Thursday, December 20, 2007

Nobody's business but the Turks: 1

We were in Istanbul for the 2nd through 6th nights of Chanukah, and due to various distractions in both the real world and the blogosphere, I'm just getting around to blogging about it now. Some quick takes to get started, and a longer post (here and on Jewschool) about Turkish Shabbat coming later.

  • This series of books looked strangely familiar...

Yes, it's the Choose Your Own Adventure series! That's The Cave of Time on the right (or, as any English and Hebrew speaker knows, The Tunnel of זמן). And who could forget Who Killed Harlow Thrombey? ?

  • This year is Rumi's 800th birthday, and lots of commemorations have been happening in Turkey and around the world, including this whirling dervish performance which we saw at the main Istanbul train station, once the terminus of the Orient Express (which, we were surprised to learn, never actually went to "the Orient" - it didn't even leave Europe!).

EAR will post at some point about the spiritual side of the whirling ceremony, but in the meantime I want to focus on the physics. I was very impressed that the dervishes' angular velocity is completely constant. Even though spinning around is made up of a series of discrete steps -- move one foot, then the other foot, then the first foot again, and so on -- they made it look like it was continuous, as if they were standing on a rotating platform. You don't notice that they aren't unless you look at their feet (since the rest of their legs are hidden under the robes). This must seriously take practice. And they only whirl to the left - I was waiting for someone to call "SWITCH!" in the middle, but that never happened. The dervishes are also much younger than one might have expected.

  • Pulp Fiction be damned - in Turkey, they have a Quarter Pounder and a McRoyal! Perhaps this represents Turkey's dual status, perched between Europe and the Middle East. (No, I can't tell you anything about the food itself at McDonald's - we only went in to use the restroom, or tuvalet.)

  • Thoughts inspired by visiting the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, home to lots of really old stuff: In a final peace agreement, the Temple Mount shouldn't be under the control of Israel or the Palestinians. Leave the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Kotel (i.e. the actual wall), and turn the rest over to disinterested archaeologists (perhaps from Scandinavia), and dig the whole thing up. I bet there's some really cool stuff under there.
  • Does anyone know what the number means?

This is in Taksim Square, but reminiscent of the clock in Union Square. The URL in the picture is of no assistance to those of us who don't speak Turkish.

  • Ok, I'm sorry, but this has to be fake:

That's the Obelisk of Thutmosis III in the foreground, with the Blue Mosque in the background. But come on. If the obelisk has been outside for 3500 years, how is it still so smooth? Shouldn't have somehow eroded? Are there any conspiracy theories about any sort of funny business?

  • In the airport bathroom:

  • Christianity and Islam have had some difficult relations for the last millennium or so, but this snapshot from the Grand Bazaar shows that capitalism heals all wounds:

You might recognize the guy on the left. The one on the right is Muhammad. (First-year Arabic is already paying off!) Before you point out that it doesn't look like him, recall from recent events that there are some issues with visual depictions of Muhammad.

Similarly, meet Mary and Allah:

  • At first, we thought this mosque had once been a synagogue:

(Aside: Note the stores on the street level. You don't see that so much with places of worship in the US.)

Later we figured out that the six-pointed star is a common motif in Ottoman Turkish art:

These pictures are from the Topkapı Palace, seat of the Ottoman sultans.
  • Yes, that was a lowercase dotless I. In English and most languages that use the Latin alphabet, lowercase i has a dot and capital I doesn't. In Turkish, dotted i and dotless I are two different letters, each having its own capital and lowercase form! Crazy! As a result, while waiting for the flight home, I amused myself endlessly while watching the LED display switch back and forth between English and Turkish -- that is, between "TEL AVIV" and "TEL AVİV". Dot goes on, dot goes off! Dot goes on, dot goes off!
  • More later.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

10 Tevet

(Crossposted to Jewschool)

II Kings 25:1-2 and Jeremiah 52:4-5:

In the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it, and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.

As I left my apartment this morning, I noticed that the weather in Jerusalem on 10 Tevet is rainy and very cold. (Not as cold as, say, the northern United States outdoors, but much colder indoors.) And I couldn’t help but wonder: What was Nebuchadnezzar thinking? Why pick this time of year to send his army to Jerusalem, where they’d have to build towers in the cold and rain? Everyone knows that military campaigns start in the spring. The besieged people inside were also presumably doing ok at that point, since they would have already harvested whatever they’d need for the winter. Indeed, according to Jeremiah 52:6, they didn’t run out of food until the summer (the fourth month is Tammuz). So what gives? Clearly, לצערנו, Nebuchadnezzar was successful in the end, but was this the most effective way of accomplishing his objective? Or is this the biblical narrative’s subtle way of indicating that the destruction of Jerusalem was divine punishment and not a mere human conquest, by showing that the destruction went ahead despite questionable tactics (cf. Elijah pouring water on the altar before it gets consumed by fire)? Any thoughts?

May this be the last year that the fast of Tevet is a day of mourning. (Since this is a sad day, I’m not going to amuse myself and about three of you by pointing out that, redemption or no redemption, 10 Tevet will in fact not occur in 2008.)

Friday, December 14, 2007

The results are in: Take III

(Crossposted to Jewschool)

Last week I posted some initial thoughts on the Spiritual Communities Study survey results, and then ZT posted a second round. Since then, they’ve made some revisions to the report, incorporating suggestions from us and other bloggers, so the squeaky wheel has gotten the grease. As crazy as it sounds, I’m now posting a third round of commentary on the survey.

As Desh has pointed out, these results should silence those who claim that independent minyan participants are motivated by selfishness and narcissism, in contrast with conventional synagogues and their participants who are committed to the broader community. In addition to the data that Desh cites, the results show that independent minyan participants have higher “yes” rates than synagogue members on the questions “I have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people” and “I have a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world”. (The report didn’t list the results for the question “I have a Jewish responsibility to care for people in trouble (as with Darfur or Katrina)”, which would also be interesting to see.) Moreover, though there are no comparable numbers for synagogue members, the survey also shows that 95% of independent minyan participants have been invited to a Shabbat meal by someone in their community in the last year, and 86% have invited others. These results come within a few days of another study showing that people are leaving conventional congregations because this sense of community is missing. (Of course, this isn’t true of all synagogues. Kol hakavod to any community of whatever structure whose participants are committed to each other and to the larger world.)

Next, another word on the Reform stuff. I’m particularly interested in this, as someone who definitely marked “Reform” for the first question (in which denomination were you raised?) and probably was among the 3% who marked “Reform” for the second question (what do you consider yourself now?) but I’m not certain. I’m not connected to any Reform-affiliated institutions, but I still think of myself as a Reform expat; the synagogue I don’t go to is Reform. But the fact that I’m not certain highlights the fact that the answer to this second question doesn’t necessarily have any direct real-world manifestations (i.e. affiliations, behaviors, etc.) and is all in the respondent’s head (and might not be in the respondent’s head very often except when s/he is answering surveys like this). But the results are still very interesting and worthy of study. Pardon me if, in the next few paragraphs, I blur the lines between Reform Judaism (which can mean a number of things - ideology, aesthetics, etc.) and the Reform movement (a set of institutions), which I generally try to avoid, but this blurring is an essential aspect of the topic at hand (Reform self-identification). The same, of course, is true about Conservative Judaism (again, defined in a number of ways) and the Conservative movement. (This latter blurring leads at times to serious logical inconsistencies. The report (p. 4-5) says that Conservative leaders claim that independent minyanim are “Conservative congregations flying a Liberian flag”, presumably basing this claim on traits of the minyanim that they would identify as “Conservative”, and/or the fact that participants in the minyanim grew up in the Conservative movement. But the same Conservative leaders would claim that Conservative central institutions, such as the CJLS, have the authority to determine policies and halacha that Conservative congregations should aspire to. Does this include “Conservative congregations flying a Liberian flag”? If so, then they seem to be making the absurd claim that the CJLS (etc.) automatically has plenary jurisdiction over any Jewish community that davens in Hebrew without a mechitza (or whatever criteria they’re using) or has Ramah alumni among its participants, regardless of whether that community ever consented to this.)

