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Friar Yid

Playing Devil's Advocate since 2006.

Updated: 2017-10-30T00:09:04.367-07:00


Bibliogestions: Summer 2013


Quick takes:- I just finished Samuel Heilman's 30-year-old memoir about doing his early sociology fieldwork among Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. I rather enjoyed this short meditation-- verging on a Misnagdic approach to 71 1/2 Mystics-- on the frustrations of a rationalist modern Jew trying to integrate himself into the world of Talmud study-- to stop observing others long enough to let the process of studying touch and change himself. Heilman passes between various study circles in Mea Shearim, dabbling among the Breslovers for a few chapters, all the while struggling and doubting his own bona fides as an Orthodox Jew if he cannot truly engage in what he sees as the quintessential Jewish act. What I found most refreshing was the relative ease and fluency in which Heilman was able to enter the worlds of the Jerusalem Haredim. I'm not sure whether this was due to Heilman's Hebrew skills, his cultural knowledge, or the differences in social context in the mid-80s versus today, but it was a refreshing and warm portrait of a community that today is more than often painted in shrill caricatures (including, according to some of his critics, by Heilman himself!). And, while the details are obviously different, I saw quite a bit of my own spiritual search in Heilman's, and found some of his insights and experiences quite fascinating. It was also entertaining to note how more culturally fluent I've become in the last 10-plus years.- It turns out Mitnagdim did more than just stay in their study houses. Arieh Morgenstern uses institutional records among the Yeshivish community in Israel to chart decades of proto-Zionist work an immigration beginning in the early 1800s. While a bit dry, I found Morgenstern's work well worth the effort, as it helps provide valuable context for the early Yeshivish population in Israel (and Europe). Morgenstern shows that beyond Torah study, many Mitnagic leaders and laymen were also involved in messianism, political activism (and infighting), and settling Israel before Herzl and "modern" Zionism came onto the scene. I originally found Morgenstern's book through a few articles about the Hurva synagogue, which is closely tied with the history of Lithuanian Jews in Israel. Even if the book is a bit much for you, I highly recommend the articles.- On a similar note, I recently finished David Assaf's book on the seamier side of Hasidic history. Like Morgenstern's book, the fact that it took me about 3 years to read the whole thing took a little bit away from its impact, but on the whole I found it quite readable, engaging, and refreshing in terms of looking at Hasidic figures and culture from a scholarly lens, rather than a specific polemical or hagiographic perspective. Assaf got a lot of attention (and a fair amount of criticism) when his book first came out (particularly the Hebrew edition) as being just a series of sensational attacks on Hasidism, but my take on it was that the focus was more on trying to uncover, if not "the truth" behind specific personalities and events, then at least to trace the history of the accounts and stories about them (particularly useful is his contrast of Hasidic sources, maskilic sources, and historical records, when available, to try to get to the bottom of various stories). For instance, what happened to the Seer of Lublin in 1814 when he fell out the window of his house? What caused the fall? Hasidic stories have represented it as a miraculous but aborted attempt to bring the messiah. Contemporary maskilic works suggested he was drunk. There is even a possibility it may have been a suicide attempt. Which one is true? Ultimately, Assaf isn't sure, but it's an interesting journey along the way.As a family historian who is often most intrigued by the scandalous stories, I recognize and understand the urge and tendency to try to protect the memories of one's ancestors, ideological or biological. Similarly, I think there can be a danger in giving too much validation to the desire to snoop through other people's dirty laundry in the name of "truth" (something today's[...]

Evolution-- my parents' and mine


Mrs. Yid and I visited my parents last weekend at their new house. It's in a retirement community, a mock-Italian village in the middle of rural California a few hours from the city. The combination of the hills, tile roofs, massive construction projects going on and imported vineyards and olive groves give it a quasi-surreal feeling, like a cross between the Truman Show and a West Bank settlement. I've taken to calling it Kiryat Geffen.Anyway, the weekend was nice. It was easy to chat and read Saturday afternoon and avoid TV (still working on the no-screens on Shabbat thing), and after dark Mama Yid's new Jew-Bu friend Shoshana came by and we all did Havdalah. This also coincided with my mother saying she wanted to look into possibly going to services at some point and asking whether I would recommend she check out the Reform place or "this Chuh-BAD thing." Oh, Mom.It's been a rather intense summer for them. For all of us, really. My parents moved from their house of 25 years to Kiryat Geffen. The move has been in the works for 2 years and we've all been working hard to get them out on time. The last few weeks of June I was over there every day, helping to pack them up. In the process I went through a lot of old family trinkets, too. The very last day, I went by and gathered up a few odds and ends. I also had one last thing to take: the family mezuzah. I pried it off the door and took it home, to keep for future generations. I'm the chronicler; it's my job.This past Sunday, Mrs. Yid and I put up a new mezuzah on my parents' door. Baby steps, always baby steps.The other night Abbot Yid was in town and took me out for sushi. When my order came (mackerel plus an assortment of sushi), I noticed that one of them was a shrimp. I asked him if he wanted it. While he was chewing, I could tell he was mulling something over."I have a question," he said."Shoot.""I'm still trying to figure out what's going on with you and Mrs. Yid. You know, with the clothes and keeping kosher and all that. Because, not to be judgmental or anything, but in my mind, someone keeps those rules because they believe they come from God, and you guys don't strike me as believers."I had known this was coming, and I was actually happy to have a chance to explain in a low-pressure setting."Well, lots of people describe Judaism as a mixture of belief and practice. We've been in the process of learning a lot ABOUT belief and practice and we decided we wanted to start trying some of it on. We're in the process of digesting theology but it seemed like if we were going to give it a real try, we would need to take on some practice, too. Because if we're going to try to live Jewishly and raise Jewish children, we need to have some idea of what that means."If you look at it on a continuum, with 10 being totally religious and educated and 0 being totally secular and ignorant, if you're starting at a 10 and you decide to only practice on a 7 or a 5 or whatever, you have the knowledge and the background to make those decisions and adjustments-- you know HOW to scale down. But if you're starting at the other end, it's a lot harder to find a right medium for yourself if you don't try different elements of practice."And for me, it's also a mindfulness piece. Actually doing something, putting an action to the concept, is powerful. Keeping kosher, even if only in baby steps, not only has us think about the whole process of Jewish eating, but also about how we want to eat ethically (for instance, our recent decision to stop buying Empire products due to their environmental abuses).He seemed intrigued. I continued:"Similarly, I think it's really valuable for liberal Jews to be visible, as Jews. At first I was worried about doing something wrong or reflecting badly on Jewish people. But I think it's also an opportunity. If my students or neighbors or friends have good experiences with a visible Jew, a Jew identifying as a Jew, then so much the better. I don't want the only people with yarmulkes on being the Orthodox.""Now you're sounding like a missi[...]

