Archive | September, 2007

What if I don’t go back to Kutz?

I have spent the last three summers of my life at Kutz. I have gotten a lot out of it, including friends, knowledge, direction and dare I say wisdom. And yet yesterday those of us who were on staff this last summer recieved the following e-mail from Rabbi Eve, the camp director:

“I am writing to let you know some important structural changes that are taking place at Kutz effective today, September 28, 2007. After four years as our Site Manager, Wendy Cedar will be moving on to other endeavors. Her duties will be assumed by me, Denise Bulnes and a host of part time retreat staff members. We thank her for all she has done for Kutz and wish her well. After twelve years of service, Annette Preda, will be moving on to other endeavors. Her duties will be assumed by Denise Bulnes, the Kutz Camp Bookkeeper, as well as members of the New York URJ Youth Division staff. We also thank Annette for all she has done for Kutz and wish her well.”

Right. I obviously won’t even pretend to know the whole story here, but I’m a more than a little ticked. Kutz undergoes major structural changes every damn year, never trying anything long enough to know whether it is working. I know there are financial pressures bearing down on Kutz all the time, but the two women let go basically run the damn place. I had been seriously considering not returning next summer, but this has pushed me over the edge. Unless someone deems it a good idea to give me a nice faculty position, I don’t see myself at Kutz again in the near future. It saddens me to say it, but there it is.

In other news, what if I did this?

In other other news, how do we all like the new look for the blog header?

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I’m Putting my Foot Down

I refuse to greet women I do not know (or women I do know, for that matter) by nestling our cheeks in the same vicinity and making little kissy noises. It looks and feels ridiculous. What the hell’s wrong with a handshake?

In other news, I have decided to be the next Chaim Stern and Lawrence Hoffman all rolled into one.

Shabat Shalom.

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Why “Life to All” is Meaningless

Bear with me through the first paragraph. There is meat after that, I promise.

As previously noted, I was asked about a week ago to create a new packet for use on Friday evenings by my Hillel. A week or so later, earlier this morning, I finished. The speed with which I finished it shocked Hillel’s co-Presidents, liturgy committee, and advisor. It shocked me too, even. It took no time at all to get the Hebrew together. The contents of Kabalat Shabat had been pre-decided (rather arbitrarily, in my opinion) by one of our co-Presidents, the Moroccan, an asshole with far less liturgical knowledge than he pretends. The rest basically follows the text of my forthcoming sidur, Sidur Elu D’vareinu, with one exception. In the interests of inclusivity, I have put in the choice to say either “m’chayeh metim” or “mevi sh’lemut” during G’vurot. Upon delivering this first draft of the service to Hillel for review, I was appointed Head of Alumni Relations, whatever the hell that means.

As for this “mevi sh’lemut” business, I am quite excited to have people actually davening with these words. I shall explain. Traditionally, G’vurot, a prayer about God’s powers, refers to God’s power to resurrect the dead. This bothers me and it bothered our Reform liturgical forebears. Their genius solution was to replace “m’chayeh metim” with “m’chayeh hakol.” This says that rather than God giving life to the dead, God gives life to everything. In principle, I have no problem with the idea of God as a source of life, but this replacement of one things with its most literal opposite has rendered a meaningless phrase.

When we say “m’chayeh metim,” what we are saying is condensed version of saying, “God, when you bring the personal Messiah, son of David, you will raise the dead.” Let us now make to replacements in that statement to render a parallel, Reform version. We will replace “the personal Messiah, son of David” with “the Messianic Age” and “raise the dead” with our new Reform idead “give life to all.” What we are now saying when we pray G’vurot is, “God, when you bring the Messianic Age, you will give life to all.” Gosh. I think that I already believe that God gives life to all and that God’s status as a life-giver will not change because of the arrival of the Messianic Age.

