Posts Tagged ‘ Being Jewishly ’

First Day Of School, Again

2010.09.24
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CHIEF AMONG MY DEEPEST DELIGHTS and terrors is teaching young Jewish people about their heritage.

It’s a delight because I’m a born teacher, meaning that I love to learn things and share what I’ve learned (usually learning more in the process). I also love and grok young folk, especially in the 4th to 6th grade range, since they are old enough to begin questioning things, sharp enough to spot BS and still imbued with the essential sense of wonder.

It’s a terror because they pay attention to, pick up on, remember and react to the slightest word — and because much of what they carry with them about Judaism will be because I handed it to them. It’s a similar terror to the reporter’s eternal “Did I get it right?” insecurity without which none can refine their art, but hundredfolded. Sometimes I feel like the captain of a shipful of precious eggs, which I suppose I am.

This is my tenth year teaching, and my first new class in some time (my immediately previous students were with me for three years). The reason I began teaching in the first place was because my own Hebrew school experience was so stultifyingly hideous that I had to leave Judaism for 23 years before I could learn to appreciate it as one of many complex, deep and mysterious expressions of what some call “God” — one which is mine through inheritance and intent, inextricably intertwined with my world- and self-understanding. My teachers taught me not to ask questions (despite that asking questions is the fundament of both Judaism and childhood in general), and I want “my kids” to know that not only are there no stupid questions, there’s nothing in the world that can’t be — shouldn’t be — questioned.

Including, and especially, the teacher.

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Cosmic Shmuck Reveals All

2010.09.12
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JUST HAPPENED ACROSS THE FOLLOWING in Robert Anton Wilson‘s Cosmic Trigger III, and as it’s appropriate for Yom Kippur (beginning Friday night) here ’tis:

The Cosmic Shmuck Law, as stated in several of my books, holds that if you occasionally notice that you have said something or done something that qualifies as Cosmic Shmuckery, you might become, in time, less of a Cosmic Shmuck; but if you never notice any Cosmic Shmuckery in your own thinking/doing, you will become more and more of a Cosmic Shmuck every year.

This makes sense to me, and I especially like that RAW measures in years, likely because of the whole Yom Kippur thing which, just between you and me, I’m having some difficulty with this year. In short: We are supposed to seek forgiveness for the wrongs we have done each other. But from this perspective, they seem a bit bigger and scarier than I am.

Dealing with quasidisability and its related and interwoven consequents does not make me easy to live with — it makes me impatient, short-tempered, cranky, sad and occasionally sullen, none of which are easy either for Ann or me (or for every union’s invisible third partner, The Marriage), especially as I’m someone who takes up a lot of psychic space in any given room). I sincerely don’t know how to write about this pain in a way that doesn’t sound self-pitying to me; in any case, I’m saying this so I can tell you the next thing.

Because of all this, this sluggish grey heavy tentacled ick, I find myself sincerely seeking forgiveness from … pretty much everyone I know for the unreturned phone calls, emails, visits, invitations and general good will y’all have been beaming at me. (You know who you are.) There’s a weird despair-into-shame spiral: I mean to do something, then feel bad about not having done it, then paralyzed by embarrassment, et al, ad nausea, ad insanitum. And then it’s too hard to do anything but sigh.

It may be a long way back to the man I want to be; I have not been a good friend this past year, and in some cases have even been a bad one. It is not something I intended, but it happened and I want to fix it. And so I nakedly ask, and hope to thank you for, your forgiveness.

You know who you are.

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On The Road To Karlin

2010.09.05
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THIS TALE COMES FROM LOUIS Newman’s 1963 “Hasidic Anthology,” a thick collection of stories, teachings and parables of the Hasidim, which is Hebrew for “pietist” but in this context refers to the 18th century Jewish ecstatics whose infectious enthusiasm rang through Eastern Europe to echo today; for example, in the following story: where a Hasid, or seeker-after-God, encounters a Rav, or rabbinic judge, on the way to finding the True Rabbi, or teacher, who in this particular case and for this particular seeker resided in the Belarusian town of Karlin. May we all find the True Rabbi, wherever we look.

A Hasid was on his way to visit the Karliner Rabbi. A Rav met him, and said: “Cannot you find a Rabbi nearer than Karlin?”

“No, I cannot,” answered the Hasid. “I read the thoughts of all the Rabbis, and I find them to be spurious.”