Searching for authenticity-- and a way to express it


I've finally bit the bullet and started wearing a kippa full-time. Yes, even at work (hooray for summer school-- an easy way to take baby steps). Initially all my co-workers kept asking me if it was a holiday (previously I only wore on on holidays). I had wanted to have a good answer (and I'm still working on one for when school starts), but the first time someone asked me about it this summer, all I could come up with was, "I'm practicing." (Technically true, and slightly witty, but hardly the clearest answer.)My friend Avraham, who has been wearing a kippa full-time for years and was my inspiration that I, as a "not perfect, and not Orthodox" Jew, could still wear a kippa if I wanted to, works as a scientist, so after the first few times he was asked about it, everyone at work knew he wore one and just moved on.One of the challenges of deciding to wear a kippa at work and being a teacher is that every year my class turns over, which means I will need to re-explain myself. I don't mind this, but it's something I need some time to mull over to decide how best to do it. I've spent several years worrying about how people would react to me wearing a kippa in public-- and while it's true, as Avraham said, most people either ignore it or have reactions ranging from neutral to positive, I still worry about the perception of either pushing Judaism on my students, or of simply being "too Jewish." Though I'm about 95% sure that most of this is due to my parents' reactions and baggage (especially Abbot Yid's) and my own personal anxiety, it's still something to work through.That said, so far it's gone well. My new students in summer school (4th graders) asked me about it the first few days and I presented it as a family tradition, which they seemed to be fine with. Now they've made a game of counting how many kippot I own.Looks like I'm going to need to go on a trip to the Judaica store. :)Another thing that's come up this summer is Tisha B'Av. Last year I was off so it was easy to observe Tisha B'Av. This year, I'm working and so I needed to arrange for a substitute. As someone that struggles with excessive anxiety, especially relating to work, I really hate to take time away from work, particularly when I know it will impact other people. Every extra step I have to do, calling a sub, writing up plans, negotiating lessons with my partner teacher, adds another layer of doubt as to whether it's worth it to take off.But because I had decided to fast, I knew it would be better if I wasn't at school. So I went ahead and took the day and now I'm home writing this.When my colleagues knew I was taking a day off, everyone wanted to know what the holiday was. The trick here, as some of you who work with non-Jewish co-workers know, is that Tisha B'Av is a holiday that doesn't have a very simple summary like "New Year's." It's a very specific, very Jewish-focused holiday, and on top of that, it's post-biblical. (At least for Shavuot I was able to tell my Catholic supervisor, "I think you call it Pentecost.") When I told my partner teacher, "It commemorates the destruction of the Jewish temple," her eyes just glazed over. "Well... have a happy... holiday?" Bless her for trying.Luckily when I told my students I'd be out they didn't want to know why there was a holiday, they just wanted to know the name. One had a great reaction:"Tisha B'Av? That's a fun sounding name! When I see my neighbors this afternoon, I'm going to wish them a happy Tisha B'Av!"This is why I teach.Of course, it wasn't until after school was over that I realized that there's a very recent analogue that my students (at least my older ones) would definitely understand: Tisha B'Av is like the Jewish 9/11. Not literally, of course-- but as a conceptual bridge to understand national mourning and commemoration, I think it works rather well. Will have to chew on this more.Anyway, all this is to say that even though things are still a work in progress (like Shabbat, and making it to services more than a couple times a month), [...]

Bibliogestions: Spring 2013


I've taken a long vacation from politics, which is probably from the best. The governments of America and Israel continue to disappoint, terrible things continue to happen in the world, and every time I turn on talk radio on my drive to work, my urge to punch the dial rises. (Mrs. Yid has banned me from playing anything on the AM dial when she's in the car.)On the other hand, work and personal study/practice have been going well. I blogged about the latest shul-happenings over at TCFS, but I've also been pleased at having been slowly getting through some meaty Judaica books over the last few months. Here are some highlights:- Shabbetai Zvi was really, really nuts. But also a pretty interesting figure inasmuch as he was able to convince as much as 1/3 of the world's Jewish population that he was the Messiah. John Freely, a Turkish historian of British extraction, though not Jewish, does a great job delving into the medieval background of the time as well as the place. He also capable dissects Zvi's theology and helps chart his legacy among his various branches of followers. I feel like this was great background to prep me for reading about Jacob Frank.- Yehuda Amital was a true mensch and a great model for our time. Personally traditional in practice, he understood the primacy of ethical behavior and cooperation with people as well as institutions that he didn't always agree with. Perhaps one of the best examples of a principled moderate within the last 50 years, in so many different spheres and contexts: politics, culture, religion, the Holocaust, and more. Amital doesn't shy away from wrestling with harsh truths and sometimes contradictory values, and frequently comes to some sort of decent, if not always perfect, compromise. He's also quite admirable to me in that he tried to avoid creating a cult of personality around himself and emphasized the need for his students-- and by extension, everyone-- to think independently for themselves.Amital would be the first to admit he wasn't perfect, and his principled moderation has its limits. If you believe in certain absolute values, be they territorial maximalism a-la Gush Emunim, or full equality for women and GLBT Jews, for example, Amital poses a bit of a conundrum. There were causes that were important to him that he seems to have subjugated in order to not go too far against the status quo. In some ways, it's easy to look back on his actions with nostalgia and say, "If only we could all be more moderate like him." But at the same time, I recognize that there are absolute values worth fighting for, and sometimes they require the willingness to fight the status quo, and not always try to change it from within. However Amital's ability to be honest about conflicting values and at least try to balance them (while still, in principle and practice, trying to be open to other points of view) makes him a very powerful, inspiring, and IMO, modern figure that more Jews could benefit from learning about and from.- Elie Wiesel continues to inspire my Jewish imagination. Wiesel isn't for everybody, and sometimes his style can be a little off-putting, but I think I have enough right-to-left brain that I'm basically able to admire his poetics (particularly impressive given it's in translation) while also not letting it distract from the ideas. After having a couple of Wiesel books kicking around for a while I finally got around to finishing them and was quite impressed with the force of personality and imagination of the early Hasidic masters.It may just be my own biases, but I think Wiesel is at his best when describing the "darker" rebbes who lived in poverty or conflict but who still had wonderful human qualities rather than the fancier rebbes like the Rizhiner, who depending on your POV come across as verging on exploitive and pompous (despite Wiesel's attempts to present their opulence as a "facade", such as the claim that the Rizhiner wore golden shoes but no soles on the bot[...]

Profoundly Not Ok


Real life has been busy, so the blog hasn't. More to come, but first... geez. We've talked about Lazer Brody's lack of sense, timing, and self-awareness many times before. We've also discussed the fact that often Lazer seems to genuinely want to use his words to help people heal, which I respect.

But here's the thing, Lazer. Stuff like this... It doesn't help. At all.
We've been flooded with letters of grieving people asking about the meaning of this. All I can say is that Nathan and Raizy were undoubtedly flawless tzaddikim whom Hashem chose as ritual sacrifices for all of Klal Yisroel. Such a tragedy obligates every single one of us to wake up, assess ourselves and return to Hashem.
You know what isn't going to bring anybody close to anything remotely resembling traditional Judaism? Suggesting that innocents being killed in tragic, senseless accidents is part of God demanding ritual sacrifice. In such a tragedy anybody with an ounce of sense and humility is obligated to do nothing more than say a prayer for the dead, support their families, and shut their damn mouths.
The couple's last name - Glauber - is Yiddish for "believer". We have nothing else to lean on but our emuna, our belief in Hashem.
Stop. Just stop. Stop the pat answers, stop pretending to know what God's "plan" is to make horrible car accidents make sense, and stop leaning on gematria or surname etymology or any other nonsense a first year yeshiva students learns in Half-Assing your Drash 101. People are dead, and this is not ok. Give condolences, start a charity fund, but PLEASE, no more. People are watching and hurting, and this... isn't helping anyone.

Some people shouldn't make history movies


As friends who know us IRL can attest, my wife and I are rather different. One area where this comes out is in our movie preferences. I tend to like movies that are more story or character driven, whereas my better-looking half enjoys what she calls "stylish world-building" through costumes, sets, what have you. I like Braveheart, she likes Eraserhead, that sort of thing.Since I read a lot of history, I am particularly engaged by movies that tell historical stories well. Everything doesn't have to be at a college thesis level of accuracy, but it is nice to see directors, writers and producers taking their source material seriously, especially when it's a heavier subject or one that continues to have a lot of modern-day implications/ramifications.And then there are... the other guys. The guys that don't seem to feel any obligation to the history behind their stories, who become so wrapped up in the story they've made up or decided to tell that the real history is forced to take a back seat. A way back seat.One of the directors whose approach to history I absolutely can't stand is Tarantino. Firstly, because I just don't like his work. I dislike his aesthetics, I dislike his writing, he and I have vastly different ideas of what makes something funny, and so on. But more than that, he just seems to take such a low-brow approach to telling history that it's like you're punished for knowing anything about his subjects. When I saw Inglorious Basterds, it didn't fill me with Jewish pride, and it didn't make me sit back and chuckle at the "clever" inversion of Jewish power tropes. It made me angry that Tarantino thought the best Holocaust story worth telling was some crap about fake Jewish commandos beating up Nazis with baseball bats. There are countless real stories of real people he could have used, at least for a starting-point, dealing with real emotions, real consequences and real history, and instead the Holocaust became a set piece for him to talk about... scalping? About how it's fun to kill Nazis? Feature Brad Pitt in a bad mustache and worse accent? Make Hitler jokes?I found Basterds frustrating, but at least it wasn't as fundamentally upsetting Benigni's Life is Beautiful was. I found that movie offensive on just about every level, and have continued to struggle to understand how people saw anything to like in that movie. I'm sorry, but I have a really hard time letting myself drift into fantasy when WE'RE AT AUSCHWITZ. It just kind of kills the fantasy for me, and causes me to wonder about the mental health or empathy levels of the people that can. I don't like set piece movies as a general rule, but there's some history, especially tragic history, that seems really inappropriate to use for these purposes. I don't need to see the Sucker Punch take on Hiroshima or the Irish Potato Famine.So too, I am very skeptical of Tarantino's latest poject, Django Unchained (I will admit upfront I have not seen the movie and am going on the comments of others). From what I've read it sounds like Tarantino has again decided to take a major topic in world history and use it as a background to insert irritating and context-less characters whose primary motivation is to be awful to each other. Color me unimpressed.There are two big reasons why I find Tarantino so distasteful on these kinds of movies. First of all, he seems to be almost proud about swooping in from the wings to tell someone else's story without any background of what the real history was or what its ongoing impacts are on the people it happened to. Tarantino's blase approach puts very little effort into understanding how Jews understand or process the Holocaust, or blacks understand or process slavery. History is treated as infinitely malleable and apparently you can have your characters do anything, no matter how unfactual, and because it's "alternative history," we're supposed to buy it. For Tarantino there's apparently no differen[...]

