Thursday, July 18, 2013

Goldilocks Syndrome, p. 2

So it finally happened: we visited an Ortho place. Though there were a couple of points where I was nervous about needing to use my transliterated siddur (and being slightly paranoid that people would know I wasn't entirely sure what I was doing all the time), I am happy to report that neither of us burst into flames.

Mrs. Yid and I decided to take the folks over at the MO shul up the road up on their offer and go to their Tisha B'Av service. We probably wouldn't have gone but they said they were going to be showing a film from the OU on the importance and relevance of Tisha B'Av. "What do you think?" I asked her. "Since I'm fairly ambivalent about this holiday I guess it wouldn't hurt to find out more about it," she said. "Plus at least you should be able to get some good blogging out of it." Touche, my Eshet Chayil.

In keeping with my post-Tisha B'Av attempts to practice slightly less lashon hara and slightly more dan lekaf zechut, let's start with some pros.

- The mechitza, while certainly present and notable, was not excruciatingly misogynistic to the degree that I felt uncomfortable having Mrs. Yid sit there. The women's section was approximately a third of the size of the sanctuary, faced the ark, and Mrs. Yid was able to see what was going on. So, at least the women weren't being kept behind a one-way mirror or in a fenced in shed in the back or up in a balcony. And we stuck our noses into their weekday chapel while we were waiting for services to start and found out that all the mechitza there consists of is a waist-high curtain dividing the back portion of the room from the front (I guess they're on the honor system?)

- The rabbi had a very nice voice. His very Ashkenazic accent threw me off sometimes, but the dude could sing.

- The rabbi had a nice mini-drash on connecting fasting with ethical behavior. There was a good line on how "If we can control what goes into our mouths, we can also control what comes out of it."

- There's something nice about knowing that the people at shul are there specifically to be in shul. Yes, there was small talk and socializing, but the guys in the men's section (and by the time we were into services, there were probably about 30-35) were clearly there to daven.

Now some downsides:

- The movie didn't start until about 45 minutes after the flyer said it would. In fact for the first 40 minutes it was just us, a random Chabad guy and a 30-something gal who grew up at Beth Elderly. Eventually the rabbi showed up with his laptop and we all crowded around it in the Beth Midrash. Low marks for logistics, folks.

- The "movie" itself was actually 4 not particularly good 20-minute speeches/drashlets. We watched two and were super underwhelmed. Rabbi Weil's was first and was fairly rambling. He spent a fair amount of time drawing parallels between Tisha B'Av in Jerusalem and the Holocaust (he was very hung up on the fact that both involved people being "shipped like cattle"-- a line he repeated about 5 times, and particularly unfortunate after I found out he grew up on a cattle ranch). He also talked a lot about the 23rd kina where Rabbi Yishmael's son and daughter each get enslaved by Romans, who then decide to breed them. Maybe it was just me, but it seemed like R. Weil was spending waaay too much pathos on what is essentially a creepy pseudo-incest story. I also like how the "happy ending" of this story is the two of them recognizing each other at daybreak and dying in each other's arms. Um, hooray? My favorite part was when Weil mentioned that this kina wasn't written  down until the 1000s-- because "only that generation, that had suffered the Crusades, could truly understand that first generation's pain." Yeah, or they wrote it down in response and as a commentary on their own experiences. Please tell me I'm not the only one coming to this conclusion. I mean, if we critique the Gospels because they happened a whole 70 years after the supposed fact, I don't think we should be mentioning that this "totally reliable" story from our "great mesorah" was just twiddling its thumbs for a thousand years or so before anyone decided to put it on paper.

Weil's last focus was connecting Tisha B'Av to Holocaust survivors and talking about the lasting effects of trauma, which was fine, but his tone was kind of weird. He kept saying things like, "Even though they survived, they didn't really survive. Truthfully, they died in the Holocaust." Maybe it's just me but I found this extremely distasteful. First of all, the fact that many survivors lived with, and struggled with, their memories and trauma is not the same thing as saying they died along with the rest of their families. Not only is this problematic in terms of being extremely general (on a very touchy topic), it verges on being downright dismissive of the lives that survivors worked so hard to rebuild after the war. If I was a Shoah survivor, even if my life afterwards was hard, I'd be pretty pissed at this guy for essentially writing me off as a living corpse. Not a fan.

- The second clip we watched was from Rabbi Weinberg. His tone was slightly cloying (How can our fellow Jews not realize how lame golus is? Because it totally is, right guys? Who's with me?), but at least much less offensive than Rabbi Weil's. I feel like it might be interesting for a liberal Jew to have a conversation with Rabbi Weinberg just to offer him a different perspective on the notion of perfection and ways to attain it. It's not that we don't see that the world is imperfect, it's that we aren't expecting the Messiah to come and fix it.

We couldn't stand to watch the other two videos, but I may get around to checking them out eventually.

- There were only 5 ladies on the women's side, including Mrs. Yid. She reports that they alternated between davening (younger folks) and gossiping (older ladies). She said that her favorite part was when the rabbi folded the bimah around like a crazy transformer toy/Star Trek console. She used an Artscroll siddur for the first time and described its commentary as "Repeatedly starting off with a reasonable to plausible statement, then jumping immediately to a crazy conclusion, and always in the most authoritative tone you could imagine."

