Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sephardis have more fun

My alarm was supposed to go off at 3:45 in the morning on Friday morning.

It didn't.

So at 4:00 Baldachin called and I bustled down the street to meet him and Chaim Cutler and we headed to a Kurdish Shul in Nachlaot (a neighborhood right next to the Shuk) for night Slichot services.

I've come to love Sefaradi/Eidot Hamizrach (Spanish descendants/Middle East communities) slichot. They're catchy tunes, beautiful poetry and after more than a month of saying them, the communities take ownership of them.

At the end of the service, there were blasts of the shofar. According to Rabbinic tradition, the sounds of the Shofar are supposed to sound like human cries, like wails.

This shofar did. And at that moment I decided I was going to head back for Neilah. I wanted to hear this man rock out with a tekiah gedolah at the end of Yom Kippur.

Following a relaxing and enjoyable Shabbat in Tel Aviv with my favorite spokesperson for the IDF (Hackit), I headed back to Jerusalem and a group of us headed to the Kotel for midnight Slichot. Turns out a few other people had the same idea.

The line down to the Kotel plaza went all the way down through the Shuk in the Muslim quarter, backing up to Sha'ar Yafo (for those that aren't familiar with that geography, let's just say that's a long way). Once we finally got down to the plaza, the entire country was standing in every cardinal direction. (See the pictures to see just how many were there).

The slichot were blasting over a series of loud speakers and the entire plaza joined in. People from all over Israel joined in. Thus far there have been a couple of "only in Israel" moments. This was one of them.

Perhaps none more, though, than when we were leaving Aliza's apartment before the fast, and an elderly woman opened the door precisely as we were walking down the stairs and wished us "gmar chatima tovah." It was pretty cute.

The entire country shuts down for Yom Kippur. People in white empty into the streets, kids take to their bikes and declare that the roads belong to them. After Kol Nidre, 92 percent of Americans in Israel stood at the crossroads between Rahel Imeinu and Emek Refaim. Standing, laughing, having a good time.

For Neilah, I headed back to what I will now dub "my" Nachlaot shul. And, man, do they love their slichot. A full month of Elul, plus 8 days of Tishrei, and they kept going. During Mincha and Neilah, they again said slichot. One more chance, I suppose.

Jonah (the book) was chanted to a unique nusach (tune), though anything would have been new for me, quite frankly. Beautiful.

And finally we got to the Tekiah Gedola blast at the end.

Except we didn't.

Because instead of a tekiah gedolah, it was a teruah gedolah. A series of short blasts which were somehow woven together in a fluttering call.

And after that, cars began to empty out back on the streets.

Next up, the festival of booths. Want more pictures? That's what I thought.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Mind control — bathroom edition

Several years ago, Eytan Kenter gave the List College graduation speech in a towel. "90 percent of your best ideas come to you in the shower," he stated. "Now it's time to do something about those ideas."

He then threw the towel into the crowd.

And the crowd erupted in applause.

Using an informal poll, I've discovered just how right Eytan was — people really do some of the their best thinking in the shower.

For example, raise your hand if you have great ideas come to you in the shower.

I thought so.

But there is a legal prohibition against Torah study from entering the bathroom, either the toilet or the bath. There is an underlying ethos that because the bathroom is not a modest or respectful place, therefore Torah should not be present there — but it should be everywhere else. For this reason, for example, a mezuzah is not placed on the doorpost of a bathroom.

So clearly, that means that the Bible is not good bathroom reading. But does it really mean that even thinking Torah thoughts are forbidden? Even during my prime thinking time of the day?

What if these thoughts will ultimately help others? I should really censor these thoughts? After all, this differs dramatically from trying to censor thoughts which have the potential to inflict danger, as I discussed in the previous post. These are thoughts which have the potential to do a great service for people.

I don't have any answers to these questions, but come, let us explore.

The law originates in the Babylonian Talmud (hereafter referred to as the Bavli), Kiddushin 33a. The Gemarra (commentary on the Mishnah) itself notes that there is a difference between voluntary and involuntary thoughts in the bathroom. As I'll note, this is not the way the law is codified, though. (The word "hirhurim" is also used here, the same as noted in the previous post).

From Kiddushin 33a:
ה"נ מסתברא, דאמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר ר' יוחנן: בכל מקום מותר להרהר, חוץ מבית המרחץ ומבית הכסא! דילמא לאונסיה שאני
For Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said: One may meditate/have thoughts [about learning] everywhere except at the baths and in the toilet room. [That however does not follow:] maybe it is different when [done] involuntarily. (Translation: Soncino)

There is a parallel text in Masechet Berachot, as well:
ברכות כ''ד:ב
ומי אמר רבי יוחנן הכי? והאמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן: בכל מקום מותר להרהר בדברי תורה - חוץ מבית המרחץ ומבית הכסא

Berachot, 24b
Who said that Rabbi Yochanan spoke thusly? Rabbah Bar Bar Chana said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: In every place it is permissible leharher with words of Torah — except for the bath house and the toilet room.

Commenting on the Kiddushin text, Rashi (Rabbi Shelomo ben Yitzhak, 11th c. Provence) explains that involuntary thoughts (literally, thoughts "which are forced [into the mind]) occur against peoples' wills sometimes. Even when one specifically decides at the entrance to the bathhouse/modern bathroom that she is not going to think about such topics, sometimes they force their way into her mind and she thinks about them.

