Sunday, May 31, 2009

Shavuot in a dying congregation

On the plus side, at least the person in charge decided that, since shopping for the Shavuot kiddush was being done in a Jewish neighborhood anyway, the cheesecakes would be purchased from a kosher bakery (under reliable rabbinical supervision). So we were able to serve cheesecake to some visitors from one of the local Orthodox synagogues without qualms.

On the minus side, we got all of five congregants for Maariv/Evening Service on the first night of Shavuot.


Thousands of people showed up at the JCC in Manhattan for Shavuot programs (both religious and not). We couldn't even get a minyan for our Tikkun Lel Shavuat study sesssion, even with our Orthodox guests.

And we're burying another congregant on Monday. That'll be the fifth congregant we've buried since December.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Birkot HaShachar: Why the negative approach?

The Birkot HaShachar, Morning Blessings, are rather infamous among feminists for the blessing recited by a man thanking HaShem for not having made him a woman and for the blessing recited by a woman thanking HaShem for having made her in accordance with HaShem's will. But that's not the only problem with those brachot/blessings. What about the ones thanking HaShem for not making one a non-Jew or a slave?

The Conservative siddur (prayer book) takes a more positive approach, with a person thanking HaShem for making her/him a Jew, a free person, and "in His image." Other siddurim and/or individuals substitute " . . . who has made me a woman" or "who has made me a man."

Why the negative approach in the traditional version of the Birkot HaShachar? Surely no individual can be held responsible for the way he/she was born. Yet the wording of these brachot edges uncomfortably close to casting aspersions, and I don't appreciate the traditional wording one bit. Apologetics miss the point--yes, a Jew, a free person, and a male have more opportunities and/or obligations to perform mitzvot/commandments, according to a more traditional approach to halachah/Jewish religious law, and the performance of mitzvot is considered a privilege for which to express gratitude, but one could make the same point in the positive.

This evening, we'll be ushering in the festival of Shavuot, on which we read Megillat Rut/the Book of Ruth, the story of a Jew by Choice. We might wish to give some thought to what we say about non-Jews.

Will the last person to leave . . .

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

New to me:The two-table potluck system for kashrut

Thanks to BZ, of Mah Rabu, for this post linking me to this old post of his explanating the two-table potluck system.

I wish I'd known about this system when I wrote this post re kashrut in a synagogue. Though it's not a solution for many of those who are more observant than I, the two-table potluck system would work for me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

May showers bring May flowers

I know that the saying is really "April showers bring May flowers," . . .

. . . but it's been such a rainy month.

Shira's shots, Sunday, May 24, 2009

No rest for the weary :(

See here.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Preparing for the inevitable

After a long day of overtime at the office, I came home to a message from my sister on the answering machine: Our mother, who broke her hip the day after Pesach, underwent surgery, and had been in a rehabilitation center, was back in the hospital due to a lung infection. The next morning, my Israeli brother called from the hospital, just before returning to my mother's bedside. (My brother made aliyah over 30 years ago, my parents, over 20.) He didn't want any of us siblings to be unpleasantly surprised by anything that might happen, saying that, though my mother was improving, "If it isn't this hospitalization, it'll be the next one." So I called my sister, then my brother in California, with the news.

Since our mother has been caring for our father, whose mental abilities have been diminishing for years, I think all of us siblings had hoped that Mom would outlive Dad, just so she'd have a few more years to enjoy herself. Alas, it appears highly unlikely. As for Dad, when I asked my brother whether he'd explained what was going on with Mom, he said that he hadn't even told Dad that his sister had died, because he didn't see the point. I can understand that. Why get Dad upset when he's just going to forget in 20 minutes anyway?

A friend of mine from synagogue is having similar sad times. As the youngest sibling, she's been the caretaker for her brother for years, visiting him in the nursing home for the better part of a day almost every week. But now, her sister and brother-in-law are also ill. She's preparing for the worst on multiple fronts.

I've already told most of the morning "minyan" regulars that I won't be leading services on Mondays and Thursdays after my mother dies, since I'll need a minyan to say Kaddish Yatom/Mourner's Kaddish, and we haven't had a minyan on a Monday or Thursday morning--despite counting women for a minyan--in over a year.