In my last post, I wrote about people who grew up in a particular denomination and still consider themselves to be carrying out that denomination’s values even when they’re not affiliated with it or with something with superficial similarities to it. I admit that this is somewhat of an elite position that doesn’t necessarily reflect most people’s experiences. Would I still identify myself as “Reform” (based on background and ideology, but not institutional affiliation or aesthetics) if I weren’t a fifth-generation Reform Jew, a third-generation NFTY alum, and generally descended from Reform nobility? Less clear. Denominational self-identification (which, again, only really comes up for this crowd when we’re taking surveys) is based on a combination of many factors.

The numbers from the survey (p. 16) appear to suggest that the majority of people raised Reform now identify as something else (presumably “Other Jewish”, which has the largest gain), while the majority of people raised Conservative still identify as Conservative. But all we know is the numbers - we don’t know whether the people who identify as Conservative are the same people who were raised Conservative. However, this information is available in the raw data, so in the next report, I’d be interested in seeing these results further broken down — what percent of people raised x now identify as y, etc. In the absence of this additional information, I’m going to propose a hypothesis that might be confirmed or refuted when we see that data: perhaps there is a shift from Reform to Conservative, and from Conservative to Other Jewish.

A possible mechanism for these shifts: Suppose Reuven grew up in a Reform congregation, and Chana grew up in a Conservative congregation, and now they both participate in a (let’s say) “traditional egalitarian” independent minyan and like it better than what they grew up with. Reuven says “Huh. I like this minyan, with its all-Hebrew prayers, better than my family’s congregation, with its English responsive readings. I guess that means I’m Conservative.” Chana says “No way. I know the Conservative movement, and it doesn’t look anything like this. You can call me ‘Other Jewish’.”

(Reuven and Chana don’t represent everyone. There are certainly people who are Reform->Other Jewish, and for the numbers to make sense, there must still be some Conservative->Conservative. But perhaps they represent some people.)

One more question to consider: So why is it in the first place that plenty of independent minyanim are mistaken for Conservative, while there are few to no independent minyanim (of the type studied in this survey) accused of being “Reform congregations flying a Liberian flag”? I’ve already said that lots of independent minyanim represent Reform ideals of informed autonomy, but why aren’t there more independent minyanim that display superficial traits commonly associated with “Reform” (in the same superficial way that Hebrew+egalitarian = “Conservative”, and thus Kol Haneshama “isn’t really Reform”)? (Or why is it that, as the report says on p. 18, “few emergent communities take a Reform-style approach”, except that I would limit “Reform-style” to these aesthetic elements.) Some might chalk this up to “increased interest in tradition”, whatever that means. I disagree. While this may be true of some minyanim, there are others whose participants and general communal outlooks are “progressive” on a number of axes, and still pray in a way that would be somewhat alien to the typical person coming from an exclusively Reform-affiliated background — generally involving an unchanging macroscopic liturgical structure, and prayers all in Hebrew. I think it has more to do with the participatory havurah ethic that characterizes many independent minyanim. The prayer leader is seen as truly a sheliach tzibbur (representative of the community), rather than as a top-down leader. Any of these “Reform” elements that are missing from independent minyanim — and I’m not talking about musical instruments or “Reform” melodies, which are used in some independent minyanim, but I’m talking about English readings and explanations of the prayers and changes in macroscopic liturgy from week to week — require top-down leadership in order to be implemented. Participants can’t simply daven on their own, since there’s no way to know what’s coming next until the leader says so. Thus, the use of a style sometimes characterized as “traditional” isn’t always motivated by “traditional” concerns, but may be motivated by a desire to maximize individual freedom and participation.

Yes, there are also Conservative congregations with heavy-handed top-down prayer leadership, with which independent minyan prayer has little in common. But there are also counterexamples in the Conservative movement, in Ramah and USY, which may be very different stylistically from most independent minyanim, but perhaps have a similar approach to the role of the sheliach tzibbur — similar enough that people aren’t as quick to characterize independent minyan prayer as “not Conservative” the way they characterize it as “not Reform”. Services at URJ camps and NFTY, though different from the typical Reform congregation, still require some degree of top-down leadership, even if it’s coming from a songleader or RCVP rather than a rabbi or cantor.

If the Reform movement is at all concerned about the fact that so many people who grew up in it are ceasing to identify as Reform, then as I’ve said before, the solution is to expand the horizons of what Reform prayer and Reform communities look like, and to create a vision of what a Reform community would look like if its participants were not dependent on top-down leadership.

So what about the “rabbi-led emergent communities”, which do have a rabbi, and tend to have more top-down prayer leadership? In those communities, it’s more likely that the style of prayer might be superficially recognizable as “Reform”. And indeed, more rabbi-led emergent participants (7%) identify as Reform than independent minyan participants (3%). But why is it still only 7%? This is in part because the communities happen to have other leanings — e.g., Kehilat Romemu (NYC) identifies itself with Jewish Renewal (”Other Jewish”), Kol Tsedek (Philly) is affiliated Reconstructionist (also “Other Jewish”), and Ikar (Los Angeles) is unaffilated but led by a Conservative-ordained rabbi. As the report says, “Most emergent community leaders see formal denominationalism as a barrier to entry and as connoting the types of congregations from which they seek to differentiate themselves.” (p. 17)

One more thing: for the record, I think it's dumb that denominational self-identification (for individuals and communities) is so tied to prayer, at the expense of all the other aspects of Judaism. (This is even more true of the border, or "mechitza" if you will, between Conservative and Orthodox identification.) But that's the way it is.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Now that it's legal again...

I can get back to insulting Turkishness.

Here goes. Turkishness sucks!

I'm back in Israel, so you can expect upcoming blog posts about Istanbul, and more about the survey.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The results are in

(Crossposted to Jewschool)

This will probably be the first of multiple posts about the Preliminary Findings from the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study (by the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute and Mechon Hadar), since everyone has something to say about it. The JTA and Ha’aretz have already run stories summarizing the results, so I’m going to focus on color commentary here. For the play-by-play, I recommend going to the report itself.

The survey organizers have said that this report is just the beginning, and that more detailed analysis will be released later, including data about individual communities. This is good news, because even though this survey provides valuable information about a demographic that has not been studied quantitatively before, the value of lumping Kol Zimrah and Darkhei Noam together into the same pool is still limited. I eagerly await the fuller results, so that we can read about the diversity among independent minyanim, just as we have now had a chance to see how their populations differ from synagogue populations.

I was involved in publicizing the survey, as an organizer (at the time) of Kol Zimrah, and as a blogger on Jewschool and Mah Rabu. We weren’t thrilled with the survey when we first saw it, because a number of the questions reflected frames that are foreign to the communities being studied. This was in part to enable comparison of the results with the National Jewish Population Survey and other previous surveys, and in part simply because the survey authors were operating in those frames. Fortunately, the survey organizers made edits to the survey in response to feedback from concerned communities. The two most significant changes were: 1) The original draft of the survey required respondents to select only one primary community about which to answer the survey. The problem is that this doesn’t reflect the reality of these new communities, in which it is commonplace for people to participate in more than one. The survey organizers graciously added the capability to answer the survey about more than one community, despite the technological hurdles in making this possible, and the results show that this was the right thing to do: 66% of respondents involved with independent minyanim identified themselves as part of 2 or more communities. 2) The original draft had the choices for the movement self-identification question listed “in order”, from “Orthodox” to “Not Jewish”. This presents an obvious bias towards a frame that places all Jewish denominations on a linear spectrum from 1 to Orthodox, a frame that many of these new communities reject. Before the survey went out, the choices were rearranged into a more neutral ordering. Many thanks to the survey organizers for their flexibility! The final version of the survey wasn’t perfect, but is good enough to provide lots of valuable data.

So here we go.

The survey deals with what it calls “emergent sacred communities”, a term borrowed from the emerging church. I’m not going to address whether this term or categorization is accurate or appropriate, but perhaps other Jewschool contributors will.

