born jewish . . . to baptist parents

Although most people who know me know that I’m a convert, it’s not an assumption that people I meet make. At least as far as I know. And based on the experience of other converts, those who aren’t able to pass, I probably would know.

A friend who is a rabbinical student of Irish descent has written about her frustration with the questioning of her identity because of her appearance (as well as other challenges of being a convert). Another friend — a black rabbinical student — can’t escape the questions; she posts on Facebook almost daily about the explanations she is constantly asked to give.

in the balcony of sixth & i, shortly after i converted; photo by mark gail

in the balcony of sixth & i, shortly after i converted; photo by mark gail

Though I am always honest about my background, I don’t always volunteer the information. Sometimes I just simply answer negatively when asked if I went to Jewish day school or grew up in an observant Jewish home (usually questions asked about my journey to rabbinical school). And sometimes, I am downright relieved when I pass. As a fellow convert classmate and I have talked about, it can be exhausting having to tell “the story of my conversion” to everyone I meet, as well-meaning as they almost always are. Especially at Shabbat meals, the conversation often becomes all about me — and then I don’t really get to learn about other people, or just to talk about what we have in common. I enjoy the privilege I have in being able to pass.

I make my own assumptions about converts as well; that is, I always assume I’m the only convert around. I am generally pretty surprised when I find out that someone else is, too. Besides my classmate, there are two other converts (who I know of) at my school, neither one of which I would have thought were converts. In fact, the first time I met one of them, I irrationally worried — based on his appearance (peyottzitzitkippah) — that he was an Orthodox Jew who might not consider me Jewish.

The denominations don’t agree on much, but respect for converts is near universal (as long as the conversion as recognized by that denomination — which is another conversation). Once a person converts, it is as if that person has always been Jewish. So technically, I am simply a Jew — not a convert. I love this response, which I modified from an article about how to deal with negative reactions to converts: “Yes, I was born Jewish, but to Baptist parents.”

I do struggle how much of my identity is that of a convert. I’m as Jewish as anyone else — but I am who I am because of my upbringing, and I don’t want to discount that. So I go back to the mikveh each year on the anniversary of my conversion; this year I also asked for an aliyah (the honor to say blessings before and after part of a Torah reading) to celebrate the third anniversary of my conversion, shortly before the high holidays in 2009.

In the past week, two people have made insensitive comments about converts in my presence. Both are good people, and I know neither meant any harm. The comments stung nevertheless. It was strange that both happened within a few days of each other — especially since it’s been a really long time since I have heard any such comments.

In fact, Hebrew College has been one of the safest places I’ve ever been in terms of feeling authentically Jewish. I imagine that most students and faculty know that I’m a convert, but not a single person has ever made so much as an insensitive comment about my status. I suspect my school may be a bubble in this respect though. I have wondered whether, for instance, my status might affect my job prospects.

conversion certificate; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

conversion certificate with my Hebrew name (רחל בת אברהם ושרה — Rachel daughter of Abraham and Sarah); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

One of my fellow converts didn’t even realize I was a convert until he saw me come up to the Torah for an aliyah; the gabbai (person conducting the Torah service) calls up people so honored with their Hebrew name — and those of their parents. Since converts’ parents don’t have Hebrew names, they are ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah (“son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah”). It’s really the only place in Jewish ritual life where converts are marked as such (though it is possible that a born-Jew could have parents whose Hebrew names are Avraham and Sarah). I’m not sure how I feel about this singularity.

He and I have talked about our experience developing our tefila skills in the school community. We both agreed that we feel very comfortable practicing and learning; we know that we can make mistakes without judgment. But this perception is not shared by everyone at school: There are some who do fear the judgment of those around them. I am not sure on what experiences that fear is based. But we’ve wondered whether our experiences as converts — not growing up in the organized Jewish community — has given us some immunity from that fear.

