Archive | December, 2008

More on BJ

Sometimes I get frustrated, say things, and don’t take them to their actual sensical conclusion. Which is what I’m sure happened with my recent post on B’nai Jeshurun. Then a friend e-mailed to explain what I meant to say.

Essentially, this person agreed that they had a similar experience at BJ. What they said, and, as it turns out, what I think I meant to say, is that a good aesthetic is nice. It can pull people in and even help keep them there. But, BJ, this person noted, doesn’t offer much beyond the great aesthetic, despite, as this person noted, a great congregational devotion to social justic.

Thank God other people put together what I mean to say. Sometimes I get too caught up in the minutiae of davening to remember the real purpose of the whole exercise.

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Chanukah VII – A holiday for every Jew, a holiday for today’s Gaza

Chanukah is my favorite holiday. I know that involved, intellectual Jews like myself are supposed to declar that Pesach is their favorite or something, but I think that we do Chanukah a disservice these days. Undoubtedly, Chanukah’s proximity to Christmas has made it a more major holiday in recent decades as American Jews have sought to include themselves in winter holiday festivities, but I’d argue that Chanukah’s popularity cannot be reduced to such a disdainable cause.

If Yom Kipur or even Simchat Torah came at this season, we would not have been able to seize upon them and say, “Yes, goyim! We are just like you! We too have an uplifting winter holiday!” Chanukah is a great holiday all on its own and I’m here to tell you why.

Let’s say you’re a little kid and you like presents, it’s a great holiday. It’s also a great holiday for inculcating our children about tz’dakah and the value of education.

Rabbi Abraham P. Bloch has written that “The tradition of giving money (Chanukah gelt) to children is of long standing. The custom had its origin in the seventeenth-century practice of Polish Jewry to give money to their small children for distribution to their teachers. In time, as children demanded their due, money was also given to children to keep for themselves. Teen-age boys soon came in for their share. According toMagen Avraham (18th cent.), it was the custom for poor yeshiva students to visit homes of Jewish benefactors who dispensed Chanukah money (Orach Chaim 670).[Wikipedia]

Or let’s say you’re a typical American. Aside from the obvious upside of feeling slightly less culturally marginalized during December/Kislev, this is a supremely compelling holiday. Modern American Jews tend to be liberal and, if not urban, metropolitan or suburban. We go to university, we are highly assimilated. Yet, Chanukah is about Jews like us getting their asses handed to them. The hellenized city Jews supported Antiochus and it is a group of bible belt fundamentalists who’ve been living off in the countryside who are the victors in the story of Chanukah. As Americans, we take part in a country with a huge, some would say increasingly imperial army. Yet, Chanukah is about the guerilla defeat of such an army.

Or let’s say you’re into miracles. The Talmud has the inspiring story of a dire olive oil shortage. Without more olive oil, the Temple cannot be properly rededicated, but miraculously a tiny amount lasts over week (!) until more can be scrounged up. It’s a great winter story, right in line with the cross-cultural trend of winter light festivals and as such, Chanukah works.

Or let’s say you’re into history or text study. This holiday has it all! There are three great texts from the Apocrypha, and at least three from the Talmud. Of course, the classic source texts for the holiday are Maccabees I and II, late Jewish texts not included in the Tanach, but included in the Catholic Bible as part of the Apocrypha. These text relate the military struggle of the Maccabees and the story of the restoration of the Temple and of the transformation of a late celebration of Sukot into an annual week-long independence celebration. The Talmud offers us the miracle-driven version of the holiday offered above, a story about Adam’s amazement at the his first winter equinox and his subsequent celebration of festival for that occasion, as well as story of Chanah and her sons who are killed for refusing to worship an idol in the midst of the Hasmonean War. The third book from the Apocrypha is that story of Judith, which leads me to…

Or let’s say you’re a feminist, or just interested in the representaion of women in Jewish texts. There’s the book of Judith, or Yehudit, which simple means Jewess. Yehudit, the title character lives in a town under siege by one of Antiochus’ generals, Holofrenes. Yehudit sneaks into Holofrenes’ tent at night and seduces him. She takes his own sword and removes his head. And one time my mom was Yehudit for Purim or Halloween or something. It’s a good story.

