Monday, August 31, 2009

I Want to be More than a Dreamer.

I don't want to make it big. I don't want to be rich and famous with a house in Florida and another wherever I choose to place my head on any given night.(Although I wouldn't complain.) I just want to make things happen. More importantly, I want to make people happen. I want to help people feel what I feel, about Judaism.

Whoa whoa. I'm not going all proselytizer. I'm talking Jews here. Jews I know and Jews I don't know who are struggling to really feel what it is that I feel. The enthusiasm, the excitement, the passion, the need. Judaism isn't all action, it's emotion. It's intention. Most importantly, it's intention.

More than once recently I've had someone say to me, "Why on EARTH would you want to be Jewish?" followed or connected to something like "I want to know how you feel how you do, how can I feel how you feel?" I wish this feeling worked through osmosis, I'd have everyone on a Jewish high. But it doesn't. And putting it into words is equally difficult. But it's all I really want to do.

How do I translate everything? How do I convert to words how it feels looking at the havdalah flame, and why it makes my eyes well up? How do I divulge how it feels to be surrounded by song, by voices in a chaotic mess of beauty, singing praises to HaShem -- whether they're all fully involved or just going through the motions? The words may be coming from empty mouths, but when they penetrate my ears? I feel something beautiful.

I see fellow converts being interviewed, questions asked about their unique experience, their story on the road to Judaism, and I'd like to be one of those people. But I'd like how I feel to be more important than how I got here. The uniqueness of my story less important than the way that I do my Judaism now. I could be brown, white, black, red, yellow, green, but I think it's a lot less important than how I feel about everything. My family story, that I knew not a single Jewish soul until I'd already chosen to convert, is so minor in comparison to how I can inspire born Jews and those doing Judaism for their whole lives and more.

Does it make me a preacher? A proselytizer? Or just enthusiastic? Or maybe, without action and merely words, I'm just hopeful. I'm a dreamer. I'm dreaming of the perfect tikkun olam. The tikkun of the spirit of Judaism. I don't want people to feel like this guy. I want them to be excited, passionate, hopeful, full of intention.

It's great to walk into a public function and for someone I've never met to say "I've read your blog!" or "I know you from the internet!" But more importantly I want them to say "You said something that has changed my world, that has made me search, that has inspired me and given me hope in who we are."

Afterall, I am the Kvetching Editor.

Sof sof (finally/at last), I'm back on campus in my brand new dorm room. I requested a change in rooms because my knees are horrible and schlepping up and down the stairs on rainy or snowy days was killer on my cartilage-free leg benders. So now I'm in a first-floor room, in what I'm guessing is a dorm dedicated to individuals with physical disabilities. I was stoked. First floor, easy entrance, my legs are feelin' good.

And then, well, the room I'm in is a mess. A mess because it smells like mold. Or feces. I can't decide which. I complained to housing and they sent someone here on Friday, they say they cleaned the carpet, leaving a big fan in the room that has been running since then, to dry the carpet. The carpet? Still wet. The room? Still smells. I even have a diffuser in here. I can't smell it.

Listen, I know, I kvetch. I should do more editing, but mostly I kvetch. But I've got a host of allergies and bucket full of history with asthma. Mold isn't good for folks like me. It's horrible. So I sent another email. I'm hoping that when I wake up in the morning, magically my room will smell like Vanilla Sugar or Cinnamon Sugar or whatever my little reed diffuser is supposed to smell like. And if not? I might have to take some drastic measures. I suppose the benefit of this whole ordeal is maybe I could slink out of my housing contract, get the money, get a place in West Hartford, buy a cheap-o car, and live Real Style. (Wishful and completely not-doable thinking.)

So this semester I am taking three courses: Hebrew, Midrashic Literature, and Sexual Politics (aka, women in Tanakh). I'm hoping Hebrew goes easily, that I get a new gig (maybe as a TA?), that I really focus and figure out what I want to study (precisely), and that I can land some stellar letters of recommendations and submit some outstanding applications to PhD programs. It's going to be a long and toiling semester, but I think that what I have lined up for myself personally and academically will keep me really busy and really stimulated. Wish me luck.

Oh, and pray for me. This room might kill me ...

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Kosher Stumbling Block ...

I learned a new hardship of kashrut today.

While walking through BJ's (the big-box store like CostCo or Sam's Club) for some necessities (and some non-necessities like Dunkaroos, a delicious snack of cookies and frosting from my childhood that happens to be kosher), I was accosted by the "chefs" dishing out food. Now, a few of the options were kosher -- MorningStar Burgers? Yes. But G-d knows what else they made in that little oven/grill thing they were using. Not that I like MorningStar Burgers. But I'd never really thought about it before. There are, indeed, situations where there are people shoving food at you in a public arena, and some of those folks are elderly and they're pushy like Bubbe and you really just want to grab a nosh to get a grin and a cheek-pinch. But no, you can't. So what did I do?

I ignored the cute little old people shoving otherwise kosher food at me. I kept my eyes on the prize. The Dunkaroos in my cart.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Help Me Go to Israel!

I know, I know. I'm asking a lot of you, my faithful blog readers, but this one is seriously BIG, and I need your help FAST and in BIG numbers.

