Thursday, September 28, 2006

The usual Yom Kippur reminders

(Crossposted to Jewschool)

Q: Why can’t you catch a Jew on Yom Kippur?
A: ‘Cause they fast.

Two important reminders for those who are fasting on Yom Kippur:
1. Hydrate! Drinking a lot of water on Sunday afternoon right before the fast is a good idea, but not sufficient. It’s best to start hydrating a day or two earlier. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to drink a liter of water RIGHT NOW. This can make a big difference in being able to have a meaningful day me-erev ad arev (from evening to evening), and having the strength at the end of the day to appreciate Neilah rather than count the minutes until dusk.

2. Fasting isn’t always a choice. MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger encourages everyone to take the amount they would have spent on food and donate it to feed those whose fast is involuntary.

Add your own physical and spiritual reminders in the comment thread.

Friday, September 22, 2006


Greetings from the old country!

The astronomical new moon was this morning at 7:34 AM EDT. The molad (average new moon) was at 7:37 PM Jerusalem time, or approximately 1:37 PM EDT. The new year is on its way! Theoretically, the new moon of Tishrei should be visible this evening.

This year we have an unusual coincidence: the autumnal equinox will occur during Rosh Hashanah! It will be tonight at 12:03 AM EDT. The Talmud's words about seeing the world as perfectly balanced between merit and guilt ring particularly true this year. As our half of the globe moves towards darkness, may our actions move towards light.

(In other cool confluences of this sort, we'll have a total lunar eclipse on Purim, the day when the natural order is overturned. In the US we'll catch the end of it, as the moon is rising. Also, the next time Rosh Hashanah coincides with International Talk Like A Pirate Day is in 2009. It's on Shabbat again, so some communities won't blow shofARRRRRR that day, but they'll still observe it as Yom HazikARRRRRRRRRRRon and read the Torah portion about HagARRRRRRR.)

Tichleh shanah v'kileloteha. (May the year end, with its curses.)
Tacheil shanah uvirchoteha. (May the year begin, with its blessings.)

A good and sweet 5767!!!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


International Talk Like A Pirate Day was everything I could have dreamed of and more. On a whim, I started comparing the popularity of different spellings of the canonical pirate interjection "ARRRRR". I did this systematically, doing Google searches on the letter A followed by any number of R's.

Obviously, the word "a" (the trivial case, which no one would ever use as a pirate interjection) was by far the most popular, with 19 billion hits. "Ar" (still not a common pirate interjection, but the standard abbreviation for arrrrrrrrgon, Arrrrrrrkansas, and Arrrrrrrrgentina) was also very popular, with 622 million. "Arr" is also an abbreviation for various things, and got 16 million hits. With "arrr", we enter pirate country, which continues with "arrrr", "arrrrr", and so forth.

After doing a number of these searches, it became clear that there was an monotonically decreasing, possibly exponential relationship between the number of R's and the number of Google hits. Here is the data plotted on logarithmic scale. Click on it for a larger version.

So, as the number of hits steadily decreased, I figured I'd keep doing these Google searches until I reached a spelling that got no hits. I clearly underestimated the number and diversity of pirate imitators on the Internet. There were substantial numbers of hits for "arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr" (32 R's) ("Did you mean: grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr") "arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr" (55 R's) ("Did you mean: rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr"), and it just kept on going and going. After googlewhacks (1 solitary hit) at 101 and 104 R's, I finally reached the elusive goal at 105 R's. At that point I compiled the data:

Note that it looks exponential-ish, even though it's already graphed on a logarithmic scale. If it were actually an inverse exponential relationship, then this graph should be a straight line. We briefly considered the possibility that it could be a double exponential (e^e^-x), though I've never heard of any physical phenomenon with that type of relationship.

Next, I decided to plot it on a log-log graph, to see if it was a power-law relationship, as are so many other phenomena. (Does anyone know how to do this in Excel, other than by taking the log of each column directly? So that the axes will be labeled with the actual data points rather than with the logs of the data points?)

Sure enough, it looks like something approximating a straight line! So the relationship between the number of Google hits (G) and the number of R's (R) can be described by a power law. Doing the regression in Excel, the best-fit curve is G = 657089947.6 * R^-3.886866982, with a correlation coefficient of 0.962. In other words, doubling the number of R's results in dividing the number of Google hits by about 15. Tripling the number of R's results in dividing the number of Google hits by about 72.

