graduate student sitting nearby soon interjected. Having not been party to any of the previous conversations I’d had over the course of the program during which I’d explained my conception of ritual obligation, the man began to assail me with a series of rapid-fire questions that assumed a familiarity with philosophy that I, as a then-seventeen-year-old with no particular extracurricular interest in the discipline who had for obvious reasons never taken Philosophy 101, lacked. Feeling attacked and uncomfortable, I answered as best I could, then cut him off and left the room to continue learning my leyning.

I sat down in an armchair immediately outside of the room, curled up with my tikkun. I could hear the man still talking to my peers about me. After about ten minutes of productive practicing, a middle-aged man (whom I had apparently not noticed enter the room behind me and join the still-raging debate about my personal practice) walked up to wear I was sitting, and looked me up and down.

“Are you the girl — oh, you are the one with tzitzit!” (It should be noted that because of the way I was curled in the chair and the way he was looking at me, this comment was made with his eyes directed at my ass.)

I nodded and returned to my tikkun, trying to learn one of the final pesukim. The grey-haired professorial-type, ignoring this obvious cue, plunked himself down in the armchair opposite me.

“Do you wear tzitzit to be like your brothers?”

“I don’t have brothers,” I said curtly, returning my focus to Parashat Pinchas.

“Do you want to be a brother?”

I gaped at him.

“No, it’s okay, you can talk to me about it,” he said, “I’m a psychotherapist.”

I gaped at him some more, angry but too thrown off-balance to think of a response. After an unrelated comment about some organization he ran, the man simply picked himself up and walked away. I sat there, confused, upset, and still two pesukim short of having memorized my leyning.

While I did learn the aliyah in time, this encounter (which, it bears mention, also smacked of transphobia) was simply a more extreme example of the ageist, sexist, entitlement unfamiliar men feel to engage with young women through the veneer of a discussion about ideology. Men should never feel like they can aggressively and confrontationally engage with young women about their beliefs or their outfits, and when  they do, their differences in education — what high school student will feel comfortable debating halakha with a rabbi or philosophy with a PhD candidate? — are used as a tactic to silence and overwhelm.

The entitlement of older men to comment on the religious beliefs and experiences of young women came to a head a few months ago in an appalling way. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, an Orthodox congregational rabbi and blogger, somehow dug up a piece published by Eden Farber on the New York Jewish Week’s teen writing site Fresh Ink for Teens about her discomfort as a girl attending an Orthodox shul. (Full disclosure: Eden is a close friend of mine and long-time chavruta.) Rabbi Pruzanksy viciously attacked the article and Eden personally — ignoring that at the time of its publication, the writer was fifteen years old. His article deserves a full and angry rebuttal, but the following is a representative quote: “Young girls who obsess over Tefillin and ignore the strictures of tzniut are really living in a different reality and have abandoned the pretense of serving G-d in favor of self-worship. One might as well daven in front of a mirror.”

In addition to the personal offense I take at comments like “We wouldn’t need the Torah if we could determine how to live – what G-d expects from us – by reading “The Feminine Mystique” or some female teen magazine,” there is a deeper attitude of not only condescension, but what for me as a young woman sets off alarm bells of what can only be called creepiness. Why is a middle-aged male rabbi trawling teen sites for two-year-old articles to rebut?

Rabbi Pruzansky’s behavior echoes that of the man who asked me if I wished I was a boy. There is no respect for boundaries, for age dynamics, for differences in education; this disregard of boundaries easily becomes or blurs into outright sexual harassment. When older men appear to treat teenage girls as partners for debate, this is not an expression of respect. This is the most unequivocal display of sexism and entitlement.

Simply because we exist — sometimes, as in the case of my tzitzit, very visibly — and express and act on our beliefs, we are not philosophical cases to ponder or peers to attack (and, obviously, are not merely sexualized bodies). We are articulate, well-read, and confident in our knowledge and practice. We are often happy to publicly and privately speak about the things we believe in, and to risk criticism online and in person for this. This does not make us public property. We are young women. Those who act as if they do not see this factor are those who are most aware of it.

