Friday, October 30, 2009

The Illuminated Fortress and Abraham

I was struggling in my Midrashic Literature class yesterday (probably all of the stuff on my mind that is stressing me out -- I could be elsewhere than class doing important things), but there was one thing that really struck me as fascinating and personally significant. It's the text of Genesis Rabbah 93.1-3, which is based on the text from Genesis 12:1-3. Here's the text!
And the Lord said to Abram, Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and it will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.
And the Lord said to Abram, "Take yourself from your land, etc..."
Rabbi Isaac opened, Listen, lass, and look, and incline your ear, and forget your mother and your father's house (Ps. 45:11)
Rabbi Issac said, This is like someone who travels from place to place, and sees a certain fortress illuminated (lit. burning, doleqet). He said, Is there no master (lit. ba'al) of this fortress? Above him, the master peeked out and said to him, I am the master of this fortress.
Thus it was when our father Abraham said, Would you say that this world has no master? The Holy One, Blessed be He, peeked out and over him and said, I am He, the Master of the World. So shall the King desire your beauty, for he is your Lord. So shall the King desire your beauty. To beautify you in the world, and to bow down to him. Hence, and "the Lord spoke to Abram." (The beautifying text comes from the end of Psalm 45, actually.)
Now, this translation isn't the exact translation that we used in class (I fudged with a version I found online), but it works.

The interesting thing about this midrash is there are really two ways that we can take this. If we read it as the fortress being ablaze, as in literally on fire, then we can understand why the wandering guy would say "who's running this joint?" Essentially, the wanderer wants to know why there's such chaos and madness at this fortress because if there were a master, it wouldn't be ablaze. Then we understand Abraham, as he sees the chaos and madness in the world and must ask if there is a master to the world, to which G-d says "Yo, it's me!"

The second reading is if we understand doleqet as illuminated. The wanderer sees this glorious and amazing fortress and asks aloud to no one in particular, Who is the master of such amazing splendor and beauty? Then we can understand Abraham's query of the world because he looks around and sees the creation and wonders who is the master of such an amazing and profound thing. Thus G-d answers and says, "Yo, it's me!"

Maybe I'm preferential to the second reading of the text, but I think it's probably the more likely because if you read it that way, then the explanation of the verse makes sense. We have to explain why G-d is speaking to Abraham. After all, when we look at Noah, it's explained that he was righteous out of all the men of the world. The text often explains WHY G-d chooses certain individuals (the prophets for example), but Abraham is just given through the genealogy and then it says that G-d spoke to him and told him to go forth. The big question is: WHY? Why Abraham? What'd he do to warrant G-d's command?

If we use the second reading, it's simple to understand! Abraham looks about, sees the splendor of creation without any prodding or pushing, and G-d recognizes that Abraham understands. It could be said, then, that Abraham is choosing the religion of HaShem, but it's more likely that they met in the middle. Abraham sees creation and is in awe -- he understands HaShem's beauty through the world around him. G-d sees Abraham seeing him and bam, G-d speaks.

I like this midrash for a simple reason: I see myself in Abraham. I didn't come to Judaism through knowing Jews or having had some significant Jewishly related experience. I developed my own set of beliefs outside of organized religion, convinced that I'd developed my own religion and set of beliefs. But really, once it was suggested -- based on these beliefs -- that I examine Judaism, I realized that this beautiful amazing way of life I envisioned was already there. In essence, I stood before the fortress saying "Who is the master of this place?" and there was G-d, waiting for me.

At any rate, I think this is a beautiful midrash. Which reading are you more inclined toward?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Those Uncharted Texts of Yore

Have you ever read 3 Maccabees? I didn't even know a third book existed, and there's probably a good reason for it. The book doesn't read like the other two Maccabees -- it doesn't even mention the Maccabees -- and it seems to only carry the name because it relates a scenario in which the Jews are under threat of destruction by a Hellenistic ruler because of their beliefs and practices.

If you have read the text, then it might read hauntingly like a narrative of the rounding up of Jews during the Holocaust. Of course, many of these stories echo the same idea: Jews, persecuted for their adherence and devotion to HaShem and their observances and the holy places, are rounded up and the ruler attempts to kill them by varying means. The interesting thing is that in our stories of old, the kings and rulers never succeed. In the end, the king sees the error of his ways (in this text blaming his advisors for leading him astray, of course). The ancient peoples that attempted to destroy the Jews inevitably met their dooms. Hitler, of course, did not. But the text, as I mentioned, is haunting.
For a multitude of gray-headed old men, sluggish and bent with age, was being led away, forced to march at a swift pace by the violence with which they were driven in such a shameful manner. ... Their husbands, in the prime of youth, their necks encircled with ropes instead of garlands, spent the remaining days of their marriage festival in lamentations instead of good cheer and youthful revelry, seeing death immediately before them. (3 Maccabees 4:5-8)
It is, indeed, interesting how events can become timeless through texts. It reads like something out of an Elie Wiesel book. Except that it was written a few thousand years ago, of course.

