Not in my back yard

Yesterday morning, as parishioners gathered to celebrate Ash Wednesday, it was discovered that a Catholic Church in my hometown was defaced and vandalized.  They broke a wood cross, spray-painted on the sides of the building, and defaced statues of Mary and Joseph.

The media coverage has been swift and thorough.  They report that clergy from other faiths have reached out to the community on one of their most important days and that the police are investigating this crime. 

Hate crimes are tools of intimidation that have no place in a democratic society.  Cowardly vandalism is not the appropriate method of dealing with any issues a person might have with the Catholic Church, or a member of this congregation.

I don’t know what kind of society we live in anymore.  Sure, my hometown has its racial tensions, but we’ve always been pretty tight knit given our size.  I can’t believe people would do this here.  Or that people break into mosques and urinate on prayer mats.  Or that  last winter, the Jewish community back east witnessed a string of vandalism.  It’s unacceptable.


My mom doesn’t always understand why I’m so excited to see Jews in the media. I think any member of a minority group can relate: we’re very rarely in the media, and when we are, it’s not always as a fully-fleshed out, nuanced character. We’re always some plot device or trite archtype.

So when I see us portrayed as PEOPLE, normal human beings with lives and problems and flaws and amazing moments of happiness…who just happen to be Jewish, Jewish people… I get excited. It’s amazing when we’re not the “self-hating” Jew, or the “funny, intellectual” secular liberal Jew, or the “backwards” Orthodox Jew….

And, shock and horror, I’ve found that many of the films and movies I’ve encountered that have “normal” Jewish characters have come out of Israel. Srugim is one of them. I’m talking non-stop about it and encouraging all people to watch.
Srugim started in Israel in 2008, so I am arriving late to this party. There’s a good chance you already went to the party and returned home, kicking your heels off and loosening your tie. But. If you have not been invited, here it is. You are invited to run, not walk, to your closest copy of Srugim, a tv show about five single Dati Jerusalemites approach their 30th birthday. They live in Katamon, aka the Swamp, a neighborhood/district/barrio for single Datim.

I may or may not have finished the first season in three nights. And I’m currently chugging my way through the second at another equally alarming speed: when will the dishes get done tonight? Do I make my bed or watch another scene in the morning? Do I pray in English so I can finish another episode tonight or do I stumble along in Hebrew knowing it will take three to four times as long? Decisions, decisions.

So what do I like about it?

A) The drama. I can’t stand to be around people in my own life that remind me of Grey’s Anatomy characters. But, I recognize that drama is a compelling genre for its ability to capture the tension in life that we run into. We do have to make tough choices, wade through hard situations, and encounter other beings. Srugim is a TV show, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a level of drama, and situational drama, that I find bearable.

B)Orthodoxy. I’m a Conservative Jew. A happy Conservative Jew. I have my beefs with Orthodoxy, but I honestly cringe every time I see Orthodox Jews portrayed in the media. They’re not wife-beaters stuck in the Middle Ages. They’re not brainwashed and incapable of critical thought. They’re not totally unrelatable alien lifeforms with quaint folk customs for us to gawk at. Of all the media I’ve seen, this most accurately reflects the Jews I know who are Orthodox. It may not be 100% accurate, but it comes the closest that I’ve seen. I’d be interested in hearing what Orthodox Jews think of the OJs in this series.

C)Hebrew practice. I’ve already learned new words and phrases from listening. My accent and rhythym are horrible, but I figure they always will be.

D) Israel. Oh boy. I am so conflicted on Israel (can’t wait to see what I feel like then I get back in a few weeks!) and am currently feeling very much an American Jew. Who is happy to live outside of Israel, in the Diaspora that I refuse to call Exile. And yet watching this series provokes a longing in me. How much LESS of a personal struggle would kashrut be there? What would it feel like to not have to negotiate work schedules around Yom Tov? To have people approach you (assuming you’re a man) in the street asking you to make minyan for them? It’s kinda… mind blowing.

So yes. Please watch. And let’s discuss!

P.S. In case you live under a rock, Matisyahu shaved his beard. I’m clutching my pearls and scratching my head. I joke.

I had to turn off the interwebs yesterday.

Everything was going fine yesterday until I checked Facebook at lunch.  First I read a story about a small Baptist Church in Kentucky that voted recently to not allow interracial couples to join as members.  Sure, they could come to worship, but they couldn’t participate in any services unless it was a funeral.  I’m not sure why that matters to the church, why a funeral is different than regular Sunday worship or baptisms or marriages.  But it apparently does.  And they want you to know, of course, that they’re not racist! They’re just… this isn’t appropriate.  Or something.