לאונסיה שאני - פעמים שהוא טרוד ומעיין בשמועתיה לפני כניסתו למרחץ, וע"כ היא שגורה בפיו ולבו ומעיין בה בבית המרחץ.

Legal exegesis of this concept:

Below are a series of the major Medieval legal exegetes and how they rule on the above question of excising particular thoughts from the bathroom.

Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi (hereafter referred to as the Rif, 11th c. Morocco) codifies the legal portion of this Talmudic argument with Rabbi Yochanan's statement that it is forbidden to have hirhurim in the bathroom.

רי''ף, מסכת ברכות, פרק ג
אמר רב הונא תלמיד חכם אסור לעמוד במקום הטנופת שאי אפשר לו בלא תורה. ואמר רבי יוחנן בכל מותר להרהר חוץ מבית המרחץ ומבית הכסא

Ri''f, Masechet Berachot, Chapter 3
Rav Huna said: A talmid hacham (wise one) is forbidden to stand in a place of excrement, because it is impossible for him to be without Torah (ie. existentially, he is a person of Torah knowledge and will always think Torah thoughts). And Rabbi Yochanan said: In all places, one is allowed to have hirhurim — except in the bath house and toilet room.

As codified in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah (12th c. Spain, Egypt, hereafter referred to as Rambam) the laws about proper intention while in the bathroom are listed under the "Laws of Keriat Shema" (reading the Shema) because the Shema requires particular intention in its recitation. The Rambam codifies the mahmir (stringent) opinion in the Gemarra, which forbids even thinking "Torah thoughts" while in the bathroom, or in the vicinity of it, for that matter (Hilchot Keriat Shema 3:4).

רמב''ם ,הלכות קריאת שמע ג:ד
ולא קריאת שמע בלבד אלא כל ענין שהוא מדברי הקדש אסור לאומרו בבית המרחץ ובבית הכסא ואפילו אמרו בלשון חול, ולא לאמרו בלבד, אלא אפילו להרהר בלבו בדברי תורה בבית הכסא ובבית המרחץ...

Rambam, Laws of reading the Shema

This does not apply only to reciting the Shema, rather any aspect [which could apply as] "Holy words" is forbidden to say in the bath house (referring Greco-Roman-style of the Rabbinic age, but applying to any parallel of the particular time) and in the toilet room. And it is even forbidden to say it in a mundane language (anything other than Hebrew). And not only is saying it forbidden, but even to think words of Torah in his heart while in the bath house or toilet room is forbidden...

The Shulkhan Arukh (edited by Joseph Karo, Spain/Tzfat, 15th c.) rules almost identically as the Rambam, which can be seen clearly here — don't even THINK about it.
שולחן ערוך, אורח חיים, פ''ה: ב
אפי' להרהר בד"ת, אסור בבית הכסא ובבית המרחץ ובמקום הטנופת, והוא המקום שיש בו צואה ומי רגלים. הגה: ואפי' הלכות המרחץ אסור ללמוד במרחץ (ר"ן פ' כירה וב"י בשם א"ח). דברים של חול, מותר לאמרם שם בלשון הקדש...
Shulkhan Arukh, Orach Hayyim, 85:2
Even thinking about words of Torah is forbidden in the toilet room and in the bath house and in a place of refuse, defined as a place where there is feces and urine.

Okay, not that much difference, except for the extra details I gave you, which had previously been after the ellipses of the Rambam passage. But here's where it gets interesting.

How exactly do we define Torah? The Hebrew Bible? Halakhic texts? The gamut of philosophy in the Jewish tradition?

Tradition Renewed?

Hebrew grammar?

Yes, that's right.

As an individual who is particularly fond of grammar in any language, amen to that? (I should note that in seventh grade, my dad asked my English teacher if we would be learning to diagram sentences and he was extremely disappointed when the answer was no. "They're very important," he retorted. The dinner table made up for what we lacked in class. In 10th grade, Dr. Hemminger gave me the title "Grammar King," I'll have you know. Such nachas). It should be noted that my love of Hebrew grammar pales in comparison to those who have named their blog after a favorite vowel/grammatical form.

In his commentary on this section of Shulkhan Arukh, the Mishnah Berurah (R. Yisrael Kagan, 19th c. Poland) says that while one is in the bathroom he may not think about Hebrew grammatical details, such as verb tables, because that might lead the individual to think of a Biblical verse with similar constructs.

משנה ברורה פה:ה
בד"ת - וכן אסור לעיין בבה"כ במשקלי השמות והפעלים של לשון הקודש שאין דרך להגיע לידיעה רק ע"פ הכתובים ויבוא להרהר במקרא
Mishneh Berurah 85:5
It is forbidden to study Hebrew noun and verb tables in the bathroom, because there is no way to prevent one from only thinking about the Writings as they are related to the particular word, and he will come to think about the Torah...

I must note that this example is slightly different than my previous ones. One does not refrain from thinking about Hebrew grammar because this in itself is legally problematic. Rather, doing so is a harhaka (distancing) from breaking the actual law of thinking Torah thoughts in a location which is not suitable for them. For grammar aficionados (I'm looking at YOU, Emily Cook), it's also entertaining.

I don't know what it is about the shower that provides such fodder for thought. If you do, please share. Any general comments on such a prohibition?

More examples to come.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Yom Kippur and the West Wing

While this dialogue ranks low on the Aaron Sorkin list of wonders, it is apt for the day and I pass it on for that reason.

During the third season, there is a terror attack in Israel, targeting two Americans who are here/there for a soccer match. The closing scene (below) gives the episode its name, "The day before."