I've also found an egalitarian Conservative synagogue that holds Shacharit/Morning services every day and is, well, within hailing range by public transit. I thought of davvening (praying) at one of the local Orthodox synagogues, but, even assuming that they allow women to say Kaddish--not all Orthodox Jews believe that it's permissible--I'm not willing to give up wearing a tallit and tefillin for the eleven months of Kaddish. I haven't quite decided whether I'm going to try to pray with to a minyan for all three daily services, but I think I should pray with a minyan at least once every day to say Kaddish.

After serious consideration, I decided not to go to Israel for the funeral, whenever it comes, because most of the people paying Shiva (roughly, condolence) calls on my brother will be strangers, and I don't speak Hebrew well enough to have a meaningful conversation in it.

I'll probably go back to folk dancing after Shloshim (the first 30 days of mourning following burial), since it's really the only form of exercise that I get anymore. I haven't decided whether I'm really willing to give up listening to music for a year, either.

The decision-making and preparation are the easy part.

It's thinking of a future without my mother that's hard. That it happens to all of us, sooner or later, isn't much consolation.

I'm going to miss talking to Mom on the phone every weekend.

Chazakah, & other challenges to being welcoming

Recently, I received a request to reprint some old posts of mine on the Jewish Writing Project blog. I gave permission to reprint "Responsibilities without rights," an eye-rolling rant about the irony of my local Conservative synagogue giving women the right to lein Torah (chant a reading from the Bible scroll) when we're not allowed to have aliyot. But I wasn't so sure about giving permission to reprint "My life as a misfit," because I think (or, at least, I hope) that I understand the concept of "chazakah" better now than when I wrote that post.

"Chazakah" seems to refer not only to clergy, which is what I thought when I wrote that post, but to laypeople, as well. It seems to indicate a matter of precedent, or "first dibs." So, for example, a person who's been chanting a certain haftarah in memory of his father for the last 10 years might be said to have a chazakah for that haftarah.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I had the opportunity to learn the trope/cantillation for the chanting of a haftarah--I'd learned my Bat Mitzah haftarah from a record (remember those?)--and was assigned the honor of chanting Haftarat Vaetchanan. I practiced for several months. So when the Cantor Emeritus appeared on the morning of Shabbat Vaetchanan, he was quite upset to learn that he would not be chanting that haftarah, which he'd been chanting for many years. After all the effort that I'd made to learn that haftarah, I did not cede the privilege. But I never chanted that haftarah again, for as long as he was alive. I probably never heard the word "chazakah" until at least 20 years later, but, in retrospect, I realize that Haftarat Vaetchanan was the late Chazzan's chazakah.

Then there's the yahrzeit problem, namely, that the precedent for a person who has a yahrzeit (anniversary of a close relative's death) to get an aliyah seems to outweigh all other considerations. In fact, I actually witnessed a Bar Mitzvah celebration at which the Bar Mitzvah boy's father didn't get an aliyah because there were so many people observing yahrzeit. Okay, maybe the father didn't want an aliyah, and, certainly, the tradition of honoring the deceased goes back a lot farther than the relatively-new Bar Mitzvah celebration (see the comments here). But still . . .

To top it off, people even have to be careful about where they sit. I've recently learned that having someone come up to you in synagogue and say "you're sitting in my seat" is not just an annoyance, but actually has halachic implications--the notion of a fixed place for prayer comes straight from rabbinical interpretation of a verse from Torah, and carries the official-sounding name makom kavuah. Who knew?

So a person A) can't sit where s/he wants because it's someone else's makom kavuah, B) can't get an aliyah because there are so people observing yahrzeit--I'm assuming that there's a limit to how many "extra" aliyot (acharon, hosafah, or whatever they're called) are permissible, even on a day when "acharons" are permissible--and C) can't chant a haftarah because it's someone else's chazakah. Personally, if it were me, I'd turn around and walk out, and go davven (pray) at home.

Why should I bust my chops learning a new haftarah if someone who's maintained membership in my synagogue for the sole purpose of being notified of a parent's yahrzeit can waltz in one Shabbos for the first time since the High Holidays and get the privilege of chanting the haftarah automatically because s/he has a chazzakah on that haftarah and someone didn't know or forgot to tell me?

In all seriousness, how do we make people feel welcome in synagogue, and how do we encourage them to participate actively in synagogue worship and learn new aspects thereof, if so much is pre-determined by law and precedent?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dinosaurs found in Milwaukee! Or not. :)

Terrorist attacks against 2 NYC synagogues foiled

See here.

Not only were the Riverdale Temple (Reform) and the Riverdale Jewish Center (Orthodox)--both in the Borough of the Bronx, New York City--targeted, but the would-be terrorists "planned to shoot Stinger surface-to-air guided missiles at planes at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh, about 70 miles north of New York City."