It took me a while to calm down.  It boggles my mind that in 2011 we are still having these discussions, even in rural Kentucky appalachia. What’s even more disgusting is that 9 people voted for this, 6 people voted against, and approximately 25 other people in attendance “abstained” from voting at all.  I’m sorry, is this a convoluted gray issue? Are you too chicken-shit to call out your “brothers in Christ” on their crazy stupid idea that some of us are “more” or “better” Children of G-d than others, based on pigmentation levels in skin?  I guess the one benefit of stumbling across this article is that it provides excellent ammunition for the next person I meet who denies that racism is still alive and well in this country.

But then, I realize another of my friends posted this article from the Atlantic about an ad campaign airing “in at least five American communities that warn Israeli expatriates that they will lose their identities if they don’t return home.”  Okay.  Fair enough.  The pressure to assimilate can be strong, I get that, and we ARE two different cultures and societies.  But then I actually watched the videos.  I’ll let them speak for themselves:

(I guess the one small benefit is that I could read 75% of the Hebrew on the screen and understood about half of it.)  This Yom HaZikaron ad is at once hilarious and perplexing.  The male actor looks nothing like 90% of Jewish young adult men I’ve met in my life (save the Renewal crew in the Berkeley area…), what with his long pony tail and awkward accent and intonation when speaking in English.  And why is this guy supposed to read her mind? Why is she not capable of saying “Hey, you know what, I’m not all that interested in hanging out with friends tonight.  Today is Israel’s Memorial Day, and I always feel sad about all the lives that were lost in the wars and how my cousin was affected by his time in the IDF. Can we just stay home and let me have some space?”

Instead, this ad makes it seem like American significant others are deliberately obtuse or that Israelis live on some other planet and are alien creatures that are impossible to relate to.

I’m sorry, but what?! If little Nuraleh doesn’t understand the significance of Chanukah (and of COURSE the government chose the holiday specifically about assimilation!), isn’t that the fault of the “will always remain Israeli” parents?  The parents who haven’t taught their Jewish daughter enough about Judaism or Jewish identity?  I know plenty of Jewish kids in America who wouldn’t fail that “test” administered by the grandparents. But once again, no, it’s our American Jewish culture and education that’s inadequate, not at all the precious Israeli parents.

It’s a backhanded slap in the face to American Jews and I can’t believe the Israeli government ever thought this was a good idea. Klal Yisrael and Am Israel! Right?! Not.

I think I’ll just copy and paste the last paragraph of the Atlantic article here to finish my thoughts on the matter:

These government-sponsored ads suggest that it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America. How else are we supposed to understand the “Christmas” ad? Obviously, assimilation and intermarriage are issues in America in ways they aren’t in Israel. Israel has other problems of course, such as the fact that many of its rabbis act like Iranian mullahs. (I’m not even going to try to unpack my complicated beliefs about intermarriage and assimilation and life in the Diaspora here; that’s for a book. But let me just say that intermarriage can also be understood as an opportunity.)

The idea, communicated in these ads, that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik (if you don’t mind me resorting to the vernacular). The message is: Dear American Jews, thank you for lobbying for American defense aid (and what a great show you put on at the AIPAC convention every year!) but, please, stay away from our sons and daughters.

Temporary Jewish Record Store

I read an article in the Chronicle yesterday about a temporary record store that will set up shop in the Mission District for the month of December.  The man behind this project rented an art gallery and is turning it into a mid-century American living room to highlight Tikva Records.  I was not around when Tikva Records existed, but the article summarizes it as:

“…the flagship independent Jewish record label of 20th century America. Founded in 1947, Tikva’s catalog was wide-ranging; everything from Israeli folk songs to Jewish-American swing, from klezmer pop to cantorial singing, from Catskills comedy to key political speeches of Jewish leaders- and it became something of a “Jewish Motown”, home to the Jewish music world’s biggest names.”

which sounds pretty cool to me (not that I fully embrace the titles of history buff and nerd/geek or anything).  From the website, it sounds like this man tracked down the original recordings and artists over the last decade, raising the funds to restore them and recording some of their stories.  Talk about a labor of love. 

