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Brookline, MA, United States
I'll post rants here, and musings; articles and thoughts about articles. I'll keep it quite complex and yet astoundingly simple: whatever it is I am interested in at any given moment.

Monday, May 4, 2009

On Hiatus

In the wake of a computer that isn't working and an increasing amount of work and responsibilities, I'm putting myself on hiatus for a little bit.

Already have a growing list of posts for when I'm back, which I hope is soon ...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Camp Director Conundrum

I'm in a hotel at קיבוץ שפיים (on the coast, about halfway between נתניה and תל אביב) at a training seminar for שליחים organized by the (somehow still alive-and-kicking) סוכנות.

I haven't yet had an opportunity to spend a lot of time with camp director (of Ramah or other camps), and some of you know my thoughts on those colleagues I know well.

Here's what's on my mind tonight, after a few sessions of orientations for the directors (many of whom arrived in the last day or two from the US) and before I actually experience the programming over the next few days:

I like everyone I'm meeting, and most of them seem like they'd be fun people to have at camp. But it's not clear to me if any of them, save two or three, are people I would consider educational colleagues. We just look at our jobs differently, and I am more than prepared to acknowledge that there are definitely people here who do their jobs amazingly well. But do those jobs have them fulfill the role of educator, at least as I imagine it?

We might expand the question a bit. If I were at a conference of high school teachers, would I feel any differently? Academics? The professionalization of a field (and few fields, I imagine, are going through a process of professionalization today faster than that of camp directors) is not necessarily the creation of an intellectual or professional elite of the field. For most of these people, fund-raising, working with children, site maintenance, recruitment, and risk management are the major issues on their plate. So what does that say of the field? My professional dreams?

The clarity on this question, however, is that, perhaps (and a big perhaps here), my challenge in thinking about becoming a camp director is the same challenge I'd face anywhere else. Like in being a principal, or an academic. But - and this is important - I imagine that I'd like being an academic in the top 40% or so of academics. I enjoy the work. I cannot imagine enjoying a job as a camp director outside of the intellectual playground I call Ramah Wisconsin or a similar environment. And it is clear to me that the opportunity to do the type of work we do at Wisconsin is, relatively, quite unique. And ... it might not really be the work of the director.

I'll keep thinking about this. Might write more in the near future.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Poem for יום השואה והגבורה

I haven't yet utilized the blog as a place to "publish" some of my poetry, but I guess that's about to end.

In general, my poetry output has slowed markedly in the last few years, the causes of which I can guess at (long-awaited "maturity" [wish I had better word for that] taking some of the drama and romance out of life, a move towards prose [as reflected on the blog], a stable emotional relationship) but of which I am in no way sure. I'd like to get back to it, but my inability to deal with anything but an overflowing plate makes that less than likely.

The poem below, written at Penn on יום השואה והגבורה during my Sophomore year (Spring of '02) is heavily influenced by the early (at the time) work I was doing in thinking about modernist responses to tragedy (I had already taken "Representations of the Holocaust in Literature and Film" with Al Filreis and Penny Marcus, as well as "Modern and Contemporary American Poetry" with Al the year before, was in the process of meeting Michael Cunningham, John Ashbery, and Charles Fuller in my first year of the "Kelly Writers House Fellows Seminar," and I think was also approaching the end of my independent study comparing the lives of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, in particular the historical coincidence of the publications of Leaves of Grass and the first performance of "Howl" in 1855 and 1955, respectively). In addition, there is a heavily intertextual current of a variety of liturgical echoes, mostly from the אל מלא רחמים and the recently concluded פסח. I also probably won't be able to format the poem as I'd like, but I'll give it a shot.

