Thursday, December 30, 2004

Thirteen Years

Today, according to the Gregorian calendar, is the thirteenth anniversary of one of the craziest things I’ve ever done, but also possibly one of the best: making aliyah [moving to Israel].

I have an idiosyncratic way of measuring time when it comes to dates like this: I always imagine what a child born on the original date would be doing. In this case, if the child were a Jewish boy, he would be celebrating his bar mitzvah. (And yes, last year I thought that a Jewish girl born on this date twelve years before would be celebrating her bat mitzvah. Equal-opportunity idiosyncrasy, that’s me.)

I’ve also done some stock-taking of the past thirteen years, but I’ll spare my readers that. I will say this, though: despite the difficulties of living in this country—some of which are actually pretty normal, such as high taxes and low salaries—I consider myself extremely lucky to be here. When I need to boost my morale, I remind myself that many of my ancestors would have given all they possessed for the privilege of walking down a street in Jerusalem, or anywhere in Israel—something I too often take for granted. And I also remember that I owe the privilege of living here to so very many people who gave, and are still giving, all they had to keep us safe.

Thirteen is an important number in Jewish tradition. There are thirteen Divine Attributes. The numerical values of the letters of the Hebrew word for “one,” denoting Divine unity, add up to thirteen, as do the numerical values of the letters in the Hebrew word for “love,” ahavah. Yes, thirteen ... a nice, round number.

Happy anniversary to me!

The Jerusalem Central Bus Station Synagogue: A Halakhist Responds

Halakhic scholar Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman of Hitzei Yehonatan has responded to my posting about the lack of a women’s section in the synagogue at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, or rather the refusal of the bus station’s rabbi, Menahem Mendel Wilhelm, to countenance one:

I just read your blog piece about the lack of place for women in the shul there. I had noticed the problem the last time I came back fron Beer Sheva and went into the bus station’s synagogue for Minhah: I noticed three or four women davening outside.
Actually, praying near the bathrooms is less of a problem, since the doors are generally closed and if, for example, you were to daven near the phones one would have to turn several corners to get to the restrooms. A much more serious problem is the suggestion that women can daven in the hallway, in an area used constantly for foot traffic. Besides the difficulties of concentrating even minimally in such an environment, the halakhah explicitly states that it is forbidden to stand or pass within four amot (close to two meters) in front of a person saying Shemoneh Esreh, because the Shekhinah [Divine Presence] is “opposite” that person—man or woman. Since that area is a public thoroughway, where people need to pass to catch their buses, or perhaps to make an urgent phone call or to use the toilets before embarking on a journey, any woman davening there (unless she’s lucky enough to find a place right next to the wall opposite the shul) causes them to either violate the halakhah or, if they’re strict with themselves, to lose valuable time.
The rav of the Hildesheimer shul talked about this subject recently in a halakhah class where he criticized latecomers, especially at Minhah on Erev Shabbat, who choose to daven right by the door, preventing others from coming in. He told a story about Rav Moshe Feinstein who once, just after giving a talk on the same subject, found someone davening in the middle of a passageway. He refused to leave, saying, “There is a wall there; how can I pass?!”
Thus, to my mind it’s clear that a solution must be found. The logistics may be difficult, but that’s what the man is being paid to do. [...]
As for the objection that people might use the women’s section for immoral purposes, I have two answers. First, in terms of actualia: the Tel Aviv bus station has a different culture than that of Jerusalem. It is known that in TA there are, or have been, prostitutes soliciting business within the bus station; it also happens to be located quite close to the red-light district. In Jerusalem, the atmosphere is quite different.
Second, a principled halakhic answer: “Bari va-shema, bari adif.” That is, if one must weigh a certainty against a possibility, the certainty is given greater weight. It is a known, definite fact that there are women who want to recite one of their prayers while passing through the Central Bus Station (certainly with the education girls are receiving these days in ulpanot and so on that Minhah is obligatory for women), with the attendant problems involved with tefillah [prayer] in the hallway under present conditions; the use of a women’s section for immoral purposes is a theoretical possibilty, but may not happen at all. Any serious halakhist can only reach one conclusion from these facts.

I should point out that when I spoke with Rabbi Wilhelm approximately three years ago, the synagogue entrance was directly off the general area. Since then, a wall has been built shielding the synagogue entrance from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding area. It seems to me that if the powers that be, religious or otherwise, could get that wall built, a women’s section in the bus station would be a small matter.

Tsunami Relief

I received this letter from Chabad of Thailand via Naomi Ragen:

December 28, 2004
Dear Chaverim,
I write to you in the midst of the mounting humanitarian disaster affecting Southeast Asia.
As the only Jewish service agency in the country dealing with this catastrophe, our offices and staff in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Ko Samui have put everything else aside, working 24/7 to assist those in need of comfort.
I therefore turn to my colleagues for urgent help in funding our humanitarian efforts during the crisis, Chabad of Thailand’s response to the crisis was immediate and is growing daily.
Rabbi Nehemya Wilhelm was dispatched to the scene of the tragedy in Phuket to aid in the rescue efforts where he is making the rounds of the hospitals, identifying bodies, arranging medical help and transportation for survivors, connecting survivors with each other, and helping the Israeli government in coping with this terrible ordeal.
Thailand’s three Chabad Houses, staffed by six full-time rabbis and twelve rabbinical trainees, were immediately converted into crisis centers where dazed survivors are
  • receiving medical help
  • receiving free meals
  • receiving funds for new clothing
  • placing free international phone calls (and same for internet use) to their loved ones to inform them of their whereabouts
  • being helped in their efforts to locate their friends as of yet unaccounted for
  • Chabad volunteers are standing by at the local hospitals to visit the injured and provide them with kosher food and any other help needed.
  • Chabad staff is providing counseling to the survivors who are in a state of emotional trauma.
  • Chabad staff has already fielded several thousand phone calls from Israel, trying to help families locate their relatives.
  • Chabad has been instrumental in notifying thousands of Israelis in Thailand who have not been affected by the quake to contact their families back home. Please note that the Israeli Consul in Thailand, Yakov Dvir, asked for our help in locating hundreds of Israelis who are stranded in the ravaged seaside towns of Thailand which we are doing to the best of our abilities. Israel’s Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has acknowledged the help we are providing to the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
As the initial efforts of search and rescue wind down over the next week, the grim work of identifying bodies and counseling bereaved families will unfortunately keep the Chabad staff fully occupied for the foreseeable future. We are also expecting the stream of survivors of this natural disaster appearing at our doors in Bangkok to increase, placing the burden on us to clothe, feed and accommodate them as they slowly try to make their way home.
The initial estimate of expenses incurred to our organization as a result of this tsunami already runs into tens of thousands of dollars for food, clothing, shelter, medical expenses and transportation to and from the disaster zones. It seems very possible that hospital expenses as well as transportation of bodies for burial may also become a significant expense as the situation unfolds.
Thanks in advance for your assistance in this most important mitzva.
To help us in our humanitarian mission of Ahavat Yisrael and tzedaka in the aftermath of the tsunami please send checks to Chabad of Thailand, 96 Thanon Rambuttri, Bangkok, Thailand 10200 (for US tax deductibility please write checks to American Friends of Chabad of Thailand), or donate online at or

