Men being “nice”: another look at partnership minyanim

“Men come to the partnership synagogue for a whole host of reasons,
the overwhelming majority of which have nothing to do with feminism.”
-The Men’s Section

Crossposted at Jewschool

The Men’s Section is about the men’s side of partnership minyanim in Israel–their reasons for joining and their difficulties after joining. The author was clearly distressed by her own findings, which even I admit were surprising. Partnership minyanim are generally seen as being the “next step” to equality and gender balance. Admittedly, her research is Israel-centric, but one thing was clear: men weren’t joining out of a sense of feminism. In fact, what we know as the ideal of feminism was actually one of the difficulties men had with the minyanim!

Many of the men interviewed reported that they didn’t feel a sense of community in their old shuls, or they felt an emotional disconnect, or that they felt constant pressure to be perfect (the “man-on-man gaze”), or that they were dissatisfied with the hierarchies. Note that none of this has anything to do with women. In fact, many of the problems reported by men were with the women–that they had their own incorrect “women’s trope,” or that they didn’t come on time. The fact that women were never taught the trope as meticulously as men were wasn’t discussed, and as Sztokman observed, women were expected to prepare meals for shabbos, and take care of the children, and still show up on time and stay throughout the service. She found that these men will let women into “their space” via the partnership minyanim only if they are willing to abide by the same rules by which the men were socialized. The irony is that these are the very rules and patterns that the men hoped to escape by joining these minyanim.

Sztokman shows they are replete with the same social hierarchies that one might find in any mainstream Orthodox shul. Feminist deconstruction of gender and manhood was not a concern, and it seemed as if the women were there as sort of an afterthought. In fact, when one of the members had a non-egalitarian member of his family come in for his son’s bar mitzvah, many of the members argued that they should rescind women’s leadership positions. As one woman said, “we all fix things up in our home before the mother-in-law visits. How is this any different?” It was obvious that, as strange as it seems, egalitarianism wasn’t a very pressing item.

Before reading this book, I, like many people, thought that giving women aliyot was an end goal in itself, and that partnership minyanim were an insufficient but ultimately good avenue for the eventual expansion of women’s roles. Sztokman’s research suggests that they could instead be actually self-defeating to feminism. In building these partnership minyanim, we are focusing on the male model of what shuls and tefillah should be, and the men who are joining these minyanim are implicitly rejecting this model even as they insist on retaining it.”The Orthodox synagogue,” Sztokman writes, “remains a men’s space based on the way men are socialized.”

Partnership minyanim seem to have become, at least in Israel (although half the men interviewed were originally from the US), an extension of this “men’s space.” Grace aux male participants, they are still pervaded by:

  • Emotional disconnect (58): There wasn’t an emphasis on enjoying tefillah or singing and the like; rather the emphasis remained on punctiliousness and keeping services short.
  • Absolutist language (80): “When forces of power preempt discussions, there is a control of ideas before they are even publicly aired.” In an attempt to continue being seen as halachic (“in the club,” as Sztokman puts it), there was a tendency to retain social boundaries using the “inflexible language of authority,” or halacha (regardless of whether the subject being discussed was strictly halachic or not). Couching an existing hierarchy in this type of language is effective because, one interviewee said, “people are afraid of what God is thinking.”
  • Clericalism (90): On a similar note, the minyanim were (and are) being judged as “not halachic” because only “small-name” rabbis approved of them. That is, there weren’t exactly any renown rabbis who would publicly underwrite these minyanim. Having no real widely recognzied support, this caused an internal rift as members argued whether to call themselves “Orthodox” (instead of merely “halachic”) in order to appease critics. As someone wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “halakha does insist that each generation has certain leaders whose authority derives from their widespread acceptance. Particularly when attempting to break with established practice, the approval of recognized authorities is essential[...]An environment in which everyone ultimately makes his own decisions[...]may be democratic and tolerant[...]But it is not halakhic.” Of course, some of the men interviewed did wish to see a change in the monolithic nature of halacha. Still, participants sought outside approval from authoritarian structures even as they hoped to break those structures down, as evidenced by their petition to call their minyan “Orthodox” rather than “halachic.”
  • Authoritarian control over discourse (161): When the vaad heard about this petition, they were not pleased. They had wanted the discussion to go through them first. They announced that “only emails that have been approved by the va’ad could be sent to the entire congregation.” This was the beginning manifestations of centralizing an authority that had once been more dynamic, going back to a centralized “Orthodox culture generally,” and forming a “culture of authoritarian control over communal discourse in Orthodoxy, beyond halakha.” It seems that this too is because of the fear that the group will be ostracized by other, mainstream Orthodox groups.
  • Male model of performance (202): Although it seems on the surface that gender identity is being challenged, there is no discussion of punctuality, perfectionism, power structures, and how they shape masculinity. Instead, the minyan becomes a space in which women can practice their (always deficient) roles themselves, modeled on the already present male structure.

“The process of reaching gender equality is often interpreted as offering women as opportunity to internalize the practices of Orthodox masculinity in bits and pieces. Layn here, learn there, be a meticulous, emotionless, perfect performer[...]Orthodox men have not challenged the supremacy of this model at all. The partnership synagogue is a place where men are reacting to gender hierarchies by inviting women to share their space as objects of a male gaze, perhaps to relieve some of their own pressures. They are bringing women into their box, perhaps as a comforting presence.”

  • A dependence on another’s servitude (221): In a way, partnership minyanim will always be an “incomplete revolution,” because the structure is so completely different from that which shul culture has historically been based on; namely, the assurance of having someone at home to take care of the business that must be attended to while the man is at shul (or yeshiva or elsewhere). If women want access to this type of freedom, there is of course the problem of having no one left at home to “pick up the slack.” Even further social strain was exemplified in Sztokman’s observation that women who came in with children weren’t welcomed, and in the particular minyan she attended, women were also criticized for breastfeeding. Women are expected to fulfill their “homemaker’s role” while still attending to the pervasive sense that they must also fulfill the role of a punctual minyan member. In other words, women are still criticized for coming late and leaving to attend to children even while they are simultaneously expected to cook/clean/take care of said children.
  • Idealization of masculinity (224):

“The problem with Orthodoxy, I came to realize, is not just that women are forbidden from doing what men do. The problem is in the entire set of assumptions around men, the idealization of masculinity that, really, is not what I want in life. Orthodoxy is not really a place for women.

More than that, Orthodoxy is by definition a male construct. Orthdoxy is men. The way to be a complete Jew in Orthodoxy–from the bris to the bar mitzvah to giving a woman a ring and maybe giving her a get–is to be a man[...]I am not merely saying that Judaism is a patriarchal culture. What I’m saying is that Orthodoxy as a construct is male[...]a culture that rests on idealized images of human existence that can only really be fulfilled by men. As a woman, I can never really be truly Orthodox[...]I am never quite inside the culture. Because to be Orthodox in its full meaning ultimately means being a man.

[...]We have a nearly two-thousand-year-old Talmudic tradition that prides itself on such punctuality, precision, and perfectionism that the precise words of the Shema must be recited at a certain time. But, really, is that what makes us godly? Or is it just am expression of men seeking control in a world of chaos who measure, cut, and calculate every movement so as to avoid having to actually feel emotions such as fear, uncertainty, and pain?”

Partnership minyanim by definition need men to function–men who are not necessarily ready to give up their previous privileges of power and control. Naturally, these men in turn use what they know from their own male socialization to create more male spaces. Now, I hardly wish to say that this is true of all partnership minyanim, especially since the study was done in Israel, where the culture is very different. But the study shows at least that there is easily precedent for a tendency for these to slide into being copies of the men’s Orthodox culture that has always existed.

Because these spaces are created by men who are “allowing” women greater roles (222), men who are likely not motivated by concern for women (see quote), I would hardly call them feminist, and I don’t believe they will be until the culture of “men being ‘nice’” enough to give women a “corner” or a bit of practice in masculine performance is replaced by women creating self-functioning spaces themselves (which, of course, is already starting to be done). There is still a long way to go. Feminism is not only about giving women expanded symbolic roles, it’s not just about giving women aliyot, but in changing the entire atmosphere and breaking down the ultimately harmful paradigm of the masculine ideal of tefillah.

how much does it cost to be jewish? (reprise)

I grew up thinking Jews should work in social change,
but only investment bankers can afford a Jewish life
.”
-Jewish Women Watching

Crossposted at Jewschool

Original, lesser post here

I was at the Blue Ribbon food store on Ave. J in Brooklyn the night before Rosh Hashana.

“Store closing! Store closing!”

blue_ribbonI wandered around, people rushing past me. Yogurt? Should I buy yogurt? Cheese? Tuna fish? There were no prices on anything. I had been putting off food shopping until the last minute, and I was paying for it. Blue Ribbon was the last place open that late erev Rosh Hashana.

I had to think pretty quickly. This particular year, I was going to have three days to fill with food. Imagine coming up with a 3-day menu for one on a budget…when there are no prices on anything. And I had to buy something.

I hastily went over to my safe zone–the challah rack–and picked up a round challah and a pack of six rolls, deciding which would be a better buy. Could the round one really be cut into six equally substantial pieces? People were pushing up against me while the “Store closing!” character kept bellowing somewhere in the depths of the store.

I picked the rolls. They’d last me about two days. A $4 choice, cash only.

The fact that there were no prices said to me that I was the only one worrying about the cost of things. Figuratively, though, everything has a price tag. Who knew that Jewish living could have so many material trappings?

On Yom Kippur, I heard enough pledges to the shul in the amount of $613  (or “eighteen times three,” very clever, guys) to last me a lifetime.

And Sukkos made completely transparent what had been perhaps inadvertently hidden. My street was lined with people selling esrogim and tinsel and bird cages. There was a sukkah store competing with another sukkah store across the street. And of course Eichler’s was right there, too. You got the sense that if you wanted to participate, really participate, in Jewish life, you had to be ready to shell out a whole lot of money for the requisite commodities.