For another time: the story of my conversion process, which I don’t think I’ve told here in any detail. For now: I don’t have a strong opinion on the nomenclature “convert” versus “Jew-by-choice.” You?

the buffyverse talmud

For a creative writing assignment for my Talmud class last semester, I was asked to write a mishnah and accompanying sugya. A mishnah refers to the smallest unit of the Mishnah, redacted in 200 CE, a part of the Talmud, and therefore in this case to a few, generally unattributed, rabbinic statements on a particular topic.

The other part of the Talmud is the gemara, the debates of the generations of rabbis subsequent to the Mishnah; the Talmud was redacted between 350 and 500 CE (depending on the edition). A sugya is a building block of gemara, a proof-based elucidation of an aspect of the mishnah.

As readers of this blog well know, I am a huge Joss Whedon fan. So for this assignment I chose Buffy the Vampire Slayer as my source text. I wrote a mishnah about the power of words in hevruta (the paired learning that takes place in the beit midrash), and then I used episodes of Buffy to write the gemara to explain that mishnah.

After I mentioned the project on Facebook, several people asked to read the finished product. So here it is. (It’s a PDF because of the formatting, which mimics a page of Talmud.)

I will note that the document will likely be nearly incomprehensible unless you know a great deal about both Buffy and Talmud. (And since I know more about Buffy than I do about Talmud, I’ll admit that Talmud studiers might find that aspect incomprehensible as well.)

For those only mildly curious, here’s the mishnah — with Hebrew “signal words” in parentheses — which contains a quote from Buffy. Who can name the episode and speaker (without Google)?

original mishnah about the power of words and hevruta study, to be elucidated by buffy the vampire slayer

original mishnah about the power of words and hevruta study, to be elucidated by buffy the vampire slayer

summer!

Well, I’ve been gone so long that in my absence WordPress updated its blogger interface! The change is nice, by the way.

Since I last posted at the beginning of May, I have done the following:

finished my first year of rabbinical school (passing all of my courses!);

end-of-year "mekorot" class cake (First years got "R"; second years, "Ra", etc. Those graduating got "Rabbi".); photo by salem pearce via instagram

end-of-year “mekorot” class cake (first years got “R”; second years, “Ra”, etc. those graduating got “Rabbi”.); photo by salem pearce via instagram

moved from Brookline to Jamaica Plain (the balcony alone in our new place made the pain of moving worth it);

new home; photo by salem pearce via instagram

new home; photo by salem pearce via instagram

read two books (and half of two others);

went to D.C. for 24 hours for Elissa Froman‘s memorial service (you can see the video here);

popsicle stick craft project at froman's memorial: write a word, phrase, or design that reminds you of Elissa; photo by salem pearce via instagram

popsicle stick craft project at froman’s memorial: write a word, phrase, or design that reminds you of elissa; photo by salem pearce via instagram

began studying Torah three days a week with one classmate and Psalms two days a week with another;

had visits from both my husband’s parents and my parents, as well as two friends from D.C.;

mike's canolli: the best reason for out-of-town visitors; photo by salem pearce via instagram

mike’s cannoli: the best reason for out-of-town visitors; photo by salem pearce via instagram

started a volunteer position with the National Havurah Institute as its fundraising coordinator;

practiced leyning Torah (I’ve read on Shabbat twice and on Thursday morning five times);

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce via instagram

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce via instagram

and gotten lost running in Franklin Park, the green space near our new home, three times.

asking g-d

In my Talmud class we’re reading a section from Baba Metzia called the “gold chapter”; it deals first with honesty in business exchanges and then moves on to honesty in personal interactions, or ona’at devarim, “oppression with words.” As is typical of gemara, the rabbis discuss the nature of the issue at hand and use Biblical passages and stories to back up their arguments. In an extreme moment, one of the rabbis notes that if someone embarrasses a friend, it is as if that person has spilled blood. They are especially concerned with ona’at devarim because, they say, the gates of prayer are always open to tears; that is, G-d always hears the petitions of those who have been oppressed by words.

rabban gamliel's alleged grave in yavneh

rabban gamliel’s alleged grave in yavneh (photograph used under wikipedia creative commons license)

