Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ask the Goldberg

As we contemplate what we are most thankful for in this world, I would like to take a moment and give thanks for David Goldberg. The Goldberg is a fellow in the year program, and on leave from rabbinical school at JTS. While he is clearly serious about Judaism, it is his openness to life, his joke telling "skills," and to sharing his peanut butter and honey sandwiches, that complete the awesomeness that is The Goldberg.

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. This is…Ask the Goldberg.

1. Why do you think mustaches are so awesome?

I grew up with men with facial hair, so I’m partial towards it. What can I say? Mustaches are funky and unique.

2. What is the most random class you’ve taken as an undergraduate?

The first was a class called “Frontiers of Modern Science. We had to take a science, and I took a lot of science in high school, but I still didn’t want a sciency-science class. So I took a class on the history and philosophy of science. It was a great class.

The second was something about the history of the Balkans and the Balkan region. It was fascinating to study the religious, social, and cultural integration there. There was much more local identification, and that sense of unity led to stereotyping of other localities. Jews there would often take on the local and religious customs, and it was the same with other religions. But that led to a sense of Serbian identity vs. Turkish. The class raised all kind of questions about what the definition of an ethnic group is.

For a course I would have taken, if I could have, it would have been a course on the American presidency. I’m interested because of The West Wing, but it’s a course at Columbia that I sat in on with a friend. The class was about Reagan, and it was fascinating.

3. What kind of rabbi do you want to be?

I don’t know. I’m open to different ideas. Whatever I do, I want to make sure I have an open and welcoming home to bring in Jews from all backgrounds to love Jewish living and to learn.

4. What’s the funniest clean joke you know?

What is the difference between Moshe Rabbeinu and the Lubuvicher Rebbe ?

At least we know where Moshe died.

[Long silence. I try to laugh politely because I don’t get it.]

No, wait—we don’t know where Moshe is buried, but we know where he’s buried. The rebbe, we know that he’s dead, but we’re not so sure where he’s buried.

[I thought we know where he’s buried]

OH! No, Moshe Rabbeinu, we know he’s dead, but we’re not sure where he’s buried. The rebbe, we know where he’s buried, but we’re not so sure he’s dead. Right.

5. What is your favorite/least favorite part of the liturgy?

I think one of my favorite parts of the liturgy is doing the festival repetition of the amidah; I just find the nusach to be really fun.

I think the part of the liturgy that I often struggle with is the day-to-day liturgy. Though a lot of the time it can be very, very meaningful, a lot of the time it can be mundane and difficult to do every day…But I think that also is why I love the festival liturgies. Because when you do that chazarat hashatz, it’s really nice.

6. Being Canadian in America—discuss.

Truly it’s been awhile now; I already had two years in New York before this, and Rebecca and I started dating when we were 17. And I’ve been around Americans a lot starting at age 17or 16. So it’s not really anything new…Americans are pretty cool most of the time. Except when they’re annoying with their Canadian jokes. The sad thing is that I lost a lot of my Canadian accent where people, more often than not don’t notice when I say. Sometimes they notice and say “why do you say house so Canadianly?” but most of the time people don’t notice, so it’s kind of sad. And I think I may have even taken on some Chicago accent.

7. Who is your favorite character from the Talmud?

I don’t know if I have a favorite character necessarily, but I really do like As a Driven Leaf as a book…I think that really the story Milton Steinberg wrote about [R’ Elisha ben Avuya’s] life is really cool.

8. If I ran Hadar for the day, I would…

I would have open learning time all day with all of the faculty here to help people just maximize chevruta study.

9. If you weren’t a rabbinical student, what would you be?

Probably a teacher.

[Of what?]

I don’t know. If I couldn’t be a teacher of Jewish studies, probably, I don’t know, maybe history or something. Something in the humanities in high school or something like that.

10. Who or what has been a defining figure or moment in your life?

I think a defining figure, if I could give a broad answer, would be my family. Defining figures. Specifically, in terms of my rabbinic path, my grandfather, my sabba, plays a huge role in defining what I do and who I am. And also my savta. And my parents, the house I grew up in. Rebecca, who pushes me now to a lot of the things that I think about. She challenges me and we talk out a lot of issues—like Jewish issues that I’ve been thinking about. So, my family.

The Siyyum: Kiddushin Edition

We are pleased to announce that Jaclyn Rubin (shlit”a) has finished the Talmud’s Masechet Kiddushin. Since we anticipate many more of these events, we decided we’d better learn how to get the celebrating done right. While there was no scotch (yet. When Jaclyn finishes the Talmud next week or so, we’ll get on that) there was a delicious chocolate/strawberry cake.
The caption reads: “Learning Torah is the Elixir of Life,” from Kiddushin 30b.

