short in stature, outsize in personality

i started trying to walk in my grandmother's steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

i started trying to walk in my grandmother’s steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

My grandmother died this summer.

She was 96 and had lived on her own until age 92, when she suffered a stroke on the same day as her identical twin sister, who was living 800 miles and three states away (and who sadly passed away just a few days later). Because of the selflessness of my aunt and uncle, the last four years of her life she was able to continue to live in her home of 30 years, in Austin, Texas — cared for by the two of them and two wonderful home aides.

Gay Barr Wilkes had a full life and passed away surrounded by people who loved her. Her death is the kind we probably all aspire to; it’s certainly not a tragedy. But it’s still hard. In some ways I lost the Granny Gay I knew my whole life on the day of the stroke that reduced her so much. But I could still hug her and talk to her, and even though she didn’t say my name anymore, I knew that she knew who I was. And I knew that she loved me as much as she always had.

My mom is struggling with mourning both her mom who was and the one who she became in those last years. I am struggling with feeling so far away from my family the vast majority of the time that the force of this important event seems to have only struck a glancing blow. Did I really say goodbye to Granny Gay when I moved 2,000 miles away? I couldn’t make it to say a final goodbye in person, when her body began to shut down and we knew the end was near, but I was incredibly privileged to be able to organize a final farewell — because my family let me design her memorial service.

In the conversations my aunt and I had in the weeks leading up her my grandmother’s death, I asked about plans for the memorial service. I am, after all, training to be clergy: I think about the rituals of life transitions all the time. My grandmother was a woman of faith more than of religion, and since the Methodist minister of the church that she and my grandfather would on occasion attend had since moved on, my aunt wasn’t left with a meaningful choice for an officiant. (Ever the planners, my grandparents had long ago purchased a package with a local funeral home — meaning that the location and other arrangements had long since been finalized.) With many deaths, a non-family clergy member is needed, or just wanted, to hold the space for mourners. My family wasn’t wracked with grief, though; more than that, I wanted to lead the service. It’s something I knew I could do, and do well, for my family. And my aunt was trusting enough to turn it over to me.

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother's Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother’s Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Everyone got a part — daughters, sons-in-law, nephews, grandchildren. I was in awe of how eloquent they all were in sharing different parts of her life and talking about what she meant to them. I lost it when her oldest grandson, my cousin Seth, started crying when he spoke about Granny.

He had lived with her and Papa as when he finally finished his undergraduate degree almost 10 years after high school. Discouraged by his slow progress, he complained to her that he would be 27 by the time he finished at the University of Texas at Austin. Her response is a piece of advice I’ve turned to many a time during my winding journey to where I am today. “You’re going to be 27 anyway.” Time passes by regardless, she had reason to know, so you might as well do what you want to do.

Seth also provided an important antidote to the rhapsody that inevitably occurs at funerals. He talked about a time when she was wrong, admitted it, and changed her behavior. Of course, that ultimately makes her even more worthy of praise.

I lived in Austin for five years, from 1997 to 2002, the only of her children and grandchildren there at that time. I got to spend lots of time with her and my grandfather, precious time of eating dinner, doing laundry, and studying at their house. I am thankful that I was smart enough to recognize it even then for the gift that it was. After college I moved to Raleigh, then to D.C., and finally to Boston, my trip up the Atlantic coast taking me farther and farther away from her. I don’t know how much of my new path to rabbinical school she ever understood (and I mean that literally, as she had already begun deteriorating from the stroke when I went back to school), but I am sure she was proud of me to the end.

When I was very young, she told me, “Salem you can be whatever you want to be.” As a child I later slightly reinterpreted her words when my mother announced it was time for bed: “Nope! Granny said I can do whatever I want to do.”

I’ll be almost 40 be the time I’m ordained as rabbi, but I’ll be almost 40 (bs”d) anyway. And I’ll be what I want to be.

midnight mass

Early yesterday morning I went to midnight mass at the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus. On Monday, I noticed it right across the street from where I’m staying while I’m in New York this week (for Mechon Hadar’s Singing Communities Intensive). I’ve never been to a Catholic midnight mass, though I think I’ve gone to an Episcopalian one before, and I was curious.

Right before I arrived, I posted on Facebook that I was going to the service. I was a little nervous in doing so. I was comfortable in my decision: I think it’s perfectly fine for me to attend another religion’s services (as long as they also think it is), and my hope is to do interfaith work, which I can’t do unless I’m willing to “border cross” (a term I borrow from the lovely UU folks). But I did wonder how it would look, and, truth be told, that factor is made more complicated by the fact of my conversion. I don’t want my decision to be mistaken for nostalgia (which it couldn’t be, because Catholicism was not my tradition, and indeed was as foreign to me as Judaism when I first came to it) or ambivalence about Judaism (which it absolutely isn’t). Simply put, this was cultural tourism — which I hope I pulled off with sensitivity.

church of the holy name of jesus; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

church of the holy name of jesus; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The service turned out to be a really powerful experience, and in sharing it with a few of my fellow seminar participants, I realized I wanted to write about it here.

It turns out that I was in no way the only Jew who went to midnight mass on Erev Christmas. A group from my seminar went to St. John the Divine for its late service. And a rabbi who was a mentor to me when I lived in D.C. commented that my post made her miss “her” church, the one she used to go to on Christmas Eve when she lived in New York. As it turns out, in an amazing coincidence, this church *is* her church. And the church itself recognized that outsiders might be in attendance: When he offered the invocation, the pastor welcomed the parishioners, as well as “our friends of other religions who have joined us tonight.”

The service was in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole, reflecting the diversity of the parish. Indeed, there was a striking variety of race and socio-economic status among the attendees. And the three languages were well-integrated; none was token. Many readings and hymns were only offered in one language, with translations printed in the other two languages. The main reading, the story of the birth of Jesus from the gospel of Luke, was read verse-by-verse in the three languages. It seemed like two of the associate friars were native Spanish and Creole speakers, respectively.

