Previous month:
February 2004
Next month:
April 2004

Le haggadah nouveau est arrivée!

My practice of Jewish ritualcraft began a decade ago when I became involved with the Williams College Feminist Seder. Every year, a group of college students crafted a new haggadah. We had wonderful conversations and arguments about the purpose of the seder, the purpose of feminism, how Judaism and feminism intersect. We wrote some terrific variations on familiar prayers and songs. We learned from each other, and sometimes surprised ourselves.

Admittedly, some of what we wrote wasn't great. We had so much to say -- more than we could easily fit in the haggadah's pages. And we were so familiar with academic writing (and so unfamiliar with the work of writing new prayers) that our haggadot sometimes read more like term papers than like liturgy a community could use. But the process was priceless: it taught me how deeply fulfilling engaging with Judaism can be, and how much more "mine" the holidays feel when I study them, learn about them, and reshape my observance with my own two hands.

Passover is still my favorite holiday for ritualcraft. The haggadah is fertile ground, and every year I develop a new Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach, which I use to lead seder, usually one night for my sister and her family in Boston, and another night for my chosen-family-of-friends here in western Mass. Over the last few years, I've shared the haggadah with friends and colleagues; it has been used in Georgia and Montana, California and Kansas.

My haggadah collects poems and prayers from a variety of sources, along with readings I wrote myself. Some of it is traditional; some of it is not. Some of it has been published elsewhere (like the meditation on washing the hands, which I wrote for The Women's Seder Sourcebook, published last year by Jewish Lights). Every year it grows in new ways, based on new things I have learned, lacks I perceived while leading seder the year before, and suggestions from family and friends.

If any of you would like a copy, let me know; I can email it to you in .pdf format. This is a labor of love, not a for-profit endeavor; I am happy to offer the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, in hopes that they will bring others joy at this, my favorite, season.


2015 Edited to add: you can always find the most up-to-date version of the VR Haggadah by going to and clicking through to the haggadah page.

Book Schnooks: "A Simple Story"

The first book slated for discussion in the Jewish bloggers book group (we're calling ourselves Book Schnooks) is S.Y. Agnon's A Simple Story.

A Simple Story begins with the unspoken, and doomed, love affair between Blume (poor, and an orphan) and her (respectably well-off) cousin Hirshl. Hirshl is kind of a nebbish; he falls into an engagement with a woman he doesn't love, because he's reluctant to create an embarrassing scene when everyone at a party jumps to the conclusion that they are engaged. Hirshl's mother is delighted (she'd been dropping hints with the town shidduch anyway), and Hirshl figures, what the heck, he might as well go with the flow. Blume leaves silently, and Hirshl and Mina marry. They are unhappy, he succumbs to depressive madness and is sent to a sanatorium, Mina bears him a son, he endures a rocky homecoming, and soon Mina is pregnant again. As they walk on the promenade one evening with their new baby they see Blume across the sidewalk but do not speak. When the book ends, they seem strangely content.

In the afterword to my edition, translator Hillel Halkin argues that part of the book's genius is the way it subverts reader expectations. We expect that the separated lovers will either reunite someday, to great happiness, or that their separation will destroy them. (Halkin calls these options "Rapunzel" and "Romeo and Juliet.") And yet neither of these expectations is fulfilled: true, Hirshl's obsession with the woman he can't have drives him mad, but his illness is cured, and in the end he finds a kind of happiness with Mina. Oddly, we are left not knowing what became of Blume. The book ends, "Everything that happened to Blume Nacht would fill another book....[M]uch ink would be spilled and many quills broken before we were done. God in heaven knows when that will be."

A Simple Story adds a Jewish-humor twist to the classic saga of doomed love. In an article in The Pakn Treger a few years back, Francine Prose wrote that "Jewish humor encompasses an intimate acquaintance with absurdity: the laughter of the pregnant nonagenarian, Sarah, from the book of Genesis. It embraces the jokes that don't quite make sense about a world that makes no sense either."* The humor in A Simple Story definitely dips into absurdity (the comedy of errors leading to Hirshl's engagement to Mina; the scene where Hirshl, going mad, lies on the grass saying "ga-ga-ga-" to himself). The humor is Jewish humor because of the wry and ironic way in which sorrow and laughter are combined. As Prose suggests, it is Jewish humor because it is absurd, but also because the absurdity never quite has the upper hand.