I'm a graduate student without income and without funds to call my own. If I could attend the Second Annual Jewish Bloggers Convention in Israel on my own accord, you know I'd be there. Israel and Blogging all in one shot? That's my dream vacation. Unfortunately, right now I'm just slated to watch from a computer somewhere with Tuvia, chatting with fellow bloggers in the little chat room while all the in-person attendees get to share in the joys of LIVE blogging goodness.

LUCKILY, there's a contest. Yes, a contest for someone, some special and one-of-a-kind blogger to snag a free trip to Israel for the conference, sponsored by Nefesh B'Nefesh. In addition to the free ticket, I'd be blogging about one of the families making Aliyah on the Nefesh B'Nefesh flight. All you have to do is go to the website, vote for me, and write about it on your blog -- make it happen, for me. The flight would be Monday, September 7, 2009.

What's in it for you? Israel tchotchkes and lots of photos of the entire experience.


I was recently contacted about something that I absolutely have to share with the masses, and I'm hoping you all will get excited about it and take part in the voting process. Yes, I said voting process.

I'm sure you all have heard about SXSW -- the "South-by-Southwest" Music Festival that takes place in Austin every year. It's one of the nation's biggest music festivals, and it now features one of the world's biggest and most popular New Media Festivals, the SXSW Interactive Festival. A social media proponent contacted me because he has submitted a panel for approval for the Interactive Festival -- Judaism 2.0. From the author, Justin Oberman, the panel is described as such: "In a world that has become somewhat hostile, this panel will explore the different avenues Jews have started using New Media to talk about Judaism, Religion and Israel."

As you all know, I fancy myself a Web 2.0/New Media guru. All you have to do is Google search "Kvetchingeditor" and you'll find my profile/pages on Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, Blogger, LinkedIn, and every other big site out there. I'm a firm believer in the power of the Internet as a tool to connect and grow the Jewish community (and the greater communities of the world, at that). So what better a venue for such connections to be built and -- better yet explained -- than at one of the biggest music and interactive festivals out there?

So this is where you guys come in. I need you to spread the word about this panel, and to go to the SXSW festival website and VOTE in favor of the panel. Justin tells me that although the panel selection is not completely in the hands of voters, it largely is. So I need you guys to vote, vote, and vote some more. If we play our cards right, I might be featured on the panel since I love to gush about the joys of Twitter and Blogging in the frame of Torah Judaism!So go ahead, head over, VOTE, and let me know what you think about the panel and if you have any ideas or suggestions. I'm sure Justin would love to hear them. Also, be sure to look out for his upcoming blog.

Oh, and in case you are confused by all the links, please just click HERE!!!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Parshah Ki Teitzei: Unite to Fight

This week's parshah, Ki Teitzei, comprises 74 of the 613 mitzvot found in the Torah. That's a big chunk of important stuff, if you ask me. Thus, I'd like to offer some thoughts -- but the thoughts of Rabbi Marc D. Angel in his weekly Angel for Shabbat column, delivered conveniently to my inbox. You can sign up for the mailing right here.
There is a [...] kind of hatred which is totally baseless. This is the hatred symbolized by Amalek. Amalek offered no justification for its opposition to Israel; it had nothing to gain by attacking the Israelites. Amalek was imbued with pure and undiluted anti-Israelite sentiments. This kind of hatred, so totally unfounded and irrational, is much more difficult to eradicate. Therefore, the Torah commands us to be exceedingly vigilant regarding this latter kind of hatred, typified by Amalek.
Sadly, this irrational hatred of Jews has been passed by Amalek throughout the generations, up to our own day. There are those who hate Jews, hate Israel with a blind, irrational hatred. They have nothing to gain from hurting us, and have no reason to cause us ill. Yet, they seem to be infected with a disease of hatred for which they cannot  be (or do not wish to be) cured. For them, Israel and the Jews are always wrong. Don't confuse them with facts.
Rabbinic tradition teaches that Israel can defeat Amalek by strengthening our own spiritual condition. When we live according to the highest teachings and values of Torah, when we live in a spirit of love and compassion, then we undermine the forces of Amalek.
This is not a theoretical discussion. The Jewish community needs to mobilize itself to uproot the forces of Amalek in our world. Baseless hatred against us will not simply disappear on its own. Oppression of Jews will not suddenly come to a halt through wishful thinking. Rather, we need to utilize all legitimate methods available to us to help eradicate anti-Semitism, and to work with all people of good will who share our dream of a world freed from irrational hatred, bigotry and violence.
I think this is a constant and important message. Although on the same note, across the Jewish blog-o-sphere these days, not to mention in everyday conversation and at Shabbat tables, people are talking about the dangerous and catastrophic infighting the greater Jewish community is facing. Am Yisrael is suffering, but not from what's going on around us, what's going on within us. How can we unite to fight our enemies if we can't get over our differences as Jews? So let's quit opressing one another and focusing on uplifting ourselves spiritually to fight the "forces of Amalek" that the rabbi talks about. We're an everlasting people. It's time we acted like it!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Simcha Photos!

