dayeinu

At seder on Monday and Tuesday nights, we sang “Dayeinu,” the Passover song that thanks G-d for the many, many things that G-d has done for us. It’s a review of everything that happened to get us out of slavery in Egypt and into Israel where the temple was built. (Good for G-d, the song ends before those pesky temple destructions.) Dayeinu means, approximately, “it would have sufficed!” The verses take the form of, “If G-d had just done X and not Y, dayeinu!”

So we sing, “If G-d had split the sea for us and not led us through on dry land, dayeinu!” “If G-d had led us to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, dayeinu!”

But these are absurd things to say. It would have been enough for G-d to create an escape route from the Egyptians but not actually vouchsafed it to us? It would have been enough for G-d point the way to a random mountain in the desert . . . for no reason at all? Many have offered feasible explanations for each of these statements. On Tuesday, for instance, my seder host shared what she had heard from a rabbi: The arrival of the Israelites at Mount Sinai marks the first time “Israel” is referred to the singular, as a collective. So Sinai represents the beginning of peoplehood, even without the Torah. But I’m not so sure we’re supposed to take the song so literally. It seems to me that we might be simply expressing awe for each of the things G-d did for us, in a series of things that ultimately led to our freedom. But each one is actually not enough.

On Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the Prop. 8 case, the referendum that Californians passed in 2008 that outlawed marriage for same-sex couples. On Wednesday, the Court heard arguments in the challenge to DOMA, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which restricts federal marriage benefits from same-sex couples (insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivors’ benefits, immigration, the filing of joint tax returns, etc.), and requires interstate marriage recognition only for opposite-sex marriages.

marriage equalityOn Tuesday my Facebook feed turned red. Most of my friends changed their profile pictures to the Human Rights Campaign’s logo, colors changed for this historic occasion. Then the variations started: Yoda, Bert and Ernie, and an angry cat were added. The equal signs became penises, mustaches, animals, band-aids, matzah. I was over it even before the inevitable appearance of bacon. (The internet abhors a meme without bacon.)

I support marriage equality. And I didn’t change my profile pic. I put little stock in so-called clicktivism. One of my friends did post about how much it would mean to her if all her friends, especially straight ones, changed their profile pics as a sign of allyship: That partially melted my cold heart. And I did see a few people asking about its significance in comments on Facebook’s notification of changed profile pics. Which I imagine might be construed as “raising awareness,” quite possibly my least favorite phrase in the English language.

But my concern about this issue is deeper than my fear that people are substituting social media for real action. Many, many of my D.C. friends actually did actually go to the Supreme Court rallies to show support for marriage equality.

I worry that these cases, in the words of a good friend of mine, are “a gamble and a huge risk.” Marriage is a civil right — if perhaps not a strategy to achieve structural change — and there’s a chance it won’t be affirmed by the Court.

I came out in, and lived through, the post-Bowers v. Hardwick world, and it was an ugly time. The people who brought that case thought their odds were good too, but the result of their good intentions was a long period of time [Bowers was overturned in 2003 with the ruling in Lawrence v. Texas] when employers, governments, and courts (among others) could consider gay people de facto criminals in many states with the blessing of the Supreme Court. If we lose, and the high court decides that there is no fundamental right for gay people to marry our partners, I fear it could set back the fight for marriage equality in a huge way.

I worry that the online activism around these cases give rise to arguments that are not good for anybody’s liberation. I’m thinking in particular about the Louis CK quote [NSFW, natch] on marriage equality, which begins with “It doesn’t have any effect on your life.” Is this really how we want to garner support for this cause? So you are free to oppose issues if they inconvenience you? I’m also thinking of the argument that gay people are just like straight people. Just gay. Again, is this really how we want to garner support for this cause? So minorities should have rights as long as they are just aspiring to imitate the majority? Equal protection goes to the non-threatening? I am also thinking of the implication that marriage is a panacea for ensuring rights. Shouldn’t everyone, regardless of marital status, be entitled to the benefits denied because of DOMA? So you’re just out of luck if for some reason marriage isn’t in your plans?

I worry that, as I’ve written about before, marriage equality is the priority of only a small, privileged group of queer folks, mostly well-off white people (just look at the plaintiffs in both cases, or the sea of white that was the supporting faction in the rallies). On a current events program on my local NPR affiliate this week, the host marveled at how quickly marriage equality has gained support (contrasting it with, say, the relative torpidity of the civil rights movement). As far as I can see, the difference is that the former has had a lot of money and power behind it.