I'm not entirely sure why the Maccabees weren't included in the canon, however I can posit a variety of theories with the most likely being that the texts are a little late for the canon. It could also have been something political. What is interesting, however, is that I was reading this text for a course on Ancient (Jewish) Fictions. I don't know how many view this text as a full-on fiction, but rather perhaps a historical fiction that paints a factual and timeless message through semi-warped events.

At any rate, if you haven't read the text, give it a go. You can find it online here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Chavi Appleseed

Today the shul setup a young adults and kids outing to go apple picking, and to be honest I was pretty disappointed in the turnout. Luckily, Tuvia and I convinced one of our most awesome friends to come at the last moment, and she even managed to bring her wee one with her. I was hoping for more representation from the young adults group (we're the folks that have the most in common and tend to be the most observant of the crowd at shul), but I shouldn't complain. For my first time apple-picking, it was outstanding. We picked up two bags worth of apples, half of which we donated to a local homeless shelter. I'm hoping they make some gnarly apple crisp out of them. Here are just some of the photos from the trip out to Ellington, Connecticut. Enjoy!

I really love this photo. Yes, it's a half-rotted apple still dangling from the tree, but it screams "Gan Eden."

Tuvia enjoys showing off by grabbing the highest apple from the tallest tree. (Irony: He hates apples.)

This is classic New England: crisp and cool fall foliage painted with church steeples in white.

And lastly, Chavi takes a bite out of crime ... er ... fresh off-the-vine apples!

Note: I had a lot of REALLY CUTE photos of Evan with one of the wee lasses, as well as plenty of the wee ones gnawing on apples right off the vine, but for the sake of privacy and the curtailment of cute on the intertubes, you'll have to check out my Facebook or Flickr albums. 

Things You Might Not Know About Me! Part II

I thought about writing more about me, since, you know, this is my blog and all. However, I thought it might be more interesting for me to learn about YOU, the readers.

So here's your task, if you so choose to accept it: Tell me something about you! Something many people may not know or that you like to surprise others with. Something funny, something serious, something unique, something special. Something relevant to what brings you to my blog, or something completely off the wall.

Nu? Who are you?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Each One of Us is a Snowflake, Blade of Grass, Etc.

I can't help but be absolutely obsessed with the texts on conversion lately. I'm working conversion into both of my papers for both of my classes that require papers. I never wanted to be that academic, who is a convert and throws herself into conversion study. It just isn't in my nature to do that. But as time has gone on, and I've realized how little is known about conversion by the Orthodox community (outside of the rabbis, that is), I've realized that maybe, just maybe, this could be a small calling. It wasn't uncommon when I was in Reform synagogues for half the congregation to be converts, but this is less likely in Orthodox communities, with more of the members being ba'alei teshuvah than converts.

When I was once-upon-a-time a member of a conversion group blog, there was a lot of debate over what makes a "Jew by choice" just that. We had many members of our blogging community who were born Jews, but considered themselves to have "chosen" Judaism instead of going a secular or uninvolved route as far as their Judaism. I never took offense to this understanding -- after all, I think all Jews should "choose" Judaism. But what it comes down to, and what the rabbis made very clear in their lengthy writings on the convert and how to approach the convert is that there *is* a difference between the born Jew and the righteous convert. The rabbis were always clear that there should be no distinctions -- once a convert converts, it is as if they were Jews their whole life (and in truth, the convert is born with a Jewish neshama!). But in truth, their responsibilities in the community are different, their histories are different, their lifestyles are different, and ultimately how they effect change in the future and past of the Jews is very different. One can't ignore the differences; it's ignorant and harmful to do so, I think. (Just as much as it is difficult and harmful to ignore politics while pursuing the conversion process in the U.S.!)

Here is just one case where I see this. Feel free to discuss in the comments whether you agree with my opinion!