Wishing everyone a meaningful, even joyous, Yom Kippur.

This guy at the dinner, he told me something I didn't know.
On Yom Kippur, you ask forgiveness for sins against God.
But on the day before, you ask forgiveness
for sins against people.
[looks over at Toby] Did you know that?

Yeah. It's called, uh...I can't remember...

It's... Erev.

Erev Yom Kippur.

[nods] You can't ask forgiveness of God until you've asked
forgiveness of people on the day before.

BYOM (Bring your own Marmot)

"Obviously, you're not a golfer."

I am proud to say that my home city hosted a "Lebowski Fest" this weekend. I only wish I had alerted everyone earlier. Coming to a city near YOU, soon.

This isn't Nam, dude. There are rules. So prepare ahead of time.

In other amusing news, please see the following video. Courtesy of Ari for passing it on.

The Silver family also enjoys this one. Because everyone wins when Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a mix-in. Everyone.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mind control? Do we have control of our thoughts? (A multi-part series)

Last year, one of my friends and classmates sat down for lunch in the JTS courtyard and reflected that as he was going through his alumni magazine, he felt unhealthily jealous of many of the accomplishments that others had attained. And as he noted, he had chosen a different path. He has a beautiful family, the love of friends and is literally engaged in a living dream as he studies Torah each day.

It wasn't as if he actually wanted to be at the top of a particular firm — that would not bring him happiness. But still, it was tough to read about the accomplishments of others and not "covet" their place in life.

Such is the conundrum of the 10th statement/commandment of the Big Ten (15, before Mel Brooks dropped a tablet). Is it really possible ever to fulfill the mandate of not coveting? In broader terms, can thought be legislated?

Exodus 20:13 reads in full:
יג לֹא תַחְמֹד, בֵּית רֵעֶךָ; לֹא-תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ, וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ וְשׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ, וְכֹל, אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ.
13. You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that belongs to your neighbor

As you will quickly note while reading this blog, if you don't know this already, I find great wisdom in the West Wing. In this case, the episode entitled "Take out the trash day" touches precisely on the dilemmas of this verse.

Sam: "There's a town in Alabama that wants to abolish all laws except the Ten Commandments. . . . Well, they're going to have a problem. . . . Coveting thy neighbor's wife, for instance. How're you going to enforce that one?"

and then a follow-up to this rhetorical monologue

Sam: Leo, did you know there's a town in Alabama that wants to (abolish all laws except the Ten Commandments)...
Leo: Yes.
Sam: What do you think?
Leo: Coveting thy neighbor's wife's gonna cause some problems.
Sam: That's what I said. Plus, if I were arrested for coveting my neighbor's wife, I'd probably bear false witness.

That's precisely the issue, of course — how does one mandate thought, let alone legislate against it. Of course it works differently when being enforced by God, an omniscient power (bear with me on the theology for now — I use it purposefully, though could word it differently if this is a deal-breaker) and a state which does not have said powers. But the issue remains. Do humans have control over their thoughts at all, and if not, is it setting people up to fail to legislate against how people should think?

Another episode in Season One of the West Wing (In Exelcis Dio) approaches the same issue, this time in relation to a Hate Crimes legislation. Here's part of the script, which emphasizes the dialectic; it is an argument pulsing with emotion after a parallel in the narrative to the Matthew Shepard attack:

Beyond the crime itself is a manifestation of racism, or sexism, or anti Semitism or
homophobia that are only a tip of the iceberg of the pathology troubling this country.

I’m aware of all that. I’m just not sure it’s right to legislate against how someone thinks.
A lot of people aren’t sure, a lot of ‘em work here and I’m telling ya’ to dial it down.

We could continue with other such examples of whether states should censor particular topics, even the most hateful ones which could eventually manifest violence toward its citizens. What are the results of various European countries banning public displays of anti-Semitism, of denying the Holocaust?

Is there merit in banning books? In excommunicating the most heretical members of a society? EVER? If so, what are the ramifications of such actions?

These are not perfect parallels. But the similarities provide fodder for discussion.

During Yom Kippur, we will recite the Vidui repeatedly throughout the liturgy. We will recite various sins which we have transgressed, beating our breasts in rhythm and turn. We will recite "our sins that we have committed by hirhur halev" (inner thoughts; I prefer to translate it as reverberations of the mind) — על חטא שחטאנו לפניך בהרהור הלב.

(A note: Many cringe at the word sin. They prefer a P.C. term such as "missing the mark." Sin, after all has fire and brimstone connotations, Fundamentalist overtones. But I insist on it. Rabbi Richard Hirsh, my rabbi when we lived in Evanston, framed it best when he said:

Often Jews mistakenly dismiss the reality of sin, substituting the gentler but weaker image of “missing the mark.” This suggests that sin lies only in failing to do what we should rather than in failing to be who we should be.

Reducing sin to the status of an almost inadvertent error hardly seems tenable in the light of our awareness of the horrors of which humans, individually as well as collectively, have proved capable. The very nature of human nature lies before us as an open question.
There is a dark side to human nature, an impulse to evil which distorts and corrups our best intentions... Sin is not only what we do, or do not do it is also a question of who we are. In order to confess sin, we must first confront sin. (From Siddur Kol HaNeshama))

Today during the weekly sicha (discussion) at the Conservative Yeshiva, Reb Shmuel suggested that the confession of sinning because of inner reverberations is the paradigm for all of the statements where we confess our sins. Everything builds from this. These "reverberations of the heart" are real, intended thoughts. And they lead to tangible manifestations of negating that the human in front of us is an entire world to herself. They negate our humanity and place in the wider world.

