Thursday, July 31, 2014

Twenty thousand brothers

This song was written by Ariel Horovitz (the son of Naomi Shemer, one of Israel’s best-known and best-loved songwriters) in memory of Nissim Sean Carmeli, a lone soldier from Texas who fell in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. Fearing that his funeral would be sparsely attended, thousands of people who had not known him answered calls made over social media to attend his funeral, which took place late at night in Haifa.

Twenty thousand people, with you at their head —
twenty thousand people are walking behind you, Sean,
in silence, carrying flowers:
two sisters, twenty thousand brothers.

The soccer fans
who came wearing scarves in the team colors,
and a young woman holding a flag
who doesn’t know why she’s crying so much
when she’d never even known you.

Twenty thousand people...

They came to thank you and to say goodbye,
to say that there’s no such thing as a lone soldier
or a nation that dwells alone
as long as in Texas, Haifa and Gush Etzion
there are people like you.

Twenty thousand people...

May the One who makes peace on high
make peace for us in the autumn
that you will not live to see, Sean,
and that’s why they’ve come here, from elderly to infants,
from Haifa, from Gush Etzion.

Twenty thousand people...

Twenty thousand people, with you at their head —
twenty thousand people are walking behind you, Sean,
silently, carrying flowers:
two sisters, twenty thousand brothers,

Twenty thousand brothers.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Rabbi Akiva and the kaddish: What I wish we'd been taught

Most of us have heard or read the midrash that explains the Jewish custom of saying kaddish on behalf of the departed. (The story, with quite a bit of background, is here. Please read it first, and then come back to this page.)

There are several versions of the story, spanning several centuries. While they have minor variations, they agree on one thing: that since the kaddish has the power to redeem souls from punishment after death — in this case, a punishment that is both terrible and earned — we are obligated to recite it on behalf of our departed loved ones. But I think that the story contains other important messages that deserve a closer look.

When Rabbi Akiva asks the deceased man (whose name is given variously as Ukba and even as Akiva, the rabbi’s own name) why he is being punished so severely, the man confesses that in life, he was a corrupt tax collector who committed serious crimes including theft, rape and murder.

One might imagine a typical response to the man’s confession: “Well then, this is your just punishment. You did the crime; now you must do the time.” A gentler response might be: “I am sorry for your suffering, but it comes from God, and where God has decreed, what can a mortal do?”

But Rabbi Akiva’s response is entirely different. He focuses on one thing only: rescuing the deceased man from his suffering. He appears to forget his confession as soon as he hears it, seeing the deceased man only as a suffering soul in need of rescue. (Perhaps Rabbi Akiva, who famously opposed the death penalty in the Jewish high court, feels that the man has suffered enough, or that his punishment exceeds his crime.) When the man tells him that his only hope of salvation lies with his son — and since he died before his wife gave birth, he does not even know whether he has a son, or any child at all — Rabbi Akiva sets out to find the boy without even knowing whether he exists.

When he finds the boy living shunned and neglected in his father’s village, he takes a father’s responsibility for him. He has the boy circumcised — the townspeople’s rejection of him was so total that they had not bothered to perform even this basic commandment — and begins raising him. (The story does not make it clear whether his mother was still alive. It tells us that the townspeople loathed her as well, but does not tell us why. Was she Bonnie to her husband’s Clyde, or did she suffer from guilt by association?)

Things appear to go well until the rabbi tries to teach the boy Torah. Then he hits a wall. As the story tells us, the boy cannot learn; his heart is closed to Torah.

This is hardly surprising. The boy has been an outcast from infancy, made to pay for crimes committed by the parents he never knew. He has never known love or friendship. Now this stranger has appeared out of the blue with demands and expectations: Be circumcised. Sit up straight. Sit down and study. What does this fellow want from him, anyway? After everything he has been through in his short life, how can he be anything but suspicious?

But then there is a shift. As I imagine it, the rabbi has been preparing the boy’s food day after day and eating with him. One day, something changes: the rabbi continues to prepare the boy’s food, but waits until nightfall to eat. The boy can’t help but notice this, and after several weeks, he finally asks the rabbi what’s going on.

At first (as I imagine it), the rabbi demurs. He does not want to call attention to himself. But as the days go by and the boy keeps insisting, he tells him the truth: “I’m fasting to ask God to help you learn. It is important to me. You are important to me.”

The boy is stunned. No one has ever taken an interest in him before. Never has anyone shown him the least bit of caring, done him even the smallest favor. And now this stranger who appeared in his life out of nowhere is fasting for his sake, every single day, from dawn to dusk. Forty days. Leaving out Shabbat, that’s almost seven weeks.

