Archive | February, 2007

In the Words of the Donkey: JEWISH TATTOOS?

Shvat 25, 5767

All names herein have been changed.

My buddy Sunny is a senior in high school. He is one of my closest friends and we hang out quite a bit. Sunny is also what you might call strange. Perhaps might is not a strong enough word. In fact, if you do not find him strange, you must be stranger than he. Born into a non-religious family, Sunny and his mother, Screechy, eventually found their way into the arms of what they fondly refer to as “The Cult;” Jews for Jesus. By the time I met Sunny they were both certified real Jews with no Jesus in sight. He only ever comes to synagogue with me. I do not know the last time his mother went.

My friend Dinah graduated high school last year. She is the type you expect not to take the standard path in life. I am not entirely sure what she is up to, but she is the type of beautifully alternative girl who you expect to see working through a couple of years of community college, take a year or two off to ponder deep things in coffee houses, and eventually get a degree in something totally unexpected. You certainly do no expect to see her type in synagogue in large numbers.

Sunny, Dinah, and Screechy all have tattoos. These tattoos also happen to be Jewish in nature. Sunny’s is “Lo Yisa Goy” written on one forearm in large letters and “El Goy Cherev” on the other forearm. Dinah’s is a Magen David and the saying “Ani V’atah N’shaneh et Haolam.” Screechy’s is simply a rainbow-y Magen David with “Chai” written inside of it.

I should state my bias here up front. I do not understand the urge to get tattoos. I do not want a disreputable-looking fellow poking ink-laden needles into my skin to create an image that will be there forever. I also happen to think that tattoos are impulsive.

Sunny announced a few weeks ago that he was going to get these tattoos on his forearms. This set off a number of alarm bells in my head. The first one was about the disreputable man with the aforementioned ink-laden needles. The second was the standard “Jews do not get tattoos alarm.” The third was concerning placement. They happen to be in a place that Jews have, at a fairly recent time in history, were forced by disreputable Germans with ink-laden needles to get tattoos.

I have already addressed the first alarm bell, but let’s go to the third one, then backtrack to the second one later. I hate talking about the Shoah. I think it is over-emphasized as a source of Jewish identity. I want my Jewish identity to spring from the triumphs of Melech David, Theodore Herzl, and Tzahal rather than from the victimization of Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz, and Anne fucking Frank. Thus, the immediate jump to the forefront of my mind that the Shoah made with regard to the tattoos only pissed my off to myself. Screechy later explained Sunny’s choice of the forearm away as recapturing that part of the arm by re-branding it with something of Jewish significance. I do not buy it. It is simply another iteration of the oft-repeated claim that we have to take a posthumous victory over Hitler. I find that notion unsettling and distasteful.

As for the second alarm bell, the “Jews do not get tattoos” alarm, a whole can of worms flies open. For background on this part, you might want to read BZ’s excellent discussion of Reform halachah over at his blog, Mah Rabu. His question, “How can Reform Jews claim to be following the ethical commandments, those that are Bein Adam L’chavero, if we really aren’t?” brings up for me the same issue of Reform halachah that my reaction to Sunny’s tattoos does. Why is it that every Reform Jew can tell you that Jews do not get tattoos, but they do not know how much they are required to give to the poor each year? Why is it that some ritual things, such as Kashrut, are mainstream in Reform, but others, which make equal sense, such as talit katan, are not?

Thoughts? Do you know people with “Jewish” tattoos? What do you think about tattoos? 

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Shvat 23, 5767

My basic premise when it comes to tfilah:

If you take a group of somewhat educated American Jews and educate them a few inches further and then you lead them through tfilah with no English regularly for no more than two or three weeks they will never want to go back to the Church of the Responsive Reading.

With that in mind and on the heels of a number of posts in our corner of the Jewish corner of the blogosphere (including this from the newest addition to my “other good things” sidebar) I present you the following story. It has been a tiny bit humorzied through hyperbole. The facts that support the point have not.

This weekend at Temple no one became Bar or Bat Mitzvah. By long-standing congregational tradition, that means that Shabat Shacharit is lay-led. The lay-leaders email group was notified and I, not having had a chance to lay-lead since my return from Israel, let Cantor R that I would like to lay-lead.

I should note two pieces of background. The first being that myself and MD, a fellow lay-leader and an Israeli are planning on beginning our congregation’s first all-Hebrew minyan for Shabat Shacharit at the beginning of March. The second being that shortly after Cantor R arrived at our Temple last year a disagreement began between him and the lay-leaders. Seeking more involvement in Shabat Shacharit, the lay-leaders all stuck their fingers in their ears and screamed “LA LA LA LA LA! I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”, so afraid were they that our lay-leading might be stolen from us. The Cantor and Rabbi S, who was also batting for Cantor R did the same upon hearing that we were opposed. Then our Senior Rabbi, Rabbi F, went on sabbatical for six months, I went to Israel for four months and the entire issue was tabled while everyone stewed over the issue and contemplated different ways to dig their heels deeper into the board room carpet.

I do not like to lay-lead on my own. I like to have someone with something sort of like musical talent helping because by family tradition, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. I told the Cantor that I would like to lay-lead with him. This would mean that I would stand at the left podium and do things normally done by a Rabbi and that he would stand on the right and do things normally done by, well, a Cantor. This inclusive compromise seems to me like the perfect solution to the problem of the increasingly dug-in heels. Cantor though the idea was great. Rather than go through the rest of the lay-leaders and the Ritual Committee, we though we would just lead by example and go ahead and do it.

