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My group arrived in Israel yesterday, and now that I’ve rested up I want to write a quick post about my experiences in Poland. Well, not all of them, or even most, because I’m still digesting most of it, but I wanted to write about one experience in particular my friends and I had while in Warsaw.

My group woke up on our first day there and went to pray at the Nozyk synagogue. It’s a beautiful synagogue–the only synagogue in Warsaw that survived world War II. It was used during the war as a stable, but has since been refurbished and is now back to its beautiful origins.
Even so, I wasn’t able to appreciate praying in such a historically significant and meaningful place because I was praying from a floor above the bimah with what a hotel would call an “obstructed view,” to say the least. I felt like all of the praying was going on below me instead of around me, and many of my friends felt the same.

After our experience, we discussed the setting and the isolation and distance it made us feel—we had all struggled with our desire to enjoy the synagogue and appreciate its history. A friend of mine brought up the idea that perhaps because women who lived at the time when the synagogue was constructed a few hundred years ago wanted to pray in such a setting, we should too. However, I struggled with that idea because society has changed significantly since then, and modern feminism has changed the way we look at women’s place in the world–and we can expect a lot more involvement and inclusion. Even so, when she said that I began to feel like I should make a more concerted effort to get past my modern qualms, at least for a short period of time, in order to allow myself to truly become immersed in the synagogue.

The next day, instead of complaining about my lack of view, I tried to picture the synagogue full of men, women, and children celebrating life moments; I still felt that I would not be comfortable praying at the synagogue permanently, but that it was a worthwile place to visit and pray inside.

So, that was one of a million experiences in Poland. More to come from Poland, maybe, or more from Israel.

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A few months ago, I realized that I wanted to start wearing Tallit and Tefillin. Not because I had some grand change in ideology, but because I realized that doing so actually goes along with the ideology I’ve professed to have for quite some time.

I’ve always believed in egalitarianism, the idea that men and women should have the same obligations in regards to Judaism. However, until reading On the Ordination of Women as Rabbis by Rabbi Joel Roth, I hadn’t quite thought about the extent to which that belief should apply to everyday practice, including Mitzvot that are traditionally associated with only men. In his responsum, Rabbi Roth creates a justification for ordaining women as rabbis. In doing so, he discusses the fact that women are traditionally exempt from positive time-bound commandments, such as wearing Tallit (performed in the morning) because performing the Mitzvot would inhibit them from performing their duties at home. Roth brings up the idea that, for a woman who wishes for more to be expected of her than mothering, there could and should be another option: accepting full obligation of all Mitzvot upon herself, including positive time-bound ones. (His discussion of what this would entail and how it would affect people is quite long and nuanced, and worth a read.)

After reading his responsum, I realized that, in truth, I feel obligated to perform all Mitzvot–I see no reason why a male friend of mine should be obligated to perform Mitzvot that I am not. But with this realization came another one–that for years, I’ve been justifying my decision to not wear a Kippah, Tallit, or Tefillin with the word “comfort,” but that doing so is actually quite hypocritical of me. To put it simply: if I were a boy, I’d be wearing them, so why aren’t I?

And so, with that idea in mind, a few weeks ago I decided to try out a Tallit. At my school (or ex-school, as I’m about to graduate), we pray every morning, and so I asked one of our rabbis to teach me the blessing and how to put it on, and I wore it. I was immediately surprised at how comfortable it felt–wrapping myself up in the fabric made me feel warm and homey. It also just felt right–like I was differentiating between my day-to-day clothes and my prayer clothes and setting myself up to focus. That night my father took me to the local Judaica store in order to buy one of my own. We argued for a while about the color scheme, as I wanted to buy the plain blue, white, and silver Tallit that many boys wear at school, and he wanted me to buy a more feminine one. However, after both explaining my belief that if everyone’s obligated we can all wear the same type of Tallit and feeling the silky texture of a slightly more feminine but still simple white and blue Tallit, we settled on a beautiful Tallit that I have worn since that day.