In Brooklyn Next Sunday? Come Make Shofar-blowing History

Calling all Jews with horns (and their allies)–

You are hereby welcomed to take part in a historical mass shofar-blowing gathering this       coming Sunday in Prospect Park. The event will consist of a shofar-blowing workshop, a  series of collective blasts, and a vegetarian potluck picnic.

At 5:30pm, we will meet at the corner of 15th St. and Prospect Park West and proceed to enter the park. Please arrive on-time so everyone can find each other.

If you own a shofar and/or a phone which can film, please bring it with you, as well as something for the potluck, if you can stay after.

Our rain location is the Park Slope Jewish Center (1320 8th Ave, located at the SW corner of 14th St and 8th Av).

This event is free, open to the public, family-friendly, and intended for experienced and novice shofar-blowers alike, so please do come and invite friends. We hope you can join us as we herald in the new year with great fanfare.

It will be…a blast

Ready for Withering Flowers: A Ritual for Elul

I’m familiar with your story
This gratitude you cultivate helps ground you
And yet, do you really deserve to ask for more?
The answer to this question will give you the balance you seek

Sometimes you need a reminder that we already said farewell to the month of Av
As it is written in Job: “Man born of woman is short of days, and fed with trouble. He blossoms like a flower and withers, and vanishes, like a shadow.” (Job 14:1–2)
In Elul, you are instructed to enjoy the ephemeral beauty of the flowers without worry of their withering
Since t’shuva/repentance is the name of the game, instead of fearing change we welcome it in

Every morning the shofar calls you to t’shuva/repentance
Are you listening?
How might you be more awake in order to hear its sound?
Allow these blossoms a chance to bring you to the presence you desire.

Step 1 – gather flower petals into a large bowl- ideally four colors and four different species. Bowl is ideally wood but can also be glass or metal.
In New England this is a great time of year to find a diversity of goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, chicory and aster.
Step 2 – fill your bowl with water covering the petals – ideally spring water but tap water is also fine. The chance to visit a river, lake or small spring will only add to the ritual
Step 3 – ASK FOR SOMETHING. This is for real. If you’re going to open up enough to do real t’shuvah/repentance this year, you have to acknowledge that you are not yet whole – that there is something about yourself you want to change, or at least cultivate. A useful formula is “May I be…” or “Let me be…”
Step 4 – Pour the entire bowl of petals and water over your head.
Step 5 – Proclaim out loud: “Horeini Ya Darkecha – הוֹרֵנִי יְהוָה, דַּרְכֶּךָ – reveal to me your path” – Ps. 27:11. This is both the sealing of our request and also a letting go of wanting only one thing.

Re-posted by the author from Ma’yan Tikvah’s Divrei Earth: Spiritual wisdom from Earth and Torah.

“It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.””

“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.”

(More here.)

A Still, Small Voice for Suicide Prevention: Elijah’s Journey

by Gabe Kretzmer Seed

Gabe Kretzmer Seed is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and graduate fellow at Elijah’s Journey.

I’ve had the honor of serving as the inaugural graduate fellow for Elijah’s Journey, a wonderful organization which helps to serve as a voice regarding suicide awareness and prevention in the Jewish community.  This Shabbat we will read the haftarah (prophetic portion) from which the organization gets its name.  Though read rarely, due to quirks in the Jewish calendar related to 17th of Tammuz fast day, it is considered the “regular” addition to Parashat Pinchas.

There, in I Kings 18:46-19:20, Elijah has just performed a miracle and proved God’s power over the prophets of Baal. Yet he is pursued by the evil, idolatrous Queen Jezebel, and dejected, asks God to take his life. God instructs Elijah to eat and drink and take a 40 day journey in order to re-assess the situation. Elijah eventually hears God’s voice in a still, small voice, and decides to continue his calling and mission. Elijah’s desire to stop living, lonely period of reconsideration, and reception of a line of hope from a barely audible source, can strike a strong chord with those who have considered ending their lives.  In the United States alone, over one million contemplate suicide each year and over 40,000 do take their own lives. We can all walk in God’s ways and serve as a listening ear and source of encouragement for those around of us who may feel down, dejected or unsupported. More »