- The breakneck speed of the davening on the men's side was pretty tricky for me to keep up with, though I did my best. I was slightly taken aback by how quickly everyone around me was davening, and, from my end, it seemed like more of a chore to get through rather than a particularly spiritual experience for any of them (except maybe the Chabad guy next to me). I suspect this was probably a combination of being really ready to go home and eat and the fact that when you daven multiple times a day it probably loses some of its buzz.

- Not to be overly picky, but... despite the fact that we were clearly new folks there, only 2 people came up and said hello (the one lady in the Beth Midrash, and the rabbi, and he was rather curt and a tad prickly). Again, to give the benefit of the doubt, this was probably due to it being the end of fasting, but still a little annoying since we had been supposedly invited. I was trying to decide what to call the shul on the blog today and right now I'm leaning towards Congregation Rodef Shaarei, because after 3 hours there I was running for the doors. (I would be open to going back there again for a happier holiday, potentially even as part of more community-wide collaboration, though I do think not letting the women participate would probably be a deal-breaker.)

To sum up: I suppose, as always, we have a bit of the goldilocks syndrome going on here. We don't really get a lot out of super touchy-feely anything goes services a-la Bnei Hippy, but the service at Rodef Shaarei wasn't all that meaningful or stimulating, either. Bnei Hippy was a little too centered around everybody's individual issues rather than looking at Tisha B'Av, but Rodef Shaarei and the OU film seemed overly focused on pat answers like, "You have to want geula," or, "We didn't learn from our mistakes and so God let the Temple be destroyed again." I'm certainly open to the idea of using Tisha B'Av as a mussar opportunity, but a theodicy-based view of history doesn't really work for me.

Like I said in part 1, I see Tisha B'Av as primarily a holiday of commemoration. There's room in there for an emotional and personal component, but I personally don't feel that it should be overshadowed by either my own ego or supposed ethical/ideological failings. Sorry Rabbi Weinberg, but I don't buy the argument that my personal lack of yearning for Moshiach is why we still live in an imperfect society.

Next year if we can't find a decent middle-of-the-road service, I may just get a book of English-translated kinot and we'll study and discuss that.

Goldilocks syndrome, p.1

For Tisha B'Av eve, Mrs. Yid and I went to the community-wide service at Temple Burning Bush/B'nei Hippy. (There was a dairy-veg potluck beforehand, but given my food allergies, it seemed best to pre-game on our own, so we had take-out sushi at home.)

It's so rare these days that we attend services elsewhere, so I brought back my old format:


- Togetherness. We had 13 different Jewish communities represented at the service. That was pretty cool. Not only that, but we got a letter from two of the Orthodox shuls in town saying that they would have liked to attend but due to davening parameters (mixed seating, kol isha, instruments) they couldn't come-- but that they invited all of us to visit them the following day. Not sure how this was received among the rest of the crowd, but I for one appreciated the spirit of community. Even if you disagree with them, you have to respect people's boundaries and take them where they are.

- Atmosphere. Once again, sitting on the floor with candles and reading Eicha was a very interesting experience.

- Some good drashot. The shul rabbi talked about some of his experiences in Israel, particularly Jerusalem, both before and after 1967, and also brought up the contradiction that we are mourning a city that is no longer destroyed. There was some politics (he likes politics) about Women of the Wall, which I found a little inappropriate, but I was impressed by his conclusion, where he said that, to recall the rabbinic teaching that just as the Temple was destroyed due to sinat hinam, and it would only be rebuilt through ahavat hinam, we as liberal Jews had a responsibility to NOT HATE the Orthodox, to forgive them for whatever acts we've been blaming them for, and a responsibility to try to understand "the other side." "Tolerance and understanding are important, and tolerance doesn't start with the other side reaching out to you, it starts with you working on yourself."

- Some contemplation. Sitting there, listening to Eicha and trying to conceptualize the initial, as well as subsequent, tragedies we were commemorating, I realized that, in my view, observing the holiday didn't really didn't relate to whether Jerusalem had been rebuilt or not. We were remembering what had been lost, the people, the accomplishments, the culture, and so on. While for some people actually observing (or caring about) Tisha B'Av might be a challenge, I don't particularly buy the argument I've been seeing that the dilemma is primarily because Israel has now been "rebuilt." (The rabbi, for instance, mentioned that a friend of his, from a religious Zionist family, could not square mourning for the destruction when the land was being rebuilt, and so he regularly spent Tisha B'Av picnicking with his family in a park.)

This may be trickier in Israel (it might be hard to mourn Jerusalem when you can see it out your window), but for me, this doesn't really seem like a problem. (And no, it's not because we don't have a third temple.) For me, this is about commemoration. A few days ago, I was trying to conceptualize how to explain Tisha b'Av in case my students asked me what it was about, and I came up with this:

Tisha b'Av is like the Jewish 9/11. I'm not super-big on 9/11 commemoration specifically,, but as a concept, I think it's one that non-Jewish Americans can easily understand. It's about remembering what happened, memorializing the people, and trying to generate some lessons from it (in whatever direction that may be). And, as with 9/11, the commemoration doesn't stop once the physical buildings are rebuilt.

