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

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

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

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

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

VaYikra 10:16-20: More »

The King and the Ring (On Purim and Violence)

x-posted to Justice in the City

The question, twenty years after Baruch Goldstein slaughtered 29 Palestinians at prayer, wounding tens more, is this: How can we celebrate Purim? Goldstein, heard the reading of the Megillah on Purim night, heard (for the fortieth time?) that the Jews took vengeance on their enemies, slaughtered thousands of men, women, and children. Twice. Goldstein, a medical doctor, then rose early in the morning, went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and shot his M16 until he was overpowered and killed, having killed or wounded tens of praying innocents. How do we read this tale of revenge when we know that that revenge, the Purim revenge, the revenge of “the Jews got their enemies in their power” (Esther 9:1) has been wreaked?
For centuries we were safe from the bloodletting that we fantasized about, because we were powerless on the whole, and our blood was being let. The fantasy of turning the tables—on the very day that the decree was to be carried out “the opposite happened”—was a fantasy of comfort. Someday our oppression will end.
Now, however, our oppression has—in most parts of the world—ended. The State of Israel is powerful, armed, mighty. Yet, we continue to read and celebrate the fantasies of revenge. On Yom Yerushalayim, yeshivah students dance through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem singing ki lashem hamluchah umoshel bagoyim/״for kingship is the Lord’s and He rules the nations״ (Psalms 22:29) while banging on the shutters of the closed Palestinian shops. (Meticulously not repeating the name of God, but rather singing hashem over and over again, according to the precepts of the pious, while striking fear and humiliation in the hearts of other human beings.)
The Sages of the Talmud, especially the fourth century Babylonian Rava, were neither so simplistic nor were they naïve. It is to Rava that we owe the free flow of alchoholic drink on Purim. Rava says: “A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim, until he cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman,’ and ‘Blessed is Mordecai.’” The statement is immediately followed by a story:

Rabbah and Rav Zeirah made a Purim feast together.
They got drunk, Rabbah rose, slaughtered Rav Zeirah.
On the morrow, when the wine had left him,
he [Rabbah] asked for mercy on him [Rav Zeira], and he revived him.
A year later, he said to him, “the gentleman should come and we will do the Purim feast [together].”
He said to him, not in every hour does a miracle happen.

Why does Rava choose, as his criterion of drunkenness, not being able to distinguish between Mordecai and Haman? That is not being buzzed, nor even inebriated. That is being fall on the floor, passed out drunk. Rava’s Purim drinking does not bespeak the comradery of friends around the Shabbes table, or at the pub. Rava’s Purim goes much darker. Then, the editor of the Talmud follows it up with the disturbing story of Rabbah and Rav Zeira who did get that drunk, whereupon Rabbah killed Rav Zeira. This story is illustrative, not dispositive. It is as if the editor was saying: “Yes. This drunk.”

If we read the megillah carefully we are left unsettled. In the beginning of the story (after the King kills Vashti and takes Esther in her stead) he gives Haman his ring and tells him that, yes, he can “destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day.” After we are led through the intricate paths and byways of the royal intrigue for the next six chapters, Haman is found out and killed. The King then takes the ring from Haman’s cold, dead hands and gives it to Mordecai. He grants Mordecai and Esther permission to “destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions—on a single day.” For good measure, the Jews of Shushan repeat this on the morrow.

The question we are left with is this: In the next scene, the scene after the end of the megillah, who will get the ring then? If Ahaseurus the King is still in charge, and his rule is based on whim (and the last person who paid him) and not justice, we suspect that another Haman will get the ring, then another Mordecai, forever. Mordecai and Esther’s victory is not redemption. As Rava says further on: “We are still slaves of Ahaseurus.” The point of getting drunk on Purim is not celebratory. It is to look into the darkness of the unredeemed world.

It is not coincidental that in that unredeemed world Rabbah slaughtered Rav Zeira. The point of the story is just that. It is a miracle in an unredeemed world that people don’t kill each other. Not being able to tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai means living in a world of constant enmity where there is no solid ground to stand on.

If we “celebrate” Purim this year, and any year, it can only be as a way of looking into the darkness of the unredeemed soul of the world. That is the place where we will stay—the place of Haman slaughtering then Mordecai slaughtering, Palestinians slaughtering then Jews slaughtering—until we all move to solid ground, when we get rid of Ahaseurus and throw away the ring—when we create political structures, states and societies, which support justice rather than fomenting injustice and fantasies of revenge.

