Sunday, October 30, 2011

Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?

While out doing some errands, we stopped into a grocery store in a neighborhood in Jerusalem that we often pass on the way home.

This grocery is tucked away. The entrance is off the main road and it is, seemingly, always, always packed.  It's known for low prices and they have a selection of American products that are hard to find elsewhere. People with large families shop here often and they buy household staples in truly majestic quantities. So the checkout lines, and the wait, are unusually long. It's not the kind of place a person would pop into for a loaf of bread or a liter of milk.

We've been to this grocery store a few times, but today I saw something there I've never noticed before. We were ready to check out and I noticed a very short line, with just a few men in it.  I assumed it was an express line, perfect for us because we only had a few items.  Pointing, I joked to my husband, "Hey, here's the guy line."  Then I looked up and saw this sign:

The sign says:
CASHIER FOR MEN ONLY. The public is requested to guard this rule.
Since my husband was with me, I went outside and let him check out by himself.  We got out in record time.

And I am nauseous over it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Guest Post: Thumbs Up on Simchat Torah


This year, Batzion BenDavid experienced a spiritual, involved and emotionally potent Simchat Torah.  I received permission to share her account of it with you.



A year ago I wrote a frustrated note about my Simchat Torah experience. Since this year was so different, I felt the right thing to do is write about it again.

I had already decided weeks ago that I wouldn't accept a repeat of last year. This year I was going to Yerushalaim in search of a real simchat torah, and ended up bringing my family with me.
In the evening we went to daven with a wonderful kehila called "Ve'ani Tfila". Usually located in Nachlaot (and also known as "Rav Raz's shul"), the kehila rented out a larger space on Usishkin street, close to where we were staying in Rechavya. This is a good time to thank the kehila for providing a service and doing huge hachnasat orchim- they paid for a larger space because they knew so many guests would like to join their special community.

And "special" is really the only name for it. I've never seen so many different types of people in one place, singing together. All types of kippot and mitpachot and skirts (and lack thereof)- it was a wonderful lesson in Ahavat Yisrael.

The announcements before davening were made at the end of the mechitza in a way that both men and women could hear and see the speaker. the "rules" were set- one song nigun per hakafa, and every hakafa was 15-20 minutes. 

The dancing was incredible- so much energy from so many people in a relatively crowded place. Those who know me know that it's definitely out of character for me to dance with people I didn't know at all, but thats exactly what I did on Simchat Torah. At that time and place, t seemed like the most natural thing to do. 
and then, there is the matter of the Sefer Torah. 

The Sfarim were brought out and the women started dancing with them. It was as simple as that. When it was my turn I was overcome by emotion, and something in me was surprised by the simplicity of it- yes, I am allowed to hold the Sefer Torah. Just like that. This whole thing brought tears to my eyes and had my tearing well after I had past the Torah on to someone else. When I thought about it, it almost felt wrong to get so emotional. I mean- my little brother, age 11, held a Sefer Torah. my husband and father and grandfather all did it without it being so emotional. Im not saying emotions are bad- I hope to have such a powerful experience in every future contact I have with a Sefer- but I have a feeling I won't, just as my male family members didn't. because ordinary things aren't emotional. and for men, this is ordinary. for me, for all the women- it wasn't. which was wonderful and upsetting at once- because it made it special, but it highlighted how unfair things are all year around, and more importantly- on simchat torah in most shuls in the country.

so the evening was an incredible experience. but we had a feeling that we weren't prepared for such "Hardcore" Karlibach in the day as well. 

So for the day the family split up, and I went with my mother to Yakar. 

After a beautiful Shacharit we were told that before kidush and hakafot there will be 15 minutes of learning- 
because one must prepare for the mitzva of simchat torah, which includes learning torah. A shiur was held, and for those who prefered otherwise source sheets were passed around on different topics (including "women and sifrei torah"- for all those who doubted that women can hold a Sefer at all times). after learning and a modest kiddush the hakafot began.

And again- the Rabanit of the shul walks over to the mechitza (the most comfortable one I've ever seen, by the way), and takes two sifrei torah. 

