Little Mosque S1E2 – The barrier

The conservative fraction of the mosque wants to have a barrier in the mosque between men and women, the more liberal fraction fights this. We don’t have to go far to find parallels. This has happened in my community over and over again.

For orthodox prayers there’s always a separation, but then the reform group wanted to hold services in the synagogue. They were not allowed to, because they would have had mixed seating and women called to the Torah. So the 100 guests for a Bat Mitzva celebration held the service in a small side room while the 10 regulars did the orthodox service in the sanctuary that seats 200. Cause for resentment anyone? Noooo….

There are positive and negative things to say about separate seating. You get to know other women and the distinction whether you are single or in a relationship is not so important. There’s a more warm feeling than in mixed groups, more relaxed. But separate seating can be a pain if you are a family and want to split responsability for the children. If you are the only woman it will be weird sitting alone in the women’s section. If you are single and bring an opposite-sex visitor it basically guarantees he/she will be lost and alone. There might not be enough siddurim (prayer books) or other necessary things and you cannot go and get them out of the men’s section. And of course when separate really means inferior, i.e., you cannot see or hear properly or there isn’t enough space, there’s not much to like about it.

The solution in the series is that "the barrier stays and it goes away" at the same time. Those who want the separation can pray on the side of the room that has it, those who don’t want it can use the other side. A similar solution is the trichitzah, a three-way partition of the space into a men-only section, a women-only section and a mixed section. I only heard about this from blogs (Redefining Rebbetzin, Mah rabu), but I really like the idea and I’d be curious to try it one day!

Little Mosque S1E1 – Little Mosque

There are basically two introductory stories here. One is Yasir finally finding a place for the mosque in a church, the other is Amaar coming in from Toronto as the new imam. And there’s plenty of misunderstandings all around.

Amaars departure to Mercy features the must-have story about Muslims and airport security. Amaar is talking on the phone:

Mom, stop it with the guilt. No, don’t put dad on! I’ve been planning this for months it’s not like I dropped a bomb on ‘im. Oh dad think it’s suicide? So be it; this is Allah’s plan for me. I’m not throwing my life away, I’m moving to the Prairies!

A woman nearby hears the first part, sees a Muslim, thinks terror attack and gets him arrested. It’s a cliche, but it’s also a fact that security controls are different for people who have an Arab sounding name or who look Muslim or Arab [as an aside, you can also get arrested on a plane for being Jewish and strange, i.e., wearing tefilin]. This is the same type of association that takes place when Jews get attacked because of Israel. We over-generalize and blame people for something they have nothing to do with. If you teach people that a Jew who lives outside of Israel is not responsible for Israeli politics, you should also teach people that not every religious Muslim is a terrorist.

There are many more funny or interesting things, but I want to concentrate on the scene where Joe is looking for Yasir and finds the whole community bowing in prayer. He is totally freaked out by the sheer foreignness. Jewish prayer doesn’t have the extensive bowing, but nonetheless it feels very alien to the typical Christian-influenced visitor. I have brought a few visitors to services over time and all of them have felt completely lost in a traditional orthodox service. First, the language issue, of course, our services are completely in Hebrew. But also it is not as "orderly" as church. Yes, people mostly do what the prayer leader does, but they sometimes go at their own pace, several people speak at once, some shout a loud "Amen" during repetition of Amidah or in Kaddish – it can feel pretty foreign to an outsider.

So, should we adapt? Should we change the services to be more "normal" and "orderly" (that’s what Reform did)? Should we not wear tefillin and tallit? Should we pray in the language of the land instead of Hebrew? Should we change our dress to fit in (no kipa, no long skirts, no beards)? I don’t know. But when we decide to not change, we should keep in mind that we look and act foreign and we shouldn’t be annoyed if we get strange looks and suspicion. And work to get others accept the differences.

Little Mosque on the Prairie [movie/series recommendation]

This is another recommendation about a series. It is called "Little Mosque on the Prairie" and is a sitcom about a mosque somewhere in rural Canada and their struggles. It is a fun way to explore Islam. The characters are lovable and understandable and there is more depth to it that to many other series (although it is still a sitcom). Many serious topic like discrimination, racial profiling, the clash of tradition and modernity and being a minority come up, but in a light way that does not try to give moral lessons.

