File this under “things I worry about when I think about rabbinical school.” I imagine this post to be a first in a series. The issue today is prayer and exercise.

tefillin barbie by jen taylor friedman

I think about prayer a lot these days, more than I used to, which was generally on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. There are several reasons for this. My year-long b’nai mitzvah class at Sixth & I began by exploring some philosophy of prayer: We read Reuven Hammer’s Entering Jewish Prayer and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Man’s Quest for God. We then moved on to learning the parts of the different services (Shacharit, Mincha, and Ma’ariv) — and talking about the differences between the services on weekdays and on Shabbat. We learned how to put on tallit and lay tefillin. And we’ve been encouraged by the rabbi to at least begin saying the Birchot HaShachar, the thirteen morning blessings — perhaps as practice towards expanded morning prayer.

And in the Talmud class I’ve been attending once a week, we’ve been reading the tractate Berakhot, which deals with the logistics and requirements of prayer, especially the Sh’ma and the Amidah.

Finally, my applications to rabbinical school have asked me to reflect on my relationship with G-d, of which prayer is certainly a part. And at every school that I visited, I had the chance to attend at least morning prayers. I’ve already realized that davening at rabbinical school is likely to be a unique experience: The minyan is most likely more committed than average, as you might expect from a roomful of aspiring rabbis, leading to perhaps a more spirited and spiritual experience. The students run the services and are oftentimes encouraged to experiment and innovate with the liturgy. Plus, in the institutions with cantorial schools, the services can make use of unbelievably beautiful music.

That’s prayer. On to exercise: It’s taken me a fair amount of my adult life to realize that consistent, almost daily exercise is key to my mental health. And for me, that exercise needs to happen first thing in the morning. It makes my whole day better. Plus, if I’m going to exercise, I’m more likely to do so in the morning: At the end of the day, I just don’t have energy to work out.

And the conflict: At all the schools I visited, Shacharit starts before 8:00 a.m., sometimes as early as 7:30 a.m. This doesn’t preclude morning exercise, but it certainly makes it trickier than it has been here in D.C., when I’ve started work at 9:00 a.m. or later. (Plus, my current morning commute is just 15 minutes of walking. My commute in school could be 30 minutes or more on public transportation, further shrinking the morning exercise window.)

I want to have a meaningful prayer life in rabbinical school and participate in communal prayer services. I also want to practice self care through morning exercise. So, I’ve got some thinking to do. And maybe some afternoon exercising to get used to.

metro minyan

Last night I went to Washington Hebrew Congregation‘s new Metro Minyan, a monthly Friday night Shabbat service and dinner hosted by the Reform synagogue’s 2239 group, for young professionals. My friend Alanna’s brother Aaron is the new assistant rabbi at Washington Hebrew, and she invited me and a group of our friends.

The idea behind this new initiative, the rabbi explained, is to meet young people where they are, literally. Indeed, most young professionals in D.C. live in metro-accessible locations (and very few of them have cars), but — and this is one of my pet peeves about synagogues in D.C. — most of the shuls are not. Of course, this fact made it all the more ironic when we couldn’t take the subway home because the orange line trains were suspended when the event ended.

The service was also an attempt to help young Jews connect to their Judaism, the rabbi said, some of them for the first time. That certainly doesn’t describe me — or any of the many people I knew at the service — and I’m not sure how else the others would have gotten there, unless they were at least somewhat plugged into the Jewish community. Indeed, the rabbi recognized a group of volunteers who had just returned from a community service trip, organized by the synagogue, to Birmingham to rebuild a house.

But engaging young Jews is the obsession of the Jewish community today. At the Union for Reform’s Judaism Biennial conference in December, for instance, a new Campaign for Youth Engagement was announced (which might have prompted this initiative by Washington Hebrew). And as I wrote in my rabbinical school applications, my generation is not connecting to the organized Jewish world in the same way as our parents. The way we as Jews are handling intermarriage isn’t helping either.

eastern market’s north hall; photo by susana raab

The service was held in the North Hall of Eastern Market, D.C.’s oldest continually operated fresh food public market (according to its website). Renovated by the D.C. government in 2009, the North Hall is a community space in the Capitol Hill market.

The service lasted about an hour and was (I gather) a fairly typical Reform Friday night service. I didn’t grow up affiliated, but most of my experience has been in more traditional services. I love the Kabbalat Shabbat service and was sad that it was over with perhaps three songs. And since I was sitting in the back, I couldn’t hear the rabbi that well in the cavernous space; the people around me weren’t singing very much (I could really only hear my friend Julia behind me). I wish there had been a piece of learning or a d’var Torah. However, since I am applying to the Reform seminary, I knew I needed to get myself to a Reform service or two. Update (1/25): I should have noted that I was very happy that we sang Debbie Friedman’s “Mi Shebeirach,” which I love and I don’t get to sing that often at services.

