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[URJBiennial] Dinner with the San Antonians; Ruth Messinger

On the first night of the Biennial, I had the profound pleasure of dining at Artista with the San Antonio delegation to the Biennial, at the invitation of Rabbi Barry Block. There are twelve delegates here from Temple Beth El; the dinner also included another former San Antonian, a really nice guy who lives in Atlanta now and with whom I chatted about our shuls, his travels, and GLBT inclusion in the greater Jewish community.

Toward the end of dinner, I got to sit a while with Barry and talk about all kinds of fun things -- how Jews respond to Christianity, the meaning of symbols like the cross or the mezuzah (to insiders and outsiders), the trend within the Reform movement toward reclaiming traditional observances, my Aleph studies and how I hope they will progress. It was a highlight of my day.

When I got back to the Convention Center, I realized we were in danger of missing Ruth Messinger's speech, which would really have bummed me out. I admire her work with American Jewish World Service tremendously -- she has done amazing things to help heal the world, raising money to do important work around the world, and I particularly admire her persistence in sounding the shofar to awaken the Jewish community about the genocide happening in Darfur, Sudan.

Fortunately for me, though we missed the first part of the plenary session (the welcoming speeches, and the presentation of the Eisendrath "Bearer of Light" Award for Service to World Jewry to Ruth), I caught a good part of her speech in response to the award. Unsurprisingly, it was terrific. I offer what I was able to transcribe of her remarks in the section of this post that follows.

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[URJBiennial] Creating Meaningful Worship in Small Congregations

This panel was led by Rabbi Burt Schuman of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, PA (100 families), and Dale Wallerstein, lay leader of Kol Shalom in El Dorado Hills, CA (44 families). Before it started, I had a neat conversation with Rachel, a second-year rabbinic student at HUC in Cincinnati, who spends one weekend a month (and holidays) serving a shul in West Virginia which has fifteen active families. (Now that's a small congregation!) That was neat -- hearing about her program and what she's up to, and seeing the pleased recognition in her face when I mentioned the Aleph program that I'm in. (YAY! I love being able to say I'm a student there.)

We began the panel by going around the room and saying our names, the size of our congregations, and the type of leadership we enjoy (rabbinic, student, or lay-led). There were about 25 of us in the room, so it felt pleasantly intimate. Congregation size ranged from 22 members to 350 families. A lot of what people said rang a bell for me: "Sometimes on Shabbat evening we get four people..." or "We have 100 families, but we get 20 people on Shabbat morning most of the time..." We represented small shuls in Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin, California, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and a dozen other places besides. One fellow, a newly-ordained rabbi serving a congregation in Nebraska, said, "We get 5 people for worship, and as soon as services are over, we get 15 more who show up for Torah study!" (Fascinating.)

Once we'd introduced ourselves, Dale asked the first big question: "What is meaningful worship?"

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[URJBiennial] Are Dietary Laws Kosher for Reform Jews?

We began this panel with some text study, looking at the changes in attitude towards kashrut over the Reform movement's history, from the original Pittsburgh Platform to the recent Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism. Two representative quotes from those two documents:

We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state... -- Pittsburgh Platform, 1885

We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times. -- Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, 1999

There are fascinating changes from the old document to the new, obviously, and we spent about ten minutes reading and discussing those. After the brief text study session, we moved to the official panel presentation, featuring three leaders: Rabbi Lucy Dinner from Raleigh, NC; Dr. Stephen Marmer from Los Angeles, CA; and Rabbi Bennett Miller from New Brunswick, NJ. (As a side note: there's something really funny about having a Rabbi Dinner leading a panel on the dietary laws...)

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[URJBiennial] The Biennial begins!

Greetings from the URJ Biennial! (Well, from my hotel -- internet costs $25/day at the Biennial, darn it all.) This morning my mother graciously schlepped me the three hours to Houston; after lunching at Zula, near my hotel, we found our way to the George R. Brown Convention Center...which is enormous: the size of a city block and several stories tall. She dropped me off and I found my way to the third floor, where registration was in full swing. As I was standing in line to register, a man stopped me to admire my "I [heart] Elat Chayyim" pin and to ask where he could get one -- it made me happy to encounter another afficionado, though we didn't have time to chat. (I wish I'd thought to ask them for a whole bagfull to hand out here!)