He realizes that the rabbi’s interest in him is sincere. Rabbi Akiva earns his trust, and his heart opens.

A brief digression. Imagine Albert Einstein (who had learning difficulties as a child; his teachers wrote him off as a lost cause as early as second grade) working out the theory of relativity and receiving the Nobel Prize... and then dropping everything to search in a remote village for a despised and neglected orphan boy, the son of notorious criminals, and teach him how to read and write.

In this story, that’s exactly what Rabbi Akiva does.

Rabbi Akiva knew what it was to be a despised and rejected outsider. The descendant of converts to Judaism, a shepherd by trade, he remained illiterate until he was forty and began studying only in middle age. At first the children laughed to see the big man hunched on the small benches of their classroom, laboriously copying the alphabet onto a slate. But Akiva persevered, working his way up class by class until he became the foremost scholar of his day. Eventually he was so respected that the deans of the academies — the universities of the time — would not make a move without him.

But he never forgot what his earlier life had been like or how the community’s rejection had hurt him. Later on, when he was a respected scholar, he recalled that as a young man he had hated scholars so much that he had wanted to bite their limbs as a donkey bit — hard enough to crush bone.

The story also shows Rabbi Akiva’s exemplary leadership. We can imagine that when he reached the village, he was disappointed, even appalled, by the villagers’ treatment of the boy. But he doesn’t scold or preach. He doesn’t call a meeting in the synagogue and lecture the inhabitants about judging favorably or caring for those less fortunate. He simply lives in their midst and shows by example. Once the boy is under the personal care of the country’s most prominent and revered scholar, the villagers dare not show him anything but respect.

I imagine that their respect is grudging at first. The villagers, who had suffered from the depredations of the boy’s father (and possibly of his mother as well), may even resent the loss of their scapegoat. But “mi-tokh she-lo lishma ba lishma” — doing the right thing for the wrong reason eventually leads to doing it for the right reason. In time, the villagers treat the boy kindly on their own, not just because he has a revered and beloved protector. By the time he stands up in the synagogue to lead the short prayer that frees his father’s soul from its punishment, he is no longer a hated outcast, but a full member of the community.

In my opinion, it is the boy’s acceptance into the community that frees the father’s soul from torment. The prayer he recites, to which the congregation responds, is not the final goal. The final goal is his integration. The prayer in the synagogue is only the proof of it.

One might also interpret the father’s punishment, terrible as it is, as the anguish that he suffered over the legacy he had left his son. Outcasts make outlaws (as happened to Jephthah and King David in early manhood). Once the man had entered the World of Truth, he realized that the victims of his crimes were not the only ones he had harmed. He had also condemned his unborn son to follow in his footsteps as an outcast, outlaw and criminal. That knowledge, unconscious as it may have been (when he met Rabbi Akiva in the cemetery, he did not know whether he had any offspring), caused him terrible suffering, and he could not rest until he had found a way to undo the damage he had done.

But what are we taught about this story? None of the above... only that it is important to say kaddish for our loved ones who have gone before. Yes, it is important, for a host of reasons. Yet I still could wish that the other aspects of this story were taught as well.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Five minutes

(The core of this story is true, though I have changed some details to protect privacy.)

She was a well-known artist and art critic whose articles were published in a monthly journal. In high demand as a speaker and judge, she traveled frequently to art shows, conferences and competitions all over the world. I was a freelance copy editor employed by the journal she wrote for. Since she wasn’t a native English-speaker, the journal sent me her articles to edit for publication. Over time, we developed a good professional relationship.

One day, when I had been editing her work for several years, she sent me an email. “I’ve written a poem,” she wrote. “It’s in English and I think it’s good, but as you know, English is not my native language. It’s on my website. Would you take a look at it and edit it for publication?”

I asked, “Is your poem for the art journal?”

“No,” she answered. “It’s just for me, until I decide where I want to send it.”

She hadn’t mentioned payment. I sent back an email telling her my rate. She didn’t reply.

She emailed me again a few months later.

“I’ve been invited to judge an art show abroad next month,” she wrote, “and I need to send the organizers a bio. Here it is. Please take a look at it and check it for mistakes.”

She had included her bio in the body of the email. I could tell at a glance that it needed quite a bit of editing, but I was extremely busy with work and didn’t know when I would be able to get to it, and I told her so.

I didn’t tell her how surprising I found her tone. She had written to me almost as if I were her own employee rather than a freelancer for the journal we both worked for.

Later in the week, she sent me another email. “Have you had a chance to look at my bio yet?” she asked.