I guess if I were Israeli, this would be a classic case of "what else is new?," but, as an American, I'm freaking out. This is way too close for comfort, geographically, and far too reminiscent of the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center, Pentagon, and thwarted third attacks not to leave me thoroughly unnerved.

The police keep warning us that our synagogue--and every other synagogue in New York City--is a target. They're not kidding, unfortunately.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A couple of Mazal Tovs

  • To MoChassid and family, on the adoption of "the Vance"--here's the story in the Jewish Star, complete with photos.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Orthodox & Non-Orthodox Judaism: A series

Seeking a Judaism that's good for men*&*women*&*kids

Sigmund Freud claimed that "anatomy is destiny." In my opinion, that's at least part of the basis of the debate between egalitarian and traditional practice. By way of illustration, I'm borrowing some quotes from the comments to this post of mine:
Too Old to Jewschool Steve said...
. . . what would I say to my magnificent, accomplished, learned and learning daughters, that they shouldn't be seen on a bima, leading a service, leyning or reading a haftarah, as they are fully capable of doing? . . .
<!--[if !vml]-->Anonymous<!--[endif]--> Miami Al said...

. . . it is impossible to be Shomer Shabbat, have very small children, and participate in communal prayer. If your expectation of family size is 3-5 children, which is necessary for growth, it is impossible to include women without them losing a large chunk of their 20s and 30s... The net effect is that egalitarianism renders childbirth and nursing small children an impediment to expressive Judaism, while Orthodoxy culturally makes that the primary expression. As a result, Orthodox culture encourages having children, egalitarian culture discourages it.
Judaism that doesn't encourage child birth will suffer a longevity issue. . . .
It's true that, among my non-Orthodox synagogue-going friends and acquaintances, a number have only one child, almost none has more than two children, and I can't think of anyone who has more than three.
On the other hand, as Anonymous Fri May 15, 04:37:00 PM 2009 says in the comments to this post:
"There has to be a place for observant egals. "
As in that old Jewish joke, Steve's right, Miami Al's right, and Anon. is right, too. How can the Jewish people, in the words of Miami Al, "A) retain men in your community, and B) still encourage motherhood and population growth" C) keep Judaism a joy for children, and D) enable full participation by women in public prayer? Constructive suggestions would be appreciated.

Since Miami Al's argument is that it's not possible for a woman to participate in public prayer while raising young children, I'm especially interested in hearing from Orthodox feminists who are parents. Mothers, how have you managed to combine attendance at a Women's Tefillah Group or Partnership Minyan, or even regular attendance at a standard minyan, and/or three-times-daily prayer services bi-y'chidut (as an individual) but at the rabbinically-ordained times, with raising a family? Fathers, how have you managed to participate in the childcare in such a way as to enable your wife to pray with a WTG or minyan and/or three times a day at the ordained times, while continuing to fulfill your own obligation to pray with a minyan and/or three times a day at the ordained times ?

The floor is open.

Getting the gender balance right

(Miami) Al commented here:

"I reiterate my object to Heterodox Judaism, it's pushed the men out. Combined with the overly simple understanding that if the woman is Jewish, the children are, the husband/father and his role in Judaism has been marginalized by egalitarian Judaism . . . "
  1. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  2. If you agree, how do we can encourage women to participate without discouraging the men?
It seems to me that I recently read that the Reform Movement has begun sponsoring men-only gatherings (weekend retreats?) to try to counteract the trend of reduced participation by men. I've also noticed that, at the egalitarian Conservative minyanim that I sometimes attend in Manhattan, there's occasionally a service in which most of the leaders and readers are women. It is, indeed, a problem if the increased participation of women is leading to decreased participation by men.

I don't wish to be negative or to paint a glum picture. I'm just stating a possible challenge, and seeking constructive suggestions.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A real trip

Why are the straps of the shel rosh (head tefillah? head tefillin?) so long that I trip on them when I stand up? My husband tells me that his are just as bad. Do the tefillin strap makers think that we're all six feet tall?

"Mommy, am I adopted now?"

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Future of Conservative Judaism: Does it have one?

In case you haven't noticed, my commenters have been giving me much food for thought, lately. Miami Al, a baal t'shuvah/"returnee" to Orthodox Jewish, make the following comment to this post:

Miami Al said...

Shira . . .You also wrote, "Al, you have no kind words for Conservative Judaism."