Or let’s say you live anywhere in the diaspora. Here’s a story about the triumph of Jewish culture over an assimilationist force!

Or let’s say you’re Israeli or simply a Zionist who remains in galut. Of course, the ultimate Zionist holiday is Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Independence Day, but Zionism always seeks to justify itself historically. How better to do that than to celebrate an older Jewish independence day?

There’s a final reason why this is a great holiday for our times. Today, hostilities have increased in Gaza. Palestinians and Israelis are dying today in an occupied territory. I don’t pretend to know who is good in this conflict and who is bad. Probably, there is no good guy and no bad guy in Israel today. But Chanukah is the story of Jews under occupation, seeking their right to self-determination. And in Gaza today, some people we like to think of as enemies are doing the same thing. Let’s all just think about that as Chanukah begins to wind down, eight candles on our menorot, with only one more night of light to go.

Shavua tov.

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Chanukah VI (again) – B’nai Jeshurun is nice(r than I said last night)

So I took big blog dump on BJ last night. I went back this morning and have absolutely no complaints about the service. Everyone go back to ignoring me.

Chazan Ari Priven, the music director at BJ was in fine, fine form this morning. In addition to Mi Chamocha to the tune of Ma’oz Tzur (as they did last night), halel (it’s Rosh Chodesh too, everyone) was done in a sort of Chanukah nusach, which everything form Ma’oz Tzur to One for Each Night making an appearance.

But Priven’s greatest achievment of the morning was Adon Olam. After we began slow, once through with “Adon olam…” followed by the first verse, he leapt up form his piano and started in with “Uno kandelikas, dos kandelikas, tres kandelikas… ocho kandelas para mi” Then he goes back to another verse of Adon Olam, more Ocho Kandelikas, more Adon Olam, and then he switched gears entirely, singing the rest of Adon Olam to the tune of Ma’oz Tzur. When he got done with Adon-Olam-as-Ma’oz-Tzur-ing, he goes off into some fantastic upbeat melody for Ma’oz Tzur that I’ve never even heard before!

Shabat shalom, happy chodesh, and chappy Chanukah, once again.

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Chanukah VI – B’nai Jeshurun is nice, I guess

13 months ago, last time I visited B’nai Jeshurun, I was so obsessed with ideological and liturgical minutiae, albeit less knowledgable about both than I am now, that I was totally unable to enjoy the services. This was a recurring theme in my prayer experiences last year.

A few years ago, BJ was dying congregation with an aging population. Now, with a sprinkling of South American clergy, and a band (hand drums, guitar, cello, mandolin, etc.), they’ve become arguably the most musically dynamic congregation in America. Their programming and the dedication of their volunteer is tremendous. They have classes and social events targeted at different age groups (paritcular 20- and 30-somethings) nearly every day of the week. They have two services nearly every Friday night, they’re Conservative, and they have a morning minyna every day. As of a 1995 rennovation, the sanctuary is overwhelmingly beautiful, without seeming gothic or imposing.

Did I mention the music? It’s incredible. I’m rarely happy with the music in a synagogue, but theirs offers something different without seeming needlessly rocking and folksy. It’s modern fusion sephardic or something. It’s great. In the midst of their complete–thank God–L’cha Dodi, they switch melodies to an overwhelmingly upbeat tune and people leap from their seats to join in a dance train that weaves all around the packed space. The dancing is kind of where I draw the line, actually, but I’m glad other people get some Shabat kicks from it. Renditions of Ma’oz Tzur and Mi Chamocha to the tune of Mi Yemalel were particularly good tonight.