And again- so many women, of all ages and backgrounds, are dancing with a lot of energy and yet pretty slowly since the shul can hardly contain all the guests.

Last year I claimed that the dancing isn't as vigorous because there is no Torah in the womens section- no Kallah, so to speak, for us to be "Mesame'ach" and to celebrate. I don't know if I can claim to know what started the chicken-egg issue here: is the dancing more energized because of the sefer torah, or are energetic women drawn to shuls where the opportunity to hold a Sefer is offered? Either way, I think the case for giving women a sefer is made- because these aren't women out to change the orthodox way, they are just women who want to celebrate the wonderful gift of the torah.

after hakafot, a version of aliyot was available for women who were so inclined (a woman read the Parsha and girls were called up to say a יהי רצון, without a bracha) and then the people recommuned for the reading of Zot Habracha and Bereshit and- with the shul completely full with guests- continued to daven musaf and tefilat geshem.

Overall, absolutely the most meaningful Simchat Torah I ever had. not only because I got to reach out and touch the Sefer Torah, but because I experienced the beauty of a diverse, colorful, accepting Judaism. because I danced with absolute strangers, without knowing anybody. Because the communities of Yerushalaim, the holy city, have a message for the rest of the country- don't be afraid to accept more than one type of person. don't be afraid to move forward- cautiously, wisely- but move forward nonetheless. 

כי מציון תצא תורה, ודבר ה' מירושלים.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Feeling Something I Cannot Name



Today was a fine day - relatively quiet at work - a good day to learn new things and plan for the future. My mind was active, exploring new resources and researching new information.

On the way home, the weather was noticeably cooler.  I caught a bus that doesn't take me quite as close as my usual bus, but it was a good day to walk a little, so I didn't mind.  During the ride, I thought about how I often feel the most Israeli when I'm on the bus.

Through the window, I looked around at the somewhat unfamiliar route and thought, for about the bajillionith time, how astonishing it is that I live in Israel now.

With both earbuds in and the volume pretty high, I listened to unfamiliar music by a familiar singer and, I can't say why, I started focusing on her voice.  Just her voice.  It was so breathtakingly beautiful.

As I walked the path home, the sun was setting and Wynonna Judd was singing a sentimental song in my ear about saying goodbye to people we love. And I felt a bit weepy.  Blessed, despite its undeniable frustrations, by the opportunity to live here.  Blessed by the ability to carry myself home on my own two feet.  Blessed by the ability to hear and appreciate music. Blessed by the astonishing scenery that is part of my daily life. Blessed by the weather, which suits me. Blessed by the fact that I have lived long enough to have said goodbye to people I love, but that I was not likely to be asked to do so tonight.

It was completely dark when I arrived home.  No one else was home yet, so I sat on the mirpeset, felt the Jerusalem breeze on my neck, felt my tears well up, concentrated on a few more songs and tried to name what I was feeling.


Monday, October 24, 2011

Focus on the Light

On Tuesday, I sat glued to the Internet, along with most of Israel and many Jews and others from around the world, as I watched what I feared, deep down, might never happen - Gilad Shalit walking away from his Hamas captors, alive and in reasonably good condition after 5 years and 4 months in captivity.  More than 99% of Gaza, an area controlled by Hamas, is Muslim.



On Thursday, Muammar Gaddafi, the former dictator who ruled Libya with a deadly fist since 1969, was killed by opposition forces in Libya. Libya is 97% Muslim.






And on Sunday, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Turkey, killing hundreds and injuring over 1000. So far.  The death toll is expected to rise much higher. Turkey is 99.8% Muslim.






When I heard about the quake in Turkey, I was reminded of two rabbinic voices that warned us to expect such a thing.  


In mid-September, 2011, Rabbi Nir Ben Artzi asserted that, "The leader of Turkey said what he said - and will receive a mighty blow from the Creator!"

The same week, just 6 weeks ago, Rabbi Nachman Kahana wrote these words: "I am waiting to hear a news bulletin that an earthquake of unprecedented force has swallowed up half of Turkey..."


History is speeding up.  Three major events in our region in a single week.

So what do I make of all this?  


