Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Saying Yes to Tallitot : A Portal to Connection

The Torah explains about the fringes on the corners of a Jew’s garments. Many men and some women wear a small vest called a Tallit Katan (small shawl) under their daily clothing with fringes on each corner. Others wear Tallit (prayer shawls) for morning prayers, prayers on Sabbath, and some wear them whenever engaged in prayer or Jewish study. The, “big idea” is that when seeing and touching the fringes we should remember all the instructions of G-d and do them. The actual portion from the Torah is longer and is from Numbers, 15:38-40 (1)

I have been saying yes for deciding to take on the Mitzva (a good thing to do) of wearing a Tallit Gadol (a large prayer shawl that holds at its four corners fringes as commanded in the Torah) for prayers since the birth of my Daughter 10 years ago. Wearing a Tallit was not an option for girls when I became Bat Mitzvah. It wasn’t until my Daughter’s Naming, as she was wrapped in my beloved, now deceased, Father’s Tallit, that I decided to learn about it and the Tzitzit (the actual fringes). It is a lovely custom to wear a Tallit and the beauty of this and its observance, has brought a richness to my ritual practice that I had not previously enjoyed.

Since I teach 7 th grade students in our Congregation’s supplemental school, I now include instruction exploring the traditions of the Tallit and practice sessions for learning how Tzitzit are wound and tied. One of the things I love about the Tzitzit is that my Daughter plays with them while we pray. She adds extra knots some weeks, she braids them, wraps them tightly around her fingers, binding herself to me, them and our traditions; she curls up under the Tallit and cuddles next to me during prayers. Our Tallitot (I have several as I keep trying to find the right emotional and tactile,
"fit.”) are building their own stories; as well as my story and my Daughter’s story. A tradition yes, but an evolving religious family tradition as well.

One of my previous Gratz Classmates, Rabbi Debra Smith, compiled a wonderful book about Tallitot (plural for Tallit), Every Tallit Tells a Tale (2) . In the book, there are stories about individual choices to wear, make, share and even repair precious Tallitot. One of our family’s favorite stories about a Tallit though is not in Rabbi Debra’s book. It is in a book by Sheldon Oberman, called The Always Prayer Shawl (3), A young boy inherits his Grandfather’s Tallit. The telling of the story is his Grandfather’s journey to America. The protagonist Adam, is a young Jewish boy in Czarist Russia, who must leave his ancestral home at the outbreak of the revolution. As he departs, his Grandfather gives him the prayer shawl he received from his Grandfather, who wore it too. We like the story quite a bit and my Daughter is mesmerized because she is now the keeper of her Grandfather’s Tallit too. Which, of course has a story of its own as well.

When I pray, I feel perfectly wrapped up in my prayers while in my Tallit. It is a different feeling than that of praying without one. Steven Lewis, in the book The Rituals and Practices of a Jewish Life
(4 )expresses this well: “I pray. The tallit wraps perfectly around me in prayer- exposed, vulnerable, grateful, exhilarated, awed, helpless, distraught, and joyous. These feelings might arise at any moment in my day, but here they are different, felt as a Jew in prayer connected to other Jews in prayer next to me, around the world and backwards and forwards through time. For me, prayer is a portal to connection. Although I don’t need my tallit to pray, it does help. After the blessing, all wrapped up, eyes closed, I breathe slowly. I feel the material on my hands, cheeks, and forehead; I feel the warmth of my body and smell the cloth containing all of me- struggles and potential, disappointments and aspirations, all what G-d understands of me. Wrapped up that way in my Tallit, I feel closer to understanding it myself.”

As I continue to explore the richness of my Jewish heritage and continue to learn to understand my place within it, I hope you will continue to follow my blog as we once again, “Study Torah on the iPhone.”