For me, Tisha b'Av is a chance to remember that bad things have happened to our people, and to be contemplative about it. As one Reform rabbi I read today wrote, "Yom Kippur is about me. Tisha b'Av is about us."

Now, not to get too far into sinat hinam territory, here were some things that didn't quite work for me:

- Too many shuls. Not that too many were in attendance (we probably had no more than 100 people). Just the fact that there are that many liberal Jewish organizations in the area is a little silly to me-- particularly when the community seems to be shrinking. I won't go so far as to say it suggests sinat hinam per se, but I do wonder how much of this state of affairs is a result of need versus people's inability to get along.

- Instruments. I'm not a huge fan of instrumental accompaniment in shul generally, but it seems particularly odd on a holiday where instruments are specifically forbidden. At least there weren't any bongos.

- English Eicha. I'm not saying you can't chant Eicha in English, just that if you're going to try it (especially with the Hebrew melody) you actually need to do some planning and figure out how to make it scan. On the bright side, the rabbi only tried this with one chapter.

- Trotting out the "93 Bais Yaakov girls" story as an exemplar of Holocaust martyrdom. Look guys, this story has been debunked, like, a lot. Here's an idea, folks. We've already modified the liturgy to deal with parts of theology we disagree with. How about we either phase out or at least qualify these Holocaust narratives that we know to be fictional? This is my same complaint with shuls that include "Yossel Rakover talks to God."

- Too much weird davening. To be fair, the rabbi did give people a chance to daven maariv in the sanctuary with siddurim. But I think only three people opted for that. Everyone else was treated to a guided meditation version of the amidah. Even that I could have potentially been ok with, but things like, "the shemoneh esreh has 18 blessings in it, and 18, as we all know, is the Hebrew word for life. Think about what you want most out of life." (And this was from the Conservative rabbi!) I suppose they were trying to make everyone comfortable, but it didn't do much for me.

- Too much sharing. Related to this, I recognize that this was probably about building community and all, but I really don't care what the people around me want out of life, or whatever else was flitting around in their heads during the not-quite davening session. Maybe I was just a little grumbly at this point, but it's the truth. There's a reason why your davening is supposed to be between you and God.

I have some further thoughts about how segments of liberal Judaism seem to be focusing more and more on emotional rather than intellectual needs and where I think it comes from and might be going, but I'll leave that for a later time.

Next: Tisha B'Av day at our first Orthodox shul!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Is this what liberal kiruv looks like?

I finally got my parents to shul! It was quite an accomplishment. They came for a Kabbalat Shabbat service where I was leading and though it wasn't exactly their cup of tea (they wouldn't even go inside the place until we got there, even though we were a little late), it was nice that they made the effort, and also that they commented on how happy and proud they were that we had found a community.

In related news, I have been asked by a very good old friend to officiate his wedding, on the grounds that they want "some Jewish content" and that "you're funny." Though they're in a very different place than me and Mrs. Yid in terms of practice and spirituality (the bride is not Jewish and though my friend went to Hebrew school and was bar mitzahed, the most religious thing they do these days is come to our seders), I decided to accept. I basically see it as an opportunity to put a bit of a Jewish stamp on it from a cultural perspective, even if it's not a halachic wedding (after all, neither was ours).

Most recently, Mrs. Yid and I volunteered at the giant Pride parade manning a booth for Beth Elderly along with another member of the young guard who I'll call Leib. Leib is our resident gay black Jew (welcome to San Francisco!), and as such, tends to have some useful perspectives when it comes to growing the congregation and keeping it welcoming to all potential members. So we stood at the booth with brochures and shema bracelets. At one point the rabbi's 3 year old started just handing them to people. Then he started putting them on people without waiting for them to take them.

... Then he started slipping them in their pockets. The best point came when he wiggled one onto an old Chinese man's cane without him noticing.

"He could be a Chabadnik!" we said.

We got some sign-ups for the shul mailing list, but mostly we just had conversations. Some were very interesting, like the secular-ish Muslim woman who wanted to compare notes on how open Judaism was to gays vs. Christianity or Islam, or the man raised Orthodox who had been "spoiled" by his parents and who was now a Buddhist, or the guy who had been accepted into Harvard Divinity School who wanted to know the difference between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. (Answer: here, ask the Reconstructionist rabbi of our Conservative shul! Who went to Yale Div School!)

Some conversations were a little weirder, like the drunk topless man who wanted sympathy for a bad experience with some Israeli Haredim he had in 1992 ("Do you understand my point? Do you?" "Yes, yes I do. Have a pen."), or the drunk topless woman who chatted with Mrs. Yid for half an hour about being a recovering Baptist and whose best friend (Jewish) loved to tell the story of the oven of Akhnai as a proof-text of how much Jews love arguing.