They have a website where you can listen to some of the remastered tracks, purchase albums, and find out what events are going on in the store.  I already ordered two albums, one of the label’s “best of” from over the decades and one of a Jewish-Latin combo (could that BE any more perfect for me? Creo que no!)

So, if you’re in the area, looking for something to do on a weekend, love mid-Century decor, or are simply interested in cultural interaction and Jewish American history, I suggest you check it out!


Work Conversations

Yesterday, we had our weekly staff meeting.

Boss Lady: Okay, and as a head’s up, Mikvah Bound will be out of the office next week on Thursday and Friday.

Coworker 1: Oh, nice, where are you going? Weekend getaway?

Mikvah Bound: No, I’ll be going to my synagogue.  It’s Rosh HaShannah.

[Coworker 2’s eyes grow to be the size of Guam as his face reddens]

Boss Lady: Coworker 2, are you okay?

Coworker 2:  My wife is going to be so mad at me!  She wanted me to ask for that day off… like a month ago.

Coworker 1: That day? [eyes Mikvah Bound suspiciously] Why does he need one and you need two?

Mikvah Bound: I’m Conservative. We do two days.  That’s how we roll.

Coworker 2: My wife and kids go to a Reform temple.  They do one.

Boss Lady: Interesting… so you want Thursday or Friday off?

Coworker 2: Thursday.  Oh, and Wednesday, can I leave early? About an hour?

Mikvah Bound: Ooh, me too.

Coworker 1: Now you’re just being greedy!

Mikvah Bound:  The holiday actually starts Wednesday night, at sundown.  There will be services then, too.

Boss Lady: How long is this holiday?!

Mikvah Bound:   One day.  But Jewish days start at dusk and go from sundown to sundown.  Back in the olden days, people outside of Israel couldn’t determine the correct lunar date with accuracy, so they decided to add one to be sure they celebrated on the right day.

Coworker 1: So what do you do to celebrate?

Mikvah Bound: Go to synagogue a lot.   Eat a lot.  Like most any other holiday.

Boss Lady: Huh, so do some people do it three days?

Coworker 2: No, not that I’ve ever heard…

Boss Lady:  So why does Lawyer Lady upstairs need three days then?

Coworker 2: Ah, her family is Orthodox. Who knows what they do!

Mikvah Bound:  Orthodox do it two days, too.  So I bet her mom is going kinda crazy right now and needs lots of last minute meal help on Wednesday during the day, before sundown.  We can’t cook on holidays—

Coworker 1: So an important part of this holiday is food, but you can’t cook it?

Mikvah Bound: Well, we gotta cook it before and then keep it warm during the holidays, but without starting a fire.

Boss Lady: This sounds… wonderful.

Mikvah Bound: It’s not so bad normally.  But this year we have Shabbat RIGHT after, so her mom has to make three days’ worth of meals, since we can’t cook on Shabbat either.  So three days’ worth of meals all cooked before Wednesday at dusk.

Coworker 1: You people are crazy and masochistic!

Mikvah Bound: But wait, I haven’t even told you about the fast day that was supposed to fall on Saturday, but is being pushed to Sunday this year!

First they came…

Never been a huge fan of Israeli politics, as I’m pretty sure all of us here know. And while I really try hard to have empathy for the individual gerim who are being denied the opportunity to make aliyah because their batei din don’t meet the requirements of the Israeli rabbinate (who think there are so many of us out here who can afford to pay 1 million dollars to rabbis for the purpose of converting that they need to be extra careful with screening aliyah candidates), I find myself just not giving a you know what.

The Orthodox are only now speaking up because their own gerim are being rejected. But all the years that us Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist, and Conservative converts weren’t good enough to immigrate, or aren’t good enough to marry… were perfectly okay.  It’s almost amusing that the Orthodox in the Diaspora thought they were special enough to be spared the increasingly ridiculous requirements and stringincies.  Maybe as the holiday celebrating the courage to claim your identity and to do what you know is right settles upon us, the American Orthodox rabbinical community could humble itself enough to consider the true meaning of klal Yisrael and be willing to partner with our organizations to work to ensure that all Jews who wish to make aliyah have the opportunity to do so.

Say what?!

A couple of weeks ago, I saw an event listed in the NEXT enewsletter that I get for young adults in the Bay Area.  I’ve not been on Birthright, but I figure this would be a good way to meet Jews my age that are involved with their Judaism in their own way.