A Malcontented Beheading: Sermon Slam Piece on Amalek

This past Sunday, I MC’ed a Sermon Slam in Jerusalem, on the theme of Amalek.  Here is one of my favorite pieces from the evening, by Charlie Buckholtz, a Jerusalem-based writer whose writing has been featured in the Washington Post, Tablet, and the Daily Beast, and who blogs at  His book Are You Not a Man of God?  Devotion, Betrayal, and Social Criticism in Jewish Tradition, co-authored with Tova Hartman, was recently published by Oxford University Press.   You can watch video of this performance here and listen to it in podcast form, along with another excellent one by Candace Mittel, a Pardes student,  here.  To find out more about Sermon Slam, visit its Kickstarter page. –aryehbernstein

A Malcontented Beheading

By Charlie Buckholtz


Back seat, BMW SUV.

Back streets of Queens careening by me, through me

in the window, as I wonder how it is I ended up here:

mid-day, mid-life, mid-week, on a visit to sit with the family of a dead guy I’ll never meet.

Taking lessons from a driver who knows he’s in the driver’s seat.

It’s this kid’s car, he’s 15 years my junior; pops just gave it to him the day before the

funeral; now they’re schmoozing pros and cons of the on-board computer.

Apparently it was between this one and a Mercury–next the conversation turns to pee-pee, naturally.

“So abba, how you pishing these days?”

Gotta love the Jews, right? They never quite fail to amaze.

Anyways, pops is obviously completely unfazed, no hesitation—

such a detailed explanation, it left me slightly dazed.

Pops you see is my boss, the shul president.

Pretend that we’re friends — maybe we are — but it’s as irrelevant

as the rain that was falling all around us that day, pounding like a dozer, hounding me like a moser,

making everything feel even smaller, closer…

No sir! I have a sudden violent urge to say

I am neither an impostor nor a dissident…okay?

Still I guess I’ll keep the rain in the event:

never know what details the future reveals to set new precedents.

Can’t say I remember what the thread was…guess I lost it in the dissonance.

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Where is Yiddish? Depends on Your Perspective

by Rokhl, at the Rootless Cosmopolitan blog, where you can find it cross-posted, along with much more stimulating writing about Yiddish, American Judaism and its discontents, and other Dynamic Yiddishkayt for the New Millennium. –aryehbernstein

The Washington Post brings us an interesting chart from the Pew Research Center. The chart tracks language presence in the United States from 1980 to today. Because Yiddish had the most stark decline between then and now (from #11 in 1980 to dead last today) the Pew chart is labeled The decline of Yiddish, the rise of Tagalog. Which, ok, is pretty accurate.  The Washington Post’s headline, however, is How We Stopped Speaking Yiddish. Which isn’t just bizarrely non-descriptive of this charticle (the ‘How’ never comes up), it also speaks to the media’s love of a good ‘Yiddish in decline’ narrative.

For comparison, Greek was at  #8 in 1980 with 401,000 speakers. Today it’s at #14 with 307,000 speakers. In 1980 Yiddish had 315,000 speakers and today around155,000. (By the way, I’m pretty sure this is an underestimate given the population explosion in the Hasidic world and how that explosion does not show up in official records.) Between 1980 and today both Greek and Yiddish dropped six positions.

So, why no tears for the dramatic decline of Greek? Italian? Polish?

While the Washington Post leads with the disappearance of Yiddish, Salon reprints Ross Perlin’s Jewish Currents piece on Yiddish on the Internet. Perlin, a Yiddishist living in New York,  finds a thriving Yiddish world on line.

The Washington Post may have stopped speaking Yiddish, but there’s a whole lot of folks typing, texting and publishing in it online. But you have to be interested in finding them.

Ideas, Crises, and Visions of the Kibbutz Movement

This article also appears at

Coverage in the media of mounting economic inequality around the world has become commonplace over the past few months. In many ways this coverage is late to the game as growing movements for equity and justice have left a wake in their paths. Perhaps there are lessons to be found in the ideas, crises, and visions of the Kibbutz movement.