“I’m still swamped with work,” I answered. “I’m not sure when I’ll have time for it.” My workload was still extremely heavy and my deadlines tighter than usual.

“Just read it over and check it for mistakes,” she wrote back. “I need it in a hurry. It’ll only take you five minutes.”

I reread that line several times to be sure I’d really seen it. Then I took a deep breath.

I wanted to write back: It will probably take me five minutes just to read the text. But all right — let’s assume that in those five minutes, I read it and find all the mistakes. What then? Would you expect me to send the bio back to you with the mistakes pointed out — and nothing more? After all, that’s what you asked me to do: “Just read it over and check it for mistakes.” In five minutes. Right?

Of course not. You would expect me to correct the mistakes and edit the text to accommodate the corrections, and polish it until it was fit for the program of one of the most prestigious art competitions in the world. That is not something that can be tossed off in five minutes. It is serious work. Even for a brief bio, it takes time, and it takes effort.

Yet when you say “It’ll only take you five minutes,” what you’re really saying is that to you, editing is not serious work at all. In fact, what you’re saying — even as you need your bio edited in a hurry, and never mentioned payment or even asked it as a favor — is that to you, editing is worthless.

If you needed to call in a plumber or electrician for a repair and the job turned out to be brief, would you insist on not paying because the work had taken only a few minutes?

But I didn’t write any of that. I took another deep breath, got up and made myself a cup of tea. Then I sat back down at the keyboard and wrote: This is a serious editing job. It requires close reading, concentration and rewriting, and it’s going to take longer than five minutes.

All right then, she wrote back. Forget it. Thanks anyway.

Later on, I realized I could have handled it a bit differently. I could have — should have, actually — told her my editing rate as I had done the previous time, when she asked me to edit her poem. But I hadn’t done that. Chalk it up to being utterly swamped with work. Or maybe I’d hoped that she’d learned the previous time that editing, like any skill, takes time and effort and has value.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

More than 60 years later, mystery solved

In Mount Herzl’s military cemetery was a grave with a tombstone that bore the name “Yisrael Mir,” with little information besides. The man buried in that grave had been killed in the War of Independence, and had lain underneath that name for more than 60 years.

Thanks to the persistence of a local tour guide, the man’s real identity was found last year. He was Ya’akov Maman, a recent immigrant from Morocco.

The story (in Hebrew) is here.

The English version (my translation) is below the jump.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Barukh dayyan ha-emet

Dr. Nechama Ben-Eliahu, 1935–2014.

Activist, marine biologist, researcher, musician,

long-time board member of the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo,

Worthy Citizen of Jerusalem...

... and dear and beloved friend.

Nechama and Ozmah

Here is Nechama’s obituary from In Jerusalem, the local supplement of the Jerusalem Post:

Monday, March 17, 2014

The women's Megilla reading at the First Station

This morning, I went to the women’s Megillah reading at The First Station in southern Jerusalem. It was great. The readers were amazing, and the audience was far larger than the organizers had anticipated. They asked for more chairs, which were provided, and even so, more people kept arriving. Some sat on the floor, others stood, and everybody listened.

Shortly after I arrived, a table was brought and the Scroll of Esther prepared for reading.

The reading began...

... and the audience listened and followed along.

People followed the reading closely, as is customary. One woman used a booklet with the text:

Another used what looked like a text used in schools:

Several people brought kosher scrolls of their own.

Some used technology to follow the reading.

Parents and children followed the reading together.

Lots of people were in costume. Here’s a farmer with a penchant for photography:

This young man is wearing a frankfurter on his head.

An elephant in the room:

A sweet little tiger:

The sound was heavenly, even though the guy in charge was a bit of a devil. Maybe he just needed a cup of coffee....

After the reading, I caught a bus home. Like all the buses around the country, it wished us all a happy Purim:

Thursday, March 13, 2014

More thoughts on Purim

As Purim approaches, I think about how Esther risked her life to save the Jewish people. I also think about how, although she succeeded and survived, she lived out the rest of her life trapped in a marriage she had never sought and could not leave.

I think of the other women forced to “audition” for the position of Ahasuerus's queen. They, too, were trapped and imprisoned: even after the king rejected them, they were not free to leave the palace and go back to their former lives. They were stuck in the harem for the rest of their days.

I think of Vashti, too.

Yes, I know the awful stories about Vashti in the midrash. I didn't believe them when I first read them, and I don't believe them now. Maybe Vashti really was a vain, horrible woman who abused her high position and her servants. Maybe she was a good and decent queen. Or maybe, like the hundreds of other women in the harem, she was trying to survive the intrigues rampant there only to be manipulated into a situation where she was damned if she did and damned if she didn't. What would have happened to her if she had obeyed her husband's order and appeared before the men at his drunk-fest? Might not Ahasuerus, that champion of logic and consistency, have taken her to task once he sobered up, and perhaps even deposed her, for having compromised the royal dignity by obeying him?

