Thursday, April 30, 2009

Independent minyanim in the Washington Post

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Today’s Washington Post has a story on independent minyanim, with a focus on communities in DC. There’s no breaking news for those who are familiar with this scene; like the New York Times piece in November 2007, it primarily introduces the phenomenon to a general audience. But this may be the first mainstream (non-Jewish) media source to report on the USCJ grants for minyanim. (This grant program was pooh-poohed to some degree here on Jewschool, but anecdotal reports suggest that it seems to be taking off. Is there any data on how many minyanim are participating so far? What’s the breakdown between previously existing minyanim and new ones?)

Gathering in group homes and college dormitories, in rural woods and apartment buildings, a growing number of young Jews are spurning traditional synagogues and forming worship communities that blend ancient traditions with modern values in ways that religion scholars say could redefine American Judaism.

The young people represent some of the most devout of their generation and, worried that they are being lost, rabbis and other Jewish leaders in the Washington region and elsewhere are working hard to bring them back into the fold, including offering financial grants to independent groups who are willing to create partnerships with traditional worship communities.

This article shares many strengths and weaknesses with the NYT article. The tone is generally positive, stressing that independent minyan participants are committed to Judaism. For the most part, this article addresses independent minyanim on their own terms, and is less caught up in Jewish institutional baggage than are similar treatments in the Jewish press (though somewhat more so than the NYT article).

Then there are the serious problems. As I wrote in regard to the NYT article:

The word “traditional” is being overloaded with at least two different meanings (which is par for the course): “conventional” (as in traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA), vs. “traditional Judaism” (whatever that means). Is a “traditional synagogue” one that has a rabbi and a building and conventional institutional structures, or one that follows “traditional” Jewish practice? There isn’t really a positive or negative correlation here, and there’s no way to tell which is being referred to except from context.

One commenter argued that the NYT article consistently used “traditional” to mean “conventional”, but that’s much harder to argue here. Compare:

  • “a growing number of young Jews are spurning traditional synagogues” -> “conventional”
  • “independent groups who are willing to create partnerships with traditional worship communities” -> “conventional”
  • “the large denominations that have traditionally divided Jewish worship life” -> “conventional”
  • (in the same sentence) “Reform, the most liberal, Conservative and Orthodox, the most traditional” -> “traditional Judaism” (probably referring to “Orthodox”, but I initially read it as referring to “Conservative and Orthodox”; this is why God invented the serial comma)
  • “in a break with tradition, women lead parts of the service. ” -> “traditional Judaism”
  • “the traditional children’s parade that is part of the Jewish festival observing Purim” -> unclear

I’m not just griping about word choice. It’s intellectually sloppy to conflate these two concepts, and a misrepresentation of the significance of the independent minyan phenomenon. In terms of Jewish ideology and practice, independent minyanim are all over the map, and so are synagogues. Independent minyan participants may be “spurning traditional synagogues” in the sense of conventional institutions, but are neither moving (en masse) toward or away from “traditional” Judaism. Some may be moving toward “more traditional” practices and others toward “less traditional” practices (insofar as these comparatives are meaningful) and others neither, but that’s not the interesting story. The interesting story is that people all over the Jewish map are creating active participatory Jewish communities.

Small errors:

DC Minyan and Rosh Pina use the Orthodox liturgy, but some worshipers follow along in the Conservative prayer book. Both have separate seating for women and men, but Rosh Pina uses a partition as in Orthodox services and, in a break with tradition, women lead parts of the service.

I’m not sure the reporter realizes how small the differences between “the Orthodox liturgy” and “the Conservative prayer book” are (though the bring-your-own-siddur trend is significant even when the siddurim share basically the same Hebrew text). DC Minyan also has “women lead parts of the service”. This may be a “break with tradition” within the Orthodox world, but is not so for participants in these minyanim who come from egalitarian backgrounds; rather, the separate seating and fixed gender roles are the real “break with tradition” for those participants.