I enjoyed parts of A Simple Story. I identified with Blume from the very first line ("The widow Mirl lay ill for many years..."), and found the early chapters quite compelling. Agnon has a deft touch with humor; in writing about the intersection of love and society he's a kind of Yiddish Jane Austen. I like the way his characters measure time Jewishly ("It was a day in May, the first of the Jewish month of Iyyar..."), and the scenes in Mina's parents' sukkah are especially vivid and lovely. Like Sholom Aleichem, Agnon is a master of bringing the pre-Shoah Eastern European Jewish world to life.

But I also found the book frustrating. Precisely because I connected with Blume early on, it bothered me that she receded so completely from the storyline once Hirshl and Mina became engaged. Her absence was important for a while (as when melancholy Hirshl stood beneath her window), but after a while even her absence vanished from the plot. That left me dissatisfied. I felt cheated because the character I was first given to connect with is dropped like the proverbial hot potato, both by Hirshl and by Agnon.

And I didn't entirely grasp the reasons for Hirshl's transformation at the end of the book. Was I meant to understand that he had matured past his childish obsession with Blume, and was now capable of contentment with his wife and children? Was I meant to see that it is better to follow one's parents' advice on love than to strike out on one's own? Is this simple story about the triumph of the social order over the romantic tendencies of an individual? Because of the style of the time in which it was written, A Simple Story doesn't give us much insight into Hirshl's interior condition, so I don't have good answers to any of those questions.

In the end, I can see why this is a classic; I think it's a good book, but it's not one I expect to return to. I'd rather follow the threads of Jewish literature to Cláper, by Venezuelan-Jewish author Alicia Freilich, or Delmore Schwartz's stunning short story In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. Still, if you're looking for an Old World classic to shed some light on pre-Shoah Jewish life, I'd put A Simple Story up there with Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman and Other Stories: not my favorite cuppa, but ultimately worth a read.

*From Francine Prose's "The Jewish Cockroach," Pakn Treger, Number 25, Summer 1997/ 5757.

Conservatism and commentaries

Last weekend I attended a nephew's bar mitzvah at a Conservative shul. My nephew shone; he is a bright kid with a strong interest in Judaism, and his hard work showed. He had a long maftir, and a long Haftorah, and he chanted both flawlessly. His d'var (Torah commentary) was so insightful and mature that the rabbi refrained from giving his usual Shabbat-morning Torah sermon. Aside from my nephew's stellar performance, though, I found the service frustrating, for four reasons: the cantor, the siddur, the insularity, and the commentary.

The cantor has a lovely voice, very operatic. If he were to give a concert of Jewish liturgical music, I would go. But when it comes to prayer? I don't want someone singing for me, no matter how pretty a voice s/he has. I want to pray for myself, singing in my own voice, along with everyone else in the room. I want to be a part of a community praying aloud together. What I got here, instead, was a cantor singing, and occasionally a few diehards scattered around the room joining quietly in. That's not my style, and I think it teaches a troubling lesson about prayer: that someone else, someone who is trained and who has a good set of pipes, can and should do it on our behalf. That's not the Judaism I know and love.

The siddur (Sim Shalom) also frustrated me. Admittedly, the Conservative movement and I just plain disagree about some things. For instance, their Shabbat morning custom calls for four repetitions of the Amidah, one silent and one aloud during shacharit (the morning service) and one silent and one aloud during musaf (the "additional" service); the custom I favor at the shul I attend now is to chant only one. To some the repetition is a mitzvah, and to me it's focus-draining, and we're probably never going to agree there. But even given these predictable differences of opinion, I was surprised by how uninspiring I found the siddur...and the people around me who don't have Hebrew found it nearly unusable. Once again, we ran into cases where there was no transliteration (or maybe there was, but it was four hundred pages away, and not easy to find). The rabbi didn't help matters; he never once explained what we were doing or why, merely intoned page numbers now and then.

Which leads to my third frustration: the insularity. I perceive an assumption that the worshippers already know what they're doing. That they already speak and read Hebrew; that they're familiar with the liturgy; that they know what the intent of each prayer is. In today's world I don't think that's right. In any given congregation, there is almost certainly someone who wasn't reared Jewish, an interfaith couple or two, a visitor who's unfamiliar with the customs. (This may be especially true at a big bar mitzvah like this one, especially when one branch of the family isn't Jewish.) Given this, I think it's part of the rabbi's role to educate people about what we're doing together. Why not pause and explain what was going on, or at least give an intention or focus for some of the prayers? Even someone who prays these prayers twice a day might benefit from being reminded of a new interpretation or kavvanah (I know I would), and someone who's unfamiliar with the liturgy would be thankful for the help. But no: that's not the way they do things. Because the service is designed for insiders, and if you're not an insider, too bad.