Wrapping up the Year


So, how about 2012? Here are some things I meant to blog about but didn't get to:Personal stuff- First of all, I prepared a gigantic Hanukkah presentation for my middle-schoolers and it went quite well. Highlights included funny music videos (Matisyahu, Maccabeats and Eran Baron-Cohen), lots of latkes and donut holes, and re-enacting the death of Elazar Avran with a student volunteer, an expo marker, and me as the mortally wounded elephant.Some people object to an ecumenical Hanukkah message, pointing out that the holiday celebrates people who were emphatically not tolerant of others. I think the history can be presented either way-- in the context of a classroom, I think it's legitimate to frame it as a conversation-starter about personal and national rights-- specifically, the right to be different and live/worship as you please (or as I framed it, rather than seeing it as a Jewish Christmas, Hanukkah is better understood as a Jewish mash-up of July 4th and Thanksgiving-- combining national as well as religious significance and rights). Would Judah Maccabee have been ok with the various expressions of Judaism we see today? Probably not. Then again, I know plenty of Jews-- myself included-- who wouldn't be very ok with killing a guy for worshiping an idol or running around forcibly circumcising your neighbors. I reserve the right to pick and choose.- On a related note, we visited Mrs. Yid's mispocha. We were informed we would be attending midnight mass with the family. We wore our respective Jewish headgear (scarf and kippa). As Mrs. Yid predicted, there were precisely zero questions and comments from my in-laws, so it's impossible to tell what they thought of it. (Note that this is the exact opposite of what happens with my parents, who are nothing if not vocal-- about everything.) To celebrate Christmas, the church rang bells and set off fireworks. Since this was 12:30 am, I'm sure this did not endear them with their neighbors.This was the first time I have flown with a kippa on. It is the first time in a long time I have been "randomly searched." Mrs. Yid notes that she has been "randomly searched" every time since covering her hair a year and a half ago.I find it much easier to wear a kippa in public when I am somewhere I have never been and around people who don't know me. Food for thought.- Our friend Avraham had his adult bar mitzvah along with 6 other congregants. Half of the b'nai mitzvah class were converts, and many of them were dedicated, longtime members. It was very cool to see hear all the different stories and paths that have brought people to Judaism in general and our shul in particular. Also, after shul Abbot Yid called me and asked why I hadn't picked up earlier that morning. When I told him we were at services he scoffed, "Oh, I'm sorry, you were busy BEING HOLY!" I continue to wonder when he will get over this stuff. Probably never.- I am leading Carlebach davening this Shabbat. Wish me luck!National/Media stuff- Dennis Prager has a university. Considering he spends his time writing crap like how "as a Jew, I love Christmas because it makes me feel tingly all over," this pains me greatly.- Israel is having an election. All the candidates seem either outright incompetent or supremely unsatisfying. I am intrigued by the shake-up among the religious, left and nationalist right political sectors, though at this point it seems way too early to tell what will come from any of it. (Though big kudoses to Shas for managing to be racist against Africans and bigoted towards Russian converts in the same election cycle. Mazel tov, jerks.)- With all the school shootings happening, it's a strange time to be a teacher. I find it very irritating that so much of the national media/random pundits feel qualified to blather on about what teachers "should" do during a school shooting without apparently knowing anything about school safety procedures. At every[...]

When editors take a nap


Did the Jerusalem Post just decide it doesn't need editors? You'd think after that ridiculous front-page typo a few years ago they'd realize someone should probably look at their stories before they post them all willy-nilly. Who do they think they are, me?

Anyway, here's the latest head scratcher from the Post:

If you don't know, the man in the picture is Yoel Kraus, a longtime activist from Neturei Karta in Jerusalem, a guy so anti-Zionist he has his own cow so as not to taint his holy stomach with "Zionist milk." No, really.

So here's the million dollar question: what's the relevance of showing a picture of a well-known Israeli activist who as far as I know has never left his zip code with a story happening in Poland? Were they trying to go with a random "background shot" of a Haredi guy and just wound up picking Kraus? How did no one spot this?

The Wars of the Jews, cont.


Garnel wrote a nice comment. I had so much to say it became another post. Whoops.Garnel writes:Here's what I see as the fundamental difference between the Orthodox and the non-orthodox.The Orthodox ask: how can I be a good Jew? Let me open up the halacha books and find out.The Heterdox ask: how can I be a good Jew? Well, my values include X, Y, and Z so I'll say that those values are Jewish values and be a good Jew. Now obviously this is not about conscious statements but when you hear heterodox people talking about how supporting gay marriage or unrestricted abortion is a Jewish value then you get the impression that heterodox Judaism is defined as "Here are my values, and I'll call them Jewish". And then an adjective in front appears. In addition, there's a branding disagreement. For the Orthodox there's a clear definition of Judaism - matan Torah, one God, supremacy of halacha, etc. Now within Orthodoxy there is a battle being wages over a bunch of peripherals, stuff you identify in your post like the rationalists vs the irrationalists (eg. Slifkin controversy) but the basics are what define Judaism. So when someone comes along and says "Well I'm a Reform Jew so I practice Judaism even though I don't believe in Matan Torah" we look over and say "Well that's like saying that Sprite you're holding is really a Coke because you want to have Coke but not to actually buy it.My response: Thanks for your comment, Garnel. It's nice to be able to discuss topics like this without things getting too heated.I think that your description of heterodox Jews is true in some cases. However just like there's a range among Orthodoxy, there's a wide range of what makes someone a heterodox Jew (for the purposes of this discussion I'm separating secular Jews from heterodox Jews, whom I define as people that attend a synagogue at least once a year and/or have membership in a synagogue), ranging from minimally engaged 2-times a year Jews all the way up to heterodox rabbis, and I think most intellectually honest people would be hard-pressed to claim that children can spend eight or twelve years in heterodox Jewish day schools and come out of that not knowing anything about Judaism. You may question the prism through which the information or the message is diffused, and you may be correct that the areas emphasized may not be the same as in an Orthodox school, but you have to at least concede that some heterodox Jews have a basic, even fairly detailed, knowledge of Judaism-- though their interpretations of what "Jewish values" are may differ from many Orthodox perspectives. (I realize plenty of heterodox Jews don't send their kids to day schools, but for this discussion I'd like to talk about them a little bit to at least establish that committed/educated Jews exist outside of Orthodoxy.)Furthermore, I think it's not unreasonable for people to integrate their Jewish values with other values or causes that are important to them, particularly since there are plenty of areas where modern and Jewish values/principles overlap. Tikkun olam gets a bad rap as being overused, but part of being a good Jew is being a good person, and many mitzvot can legitimately be thought of as "good deeds." We may disagree over the specifics of mitzvot ben adam l'makom, but everyone agrees, at least on paper, that mitzvot ben adam l'chaveiro are important. Visiting the sick, giving to charity, not humiliating others, being stewards of the environment, etc... These are all modern values as well as Jewish ones and I don't see why people interpreting their actions as least partially through a Jewish filter is such a bad thing.Yes, some people may just take their contemporary values and call them Jewish. On the other hand, people who are more educated and thoughtful about Judaism and its values may be better able to articulate where[...]