UPDATE: Israaid is another Israeli organization that is helping the survivors.

Also, The Command Post has a large, comprehensive list of aid organizations.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

One Way to Help

YudelLine has information for those who would like to donate to the southeast Asia relief efforts through Jewish organizations.

(Via Allison.)

Earth to the Vatican

It looks like some Vatican officials have been overdoing the Christmas spirit—in the literal sense of the term—just a bit. Did someone perhaps make their eggnog a bit too strong this year? Here is why I ask:

The Vatican newspaper has denounced what it called a decision by the IDF to deny emergency help to disaster victims in Sri Lanka.
Calling for “a radical and dramatic change of perspective” among people “too often preoccupied with making war,” L’Osservatore Romano singled out Israeli military leaders for declining a request for emergency medical help.

I would really like to believe that this is all a big, unfortunate mistake. Whether it is or not, here are some facts for those Vatican officials to chew on once they sober up:

Contrary to the Vatican report, an Israeli plane carrying 80 tons of food and medical supplies worth $100,000 was set to depart for Sri Lanka Wednesday morning. At the request of the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry, a team of some 150 Israeli medical and security personnel aborted their planned trip to the island nation Tuesday night.

This is mind-boggling. The Sri Lankan government asks Israel to call off its relief mission—and look who then gets the blame for “denying the disaster.”

No. I take it back. This isn’t mind-boggling. It’s appalling. Nauseating. Sick.

That Israel has been accused of something it didn’t do is bad enough. Yet if the Sri Lankan government’s political games are more important to it than the lives of its own people, what does that say about the Sri Lankan government?

And why on earth isn’t the Vatican yelling at them?

UPDATE: Here’s Mark’s perspective on the situation. Well worth a read.

A Night at the Movies

Tonight I saw The Incredibles with a friend of mine who’s back from the US (finally!). I really enjoyed it. Without giving away the plot, its themes were ones that resonate a great deal with me: that it’s all right to be different and that being true to ourselves is the best way to go. They sound like clichés, but then that’s what makes a cliché a cliché—it’s true.

(At some point during the film I found myself wondering whether many of the people who worked on it had to deal with being different at some time in their lives.)

The film gets pretty dark in some parts. For that reason I’m not sure I’d recommend taking small children to see it. But I think it would be fine for older children.

Before the film, there was an animated short made by the same company, called “Boundin’.” Though its theme seemed to lean more towards encouragement during difficult times, it also touched on the idea of how being different might get people down and how we can deal with it.

After seeing these two films, the short and the feature-length one, I’d like to track down everything this company has ever made and watch it from beginning to end. I think I’d enjoy that.

Message in a Bottle

To LL and CB: I received your e-mails and answered them. Please check your e-mail.

(And I hope you’ll check over here and see this message.)

Monday, December 27, 2004

Rhymes with “Alone”

The Hebrew word ason means “catastrophe,” “disaster.”

Ason teva means “natural disaster.”

Such small syllables, such brief sounds ... and such an enormously horrible reality.

UPDATE: Here is an article, including contact information, about the Israeli campaign to assist the victims in southeast Asia. Israel is also sending physicians, nurses and medications to Thailand.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Take Two Skritches and Call Me in the Morning

Did I ever tell you about the time a cat cured me of a headache?

And a nasty headache it was, too. It fastened on me as I was on my way home from work one evening about eleven years ago. It may have been a migraine; I don’t remember. What I do remember is that it was so severe that my hands shook. When I tried to take my temperature to see whether I might be coming down with something, I found that I couldn’t hold the thermometer properly. My hands were shaking so badly that I dropped it and it shattered on the floor.

After I cleaned up the mess (including checking to see whether there was any mercury left on the floor—there wasn’t), I went out to the drugstore a few blocks away to get some pain medication.

Next door to the drugstore was an apartment building with a broad stone post on either side of the stairs leading to the entrance. On one of those stone posts lay a beautiful Manx cat with calico markings taking the last of the sun. She looked friendly, so I approached her, holding out my hand for her to sniff. Hello, nice cat. May I pet you?

She sniffed my hand and marked it with the scent glands at her cheeks. Yes, please, I’d like that very much.

I petted her and skritched her head, then started to give her a feline massage in earnest. After losing myself for a few minutes in the warmth and softness of her fur and the sound of her purr, I came back to myself and realized right away that something was different.

My headache was gone.

“Good, sweet kitty, thank you so much. How did you do that?” I asked her.

She just purred.

It’s possible that my petting the cat worked on the same principle that energy healing does. The theory behind energy healing is not that it cures; it simply allows the one needing healing to reach a state in which his or her own body activates its own processes of healing and balancing—a kind of reset button, similar to the effect of sleep. It’s likely that as I interacted with this lovely Manx, I relaxed enough to enter that kind of state even briefly, hit the reset button and came back up without the headache.