Dinner was great: The food was from New Course Catering, a non-profit that provides chronically unemployed D.C. residents with marketable restaurant training. The proceeds from the night went back to it. As the event website noted, it was “a meal and a mitzvah!” And I discovered a new challah option. I’ve always thought that KosherMart made the best challah in the area, but my friend Jordy (apparently) swears by the one from Great Harvest Bread Co. I may have been converted. Naturally, there is no location in D.C. proper. I guess the bakery isn’t worried about engaging young Jews!

asking for help

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? One who learns from all people. (Pirkei Avot 4:1)

In the process of applying to rabbinical school, I did something I almost never do: I asked for help.

My mom says that I came out of the womb saying, “I can do it myself!” (An old copy of that I Can Do It Myself Bert and Ernie book was a present one year from my parents.) Indeed, I’ve always been an independent person, preferring to work alone rather than in a group. I don’t think I even had anyone even look at the applications I wrote for college admission. This instinct is in some ways positive: I have a great deal of confidence in my own abilities, and I rarely doubt whether I am up to the task. But it’s also a little ridiculous: Simply put, I don’t know how to do everything that I set out to do, and clearly whatever I am doing would be improved by asking for a little help.

There’s a deeper element to this tendency, though: I have a hard time opening up to people. I am hesitant to make myself vulnerable. I’m scared that those I choose to share with will see my flaws and weaknesses — and won’t like me because of them — and, somewhat obviously, that I do need help. And I’m scared that if I ask for help, I’ll get criticism that I won’t be able to handle.

These truths do make my choice to start a blog somewhat mystifying. What am I doing in this space but bearing my soul? But I started this blog more for myself (writing is cheap therapy!), and I don’t expect to gain any kind of sizeable readership. Plus, I feel less exposed just sending my thoughts into the internets.

I don’t know what exactly made me decide to do things differently this time around. Maybe it was my first school visit, when an admissions officer said, “We’re here to help you through the admissions process.” I remember thinking that this was a bit of a revelation, although I’m not sure why I assumed the process would be adversarial. But I did decide to seek help.

So far I’ve visited four schools, met with 11 D.C.-area rabbis (and have appointments with three more), and spoken with at least a dozen current students, as well as admissions deans at all four schools. All of that went well — and has been helpful to boot. Meeting with rabbis helped me to work on my “why I want to be a rabbi” speech, and I got to hear what they liked and what they didn’t like about their alma maters, as well as what they wish they had known before starting rabbinical school and a career in the rabbinate. (Though, I recently realized, with some amazement, that I haven’t asked anyone I’ve met with, “Why did you become a rabbi?” I should probably start doing so.)

A little tougher for me has been sharing my personal statement with others. But I did it. So far I’ve asked seven people to look at it, and I’ve been gratified by the responses. Of course, I have to admit that it’s been easier since the feedback has been universally positive. But everyone has had suggestions for improvement, and my essay is definitely the better for them.

This experience has been an exercise in humility, which is undoubtedly good for me. Continued practice in this area will be good for me in my rabbinate, and in life.

visions of freedom and justice

Tonight was the eighth annual MLK Shabbat at Sixth & I. (I didn’t know it had been going on that long; I thought I had gone to one of the first, in 2006.) Held in conjunction with the Turner Memorial AME Church, this is, hands down, my favorite Shabbat service each year.

Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel march in Selma.

The service commemorates both the federal holiday dedicated to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. One of the most influential Jewish theologians of the 20th century, Heschel marched with King in Alabama in March 1965. He famously wrote, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

Every Jewish social justice activist knows this story. We are taught about Heschel as much as young black kids are taught about King. We aspire to be like Heschel the way they want to be like King. We know Heschel’s words about Selma as well as they know King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

And, I imagine, we ask ourselves, “Can I be as brave as Rabbi Heschel?” as much as they ask themselves, “Can I be the next Dr. King?”

The service is a mix of a traditional Jewish Friday evening service with pieces of African Methodist Episcopal worship: The Howard Gospel Choir sings; the Agape Liturgical Dancers perform; the Senior Pastor preaches. And in between we say Shehecheyanu, the Sh’ma, and the V’Ahavta.

I can’t adequately describe the power of this service. I alternate between goosebumps and tears — and I feel like my feet are praying as I walk home. I love the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service: It is real and spirited and inspiring and beautiful. But I wish I could go every week to a Shabbat service with the Howard Gospel Choir. And communal prayer should always end with “We Shall Overcome.”