With the people interviewed for the article, the framing gets worse.

I think it’s the rule that Jonathan Sarna has to be quoted in these articles.

“It is an interesting mix between the egalitarian, pluralistic, inclusive values coming from the left and the values of learning and of observance coming from the right,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “They are making a new synthesis of these traditional and modern values that we haven’t seen before.”

GAH! Learning is a value “from the right”?! There’s nothing right-wing about learning, and there’s certainly nothing left-wing about ignorance. This makes me long for the days when, according to the stereotypes, Reform Jews had three Ph.D.’s from German universities and Orthodox Jews were illiterate huddled masses from the shtetl.

Egalitarian pluralistic inclusive left-wing Jews who embrace learning and observance (by the appropriate definition of “observance”) aren’t moving to the right or making a synthesis with right-wing values; they’re becoming serious committed left-wing Jews rather than apathetic left-wing Jews.

Still, some researchers question the future of the groups. A previous generation of independent prayer groups started by baby boomers in the 1970s is still active but has stalled in growth. Some experts wonder whether the current generation of minyanim leaders will move from the urban centers where most minyanim are based when they have children and melt into suburban synagogues, which offer extensive educational programs for Jewish children.

Ah, “some-say” journalism at its finest. Who are these anonymous “some researchers” and “some experts”, what is their agenda, and why aren’t they willing to be quoted by name? (Are they the same ones who appeared in the NYT article? “The minyanim are noticing that some of their worshipers are getting older, and it is unclear how they might evolve as participants have children and move to the suburbs, said members and experts on the movement.”) Let’s examine their claims. What do they mean by “stalled in growth”? Individual groups growing in number of participants, or overall growth in the number of groups? If the former, then the groups that have lasted since the 1970s aren’t necessarily aiming for growth; they may be happy at their current sizes. If the latter, then obviously the number of “independent prayer groups started by baby boomers in the 1970s” isn’t ever going to grow; that number was locked in as soon as the ’70s ended. But if the “started in the 1970s” constraint is removed, then the number of groups continues to grow, and the newest generation of independent minyanim is part of that growth. One longtime NHC veteran posted on NHC-DISCUSS, in response to this line, “These new communities are exactly the growth we hoped for.”

As for the wonderings of “some experts”, why are independent minyan leaders any more likely to “melt into suburban synagogues” than they were to melt into urban synagogues? If anything, “the urban centers where most minyanim are based” offer a much wider range of synagogue options than the suburbs do, and the minyan founders still opted for None Of The Above and started something new instead, and can do the same if (if!) they move to the suburbs. Yes, many suburban synagogues “offer extensive educational programs for Jewish children” (as do many urban synagogues), but these programs wouldn’t necessarily be any more appealing to this crowd than anything else that the synagogues offer. I’m excited about the prospect of exploring new options for Jewish education for my future children beyond what has already been done. These “experts” are hiding their heads in the sand if they think this is a passing fancy.

The article ends on a happy note:

Gil Steinlauf, Adas Israel’s new senior rabbi, said the synagogue has shifted from merely “tolerating these smaller groups to welcoming them. . . . It’s a radical shift, particularly in this congregation.”

Readers, what (if anything) have you noticed on the ground in the way of recent changes in the relations between grassroots communities and established institutions?

Sunday, April 26, 2009


טו וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה. טז עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַה'. --ויקרא כג
The Torah commands (Leviticus 23:15-16) that we count seven weeks, and also that we count 50 days. Thus we count both days and weeks. For example, tonight's count is "18 days, which are 2 weeks and 4 days of the omer".

So why don't we count the 50th day??? It makes sense that we stop counting weeks after the 7 weeks are completed, and so we don't count the 50th day (Shavuot) as "7 weeks and 1 day". But why not just count the number of days without the number of weeks?

