Sunday, December 28, 2008

I'm the token Jew in my Jewish family

The family Chanukah gathering was relatively quiet this year. Nothing like the madness that ensued last year or the year before. But there was one rather humorous moment. My uncle loves decorating for the holidays - he has a giant Christmas tree. He puts up stockings for his dogs. He has Christmas wreaths and Disney Christmas stuff all over the place, and he plays really bad Christmas muzak. With the exception of the decorative Chanukah menorah on the table (he never lights the candles), you wouldn't know the family's Jewish. Case in point: He cooked up a ham for dinner, and he gave my mom and me some sliced turkey because we're the only ones who won't eat it. 

Anyways, at one point, I jokingly suggested that we should light Chanukah and Shabbat candles (it was Friday night). My mom said "Don't push your luck" but my uncle agreed that we could light the Chanukah candles. He put the menorah on a Christmas themed paper plate for the wax drip. The family had just finished a ham dinner. And no one remembered the blessings (or felt like saying them, if they did remember) but me, so I said them, with Little Drummer Boy blasting from the stereo. 

Assimalation, FTW! 

Friday, December 12, 2008

On Miracles

L shared something interesting at the board meeting last night. It's a really interesting way of looking at miracles. He said that the miracle of Chanukah was not that the oil lasted for eight days, but that someone decided to light the candle in the first place, knowing that there was only enough oil for one. Similarly, the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea was not that the Red Sea split, but that someone took the first few steps into the sea, not knowing what would happen, but believing they would, somehow, be safe.

L. pointed out that in a way, it's kind of like our work at Hillel. We don't have enough resources, we don't have enough staff, we don't have enough time, and our Hillel is a storefront next to 7-11. The miracle isn't that we have a great community and organize terrific events. The miracle is that we keep working at it, despite the challenges.

I like seeing miracles as human acts of will and faith, rather than spectacular acts of divine power.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Ode to Hillel on Friday afternoons

It's Friday afternoon at Hillel. I'm drinking mint tea, listening to the rain, and waiting for Shabbat. Friday afternoon is the best part of the week at Hillel. It's so festive! Soon the interns will show up and we'll start chopping vegetables and boiling water for soup and the whole room will smell warm and fragrant. People will stop by to help out or hang out or both. We'll make decorations. We'll listen to bad Israeli pop music I don't understand.

Once 5:30pm rolls around, we'll be in panic mode - "The students will be here in an hour and we still haven't done x or y or z or all of the above!" But from about 12pm-4pm at Hillel on Fridays, everyone is excited and happy. There's no panic. Only giggling and making dinner and cutting out autumn leaves for table decorations.

I was a student here for six years. Hillel was the family I came home to, every Friday night, all through undergrad and my masters program. Now I'm the Program Director, and everything is different. Instead of attending events, I'm planning and organizing them. I just spent an hour with the new JSU President, helping her come up with a meeting agenda and brainstorming ways to get students more involved. It comes very naturally to me, and I love it, despite all the stress. Sometimes I have to keep myself from working for 14 hours a day because there's just so much to DO. No doubt about it, Hillel is a challenge.

But something happens on Friday afternoons, especially when we know it will be a mellow Shabbat. For a few hours, all of my work feels like a blessing, all of the stress is worthwhile, and Hillel, once again, feels like home.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Because it's time to start again with Bereishit, I'm re-posting this one

History of Loneliness

In a beginning, there was nothing. Then, God said.

There were light and trees and oceans and horizons,
and there was Adam.

God said everything into existence,
Those who missed something nonexistent no longer suffered.
Darkness was lonely, and there was fire.
The trees were despondent, there was shade.
Adam was aching. God said. And there was Eve.

God said “This is very good.” And it was.

But soon, Adam and Eve realized they missed the longing they’d felt without each other.
They built a fire, darkness disappeared,
and when the fire sputtered out, darkness became even louder,
thicker than before the first flame.

When Eve ate the apple, and offered it to Adam,
they were sent out of Eden.
And the first people on the planet felt another kind of longing,
called homesickness.

Ever since then, people have been obsessed with the notion of home,
and the notion of emptiness,
not to mention God.

You see, in a beginning,
God didn’t know that people could long for nothing,
could court nothing, could fall in love with absence.
So God filled God’s world with endless somethings
that begat more somethings,
and each something found a longing inside
that no other something could fill.

They say God’s light was a vessel that splintered
into millions of pieces.
We are glittering fragments trying to heal the world
by finding light in each other.
We are drawn to glowing because we are drawn to God.
They also say that God didn’t create the world,
but is creating the world,
so we are constantly repairing and shattering
and repairing again.

It wasn’t the beginning, it was a beginning,
and it was an ending.
It was the end of nothing.

