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My latest (JTA): ‘For Reform, new gay-friendly High Holidays prayer book keeps up inclusivity trend’

JTA's caption for a different picture of basically the same thing: "Mockups of the new Reform High Holidays prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh, on display at the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Philadelphia, March 17, 2015."

JTA’s caption for a different picture of basically the same thing: “Mockups of the new Reform High Holidays prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh, on display at the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Philadelphia, March 17, 2015.”

UPDATE: Evidently, the story has also appeared on Haaretz.

The biggest story of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (or CCAR, the professional organization of North America’s ~2,000 Reform rabbis) Convention in Philly was the installation of the group’s new leader, the CCAR’s first openly gay president. Yeah, I covered that story — but that’s not the real reason I went. My purest motivation in going was my desire to look into the new Reform machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, which will land in time for High Holidays 2015. Though there was a time when this blog was an active center of debate and discussion around new Jewish liturgy, it’s been a while since I had much in the way of new material to contribute to that conversation. So, I was excited to jump back in.

JTA's caption: "The new Reform High Holidays prayer book adds a third option to the traditional formula calling worshippers to the Torah to reflect the experience of individuals who don’t identify as male or female."

JTA’s caption: “The new Reform High Holidays prayer book adds a third option to the traditional formula calling worshippers to the Torah to reflect the experience of individuals who don’t identify as male or female.”

Here are some highlights of my JTA piece on the new machzor:

PHILADELPHIA (JTA) — The Reform movement’s rabbinic association unveiled its new High Holidays prayer book — one that continues the movement’s trend toward inclusive liturgy — at the group’s 126th annual convention.

The prayer book features the voices of female writers and language more reflective of the LGBT experience. But the volume also signals a return to gendered language for God in Reform liturgy, including a version of the iconic High Holidays prayer Avinu Malkeinu that refers to God as both “Loving Father” and “Compassionate Mother.”

The previous Reform machzor, Gates of Repentance, was published in 1978. By the time the process of creating the new prayer book began in 2008, Person said, there was a feeling that the older text was no longer relevant.

“Today we live with different fears and anxieties than we lived with in the ’70s and ’80s,” she said. “There are references in Gates of Repentance to the post-Vietnam era or the fears of nuclear holocaust. Our fears are different. We still have them, but they’re different. I think the Jewish family is understood differently today, who the people in our pews are is understood differently.”

The new machzor continues the movement’s tradition of inclusivity, replacing a line from Gates of Repentance that referred to the joy of a bride and groom with “rejoicing with couples under the chuppah [wedding canopy].” The machzor also adds a third non-gendered option to the way worshippers are called to the Torah, offering “mibeit,” Hebrew for “from the house of,” in addition to the traditional “son of” or “daughter of.”

Head over to JTA to read more about it. I’ll also probably have more of a deep dive on it sooner or a later.

It feels good to be back in the liturgy game!

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Most offensive siddur ever? More like BEST siddur ever!


The best/worst siddur in my collection is Nehalel beShabbat. Rather self-triumphantly, Nehalel beShabbat throws a Modern Orthodox/religious right-wing Zionist outlook into a blender with a bunch of glossy stock photos from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and comes up with a uniquely loopy result..

I am like 80% sure that more marketing drivel has been written about this siddur than any other in the brief and glorious history of siddur marketing drivel. It is the tackiest siddur in my collection (worse than the garish tourist siddurim from Israel I inherited from my grandparents, which have their own genuine vintage charm). Of all the Jewish crap I own, this siddur comes by far the closest to some sort of Jewish Kinkade-ist¹ movement. Despite Because of all this, it has the honor of being one my favorite siddurim in my collection.

Nehalel repeatedly shoves down your throat a tale of how the Jewish people were saved from post-Holocaust oblivion by the redemptive powers of the State of Israel by pairing actual, honest-to-God images of the Holocaust with prayers about divine redemption.²


Here’s the part where it suggests that you should be praying for the conversion of these Hindus and whatever those people on the facing page are. (Shinto?)


Nehalel beShabbat also comes with a few displays of liturgical jingoism. If you accept the whole photo-based premise of this siddur, the ultimate logical conclusion is this image of prayerful Israeli soldiers facing this “Entreaty for Soldiers of the IDF.”


Shame they’re all white/Mizrachi dudes…

In other news: It’s a sturdy mid-sized volume volume (but pretty heavy because of all the glossy photo paper) and it’s typeset nicely.

Been a while since I did any night blogging about siddurim. Feels good.