L’heat (until next time)

1.  http://www.sefaria.org/Numbers.15?lang=bi from the internet 05/09/2017
2.  Smith, D.W. Every Tallit Tells a Tale, Stella Hart, Inc, 2005.
3.  Oberman, S. The Always Prayer Shawl, Boyds Mills Press, 2005.
4.  Olitzky, K., Judson, D. The Rituals &Practices of a Jewish Life, Jewish Press, 2014.

Monday, April 25, 2016

What is a Jewish Community?

I have recently been asked , as I am completing my graduate programs this month, to reflect on what a Jewish community is. What type of community is the American Jewish community as a whole and what types of communities interest me? Further, what does membership in a Jewish community entail and what kind of community should we as Jews try to become?  Here is my reply.

I think that a Jewish community boils down to a minimum of three components for the people who are part of it: Identifying as a Jew, finding others who also identify with the Jewish world at large and participation of some degree. A Jewish community is a place where the people can be either part of a cultural group, a religious group or some percent of each perhaps, and sometimes 0% of one and 100% of the other.  What makes it a community is that all who identify in some way with it, self -identify with being Jewish. They may live together, or pray together, or eat, think, play or exist together or are connected by something that by its very existence is perceived as Jewish or even “Jewish Style”, much like my example in the Jewish institutions of a “Kosher-style” deli.

The American Jewish community as a whole is a true melting pot and is as much been well described by the PEW study categories; not like the Nuremburg Laws used in Germany to restrict the basic freedoms and rights of Jews. Although, the Israeli test for citizenship of only having one grandparent being Jewish and no other criteria for identifying someone as a Jew does greatly expand both the matrilineal as well as patrilineal descent identification of many who would become “members” of the greater- worldwide Jewish community. So if you are Jewish genetically, culturally, secularly, ethnically, non-observantly or as an Atheist +/- or do not choose to live a Jewish way of life, or otherwise express yourself through religious practice, but still live or interact with another Jew whether in person or at a distance (think online communities also), who does or doesn’t do “Jewish” things, you are still part of a Jewish community.

An extremely diverse picture of American Jewry changes almost daily. Some changes stay and others de-popularize over time. One Jewish community that is not currently de-popularizing is that of Jewish Renewal and their many prayer communities which seem to be gaining in number and organization across North America, abroad and even in Israel (www.jpost.com/Jewish-World?Jewish-Features/Jewish-Renewal-grows-up ). Another Jewish community that is growing is that which is made up of Orthodox families. The larger American Jewish landscape consists of federations, foundations, social services and civic organizations too, who are all there to support Jews, and often non-Jews who are served according to our core Jewish teachings  and values of helping all in need regardless of affiliations.

Interestingly on a related point, to further confirm my thesis above, one of my seventh grade students brought up an interesting question just yesterday. We were discussing Passover Seder rituals from around the world. In 2004 in Afghanistan there was a Jewish community of two. In 2005 the “community” that existed was one, as one individual had died. Yitzhak Levi, 69, who was the caretaker of the Kabul synagogue passed away in January (www.gh.org.il/jews-afghanistan). The one remaining   Jew‘s name is Zablon Siminntov and he lives in Kabul (www.aish.com >Home>Israel>Jewish World). How can one Jew be part of a community? We decided that all Jews are connected to all other Jews in the world. So even as an isolated Jew in a town where there is no other Jew ,and no internet access , that He was still part of the larger Jewish community because he identified himself as such. By holding a Seder he was performing an act that other Jews, his community, were performing too. Even though it was not in the same physical location and that he could not verify it, other Jews were still doing the same thing. He was part of a community. By the way, the largest Afghan Jewish population of approximated 20,000 is split between Queens and in Brooklyn, NY according to our classroom research.

My last related theme that I would like to address is a special and long standing component of a Jewish community. The inclusion of those who support Jewish thoughts, processes and programs who are part of the community but not Jewish. Examples would include the administrative staff of a Synagogue, workers at a JCC, or the staff of a popular deli or restaurant that serves the Jewish community. They are part of the Jewish community. They share celebrations, holidays, sorrow and daily life of the Jews in the community and are part of the everyday workings of the community.