Yes, there are times such unintended thoughts creep into our minds, but that does not imply that we cannot work on conditioning these "in-between moments," as Reb Shmuel suggested. It is an endless task, certainly. But fundamentally "an understanding of an ideal moral state is through trying to achieve it."

Before today, I questioned strongly whether it was possible to restrict said hirhurim from entering the mind. The question still is reverberating around my own mind. But again, as Reb Shmuel suggested, cleaning up one's act is largely about cleaning up one's mind. Moreover, almost all theories of psychological health try to make the unconscious, conscious. In sum, "there is nothing more powerful than denying what you want to know about yourself."

It is important to note that this is not an all-in phenomenon — it would be self-defeating and overwhelming to suggest that such a repair could be.

The notion that restraining thought, or more accurately restricting it, is at the forefront of the "10th commandment." Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th c. Spain) introduces his commentary on the verse with a self reflective question — "Many people are astonished about this mitzvah! How is it possible that one can not covet something beautiful in his heart if it is so beautiful in his eyes?!"
לא תחמוד אנשים רבים יתמהו על זאת המצוה?! איך יהיה אדם שלא יחמוד דבר יפה בלבו כל מה שהוא נחמד למראה עיניו

I will not quote the entire passage, which includes a parable which leads to an answer. But such a rhetorical introduction notes the inherent difficulty in this mitzvah. How does one restrain hirhurim?

And thus is the challenge.

As Amichai Lau-Lavie notes, the mandate of "do not covet/ לא תחמד" ultimately protects the very fabric of society. If only people were more punctilious about it:

"The tenth commandment does not refer only to the sins of lust. It lists the types of properties one must not desire – someone else’s spouse, servant or ox (or laptop). Like the other nine commandments, this one is a pretty good idea, an early form of ethical norm making. But, unlike the other nine, it is the only one that prevents one from even thinking about transgression. It’s an early version of mind control. But how well does it work?

Coveting, in all its manifestations, can easily, perhaps too easily, be identified as the possible root of so many evils – consider consumerism or adultery, and useless wars and crashing markets. Have I mentioned global warming? Throughout human history, it seemed, with an eye always on the next big thing, our healthy appetites became binges of craving, crashing delicate eco-systems of propriety, and destroying lives, homes and countries. Now it may even be the planet."

As I enter Yom Kippur, I think about the uncontrollable and know that it is a cop-out to frame it as such. It is a continual task to be aware of when these ideas come to my mind — and there are most certainly commonalities among them — and proceed onward from there. Because these thoughts are sins in themselves. But thoughts also affect the very fabric of an individual.

Intellectually, I'm also curious — when are we commanded to refuse certain thoughts from entrance to our minds? Why these cases?

I've assembled a few examples to illustrate this — for now "negative" examples. When can I not think certain things? What are these thoughts?

But that's for a later post. For now, on to Shabbat in Tel Aviv and Yom Kippur in Yerushalayim. Hineh Ani Ba, indeed.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Milot HaYom Madhimim (Awesome words of the day)

Tonight I wrote down good words that appeared in the midst of laughs and a conversation with Aliza, Guy, Iris and Avishai. As part of said conversation, periodically I would ask them to think of a fun word that I should know, and subsequently use it in context. That worked better at some points than others. What words would be a good feature for the blog/my life, or as they say in Hebrew, bishvil hablog בשביל הבלוג?

I asked the waitress for a word, as well — she was less helpful in this regard, but quite amusing throughout the entire meal. In that regard, I would highly recommend the restaurant "Diez" on Shlomzion HaMalka, next to Misrad HaPnim.

So here are the words from the evening. Props to Mishlachat 2000 for this help.

ברוגז, brogez: a fight between two people, usually kids, where they stubbornly refuse to talk to one another. No real English equivalent that can be summed up in one word.

שולם, sholem (pronounced in a Yiddish accent): after two people make up from having a ברוגז/brogez, they make שולם/sholem

שיווק, shivuk: marketing. A marketing specialist came to the Yeshiva today to see why people go there, what the institution can do better, etc. Pizza lunch was an unexpected treat, as well. לדעתי, זה דווקא שיווק טוב להביא אוכל לסטודנתים. In my opinion, it is good marketing/shivuk to bring Pizza to students.

קרציה, qirziah: tick (the animal). Refers colloquially to someone who is being annoying and a nuisance. Used in a joking matter. "Stop being such a tick." נו עליזה, תפסיקי להיות קרציה.

מתיש, matish: exhausting

לגהץ, legahetz: Literally to iron. It is also the verb used for "to swipe a credit card." It should be noted that if you are ever at Jen and JAR's and need to iron your shirt, they keep the maghetz/מגהץ in the kitchen.

פרוטקציה, protekziah: another false cognate. Rougly translates as nepotism. Shady dealings which give you connections, particularly for jobs. ''?מי צריך קשרים כשיש לך פרוטקציה'' is a common phrase. ("Who needs connections when you have protekziah?")

ויטמין פי, Vitamin P: פרוטקציה, Vitamin P is an amusing way to say protekziah.

פצצות לגבות, petzatzot l'gavot: Literally "explosions to the eyebrows." Means that something is awesome. The equivalent to "the bomb," you could say. "The bomb diggity," even. I wouldn't say, but you might.