The service was really moving. (My friends said the same thing about the service at St. John the Divine.) The building’s Gothic Revival architecture is strikingly dramatic, and it was decorated with lots of lights and greenery. The music was beautiful, and at the end of the service the choir sang the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” (The one odd moment was seeing one of the friars carrying an old plastic doll supposed to represent the baby Jesus during the procession.)

I found myself watching the service through a lens informed by the seminar that I’m participating in this week. The annual program at this egalitarian yeshiva is focusing on the High Holidays; we’re studying Torah related to music and the days’ liturgies, melodies, and nusach. Christmas and Easter, I imagine, are the church’s High Holidays. These are the two times a year when it has an opportunity to reach parishioners who don’t come the rest of year. As with synagogues, there is probably enormous pressure to make the service accessible and engaging.

I especially saw this in the pastor’s homily. He talked about the angels’ injunction to the shepherds, upon announcing the birth of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid.” He addressed some of the most vulnerable members of the congregation, including queer folks and undocumented immigrants, reassuring them of G-d’s love and message to them not to be fearful.

Everyone exited the church joyfully, wishing those around them a merry Christmas. I was very happy I went. (So was my mom, who I views any way that I am Jesus-adjacent as a positive.)

how (not) to delete a blog post

A few weeks ago, I removed from this blog all of the posts that I had written about my experiences at the interfaith program I was a part of in England. I had written about text study, a weekend trip, and a guest speaker. I have since restored all four posts, but they’ve been edited, mostly to remove references to specific people and to the program and the university that runs it. I’ve never done anything like this before — and in theory it offends the honesty and integrity that I (at least try to) bring to this space — but I think it was the right decision at the time, when I deleted the posts, and I think it’s the right decision now to re-post edited versions.

tiles, with an oddly apropos message, for sale in old spitalfields market in london; photo by salem pearce

tiles, with an oddly apropos message, for sale in old spitalfields market in london; photo by salem pearce

The mass deleting happened a few days after I posted an excoriation of a guest speaker — who made outrageously homophobic and sexist remarks — and of the program’s reaction to him and to my fellow participants’ objections to him. When I first published the post, I got two types of reactions. From my friends in the program and at home, I was thanked and cheered on for standing up to the speaker. From the program leadership and some other participants, I was pressured to take down the post. One of the program staff expressed concern that someone googling the program would see the post — and that it might deter future applicants and funders. (When I told my husband this, he trenchantly noted, “DUH!”) Two of my fellow participants felt that the comparison I made between the speaker and Hugo Schwyzer was unfair.

Another of the program staff — one brought on to do pastoral work for its duration — was concerned about what she thought was an impulsive decision to post a criticism of the speaker and the program. You have to think about whether you’re creating light or heat, she said.

I really think that the latter was coming from a good place — I came to trust her very much over the next two weeks — and I do think that there was something for me to learn from the experience and from my reaction to it. As she pointed out, how would I feel as a rabbi to have someone do to me what I did to the speaker? Indeed, if I had it to do over again, I think I would have waited for the program’s reaction — and let myself process more — before posting a reflection. To be sure, the program’s reaction, both immediately and throughout the rest of the program, only evidenced its unpreparedness to deal with these situations, but I think I can more clearly articulate my concerns now, since the program has ended.

In regard to creating light or creating heat, I understand the point that was being made, but I think the post was light for some people. Not for the program, and not for the speaker, but for the people whom the speaker so callously dismissed. I want my rabbinate to be about speaking truth to power: One of the reasons I went to rabbinical school was to be able to be an ally to marginalized folks from a position of religious authority — exactly the opposite of what the speaker did.

Four days after I wrote about the guest speaker, I was formally asked by the program to take down the blog post. The speaker had read it and was, to put it mildly, quite displeased. I was told that he threatened to sue the program as well as me personally, and the program staff felt that threat was sufficiently powerful to render the program vulnerable, to the point where it might not exist if the speaker carried out his threat.

The threat really, really scared me, too. I had heard that libel laws are almost the exact opposite in England as they are in the U.S. (which fact someone confirmed for me last week), and I had visions of being dragged into court, needing to get a lawyer, not being able to leave the country, etc. In short, his threat worked, and I removed the post from my website. I didn’t want to be sued, and I didn’t — and still don’t — want the program to go under. (I deleted the other posts about the program out of anger; I figured if the staff didn’t want bad press then they didn’t deserve good press.)

Obviously, the speaker’s move was a cowardly one. Though in the post I originally compared the speaker to Hugo Schwyzer, I’ve come to believe that drawing that parallel was tenuous and distracting, and I’ve deleted it. (Of course, the speaker didn’t help himself by using back channels to threaten and to silence me, as Schwyzer is known to have done.) I really don’t understand how you get to be “Britain’s most influential Muslim” and not be able to countenance criticism.

a beautiful morning in london (view from the hungerford bridge); photo by salem pearce (via instagram

a beautiful morning in london (view from the hungerford bridge); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I wish the program could have stood up to the speaker. Essentially, I felt that the program was condoning what he did. The situation was especially painful for me as it brought back memories of one of the hardest times in my life, when my boss sexually assaulted one of my coworkers — and the organization’s board stood by him. It was like it was happening all over again: The behavior of a powerful white man was excused and covered up by an institution that should, in theory, work against it.

I wish the program had done other things, too. The staff failed to realize how damaging the speaker’s comments were until one of the interns told them. The speaker’s comments were talked about in generalities instead of specifics and were characterized as “controversial” instead of condemned. The program staff initially declined to do any group work around the issue because they didn’t feel they would be able to facilitate that discussion well, so they didn’t want to do it all; it was only on the second-to-last day of the program that an outside speaker — not even a member of the program staff — held a (non-mandatory) group discussion. I didn’t go.

Ultimately, the program proved itself sorely ill-equipped to deal with this crisis. As my therapist pointed out, this issue could have become the conference and could have led to something really great. But it was swept under the rug, I think in part out of fear of the reaction of the large group from a culturally conservative Persian Gulf country. I think it’s true that these men and women don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about queer issues (the excuse offered for dodging the problem), and I think that truth ignores more important ones. Namely, the issues the speaker raised were less about homophobia or sexism (or general dismissiveness of progressive religious traditions, another of the speaker’s sins) than about how to be compassionate and respectful in the face of disagreement. Which was purportedly the entire point of our text studies, the cornerstone of the program.