I give to you, the slideshow! These are all the photos from this weekend's simcha -- the wedding of Shaina and Jonathan in Olney, MD. It was my first Jewish wedding, and it was just as I expected it would be. It was loud, there was tons of dancing, delicious food, and tons of people. The chuppah ceremony itself was shorter than I thought it would be, but it was out in the heat and humidity and all the men were decked out in full suits sweating beads! The music was emotional and haunting, setting the stage for years of what I only hope is marital bliss. Tuvia joked with the rabbi about doing a 2-for-1 special -- but by the time we looked out, the chuppah was down! Overall, I can only imagine what my someday chuppah and wedding festivities will be like. I can only hope for half of the joy that I experienced over the weekend!

Get the flash player here:

Inauthentic: Laughing Off My Judaism

The more observant I become (i.e. the more mitzvot I take on), the more I find myself saying something interesting to non-Jews and Jews who are less mitzvot-driven. People tend to respond to a lot of the things that I do with a "Seriously?" or "Really?" or "That's so out of date." I find myself, more and more, thinking to myself "These people think I'm crazy, and I get that I sound crazy." As a result, I end up saying things like, "I know, right? It's nuts, isn't it?"

The thing about this, is that I don't really think the things I'm doing are crazy. I understand them, I do the mitzvot because I know and feel in my heart that they're right. But the more I talk with people unlike me in their observance, I find myself needing to defend how I approach Judaism in a sarcastically awkward way.

"You know, it's sooo weird, and like, I don't really get it, but it's what I do because, you know...!"

Could I be more inauthentic? Could I be more inaccurate? I sat down with some friends recently (all non-Jews, save for one who is a self-described Reform Jew), and I explained to them how I got to where I am and some of the things that I do on a day-to-day basis, including some Shabbos details. These are all good friends of mine, and they're all people I knew in college when my path in Judaism was the Reform path and it wasn't completely outward that I was trekking in the direction that would lead me here, in Orthodoxy. They wanted to understand, and I wanted them to understand. But I didn't want to sound nuts.

We have this Shabbos lamp, a Jew can't help me on Shabbos, but a non-Jew can -- but only if I don't ask! I have to hint, only hint. Why? Well ... it's sorta nuts, but ... 

I do think, however, that it's more comfortable explaining my observance to non-Jews than it is to Jews. There's something particularly difficult about describing my observance to Jews, born Jews, who don't always understand or want to understand how someone could be Orthodox. It's archaic, it's ridiculous, it's stupid, it's unnecessary. We all suffer the fate of being different in Judaism. From one person to the other. It's just hard when you want someone to understand and end up downplaying the importance, significance, and beauty of the things that you do.

Is this normal? Do you find yourself sort of laughing off why you have to wait several hours between meat and milk? Or why it's 90 degrees outside and you're wearing a long-sleeve shirt? Do you find yourself talking to people about your Judaism as if it's not nearly as important as it truly is, simply because you don't want them to think you're nuts? That you've flown off the deep end? How do you reconcile this social quirk, this behavior that -- in my case -- leaves one feeling sort of empty and fake, inauthentic, and ultimately sad.

Monday, August 24, 2009

What a Weekend. Wait for the Post!

I'm shocked to say that I lost a follower recently ... I went from 50 (on Google Blogs "follow" function that you see on the right there) to 49. Who did I lose? Why did I lose them? I'm sort of upset.

But on a happier note, I was included in the 231st edition of Haveil Havalim with my "Kosher Catfish" post! What a story to be spread throughout the World Wide Web, eh? (Does anyone say World Wide Web anymore?)

There will be photos and posts coming soon about my weekend here in Olney, MD. I was in town with Tuvia for the wedding of his cousin at an outstanding shul with an amazing community. It was, to be honest, my first Jewish wedding. It was everything I thought it would be and so much more.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Shabbat in Vermont.

I spent seven Shabbats in Middlebury, Vermont. Seven long and mostly lonely Shabbats. Let me elaborate on a Shabbat, any Shabbat, since most were similar.

The campus Hillel, which I attended only once, decided to hold services at 5:30 p.m. every Friday. This, actually, was the reason I stopped attending, because with Shabbat coming in at 8:30 or so, I couldn't bring myself to bring it in so early. I'd go to class every day until 3 p.m., run some quick errands, and then return to my sweltering dorm for a quick pre-dinner/pre-Shabbos shower. I'd hop over to the cafeteria for our 6:30-7:30 alloted time for dinner, grab the challah and a bottle of juice if we needed it, and then schlep off with fellow celebrators to the portable trailer (sort of an impermanent house) where our professor, who was shomer Shabbos, lived.

Everyone would gather, slowly. We'd sing a few songs, light tealights, and then make kiddush over the university-made challah and some university-purchased Kedem grape juice. We'd then gather, the 15 or so of us, in the living room to sing songs for about an hour. Most of the songs I didn't know, and the ones that I did know, the tunes were unfamiliar. But seeing everyone together was a little spark of light for the day for me. After an hour or hour and a half, we'd bensch and everyone would go their separate ways -- to parties, to hang, to whatever. Typically I'd return to my room and read, or hang out in the salon with a few people to talk.

I'd get to bed pretty late, after reading the parshah or something else, then wake up on Saturday around 10 or 10:30 for the 11 a.m. "story time" in the Salon. Yes, we had story time on Shabbat. I'll admit that it was awkward, but absolutely delightful because it was interesting to hear classic Hebrew children's stories. After stories we'd all go to lunch, and after that? The day sort of drifted into nothingness.

