Thursday, April 16, 2009

Matzah Ball

--By the Tar Heeb

I am not a baseball fan.

I would go even further and say that I am a baseball hater. Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, I had two sports passions: the Charlotte Hornets and the Carolina Panthers. Both basketball and football are more exciting than baseball (possibly objectively and definitely subjectively), thus cementing my allegiance to the sports. I also played both, in JCC leagues for basketball and middle school for football.

Little League, the so-called quintessential American experience, eluded me as it does for many Jewish boys due to the overwhelming priority that my parents put in Hebrew School. The lack of baseball viewing and playing opportunities while growing up a Jewish kid in Charlotte resulted in my apathy and subsequent hatred of the game, which is pretty easy to do considering the snail's pace at which it is played. So it was much to my surprise when the worlds of Judaism and baseball collided for me on Monday night and of holiday: Passover.

My office had decided a few weeks ago to buy tickets to the Washington Nationals' home opener and when our secretary asked if I wanted to go, the only allowable response was “yes,” since it was an afternoon game. I didn’t give the game a second thought until I was packing to go home for Seder and realized the game would smack dab in the middle of Passover. I couldn’t think of a worse combination.

I had come to terms with the fact that I had to spend three hours watching baseball and conjuring up topics for conversation with my co-workers, but now without partking in two of my top three pastimes: 1) drinking beer, 2) eating food and 3) belligerently quoting baseball movies (for someone who hates baseball, I sure do love baseball movies). No. 3 on my list was still a possibility, but without the guise of being at least mildly drunk, I’d just look like a crazy person.

In the end, I just sucked it up. I chatted with my co-workers, pretending not to be ridiculously jealous of the tons of beer and food they were expensing to the company. I made SEVERAL laps around the entire stadium and even contemplated building a bear (yes, they have Build-A-Bear station at the Nationals Ballpark). And ultimately I realized that the kind of suffering I had to endure by going to a baseball game on Passover is exactly in the spirit of the holiday.

I just had to remember that no matter how rooted my hatred of baseball is, it is nothing like the Exodus from Egypt.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

From Slaves to Seder to Stories

--By Hannah

I really love Passover. The Seder has always been one of my favorite family gathering times -- I think I like it so much because it’s kind of stuck in time. If you think about it, a seder is like a living fossil, a bunch of traditions, practices, and readings that preserve this central kernel of memory. We add to the memory over time with new traditions (hey, my family puts an orange on our seder plate) and new memories from our own historical contexts. The point of the whole thing is that we’re supposed to pretend -- no, we’re supposed to actually remember, like it happened to us -- that we were slaves in Egypt.

The Haggadah is pretty damn assertive about this. We read, “this year we are slaves. Next year may we be free.” Even though I’ve been to 46 seders over the course of my lifetime, and have led seders for exactly six years running, I still have kind of a hard time wrapping my head around the whole thing. How, exactly, am I supposed to remember leaving Egypt -- an event which happened approximately 3,287 years before I was born? What, really, does that mean?

I hope you don’t mind, but I’m not going to talk about Torah even a little bit today. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the texts that comprise the seder are deeply rooted in rabbinic literature and Torah. What I will do, however, is tell you a story that I learned at a seder, a story about remembering:

When the founder of modern Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, saw danger threatening the Jews, he used to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. He would light a special fire, say a certain prayer, and the danger would be averted. Later, when his disciple was worried about the fate of the Jews, he would go into the exact same place in the forest and say, “God! Listen! I don’t know how to light the fire of the Baal Shem Tov, but I know the right place and I know how to say the right prayer.”

When the disciple of the disciple desperately needed to save the Jewish people, he would go into the forest and say, “I can’t light the fire. I don’t even know the prayer. I do know the place, though.”

Eventually, it came time for the disciple of the disciple of the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov to intercede to help the Jewish people in times of trouble. Sitting in his house, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I can’t light the fire. I don’t know the prayer. I can’t even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this has to be enough.” And it was sufficient.

This is pretty much exactly how I feel about Passover. So much time and history has passed since the Israelites made their exodus from Egypt. Heck, I’ve never even been to Egypt. So much about the lives of the Israelites is just completely unimaginable to me. I don’t know what it’s like to be a slave, I don’t know what it’s like to pray to God for alleviation from an oppressor, and I certainly don’t know what it’s like to make a paschal sacrifice.