Tonight Pastor William H. Lamar IV spoke. My mouth was literally agape by the end. (My friend Bert asked afterwards if I had taken notes during his talk: “You have to learn how to do that when you’re a rabbi!”) A self-professed “King-ophile,” Pastor Lamar talked about his desire to remember the living, breathing legacy of Dr. King, instead of the ossified version enshrined in the memorial on the mall. He cited Cornel West’s warning not to “Santa Clausify” the civil rights leader: We have, in other words, turned him into a cartoon — one that teaches us to ignore much of what he stood for, because what he stood for remains such a threat to the political establishment in this conservative country. Dr. King was not afraid to speak truth to power, and he sometimes focused on issues that his community thought didn’t pertain to it (the war in Vietnam, for example). But as we all know, Dr. King believed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Pastor Lamar noted that being a leader sometimes means betraying your tradition and your people — to move them away from prescriptive views.

I love this service because it represents the best of what Judaism can be: pluralistic, visionary, radical, inspiring, and insistent on our obligations to one another as human beings. In the words of Rabbi Heschel:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.

the fourth school


the prophet jeremiah, from fall rabbinical school tour; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In the fall I visited four rabbinical schools. There are only a handful non-Orthodox institutions (that is, ones that accept women) in the U.S. I ruled out two online/commuter schools, as well as the ones not on the East Coast (per my husband’s request). In early to mid-December, I decided to apply to just three of the schools I had visited — and I began to make plans accordingly: asking for letters of recommendation, sending transcripts, organizing essays, completing forms, etc.

When I took the GRE on December 9, I had to choose the schools to which to send scores, and I included school #4 on that list. I think I just wasn’t quite ready to rule it out. (Plus, I got to send four reports for free, so I thought, “Why not?”)

Five days later, the admissions director at school #4 called to check in. Surprised at his call, I wasn’t ready to have the conversation about why I had decided not to apply, so I only mentioned one reason. But I didn’t feel great about how poorly I had articulated my concerns about the school, so I sent a follow-up email. In it, I explained that I had come to the conclusion that school #4 was just not a good fit for me, for various reasons. I’m not going to be a productive member of the matriculating class — and the school shouldn’t want me — if that’s the case. I didn’t hear back.

Sidebar: I’m not trying to hide the identity of the school in question: In fact, it’s probably easy to figure it out. But I don’t think it’s all that important to this narrative.

Then last week, I did get an email, after he had received my GRE scores; he hoped for an opening to start the conversation again. This unexpected development shook me up probably more than it should have. I started spiraling into a tizzy of questions: Why is he doing this? As a new admissions director, does he just want robust application numbers? Am I letting flattery cloud my judgment? Are the concerns I raised about the school actually not accurate? Is this school actually my destiny?

The last is a bit of an exaggeration. But I did wonder, much to my husband’s chagrin, whether this was a sign from the universe. I’m willing to believe that things happen for a reason. And I think having grown up with an evangelical Christian father makes me more susceptible to doubt in the face of someone else’s certainty. (It could also be reasonably inferred that I am also an over-thinker and an over-worrier.)

I agreed that we should have another conversation; it happened yesterday, and it went really well. I was able to go through with him a list of my concerns. None of them were fully alleviated, which is not what I was expecting anyway. But next I’ll speak with the associate dean, as well as a current student. (Both are women, which may hint at the nature of some of my concerns.) And after a conversation with a rabbi I trust, an alumna of school #4, I’m going to go ahead and apply. What’s one more application, right? I don’t want to close that door quite yet.

the dovekeepers

Trigger warning: The book and this post, albeit briefly, explore the subject of sexual violence, which may be upsetting to survivors.

On New Year’s Eve I finished Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, my first by her. I picked it up because it’s the next book of a Jewish Reads book club I just started getting emails from (not sure yet if I will go to a discussion).

The book is the about the settlement at Masada, where Jewish rebels in 70 C.E. resisted the Roman army for months before killing themselves in a mass suicide when their destruction was inevitable. The story is told in four parts, each by a woman who took a different path to arrive at the mountain in the Judean desert.

Yael begins the story. Her father is one of the Sicarii, assassins who kill Jews complying with Romans bent on the destruction of the Temple. It’s in this environment of civil war and anti-Semitism that Yael’s brother, also an assassin, and eventually Yael and her father, are forced to flee Jerusalem. On the way across the desert, Yael and one of her traveling companions become lovers, but he and his family don’t survive the journey. She arrives pregnant at Masada and begins to work in the dovecotes with three other women.