Numbers Rabbah 8:2 (From
The midrash immediately explains that God's love for converts is a response to the love expressed by the converts themselves:
"'The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord protects converts' (Psalms 146:8). The Holy Blessed One said, 'I love those who love Me.' This is as it says, 'I honor those that honor Me' (I Sam 2:30). 'They love Me and so I also love them.'"
"Why does the Holy Blessed One love the righteous? Because they have neither inheritance nor family. Priests and Levites have an ancestral house, as it says 'House of Aaron, praise the Lord. House of Levi, praise the Lord' (Psalms 146:19). If someone wants to be a kohen (priest) or a Levite, one cannot because one's father was not. But if someone wants to be righteous, even a non-Jew can, since that is not dependent on ancestry."
The midrash continues with a parable about a stag that attaches itself to the king's flock. Daily, the king instructs his shepherds to take care of the stag, and they ask the king why he cares so much about this one animal.
"The king responded, 'The other animals have no choice; whether they want or not, it is their nature to graze in the field all day and to come in to sleep in the fold. Stags, however, sleep in the wilderness. It is not in their nature to come into places inhabited by man. Is it not to a sign of this one's merit that he has left behind the whole of the wilderness to stay in our courtyard?' In like manner, ought we not to be grateful to the proselyte who has left behind his family and his relatives, his nation and all the other nations of the world, and has chosen to come to us?"
This parable responds to the unvoiced question/critique of the native Israelite: "Why does the Torah provide all of these protections for the convert? Does God care more about them than about me?" The midrash responds, "Consider what the convert has given up."
This section of the midrash concludes:
"Accordingly, God has provided the convert with special protection, warning Israel to be very careful not to do any harm to converts, and indeed, it says, 'Love the convert' (Deuteronomy 10:19)… Thus God made clear safeguards so that converts might not return to their former ways [which God fears they might do if native Israelites treat them poorly]."
Although some tannaitic midrashim voiced suspicions that the convert might fall back or that the convert might not entirely abandon his past beliefs, this later text places responsibility for backsliding converts squarely upon the native Israelites who disregard the protections that God put in place.
I think it's interesting that it is the responsibility of the born-Jewish community to maintain the derekh for the convert. Why? As a convert, you have to have the real oomph to put yourself through the process, a true and devoted passion for being Jewish and doing Judaism. Why should the community be expected to hold you up? Why should the community be the ultimate downfall for the convert? Is this offering a clear difference between the born and the converted Jew? You see, this is set up as such because in Judaism, community is essential!

Nu!? So I love Chummus!!!

Disappointed, Chavi realizes she should have convert to Islam because of her love of chummus.

Thanks to @beettlle via

Thursday, October 22, 2009

And how!

"The proselyte who associates himself voluntarily with Israel won high praise from the rabbis
The ger is dearer to G-d than Israel was when the nation assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai. For Israel would not have accepted the Torah without seeing the thunders and the lightning and the quaking mountain and hearing the sound of the shofar, whearas the proselyte, without a single miracle, consecrates himself to the Holy One, praised be He, and puts upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. Can anyone be deemed more worthy of G-d's love?" (Conversion to Judaism: A History and Analysis, 59-60)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Things You Might Not Know About Me! Part I

I don't know what spawned this, but I'm trying to catalog things about myself that people might not know about me. I like to maintain a human atmosphere here so you all know that I'm a real person living a normal life. I like to douse my tomatoes in salt, eat cold apple crisp, organize my clothes in my closet by color, and I prefer black pens over any other color (except red when I'm editing). So here are some other, perhaps more deeply meaningful, things you might not know about me. 

That's me, yes. On the right. With my Momma Brady haircut, circa my senior year of highschool 2001-2002. On the left is one of my oldest friends, Christina, and the guy in the middle? I forgot his name. He went to Norris High School, which is there in the background, and actually was mostly destroyed during Tornadoes in 2007. We're all supporting LNE quiz bowl team shirts, since we were at a quiz bowl tournament! I was a geek. I still am. I was the "random knowledge" guru. 

In high school, I gave one of three graduation speeches while standing before my class of 525 students in Lincoln, Nebraska. My school was gigantic, but luckily only 20 some students tried out for the graduation speech spots. If I remember correctly, the dual validictorians got speeches, and the other went to a lucky winner. I tried my temporary speech out in a classroom one day after school and was lucky enough to get chosen. I wish I could remember where my speech is, as I know it's on a computer somewhere in the Edwards family home. It might also be in one of my high school boxes with all the random homework and papers I'd kept. I should find it. It was written in poem form and touched on everyone in the class, from jocks to choir nerds to academic decathalon nerds to the drama geeks. Why? Because during high school I was privileged to run in all of those crowds. You see, I played volleyball my freshman year and was the team manager my sophomore year. I was in choir every year of high school, and I managed the Math Club as secretary for two or three years. I served on Academic Decathalon and Quiz Bowl for three years, and I also found my way into the Model UN and about a half-dozen other clubs. Contrary to a lot of people, I loved high school. So standing up, before all of my friends and people I'd never even seen in school before, I told about my experiences. As a surprise ending, I closed with something my father always says to me -- and he had no idea it was in the speech, which left him speechless. The quote: "Life is not a problem to solve, but a reality to experience."