I also think that the program has a responsibility to ensure pre-conference education for the participants from this conservative country. If they are going to a Western country, to participate in a program with more progressive liberal strains, then they need to know that there is the possibility of encountering queer folks. I think it could be even something as basic as the fact that a man might be in a relationship with another man, instead of a woman. And since this leaves out many, many queer folks, I would definitely recommend that my gender-queer and transgender friends not participate in this program as is. And in my opinion, even cis-gendered gay folks would do well to consider what limitations their participation would engender (excuse the pun).

When I was asked to take down the post, I felt frightened and humiliated and all alone. I was far away from my husband and friends and supportive community. It was the Friday afternoon before a free weekend, so almost everyone in the program had left the castle grounds. I wanted to leave to go home early. I wondered if I had made a huge mistake in publishing the original post and if I had made a huge mistake in taking it down. I wondered if I were fit to be in rabbinical school.

I decided to stick it out (last-minute one-way tickets from London to Boston are expensive!), and I think I’m glad I did. I didn’t tell any of my fellow participants what happened, which felt weird, and I mostly kept my head down and my mouth shut the final week, which also felt weird. It was a survival technique. And I lived to tell the strange tale.

the bully of britain

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England. It was briefly deleted from this site under threat of a lawsuit and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it, as well as to remove a comparison that upon further reflection was just distracting. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

The shit hit the fan last night, as it had to at some point in the formation of a new group.

Tim Winter, also known as Sheikh Abdul-Hakim Murad, spoke with us as part of my program’s “Saloon Conversations” — envisioned as informal sessions with speakers in the large room here at the castle that is known as “the Saloon.” At the beginning of the program last week, we were told that all of the speakers — and the formal lecturers as well — had been invited because of their peacemaking work and would be talking about that work in their religious contexts.

We sat down in the Saloon, the room’s comfy chairs and sofa arranged in several semicircles around the fireplace. The director of the program introduced Winter and later moderated the Q&A session.

A convert to Islam, Winter started by speaking about his work with the college that provides a one-year program for imams to give them the education, in his words, from which their religious institutions have shielded them. For instance, they learn pastoral skills and about other religions. Every year he takes the students to the Vatican, where they meet with Catholic priests, with whom they have very little in common and who are often quite frank about their hostility to Islam. It was in this context that Winter told the heartwarming story of an experience that served to bind them together: One night, they were all kept awake by Rome’s Gay Pride activities, the “sounds of secular hedonism” bothering everyone.

That was the first red flag. (Well, perhaps the second: I was struck immediately when I walked into the room by how sour and uninterested Winter seemed, which was off-putting. I think this part of his demeanor becomes important below.) I had a hard time listening after this snide and unnecessary comment. I did manage to tune back in for one of his final stories, about a young, non-Muslim woman in one of his classes (Winter teaches Islamic Studies at Cambridge University). “Immodestly dressed” (Winter indicated a sleeveless and perhaps midriff shirt), she was very moved by the Qur’an and wanted to talk with him about that experience. Expressing bewilderment, Winter said, “I wanted to help her. I figured she might have been having a problem with her boyfriend or something.”

At that point I nearly fell out of my chair, and the only reason I stayed in the room was to be able to find my friends afterwards to process what had happened so far. And then it got worse.

One of my fellow participants, a man who is married to a man, the same one who was asked about his wife at Shabbat dinner, and who had been wanting to talk more openly about his life, took the opportunity in the Q&A session to ask about Winter’s characterization of gay people in Rome. He opened by describing himself “as someone who will soon be part of the group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender clergy,” essentially — and bravely! — coming out to the group, and then asked about intersectionality. Winter first responded by stating that there was no place for gay people in the Muslim community. The different denominations of Islam, he said, agree on very little, but they are monolithic in condemning homosexuality. My classmate pushed back, and Winter conceded that he knew of one same-sex couple who were practicing celibacy, and this model was acceptable.

In response to another question, Winter went on to call a more progressive Muslim “naive” before taking and answering questions in Arabic from the native speakers. He only translated bits of those exchanges; I was later told that several questions were critical of Scriptural Reasoning (the program’s signature tool, involving close readings of sacred texts from the three traditions). The exclusion of non-Arabic speakers felt deliberate.

As the program mercifully came to an end, my friends and I began to gather and move to another room for processing, and one of the Muslim men on the text study team (academics experienced in the method) approached my classmate who had asked about queer folks and said he wanted to offer some insight into Winter’s answer. So a few us first went to talk with him.

He first explained that Tim Winter is a controversial figure. Mere months ago, there was a student-led campaign at Cambridge calling for his ouster when a 15-plus-year-old video was posted on YouTube of Winter calling homosexuality an “inherent aberration” and “inherently ugly,” among other things. Winter apologized, claiming that the video represented views he no longer held, and he kept his job. It was also shared that Winter is not an academic in the way that word is usually used — he does not have a Ph.D. — and the man providing this context also characterized Winter as more of a politician, or a community leader. (In 2010, Winter was named by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre as Britain’s most influential Muslim.) Though he considered Winter empirically correct in saying that the vast majority of Muslim leaders do consider homosexuality a sin, he felt that Winter’s answer didn’t express the nuances of the issue that is very present in many Muslim communities. Which is to say that there are of course queer Muslims, and many are accepted — if perhaps not fully — in their communities.

I have many issues with all that transpired. To start, this is now the third time during the first week of this program that I have heard homosexuality condemned: A previous “Saloon Conversation” speaker said so in passing, and then the priest at the Catholic church I visited used the week’s text (Luke 12:49-53) to inveigh against same-sex marriage. While this program certainly cannot control what is said in an independent institution, it is responsible for who it invites. And in this it must be held accountable.