If anyone would like to do further analysis, I'm happy to send you the raw data - just email mahrabu at gmail. One unexplained phenomenon is the dearth of Google hits for 16 to 19 R's, only to return to the regular pattern with 20 and above. This provides new and exciting directions for further research in the field. Ahoy!

UPDATE: We've been linked from Language Log! Our study on "AR+" resembles a similar study on "AW+".

UPDATE 2: Wow, some of the prior research is incredible! Hat tip: Three-Toed Sloth

UPDATE 3: Thanks to a correspondent at the University of Minnesota for answering the Excel question. Here is a better-labeled graph:

Monday, September 18, 2006


Ahoy! It's just a few hours until International Talk Like A Pirate Day! I look forward to telling pirate jokes all day and telling the students to walk the plank. All week I've been getting the same questions: "Should we wear eyepatches? Are you going to wear a pirate hat?", and since this is answered in the Pirate FAQ, I get to answer in my snippiest voice "It's not Dress Like A Pirate Day, it's Talk Like A Pirate Day." One student asked "Do we get to drink beer?" Other students corrected him to rum. I said "It's not Drink Like A Pirate Day..."

I also told them they had to bring money to purchase the lab manual. I said "It's going to be Talk Like A Pirate Day as well as Buy A Lab Manual Like A Pirate Day." They said "Wouldn't pirates just steal it?", and I retracted my statement.

We'll never know for sure whether pirates really said "ARRRRR", but as the Wikipedia entry on International Talk Like A Pirate Day tells us, this was implanted firmly in the culture by actor Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver in the 1950 film version of Treasure Island. Mark Liberman has researched this and determined that this interjection comes from western England, from which pirates may well have hailed.

One of my classes has a test tomorrow, so they won't get to join in the fun. Or won't they? I edited the test so that every question is either about pirates ("A pirate ship is moving east at 20 m/s") or in pirate speak ("Find the accelarrrrrrrrration"). Also, one of the extra credit questions is "You are already familiar with Isaac Newton's three laws of motion. What would Robert Newton's laws of motion be? Be creative."

If my students are reading this, congratulations, you have a leg up on the rest of the class now.

Pirates are still around today! Especially in Indonesia. On the one hand, this is really bad. Pirates (by definition) engage in violent crimes. On the other hand, it could end global warming.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention, last week one of my students said "Does that mean we get to curse?" I have avoided answering the question. Today, "Yes!!! We get to curse!!!!!!"

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Jewish continuity

"Some people have a custom of not talking after washing their hands, in order to preserve the continuity between handwashing and the blessing over the bread. So if someone doesn't talk to you, they're not being rude; they're just observing this custom."

A variation of the above was a standard part of the Shabbat dinner coordinator's speech each week at Hillel back in the day. Seared into the collective memory was a set of incidents before my time along the lines of:

Student 1: " netilat yadayim."
Student 2: "Hi, I'm Student 2, what's your name?"
Student 1: "..."
Student 2: "Well I never! You people are so RUDE! This is the last time you'll see me here."
Student 1: "..."

So this disclaimer was created in order to stem the tide of students being frightened away from Hillel. As a result, many people picked up the practice of "preserving the continuity", so that they could fit in and look like they knew what they were doing, even if they had no such "custom".

At Hillel and elsewhere, this has led to many conversations in a pidgin of pantomime and telepathy; for example, making frantic salt-shaker motions to communicate "Where's the salt?", or having an extended conversation like:

"Mmmmph. Mmm?"
"Mmm mmm? Mmmmm."
"Mm-mm, mmmmm."
"Mmmph mmmm mmmm."
"Ah. Mmmmm."
"Mm! Mmmm mmmm?"
"Mmmm, mmmph mmmm."
"Mmmmmm! Mmmm?"
"Mmmmmmmmm. Birshut..."

Which, of course, translates to:

"I think everyone's here - who wants to say hamotzi?"
"Wait, what about Plonit? I think she's still washing."
"I don't think she wants us to wait for her; we can go ahead."
"She might have gone to the bathroom; let's wait another minute."
"Oh look, she went over to that table. Never mind."
"Was someone sitting in this seat? Should we wait for them?"
"No, I don't think so, they were there for a second and then moved."
"Ok, let's say hamotzi. Who wants to do it?"
"Why don't you?"
"Okay, FINE, if no one else wants to. Birshut..."

