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February 2005
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Article online

Some months ago I had the profound pleasure of writing an article about women in the godblogosphere for Bitch magazine. It was incredibly fun to write; I got to expand my godblogger reading, chat with several fascinating bloggers via email, and try to synthesize what I learned about who we are and why we do this into a single, relatively short and hopefully readable, piece.

The article was published in No. 26, Fall 2004, the "Fake"  issue. Most of that issue is not online. Since this article is about blogs and bloggers, it seemed to me that it ought to be archived online somewhere, so I've put it on my own site. Here it is:

Blog is my copilot

I encourage you all to go buy a copy of No. 26, which you can do here. Enjoy!

Planning ahead

I'm trying to decide which summer retreat to attend at Elat Chayyim. Yes, I realize it's only March, but schedules have a way of filling up. I've just been asked to do a Shabbat evening lecture/reading on Jewish poetry (my own as well as others') at my shul in July or August, and I can't schedule that until I pick my week away. And I need to schedule the poetry talk this week. So I'm planning ahead.

Two retreats are particularly tempting to me: Sharing Spiritual Wisdom: A Course in Deep Ecumenism taught by Rabbi Shaya Isenberg (July 18-24), and A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life: Be Still and Get Going taught by Rabbi Alan Lew (August 8-14). Both of these teachers are people I've long wanted to meet; both of these subjects hold my interest pretty strongly.

I'm slightly more tempted towards the Deep Ecumenism class, given how drawn I feel to interfaith work. It's a morning class only (the Lew class is all-day), so I'd have the option of also taking an afternoon workshop on Jewish Conflict Resolution, which doesn't excite me that much but I've heard great things about Rabbi Daniel Siegel, who's the rabbinic director for Aleph. "Take professors, not classes" was good advice in college, and it probably still holds; if I go in July, I'll get to work with two rabbis whose work I admire.

Then again, I'm also a big fan of Rabbi Lew's work; I wrote about his book One God Clapping back in 2003. (I'm also oddly intrigued by the fact that he pursued an MFA in writing twelve years before seeking rabbinic ordination.) On the proverbial other hand, my meditative focus isn't great, so I might get more out of the Ecumenism class than I would out of a meditation workshop. On the other other hand, maybe that's exactly why I should sign up for the meditation one! 

If you know any of these teachers and can offer insight, please do! I'm having trouble making up my mind, so if you've studied with any of these folks before, please tell me about it.

Holy days

This morning I went to shul for a short morning service, the reading of the Purim story, and a little ceremonial whiskey to mark the celebration. (Good thing I'd had coffee and a donut first!) There's more to Purim than I realized as a kid, when I thought it was just a dressing-up and making-noise kind of day. It is those things, yeah; but there's other interesting stuff going on. God, for instance, is never mentioned in the Megillah of Esther -- which the mystics take a sign that the book is imbued with the essence of divinity entirely beyond the binarism implied by names and naming. In other words, this most profane text (full of court intrigue, harems and eunuchs, and thinly-veiled sexual innuendo) is so holy it goes beyond any of the names for God which we can conceive.

Today seems to be holy for a lot of folks, actually. It's the Indian festival of Holi, a celebration of spring marked by merriment and shedding of inhibitions. (Hm. There's a lot of that going on.) An Indian friend of mine who lives in Singapore has told me wonderful stories about the custom of inundating people with color: colored powder flung out of windows, color exploding out of water balloons. (And the traditional beverage thandai sounds pretty tempting, though I think I'd go for it in its non-intoxicating form -- especially since I started my Purim morning with a nip of Johnny Walker red!)

Meanwhile, for Christians today is Good Friday, the day when Jesus' death is mourned. (Christian readers, help me out here: isn't March 25 also the Feast of the Annunciation, when his conception is celebrated? Having them coincide is quite a koan.) Karen has posted a powerful Good Friday sermon on her blog, which resonates for me across the differences between our traditions. "How simple it is to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television and feel that  swell of indignation that we all experience when we hear about a great injustice that has been done. And yet every day each one of us, in our own little way, gives quiet assent to the persons and policies that bring despair and death to humankind." Really worth a read.

