Monday, June 27, 2005

Gush Katif and Me

As I sit in a modest synagogue in Netzer Hazani, one of the 21 towns of Gush Katif, listening to the staggering life story of a young mother named Mayan Yadai, I realize that I’m crying. Born a non-Jew in Croatia, Mayan grew up in wealth and comfort. Then came the war in Yugoslavia followed by years of trauma. Upon escaping Yugoslavia, she fell in love with an Israeli. Understanding that he would not marry a non-Jew, Mayan was determined to learn about that which meant more to her future husband than their love for each other. In the process, she became a Jew. In Mayan, I recognize a Jew with more faith in G-d and with more of an unwavering bond to the Jewish people and to the Land of Israel than I may ever merit to have. And that’s why I’m crying.

I have just spent an entire day in Gush Katif with my family. This was our second trip there this year. If anything, I am more in awe of the people of Gush Katif than I was five months ago.

This is not a political story, although there are, unquestionably, political issues at hand. This is a personal story of what I saw today, with my own eyes.

The Maoz Yam Hotel (formerly the Palm Beach Hotel) was a wasteland in January. It closed at the beginning of the current Intifada when people stopped vacationing in Gaza. Arab vandals came in and decimated the beachfront property, tearing out and carting away literally everything, including toilet bowls and ceiling tiles. Recently, with permission of the private owner, dozens of Jewish families and singles have moved into the hotel, renovating it just enough to make it habitable. Although maligned in the press as extremist settlers, I saw only selfless people working around the clock to renovate the abandoned property so those who are moving into Gush Katif to support the local residents will have a place to sleep at night.

In Gush Katif, I keep meeting people who are indomitable in their love of G-d, in their love for all Jews and in their absolute, unwavering love of the Land. They live each moment with intensely heightened purpose.

I listened to Rachel Saperstein as she showed us the remains of an actual kassam rocket that landed within a few feet of her home in Neve Dekalim. The government wants to give her home to the terrorists who nearly killed her daughter in a suicide bombing. Rachel Saperstein looks like everyone’s Jewish grandmother. But she insists that we see what is happening to her family in the larger context of Jewish history.

Everyone we meet in Gush Katif reminds us that it is not just their homes and greenhouses and synagogues and cemeteries that are threatened. It is no less than the 3300 year-old relationship between Jews and the Land of Israel that is being threatened.

As we travel through the Gush Katif towns of Netzer Hazani, Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom, I see how G-d blesses the sweat and effort of countless Jews over the past 30 years. Where once there was nothing but sand dunes, I see 36 synagogues, 1000 acres of greenhouses that yield 15% of Israel’s total agricultural export and 60% of its organic vegetables, beautiful homes, gardens, schools, playgrounds and yeshivot. And everywhere I look, I see Jews who did more for Israel in the past hour of their lives than I have done in the past 20 years of mine.

I go home to my apartment in Ma’ale Adumim. I look out over the lights of Jerusalem. I think about how the government of Israel wants to hand over a gift of this magnitude to our enemies in exchange for absolutely nothing. I shake my head in disbelief.

And then, I cry some more.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Naso 5765: Hair, There, Everywhere

In this week’s parsha, Naso, we find a biblical reference to the practice of married Jewish women covering their hair. The Sotah ritual was designed to test, through supernatural means, the possible guilt of a married woman whose husband suspected her of committing adultery. During the Sotah ritual, the Kohein (priest) was required to stand before the woman suspected of adultery and uncover her hair. The Talmud explains that, from the fact that her hair is uncovered during the Sotah ritual, we can infer that a married woman's hair is normally covered.

The practice of hair covering is one of the immediate markers of an Orthodox woman and one that many people don’t fully understand.

An obvious parallel to hair covering for women is the kippah (known in Yiddish as a yarmulke). However, the two are not identical.

One important difference is whether one is covering one’s head or one’s hair. A kippah is meant to cover one’s head. The Talmud teaches that the purpose of a kippah is to remind the wearer that G-d is always above. In fact, yarmulke comes from an Aramaic expression (yirah malka) that expresses veneration for G-d. By contrast, a woman’s head covering is meant to cover her hair.

Even the most casual synagogue attendees are likely familiar with the chapel cap (doily), which some women pin onto their heads while attending synagogue services. Women who do not generally cover their hair sometimes wear hats to synagogue. These customs appear to emerge from the sense that one ought not pray while bareheaded. In that sense, they are more related to the head covering of the kippah than to the hair covering of an Orthodox woman.

Another difference is that even young children may wear a kippah whereas hair covering is reserved for married women. A third difference is that, in non-Orthodox communities, it is not unusual to see a woman wearing a kippah, often in a very feminine style. While Jewish men are required wear something on their head, there is no mitzvah for them to cover their hair.

Both a kippah and hair covering are markers of Jewish identification. For the insider, the style of kippah or the style of hair covering signifies with which part of the community s/he is associated. For example, a black velvet kippah signifies association with the yeshiva world where a kippah srugra (knitted kippah) identifies the wearer as a Modern Orthodox Jew. These distinctions are not always completely accurate. I recall being amused seeing a kippah for sale that was half black velvet and half kippah sruga.

This sociological principal applies to women and their hair coverings as well. For example, a Modern Orthodox woman will sometimes wear a hat that does not cover all of her hair. Lubavitch women almost always wear sheitels (wigs). Women in the yeshiva world will generally wear a sheitel for formal occasions, but often wear snoods (decorative fabric bags worn at the back of the head to hold the hair) for less formal occasions.

Many wonder how a Jewish woman can wear a sheitel that is practically indistinguishable from real hair and may even improve her appearance. The underlying assumption is that a married woman covers her hair in order to look less attractive.

This is not the case.

Covering one’s hair is a way of containing the sensual energy that is emitted through the hair and directing it right back to the woman herself. By contrast, uncovered hair dissipates this energy into the world at large. Covering one’s hair is a reflexive spiritual process that has more to do with the woman’s intimate relationship with herself and her husband than with the world around her. This might be why some Chassidic women wear a hat on top of a wig. The wig is the hair covering that contains her sensual energy and the hat is a social statement, marking her as a married woman.

This explanation, that hair covering is something a woman does for her own spirituality, goes a long way to understanding why, whether a woman covers her hair with a hat, a tichel (scarf) or a sheitel, as long as her hair is covered, she has fulfilled the mitzvah.

Among the 613 commandments, there is no mitzvah to be unattractive.