All names herein have been changed.
My buddy Sunny is a senior in high school. He is one of my closest friends and we hang out quite a bit. Sunny is also what you might call strange. Perhaps might is not a strong enough word. In fact, if you do not find him strange, you must be stranger than he. Born into a non-religious family, Sunny and his mother, Screechy, eventually found their way into the arms of what they fondly refer to as "The Cult;" Jews for Jesus. By the time I met Sunny they were both certified real Jews with no Jesus in sight. He only ever comes to synagogue with me. I do not know the last time his mother went.
My friend Dinah graduated high school last year. She is the type you expect not to take the standard path in life. I am not entirely sure what she is up to, but she is the type of beautifully alternative girl who you expect to see working through a couple of years of community college, take a year or two off to ponder deep things in coffee houses, and eventually get a degree in something totally unexpected. You certainly do no expect to see her type in synagogue in large numbers.
Sunny, Dinah, and Screechy all have tattoos. These tattoos also happen to be Jewish in nature. Sunny's is "Lo Yisa Goy" written on one forearm in large letters and "El Goy Cherev" on the other forearm. Dinah's is a Magen David and the saying "Ani V'atah N'shaneh et Haolam." Screechy's is simply a rainbow-y Magen David with "Chai" written inside of it.
I should state my bias here up front. I do not understand the urge to get tattoos. I do not want a disreputable-looking fellow poking ink-laden needles into my skin to create an image that will be there forever. I also happen to think that tattoos are impulsive.
Sunny announced a few weeks ago that he was going to get these tattoos on his forearms. This set off a number of alarm bells in my head. The first one was about the disreputable man with the aforementioned ink-laden needles. The second was the standard "Jews do not get tattoos alarm." The third was concerning placement. They happen to be in a place that Jews have, at a fairly recent time in history, were forced by disreputable Germans with ink-laden needles to get tattoos.
I have already addressed the first alarm bell, but let's go to the third one, then backtrack to the second one later. I hate talking about the Shoah. I think it is over-emphasized as a source of Jewish identity. I want my Jewish identity to spring from the triumphs of Melech David, Theodore Herzl, and Tzahal rather than from the victimization of Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz, and Anne fucking Frank. Thus, the immediate jump to the forefront of my mind that the Shoah made with regard to the tattoos only pissed my off to myself. Screechy later explained Sunny's choice of the forearm away as recapturing that part of the arm by re-branding it with something of Jewish significance. I do not buy it. It is simply another iteration of the oft-repeated claim that we have to take a posthumous victory over Hitler. I find that notion unsettling and distasteful.
As for the second alarm bell, the "Jews do not get tattoos" alarm, a whole can of worms flies open. For background on this part, you might want to read BZ's excellent discussion of Reform halachah over at his blog, Mah Rabu. His question, "How can Reform Jews claim to be following the ethical commandments, those that are Bein Adam L'chavero, if we really aren't?" brings up for me the same issue of Reform halachah that my reaction to Sunny's tattoos does. Why is it that every Reform Jew can tell you that Jews do not get tattoos, but they do not know how much they are required to give to the poor each year? Why is it that some ritual things, such as Kashrut, are mainstream in Reform, but others, which make equal sense, such as talit katan, are not?
Thoughts? Do you know people with "Jewish" tattoos? What do you think about tattoos?
My basic premise when it comes to tfilah:
If you take a group of somewhat educated American Jews and educate them a few inches further and then you lead them through tfilah with no English regularly for no more than two or three weeks they will never want to go back to the Church of the Responsive Reading.
With that in mind and on the heels of a number of posts in our corner of the Jewish corner of the blogosphere (including this from the newest addition to my "other good things" sidebar) I present you the following story. It has been a tiny bit humorzied through hyperbole. The facts that support the point have not.
This weekend at Temple no one became Bar or Bat Mitzvah. By long-standing congregational tradition, that means that Shabat Shacharit is lay-led. The lay-leaders email group was notified and I, not having had a chance to lay-lead since my return from Israel, let Cantor R that I would like to lay-lead.
I should note two pieces of background. The first being that myself and MD, a fellow lay-leader and an Israeli are planning on beginning our congregation's first all-Hebrew minyan for Shabat Shacharit at the beginning of March. The second being that shortly after Cantor R arrived at our Temple last year a disagreement began between him and the lay-leaders. Seeking more involvement in Shabat Shacharit, the lay-leaders all stuck their fingers in their ears and screamed "LA LA LA LA LA! I CAN'T HEAR YOU!", so afraid were they that our lay-leading might be stolen from us. The Cantor and Rabbi S, who was also batting for Cantor R did the same upon hearing that we were opposed. Then our Senior Rabbi, Rabbi F, went on sabbatical for six months, I went to Israel for four months and the entire issue was tabled while everyone stewed over the issue and contemplated different ways to dig their heels deeper into the board room carpet.
I do not like to lay-lead on my own. I like to have someone with something sort of like musical talent helping because by family tradition, I can't carry a tune in a bucket. I told the Cantor that I would like to lay-lead with him. This would mean that I would stand at the left podium and do things normally done by a Rabbi and that he would stand on the right and do things normally done by, well, a Cantor. This inclusive compromise seems to me like the perfect solution to the problem of the increasingly dug-in heels. Cantor though the idea was great. Rather than go through the rest of the lay-leaders and the Ritual Committee, we though we would just lead by example and go ahead and do it.
Our other stroke of genius was to get rid of the English. The Dvar Torah would be in English as would the page numbers, but we decided against responsive readings, doing the V'ahavta twice, and doing an improper Amidah. Further, we would use the Temple's draft copies of Mishkan Tfilah because it has translation and transliteration for everything so as not confuse everyone.
The night before, at Shabat Ma'ariv, I keenly observed that there were no Rabbis present. Only Cantor R was leading. The other Rabbis were away until Sunday with the 8th, 9th, and 10th grade retreat. I asked Cantor R during the Oneg if that meant that there would be no Rabbis at services the next day. He said that was correct. I got a little worried.
No Rabbis means no one to do Kadish (do not ask me why that is the way it is here). Then it occurred to me that I could just go ahead and do it. Understand that it is highly unusual at our Temple for a non-Rabbi to read the Kadish list and then lead Kadish. It was pretty good.
Three strange things happened during that service:
1. There was no English in the liturgy.
2. Cantor and lay-leader got along just fine.
3. A non-Rabbi led Kadish.
Everyone loved it. No one complained, not even under their breath. Most people came up afterward to complement one or both of us.
We set fire to the Church of the Responsive Reading and no one died.
I really hope that was a coherent narrative.
Around this time every year, Congregation Beth Israel (my temple) brings in our Scholar-in-Residence for our annual Scholar-in-Residence weekend. This year we brought in a Reconstructionist Rabbi named Sid Schwarz. If anybody has been giving serious thought to the problems that plague every Jewish congregation in America, regardless of denomination, Sid is that person.
SYNAGOGUE CENTER into SYNAGOGUE COMMUNITY
On Friday night, he spoke after tfilah in lieu of a sermon. Sid believes that the American synagogue has been through three phases and is on the cusp of a fourth. Congregations that do not make the leap to the fourth will suffer tremendously and eventually disappear. When our ancestors arrived in America with little financial means, they all lived in the same neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods people met in storefronts and apartment living rooms to pray together and celebrate life cycle events together. This was the first stage. Then, more affluent, though pre-WWII, American Jews had real synagogues. They lived a little more spread out form each other and their synagogues had modest budgets. They had a Rabbi, maybe a Cantor and perhaps an office worker. This was stage two. After WWII, having truly made it here, American Jewry departed each other's company for the suburbs. Their synagogues stayed in the cities and they commuted to religious school and services. This is the model currently in use, which Sid calls the Synagogue Center. People treat it like everything else in their lives; a business transaction. They want goods and services and the synagogue provides those things. If it does not provide them or provides them at what the consumer thinks is an unfair cost, they take their business elsewhere, or worse, they end their affiliation with a synagogue altogether. Sid envisions the fourth stage vividly. In his book, he profiles a Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, and an Orthodox synagogue in American which he says have entered the fourth phase. He calls it, the Synagogue Community. The Synagogue Center is shaped like a pyramid. Envision the food pyramid. In place of the tiny junk food layer at the top, place the leadership and people engaged in activities around the synagogue. They make up 5-10% of the membership. Everything below that is a complaining, baldy-informed, hardly-involved mass of dues-paying members. The Synagogue Community is round. In the center is nucleus of leadership, the board, employees, etc. Orbiting around the nucleus is many cells of activity. One is the youth group. One is the group that goes to the soup kitchen every Sunday evening. One is the group that runs Tot Shabbat. One is the sisterhood. Et cetera. Each is linked to the other and all are linked to the center. People do not come anymore because they want a product. Now they come because of the community.
SHABBAT SHACHARIT on ACID
Sid led tfilah with out Cantor, David Reinwald, on Shabbat morning. He called it "Davening Outside of the Box." The name turned me off a bit. I tend to want to get in the box, shut the lid, and not listen to what anybody has to say about the matter.
