A Lesson on Comfort (Parashat Shimini)

March 17, 2014
Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire (Matthäus Merian the Elder)

Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal strange fire, which God had not enjoined upon them.  And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.  Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Eternal meant when by saying:

    Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
    And gain glory before all the people.”

And Aaron was silent. -Leviticus 10:1-3

Aaron’s sons have improvised a ritual that resulted in catastrophe. Moses responds by “comforting” his brother Aaron with words that offer no comfort whatsoever.

There are pairs and parallels in the passage: two sets of brothers stand before God. Two sets of brothers mess up. Nadab and Abihu bring “strange fire” and are killed by another [strange] fire. Moses and Aaron confront the disaster. Moses, who described himself as “slow of tongue” gives a speech. Aaron, the man who is first mentioned in Exodus 3 as one who “speaks exceedingly well” is starkly silent.

It’s horrifying and unsatisfying, a passage that we will forever puzzle at, trying to plumb its depths.

On a human level, I am struck by Moses’ insensitivity. He responds to the horror by quoting and interpreting God in a particularly heartless way: “this is God’s plan!”  Moses is not comforting Aaron; he is comforting himself that this horrible event somehow makes sense.  Aaron is silent.

There is something in us human beings that wants to make sense of dreadful events. When we are caught in that impulse, we say terrible things such as:

  • “This is God’s plan!”
  • “He’s in a better place!”
  • “At least she’s not in pain anymore.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”

What Jewish tradition teaches us is that the best way to comfort a mourner is to be quietly present. Sitting with a grieving person and being present to them is both difficult and easy. We have to let go of our need to explain, our need to make better, and instead simply be there. We have to sit with the mystery and the pain and endure, so that the mourner does not have to sit, like Aaron, silent and alone.

Moses was a great and good man, but even he had his off days. It is one of the beauties of Torah that those are not hidden from us: our greatest leaders had bad days, and we can learn even from those.

Image: Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650) Public Domain


Never Say This When You Welcome a Visitor!

February 28, 2014

Conversation

You may or may not be able to tell from my “voice” here on the blog, but my speaking voice includes a Southern accent. I have lived in California for over 25 years, but my Tennessee accent remains. It fades in and out, depending on my emotions and my energy level, but it’s always there.

When I first moved west, I tried to get rid of it. I was making fair progress, when an acquaintance said, “I’m SO glad that you are losing that ignorant-sounding accent.” I replied in my best Southern-lady voice, “Martin, you have just guaranteed that I will go to my GRAVE with this ignorant-sounding accent.”  In that moment, I decided that I’d rather be myself, southern accent and all.

Odd cultural fact: I get more comments about my accent from other Jews than from any other group of people I encounter. They comment in different ways: they ask where I’m from, or say that they “love the cute twang,” or jokingly speak to me with an exaggerated “Beverly Hillbillies” sort of accent. I used to shrug it off; lately I’ve come to realize that regardless of the intent behind them, all are “micro-aggressions:” subtle ways of reminding me that I’m an outsider.

As I became more conscious of these micro-aggressions, I also began to notice the ways in which we inflict them on many other people. Well-meaning members of a congregation welcome the visitor in a wheelchair by talking about wheelchairs.  If a visitor has an unusual accent, they are questioned about it. Dark-skinned visitors are quizzed for their story: not born Jewish, right? All of this is done with the idea that it is friendly, but it’s counterproductive. Commenting on differences, even in a “friendly” way, is not a friendly act. I realized to my chagrin that I, too, had the habit of making small talk out of the very things that would make a person feel least at home.

There have been times and places when Jews had good reason to be nervous about strangers, but 21st century America isn’t one of them. If we want to be truly welcoming of newcomers, if we want them to come back and be a part of our community, we need to unlearn this nervous habit.

The best way I’ve found to unlearn it is summarized in three words: Seek Common Ground. Instead of commenting on the things that make a person different, I look for topics that we have in common. I can start with that old chestnut, the weather (we do have it in common, after all) or with a shared experience, “I enjoyed the music tonight, what did you think of it?” but the important thing is that it is something shared.

Shared experience is what binds a community together. By offering another person a conversation about what we have in common, I build my community. We can still disagree about plenty of things, but by looking for the common ground, we give them the most basic message of welcome: we assume that they’re “one of us.”

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It Was Very Good: Judaism and Disability Rights

February 23, 2014
Two activists, two rabbis: all "very good."

Two activists, two rabbis: all “very good.”

 .וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד

These words from Genesis 1 are simple and eloquent:

God saw ALL that God made, and behold, it was VERY GOOD.

This little line is key to many areas of Jewish thought, but none more so than in the arena of human rights. Human beings are all equal, whatever our race, whatever our gender, whatever our abilities, whatever our sexual orientation, we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and we are part of creation, which is tov me’od, very good.