Monday, September 21, 2009

My sister is an expert at finding amusing blogs

If you thought Zooborns was high on the 1 - cute scale, now see what said zooborns look like when they say "laila tov daf reik."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rosh HaShannah and the Kiwi

...the fruit, not the people.

There are many symbols placed on the table in honor of Rosh HaShannah, none more common than apples dripping with honey. Before each food there is a blessing, professing that the year be similar to said food. May the year be renewed and sweet (like apples and honey); may our blessings be as numerous as the seeds of a pomegranate — and beyond.

Some families get creative, as did the Cohens on the first night of the big RH.

The word for kiwi in Hebrew is "kivi," or in Hebrew characters, קווי. And the Hebrew word for hope? Tikvah, תקווה, with a root of ק.ו.י (you're going to have to trust me on that — I've take a fare share of Hebrew grammar over the past two years). May all of this year's hopes be fulfilled. Well done kiwi. Well done Cohens.

Rosh HaShannah here was joyous and delicious across the board.

Particularly festive was the Silver Platter lunch, complete with fun people, bol-gougie, Rosh HaShannah chicken, Saks barley salad, my famous friends salad, fruit salad, dragon fruit and two home-made desserts. There is no better combination in life than fun people and delicious food. For real. I challenge you to find a better combination.

Per the Russos' suggestion, I went to Minyan Shivyoni Baaka for davening, a quasi-egalitarian minyan (essentially Shira Chadasha style, if that means something to you) filled with a mostly Israeli crowd. It has a family atmosphere — to the max. Kids everywhere, literally climbing on the windows outside. I still plan to shop a bit for my weekly davening location, but this could be it. I should note that it poured today for about 40 minutes, which caused quasi-chaos at said family minyan. Rain in September is an anomaly in Israel, and kids under six respond by screaming GESHEM!! When there are 30 of them, it gets a bit loud.

On the subject of kids, please see one of my favorite websites. On a scale of one to cute, these are, well, you be the judge.

Friday, September 18, 2009

2162 Votes; Some thoughts leading to Rosh HaShannah

Last summer, on a teenage work and educational trip to Uganda with American Jewish World Service, we got together several times a week to check in and debrief about different issues going on within our group, our relationships with the community and beyond. A check-in. Jake affectionately called this “circle time” — he wanted more of it, and asked almost every day when we would have said “circle time.”

Everyone would scramble for a spot along the wall of the opening to our building; several would grab a mattress and in turn there would be a battle for a seat there, as well. These were the prized spots — compared to the stone floor, of course.

During one of said “circle times,” Maya invented a word. Everyone in the room, she noted, was awkward in some way. And in each case that was what she admired most about that person — the quirks, ones you get to know really well when spending 24 hours a day together, living in the same dorm, using the same everything for daily life.

So the term itself was misplaced. It wasn’t that people were awkward. Or maybe it was. But we should embrace that fact. That awkward should be trendy. And hence, we should all love the fact that we were trawkward.

According to Rabbinic interpretation, Rosh HaShannah celebrates the birthday of the world. At least, this is the way it is often portrayed. As we say six times throughout the Rosh HaShannah liturgy, “Hayom Harat Olam,” today the world is pregnant. Specifically, Rabbinic thought places the creation of the first human on the first of Tishrei, on the first day of Rosh HaShannah (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 29:1, parallel text also in Pesikta d’Rav Kahane, Piska 23). The Midrash notes explicitly that creation began on the 25th Elul, five days prior.

With this understanding, if a tree falls in the world and no one is there to see it, sure it happened. But it is all but irrelevant.

Of course, there is a distinction between the Midrashic notion of Rosh HaShannah being the birthday of humanity and of the liturgical representation of humans not yet being born. Yet the image also expresses the untold potential of human engagement with the world — beginning on this day, of seeing the tree fall and planting a new one in its place. As Reb Shmuel of the Conservative Yeshiva posed last week, do a 15 second thought experiment: “Imagine a world without humanity. What are the sensory emotions you envision?”

Fundamental to celebrating the potential of humanity is crowning God as sovereign of the universe. Humans operate within a wider system of interaction; relationships within each individual, within particular communities, within wider universal communities, within the world and all of creation, with God. The crowning of God, seen explicitly in the Malkhuyot section of Musaf (emphasized through the enthusiastic tune of Keter Melukha) illustrates a fundamental order of the universe, one guided by the ideals that will create the world that humans want to see. Only through such a crowning of God, of living and engaging with the ideals set forth through vital religion will humans live in the world that is so often envisioned.

Rosh HaShannah celebrates the potential of humanity, its interaction with the entire scope of creation. In doing so, I think back to the wise statement by the curly-haired red head during circle-time last summer (I note this because Maya’s hair is wicked cool wherever you are in the year, but it particularly sticks out in Uganda). As we honor humanity, we also should be that much more honest with the core of ourselves, our vulnerabilities, which in themselves make us human. I'd like to propose that by doing so, we are fulfilling the edict of Deuteronomy 30:19 to "choose life," ובחרת בחיים.

We all have quirks and too often hide them; in reality, they’re often best of each of us. What is it that defines each of our trawkwardness?

