Thursday, December 24, 2009

From the Other Side of the Pond

Greetings from London, where I am spending my winter break with my summer chevrusa, Hannah Sassoon. There is something both weird and comforting about seeing Jews living outside of the U.S; this adventure has also been quite the Jewish education-and Limmud hasn't even begun yet.

A few thoughts from a wandering Jew in Briton:

1. There is something really special about walking around a city where you can happen upon structure that are hundreds of years old, and stand in front of graves of people of people who have changed the world (for me personally and/or the world) and be able to think "that person! That person is right there!." There is a real sense of history here. I always find the idea of tradition to be one of the more compelling ones when it comes to my own Jewish practice, and being constantly hit with powerful reminders of how history and tradition have played out has been very moving.

2. It is strange to be in a place where Jews and Judaism are not in the public eye to the extent that they are in the U.S. New York in particular has a culture of Jewishness (I think it was Lenny Bruce who said that anyone residing in New York City is actually Jewish) that means that I feel a certain sense of cultural belonging-and even a sense of authority within that culture-whether it's a random day in March, or Christmastime. Depending on your point of view, this is either a good thing or a very bad thing, but I've never felt that by not celebrating Christmas I was somehow acting less American, the way I feel that elements of Christianity define what it is to be British.

3. Hannah on the Changing of the Guards in front of Buckingham Palace: "This is just like halacha!"
In other words: it is a series of long, intricate rituals meant to bring glory to the monarch. And while we have a sense of the ultimate goal, we don't really know what is going on or why.
Which prompted me to think further (generally a dangerous event): On the one hand, I can't imagine why Brits are ok with their tax pounds going to the royal family, who receive this money as payment for existing. However, the Royal Family and the monarcy are extremely important symbols and figures that represent, and to a certain extent define, a vast British history and culture. It's important to acknowledge and honor their role, but I know that if I were British, I would sometimes want to throw my hands up in frustration and say "I give you all this money; what have you done for me recently?"
Use this metaphor as you will.

Tomorrow we are off to Limmud! If you're there, come to the session on "Reinventing the Yeshiva," Tuesday, December 29th, 7-8:10pm.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Beit Shammai World

Every year in day school, we were taught about the opinions of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, who argue about the best way to light Channukah candles. Beit Shammai writes that each day the number of candles lit should decrease, from eight on the first day to one on the last, while Beit Hillel writes that they should increase, starting with one candle and eight on the last day. Dr. Devora Steinmetz pointed out that we tend to ignore the opinion of Beit Shammai. This isn’t that surprising; after all, not only do we not practice according to Beit Shammai in this case, Beit Shammai also tends to be the one with the weird opinions, and it’s relatively easy to just think of this opinion as just another one of the weird ones. This position also happens to be particularly depressing; rather than going out of the holiday with a bang, the light decreases each day until it disappears.

But Dr. Steinmetz pointed out something fascinating about Beit Shammai’s opinion. As the holiday of Channukah continues, the days begin to get longer—there is more light in the world on the last day of Channukah than there is on the first day. On the one hand, we could use the Channukah candles to complement the increase in light, as the opinion of Beit Hillel does. But in Beit Shammai’s world, when we decrease the amount of candles we light each night, we are responding to what is happening in the larger world. On the first night, when the nights are long and the world desperately needs light, that is exactly what we provide when we light all eight candles. When we get to the last day of Channukah, and the world is not so totally lacking in light, we light one candle, in recognition of the fact that this is not what the world needs from us right now. Beit Shammai is making a statement about how we should involve ourselves in the world and how, as we celebrate our own particular holiday, we should understand how we can provide something to the larger world.

Happy Channukah

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Special Rosh Yeshiva Mazel Tov!

Mazel tov to Rav Shai and Rachel on the birth of their son this morning!
May Baby Held live a life filled with wonder, moments of radical amazement, and an understanding that "Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy" (Abraham Joshua Heschel, of course).

Video courtesy of Rav Shai, included in the birth announcement:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Yom Iyyun: A Lunchtime Scene

A thought from Jen Taylor Friedman in honor of the one-week anniversary of Yom Iyyun.
Source sheets and videos from the Yom Iyyun can be found here:

You know what one of the really nice things about eating lunch at the Hadar Yom Iyyun was? Leaning across the table afterwards to some total strangers and being able to say "Rabbotai - nevarech?".

And knowing that they'd understand that I meant "Would you care to join in this shared grace-after-meals which I am now initiating?".

And knowing that, since the default setting was "egalitarian," I didn't have to worry that there wasn't a quorum of men at the table and perhaps they would be offended at being expected to do shared-grace-after-meals with women and perhaps the women wouldn't count women in the sharing-quorum and be discomfited and all those other awkwardnesses that crop up when the default is "non-egalitarian," because gender just wasn't an issue either when eating or when giving thanks for eating.

And knowing that, since the default setting was "observant," there wouldn't be that excruciating pause when people think "grace? what a weird thing to do after a meal on a weekday" or else "oops am I imposing religion on people?" and those who know the words don't want to embarrass those who don't and before grace can be said someone has to shuttle off to hunt down some gracebooks, because everyone either knew the grace by heart or had a gracebook in their pocket.

It was awfully nice just to be able to say grace in company without it being a huge performance, that's all. Spending all day doing halakha geekery is jolly good fun and all that, but being able to say "Rabotai - nevarekh?" to random people at your table, that's better.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Aharon Varady: The Talmud on the Virtues of Robots and Cats

When I see Aharon Varady during davening, I realize that life is a lot more interesting when, amidst the standard minyan and davening, there is one person going against the flow, and who would think to add Bilhah and Zilpah to the Imahot during the first bracha of the Amidah.
Aharon is also a prolific blogger, whose enviable skills I can only hope to achieve with much practice. From Aharon's Omphalos:

A few days ago Engadget blogged a story originally reported in the Israeli print media that a local family was surprised to discover that their Roomba had ingested a dangerous poisonous snake (Vipera palaestinae)...
The Talmud on the Virtues of Robots and Cats

Posted using ShareThis

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Cultural Encounters

Let's start the week off right, with a look at the beautiful things that can happen when cultures collide:

I dare you not to have The Miami Boys Choir stuck in your head after this. You're welcome.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Join Us for a Yom Iyyun!

Mechon Hadar's Halakha Yom Iyyun
Halakhah as a Language of Applied Values:
Theory and Practice
Sunday December 6
at Yeshivat Hadar
190 Amsterdam Ave, NY
(@69th St – West End Synagogue)

Cost:$15(Register below)
· Students pay only $5
· Lunch will be available for an extra $10
Watch remotely at by clicking here for a live broadcast of select sessions.

If you are interested in exchanging childcare with other participants, please e-mail

Register Here

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Great Thought

Shared with me today by Avi Strausberg, a true woman of the world, who will hopefully honor us with a guest post in the coming weeks:

When Avi was working on the farm at ADAMAH, she would come home after spending hours in the field. She would look at her hands, grimy with the dirt from working the earth, and wonder any of the seeds she planted would grow, and what would come of her hard work.

Now she comes home with her hands stained with ink from studying Talmud and other Jewish texts all day. And once again, she wonders whether the knowledge she gained this day will take root, and what will come of it.