Our other stroke of genius was to get rid of the English. The Dvar Torah would be in English as would the page numbers, but we decided against responsive readings, doing the V’ahavta twice, and doing an improper Amidah. Further, we would use the Temple’s draft copies of Mishkan Tfilah because it has translation and transliteration for everything so as not confuse everyone.
The night before, at Shabat Ma’ariv, I keenly observed that there were no Rabbis present. Only Cantor R was leading. The other Rabbis were away until Sunday with the 8th, 9th, and 10th grade retreat. I asked Cantor R during the Oneg if that meant that there would be no Rabbis at services the next day. He said that was correct. I got a little worried.

No Rabbis means no one to do Kadish (do not ask me why that is the way it is here). Then it occurred to me that I could just go ahead and do it. Understand that it is highly unusual at our Temple for a non-Rabbi to read the Kadish list and then lead Kadish. It was pretty good.

Three strange things happened during that service:
1. There was no English in the liturgy.
2. Cantor and lay-leader got along just fine.
3. A non-Rabbi led Kadish.

Everyone loved it. No one complained, not even under their breath. Most people came up afterward to complement one or both of us.

We set fire to the Church of the Responsive Reading and no one died.

I really hope that was a coherent narrative.

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THE DONKEY SAYS: Sid Schwarz Shakes up Shabbat

Shvat 17, 5767

Around this time every year, Congregation Beth Israel (my temple) brings in our Scholar-in-Residence for our annual Scholar-in-Residence weekend. This year we brought in a Reconstructionist Rabbi named Sid Schwarz. If anybody has been giving serious thought to the problems that plague every Jewish congregation in America, regardless of denomination, Sid is that person.


On Friday night, he spoke after tfilah in lieu of a sermon. Sid believes that the American synagogue has been through three phases and is on the cusp of a fourth. Congregations that do not make the leap to the fourth will suffer tremendously and eventually disappear. When our ancestors arrived in America with little financial means, they all lived in the same neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods people met in storefronts and apartment living rooms to pray together and celebrate life cycle events together. This was the first stage. Then, more affluent, though pre-WWII, American Jews had real synagogues. They lived a little more spread out form each other and their synagogues had modest budgets. They had a Rabbi, maybe a Cantor and perhaps an office worker. This was stage two. After WWII, having truly made it here, American Jewry departed each other’s company for the suburbs. Their synagogues stayed in the cities and they commuted to religious school and services. This is the model currently in use, which Sid calls the Synagogue Center. People treat it like everything else in their lives; a business transaction. They want goods and services and the synagogue provides those things. If it does not provide them or provides them at what the consumer thinks is an unfair cost, they take their business elsewhere, or worse, they end their affiliation with a synagogue altogether. Sid envisions the fourth stage vividly. In his book, he profiles a Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, and an Orthodox synagogue in American which he says have entered the fourth phase. He calls it, the Synagogue Community. The Synagogue Center is shaped like a pyramid. Envision the food pyramid. In place of the tiny junk food layer at the top, place the leadership and people engaged in activities around the synagogue. They make up 5-10% of the membership. Everything below that is a complaining, baldy-informed, hardly-involved mass of dues-paying members. The Synagogue Community is round. In the center is nucleus of leadership, the board, employees, etc. Orbiting around the nucleus is many cells of activity. One is the youth group. One is the group that goes to the soup kitchen every Sunday evening. One is the group that runs Tot Shabbat. One is the sisterhood. Et cetera. Each is linked to the other and all are linked to the center. People do not come anymore because they want a product. Now they come because of the community.


Sid led tfilah with out Cantor, David Reinwald, on Shabbat morning. He called it “Davening Outside of the Box.” The name turned me off a bit. I tend to want to get in the box, shut the lid, and not listen to what anybody has to say about the matter.

We set up the chapel in a semi-circular fashion, which I liked much more than our usual configuration of straight east-facing rows. I should note that by then end, it was basically standing room only. I have never seen our small chapel so full of people.

For Birkot Hashachar, Sid recited, in English, the end of each line. For example, in the case of the first one in Big Blue, Sid said “who implants mind and instinct within every living being.” Then someone would stand and give an example of a time or occurrence in their life which reminded them of the particular brachah. They would then offer the brachah and the process would start over with Sid reciting the ending of the next one in English. It was not my favorite thing ever, but I did open myself to the experience enough to share during one of the brachot. I should note that after this, none of the actual liturgy was in English.

The Amidah almost caused me to have a fit. My routine for the Amidah is that during the Haskivenu, which directly precedes the Amidah, I get out Ha’avodah Shebalev and move to the back. I then do the opening section (Avot V’imahot, Gvurot, and Kedusha) with congregation out loud, then I remain standing and do the Amidah as they sit and do something Amidah-like. Sid informed us we were doing something creative for the Amidah. I did not even stay for the rest of the explanation. I departed immediately and did the Amidah on my own in another room. When I came back the chapel was buzzing with conversation. As it turned out, people were discussing Jewish role models or something as a means for understanding Avot V’imahot. Then, when they were done, they were davening the Amidah on their own, must of them, apparently at Sid’s urging, with their talit, or in many cases, other people’s talitot, on their heads. Whatever.

Also in this service were skits. We broke into groups and created skits on different parts of Ashrei.

Skits. Really?

Kadish Yatom was done with only mourners standing. At least one person I talked to had a physical reaction to this, so turned off by the practice was she. In our congregation, everyone rises and everyone says Kadish with the mourners.

Overall, the service was success. Everyone present smiled at some point.

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