Neither do you. :) It's been a failure. . . .

A few weeks ago, the Jerusalem Post ran an article on Conservative Judaism as a Three Generation Movement, which I found interesting... the BT ranks are heavily populated with Conservative Jews, so the weigh-station may have worked until Orthodoxy was able to figure out a non-failing model, but Conservative lost theirs.

The Conservative movement doesn't have room for observant families as your son's experiences show... it falls into the same trap Reform did... focusing too much on the adults."

Re the lack of room for observant families, this sort of attitude doesn't help the Conservative Movement.

On the other hand, Conservative Rabbi Lerner thinks that this is not the time to say Kaddish for Conservative Judaism. What do you think?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Fire strikes Chisuk Emuna, Harrisburg, PA

This video shows the damage. To donate, and to read about the congregation's plans to rebuild, see their blog.

"Women & group prayer" discussion continues

Catch up with the new comments here.

Al & Larry explain Conservative Jewish practice

[From the comments to my Conflicts of principle, on a regular basis post.]

A non-ideological explanation for the adoption of egalitarian practice, that is, the inclusion of women in a minyan, and “permission" for women to receive aliyot and lead services, etc.

Larry Lennhoff said... [referring to Al’s response to yours truly]
Right, so we're back to reducing the obligations of men to increase them for women. We've seen the results of this,I think that historically, in the C movement, you have the causality reversed. In the C community I grew up in the late 60s and early 70s almost no one went to weekday minyan. So the wives in the community saw that their husbands got certain privileges without seeing them bear any extra obligations. Once the requirement of thrice daily prayer was thrown off by the men, they were de facto on the same level of obligation as the women. At that point the argument for gender equality with respect to prayer was effectively unaswerable.

In the O community I live in today, many women consciously accept that in exchange for not leading the services, layning the torah reading, etc. they don't have to get up at 6AM Monday morning to go to shul for minyan and then come back and help their spouses get the kids ready for school before leaving for work themselves. Differences in privileges are balanced by differences in obligation.

That isn't to say the O model is necessarily fair - as is common in O, your set of paired responsibilities and privileges are assigned to you rather than being something you can choose. But it certainly explains why the original C implementation of unequal privilege and equal effective obligation was doomed to change somehow.
Wed May 06, 09:27:00 AM 2009

This is a related thought not found in that comment thread:

I first began wearing a tallit around my 24th birthday because I was attending an egalitarian synagogue at the time and felt that, since I had equal rights, I should have equal obligations. The irony is that it would be roughly another decade before a Jewish-Theological-Seminary-ordained Conservative rabbi of mine told me that, while he had no objection to me wearing a tallit, he thought that I should wear it every day. The idea of an obligation to pray three times a day was so far down on the list of things that Conservative Jews are expected do that several previous JTS-ordained Conservative rabbis of mine hadn't even thought to mention it to me.

A possible explanation of why the Conservative synagogue became a social center, especially on Shabbat/Sabbath and Chagim/holidays

Al said...
. . .Larry wrote, "Once the requirement of thrice daily prayer was thrown off by the men, they were de facto on the same level of obligation as the women. At that point the argument for gender equality with respect to prayer was effectively unaswerable."

I'll go a step further, once the requirement of thrice daily prayer was thrown off, the synagogue became a place to go on Shabbat, when people weren't rushing to get to work. Once that happened, the service stretched in length, and became a social outlet, and halachic obligations of prayer became theoretical, not practical.
Wed May 06, 01:34:00 PM 2009

Larry Lennhoff said...
I'll go a step further, once the requirement of thrice daily prayer was thrown off, the synagogue became a place to go on Shabbat, when people weren't rushing to get to work. Once that happened, the service stretched in length, and became a social outlet, Different rant, but pretty much correct. In particular, in my experience the C shabbat service/kiddish is so long because once it is over so, generally, is Shabbat. So all the things that in O get spread out over the whole day (prayer, torah reading, torah study, singing, eating, and socializing) have to be compressed into the service and the kiddush.
Wed May 06, 02:24:00 PM 2009

. . .

Shira Salamone said...

. . .