But I do know the story. I know the story of the Exodus; I know the story of the Haggadah; I know the story told by my family during the seder, going back hundreds of years. So, even though I don’t know the fire, the prayer, or the place, I can still remember the story and relive the history of my family, my community, and my people. And this, I think, is more than sufficient.

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Dressing in Shades of Grey (Tzav)

--By Chanel

For a while, I didn’t wear pants. I don’t mean in the manner of Lindsay Lohan (leggings do not count as pants), but that I only wore skirts, in an attempt to take on greater religious observance. This lasted for about two years, before -- after careful examination -- I decided I was really better off in jeans. It’s taken me about that long to achieve an equilibrium of pants and skirts again.

Parsha Tzav is laden with this business about what it is to act on behalf of a community (as Aaron does), and how private observance affects everyone (the Israelites’ offerings). As a Jewish professional, I believe it’s not only important, but also vital to bring my authentic self to my work. I want my students to see the complexities of what being Jewish can mean, so I’m pretty loud about my multiple identities: feminist, Zionist, child raised by a single mother, etc. In the last few years working for Hillel, I’ve come to think of my Jewish identity as being public property. People are curious about how I behave Jewishly, and why.

You’d be surprised how many folks noticed my return to pants, even in the small, lefty Jewish community in which I worked at the time. Two years is a long time to commit to something -- how could I just reneg on tzniut (modesty)? It was hard to explain that skirts were an experiment in something larger: becoming more observant, and that the experiment had failed.

It didn’t lead to anything; aside from the skirts, I wasn’t keeping more mitzvot. I was just a girl in skirts, which led people to form whole new sets of assumptions about my identity. The prospect of deconstructing them exhausted me. In retrospect, I realize I wasn’t confident enough to not care.

Throughout Tzav is the work of sacrifice: how it must be done, how it can be eaten, how it becomes holy. Admittedly, it’s hard for me to connect spiritually to this. It’s Hebrew that’s difficult, with exhaustive descriptions and a certain level of monotony. What I can reach for, and relate to, is what it is to make sacrifices in my own life, and to recognize the sacrifices of others, large or small. To a degree, choosing to be a professional Jew means forsaking a private Jewish existence. My Jewish behavior will be under scrutiny by others, and as a result, my own.

This realization comes with a weird kind of relief: along with encouraging my students to develop Jewish confidence, I have to do the same. It’s imperative. I have to be as reflective as I ask them to be, I have to push myself as hard as I push them to look at the grey parts, the unsettling moments, both Jewishly and in the world at large.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

For Who Knows How My Love Grows? And Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (Vayikra)

--By TruBluJu

When I was first asked to post a little wisdom for The Watering Hole this week, I responded without hesitation. “Of course,” I said. I was around when this little idea was first hatched on the third floor of our fraternity house, but I had yet to take advantage and post my thoughts. This was finally my chance. Then, much like what happens to all of us, my week began and time quickly slipped away. Unfortunately, this seems to happen to me a lot lately.

What does this have to do with the week’s parsha? To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure. All I know is that after reading for the first few lines of Vayikra, I was sparked with an idea and now you’re going to have to bear with me as I hash this out:

According to my Google search, Vayikra outlines the rules for ritual sacrifice. Apparently, Hashem spoke only to Moses and bestowed upon him the ritual sacrifice rule book. This is one of those portions that always escape me. Why do we bother to study the right and wrong way to sacrifice an animal to G-d? I’m pretty sure this is a dated practice. The only animal sacrifices we care about are the ones that will bring a delicious steak to our plate with a side of sautéed mushroom, garlic mashed potatoes, and a frosty beer.

As I started reading through the first couple lines of the parsha, dreaming about steak, I began to think of the word "sacrifice" in a different context. Just because none of us partake in ritual animal offerings anymore does not mean we are foreign to the idea of sacrifice. As young professionals with dozens of priorities, wants, and needs, we come face to face with the notion of sacrifice each and every day. The concept of sacrifice is giving something up for your well-being or the benefit of others. For some of us, it might be as simple as buying the Harris Teeter brand yogurt instead of Yoplait in order to stay within our monthly budget. For others, it might be a bit more difficult. But at the end of the day, there is one sacrifice I think we all make: time.

Remember when we were in college and would always complain about how little time we had in the day? “If only I had a few more hours in the day, I wouldn’t feel so rushed,” we said. Oh, how little we knew back then. I am not sure about you, but I would much rather have my college schedule than my current schedule. If I had only spent a less time playing basketball, watching my housemates play video games, going out on weeknights and stalking Carolina Basketball players around campus, then there would have been more than enough hours to complete my studies, extracurriculars, and the endless pursuit of, umm ... the perfect pair of pants. Since graduating college almost four years ago, I find things are no longer that simple.