These communities are divided into three categories: “independent minyanim”, “rabbi-led emergent communities”, and “alternative emergent communities”. As Desh points out, the third category might as well have been called “other”. It includes communities that don’t qualify as independent minyanim because they aren’t independent (because they’re sponsored by a synagogue; note to ZT: there’s a big difference between this and communities that have relationships with synagogues or whose participants once belonged to synagogues) and/or aren’t minyanim (because their primary activity isn’t prayer). I’m very glad to see that the report distinguished between independent minyanim and rabbi-led communities. Media coverage and the Jewish establishment have often conflated these into a single phenomenon, but the structures of the communities are significantly different, and as the survey shows, so are the participants. The report also makes a point of saying that the second category is led by “rabbis functioning as rabbis”. The word rabbi has two meanings — an honorific title signifying a level of educational achievement, and a job description — and when we confuse these meanings, a breakdown in communication ensues. Whether or not a community’s leadership includes the first type of rabbi is of no more significance to the community's definition ("rabbi-led" vs "lay-led", etc.) than whether the sheliach tzibbur has a Ph.D. or an actuarial license. However, it makes a big difference when the community includes a job description of “rabbi”, perhaps especially when the rabbi founded the community (as in many “rabbi-led emergent communities”) rather than being hired by a pre-existing community (as in many conventional synagogues). The report also notes that these three categories “all fall under the more general rubric of ‘emergent Jewish spiritual communities,’ which can also be extended to include conventional synagogues that have been transformed under the leadership of an emergent rabbi, a group that falls outside the purview of this report.” What is an “emergent rabbi”? Is “emergent” (as some have suggested) just a synonym for “cool”?

The introduction to the report heavily cites articles from the Spring 2007 issue of Zeek, which was devoted in part to independent minyanim. Since these articles were only in the print edition and not online, they have been deprived of the additional attention that they would receive from various Jewish online communities, but the footnotes to the report have alerted me to the fact that Mechon Hadar has made some of the articles available online. Perhaps when the dust clears from this survey report, some of those articles will be blogged in greater depth.

There’s a paragraph on page 4 whose content is interesting if you get past the inappropriate frames. It says “An important pattern which appears is one of religious traditionalism and social progressivism”. Unfortunate assumptions in this phrasing include 1) these “social” issues have nothing to do with religious values; 2) ritual practices that converge with “traditional” practices are undertaken for reasons of “traditionalism”. However, the specific examples in the paragraph are enlightening, and underscore the fact that the new independent communities don’t fit into the linear spectrum of “left” to “right” that many people in the establishment (including, apparently, the author of this paragraph) take for granted. The paragraph goes on to refer to “this decoupling of religious and social traditionalism”, but perhaps nothing is being “decoupled” at all — perhaps someone’s strict kashrut practices and his/her stance on the equality of all people regardless of gender and sexual orientation stem from the same religious value system. This paragraph demonstrates its bias more explicitly in the last sentence when it uses the language of “more observant” (a category that is presumed to be well-defined across different groups of Jews, and to exclude “social issues”). But again, if we hold our noses and look at the actual phenomena being described, this describes an important trend that may confound people from another generation (including the people in the Conservative movement who really thought that the people advocating LGBT equality are less fill-in-the-blank).

Page 5 says “From another quarter, former members of the chavurah movement of the 1960s and 1970s, will no doubt seek and perceive parallels with their own endeavors a generation and more ago. At the same time, leaders of emergent communities are just as likely to see and emphasize that which differentiates current efforts at Jewish spiritual community‐building from those that their parents’ generation initiated.” I’d be the first to point out that there are differences between the grassroots efforts of the 1960s and ’70s and those of today; I’m conscious of these differences all the time as a National Havurah Committee board member. But the fact that I’m in that position highlights that the first sentence in this paragraph is inaccurate and unnecessarily nasty. “Former members”? Certainly there are people who were involved in the chavurah movement a generation ago and have moved on, some of them to influential places in the Jewish establishment. (I hear that another Jewschool contributor is working on a “Where are they now?” feature.) But, as I wrote last week in connection with the New York Times article, “the chavurah movement” is not a thing of the past. Many of the chavurot founded in the ’60s and ’70s still exist, so these “former members” are in fact current members of those communities. The National Havurah Committee still exists, and (as the JTA has reported) has become a hub for networking among some of the new “independent minyanim”. So it’s not just the aging hippies who are seeing a fundamental similarity (despite the differences) between the new communities and the older ones; it’s the participants in the new “independent minyanim” themselves. I would go so far as to suggest that the “independent minyanim” in the study have more in common with the first-wave chavurot than with the “rabbi-led emergent communities” in the study.

Page 8 has a list of the 15 communities with the largest number of respondents in the survey. I’d be interested to know whether this is the total number of people who put each community down on their survey, or just the number who marked it as their “primary community”. Four communities on the list are in New York City, and there is overlap between all of them. (Four, not five. The Washington Square Minyan is actually in this Washington Square, not this one. Except that I heard that it’s not in that one either. I’ll let the Boston locals sort it out.) There’s no difference for the purposes of this preliminary report, but this will become relevant for future analyses that look at individual communities. I think it makes the most sense not to restrict it to people who identified something as their primary community, since that’s somewhat arbitrary. For instance, if someone goes to Hadar every time it meets (2-3 Saturdays a month) and to Kol Zimrah every time it meets (1 Friday a month), which do they identify as their primary community? It probably depends on who their social network is, and who they associate with outside of those 1-3 times a month, but they might in fact be fully involved in both communities.

Another interesting thing about this chart, noted on page 9, is that “[t]he only countable number of participants, and a very crude approximation of participant numbers, is found in the number of entries on these communities’ e‐mail lists.” (I’d be interested in seeing statistics on how many of the communities do and don’t have a formal category of “membership”.) Page 10 says that it is “impossible, at this point, to make an accurate estimate of the total number of people encompassed by these dozens of communities”, since many people who participate in the communities never join the email lists, and conversely, many people are on the email lists even though they don’t participate or don’t even live in the same city. (I make a point of being on the email list of every independent minyan in NYC (where I don’t even live this year, but I’ll be back there soon enough) and several in other cities too. As a result, I’m on the email lists of at least 15 independent Jewish communities. I wonder how much I singlehandedly skew the data. So it’s a good thing they didn’t try to draw any conclusions from these numbers!)

As Desh points out, the graph on page 11 (showing the number of “emergent communities” that existed in each year) is misleading — if “emergent communities” are defined as communities founded in 1996 or later, then of course the number is going to shoot up after 1996! Certainly independent Jewish communities have multiplied since 1996, but not by the factor that this graph suggests. It would be interesting to see such a graph going back to the ’60s, though I’m sure it would be much harder to gather that sort of data, in part because of all the communities that have ceased operation. (Side note: the JTA article uses the verb “fail” to describe such a cessation of operations. I think that verb represents an institutional mentality that is not shared by these grassroots communities. These communities aren’t trying to build something that will last forever; they’re trying to build something to meet a need at a particular time. Kol hakavod to those communities that have had the flexibility to shut down when it was time, rather than keeping things going longer than they should have. Cf. the recent discussion about Jews In The Woods. Were the Jewish communities of Sura and Pumbedita “failures”?) Desh says “There is some useful data in there, but it’s hidden in the second derivative.” I wouldn’t go quite that far - I think the first derivative is also useful, showing a steady growth in these communities by whatever definition.

If we look at the second derivative, we can see that the tipping point is right after 2001. My Urban Kvetch insinuates, and a December 2004 article in the Jewish Week says explicitly, that this is due to an interest in spirituality following 9/11. I disagree. The founding of Kehilat Hadar (in New York) and the teshuva that led to the founding of Shira Hadasha (in Jerusalem, thus not included in the survey, but relevant because of the many American communities patterned after it) were both in spring 2001, back when the Empire State Building was still just the third-tallest building in NYC. Both of these communities are perceived as flagships in their particular subgenres of minyanim, and though many of the factors for this explosion in new communities were already in place, the influence of these specific communities as successful proofs-of-concept lowered the barriers to the creation of other independent communities. This process was already chugging along before 9/11.

Page 12-13 shows that women outnumber men by 2 to 1 in the new communities, compared to nearly 50-50 in conventional congregations. An explanation for the latter is that synagogues are made up largely of heterosexual couples (which are 50-50 by definition) and children (50-50 because they have no choice about whether to be members, so they’re randomized). Since independent communities have large numbers of unattached individuals, this explains why their ratios don’t have the same reasons for being 50-50, and could potentially be anything. However, I haven’t yet seen a satisfactory explanation of why they are skewed so much in this particular direction (a trend that has already been noted anecdotally). Any thoughts?