Or that the gorgeous Ms. Manx has abilities that the rest of us can only wonder at.

Whatever the case, she’s still around. And I’ve never told the pharmacist that he has a serious competitor in the pain-killing department right next door.

You Never Know

You never know whom you might be walking next to in Jerusalem. A close friend of mine observed that just about everyone who lives here has a story, but it’s not every day that one finds oneself walking next to someone who took part in one of the most significant stories of our time.

Last Friday morning, my friend and I went on a walking tour given by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. (I’d supply the link but their site is temporarily off-line; it’s currently being upgraded.) The theme of the tour was sites that pertained to the battle for Jerusalem in 1948 and its reunification in 1967.

A robust-looking older man on the tour had fought in Jerusalem in 1948, and he gave us his account of the battles we now read about in history books (or on websites). He had seen them from close up, had participated in them. The four people who fell in one particular battle, whose names are memorialized on a plaque across from the main branch of the post office downtown, were his friends and acquaintances. “This woman,” he said, pointing to one name, “wasn’t with us for very long. She came from another group to fight with us, just like he did [pointing at another name on the plaque]. He came from his university studies in Tel Aviv to fight. Anyway, at first the commanders told her that she would have to stay behind, but she insisted on being allowed to participate in the battle. And she was killed. I only knew her for about two months.”

We walked along the line that had divided Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967. “The Jordanians were right there, on the roofs of those buildings,” our guide told us. “They shot at anything that moved. There were lots of shooting incidents, including one where a woman who had gone up to the roof to hang out her laundry was shot and killed.”

I thought of my parents, who visited Israel on their honeymoon. My mother told me about how she walked with my father in downtown Jerusalem and how she looked up to see the Jordanian soldiers, with their guns, looking down at her. I shivered, but not from the cold.

There was at least one story with a happy ending, though. One day when a nun who lived in a convent on the dividing line looked out of her window, her dentures fell to the ground, right into the no-man’s land between the two sides of the divided city. It took strong diplomatic effort and UN involvement, but eventually three officers were permitted to enter the area to recover the nun’s dentures.

We also heard how the sacred sites of all the religions in the Old City were open to the adherents of the respective faiths—all, that is, except for the Jewish ones. From 1948 to 1967, Jews were not permitted to visit the Western Wall, our holiest accessible site.

Our walking tour ended at Ammunition Hill, where one of the bloodiest and most difficult battles of the Six Day War took place. Thirty-six soldiers died trying to open the corridor between Ammunition Hill and Mount Scopus, then a tiny Jewish enclave surrounded by Jordanian forces. Our guide played a recording of Yoram Teharlev’s famous song about the battle, interspersed with the accounts of some of the few soldiers who had survived it.

As any of my friends will attest, I enjoy hikes and tours, and I love to learn about Jerusalem’s history. Usually I leave tours with a smile on my face, but I left this one quiet and sobered.

I also left it with renewed appreciation for the older people who live in this city. You never know whom you may be walking next to on the street, standing in line with at the post office or sitting next to on the bus. That white-haired man or woman next to you may be one of the people who fought for the city whose streets you walk so freely today as you go about your business, shopping, paying bills, running errands.

It’s good to be reminded of that once in a while.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Rabbi Misses the Bus

The new Central Bus Station of Jerusalem was completed several years ago. Unlike the old central bus station and its temporary replacement several blocks away, it is a modern building in all respects. It contains a shopping mall, food court, office space and, of course, a synagogue.

But the synagogue is not for everyone. It has no women’s section. I noticed this when the new bus station first opened, and I telephoned the rabbi of the Central Bus Station, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Wilhelm, to ask why there was such a glaring omission and what could be done to correct it.

According to him, the lack of a women’s section was not accidental but deliberate. “We didn’t include a women’s section in the synagogue because we were certain it won’t be used for prayer,” he said. “If we build a separate room, people will go in there to eat and smoke and sit with crossed legs [a disrespectful posture].”

“So where is there a proper place for women to pray in the Central Bus Station?” I asked Rabbi Wilhelm.

“You can pray in the hallway outside the synagogue, near the bathrooms and the payphones,” he answered.

“What?!” I blurted, stunned.

(I should point out here that Jewish law prohibits praying near a place where there might be human wastes, and even if the bathroom in question is squeaky clean, it is still considered disrespectful to pray near it. Hence my reaction.)

It seemed that Rabbi Wilhelm knew he had said something inappropriate and that I had caught him at it. “You can pray near the payphones,” he backtracked. The rest of the conversation was similarly unsatisfying.

That was roughly three years ago.

Since then, some effort has been made to correct the imbalance. Here is my translation of an article from the online edition of Ha-Zofe, dated November 17, 2002:

The planners of the magnificent shopping center in Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, Merkazit Yerushalayim, pondered and planned every detail as they built it. But one fairly significant detail escaped their attention: a women’s section in the synagogue of the Central Bus Station. After all, among the thousands of travelers who pass through the shopping center and the Central Bus Station are many women, both religious and non-religious, who wish to use their free time to pray or recite Psalms, and they have no proper place in which to do so inside the synagogue.
Recently a letter was sent to the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, after Amnon Ben-Ammi, the director-general of Merkazit Yerushalayim, received a request to establish a women’s section in the shopping center. The rabbi of the Central Bus Station, Menahem Mendel Wilhelm, passed the letter on to the Chief Rabbi. The reply he received from Rabbi Rafael Dayan, the Chief Rabbi’s assistant, stated that in Rabbi Bakshi-Doron’s opinion, “It is proper to establish a women’s section in the Central Bus Station in order to enable women who wish to pray to do so in an appropriate area, to answer Kaddish and Kedushah [prayers which can only be recited in a quorum of ten men and not by individuals, male or female], to listen to the Torah reading and pray with the community.”
By the way, the organization responsible for the request to establish a women’s section in the synagogue at the shopping center is none other than the Israel Religious Action Center, an agency of the Movement for Progressive Judaism. Their letter to the management of the shopping center read, in part: “It is well known that ‘The nation of Israel was redeemed in the merit of righteous women’ [Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b]. A great deal has been written in our tradition regarding the prayers of women, the most famous of which is the prayer of Hannah [1 Samuel 10–12], of which it is written that her son Samuel, one of the greatest Jewish prophets, was born in its merit. Democracy also dictates the need for a women’s section, since its absence discriminates against women, and the principle of equality is firmly anchored in Israeli democracy.”

