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Archive for the ‘Ritual’ Category

Every post I write is about something that happened a week or two before. This one (it’ll be brief) is about attending Shabbat services at Shira Hadashah, a self-proclaimed “Orthodox, feminist congregation in Jerusalem.” I had a great experience there–out of all the Orthodox services I have attended, it was by far the one I found to be most meaningful.

What makes Shira Hadashah special (in addition to the fact that so many people there seemed to have amazing voices) is the way that they incorporate women into the service. Women and men pray on separate sides of a mechitza, with the bima in the center of two equally sized prayer spaces–allowing both men and women access to the bima. Women lead “optional” parts of the service, like Kabbalat and Pesukei Dezimra, which are parts that Orthodox Judaism halachically permits them to lead. In addition, women say Kaddish, are called to the Torah, read Torah, and say Kiddush.

Shira Hadashah is not a place I’d want to pray every day–I want to pray in a place where women can lead everything, and are seen as having equal obligations as men. However, my views will never line up with those of Orthodox Judaism, and I don’t think that they need to–there’s room for many different strains of Judaism out there. Because of this, I very much appreciate and admire the way that Shira Hadashah blends peoples’ desires both to observe Orthodox Halacha and create a community based on principles of gender equality and inclusion. Praying at Shira Hadashah, I felt like I was surrounded by a group of thinking and caring people who are trying to create a Judaism that blends tradition with their modern values.

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Short update from Israel.

Last Friday my group went to the Kotel to daven Friday evening services. Immediately upon arriving, our leaders told us that the boys would go to the male side, and that the girls would go to the female side. I was not surprised–I have prayed at the Kotel many times before, and have unhappily become used to being forced to pray separately from men there. However, being used to it did not make it any less frustrating.

A group of friends and mine decided to lead our own Kabbalat Shabbat services separate from the boys, and it ended up being really nice; we stood in a circle behind the lines of women praying silently to themselves and, amidst many slightly dismayed looks from onlookers, sung aloud together. The sense of community we created was great, but what made it even more beautiful was the fact that a couple strangers decided to join in and pray with us.

However, after finishing the first part of the Friday evening services, we arrived at Ma’ariv, something that according to Orthodox Judaism, women are not supposed to lead. (Women are allowed to lead the first part, excepting a few things.) Because the girl who led the first part of our services is Orthodox, she did not want to lead the second part, and so she, as well as a few other girls decided to pray on their own. Our group quickly dismantled, and I ended up praying Ma’ariv on my own. It was nice to pray at the Western Wall, but it was basically almost that; all of the spirituality that otherwise would have been inspired by the sense of human longing and desire and hope was diminished by the feeling that I was missing out on the amazing communal prayer that I was hearing from the male side.

Walking away from the Wall, all I could think about was how their should be three areas there: one for men, one for women, and one for men and women to pray together. Israel should not be a state only for Orthodox people–it should be a state where all Jews (and non-Jews, but that’s a different topic) feel comfortable, that accommodates all of our needs. Women of the Wall serve as an inspiration for all women who feel frustrated with the limitations imposed on them at the Wall, but the fact that women have been arrested for reading Torah at the Wall is simply depressing. Something needs to change.

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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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Happy Thanksgiving!

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I wanted to say Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

While Thanksgiving is not a Jewish holiday (there’s an argument among rabbis on whether Jews should even observe it—the majority say we can, since it’s a secular holiday), it’s a significant day here in the United States, even if that just means people eat a lot today. Which it often does.

But, there are a lot of other things that happen on Thanksgiving, too. Like families coming together, and cooking together, and seeing people they haven’t seen all year. So, enjoy whatever tradition you do, and, even though this is kind of trite by now, spend a few minutes thinking about what you’re thankful for. There are a lot of things that are wrong with the world, and this blog ends up being a place to write about a lot of them, but even though discussing issues is important, it’s also important to step back and think about the good that we have in our lives. Personally, I’m thankful for a lot of things, including the fact that unlike many people, I have an abundance of food sitting in my refrigerator today, waiting to be eaten. But even regarding this blog I have things to be thankful for. I’m thankful to be privileged enough to be able to write about gender issues instead of living through most of them. I’m also thankful to have family and friends that support me in all of my endeavors (even those that fail), especially this blog.