We set up the chapel in a semi-circular fashion, which I liked much more than our usual configuration of straight east-facing rows. I should note that by then end, it was basically standing room only. I have never seen our small chapel so full of people.
For Birkot Hashachar, Sid recited, in English, the end of each line. For example, in the case of the first one in Big Blue, Sid said “who implants mind and instinct within every living being.” Then someone would stand and give an example of a time or occurrence in their life which reminded them of the particular brachah. They would then offer the brachah and the process would start over with Sid reciting the ending of the next one in English. It was not my favorite thing ever, but I did open myself to the experience enough to share during one of the brachot. I should note that after this, none of the actual liturgy was in English.
The Amidah almost caused me to have a fit. My routine for the Amidah is that during the Haskivenu, which directly precedes the Amidah, I get out Ha'avodah Shebalev and move to the back. I then do the opening section (Avot V’imahot, Gvurot, and Kedusha) with congregation out loud, then I remain standing and do the Amidah as they sit and do something Amidah-like. Sid informed us we were doing something creative for the Amidah. I did not even stay for the rest of the explanation. I departed immediately and did the Amidah on my own in another room. When I came back the chapel was buzzing with conversation. As it turned out, people were discussing Jewish role models or something as a means for understanding Avot V'imahot. Then, when they were done, they were davening the Amidah on their own, must of them, apparently at Sid's urging, with their talit, or in many cases, other people's talitot, on their heads. Whatever.
Also in this service were skits. We broke into groups and created skits on different parts of Ashrei.
Kadish Yatom was done with only mourners standing. At least one person I talked to had a physical reaction to this, so turned off by the practice was she. In our congregation, everyone rises and everyone says Kadish with the mourners.
Overall, the service was success. Everyone present smiled at some point.
I think I may have come of age earlier this evening. My status as a Bar Mitzvah, a Confirmand, and a person who has spent four months abroad, did not count when it came to a Temple board meeting ths evening. As the issue upon which I shall speak here was personnel-related so details will not be present here. The focus is, with most things in this world, me. ;)
(I wish I had not put that smily there, but this is set in stone, right?)
The issue involved a known individual and an unknown. My sense of how I would vote changed at least five times during the meeting, during which I spoke on a number of occasions. I am opinionated, decisive, and quick to judge. I came into the meeting knowing how I wanted to vote.
By the time the question was called, I was so uncertain that I asked that we take a five minute break for everyone to not discuss this. At the end of the five minutes we reconvened and I, physically knotted in my gut (which was telling me nothing) had to vote. The decision hurt me and matured me at the same time.
This is the first time in any of my various capacities as a member of various committees and boards voted without being confident in my decision. My gut is still twisting over this. I feel increasingly like life and my life at Temple in particular is the relelvant to the future. Meanwhile, I find it hard to get anything done at school or homework done for school because it all seems like irrelevant bullshit.
And so, in our modern American world with little wonder left in it, in a board meeting lacking any fire brimstone, or wilderness, a seventeen-year-old Jew came of age because of a personnel decision.
Shevat 8, 5767
On Thursday I took the bus from school down to Guadalupe and 38th, then walked to my now weekly Talmud study session with Rabbi Sternman. One of the things one learns when riding the bus frequently in Austin is how to converse with sketchy characters who are often not here on Planet Earth in the same way most people are. Not of your own free will, of course. They just start talking to you.
On Thursday an odd fellow wearing a bright blue blazer, khaki corduroy pants, a Hawaiian shirt on top of a tie-dye shirt, and a peach bandana got on the bus. He looked to be an older fellow. He had sparse read hair and ruddy, bulbous nose. His face bore a look on contentment. He sat down not next to me, but near enough to me to talk to me. I was wearing a shirt which said Israel on it in English.
The man took his time reading the words and then spoke. His words were unclear. The teeth that he still had were little nubs and his palette seemed flawed in some way. He said quite a bit more than what I will type here because I do not know what most of what he said was. When he was done reading he asked "Have you been to Israel?" I said, "Yes, I have." He shouted with glee and clapped a couple of times. "When? For how long?" "I was there for four months and I just got back earlier this month," I told him. Again, glee and clapping.
There was then an extended exchange which I bullshitted my way through concerning how the energy in the air is different there. I figured he was just some religious nut. It became clear shortly that he knew a bit more about Israel then the average fellow of his appearance. "Were Saturday nice there?" "Yes?" I was puzzled at the question, then realized he was referring to Shabbat observance in particular. "Yes! Because they do Shabbat there!" Again, clapping with joy.
Then he threw me for a loop. "Did you say the Shema?" His voice, as usual, was unclear. I was not sure I had heard correctly. "The what?" "You know," he said, "The Shema! Shema! Yisrael! Adonai! Eloheinu!" Et cetera. He sang the entire thing write there on the bus. I was puzzled. "How do you know that," I asked. "Are you Jewish?" He then proudly pulled out his tallit bag and announced loudly, "I'M MESSIANIC!" My bus stop approached mercifully. As I departed the bus, he quickly gave me directions to Mishkan Elohim, our local Jews for Jesus outfit.
If the story ended there, it would be odd enough. Yesterday I was hanging out with my buddy Solomon. Solomon made a reference to his days in "the Cult." Solomon, a real Jew now, had been a member of Jews for Jesus earlier in life and fondly refers to it as "the Cult." I then decided to tell Solomon about my encounter on the bus. I began to describe the clothing the man wore. Solomon broke in, "Were his teeth mostly not there?" "Yes!" "Did he have red hair?" "Yes!" "Yeah," Solomon told me, "That's Tony. My Mom and I used to know him in our days with 'the Cult.' He gave us a chicken once." I didn't bother asking.
In the time between when I went to Israel and when I came back, one of the boys' bathrooms in particular has become far more, shall we say, decorated. In my second period study hall today I was discussing this fact with Mrs. C, the study hall teacher, G, a tenth grade student, and a few others. L, a squirmy, awkward, easily disliked freshman noodled about ovnoxiously in the back ground. The topic of discussion being my crusade of copy-editing the defacements in the bathroom.
G went to the bathroom to survey the current state of affairs. As he was coming back, L announced to what seemed to be no one in particular that there was something new on the wall for "You." Shortly, I would find that "You" was in tended to be me. G says, "Oh yeah! There's one of those Nazi symbols on the wall!"
I stood up immediately and went to the bathroom without asking permission of Mrs. C. When I got to the bathroom, I could not find the Swastika! I surveyed all the stall doors and walls and finally found a tiny Swastika in pencil next a urinal. It was no more than four or five inches across. I took a paper towel with some water and handsoap and caused the Swastika to disappear.
To L's dissapointment, I returned to study hall after no more than five or six minutes and announced, "Boy, if that thing hadn't been removable with handsoap, we mighta had a real incident here!"
A year ago I would have flipped at this. Now, I am just not interested in making myself a victim in a situation in which no real anti-Jewishness was at work. This was just some dumbass with a pencil and not enough brave in him to do anything interesting.
MY RETURN TO THE BLOGOSPHERE
Unless you are brand new to here, you may have noticed me rather proglonged absence from the blogosphere. You may also have noticed that I have given the blog a facelift and renamed it. (Anyone wanna tell me how to put the title in actual Hebrew, by the way?) I have also left up most of the posts from the Live from Israel version of this blog for posterity's sake. Point being, I, as usual, find myself full of things that need saying. So here I am online again and attempting to do just that.
MY RETURN AUSTIN
To answer your questions, if you have not already been able to ask me:
-Yes, I had a good time.
-Yes, it was amazing.
-No, I am nowhere near fluent in Hebrew.
-The thing that I most enjoyed was the people I was with.
-The thing that most suprised me was how much I like davening all in Hebrew.
-Yes, I have a girlfriend. (For those of you that did not ask me that upon my return, you might be surprised by how many did.)
-Yes, going to back to regular school is hard. Traumatic, really.
-Yes, I know where I am going to school. Drew University has accepted me and offered me an obscene scholarship.
-Yes, it is terrible what is happening with the Israeli government.
School is strange. Life feels like purgatory. I have a sense now that I am waiting in a train station for the last train to the rest of life. I know what I am want to do and why and what I want to do next and yet, here I am, still in high school.
NFTY-TOR WINTER CONCLAVE
I returned Sunday from the North-American Federation of Temple Youth-Texas Oklahoma Region Winter Conclave. My report follows in a few different sections, each one containing some connections to larger issues.
"ONE FISH, TWO FISH, RED FISH, JEW FISH." "WHAT?"
The theme of the event was "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Jew Fish." Cute. The problem is that I am left wondering why. A good theme should start with an actual theme. This was slice of pop culture with a joke thrown in. The attempts to drag programming on being Jewish out of this theme fell largely flat.