Page 13-14 shows the demographics that we all know: independent minyanim have more young adults and unmarried people than synagogues.

The title of the chart on page 15 (”Shifts in Denominational Affiliation”) is highly misleading. The survey question asked “Regarding Jewish religious denominations, in which of the following were you raised, and what do you consider yourself now?”. The first question is indeed asking about denominational affiliation, but the second is asking about self-identification. Insofar as people affiliate only with these “emergent communities”, their current denominational affiliation is… nothing at all! The heading on page 16 (”very few are Reform”) is similarly misleading — what does “are” really mean?

Now let’s look at the data. As the report points out on page 14, the breakdown of what denominations independent minyan participants grew up in is essentially the same as the breakdown for synagogue members in the NJPS. Unsurprisingly, among all the groups of “emergent communities”, there is a massive shift away from denominational self-identification and toward identification as “other Jewish”. A surprising result is that, among independent minyan participants, Reform self-identification drops from 18% raised to 3% current, with a much smaller drop in Conservative self-identification. I disagree with the report’s suggestion (p. 17) that there is a “basic incompatibility between Reform identity and emergent participants’ Jewish identity”. I would argue that many independent communities actualize the Reform movement’s professed ideals of informed autonomy much more effectively than do most Reform-affiliated congregations. The problem is that the “Reform” label has been affixed to a particular set of styles which are strongly associated with top-down synagogue worship and thus in opposition to what grassroots communities do, rather than to an aspiration that can be realized in a fully informed and participatory community. And as I have written before, the leaders of the Reform movement are complicit in this.

Suppose someone grows up in the Conservative movement, internalizes its values, and then joins an independent minyan that s/he feels best actualizes those values (perhaps better than a Conservative-affiliated synagogue). Then the vibe s/he gets from the Conservative movement is that this independent minyan is really Conservative deep down and why won’t they admit it, thus s/he is still living a Conservative Jewish life, just in a different framework. (This view about independent minyanim, which has been stated by Conservative leaders in various public forums, is inaccurate for a number of reasons, including 1) Conservative Jewish identity is tied to institutions, with which these minyanim are not affiliated, 2) this ignores the many other participants in the minyanim who have different perspectives and are there for different reasons, etc. etc., but that’s not relevant here; what is relevant is that these people can see that, justifiably or not, the Conservative movement is leaving the light on for them.) In contrast, suppose someone else grows up in the Reform movement, internalizes its values, and then joins an independent minyan that s/he feels best actualizes those values (perhaps better than a Reform-affiliated synagogue). Then the vibe s/he gets from the Reform movement is that s/he has left the fold. I mean, the whole service is in Hebrew, for crying out loud! Many in the Reform movement would see independent minyanim as something thoroughly alien to Reform, rather than as a vision of what Reform communities could look like if their participants were more informed and autonomous. So it’s no wonder that the independent minyan participants start to see their own Jewish identity as something other than Reform. I hope that Reform leaders are looking carefully at this survey and thinking about its consequences.

The data on p. 19 shows that independent minyan participants attend services more often than synagogue members. But this may actually be understated, due to a problematic question. The report shows how many people attend services more than once a month, and how many people attend services in their community more than once a month. The problem: some of these communities only meet once a month! So a respondent might attend a particular minyan every single time it meets and still be placed in the “no” category for this question. When the detailed analysis comes out with information about specific communities, I hope that the frequency of the communities’ services is taken into account when analyzing the frequency of participants’ attendance.

Page 21 shows data about Jewish educational background. Discussions of independent minyanim in the press and elsewhere often emphasize day school backgrounds, but I must say that this doesn’t seem to be supported by the data. Yes, independent minyan participants attended day school at higher rates than synagogue members, but the same is true for all of the other educational contexts in the survey. The data shows that 40% of independent minyan participants attended Jewish day school for elementary school and 29% for high school, which, last I checked, is still a minority. In contrast, significant majorities participated in Jewish youth groups, Jewish camps, and Hillel or other college organizations, compared with minorities of synagogue members for all of these, so it would seem that these have had a greater impact on independent minyanim and their participants. I’ll freely admit that my skepticism about the day school claims is motivated by a pro-public-school agenda, and I ask that anyone analyzing the data with a pro-day-school agenda admit that as well.

Also in the chart on p.21, with analysis on p.22, there is discussion about those who have “participated on a program in Israel lasting four months or more”. That’s not what the survey asks at all. The actual question was “Since graduating high school, have you spent 4 months or more at one time in Israel?”, and doesn’t say anything about a program. I write this as someone who answered “yes” to this question, but would have said “no” if it had asked about a program. Now anecdotally, based on my experience as a member of the American independent minyan demographic living temporarily in Israel, I would conjecture that there wouldn’t be a huge difference between the results of these two questions (that is, when I was in Israel outside of an organized program, I felt like an outlier). But if we’re going to draw conclusions based on anecdotal conjectures, then what’s the point of having a quantitative survey?

I’ll leave the discussion about marriage and dating to someone else.

Page 28 shows that participants in the new communities are less likely than synagogue members to say that they always feel proud about Israel. Given that a far higher number of independent minyan participants have been to Israel (p.22) or plan to visit in the next 3 years (p. 28), I would conclude that this means that they have a more mature relationship with Israel. It’s easy to feel proud of Israel all the time when you’re sitting in the US; it’s much harder when you’re actually there.

I was shocked by the result on p. 30 that independent minyan participants give to UJA-Federation at the same rate as synagogue members. Given that the question was phrased “In 2006, did you or anyone in your household make a financial contribution to a UJA-Federation campaign?”, I wonder if some of this was due to confusion about the question — perhaps some single 20something independent minyan participants saw “household” and reflexively thought of their parents.

Page 34 shows that a relatively small number of people said social justice was a reason for their participating in these communities. We should not infer from this that participants in these communities aren’t interested in social justice, but merely that this isn’t an organizational focus. These communities operate within a more a-la-carte understanding of Jewish community, and don’t attempt to cover all elements of Jewish life. Therefore it’s quite possible that the survey respondents are committed to social justice through other venues, but the survey didn’t ask about this.

So that’s just a first look at the survey results. Despite these minor criticisms (which are offered in a constructive spirit), the survey really is an amazing piece of research, which reaches over 1000 participants in 58 communities in 28 states. Many thanks to the survey organizers (Steven M. Cohen, J. Shawn Landres, Elie Kaunfer, and Michelle Shain) for all their work in shedding light on an important and growing Jewish meta-community.

There's more to come from other Jewschool contributors in the next few days. What are your thoughts?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Independent minyanim in the NYT: Blog roundup

Wherever would we be without Technorati? Since the independent minyan article appeared in last Wednesday's New York Times, lots of bloggers have weighed in about it, and I'm collecting some of the interesting ones here. I wrote a commentary here on Mah Rabu, and there has been an active comment thread at Jewschool. Post links to others if you have them!

Jewish Blogs:
  • Jeremy Burton at JSpot writes about independent minyanim in general and his own experiences at Darkhei Noam.
  • David at JewsByChoice.Org: "The Rabbinic tradition, which codified and preserved Judaism through centuries of Diaspora, has also helped calcify it into a carbuncle of a tradition, sealed in a dry and didactic anal retentiveness, with the result that the rabbinate has become both creator and guardian of an increasingly arcane and divisive form of spiritual practice."
  • On the Far Side compares us to "hilltop youth".
  • Andy Bachman: "This is a Lay Led movement in its own right that we should sit up and pay attention to because it is one of the most serious manifestations of the religious future that we can fathom."
  • Divrei Chaim assumes that everyone is Orthodox in the state of nature and says: "2800 people are not leaving the derech because they cannot square the age of the universe with braishis or because they cannot see how torah m'sinai fits the documentary hypothesis - they are leaving because established religion, Orthodoxy included, has proven itself spiritually irrelevant to their lives. That is a thought that should scare us."
  • Faithhacker: "I just want to emphasize that you don’t have to live in NY, LA or Chicago to be a part of a strong and innovative Jewish community."
  • The article launches a dialogue at Yiducation.
  • The Lilith Blog: "Rather than forsaking Judaism because of their distaste for tradiitonal Jewish institutions, young people are inventing new institutions that make Judaism fun and meaningful, in ways that fit with their lifestyles and value systems. Jewish life is hardly dead in their hands, but the kind of Jewish life that divides us as one people could be."
  • Temple Board Authority talks about what this means for established synagogues. "I happen not to think that these minyanim represent a threat. They do represent something of a failure, but at the same time, they signify that the generation that has been lost to the synagogue has not been lost to Judaism."