One year around Purim, I made a fake event sign, advertising "Preserving the Continuity" by Marcel Marceau. (I never admitted to making that sign at the time. NOW THE TRUTH COMES OUT.)

Back to the present. EAR and I have started studying the Rambam's Hilchot Berachot (Laws of Blessings). It turns out that he addresses this issue in Hilchot Berachot 1:8. Here is my translation:

For all blessings, one should not interrupt with other things between the blessing and the thing over which one is blessing, and if you interrupt, you have to go back and bless again. But if you interrupt with things that are on the topic of the thing over which you are blessing, you don't have to bless again.

How? For example, you blessed over the bread, and before you ate, you said "Bring the salt" or "Bring the cooked dish" or "Give Ploni something to eat" or "Feed the animal" or something like that, you don't have to bless again. And likewise for any similar cases.

So there you have it; these silly conversations happened in the Rambam's time too, and he says that you can just say these things out loud rather than playing charades. Take that with a grain of salt (as it were), but now you have something to rely on.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

North of the border

This week's havurah media frenzy has made it all the way to Canada! The latest article is in the Canadian Jewish News and profiles Sarah Brodbar-Nemzer.

It has some framing problems ("Shomer Shabbat -- to an extent", "levels of observance"), but overall it gets the message across. Thanks Sarah!

“[One of] the two main principles of the havurah movement is that it is participatory, which means everyone, no matter who you are in your life, no matter what you do, you are equal in terms or participation. You have something to teach and you have something to learn,” she said, adding that at the summer institute, every teacher is a student and vice versa.

Classes, which range in topics from “Men, Women, and Sex in the Talmud,” to “Writing and Listening to Jewish Poetry,” are taught and attended by professors, carpenters, students and doctors.

“And these people are sitting next to you in a class. So, a renowned Torah scholar might be sitting next to you, learning interpretive dance,” Brodbar-Nemzer said with a laugh.

Another important NHC principle is that the havurot are egalitarian.

“Normally, egalitarian focuses on questions of gender. We also focus on issues of age. It was a community in which I grew up thinking of myself as an equal participant, and an equal leader. When I joined the board, I was in high school and people said to me, ‘Oh, are you the youth representative on the board?’ I wasn’t there as a token young person. I was there because I was smart and had things to say.”

There's one significant factual error:

With more than 150 havurot and minyanim in 34 states and provinces in North America listed on the NHC website, including Har Kodesh in Montreal, and Or Shalom in Vancouver, there are no listings for anything in Toronto.

That is not to say that there are no minyanim or havurot in Toronto, but none affiliated with NHC.

Actually, there are no minyanim or havurot anywhere that are formally affiliated with the NHC. The NHC doesn't have formal affiliation the way the synagogue movements do. The reason none are listed in Toronto is because no one has submitted any to the directory. If you know of one, email directory at havurah dot org, and it will be added!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

When it rains, it pours

After Friday's article about the NHC Summer Institute, Kol Zimrah and the independent minyan/havurah scene appear in two more JTA articles today, for a total of three in a span of less than a week! And I'm quoted in all of them.

The main article is about the independent minyan wave of the last 5 years. Over at Jewschool, we're having a heated discussion about this article and whether independent minyanim should exist. (Spoiler: My vote is yes.)

There's also a sidebar about, of all things, the trichitza. And there's a shout-out to Hilchot Pluralism Part III and the ensuing comment thread. Thanks, commenters! At Jewschool, I clarify my quote in that article, where I think I was less than clear.

So here's some close reading / nitpicking / clarification of the independent minyan article.

Even as the organized Jewish community wracks its collective brain for ways to lure unaffiliated youth into synagogues and federations, hundreds of these Jewishly literate, spiritually driven young professionals are gathering regularly in living rooms and rented halls around the country for innovative Shabbat services they create by and for themselves.

“We are seeing more ferment among young Jews today than at any time since the havurah movement of the ’70s,” says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

These minyans don’t follow the rules. Eschewing movement affiliation, operating without rabbis and on shoestring budgets, they differ in their approach to halachah, or Jewish law, but are united by a spiritually intense, highly participatory style of worship and a willingness to experiment with ritual forms.