I worry that money and power thus directed limits the same towards issues that feel a lot more pressing and a lot more damaging, particularly for poor people of color. (I recognize that it is easy for me — a straight, white, married woman — to say this with the privilege of marriage already in hand.) On Thursday I visited the inmate that I am mentoring — a queer woman of color — as she finishes her college degree as part of Boston University’s College Behind Bars program. I use the word “mentoring” because that is the formal term for our relationship, as defined by the program we participate in, but she hardly needs help with her studies. I’m basically a cheerleader, a listener, and a contact from the outside world.

She’s taking a class on race and incarceration, so we’re reading a lot of the same books. As we talked about the drug war and hyperincarceration and the dehumanizing prison system, I couldn’t help but wish for the day when all of my white friends would support drug policy and prison reforms and would proudly make those known and would go to rallies in support of court cases before the Supreme Court. As useless as I find social media “activism,” a sea of profile pics demanding an end to the racist institution of the death penalty, or protesting the “virtual ‘drug exception’ [that] now exists to the Bill of Rights” (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow), or decrying the dehumanizing for-profit prison industry would at least mean that the issues had gained mainstream currency.

This was a hard post to write. Tuesday’s Facebook activity ultimately left me very sad and unable to organize my thoughts. (It didn’t help that I was getting sick and mourning the death of a friend.) And changing one’s profile pic is not a wrong thing to do. And one of my best friends works for a prominent gay rights organization in this fight. And many of my gay friends consider marriage equality very important.

Our collective liberation today depends on many, many steps — as did our march to freedom through the desert. And even when we think we’ve gotten there and the song ends, the temple can be destroyed. Twice.

Marriage equality is something to regard with awe. And it is in no way enough.

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.

living waters

Before the holidays, I visited the mikveh, as I usually do in the early fall, when I officially became Jewish three years ago, completing my conversion with a beit din and a visit to the mikveh.

mikveh at mayyim hayyim; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The community mikveh in Boston is called Mayyim Hayyim (“living waters”). It’s egalitarian, which means that both men and women can use it “at the same time.” Most traditional mikvehs are used almost exclusively by women, with prescribed, separate times for men on those rare occasions when they might visit, and the pool is drained and refilled between the times for women and those for men. At Mayyim Hayyim, there are co-ed times, when men and women could both be immersing, though obviously in separate pools. It’s an unusual arrangement.

Every time I go to the mikveh, I think that I should do it more often. It is a truly relaxing and refreshing experience. It’s also a wonderfully solitary experience, which this introvert especially appreciates from among the majority of Jewish rituals that are communal experiences. (There are some immersions which are halachically required to be witnessed, but mine was not, and so I declined the presence of the mikveh attendant.)

The ritual of the mikveh requires complete cleanliness and removal of all clothes and accessories, “[i]n order to remove all physical barriers between you and the water of the mikveh,” as the preparation instruction sheet notes. You shower and clean every part of your body, scrubbing underneath nails and sloughing off dead skin on knees and elbows. You remove all makeup and nail polish. You brush and floss your teeth. Mayyim Hayyim has a beautiful set of meditations for this process.

I actually got a little stuck on the removing of nail polish this time; I’d just gotten a pedicure the week before (I should have timed that a little better). It is so silly that it was so hard for me, and I tried to reason that it was just because I hate to waste money. But I finally decided the polish was emblematic of something that I was trying to hang on to but also needed to let go for the new year. (I’m actually not sure I’ve identified that specific thing is. At least I’ve symbolically let something go?) Off it went.

mayyim hayyim gate: “go in peace”; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

A mikveh visit typically consists of three complete immersions, with head underneath the water and feet off of the ground, and with blessings said after each one. Mayyim Hayyim has a selection of blessings for various rituals, from conversion to marriage, from coming out to healing. There’s not an existing ritual, as far as I know, for commemorating a conversion (more on that below), so I chose blessings for the new year.
The meditation after the last immersion follows:

May I return to my true self and be strengthened as I continue my journey of tikkun halev—repairing the heart, tikkun hanefesh—repairing the soul and tikkun olam—repairing the world.

As part of the commemoration of my conversion, I also asked for an aliyah at the morning Torah service that week. I told a classmate when he asked that I don’t usually mark the anniversary publicly. As he noted, Jewish tradition holds that once a person converts, it is as if s/he has always been Jewish. Indeed, there is a sense in which I have been Jewish my whole life. But there’s also a part of me that likes to remember that day, which felt like the first day of the rest of my life.

The classmate who was leading shacharit that morning offered the kavanah of gratitude for the service, and she asked me to connect the occasion to gratitude when I came to the Torah.

I am grateful, every day, to be Jewish.

survivor

holocaust victims; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Two weeks ago on Yom Kippur I returned to the assisted living facility at which I led first and second day Rosh Hashanah services. Before the service, a resident came up to me and handed me a piece of paper (right) with names. She asked me to read them during the service. “I’m the only one who survived,” she said. The list included her parents, both sets of grandparents, two sisters, and a brother-in-law. It ended with “aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.”