Christian Blogs:

  • Musings of a Jaded Optimist and Second Drafts are surprised to discover parallels to Christian "emergent churches".
  • Boy in the Bands would like to see more parallels in the Christian world.
  • Christian Research Net says we're part of "Satan's market", with an "'I want what I want and I want it now' approach to God". Likewise, Blogged Down World asks questions like "Is worship more about what I want or more about what God demands bibilically speaking?" This line of argument represents a fundamental misunderstanding of Judaism. Unlike Christianity, we don't have a doctrine of apostolic succession. We may have a concept of Knesset Yisrael, but not of The Church. As a result, established Jewish institutions might attempt to justify themselves (and delegitimize grassroots efforts) sociologically, but none would dare attempt to do so theologically. I.e., they might claim to be better for the Jews, but not closer to God. (And the streams of Judaism where they'd be most likely to attempt that claim are the very same streams whose adherents are most likely to organize a pickup mincha minyan in an airport baggage claim.)
Post more as you find them! Tomorrow's project: blogging about the survey results.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Independent minyanim in the New York Times!

The independent minyan phenomenon has made it to the New York Times!

Without a building and budget, Tikkun Leil Shabbat is one of the independent prayer groups, or minyanim, that Jews in their 20s and 30s have organized in the last five years in at least 27 cities around the country. They are challenging traditional Jewish notions of prayer, community and identity.

In places like Atlanta; Brookline, Mass.; Chico, Calif.; and Manhattan the minyanim have shrugged off what many participants see as the passive, rabbi-led worship of their parents’ generation to join services led by their peers, with music sung by all, and where the full Hebrew liturgy and full inclusion of men and women, gay or straight, seem to be equal priorities.

Members of the minyanim are looking for “redemptive, transformative experiences that give rhythm to their days and weeks and give meaning to their lives,” said Joelle Novey, 28, a founder of Tikkun Leil Shabbat, whose name alludes to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. It is an experience they are not finding in traditional Jewish institutions, she said.

These communities have been documented in the press before, but mostly in Jewish publications (plus a short piece in Time), and now this article is reaching a much wider audience (including Christian bloggers who refer to us as "Satan's market"). It will be interesting to see the reactions.

I was interviewed for the article, but didn't make it into the final cut. Unfortunately, due to scheduling conflicts, the reporter (based in DC) wasn't able to make it to Kol Zimrah in New York.

Five good things about this article:
  1. The quote above from Joelle Novey makes it clear that participants in independent minyanim are there out of a serious commitment to meaningful Judaism, and not because we're looking for something more watered down or because we're looking for a singles scene.
  2. The article emphasizes that this is a nationwide phenomenon, bringing examples from Denver and the Kansas City suburbs, rather than confining coverage to a few coastal blue cities.
  3. Demonstrating a fresh perspective that is perhaps only attainable by going outside the Jewish press, the article addresses this phenomenon on its own terms, and doesn't get caught up shoehorning it into angst about intermarriage, "continuity", "affiliation", the future of institutions, etc.
  4. "A survey that Mr. Landres has undertaken with Mr. Cohen and Rabbi Kaunfer indicates that rather than taking young Jews out of the synagogue pews, they are taking them out of their beds on Saturday mornings." Hopefully synagogues will read this article and begin to understand that independent communities aren't driving people away from synagogues; synagogues are driving people away from synagogues. This generation wasn't joining synagogues before the increase in new independent communities at the turn of the millennium either. (And I look forward to the results of the survey, which are supposed to be released today.)
  5. The article emphasizes the minyanim's openness towards participants learning to lead services, etc., and active steps that the minyanim are taking to help participants gain new skills. This counters the meme out there that independent minyanim are "elitist" and only for people with extensive prior Jewish education.

Five questionable things in the article:

1. 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. Compare:
  • "They are challenging traditional Jewish notions of prayer, community and identity." -> unclear which, perhaps both
  • "It is an experience they are not finding in traditional Jewish institutions, she said." -> "conventional"
  • "For instance, its once-in-three-weeks services alternate between one with circular seating and a more traditional service, in which the chairs face east and the singing is a cappella." -> "traditional Judaism"
  • "Rabbi Edward Feinstein is one leader of a traditional synagogue who applauds the development of the minyanim." -> "conventional"

2. Havurot are referred to in the past tense. In fact, many of the havurot founded in the late '60s and '70s are still around. The article says, apparently to create a contrast, "The minyanim are largely urban." In fact, the major havurot founded in the '60s and '70s (e.g. Havurat Shalom, the New York Havurah, Fabrangen) are/were also urban. I think this distinction between "minyanim" and "havurot" is misleading. Yes, there are minyanim that are not havurot (e.g. rabbi-led minyanim in synagogues), and there are havurot that are not minyanim (e.g. havurot that get together only for non-prayer activities, since a minyan is by definition a prayer group), but all of the communities under discussion could be accurately described as both minyanim and havurot. In fact, this fuzziness can be observed in their self-descriptions. Tikkun Leil Shabbat (founded 2005), one of the "minyanim" featured in the article, refers to itself on its website as a havurah. The Highland Park Minyan (founded 197x), which is representative of the havurot founded at that time, refers to itself in its name as a minyan.

Certainly, there are discernible differences between independent Jewish communities founded in the 1970s and independent Jewish communities founded in the 2000s, though not necessarily all that much larger than the differences between Tikkun Leil Shabbat and DC Minyan (both founded in the 2000s and featured in the article), and not large enough to negate the fact that all these communities are fundamentally manifestations of the same phenomenon. (That said, even though the creation of new grassroots Jewish communities has continued uninterrupted since the 1960s, the rate and popularity have skyrocketed since the turn of the millennium, so this story is indeed newsworthy as current news.) Many core participants in the post-2000 independent communities are also active participants in the National Havurah Committee (founded in the late 1970s), whose network and Institutes have been vital in the creation and sustenance of many of these communities.

3. "The fact that women at the minyanim can lead prayers and read the Torah is central to their popularity, including among those raised in the Orthodox tradition, which limits women’s participation in services." I have to say that this section of the article was surprising to me. To be sure, gender egalitarianism was a major chiddush for the early havurot, since many of their participants came from the Conservative movement (which was generally not egalitarian at the time), and the havurot were egalitarian. Today, participants in independent Jewish communities come from all movements, and the independent communities themselves include both communities that are fully egalitarian and communities that aren't. So it wouldn't have occurred to me to list gender egalitarianism as a significant difference between synagogues and independent communities. Every Jewish community I have been a part of since birth, whether institutional or independent, has been gender-egalitarian, so that's not a factor in my choice to participate in independent communities, and some people are participating in independent communities that are less gender-egalitarian than the synagogues they grew up at.

So all that said, here's a (perhaps Tosafot-like) way to read this that makes sense: Yes, even in the absence of independent communities, someone who grew up in a (non-egalitarian) Orthodox congregation could still have joined a(n egalitarian) Reform or Conservative synagogue. But if s/he were to do that, s/he would likely be missing out on the positive (non-gender-related) sociological aspects of Orthodox communities. Independent minyanim/havurot (the egalitarian ones, anyway) provide a way to get these positive elements while also having a fully egalitarian community. On the flip side, someone who grew up in an egalitarian synagogue who is looking to find these positive elements now has the option of going to an egalitarian independent community, rather than having to go to a non-egalitarian Orthodox synagogue.

So it's not that independent communities on the whole are more gender-egalitarian than synagogues on the whole; it's that if you compare an independent community and a synagogue that have comparable levels of Jewish education, active lay participation, sense of community, etc., then the independent community is more likely to be more gender-egalitarian.

