Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Come to me, my Evil Minion!

First, an explanation about the cryptic, vaguely cruel, in-joke in the title:

Scene: Shiksa Girlfriend and me, and my dear anonymous roommate, at college about a year ago, discussing shul options.

Me: Yeah, the Reconstructionist Shul is ok, but I really like the once-a-month Carlebach Minyan.

Her: I know, I even wrote it down on the calendar so we wouldn't forget.

Roommate, inspecting the calendar: Um... you know you spelled "minyan" wrong, right?

Her: What?

Roommate: It has a y.

Me: And an a.

Her: This is bullshit! There's no y in "minion!" This is even dumber than the time you told me "baalchoova" has a t!

So we went to the "Evil Minion" the other week. This a pretty lively, young-ish Carlebach/Shir Hadash style minyan in town that's pretty cool. I was initially semi-intimidated by some of their semi-halachic language regarding seating arangements: they basically have a pseudo-to-tri-chitza, depending on the crowd and mood of the organizers.

This was our second time there. The first time was really, really busy, and we wound up getting in late, about the time people were doing lecha dodi. It was standing room only. A quick glance of the room gave me the basic specs- mostly mixed sexes in the middle, single-sexes to the periphery, and a few hard-core folks against the sides of the room. (One guy in a Breslov kippa was out in front bonking his head into the wall, which I thought was a little weird, but hey, he's entitled.)

So, SG sees a few spots free on the closest wall and tugs me towards them. Only one problem- I have already identified this space as the women's area. Everybody's singing and we don't have time to confer, so I wave her away and deliberately stand closer to the clump-o-everybody. She gives me a look and leans against the wall.
Brief mini-halachic explanation interlude:
I don't care about halacha. But I don't like making an issue for other people. In other words, I like to know and be deliberate about being an asshole (my roommate was very fond of yelling "rubber tires never break!" for the first line of the grace after meals), as opposed to inadvertently freaking people out, like the time SG scandalized some poor Orthodox girl into next week. For this crowd, it turned out I was probably being oversensitive- the Evil Minion is a far cry from Boro Park (which is good in just about every way except that it means much less facial hair).
Finally, a few songs/psalms later, SG joins me in the mixed-gender-stew-seating. "Sorry I couldn't explain it," I whisper. "You were standing in the women's section." She shrugs. "I figured it was something like that, and not that I smelled." She squeezes my hand. As we continue with Kabbalat Shabbat, another latecomer pops in. He immediately makes a beeline for the women's wall and spends the rest of the service there, seemingly oblivious to some of the dirty looks he receives.

Other highlights included the prayer leader, a Mizrahi-looking-and-sounding guy, doing the fastest stacatto rendition of Maariv I've ever heard. It was kind of cool, if a little weird. It sort of reminded me of this guy. "Be dibarta-bam, biddy-bum-bum-bam."

This last time was pretty good as well. Evil Minion has its own transliterated prayerbook (big plus), and even better, not-every-word-has-two-or-three-hyp-hens. While the halacha thing isn't an issue for me, I like that they're billing themselves as big tent nondenominational (at some point I should blog about denominationalism, and the presumption that nondenominationalism can actually exist in practice, over at Friar Yid). And we even ran into some people we know- Oyster and Chutzpaleh from Oy Bay (they recognized my super cool yarmulke) and an irritating former professor for SG. SG's professor, Mr. Ihateyou, is on Sabbatical and apparently knows some of the Evil Minion's founders. SG then made a Jewish Geography joke which Prof Ihateyou didn't understand. Irritated to hell, she silently cursed him with the dreaded Pulsa de No Tenure and went off to find me.

There were only a few downsides with Evil Minion:

A- No drash. Apparently I have to get used to this because most of the Kab Shabs we've been to in town don't do Friday Night Drashes, which is too bad because I miss hearing them. (I know, I know, stop whining, wake up early and come on Saturday. You imaginary readers are so critical.)

B- The room is small and gets very, very hot, even when it isn't a mega-Shabbat. Also, by the time everything is done and you've gotten to kiddush and motzi, it's so loud and crowded it's damn hard to kibbitz decently. I'm not a big mingler to begin with, but with crowds, I really lose all interest and tend to run for the door as soon as I can. I know, I should work on it, and possibly get some body armor, mental or otherwise.

C- Again relating to mingling and meeting fellow shulies: The age group is just a bit ahead of mine, about 5 to 10 years, which shouldn't be that much of a deal, but at the moment is a little weird, if only because a lot of these folks seem to be in a different mental space regarding their lives right now. They seem to be more established regarding jobs and homes and I couldn't help noticing that a few of them seem to be in the early stages of parenting. (Though I have faith that they won't slip down the dark path of Bnei Hippy.) I'm also a little suspicious as to how many people at Evil Minion are there for the "kosher meat market," a-la the roving gangs of Jewish singles that seem to pop up at the monthly, "Please, for God's sake, marry Jewish!" Shabbat over at Temple Touched By God. For some reason the age gap doesn't seem to matter as much at Beth Elderly. I anticipiate that I will probably get over this if I go often enough.

So yes, we will be going back to the Evil Minion. Between Evil Minion, Beth Elderly, Temple GLBT and the one good Carlebachian Shabbat a month at Temple Ol' Faithful, we just might get ourselves into a semi-regular shul schedule.

One last fun name-nugget. I was explaining the concept of Evil Minion to the Yidden at home, and they were less than enthusiastic.

Me: "It's based on a liberal, Modern Orthodox model, and they sort of have separate seating but not really.

Mother Superior Yid: Why does it have to be ORTHODOX? Why would you want to go somewhere ORTHODOX? That's so unfair to SG.

Abbot Yid: Yeah, and why a minyan? Why can't you ever do anything normal? Even if you're going to be Jewy, do you have to go a minyan? It's just so... ugh!

Me, very confused: whaa?

Later Mama Yid explained that "minyan" has a very specific (and not terribly complimentary, apparently) connotation for them (presumably involving emotionally scarring flashbacks to assorted angry old men). Good to know, I guess.

