I love tzitzis and glitter and skateboard helmets, I love them especially all at once

“Where are my presents?”
“You got your present.”
“What present?”
“That the Hanukkah Man gave you.”
“That thing from last year?”
“Yeah.”
“I’ve been gypped by the Hanukkah Man!”

So, I came across this picture:

poo

Those were good times, yet terrible times. They were the best of times and the worst of times.

I look at myself and think: “Why didn’t they ship me to hadar immediately?” Then I think: “How did I get to a place like w&m?” Then I think: “How did w&m get someone like me?”

Want to know what those pins say? They say: “Moshiach, we want moshiach now” and “Tzitzis, we want moshiach now.” They were a gift, OK? (Once, a guy in Prospect Heights saw one of my pins and said, “So, you want moshiach, huh?”)

I don’t try to be eccentric, you know? I am a walking collection. For instance, my mom got me a skateboard helmet for my birthday and so I was sitting there like derp listening to Matisyahu wearing my skateboard helmet. And now I have glitter because the “hanukkah man” aka my mom gave it to me aka she re-gifted it from when I didn’t want it last hanukkah. Also, I collect stickers on the back of my computer. Look closely and you can see a real live leopard.

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I don’t want tzitzis to be a fashion accessory. I don’t want it to just be a part of my collection of things I seem to acquire. But I know from experience that–unless you’re a halachically jewish orthodox man–there’s absolutely no threshold you can cross where you won’t still be questioning your motives. (I say orthodox cause it’s not really expected so much outside of orthodoxy.)

Honestly, I have no way of knowing whether I’m just trying to have a fashion accessory, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. When I look at a woman with tzitzis I don’t think: “She just wants a fashion accessory.” I think she must be really dedicated to put herself out there like that. I look at that picture of me and I think “Why was I so hard on myself?!” If it were someone else in my situation, I would have judged them favorably. If they showed that kind of dedication, I wouldn’t have done all that, like, pilpul. I wouldn’t care what their lineage was, either.

I’ve had friends who consider themselves gentiles converting to judaism, and I’ve had friends who consider themselves jews converting to judaism. I think the way you see yourself makes you see your conversion quite differently. Maybe it was being in new york, but I don’t think you can dismiss subjective experience so easily anymore. There’s no “official answer,” which I was in denial about for a long time. Of course, though, not having a right answer doesn’t mean there are no wrong answers. I’ve known people who wanted to convert–who believed they had jewish lineage, even–but whose resolve and tenacity I doubted. Oh, don’t think I don’t still judge people! If someone told me they wanted to wear tzitzis and then in the next breath told me they’ve decided to follow Jesus/the Buddha/whoever, I will probably doubt their dedication.

But I also have friends who are converting, whom I wouldn’t doubt for one second, and whom I treat as jewish.

This, so far, is working better for me in everyday life than my outdated system of judging people solely by halachic standards as if I were their conversion rabbi. A conversion rabbi, of course, is concerned with the integrity of the system, but this is sometimes to the detriment of a person’s psychological well-being. I know this well. I can’t know which way of looking at people is the right one. Maybe I really am compromising the integrity of the system. But if God isn’t about to come down and tell us, all we can do is guess. And if God isn’t about to come down and tell us, we can’t exactly feel bad about making a best guess. That goes for anything, really.

And that’s all well and good.

I don’t know what all this means for me, though. I don’t know my own motivations most of the time, but I tend to believe that I should (like most of us, I presume?) And so I analyze it to death, a sound and fury signifying nothing. If I wanted to wear my tzitzis again, it’d have to go beyond “which mitzvos a non-jew can do” and “what does patrilineal mean philosophically.” It would have to go deeper. I’d have to enter a whole new system. I know I can’t be orthodox, and I know I can’t be conservative, reform, or recon either. It’s kind of an open field right now. Everything is free for the taking. I could be anything. I could be renewal (I’m not). I wish I didn’t have to convert (and therefore pick one…currently it’s RCA and currently I don’t want to change that). I wish I could just be. You know, in the margins. Like I do. I don’t feel like a convert. I don’t want to continue acting like I’m converting. I don’t want to be a gentile. I don’t want to be a righteous gentile. I davened like a jew. I learned gemara like a jew. I went off the derech like a jew. I came back like a jew.

Something has to change here.

Learning to be Jewish, or: All the Connotations of “Baruch Hashem”

Let me tell you about the time I first went in to meet the RCA conversion rabbi.

It was the middle of July, and I went straight from gemara class at Drisha to my appointment. I took the train to canal st. and transferred to the J or Z or some weird train nobody ever takes, and met the rabbi inside his shul. He was very friendly, which I’d expected coming in since I had already talked to him via email and he was a speedy emailer (a rare breed indeed). I’d also heard good things through the grapevine about the manhattan beit din.

Anyway, the first thing he asked was the Dreaded Question, “So, why do you want to be Jewish?” (Or as R’ Freundel says, “So, why do you want to do this crazy thing?”) I’d written this whole long application essay on the topic, using words like “true” and “knowledge.” I’m not really one to write a wimpy emotional essay.

“Besides what you wrote in your essay,” he added. “That’s a fine reason, but it can’t be your only reason.”

I stared off into space, trying to look contemplative instead of mad that I had to come up with some crap emotional reason. “I just feel connected to it, I guess,” I said. I wanted to add, “Like a limb,” but alas I didn’t. That seemed to be enough, though, and we quickly moved on to practice.

“Do you keep kosher?” he asked.

“Well…I’ve been trying to more now that I live in New York, and I can now, and…”

“So you keep fully kosher.”

“Yes.”

“And you keep shabbos, and all that?”

“Yes.” Pretty simple so far.

“Except for doing one violation, you know…”

“Right.”

He tried to throw me a curveball. He asked me about the types of reshuts and how to carry in them on shabbos, and of course now I don’t remember them at all but luckily I had just learned them in halacha class at Drisha! I named them off and I think he was impressed. Those reshuts seem pretty esoteric, in that I hadn’t heard about the types of reshuts in any conversion books. Curveball avoided. Then he asked me about what you could and couldn’t heat on shabbos, including soups.

“Is that a trick question?” I asked.

“Just answer what you would do personally,” he said jovially.

I said I wouldn’t do it. But he saw through it. He said I had lots of knowledge but I needed more aid in cooking on shabbos. “Kashrut is easy once you know the basics,” he told me. “But cooking on shabbos is a lot more complicated.

“And your views on the Torah…” Oh, there it was! The question I’d been warned about by all my apikoros friends!

I acted confused. “In what way?”

“You know, Sinai, and all that.”

“Yeah, I believe in it. Torah…miSinai…and everything…” He nodded. Just to make it clear, I quickly stammered, “It’s weird that like, liberal jews and stuff, how can you not believe in it and still be practicing? I mean, like in Conservative Judaism…” (I was still on my Conservative Judaism kick at the time) “…basically they say that the community determines observance, and I just think you have to have a baseline cause without Torah what do you have etc.” He gave me a knowing glance and asked me if I could read Hebrew yet.

A quaint question when you just left untranslated gemara class to come to this appointment.

“I can read it.” He pulled out a tanach and said he’d find a nice easy sentence for me to read. I read it and translated it, and for some reason this was when the switch turned on I think because he was highly impressed. He said my hebrew was great, even though I just read about how yaakov went down to the land of canaan or whatever and a year of biblical hebrew at w&m told me that this was pretty standard fare. Nonetheless, apparently it’s impressive judging by the amount of time people have said to me, “Oh, you’re converting? Do you know any hebrew yet? Oh, did you need an english bentcher?” No, I do not need an english bentcher.

He told me I did great on all the questions and said all I really had to do now was learn the “jargon.” It was strange because, out of all the “tests” he gave me, he didn’t test me on my “jargon.”

