Sunday, June 28, 2009

L'hitraot! For real this time ...

Okay, okay, I lied. So sue me. How can I NOT blog about my first day at Middlebury's intensive Hebrew immersion program? I'll give you some bullet points. But wow, it's going to be one heckuva ride.

+ Our building is sans air conditioning, and with the tznius dressing, this makes Chavi one miserable little pickle. I'll be doing laundry probably twice a week. Thanks for the warm, icky, and constantly rainy weather, Mama Nature!
+ My roommate is from Lebanon. My initial reaction was "sweet, we can make peace in the Middle East, just me and the roomie." My second reaction was "man, I don't know much about Lebanon, but I have a rock taken from a bombed out Lebanese headquarters near the border that is now under Israeli control." We're both the easy going types, so I don't foresee World War III or anything, and if anything, I anticipate a friendship will be born. She's returning to Lebanon after the course, and maybe I'll get a house invitation?
+ There are people here from every walk of live and from every inch of the world. We have someone from England, the aformentioned roommate from Lebanon, a gal from South Africa, someone from Gaza, and someone from Palestine. Now, my initial reaction to all of this was "Whoa! Gaza! Gnarly!" and then when I met the girl from Palestine, well, I wasn't sure how to react. I've never met anyone who says they're from Palestine. It's usually, I'm from Israel, but I'm Palestinian. I'm a Palestinian Israeli. But being from Palestine? I have to think about this. But the ages vary from just out of high school to people working for the government in their middle/late ages. There are a lot of rabbinical students (mostly of the Reform/Reconstructionist bent), and a lot of international relation students, too. And there are a few like me, rocking the academia and needing a boost.
+ Our first meal, we went to the cafeteria where they were supposed to have kosher meals a'waiting (prepackaged this weekend, then real food henceforth), but they didn't have anything. For the past day I've mostly done salads, and it works. There's also an abundance of fruit. But eating the prepackaged Turkey and/or Meatloaf meals for every meal this weekend did not sound yummy on the tummy. However, supposedly the actual kosher here is delish. The upside to being kosher? I don't get tempted to nosh all the ice cream they have ...
+ It's beautiful here. I can't describe it, but it's just serene, quaint, quiet. And there are a million bugs everywhere and I appear to be as sweet as honey. Pass the aloe?
+ We're staying in a "house." Everyone (well, mostly) has a roommate and we all have common areas. I'll have to take some photos of the building. But we have a kitchen (can't use!) and a game room, as well as a big sitting area/living room that's pretty cool. It's neat having our own house, though. Outside the sign says Hebrew (in ivrit of course) and we all travel in packs like ducks.
+ I am one of two shomer shabbos people here. There are several others who are kosher, and there's a faculty member who is shomer, I believe. It made one of the activities last night ("draw something ...") kind of difficult. It will be a challenge, that's for sure. Probably more of a challenge for me to stay where I'm going than for those around me. Explaining my name, my story, it won't be possible after tomorrow. It's going to be a tough time here. I already miss the community in W. Hartford ... not to mention Challah.
+ We did Havdalah tonight in one of the teacher's "homes" here. There weren't many of us, but it was special. As a result, I'm missing the movie tonight -- I had to come home and shower, and getting dressed only to dirty another outfit just wasn't my prerogative tonight.

There was so much over Shabbos I wanted to write about. Starting tomorrow my thoughts will be compiled in a handy-dandy notebook (thanks Blue's Clues) b'ivrit. The day starts with a test, some music, a pledge, and then silence throughout the house I think. Shabbos was lonely because there weren't children running around, there wasn't hours-long meals and napping was nearly impossible with the heat. This place? It's a hotbox. It was interesting, I guess. I'm perpetually exhausted from the heat, the talking. But it will get better, surely, when we take the pledge and start really learning.

At any rate, I'm sure that the rest of the seven weeks will be more interesting, and I think it will be interesting to watch some of the conflicting personalities (with unique beliefs about the Middle East) attempt to express themselves b'ivrit. It will be, if anything, frustrating. But I love everyone here so far. The uniqueness and connections are amazing.

So, with that, Shavua tov, and so long!

Friday, June 26, 2009

So long for now, friends. L'hitraot!

Middlebury welcomes students to the Language Schools!
Hello! Or should I say, Shalom! From Middlebury, Vermont. The trip up was fun, and I'll have a video of it at some point, maybe, or the video-shooting might have been all for naught. Either way, it was a beautiful drive up and Tuvia has left me in beautiful, but sweltering Middlebury for seven weeks.

Tonight is our first meal, Hebrew games, and getting to know everyone. It's also Shabbos, and I met at least one other girl who is Shomer Shabbos like myself (why couldn't she have been my roommate? although, my roommate hasn't actually shown up yet), so we'll see how seven Shabboses can go in Middlebury. I met the director of the program, had a conversation, and was declared an "Advanced Novice." Next, I take the plunge, and hopefully in the end, I'll be at "Advanced Intermediate." Until then, I go with the flow. Tomorrow is a tour of campus and after Shabbos ends, a big Hebrew movie night. Sunday we take some written tests and find out where we're placed. And then? Then we take the language pledge. Somewhere around 8 something or other Sunday night, I'm speaking the Hebrew.