(Incidentally, this isn't the first time my folks' lack of knowledge about Jewish terminology has prevented them from having an opinion about it.)

Monday, October 1, 2007

Sukkot Silliness

First, let's get it out of the way. I think Sukkot is stupid.

Don't get me wrong, I can see how it could be modified to be meaningful- a drash on how we should be thankful about having a roof over our heads, be kind to the homeless, etc, the kind of tikkun olam stuff I usually have very bad knee-jerk reactions to- but if I'm honest? I just don't really get it. Maybe it's because, like Purim, like Shimni Atzeret (can someone PLEASE explain that one to me?), it wasn't one of the Jewish holidays I grew up sort of attempting to emulate at home. Also, "Festival of Booths" sounds absolutely moronic, and half the time people either don't hear the "th" and think you says boobs or something, or they assume it's you and your friends reinacting your favorite scenes from the Phantom Tollbooth like the pathetic fanboys you are. At least on Lag B'Omer you get to burn things. (Incidentally, while Jewing out at college, I explained Sukkot to the clueless with the pithy, "It's the Shantytown Holiday", and people almost always understood fairly quickly. Let's face it, the sukkah looks a damn lot more like a shack than it does a "booth". Who do we talk to about changing this translation?)

My hatred of Sukkot is, more than anything, related to my absolute ineptitude when it comes to construction or, frankly, any real handyman-related activity. One year at college, it somehow fell to me to construct the entire sukkah myself. This was, of course, after a last-minute freakout from the frumer members of the not-Hillel (supposedly, we were like, way cooler than Hillel, and didn't need them! Also, they said we weren't big enough to have funding, so we refused to adopt the name just to spite them. I suggested "Shammai" at a bunch of meetings, but people didn't get the joke- or rather, refused to give me the satisfaction of saying it was funny) about whether or not our sukkah was kosher. You see, we bought it online and it turned out that one of the big-name sukkah vendors was holding out on giving his wife a get (that's a divorce for you there Gentiles). As a result, there were various bans put in place against him. To make matters even more complicated, just about every online sukkah vendor sounds exactly the same- SukkahWorld, SukkahMart, Heshy's Sukkah Emporium, House Sukkah o'Sukkahs, etc. I told them that if we had gone with my choice, CrapShack.com, this could have been avoided, but as usual, people told me to shut up. It turned out that our sukkah was kosher, but frankly, at that point, I wouldn't have given a crap. Worst came to worst, I would wait until after the holiday and then lug the crap back to NY and set up a protest tent sukkah outside the bastard's house.

Anyway, this thing was nice enough- canvas walls, steel pole frame, a ringed shower-curtain style door system, it even had a plastic window peephole with a flap to cover it (to keep Cossacks out, presumably). If it wasn't for such a stupid occaission, it could have been a fun fort.

The problems began when it came time to build the damn thing. As usual, everyone bailed, so me and a buddy, who I'll call well-meaning-but-spineless Joe, or Jello for short, got stuck with it. First we had to pick it up from the campus mailroom and lug the damn thing across the quad- easier said than done considering we were schlepping around a 14-foot long cardboard box filled with steel pipes. Out of my way, trustafarians!

That done, we unpacked and studied the directions. It was here that things turned into a major melt-down. The sukkah could only be assembled via a particularly fiendish device known as an Allen Wrench, or what I call Satan's screwdriver. Allen Wrenches are a pain in the ass, and this particular one was tiny and had to be grasped with the whole hand to turn. To make things even better, there was only one.

I spent the better part of a day building this piece of crap, on my own. Jello wanted to help, but since he didn't have a Satan Screwdriver, all he could do was hold the pipes and get me a chair when I had to connect high things. If it's true that you get bonus mitzvah points for doing crap on your own, then I'm riding this damn accomplishment for the next decade. We stuck left-over pine-tree leavings on the thing and called it a Sukkah. And even then, almost nobody went in the damn thing.

Next year: my roommate and I decide to build our own sukkah, as I'm boycotting the sukkah from Hell (also the not-Hillel was maybe going to use it, though this wound up not happening after I declared a mandatory 5-person minimum minyan for construction to occur and we only got 3- Jello, me, and the incoming student leader after the rest of us graduated). We decided to forgo steel or wood, and instead went to Home Depot to try to get PVC pipe.

Oh my God. Major mistake. First of all, those guys couldn't understand what the hell we wanted to do. "You want to make, like, a giant box?"


"With PVC pipe?"



"Look, never mind. The question is, what do you recommend we use?"

"I'd recommend you don't do it."

And other fun misadventures. We needed to pick pipe widths, and lengths. We needed them to cut them. They didn't have the right joints; we had to come up with crazy-ass combination joints on the fly. Finally, we got all the crap we needed and came to the fun part: getting all this PVC into the 4-door-sedan (I sat behind my roommate, human-rubber-band style, holding onto dear life as the pipes, stuck diagonally through both front and rear windows, wobbled precariously on the 25-minute ride home. Also, at some point it started to rain. Again, major mitzvah points.

Once we got it home, assembly again proved to be a bitch, as not everything quite fit right on our patio, and of course since some of the PVC was pretty thin (1/4 inch?), it wobbled like crazy. Also, we had nothing to go around the frame, something SG thankfully fixed by stealing some spare fabric from the theater department and making us some cool curtain walls. And it rained most of the week, as it tends to in that part of the country at that part of the year, and so it was only very occasionally we got to spend any time in the thing, which, if I'm honest, I wasn't that broken up about (though I did feel cheated for not riding along to the Chabad to pick up the lulav and etrog).

Long story short, I have very mixed feelings about this damn holiday. It is, IMO, one of the biggest pains-in-the-ass outside of Passover, and, like that illustrious holiday, I get very resentful of the subtle ways in which the spirits of long-dead rabbis start to seem like they're just making shit up to screw with you the longer the thing goes on. (I get mental pictures of Rashi saying to a scribe, "And then say they have to stand on their heads! And put their socks on their noses! And if they fall off, they have to eat them!")