Last year while reading over some of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s essays, I came upon a striking parallel between the 20th century philosopher and activist and a speech given by Senator Matt Santos of the West Wing:

Because we're all broken, every single one of us, and yet we pretend that we're not. We all live lives of imperfection and yet we cling to this fantasy that there's this perfect life and that our leaders should embody it. — Santos, 2162 Votes, Season 6 Finale

We are all failures. At least one day a year we should recognize it. I have failed so often; I am sure those present here have also failed. We have much to be contrite about; we have missed opportunities. The sense of inadequacy ought to be at the very center of the day. — R. AJH, "Yom Kippur," found in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel

Rosh HaShannah is not a day of contrition, Yom Kippur is. But in celebrating our own lives and those of whom we both know and do not know, in crowning God Melekh, we also recognize our fundamental humanity, one which has holes. Many of them.

The Tannaitic Midrash Pesikta D’Rav Kahane (4th century Eretz Yisraeli) presents the following parable (Piska 24):

The common person thinks it is a disgrace for her to use broken vessels. But God does not (share this opinion). All of God’s interactions are with broken vessels, (as it reads) “God is close to broken hearts” (Psalms 34:19); “(God is) the healer of broken hearts” (Psalms 116:3); “A broken and a contrite heart, God, You wilt not despise,” (Psalms 51:19). For this reason Hosea warns Israel and says to them, “Return, Israel, unto the HaShem your God; for you have stumbled in your iniquity” (Hosea 14:2).

Humans are fundamentally flawed and the Midrash suggests we should not only be comfortable with that fact, but that an attempt to cover this up is idolatry. God wants us to be broken, not because we try to be at any particular moment, but because that was how we were created. Yes, of course there’s the oft-quoted statement that we are broken so we can in turn do teshuvah; perhaps you prefer Uncle Ben’s statement in Spiderman.

But this idea goes well beyond that. We are vulnerable because that is who we fundamentally are. On Rosh HaShannah, as we celebrate human potential in the world, of building the world we want to see, now of all times we embrace this cardinal aspect of our selves. “Because we’re broken, every single one of us, and yet we pretend that we’re not.”

This holiday season I am particularly conscious of the love of my friends and family. I feel blessed to interact dynamically with the people I love, celebrating and laughing, often exposing our own vulnerabilities. I only wish I would guard myself less.

May this be a year of challenges, of joy, of integrity, of holes. May it be a year where we are not afraid to be ourselves, where we embrace a life of quirks and trawkwardness, of our fundamental humanities.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Milot HaYom

I went to the Shuk today, complete with the bubbe cart, thinking that Sesame would be a cognate. Sesame oil is one of the central tastes for Bol Gougie, you should know.
So much for that. The nice man who makes a living selling different types of oils helped with the process. And because of him, we will have Bol Gougie deliciousness.

שומשום (soom-soom): sesame; שמן שומשום: sesame oil


שאלת קיטבג (shealat kitbeg): A שאלת קיטבג is a question one asks which receives the obvious kickback response that one would expect, and probably not want. For example, if a teacher asked the class to read 25 pages for homework and a student raised her hand and asked if they should outline it as well. (Thanks to Shayna for the correction).

Editor's note: Laura Ruth Silver says she has retired from being a cheapion, because China does not require it. Life as normal is so cheap that is no challenge (my addition).

Some thoughts on Rosh HaShana to come before sundown tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Milot HaYom (again)

Today in Talmud (Sukkah 24a) we came upon the phrase נוד תפוח, meaning an inflated wine skin. No relation to the word apple, though you could certainly have a תפוח נפוח (a swelled apple). Root for this word is נ.פ.ח

,מנפחmenapeach (biyan piel): inflated
מתנפח, mitnapeach: swelled. For example, a welt on your head would use the reflexive form, as seen here.


קומבינה, kombina: A cognate, but it does not mean a "combination." A קומבינה is a good deal, perhaps gained through being crafty.

For example, my sister brags about being the cheapest person on the planet, or certainly top 5. (See cheapions.blogspot.com for tales of her triumphs). She is quite familiar with said concept, if not the word itself.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Milot HaYom

The word for beans is a plural noun. But it is modified by a singular adjective.

שעועית: bean/s
רוזמרין: rosemary

World are colliding...

Yesterday was the annual Emek Refaim Street Fair BONANZA (I believe that's the technical name they gave it).
The restaurants all had stations in the street and street stands sold a healthy combination of trinkets and expensive art. Essentially, every American living in Jerusalem showed up, and 75% of Israelis, as well.

People at the fair represented a veritable pu-pu platter of people in my life, if you will. And I think you will.

Toward the end of the night I sat down at a restaurant called Baba with Sarah, Gabi, Kupps, Hannah, Hackit and Ari Berkowicz. I should note that I look quite like the owner. Many of the מלצרים (waiters) had a good time with the comparison, particularly when Sarah suggested that we were cousins. ("WOOO, WALLAH. B'emet?" was a particularly amusing response).

Here is a picture I took last year with said owner (Yoni). Thoughts?

Running into various people from my present and past (and future, for that matter) was joyous to the max. Lots of giant hugs, "how have been"s?, "You must come for Shabbat"s, and a chorus of "Shannah Tovah"s echoing throughout the night.

As I write this, Rosh HaShana is approaching and enveloping Jerusalem. This is clearly manifested in the food selection at shuk, the cards everywhere and even in the fact that you get an extra .25 liter free in honor of the hagim when you buy a six-pack of 1.5 liter soda/pop (I will note that I am weening myself off said products, however).

More than these physical products, though, I take most to heart that every time I leave a conversation, whether with a friend or at a store, there is an exchange of "Shannah tovah" as we part ways. While the chaos of the Israeli infrastructure makes buying stamps and installing internet are multi-step processes, and are quite frankly absurd, the particularism embedded in the notion of "כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה'' (all Jews are responsible for one another) tangibly illustrates itself during this time of year, giving me cause to smile.