“You know, like ‘baruch hashem’,” he said. I laughed on the inside. He thought I’d have to learn ‘baruch hashem.’ Little did he know I have a blog with a glossary of terms including, but not limited to, ‘baruch hashem.’

I wonder why he just assumed I wouldn’t know the culture at all. I started learning to be jewish long before I moved to brooklyn. I know that you get something living in an orthodox neighborhood that you wouldn’t get living in rural virginia, but I’m really rather shocked that he assumed I would be coming in with nothing. I’d spent the last year making fun of the ‘goyish’ aspects of w&m with my friend, and reading frum satire, and reading orthodox blogs, and listening to shemspeed.

I did learn, however, what it means to be jewish in a jewish community. Externally. And although being in new york has ironically made me less religious, I’m more connected to it culturally than ever before (for better or worse). This has nothing to do with learning the jargon so much as internalizing it in a way that can only be done when you see that everyone else is doing it, if you know what I mean. I could say ‘baruch hashem’ all day long when I’m alone in my room in rural virginia, but it doesn’t really have much meaning until you live in a place where other people are saying it, because then you can see when and in what context. More importantly, you can see how you yourself relate to these other people saying ‘baruch hashem’ in such contexts.

For example, when your friend says ‘baruch hashem’ almost every five minutes, you can start to think to yourself, ‘wow, that’s annoying.’ Guess what conversion books don’t teach you? That’s it’s OK to be annoyed by that ‘baruch hashem’ person you know.

You can see what makes you different.  (The following paragraph is highly ny-centric.) You can learn that everyone went to day school, everyone went to summer camp, everyone has been to israel, everyone lives with their parents well into their 20′s, all the girls get jobs as either babysitters or teachers, everyone goes to the catskills for the summer, everyone goes to such-and-such place for motzei shabbos, you learn that one neighborhood is like this, and the other neighborhood is like that.

You learn how to answer “Oh, do you know so-and-so? Which high school did you go to?” You learn how to shut those questions down. You learn how to talk like you’re constantly giving a shiur (you know what I mean). You learn what different lengths of skirt mean. You learn what makes someone MO meikil or MO machmir (and you’re not really sure if you enjoy the fact that you know this). You learn that there will be tons of people asking for money on the street friday afternoon. You learn more cholent recipes than you wished to hear.

Guess what? It doesn’t have much to do with religion, but that’s how you learn to be jewish.

How much does it cost to be Jewish?

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

It’s almost sukkos. You can buy lots of things during this time of year. Where I live, the sidewalks are lined with tables of esrogim, lulavim, not to mention decorations. Tinsel! Bird cages! Paintings! And that’s if you didn’t already spend enough money pledging to the shul during yom kippur.

Of course, it’s not exactly mandatory to line your sukkah with bird cages. Still, it is mandatory to take off four days of work or school for sukkos, to buy what you need in order to get by without cooking or using electricity for two days at a time (hot plates, timers, crockpots, kosher lamps, kosher table crumb sweepers, the list goes on as long as you want it to), and to buy the materials to build your own sukkah if you don’t live in an Orthodox area or near a shul with one. I was just thinking of how one would deal with living somewhere without a place to build a sukkah, or a place where it was impossible to buy a lulav or esrog. You’d have to go away for sukkos. You’d have to buy lulav online (imagine the shipping cost!) Easily, a chag that is supposed to be joyful becomes prohibitive. This year, there are only two weekdays between yom kippur and the long (one might say four-day) chag. (The long chag haul, as they say. Or as they ought to start saying.) If you don’t schedule these days well, you’ll probably end up like me and spending a lot more on food than you expected at the last minute.

I think there is a sense both that no one can’t afford all this and that someone in your network will be there to provide it for you. Indeed, someone’s family is probably there to provide mezuzas and havdala sets and basics like that, but still there is upkeep. And still, someone whose family can’t afford it doesn’t get such a safety net.

It’s not really the “sets” and the basic Judaica that concerns me. It’s the other things. For instance, although a college student might be able to get away with going out for every meal or throwing a sandwich on the hot plate, eventually there will be the assumption that you’ll be available to host as well. And there will be the assumption that you will cook. And there will be the assumption that you can afford the ingredients to cook relatively nice meals (with fish or meat) for guests fairly often.

There will be the assumption that you’ll have children. You will put them in Orthodox day school, and you will both pay a base of tuition and ideally donate time and money as well. You will send your children to summer camp and pay for their bar and bat mitzvah shenanigans.

You’ll buy high holiday tickets because you don’t want to feel like a freeloader. You’ll pledge money to the shul from the very seat you just “bought.” You’ll sponsor kiddush sometimes.

I’m still somewhat in awe over how a college student or otherwise single 20-something is supposed to afford a Jewish lifestyle without a family to support them. This would explain my observation of so many Jewish kids my age still living at home. In fact, when I tell them where I live and that I moved here, their first question is “So you’re here with your family?” I’m struck both with how widespread the assumption is that your family will “just take care of” the costs of things, and that cost is no object. A surprising amount of stores in the Jewish neighborhood where I live don’t put prices on their items, for instance. And when I first moved into my apartment, my roommate just assumed that if I couldn’t find a job, my mom would be able to cover my rent for me.

For me, obviously, it’s not about having to buy meat every week, but it is starting to add up in other ways. For example, with Orthodox roommates, I’m not going to be cooking on yom tov, and I’m not used to the old erev yom tov rush to buy challah rolls and other things that I don’t have to cook, and this is an extra package of challah rolls I wouldn’t have bought otherwise. And a $4 package of challah rolls that only lasts two days really adds up.

I know I’m listing two different categories, the social stuff like day school costs and the religious stuff like extra challah rolls. But I think they’re related. If I had children, I’d have to send them to private school. And I would be expected to host sometimes, probably. And everyone goes to summer camp. There are so many auxiliary items and events that are required in Judaism, and they all cost money.

It’s hard to be poor and Jewish. It’s hard to be working class and Jewish. In fact, I once read in a sociology book that “the Jewish working class hardly exists anymore.” It’s not really about the $4 challah rolls so much as it’s the assumption that everyone is able to afford it all; that somehow the Jewish working class doesn’t exist.

Couldn’t get ahead / I just couldn’t get ahead

So, I’ve lived in Flatbush for about 24 hours so far, and I have to admit that I definitely feel like everyone who looks at me knows that I am from out of town. It’s kind of funny though, since I’ve been trekking from here to the Upper West Side, and when I’m here I feel so modern, but when I’m in Manhattan I feel way too frum (but it’s cool cause I and hopefully everyone else knows I just came from Flatbush and that’s my excuse). I don’t really know what people are thinking about me in Manhattan, particularly the guys with black hats on the train going back to Brooklyn. They also probably can tell I am from out of town. I really do wonder what image I’m projecting; I feel like they’re like, “Why u even tryin’?” Also, there’s a giant seminary here so all the kids know way more than me even though they’re 12, and it’s stupid because now the tables are turned and I am that fool who doesn’t know the basics. Touché.

So, you ask, what do I see here? I see lots of guys with long coats but I also saw a guy with techelet. I saw a great beard on the train today, and I see lots of black kipas, which you can get at Eichler’s, and they come in like 40 different sizes, but only one color. As for the ladies, I see lots of baby carriages, lots of sheitels, lots of long black skirts, and lots of frum woman “shell plus plain shirt” fashions. There are also some MO people here, which I can tell when the men wear cargo shorts and the girls wear hoodies and band tees, which I also saw today.

