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.