At last, when I tell people my name is Chaviva I'll be able to follow it up with a big blabbery helping of Hebrew since the name itself is very early Zionist in its etymology. People expect me to be fluent. I know, I could have picked Rachel or Leah or Tzipporah or something. Oh well, I'm difficult.

So this will be my last blog post in English (I think, unless I get the hinkling for a post-Shabbos ditty, that is), and henceforth you'll likely just be getting photos out of me. I don't want to try and write b'ivrit until I'm wholly comfortable with what I'm attempting to say. Call me crazy, but I'm a hardcore perfectionist who likes to be, well, perfect, in all things. It's damaging most of the time, but it gives me the oomph to achieve life's greatest goals.

I hope you all stick around, pop in every now and again to see if maybe I've written something. Otherwise, well, I guess I'll see you in about seven weeks, post-Hebrew immersion, with what hopefully will be lots of interesting stories and a whole lot of Hebrew learnin'.

Be well, l'hitraot, and Shabbat Shalom!


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

An Entertainment Interlude!

I've spent the past few weeks burning and burning Hebrew and Judaica music borrowed from some incredibly awesome friends. I got a few more CDs last night from our host family, including a couple that are child-oriented but useful none-the-less. We use lots of these types of CDs and videos in my Hebrew class during the year -- sometimes "Geshem, Geshm MiShamayim" is where one should start to really grasp the beauty and ease of Hebrew. I've got Ugandan Hebrew music, Idan Raichel, The Chevra, Erez Lev Ari, you name it, I've got it.

What's it for? For Middlebury, of course! If I'm going to be speaking, writing, and living Hebrew, I need to be listening to it, as well. Did I mention that our only TV access is Israeli television? Score!

So before I leave for Middlebury, I wanted to share a couple of things that came through my email of the entertainment variety since I'm scooting off and want a spic-and-span clean email box.

I was contacted about a Jewish film called "Tickling Leo" that will be (hopefully) opening on the East Coast in August/September and G-d willing, subsequently spreading above and beyond with success. A ditty on the film:
A family drama set in the Catskills on Yom Kippur, the story explores how a family is affected by the choice one man made to survive the Holocaust in Hungary. It stars the wonderful Eli Wallach, Lawrence Pressman, Annie Parisse, Ronald Guttman, Daniel Sauli and Tony Award Winner Victoria Clark. It was produced by Mary Stuart Masterson and Barn Door Pictures.
and some more details ...
On March 4, 1957, Rudolph Kasztner, former head of the Jewish Rescue Committee in Hungary, was assassinated on the streets of Tel Aviv for the choices he made while negotiating the rescue of 1600 Jews aboard his controversial "Kasztner Train."  Fifty years later in the Catskills, one of the survivors of that train struggles to face his own family's choices in relation to this historical event.
I was intrigued when I was contacted about the film, and I have a lot of reading I've been meaning to do about Rudolph Kasztner and the true incident of his life and death. The trailer will pique your interest, without a doubt, so be sure to give it a look here.


Since I've been all up and down with the Israeli and Hebrew music as of late, how perfect that I was contacted about an Indie Israeli record label, Oleh! Records. In particular, Onili was mentioned, and although I don't know if her music is right up my alley, it most definitely makes me want to crawl onto a lounge chair by the pool and drink something tropical. It appears she's big in Tel Aviv and has connected with Israel's biggest underground stars, so maybe you've heard of her? If not, give her website a gander.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Jewish Zodiac?! I'm a Latke!

On an otherwise bummed-out day, @PopJudaica has me giggling and enjoying the Jewish Zodiac. Unfortunately, I'm not the Year of the Pickle, but on the upside I'm Year of the Latke, which is pretty nifty I guess.

Comedy writer Seth Front was sitting at a Chinese restaurant one Sunday night, waiting for his Moo Goo Gai Pan and reading the Chinese Zodiac placemat that served as his table setting. Being the good rabbi’s son that he is he thought to himself - - "Jews love Chinese food. Why isn't there a Jewish Zodiac?" But what would a Jewish Zodiac be? It wouldn't be 'Year Of The Dragon' or 'Year Of The Ox,' it would be 'Year Of The Bagel' and 'Year Of The Lox.' It would be deli food!  And thus "The Jewish Zodiac" line was born.
You can get your Jewish Zodiac T-Shirt at the one and only!

I'm a cooking MACHINE.

On Thursday and Friday, I buckled down and baked and cooked my heart out. Tuvia and I were heading down to the Poconos for my last weekend before heading off to Middlebury, so I wanted to make Shabbos meals fit for celebration of not only Shabbos, but also my last weekend around. So what did I make?

For Shabbos dinner, I made Garlic Chicken with Orzo (sans Parm cheese as a topping, of course); some Parve Kishkah; a Strawberry, Sunflower Seed, Cucumber and Lettuce salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette; and of course the Challah.