יום השואה והגבורה
April 9, 2002

It's just my room
on the 2nd floor of a building
on top of a video-game arcade
in West Philadelphia.
I am just a boy
twenty and one-half years old.
I am a dreamer.
And on this night, I dream of you.
You, full of mercieswho tonight of all nights
should protect
six hundred hundred hundred
of my good friends.
They were baked - yes baked
and slaughtered - like sheep
and murdered and lynched
and burned - like a bad mother's
too done hamburgers
in front of a watching world.
They were dragged - like plows on the field,
threatened - like babies who won't stop crying,
and destroyed on the streets of Europe.
Tonight, of all nights of the year
a foreign government has declared
that I shall remember them.
Tonight, and on no night other.
Tonight, and not yesterday,
Tonight, and not two weeks ago,
Tonight, and not seven months from now.
Tonight - we are to remember -
so that we may live
the other nights of our years
in joy - that we may breathe
without thinking of ash
that we may smile, without thinking
of the boy and his lost apple.
Tonight though, o Lord of mercies,
let them shine like the glimmering
gleam of their horizions;
let them fulfill their dreams
and enact their most ghastly
revenges - on the millions
of willing human participants
who sat by idly.
Lord, you and you alone,
protect us so that no other night
need weigh as much on our mortal backs.
I am no Atlas, no giant
you are the being on whose wings
they fly.
Please, master of compassions,
Bind them up in bundles of life
so that even in their death
they may experience even the meager
joys of a morose twenty-something.
Hold their hands on the way
into sealed rooms of carbonic nitrogen
close their eyes
from seeing mommy and daddy
stop breathing before they do.
From Babi Yar to Lodz
from Sobibor to the internment
camps overlooking Saint Francis' Pacific
recall them tonight,
and let me imitate you.
Forgive me the obvious
that these words mean nothing
that this voice cannot rise up
to affect the deeds of the past.
Forgive me the guilt of living
and for not listening to those who tell me
that words are no way to do this.
Forgive me for only using the
most profound tools you gave me
to try and convey the weight
of your most powerful Copperfield act.
Forgive me for not living to write
of Ulysses in the camps
or to question if this is a man
once I return Home.
Forgive me for not remembering -
it is my duty to them ... and to you.

יום השואה והגבורה

I don't remember יום השואה והגבורה from Nativ - I think we may have stayed on קיבוץ - and, regardless of that experience, being here sans educational structure (not that Nativ provided such a great educational structure) provides a different type of experience. Yesterday afternoon I could palpably feel the city slowing down, and by the time I walked home from an afternoon of bowling with the family that hosted me in Bethlehem (that should be a different post), some of the restaurants around עמק רפאים were already closed. T and I went to יקר last night to here a שיעור on the אש קודש, a Hasidic Rabbi (Kalonymus Kalman Shapira) who taught Torah in the Warsaw ghetto before his death in the Holocaust (also its own, possibly forthcoming post). On the walk home the streets were almost Shabbat- or Chag-evening quiet, with a 24 hour מכולת and סופר במושבה the only open storefronts. Perhaps most powerfully - the treif restaurants on עמק are also closed. At home I spent most of the evening doing work in front of Holocaust movies and documentaries - there was nothing else on.

In Israel, at least, the ability to create an environment around a memorial day (at least at night, which seems easier to do than during the following workday - although the rhythm of ערב, then בקר might make this easier as well [like Christmas and New Year's]) is impressive.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

On the Dangers of Demography

Demography strikes me as being quite similar to Torah - easy to interpret however you'd like to, difficult to find the essential truths about which debate is unnecessary. In short, it's more about interpretation than about facts, which, to expand the simile of the previous sentence, puts halachic decision-making, meteorology, and demography in the same subset of hermeneutic masquerading as science.

Such is the context for this piece in Haaretz, which imagines a worldwide Jewish community at 32 million with a strong base in Eastern Europe - and likely no State of Israel - if the Holocaust had never happened. (No word in the article's synopsis on what became of the Jewish communities that were rescued by the Israeli government from the rising tide of rabidly parochial Islam.)

Would the American Jewish renaissance of the last sixty years have existed at all? Would we not be talking about "Jewish continuity" and intermarriage rates? Or would Judaism have been stifled underneath the weight of the iron curtain?

These questions might be addressed in one of Robert Cowley's books recording contrafactual (i.e., What if things didn't turn out the way they actually did?) history (I own What if? and What if? 2 - they're fun). I prefer the contrafactual history to most demography studies, except when someone is willing to get creative, like this work of Calvin Goldscheider, who has argued that the Jewish community in the United States is growing, not shrinking.

As we approach יום השואה והגבורה here in Israel - where the גבורה is emphasized as it is nowhere else - I am inclined to focus more on reflecting on the loss of the 6 million than on naval gazing at what might have been.

As for all of those who wish Anti-Semitic, Catholic or communist Europe had remained the home to Judaism's great population concentration, I remind them of one of Chancellor Emeritus Ismar Schorsch's most astute observations: that never in the history of the world has a Jewish community disappeared by a factor as benign as assimilation.

On the High Holidays of the Modern Jew: A Wexner Yom Shishi Thought

In high school I coined the term "High Holidays of the Modern Jew" as a way of describing the quirks of the calendar that have placed יום השואה והגבורה, יום הזכרון , יום העצמאות, and יום ירושלים all within a span of five weeks during ספירת העמר. (Since then, I'd add יצחק רבין's memorial to this list, though it falls at the other end of the calendar.) I've been thinking about and trying to program and write about them ever since - they always captivated my imagination (and frustration - at how little has been done to ritualize them). Over the years, that's taken different routes, including a יום הזכרון program on Nativ that I still consider one of my best, updated versions of it in following years (it itself being a juiced-up version of a short memorial service Gabe and I wrote for Seminar in '98), and a דבר תורה I gave (though I can't remember most of the specifics) a few שבתות after T and I got engaged in April or '06.