Throwback Thursday: Remembering Adam “MCA” Yauch

Many Jewschool readers probably saw a video making rounds on their social media this week, that could be described as “sick like malaria”, or at least, “cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce”:   four Buddhist monks (or, apparently, four young men dressed as Buddhist monks) shaking their rumps in money-makin’ Manhattan’s Union Square to put on a breakdancing show in anticipation of the 2nd anniversary of the death of rapper, bassist, film director, music producer, social activist, and Jew-turned Buddhist, Adam Yauch, aka MCA from the Beastie Boys, aka Nathanial Hornblower, aka, Praying Mantis, who died on May 4, 2012 of cancer, at age 47.

Two years ago, on MCA’s sheloshim (when I was still a guest-poster at Jewschool), I posted this piece trying to capture the depth of grief that some of us otherwise rational and well-balanced adults experienced over Brother Yauch’s passing.  Every word still feels raw and fresh to me.  For the man who put TiBeT in the popular American discourse, here’s today’s TBT for  MCA.  Namaste.

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.

“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.

Rabbinical Girl

The following post is contributed by guest poster Miriam Liebman. A native Detroiter, Miriam Liebman is currently a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Miriam is also an alum of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.

On a Shabbat afternoon last summer, sitting with two colleagues, one turned to the other and said, “Daniel, is this your tallis?” “No,” I said, “It’s mine.” Nothing specifically identifies my tallis as feminine. To the contrary, it is nondescript; white with blue stripes, the tallis my brother received for his Bar Mitzvah. The bag, too, is blue velvet with a gold embroidered star. I would have made the same mistake. The only thing that identifies my tallis as belonging to a woman are the lipstick stains.

I wear make-up and high heals, I like manicures and nice clothes; I am a girly girl. But when it comes to my prayer garb, I feel I will be taken more seriously in something considered un-gendered, neutral. But the more time I spend in traditional Jewish spaces, the more I have come realize that when we claim that a tallis is not gendered what we really mean is that it is male. And when we claim that we are creating egalitarian spaces what we really mean is that women are allowed to enter and participate in traditionally men’s spaces. Are we really only asking for women to find a role in a man’s world or are we asking to ungender the entire space?

Still from "Sermonizer" video

Judaism was a system created by men for men. To the rabbis of the Talmud, “all Jews” meant “all free men.” Today, I am in my second year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I spend my days immersed in texts that tell the lives, stories, and laws of those rabbis. As their words come to life for me, I feel more and more embedded in a vision of Judaism that will both allow me to honor my inheritance and bring my voice to bear on what future generations will inherit. My love of Jewish texts and tradition is not void of an understanding that my voice and the voices of many others are missing. If we are to exist in community where “all Jews” really means “all Jews,” we must live that out without exceptions, without caveats, and without apologies. We must hold ourselves to standards, not because we are expecting perfection, but because being in community means holding each other accountable.

This past fall, a group of seminary women at Duke University put out a parody of Britney Spears’ Womanizer. Taking the music of Britney Spears, they sang and danced on library tables about their own experiences as Lady Preachers in a music video they called Sermonizer. In reflecting on the video, one of the women, Christina, wrote,

I am a lady preacher because some of the best preachers I know are women. Because they stood behind pulpits and talked about periods and infertility, about rape, about divorce. Because they stood behind pulpits and said words that you don’t say in church. Because they helped me learn to say them, too.
I too stand behind a long line of women and their male allies who helped create a place where I can struggle openly and honestly with the inheritance handed to me.

And so, inspired by the Lady Preachers, a group of women at the Jewish Theological Seminary decided to make our own video for the JTS Purim Spiel: Rabbinical Girl, to the music of Madonna’s Material Girl. We did this because we are both proud of and proud to be at JTS. We make jokes about the absence of women’s restrooms on the fifth floor and the pressure often felt at JTS to be partnered, especially as women. Like the Lady Preachers, we were being silly. We were creating and sharing what we knew to be the best Purim Torah we could think of. And like so much of the best comedy that exists, there was no doubt truth in what we said.