I wish I had had the opportunity to talk with her more then, and I missed her after the service with so many people to greet. I don’t know what to do when faced with the enormity of such an revelation. I only heard a Holocaust survivor speak for the first time a few years ago. That history is not my family’s, and both sides of my husband’s family had long since departed Europe by the war.

A few days after I read these names, the Times published an article and photo essay about young Israelis who have voluntarily gotten the same number tattoos that were forced on their grandparents. Predictably, the trend has been met with mixed reactions, from reverence and pathos to shock and anger. As the articles notes, “[I]nstitutions and individuals are grappling with how best to remember the Holocaust — so integral to Israel’s founding and identity — after those who lived it are gone.” I’m not sure what to think about this way of remembering, except that it is, like the woman’s request, an attempt to make the transition from lived to historical memory. Will her descendants keep this list?

feminist teshuvah

I wrote this two weeks ago as a final assignment for the fall seminar for first-year students, which looked at the Torah and Haftarah portions – and critical analysis of both – for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We were asked to reflect on something we found interesting or significant from the readings and to present that reflection to the class. I’ve edited it slightly to make it more accessible to readers not in that class.

Thus for me, teshuva between women and G-d implies not just G-d holding me responsible for the ways I have failed as a human being, but also me holding G-d responsible for failing me as a Jewish woman by giving me a world and a people and a text that continue to betray women, often making it difficult for us to uphold our side of the covenant.

I almost fell off of my bed after I read this passage from Tamara Cohen’s essay, “Returning to Sarah,” in Beginning Anew. To say that it resonated with me would be a vast understatement. I don’t think a piece of text has so perfectly spoken to me in 10 years, since I read Anita Diamant’s Choosing a Jewish Life – the main impetus for the Jewish journey that eventually led me here.

The passage gave me permission to be mad at G-d. The tradition I grew up in did not allow that, and my inchoate theology tends towards a G-d that is not directly responsible for the state of things. Our mischegas is our own.

A world and a people and a text that continue to betray women.

[B]etray women.

This is my experience, from growing up in a tradition of strict gender roles, to working at an all girls’ boarding school in North Carolina, to volunteering at the rape crisis center in D.C.

I am grateful to now be a part of a community whose commitment to egalitarianism seems to be firm, but I know this to be an aberration. (And I know that there will be failures on that front; we live in a world of male privilege, after all.)

My life thus far has been a daily, run-into-a-wall encounter between the way that I experience life and a privileged experience of life. And that’s my experience as an upper-middle-class, straight white woman – to say nothing of the experience of people of color, or queer folks.

I feel that betrayal acutely, in ways large and small.

I feel it when last summer’s debt crisis – which almost led to a default and did lead to a downgrade in U.S. credit by world debtors – ended only when the president agreed to a bill rider that prohibited the District of Columbia from directing its own tax revenues to subsidize abortions for District residents.

I feel it in the lack of basic labor protections – standard for most workers in this country – for domestic employees, the women that care for our children, houses, and elders.

I feel it when our secretary of state – our nation’s top diplomat – is asked which fashion designers she prefers.

I feel it when sports teams at my alma mater are referred to as “the Longhorns” . . . and “the Lady Longhorns.”

I feel it when I get mail, as I did yesterday, addressed to “Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Grossberg.”

Last Wednesday at hesbon hanefesh (“account of the soul”) a teacher asked us to reflect on the issue of anger, and he used a text from Rav Natan as a prompt: “Help me break my tendency towards anger. Help me practice patience in all aspects of my life and overcome my anger. I don’t want to be angry or respond harshly to anything . . . I just want to be able to serve you honestly and simply, and to have total trust in you.”

This is not my prayer to G-d. For me there is a distinction between the feeling of anger and acting angrily. I don’t want to do the latter. But I also don’t want to not be angry, when I generally feel that if you’re not angry about the world, you’re not paying attention. (Patience, on the other hand, that I pray for daily.) My anger, my outrage at injustice, is often what motivates me. It’s one of the reasons I’m here.

And if I’m being honest, I have to say that in the drama of the traditional Yom Kippur “scapegoat” sacrifice in the texts that we read, I feel less like the onlookers or even the high priest – and more like the goat. I feel the weighed down by the burden of our society’s sins against women. Like the goat, I am either abandoned in the wilderness – or thrown over a cliff.

So, how can I do the hard work of teshuva (“repentence”) when a great deal of my reflection has left me angry at G-d? Trust after betrayal is incredibly hard, especially when the betrayal “continue[s],” as Cohen notes.