Passover at Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek, 2012

The century old Socialist experiment known as the Kibbutz elicits images of Jewish pioneers pitching tents, farmers tilling fields, and folks living in rural utopia. The reality today is, as with most things, much more complicated than collective memory can often allow.

In the late 1970s the utopian dream began to deteriorate. Israel’s first non-labour government came into power and the status of the Kibbutz shifted as the country began to look towards the privatization of once national institutions.

Former Secretary-General of Kibbutz Ein Hashofet and current Director of Givat Haviva Educational Institution, Yaniv Sagee sees the story of the Kibbutz as intertwined with that of the country. “The Kibbutz was seen as a public investment for building the state of Israel… Until 1977, and it served as a base for confidence for the Kibbutz members because they knew they can give to the Kibbutz everything that they have and they get from the Kibbutz everything they need. And they were sure it was going to happen because they didn’t only have to rely on the kibbutz. If it wasn’t successful the movement would help and if the movement needed support then there was the government,” he said.

For many Kibbutz communities, it was the beginning of the end.

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“I’m a part of a revolution…”: A discussion with an Israeli revolutionary on the past, present and future of Socialist-Zionism and the Kibbutz

This is the shortened version of the written discussion in which Avigail Shaham details her community, movement, and vision. The full version is up here at and the Spanish version (translated by Kevin Ary Levin) is up here

What do you do? Why do you find yourself identifying as a “Shomeret” (member of the movement)? What is the appeal for you?

My name is Avigail, I was born and raised in Jerusalem, surrounded by good and inspiring people. Among many other activities in my childhood and adolescence, I was a member of Hashomer Hatzair youth movement – a 100 year old Socialist and Zionist movement which created some of the most inspiring foundations, structures and culture of cooperative society in Israel. When I graduated high school, I volunteered for a service year in the movement, in which my friends and I worked as educators in centers of the youth movement around the country, and created for other young people the unique experience of the movement – the experience of an autonomous, creative and liberating youth community in which one shapes their character in light of great ideas and through social discussions and mutual contemplation. As we were doing this, we realized we were Shomrim and Shomrot [truly identifying with the movement’s ideals] in character. We realized that the movement’s ideology and culture was a central compass for us in evaluating our actions and behavior and in choosing our role and path in the world. We wanted to continue being Shomrim and Shomrot, and create a path of life which expresses the essence of the movement.

Photo by A. Daniel Roth

Today, almost 12 years later, I live in a communal group [known as a "Kvutza", which means "group" in Hebrew] in Givat Haviva, with many of the people who I started this path with back then. We are educators and social activists, working in various arenas of Israeli society to encourage social justice, cooperation, peace and humanism, and to offer alternatives to the existing social structures and paradigms.

I work as a lawyer, specializing in labor law and working towards workers collective rights as well as equality for women in the workplace. I participate in different initiatives in the movement, such as political action and development of grass-roots unionizing projects, and in the internal processes of shaping the adult “Shomeric” [reflecting the values of the Hashomer Hatzair movement] society.


More »

About Hillel’s Israel Guidelines

After Swarthmore Hillel’s decision to break from Hillel’s rules regarding conversation about Israel, I sent a letter to Hillel’s President and CEO, Eric Fingerhut by clicking send on a message as part of Open Hillel’s campaign to open Hillel. The response was swift, cordial, perhaps prepackaged , and it suggested I take a look at Hillel’s Israel Guidelines page.

So I did and I came across this wonderfully written paragraph:

Political Pluralism

Hillel welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner. We encourage students’ inquiry as they explore their relationship with Israel. We object to labeling, excluding or harassing any students for their beliefs and expressions thereof. As an indispensible partner to the university, Hillel seeks to facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning.

It sounds as though they want to create some sort of inclusive, pluralistic space for students to discuss matters of interest and concern surrounding Israel. Great.

But the next section entitled “Standards of Partnership” seems to disagree with the previous section:

Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups, and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice:

First of all they won’t let anyone talk who will “Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders.” Which seems reasonable at first, right? But of course this means that a speaker such as Israel’s Minister of Economy, Naftali Bennett cannot be hosted by Hillel or Hillel’s partners as Minister Bennett does not support Israeli democracy. As well, the continuation of the occupation is quite possibly the policy that puts Israel’s security and borders at the most risk, so this list of banned speakers now must include a plethora of current and past Israeli government officials, ministers, members of Knesset, and a swath of authors, professors and other public voices that support continuation of the occupation.