For Shabbos day, I put together my first Cholent. It was a somewhat scary endeavor, especially since it seems like the ability to make a Cholent is like a ticket to Jewish success (I'm only half-joking, of course). I used this recipe as a base, but didn't make it exactly like this. There were some beans, onions, potatoes, barley and beef, and the base was the same, but as Cholent goes, it was mostly "a little of this, a little of that." We also had Challah, and I consumed some of my delicious salad.

For Seudat Slishit, I brought out the Kugel I'd made (not precisely like this recipe, but close), some challah, lettuce leftovers and whatever else was laying around.

I wish I had photos, but alas, Shabbos doesn't allow for photography. It was nice to spend my last pre-Shabbos cooking, doing something I won't get to do for seven weeks and probably for the next year when I head back to campus in August.

T-minus four days and counting.

The Jews of Peru


Spotted an interesting piece in the New York Times about the lost Jews of Peru heading to Israel from the fringe of Peru.

Definitely worth your time!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Journeying to Judaism: A Square Peg

When I was a kid, my parents urged me to live by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” They bought me a Precious Moments bible at a young age; after all, we lived just minutes from the Precious Moments Chapel in Southern Missouri and spent many holidays visiting the grounds to see the work of the artist known for cute figurines and graphics in childrens’ bibles. I even attended a wedding there once. Even now, looking back, the artwork and the artist’s inspiration are beautiful, even if his book isn’t my book.

I don’t remember a single time that my parents attended church with me, unless it was a wedding of course. My childhood experiences in church were had with friends, actually. I went to vacation bible school during the summer with my friend Annie, and I remember one summer where the theme was something about Cowboys and the Wild West. I remember wearing a cowboy hat (that I had for many years after that, until I was in high school I believe), and helping make fresh ice cream in some wooden barrel, intermixed with coloring pictures of Jesus in cowboy gear. I don’t remember the message, I just remember that the ice cream was really good and the church was massive. This was in Southern Missouri, right there in the bible belt where the evangelical agenda swirls about as fierce as the tornados in Tornado Alley. Annie was incredibly religious, and everything her family did I remember was intermixed with a religious theme. She was one of my best friends, too. One of the six that I was attached to for the first 12.5 years of my life. One of my other friends, Kendall, was a Jehovah’s witness and despite their beliefs about holidays (there are none), her parents still showered her with gifts when the rest of us were getting them – all because she was a “good girl.” She left school during every celebration, too. I was always bummed that she missed out on the Valentine’s Day box contest. I won one year for “The Love Boat.” It was a classic three-tier box with a hatch that opened for cards to be undelicately shoved inside. Oy, that was a proud moment. But I digress! They say there is a friend turnover every seven years, and when I turned 14, I stopped talking to most of my Missouri friends. I hope they all are finding what they’re looking for.

When I was 13, we moved to Nebraska, and I also happened to fall into a religious group of friends. In Middle School I ran around with a crowd that belonged to a large church downtown that frequently had lock-ins and activities for the younger kids. One fall I managed to stay up 72 hours straight: one day was a dance, the next a lock-in, the next a sleepover. Those were the days. But I don’t remember doing anything religiously motivated at that lock-in. I just remember a friend chugging a bottle of Mountain Dew and subsequently hurling all over the rec room. In high school, my group of friends came from a variety of backgrounds: Protestant, Lutheran, Catholic. I learned early that a friend’s parents weren’t really accepted by the Catholic Church for one reason or another. I spent holiday services at different churches, and at one point I remember taking communion because everyone else was and I still don’t even know what it was that I did, but I remember knowing that it was wrong. One Ash Wednesday I went with friends and got ashes placed on my forehead and I remember thinking how weird and uncomfortable I felt. But it was pervasive around me – everyone was Christian, everyone was religious. Everyone with ashen marks upon their foreheads. It was how I rolled. I was the secretary of Fellowship of Christian Athletes and went on several “Weekend of Champions” adventures in Nebraska, including a trip in which I was “saved.” I was in Campus Life, where Jesus was presented through large assemblies on Club Day and it was more about having fun than getting or experiencing Christianity. I wanted so badly to fit in and feel the way my friends felt. That unbending faith that you didn’t have to worry about a thing because Jesus died for you. It was easy peasy. Just believe, and you’re saved. That’s all it took. And even that time, when I was saved, it was a lie. I didn’t believe it. I wanted to believe it. My entire life I’d wanted to believe it. But I couldn’t.

The last straw of my social Christianity, my trying to fit into the mold that was pervasive around me, was in college. I attended services with my friends, and I really liked them. The singing was powerful and intense, and the pastor was so hip and friendly. I remember during emotional services he’d call students down to pray at the front of the shul, if they were suffering. I stood there, wanting to go down, wanting to try, that one last time, to make it work. But I didn’t. And then the pastor confronted me at a dinner and handed me a copy of a book that is known for turning people toward Jesus. I put that book on my bookshelf and never looked back.