Today there are not enough hours in the day for me, a busy young professional. Between work, friends, significant others, family, errands, the gym, volunteering, synagogue, etc., I feel constant pressure to sacrifice one or more in lieu of something else. It puts a lot of stress on me. I want to make everyone happy and be everywhere at once, but we all know that is impossible. Lately, I’ve felt like if I choose one thing over another, I will be letting a group of friends or colleagues down.
  • Do I go out with the guys for the first time in a month or spend my only free weekend night making dinner for my girlfriend?
  • Do I volunteer at a Habitat for Humanity site on Saturday afternoons or join a flag football team with my friends?
  • Do I go to the gym in the morning or head into work a little bit earlier to finish up a grant proposal?
If those are the most difficult choices I have to make in a day, then life could definitely be worse. But still, decisions like these are things that constantly weigh on us. We are left wondering, "How do we accomplish everything we want to and give everyone in our life equal time?"

The only answer I can give is, just like Moses, we must prioritize our sacrifices and time. Figure out the most important things to you and make those top priorities. Don’t worry about the small stuff. If you have to sacrifice the time for one of them, you can always fit it in next week. Just make sure you make enough time for your friends, loved ones, and whatever else makes you happy. Everything else will work itself out. I promise. And if I’m wrong, we’ll go to your local kosher butcher, ask the owner to sacrifice a very special cow, and I’ll treat you to a delicious steak.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Third Time's a Charm

--By Elana

So as I was reading about the purpose of this blog, one question popped out at me: "How is this 2,000-year-old document relevant to our lives today?"

I’m not going to speak directly about how this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, relates to our lives today; I’m going to let my dad do that. I’m going to be a little selfish and speak to how it is indirectly relevant to my life, and in the process, hopefully impart a little nugget of wisdom.

I have always been a planner: a regular Type-A personality. It’s not until recently that I’ve learned the valuable lesson of recognizing that happy coincidences are usually opportunities waiting to be to be seized. About 15 years ago, my father gave a d’var on this very Torah portion. In it, he states that our family had just found out that I would be giving the d’var for the same portion on my bat mitzvah. When I was asked to write on this blog for this portion, well -- third time's a charm.

Something about this portion has always made me think of my grandfathers, both of whom have passed away and I greatly admired, as my father mentioned in his d’var. The portion seems to speak to me (and follow me!), so I suspect that this isn’t my final encounter with Vayakhel. Without further ado, recounted here is my father’s take on the Torah portion:

The parshah this week, Vayakhel, appears to be a very dry, very long cataloguing of every detail of construction of the tabernacle in the desert under the guidance of Bezalel, whom God has especially endowed with the necessary wisdom and artistic skills. During a simple reading of this type of parshah, one can easily succumb to what I call the "glaze factor." But I believe a thoughtful consideration of the context can yield some interesting possibilities.

I suspect each of us finds, as the years pass and we experience repeated cycles of readings, different parshiot become prominent for us on an individual basis -- either because we come to associate them with our own specific experiences or because they strike some particular chord of revelation and recognition.

Part of Chapter 35, Verse 31 was chosen for my father's headstone just several years ago: "And He hath filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge ..." We have learned just recently this parshah will be read the week of our daughter Elana's bat mitzvah, with its rich potential for appropriate associations with keeping the Sabbath, building a proper religious environment, and participating in communal growth. And last week, Helen's father, Israel Schrager, passed away. Izzy was a skilled Old-World tinsmith whose history is one of loss and survival through the Holocaust, of building a new life and family in a new land, and rebuilding and persevering through new adversities.

I am sure you can understand why I find this parshah has such particular resonance for myself.

This parshah and the next, Pekudei, conclude the Book of Exodus. Inherent in them are two great themes of passage: a change in the character of the events described, and a change of protagonists in the progress of the Jewish people as a nation and in its relation to God.

I find fascinating the many facets of understanding to be derived from apparently simple descriptive narratives, either directly from the text or by inference when contrasted to other chapters. This and next week's parshiot are, in their basic content, a virtual mirror of two earlier parshiot (beginning at Chapter 25 as a cataloguing of construction details for the sanctuary), but there are important differences in both context and perspective.

In the earlier narrative, God commands Moses in detail how to build the Sanctuary, then describing in detail how Aaron and his sons, who are individually named, will be prepared, supported and catered to, and also how they are to minister as high priests.

