Tired…

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I am sorry that I have been absent for so long. I have plenty of ideas on what I want to write about, but I have no energy to actually do it. Maybe next year will be better!

My life is busy and overall enjoyable at the moment. I am not doing much in the area of religious observance other than cover my hair and read Jewish blogs. Which is sort of interesting from a psychology standpoint I guess. But I cannot tell you what it means, as I am not qualified in that area 😉

Relating to hair covering, by now I have been with a hair-covering to talk with customers, at formal events and at a conference. Mostly, there hasn’t been any specific reaction. Sometimes I have had positive comments, mostly that the colors are nice. And I got some more questions about why I cover. Sometimes with a longer talk afterwards, sometimes not. All of them out of real interest an non-threatening.

But three incidents have left me a bit confused and sad (not directly related to hair-covering, more general perceived foreignness). One was a colleague who asked if I was allowed to vote in the next national elections. He knows that I have grown up here and I think he has even seen my CV which states my nationality. But just because I wear a head-covering or just because I am Jewish I am not a citizen in his head? I didn’t want to pursue the issue further, so I didn’t ask why he thought that. Next time was a different colleague and we talked about vacations in the Middle East. And suddenly he turns to me and asks whether I have a European or an Israeli passport. Again, we have worked together for a while, he constantly makes fun of my dialect, so he should know that I have been born here. Here I asked why he would think that I was an Israeli national instead of a citizen of the country I live in and he just said "just because you have been there often". The two things happened in the space of two weeks or so, but I was more confused than anything else. The third incident was when we were walking along a road and there was a sign saying "synagogue" that pointed into one direction. In that direction was a T-shaped crossing and on the other side of the street, so directly where the sign appeared to be pointing to, was some big bank. Somebody said "well, that’s not the synagogue" and somebody replied "but it would fit!". This is text book anti-semitism! But I was way too perplexed to say or do anything.

What is the point of these stories? I don’t know, I just wanted to get them off my chest. I don’t think there is an increase in anti-semitism. If anything, I am more recognizable. I don’t think these people are bad. I think they may need to reflect on their preconceived notions a bit. But more and more I can relate to the sentiment that it is good Israel exists, because that way we have a place to go to if anything happens. Which I hope I will not need in my lifetime.

The exodus – just a story?

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No time for a long post, just a quick "bookmark" to The Pesach Story (or how did the Exodus narrative come about):

If our a ancestors didn’t leave Egypt in a great mass, then what did happen? Is there any truth to the story at all?

There probably is some historical truth in it. […]

With this in mind, we can reconstruct a probable historical Exodus. A group of slaves escaped from Egypt and spent some time at a desert oasis. From there, they joined the bands of Habiru in the Canaanite highlands. They brought with them their religion, a henotheistic faith with a jealous God Who commanded His followers to “Have no other gods before me,” but didn’t deny the existence of those other deities. They may have been influenced by the same currents in Egyptian society that led the pharaoh Akhenaton around the same time to briefly adopt the monotheistic worship of the sun-disc, Aten. In time the newcomers’ religion was adopted by the rest of the Habiru, and the escaped slaves became the religious leaders. As latecomers, this new priestly class, who came to be known as Leviim, had no hereditary territory.[7]

The story of the slaves’ escape from Egypt was adopted as a founding myth of the Habiru, even though most of them were not descended from that group. In the same way that the story of the Mayflower is one of the United States’ founding myths, even though most Americans are not descended from the group that came over on the Mayflower. The highlands remained the Habiru’s seat of power, even when their religion spread to the rest of Canaan. This was the center of the kingdom of Judah, from which the Jewish people got our name.

This is a story of real people. It is an epic that can speak to us across time, and in it can be seen the seeds of modern Enlightenment values. People who started as slaves, at the lowest rung of society, rose to regard themselves as the Chosen Nation and to spread their ideas around the world. Many of their laws were progressive for their time, stressing equality before the law (for free men, anyway). On Pesach we retell the myth of our origin as slaves and our redemption from bondage. We remind ourselves that we are descended from slaves, that society once considered our ancestors contemptible, and that those slaves, when given the opportunity, created a rich culture and mythos that has been one of the most influential in history.