One event, hosted last night, was about the Jews of India.  Considering my BFF is Indian and we’re in the conversion class, I thought it would be great to go learn about the Jewish communities in a country she is familiar with.

I know I’m a nerd and would probably be the only one super excited about a 30 minute documentary or lecture on the topic followed my socializing and mingling.  I’m just super disappointed that of the entire 3 hour event, 15 minutes were spent sharing facts about our “assigned” community of India.  The rest of the time was clearly meant for socializing.  Which is fine, but then I feel the event should clearly state that.

Once socializing did happen, my sense of Otherness was totally reinforced.  One person started talking about Gentiles who use Yiddish words and how that really annoys him.   I almost choked on my daal.  Some Yiddish words have made it into the English vernacular–chutzpah, schlep and schmuk are English (at least American English) words now.  They do not belong to Jews or Gentiles.  Claiming ownership of language really revealed how ignorant of language he is.  All languages are changed by their speakers and the speakers of other languages that they encounter.  I really felt like asking if he thought only Spanish people should be allowed to say alligator or if only French people should be allowed to say ballet.  Maybe only Arabs own pajamas and Indians khakis?  I didn’t feel comfortable outting myself at that point, so I kept quiet, but it was really offputting.

I did meet a Fellow though, who I wouldn’t mind hanging out with again.  She goes to the Orthodox synagogue around the block from my own; I said we should go to each other’s one time and she seemed into it.  I’d love a buddy before showing up at Orthodox services for the first time.

Oh, and I’m in the editing stages of my conversion essay.  I’m hoping to have it all done by Sunday.  We’ll see.  Shabbat shalom y’all.

The world’s horrors are merely opportunities to make it right

I stumbled upon Velveteen Rabbi’s blog so many years ago that I don’t even remember what search led me there. All I know is that I love the haggadah she lets the world use for free each Pesach, and that I’ve enjoyed reading her journey into motherhood documented via her poetry.

Last week, after I got home from shul, I wasn’t tired enough to fall asleep. So I started checking around my weekly reading sites and read about her act of kindness. It touched me so much that I immediately reposted on facebook, despite it being Shabbat (sorry G-d, promise, it was for a good reason!). She launched a campaign to accept donations to replace prayer rugs a drunk bigot ruined with his urine in a New York masjid.

What blows me away is the quantity of donations over 48 hours, in $5, $10 and $20 dollar increments: $1,180 dollars.

Via twitter, facebook and blogs. In 48 hours. $1180.

I don’t know if this is a mitzvah, or if it’s tzedakah, or if it’s tikkun olam, or all three wrapped together. All I know is that this is a powerful reminder of the ability to do good in the world, the agency of one individual changing the world for the better, and an encouraging demonstration of humanity at a height of ignorance and hatred.

Memo to American Public: Rights not determined at the ballot

Rights are not subject to popular vote or public opinion. I don’t understand why this concept is so difficult for so many Americans to understand. The majority does not get to infringe on the constitutional rights of the minority just because they wield the might of numbers.

This summer has brought two topics to the forefront of American culture—gay marriage and religious freedom. Seemingly unrelated topics until you consider the societal structure of the debate. We have civil marriage in this country. Moral objections of some private citizens—not even an overwhelming majority—should not legislate the discrimination of some 10% of our population.

Similarly, the use of privately owned land in accordance with city ordinances and state law should not be dictated by the outraged bigots taking to the streets over some perceived indignation for desecrating the memory of their loved ones.

I don’t even remember when I first heard about the controversy surrounding the mosque being built in downtown Manhattan. I refuse to call it the ground zero mosque after becoming more familiar with the facts surrounding the situation. It’s not at ground zero, but two blocks away. It is not visible from ground zero due to the height of buildings in between the two sites. It is on a side street, away from main thoroughfares to the original TwinTowers. It is destined to be a community center, analogous to a JCC—with room for prayer space, but also educational wings, a fitness center, and craft rooms.

It intends to nurture the American Islam that the world needs so desperately right now. One that sees no conflict between democracy and al-din. One that educates their women. One that encourages adoption of religious customs according to a person’s personal conscience. One that believes in the power of dialogue to resolve conflicts. One that defends the religious tolerance and plurality that makes up the fabric of American life.

Over the weekend, President Obama defended the group’s constitutional right to build the Islamic center. And he is already receiving critiques from the GOP who plan to use the statement to its advantage in the midterm elections. How un-American could you be? Where is the outrage over the blind hatred displayed in Tennessee this summer? Where is the outrage over government-mandated discrimination? Where is the outrage in denying Constitutional rights to American citizens?