But after this giving of instruction, the people rebelled. The incident with the golden calf and Aaron's failure to stop it followed, and Moses interceded to save the people from God's anger.

Then, in this week's parshah, the people show by their heartfelt generosity and participation that they truly deserve the renewed covenant.

From the beginning, the Book of Exodus has described one conflict, one supplication for help, one challenge after another to God. Moses' dialogues with God, the hostility of the Israelite leaders after Moses' return to Egypt, the continuous doubts of deliverance, and resistance to Moses's leadership at the Red Sea and in the desert are examples.

But now, the Jewish people, as a community, have themselves created a positive tribute to the God of their deliverance, the God that made them a nation dedicated to Him at Sinai.

The Torah is very candid about the human foibles and frailties of even the most important personalities: From Adam and Eve, to each of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, to the shortcomings of Moses, and to Aaron's failing -- leaders' transgressions have been chronicled along with their triumphs. This is to remind us not only of their humanity, but that none are to be idolized when there is only one God to be worshipped.

Yet here at the close of the Book of Exodus, Moses and Aaron are only occassionally mentioned, seemingly as reference points, as mere conduits for messages to the people. The figures of Bezalel and Oholiab are named, as previously, only in connection with building the Mishkan; but they are barely characterized as possessing the artistic skills and wisdom needed to build, and to teach the people to build, a worthy Tabernacle.

Bezalel and Oholiab, along with "every wise-hearted man, even every man whose heart stirred him ... to the work," and the over-generous donations of the people, built the sanctuary -- not just with artful skill, but with "wisdom of heart," with love, and with compassion, as a worthy testament to the covenant with God. Through the last 85 verses, the text names Bezalel only once -- the sanctuary is the creation and the construction of "every wise-hearted man."

Instead of decrying the tragic failings of glorified leaders, this parshah is a celebration of the special potential of every individual.

Finally, let us remember that the tabernacle was built as a portable house of worship, as the Jewish people continued their journey of learning and growth. Where it stood was not important. What it stood for was all important.

May our community continue to be one where each of us can express our love for God with a "wisdom of heart."

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

It's so pretty and golden! I can see my reflection in it!

By Dr. Dreidel

When I was little I loved my big wheel and I rode. I even tried in my house but my mom wouldn’t go for that. One brave morning I decided to ride to the end of the block and back. As I passed the driveway of the last house I looked up and saw my neighbor’s car backing down right at me. I froze.

Somehow, my neighbor saw me. Hit the breaks and got out to make sure I was ok.

I never have told anyone that story. It was just a small thing that happened along the way, but what if that car hit me. No more Phil. No more I90Shpeil, no more professional Jewish Leadership.

The world works in mysterious ways. Look at Queen Esther. Faced with the destruction of her people she hesitated. What could she do? If she said something the king might have her killed. But Mordechai answered her. “You’ll die? So what!?” She had to do something. So, Esther stood up to the King, making her decision not knowing if she was facing life or death, but knowing that what she was doing was right.

This week we read about Aaron the high priest. Aaron the prophet, the great communicator, who faced a similar leadership dilemma. Moses was gone and the people were starting to sweat. They thought, what if he doesn’t return? And they began to despair. They went to Aaron and demanded an idol. And Aaron relented. The story is told very plainly, the people went to Aaron, Aaron asked for golden jewelry to build the idol and an idol was built.

If you read deeper into the chain of events you find that Aaron too was desperate – one commentary reads that Aaron tried to delay the people from idol worship. If he could just slow them down until Moses returned then he could save the day. So he asked for Jewelry, thinking the women and men wouldn’t give it up. But they did. Then he said that he alone would have to make the Calf so that he could take his time, but before he knew it there stood the calf and the people began to worship it.

What could Aaron have done? Instead of slowing the process why did not Aaron stand up, channel Nancy Reagan and just say no? Was he scared to act?

I saw the Watchmen last week. It is a movie about the humans behind the masks. Essentially asking, “what kind of twisted person would really dress up and run around fighting crime?” For these characters, they felt most like themselves when they had their mask on.

We all have masks. We need them, and we feel more comfortable using them. But why? What is it about being human that we lie, we doubt and we assume alter egos?

If you flip through Jewish texts, you’ll notice God too has a Mask and that God’s presence becomes hidden the further you move beyond the books of the Torah. The story of Purim in fact does not mention God at all. Where was God when the Jewish people were about to be exterminated? A question that was echoed years later when we asked where was God during the Holocaust?