The 2001 NJPS study shows that the median income of Jewish families was about $54,000 (compared to the $42,000 national average), with over one-third of households having an income of over $75,000. I can’t be certain, but I think my own family’s income growing up probably hovered around $25,000. The basic line is that “the Jewish working class has all but disappeared,” but that’s not true. Unfortunately, the Jewish community seems to be set up as if it is. Of course there is aid available; yeshiva stipends and gemachs and the like. But being the recipient of such aid, just like in secular society, puts you in the periphery of Jewish life. In other words, if you’re constantly eating in someone else’s sukkah, you’ll never have a sukkah to call your own!

Most of the discussion has centered around the costs of synagogue membership and day school. Indeed, the required costs of day school etc. for a family with children is estimated to be about $30,000 a year. But the costs go well beyond this into everyday life–particularly where it can. You can wear a hair covering or you can wear a $2,000 sheitel. You can buy your clothes at department stores or you can buy them at the special fancy $30-per-one shell store. I’m sure there is community pressure, at least I sensed it by living off Avenue J and trying to walk down to the subway with my ripped denim skirt from Goodwill when everyone else got their nice new clothes from Tznius Princess or who knows where.

Same with food: I could buy it at Blue Ribbon aka No Listed Prices R Us, or I could go all the way down to the secular store in Union Square instead. Oftentimes, a regular, national brand would be missing from the kosher store in favor of its more expensive Israeli counterpart.  I can’t afford a $16 lasagna just because it has a special hechsher from Israel. I can’t afford to be selective with hechshers! If that’s not some kind of community pressure I don’t know what is.

But I knew if I had wanted to participate, really participate, I’d be buying those Israeli brands, not going to Union Square.

So how much does it cost to be Jewish?* Here’s an answer:

Another dimension to be measured is the cost of Jewish living as a percentage of total income. The members of the Orthodox Jewish community, which comprises about 10 percent of the total Jewish population, have on average accumulated less wealth and earn less money than other Jews. Nevertheless, they remain steadfast in their commitment to day school education, trips to Israel far beyond the frequency of other Jews, and, to a lesser extent, Jewish camping experiences. At the same time, they have more children per household than other Jews, keep kosher with its concomitant higher costs, buy special clothing free of shatnes, and, for the Ultra-Orthodox, purchase wigs for women’s hair covering. Given all these additional expenses, the Orthodox or traditional practitioners spend 25 to 35 percent of their available income for Jewish living, often at a sacrifice of more adequate housing, a more comfortable lifestyle, and the acquisition of savings.

-”The Costs of Jewish Living,” 2008

The community sets the standards.

American Sociological Association: United Jewish Communities. 2003. National Jewish Population Survey, 2000-01. New York, NY: United Jewish Communities [producer]. Storrs, CT: North American Jewish Data Bank [distributor].

Bayme, Steven. Bubis, Gerald B. The Costs of Jewish Living: Revisiting Jewish Involvement and Barriers. American Jewish Committee (AJC). 2008: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=322

*I know, “How Much Does It Cost to be Orthodox” is more accurate, but it doesn’t sound as good.

Language at Drisha (Language for all)

Crossposted at Jewschool

Words are pretty cool. Sometimes they stay in one place, and sometimes they cross state lines. Sometimes certain types of words spread like wildfire. I don’t mean gossip; I mean words like “cat” or “bank.” For example, I was born in Connecticut, so I still say “pocketbook.” I brought “pocketbook” all the way down to Virginia, where my “pocketbook” encountered everyone else’s “purses.” It was barely a fight. I haven’t traded my “pocketbook” in for a “purse” yet, and it’s been years.

Still, in other environments, some words enjoy an almost guaranteed takeover. When I was at Drisha over the summer, nothing in the kitchen was free for the taking. Lot of things were hefker, though. “Ownerless.” It seemed that as the summer wore on, more and more things were hefker. And kal vachomer, if we were saying hefker we were definitely saying davkaDavka was thrown around like a baseball at Drisha. Once it showed up in our sugya, and once our gemara teacher started saying it, everyone in our class started saying it. Heikhi, how does this happen? Well, for one thing, our class wasn’t picking up much from Talmud 3 down the hall. Our class was together three and a half hours a day, and words tend to spread that way. I don’t know what the other classes talked about but we, Talmud 1, were learning ben sorer u’moreh, the rebellious son, and that’s where our vocabulary came from.

For that month, our life was the ben sorer u’moreh. Our jokes were ben sorer u’moreh-themed (maybe that was just me). On the last day of class, we bought OU Dairy bacon and grape juice, as an elaborate joke based on the fact that for someone to be a ben sorer u’moreh he must meat and drink wine…but only if he stole it from his parents first (both of whom must look and sound the same). We expanded this into a bigger joke, saying that his parents only owned one item, the clock in our own classroom. When the clock went missing one day, we said the ben sorer u’moreh had stolen it.

Drisha just worked like that. Most of the girls had just come from seminary, so it was an opportunity to re-enter an immersive “Torah everything” environment for them. But for people like me, this was a completely new concept. Of course you’re not going to ask if those donuts are free; you’re going to ask if they’re hefker.

I’m reading a book called Becoming Frum by Sarah Bunin Benor. It’s about the language of ba’alei teshuva; when, why, and how certain words or styles are acquired. Not surprisingly, her frumspeak hierarchy is: Periphery, Community, and Yeshiva. As BTs become more involved and invested, she explains, their way of speaking changes accordingly. This isn’t so surprising; after all, if everyone around you is using sav, eventually you will have to decide if sticking with tav is worth making you different. And vice versa. Some BTs enjoy emphasizing their differences from FFBs (she actually opens and closes the book with Matisyahu, naturally). Some want nothing more than to blend in.

It’s easy and linear when someone raised Modern Orthodox is joining a yeshivishe community. It’s a little more interesting to put people from secular, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Chasidishe backgrounds into a non-denominational place like Drisha. More than once did I respond to “Shabbat shalom” with “Good shabbos,” which violates all natural laws of language, seeing as I was raised far less observant than anyone else I knew there, and should have used “Shabbat shalom” like the child of secular Reform intermarriage I was. I didn’t start saying “Shabbat shalom,” but they didn’t have to start saying “Good shabbos,” either. Reading from Tanach was interesting. It didn’t default to Modern Orthodox pronunciation as one might expect, but rather a mix. However, the exceptions prove the rule, as far as I’m concerned. Where “Good shabbos” didn’t bring us together, davka did instead.

It’s not limited to words, of course. When I read “the ‘hesitation click‘ is a feature of Orthodox communities,” I knew immediately what Benor meant, and I laughed. She writes that it is a feature of Israeli Hebrew, but as I hadn’t heard it until coming to Drisha, I thought it was just one person’s idiosyncrasy. It spread rapidly, though, and (as I delightfully noted) across denominational lines.

Drisha is one place where language isn’t necessarily correlated with ideological or denominational lines. It’s like its own microcosm.

Intermarriage: An open letter to Orthodox and Conservative rabbis

Crossposted at Frum Satire

An open letter to Orthodox and Conservative rabbis:

You say you’re against intermarriage, you know there’s a 50% intermarriage rate, and you know some kids who come out of those marriages aren’t going to be halachically Jewish–maybe 30-40%. So, about 15-20% of all Jewish marriages will result in non-Jewish children. You say you’re against intermarriage, but what are you going to do about it?

I’m one of those kids. I got lost in the system. To be told by someone that you’re Jewish one day and to be told you’re not the next, well it’s pretty disconcerting, if you can imagine. And as much as I’d like to believe the former, I’ve decided to convert. I’m tired of wondering in which contexts I can call myself Jewish, and in which contexts other people would be offended if I did. I’m tired of wondering whether the words of the Torah were meant for me or not. I’m tired of having it implied that the God of my fathers doesn’t want my davening. I’m tired of thinking that’s actually true. I’ve been trying to convert since I was nineteen, but I keep running up against you.

I like to think I’m doing the right thing, you know. Next to all the halachically Jewish kids my age, for whom you are happy if they just light some candles on Shabbat or something, I’m gladly taking on a whole lot more. I don’t know about them, but I have the extra burden of knowing I’m the only one in my family left to keep it going. I’m here. I’m ready. Heck, I’m even completely willing. And yet–I get no compassion. You don’t even notice. In the halachic world of categories and laws, I have no category. I fell through the cracks. Do you care what happens to me? Am I a part of klal yisrael? If so, what do I do about it?

Nothing would make me happier than having you tell me you’d like to see me convert because it’s my responsibility as a part of the Jewish people. Instead, it’s as if you hope I don’t mention it too much. It’s as if you simply cannot tolerate the subject, so instead you always come up with the same line: “You are Jewish if your mother is Jewish.” And the conversation ends. And I feel terrible. And you don’t notice. Your hands are tied, you say. Just be patient, you say.

My request isn’t that radical. I’m not asking that you accept patrilineal descent. Hey, I’m with you: my childhood was a perfect case study of the mixed messages kids get from an intermarriage, and therefore I’m against it because intermarriage caused this.

I’m only asking two things, and I think they’re pretty reasonable: Make it easier for people like me to convert, and stop reacting with such horror when you hear the term. It’s not a “death sentence” for continuity unless you make it one. Look, I’m on your side. I want to do this the right way. Why make it so difficult? There’s a lot of people like me out there, and I bet the number is growing. Ignoring it isn’t going to help you, me, or us. Telling me that I’m 100% a gentile and you couldn’t care less one way or the other whether I convert or not is pretty hurtful, you know. I know it’s easy to say it anyway, especially now that it’s an “issue.”

I want to know something. What do you suggest I do? What would be ideal? Do you want me to be Reform? Convert to Christianity, maybe? Would that be convenient for you? Do you really think keeping the children of 15-20% of married Jews alienated from Judaism is going to be a good thing? I didn’t choose the religion of my parents, but I am choosing what I do next. I love Judaism, I’ve never had another religion, I don’t want it to die in my family, and I don’t believe you really do either. So, can you help me out here?