By the end of the day, we were just handing out shema bracelets to anyone who wanted them (note: next year, get English translations!) Some folks really liked the message of unity (Muslims, Mormons, Catholics), others seemed to find it too sectarian (the ex-frummie said it had too much baggage, one kid wearing a rainbow raccoon tail didn't want it because he couldn't read Hebrew). One lady grabbed one, turned it over, squinted at it, said, "That's interesting!" and stomped off. The rabbi said maybe next year we'll modify the bracelets so they don't actually have the name of God on them. Another alternative might be to make some with the theme of B'tselem Elohim (or Elokim.)

Even though at the beginning of the day I was a little weirded out at the thought of pseudo-proselytizing, by the end it was ok. It wasn't specifically about trying to turn anyone Jewish, just letting people know that we were around, that we were accepting, and that people were welcome, even if they were just curious. Though I've seen more bad outfits (or lack thereof) than I need for quite a while, it was still a fun experience.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Does an election still count as a coup?

Quite a few things have happened since November. First, the rabbi asked me to help lead Carlebach-style Kabbalat Shabbat services once a month. The old folks are still getting used to it, but they seem to like the peppiness. It takes about an hour and a half. We have wine tasting afterwards. So far it seems to be a hit (bringing in about 30 folks for a Friday night service, which is about 2-3 times the usual attendance).

I am still getting used to leading anything, much less prayer. I know enough to know I don't know all that much, but I figure that if people find it meaningful or enjoyable and it gets people in who otherwise wouldn't attend that it must be a good thing.

In related news, I was asked to join the Beth Elderly board and was almost unanimously elected (one old lady in the seat in front of me voted against, then immediately turned around and said "welcome aboard!")

I had my first board meeting on Monday. It took over two hours. Mrs. Yid called me afterwards to ask how it went. I wonder if "Jesus tapdancing Christ" was the most appropriate response.

There are now four of us young folks (30 and below), plus the rabbi who's in his late 30s. The rest of the board ranges from 50s to 80s. Needless to say, we are not all exactly on the same page. The young folks know the shul needs to find ways to attract new members. The outgoing President stirred up a big fuss when he proposed trying to make a new "Kehillah" consisting of several small shuls in town and moving under Temple Ol'Faithful's roof. While at the moment there seems to be very little enthusiasm about the idea from the Old Guard (one older board member, who I'll call Fishy, railed against each of the other small shuls, singling out B'nei Hippy in particular as "not even being a real synagogue!"), I think it's been invaluable in getting them all talking about how to keep the shul sustainable. The reality is whether we stay in our shteibl or find somewhere new, we need to be able to give people what they want and need, and folks like Fishy who think "everything is doing great" are kidding themselves if they think we're going to get anyone in the door with facilities that aren't ADA compliant and bathrooms that are older than me. At a bare minimum, we need to invest in our building, our infrastructure, and our programs. These are non-negotiable.

So, yeah, there's a little work to be done. I don't know how much I'll be able to help, but hopefully I can do some good. I'm not sure how I feel about becoming so entrenched within a community structure in such a short amount of time, but my hope is that we can help keep things going and maybe even bring some new blood and ideas into the shul.

For the cherry on top: Today I'm going to see an old friend from high school who asked me to officiate at his wedding. I've come quite a long way from the first time I opened up "Basic Judaism" 14 years ago.


Masha the Meshugenner had a major melt-down in shul when the rabbiw as discussing shmita and the Jubilee and opened it up to comments from the crowd. She is fairly Republican and didn't like the idea of everyone losing their private property. Ezekiel, who is about as oblivious as Masha to opinions other than his own, said he thought it was a nice connection to the modern-day green movement and then shot her response down by saying that the synagogue was no place for political arguments. Masha got super pissed, stormed out cursing, and then milled back and forth in the back for another 20 minutes before calming down and doing a hora with the kids during L'Dor V'Dor.

The moral of the story? Maybe certain shul members should only be allowed to talk to the rabbi, not each other.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Part I- Planning a coup

Apparently my friend Abraham has a master plan for taking over Beth Elderly and turning it from "the friendly but ancient shul" into "the friendly shul with lots of old people and a bunch of young folks, too." Interestingly enough, a lot of it hinges on me and Carlebach-style davening.

Like us, Abraham and his wife used to frequent Evil Minion quite a bit. And, like us, though they enjoyed the davening style, they found it a little hard to connect with the community. So they kept looking, eventually ending up at Beth Elderly, where the people are friendly but the davening is, sad to say, kind of dead. The cantor has a penchant for warbling and the rabbi likes Carlebach but can't carry a tune. Some of the older folks are interested but they don't know enough to lead it themselves. So when Abraham found out I can sing quasi-decently and knew all the tunes to Kabbalat Shabbat from our several years going to Evil Minion services, he got very excited.

Basically, the plan is to start our own breakaway minyan... except instead of breaking away from Beth Elderly, we'll instead take it over.

There is a spare room in the shul that is in the process of being cleaned out. Right now we're thinking that we will be able to set up shop in there and start doing some Carlebach stuff by January. If people like it, we will hopefully be able to attract some of the regulars (and maybe even some new folks) out of the main sanctuary and into our clutches. The goal is to have two services, give people a chance to do what they like, and then have both finish around the same time for a joint kiddush/oneg. The key to the plan is that once the alternative minyan gets more attendees than the main service, the rabbi has agreed to have the two groups swap rooms. The hope is that eventually, most people would opt for the livelier service while still giving the old-timers the option to stick with their preferred tunes if they wanted to.

