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Realities television

I'm a big fan of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. My friends and I watch it every Tuesday night. We love the way the Fab Five tailor their suggestions to each individual straight guy, and we enjoy the genuine affection that grows, each episode, between the straight guy and the Fab Five (who we call the "adulthood fairies"). It's heartwarming, plus it's snarky and fun: a perfect antidote to the news, and to most reality TV shows. Most reality TV strikes me as either annoying or exploitative; I favor shows where good things happen to nice people through the hard work of caring craftsmen, where houses are spiffed up or gardens are redesigned or hapless guys get new leases on life.

But this story in the Christian Science Monitor reminds me that reality television can be even more than this. It can genuinely make a difference in people's lives:

"Labor and Materials" is Iraq's...first reality TV show. In 15-minute episodes, broken windows are made whole again. Blasted walls slowly rise again. Fancy furniture and luxurious carpets appear without warning in the living rooms of poor families. Over six weeks, houses blasted by US bombs regenerate in a home-improvement show for a war-torn country.

"The main point isn't to rebuild the house, but to show the change in the psychology of the family during the rebuilding," says Ali Hanoon, the show's director. "The rebuilding has a psychological effect on the families -- their memories, their lives, are in these walls." (Read the whole story, which moved me to tears.)

Today is Tisha b'Av, when Jews around the world mourn the destruction of the Temple and the brokenness of the world. Surely this Iraqi television show is a rebuilding in the physical world of assiyah which manifests, engendering joy, in the world of atzilut. Our world is broken everywhere: may blessings rain down on those, like the creators of "Labor and Materials," working to mend it.

Wrestling with 9 Av

Tisha B'Av, which began tonight at sundown, challenges me. I have a tendency to want to universalize the day's particular commemoration of suffering; I'm more comfortable mourning the broken world in general, our sorrowful distance from God, than I am mourning the destruction of the Temples all those centuries ago. (The tradition also tells us that several other pernicious acts were committed against the Jewish people on 9 Av, though the dual destructions of the Temple are usually considered the worst of these.)

Continue reading "Wrestling with 9 Av" »

Political poetry

I just read Eye to Eye, a poem about Palestinian life by Gihad Ali, in subzero blue. I admire its directness, but I'm frustrated by its assumption that the American reader is inherently incapable of understanding the Palestinian who speaks. It made me want to post this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, which I read yesterday in her limited-edition chapbook cross that line:

Amir & Anna

"It's unbelievable, this cycle of violence, and how
neither party realizes they're both losing."
Dr. Cairo Arafat, West Bank

Amir can't sleep.
He dives under his bed.
Anna is afraid of everything.
Parked cars, moving buses.
Anna is afraid of toast.
Their names begin with "A",
contain the same number of letters.
They live one mile apart.
No one has given them
what they deserve.
Around both their houses,
all the Arab and Jewish houses,
red poppies sleep beneath
dirt and stones.
What do they know?
In March green spokes with fluttering heads
sprung by the secret spool of time
rise and rise on every side.

-- Naomi Shihab Nye

To me the most powerful line in this poem may be "Anna is afraid of toast." It took me a minute, but then I remembered the sound of a toaster popping, and it made me want to cry.

I love this little poem: its subtlety, its deftness, its profound and essential empathy for the suffering of both sides. Naomi continues to be one of my role models, both as a poet and as a friend.

Airport davvening

I wound up at the Albany airport this morning a full two hours before my flight's scheduled departure. It's a small airport with limited entertainment opportunities, so I decided to spend a while in the Interfaith Prayer and Meditation Room.

I've meditated there a few times before trips. The light is muted, a small stream bubbles enclosed in a fountain, the wall shows a pastoral scene framed by copper cattails. It's a lovely space. Lately, though, I'm more interested in davvening than in meditation; as I entered the room I was resolving to pray as much of the morning service as I could muster from memory, and was thinking idly that it might be neat to have a small travel siddur, or to download the liturgy onto my Palm, for times like these.

But some kind souls had donated a variety of holy books to the small shelf in the corner! Among them were four flavors of Bible, a Qu'ran, a Bhagavad-Gita, and a range of prayerbooks...including a 1962 Rabbinical Assembly siddur which conveniently begins with the weekday morning service.