One of them, Revka, picks up the thread of the story. A baker’s wife in Shiloh, she leaves with her daughter, scholar son-in-law, and their two sons after her husband is killed by the Romans. En route to Masada, on Yom Kippur, they are set upon by Roman army deserters, who brutally gang rape her daughter. Her son-in-law returns from prayers to find his wife and her attackers dead. They arrive at Masada, her grandsons rendered mute by the trauma and her son-in-law, a brutal warrior with a death wish.

Aziza speaks next. Raised as a boy in the land of Moab, across the Dead Sea, she becomes a skilled warrior. She arrives at Masada, along with her half-brother and beloved half-sister, after being sent for by her mother’s lover.

Her mother, Shirah, the last of the dovekeepers, finishes the story proper. Born in Alexandria, she is raised by her mother to practice magic. But when her mother falls out of favor with the Jewish community, Shirah is sent to her mother’s family in Jerusalem. Unmarried, she is banished after she gives birth to Aziza but is rescued by a Moabite, who takes her to his homeland. She arrives at Masada from Moab, with Aziza and two other children, to reunite with her Jerusalem lover.

The historian Josephus, the main source of the siege of Masada, reports that the only survivors were two women and five children. The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman’s imaging of how a settlement of nine hundred got winnowed to seven. But it doesn’t just seek to humanize those who in modern times would be considered akin to the Branch Davidians or the Peoples Temple. It is a story of women in the society of ancient Israel that is constructed by and for men. As Hoffman notes in the acknowledgements, “[T]he stories of women have gone unwritten . . . It is my hope that . . . I can give voice to those who have remained silent for so long.”

Hoffman immediately sets up the dichotomy between the world of men and the world of women when Yael seeks out the kephashim for a protection charm for her brother as he begins to kill as part of the Sicarii. She notes,

In the Temple there was the magic of the priests, holy men who were anointed by prayer, chosen to give sacrifices and attempt miracles and perform exorcisms, driving out the evil that can often possess men. In the streets there was the magic of the minim, who were looked down upon by the priests, called charlatans and imposters by some, yet who were still respected by many. Houses of keshaphim, however, were considered to engage in the foulest sort of magic, women’s work, evil, vengeful, practiced by those who were denounced as witches.

But in the book, kephashim magic runs the world. Indeed, the conventional wisdom, explained by Yael at the outset, is tuned on its head as the reader is left with the clear feeling that women’s magic, over and over again, sets right the world that is continually destroyed by men. It is not the women who want a civil war, or to fight the Romans (they are used to doing that they need to do in secret), or, least of all, to make a stand at Masada. And that is probably why only women (and children, their wards) survive. Though the men of Masada are fierce warriors, it is the women of Masada who have the real strength.

I am sorry to say that I don’t know how accurate the portrayal of ancient Israel is, although it has been reported that Hoffman researched the book for five years. She explains how moved she was by a visit to Masada — and how her story is built around the remains that were found in the archeological excavation of the site. To the extent that it’s true to life, it did help me understand, at least a little, the motivations of the Jewish rebels. When I visited Masada, in contrast to Hoffman, I was struck by the fact that we might be lionizing crazy people.

In the world of ancient Israel, men set the rules — and time and time again, women break them. And that world is better because of it. In Hoffman’s beautiful and haunting narrative, each of the women gets to tell her story and how she became who she is against the backdrop of impending disaster.

the submission

Last week I finished The Submission, by Amy Waldman. The book was a gift from my boss who pronounced it “an amazing read, but not light.” It is certainly compelling — and beautifully written! — if also problematic in significant ways.

The title refers to a proposed design for a memorial for the victims of 9-11, chosen in a blind competition in an re-imagined New York two years after the attack. The plan details a walled, rectangular garden, bisected twice by perpendicular canals, with pathways lined by trees in a grid in each of the quarters. The names of the dead would be inscribed on the garden’s inner walls. The book opens with the contentious deliberations by the jury, composed of mostly artists and other art world professionals plus one representative of “the families,” who is the main proponent of the garden. The other design, preferred by the the most vocal of the artist contingent, is known as “The Void,” a proposal distinctly less comforting or inviting. In a vote largely determined by the emotion of the widow, the garden barely wins, whereupon the identity of the submitter is revealed: an architect named Mohammad Kahn. Dun, dun, DUN.