The Lorax was a fine avenue for exploring Jewish environmentalism. The flaw was that the connection made between Judaism was through the fact that Dr. Seuss was Jewish and therefore the Lorax is clearly an allegory for Moses. Everyone whip out your copies (or internet synopses) of the Lorax and you tell me. I frankly, did not see it. However, Judaism does have a long tradition of being one of the few voices crying out for some sort of Justice in the world. That was the direction the program went in.
When my group was asked what issues they would be "Loraxim" for, the list was, shall we say, interesting. In included environmental issues, animal rights, child abuse, more puppies, gay rights, unfair municipally-instituted teen curfews, Darfur, Darfur, Darfur, Darfur, Darfur... You will notice that amongst this list there is not one single Jewish issue. There may be opinions on these issues informed by Judaism involved, but I fail to find a real Jewish issue. I suggested adding assimilation, Jewish literacy in America, and the crisis Israel is in via Iran. Added though they were, these issues did not seem interesting to my group, which wanted to talk about puppies and Darfur, Darfur, Darfur, Darfur, Darfur... I am all for helping to protect other people from injustices that befell the Jewish people in the past. There is a genocide in progress in Darfur and there was a genoside perpetrated against our people in the 20th century. We can look out for other people and feel great about it and we should because it is one of our ehtical obligations. "Welcome the stranger, for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt" and all that jazz. But, and this is one big but, we can not look out for others at the expense of ourselves. There is a man in Iran who wants to wipe the State of Israel off the map! With nuclear bombs! For real! And here is the worldwide Jewish with out heads in the sand and our hands over our ears yelling "La la la la la I can't hear you!" and it is not a nigun! So maybe we could deal with this issue a bit more and then worry about the kids with flies on their faces in Darfur!
Are you mad yet? Mad at me for being flippant about the fly-face kids in Darfur? Fine.
"SERVICES ARE SERVICES! NOT A CREATIVE WRITING PROJECT!"
No offense disclaimer: For themed services, these were alright. This is less a criticism of these services and more a criticism of themed services, using those from this weekend as an example.
A service is, by and large, a service. We have one for every occasion in Judaism. Each variety has its structure and its quirks and the only options ought to be related to melody and ideology. For instance, if you have a great new melody for Ahavat Olam, I am all for giving it a shot. If you have a group of people who do not believe in Moshiach Ben David, you can excise that Hebrew from the Amidah and insert something new on a similar theme.
Here is what happens at NFTY events. There is theme for the weekend, Dr. Seuss, in this case. For some reason, the entire weekend must be permeated with this theme, including the services. Thus, the Amidah (which we did not stand for all of, an entire post in and of itself) recieved a few cuts and a few themed readings written in a Dr. Seussical style were inserted. They called attention to themselves and eclipsed real prayers.
We constantly wonder why there are nor Jews in the pews on Friday night, Saturday morning, or, in the rare and glorious case of my own Temple, Wednesday evening. The answer is that we try and try and try to do new things to get people interested. Why new? Why not try something old for a change? Use Hebrew. It is our language. We've lost the archaic beauty or our own supremely archaic practice. If we just do something authentic and real and Jewish, there will be Jews in the pews.
If any of that spoke to you, read Gonzo Judaism by Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein.
I shall also recount it in the section that follows this.
Survey #1: "I have a near-unbridled hatred for mysticism"
Do you believe in "G-d?" If so, what does that word mean?
I do believe in God. The meaning of the word is a useless point. It's an English word that we generically apply to any deity of any religion, simply capitalizing the first letter when we are speaking about our God. I think perhaps you meant what the concept means.
I have had a lot of different beliefs about God over time. Many of them were quite poetic, though I'm certain I never actually believed any of them. In their stead and in the stead of any actual thoughts about whom and what God is, I'll say this: God is whatever we make God. To me God is. To some other people God is not. To still others God comes and goes. To a person with a developed theology, God is a developed concept. To a person who believes that God's chief attribute is the power to creator, God is The Creator. You see where I'm going with this.
Does this question make you feel uncomfortable at all, and if so, can you
explain those feelings a bit?
The question troubles me, but it does not make me uncomfortable. I am troubled only because I hate not having a solid answer for a religious question and this question is of course the religious question.
Do you believe in an afterlife of any kind? If so, can you tell us
something about it?
No. No afterlife, no resurrection. When you die, you are dead. There is not eternal soul, no means of living beyond your years. People ask me if I think this is rather depressing. Perhaps, but it gives everything I do during my time on Earth infinitely added significance.
Do you pray? If so… How? When? Why? Try to be as specific as you can…
bearing in mind that prayer means many things to many people.
I pray whenever my community does. At home, my Temple has three services a week and I regularly attend all of them. Here in Israel, the folks on my program tend to organize a service every day to every other day and I pray at those times.
It is part of my Jewish target to eventually pray three times a day. At this point in my life, I have neither the time nor the patience for that. Some day I hope to, and then I'll pray three times a day.
I really cannot say why I pray. I do not know the answer. I can say that I enjoy it. I can say that I think I am getting something out of it. Beyond that, I do not know.
I only pray from Reform or Progressive sidurim, mostly Mishkan T'filah and Ha'avodah Shebalev. I'll also pray from a weird indie sidur if there is one around.
Can you tell us something about how prayer makes you feel? Is there an
effect on you?
Prayer calms me. Unless it is badly led or the liturgy is hokey (Gates of Prayer, anyone?), in which case it does not calm me and instead it just pisses me off. Prayer, like all rituals, is to me secondary. I chose to do rituals only when they enhance my ability to carry out ethical commandments. Prayer happens to be one ritual that I think may be helping me with my ethics.
If you don't pray regularly, have you ever prayed before as an adult?
I'm seventeen years old, so… you know… no.
Have you ever had an experience you'd call "spiritual" or "mystical"?
No. In fact, I have a near-unbridled hatred for mysticism and spirituality. I dislike intangibles and things which no one who believes therein can seem to explain.
I once had a moving experience at Kutz, in the main prayer space there, which has no walls and juts out onto a picturesque lake. I picture it at the end of the Amidah every time I do it to try and get back there.
Do you think that belief in G-d and prayer are important parts of being
Yes. To deny God or not pray or to depart from the tradition in some way on these subjects requires an authentically Jewish reason. One cannot simply proclaim that one is bored by prayer and then cease to do it. One must explain that in one's boredom one is afraid that one is not giving it one's all or some such thing. Therefore, even if you don't pray and even if you don't believe in God, you must give the topics thought and have opinions on them. The Reform Jew cannot say, "I don't pray because I'm Reform and we can do whatever the hell we want." The Reform Jew can say "I don't pray because I am unmoved by prayer and it doesn't help me."
My point is, even if you don't pray and even if you don't believe in God, you must know why that is. Prayer and God are not ignorable subjects for our people.
Are these questions important to you? Do they bug you?
Yes, they are important. No, they do not bug me.
She also recently quoted me and subsequently gave me a good ego-stroking. Read about it here.
As previously mentioned, I have been to Gadna. It feels strange to say it now, but not only did I not hate being in the Israeli Army for five days, I truly enjoyed it, and I took pride in waking up and putting on that uniform.
This post could be a simple narrative detailing our five days in the Israeli Army, but I've tried to avoid mere summary and go more profound and thoughtful posts.
NOT THE ISRAELI ARMY, BUT THE JEWISH ARMY!
A lot of the week was devoted to running, learning what do when a rimon (grenade) come your way, how to camouflage yourself, standing and walking in formations, cleaning, etc. Military stuff. You get my drift. A lot of it was also devoted to classes on Jewish topics.
If you're thinking that this sounds like Sunday school, you're in for a shock. The realization which I will now reveal to you is one which I've been working on since I came to Israel, but only now do I see the bigger picture in all of its completeness. These classes were about the Army. To some extent they were about ranks and different jobs in the Army, but the big picture of the week was more interesting than that.
The truth is that Jews have not, to any great extent, defended themselves in eight gazillion years. In the Diaspora we withered into skinny defenseless yeshiva nerds. In our return to Eretz Yisrael and in the foundation of Medinat Yisrael we fulfilled A.D. Gordon's well-put dream of a people of strong, intellectual laborers. It was in this newfound physical strength that we founded militant movements in the Land. These were not just militias striking out against their perceived enemies like the Islamic militants we see on the news now. These were, for the most part, defense forces involved solely in the defense of its people, the Jewish people. Haganah, the largest of these became the Israeli Army when the state was founded in 1948 and that mission of defense has remained its goal. This is no ordinary national military. This is not just an army of Jews. This is THE Jewish Army.
All my life I have seen American Jewish teenagers go to Israel and return wearing Israeli Army t-shirts. I have always thought of the Israeli Army the same way I have thought of the American Army. I would never wear an American Army t-shirt. Now I have a clearer picture that this is not just another national army, but that this is the first Jewish Army in two thousand years and I recognize the incredible significance of this Army and I have the swell of pride in this Army.
Now I want an Israeli Army t-shirt.
NATIONALITY OR RELIGION? ALIYAH OR AMERICA?