“It’s not about latke-eating contests or sending us to Israel, it’s about creating authentic Judaism,” says Julia Appel, a founder of the Tikkun Leil Shabbat minyan in Washington, who says she’s tired of synagogues throwing “wine and cheese parties” to attract younger Jews.

Yay!!!!! Totally on target all around. (I can't stand the appellation "young professionals", but that deserves a separate rant.)

These are not beginners’ services: The davening is fast and proficient, led by people with strong Jewish backgrounds who went to day schools or Jewish summer camps, were active in their college Hillels and may have spent time in Israel.

As I discuss in the Jewschool comment thread, let's not ignore the people whose first entry into active Jewish life has been through the independent Jewish scene. I mean, yes, the original founders had to have some sort of previous Jewish background (tongs made from tongs and all that), but these independent communities have been around for several years now.

These minyans have much in common with the havurah movement, a nondenominational countercultural initiative that also focuses on Jewish learning, spiritual prayer and lay leadership.

“Our goals are similar,” says [BZ], a high-school physics teacher and co-founder of Kol Zimrah. “In both cases it’s people interested in forming a deep connection to Judaism within the context of a community rather than through established synagogues.”

I would say that the minyanim founded in the last 5 years don't merely "have much in common with the havurah movement", but are the latest wave of the havurah movement. When I said "Our goals are similar", I was comparing minyanim/havurot founded in the 21st century with minyanim/havurot founded in the 1970s, not comparing the new minyanim with "the havurah movement" (as an external entity).

Also, my quote should in no way be construed to suggest that it is possible to form a deep connection to Judaism through established synagogues. It should be parsed as "interested in (forming a deep connection to Judaism within the context of a community) rather than [doing whatever they do] through established synagogues", not as "interested in forming a deep connection to Judaism (within the context of a community rather than through established synagogues)".

“The very fact that they use different words is significant,” Sarna says. “The minyanim don’t put the same emphasis on fellowship. Davening and study are higher on their list of priorities.”

The minyan/havurah dichotomy isn't so clear at all, and the names of the independent communities don't reflect the generational differences. The Highland Park Minyan was founded in the 1970s, and isn't so distinguishable from other havurot of its vintage. The DC Reform Chavurah was founded in the 2000s, and is one of the constituent entities that became Tikkun Leil Shabbat, one of the independent minyanim featured in the JTA article.

They vary widely in practice, with halachic decisions made by self-appointed leadership committees.

These committees make policy decisions, not halachic decisions. They're not claiming to be making binding decisions about halacha; they're just deciding what the minyan is going to do.

Some offer only kosher food, while others maintain a “two-table” system, with one table reserved for vegetarian food and the other for vegetarian food with a hechsher, or kosher symbol.

Yay for the two-table system appearing in print!

As far as I am aware, all the new independent minyanim offer only kosher food (as understood by some or all of their constituents). For some people that means everything is vegetarian (which avoids any non-kosher animals, non-kosher-slaughtered meat, and mixing of milk and meat); for others it means everything has a hechsher and was prepared in a kitchen where everything has a hechsher. This difference of opinion is why neither table is labeled as "kosher" in the two-table system (which the article got right).

If an independent minyan wants to offer an actual non-kosher option, then hey, more power to them (though I won't eat from that table), but I haven't heard of such an occurrence.

A few have created their own norms. Tikkun Leil Shabbat was created in June by a merger of two pre-existing minyans. One was more traditional than the other, so they created alternate services: One week they face east and pray without musical instruments; the next week they sit in a circle and play instruments.

I don't think the original Tikkun Leil Shabbat would have characterized itself as "more traditional". In TLS's first incarnation, it had services in a wide variety of formats, while DC Reform Chavurah had one format. The TLS folks can correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that the current pair of formats really was to balance two aesthetics, not to be "more traditional" and "less traditional" at different times.

Several of the more traditional minyans use similar practices, aiming for a pluralism where different observance levels coexist.

The great thing about the approach to pluralism in the new independent communities is that different forms of observance are not seen as "levels", where one form is "more observant" or "less observant" than another. It's a pluralism where different people coexist, each with their own practices and identities.