I’d spent my entire life attempting to fit into the mold around me because my friends were all devoutly religious individuals comfortable in their Christian skin. Whenever I’d bring up a controversial topic, wanting to discuss what scripture says about modern topics that need practical applications, I was shunned, given a bible verse, and sent on my way. It had never sat right with me, and my questions always were left unanswered. Christianity, in my experience, had become an easy out that I just couldn’t grasp. It would have been so easy to just believe, to put all my faith in a single idea, and let the rest of my life waft by. But that wasn’t my mold. So much of my unhappiness throughout high school and into college was supported by my never-ending attempts to make it work, to fit in, to force myself into the Christian club. There are so many experiences I could write about in my efforts to fit my soul into Christianity. Retreats, discussions, arguments, fights, lost friends …

These, my biggest problems in high school resulted in a deep depression. I tried hard to fit, but I didn’t. Anywhere. I was the Christian Girl in Academic Decathalon and Quizbowl, Math Club, but also Choir and sometimes Volleyball, Model UN, honors society. I went a variety of avenues. I attempted to perfect who I was. But it always came back to the search. The Big Search. I was helpless, hopeless, lost. I kept pushing the square peg in the round hole. I’d done it my entire life. It hadn’t worked, but it was an effort. It was something.

And then? Judaism. Out of the blue, the word was whispered to me in a conversation about beliefs and religion my freshman year. My knowledge of Judaism was the Holocaust, a topic covered by my 8th grade teacher Mr. Smith. I met a Holocaust survivor, I watched the movies, we talked about the catastrophe. But the Jews were a distant people and I didn’t know a single one. Eighth grade came and went and the Jews were never affiliated with anything more than the Holocaust. In high school, my junior year, we did Fiddler on the Roof – never a more distant musical topic for a group of Midwestern Christian kids. But we didn’t talk about Judaism, or why we were singing certain songs, or why the chuppah was important or why Shabbos was so special. I played Mottel’s mother, and that was that. He was 6-foot something and I was 5-foot something. It was implausible, and the musical was more about getting a chance to step out in my musical prowess than about the characters, the history, the story, of the Jews.

How funny to think that me, the little girl who delighted in ice cream at VBS in Joplin, Missouri, and the Precious Moments Chapel’s Christian Bible depictions, who tried her entire life to be a devout and serious Christian, would be at the doorsteps of Orthodoxy, stepping over a threshold of thousands of years of memory and tradition. Even in the six years that I have pursued Judaism, I still vividly remember all of my experiences living the way I thought I was meant to live. I remember taking my little brother and older brother to a Christmas service at my friend’s church – urging my parents to come with, but them denying attendance. I felt so proud then, bringing my little brother to something he’d never known about or understood (he didn’t grow up with the pressures that my brother and I did with friends and school).

But here I am. Still giggling about Jesus in cowboy boots, wondering if I grew up with Jews and just didn’t know it. Smiling, knowing that my children will be brought up with not only the golden rule, but a tradition deeply embedded in my soul. My children will have the right and will be encouraged to embrace what is truly true for them as my parents allowed for me. But at the same time, I hope that I can raise my children in a way that they will respect, connect, and cherish who they are as Jews, carrying on a tradition that their mother’s neshama traveled so long and so hard to give them.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Koogle: The Kosher Search Engine!

A hearty hat tip to @ezrabutler, in his infinite wisdom, for Tweeting this.

For those of you wanting to make sure your Googling is going the route of all that's kosher and modest, there's a new search engine out there for you. And it's named after one of my favorite, favorite, favorite Jewish treats: Koogle! And don't worry, just click on the proud U.S. flag in the upper righthand corner for your English viewing pleasure. From
Orthodox jews are restricted from surfing the web in case they run across religiously questionable and sexually explicit materials. But Koogle, a search engine launched by Yossi Altman, may change all that:
Yossi Altman said Koogle, a play on the names of a Jewish noodle pudding and the ubiquitous Google, appears to meet the standards of Orthodox rabbis, who restrict use of the Web to ensure followers avoid viewing sexually explicit material.
The site, at, omits religiously objectionable material, such as most photographs of women which Orthodox rabbis view as immodest, Altman said.
Its links to Israeli news and shopping sites also filter out items most ultra-Orthodox Israelis are forbidden by rabbis to have in their homes, such a television sets.
"This is a kosher alternative for ultra-Orthodox Jews so that they may surf the Internet," Altman said by telephone.
This is something to kvell about, folks!

(Note: Koogle is also the name of a peanut butter marketed by Kraft in the 70s, it appears. Even more laugh-out-loud worthy!)

Google Chrome YOUR Kippah!

Tuvia discovered the Google Chrome Icon contest, and I concocted the CARAZY idea to make a Google Chrome Kippah out of one of the old relics he had sitting around (I think it's from a 1986 wedding). Who knows if we'll win, but this little 60-second clip was fun and quick to make. Here's hoping we make the cut!

Note: The video had to be 60 seconds or less, so if it seems chaotic and frantic, oops!

The Unorthodox Orthodox Jews

An interesting article that is more an interview than an article came across my inbox today in one of my many listservs that I am a part of. I give a private nod to the woman who sent it my way (and the way of many), and suggest y'all give it a gander.