The types of Jewish communities that I participate in currently are mostly sub -communities within the structure of my Temple. The wonderful community of Women in my ongoing Torah study group, the group of teachers that I work with in the Religious and Hebrew Schools of our congregation and the sisterhood (which is also part of the Reform Jewish Women’s movement) whose programming I attend. I am also part of the Jewish community of Gratz College along with the Jewish participants in my two classes. I believe we all meet my theory of meeting the three basic requirements of group/ community membership.

It is difficult at best to predict what type of community American Jews should be trying to become. Since the internet is so readily available and can reach so many more people who otherwise would be isolated, or marginalized, I would say that we should use our best efforts first to support Jewish institutions that are already in existence and if there are none within our region, then we should promote the growth of virtual communities. Virtual communities are here to stay, and just like learning Torah on the iPhone, they are not meant to meet everyone’s need for community support or learning, but they will help meet some of the need.

L'heat (until next time),,,,

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Debate over Orthodox Women Rabbis and "red lines"

The www.Jewishpress.com last week published an article that I found interesting as I have been following the events surrounding the first Female Orthodox Rabbi accepting a position to serve an Orthodox congregation in NJ.

In it, Ron Rubin, states, "As high achievers, Modern Orthodox Jews hold top professional posts and are stalwarts of Jewish and Zionist activism..." With pressure from those individuals to become more modern and less orthodox,  and the rising growth of feminism in the orthodox circles, I think Rubin agrees that it was inevitable that Women ( much like their Reform and Conservative counterparts) would pursue training and credentials that would advance the role of women in synagogue prayer.
The ordained Orthodox woman Rabbi, Rachel Kohl- Finegold,(2013) took the title Maharat,"spiritual leader," unlike many of her 2015-2016 counterparts.  ( www.thedailybeast.com) Rabbi Sara Hurwitz was ordained, by Rabbi Avi Weiss in NY, and he invented the title maharat (Acronym  identifying  her position, but later changed it to Rabba ) in the US in 2009.

According to the daily beast article, the demand at the school where Kohl-Finegold graduated from is very high , last year receiving 21 inquiries from the US and other countries.
Interesting paragraph from the same article speaks to the Halachic limitations on these Rabbis because of their gender, "the red lines": women can't lead parts of the service, serve as a judge on a bet din, or be counted in a minyan.

The above limitations will be interesting to follow as Rabbi Lila Kagedan takes her pulpit in NJ this year. In  the www.divinity.uchicago.edu article from Jan 28, 2016 by Pamela Nadell discusses. "In Orthodoxy each accommodation to modernity is weighed against Jewish law. Though no statement in Jewish law prohibits women from becoming rabbis, tradition assumes the weight of law." "A revolution in Orthodox Jewish women's education has opened up Torah and text study to its girls and women. No longer are advanced Jewish texts the exclusive province of Jewish men. From there the leap to demanding the right to be recognized for having mastered them with the title rabbi was but a small step."

But was it really small? It seems to me that communities who try to circumvent traditions regarding the number of MEN for a MINYAN by using tactics such as counting dogs and holy objects to stand in for missing male humans will be very resistant to actually allowing a FEMALE (Rabbi or not) to be counted. Rabbi Dina Najman who leads Kehilah of Riverdale as the Rosh Kehilah writes in a www.timesofisrael.com article that, "her role is like that of every other Orthodox synagogue's rabbi, except that she doesn't count toward a minyan."

Rabbi Avi Weiss is quoted as saying that " (in) the more open Orthodox community, that you need a woman's voice in spiritual leadership."

A bigger question than who counts in a minyan I think will be if the new Orthodox Women Rabbis will use their knowledge of Jewish laws well enough to get past those same laws and forge an equality in those red line items.