If God has a right to ask our ancestors, Adam, Abraham and Moses, where are you? Then we should ask where is God? And why is God’s presence masked from us?

The thing is, though, The Hebrews in the desert knew exactly where God was. They were the unmasked generation. So how could it be that the Hebrews in the Desert built the Golden Calf?

Look, I struggle with God’s existence all the time. But if God revealed himself to me, I think I would get the picture.

What I really like about this story is that it shows that it’s ok to doubt. If the generation that knew God’s voice could push Aaron to veer off the path, then so might we be pushed off the path.

If they could mess up then we can mess up.

Several things happened after the Golden Calf. Moshe shattered the tablets, God forgave the people after Moses repented, and then Moses asked God to unmask himself so that he could see God’s face.

Did Moses have doubts that God existed? Why did he want to see his face? I think it was to understand, not for himself but for the people. Essentially Moses was asking what we all ask everyday. What is the master plan? Why do bad things happen to good people?

We all want to know the master plan. When I was young and riding on my big wheel, is it possible that it was God that stopped that car from hitting me? I don’t know. But, as the Golden Calf shows us, not knowing is what it means to be human.

The Golden Calf altered our history. The second tablets were carved by the hand of Moses not by God. We still got the teachings, but this time we had to work for them.

We have a choice every day to either work hard and put in the effort to receive the teachings of our parents, teachers, and self help books. Or we can choose to just buy the leadership book but not read it.

Its natural for us to want to know, but not put in the effort. We just want to give our money to someone that we know will manage it for us. We don’t want to do the research. Why examine the investment strategy? If it’s good enough for Elie Weisel and Kevin Bacon, then it’s good enough for me.

That is the Golden Calf, the life of ease. We don’t have to think, we don’t have to tear away our attention from our iphones and gchats to concentrate.

But that is not the life of a Jew. We are here to do the work. We are here to ask questions and argue. We are here to lead and make the world a better place.

To be desperate is not a Jewish value. Desperation is not Jewish, because if you’re Jewish there is always hope. No matter how dark the times may be, we can hope and believe in our people and our covenant with the world. I can’t tell you whether or not to believe in God. But I can tell you that you should believe in doubt. Because that is the struggle. That is what makes us human.

Our fight to overcome our doubts and stand up for what is right is what will ensure that the Jewish people and each of our future endeavors will make a difference in the world. That struggle within each of us is what will ensure that the light that shines in our communities will not be the light reflecting off of our gold, but will be the light that shines out from the inside, the light of the righteous.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Mountain, what Mountain?

By Sweet T

This is one of the more interesting portions for me. It captures beautifully one of my favorite sayings: sometimes you have to trim a bush to make it grow. And it’s also where the law forbidding mixing milk and meat together comes from, thus banning the delicious cheeseburger, turkey and swiss (please milk a turkey, I beg you), and other delectable combinations.

The most striking part of this portion is the killing of three thousand men for religious sin, in this case worshipping a golden calf. Moses comes down from Sinai only to find the Hebrews worshipping an idol (of him, ironically), becomes so maddened he orders the Levi Clan to attack the idolaters.

Now three thousand men was quite a lot for a group that had just escaped Egypt and was heading to an unknown land to physically conquer it from the people that dwelled there. Everyone man counts (sorry ladies, while women had much to lose if their men lost in battle, I don’t think they were involved in the fighting), and they could ill afford to lose a good chunk of their force. I’m sure this was going through Moses head; it had to be. It’s was only a few hours before when we was pleading with God not to kill them all when he was up on Sinai. So he obviously felt a value for his peoples’ lives.

Unfortunately, we can’t ever know what he was thinking, but I’m willing to guess he had a moment of realization: that moment when you realize whatever path you’re heading down is not going to get the job done. We might be paying credit card bills, and making the minimum payment each month, but when you do the math, and figure out with interest, that at that current payment, it will take you three years to erase $3,000 worth of debt.

What you do has a lot to do with the type of person you are. Whether it’s realizing that your workout regimen isn’t going to help you lose weight, or whether you figure out that the amount of money you’re spending on car repairs you could put into a newer vehicle that wouldn’t break down, we all have these moments where we understand our situation and recognize the unavoidable need for change. Some people act and make the necessary changes, and succeed (hopefully). But just as easily, some don’t make the changes. And as my ex-Marine uncle has told me, “idiocy is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.” You want to erase the Visa bill, change your budget and pay more of it off.

