Jewschool: Where Hipster Brooklyn and Youth Group Nostalgia Meet

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

Sermon SlamA couple of weeks ago, an email came over the Jewschool contributors’ listserv asking if anyone wanted to cover a SermonSlam taking place in my neighborhood. As someone who has enjoyed other kinds of slams in the past (poetry, story, and grand – IHOP, not baseball), I jumped at the opportunity. I’m still something of a Brooklyn newbie, having lived here for less than a year. So I want to fully own that my preconceived notions of what a SermonSlam might be were entirely colored by an outsider’s stereotype of Brooklyn hipster culture. Now, to be fair, I have lived here almost a year—it will be a year this Shabbat—and so I have been around long enough to know that most of the stereotypes about Brooklyn hipster culture are true. And I should have been tipped off by the fact that the event was being held at Congregation Beth Elohim (known in the neighborhood as CBE), a very large Reform synagogue that often plays host to community events, many of which I have enjoyed this year.

You see what I’m getting at, right? What I had pictured as a cool, vaguely underground event, perhaps in a dark room with a stage and a bar, turning words of Torah into performance art, was in fact more like a youth group program for young adults, held in a large, well-lit synagogue social hall, with the performers relying a little more heavily on the “sermon” than the “slam.” The only drinks were of the cola variety, and the evening was padded with games straight from my synagogue youth director playbook like Jewish Geography 2.0, affably executed by hosts Ben Greenfield and Samantha Kuperberg, who themselves seemed to have arrived straight from a summer on the staff of Camp Ramah.

BUT! And this is a big BUT! (I like big BUTs and I cannot lie…) I’m pretty sure if you went in to the event with fewer or different preconceived notions, you would have been thrilled.  Continue reading

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JewishBoston.com: Fathers and Sons: A Special Blessing

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

As Fathers Day approaches on the secular calendar, I find myself thinking about the traditional Jewish blessing fathers bestow on their sons. This tradition has its roots in a scene towards the end of the book of Genesis, in which Jacob says from his deathbed:

By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20)

Every Shabbat evening, Jews around the world bless their sons with the words “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh,” fulfilling Jacob’s deathbed pronouncement from the end of the book of Genesis. I did not grow up with this particular tradition in my family, so when I learned about it, a question immediately sprang to mind: what’s so special about Ephraim and Manasseh that we pray to make our children like them? Continue reading

Jewschool: The Vort: Vayechi – Endings and Beginnings

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

I’ve always been something of a post-modernist, fascinated particularly with the ways in which form and content intersect, interact, support and destabilize each other. Blame it on an early obsession with Stephen Sondheim from an early age. (Yes, folks, that link is a peek into dlevy’s early high school adventures on the internet. But I digress.)

And the seasons, they go round and round...With that in mind, I find it particularly delightful to encounter parshat Vayechi during the week that our secular calendar advances a page. You see, the content of this week’s Torah reading involves Jacob putting his affairs in order at the end of his life, bestowing blessings on his sons (but not his daughter) and two grandsons (you can guess whose progeny they are) before shuffling off this mortal coil. But the form — oh, the form! First we’ll notice that this is the final nugget of Sefer Bereshit (aka Genesis, not the Peter Gabriel/Phil Collins band), the first book of the Torah. When this story ends, we get a flash forward to everybody’s favorite Easter Passover story, The Ten Commandments Sefer Shemot (aka The Book of Exodus, no not the Leon Uris one). That’s a new book – same scroll, but with a nice big, clear differentiation in the text. Plus, we divide our reading up so that we don’t get into that story until next week. And in case anyone wasn’t sure, we’ll all leap to our feet on Saturday morning and sing “חזק חזק ונתחזק” to punctuate the end of our current book. So between the end of the patriarchal era (ha! as if!), the end of the book of Genesis, and the rhythm of our Torah reading that keeps us from reading the next chapter until (at the very least) later on in the afternoon, we’ve got a nice, tidy ending to our story. Continue reading

Jewschool.com: Keeping the Torah from Israel

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

Talmud Bavli

This summer, I’m studying the evolution of the Haggadah with Rabbi Reuven Cohn through a Hebrew College Online course.

In coming to understand some of the choices made in the development of the Hagaddah, we have journeyed through several different sections of the Talmud, getting to know some of the players who pop up in our seder. Tonight, I studied Brachot 27b – 28a, which relates the story of the impeachment of Rabban Gamliel from his post as Rosh Yeshiva (head of the Jewish learning institution).

Embedded within this story (towards the top of 28a) is a baraita that took my breath away. The day that Rabbi Elezar ben Azaria is installed as the new Rosh Yeshiva, the entrance restrictions Gamliel had placed, barring many students from the yeshiva, were lifted. (These restrictions are summed up as “All students who aren’t the same within and without may not enter the house of study.” Cf. the comments on David A. M. Wilensky’s post below about tzitzit to see how this kind of policy is still crippling to those seeking to find their place in Jewish observance today.)

There’s an incredible influx of students to the yeshiva once this entrance requirement is loosened – the sages tell us that more seats needed to be installed to accommodate all the new students. The Talmud records a debate of whether there were 400 or 700 new students. The Talmud also notes that in the first day of learning under new leadership, the entire slate of halachic disputes to be discussed is resolved — learning in the new atmosphere is more productive.

Impressed? So was Rabban Gamliel. Seeing the sheer number of new recruits rushing to learn Torah, he despairs:

What if, heaven forbid, I kept the Torah from Israel?