“If you read thoughts,” said the Rav, “then tell me what I am thinking now.”

“You are thinking of God,” answered the Hasid.

“No, your guess is incorrect; I am not thinking of God.”

“There you have it,” remarked the Hasid. “You yourself have stated the reason why I must go to Karlin.”

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Blog: “Oy Bay”

2010.08.17
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JEWISH BLOGS CAN BE DICEY: on the one hand are individuals writing about everything from raising kids in Israel to student-rabbiing to Torah to protesting one’s Torah(1), and on the other are institutions often conducting “outreach” or fundraising. The former tend to shoot from the heart, the latter try (too self-consciously(2), methinks) to “engage and inform.”

One which seems to do both is http://oybay.wordpress.com/, a volunteer-written guide to the Jewish Bay Area. (I say “seems” because it hasn’t been updated since early July, but perhaps this trackback will stimulate them.) Most of the entries are written by “Oyster,” who presents as every synagogue’s zayde(grandpa)-of-all-trades (ours are named Sy and Addy), but the “About Us” list is decidedly under 30 (OyBay’s target demographic). OyBay’s pleasant mix of RSS feeds, links and occasional dispatches makes it an accessible jumping-on place for Bay Area Jews.

Neal’s rating: Four whole-wheat bagels with a glass Cel-Ray.

- = – = -
(1) To speak of “one’s Torah” is as to speak of “one’s Zen;” it’s really “one’s principles and demonstrated grasp of same.” Some people also speak of this as “one’s Jewishness” or “one’s “Yiddishkeit.”
(2) That self-conscious thing is deadly. If you too wear a yarmulke in public, you know what I mean. If not, then imagine someone making a big deal about not making a big deal about something that’s worth making a big deal about, then emailing you updates.

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Pithyism #0

2010.08.13
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GOD BELONGS ONLY TO GOD; religion belongs only to humanity; humanity belongs together.

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5 Thoughts: The Idolatry of Gay Bashing

2010.08.05
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1. READ A LETTER TO THE SF Chronicle’s editor this morning by a gentleman saying he voted for Prop 8, the anti-gay marriage initiative, because heterosexuals own the word “marriage.”

2. I’ve heard this argument before, and like the other arguments favoring less freedom for minorities it does not persuade me. In essence, this particular argument, a favorite of Bible-lovin’ folk, makes a word more important than people.

3. But Bible-lovin’ folk (of which I consider myself one, in some sense) must needs believe that people were created in “God’s” image.

4. And the word “marriage,” like other English words, came to us long after Biblical Hebrew. Like other words, it’s an artifact — a man-made thing — and by definition, not nearly as important as a living, breathing, bloodbeating human being made in God’s image.

5. So why are some Bible-lovin’ folk so quick to commit idolatry?

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Saturday Morning Live

2010.07.09
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Lay Led Torah Study & Service — 7/10/10, 9a to 10:15/10:30 to noonish
Congregation Shir Shalom, 252 W. Spain St., Sonoma

JOIN THE SONOMA VALLEY JEWISH community tomorrow morning at 10:30 for a laid-back, lay-led “Reform Mellow” service at Congregation Shir Shalom. We will begin in the classroom at 9 a.m. with a study of the weekly Torah portion (Mattot, Numbers 30:2-32:42), which covers vows, wars and errant cattlemen) before adjourning to the sanctuary.

Our siddur is the new Mishkan Tefilah; the service will include Shir Shalom-traditional melodies (including Bonia Shur‘s “Kedushah”); a d’var Torah titled “Plugging The Holes: Hands, Vows, and Why We’re Here;” and whatever surprises it pleases God to send us (and/or whatever pleases us to thank God for sending).

Shabbat shalom!

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Not Good For The Jews, Or Anyone Really

2010.06.01
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THE WORLD IS SO SMALL these days that you never know who might be reading you — including the families of those aboard the Gaza flotilla.

If that’s the case, then please let me apologize in advance. I am very sorry, sincerely and sadly and non-ironically, that your friends and relatives were injured and/or killed trying to support a tragic cause. I have a fondness for tragic causes; one might say that defines a Jew. But this cause is tragic because it is wrong.

Granted, “wrong” is a subjective term, often misapplied. (For example, it’s sometimes been said of me.) But from my little knot of spacetime consciousness:

It is wrong to aid those who have sworn to murder me and mine (or anyone else for that matter).