All well and good, but in more than two years, nothing has been done.

Actually, that is not such a big surprise. Not all religious people here in Israel are willing to follow the Chief Rabbinate. Since it is a state institution, rabbis and lay people from certain sectors of Israeli society do not view it as a truly religious entity. To them it is a bureaucracy at best and religiously suspect at worst. Given this, I do not understand why Rabbi Wilhelm would have asked for Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron’s opinion in the first place, especially if he had no intention of acting on it. Also, since the original appeal came from the Israel Religious Action Center, I suppose that would be yet another reason for the above-mentioned sectors to ignore anything that resulted from it, since they view that organization and its parent movement with even more suspicion, if not outright hostility.

But that is not the point. The sad fact remains that whatever the reason, Jewish women still have no proper place to pray in Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, and the rabbi in charge believes that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this situation.

Unfortunately, it seems that I’m not the only one to have had to contend with this rabbi’s unique logic. Yesterday, a close friend of mine, a deeply religious woman and a published scholar of Jewish law, had a similar conversation with him after she tried to find a proper place to pray in the Central Bus Station. (I am guessing that this was the same rabbi with whom I spoke several years ago, based on similarities between our two conversations.) Here, in my friend’s own words and by her permission, is her account:

On Monday, December 20, 2004, I returned from a bus trip (to Tel Aviv), arriving in the Jerusalem Central Bus Station about 1:15 PM. I realized that I would not have an opportunity to pray mincha [the afternoon service] in an appropriate place later since I was heading for a walking tour that would be over after dark. I decided to go to the Central Bus Station synagogue even though I knew that it did not boast a women’s section. I said to myself: if I were a man that is what I would do—why should I do anything different because I am a woman?
I got to the synagogue and peeked in the doorway. They were almost at the end of a minyan [communal prayer requiring a quorum of ten] for mincha. The sign giving minyan times did not list a time for mincha either for the minyan that was occurring (obviously, it was ad hoc) or for one soon. I first decided to wait until they were done, then enter the synagogue and pray b’yehidut [as an individual, without a minyan]. In the meantime, more men were arriving. My next thought was that if I entered the synagogue, I would not be able to focus on the tefilah because I would be worried that men coming in would make a fuss even if they were also praying b’yehidut (no partition between men and women is required if there is no minyan, but I was worried anyway). In any event, it appeared that they were about to start another ad hoc minyan. So I decided to pray in the hall just outside the synagogue.
I had to peek in again to determine which direction to face to pray. One man asked me if I was looking for a prayerbook (the bookcase with prayerbooks was within easy reach even from the hall). He was trying to be nice. In any event, I had a prayerbook with me. I always do, partly in case I need to pray without a synagogue, and partly because my motto in these situations is “Always be prepared”—that even if a synagogue is available to me, a prayerbook may not be.
While I prayed, I noticed that a man with a longish beard kept leaving and entering a room that said on it “Egged Rabbi’s Office.” His office hours were listed as 11 AM–1 PM. I knocked on the door and he called me to come in. He smiled as he motioned me to wait a minute until he finished his phone conversation.
Our conversation went something like this:
ABC: Honored rabbi, can’t there be an arrangement for women to pray in the synagogue? I prayed in the hall, which isn’t modest with everyone passing by.
Rabbi: I have heard this complaint before. Let me explain to you. The synagogue is in the mamad [room that can be sealed in case of a gas attack], so we aren’t allowed to cut another door into it. So there can’t be a separate entrance for women. Besides, it’s a transitory synagogue; everyone is hurrying to their buses. It’s not like a regular synagogue which requires a women’s section. Since it’s transitory, no women’s section is required.
ABC: So you mean, according to halakha [Jewish law], I could walk into the room and pray with all the men, without there being a women’s section. But the men there don’t know that; if I went into the room there would be a fuss. So why not just put up a partition in the room?
R: But we can’t cut another door.
ABC: If you say that according to halakha no separation is required anyway, why not have everyone go in the same door and have a partition in the room?
R: A women’s section requires a separate door.
ABC: But you said no women’s section is required ...
R: In the Tel Aviv bus station, they made a separate room for women to pray. I don’t want to tell you what that room was used for. A man and a woman went in there so they could be alone together ... terrible things. Women find other places in the bus station to pray, quiet places, in the [third floor?] balcony ...
ABC: I didn’t know what direction to pray in ...
R [interrupting]: You pray in that direction [motioning].
ABC: I had to look into the room to see what direction to pray in. That’s not modest. If there were a women’s section, that problem would be solved. In the new terminal at Ben Gurion Airport, in the arrivals, there’s a women’s section in the synagogue. That’s also a transitory situation.
R: That’s different. People have hours to wait for their planes, whereas here it’s buses.
[Unfortunately I did not think to say that at Arrivals in the airport, no one is waiting for a plane, rather they want to leave the airport as soon as they can, so the situation is certainly transitory. In addition, at the airport synagogue men and women use the same entrance.]
ABC: I must say that I fail to see your logic. Thank you.

A final point: it seems that irony is alive and well in the realm of the sacred. The name of the synagogue in the Jerusalem Central Bus Station is Bat Ammi—which means, in English, “Daughter of My People.”

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A Grateful Fish

David Bogner of Treppenwitz posted today ... about this blog. Wow. I’m flattered, I’m honored, but most of all I’m touched. Like many people who have blogs, I started mine as a kind of personal on-line journal, never expecting that anyone would actually seek it out. Nor did I ever dream that it would lead anyone to rethink his or her position on religious matters. So I guess that makes me amazed, too.

I’m feeling a bit tongue-tied at the moment but please let me say this:

David, as you pointed out, we may not agree on everything regarding this topic, but we don’t have to. It’s enough to be able to talk about these important issues in a respectful, open-minded manner without baggage, agenda or preconceived notions. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to know that this is still possible. (In the near future, I hope to post about why I feel this way.)