Sincerely,

A Patrilineal Conversion Candidate

The side of conversion they don’t tell you about

Crossposted at New Voices

With one day left of school now, I feel I must reflect. What they say about this school is true, you know — people really do sleep in the library, and it is hard to make friends. Really, two of my only friends here include the rabbi and the Catholic priest. It’s kind of interesting. They actually give me advice in life. For example, they agree with me when I want to graduate a semester early or do a Jewish Studies major instead of a Religious Studies major. And you know? Sometimes it’s good to have people occasionally reinforce your crazy ideas when no one else will.

I do have other friends; they just tell me I should wait to graduate and stick with a more marketable major. Nonsense! I know what I want in life. There are lots of things I could do next spring if I graduated early—why do I need to be here? Behold: there’s PardesWUJS, the Conservative Yeshiva, I could intern at a Jewish non-profit, I could move to New York. I could do a lot of things.

But you know what I hate? I’m chained. Why? Wherever I pick, I ought to be thinking about staying there for a couple of years. That’s what converting does. You have to pick a place and stay there. If I want to intern in Washington, DC next summer, the first thing I think is: “What if I finally find a good community there? Should I just stay and convert and just take the old Amtrak to school a couple days a week? Is that hasty? But I wanted to live in New York! (whine)” I’d feel like a bad candidate if I went to a rabbi going “I like this place, but I want to go to Israel in a year and maybe go backpacking and never come back, sorry.” (You get the feeling you can’t be Jewish and on the go.) It almost makes me not want to live in a city I know I probably don’t want to live in forever…even just to intern. And that’s a little morbid.

I don’t think those conversion books mention the horrid period of gestation wherein you’re in between “making the decision” and telling your rabbi about it. (For me, there is no rabbi.) I think I’m there. And it’s disorienting. It’s disorienting when everyone around me is telling me that it’s not so bad. It is bad. The only people who agree are an Orthodox rabbi and a Catholic priest.

But alas, there’s an even darker side of conversion. I’m glad I got so many comments on my last post, but I started to see something that I sort of latently suspected anyway. When you convert, as you may know, you have to pick a denomination. If you’re not sure which, a good way to decide is to pit them against each other and make bad jokes and tongue-in-cheek observations about the ones you think you may not like. It doesn’t matter if they’re exaggerations or caricatures; that’s good! Conservatism is a country club! Orthodoxy hates women! If you’re wishy-washy, how can you ever pick one? And remember—you have to pick one.

Do you see what’s happening here? I can’t just pick an Orthodox conversion. I must implicitly say in turn that non-Orthodox conversions are invalid—otherwise, why would I go through the trouble? I must say there’s something wrong with the others; that those with liberal practices are metaphysically doing it wrong. No matter how I feel about that, there must be absolutes in conversion.

I think it’s hardest for Orthodoxy because Reform can use theology to get out of the argument, and Conservatism can use certain platforms such as egalitarianism, but once I pick Orthodoxy I must also be giving up anything good there might be in Conservatism. I must implicitly be saying that I don’t believe in women’s rights, right? Or that I agree with all the theology that guides Orthodox practice.* Someone once told me I didn’t seem “at peace” with my decision. I agree. I can’t be, because no denomination is a pure, unalloyed Judaism. There are good and bad features about each. I don’t like the idea of settling into a denomination. I’m picking the best option. I mean, geez, there’s only three (or four, for you sticklers…and two already accept me).

Picking Orthodox over Conservative was one of the hardest (yet clearest) decisions I’ve had to make, but in a sense it doesn’t matter that I’ve made the decision. My theology is the same! I don’t suddenly hate liberal Judaism. A friend asked me how I could still stand to go to JTS after I’d just said Conservatism is so wrong. You know what’s wrong though? The fact that I had to come up with a list of things that are wrong with liberal Judaism in order to justify my decision to convert to Orthodoxy. I stand by my list, but look at the divisions it causes! Conversion can do that. Conversion makes you pick one. It makes you pledge allegiance to that denomination—forever.

*I don’t mean Sinai. Hasidic thought, frighteningly, guides some normative practices regarding women.

Orthodoxy

Crossposted at New Voices

I sense that my readers probably believe that I’m pretty liberal. In fact, I sense that it’s simply taken for granted that if we can all agree on anything, it’s on how archaic, naive, and altogether hateful Orthodoxy is.

And that’s why I’m sensing it’s time to lay down the law on why I’m thinking of choosing an Orthodox conversion.

This list is supposed to be read all together; I tried to impose some sort of emergent order to it.

1.) This campus is slightly anti-Semitic (if you’re paying attention). When we were discussing Zionism in class, one girl spoke up to say she just could never understand how the Jews could “take away someone else’s happiness for their own happiness.” I’m not an expert on the subject, but it seems that the default position is that “the Jews took the land away (ideally, forcefully) from the defenseless Palestinians and they just want what’s rightfully theirs.”

Next, I am writing a paper for another class, given the following instructions:

 The paper will focus on the question of relating to other peoples. 

Read Nehemiah 13. How does Nehemiah attempt to secure the identity of the people? Why does Nehemiah act the way he does? Now read Ezra 9-10. How does Ezra attempt to secure the identity of the people? Why is intermarriage such a big deal? 

Read Jonah. Are the foreign sailors and the people of Nineveh depicted positively or negatively in Jonah? What is YHWH’s relationship with foreign nations according to this book? 

Read Ruth. While set in the days of the judges, Ruth is almost assuredly a story from the Second Temple period. What is the primary purpose for telling this story? What does the characterization of Ruth tell us about ethnic boundaries? Reflect on the difference between the attitudes toward the foreign wife in Ruth and in the post-exilic writings of Ezra (Ezra 9-10) and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13:1-3; 13:23-28). Could the book of Ruth be read as a protest against the extreme emphasis on purity in the post-exilic period? 

It’s clear to me that Nehemiah 13 and Ezra 9-10 are commentating on the subject of foreign nations to show that intermarriage is causing the Israelites to sin (particularly Nehemiah). There’s no “racial superiority” element. However, I’m fairly certain this is what my Protestant teacher is getting at, because we were told to write about how these texts promoted “Jewish ethnic identity”—not to mention the fact that he considers these writings evidence of “extreme emphasis on purity.” His idea, I suppose, is that the Israelites were insular, particularist, and simply couldn’t stand outside influence. I wonder how he feels about Jewish law against intermarriage today. Those Jews, why can’t they just be normal and Christian like everyone else.

Third, and less noticeable, is the way the Jewish students on this campus think of themselves. I often hear stereotypical jokes about how “Jews are good with money” among them all the time, or how “The Jews are serving FREE pancakes!”, or how they refuse to host pro-Israel events or speakers on campus, or how they are more concerned with promoting intercultural dialogue (and hosting Shabbat dinners with the Muslim Students Association) than with understanding their own religion.

The saddest thing was when we watched a short documentary film called The Tribe in my Judaism in America class, which went through the fact that Jews are 0.3% of the population, and it dramatically listed all the pogroms through the centuries, but it was awkwardly mixed in with humorous bits on how there are hippie Jews and yeshivish Jews and all the different types, and ended with this lady reading her poetry about how the Jews were attacked in every generation “now tell me I don’t look Jewish” and I was like “Whoa” and all my friend Hannah had to say afterwards was “LOL all those stereotypes are true!”

“Non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.” -Jonathan Sacks

2.) To concede to “modern values” is really to concede to the French Enlightenment. As I learn more about the history of the splits, the more obvious it is that the Enlightenment had everything to do with it. Truth comes from reason. Look, there is nothing wrong with this statement. I’m in a symbolic logic class, after all. I know a thing or two about truth. But this “reason” came with a price—anything that couldn’t be immediately deduced via the scientific method was considered of an older, lesser era; and Jewish ritual—non-rational as it is—went along with it. The Enlightenment, along with its emphasis on reason, also emphasized universal brotherhood, “beauty,” “decorum,” and “elevated minds and spirits.” Judaism, then, started to be seen as dirty, base, and in need of revision.

Particularism, of course, had no part to play in this fraternité and egalité. This, along with the newfound freedom of the Jews in tolerant America, led them to feel assured that the ultimate way to continue living in non-persecutory lands was assimilation (i.e. universalism), and that the natural way to attain that goal would be to get rid of all those Jewish peculiarities that were impeding it. I suspect this happened without premeditation. “Reforms” happened, and only later on did an ideology attach itself to those reforms. It would be a mistake to assume that a group of enlightened people came along with new ideas of “individual autonomy” and the like and constructed reforms forthright. It’s likely that the reforms were simply emulation of Christian surroundings rather than a conscious effort to repudiate Judaism, but before long that is exactly what the reforms appeared to be.  (Rabbis dressing like Protestant clergymen and calling themselves “reverend” helped.)

3.) To concede to “modern values” is really to concede to Protestant values. Did you ever wonder why universalism is such an important value (does “we are all one in Christ Jesus” mean anything to you?) I have a feeling that a lot of our progressive values are really just Protestant values. You can’t really tell because, as we know, America itself was founded on these timeless virtues. Case in point: Modern Biblical criticism is quite distinctly a Protestant affair, and although they are far too professional to conclude that “it was all leading to Jesus,” they have no trouble claiming the “cult” was solely meant to “keep the Israelites’ identity separate from the Canaanite nations” and that a distinction must be made between Temple “cult worship” and unregulated worship outside of Jerusalem. Moreover, these scholars greatly enjoy shutting down opposing arguments by citing other scholars and claiming that “they know the Hebrew” when only a cursory glance will show that indeed they don’t (our History of Ancient Israel teacher once wished us a “tova shana”). But I digress.