Committing to Engagement


Garnel had a post last week about the Reform and Conservative movements that was framed around the idea that non-Orthodoxy's raison-d'etre is a "lack of commitment." He believes that this, in turn, is precisely the reason why so those movements are losing members. As he put it,how do you build a strong feeling of commitment to a philosophy based on a lack of one? A movement that makes any actual Jewish practice optional can't expect to raise large numbers for a rally. No one is going to pack a stadium with a crowd shouting "We want to do whatever we want and still be considered good Jews!"  Yes, there will always be candidates for their so-called rabbinic programs but how many dedicated pro-feminist and pro-gay people who also have a liking for Bible studies are there out there?  And how can they connect to congregations that see a lack of connection as part of their Jewish identity?Let's start by putting aside the strawmen of non-Orthodox Jews perpetually searching for the perfect rabbi who will give them permission to do whatever they want while still being declared "good Jews." I don't know anyone who lives that way and if they do, I hope they get some help. While we're at it, we can also shelve the line about liberal congregation members viewing "a key part" of their identity being a "lack of connection."You know, because the whole point of joining a community is so you can keep feeling good and alienated. (Is Garnel confusing unaffiliated and non-Orthodox here? Is he vaguely alluding to the challenges of non-Orthodox kiruv? I can't tell.)Anyway, this was the part that really tweaked me:Reform needs Orthodoxy (we supply them with all those OTD's) but the American Jewish community does not need inauthenticity.  It needs an open admission that a lack of interest in proper Judaism is not in itself a genuine form of Judaism and to stand up and create real standards that define them.First, I agree with Garnel that the primary problems in American Jewish life today are a lack of interest and engagement in Jewish education, culture, identity, and so on. There's no question that the liberal movements are shrinking, though there are plenty of reasons offered as to why.However, no one is served by simplistic, reductionist and ultimately dishonest depictions of what liberal Judaism-- or liberal Jews-- believes.Let's start with the movements themselves: from my research and experience, both personal and academic, I strongly disagree that the ethos of non-Orthodox movements is "a lack of interest in proper Judaism". Quite frankly, this gives Orthodoxy more credit and importance in the eyes of the non-Orthodox than it deserves. Liberal rabbis don't go to seminary for six years to spite the Orthodox. I don't wake up on Saturdays and go to shul because I'm thinking, "Yay, I can't wait to go do Judaism WRONG!" The engaged non-Orthodox Jews I know have many affirmative reasons they choose to be Jewish, and choose their particular path in Judaism. In my experience, "I don't want to be Orthodox" isn't often on the list.The simple matter is, for many American Jews, including those with strong Jewish educations and who are committed to Judaism and Jewish identity, Orthodoxy is not even an option. A skeptical or scientific POV-- which is increasingly common these days-- is largely incompatible with the philosophical and theological demands of Orthodoxy, and if you don't have those as a motivator, it becomes extremely difficult to take on mitzvot that have practical ramifications in your daily life-- to say nothing of the fact that Orthodox belief and practice contain some things that, to modern eyes are, at best, extremely challenging, and at worst, deeply problematic, even offensive. And, as Garnel wrote in his post about YCT, Orthodox culture is increasingly les[...]

Who decides?


One of the blogs I have on my sidebar is by Mark Paredes, a Mormon blogger at the Jewish Journal who writes about Mormon-Jewish issues. I was going through some of his recent archives and found an article from last month in which Paredes talked about Mormon-Jewish dialogue. That's all well and good, and Parades makes some excellent points about how to do interfaith communication right (for starters, if you want to understand what members of a religion believe, your first step should be to ask members of the faith to speak for themselves, not their critics). However I couldn't help but notice a paragraph where Paredes mentioned the one continual sticking point between our communities:I deliberately left out any mention of proxy temple ordinances in my speech, which Rabbi Wolpe was quick to note. I took the opportunity, which I will also avail myself of here, to announce that I will no longer discuss the proxy ordinances issue in future presentations. Quite frankly, I’m tired of hearing about it. A small group of Jewish leaders has blown this issue way out of proportion for 20 years; even they decided last year to move on to agenda items that actually affect living Jews, instead of worrying about what a few disobedient Mormons are doing in their own temples. I’ve blogged several times on this issue, and don’t plan to spend more time or effort explaining it. Instead, I will refer curious Jews to the rabbis at the Simon Wiesenthal Center so that they can tell them by what authority they are authorized to speak on behalf of the dead and explain just why they felt it was necessary to carry on this campaign for two decades with the help of an anti-Mormon researcher.This is where I start to lose respect for Paredes, because while it is true there are plenty of other meaningful and important topics to discuss about the Mormon-Jewish relationship, the fact that Paredes has decided that he's sick of talking about this is galling as well as troubling. I thought part of the point of Paredes' talks is to promote dialogue; so I'm rather confused about the logic of barring proxy baptisms as a legitimate discussion item just because Paredes is sick of the topic. Guess what, Mark? SO ARE WE. The reality is the reason this continues to be a sore point is because members of your community keep doing it; your response should be to encourage your church to better police its members rather than chastise Jews for daring to be offended that you continue, after 20 years, to apparently not care that you're doing something lots of us find offensive.At his suggestion, I took the time to look up some of Paredes' old posts on the issue. Not surprisingly, they weren't all that satisfactory. Parades repeatedly points out that Mormons believe that their relatives are required to have proxy baptisms, and then usually pats the church on the back for being so magnanimous to exempt "Jewish Holocaust victims," even though other people would like their relatives' names taken out as well:No one thinks that more than a handful of Mormons (out of nearly 14million today) continue to defy the Church’s policy on name submissions. In other words, we have 99.9999% compliance. While the LDS Church is hierarchical in nature, it is not a police state. If a rebellious member insists on submitting the name of a Jewish non-relative for temple ordinances, his efforts will likely besuccessful. When the Church is made aware of the improper submission, it can and does act to remove it from the ordinances database. Indeed, this is a special promise made only to Jews, though others have requested it as well. After all, Mormons should not be submiting the names of any non-relatives—whether Catholic, Buddhist, Brazilian or Zulu—for temple ordinances. Howeve[...]

Growth Spurts


Last weekend Mrs. Yid and I attended our first-ever synagogue retreat. I blogged about it more in-depth at TCFS, but one of the big things that happened was that I was asked to lead services on Friday night, and I did, and it was wonderful. Not only am I proud about leading services (which I really, really am), but also about all the other ways in which I put myself out there, beyond my comfort zone. I talked to people I don't usually talk to, engaged in ways I usually opt out of, and even drove back from the hotel (50 miles on the highway without incident; keep in mind I've only been driving since August)! Work has been intense but is also going well; again, I'm doing things that are challenging, sometimes downright difficult, but the important thing is that I'm doing them, and thereby getting the benefit of overcoming the obstacles.

This last year has been a big year of growth for me, and it's a really good feeling. Some of it, like driving, is something that I had been meaning to do for a long time and was just holding me back. Some of it, like my job, is something I've been working at for a while and is very rewarding to finally start to see some results in. And some of it, like becoming more involved with shul, and even leading a service, is something that I almost can't believe I've done; it doesn't feel like something I'd be able to do. I know I'll never be a social butterfly, but for the first time in a long while, I'm starting to realize that I'm capable of stretching myself farther than I gave myself credit for. And that's a great feeling.

Post-election thoughts


I've been meaning to do an election post, but hadn't gotten to it. I was never all that political, but there's something about being overloaded with election crap for months and months that just makes me want to beat every political talking head with campaign signs until they go into a coma. Anyway, here are a few brief thoughts:First of all, after hearing about how close the election might be, I decided I wasn't going to waste any energy or emotion on the TV idiots like I did in 2000. Instead, on election night, Mrs. Yid and I had a quiet dinner and then watched a silly horror movie, deliberately not checking any news until it was over. (Partially this was out of principle, partially because I find it incredibly irritating to watch newspeople killing time while they pretend they have new information when they damned well know they don't.)As it turns out, the right overestimated how fed up/scared/brainwashed the American people are (and I have been listening to the conservative radio station in the car for the last two weeks as they spin and spin it, trying to explain how a majority of Americans-- slim, but still a majority-- could possibly disagree with them). The triumphalist Jewish Republican pundits also apparently also drank the pre-election kool-aid: counter to Abraham Katsman's optimistic claim that Romney would get over 30% of the Jewish vote, he actually stalled out right around 30%, giving Obama 70%. It's true that these are lower numbers than Obama got last time (74-78%), but it's hard to tell how much of that is due to issues with Obama vs. the Democratic party itself (and considering that Katsman was predicting Obama not clearing 60%, still nothing to sneeze at). It is possible that we are seeing the seeds of a gradual Jewish drift to the right, but if that is happening, it's either happening extremely slowly or in such small numbers as to not matter. I do think that eventually there will be less of a reflexive/automatic Jewish attachment to liberal politics, which on a philosophical level is probably a good thing, but I don't see it going past 40% to the Republicans anytime soon, if ever. The reality is that most Jews are liberal, and that even ones who may lean fiscally or socially conservative are not crazy enough for the hard-right conservatives running that wing of the party these days (though if the party decides to disassociate itself from the culture nuts, that may have some ripple effects). One last gloat: Katsman, I told you American Jews don't decide their vote based on Israel. (Nor should they, IMO.)I recently saw a documentary about the polarization of US politics, and so though I'm happy my candidate won, it's really got me thinking about what's best for the country on a national level. Though I definitely have liberal pet causes, I also genuinely believe that the country is better off when governed through some sort of centrist consensus, particularly in the Legislature. The reality is that while you have crazies in both parties (and legitimate issues with both parties, as well as their media proxies), I still believe that a majority of the country is reasonable and relatively sane. Now that the dust has settled, I'm hoping that some sense will start permeating into Congress and lead to some genuine bipartisan action to fix some of the real issues we're all dealing with, rather than everybody double-downing on the rhetoric and ideology to appeal to their fringes.[...]