It seems strange that today, when my tradition celebrates with costumes, percussion, and storytelling -- Purim, which some teach is the one holiday which will persist in the World to Come because it's a festival of unadulterated joy -- others are facing an annual dark night of the soul. There's a disjunction there, like a song being played in two keys at once.  Though I guess joy and sorrow coexist in the world, even on the holiest days. And I realize different faiths aren't all playing the same song -- at least, not in any melodic way we can recognize. In the (metaphorical) ears of God, I suspect there's harmony.

The Feast of Lots

Tonight at sundown begins Purim, a holiday I haven't celebrated since childhood. This year I'll be in costume again, for the first time in many years; I'm playing Haman in my shul's Purimspiel. All of the characters are cast cross-gender; our (male) rabbi is playing Vashti, our (male) past president is playing should be a kick. I'm planning to do drag as thoroughly as I can, up to and including a necktie and a stick-on mustache! Only trouble is, I can't seem to find a tricorner hat anywhere; I think I'm going to substitute our black velvet Hogwarts wizard's cap.

I had hoped to write an essay about the upside-down fun of revealing ourselves through costuming and cloaking, why the Purim story makes a satisfying fairy tale, and the interesting resonances that arise since Purim falls this year during the Christian Holy Week. But orchestrating the spiel took up more time and energy than I expected, and I haven't had time to formulate any interesting thoughts. So instead, here's a roundup of what other folks are saying:

  • Debra Fran Baker posits a theory on why Haman acted the way he did: he had a crush on King Ahashverosh. The book of Esther is full of subtext and innuendo, so this reading strikes me as completely valid, and also pretty entertaining.

  • On a more sober note, Rabbi Arthur Waskow connects Purim with the Baruch Goldstein massacre which happened on this day. This week's Shalom Report e-newsletter also included a thought-provoking piece called "Good Friday and Purim Together: Resurrection, Rebirth and Reversal in the Face of Empire Today," but that doesn't seem to be archived online anywhere.

  • Danya talks about how she really likes Purim. DovBear, meanwhile, has some issues with it.

  • This one's from last year, but it's worth pointing to again, because I like it so much: Naomi Chana muses on what's hidden and what's revealed in Purim.

  • And SoccerDad has put up a special Purim-themed edition of Havel Havelim, which includes links to a Unitarian take on Purim, some digital hamentaschen, and a suggestion of organizations to support when fulfilling the Purim mitzvah of giving to the poor.

Chag sameach to all! May your Purim be joyful.

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So I have this friend named David. We went to college together. He and I met during the fall of my freshman year, during the period of time when I was going to the Jewish Center every Friday night. He encouraged me to sing; along with a dozen other friends, we founded the Elizabethans together. In those years we welcomed many a Shabbat by lighting illicit candles and blessing whatever "bread" and "wine" were in my dorm room (often as not, Triscuits and a bottle of Sam Smith's oatmeal stout). This is the same David who gave me my first copy of The Jew in the Lotus (and my second one, after I lent the first one to somebody who decided to keep it). We've been singing together, and discussing theology together, pretty much since we met.

David came to visit on Monday, because it was my thirtieth birthday. I'd already had the shock of a lifetime the previous day, when my wonderful sweetie threw me a surprise "erev birthday" brunch which turned out to include my parents, here from Texas to surprise me! But by Monday evening they were gone again, and I expected a quiet birthday evening featuring friends, cheesecake, and sparkly beverages.

Those expectations were happily met. But before the other friends came by, and before we broke out the champagne flutes, David handed me a bright turquoise gift bag with two birthday cards in it. After I read the cards (one of which noted that a hypothetical baby born when we first became friends would be long past the age of b'nai mitzvah now -- an alarming fact if there ever was one), I withdrew the package inside the bag...unwrapped the tissue paper...and stared at the blue velvet tefillin pouch inside. "You didn't," I said. He laughed at me. "I don't believe you. You didn't!" I said again, though in retrospect I can't imagine why, since obviously he had done.

As you may remember, I've been contemplating buying myself tefillin for a while now, and I very nearly bought myself some that day. But I can't help thinking that, delightful as it would have been to lay my own claim to the tradition, there's something especially auspicious about having them given to me. Maybe I've read too many fairy tales, but it seems like there might be extra oomph in a set of tefillin that come as a gift. Certainly there will be extra joy in putting them on, which I intend to do for the first time tomorrow morning. I'm working from home tomorrow, so could theoretically sleep in...but I think I may set the alarm,  instead. I have a date with my new tefillin, and I don't want to be late.

