Archive | February, 2010

The Beit Cafe: My addition to 28 Days, 28 Ideas

For the entire month of February, a group of online Jewish presences have been proposing one new idea for the Jewish community per day. The project is called 28 Days, 28 Ideas. And over at Jewschool, I get the last word with Idea #28: The Beit Cafe. Here’s a taste:

I recently heard a favorite rabbi of mine say that the American Jewish community may have made a mistake early on by placing all of its communal institution eggs in the beit kneset, or synagogue, basket. He suggested that the beit midrash, or house of study might have been a better choice.

What the beit midrash has going for it is the potential to do highly diverse learning that will attract Jews from many background to sit together and learn. What it doesn’t have going for it is its format. It’s formal and it brings to mind all kinds of imagery and connotations that will turn off many contemporary Jews.

But what about a third kind of beit? What about the modern institution known as the Beit Cafe, perhaps better known in America as the Coffee House? It’s place where discussions happen, planned or spontaneous, as well as cultural events like readings and musical performances. In the contemporary American mind, exciting intellectual and cultural movements are associated with coffee shops, a definite plus for this model.

I’ll start by describing the place I’m imagining and then I’ll talk about why it makes sense for the American Jewish community today.

Read the rest here.

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Halkin on Koren

Hillel Halkin, author of the new biography of Yehuda Halevi, has a new review of one of this blog’s favorite sidurim, the Koren Sacks sidur in the new Jewish Review of Books.

Mostly, the review is a long rambling meditation on Halkin’s opinions and assessments of the structure of liturgy, while barely touching on this edition of the sidur. He can’t even bring himself to mention the typeface and only briefly mentions the brilliant design of the sidur.

And he has this to say about Musaf:

There is a logic in the absence of the musaf in Mishkan T’filah. We are beyond all that now, so why mention it?

There is a logic in the emended musaf of Siddur Sim Shalom, too. Our forefathers did what they did and we are not ashamed of it, but it would be absurd to want to do it ourselves. Let us therefore mention it—in the past tense.

There is only tradition in the musaf of the Koren Siddur. All but the more hallucinatory Orthodox Jews know that the Temple will not be rebuilt in historical time and that animals will not again be slaughtered in it. And the great majority of them, if honest, would admit to being thankful that this is so.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again because it’s an important topic to me in liturgy: The history of sacrifice is important. As much as I’m not a big fan of Sim Shalom, I take their approach over the other two here.

The issue with MT’s approach is that it ignores the historical background, the justification for prayer. Prayer replaces sacrifice, with the Amidah at its core. Therefore, for every time that sacrifice would have occurred when the Temple stood, there ought to be an Amidah. There was an additional sacrifice on Shabbat. Likewise, there must be an additional Amidah on Shabbat. It lends to the coherence of the system, which is important.

Why is it important? Because coherence is better than incoherence.

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BBYO Build-a-Prayer thing

Crossposted to Jewschool.

BBYO launched their Build a Prayer website yesterday. It purports to be a website where Jews of all ages and backgrounds can connect to prayer and Shabbat by building a service. What follows are my reactions as I try to create a service.

Step 1: Choose a service

I have four choices to start off with. I can either make a “Friday Evening Service,” “Saturday Evening Service,” “Saturday Morning Service” or “Blessings After Meals.” No weekday services?

Now I have three more choices. I can either make a “Traditional,” “Pluralistic,” or “Custom” service. What?

I can include any combination of Hebrew, English and transliteration and I can choose from two different layout styles, both of which include space for commentary, which is great. But now I’m wondering what kind of choices I’m gonna get for commentary.

I’ve opted for a custom Saturday morning service with English, Hebrew and transliteration. The layout has three columns of text next to each other, one for Hebrew, one for English and one for transliteration and there is commentary space running underneath.

Step 2: Choose Prayers

It’s just a list of prayers in order with check boxes. It tells me that if I had picked a “Traditional” service, I would’ve had fewer options for taking things out, but that if I had picked a pluralistic service, I’d have more options to take things out. As it is, I’ve chosen a custom service, which I’m told will give me the most options about what to put it in and what to leave out.

The first section of prayers to choose from is “Preparing for the Service.” There are three things I can choose to include in this section: Prayer for Putting on Tallit, Meditating and “Humming to Oneself.” What? I’m just gonna go for it here and include all three, if only to see what Meditating and Humming to Oneself look like in a BBYO siddur.

The list for the rest of the service is pretty ordinary, though I can choose between a “full” V’ahavta and a short one. Whose short one will it be? I’m gonna choose the short one just to see what’s in it.

And then I get to the Amidah, where there is only one option for everything! Seriously? Since the process of modern liturgical re-writing began, the Amidah has been the most fertile ground for experimentation and they’re not even gonna give me a choice between Avot and Avot V’imahot? This genuinely makes no sense.

Skip a few… And I get to closing songs, where I have four options: Ein Keloheinu, Adon Olam, Yigdal and Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu (Salaam…). Again, what? This is a youth group project, right? Don’t they have a wider repertoire of songs to offer than these four?

Step 3: Make it Yours

At this point, I get to review each choice I’ve made and add to it. It turns out that the space set aside in the layout for commentary is for me to write whatever I want. I was hoping there would be some classic and modern commentaries I could choose to include bits from, but at this point, that was probably wishful thinking. I can also include images wherever I want, as well as include audio or video. What would it even mean to have audio or video in a siddur?

It turns out Meditating and Humming to Oneself are just blank spaces with those titles and I can write whatever I want there. Disappointing.

It’s pretty shitty that I can’t choose from multiple translations. One reason why: “Blessed art thou, Lord of the Universe etc.”

The Barchu apparently includes the first paragraph of Yotzer Or. But I also chose to include Yotzer Or, so now I have two copies of that paragraph, one right after the other in my service. What?

To my surprise, the short version of the Shma and V’ahavta isn’t even one of the usual Reform truncations. It’s just the Shma line and the first paragraph of the V’ahavta. Not even a L’maan?

This is getting more disappointing by the moment.

Step 4: Review

OK. I reviewed it. Now what?

Step 5: Tag and Save

This is cool and web 3.whatever-y. I can tag my service.

And now I have to register and give them my e-mail address before I can finish? That’s obnoxious.

A Few Concluding Thoughts

Overall, this has been a very slick and easy-to-use but completely thoughtless experience. The idea what a group that purports to be pluralist would offer such narrow liturgical choices to its members if preposterous. In my experience, most BBYO kids I knew were Conservative and the choices offered in this BBYO Build a Prayer thing don’t even reflect the reality of the Conservative movement these days. No matriarchs? Seriously?

BBYO isn’t the only group working on this kind of project. Headed up by current Yeshivat Hadar fellow Aharon Varady, the Open Siddur Project aims to digitize as many siddurim as possible, offering up real choice to those looking to compile a siddur online. I doubt that OSP will ever look as slick as BBYO’s thing, but I imagine the content will be better.



I just tried to print my service out. It doesn’t even spit it out in a nice PDF. It’s a simple html page and I’ll have to mess with line breaks and pagination all by myself. Kind of lame.

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