The intro:
He put on tefillin every day. He was rarely absent from shul. He ate only kosher. But during the busy season in the garment industry, this Bronx Jew who grew up in the first half of the 20th century worked on Shabbat. Can such a person be considered an Orthodox Jew?
Today many Jews would answer "no." However, this gentleman and many others like him appear in a new book, Orthodox Jews in America, which examines the many shades of American Orthodoxy over the past 350 years.
The book's author, Jeffrey Gurock, has written and edited 14 other works, is a former associate editor of American Jewish History, and currently is Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University. The Jewish Press recently interviewed him about his book.
And the major talking point?
"What makes someone Orthodox is his understanding that one is required to observe the mitzvot. Someone could be a Reform Jew and observe many of the mitzvot, but he's not Orthodox because this is a personal decision he makes not based upon a belief in a halachic tradition."

Monday, June 15, 2009

Beat of the Same Drum.

Slap me silly and call me crazy, but I love Waterbury, Connecticut.

When I told people that Tuvia and I were going on Sunday to visit, the initial reaction was "Seriously?" and "You can't move there" and "They're black hat, yeshivish, you could never fit in there." So I went in a little closed, a little cautious. The defense was most certainly up. We arrived atop this gigantic hill in a housing development that is slowly going up for the Orthodox Jewish community. There were maybe 10-12 houses already built with another couple dozen in the works as soon as buyers pop up. The couple we were visiting were put in touch with Tuvia through a blog reader who so graciously made the connection. We arrived to freshly baked muffins and the kindest and most welcoming couple. They were ready, without reservation, to welcome us into their home, take us around town, introduce us to their friends and rabbi, and that they did.

We visited the grocery store to see the kosher options (outstanding), a deli (fried chicken and fries for $4.95? yes!), the rabbi's house (where we were given pastries and welcomed with an incomparable eagerness), the yeshivah, the school, the shul, and we landed at last at the newly opened pizza place where I took part in the most delicious piece of cheese pizza!

Yes, it's a very frum community, but they're so devoted to growth, to maintaining friendships and family, to Torah, mitzvot, to a Jewish life. It wasn't scary, pushy, or too far off the right wing plank for us. In fact, it was kind of refreshing.

Am I nuts?

There's something beautiful about living where everyone is sort of rocking the same tune. I love the diversity of the community I'm currently in -- some drive to shul, some don't, some are shomer Shabbos, some aren't, some are kosher in the home and some are vegetarian out. I respect the rights of everyone to do what is right for them Jewishly -- it's the beauty of the Jewish community! But there's something nice about being someplace where everyone's rocking the same hashkafah, where everyone's kind of in tune with each other. It's possible to be in-tune without being drones, and that's not what I'm getting at.

Am I making sense here?

At any rate, it was an outstanding experience, followed by a hike at Sleeping Giant State Park with the Young Adults Club from my shul and a good-gone-bad dinner at Claire's Corner Copia in New Haven, CT (a kosher, veggie joint where it took us more than an hour to get all of our food -- UGH). Here are a few photos of our adventure.

There are more photos, of course, up at my personalized Facebook page!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbos approaches, are you ready to kindle the lights and rest? Shabbat Shalom!

Paintings by Elena Flerova.

Parshah B'halotecha on Chabad.

Friday, June 12, 2009

To blog or not to blog

This weekend marks my last Shabbos in Connecticut until mid-August. In two weeks, I'll be in a car heading to Vermont for the Middlebury Hebrew Immersion program, and I don't think the reality of it has fully set in yet. I've been loading my computer full of Hebrew tunes, buying summer-friendly skirts, books to work on the b'rachot, and have been working my tuches off to get unemployment so I can pay for my Hebrew books at the program. Seven weeks away from my community here in Connecticut, however, will be bittersweet. Sure, I'll be away learning and growing confidently in my Hebrew usage. At the same time, however, I'll be missing my weekly classes with the rabbi, Shabbos meals with community members, vital moments in my growth within the Orthodox community.

Up at school there are Kabbalat Shabbat services catered to the student body present, so it is set up a lot like Hillel in a way. There are no morning services, unfortunately, and there might be a Tisha B'av service. I foresee a lot of Saturdays being slept in, and a lot of very long Shabbats spent reading books and attempting to pass the time with ease. It won't compare, in any way, to what I have here. It's got me a bit bummed out.

I'm also trying to figure out what to do about this blog, my Twitter account, and my other social networking obligations during my weeks in Middlebury. In truth, my entire seven weeks are to be in Hebrew and only Hebrew, with the exception of religious services (funny that I'll be speaking Hebrew anyway, hah). I can blog and such in Hebrew, or I can risk it and do it in English. I can do it half and half, or I can write in Hebrew and send it to someone to translate and have Tuvia post it to the blog. Or, of course, I can just do nothing for seven weeks and see what happens.

Oh decisions decisions. There are many things I want to do before I go -- figure out which PhD programs I want to apply to, edit my Golden Calf paper again, etc. I have had more than a month now to do things, but the time I've had free has flown, and I'm entirely unsure where it's gone. I have a dozen books I want to plow through to work on my conversion, and I want to get a date pegged for my actual conversion. I've been watching conversion chaos, racism, hatred toward the Jewish people (U.S. Holocaust Museum shooting incident), doubt about RCA vs. independent conversions ... there's a lot floating out there. I've been avoiding writing about a lot of these things because I just can't let myself get wrapped up in the negativity and despair therein.