Categories of melachah on Shabat

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There are 39 forbidden melachot (types of work) on Shabat. I have posted on this blog about the traditional categories on this blog (the orders of bread, garments, leather and construction). This is a different categorization based on Maslow’s hierarchy of need which I have heard in a shiur by Rabbi David Levin-Kruss and found interesting.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs categorizes different needs of people and arranges them in a hierarchy. As long as the lower-level needs of a person are not met, that person is unhappy and not ready to care about the higher-level needs*. The lowest level is food and clothing, next comes safety, next belonging, next esteem (feeling valued) and finally self-actualization. In the shiur, it was proposed that the forbidden melachot on shabat are the things we need to do to take care of the lower levels. This is what we should do in the work week. With the lower levels taken care of and forbidden to dwell on on shabat, this leaves shabat free for us to reach the high levels, ideally the level of self-actualization.

I did not take too many notes, but let’s see if I can align the melachot and the hierarchy levels. Any mistakes are my own, not the Rabbi’s. The orders of bread, garments and leather quite clearly address the lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy. In the order of construction we have building, demolishing and striking the last blow which may refer to the level of safety. Maybe fire goes into there as well, or even to the lowest level of physical comfort (warmth in winter). Belonging is connected to communication, so that would make writing and erasing melachot of the third level. Also carrying, which is necessary when people get together in groups. Alternatively carrying could also go to the lowest level, as we need to carry our food and clothes home. So with the lower three levels forbidden to worry about on Shabat, we need to prepare everything beforehand. Which creates the secure feeling that all our basic needs are met. And so we have the day to reach for the other levels.

It’s not a perfect fit, but I found the idea insteresting and worth thinking about.


* I’m not a social scientist or psychologist, sorry if I’m grossly misrepresenting the theory.

Where were the women at Sinai?

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I have attended a shiur about Shavuot and the giving of the Torah. We read the text where the people of Israel gets ready to receive the Torah (Exodus 19 and 20). In there, it has a sentence about how the people should "refrain from coming near women". Now one (pretty straightforward) interpretation is that the "people" here refers to men only. So women were not there to receive the Torah??? The most important point in Jewish history, and women were not a part of it? What does Judaism has to say about that?

One answer is, that this is just a general reference to making the people holy, it is just one specific part of preparation, but not the only one and of course women were included in giving the Torah. Some may see that as apologetics or re-interpreting the Torah in ways that "feel good" for us today.

A different answer is given by Rashi. Seminal emission makes women tameh (ritually unclean) for up to three days and if the women were to be tameh, they would not have been able to attend. So the men were forbidden to go near them for the benefit of the women. (I haven’t really researched this, but I think seminal emission also makes men tameh?) This is also some sort of re-interpretation, but maybe a bit more technical one.

Another answer is to set the Torah into historic context. In ancient Greece, only free men were "people" and the Torah is a product of a similar time. So maybe they really didn’t think of women as "people" and women really were not there at the time – but now of course we include women. This sort of assumes that Judaism changes with times and that the Torah is not perfect, so some people may be unhappy with this answer.

I don’t really want to get hang up on the different answers and I am sure there are many more interpretations. What inspired me to write this post is the closing sentence of the rabbi:

The question is not what is written in the Torah. The question is how do I need to read the Torah today, in my specific situation, to enable me to stay Jewish.

It may sound heretical for some of you, but in the end, this is what matters. How can I deal with the difficult passages in the Torah (and there are some for everybody, even if this specific one does not bother you personally) and still stay Jewish. How can I be authentic and Jewish.

Being critical of Israel… or antisemitic?

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Is it antisemitic to be critical of Israel’s politics?

No. Just as it is not anti-whatever to be critical of the politics of… France, Azerbaijan, Chile, Canada, Jordan or Thailand. The problem is – that’s not a thing. There is no movement against Canada’s politics. People who criticize Chile’s government don’t hasten to add "but I am not Latino-phobic". And nobody feels the need to share his/her opinion about Azerbaijan without ever having been there or knowing a person there. Thailand is not in the news every day. France’s president is not compared to Hitler. And nobody doubts Jordan’s right to exist. But all of this is common when the county in question is Israel. Which makes you think…

But no. Not every criticism of Israel is antisemitic.

So let’s look at some statements: "Israel is waging a war of extermination against the Palestinians" – "What Israel does to the Palestinians is just like what the Nazis did to the Jews" – "Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the country they live in" – "Israel’s politics is negatively influencing my view of Jews" [link to source]

That is not "criticism of Israel". That is antisemitic.

Quick Test, replace "Israel" with another country or ethnic group: "Saudi Arabia is waging a war of extermination against Yemen" – "What Sudan does to the Nuer is just like what the Nazis did to the Jews" – "Catholics are more loyal to the Vatican than to the country they live in" – "India’s politics is negatively influencing my view of Hindus". Doesn’t fly!