More resources about this topic from the University of Chicago Divinity School  website:

JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency). “Breaking News: New Jersey Synagogue Reveals It Hired First ‘Orthodox’ Woman ‘Rabbi’.” Forward, January 12, 2016.
Rabbinical Council of America. “2015 Resolution RCA Policy Concerning Women Rabbis.” October 31, 2015.
Sara Hurwitz, First Orthodox Female Rabba.” Makers: The Largest Video Collection of Women’s Stories.
Sztokman, Elana. "The New Critical Mass of Orthodox Women Rabbis." Forward, June 18, 2015, Maharat. 

Borschel-Dan, Amanda. “At Orthodox women’s ordination, preaching a halacha of compassion.” Times of Israel, June 11, 2015. - See more at: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/rabbi-rabba-maharat-rabbanit-orthodox-jewish-women-whats-title#sthash.rWYZ05Iq.dpuf

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

It is not good to be alone: "Lo tov heyot Adam levado" & Same sex marriage

Although I don't usually use part of my academic musings here in the blog, I recently have been taking a course called Genesis Rabbah. We have been investigating the creation of man and woman and the division of Adam . Adam ,who had male and female qualities was divided into two distinct individuals so that he would not be alone. In our forum discussion, a classmate shared an article that I read and within that I found that I had quite a bit to say that I want to share here. In a July, 2015 article in the Israel Times, Rabbi Hart  wrote, "Torah’s statement lo tov heyot Adam levado, it is not good for a person to be alone in this world, a Torah perspective could emerge on how we are to understand the legalization of same sex marraige in our society." It does support the notion that for each person there is other soul-mate out there : not that that person has to be of the opposite gender.

I liked this piece actually quite a bit. The view of its author about supporting same sex families who choose to send their children to day schools, observe mitzvoth, study Torah and live a Jewish way of life I also found refreshing from the MO( Modern Orthodox) viewpoint. I also liked how Rabbi Hart made the comparison of how we don't publically ridicule people who cheat in business (although maybe we should) and that is also prohibited according to Torah interpretation. So why should we ridicule humans who only want to have recognition of their relationship and its permanence? That even as modern, thinking Jews we want to embrace the teaching of the Torah, we have a larger duty to preserve human life and not drive people to the point of suicide, or of breaking all ties with family, just because their significant other is of the same sex. I think too this speaks to what we have been discussing regarding each of us being given by Ha Shem free will.

Another point is about how the Rabbinic commentaries aren't really applicable to same sex marriage or in writing a contract for them, and that the Rashi interpretation was about two parties participating in a sexual relationship where one party gleans no benefit. The Supreme court decision is not about sexual fulfillment, it is about people who want to build family units. This is where all parties involved glean a benefit of stability , support and loving kindnesses in society.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, found at , www.rac.org has wonderful resources for congregations and individuals to understand the application of Jewish Values on LGBT Rights better. This past weekend at the URJ (Union Reform Judaism) Biennial in Orlando, the vote was affirmative regarding the position of the Reform Movement on Transgender Rights within our movement. Taking action to protect these rights and the families involved from discrimination is important. It is about more than preserving what is important in a free society: life, liberty, the pursuit of justice, happiness and freedom. The freedom to marry and build stable families builds strong communities and children who will grow up and value human life. All life.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Learning to Teach Hebrew Songs

This semester I am learning to teach music to students of all ages in a Jewish setting: Hebrew and Judaic programs, camps, etc. I am being exposed to endless songs and ways to teach and incorporate music into education. The class is wonderful! It has made me think about a recent assignment that I would like to share.