So all of that is background to last Shabbos. Shiksa Girlfriend and I went to Beth Elderly for Friday Night, only barely remembering that it was Sukkot. When we got there, they had more folks than usual, which was nice, though we were still pretty much the only 20-somethings (hell, we were practically the only ones who still had pigment in our hair).

Services were nice enough, at this point we pretty much know how these guys operate. It's not quite as Carlebach as I like, but it's pretty good, definitely in our top three in the city. And afterwards we all file outside to the Sukkah.

Ok, this is where things get weird. First of all, these people are basically in a giant wind tunnel because they're pretty close to the Pacific, and second, their roof leaves a lot to be desired. Clearly the focus was on getting the kinderlach to show up and help, not on structural integrity. I'm not saying it's going to collapse on us, just that it's not much of a shelter. As we all stand outside and freeze our butts, the cantor announces that she and some other brave and hearty souls are going to spend the night out there, in the synagogue alley sukkah, in sleeping bags, and have a nice catered, hot breakfast the next morning.

I poke the GF. "If you ask me, they'd be better off skipping the breakfast and getting some space heaters."

We continue to discuss the matter as we shuffle back inside for the potluck. We sit next to an old man, who was singing very off-key during the kiddush but seems nice enough (he makes a point of telling us that the Two-Buck-Chuck won an award a few years ago, and we pretend he hasn't told us three times before), and two, later three, older yenta types.

One of them quickly annoys me. Overhearing us discussing the vegan options, she inquires as to our eating habits. I explain that I'm lactose-intolerant and the kind allowances SG has made for me in order to keep up with her love of cooking and baking.

"That's great," the woman says. "I don't eat dairy because of the cholesterol," she announces proudly.

Um... great?

Things get weirder. As she heard us discussing some of the Sukkot laws (the number of required sides, the issues with the roof, the potential loophole I'm sure other people have contemplated of building your sukkah underneath a skylight), she starts asking me, "So how do you know all this stuff?"


She gives me a stare. Who ever heard of such a thing?

A few minutes later, she's asking me about kashrut. "So, is soy cheese, like, you know, cheese? Is it dairy?"

Uh, not as far as I know.

"It depends how you're counting," Shiska Girlfriend interjects. "Some things have a little bit of dairy that don't really affect their nutritional count, or the Friar's digestion, but would technically be considered dairy under kashrut."

I feel a little twinge of pride coming on. Or something.

The woman nods, impressed or maybe just comatose. "So, is soy milk... is that dairy?"

Sigh. We run through this again, culminating with my trump card, "And since soy ice cream is pareve..."

"Oh, yeah. You know, I never thought of that. But then again, I don't eat ice cream, because it's not good for you."

Uh huh. Have another guilt-free blintz and tell me more.

The woman turns back to me. "So, do you keep kosher?"

"No." I exchange a look with SG. That was bizarrely direct.

"Do you observe the Sabbath?"

What is this, a kiruv workshop? Or a National Geographic Special? And who calls it the Sabbath? Are you the freaking reincarnation of Cotton Mather?

Finally, the woman asks me about my education. I tell her I went to a private high school in the city. "Oh, yes, I've heard of it. Now tell me, is this, uh... Catholic?"

At this point my eyes leap out of my skull, run across the table, and kick her in the nose.

"Sorry, sorry, I meant... uh, what's the word... a yeshiva?"

"No. Not even close. Nondemoninational, private... I guess about 1/3 Jews. Very, very, Reform, Jews."

And with that we ran off, to get our bus.

Upon reflection, I'm thinking maybe the woman was reacting to my clothes- I was wearing gray slacks, a white button-down shirt, and a navy blue sports jacket. Plus my new, super-Ashkenazi-style yarmulke.(which SG was kind enough to modify for my tiny pinhead). Maybe this already demonstrably-not-very-sharp woman just got really confused and figured that anyone with a hat that tall had to be frum?

Whatever. The point is that I should probably only use my newfound Chabad impersonation powers for mischief and entertainment. Who's down for crashing a shiur?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Welcome to Bnei Hippy! I hope you like hugs!

I feel guilty about this one, I really do. From the time I was about thirteen or so and feeling guilty that I hadn't been Bar Mitzvahed, the one place that I thought might be a good match for me was the local Reconstructionist shul in town. Unfortunately, I was still too intimidated at that point to poke my nose in, and before I could get over my Jew-fright the shul wound up losing its lease and leaving for greener pastures when I was in high school, and I could never find where its new home was.

Recently, however, in my process of recording all the shuls in town and marking them up on Google Maps ("Brit HaMoshiach" has a Christmas tree), I managed to find the Recons. Hooray! For years I've been talking up Reconstructionism to my folks, especially Abbot Yid, who's not at all convinced by the God thing:

Me: "It's a Judaism without God, sort of."

Him: "Wait a minute, but how the hell can that work? Who do you pray to?"

Me: "You sort of pray in the moment. You pray for the experience of praying. If you want to pray to God that's fine, too, but it's focused on what you're getting out of it."

Him: "Hmmm... But I don't think I get anything out of it. That's why we send you off on the High Holidays to pray for all of us."

Needless to say, I was excited to check it out with Shiska Girlfriend. Only things didn't exactly go as planned (seasoned readers will note that this seems to be a trend with us).

First of all, the place was not Reconstructionist. It turned out it was Jewish Renewal. This isn't an issue, per se. I've heard the Recon/Renewal divide described as head versus heart (not unlike the Hasidim/Misnagdim feuds, come to think of it, except on the non-Orthodox, post-modern end of the spectrum). Anyway, I don't object to mysticism, though I think that when it boils down to it, I'm a little too cerebral to take that stuff too seriously. I'm much more interested in analyzing the phenomenon of mysticism than the actual practice. This was great in college but presents something of a challenge in dealing with people that claim to be bona fide mystics or pseudo-mystics.