You might ask what the connection to Judaism is. Well, there are not really any Jews in there. But I can relate to two points. I guess in a city like New York or London it is normal to be a Jew (or a Muslim). I do live in a city and there are plenty of immigrants from all over the world and you see muslims all the time, but there are no Jews (at least none that are visibly Jewish). So I can relate very much to the feeling of being "strange". And also, my community is small and divided, just like the mosque in the series. Too small to split up, but too many opinions to get along. And in many aspects Islam is really similar to Judaism I have discovered!

So if you are bored and looking for something small to watch, give "Little Mosque on the Prairie" a try.

Why are young people leaving religion?

Torah Musings has an article by Rabbi Joshua Berman about why young people are leaving religion. Of course you can blame the internet (which he does), but that’s not all. During the last century, societies around the world have undergone massive changes. In the article, Berman identifies four "core values" (his term) of young people that lead them to leave religion: (1) Choice and tolerance, (2) complexity, uncertainty and doubt, (3) individual expression and (4) reduced regard for hierarchy and authority. I am not a social scientist or any authority on the topic, but I am a young person and I have seen many of my friends and family leave religion, so I would like to offer my perspective on the topic.

I think he is correct about choice being a major factor for people abandoning religion. Never before has society as a whole been as tolerant of different choices. We live in democracies with freedom of speech. Religion and state are separated. Mainstream frowns on people who say there is only one correct way to live. We are performance-oriented instead of status-oriented, where you come from is less important than what you can do. For the first time ever, leaving your social group is manageable and might not even be that hard (provided you grow up in a culture that’s not completely isolated from the mainstream and you have the skills mainstream culture presupposes). Of course there’s still discrimination and unequal opportunities, but society as a whole strives to abolish them. And when it is ok for others to be different, why not be different yourself? Why not abandon the things you don’t find meaningful if you can still keep your job, your friends and everything else? And I don’t think this is a bad thing. It is bad to keep people just because they cannot leave. It cannot be what G-d wants.

I am not sure individual expression is that relevant a factor for people leaving religion. The concept of individuality is not new in our time and age, it emerged in Europe already during Renaissance. It is true that individuality and self-realization is important for young people today. And yes, if you are in a sect that completely frowns on any self-expression that’s outside the prescribed box, you will want to leave. But young people don’t leave because services are the same every day or the same holidays are celebrated or it’s a group experience not something individual. They leave because they cannot find meaning or relevance for their lives in the services, because they don’t understand the language, because religion is taught in a way that completely misses the point they are looking for. We don’t have to personalize religion to appeal to young people. We have to make it meaningful.

The other two points (complexity, uncertainty and doubt and reduced regard for hierarchy and authority) belong together for me. We have access to vast amounts of knowledge through the internet. We are encouraged to think for ourselves and question everything. Plus, as said above, society has opened up, we are not concerned with status so much. With the natural consequence that we just don’t do X because somebody tells us to. We ask why. And if the answer is not satisfying or can be proven wrong with a simple internet search, why should we do X? But that’s a good thing! Blindly following authority hasn’t produced humanity’s greatest achievements. Real authority can deal with questions. Real teachers don’t see it as a threat when their students doubt what they are saying, they see an opportunity to grow. In the long run, intelligent questions and dealing with complexity will make religion better.

I have more to say, but this post is long enough already. So I will turn to what we can do to prevent people from leaving in my next post.

Beauty and hair

And again headcovering… many people I know equate head coverings with uglyness and hiding your beauty. While there of course is an element of hiding, I personally find some of the covered women I see are very beautiful. I especially noticed that when I was watching the series Little Mosque on the Prairie and out of boredom searched the internet for more information about the actors. These are two pictures of the same person (Sitara Hewitt aka Rayyan Hamoudi in the series). She’s definitely not ugly in the first picture (I intentionally found a nice one!), but isn’t she more beautiful and regal in the second (which is just a random picture from the series web page)?

(If you want to see non-beautiful pictures with her hair and more visible, which I won’t put here in order to keep this blog suited for all audiences, go to her personal web page. If you want to see more nice pictures with head coverings, try the page of the series.)