Thank you, David, for your respect, sensitivity, understanding and insight. Ken yirbu kamokha be-khlal Yisrael (May there be more like you among the nation of Israel).

(And now, please excuse me, folks. I’m heading back to David’s for my Yonah fix.)

How to Spend It

Sally Berkovic, author of Under My Hat, makes an excellent point about Jewish charitable giving by women in today’s Jerusalem Post:

Trends in women’s philanthropic giving were first documented in two important articles by Susan Weidman Schneider in Lilith magazine in the early 1990s.
Since women were denied access to much of public religious life, she noted “Jewish women's organizations have been in the past the shul for women.
“Philanthropy was the road to participation, but also one of the few sanctioned ways of expressing publicly the religious or spiritual impulse.”
As Orthodox women are forging a new sense of self-identity, so too their charity is becoming more discriminating and used to effect change.
Zelda Stern, a prominent Orthodox philanthropist, has written about using her money to leverage social change. Asked by a fund-raiser to contribute to an Orthodox Jewish day school, she asked to see the curriculum.
Noticing that the boys studied Talmud and the girls studied watered-down Jewish subjects, she said she could not contribute to a school that denied equal educational opportunities for boys and girls. She added that she would welcome another approach if the school’s policy changed.

In other words, Orthodox Jewish women are learning that their money talks, and that when it does, it is not likely to be gagged with a kol ishah order. Vanessa Ochs’s book Words on Fire describes a similar case in which a Jerusalem woman used her wealth to equalize the curriculum in her daughter’s school. For those who can do it, more power to them!

(The phrase “kol ishah is an abbreviation for a section in the Babylonian Talmud [Berakhot 24a] that enumerates those parts of a woman’s body considered tantamount to nudity when exposed. The assertion includes a woman’s voice together with the body parts in question and unfortunately is still used today as a basis for discouraging, if not prohibiting, religious Jewish women from singing in public, or even at the Sabbath table in their own homes when male guests are present.)

I haven’t spoken much here yet about my experiences as a member of Women of the Wall. (Don’t worry. I will.) Recently it occurred to me that there is one sure way to neutralize some of the opposition against the idea of women reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall. Since Jewish law in its pure state—free of extraneous considerations or ulterior motives such as social implications or power struggles—allows women to pray as a group and read from a Torah scroll, all that needs to happen is that a wealthy family with impeccable religious credentials offers a large donation in return for the opportunity to hold their daughter’s bat mitzvah service at the Western Wall, complete with a women-only prayer service and Torah reading, as more and more religious families are doing. I’d be willing to bet that the religious establishment would have difficulty refusing such an offer.

Of course there are other ethical considerations here, such as whether it is appropriate to use one’s daughter’s special occasion for this purpose. But in a case where the bat-mitzvah girl knew she could refuse and agreed anyway, I wouldn’t see a problem with it—and yes, I think that many twelve-year-old girls today are mature enough to understand the issues and make their own decision. But right now it’s only a hypothetical matter in any case.

The next item on my agenda would be enabling more women to make these donations that would effect change, or helping those who cannot make such donations yet to connect with those who can. Ms. Berkovic ends her article in the Jerusalem Post with the following byline: “The writer is author of Under My Hat (Josephs Bookstore). She would be happy to hear from anyone with a few million pounds who is looking for innovative ways to spend it.”

If you find someone like that, Ms. Berkovic, please give her my number when you’re done. I’ve got a few ideas myself.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Sasha’s Glasses

Well, not glasses, exactly. Glass figurines. They’re exquisite. Go check ’em out.

If you should ever find yourself on Yoel Salomon Street in downtown Jerusalem, and if you’re very, very quiet, you can go into the shop and watch Sasha at work. It’s one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen.

So ... what are you still doing here?! Go check out Sasha’s glass menagerie!

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Hillel Needs a Home

There is a colony of cats at the building in Jerusalem where I work. Most of them are feral, such as Lady, who spent three days on the roof rather than let a human being touch her. But Hillel, a gray tabby neutered male (who is named for the street where he was found, not the Jewish sage), is not feral. He is tame, sweet and loving. Since he is neutered, he is most likely a former house cat who either got lost or was dumped. Itzik, one of the security guards, feeds Hillel and the other cats, with help from other workers in the building. Hillel has grown to love Itzik and often shares guard duty with him. Itzik would take Hillel home in a minute, but circumstances prevent him from doing so.

Last week Itzik found Hillel with a nasty wound in the throat. (We don’t know whether it was caused by a catfight or by so-called humans.) We took up a collection and got him to a wonderful veterinarian who works with the local non-profit organization that helps street cats. The good news is that he was able to help Hillel, who is due to be released on Monday. The bad news is that once Hillel is released, he will have to return to the street.

Hillel is about two years old and would make a wonderful and loving pet. We would love to find a home for him. Can anyone out there help?

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Well Oiled

My hanukkiyyah uses oil rather than candles. I used candles until a few years ago, when I discovered a simple oil-burning hanukkiyyah in the Mahane Yehuda open-air market. It looked easy to use, so I took it home and inaugurated it on the first night of Hanukkah.

Trouble was, I hadn’t realized that although it looked easy to use, there’s a right way to use it. So, in the interest of sparing others my early mistakes, here goes:

Fill each glass container two-thirds to three-quarters full of water. Pour the oil on top—you don’t need much—and add the floating wick. Depending on the size of your glass containers and the proportions of oil and water you use, your hanukkiyyah can produce a clear, bright flame for anywhere from a half hour to several hours.

The water allows the flames to self-extinguish. It also makes the glass containers easier to clean. If you want the flame to burn longer, use less water, but always make sure you put at least a little in.

Enjoy the light.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

May the Light Increase

What comes into our minds when we think of Hanukkah? The struggle for religious freedom, the need to preserve Jewish culture, the pitfalls of Hellenism, the triumph of the few over the many—these are all valid answers. But here is one of my favorite legends about Hanukkah from the Talmud, one that goes all the way back to Adam.