However, I’m worried. It’s not that I want to be an Upper West Side person, it’s just that I keep messing with my own plan. It’s not even that I want to be egalitarian. (Whatever that even means anymore.) I moved here of my own free will specifically to get away from the old go-to, the “Do Judaism Laura’s way” free-for-all which I’ve been doing for the past two years. It’s not working. It would be easier to just be UWSMO (I made that up; it’s beautiful)…but that would be more of the same; more of what’s not working. I don’t want to do the old “pick whichever halachos make you happy;” I want a system. I’m already taking it for granted that I’m not going to fit into that system very well…partially because I’m me and partially because I’m coming from the outside…but what would I be doing if I just went straight to the trad egal/YCT world? But what would I be doing if I went to the “frum but only cause we were raised that way” world? I’m coming here to change inherently, although I wouldn’t have said that before obviously. I know it would be really simple to just stay the same and then put chavura Judaism on top of it or whatever, like nothing ever happened. I could wear my tzitzis again. But what would it do if they just let me do whatever I wanted all over again?

However, even if I try to stay and make it work in Flatbush, I’ll probably be found out pretty soon that I’m too modern. I thought I was just pulling off the “Oh, I’m just 21 and with it” look, but I just don’t know. The problem is that these other girls buy their clothes special apparently, from special tznius stores or something, and all my clothes are from Goodwill and it’s weird–you wouldn’t think this initially but even my denim skirt isn’t, like, standard. And that costs money, mate. I feel like being poor is going to play a pretty big part in my being modern, cause I can’t afford these specialty store clothes. Like, I’m looking at websites right now and they’re charging $44 for a regular black skirt. Non, non et non.

I don’t want to be modern or egal or yeshivish or frum but with it (whatever that means). I just want to be me, as far as clothes are concerned anyway. But I feel like what you wear kind of determines who will accept you in life. And I might be too eccentric for the normal yeshivish ladies here. But I’m not rejecting the yeshivish ladies. It’s not that I want to do “whatever I want” so much as if I tried to be a normal yeshivish lady it might be laughable. And you might think this is crazy, but I’d rather live in a really frum community and be the liberal one than live in a really liberal community and be the only frum one. I’ve done that already, and it wasn’t cool. (Also, to be clear, I don’t mean liberal like “I secretly believe the Exodus was a feminist myth” so much as “I’m going to Drisha” liberal.)

I was talking so much about pluralism in my last post, and I’m still into that, and this again is why it’s stupid that I have to convert. I have to STAY IN ONE PLACE for a long time. That’s stupid. But I know I need a home base otherwise I’ll just float around and never get anywhere. Converting or not, I still think I need a community, even just in order to branch off from it, you know? It would be cool if I could find an actual frum halachic community which wouldn’t be like “Why don’t you wear pants lol” and would actually have rules and not just let people run amok with their “pluralism” and “subjectivity” but can also appreciate my band pins and possibly taking computer music composition classes.

Is it giving up to want to keep my band pins and computer music composition? I feel like there’s a fine line between giving up your core personality in order to be more frum, and giving up the extraneous stuff that you might be attached to but isn’t helping your soul. However, I would be pretty sad if Matisyahu, for example, my posek, had decided that being a singer wasn’t tznius and decided to be a regular guy instead, I would be pretty depressed. But then again, he has his Chabad and stuff, and he didn’t just decide to be MO just cause they would accept his rappin’ or whatever. Also, Y-Love. Like I don’t know what goes into their decisions but they have their beliefs and THEN they have their rappin’ after that. I feel like if I just went the easy route and went trad egal** or “practice how you want” or whatever, I would give up my beliefs FOR the rappin’.

And that’s wack!

** You: “You don’t believe in egalitarianism?”
Me: “They really have to explain their halacha to me before I get into it. There’s a way egal can work, but too easily can it devolve into ‘we don’t like this halacha so let’s just change it for the sake of equality.’ Like, for me, maybe I’d want to learn gemara, but I feel like if I’m only doing it cause I think it would be cool, it won’t help me very much. Also, I can’t respect an egal community unless women’s ritual responsibilities come with ritual rights, which is where Conservatism went wrong.”

Pluralism and New York and stuff

I’m currently in a hostel which all I can say is it is definitely building my character. It’s not that bad, but 1.) I’m the only American 2.) Somebody took my shampoo.

Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that after my last encounter with that Conservative minyan (see last post), I’ve had many opportunities to go to other places. I went to an egal minyan at Shaare Zedek on Friday morning, and to the Prospect Heights Shul Friday night and Saturday morning. By the way, last Friday was the ~first Orthodox shul I’ve ever been to~ what a milestone.

I have some things to say about it. First of all, it was inside of a thrift store. That was cute. The mechitza was on some kind of clothesline. You guys, the mechitza is not that bad. I sort of liked it. I liked not having weird old men sit behind me. However, obviously, being me, I did happen to notice that 1.) The singing was a little more boisterous on the men’s side. I heard clapping, although I did look over and I’m pretty sure it was just the rabbi. 2.) On Saturday morning, most of the women showed up during musaf, wtf? Cause that’s definitely the most important time to show up? I didn’t get it, because if you’re going to miss any davening you’d think it would be ma’ariv. But anyway, there were like ten to fifteen men and I was the only woman for like fifteen minutes. Whatever. The whole time, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to be on the men’s side. I ended up deciding that it probably wasn’t so hot over there, because some of those guys were weird. Like, one was way too excited to point out errors in another guy’s Torah reading skills. And anyway, near the end I was starting to feel the burn, it was going on three hours after all, and I just feel like if I was on the men’s side I would start to feel like they were caving in on me. Of course, some of the ladies were weird but it was funny because one lady was singing loudly and she was a bad singer but in an endearing way. So basically, the women did sing but they weren’t clapping and junk. Maybe cause there were less women, oh well.

And also I’ve been slowly but surely deciding that those apologists who say “women don’t need to be in the synagogue cause Judaism isn’t actually based in the synagogue, it’s just become that way” is kind of true. I mean, the last part anyhow (don’t sleep through shaarit, guys). I don’t like the whole synagogue scene that much. I don’t know, it’s like get me out of there. I would probably hate it if I HAD TO hang out with those guys three times a day and three hours on shabbos when I daven better alone anyway. This idea that Judaism /= the synagogue was reinforced by the fact that a lot of my hanging out with my new Orthodox acquaintances last shabbos was done outside of shul. And we actually did Jewish stuff. It was different. I helped someone make dinner for eight people, we actually washed and bentched OUTSIDE of the synagogue and IN SOMEONE’S HOUSE (SCANDALOUS). And I heard a guy walking down the street in Flatbush saying “Like the gemara says…” and the next day I met a lady who said she was part of Storahtelling.

Now, here’s the reason why I’m not so worried right now about any of these shul men/women problems that have been dominating this blog for a long time. I just went to a trad egal minyan (I don’t want to say Conservative, but I think some of them go to JTS) where one girl led the davening and I spotted another girl wearing tzitzis (!).  And anything I didn’t get out of that, I filled in the gaps Friday night at the MO place. And similarly, it’s gradually occurring to me that I’m currently in New York, and I think I underestimated the amount of options that were here. You CAN be that guy who talks about the gemara while walking down the street, and you can be that lady who’s in Storahtelling. I feel like I’m a special snowflake who needs certain things–women friends who wear tzitzis, Jewish theater and Jewish rap, but also women’s yeshiva and Orthodox mechitza davening–and if I’m going to get that anywhere it’s going to be New York.

I know that when you convert you basically have to stay in one place for the duration of it and then for a year of probation, but I feel like New York’s middle name should be pluralism. And not stupid pluralism, which is where I’m  the only diversity where everyone else is Reform and I have to accept them but they’re allowed to think I’m a freak. I think it’d be pretty normal to go to one shul for certain things and another for other things. Unlike what it really, really seemed like in my little Southern town, pluralism (good pluralism, not stupid pluralism) is in.

For example, the day after I got to New York I went to the New Voices journalism conference and I personally thought it was pretty cool cause it was the first time I saw Reform and MO people getting along and actually being friends and stuff (there was one Chabad guy but he came and left). And then I went to shabbos dinner at someone’s house and there was a guy who said “I don’t ride my bike on shabbos” but there were also girls texting, but the real point is when that guy said “I don’t ride my bike on shabbos” there wasn’t a giant onslaught of why that’s so stupid.