Israel Thoughts


I followed the recent fighting in Gaza rather closely, and though it's unclear whether Israel's made any long-term gains from it, I'm happy that the Israeli casualties were relatively low. It's interesting to compare my reactions to the fighting to my reactions in previous years: during Intifada II I was fairly critical of Israel, but over the last few years my sympathies for the Palestinians and focus on the IDF's foibles have shifted. I still recognize that the IDF isn't perfect-- and there are plenty of cases I've heard about over the years where I question individual actors' judgment-- but it's also quite clear that at least when it comes to Hamas, there aren't a lot of options at the Israelis' disposal. Two days before the cease-fire, Mrs. Yid and I were driving home in the car and I happened to put the radio onto a public access show run out of Berkeley, and the hostility toward Israel was so infuriating we both started yelling at the radio. It's quite a contrast to my first days of becoming aware of Middle East politics and discussing such topics online with people, often taking the Palestinian side, or at least playing a very strong devil's advocate for their position.I don't think I've drank the hasbara kool-aid, but after a lot of years of reading and talking about Israel and becoming closer with relatives there, I now feel more identification with it and the Israeli people. I certainly don't think of myself as Israeli, but I feel that I understand Israel much better than when I was younger. At the same time, I've tried to work to better understand Palestinian and Arab-Israeli issues and viewpoints as well, and I think that's important, too, if only so one can be educated about all the things going on there. While I continue to have sympathy towards Palestinian civilians I also recognize that the politicians and fighters in their society bear a large measure of responsibility for the ongoing conflict with Israel. Listening to the idiot on the radio talking about Hamas "bottle rockets" and comparing Gaza to the Warsaw ghetto and Israel to the Nazis, I realized that people like that are why it's becoming so hard for honest liberals to feel like they have a place in the discussion. It is true that we need to be talking about Palestinian deaths, and it is true that no military is infallible, but as soon as you've started minimizing Hamas' behavior or making ridiculous accusations or comparisons, you've lost any credibility-- or at least, you should have. I don't know whether the crazy rhetoric was just more subtle during my high school years or I wasn't listening to those kinds of people, but now I feel like I better understand what the real issues are-- and what they aren't. Israel isn't perfect, but it sure isn't genocidal (though it does have its share of morons). And, while some may accuse me of naiveté or squishiness, I don't think most Palestinians are, either-- though I do think they require major social and political shifts to get to a point where coexistence starts looking like a reality. I'm worried about the next generation of Palestinians and how they get from where they are today to where people would like them to be.What I've mostly tried to do over the last few years, though, is become more thoughtful about how and when I offer my opinions about what goes on in Israel and proto-Palestine. Because I realize that while I'm entitled to an opinion, it doesn't mean a whole lot if I'm not there, on the ground, living through what people there are living through. My opinions-- and especially, my advice-- don't mean much, because I'm not the one on the line. Th[...]

Israelis have opinions! Should you care?


That's the existential question posed by two articles I found. One by Abraham Katsman points out that 85% of American Israelis voted for Romney.Israel has become a “red state” through such a solidly Republican vote.  In fact, if Israel were in the United States, it would be the “reddest” state in the entire country.  Redder, even, than Utah, or Wyoming or Oklahoma.  Significantly redder.  That should be a startling development for the Democrats, who once owned the pro-Israel vote.Not really. The Israeli left has been on the ropes for anywhere between the last 9 and 13 years (depending on how you count), whereas American Jews tend to be overwhelmingly liberal. I personally think part of the reason for the difference (along with the security situation, which obviously plays a role) is that the Israeli political system allows for a much wider range of representation than the American two-party system. In any event, the Israeli left is in rather bad shape right now, whereas the American Jewish left, while perhaps losing some market share to the center-right, is still clearly the dominant force in the American Jewish political scene. Also, this whole thought experiment is incredibly stupid in the first place, as if Israel was part of the United States, its whole political landscape would be reshuffled as some of its most existential issues (security, synagogue & state, Jewish demographics, the West Bank territories, etc) would be drastically different if not off the table entirely. Hey, what if Israel was part of Mars?Second, that 14% for Obama is 40% lower than the vote he received from Israel in 2008.  That should worry his campaign.  Even if his support in the Jewish community in America has eroded by only half that much, he may have trouble clearing the 60% mark.  An interesting historical note: for almost a century, every Republican candidate who received 30% or more of the Jewish vote was victorious–and it looks like Romney will win well over 30%.Sorry, you're wrong. Polls are showing Obama will likely take 75% of the Jewish vote. Romney will probably only get around 25%, like McCain before him.the Israel-based voters–who overwhelmingly voted Romney–were unusually highly motivated to vote.  Compare that to the 5% participation rate in the rest of the world–voters who lean towards Obama–and quite a contrast emerges between the relative levels of motivation to vote between supporters of each candidate.  This appears to be an extreme example something U.S. polls now show: higher motivation to vote corresponds to higher likelihood of voting for Romney.  And motivation correlates with turnout.  That is a doubly good sign for Republicans.I guess, but I'm still unconvinced this means much. In 2008, Obama got almost 69,500,000 votes, compared to McCain's 60,000,000. Unless all those voters are from swing states (and they're not), 80,000 votes just isn't all that significant-- unless, of course, you're an operative for the Republican party and are trying to convince people that Romney has more Jewish traction-- and therefore, more general traction, period-- than he actually does. Incidentally, who does Katsman work for? Ah yes, he's a lawyer for Republicans Abroad Israel. Color me shocked.Not surprisingly, the primary motivating issues in the Israel-based vote are Israel-related issues, such as candidates’ policies on Israeli defense and security, the American-Israeli relationship, the status of Jerusalem, the peace process, and policies regarding Iran and its nuclear program.  82% of respondents considered such issues most important, and 88% of those voted for Romn[...]