In my opinion, criticizing Israel is antisemitic if …

  • … antisemitic stereotypes are used, e.g., rich Jews control the world.
  • … comparisons with the holocaust, apartheid, colonialization, etc. are used routinely.
  • … Israel’s right to exist questioned.
  • … there is no distinctions made between Israelis and Jews.
  • … the person in question has no special knowledge about the region.

What do you think?

What I consider kitniot

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Last year, I wrote about guidelines for deciding what is kitniot and said that in my opinion everybody should think about the issue of kitniot and make her/his own list of things that she/he considers kitniot. So the obvious follow-up question is: What do you decide?

Well. First, I do decide that I want to honor the minhag somewhat, so there are things that I do not eat on pessach because I consider them kitniot. Second, I decide that (a) I think there should not be additions to the original list, but (b) there should be some botanical consistency to the list.

So effectively my list includes the "original" kitniot (i.e., beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, rice, millet, buckwheat) and additionally things that are botanically cereal grains (maize/corn, rice, millet). Yes, I would definitely eat quinoa (that is, if I ever ate quinoa, which I really don’t).

Gluten-free oat cereals

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I’ve written a lot about kitniot on this blog previously. To recap: Kitniot are not chametz, but they are avoided on Pesach by Ashkenazim as well because they may be confused with chametz or contain traces of chametz. Every year the discussion of whether these are valid reasons starts again.

Last year, one opportunity to re-start the debate was General consumer’s announcement that Cheerios are now gluten-free (which apparently was published already in February 2015):

Cheerios have always been made of oats, which are naturally gluten-free. Many farmers who grow oats rotate their crops. That means they also grow grains that have gluten (like wheat, barley, and rye). These grains get mixed in with the oats during harvesting and transport. To make Cheerios gluten‑free, we have to separate them from the oats.

This can of course be used to support the claim that the may-contain-traces-of-chametz concern may be relevant even today, this is a snippet from Cheerios Vindicate Ashkenazim! by Yitzchok Adlerstein, published on CrossCurrents:

Even today, apparently, grains get mixed with other grains, both in their growing (in the case of legumes, not through rotation, but as crops grown between the rows of grain) and in their transportation.

And of course the exact opposite argument made based on the same community announcement (comment by Menachem Lipkin on April 28, 2016):

Generally there’s little argument over why there was a need for the restriction when it started. They claim it’s no longer needed. The fact that a company the size of General Mills is able to make one of the most popular cereals in the world Gluten-free shows that it can be done on such a scale and certainly on the smaller scale of Kashrut supervision as is quite commonly done in Israel.

Elu ve-elu divrei elokim hayyim (Both [answers] are the words of the living God) !?

Head covering and work

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One of the reasons why I haven’t been more active on this blog lately is because I have started a new job that is keeping me very busy. There are of course many new things happening, as always when one starts something new, but the one thing I would like to talk about today is headcovering at work.

After my marriage, I have been wearing tichels (Jewish-style headscarf) on and off. First only on the weekends, then also to work. During the end of my time at my old job I covered sometimes nearly full-time for a whole week, then again another week I didn’t wear anything at all. The reactions of my old colleagues ranged from “WTF??” to “what a nice scarf”, but mostly it was indifference. But I never wore any covering when I had work-related dealings with other people. Chicken that I am 😉

Along came job interviews. And like probably many many others, I debated with myself for a long time what to do about the covering. I decided not to put any picture on the application which gave me more time to think about it. Finally, I decided to go with a bandana to my interview, but at the last moment I got scared and took it off. The next one I did without even planning to wear one.

I got the job. To start after my long holiday in Israel. And during my time in Israel I covered the whole time and it just felt so right. So when I came back, I took the decision to continue covering. Still, as I had been at the interview without a covering, I felt awkward. I thought they might think I had wanted to trick them into hiring me without knowing about the covering. Under false pretenses. My first few weeks I went to work with a bandana, a small headband or some other partial covering as a sort of compromise. But I didn’t feel beautiful and it kept coming off. Finally, after about a month or six weeks I started to wear a full tichel in the colors and styles that I experimented with in Israel. The first day I was very much afraid of the reactions, but on the other hand I felt also so beautiful.