(copyright 2007)

Friday, October 17, 2008

What I'm likely sharing tonight at Sukkot Shabbat

Shabbat Shalom, everyone! I have a few quick thoughts to share while you finish your dinner. Call it some food for thought. Sukkot was my first Hillel event in fall 2002. Can I get a show of hands if this is your first Hillel event? Welcome! Joseph and I came to Sukkot all dressed up when I was a freshman because every time I'd gone to synagogue, I'd had to dress up. How surprised we were to find everyone sitting on the ground together in the Sukkah at Porter college, some in jeans, some barefoot, everyone singing. Joseph and I looked at each other and smiled: This was something completely different. This was something we could get into.

The Sukkah represents several different - and contradicting - aspects of Jewish life. I've been told that the Sukkah is place where you feel the most safe, the most comforted. But at the same time, the Sukkah is, at its core, a temporary dwelling. This space of ultimate safety and comfort only lasts for a week, and the rest of the year we are left with its memory.

We recall Sukkot each week at Shabbat we sing "Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Sh'lomecha," and spread over us Your shelter of peace. But like the Sukkah, Shabbat is also a temporary shelter - the liminal space between one week and another. The difference is that we return to the shelter of Shabbat each Friday at sundown. Sukkot only comes once a year.

The point I'm trying to make is that whether it's Sukkot, Shabbat, or both, these holidays represent the transience of our personal shelters. Many of you left the shelters of your homes to come to college. Every student I met seven years ago at my first Hillel event has graduated, leaving the shelter of UCSC to seek comfort and peace in other communities. And even though I'm still here, celebrating my 7th Hillel Sukkot, I'm a different person when I enter and exit the Sukkah every year.

When we reconvene for Sukkot next fall, we'll all be a little different. But regardless of the transience of each of our personal shelters, the comfort and warmth that we feel when we gather in the Sukkah will inspire us to keep coming back. I look forward to seeing all of you in the Sukkah next year. Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Brought to you by Great Moments at Hillel

Try explaining "Jewdar" to your Israel Fellow, who has never lived in a country where Jews are the minority, and is not sure how to pick the Jewish students out of the crowds while tabling.

"Um...look for people with curly hair, Star of David or hamsa necklaces, Hebrew lettering on their shirts, and well, skinny awkward guys are usually a safe bet, and..."

Friday, September 5, 2008

So, now I'm getting paid to be Jewish and do Jewish and live Jewish from 9-5, Monday-Thursday, and from 2-10 on Fridays, including Shabbat.

I went to Shabbat at TBE tonight, and didn't really feel...much...

It could be because I spent most of the week tabling and looking for someone to blow the shofar for Rosh Hashana, and I was already at TBE three days in a row this week (Tuesday for Rosh Chodesh, Wednesday for a meeting that didn't happen, and Thursday for two meetings that did). I wonder if Judaism is going to become "rote" for me - so much a part of my daily life that nothing will separate it from anything else.

I've already come to terms with the fact that Shabbat will become part of the working week - it will probably be a source of stress, for that matter. That's why I get one Shabbat off each month, which I figured I'd spend at TBE. I just hope I can separate it for myself, make sure it makes a difference, if that makes sense.

Jacob warned me about this, and he suggested finding new outlets. It's always good to find new outlets anyways. I'll ask Rabbi S. about it this weekend when he comes down for our training too.

It could just be this week and nothing else. Some weeks it is harder to let go. We'll see.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Tabling for Hillel has taught me that I attract very awkward guys who:

a) Can't carry a conversation
b) Aren't Jewish
c) Aren't interested in Hillel and
d) Just want a captive audience

I did however, get two people to fill out info cards today, and I got five people yesterday. So I guess I'm doing fine.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Rosh Chodesh Elul

We have started the month of Elul, which, I read, means "search." Fitting for the month of release and returning, the month of Rosh Hashana, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Elul enumerates a process of cleansing and creating goals, of letting go of one year and starting another.

Tonight I attended my first Rosh Chodesh circle at TBE. I brought C with me, but every other woman there was over 40. There were candles in a circle and we introduced ourselves matrilineally, according to the tradition. We also welcomed into the circle women who were on our minds, but not physically present. We shared our goals for the coming year and we talked about the year that we're leaving behind. I told them what happened last year on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana.

TBE always holds Shabbat Shuva at the beach. There's something about the end of summer, a bonfire, and the crashing ocean that is perfect for the final Shabbat of the retiring year. I was sitting in the dark listening to the ocean during silent meditation when it hit me. I don't have to be a grad student. Wave upon wave of relief, joy, sadness, and crushing raw emotion. I felt free.

I promised myself on that night that if I couldn't do grad school healthfully, I couldn't do grad school at all. And, as promised, I finished my school year and I have not applied to new programs. I'm working at Hillel, giving back to the community that was always the one space where I never had to be anything but what I am.

Part of me was concerned about losing that space. I mean, it's enough, hoping that I can help create that for someone else. But I was still searching for a Jewish space where I don't have to perform anything - a space where I can just be.