Late last night I realized I had forgotten to send out my "Yom Shishi Thought" to the list of current Wexner Fellows; it was my turn. I started thinking about different options about which I could write (including sharing my take on נדב and אביהו) and decided to take this general direction. Then, this morning, dear friend Jason helped push the frame forward with the דבר תורה at his daughter's - ירדנה חמוטל - baby-naming. I wrote what follows this evening.

(What was to be a Yom Shishi thought seems to work even better as a "Shavua Tov" thought, though that was not the intent. Apologies.)

The פרשה that we read this morning, שמיני, has multiple parallels with the first chapter of the תורה – the story of the creation of the world. Multiple laws here are given as a way of making הבדלות – separations – as is the expressed purpose for numerous steps in the creation story. Additionally, the Rabbis understand the first verse – ויהי ביום השמיני – “And it was on the eighth day” – as referring to the 8th day in the life of the world and Aaron’s multiple blessings as a parallel to God’s repeated statements of טוב on the 3rd and 6th days.

For me, this week marks a different parallel with the creation story – a modern echo of ראש השנה, when Rabbinic Judaism chose to mark the birthday of the world. We enter this week a period I like to call the “High Holidays of the Modern Jew,” four commemorations of historical events that attempt to provide a structure and meaning for contemporary Jewish identity. The timing of Holocaust and Martyrs’ Remembrance Day, Memorial Day for those who gave their lives for the modern State of Israel, Israel’s Independence Day, and the Reunification of Jerusalem Day (which, admittedly, may resonate uncomfortably for some of us due to the less-than-ideal resolution of the victories of the Six Day War which we are still grappling with today) lends an additional historical narrative to our ritualized counting from Passover to Shavuot. The structure of the different days, including the ten day period that begins Monday evening with Yom Hashoah (a modern Yom Kippur, I might suggest), a week removed from the two day solemn-yet-joyous commemoration of the sacrifices and achievements of founding a political entity to call our own (our modern Rosh Hashanah), amplifies other parts of our calendar.

What the High Holidays of the Modern Jews lack – and what I’d suggest is the task of our generation and a much-needed place for immediate exercising of leadership – is a developed liturgy and ritual to call their own. Within years we will no longer have living witnesses to the Holocaust to share their stories with us; a Jewish day of independence should not be defined by barbecue and bonfires alone. It is our task to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors – generation after generation of them – and add our own interpretative layers to the celebrations whose very existence defined the lives of our parents and grandparents. Such a task is difficult, but not unprecedented.

פרשת שמיני records a failed attempt at the creation of contemporary ritual. Nadav and Avihu’s deaths do not give justice to the build up of the legal background to, outline for, and building of a dwelling place for God within the desert. The dominant image of their deaths’ aftermath is Aaron’s silence – paralyzed by his grief and the incomprehensible nature of the tragedy (as generations of Jews have been in the wake of the Holocaust). In a few weeks, however, we will read about the ritual Moses and Aaron instituted to atone for the grave sin of their fallen children and nephews. That ritual eventually became an annual event, and slowly transitioned from a tangible cleaning of a soiled tent into a metaphor for the mistakes we all make in our lives. Stepping forward to create that ritual was risky and scary; it required courage. Millennia later, we have the liturgical beauty and spiritual power of יום כיפור that annually attests to Aaron’s sons’ sacrifice and much more.

This is our task, and our hope. May we find the ways to appropriately bring the peaks and valleys of the modern Jewish experience into the warm and nurturing context of ritualized, mythologized, performative Judaism. May our commemorations of יום השואה והגבורה, this week and for years to come, allow us to properly memorialize the six million Jewish victims of Hitler’s Germany and the civilization that died with them, and may they lay the groundwork for providing moments of reflection and insight into the past and present for us, our children, and our children’s children.

Friday, April 17, 2009

On Gender Dynamics in the Jewish Community: Have We Made Any Progress? (Part 2 of [at least] 2)

A few days ago I introduced this topic with a focus on the efforts and ideas of Leveling the Playing Field. As promised, I now return to some issues on the ground.