I immediately ran into Diane, the cantor from Wisconsin who comes to CBI every year for the Days of Awe, and into Liz, the other delegate from CBI. (What were the odds? In a building containing five thousand people?) Liz and I walked a short while together through the big hall filled with merchants -- selling Judaica of every kind, tallitot and kippot, Hebrew-language software, books and CDs. There I ran into two folks from (one of whom was Edmund Case, the publisher, who I'd met at a reading in New York a few years ago). It made me happy to see them here, and I promised to return and talk with them more.

I chatted briefly with a few different soferim (Torah scribes), all three men with friendly eyes and long beards, and then walked by a booth showing a video about the soferet (female scribe) -- I think it was about Aviel Barclay! That felt neat, too -- like seeing a glimpse of an old friend across a crowded room, even though she and I haven't yet met in person. Anyway, I promised myself I'd return to the dealer's room later; there's a lot of shiny there, and something tells me I'll be leaving with a few new things in my bag.

After jotting down these notes, I started attending panels. Stay tuned for posts about those; thanks for accompanying me on this wild Biennial adventure.

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Reading Rashi

I studied my first bit of Rashi today, and I feel so cool!

Rashi was a medieval Jewish scholar who lived in northern France. Though the first Crusade decimated his community, he survived, and made it his life's work to transcribe the teachings he had received so they wouldn't be lost. He wrote incredibly detailed commentary on all of Torah and Talmud; I can't overstate how definitive or relevant his commentaries have become in mainstream Judaism. (The wikipedia entry on him notes that "Rashi's works are so well respected that he is often cited simply as 'the Commentator.'")

Reading Rashi is complicated for a bunch of reasons. It's printed in a typeface called "Rashi script," which is a stylized version of Sefardic handwriting -- some of it is recognizable to me, but several of the letters are new and strange. (Here is a great chart that shows how Rashi script and ordinary Hebrew diverge.) He wrote in a late-medieval Hebrew idiom that matches neither Biblical nor Modern. His knowledge was encyclopedic, so his stuff is full of references. And though he always begins by answering a question, he doesn't tell you what the question is -- you have to infer it from the text at hand. So reading Rashi is a cross between literary analysis and puzzle/problem-solving, plus it's written in an archaic form of Hebrew and in a font I can't easily decipher. Does it make me weird that I totally enjoyed this?

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On Sunday, I'm heading back to Texas: first for a few days with my family in San Antonio, then for the URJ Biennial, the 68th General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism, which will be held in Houston late next week. Some five thousand Reform Jews will gather in the Houston convention center for three and a half days of workshops, browsing Judaica merchandise in the exhibit hall (I expect to come home with a few new kippot, and probably some books as well), davvening, and schmoozing.

Frustratingly, they've frontloaded the program with a bunch of great things at the same time on day one. How will I choose between "Defining the Role of the Non-Jew in Our Congregations: Policies of Mutual Respect and Invitation," "Blogs, Chat Rooms, and LiveJournal: What the E-Generation Is Doing Online," "Desexing the Text: Translating Sacred Text Today," and "Are Dietary Laws Kosher for Reform Jews?" Assuming there's wifi in the convention center, I intend to blog the panels I attend; I guess I can hope that somebody else will blog the ones I don't make it to.

Speakers will include Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service; Rabbi Joseph Telushkin; and, according to the URJ site, King Abdullah II of Jordan via satellite. (Though after yesterday's suicide bombings in Amman, it's possible he may have other things occupying his attention...)

Somewhere in there, a ton of resolutions will be voted-upon. Some are broad-reaching: opposing the politicization of science, ending global poverty, denouncing the use of torture. Others are smaller in scope: support for Reform Jewish college students, assorted bylaw changes.

I've never been to a major denominational convention, so I'm not entirely sure what to expect, but on the whole I think this is going to be fun. I'm particularly curious about what Shabbat is like there. Thanks to Elat Chayyim I'm no stranger to gloriously immersive Shabbat experiences, but I can't imagine kabbalat Shabbat in a crowd of five thousand!