I found that tonight at the TBE Rosh Chodesh circle. I'm so glad they meet each month. I'm looking forward to this. I will make time for it, even after I start my own Rosh Chodesh circle for the students. This one, this time, it's for me.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

It's been decided that I will dress up as "SuperJew" for the campus fair, where all the student orgs show up at the east field to attract the students.

I'm picturing a giant Star of David sandwich board, with lots of blue glitter, and possibly a blue baseball cap with sideburns attached.

It's my first week on the job, and it's already a costume party!

Sunday, August 24, 2008


I realize that I'm facing a world of brave new changes (new home, new job, no longer a student, getting married next year, etc), and while it's thrilling and wonderful, it's also more than a little scary. In the moments when I'm more afraid than excited, I've been reading parts of Estelle Frankel's Sacred Therapy, a book Rabbi P lent me awhile ago. Frankel suggests that ancient Judaism and other ancient cultures created a space for transitions. When we symbolically remove ourselves from our old lives, we must embrace the nothingness between an old life and a new one before we can move on. In the modern world, on the other hand, we do not value the nothing-time, the ayin, but instead focus intensely on what's coming next. As a result, we do not fully remove ourselves from what we're leaving behind. We carry it with us as we embark on new journeys.

While I find this very interesting, and true to an extent (oh how I loathe the nothingness of a barren summer!), it contradicts everything I've read and felt about Judaism and memory (see the last post for quoted examples). Do we ever really want to completely detach ourselves from the past? Is it even possible to do that?

Then again, one of the reasons I love Shabbat is because it's a space between two weeks, but it is not a part of either week. It is a space untouched by time, or it is time untouched by space. Perhaps the rituals that separate Shabbat from the working week are reminiscent of the ancient rituals of transition.

I love the contradicting messages about Judaism, memory, new lives and old lives. Should we strive to let go of our past before we can embrace what's next? Or do we honor our history by acknowledging its voice in the future? It's probably a combination of all of the above, and then some. Life is rarely as clear and simple as we'd like it to be, after all.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

"In whom the past endures"

Tonight, Shabbat felt like crying. I didn't cry, but I felt like I finally found the release I've so desperately neeeded. I love Rabbi P. She exudes warmth, energy, love, and empathy. And I finally copied down a few of the quotations from the new Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefilah, that I've been enjoying so much:

"We are a people in whom the past endures, in whom the present is inconceivable without moments gone by. The Exodus lasted a moment, a moment enduring forever. What happened once upon a time happens all the time."

"A thought has blown the market place away. Shabbat arrives in the world, scattering a song in the silence of the night: Eternity utters a day."

And finally, one from Heschel: "The meaning of Shabbat is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things in space; on Shabbat we try to become attuned to the holiness of time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of Creation to the mystery of Creation, from the world of Creation to the Creation of the world."

After the service and a brief chat with Rabbi P, we went to a coffeeshop for live bluegrass. The band was AWESOME.

This was what I needed. All night, voices wrapped themselves around me like loving arms. It reminds me that Shabbat Shalom does not just mean "Sabbath Peace." The root of Shalom is also in Shalem - wholeness.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

"Jewish Enough"

I learned a lot at the WHO conference. Most of all, I learned that this is a much better place for me than grad school ever was. I have a lot to say, and not enough time to say it right now, but I do want to make one quick note:

At one point, when everyone had gathered in the conference room for one of the sessions, the session leader asked us to raise our hands if we had ever felt "not Jewish enough."

Every single person raised their hand. These are Jewish professionals. Judaism is deeply important to each of these people, or they wouldn't be working at Hillels throughout the western region. Where does this insecurity come from? Is it guilt?

Is it because Hillel means working in and advocating a pluralistic Jewish environment? This means we are exposed to Jews who practice in a variety of ways - from secular/cultural Jews to Conservadox Jews to Jews who only recently learned they were Jewish at all. We are always "less Jewish" or "more Jewish" than someone else.

I actually hate using that kind of terminology because I do believe in pluralism. I consider myself religious, even though I'm a Reform Jew who gave up on kashrut after seven months during my one foray into some kind of Conservative Jewish practice.

I like that there is space for this kind of pluralism. It is very challenging to create a space where college students from a variety of backgrounds can have meaningful Jewish experiences. It means that some students will never be satisfied because we privilege pluralism over tradition, some students will never feel "Jewish enough," and even the staff may find themselves wondering if they are "Jewish enough" for their roles as Jewish professionals.

I'm grateful for these challenges. I'm even grateful for the insecurities. It means we're constantly asking questions, and that's a good thing.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Every time I begin to think I'm saying goodbye to this community, it turns out that I'm not. I am the new program director for my Hillel, the little storefront I came home to every Friday night through four years of college and two years of graduate school. I'm glad I can keep giving back. I'm glad I'll be here to help it change, now that our beloved rabbi and program director of eight years has moved to a different city. They hired a part-time rabbi to make Shabbat and holidays with us, so that part of the job is not up to me. It's all programs, all the time. It's event planning and organizing. It's Judaism and education. Social action and ice cream socials. I get to work with college students without having to grade their papers. Before the rabbi left, I thanked him because this has been the kind of blessing that endures. It's still enduring. Though something tells me it would endure whether or not I had decided to take this job.