Cohen’s answer is, at least in part, is for us to complete the stories about and to strain to hear the voices of the women of the Torah. We must write our own midrashim and live our own fully integrated lives. So, I’ll definitely try to get that done in the next 19 days.

Hebrew College founder Art Green, in his introduction to S.Y. Agnon’s seminal text on the High Holidays, Yamim Noraim, suggests another, or an additional, model: He notes that Yom Kippur commemorates the giving of the second of the Ten Commandment tablets. (Moses destroyed the first in his anger at the Israelites’ creation of the golden calf.) Green says, “This time the tablets were to be a joint divine-human project. Moses does the carving, G-d does the writing. Every Jew receives or fashions these second tablets on or around Yom Kippur. This is the season when each of us renegotiates our covenant with G-d.”

If I can frame it like that, I’m able see G-d as a partner in the beginning of my teshuva. But it’s also a good thing that I have next year, too.

first services

On Monday I led my first service all by myself, an hour-long morning service for Rosh HaShanah. (In June, at my bat mitzvah, I just led two parts of the service: the Amidah and the second part of the Torah service.)

rosh hashanah prep; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

A little over a week ago, the community relations coordinator at an assisted living facility about 10 miles north of Boston emailed the school to ask if there was a rabbinical student available for three one-hour services (on both days of Rosh HaShanah and on Yom Kippur). The director of job placement at the school then emailed the student body with the plea — and noted that it would be a great opportunity for someone with little experience, that it would be a real mitzvah for the center, and that the center would pay for the services. The first certainly described me; the second pulled at my heartstrings; and the third sealed the deal. I volunteered.

Helpfully, the center had a shortened service booklet (above) that had been put together specifically for its services, so I was able to work from that. I added a few parts and wrote a d’var torah; found tunes for parts of the liturgy that I’m not that familiar with (because they’re specific to the High Holidays, which are only once a year); got a crash course in shofar from a fifth year student (who was an awesome teacher!); and outlined and timed the serviced. And I practiced. And practiced. And practiced. At least as much as I could in a few days, during the first week of classes.

After the first day, I was just glad it was over. About two dozen people came, as predicted by the community relations coordinator. A few were the children of the residents, and I think they were my toughest audience. The residents were of varying cognitive and physical ability: about half were from the assisted living side of the center, and the other half, from the skilled nursing side.

I didn’t feel particularly nervous, but I performed with only mixed success. I did the parts I knew well (except when I started the Amidah in the wrong tune, which happened both days for some reason). And I was pleased with what I had written to say: an introduction, a kavanah (intention, or meditation, for the service); a preface to the shofar service; and my d’var. And, per the advice of the rabbi in charge of job placement — who sat down with me last week to offer advice — I greeted, and introduced myself to, and chatted with everyone before the service started. I think this went a long way in earning me some goodwill in spite of my mistakes.

Ah, yes: The mistakes. I just forgot most of the tunes for the High Holiday-specific parts of the liturgy. I do not have much singing ability, despite my performance at my bat mitzvah — which came after months and months of practice. And when I did remember how a part started, I usually got off track in the middle. These missteps were made worse by the fact that the tunes didn’t seem to be known very well — at all? — by the service participants. So it was just my poor singing that filled the room. I had wanted to learn them, though, to break up blocks of just plain reading in Hebrew; I think if I were a more skilled song leader, I could have repeated the refrains and gotten more participation.

I’m pretty sure that after I finished one “song” I heard a woman say, “This is terrible!” My husband maintains that the speaker was probably talking about something else, but I’m not sure she was wrong. I felt terrible at not doing well by the residents in their celebration of the holiday, and I felt even more terribly about representing Hebrew College poorly. I had, after all, told everyone where I studied when I introduced myself.

downtown boston from tobin bridge; photo by lehcar1477

When I left, I felt sick at the idea of going back the next day. I started to calm down as I drove away — and I began to feel better when I started to pay attention to the program that happened to be airing on Boston’s NPR affiliate: author Brené Brown spoke about her new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I almost laughed aloud as I listened to Brown explain that “Overcoming shame, and allowing ourselves to take risks and ask for help is important not only for our personal and professional success, but also for our success as a culture.” Then I began to marvel at the view of downtown Boston from the Tobin Bridge (left), feeling grateful to be living in such a beautiful city and to have such unique opportunities.

By the next morning, I felt much less embarrassed and much more determined to do (and capable of doing) a better job on the second day. And so it went.