Election Mishegoss


Not the Presidential one, I know/hope everyone already has their mind made up on that one. I mean local California stuff. As is my blogging minhag, it's time to revisit my favorite crank not named Tzvi or Dennis (don't worry guys, I'll get back to you): Dr. Terrence Faulkner, J.D., Esquire. (Yes, he has used all of those titles at some time or another. Do you think he went to law school?)My favorite thing about Dr. F isn't that he's the only 55 year old I know who sounds like he's 85. It isn't that he can always be counted on to oppose just about anything remotely progressive (or even moderate). Or the fact that he doesn't seem to understand how to construct an argument or talk to people in a way that makes them listen, rather than tune you out. No, the best thing about Dr. F is that you can always tell what book he's reading by the arguments he writes for the voter's guide.In 2006, explaining why he opposed a city resolution to impeach Bush and Cheney, he wrote about how Lincoln had also been unpopular, and that if any President should have been impeached, it was James Buchanan. Nothing like bringing up other bad Presidents that have been dead for 150 years to stay on topic, right? In 2008, carping on about a city proposition to amend the charter to emphasize diversity in hiring, Dr. F invoked Greek mythology and General Custer.So how could he possibly top that?The proposition: amending the city charter so that the positions of City Attorney and Treasurer are elected at the same time as Mayor, Sheriff and District Attorney. Mrs. Yid and I went back and forth on that one for a little while; while we kind of like the idea of having staggered elections so there's more overlap, we also noted that generally the "off-year" elections tend to have lower turnout, and there's a cost-saving benefit of consolidating two elections into one.Not surprisingly, Dr. F disagreed. His rhetorical tool of choice?The freaking Peloponnesian War.About 507 BCE (or B.C.) the Athenian statesman Cleisthenes introduced a new form of government into ancient Athens. All free males of the city were allowed to appear, speak, and vote in the governing Ecclesia which met outdoors some 40 times per year on the hill of Pnyx across from the Acropolis. Democracy was born-- admittedly with many flaws and limits. Democracy works best when the people are paying very careful attention.This proposed amendment... would create longer ballots and a situation in which less attention would given by [sic] the voting public to the individual candidates to be elected and the offices to be filled. ...If the Fathers of the Athenian Democracy-- the law reformer Solon-- the voting reformer Cleisthenes-- and the great Pericles who rebuilt the beautiful temples of the Acropolis-- were to return to San Francisco, I think they would all vote "NO!" on misguided Prop D.That's his argument against. His rebuttal to the entire Board of Supervisors is even better. All it does is quote Pericles' funeral oration from Thucydides' Peloponnesian War. Way to use that classical education, Doc. Tell me, during that impressive classical education, did they by any chance ever point out that since Solon, Cleisthenes and Pericles never lived in California, it would in fact be impossible for them to "return" here? Just wondering.Now, lest you think I just hopped back over here to bash on a lone Conservative crank, fear not! I am capable of being even-handed. For instance, we have the proud left-leaning local paper the Bay Guardian, which helpfully published their tear-off voter guide for people to use.Let's look at two of their endorsements, shall we? Prop 30 and 38 both have to do with[...]

A little irony


Am I the only one that got a chuckle out of this?

1924: Kafka dies. Despite his explicit instructions to burn his works, Max Brod instead publishes all of them.

1968: Max Brod dies in Israel. Despite his explicit instructions to donate Kafka's work, his secretary Esther Hoffe instead kept the collection.

2007: Esther Hoffe dies. Her daughters inherit the Kafka collection.

2012: Israeli court orders Hoffe family to hand over the collection to the National Library of Israel, "after establishing that that was the original intent of Kafka's friend."

So here's the question: if original intent is the primary determinant... why does Brod's intent matter more than Kafka's? Other of course, then the fact that Israel wants the Kafka collection.

Too bad there are no more Kafkas left. I would have rather seen it go to one of them than posthumously rewarding Brod for ignoring his friend's last wishes.

Who needs a point? I'm mad!


How I long for the days of college... when I had no job, no clue what I was going to be doing with my life, and where every five minutes I got dragged into some stupid but incredibly animated discussion about how some group on campus was "doing it" wrong, whatever the hell "it" was.Seriously, I think that college should be deferred until freshmen are in their mid-20s rather than fresh out of high school. At least it might temper everyone's self-righteousness a tad.For instance, this article in the Harvard Crimson by a freshman, Daniel Solomon, who feels Hillel is too frum for him.I had not been transported to Downton Abbey, but as I arrived at the Harvard Hillel for Shabbos dinner during Visitas, I felt like I had stepped into a time machine. Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews in severe three-piece suits and sideburns dominated. I cast about for a minute, looking for a place to sit, glancing to find another member of my endangered species: a Reform or Conservative Jew.My experience speaks to an unsettling truth about contemporary Judaism in the United States: While more and more secular Jews abandon any form of religious observance, the Orthodox population is exploding, leading to the marginalization of the once-robust Reform and Conservative movements and the upending of traditional notions of Jewish identity.Now, it's true that the two largest and growing Jewish groups today are secular and Orthodox-- but that's not Orthodoxy's fault, it's the liberal movements. America isn't Israel or Britain. There is no official legal status, title or funding that the Orthodox get that is denied to the rest of us. Most of the time, liberal Judaism isn't competing with Orthodoxy, but rather with a general disengaged apathy.Our faith is about the only thing Reform and Conservative Jews share with the Orthodox, and what the Orthodox stand for is anathema to us. For secular Jews, Jewishness has long been centered on culture, bagels, Yiddishisms, loud arguments, and impassioned liberalism taking precedence over the synagogue. Dude, I'm sorry to say it, but that doesn't sound like a particularly deep "culture;" it sounds like a parody. I'm surprised you didn't include watching Seinfeld or saving money on your taxes in that list. If your Jewishness centers around such hallowed cultural traditions as arguing and bagels, you're entitled, but I'm not sure why you're acting as if this is something that merits a high-five. It's also a little deceptive to blur the line so casually between liberal and secular Jews. If some of the old-timey Jewish secularists like Abe Cahan, Simon Dubnow, Chaim Zhitlowsky or Itche Goldberg were around and heard you summing up Jewish culture as "bagels," they'd kick your ass from here to next year.The Orthodox are obviously more devout. However, the most crucial difference between the three streams of Judaism is that the Orthodox, particularly the ultra-Orthodox, tend to see themselves as American Jews while their Reform and Conservative counterparts view themselves as Jewish Americans. This dissonance can be traced back to Reform’s founding document, The Pittsburgh Platform, which in 1885 famously declared, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.” Consequently, the Orthodox busy themselves more with medieval concepts like mesirah—a prohibition on ratting out Jews to secular authorities—than with tikkun olam—the Jewish idea of social justice.Here is where Solomon just seems to start attacking the Orthodox for the hell of it. It's not relevant to Harvard, nor particularly to the issue of liberal or secular[...]

Burying the lead in more ways than one


The Conservative movement has been trying to stay relevant to younger Jews, and to be honest, it's hard to tell if it's working. On the one hand the movement seems to understand it needs to have some core principles if it's going to try to stake out a proper position between Orthodoxy and Reform, but on the other hand it seems like it can't decide what those principles are or how they should be realized.One of the books that highlights this frustrating struggle is the new "Observant Life," written by various members the Rabbinical Assembly. As Jonathan Marks (no big admirer of liberal Judaism) writes, the Observant Life purports to try to show the rich spectrum that is Conservative Judaism is aimed, in addition to Conservative Jews, those “in a liberal Orthodox environment and a more traditional Reform environment, and people who are outside the denominational world but are interested in the question of observance. This is also for those interested in the big picture [of how observance] functions when you look at it all at once.” ...“The Observant Life” is also respectful of, even charmed by, folkways and traditions that are not specifically Orthodox, halachic or Conservative, but meaningful in any case, such as the post-Shabbat Melave Malka, or the custom of men immersing themselves in the mikveh before Shabbat. ...The book makes it clear that to these more than 30 authors (some writing more than one chapter), halacha is more “than an endless list of rules.” As the book explains, alongside Conservative theology there is always the human dimension, meaning the law doesn’t always have the last word: “The mara d’atra [the synagogue’s rabbi and/or halachic authority], ideally with the support of the lay leadership, will define the halacha of the synagogue by balancing the law with a community’s customs, values and vision.” 
 Therefore, intermarried Jews or gays, for example, may be called to the Torah and be welcomed to serve as synagogue leaders (in non-religious “role model” positions), despite their halachic status being still subject to debate, because “very few, if any, synagogues within the Conservative movement require strict halachic observance as a condition for honoring people during worship.” Nevertheless, despite these and other liberal opinions, readers may be intrigued to learn from “The Observant Life” that Conservative Judaism can be more conservative than some might think. For example, “no halachic authorities regard abortion as a Jewish woman’s right to exercise at will. … Absent extreme circumstances, abortion is usually forbidden.” ...The book doesn’t shy away from such complex halachic riddles, even if cases are obscure or esoteric. While many halachic situations are presented as an ideal, there is another ideal, that “rabbinical restrictions are conditioned on the public’s ability to meet their stipulations.” Even more of an overriding principal, says Rabbi Cohen, is that halacha and observance are not in one realm while ethics and relationships are in another. Loving God and loving other Jews are of a singular piece, he says, as are ritual laws and the ethical ones. “The Observant Life” draws on both these heavenly and earthly considerations to the extent that it becomes clear that there never really was a boundary between the two.“To be an observant Jew,” he says, “you need to embrace both.”That's all well and good, but one of the things Mrs. Yid and I noticed while thumbing through our copy was t[...]