The freaking out begins with the chairman of the jury embargoing what he now considers to be a tentative decision. The designer’s name is soon leaked to the press, however, and the jury is forced to acknowledge its choice. To mitigate the ensuing controversy, the jury chairman — under pressure from the governor of New York — decides not to finalize the memorial design without a public hearing. The novel details the mobilization of the stakeholders on various sides of the debate over whether it is appropriate for the memorial to victims of a terrorist attack by followers of radical Islam to be designed by an American Muslim.

As expected, the political right opposes the choice. The debate quickly becomes principally about the architect himself instead of his design, which is, however, interpreted as having Islamic influences, then re-interpreted as being the paradise described in the Quran, then re-interpreted again as a heavenly cemetery for martyrs of radical Islam. Other opponents include ad hoc groups formed in response to the jury’s choice, as well as, it seems, the majority of the families of the victims. The governor also falls into the opposition camp. Its proponents include a coalition called the Muslim American Coordinating Council (MACC) as well as, on principle, the artists on the jury who hadn’t advocated for the design in the first place. It’s the widow from the jury and, ultimately, Kahn himself who struggle with their ambivalence.

Simply put, this book was hard to read at times. The extreme opposition in the novel is rooted in reality, which we saw in the debate over the so-called “ground zero mosque.” And Waldman really brings to life one of the victims’ families, whose surviving son acts as spokesperson for that contingent. They are working class family from Brooklyn, and the son is rudderless before and after the attack and becomes increasingly conflicted about his parents’ marching orders to stop the construction of the garden at any cost. At the public hearing, the father of another of the victims is given a particularly sympathetic portrayal; calling the choice “insensitive” and citing the example of the pope’s decision to move a proposed convent from Auschwitz, he notes, “We, who have carried the weight of the loss, are now being asked to carry the weight of proving America’s tolerance.”

The motivations of MACC are fairly easy to understand, and Waldman does a great job of portraying the difficulties of that coalition, coalesced around a shared identity as Muslim Americans which is nevertheless interpreted very differently by its members, religious and secular.

Hard to understand was the character of Claire Burwell, the jury’s widow. Her reaction to discovering the identity of the creator of the garden she loves and fights for is initially unchanged. But upon meeting and getting to know Kahn, she becomes increasingly doubtful of her ability to continue to support the design — mostly, it seems, because Kahn won’t say whether his proposal is “an Islamic garden” and won’t say that he condemns the 9-11 attack. As he says to her when they finally sit down together towards the end of the novel, “‘What is the principle behind demanding that I say it, when your six-year-old son can tell you its wrong? Wouldn’t you assume that any non-Muslim who entered the competition thinks the attack was wrong?'” She is extremely wealthy from her husband’s money, and although great pains are taken to establish her discomfort with the lifestyle she married into, her assertion of her privilege is off-putting. She thinks herself the gatekeeper to design approval, that she represents all of the families — as she goes, so go they, she implies — and that she is entitled to answers from Kahn. The novel is supposed to be about her internal journey towards her true self during this emotional time in her life, but ultimately it’s simply not compelling or sympathy-inducing.

It is Mohammed Kahn who is the standout in the novel. Raised in Virginia by parents who only get involved in a local mosque after the attacks, Mo, as he is known, is Muslim by birth alone. He wrestles with ritual observance during his time in the spotlight, but he is characterized by his talent, drive, and ambition in his field. He is above all supremely rational (and stubborn) and finds completely confounding that he is collapsed into identification with a religion that he hardly knows. His is the experience of many Americans in the post-9-11 world, starting with the scene that introduces him to readers in which he is detained at LAX for flying while Muslim. He is complex, frustrated, principled, lost by the situation he finds himself in, and honestly struggling to make sense of it however he can, all in the center of the extreme pressure cooker of the national debate into which he is thrust.

Missing from the novel are significant contributions from evangelical Christians and Jews of any kind, both of which would have to factor into this situation. And the thought that a memorial design could have been chosen a mere two years after the attacks strains credulity (especially as the actual memorial barely managed to open ten years later). The end of the story is rather puzzling as well; after the protagonists have expended unknowable time and energy panicking about the “source” of the garden — which question is set up to come across as unfounded paranoia — the final scene shows that Kahn did indeed draw his inspiration from a garden he happened across in Afghanistan. The horror! (And it seems clear that this inspiration is purely aesthetic, not religious.) This frustrating development, its placement at the end of the story making it function as a big “reveal,” undermines the narrative argument that Kahn suffered a great injustice in his treatment as the memorial’s creator.

The reader is left with a dull disappointment with Waldman’s America, at the very least for the fact that human prejudice is shown to have vanquished human-made beauty. It is not worthy of the novel’s honest attempts to grapple with how we honor the dead of 9-11.