Monday, October 18, 2010

I am a Published Author

It has been awhile since I have posted. I have every intention of being a more regular poster in the coming months.

For now, I wanted to let people know that I was recently published in the American Jewish Archives Journal for a piece which originally began as my senior thesis at the University of Pennsylvania, over five years ago. It has gone through several drafts since then and it has now hit the world of the academic journal. Welcome, "The Excommunication of Mordecai Kaplan."

I'm quite proud of the piece, which you can find here, and will be available shortly on the American Jewish Archives website, as well.

For now, I'll paste the acknowledgements which I wrote for the original thesis. I should note that one person suggested that the acknowledgements were the best part of the thesis. So read away!

Many adjustments should be made to these thanks based on the past five years, but here they are as they were in the original:

This project did not originate as a thesis. It began as a twenty-page research paper as the conclusion of an independent study internship at the National Museum of American Jewish History. But quickly it started to consume me.

My dad says that this thesis managed to combine every segment of my college experience. I used my love of journalism unconsciously as a model for how to pursue a story and search for the last source that is out there — because that’s where the best information sits. I incorporated my love of studying Jewish texts, nurtured both in the classrooms of the University of Pennsylvania and in my own pursuit of knowledge. I have also realized that I am deeply passionate in the American Jewish experience in the twentieth century and how Jews express their Judaism. Overall, however, I love thinking and talking about Judaism.

I thrust myself at this project because it had already been growing inside of me for some time. And thus it grew from a term paper to a project that I chose to continue attacking, whether that included sorting through archival materials on one of my several trips to New York, speaking with various scholars or typing during the nights in my designated corner of Penn Hillel.

Many people aided this process, for which I am extremely thankful. To my friends, many of whom assembled a mini fan-club around this thesis, sparking a “Mordecai Kaplan fact of the day” montage throughout second semester. But above all, who supported me in this project because they knew it meant so much to me, and perhaps that is the most touching part of all of this. The crowd that came to hear me present the thesis made me feel extremely lucky.

My professors at Penn continue to draw my respect with how they combine a deep interest in pedagogy and a complete mastery of their subjects. I have loved absorbing the subject matter of the classes I have taken, but I have also taken notes on how these scholars communicate their knowledge, which is equally impressive to their scope of learning. Thank you for being such great models for the discipline and giving me a fantastic undergraduate experience.

Thank you to the many scholars across the country who showed keen interest in the project and immediately offered their insight and advice. Particular thanks to Rabbi Neil Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who invited me to follow him for a day, and whose anecdotal accounts of his own time as a student under Mordecai Kaplan proved to be particularly fruitful. Each of my interactions gave me a new respect for the academy and the notion of collaborative scholarship. The care that each of the scholars puts into his or her work is inspiring.

To Professors Beth Wenger and Ari Kelman at Penn, who nurtured this work most closely and watched it grow. I adopted Dr. Wenger as a second adviser during second semester of this year partly because she led the “Senior Seminar” for the Jewish Studies major. But more than that, Dr. Wenger was completely willing and enthusiastic to discuss the thesis. Ranging from micro issues of prose to discussing larger themes in American Judaism, Dr. Wenger continues to help me to understand broader notions of what it means to be a historian.

Dr. Kelman helped me to work through this process from my opening ideas of only knowing that I wanted to write something about Mordecai Kaplan. Throughout this project he remarkably was always able to steer me in the correct direction, even though I had done the research. He showed a keen awareness for the process and helped to direct me throughout the course of the year. With an interest in film, Ari both literally and figuratively helped me to craft a storyboard for this work, offering help in all three main segments of the process: research, writing and revising. His e-mails consistently served to inspire me and keep me going, often necessarily pulling the reins and making me laugh all at the same time.  In pursuing this project, I also got the opportunity to speak about many greater issues in American Judaism, and discovered that we have similar views about most issues on the current American Jewish scene. His greater vision and easy-going general outlook on life made working under him a privilege.

Perhaps I learned most that no matter how much children try to run away from their parents, that even if they sit on benches outside of art museums instead of going in just to be spiteful, ultimately we are all truly our parents’ children. I have truly loved this experience and have now begun to realize why —and how— my dad can sit upstairs in front of a computer for up to fourteen hours at a time with only Diet Dr. Pepper, a baseball game and a stack of books about Dutch etchings. Some would say other than my choice of subject, I wasn’t so different with this project— except that it was basketball season this time.

Thank you to everyone who helped me craft what has been the most rewarding intellectual experience in my undergraduate career, one that hopefully is just the beginning of this exploration.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Life imitates West Wing? Or vice-versa, perhaps.

From today's New York Times, a discussion about placing religious symbols in public locations.

From Episode 13 of Season 1 of the West Wing (Take out the Trash Day):

Toby is working at his desk. Sam enters quietly. 


There is a town in Alabama that wants to abolish all laws except the Ten Commandments. 

I saw it. 

Well, they're gonna have a problem. 

Because the Constitution prohibits religious activity in any form connected to Government? 

Good point! Two problems. 

Sam, I'm busy here! 

I just mean that some of those Commandments are pretty hard to enforce. 

What is it? 

I just got a call asking me if I wanted to comment on a story that's gonna run in the 
Georgetown Hoya tomorrow. 

The student newspaper? 

A sociology professor has been teaching what the paper, at any rate, feels is racist 
stuff. Too much funding for Head Start, welfare mothers, and... 

And why are they talking to us? 

Zoey's in the class. 

Who cares? 

This minute? The Georgetown Hoya. Tomorrow...? 

The President's daughter got an idiot sociology professor, and we gotta... 

I'll talk to Zoey. 

Please. [long pause] What else? 

Coveting thy neighbour's wife, for example. How are you going to enforce that one? 


Monday, August 2, 2010

Turn your ear into a funnel: A D'var Torah for Parshat Ekev

I delivered these words this weekend at Beth Judah Congregation in Ventnor, NJ. I owe many of the thoughts to the teaching of Rav Shai Held. Additional inspiration from Rav Benny Lau. 


There are few things Jews can agree on. So go the idioms: Two Jews, three opinions.

One island, two synagogues.