I'm not perfect; so shoot me


Hope you all had happy holidays. I got sick right after Yom Kippur so I couldn't celebrate everything the way I would have liked to, but Mrs. Yid and I did our best to power on through.I have a bad habit of getting sick right around the holidays. In previous years it's kept me from fasting. This year I was able to fast and then the next day my immune system took a nose-dive. I blame the new germs from my new job.Anyway, Mrs. Yid, bless her heart, decided that she was going to make Sukkot happen-- so she went to Home Depot, got some lumber, and built us a sukkah on our new balcony (we promised our building super that we would take it down within a week). And I have to say, it turned out really great.The funny thing was that this year not only did I get sick, I totally lost my voice. Needless to say, I wasn't in a very ushpizin-y mood. But Mrs. Yid wanted to eat in the sukkah, so I wasn't going to tell her know. Not only did she make us several excellent dinners, she also managed to get through the Hebrew to invite the guests in on various nights! Though my vocal chords were dead, inside I was bursting with Yiddishe-Mama levels of pride.The shul was hosting a Sukkot party and sleepover that we had both been looking forward to, but I knew there was no way I was going to make it. But I told Mrs. Yid there was no reason she shouldn't go if she wanted to, and again, she stepped up to the plate and went for it! I was happy she didn't let me rain on her parade, and also that she went off and did Jewish stuff without me. I'm glad at least one of us got to shake the lulav.Now I know some of you may be wondering, what's with this new, positive Friar? Where's his dark heart hiding? Well I will admit I'm trying to do a little better with that. That said, I did notice a Sukkot column from Tzvi that seemed worth mentioning if only for a second:An Etrog Tree Doesn’t Grow in BrooklynIf it did it would die. Just the way the Diaspora is destined to die. The etrog tree doesn’t belong in Brooklyn. The climate isn’t right for it. It’s the same with the lulav, hadasim, and aravot.* The four species which we are commanded to take for ourselves on the Festival of Sukkot are indigenous to Eretz Yisrael, just as the Torah is indigenous to Eretz Yisrael, and the Jewish People are indigenous to Eretz Yisrael.  Tzvi, you really need to get a fact-checker. The issue is not that the etrog is a particularly Zionist citrus but rather that it needs a climate both dry and sunny. There are commercial etrog farms in Arizona and California, as well as Italy and Morocco. Incidentally, up until Mubarak was toppled, the primary source of palm fronds for Sukkot-- both in the US and Israel-- was Egypt. Seems like the four species are sending us some mixed messages.Apparently Tzvi's editor anticipated that nit-pickers like me exist because he added this to the bottom:*Editor’s Note: The author’s point is metaphorical and is not intended to mean that factually none of the four minim (species) grow in Brooklyn or outside of Israel. Nice catch! Thanks for explaining that Tzvi's only being a metaphorical moron and not an actual one. Boy would my face have been red.Anyway, Tzvi goes on for a while about how you can only really celebrate Sukkot authentically in Israel-- which I don't necessarily disagree with, except that as usual, his so-called proof is terrible. Namely, that Diaspora Jews are supposedly afraid or embarrassed to actually build their sukkahs in a public place.This past week in Israel, in w[...]

Authoritativeness versus Accessibility


(Or, Orthodox vs. Open-Source?)I've been reading an interesting book about major Orthodox publisher Artscroll, whose publications have become ubiquitous throughout the Jewish world. While Artscroll books (which are mostly in English) are quite widespread among the Modern Orthodox community, the author, Jeremy Stolow, has some very interesting statistics indicating their growing "market share" into non-Orthodox populations as well. He even goes so far as to link new Reform and Conservative publications directly to Artscroll's increasing popularity among their congregants:ArtScroll books are praised as instructive, meaningful, authentic, and even empowering. Its enthusiasts thus claim that an "ArtScroll revolution" has facilitated an unprecedented degree of access to Jewish knowledge and confidence in ritual performance among English-speaking Jews, forming a readership that extends from the erudite to the culturally illiterate and that transcends the traditional markers of institutional affiliation or local custom. At a further remove, ArtScroll has precipitated a reaction among its competitors that one is tempted to describe as an "ArtScrollification" of the Jewish liturgical field as a whole: most notably, with the recent publication of Eitz Chaim (the new Conservative chumash, designed explicitly to "respond" to ArtScroll 's success), and Mishkan Tefillah (the new Reform siddur, which incorporates many design elements, editorial structure, and instructional material found in ArtScroll). At first I thought this was just hyperbole, until he cited quotes from those movements' own rabbis admitting that part of the motivation to put out those publications was to counter Artscroll's popularity.Movement rabbis acknowledge that a main impetus for commissioning the new commentary, titled “Or Hadash” and set to be released April 15, was the growing phenomenon of Conservative worshipers using the popular Orthodox prayer book put out by ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications. The trend certainly irked many Conservative leaders, who concluded that the increasing popularity of ArtScroll was not a function of its ideological bent, but the desire of many Conservative congregants to have a prayer book that offered them more than a flowery translation of the Hebrew text....“I’ve been using ArtScroll for about 12 years,” said Steven Rothman, a third-generation Conservative Jew and a member of the ritual committee at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia. “I wanted something with commentary. But the problem with some of their commentary is that it is coming from a strictly Orthodox point of view. I would like to see commentary from a Conservative point of view.” Rothman told the Forward that he is excited about the upcoming release of “Or Hadash.” Along with “Etz Hayim,” he said, the prayer book represented a newfound, and long-needed, willingness on the part of Conservative movement leaders to tend to the intellectual and liturgical needs of their followers. “They are finally answering some of the questions about what it means to be a Conservative Jew,” Rothman said. “I’m very pleased that the Conservative movement is opening itself up intellectually to the lay person. That’s not always the way it was before.” ...“It’s clear that many congregants have been complaining to us for a long time that they have felt a real lack of ability to grab hold of a lot of the prayers,” said Rabbi Jero[...]

Come on down to Crazy Town


I don't visit WND much anymore, mostly for my blood pressure. The few times a month I traipse back, hoping against hope they may have become more sane (ok, not really), I get a stark reminder that they're not just conservative, they're downright nuts.For example: WND's editor, Joe Farah, likes to tout how much he's a real Christian and believes in Biblical prophecy. He also has a major Judeophile crush on us Hebrews. He also is a complete business huckster who never passes up a chance to plug whatever new thing he's selling.Cue this monstrosity:Sept. 17, 2001, marked the beginning of the economic calamity associated with 9/11 with the lowering of interest rates by the Fed resulting in the collapse of the stock market. Seven years later, on Sept. 29, 2008, the next big stock market crash followed – bigger than the previous one – resulting in an economic crisis that continues to this day. What does all that have to do with today, Sept. 15? It’s Sept. 15 on the Gregorian calendar, but it is Elul 29 on the Hebrew calendar. And both of those previous economic calamities occurred on Elul 29.Ok, who's been talking to Farah about the Hebrew calendar? Clearly someone told him about that silly (and debunked) tradition that everything bad happens on Tisha B'Av, and now he's rolling with this mishegoss.But fear not! Joe doesn't actually think that something terrible is going to happen just because it's Elul 29.The good news is that today is not a Shmitah year on the Hebrew calendar. Huh?On Elul 29 on Shmitah years, the financial accounts are wiped away, debts are canceled and the land is to be given a Sabbath rest, according to Deuteronomy 15:1-2 and Leviticus 25:3-6, with Elul 29 being the last day of the civil calendar year.Hold it right there, Joe! I know where you're going with this, and... NOOOO.The next Shmitah year will end Sept. 13, 2015. And, because of the unprecedented popularity of the No. 1 bestselling Christian book in America this year, “The Harbinger,” and the No. 1 bestselling faith movie in America in 2012, “The Isaiah 9:10 Judgment,” some people are already marking their calendars.Are these by any chance the same people who bought TVs and computers before Y2K expecting all the credit card records to be wiped out?Jonathan Cahn, a messianic rabbi and author of “The Harbinger,” and the narrator of “The Isaiah 9:10 Judgment,” is the person who first noticed that America’s two great financial shakings occurred on successive Hebrew Shmitah years following the 9/11 Islamist terror attacks on the U.S., the key to the series of limited judgments the author sees as a result of America’s turning away from God just as ancient Israel did before the dispersion.Of course he does. “A clear pattern has been established,” says Joseph Farah, producer of “The Isaiah 9:10 Judgment.” Of course you are!“I don’t believe it’s a coincidence what happened in America on Elul 29 in 2001 and 2008. It would be foolish to ignore the possibility that a greater judgment might be in the works – especially if America continues to move away from God and His Word.”Almost as foolish as reading an ancient legal procedure meant to promote economic justice and early land management as a financial curse sent by God for not voting Republican?If that doesn't convince you that God's about to kick some ass, fear not! The messianic rabbis also have the stars on their side. They think.It’s also worth noti[...]