During and after Winter’s presentation, I was trying to figure out who Winter was speaking to: His English was much too quick and sophisticated to reach most of the native-Arabic speakers. But he wasn’t talking to the native English speakers either: The homophobia and sexism were sure to turn off a group of Christians and Jews from more liberal traditions. So he either didn’t know who he was speaking to, which is not the case, as he’s been involved with the program for many years, or he didn’t care who he was speaking to, in which case his behavior was quite outrageous. Going back to the issue of his demeanor, I wonder whether he even wanted to be in the room.

There is of course a way to be faithful to your religious convictions and not marginalize queer folks or demean women. (He has a history of the latter as well, as the premise of his conversion story recalls the chauvinistic doctrine of original sin.) And if you can’t do that, then you ought not to be afforded a place in an interfaith setting in which we are invited into respectful dialogue with each other. One of the goals of our text study is to create a safe space for discussing differences and to learn how to disagree better — and neither of those ends are achieved by dismissiveness. And if the goal of this particular part of the program was to spark conversations about homosexuality in our traditions, which I agree need to happen, there are actually effective and non-traumatic ways of facilitating those. It shouldn’t happen at the expense of those for whom the conversations are not abstract: The other man who is married to a man (who happens to work for Berlin Pride) left the program early in disgust.

More, Winter’s views were given legitimacy by the fawning praise with which the director of the program introduced him, as well as the context into which he was invited to share them. The authority afforded a speaker in a “Saloon Conversation” results in a power imbalance in any ensuing “discussion.”

Finally, I question the choice of a white man to speak about peacemaking in the Muslim community. Putting aside the obvious reality that peacemaking is not Winter’s project, he is not representative of the British Muslim community, which is overwhelming not white. There are of course many non-white Muslim researchers and community leaders and professors who could have spoken to what Winter was brought in to share.

What happens next is not clear. I plan to share these thoughts with the program administrators and to continue having conversations with the people with whom I know it is safe to do so. I don’t know how much of my classmate’s coming out was understood by some of the native-Arabic speakers, so the fallout from that is hard to predict. Last night many expressed, simultaneously with horror at the incident, gratitude for the ensuing conversations. I’m not sure I agree; the price seems quite high for many in the room.

shlepping to shul

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

Continuing the story of my visit to Birmingham, on Saturday morning we went to shul. We could go to Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, an orthodox synagogue, or Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, a Liberal congregation. Though I knew that I would probably appreciate the davenning more at the orthodox shul, I chose BPS because I was curious about egalitarian Judaism in the UK. To be a little snide, this service out-Reformed a Reform synagogue in the U.S.: To some extent, what happened was almost unrecognizable to me.

After a 20-minute walk, we arrived at the synagogue before services started at 11:00 a.m. — which seemed quite late. Also, I’m not sure I’ve ever been in synagogue before services started; because the ones I attend on Shabbat morning tend to be about three hours, I (like many people) drift in 30 or 45 minutes late. So we actually sat for a little while, and the very nice member of the congregation who welcomed us explained that because of the summer holidays, attendance would be sparse, and asked those of us who were Jewish to please sing out during the service. Indeed, there were perhaps 25 congregants, and almost no young people. The rabbi (who is a woman) was away, and in her place a congregant (also a woman) led the service.

The service was quite abbreviated, with none of the prayers — including the Amidah — said (or even printed) in full. Many were replaced by responsive readings in English. I knew almost none of the melodies, and I think (though I’m not an expert) that the ones used were difficult to sing, and not that spirited. Honestly, I felt like I was in church, which is not bad per se, but not what I would want in a synagogue.

The Torah service was in the same vein. The procession of the scroll happened only after the reading, and there was only one aliyah, meaning that only a very small part of the parshah was read. And the tallit of young girl who had the aliyah was longer than her overall shorts. (I realize that makes me sound crotchety.) The Torah reader gave a short d’var and then did just that: read the Torah. He didn’t chant it; he just read it from the scroll. He then offered his own translation. I’ve never seen this tradition before, though I was told it is standard practice in these congregations in England. The reader did gain my affection by talking about the points of grammar he considered when making his translation; he even used the words “infinitive absolute”!

After kiddush, we went back upstairs so that the non-Jews could look at the Torah scroll close up. The congregation has four scrolls, which is quite a lot for a 300-member shul. (Most synagogues do have more than one, to avoid constant scroll rolling, since a holiday might make it necessary to read from different parts of the scroll.) The building, too, was quite modern and expensive, which seemed out of sync with its anemic congregation. As it turns out, the synagogue moved just a few years ago: Its original building was bought by a developer planning to build a skyscraper on the property. So the congregation had to pay only about 10% of the cost of the building.

After lunch, we split up into groups to go to different parts of the city to try to get a sense of the multicultural and multifaith character of the city. I’ll just note that I found this exercise a little problematic, for reasons that I don’t want to go into here. But one of the things that I noticed were the near ubiquitous signs reading, “This area monitored by CCTV cameras.” My association with these cameras in the U.S. is the over-policing of low-income areas and neighborhoods of people of color, particularly under the pretext of the drug war — so I found the situation horrifying. But two native Brits confirmed that this level of surveillance is standard (or at least has become so in the post-9/11 and post-2005-Underground-bombings world). None of the natives I spoke to gave a thought to the cameras, and one even characterized Americans as “uptight” for opposing them.

Finally, we finished up the day at dinner with more guests, interfaith community organizers from Sparkbrook. We heard about The Feast, which brings together Christian and Muslim youth, and then from Rev. Richard Sudworth of Christ Church Centre (the first stop in Birmingham, where we heard from awesomely named Mohammed Ali), as well as from Javed Khan, who works in the community around Christ Church, which is majority Muslim. Rev. Sudworth talked about his church’s role in a community that is not reflective of its membership: A new experience, they’ve stepped back and concentrated on supporting the work that is already being done by groups in the area. It really resonated with me, as I think it’s a good model for the kind of work I want to do in a Jewish organization with other groups.