I felt starved for change, I was so ready to leave this town. It turns out that once again, I will change the way I interact with the town and the community instead of leaving it behind alltogether. There is leaving and returning.

What a perfect way to start the New Year in September.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Mordechai says that in the short stories he writes, the characters he relates to the most are all somehow, vaguely Jewish. They never state it, or do anything that resembles Jewish practice. But he feels like they're Jewish. This, he says, is how he can tell he's connecting with his own Jewish identity. I couldn't be more grateful.

Also, before I forget -- Shavuot was amazing this year. I wish I could have stayed all night, talking Torah with a group of brilliant and inspiring rabbis. Unfortunately, I had class in the morning. But there is one interpretation that stuck with me.

Rabbi L. said that the Fall in Genesis is a story of separation and disconnect. Before eating of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve saw themselves as part of the world, intimately connected to the trees, animals, and earth. The knowledge they gained from eating the fruit was the knowledge of difference, of separation. They saw that they were naked, they saw that they were different from other animals. When God said they would "surely die" if they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, God meant that Adam and Eve would recognize their mortality. Animals don't know that they will one day cease to exist. Humans do. Human awareness of death is a way we are markedly different from the animals. So when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree, they recognized their mortality, recognized their difference, and saw themselves as separate from the earth, the trees, the animals.

Very interesting interpretation -- they must have been lonely realizing they were different, separate from the world. It's somehow in line with what I wrote in "History of Loneliness"

Ok, back to grading for me, but I had to write that down before I forgot. Also, the Sisterhood of Summer Shabbatot will be up and running this Friday. I'm looking forward to it -- home-based Shabbat celebrations and potlucks and the Nice Yiddische Meideles all summer long. It wasn't supposed to be all girls. But it somehow turned out that way. I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Counting the Omer

At Torah study, Rabbi S. told us about the Tree of Life, the Sephirot, and the Seven Attributes of God, because we have been Counting the Omer since Passover, counting the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. Each of the seven week has an attribute associated with it, and each attribute has a name of God associated with it, as well as a patriarch, matriarch, color, day of Creation, a planet, a Jewish holiday, and a body part. Furthermore, each of the seven days of the seven weeks has one of the attributes associated with it. It's all very complicated and I've heard this lecture several times. I am just now beginning to ask real questions. I have been using the website to mark the days since Passover leading up to Shavuot. Today, for example, we are on the fifth day of the week of Netzach, or the week of endurance. The fifth attribute is Hod, humility, presence. So today is Hod of Netzach, humility within endurance, our ability to endure and to hold back at the same time.

I took notes in Torah study on the Tree of Life/Sephirot map that looks like this:

The top four constitute the domain of divine thought, which none of us can access until we are forty years old, and have been studying Torah and Talmud all of our lives. We have to study divine thought with a learned Kabbalist, and not the kind you would find on the internet or hanging out on the streetcorner, but someone who has also been training for years and who has deep understanding of Torah and Talmud.

The bottom seven are the attributes that correspond with the seven weeks of the Omer, and these we can access, to an extent.

In class I noted which matriarch, patriarch, day of Creation, planet, and name of God were associated with each week of the attributes. I typed them out today so that I won't lose them if I lose my notes. I'm going to post them here. Everything on the left side is associated with form. Everything on the right side is associated with spirit. Everything in the middle is the crucial balance between the two. For the Kabbalists, it is spirit that came first because God created the world with Chesed, pure and boundless divine parent-love, which was then tempered with Gevurah, discipline, the separating of the waters, creating a space, a container for Chesed, balancing it.

Here are my notes, as they correspond with the diagram, with some explanation/speculation about why certain things are associated with certain attributes:

Right: Chesed, first week of the Omer – El, Lovingkindness, Abraham, who chased after strangers to help them, Miryam, who always had wells of water. First day of creation, Jupiter, Passover, Purple (shortest wavelength). Right arm stretching out to help, parental love, first energy God uses for creating the world. Boundless love that requires boundaries…

Left: Gevurah, second week of the Omer – Elohim, discipline, judgment, rigor, Isaac bound on the alter, ethics, decisions, holding back, a container for Chesed. Second day of creation, separating sky from water, creating separate spaces, containers. Leah, the passive wife. Blue, like the separating waters. Shavuot. Mars. Left arm holding back.

Middle: Tiferet, third week of the Omer – YHVH, compassion, balance, harmony. Jacob, who wrestles with God. Hannah. The heart. The sun. Sukkot. Green, for plant life. Third day of creation.