They tell the story of Rabbi Eliezer, the head of the yeshiva, who was excommunicated for his unpopular opinions. When Rabbi Akiva tells Eliezer of the decision, his anguish causes everything he looks upon to be burned up. It happens that at that time Rabban Gamliel, who took over the yeshiva, is on a ship, and the sea begins storm. Gamliel knows immediately that his safety is threatened because of Eliezer. It also turns out that Rabbi Eliezer’s wife is Gamliel’s sister, and she is worried for Gamliel’s life. In perhaps not the most effective method, she begins to watch Eliezer constantly to keep him from praying tachanun, a supplicatory prayer. (Elsewhere in the Talmud, tachanun is called “a time of divine goodwill,” during which supplication is more likely to be received.) On Rosh Hodesh (the first day of a Jewish month, determined by a new moon), tachanun is not recited. One day Eliezer’s wife gets confused, erroneously thinks it’s Rosh Hodesh, and abandons her vigilant watch over Eliezer. In her absence, he prays tachanun, and Rabban Gamliel dies.

It’s a bizarre story, but certainly one that gives some insight into how powerful the rabbis consider both words to others and words to G-d.

More than a month ago in my tefila group, we were looking at the amidah, often just referred to as “the prayer.” It consists of 18 (well, really 19, but I don’t need to get into that here) blessings, several of which are called bakashot, or prayers of asking. The person who led davennen that morning first asked us to think about why we struggle with petitionary prayer. Not if — but why. The assumption was that we all did, and indeed, we all did. Among those in my group, someone cited a lack of a conception of a personal g-d; another, the association with the common Christian practice of ad hoc prayer; a third, a doubt that G-d does (or even should) intervene in our lives. Added someone else, “G-d wouldn’t bother with me. My needs are too small. I am too small.” Our prayer leader said, and I can still hear her saying it, so powerful was it,

“Where did the idea of G-d as a scant resource come from?”

Yes: Any divine being I want to believe in would be able to handle everything, the small stuff as well as the big stuff. Why not ask?

At the Rabbis Without Borders retreat that I attended a few weeks ago, one of the facilitators asked us to share a time when “prayer worked for us,” as a way of opening a conversation about how to make prayer services work for our congregants. Many shared stories of times of distress, of getting on their knees and begging for intervention or answers from G-d.

I haven’t had that experience. So I thought about the efficacy of prayer a little differently. My beloved cousin, who I grew up with and who is like a sister to me, is expecting a child in the fall, a child she has been wanting for a very long time. When she called to tell me her good news, I immediately thought, I want to pray for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy child. And I then almost immediately thought, That’s ridiculous. Pregnancy is a scientific process of cell growth, not subject to divine intervention: If I pray and something goes wrong, would that mean my prayer was somehow deficient? If I pray and everything goes well, would that mean that I had reached G-d? What would that mean for other folks whose pregnancies or children had not fared well?

hannah victors

hannah giving her son samuel to the priest, by jan victors (photograph used under wikipedia creative commons license)

I have a hard time with petitionary prayer for all the reasons above — and because I have a hard time asking for help, admitting that I need something, acknowledging that I want what is out of my control. And there’s certainly a perceived resistance to the prayer of asking in Judaism: On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, we don’t petition G-d. The implication is then that asking is somehow not holy. But the rabbis also saw the value in petitionary prayer: On Rosh Hashanah, another holy day, we read the story of Hannah. Bitter and distraught at her childlessness, she goes up to the temple and prays — her lips moving but with no sounds — and weeps, and promises any child she will have to the service of G-d. Hannah is the first to call G-d “the Lord of Hosts” (יהוה צבאות), and the rabbis say that Hannah’s silent prayer should be a model for for our own. (It should be noted that Hannah’s request proves highly effective, as a short time later she has Samuel.)

One of the wisest things I ever read about prayer was in the book The Unlikely Disciple. Nonbeliever Kevin Roose enrolls at Liberty University, the erstwhile institution of Dr. Jerry Fallwell, and goes about doing all that is required of him, including prayer. He notes that in spite of his lack of belief, his daily prayer becomes meaningful. It changes him. As I noted in my post about the book, “[H]e begins by articulating his hopes for his family and friends, and he comes to find that — non-belief in G-d notwithstanding — he actually enjoys the opportunity for reflection.” A friend from Hebrew College writes something similar in this thoughtful piece about praying as an atheist.