¹ Jerry Saltz perfectly captures my thoughts on Nehalel beShabbat in his final assessment of the work of Thomas Kinkade: “Kinkade’s paintings are worthless schmaltz…. However, I’d love to see a museum mount a small show of Kinkade’s work. I would like the art world and the wider world to argue about him in public, out in the open. Kinkade once said his goal was to ‘make people happy.'”

² Eliyahu Fink: “Another quirk is that almost all the liturgy about the Exodus and redemption is reinterpreted to refer to the Holocaust and the State of Israel through photos. In other words, as you are reading about our bondage in Egypt you see Holocaust photos. And as you read about the redemption and ancient entry to the Land of Canaan, you see Zionist pioneers in the modern Israel. Non-Zionists might find this disconcerting. But I would hope that it could subversively influence skeptics about Israel to see the parallels and perhaps embrace the State of Israel more fully.” … *shudder* … Fink also points out another bizarre choice of photo in Nehalel: “poseach es yadecha umasbia l’chol chai ratzon is illustrated…. [With] third world children with hungry eyes and smiling faces on this page. It’s disconcerting…. There is tremendous hunger in third world countries. It is ironic at best to be using these photos for this verse.”

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New Ushpizin/ot: legendary, if unconventional, biblical heroes visit your sukkah

Ushpizin: It’s not just a movie about crooks and Chareidim in Jerusalem.

Ushpizin (guests in Aramaic) is also a quirky little ritual for metaphysically welcoming heroes from the bible into your sukkah. Much to my delight, modern versions that add women to the list of heroes abound! And now, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI, the organization I work for) has put forth a delightfully subversive new version that includes some heroes of the Jewish spirit of being welcoming of diversity (including — gasp! — intermarried families). More on all of that below the picture….

More on Ushpizin from

In addition to extending personal invitations to the needy (in former times it was customary to have at least one poor person at a Sukkot meal; today donation of funds often is a substitute), we open our homes symbolically.

With a formula established by the kabbalists in the 16th century, based on the earlier Zohar, on each night of Sukkot we invite one of seven exalted men of Israel to take up residence in the sukkah with us.

All seven traditional guests are men, of course: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David.

Though a number of Ushpizot versions (seven women instead of men) and combined ushpizin/ot versions (seven pairs of women and men) are now in circulation, the ritual has sadly fallen off the radar and out of common use in the left-of-Orthodox community — probably because of its bizarrely woo-woo character and its unabashedly patriarchal content. Though every version I’ve seen includes Sarah, fewer versions include all four matriarchs than you’d think. The lists I’ve seen have included any of the following:

  • Sarah
  • Rebecca
  • Rachel
  • Leah
  • Miriam
  • Deborah
  • Abigail
  • Huldah
  • Hannah
  • Esther
  • Ruth
  • Tamar
  • Dinah

Neohasid has a fascinating piece that puts forth a combined version, which pays close attention to the important role wacky kabbalistic stuff (which characters go well with which sefirot and so forth) plays in Ushpizin. Ritualwell, of course, has like a bajillion ushpizot things. Inevitably, there’s also

But what prompted me to write this post is the new version of Ushpizin/ot created by my boss, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, which you should check out over here. Kerry’s version highlights seven biblical characters we can look to as role models in our efforts to make the Jewish community more actively welcoming toward intermarried families and a diversity of other backgrounds. Since Sukkot, not to mention the whole Ushpizin thing, is all about being welcoming, it makes perfect sense! Here are the seven on Kerry’s list:

  1. Bat Pharaoh
  2. Ezra
  3. Moses’ unnamed second wife
  4. Naomi
  5. Osnat
  6. Ruth
  7. Tzipporah

And you should check out his explanations of each one in full too.


As Kerry was writing, he asked around the office for suggestions. I pointed out how interesting it was that everyone on his list so far, purely by chance, were women! Then, thinking about JOI’s Public Space Judaism model, I suggested he include Ezra, the scribe who began the practice of bringing the Torah to the people and reading it in public.

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Welcome, Jewniverse Readers!

If you’ve arrived here because of today’s Jewniverse email, welcome! (If you’ve come for some other reason, well….)

And if you’re a regular here and you don’t know what I’m talking about: My Jewish Learning does this great daily email called Jewniverse. The material in the emails is original — I don’t even think it appears online at MJL — and it’s all over the map.

The signup page on their site says it’s about “the inspiration, the extraordinary, and the just plain strange.” We’ll leave aside the matter of which of those three categories I fall into. So I’ll just say that I’m a big fan, I get it every day and you should too.

The text of today’s email:

Book reviews are found in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals. But what about prayer book reviews? Who can you go to for a good siddur review?

