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 »
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?
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 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.
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.
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 »
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.
A crowd sourced list:
- Matzah with cream cheese, cooked salmon, and horseradish
- Hard boiled egg pieces, mixed with raw onion, and salt water (family seder tradition)
- Gluten-Free Kosher for Passover Oat Matzah (reportedly tastes like cardboard)
- Chocolate pizza
- Scrambled eggs and pasta sauce on Matzah
- Potato latkes from a mix. (“Maybe not weird, just excruciating.”)
- “Vegan matzo gratin thing with potatoes and spinach and a sauce made from pureed avocado and cashews.”
- “A lot of turkey meatballs. By themselves. No sauce. No awful Pesach noodles. Just meatballs.”
What have you been eating?
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 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.
Some press coverage today regarding the death of Rabbi Menachem Froman, the iconic and controversial leader of the Tekoa settlement in the West Bank.
From The Times of Israel
From The Huffington Post
(Information also on Facebook. )
This is an interview with Emily Unger, a Harvard senior majoring in biology, and the former chair of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance, the student group organizing a protest
against Hillel’s ban on partnerships with groups back boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
Jewschool: Give us some background about your experience with this issue at Harvard.
Emily Unger: I’ve been involved in the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) since the beginning of my first year at college, and this entire time, we’ve prided ourselves on working together with both Harvard Students for Israel and the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) and co-sponsoring events with both groups. Last semester, we planned to co-sponsor an event with PSC called “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation”, which brought two speakers, an Israeli Jew and an American Jew, to talk about their experiences doing non-violent activism against the occupation of the Palestinian Territories (protesting home demolitions in the West Bank, etc.) and how this related to their Jewish identity. We wanted to hold the event in the Hillel building, since it was a Jewish event and we thought it would appeal to Jewish students.
Today two Jewschool contributors got together over irritation at this article, and both of us agreed on one thing: the article should have started at the end.
XK: I’m disappointed. I hold Jane Eisner to this weird higher standard, because she’s usually
such a bad ass. She’s called out the Jewish community for awful gender and class stuff so many times, I’m surprised that she’d take on something so retro and do it in this way where she sounds like such a yenta. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a yenta.
(this guestpost is from a political organizer friend of the blog. –mgt)
Dear Rabbi Pesner,
Greetings! You don’t know me, but my facebook feed has lit up about you in the last couple hours. And so I wanted to say congratulations! It appears there is a trial balloon on whether or not you will run for Senator John Kerry’s seat shortly. Whether it is coming from your camp or from folks who want you to run, that the article is out is a good sign for your nascent campaign. I don’t know you, and so I don’t have an educated opinion on whether or not you should run, but I want to offer you a small piece of advice, one progressive yid to another. Looking at our friends in common on facebook, I have a feeling this is advice you’ve already heard, but I feel compelled to offer it nonetheless, free of charge.
If you’re going to do it, do it. Be like Nachshon. Take the plunge and run like you mean it. More »
For the last couple of weeks, as the fallout from Newtown continues, as the NRA displays its absolute contempt for anyone who finds anything other than guns of value, Jews have also been participating in the conversation about gun control in the US.
While Jews tend toward the liberal positions about guns, Judaism does not, in reality, always correspond with American 21st century liberal politics. Does Judaism have a position on gun control? Rabbi Aaron Alexander of AJU’s Ziegler school, writes a commentary in HuffPo that, although it focuses on one aspect and one commentator that gets at the crux of the Jewish view.
There is simply no rational way of escaping the fact – not opinion- that gun ownership raises risks of death and injury for everyone in the house where the gun is owned. Nor is there any credible evidence that gun ownership deters crime or stops crimes in progress. Jewishly, significantly increasing safety risks to oneself without showing a significant benefit to offset it would require a ban on gun ownership.
Secondarily, hunting for sport, as Rabbi Landau says (the commentator that Alexander is writing about) is considered negatively by Jewish sources. Taking pleasure in something that causes pain is contrary to Jewish values. Even when we eat meat, we are required by Jewish law to slaughter it in a way that causes no pain to the animal (that is why an animal whose slaughter is performed with a knife that has even a single nick in it is considered treif). Arguments aside about whether or not such a death is truly painless (and there are certainly those who advocated vegetarianism – such as the gadol hador – the great one of his generation, Rabbi Soloveitchik), the value is clear: Jews are not supposed to engage in such behavior, except if there is no other option – in other words, one may stave off starvation by hunting, but it’s not something Jews should do if there are other sources of food.
Finally, it is worth knowing that the ban on Jewish hunting is not merely a halachic matter (matter of Jewish law) custom too has long viewed the hunter as a negative character. Those who make their living by killing are considered the very height of what my mother would have called “a goyishe kop” (please excuse, non-Jewish friends). If one looks through old haggadot, the wicked son, the rasha is often portrayed as a soldier or a hunter.
Sport hunting is not a value. Hunting for food – outside of a starvation case- is not a value. Safety for one’s family is a value, and the evidence is that having guns in the home not only does not protect one from intruders, but increases risks of accidental shootings, suicide deaths, and deliberate shootings, particularly in cases of domestic violence. Societally, then, there is one last case to be made. Many people argue that the case for owning guns is that the second amendment is determined to let us protect ourselves from a tyrannous government. God knows the Jews know from tyrannous governments.
To consider this rationally: does the possibility that a bunch of neighbors with assault weapons might gather together to fend off the United States government when it comes for us to send us to the camps balance out the overwhelming numbers of American gun deaths, and the evidence that very tight gun control, or even banning guns would reduce (not eliminate, of course, but reduce) gun deaths. That leaves us two questions actually. First, would those assault weapons stave off tanks, rockets and the very latest in military technology? Not likely. Second. If by some miracle there was a chance that it did, would it be worth it? I suppose that is a calculus that in general society could be argued, but Jewishly, I would say that the decisive view is no. The risks are too clear, and the protection far, far too little – if there is indeed any at all.
Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine
Recently, Tufts University Students for Justice in Palestine created, published and distributed a Zine called “Birthright? A Primer” for folks contemplating going on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. The primer includes testimonies from previous trip participants, as well as resources for exploring Israel/Palestine after the trip. Tufts SJP organizers Matthew Parsons, Anna Furman and Dani Moscovitch spoke with Jewschool about the primer, how and why it happened, and what impact they hope it will have.
Jewschool: What was the impetus for creating the primer? What’s the goal?
Anna Furman: The goal of our zine is to equip students who have chosen to go on Birthright with a body of knowledge that they will not find otherwise. I think the most important section of our zine may be the section that encourages students to extend their trips and to go with various groups to the West Bank. If I had a zine like this when I had gone on Birthright 3 years ago, I am pretty certain that my whole understanding of the region and my relation to it would have been very different.
Shira Abramowitz, student at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, illustrated her notes from her visit to Hevron. See more here.