At any rate. Let me know what you all think I should handle myself while away for seven weeks -- to blog, or not to blog!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dial, Shabbos Style! With Your Teeth!

I have to thank my friend Ryan for bringing this article to my attention. He sent the email to me with a query about why Jews can't use their phones on the Sabbath when it comes to life-saving purposes. Now, I'll admit this article is a little misleading. Here's the article, it's pretty brief, so read on!
JERUSALEM, June 10 (UPI) -- A religious ruling permits ultra-orthodox Jews to operate their mobilephones on the Sabbath and religious holidays with their teeth.
Many of the ultra orthodox volunteers and workers at Israel's Magen David Adom emergency services work on the Sabbath and were confronted with the dilemma of how to active their mobile phones without violating religious rules, reported.
Recently, the agency began replacing workers' paging systems with modern mobile phones equipped with GPS technology that locates workers and volunteers closest to the scene of an accident, shortening the response time, the report said.
MDA asked the Scientitific Technology Halacha Institute to come u with a solution. Rabbi Levy Yitzhak Halperin issued a new set of rules involving the use of a specially designed case that prevents phones from being sut down accidentally. To confirm response to dispatch, workers are permitted to hold a small metal pin between their teeth and press the necessary buttons on the phones, the Web site said.
And the sort of misleading part:
According to Judaism, the Sabbath, which is observed from sunset Friday to Saturday night, is considered a day of rest. Religious Jews do not travel, cook, work or use telephones. They also are prohibited from turning on electricity or driving but allowed to violate the Sabbath to save lives.
Now, in a worse-comes-to-worse situation, the telephone is used on Shabbos to save lives. In Israel, and even in the US in Chicago, New York, and other walking cities, not every frum Jew owns a car. If a woman goes into labor on the Sabbath or there is a life-threatening need for medical attention, even a frum Jew will pick up the phone and call a cab or an ambulance. In the case of someone who is frum and he/she has a car, they will drive to the hospital if needbe, and there are many hospitals (including one in Waterbury, CT) where the staff are trained in how to welcome the frum Jew, how to turn off their car, park it, etc. So even when it comes to the cellular phone, in the right instance, there is no problem with dialing.

So why the teeth? Well, if you do have to break Shabbos in some way (let's say you accidentally turn on the garbage disposal -- can't leave that running all Shabbos!), you should fix the situation in a way that is not normal -- use an elbow, a shoulder, etc.

But man, what a wacky ruling, no?

A quickie birkat?

Any legitimacy or kosherness to this? Found on Jewish Virtual Library.

"Since it was felt that the full Grace after meals was a bit too long, many prayer books have a shortened form alongside the full text, One of them is quoted in O.H. 192 in B.H. 1, and it contains all the essential elements required by the Talmud. The shortened Grace may be used when brevity is desired. The United Synagogue has adopted one, with additions in English, for general use in Conservative synagogues.
Alternative Grace after Meals

B'rich rahamana malka d'alma mareih d'hahy pita."

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Few Questions + My Guest Post!

I am pleased to announce that a guest post by your blog's faithful leader (that's me) is up over at A Simple Jew.

On an unrelated note, but an important note none the less, I have a couple of questions. Of course, I know that asking my rav is the key route for answering such questions, but I like to hear what you guys have to say about some of these things because I think you all are a wealth of information and you also allow me to come up with even more in-depth questions. So let me know what you think about some of the following. They're weighing on me!

  • Why are there so many different versions of the Kaddish? Rabbi's, reader's, mourner's? Significance of each?
  • How come when we have kiddush at shul after Saturday services we don't bensch afterward? How much food must you consume to require bensching? 
  • If you say a b'racha (borei p'ri ha'gafen), but not the motzei at kiddush, do you have to re-say it at home? Also, if you say a wine/grape juice blessing at kiddush, do you have to say anything else? 
  • Um ... what else ... I had so many questions! 
I'm going to look about today for some books on kashrut, brachot, and the like. I'm a little worried about my knowledge of brachot over various foods since it's been one of the most difficult things for me to get into the swing of doing. Kashrut, as you'll note in my guest post at A Simple Jew, is something that, in my mind, allows an individual to fully envelope themselves in the holiness of all things. I'm the kind of person who seeks to practice what she preaches, so this is going to be my ultimate focus until I scoot off to Middlebury and can only read in Hebrew. 

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"People of the Book"

I just finished (last night since I couldn't fall asleep) reading "People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks, and I have to say it's a pretty outstanding work of historical fiction.

The first half of the book is truly captivating, and I found it hard to put down while I was reading it. The second half of the book seemed a little contrived at points, especially toward the very end when it turned into a cheesy "who dun it" kind of storyline. I am guessing that Brooks probably had a lot of really lengthy, detailed chapters to begin with and was forced to edit them down -- that is the only explanation for how quickly the end of the book moved and how short and brief the final narratives were.