4. "Tikkun Leil Shabbat draws Reconstructionist Jews, Orthodox Jews and everyone in between." Grrr. It's the one-dimensional linear spectrum. I won't belabor this, since I've said enough about it in the past. It's interesting that "Reconstructionist" is chosen as one end of the spectrum; it's a less conventional choice than the usual "Reform" or "secular". When people try to line up the movements from left to right, they often can't decide whether Reconstructionist belongs between Reform and Conservative (they have more Hebrew than Reform! but less than Conservative!), or at one end past Reform (they had LGBT equality before it was popular!). Which really should clue people in that the linear spectrum just doesn't work, but somehow it doesn't.

5. "A flowering of Jewish day schools in the 1980s produced a generation with a strong Jewish education and 'the cultural wherewithal to create their own institutions,' said Steven M. Cohen, a professor of sociology at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion." I agree with everything in this statement from "produced" onward, as well as the following sentence crediting Hillel experience with empowering this generation. But the significance of day schools in this empowerment is an unproven conjecture. I have it on good authority that the founders of Kol Zimrah (and the majority of its current steering committee) did not go to day school. Perhaps the survey results will tell us more.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

כ"ט בנובמבר

Today we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the two-state solution!

עוד לא אבדה תקוותנו ... להיות עם חופשי בארצנו

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

BREAKING NEWS: Jerusalem divided

(crossposted to Jewschool)

The Annapolis conference convened today, bringing together delegations from around the world. Many expected (indeed, some hoped) that nothing would be accomplished at the conference. However, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has shocked everyone by pushing through his radical left-wing agenda of dividing Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people. Not only has the division of Jerusalem been ratified, but it has already been implemented in the space of less than a day, with an efficiency uncharacteristic for Israel.

From here in Jerusalem, we can look around and see what the peaceniks have wrought. Traffic was insane today with all the moving trucks driving around the formerly undivided capital, but now that everything has settled, the Jewish and Arab residents of Jerusalem are now living almost entirely in separate neighborhoods. (However, in an apparent concession to parties like Yisrael Beiteinu that had threatened to quit the coalition, Olmert has agreed that municipal services will be provided primarily to the Jewish neighborhoods.) In clear defiance of the will of the many Zionist organizations who opposed the division of Jerusalem, Jewish and Arab students are now attending almost entirely separate school systems. And the anti-Zionist left has shown that it means business, by placing some neighborhoods outside the separation barrier, to create a physical rupture in the everlasting unity of our 3000-year-old holy city. Construction crews have been working triple shifts to ensure that all of this is carried out as soon as possible, ever since the order arrived from Annapolis just a few hours ago.

The anti-Zionist left isn’t content merely with dividing Jerusalem; their agenda also includes weakening the city. To this end, they have begun encouraging Jewish residents of Jerusalem to move to fast-growing outlying neighborhoods on Jerusalem’s periphery, and away from the city center, to ensure that central Jerusalem (associated with the Zionist entity) will not see economic development.

In further evidence of a left-wing anti-Israel conspiracy, population studies show that Jews will soon be a minority of the total population of all land under Israeli control, posing a threat to the future of the Jewish state.

How will supporters of Israel respond to these latest provocations?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Between water and drought

Some have heard this before in some form, but with Chanukah coming up, there has been a request to post it on the blog.

from Mishnah Ta'anit 1:4-7 :
הגיע שבעה עשר במרחשוון, ולא ירדו גשמים--התחילו היחידים מתענים. אוכלין ושותין משחשיכה, ומותרין במלאכה וברחיצה ובסיכה ובנעילת הסנדל ובתשמיש המיטה.

הגיע ראש חודש כסליו, ולא ירדו גשמים--בית דין גוזרין שלוש תענייות על הציבור. אוכלין ושותין משחשיכה, ומותרין במלאכה וברחיצה בסיכה ובנעילת הסנדל ובתשמיש המיטה.

עברו אלו, ולא נענו--בית דין גוזרין שלוש תענייות אחרות על הציבור. אוכלין ושותין מבעוד יום, ואסורין במלאכה וברחיצה ובסיכה ובנעילת הסנדל ובתשמיש המיטה, ונועלים את המרחצאות. עברו אלו, ולא נענו--בית דין גוזרין עוד שבע, שהן שלוש עשרה תענייות על הציבור. ומה אלו יתרות על הראשונות--אלא שבאלו מתריעים, ונועלים את החנייות. ובשני, מטים עם חשיכה; ובחמישי, מותרין מפני כבוד השבת.

עברו, ולא נענו--ממעטין במשא ובמתן, בבניין ובנטיעה, באירוסין ובנישואין, ובשאילת שלום בין אדם לחברו, כבני אדם הנזופים מלפני המקום. והיחידים חוזרין ומתענין, עד שייצא ניסן.

If the 17th of Cheshvan arrives and it hasn’t rained, individuals begin to observe three fasts. They can eat and drink after dark [i.e. the fast doesn’t begin until sunrise], and are permitted to work, wash, anoint, wear shoes, and have sex.

If Rosh Chodesh Kislev arrives and it still hasn’t rained, the court decrees three fasts on the community. They can eat and drink after dark, and are permitted to work, wash, anoint, wear shoes, and have sex.

If these fasts pass and aren’t answered, the court decrees three more fasts on the community. They can eat and drink while it is still day [but the fast begins at sundown], and are forbidden to work, wash, anoint, wear shoes, and have sex, and they close the bathhouses.

If these fasts pass and aren’t answered, the court decrees 7 more fasts, for a total of 13 fasts on the community. These are more severe than the previous ones, because on these they sound the shofar and close the stores. …

If these fasts pass and aren’t answered, they reduce buying and selling, building and planting, engagements and marriages, and greetings between people, like people rebuked by the Makom. Individuals return to fasting until Nisan ends.

from Mishnah Sukkah 5:1-4 :
כל מי שלא ראה שמחת בית השאובה, לא ראה שמחה מימיו.

מוצאי יום טוב הראשון של חג, היו יורדין לעזרת הנשים, ומתקנים שם תיקון גדול. ומנורות של זהב היו שם, וארבעה ספלים של זהב היו שם בראשיהם, וארבעה סולמות על כל מנורה ומנורה; וארבעה ילדים מפרחי כהונה, ובידיהם כדי שמן של מאה ועשרים לוג, והם מטילין לתוך כל ספל וספל. מבלאי מכנסי הכוהנים ומהמייניהם היו מפקיעין, ובהם היו מדליקין. לא הייתה חצר בירושלים, שלא הייתה מאירה מאור בית השאובה. חסידים ואנשי מעשה היו מרקדין לפניהם באבוקות, ואומרין לפניהם דברי תושבחות. והלויים בכינורות ובנבלים ובמצלתיים ובכל כלי שיר בלא מספר, על חמש עשרה מעלות היורדות מעזרת ישראל לעזרת הנשים, כנגד חמש עשרה שיר המעלות שבתהילים, שעליהם הלויים עומדים ואומרים בשיר. עמדו שני כוהנים בשער העליון היורד מעזרת ישראל לעזרת הנשים, ושתי חצוצרות בידם. קרא הגבר, תקעו והריעו ותקעו; הגיעו למעלה עשירית, תקעו והריעו ותקעו; הגיעו לעזרה, תקעו והריעו ותקעו. היו תוקעין והולכין, עד שמגיעין לשער היוצא למזרח. הגיעו לשער היוצא למזרח--הפכו פניהם למערב ואמרו, אבותינו היו במקום הזה "אחוריהם אל היכל ה', ופניהם קדמה, והמה משתחוויתם קדמה, לשמש" ; ואנו, ליה עינינו. רבי יהודה אומר, שונים אותה לומר, ואנו ליה, וליה עינינו.

One who has not seen the simchat beit hasho’eivah has never seen happiness in her life.

At the conclusion of the first yom tov of the holiday, they went down to the ezrat nashim [courtyard for women and men] … There were gold menorot there, and four gold basins at their tops, and four ladders for each one, and four children of the priesthood with pitchers of 120 log of oil in their hands, which they would pour into each basin.

From the worn-out clothes and belts of the priests, they would make wicks and light [the menorot], and there was no courtyard in Jerusalem that was not lit up by the light of beit hasho’eivah.