It is so oft-discussed here on EIE, I find myself surprised I have never spoken about on the blog before.
The truth is that in assimilating into the American (or British or German or Australian or etc.) culture, Jews lost their old Jewish identity. Not just the shtetl identity, but a national identity. With the loss of our own language we ceased to be a people and became a religion.
This identity is so ingrained in us that when (this actually happened with a speaker we had while the parents were visiting) an Orthodox man tells us we're Jews, but that because we identify as Reform we're not practicing Judaism, all we here is somehow "You're not Jewish." This is not what he said. What he said is that according to halachah, most of us on EIE are Jewish, but we're clearly, to him, not practicing authentic Judaism. What he is saying is that we have a Jewish nationality, but not a Jewish religion. For us, since we feel our nationality is American, and our entire Jewish identity is the religious one, in saying this, the speaker took away our entire identity. The parents were extremely upset by this. We got over it.
It was this week that I had an epiphany about this. When you ask the average "secular" Israeli whether they consider themselves more Israeli or more Jewish, they say Israeli. An American Jew is saddened by this because to us it means that Israel is no longer a Jewish state and that its inhabitants have been come simply Israeli rather than Jewish like France's inhabitants are simply French. What is really going on is a breakdown in vocabulary. Our respective vocabularies (American Jewish and Israeli) are different and neither of us knows how to say what we mean. What the Israeli means when he says he is Israeli and not Jewish is that he is a member of the Jewish Nation rather than the Jewish Religion. What the American Jew means by his outrage is that he cannot relate to Judaism as a peoplehood because he has become an American whose religion is Jewish, rather than a Jew who follows his people's religion.
What does this mean to me and where is it going to mean it? It means that I'm not making Aliyah and it means that I want to stay in the United States. Why? I'll give you an allegory. I am an American. This American identity is inextricably tied into a Texan identity because it is the part of America that I grew up in. Likewise, I am a Jew. This Jewish identity is inextricably tied into an American Diaspora identity. The allegory is imperfect and in this next sentence is where it breaks down. To leave American Jewry would be bailing out. The realizations that we come to here and the education I have that most American Jews do not have must be dispensed. I have to stay in America and help do what I can to enhance the Jewish lives of the rest of those of us who remain there.
On Sunday I am going away again for almost a week. This time, it is to Gadna, an introduction the Israeli Army for teenagers. I'm scared shitless.
We were in Poland for five days. There are about 6 million things I could say about our trip there. It focused not just on the Shoah (Holocaust), but on the incredible Yiddish culture that was centered in Poland before the Shoah.
First, some things to look into because I found them interesting:
Righteous Gentiles. Skip the paragraph about the halachic origins of the term.
Beit Warszawa. During dinner on our last night in Poland, we received a talk from Rabbi Schuman, the first Progressive Rabbi to serve in Poland since 1939. It was incredible.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I am proud to say that the first violent resistance against Nazi oppression in all of occupied Europe during WWII was carried out by young Jews.
Now, my brief comment about the Shoah. 6 million is a lot. 1 1/2 million, the number murdered at Auschwitz/Birkenau, where we spent considerable time, is also too many to people to conceive of. One third of the population of Warsaw, the number of Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto, most of who were murdered in death camps, is too many people to think of! Even a thousand, I can not handle. One, however, I can do.
Esther, the grandmother of X, a fellow EIE student, died very recently. She spent time in Auschwitz. Her timing was brilliant. Less than a week after her death, we departed for Poland. The experience, especially the day we spent at Auschwitz was rough on X, whom I have become close to as of late. I was honored that she let me share Esther for the day. Thus, I had my one person to mourn for.
I think I'm getting the following story correct. If not, you will get the gist of it anyway. Esther was a Greek Jew. She grew up in a relatively affluent family. When the Nazis took Greece, they took refuge with business connections who hid them. One of the people in on the secret got drunk in public one night and gave them up. You have heard of the three day train rides from across Europe that many Shoah victims endured without food or water. The Jews of Greece took three week long train rides without much food or water. Esther survived this. Then she survived Auschwitz. She returned to Greece after the war where she met the man who became her husband. Alzheimer's, however, she did not survive.
So thank you Esther, for letting the Shoah move me.
The Tzitzit Report: I quite enjoy wearing them. Aside from the expected effect that I think twice before being mean now, I am in a perpetually good mood when they are on.
CCAR NEEDS BALLS!
The Sidur Report: In the last post, I wrote that I want to write my own sidur. This caused several comments and more than a few emails. Let me clarify my intentions.
For the several of you who wanted to know what happened to my rabidly pro-Mishkan T'filah stance, no, I have not abated on this front. I still believe that URJ institutions should adopt MT and that it is the best sidur out there for leading a congregation of American Reform Jews. However, yes, I will now admit that there are flaws. Sadly, for some of my more traditional readers, this doesn't mean that I have acknowledged that lack of moshiach-oriented prayers is a bad thing. On the contrary, I think that the CCAR needs to grow some balls and make it even less moshiach-oriented. When we open up MT to the Amidah, we see that the people who constructed this sidur do not know what the hell they are doing.
The traditional Amidah represents all of the central desires, longings, and beliefs of the people who created it. Why shouldn't the Reform Amidah reflect mainstream central Reform desires, longings, and beliefs? Why is that when I look at y'shuah, the traditional prayer for the moshiach in the Amidah, I see that the CCAR, in its infinite wisdom, has not chosen to create a prayer for the Messianic Age, but instead to water down an orthodox prayer so that it becomes a meaningless five-line piece of pseudo-poetic garbage? You tell me what central longing this represents:
Truth springs up from the earth;
Justice looks down from the heavens.
May the strength of Your people flourish through
Your deliverance for we continually hope for Your deliverance.
Blessed are You, Adonai, who causes salvation to flourish.
The questions that MT poses to me are these:
Why is there no Messianic Age in this?
Where is a prayerful mention of educated choice, the cornerstone of Reform?
The additional questions that I pose to myself which are sidur-related, but not MT-related:
Why is the Shma, the central theological statement of our people not placed along with the all the other central statements in the Amidah?
How can I pray with a community, but use a different sidur? Can I?
These are the questions I attempt to answer in thinking about constructing a new sidur. This new sidur is not one at all intended for mass use. This is Minhag David. The entire thing will be for me and me alone. The Amidah will represent all of my central ideas about Judaism. Every moment of it will be carefully constructed, redacted, and written so that I can most effectively express myself in personal prayer.
The irony here is that during Hebrew today, which is my first class in the morning we watched the Israeli movie Ushpizin (which I highly recommend to anybody, Jewish or not), which is about Orthodox Jews. Anyway, I had a great morning, which (as nonsensical as this may or may not be) I will attribute to the tzitzit. The feeling I get having them on is best described as a mix of the feeling one gets wearing new shoes for the first time and the feeling one gets during a really great prayer service.
I have gotten a number of comments on them, all from fellow students. They range from "Whatever! We all know you're too Clasical Reform to believe in that!" to "They really suit you, David!" In between there have been several comments along the lines of "You just don't look right in those" (to which I said, "You don't look right in that face").
To respond to the first comment: The distinction of Classical Reform can kiss my ass. I am a Liberal Jew, Reform Jew, Progressive Jew, or whatever kind of Jew you want to call me. All I know is that Jewish practices which I find meaningful and helpful in my quest to be a non-asshole are those practices which I choose to do. I thought that wearing tzitzit might fall into that category. As it turns out, it does.
To the other extreme: Thank you.
To the middle: I don't care what I look like in them! I care what I feel like in them. On that note, I think they look really cool. That's right: COOL.
On another note related to my target (see prev. post for more on the target), I have decided that I need to compile my own sidur.
SHABAT SHALOM L'KULAM!
Live from Israel: THE NEWS FROM TZUBA
I have not written in quite some time and I hope to God that you have not all deserted me. Since I last wrote, I spent Sukot with a family of Israelis in Jerusalem, antagonized the Dean of HUC Jerusalem, hiked for five days from the Kineret to the Mediterranean, died twice, my Mom visited, my Dad and his girlfriend Lauren visited (during which we had no less than two taxi-related escapades), I went to an Hadag Nachash (Israeli rap/pop concert), went to Tel Aviv for a weekend, and ran into an Israeli friend of mine from Kutz two years ago (Ariel) in Yafo.
However, none of that is as important as what I shall now attempt to describe to you.
Live from Israel: DAVID HAS AN EPIPHANY CONCERNING RELGIOUS PRACTICE
I think that we can all agree that the goal of a serious Reform Jew should be to constantly make conscious decisions about the way they want to practice Judaism. I have decided that to facilitate this I need some sort of system. And by system, I mean elaborate metaphor. That's right. Elaborate metaphor.
They say that when an Orthodox Rabbi makes a ruling on an issue of halachah, he shoots an arrow and then paints the target on around the arrow. That is to say that the Rabbi knows the answer he wants to give and causes/picks and chooses the halachah to support the answer.