But if there’s one thing that we Jews agree on, is that we love food. Sure you say kugel, I say kiegel. But in the end we all ask for seconds.

And so at the end of the first aliyah today, when Moshe introduces the people Israel to a land literally overflowing with bountiful food, you can picture the scene. All mouths drop — simultaneously. A land not only flowing in milk and honey, but one with streams, springs and fountains, of wheat, barley, grapes, figs, dates, pomegranates and olive oil. The seven species of fruits of the land of Israel. The list puts even the great produce junction to shame.

It is a land where the people will lack nothing.

Yet the Israelites are reminded just verses earlier to slow down. Not so fast my friends! After all, they survived in the dessert. 

Ki lo al lechem lvado yihyeh haadam ki al kol moza pi adonai yiheye haadam.

“Humanity does not live on bread alone, but may live on anything that HaShem decrees.”

One does not need to mine the depths of the Rabbinic consciousness to draw a direct connection between Torah and bread from this pasuk, between physical satisfaction and spiritual nourishment. Humanity does not live by bread alone. But by what God issues.

Humanity survives on more than what it farms. It lasts, indeed thrives, on the words of God.

Let’s follow the metaphor. Bread and Torah.

HaMotzi Lechem Min HaAretz. It’s such a fundamental statement. The first prayer we learn as children. There’s that cute tune from pre-school, “We give thinks to God for Bread, our voices rise in song together.”

But when we take a second glance at it, even briefly, we notice that on its simplest level, it is simply not true. We don’t bring forth bread from the Earth. Humans make it from component parts. We do the plowing the reaping, the grinding, the baking.

Some of the early kibbutzniks in Israel went as far as to change the brakha to “Praised be the farmer who brings forth bread from the Earth,” a switch which caused the religious establishment in Israel to bristle.

Yet this is clearly not the norm, rejected by the kibbutz movement, certainly by the rest of the Jewish world.

We don’t have any problem stating HaMotzi Lechem Min HaAretz. We joyfully teach the blessing to our children. We believe that God had a hand in the creation of bread. And humanity carried forth in the rest of the process. There is sheer Wonder in the process of planting a vegetable in the spring and then digging into the soil and digging it out of the soil in the fall. Failure to acknowledge it as anything less as Wonder bears perjury to the soul.

But for many of us, the term Torah min HaShamayim, Heavenly Torah, is a tougher term to swallow. We may have taken an Introductory Academic Bible class at university and learned some of the theories that the Torah is made up of component sources, that the first two chapters of Genesis represent the P source and the J source. We recognize immediately the parallels between the Code of Hammurabi and Parashat Mishpatim of Shmot and wonder what is so different between our Biblical Law of “Eye for an Eye, Tooth for tooth” and that of other Ancient Near Eastern legal codes; between our flood story and that of the Atrahasis Epic or of Gilgamesh. The History Channel always shows the historical roots of the Biblical Exodus during the spring months, trying to match up the plagues with natural events during the time.

So then, what is Torah Min HaShamayim, with all of the above facts, and more?

Firstly, Torah min HaShamayim has many meanings, and has since the Rabbis of the Talmud first began explicating the depths of the Torah during post-Second Temple times. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s magnum opus Torah min HaShamayim, recently translated by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, culls Rabbinic literature for how the Rabbis interpreted the notion of a Heavenly Torah.

Even by simply looking at the size of the book, by judging it bys its cover, so to speak, we ascertain that the Rabbis had many understandings for the term “Heavenly Torah.”

During Shavuot last year, my teacher Rabbi Shai Held drew my attention to an article by 20th century Jewish Theologian Jakob Petuchowski, appropriately titled for today “Not by Bread Alone.”

He identifies this essential trop of the Torah and bread sustaining humanity. The parallelism of Lehem min HaAretz and Torah min HaShamayim. Bread From the Earth and Torah From Heaven.

We say one with gusto, without thinking twice. So should it be with Torah. I believe in Torah from Heaven just as I believe in Lechem min HaAretz.

I say this not to appease myself. Nor anyone in this room. But because I believe it is the honest articulation of what it means to study the breadth and depth of our Tradition. To live a Jewish life of passion, charging forward and learning as much as possible without straps which hold me back. To study the entire gamut of Torah min HaShamayim, a divinely given corpus of text, infused with human ingenuity and interpretation throughout the generations.

This is the meaning of Torah min HaShamayim. This is the meaning of Lechem Min HaAretz.

I push the metaphor of bread and Torah one step further.

If indeed there is direct parallel between physical nourishment and spiritual nourishment, then why do we not say a Birkat HaMazon of sorts after we study, as is Biblically prescribed for food in this very Parasha! We read in Chapter 8, verse 10, V’achalta v’savata, uverachta ed Adonai Elohecha, al haaretz hatova asher natan lach. When you eat and are satisfied, you should bless HaShem your God for the good land that God has given you.

If we’re going to use a metaphor, after all, let’s use it.

There is a discussion in Massechet Brachot page 11a, about the proper prayer that we should say before studying Torah, determining that it is asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav laasok bdivrei torah, who commanded us to engage with Torah, as well as the blessing we are familiar with from Birkot HaTorah, asher banu mikol haamim v’natan lanu et torato. (These are on page 6 in your Sim Shalom siddur)

Commenting on this, the medieval commentators the Tosefot (the grandsons of Rashi, for historical reference) rhetorically ask why one only should say this prayer only in the morning? Why not say the prayer over studying Torah every time one sits down to study?

They answer: because every hour that one is awake one has the obligation to study. Therefore one says it upon waking up in the morning and is exempt for the rest of the day.

Translating it back to my question about Birkat HaMazon, one is never satisfied or satiated from studying Torah. Therefore there is no finality to the “meal.” One prayer before studying lasts the entire day. 

The Tosefot say this in the grammatical indicative. One is exempt from saying this prayer for studying throughout the day because the obligation for study is not bound to a particular time.

I issue it in the grammatical imperative. Of all times, during Shabbat pick up a book that you haven’t read before. Read over the parsha. Mine the depths. Make studying for half an hour a regular part of your Shabbat afternoon, at the beach, at your home, with your family, on your own. Let’s face it. We’re all going to the beach this afternoon, anyway.