This is especially important in the realm of disability rights. Most of us are familiar with the concepts of racism or sexism, and there’s general agreement that those are wrong. But then we look at a person in a wheelchair, or a person with a hearing loss, or a person with developmental, mental, or emotional disabilities, and we forget that they, too, are “very good” just as they are. This is “ableism” and it is pernicious.

Ableism whispers that the women in the wheelchair whose speech is slurred has nothing important to say. Ableism suggests that the developmentally disabled man who makes us uncomfortable should not be visible in our congregation. Ableism suggests that when accommodating a person is “too expensive” or “too much trouble” or “too uncomfortable” we can write it off with a shrug. Ableism suggests that some people’s feelings are less important, that their lives are less important, and that it is OK to write off certain human beings because gee, they are a lot of trouble.

Ableism is wrong from a Jewish point of view because it flies directly in the face of our core belief that all human beings are equal, and all creation is very good.

Jewish tradition has a rocky history around issues of disability rights. While in Leviticus 19:14 we are commanded “not to curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind,” two chapters later we read  Leviticus 21: 16-21, which outlines physical requirements for the priests who will lead public worship. The priests who lift their hands in worship and participate in the sacrifices must be physically perfect. Maimonides explains this rule by writing “most people do not estimate a person by his true form, but by his limbs and his clothing, and the Temple should be held in the highest regard” (Guide to the Perplexed, 3:45.)  In other words, people are ableist, and this requirement is in place because of our shortcomings, not because there’s anything wrong with the person with a disability.

Ableism is as bad as racism, as bad as sexism, as bad as homophobia, as bad as ageism, as bad as any other “-ism.” We can learn better. Just as we can fight racism and other prejudices in our hearts and in our behavior, we can fight ableism. We can change. We can demand change in our institutions and in our communities.

God saw what God had made, and behold it was very good. Isn’t it time we took God’s word for it?


What’s Klal Yisrael?

February 10, 2014
Israeli Olympians murdered in Munich in 1972

Israeli Olympians murdered in Munich in 1972

Members of the Jewish community of Sochi and Israeli delegates to the Olympics held a memorial for the 11 Israelis killed by terrorists in Munich at the Summer Games in 1972. [from a report in The Forward, 2/10/2014]

Jews live in lots of interesting places. The largest Jewish community in the world is the one in the State of Israel, and there are large communities in Los Angeles and New York City. But there are also small communities all over the world, little groups like the one in Sochi, Russia.

Wherever Jews live we feel a connection to other Jews everywhere and in every age. Thus the Jews of Sochi feel a connection to 11 Olympic athletes who were murdered in Munich 42 years ago. This is what Klal Yisrael means: “All of Israel.”  Klal Yisrael includes both the yeshiva boys and the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem,  the intermarried Jews and Chabadniks in Los Angeles, the totally secular and the totally Satmar in New York. It includes the Jews of Singapore and Nashville and Auckland, the Jews of Buenos Aires and, yes, Sochi.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by The Happy Rower

 


What to Wear to Synagogue?

February 8, 2014

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One of the most common searches that brings people to this blog is some version of “what to wear:” what to wear to a bar mitzvah, what to wear to an Orthodox service, what to wear to a Jewish funeral, what to wear to a bris. That’s a difficult question to answer, given that a reader might be anywhere and standards differ depending on where you live. I’m in California, where dress is extremely casual. I grew up in the American South East, where dress tends to be more formal. I’ve lived in Israel, where I have rarely seen a man wearing a tie at any event, no matter how formal, and … well, you get the idea. Given the reach of the Internet, the question is unanswerable as asked.

However, I can offer you some guidelines:

1. What do people wear to church where you live? That is a reasonable guide for most synagogues other than Orthodox synagogues.

2. Neither men nor women will go wrong covering their heads in a synagogue, but it will not be required in most Reform synagogues. Conservative synagogues are likely to require it for men and recommend it for women. When in doubt, ask ahead or, if you get there and realize everyone else has their head covered, ask an usher for help. Synagogues where head covering is the norm will almost always have some for guests to borrow. At bar and bat mitzvah services, kippot [yarmulkes or skull caps] are often given away as souvenirs with the name of the bar mitzvah and the date inscribed inside.

3. For an event at an Orthodox synagogue, unless you have specific info to the contrary, men and women both should cover all bare skin: no shorts, no short skirts, no tight clothing, either. Generally speaking, when I attend services or events at an Orthodox shul, I wear a knee-length or longer skirt with a top or jacket that covers elbows and collarbones. Men should cover their heads with a kippah (usually there is a supply of them at the door) and it’s a safe bet for women to wear a hat. Yes, you will look like a visitor but that’s fine, you will look like a visitor who cares about the sensibilities of the community.