Right: Netzach, fourth week of the Omer – Shaddai, endurance, eternity, victory, Rebecca the intuitive mother, Moses the enduring leader, Right pelvis/leg, everlasting everychanging existence. Fourth day of creation, solar system, Venus, the part of us that endures, creativity. Chanukah’s enduring light. Yellow.

Left: Hod, fifth week of the Omer – Zvaot, presence, humility, glory, order, precision. Aaron, the high priest. Left Pelvis/leg. Sarah, keeper of the ten. Purim. Fifth day of creation, egg laying creatures, orange, Mercury.

Middle: Yesod, sixth week of the Omer – Yah, foundation, bonding. Joseph, first diaspora. Male genitals. Emotions, identity, social roles, connection of Heaven and Earth. Rosh Chodesh, the moon. Female-associated holiday and the moon, male genitals, both associated with cycles, recreation, the world being created over and over, moment by moment. Tamar. Red, blood. Sixth day of creation, first mammals. Red-blooded.

Middle: Malchut, seventh week of the Omer – Adonai, nobility, kingdom, majesty. Rachel, David. Physical needs. Shabbat. Barrenness à abundance. Physical à holiness. Seventh day of creation, Shabbat, the day of complete rest.

I'm not sure if any of this will make sense to anyone else, or if it will make sense to me if I look back on it later.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

It's hard to know where to begin with Passover ending at sundown tomorrow and my co-op, my Jewish community, splintering at the same time. Z and L are both moving out because it's time for endings and beginnings. I'm in L's room and I've been reading Mazel and I don't know what to make of anything. Endings have never been easy for me, even when it is time, even when it happens every year, even when I acknowledge

The week of Passover also marked the beginning of counting the Omer, and this week is Chesed, love. Today is Yesod of Chesed, bonding in love. And despite the inevitable tension that comes at the end of anything, my community is attempting to bond tonight. One last time. It's not even conscious; I doubt anyone here knows this is Yesod of Chesed, or even that it's the counting of the Omer.

I am always counting. I count days, I count minutes, I count on the outrageous cycles of indescribable repairing and shattering. Tamei and Tahor. Transitions. Endings. Beginnings. For forty-nine days, starting at Passover and ending at Shavuot, I count and count. Seven attributes for seven weeks and seven days in each week, one attribute for each day.

Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod, Malchut. April. May. June. Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. Friday. Shabbat. Sunday.

There are names for everything.

There must be a name for someone who is always counting.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Preparing for Passover

Ten Plagues Puppets! Courtesy of my uncle, photo courtesy of my brother. Disturbing, hilarious, and AWESOME.

Slightly less disturbing: Four questions puppets, and a wind-up walking matzo ball. Wait...I take it back. The matzo ball is still disturbing.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Tamei and Tahor

This quarter is a lot of Jewish history and literature. I'm sitting in (finally) on Rabbi S's weekly Torah study (Torah in an academic context), taking an independent readings in Jewish Social History and a seminar on Jewish Literature (Memory! Diaspora! Etc!). It's making my brain spin.

Yesterday I spent the morning reading the memoir of a Jewish woman who grew up in a Galician shtetl, and was killed by the Nazis. She sounded like my grandmother. Every Jewish woman's memoir sounds like my grandmother. I don't know if it's the Yiddish or the way Yiddish translates into English. I don't know if many Jewish women's memoirs have similar themes, or if I only notice what's familiar. Jewish American assimilation memoirs especially read the same way: "Ve escaped ze olt country, ve came to America, abandon olt useless traditions, raise American children. Now our grandchildren want to get back to their roots, vy? For vat purpose?"

Anyways. I spent the morning reading the memoirs and thinking about my grandmother. Then I went to Torah Study where we discussed the concept of Tamei and Tachor.This is a concept I have been discussing with Rabbi S. anyways, because my friend has cancer, and is struggling so painfully with chemotherapy and whatnot. But the tamei/tachor concept was even more powerful after reading this memoir, and after visiting my grandmother in the hospital over the break.

Tamei is often poorly translated into "unclean" or "impure" but it really refers to the time when someone has come into contact with life-and-death. This includes birth, sex, menstruation, touching or seeing a dead animal or person, wet dreams, etc. Tachor is the rest of the time. When someone is Tamei, they have to ritually separate themselves for varying amounts of time. Then there is immersion in natural waters (ocean, rain). Then they must bring an offering to the Holy Temple, which has been destroyed twice. Since the temple has been destroyed, we are all, technically speaking, Tamei. We are all not-quite-Tachor, no matter how many times we bathe in the ocean. The life-and-death transition is not one we can escape. Since the Holy Temple no longer exists, it was decided that women should maintain the memory of this tradition by ritually bathing after menstruation, a practice many Orthodox Jews follow. For me, though, the main thing is that coming in contact with life-and-death transitions deserves its own space, it's own "time out," because life-and-death transitions force us to think about our own mortality.