I want to do the opposite. I want to be constantly painting targets and then trying over and over again to shoot an arrow right into the middle of the latest target. That is to say that I need to be constantly deciding what my ideal practice of Judaism looks like and then trying to do that.
Live from Israel: THE TARGET
So where does the target stand now?
Everything I think of tends to fall into 4 categories: Torah, Ritual, Social Justice, and Israel.
Torah—I generally feel that I am more in touch with the details of the stories of the Jewish People than most, but I want to be more familiar. I want to be able to translate Tanach and I want for biblical references to jump out at me the way they do at my JHist teachers here.
Ritual—I want to wear tzitzit. There. I said it. It looks meaningful to me and I want to buy tzitzit and try it. As I once told David Singer, they seem like anti-asshole fringes. Constantly there, reminding the wearer how to behave. I need that. Also, prayer has become more important in my life in the last year or so and I would like to aim for the full three times a day.
Social Justice—Why don't I volunteer more of my time for charitable causes in my community at home? Why don't I just give that poor fellow a buck when he asks for one? Will tzitzit help on this front?
Israel—I know that this must be an important part of the target, but for now it must remain a question. Do I want to make Aliyah? Probably not. In that case, how do I recognize the growing importance of the Jewish State in my life? The Israel component of my target must, for now, remain an unanswered question.
It may be another two weeks until the next real post. Next week we will be in Poland and the week after that we will be in the Gadna, an Israeli army preparatory program that all Israeli teens go through.
AUSTIN MAKES BETTER JEWS
I am forced to conclude that Austin makes better Jews.
First, on some general Texas-related notes, there was a kid at the Sephardic service wearing a shirt with a cowboy on it and English writing that read "Texas Ranger." At the HUC services I ran into D.T. Panter, a long-time GFC staffer, as well as a woman named Rebecca (whose last name escapes me) who also a GFC staffer at some point and at another point a member of my temple's choir.
On an unrelated note, simply as a sign that if you think the Jewish world in the U.S. is small, then you'd think the Israeli Reform and Progressive world is minute, I met a guy who, at Kutz, went by the name Scooter. At Kutz, he knew my teacher from this past summer, David Singer, and he was once the boss of Erica Santiago, who was Leslie and Bear's (two of my best friends) boss at Kutz this summer. His orange shorts were also once hung from the ceiling of the Beit Am. He did not elaborate on this fact.
As for why Austinites Jews are better, we can point to the disproportionate quanitity of Austinites in Rabbinical school. Monique Mayer is at Leo Baeck, while Anna Grey (sp?), Erin Ellis, and now, this woman Rebecca, are at various HUC campuses. David Berkman, a predeccessor of mine as President of Austin Temple Teens, is Asst. Director of Camping for the URJ. Also, I want to go to HUC eventually too. So there ha! Empirical, indisputable evidence that Austin makes better Jews.
If you know me, you know I don't cry often. This is problematic for me because I like to think of myself as very in touch with my emotions and I find crying to be very therapeutic. I am constantly looking for a good cry. That's why I love Gilmore Girls. No snyde remarks at this juncture, please.
I actually cried during Yizkor today. I'll preface this with the fact that I'm pretty sure I've nenver been to Yizkor. Mom or Dad, can you verify that on the comment page, please? Before Yizkor the fellow leading services read a story which you can read here (scroll down to the third heading, which is "Information Please" t0 read it). The story was so moving that it made me cry. Then, floodgates already open, we moved into the liturgy for Yizkor.
I thought of the closest relative of mine to have ever died, my Grandpa. Sol Wilensky. I cried more. I didn't really mourn for him when he died. I was in third grade then and I'm not sure I knew how. Over the last year or so, I've though of him often. In the last year, I started wearing my talit to services more often, which I keep in the same velvet bag he was using for his talit at the time of his death. It is brown, though my Dad claims it was purple at some point. This has contributes in some way to my increasingly frequent thoughts about Grandpa, but the real cause was, inadvertently, my current plans on becoming a Rabbi. I was not conscious of the fact while he was alive, but my Grandpa was pretty religious fellow. Frozen in my brain is my final third grade perception of him as something special, even a Tzadik. His hypothetical approval is important to me now. When I first talked to my Dad about my plans for the Rabbinate, he told me Grandpa would have been very proud.
And so, today I mourned for my Grandfather, Sol Wilensky, who has been dead for eight years.
Coming soon: who knows? Is there anything y'all are interested in knowing about my time so far in Israel? Email me or post on the comments page.
Before we get to it, you'll notice that my blog has a slightly new look. I rather like it, but let me know what you think. I've started using the new Blogger Beta and I just wanted to play with my new options a bit.
We spent Rosh Hashana in the south of Israel, in the Negev Desert. This is the long-winded account of our stay there.
EIN GEDI: MIKVAH IN THE DESERT
In 1972, the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve was founded by the Israeli government. It is the largest national park in Israel and considered the most naturally important. There are many neato hikes to be had. We went on a rather long one which followed to path of a mostly dry creek bed to a nice little suprise at the end.
The hike ends at a waterfall with a nice pool, which we all hung out in for a while and swam around in. As soon as we got there, I recognized this waterfall. In every brochure for a NFTY in Israel program that I have ever seen, including both summer programs and EIE brochures, there is a picture of this same waterfall, which like most pictures in these brochures, dates to the eighties! You can see it on page two of this brochure. I don't know who that goofy kid is smiling there, but I have seen him more times than I care to.
In any case, the waterfall was quite refreshing, not to mention the ice cream bar I bought at one of the park stores when we got back. One thing I noticed was that this waterfall and its accompanying pool could have been, had we all been naked and saying whatever proper blessings, a mikvah! There were at least 40 seah of water present and the water was defnitely naturally flowing. Thus we had all the requirements for a mikvah. Although nobody present went through the ritual properly, the experience did contribute to my overall sense of cleansing during our stay in the desert.
They say that if you only go to the mikvah once a year, you should go before Yom Kippur. Last year, upon reading that, I had a rather misguided run-in with my bathtub and a garden hose stuck inside through a window. Don't ask. This waterfall was much better.
YAM HAMELACH: PAIN IN MY FINGERNAILS, CROTCH
Rather than list for you all the places that Yam Hamelach caused me pain, I'll let the title of this section of the post speak for itself.
Yam Hamelach, known perhaps better to my readers by its Enlish name, the Dead Sea, is the lowest point on Earth. It is located at five bazillion meters below sea level and it has more salt than God. To use proper scientific terminology, it is neato.
The high levels of salt cause pain and, paradoxically, healing. The pain comes from any open wound on your body so much as a paper cut because all the sudden you have all the salt in the world converging upon said paper cut. For reasons I don't really understand, there is a quality to this water which causes wounds to heal as well. My acne, for instance, disappeared for 24 hours or so after we swam in Yam Hamelach. The German national health plan sends Germans with psoriasis to Yam Hamelach for two weeks for free.
Also of note is the fact that this water is so crazy dense that you float like mad. If you untense all of your muscles, you just sort of lay there on top of the water. This is very unsettling and makes it very hard to maneuver about in any way, shape, or form.
Then there is this crazy mud. They say this mud is so good for you that they package it and sell it as a sort of spa-like product. I was coerced in putting this crazy mud all over me with the promise that it would feel good. It did not. It felt like mud. I don't know what the big deal is with this stuff.
All in all, the sea was fun and only served to add to my sense of cleansing in the desert.
Live from Mitzadah: DAVID ALMOST DIES
That's right. I almost died. Let me explain.
Mitzadah is the name of a plateau near Yam Hamelach. This thing is 305 meters or so straight up. Over the years, a number of nuts built fortresses up there. Crazy. Among them was Herod, who was a rather paranoid puppet Roman king of Israel back in the day (which, by the way, was a tuesday). Then some nutty Jewish rebels took it over, got beseiged by Romans, and committed mass suicide. If you wanna know what I think about these guys... Whatever. I'm gonna tell you what I think of these nuts regardless of whether you want here what I think about them or not.
These guys, believing that they were the last hope for Judaism, holed up on this mountain like some damn doomsday cult (think Waco) . They intended to live up on this mountain indefinitely and they had some sustainable lifestyle worked out with agricutlure up there and livestock and everything. They even had a mikvah. Then, when confornted with certain sale into slavery by Romans who were about capture them, they all committed suicide. If these nuts really believed that Avodah Zarah (foreign worship, idolatry) would be forced upon them by the Romans along with being sold into slavery, why not go along with it? You can maintian Judaism in secret while following foreign rituals without putting your heart into them. It had been done before and it would be done again later in history. These guys however, took a more glorious, bloody, and selfish road. They believed they were the last worthwhile Jews in the world. For all they know, Judaism ended right there with their suicides. That is selfish and wrong. And crazy.