Sometimes I walked. One day I walked out to a local garden and sat in a make-shift hut for about an hour, just listening to the wind and enjoying the shade and quiet. Other days I'd return to my room, read a bit, and then try to sleep. Most days my efforts to nap were met with sweat from the heat of my room, and sleeping was quickly scratched from the options list. Some days I'd merely sit around. Sit in the salon and watch the world go by around me. A few times I went to the cafeteria when it opened at 5, grabbed a glass of water, and sat outside just watching everything and everybody.

Dinner was from 6:30 to 7:30, and afterward we'd head back the salon and sit. I, waiting for Shabbos to end, others waiting for Shabbos to end so we could start our post-Shabbos required activities -- classes, movies, events. Before havdalah, I'd trek to the trailer to sit, chat, sing, and eventually make havdalah. There were usually just a few of us there, everyone else already heading to the required events planned the moment Shabbat ended. Havdalah went quickly, Shavua Tovs were issued, and we'd all run for whatever building our event was in.

It never really felt like anything started or stopped. There was no Shabbos meal, nobody sitting around discussing the community or Judaism or world events. Most people studied on Shabbat while I didn't -- I studied, worked, six days a week. Shabbat was my chance to not work. There were no long conversations at long Shabbos tables until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Everything was done by 1 p.m. It was tiring, missing REAL Shabbat. The shomer professor did what she could, and she gave us what she could. It was something, but it wasn't what I needed. I think I felt like so much was missing because Shabbat was missing. The passion and prayer and community was missing.

But now, I'm back. I'm here, with meals and conversation and prayer and passion. I know that so much of what we do in Judaism we often have to make happen for ourselves. But sometimes, you need more than that. A man living in Siberia can be as spiritual as possible, but without a community, he's just a man.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ruins Found in ... Parking Lot?

I'd like to give a hat tip to The Muqata for bringing this story about a newly found Roman mansion that was destroyed during an earthquake in the 4th century.
A "magnificent" two-story Roman mansion of more than 1,000 square meters has been discovered by archeologists in the City of David Archeological Park outside the capital's Old City, the Antiquities Authority announced on Monday.
Previously, archeologist believed 3rd century Roman ruins extended only to the edge of the Ottoman Old City walls. The discovery of the mansion within the Givati parking lot, outside the walls and adjacent to the City of David, however, suggests Roman construction may have stretched to the bottom of the Silwan Valley, Dr. Doron Ben-Ami, the excavation's director, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
"This discovery was very surprising," Ben-Ami said. "We didn't expect to find any Roman building remains within the City of David. We were astonished at how huge the structure is. So far we uncovered 1,000 square meters and the structure still extends beyond the limits of the excavation area."
The find has already revolutionized historians' understanding of Roman settlement in Jerusalem, he said.
For more, read the whole megillah.

Kosher Catfish? I think not.

Grab a stiff drink, a comfortable chair, and brace yourself for a most horrid tale. The tale of the Kosher Catastrophe in Central Vermont. Where do I begin? I'm worried this post will end up a lot longer than you're all willing to read, so I'll just start. I have no intentions of blasting any hecksher or rabbi, but this situation should make you all exceedingly wary of what you eat and from where you eat it.

When I signed up for school in Vermont at Middlebury College, I signed up for kosher food. The documents didn't state what the hecksher was, the specifications of the kitchen, or whether there was a mashgiach on the premises. When I was told that there was a kosher kitchen with kosher food, and that it opened in 2008 when Brandeis teamed up with Middlebury for a new Hebrew ulpan-style program, I trusted that the folks in charge knew what they were doing. After all, Brandeis has a kosher kitchen, and they know their Judaism.

I arrived on campus on Friday, June 26, and for the first three days ate salad from the salad bar and the "airplane style" kosher meals they had available. They didn't tell us that they weren't starting kosher operations until the first day of CLASSES, not the move-in day. I was perturbed, but forgave them. From June 29 to July 20, all was well in the kosher food world at Middlebury. That is, of course, aside from the fact that everything was doused in oil to a point of inedibility, that it was the same food over and over (rice/grain + veggies + small piece of bread), and that the portions were small enough that a few of the girls ate two of the packaged meals for every meal. I forgave the kitchen their oil and their portions. I ate, and I was thankful for kosher food.

And then, on July 20, in the evening, I plodded into the cafeteria to our special container with our special kosher food, opened the latch, peered inside, and saw several different containers. On one side were small containers of cooked fish and on the other side were containers with vegetables. How weird, I thought to myself. Then, I picked up the ingredients list and the first item on the list: "CATFISH." Yes, catfish. That sneaky little unkosher fish was in my kosher meal, but conveniently placed in a separate container from the vegetables. Why? I wondered.

We complained immediately to the guy who deals with us sometimes in the cafeteria, and he said he'd call the kosher kitchen, but that they wouldn't get the message until the morning. The shomer professor spoke to the program head and we were told the next day, Tuesday, that they had rekashered the kitchen that morning after calling the rabbi who grants them their hecksher. At that point, I was eager to find out A) who this rabbi is and B) if this hecksher is legitimate. Many people proceeded to go ahead and eat the food that came out of the kitchen, but I had my doubts and I continued to express my opinion. After much pushing, we landed a meeting with the head of dining services on July 27. Boy were our eyes opened.