Writer and editor David A.M. Wilensky answered that question with his blog, the Reform Shuckle. Here, Wilensky posted lengthy reviews of any siddur or Mahzor (High Holiday prayer book) he came across. A true siddur enthusiast, he commented on everything from design and layout, to commentary, liturgical integrity, and of course translation. He dings one siddur for coming without a bookmark ribbon, and praises another for “sensical and elegant line breaks…with the blocks of English and the blocks of Hebrew mirroring each other in shape like a Rorschach ink blot test.”

These days Wilensky, who’s the editor-in-chief of New Voices, has a new blog, but you can still explore the archives at the Reform Shuckle, and read his thoughts on all kinds of liturgical texts, from old family siddurim, to new bentchers.

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Two posts for the Forward: ‘Whither Occupy Judaism’ and my first crack at food writing

In news that is recent enough to be called news, there’s a new post by me at the Forward’s “news and views” blog, Forward Thinking. And in news that is a couple of weeks old already, I also did a bit for the Forward’s food blog, the Jew and the Carrot, which was having hummus week at the time.



Whither Occupy Judaism?

Whither Occupy Wall Street? And whither Occupy Judaism?

September 17, the one-year anniversary of the launching of the movement/mood/fracas, has been declared the Occupy National Day of Action. September 17 — or #S17, as it has inevitably been hashtagged — also happens to be Rosh Hashanah. And so, inevitably, Occupy Judaism has announced that there will be a Rosh Hashanah service and potluck in Zuccotti Park as the new Jewish year of 5773 opens on the preceding night, September 16.

As soon as Sieradski got done humoring my questions about attendance, he said this: “We’re still doing this without a permit, as an act of civil disobedience. We’re still doing prayer as an act of protest, praying with our legs, as it were. That’s still pretty powerful.”

My favorite part:

“It’s still incumbent on us to get out there and speak up,” he said. “I still think the most powerful thing you can do with your prayers is uphold the dignity of those who are in need, and that’s what we should be doing instead of having spectator sport-style congregations where we just sit down and listen to a cantor and phone it in.

Go read the whole thing. And click on some ads.




Shabbat Meals: My Catholic Dinner

In my experience, there’s often a token non-Jew at Friday night dinner or at the Seder — the Shabbos Goy or the Passover Goy, some call them (affectionately).

Last Friday, however, I experienced the unfamiliar sensation of being the Shabbos Jew at a Friday night dinner with several Catholic friends. And when I call them Catholic, understand what I mean: One is a seminarian in Rome and another is a playwright studying at Catholic University – and our host for the evening, Sarah, has a degree from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

This is followed by amusing anecdotes and an actual recipe. Go read the whole thing. And click on some ads.

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More ritual is always better: my latest thinking on two-day yom tov

If you’re a long-time reader, you might’ve been surprised by a few words in my piece for the Sisterhood blog at the Forward:

But as I thought about the issue throughout the Passover holiday, which ends tonight, it began to make a lot of sense.

Emphasis mine — to point out that this piece, posted yesterday, assumes that Pesach ended yesterday. We initially planned to post it on Friday and that bit about when chag ended was added after I saw the last draft.

This might have troubled me… except that I’m now prepared to come out as in favor of observing a second day of yom tov. (Before we go into my thinking on this you can go read this stuff from fellow Jewschooler BZ about why two-day chag makes no sense.)

I have five reasons:

  1. I am always (I’m gonna regret using the word always later — I just know it) in favor of more ritual, rather than less.
  2. I like these elements of Jewish ritual that make their own internal sense — even if they don’t really make sense — elements that accrued over time that add texture and oddity to Jewish practice.
  3. When this blog began I was an ideologue, of sorts, a Reform ritual ideologue. My faith in the idea of liberal modern Jewish religious ideologies has since wavered and I’m now in pursuit of a personal approach that is less suspicious — but still somewhat suspicious — of the human propensity for attraction to ritual on purely aesthetic terms. This reason is, I suppose, a meta-reason that covers the above two.
  4. I really like singing Hallel. A lot.
  5. Two days off is better than one day off.
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The feminist case for translating God in all His Kingly glory

A page from the 'New American Haggadah' | Little, Brown & Co.

In the past I argued vehemently for translating God in gender-neutral language. After going a long time without thinking about it, I found myself recently making a feminist case for a more direct way of conducting liturgical translations.

You can read this in full at the Forward’s Sisterhood blog:

No Haggadah in recent memory — or, perhaps, ever — has generated the kind of interest that the “New American Haggadah” has. When I began looking it over in preparation for a review of it, I was surprised by the unabashedly masculine way that Nathan Englander’s compelling translation refers to God. But as I thought about the issue throughout the Passover holiday, which ends tonight, it began to make a lot of sense.