This is a real question - I don't know the answer.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Every morning, the woman who hands out AM New York at the subway entrance at the southwest corner of 96th & Broadway says, over and over again, "Good morning, AM New York, _______, have a nice day." WHAT IS THE THIRD PHRASE? The best I can make out is "y'all a party".

UPDATE (4/26/09): Mystery solved!!! Many thanks to HS, who had the same question and listened over and over again until it made sense. The answer is "Good morning, AM New York, read all about it, have a nice day." And those of you who suggested just asking her are clearly not from New York.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Wanting something doesn't make it real

Ok, raise your hand if, while reading this New York Times article about xkcd, you unconsciously moused over the image before your conscious mind told you that there shouldn't be any alt text because it's the New York Times.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Shape of Earth: Views Differ

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

We recently pointed out that Stephen Colbert’s report on birkat hachamah included a strange urban legend that this was only the third time in history that birkat hachamah has taken place on Erev Pesach. Our debunking has made it to the pages of the Forward!

But as [BZ], a comedian and blogger on points out, the last time the event occurred on this date was in 1925, only three cycles ago. The rumor, according to [BZ], has been spreading on the Internet for the past few years. “I read that this [rumor] first appeared in 1925. It wasn’t true then, either!” [BZ] told The Shmooze. Well, Mr. Colbert, sorry to disappoint, but it looks like you’ll just have to keep waiting with the rest of us for an event of truly biblical proportions.

First of all, I must say I’m honored to be promoted to “comedian”. (I’m actually a high school physics teacher, so I guess it’s not so far off.) Second, I’m not entirely sure why this even needs sourcing, since it is an undisputed matter of public record that Wednesday, April 8, 1925 fell on 14 Nisan, but Jewschool is happy to have the publicity.

Some supplemental information on this virulent rumor:

If my calculations are correct, birkat ha-chamah has taken place on 14 Nisan (Erev Pesach) six times since the beginning of the Common Era: in the Julian/Gregorian years 77, 609, 693, 1309, 1925, and 2009. (Going further back than that would be anachronistic; 77 is almost certainly anachronistic itself. Even if you hold that birkat ha-chamah corresponds to an actual astronomical event that has been recurring since creation, all agree that the current mathematical algorithm for determining the start of the Hebrew lunar months only dates back to the late rabbinic period, and months were previously determined by observations of the new moon, so we have no way of determining whether 14 Nisan fell on a Wednesday (etc.) in any given year before the current algorithm started.)

If you look closely at Colbert’s computer screen, he seems to be getting his (mis)information from this site. This and other places trace the rumor to the Ostrovster Admor, aka the Kadosh Elyon. I can’t find much more information on him; most of his Google hits are about this precise topic. Does anyone know anything about him? When did he write this? (Certainly before 1925, it seems.) Or is his whole existence a hoax?

[The same site notes "Another interesting aspect of this date is that the Moshiach ben David will arrive at the end of a 7-year
cycle. The year 5768 is a shmitta (sabattical [sic]) year, and is followed by 5769, the year in which we recite Birkat Hachama.” This isn’t particularly interesting at all — it’s simple math to see that 28 is divisible by 7, and therefore birkat hachamah is always said in the year following the shemitah year.]

For some reason, people have been talking about thes calendar facts as if there is any room whatsoever for differences of opinion. For example, the 5 Towns Jewish Times says:

The Ostrovster Admor, who lived some 200 years ago, reportedly said that this occurred only a few times in history, including immediately before the Exodus from Egypt and before the original miracle of Purim. The Ostrovster apparently predicted that its next occurrence, which is in a few days, would be a prelude to the Final Redemption and the coming of Mashiach ben Dovid. Others say this is not so, and the dates come out wrong. I am not in a position to comment on this, but…