We woke at up 4-o-damn-clock in the morning to hike up Mitzadah so we could see the sunrise from the top. I didn't see it from the top. I was still only like halfway up when the sun came up. They made us hike up this frickin Snake Path, which causally winds its way all over one side of this mountain. There are over 700 steps on this path, not to mention all the parts where it's just plain slope. I finally staggered up, collapsed, and took a nap a good 20 minutes after everybody else. I almost died on a number of occasions on my way up, on account of the fact that my legs were falling off. God that sucked!
Up top it was cool though.
LOTAN: ROSH HASHANAH, ECOLOGY, PUKING
After Mitzadah, we made our way further south to Kibutz Lotan where we remained for the two days of Rosh Hashanah. Lotan is a realtively young Kibtuz, founded in 1983 by mostly ex-NFTYites and Netzer Olami members from all over the world. They currently have about 50 adults and 60 children. Their industries are diverse and mostly agricultural, but they also have a wildlife reserve as well as an ecological focus unlike that of any community I have ever encountered. As a community they are amazing. They are committed to Reform Judaism and ecology in ways that I don't know that I could ever commit to. Their newer structures are made from mud bricks and hay bales. They are incredibly sturdy stuctures and modernly furnished inside. They also have some amazing levels of composting going on as well as some very unique ways of disposing of trash and sewage. You should check out their website here. The grounds are astounding. The parts they live in as well as the agricultural parts of covered respectively in grass and arable land. This type of thing does not occur in the desert on its own. These people have litteraly coaxed this stuff out of the ground. They created topsoil that was not there.
Anway, we attended services there. I have to admit that I can't stand Rosh Hashanah. I see the point in using the time between RH and Yom Kipur to prepare for YK, but RH itself as it is observed, I can't jive with. In normal cultures, people celebrate the new year (feel free to chastise me for that sweeping and probably untrue generalization). They don't sit in their place of worship for hours on end obsessiong over some ridiculous Book of Life metaphor.
That being said, I appreciated the general Israeli approach to it. They celebrate this holiday as well as lament the coming of Yom Kipur. In America we just obsess about getting dressed up and wearing nice shoes for the services which go on for eight million hours and are filled with much pomp and ridiculousness. Here, people have parties, wish people they see a happy new year, and nobody gets all damn dressed up! I wore shorts and Netzer t-shirt to services and everybody thought that was fine. They have a Rabbi on Lotan, but she is just like every other kibutznik there. Having no one who serves as Rabbi of the community, the services take on a very creative, open, and cooperative feel, which I enjoyed.
Tashlich was very nice. If you don't know about Tashlich, you can read about it by following the link at the beginning of the previous sentence. The gist, however, is that by throwing pieces of bread into a flowing body of water, you symbolically cast off your sins in preparation for YK. Back home, Tashlich is always a highlight of RH for me, perhaps because it draws a small crowd and I always prefer small services. I have vivid and fond memories from my earlier childhood of going across the street from our temple to Shoal Creek where we would conduct Tashlich under a rather sketchy bridge.
On Lotan, we found ourselves in the middle of the desert with no running bodies of water. Thus, Tashlish seemed impossible. Josh, however, one of our JHist teacher who spent the weekend with us on Lotan, conducted a rather creative Tashlich-ish service. Yisrael, a kibutznik, led us, late at night, on a walk to a sand dune in the middle of nowhere. We laid down there and stared at the most amazing night sky I have ever seen in my entire life. In keeping with my usual practice of stargazing at camp (Leslie Bass, eat your heart out), I imagined that rather than laying on the ground and looking up, that I was leaning against a wall and looking out and that the void that took over my field of vision was right in front of me. It was truly awe-inspiring! While there several people (including, grudginly, me) confessed various harmful habits that we wished to curtail in the coming year, things we wished to cast off into the stars. I experienced a moment of clarity of vision under the stars, which I suppose should have been a first sign of trouble, but instead I reveled in it.
The trouble I speak of is dehydration. I was informed that the walk to this and dune would be brief. The walk itself ended up being at least 45 minutes each way. As such, I did not bring a water bottle, though I knew by the end that I should have. That night, blissfully unaware of the danger to come, I lay down to go to sleep, but found shortly that I needed to go the bathroom. I had rather a lot of distress in there, developed a headache, and took 2 gas-x and 2 tylenol. As the danger, several rounds thereof later, seemed to have subsided, I stood up, ready to go back to bed, but instead felt suddenly weak. My torso convulsed and I lost my dinner through my mouth. It happened twice more, in rapid succession. After the final upchuck I felt incredibly good, like a high. When that subsided, I made the connection. I was dehydrated. I went across the way to the room of Josh (a different Josh), my counselor. Josh gave me a liter and a half bottle of water and two rice cakes and told me to finish them before going back to bed. The water felt great, but the rice cakes came up four times, bringing us to a grand total of seven upchucks for the evening.
This is the last incidence of note in my desert cleansing. Although I would not have voluntarily undergo the same dehydration again, I am kind of glad it happened. I ate little the following day and this particular experience only added to my overall experience of cleansing and preparation for YK. I can honsetly say that I would like to spend every RH in the desert. It is very clear to me why many cultures use the desert as a source of mystical knowledge, a rite of passage, or a way of spiritual cleansing.
MEDITATION: RIDICULOUSNESS IN THE DESERT
This final part is for fun only. It did not contribute to my overall experience. Actually, it detracted from it. If you like meditation, don't read this. You will hate me when you are done.
Because of Lotan's status as an environmental mecca, it has developed a group of the usual overly-spiritual neuvo-wave-o meditational types. As such, we got a free dose of the meditational exercises that normal tourists have to pay for. Yes, people pay for this. I was shocked too.
We sat down in a circle on the grass, our attention centered upon an Israeli woman whose name I have forgotten. I'll call her Rainbow from here on out. Rainbow was young and not unattractive, with her sun-bleached hair hanging down to her hips, completely untamed. She probably doesn't shave her legs either, now that I think of it, but I don't recall noticing at the time.
She then explained to us where our chakras are. She told us all about them and about energy. I would like to comment for a moment on this so-called "energy." Nuevo-wave-o types often refer to this energy, which not a single one of them has ever managed to explain to me. This energy, so far as I can tell, is invisible, undetectable, unexplainable, and has something to do with "life force" or some such thing.
She explained that there was a chakra on top of my head. In a failed attempt to connect this nonesense to Judaism, she mentioned that it was right were the kippah goes. I have found that most attempts at meditation within Judaism fall short of, well, anything and tend to grasp around in the dark for a way to validate mediation through Judaism.
We then meditated on each of our individual chakras by placing our hands over them and making various mono-syllabic intonations, such as "vaaaaaammmmmmm," "raaaaammmmm," and of course one can never forget "ooooohhhhhhhhmmmmmmmm." At one point, between two meditations, Rainbow opened her eyes (they were closed most of the time, contemplating the universal life force, I'm certain) and glanced at me. I was reclining on my arms in the grass, barely containing my laughter, not meditating on anything universal whatsoever. She then glanced around and informed us all that whether we, personally, were getting anything our of this, we should engage in her various intonations because it helps the people who are trying to meditate with their vibes. There I finally saw the Jewish connection! Guilt! She was trying to guilt me into intoning various syllables!
I have determined that even if Rainbow has chakras and life energies and other such things, I do not. Anway, that sucked.
Coming soon: I don't know. I'll think of something good though.
Live from the Desert: DAVID HIKES, PUKES, MEDITATES
I like Coke. I like frozen Coke even more. Here in Israel, they sell Coke in 1.5L plastic bottles, one of which I purchased the other day. I opened it up, drank it down to the label, and put it in the freezer. I drank it down knowing that things tend to expand when they freeze.
Today, after first period AP English, I took the bottle out of the freezer. It was a good thing that I had already has some of it because when I opened it, I discovered that it had expanded so much that is was full to the absolute top of the bottle. I was having a conversation of my roommate Eric (whom there are pictures of somewhere in the post about archaeology at Tel Maresha) and as we were talking, I set the bottle down on our kitchenette counter and began to lick, then suck on, the top of the bottle. After no more than 5 seconds of this, the bottle exploded into my face!
The bottle itself remained intact, though about half of the frozen coke inside exploded upward into my throat and out through my nose. Bewildered and in shock, I staggered backwards as the Coke continued to shoot upward of one foot into the air and all over our room. In complete shock and near-debilitating pain, I saw Eric's jaw drop and he was just standing there with his eyes and mouth wide, shaking his head in shock. After maybe 3 seconds of shock, Eric began to laugh uncontrolably. As the Coke exploded into my face I literally thought my head was exploding or had been severed or something.
As this was all in progress, a girl, Jeri, walked in and then ran out thinking I had just projectile vomitted all over the place. I managed to go the bathroom and take my shirt off, which was covered in forzen Coke chunks. I felt like there might be Coke in my lungs or that my uvula had been removed.
In Eric's words: "He came out of the bathroom with no shirt on and a blank expression of "What the fuck just happened to me?!" on his face with tear streaks coming down his face. I couldn't stop laughing!"
I honestly thought I was dead for a moment.