At first I was a little alarmed by this idea, since to me it seems a little mean to boot the old folks out of their sanctuary. But I also realize that if Beth Elderly is going to keep going, it needs fresh blood, and this might be one of many ways to make that happen. So I'm on record as a potential minyan member, and we'll see what happens come January.

Part II- An early start

Abraham and I had this conversation a while ago, so it's been in the back of my mind. What I wasn't expecting was to get a dress-rehearsal for it last weekend.

I should back up. Mrs. Yid and I went to our first ever shul retreat! It's a big tradition and we'd heard a lot about it. Usually we are both a bit on the shy side at shul so it was a little overwhelming to think about spending a whole weekend with 100-odd congregants, but we decided to be brave and go for it. As it happened, it was a wonderful weekend. We got to spend lots of time with different people from shul-- some we already knew, like Abraham & Sarah and the rabbi & his wife, and some folks we only knew by sight who we now know a little better. I was happy to have Mrs. Yid there to help me get out of my shell a bit, and I think the whole weekend was the better for it.

One huge thing that happened was on Friday night. We got into the hotel late (it was about 50 miles out of town and we were driving during a rainstorm) and were gulping down dinner when the rabbi came over and mentioned to Abraham that he was thinking of doing a Carlebach tune or two during services.  Within a minute or two, this somehow morphed into him turning to me and asking if I'd like to LEAD a Carlebach Kabbalat Shabbat! (My brain stopped working at that point so my memory is a little foggy, but I seem to remember Mrs. Yid having something to do with it.) I stuttered that I'd have to think about it for a minute and sat back down. Luckily I had insisted on bringing our transliterated siddurs to dinner, so I whipped one out and started going through the service to see if I could actually remember all the melodies. With some help from Abraham, I got through them all, and with lots of encouragement from my wife, decided to take the plunge and go for it.

I was quite nervous when we started the service, but I did my best to keep my eyes on my book (or closed during the niggun parts) and got through it. Half the time I even had some fun. And it was really interesting; a lot of the people seemed to really get into it. I had been worried some of the older folks would be annoyed that it was so different, but a lot of them were enjoying the energy of the davening-- especially the rabbi's wife, who said that loves Carlebach and used to go to a Carlebach minyan in Israel a lot when she and her husband were studying there, and has missed it a lot in the last few years. When we were done, one of the really active board members came up to me and said, "That was really great. Our services should be more like that. In fact, I think I services should always be like that!" Abraham and I were pretty happy after that.

The rest of the weekend was lovely and we had a lot of fun (though I got bested by an aliyah yet again!), but for me that was the absolute highlight. I've led Jewish stuff at my house before, but that's always been in a setting where I'm the most knowledgable one in the room. It's a very different feeling to be leading things in a group where people know what they're doing, in many cases probably more than you. It was nerve-wracking, exciting and special all at the same time.

Part III- Aftermath

The rabbi sent out an email before Shabbat. He thinks we should start doing Carlebach style davening more regularly-- at least once a month! I don't want to take too much credit, but I know that at least part of this is thanks to last week's service. I did something and it made a difference. I did something that had an effect, if only in a small way. All of a sudden I'm feeling like I'm really part of the community... and that the community is a part of me. I'm very happy to have been part of that service, and very hopeful that this direction, along with other things the shul is doing, help make the community more vibrant, sustainable and engaging.

Part IV- Epilogue

The Saturday of the retreat I realized we were just one week past Zayde's 16th yarzeit. Even though I was past the date, I said Kaddish for him anyway-- for him and Bubbe. Together and apart, images and reality, all of it mixed up together, as always.

It's amazing to think it's been sixteen years since he died. Sixteen years of me growing up in a mental shadow, or at least reflection, of him. Sixteen years of doing family research, discovering so much about where he and the rest of the family came from. Sixteen years of trying to better understand his faith; of learning about Judaism, and then actually putting my knowledge into practice. Sixteen years of forging my own identity, one strongly, even intensely, rooted in my family's past, but focused on my future.

Sixteen years ago I didn't know what a kippah was. Sixteen years ago the only Jewish friend I had was as clueless and disengaged as I was. Sixteen years ago I had never observed Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, much less Sukkot, Shavuot or Tisha B'Av. Sixteen years ago I wouldn't have imagined I'd ever have a Jewish blog, belong to a synagogue, or lead a prayer service.

I'm not the kind of Jew my grandfather was, and in some ways I regret that, because I know how incredible important that identity, that practice, and that worldview were to him. But I also hope that if he were here, there would be a part of him that would see how far I've come, and how much of it is rooted, at least in part, in wanting to better connect with him, and that he'd be proud.

Because I am.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pulling in the family

Last night Mrs. Yid and I were hanging out with my brother Deacon Yid and his girlfriend, Mini. Mini is from the suburbs and her family seems to practice a fairly secular form of Protestantism. Like Deacon, she tends to lean towards the atheist side of things. She's come to a few of our holidays and seems to be ok with things (she's a little hard to read). At least she has less of a chip on her shoulder than Deacon, who made a big point of telling her at our seder, "You don't have to eat anything you don't want to, or read anything that you don't want to" (he always refuses to read or recite anything that mentions God).