Look, the Torah isn’t meant for everyone. (I’m looking at you, 1999 Reform platform.) Its ethics, yes. Its truths, fine. But I don’t think we should pursue universalism as a Jewish value. Nor is “ethical monotheism”—”shucking the husk”—desirable. It is a Protestant value to suppose we can get to the core of the matter without ritual, commentators or authorities; by scripture alone. We shouldn’t eliminate what makes us peculiar because it’s offensive to the untrained ears of Christian neighbors (this is why the Talmud and Aleinu were abridged, and also why the early reformers decided to change some words of the service around in English). I think this is the first step in allowing ourselves to completely synopsize and compress our religion into something palatable for everyone—and the 1999 Reform platform, which explicitly encourages spiritual seekers to find their home in Judaism, does just this—which is easy when it’s pared down to universal ethics. But that’s not what Judaism is.

The most noticeable instance of this is the separation of ritual and ethics, popular in Reform Judaism. I’m still surprised that no one noticed that this is probably the most Protestant idea ever, yet it is a central tenet of Reform. The ethical mitzvot are obligatory and the ritual are not (I wonder how they came up with that?)

4.) Liberal Judaism is about concessions. This doesn’t sound very nice, but think about it. Both Reform and Conservative platforms are written so as to appeal to what the largest amount of people want to hear. It’s as if they are trying to sell themselves to the largest amount of people, offending as few as possible. The Reform platform is extremely vague, and oddly although it doesn’t allow for people who believe the Messiah will be a person, upon inspection it would seem to allow for a Jew for Jesus to join its ranks.

The Conservative platform itself is better, at the very least setting ranges, but still in practice it seems forever condemned to making mainly utilitarian decisions. Its practice for issuing takkanot for non-dire situations seems quite impetuous at times. For instance, the driving teshuva was not only made during a time when, strangely, clergymen were actually encouraging their congregants to live closer; but also it was worded in such a way so as to apply forevermore. Gone, therefore, was any impetus for a person to one day move to be closer to the synagogue. Some say that this teshuva was a good thing because people just are moving away, but that’s what I mean by concession. It’s one of the more useful “descriptive” teshuvot, if you will. But others, of course, make all sorts of efforts to allow electricity and even television on Shabbat, “provided it’s tuned to an educational channel”! This is a real teshuva, and although our Conservative rabbi didn’t agree with it, a Conservative rabbi could choose to advocate for that teshuva. This concession was absolutely not necessary.

Orthodoxy doesn’t generally provide concessions. Although with less amicable rabbis it may be a painful three-mile walk to shul on your cane, unlike Conservative responsa that allow something like driving for an entire community of Conservative Jews—truly needed by any given individual or not—Orthodoxy seems more wont to consider such cases on an individual basis. I often say that I don’t want to affiliate with a denomination that tells me I can be less observant than I know I ought to be. Where a liberal Jew, emboldened by the true spirit of Protestant values, might decide to forgo a certain observance because details don’t really matter—maybe say kaddish without a minyan or something—but if a person doesn’t make such decisions he thereby claims that Judaism is his most important valuable, and comfort or convenience is not (which confuses Americans, I think).

5.) Judaism shouldn’t need a “platform.” You may have noticed that there’s no Orthodox “platform.” There’s also no Orthodox central authority akin to the USCJ or CCAR. Reform probably gets it the worst here, with their many different (and how!) platforms, ranging from “we believe all ritual is archaic” (1885) to “we believe in studying the whole array of mitzvot” (1999). Their platforms are highly reactionary, and it seems that their goal is indeed to fine-tune their belief system with each passing generation—in as condensed a phrasing as possible. Is this discomfiting to you?

Similarly, although Conservative Judaism only has one platform, they seem unsure on where they stand—possibly they aren’t entirely sure what their stand on halacha is. (The example I always bring up is the fact that women are included in minyan even though no one’s really sure whether women are actually obligated in fixed prayer.) They too could not resist summing themselves up in a pithy saying, as if they were a sports drink—”Tradition and Change.” Conservative Judaism has also taken the strange step in distinguishing itself not only as a way of practicing Judaism, but quite consciously as an entirely autonomous branch of Judaism. As I’ve said elsewhere, a Conservative Jew would have to look at the texts through the lens of the USCJ, and that makes me uncomfortable.

My Reform professor unwittingly said it best while we were discussing the different branches and their platforms—after reading the Reform platforms and the Conservative one, we skipped a discussion on the Orthodox platform because “They don’t need a platform; their platform is the Torah.”

6.) Orthodoxy is not really the enemy here. It’s easy to believe that the Orthodox are looking down on everyone else, but I have two observations in my experiences as someone trying to be more observant in a liberal community. First, it’s very hard to accept halacha and to concurrently accept those who openly reject it; and more so since these people are encouraged by an entire institution saying that this is all right, which is unprecedented.

Second, liberal Jews certainly look down on the Orthodox as well. This is almost exclusively true for Reform Jews, I’ve found. I’ve spent time in both Reform and Conservative synagogues, and I know that the Reform people spent a lot more time disparaging our Conservative synagogue than the other way around. And they saved their worst for Orthodoxy. In Hillel, I overheard someone telling a non-Jew that “Reform and Orthodoxy are basically two different religions.” It seems that the less someone knows about Orthodoxy the more they have to say about it.

But apropos to the Orthodox “looking down on everyone else,” I’m now in the position to comment on this from personal experience as well. As someone who believes that Orthodoxy is the closest thing we currently have to how the sages envisioned Judaism ought to be practiced, I find it frighteningly easy to call Orthodoxy, as the Orthodox already do, “Torah Judaism.” Still, I entirely understand that observant Conservative Jews aren’t practicing their variation out of deviancy or laziness—I simply believe that their compromises with the modern world are far too casual with regard to their handling of halacha to deal with it. One thing to be said about Orthodoxy is that it takes an extreme sense of intellectual honesty to be able to say “halachic precedent doesn’t allow us to do what we want.” (Needless to say, there have been many dishonest instances, but they haven’t been institutionalized as far as I know.)

For me, dealing with the majority of people who don’t consider halacha binding is the difficult part. Stranger still, the majority who are secular. I have a hard time separating Judaism from mitzvot and mitzvot from divine obligation; and frankly I’m a little offended that I now have to. The idea that Judaism can legitimately exist without mitzvot is new and unprecedented and came straight from the 19th century. Needless to say—and I’m personally a product of what happens when that system breaks—I strongly disagree. I find halacha obligatory, and therefore I cannot find Jewish practice that considers halacha personal and voluntary a legitimate practice. Nor can I find a system that encourages this a legitimate system. As for “looking down” on people; I wouldn’t say I consider myself “better than them,” so much as I’m just very sad about it all. (I also have to admit that I think some of it must be laziness.)

This, interestingly, combines with the fact that many liberal Jews may consider someone who is sufficiently observant “too observant,” and so every time I hear an inquiry including the phrase “I don’t have to be religious on this trip, do I?” or “Don’t worry, you don’t have to be observant,” or a brazen admission that “I will never stop eating bacon/driving on Shabbat/etc.” I feel just a little more lonely in life.

I also often hear that Orthodoxy has brainwashed us all into believing that “their way is the only way” and that “there is a linear system culminating in Orthodoxy, when really liberal Judaism should have its own narrative entirely separate from Orthodoxy.” I am convinced that the idea of a linear system may be a myth; still, it is not meant to be disparaging to believe that one’s beliefs are true. That is called moral objectivism. To say that different authorities are authoritative for different communities is a good argument; to say that those authorities can legitimately and suddenly call halacha personal and non-obligatory is not.

Similar are my findings on how anti-religious and even anti-Semitic movements such as the LGBT and women’s rights movements are. You usually think of religion attacking the one, but never the other way around. Not so.

7.) Eventually, there is a divide between practice and ideology in liberal Judaism. Ideology can only get a person so far. It took me a while to realize this. Although Reform was never an option for me, I considered Conservatism for a long, long time (hence this post). It had occurred to me that many Conservative Jews aren’t practicing to their potential or even according to their beliefs, but I ignored this. When I was going to the Conservative synagogue back home, I quickly became one of the most observant people there…and I’d only been going for a year. After nineteen years of no Jewish education (I literally didn’t know mitzvah from mikveh). I’d envisioned better for those people. I simply couldn’t understand why they refused to learn rudimentary Hebrew or certain holiday basics or even the order of the service. It was all the more shocking because these were Conservative Jews, who ought to have subscribed to the position that to know those things was important. “Too busy,” they always said.

This is liberal Judaism. People are “too busy” to learn about Judaism—to practice Judaism—and that’s simply not me. Judaism has wholly and irreversibly taken ahold of every aspect of my life—how could I dare to say I was “too busy”? I am accustomed to asking myself first and foremost before ever embarking on anything how I would nourish my Jewish needs—when I buy foods, I always look at the ingredients or the kosher label. When I was considering studying abroad, the first thing I did was Google Map the nearest synagogues. I write “can’t work on Saturday” on my job applications. I deal with my caffeine withdrawal because I won’t use money to buy coffee on Shabbat.

This isn’t to say that Conservative Jews can’t do this, but I can’t imagine choosing a community where these questions don’t normally occur to people. I don’t like to have to guess whether my congregation will consider halacha important; I don’t want to feel that I ought to celebrate the “achievement” of actually finding that rare liberal congregation where people are very (and not just incidentally) observant. Nor do I especially wish to subscribe to a life where I constantly have to “teach” my peers Judaism. There’s something beautiful about living in a community where people know what to do with a negel vasser cup; and no complex theology or ideology will ever make up for the moment when a liberal rabbi has to explain to his congregants how to use it.