In his book The Ishmaelite Exile (which gets more potent each time I read it), Rabbi Yechiel Weitzman writes:

"Bil'am revealed in his final prophecy that the last stage in the process of Israel's perfection will be characterized by the alliance between Ishmael and Esav, an alliance aimed at tormenting the entire world and the Jewish people in particular. This will be followed by the downfall of Ishmael and Esav, a downfall that will usher in the redemption." (p. 143)

Who are Ishmael and Esav today?  Ishmael today are the Muslims.  Esav today are the Western, Christian countries.  Muslims are very busy lately killing each other.  Western countries are suffering from significant economic woes.  And both are being hit by earthquakes and other extreme forms of weather-related disasters.  

We live in a time of extreme darkness, but also of extreme light.  I'm not suggesting that there are no innocent people who are getting caught up in what I believe is Gd's vengeance against the enemies of Israel. Nor am I suggesting that there are not dark times ahead for all of us.



These may both be so.  Nevertheless, I'm choosing to stay  focused on the light.






Thursday, October 20, 2011

Simchat Torah Redux

Over Sukkot, my husband and I went to the private home of a venerable rabbinic couple for a meeting. The wife, whose name I can't reveal because I don't have her permission, is around 80 years old.  She was raised in the US and came to Israel as a very young woman, many years before I was born.

I was startled to discover, in her, a worldly, open-minded rebbetzin who, when her husband referred to her an Orthodox feminist responded, "There's nothing wrong with that."

While our husbands talked about rabbi business, she and I spoke about many things - becoming religious as an adult, life in Israel, learning and teaching Torah, the status of women in Judaism and the place of women in shul.

A day or two after we met, she forwarded me a Torah article she thought I would enjoy and offered this private comment on my recent blog post about how difficult Yom Kippur had been for me.

I have long ago come to the conclusion that by and large, Synagogue is not the best place to commune with G-d. But it’s wonderful for socializing. After all it is called a Beth-Knesset, a house of gathering, coming together, which is also the literal meaning of the Greek word Synagogue. And one of the important aspects of Judaism is togetherness – so there you are.

I love how refreshingly unapologetic she is.  It's like she's giving me permission to daven at home and go to shul for the kiddush if that makes me more contented.

Interesting to have had this discussion with her just a few days before Simchat Torah, a day about which so many Orthodox women, myself included, feel conflicted. Last year at this time, I wrote about my complicated relationship with the day.

Even though men sometimes tell me it doesn't actually feel that way, Simchat Torah always looks like an enormous spiritual opportunity to me. So, rather than opt out completely, this year, I tried something different. Very different.

In our neighborhood, there is a women's Simchat Torah celebration.  It's explicitly not a minyan, so it's not a full davening, but it includes many of the traditional elements of Simchat Torah - Hallel, hakafot (circle dances with the Sefer Torah), aliyot and reading from the Sefer Torah, honoring two people with special aliyot, a group aliyah for those too young to get an actual aliyah, prayers for the sick, for those serving in the Israeli army, for the State of Israel and for agunot, the Yiskor prayer for victims of the Holocaust and deceased family members, the prayer for rain, a festive kiddush and more.

Although I don't know how long this group has been getting together, I did know about this option last year. Three main circumstances pushed me to attend this year.  First, I knew I wasn't going back to our regular shul for Simchat Torah.  Second, the group moved to a location much, much closer to me. And third, since making aliyah, I opt, as often as possible, to try new things rather than decline them. In Israel, I often feel rewarded with singular experiences just for showing up.

Since I'm so outspoken about my shul-related angst, a lot of people seemed curious about what I thought of the women's Simchat Torah service.  Here are some of my impressions.

I marveled at the depth and breadth of synagogue skills this group of 75+ women possesses.  I came in just after Hallel, as the hakafot were beginning.  I saw women reading the preamble to each hakafah aloud from a machzor and singing songs that were largely unfamiliar to me.  I saw gabbaot, one even wearing pearls, calling women to the Torah, women making brachot and reading Torah verses, chanting from a Torah scroll, chanting the Haftarah and reading and singing lengthy Hebrew prayers aloud.