It turns out the hecksher is Tablet K, the rabbi is Rabbi Rafael Saffra, and the kitchen is only open for kosher food during the summer. This means that the folks running the kitchen have only 7 prior weeks from summer 2008 under their belt, are not trained in kosher cooking, and that -- perhaps worst of all -- there was no mashgiach in the MEAT kitchen. The rabbi visits the campus at the beginning of each summer (which means he's visited all of twice), and gives all of his advice and guidance on kashrut from a great distance. Basically, Tablet K took the money and ran, which appears to be their M.O. We also found out that the guy who makes all the food realized, almost instantly, that the fish wasn't kosher. Making it fishy (har har) that he even made the product. I'm guessing this is why it was packaged separately for our consuming pleasure. The campus rabbi was less than excited to help or discuss the issue, and he was of no help in the situation. I expressed a desire for the kitchen to be rekashered -- that was the only way I'd eat anything out of the kitchen. I was told that it WAS rekashered (though without supervision by ANYONE). The rabbi didn't offer to rekasher, and neither did the school.

Over the next three weeks, a lot of things happened. I was forced to explain to people just about every day why I wasn't eating the kosher food. My rabbi, who by all accounts is not ultra anything, advised me not to consume the food from the "kosher" kitchen. After this, people asked me frequently, "Is your rabbi a Chabadnik?" as if the food is kosher enough for everyone else, why not me? I ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cottage cheese with pears, and other fruit. I ended up losing 7 pounds throughout the summer, and whether my measly food options played into this, we'll never know. I pushed for the program head to call Chabad in the city just north of where we were, because I knew that the rabbi there would be more than stoked to rekasher our kitchen. It turns out he was, but only if we had a full-time mashgiach, which we didn't. They didn't have the money and the efforts to find a pro-bono were met with nothing. I got a lot of sad looks and apologies as I shoveled pears into my mouth, but that was about it.

The constant frustration from those around me at my stern choice not to consume the kosher food was alienating. We were given the option of touring the kitchen on Tisha B'Av, which we did. We found a lot of Hebrew National, a few items without heckshers, and a handy-dandy list on the bulletin board with the largest 10 or 12 heckshers that are legit by all accounts (OU, Circle K, CrC, etc.), but was Tablet K on the list? Heck no. We asked the cook if he bothers to use the list. We pointed out that neither Tablet K nor Triangle K are on the list, so chances are he shouldn't be using them. He seemed clueless. I felt bad for him. Here he is, this cook trying to make kosher meals without a clue in the world. It seemed that they shoved a bunch of books at him and sent him on his way. That's no way to run a kosher kitchen, and it's deplorable that Tablet K and Rabbi Safra would be willing to stamp their hecksher on such a kitchen. Deplorable.

So I ate my crap food and everyone gave me looks of pity. "Is that enough to eat?" and "Everyone else is eating the kosher food, you know?" And then right before the last week, I was told that there's a kosher caterer in the city north of us that caters sometimes to Chabad and that the last week of classes there will be kosher food for every evening meal. Eegads! I was elated. I was stoked. I was coming down with a cold/flu thing and I was so excited to eat real, real, real food. After watching my compatriots scarf pizza and burgers and fries and cake and cookies every day, I was ready. My day had come. REAL kosher food. I was two seconds away from forgiving the universities all their failings. And then?

  • Yom Rishon (Sunday): Kosher food! Veggies and Mac and Cheese and Blueberry Crumble!
  • Yom Sheni (Monday): Kosher food! I was sick, but ate a few potatoes with GLEE.
  • Yom Shlishi (Tuesday): Kosher food? Nada. Sorry. No dice. Why? No clue. No explanation.
  • Yom Revi'i (Wednesday): Kosher food! For the banquet. Steak, eggplant and potatoes. Yum! (Sorta.)
  • Yom Chamishi (Thursday): Nope. No kosher food. Sorry, No dice. 
  • Friday (Yom Shishi) I returned to Connecticut and G-d bless my friends for making me banquet-style meals for Shabbat. 

I paid $2,500 for room and board. I paid $2,500 for seven weeks of a room without air conditioning filled with bugs and mosquitos with a bathroom light that broke a week before classes ended (and no one bothered to repair it -- peeing in the dark was an adventure) and cottage cheese with pears for roughly three weeks. I think I deserve some money back.

I can't really put into words how angry I am about the entire situation. I try to laugh about it, but in the long run, it's not funny. The president of the university has a kosher kitchen in his home, with his own personal chef. Why didn't he play into this? Why did it take them two weeks to figure out that there was a kosher caterer a half-hour away? And why couldn't they put up MY MONEY to buy me some edible kosher food? Why did everyone feel like I was over-reacting? Was I over-reacting? At this point, I don't feel comfortable suggesting this program to anyone who is shomer anything.