There was a moment during editing of the video where I wondered out loud if some of what we were saying was too offensive. I immediately retracted my statement understanding that if we are not willing to publicly say what we believe at our core, we don’t stand for anything. And though we joke about being invisible to those in the non-egalitarian minyan at JTS, and pride ourselves on having worn tefillin since the 80s, the sentiments behind our jokes hold true. Because until we begin to redefine what a person who wears a tallis looks like, lipstick stains or not, and incorporate the experiences of non-masculine bodies and voices into our perceptions of what we mean today when we say “all Jews,” we are continuing to do nothing more than allow women to participate.

When we start from the premise that women and other minority members of our community must be affirmed, we are maintaining a system of patriarchy. Let’s start from the fundamental assumption that all members of our community are equal. I am not under any allusion that habits change over night. But the way we perceive gender roles can only change if we begin to shift the conversation to one that assumes that all roles are open to all people. Affirmation and allowance are not enough. Acknowledging that we are already on a path to full equality, this necessary phase of acceptance must move beyond a woman’s ability to enter into and participate in traditionally held men’s spaces and into one where roles and obligations are no longer questioned on the basis of gender.

It’s time we stop viewing particular women as honorary men. It’s time we stop giving women permission to take on certain roles. It’s time we raise a generation who no longer assumes the rabbi is a man. It’s time we embrace tradition not because it belongs to the binaries we’ve created of men and women but because it belongs to us.

Torah of the Body — The Prayer of Dance

by Ruben Rais

Ruben is an experiential Jewish educator living and creating in Brooklyn. He likes to dance. For more on this theme, see Jay Michaelson’s book, God in Your Body. (aryehbernstein)

Jewish tradition distinguishes between the written Torah and the oral Torah, but is their room to talk about Torah of the body as well? Specifically, does Judaism have something to teach us about dance and movement?

I began to seriously think about this question last fall, when taking a course on dance education at NYU. The class focused primarily on tribal dances from Uganda. It was fascinating to learn that most of these tribes have no written tradition. Their values were passed down from generation to generation, not through the written word, but through dance, song, and story telling. My first instinct was to contrast this to Jewish culture, which is so reliant on text. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each method? What are we able to transmit through text, that we are not able to do through dance, and what might be lost in the text that can only be captured through movement?

Then I thought about it a bit more. I grew up in a very Jewish home, but I didn’t look at a page of Talmud until I was 24 years old. Learning text was not a formative part of my Jewish education whatsoever. On the contrary, some of my most powerful Jewish memories are of my mother teaching Israeli folk dances in our community, and of a crazy horah experience when I first visited Tzfat at the age of 12. Even today, though I spend a lot of my time learning Jewish texts, my most uplifting and spiritual moments have involved dancing alone to niggunim in the park by my house, and once again, those Hassidic horahs, this time not in Tzfat, but in Crown Heights. More »

Dispatches from the Other Israel Film Festival: “Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim.”

This is a guest post by Chava Shervington. A passionate and committed Jewish diversity advocate, Chava co-founded an organization which created opportunities for Jews of Color to connect in safe spaces across the East Coast.  Currently, Chava is honored to serve as president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, an organizational leader in a movement to make Jewish racial/ethnic diversity fully embraced in American Jewish life.

Anat Tel Medelovich‘s documentary, “Mom, Dad, I’m  Muslim” was featured at this year’s Other Israel Film Festival. It tells  the story of Maor, a  devout Muslim, who was born Jewish, converted to Islam at 18, and at 22 is in search of a Muslim husband.

(click here for official film website)

In recent years there have been a rash of documentaries of Muslim converts (or reverts as they are called in Islam), as there seems to be a particular fascination with white Westerners who decide to take on Islam.  Most of these documentaries focus on the motivation of the convert, the reactions of their families and communities, as well as their adjustment to adopting Muslim law and social customs.  ”Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim” is both a unique story and a missed opportunity.  While there have been many stories of converts to Islam, this one had the potential to explore an entire range of issues besides the usual family tension and personal struggle, but it barely scratches the surface of the story of Maor, a young Jewish woman in Israel who converts to Islam.