We read on page 3a of Massechet Hagigah in the Talmud, Taaseh Oznecha k’afarkeset ukneh lcha lev mevin. Make your ear into a funnel, thereby acquiring for yourself an understanding heart. (such imagery!). The moral? Listen first. Allow all information into your mind and heart. Filter it only after you have opened your ear as a funnel.

On this Shabbat, turn your ear into a funnel. Ensure that saying the brakha over studying Torah in the morning really does last for the entire day, because you will be studying throughout the course of Shabbat.

Acquire yourself a lev mevin, an understanding heart, through the spiritual nourishment of Torah min HaShamayim.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Annie Lewis on becoming a rabbi

My friend Annie Lewis recently put words to paper on her growth into the position. My writing teacher in college said that with good writing, you can feel the texture between your finger tips. "You feel it?" he'd ask.

You be the judge here.

This was published on the Lilith Magazine Blog and seems to be part of a series.

Letter from Jerusalem:  Listening on the next generation of Conservative women rabbis

“Get yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend.” – Pirkei Avot 1:6
Blessed are You, God, who clothes the naked. My mother’s closet is full of clothing from various eras of her life. Suits hang in every jewel-tone from decades of shul-going. She has even saved her Bat Mitzvah dress, yellowed lace with patches of pastel. When I was younger, I used to love playing dress-up in her closet, awaiting the day I would grow into her clothes.

Among the diverse discussion topics when a group of women rabbinical students gathered in Jerusalem living rooms this past year was the contents of our own closets: how we see ourselves and how we are seen; the ways we choose to cover and uncover; the garments we have inherited and those we have taken upon ourselves. My hevruta (study partner), Kerrith Solomon, and I convened this group of women from the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler school so we could talk with our peers about things we have not yet had safe space to explore within our schooling, reclaiming and exploring our identities as women on our paths toward the rabbinate in the Conservative Movement.

For my first two years in rabbinical school, I felt pressure to be both a Jewish man and a Jewish woman. I accepted the full gamut of ritual obligation, but never had any conversation around integrating my gender identity into the role of rabbi. I fastened kippot to my hair and didn’t quite feel at home. When a male colleague argued that all female students should be obligated to wear kippot, my reflex was to guard my hair from the demands of others, to preserve it as a domain for self-expression. I found myself choosing to wear my most feminine garb to class and spending time in front of the mirror with a mascara wand. Encountering older layers of text from the tradition I thought I was in love with, I experienced a sense of loss and lack that I didn’t know how to name. A committed feminist, I felt alienated and disconnected from so-called holy sources that related to women as objects and second-class citizens. Many days, I felt like a spinning head, detached from my body. Often, I would end up with the mascara as a smudged trail down my cheeks.

Some of the women in our group wear kippot, others choose not to cover their hair. Still others have dipped into Jerusalem’s colorful market of headscarves and hats of all shapes and sizes. Some of us worry about how Conservative congregations might react to a rabbi in a fancy hat on the bimah. Two female classmates who wear kippot cover the covering with a scarf or beret when venturing into public spaces in Jerusalem.

Walking through Jerusalem, I often feel as though everyone is in costume or uniform. We all feel hyperaware of how what we wear here conveys messages about who we are. When I arrived in Israel, newly engaged, I bought a book with instructions for tying intricate designs with headscarves. Some days, I have wrapped my hair in flowery cloths, perhaps for practice or perhaps to entertain my curiosity, noticing if people treat me differently when I code into my outfit a message of being off-limits. Though my mother might have palpitations if she saw me, there is something sacred to me in making space for ritual role experimentation.

As I brace myself to enter marriage this summer, I am particularly grateful for one open conversation we had in the group around roles and responsibilities at home, telling the stories of the models we knew growing up. One classmate shared how her mother pours her father’s cereal every morning. Another spoke of her parents’ emphasis on performing chores of choice, having themselves been raised with servants in South Africa. Where will we carry on family traditions and where will we create practices of our own?

This year, meeting as a group with our teacher Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz, we have looked at halakhic and traditional texts and examined our own emotions around niddah, mikveh and kissui rosh (head covering). We have spoken about boundary issues, rereading the laws of “yihud,” in the Shulkhan Arukh (a 16th century authoritative Jewish legal anthology), which regulate men and women spending time alone together).

Some women were comforted to find a place in the traditional sources that supports our right to say, “These are my boundaries.” I saw it as an opening for discussion of sexual tension and transference that may arise in pastoral work and steps we can take to establish healthy contours for relationships in our professional lives. We encounter these conventional codes for gender relations with awareness that in our group and communities, people have a range of identities in regards to sexual orientation and differing comfort levels with intimacy of various sorts.

What does it mean to pick up and dust off things the Conservative Movement has stored away in corners, such as hair-covering, or niddah (the laws mandating, in their most stringent interpretation, no physical contact at all between husband and wife during her period and for seven days after) that I have generally associated with Orthodoxy and with the perpetuation of gender hierarchy? Why are we reaching for these rituals? Can we call our search for meaning feminist, or is it something else?
One participant spoke of her commitment to observing the laws set out by Jewish tradition as well as the need to attribute new meanings to Halakhah to make it relevant to our lives. “When the tradition says go to mikveh, I go. I find joy in fulfilling the mitzvah. I find it meaningful to have time apart from my partner to reinvest in my self. I find immersion in the water relaxing. Once, a mikveh attendant told me that if you pray in the mikveh, God will hear your prayers more. I have made it a time for spontaneous prayer, to acknowledge what is happening in my life, to ask God for strength and healing. I feel like it is the closest thing I have to a “Holy of Holies,” an intimate and quiet space, alone with God.”

* * * * * * * * *

“God, open my lips and my mouth will sing your praise”
I have a recurring dream in which my teeth fall out into my hand. I have spent the past few years in rabbinical school spiritually sore, as if my soul has been teething; as if I have been waiting for something to break through, to catch the cries and to form them into words. In this group, I feel finally able to speak, to articulate, to give language to an intensive search effort for who I might be, as a rabbi and as a person.