I wanted to talk to the head of dining services after the incident, to tell him to give my rabbi a call, to look into getting a new hecksher, and to explain exactly WHY the kitchen wasn't truly kosher and to explain what should be happening in the kitchen. I'm no expert, but I could offer my two cents and send them the way of my rav, who is the head of the local kashrut committee. But I was told that I had to go through a series of channels in order to do this. In the end? I never got the chance to talk to him. I wanted to call the rabbi at Tablet K, but I was told (by the campus rabbi) that we shouldn't contact him directly. At every point I was turned down. I felt patronized. Like I was a pain in the side of everyone there because I wanted to hold them to a standard of kashrut that was, well, plain ole kashrut. It wasn't like I wanted them to be Israel-only products or that I wanted to be there when they were cooking. I just wanted kosher food! Criminey.

So this is the saga. I'm sure some of you will say I'm nuts. Others will say I didn't do enough to change the situation. Some of you will probably say that posting this is really bad. But, you know, it's my experience and story. And the universities will hear about it.

In the meantime, I thank the rabbis who listened to me and gave me advice and offered their assistance. I thank the friends that offered to send me food, and I thank the friends that made me food upon my return. This issue, I think, will be one of ongoing proportions, but I'm willing to handle it. B'ezrat haShem, maybe next year the school will get its matzo balls in a row and produce some REAL food with a REAL mashgiach and a REAL hecksher.

Help a Biker (in the bicycle sense) Out!

I know you're all dying to read my catfish post (which I'm working on), but more important right now is that I have a friend in need of some sponsorship help. He's a wonderful and genuine spirit that I came in contact with at my Hebrew bootcamp this summer, and he's a bike-riding maniac. So he's taking part in the 2009 New York Jewish Environmental Bike Ride and here's Getzel's spiel:
Over Labor Day weekend, I’m planning to be one of over 200 riders in Hazon’s 2009 Jewish Environmental Bike Ride! We will ride 100 miles into Manhattan over two days. I have taken on this challenge to help raise environmental awareness, and to add the Jewish community's voice to calls for environmental responsibility. The money raised from this Ride will be used to support Hazon’s year-round work with food in the Jewish community. The funds are also distributed to support innovative environmental projects here and in Israel. You can read more information about where the money will go at
How can you help? Visit his page and donate a little bit of cash. Make it something memorable, maybe $18 to symbolize life (חי)! Or maybe a multiple? Either way, I know the economy is tough, but sometimes the warm fuzzies are worth it if you can put a few bucks toward something outstanding.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Haveil Havalim

The newest edition of Haveil Havalim is up over at one of my top five most favorite blogs, that of the one and only Mottel! I'm super happy he included my first post back in the English-speaking blog-o-verse.

So go over, read his blog, marvel at his amazing photography, and don't forget to wish him many mazels since he's still a newlywed.

Tickling Leo!

I wrote a while back about a new movie coming out -- Tickling Leo. The film won the 2009 Jury Award for Best Feature at the 2009 Stony Brook Film Festival!From the makers of the film:
Set around the days of Yom Kippur, Tickling Leo is a contemporary drama that follows three generations of one Jewish family whose secrets threaten to wipe away its future.  When he loses touch with his estranged father, Zak Pikler (Daniel Sauli) and his pregnant girlfriend Delphina (Annie Parisse) travel to an abandoned Catskills lake where the eccentric poet Warren Yitzchak Pikler (Lawrence Pressman) is living in solitude and declining health. As Zak copes with his father's dementia, Delphina inadvertently uncovers a secret the Piklers have been hiding since World War II: an impossible sacrifice they made in order to join Rudolph Kasztner’s controversial train out of Hungary.
I'm happy to announce that the film will be opening in New York on September 4, 2009, and locations can be found on their website. So if you're in the area, you should most definitely make plans to be THERE (after Shabbat, of course). If you can't make it out, the DVD will also be going on sale around the same time with plenty of extra and fascinating features, so head to Did I mention Mary Stuart Masterson (of "Fried Green Tomatoes" and "Benny and Joon") is one of the producers? Expect quality folks! Once again, the trailer:

Reintegration Ain't Easy.

I'm warning you now: There are going to be a lot of Ulpan posts in the coming two weeks. I'll be writing about the catfish/kosher food fiasco, being observant and in a program where I was definitely not the norm, and more. The catfish issue will BLOW your mind. Here's a preview of how I feel:
But now. At long last (sof sof), I have returned to the English-speaking world. On Thursday night, halfway through our end-of-the-program party in the Juice Bar of the campus's "student center," the teachers all climbed on stage, boogied a bit, and did a countdown in Hebrew to announce that we could speak English. All the students (all 38 of us or so) stood there, counting, in anticipation, and the moment that pledge was up, the students were blabbering at light speed, running from person to person screaming "Say something to me in English!" There were some students that hadn't showed up until after the pledge, so we actually had no clue what people sounded like. It was outrageously funny -- a girl with a deep lusty Hebrew accent spoke in English with a heavy New York accent; the guy with the deep gronit (throaty) Hebrew voice had a much higher voice in English; the teachers all had exceedingly heavy Israeli accents.