Small parts of the liturgy were unfamiliar, but on the whole it was davven-able. I was alone in the room, so I didn't have to wrestle with feeling self-conscious as I swayed, stood and bowed, or gestured around me.  It felt good to pray the morning blessings and the backbone prayers that stand at the center of every service. The translation of Psalm 30 was archaic and distancing to me, so I rephrased it in my own words, speaking directly to God.

I exited feeling calm and alert, and even the combination of loud television news and a long line at the Beanery didn't deflate my mood.

Ways of reading scripture

Real Live Preacher has made an excellent new post about the Bible:

The bible is not a book for those who need a weapon. It is not a book for those who know where they are going and what questions they will ask. It is not a book for those who are in a hurry and looking for the shortest route.

The bible is a book for pilgrims and wanderers. It is a book for children and for those who wish to become children again. It is a book for seekers and searchers and dreamers...

He's speaking specifically to Christians, but I think the message rings clear for anyone who engages with scripture of any stripe. Not a fan of literalists or fundamentalists, that RLP. I hadn't realized I had stereotypes about Baptist preachers until I started reading him and the stereotypes shattered. And he's in my old hometown! I'm half-tempted to look him up when I'm in San Antonio later this week...

Anyway, read the whole post here.

What I've been up to

Last week I spent three days on Nantucket, and Thursday it was warm enough to swim. I waded out to where the water was chest-high, then breaststroked into the waves, staying in one place and savoring the sun and the salt and the water under my feet. I said a silent shehecheyanu for being in the ocean again, for the first time in at least a year.

Yesterday I led services again. I was short on sleep (we came home from the Cape via New Haven, where we took in a Mission of Burma gig which was fantastic fun and also quite shehecheyanu-worthy but ran a little on the late side) but the adrenaline of leading services kept me plugged-in all morning. My morning-blessing practice didn't go over quite as well this week (there were several visitors and infrequent attendees there, and I think the atmosphere of trust wasn't quite strong enough for everyone to feel comfortable making themselves vulnerable by offering their own blessings) but reading Torah was fun, again, and it's a pleasure to feel competent with the Shabbat morning service.

We had an interesting discussion about the cities of refuge mandated for those who commit inadvertent manslaughter (parashat Matot-Masei), too. I brought some commentaries to spur discussion, including the last two paragraphs of this Roberto Graetz commentary (I like the notion that the six words of the shema can serve as our own six cities of refuge in the modern age).

Our third Torah reader was a college student, visiting our shul for the first time (related to one of our members, which is how he wound up on our Torah reading roster). He was the only reader who chanted (the other two of us just read), but he has a lovely voice, and it made me want to learn the trup (cantillation markings) so I can chant Torah again someday. I'll add that to my list of projects to undertake once the High Holidays are over...

Jewish groups and Darfur

This article's a few weeks old, so it hardly qualifies as news, but I wanted to blog it anyway: Jewish Groups Step Up Efforts To Help Sudanese.

The president and executive director of the American Jewish World Service, Ruth Messinger, briefed a group of Jewish activists last week on the efforts to aid Sudanese refugees. In a subsequent statement sent to the Forward, Messinger said: "As Jews who know firsthand the consequences of silence from the international community, we have an increased moral obligation to respond to crimes against humanity, regardless of the ethnicity or religion of the people being victimized. I believe that as the American people, and particularly the Jewish community, hear about the gruesome killings and inhumane detainments in Darfur, they will, they must respond." (Read the whole thing.)

What she said. The situation in Sudan is overwhelming and appalling, and that's precisely why we can't close our eyes and pretend it's not there. Remembering the Shoah only has meaning if we act against other acts of genocide. Ping your elected officials and urge them to admit that this is genocide so that the international community will be shamed into action.

(Found via Mystical Politics, where Rebecca's posting some excellent stuff on this subject.)

On living documents

This morning on NPR I heard a story about recent trends within the Supreme Court. Apparently some justices (Scalia chief among them) are cranky about internationalism, and have argued that we should look only at our own history for precedent. (Odd, since the Founding Fathers themselves frequently engaged with goings-on in Europe.)

On a related note, the story continued, there's a division between those who believe the Constitution should be interpreted as it was when it was written (e.g., through the lenses of the Founding Fathers with an eye to what we perceive to have been their opinions and priorities), and those who regard the Constitution as a living document which should necessarily be interpreted through the changing lenses of changing times.