Religion has thrived in America precisely because of the separation between church and state that maintains a religious free market. You may not like Islam, but you do not have the right to legislate that preference. I would donate to the construction efforts if I could locate such a fund.

Then all that has divided us will merge

And then compassion will be wedded to power

And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind

And then both men and women will be gentle

And then both women and men will be strong

And then no person will be subject to another’s will

And then all will be rich and free and varied

And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many

And then all will share equally in the earth’s abundance

And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old

And then all will nourish the young

And then all will cherish life’s creatures

And then all will live in harmony with each other and with the earth

And everywhere will be called Eden, once again

–Judy Chicago

American Judaism

I finally visited the library a few weeks ago and got my hands on American Judaism by Jonathan Sarna.  Too often the world of Jewish history is full of bleak predictions of doom and gloom.  Who wants to read about the demise of your people? No one.  Sarna’s positive outlook on American Judaism was a breath of fresh air that I could not wait to return to each time I put it down.

He presents a tale of American Judaism that has always reflected the historical outlook of its era.  The American Revolution allowed Jews to build proud edifices to their faith, decorated in Hebrew and with Judaic symbols.  Judaism adopted the successful and admirable qualities of different faith groups, enriching, nourishing and sustaining the faith, allowing Jews to live freely as pious or secular members of society.

Woven within the 350 pages are the vacillations between inclusive and exclusive strategies of maintaining synagogue membership and Jewish self-identification.  Even today, Jews grapple with compromising for unity and firmness for principle.

I had never heard of the evolution of the institutional purpose(s) of the synagogue, but it completely makes sense that it became a child indoctrination center due to suburban sprawl.  I feel now that they are beginning to swing toward adult services too, understanding that Judaism doesn’t correlate with one life phase alone.

A very interesting model for determining the likelihood of ritual retention/practice was offered in the pages, and it really struck me at how true it is, even outside of religious considerations.  According to Marshall Sklare, the highest degree of retention occurs when a ritual:

“1) is capable of effective redefinition in modern terms

2) does not demand social isolation or the adoption of a unique life style

3) accords with the religious culture of the larger community and provides a “Jewish” alternative when such is felt to be needed

4) is centered on the child

5) is performed annually or infrequently.”

I also enjoyed the outline he provided about the distinct responses to modernity offered by American Jews.  New York congregations worked within Judaism to accept the non-controversial aspects of American life–what today would be called the MO approach.  Congregations in South Carolina, however, decided Judaism itself needed to reflect the time–what would be called the Reform approach today.  I had never realized until he made the point that both reject the Sephardic tradition of having a uniform minhag throughout the world because the authority lay with, well the laymen, and not the elite organization authority.

I realized I held too monolithic an understanding of European Jews–I did not realize there was such a distinction in practice, belief, and authority figures among Lithuanian, Hungarian, Polish, and German communities.  I am delighted to have corrected on this assumption, and I feel propelled to better understand Medieval Jewish Europe to the Renaissance time.

I was also strengthened in the knowledge that other Jews have struggled to maintain an amicable relationship with Israel the Holy Land.  I love being American.  I love the diversity of Judaism’s here.  It frustrates me that Israel receives so much of our attention and so little of our criticism.  It’s just nice to know that some viewed America as the Promised Land for what it enable Jews to do, years before other nations.  Israel with always be the Holy Land, and I want it always to be open to Jewish life.  But I’m tired of feeling like America is so damn awful a place to live in that we all need to flee the Diaspora.

I’ve waffled between movement affiliations in the past.  One quote (p. 136) really stuck out to me, from a Max Cohen who described what I feel the Conservative movement’s strengths currently appear to be in my eyes: “while not inordinately addicted to Orthodoxy as a rigid standardization of thought and conduct, was yet opposed to the wholesale and reckless discarding of everything that was Jewish simply because it was inconvenient, oriental, or was not in conformity with Episcopalian customs.”  That is why Conservative Judaism appeals so much to me–yes, life changes, yes, our understanding of the world and the Holy changes, but that requires careful assessment of current practice, not utter rejection and reinvention each time the social era restructures itself economically or culturally.

The biggest lesson of America, and American Judaism, is that religion thrives when religion and state are separated. That’s America’s greatest, proven lesson to the world, and a good explanation as to why America is still so religious.