I've had these frustrations before, and I expected them. What I didn't expect was my reaction to the commentary in the Chumash (volume of Torah and commentary). During the Torah service I read the week's portion, and I came across some anti-intermarriage commentary which was so pointed that it made tears well up in my eyes. (It was a 1936 edition; I hope that this is no longer the prevailing opinion...but there's no shortage of Chumashim, so if they're still using this one, maybe they like what it says.) This edition also featured an essay on the differences between Israel and Egypt, which indicated that the Egyptians had no real religion, only primitive animism, and were only vaguely capable of learning, like the benighted Ashanti of the Gold Coast -- a set of assertions so offensive that they set my teeth on edge.

I didn't want to explain to my family why I was upset; I hoped they would assume I was merely overcome with emotion at my nephew's coming-of-age. I didn't want to mar his bar mitzvah experience by complaining about how the anti-Egypt essay verged on racism, or how the anti-intermarriage commentary made me feel unwelcome and out-of-place. But I felt embarrassed to be a part of a tradition which could derive such anti-Arab sentiment from our holy text (and would choose to focus on it); and the anti-intermarriage commentary reopened old wounds for me. It reminded me that for a lot of Jews, this is what Judaism means, and that makes me unspeakably angry and sad.

The thing is, I'm not a Conservative Jew. I don't have any right to complain about how they do things. I am a visitor in their community and their congregations, and as such it is my duty to thank them for their hospitality, find whatever I can to savor in their worship, and move on. But the outdated and offensive Torah commentary feels like my problem too, not just theirs, because the Torah is what we share, it's at the heart of Jewish practice and thought. What we read in and about the Torah shapes how we see our faith, our community, and our God. To me, the fact that this congregation continues to use that 1936 Chumash speaks of an unwillingness to move beyond insularity and prejudice into the Judaism I hope to help shape.

When my angry tears had subsided, my husband leaned over and whispered, "You're the only woman I know capable of being brought to tears by bad footnotes!" I laughed, and felt better, and was able to listen to my nephew's d'var with a clearer head and heart. But the imprint of the experience lingers.

Yes, I'm a geek who reads footnotes. Yes, I care what they say, and that may make me unusual. But I wish more people would actually read the contents of the religious books they use. And if others find this troubling, I wish they would speak out, too. Because we can do better than a Judaism which derives its strength from excluding those who marry out, from insulting the histories of other peoples, and from maintaining an insularity which is designed to create boundaries between insiders and outsiders, between "us" and "them." My Judaism is about forging I-Thou relationships with other people, with my holy text, with the world, with God. But it's a real challenge for me to react to this particular edition of the Chumash, and to the people who espouse its contents, in an I-Thou way.

Thoughts on Tetzaveh

This week's Torah portion, Tetzaveh, is the kind of parashah I find most challenging: a detailed description of the garb of the High Priest. I like to think that a skilled commentator can find contemporary relevance in any passage of Torah, but this one tests my limits pretty sorely.

Rabbi Melissa Crespy's most recent commentary on Tetzaveh begins by acknowledging that very challenge. She cites a midrash that expands on a homonym for one word of the portion, an excellent example of Rabbinic ingenuity. In an earlier commentary on the same portion, she mused about rabbis, priests, and ordinary people (Those of you whose Spanish is stronger than mine may enjoy reading that commentary in Spanish.)

That she finds two such different foci in the parasha isn't really surprising, given the range of what people have found in Tetzaveh over time. Rabbi Jonathan Kraus draws on Nehama Leibowitz in asserting that the detailed instructions in Tetzaveh exist for our sake, and not for God's. Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz's commentary goes in yet another direction, focusing on two rabbinic interpretations of why Moses isn't in the portion and what that might mean.

I like the midrashim these folks offer, though part of me wonders, "Why put so much effort into making the text speak to us?" The rabbinic tradition came into being once the Temple had been destroyed: what were they (and, by extension, what are we) to make of these passages describing the ins and outs of sacrificial ritual we can no longer (and, by now, would no longer want to) recreate?

The best answer I can come up with is, this is what Jews do. We take our central text, and we take our belief that the text has enduring relevance, and we make those things work together. We assume that meaning can be found (or made) through study of the text. We assume that there's value in Torah study, even if the week's portion doesn't seem (on the surface) relevant to our contemporary lives.