After that, I got the call from the local bookstore found out that I won a short story contest for my story about Judaism, food, body image, family, culture. My great-grandmother (of blessed memory) figures prominently in the story. When I called my mom to tell her the good news, she was at my grandmother's house.

Then I came back to the Bunker, where I found that a friend had posted a link to a really wonderful photographer's work. It's morbid, but I think it's beautiful...he photographs people right before they die:
It's the only time, he says, when his subjects are honest, vulnerable. They don't force themselves to smile.

This, after discussing Tamei and Tachor. This, after I spent the morning with the memoir of another woman who died in the Holocaust, whose voice is inexplicably like my grandmother's and like the voices in every other Jewish memoir I've read - that of Gluckel of Hameln, and Kate Simon in Bronx Primitive. This, after I found out that my story about Judaism and family won an award. And I had only an hour to go before my Global Jewish Lit course, where we talked about Judaism, memory, exile vs. diaspora, and conceptualizations of "home."

"Vat? You vant ve should live in the past forever?"

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Shabbat Zachor (Shabbat of Remembrance)

I didn't know it, but apparently, the Shabbat before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, or "Remembrance Shabbat." Rabbi S. asked us to share Jewish memories from childhood, and talked about how Judaism is made of our own memories and memories we have inherited from others. These are the memories that are not ours, but have become our own over time. I talked about how my brother convinced me that the creamy white horseradish at Pesach dinner was actually really good applesauce - and how I have been unable to eat horseradish since. And I talked about the time when my family thought the Purim carnival came a week before the actual date, so we all showed up at temple school in costume...only to find out that Purim was next week.

After hearing everyone's humorous childhood memories, I asked Rabbi S. why this Shabbat, the Shabbat before Purim, was Remembrance Shabbat. What is it that we are supposed to remember this week that we are not commanded to remember every week? Do we remember the story of Purim or is it more than that?

He said that when the Jews were brought out of Egypt, a man named Amelek led a group who attacked the Jews from behind, even though the weakest - the elderly and the children - walked in the back of the group. It is said that Haman from the Purim story is a descendant of Amelek, who was the first to engage in this kind of ruthless attack. This passage from Deuteronomy as well as a passage from Exodus are read:

Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way, when ye were come forth out of Egypt; How he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, even all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it. D'varim (Deuteronomy) 25:17-19

Thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek...thou shalt not forget it: Contradictions.

Rabbi S. said that of course there is more to it than remembering Amalek's attack, and Haman's plans to kill the Jews of Shushan. We also remember that every one of us has the capacity for ruthless violence, like Amalek. We remember that part of ourselves when we "boo" and hiss and try to drown out Haman's name. With the noise, we acknowledge that it exists. With the noise, we remember. We drown out the worst parts of us, and hope we can give voice to the rest.

The costumes and the drinking and the madness may be nothing more than an attempt to cope with this knowledge: We have space for evil. We have space for good.

Rabbi S. also pointed out that nowhere in the Megillah is G-d's name written. It is a human story about this human capacity for hatred, courage, love, fear, violence, and strength.

It reminded me of this passage from East of Eden:

Timshel. Thou mayst.

Purim Sameach.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


I was going to wait until the end of the school year, but decided not to. We're not keeping the house kosher (or anything close to kosher) anymore.

It's not a matter of inconvenience. We tried it for the sake of experimentation, and because I thought it might make me "feel more Jewish" during the week. I was seeking a connection to Judaism outside of Shabbat services, especially a connection I could take with me when I move away from the Santa Cruz Jewish community. But this wasn't it.

And because I don't believe in following the laws just because they are laws - because in my heart I am truly of the Reform movement - it is silly to continue separating and labeling dishes and Tupperware. I follow laws that are meaningful to me. I decided I wanted a kosher house when I was living in the Jewish Co-Op over the summer, when it was not Jewish or a co-op or anything I loved. The Co-Op was meaningful to me, and the Co-Op was kosher. I wanted to recreate that space somehow, but this wasn't it. That's ok. I'm glad I gave it a shot.

I'm going to keep this blog, in which I seldom write, because Jewish living still merits a space for discussion, and because I still need a space where I can discuss it. As the time draws nearer when I will be forced - by adulthood and by moving away - to leave one Jewish community behind and seek a new one, I will probably need this space even more than I do now.

Next quarter - my last quarter as a graduate student here - I am TA'ing a course called "History of Sin," I am taking a course in Global Jewish Literature, and possibly taking an independent readings on Jewish immigration history, 1850-1950. I'm sure there will be plenty to say, as always.

Monday, February 25, 2008

From the grandparent files

Apparently, ever since they've had candles to light for yahrzeit memorial, my grandparents have been saving the little glasses after the candles burn out. They rinse the glasses and use them for drinking.