So I decided to pray for my cousin’s child. And to me, that means prayer has “worked.”

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.

a day of mourning

Today is Yom HaZikaron in Israel, the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. In addition to the national memorial services that take place, the day opens (the preceding evening, since Jewish days begin at sunset) with a country-wide siren during which everyone and everything stops for a minute of silence.

It’s also Patriots’ Day here in Boston, a local holiday ostensibly commemorating the battles of Lexington and Concord — also known as the day the Boston Marathon is run. There’s also always a Red Sox home game.

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar are often at complete odds with one another. This morning’s tefila was soulful and somber. My Bible teacher, who raised her children in Israel, read a piece she had written when one of her son’s fellow soldiers was killed near the Golan Heights. The mother of the slain soldier had asked my teacher to take care of her own son (the one who had survived), that he might not be forever haunted by his friend’s death. It was heartbreaking.

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how so many of my friends would be running the race, or watching the race, or watching the baseball game. One of my classmates, who has lived in Boston for several years now, said that it was too bad that those of us new to Boston wouldn’t get the chance today to enjoy Patriots’ Day the way it should be celebrated: by drinking lots of beer and watching the race. We talked about going down to Commonwealth Avenue, near the infamous Heartbreak Hill, during lunch. (Homework called instead.)

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how I wished I were running the race today. It’s been my dream since college to one day qualify for the Boston Marathon. I wondered if I would be able to get fast enough to do so during my five years here.

As I sat in Hebrew class this afternoon, my husband texted me that bombs had exploded near the marathon finish line. As of this writing, two people are dead and dozens are wounded. (Everyone I knew running or watching the race is fine.) We began a frantic checking in via Facebook, Twitter, text message, and phone call.

And just like that, the days synched.

a world apart

This week I was assigned Cristina Rathbone’s A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars as part of my Foundations of Prison Ministry class. I was only required to read parts, but I ended up tearing through the whole thing. It helped that I had a snow day on Tuesday.

The book hits close to home (it looks like I’m calling Boston home now!) because the author lives in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood just a few miles away from mine. Plus, the subjects of the book are women incarcerated at nearby MCI-Framingham, a women’s prison, where I mentor an inmate who is in Boston University’s College Behind Bars program. I visit her as part of an interfaith initiative between Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological Seminary, the CIRCLE Prison Justice and Ministry Program.

Rathbone’s relationships with the five women whose stories constitute the majority of the book developed over five years — and were only the result of years of initial litigation for access to the prison. As she notes at the outset, she has just about only been in MCI-Framingham’s visiting room. But despite the considerable efforts of the powerful Massachusetts Department of Corrections to keep her out, Rathbone presents a comprehensive picture of life on the inside (in so far as any outsider can tell, I suppose).

The importance of the book lies in the fact that, Rathbone notes, “women behind bars are startlingly unlike their more violent male counterparts. Predominantly incarcerated for nonviolent, drug-related offenses, they are frequently mere accessories to their crimes: girlfriends, wives, or lovers of drug dealers, even leaseholders of apartments in which drugs are stashed. Almost all have serious drug problems themselves, and about half are victims of domestic abuse.” It stands to reason that life inside a women’s prison would be different, too.

If the stereotypical male experience in prison is working out, illegal procurement of weapons and drugs, physical violence, and trying to escape, the stereotypical female experience is eating junk food, illegal procurement of underwear and personal hygiene products, gossiping, and trying to see children. But sex is the great unifier: It turns out that almost everyone, in both environments, sleeps with a fellow inmate or a guard.