And of course, anyone who would try to “Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel” need not apply.  I (honestly) wonder if Hillel’s version of ‘demonizing’ is meant to give Hillel staff space to put a stop to portrayals of Israel as the root of all evil in the world, or if it just a handy “d” word, so bereft of meaning that it can be applied to any, even much needed, negative talk about Israel. And I wonder if there is such a threat of delegitimization that it needs to be one of the “d’s”  on this list. A recent report posits that its not such a big deal in the world today. Either way, I suppose this means that Alan Dershowitz can’t speak at Hillel events anymore since he has gone on record with the truly golden double standard that Israel should disregard international law.

The list continues with the denial of space to anyone who would “Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.” Shouldn’t Hillel stick to censoring people based on the content of their speeches and the aims of their tactics? Has Hillel thought about what it means to ban people for supporting a set of tactics? I mean, some of these are tactics that are supported by the North American Jewish establishment when aimed at others. So it’s not the tactics themselves that bother Hillel, otherwise JFNA CEO, Jerry Silverman would be on the list of banned speakers. It seems that Hillel has set up one standard for discussing sanctions on Israel and another for discussing sanctions on Iran. Perhaps someone should coin a term for when you have one standard for one thing and another for another. I wonder, does this rule include those who support a boycott of Israel’s policies? If so, then Hillel can kiss Peter Beinart goodbye.  Does this include Israeli academics? Wouldn’t that be ironic given the hullabaloo over the ASA boycott decision.

The last point bans partnering with those that “Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.” I guess they mean people who shout at speakers and stuff like that, but I can’t help but think of the pattern of disruption that  Hillel itself has displayed when dealing with hosting productive dialogue on Israel, the occupation, BDS and other issues that quite obviously are “matters of interest and/or concern” for a great many of us.

If Hillel is serious about these rules they should be sure not invite speakers like Naftali Bennett, Binyamin Netanyahu, Alan Dershowitz and others that hurt Israel with their anti-democratic, pro-occupation, double standards. My guess is that these types of speakers will keep getting invites though. So why not open the space up to other types of speakers who are also not so guided by Hillel’s lines?

A civil atmosphere from an educational community space demands open dialogue. These guidelines are imprecise and leave room for abuse. This list makes it easy to exclude and to label. It ensures that Hillel will be closed off to many who come looking for open ideas, a tradition of debate, and an emphasis on justice, peace and the finest of Jewish thought in the discourse on Israel.


A. Daniel Roth, 2006 Winner of Hillel of Greater Toronto’s Sydney Mendick Memorial Award for Building Pluralism and Diversity, is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv. He was born and raised in Toronto and lived in a commune of the Hashomer Hatzair movement in New York City. Daniel is a member of the All That’s Left collective and a learner/organizer with This is Not an Ulpan. You can find more of his writing and photography at and follow him on twitter  @adanielroth.


Those Cufflinks

Last year a friend who had just finished participating in a Birthright program was telling me of his harrowing journey and mentioned that they had gone to the City of David. I said something along the lines of, “Right, Silwan. The tour through people’s backyards” in a tone that implied that I thought my friend, a fellow politically active organizer, would know what I was talking about. But, instead, he said something like, “Wait, that was Silwan?”

It became clear at that moment that the JNF’s aim via subsidiary support for ELAD to dispossess Palestinians of their homes in Silwan and replace them with settlers and a tourist site at the City of David was working. The process is barely noticeable to those who don’t know to look, which is most people. More »

Torah that Nourishes: a Jewish Food Ethic of Pleasure and Justice


Guest post by Aviva Richman

Aviva Richman is on the faculty at Yeshivat Hadar in Manhattan, the only full-time egalitarian yeshiva in North America, where she teaches Talmud, Jewish Law and midrash. She is also pursuing doctoral studies in rabbinic literature at NYU, as a Wexner fellow.  Other interests include niggunim, classical piano, and making all manner of soup!