If any of you will be there, comment and let me know -- I'd love to find a way to connect.

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Thinking of Amman

September 25, 2002:

Last night E and I walked downtown. The souk (market) area was largely still open; we wandered, and took in the same sights I'd seen during the day (how fun, to be able to show them to him). Stopped into a perfume booth where he and the parfumier mixed me a custom scent, with no language in common between them.

Strolled the ruins of the Roman Forum and ampitheatre, lit by flood lights; climbed 4 flights of stairs to the Al-Sendebad coffee shop where we sipped sweet mint tea and tried a nargil, a water pipe, with molasses-sweetened tobacco. We were the only Westerners (and I the only woman) there, overlooking the downtown's hustle and bustle. It was amazing: one of those "we're-really-NOT-in-Kansas-anymore" moments. Then dined on mansaf, a traditional meat-and-rice dish, outdoors at a cafe in the park...

That's an excerpt from a journal entry I wrote on my first trip to Amman. Ethan was there on business; for me it was vacation. During the days, I explored on my own -- first Amman, then the ruins in Jerash, and eventually a day trip to Madaba -- and in the evenings we went out together. At week's end we went to Petra and to the Dead Sea. (I wrote an essay about our Dead Sea experience, "Swimming at the Bedouin Beach," which ought to be in the Generation J archives from 10/02 though I can't seem to find it now.)

Amman was the first Middle Eastern city I had the chance to explore on my own.  I had wondered whether I would feel safe there as an American Jewish woman alone, particularly given that the U.S. was at that time about to invade neighboring Iraq. But everyone I met was friendly and welcoming. I met a dress merchant who had a cousin in Chicago, and a tea-seller who, once he learned where I was from, insisted on giving me mint tea for free. I came away enchanted with Jordan, and specifically with Amman.

I haven't been back over the last few years, though thanks to Global Voices I count several Jordanian bloggers as long-distance friends. The bombings in Amman today are heartbreaking, and my thoughts and prayers are with everyone who has lost friends and family there. May God spread a shelter of peace over Amman, and bring comfort to all there who mourn.

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Jewish feminist history

The internet is full of wonderful things. One of them is Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution, a site created by the Jewish Women's Archive, which I discovered thanks to an email from co-curator Judith Rosenbaum. (That link is for folks who can handle Macromedia Flash; if you'd like a simpler version of the archive, look here.)

As activists, professionals, artists, and intellectuals, Jewish feminists have shaped every aspect of American life. Drawing on the insights of feminism, they have also transformed the Jewish community...

That's the opening premise of the site, and the curators offer three paths in: following a timeline, exploring themes, and a searchable interface for the whole collection. The timeline begins with the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s. In the '70s, we get listings like the "Call to Change" document presented by the Jewish feminist group Ezrat Nashim to the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement. (Read about it here.) And so on. Each event gets a mention and a little icon; each icon, clicked-upon, yields a wealth of information. I consider myself pretty well-versed in Jewish feminist history, but a lot of this was new to me.

The "Themes" section looks at Jewish feminist history through six lenses. One of them is "Feminism and Judaism," which asks the question of what relationship feminism has to Judaism, and explores how the effort to "integrate one's multiple identities opens new doors and creates new possibilities, bringing feminist insights to Jewish life and Jewish insights to the women's movement." Another is "From Silence to Voice," where one finds good stuff like Kim Chernin's musings on her 1973 Spirit of Peace Haggadah and the radical act of ritual recreation.

Exploring the searchable collection, I naturally gravitated to the "Spirituality and Ritual" section, where I spent a happy while looking through The Outstretched Arm (newsletter of the Jewish Healing Center, 1991) and listening to Marcia Falk speak on "A Blessing For This Day." (Read the powerful story of how she first prayed her own blessings in public here.) Around every virtual corner I found another fabulous thing -- like this list of prominent Jewish feminists, each name a portal into another world.