I can just see them, in all of their wisdom as children of immigrants during the Great Depression, saying "Nu, vy should ve vaste perfec'ly gud glass? Is still useful, no?"

The funny thing is, yahrzeit candles are small, only slightly bigger than tea candles. The only way they could really use those glasses would be for taking shots.

I'm sure it goes something like this: "May my mother, of blessed memory, rest in peace and may her soul rise up to heaven, if we believed in that sort of thing, L'CHAIM!" *takes a shot of vodka*

There's more to it than humor though, drinking from the empty shells of memorial candles. It just goes to show, once again, that memorial rituals are for the living, not for the dead.* And why should the living waste the glasses once the ritual is over?

See, the ritual, not the memories are made of candles and jars. Saving the glass and drinking out of does not blaspheme the memory; it's another way to move on. We remember not only on the yahrzeit and on Yom Kippur. So, how does it sanctify the memory by throwing the glass in the garbage?

There's more than this, but it's not coming just yet. Maybe later...

*I went into more detail on that in this column:

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Baruch Halpern discussion

Tonight the Jewish Studies lecture was entitled "Method and Disenchantment: The Birth of Science and Religion," delivered by Baruch Halpern.

I didn't have time to go, but I'm glad I went anyway.

He argued that an intellectual revolution occurred in the 8th/7thc BC in the Near East and in Greece, in which elites defended local identity by rejecting markers of foreign culture.

Halpern pointed out a historical pattern we're already familiar with: Renaissance --> Reformation --> Enlightenment and then applied it to the writing of the Pentateuch.

We tried to figure out the astronomy of Genesis 1. It was basically crazy, but in the end, he showed us that despite how crazy it sounds to us, there is a logic to it. It's logical, and it becomes more and more complicated with each "there was evening, there was morning." He drew diagrams on the board and explained the logic with Greek philosophers and steam and fire and light and evaporation and domes. I can't replicate it, but oh it was nuts...

In the end, he'd made quite a case...the rational, logical, methodical creation story involving a highly rational God was created to support the beliefs of an intellectual elite, who were trying to prove that their creation story was correct. "Science" and "religion" and the birth of "western thought" against pre-existing, traditional polytheistic religions.

The Bible, in other words, played the same role we now grant to science in debunking other myths.

I wish I could explain it better, but all I can say is that when he finishes his book, I've got to read it.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

History of Languages

(my reinterpretation of the Tower of Babel story):

History of Languages

Before the Age of Misunderstanding,

The early people built a tower

They started with nouns:

Person--place--thing, held together with

Thick layers of verbs, question marks,

Colored bricks effusive

With figures of speech

“YOU” stuck to “HERE” with “ARE”

ORANGE” described “MUSIC” and “SUNRISE

Words begat sentences begat paragraphs, higher and higher

In the evening, lovers

Climbed to the top, dangled

Their feet in the clouds, breathless

Before the dizzying view

“I hope we never stop building,” he said,

“Who knows what we’ll create?”

The woman smeared his body with verbs

They sanctified each other

Worshipped the tower

And in the morning, everyone wondered

Who had laid more foundation


But God had witnessed the lovers

As they witnessed Creation

Praying to the paragraphs

On which they stood

Before God’s eyes, it became

Epidemic, people blessing the tower,

Its adjectives and songs,

Hallowing skyward metaphors

Until at last, God regretted,

It was time to teach people

To misinterpret

So when the man said “Please pass the adjective; will you marry me?”

His lover laughed at the string of useless sounds

“What do you mean?” she babbled

It was a brick no one could answer

People clamped their hands over their mouths

As brave new words grew inside, struggling to escape

Foundations shook

Mortar cracked

Language collapsed

The man and woman touched each other’s faces

Searching for words that were no longer there

At last, they decided it was better

Not to speak

And learned to communicate

Without sound

The early people went on to misinterpret

God’s words, they told each other

“We climbed too high, God

Has punished our pride

With confusion”

Some finally stopped talking to God

Certain that God, too,

Would misunderstand

But people have always struggled

With foundations, mortar, and God

Didn’t mind the human desire

To build higher towers

It was their belief in language

That God punished

Some words felt

Like marbles on her tongue

But they stuck to her lover’s teeth

Refusing to tumble to the floor

And some verbs tasted nostalgic

While certain questions set his mouth on fire

Still they were convinced that sounds

Meant the same thing in different mouths

That one language meant

One way of hearing

So the Tower of Babel collapsed

On its faulty foundations

And some people learned

To search for meaning in the din of sounds

While others still shout brick after brick

Trying, in vain, to be understood

(adva ahava, copyright 2008)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

It's been six days since I've returned, and I'm finally somewhat ready to distill my Israel experience into a journal entry. I think I'm only ready because I should be working, I should be reading about medieval Russia, or preparing for my thesis meeting w/ Lynn tomorrow. I should be writing up my presentation for 19thc America this Wednesday, or organizing my course roster. And instead, all I can do is look back through my trip photos and try to make sense of how it was only 10 days, and how I'm back in America and how I'm sitting in Coffeetopia working very slowly. "Do I dare disturb the universe?"