I hadn’t had an opportunity to try Tefillin until yesterday thanks to many snow days and the end of school, but yesterday I woke up early, drove to school, came to Minyan, and was lucky enough to be taught by a peer how to put Tefillin on both my head and my arm. As a teacher had previously explained to me, they were very uncomfortable–they just felt weird. However, as he also explained, I found that weirdness to be very appealing–in his words, it had a kind of “shock effect.” Wearing the Tefillin on my head and my arm made me look and feel like I was not only praying, but like I was doing something overtly different from my normal life. Putting on and taking off Tefillin is somewhat laborious and time consuming–you can’t just immediately walk out into your normal life and move on like you can with a Tallit. I found that differentiation, that conscious effort, to be very powerful, and if I end up praying again on a daily basis (I’m graduating now), I’ll want to buy some and wear them (they’re pretty expensive.)

One of the best things about these two recent experiences was looking around the room and seeing both boys and girls wearing Tallit and Tefillin, comfortably (or uncomfortably, as the case may be) praying as a group. Instead of feeling different, I was one of them–obligated and fulfilling my obligation.

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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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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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In a way, I think I’m lucky to be writing about “Living the Legacy” as a student. It’s a new free online curriculum created by the Jewish Women’s Archive to explore the role of American Jews in the Civil Rights Movement, including both the men that are usually studied and women who are sometimes overlooked in order to create a “gender inclusive history.” Looking through the website, the lesson plans and teaching strategies look completely familiar to me: jigsaw discussion groups, a mix of Jewish and secular primary sources, and use of technology to enhance learning, among other elements. Having attended a Jewish day school for my whole life, “Living the Legacy” seems to me to be another unit in Jewish history class.

Not that that should belittle it in any way–I think that “Living the Legacy” is an incredibly rich, thorough resource, and one that teachers, especially in schools like mine, should consider taking advantage of. It is clear that Rosenbaum put immense effort into the planning of lessons, as she has succeeded at creating a diverse curriculum that encourages analytical thinking rather than portraying Jews as consistently benevolent and without fault.

Take Unit 3, Lesson 2: Growing tensions I: Black-Jewish Relations, about the tensions that began to sprout with the inception of the Black Power movement as many whites, and therefore Jews, were forced to leave many civil rights organizations, and Jews accused blacks of anti-Semitism and began to resent affirmative action, for example. The lesson plan starts out with a discussion about the similarities and differences between black slavery and Jewish slavery in Egypt. Next, groups of students in the class are assigned primary sources to read and discuss, followed by a class discussion about the similarities and differences between Jewish and black involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Following this, the class watches a clip from PBS’ Jewish Americans about slavery, immigration, the Ocean Hill/Brownsville school boycott, and Julius Lester’s radio show, and then discuss a long list of questions. Finally, the lesson concludes with students participating in a poetry slam. Ignoring the fact that this seems to be a lesson plan long enough for three classes, what I like about this lesson is the fact that it encourages students to empathize with both Jewish and black people rather than simply Jews.

I guess what I like best about “Living the Legacy” is that even after attending a Jewish school for 13 years, I’ve never really spent time studying specifically Jewish and black relations, so this is a topic that I can honestly say I’d be interested in learning about. Which I think is a good sign, seeing as the curriculum is aimed at students in grades 8-12. Overall, I’d say that “Living the Legacy” is definitely worth exploring, even if you’re not an educator or student, because of the vast quantity of primary and secondary sources it has on file and the thought-provoking questions it raises. And, of course, the fact that it brings up a lot of female figures who are sometimes overlooked in other curricula.

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This post is cross-posted at JWA

An interesting article popped up on the side of The New York Times today–an article about the lack of knowledge among Americans about religion, including about their own. The article discussed the fact that on average, Americans were only able to correctly answer 50% of the questions on a recent survey by the Pew Research Center on the teachings and history of major world religions.