Not from today, but you get the idea...
Although I have worked hard to fill the gaps over the years, today was one of those times when I most acutely felt my lack of a proper Jewish education.  Like most of these women, my daughters have been taught tefillah from the time they could walk and talk. My deficit in this area, coupled with the fact that, for so many years, decades even, shul attendance has been an irregular and largely passive experience for me, I felt particularly liturgically inadequate today. I acknowledge, and am not particularly threatened by, the superior synagogue skills of most men.  But when women do liturgical things I cannot do, the feeling that I will always be a bush-league shul Jew comes into sharp relief.

It was fascinating to be so close to the action, to see people rotating on- and off-duty to stand with the Torah, to watch the Sefer Torah being covered and uncovered with reverence, to watch the reader point out the exact place in the scroll from where she would read and to have women touch that place with the Torah's gartle and kiss it.

I was nearly as passive today as I generally am in shul, though this time, it was by choice.  I could have held the Torah while we were dancing. I could have had an aliyah and I could have decided whether or not to recite the brachot before and after. I could have taken the time, in advance of this morning, to learn to chant from the Sefer Torah. If 11 year-old girls and 12 year-old boys can do it, I'm sure it's not beyond my capability. I could have taken the time to memorize and then recite a prayer. I could have called out the names of the sick for whom I daven privately. In a women's service, all these options were open to me.  In the end, I chose to do none of them, but knowing I had the option was, in its way, electrifying.

Truthfully, as I danced with the women who held the Sefer Torah, some of whom held it like a baby, I felt more faux than joy.  Although the organizers did an amazing job coordinating, it was, unavoidably, a make-shift service. I knew about 30% of the women there, and I was acutely aware that this was something other than celebrating with my community. Did I feel Gd's presence there? Honestly, I didn't. Not because He wasn't there. I'm sure the lack is in me.

Having said all that, there were a few moments that touched me very much.

During hakafot, there were lots of little girls around. Much later, when it was time for all the children to stand beneath the tallit, there were only two girls, both pre-Bat Mitzvah age, left in the crowd.  When the women began singing Hamalach Hagoel, I started to cry, remembering the hundreds of nights I put my young daughters to bed with this song.  It's been so many years since I've heard it, but the memory of the funny way we used to pronounce the name Yitzchak made my eyes fill with sentimental tears. Definitely a highlight.  And an unanticipated one, because, as a result of the trauma of my very first Simchat Torah, when the gabbai announced, in Yiddish, that little girls were forbidden from standing under the tallit for Kol HaNe'arim, I have never actually been in shul for it.

Another highlight were the tears of some of the women who took an aliyah, perhaps for the first time in their lives. During the years I was deeply involved with issues of women and Judaism, I remember hearing a well-known older woman report that, after being called to the Torah for an aliyah in a women's service, she was startled to realize that, after a lifetime of being religious, that was the first time she had ever seen the inside of a Sefer Torah.

I know many women don't share this, but I always feel the need to kiss the Sefer Torah. I wasn't sure if the Sefer Torah was going to circulate among the women today.  So after hagbah, after the Sefer Torah was dressed and being held by the magbi'ah, I walked over to where she sat, touched my prayer book  to the Sefer Torah and kissed it. No one told me I wasn't allowed. No one said a word. And I reveled in having that kind of access.

Many years ago, an old friend told me that Gd requires men to gather in a minyan three times a day because, left to their own devices, they are not so good at making friends.

Watching, thinking, processing all that went on today, it's still not clear to me if this is the way Gd expects Jewish women to worship Him. I, myself, don't seem to have been built for communal prayer.

It was so worth it, in the end, to see and experience and admire the spiritual aspirations of committed, knowledgeable Jewish women who are reaching out to Gd in new ways.

Even if those ways are not my own.



Friday, October 14, 2011

The Invisible Jewish Woman

Quick!  Close your eyes and picture a Jew.

For close to 100% of us, the mental image we have will be of a Jewish man.  This despite the dramatic historical advances Jewish women have made in Jewish education, community service and other roles outside the home in the past 100 years.

