Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Big bang nucleosynthesis

The long-awaited "big bang" (or as William Safire said, "the hamapatz hagadol"; I'd expect that from the hoi polloi, but not from Safire!) has arrived. Shimon Peres has left the Labor Party and put his support behind Sharon's Kadima party.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The New York Times reports that the Republicans are running as fast as they can from ex-Rep. Randy Cunningham. It seems that in this era of Republican lawlessness, they're even violating the Eleventh Commandment!

Just to review for those playing along at home, the six prominent Republicans who have been indicted or pleaded guilty so far (and that doesn't include the no-name DeLay associates and such) have been caught in no fewer than five separate investigations, in four different jurisdictions:

And that's only the beginning.

We must move forward, not backward, upward, not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom

Does Ariel Sharon's new Kadima party take its name from this line from the original version of David Broza's optimistic song "Yihyeh Tov"?

V'az hu amar "Kadima, rak teitz'u meihashetachim"

I hope so!

Friday, November 25, 2005

When Esther first saw the Armenian man

Now that I'm in the old country with fewer distractions (except turkey), there's time to blog the Talmud.

Megillah 10b-11a:
Where we last left off, the Gemara on this perek had called it a day on commenting (in the broader sense) on the Mishnah, and had begun an extended midrashic work on Megillat Esther. We're still in the introduction.

Rabbi Levi has yet another received tradition from our ancestors: the ark that contained the tablets took up no space. Just do the math: the inner sanctum was twenty cubits in each dimension, and each cherub took up ten cubits, leaving zero cubits left over. Thus the ark only stood because a miracle suspended geometry (just like how there was room for everyone to prostrate themselves even though they were standing shoulder to shoulder). Far be it from me to second-guess a received tradition, but why do we assume that the ark and the cherubim were collinear? Why wouldn't they be arranged like this picture or this one or any other graphic representation of the ark?

The next step, before we dive into the text of Esther itself, is a series of petichtas to introduce the book. This is a homiletical form (seen in places like Vayikra Rabbah and Pesikta d'Rav Kahana) that ends with the target verse (often from the Torah), and begins with a verse from far away in Tanakh (often an unrelated verse from Neviim or Ketuvim), and gets from B to A by a complex chain of associations. But in this case, all we see is the verse from elsewhere and maybe a line or two of explanation. Each rabbi has his own petichta for Esther, each with the goal of situating Esther conceptually within the rest of the biblical tradition. Each one has a different idea about the main take-home message of Esther.

1) R. Yonatan opens with Isaiah 14:22. For him, the beginning of Esther is the fulfillment of the prophecy against Babylonia. Achashverosh's empire of 127 states is already evidence that Babylonia is no longer the dominant power. Isaiah's prophecy says that God will cut off Babylon's sheim (this refers to writing: no Babylonian writings survive except through other nations. Can the historians here address the veracity of this claim?), she'ar (this refers to language: the Aramaic language is dead, except in that one village in Syria, and ironically, among the Jews), nin (this refers to the kingship), and neched (this refers to Vashti, who according to tradition was the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar). Thus, the removal of Vashti is, for R. Yonatan, the completion of Bavel's fall.

I should note here that I was a bit surprised here (and further on) to see Vashti portrayed as a villain. In all the communities I've run in, Vashti has always been seen as a sympathetic character and/or feminist heroine (who stood up to Achashverosh's drunken misogyny), and it didn't occur to me that the rabbis would have thought otherwise. We then made a list of other characters who seem ok from the plain sense of the text, but whom the rabbis turned into bad guys. This list included Eisav, Bil'am, and Ishmael.

2) Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani opens with Isaiah 55:13. As do we. Could he have known that one day, this would be read as the haftarah on the afternoon before Purim? The na'atzutz is replaced with berosh: Haman, who made himself an idol to bow down to (and na'atzutz is associated with idolatry), is replaced with Mordechai, who is rosh of all the spices ("[besamim rosh] mor deror" is translated into Aramaic as "marei dechai"). The sirpad is replaced with hadas: Vashti (granddaughter of the one who burned the roof of God's house - saraf refidat beit h') is replaced by Esther (Hadassah). The last clauses of the verse (about an eternal sign) refer to the reading of the megillah and the days of Purim.

3) R. Yehoshua ben Levi opens with the curses in Deuteronomy 28:63. So for him, Haman's attempted destruction of the Jews was a gleeful divine punishment for their sins.

But then we see an objection to the idea that God is happy about the downfall of the wicked. When Moab and Ammon get defeated, Israel exclaims "hodu ladonai ki le'olam chasdo". "Ki tov" is missing, because God isn't happy.

This is the source for the famous midrash that when the Israelites crossed the sea, the angels began singing, until God said "My creations are drowning, and you sing songs of praise?!". Thus, we spill out wine from our cups for the Ten Plagues, and we abridge hallel during Pesach. Even the people we don't like are God's creations.

Rabbi Elazar resolves the contradiction: God itself doesn't rejoice, but makes others rejoice (yasis is in the causative). Whether or not this is the ideal response, it is certainly empirically true that humans rejoice at their enemies' downfall.

4) Rabbi Abba bar Kahana opens with Kohelet 2:26. Mordechai is the good guy, Haman is the bad guy, and Mordechai and Esther end up with Haman's stuff at the end. This is the cowboy reading of Esther: the good guys always win.

5) Rabbah bar Ofran opens with Jeremiah 49:38. Elam is Persia. Again, a prophecy about upheaval is fulfilled. The melech is Vashti (in a gender-bending role), and the sarim are Haman and his ten sons.

6) Rav Dimi bar Yitzchak opens with Ezra 9:9. Self-explanatory: God has "extended mercy to us in the sight of the kinds of Persia".

7) Rabbi Chanina bar Papa opens with Psalm 66:12. We went through fire (in the time of Nebuchadnezzar) and water (in the time of Pharaoh), but now it's all going to be ok.

8) Rabbi Yochanan opens with Psalm 98:3. Self-explanatory salvation.