The first thing that stood out to me was the fact that even after controlling for differing levels of education, atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons answered more questions correctly than all other religious groups. The results gave no explanation for this, but I speculate that perhaps fringe groups are forced to think more about religion since the religion they belong to is not the norm–that for many people in this country their religion is not what differentiates them from the majority, and so religion in general is not a frequent topic of thought or discussion. However, I know that for me, at least, being Jewish is something that differentiates me for other people, and so I spend time thinking about my Judaism and relating it to other religions (this blog is a good example of that.)

What I find particularly interesting about the results of the survey is the lack of knowledge that Americans have about the role religion plays and is allowed to play in regards to governance. While 89% of people knew that a teacher cannot lead a class in prayer, only 36% knew that a school can offer a comparative religion course. To me, a comparative religion course seems innocuous, at worst, and incredibly useful, at best, so it’s rather surprising that people expect it not to be allowed. In addition, only 23% of Americans knew that a teacher can read from the Bible as an example of literature in a classroom; that seems to me something that people should be aware of, especially so that people can make sure that there is a line drawn in school between a reading of the Bible as literature and as a holy text.

It worries me how little people in this country seem to know about religion. I’m no expert, but I think it is important to understand at least some basic things about other people’s religious beliefs, especially when dealing with politics. The recent Park51 fiasco exemplifies the visceral reactions people have in relation to religion, and this survey shows how those reactions are very often based on little knowledge or facts. Consequently, often instead of having educated discussion, people simply devolve into having shouting matches–and nothing ends up getting fixed.

A recent opinion piece in The Washington Post makes a really good point about this, and suggests at least a partial solution: the author argues that all political candidates should be forced and expected to talk about their respective religious beliefs, and how their beliefs will affect them as political leaders. In an age when people know very little about each other’s religions, including their own political leaders (you’ve all probably heard about Obama the Muslim), the American people should try to change that and not leave their knowledge of their political leader’s religious views up to chance–it’s too much of a risk. Asking candidates about their political views may not change the fact that Americans are not particularly educated about religion, but I believe that doing so could prevent Americans from buying into unfounded religious claims about their political leaders. Moreover, it has the potential to encourage dialogue predicated on the idea of increasing our knowledge about religion rather than the assumption that we all know everything, which, the survey shows, is definitely untrue.

We live in a multicultural world full of different religions–it’s time to openly talk about religions, their differences and their nuances, rather than ignoring them, so that people can actually become knowledgeable. Religion has a huge effect on people’s lives, and I believe that just as part of being an educated citizen is having an understanding of the demographics of our country and the ideals it was founded on, so too should be having at least a basic of religion and the role it plays in this country and its people’s lives. Doing so has the potential to make us all more tolerant and understanding citizens.

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Women, do you have to ask your father/boyfriend/brother/husband/uncle/distant-male-cousin to travel/study/work/go to court? If so, there are others who have to do the same. There are others who want to work with you to allow for independent decision-making. There are others who want you to have these rights. If this is not the case and you are not required BY LAW and by social codes to seek male validation in all walks of life, then please join the fight to have the rights of fellow women recognized as well.

In all the fundamental ways, there is very little that separates us from women across the world. The devastating inequality is due to the little differences – the differences in culture/religion, but even those differences become similarities when we think of how the international community is able to interact in the 21st century. Through social media especially, similarities override differences in a fight to end oppression. In Saudi Arabia, all women (of every age) are required to have permission from male guardians to complete rudimentary tasks that are essential in living a full life. Unfortunately, there are many people who support this patriarchal system of oppression and utter male dominance.

There is a new Facebook page, Women Don’t Need Guardians, that seeks to create a virtual community of people with one thing in common: the desire for independence and universal human rights. Become a fan of this page by clicking the “Like” button in the corner and become an ally because there really is not that much that separates us (Jewish, Muslim, Middle Eastern, American, etc.); there is far more that draws us together.

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