So, Happy Thanksgiving!

PS: This is somewhat unrelated to the rest of the post, but I wanted to put it out there anyways. Today is a holiday revolving mainly around food, turkey in particular, and many people believe that without the turkey, Thanksgiving could not be Thanksgiving. However, I wanted to take a cue from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and say that we should choose what we want holidays to symbolize. Thanksgiving does not have to just be about turkey—we can create our own customs and personalize the holiday the way we want to. There is a cruel and harmful meat industry out there, one that is not necessarily the best thing to support on a holiday about giving thanks for the good in the world. Not having a turkey on Thanksgiving does not have to seem like something is being omitted—it can serve as a starting point for conversation, for talking about how we want to live our lives in a compassionate and caring way. Millions of turkeys do not have to be killed in order for us to enjoy Thanksgiving; Thanksgiving can be a day for creating personal customs, customs that are more aligned with what we believe and want to teach others. So, even if you’re not a vegetarian and not interested in becoming one, I’d say take time today to think about the food you’re eating, and talk to the people around your table it. Foer talks a lot about how we become attached to food because of the stories we attach to them; changing our eating habits does not have to get rid of these stories, but rather can serve as a chance to create new ones.

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There is a fascinating article in Monday’s New York Times about girls in Afghanistan who are referred to as “bacha posh,” literally translated to mean “dressed up as a boy.” The article describes the unquantified but seemingly (from discussions with Afghans from multiple generations) large number of girls whose families dress them up as boys at a young age and present them to society as boys. The families do it for many reasons, especially shame at not having a male son and the need for a child to be able to work to help support the family. The bacha posh, unlike a regular girl, is allowed to work outside the home and have significantly more freedom in public, and finds it easier to attend school and get an education.

I found the article to be fascinating. I was really surprised by the the idea that Afghanistan, a country that is typically associated with traditional mores and standards, would have so many people willing to engage in what is essentially cross-dressing. But apparently it has been going on for generations—the article mentions a woman in 1900 who dressed up as a man in order to guard a harem, playing a role than neither men nor women were allowed to do.

The article also raises many issues about gender identity: girls raised as boys are usually turned back into girls when they hit puberty, and are then left to struggle between who they are used to being and who they must be. In the article, a fifteen-year-old girl whose parents initially proposed that she become a bacha posh explains how she never wants to go back—that nothing in her feels like a girl. It makes me think about the idea of gender perfomance, Judith Butler’s idea that gender is not inherent but rather a creation of society:

Because there is neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender creates the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis.”

I haven’t studied the concept enough to have a sure opinion about it, but this article certainly points towards the idea that gender can be changed based on society’s expectations of someone; a girl whose parents decided for her that she would be a boy takes on the societal roles of a boy and learns to love playing the role of a boy. If that can happen, which it appears it does, then it would seem that gender could be an arbitrary thing that is separate from a body’s physical elements and function. A few personal stories cannot be taken as definitive, of course, but it is really interesting that these girls continue to want to act like and function as boys even when allowed or forced to return to their lives as girls.

Part of what makes the article so interesting and sad is the way it describes the difficulties that women in general face in Afghanistan, from being beaten by husbands to needing a husband’s explicit permission to run for political office, to the constant social pressure to have a girl and the subsequent exclusion and disappointment at bringing a girl into the world rather than a boy. One of the most poignant things I read about was the fact that many girls wish they could have stayed boys, but could not: when they hit puberty, they have to publicly go back to being a girl, get married, become a wife, and are thrust into the foreign and confusing world of womanhood. I find this quote from the article, a reflection of a bacha posh after having formally gone back to being a woman, to be incredibly sad: “Still, not a day goes by when she does not think back to ‘my best time,’ as she called it. Asked if she wished she had been born a man, she silently nods.” It’s sadness lies not just in the woman’s own personal struggle, but in the fact that Afghanistan is a place where women do not want to be women—that there is a place where women clearly feel that their lives would be better as men. That’s something for all of us to think about and remember: that even as feminism in the Western world grows and thrives, there are a lot of women out there without the privileges we have.

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