Next up . . . we attend church!

off to the mosque

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

I spent the weekend in Birmingham, the second largest city in England. On Friday we went to a mosque; on Saturday, a synagogue; and on Sunday, a church. (Since we’re a large group, we split up, and there were choices for each.) The rest of the visit was punctuated by talks and presentations by various people doing interfaith or faith-based work in Birmingham. The city is a majority-minority area, with Muslims, mostly from Southeast Asia, the fastest growing demographic. In stark contrast, there are less than 2,000 Jews in a total population of over a million.

Our first stop was Christ Church Centre in the neighborhood of Sparkbrook, a working class area whose population is 75% non-white. We first met Rev. Ray Gaston, an Anglican priest involved in the area’s interfaith work (he would be with us the rest of the weekend) and then heard from Mohammed Ali (yes), a local muralist doing art in an interfaith context in Sparkbrook and around the world. Later that afternoon, we were able to see some of his work in the neighborhood.

mohammed ali's "a leap of faith" mural"; photo by salem pearce

mohammed ali’s “a leap of faith” mural”; photo by salem pearce

After the largest lunch you can imagine (the table couldn’t hold the platters of kebabs, pasta, pecoras, dal, salad, and bread that just kept coming) at a restaurant called La Favorita, next up was a mosque visit: I chose Mehfil e Abbas, a Shia mosque, just because it’s a smaller sect of Islam. The women and men split up immediately (hooray for gender binaries! /sarcasm) to go in via separate entrances to separate rooms. The women’s section included, of course, the kitchen and children’s rooms, but also, conveniently, the bathrooms. We took off our shoes at the door. The prayer space was just a simple carpeted room, divided by a curtain from the men’s room adjacent to it and with a TV screen that aired the sermon that was given after prayers.

To be frank, the experience was hard for me: There’s a reason I don’t pray in minyans with separate seating, and it didn’t feel any better when it wasn’t my religion and I wasn’t praying. Similar to what happens in the women’s section in an Orthodox synagogue, there were old women chatting throughout the whole service, a few kids running around, and a couple of teenagers on cell phones. (Okay, maybe that last is different from shul.) My suspicion is that the separation is cultural/traditional and not scriptural, as it is in Judaism, and I find that these kinds of arrangements, which privilege men’s prayer over women’s, to be quite painful. And at first I became even angrier because I wasn’t getting to see a mosque, but instead a rec room — but when the service was over, and the curtain was opened, I saw that the main room was also pretty much a rec room with a few ritual objects. And I had to laugh at myself at how quickly my anger on that point dissipated in light of the modest setting of the men’s prayer room. I pretty much did see the mosque even in the ladies’ section.

That evening, my fellow Jews and I held a Kabbalat Shabbat service at our hotel for the rest of group, which people seemed to enjoy. Afterwards, another rabbinical student and I answered questions from the non-Jews while the others quickly davenned Ma’ariv, the evening prayer service.

brekke and me in mehfil e abbas (yeah, i'm not covering my head because i'm a jerk like that)

brekke and me in mehfil e abbas (yeah, i’m not covering my head because i’m a jerk like that)

The problem with even two Jews answering questions about Jewish prayer and about G-d (and really, about anything in Judaism) is that we’re not likely to agree. The old saying is: Two Jews, three opinions. At some point, one of the men from Oman asked whether there were prayers in our liturgy that called for the destruction of other people or religions. While I answered, “Absolutely not,” my co-religionist said, “Wait. What about Aleinu?” By this time the others had rejoined the conversation, and another rabbinical student jumped in with his understanding of the prayer, which is that it expresses the Jewish people’s unique relationship with G-d. I was sort of horrified that anyone would answer other than the way I did — especially since I perceived the question as coming from a place of fear and perhaps prejudice — but my classmate felt a real duty to nuance, which I am afraid gets lost in non-native language.

This is a bigger issue than can be covered here, but we Jews are indeed uncomfortable with parts of our liturgy: Modern prayer books do omit a sentence from the original Aleinu prayer, referring to non-Jews, “They worship vanity and emptiness, and they pray to a god that doesn’t save.” This moment again illustrates the issue that I talked about briefly in my last post about this program: namely, that we Jews don’t agree on what it means to be Jewish in a way that seems different from at least the Muslims on this trip.

Shabbat dinner was a bit of a letdown, as I sat largely with Omanis playing on their electronic devices. One could probably write a dissertation on cultural norms around cell phones, but in my Shabbat community, people don’t use their phones on Friday night (at least not during services and dinner). There is a real sense of being present with each other, of enjoying what Heschel has called a “sanctuary in time.” I understand that I can’t expect that outside of my community, but it did make the evening less Shabbat-like for me, which was hard. We are still trying to get to know each other, though, and so we did have some conversation. Unfortunately, part of that conversation involved one of the Omani men asking one of the Jewish men, who is married to another man and as such wears a wedding ring, where his wife was. He quickly mumbled, “In America,” before changing the subject.

I don’t know the views of many of the individuals in this program about homosexuality, but there are at least three gay men in the group, and each has chosen not to disclose his sexuality to the Muslims (and to disclose only to two of the Christians). Oman does criminalize same-sex behavior (as do 75 other countries in the world); all of the contingent work for the government. And after earlier in the week we were bombarded with stories from a speaker who does mediation work with Muslim parents who have threatened to kill their gay children, I think caution is not unwise in this situation. A part of me is hoping that this topic will come up, because it makes me sad for members of the group not to be able to bring their whole selves to our conversations about religion; at the same time, I want my friends to be safe.

To end on an up note, I made kiddush on Friday night for the first time. (Yes, I’d been avoiding it for most of my Jewish life.) But I’ve been practicing this summer with a recording that a classmate made for me (my issue is the singing), and I think I did alright. Either way, the vast majority of the people in the room didn’t know the difference!

Next up . . . we go to shul!

reading texts together

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

I am spending the next three weeks in England as part of a university’s interfaith program, the basis of which is study of scripture — essentially, reading texts together with people of different religious traditions. (The program also includes lectures and group discussions.)