Special thanks to Mimi Lewis for her excellent idea of baking a cake, to Robin Weintraub for providing the recipe, the pots, and her cake-baking expertise, and Aharon Varady, for his quick-thinking in taking the picture before the cake was devoured.

Mazel tov, Jaclyn! Onward and upward!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Weekend News

One of my favorite parts of the Yeshivat Hadar opening event was when R”M Avital discussed the different visions of work that exist in Rabbinic literature. After four consecutive days of Torah reading, and not a lot of sleep to get me through them, I was finding it easy to sympathize with the position that work is a punishment from God.

Today, work consisted of running into Dr. Ruth Westheimer, reassuring an usher that she was not a crazed stalker, and making sure she had her face time with Theodore Bikel. And later tiptoeing, chopped-liver sandwich in hand, towards the fridge, as Mr. Bikel napped in his pajamas about three feet away from me. And I remembered that sometimes work can be fun and rewarding after all. And can reenergize me for Torah-reading day…tomorrow.

Another reward of the weekend: the Riverdale Shabbaton! As usual, Jen says it much better than I ever could: Asking Rav Eitan

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Social Justice II

During last week’s shiur klali, Dr. Steinmetz discussed, among other things, Bereishit 21:15-21, analyzing Hagar and Yishmael’s banishment from Avraham’s house, and their wandering through the desert without water until the angel appears to Hagar. One of the most memorable and striking elements that Dr. Steinmetz pointed out was the text’s criticism of Hagar’s actions towards her son in the desert. When they run out of water, Hagar places Yishmael under a bush, and then sits far away from him, so that she does not have to see him suffer and die. The text takes a critical tone towards her actions; it states specifically that it is Yishmael’s cries that God has heard and is responding to, not Hager’s, and the first thing that the angel says to Hagar is, in essence, “What’s going on? Why are you over here?” It is clear that the text is critical of Hagar’s focus on her own discomfort, at a time when she should be focused on the person who desperately needs her at his side during his suffering. While the pain that Hagar is going through is unimaginable, she does not recognize that nonetheless, this moment is not about her.

I couldn’t help but think of Dr. Steinmetz’s shiur when we visited the nursing home today. Every week I am able to sympathize with Hagar, and her desire to run away from the pain of another human being. Among the many difficult features of this chesed project is internalizing the idea that whatever I may be feeling at the moment, these visits are not about me. While I can examine the difficult feelings I have at any other point, for the two hours I am in and out of rooms, it is about connecting with another human being, responding to their needs, and being physically and emotionally close to them.

Rav Shai described the word “chesed,” generally translated as “lovingkindness,” as “love manifested as kindness.” But love is not a completely positive emotion—if that were the case, there would be far less acoustic guitar in the world. With love comes a good dose of fear, whether it is a fear of vulnerability, a fear of the consequences of being in a profoundly affecting relationship with another person, or something else entirely. The point is to take that love, and all of the messy feelings and baggage that comes with it, and be present in a way that results in a positive force acting on the world.

For my impatient fans: Ask the Goldberg is coming later this week!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Abi Gezint

As I realized that time I was a cross-dressing klezmer musician, hiding my love for a colleague, sometimes Molly Picon is best at singing exactly what I'm feeling (lyrics and translation under "more info").

This week, the blog will be back to its regularly scheduled programming.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer Loves Mumbling

I never knew how much I needed a davening counselor until I met Rav Elie. It is extremely liberating to have someone davening a few feet away who can engage in a discussion about any random liturgical topic that might come to mind; knowing that an understanding of any aspect of davening is only a question away makes the entire enterprise much more personally meaningful.

I asked Rav Elie to write this post, based on one of my favorite talks of his. Mumbling is something that I am still working on when it comes to my own davening; I could use a reminder about its wonders, and I hope others begin to embrace it.

“The members of the congregations are reminded and ordered to follow the cantor’s prayers quietly and silently. They must refrain from the illegal and cacophonous shouting which so frequently disturbs peaceful and true devotion.”

(Proclamation concerning the Improvements of the Worship Service in the Synagogues of the Kingdom of Westphalia, Sept 24, 1810)

What is “good davening”? Usually people define it by the intensity of the music or the quality of the shatz. But I think it comes down to this: mumbling.