It is wrong to seduce non-violent people to a violent cause by feigning non-violent resistance.

It is wrong for feigners of non-violent resistance to complain when their lie is uncovered. (I’m talking about the organizers here — I have no doubt that many in the flotilla have a Ghandi-like non-violence, which is weird to me given their sympathies).

It is wrong to force people to kill you in self defense.

And it is wrong, very wrong, to kill civilians. Sometimes it’s evil, like when you shoot rockets and mortars at their schools, homes and shopping centers on a daily basis, or blow yourself up in their pizzerias and discos. Sometimes it’s tragic, like when well-intentioned people are cynically exploited by those more interested in racking up sympathy deaths than in peace. Sometimes it begs the question of “civilian.”

But it is always wrong — and wrong in a watching-a-slow-motion-auto-accident way that can twist your heart around trying to make it right. May the G?d who sees past our hatreds, prejudices and self-created madness, to the possibility of what we might become once we quit micturating on each other’s footwear … well, now would be a good time. Can’t think of a better one, in fact.

(PS: I have nothing else to say about this, and nothing to defend, but feel free to excoriate or cheer this piece as desired. I forgive both in advance.)

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Song of the Universe

2010.05.18
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TONIGHT IS SHAVUOT, WHICH CELEBRATES the gift of Torah at Mt. Sinai some 3,322 years ago. Whether one believes the Torah’s own account is inconsequential; what we celebrate is the living text (rather, Living Text) itself and its indivisibility from the Jewish soul. (It’s not just about Mel Brooks and rye bread, folks.) Jews the world over will be cracking the books for an allnighter of mind-stretching scope, G?d willing. For the hardcore, that means a survey of the Hebrew Bible (Torah, Prophets, Writings), Talmud (Mishna and Gemara), Law Codes (Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch), Commentaries (Midrash) and a smidgen of qabala (Zohar), learning in pairs until dawn (or if unable, in bed until sleep).

Locally, that means a study party at our rabbi’s house tonight between 9 and midnight (if you don’t know where that is, shoot one to scoopatsonicdotnet and I’ll tell you). Everyone is invited to bring a personal piece of Torah to share; I’ll attempt to convey the thousand-year grandeur of the Talmudic intellectual tradition in fifteen minutes, and also acquaint everyone with a little-known text (at least until recently, at least to me) called Perek Shirah.

Perek Shirah (“Verses of Song”) is Torah writ large — 84 verses worth of Universe As Teacher. The text is at least 2,000 years old, according to its Jewish Encyclopedia article, and of uncertain authorship. Each verse (Psalms or Prophets, but mostly Psalms) illustrates how Torah is transmitted through a particular element, plant or animal. Its preface quotes the Talmud (Eruvin 100b), and fairly summarizes the work’s intent: “R. Yochanan said: ‘If these things were not prescribed in the Torah, we could learn decency from the cat; the ant would preach against robbery, and the dove against incest.’

By my own level of scholarship, Perek Shirah is somewhat over my head — which only interests me further. A free copy may be downloaded from three different websites (it’s the same 208k PDF):

http://www.archive.org/details/AkivaPerekShirahperekshirahebengslifkinpdf
http://lazerbrody.typepad.com/lazer_beams/files/perek20shirah20booklet.pdf
http://www.zootorah.com/books/Perek%20Shirah%20booklet.pdf

Chag sameach (happy holiday)!

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Nutshell Rabbinics

2010.05.05
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“HERE’S HOW THE TORAH WORKS, at least from a classical perspective: What’s important, really important, is not just the text — it’s your relationship to the text. Which means you get to say what Torah means, but within parameters defined by people who’ve been studying it longer than you have. And who will either say ‘Good job,’ or ‘What were you thinking?’”

(From a conversation with the wife, this represents my understanding to date of the Jewish understanding of Torah practicum. I naturally invite those who know more than I to comment and correct as needed — with thanks.)

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Torah: Learn A Little!

2010.04.30
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REMEMBER THE SATURDAY MORNING TORAH study Ann started back in 2001? Well, we’re still doing it, and if you’d like to do it too — and you’re going to be in Sonoma between 10 a.m. and noon tomorrow — you are hereby invited to our humble home. (Email me at scoop at sonic dot net for directions.)