“Right now they don’t need religious schools or life-cycle events, but at a particular point they will turn to a religious institution to provide these things,” predicts Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “If we face the challenge appropriately and retool some of what we do, I believe many of these people may join Conservative synagogues, or these minyanim may become Conservative institutions.”


Monday, September 11, 2006

That goat must go

A girl got a pet goat. She liked to go running with her pet goat. She played with her goat in her house. She played with the goat in her yard.

But the goat did some things that made the girl's dad mad. The goat ate things. He ate cans and he ate canes. He ate pans and he ate panes. He even ate capes and caps.

One day her dad said, "That goat must go. He eats too many things."

The girl said, "Dad, if you let the goat stay with us, I will see that he stops eating all those things."

Her dad said, "We will try it."

So the goat stayed and the girl made him stop eating cans and canes and caps and capes.

But one day a car robber came to the girl's house. He saw a big red car near the house and said, "I will steal that car."

He ran to the car and started to open the door.

The girl and the goat were playing in the back yard. They did not see the car robber.


Sunday, September 10, 2006

Election special

This Tuesday (September 12) is the primary election in Mah Rabu's state of New York, so here are our long-awaited endorsements.


Eliot Spitzer is going to breeze through both the primary and the general. There's not going to be any suspense; he's been crowned for over a year. But I'm going to endorse him anyway. As state attorney general, Spitzer has cracked down on corporate crime effectively.

He's certainly not perfect. None of the candidates is ideal on the school funding issue. But Spitzer is willing to go the farthest towards providing adequate funding for our schools. And any Democratic governor will be such a breath of fresh air after 12 years of Pataki that any of these complaints pale in comparison.

Both candidates support nonpartisan redistricting for the state legislature. This gets a big thumbs up. At present, New York is gerrymandered so that the State Assembly is eternally Democratic and the State Senate is eternally Republican, and most state legislators never answer to their constituents. Nonpartisan redistricting will make the state government more democratic (and probably more Democratic too).

I heard a chunk of the Spitzer-Suozzi debate, and was disappointed with both. Both candidates were evoking the "tax relief" frame, and arguing over who could cut taxes more. Why would you do that, in a Democratic primary in a blue state? Stop triangulating and start leading.

But there were more negatives (in that small chunk of the debate) for Suozzi. He said to Spitzer something along the lines of "All you've been doing is prosecuting. That's no way to run a state!". Spitzer responded more calmly than I would have, saying "Uh, I know that. The attorney general's job is to be a prosecutor. I know that's not the only thing, and that's why I'm running for governor."

More substantively, Suozzi was talking about how he balanced the Nassau County budget by standing up to the police officers' union. As a member of another public employee union, I'm certainly not going to vote for someone for union-busting and then bragging about it!

So Spitzer gets my vote. Finally, this blue state will be led by a governor who represents the state's progressive values!

Lieutenant Governor:

Senate Minority Leader David Paterson, my state senator until I moved a few blocks out of the district, is unopposed in the primary. In the Senate, he's been trying to buck tradition by abrogating the tacit non-aggression pact and turning the Democratic minority into an actual opposition party, so he'll be missed there.

Attorney General:

The two leading candidates are 2001 mayoral nominee Mark Green and 2002 gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, each looking for a shot at redemption. I moved to New York in 2002, and I guess I didn't have a permanent address in time to register for the primary that year, so I wasn't around for either Green's or Cuomo's previous runs for office. So I'm not going to focus on the ugliness from either of those campaigns (though I did vote for both of their rivals later on - I voted for McCall in the 2002 general election and Ferrer in the 2005 general election). Instead, I'll focus on their records.

Green served two terms as NYC's first Public Advocate, and was an, um, advocate for the public. In contrast, Cuomo's tenure as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development was marked by cronyism and corruption.

Therefore, I endorse Mark Green to fill Spitzer's shoes as attorney general.


I am harboring no delusions; Hillary Clinton will be re-elected. But I still intend to cast a protest vote in the primary.

Sen. Clinton supported the disastrous Iraq war. I endorse labor activist Jonathan Tasini, who wants to support our troops and bring them home. Tasini also supports universal health care, impeachment or censure of Bush and Cheney, and marriage equality.