The book alternates between the stories of a handful of women and the history of women’s incarceration in the U.S. I found the latter only of passing interest, in part because how little effect the past has had on the trajectory of how women now fare in the criminal justice system. The first women’s prison, Mount Pleasant, opened in 1838 on the grounds of the infamous Sing Sing prison, and it was closed in 1850. MCI-Framingham, which opened in 1877, is the oldest running women’s prison in the U.S., so its history could be instructive. But it falls into a depressingly rhythmic pattern: A reform-minded woman takes over and institutes changes aimed at true rehabilitation, and then a (usually male) higher-up decides that the programs and practices are self-indulgent and replaces the reformer with a traditionalist. And then a reform-minded woman takes over again . . . The regularity of the ups and downs made me wonder whether a permanent revolution will ever be possible.

rug hooking class at MCI-Framingham, 1948; photo via Framingham Public Library

rug hooking class at MCI-Framingham, 1948; photo via Framingham Public Library

In Rathbone’s account, MCI-Framingham, probably like many prisons in the era of government budget shortfalls, has very little in the way of programming. She writes: “Its website indicates a long list of programs available to the women of Framingham . . . but when you take into account the diversity and breadth of its population, it remains a fact that each women at MCI-Framingham has access to fewer programs, and therefore to fewer privileges and less prison-earned ‘good time,’ than most male prisoners in the state.” Indeed, Rathbone’s analysis is that the sexism of our society is reflected in the prison system: Men get disproportionate resources. But women in prison have disproportionate need, in part because of past abuse, drug addiction, mental illness, and their responsibility for children.

Sidebar: For what it’s worth, I should note a criticism of this analysis: Our class discussion on the book was led (in the absence of my professor) by Rev. Joyce Penfield, executive director of The Blessing Way, a Rhode Island institution that provides “spiritual guidance for reentry & recovery.” She argued that per capita, women get vastly more resources than men: There are more programs in men’s prisons, but they constitute 94% of the country’s prison population. I’m not sure that this changes the experience of scant resources that the women in Framingham report, but I feel compelled to mention this disagreement. And Penfield even went further, suggesting that her experience in the Rhode Island penal system is one of plenty where women are concerned.

Most compelling, as is so often the case, are the stories Rathbone tells. These are women you want to root for: None of them ever had much to begin with, were given pretty short shrift in life, and are now facing just about the steepest uphill climbs you can imagine. Most heartbreaking were the struggles with child-rearing. As women are most often the primary caregivers in our society, so too are they in prison. And they seemed to spend most of their energy behind bars monitoring the often insecure living situations of their kids. Unlike the majority of incarcerated men, each woman could not rely on her children’s other parent to do the care-taking in her absence.

Somewhat mystifying was Rathbone’s treatment of sexual relationships at the prison. She devotes a number of pages to the prevalence of these illicit affairs (physical touch between inmates and just about anyone is forbidden), both between prisoners and between prisoners and guards. Such contact is commonplace, even rampant, for all the same reasons that it is on the outside: One of the women in the book, who resists such affairs for most of her time in prison, even witheringly notes that her fellow inmates just replicate on the inside the same problematic relationships they had on the outside. Her cellmate hooks up with almost every officer that is interested, while another woman is involved in an abusive relationship with a fellow prisoner. And these relationships, like everything else in jail, are commodities. What’s lacking, to my mind, is a discussion of the question of whether carceral relationships can ever be truly consensual, particularly between inmates and guards. Rathbone only talks very briefly about allegations of rape in that institutional context — but devotes an entire chapter to a now-defunct web site that seeks to connect men to incarcerated women (ultimately called “Jail Babes” but originally and unfortunately dubbed “Jail Bait”). Maybe that says something important: As Rathbone begins her book, “Life in a women’s prison was full of surprises.”

tefillin

tefillin bag; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

tefillin bag; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Earlier this semester I took on mitzvat tefillin, the mitzvah of tefillin, or “phylacteries” as they are often referred to in English. (I am not sure why the latter word is any clearer than the former, but some have heard the Greek word rather than the Hebrew.)