I took over 1200 photos on this trip. It was how I processed everything. Click! Bits of paper shoved into cracks in the Western Wall. Click! The sun rising over the Dead Sea and valleys of colored rocks. Click! Vast green fields surrounded by barbed wire. Danger! Land mines! Click! Click! Cai and me bumping along on a camel through the desert. Hundreds of challah golden challah loaves and people bargaining for the best price before sundown on Shabbat. Over 1200 photos, and I'm working through them before I post them on facebook. As soon as they're up, I'll post universal links here, so everyone can see them.

People have been saying "What was the best part?" or "What was the highlight?" I can't pick one. What I've been saying is that I have a few. Israel is a very intense juxtaposition of old and new. I loved that we could be a in a modern city, thriving and rushing like Los Angeles only with more Hebrew, and then walk a few blocks into the silence of cobblestones and alleyways. I loved Tzfat, the ancient city where the first kabbalists lived. We watched them weave Havdalah candles with up to 86 strands. I loved walking through the Old City, Jerusalem, which is like a world apart from other worlds. At the Western Wall, despite my discomfort at the tiny women's section crammed up next to the generous men's section, I felt the holiness of thousands of women's hands on the bricks before me, the hands that will come after mine, and the hands of the women around me. It is a wall made of bricks and blessings, mortar and generations of paper.

I loved our open air Jeep ride through the Golan Heights. It made me shudder, the beauty and the bombs. The bright green hills littered with rusted pieces of Syrian tanks. The man driving our Jeep told me he saw a man shot to death in New York City and no one stopped to help him, said that would never happen in Israel, and all I could do was apologize that this was the face of America that he found. That wouldn't normally happen, I said. It wouldn't. Danger! Land mines! Danger. Bright, bright green.

I loved the camel ride through the desert and staying overnight with the 47 new friends we made in our bus group, curled up in the Bedouin tent till 4:45am, when we rose to hike up Masada in the dark. When we reached the top, the sun rose and the rocks were one million colors and the Dead Sea was heart-shaped and we were breathless. We walked through the ruins and saw the oldest known synagogue in Israel before hiking back down. We went to the Dead Sea, we floated on our backs and laughed. We saw a herd of ibexes at Ein Gedi National Park.

We barely slept for 10 days. We rose at 6am and often did not return to our hotel till midnight. It was worth it. We rushed through open-air markets and bought colorful scarves and kippot and mezuzot. We only stopped for Shabbat, when we learned that the WHOLE COUNTRY stops at once and takes a collective breath.

It was fascinating to be in the religious majority. It's not that I feel marginalized in America. I don't. I'm white, and I'm in a heterosexual relationship. I'm not marginalized. But in Israel, the country closes at 4pm on Friday at Sunday and opens on 5pm Saturday at sundown. It's like walking through a ghost town Saturday morning on the way to Shabbat services. There are mezuzot in EVERY doorway - even hotel rooms and store fronts, because almost everyone is Jewish. And there is Judaica everywhere - Jewish art, chamsas, Stars of David. Can you imagine a country that does not get ready for Christmas before Thanksgiving? Where everything is kosher and you can buy challah on every street corner? Imagine! It's almost inconceivable unless you've seen it.

Being on Birthright meant that I was surrounded by Jewish friends all the time. We talked about Jewish identity and politics over breakfast every day and I never once had to explain myself.

That said...being in Israel for ten days confirmed what I already knew: IT'S NOT MY HOMELAND. Some people on my trip got to Jerusalem and when we danced and sang on the sidewalks they told me they felt like they'd come home. I didn't. And I don't think it's the "holy land" because I believe, even more strongly now than I ever have before, that NO LAND IS MORE HOLY THAN ANOTHER. It's not about PLACE it's about the PEOPLE. COMMUNITY makes something "holy" or "sacred" or "divine." And while Cai and I formed almost instant friendships with the people on our trip, my community is in Santa Cruz, and so is my home. It's at Santa Cruz Hillel and the Co-Op. If I lived in Israel and built a community there, it would be different, but I don't intend to. I don't need a physical proximity to ancient relics to feel spiritually connected.

I definitely felt a cultural and historical connection, from being in the religious majority for the first and only time in my life.

But I feel more spiritually connected sitting on the floor at the Co-Op instead of standing at the Wall in Jerusalem. I feel more connected staring out over the ocean at West Cliff instead of staring out over the Galilee. It's not that I didn't feel spiritual in Israel. I did. It's just...different.

Anyways. I think I've rambled enough for now. It was a really incredible trip. I made friends I'll never forget. I learned valuable lessons. I saw things I still can't even quite understand, it was all so immense. I can't believe how much they packed into 10 days. Every day felt like three days. I want more. But not yet.