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Archive for December, 2010

I’m very excited to be writing this post from a couch in my grandparents’ apartment in Israel–I’m visiting over winter break.

The last time I visited Israel was a year and a half ago. When I arrived here a week ago, I soon realized how much had changed within my family now that three of my cousins are in the army. They’ve been in the army since earlier this year, but before I arrived I didn’t quite grasp what that meant and how much it changes things. My grandfather is turning 80 this weekend (the reason for my family’s visit), and one of my cousins simply won’t be able to come to our party because he isn’t allowed to leave his base this weekend. The only communication I’ve had with him since being here was a quick phone-call. Another cousin is training to be a pilot, and while I will get to see him at the party, I have yet to see or hear from him during our entire visit here. The more my family misses the absent cousins, the more it seems we do nothing but talk about them and the work they’re doing.

What I’ve found strangest is seeing people my age prepare for the army right now. As I’ve been working on applying to college and thinking about what I want to do with my life, they’ve been going through testing to see how they’ll be serving their country for the next few years. Even though I know quite a few people going into the army here, it still surprises me that I’ll be starting college at least two or three years before them–and that while I’m spending time thinking about myself and trying to have a “college experience”, they’ll be learning to think less about themselves and instead to think about their unit and the goals of a group.

In America, I feel like I’m constantly being told that I’ll figure everything out in college–that I’ll make my best friends, discover a career path, and somehow manage to explore a million different new things. While I’m not sure all of that will happen (I hope it does), I do know that for many Americans, college is a chance to live away from your parents, feed yourself, and begin to get a taste of what independence feels like. But in Israel, you don’t live alone after high school–you live and work with a group of people all the time. Even the most raucous and rambunctious teenagers are forced to learn discipline. And, instead of trying to go as far away from home as possible (what? never!), many Israelis my age look forward to coming home every other weekend and getting a chance to take a break from their tiring work.

This trip has been kind of a reality check for me. I know America and Israel are very different countries with very different security needs and capabilities, and that at least in the foreseeable future, there won’t be a draft in America, so I’ll never have the experience of being required to serve my country. But I do think there’s something I can learn from the way Israelis look at serving in the army. I’ve talked to quite a few people about their impending draft and asked them why they didn’t just say they were crazy, get out of the draft, and go to college–and they looked at me like I was crazy. They told me that they want to serve because they know that Israeli soldiers, both fighters and those who do administrative work, allow Israel to flourish and prosper as it does–that without them, Israel could not be the what it is today. Even though to me giving up two or three years of my life seems like a burden, to many Israelis it is not just a duty, but something they look forward to.

That, I think, is what I want to remember as I head towards college. During senior year, I’ve often fallen into the habit of stressing so much about my college essays and potential acceptances that I forget to think about other people. I can only imagine what it will be like when I don’t have my family around me to yell at me and keep me somewhat grounded. And so, when that happens, I hope to think about my cousins and friend serving their country in Israel, and remember that there’s an entire world out there of needs and responsibilities that are bigger than myself–and that even though my needs may seem incredibly pressing, I need to take time to think about other people and my community as a whole.

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Yes, this is a “video for Hanukkah.” However, I still feel it is fitting to share on Christmas Eve.

First, because it’s catchy and fun. And second, because it brings up some of the things that American Jews experience during the holiday season: “I may not be filled with good old Christmas cheer, but calling me a scrooge just enhances seasonal fear.” I’ve never heard of “seasonal fear” before, but it seems to be a good term for the anxiety that some Jews have around Christmas time. Personally, I love Christmas lights and carols, and am perfectly comfortable spending December 24th eating Chinese food–I’ve never felt that Christmas was something I have to compete with or even have strong feelings about. Although, even by eating Chinese food, Jews have created a counter-tradition to compete with Christmas–so perhaps I’ve fallen prey to “seasonal fear” myself. Either way, this video is a nice, cheery reminder that even a Jew can appreciate the holiday season, even though it is essentially centered around Christmas.