While there is definitely focus on Maor’s family (a hodge podge of characters, including an anti-religious brother, a Kahane supporting father, an increasingly observant mother and younger brother, a confused younger sister, and feisty grandmother), we only seem to get half of the story.  Everyone outside of her grandmother seems to be supportive of her religious choice and allows her to exist on the periphery of their traditional Jewish lives.  For the most part they seem to express apathy with her choice, but support her out of love.  Her grandmother is the only one who ever vocalizes strong opposition to Maor’s new religious conviction, although even though her mother vocalizes her support, under the surface their seems to be a genuine hope that this is only a phase. There seems to be a concerted effort not to ostracize her for her conversion.  While her family makes Kiddush and hamotzi for Shabbat dinner, Maor sits silent at the table in her hijab, at a Yom Hazikaron ceremony she stands silently while her family and others proudly sing Hatikvah, she’s obviously strongly connected to her family members, but at the same time completely disconnected from their Jewish identities.

Unfortunately, that disconnection is never truly explored.  Maybe it’s because as with many converts (to any religion) she finds the motivations for her conversion difficult to express.  When asked by her younger sister, the answer is couched in a metaphor of white roses, but essentially boils down to “because that’s what I think G-d wants from me”.  But for us as an audience it feels like we a) came into the story halfway and b) only get half of the story.

As a Jewish watcher I was left with so many questions:  What was Maor’s Jewish background prior to her conversion?; Did she ever explore Judaism further? How are the things that appeal to her about Islam-modesty and interactions between women and men-different from traditional Judaism? How does she relate to her Jewish identity?  Did she experience any emotional conflict with changing her identity? Has her conversion affected her relationship to the state of Israel? We learn of her strong connection with Arab Muslim classmates from an early age, and the death of one in particular seemed to affect her strongly, but because we know so little about her interaction with the Jewish community all we’re left with are questions.

There are so many topics introduced and barely covered, particularly those things that make this such a unique conversion story.  As a Jewish Muslim convert in Israel, Maor, must do more than take the shahada (Islamic creed declaring the oneness of Gd), she must undergo a formal conversion with the government so that she will be allowed to marry a fellow Muslim.  We learn absolutely nothing about what that  involves, how long it takes, or what she must undergo.  When she changes the nationality on her identity card, does she experience  hesitation or only relief?  (Spoiler—she does find a Muslim husband, but we learn absolutely nothing about the process and/or how her unique circumstances factor into her decision.) One minute she’s talking about starting to look for a husband, the next she’s looking at his picture online, two minutes later she refers to him as her fiancée.  It’s a completely unexplored whirlwind.

One thing we do understand throughout this film is how incredibly lonely Maor’s journey is.  When not at home or running an errand with her family, she’s shown walking and sitting alone.  No one in her community speaks to her; she is the constant subject of stares and is questioned by both Arab Muslim and Jewish communities. The story flows from one scene in a restaurant when she’s questioned by Muslim customers and workers: “Is she Arab, is someone in her family Arab, where does she live, is she married” to a Yom Hazikaron ceremony where she faces the same  questions from Jews,  along with assumptions such as that she must have grown up not surrounded by Jews, she must have no connection/relationship with her family, etc. It isn’t until almost three quarters through the film that we meet a friend outside of her family, Lital, another Jewish convert to Islam.

As the film ended, I was left with so many mixed emotions; I could only wish her happiness in her journey, yet feel sadness about her path, and continue to wonder how she got there.  I’m not sure it’s a story I as a committed Jew could ever feel completely comfortable with, but still wish I could appreciate her story and motivations, but this film left so many topics unexplored, I’m not sure we as the audience can get there.

 

A Thanksgivukkah Manifesto

Guest post by Rabbi Mishael Zion

Rabbi Mishael Zion is the co-Director of the Bronfman Fellowships, a diverse community of 1,000 young Jewish leaders from North America and Israel. He is the author of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices”. Mishael blogs at Text and the City and in 2013 was named one of ten “Rabbis to Watch” by Newsweek/the Daily Beast.

A once in a century holiday is upon us. The menurkey will soon sit at the table with the pumpkin pie and the latkes. Let us not underestimate this moment for the American Jewish community. Thanksgivukkah is here.