Also, during that same graduation, I had the leading off solo for Concert Choir. We were singing R. Kelly's "The World's Greatest," and after years of just singing in the choir, I finally stood out senior year with my belting voice. You see, I can't sing good quietly, but if you give me enough room and volume, and I could rock your world. I guess I just have that kind of a voice -- sing loud, sing proud. So I landed the opening verses: "I am a mountain, I am a tall tree, ohhhh, I am a swift wind, sweepin' the country." Now, that's just a few small verses, but the soul I got to punch into them empowered me. I guess, if anything, R. Kelly's craziness aside, those verses sort of expressed who I wanted to be and who I saw myself as. But singing those words, jamming with friends, and having people -- years later remind me of that solo -- makes me feel good.

I've started about seven different versions of a book on my life. They're all really cheesy and ridiculous. I watch friend-bloggers nab book deals about their life, about their conversion stories, and I feel like my story is just lame. I feel like it's weak. I didn't grow up in an abusive household, I'm not a minority, I'm not the product of some kind of oppressive family that forced Christianity or Islam or something else down my throat. Then again, I also had no inspiration from people or experiences to choose Judaism. Someday I'll write my story. Someday. I just want to inspire others.

I love to drink pickle juice. Yes, you heard me right. My mom used to pack me a Tupperware with pickles for lunch when I was a kid and she'd always pour in a bunch of extra juice and I'd drink it while making my tiny classmates gag. We're talking first grade here, folks. I still do this, however. I think I make Tuvia gag!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Respond at Will, Please.

I am thinking of joining a gym. I have a free gym membership on campus, but the joint is a mess and it's full of ski bunnies and that's not how I roll. It would be worth the price, I think. It's motivation.

I shipped off an application to the Rabbinical Council of America's beth din wing. Yes, I have spoken out against the process in the past because I heard horror stories of women across the internet -- waiting months, sometimes years for rabbis and interviews and hoops. After considering my options, and having various batei din organized, and after careful, hard, difficult, and frustrating consideration, I have decided that the RCA way, while not perfect, is the best route for me at this current juncture. B'ezrat haShem, maybe I'll be converted by the time I go to Israel in late November. Please daven for me! And if you want to read my 11-page-long "Journey to Orthodox Judaism" ... let me know. It's a real crowd-pleaser and tearjerker (maybe?).

I'm feeling incredibly disenchanted about school right now. My head just isn't in it. I've realized that having a "real life" and trying to have a "school life" is a mess. It's even messier when you have three Shabbos meals to prepare, 250-page novels to read over a period of a few days, and paper topics to come up with on the fly. If I hadn't been at my Ulpan this summer, I don't know what I'd do because I'd also be having to worry about Hebrew. I find my mind wandering to lists of "what to buy" and "what to do" rather than "what to read for class." I'm in Suzy Homemaker mode these days, and I can't figure out why. I think my mind is on the conversion, my life in the community, my future and possibly impending life with Tuvia, and everything therein. I know it's possible to double, triple, and quadruple duty everything, but I'm not use to the multi-tasking and responsibility outside of my own personal bubble.

I've been pondering a lot of questions, but I'll just pose one here. It relates to prayer. I know I read in my b'racha book that a b'racha said in the head and not out loud means it is as if the b'racha wasn't even said. I know that this is equally try with the Sh'ma from the Midrash. Does this apply to all prayer? Or just blessings (b'rachot)? In my mind, this is where all of the mumbling in shul comes from, but I know there is a precedent for the lips actively moving (without sound in the case of all davening with the exception of those things that *must* be said aloud, like the sh'ma). Am I crazy here?

I'll leave everything at that for now. I have some interesting things to write about from my Midrash class, but I just don't have the energy to grab the book and my Tanakh and type it all out right now. Stay tuned!

The Perpetually Wandering Mind.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Chavi's Cooking -- Look Out!

Winter is readily upon us here in Connecticut. It's a lovely 37 degrees outside at 9:30 a.m., and I couldn't be happier. I get to wear long jean skirts and sweaters. It also means that in no time I'll be needing to make some of my mom's delicious potato soup!