Can you tell I’ve been traumatized?

One thing I liked about my time hanging out with them: they talked about halacha occasionally! They talked about who gets the year long kaddish and other various trivia.

Mitzvah as protest

So, some people say that women shouldn’t wear a tallit because it’s a “sign of haughtiness.” In modern times, I think this translates to “they’re doing it for feminism!!!” This need to be doing it for the “right reasons” stems of course from women’s exemption, because no one asks men what their reasons are, so long as they do it.

I don’t know enough to know whether exemption always requires a “good reason” in order to start taking it up voluntarily; I don’t know why it suddenly applies to tzitzit only. But a certain rabbi I know said that tzitzit is a mitzvah “incumbent on the person” that is “activated when wearing the garment.” So that rules out my idea that the mitzvah is in the garment, which would make it not time-based and thus not-exempt. Too easy.

I wonder how it is that “not doing it for the right reasons” make a woman-exempted mitzvah like tzitzit null and void. What are the right reasons? Why does there have to be a “right reason” to do a mitzvah? (And can you do one accidentally?) And, is “feminism” the only “wrong reason”? What if, say, you were protesting Israel Apartheid Week? That seems pretty righteous.

I’m protesting, by the way. I’m protesting that, but I’m also protesting something my rabbi said. We were walking down the street a couple of days ago (we’re cool like dat), and he was like “people keep looking at my kippah!!” (so cute. love the rabbi) and I was like “wow, that’s weird, no one looked at my tzitzit when I used to wear them!” And he said “why’d you stop wearing them?” and I said “it felt like I was appropriating.” And he said “you know, sometimes things like that are better in theory than in practice.” Then he talked about how he only wears his kippah “on the job” because the idea of wearing it everyday “doesn’t always work in reality” and he may or may not have said “you’ll learn as you get older…” He said he doesn’t always want to be the token Jewish guy when he’s just chilling in public. Then I said “isn’t that when it’s most important to be Jewish?” or something to that extent. Then I forgot the rest because we crossed a street.

It made me wonder though: Is this really one of those things? Like, it was getting pretty inconvenient I’m not going to lie. Is the world even ready for such a thing? But I don’t want to think of mitzvot that way: “better in theory than in practice.” So I brought back the tzitzit in protest of this idea. It’s like saying to myself “this simply can’t be true and I will prove it false.” I think it’s quite righteous. It’s like when your mom is all “I bet you can’t eat that broccoli” and you’re all “oh no you don’t, I will eat that broccoli like you don’t even know.”

I’ve always had a problem conflating “what people think” with “what is right.” I really don’t know if what I’m doing is “right” or really just “appropriating” something that doesn’t belong to me, but really the fact is that no one–no one–around me is worried about my patrilinealness. Like, even the Orthodox rabbi here probably wouldn’t say anything about it, even though I’ve told him. Aish even accepted me into their Jerusalem Online University program (yes, W&M has Aish reps on campus?!?!) I’m looking for conflicts that seriously aren’t there right now. So I’m not appropriating. And I’m protesting that too.

I’ve started getting back on the derech, but I’m trying to do it right this time. It was getting really muddled last semester with “what people thought” and “omg what’s more important, community or halacha” and “omg am I doing this for the right reasons” and “omg am I appropriating” and “omg denominations” and “omg conversion” but all that is not even important and I just have to realize. I feel like plain old reading the תרי”ג מצות and going to Torah study helps me and everyone around me more than my navel-gazing does. As Matisyahu says, “Fear nobody but His Majesty. My spirit, you retrieved. For you I wait silently, it seems that you believe in me.”

If I Were a Rabbi~

My very ancient argument with the crazy old man at my old Conservative synagogue runs deep, you know. I often think about how to balance inclusiveness with not perpetuating a “beginner’s Judaism.”  I know this is the ultimate problem as far as Conservatism is concerned, but it ought to be everyone’ problem. I briefly considered going to Conservative rabbinical school (actually, lol @ that; by “briefly” I mean “constantly since summer 2010 and still occasionally entertain thoughts of it”)…but it’s weird to me to think about the ideological inculculation that would inevitably happen at any rabbinical school. I mean, I know about quality control, but I also know now that Conservatism only became an actual “movement” with “fans” in the 1940′s. And really, get yo’ factions out of my religion. There is pettiness when factions happen.

But I digress. Let’s say I became a rabbi. Let’s say I made it through. And then, let’s say that I could do whatever I wanted. I know what my movement would tell me, but let’s say I was rebellious, which obviously would never happen because I am obviously a Tov Soul (I hate that I know about this). Anyway, assuming I wasn’t kicked out after a day, I would first make some aesthetic changes. I would give newcomers a piece of paper saying page numbers and such instead of halting everything to say page numbers. I’d want the newcomers to know that even though we care about their comprehension, we are not an education program. Ideally, I’d direct them to a beginner’s minyan which if it were my shul we’d have one of those if I had to do it myself. Ideally, before the main service so they could utilize their knowledge.

Next, I’d move the bimah or whatever to the mid-front of the room and face the front. I know that no one would actually want to sit in front of said structure, but I would try to make it not a big deal that no one was in front of them. Or, even, better, I would do what my rabbi did once when it was just me and this other guy one morning, he just hung out in a regular seat for twenty minutes and took it from there. It was really great cause it eliminated the “spectatorship” aspect. I would try to minimize the idea that the congregation absolutely must be in the same place at all times. That is one thing I would really try to get rid of, which the page numbers thing would help with too.

Speaking of adjustments, I would probably separate men and women, but really only for practical purposes. I don’t want lovers making out in the audience (which I’ve sat next to). I don’t want back-rubbing (which I’ve sat behind). I don’t want couples talking about their bills and kids and junk. And honestly, I’m never going to get over all the times some old man came and sat directly behind me when there were a million other empty seats. I just don’t want to deal. And I don’t fundamentally think that mixed seating is the only way to give women rights, I feel like some people think this. But regarding that, there would still be the problem of having separate seating in a shul which I would explicitly make sure was variant-friendly. And naturally I know that the ~male gaze~ problem in such a shul isn’t exactly going to be eliminated with separate seating, if you know what I mean. Personally, I would be distracted in an all-women’s section. I like the trichitza idea. Allegedly, this was used in ancient times (I should really cite my source on that one). I suspect that it would be less weird without an actual structure, but who knows. I’ve never actually experienced mechitzas, so I don’t really know their deal that well. I’m not sure if having a mechitza is really halacha or just blown out of proportion. I mean, I’m a rabbi, I should know this.

My basic thing would be trying to make people feel like they can belong in a traditional setting without having to have the politics. What I mean is, I would want people to know that separate seating doesn’t “mean” women don’t have “rights.” Furthermore, I would make sure people know the processes that went into making certain ritual decisions. For example, I don’t have an ideological problem with women leading services, and I would also encourage lay-leadership. So when people sign up to do a certain thing, we would go through their ideas and everything before they actually led services. So with that in mind, I would make it clear that while anyone is welcome to lead lesser parts of the service, I would ask that those who wanted to lead straight-up Shaharit be upstanding and be qualified to lead devarim shebikdusha, which for women would mean that they’ve committed themselves to minyan. Ideally, that would encourage people to come more often, cause if it were me I would consider Shaharit a more fun thing to lead than, like, kiddush or something. Which anyone could do, by the way. I would also make sure this hypothetical beginner’s minyan emphasized the difference between the important and less important parts of Shaharit, and make it sound like it would really be like an honor to lead Shaharit, so therefore they better learn some stuff so they can lead it.