Torah Portion: Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31

This week’s portion mostly offers advice to the kohanim, or priests (hey, it’s Leviticus, right?). Among other things, Torah tells the kohanim must be as physically unblemished as the animals they offer to God (a nice metaphor for leadership, that) and reminds us of the importance of the six major Jewish festivals: Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

I don’t know how the latter passages affect others, but I always get a little thrill from reading in the Torah about something that we’re still doing. Something there is about holding a torch lighted long ago, by people I never met but with whom I am connected in some tenuous but undeniable way. The torch still burns — how does it light your footsteps? Let’s find out together Saturday morning!

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Why I’m Not A Rabbi

2010.04.28
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IF YOU DIDN’T KNOW THAT I was once studying to become a rabbi, then you probably haven’t talked to me much during the last 10 years.

As detailed elsewhere, I returned to Judaism in 1997 after a whirlwind tour of the spiritual hinterlands and shortly afterward decided to go to rabbinic school. I was so in love with Torah learning, and so appalled by my childhood religious education, that I wanted to right a generationally shared wrong by teaching Torah to spiritual eclectics like myself.

Accordingly, in 2000 I became one of Reform Judaism’s Para-Rabbinic Fellows (and have since conducted several dozen services, including a handful of B’nei Mitzvah ceremonies). In 2001, I quit newspapering to start working toward the seminaries’ requisite bachelor’s degree.

Which brings us to the first of three reasons why I’m no longer studying to become a rabbi: seminarIES. Unlike the glorious ethnotheolegalism of our forebears, Judaism today (at least in the USA) is sorted into fragments according to how closely one adheres to Torah practice. That’s a big problem for someone who’s more in love with Torah than with the sorting process (and who doesn’t make an extracontextual distinction between “Torah” and “practice”), and doubly so that a rabbi sometimes must speak as a denominational representative.

But the fact is, I don’t like denominations. I like the people involved (though that’s true of most people I meet), but I don’t like that Orthodoxy often emphasizes the ritual over the ethical, or that Conservatism can’t seem to define itself as other than “not Orthodox.” I really don’t like that Reform unilaterally changed the rules of Jewish identity, or that Renewal replaces the Jewish intellectual tradition with tambourines and navel-gazing (more on this later), or that Reconstructionism (and other non-O denominations) is apparently driving away men through feminization of liturgy and the overall service “vibe.” And what I really, really, really, really, REALLY don’t like about denominations is the inherent smugness thereof and consequent sniping at “those other guys.”

My second reason for not becoming a rabbi: I’m too cranky, and rabbis shouldn’t be cranky. (We had an angry rabbi round these parts a few years back. I saw firsthand what that did to the congregation, and to him, before he mercifully removed himself.) I discovered my inner crankypants when my best friend died in late 2002. My life fell apart, and it took a couple years of therapy and medication to learn that one cannot easily balance a variety of vital social roles on something as tenuous as unresolved emotional issues. It seems to me a rabbi needs to exemplify solidity, or at least possess it, before helping other people find theirs.

Reason number three concerns the colossal ego needed by a writer versus the intense humility required of a rabbi. Since “humility” isn’t cringing and whinging so much as keeping a sense of perspective, the idea that I am one small, fragile, temporary mind out of billions seems more like common sense than despair. But as a writer, and thus potentially immortal, my ego is so large as to cause airplanes to dip in gravitic homage when they fly over my house. So deep I have to wear a life jacket whenever I’m around me. So high that even I can’t stack an appropriate metaphor against it. As Robert Anton Wilson said, “Most of the characteristics which make for success in writing are precisely those which we are all taught to repress … (like) the firm belief that you are an important person, that you are a lot smarter than most people, and that your ideas are so damned important that everyone should listen to you.” Essential characterstics of writers — religious leaders, not so much. (See above the bit about the angry rabbi.)

I’m not sure I’m smarter than most people — maybe those I used to write about in the police blotter. (Or maybe not.) But my ideas are so damned important that everyone should listen to me (hence this blog, among other things); and something about being the hub of all that attention tells me that it’s better centered on my keyboard than my services.

That said: I have not given up studying Torah, or teaching it to young people, or sharing it with those slightly older (Ann & I conduct a Torah study in our living room every Saturday morning that there aren’t synagogue services). I certainly haven’t given up trying to live like (my best understanding of) a Jew. But I have given up the idea of becoming a rabbi; and since I first announced my rabbinic aspirations in a newspaper column nine years ago — and since people still ask me — it seems only fair to publicize their reverse.

Thanks for reading this far. I’ll see you at the book signing!

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