Moses understands this. He has a few options here. He can allow it happen, disallow it and forgive, exile the sinners or, as he does, kill them all. Each option brings with it a stronger effort to dissuade his members from doing it ever again. Think, if he had just forgiven them, would Judaism still exist, today? Would it had just been a matter of time before the Hebrews regressed again?

Whether or not you agree with the method, the result still stands. In order to accomplish great things, you must take great action. I use this story as an allegory, not a encouragement of mass extermination. And I encourage all of us to look forward to those moments in our lives, and make the changes on a consistent basis. I think when we are honest with ourselves, just as Moses was when he came down and saw it for himself, we lead a more fulfilling life.

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Friday, March 06, 2009

Etching Ancestry (Tetzaveh)

You have history
carved into the bones of your shoulders
genealogical etchings handed down
l'dor va'dor, generation to generation.

We stand upon ancestral underpinnings
every step we take
springing off someone else's efforts
toes tapping forward only because they've been carried
to where they can walk
feet pressing down upon ground
and finding paths in futures
unable to be imagined
by minds focused only on furnishing opportunities
out of the options afforded them.

We are only ever as able
as we believe our children to be.

Build your priestly vestments
Robe of pure blue
rimmed with pomegranates and gold bells
ringing out ruby rivers of life
from the seeds we have sown.

An ephod of fine linen
two shoulderpieces at two ends
two stones inlaid
lapis lazuli etched
with the names of 12 tribes
six to a side
ordered by birth
and bordered by gold
two stones to two shoulders
two chains to two frames
a breastpiece that's bold
yarn of blue and purple
and crimson and gold
set square and doubled
span by a span
and filled in with stones:

Carnelian, chrysolite, emerald -- a row
then turquoise, sapphire and amethyst, though
jacinth, an agate and a crystal befo'
beryl, lapis and jasper bring it home.

One to a tribe
with light shining bright
answers spelled out in family faces
so you'll know when you're right.

The Tablets of Destiny are held in your hands
the cursed or the faultless
each at your command.
So light your perfections
and reveal your truths
but know that we join you
each moment you stand.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got
(And other lessons from Tetzaveh)

--By Heinz 57

When I was 17, I had my timeline set in what I believed to be stone. Really. Emphasis placed on stone. I had my first serious boyfriend, and I envisioned a diamond ring by 20, marriage by 22 and the first kid by 24. In college, I admit, I even went to a jeweler and picked out that ring. It wasn’t the classiest of moves, but what do you expect from Kay’s Jeweler at the Holyoke Mall? The four Cs became my friend (cut, clarity, color & carats), as I picked out my ideal ring: round-cut, three stone (a .75 carat in the middle, .5 for the others), size 6, platinum band. Creepy as it sounds, my ring was so vivid that I could feel the weight of it on my finger and even caught the glare of it out of the corner of my eye.

At 26 1/2 (okay, 2/3), my plan hasn’t gone exactly the way I imagined. For one, the last conversation I had with my b'esheret of the high school days involved him asking me -- quite nicely -- not to post on his Facebook wall, as it made his current girlfriend irrationally jealous. My finger is still empty, and my tastes have shifted slightly (feel free to google “Cartier, honeymoon ring”). Don’t get me wrong (particularly you, Boyfriend), I’m happy with my life as it is. I’m in school, doing that independent woman in the big city thing, complete with a few sets of knee-high boots and a taste for fruity martinis. I’m two years past my self-prescribed due date, and I’m more than okay with that.

But as I watch my friends get engaged, I can’t help but think to myself “Princess Cut ... really?!” or “Check out the clarity on that baby!” and of course, “Three months salary, my ass.” There’s something about the diamond ring that makes me weak in the knees. It’s not just that it represents a commitment, a declaration of love or a promise to stand by each other. It’s that they are so gosh darn pretty.

Before I go any further, a confession: I fall somewhere into the vast void between hippie and JAP. I'll admit I had dreadlocks, I’m generally dirty and saving the world is top on my list of priorities. I cringe at girls whose bags cost more than my rent, or whose shoes could pay my grocery bill for a month. Fair trade is a mantra I might not live by, but a goal I hope to one day embody. I’ve belonged to such Facebook groups as “Recycle that bottle or I’ll Recycle your face” and the only reason I use plastic shopping bags is so I can recycle them when cleaning out my cat’s litter box. My SIGG water bottle is always in my backpack and I spent about 10 years of my childhood at outdoorsy environmental camps.