Hebrew. I would not have transliteration. I would probably use the Koren siddur. No, actually, I would tell people to bring their own if there is an eruv, and if there’s not, perhaps I would have a nice mélange so people can have their crap Sim Shalom or whatever. The service would be entirely in Hebrew and wouldn’t include Readings For American Soldiers or responsive readings or anything, well I know that Readings For American Soldiers has become popular lately but I’m just not into it. I would hope that no one noticed. It’s important not to disrupt an accumulated atmosphere by suddenly being all “God sits in judgment over the world. ALL RESPOND: HE SITS IN JUDGMENT.” And it just so happens that I just start getting into it when something like that happens. It’s just another way to keep the congregation focused on the leader and on keeping up rather than their own experience.

So yeah, I’ve been writing this for a day now and I can’t think of anything else. Anything else?

Teshuva

Ideal prayer, according to Nachman, occurs when the individual goes into isolation and pours his heart out to God with all the sadness, pain, and doubt that is in it. This is ‘prayer with a broken heart’…such prayer allows one to overcome doubts that result from futile intellectual arguments... David Ariel, What Do Jews Believe? p 203

unity, groove and teshuva be the new black -y-love

I should do teshuva.

I’m not entirely sure what it is, because if it is what I think it is, I don’t see why you should aim to be doing it all the time. (FYI, what I think it is is falling off the wagon and saying you’re sorry and getting back on.)

As some of you probably know, something terrible happened since I transferred to this school. Look, don’t get me wrong, I like this school. It is a freaking academic powerhouse (as far as a little school nestled in Colonial Williamsburg can be). But I think I referred to this phenomenon as “my soul is shrivelling.” (I love how quickly this happened.)

i.e. I don’t really do much anymore. Maybe it was all the “just be open-minded!” people who got to me. Maybe it was my Yom Kippur vow to “stop judging all those blithe ‘cultural Jews’.” Maybe it was the fact that everyone here seems to think that “Orthodoxy is like a whole different religion.”

But I stopped doing stuff. I use my computer on Shabbat (although I started using timers…an odd time to start, but I was fraught with guilt so I did). I don’t wear my tzitzis (half out of feeling undeserving and half out of conviction that it looks dumb when I do it). I don’t bentch no’ mo’. I don’t daven no’ mo’. I don’t study Torah no’ mo’. I’m thinking the only thing I still do is keep kosher.

On the plus side, I have become quite an active Zionist after learning the truth in class.

But I wonder sometimes. I used to think perhaps teshuva could help cure me. It’s supposed to help every time, right? I could just start doing stuff all over again, I’ve done it before, it’s like riding a bicycle. In fact, I did try it a couple of times. But it didn’t work for obvious reasons. I think I really just have to get out of this place.

But what about what everyone says? It’s “not supposed to matter what other people are doing”! We all know that. And we also know that teshuva is supposed to fix the problem. I mean, I did feel bad that I wasn’t doing stuff. Duh. I’m in an abyss of absurdity right now—look at me, a Jewish Studies major who’s trying to convert to Orthodoxy who isn’t even keeping shabbos! What a mess!

A friend asked me if I was going to “put things on hold” until I graduate. That was the first time I ever considered it. Tragically enough, that might actually be my best option here. Teshuva isn’t working. Trying isn’t working. (Actually, if you’re interested, I’m currently in the “God probably hates me” camp, but that’s not really different from my general outlook.) Even trying to do things is making it worse, like putting salt in a wound. I know I’m not going to start being regularly observant while I’m here, so why do it once or twice? That doesn’t make sense to me (also that’ll tell you I’m not Reform).

Then someone wise made a suggestion that I think about transferring, which I also hadn’t considered. I opened three applications today, because this is my new big idea. I’m going for it.

And I couldn’t help it; I just emailed Brandeis to see if they’d let me apply again. When will they see that I need to be at their school?

Ideal prayer, according to Nachman, occurs when the individual goes into isolation and pours his heart out to God with all the sadness, pain, and doubt that is in it. This is ‘prayer with a broken heart’…such prayer allows one to overcome doubts that result from futile intellectual arguments...

I could do this, who can’t? But how far would it go? Until, like, tomorrow? And if you’re trying to tell me this is a daily event, well I can say from experience that wears a cowboy out.

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.”

Hillel, halacha, engagement…always crashing in the same car

“God was in this place / and I didn’t even notice” -Darshan

On Friday night, I went to a dinner sponsored by the Hillel, and everything that I thought would happen totally did. They lit their candles at about 6:00 PM and their food was totally not kosher. Only a few people from Hillel stayed afterward for the service (I don’t really blame them unless you like singing slowly but that’s immaterial), and the next night, a friend and I ended Shabbat by going to our rabbi’s “welcome to our community” ceremony thing in the Wren Chapel. Don’t worry, they took the weird gold cross out beforehand.

Of course, they decided it would be a good idea to have a Havdala ceremony during the welcoming ceremony, I guess for authenticity or something, but no amount of gentle singing could alleviate the fact that they were lighting yet another candle at an inopportune time. (Yet again, simply doing it one mere hour later would have been just fine.) Two kids held the candle amidst some other kids and this lady who stood there gently singing and passing around the spice box. I sulked.

I wasn’t sulking because they didn’t care so much as because they were having everyone there collectively chant the berachot for everything, when obviously it was all in vain. I was sulking for everyone sitting with me in the pews—those people had no idea what they were saying or doing. It’s one thing to think about it and decide you don’t care, it’s another to never know. We could be saying “Blessed are you who commands us to break the commandments” or whatever that Shabbetai Tzvi used to say, and no one would be the wiser. If someone (like me, for example) told them they’d just lit a giant candle in the middle of Shabbat, they’d just be like “Huh…I thought Shabbat ended this morning.”

But I watched all our rabbi’s Reform rabbi friends make their speeches, and I listened to our rabbi’s speech on how we have new post-Bar Mitzvah programs that the kids actually come to, and how vibrant Judaism is and how some people actually moved across town solely so they would be near our synagogue for Shabbat. Our synagogue. I must have missed something.

I’m starting to see that maybe I will have to confront the fact that there is a large demographic for non-halachic Judaism. And they seem fine with it. I presume they also find meaning in it. And people dedicate their lives to it (re: our rabbi), so maybe there is something in Judaism besides halacha, something substantial enough for other people to build entire worldviews upon. I knew there was something more, but I mean I know I’d be one of those people walking to the field on erev Shabbat in Safed going IS THE SUN PROPERLY DOWN YET? WHEN CAN I LIGHT MY CANDLE?

It’s getting ridiculous. Somehow I’m thinking I will have to stop being so uptight and try to find what these other people see.

Because I know it’s there.

But what’s beyond halacha? “Cultural Judaism”? Even my roommate noticed that our school has apparently picked this option. I had just come back from a rather odd Hillel meeting—odd in the sense that it was held secretly, we had to be specially invited by this one guy who walked across campus with us afterwards, saying things like “Honestly, this campus is anti-Israel…everyone in Hillel hates the pro-Israel rabbi who used to be our advisor” and “The Hillel board is upset with our Hillel because we’re using our money for social events”…it made me feel like a secret agent, whispering in the dark like that, with another kumrad working against Hillel from within.

But anyway, my roommate came over and asked me what Judaism is all about—what goes on at services and so on. I told her about the commandments, and she seemed a little confused. Why? Because, as she told me, all the Jews she’s met on this campus don’t seem concerned about faith so much as…

“The cultural aspect?”

“Yeah, the cultural aspect.”