I slowed down and made sure to get the transitions from piece to piece right (calling out page numbers, opening or closing the ark, explaining the prayer that followed, etc.). I also decided to take one of the sefer Torahs from the ark. I wasn’t able to read the portion for that day (the akedah), but I knew the songs for the Torah service well, and people generally love to touch the scroll. I didn’t flub the Hebrew, and I remembered the tunes. After the service, I stood at the door and shook everyone’s hands, wished them a happy new year, and chatted briefly. It was a nice way to end the service; I wish I’d done it on the first day. Plus, it gave all of the participants a chance to tell me what a lovely service it was, which many of them did. Many also asked whether I’d be back for Yom Kippur.

Side note: As a rabbinical student (and as a rabbi, too, I imagine), the “holidays” are overwhelming. I spent all my free time before and during the holidays in preparation (for the services or the meals), and then three to seven hours a day at holiday meals. Several families associated with Hebrew College generously hosted me, but the majority of the people at these meals were unknown to me, and meeting new people as a rabbinical student can be exhausting. Rosh HaShanah is now over, and in a way I feel as though it didn’t really happen. Davenning as a service leader bears little resemblance to doing so as a service participant, and I didn’t have any time to do the reflection on the new year that I spent much of the last month preparing to do. Welcome to the rabbinate, I suppose. I need a chag from my chag.

Back at the assisted living facility, I was especially proud of the fact that I seemed to have won over a woman who was very cranky when she arrived. She sat down and basically began heckling me. At 10 minutes before the hour, she called out, “Let’s get this service started already!” Then she offered, “I suggest you introduce yourself to everyone before you begin!” When I told her where I went to school, she shook her head. “I’m very familiar with all of the rabbinical schools, and that’s not a rabbinical school.” Later she asked, “What will you call yourself? A rebbetzin?” She wrinkled her nose and gave me a doubtful look when I said that the term would be “rabbi.”

What took the cake, though, was her remark after the service. She came up to me and beamed, telling me what a great job I had done. She put her hands on my shoulders and looked straight at me.

“You’re going to make just a wonderful rabbi’s wife!”

UPDATE: The community relations coordinator called me on Thursday, two days after the second service to tell me how much the residents loved my services! She said they especially appreciated how I greeted each of them, asked their names, and then took the time to talk with them.

so it begins

I just completed my first week of school (well, sort of). Sunday and Monday were orientation, and Tuesday through Friday were the first four days of a pre-semester seminar. My classes will start in earnest next week.

It’s hard to relate all of the feelings I’ve had in the past week. Frankly, it’s been overwhelming, but in the best way possible. I’ve loved meeting my new classmates, the returning students, and the faculty, as well as beginning to learn as a class and to pray as a community.

I’ve also spent a fair amount of the week in a kind of emotional suspended animation: I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. “It can’t really be that for once in my life I am in the right place.” “I can’t actually be doing what I supposed to be doing.” I know that not everything about this school and my experience as a student is or will be perfect. But I have never known peace like this.

First things first! The best thing about rabbinical school so far: I get to sing every day, and no one cares if (that?) I sing out of tune. I get to sing during morning prayers, and most communal time starts with a niggun (wordless melody). Even my class does! (Indeed, the fact that my admissions interview ended with a niggun solidified for me that Hebrew College was the right place for me.)

hebrew college’s selichot leader; photo by dena trugman (via instagram)

One of my favorite parts of the last week has been selichot, which unfortunately won’t be a regular occurrence throughout the year. Selichot are poems and prayers said during the Jewish month of Elul, which precedes the High Holidays. They explore themes of penitence and G-d’s mercy — not, perhaps, the most cheerful of topics — and at Hebrew College start at 7:00 a.m., before the morning service — giving an idea of how moving they must be to draw a crowd. (I have a limited music vocabulary, so I can only try to explain why.) In fact, more than one returning student told me that, despite the early hour, they were not to missed. Many of the tunes have strong beats and feature repeating lines, facilitating participation. And the Hebrew College tradition in many of the songs is that anyone can take a verse, while we all take the chorus together; I’ve loved hearing the variety of experience, accuracy, and ability that results. In this setting, not everyone sings well, but anyone can sing. I’ve never had an experience like selichot before, and I find that the songs stay with me all day.

Orientation was great mix of practical and spiritual. We met administrators, did icebreakers, told and heard personal journey stories, and started learning about core elements of the Hebrew College curriculum: personal and spiritual growth, tefila (prayer), beit midrash (literally, “house of interpretation”) and hevruta (study partners), and (good, old-fashioned) learning. I was particularly struck by something the director of admissions said as he welcomed us to orientation. He noted that school begins at an odd moment in the Jewish calendar, during the month Elul, a time of preparation for the High Holidays in which we reflect on teshuvah (literally, “return”). We atone for our sins by trying to make right our relationships with our fellow human beings and with G-d. Taking the first step in a new journey may feel out of sync with the prevalent theme of repentance, but, he said, “I know that for many us this beginning may represent a return in a very real way.”