I couldn't help drawing a parallel between that debate, and the debate which goes on within Judaism: should we regard the Torah as unchanging and read it through the perspectives of our ancestors alone, or should we regard it as a living document flexible enough to withstand differing interpretation over time?

My phrasing probably suggests which side of the fence I come down on, in both of these cases. To my mind, any founding document or covenant which can't withstand changing priorities and mores isn't actually foundational enough to last. If it requires us to pretend that time hasn't passed, then it's not worthy of our trust or support. To me, arguing that we should forego contemporary perspectives in order to interpret as our forefathers did is the greatest disrespect possible to a text which deserves the best we can give...and that's true whether we're talking about the document on which my country's democracy is built, or the text at the center of my faith.

Para-rabbinic adventures

Leading services yesterday went really well! I tried one experimental Renewal thing: during the birchot hashachar (morning blessings) I invited people to join me in chanting the first few words in Hebrew (Baruch atah, Adonai, eloheynu melech ha'olam) and then to individually sing out, in Hebrew or English, whatever they felt thankful for. To my great pleasure, everyone participated, and a few people seemed particularly moved by it. I'm definitely doing that again next week.

Jeff had counseled me to "make mistakes; learn from them; rejoice in them." Sure enough, I followed his advice; I started a few things in keys that were difficult for folks, and made some minor errors in the choreography of the Torah service. But reading from Torah was seriously fun, and the Torah discussion was fruitful (we had an interesting conversation about why Joshua was chosen to take Moses' place, and what it means that he is an ish asher ruach, a man-in-whom-there-is-spirit).

For the first two aliyot, I did what our congregation usually does, e.g. I cited something which happens in that Torah passage and invited anyone who connected with that theme to come up to say the blessings before and after the Torah reading and to receive a related blessing. For the third aliyah, I asked the other two Torah readers to join me in saying the before-and-after blessings, so I had the pleasure of blessing the three of us after the Torah reading was over. That felt good.

I found out during the oneg (celebration after services were over) that one of our Torah readers had never actually touched a Torah before; I wish I'd known during the service, as I would have said a shehecheyanu! At least she got a blessing.

After kiddush, three people came up to me and asked whether I'd ever thought about becoming a rabbi. (They seemed pleased to hear that my answer is yes.) Someone else overheard and chimed in with, "She doesn't need to! She's already a rabbi!" Which is totally not true (I'm very aware of how much I don't know) but was meant as a compliment, so I took it as one. One elderly gentleman asked whether I had a yeshiva education, which I also took as a compliment. And he joked that Jeff's job is in jeopardy: again, untrue, but very sweet.

I left shul feeling light and joyful, and had liturgical tunes in my head the rest of the day.

Flowers and celebration

On the first day of legal gay marriage, I called a florist in Cambridge and purchased a bouquet to be delivered to any gay or lesbian couple in line for a marriage license. The florist -- who seemed delighted by the whole phenomenon -- suggested that I sign the card with my name and email address, in case the couple wanted to reach me afterwards.

Today I received the following in my inbox:

Dear Rachel,

We were a "Couple In Line" at Cambridge City Hall on May 17th. We can not express to you in words what that day felt like. We experienced the profound quality of the historic step of gaining Civil Rights. But, as significantly, we also felt this intense support and spirit -- from everywhere and everyone. In fact, I think the tears started again when we received this bouquet of flowers from an anonymous good hearted person. We keep telling the story of walking down the street that day, holding hands and carrying your flowers and having every person who passed by smile and shout, "Congratulations." Too often we have had to wonder whether it would be OK to hold hands or not.

So, this is a long way of saying thank you! And, sorry we are so late in getting this note off.

We will always remember you.

It was signed by the married couple, two women in Portland, Maine. I'm so glad that my small gesture of goodwill was able to add unexpected happiness to their joyful occasion. Their email made my day; I’m a little bit sniffly, though in a good way. I'm so proud to live in Massachusetts right now.

More on the shahada scarves

From The Forward comes an indicaton that the Anti-Defamation League apologized for the misunderstanding about the shahada scarves which I blogged about a few days ago.

"Jewish activists, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Jewish groups overreacted because of a linguistic mistake originally made by pro-Israel students on campus. The Jewish students heard that the stoles had the word 'shahada' on them. That word, in Arabic, has two meanings. It denotes the testimony of faith, but it also denotes the action of becoming a 'martyr' while fighting for Islam..."