Tefillin are the set of black boxes with leather straps that are worn on the head and on the arm during weekday morning prayers. They are the Talmudic solution to the exhortations in the Torah (in several places) to “bind them [these words] as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 6:8). The meaning of “totafot” is not entirely clear; it is often translated as “frontlets” (which, in some possibly circular logic, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a band or phylactery worn on the forehead”). And tefillin is a rabbinic word; it’s not found in the Tanakh.

The rabbis interpreted “them” (which refers back to “these words” from an earlier verse) to mean the verses in which totafot are mentioned in the Torah; thus, each set of tefillin contains the four verses from Exodus and Deuteronomy written on parchment scrolls.

At the beginning of last semester, I borrowed a set of tefillin from the Women’s Tefillin Gemach, a free loan society (“gemach”) that, as you might guess, lends tefillin to women. Many people — including lots of my classmates — inherit tefillin from their grandparents (or maybe even parents). Obviously that is not an option for me, but the gemach exists as well for women who were born Jewish; some might have been passed over, in favor of a brother or other male relative, for inheritance of a set. Unlike wearing tallit, laying tefillin is still not all that common among women. Even among my classmates, I would estimate that less than half of the women wear tefillin, while most of the men do.

I borrowed a set of tefillin from the gemach in August, tried them on once, and then let them languish in my tallit bag. There was enough going on already during my first semester of rabbinical school, and I just wasn’t able to take on one more new thing. So I prayed last semester just in my tallit (which itself was a new practice).

still life with tefillin; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

still life with tefillin (with metal casings for the boxes); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

During our winter seminar on feminist theology and practice, I started thinking about tefillin again, especially as we talked about changing prayer and other ritual to make it more accessible for those for whom it was not originally created. And then I came across an abridged prayerbook with blessings in all feminine G-d language. I decided that I would start to wear tefillin — and that I would learn the blessings from this book (and deliberately not learn the traditional blessings). So I say the traditional blessing when putting on my tallit — and something a little different when putting on my tefillin. It’s a way of making my own a practice that still feels very . . . male.

I also say an alternative passage from the Tanakh as I finish putting tefillin on my hand. Traditionally, one recites Hosea 2:21-22: “And I will betroth you to myself forever; I will betroth you to myself in righteousness, and in justice, and in lovingkindness, and in compassion. And I will betroth you to myself in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.” This is certainly a lovely sentiment. However, the prayerbook I found suggested an alternative, which resonated much more with me. The passage I say is from Ruth 1:16, her devotional words to her mother-in-law, Naomi: “For where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your G-d, my G-d.” Indeed, the words of a fervent convert are certainly more appealing to me than the problematic metaphor of marriage between G-d and Israel.

I learned the blessings and the passage from the Tanakh one night while working at the front desk at school (which I do two nights a week). And that same night I learned also how to wrap tefillin . . . by watching a video on YouTube! (All of the many how-to videos of course all feature older men — or IDF soldiers — so I may have found an eventual project!) That evening I just put on the tefillin and took them off, over and over and over again, until I was able to do it fairly quickly (it’s a complicated process).

tefillin barbie by jen taylor friedman

tefillin barbie by jen taylor friedman

Worn, tefillin look weird. Full stop. It’s possible that since I didn’t grow up seeing them, I find them a little more jarring than most Jews, but I think it’s more probable that they’re just odd. I say this because the first time I was shown how to put on tefillin, by my bat mitzvah rabbi, she said, “Don’t they look funny?” — and I loved her for that. However, wearing tefillin while praying has felt completely natural. It just seems right. I am so excited to continue the practice and to observe what effect it has on my prayer.

This is not to say I haven’t had my frustrations. My first barrier to overcome was my fear (or fear of my annoyance) that it would take too long to put them on. That evening spent practicing got me to an acceptable speed (and yes, I timed myself!).