Anyway, some of the issues I had with this place was that the Jewish content seemed rather low. Even worse, the Jewish stuff didn't seem to have been replaced by much of anything. At least the Jew-Bus have an interesting syncreticism going on. These people had... uh... hang on, let me check my notes...

Ah. got it. Hugging.

No, seriously. The whole thing was apparently one giant support group, led by the congregation's new Rabbi. Most of the "service" part of Kabbalat Shabbat consisted of butchering the psalms (nigguns are great, only including one or two lines of each psalm and then "lai-lai-lai-ing" the rest for a minute and a half is not). I did think that setting up a whole table full of small cup-candles and having everybody light one was an interesting way of including everyone there in candle-lighting, but that was about it as far as positive points.

Shiksa Girlfriend was so perturbed by the experience, it was enough to make her sit down and pound out a few lines herself:

Last week we crashed a parent’s social group masquerading as a congregation. Bnei Hippy meets in a large room rented from Temple Burning Bush normally used for large social events. Some of the round tables that fill the room are pushed to the side and the chairs are gathered in a loose circle around a low table topped with a tray containing two sets of candlesticks and about twenty votive candles.

As the congregation begins to filter in, I notice that they seat themselves in a pattern governed by the same rules as collage classes. The Friar and I had many “conference” classes at college where the professor and students sat in a circle and thus subverted the lecturer/listener dynamic. In theory. In practice, the students would seat themselves in order to create the division. As the seats filled, the two seats to either side of the professor would remain empty as long as space permitted, creating an effect similar to placing the professor at the head of the table.

So it was at Bnei Hippy, despite the absence of the bima, the congregants refused to collapse the divisions of rank and left the rabbi her own side of the circle, with only her drum for company. The drum was quite large, of the style inspired by African drums, with a hourglass shape and an irregular hide tightened by ropes. The sound was mellow enough to meld with the singing and I was not ungrateful for the rhythmic help during unfamiliar songs. At the same time, the use of an African drum as part of Kabbalat Shabbat carries, at least for me, a tinge of cultural imperialism.

But I’m being unfair, because, I would bet, that, for this crowd, that particular type of drum is more evocative of Woodstock, drum circles, and their own youth. I can say this with some authority because the congregation of Bnei Hippy seemed to be former hippies/counterculturalists who became professionals, started families, and now conceive of themselves primarily as parents.

This manifests not only in the song/poem written by a member concerning the joy of parenthood and the special bond between parents and children[ Note from the Friar: getting community involvement to write your own siddur is great. Writing your own specific family prayer which then gets inserted into every Friday night service by virtue of you being head of the siddur committee seems to verge on the masturbatory], but also in the many interludes of discussion that peppered the service. The Friar and I have not reached the stage where we use huge lengths of fabric to tie infants to ourselves, and the rabbi was kind enough to take this into consideration.

Rabbi (benevolent smile at the circle): "And now we need to take this moment of Shabbat to consider the events of past week. Take a moment to think about a time this week when you felt that there was something loving you wanted to say to your child, but --something-- held you back."

"Turn now to your children and share you love with each other."

(The rabbi pauses as her glance passes over us again) "…. or, ..uh…. take a moment to contemplate your love for your own parents?" (big smile).

[Note from the Friar: I actually gave the Rabbi a little more credit here. Maybe she was trying to emphasize that the family dynamic works, like, both ways, man. This way she can get all the adults to be mindful of the fact that they ignore their own parents. I also considered that this could have been her attempt to include the ten or so kids there who were similarly excluded from the "tell your child you love them" speech.]

This style continued throughout the rest of the pauses for discussion. The Rabbi went around the room asking the parents what challenges they had faced this week, and what they had learned from them. One father congratulated his kids for having gone to Shakespeare camp for the third year in a row, noting that "they don't really like it, but we think they're good at it, and they had their performance tonight and they were really great. We think that teaches them the importance of perseverance."

Next the Rabbi asked the kids what they learned this week. They turned to their Dad. "We learned we really don't like Shakespeare camp."

"Yeah. Can we please stop going?"

He looked embarrassed and the Rabbi gracefully took the opportunity to move on. Another parent patted himself on the back for bringing his kid to shul and in having made shul an interesting enough place that he felt compelled to bring along two friends from school. This would have been more convincing if all three fourteen-year-olds hadn't looked like they were about to fall asleep in their chairs. "I think this is teaching him about tolerance," the Dad beamed.

Another thing the Rabbi asked people was what they did that was fulfilling. This was where the group really shined, as they listed a bunch of inane hobbies. "I like gardening." "I like horseback riding." "I get a kick out of music." "Being here is nice." "Yeah, Shabbat is totally nice! And being with you guys, that's nice too!" The grand finale came from a Mom in her 40s: "Just being around my family and community, that keeps me going." Um, great, but... what does any of this have to do with anything?

When the drumming and child-flaunting were finally over the group migrated to the coffee and cake. While the Friar and I are usually happy to stick around for the kibitzing, the snatches of conversation that drifted over were not promising:

“The best thing! Just like Lunchables, but made from organic ingredients with no preservatives!”

“Soccer camp starts Tuesday, so she’ll be missing one of rehearsals for…”

“And it turns out it’s pinkeye! Again!”

So we fled. Just not the place for us.

Yeah, maybe in a few years. Hopefully never. Well, now we have two reasons to never go anywhere near Burning Bush again. Many thanks to the kind and patient (and easily badgered) Shiska Girlfriend for finally writing something down for the blog. More to come.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

How Inclusive, really?

Last Friday, the SG and me were foiled by the usually competent public transportation system. The bus we were going to take to go to "Da Minyan" (more on that another time) blew a tire, and another one seemed a long time in coming. So we tried to walk to catch another bus to get to Beth Elderly. No luck, just as we got to the stop, the damn thing peeled off.