Back in the Old Country, when I had both discretionary income and wall space, I collected images of Jewish women doing Jewish things.  It was an interesting hobby.  I was able to afford to buy almost everything I saw, because the artwork was so rare.  At the height of my collection, I had maybe a dozen pieces.  They included women baking challah, an old woman with a heavily-lined face, deep in private prayer, women lighting Shabbat candles (the most iconic image of Jewish women) and an unusual painting of a woman, her young son and teenage daughter making havdalah.

I should have held on to more of them, because, if the current trend continues, it may become a crime to produce such works.



There is a trend, certainly in Israel, and possibly in other Jewish communities as well, to eradicate the presence of women, or images of women, from the public eye.

ITEM: Mea She'arim to ban women from certain Jerusalem streets during Sukkot
Out of a self-proclaimed desire to avoid mingling of the genders during public ceremonies related to Sukkot, the men of Mea She'arim have declared that certain streets in their neighborhood, most notably the main drag of Mea She'arim Street, will be off-limits to women. Though blatantly illegal, Shmuel Poppenheim, an unofficial spokesman for the community recently told the Jerusalem Post, "It's not an extreme measure, it's a moderate way of ensuring that the spiritual nature of the Simhat Bet Hashoeva is maintained. There is no need to make a big drama out of it."

ITEM: Last year, a mechitzah was constructed in a public street in Jerusalem to prevent men and women from walking near one another on public streets.


ITEM: The Jerusalem Light Rail produced print ads for certain neighborhoods that explicitly eliminated any images of women.
The Jerusalem Light Rail was trying to be sensitive to the values in certain neighborhoods which prohibit any images of women in ads and other printed materials, so they replaced the image of two women's faces in their safety ads with an image of two men's faces.

ITEM: A major Jewish book publisher had their graphic design team airbrush all the faces of women in their book catalog before it could be inserted in certain Jewish newspapers.

ITEM: Certain Jewish publications, as a matter of editorial policy, will not publish pictures of women, even to the point of digitally-editing news photos.

ITEM: I recently read an ad for a publication looking for a writer which explicitly said that a woman could write the article, but it had to be published in her husband's name. 


ITEM: The issue of Israeli buses which require women to sit in the back of the bus rages on in the courts.  

ITEM: Video and print images of Jews in Israel invariably include exclusively, or at least in the greatest preponderance, images of men - men at the Kotel, men building sukkot, men examining lulavim in the marketplace, men dancing in the streets, men lighting Chanukiot, male soliders, etc.

Of course I recognize that these things men do are captivating, iconic Jewish images.  And yes, I am aware that some women would rather not be pictured, out of a sense of maintaining their own privacy or for fear that men might have a sexually inappropriate reaction to their image.

However, what I see on a regular basis convinces me that this has all gone way beyond reasonable and proceeded deep into extremism.  I am a religious woman who dresses modestly and covers my hair AND it is my strong personal feeling that this trend of making Jewish women invisible has already reached a stage of pathological avoidance. 


There is no way I will ever agree that this sort of behavior brings kedusha. One simply cannot attain holiness at the expense of kavod habriot (the requirement to treat all human beings with dignity).



Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Story of Yom Kippur and Me



What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life
The world would split open. 
– Muriel Rukeyser

This is a story of a Jewish woman who loves God.  This is the story of a Jewish woman who tries very hard, time after time, to pray in a synagogue and feel God's presence.

This is a true story of Yom Kippur and me.

Many years ago, I developed a discomfort with synagogue attendance.  I rarely attend synagogue without pain.  There are two primary sources of pain for me in the synagogue experience and both are, in essence, all about feeling left out.  

Occasionally, but especially on Yom Kippur, when the prayers are so lengthy and unfamiliar, it pains me when I can't find my place in the machzor.  Today, I was lost for at least 30 pages.  When that happens, I am bereft. On Yom Kippur, I am trying so hard to feel God in the tefillot.  Sometimes my machzor has a different nusach than what's being said.  Sometimes things are skipped that I didn't anticipate.  Sometimes I can't make out the words that are being said or sung or the tune is so unfamiliar that I can't participate.  Whenever I don't know what's going on, I cry.