I don't advocate protest votes in the general election; those are about pragmatism and getting your party elected, not about making a statement. So the primary is precisely the right time to make a statement. If Tasini gets a substantial vote total on Tuesday, it will send a message that the people of New York are opposed to their senator's support of the war. (Tasini garnered 44% of the vote in a primary among NY MoveOn members. Neither candidate reached the two-thirds threshold for MoveOn to make an endorsement in the primary.)

Clinton will, of course, sail to victory in November over her little-known Republican opponent. (I won't name the Republican candidates in the race; they don't get any free advertising from me. I'll let the NRSC waste its millions in the expensive NY media market if they want you to know the candidate's name.) But we can give her a mandate to bring home the troops.

Clinton is no Lieberman. She hasn't gone on all the talk shows to defend the Bush administration and undermine the Democratic caucus. So I'll vote against her in the primary, but I'm not worried about her reelection in the general.

But another reason to vote against Clinton in the primary is to put the brakes on the media narrative that she is the uncontested frontrunner for the 2008 presidential nomination. I swear that her frontrunner status is a creation of the media and the Republicans. The Republicans have been using a Clinton presidential candidacy to spook their base for years before she made any indication of running. And even if she's leading in the polls, that's hardly fair -- Clinton has 100% name recognition, while the average American who doesn't obsessively follow politics hasn't heard of the other candidates, being as how this average American only tunes in once every four years, and we're not even halfway there yet. I've never met anyone who was actually excited to vote for Clinton in 2008 (and accepting her nomination as inevitable doesn't count). So the other candidates' numbers will start to go up once people learn who they are. But only if they get a fair chance. If Clinton is the undisputed frontrunner from before day one, then we're back to the "electability" clusterfuck of 2004, where people are voting in the primary based not on who they want to vote for, but on who they think other people will want to vote for. We can help avert this now by taking some of the wind out of Clinton's sails.


All the other races in my corner of the City, County, and State of New York are uncontested: Rep. Charles Rangel, state Sen. Eric Schneiderman, and state Rep. Linda Rosenthal have no primary opposition.

There is a contested race for Democratic State Committee from my district between Debra Cooper and Elizabeth Starkey. I got two things in the mail from Cooper. She says "I'll push our Democratic Party to be liberal and loud about what the Republicans are doing wrong." Who can argue with that? And she has endorsements from Scott Stringer, Jerry Nadler, Schneiderman, and Rosenthal. From what I can ascertain online, Starkey seems to be the incumbent. Does anyone know anything about her? Is there an establishment candidate and an anti-establishment candidate, or anything like that? Which is which? And what does the Democratic State Committee do? In the absence of further information, I'll vote for Cooper.

A number of other states are also having primaries on September 12, most notably Rhode Island and Maryland. (The others are Arizona, Delaware, DC, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wisconsin.)

For obvious reasons, I endorse Steve Laffey in the Rhode Island Republican Senate primary. According to Laffey's bio, when he took office as mayor of Cranston, the city was near bankruptcy and had the lowest bond rating in the country. He brought financial stability to Cranston, bringing the city's bonds back to investment grade in less than two years! Laffey "is a compassionate person who wants every child in Cranston to have the same opportunities that he did growing up, and he wants to see senior citizens feel safe and secure in the city in which many of them have lived for decades." If any Rhode Island Republicans are reading this, just think: Isn't it about time you had a real Republican representing you in Washington? Do the right thing Joanne. (That goes for Connecticut Republicans too. Support your party's nominee!)

As for the Maryland Democratic Senate primary, I'm not making an endorsement. Rep. Ben Cardin and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume are both solid candidates, so I'll leave the decision to the voters of Maryland, and support the nominee in the general election for Sen. Paul Sarbanes's open seat.


This must be what angels taste like

Congratulations to The Simpsons on beginning its milestone 18th season!

Friday, September 08, 2006

The choice of a new generation

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports on the National Havurah Committee Summer Institute:

RINDGE, N.H., Aug. 30 (JTA) -- When Ben Murane arrived earlier this month at the National Havurah Committee´s Summer Institute, the annual gathering of the country´s independent Jewish prayer communities, he was "surprised to see all the older people here," he says.

Murane, 23, thought he and his friends at Kol Zimrah, a three-year-old, lay-led minyan on Manhattan´s Upper West Side, were at the forefront of a religious revolution led by young people turned off by the impersonal, hierarchical nature of institutional Judaism.