The text doesn't tell us one way or the other. All we know about Vashti from the text is that she refused to obey the king's order to appear before him and his drunken buddies so he could brag to them about how hot she was — and that she was deposed for it.

The poet and writer Frances E. W. Harper (1825–1911) also thought of Vashti. Here is a link to “Vashti,” the poem she wrote about the deposed queen.

Here is a link to information about Harper herself.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

A vet visit in the Hebrew month of Adar

So I’m at the vet’s, and he’s giving my cat his annual exam. Weighing, shots, a look at his teeth, the works. Then he starts petting my cat. At first he’s all smiles, but then he gets all quiet.

A moment later, I realize why. There’s no purr. Just... click. Click. Click.

The vet turns to me with a serious expression. “Over-petting,” he says, shaking his head. “You’ve been over-petting your cat, haven’t you? How long has it been since you heard him purr?”

My mouth drops open. Yes, it’s been a few days, come to think of it... and I’d been wondering where those odd-sounding clicks were coming from. “Over-petting?” I ask. “There’s such a thing?”

My vet sighs, as if this is the twentieth time he’s had to explain it that morning. “You’ve petted your cat so much his purr-box has gone out of alignment. I’m going to have to realign it.” He signals to the tech, who holds my cat gently in place, and gets to work. A second later, he’s petting my cat again, and a rich, deep purr fills the air.

He hands me a small bottle of oil. “Three drops every morning,” he tells me. “Let the cat lick them off your finger. Then you can pet him as much as you like. But he’s got to have the oil every day. Oh, and five drops if you’re planning on giving him tummy rubs.”

We settle up the bill, and that concludes my visit to the vet in Adar... the Jewish month of narrischkeit, nonsense and silly stories.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Art, education and a long life

In the summer of 1985, artist and educator Temima Gezari returned to Cejwin Camps to restore the mural she had painted there in 1935.

The video of the mural’s rededication in 1985 was filmed by Jeff Young. In my opinion, it is worth watching even for people who never went to Cejwin — it is a snapshot of American Jewish history of the time.

Watch and listen to Temima Gezari and be amazed. This incredible lady was climbing on ladders and doing painting and restoration work at the age of 79! (She went on to live for 24 more years, dying on March 5, 2009, aged 104.)

When Cejwin Camps closed in the 1990s, Temima's mural was moved to the Yemin Orde Youth Village in Israel, where it remains today after having survived the Carmel fire of 2010.

Talk about a long, productive and full life. How many artists get to restore art that they created half a century earlier?

Here is Temima Gezari’s article at Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia. Here is her Wikipedia entry.

Friday, June 07, 2013

When bad behavior is kosher

(This post originally ran on January 12, 2005.)

“What you’re doing is a sin! If you read the Torah here, God will never forgive you!” The woman’s soft European accent contrasted with the stridency of her tone as she leaned closer to us and added, “When you stand before God eventually and seek forgiveness for your deeds on earth, He will not grant it. Do you understand what I am saying? He will not forgive you!”

I asked her, with a trace of humor, “Are you God, then?”

“Yes!” she shot back, carried away by her own momentum. Catching herself, she tried to amend her answer, but I turned away, not knowing whether to giggle or sigh. I had heard enough.

Jewish tradition speaks of a merciful, compassionate God Who is close to us all our lives and especially near in time of trouble. Yet as the woman in the dark snood continued her warnings of terrible divine punishment I sadly realized that she was describing God as no better than the most vindictive of human beings. And as she and the others continued to shout at us, I also reflected that people who would ordinarily never dream of indulging in bad behavior find it all too easy to do so where women—particularly women who do not stay in their place—are concerned.

My prayer group, Women of the Wall, has been holding women-only prayer services in the women’s section of the Western Wall every Rosh Hodesh—the start of the Hebrew month—since December 1988. Contrary to an oft-cited misconception, we are not members of the Reform movement. (I confess that charge has always stumped me. Why on earth would the Reform movement, which holds mixed prayer services as a matter of course, need to promote women-only ones?) Nor do we pray as a minyan (a quorum of ten men). We define ourselves as a women’s tefilla [prayer] group, of which there are dozens in Israel and throughout the world, and modify our prayer service accordingly. (A number of such groups have rabbinical support and meet in established Orthodox synagogues.) Contrary to what our opponents would like to believe, the majority of our core members are religiously observant—in fact, the group was founded in large part by an Orthodox woman from Brooklyn.