Anyway, they were around, and we mentioned that we were going to be heading off to Havdalah at Abraham and Sarah's house. Interestingly enough, they said they were game to check it out. I had some hopes that they would find it kind of cool, but things didn't pan out quite as I had planned... we left kind of late, the house was a little crowded, Deacon seemed a little uncomfortable with people drinking, and unfortunately I hadn't mentioned to the rabbi ahead of time that they were coming or reminded him of my brother's extreme lack of knowledge/interest/comfort level with Jewish stuff. So we hung out for a while and then eventually did Havdalah, but it's hard to say whether they were really enjoying themselves. They were also pretty tired (Deacon keeps crazy hours and frequently doesn't go to bed until 4 or 6 in the morning) so who knows how they were doing by the end of things.

I feel like part of the reason Deacon doesn't really connect with Jewish stuff is because, 1- there's a longstanding lack of knowledge or connection due to our nonexistent Jewish education, and 2- the lasting ideal family images he has were largely created by popular media he saw as a kid and young adult--the overwhelming majority being secular and/or Christian. So for instance, if you ask him about his ideal family holiday, he thinks of a George Rockwell family sitting around a Christmas tree drinking cocao and singing Christmas carols-- though, to be fair, he is also into Hanukkah and asked for help getting a menorah and the right blessings when he was away at college. He certainly isn't into Christmas as a religious holiday, but I think he's attracted by the pageantry and imagery of it as compared to, say, Hanukkah. I don't think my brother necessarily "should" be doing Jewish stuff like I am but I do think popular media has played a big role in what kind of holidays and rituals he is or isn't interested or inspired by.

Honestly, I wish this hadn't been their first introduction to havdalah. If ritual or fanciness is your thing, you're not going to get a lot out of our havdalah. If it's deep spiritual insight, well there wasn't really any of that, either. It was really just some friends hanging out, talking shop about the shul, cracking jokes, and then doing the quick candle-spice-wine dip. Not all that impressive for your first time. I really wish they had come to the last one we had at our house, where they might have felt a little more comfortable. I'll have to check with Deacon in the next few days and see what he thought of it.

Still, it was cool of them to check it out, and maybe they'll come the next time we host Havdalah. We can always hope.

Hey, I got my brother to participate in a Jewish ritual...does this make me and Mrs. Yid kiruv workers now?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sometimes a plateau isn't so bad

The High Holidays have come and gone, and while nothing went perfectly, plenty of things went reasonably well.

Let's back up for a moment. Since leaving college, we have shul-hopped nearly every year:

Year 1: Temple Ol'Faithful with my high school buddy and his family- lots of English, no connection with the shul, and a particularly awkward invitation to lunch on Yom Kippur.

Year 2: Beth Elderly with a college friend- this was during the year we spent a lot of time there while they were trying to keep themselves going without a regular rabbi. During the high holiday services, their aging rabbi emeritus came back so they would have someone to lead. A lot of Hebrew, very little transliteration, a gigantic age gap, etc. We were trying very hard and so were they, but something wasn't quite clicking. (Though they do get two awesome points for inviting us to open the dark during Avinu Volcano Malkeinu.)

Year 3: Our first year of living in the Mission and our only time going to Evil Minion for the Holidays. Zero transliteration, very hard to follow. Also I got sick and couldn't fast. Not very fun.

Year 4: Temple GLBT. Decent mussar but a little overly political for my tastes; also more English than I would have preferred. Was feeling depressed and didn't fast.

Year 5: Temple GLBT, round two. First year with Machzor Eit Ratzon! Finally had the ability to pray as much of the service-- in a traditional way-- as I wanted, which made a huge difference in my experience. Got sick again. No fasting.

So this was year 6, which makes us feel very old. Since we've decided to shore up Beth Elderly's young guard ranks, we returned to the shul for the holidays, and I have to say, it was actually very pleasant. In some ways, not a lot has changed: the building has still seen better days and most of the congregants are as old as my parents, if not older. But in the four years since our last HHDs there, the tone of the shul has really started to develop, at least for us. The rabbi and his family have made a huge difference, as has the appearance of a handful of younger people our age. The shul has invested in new partially-translated siddurim and machzorim, as well as some basic cosmetics like new chairs for the congregants. The regulars are clearly working on trying to make the shul appealing and inviting to younger members.

More than that, though, this time around we've really been trying to invest some time and effort to connect with the shul, or at least key members of the community. We aren't always successful (Shabbat attendance is still a challenge, especially with my new job taking up so much energy), but it's definitely making a difference. People know who we are, and we're getting a little better at knowing who they are, too.

On a deeper level, too, I feel like we're finally starting to get some sort of idea about where we want to be-- or at least which direction we want to go in-- in terms of observance. We certainly aren't at the point where we're going to become shomer mitzvot but I think we're developing a greater awareness of Jewish values (such as kashrut, shabbat, tzedaka) that we want to honor and take seriously, though we're not yet clear about what form that might take.