9) Reish Lakish opens with Proverbs 28:15. The lion is Nebuchadnezzar. The bear is Achashverosh (since those Persians eat and drink like bears, get fat like bears, grow hair like bears, and are restless like bears - funny, I thought bears were known for sleeping). The wicked ruler is He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and guess who the humble nation is.

10) Rabbi Elazar opens with Kohelet 10:18. Israel got lazy with the mitzvot, so (if such a thing were possible) God got weak, leaving Haman with free reign to attack Israel's compromised immune system.

11) Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak opens with Psalm 124:1-2. God saved us when a plain old adam, not a king, rose against us. That's right, it was Haman!

12) Rava opens with Proverbs 29:2. Guess who the "righteous" and "wicked" are supposed to be. This verse encapsulates the plot of the megillah, but in reverse order, thanks to comic inversion.

13) Rav Matanah opens with Deuteronomy 4:7 - look how great we are!

14) Rav Ashi opens with Deuteronomy 4:34, and he gets the last word, so Purim is framed as a story of Pesach-like wonders and redemption.

In conclusion, Esther is a Rorschach test.


Exegesis begins.


Vay vehi -- oy vey!

Rav sees the glass as half empty, while Shmuel sees it as half full. Yes, this is a story of exile and persecution, but even in the worst of times, God hasn't forgotten Israel. Even in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, there was Daniel and his buddies. In the time of the Greeks, there were Shimon haTzaddik and the Maccabees. In the time of Haman, there were Mordechai and Esther. In the time of the Persians (here the rabbis talk about their own time), there were the rabbis! And in the future, no nation will be able to rule over Israel.

Shabbat is about to arrive in Chicago, so I'll stop there for now.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Cape Cod: not just potato chips

I blogged about the NHC Winter Retreat (December 16-18) over at JewSchool. See you in Cape Cod!

To the book depository!

This is the speech that JFK would have given in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Order in the court!!!!!

Michael Scanlon... GUILTY PLEA!

The little bang

Sharon is leaving the Likud! And starting his own party called National Responsibility. But Shimon Peres is staying in Labor, and it's unclear whether anyone else will defect from Labor. Sharon has asked President Katsav to dissolve the Knesset and call for early elections, which must happen within 90 days.

The world says no to war

The Union of Reform Judaism biennial just ended in Houston. Velveteen Rabbi has blogged about it at great length.

The most important part of the week was that the URJ delegates overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for an exit strategy from Iraq and a withdrawal of troops.

In addition to the development of an exit strategy, the resolution calls on the Bush administration to provide more transparency regarding all aspects of the war and calls for a bi-partisan, independent commission to determine the lessons learned from this war’s failures. It also condemns “in the strongest possible terms,” violations of the Geneva Conventions, including torture and abuse of prisoners and detainees in US custody, and condemns those who would use opposition to the war as a justification for anti-Israel efforts.

Full press release and full text of the resolution.

Kudos to the URJ. Finally, the organizations perceived as speaking for the Jewish community are breaking their silence on this disastrous war. It would have been even better if they had shown this kind of spine in early 2003, but hey, better late than never.

The delegates also voted to oppose the Alito nomination, support voting rights for the District of Columbia, and support the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. Yasher koach.

The other highlight of the Biennial (for me, sitting over 1000 miles away) was that my aunt was an honored guest at Rabbi Eric Yoffie's "State of the Union" sermon, like the special guests who stand up during the president's State of the Union address (except Rosa Parks z"l, who "may get up or not as she chooses").

Yoffie said:

To begin with, we need to do far more for the non-Jewish spouses in our midst. We welcome all such spouses, of course, including those who do not identify as Jewish. But when a spouse involves herself in the activities of the synagogue; offers support to the Jewish involvements of husband or wife; attends Jewish worship; and, most important of all, commits to raising Jewish children, he or she is deserving not only of welcome but of our profound thanks.

These spouses are heroes—yes, heroes—of Jewish life. While maintaining some measure of attachment to their own traditions, and sometimes continuing to practice their religion, they take on responsibilities that, by any reasonable calculation, belong to the Jewish spouse. And very often they do all of this without recognition from either their Jewish family or their synagogue.

I would like you to meet one such hero. Helen _______ met Richard, her husband-to-be, on a blind date and later took an Introduction to Judaism class with him. Although she enjoyed the class and admired Judaism, she did not think that she could convert. But she and Richard agreed to raise their children as Jews and joined Temple Emanuel here in Houston. When her two boys started preschool, Helen felt embraced by the synagogue. Over time, much of the family’s holiday and Shabbat preparation fell to her, and she grew to enjoy it. She also became involved in the Parent-Teacher Organization of the religious school. When her husband fell ill with colon cancer in 2003, Judaism was a source of consolation and the temple offered support throughout. Following Richard’s death earlier this year, Helen and her sons—Daniel, 10, and Adam, 8—have remained immersed in religious school and temple life. I would like to ask Helen to stand.

Our obligation is to extend our appreciation with a full embrace to Helen and to others like her.

The sermon also included other great statements on behalf of the Religious Left. After praising the Jewish community's role in disaster relief following Hurricane Katrina, Yoffie says:

Contrast this to the government response at all levels. This is a story that has been told many times and that I need not repeat.

But it is important that we draw the proper conclusions.

Incredibly, federal officials are using this tragedy to promote so-called faith-based initiatives. The failures of government and the successes of religion are now seen as a reason why churches and synagogues should be state-funded to do what the government has been unable or unwilling to do.

But this is absurd for many reasons. First, we religious people do what we do because it is God’s work and it is right. People of faith do not need government handouts to do what God expects of us. The last thing we want is politicians dangling million-dollar grants in front of us with a promise of more if only we will support them. Some may think that religious leaders will somehow be immune to the corrupting influence of power and money, but believe me, we will not.

Second, religious programs can only supplement government programs; they can never replace them. The damage caused by Katrina and Rita was so devastating that years will pass before some areas return to a semblance of normality. In these situations, religious acts of charity, no matter how laudable, can never be enough.