In 2004, Women of the Wall held two prayer services that included a Torah reading in the women’s section of the Western Wall. In contrast to the group’s tumultuous beginnings, these services were completely calm and peaceful. I remember how some of us wept with joy, feeling that our long journey was finally over, that after nearly fifteen years of struggle women could finally pray as a group and read the Torah freely and without disturbance at our holiest accessible site. But at the end of our service a woman—a respected teacher in her community—approached us to express her pain and sorrow over our Torah reading. I felt confused. How could a person who considered herself religious feel pain over Jewish women reading from the Torah? And what, I wondered, did this teacher feel about the pain of women who, for centuries, had been denied the opportunity to learn their own scriptures?

Yet, saddened as I was by her attitude, I had to admit that at least this woman had behaved with civility and courtesy. Many others who have disagreed with us over the years do not feel bound by manners at all, to say nothing of the very religious law and tradition they claim to champion.

In June 2004, as we arrived at the women’s section of the Western Wall to begin the morning service, a long-time opponent of our group approached us. Carrying printed sheets of text in her hand, she tried to persuade us to study the laws of minhag ma-makom [local custom] with her instead of worshipping. When we refused she tried to steal our Torah scroll, which was a gift to us from Jewish women abroad.

In December 1988, opponents of Women of the Wall physically threw the Torah scroll the women had brought with them. A member of the group who was pregnant at the time caught the scroll on her abdomen rather than allow it to be desecrated by falling. Perhaps our opponents believed that a Torah scroll in women’s possession is not truly a Torah scroll and therefore unworthy of the great respect normally accorded such a sacred object. Perhaps this opponent of ours held a similar opinion regarding the theft she was attempting to commit.

If our opponent’s respect for the Torah scroll was lacking, so was her respect for her fellow human beings. As we defended our Torah scroll, she kept shoving one of our members, who was carrying her infant son, even as the young mother begged her to stop for the baby’s sake. Our opponent, who surely regards herself as a devoutly religious woman, ignored the pleas of my colleague, who finally sent the baby away with one of her older children for his own safety.

This woman then began to incite other women present at the Wall, who bombarded us with shouts and taunts. One woman tapped her hand to her lips over and over, hooting in the same way that my classmates and I used to imitate “Indians” when we were small. At one point a red-bearded man stood on a chair in front of us—in the women’s section!—and worked himself up into an inarticulate, hysterical harangue that went on for several minutes. Meanwhile, our opponent retired to a protected spot—away from the rioters she had incited as well as any police who might arrest them—to survey her handiwork from a distance.

We realized right away that the disturbance was a calculated move on our opponent’s part or on the part of whoever had sent her. A governmental delay in carrying out a ruling by Israel’s High Court of Justice had temporarily enabled our group to read from a Torah scroll legally in the women’s section of the Western Wall. The two peaceful Torah readings we subsequently held there must have worried our opponent, or those who had sent her, so much that she came all the way from the coastal city where she lives—approximately two hours from Jerusalem by car—to create a disturbance rather than allow us to hold a third one.

As we continued to pray, one of the rioting women slapped one of our members across the face. Another threw a stone. As they shouted and chanted childish slogans, at one point dragging chairs along the ground to drown out the sound of our praying (did they think they would be able to keep God from hearing us?), I couldn’t help imagining a classroom full of unruly first-graders. Apparently the women our opponent incited have no tools beyond that level to deal with ideas different from their own—and besides, the looks on their faces showed how much they were enjoying letting their hair down, so to speak.

It was probably the most fun they’d had in years.

* * * *

Some time ago a local columnist published an article about Women of the Wall, filled with the usual prejudice we’ve sadly come to expect from our opponents. In it, he referred to us as “media darlings.” I found this ironic since most of the time the Israeli media, who have no idea who we are or what we’re about, are usually anything but sympathetic. For example, some time after the disturbance our opponent incited, the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv ran an article describing her as “defender of the simple women,” implying that she had protected the innocent women worshippers at the Western Wall from a bunch of deviously clever interlopers seeking to impose their foreign ways. But the truth is that she did not defend those women at all. On the contrary: she used them. These “simple women” still hold the mistaken belief that Jewish women may not touch a Torah scroll. This highly educated woman, who knows perfectly well that this is not accurate, did not bother to disabuse them. Instead, she exploited their lack of knowledge for her own—or perhaps others’—reasons.