But after the party, after Evan and I hopped onto the road and headed back to Connecticut, and after I entered the community for Shabbat, it really hit me that there was this divide, this difference, this unfortunate alienation because of my language experience in Vermont. Maybe alienation is too strong of a word. I found myself throughout the weekend exhausted, thinking about how weird it was to be around all these English conversations. At shul people walked up to me and spoke in Hebrew with a heavy American accent, I spoke to a guy who had a nice accent who was fluent, and I spoke to my Israeli friends in Hebrew -- mostly without hesitation, but with that over-arching fear that I was going to screw something up. A day out of bootcamp and I was anxious as hell that I was going to mispronounce a word or use a masculine verb instead of feminine. The anxiety. Oy. I woke up Saturday morning after a delicious REAL kosher meal on Friday night (oh the delicious Italian, thanks hosts!), and said to Evan "maybe coming to the community wasn't such a good idea."

It's sort of like returning to some place you lived for years, only to realize that everything's changed. New people, changes, new things. But it wasn't all that, it was that I wasn't sure how to talk to people. I'm sure the experience would have been the same anywhere. I'm guessing I'll feel like this for a long time. Wanting desperately to speak in Hebrew but not being sure if it's right or acceptable or if anyone will understand me. At the same time, worrying that what I'm saying won't be right. It's a teeter-tottering flux of anxiety.

On Saturday afternoon I crawled into bed. I snuck out of the room, out of the conversation, and crawled into bed to rest. I wanted quiet. I wanted peace. Although I'd been in the middle of nowhere for seven weeks, I'd spent 24 hours a day 7 days a week speaking Hebrew nestled within a group of 38 other people. Every minute and second of my time there was spent doing something, and because the subject was Hebrew, it never felt like I was just hanging out. I was never just being Chavi. I was always working, thinking, studying.

As a result, I felt like I didn't sleep for seven weeks. (Okay, I didn't much. We didn't have air conditioning, it was hot as hades, and the homework and studying kept me constantly going.)

Did I come out on the other end of the program in a better position than I was before? Yes and no. I can write better, I can speak better. I don't feel that I can read better or understand the spoken word any better. Part of the summer left me alienated as an "observant" Jew, and part of the summer left me feeling excited about my classmates and THEIR excitement about Judaism. I managed to discover some interesting perspectives on the Middle East conflict from my classmates from Palestine, too. I learned that images can be horrifying, and that people can be judgmental. I learned that we live in a big world, with a lot of people, and that in the end, we all want the same thing. I also learned that we all don't learn the same.

As I mentioned, I'm beat, still. I've slept a lot the past few days, and I still feel exhausted. My mind has finally stopped running around in Hebrew, and it's part of why I'm so anxious, but at least I'm sleeping.

Right now, I'm just scared that without the immersion, I'm going to lose it all.

But on a much, much happier note: I got to see one of my most AWESOME and most intelligent friends, @kosheracademic and her family in New Haven for some yummy kosher food. It wasn't nearly enough time to talk about the past year of our lives, but it felt like it's only been a few days. Boy do I miss her.

Friday, August 14, 2009

I went Waltzing with Bashir.

I'm writing this post on Saturday, August 9, 2009. It's 12:30 in the evening, or morning rather, and I find it difficult to go to bed without writing this. Of course, the language pledge still has about four or five days to go, and this is technically outside the bounds of what I should (read: should) be doing, but I don't think that I can really give it my all in Hebrew. I've discovered that speaking in Hebrew and even writing in Hebrew is like poetry with every word. Of course, my poetry isn't graceful or punctuated properly, but the sound of Hebrew is like honey on the tongue. It's the language of my neshama, the language of my family.

Tonight we watched, as a group, as part of the Middlebury Film Festival, "Waltz With Bashir." The showing was open to the public and a lot of people from the other Language Schools came. There were English subtitles (as I write this I'm thinking in Hebrew, it's bizarre), which made the movie breathable. I don't know how many of you have seen the movie, but it's been acclaimed since it's release last year (I think, and am too tired to look it up on the internet right now), even being nominated for an Oscar. For the longest time I didn't know what the movie was about, and I didn't take the time to look it up. I assumed it was about one of the many battles Israel has waged in the fight for life. By life, I mean the right to exist, the right to live in a land where, so far, we've paid a heavy price to live. I didn't know, precisely, that the movie was about a conflict with Lebanon, a conflict that left a generation of Israelis locked inside the cage of their own bodies, minds, and hearts.

It's interesting, because my roommate here is from Lebanon. I'm a convert to Judaism with a deep and unshakable connection to Israel because I know, in my heart of hearts, that I stood at Sinai all those years ago for the b'rit. There have been many conversations here, some peppered with English because the Hebrew was too hard to muster in a flurry about Gaza, the West Bank, Palestinians, the right for everyone to live, in one way or another, somewhere. It's been hard, and it's been complicated, and I think tonight made things all the more complicated and frustrated. M'tuskelet.