8.) Ultra-Orthodoxy isn’t the whole of Orthodoxy. For some reason this seems to be the biggest myth. I always hear “Orthodox” in a derogatory sense—”The Orthodox in Israel are bucking the system,” “The Orthodox don’t work,” etc. A good part of this, I’m sure, is the media. But it’s a myth that must be knocked down. I would likely associate with the Modern Orthodox crowd, namely because I am a womyn and wimmin don’t have many opportunities in Black Hatdoxy. There are bad apples making everyone look bad, really. Orthodoxy doesn’t preclude a person from being reasonable. I think that the thing that separates Modern Orthodoxy from Conservatism (and I admit I still find that the line is extremely blurred) is that in MO Torah comes first. And Conservatism, well, their motto is “Tradition and Change”—change inexplicably shares 50% of that core, and it seems that the only thing keeping “change” from being their choice dictum is that quaint and too-comfortable “tradition” is keeping them back. Orthodoxy can exist in the modern world too, but it doesn’t concede just to concede.

9.) I know there are problems with Orthodoxy. But I want to live in a community where difficult questions are answered honestly and deliberately. I know that many great books have been written by individual Conservative rabbis coming to very valid conclusions. Still, for all the above reasons I’m choosing, at the moment, to associate with Orthodoxy and face its problems from there. Although I agree with a lot of Conservatism’s outcomes (and disagree with just as many), I can no longer accept the process of how they come to such conclusions. My biggest concern, as you may very well know by now, is the role of women in Judaism. It would be so easy to simply accept the Conservative line of thinking and rejoice that I can count in the minyan and wear tefillin etc., but I can’t deny that I find the arguments wanting. I applaud such efforts as JOFA and Shira Hadasha in trying to come up with halachic opportunities for women. I’m not looking to be some housewife. But I have to be honest about it, and Judaism comes first. It’s hard to voluntarily set something as an authority and imposition over you—verily, it’s easier to say feminism comes first—but if Judaism is right than it can’t impede something from emerging if that thing is also right. I’ve been finding for the past few weeks how important Judaism is to me, how irrationally important Israel is, how hostile the outside world can be to both (sometimes inadvertently), and how outside (American Protestant) values are not necessarily conducive to my values.

Look, maybe it’s useful that all my Jewish friends are liberal. Fortunately or unfortunately, I know all the arguments against Orthodoxy; so now I can really say I know what I’m getting into.

One of these things is not like the others / One of these things doesn’t belong

Crossposted at New Voices

Did you know? Hillel elections are coming up, and as per planned, I’m running. They’re a mess, as far as clubs are concerned. I even talked to our rabbi a few days ago (under the guise of interviewing him for our newspaper), and he confirmed that our Hillel is a “Jewish affinity club” and that I should run etc. It made me feel pretty validated. I called my friend and we came up with a game plan—her idea being to get enough friends to run to corner the market and overturn Hillel leadership and make it great. It’s all very cloak-and-dagger.

But then I started worrying about our current Hillel president and her possible dislike of me. Why? Oh, I know. She hates my tzitzis. I notice these things. Every time we go to a Hillel event, she tends to stare at them like they’re snakes and I’m not really sure if she’s aware of her utter distaste or what, but my friend suggested that possibly she—and other “Hillel Jews,” as I’ve taken to calling them—can’t handle someone who’s both religious and not a crazy Haredi, i.e. it’s outside her sphere of knowledge. To them, you must either be secular or, well, crazy. I did indeed overhear a Hillel member explaining to a non-Jew, “Reform and Orthodoxy are basically two separate religions.” Reform, of course, being the normal one…and Orthodox being the unexplainable one, possibly involving witchcraft.

This explanation makes some sense to me, since the culture here is chiefly secular and I might even venture plainly anti-religious—”We can’t do that; that’s too Jewish!”—the same Hillel president who said that “We’re not like the religious groups on campus. We’re a different sort of group.” It doesn’t get plainer than that. Anyone who is “too Jewish” is either Haredi or insane, and in any case just not someone to be reckoned with.

I remember at the beginning of this year I was worried that my appearance would bar me from making friends. I mean you enter a college in the middle of the summer when everyone’s wearing shorty shorts and you’re wearing tzitzis, you start to become aware of things. But anyway, I’m realizing this is probably a longer-lasting struggle than how Hillel feels about tzitzis. The same friend and I went to some fancy restaurant a couple of days ago, and for this scenario just assume the fact that I’m unaccustomed to fanciness in the first place, so I was wearing jeans etc. and gawked at all the people who actually put the napkins on their freaking laps, but anyhow, behold.

I usually say my brachas and stuff and not feel self-conscious, because I don’t really hang out in fancy joints anyway, and I’m not too worried about what tourists in the coffee shop think of me, because they all love W&M students and I feel like we’re part of the scenery naturally anyway. But when you’re in a fancy place you kind of feel like you’re on display. You have to be decorous. You have to wear your napkin right and order right and so on and so forth. And it seems as if anything out of the ordinary should warrant a big spotlight, so yes when you whip out that bentcher the whole world is watching. Same for asher yatzar which I will never stop saying. It’s just not decorous. It’s like, save that stuff for home, you know? Oh, and tuck in your tzitzis because it might hit someone in the eye.

It’s odd, but I can see, even in 2011, how the striving for decorous reform in the 19th century easily led to a patterning of Protestant forms of worship and behavior. Where religion is inward and seemly and, well, no cause for fuss. It’s so easy to be like, “Oh no. Not here. It’s time to be dignified.”

William & Mary: a Hillel report

Crossposted at New Voices

My first week of school has been…chaotic. Before I even came, there was a fire, after I came, there was an earthquake, now this horrorcane, not to mention the most grueling Orientation ever invented and having to be social 24/7 which can get pretty tiring when you’re not used to it. (Apocalypse Now!)

Meanwhile, my priorities have shifted. Back at home, where it’s considered a great achievement to graduate community college and not get pregnant before age eighteen, I had great room and impetus to formulate all these fabulous lofty plans for life, and my theoretical theology grew and grew, and I had tons of time to decide that I had things figured out. No obstacles! No fear! But now that I’ve moved to Williamsburg, all the obligations I made while I was in my bubble are starting to have their consequences now that I’m outside of my bubble.

For example, keeping kosher is hard on an Orientation schedule, where everyone is supposed to eat at the same time in the same dining hall. So is keeping Shabbat when you move into your new apartment on a Friday and the very next Friday you’re under evacuation orders! I’ve had to pray on a bus, on campus, on the stairs, and at the bus stop (all in front of tons of people, of course), and those were the days I remembered to do it. And I’ve had to wonder how many people avoided talking to me because they thought my tzitzit was too weird or my clothes make me look poor (that one’s probably true). When it’s the first week of classes and you’re trying to make friends, it’s a little exasperating to be confronted with this sudden clash of values. I’d prepared for this in theory, but now that it’s starting to dawn on me that I’ve actually chosen to start this new life as that really, really religious kid that you ought to keep away from, it’s a little frightening. Because I’m doing it to myself. For reasons I still don’t quite understand.

It all came to fruition at the first William & Mary Hillel event of the semester. During the Club Fair, the girl at the Hillel table seemed really excited to see me. “You should come to our barbecue!” she urged. So I had to go. I want to change the Jewish world as we know it, remember? I had to make friends with them. Needless to say, whether it was the impending hurricane or the fact that everyone looked like they were from Long Island, it didn’t go very well.

We had to walk through a bit on construction to get to it, and “it” turned out to be two picnic tables with hot dogs and chips on them. And a small group of people who could be barely bothered to look at the newcomers cautiously approaching them.

I don’t know if you can see what’s going on here, but I quickly noticed a certain something about the demographics of this event. It started out rather evenly distributed, but as time went on, more dudes started showing up. Weirdly, a couple of them seemed like they came straight from Long Island. That alone was enough to make me fearful, but I would have been perfectly OK had they been friendly Long Island dudes. But no, they went straight for their friends and my two guests and I went pretty much ignored.

Eventually, we were approached by one girl who had recognized my friend from one of her classes, and they started talking, as I stood near them awkwardly. Some guy came up to my friend’s boyfriend and asked where he was from and so on. “Are you Jewish?” he asked.

“No, I’m just here with her,” he replied, pointing to my friend.

“Neither am I!” he whispered gleefully. I sighed.

They talked for a while and then the stranger walked off. And I took that moment to babble incoherently to someone near me (“Man, look at all the dudes,” I seem to recall saying).

Maybe I’ll give them a break because it was their first event of the semester, and I guess they were more excited about seeing their friends than about greeting new people. Suddenly I thought back to all the discussions on how independent minyanim tend to be perceived as unfriendly to outsiders, but that’s just because they have a higher initial social curve…or something. After all, this Hillel proudly describes itself as “tightly knit”, and here I am seeing that description in the flesh. But look at these people! They seemed so incredibly…normal. It could have been any club on campus. What differentiated it? What made it special? What made it Jewish? These are the questions only a detective can answer.

But maybe it was partially my fault. These probably weren’t the type to wonder how to keep Shabbat during a hurricane evacuation, or to say seemingly constant berachot for things, or to go through painstaking soul-searching to figure out how they feel about halacha. And that seems to be the baseline here. A cultural baseline. Fine.

But what does that make me? Ultra-Orthodox? Am I going to be the religious token again, just like I was in community college? Look, I know tzitzit looks weird. It’s weird to wear a denim skirt while everyone else is wearing shorty shorts. Of course they didn’t want to talk to me. When you suspect that you’re “too much” even for your Hillel, you really start to wonder what your priorities are. I knew all my newfound obligations weren’t going to make me any friends, but good heavens being ignored feels terrible when you know you’re probably bringing it on yourself. Am I doing a stupid thing? Should I just put an end to this before it’s too late?

I’m So Sick Of Pictures Of Men At The Kotel Like They’re The Only Jews In The World

Crossposted at New Voices.

Did you ever notice? Any time a TV show or magazine article or, well, anything really, wants to show something “Jewish”, they always—inevitably—show either a boy holding a Torah or Hareidi men at the Kotel? Inevitably. This is true across the board; even for seemingly impartial sources such as National Geographic. During their Taboo: Rites of Passage I was just watching, they showed clips of both of the above scenarios. Of course, being a fan of movie tropes, I know that men are the “generic” and women are special [possibly working link]. Still, can you really tell me no one who puts these pictures up knows that every other source in the world is also using that totally generic shot of Hareidi men at the Kotel (preferably aiding a boy with his Bar Mitzvah)? Don’t believe me? Just take a look.