However, for now, I'm just preparing for this Shabbos. Tuvia and I have decided to spend Shabbos not in the community, mostly because our hosts are asking for a break and we need a serious break, too. The chagim wore us out and some serious relaxation time with Bananagrams and Long Naps is in order. So what's the meal looking like?

Friday Dinner
Klops -- Eastern European Sweet-and-Sour Meatballs (a favorite from Pesach 2008)
Sweet Potato Hash (A recipe borrowed from a friend from Pesach 2008)
Potato and Garlic Soup (Boxed, kosher parve! Yay!)
Apple Crisp (From Weight Watchers magazine)
Homemade Challah

Saturday Lunch
Chicken Cholent
Homemade Challah
Um ... not sure what else to serve here. Maybe a kugel?

Saturday Dinner
Tomato and Pepper Lasagna (recipe from WW; for me, because I like tomato sauce)
Stuffed Pizza Rolls (mostly for Tuvia, but I'm going to try one -- sans meat!)
Maybe some Orzo dish on the fly.
Either Cinnamon Crumb Cake or Lava Cake

You know there will be photos. OH YES. There will be photos. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Coming Full Circle.

Over the weekend, on Sunday to be precise (Yom Rishon), I finished my cycle of holidays as someone studying for a conversion to Orthodox Judaism. Interestingly, it was Simchat Torah – the day in which we take out the Torah, dance around the shul with it, singing songs, and inevitably roll the scroll back to the beginning, to Bereshit. Simchat Torah also is my Hebrew birthday. Technically, that is. I’m not sure if it really counts since I wasn’t born a Jew (although, let it be known, I was born WITH this big Jewish soul of mine). I was born September 30, 1983, and that, folks was Simchat Torah! I keep coming full circle, and Sunday was just another way that I’ve done this. It also means I’ve finished my obligation to fulfill a complete cycle of Jewish holidays in my community. Amen.

I can’t really describe how Sukkot , Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah were. The funny thing about being observant is that I can’t use cameras on the holidays. Now, I’m a big picture-taker. I like to capture the beautiful and special moments in my life. I wish I could have captured so many small moments. Small things.

For example, it rained here last Saturday, a lot. The rabbi discussed how we aren’t obligated to eat in the sukkah if it’s raining cats and dogs, so we resigned ourselves to NOT eating in the sukkah. But for dinner that night, before we entered the second day of Sukkot, we grabbed the challah, ran out into the sukkah – the whole family, the kids, the guests, everyone – to say a blessing in the sukkah. Someone even brought out the green stuff (parsley, garlic, olive oil) for dipping!

Or take the erev Simchat Torah, on Saturday, when I held the Torah, dancing around, women in a circle around me, hopping and smiling and laughing, clapping and singing. That thing was heavy. The men were doing the same dances, the same songs, just on the other side of the bimah, which served as our mechitzah. The joint was jumping, and the musical musings of Harmonia were keeping us all on our toes. We then headed outside for the second to last hakafot, it was dark and cool, and the entire congregation was outside singing and dancing. There was a busload of people unloading at the church across the street, probably looking at us like we were absolutely off our rockers. But we danced on the cool, damp grass and the teenagers kept the songs loud and vibrant. I had started to feel pains in my knees (as was expected, since they sort of lack cartilage) and I walked away, leaning against one of the pillars by the entrance. I started to cry, just a little bit. It was the most beautiful site – the community, dancing with Torot, singing loudly, laughing, joking. It was a moment of complete bliss, a true wedding of Israel and the word of G-d in the Torah. But then I got a little lightheaded and had to sit down.

I wish I could have captured those moments. Click. Snap. Perfection.

There was, of course, the sukkah hop last Sunday. It was geared toward the kids, but plenty of adults carried on with the kids. We walked from sukkah to sukkah to sukkah, hopping along to five in the neighborhood that were nothing alike. The kids, having arrived at the fourth sukkah, complained that the goods being offered – grapes and nuts – weren’t “cool.” I assured them that there were plenty of goods at the next location and boy were they stoked. They were greeted with cookies, twizzlers, and every other sweet snack known to man.

On the note of sweets, I’m intrigued by the massive quantities of sweets that flooded the shul during Simchat Torah. M&Ms, Snickers, Nilla Wafers … the sugar high these kids (and some adults) must have been on definitely fueled the dancing. The sticky mess on the floor reminded me of movie theaters and I definitely wish I could have snapped a photo of the little girl I was holding, as she gnawed away at a lollipop (got to save her from swallowing something badly and choking, blech).

There was also the rabbi, dancing with the young guys, and his wife, whose energy I can only dream of, leading dancing with the women.