A team of devoted volunteers is required to help find seating for people. The room fills up fast–well before services start–and by the time Kabalat Shabat is over and the service has started in earnest, the balcony is overflowing too. I happened to run into Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, whom I met at Kutz this summer. We sat together and chatted before services. Geoff had the night off from his own pulpit. Evidently, BJ is where other Rabbis go on their night off!

As much as I was enjoying Kabalat Shabat, I couldn’t help but feel that something was off. The aesthetic was good–amazing, even. But aesthetic alone, as I am often reminded, is not enough. I found myself wondering if there was any beef, any substance to this.

And I discovered that there was none this week. A sermon was delivered on a load of mystical claptrap. The chazan (I think) giving the sermon asserted that there are a total of 36 candles lit on the eight nights of Chanukah. He told us to trust him that this was so, which it isn’t. The number is 44! He assured us that some Kabalist nut or the other had once noted that these 36 candles represented the 36 hours of pure divine light that Adam and Chavah experienced during the first 36 hours of their existence, from mid-day on the first Friday, through the end of the first Shabat. Problems? 1) Whose ass did this pure divine light just get pulled out of? It was dark all night at the beginning of that Shabat, just like every week. 2) WTF? Who cares? What does this mean?

He then informed us that the Hebrew word Or (light) appears 36 times in the Torah! Goly gee. How fortuitous.

Which is why my skepticism of really beautiful services continues. Is the trade-off for good music and attention to liturgical detail really that I have to sit through a few minutes of mind-numbing Kabalistic number coincidences? Gag me.

Shabat shalom. Chodesh tov. Chappy Chanukah.

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Shabbos Zmiros – A special Chappy Chanukah edition

This week’s Shabbos Zmiros comes to us from Erran Baron Cohen’s new CD, Songs in the Key of Hanukkah. This particular song includes a guest appearance by Y-Love, the Yiddish-Hebrew-Aramaic rapper.

YouTube – Songs In The Key of Hanukkah – Dreidel.

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Chanukatastic quote of the day

From excellent jblog On the Contrary: Judaism with Commentary Enabled, comes this gem: 

In the American cultural milieu, Christmas became a dominant cultural practice that excluded non-Christians (such as Jews and Chinese, who inevitably began celebrating Christmas together, with the former eating food prepared by the latter).

The entire post is great. Check it out.

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Chanukah II and III and this isn’t working out so well

How is it that I managed to blog every day of the Omer last year, but, here we are, less than halfway through Chanukah, and I have already faltered on my promise to Chanukah bloge every day of my favorite holiday.

So here’s some miscellany for you.

Yesterday we had an office Chanukah lunch estravaganza. The menu? Donuts, soda, cookies, and latkes. All normal. In addition, we had a never-ending spread of Sushi. Oh, UJC, you are a strange place to work.

Also, here’s a link to an article I wrote for Jewcy when I was in Israel a couple of years ago about Chanukah. It’s still a pretty good piece and it was my first taste of blog-related peer acceptance. A Secret History of Chanukah.

Chappy Chanukah.

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Chanukah – Day 1 – Stealing a miracle

It’s no secret that Chanukah is my favorite Jewish holiday and that I am a big apologist for what many have called America’s over-attention to a minor holiday. To celebrate Chanukah here at The Shuckle, I’ll be trying to post about Chanukah every day for the next eight days.

By way of this first day’s post, I’ll relate to you the absurd tale my Dad told me over the phone last night.

Back home, in Austin, our synagogue’s sisterhood has a gift shop. Like sisterhoods do. And in this gift shop, one thing they sell is electric menorahs. This gift shop has an exterior window. A few nights ago, someone broke into the gift shop through the window. They stole nothing but three electric menorahs.

A block or two away, in the neighborhood behind the synagogue, a neighbor noticed someone plugging electric menorahs into an outside electrical outlet. They thought this was odd behavior, so they called the cops. By the time the cops had arrived, the menorah thief had sped off on his getaway bicycle.