That being said, I’m not advocating that all Jews go out, buy a Christmas tree, and decorate it, as the singer does in the video. To me, there is no reason why a Jew should have a Christmas tree–just because Hanukkah is “just for the kids” doesn’t mean that it has to be replaced with Christmas. Even though Christmas is a federal holiday and the US Embassy states that “some Christmas traditions have become American traditions,” Christmas is still, and certainly originated as, a religious holiday, and celebrating it as a non-Christian seems strange to me. To me, an American holiday is something whose premise is based in American history, like July 4th, not something whose premise people have forgotten or choose to ignore. I think there’s a value in having separate traditions for different religions, and not needing to blend them all into “American” traditions. It’s great to learn about and appreciate each other’s holidays, but I do not think that it’s necessary to actually celebrate them yourself–there’s nothing wrong with being different.

Even though I’m not celebrating Christmas, I’d like to say Merry Christmas to any reader who is–and to those who aren’t, I wish you a Shabbat Shalom, or simply, a good evening.

A final note: a favorite family tradition of mine is to participate in the DCJCC’s Day of Service on Christmas. This year, it was on Christmas Eve because of Shabbat, and I did not sign up in time to get a slot today. However, my entire family has volunteered in the past at homeless shelters and soup kitchens across DC, and it’s a great way to help ensure that someone else can have a great Christmas. I’d highly recommend looking into it if you’re in the DC area next Christmas.

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The Senate repeals Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Yes.

“I don’t care who you love,” Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said as the debate opened. “If you love this country enough to risk your life for it, you shouldn’t have to hide who you are.”

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This post is cross-posted at JWA

This weekend has been very exciting for me–the synagogue that my family belongs to is hosting Sara Hurwitz as a guest speaker. For those of you haven’t heard of her: after studying for seven years at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, she was given the title of “maharat” by Rabbi Avi Weiss (an Orthodox rabbi) in March 2009, and deemed a spiritual and halachic leader. Few people understood that maharat meant spiritual and halachic leader, and so Rabbi Weiss changed her title to rabba. However, the Rabbinic Council of America, a group of mainly modern Orthodox American rabbis, considered expelling Weiss from their group because of the similarities between the word “rabba” and “rabbi,” and so Weiss changed her title back to maharat. And that’s where we stand today—Hurwitz is now the head of Yeshivat Maharat, which trains women to become spiritual and halachic leaders in their communities. Hurwitz is also a full member of the rabbinic staff of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where she teaches, officiates at life cycle events and advises congregants on halachic issues.

You can probably see why I was so excited to meet her.

Last night, after dinner, Rabba (she still refers to herself as a rabba, and I’m certainly not one to object) Hurwitz invited the congregation to join her in a Talmudic case study of Yalta. Who is Yalta, you might ask? Great question–most of the congregation had never even heard of her (we’d only heard of the treaty). Yalta is a woman mentioned in various parts of the Talmud, known as being the wife of Rabbi Nachman, a famous rabbi, as well as the daughter of the exilarch (who is essentially the secular leader of the Jewish community). Hurwitz taught and analyzed with us three stories that mention Yalta, and then led us in discussion of the implications of her role as a female in the Jewish community.

The first source discussed the fact that Yalta was known to be carried on alanki on Shabbat, something that is usually prohibited (as it is seen as work). The source suggested that perhaps she was allowed to do so because she was needed quickly by someone in the community (a known exception to the rule), implying that she played a significant role in the community and had some kind of authority. Not such a small accomplishment for a woman living in Talmudic times.

The second source described a guest, Rabbi Ulla, coming to dinner at Rabbi Nachman’s house and refusing to pass a cup that had been blessed to Yalta after Nachman requested he do so. Instead, he cited a verse saying that “the fruit of a woman’s body is blessed from the fruit of a man’s body”. Enraged, Yalta stormed away from the table and broke four hundred jars of wine in her cellar. Nachman turned to Ulla and asked him, once again, to give her the juice, which he refused, and then she retorted that “gossip comes from pedlars and vermin from rags.” No one was exactly sure what that last line meant. However, the story itself involves some interesting symbolism: the line that Ulla quotes treats women like a vessel that must be blessed (and fertilized) by a man. In breaking four hundred bottles of wine, Yalta (quite dramatically) shows Ulla the necessity of a vessel–without the vessel holding in the wine, nothing can be contained, just as without a woman, man cannot reproduce. Hurwitz acknowledged the excess in Yalta’s actions, but also emphasized the powerful message that she sent.