I also own not one, but two pairs of Uggs. I currently have a Tiffany's necklace around my neck, and my nails are freshly polished. I don’t think it’s contradictory, I just consider it my own unique style.

How can I be an environmentalist, and still drool at the site of something like jewelry? What does it really mean, at least in this day and age? We all know about blood diamonds. We all know about the pollution caused by gold mining.* We generally don’t care. Sure, I care in the hypothetical. But, I’ll tell you right now, if Boyfriend were about to propose, I wouldn’t take him off of that knee to drill him on the social awareness of his purchase.

The issue probably takes its root in the plan I made at 17. The diamond was a symbol, not of love, but of conquest. I thought that rock on my finger meant my life itself would be solid. I’ve learned now that love doesn’t really make your life solid. Love means excitement. It means fights, it means storms, it means compromises. It means being picked up and twirled. It means staying on your toes, always moving, always growing, always improving. Love is being constantly surprised by what you learn about your partner, and what it shows you about yourself. It means never knowing what might happen next, and being okay with that.

I’m sure Judaism has some straight forward lessons for love. And ... I’m not really interested in that right now. I want to know how I can show up at my next PETA meeting, look my patchouli-smoking friends in the eye and say, “Heck yeah. Diamond!” I suppose it’s safe to say that we like to see things dressed up. Whether its a clean-water inspired scarf (they exist) or the fabled solid-gold toilet of Donald Trump, we generally enjoy the pretty.

And back in the day -- way, way back in the day -- the Jewish High Priests were all about the pretty. They wore gold-adorned frocks, complete with precious stones. Think Gucci meets the Pope. The altar was about as flashy as it could be, putting those Oscar afterparties to shame. The Torah goes into extreme detail about the ornate decoration of the Tabernacle. We’re not a religion with extra words; these descriptions serve a purpose. They teach us something. They offer us a glimpse into the past. And they reassure me that it’s clearly not absurd to find beauty in the shiny.

Jennifer Lopez, not particularly the patron saint of Jews (humor me here) wisely stated, “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got, I’m still, I’m still Jenny from the block.” Nowadays, our bling is simply that: bling. Jenny claims her bling didn’t change her. What’s its purpose then, if not to demonstrate a rise to extreme wealth and pop-stardom?

And what was it like in the time of the Temple? The gold cherubs that sat upon the ark weren’t there simply to show off, they demonstrated a grandeur unlike anything else found on earth. The priests' golden frocks demonstrated not only that they themselves were to be admired, but also that their work was Holy. Was the gold necessary back then? Can we transfer that meaning into today's bling? Am I shallow for thinking "Yes"?

We would like to say inner beauty is what counts, and I think -- at least I hope -- that when you’re at the point in your life where that diamond ring is encroaching, you see the inner beauty above all in your partner. But our religion shows us that dressing up a priest is okay. It’s a reflection, not only of the inner, but also of the beauty of a wonderful thing: God. The gold that coated the altar came from the community as a whole, a tangible gift of something precious to celebrate something even more valuable. We like fancy.

Sometimes, we like fancy for the wrong reason. We celebrate in the superficiality. We compromise our ideals. But if we're celebrating something that is beautiful no matter how it's dressed, like the holies of Judaism or a real love, then the extra glitter is simply reflecting that majesty. It might be a stretch to say I want a diamond to worship God. But, I think it’s fair to worship Love ... and we might as well do that with something gosh darn pretty.

*(To learn more.... check out No Dirty Gold to learn more about environmentally friendly jewelry companies, or feel free to purchase something from Brilliant Earth> for yours truly. To learn more about the interplay between Judaism and the environment, take a look at Canfei Nesharim, Hazon or COEJL

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Friday, January 16, 2009

I care, now what?

The good news about the Israel and Palestinian conflict is that there are answers everywhere!

Ask two Jews, you get three answers. Go to Israel and ask the Israelis, which is what I just was able to do with PLP, and you get even more. While in Israel with PLP's academic fellows, I had the opportunity to meet with community organizers, city planners, government officials and Jewish educators. And everyone we talked to had an opinion to share, often several of them.

During times of war in Israel, the public lines up behind the government in support of the troops. This is a country where everyone is connected to the soldiers and the support is tangible. For the most part, though, life in Israel goes on. The country is so resilient. People populate the boulevards of Tel Aviv, go to the coffee houses in Jerusalem and eat on the side walks in Haifa. In a place smaller than New Jersey, it was incredible to see Israelis living their lives with a war zone so close by.