It was interesting. It was intense. It was unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. Never before did I eat in the sukkah, never before did I dance with the Torah, never before did I watch a group of women reading from the sefer Torah privately with a dozen other women, never before did I experience Simchat Torah. The past two weeks were new to me, fresh, and beautiful. It was as if the entire community came alive. After all of the holidays, all of the time in synagogue, all of the busy houses and guests, and in those moments everyone was dancing and singing – alive!

Of course, now we’re all exhausted, trying to recover from the holidays. They were long, they were busy, but they were more than worth it. After all, we reaffirmed everything when it comes to being Jewish. It’s that starting point where we’re all anew. We’ll sleep a lot, relish in not having another major holiday until Pesach, and swear to ourselves that we won’t eat as much in the coming Shabboses.

Snapshots are nice. I think that memories sometimes lose their vibrancy without photographs, but they remain memories nonetheless. And when it comes down to it, it is better to simply keep memories because when they’re just memories, you have to maintain them. You have to constantly remember them, their emotions, their every moment.

Monday, October 12, 2009

We Pardon the Interruption of Regularly Scheduled ...

Every now and again, I like to take a few seconds to give mini "shout outs" or free-of-charge mentions for people who are trying to get their blogs, businesses, or promotions going. This space is reserved for them!

This month, will be donating 20 percent of the purchase of special merchandise to Sharsheret, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to addressing the challenges faced by young Jewish women with breast cancer. After all, it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and if the football stars (in their jocky goodness) can manage to wear pink armbands and athletic gloves, you can bring yourself to make a purchase and help out an outstanding cause! But even if you don't choose to buy something from PopJudaica, be sure to head over to Sharsheret and give an independent donation for the cause (or to ANY breast cancer organization!).

One of my good friends (the best of the best, I say) recently started his own online business and I demand that you visit his website! The digs? We all have sweater love (except for Tuvia, who doesn't even own a sweater), and it's the perfect time of year to start stocking up on the comfy pull-overs. Of course, I'm hoping that someone throws a Bad Sweater Party, because those are the best, and I know SweaterDump would have something perfect for the fete. The pickins may be small right now, but you KNOW they'll pick up. So get your sweaters while they're hot!

That's all for now. So go surf the web, and do something good!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Road Diverges, Where's Chavi Going?

I'm worried that I've lost hope in the future (or the present) of mankind. All it took was a small stack of exams given to me to grade, and I was scratching my head, shaking my head, opening my mouth in utter surprise. All I could think was, "This isn't rocket science, folks," as I marked down points that would make even a regular ole D student cry. I mean, these exams? They're bad. They're really bad. And as I scribbled notes into the margins -- the same idea about 20 times, that is -- I began to wonder, to really wonder, if I could handle being a professor, knowing that the words that I might speak on a daily basis would be sucked into ears, processed in some absolutely mindless filter, only to be regurgitated out on paper like this.

Ever since I returned from Middlebury, I've been thinking, reconsidering, where I'm going. My desire to teach hasn't changed, don't get me wrong, but I am trying to figure out what's practical and possible for me at this point in my academic journey. I started out thinking modern, after all, my big-time term paper in my undergrad was on Ulysses S. Grant and the Jews. I slowly moved backward, thinking about Rashi and his daughters, considering Medieval Jewry. I read books and more books and the text that discusses the rabbi who decreed that if you're yawning in shul you better cover your mouth had me delighted. And then I came here to Connecticut and I found myself drifting even further back, to the Talmud, the rabbis, and the Second Temple Period as we know it today. But as the past year showed me, I'm so far behind it might take me years to catch up. In a perfect world, I'd be reading-fluent in Aramaic, Greek, French, German, and of course Biblical Hebrew. I'd read the texts in their originals, because that's what a scholar does. I vowed after realizing that the author of Rashi's Daughters didn't do any of her own legwork that I wouldn't be like that -- I'd work from scratch forward. But the reality? It might take me years.

I keep telling myself that I have all the time in the world. Tuvia has granted me that time, knowing that I want to follow my heart and really throw myself into that which I am passionate about. He's patient and kind like that. And in reality, I could probably toil away at school for the rest of my life studying those languages and working the texts until I'm blue in the face. Even if I don't pursue academic Talmudic work or what have you, I'll still do that in the outside world -- after all, my inquiring mind doesn't let me sit still on the sidelines when it comes to my Orthodox Judaism. I seek, read, and learn.