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram)

I am already exhausted. Besides jet lag, I am faced with a schedule of near constant activities, with people I don’t know and with whom I might have little in common. And of course part of the point of the program is to form relationships with classmates, so we eat and socialize together in addition to learning together.

In some ways, it’s not unlike the past week I spent at the National Havurah Committee’s Summer Institute at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. Though we were (almost) all Jews, as unaffiliated Jews we were from quite different backgrounds and in some cases had quite different ideas about what it means to be Jewish. In other words, being with other Jews in a pluralistic setting can sometimes feel like an interfaith endeavor. And that event also took place in a rural, retreat-like university setting.

And although I am not expected to “represent Judaism” while I am here, it is a bit intimidating to be asked to offer opinions and interpretations as a Jew when I might be one of the few Jews that some of my co-participants might meet. I want to be clear that I can offer a Jewish perspective on the texts at hand and also convey that that perspective might only be one of many.

sunset at Madingley Hall; photo by salem pearce (via instagram

sunset at the castle that serves as our conference center; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In the program, there are four other Jewish participants (three rabbinical students and a Judaic Studies graduate student). There are five Christians (from the U.S., China, Nigeria, Singapore, and Egypt), and the rest of the students are Muslim, most of whom are from Oman. What has been striking so far is the experience of being in a primarily Muslim space. Though the setting is thoroughly British, the majority of people in the program — including the staff and interns — are Arabic-speaking Muslims, so the accommodations are geared towards them. There is someone who can serve as an Arabic translator in every group; during meals, all of the meat is halal; and the breaks coincide with times for prayer. It is a new experience for me: While I am used to being in a minority religious group, I only know how to do that within a Christian majority.

Tonight all of the Jews met after dinner to plan the Kabbalat Shabbat service that we’ll lead for the group on Friday night. We also planned morning davenning and benching after meals. It was nice to have some exclusively Jewish time: We all agreed it’s been hard to be constantly earnest and decorous in the group, so as to give a good impression of Judaism. But as one person wailed, “I’m dying to be sarcastic!”

Despite these challenges, much of the program is comfortable: Defying stereotypes, the food is quite good (I’ve been eating vegetarian and fish dishes as my kosher option, though I could have chosen specifically catered hechshered kosher food). I have a single room with my own bathroom (the castle doubles as a bed-and-breakfast, which means that my room is cleaned and the towels changed each day), and there are plenty of large, comfortable salons in which to relax.

And I get to drink all the tea I can manage. Cheers!

mechitza

I spent this weekend at a Rabbis Without Borders rabbinical student retreat on “Spirituality, Social Justice, and the Rabbinate.” Students from several different schools gathered at the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown, Md.: Besides Hebrew College, there were contingents from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical School, HUC Los Angeles and Cincinnati campuses, Jewish Theological Seminary, Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies, Academy of Jewish Religion, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. (Update: I very unfortunately forgot to note the fabulous representation from ALEPH – Alliance for Jewish Renewal – Smicha Program *and* International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism — which I regret. It was an unintentional mechitza.)

One of these things is not like the other.

YCT is a new-ish school training men to become Modern Orthodox rabbis “who are open, non-judgmental, knowledgeable, empathetic, and eager to transform Orthodoxy into a movement that meaningfully and respectfully interacts with all Jews, regardless of affiliation, commitment, or background.” The idea is to change Orthodoxy from the inside, as one of the students explained.

The impact of their participation that I felt the most was in the davennen. Their school policy requires, in accordance with Orthodox principles, that the YCT students not daven alongside women. The way this is generally achieved in the Orthodox world is via a mechitza, a partition to separate those participating in tefila.

This presented a challenge for the prayer services, since all of the other schools practice egalitarianism, not least in that they admit both women and men. The tefila committee, which met before the retreat (and of which I was not a part), decided on separation via what was dubbed a “tri-chitza“: spaces reserved for men, for women, and for mixed seating. The configuration was used for four of the five services we davenned together; the fifth, lead by the YCT students, was set up in a more traditional way, with seating for men and seating for women.

pearlstone center in reisterstown, md.

the farm at the pearlstone center in reisterstown, md.; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

As one of the retreat faculty members (who is a huge fan of mechitza) explained, the idea developed as a result of an evening of joyful, raucous, downright Dionysian prayer, after which the rabbis reflected that if women had been present, it might have turned into an orgy. Thenceforth, women and men prayed separately.

On a visceral level, I find mechitza loathsome. Historically it has been a tool for silencing and disempowering women by marginalizing their prayer and limiting their participation: Women are not counted as part of the minyan (the quorum of 10 adults needed for prayer). In many spaces, women are also not allowed to lead tefila, to read Torah, to have aliyot. What’s more, the service often only takes place in front of the men’s side. In extreme cases, women are relegated to a balcony where it might be difficult to see or hear anything at all.

In the Modern Orthodox world, these latter elements are generally not found, but the purpose of a mechitza is still to ensure that people daven with those of the same gender. Which is problematic. It’s heteronormative; it’s based on the false assumption of a gender binary; it creates potentially unsafe situations for genderqueer folks. Ultimately, it is a space created entirely on the terms of and for the needs of cisgendered men.

I go to a pluralistic school, so I am used to experiencing all different kinds of davennen. Hebrew College was founded to challenge the conventional wisdom that the Jewish world can be pluralistic in all settings except for prayer. And we still struggle with community tefila — which, to be honest, usually means that no one is completely satisfied with services. But egalitarianism is our bright line. Everything else goes. This weekend was meant to be about pluralism, too. It is so important, especially for movement-based students, to talk to one another, learn from our differences, and experience other ways of doing Judaism. This weekend suggested that my pluralism might have limits.