Shannah tovah.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

You know that God exists because...

...Israel is alive and well. I'm not saying that in a Religious Zionist fashion. This is not a theological argument about the place of God in the world.

I'm saying that it is a daily occurance that you shake your head and wonder how the country operates.

Case from today:

Today I went to the post office to buy stamps. No stamps. They directed me across the street to the newspaper stand. You see, the post office doesn't sell stamps.

On the other hand, I bought 2 kilos of plums for 2 dollars. That's gotta count for something.

I will be making Rosh HaShanah lunch. Quite excited about that. Highlights to include Bol-gol-gie (that's Korean steak for the uninitiated) and what I am calling Rosh HaShanah chicken. RH chicken will be a marinade of Israeli fruits cooked with the chicken.

Get in my belly. Yum.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Quaker Pride

I was quite glad to see that Lebron chose Buzz Bissinger to be his autobiographer. Quite frankly, I was wondering what took so long. He's Lebron, after all — people will read about his life. There is no better sports writer out there than Bissinger. I'll go beyond that and say I think he writes narrative non-fiction better than anyone else I have encountered. Back when I thought I was going to go into that business, he was the man I looked up to most. And did I mention that he is a Daily Pennsylvanian and hence, Penn alumnus? Woop woop, indeed.

I was first introduced to Bissinger when my father gave me his copy of Friday Night Lights. (I should note that I didn't read everything my dad gave me. For example, when he realized I hadn't yet read the copy of the Chosen he gave me, he tried again. I have 4 copies. I have since read it. But points for effort). I have since read that copy of Friday Night Lights several times and admire it for the narrative journalistic writing style, the impeccable reporting and also, let's face it, the story itself has a narrative that would be hard to make up it is so good. In Bissinger's own words: "This book had one of the great built-in narratives of all time because it wasn't made up." His other books, A Prayer for the City and Three Nights in August echoe the same compliments. I'm excited to read the new one about King James.

In college I wrote a feature on Bissinger, in connection with the opening of the movie of Friday Night Lights. I think it was one of my best products from the DP days(that's Daily Pennsylvanian, for the non-Quakers). Figured I'd introduce my DP writing to a new crowd with this blog. As I used to say, I drank a lot of DDP at the DP.

I'll also note that Bissinger was astounded that I had a first-edition of the book. Props for that, Abba.

Milat HaYom (word of the day)

להתפשט, lehitpashet: As discussed today in class, this word means "to become common;" ie. for information to spread and thus practice to become common. We'll call that the high interpretation.
In modern Hebrew it also means "to get undressed." From the root of the word simple, the reflexive verb means "to become simple." Or in other words, to get back to basics.

הייתי פה, hayiti po: Literally means "I was here." Colloquially it means, "I'm outta here."

סובלנות, sovlanut: Hebrew has one word both for suffering and tolerance. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I am a Silver Platter

As many know, the title of this blog refers to the well-known Israeli poem by Natan Alterman. Few Yom HaZikkaron ceremonies (Israeli Memorial Day) do not include the poem, which has since been put to music. With the UN Vote for the partition of Palestine on 29 November, 1947 (ironically, the cross-street of where I live), people around the world stated that the state of Israel was handed over on a Silver Platter (Magash HaKesef). Chaim Weizman, who would become the first president of Israel, gave the following quote to HaAretz newspaper on December 15, 1947: "A nation is not handed over on a silver platter (אין מדינה ניתנת לעם על מגש של כסף)." The poem itself was published for days later.

During a war where Israel lost 1% of its total population, the poem became a rallying cry for the Israeli War of Independence. And in many ways, such a mantra still lives strong. The state was built, and lives on, because of the sacrifices of real people, each day.

In November, I relished Pres. Obama's speech in Cairo. I felt that he complicated the issues, he dared people to look beyond the polarities that so often dominate discourse and in turn elevate the conversation to a level of highest common denominator. Yet perhaps manifested most visibly by HaAretz editor Aluf Benn in an Op/Ed to the NYT, Israelis from across the political spectrum recoiled at Obama's emphasis of Israel as a refuge from atrocity, specifically from the Holocaust.

The Israeli narrative, seen most poignantly in this very poem, is one which voices itself in positive terms. The state was not handed over on a silver platter. Quite the opposite. It is a land that has roots throughout the collective memory of the Jewish people. The Jewish narrative goes back to the Bible, the Jewish Zionist narrative to the 1880s (you want to say 1860s, fine. We can have that conversation if you want).

I didn't expect such an argument from Benn and others (several Israeli friends voiced the same thing). Personally, I should note that I didn't hear said condemnation toward the Israeli state in Obama's words. Physical protection does not preclude Israeli voicing itself in its own, positive terms. Yet the lack of both narratives in the speech left, and continues to leave, a bitter taste in the mouths of many natives I have encountered. Did Obama say that the State of Israel was handed over on a silver platter? He didn't say it wasn't.

But what does this have to do with me? In what is now a social requirement for all who leave the country (and Canada) for an extended time, why grace my blog with said title? Rabbinic commentators on sacred texts often have clever word plays for names. Sometimes the names are quotes from Tanakh. Other times the clever "nicknames" are the name of the most famous book. So I figured that I needed one as well. My friend, chevruta, former Brown Bear who almost got in a fight with the Penn Quaker and future roommate, Ari, came up with the perfect choice. Well done.