4. Funerals are uniformly the most solemn occasions in any location. Women: dress soberly,with absolutely no “bling” and very little skin on display. Black is always a safe choice. If you are going to the cemetery, wear sensible shoes even if they look clunky with your outfit; cemetery grass is thick and lush. If all your outfits are lowcut or sleeveless, wear a shawl or jacket to cover up. Men: if you have a suit and tie, wear it. If you don’t, come as close as you can.

5. For Bar and Bat Mitzvah services, look at the invitation. If it specifies dress, believe them. If your daughter is insisting that everyone else is wearing miniskirts and strapless bustiers to the bat mitzvah service, phone either the synagogue office or the mother of the bar mitzvah (WELL ahead of the big day) and ask about dress codes. The same applies if your son is adamant about jeans and a tee shirt. These services are solemn events, and going to them dressed like you’re going to a disco is disrespectful to the congregation and potentially an embarrassment to the family.

The party afterwards may be a whole different matter, with a separate dress code. Again, if you have questions, call the family well ahead of time.

6. Your clothing need not be expensive to be appropriate for any synagogue event. Member families at any synagogue are like most families in your community: they come from all income brackets. The main thing is to be clean, tidy, and modest in your dress.

 Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by LizMarie_AK


Jewish Music Resource Online! (Guest Blogger)

January 30, 2014

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I’d like to welcome another guest blogger to Coffee Shop Rabbi. Laurie Rappeport grew up in Detroit Michigan and made aliyah in 1983. She lives in Safed, a northern Israeli city known as the “City of Kabbalah.” Laurie worked in the Safed Tourist Information Center for 13 years and continues to remain active in the city’s tourism. She teaches about Israel and  Judaism online to American Hebrew School students

The evolution of the American Jewish community from the 17th century till today can be followed at the Lowell Milken Archives where the development of American Jewry is documented in a wide-ranging series musical and liturgical recordings.

Up until the mid-1800s the majority of America’s Jewish community was Sephardic. These were Jews whose families originally came from Spain and Portugal. They made their way to the New World via Holland. The first American synagogues, including Sherith Israel in New York, the Touro synagogue in Newport Rhode Island and the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue of Charleston South Carolina followed Sephardic liturgy and musical traditions. These synagogues were given names with deep messianic and kabbalistic meanings that reflected the prevalent belief that the upheaval in the Jewish world that had been brought about by the Inquisition and expulsions heralded the coming of the Messiah. The name of the first synagogue in Philadelphia, Mikve Yisrael, was taken from the name of Dutch Rabbi Ben Israel’s book of Kabbalah which reminded the Jews of Yirmiyahu’s promise “O Hope of Mikveh Israel, it’s deliverer in the time of trouble.”  Sherith Israel — the remnants of Israel — was named for the prophet Micah’s prophecy “I will bring together the remnant of Shearith Israel.” The formal name of the Touro synagogue is Yeshuat Yisrael which is based on the verse of psalms “the deliverance of Yeshuat Yisrael might come from Zion when the Lord restores the fortunes of His people Jacob will exult and Israel will rejoice.”

Several years ago researcher Edward Kritzler published an account of 16th century Jews who fled the Inquisition of their native lands to South America. The book, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom–and Revenge chronicles the riveting history of Sephardic Jews who settled in South America. When the Spanish and Portuguese governments brought the Inquisition to the New World they were forced to flee to areas which were controlled by the Dutch Republic and English crown. Many of these Jews settled in the Caribbean where they turned to piracy, both for economic reasons and as a strategy that allowed them to take revenge on the Spanish fleet.

Portuguese Jews who had managed to flee Portugal’s Inquisition established new communities in Holland. The Dutch Jewish leadership encouraged these people to immigrate to the New World and many of them did so, sailing to Brazil where, until 1654, Jews enjoyed the right to live and worship freely. In that year Portugal wrested control of the country from Holland and the Inquisition began to forcibly convert the Jews to Christianity. A group of 23 Jews fled and sailed from Recife, Brazil to New York where, over governor Peter Stuyvesant’s objections, were allowed to stay. They were soon joined by other Dutch Jews and in 1729 they established America’s first synagogue, Sherith Israel, which continues to serve the Sephardic Jewish community of New York.

By the mid-1800s German Jewish immigrants formed the majority of the American Jewish community. During this time the Reform Movement began to strengthen  in America and many of the old Sepharadi synagogues adopted German and Reform liturgy and customs. The Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue of Charleston was the first synagogue to make this change and its classical Reform traditions continue till today.