But the reality of the situation is that I'm reconsidering my situation. Life is a series of reconsiderations, you know. And after Middlebury, and even before, I was considering a future in Hebrew language. My time in Middlebury allowed me to gain a fluency I couldn't have dreamed of. But it was just a start, and much like my hungry neshama, my hungry brain wants more. Speaking Hebrew feeds my mind, my heart, and my soul. It's like I'm speaking in the voice of generations past and future. It empowers me and it makes me happy and excited.

And for all intents and purposes, it's practical and doable. At least, I think so.

So I sent an email off to my morah (teacher) from the summer, to see what she thinks and whether she has any advice. I would continue on with a PhD, but it would be in language -- Hebrew language. I'd rehash all the grammar rules I've forgotten (from English, that is; who can tell me what a past participle is!?). I hate to say it but although I've got mad editing skills, when it comes to the vocab and the nitty gritty, even the best editors are lacking. I want to perfect my language skills so that I can take what I know to a university or day school level and INSPIRE people. Inspire them to use and love the living language of the Jewish people. And furthermore, at least with a language, there are rules and measures and styles and words that mean exactly what they mean. I don't have to explain themes or devices to students. Language is like mathematics -- 99 percent of the time, there is really one right answer.

And maybe, once I've got that under wraps, I'll turn back to my dreams of being a Talmud chacham.

Of course, I want to be a mother, too. A mother, a wife, a community member, a shul member. A friend and a confidant. There are many things I want to be, and I find that as time goes on, my desires change along with my needs. What the soul needs to be comforted changes as new people come into our lives and also when we realize we need to reassess a situation. Unfortunately for Tuvia, being Morah Chavi the Hebrew teacher might not be exceedingly lucrative, but if there's one thing my father taught me, it's to do what makes me happy.

I've learned that, in life, you can't waste your time on the things that don't excite you. If it isn't one of the first things you think about when you wake up and when you go to sleep -- positively, with absolute excitement and eagerness -- then maybe you should reconsider where you are and where you're going. Life's to short to waste your time and energy. As Qohelet tells us,

So enjoy what you have. (Note: Many read Qohelet/Ecclesiastes as a text about the futility of life. I do not read it this way. I read Qohelet as an old man, full of wisdom, relating to us how to live one's life in order to gain the most from it. To seek happiness in all things and to not toil over that which is wasteful or futile. Rather, seek happiness in all that you do, here, in this life!)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Ultimate Kosher Culture Shock

Last year, Tuvia had mentioned something called "The Big E" to me when I asked him whether states out this way rock State Fairs like we do in the Midwest. We missed it last year because we were newly dating and our schedules weren't meshing, so we'd vowed to go this year to the gigantic fair that honors all of the states out here -- Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. I was stoked that we got tickets and managed to find a small window of time to go this past week. But boy oh boy was I in for a serious shock.

We arrived at The Big E fairgrounds with dozens and dozens of other cars, people schlepping on food, and RVs pulling in for the long-haul. We parked, walked through piles of mud, handed them our tickets (which they digitally scanned, which I thought was odd considering fairs in my mind are old-school), and went on our way. We wove our way through sheds and jacuzzis for sale, landing out near the Midway and near what would be something I wasn't prepared for: Fair Food.

When I was a kid, we once drove to the fairgrounds in Missouri, driving around for hours trying to find an empty hotel room, just to see some butter sculpture of Garth Brooks. We ate fried food, funnel cakes, gigantic turkey legs, and every fried goodie in between. You see, the Midwestern way when it comes to fairs is to consume as much as you can that is either fried or on a stick, or better yet -- both! You drink soda or hot chocolate or a big slushie, chow down on a deep-fried Twinkie, and marvel at gigantic vegetation or animals.

As we walked around the fair, I was reminded at how un-Midwestern it was. Yes, they had all the food trappings (the fried dough could be smelled from every corner of this place), but to see the gigantic animals you had to pay a buck. It was disappointing. But the buildings all housed the basic goods -- ShamWOW!s, choppers and knives, various pet goods, and the obligatory "Pray with Us" booth and the "Abortion is Wrong" booth with a gigantic fetus plastered on the booth wall.

As we walked around, I was feeling starved. All I wanted to do was buy some fried pickles (a classic Southern Missouri/Northern Arkansas treat), grab a basket of cheese fries, and top it off with some funnel cake. But I couldn't. I couldn't even approach the stands. I couldn't even consider it.

I'm kosher.

So imagine my delight when, after entering the craft corner, Tuvia shouted "Chavi! Look! Kosher!" Yes, there we were, in front of a candied nut booth that sported a local hechsher. Nuts. This is what I can eat at a fried, fatty-filled fair? Nuts? Cinnamon candied nuts? That's it? Okay, that's a lie. Tuvia managed to grab a coffee (a locally hechshered brand, mind you) while I had some chai (also kosher). We thought about purchasing a pretzel, since the brand that's plastered all over the heating elements is one that's kosher. But who's to say that the pretzels IN there are kosher?