What I’m having trouble getting past is the fact that tefillin are meant to be laid against the skin, and the wrapping starts at the upper arm. Tefillin were not designed with women in mind — nor for that matter were women’s clothes designed with tefillin in mind. Most men’s upper-body garments are conducive to being pushed up or aside to expose the upper arm; the same is generally not true of a lot of women’s clothes. So in the dead of New England winter, I’ve been doing one of two things: I’ll wear a short-sleeved or sleeveless shirt (with, say, a cardigan). Or I’ll wear a camisole under a more form-fitting sweater or turtleneck and wriggle halfway out of it during davenning. Both of these options make me feel considerably less modest than I’d like, especially during prayer. (Thank goodness for tallit!) And both mean that every morning I have to think, “Can I lay tefillin in what I’m wearing?” I know mitzvot aren’t supposed to be effortless — but I’m pretty sure that the men at my school aren’t thinking about this.

I’ve written this post from my perspective as a cis-gendered, female-identified student (and have admittedly used a gender binary throughout): I am also interested in the experiences of others with this practice.

What would tefillin look like if a pluralistic community, of Jews of all types, were designing them today? How would we understand words of Torah “for a sign for you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes” (Exodus 13:9)?

the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing

Seven days ago this happened.tempting fate
And one day ago this happened.fate tempted

I know the two are not connected. I know this. <Pause.> Mostly. My rationalist husband, who is not at all conflicted as I am, has derived great pleasure from repeating my taunt above and then watching my face as it crumbles in guilt. Lots of other people who I know for sure don’t believe there is a connection are also teasing me.

I’m a baseball fan. I know that you don’t talk to a pitcher on the way to a no-hitter. You don’t declare a game over until it’s actually over. You don’t step on baselines to and from the field. You grow a beard during playoffs. You don’t change anything during a winning streak. Simply put, I’m superstitious.

And it’s hard to put aside completely the thought — laughable as I know it is — that as a rabbinical student I might have a connection to The Powers that Be.

So I actually debated with myself whether to write what I did on Facebook. And I remember concluding, “Ah, do it. What could possibly happen?” This was my first mistake: If you’re asking yourself that question, you shouldn’t do whatever it is that you’re contemplating the consequences of.

Putting aside the absurdity of naming a historic blizzard (so far the fifth worst in Boston history) after a cartoon fish, I am still excited about this big snow (even as I am not looking forward to shoveling out the car). I got a day off from school on Friday, and the snow is absolutely beautiful. We still have power, heat, and, most importantly, internet. But my friend Stacey lost power — along with another quarter of a million people. And as of Saturday evening it was still snowing in Maine, where our friend Jackie lives; the snow drifts there are taller than her 18-month-old daughter. And one day of Ta Sh’ma, the school’s prospective student open house, has been cancelled.

The rabbis lived by the truism that words have power. In a section of the Mishnah about when fasting is prescribed, drought is cited; in desperation, the rabbis once went further.

They said said to Choni the Circle-maker, “Pray that rain may fall.” . . . He prayed, but the rain did not fall. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and said before G-d, “O Lord of the world, your children have turned their faces to me, for that I am like a son of the house before you. I swear by your great name that I will not stir hence until you have pity on your children.” Rain began falling drop by drop. He said, “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain that will fill the cisterns, pits, and caverns.” It began to rain with violence. He said, “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of goodwill, blessing, and graciousness.” Then it rained in moderation . . . – Masechet Ta’anit

The rabbis were horrified by what they and Choni had done, but they didn’t respond because they recognized the special nature of Choni’s relationship with G-d, “like a son that importunes his father, and the father performs his will.” Obviously I didn’t do exactly what Choni did. But is prayer other than articulation of desire?

Really, though, I should have been looking not to Jewish tradition but to the West Wing, the source of all wisdom, to make my decision:

“You want to tempt the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing?”

she who has a why

[S]he who has a why can bear almost any how. -Frederick Nietzsche

The second week in January I took an interfaith seminar called “Experiencing Islam” in conjunction with Andover Newton Theological Seminary (ANTS), which shares the hill with Hebrew College. I had lunch on one day with an ANTS student, and I told her (a short version of) the story of my journey to the rabbinate. One of the weird things I find about being a new rabbinical student is that, after months of talking about nothing else, I am no longer regularly asked — and I don’t ask any of my classmates of themselves — why I want to be a rabbi.