This is the total sum of the reactions I got (each point represents one incident with one person, not more):

  • "That scarf is so beautiful."
  • "That color looks so nice on you."
  • "Ah, today it is green, I liked the red more."
  • "Since when do you cover your hair?"
  • "How many scarves do you have, you wear so many different ones!"
  • (my Muslim hijab-wearing colleague to another colleague) "Now there are two of us!!"
  • (a Muslim hat-wearing student) "You look so beautiful, but may I ask, why do you cover your hair, are you Muslim?"
  • And a discussion with said Muslim colleague about whether or not to put a picture on a job application and what types of reactions we have experienced in the streets and elsewhere.

But mostly: Just no reaction at all. Really! What a relief (and what unnecessary headache)!

Little Mosque S2E14 – Welcome to Mercy

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Sarah is acting mayor for ten days. During this time Joe runs over the sign at the town entrance, Sarah gets a new one that has many languages on it – but no English. Yassir is relegated to be the pretty face next to the mayor and launches his own campaign to teach people how to use tools. McGee takes up painting and Amaar has to pretend to like the results.

Best quote:

Fatima: About that sign.
Sarah: Oh, don’t tell me you want Nigerian on that sign.
Fatima: Of course not. I want Yuruba, what we speak in Nigeria.

This episode takes a satirical look at gender roles. Sarah is doing business with the men, while Yassir has drinks with the spouses. We have Yassir behaving irrationally ("like a woman") when Sarah criticizes his campaign and in the same episode have him being the stereotypical man who does stuff with tools. The episode is more comedy than anything and does not provide us with information on how gender roles are viewed in Islam, but I want to talk a bit about gender roles in Judaism.

First off, this is a highly controversial topic and probably many people won’t agree with what I am writing. Traditionally, Judaism is very gendered and prescribes different roles for the two genders. Women and men have different religious obligations. While both are required to pray, only men are required to pray in "public", i.e., in a group. That women are not required to do so, leads to their traditional exclusion from various roles that are reserved for those who have the requirement of public prayer (i.e., men): women do not count for the quorum of 10 men required for a prayer service, women do not lead services, women do not read from the Torah, women do not put on Tallit and Tefilin. Nowadays, this is still the way prayer works in many traditional orthodox communities. In some modern orthodox communities and in other streams of Judasim, women do some or all of the above. And many (non-orthodox) synagogues have practically erased all gender differences in rituals.

The different roles (and probably a good dose of historical discrimination of women and sexism) are reflected in non-ritual parts of Judaism as well. When we look at "preferred lives" for men and women, there is the ideal that women take care of the house and children and men learn Torah. Women are mothers, men are learners. The role of women is not unimportant, the home is the place where lots of Jewish rituals happen. But what if a women does not want or cannot have children? The ideal role of men is different from what Westerners usually associate with traditional male roles (feeding the family). But what if a man is not made to be a learner? And then there is the whole issue of whether it is permissible for a woman to fill the man’s role of learning Torah. Hence the hot debate in orthodoxy about whether women can be rabbis (the non-orthodox movements have long decided that yes they can). If you wonder whether women can learn non-religious stuff – that is usually not a question. Orthodox women are doctors, lawyers, you-name-its. Some circles prioritize men’s learning so much that it’s the women who earn the money for the family and the men learn Torah full-time.

It is a pity that we haven’t seen more about Islam’s vision of gender in this episode, but I would guess that – like Judaism – there is some discrepancy between Western egalitarian values and traditional role models. And while there is definitely a defensible basis in Jewish/Muslim thought and we maybe shouldn’t throw all of this away, the concepts are probably influenced by any number of things besides Judaism/Islam (from traditional sexism to making a statement against the sexualization of secular society). There has been a lot of discussion and change going on about this topic in the last few decades and I doubt that we have reached the end of it.

How to chose a siddur

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I do not claim to have the ultimate answer and at the end each person will have her own preferences, but here are some guidelines on what to consider when chosing a siddur (prayer book). Add your own in the comments!