To be fair, everyone was pushed out of their comfort zones this weekend. When I walked into the prayer space on Friday morning, I thought, “What? You call this a mechitza?” It was just a table with chairs on either side. Mechitzot can take many forms, to be sure, but they are usually solid partitions, or at least a line of person-high potted plants (as in the case of a Chabad minyan I went to a few times when I was in D.C.). The point is to obscure the sides from one another. This mechitza did not in any way do that, so it was largely symbolic. And I am not denigrating it by so calling it, as much of what is important in Judaism is symbolic, or might seem within the mere letter of the law and not the spirit. Indeed, the symbolic nature of the mechitza made it hurt more, as it seemed to be separation just for separation’s sake. I think that it was probably not the mechitza to which the YCT students are accustomed. Nor was the davennen. For me, the pain stemmed from the fact that because of the mechitza, the space felt like it belonged to just one contingent. I became an outsider, praying on their terms. Most uncomfortable of all, I felt like I was condoning the mechitza with my presence.

But I don’t consider my discomfort and the potential discomfort of the YCT guys to be morally equivalent. Their discomfort is because of an incursion on their male privilege; mine is the result of oppression.

I do feel that it is important to point out that my painful experience had to do with the issue of mechitza and not with YCT students themselves. Their hands are tied, to a certain extent: a condition of their continued enrollment is adherence to the tents of Orthodoxy as laid out by their school. And these are good guys, and I think they are fully aware of the difficulty mechitza presents. But their project is to struggle within Orthodoxy, and that is not my fight.

my favorite (problematic) cloth bag; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

(Sidebar: The first time I encountered YCT was in Washington, D.C., in 2009, at the Jewish Federation’s annual General Assembly, where the institution had a booth. I was just beginning to think about rabbinical school and hadn’t heard of this one. I stopped and spoke with them for at least 20 minutes before they told me that, unfortunately, I was not able to attend their school. “But we hold women in high regard and believe that there is a special place for women in Judaism!” Completely annoyed, I left abruptly, but not without the tote bag they had given me. But as much as I feel a twinge of irritation every time I see it, I continue to own it because it is, hands down, the best cloth bag I’ve ever used. Roomy, more square than rectangular, sturdy, and with wide shoulder straps. It asks, “The Rabbinate. Is it in you?” To which I answer, “Yes! Just not with you.”)

I’ll admit that I took a perverse pleasure in the fact that the men’s section was small, at the edge of the room, and not in front of the tefila leaders or Torah readers. In other words, their experience approximated that of women in Orthodox settings (with the important difference that the separation had been effected at their own request). But I hated that I thought that. And it didn’t alleviate my own hurt. And none of these feelings were conducive to my being in a prayerful space.

I would love to see Orthodox Judaism become a more welcoming space for all Jews. And I don’t know whether I can be any part of it.

things i ate in texas that i loved

migas

migas from Goode Company Taqueria; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

When I go back to Texas, which I am usually able to do about three times a year, I have two priorities: seeing my family (parents; brother, sister-in-law, and nephew; cousin and her husband; aunt and uncle; and grandmother) and eating Tex-Mex — which is often just called “Mexican food” by locals. Inspired by Mexican food, Tex-Mex is actually not Mexican food proper but its own type of cuisine.

I haven’t lived in Texas in more than 10 years, and there is no good Tex-Mex anywhere on the East Coast — and anyone who says differently is (a) wrong or (b) selling something. Even the restaurants that look promising aren’t: When my husband and I first arrived in Boston, we found a Tex-Mex joint run by a man from Houston: It was awful.

butter crunch blue bell ice cream; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

butter crunch blue bell ice cream; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

So when I’m in Texas, I make my family eat Tex-Mex at just about every meal. During my most successful trip, I managed to eat at Pappasito’s, Chuy’s, Ninfa’s, Lupe’s, Berryhill, and Goode Company Taqueria (my favorites). My New Jersey-native husband usually cries uncle after about two days, and of course my own family doesn’t normally eat that much. (They often refrain for a few weeks before I arrive to prepare themselves.) I’m like a Tex-Mex chipmunk: I have to store it all away until my next visit.

frozen

frozen margarita with salt from Pappasito’s; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

My favorite breakfast is migas (without chorizo) from Goode Company Taqueria (above), which come with refried beans, rice, and flour tortillas. I ate them three times last week. The breakfast menu is extensive, and I’m told other items on the menu are also great. On our last day my husband got huevos con napolitos (eggs with cactus), a favorite of my brother’s. This trip my mom did manage to convince me one morning to try breakfast tacos from Maria’s Tacos near their house in the Heights: They were indeed excellent.

shipley's chocolate iced nut and cinnamon sugar donuts; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

shipley’s chocolate iced nut and cinnamon sugar do-nuts; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

For dinners, we did Chuy’s and Ninfa’s on Navigation, at the latter of which we saw a family whose daughters went to school with me and my brother. The oldest daughter also lives in Boston with her husband and two daughters and during her visit was also doing the Tex-Mex tour of Houston. (See, I’m not the only one!) And I had Pappasito’s at Hobby airport on the way out of town.

This trip I also managed to work in a few non-Tex-Mex local Texas food. One afternoon we got stuck in some traffic on what should have been a quick detour to get a doughnut at Shipley; my husband griped that it had better be worth it — and he later confirmed that it was. I ate Blue Bell (new-to-me flavor Butter Crunch) in Brenham, Texas, the home of the Texas-made ice cream. My parents and brother and sister-in-law and I drove there one day to meet my aunt, uncle, and grandmother, since the town is about halfway between Houston and Austin, where the latter live. We ate lunch at the Brenham institution Must Be Heaven, known for its homemade pies (I had a slice of the peach praline).

Now we’re back in Boston, and my husband has declared that he needs to fast for the next five days to make up for the excess of Texas. I, on the other hand, could eat more Tex-Mex.

the sound of silence

“Truth is one. Paths are many.”

So says Sri Swami Satchidananda (known as Sri Gurudev to his followers), the guru who founded Integral Yoga in New York in 1966 and became the spiritual leader of the worldwide community (and global business) that arose from it.

I just spent four days at the Satchidananda Ashram at Yogaville, south of Charlotteseville, Va., at a silent New Year’s retreat with about 75 other respite seekers. There were probably another 50 non-retreat visitors, and what seemed like a cast of thousands of ashramites (staff, teachers, residents). The staff wears all-white, which is one of the features that occasionally provokes the twinge, “This is a cult.”