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Enjoying Vayikra

This morning Jeff and I worked on translating the first handful of verses in the new book of Torah we're beginning this week, Vayikra (known to most English-speakers as Leviticus). Intriguingly, the book begins in media res: "And God called to Moses from the Tent of Meeting and spoke to him, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and tell them, when any of you makes an offering..." No grand "in the beginning" (or even "in a beginning") here; this book begins with a grand game of "telephone," God telling Moses to tell us how to make offerings. It's an instruction manual for holiness, antiquity-style.

Traditionally, Jeff told me, when children begin studying Torah, this is the first text they learn. That surprises me; I would have thought to begin with Bereshit (Genesis), both because it's a book full of great stories, and because, you know, it's the beginning. But apparently the rabbis who established the custom wanted to emphasize that the Torah is more than just great stories; at its heart Torah is about reaching holiness through law. And I mean "heart" here both literally and metaphorically; Vayikra is the middle book of Torah, framed by the symmetry of two books before and two books after, which makes it a kind of Holiest of Holies within the Temple of the text.

It's also a book that often alienates modern Jews. We might legitimately ask, what does all of this talk of sacrifices and purity have to do with our Judaism today? But to my surprise, I enjoyed my dip into the early verses, and learned some good stuff just from the vocabulary.

For instance: the word usually translated as "sacrifice," korban, comes from the root for "bring near." A korban is something which one brings to God, and something which brings one nearer to God. That's a completely different connotation than the English translation, and one I find fascinatingly compelling. (As Rabbi Norman Koch writes in his commentary on this week's portion, "While the English word 'sacrifice' immediately suggests giving up, or losing something, the Hebrew word korban, absent of English thinking, should draw us to thoughts of nearness.") And once I learned that root, I saw it all over the text, in both noun and verb forms. Instead of seeing a passage focused on outdated methods of ritual slaughter, I was able to also read the passage as deeply concerned with ways of drawing near to God. Much more interesting to me!

Or take the word samach, which appears in verse 1:4 . The text instructs one to lean, or place, one's hands on the head of the animal one is about to sacrifice. On the surface level, this describes a simple act, a way of physically connecting oneself with the beast before slaughtering it. But a fluent Hebrew-speaker might see, in that verb, a connection with the term s'micha, rabbinic ordination. (There's both a physical and a metaphysical resonance. When a rabbi is ordained, hands are placed on her head; and there's a sense in which rabbis lean on their teachers...) The more Hebrew I learn, the more Torah seems to me like a hyperlinked document: each word points to other, related, words and ideas, until the text becomes almost three-dimensional, impossible to fully translate in a single linear way.

That Hebrew is dense and relational isn't a new idea; many teachers have commented on it, among them Rabbi Marcia Prager, who writes (in The Path of Blessing) that "Just as each leaf must be understood as a part, fed by the roots of the whole tree, individual Hebrew words cannot be fully understood without reference to their whole tree." Every Hebrew word calls forth echoes of its relatives, which add layers of meaning to otherwise simple texts. That was abundantly clear to me this morning. We talked about the root meanings of the terms for different sacrifices, how the word for "weight" also means "honor," and why the existence of repetitive phrases ("the sons of Aaron, the priests") might hint at later (Deuteronomic) additions to a preexisting Levitical text. We actually ran half an hour overtime before either one of us glanced at a watch; I had to make a mad dash to hit the coffee shop before my 10:30 appointment!

Most years in shul I sigh my way through Leviticus. I've historically found it frustrating (and God knows there's a lot to quibble with in it: just wait until we get to the Holiness Code and my least-favorite verse, 18:22). But this morning was fun, and I'm beginning to hope that I'll find more resonance in the text now that I'm (slowly, painstakingly) beginning to learn to translate it. I'm endlessly glad that so many translations of Torah exist; I wouldn't have access to it without them. But I'm starting to see why it's worth it to read the words in the original, for myself. The layers of meaning are fascinating, and the thrill of putting it all together can, apparently, make even Vayikra fun.