The final source we discussed was one that I found to be particularly relevant to Hurwitz’s own struggle as a Jewish woman authority. The source discussed an instance where Yalta brought a sample of her menstrual fluids to Rabbi Bar Hana to judge if it was “clean,” meaning that her period was over, or “unclean.” He said that it was unclean, and so she turned to Rabbi Isaac (they were apparently in the Beit Midrash, or house of study), who initially agreed with Rabbi Bar Hana. However, she told Rabbi Isaac that on every other occasion, Rabbi Bar Hana had ruled such blood clean, and that only on that day did he rule in unclean because he had something in his eye, and so Rabbi Isaac finally ruled it clean. The source then goes into a discussion of when you can believe a woman on her menstrual fluids, which is a weird and interesting discussion for another time. What Hurwitz emphasized was that Yalta clearly knew that her blood was clean, but she chose to go to the rabbis anyway to ask if it was clean–and only then did she argue her point. She tried to challenge authority without trying to ignore it–she wanted to bring about change from within the system.

And that, I think, is Hurwitz’s thinly veiled metaphor for herself. In listening and talking to Hurwitz this weekend (she was nice enough to answer a few of my questions after speaking), it became clear to me that while she is very much trying to challenge traditional authority and pave the way for women to take on new and important roles in Orthodox Judaism, she also has a deep and unwavering respect for Orthodox Judaism and its traditional system. I asked her last night if she had ever considered going to a place like the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she would not have to deal with the complaints of the RCA, etc, and she responded that she never had–that she feels at home in the Orthodox world, and that it is important to her to bring about change while working within the framework of the system that is in place. Even though I find myself more comfortable outside the Orthodox realm and within a less traditional sphere, I have a lot of respect for her commitment to being both an Orthodox Jew and a female authority and leader. Learning with her this weekend was great, not just because I discovered Yalta, who was quite the rebel, but also because I had the opportunity to see a room full of Modern Orthodox Jews engaged by an intelligent, educated woman on Halachic issues–a site that I don’t see too often, but that could hopefully become commonplace in the next decade or two.

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Today’s the last day of Hanukkah, and I wanted to mark that by sharing a video that has been sent to me by a different person almost every day of Hanukkah.

It’s called “Candlelight,” and is sung by the Maccabeats, a male A Capella group at Yeshiva University. I find the video to be really funny (the first half features the guys dressed up in sheets, fighting like the Greeks and Maccabees), but I also think the song does a good job of covering a wide spectrum of Hanukkah activities: the actual story behind it, eating latkes/jelly donuts, spinning dreidels, lighting candles, singing Maoz Tzur, and getting together with friends. Judging from the popularity the song has gained at my school (probably because of the catchy tune, Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite”), it seems that this song is relatable for modern audiences, and able to get them excited about Hanukkah. It’s good to have a Hanukkah song that feels fun and new and is easy for kids today to learn, I think “Candlelight” serves that purpose very well. A new Hanukah song to add to the repertoire, perhaps? Plus, who doesn’t love A Capella?

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Happy Hanukkah! Or Chanukkah, or Hannukah, depending on how you choose to transliterate.

I feel that it is necessary to address Howard Jacobson’s opinion piece in the New York Times, which am only able to describe as grumpy–-he essentially tries to argue against Hanukkah. And so, as a lover of the holiday, I am going to defend it on all accounts.

Jacobson starts out by saying that the Hanukkah story, when compared with those of other Jewish holidays, is severely lacking–that Jews love Passover and Purim because of their great stories, but that no one today really cares about the Hasmoneans. I’m not really sure how to address the lack of interest in Hasmoneans, as it’s a very personal opinion (I’ve never found the name to be a deterrent), but I would like to say that when I was a little girl, the story of Hanukkah was one of the favorites among myself and all of my friends, just as much as, if not more than, the stories of other holidays.