I was in Israel for nearly the whole war. While I was there, I learned about the conflict, but also went to the cafes, clubs and boulevards. Once I got back though, the conflict seemed much closer to me. Walking around Boston, the images of the war were in my face. On the cover of Newsweek, Time Magazine, the New York Times and the Boston Globe there were references to the war. Even on Facebook, the war was raging in peoples' status updates and notes posted.

After a full semester as a graduate student earning my MA in Jewish Professional Leadership and having taken a semester of the Philosophy of Israel, I am very sensitive to how complex Israel is (even without taking the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into account).

On our trip, PLP explored this complexity and the group pushed itself to rethink what we knew. For example, I had always spent most of my time in Israel in Jerusalem. This time I really got to know Tel Aviv, and I came away feeling that Tel Aviv was almost more of a Jewish City than Jerusalem. Everything in Tel Aviv from the street names to the use of public space for parks was all planned out by and for Jews. From the original five streets of Tel Aviv, to the late night club scene there is something distinctively Jewish going on.

Throughout the country, this is what we started to see. That even in the most mundane details there is a certain depth, a quality that is Jewish, and this is what keeps the country together.

Since Zionism's beginnings in the 1800s, the Jewish people have been arguing over what Israel should be. Even Zionism was not one clear answer. There was religious Zionism, political Zionism, labor Zionism and other branches. All wanting something different out of the land.

The same holds true today. There are so many different opinions in Israel about what it should be. Differences among Jews in Israel and out of Israel. Differences among religious and non-observant, modern and traditional, black and white, young and old, Arab and Christian and Muslim and Jew and atheist and secular.

At the end of the day it does not seem like it would ever work, but some how it does.

And then, there is the conflict.

Facebook statuses, gchat updates, and profile pictures all were charged with different facts and figures such as Quassam hits, deathtolls, buildings smashed, but not one or even 19 facts can tell the whole story. To reduce the conflict into quick one liners like facebook and the media really cheapens the experience of what is happening.

The humanity on both sides exists and needs to be respected and at the root of it all I don't think that is happening.

It is a hard discussion to have in which a full debate can be held. People experience things emotionally and intellectually and we as Jews and as humans need the opportunity to do both and do so in a way that we feel safe. I do not mean comfortable. Sometimes when you love something or someone you have to be uncomfortable. You realize that its ok to feel uneasy, but you are willing to feel that way because you want to understand, and you want to help others know how you feel.

I feel that this is lacking in our, the Jewish people's, understanding of one another.

There is a gap between Jews in Israel and Jews in America. Both populations want to claim Judaism and what they are doing is right. Sometimes it seems that the only ones that recognize that we both come from the same people are our detractors, those that will attack a synagogue in Chicago in response to a conflict thousands of miles away.

In Judaism there is the concept that time is a spiral.

In a cosmic twist, as the Jewish people have been fighting for its survival and protection of late, Jews around the world are remembering first becoming a people in the story of Exodus.

From slavery to the desert to entering the land it was a long and trying journey for the Hebrews. And, even then everyone had an opinion. Its important to remember that our affinity for disagreement is as old as we are.

I wonder then how we can call ourselves a People. What does one Jews really have in common with another.

As a future professional in the American Jewish community, I think I have a lot to learn from the Jews in Israel. Really. At the end of the day in Israel, no matter how much everyone disagrees with one another, they all still have a love for their country. The civil religion in Israel is very strong and it has been constructed in such a way that everyone can grasp on to it in one or more ways.

Jonathan Woocher, wrote twenty years ago about the civil religion of American Judaism, and recently updated his thoughts on the concept. In a time in which Jewish creativity is at an all time best, with the advent of Jewish rappers, musicians, magazines, new ways to pray, new ways to commune, new mikvahs even, it seems that everyone in America has a chance to develop a very personalized Jewish connection.

I think this is great, the more ways for us to connect to "Judaism" the better. What I wonder though is what then is Judaism and who is the authentic.

The beauty of Israel though is that while everyone can debate and argue what is a real Israeli or a real Jew, at the end of the day this conversation is only intellecutal. The people there are already living and connecting together. Religious and secular both call Israel home.

This is what I hope to bring to the Jewish community as a leader. A feeling that at the end of the day no matter how much we disagree we are all in this together. This is where the civil religion plays a big role. Maybe it needs to be updated from the 1980s, but there is something that we all agree on. The fact that we all care enough to disagree, that is something that I think we can build on.

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