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Reading aloud

The reading was slated for 1pm in the social hall of Knesset Israel synagogue in Pittsfield, following the regular free senior citizens' hot lunch, so though I wasn't sure what kind of audience to expect, I figured "Jewish" and "retired" were a safe bet. At the lunch I sat at a table of ladies (and one gentleman) who talked with me about mah-jongg  -- the consensus seemed to be that I should get my mother to teach me to play -- and why more women than men come to events like these.

Perhaps predictably, two-thirds of the crowd left after lunch. They were there for the kugel and chicken, not the poetry! Just before I took the podium, a forty-something African-American man (aside from me, easily the youngest person in the room by some decades), sidled in shyly and asked, "Is this the reading?" He sat in the front row, alongside a lady who turned out not to be able to hear me even when I used the microphone.

The Jewish Federation's "Reading Aloud" program is designed to allow people to read their own work or work by others, and I wanted to do some of both. I opened with the first few pages of Stone Work by John Jerome. I'm a longtime admirer of John's work, and was lucky enough to count myself among his friends in the later years of his life; of all of his books, this one is my favorite, and I reread it almost every year. Stone Work is an extended meditation on building stone walls, writing, and work. Though John actually rebuilt a stone wall while writing the book, I think the stonework also serves as metaphor for the writing life, or for any longterm practice. It's organized according to the round of the year, and begins with "Equinox: Snowfall." Since the spring equinox is right around the corner, I figured it was a good place to start.

After that I read a sheaf of poems, picking and choosing as I went. I skipped a few which I had thought I might read: the Tu BiShvat poem which is only funny if I tell the story about Bitch magazine, for instance. (Just didn't seem right for that crowd.) The poems that got the most response were Judaic ones, unsurprisingly: a couple of Passover poems, the one about bagels and Texas (apparently I'm not the only person whose family schlepped New York bagels to the ends of the earth), a couple of the morning prayer variations I've been working on.

This wasn't the audience I'm used to seeing at readings; no wine-drinking hipsters here (except maybe the forty-something guy, though he slipped out as soon as I stopped reading, so I didn't get the chance to chat with him and find out). But there's something especially warming about reaching people who might not be into poetry per se, who might just want something to do at the synagogue on a slushy March weekday afternoon. Two people fell asleep; one lady piped up repeatedly to tell her neighbors what a nice voice I have. Afterwards one fellow came up to me and quietly told me my poems had touched him, and one lady told me that she'd never felt she understood poetry but she'd enjoyed mine.

The poem that got the most response  -- hums of agreement, nodding of heads, even a smattering of applause -- was a Passover poem called "Day After," which I first drafted some years ago during a stint when (inspired by David Lehman, William Stafford, and Robert Bly) I wrote a poem a day. It's a small poem, and I included it in the lineup almost as an afterthought. It follows behind the link; maybe it will resonate for you, too.

Continue reading "Reading aloud" »

Beginner's mind

During and after college, I studied a martial art called Isshin-Ryu ("One Heart, One Mind"). During the first few years of my training, my sensei lived nearby; when he moved to Connecticut and opened the Bushido Karate Academy, we drove to study with him once a week. If it weren't for that commute -- two hours before class,  then two hours home again -- I suspect I would still be an active student.

The first thing a Bushido student learns is that karate is about the perfection of one's character. Yes, fitness is involved. Yes, discipline is involved. Yes, forms and sparring are involved. But at its heart, Isshin-Ryu as my sensei teaches it is about finding balance, being ready for what comes, and becoming the best self one can be. I used to joke that Saturday morning classes at Bushido were my Shabbat practice, and that wasn't far from the truth.

We left the dojo because other things in our lives demanded our attention, and (maybe as a result) the commute became too much. By the time we left, we were brown belts, which meant we regularly assisted with classes (and ran them sometimes in our sensei's absence). It was amazing to see people walk in nervous and uncertain, and then watch them blossom as they became comfortable with their bodies and their capabilities. Teaching kids was especially satisfying that way. I remember how good it felt to help their confidence and sense of groundedness improve.

But I remember also that, in the last year of my training, sometimes I missed being a white belt. Advanced ranks help out with classes as a way of beginning to repay the energy and love that went into their training, and  I never questioned that; it felt good to be part of the chain. But sometimes I missed the experience of just showing up. Knowing that somebody would take care of me. Knowing that my education was in somebody else's hands, and all I had to do was be present and willing to learn.