Anyway, it took for damn ever to clean and even now there are many sticky surfaces in our room.
And the sound! As it exploded, the bottle made the most unbelievably loud roar into my face!
Before dinner, afraid I wouldn't be able to swallow solid food because my throat hurt so unbelievable badly, I took a flashlight and shined it into my thoat and looked into the mirror to see how it looked. It looked as though some little gnome had crawled into the back of my throat with a rake and scraped the tissue raw. My front teeth hurt too, though I don't know why. Tomorrow, I'm going to the morning clinic they have on the kibbutz to see if it is serious.
Probably tomorrow, maybe the next day, I will be posting a massive recap of Rosh Hashanah weekend.
Live from Israel: DAVID CAN'T SWALLOW SOLID FOODS!
UPDATE: As of about 10:30 this evening my good friend Charlotte has given me some honey lemon throat lozenges which are actually helpinng my throat not die.
"What did the bank robber say when he robbed a bank in Mea Shearim? He said, "Gimme loot, Chasidim!"
That joke courtesy of Josh Weinberg, my JHist teacher.
You may groan now.
I have become a morning person. I'm not sure when it happenened, but I'm going to guess somewhere withing the last week and a half. I wake up every morning, often at ungodly hours, jump out of bed, let out an epic yawn, and spring into shower action. I want breakfast (the good KB, for you Jewies out there [don't worry, if you're a Jewie, you know it])! I want to go to class! My first class is Ivrit, which I think I'm pretty good at. Then there's Jewish History, which I'm better at. It lasts three hours and it is the reason my day peaks a tad early. After that, it's downhill. Lunch, General Studies, homework, coma.
Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the passing of a very close family member of one the members of our EIE community, whom I will refer to as M, for Mourner. This yartzeit is common knowledge amongst us here and we all knew it was coming. In observance of this and in support of M we davened mincha (held an afternoon service) yesterday.
When we arrived at the Mourner's Kaddish, things got awkard. Normally, most people say the Kaddish. A few people (only two of us here that I know of) refrain from reciting Kaddish unless they are in mourning themselves. This is, however, a vast minority. Yet, this particular time, many people said Kaddish much more quietly than they ordinarily would have. Some whispered it, but many didn't say it all. To make matters worse, M, seated in the front row, became the center of attention. M was openly stared at by most people present. M was also the only person who said the Kaddish at a normal volume.
I was greatly troubled by this. Comforting the mourner is one thing; indeed it is called, in our wonderful *ahem* outgoing North American Reform siddur, Gates of Prayer, an Obligation Without Measure. Putting undue focus on a person already in emotional turmoil, however is not. It is not comfort. It is, in point of fact, discomfort!
I was very troubled by this.
I have just learned that according to Talmud, Alexander is the only non-Jewish name that one can be called to the Torah by because of how well Jews were treated under Alexander the Great. I have decided that based on this, my Jewish name shall no longer be simply David ben Tzvi v'Gilanah, but it shall now be David Alexander ben Tzvi v'Gilanah. This incorporates my English middle name.
Coming soon there will posts here perhaps about Reuven (perhaps not), perhaps about American Jews who have made aliyah (perhaps not), and perhaps about our impending trip to Mesada and Kibutz Lotan.
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Live from Israel: DAVID WANTS TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT THE MOURNING SECTION AND SUGGESTS THAT YOU LEAVE A COMMENT ON THIS POST
First, if you haven't been here in afew days, look at the previous post as well.
Second, some background on Yiddish. The Yiddish language was basically a German dialect spoken throughout the Middle Ages on until the Holocaust, when its use was severly diminished. Few people still speak Yiddish in their daily lives.
Written with Hebrew letters, this language was the language of the Jews in Europe until the Holocaust and the creation of the modern state of Israel. It is the most colorful, shall we say, language ever in the history of languages. Reading the translated transcript of a conversation which was held in Yiddish between fluent Yiddish-speakers is like reading a string of idioms, insults, sayings, and metaphors. The unique thing here with the colorful articulations is that they are so often colored by the Jewish experience these people knew. If a man went home to his wife and found that she was furious with him for whatever reason, he might go out to a bar and say to everyone there, "I went home from work this evening and my wife had the destruction of the Temple in her eyes." If you said this in any other language, the person you were speaking to (even another non-Yiddish-speaking Jew) would not have the slightest idea what you were saying. This was and is a language informed entirely by the Jewish life and stories and ethics known by its speakers in their own times.
I have taken to sitting a lunch with Reuven, one of the Jewish History teachers here. Reuven is an older fellow, more sharply intelligent and blunt than any other person I have ever know, and he lives here on the Kibbutz. He has been a Kibbutznik here for many many years. He used to work in the fields here even. He is an expert on Jewish history like no one else I know. We disagree, all in good fun, on almost eveything concerning the American Jewish experience.
Towards the beginning of lunch today, Reuven took issue with something another Jewish History teacher said. Reuven responded, (I am quite certain I am rendering this wrong so someboby correct me if they know better) "Nisht keshtoygen. Nisht kefloygen." The conversation at the tabel paused as we all inquired as to what he had just said. "It," he said, "is a Yiddish expression meaning, 'That's bullshit!'" We inquired as to its literal meaning. "It means," he said, "He didn't walk. He didn't fly." We inquired as to why this had come to mean "That's bullshit!"
In Europe it became common for a time for the Christian leaders in a community to force all the Jews in the area to attend a lecture on the evils of Judaism and the correctness of Christianity. These lectures often ended with the story of Jesus' life, which of course ends with his ascension to heaven. "And then," the lecturer, probably a preist, would say, "he ascended to heaving, flying, carried by God!" And the Jewish parents in the audience would lean down to their children and say, "Nisht keshtoygen. Nisht kefloygen." As if to say, "He didn't walk up to heaven and he didn't fly up either. That's bullshit!"
This later came to be a general expression used when confronted with something one deemed to be bullshit.
That being said, regardless of your own feelings about such a statement, you can't help but love a language that is so consistently inflamatorily blunt about everything!
More on Reuven some day. Perhaps tomorrow. Probably not tomorrow. Maybe next week. If you haven't yet seen it, look at the previous post as well.
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Leybn arayn Yisroyl: DAVID MEYNEN YIDISH IZ SHPASIK
Until then, I've been wondering about who reads this blog. I know a few of you because you get the regular email updates about new posts. And I know a few of you because you regularly post comments, but because of emails from back home, I have reason to believe that there are more of you reading this semi-regularly than there are posting comments regularly.
I would request that everybody that reads this post before September 16th (that is to say, if you read this regularly or semi-regularly) leave a comment on the comments page. Id you don't know where that is, look down at the bottom of the post, after all that bullshit I type in grey in every post, there is some yellowish type that reads "[X number of] comments." Click on that to comment.
Good night and good luck.
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Live from Israel: DAVID SAYS SOMETHING THAT'S NOT AS INTERESTING AS WHAT HE USUALLY SAYS
We had a test B'kitah Ivrit last period. It was hard, but me ego has been boosted my complete lack of wrongness on it.
Every Saturday night they like to take us to some public area with shopping and other fun things. We tried out a new one last night that none of our staff had ever been to. It seemed uncharacteristicly unplanned of them to take us somewhere none of them had been. We went to a boardwalk on the beach somehwhere. One of the side effects of seeing this whole country from a tour bus, bascially anyway, is that I never know where the hell I am. Thus, we found ourselves on this boardwalk with no idea where the boardwalk was in relation to the rest of the world. I had no money. There was no Kaspomat (ATM), which kinda sucked. When we got there I still had not had a Shabbos Coke. My buddy Tal bought me one. I think that was really the truning point in the day. Things started to look up. Too bad the day was pretty much over with by then.
As it turned out, this was a pretty lame boardwalk. There wasn't much to do--or shop for--so most people kvetched the whole time about how much it sucked. I however, Coke in hand, enjoyed the sand under my bare feet, the wind in my almost nonexistent hair, and my friends. I felt very calmed after a desperately crappy, stressful day.
There were old Israeli men selling illegal Latina Muzika at a stand. It was funny. I'm going to class now.
Long story short, I am better now. Not good, but better.
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Live from Israel: DAVID SUCKS LESS NOW
Last night for Shabbat Ma-ariv T'Fliah we went to Kehilat Kol Haneshama, the largest Reform anything here in Israel. If you recall my experience with the Kotel and my expectations about it (second post down on the page here), it will mean a lot to you when I say that I was a bout ten million times more excited about Kol Haneshama than I was about the wall.
I am always interested by how Reform Judaism looks in different places. Though the basic theology and the basic tenets remain the same in Progressive, Reform, and Liberal Judaism everywhere, the outward appearance that develops around that underlying structure changes from place to place. The ethics and the observance of ethical commandments and traditions don't change too much, but the rituals and the observance of ritual commandments and traditions do change. Thus, I was really psyched for this.