By the late 1800s the immigration of the Eastern European Jews began. Between 1882 and 1924 it’s estimated that 2 million Jews immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe. Most of these immigrants began to acculturate to their new home and to American society while maintaining many of their original prayer customs and synagogue liturgy. This era also saw the expansion of hazzanut — cantorial singing — and even those Jews who were no longer strictly observant loved the Ashkanazi hazzanut. Hazzanut that developed during these years continues to influence cantors of all streams of Judaism till today.

To learn more about the development of American Jewish music, visit the Lowell Milken Archives website. There you will find a treasury of musical recordings of all kinds.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by @Doug88888

 


How to Succeed at Congregational Life: Ten Tips

January 14, 2014
Everyone wants to feel they have a place at the table.

Everyone wants to feel they have a place at the table.

So, you’ve decided to dive in to Jewish life and find yourself a congregation. You find one not too far from home, and it looks like it might be a fit. Or maybe you’ve found the only synagogue in 100 miles, and whether it’s a fit or not, that’s what you’ve got.  A synagogue community over about 150 people is often a community of communities: an umbrella under which several different groups get together for smaller things, and then all come together for big stuff like High Holiday services. If you only go to the big stuff, you’ll never get to know anyone. These tips can help you integrate into your own synagogue community (and it’s never too late to try them.)

ATTEND. The single most important thing you can do to succeed at synagogue life is to show up!  Find one regular event at the synagogue and commit yourself to being there regularly – say, 75% of the time – for a decent block of time. If it’s a weekly event, give yourself three months.  It could be Friday night services, or Torah study, or an affinity group like Seniors, morning minyan or choir – but if you are a regular, you will make your own circle of friends and feel “at home.”

BE FLEXIBLE. Connecting with people different from yourself but with whom you have shared values can be fun and useful. Be open to connection with people outside your age bracket / income bracket / level of education / profession / marital status. Those friends will broaden your point of view, and they know stuff you don’t. If you don’t know what to talk about at first, talk about the activity at hand: Torah study, the speaker, Scrabble, etc.

ASK FOR ADVICE. The rabbi, the administrator (if there is one) and people on the temple board are good sources of information about finding a likely group to help you settle in. If they don’t have a group for “single thirty-somethings who love to cook” (or whatever your demographic) ask, “What’s the friendliest group around here?”

MAKE AN APPOINTMENT. It’s a great idea to make a “getting to know you” appointment with temple staff or clergy. Trying to build a relationship with them at the coffee hour after services is like trying to play cards in the middle of a tornado.

VOLUNTEER.  I have made some of my firmest friends around shul when I volunteered to be part of the group to clean up after an event. Set up for events often brings out anxieties, but at clean up time, everyone is glad  you are there.

BE PROACTIVE. If I am at a temple event and I feel like a wallflower, I look for other wallflowers and chat them up. I have met some wonderful people that way, and gotten to know people from all parts of the synagogue.

BE POSITIVE. We’re Jews, and Jews kvetch. But unless you want to be someone people avoid, try to balance your complaints with compliments. Longtime members are proud of their synagogue. Staff work hard. If someone messes up, of course you let them know. But if you also tell them  what they did right, they will be more able to hear  your excellent observations.

DON’T BE INTIMIDATED. As a fat disabled lesbian with a Southern accent, I have had people say plenty of dumb and/or annoying things to me at synagogue. Out of town, in an environment where I will never see those people again, I generally roll my eyes and move along. But in my congregation, I find that what works best for me is to be willing to do a little education.  I let people know what my limits are: “I don’t like to discuss my health with anyone but my doctor, thanks,” or “You know, Abe, I like you a lot, but I really hate it when anyone imitates my accent.” I tell people what I need: “I can’t take the stairs. Join me in the elevator?” When someone drags out the old saw, “My, you don’t look Jewish!” I just smile pleasantly and say, “This is what Jewish looks like in the 21st century.” When all else fails, my default line is, “Can we talk about something else?”

GIVE EVERYONE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. If someone says something stupid, odds are they didn’t stay up all night trying to figure out the best way to insult you.  If on the other hand, someone is consistently offensive or annoying, maybe you’re just oil and water. In any community of size, there are going to be a few people with whom you just don’t mix easily.  Whatever you do, beware the temptation to bond with others via gossip and mean talk about others. That stuff will leave you more isolated, not less.

BE A MEMBER, NOT A CONSUMER. After you’ve decided this is the shul for you, let “Be a member, not a consumer” be your guide. Keep your commitments to other synagogue members and staff. Treat people like you are going to see them again. If there’s a program or service you want, ask for it, but be willing to contribute to making it happen.

The staff are not the synagogue. The building is not the synagogue. The synagogue is You.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by FoodMayhem.com


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