We live in a world where many people offer conflicting advice about what to eat and how.  Should meat be a crucial part of my carbs-free diet or should I avoid meat because it is unhealthy – or unethical?  Is fresh, organic, and local the way to go – or does that make food too expensive and less accessible?  In this whirlwind of food movements and media, there is perhaps no better time to engage the complex discourse around food in our own tradition.  To use the words of a fifth-century midrash, “Is there such a thing as Torah in the gut?” (PDRK, 10)

The idea of “Torah in the gut” arises from a puzzling verse where the Psalmist turns to God and says: “I desire to do you will, my God; Your Torah is in my gut.”  (40:9)  The midrash can’t make sense of this visceral image. Torah is made of written words, not food; it is processed in our minds, not digested in our stomachs.  What kind of Torah resides in our digestive tract?

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In the (increasingly overstuffed) annals of “What were they thinking?” Israel inquires as to fifth column.

Yesterday, Haaretz reported that some genius at Israel’s immigrant absorption and foreign ministries had distributed a questionnaire including problematic questions on “dual allegiance” of American Jews to Israel and the United States and the (sloppily labelled “pro-Israel”,) American-Jewish lobby and with which country their allegiance would lie in the case of a crisis between the US and Israel.

As it turns out, the questionnaire was commissioned by the Israeli American Council, a private nonprofit group based in Los Angeles. And surprise, surprise, Sheldon Adelson has become a major assist and funder to the group. You remember Adelson, right? He’s the guy who advocated nuking Iran last week as a petty show of strength. That was after nearly singlehandedly bankrolling a series of right-wing politicians in the last US election, and then encouraging Bibi Netanahu to take sides in said election.

Thankfully, after Bibi got wind of it… or at least after it was reported in Haaretz, the PM did direct the ministries to stop distributing the questionnaire cease to promote it.

The End of the Holidays: Parting Gifts from God

The two month marathon of Jewish Holidays is over. For many, (myself included), there is a feeling of some of relief – no more cooking, no more emails piled up after missed days of work, back to regular life.

But there is also a sadness. All the amazing ways we’ve tried to come close to God: praying, singing, fasting, eating, blasting the shofar, dwelling in a Sukkah, waving the lulav, joyous dancing with the Torah and more… Gone. Over. The Talmud says that the very last holiday we celebrate, Shmini Atzeret, was ordained because God said “קשה פרידתכם עלי’ – your leaving is difficult for Me.”

It’s difficult on us too.

Perhaps we feel like we came close to the divine over these past few months, and now we’ll miss that intimacy, that holiness. Or maybe we didn’t come as close as hoped. Maybe we never reached that holy moment we were hoping for. Either way, we are now faced with the emptiness, the absence that is regular life, or chol.

But God leaves us with two parting gifts.

1 – The gift of Torah.
This is how we end the holidays – rejoicing on Simchat Torah. Torah, the timeless, portable, sublime vehicle that allows the Jewish people connect to God, whoever, wherever and whenever we are – on the subway, in the beit midrash, with a friend, late at night, on a lunch break. For 3 minutes or 3 hours. It is free, it is real, it is yours.

2 – The gift of each other.
The Torah portion we read right after the holidays end, Bereishit, tells us that human beings are made as reflections of God. The mystics teach us that inside each and every one of us is a little spark of the divine, hidden away, waiting to be revealed through moments of insight, kindness, and love.

God is far, far away. But at the very same moment, God can be so close. Through Torah, God’s message is as close as a class downloaded on phone, as close as holy book sitting on the shelf. And through each other, God’s reflection is as close as the friend a phone call away, the loved one in the next room, the stranger sitting across from you on the bus.

Through connecting to Torah and to our fellow, let this be a year of reaching up to and reaching out to God.

Chol sameach.

Feeling The Void


By no accident does Fill The Void begin in a supermarket.  That a religious mother and daughter would spy on a potential suitor in as banal a site as a supermarket is funny precisely because it is banal.  But as much as the scene plays with a caricatured image of Haredi women (where else would a housewife be outside the home?), it plays against it.  The story begins with a seal of disapproval—not from a rebbe, but rather curiously, from the gaze of a mother and daughter—eying a potential match for the daughter.  The young girl’s possibilities might be limited, but she has choice in the matter.  Or so it seems.  After all, it’s she and her mother who snoop on the Hasidic suitor in question—not the other way around.  The viewer is not entering, as framed by the opening scene, a matchmaking marketplace where women can be acquired like a product on an aisle shelf.