I was raised in a Reform household. Our congregation had the older version of the Reform siddur, “Gates of Prayer,” the big blue one without the neutered translations. But it was the tradition there to improvise, de-gendering the English readings on the fly, often with charmingly chaotic results. Talk of the He-God makes me uncomfortable, and I sympathize with the discomfort expressed by some here at the Sisterhood with these masculine translations.

In her recent Sisterhood post, Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes about the widespread pairing of Elijah’s cup of wine with a cup of water for Miriam. In some corners of the left-of-Orthodox world, it has become downright traditional. Then she notes: “At the same time, the ‘New American Hagaddah,’ edited and translated by young literary lions Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander, seems to purposely go in an opposing direction.”

At the moment there are three small errors in the post, all of them entirely my fault. But I think my main argument will still be intelligible. [All the problems were removed. Thanks, Gabi!]

Anyway, check out the whole thing over here.

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Making Miriam’s Cup make more sense

Commenter Rich suggests:

It is set to the table filled.  At the end of the Maggid, after the recounting of the plagues (and of the splitting of the sea if the haggaddah contains it) we recount the Midrash in which Miriam’s well appears, and pass the cup around, adding a bit of its water to our glasses to represent sustenance from our tradition.

He then explains something special they do with Elijah’s Cup that I could take or leave.

I replied to his comment:

Oh, that’s terrific! I’ve always been bothered by the presence of Miriam’s cup without an accompanying act.

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Boycott non-union Chazeret! (This post in honor of Cesar Chavez and his stand against seder plate nonsense)

I was just chatting with my friend Bob and I don’t remember how this came up, but it suddenly came to me that there actually is a good reason for having chazeret on your seder plate: In memory of Cesar Chavez!

This is a joke, obviously — and something of a follow up to “Ha Tomato Anya.”

See also ASC’s hilarious suggestions of more additions to the seder plate (“Apple: Expresses our admiration for Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” “Asparagus: A reminder to support SPUTI, the Society to Prevent Urinary Tract Infections” and so forth).

Of course, chazeret is actually nonsense. It accomplishes nothing that either maror or karpas does not already accomplish and there’s little agreement on whether it should really be there.

In short, if you were thinking of buying me a seder plate as a gift, don’t bother if it has a spot for chazeret.

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‘A Pesach miracle’: The traditional Wilensky whitefish procession went off as planned

The Shiebers, a very laid back Orthodox family, live near my dad’s house in Austin, the house I grew up in. Beginning when I was 13 and every year after that until I moved away for college, I attended at least one seder — some years both seders — at the Shieber household.

One year, my dad called them up in advance and asked if there was anything he could pick up for the seder. Rivka, the Shieber wife/mother/undisputed leader, said yes. So, as ordered, my dad reported to the kosher HEB (it’s a Texan grocery store chain, not a misspelling of Heeb) to pick up the whole smoked whitefish that Rivka had ordered from them.

And also a jar of nuts.

The fish was indeed entirely whole: skin, eyeballs, the whole nine yards. It was also completely stiff, and when laid down on one side its tail was cocked upward at 90 degrees: It would not fit in any of the available bags at HEB. The guy behind the counter tried to just sort of hand it to my dad. After some discussion it was crammed most of the way into the largest ziploc on hand, which was in turn put into a regular plastic grocery bag.

Also he picked up the jar of nuts.

The following day I was asked to please walk the fish — the whole smoked whitefish that did not fit in its bag and had its tail kinked up at right angle — over to the Sheibers.

And also could I please remember to take the jar of nuts with me.

It was difficult to carry because of it precarious situation in the bag that it didn’t really fit in. So I carried it laid flat across my two upturned hands.

And the jar of nuts was on top of the fish.

Along the way I passed walking the opposite direction a human being take for a walk by its dog. She gave me an odd look. Before she had a chance to realize I was looking at her and quickly glance somewhere else I said, “It’s a whole smoked whitefish. We borrowed it from the neighbors and now I’m bringing it back.”

I didn’t mention the jar of nuts.

I believe this whitefish procession has taken place during the week preceding Passover every year since. The other day my dad sent me this dispatch via email with the subject line “A Pesach miracle”:

I may have mentioned that the normal path of the Allandale Pesach Whitefish Parade has been blocked for months due to seemingly never-ending construction on Bull Creek Rd. As a matter of fact, I was fully prepared to cancel this year’s parade. But then, on the actual day of the parade, there was a parting of the barricades and a laying on of the asphalt and, behold, the parade route was re-established accompanied by loud noises from the heavens!

As there was much lightning and thunder in the area, our safety team advised us to to travel in a covered parade float lest the whitefish get smoked a second time. Turnout was lower than expected.

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