Besides for being a poem with which I have identified for a long time, the name also reflects the religious significance I place on modern texts. More on that in a later post.
And the rest will be told in the chronicles of my blog...

מגש הכסף
נתן אלתרמן

והארץ תשקוט, עין שמים אודמת
תעמעם לאיטה על גבולות עשנים
ואומה תעמוד - קרועת לב אך נושמת
לקבל את הנס האחד, אין שני.

היא לטקס תיכון. היא תקום למול סהר
ועמדה, טרם-יום, עוטה חג ואימה.
אז מנגד יצאו נערה ונער
ואט אט יצעדו הם אל מול האומה.

לובשי חול וחגור, וכבדי נעליים
בנתיב יעלו הם הלוך והחרש.
לא החליפו בגדם, לא מחו עוד במים
את עקבות יום הפרך וליל קו האש.

עייפים עד בלי קץ, נזירים ממרגוע,
ונוטפים טללי נעורים עבריים
דום השניים ייגשו, ועמדו לבלי נוע.
ואין אות אם חיים הם או אם ירויים.

אז תשאל האומה, שטופת דמע וקסם,
ואמרה: מי אתם? והשניים שוקטים,
יענו לה: אנחנו מגש הכסף
שעליו לך ניתנה מדינת היהודים,
כך ויאמרו ונפלו לרגלה עוטפי צל,
והשאר יסופר בתולדות ישראל.

The Silver Platter
By Natan Altermann

The earth grows still.
The lurid sky slowly pales over smoking borders.
Heartsick but still living, a people stand by
To great the uniqueness
Of the miracle. Readied, they wait beneath the moon,
Wrapped in awesome joy before the light. — Then soon,
A girl and boy step forward,
And slowly walk before the waiting nation;
In work clothes and heavy-shod
They climb
In stillness.
Wearing still the dress of battle, the grime
Of aching day and fired night
Unwashed, weary until death, not knowing rest,
But wearing youth like dewdrops in their hair.
— Silently the two approach
And stand.
Are they of the quick or of the dead?
Through wondering tears, the people stare.
"Who are you, the silent two?"
And they reply: "We are the silver platter
Upon which the Jewish State was served to you."
And speaking, fall in shadow at the nation's feet.
Let the rest in Israel's chronicles be told.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The quirks of the Jewish State

It’s been a very Israeli first few days here. Notably, I’ve accidentally run into three people I know over the first 24 hours in the country. That’s Jerusalem. (Fogey, Aliza Grabin and Ariel Keren, if you’re keeping track at home).

To begin, a story. I went to my favorite barber this afternoon and he immediately recognized me. I told him I wanted about half off, all the way around, and he said, “Yes, of course. The regular.” I last went to him four years ago.

He gives good haircuts, and by his comment at the end of the haircut, he thinks highly of his work.

After finishing he said to me, “"You have no idea how much better you look now."

Welcome to Israel, where the compliments always make you scratch your head and wonder, “Thanks, I think?”

As they say, Israelis are like Sabra (cactus) fruits, prickly on the outside and sweet inside.

I hit a bit of jetlag during day 1, rising to it being pitch black outside, and thinking, “this is not how I planned it.” So I did some work the paper I started over the summer, what some have called my “for fun super-senior thesis” (more on that in a later post).

I received an e-mail from Adam Baldachin saying that he was going to make a minyan at the Robinson Arch for a bar-mitzvah boy visiting Israel. I’m for adventure and we headed out, first for a breakfast at the David Intercontinental Hotel (did I mention they have a nice spread?). Fun family, with lots of laughs over the course of the day.

Bar-mitzvah boy did a good job, as did Rabbi Schlessinger in conducting a service. Noted was the poignancy of a bar mitzvah which culminates continuity in Jewish tradition and memory, directly in front of the rocks of destruction from the Second Temple.

At the conclusion of the bar mitzvah, they had hired 2 klezmer “stars” to dance in front of the Davidson Center. As it was, another bar-mitzvah walked by, complete with drums and singing, and the two sets of musicians joined together, with a few families of Israelis singing along. I’m not saying that this could only happen in Jerusalem, but let’s just say it didn’t happen in Dubrovnik.

Highlights of the shuk right now are most definitely the nectarines and plums. I should also note that I am still figuring out how much different items weigh, and that 200 grams of zaatar should last me until May. And I love zaatar. I should also note I appreciate all that the chickpea has given the Jewish people over the past 100+ years; buying hummus by the kilo is a luxury I will relish.

Shabbat highlight was most definitely dinner at Aliza and Ela’s, friends from when I worked on Ramah Seminar/my previous year in Israel. Of all the goals I have this year, coming home with a Hebrew accent and fluency is most definitely toward the top of that top-5 list. Therefore, a dinner with friends, featuring conversation all but exclusively in Hebrew combined everything I could have looked for in a Shabbat dinner. And that’s without even mentioning the hummus with beef and the fried sweet and sour chicken that Aliza made. As I mentioned in my e-mail for my going away party, Israel features gustatory delight at every corner. No disappointments there yet.

Future posts will have more musings, less biography. I’ll explain the name of the blog and my thoughts about being here. Throughout it all, perhaps I’ll entertain you a bit along the way.

I had not realized that the apartment would come with a tv and dvd player, but here it is. A note of closing on a West Wing episode that had been running in the background on Friday: Josh suggests in the third season that Leo should be Bartlet’s running mate. Somehow that had escaped me. Turn it over, turn it over, everything is in it.