Al and Larry, not only have you just described my experience as a lifelong Conservative Jew, you've also explained why some Conservative woman get so upset about feeling excluded--to put a feminine spin on an old joke, we're in synagogue not only to talk to G-d, but also to talk to Malka. (In the traditional version that I've heard, some men go to shul to talk to G-d, others go to talk to Moish.) When my son was very young, many folks asked why I didn't stay home, since I spent most of my time out in the lobby with the boychik anyway, and my answer was that I didn't want to miss the kiddush. Synagogue is often a major social scene for non-Orthodox Jews, because many of us don't seem to have maintained the tradition of hachnasat orim [orchim], inviting guests. My parents, both employed outside the home, rarely invited guests except on Rosh HaShanah, Chanukah, and Pesach. I've found the same to be true now of most of my friends (and myself). All of the socializing that the frummies do over Shabbat dinner and lunch, we do at a Friday night Oneg Shabbat after the 8 PM service, or at kiddush after Saturday moroning [ :) er, morning] services.
Thu May 07, 12:03:00 AM 2009

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Mother's Day bouquet

Shira's Shots, Mother's Day, Sunday, May 10, 2009

Friday, May 08, 2009

A photo for Friday: Azaleas after rain

Shira's Shot, Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Tough day ahead :)

You know you're in trouble when you fall asleep on the subway, wake up, wonder why you're not closer to your home station yet, fall asleep again, wake up several stops later, and, seeing that you're headed in the "wrong" direction, remember that you're on the way to work, not from it!

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Pun fun

AddeRabbi and his commenters have a couple of nice puns and a joke or two here. I should warn you that the puns are my favorite kind--bilingual (quoth the BA in French)--and are comprehensible only to those who speak at least a bit of Hebrew.

Form vs. focus (keva vs. kavvanah?)

Seen on page 404 of the Artscroll Siddur Kol Yaakov (Ashkenaz) prayer book: "Stand while reciting 'Yishtabach/May Your Name be praised' . . . The fifteen expressions of praise--'shir u-sh'vachah . . . b'rachot v'hodaot/song and praise-blessings and thanksgivings'--should be recited without pause, preferably in one breath."

What do the editors think this is, another round of the Ten Sons of Haman?* How can a person have any kavvanah (roughly, focus on prayer) when s/he is more concerned about reciting words in one breath than about focusing on what the words mean? I'm not a rabbi (or a maharat), nor do I play one on TV, but, in my opinion, this may be what some describe as a "minhag shtiut (?)" (foolish custom).

*It's traditional for the reader to recite the names of the ten sons of the villain Haman from the Book of Esther in one breath when reading Megillat Esther for the congregation on Purim, a holiday so joyous that it's one of the rare days on the Jewish calendar when the rabbis actually say that one is supposed to get a bit drunk (a practice that I and many other don't follow), and this super-speed reading is probably a reflection of that attitude.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Tulip time

Shira's Shot, Wed., April 29, 2009

Seasonal shots (of the photographic variety)

If you want to see the work of a blogger who really knows how to use a camera, I recommend Brooklyn Wolf's photos. I just fiddle around with a camera a bit so that I can enjoy seeing and sharing my own photos on my blog.

In the past week or so, though, I've learned something that should have been obvious. I saw some gorgeous blossoming trees in Riverside Park a bit over a week ago, but I didn't have my camera with me. By the time I got back there, most of the petals had already fallen from the trees. Even the tulips that I photographed just last Wednesday looked decidely past their prime yesterday. I've learned the hard way that a good spring view must be photographed within two days, or it may be gone 'til the following spring.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Kedoshim: A reflection of its era

Notice that, in Leviticus, chapter 20, verses 10-21, almost every verse except for verse 16 begins with the word "v'ish, and a man . . . " Judging by this, my own personal impression is that women, while held accountable for participating in forbidden sex acts, may not have had much opportunity to initiate sex acts, or, at least, that appears to be the assumption of the Writer/writer(s).

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Our son made the grade!

I'm happy to say that, after two grueling years of graduate school, our son has been declared qualified to be a candidate for a Ph.D. in physics. Now, all he has to do is round up a professor and committee to supervise and review his dissertation--no, he hasn't picked a topic yet--complete the Ph.D.-candidacy admission paperwork, and survive roughly another three-four more grueling years of graduate school, full-time, while working part-time for a ridiculously low salary at whatever position the school assigns to him in exchange for free tuition. (Thus far, he's been a teaching assistant and a lab assistant.) This is why he was calling his parents on a Saturday night--who has time for a social life while they're in grad school? His entertainment for last night consisted of talking to us while "writing" his website. "Um, 'writing' as in 'programming?' Yep.

I'm keeping this post on top 'til Monday afternoon. It was originally posted 5/3/09, 1:37 PM.
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