One Wednesday evening, over lentil stew, we spent time on questions of feeling authentic, about perceptions of what a rabbi “looks like,” about dreams of becoming pregnant or raising families and concerns about how that might impact our careers.

“How big do you want to be?” Aderet Okon Drucker was asked by a mentoring rabbi when she sought advice about which internships and jobs to pursue as she begins her rabbinic career.
“How big do you want to be?” What does it mean to want to be big? What sacrifices will we have to make in order to make room for our influence to grow? Are we allowed to not want to be big? We discovered we were annoyed with the go-to definition of “big” and the culture of comparing congregation size–A, B, C, D–that we have heard permeates rabbis’ gatherings. I joked that mine would be a Double D, if only there were a correlation between shul size and bra size.

One woman redefined big as an integrated identity that allows you to be your many selves as a rabbi, partner, parent, friend, daughter and person. Being big would mean having a sense of self that could hold and weave together many facets of life beyond the professional realm.

We spoke of hopes that our generation can redefine rabbinic identity in this way, taking some of the pressure off of the expectations of unyielding self-sacrifice placed on the rabbi. Our vision of the rabbinate would involve a makeover of communal expectations, in which it would be acceptable and encouraged for clergy to have time and life outside of the pulpit/office etc. We see benefit in this for rabbis-to-be and rabbis-that-are of all genders.

If this is what it means to be big, I would like to super-size my rabbinate.

-Annie Lewis

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Rotem Bill explained

People have spilled large amounts of ink, virtual and tangible, about the recent conversion bill which hit the Israeli Knesset (Congress) floor, a law which would give designated Israeli Orthodox courts the sole rights over conversion to Judaism, and hence hold a monopoly over the age-old question of "who is a Jew" (certainly in reference to immigration to Israel).

The news left the banter of the Jewish world with Alana Newhouse's NYT Op/Ed; it continues to flow through the pages of the Jerusalem Post, HaAretz and every Jewish blog I've encountered thus far.
But my friend Jonah Lowenfeld has provided the best analysis I've seen thus-far. He outlines the politics of how the bill once really was out to help Russian immigrants gain status as Jews in Israel but turned to a political barnstorm of attempting to buy Charedi votes, giving political muscle to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat and beyond.

If you read one article on the topic, this is the one to read.

It appears that the bill has been tabled until the next session of the Knesset, in no small part due to the outpouring of letters from Diaspora communities to PM Bibi Netanyahu (upwards of 50,000 — 25,000 through the Masorti website, alone).

Haven't written yet? Make it happen.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Israel and the Diaspora — Embracing Tension

A Dvar Torah for last week's parasha, "Matot-Masei." Delivered at Congregation Beth Judah, Ventnor, NJ.

V’horashtem et haaretz vishavtem ba. Ki lachem natati et haaretz lareshet otah.

“You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.” Numbers 33:53.

It’s a pretty specific order.

Nachmanides, Ramban, the medieval Biblical exegete, legalist and one of the first Kabbalists, lists this pasuk as the basis for one of Biblical imperatives — to dwell in the land and inherit it. Both Maimonides and Nachmanides cull the Torah and create a list of the 613 Biblically prescribed commandments — but Maimonides does not list a commandment to live in the land of Israel. Nachmanides does in his gloss to Maimonides’ list in Sefer HaMitzvot.

It’s another part of the chain in a centuries-long rabbinic argument about the place of Israel in the life of the Jewish people.

We find the aforementioned pasuk in Chapter 33, verse 53 of B’Midbar. But take a look at the previous 52 verses, beginning with the very name of the second of the two parshiot we read today, Mas’ei, from the Hebrew root to travel. It is a chapter of motion, of marching from place to place. Each detail matters. There is a story at each location in the journey.

From Ra’amses to Sukkot. To Etam. To  Pi-hahirot. To Marah. To Aleph. To Bet. To Tav.

And finally, enough of this wandering. You’ve gone far enough. Stop here. Go settle.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the current chief rabbi of England, describes this journey in these terms:

“The paradox of Jewish history is that though a specific territory, the holy land, is at its heart, Jews have spent more time in exile than in Israel; more time longing for it than dwelling in it; more time traveling than arriving. Much of the Jewish story could be written in the language of today’s sedra: “They journeyed from X and camped at Y”. 

Hence the tension. On the one hand, monotheism must understand G-d as non-territorial. The G-d of everywhere can be found anywhere. He is not confined to this people, that place – as pagans believed. He exercises His power even in Egypt. He sends a prophet, Jonah, to Nineveh in Assyria. He is with another prophet, Ezekiel, in Babylon. There is no place in the universe where He is not. On the other hand, it must be impossible to live fully as a Jew outside Israel, for if not, Jews would not have been commanded to go there initially, or to return subsequently. Why is the G-d beyond place to be found specifically in this place?”

All of this, of course, I am saying during the week following July Fourth, the anniversary of American Independence. This is a land that has given room for the Jewish people to grow unlike any other country in history. Without any doubt amidst tribulations, it is simultaneously a haven which has welcomed the tired, the poor and at this point in history, provides the opportunity for social mobility, for expression of autonomy.

This year was only the second time in the past 17 years that I have seen the fireworks on July Fourth. I’ve either been at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, in Israel or in a different country. After a year of studying in Israel, celebrating American Independence Day earlier this week reinforced the absolutely unique place in history in which all of us sits today. I am an American Jew, dedicated to my home community, my multiple communities here. And simultaneously I feel indelibly tugged toward a land and people across an ocean.

I spent this past year thrusting myself toward an Israeli experience of life. Speaking Hebrew was my entrance to Judaism; I raced through the work books during my fourth grade Hebrew school class and asked my parents to go to Solomon Schechter the following year. And they agreed. I continue to find Israeli music to be one of the most authentic engagements with contemporary Jewish life, living lyrical expression of centuries’ old themes. Modern rock and roll painted with the brush strokes of ancient stones.

On May 31, I jumped and sang along with three generations to the 25th anniversary concert of the rock band Mashina. During sukkot, lights and sounds bounced off a wadi by the dead sea as both “secular” and religious Jews bounced up and down to Gidi Gov’s version of Yaaleh v’Yavo. This can only happen in Israel. As the refrain of another rock song goes, “Rak B’Yisrael.” Only in Israel.