What is required in these cases is a competent, well-financed, and well-prepared government response. So let’s be clear: The lesson of Katrina is that religious institutions play a big role in American life, but social service is the job of government and cannot be farmed out.

Also, his attack on the "Religious Right" has been lauded all over the liberal blogosphere:

We are particularly offended by the suggestion that the opposite of the Religious Right is the voice of atheism. We are appalled when “people of faith” is used in such a way that it excludes us, as well as most Jews, Catholics, and Muslims. What could be more bigoted than to claim that you have a monopoly on God and that anyone who disagrees with you is not a person of faith?

So we ask our neighbors on the Religious Right to take note: We are religious Jews, gathered in Houston to study, pray, and commit ourselves to God. And yes, we are generally liberal in our politics. But our liberalism flows directly from our religious commitments.

And we worry that you don’t understand what this means, or what it means for anyone to be a liberal religious believer.

What it means is this: that we bring a measure of humility to our religious belief. We study religious texts day and night, but we have no direct lines to heaven and we aren’t always sure that we know God’s will.

It means believing that religion involves concern for the poor and the needy, and giving a fair shake to all. When people talk about God and yet ignore justice, it just feels downright wrong to us. When they cloak themselves in religion and forget mercy, it strikes us as blasphemy.

It means that “family values” require providing health care to every child and that God cares about the 12 million children without health insurance.

It means valuing a child with diabetes over a frozen embryo in a fertility clinic, and seeing the teaching of science as a primary social good.

And it means reserving the right for each person to prayerfully make decisions for herself about when she dies.

It also means believing in legal protection for gay couples. We understand those who believe that the Bible opposes gay marriage, even though we read that text in a very different way. But we cannot understand why any two people who make a lifelong commitment to each other should be denied legal guarantees that protect them and their children and benefit the broader society. We cannot forget that when Hitler came to power in 1933, one of the first things that he did was ban gay organizations. And today, we cannot feel anything but rage when we hear about gay men and women, some on the front lines, being hounded out of our armed services. Yes, we can disagree about gay marriage. But there is no excuse for hateful rhetoric that fuels the hellfires of anti-gay bigotry.

In an otherwise excellent address, I found a few things perplexing. First of all, the Reform movement appears to be petitioning for a Reform rabbi to receive a state salary like her Orthodox counterparts. This position of antidisestablishmentarianism seems inconsistent with the movement's other positions. Particularly in light of Rabbi Yoffie's Katrina comments above, shouldn't they be seeking to dismantle the Israeli theocracy rather than broaden it? I understand that getting funding for a few Reform rabbis is a more attainable goal than removing funding from thousands of Orthodox rabbis. But it would be even easier (and wouldn't even require court intervention) to say "you can't fire me, I quit!" and spin the lack of government funding for the Reform movement by saying that the movement doesn't believe in taking government money. This allows the movement to declare victory and go home, and keep its hands clean from the corrupting influence of excessive entanglement.

Also, a major section of the sermon dealt with making synagogues into welcoming communities for everyone. Obviously this is a praiseworthy goal, and I agree with everything Yoffie said. The problem is what he didn't say. Yoffie mentioned specific constituencies to reach out to, such as single parents, or empty-nesters who leave their congregation after the kids move out. Apparently I don't exist. There was no mention anywhere in the address of the existence of Jews who are between high school age and becoming parents (even college students weren't mentioned, though most Hillel Reform minyanim are pathetic). They haven't listened to a thing I've said. And these unaffiliated Jews who are to be reached out to are presumed to be Jewishly uneducated. Is the Reform movement triaging us, because they simply see educated lay childless adults as a lost cause?

If the Reform movement is advocating for causes I believe in but doesn't want me as a part of it, I'll just have to accept that and continue to admire its advocacy from the outside. There's room for both of us.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Dolph is Jewish!!!

Dolph, one of the bullies on The Simpsons, was outed tonight as going to Hebrew school!

So far the confirmed Jewish Simpsons characters include Krusty the Clown, his father Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, Mr. Bergstrom, the Crazy Old Man, and Lisa's imaginary friend. Am I missing any?

Tonight's episode also revealed the Crazy Cat Lady's name to be Eleanor Abernathy. Between this new revelation and learning the Comic Book Guy's name (Jeff Albertson), is there any mystery left in the world?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

It's gonna be cold, cold, cold, cold, cold

Tomorrow is projected to be the First Cold Day (FCD) of the year (or at least the first cold schoolday) in Manhattan. We're planning to bust open the giant can of hot chocolate in my office.

When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Play it, Leo!!!

It's been a long time since I've blogged about Talmud. This doesn't mean that the study of Talmud has ceased (shelo tamush hatorah mipi umipi zar'i umipi zera' zar'i 'ad 'olam!); it just means that between work, holidays, and the independent Jewish revolution, there hasn't been time to blog about it. We last left off near the bottom of Megillah 9b; now I'll start blogging feverishly to catch us up all the way to 12b. This post (which belonged way back during Sukkot) takes us from the bottom of 9b to the middle of 10b.

We reach the tenth and final installment in a highly structured series of vignettes connected by form and not by content.

There is no [legal!] difference between Shiloh [in its heyday] and Jerusalem, except that in Shiloh, kodashim kalim [second-class kodashim, such as shelamim] and ma'aser sheini can be eaten anywhere in sight of the city (with fuzzy boundaries), and in Jerusalem, they must be eaten within the wall. In both cases, kodshei kodashim [first-class kodashim, such as chata'ot] must be eaten within the Temple complex. Also, the holiness of Shiloh (forbidding sacrifices at private bamot during the Shiloh epoch) is ephemeral; after the end of that epoch, bamot are permitted once again. (Yes, this is all in the present tense.) The holiness of Jerusalem is eternal; after the destruction of the Temple, bamot are never permitted again.