Jews have always loved Thanksgiving. Now that their favorite American holiday finds itself face to face with America’s favorite Jewish holiday – Hanukkah – the encounter can say an enormous amount about the American Jewish collective story. In other words, Thanksgivukkah tells us something important about what Jews are doing in America.

It starts with good timing. When Hanukkah falls on Christmas, it highlights Judaism as a religion, a fair contender on the scene of American denominations. But Thanksgivukkah yanks the carpet from under the convenient Christmas-Hanukkah dichotomy.

The Thanksgiving of today grew out of its religious roots. The same could be said of the Judaism of many Americans. Thanksgiving is about America, but not in a celebration of patriotic triumphalism. It’s about America as a promise, an idea, a project. If, any other year, most American Jews sideline Judaism and celebrate Thanksgiving simply as Americans, this year’s calendar demands owning up to the Jewish take on the American story.
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5 Tips for Leading High Holiday Services in Prison

Guest-post by Ben Greenfield, a rabbinical student (YCT) and writer based in New York City.  His writing on Jewish-Muslim architecture, medieval Hebrew art, and Rabbinic romance have been featured on Jewish Ideas Daily.

5 Tips for Leading High Holiday Services in Prison

Last week, a colleague and I led Rosh Hashana services at Rikers Island, the massive East River prison complex in which New Yorkers house some 14,000 of their more suspect neighbors.  We slept on the floor of a jail classroom, from which we withdrew to chat about the season, share kosher airplane meals, and attempt to serve some 60 Jewish and non-Jewish congregants.

1. Don’t bring glass bottles of Kedem grape juice.

A rookie mistake, quickly confiscated.  And while hardcover siddurim are OK for the chapel, don’t think that makes them safe enough for the cells.

One inmate requested I put in a good word about him receiving a pair of Tefillin.  While they’re usually permitted, he let me know why he is an exception. A few inches below the tail ends of his payos, two sunset pink scars slash across his neck.  The state is worried that he’ll hang himself with the holy black straps.

For Jews at Rikers, the sacred is in constant residence with the darkly violent. Tefillin is a noose, kiddush wine a shiv. One inmate seamlessly wove memories of studying in Old City yeshivot with troubled (hallucinatory?) visions of kidnappings in broad daylight and his desire to start a new life in Iran. At Rikers, comfortable symbols of Jewish life become morbid reminders of the new reality.  No glass bottles here.

More »

Be a National Havurah Committee Fellow at this Summer’s Institute

Previous NHC Fellows

Short of a J-Street conference or a Limmud event, you’d be hard-pressed to find an annual gathering that attracts as many Jewschool writers as the National Havurah’s Summer Institute. This, my friends, should be reason enough to register right this moment.

But a little context always helps, so here is some more description to further entice you:

Now in its 35th year of empowering local do-it-yourself, community-based Judaism, the National
Havurah Committee is gearing up for what promises to be an incredible Summer Institute. With
over two dozen courses, a social justice fellow, two extraordinary artists-in-residents, and
dozens of local havurah communities represented, the National Havurah Summer Institute guarantees you an unparalleled experience which is equal parts spiritually, intellectually, and culturally fulfilling.

Whether you enjoy midnight walks in the woods, guided meditations, heated (but respectful!)
theological debates, hands-on crafts, in-depth chevruta text study, late-night sing-alongs and
spontaneous jam sessions, alternative prayer experiences, early-morning hikes, community
discussions about social justice, or just meeting some of the most thoughtful and creative
individuals you will ever meet–all against the idyllic backdrop of breathtaking rolling green mountains and a sparkling lake  in Southern New Hampshire–the National Havurah Committee’s Summer Institute promises to deliver an experience that will both uplift and inspire.
As if this alone were not exciting enough—there’s more!

If you are a college student, we invite you to participate in our special college program, where
you will work together with your peers, guided by two talented facilitators,  to cultivate new
leadership skills. The College Leadership Program is specially designed to empower current college students to build and sustain Jewish communities on their campuses.