Great. So we decided we'd go to a new shul, one that I'd heard about but hadn't gotten a chance to visit yet: Temple GLBT, or, as a high school friend once called it (in whispered tones) "The Gay One." Of course, not knowing its exact address, we had to be assisted by Shiska Girlfriend's kid sister way back in another timezone. Let me tell you, there is nothing like yelling transliterated Hebrew into your cell phone in a crowded bus station to get attention from the old Chinese ladies.

So we hop on the next bus and head down. The architecture was very cool; the shul is a giant rectangle and the sanctuary is on the third floor, giving it a great vaulted ceiling and pretty cool windows. It was nice seeing the sun set as we went through Kabbalat Shabbat.

But, I admit it, I was kind of weirded out about going to "that shul," particularly as the GF and I are, as she puts it, "painfully straight."

Let me explain. I have gay godparents, I have bisexual and transgendered friends and acquaintances. Sure, for a while I was uncomfortable with my brother painting his toenails, but he grew out of it. So it's not an issue of not being ok with GLBT people having their own space or activities, it's a question of whether the shul is "GLBT-friendly", or specifically for GLBTs. Just like the term "Gay-Straight Alliance" can either mean exactly what it says, or can be a code for, "this is where the queer kids hang out, everybody else just beat it." Those were some of the anxieties running through my head as we headed inside.

For the most part, my fears were unfounded. There were same-sex couples there, but we weren't the only male-female pairing, either. We didn't get any dirty looks; in fact they were among the friendliest folks we've encountered so far. And I was very impressed with their prayerbook: giant Kinko's tomes with a ton of Shabbos songs in the back, a bunch of which I'd never heard of, and fascinating commentary on a lot of the liturgy from a GLBT perspective. Originally, I was sort of turned off by the (IMO) strange decision to offer three or four different versions of prayers (traditional, "mystical," gender neutral or alternative, etc...) which just seemed sort of confusing and reinforced the fact that everybody wasn't on the same page, literally, but about halfway into the service it stopped being so noticeable. I also appreciated that their custom is to not take out any traditional liturgy, only add new and optional stuff (with the possible exception of some gender stuff, I think). Particularly moving was mentioning AIDS in a Misheberach prayer, and a special prayer for "our GLBT brothers and sisters" that suffered in the Middle Ages, Holocaust and today, that gave a whole new spin on the concept of suffering and persecution in Jewish history. It was a real insight into how it must be for GLBT Jews to have their history and suffering not be acknowledged in liturgy or popular Jewish consciousness, and made me all the more appreciative of the fact that they had figured out a way to include this without getting dragged into the reverse; ignoring or excluding straight Jews because they didn't quite share in the same narrative.

Also, SG really liked that their siddur had Hebrew, transliteration, AND English translation, so that she had something to read while the rest of us were doing our thing.

What I like most about these guys was that they seemed to have achieved a nice balance between their gender or sexual orientation identities and a strong background in Jewish practice and tradition (at least in the context of the service). It wasn't so much, a "If you think about it, Moses was probably gay, man" thing as the congregation having their own particularistic bent on Judaism and Jewish history. And once you got past the initial liturgy weirdness, it was essentially a fairly traditional service, much more traditional than, say, Temple Touched by God's re-enactment of the Levites' serenade (plus a violin for that "Old Country" flavor).

The cantor's drash was pretty interesting. She spoke about health care (there was some tie-in to Isaiah I didn't quite catch) and how the shul was working, in concrete ways, to get affordable healthcare for every city resident. I was happy to hear about some actual Reform tikkun olam in practice, as opposed to say, Temple Touched by God, which mostly consisted of bitching about Republicans and then talking about how we could supposedly raise awareness about global warming by "checking out" some website.

Things that bugged me:

- Kabbalat Shabbat lasted, literally, all of fifteen minutes. Just a personal thing, but I think those psalms and melodies are really beautiful, and I was annoyed that they skipped most of them or excerpted the hell out of them. It left more time for Maariv, but the reality is, I strongly prefer K.S. to Maariv, for exactly the reasons given above.

- Having 10 different versions of the Amidah. I realize this verges on the hypocritical, given my usual liberal Judaism bias. Maybe it was just seeing them all together that did it. Anyway. I don't object on principle, it just seemed weird in practice. Not sure what the answer is there.

- The siddur having like, ten million eclectic and obscure Yiddish & Hebrew songs is somewhat undercut when the cantor picks one and then has to stop halfway through because she doesn't know the tune.

- This is the second drash in a Reform temple I've visited that's incorporated a popular movie. I know Sicko is in theaters, but that's not why I come to shul. I also, incidentally, didn't come so you could tell us about all the great work you guys do and how I need to come to your town hall meeting. This is a drash, not an announcements section of your newsletter. Less plugging, more Torah. Come on, guys, it's not like Jews don't have anything in the tradition about healing the sick.

To conclude, nice bunch of guys, I'd definitely check it out again, and I'm glad to see there are Reform shuls that aren't quite as "off" as Touched by God. But I don't think I'd make it my regular stomping-ground.


Friday, July 6, 2007

Coming Out

The big news of the previous Shabbat is that SG "came out" to the gabbai of Beth Elderly toward the end of the potluck. We had previously discussed how she wanted this to go. She originally wanted me to talk to the gabbai for her, but I wasn't entirely comfortable with this- not the least of which since I wasn't quite sure what his reaction would be. In some ways I figured that, if his response was less than positive, it might be better if he was just talking to random shiska rather than said shiksa flaunting the apple-cheeked bochur she was taking captive with her back to Babylon.

I played wingman for her by talking to a few of the elders so they weren't all swarming around her, since I figured that would make things even more stressful.

* * *

This isn't the first time SG has had to deal with the "passing" issue. In fact early on, when her parents heard that she was shul-hopping with me, one of their first questions was, "Do you pass?", to which she responded, "it's kind of hard not to." The general assumption tended to be that you were Jewish unless you mentioned otherwise, and unless there was a reason, she usually preferred to keep such information private. At our monthly Carlebachian minyan, she occasionally reminded the organizers that she wasn't Jewish, just to make sure that she wasn't causing a halachic problem for anyone.