This was a bold move on the part of the rabbis, who could have allowed Judaism to revert to its pre-Temple form, but instead kept it moving forward. By keeping Jerusalem's holiness locked in the closet, they were able to move beyond the sacrificial system de facto without abrogating the sacrificial system de jure.

So ends the Mishnah for Megillah chapter 1.

Now the Gemara. I really wasn't expecting that last point (that Jerusalem's status sticks around permanently) to be debatable, but the Talmud is always full of surprises! Rabbi Yitzchak heard that there were sacrifices going on in the house of Chonyo (in Alexandria) in the present time, suggesting that Jerusalem's holiness was only while the Temple stood and was not in perpetuity. This is derived from a hekeish: "Ki lo vatem ad 'atah el hamenuchah v'el hanachalah" - "For you have not yet come to the rest and to the inheritance" (Deuteronomy 12:9). As we know from Mishnah Zevachim, the menuchah is Shiloh and the nachalah is Jerusalem. Menuchah is juxtaposed to nachalah, so just as Shiloh's status doesn't last forever, neither does Jerusalem's.

Of course, this flies in the face of both our mishnah and the one in Zevachim. But the Gemara sets this up as a machloket tannaim by tying it to a mishnah from Eduyot dealing with the construction of the Second Temple. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehuda say things that don't seem to be responding directly to each other, and R. Yehuda says the party line that Jerusalem's first holiness was in perpetuity. This is construed to mean that R. Eliezer doesn't think that Jerusalem's holiness was in perpetuity. Rabbi Eliezer, the first post-Zionist.

A baraita brings another machloket tannaim that is overlayed on our question. Mishnah Arachin 9:6 lists nine cities that were walled at the time of Joshua. (Brilliant! The structured part of the Gemara for this perek is about to end, so it is masterfully linked back to the content at the beginning of the perek.) Why are only these nine listed, when we know from Deuteronomy 3:4-5 that there were sixty? Opinion 1: when Israel returned from exile, they found these cities and sanctified them, but the cities had lost their initial sanctity when the land was abandoned. Opinion 2: Yes, these are the cities that the returnees found, but it's not an exclusive list; if you know of any other cities that were walled at the time of Joshua, those count too, since they never lost their sanctity.

It seems to me that Opinion 1 can be harnessed to argue that parts of the historical land of Israel (like Hebron) have lost their holiness.

And that's just about it.


When Julia Andelman taught her new tune for "Ya'aleh tachanuneinu me'erev" ("May our supplications ascend from evening") for Yom Kippur at the dar, she introduced it by saying that this piyyut was important because it marked the point where the formal structure of the evening service is completed and gives way to pure emotion. This explosive primal moment, like a dam bursting open, can be observed in many contexts. It's the moment in "Carlebach-style" davening when the words of the psalm come to an end and the kahal doubles in volume as it continues without words (especially in the Carlebach Psalm 96, or in the Avniel "Yah Ribon" tune that Kol Zimrah often uses for Psalm 99). It's the ascending "better better better better better better AAAAAAAAA!" moment in "Hey Jude" that divides the song into the structured verse-chorus-bridge part and the longer "na na na" part. It's the moment in many Phish songs when the band completes the part that is played the same way every time and begins the real-time composition, particularly "Theme from the Bottom", "Reba", "Mike's Song", and anything in the Leo Trio (in contrast to the songs that build gradually to a rolling boil, like "Piper", "Harry Hood", and "Run Like an Antelope").

And we see this explosive moment on Megillah 10b, dividing the chapter into two. The Gemara for this perek has completed its formal role (explication of the Mishnah, no matter how loosely understood) and begins an extended jam: midrash aggadah on Esther, which looks like it is going to continue for more than 6 full dapim.


And so the megillah begins.

This midrashic work begins the same way as Pirkei Avot, with the rabbis receiving oral tradition from the Great Assembly (and beyond).

Rabbi Levi, or perhaps Rabbi Yonatan, has a received tradition from the Great Assembly: Any time the text says "Vayhi", this is a sign of trouble. (Skipping ahead, this is explained on the next daf: Vay vehi, which seems to be a variation of oy vey.)

For example, "Vayhi bimei Achashverosh" foreshadows Haman. "Vayhi bimei shefot hashofetim" (Ruth 1:1) foreshadows the famine. Genesis 6:1 leads into the flood. Genesis 11:1 leads to the Tower of Babel. "Vayhi bimei Amrafel" (Genesis 14:1) leads to war. Joshua 5:13 leads to Joshua being rebuked for neglecting Torah study, as we already know well. Joshua 6:27 leads to war crimes. I Samuel 1:1 foreshadows Hannah's infertility. I Samuel 8:1 foreshadows Samuel's kids going bad. I Samuel 18:14 leads to Macbeth, I mean Saul, going after David. II Samuel 7:1 leads to David not getting to build the Temple.

Okay, that was fun, but now it's time to inject some sense into this. What about the dedication of the mishkan (Leviticus 9:1)? Oh right, Nadav and Avihu died. But what about the construction of the Temple (I Kings 6:1) or the first meeting of Jacob and Rachel (Genesis 29:10), or every frickin day of creation, or EVERY OTHER TIME THE TANAKH SAYS "VAYHI" WHEN IT'S NOT ABOUT SOMETHING TRAGIC?

Okay, stop shouting. So vayhi is sometimes good and sometimes bad. BUT "Vayhi bimei" ("It happened in the days of") is always bad. There are a total of five in Tanakh: the three already mentioned (Achashverosh, shefot hashofetim, Amrafel), "Vayhi bimei Achaz" (Isaiah 7:1, introducing war between Israel and Judah), and "Vayhi bimei Yehoyakim" (Jeremiah 1:3, and even the English language knows how happy he is).

While we're on the subject, Rabbi Levi has another received tradition from the Great Assembly: Amotz (father of Isaiah), and Amatziah (king of Judah, one of the good ones) were brothers. This goes to show you that if you're modest like Tamar (who covered her face), then you'll be the ancestor of prophets and kings (Tamar was the mother of Peretz, ancestor of the Davidic line, and based on this tradition, also ancestor of Isaiah).