The pious ones and the people of deeds would dance before them with flaming torches in their hands, and would say before them words of song and praise. And the Levites with lyres and pipes and cymbals and trumpets and musical instruments without number, on the 15 steps going down from the ezrat Yisrael to the ezrat nashim, corresponding to the 15 Shir Hama’alot psalms, and the Levites would stand on them with musical instruments and sing. Two priests stood at the upper gate, going down from the ezrat Yisrael to the ezrat nashim, with two trumpets in their hands. The rooster crowed, they played teki’ah teru’ah teki’ah. They reached the 10th step, and played teki’ah teru’ah teki’ah. They reached the ezrat nashim, and played teki’ah teru’ah teki’ah. They would continue sounding the shofar, until they reached the gate going out to the east. They reached the gate going out to the east, and turned around to face west, and said: “Our ancestors who were in this place, ‘their backs were to God’s temple and they faced east, and they bowed east to the sun’ (Ezekiel 8:16), but as for us, our eyes are to God (anu l’Yah eineinu).” Rabbi Yehuda said: They would repeat [the word l’Yah, “to God”], and say “We are to God, and our eyes are to God. (anu l’Yah, ul’Yah eineinu).”

These two rituals, the תעניות גשמים (fasts due to lack of rain) and the שמחת בית השואבה are polar opposites. One is responding to the absence of water, while the other is celebrating the presence of water. Some parallels between them:
  • Both begin with select individuals (התחילו היחידים מתענים; ילדים מפרחי כהונה, חסידים ואנשי מעשה) and expand to encompass the entire community.
  • Both begin with darkness, followed with light. The simchat beit hasho'eivah begins at night (מוצאי יום טוב) and continues until morning (קרא הגבר). Mishnah Ta'anit begins with אוכלין ושותין משחשיכה and proceeds to אוכלין ושותין מבעוד יום, an odd choice of language (when it could have said "the fast begins at sunrise" and then "the fast begins at sunset") unless this darkness->light progression is intentional.
  • Both include teki'ah teru'ah teki'ah, performed by the priests (see Ta'anit 2:5).
  • Compare ואומרין לפניהם דברי תושבחות (Sukkah 5:4) and אומר לפניהם דברי כיבושים (Ta'anit 2:1).
  • Both include the Shir Hama'alot Psalms (see Ta'anit 2:3)
  • The climactic conclusion to each physical ritual is a statement about our relationship with God. In one case, we are כבני אדם הנזופים מלפני המקום, rebuked before God and sinking into total despair, and in the other case, אנו ליה, וליה עינינו, our eyes are to God in our happiest moment.
Consequences of seeing these two mishnaic passages as opposites:
  • This gives a stronger rationale to the idea that הזכרת גשמים (mentioning rain in the prayers) is tied to ניסוך המים (the water libation on Sukkot), mentioned on Ta'anit 2b and implicitly endorsed by R. Yehudah ben Beteira, R. Akiva, and possibly R. Yehoshua. Praying for rain (even הזכרה, which is a precursor to שאלה, explicitly asking for rain) is intended to prevent the situation (lack of rain) that would necessitate תעניות גשמים, so it makes sense that it would be tied to the very thing (שמחת בית השואבה, a celebration connected to ניסוך המים) that, as we have seen, is the polar opposite of תעניות גשמים.
  • Chanukah can be classified as part of either narrative. On the one hand, Chanukah (as an 8-day holiday, on which hallel is said for 8 days, etc.) is based on Sukkot (Beit Shammai's position on lighting candles (Shabbat 21b) is modeled after the Sukkot offerings), so it fits right into the שמחת בית השואבה narrative, all the way down to lighting the menorot at dusk. On the other hand, Chanukah is at the end of Kislev, so if you do the math, it occurs precisely at the time of year when the תעניות גשמים would be occurring and intensifying in a year with no rain. This connects to the alternative Chanukah story from Pesikta deRav Kahana, which I blogged about last year. That story presents the two possibilities that we can bring God's presence closer or push it further away. Here too, Chanukah contains within it the possibility that we will be כבני אדם הנזופים מלפני המקום as well as the possibility of ואנו ליה, וליה עינינו .

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Monastery of the Cross

This post is long overdue. We went to the Monastery of the Cross a couple weeks ago. It's a little bit crazy to have an 11th-century monastery basically right across the street. The current monastery was built in the 11th century, but other structures have stood on the same site, and the original mosaic floor (some of which is still there) is from the 4th century. The monastery was built by Georgians, but the current inhabitants are monks of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem.

We couldn't figure out what this writing was:

After a little bit of sleuthing afterwards, we figured out that it's probably the Georgian alphabet. So why wasn't that obvious to us from the beginning, if this is a Georgian monastery? Because the current Greek owners don't seem to be so hot on emphasizing the monastery's Georgian roots, and the informational booklet we got there didn't mention anything Georgian. The Greek flag and the flag of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre now fly above the monastery. But we should have figured something out from the fact that the monastery is on Shota Rustaveli Street, named after Georgia's national poet.

This is the oven from the old kitchen, dating to the 16th century:

What's the deal with the eye inside the triangle, and what do the letters mean? Is it a Masonic conspiracy, like the back of the dollar bill?

There's a whole midrash behind the location of the monastery. The story is told in pictures on the wall of a darkened side room. The story begins in Genesis 18, when Abraham and Sarah received three visitors (representing the trinity, of course):

Each of the visitors had a staff, and left it with Abraham as a gift. I didn't take pictures of the rest of the frames, so you'll have to go and see it for yourself. But in the photo above, you can see the left edge of the next frame: in Genesis 19, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, and Lot and his daughters escape. (You can see one of Lot's daughters above. The full painting also shows Lot's wife as a pillar of salt.) Lot's daughters get him drunk, and you know what happens after that. The Orthodox Christian midrash continues: After Lot sobered up, he realized what had happened. He went to Abraham and asked what he could do to atone for this. Abraham gave him the angels' three staffs and told him to plant them on the outskirts of Jerusalem (or should that be Jebus?). Lot planted the staffs. The devil came and tried to convince Lot not to water the tree, but he resisted and watered the tree anyway. (In the paintings that show Lot watering the tree, it really looks like one tree made of three distinct segments, even three distinct species. Symbolism?) Fast forward 1400 years or so. The Romans cut down this tree outside of Jerusalem, and make it into a cross. And you know how the story ends:

[While the Internet has clarified the meaning of INBI and INRI, what's with עונם?]

The monastery supposedly sits on the location of this tree, planted by Lot, which was turned into the cross, thus "Monastery of the Cross".

In the same room, toward the ceiling, there is a gallery of biblical prophets. I photographed most of these, in part because it was so dark that taking a picture with a flash and then looking at the saved picture in the camera was the only way to read the writing. We had fun deciphering the prophets' names in Greek; anyone out there who knows Greek is invited to tell us what the rest says.

The gallery begins with Moses, pointing to the tablets of the law. But they got the math wrong. Even if you accept that each of the Roman numerals is upside down for some reason, what's up with following IX with IIX???

Next are Kings David and Solomon. I never really thought of them as "prophets" before (and indeed, the adversarial relationship between kings and prophets is a core part of the biblical narrative), but I guess they have a total of 4 biblical books attributed to them, so that has to count for something.

Elijah and Elisha are drawn anatomically correct: Elijah has plenty of hair on top, and Elisha is bald.

Jeremiah's scribe Baruch. (I didn't take a picture of Jeremiah himself, pointing an angry finger.)

Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, and Joel. (Below them, you can see the caption at the top of the painting of the "diabolos" tempting Lot.)

Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah.

The end: Zechariah and Malachi. Does anyone know why Habakkuk and Zechariah are depicted as looking much younger than the other prophets?

In summary, I recommend to everyone to go and check out the monastery. We expect to see really old stuff in the Old City, but it's not so common to see intact 11th-century structures in the heart of residential West Jerusalem. Also, the acoustics are amazing.

Monday, November 05, 2007

When is Purim?

More on East Jerusalem:

Even though I can come up with rationalizations for why areas inside the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem are different from the West Bank, one thing that the tour showed very clearly is that the line in real life is much more fuzzy. There's not a visible difference between the areas just inside and just outside the municipal boundaries, among both Jewish and Palestinian communities. (The wall is, of course, pretty darn visible in some places, but doesn't correspond to the municipal boundaries.) One point that kept getting driven home was that we'd be driving around remote hilltops (which happened to be inside the municipal boundaries) and the tour guide would say ironically "Look around you. Here it is, the city of David, the unified undivided capital forever and ever", etc.