We arrived at Kol Haneshama about a half hour before services began. The Kol Haneshama campus is composed of anumber of buildings and wings including a sanctuary (which I imagine doubles as a social hall), an administrative office wing, a youth center, and a nice open plaza in the front center of the whole assemblage of buildings. The architecture is all understatedly made of white Jerusalem limestone, the only flourishes being green metal Frank Lloyd Wright-esque windowsill fixture things. The structure, more than any American Reform institution screamed out a sense of stability and rootedness that impressed me and made me all the more excited. The inside of the snactuary was obviously furnished on the cheap, but nicely and elegantly so.
The first omen of things to come was when Baruch Kraus, our principal, pointed out to me that all the other men there had their heads covered. He noted that in the Israeli Progressive movement a kippah is almost expected. I told him I'd rather not put on one. (If anyone is interested, let me know and I can do a whole other post here about why I don't like to wear a kippah). He insisted. I asked if people would be offeneded. He said he wasn't sure. After a protracted and highly awkard conversation about the issue, he grudingly agreed I didn't have to put one on. So I didn't.
Then the service started. There more nigunim than I care for. There were then a copious amount of meditative moments. Then we did about half of the service silently. I couldn't determine why. The moments felt awkward, not spiritual. I cannot express how unfulfiling this service was for me.
This comes also on the heels of an increasing sense that although I know excatly what I think about ethics and rituals and Reform, I can't tell what anyboyd else thinks. I feel increasingly alone as the mainstream URJ maintains serious Classical Reform roots and, to a large extent, practices, yet the "Indie" or "Contemporary" or "Ultra-Modern" wings of Reform in the US become too ritualized for even me.
All of this together created an exremely quiet and conflicted mood in me last night. The most horrible realization of all being that I felt so spiritually out of it that I was unsure that I could lead services on Shabbat morning. Oh yeah, did I mention that?
Services sucked. I blew it. It cannot be sliced any other way. I led the service, my friend Sam accompanied on guitar at various points, and another friend, Rachel, served as gabbai and led the Torah service.
I am good at leading services. I do it more often than the average person and I do it well. People enjoy. This is not my ego (which is currently on life support) talking. These are fact. Thus, when we established a T'filah Committee I naturally too charge. We set up a system of rotations of leaders, songleaders, and Torah readers and we have plans to set up a D'var Torah rotation later.
The ideas I was testing in this service were minimal instructions and subdued leadership. Rachel, Sam, and I sat in the front row. I explained that I would be leading from within the congregation, rather than from without, the norm. I also announced page numbers only when absolutely neccessary and I never issued directions such as "rise" or "be seated" Being that I was in the front row and couldn't see everybody behind me, my mind created a picture of everybody enjoy the damn thing. Apparently they didn't. Someone was "elected" from within a large group of people who disliked services to come speak to me about the general problems that people had with services.
They were apparently boring, devoid of music (although we did use the guitar on four occasions), and confusing. This hurt a lot. I know that nobody was trying to be mean in this, but it means that I obviously know a lot less about what I'm doing than I thought. I'm in a very self-critical mood right now. I am sitting writing this on my balcony looking out at more of the hotel and the sweeping Judean hills. I am inconsolable. "Everybody has off weeks," somebody told me a moment ago. It doesn't matter what people say to me right now. I just feel like a moron. I have hurt the community by inflicting boring services on them.
I feel really alone right now. They say that it is normal for teenagers to always feel like nobody understands what they are going through. I have never felt that. Until now. I feel isolated. I feel like nobody trying to console me right now knows what I'm trying to tell them. It doesn't matter if people just have off weeks sometimes. Of course they do! I know that! I also know that you can't have this much of an off week when it comes to leading a community.
After my ordeal with Kol Haneshama and my confusion about Reform I expected to at least be able to go through the motions this morning. Apparently, I couldn't even do that properly.
d.profound@gmail com. Etc. Etc. I write the same damn thing here in every post.
Live from Israel: DAVID SCREWS UP
Therefore, in services when we sing Hodo Al Eretz Bashamayim, etc. we are, in essence, sayin Thanksgiving/Turkey/India on the Earth and in the Heavens.
That's odd, isn't it?
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Live from Israel: THAT WAS WEIRD
This was spawned by a trip today to a spot called Tel Gezer as well as some discussion point in my Jewish History class. Let's talk about a lot of things.
You should know as context that part of the focus of this part of the Jewish History class here is Documentary Hypothesis (for example, we separated out the story of Noach into the two separate stories it actually contains, which were later merged) as well as the process of examining the historical context of these biblical stories as well as contemporary sources (for example, we examined B'reishit at the same time as Enuma Elish, the Babylonian story that closely mirrors the first in many ways).
Anyway, we were talking about circumcision. When you, the pre-civilized man, discover agriculture, this shocks your world, right? (The correct answer is "Right!") Then religion happens. Why? If I, the farmer, have a bad season, I inevitably wonder why. Have I done something wrong? If I have done something wrong, who decided it was wrong and who, most importantly exacted punishment on me? The obvious answer one will create/come to/be struck with is the gods.
There is a paradox here. On the one hand, because of farming, you have gained infinitely more control over your life than you ever had before. You are in control of your own source of food! On the other hand, you've subsequently developed some sort of religion to explain the one thing that remains outside of your control; the weather. Once you've got gods, the amount of control over your world only shrinks as you cede more and more power over your daily life to gods.
In ancient Canaan, people came to the conclusion that sex was involved. This is not a particularly surprising conclusion when you think about it. Sex is a mystery to the early farmer. Farming itself is also a mystery to the early farmer. They both involve planting/impregnating the ground/a woman with seeds/sperm. After a process that is a complete mystery to this early civilized man, food/a baby appears. Farming to this early agriculturist is sex.
Why is this section of the post titled circumcision? Everything I just said brings us to the symbol of circumcision. When we pose the question, "Why does the sign of the covenant take the form of circumcision?" we might quickly come to an answer, which though good, is not absolute. That is, we might think to ourselves, well, this is a time when religion is dominated by men so obviously only men need the sign. Fine. We might also realize that the sign has to be readily apparent. What could be more apparent to a man than the physical alteration of his own penis? This is valid, but not absolute for the hypothetical devil's advocate in this conversation might say, "Why not a serious facial tattoo? Or the removal of a finger? Or something equally physically remarkable?" The answer to this harkens back to the relationship between sex and agriculture.
If my power over the world is derived from my ability to control it through farming, my symbolic source of power is my penis because of the parallel between sex and farming. Thus, when I enter into Avraham's covenant and give power over my life over to God, I must mark my source of power to show that it is not only mine, but God's. The reason for the mark only being required on the male sex organ is that only the male sex organ contains power in the metaphor. The female sex organ is simply symbolic in the metaphor of the hole dug in the ground to sow seeds. More on this at the wrap-up.
SACRIFICES and the AKEIDAH
Going back to the polytheistic Canaanite farmer we spoke of earlier, we spoke of how his power shrinks as he cedes more supernatural powers to his gods. Then he wants to know how he can make them happy. "Well", he thinks, "if they're like me (and believe me, there is an element of ego contained herein so they are like me because I want to be godlike) then they like what I like. That means they like to be kept fed and to be supplied with wine." So the farmer begins the first sacrificial system. In return for a good harvest, the farmer gives back some of this fruits and veggies to the gods. Then he gives them some wine and some olive oil because those are products of his farming too.
It still all comes back to sex. How do you know where to put these sacrifices? Near something might that can represent the god you are sacrificing to. Like a monolith. These large rocks are highly phallic. Then the mighty gods demand more and more. Thus, sacrifice of the first born becomes commonplace. It is so commonplace, in fact that, Avraham has no argument with God about such an occurrence when God asks him to sacrifice Yitzchak, his favorite son. To Avraham, this is as normal is prayer is to us. In fact, it is prayer.
We could say that this is simply God testing Avraham's faith, but this answer is not absolute. The hole in it is from shortly before in the Tanach where we have the story of the twin cities of S'dom and Amorah. In this story, when confronted with God's perceived immorality, Avraham argues. However, once we reach the Akeidat Yitzchak Avraham seems so willing to accept this thing that we would perceive as highly ethically problematic, not to mention emotionally gut-wrenching, which he was not in the S'dom and Amorah story.
I would propose that this story is symbolic of what I'll call the Theological Revolution. The Theological Revolution was started, in the bible, by Avraham and in reality by somebody who may or may not have been Avraham. Point being, the Revolution realizes that the practices around the revolutionaries are not good. The Revolution takes a step back and says, "No! Sacrificing your own child is not normal!" The Revolution also says that rather than these petty people-like gods, there is only the one and that this one is above in some inconceivable way. This, of course, makes sense because how could something so similar to us as the Canaanite pantheon create us or control us? The Theological Revolution leads to a lot of very big ideas that will have massive effects on western society forever.
I hope to God that was coherent.
Next up on this blog: I don't really know. Good stuff is on its way though.
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Live from Israel: DAVID HOPES HE JUST MADE SENSE