Believing that this new phrase, “m’chayeh hakol,” does not actually say anything of consequence, nor truly address my beliefs about the Messianic Age, I sought a new phrase. A third option, if you will. While discussing this issue one day with a good friend, Matti Barzilai, who deserves true credit for this innovation, I expressed frustration that I could not think of what this third option might say. Matti asked me what I believe about the Messianic Age. I began to outline is to her as a time of complete peace, which all humans will one day work toward in cooperation. The features of peace, completeness, and wholeness came to the forefront as I elaborated. Matti suggested “mevi sh’lemut” as an option. After a few days though, I typed it into G’vurot as my new replacement for “m’chayeh metim.”

Let us test it out. “God, when you bring the Messianic Age, you will bring wholeness, peace.” Yes. That I believe.

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Quote of the Day

“Actually, I don’t know if you guys know this, but Lopez used to be a Jewish name only. It was always a Spanish name, but it used to be a Jewish Spanish name. The fact that it is now a generic hispanic name is part of this whole Marrano phenomenon that we’re talking about here. In fact, I like to think of JLo as part of the tribe. It’s a Jewish male fanatsy.”

Professor Alan Nadler

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Sidur Hillel Shel Drew

As I have often noted, I edited a sidur this summer called Sidur Eilu D’vareinu. It is currently in the copyediting and formatting process. Readers of this blog will be amongst the first to know when it is complete. This is not fact that I keep quiet, to say the least. I am quite proud of my sidur and I often tell people about it.

Not long after meeting the Austinite and the American, names I shall use for two Hillel board members here at Drew, I told them about my sidur. They thought that it was interesting, but did not say much of it. Fast-forward a week or so all the way to yesterday. I walked out of my Intro to Islam class and into a courtyard, whereupon I was accosted by the Austinite and the American. They said, “We want you sidur.” I said, “No, you don’t.” “Yes we do,” they insisted. “You’ve seen that thing that we use at Hillel. It’s awful.” They are referring, by the way, to the photocopied packets of pages from Big Blue that we daven from at Hillel services. “Agreed,” I told them. “I don’t like it much either, but my sidur is not your solution.” I carry it around in my bag so I took it out to show them why they do not want it. “Oh,” said the American. “It’s all in Hebrew,” said the Austinite. “Right,” I said.

The way this conversation ended was with me agreeing to create a service for Hillel. I say a service, not a sidur, because all that Hillel does around here is Friday night. This service will include Hebrew, English translation, and transliteration. This whole thing is a giant can of worms.

The problem here is a problem of power. This project gives me a lot of power over what people say. As far as I can tell, the liturgy committee, my overseers in this endeavor, only care about what is in Kabalat Shabat and what selection of closing songs get included. That works out well because those are two things I could not care less about. This leaves me free to do whatever I want with the Shma section, the Amidah, and the Aleinu. I can assume that most of the people whom this sidur is being made for have no idea what they are saying. If I keep the small changes I made in my sidur to satisfy my theology in this service, I have great control over what other people say when they pray. That kind of scares me.

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As we are in the Ten Days of Repentance here, I thought I would comment on some apologies I have received of late. As a brief commentary on our wonderful modern lives, I should note one of the apologies I will discuss here came to me through Facebook, the other through email. The apologizers will remain anonymous.

I received one, which reads like this:

“Dear friends,L’shanah tovah u’m’tukah l’chol! A very happy and sweet new year to everyone! To those of you who are in their first year of college like me, I wish you a wonderful start to this new stage in your lives, and an even better future. To those of you who are beyond the college experience, I wish you lives full of happiness and love. To those of you who are yet to reach this point in life, I wish you the success and fulfillment you need and deserve on your way!
As the new year 5768 begins, let us all start with a clean slate, a happy heart, and an open mind.

At this time of the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah (the new year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to you personally. If, during this past year, I have said or done anything that hurt you, offended you, or wronged you in any way, shape, or form, I am sincerely sorry. Please forgive me, so that I may repent on Yom Kippur and be forgiven, that I may have “at one-ment,” atonement.
Thank you, and may you have an easy fast next Saturday, if you are participating.