Nobody's Perfect- but some folks try harder


A recent comment on Dovbear from SJ perked my interest. SJ was trying to fight the perception that the GOP is anti-women or anti-gay. Rather than point to the increased visibility of minorities and women in GOP leadership roles, though, SJ decided instead to go on the attack by posting a couple of links to op-eds bashing Democrats for not being as inclusive as they claim to be. Compare this to an op-ed from some Montana paper taking liberal pundits to task for demeaning the presence of black, Latino and female speakers at the Republican convention:The parade of accomplished minority and women speakers at the Republican National Convention truly stood out, particularly because of the  alleged Republican “war on women” theme and relentless accusations of Republican racism. But sure enough, there was no shortage of critics showing dismissive regard toward GOP speakers......Proof is in what people do, and it was Republicans who put these people in office and at the convention podium. People should believe what they see, yet they continue to hear things like this from Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz: “I think we believe that women can see through that nice shiny packaging that the Republicans have been putting out there, through to what’s inside, which is really a disaster for women’s future, extreme policies.” OK. Republican policies are fair game. But diminishing the women who were featured at the convention as “shiny packaging”? With language like that, just who is waging the “war on women”? ... The prize for insulting, obnoxious temerity goes to Los Angeles Times columnist David Horsey, who essentially accused Republicans of resorting to tokenism — and worse — at the convention. “It would be easy to dismiss this as tokenism and window dressing — which, of course, it is — but there is something bigger behind it,” he writes. “Republicans truly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, and that the best thing a poor Latino or an unemployed African American can do to better his or her condition is to vote for a party that intends to let rich people keep more of their money. Showing off all those non-Caucasian officeholders is a way of saying to skeptical minority voters, “These guys have chosen the Republican path and just look where it has gotten them!”Tokenism, it seems, suggests unworthy people who were plucked off the street and put at the podium as props. But that simply wasn’t the case. Many of the minority and women speakers named above are accomplished leaders, and in some cases, rock stars in the Republican Party. They deserve to be featured, rather than dismissed as being somehow illegitimate or unworthy.Here's my take: The difference between the parties on sexism and homophobia is that the Democrats rhetoric/ideology aspires towards an ideal (gender and orientation equality) that their actions fall short of. The GOP's actions, by contrast, seem to be more or less aligned with their general philosophies on those issues: some Republicans accept gays on pragmatic/libertarian grounds (though many don't), and women, while valued, seem to be seen by many in the party as supporters, not leaders.This is borne out by statistics: In this Congress, female Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1. In the last Congress, it was closer to 3 to 1. Of course, numbers aren't everything, but they seem to show that in the GOP, women [...]

Standing Up or Standing Out?


I've written about experimenting with wearing religious headgear previously, as well as some of the issues its raised with my family. I (mostly) understand where they're coming from, but I think they still don't really have a sense of what I'm thinking. They don't understand why I want to "single myself out," "make myself a target," or be so visibly identified as Jewish if I'm "not religious."While reading through some op-eds over the past week written by Sikhs in response to the shootings in Wisconsin and their thoughts about wearing visible markers of their identity I saw many of my own thoughts reflected in their words. As Rajdeep Singh put it, "devout Sikhs express their religious commitment by wearing a turban, which signifies nobility and a willingness to promote justice and freedom for all peoples," adding that the turban is a "declaration of Sikh identity." In short, the act of wearing identifiable clothing establishes a commitment to identify with-- and live up to the ideals of-- one's religious/cultural group.In another article I was reading, this one about kashrut, identity reared its head again:Keeping kosher is “a way of asserting that you are a conscious Jew,” explains Rabbi James Ponet, chaplain at Yale University and a family friend, “when you join friends out for dinner but decline the lobster, shrimp, oysters and all the meat entrees [or] when you ask the waiter if the tomato soup” is made from vegetarian stock. Echoing Achad Haam’s pithy observation about Shabbat observance, one might hold that more than the Jews have kept kosher, kosher eating has kept the Jews. A Jewish atheist’s children might grow up with a learned distaste for pork and thereby call themselves Jewish.For me, the twist here is not that one would specifically want to cultivate a dislike for pork in children (much less the pseudo-scientific silliness claiming that one absorbs the "nature" of animals one eats-- who wants to be like a cow or a chicken?) as much as impart a deep respect for traditions and culture of one's ancestors. It's not that non-kosher food is bad, it's that this is part of our heritage and one way of connecting to it and others in our communities.For me, that shift in perspective is key: it's not about being observant or religious, per se, at least not in my father's way of thinking. It's about being conscious, serious, and engaged. It's about finding more ways to connect yourself (on your terms), not less. To me, the visibility and accountability-- to oneself as well as others-- are part of that process, whether I meet certain people's litmus tests or not. If there was a particular visual identifier that read, "Jewish but not Orthodox," I'd be all over that. But so far it doesn't seem like that's really a choice. By taking on the visual aspect, the tradition's "vote" becomes a little stronger, a little less easy to just shrug off. That's not to say that I think that wearing a kippah would make me Orthodox, but I think you have to grapple with the tradition a little more once you're no longer invisible-- to a degree, you lose your deniability, let's say. That's part of what intrigues me about wearing a kippah and being identifiable to myself as well as others, and I think that's also part about what drives my parents crazy-- the idea that I would want to be thinking of myself, and having others think of me, in those terms, nearly all of the time.Today's soc[...]

Frustration does not equal Conversion


I like to consider myself pretty open-minded. By which I mean that though I have some deeply held opinions when it comes to things like religion or politics, I try to be open to other points of view, if only to understand where folks are coming from (this could be related to why I spend so much time reading Orthodox blogs or why most presents I buy for my wife are memoirs of people growing up in eclectic religious groups).So it's been interesting during this electoral cycle to hear the Republican party and its mouthpieces going on about how many of their elusive voter demographics they're supposedly going to bag this time.I won't lie, as a liberal late 20-something I have plenty of reasons to not be very happy with Obama-- there are social, military and foreign policy areas where he's made promises he hasn't kept, the economy still isn't very good, and perhaps most galling to the youth vote, has proven himself to be just as corruptible by the game of politics as anyone else.So yes, young people, especially those still politically engaged, are definitely annoyed, which is where folks like JustNew Productions come in. The company, run by two quasi-recent college graduates, has gotten a lot of attention for a Gotye parody video focusing on the various ways Obama has disappointed them. allowFullScreen='true' webkitallowfullscreen='true' mozallowfullscreen='true' width='320' height='266' src='' FRAMEBORDER='0' />I watched the video and couldn't fault them for their opinions, in fact I share a lot of them. However what's curious about cases like the "Obama that I used to Know" video is how fundamentally Republicans seem to be misreading it.In this clip, a Fox News lady tries to present the filmmakers not only as deeply dissatisfied but also a symptom of how youth voters are so fed up with Obama they're potentially ready to go run to join the Republicans. However if you look at the lyrics of their song (or watch the interview, where they seem bemused by the tone of the questions and framing by the news anchor), their big problem seems to be not only that Obama isn't doing enough to help them economically, but also that he hasn't lived up to the image he presented to young, mostly liberal voters. These kids are annoyed with Obama's hypocrisy about not closing Guantanamo and discomfited by the fact that he is simultaneously a Nobel Peace Prize winner and has been using predator drones for assassinations. They want to relax drug laws and enforcement, and seem to not be fans of Sarah Palin. They're mad about a lack of results in the economy, but also that Obama hasn't lived up to the foreign and domestic policy he promised them. That's a far cry from wanting to go over to the Republican party-- they don't want to elect Romney, they want Obama of 2012 to start acting like the Obama of 2008! The Republicans can't-- or won't-- comprehend that these kids, and many more like them, aren't disaffected moderates whose votes are "in play," they're pissed off liberals who want Democrats to start living up to the values they keep campaigning on.Furthermore, by misreading people like the filmmakers, the Republicans are demonstrating that they don't seem to understand what makes people become Democrats. No matter how much the Republican party tries to rebrand itself, no matter how many open-minded college students claim th[...]