Posts Tagged ‘ Being Jewishly ’

Feel The Fear

2005.10.19
By

When Ann and I joined the small synagogue in our Northern California town back in 1998, it was with the understanding that we would get involved.

Neither of us had been, when we were younger. But especially since 2000, when I started teaching the b’nei mitzvah class and occasionally leading services, that involvement has (as anyone involved in congregational life can tell you) brought both heartwarmth and headaches. It’s nice to be part of a big happy squabbling extended family, but also sad sometimes to see and be part of the behind-the-scenes politics — especially if you’re something of a mildly bipolar idealist.

(Bit of background: our congregation — since its 1995 inception an informal, do-it-yourself kind of place — last year engaged a rabbi who liked to teach that “compassion” was not a Jewish value. Things got very bad for a while, but he quit earlier this year, and now things are better. We’re a community of smart and good-hearted people who like to learn and hang out together — and that brings its own blessing.)

Anyway, yesterday was the annual congregational sukkah-decorating party. As usual, it was mostly the schoolkids and their parents; but attendance was larger than I remember it being, and there was a nice intimate vibe that hasn’t been there before (or at least not as obvious). Everybody got to take the lulav — even some of the adults who had never before done so — and ate snacks and hung the world’s longest paper chain.

It was great, but for me also scary. I’m fairly enthusiastic about Judaism and enjoy leading services and teaching, but yesterday was One Of Those Days; sometimes my self-doubt divides me from the world, and I was looking forward to someone else leading the blessings.

That didn’t happen, though, because the someone else in question — a big enthusiastic guy who’s on his own Jewish rediscovery path, and a frequent attendee at our apartment every Shabbat morning for Torah study — handed me the lulav and etrog and said “Teach us.”

So I opened my mouth, and out popped the teaching that the Four Species — lulav (palm), hadass (myrtle), aravot (willow) and etrog (citron) — respectively stand for Jews who have much Torah learning but few accomplishments in mitzvot, many mitzvot but little Torah, neither mitzvot nor Torah, and both Torah and mitzvot. “And when we bring them together like this, it shows that we all need each other,” I concluded.

It’s not something I had thought to say — in fact, when my friend handed me the lulav I couldn’t think of anything at all but my own fear — but the warm-hearted crowd huddled under the chilly October sky welcomed it with a smile.

One of my favorite teachers, Rebbe Nachman, says “The world is a narrow bridge — the essence is not to fear.” Sometimes, though, the fear reminds you that the bridge is wide enough to cross.

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Yids With Lids

2002.04.25
By

A recent poster to soc.culture.jewish.moderated was soliciting opinions from full-time kippa wearers for a paper she’s writing. I contacted her, and submitted the following responses to her questions:

: Why do you wear a kippa?
I began wearing a kippa full-time about two years ago — it’s 98% part of my ever-deepening religious observance, and 2% politics. I started to become a “progressive ba’al teshuva” while working as a newspaper reporter, and took to wearing a kippa all during Shabbat. It felt too weird to take it off, so I wrestled with my commitment to Jewish tradition as well as to not spooking or distracting my sources. Then, in March 2000, a Jewish Petaluma businessman’s truck
was graffiti’d and set afire. Not being a big believer in community
invisibility, I donned a kippa and have been wearing it ever since.

: What does your kippa look like? How did you choose it?
I actually have about a dozen. Some are too small, which I discovered only after wearing them as “garments” instead of occasionally at services. I might wear eight or nine of them on a regular basis.

I favor the kippa sruga — crocheted or knit — to the velvet or suede
varieties. I have a plain black one I wear while “on the job,” since I have dark brown hair and the black kippa isn’t very noticeable. But the others are of various colors and patterns. I’m vain enough to want to coordinate them with what I’m wearing, even though most of them don’t match my somewhat limited wardrobe. I do have two blue ones which I alternate for Shabbat, and a red-white-and-blue one which I reserve for Election Day and the Fourth of July.

As for choosing them, it was whatever was available at the local Jewish bookstore/Sisterhood giftshop/online Judaica store when I stopped/clicked through.