I do have to say, however, that of all the historical fiction I've read since Anita Diamant's brilliant and one-of-a-kind book "The Red Tent," Brooks' "People of the Book" is the best. It far surpasses the Rashi's Daughters books which were, to be completely honest, disappointing, and many other books of a similar flare.

I highly recommend the book, which takes a embellished look at the Sarajevo Haggadah -- how it was created, where, by whom, how it traveled from point A to B to C, how it survived many horrible historic events, and perhaps most interestingly, it details the secret lives of historic, important books. The imagined lives of the characters in Brooks' book are so life-like, so real, and I found myself automatically felt compassion and a connection to these historic Christian, Muslim, and Jewish figures.

So go get the book if you haven't. If you have read it? Let me know what you think. Right now on my docket I have "The Book of Names," a mystery novel I believe; John Updike's newest "My Father's Tears and Other Stories;" as well as "The Bible Code" by Michael Drosnin. Not sure which I'll start on first ... but amen for finally having a public library card!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

From 613 to 3:16: An Interesting Thought

Bonus points if you get why I chose this image!
I've seen the bumper sticker more and more lately, and it simply says: "JOHN 3:16." After all, that's really all you need to know. The verse, the tour de force of Christian theology, says "For G-d so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." I'm not here to argue truth, fact or fiction. No, I'm here to discuss something incredibly interesting.

I was walking through the library yesterday when I saw a book, simply titled "3:16" when it hit me -- 3:16 is the reverse of 613, the number of mitzvoth in Torah. The crux of one flipped on its head to be the crux of another. One, with its 3:16 showing that it was Jesus dying that nullified the need for the 613 mitzvoth to be followed.

So, automatically, I asked myself: Which came first? The Gospel of John? Or the identified tradition of 613 mitzvoth? The Torah, of course, was written long before the Christian canon. But the issue is more complicated than just that.

The identification of 613 mitzvoth comes from the wisdom of a few rabbis. The Talmud notes that the Hebrew gematria (numerical value) for the word Torah is 611. If you combine Moses' 611 commandments to the two received directly from G-d at Sinai, we get 613! This number -- 613 -- is attributed in the Talmud to Rabbi Simlai (early 3rd century CE), but other classical sages held this view, too, including Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai (early 2nd century CE) and Rabbi Eleizer ben Jose (2nd century CE). So we can confidently say that in the early 100s, if not earlier, this idea was evident among the rabbis. There were 613 mitzvoth, and these mitzvoth -- 365 negative, 248 positive -- are the "rules" we as Jews are to live by.

The Gospel of John is a more difficult text to really wrangle. There is already a boatload of suspicion of who he was, where he was writing, whether he even knew Jesus, and most importantly, WHEN he was writing. From what I can conclude from a quick bit of research online, the "general" consensus is that the Gospel of John was written around 100 CE.

So here we have a text and an idea -- John 3:16 and 613 mitzvoth -- both from the early 2nd century. Whether the rabbis had exposure to the Christian text is something that I don't think we can really know, and there are some scholars who argue that the rabbis recording the Oral Torah were completely isolated from the greater world around them (I think this is kind of, well, ridiculous). But what we do have here is an interesting polemic coming from John, whose language was intentionally antagonistic against Jewish traditions and customs.

Thus, where better to write the championing verse for Christianity but in the reverse of the numerical tour de force of Judaism?

I don't know if this is something that anyone's written on this, but I think it's really fascinating and most definitely something worth considering. Maybe I'll spend more time on this during the school year, but I think it would be worth taking a more developed and in-depth look at the most agreed-upon dates of the texts and whether there is any literary evidence to maybe connect the two numbers.

I'm not big into gematria, but I think it's quite fascinating. Even if you're not into gematria, that there are 613 mitzvoth is something all frum Jews cling to and all Jews regardless of creed identify with. At any rate, I hope you all find this as fascinating as I do.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Miles, miles, miles and shiurs out my ears!

Shavuot was, in a word, excellent. In another word? Exhausting. The best way for me to relate the entire experience would probably be a timeline, so here goes. Elaborative posts shall follow!

7 p.m. Head to our dinner hosts' house to drop off five challot and a bunch of soda and some juice for the young adults' dinner after services. Then headed to our OTHER host's house (where we sleep) where we dropped our bags, dropped the car, and schlepped off to the shul. Clocked distance: 1 mile. 

8:30 p.m.-11:30 p.m. After a rousing and people-filled service, not to mention a delightful shiur by a 5-year-old boy about the giving of the Torah and the varying tribes (which he named in order), all of the young adults headed next door for our big dinner. There were about 18 people and a few babies and kids in attendance. The dairy meal was outstanding, and left everyone full for the walk to our first shiur-fest location. Thus, around 11 something or other, we all headed off our OTHER host's house (where we sleep) for the first leg of our adventure. Clocked distance: 1 mile. In the rain!