  • Nusach: The first question is which nusach (something like prayer tradition?) you want/need. You will usually want to get a siddur that matches the nusach of the place where you usually pray. Otherwise you will have difficulties to follow, as the differences between the different nusachim can be large, e.g., Sefardim read shir haShirim (the song of songs) on Friday evenings, Ashkenazim don’t. The nusach is usually indicated on the title or the first page of a siddur.
  • Translation: The next question is whether the siddur should contain a translation at all or whether it will be all-Hebrew. Or text in Hebrew but directions in a different language. I’ve seed a few weird siddurim that are "mostly" translated, e.g., kabbalat shabat has "bameh madlikin" without translation. In my opinion there is no good reason for this in the age of cheap paper and I’d not buy such a siddur. If there is a translation, every word of the prayer should be translated.
  • Transliteration: Many people don’t want transliteration at all. For the others, do you want it for the whole text, or only the passages that are said aloud? This probably comes down to your ability to read Hebrew, but I’d say try to get it for the complete text, as customs vary on what is said aloud.
  • Position of the translation and transliteration: The usual placement is Hebrew right, translation left, side-by-side. But you can have the text side-by-side on opposite pages or at the left/right of each page. When transliteration is added, usually you’d have the transliteration side-by-side with the Hebrew and the translation below. Sometimes there are three columns, Hebrew, transliteration and translation. No matter which, if you are not perfect in Hebrew, you will want to skip between Hebrew and transliteration/translation and the easier that is, the better. Pay attention to the line breaks, are they at identical places? Are the lines matched side-by-side or are lines closer together on one side making it impossible to find the lines that correspond to each other? If this is the case, can you at least find corresponding paragraphs and are page breaks the same?
  • Directions: By this I mean insertions like "stand here" or "read only on chol haMoed". These direction can be in Hebrew or translation on the Hebrew side. They can be very extensive and cover every movement like standing, sitting, bowing, covering your eyes, the prayer leader reads aloud starting from here, etc. Or just the basic reminders of what to say at which special day. This is a question of personal taste, but be aware that extensive directions usually rely on one specific custom and there are many customs. So your community may not always do what your siddur says. But still, directions can be a huge help to feel more comfortable in the service and also to find your place (where’s the next "stand up"… ah, here we are at the moment!).
  • Markup: It is quite common that insertions for special days (shabat, holidays) are printed in a box with a gray background which makes them easily recognizable. Is there such kind of markup? Are there different types for different special days such as shabat vs. holidays?
  • Commentary: Some people like to have lots of commentary to get interesting input and explanations for their prayers, others don’t want to be sidetracked. A matter of taste. But if you are getting a siddur with commentary, read a bit, make sure you like the general direction. Nobody wants to get annoyed at the commentary during prayer.
  • Font: There are many easy-to-read Hebrew font sizes available, so there is no excuse for a new siddur to use a font where you cannot distinguish letters. There should be vocalization. The font size should be to your liking, both in Hebrew and translation/transliteration.
  • Text flow: An afterthought that really should go without saying. The text of all prayers should be in the siddur in the order that it is prayed! If a prayer is repeated, print it again (with the possible exception of the amidah, as it is repeated right away). My community has a truly horrible siddur where mincha is just a list of "check page X from shacharit" and you spend all your time going from page 63 to 41 back to 65 and so on. Again, paper is cheap nowadays!
  • Occasion: A final thought concerns the question of "what you want the siddur for". In my community we have quite a few siddurim that are only for shabat, because this is the only time they are needed. It reduces confusion for many people and they are very beginner-friendly and clear. But I accidentally took one of these to a conference once and had to piece together stuff from the shabat services for weekday prayers. Which sort-of works if you know what you are doing, but is really annoying. My favourite siddur includes everything, weekday, shabat and the special prayers for the shalosh regalim (pilgrim festivals), so that I can use it on every day of the year except rosh haShana and yom kippur. But of course it is a much bigger book than the shabat-only one.

I hope you are not overwhelmed by this list, it got way longer than I thought it would. But in the end, I think the best thing you can do is go to your community, have a look at everything they have there and decide on the one you like best. You can always later buy another one. Most siddurim are not that expensive. And sometimes it is very convenient to have the same siddur as everybody else and to be able to follow instructions for page numbers, even if it is not your favourite siddur.

I am privileged

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While we are on the topic of privilege: The day I checked my privilege by Sarah Tuttle-Singer at the Times of Israel blogs.

So let’s see. I step forward for having enough to eat, being white, not being disabled, trusting the police, not having to work through high school, not being LGBT* and probably lots of other stuff. I step backwards for not being Christian and being a woman. It reminds me of the game we used to play in kibbutz with the other volunteers about how to marginalise yourself. Left-handed female, Jewish geek is quite ok, but of course being from a first world country gave me serious minus points.

So, today I will acknowledge my privileges. I am thankful for being who I am. I am thankful for all the opportunities I have. I am thankful to live where I live. I am thankful for all the people who are in my life. May it be your will, G-d, that I use my privilege for the good of others.