: What meaning does it have for you? What message, if any, do you think it communicates to others?
For me, it is a constant reminder that there is Something bigger than I am, as well as an ethical standard of behavior to which I should adhere at all times. Not being others, I couldn’t tell you their reaction. However, I have been aproached by more Jews than I can remember who are glad to see a “landsman” when they least expect it! I have also explained the laws of kashrut to an Egyptian man one morning at my local coffee shop, and discussed the differences between Hebrew and Aramaic readings of Genesis with the Samaritan manager of a nearby 7-Eleven. I have yet to encounter any animosity, G-d forbid, although I have had encounters with philo-Judaic types who want to tell me how awful the matzav is and how they stand with Israel because Jesus said to. I smile and thank them.

: What impression do you form of a stranger wearing a kippa? Does it matter what the kippa looks like?
My first reaction is usually, “Hey! Me too!” I’m not hip enough to the
subtleties and nuances of kippot to be able to do more than that, although I’ve noticed that most neo-mystical vegetarian types go for the really big, loosely crocheted kippot.

: Do you feel any (special?) connection to a stranger wearing a kippa? Would your answer be different in Jerusalem vs. Podunk, USA?
I think I do, at least in a first-impression, superficial way. As I’ve not
yet been to Jerusalem but live in Podunk about an hour north of San
Francisco, I’ll have to plead insufficient data. I bet it would be, though.

: How do you feel about non-religious Jews who don kipot on certain occasions (e.g., in synagogue, at a brit or a seder)? Is it respectful? Hypocritical?
Something else?

Personally, I think it’s kind of sweet. It’s hard for me to imagine it being hypocritical or disrespectful.

: What are your (kippa-related) opinions that I haven’t asked about?
I guess the only thing that comes to mind is that I am much, MUCH more careful with what I say or do when I’m out in public. It’s very interesting to wear one’s identity on one’s head — to know that someone’s first impression of me potentially isn’t “affable, brown-haired guy” so much as “JEW.” It has also made me more aware of the ways in which I am apt to (mis)judge others based on personal appearance. Much like life, wearing a full-time kippa is a continual learning experience!

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Fringey Blue

2001.11.14
By

from a pre-Blogger blog

Tzitzit under blue jeans feel like nothing, and yet feel like everything.

They feel like nothing because the four-cornered cotton garment to which they’re attached is extremely light. I forwent the type which snap or stitch under the arm, since a) I didn’t think it necessary and b) we’re having a slack financial tide right now (meaning that the basic style is less expensive). The tzitzit, intricate knots which remind us of mitzvot (sacred obligations) like strings wrapped around our souls’ fingers, look a little like yellow spaghetti. The serape-like garment to which they’re attached fits nicely under my shirt, although tucking it into my pants is a bit tricky — I prefer wearing them under an untucked shirt, where they can dangle free.

But this is where they “feel like everything.” I wear a kippa full-time, and have for nearly two years. But that’s not a mitzva, it’s a custom. It publicly identifies me as a Jew, and forces me to be on my best behavior when I’m around other people. It’s also something of a conversation piece: I’ve explained kashrut to a curious Egyptian man at a morning coffeeshop, compared the Aramaic and Hebrew versions of the first verse of Genesis with the proprietor of a local 7-Eleven, and been greeted by more Jews than I can remember right now.

Tzitzit, however, are different — they’re a mitzva, something we’re supposed to do according to Torah. However, in my life, they’re something strictly between me and G-d — a quiet reminder, not an advertisement of piety. (Sadly, in the circles in which I travel, I think they’d be perceived as an advertisement of a different sort.) I’ve only been wearing them for five days now, and already I “feel more like a Jew.” That’s pretty weird to see myself writing that, since I tend to see “Jew” as something you are and do, not something you feel. But I guess that’s part of the mystery of “na’aseh v’nishmah” (“we will do and we will hear,” or — loosely translated a la Ivan Stang — “Laugh. See?” It’s what our ancestors replied when Moshe Rabbeinu said that G-d had some instructions for them [Exodus 24:7].) There are things we do which define us to ourselves. For me, “being a Jew” and not wearing tzitzit, or laying tefillin, or praying every day, or studying Torah, or seeking to be my best and see the best in others, feels to me like “being an American” but not voting. Grasping the shell of the thing but not savoring its essence. Tzitzit are definitely of the essence. (At least, for me. Others, G-d willing, will have a different view of the notional constraints within which to conduct oneself Jewishly.)

We’re either “on the bus or off the bus,” as the now-late Ken Kesey once said. Given that, the question isn’t “How many people can we take with us?” but rather “What will we share with each other along the way?”

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