These last few months I've been wishing my Hebrew studies were progressing faster. Wishing I knew more, lots more, right this minute. Wishing I could read Torah without a dictionary and without puzzling slowly through the syntax. Wishing, in short, that I were a brown belt already.

That seems to be my nature. I always want to know more than I do. I always wish I were learning faster. But I've been trying to remind myself, lately, that being a beginner is important, too. That there's wisdom in beginner's mind, and I should enjoy it while I'm here. Because just as I used to feel wistful about my white belt days, someday I'll remember these early months of Hebrew study fondly, wishing I could be a beginner again, discovering the language of Torah for the first time.

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As God is holy

In a comment on this post, I told Mis-nagid that I see no disjunction between the idea that the Torah as we know it was written  by (multiple) human hands, and the idea that there's holiness encapsulated in Torah and that studying it can lead us to holiness. He emailed me afterwards and asked, reasonably enough, what I meant by holiness. My first thought was that, like art (or porn), I know it when I see it. But that seems glib, and his question got me wondering whether I have a better answer.

Predictably, I started my exploration by looking at what other people mean by holiness. The incredibly cool Online Etymology dictionary has a lot to say about the English word "holy." At its heart, it may once have meant "that which must be kept whole" or "that which is inviolate." My first sense that holiness relates to wholeness came from Wendell Berry, who writes (in The Art of the Commonplace), "The word health belongs to a family of words, a listing of which will suggest how far the consideration of health must carry us: heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy." He's talking about the deeper meanings of health, but I think his list has bearing on the deeper meanings of holiness, too. And indeed, Webster's Dictionary tells me, among other things, that "holy," applied to a person, means "spiritually whole or sound."

In Hebrew, the root  kadosh (or qadosh, as some transliterations would have it) means "sanctified." Though it bears no etymological relation to the root of  l'havdil, "to separate," some heavy hitters have argued that the two concepts are linked. This page holds a relevant section of Leviticus, followed by commentary from Rashi and Nachmanides which addresses the relationship of holiness and separateness. (The Wikipedia entry on holiness begins with "Holiness means the state of being holy, that is, set apart for the worship or service of [God]...") I have to admit, that's a connotation I'm not crazy about. The religion major in me understands the power of setting apart; the egalitarian ecumenicist in me wants holiness to connect, rather than separating.

For another perspective, check out this essay by Avi Lazerson, which drashes the etymological relationship between holy (kadusha) and harlot (kadasha) in order to argue that God's holiness resides in God's un-bounded-ness. God exists beyond boundaries, as harlots exist beyond social conventions.

Okay, enough about what the tradition means by holiness; what do I mean by it?

Continue reading "As God is holy" »

First impressions

I woke this morning to the hush of falling snow. I was going to lie in bed until the alarm, as is my wont, until I remembered: borrowed tefillin! Last Friday after meditation I initiated a conversation with Jeff about tefillin; by the end of the conversation he had shown me how to lay them, and had lent me his spare set so I could try the practice before taking the leap of purchasing them.

So today, after performing my morning ablutions, I seated myself crosslegged on the floor cushions in my study. I put on my tallit, and then pushed up the sleeve of my sweater, and unzipped the little velvet bag. I fumbled a moment with the first winding of the shel yad (the one that goes on the hand/arm), and then again with the shel rosh (the one that goes on the head) which needed to be manipulated so the circlet part of the strap would be the right diameter for my head. But I said the blessing as I fastened the leather around my forearm and my head, and then I sat there a moment, drinking in the sensation.

The strap working its way up my arm felt like adornment, and every time I moved to reach for a prayerbook or to shift position I felt the leather creaking on my arm and hand. The little box on my third eye forehead was just at the edge of my peripheral vision (as Jeff taught me it should be), which gave sh'viti YHVH l'negdi tamid ("I place God before me always") particular resonance.

I said the morning blessings (some of the traditional ones; some using the words of my own heart) and chanted several of the morning prayer chants I learned at Elat Chayyim. I said a few things to God that I'd been wanting to say. And then I did the whole process in reverse: shel rosh off first, then unwrapping my arm, then removing my tallit, folding everything back in the appropriate bag.

As I type this, my left forearm still shows stripes from the wound leather, though I imagine they'll fade by the time I finish my first cup of tea. The real question, of course, is whether I can hold on to the beatific feeling of having started my morning this way once my workday gets underway.