Sometimes in early March, as reported (to my knowledge) in the Forward, a coalition of Conservative Rabbis, Cantors, and lay leaders calling themselves "HaYom: Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism" wrote a(n appropriate but) threatening letter to the leadership of United Synagogue requesting a significant role in the selection of USCJ's next Executive Vice-President (to replace Rabbi Jerome Epstein, universally considered to be pretty terrible and particularly despised by me). The letter was signed by a practical all-star team of Conservative Rabbis (no such team exists for Cantors or lay leaders, of course), representing some of the movement's (deservedly) flagship shuls, including Rabbis Elliot Cosgrove, Ed Feinstein, Michael Siegel, Alan Silverstein, Gordon Tucker, and David Wolpe (and many others whom I know personally but whose reputations, as it were, do not precede them). The rest of that particular narrative was relatively boring - USCJ punting; USCJ appointing relatively-outside-of-the-box Rabbi Steven Wernick; blah blah blah.

A few weeks ago, things got interesting on the Wexner Graduate Fellows' listserve, which is a confidential setting. For that reason, I will not attach any distinguishing characteristics to people's statements. I do not believe, however, that the confidentiality of the setting prevents me from sharing some of the topics discussed on the listserve itself.

A woman raised the question: Why were there so few women among the signatories of the letter? (How few, you ask? Well, of, at my count, the 27 Rabbis, 27 lay leaders, and 3 Cantors, I count a total of 5 women - all lay leaders.) The conversation that ensued on the listserve was female-dominated and included all sorts of valid frustrations and reasonable logic. Chief among them (to my recollection) was that the synagogues represented by this letter were consciously chosen because of their large size (and explanation of that in a moment) and as is relatively well known among Conservative circles (and should be better known outside of that world) there are (at last count - please correct me if this has changed) zero female Rabbis who serve as the Senior Rabbi of the large ("D" class) synagogues. Additionally, the relatively small number of large synagogue presidents who are female (though I don't have any kind of statistic on that) is also reflected. A number of people suggested that, perhaps, if no women were represented by the criteria that made up the selection process, perhaps different criteria should have been chosen. (You think?)

The conversation ended, as far as I can tell, when someone on the listserve forwarded an e-mail from a different confidential listserve, called "Ravnet," which is open only to members of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly, from the leadership of HaYom that outlined the selection process for the signatories on the first letter and opened up an invitation to all Rabbis to join the collection if they so wanted. The stated logic for selecting the largest shuls was, not surprisingly, an attempt to muster significant dues-paying leverage against United Synagogue so as to better guarantee a timely response. (United Synagogue, as far as I can tell, exists only on the dues that its member synagogues pay it - dues which are, obviously, a percentage of the dues the synagogues' members pay their synagogue.)

Lots of questions to ask here - lots of fishiness. Some questions:
  • Why no women at those big shuls?
  • Why didn't the men assembling the names think a lack of women was problematic?
  • Why does any shul - large or small - pay dues to United Synagogue? (If your answer is: for a USY chapter, please try again.)
  • Why do women hold approximately 20% of the presidencies of the largest Conservative shuls?
  • Why were Cantors included at all?
  • Why wouldn't United Synagogue heed HaYom's demands? Why would they
I won't allow myself to get carried away here.

Let's just add to this fire (and I will note that I'm leaving my emotion-laden concerns about the role of gender dynamics in so-called informal educational settings in general and at Ramah in Wisconsin specifically wholly out of the conversation, for the time being) the following observation of a current female rabbinical student at JTS. This student (whose observation I hear only second hand) notes that the "classic" Conservative couples that emerge from relationships in USY, JTS, and at Ramah camps, have the man ending up at JTS's Rabbinical School and the woman moving into, usually, Jewish education (often through JTS's Davidson School of Education), a "traditional" Jewish woman field (education; social work; occupational therapy; speech pathology), or a career (medicine, law, psychology, et c.). As I myself noted - this is the exact model that dominates the Orthodox world. Which brings us to the question:

Has twenty-five years of ordaining women and over thirty years of an egalitarian revolution achieved nothing? (Cue the Chorus Line song.)

I doubt the authors of Leveling the Playing Field would do anything but lambaste an attempt to attack a problem this unwieldy, for this question truly transcends "adaptive challenges" and speaks to a nexus of issues involving American culture and much, much more.

My own answer, for the time being, is silence. I simply have no ideas for how to fix this, or why it exists, or whether we have, indeed, achieved anything (worthwhile) at all.

I will say only this, to my great frustration:
1. New Rabbinical Assembly Executive Vice-President (filling the impressive seat once held by Wolfe Kellman זצ"ל) Rabbi Julie Schonfeld has not been quoted anywhere as saying anything about anything.
2. Nor have Arnie Eisen or Steven Wernick.
3. Conservative "leaders" I look up to on the Wexner listserve were silent as can be.