Feeling more confident and educated about davening as well as greater Jewish identity made a huge difference in my High Holiday experience this year. Also, I'm happy to report that for the first time in a while, I was able to fast! (Unfortunately the next day I came down with a bad cold that I'm still getting over and which caused me to miss Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Having all these holidays coincide with being exposed to tons of child germs is a really bad mix.)

I'm sure I'm reading too much into all this, but I feel like this High Holiday cycle is a decent metaphor for where we are with our lives generally (community/observance-wise, job-wise, housing-wise, and family-wise): no, things aren't perfect, but they're better than they've been in a while. So here's to enjoying getting to a halfway-decent plateau. I'm hoping things will only get better from here.

Monday, July 30, 2012

New experiences, some conversations, and choices

Since Mrs. Yid and I have joined Beth Elderly there have been a bunch of developments:

  • I successfully attended morning minyan (next one will be this week) and davened with Zayde's tefillin. Between the tefillin and my Moses-eqsue beard (hooray for summers off!) I am definitely rocking some impressive Ortho-vibes. 

  • For our one-year-anniversary, I got Mrs. Yid a new siddur and she got me my own tallis. In related news, we are huge Jew-nerds. 

  • I have slowly gotten more comfortable attending Young Guard Havdalah stag. The most recent one was held on top of a fountain and included the rabbi's candle burning through his kiddush cup. I think this will be the last time we use a beer pong cup for this purpose. 

  • I have started using Ayn Keloheynu as a basic Hebrew primer. It's slow going, but has been very satisfying to finally see some progress with my reading ability. I'm actually able to sound some words out-- and was sort-of able to follow along with the chanting of Lamentations at Tisha B'Av in the Hebrew.

  • I ordered some knit kippot and have started wearing them more. This one is my favorite. I told Abbot Yid I was contemplating wearing one when I start my new job-- if Mrs. Yid can cover her hair it seems only fair I do something, too-- and not surprisingly, he's really, really not a fan. I also got a tallis katan but have concluded that even in San Francisco, that stuff is too darn hot for the summers. Maybe I'll try again come winter.

Also in the mix have been several "community events" bringing together multiple liberal congregations in the city. The first one was Shavuot, which included Temple Burning Bush, Beth Elderly, Temple Old Faithful, and B'nai Hippy. Rabbis from each community led study sessions on different topics and people chose from a programming "menu" to decide where they wanted to go. Mrs. Yid and I attended a session on Hasidic storytelling and a discussion of whether the Torah can be considered true by rational Jews. The second session, led by the rabbi from Burning Bush, was quite fascinating. The rabbi is from an Orthodox background and has a major axe to grind with literalist interpretations of Torah. Funnily enough, much of the talk involved more liberal congregants arguing with him that he was treating the text super-literally in order to set up a straw man. The Reform and Renewal people were actually arguing for the integrity of the Torah against a Conservative rabbi! Very fun. (It made me think a little of the Oven of Akhnai, actually.)

The second community event was Tisha B'Av, which, like Shavuot, neither Mrs. Yid nor I had ever celebrated. Apparently the liberal community in the city had been abuzz by how many people came to Shavuot, because this time in addition to the four original congregations, there was Beth Halfpipe as well as three or four indie minyanim and kehillot. This time the rabbis opted for a whole-group approach. After dinner we had short drashot alternating with some singing. When we were moving into the sanctuary to read Lamentations, one of the singers came up to me.

"I liked your singing."

"Yes, I could see that it moved you."

"So, are you, like, an Orthodox guy?"


"Ah, I thought that you might be Orthodox because of your beard."

"No, but my grandfather was Hasidic."

"Ah, so you have some Hasidic DNA in you."

"A pintele!" (This got a chuckle.)

Then Mrs. Yid came up and said hi. Looking at both of us, the guy remarked, "You both look very Hasidish." We shrugged.

Turning to Mrs. Yid, he asked, "Do you also have Hasidic ancestors?"

She replied, "No, but I have very venerable Protestant ones!"

"Ah," he said. "So you're a Jew-by-choice?"

I looked at her for a minute.

"Yes," she said, taking my hand. "And honestly, so is he."

Later I went home and Googled the guy. Turns out he's an old friend of Shlomo Carlebach. Zayde would be so proud. (Abbot Yid, not surprisingly, had never heard of Shlomo.)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Traditional but Alternative

Mrs. Yid and I have enjoyed our time shul-hopping but are happy to have found a congregational home. What we hadn't expected was that the shul-hopping would continue after we joined the shul. Case in point: last week's Kabbalat Shabbat with a new Reform minyan start-up (they call themselves a kehillah, which I guess sounds more friendly to Reform ears than a minyan- maybe it's generational; my parents still have visceral reactions to that term). There were guitars (fine), a harmonica (not bad, actually), and a mercifully brief use of bongos (cue irritated glowering from Mrs. Yid). The drash was pretty rambling (please don't end each point by saying, "I just thought that was interesting,") but at least people were engaged. Ultimately the visitors were nice and friendly, but the services encapsulated all the ways in which, as Mrs. Yid put it, "We've been ruined on Reform."