In that conversation with Jeff last Friday, we talked about regular (and irregular) practice, and he said something that intrigued me. He argued that there's a spiritual danger in getting too attached to doing liturgical things "the right way." Getting too hung up on that can lead to a kind of idolatry, in which liturgical or ritual-praxis "perfection" becomes the goal, displacing the real goal of the practice: connection with God.

That makes sense to me. (The Buddhist in me points out that any attachment to externals -- even modes of prayer or names of God -- clouds our ability to be conscious of what's real.) So I nodded when he cautioned me not to let some ideal of what the practice "ought" to be get too important. Still, I was itching to find out what the practice would feel like; today was the first chance I had to find out.

Having tried tefillin precisely once, I'm about as far from expert as one can get. Consider this my "beginner's mind" perspective on the experience:

Wrapping myself in tefillin is a physical act, and I had wondered whether it might feel like giving into literalism. (Nu, it's not enough to pray about connecting ourselves with God; we have to physically wrap ourselves to grok the connection?) Would I feel limited, too-physical? Oddly enough, the sensation was just the opposite, maybe because I knew going in that the straps are just a mnemonic device. They're there to make me mindful of a metaphysical connection that the leather can't begin to genuinely represent.

Tefillin serve as a temporary manifestation of attachment to the ground of being. That connection transcends physicality, and transcends any practice I might use to approach it. I'm just reminding myself of it with a very stylized string around my finger.

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Returning to Bridges

Some years ago I ran across a journal called Bridges. Their subtitle is "A journal for Jewish feminists and our friends." I was intrigued, so I picked up a copy. I read it cover to cover within a day of bringing it home.

Small details can speak volumes. Though the cover features the title most prominently in English, it also offers the magazine's name in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino, written in both relevant alphabets. That attention to pluralism isn't just a matter of masthead design; it permeates the magazine as a whole.

Enchanted, I subscribed for a while. I enjoyed everything they published, and was always happy to see a new issue in my mailbox. And then, for reasons that escape me now, I let my subscription lapse. It probably fell by the wayside during one of my periodic subscription-pruning crazes. (When unread magazines pile up and stare at me balefully,  I recycle magazine renewal forms without even opening them. Sometimes I wonder whether normal people feel guilty when they fail to make time for The New Yorker for months on end.)

But as I write this, I have the two latest issues of Bridges here on my desk, and I'm even more excited by the magazine now than I was when I first found it. Maybe our time apart has made the reunion all the sweeter, or maybe I'm savvier now about just how rare an enterprise like this really is. I want to rave particularly about an issue they published a couple of years back: Volume 9, No. 2, which is entirely devoted to poetry. Specifically, Jewish feminist poetry. To me, that's like chocolate and peanut butter. 

Continue reading "Returning to Bridges" »


For a while now I've been toying with the idea of piercing my nose when I turn thirty. I like the glint of little nose-studs. I think they're cute. And after spending a couple of weeks in Rajasthan, where every woman we saw had her nose pierced, I've come to think of noserings as delightfully common ornamentation, like earrings or bangles. (Rachel Kranson wrote a great essay about noserings in Biblical days, "A Nose Ring Of Her Own: Our Foremother Rebekah was Given One at the Well," published in the summer 2002 issue of Lilith.)

My thirtieth birthday is imminent, though, and I have to admit I'm probably not going to pierce anything to celebrate it. (My mother is probably heaving a sigh of relief even now; facial piercings make her queasy.) What's far likelier is that I'll give myself the other present I've been contemplating: a set of tefillin.

To many of the people in my life, a nosering would be a lot less strange. At my Reform shul, tefillin are uncommon (they're not worn on Shabbat, and we're too small a community to maintain a regular weekday minyan, though a few of us meet for a meditation service most Fridays). My friends won't get it -- though by now they're accustomed to my (peculiar, but harmless) effervescence about Judaism, so they'll be glad to see my enthusiasm even if they don't share it. I'll bet even my family will be surprised: some see tefillin as an anachronistic holdover from our grandparents' time, while others place tefillin squarely in the purview of men. Why on earth, I can imagine these assembled throngs chorusing, would I want tefillin?

Continue reading "Connections" »