With much love and affection,
Jane Anonymoustien”

The other, the one from Facebook, reads like this:

“Hey David,
I just want to say sorry for anything I did this year that hurt you.
-Plona Bat Almoni”

The first seems to be a general “Happy New Year!” letter. It was sent to many people all at the same time. As a New Year letter life-update sort of thing, it is fine. My question is, then, is this still the appropriate place for atonement? To be clear, this person has never done anything to hurt me. I think I have only even seen them once in the last year. What if she had wronged me in some way? I do not know that I could forgive for such an apology. What if I wrote back to accept he apology for a wrong she had not perceived as a wrong? Specificity, I get a sense, must be included in the initial appeal for forgiveness.

As for the second one, this apology was sent only to me. It may seem vague on the surface, but I will note that we both knew exactly what she was referring to and there was thus no need to be more explicit. This attempt at atonement, in my eyes, is the superior one because it was person-specific and event-specific.


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I said I was going to post on Thursday and here we are and it is Sunday already. Sorry.

I returned to the Reconstructionist synagogue for the day of Rosh Hashanah. (As an aside, this community observes two days of RH, but I only go for one). As previously mentioned, I was offered a ride to synagogue in the morning from Michael, the sister in law of John, who drove me home on Erev RH. We arrived about a half hour late, missing the morning blessings, which is always disappointing to me; the first part of shacharit is my favorite.

This congregation has break points in the service at which point people are asked to either remain where they are or go to the library for a discussion session. The first was during the Torah service where we discussed how Israel is portrayed in American, Israeli, and international media. The discussion was led by a congregant who happens to be a NY Times editor. It was quite interesting. The second discussion, which I did not go to, was during musaf.

After services I was given a ride to a nearby park where the congregation picnicked and observed tashlich with a creek that runs through the park.

Now for some observations I jotted down on my HH program:
• The congregation is currently going through some turmoil deciding whether to have religious school on Shabat or on Sunday. I think it is great that they are even considering the idea. More congregations should.
• They are also in an ongoing debate about whether the congregation should keep strictly kosher or not.
• Liturgically speaking, the congregation was all over the map. The structure was for more traditional than a Reform service would ever be. For example, we did musaf. The way in which the parts of the service were done was all over the place though. Sometimes we read quietly to ourselves. Other times there was an English reading from the sidur, Kol Haneshamah. On other occasions, they went for the whole NFTY style by having congregants give their own sappy-as-hell poetic-creative-kind-of-on-topic readings.
• We did the Shma sitting down, which I suppose is the true norm, but it still always throws me when it happens.
• I have found the source of the dreaded “Moshe Umiryam” that has migrated into our esteemed Reform sidur.
• Any time that a prayer beseeches God to bless the people of Israel, a new line is inserted to make sure that God blesses all of the other peoples in the world as well. Though I am not a huge fan of many of the Reconstructionist alterations to liturgy, I can say one good thing: They are consistent. This is rather unlike Mishkan, which changes some things in some places, and not in other places.
• The immediate past President of Hadassah is a member of this congregation. She is also the current President of the Conference of Presidents of Major North American Jewish Organizations.
• They were not all crunchy granola types as I had expected.
• I have never met so many gay people in a two day span before. Probably half of the couples I was introduced to were same-sex couples.

My overall impression of the congregation is positive. They were welcoming and helpful and all around good people. They seemed on average more intellectually engaged by the tradition than I think of the average Reform congregant being.

My overall impression of Reconstructionism is not positive. The program included a page of explanation about the movement. I agreed with much of it. Their approach to halachah is like mine, as is their approach to God. “Reconstructionists define Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Each generation of Jews has subtly reshaped our faith and traditions and this generation continues that process. We believe that ‘the past has a vote, but not a veto,’” read part of the explanation. I have no big beef with these ideas, except that I have no idea what it means for Judaism to be the “evolving religious civilization of the Jews.” I do not even know how to comment on that idea because I do not have any idea what they mean by it.