When Adam [the first human] noticed that the days were getting shorter, he said: “Is the world becoming darker because of my sins? Will it soon return to chaos? And this is what God meant when He punished me with mortality?” He prayed and fasted for eight days. When the period prior to the winter solstice arrived, he saw that the days were now growing longer. He realized: This is the way of the world. Adam then made eight days of celebration. (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a)

Here’s to the victory of light over darkness, both in the outer world and within ourselves. Happy Hanukkah.

I Usually Don’t Do Things Like This ...

... but I’m going to now, for whatever it’s worth, for the half-dozen readers I may reach.

Meryl Yourish is up for a Wizbang Weblog Award. I’m endorsing her. Why? Well, she’s smart, witty, knows her stuff cold when it comes to Israel and current events (and lots of other topics) and she has two gorgeous, photogenic cats. (Yes, I confess it; I have been bribed with kitty pictures for this endorsement. But I’d endorse Meryl anyway.)

So: Get me my kittypix fix! Vote for Meryl!

And while you’re at it, check out Allison, David and Imshin, who are also up for a Wizbang Weblog Award in the category of Best Middle East or Africa Blog.


If you get the impression that the title of this post has a bit of an outraged tone, you’re correct.

As a rule, I don’t like advertising much. I’m not referring to what I call “straight advertising,” the purpose of which is to let us know that a particular service or product is available. I think that’s fine. What I don’t like is hype, buzz, gonzo—all the sophisticated tricks of the advertising trade meant to persuade us that we cannot live without a certain item or that possessing said item will make us more beautiful, classy or sexy, automatically and effortlessly—all of which is merely a smoothed-over version of what I believe is the true oldest profession: separating people from their hard-earned cash. (Thank you, Mr. McTamaney and my high-school English teachers, for the unit you taught us about advertising techniques. I appreciate those classes to this day.)

This morning the local Yellow Pages held a promotion downtown. The idea is that if you give your name and phone number and answer some easy questions, you will be entered in a lottery whose prize is a kilogram (approximately 2.2 pounds, for my US readers) of solid gold. Usually I’m wary of giving my name to advertisers, but I figure that this is the Yellow Pages; they know where to find me anyway.

So what was it that outraged me so much? Was it the shameless promotion by a firm that puts out a gigantic book of advertisements every year? Could it have been the Gold Card included in every phone book that gets buyers benefits at various local companies? (Great, yet another ploy to get us to spend money we don’t have, says my cynical side; no, it’s a legitimate attempt to pick up business in an economically struggling city, says my charitable side.) Was it the loud Day-Glo yellow on the flyers and the uniforms of the intrepid and energetic young people who were hired, probably at minimum wage, to make the pitches?

It wasn’t any of that. It was the candy bar they handed out together with the information flyer as a further enticement to participating in their lottery—a deal-sweetener, if you will.

It looked like a chocolate bar. It felt like one. Yet when I looked for the name of a familiar candy firm on the label and didn’t find one, my cynical side came to the fore again, claiming that Israel Yellow Pages must have engaged some cheap, unknown candy company to make these bars, which were probably made of the lowest-quality chocolate they could possibly get away with.

I was wrong. It was worse.

I read the ingredients list in the small print on the back of the bar. The word “chocolate” wasn’t written anywhere. Not chocolate? Then what on earth is this? I wondered.

I blinked harder and looked again. And then I saw it.


Carob?! These people were handing out carob bars as a promotion?

Now, I have nothing against carob. I have bought and eaten it willingly on occasion. One of the most unusual rice cakes I ever ate was coated with carob. It’s a gorgeous tree, and once I planted and grew carob seedlings in a pot, hoping to put them in the ground later on. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get to do it. They all died.)

Outraged as only a true chocolate addict can be, I looked more closely at the label on the candy bar. Sure enough, Israel Yellow Pages hadn’t violated any truth-in-advertising laws. They simply had not indicated what was inside on the front of the label, leaving that piece of supremely important information for the ingredient list with its teeny-tiny print. I couldn’t help but feel betrayed. Why did they do it? Why didn’t they tell us right off that they were handing us carob and not chocolate? Does Israel Yellow Pages have some secret interest in keeping consumers healthy without their realizing it? (I guess that makes sense. It benefits them to make sure we can consume in robust health for many decades to come.)

All right, fine, Israel Yellow Pages execs. Keep me healthy if you like, but at least be up front about it. The next time you hold a promotion downtown, hand out salads. (I prefer vinaigrette dressing, and hold the tomato.) Or, since winter is in full swing, give out bowls of hot vegetable soup. Hey, there’s an idea; treat me to the cream of broccoli or squash soup at the restaurant down the street and I’ll seriously consider buying whatever you’re selling, provided it’s not on the order of a Bentley.

But carob? Unmarked carob? That’s just plain sneaky. Even for an advertiser.

Cat on a Cold, Wet Roof

This is a story of a multinational cat rescue attempt. Don’t worry; it ends well: the kitty in distress ended up rescuing herself, and she’s fine.

The office of one of the jobs where I work is located in downtown Jerusalem, and many people of many different nationalities work there. Quite a few of them are cat-lovers, including the security guard, Itzik, who feeds the small group of cats who hang out near the front door. Like the biblical Adam, he has given all of them names. He knows the age and personality of each cat and can tell you how long a particular cat has been part of the group. I arrive for work about an hour before Itzik does and always see the cats waiting for him at the top of the stairs. I usually greet them by saying, “Hi, cats. Don’t worry; Itzik will be here soon.” (As if they didn’t know.)

Last week we had some high drama of the feline kind. Just as I completed my work for the day, I heard the mewing of a cat in distress in the stairwell. It turned out that one of the gang, Lady, a feral, pregnant tabby-and-white cat, had gotten into the building—and into a total panic. Though Lady comes willingly enough to eat the food that Itzik and the other workers bring for her and her friends, she is absolutely terrified of humans and won’t let anyone near her. Once she got into the building, rather than risk contact with a human she ran all the way up the stairs to the top floor, seeking a way out, and ended up on a window ledge four stories above ground level. (Fortunately the building has wide ledges, so there is plenty of room for cats to shelter outside the windows in the unlikely event that they should need to.)