Headcovering experiences

I’ve tried out headscarves a few times during the last weeks and have had a few interesting reactions (both positive and negative) I wanted to share with you (in the order they happened):

  • A friend of a friend asking me to show her how to do what I did, because the thought it was so beautiful.
  • A drunk man in a park repeatedly shouting "foreigners out" while walking towards me – I left pretty quickly.
  • A delivery guy who asked whether I have a European passport or would receive one once I marry (I was a bit offended, but my boyfriend thought it’s a compliment about my exotic looks).
  • A friend asking me whether I know the Wrapunzel blog (yes!!).
  • A coworker I greeted in passing who turning around, followed me up the stairs and asked "what’s that????" with a perplexed expression.

I also got a few strange looks in trains, busses and the city. Probably not only because I don’t look Arab or Turkish, but also because I wear short sleeves and a shorter skirt than muslim women would. But from my friends and coworkers who saw me, I mostly got no reaction at all. Which is what I prefer.

To cover or not to cover…

Lately I have been watching lots of videos about hair covering on Youtube (amazing how addictive that can be!) and I’ve read basically every post on the Wrapunzel blog. When I first heard about hair covering for women I chalked it up as one of the crazy ultra-orthodox stuff I’d never do. But lately I have been strangely attracted to the concept.

I don’t really think I am halachically required to cover, after all, I live in an area where women don’t cover their hair, so it’s not considered sexually attracting in mainstream culture. My husband-to-be is not going to care. It’s not something usually done in the Jewish community here. So why would I want to?

Difficult to explain. What got me thinking about it were two things. The first was a comment on Facebook. I have long hair, but I usually wear it tied back in some non-fancy get-out-of-my-eyes way. Someone put a picture of me on Facebook with my hair open and a stained glass window putting colored lights in it. And some (male) fellow student commented something like "wow, your hair is so beautiful, we never really see it". I had never really thought about my hair as something beautiful, I’ve never put any effort into styling it. It was just there and getting in the way. So that was strange. The second was not one incident, I spent some time in Egypt where many of the women were covering their hair. I had some great discussions with them, learned how to tie a hijab and wore it on some the tours, just for fun. And I found that it kept my hair out of the way, was great protection from the sun and I liked the way I looked.

So… to cover or not to cover? I don’t know. I like myself with a head covering and I like having my hair out of the way and being protected from the sun. But I am going to really stick out and people will think I’m an oppressed muslim house-wife all the time. So I don’t know whether I will really do it.

The Kuzari … again

I have posted previously about the so-called "Kuzari proof" for Judaism. Last week the blog Kefirah of the week (btw highly recommended!) has done a post on the topic which in addition to the usual refutations (how many people were there, no archeological evidence, other revelation stories exist) brings a new aspect: Sinai is never discussed by the prophets!

I’ll let him make his own argument (heavily shortened, go to the original post to read the whole thing):

[…] we can instead look at what the Kuzari argument’s positive claims are, things that would have to be true for the very premises to make any sense. These are: 1. The Sinai revelation story was known to every generation from the original event until the modern day. 2. The Sinai revelation was considered “foundational” for every generation until the modern day. […]

I think looking at the prophets is a good approach because they’re the best witness to the Israelite culture in the latter half of the first temple period and the exile. They are attempting to persuade the Israelites to worship God properly, and in doing so, they use everything at their disposal. […]

So, the question is, what do the prophets say about Sinai? The answer is, nothing. They don’t even mention the word. […]

What to make of this? Here are some options. Neither the prophets nor the people knew about the Sinai revelation. In this case assumption 1 above is false and the Kuzari argument falls. Another option: the prophets knew about the Sinai revelation but the people didn’t, in which case both 1 and 2 are false and Kuzari falls. How about: the prophets knew about it, but didn’t think it was important, in which case assumption 2 is false, the revelation just wasn’t all that important and Kuzari falls. […]

I’ll repeat myself. The Kuzari is not a "proof", not even a convincing argument for believing that Judaism is true. No one should use it for kiruv (to bring Jews back to Judaism). If someone builds his/her faith on something this shaky, how much is that faith worth? Let people appreciate the beauty of Judaism and of G-d, build a connection and then they can decide for themselves to believe.

Male-pattern cluelessness

I’m shamelessly copying this from David’s harp (including the title) because it’s just so good:

There was once a land which was the very apex of Ultimate Moral Standards. In this land, half of the citizens had blond hair and half had brown hair. Because the law of the land was just and fair, there was absolutely no discrimination between the Blonds and Browns, however, the wise law of the land did provide slightly different roles for the two groups.