But what really confused me was the columnist’s description of how members of Women of the Wall supposedly stood behind the fence at the rear of the men’s section and shouted the morning prayers at the top of their lungs, with the specific intention of disturbing the men. I was there that day, and we did no such thing. Unlike our opponents, we respect all worshippers at the Western Wall, and we would never engage in such atrocious behavior. Why would the columnist write such a thing, then?

I would like to believe that he thought he was telling the truth, that perhaps he encountered a particularly ill-mannered group that day and chose to believe, based on his own prejudices and failure to check his facts, that it was Women of the Wall. Though I would rather believe that than the alternative—that he slandered us for his own purposes—I have difficulty doing so.

Here’s why. Several years ago this columnist founded a group to oppose Women of the Wall. This group sponsored a short film supposedly showing how dangerous our group is to Jewish tradition. I watched this film and was shocked at the lengths to which it went to portray us negatively. At one point it focused on a woman with an unusual hairstyle whom I have never seen with our group. The intended message was, plainly, “Look at the kind of freaks this group attracts. Do you want weirdos like this praying next to you at the Kotel?” At another point the film used misleading editing to give the impression that members of our group wear tefillin at the Western Wall. (The film’s intended audience cannot abide the idea of women wearing tefillin anywhere, and they would certainly be infuriated to see women wearing them at the Western Wall.) Yet we have never worn tefillin there as a group; when we meet at the Western Wall for prayers, those of us who have taken on the mitzvah of tefillin fulfill it elsewhere. But the film did not see fit to make this distinction. It had an agenda to promote, so the facts didn’t matter.

More recently, another opponent of our group wrote a predictably scurrilous attack on us, but from a new angle. Since high-level Jewish study is now available to women (and halakhic sources are readily available on the Internet), these days our opponents are more cautious about asserting that what we do is a violation of Jewish law. Now they say that although our actions may be technically permitted, our motives are impure. This article went even farther, asserting that our group is, knowingly or not, an arm of various movements inimical to traditional Judaism and that the sincere Jews in our group are being manipulated by sinister anti-Jewish forces.

(Well, at least the author admitted that members of Women of the Wall can be sincere Jews. That’s a first.)

As a friend of mine once observed wryly: “If you don’t have facts, there’s always innuendo.” To which I would add: If you don’t have facts, you can always make some up to suit your purpose. As far as I know, none of these columnists has ever bothered to contact a single one of us, yet they claim to have intimate knowledge of our motives. So where are they getting their information from?

* * * *

Our opponent did not come to our next prayer service. For various reasons beyond the scope of this piece, she didn’t know where or when we would be meeting. (For a time, neither did we.) Learning that a filmmaker had captured her bad behavior on camera probably put a damper on her enthusiasm as well. Shortly before our next service, she called one of our members to apologize for that behavior—and in the same phone call asked that all her appearances be edited out of the film.

During our service I rejoiced in the quiet around us, unbroken by any disturbance. Then I noticed a woman regarding us with a sour expression. She listened as one of our members gave a talk on the weekly Torah portion and then approached another member, muttering, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

“You can speak here too if you have something pertinent to say,” my colleague offered. “Just bear in mind that everything this woman is saying has a basis in Jewish sources.”

“That doesn’t matter,” the woman said. “I don’t like it.”

And there it is. It doesn’t matter that Jewish law allows women to pray as a group and read from a Torah scroll. It makes no difference that the learned ones among us—and in dozens of women’s tefilla groups throughout the world—can cite chapter and verse to prove it. Some people would simply rather not be bothered with the facts. They don’t like what we’re doing; it makes them feel uncomfortable—and so they believe that this gives them the right to behave in ways that would earn them censure and perhaps even arrest under almost any other circumstances.

I don’t like it. My grandmother never felt the need to do that. (Oh, really? Did you ever ask her? I think you might be surprised.) It’s unfamiliar to me. It makes me feel uncomfortable. Therefore I may steal, shove, shout, slap, stone and slander. Love my neighbor? Judge my fellow human being favorably? Tell the truth? Pursue justice? Only when I agree with you; not otherwise.

This is the attitude of people who claim to be defending Jewish tradition.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Put on the brakes

I posted the following on the Facebook page of Women for the Wall.

* * *

W4W leaders and members, please listen.

Communicating over the Internet is like taking a joyride in a powerful automobile. The ability to reach hundreds, even thousands, of people with just a few keystrokes and clicks can be compared to the surge of power under the hood and the freedom of the road. They can be delightful. They can also be addicting, and they can, and often do, cloud judgment.