The film (true) told about the soldiers of the IDF during the 1982 Lebanon war. It told of the soldiers who, 20 years after the fact, had mostly crawled inside themselves, memories being something locked in the chambers of the mind. Some experienced this more than others, and the story's main character had all but repressed every memory of the conflict except one. By the end of the film, he's pieced together everything and the images that come pouring out are earth-shattering, horrid, traumatizing. And the film ends with not the caricatures and animation of the rest of the film, but with real moving pictures post-massacre in Sabra and Shatila. The gist of the situation was that Israeli soldiers sat idly by as Christian Philangists massacred anywhere between 300 and 3,500 Palestinian and Lebanese people ... including women and children and the elderly. Some men had crosses hatched into their bodies by the Lebanese Forces Christian group. The IDF sat on the outskirts as a stronghold, thinking that the LFC was inside clearing out civilians before they took down terrorists or something of that sort. The soldiers saw what was really happening, informed someone who informed someone else and after two days of this, the IDF sent off the Christians.

The film, important in that it depicts an event that is horrifying to consider even today, is also important in another, different way, because it depicts what so many people are unwilling to talk about after incidents of severe trauma: memory. I think about Poland after World War II and the absolute neglect to reflect on the war and its casualties at the hands of peasants. I think about how even today some countries are unwilling to have a conversation about the Shoah. The church itself took some time to consider the events of the Shoah. I think about the soldiers that return from war in Afghanistan and Iraq and how shell-shocked they are, how they crawl inside themselves like soldiers did in post-Vietnam America. Are we servicing them correctly? Repression is the way out after traumatic events, but where does it get us? If we can't learn from our mistakes immediately, then we are bound to repeat them immediately. If we take 20 or 30 years to reflect on our misdeeds, missteps and the horrors that we've experienced, that's 20 or 30 years in which we can repeat or allow events to be repeated. The cycle is one that will inevitably repeat itself time and time again without question. It's an unhealthy and dangerous cycle. If we refuse to discuss, we refuse to resolve, we refuse to promise "never again" about all things heinous and wrong.

On the other hand (from perhaps a completely incomparable side), I think about my father. His parents died separately when he was just a kid. His mom when he was 8 and his dad when he was 10 or so. To this day my father claims to have no memories of them. Small things, like a scent or something. But no concrete memories. I'll admit that I don't remember a lot from when I was 8 or 10, but I remember enough to know that my father could remember more than he does. But the trauma of losing your parents (his mom to cancer and his father to a sudden heart attack) at such a young age is shell-shocking. The body and the brain don't know what to do with the memories and the emotions, so they get shoved into the corners and forgotten about. How can I help him remember? Should he remember? I think it's important. I think it's necessary. An entire life he's lived with those memories somewhere, affecting everything he's done and said and felt. I just think that he doesn't know it or accept it.

But I'm no psychologist.

My feelings about the movie are so mixed. On the one hand I'm devastated that Israel stood idly by and let the Christian Philangists commit such horrible acts of slaughtery. On the other hand I'm just confused. I can't blame the soldiers because in Israel they are merely soldiers -- men and women off the street. It's not voluntary and they're not all heros and body builders. The movie proved one thing: The Isreali soldier is weak, afraid, and imperfect. In essence, they're human.

And as history has proved, humans do some pretty flippin' stupid things sometimes. All the time. If we're not at war with ourselves we're at war with each other. Wars of words that turn into wars with bombs and guns.

The dynamic here is interesting. There are four students here with strong ties to the Palestinians. There are a lot of Jews. And there are a handful of Christians. What a film to show such a group, eh?

I've run out of words for this post, though. I'm not sure what the point was or if there was one, or if I just needed to write something to someone in the ether. My jaw aches from being clinched all night, and I don't know if I'll be able to sleep. The amount of work that needs to be done in the next four or five days is infinitesimal and I need to be focused. Right now my brain is a mess of thoughts and images. Mostly the images. There were a lot of comparisons made between what the people did in South Lebanon to what the Nazis did to the Jews in the film. I don't think that the IDF was comparable to the Nazis, but I also don't think we can pit numbers of dead against numbers of dead. The actions are what need to be weighed. I'm disappointed in Israel, so soon after the Shoah and with the generations in Lebanon then being the children of survivors. I can't say I always understand what Israel does in the fight to live, especially in this instance. And those images. So vivid for me 27 years after the fact. I can't imagine what those images must be like for the IDF soldiers who entered the area after the massacre. The smells. The sounds of wailing women. The death.

Every night when I go to sleep, I ask G-d to help me understand. Understand what? Just to understand. Specifics are unnecessary. I once had a vision that I would do amazing and earth-moving things. I felt that there was something important and blessed that I was to do. I didn't know what, and I still don't know what. So every night, still, I pray, and I ask to understand.  That's all. And every night, there's something new on my mind. Something I don't understand. I don't expect the answer, I suppose I don't even need the answer. After all, who am I?

Ani rotzah l'hevin, b'vakashah.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Shabbat Shalom!

היום יהיה שבת האחרונה בשבילי במידלברי. אני לא אוהבת לומר, אבל אני מתרגשת.

בשבוע אחד, אני אהיה בווסט הרטפורד עם חברים ... אבל אולי יותר חשוב? אוכל נורמלי! לא, זה לא כל כך נכון. אני יותר מתרגשת על החברים -- המשפחה שלי. המשפחה יהודית שלי.

הזמן שלי פה היה טוב, אבל יש הרבה לומר על כל פה -- האוכל, האנשים וגם השבתות. אני חושבת שאולי אני צריכה הרבה שבועות כדי לכתוב של כל.

אבל, בשביל עכשיו ... שבת שלום!