Blonds were allowed and encouraged to seek education in all areas, and were particularly encouraged to gain expertise in areas of jurisprudence, leadership and ethics. They alone could assume positions of political, social and judicial leadership. To them fell the weighty task of ensuring that the society maintained the Highest Moral Standards. All positions with any decision making authority at all were filled with Blonds.

Browns were not permitted to study any area of law which involved the intricacies of legislation – especially on a theoretical level. They could not study law or hold any career position which involved legislation or jurisprudence. In fact, they could not even testify in court. They not hold any political offices or assume positions of civic leadership. They could not vote for political leaders or for propositions of law.

The Blond legislators instituted law which created an equitable division of labor. Under such law, the Blonds would spend as much time as they wished in the pursuit of the study of ethics and law. Browns were required to facilitate this study by contributing a special income tax of at least 50% of their income, and were required to spend 85% of their free time providing for the domestic needs of the Blonds.

There were some special privileges which were accorded to Browns. For example, they were encouraged to recite lengthy poems which described the exalted beauty of the Ethical Law. And there were special laws which defined how they should dress, wear their hair, and socialize. In addition, to ensure equality, the law carefully maintained that the Browns were subject to any legal restriction which also applied to Blonds.

Some Radical Browns occasionally misconstrued the judiciousness of this system and ignorantly claimed that it granted Blonds greater rights than Browns. These troublemakers were never motivated by any genuine ethical issue, but were rather motivated by selfishness and influenced by evil societies which did not live up to the Highest Moral Standards.

Not that the secular Western world gets it all right, but there are some areas where serious adaptations of the role of women in orthodox society are needed (marriage and divorce, religious leadership positions, witnesses before a Beit Din, obsession with tzniut).

Stop waiting!

It has been quiet around here, because I am extremely busy at the moment. I’ll be back when thing quiet down. In the meantime, something small…

A few days ago I read something about people putting their lives on hold until they achieve X (move, marry, get a job, etc) and I got pulled back in time. For a while I had put certain things on hold "until I convert". This seems to be something many converts do, I’ve often heard plans from other people that start with "after my conversion". But then more and more time passes, life happens around you and suddenly you realise how long it has been!

In my case the realisation was about a year ago and I have now decided to stop waiting. I was waiting because I was afraid of destroying my chances of converting. And because I felt I had no right to do some things as a not-quite-Jew. But I have decided that if it is G-d’s will that I convert, then I will convert. Next year or in 20 years. But I cannot spend my life waiting for it. So, I’m living my life now, I’m not making my life conditional on the uncertain (if ever?) date of my conversion. I’m done waiting.

When did you decide to convert?

For my Master’s degree I went to a big city in a different country. There was a sizeable Jewish community there and from the very beginning I went there for services. And it was awesome! There were lots of people, also people my age (gasp!) and they had a dinner for young people every Friday. I rapidly had a circle of Jewish friends. The rabbi was also great, I felt that he was connected to the real world and had something interesting to say (in contrast to the one at my former synagogue). I finally felt that this was were I belonged.

So I approached the rabbi and asked whether it would be possible to convert with him. He told me I could come to the class he was giving, but that there was no Beit Din in the country and conversions needed to be done in Israel. So in the end I resolved to learn as much as I could and then go back to my home country to convert there. It seemed like the easiest path, as anyway my Master was only going to be a bit over a year.

At this point I had been interested in Judaism for about 8 years, but then was the first time I had a real community. I was able to share holidays and shabatot with other people who were friendly, my age and just "normal" and fun to be with. I also discovered how much I actually knew about Judaism, most people thought I was Jewish when they met me and couldn’t believe I had learned all this by myself. All my fears that I didn’t know real Judaism and it was all my own fantasy were blown away. It all just fit me so well. I increased my observance of kashrut and shabat, I started wearing skirts, I prayed daily, I observed all holidays. And I loved it.

What were your first experiences with a Jewish community?

The first time I had the opportunity to experience Jewish community was when I started my studies. The community I ended up in was really, really small. Also, the people who actually came to services were all old (read: over 60) and all male. So I didn’t really fit in. I think I didn’t talk to anybody for the first year or so (not even the rabbi, he never approached me). A few times there were some students or young people doing an internship with whom I had contact for a few months, but all of them disappeared relatively quickly from the synagogue. I should have gone to Saturday morning services where there were more people, also women, but I didn’t know that. Anyway, I’m not sure this would have helped, as there still wouldn’t have been any people below 40.