Fill The Void is a tale chock full of reversals—of things that lie outside law altogether, in the realm of the extrajudicial.  Unsurprisingly, the film begins with the backward temporality of Purim.  And as the plot moves forwards, the more it unravels backwards.  A young mother dies, leaving her widowed, crestfallen husband with a motherless child—a mirror image of yibum, the Levirite marriage, where one brother dies and the next brother marries his sister-in-law.  But the film stages the scenario in reverse. And the reversal is instructive.  An unexpected tragedy forces the family to confront what happens when a void, a chasm, a cleavage, opens—when not law, but sticky interpersonal subjectivities, rule supreme.  What happens when religious actors in their daily performance of ritual have no script from which to read?  When the choreography has-yet-to-be-penciled-in?  And, in this space of extrajudiciality, is filled the precarity of feeling.  An unmarried, eighteen-year old girl must navigate the vertigo of defining where agency and restriction lie in a space outside the bounds and boundaries of law.  As revealed in a most poignant scene, the rebbe asks her:

“[So] what does the daughter feel about the match?”

“This is not a matter of feeling,” she retorts with restraint.

“This is only a matter of feeling,” the Rebbe responds gingerly.

The film captures, with a minimalist aesthetic, the claustrophobia of a family in mourning.  Their apartment becomes a feeling organism—radically open at times and frightfully closed at others.  It can stretch to accommodate swarms of guests and then retract back into itself, with the touch of a sliding door, into chambers of intimate solitude.  Alcohol reveals secrets.  Cigarettes calm nerves.  And the Karliner niggun, “Kah Echsof,” is sung earnestly as the women stare blankly onto the dishes of a set Shabbos table.

And when she quakes tearfully in a wedding gown with the purest devotion of dveykus to the recitation of Tehillim­—beside her mother and aunt—the camera navigates across the ritual geography of the wedding.  It glides from the wedding chair—a safe domain of feminine kinship—to the chuppah—a liminal, makeshift home—and ends in the yihud room.  Between the seen quivering moments of intimacy (with the divine) and the unseen quivering moments of intimacy (with her husband) is formed a visual dialectic between the concealed and revealed.  And as soon as her husband enters the yichud room and places his fur hat on the rack, the camera pans on her face—wan with the terror of the unexpected.  The movie ends.  Black fills the screen.  But so much is filled in the void.

A Meditation

This is a guest post by Sam Shuman. (Here is another one.) Sam is a recent graduate of Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary.  As an undergraduate, Sam was the recipient of the Dean’s Prize in Anthropology and an Ella Deloria Undergraduate Research Fellowship for his ethnographic research on the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Uman.  He is currently investigating how globalization is rapidly transforming the face of Hasidic labor industries.


Conversations never emerge in a vacuum, ex nihilo.  A conversation always precedes the conversation.  A question always emerges before the question is uttered.  And before the Footsteps sponsored event at the UJA on June 17, “Beyond Romanticization and Vilification: The Progressive Jewish Response to Ultra-Orthodoxy,” many conversations were had—floating ephemerally in-and-out of dining rooms, on virtual Off-the-Derech facebook forums, splintering into ever-more specific conversations (“LGBTQ and Off the Derech”), on blogs (Kave Shtiebl), at rallies (outside the Weberman trial and on the periphery of the Anti-Internet Asifa), at Thursday night Chulent, and at the Footsteps office itself.

But, as much as Monday night marked a continuation of gazing back at the Haredi world—reversing ex-Haredim as the subjects, rather than the objects, of the Haredi gaze—it marked a caesura in the conversation.  A long and extended pause.  A breath-mark.  A forum for processing in-through-the-nose and out-through-the-mouth.   To be fair, the social and political frenzy of the past year alone has allowed little time for respite.  Sexual abuse cases exploded, education reform came to a forefront—with little time to plan and even less time to reflect. 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.


What Weird Things are We Eating on Passover?