This combination (which doesn’t even include the practical side of rabbinic education, which is to come in the curriculum), exemplified in the orientation schedule and in the introduction to the core elements of the school’s curriculum, is the essence of what I was looking for in a graduate program. I know I would not have been happy in a purely academic setting (as for example a Ph.D. program). I ultimately want to use my knowledge of Judaism in the service of others, and I am so excited to be an institution that recognizes the importance of spiritual and personal growth.

hannah, whose story is read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah

The seminar for first-year students is about the passages from the Tanakh that we read in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We’re looking at the primary texts in the Hebrew Bible as well as a variety of commentary on them: sections of Talmud and other rabbinic sources, modern and contemporary perspectives, and Israeli poetry. The rabbi who teaches the course is our class advisor (and will be teaching one of our fall semester courses); he assigned a text, Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days, as part of his commitment to looking at the primary texts through a feminist lens. I am thrilled that this perspective is given such importance, especially since so many of the High Holidays’ stories feature women.

This week marked for me the beginning of the hevruta study experience, as mentioned, a hallmark of the Hebrew College curriculum. Every morning after selichot, shacharit (morning prayer), and our facilitated Elul reflection, the first-year students split up into pairs to work, in the beit midrash, on the assignments for class that day. We switch partners every day (although we will eventually choose permanent study partners for the year). I was nervous about this part of the learning process. I’ve had a few experiences with hevruta learning, but nothing this consistent or systematic, and I have always thrived well in a very traditional, individual learning setting (lecture by professor and supplementary reading). I wasn’t sure I was going to like working in hevruta. To be sure, I chose Hebrew College in part because of its emphasis on hevruta learning, but I did so with trepidation, anticipating that it would be a challenge, pushing me out of my safety zone.

On Tuesday my first partner, who spent last year in Israel studying in hevruta, told me that it would ruin me for me classroom learning. I’m not sure I’m ready to go quite that far, but I have absolutely loved this week, completely confounding my expectations. It helps that I’ve jibed well with the four classmates that I’ve worked with so far: I’ve really appreciated their different strengths, and partnered learning has helped me to realize my own strengths (to wit, and unsurprisingly, grammar and translation of the Hebrew texts).

My final thought from this first week takes me back to the first day of orientation, Sunday — and my birthday. When I first found out the week’s schedule, I had the fleeting thought that it would be an odd way to spend my birthday (not least because I’d be among a fair number of strangers), but the more I considered, the more I thought that it might actually be perfect. The director of admissions in particular made a big deal of it, leading the group in “Happy Birthday” singing not once but twice, and when I thanked everyone after blowing out my candles, I said, “There is no place or group of people I would rather be on my birthday.”

And it really was true: I am incredibly privileged to be able to pursue this dream. What better gift could I ask for on my birthday than to be taking the first step on that journey?

first seder

louisville’s historic palace theatre on 4th Street; photo by eric hart

Last week my husband and I went to Louisville, Ky., where his parents live, for Passover. We had four days of absolutely gorgeous weather: sunny, blue skies, and cool. I’ve only visited my in-laws once before, so I still know very little about the city, but what I saw was quite lovely. Plus, my husband’s mother and step-father are really happy there: They never miss an opportunity to vaunt its advantages. After living their entire lives in New York, they’ve certainly found a new home. The pleasantness mirrored the overall visit.

But I was nervous beforehand, because my parents flew in from Houston to join us — and they’ve never celebrated Passover before. I didn’t know what they would think and whether they would have a good time, particularly my father, whose brand of evangelical Christianity makes it difficult for him, to say the least, to appreciate other religions.

Indeed, when I first converted to Judaism, he told me I was going to hell. He was very sad about it but nevertheless convinced of it. Of course, this meant that my mother-in-law’s declaration this weekend that she just couldn’t stand the belief of some Christians that non-Christians were going to hell created a bit of an awkward moment. (Weirdly, she has an employee who holds this very belief.) But I don’t think my dad was around at the time.

All of this is to say that I was pleasantly surprised that my dad agreed to come to seder. (My mom was very enthusiastic, having wanted to attend for a long time.) I’m not sure whether this indicates an a change or evolution in my father’s belief system. He and I don’t have direct conversations about my religion or my planned career in the rabbinate. It’s been painful for me to talk with him about it in the past, so as part of my self-care I’ve stopped trying. It’s now his issue to come to terms with. Plus, as my therapist has said, going back to that well is only trying to convince him of something — which is what I resent that he’s doing to me. So, as I’ve said before, we stick to safe topics. As for example, the fact that former Astro and Philly Brad Lidge now pitches for the Nationals, a fact I mentioned during the first night seder.