Sometimes my pain comes from the difference between what is accessible to me as a woman and what I sense is accessible to the men in the same shul.  From where women sit, it's impossible to tell when the aron is open.  I can't see the Torah, unless I walk up to the mechitzah during hagbah and lift the curtain.  In the shul we attend most commonly, a man will carry the Torah to the mechitza, open the mechitza for a few seconds to give women a moment to kiss the Torah.  Only a few do.  Whether it's from personal preference, from early conditioning or from the inconvenience of trying to reach the Sefer Torah or something else altogether, I don't know.  But it always pains me that I am barred from nearly all visual and physical contact with the Sefer Torah.

In the shul we attend most frequently, there is much lively singing.  From over the mechitza, I hear and sense a potent energy.  The men dance around the bima, often several times, in nearly every service. Where I sit, there is mostly quiet.  Women fuss with their young children, or sing quietly to themselves.  Even if they do sing, there aren't enough women's voices to blend as a kahal.  So I sit, overwhelmed by the difference between the prayer experience for men and the one that is available to me as an un-man.
  
Today, at the height of feeling left out, I shouted and shook my fists at God.  "Is this what You want?"  I raged.  "Is this how You want it to be?"  I felt left out.  I am hurt that I don't have the same range of spiritual expressions in shul.  It seems a thousand times harder to connect because I can't rely on the energy of those around me to lift me.

This hurt is very, very old.  Many women, even if they felt something like it in the long ago past, have developed a way to deal with it.  My wound is still fresh.  And I still bleed from it.

Sometimes I think I should have evolved past this stage already. I've been living this life for so long and, although synagogue architecture varies a bit, nothing essential has changed from the very first time I experienced a traditional prayer service, decades ago.  In all this time, I have been unable to transcend this pain.  It never stops wounding me. It never stops making me cry. Shouldn't I be past it already?

But the rest of the time I know that I will never evolve beyond it... because it is fundamentally unfair.  It's unfair that men have visual and physical access to the Sefer Torah and I have none.  It's unfair that men circle dance with one another around the bima as an expression of their bond with one another and with God and that pleasure is denied me.  It's unfair that every single visual cue about what is going on in the service is hidden from me.  It's unfair that, a good percentage of the time, I simply feel left out.

I try, truly I do, to transcend this pain and focus on God.  I close my eyes sometimes.  I consider the immediate area around me to be sacred space and I try to keep my eyes in my machzor and not look around, avoiding distractions. I coach myself that it's only about me and God. I remind myself that most women aren't bothered by these things, for if they are, then an awful lot of women are holding it very close to their chests.

I tell myself that this pain, this tension, is a gift from God.  The very presence of my pain demonstrates how much I care, how much I long for experience of plugging in, connecting to the Divine.  If I didn't care, it wouldn't matter. The absence of the ability to connect in shul certainly wouldn't make me cry.  But it does, again and again.

At the very end of Neila, when I am all but drained from a 25-hour fast, from countless hours of physically taxing prayer, from being tossed about by conflicting emotions, from tears and fleeting joy, we shout seven times, in full voice, "Hashem Hu HaElokim" - God, He is God.  I also shouted, as loud as I could, seven times in full voice, just like everyone else.  And then we sing, "L'shana haba b'Yerushalayim," - next year in Jerusalem.  "L'shana haba b'Yerushalyim habenuyah," - next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem.  I close my eyes and imagine being at the airport, greeting the aliyah flights of everyone I love who still lives in America.

I cry again.  But for the first time all of Yom Kippur, it's a good kind of crying. 

In those final moments, something has been restored. My heart is open. I love God and God loves me.
  
Even if I almost never feel Him in shul. 



Sunday, October 02, 2011

Life-Affirming Courage

This may be the first post I've written in a long while that doesn't have anything to do with Israel specifically, but as part of a Rosh Hashana message to family, our cousin sent a link to a powerful video. So far, over 4 million people have seen this video of a talented young man who has overcome extraordinary challenges.  The story it tells makes the spiritual work of the 10 Days of Repentance come to life.

The 8-minute video entertains while illustrating life-affirming courage.  The video is the audition of a young man named Emmanuel Kelly for The X Factor, the Australian version of "American Idol".  Trust me, it's worth the few minutes to watch this one.






Hat tip: E. C. Adler