In truth, prayer was never meant to be silent. The Amidah is unusual in that it is said silently, but in the ancient world, reading was done out loud (thus the word in Hebrew for “to read”—kara—is the same as “to call.”) The Psalms describe one “contemplating” the words of Torah day and night (Ve-hagita Bo Yomam Va-Laila)—but hagah really means “to pronounce in a low growl.” This atmosphere of a “mumbly” davening stands in sharp contrast to a library atmosphere. In a silent reading, the atmosphere is often rigid and staid. When a group of people mumbles the words of the siddur instead of reading them silently, the experience is completely different. In the low mumbling reading, the atmosphere resembles nothing that we have experienced in Western society—a humming or buzzing sound of praise and prayer.

The mode of silently reading prayers puts the worshiper in the realm of the cognitive—just as we might experience reading a book on the subway. But the act of mumbling moves from a purely cognitive experience to a more viscerally emotional act. The aesthetic effect of this mumbling serves a dual purpose: Besides its own value as a way of engaging in prayer, it provides a contrast to the truly silent parts of the prayer: the Amidah. The silence of the Amidah is all the more powerful when it replaces the sounds of prayer that preceded it. Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, was thought to be drunk when she prayed completely silently (1 Samuel 1:13–15). Clearly the Amidah, which the Talmud notes is modeled after Hannah’s form of prayer—is different from the rest of the prayer experience. The silence of an Amidah that begins (with no interrupting page announcement or stage direction) right after the mumbling of the worshipers is a contrasting silence—a silence that makes us straighten up and pay attention to the new mode of prayer before us.

How does one learn how to mumble? Here are some tips:

1) Daven the words fast – mumbling is not about enunciation, it is about entering into a different head-space in relation to the words, one that can be done best when the words flow.

2) Experiment with volume – mumbling is not monotone. When I mumble the prayers, some words come out louder than others. I am often surprised by which words I say more loudly – they allow me to relate to those particular words in a different way.

3) Practice with a line you already know – Take the first line of Ashrei. Memorize it. Then start saying it fast, over and over again. Say one word louder than the next. See how that familiar line begins to change in your experience.

4) Be louder than your neighbor – The best mumbling is experienced in a group. If only one person mumbles, there is no din and atmosphere. But people rarely want to be the leader on this. Take a risk and set the pace for others with your own mumbling.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Rabbi Steven Greenberg Visits Hadar

By the time Rabbi Steven Greenberg came to speak to the Hadar fellows on Wednesday for our shiur klali, I was relatively certain that I could give his life story. The night before, a few of the fellows and I had watched Trembling Before God, the 2001 documentary about the hidden lives of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, which featured R’ Greenberg. In addition, we watched the extended interview with him that was included in the Trembling extras. During Sukkot I had also read R’ Greenberg’s book, Wrestling With God and Men, so I was well-schooled (perhaps creepily so?) in the life of R’ Greenberg by the time he came to speak. When he walked into the room, I had a moment of mental confusion, when my mind tried to reconcile the actual person sitting in front of me with the person I knew existed theoretically. I was having a movie star moment.

And then he began to speak about his life, both things I had heard, and new stories. It was very moving to be able to hear about his religious journey, and the turns it took as R’ Greenberg began to acknowledge his homosexuality, and to know that instead of sitting in front of a screen, we could actually interact with him. The topic of homosexuality and Judaism is one that my mind struggles with, as someone who believes that the issue of gay rights is the civil rights issue of my generation, and yet who has thrown her lot in with observant Judaism—which includes That Text (in my less generous moments, that title includes asterisks of profanity). When I listened to R’ Greenberg speak, I wasn’t just thinking about how halachic-based Judaism could honestly accept homosexuality, but the need for living within a halachic system that is moral. And while I feel frustration—at myself, at the universe—when I can’t accept a particular line of reasoning given by R’ Greenberg, I still have to acknowledge that the way in which I think about homosexuality in general, and homosexuality within Judaism in particular, is so different than the way I would have thought about it ten years earlier. As frustrating as the Jewish universe can be on this subject, R’ Greenberg’s willingness to talk, to open himself up for questioning and for judgment, has done so much in nudging people’s minds open. And as anyone who grew up on the Orthodox spectrum can tell you, that’s big.

R’ Greenberg ended with what is now my favorite drash. When God created the world, God performed each particular task on each of the first six days, and saw that it was good. The first mistake that God made, that God could not pronounce as “good,” and instead saw that “it was not good,” was Adam being alone. And before woman was created, God proceeded to (figuratively) throw animals at Adam so Adam could test all of them out. While God can handle everything in the universe, and create it to perfection, when it comes to the human heart, God needs a little help, as the human being must search for who to love.

And, in the end, it all comes down to love.