What also does so is the cult of personality around Sri Gurudev. His picture is everywhere, often on altars, and at the two ceremonies I attended, there was a chair ostensibly “for” him, but in which sat a large portrait of him, festooned with flowery drape and complete with a pillow for his feet. Most of Judaism does not revere teachers in this way, so I found it a little odd. Certainly unsettling was the fact that a picture of him hung over one of the beds in my room. (I chose the other bed.) Plus, I was forced given the opportunity to view recordings of his talks; he had interesting things to say and wisdom to share, but I can’t say that I’m ready to move to the ashram and become a devotee. Everyone who studied with him (he passed away in 2002) testified to his magnetic presence, so I spent some of my silent time thinking about the nature of leadership.

super detailed ashram schedule

super detailed ashram schedule

But if the ashram is a cult, it is one super-organized, Type-A cult. (Then again, what do I know? Probably all cults are well organized. You can’t brainwash people in a haphazard fashion.) So it’s my kind of cult. The schedule I received at check-in was filled with down-to-the-minute activities (e.g., “12:35: Vans leave Lotus for SH” – and they did). All programs started and ended on time (so not Jewish!), and in the location advertised — and changes were posted promptly and in all necessary places. Admonitory signs abound: “Remove shoes,” “Juice for fasters ONLY,” “No early meals,” “Keep this area tidy!” “Sign and date prayer requests.” Adding Hari OM before and OM Shanti after doesn’t make the commands less didactic. Certainly the organization made it easy on us silent types; I never had to write down a clarifying question.

I started feeling the need for silence earlier this year, as the semester intensified. Jews are generally not a silent or a still people; indeed, many times in our history our survival has depended on our not being so. I spend my days in prayer – which requires a minyan (group of 10 people), and much of which is said aloud – and in chevruta (partnered learning), and then in participatory classes (not lectures). I talk and argue and debate and present ideas and listen to ideas all day. As an introvert, this is draining.

There was a good mixture of programming at the retreat: guided and regular meditation, different levels and types of yoga, lectures, workshops, music, ceremonies. The daily schedule, which began at 6:00 a.m., went like so: meditation, yoga, breakfast, program, meditation, lunch, free time, program, yoga, meditation, dinner, program. That makes for a long day, so I didn’t go to every offering and squeezed in some naps instead. I was catching up on a semester’s worth of sleep.

The vegetarian food was great, and at every meal there was something warm, which was so welcome in the weather. The first day it snowed, and then it was overcast and windy the rest of the time. The Blue Ridge Mountains are – besides beautiful – cold. I fasted one day – evening to evening, Jew-style – and discovered that fasting ashram-style, with its yummy fasting juice and regular juices, is a lot easier than Yom Kippur. (Plus, I didn’t have to atone for my sins.) And! I wore comfy clothes the whole time – which, what, because I’m a student: I should wear yoga clothes all the time. Maybe I will.

I could have done without the indoctrination hour, when recordings of Sri Gurudev were broadcast during lunch. One day in extolling the virtues of a vegan diet – and thus the evils of dairy and other animal products – he kept characterizing meat eaters as consumers of “dead corpses.” He’s not wrong, but it was quite unappetizing – and in addition he was preaching to the choir, since we were all right then eating vegetarian food. We were the ultimate captive audience – in silence, and with only one place to eat.

The flip side of that unfortunate aspect of silence is the fact that no one could say anything after the programs and speakers, as I generally think that the follow-up questions people ask are not great. (I saw Tina Fey speak at Sixth & I on her book tour for Bossypants, the much hyped anecdote in which was Fey’s disdain, during publicity junkets for the movie Date Night, for the sexist question that she was constantly asked, and that her co-star Steve Carrell, also a working parent, was never asked: “How do you do it all?” After she spoke, some fool got up and basically asked Tina Fey how she did it all. Tina was much nicer than she had to be in her response.) And indeed, during our closing program, during the hour I finally heard the voices of all of the participants, there was more than one of that person. While most people, as instructed, just shared one meaningful moment or important learning, there were several who apparently decided to use all the words that they hadn’t said in the past four days. It certainly tested my new resolve to see the divine in everyone.

yantra (essentially, the visual representation) of the teachings of sri swami satchidananda

yantra (essentially, the visual representation) of the teachings of sri swami satchidananda

Overall, the experience was exactly what I wanted: silence. I found not talking for the better part of a week extraordinarily easy, especially among strangers. It was a downright relief not to have to make small talk or compare notes. In fact, we were encouraged not to even engage in non-verbal communication, which meant I spent almost the whole time without making eye contact with anyone. It was a little frightening how much I enjoyed that freedom. I was alone with my thoughts, except I didn’t feel alone. I am almost always happy as a clam to be by myself, but the feeling of being in my own world, but uplifted by the energy of others – in meditation, for example – was extraordinary.

And I learned a lot about meditation. I’ve been meditating irregularly, for 5-10 minutes at a time, mostly as a way to calm myself when I’m feeling stressed out. I think it’s been helpful. At the retreat I meditated three times a day, for between ½ hour and an hour. I don’t plan to maintain that kind of schedule, but I do want to have a daily meditation practice, and at a mediation workshop that was offered, I got guidance to help with this goal.

When I called her on my way back to D.C., my mom, after laughing when I told her what a piece of cake four days of silence was for me, asked me what was challenging about the retreat. I had to think, because I am so happy with how it went, all the funny stuff notwithstanding. I did wrestle with how much of the ashram’s worship practices to adopt while in residence; I felt distinctly uncomfortable with some (bowing to altars, saying chants) but I also wanted to respect its customs. It was absolutely clear to me that all faiths are respected (witness the yantra above, the visual representation of Sri Gurudev’s teachings). What was less clear to me was how I, especially as a rabbinical student, could practice both Judaism and Integral Yoga. They’re both pretty intense, time-consuming, all-encompassing ways of life. I don’t know what Sri Gurudev’s answer would be, but I plan to find ways to incorporate the silence and stillness of Integral Yoga into the cacophony that is often my beloved Judaism.

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