We have autonomy in America. It is a home.

Israel represents the building of Jewish civil society, the religious and cultural dream of a nation. 

And because we have these multiple opportunities, these two nations of growth, of depth, along comes tension. And its one we should relish.

It’s fundamentally a tension which has been a part of our condition from the outset.

Complexity is the authentic position of our tradition. Certainly about this particular case of our relationship with Israel.

We find two polar statements in the writings of our Rabbis about our case at hand. From the Tannaitic Midrash Mekhilte d’Rabbi Ishmael: “Wherever the Israelites went into exile, the Divine presence was exiled with them.” Clearly, God’s presence is not tied to a particular place. After all, God is God.

In turn, virtually the opposite from Massechet Ketubot of the Talmud (110b): “One who leaves Israel to live elsewhere is as if he had no God.”

Entrenched throughout the Rabbinic cannon there is conflict. Between the rationalism of the school of Ishmael and the irrationalism of the school of Akiva. Between describing an immanent and a transcendent God in peoples’ lives. And here, between God who is with the people Israel in all places and at all times and who has a special seat in Jerusalem.

“Can one find God, serve God, experience God, outside the holy land? asks Rabbi Sacks. Yes and No. If the answer were only Yes, there would be no incentive to return. If the answer were only No, there would be no reason to stay Jewish in exile. On this tension, the Jewish existence is built.”

As Jews sitting along the coast of America, the mandate in turn must be how we acknowledge and endorse the fundamental tensions in our lives and don’t reduce them to platitudes.

Complexity is not a vice. The tradition authentically articulates that this very struggle of identities is part of who we are as individuals, as a nation.

Chapter 53 portrays the wandering from place A to place B to place Z. And finally a chance to rest. It’s here we’re supposed to settle.

Yet it’s clearly more complicated than that, as well.

Let us not reduce our ideologies to black or white. We must live the paradox. Again, complexity is not a vice.

During this week of celebrating the country where we live, let us continue the conversation of defining the meaning of Judaism in a melting pot, one where we wear multiple hats of identity, where we pledge allegiance to more than one flag.

Indeed this is both the American dream and the Jewish vision for life, one of complexity, of depth. Of constant struggle not because of insecurity or angst.

But because living a tension is the authentic expression of our people.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Thoughts on today's haftarah

An introduction that I gave to the haftarah reading today at Congregation Beth Judah  in Ventnor, NJ.

Today in this second of three haftarot of admonition, recited during the three weeks between the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and the destruction of the 9th of Av, we read the excoriations of the prophet Jeremiah. 

We read of a people that has no concept of Wonder. Who has so quickly forgotten of being led through the wilderness. Who has turned to other Gods and prophesied by the them. Who has turned to idolatry in every form possible.

Shimu dvar Adonai, Jeremiah implores the people. Hear the word of God.

The people have not only forsaken God, but also created new cisterns which cannot hold water.

As the Hebrew idiom goes, ein mayim eleh Torah. Water is known exclusively as Torah. The people have restructured their entire world of following the Torah with a new, seemingly improved worldview. But they have done so with leaky plumbing!

During these three weeks of rebuke, we approach a day where we commemorate the destruction of the first and second temples, but also calamities in each generation. We read in Massechet Yoma of the Babylonian that the Temples were destroyed because of a breakdown in civil society, there was unchecked Sinat Chinam, acts of Senseless Hatred. Moral guidance stood in anarchy.

We read in today’s haftarah about ancient idolatry. So to are we conscious of modern day idolatry. Not in the form of bowing to idols, to offering incense to an iron, bronze or stone statue.

But the idolatry of paying more attention to a bright screen in our pockets than the people across the table from us. The idolatry of  knowing the details of the contracts of three basketball players rather than honoring the vows in the marriage contract on our walls. The idolatry of when our hearts are stirred with more wonder by the pyrotechnics of Pentium chips than the crest of the sun making its way above the horizon line of the Atlantic Ocean each morning.

Where are those Gods you made for yourself? asks Jeremiah at the end of chapter 2.
Let them arise and save you, if they can, in your hour of calamity. For your Gods have become, Oh Judah, as many as your towns!
 But don’t despair, we skip to chapter four of Jeremiah to conclude our haftarah on an optimistic note. If the people Israel returns to God. If it does not waver, then nations will bless themselves by the nation and praise themselves.

As we approach Tisha B’Av, we listen today to the scolding of Jeremiah, rebuke toward his generation and a message for us, as well. It’s a warning bell. Undergo Teshuva. Be aware of your actions.

Israelites stop along the way for Ice Cream

Reading today's parasha, I noticed that one of the stops that the Israelites make on their journey is Yotvata. YOTVATA!

They stop there, then they camp there.

במדבר לג
לג. ויסעו מחר הגדגד; ויחנו ביטבתה
לד ויסעו מיטבתה, ויחנו בעברנה    

Numbers 33
33 And they journeyed from Hor-haggidgad, and camped in Yotvata
34 And they journeyed from Yotvata, and camped in Abronah.

Shoko b'sakit clearly makes their life complete, too.

(I'm aware that this isn't the actual Yotvata. Please laugh anyway. Thanks)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

49 days, which equals 7 weeks of the Omer

And we've arrived. Crossing off the final day from Ari's "Omer chart." Well done, team.

Photo credit: The Dew of God

Happy Pentecost to one and all. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

R. Shai Held: Halacha and Innovation are not Mutually Exclusive

Please read the following article.

In what partly is a response to Rabbi Hershel Schachter's recent remarks and prohibition of the ordination of women rabbis in Orthodoxy, Rabbi Shai Held powerfully articulates a progressive approach to Jewish law as a more authentic world-view than legal conservatism.

An article filled with substance, that can indeed stand on its own (not as a response), anyone interested in Judaism in the modern world should read this piece.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Reading material and a video, to boot

Here's an amusing (perhaps hyperbolic, though maybe not) sociological analysis of Jewish life on the Upper West Side of New York.
(Footnote to Shoshie for finding this)

And the video for Hadag Nahash's best song on their new CD — עוד אח אחד (another brother).
The song is a cover of a song written by rapper "Fishy HaGadol" and speaks about the endless cycle of violence, the refrain stating:

עוד אח אחד ירד אל הקבר ומאמא בוכה היא בצעקות שבר, עוד אח אחד ירד אל הקבר את זעקות אבא שומעים מכל עבר
Another brother descends to the grave and mother cries out, with broken screams. Another brother descends to the grave; father's wails can be heard from all directions.