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The post below

The article in the previous post, "Profile of an 'Unaffiliated' Jew", is nothing new to regular Mah Rabu readers. It came out way back in the spring. But until now it didn't have an online home, except on the URJ Biennial Challenge bulletin board, where it was camping out and amassing mad PageRank. It's being posted here so that the sparkling new Kol Zimrah website can link to it on the "Kol Zimrah in the news" page. We figured that a post on someone else's bulletin board seemed like a sketchy place to link to an article, and a blog post was perhaps slightly more respectable. Furthermore, since the bulletin board in question is devoted to an event happening this week, we didn't know how long it would stick around afterwards. So here it is, and it's all hyperlinked too. Feel free to pass it on to anyone who wants to understand where all the 20- and 30something liberal Jews disappeared to.

Profile of an "Unaffiliated" Jew

This article appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Jewish Education News, published by CAJE.

Profile of an "Unaffiliated" Jew
by [BZ]

When Jewish organizations talk about “unaffiliated Jews” in their 20s and 30s, who do not belong to synagogues, they often equate this lack of affiliation with being secular, Jewishly uneducated, and finding Judaism to be irrelevant. Indeed, the Jewish population surveys may show a high correlation between these traits, so this stereotype may be well-founded. However, the ensuing discussions generally hold the underlying assumption that if these people had more Jewish education and a stronger Jewish identity, they would become “affiliated” with the organized Jewish community. It is my hope that this article will challenge that assumption.

I am 25 and live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a center of Jewish activity. I study Talmud with a friend one night a week in my living room. On Shabbat I don’t do any work or spend money. Typically, I will go to Friday and Saturday services at one of the new independent minyanim that meet once or twice a month, or pray with a group of people in someone’s apartment, then share a Shabbat meal in that apartment. I spend every Rosh Hashanah and Pesach with my family in Chicago. My Jewish values are a driving force behind my career as a teacher, my political activism, my lifestyle choices that reduce environmental impact, and my ethical decision-making process. Oh, and I don’t belong to a synagogue, nor do most of the young adults crowded into those apartments on Friday nights.

My two most important formative Jewish influences during childhood were my actively Jewish immediate and extended family, and my many summers at the Reform movement’s Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) camp. OSRUI does a phenomenal job providing Jewish education and conveying excitement about Judaism to children and adolescents, but the organized system of which it is a part provides nowhere for graduates to go afterwards. The Jewish programming at OSRUI is developmentally appropriate at each age, so we progressed from 9-year-old Judaism to 10-year-old Judaism to 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, … and back to 9-year-old Judaism. At that point we were camp counselors, so we were responsible around the clock for creating experiences for others, rather than having our own experiences. Of course, being a counselor was itself a valuable experience, and a camp focused on a particular age range cannot be expected to provide for people of every age. But the general expectation was that Jewish education and development ended at age 17. After that, we were on our own, even though we were far from being independent adults.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to continue my Jewish education in college, both through academic courses (outside my major of physics) and through involvement in the pluralistic and intellectual community of Harvard Hillel. As graduation approached, I would fret about how this vibrant Jewish community would be ending soon, and there would be nothing for me in the Jewish world. People from my educated Reform background had three options after college: 1) Go to rabbinical school or become some other sort of Jewish professional. This was the option that the movement strongly encouraged. Any time I evinced any sort of Jewish interest, the response would be “Have you thought about becoming a rabbi?”. 2) Be uninvolved with anything Jewish for a decade or so, until it is time to send the children to Hebrew school, then return to the Jewish community as a parent. This is, of course, the most common. 3) Become Orthodox. This was always out of the question for me, but I have seen so many successful products of the Reform and Conservative movements go this route, not because they embraced the principles of Orthodoxy (at least initially), but because it was the only way they could find the active Jewish community that they wanted.

We could not simply join a synagogue in our 20s, because there is no place in most of these communities for educated lay adults. Though many synagogues have “adult education” programs, they tend to be remedial, targeted to people who are new to Jewish learning. Once a person’s Jewish education has reached a certain point (and that point is far from being a scholar), his/her only established role is to transmit it to others, whether as a camp counselor, a rabbi, or a parent. The system does not know what to do with young Jews who work in the secular world and do not have families, and consequently tries to nudge them toward one of the roles that are better understood. Perhaps this is why so much of the organized Jewish community’s programming for 20somethings strives to get us either to consider a Jewish career or to meet each other, marry, and presumably have Jewish children and send them to Hebrew school.

I believe that both of these emphases send dangerous messages. The emphasis on marriage and children tells us that we are only valuable as a means to an end, and not as individual human beings with dignity. The emphasis on becoming a Jewish professional furthers the perception that the way to live a fully Jewish life is to do it full-time, and thus those of us with secular professions are expected to be less Jewish and to depend on the professionals to make Judaism happen for us. To the extent that this recruiting is successful, it widens the gap between the educated professionals and the less-educated laity because it removes the most educated laypeople from the pool.

For years, these three options were the only choices after college, until my generation (echoing the havurot of the 1970s, often unknowingly) chose a fourth option: If the organized liberal Jewish community wasn’t going to create a Jewish niche for us, we would create it for ourselves. After a year in Jerusalem working in the high-tech industry and coming up with creative answers to the incessant question, “Where are you learning?” (Answer: “On the bus to work”), I moved to New York and discovered a number of fledgling independent minyanim with a core population in their 20s and 30s. These minyanim, which have sprouted up in a number of large cities, are independent of the major movements, have no rabbis or staff, no “membership,” and no buildings. They meet in rented church basements, in apartments, in parks, on rooftops, and even in synagogues. (Some synagogues have welcomed the independent minyanim into their buildings, while others have responded with a flat no.) They are led entirely by volunteers.