In college, I had a Lovely Orthodox Professor who had become a baal teshuvah and married Super-Mussar Hubby. She regularly invited SG, myself, and my dear roommate to her house for Shabbos. LOP was great but SMH was sort of a jerk (and very right-wing), so we could always count on a fun time when going there.

For SG's first time, we came early and were a few of several guests, including a frum female high school student spending the weekend at LOP's house while checking out colleges.

The troubles started almost as soon as we arrived. LOP knew SG wasn't Jewish but we didn't know who she had told, and, not knowing their position on interdating, SG was eager to avoid problems. LOP's friends asked SG if she wanted to do candlelighting. SG looked at me. This was in the days before we had even bought a transliterated bencher. I could barely get through the brocha, much less SG. She politely declined. In the meantime, I wandered around the living room to give the women their space (I could give a hoot about kol isha, but there was no reason to make an issue of it. While doing this, I noticed that the high school student had gone down to the basement, presumably to be in her own "women's section." A little strange, but her prerogative.

SMH came home with a buddy from the local Chabad shul and we sat down to dinner. SG and I sat on the far end of the table, right next to the student. SG was wearing an outfit that wasn't entirely tznius (darn collarbones) and was absent-mindedly rubbing my arm. Things that, in our circles, would barely get noticed, but to the high school student, we might as well have been dry-humping on top of the challah. At one point, she asked SG, "How do you guys know each other?" SG replied, without really thinking, "Oh, he's my boyfriend." I couldn't tell if it was the dating thing itself or her unabashed candor that caused the poor girl to go into a fit of blushing.

Over dinner, SMH started picking on my friends a little. My roommate comes from a pretty serious Conservative family and really knows his shit- Hebrew, Talmud, he knows it all. And he consciously made a decision to go the route of the ritually observant but ideologically apikorosdik Jew, which tends to get him noticed by folks like SMH. Also, they both love to argue, in part because they both like to show off. I also suspected that my roommate enjoyed going to SMH's house because it gave him a chance to play the heretic, whereas in college he tended to be considered one of the most "religious" students on campus (ah, the folly of labelling!)

SMH and his buddy noticed that my roommate could say the brochas in a perfect accent and without even looking at the benchers. The buddy commented, "Did you used to be observant?" Not-so-hidden subtext: You know what you're doing but weren't at the only "real" shul in town, mine. What gives?

Roommate: "I was raised in a Conservative household."

Buddy: "Really? Where?"

Roommate: "X."

SMH: "X? Frum highschooler, isn't that where your family lives?"

FH: "Yup."

SMH: "Did you guys know each other?"

FH: "I don't think so. Did you go to Machmir Orthodox High? That's the only Jewish school there."

Roommate: "Um, actually, there are a bunch of other Jewish schools. I went to middle-of-the-road Conservative Day School."

FH looks like a deer in the headlights. My roommate decides to be kind and let it go.

Buddy: "Well, you should really drop by the shul sometime."

SMH: "Or the kollel. That goes for you, too, Friar Yid."

Me: "Oh, I'll definitely think about it."

SMH's attention then turned to poor SG. "So, I hear you're from the South."

SG: "Yup."

SMH: "Was it difficult living in [suburban Southern hellhole]?"

SG: "Well, it didn't have any of the benefits of a big city. We had to drive across state lines to see Fahrenheit 9/11, for instance."

SMH: *Clearly miffed at her movie choices.* "Yes, but, did your family find it challenging to stay involved with the community there?"

At the c-word, SG tenses up a little. Did LOP really not tell him? She decides to play along.

"No, we mostly kept to ourselves."

SMH: "Uh huh. Did you work in the summers?"

SG: "I worked for years at a barebecue restaurant."

Buddy: "Really? Beef?"

SG: *Confused* "Uh, no. Pork, mostly."

The whole table inhales. SG looks around, a little freaked out.

Buddy: "Um, was that an issue for you?"

SG: "Well, I was a vegetarian at the time."

Buddy: *Relieved* "That's good."

I forget what actually did it, but right as SMH was about to point-blank ask SG about her family's observance level, she cracked.

"I just have to be honest, I'm not actually Jewish."

Again, the table did a collective inhale. All eyes turned to SMH. He stood up and hit the table with his fist. "Why I never! And I can't believe nobody told me!..."

He trailed off and chuckled. LOP shot him a death-glare. The guests all had a belly laugh and tucked into the brisket. SMH leaned back in his seat and grinned at the oil print of the Chofetz Chaim on his wall like they had shared a private joke.

When we got home, SG said she didn't really mind. "It's not like I didn't know what I was getting into."

She took it a lot better than my parents. Mother Superior Yid said that people like SMH were an embarrassment to Jews everywhere. Abbot Yid told me I owed SG an apology and made me promise to never take her back there (which I broke within three weeks, if only because LOP was so nice and SMH was irresistible in his narishkeit comments).

* * *

With all this background, I was a little nervous for SG as she went up to talk to the gabbai. Even though Beth Elderly has a great reputation for welcoming everybody, who knows how the individual congregants feel, especially those who are old-school?

Apparently, I needn't have worried. SG thanked the gabbai for asking her up on the bimah. He grinned. "I have a tough job of keeping track of who goes up to the bimah and remembering who does and doesn't like it. I'm glad that you enjoyed it."

SG: "I just thought you should know that I'm not actually Jewish."

The gabbai chuckled at her behind his rimless glasses and said in a thick German accent, "Who knows? Maybe you'll convert someday. I don't really care." He walked off to get a cup of coffee, and she squeezed my hand. Another mini-milestone.

It's nice when the truth sets you free.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Fun Times and a Milestone at Beth Elderly

A few weeks ago Shiksa Girlfriend and I went to a very nice, but fairly small Conservative shul, largely populated by Holocaust survivors. Awesome history, but the median age there is something like 60. Our unofficial name for it is Beth Elderly.