“When after study and examination, a particular Jewish value or custom is found wanting, Reconstructionists believe that it is our obligation as Jews to find a means to ‘reconstruct’ it—to find new meaning in old forms blah blah blah.” Okay, I am with them on this one. The program then quotes Mordechai Kaplan to death, which bothers the hell out of me. He got mentioned not just here, but on a regular basis throughout services on RH. The Recons have elevated this guy to an unhealthy status , in my opinion. You do not hear Reform Jews mention Isaac Mayer Wise like this, do you?

“Examples of this ‘re-evaluation’ of halachah include our views on the role of women.” Okay. “The acceptance of gays and lesbians.” Great. “And the concept of Chosenness.” Hold the phone. Is this concept not a tad central to just go tossing out the window? I do not believe that God picked us out and said, “Here have a correct religion.” I do believe in a sort of Chosenness by way of Jews being an exceptional people. We have survived thousands of years in exile, revived a dead language and a dead state. We write, film, bank, practice medicine and law, receive Nobel prizes, and get elected to office at disproportionate rates, no matter where we go. All of that, and the Recons want to do away with the idea of Chosenness. That is where they and I part ways.

Even though I do not agree with their position in Chosenness, I see their point and I will not say it is any more wrong than anything any other movement claims. My main critique, however, is the same as my main critique of their parent movement, the Conservative movement, as well as my main critique of my own movement. No one I met is doing what they say they are doing. There is no reconstructing going on. There is a claim put forward by the Recons that they are being ritually creative, but if that creativity goes not further than slipping a new line in here and there in the liturgy and composing childish poetry, I see nothing special here.

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A Circuitous, Fortuitous Erev 5768

For an exploration of why I went where I went this evening, refer to the previous post.

Services at the synagogue in question began this evening at 7:30pm. I left Drew at 5:30 for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I always leave early because I am chronically afraid of being late to things. Secondly, I needed to stop at the Stop and Shop first to pick up a couple of things on my way. Thirdly, the synagogue is in the nearby town of Summit, which is two stops away on the train and I do not know my way around the Madison train station yet and I figured there was ample time somewhere in that mess to get confused or lost. I had received faulty intelligence that all I needed to do was take the train to Summit and the synagogue is so close I could just walk from the Summit train station.

I went to Stop and Shop and was completely successful there. By 6:15 I was on the correct train to Summit. By 6:35 I was in Summit with no idea which direction I was facing. My scribbled map that I had copied down from Google Maps was doing me no good. I figured if I just wandered I bit I would hit upon my destination because I had been told it was extremely close. After wandering for a bit, I decided that I had no idea where I was or where I was going.

At this point, I stopped to ask directions. I happened upon a couple of women dining outside at a sidewalk café in downtown Summit, walked up to them and said, “Excuse me, do either of you feel qualified to give me directions?” “What an introduction!,” said the younger of the two. The older one said, “Are you going to shul?” As it turned out, I had happened across Ruth and Kim, mother and daughter, respectively. We were soon joined by Ron and Lauren, Kim’s husband and daughter, respectively. They were, as most are, confused by my fringes. They wanted to know what sort of Reform Jew I was wearing tzitzit and on my way to a Reconstructionist outfit. I explained, complete with all my usual shpiels about tzitzit really being anti-asshole fringes, Reform ideology, etc. They thought I was quite a character and offered to give me a lift to synagogue in exchange for a brief D’var Torah. I used my usual quickie about the binding of Isaac and its significance not as a faith test, but as a theological revolution.

When we finally found the place, I turned out this idea that I could walk there from the Summit train station was complete lunacy. In fact, the station between mine and Summit is actually a closer walk than the Summit station, I was told by numerous people after services. Upon walking in, the entire ushering team knew who I was as I had called ahead a few days ago. They were all very excited to meet me. After services one of them offered their husband, John, to me as a ride home. This couple, as it turns out, lives in Florham Park, which is the next town over from Madison. It turns out that the quickest way to get to the synagogue would have been simply to walk there from school. The drive back was about six minutes long and was basically a straight shot that took me right back past the Stop and Shop.