In fall 2002, I had a conversation with a friend from OSRUI who was also living in New York, and we envisioned our ideal Shabbat service. We decided to jump on the bandwagon and start another independent minyan. (Each minyan meets only once or twice a month, so there was no issue of competing with the others; as long as we coordinated the dates, we were merely adding another star to the constellation.) We publicized the first service (held in the playroom of an apartment building) by word of mouth and email, and 67 people showed up. Since then, Kol Zimrah, as it was later named, has met one or two Friday nights a month, and has grown to over 400 people on our email list.

In creating Kol Zimrah, we combined the elements we liked best from the various communities that we have encountered. Our services adhere to the traditional structure of the liturgy, and are heavily musical, with acoustic guitar, percussion, and exuberant harmony. The music is a melange of Debbie Friedman, Shlomo Carlebach, traditional nusach, and tunes we wrote last week. The service is led by a different volunteer each time, and the leader sits among the rest of the worshippers. There is no official siddur; everyone is encouraged to bring his/her own. Services are often followed by a potluck Shabbat dinner and then more singing. Initially, we expected that Kol Zimrah would appeal to a very narrow segment of the Jewish population, since some people would not want a service that is entirely in Hebrew, while others would not be comfortable with musical instruments on Shabbat. Instead, Kol Zimrah has become a more diverse community than we could have imagined, with people from all backgrounds. This is apparent simply by looking at what people are wearing at services: someone in a suit will be next to someone in jeans, next to someone in a colorful hippie garment.

Though most Kol Zimrah regulars are in their 20s and 30s, we have also attracted a wider demographic, including high school students and older adults. Many see that Kol Zimrah participants are relatively homogeneous in age and conclude that we choose these independent communities over “multigenerational” synagogues because we are interested in socializing with our own age group. This is not the reason. We are attracted to the independent minyanim because we want to be active participants in our Jewish life rather than passive consumers. Why, then, have these minyanim particularly attracted single adults in their 20s and 30s? First of all, we are particularly alienated from synagogues because they are structured around the family (my family lives 800 miles away); the independent minyanim are structured such that unattached individuals can feel like full members of the community. Second, we are a transient group, living somewhere for a few years and moving on. Synagogues tend to have a more settled membership and an attachment to the way things have always been. People ask me “If you know what kind of Jewish community you want, why don’t you join a synagogue and change it instead of starting your own thing?” I respond “That will take at least 20 years, and I can’t wait that long.”

Thus, the question arises, if a multigenerational Jewish community were inclusive of educated laypeople, respectful of individuals with or without families, and open to experimentation, would it be a place for 20-and-30-something Jews like me? Yes. I have found this community one week a year through the National Havurah Committee (NHC), which has been holding an annual Summer Institute since 1979. Several hundred people, from babies to senior citizens and everyone in between, converge on a college campus for a week of Jewish learning, prayer, singing, and community. The NHC is based on the idea that every teacher is a student and every student is a teacher. Any participant can sign up to teach a workshop on any topic; I taught two at my first Institute. People of my parents’ generation address me as an equal, rather than with “I have a daughter your age.” Scholars at the top of their fields participate as civilians and go by their first names.

The NHC may represent the “alternative” Jewish community, with many of its participants involved in independent communities like the ones I have found in New York. However, multigenerational communities that include people in their 20s and 30s need not be restricted to that world. I recently participated in the first Limmud NY, an American adaptation of the popular Limmud conference in Britain.Limmud NY was organized by just one full-time staff member and a team of over 70 volunteers of all ages, including me and a number of my Kol Zimrah peers. I felt that this was a true collaboration between the “mainstream” and “alternative” Jewish communities.

The NHC Summer Institute and Limmud NY work as well as they do because they only happen once a year. It is easier for people who usually inhabit separate communities to come together into a shared space when it is only for a limited time. Is it possible to build real multigenerational Jewish communities (where people in their 20s and 30s feel equally enfranchised) during the rest of the year? This question remains to be answered.

If the organized Jewish community wants to become truly multigenerational in that way, it must ask some hard questions. It must ask not merely how to market the status quo, but how to change the status quo. It must ask where educated and interested laypeople will fit into the big picture. While it may be easier to focus on the majority of unaffiliated young Jews who are uneducated or uninterested and to write off educated interested unaffiliated Jews as a negligible minority, this approach is shortsighted. Once these Jewishly uneducated people become educated, the community needs to have a plan to deal with its own success, and find a niche (other than Jewish professional careers) where they will fit. This will require a large-scale transformation of the Jewish community. I look forward to that transformed community.



Forget Peres

With all the excitement about the off-year US elections last week (a great day all around for the Democrats, from New Jersey to Virginia to Long Island to Dover PA to St. Paul to California; the only significant Republican victory was by a candidate who refused to appear in public with Bush), I totally missed that the Israeli Labor Party primary was even happening! And there has been a major shakeup: Histadrut chair Amir Peretz narrowly beat Shimon Peres to become the new head of the Labor Party (continuing Peres's streak of being Israel's William Jennings Bryan and never winning an election). Peretz's platform focuses on the social and economic issues that have been swept under the rug for the last 57 years, as Israel has faced one existential crisis after another. Perhaps attention will finally be paid to these issues, so that Israel can start to move towards being a light to the nations.

ZT quoted Lecha Dodi ("al yad ish ben Partzi, v'nismechah v'nagilah"... the redemption is heralded by the house of Peretz) to suggest that this is the beginning of the redemption, as progressive policies come to the forefront in Israel. I replied that I wasn't counting any chickens yet; it's too early to draw any conclusions about how successful anything will be.

Labor has wasted no time in pulling out of the coalition, leaving the Likud almost alone. For the last year or so, there have been no-confidence votes in the Knesset about once a week, and Labor has been providing the "safety net" to defeat those votes. Without that safety net, it looks like the government will crumble soon, and we'll have early elections long before November 2006. (Has the country ever sat still for the full 4 years?) Before the candidate lists are even drawn up, there is likely to be a realignment. It remains to be seen whether there will be a "little bang" (the Likud splits into pro-disengagement and anti-disengagement camps, as it has been effectively split since the disengagement plan began) or a "big bang" (the "little bang", plus Sharon and Peres join forces to form a geriatric centrist party).