We’d just brought up this very thing during the Hillel meeting. The guy who invited us to the meeting mentioned that there are 200 Jews on this campus, and if we only get a 15-person “core” at each event, we haven’t done our job. (The Hillel president argued that that was a good and highly acceptable goal we’ve been reaching, and at that point…or maybe the point where they agreed to cancel Shabbat for ‘Busch Gardens weekend’…I realized that this Hillel was in a real mess.) We talked about events at the meeting…we talked about catering…we talked about having a comedian come to the school…I suggested a discussion group, the president said that hadn’t worked in the past. She told me that past experience told her that Jews on this campus want social events only. It started to become obvious that nothing substantial was happening here, and my roommate was right. It’s entirely cultural. It’s entirely superficial.

I know that Judaism is more than catered events and “programs.” I also know our Hillel has resigned themselves to the disturbingly ambivalent position that we should only give them what they want. “We’ve tried to have the rabbi come lead a discussion group, and they don’t want it.” I mentioned that all the other religious groups on campus somehow manage many, many such events, and they are very well-attended—but the president went on to tell me that we’re not like other religious groups. We’re different.

Wow, my first experience trying to engage Jews who really and apparently vehemently don’t want my engagement. I feel like this is the first in many, many more experiences of that. But walking home from the meeting, chattering frantically with my friend on how we can fix this “engagement” problem and fix Hillel (or even bypass Hillel in order to engage more people) made me realize how important this goal is to me. I mean, look at me, I’m ready to alienate our only Hillel, to invite pro-Israel speakers onto our anti-Israel campus, to forge any goodwill I might have with Hillel by running for office with my radical ideas, or even doing my own events entirely outside of Hillel (on a small campus like this, they’ll notice)—and all because of the fact that we have 200 Jews on this campus, and only 15 of them are doing anything about it. I couldn’t stand it. I would do anything. I know what happens when uninterested, uninvolved Jews grow up—not this generation. We can’t be ambivalent.

Wherein I tell you my goals and you tell me if this is a career that can sustain my coffee addiction

So, here’s the thing. I don’t know what to do with my life. I know what NOT to do with my life…go to graduate school for Bible. I think I have a good idea of the kind of stuff they teach there. I wonder what they teach in seminary. Probably the Documentary Hypothesis has seeped in there too. You got your wish, Wellhausen.

–Graduate school

Presumably I will apply to schools next January, which would be in approximately fifteen months, which is a baby and a half (I measure things this way). So far, I’m thinking I will apply to Pardes, Yeshivat Hadar, and JTS. If they let me I will apply to JTS PhD program and then invade the rabbinical program from within. They will surely like that.

Pardes sounds (or, more technically, the girl I talked to who works for Pardes made it sound) pretty terrific, especially considering the girl on the phone was impressed with my extremely small achievement of being someone who is going to take two years of Hebrew, apparently that’s important for an applicant, and apparently a lot of people come in not knowing Hebrew or something. She kept assuring me that I could probably get in, but then again so did the Yeshiva University admissions guy, but I ended up not getting in anyway, which makes a lot of sense considering I showed him my Honors paper on how women should wear tefillin and stuff.

So those are the three places I would like to go to after graduating. Of course, the Career Center at W&M has no idea how to help me, because I couldn’t even explain to the lady what I wanted to do with my life (“I want to go to yeshiva, it’s like Jewish seminary.” “Now, does that have a degree at the end?”), and that doesn’t help when you go into the Career Center trying to get some career help.

–Career

Because I don’t know what to do with my life. I do know where I want to go to school, however. You say “Laura, seriously, why do you want to go to JTS Rabbinical School when you know very well that their women never get any jobs, just go to Riverdale” and to that I say “I don’t care because I don’t want to work in a faceless synagogue monolith anyway, I want to work in a havurah and you all know this.” The problem is that I don’t know how this translates into a career, and furthermore I realize this everytime someone asks me what I want to do with my life after I graduate, including strangers. Then I have to end up explaining what ‘yeshiva’ and ‘havurah’ and ‘minyan’ is, when really it would be a lot easier to say ‘I shall be a rabbi’ because people actually know what that is, that’s all.

However I am quite aware that any prestige that goes with the title of rabbi goes out the window when it is the title of a womyn. For men, it’s like “whoa you’re so serious” but with womyn it’s like “you stupid feminist, you want equal rights but you’ll never get up for minyan when it comes right down to it.”

And that is sort of why I would probably pick JTS over Riverdale or RRC (and never HUC), because I’m into halacha, and I don’t want to be going to a school wondering if they’re going to light their candles three hours after zman because “it’s the spirit that counts.” You just can’t tell. At JTS, they make their women rabbinical students wear tallit and tefillin at shaharit and actually require things of their students:

Norms of Religious Identity and Practice

The Rabbinical School of The Jewish Theological Seminary seeks to be a supportive and nurturing community that is committed to spiritual development.

We celebrate the diverse backgrounds of our students and are committed to be דן לכף זכות (generous in our judgment of one another). Our faith and practice will be challenged over the course of time and through our experiences in the world. Self-reflection in an environment of dignity and compassion is an essential component of rabbinic training.

JTS trains its rabbinical students in the path made famous by Shimon Ha-Tzaddik in Pirkei Avot 1:2: “Three pillars support the world: Torah, Service of God, Acts of Loyalty and Love.”Explicating these obligations is the task of a lifetime. The following list of beliefs and practices is not comprehensive, yet it indicates some of our most prominent ideals as Jews, and the norms of The Rabbinical School:

על שלשה דברים העולם עומד

על התורה Torah

  • Belief that Torah—written and oral—is the inspired and authoritative guide to Jewish life
  • Commitment to lifelong study of classical and contemporary works of Torah
  • Commitment to grant equal opportunity for men and women to study Torah, participate in the mitzvot, and assume leadership positions in the Jewish community
  • Commitment to study Halakhah L’ma’aseh, the evolving path of conduct that expresses the values and norms of the covenant between God and Israel

ועל העבודה Service of God

  • אהבת ה’ ויראת שמים, Committed, questioning, and loving engagement with God
  • Commitment to traditional communal prayer throughout the day, starting with tallit andtefillin at weekday Shaharit
  • Commitment to observing kashrut
  • Commitment to observing Shabbat and festivals
  • Commitment to holiness in relationships, including halakhic and ethical parameters of sexual intimacy
  • Commitment to uphold the Rabbinical Assembly’s Standards of Rabbinic Practice

ועל גמילות חסדים Acts of Loyalty and Love

  • The practice of honest, ethical, and compassionate behavior towards other people
  • Responsibility for the welfare of one’s fellow Jews
  • Advocacy for a peaceful future for the State of Israel and its inhabitants
  • Stewardship of the environment and vigilant defense of the dignity of all people

In order to deepen their comprehension of these and other beliefs and practices, rabbinical students consult their deans, rabbis, and teachers, and engage one another in respectful dialogue. Religious policies for The Rabbinical School are formulated by the dean, who serves as its מרא דאתרא, the arbiter of Jewish practice.

I know that it’s popular to be like “do whatever you want,” but I really can’t get into HUC’s weird lack of principles for their rabbis. Seriously, I’m thinking they can graduate without being observant at all.

And don’t give me that “well you don’t know how well they do the ETHICAL mitzvot!!” crap, because I know perfectly well that if they don’t read  Mishnah in all their pastoral counselling classes they’ll never know what to do with that stray ox, and more importantly you can be a great and ethical person, but still not in the Jewish way. And there is a Jewish way.

And then rabbis can easily come out of HUC (for example) spreading lashon hara, just because they don’t know how lashon hara is defined and they don’t even know what they’re doing, probably.

I like Riverdale and everything, but let’s get real:



Those people kind of look like they were probably in my Reform adult b’nai mitzvah class, you know the one where everyone was complaining about how they’d have to learn one bracha in Hebrew and that is so hard. And what’s with all of them being old?