Powerful stuff, no? This is the preeminent Rabbi of his generation wondering if his insular approach to Jewish learning and Jewish community put up a roadblock between the Torah and the Jewish people.

To drive the point home, the Talmud goes on to relate the story of Judah the Ammonite, a ger (“resident alien” – a non-Israelite, non-idolater living within Israelite community) who wishes to marry a Jewish woman (and thereby “enter the congregation” – i.e., become a Jew). You may recall that the Ammonites and Moabites are forbidden from marrying Jews way back in Deuteronomy 23:3. Long story short, Gamliel loses the argument and Judah is admitted. The Talmud privileges opening the community to those who seek to learn over a Biblical prohibition. There’s a lot of reasoning about why this prohibition doesn’t apply any more – I don’t mean to oversimplify. But the overwhelming message to this entire section is clear. Don’t keep the Torah from Israel. Don’t define “Israel” so narrowly that you inadvertently keep the Torah from Israel, either. Don’t let one authority silence the debate and discussion in the study house that will open access to the Torah for so many more.

Jewschool.com When Worlds Collide

Originally posted on Jewschool.com.

Last November, I posted about the formation of a Jewish Young Adult Writers’ Forum in the greater Boston area. Last night was the last official meeting of the first cohort, and the guest author was Jewschool’s own Danya Ruttenberg. (We have one more “unofficial” meeting coming up with Anita Diamant, but that’s more of a dinner discussion than formal workshop.)

The way the workshop has worked, each month our guest author sends out a writing assignment for the participants to complete in advance. Our workshop evening begins with dinner, which flows into our guest telling us a bit about her or his career. Next there’s some “in class” writing. Each evening culminates with participants paring up to share the work they did on the assignment, often reconsidering it in light of what’s happened during the first hour of the workshop.

Since you read Jewschool, I don’t have to tell you how wonderful Danya was as our guest leader. The assignment she sent us was this:

Pick a story from the Bible, or a midrash, or a myth or legend from anywhere (Greek mythology, say, or classic literature) whose themes have a particular resonance for you (eg the story of crossing the Red Sea as jumping into something scary and trusting it will work out), and write a story from your life with that myth/legend in mind.

I’ve included my response to this prompt below the cut. Maybe some of you out there in Jewschool-land will add yours, as well.

Incidentally, several of us in the first cohort are meeting in the near future to talk about what might be next for the Writers’ Forum. If you’re a young Jewish adult in the greater Boston area and interested in taking part in writing-related stuff, leave some comments about what you’d like to see and do.

Continue reading

JP Shabbat: D’var Torah on the occasion of a new minyan in Jamaica Plain

Originally delivered at the inaugural meeting of JP Shabbat, a monthly independent minyan that started in my living room in April 2009, and as of this writing is still going strong four and a half years later, in the hands of a new generation of organizers.

I closed on my condo in Jamaica Plain just over two years ago.  When I decided to move to JP, I knew I’d be entering a community where neighbors talked to each other, where acres of green space awaited just down the street, and where I’d be just a quick T ride from downtown and a quick car ride to my office.  I also knew that I’d be entering a community with a lot of Jewish people, but not a lot of Jewish activity.  As someone who works for the Jewish community, I have to admit I found the idea of JP as an island away from the Jews of my work week to hold more than a little appeal for me.

Of course, I don’t really want to live in an island away from Judaism… to paraphrase a rabbi I work with, I don’t hate Judaism, I just have a problem with Jews.  Luckily, JP’s lack of a major synagogue presence means that the Jews who move here tend to be like-minded.  It didn’t take long before many of us were murmuring to each other about starting some kind of Friday night… something.  A minyan, a dinner group, an occasional Kiddush club?  The common theme was “I don’t care what we start as long as I don’t have to be in charge.”

Well, God bless Jess Gould and Efraim Yudewitz for stepping forward and actually getting us all into a room together.  About two weeks ago, nine people assembled in Jess and Efraim’s living room and decided to start whatever this is that we’re doing now. Continue reading

Hebrew College: Humanity vs. Divinity: Whose Side is Moses On?

In the spring of 2009, I took a graduate-level class co-offered by Hebrew College and the Andover Newton Theological School called Interfaith Models of Religious Leadership, taught by Rabbi Or Rose and Professor Gregory Mobley, examining the leadership styles of Moses and Jesus through interfaith engagement with the primary texts as well as writings from both Jewish and Christian scholars about both figures. This was my mid-term paper, wrapping up the Moses unit.

As the holiday of Passover approaches on the calendar, it’s hard to consider the role of Moses in the exodus from Egypt without questioning how important Moses himself really was in the liberation of the Jewish people.  After all, if he can be so completely[1] written out of the story that he doesn’t even bear mention at the Passover seder, was he ever really anything more than a prop?

Of course, the Haggadah, as a text with a particular religious purpose, has its own set of reasons for focusing its telling of the Exodus on God and away from Moses.  Popular culture certainly has its own set of reasons for storytelling choices, but as artifacts of “the people,” pop culture can offer windows into what elements of the story have captured the imaginations of regular folk in different times and places.

The giving of the Ten Commandments marks a border in the story of Moses, a liminal point at which the story of liberation transitions into a story of law-giving and nation-forming.  Because this moment signifies not only a transformation of the Israelites into a nation, but also a transformation of Moses from liberator to lawgiver, it serves as an interesting point of comparison through which to examine retellings of the story.  Comparing the account in Exodus 19-34 with a play from a medieval Corpus Christi cycle and a contemporary “musical spectacular” reveals telling differences in how each storyteller perceived the character of Moses at this moment in his story.

Continue reading