And there is really no excuse for the fact that Jewish sources do this too.

Same with shots of a “typical Jewish family” (except the second one; that’s from ABC and it’s just funny because no one actually wears שלום shirts especially with the freaking vowels):

Notice anything?*

I don’t know, man, I don’t know what’s going on here.

Even my sister tells me I’m out of my hand with my rampant feminism…but I like to think I only call it when I see it. Such as how men have racked up various rites of manhood—bar mitzvah, upsherin, that thing where men start learning Kabbalah at 40, and whatever the heck else they’ve made up over yeshiva, kollel, and their daf yomi stuff. But when women want a simple Bat Mitzvah even during all-women’s tefillah groups, you’ve got something like this thrown at you:

It is easy enough to understand why there was no “bas-mitzva” for thousands of years and why it has sprung up now. Traditionally girls are exempt from advanced Hebrew studies because they are exempt from most of Jewish ritual…A girl would have been out of her head to agitate for the burdens of scholarship that engrossed her brothers [for the sake of a bar mitzvah when it was 'only a minor formality']…But…when the bar-mitzva became a huge festival, earned at the price of some mechnical drilling which a girl could do as well as a boy…the girls and the parents sensibly saw no reason why they should not have a “bas-mitzva.” [Herman Wouk, This is My God, c. 1959/1987, p. 132]

and you sort of see that men really can’t stand having their spotlight taken away from all the special rites they happen to invent.

But I digress. I don’t think this whole “Jewish=Hareidi men at the Kotel” and “Kotel=men” (they always show the men’s side; did you notice?) thing is just about the media being stupid about who’s using those exact same stock videos or photos. “Hareidi men at the Kotel” is—just like with the movie tropes—the “generic”. That’s what people think of when they think of “Jewish”. That’s a little bit of a problem (and I don’t think Christianity has the same problem, maybe I’m just not paying attention). And as usual with this topic, it’s not just about men versus women. It’s about anyone not fitting that mold being cast as the “other” (to use a Simone de Beauvoir term)—in the public consciousness, at least.

My problem is that this isn’t a legal issue (it’s more like a…’who concedes first’ issue). That’s usually my problem because I like my issues to be logical and resolvable—or at least, like, containable, and not lost in its own big swirling self-perpetuating genetic fallacy or whatever (such as: things are only authentic when they come from the Hareidi etc.) My problem is that there’s no reason not to show a couple of pictures of the women’s side here and there, or to show a woman studying Torah instead of that man, things like that.

And I never thought I’d say something like that. It’s not that I want a quota. But it’s just so annoying to me.

This is all tied up with the fact that people think Reform people can’t be observant, Orthodox people can’t wear normal clothes, women can’t wear tefillin, Orthodox men can’t touch, talk to, look at, or walk next to women, no one goes to the Kotel except guys in black suits and big hats, Bar Mitzvahs are mostly just parties with DJ’s, and that Judaism is pretty much just a big joke…after all, all Jews are either assimilated (in which case they’re cool and OK), celebrities, or those crazy ultra-Orthodox guys who live at the Kotel and shuckle all day long.**

It’s kind of a problem.

*Answer to “Notice Anything?”—what’s with the gentiley wives all the time? Even for the Chabad picture? Apparently, in Judaism just as in TV tropes, men really are “the generic”. It looks like the women are just thrown in…though I really can’t account for why blonde is such a popular hair color for only women.

**I have to admit that I, being raised assimilated and Reform and basically secular, totally thought this throughout middle and high school. I thought those Hareidi guys must be like those ascetic monks pretty much making camp at the Kotel because that’s always where I saw them, and shuckling was just something those guys did in some sort of scary spiritual frenzy. It was all very scary. So I kind of know what people must be getting from these images.

I live in Virginia.

Crossposted at New Voices.

Attention world. I know that, statistically, most of you probably live in New England, New York, or New Jersey. I know that because all the interesting synagogues and most of the independent minyanim are up there. I also know that because there are yeshivas and seminaries and Jewish day schools there. If you don’t have a kosher restaurant in your town, well you probably have a kosher section in your grocery store with food that’s not actually expired (true story). All the cool conferences and institutes are there, as are all the classes and secret parties and flashmobs. You want free walk-in High Holy Days services? All-Hebrew summer camp? You’re there, man. And you don’t have to drive ten hours to get there.

I lived in Chicago for a year starting when I was seventeen, so I know the pros and cons of living in the city (the cons are few, just FYI). You don’t really think about how fortunate you are when Expedia lists your city on their “my dates are flexible (popular routes only)” option! This says it all—I could be flexible when I lived in Chicago!—here, I have to settle for what I can get (which in the airplane department is a really teeny airport with extremely expensive flights). I knew [insert any band here] would be coming to Chicago. I could distribute records with my friend and he could get totally famous there. I could find a job on Craigslist and walk in to apply an hour later. You want to be flexible and a musician, hey move to Chicago.

You want to be flexible and Jewish? Hey move to New England. This is starting to keep me up at night. I was just thrust into reality (for the second time; the first was realizing that JTS and YU pretty much threw up my applications and somehow I knew I wouldn’t be living in New York for a while), when I realized that attending the NHC Summer Institute would cost me upwards of $1,000+ (the airplane ticket to Manchester, NH being $250). I decided to go to the closest alternative instead, the Chesapeake one. But I realized even that one—the closest one—is four hours by car and seven by train. Behold: I can’t go to the JOFA conference either, for the same reasons (note that most of their campus fellowship recipients go to New England schools; two are from major midwestern cities).

I can’t convert to Orthodoxy either. I called an RCA rabbi who stopped writing back to my emails after it became clear I could never actually go to Washington, DC to meet him. And anyway, I won’t be living near an Orthodox synagogue for a while. (It’s still a mystery as to whether I could convert even to Conservative. I’ll likely have to have a mishmash beit din, consisting of whomever I think violates Shabbat the least, and hope for the best). It’s just not practical. It’s much more practical to stay here and fight from without.

That means a focused attack—William & Mary Hillel, I’m looking at you! Prepare to duel this fall!

Luckily, there is a synagogue across the street from the campus, even though it’s not really my speed (as I enjoy yeshiva-style speed-mumbling and not clapping or “humming to oneself“). However, I’ve decided to infiltrate and accordingly I’ve decided to try to start a parallel minyan. I think I already know one member, a guy who I suspect was just excited to meet someone who also wasn’t into the clapping. That’s two already; I mean that’s pretty good so far. Especially since I don’t actually care that much if I come up with ten people—I may possibly be the only one who could read Torah, and who wants the hassle? If the rabbi doesn’t want Shabbat competition (which is weird but fine), it’s a good thing I find the prospect of holding a weekday minyan every morning rather enticing, in an adventurous sort of way.

Besides such ambitious endeavors, I’ve also decided to run for the Officer of Religious Affairs for the Hillel that I’ve never been to yet. The description makes it sound like it involves overseeing kashrut and other things I don’t think anyone else wants to do (but who knows). Finally, I’ve decided there is a dearth of non-Christian religious activities on the campus that I’ve only been to twice, and I might just have to start an inter-religious magazine.

It doesn’t actually matter if none of these things take, because I learned from starting a Philosophy Club in community college that colleges will let you do just about anything like that.

So I don’t live in New England—nay, I’ll be living in Colonial Williamsburg—but I’m going to make it work. Because probably no one else has done it here before.

Guided Israel; Part IV of a Series.

Crossposted at New Voices.

Part III.

Since Part III is all about the institutional aspect of Judaism, let’s just expand it a little more.

I like having a friend who is as excited about Judaism as I am. But I don’t like when it’s in such different ways. For instance, she mentioned to me a winter trip to Israel that a local Hillel was sponsoring, and I thought “Hey, that’s cool and low-key.” Nay, I learned later that it was…

A BIRTHRIGHT trip.

So, at first I was into it, not because I like guided tours, but because maybe if someone came with me it wouldn’t be so bad, and maybe we wouldn’t even have to go on the same type of tour that Sarah Glidden was put through. Also, it would be “free”, though who even knows what that means. And mostly I just wanted to be sociable. How bad could it be?

I think of it like a Timeshare vacation. They drag you around for free, but there’s a more sinister price to pay.

Why sinister? Because:

1.) I’ve been to elementary school long enough to know that field trips are totally boring when you’re just standing there in a group listening to some barely-audible tour guide talk about the history of some place,

2.) You could probably learn more about the “Real Israel” by going to some café and hanging out with people,

3.) They’ll probably make us wear coordinated clothes, and that’s so embarrassing,

4a.) It would just be awkward in general. I’m not even sure how I feel about Israel. Some days I like it, some days I’m ambivalent, but always I feel like I don’t want to be put through some pre-packaged thing with the primary message being THIS IS WHAT YOU’VE BEEN WAITING FOR! It would be suffocating.

4b.) Speaking of unlikable atmosphere, I feel like there will be a lot of singing in a circle. Debbie Friedman? “Heal our nefesh, heal us now, heal us now.” I also know from Sarah Glidden that the activities aren’t optional, particularly Yad Vashem. And then after Yad Vashem they were taken to a MALL. A MALL. NO. I think not. Count me out. I was probably more horrified than she was, and I was only reading it second-hand.

5.) The only sponsoring group that would accept me would be a strictly-Reform or strictly-secular one, and that’s just not my speed, man. (See 4b.)

More pragmatically, I’ve found out that I need to be saving my money for yeshiva. Not to mention SUMMER CAMP! I’m so much more interested in going to the NHC Institute for a week than on a guided “YOU MUST LIKE THIS FUN!” type of tour. (My sister is the same way. We hate things that are meant to MAKE you have fun. Just cool it.) If I go to Israel, I want it to be for something I’m interested in. Birthright just seems so beer-night Hey, we’re all Jewish heregeneric.