The rhetoric on this page is becoming increasingly vicious and full of hate. Likening WOW to Amalek, saying that their motive is to destroy Judaism, wishing a divinely-administered death on WOW’s members — this is inflammatory speech, and to allow it on this page, in the name of protecting Judaism, is irresponsible, to say the least.

I would like to believe that the admins of this page simply don't realize how dangerous this rhetoric is. The alternative — that they realize it and are letting it happen — is far worse.

Please. Step back. Think. W4W leaders, please take a good look at the rhetoric on this page and consider whether this is the kind of speech you want representing you and your cause.

I ask you with all my heart: show leadership. Take control, take responsibility, put on the brakes. Because joyrides like this can land people in the hospital — or, God forbid, in the morgue.

* * *

End quote.

W4W names Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, Rebbetzin Baila Berger of the Ahavat Yisrael Project, Rabbanit Melamed of Yeshivat Beit El and Sarah Yoheved Rigler as supporters of their cause, specifically of the gathering they are planning at the Western Wall this coming Rosh Hodesh (Sunday morning). Other W4W supporters include Jonathan Rosenblum and Rabbi Avi Shafran.

I don’t know any of them personally or whether any of them is on Facebook. But I want to believe that however much they may dislike the idea of women wearing tallit and tefillin (which Jewish law allows), however much they may disagree with Women of the Wall, they would never condone the vicious and inflammatory rhetoric that is on W4W’s page.

I’m not allowing comments to this post, and I’m sure I don’t need to explain why.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A show of force

I wasn’t at the Western Wall on Friday morning, but from the photos I have seen so far and everything I’ve read about the incident before and after, I believe that the W4W’s intention was to organize not a prayer rally, but a show of force.

I believe that the organizers knew perfectly well that there would be violence. (If they claim they did not, they are being naive at best.) And yet they insisted on bringing out the seminary girls to block the women’s section of the Kotel. I believe they put those young girls in harm’s way.

If I were a parent of one of those seminary girls, after seeing the photos of the incident yesterday morning, I would be giving the W4W organizers a piece of my mind. And I would keep my daughter home from the next one.

As for calling such a gathering a prayer rally for Jewish unity, I have only one word for that:


(Here are some photos from last Friday morning at the Western Wall. Pay particular attention to the last few.)

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Hissing the difference

Frying pan 2
A frying pan is heated red-hot as part of the kashering process

One Shabbat many years ago, I was walking through the Haredi neighborhood of Geula on my way home from a meal. As I crossed a street, the sound of a hiss suddenly pierced the afternoon quiet.

Startled, I turned to see where the hiss was coming from. There was no one in the immediate area except myself and a teenage girl with a baby carriage. As I stood there, uncertain whether to approach, the girl glared at me and hissed again. Perplexed by her hostile behavior, I walked on.

A similar incident happened some years later. There’s a place in Geula where people can take their kitchen utensils to be kashered — made fit for use in a kosher kitchen — every Friday. When a friend of mine relocated a few years ago, she gave me some high-quality pots and pans as a parting gift. I took them there for kashering one hot Friday morning and watched the process, which took some time and was fascinating.

When the work was finished and it was time to go, I turned to the young woman on line next to me and said, “Shabbat shalom.” She didn’t seem to hear me, so I smiled and said it again. She frowned at me and turned away.

That seemed to be a replay of the hissing incident from years before, and again, I was perplexed. I hadn’t broken any of the rules. In the first incident, I’d been dressed modestly, and in the second, I’d come there on a hot Friday morning to have my kitchen utensils kashered. I’d never met either girl before in my life. So why did they behave toward me with such hostility?

Eventually, I figured it out. I had broken a rule — the most important rule of all. I wasn’t a member of their tribe. Although I’m Jewish and observant, I wasn’t one of them. I was an outsider, a foreigner. A threat.

As far as these girls were concerned — said their behavior — I did not belong in their neighborhood, not even if I went there for a reason connected with strict Jewish observance. It didn’t matter how much of my body I covered or how many kitchen utensils I brought to be boiled or blow-torched. I was committing the worst crime of all. I was different.

In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, the well-known psychologist and author Dr. Phyllis Chesler wrote: “Often, envy of a girl’s beauty or brains, but just as often, the slightest difference (whether someone is new, an immigrant from another country, or school) will be seized upon by a female clique and treated as a high crime, an opportunity to tribally bond with one another — and as permission to torment the chosen outsider” (emphasis mine). Dr. Chesler’s statement seems to apply in both instances I’ve just described.