In talking with my future colleague, I found myself thinking back to the high holidays in October of 2011, almost a year-and-a-half ago. I went to Sixth & I’s Yom Kippur services at Calvary Baptist Church, which Rabbi Shira Stutman led. During the service, Elissa Froman gave a talk. In her introduction, Shira noted that Elissa was planning to start HUC-JIR Rabbinical School the next summer. And I remember having a twinge of jealousy and wanting that (or some version of that, with perhaps another rabbinical school substituted) to be said about me. This wasn’t the beginning of my decision to apply to rabbinical school, as I had already been thinking seriously about it (as much as two or three years before), but Elissa was certainly motivation to really get going.

I don’t know Elissa well, although I should. We have similar interests, are involved in some of the same organizations, and have many mutual friends. Unfortunately, what I know most about Elissa is that she is sick (which is of course not the sum of her identity).

Elissa was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma more than six years ago and has had two relapses, as well as a bone marrow transplant, and she’s been in the hospital for the past year dealing with complications from treatment. (This is information that she, her family, and others authorized by her family have shared publicly.) Elissa didn’t go to rabbinical school last summer, as she had planned. And that plan was a deferment from the year before. And I’m guessing that it’s probably not in the cards this summer, either (although, who knows?). It does seem like she has yet a struggle ahead of her.

In October, a friend of Elissa’s started a fundraising page for her and her family, as her stay in the hospital stretched into its eighth month. My friend Eve sent an email to our Jeremiah cohort about the effort, encouraging everyone to give: “Maybe some of you know her better than I, but, ever since meeting her back in the early 2000s, her work and life have been an inspiration.” (If you want to donate to this effort, you can do so here.) The page and its success are certainly a testament to the impact that Elissa has had on so many people. As the page’s creator wrote in the introduction:

If you are here, it is because you know and love Elissa Froman. You know the impact she has had on the people lucky enough to surround her, you are those people. Or maybe you know of her. You know of her advocacy work, her commitment to community, social justice, civil rights, and making the world a better place.

The morning that Eve sent her email, my classmate Lisa (also a former D.C.-er and friend of Elissa) led the Torah service at school. I also happened to be at the front of the room because I had an aliyah (the honor of saying the blessings before and after the Torah reading). As we sang mi sheberiach (the prayer for healing that is usually said in the middle of the Torah service), we shared with each other later that we had both been thinking about Elissa. All of this is to say that her presence is far-reaching.

And if you need even more evidence of Elissa’s awesomeness, watch this video that her friends made for her 29th birthday.

A year before Eve sent her email, to the day, Elissa wrote the last post that appears on her blog, where she’s chronicled her battle with cancer and her plans to go to rabbinical school. (By the way, you should read all of her blog. It is touching and heartbreaking and funny and honest and all the things that make a blog worth reading.) That last post was also written mere days after she spoke on Yom Kippur. In it, Elissa reflects on the five years since her diagnosis and expresses hope for the next five years, during which she was to finish her rabbinical school education.

It’s obviously painful to read in retrospect. I met with Elissa shortly after she wrote the post. We had coffee in the middle of the day, and I excitedly told her about my first visit to a rabbinical school and my plans for more visits and applications. And she shared with me her hopes for her rabbinate. We talked about how great it would be to one day be colleagues with similar interests, working as rabbis for social justice organizations.

Elissa’s been on my mind recently, and not just because I told the story of my journey to the rabbinate. Elissa’s sister recently sent an update on her progress — as she does regularly — to friends of Froman. And as many of you know, last semester (my first in rabbinical school) was very challenging for me, emotionally and spiritually. While I don’t think I’ve ever treated this experience flippantly, I always want to remember that first and foremost I am able to have this experience. This is a blessing and a privilege.

So Elissa, I’ll go to rabbinical school for both of us — until you join me.

UPDATE: Elissa Froman passed away on Friday, March 22, 2013 (11 Nisan 5773). May her memory be always for a blessing.

You can make a gift in her honor to the National Council of Jewish Women, her longtime employer.