The author continues to say that the story of Hanukkah is simply not very believable. Here’s my problem with that: if the idea of defeating the Syrian-Greeks seems a little far-fetched, it certainly does not even compare to dubiousness of splitting of an entire sea. The story of the Hasmoneans is, simply, the story of guerrilla warfare–of a small group of people strategically attacking and wearing down a large army. We see it today all the time, and it has proved to be a potent strategy. Whether or not it actually happened is up for speculation, but I think it certainly could be seen as believable.

The author (and this is where he gets to me the most) says that Hanukkah songs just don’t compare to Christmas songs. Now, I take issue with this for many reasons. First, Hanukkah songs are great; I look forward to hearing my school’s A Capella group sing Hanukkah songs every year. I have so many happy memories of singing “Hanukkah, Oh Hannukah” and “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” even if they aren’t “musically complex,” as he says. (Now, I do find “Maoz Tzur” to be unnecessarily gruesome and violent, and so often I choose not to sing it, but that’s another story.) Second, has he ever even heard of Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song”?

Finally, the author says that Hanukkah isn’t good enough because it simply is out-shined by Christmas–Jewish kids don’t get presents and are stuck with dreidels, and we have no Christmas trees or lights. I know that, especially at a young age, some Jewish kids feel that they’re missing out by not having Christmas. But personally I’ve come to appreciate how nice it is not have to deal with Christmas shopping and its expenses, mad rushes, and stress. I think it’s nice to not have to be a part of what Christmas has become, meaning a very much commercial holiday. Exactly for the reason that the author hates on Hanukkah is why I love Hanukkah: it’s a beautiful winter holiday, unique from Christmas in that it has its own story and meaning but close enough to it on the calendar that Jews don’t feel left out from winter fun. Presents are nice, and I was always glad to receive a few small ones as a kid, but I’m glad that presents aren’t the focus of Hanukkah (not that they have to be of Christmas, either).

The reason that I think Hanukkah has become such a popular holiday today (besides the fact that it’s near Christmas) is because Jews all around the world can relate to the fear of destruction, and the pure joy that would come at escaping it. As Rabbi Avi Shafran writes in a letter responding to this piece, “as the special prayer we recite on Hanukkah puts it, we thank God for handing ‘the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.’” Survivors of the Holocaust are still alive today, and Iran is a powerful threat to Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people–memory of near-destruction is very much alive. Even though the author writes off its modern meaning (although at the end he suggests dedicating candles to more recent instances of almost-destruction in Jewish history, like the Holocaust or Inquisition), I think that we should not. To me, Hanukkah’s beauty and power grows as the years go on and the holiday becomes even more of an opportunity to be thankful that Jews, often the few and the weak, have somehow managed to survive for all of these years.

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This is just a short post to draw your attention to a new exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York called Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism. It is not necessarily a collection of Jewish feminist art, but rather a collection of feminist art drawn mainly from the Jewish Museum’s collection, and that often deals with feminism within the context of Judaism. I have not (yet) gotten to see the exhibit, since I don’t live in New York, but The New York Times seems to think it’s pretty great–full of “smart, nervy works that grapple with feminism and Judaism, often simultaneously.”

The curator, Daniel Belasco, published a piece in Lilith about the exhibit, lending some insight as to what went into the selection of the included pieces. He talks about his selection of large pieces for their visual power, as well as abstract pieces to challenge the viewer to think and feel. He talks about how he made a point of including male artists’ work in the show, stressing his belief that “for an exhibition to argue about the ‘triumph’ of feminism in art, to only present works by women would undermine the point by showing its effect on half the art world.” It’s an interesting piece to read, even if you don’t see the show, as it touches on the power of painting as a medium in itself as well as a means of empowering feminism. It also has some full-page color pictures of paintings that are featured in the exhibit, if you’re interested.

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