I find the explanation of the misunderstanding helpful, though I'm angry that the American Jewish Congress hasn't apologized...and I still think the misunderstanding was a sign of paranoia at best (at worst, bigotry). At least the ADL stepped up.

Worth watching

I'm departing from my usual subject matter in order to offer a movie recommendation. Last night I went to see Control Room, and I recommend it very highly.

You may already know that it's a documentary about Al-Jazeera Cable Television and how they covered the Iraq war. You may already be aware that what news we receive depends on who we receive it from, and that no news source is truly unbiased. You may know that Al-Jazeera is relatively unique within the Arab world, an attempt at the kind of free press Americans have taken for granted for two hundred years. That they're harangued by Arab governments (several have banned their broadcasts because they refuse to be a mouthpiece for the state) and the American government (Rumsfeld calls them propagandists and liars) alike. You may already think, idly, that there's something wrong and controlling about how the American government doesn't want American casualties in the news (remember the brouhaha over that photograph of flag-covered coffins?); you may be aware that since Vietnam, media coverage has played an important role in war, because public opinion tends to shift when we can see images of war's devastation in realtime. You may know that Al-Jazeera is staffed primarily by BBC veterans, and that their aim is to provide fair and balanced information to the Arab world.

Even if you already know all of these things, you should still see this film. It does exactly what a documentary should: presents facts and footage and lets the audience draw their own conclusions. It provides useful insight into a fairly remarkable development -- free press, by Arabs, for Arabs -- which I think should be celebrated worldwide. I think the Bush administration's frequent slams of Al-Jazeera are embarrassing proof of their xenophobia. But don't take my word for it, and don't let the bad press Al-Jazeera's gotten in the States deter you. See the movie, and then make up your own mind.

The rest of the world sees America rather differently than we see ourselves, and we owe it to ourselves (and to the world) to come to grips with that. See Control Room and watch while Army press officer Lt. Josh Rusher struggles with the realization that seeing dead Iraqis on screen bothers him a lot less than seeing dead Americans; watch while Samir Khader, the station manager at Al-Jazeera, bemoans the war and then ruefully proclaims his hopes of sending his kids to America for college; learn about Tareq Ayyoub, the Al-Jazeera reporter killed in Baghdad; learn about journalism by watching Hassan Ibrahim at work. It's past time for Americans to start trying to understand how the rest of the world sees us; watching this movie is a good first step.

Three good reads

Hasidism and Homoeroticism by Jay Michaelson, published in Zeek. Through recounting religious experiences with haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews in Israel, Jay teases out the homoeroticism implicit in single-gendered religious experience...and explores why an embrace of homoeroticism doesn't necessarily equal decreased homophobia. Smart, insightful, and illustrated with some beautiful photos, too.

Juan Cole on the etymology of the shahadah (Muslim statement of faith). Apparently some Muslim students at University of California wanted to graduate wearing stoles printed with the shahadah, and shamefully someone from the American Jewish Congress claimed that this act expressed support for terrorism. (I have to hope that was a misunderstanding, because otherwise it illustrates xenophobia so profound it sets my teeth on edge.) There is no excuse for arguing that the shahadah ("There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His prophet") involves support for terrorism; thanks, Juan, for articulating what the shahadah does (and doesn't) mean. (From Veiled for Allah.)

Journey Beyond Knowing, a conversation between Olam editor David Suissa and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Reb Z discourses for a while about the nature of not-knowing, and then the two men experiment with a shared meditation. This piece rambles a little, but it was fun for me to get a taste of Reb Z's particular perspective and wisdom again. My favorite bit is the analogy of four levels of brain with the four planes of existence.

What (Not) to Wear

From my friend Jenn comes this link to Chosen Couture. The "oy vey" baby-doll tee is cute, ditto the one that says "חי maintenance" (חי = chai, which means "life") and I would actually consider a workout tank-top printed with "shvitz"...

...but I laughed the hardest at the Doggy Yarmulke and Tallis set. "He responds to commands in Hebrew, so why shouldn't man's best friend have his very own yarmulke and tallis? Kasher your pooch with this Star of David printed set - it's perfect for weddings and Bark-Mitzvahs!" Oy vey, indeed.