Her statement also seems to apply to the recent controversy over Women of the Wall. It seems that to some of WOW’s opponents, if a woman wears a tallit and tefillin when she prays, if she reads from a Torah scroll as part of the service, if she doesn’t accept restrictions on female behavior that aren’t even part of religious law, then it doesn’t matter matter how learned, sincere or devout she may be. She’s an outsider. She’s different. She’s a threat.

In these politically-correct times, it’s not acceptable to admit to feeling hostility toward a person or group just because they’re different. So the opponents need a more compelling reason: they have to make the different person or group into the enemy.

These women are not harmless, WOW’s opponents say. Their motives are ulterior, impure. They’re too political. They have an agenda. They care about publicity, not prayer. They look down on us. They want to take something valuable away from us. And because they are a threat to Judaism, we’re exempt from the commandment to judge them favorably.

It appears that the current opposition to WOW is being led by women who want to create positive change in the Haredi community from within. But in conservative communities, change — indeed, anything less than full conformity — is seen as threatening and carries negative social consequences. Also, such communities often see women who join them later in life as “less than,” if not as downright suspect, because of the foreign, “impure” ideas and influences they were exposed to earlier in their lives. So what better way for women in this situation, who want to work for change or who don’t conform entirely, to show their bona-fides than to bash a common enemy — in this case, the nasty feminists?

What I’ve written above may seem extreme to some. But unfortunately, it’s what I see among some of WOW’s current opponents... and it’s nothing new in the Jewish world. Consider the case of the hasidim against the mitnagdim, with mutual accusations and excommunications that went on for centuries.

Consider also the case of Sarah Schenirer. Seeing the rising rate of assimilation among young Jewish women in Poland, this Jewish seamstress from Cracow founded a kindergarten for girls in 1917 that grew into the Bais Ya’akov educational movement. Schenirer’s idea to found Jewish schools for girls was so radical for her time that she was almost put into herem — the most severe sanction the Jewish community can impose — for her work. Even after her schools received approval from religious authorities, some parents still forbade their daughters from playing with girls who attended them.

Today, most religious Jews regard Sarah Schenirer as a heroine.

“Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized,” goes the quote attributed to Schopenhauer. “In the first it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self-evident.” I take comfort in that sentence, no matter who wrote it. I look forward to the day when women’s prayer groups, whether affiliated with WOW or not, routinely hold prayer services, with tallit and a sefer Torah, in the women’s section of the Western Wall with as much fanfare as daily afternoon prayers at the local synagogue. I hope that by then, the idea that anyone ever opposed such services will seem a historical curiosity, as odd and distant as the fact that women in Western countries were once denied the right to vote.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Some recent photos

It’s raining. Unseasonable rain, I guess, but I’m not complaining, since the long, hot summer is around the corner. If this is the rain’s last hurrah until late fall, then, as Shakespeare famously said, let it come down.

In the meantime, here are a few photos.

Woodpeckers are camera-shy, so I was pretty happy to get this shot:


Woodpecker yoga?


More photos after the jump.

Guest Post: Irena Sendler and Life in a Jar

Although Holocaust Remembrance Day has passed this year, some memorial projects continue to run year-round. One such project is Life in a Jar, which commemorates the courage of a Polish woman who has become known as the “female Oskar Schindler.”

Irena Sendler (1910–2008) was a young Polish social worker when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. She helped Jews who were trying to evade the Nazis to find hiding places. Together with a group of friends she joined the Zegota, an underground organization dedicated to helping the Jews. When the Warsaw ghetto was created in 1940, she obtained false papers that identified her as a nurse so that she would be able to enter the ghetto as a “health worker.”

Sendler brought food and medications into the ghetto and managed to smuggle children out when she left each day. The children were often drugged and stuffed into suitcases, bags, toolboxes and even coffins. Together with other Zegota members, Sendler identified sewer pipes and underground passages that she could use to bring the children out of the ghetto. While most of the children were orphans, many of them had living parents. Sendler “talked the mothers out of their children,” convincing the parents that their children would be able to survive only if they left the ghetto.

Sendler recorded all of the names of the children that she rescued on tissue paper, together with their hiding places – convents, orphanages and with individual Polish families. She put the papers into jars and buried the jars in her friend’s garden. Sendler hoped that after the war, she would be able to reunite the children with their families or, at the very least, with the Jewish community.

In 1943, Sendler was captured by the Nazis. Imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to death, she never revealed any information about “her” children. Zegota comrades succeeded in securing her release and she lived out the rest of the war in hiding. Sendler, together with her comrades in the Polish underground, rescued about 2,500 Jewish children.

The story of Irena Sendler would have been lost to history had it not been for a few high school students from Kansas who, together with the LMC and funding from a Jewish education reformer, launched an awareness campaign of Irena’s story.