In addition to being a beautiful song musically, with poignant lyrics, this video socks the viewer in the gut toward the end.
(Footnote to the Peaceful lion on this one)

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Ashley Parker, UPenn '05 — NYT Magazine Feature Writer

During college, I took both of the classes that Paul Hendrickson taught. English 145 and English 155.

English 145, Advanced Non-fiction Writing, in that nook of a room at the end of the second floor. Filled with easy chairs and sofas. Three non-fiction pieces, the first a personal memoir, the second two — go out and find the stories and show their characters.

English 155, Writing in the Documentary Tradition, just up the stairs and to the left — around the table. Follow a topic, a person, a place for an entire semester. Own the experience. Bring it to life. I chose the Penn basketball stadium, the Palestra, "College basketball's most historic gym," as many know it.

Hendrickson went by PH — from the first e-mail he wrote to the class, colloquially among the students and straight to his face. He was a writer. Yes, teaching at a university. But a writer first and foremost —none of the formalisms, please.

After thirty years at the Washington Post, writing features, a few books along the way, he found his way to Penn to teach.

"You need to feel the words between your fingers," he'd say, rubbing his thumb and fore-finger together. "You feel it?"

Ashley Parker's writing had that texture. Always.

Her award-winning piece about Penn's high-stakes poker players. Her documentary following a resident at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. The DP feature on Communications Dean Kathleen Hall Jamieson, which underwent revisions in that nook on the second floor of the Kelly Writer's House.

I took both of PH's class with Ashley. We served on the Daily Pennsylvanian's 119th board of editors together.

In a class filled with writers who had to apply to get into these non-fiction workshops, where we work-shopped our pieces on a weekly basis, she blew us all out of the water.

During one of the final classes of our Doc Seminar, Eliot Sherman said, "Parker — you're going to make it."

We haven't spoken since graduation in 2005. But her cover story in the Times Magazine rocks my world.

This NYT Magazine Cover Story indeed marks her arrival.

Well done, Parker.

Milot HaYom

A few Hebrew vocabulary words for your Sunday afternoon.

This one, courtesy of Guy.

פרסה, parsah: noun; a hoof, a horseshoe, a u-turn
לפרסס, lefarses: verb;  to make a u-turn

The word for making a u-turn in Hebrew is the same as the one for "horse shoe" or "hoof" — naturally enough, the shape of the u-turn.

דוגרי, dugri: noun; straight talk, to the point.

Israelis are known for saying what's on their minds, cutting through the polite platitudes which are common in America. Let's cut to the chase – בוא נדבר דוגרי.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The 40th anniversary of the Kent State massacre and a shoutout to Jonah Lowenfeld

Reading through The Forward, I happened upon this article by my friend and former roommate Jonah Lowenfeld. As you will quickly see, anything he writes is worth reading.