What followed was the most multinational cat rescue attempt I have ever witnessed. “Lady, come here,” the Arab custodian called. “Careful, she may jump if we press her too closely,” an American translator warned. “She’s pregnant,” observed a journalist from the UK, as a Canadian office manager went out to see what he could do to help. Itzik, the Israeli security guard, couldn’t leave his post, but he kept up with all the details and told me the end of the story a few days later.

Lady had stayed on the roof for the better part of three days, mewing in desperate panic while stubbornly resisting all attempts by humans to rescue her. Finally, when Muhammad, the custodian, went back to the roof to try once more to approach her, in an attempt to avoid him she descended the outside of the building floor by floor, using the air conditioners as stepping stones. “She reached the ground safely,” Itzik told me, “and came to eat this morning with the other cats as though nothing had happened. Everyone was so relieved that she was safe.”

This gives me an idea. Maybe, when national leaders sit down to negotiate, there should be at least one cat in the room.

Monday, December 06, 2004

One Must Learn!

One of my hobbies is building websites. I have listed a few of mine on the sidebar. But since for me, site building is a hobby and not my profession as yet, I can’t devote the amount of time that I would need to become expert at it. Also, since it is not my profession as yet, I’m not in an environment where people are constantly talking about it and sharing information, so I don’t have as much of an opportunity to keep up with the changes that always seem to be happening in this field.

But I keep trying, and over the years I’ve been in contact with quite a few web designers. Without exaggeration, I’ve found that they are some of the nicest people around. They delight in sharing their layouts, designs and building tips with people they’ve never met, asking only for due credit in return. They’re good to newbies, too. A while ago an incredible young man from Chicago taught me a lot over several weeks. Today I got sweet replies from two very experienced, very high-powered designers about another question I had. One warned me that there were some problems with one of my sites, adding that sorry, he didn’t have time to check them out. That was fine with me, though. I’d rather break my head over my code. It’s tough, it’s frustrating, sometimes it makes me want to sob, “I’ll never get this!” But I always do in the end. It’s the best way to learn.

HTML Tidy is one example of how wonderful these folks are. It’s a service you can use to clean up your code for free. Someone spent (and still spends) hours writing it and put it up for everyone to use. Just like that. (Note to self: include HTML Tidy when counting blessings.)

So thanks to the tips I got from quite a few good people and the work of many others whom I may never meet, I can gladly report that these formerly problematic sites of mine now (mostly) validate. Yay! And when I need to update them again—as I will need to soon, since I recently discovered ways to get them out of cross-browser hell (oops, limbo)—I will go off and learn some more. That’s what it’s about, after all.

Thank you, Eric, Mike, Israel and all the other wonderful people from the various technical sites and e-mail lists who helped me out, today and in the past.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Azzam Azzam: Finally Free

As part of a characteristically lopsided prisoner exchange deal with Egypt, Azzam Azzam is finally free.

In return, Israel released six Egyptian students who had infiltrated Israel for criminal purposes:

The six Egyptians were indicted in the Beersheba District Court in September on charges of infiltrating into Israel, planning to kidnap soldiers and negotiate their return in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, take control of a military tank, and rob a bank.
The six, students from Cairo, ranging in age from 25 to 30, were caught by border policemen three weeks ago near the southern town of Nitzana along the Egyptian-Israeli border equipped with knives and reconnaissance equipment.

The trumped-up charge against Azzam Azzam—that, as the manager of a textile factory in Cairo, he passed on Egyptian state secrets by soaking women’s underwear in invisible ink—was utterly ridiculous. The Egyptian students, on the other hand, actually committed the crimes for which Israel imprisoned them.

That’s just business as usual where Israel is concerned. But at least we can be grateful that an innocent man is at long last on his way home.

The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a section on the arrest and trial of Azzam Azzam.

Savitsky Apologizes

OU President Stephen J. Savitsky apologized for his insulting remarks about veteran American immigrants to Israel in an ad in the Jerusalem Post last Thursday.

I haven’t seen his apology, though I’ve heard mixed reviews about it.

I’m reserving judgment until I see it myself.

UPDATE: Here is the text:

I deeply regret the remarks I made concerning past motivations for aliya which were reported in the Friday, November 26 edition of The Jerusalem Post, and I apologize for them. I am sorry that these remarks, which were part of a lengthy discussion on aliya and many other topics, denigrated—albeit unintentionally—those who have made aliya over the years. As newly-elected President of the Orthodox Union, I will continue to acknowledge their courage and idealism, and to use their example to encourage others to follow in their footsteps. Indeed, promoting aliya was a key theme of our Convention in Jerusalem this past weekend.
I request mechila (forgiveness) from all whom I offended, and hope I may look forward to working closely with the entire community of olim to increase and enhance aliya in the future.

As David at Treppenwitz notes, Savitsky didn’t say what it was he meant to say in the first place, but as apologies go this one sounds fine to me.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Good News and Bad News

I was originally going to title this post “All Dressed Up and No Place to Go.” Two brand-new radiator units were just installed in my apartment, and now all the radiators here are new. They look great and I don’t have to be afraid of leaks anymore (I hope). That was the good news.

The bad news was that our building had no heat until this morning.

Our pipes had rusted through, and repairs take time. So we had to wait, including through last week’s cold snap and rainstorms. I have a small heater which helped, but made for a shocking temperature change when I went from one room to another.

But that’s all over now. Thank goodness, our building now has heat. Good news indeed ... but the bad news is that our building fee has gone up by another hundred shekels per month in order to cover the cost of heating fuel.

I guess we’re doing our bit to keep things in balance.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Can We Please Lay Off Dina Already?

I’m referring to the biblical Dina, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, who had the misfortune to be abducted and raped by Shekhem, the son of the local chieftain Hamor. Her story was part of last week’s Torah portion, and last Shabbat it made me do something I rarely do: lose my temper.