What a tremendous resource. The JWA is based in Brookline; that's on the way to my sister's house, and I'll probably stop by sometime when I'm in eastern Massachusetts. But it delights me that I can sit on my couch on this cold and rainy night, a hundred and eighty miles from Brookline, and benefit from their labors -- that we can peruse this collection no matter where we are in the world. Kudos to the JWA for making this available on the internet for free! Go and enjoy.

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Berkshire Jewish blogger coffee!

I hear tell that when you're a blogger, you never need to have coffee alone again. Sounds true to me! I just had the profound pleasure of meeting Andrew Schamess, of, for coffee at Bellissimo Dolce.

I've been reading for ages. From the first time I saw their slogan ("Pro-Jewish. Pro-Arab. Pro-Peace.") I've been a big fan -- I love the way that motto neatly elides the supposed disjunction between the two "sides." It was a real treat to meet the guy behind the blog! (Actually there are two guys behind the blog -- Andrew and Brad -- but Andrew was the one who started it.)

Andrew and I talked about a million things: how each of us came to the Berkshires, and why we stayed; how and why each of us began blogging; our personal journeys into Jewish observance and congregational affiliation. (Seems like each of us had an orbit that pulled our interests elsewhere for a while first, and we're both lefty enough to be on the fringes of the Jewish mainstream.) We talked about Jewish Renewal, Buddhism, and the Aleph program I'm enrolled in. We commiserated about being active in small shuls that can't always draw a minyan. We talked about the mainstream Jewish attitude toward intermarriage, and how counterproductive we both think it is. We talked about writing, child-rearing, and smalltown life.

We also had a great conversation about Israel. Both of us have deep frustrations with the way Israel treats the Palestinians, and with the mainstream American Jewish trend of unquestioning support for Israel. I observed that when people understand their Jewishness primarily in terms of Zionism, they're missing out on the rest of the amazing richness that Judaism has to offer -- and Andrew added that when they realize what's troubling about the occupation, they may lose their whole connection to Jewish identity. All the more reason to broaden and deepen Diaspora Judaism.

It's always a treat to be able to ratchet an online friendship into a real-life one, and I look forward to more coffees and connections (and maybe even working together on a project relating to progressive religious bloggers, about which more anon). Three cheers for Berkshire bloggers!

(Now if only I could schedule that long-awaited coffee with the elusive Abu Aardvark...)

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Blessings for everyone!

It's Eid ul-Fitr, time to celebrate the end of Ramadan!

Eid Mubarak (a blessed Eid) to all of my Muslim friends and readers. And while I'm at it, Rosh Chodesh m'vorakh (a blessed new month) to my Jewish friends and readers! Here's a celebratory psalm/poem by Debbie Perlman celebrating this new Jewish month. May the cycle of the moon now beginning bring blessing for all.

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Thursday short poem

Hugo Schwyzer often posts short poems on Thursdays, in a series he calls (understandably enough) "Thursday Short Poems." Previous installments in the series have included Rich's Since We're Not Young, Szymborska's In Praise of Feeling Bad, and Milosz's Love. Today his Thursday Short Poem is one of mine! Check it out: Thursday Short Poem: Barenblat's "Mother Psalm." 

I've always felt that poems ought to be able to stand on their own, without authorial intrusion. But sometimes authorial explanations are fun; one of the reasons I enjoy poetry readings is the chance to hear poets talk about how their poems came into being. In the case of this poem, the story goes like this: when I was leaving graduate school, my advisor David Lehman noted that my poems often draw on Jewish tradition, and suggested I try writing prayers and psalms. I opened my Tanakh, started reading, and immediately had an idea for this somewhat sardonic variant on Psalm 1.

These days, if pushed, I would say "Mother Psalm" isn't strictly speaking a psalm; it's not a poem of praise or supplication. (That was the criterion I used when I pulled together this handout of psalms and praise poems for Shavuot last spring.) But it is definitely shaped by the psalm form, and I think it's an interesting meditation on a mother/daughter relationship. (And yes, it's meant to be tongue-in-cheek.) Incidentally, the liturgical poems I write these days -- like these morning blessings -- also arose out of David's suggestion. So in a way, despite their profound difference in tone, they're cousins to "Mother Psalm."