This isn't exactly new-- loyal readers will recall our first minyan at college was Carlebach-inspired at a Conservative shul, and we spent many enjoyable services at Evil Minion which is a Conservadox partnership minyan par excellence. Still, what with us slowly starting to take more mitzvot (or pseudo-mitzvot) on, the idea of belonging to a community that actually purports to follow some version of halacha-- in both positive and, perhaps, "restrictive" ways, no longer feels quite so at odds with our own philosophies. Mrs. Yid told me shortly before we got married that for her to feel connected, she needed to feel like she was actually doing Jewish things, and I think there's something to that.

There was another interesting moment the other week: towards the end of the service we started talking with an older gay man I'll call Irv who hops between Beth Elderly and Temple GLBT. We mentioned that a lot of the visitors seemed to come from the Reform tradition (some of them mentioned being current or former members of Temple Touched by God, and I recognized their photocopied siddur from Mishkan T'filah). Irv commented that he had noticed that, but added that given that background, he was surprised at how non-inclusive the service was. He said it was one thing for a place that does traditional liturgy to stick with that, but that he didn't understand why you would leave people out if you specifically do liberal liturgy. We knew what he meant; Temple GLBT alternates pronouns during Hinei Ma Tov, and also adds a section about different orientations during some choral prayers. It doesn't always resonate with me personally, but it's nice that it's there.

Afterwards, Mrs. Yid commented that Irv seemed to have been testing the waters with us; our clothes were probably reading as uber-frum (which has happened before), but he saw Mrs. Yid using Mishkan T'filah, and when he mentioned Temple GLBT we responded positively and even mentioned that we had gone to services there several times. From there he felt comfortable enough to come out with mild criticism. But that what it really came down to, in her eyes, was that both we and Irv are outliers, "alternative," and that she saw the Kehillah folks, and their home community of Touched by God, as "mainstream" par excellence.

It's a little counter-intuitive to think of the poster-child for liberal Judaism in the city leaving people out, but Mrs. Yid was basically saying that because they're so big, and so establishment (and have been since their founding), some people fall through their cracks. A mega-shul can do some things really well and cater to lots of niche groups, but since they've never needed to struggle for members they've never needed to think about "misfits" like us or Irv-- whereas Beth Elderly and lots of the small shuls are basically almost all misfits at this point. That's not to say we wouldn't be welcome, but it's not the same as a small place as Beth Elderly, which is really motivated to get to know its members and make sure it speaks to them (and where there seems to be more awareness about how diverse and wide-ranging the congregation is).

Though I'm still not exactly sure how much halacha I'm prepared to personally accept, I think I'm becoming more comfortable with the idea of being part of a community that at least seriously considers what halacha has to say, and I think worship style is part of this evolving sensibility as well. However, some of our foundational core values are also inclusiveness and diversity, so I think balancing those two elements is going to be an ongoing process as we try to take our Judaism and our community-building more seriously.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Growing Up

Mrs. Yid and I have decided to join Beth Elderly! (I'm still trying to figure out a better name for them, but for now, it is what it is). I sent the shul admin guy an email saying "after five years, it's time to make it official."

As part of this making things official business, we decided to finally attend a Saturday morning service. It was fine, maybe not as fun as Friday night, but nice. Lots of people were out of town for a shul event so we definitely stood out, but we got lots of encouraging smiles from the regulars. One fun (?) moment came when the shammes handed me an aliyah card. I had about fifteen minutes to totally overthink things and decuple-check the transliteration of the blessing in my siddur, and was feeling fine as I went up to the bimah. I have done aliyot before at a few cousins' Bar Mitzvahs, so I wasn't exactly going in blind.

And yet, as soon as I was up there, I became a stumbling boob. It was as though I'd never read transliterated Hebrew before (granted, it was written old-school Ashkenazi style, but still-- I've seen that before). I think it might have been a little stage fright (which also never happens to me, but go figure). I stumbled through the blessing, stood around awkwardly during the reading, and then tried to run away as soon as I could (the cantor ordered me back up for the rest of the reading, go team!) When they finally let me slink away, everyone on the bimah shook my hand and the shammes said, "See, you got through it!" Technically, I suppose.

Telling the rabbi about it the next weekend at Young Guard Havdalah, I said, "You know that part in Judges where 'the spirit of the Lord entered into Samson'? It was like the opposite of that."

Still, I think this was healthy. For a long time I've had low-to-mid-level anxiety about wanting to appear like I know what I'm doing. For better or worse, when people see my beard, my hat, and Mrs. Yid's scarves (and lack of pants), they make some assumptions about our knowledge or observance level, and sometimes I feel a little embarrassed to admit how little I know. It's important to me to not only be Jewishly literate and competent, but also to not feel like I'm somehow putting people on by wearing a frumish costume or something when I can't even read Hebrew. While I know eventually I really just need to get over the embarrassment/anxiety factor, I think part of what's going on here is also that it's hard to do things out of your comfort zone. It's hard to admit you don't know as much as other people. It's hard to acknowledge your own shortcomings. But that's also how you grow. So, while we may not go every week, I think I'll be sticking with Saturday services. I'll even go up for another aliyah when they ask.

Which I hope will not be for a while.