I mean really. When people think of "dividing Jerusalem", I think they're thinking of putting a border crossing on King George St., and haven't seen what passes for "Jerusalem" out there.

So I still have a question.

Purim is observed on the 14th of Adar in most of the Jewish world, and on the 15th of Adar in cities that were walled at the time of Yehoshua bin Nun (when the Israelites entered the land). This latter category includes Jerusalem. However, it includes more than just the original walled city of Jerusalem (i.e. part of the current Old City, plus other areas south of it). The Talmud (Megillah 2b) says that it includes anything connected to the walled city, and everything seen as part of it. As I've noted before, in practice this means lots of Jerusalem neighborhoods that are nowhere near the Old City. So what is today's boundary of "Jerusalem" in regard to the day on which Purim is observed? Is it the municipal boundary, or something else?

On what day do they observe Purim in Gilo? Pisgat Ze'ev? Ein Kerem? (Did the answer to that question change when Ein Kerem was incorporated into Jerusalem? Or did that happen at the same time that the first Jews moved in?) Giv'at Ze'ev? Mevaseret Zion? Ma'aleh Adumim? (And will the answer to that last question change if things go according to plan and it becomes part of the city that is walled in the time of Yoel bin Nun?)

(I already know the answers for Malcha and, tragically, Gush Etzion.)

This question, on the surface, is about a trivial ritual detail, but really it's about Jerusalem identity.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

An American in East Jerusalem

Two Fridays ago, I went on the Ir Amim tour of "East" Jerusalem. ("East" is in scare quotes because some of the areas we visited, which are within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem but were under Jordanian control from 1948 to 1967, aren't "east" at all -- Gilo is southwest, and Pisgat Ze'ev is north.) There's a lot to say about it, but I'm not going to write a long post now. In the meantime, I highly recommend the tour to anyone who has the opportunity.

For the moment, I'm just going to comment on two areas in which my American bias gives me a different perspective on the issues. Not necessarily right or wrong, just different.


In American cities, the way that neighborhoods change their ethnic composition is not through wars or peace negotiations or top-down government decisions, but through a combination of individual decisions. Certainly there are root causes related to economics, urban planning, racism, etc., but the proximate cause is that lots of individuals of a particular ethnicity decide independently (as a result of all these root causes) to rent/buy in the neighborhood. This means, among other things, that there are (at the very least) transition periods when the neighborhood is ethnically heterogeneous.

I understand that Jerusalem is different for all sorts of reasons, but the degree of segregation (almost complete), and the fact that neighborhoods haven't flipped between Jewish and Arab in the last 40 years (except when new Jewish neighborhoods were built) still grates on my American intuition.

The discourse also seems weird. I've heard someone refer to a "settlement" in East Jerusalem that consisted of a few floors of an apartment building. Is it appropriate to refer to everywhere Jews live as a settlement? I have no doubt that in the case in question, or other cases such as the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva (which is smack in the Muslim Quarter, and has its own IDF security detail), the motivations are exactly the same as trailer parks on isolated hilltops in the heart of the West Bank - viz., to create "facts on the ground" (and, IMO, to destroy the possibility of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state). But are motivations what define a "settlement"? If I rent an apartment in East Jerusalem without political motivations, does my apartment instantly become a new settlement?

And what about the flip side? Why aren't there more Palestinians living in West Jerusalem? I know there are issues of who can go where based on what color their ID is, but what about Israeli Arabs (who have Israeli citizenship)? Are the obstacles only economic and social, or are they also legal? I don't know the laws about buying property, but there are plenty of apartments in West Jerusalem owned by people who aren't even Israeli citizens,
so it would seem that this can't be restricted to Jewish Israelis. And, of course, I'm renting an apartment in West Jerusalem (as are many non-Israelis), and I was never asked whether I was Jewish.

On Har Hatzofim, I'm reminded every day that I'm surrounded by East Jerusalem, as I hear the amplified call to Dhuhr coming from every direction. Where is the neighborhood mosque here in West Jerusalem? (We do have the Monastery of the Cross, which I visited today and I'll blog about later.) It must have existed at some point, since I'm just over the hill from Katamon, which was an Arab neighborhood before 1948. Was it turned into apartments after 1948?

I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing in the long run, since it will make an eventual two-state solution easier. But I'm just trying to understand how neighborhoods have remained so stable in Jerusalem, while I've watched them change rapidly in New York. What's the deal?

(The partial answer seems to be "In hachi nami." In response to a question, the Ir Amim tour guide said that 25% of the units in Pisgat Ze'ev were bought by Palestinians, which was perhaps not the original intent when it was built.)


On the Ir Amim tour, we learned that the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were offered Israeli citizenship in 1967 when East Jerusalem was annexed to Israel, and they turned it down in order not to confer legitimacy on the Israeli annexation. (I'm still not clear on who the "they" is -- it couldn't have been everyone spontaneously making the same individual decision, nor could it have been Jordan, who had been in charge until then. Who was the leadership speaking on behalf of East Jerusalem residents in 1967?) To this day, even though East Jerusalemites are not Israeli citizens (and thus cannot vote for Knesset), they can vote in Jerusalem municipal elections, but overwhelmingly don't, for the same reason.

Again, coming from America, where voting is a sacrament, I say: What's up with that?!

The haredim don't recognize the legitimacy of the state either, but that certainly doesn't stop them from voting in national and municipal elections and milking the state for all they can get. (And haredi men and women vote, even though women almost certainly wouldn't have suffrage if the haredim were completely in charge -- they're not going to unilaterally disarm and cut their Knesset representation in half.) And this seems like a pragmatic solution that East Jerusalem Palestinians should be pursuing in their own interests. As the tour bus took us from Gilo to Sur Baher to East Talpiot to Jebel Mukabar, we saw the contrast between the municipal services provided to Jewish neighborhoods, with sidewalks and streetlights, and to Arab neighborhoods, with garbage piling up on the side of the street. It would seem that having a representative on the City Council would be the first step toward getting the garbage picked up. In a better world, the Jerusalem municipality would provide services to all neighborhoods without prompting, but here in the real world of Yerushalayim shel matah, it shouldn't be left to Jewish Israeli lefties to advocate to East Jerusalem; East Jerusalem should be advocating for itself. As for national elections, if East Jerusalem Palestinians were to vote (if the offer of citizenship is even still available), the Arab parties' representation in Knesset would increase significantly, and they would become more important in coalition arithmetic.

So it seems to me that East Jerusalem residents should be voting in any elections they can, in order to pursue their interests through government channels, while protesting the state of Israel (if that's what they want to do) in other ways. Fight the war as if there is no White Paper, and all that.


The fact that residents of East Jerusalem were offered full Israeli citizenship is, to me, the difference between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Many would lump East Jerusalem in with the West Bank, because they were both captured by Israel in 1967. But I don't see anything inherently sacred about the 1948-67 border which separated Israeli territory from Jordanian territory. There was no independent Palestinian state either before or after 1967, and Jordan isn't claiming anything west of the Jordan River nowadays. Yes, the West Bank was supposed to be part of the Palestinian state under the original 1947 partition plan, but that state never really happened, and no one is contesting Israeli sovereignty over Abu Ghosh or the Upper Galilee (except insofar as they're contesting the State of Israel in general).

Therefore, the problem I see with the occupied territories is not that Israel conquered them in the 1967 war (after all, Israel conquered other territory in the 1948 war), but that the residents have been disenfranchised for 40 years. If the West Bank had been annexed in 1967 and all its residents had been granted full citizenship, then I would consider Israeli control of the West Bank much less morally problematic. Since annexing the territories would mean an impending end to a Jewish majority in Israel, it's time for Israel to separate itself from the territories and become a fully democratic state within its borders.


I feel like a right-winger when I say some of those things. All it took to convince me that I'm not really a right-winger was my reaction last week when I heard that an organization here in Jerusalem was hosting a speaker from the Yesha Council (which should really be called "Yesh" these days) as part of an event commemorating Yitzchak Rabin's yahrtzeit. You know, for "balance". I don't know which was louder -- me hitting the roof, or Rabin spinning in his grave.