I was staying with old and dear friends, and it was lunchtime. Another guest and good friend of theirs, a teacher, sought to begin a conversation about Dina, citing the well-known commentary by Rashi on the first few words of her story, which begins “And Dina the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne unto Jacob, went out. ...” Rashi draws a parallel between Dina and her mother Leah, who had “gone out” a few chapters earlier to meet her husband Jacob. Like mother, like daughter, as the saying goes.

Commentators note that Dina is referred to both as Leah’s daughter and as Jacob’s daughter. The traditional take on this is that as Leah’s daughter, Dina was a yatz’anit (a gadabout), who went outside when she should have remained modestly at home. However, later on in the episode, when Dina’s brothers rescue her, she is referred to as Jacob’s daughter, meaning that though her body had been dishonored, her soul was intact and her allegiance was still to her father’s home. Well and good, but the implication is that what happened to her was her own fault. Had she stayed at home as a good girl should, this terrible thing would not have happened to her.

It’s the classic trial of the rape victim rather than the perpetrator. Shekhem? Oh, he wasn’t responsible. He saw a beautiful, holy young woman and couldn’t help himself. It was Dina’s responsibility to keep out of sight, and Jacob’s responsibility to make sure she stayed hidden. A well-known midrash even says that Jacob kept Dina in a special box for this purpose. (I strongly doubt that. Try getting into a box in this climate; with all the air-holes in the world, you wouldn’t last five minutes.)

Oh, did I mention that I lost my temper? Well, now you know why. I’d heard and read all this stuff before and had no desire to hear it again. Knowing that young girls are taught this in school as a matter of course didn’t help me to stay calm, either.

It will not be lost on students of the Torah that the reason Leah went out to meet her husband was specifically sexual—to tell him that he was to spend that night with her in exchange for a bargain she had made with her sister Rachel, who was also her co-wife. Leah’s reason for going out was completely legitimate; Jacob, after all, was her lawful husband and the father of her children.

Still, this unfortunate parallel between the mother and daughter who went out has lasted for generations and is still taken for granted. Leah went outside for a sexual reason; therefore her daughter, in taking after her mother, imbued her own going out with a sexual context whether she meant to or not. (And considering that she went out to visit the women of the land, it is clear that she did not.) In other words, according to this teaching, Dina was responsible on some level for Shekhem’s crime.

What’s the logic here? Do we say that theft victims subconsciously wanted to rid themselves of their possessions or that murder victims had a death wish? Of course not. Likewise the Torah, in exonerating a rape victim of all blame, explicitly compares the crime committed against her to murder :

But if the man comes upon the engaged girl in open country, and the man lies with her by force, only the man who lay with her shall die, but you shall do nothing to the girl. The girl did not incur the death penalty, for this case is like that of a man attacking another and murdering him (JPS translation).

“But you shall do nothing to the girl.” I wish the Torah had added: That includes bad-mouthing her for her misfortune over and over, for more than three thousand years after the fact.

The Torah’s analogy between rape and murder strengthens the assertion that rape is not a crime of uncontrolled sexual desire but rather one of violence. We also know that the reason abusers mistreat others has nothing to do with anything their victims may or may not have done. There is no issue of “deserving” here. Abusers abuse because they can.

In this case, Shekhem was the son of the local ruler, the equivalent of a prince. As such he had privileged status and could do whatever he wanted. In his time and place, women were considered fair game or, at best, were only as safe as their menfolk were powerful, a fact which unfortunately is still true in this very region. Shekhem saw Dina, wanted her and simply took what he wanted, knowing that his high status would protect him from punishment. The fact that his victim’s father was himself a man of rank may have added to the thrill: not only was he taking what he wanted, but he was taking a neighboring chieftain’s daughter to boot! An act that would mean death for any other man was just a youthful prank to him, one that he would certainly get away with. Boys will be boys, after all, and princes princes.

(The obvious modern parallel here is Qusay Hussein, younger son of Saddam, who used to order his guards to snatch young women off the street so he could rape them. He too was the son of a local ruler, and he too knew that he would never be called to account for his crimes against those unfortunate girls.)

What message are we giving to young Jewish women when we teach them that Dina was in any way responsible for the crime committed against her?

Make no mistake; we are doing exactly that. Young Jewish women are taught today that they must dress modestly lest they arouse men. Recently I heard the word “co-responsibility” used in this context; the idea being put forth was that women are “co-responsible” with men to make sure that the latter remain able to control their sexual impulses. Oh, really? Are men such poor, helpless creatures? Do they suffer from some inherent lack of self-control? Mature, sensible, decent people would never countenance such an idea. Impulses are one thing; actions are another.

Look at it this way. If a man is fired from his job because he performed badly or broke the rules, no one would disagree that he alone is responsible for his dismissal. If he has a gambling or drinking problem, we hold him responsible for his debts and behavior. Why are we so willing to diminish his responsibility if he violates another human being?

Here’s another point. Remember what I said about the attack in Beslan? Evil exists, people have free will and they can and do choose to do evil. But so great is our need for some sort of logic in our world that we figure there must be some justification for evil acts. For example, I have heard people say that Cain had a reason, however weak, for killing his brother. After all, you don’t kill someone for nothing. Abel must have done something—however small, however unwittingly—to provoke Cain to murder. Likewise the Jews of Europe must have committed some terrible sin in order to deserve what befell them during the Holocaust, and the United States must have done something bad to deserve the horror of 9/11.

Nonsense. Evil acts happen because people choose to commit them.

Judaism teaches that every person is responsible for his or her own actions. Therefore, when we seek to diminish Shekhem’s responsibility for his attack on Dina, we go against Jewish teaching. We also slander Dina and all victims of rape, and give a pass to Shekhem and all perpetrators. Shekhem chose to commit a crime of his own free will. Dina had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is unfortunate, even dangerous, but it is not a crime. Like so very many people throughout history, Dina suffered unjustly.

Shame on us that more than three thousand years later, we still haven’t figured that out. And shame on us that in the year 2004, we still can’t tell a victim from a perpetrator.