Having been back in the US for almost 3.5 years, I don't pretend to have a handle on which way Israeli public opinion is going right now, but I think it's safe to say that the Israeli left has much more support now than it did in January 2003. Peretz is also likely to gain support for Labor from Mizrahi and working-class voters, winning them back from Shas.

I'm ashamed to say that I haven't kept up recently with Israeli political minutiae the way I did when I lived in Israel (back in 2001-02, political eons ago), so I was surprised to go to the Knesset website and find that the Knesset has fissured into no fewer than 15 factions. Developments that I think I missed (maybe you know the story behind them and can fill me in):
  • United Torah Judaism (Ashkenazi haredim) has split back into Agudat Yisrael (hasidim) and Degel Hatorah (misnagdim).
  • Effie Eitam and Yitzchak Levy have left Mafdal (National Religious Party) to form "Renewed National Religious Zionism". Oh right, this is ringing a bell: they left the Sharon coalition over the disengagement, but the rest of the party didn't follow
  • David Tal, formerly of Amir Peretz's Am Echad faction, has formed his own faction called Noy. I know nothing about him, but his bio said that he was previously part of Shas, so I'm guessing that he had left Shas for Am Echad because of the economic issues mentioned above, but didn't want to go along with Am Echad in joining those pinkos in Labor.
  • Joseph Paritzky has left Shinui to start his own faction called Zionism Liberalism Equality. I don't know what that's about either. Wait, never mind, read that Wikipedia article. Whoa.
With the merger of Yisrael Ba'aliyah, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Democratic Choice into the Likud, Ichud Leumi, and Meretz respectively, there are no longer any parties specifically focused on immigrants from the former Soviet Union. I guess they served their purpose and weren't needed anymore. The parties, I mean, not the immigrants.

Shabbat shabbat!

I've been saying "Shabbat shabbat" as a Shabbat greeting for some time now, and when people have asked "Why do you say 'shabbat shabbat' instead of 'shabbat shalom'?", I have answered (truthfully) "I don't know."

But now I have finally figured out what "Shabbat shabbat" means!

This weekend, I learned that the response in Yiddish to "Gut shabbes" is "Good year", meaning "I see your Shabbat and raise you an entire year!".

Rabbinic Hebrew has the summation convention. In Einstein's notation for tensor calculus, if an index is used twice in a single term, it is understood that this term is to be summed over all values of the index. For instance, "aibi" should be understood as "a1b1 + a2b2 + a3b3 + ... + anbn". Likewise, in rabbinic Hebrew, "yom yom" (lit. "day day") means "every day".

Thus, "Shabbat shabbat" is properly a response to "Shabbat shalom". If someone says "Shabbat shalom" ("A Shabbat of peace"), then the response is "Shabbat shabbat" ("Every Shabbat"): may every Shabbat be a Shabbat of peace.

Likewise for shavua' shavua' and chag chag, mutatis mutandis.

Are we not drawn onwards, we Jews, drawn onward to new era?

I'm in DC again, which means more palindromic madness.

When we haven't been in the independent minyan scene or at poetry slams, we've been staring at for hours on end.

Doctor Reubenstein was shocked and dismayed when he answered the ringing telephone, only to hear a strange, metallic, alien voice say, "Yasec iovn eilacilla temeg! Nartsa raehoty lnoenoh pelet gnig, nirehtde rewsnaehn ehw. Deya! Msid! Dnadek cohssaw nietsne buerro, tcod?

Also, this Lewis Carroll thing is amazing.

EMM and NAF (who bit a Tibetan dog) are hard at work coming up with anagrams for "Ok[ay], starting with hamelech. No, wait!" (It's too big for the Internet Anagram Server.) So far they have:
  • "Oy, I hate walking to Mars." "Watch it, eh?"
  • What low hitmen are stitching oak!
  • The worm was lacking hate. I hit a toy.
  • Attacking whom? They? I so hate war.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Etrog v. Kurtzman

A letter to my school paper.

To the editor:
As a [School] teacher and a religious Jew, I was disturbed to read in the November 4 [Newspaper] that two Lubavitch rabbis had come to classrooms and hallways and led students in Jewish rituals during the holiday of Sukkot. [School] is a public school, funded by the taxpayers of New York, and therefore should not be imposing religion (whether a majority or a minority religion) on any student. America is a place where people of all religions, as well as people of no religion, are able to thrive, precisely because of the separation of church and state codified in the First Amendment. Entanglement between government and religion is harmful to both government and religion.

It is true that learning about Sukkot in a Hebrew class can serve a valid educational goal, much like learning about Cinco de Mayo in a Spanish class, since Sukkot has a deep cultural significance alongside its religious significance. However, it seems from the article that cultural education is not all that went on. The Hebrew prayer said over the lulav (palm branch) begins "Blessed are you, our God, ruler of the universe, who has made us holy with your commandments..." This is explicitly religious content, and to dismiss it as merely cultural (and thus acceptable in school) is to demean the religion.

Furthermore, the [Newspaper] reports that the rabbis asked passing students "Are you Jewish?". The [School] community encompasses many religious identities, including Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I am proud to be part of a school where students with all these identities can learn together in harmony. Compelling students, as these rabbis did, to divide themselves on the basis of religion or ethnicity runs counter to our community's values.

I do not know who invited these guests to [School], but I hope that future guests are more respectful of our multicultural community and of our constitutional protections.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Going to the candidates' debate

This year's election that will have the most immediate impact on my life has already passed. The UFT membership has voted to ratify the new teachers' contract, with 63% voting in favor. So we'll be getting a big retroactive check soon, and we'll also be working an extra 10 minutes every day. But that's just fine; I would just waste those 10 minutes surfing the web anyway. I'd much rather have thousands of dollars a year. And the students are getting paid more too.... more EDUCATION. The actual effect of the new schedule on my life and the students' lives is unknown until my principal decides how to distribute the time throughout the week.