11:30 p.m.-2:15 a.m. There were a ton of people at the first stop, and a truckload (not really) arrived at the house not long after our group arrived. They flooded like a clown car into the playroom adjacent to the living room where all the of the adults were listening to a shiur on a new form of minyans that have been popping up where women are granted similar aliyot as men. I'll be honest: I don't get much out of some of the victimist feminist theories that are out there. I like to think that I'm pretty darn forward thinking, but I love the mechitzah, I love that men and women are granted different "roles" within Judaism. It's not defeatist or realist, it's just that I get how things are. The second shiur was absolutely fascinating, and I'll write a whole other post on it perhaps. Or maybe I'll get the fellow who gave the shiur to write a guest post! It was an interesting look at how the rights of converts truly parallel those of Abraham, the original convert. Just as G-d gave Abraham, so G-d gives to the gerim. I'm not doing it justice, so I'll wait and deliver some more thoughts later. The final shiur was given by the rabbinical intern, who spoke about an Epistle to the Yemeni Jews by Maimonides, which was about how to discern a false prophet. Fascinating stuff! And then? With a bit of exhaustion in my step, we all headed off to the shul for the final portion of the program.

2:15 a.m.-4:15 a.m. We got soaked heading back to the shul -- the weather was miserable, yet beautiful. The streets were quiet and the street lights glistened in the puddles on our trek. I stepped in a gigantic mud puddle, but managed to laugh it off. We arrived at the shul to a group of loud and rowdy teenagers, the same who were stacked into the playroom earlier (they were a huge group of NCSY kids, about 35-40 of them). I grabbed a hot chocolate, and we regrouped when everyone arrived, settling in the main sanctuary for another interesting shiur. I'll admit that my mind was a little floaty at that point. I remember it being fascinating, about whether a stolen item can be used to complete a proper mitzvah (like eating stolen matzo on Pesach), and I think there was even another shiur after that but I forget. It was hard to stay up, but it was nice to have a group of about 10 other people who were there with me the entire night, laughing and joking, schlepping around the shul in order to keep awake. Clocked distance: 1 mile ... in the rain!
4:15 a.m. Someone announced that we could start davening at 4:20 and everyone got really excited -- we thought we couldn't start services until 4:30. A friend and I ran out into the lobby to check the sheet with all the times but, well, there was no announcing time for the service, so we ran back in and it turned out it was a false announcement! People were slowly arriving for services, and everything had been prepared for the service start. Amen. I was exhausted, my knees hurt, I needed sleep!
4:30-6:00 a.m. The service was a muddle of Hebrew, quick traditions and readings. Everyone was in a horrible hurry to get home to their beds, so there was no singing, much to the dismay of myself and one of the other women there. We tried our hardest, only to be scolded (playfully) by a friend! The entire thing started and finished in one quick action, and it disappointed me. Here we are, in this ultimate, beautiful moment of reliving the revelation at Sinai and it's zipped through as if it were a grocery list for meat loaf and mashed potatoes. I wanted to say, "Stop! Slow down! Read slowly! Feel the words, breathe them!" But alas, I was exhausted, and my energy didn't allow me to protest. So there I was, standing, listening to a speed reading of the 10 Commandments/Decalogue, and I wanted to cry. Even as the words were quickly read, I still felt them, in my own way, and it was beautiful. 
6:00-6:20 a.m. I walked home from shul, alone half of the way and half with a few friends, in the rain. The sky was gray and cloudy, and rain misted in that annoying way where it isn't enough but it's far too much. There were few cars on the street and the birds were in heaven with all the wiggly worms crawling out of the earth. I arrived back at my host's house, having realized halfway during the service that I neglected to secure a way to get back INTO the house upon my morning return. So I arrived, sat on the front stoop, waiting for Tuvia to come out on his way to work or someone to see me sitting there. I sat in silence, watching the birds pick at the ground, the rain falling from the trees, and people driving by on their way to work stuffing breakfast sandwiches in their faces. What an interesting, beautiful world. Clocked distance: 1 mile. 
Around 6:45 a.m., someone happened to walk out of the house, letting me in. The someone had fallen asleep early in the morning while studying, and had just woken up. Lucky me! I went upstairs, said hello to Tuvia who was on his way to work, and fell not so quickly asleep. 
Shabbat was like any other Shabbat. Services (with lots of Shavuot-y goodness), meals, socializing, davening, schlepping. I walked back and forth to shul twice, clocking an additional 4 miles. I ate more than any normal person should ever eat in a two-day span, that's for sure, everything from pizza to cheesecake to blintzes to lasagna to macaroni and cheese. I think every dairy food possible made its way through these lips. The entire weekend was long, filled with people and constant movement from place to place. By Saturday night I was absolutely worn out. I can't imagine what it would be like for Shavuot to fall on a Weds-Thurs followed by Shabbos. It might well be murderous to the social butterfly. Overall ...
I clocked more than 8 miles (my knees weep), 
heard about 6 shiurs + 1 d'var Torah by a 5 year old, 
ate more than 5 meals (not to mention snacks), 
and stayed up until 7 something in the morning one day. 
For my first Shavuot, in full, it was excellent, outstanding, educational, spiritual, and moving. Next year, I'll probably take a schluff on one of the leather couches between 4:30 a.m. and the full 9:30 service on Shavuot so I can get a "real" experience of the full service, not a rushed incarnation of it. But overall? Beautiful.