I know there are lots of stories out there about people who had such a great experience and stuff, but I’m of the opinion that I don’t want to be told to like something. “YOU GO TO THAT KOTEL AND YOU LIKE IT!” It’s also why I don’t go to tourist attractions when I go to New York or wherever else. “YOU GO TO THAT STATUE OF LIBERTY! You’ve got to! You’ve just got to! You’re not an American if you don’t!”

Thoughts? Birthright alumni anyone?

Part V.

Taste and see…if you want to put it back.

Reader-friendly version crossposted at New Voices

I predicted that about eleven o’clock was the latest I could show up Saturday in time for Kaddish, but of course I got in a little early, right before the Torah reading. I looked at my watch and decided next week I could come in half an hour later.

I don’t know when it happened. I used to like going to services. But suddenly—sometime during Musaf—I just got so depressed. I figured it was because watching Bar Mitzvahs and the-boys-who-have-them always seem to serve to remind me that (despite certain apologetics) the synagogue is an important part of Jewish life, and men still hold the reins in it (despite totally separate apologetics). Worse, nobody seemed to care about that but me. But maybe I was upset on a more personal level. I looked around and saw that everyone was there with their families—or probably otherwise had someone to, at the very least, celebrate some of the holidays with. Basically, everyone but me knew their place there.

Whatever other people see in the synagogue—and what I used to see—isn’t there so much these days. I thought I could fix that by learning the rhyme and reason to the services, but that only brought attention to the fact that no one else knew why they were doing the calisthenics.

The rabbi’s a man’s man; I’m jealous of the kids’ Hebrew School educations; everyone there is, let’s face it, greying (apparently, so is the Conservative movement itself); and I’m starting to feel as if some of the crankier ones don’t like that I don’t chit-chat before and during the service, and that I sometimes complain about their beloved ArtScroll. So I’m just not feeling my synagogue lately.

There has to be another way; someplace where there’s no remnant of the Conservative complex about women’s participation (i.e. Someplace where there is women’s participation and total halachic backup for it), where people are aware and engaged, where participation and education isn’t only encouraged but expected, and where people like me can come in and not feel like Judaism doesn’t want them because I didn’t have a traditional upbringing and a big family.

My Torah partner just told me that she thinks Judaism should be more centralized and institutionalized, but despite any political or pragmatic appeal she sees in that, I have to disagree. If you ask me, keeping it the way it is now (which I see as quite institutionalized already) doesn’t allow for much growth and change when a good new idea does come along. If you ask me, we rely too much on packaged answers when this need not always be so.

For example, in my synagogue, the rabbi always leads every Shabbat service and every minyan and gives every d’var Torah. That’s centralized. And so therefore people have come to think that you need a rabbi for every event. The rabbi tells us about the berachot for thunder and lightning when there’s a storm during services, or he tells us why we don’t speak between al netilyat yadayim and hamotzi, and people laugh. It doesn’t affect them. They only want the bottom line.

At the Reform temple down the street, there are posters up for every cause but the Jewish ones. They have guest speakers present their political diatribes during services. Their mezuza scrolls are photocopies. And similarly, because the temple says so, people think that this is the way it ought to be. There’s no need to think otherwise, not when the temple decides for the sake of everyone.

Lately, I’ve been interested in reading about the trend toward post-denominationalism:

Over the last decade and more, social scientists of American life have been writing about the decline of long-standing attachments to political parties, commercial brands, and religious denominations…[A]longside (and often confused with) these non-denominational [i.e. non-engaged] Jews, we find clusters of highly engaged Jews who may be labeled trans-denominational, post-denominational or, as I have argued, often post-Conservative. These Jews and the several innovative and vibrant institutions they have founded of late speak to new signs of vitality and creativity in Jewish life, albeit often at the expense of the Conservative Movement. [Steven M. Cohen]

The first thing I thought when I read this was, “Wow, good.” Previously, as an almost visceral reaction, I’d probably bemoan this break from affiliation: “Where would they all go?” I’d think, “Obviously everyone’s becoming non-committal! Judaism’s dying!”

Let me ask you something. What’s good about our strict denominational lines, besides having a convenient category for your general observance level, give or take? (And never mind if your theology fits but your observance level doesn’t; there’s no convenient category for that yet!)

The real crisis is one of meaning and engagement…

Part of the problem is that there are very few places that offer Jews an opportunity to experience the power and mystery of Jewish tradition firsthand. Even people who are in-married by and large have little connection to Torah, Jewish practice and values. They are dependent on others to translate Judaism for them, and they trudge to High Holiday services to receive the requisite “Be good!” sermons, only to return to their lives unchallenged and unchanged. [Elie Kaufner]

I see this. There’s no dialogue. We have Judaism classes here, but they’re on the history of the Omer and the wars of Israel. Now, in my synagogue’s case, that’s probably fine for the older people who aren’t really interested in making their own mezuzot or tzadaka boxes or other such projects, or otherwise learning about things that are applicable now, but there are 1,000 Jews in my town (the rabbi said so)—at least some of them must be under forty.

We’ve had enough focus already on the cultural aspects which, not intuitively, seem to focus more on the negative—”Seinfeld and guilt”, as Kaufner writes. We’re ultimately giving the wrong answer to the question: “Why be Jewish?”

The only truths of Judaism that some of us haven’t edited out completely are the ones that mesh with our current, uncontroversial views. We’re starting to recognize that we desperately need to move past a post-Holocaust survivalist mentality—and aren’t really sure how. To some, Judaism’s still a private embarrassment, if only out of habit due to their parents’ rote, detached approach—and especially so for the religious, non-universalist aspects. Bringing serious intellectual engagement to Judaism, in a world so unsure of its place, is a hard task:

Take young Jews returning from Birthright Israel. After a 10-day trip, they have been opened to the possibility that there is real substance in Judaism. But upon returning home, they have no clear educational option. They want to learn Hebrew, but there are not enough high-quality Hebrew classes. They are interested in basic Jewish knowledge, but are unable to connect to synagogues. The Jewish community does not have the teachers and the leaders who can step forward to meet this need. So what do Birthright alumni do? They get funded to have beer nights, ski trips and at best a Shabbat dinner (with no intellectual or traditional content necessary or encouraged). Because their enthusiasm for deeper Jewish engagement has no substantial outlet, it eventually fades away. [Kaufner]

We can’t rely on the current institutions to do it for us. “We do not have the luxury of assuming that Jews will feel engaged in the Jewish tradition just by experiencing a few inspiring programs. Jews must become self-directed translators of the Jewish tradition — for themselves and their peers,” writes Kaufner. We need to gain the tools to recognize whether our own communities need a change. We need to be able to support ourselves with knowledge of halacha and tradition; not a faceless monolith’s attempt to preserve the status quo under the guise of halacha and tradition.

Judaism is yours. It’s mine. My Judaism tends to resemble The Jewish Catalog, and maybe yours has a bigger emphasis on the role of the rabbi and the synagogue. But the minute you give it to someone else to live out for you, you’ve forfeited it.

Why I Love Yeshiva University

Crossposted at New Voices

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Because they really stick to their guns.

Yes, this is coming from someone who advocated for school uniforms in sixth grade.

But my point is cogent. It’s not all pluralistic free-for-all “As long as you’re not naked”. It’s akin to not letting shirtless or shoeless guys in, either. You’ve got to have rules and stick to them.

A similar situation happened in my Judaism class. The rabbi was talking about how it’s hard being a Conservative rabbi because the rabbi doesn’t look like the congregants, unlike in other denominations wherein the rabbi and the laity have generally equal observance levels. He asked if we would be OK with him hypothetically driving to shul on Shabbat because technically in the Conservative movement you can (even though he was pretty adamant that even if he lived in Antarctica, he’d never drive). Almost everyone said they would be A-OK with that, except for me and this one other guy who said if the rabbi lived too far away, he’d come to the rabbi’s house for Shabbat instead of having him drive! The rabbi made a good point, though—do you maintain the very minimum, if people would accept it just as well? Someone made the comment that “Not everyone would like it” if he drove—as if these hypothetical people were the ones in the wrong. Quite often, people accept the very minimum, believing that to do otherwise is being very judgmental.

But I disagree. If the rabbi started driving, I wouldn’t feel so bad about having to drive—consciously or not. The same goes for other things. He said he uses electricity on Shabbat “until he doesn’t have to anymore” (which everyone was also A-OK with), so now I don’t feel so bad about using electricity on Shabbat. He says plain broccoli isn’t kosher, so now I say plain broccoli isn’t kosher. He says Asher Yatzar (I think I caught him once, it was exhilarating), so now I’ve decided it must not be that weird to say Asher Yatzar (I think he caught me once too; equally exhilarating). Aside from the rabbi being my ethical role model, it illustrates a broader point. You are influenced by those around you. Very influenced. There is a point where it gets out of hand, but to say that we all ought to do exactly what we want without any regard isn’t realistic, I think.

There are lots of safeguards in Judaism addressing exactly this—you shouldn’t walk into a McDonald’s or some other place that’s obviously not kosher, even if you’re not going to buy anything, because then people might see you walking in and start thinking that if it’s OK for you, it’s OK for them. The same goes for cooking in your own house: If you’ve made something that might appear unkosher, you should leave the packaging out just so there is no confusion. And you know what? It shouldn’t become normal for Jews to walk into Bacon-R-Us all day long. Sometimes it’s not all about you—sometimes you’re responsible for upholding the values of Judaism, in a world where it really kind of matters.

If you start complaining about upholding the values of Judaism, and then try to assert that it continue to carry you through rough patches—well, that won’t work.