Meanwhile, 37% of the union apparently believes that 10 minutes of their time is worth much more, so they have voted against the contract. Anecdotal evidence about the identities of the 37% seems to go along strict What's the Matter with Kansas? lines, where the backlash mentality overpowers rationality. The bitter teachers who have been in the system the longest (and are thus getting paid the most) are voting against the contract and vowing to fight it, whereas those of us who are newer (and paid less) see our non-teacher friends who are unemployed, or starving students and non-profit employees, and/or without health insurance, and we realize how good we have it.

Also, I recently spoke to a new teacher at another school who said that s/he wasn't so informed about the contract, but voted yes because everyone at his/her school was saying vote yes. Everyone at my school (outside the sanctuary of my office) was saying vote no, but I voted yes anyway. I teach at a desirable school, one that everyone wants to transfer into and few people want to transfer out of (unless they're leaving the system). Yet teachers at my school still opposed the provisions in the new contract that eliminate seniority transfers, even though it has no effect on the more senior teachers (unless they want to transfer, and why would they?) and protects the jobs of the newer teachers (who presumably want to stay). Meanwhile, teachers at this other school, who are presumably more likely to transfer, voted for the contract.

But that's not what I came to tell you about tonight.

Came to talk about this week's NYC election.

Last Tuesday's mayoral debate was much better than what the presidential debates have become. Regardless of what they were saying, Ferrer and Bloomberg were actually engaging each other in a conversation, rather than rattling off stump speeches and sound bites for the cameras. Presumably their handlers didn't sign a 32-page agreement beforehand. The mayoral debate was also much more entertaining. While one of the presidential debates, with questions from the artificial live audience, resembled a daytime talk show, the mayoral debate was more like a Video Daily Double from Jeopardy!. The moderators showed clips of TV attack ads and asked the candidates "Your opponent ran this ad against you. How would you respond?". They also had person-on-the-street bits, with (e.g.) a single mother saying "This city is becoming unaffordable for working-class people" and the moderator saying "What would you tell her?". (The response to that question defied traditional party divisions, with Ferrer proposing tax cuts and Bloomberg proposing minimum-wage increases.)

The mayoral election may seem irrelevant at this point, since Bloomberg appears to have it sewn up, but I'm still voting for Freddy, in no small part as a belated fuck-you to Bloomberg for the Republican National Convention and the events surrounding it.

Bloomberg doesn't want to be seen as a national Republican. And I concede that there's a world of difference; I'd vote for him over Bush, Cheney, or any congressional Republican any day. At times during the debate I felt sorry for him (cut with a dose of schadenfreude): when the subject of the national Republican party came up, he was backed into a corner, because he couldn't oppose the Republican position (and alienate the base) or support it (and alienate the overwhelming majority of NYC). But this sympathy didn't last long. If he really meant it when he said that he didn't identify entirely with either party and was only supporting the Republicans because they had given him the opportunity to run and the Democrats hadn't (since presumably he could never have financed an independent campaign), then he would have done a much better job of equivocating. One of the first questions in the debate was whether the next mayor of NYC should use his position as a bully pulpit to call for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Ferrer said yes, of course, the war was a mistake, let's get out of that mess. Bloomberg (who, as a successful businessman, should understand the sunk cost fallacy) said ok, maybe we shouldn't have gone to Iraq, but now that we're there, we should support our troops (yes, he actually used the phrase "support our troops" to argue for why we should let more of them die) and make sure that the 2000 dead soldiers have not died in vain. Ugh. Yes, unlike the Republicans in Washington, he acknowledged the existence of the 2000 dead soldiers. But if he really wanted to avoid opposing the war or supporting the war, he could have said "I don't think it's the job of the mayor of New York to set US foreign policy; I want to improve the schools and fix potholes and blah blah." So I don't believe him when he distances himself from the Republican party.

Bloomberg does still have plenty of liberal supporters who can't stomach voting for a Republican (New York County went 83% for Kerry), so he's going to benefit greatly from his endorsement by the Liberal Party and the ignorance of those who don't know that it's neither liberal nor a party (all their candidates listed in my neighborhood's edition of this year's voter guide are also Republican candidates). Likewise, the Independence Party is neither independent nor a party. But these ballot options will provide an option for voters who want to vote for Bloomberg without pulling the Republican lever.

Meanwhile, don't forget the Rent Is Too Damn High Party.

So I'll be voting straight-party Democratic. Does this mean that I don't assess the merits of the candidates? Sure I do, that's what primaries are for. And the Democratic primaries have already essentially determined the winner of the non-mayoral elections.

Then there are the propositions. This is my current thinking on them, but I'm open to being swayed.

State question 1: Constitutional amendment saying that if the budget isn't passed in time (i.e. always) then instead of passing emergency spending bills (which must be signed by the governor), a contingency budget (last year's budget) automatically takes effect, and can be amended by the legislature without the governor's approval.

I'm leaning towards NO - we're about to get a Democratic governor, and I'd rather not shift power from him to the Republican senate president (or, for that matter, to the Democratic assembly speaker). And this proposal doesn't solve the problems that make New York's state legislature the most dysfunctional in the country.

State question 2: $2.9 billion in transportation bonds, split between NYSDOT and MTA (with $100 million earmarked for a Rail Link to JFK, and $450 million for the Second Avenue Subway).

YES - this seems like a no-brainer. Transportation is good.

City question 3: City charter revision requiring an ethics code for Administrative Law Judges and Hearing Officers.

YES - why not?

City question 4: City charter revision codifying parts of the 1975 Financial Emergency Act (set to expire), including requiring a balanced budget and a 4-year financial plan for the city.

YES - it seems harmless enough, but I could be convinced otherwise.

Everyone go cast a vote on Tuesday. All the cool kids are doing it.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

When I was Three, I was hardly Me

Kol Zimrah is three years old this month! We'll be celebrating on Friday in New York and Jerusalem.

I've just written about why this anniversary matters in my inaugural post on Jew*School. Go check it out.