Well, anyway, it just seems sketchy in general and I don’t know their standards, but at least it’s not Hebrew College. And Judith Hauptman went there, and she’s OK (also teaches at JTS, also I emailed her once but she never wrote back). But Riverdale fancies itself ‘trans-denominational,’ which is good for my goals in life but I fear that they focus more on the pastoral aspect, which is what I’m trying to get away from because I don’t believe in this weird modern Protestant “the rabbi is your psychologist” thing. I’d rather focus on texts. Problem-solving. I can pastorally counsel in my own caustic Laura way, I ain’t need no clazz 4 dat.

But I’m still not solving the problem of what to do with my life.

OK, I’ll tell you the things that I want to do, and you tell me if this can sustain my coffee addiction, at the very least, and maybe if I could pay rent or something too with this career choice.

This is hard, so let’s first look at the mission statements of some of my favorite institutions:

1.) The National Havurah Committee (NHC)

is a network of diverse individuals and communities dedicated to Jewish living and learning, community building, and tikkun olam (repairing the world). Since the 1970s, the NHC Summer Institute has been bringing together Jews from across North America to envision a joyful grassroots Judaism and provide the tools to help them create empowered Jewish lives and communities. The NHC is a nondenominational, multigenerational, egalitarian, and volunteer-run organization.

2.) Limmud NY

We are a conference, a festival, a gathering of hundreds of Jews from all walks of life, all Jewish backgrounds, all lifestyles, and all ages. Limmud is four days of lectures, workshops, text-study sessions, discussions, exhibits, performances and much more—all planned by a community of volunteers.

In Hebrew, Limmud means “learning”—and that’s what it’s about. An opportunity to craft your own Jewish world. Explore your connection to Jewish ideas and tradition. Meet people who share your curiosity and enthusiasm. Relax, reflect, and celebrate.

From early in the morning until late each night, you’ll have an opportunity to choose from an ongoing menu of 8-12 simultaneous sessions on topics ranging from Talmud to psychology, from film to Bible, from drama to Israeli politics. Some sessions will be given by renowned lecturers; others will be discussion groups, artist circles, or workshops. Some will be small; others will be events for the entire Limmud community. There will be time to make new friends, and time to talk with presenters, so that you can truly learn from everyone.

3.) Mechon Hadar

Yeshivat Hadar
The first full-time egalitarian yeshiva in North America

A corps of motivated, young Jews who feel empowered to create and strengthen dynamic Jewish communities is crucial to the realization of Mechon Hadar’s mission. Unlike any program in the United States, this study program combines the following elements:

  • Text study in Bible, Midrash, Talmud, Halakha, liturgy, and theology.
  • A commitment to the religious and spiritual growth of the individual participants.
  • The creation of a passionate and active Jewish learning community.
  • Social justice initiatives that embody the values embedded in the texts.
  • Intensive, all-day programming for students in an egalitarian setting.
  • Individualized projects students will take home to local communities.

The Minyan Project
Resource, networking and consulting for more than 70 independent minyanim nationwide

In the last decade, thousands of unaffiliated young Jews have sought spiritual expression through new, independent minyanim. The leaders of Mechon Hadar have been at the forefront of working with these communities, including organizing a sold-out national conference in November 2008 for over 90 leaders from 32 independent minyanim, representing over 14,000 minyan participants. In addition to the 3-day leaders conference, Mechon Hadar also held a 1-day public forum on minyanim at Brandeis University. This extraordinary day attracted 120 minyan leaders and representatives from traditional Jewish institutions, and featured 8 panels and a keynote address, with scholars, minyan leaders and Jewish professionals. You can find recordings of these sessions here. Mechon Hadar continues to assist these communities in the following ways:

  • Prayer leader empowerment training series.
  • Halakhic consulting for pressing communal issues (gender, kashrut, etc).
  • Practical guides for running complicated prayer services.
  • New melody workshops and resources.
  • Networking conference for leaders to connect and share best practices.
  • Internet resources and email lists for cross-minyan communication.

(Side note: Also this book.)

——-

So what I want to do is work to get us away from this really inefficient current model of liberal (American?) Jewish life, which basically is have kids in programs until bar mitzvah, throw them out into the world where they move out and do stuff until they’re about 30, which is when inevitably they have to come back to the suburbs to raise children and they need an institution of their Hebrew school needs etc., which no one really thinks is especially efficient but they feel like that’s what they ought to do. And furthermore to support this system we require the ubiquitous donor class, who run things behind the scenes. Pragmatically, some people probably don’t care if the guy who just donated $1,000 now gets all the aliyot and a plaque on the wall and now suddenly they’re letting his son lead Ma’ariv every week—but I do. And I don’t think it’s fair.

So there’s a huge slice of the population who’s not being served here by these so called ‘synagogue community centers’… ‘shuls with pools,’ as one of my books on the subject is titled. Independent minyanim claim to give access to the 20′s and 30′s group, but I would like to improve this model by coming up with ways on how we could improve pluralism (thereby taking us away from need for denominational labels and thus the need to be funded by the corresponding institutions (CCAR, RA, USCJ, etc.), and to find ways that we could do various things as an indepdent community such as Jewish schooling and life-cycle events. Moreover, I would like to see such a model being used not just as a transitory measure for college kids and “young professionals.” This would take quite a radical financial shift, for one thing.

Further, I happen to think this reliance on the synagogue has led us to believe, in liberal Judaism, that we can’t function without having an officiating rabbi, and that is plain false. Even Krazee Eyez himself said you don’t need a rabbi for most things. You don’t need him to lead services. You don’t need him to read the Torah. You don’t need him for your Bar Mitzvah. You don’t need him for your wedding. It’s true! Shifting our responsibilities onto the rabbi is inexcusable today, where we certainly have the education and resources necessary to not have to give up our Jewish autonomy. Therefore education and a shift in congregational structure is necessary. (Lincoln Square, to use one example, has Beginner’s Services so that they can still have the main Orthodox service but still allow newcomers to join in after a bit of incubation time.)

But what do I want to do? I want to overturn our current structure. It leaves people out. It keeps us stagnant and complacent. It’s not working. If liberal Judaism wants to be able to define itself against its own standards and not simply as what’s ‘less observant than Orthodox,’ it has to be able to sustain itself (and Orthodoxy, for what it’s worth, has a better structure in that people are generally educated enough to be observant outside the synagogue etc.) But to combine liberal Judaism with an autonomous ethic (and a commitment to halacha) is something we sorely need.

Halachic think tank. 

I don’t know if you can get a career doing this. Hadar is seriously the closest thing I can think of.

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?

Koren versus ArtScroll…I think I’ve figured out my hatred

OK, so it’s no secret that I really hate the ArtScroll siddur. But I never really had a clear example of why Koren is clearly better, although we all knew this. I hated it because it was taking over our Conservative synagogue; I hated it because the Ohel Sarah is ridiculously offensive; I hated it because it’s basically an entire empire; and I hated it because it brings its agenda into people’s homes just because it looks like it might be made of faux leather and the name is popular so why not buy one?

But I was just scanning that list of laws at the back of the Koren on Saturday during a particularly boring dvar Torah, and I noticed something: Koren is different.

1.) Behold—Laws of Tzitzit, #323:

Putting on a four-cornered garment with tzitzit attached fulfills an affirmative mitzva from the Torah. The obligation applies only during the daytime [מנחות מג]. Since wearing tzitzit is a time-bound mitzva, women are exempt [שו''ע או''ח, יז:ב].

Let’s take a look at this revolutionary sentence. First of all, you may have noticed that they cite their sources, whereas ArtScroll just expects you to take their word for it. Next, their sources include such classics as the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch, not crazy sources I don’t know like freaking Feinstein and the Rebbe and Luzzato and whoever else they decide to throw in. Next, here’s the revolutionary part—they say “women are exempt”, not “women should not do this”. Unlike ArtScroll, they are making no value judgment on my behalf. It’s not the siddur’s job to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do, if you ask me. It should tell me the facts and the laws and perhaps the customs, but not that not following them is basically going to send me to Hades (seriously, that’s their tone…have you read Ohel Sarah, by the way?) They do the same treatment with tefillin: “Women are exempt”, not “Women have such a special snowflake soul that they do not need tefillin. Tell your wife to light candles instead.”