Remembering Kent State as an American Tragedy With a Jewish Face

By Jonah Lowenfeld

At 11 p.m. on May 3, a group of marchers will begin a candlelight vigil at Kent State University in Ohio to recall what is for many a distant echo from another era.
‘The Day the War Came Home’: Clockwise from top left, Allison Krause, William Schroeder, Sandra Scheuer and Jeffrey Miller were killed when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on a group of unarmed students and bystanders during campus anti-war protests on May 4, 1970. The shootings came after some students hurled rocks at the soldiers.
The killing of four unarmed students by members of the Ohio National Guard during a national wave of campus protests against the Vietnam War will have its 40th anniversary this year. And as they have every year since 1971, those honoring the students’ memory will circle the area where the demonstrations took place and end up in the parking lot where they were killed.
There, the gathering will hear students from the campus Hillel recite the Kaddish.
The Jewish prayer for the dead has been recited regularly at this annual event since the early 1980s — a reflection of the fact that three of the “four dead in Ohio” famously memorialized in song by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were Jewish.
Neither at the time of the shootings nor since has anyone looked closely at this odd fact — one that seems odder still for a campus where Jews have never made up more than 5% of those enrolled. Karen Weinberger, a sorority sister of Sandra Scheuer, one of the slain, recalled that back then “it wasn’t anything that was really of great significance. The significance was the fact that you had four students that died and nine that were injured.”
But if the shootings themselves were not a Jewish tragedy, the first commemorations of them were overwhelmingly so. “What happened that day was not a Jewish event,” said Tom Sudow, an alumnus who transferred to Kent State in the fall of 1973. “The response to May 4 in a lot of ways, though, became a Jewish event.”
Today, the killings are memorialized by no fewer than four separate markers at and around the site. They convey official recognition of what happened there by everyone from the campus administration to the federal government, to the Ohio Historical Society. But in 1971, as the first anniversary of the killings approached, there were no plans to do anything to note the date’s passing. The war in Vietnam was still raging, Richard Nixon was still president, and Kent State seemed unwilling to confront its recent bloody history. “It wasn’t, ‘Cover up,’” Sudow recalled. “It was, ‘If we ignore it, maybe it will go away.’”
‘Four Dead in Ohio’: Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels over the body of student Jeffrey Miller during an anti-war demonstration on May 4, 1970.
It was the campus Jewish community that stepped up then. “Hillel was very involved and had a prominent role in commemorating the lives of the four students lost,” said Jennifer Chestnut, the current executive director of Hillel at Kent State.
The Kent State Hillel back then was housed in a rented apartment and had a staff of one: Rabbi Gerald Turk. A charismatic Orthodox rabbi known for his Bukharan yarmulke and his out-of-the-box programming, Turk led the effort to place a simple plaque bearing the names of the four victims on the ground of the parking lot where they died. Dedicated May 4, 1971, it was the first physical marker of the deaths on campus.
In 1974, the plaque was stolen and later returned, riddled with bullet holes. A granite replacement was rededicated by a group of faculty members on May 4, 1975. It remained the only physical memorial on campus until 1990, when the university administration dedicated its own memorial.
The Jewish community on campus still commemorates the events of May 4, often in the context of universitywide events. The candlelight walk and vigil — one of the most distinctive elements of the annual May 4 commemoration — exemplify this.
Initiated in 1971 by then assistant professor of sociology Jerry Lewis, the yearly walk begins in the area of the campus where the protests took place, and ends at midnight in the parking lot where Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder were killed. The midnight vigil continues, in 30-minute shifts, until 12:24 p.m. on May 4 — the exact time of the shootings.
Lewis, now a professor emeritus, has tried, by his own account, to keep the walk and vigil simple. But he did allow for one significant addition: “In the early 1980s, Rabbi Turk came to me and said, ‘Do you mind if I say Kaddish?’ I said, ‘Of course I don’t mind,’ because I knew that three of the students were of the Jewish tradition.”
In the meantime, as tempers have cooled, many of the questions about what happened then have been resolved, but not all.
When Nixon announced the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia on April 30, 1970, students on campuses across the country protested. At Kent State, students broke windows of some of the businesses in the city of Kent. And at 5 p.m. the next day, amid rumors of plans to destroy the ROTC building on the campus, the mayor of Kent summoned the National Guard. The ROTC building did go up in flames Saturday evening, May 2, and the guardsmen then cleared students from the area, using tear gas and bayonets.
The next day, Ohio Governor James Rhodes visited the campus — by then wholly occupied by the Guard. Rhodes, who was in a tough race for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate, gave a speech designed to cement his position as a law-and-order candidate. He called the students who rioted “worse than the Brown Shirts and the communist element,” and promised to use “whatever force necessary to drive them out of Kent.” On Monday, May 4, at a noontime protest, demonstrators defied dispersal orders from the guardsmen, with some of the students hurling rocks at them from a distance. After an extended standoff, 28 guardsmen fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds at a group of unarmed student demonstrators and nearby bystanders. Four were killed; nine were wounded.
Protesters Krause and Miller were both Jewish. Scheuer and Schroeder, were bystanders, Scheuer being the third Jew.
In September 1970, a federal panel established to investigate the Kent State deaths — as well as the killing of two black students at Jackson State University in Mississippi and campus unrest nationwide —condemned the “indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students” at Kent State as “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
In the years since, numerous articles, books, government inquiries, TV specials and films have attempted to answer some of the difficult questions about “the day the Vietnam War came home.” Were students armed, as was initially reported? (No.) Were guardsmen ordered to fire? (It appears that they were — though no individual was ever clearly identified or held accountable for giving the order.) Were so-called outside agitators responsible for inciting the students to protest? (Possibly, but every one of the dead and wounded was a full-time Kent State student.)
Alan Canfora, a Kent State alumnus who was among the wounded protesters, recalled, “There were about 500 protesters there, and another 1,500 bystanders.” That three of the slain were Jews, he said, was “just an extremely unlikely mathematical probability.” No one believes they were — or could have been — especially targeted.
Few beyond the Kent State campus know about the Jewish connection to the events of May 4. But in 1970, at least some American Jews were aware of their connection to Krause, Miller and Scheuer. “I heard from so many people,” said Elaine Holstein, Miller’s mother, “and I know there were people in the Jewish community. Most people were very supportive.”
Canfora, as director of the Kent May 4 Center, for years has been collecting materials related to the shooting. When the Krause and Scheuer families invited him to retrieve materials from their houses for his archive in the 1990s, he found “numerous letters from synagogues across the country” among the papers. Each family had also received “hundreds of certificates,” Canfora said, “where members of the Jewish community across our country had purchased a tree in Israel and planted it in memory of our martyrs.”
In recent years, the university has become more comfortable with the legacy of May 4. At the urging of students, faculty and alumni, Kent State has established a number of memorials to the slain and wounded students. Earlier this year, part of the campus was added to the National Register of Historic Places. And later this year, the university will open the May 4 Visitors Center, which tells about the history of the university’s darkest day.
But to all this, Doris Krause, whose daughter, Allison, was 19 when she was killed, responded as any mother would. “I wish it weren’t so,” she said.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rak b'Yisrael (only in Israel) and a return to Milot HaYom

The intersection of Rav Ashi and Ravina, in the Ramat Aviv neighborhood of Tel Aviv. These two Babylonia Amoraim are traditionally attributed as the editors of the Babylonian Talmud.

And now back to  our Milot HaYom portion of the program:

אֻמְדָּנָה, umdena: assessment, evaluation. 
I am the only American in the class where we read this word in an article (as well as the only male, providing a particularly unique perspective) and the teacher still chose to translate it into simpler Hebrew. That was encouraging.

מַשְׁכַּנְתָּא, mashkanta: mortgage.
Ari thinks that this word sounds like an expletive when said quickly and sometimes uses it as such.

Monday, April 19, 2010

When you are not a mourner — Thoughts on Yom HaZikkaron 5770

Last night the Peaceful Lion and I headed to Kikar Rabin in Tel Aviv  for the city’s commemoration of Yom HaZikkaron, the National Memorial Day for Fallen Soliders and Victims of Terror. Over the years, Israel has built a canon of poetry and music devoted to the memories of those that have died. The songs are slow, they invite the crowd to sing along. They often allude to other canonical texts from throughout the course of Jewish civilization. Sure there are the classics, but there are also enough to fill the radio waves for an entire day with very few repeats.

Sunday night’s tekes (ceremony) featured the best of Israel’s rock stars singing said classics in front of a standing-room only crowd in what equates to the town square. In between, the MC said a poem, the jumbo-tron played a clip of a family telling the story of their loved one who died. We heard the narrative from the sources, related to the intangible through poetry.

This morning, I went to the tekes of HaGymnasia HaIvrit, a high school in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem dating back to 1909. The school remembered 138 people this year. The MC formally welcomed us to the event, we again heard narratives, interspersed with music. And heard each of the 138 names.