As we walked through the state houses, we discovered Ben and Jerry's and a local dessert ice place, as well as a placed that was dishing out baked potatoes (with OU-certified Cabot [barf] sour cream), but by then we were worn out. Tired from all the food we couldn't eat. Or maybe it was just me. Tuvia's a Jersey boy. I'm a born-and-bred Midwestern with a palate for fried cheese and treats on sticks.

I know that it's just food, but food is how we socialize, it's how we relate to one another, the world around us. And being there, on gigantic fairgrounds spewing food that we couldn't eat, was depressing. It was a culture shock. The reality of my situation really hit me then.

Since early June, I've only eaten non-kosher once (it was a Jones for some TGIFridays). It's not so bad, but it is hard. I like to eat out. After all, my Yelp profile is full of eateries in Chicago and Washington DC and even here in Connecticut. Unfortunately, in Connecticut, the closest kosher restaurants are in Waterbury and that's just deli and pizza. If you want something real -- sushi, burgers, barbecue, steak -- you have to schlep to Monsey or Boston or New York.

I haven't had a cheeseburger in probably five years. That goes the same for shrimp and pork. If I consumed pork or shellfish since then, it was by no knowledge of my own. It took me a while to warm up to the idea of no meat and cheese. Don't get me wrong -- I've been doing no beef/dairy for years. But the chicken/cheese took me a while to really figure out. Keeping kosher dishes and containers and pots and pans and stuff hasn't been so bad. It's been staying healthy and kosher that's been the biggest problem for me. But I'm working on it. I'm back on my Morningstar Burger bent. Amen for Morningstar.

How do we do it? How do Jews in the boonies (not that Hartford is boonies, but I can't even go to the deli and get a sandwich for Pete's sake) manage without kosher restaurants? We all get tired of cooking, especially when it's the same stuff over and over again. Even trying new dishes can burn you out. I just know that when Tuvia and I are in Israel in two months that coming back will be difficult, if not impossible. Having kosher food at your fingertips -- even having that cultural mindset of kashrut -- will blow our collective minds into submission to those pushing aliyah.

But one thing's for sure: I can never go to the fair again.

Until, of course, they offer something kosher and delicious. How hard would it be to put up a kosher booth? After all, The Big E states are full of Jews -- Connecticut and Massachusetts especially. Do Jews not go to the fair? Maybe I'll start my own fair. Or maybe that's what the Purim fair is for. Who knows.

Either way, this Kosher Cornhusker can't go home again. At least, not with a corn dog in one hand and fried cheese on a stick in the other.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Haveil Havalim is Up!

You can check out the newest edition of Haveil Havalim -- The Sukkot Edition -- at Esser Agaroth.

Enjoy! Chag Sameach! And Shavua tov!

Friday, October 2, 2009

"Hello, This is Gilad."

I am lucky enough to be free. I am lucky enough to live in a part of the world where my religion and my lifestyle do not cause others to commit harm toward me on a daily basis. In Israel, perhaps I wouldn't be so lucky. HaShem knows that Gilad Shalit -- in captivity now for nearly 1,200 -- was not as lucky. Gilad is suffering for Jews the world over, for Israelis the world over, for humanity and the right to breathe.

Tonight begins Sukkot here where I live, and in Israel Jews are already observing Sukkot. We invite friends and family over, we sit in booths that we have built, and we eat food joyously with one another, laughing and singing and discussing the smaller things in life. And Gilad? He'll be sitting in captivity. But at least, baruch HaShem, we know he is still alive and with us. This Sukkot, this Sukkot will be about Gilad. And we know he's alive because Israel agreed to release dangerous Palestinian prisoners in exchange for this small look into Gilad's life, captured in early September. Is he still alive? We must hope so. We must know so.

This video, publicized today, had me in tears. I look at Gilad, reading from a script, looking up at the camera, and wonder what he must have been thinking when this was filmed. Knowing that the high holidays were coming. Knowing that Jews the world over were thinking -- and are thinking -- of him.

I don't know what the right answer is as far as getting Gilad back goes. I do know, however, that returning hundreds or thousands of violent criminals to Gaza and Hamas will not solve anything. But the famous adage for we Jews is that if you save one life, it is as if you've saved the world. And in suite, we must save Gilad.

Shabbat shalom v'chag sameach friends.