How completely strange is that?

Chappy Chanukah

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Clay Shirky and Judaism

Clay Shirky is a futurist thinker and a technologist and general genius. He’s got nothing to do with Judaism. And yet.

First thing to do with this post (which is a bit of a time commitment, frankly) is watch this video. I first saw this video of Shirky talking about gin, cognitive surpluses, sitcoms, wikipedia, and why a screen without a mouse ships broken when it was first making the rounds this spring. I watched is several times and I still go back to it occasionally because it’s entertaining and fascinating. So watch it already.

While helping a housemate study for her sociology final this week, we got sidetracked and watched the video. It was the first time she’d seen at probably the sixth or seventh time for me. And something struck me this time that hadn’t struck me before. I’m not gonna summarize this video, so for God’s sake, watch it. If you don’t, this post is gonna get real incomprehensible real quick.

What Shirky is talking about is shift in how we consume media. He’s saying that when all we could do was consume media, that was fine. But as soon as we can consume it, produce it, and share it we will do all three and we will do it avidly. TV is good, but it’s unidirectional. YouTube is better because I can watch, for very small startup capital, I can produce, and for free, I can share, by which I mean that I can e-mail it to whomever I want. I can even comment on it and let everyone know just what I think about it. 

So here’s my half-formed thought-question: We are seeing in large metropolitan areas, and occasionally in a few other geographic areas a new type of decentralized Judaism. These communities are what we have begun to call Emergent Communities. These communities are highly volunteer-run. They’re small and they’re highly connected to their respective Jewish communities, but not to the large organizations that have so long dominated Jewish life in America such as the OU, the USCJ, and the URJ.

It is typical at the chavurah that I attend while at school for a d’var torah to begin with a little suggestion. There are a few ideas shared, but it quickly breaks down into a few side conversations, with the person delivering the d’var torah interacting fluidly with the entire assmebled group of daveners.

Compare this to the congregation I grew up at. Even on a small Shabat morning in the little chapel, this might happen to some extent, but it was unusual. If the d’var torah was to be entirely interactive, the rabbi would have to tell us this explicitly, because it did not happen regularly. And even after announcing it, it took some coaxing to get the majority to perk up an participate.

Shirky is talking about a one-time shift in the way we experience media. Are we also looking at a major shift in the way we experience Judaism?

I’m not entirely sure that we are. But it’s cool to think about.

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Reality chases me down, pt. II (Coke, friends, is not enough)

I feel now, more than ever, that reality (read: my ability to adhere to the srtictures I want to adhere to) is coming into conflict with my ideology and hopes for my ritual life. In Spain, I came a across a familiar problem, but gave it more thought than I had before.

On a normal Shabat, here at Drew, or at home in Austin, I mark Shabat by going to services on Friday night and Saturday morning, lighting candles, ignoring pressing homework-related matters, drinking Coke, and doing things I find relaxing.

But then there come those Shabatot which are situated between vacation days. There is no homework to ignore. And in Spain, there were no services to go to. So I was left with candles, drinking Coke, and being relaxed. Consider that I’d been pretty relaxed all week because, hell, I was on vacation, and you realize that the only things I was left with were candles, which last for a only a short portion of Shabat–and Coke. And Coke, friends, is not enough.

Which means that I’ve got a problem. It means that in the midst of an already relaxed vacation week, Shabat has almost no value, beyond the additional caffeine it brings into my diet.

The only solution to this problem that I can see, dear blogosphites, is a little frightening. If you think about the things I listed above that I do on Shabat, you will notice that they are mostly positive–things that I DO do. This stands in contrast to a traditional understanding of Shabat, which consists of a list of things that one DOES NOT do.

And so I am frightened to discover that to achieve the desired effect, I must limit myself on Shabat. Where does the limitation come from? Shall I refrain from cash? From light switches or e-mail? Riding in cars or carrying things? It is a most troubling problem indeed.

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