“Others say this is not so”? Birkat ha-chamah has occurred on Erev Pesach multiple times, including twice since “200 years ago”. This is a fact. Why report it as a he-said-she-said controversy? I suppose the 5 Towns Jewish Times is just following the trend of the last decade in political reporting, presenting every issue as “fair and balanced” with two equivalent sides, without reporting on whether one side might have the facts wrong. Paul Krugman has said “if Bush said the Earth was flat, the mainstream media would have stories with the headline: ‘Shape of Earth–Views Differ.’ Then they’d quote some Democrats saying that it was round.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Phish on Phish

I've been listening to the recordings from Phish's reunion shows last month in Hampton, Virginia, which were available for free download for a limited time. Wow. I never thought this day would come. I was at the Last Phish Show Ever, in August 2004, and it seemed like the end, but it ended up being just a second hiatus. At first it looked like the Hampton shows would just be a brief reunion, but Phish has scheduled an extensive cross-country summer tour, with 27 more shows! It looks like Phish is back.

And they're not messing around. They opened with Fluffhead, which hadn't been played since 2000; it was heavily requested in the post-hiatus period (2002-04) but the requests were never honored ("Mike says no"). (Not only that, but they opened the third night with Sanity, not played since 1998. What's next, Union Federal?)

I scored tickets to what I thought would be the next Phish show, June 4 at Jones Beach. Now it turns out that it won't be the next one, since they've added two more before that, one at Fenway Park and another one at Jones Beach. So it's a good thing that I didn't post my predicted setlist for that show, which is now worthless - I had started to make an awesome list, mostly songs that weren't played at any of the Hampton shows (and therefore won't have been played in almost 5 years), and making sure to include ocean/beach-themed songs (Waves, Drowned, etc.). But now it would be impossible to make any predictions about June 4 without knowing what they play at the two preceding shows.

It has often been said that lighting designer Chris Kuroda is the 5th member of the band, and one could add that the audience is the 6th. In addition to the scripted lines that the audience chants or yells ("Wilson!", "Hood!", etc.), the audience also cheers particularly loudly at certain points, some predictable and some not, and this becomes part of the song in the live experience and live recordings. This includes cheering at just about every transition in popular multipart songs such as You Enjoy Myself and Run Like An Antelope, and (quite understandably) through basically all 16 minutes of Fluffhead on the Hampton recording.

There also seems to be a tradition of cheering at specific lyrics that are perceived to refer (in addition to their contextual meaning within in the song) to the Phish experience in some way - the music, the concert, etc. (The Phish equivalents of "What a long, strange trip it's been", if you will.) Examples include:
  • "Let's get this show on the road" (AC/DC Bag)
  • "Sharing in the groove" (Mike's Song)
  • "The trick was to surrender to the flow" (Lizards)
But then I noticed a whole new set of lyrics on the Hampton recordings that got cheers for (I think) the first time. These shared the common thread that they can be understood as referring to Phish's return after a long hiatus. These include:
  • "Look back on those days when my life was a haze" (NICU)
  • "It took me a long time to get back on the train" (Get Back on the Train)
  • "I feel the feeling I forgot" (Free)
Did anyone else notice this? What else goes on either of these lists? Will the lyrics on the second list join the first list permanently, or was it just a one-time thing for the reunion shows? (And how about Fluffhead - is it back to stay? That question seems to have been answered for Phish itself.)

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Between now and the time the show becomes unprofitable

In September 2005 we wrote:
The Simpsons is the longest-running television comedy in history (measured in number of seasons). However, TV shows used to show more episodes per season back in the day ("What's a rerun?"), so if you measure by number of episodes, The Simpsons is still in third, behind My Three Sons (12 seasons, 380 episodes) and Ozzie and Harriet (14 seasons, 435 episodes). The Simpsons is projected to pull into second by the end of this season, but the only way it will overtake Ozzie and Harriet at this rate is if it stays around for 20 seasons. Not that that's out of the realm of possibility -- who would have predicted 17?

Tonight's the night! Tonight The Simpsons, now in its 20th season, will show its 436th episode, finally pulling into first place for longest-running television comedy by number of episodes!

December 17, 1989 seems like just yesterday.

No it doesn't.