I had lots of work to do for my studies, I felt that I was way too young to make such an important decision, I didn’t feel I belonged in that community, so I didn’t attempt to talk to the rabbi or anybody important. Still, I went to Friday evening services nearly every week, I kept shabat, I ate vegetarian (kosher would have been impossible in a shared flat with non-Jews) and I read everything about Judaism that I could find. But I wasn’t really thinking that I would convert someday.

Looking back, I think I was right in taking my time to decide, but it definitely wouldn’t have hurt to get some sort of formal process started or at least I should have talked to the rabbi. Still, I learned a lot during this time, about navigating the service in Hebrew, about explaining Judaism to non-Jews. But it was pretty lonely and I’m a bit surprised that I actually stayed there for so long.

You are not going to find here what you are looking for

WordPress gives you statistics about the terms people use to get to your blog. And for quite some time I have been getting lots of hits for different variations of one specific search phrase for which unfortunately this blog cannot provide an answer. So, dear search engine user, I am sorry, but you are not going to find "mishna berura online english translation" here. Try Google books!

How did your parents react?

Well, I didn’t tell them for a very long time. They knew I was interested in Judaism, but I didn’t tell them that I had started to practice some things. We had plenty of other problems with each other (I was 16!). As they and all of my siblings are not religious at all, already that I was involved at the church was strange. They told me repeatedly that religion is for those who are not able to make their own rules. They knew I learned Hebrew, but I had taught myself Spanish and a bit of Russian before, so they just assumed I was into languages (which I am). They thought Judaism was a phase, one of these things people find interesting as teenagers and then drop it as they become adults.

Probably the first sign that I was more serious about Judaism than they realized was when I went to Israel for six months after finishing high school. But possibly they still thought it was a phase or that I just wanted to annoy them. Anyway, I went and I think the distance and the fact that I was so determined to go really helped both sides to re-evaluate their positions and expectations.

When I came back from Israel, I moved away for my studies and we started to get along better in general. And after a few years they even asked me if I was involved in the Jewish community and I said yes. It became more normal for them that I am sort-of-Jewish. They now see that I haven’t become a crazy fanatic. And now, more than ten years after I started this process, I can talk to them about my frustration with the conversion process, about a nice shiur I had, about some mitzvot [commandments] or about the ultraorthodox in Israel without any stupid comments. But I still wouldn’t tell them all that I do and I make plenty of compromises when I am at their house.

How did your interest in Judaism affect your former religious practice?

When I became interested in Judaism I was 16 and was in charge of a weekly girls’ group in the protestant church in my neighbourhood. But the rest of my life wasn’t actually very religious, I didn’t pray or read the bible or believe all the bible stories literally. I was in for the people and the music.

Judaism changed my life pretty fast. I remember doing my first Shabat not even a month after I stumbled upon Judaism (hidden from my parents). There was no synagogue in my city, but I spent loads of time in a Jewish chatroom. I tried out lots of things. I turned off my computer for Shabat (more out of boredom, because the chatroom was empty). I fasted for Yom Kippur (without telling anyone, not even my parents, just to see if I could). I became a vegetarian (easier to explain than kashrut). I learned Hebrew (when I was bored at school). I memorized the Kaddish (don’t know why this prayer exactly). There was no Jewish community reachable for me, but I did what I could on my own. I didn’t want to convert at that point, I think. It was more experimentation of how crazy all of it actually was than really believing in it at the beginning.

During the same time I continued to be actively involved in my protestant community. And I subtly changed towards Judaism. When I had to tell a biblical story, I took it from the "old" testament – it has great stories, nobody really missed anything. When I had to select songs I selected those without Jesus – there are lots, nobody even noticed. In the bigger events I volunteered for the music group or the outdoor activities instead of the bible groups. The children or the pastor never knew. My fellow counselors probably suspected, because in our discussions my viewpoints became more and more synched with Judaism. One person told me I’d go to hell if I don’t believe in Jesus. But at that point I was so far away from Christianity, it didn’t matter to me at all.

Without really realizing it or planning on converting, I ended up observing many Jewish things. And it just fit! I don’t think I did anything "religiously Jewish" like rituals or praying though.