Everyone was very nice to us (surprised, in fact, to see people they'd never met before), and were even impressed at our ability to "read" Hebrew (magic transliterations to the rescue). As it turned out, our visit coincided with a community potluck, which we particularly appreciated because I am a Jew and SG is a foodie and naturally, we love free food.

We went again last week, SG bringing a cake she had made. (Since I'm lactose intolerant, it was a vegan cake.)

So we show up, and again, people seem very surprised to see us. One old man stares at us. "It's not potluck tonight."


Luckily, when it comes to cake, Beth Elderly isn't too picky. After services we had a fun nosh, which included comments from several folks on the leadership committee asking us pointed questions about how to attract "youth" like us.

A student who usually goes to the local Hillel opined, "I like text study, I've always enjoyed that." I nodded, thinking back to my college days studying the Zohar, or as I affectionately referred to it, "Judaism on Crack." I also endured an internal wince, as I thought back to a friend's critique of David Hartman- "He thinks text study will save the Jewish people. I've got news for him. It won't."

"We also like Carlebach singing," SG said. Someone shrugged. "You should try Minyan X." I noted the name and we refrained from giving any further suggestions.

Far more entertaining were the services themselves. First, the gabbai thanked us for showing up, commenting that it would "help us make a minyan quicker." At the m-word, SG shot me a look. I shrugged. During Kabbalat Shabbat, the gabbai popped up again, and in a thick accent, asked us if we'd open the ark. He handed SG a kippah that looked like it had been a napkin in a previous life. Again, invisible arrows stabbed me in the face. I squeezed her hand.

Finally, the gabbai motioned to us and we went up, opened the doors, then closed them and took our seats. Her face was a little flushed, but SG did just fine.

Afterwards, people were asking us a little about ourselves. SG told them she was from a particular Southern state, and lo and behold, one of them had actually visited that city before! "Were you involved with the community there?"

I can see the imaginary thought-bubble above SG's head. "SHIT."

"Uh, no, not really. I mean, there's a temple in town, but we mostly stuck to our own suburb."

"Hmm." The man seems a little sad he can't make more conversation out of their Jewish geography connection, but lets it go. It's sad but true; secular Jews are all too commonplace these days.

Before we left, we were talking with a young woman about our age, and SG let her secret out- "I'm not actually Jewish."

"Oh, that's cool," the woman said. "Neither is my Dad, and they still made my Mom President of the Shul."

We filed it away for later. Maybe on our next trip SG will come clean.

You look Familiar

A few weeks ago we went to a Conservative shul I'll call Temple Burning Bush, because I got the impression I could have spontaneously burst into flames and run screaming through the sanctuary and the 15-odd congregants wouldn't have blinked. The cantor was too deep and didn't sing so much as intone- loudly.

So the cantor is doing his thing (unassisted by the rabbi, I notice), and on the other side of the bimah there are two older gentlemen. One seems to very obviously be the rabbi- glasses, white beard, very Soloveitchik-looking. Behind him, in one of the "VIP seats" is some random guy that I assume is the synagogue President. The whole time the cantor is cantoring, these two guys won't stop whispering to each other. Shiska Girlfriend and I keep looking at each other. Exactly what issue could the Men's Club be having that is so urgent that they can't either keep quiet during the service or, god forbid, actually join in?

Cantor finishes, rabbi gives his drash. A damn good drash, actually. Even includes a joke about a rabbi, cantor, and synagogue president stranded on a desert island. (A different version is here. This rabbi's version was much hipper. It involved cannibals.) This further's my suspicion that the chatterbox is the President.

End of drash, end of service. The Rabbi comes up to us to introduce himself. Before he reaches us, the President shakes my hand.

"Good to see you again!"

Me: "Huh?"

"Yes, great to see you back here. I've forgotten your names, though."

Me: "Um... we've never been here before."

Nothing fazes this guy. In his best used car salesman voice, he says, "Well there are two people that look just like you and have been here before!"

Yeah. No thanks, we don't want any.

We excuse ourselves from annoying President-man and introduce ourselves to the Rabbi- who reveals that, he, in fact, is a visitor! A rabbi, to be sure, but not from this shul. The guy who just tried to pretend he knows us, it turns out, is the rabbi.

Slightly surprised, I compliment the other rabbi on his drash. He grins. "Actually, I didn't even know I was speaking tonight." Apparently the back and forth on the bimah was Rabbi 1 opting out of drash duty. Nice.

This reminded me of a story circulating around my college the first few weeks of school- a philosophy professor gave a brilliant lecture about Plato, and a student came up to him afterwards at the podium to ask him if he could have a copy of his notes. The professor shrugged. "I don't really have notes, he says."

The student looks down at the lectern and sees a small piece of paper. It says, "Talk About Plato."

Needless to say, Temple Burning Bush was a bust. The search continues.

Wherefore art thou, RW reform?

A modified re-post from a few weeks ago on Friar Yid:


I don't give a hoot about halacha. I just don't. I wasn't raised with it, I don't see any good reason to follow it, and I certainly don't consider it binding. So, despite my father's many, many freakouts any time he sees me with a yarmulke on my head ("This is not a fucking shul!"), my position on Jewish law (and the presence of a shiska girlfriend) should demonstrate to him that there's no danger in me running off to Chabad anytime soon.

That said, last night I went to a Reform Kabbalat Shabbat. And it just wasn't me.

The shul in question, Temple Touched by God, is an institution unto itself, one of the largest synagogues on the West Coast. I prepared SG by telling her it was the city's Jewish equivalent of a Mega-Church. This, understandably, did not really endear her to it.

And indeed, it was. The whole time I was sitting there, I felt very, very uncomfortable (not unlike the last few times I've been to Reform services, come to think of it). To be fair, this isn't about ideology. It's largely about style. In regards to style, though, this was totally NOT my thing. The transliteration wasn't what I was used to (you-don-'t ne-eed to hy-ph-en-ate ev-ery wo-rd); and the whole thing seemed like a very weird combination of a couples mixer meets Jewish summer camp.