He had no idea that the white-haired, guitar-playing, anti-establishment grandparents he found himself living and studying with for a week in New Hampshire had done the same thing almost four decades earlier.

"Everyone I´ve met at Kol Zimrah is young," Murane explains.

But the havurah movement is 38 years old, dating back to the 1968 founding of Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Mass., the first intentionally non-denominational community of Jewishly literate, religiously egalitarian and politically liberal young Jews.

Even as mainstream synagogues began co-opting the havurah model to reinvigorate large, impersonal congregations, a network of independent havurot grew, creating an all-volunteer National Havurah Committee and, in 1979, the first summer institute, where havurah members from across North America gather every year to sing, dance, pray, study and meditate.

This year the movement symbolically turned over the reins to the next generation. [BZ], 26, and Elizabeth Richman, 32, co-chaired the summer institute, the first time it was headed by two young people.

Read the full story! It will appear in your local Jewish newspaper in the coming week.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

New Traditions

Among the items auctioned off at the NHC Summer Institute's annual auction were several issues of New Traditions, a now-defunct journal published by the National Havurah Committee in the mid-1980s. I came home with issue #2, from Spring 1985. The cover price is $5 (that's $9.46 in 2006 dollars). "Note: New Traditions will appear on an occasional basis until we are in a position to publish it as a quarterly." Does anyone know whether it ever became a quarterly, or how long it lasted? There is also an opportunity to sign up for a four-issue subscription for $18, or to become a member of the NHC (which includes a subscription to New Traditions) for $35. The latter has gotten much cheaper in real dollars -- $35 in 1985 is equivalent to $66.19 in 2006, and an NHC membership costs only $40 these days.

The NHC's mailing address at the time was 270 W 89th St, New York NY, before the office had moved to Philadelphia, of course. This building is now the Heschel School, and is connected to the back of B'nai Jeshurun. Can anyone fill in the history of how this came to be the NHC office and how it ceased to be?

Would it make sense to resurrect a dead-tree journal like this today? Probably not -- that's what the Internet is for. But it's always amazing to see the ingenious ways that people communicated even before there was an Internet.

The introduction by editor William Novak says, in part:

The purpose of New Traditions is to provide an intelligent and personal discussion of contemporary Judaism. By "Judaism" we do not mean Jewish history, politics, nostalgia, literature or scholarship, although these concerns will certainly be discussed in our pages. What we have in mind, simply, is the theory and practice of Judaism as a religion. Our hope is that New Traditions will be a forum for teaching, interpretation, and imagination -- in short, as our subtitle puts it, for explorations in Judaism.

Listen up, those who would lump the recent explosion of independent minyan/havurot together with Heeb into an undifferentiated, substanceless "hipster Judaism" -- you are wrong. The media narrative is "This new generation of Jews is Jewishly engaged, but they don't belong to synagogues! Therefore, they must be creating a new cultural Jewish identity that rejects religion, and possibly rejects any content." Nope. It's actually the opposite. Like our predecessors who ran the NHC in 1985 and produced New Traditions, we are building independent Jewish communities because we want to see Judaism as a religion fully actualized, without the baggage that comes along with the synagogue-industrial complex.

The household names (defined as "people I've heard of") among the contributors to New Traditions #2 include Danny Siegel, Arnold Eisen, Julius Lester, Richard Israel, and Aryeh Kaplan.

I'll post more highlights after I read the whole thing. In the meantime, a few fun tidbits:

In an interview with Jacob Neusner, he says that "Commentary is the most destructive Jewish institution around."

"How to Give a D'var Torah", by Richard J. Israel, has been excerpted online, but these excerpts leave out a section on "Some Resources That Are Available To You", which reviews various Torah commentaries from Rashi and Ramban to Hertz and Plaut. A highlight:

In my view, many of the ArtScroll publications currently on the market are hopelessly pious and of no interest at all. I have yet to find anything they want to teach me that I want to know. They are so noble, high minded and earnest that it is hard to believe that they are written for real people. Because the series is such a good idea and in such a splendid format, it is a double shame that the product is so bad.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Turning the corner

I know it took 3.5 years, and the human and financial cost has been immeasurable, but we've FINALLY caught the #2 leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq!!! I guess I was too quick to judge. Let freedom reign!

UPDATE: Was that the right link, or was this?