Dr. Lisa L. Vendeland -Fall 2104, Liturgy- Gratz College
Zemirot Assignment- Songs/ Hymns that are sung around the Sabbath dinner table

The Zemer I chose for this assignment is by Chana Senesh ( 1921-1944) called, “ Eli Eli.” It is also known as , “Towards Caesarea,” and was published as,” Halikha Lekesaria”, in 1942, while she was still in Palestine living on a Kibbutz.1 Although it is her most famous Poem and is a popular Zemer in Israel, I chose it because it is my favorite, “song” from  growing up. Chana was a young Hungarian paratrooper who was trained to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. She was killed by a firing squad in 1944 at age 23. She was known for her immense bravery.[1] Her Poem (Piyut) was set to a melody created by David Zahavi (1910-1975) an Israeli composer. Several Artists have sung it including Ofra Haza, Regina Spektor and Sophie Milman2
Although this Piyut has elements of Found poetry, Lyric poetry and Romanticism, it best fits the style of Hazaj, which is found in Epic poetry of the Middle East and musical rhythms. It is most common in Arabic poetry and usually presents in an aaba scheme. The Hazaj meter is also well represented in Hebrew poetry. Its meter is most commonly found in folk poetry such as do-bait (two tent hemi sticks ,when brought together bind the prose) and lullabies (la, la, i) 3. It uses a couplet structure and in this case the second and sixth lines form the couplet and express the poignant point that leaves a lasting impression. This is the purpose of the couplet structure4. So in this case, “ May these last forever…the prayers of mankind.”)

אלי אלי
שלא יגמר לעולמ
החול והימ
 רשרוש  של המימ
ברק השמיימ
תפילה האדמ

The Song Index lists the lyrics5 with transliteration and translation as (numbering of lines inserted for discussion purposes here):

1.Elli, Elli
2.Shelo yigamer le’olam
3.Ha chol v’hayam
4.Rish roush shel hamayim
5.Berak ha sha mayim
6.Tefilat ha’adam

My G-d, My G-d (Introductory line)
May these last forever (my translation *: there will be, his world)
The sand and the sea (*Sand and sea)
The Babble of the water (*Rush of the water)
The lightening in the sky (*Crash/lightening, the sky)
The prayers of mankind. (*Prayers of men)

In further evaluation of the elements of the Piyut there are two other ways to interpret this:  Going from top to bottom, and in a cycle of Infinity. The Top  (the sky with G-d) and the bottom , the filler between the couplet ( the elements of g-d’s world). The elements of sound (the rushing waters and crashes of lightening from heaven),  water, and earth(sand). All inferences to the majesty of G-d’s wonderful creation being witnessed by those made in his image (mankind.) These elements in all directions as far as mankind can see. They are never ending and form a circle that is life giving and affirming: Infinity. This lends back to the elements of Lyric poetry6 when Chana has addressed the reader directly, portraying her own feeling and state of mind or perception of her world during a time of impending turmoil. This represents her hope for the immortality of all mankind.
According to my research ,another Zemer that uses Hazaj meter is Adon Olam.
The biographical information available to me about the writer and the timing of its writing shed an incredible amount of light onto the content of the Zemer. During such a seemingly hopeless time for Jews, one young woman held in her heart a sense of optimism for the continuation of man, for the hope expressed in prayers that could reach the heavens and the beauty of the world and of all creation.

[1] Zemirot. Poems by Hannah Senesh. www.thejewishweek.com from New York Jewish Week magazine 22Dec2010, pulled from the Internet 10-3-14.
2 Halikha Lekesaria by Hannah Senesh. www.digital.library.upenn.edu. Pulled from the Internet 10-5-14.
3Hazaj Meter. www.dbpedia.org. Pulled from the Internet 10-6-14
4The Purpose of the Couplet in Poetry. www.examples.yourdictionary.com . Pulled from the Internet 10-5-14
5Eli, Eli: Song Index, www.zemirotdatabase.org. Pulled from the Internet 10-5-14
6Lyric Poetry. www.poeticterminology.net. Pulled from internet 10-5-14.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Jerusalem and Prayer connections: Sharing some of my learning from this past semester

Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash have remained the focus of Jewish longing, aspiration, and prayers.There are many connections between Jewish prayers and rituals and the ways we connect with Jerusalem .Daily prayers (said while facing Jerusalem and the Temple Mount) and grace after meals include multiple supplications for the restoration of Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdashJews still maintain the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, the date on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, as a day of mourning. The Jewish wedding ceremony concludes with the chanting of the biblical phrase, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning,” and the breaking of a glass by the groom to commemorate the destruction of the Temples. And the conclusion of the Yom Kippur services and thePassover Seder conclude each year with the phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem.
The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism. The Temple was built, according to Jewish tradition, on the Even Hashtiya, the foundation stone upon which the world was created. This is considered the epicenter of Judaism, where the Divine Presence (Shechina) rests, where the biblical Isaac was brought for sacrifice, where the Holy of Holies and Ark of the Covenant housing the Ten Commandments once stood, and where the Temple was again rebuilt in 515 BCE before being destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The Temple Mount is also known as Mount Moriah (Har HaMoriah), mentioned frequently in the Bible.
The Western Wall (Kotel Hama’aravi, known simply as the Wall or Kotel) is the remnant of the outer retaining wall built by Herod to level the ground and expand the area housing the Second Jewish Temple. Its holiness derives from its proximity to the Temple site and specifically its proximity to the Western Wall of the Temple’s Holy of Holies (Kodesh Hakodashim---the inner sanctuary that housed the Ark of the Covenant–the Aron HaBrit–and where the High Priest–KohenGadol--alone was permitted to enter on Yom Kippur). According to Midrashic sources, the Divine Presence never departed from the Western wall of the Temple’s Holy of Holies. For the last several hundred years,  Jews have prayed at Herod’s Western Wall because it was the closest accessible place to Judaism’s holiest site.

We also remember Jerusalem at Channukah in several ways: The obvious is in lighting theChannukiah (Menorah), Cooking foods in Oil and while playing the Dreidel Game: The Hebrew word fordreidel is sevivonwhich, as in Yiddish, means "to turn around." Dreidels have four Hebrew letters on them, and they stand for the saying, Nes gadol hayasham, meaning great miracle occurred  there.” Of course the reference to ”there” is Jerusalem. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Seeing With New Eyes: Simchat Torah

What a difference one year can make!

This time last year I wrote about comparing my Daughter's mini Torah from her Consecration with that of my own from my Consecration. I had spent days considering endings and new beginnings. The reading of the last part from one Torah and immediately following, the reading of the creation story from our family's second Torah. It is said that each year we read the Torah again, but each time as if with new eyes. We are different people.

A year has passed and I am indeed a much different person.I have moved my office to a better location closer to my Daughter's school and our home. Our family time is simplified without the stress of a long commute. Our practice has Hospital partners in place, so I am called out for deliveries less often. I am a year further in my studies at Gratz. My Hebrew is improving. I am a different person in so many ways.

This Simchat Torah I was honored to be able to carry one of our Temple's Torahs in our celebration! It was the first time that I ever actually held a Torah, other than my mini Torah. An honor that I had not experienced even at the time of my Bat Mitzvah, nor at any Jewish camp or youth group event. I don't think that I ever really gave much thought to what I might have been missing.Not until this Friday that is.

As we were whirling and dancing around the Sanctuary, I heard the Cantor call my name along with three other names. As I ascended onto the Bimah and was handed this beautifully wrapped gift, my heart lept with joy. Singing and dancing through the Sanctuary was amazing: my precious daughter at my side and my partner nearby! Without a doubt, this brief snapshot in my life will be forever one of my most memorable.

My sentiment is not uncommon in this regard. I am following an interesting blog called The Wondering Jew (which I highly recommend) In her installment about experiencing Simchat Torah she expresses the same joy and lack of self consciousness: it is a good read that I highly recommend.

It can be found here:

I am sharing these few photos of my daughter (dressed in white) and I from our Celebration. I hope that as we look ahead we all see the Torah with new eyes, find renewed meaning in our celebrations and form joyous new memories.

Lehitra'ot (see you later) Shalom (peace).