I admit that I’ve checked Yeshiva’s website for other little rules like these. I like that I don’t have to worry about being sexiled from my dorm when my roommate has a boyfriend over—because men aren’t allowed in the first place. I like that their dorms are “Shabbat-observant”. I like to “have to” follow religious rules such as these. Lots of people, since we live in America and everything, might counter: “Well, I ought to be able to decide to myself! I hold the power!” But remember, what happens around you influences you. And what you do influences other people. Who knows? You might be someone’s ethical role model, too. I’d already signed up for these rules long ago—I’m not “offended” to be “made” to be Shabbat-observant, for example. I’d find it freeing after a year in a house where Shabbat is extremely, extremely voluntary.

So that’s why I love Yeshiva University. Sometimes I wish their admissions people could hang out with me at home for a while, to see that I’m not a big liability as a convert who almost failed high school two long years ago. The guy who interviewed me told me that “the dorms are Shabbat-observant”, as if asking me if I was prepared for that leap in my life. I wanted to spring up and say, “Yes! Yes! I NEED Shabbat-observant dorms!  I WANT your rules! I love your mezuzot on every door and being expected to know or learn what the Hebrew says on all your signs! My mind is already a giant yeshiva, saturated with Judaism all day and night, just like your curriculum! Why wouldn’t I want Shabbat-observant dorms?!”

A Whole New World

Crossposted at New Voices

So I realized that even though Aish.com is good, more Aish.com isn’t necessarily better. They have a website called JewishPathways.com where you can sign up and “take online courses”, which basically means that you can read a bunch of Aish.com articles in one tidy place and take tests after each “course”. There are ten sections, and in the section I’m currently in there are forty-seven chapters to it. It took me five and a half hours to get through nine.

I was also on a twelve-hour liquid fast, which amounted to having one latte at Starbucks. That was to hopefully induce some clarity about my identity crisis and also to make up for having become way too interested in Catholic theology lately (like saying, “Hey, I’m back. And I’m not Catholic.”) Since I found that website the night before, I decided that I would spend the day learning. (Sometimes I study as a cleansing process. It works sometimes.) It went well for a while; the articles were sated with footnotes so it wasn’t like I was taking everything solely on their word.

But then of course I got to Chapter 2 and the good feeling quickly soured. Why? Chapter 2 was called “Woman and Mitzvot”. I know, reading the title, that usually what happens is that there is a big apologetic speech about women are so much more spiritual and have special mitzvot and men and women complement each other spiritually. Fine. I wonder what a “Men and Mitzvot” article would look like given that women are so great and everything, but fine. But this went even further. “Women may NOT wear tefillin,” the author explained, quoting Orach Chayim 38:3. “Similarly, it is forbidden to wear a tallit, since it is a man’s garment.” Forbidden. (The fact that there are ten thousand reasons for “forbidding” women from tefillin makes me think that it’s not really forbidden and it’s just a bunch of men trying to keep it for themselves.)

Hey, and guess what else?:

The commentators explain that as tefillin is one way to connect with the Creator, women establish this link in a much more meaningful way than donning tefillin. When a man wears tefillin, he manifests that which a woman can accomplish naturally by carrying a child within her. Kabbalistically, the tefillin‘s hollow chamber corresponds to the womb, and the straps correspond to the umbilical cord. Interestingly, the tefillin box is called the bayit (home). Thus, one can say that the home a woman develops is her private tefillin.

Wow, all I have to do is have a baby in my nest every morning and I can have the same effect!

I don’t really know how to take this, because the article seemed rather lenient regarding other things:

It says that in Torah study, the obligation is there but different from men, which is more than I get from a lot of other sources: “Women are exempt from Torah study. Women are exempt from Torah study.” Of course, the guy is the director of a Beis Yaakov seminary. But the reasoning was that, if I understood correctly, that men are obligated in practical and theoretical Torah and women are only in practical. Which I don’t actually mind that much because I don’t really want to be obligated to study old Kabbalah anyway.

It’s kind of weird, the things that were omitted. Lots of times, people will be quick to say that women are exempt from just about everything. He didn’t even mention the Omer or, like, redeeming the firstborn. And regarding prayer, the article said that women should pray the Shaharit and Mincha services, and that she should only consider herself exempted if she really does have important family responsibilities (I want to know: Where are the men here?); and even that it’s a mitzvah to come to the synagogue if there are “no conflicting responsibilities”. Still, I’m caught up on those two “forbidden” things. Forbidden!

Oh, why can’t I just be the type of lady who can just accept my lot? Why can’t I be like the lady in the Jewish Pathways video, whom I was sure was reading from cue cards, but who also claims went to a six-week challah class and now finds mystical meaning in every ingredient, and “is glad” that she doesn’t have to do “men’s mitzvot”? How much easier my life would be!

“Forbidden”!

What about Michal bat Shaul, who wore tefillin, “and the sages didn’t protest”? What about tzitzit itself not actually being a garment? What about women originally being obligated (Menachot 643a)? What about Maimonides, who said that women and slaves can wear a tallit “provided they don’t say a blessing”? I can’t get over this.

Nevertheless, I slogged forward. Five and a half hours. The reason I say it was a whole new world is because I’m not used to living in a world where homily passes as reason. Yes, I said it. Maybe it was all the inspirational videos scattered throughout. Maybe it’s just because I’m depressed that I don’t have a real chevruta partner and I’ll probably only have the internet for a good two more years, if not more!

It’s getting annoying because they present bit after bit of information, without really explaining it. Often, things contradicted each other in a manner that made me confused as to whether either statement was meant to be taken seriously. For example: You’re not supposed to pray the Amidah or whatever when “something is bothering you” (Berachot 31), but “The best prayer is done with a broken/contrite/sullen heart” (R. Nachman). Not a big deal to most people, but I come from a land where you analyze every statement. I mean, you can go there yourself and see what I mean. You’ll have to do it for five and a half hours to get the full effect, though.

I fear: What if the whole “Most logical religion” idea is a lie? What if it’s all a conspiracy? They make you think that way, even though beneath the surface, it’s all basically just Chabad.org on repeat? They’ve got us all!! Its faulty logic rests on itself!

You’re really not supposed to study Torah alone.

I learned two things today, which can be divided into more things:

One, I learned that if I try to look too far into the future I will drive myself insane. I’m not really any more likely to be stuck in the house baking all day in Judaism than in any other life situation, including atheism. I also learned that I can’t let other people’s opinions on the internet ruin my life. (See above.) I tend to get really, really upset when someone says that what I do or believe is wrong—someone whose opinion might matter (I wouldn’t care if a Christian was like, “Hey Judaism is wrong,” for instance). If someone says that tzitzit is FORBIDDEN, when I personally am really looking forward to tzitzit, well that makes me really depressed. I also learned from aish.com that Jews might take up 0.3% of the population. World or US, I’m not sure. Whether that statistic is true or not, I was a little awestruck for a while. 0.3%, and here I am at the end of that chain! What are the odds? How can I give up such a thing? (If you want to know, apparently Lithuanians make up 0.3% of US population, and I’m at the end of that chain, too.)

Two, I’ve learned that I really love coming up with compact explanations for why I’m converting. Especially since people ask all the time. I’ve divided it up this way: I picked Judaism because I thought it was true, and I’m in a position to see any belief system as an individual entity and want to emulate it. I liked Judaism because it keeps me in line, because I was a rebellious teenager, and because I think this is a good thing for me. What else will make me wake up half an hour earlier every morning? And I stuck with Judaism because of that 0.3% thing I talked about. “Be a hero!” as E. Feinstein says. You’re Jewish; make it work!

That’s why I like the idea of a Bat Mitzvah—it’s decidedly not a conversion. I’ve had to decide whether to take this Bat Mitzvah seriously, and I’ve decided that I ought to, even though I’m not sure it will help with my identity crisis. I feel like what will happen is I will be announcing myself permanently accountable in front of Hashem and the temple people, but I won’t have any legal privileges. That’s not so bad, I guess. But I still keep thinking of all the jerkfaces who are sitting in their armchairs, going, “You’re still a gentile! A gentile!”

It’s weird that internet comments stab me in the heart, but real-life comments don’t.

Hey wow, ArtScroll.

So I guess I’m not the only one who hates ArtScroll. More so each day, I hate additional things about ArtScroll. And I’m glad that other people see this too. I hate that “Hashem” is written in a siddur—especially since everything is all laid out on the Hebrew side anyway. What are they hiding from? I hate that it’s so ideologically right—I just learned that the ArtScroll only recently won out over the Birnbaum, which featured a more centrist approach. And ArtScroll totally has over-crowded pages. Furthermore, now that I think about it, I really do hate that ArtScroll is under the impression that women need a separate siddur. Someone further offered that even in the women’s siddur, “modeh ani” is written instead of “modah”—who writes this thing? In the Koren siddur, of course, both modeh and modah are included, and this was actually a major factor in my decision to pick that one way back in September.

And ArtScroll really does see itself as the “last word“, making me hate it even more. And it was annoying to see, when I looked at it, that the pages of the women’s siddur are pretty much filled with “although women don’t need to say this one, here you go” and “women are exempt, now let’s turn the page”. And as someone else writes,

The siddur states firmly that women are generally not obligated to go to shul and the assumption is that when they do go they will be late and “will therefore need to decide which prayers to recite”….

Every time Mourners Kaddish appears, rather than saying that there are different opinions, the notes say clearly, “Although reciting Kaddish is a comfort for the soul of the departed, even silent recitation by a woman is generally frowned upon.”

I’m so glad that I’m not the only one. Someone else writes:

ArtScroll wants to have their cake and eat it, too. They’ve created an entirely new genre, an entirely new custom for women’s prayer, and taken it upon themselves to present complex and disputed issues in a one-sided manner, ignoring age-old customs and halakhic positions, and yet market the thing as though it’s something that your alter bubbe davened from. This isn’t ‘old wine in new vessels’. On the contrary (adderabbah!), it’s new wine in old vessels.

I have to admit, since I don’t have a lot of exposure to any real-life minhag outside of my synagogue…and the Reform temple…and books from the 70′s, it’s good to see that there is opposition toward a very…er, inflexible company.