At heart we're idealists. Even when Torah is cryptic, we insist on gleaning something there. It's easy to find meaning in You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt; harder to find meaning in descriptions of what color thread should be stitched into the vestments of the High Priest. And yet we persist in combing through the words for something to hold on to.

Challenging as I find this week's parashah, I'm moved by our insistence that these words are important. We've spent the last few thousand years engaging with this text. We've committed ourselves to it, and the relationship stands. Even when the text rambles about embroidery and breastplates.

That's my answer. What's yours?

Purim, Take Two

The inimitable Naomi Chana posted some excellent thoughts on Purim in response to my first Purim post. I'm amazed that it never occurred to me that Esther and Mordechai are thinly-disguised variations on Ishtar and Marduk. That's a pretty classic forehead-slapping moment, there. I guess I was so familiar with the story that it never occurred to me that these aren't exactly standard Hebrew names. I'll have to re-examine the Purim story in light of that, and see how that awareness changes it.

This morning in meditation, Jeff told a lovely story attributed to Reb Nachman, about a kingdom where all the grain became infected with a disease which was going to turn everyone mad. There was only enough untainted grain to feed two people, so he decided to save it for himself and his primary advisor; but the advisor observed that in a kingdom of madmen, "sane" people would be considered mad. So they decided to eat the infected grain, too, with one caveat: each marked the other's forehead with a black thumbprint, so that in future, when they saw each other making mad decisions, they might each remember the madness of the world.

The story relates to Purim in a certain way. The world, Jeff pointed out, is pretty mad. In the Torah we learn that God said, of creation, that it was good -- but clearly the world is not what it could be. It can be hard to look directly at everything that's wrong with the world, for fear of becoming overwhelmed by how badly things are broken. Purim is our chance to accept, momentarily, how topsy-turvy and out-of-control things really are...which, ideally, helps us keep things in perspective the rest of the year.

I don't derive the joy from costuming that some of my friends do, and I'm still not real into drunkenness, but I'm grudgingly starting to admit that there may be more to Purim than meets the eye.

There's a saying about the Hebrew month of Adar, the one we're currently in: mishne-nishnas Adar, marbim b'simcha, "When Adar enters, joy increases!" (From Ta'anit 29a.) Whether or not you're celebrating Purim, may your Adar (and mine) be joyful.

In Defense of [All] Marriage

As the debate over defining marriage heats up nationwide, I am proud to see representatives of many faiths speaking up against the inherent discrimination that they (and I) see in President Bush's proposed Federal Marriage Amendment.

Civil and religious marriage differ. Even now, the state will remarry divorced people, while some faiths won't. Some faiths sanctify gay and lesbian marriages now, though the state doesn't. Some faiths will doubtless continue not to sanctify gay and lesbian marriages even when the state (God willing) does. That's as it should be. Church and state are separate here, and we should not be basing our laws on anyone's interpretation of Leviticus.

To deny lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans the right to civil marriage is discrimination; it is anti-marriage; and it is anti-family. I've heard it said that allowing gay marriage will somehow diminish marriage as an institution, but I simply cannot understand the argument. I find my marriage strengthened every time a gay or lesbian couple weds. I am inspired by their courage and commitment.

I hold this belief strongly as an individual. But can I also hold it as a Jew? Absolutely. Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote a marvelous column on this subject entitled The Emerging Torah of Same-Sex Marriage. (He also issued a call to stop the FMA.) Institutional Jewish support for GLBT marriage is nothing new; the official governing body of Reform Judaism voted to support civil marriage for gays and lesbians, and to develop Jewish GLBT wedding ceremonies back in 1997.

Unsurprisingly, the UUA supports the freedom of GLBT folks to marry, too. And the Episcopal Church urges restraint on the marriage amendment. God bless these religious institutions for speaking out on this issue. Too often fundamentalists co-opt the label "person of faith," and liberal religious voices go unheard. I applaud the rabbis, priests, and ministers (and their organizations and associations) who are showing the courage of their convictions in arguing against the FMA.

Of course there are denominations within Judaism which do not, and may never, sanctify gay and lesbian unions. The same goes for branches of Christianity, and doubtless other faiths as well. That's their prerogative. But it is not the prerogative of the federal government to enshrine discrimination in our Constitution. Civil marriage should be available to all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. LGBT marriage is not a threat to the sanctity, the institution, or the ideal of marriage; the FMA is.

Edited to add: And here's a great link collecting various religions supporting equal marriage rights. Just for good measure.