Anyway, thanks for the reprint, Hugo! I'm honored to be in such august company. "Mother Psalm" is published in What Stays, my second chapbook, part of the Bennington Writing Seminars Alumni Chapbook Series, which you can pick up for $10 (shipping included!) by leaving a comment below.

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Seven things

It's meme time again at Velveteen Rabbi: Out of Step Jew has tapped me to do the "Seven Things" meme. Given the slight sleep debt that always seems to follow a night on-call at the hospital, it's probably a good thing I had a meme to fiddle with tonight. Simple and structured: these are good things when one is short on sleep.

I've seen several versions of this meme floating around the blogosphere. One includes the category "seven crush-worthy bloggers," another asks for "seven things I say most often," another for "seven things that scare me," still another wants "seven things I find attractive"...Anyway, I chose the version that seemed most congenial to me.

In lieu of passing the meme on to anyone in particular, I'll offer this: if you do this one, or if you've done it, do post a link in comments. I'd love to see what you come up with. Enjoy!

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On stories and floods.

This week we're reading parashat Noach, which opens with the story of Noah and the Flood. This fall has been marked by the devastating floods of hurricanes Rita and Katrina (and, more recently, Wilma); far less destructive, though closer to home, was the New Hampshire flooding Lorianne chronicled here. This year, I read the Flood story and imagine the roiling waters I saw on the news, and I shudder.

It's the opening lines in particular that draw me up short: "When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, 'I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth...'" Reading those, I can't help thinking of the rhetoric of intolerance which held that God sent Katrina to destroy New Orleans because of its supposed sinfulness.

To me that's appalling theology. (Fortunately a lot of religious leaders agree with me.) I can't countenance an understanding of God in which it is possible that God sends hurricanes and floods to punish us. But isn't that what the story of Noah tells us took place?

A literal reading of the story could support that argument, I guess. Though even a literal reading has to take into account God's vow, after the Flood, never to do such a thing again. "Never again will I doom the earth because of man," God muses to God's-self. And, later, God proclaims "I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you--birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well--all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth." The rainbow is given as a sign of that eternal covenant between God and creation.

But I find literal readings of Torah in general (and Noah in particular) problematic. As the character River Tam says, in an episode of the television show Firefly, "Noah's ark is a problem. We'll have to call it 'early quantum state phenomenon.' Only way to fit five thousand species of mammal on the same boat." Not only is Noah's story difficult to reconcile with logic, it's also fascinatingly similar to the flood stories of other ancient Near Eastern cultures--notably this Sumerian one and the one from the Epic of Gilgamesh--which calls its unique divine origin into question for many readers.

Although I know there are people working to find archaelogical evidence that the Bible is literally true, that's not my way of interacting with Torah. I think the Noah story is more powerful when we read it metaphorically. What matters to me is not whether and when the Flood actually took place, but what we can learn from the tale our people has cherished for so long, and how those lessons impact the way we face the realities of our own day.

When I read the story of Noah and the Flood, I learn that God is capable of feeling despair at our misdeeds; that it is worthwhile to take heroic measures to preserve the variety of species on our planet; that the appropriate response to survival is praise; and that the beauty of creation can be understood as an implicit promise from God that our relationship remains intact and meaningful. These are powerful lessons, as resonant today as they were when Torah was first committed to parchment.

"Is the story of Noah true? Is it historical? This question distracts from the Torah’s purpose. The Bible’s Flood story is intended to show that God cares about both the kind of society we create and the way we live our lives. It is this message that makes it an authentic Jewish teaching." So writes Rabbi John Friedman in Cast Truth to the Ground, a d'var Torah on this week's portion. When we read Torah literally, we limit it. When we read it with an eye to metaphor, we allow the living text to continue to flower.

As we read Noah this year, may we continue to feel (and to act upon) deep compassion for victims of flood and natural disaster around the world, and may we find in creation's rainbow of colors a symbol of our multifaceted relationship with the Eternal, Whose presence pervades the holy texts of our lives.

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