Sorry, did I say camp? Guess what the rabbi's sermon was about. See, it turns out evangelical Christians are scary. Fine, tell me something I don't know. Do we really need to spend the whole drash talking about a movie you saw last week? And comparing evangelicals, even the crazy dominionists, to Hamas? Yeah, fine, they train their kids to hate the government and non-believers. It's not like this is an exclusive thing here. Settlers in Hebron do that, too.

And it was particularly surreal hearing the rabbi complain about weirdo Christians given the fact that the music sounded like something from a Pentecostal fund-raiser (or light-Christian rock music station), right down to the- and this part scared the crap out me- weird finger waving at the end of the song. Sort of like a cross between this stuff and jazz hands.

Me: "Are they being ironic?"
SG: "I can't tell."

It's weird, because I usually spend all sorts of ridiculous energy defending Reform to bashers on the net, and one of the most regular cheap shots they toss out is that it's like church. Well, at this point I can say, it's not High Reform- which was certainly designed to emulate the German Lutherans of the day- but the comparisons are definitely there. The place I saw last night looked pretty damn charismatic Protestant to me. That's not a dig, it's just an observation. And it's not what I want.

I'm glad Reform exists. It needs to exist. (Not unlike my feelings about Orthodoxy- I would never choose it, and I have plenty of issues with it, but good for them.) And I haven't ruled it out yet. But at this point, my dabbling in Carlebachian Conservative Judaism has ruined me: I need a more traditional service. So the search continues.

Money quote of the night upon leaving the shul:

Me: So, that was different.
SG: Yeah.
Me: Not to offend them- or you- but...
SG: What?
Me: It was just so... Christian!
SG: Wait, why are you lumping me in with them?

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Why Another Blog, you ask? Especially when you get barely any readers on the other one? Vanity, I suppose. My present blog is useful for many things, but I decided I wanted to have another space that could be slightly more contemplative, down to earth, and consist of other things besides yelling at people on the Internet. Also I had come up with the name about a month ago and was dying for the chance to use it.

Who I am: You might say I've got some Jewish baggage. For various reasons (some mentioned before), I was raised in a totally nonobservant home as, essentially, a marginally cultural Jewish atheist. We had a mezuzah on our door, did Hanukkah every year and a few times went to some seders, and that was it. In high school I started going to a friend's Reform shul for High Holidays, much to the bemusement of my thoroughly secular parents. My father used to tell me to "go pray for the rest of us."

In high school I became interested in Hasidism, though, for reasons which will become clearer, I never seriously considered becoming frum (not that this has stopped my family from frequently freaking out at the slightest mention or indication of me doing anything Jewish).

So where does a former atheist (I thought the Messiah, like an afterlife, was an exclusively Christian thing)-turned firm agnostic (my honest opinion is that us limited humans can never truly know whether God's out there or not, we simply don't have the capacity) turn?

I knew from the start that, despite major attractions to the culture (and, in some ways, the communities) of Orthodox Judaism, I would never want to be Orthodox, because the truth is that I don't care about halakha. It just isn't something that moves me. I think a lot of it, frankly, is downright stupid, and while I respect observant Jews' right to do things their way, have no interest in following their lead. This, to a lesser degree, is the same problem I have with Conservative Jews- I understand their process, but the necessity of needing to rewrite or interpret halakha is, again, not something that concerns me. My eating shrimp (and if I have anything to say about it, I'll die eating dim sum or sushi) is not going to be determined by a vote of rabbis, it's just not. I like it and see no good reason to act otherwise. If I honestly believed that eating treif was a sin at all (which I don't), much less one so serious it could land me in whatever hell-construct Jews are threatening each other with this week.

So what about Reform? Well, I suppose ideologically, I fall somewhere on the Reform-Reconstructionist spectrum, with the one thorny point being that during college I started going to a monthly Carlebach-style minyan, which I absolutely loved. I loved the Hebrew, I loved the singing, it was just fantastic.

Problems: I don't speak, read, or understand Hebrew. One of my most treasured Jewish possessions is the transliterated Kabbalat Shabbat a Hebrew-literate friend wrote for me. Hopefully this will be something I can address in the future.

So I like Hebrew, and while I'm intruiged by Hasidism, I'm not particularly interested in pretending to be a hippy-dippy pseudo-mystic. If you want to talk mysticism, let's sit around with some friends and talk about how godamn trippy the Zohar is- I spent a year doing that, and it was great fun. But I'm looking for a place that moves my heart without insulting my brain. Reform autonomy is great, but I'm not looking for something that feels so watered-down as to be meaningless. (To be fair, some of this is probably projection from friends of mine with poor views of Reform.)

The one big wake-up call on this I had at a particular Reform shul that, almost from the very beginning I set foot in, just felt so wrong. It was all of the negative stereotypes about Reform being "churchy" without even the anthropological interest that would have come from an actual High Reform service. The straw that broke the camel's (me) back (brain) was when the rabbi delivered his drash on the bimah without a yarmulke on.

Talking with my friend on the way from the shul- "They can do whatever they want, and intellectually I know it shouldn't make a damn bit of difference to me, but... it just was so weird!"

Then there's Recon and Renewal. Haven't investigated them so much at the moment, but pretty interested- though again, my preference would be for interesting and meaningful "folk-ways" (which is a much more attractive and intellectually honest way of viewing traditions and mitzvot since anything I'm doing I'm CHOOSING to do anyway, not being commanded to) as opposed to hippy-dippy-ness or something ripped off from the Buddhists down the street.

Now, for the biggest wrinkle. My dear, dear, Shiska Girlfriend. Love her dearly, hoping to spend many, many years with her. She was raised a nominal Christian (one of the saner sects of Protestants) but would have been a U.U. if I hadn't snagged her into coming with me to the Carlebach minyan, which she also liked quite a bit. She doesn't plan to convert anytime soon, if ever. Fair enough. What's important to me is living a Jewish life and having a Jewish family and home (on my, not Rabbi Amar's, terms).

So join us, why not, on our amusing tale of shul-hopping. We hope to entertain, and eventually, find a spiritual home that works for us.