I had a great time at both seders. The first night were in attendance former neighbors of my in-laws, an older couple from the Ukraine; he was in a helicopter above Chernobyl when the explosion occurred and is one of the only survivors. My father-in-law’s cousin, his wife, and her son; my husband’s brother and his fiancée, as well as two friends of hers; and my father-in-law’s niece and her step-brother were there both nights. My father-in-law leads a pretty brisk and interactive seder — and is an expert afikomen hider, to boot — and my mother-in-law is a great cook. Add to that a fair amount of wine and great company, and there’s not much that could go wrong.

traditional seder plate with a few non-traditional items

In her typical unfiltered way, my mom pronounced the seders “more fun that I thought they’d be,” which I both laughed at and took as a compliment. As usual, it was hard to read my dad. But he dutifully read his parts of the haggadah and seemed to enjoy talking baseball and other topics with my father-in-law, whose worldview he shares. And in my family, uneventfulness at a gathering can often be considered enormous success. And on Sunday, he who has never met a burger joint he didn’t like got to try a new one, Smashburger, which he corralled all of the men to while the women were at the bridesmaid’s brunch of my husband’s soon-to-be sister-in-law. (By the way, there should be a better term for that relationship.) Obviously, not everyone in my husband’s family eschews chametz during Pesach.

Apparently my father-in-law never does the second half of the seder after the meal, which includes the second two cups of wine and the arrival of Elijah, so on the first night I got to lead it — which means I also got to insist that we sing Eliyahu HaNavi. I’m not a big proponent of the messianic era, but I do love the song. And in case you’re interested, we also sang Dayenu and Chad Gadya. And I got to explain the orange on the seder plate, which my mother-in-law included for me.

It was a lovely, restful weekend — and best of all, I didn’t have to do a thing but enjoy myself (read: did not have to cook). Thank you, Louisville!

labor seder

Sunday night was Jews United for Justice’s (JUFJ) annual Labor Seder; for the two months prior, I led the program committee that wrote the haggadah. I was also honored with a reading and with leading the Shehecheyanu, one of my favorite prayers. As the graphic to the right alludes, the event this year focused on the issue of immigration in the D.C region.

As my reading, “Why a seder about immigration?,” stated,

In Hebrew, the word for immigration (“hagirah”) comes from the same root as the word “ger,” a word that can mean “stranger,” “foreigner,” or “other.” The word is used frequently in the Torah, most often in mandates to treat strangers living in our midst with respect and decency since we ourselves were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. Indeed, throughout history, the Jewish people have so often been in the position of the stranger, and much of Jewish history can be characterized as a history of constant migration, forced and voluntary relocation, and resettlement.

In short, the fact that all Jews at some point immigrated to our country obligates us to be concerned about the plight of all immigrants in our country. During the seder, we talked about the demographics of the immigrants in the D.C, their contributions to the region’s economy, and the struggles that they face, including paths to citizenship (for those who came here both legally and illegally). We largely focused on issues related to jobs — of which citizenship is obviously a huge part. D.C., Maryland, and Virginia have all recently been grappling with laws relating to immigrants, in particular the DREAM Act and the local reaction to the federal “Secure Communities” program.

Immigration issues have become a passion of mine since I studied their local implications as part of the Jeremiah Fellowship, a program that JUFJ runs to train “the next generation of Jewish social justice changemakers.” I learned a lot from the unit — and even more from writing the haggadah. I strongly believe in the kind of immigration reform advocated by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) — an ally of JUFJ and a co-sponsor of the seder — to wit, “. . . an effective immigration system guided by the rule of law, the national interest, fairness, and compassion.” There are specifics to this vision which I won’t get into here, for a variety of reasons. At this point I am so deeply enmeshed in this philosophy of immigration reform that it’s really hard for me to understand the ferocious opposition to any realistic — to say nothing of compassionate — action. It’s an issue that progressives don’t even agree on. However, if you seek vitriol, read the online comments on news articles that cover efforts other than the immediate deportation our country’s 12 million undocumented immigrants.

In addition to delving pretty deeply into immigration policy, I also began thinking about my own family’s immigration story. They aren’t Jewish, but they’re not Native Americans either — so they had to have arrived at some point. But it’s a story I hadn’t heard.