A crowd sourced list:

  1. Matzah with cream cheese, cooked salmon, and horseradish
  2. Hard boiled egg pieces, mixed with raw onion, and salt water (family seder tradition)
  3. Gluten-Free Kosher for Passover Oat Matzah (reportedly tastes like cardboard)
  4. Chocolate pizza
  5. Scrambled eggs and pasta sauce on Matzah
  6. Potato latkes from a mix. (“Maybe not weird, just excruciating.”)
  7. “Vegan matzo gratin thing with potatoes and spinach and a sauce made from pureed avocado and cashews.”
  8. “A lot of turkey meatballs. By themselves. No sauce. No awful Pesach noodles. Just meatballs.”
  9. Cheezits
  10. Macaroons
  11. Bagels
  12. Maror
What have you been eating?



Obligatory Passover Post

Reposted from Diverge

A few years ago (or something) I wrote a piece about how I couldn’t deal with keeping Passover and someone commented that “giving up is not the answer.” I think about this comment a lot, especially now that Passover starts tomorrow night and Facebook is filling up with the obligatory freak outs about cleaning and cooking and seders and I’m staying here with J and the cat until Wednesday, with no intention of doing anything Passover related.

Three years ago, I would have obsessed about Passover, and taken some joy in spreading aluminum foil all over things and crouching down like a psycho to burn hametz on the street. Last year I went to some seders, and then proceeded to eat sandwiches, which no one really had to know about, except that I told them. I don’t know if what I’m doing is so much giving up, but if it is giving up, I don’t think I care? What does it even mean to give up? Not observing Passover is not the same as deciding I don’t want to be Jewish, because seriously, as far as I’m concerned, there is no getting out of that, at least not for me.

Maybe it’s the drama that’s left over inside of me from having gone from one hundred (or maybe seventy five) to zero- how quickly everything stopped making sense for me,  how I stopped having this desire to observe, how impatient I got in trying to make it make sense, how I decided to put my energy elsewhere.

Obviously, my need to document this hints at something. That thing is not guilt, I don’t actually feel accountable to anyone around it, but there is some strangeness around the absence of people saying to me, “You have to do this.” There’s nothing at stake for me, and I don’t actually know what that means.

On Solidarity with Women of the Wall: NYC

On Tuesday, March 12th,  Jewish Voices Together organized “Wake Up for Religious Tolerance,” a Rosh Hodesh minyan solidarity action in support Women of the Wall. Hundreds crowed into Town and Village Synagogue, the rain space. (You can read Sigal Samuel’s coverage of the event at  Open Zion Daily here.)

One of the folks in attendance at the action was Ruth Kleinman, who blogged about her experiences with Women of the Wall while  in Israel in November and December of 2010. Jewschool asked her to reflect on the March 12th event.


Jewschool:  Why did you decide to attend the action?

RK: I decided to go because when I heard about the rally/prayer service, I was reminded of the times I had attended Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh services in Jerusalem, living there for 6 months about 2 years ago. When I found out that there was this group, battling this injustice, I wanted to be a part of it. I am not an observant Jew; I am not even a spiritual one. But living in Jerusalem was a hard place to live in sometimes as a woman, because of the discrimination toward us from the ultra-Orthodox population. By supporting the Women of the Wall, I felt I was a part of a movement toward justice. Supporting the Women of the Wall in NYC at this rally/prayer service only made sense for me. As a staff member at a synagogue which advertised the event to its membership, it was only natural for me to attend.


Jewschool: What did the experience mean to you? 

RK: The experience meant a solidarity, of sorts, to me. It was actually the largest gathering of a Women of the Wall group I had attended, and the first where men and women prayed together. As was mentioned by some of the speakers, Torah readers, and rally leaders, this was a coming together of many different Jews, from different Jewish denominations and styles of prayer and connection to Judaism and Israel, and that is what struck me the most – the diversity coming together despite the fact that we live in such an otherwise fractured Jewish world.


Jewschool: What was your experience with WOW before? Did the action make you want to do more?

RK: Prior to Tuesday’s rally/prayer service, my experience with Women of the Wall was solely in Jerusalem as an attendee of Rosh Chodesh services at the Kotel. I was very proud to be a part of the event in NYC but I think the strongest way to participate in the Women of the Wall movement is to show up for Rosh Chodesh and be a physical part of the group in Jerusalem. On my next trip back to Jerusalem, I hope to attend another service with the Women of the Wall. Until then, I will continue to advocate through the various Jewish channels in NYC that allow us to have and raise a voice to support this cause.