For recent college graduates between the ages of 22 and 32, the National Havurah Summer Institute offers the NHC Fellows Program (formerly, the Everett Program).     This program offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect with fellow young Jewish leaders in order to share and build your skills together. All NHC fellows will receive free tuition and room-and-board and will  participate in additional programming geared particularly to the specific interests and needs of participants in this group.

As a former participant in the Fellows Program, I can personally attest to the extraordinary impact that it  has had on my life.  In addition to introducing me to a cohort of wonderful new friends, the then-Everett Program helped me think critically and creatively about building vibrant, relevant local Jewish community and inspired me to return home (then Minneapolis) to start a new Havurah. Incidentally, one of this year’s institute’s planners met her now-fiancée when she was an Everett Fellow.  So apply now, and who knows where this simple act may lead you??

The deadline for the NHC fellows is May 1, so if any of the above speaks to you, apply right away! General registration can be found here.

 

Order of the Seder for Tu Bishvat

I know what you’re thinking – you want to refer to the 4 worlds in your Tu Bishvat seder but they’re confusing and…oh, if there were only a song that allowed you to sing through the four worlds (like we sing the order of the Passover seder) so folks could remember the order of the Tu Bishvat seder.

NOW YOU CAN. Check out track #3 here from Taya Shere. If you love it, it’s yours for 99 cents!

Last year Shir Yaakov Feit & I would sing the whole song, then sing up to the ‘world’ we are at throughout the seder.

Click here for many great free resources available for YOUR seder from our friends at Hazon.

My suggestion? Add-on a seder to your Shabbat dinner or lunch. Then if you are in NYC, head out for The Best Tu Bishvat Party in NYC.

Prefer to sit home and dream of summer? Enjoy this music video from our friends Stereo Sinai.

I Am Planting [OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO] from Stereo Sinai on Vimeo.

Gut yuntif, gut yor…shana tova….a good year

30 years ago my father died suddenly, shortly before Rosh Hashanah. He was 54 years old. I remember being unable to sit through services that year, refusing to hear the words of the u’netaneh tokef prayer; the ones proclaiming that who shall live and who shall die is all signed, sealed, and delivered. My father was an exemplar of teshuvah and tsedakah: his life’s work was about reconciling people who were hurt and angry at one another, and he believed, fiercely, in justice. And although as a self-defined agnostic, tefila, prayer, had not been a major part of his life, he went to shul every day to say the mourner’s Kaddish after his parents died. And then, because he saw how vital it was to have a minyan for those saying Kaddish, he continued to attend the morning service as often as possible so that others could recite it in a minyan. That is the kind of person he was, and I was devastated and furious that he died so young.

That year I also stopped sending New Year’s greetings wishing my friends to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life. What did that superstition matter?

The Book of Life had no meaning for me for several years after that. Then I encountered a teaching by the renowned mystic Rabbi Judah Leib Alter of Gur, known as the Sfat Emet (or Sfas Emes, meaning The Language of Truth), after the title of his signature book. This lesson was filtered through the eloquent translation of my teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green:

The human heart is the tablet on which God writes. Each of us has the word life engraved in our hearts by God’s own hand. Over the course of the year that engraving comes to be covered with grit. Our sins, our neglect of prayer and Torah study, the very pace at which we live all conspire to blot out the life that life written deep within our hearts. On Rosh Hashanah we come before God having cleansed ourselves as best we can and ask God to write that word once again and to seal it up on Yom Kippur, so that the sensation of being truly alive may not depart from us through the entire year.

I understand this to mean that, regardless of how we understand God—or whether we believe in such a Being at all—we have the opportunity to cleanse our hearts of the grit that stems from guilt or grief and interferes with us feeling truly alive.

Perhaps the traditional Jewish spiritual practices of teshuvah, tefila, and tsedakah, when translated as “repentance, prayer, and charity”, do not sound life altering. Today, I understand this text to mean that we have the opportunity to return our truest selves; to find a path to prayer, meditation, or reflection that makes us mindful of life’s myriad gifts; and of using our own gifts to make the world a more just place.

This is what allows us to clean our own hearts and stand open and ready to have the word life engraved upon them once again.

In the year to come, may our hearts be open to the “life” that is written deep within our hearts.

Shana tova…Gut yuntif, gut yor….A good year.