Tomorrow: My observations on Reconstructionist Judaism.

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I’m not a Reconstructionist, but I Play one on Rosh Hashanah.

Elul 28th, 5767

As noted this time last year on this blog, I do not like this particular part of the Jewish year. The sentiments involved in this period of repentance are admirable, but their relatively recent elevation to the two most important holidays of the year is absurd.

Biblically speaking, Yom Kipur and Rosh Hashanah make a pretty poor showing. Vayikra 23:27 and 28 notes, “The tenth day of this seventh month is a yom hakipurim (day of atonements). It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial, and you shall bring an offering by fire before your God; you shall do no work throughout that day. For it is a day of atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before your God.” There are a few more verses on the subject, but no new injunctions are made; the remainder is simply repetition of the two verses I present here. Vayikra 23:24 says, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.” Tradition would claim that this verse refers to Rosh Hashanah, but being that the only thing in common between this observance and our understanding of Rosh Hashanah is the loud blasts and being that our ancestors use the shofar on all manner of occasions, I am doubtful of the connection.

Despite the relative biblical unimportance of these holidays, American Jews come to synagogue on these days, but not on the three festival holidays, Sukot, Pesach, and Shavuot, which, biblically speaking, are far more important holidays than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kipur.

Since I do not like these holidays, I am hoping again this year that a change in the routine for these holiday will improve my experience with them. For Yom Kipur, I have been graciously invited to the home of a friend’s family here in New Jersey, about which I am very excited, mostly just to see my friend. The change in routine is really minimal. For Yom Kipur, I will simply be exchanging American Reform Outfit A for American Reform Outfit B.

Rosh Hashanah, however, looks to be very exciting. I have decided to try something entirely new for me. I have located a Reconstructionist outfit in a nearby town, easily accessible by train. I will, of course, report back with my observations on the so-called “Fourth Movement” on Thursday night or Friday morning.

Translations presented here are based on the New JPS Translation – Second Edition

ADDENDUM as of 6:35pm:

It occurs to me that I have not had a routine High Holiday season since I was in tenth grade. In eleventh grade I refused to go to Yom Kipur, last year I was in Israel praying at Kibutzim Lotan and Yahel, HUC, and an Italian synagogue in J’lem, and now I’m doing this. Hmmm….

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I Suck at Praying, Alan Nadler Probably Agrees

I had two more of my classes for the first time yesterday. One is Intro to Islam, taught by Professor Chris Taylor, a rather reserved, ordinary sort of fellow. The other is Modern Jewish History, taught by Professor Alan Nadler.

Nadler is quite a character. I met him first in April, during my overnight visit. He described himself to me then as an Orthodox Rabbi (a rather impressive one, I was later told) who woke up one morning and said, “Well, this probably all bullshit.” Sadly his only marketable skills are his knowledge of Judaism and Jewish History. So here he is teaching those subjects at Drew University.

During that first meeting he also berated me for wanting to go to HUC. “No, no, no,” he said. “You go to Yeshiva University first. Learn how to do it right. Then, go rebel with those crazy guys.”

Yesterday morning he appeared in class about ten minutes late. Shocking. He entered, announcing “I’ve got your syllabi here, but I forgot to staple them. I’m not feeling very Jewish today. I’m feeling quite Christian today, actually, so I’m going to staple these for you.” Everyone laughed. Then he said, much to the delight of the students who have had Nadler before, “I’m starting with this stuff already!” Later on in class he pleaded with us not to use the term Diaspora. “Oh, come on! Everyone has a diaspora these days. Every town in New Jersery has twelve diasporas. Go to Newark, you get like forty-seven diasporas!” At one point during class, we brainstormed a list of things that seventeenth century Catholic Poles probably thought about Jews. It looked like this:
Horns and Tails, Men Menstruate

Nadler announced that he would be leaving it on the blackboard for the next professor.

In other news, I suck at praying daily. Since I said that I was going to do that, I have done three out of six days. Two times I did shacharit and one time I did minchah. I’m going to go pray now.

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