2.) Koren includes things that ArtScroll would never even imagine including, just because it leads to orgies:

Laws of Birkat HaGomel, #398: A husband may say Birkat HaGomel for his wife, or a father for his children [משנ''ב, שם: יז]. But, according to most authorities, it is preferable that a woman say Birkat HaGomel for herself in the presence of a minyan.

Whoa! For herself? With a minyan? Isn’t that how the Temple was destroyed?

3.) Nowhere in the Laws of Erev Shabbat does it mention that candle-lighting is a “woman’s special privilege” or that “it is preferable for a woman to do it”. Nor does it say in the Laws of Mourner’s Kaddish that “women shouldn’t say the Mourner’s Kaddish”.

3.) Koren acknowledges that women are also obligated in Kiddush. Not only in their laws on Kiddush (#454: “Women are obligated in this mitzva, and a woman is permitted to say Kiddush for herself and others.”), but in their utter lack of need to inject their ideology via omission. When speaking of Kiddush throughout the siddur, Koren always includes “under the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah”, not “Bar Mitzvah” and hope we won’t notice. That’s important.

4.) Speaking of which, Koren doesn’t include its laws within the body of the siddur. It leaves them for the end. For example, when I read the brachot for the tallit, I am not subjected to a big grey box at the bottom saying “Women should not wear a man’s vessel.” Same for the brachot for tefillin. And through the text, it includes “one does this” or “some say the following”. No “a man wraps the tefillin around his arm seven times”, because whatever the writers of Koren may believe personally, they leave it at home.

Unlike ArtScroll.

5.) Customs are treated as just that—customs. Through my Koren, I see “it is the custom that…” or “some have the custom to say this standing”, not “we do this”, or “we believe that”. In my Koren Sacks siddur, the English commentary doesn’t tell me I’m going to Sheol if I don’t follow the custom; instead it gives me a brief synopsis of why a certain thing is the custom. For the HaKorbanot stuff, for example, it says: “There are different customs as to how many passages are to be said, and one should follow the custom of one’s congregation.” Elsewhere, it says “Tachanun is not said in the presence of a groom (and some say a bride).”

5.) There is a Zeved Habat section, which is surprisingly full and doesn’t just consist of two psalms or something. As far as I can see, Zeved Habat is conducted in the synagogue with a rabbi and a congregation (I’ve heard it called by different names), and that it’s already a “longstanding custom of the Sephardim and increasingly adopted by Ashkenazim”. Better yet:

If food is served at the ceremony, the meal has religious significance (seudat mitzva) and should be accompanied by words of Torah.

And the ceremony totally ends with this line:

All say: Our sister, may you grow to become thousands of myriads.

How fun is that?

There is also a fairly long Prayer After Childbirth that is said in the synagogue and requires congregational responses and possibly even the rabbi. Like the Zeved Habat, Koren Sacks attempts to invest it with religious significance:

In Temple times, mothers would offer a sacrifice after the birth of a child (Lev. 12:6-8). No record exists of a formal prayer offered on such occasions: there may have been no fixed text (1031).

These are two ceremonies that I hope really do catch on because of “what a siddur said”.

(The only thing that’s a little weird about Koren is that their Prayers to Be Said Before Death comes literally right after their Prayers for Illness and Prayers for the Recovery of Illness. Yeah, that’s a good message.)

Basically, I like Koren because it’s very clean and direct. It doesn’t shamelessly insist that I accept its ideology, it’s not part of a vast empire, and it’s not overextending its market. More importantly, it’s a siddur, and not a nonnegotiable ideology. And Modern Orthodoxy (and for that matter, Conservatism) seriously needs a new player in the market.

…It’s time to get rid of your ArtScrolls.

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.

Can there be a community without rabbinical leadership?

My Torah study partner (and a commenter!) got me thinking about this question originally; the conversation went something along the lines of my saying I wanted to go post-denominational and her saying I shouldn’t go shopping around for a psak, and that once you find a community you like you’ve got to be in it for the long haul and listen to your rabbi because you’re in it for better or for worse.

So, is it wrong to “shop around” for a psak (assuming that you’re not only in it for the “most lenient answer”)? And why is it important to secure one from an ordained rabbi when we may know just as much about a given subject? This is quite noticeable in the Conservative world. Although I don’t know exactly how it works in Orthodoxy, the Conservative model pretty much was described above: you pick a community, and listen to your rabbi (who listens to the CJLS). If you don’t like it, you can leave…but once you do you ought to stay there. And you certainly can’t live by your own psak.

[...]Conservative leaders claim that independent minyanim are “Conservative congregations flying a Liberian flag”[...]But the same Conservative leaders would claim that Conservative central institutions, such as the CJLS, have the authority to determine policies and halacha that Conservative congregations should aspire to. Does this include “Conservative congregations flying a Liberian flag”? If so, then they seem to be making the absurd claim that the CJLS (etc.) automatically has plenary jurisdiction over any Jewish community that davens in Hebrew without a mechitza (or whatever criteria they’re using) or has Ramah alumni among its participants, regardless of whether that community ever consented to this.) [Mah Rabu]

It’s interesting, as someone who’s quickly becoming post-denominational, to consider the environment in which such a thing might happen. It assumes two axioms: That there are cohesive, leader-led communities; and that this is the only way Judaism may function (so thus any community whose practice looks Conservative ought to be absorbed into the CJLS).

I can’t tell if this is a new thing, an old thing, an Orthodox/Conservative thing, an American thing, or what. Most half-willing Orthodox converts (like me…might just be RCA) are getting the brunt of this when it’s demanded of them that they move to both a major city and an approved Orthodox synagogue. They can’t make their own community or join a self-made one. Why?

I think it must have something to do with this compulsive need to compartmentalize. Why else would anyone be so wont to call a self-defined independent minyan “Conservative”? (Unless those Conservative leaders are just jealous, man.) But never mind the denominations for the moment. We all know that Judaism is “community-based” (I re-realize this every week as I sit alone in my room waiting for Shabbat to be over). I don’t argue that. But must it be leader-led? And if it must, does that leader need to be a rabbi? Not someone capable of making local halachic decisions, like, I guess, a rosh yeshiva or something might be able to do. But someone who’s received veritable semicha.

This question is way real to me because I’m not only post-denominational in ideology—it’s by necessity. For example, I recently emailed my Conservative rabbi asking if I could wear tzitzit, and he wrote back saying: “My suggestion is wait until you convert and then you decide. I don’t think you have to fulfill the mitzvoth now, but it is your decision.”

Because I care about halacha, his opinion is important to me, but at the same time I know I’m not waiting until I convert (after following my own unencumbered line of thought to its own conclusions), so therefore I have to revert to the very non-Conservative idea that I’m Jewish enough to obligate myself if I want to so there. I’m very good at defying authority. So, it’s quite likely that I will be floating around on the edges for a while—no rabbi, no cohesive synagogue center, no “stable” establishment with dollars coming in and out—so what? It may not be pragmatically-minded, but then again neither is a degree in Religious Studies.

I happen to believe that a basic knowledge of everyday laws and a few intricacies are all a community needs to function for a good while (for permanency it’d need some educated members, naturally), but they don’t need to be “led” by a rabbi who on the day-to-day (might I remind you) doesn’t do anything that anyone couldn’t get up to do with some practice—and maybe some skills in Talmud and knowledge of well-known rulings etc. They do it in the Jewish Catalog; they do it on spiritual retreats; they do it in institutes and long-term meetups—so, why only sometimes? Can there be a self-functioning, educated, permanent community with neither rabbi nor denominational affiliation?

Why can’t my rabbi get a vote, not a veto?