Over the past two days, I’ve felt tugged in multiple directions, an outsider who does not have Israeli family, who thankfully does not have a personal connection to one of the narratives that play on television on every 4 Iyyar (I am aware of the calendar differences from year to year). But I am continually drawn to the importance and imperative of this communal narrative, of educating about it, as I relate personally to the civil religion of Israel through music, though stories of the common human, stories that have evolved to become a part of the National religion of the Jewish nation.

While sitting in the school courtyard this morning, I thought about what it means to force a nation to mourn. What it means to force individuals to mourn. Is this possible when people are personally connected to the event, whether family or otherwise? All the more so, is it possible when people are there without a personal story of their own that they are remembering?

The gemarra in Masechet Sukkah explicates the Mishnah’s statement “Shluhei Mitzvah peturin m’hamitzvah” (those who are on the way to do a commandment are exempt from performing [another] commandment). It assumes the general rule that “haosek bamitzvah, patur min hamitzvah,” one who is performing a mitzvah is exempt from another mitzvah (Sukkah 25a).

In the course of this discussion, we learn that a person who is tarid, worried or obsessed with something, is exempt from a mitzvah in the same way that someone who is physically performing a mitzvah. From here, we learn that the groom is exempt from Shema on his wedding night.

We also learn specifically that someone who is in mourning is not exempt from mitzvot, because as the gemarra describes, this mourning is tirda dirshut, voluntary distress.

I don’t think it’s only a post-modern reading to say that on the face of it, saying that a mourner “voluntarily” emotes, where the groom cannot help himself, is morally problematic.

But Rashi's (11th c. Northern France) commentary emphasizes why this is the case: despite the fact that the mourner is required to perform the physical mourning acts, he is not required to emote. (טירדא דרשות - שאף על פי שהוא חייב לנהוג אבילות של נעילה רחיצה וסיכה להראות כבוד מתו - אינו חייב להצטער.)

Perhaps this is because it is impossible to mandate someone to mourn emotionally. One can mandate physical action, which might lead to an emotional outpouring in turn. But not emotions. 

Thankfully, I am not a mourner today in the technical sense of the word, halakhically or more abstractly. But on a day when the fabric of the world is shakier than normal, I greatly appreciate the foundational character of the tekesim across the country. 

On a day when I certainly cannot force myself to mourn, the civil religion of Israel, the National religion of the Jewish people provides a structure which can allow for the necessarily different mourning of each individual.

The Israeli radio station Galgalatz is currently playing in my living room and soon I will head to the tekes maavar, the bridge ceremony between Yom HaZikkaron and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day). There will be more music tonight and tomorrow of a decidedly different character.

Below is a video assembled from last year’s tekes in Kikar Rabin:


Sunday, April 18, 2010

An open letter to a new GREEN card holder

Dear David Meir,

While Canada still has better universal health care and the Canadian dollar is giving the US dollar a few sucker punches in the corner, on behalf of the 300 million people living in the 50 states, I would like formally to welcome you to my great country.

Don't hand in your Canadian passport or anything rash like that. But here are some things that are great about this country that you should embrace:

1. American national holidays are now known almost exclusively by the main food of the day. It's really quite remarkable. See: Turkey on Thanksgiving, BBQ on July 4 (perhaps this in itself is a reason that Jews have thrived here more than anywhere else)

2. America was the set for Borat. We owe a debt of gratitude for that. Very nice!

3. We don't have a great national food, but that's okay, because other ethnicities have brought their scrumptiousness to us. The General (General Tsao's chicken, as you know it, perhaps) tastes much better than the Colonel, after all.

4. We have a collective ideal of achieving an "American dream" for each person. It's important to dream.

5. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will gain a new poignancy in your life now.

6. The American dollar has had better days, but the bill itself is the unit of currency on the streets of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Let's face it, that's pretty convenient. Can't say that about Canada.

7. We have George Washington on the dollar bill. Canada has a duck.

8. As entertaining as the Grey Cup may be, American sports have much more cache than Candian ones.

9. The ideals of American democracy seem to me to be the way that governments should be structured. Sometimes, I'd just like Jeb Bartlet of the West Wing to run the system.

10. Safam has a song written about the immigrant experience to America. Jewish groups don't sing about the immigrant experience to Canada. Your life is a Safam song right now (OK, not really) — relish in it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A West Wing post: Reaching for the stars


I take the second half of the subhead of this blog directly from my favorite episode of the West Wing, the Season Four premiere, “20 Hours in America.” During a campaign stop, President Bartlet gets word of a terrorist attack at a swim meet at Kennison State University. Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborne writes the following speech in the car, which Bartlet then gives to the black tie crowd:

…More than any time in recent history, America's destiny is not of our own choosing. We did not seek nor did we provoke an assault on our freedom and our way of life. We did not expect nor did we invite a confrontation with evil. Yet the true measure of a people's strength is how they rise to master that moment when it does arrive. 44 people were killed a couple of hours ago at Kennison State University. Three swimmers from the men's team were killed and two others are in critical condition. When, after having heard the explosion from their practice facility, they ran into the fire to help get people out. Ran into the fire. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They're our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we're reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars. God bless their memory, God bless you and God bless the United State of America. Thank you.

We can all agree that this is stunning oratory, fiction or not.

During the 2007 Oscars, there was a medley of past Best Actor award recipients’ speeches. After getting to 1993, I immediately got a phone call from Jacob, a gchat several others. See here for his speech:

Did Aaron Sorkin really just plagiarize from Tom Hanks’ Best Actor speech?!

After subsequently watching the episode, I realized that the dialogue between Sam and Mallory at the end of the episode illustrates just how aware Sorkin was of what he was doing.

See the following dialogue:

"This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars."? I'm weak.

Yeah. I think I stole that from Camelot.

Let me get you home. I don't think you're going to make it.

Yeah. I don't think I'm going to make it, either.

They walk out to the COMMUNICATIONS OFFICE and continue to the HALLWAY.


Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.

To the keen eye, Sorkin alludes to the fact that this speech indeed came from Hanks! You, my friend, are a great writer.

Well played, indeed.

This coming week is Yom HaZikkaron and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Memorial and Independence Days), the Civil High Holidays of Israel, as some refer to them.

In the coming days I will reflect on the subhead of the blog, looking toward the stars.