I decided to ask my dad. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t have the kind of relationship with my father that facilitates these kinds of conversations. Or more precisely, I’m not sure he’d understand why I was asking in this context. Plus, my father is a lawyer, which for him means that he has to give precise answers at all times. It turned out that he had some genealogy, from my maternal grandfather, as well as his own family history. When I asked him about it at the beginning of February, he told me that he had loaned out his “big file” with all of that information to his brother and wouldn’t be able to get it back until mid-March. I told him that was fine, chuckling to myself that he didn’t give me any idea of that file’s contents; he never wants to misstate. A few days later, though, he got back to me with some details.

woody guthrie, apparently a relative

My maternal great-grandmother’s birth name was Guthrie, which family line can be traced back to John Guthrie in Edinburgh, Scotland. According to my grandfather’s notes, John Guthrie arrived in Jamestown in 1652. There was apparently a Guthrie Castle built in 1452, near Guthrie Hill, and that a Guthrie was dispatched to France in 1299 to get Sir William Wallace (“Braveheart”) to return to Scotland to oppose the English. It appears from my grandfather’s charts that the name was spelled “Guttery” until about 1854, when it became “Guthrie” again. My dad concludes this section: “Phil Kastelic [my uncle] may be able to tell you more about the recent Guthrie line: apparently Woody Guthrie is from the Guthrie family tree, and PMK is very proud of that connection.”

On his side of the family, my grandfather recorded Thomas Wilkes as his earliest known ancestor; he was born around 1630, location unknown. His son, Joseph Wilkes, is shown as having been born in New Kent, Va. in 1660. There are separate notes based on correspondence between my grandfather’s father and a Wilkes relative in Maryland that indicate that Thomas Wilkes arrived from England on February 25, 1653, at age 23, as an indentured servant. These notes also indicate that the birthplace of Joseph Wilkes was “just up the York River from Jamestown.”

So, not only did my grandparents’ ancestors both arrive at or near Jamestown in the 17th century — but they arrived within a year of one another! I was proud to tell this story at the seder on Sunday night, during the table discussion of attendees’ own family immigration stories. And I’m looking forward to hearing about my dad’s side of the family.

tu bishvat

“a carved tree in rock creek park”; photo by rachel tepper (first prize in Washington DCJCC’s “Every Person is a Tree” 2012 Tu Bishvat photography contest)

Today is the Jewish holiday called Tu Bishvat, literally the 15th of the month Shevat. It’s the new year for trees. (There are technically four “new years” in the Jewish calendar: The new year for kings, Rosh Hashanah; the calendar new year, Nisan (the first month); and the new year for tithing animals (the least well known one), Elul.) Originally a date to help farmers obey a Torah prohibition not to eat of a tree’s fruit until its fifth year, it’s come to be a minor festival. Today in Israel Tu Bishvat is celebrated with tree planting ceremonies, while in the Diaspora some give money to plant trees in Israel. There are also Tu Bishvat seders, as well as various ecological or environmental programs.

This is not a holiday that I’ve given much thought to in the past, but when I started this blog I committed myself to reading, reflecting, and writing about the Jewish holidays each year. Consulting several sources, I have learned more than I knew. I’ve attended at least one Tu Bishvat seder in the past, and we talked about the holiday last night at my b’nai mitzvah class, saying blessings over almonds, raisins, and olives). When I got home, I made almond mandelbrot.

But if I am being honest, I don’t feel much connection to this holiday right now. Lots of rabbis and other Jewish educators have said beautiful things this year and in the past about the meaning of Tu Bishvat and the Jewish people’s connection to trees, but I am just not there. I haven’t read or heard anything so far this year that has spoken to me. It’s probably best to just acknowledge that and see what happens next year, when, G-d willing, I’ll be in my first year of rabbinical school. How will things have changed by then?

Until then, I’ll join the ranks of at least two Tu Bishvat curmudgeons. In 2009 I began a weekly adult education class via the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, offered by the local Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning. Over a year we covered both the “Rhythms of Jewish Living” and the “Purposes of Jewish Living” curricula; the former concerned the Jewish lifecycle. In late winter, one of the class instructors, the Hillel rabbi at an area university, shared his theory about Tu Bishvat. He felt that the rise in prominence of Tu Bishvat among Jewish holidays in modern observance was the Hebrew school cycle. Holiday-wise, there’s not much between Chanukah and Purim, so Tu Bishvat becomes more important just because of when it occurs in the Jewish calendar: Tu Bishvat as a glorified Jewish Earth Day. He was adamant about his interpretation of recent history — a point generally lost on us — and rather upset by it. Maybe I’ll be, too, after six years of rabbinical school? However, I don’t think that I’ll ever be as upset as my friend Ben over the spelling of this holiday. But I do appreciate his grammatical fervor.

To end on a high note, I do love this story about Theodore Herzl when he planted a tree near Jerusalem. It seems to prove his famous dictum: “If you will it, it is no dream.”