Monthly Archives: October 2009

Stepping Stones

by David Bogner (Efrat, Israel)

While we were in the U.S. this past August, I spent quite a bit of time browsing bookshops. The English language book selection isn’t terrible in big Israeli cities like Tel Aviv or Jerusalem… but there is something about wandering into a really well stocked bookstore with no plan other than to skim titles that I have not been able to replicate here.

While I was paying for a few books in a store out on Cape Cod, I found an interesting box of magnetic words next to the cash register. Truth be told, I had been looking for these words since we arrived in the states, but had sort of given up by the time they found me.

For the uninitiated, I’m talking about Magnetic Poetry. The basic box comes with what seems like two gazillion words. There are additional sets one can buy that have specialty words, but at the time the one box seemed quite adequate.

When we got back home, I completely forgot about the box of magnetic words… and it languished under a pile of things that had somehow never been properly put away (shocking, I know).

As I was straightening up before this past Shabbat, I rediscovered the box of words, and (much to Zahava’s chagrin) I abandoned my chores to immediately place all two gazillion of them on our front door. Stop looking so smug… like you’ve never gotten sidetracked!!!

My initial inclination was to organize the words by parts-of-speech (nouns with nouns, prepositions with prepositions, etc.), but decided that part of the fun would be the randomness of the arrangement.

It wasn’t until all the words (including a few prefixes and suffixes) were on the door that a few interesting things became obvious:

First of all… it turns out that there were way less than two gazillion words… probably closer to 150-200.

Also, I noticed that this random collection of words was eerily similar in size and make-up to the limited collection of words in my Hebrew vocabulary (ok, maybe I have more than a 200 word vocabulary… but some days it feels that way!).

So, what’s the first thing I did once all the words were up on the door?

That’s right, I figured I’d take a couple of seconds and ‘throw out’ the first ceremonial sentence… maybe even leave a witty poem!

Heh, yeah right.

You see there were other lurking similarities to my Hebrew vocabulary… meaning that searching around for exactly the right word was an exercise in futility. Humorous sentences were considered and discarded because I was missing essential words. As a thought would take shape, I would have to change direction/intent based on the words I could find. Fifteen minutes later I actually had my first sentence, but it bore no relation to where I’d been heading when I had started out.

This too was very much like what happens when I try to express myself in Hebrew. The words are there (at least a modest collection of them) but nearly every cogent thought is hijacked by not having ready access to the right words.

Like most immigrants, my conversations are slow, plodding affairs with lots of hand gestures and facial expressions filling in for perfect grammar. They bring to mind the image of a careless person crossing a stream on stepping-stones who hasn’t picked out the route all the way to the other bank. Most of the time I am able to get to the other side (meaning that I almost always manage to finish my thoughts/sentences), but occasionally I still find myself stranded mid-stream.

Just so you don’t think I’m complaining…it’s really amazing how many more ‘stones’ there are in the stream today than there were a year ago! The progress is glacial, though.

Since putting up the magnetic words, several new sentences have sprung to life. A few are Zahava’s doing, and one or two belong to Ari and/or Gili. I haven’t asked, but judging by the Asian syntax and ersatz proverb nature of the sentences, I would say that others have encountered the same challenges that I found. Maybe I’ll have to order one of the additional sets of magnetic words and surreptitiously add them slowly to the mix. I wonder if anyone will notice?

Once we become more familiar with what words are available to us, I’m sure the ‘poetry’ will flow more freely. But in the mean time, it’s kind of neat to have stumbled upon such a tidy little parallel to my ongoing language issues.

David Bogner, formerly of Fairfield, CT, lives in Efrat with his wife Zahava (nee Cheryl Pomeranz), and their children Ariella, Gilad and Yonah. Since moving to Israel in 2003, David has been working in Israel’s defense industry in International Marketing and Business Development. In his free time David keeps a blog, Treppenwitz this piece originally appeared) and is an amateur beekeeper.

“Stepping Stones” is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Israel Jewry, Jewish identity

A Deep and Complicated Love for Israel

by Julie Roth (Princeton, NJ)

First Day of Rosh Hashanah, 5770/2009

I speak this morning out of a deep and complicated love for the State of Israel.

I first fell in love with Israel when I was 16 years old, traveling on an arts program for seven weeks.  I remember the tangible feeling of ancient history coming alive beneath my feet and the power of being in a Jewish country where the secular cab drivers said Shabbat Shalom and young soldiers, a few years older than me, protected a country built by heroic pioneers so that there would never again be a Holocaust.   I can still feel the wind at night in the Negev desert and on the rooftops in the old city of Jerusalem where I imagined what it was like to wander in the desert and receive the Torah at Sinai and where I finally stood in the place where I had directed my prayers for so many years.

And then at age 29, I lived in Israel for a full year, studying in rabbinical school with my Israeli and South American classmates.  Although it was a required year of study, only one-third of the American students came.  I was afraid to go to Israel that year – it was the height of the second intifada and suicide bombings were a regular occurrence – but I felt to be the kind of rabbi I wanted to be, I had to go.  The Dean of the rabbinical school told us at our Orientation that this year we would develop a mature love for Israel, not the infatuation of a quick tour of the Dead Sea and Ben Yehuda Street, but the love of a fifty year marriage, the love of commitment in good and bad times, a love built on scars as well as joyful memories.  That year I marveled at street signs bearing the names of the rabbis I studied in the Talmud and I made a new friend who later became my husband. That year I avoided buses and movie theatres to minimize my chances of being killed in a terrorist attack.  I prepared for the US war with Iraq by learning how to use a gas mask in case Saddam Hussein unleashed nerve gas against Israel.  At the end of the year when I returned my unused gas mask, as instructed, at the lingerie counter of the local department store, I laughed to myself, thinking is this what it means to have a mature love for Israel?

And now, seven years later, I am challenged to grow in my love for Israel in new ways.  While there is much to talk about regarding the settlement and the threat of a nuclear Iran, my focus today is not political.  This morning instead I want to focus on what it means to live with conflicting viewpoints and the importance of dialogue about Israel both within the Jewish community and across the Jewish and Muslim communities.  This is not the first year I have turned to the Torah readings on Rosh Hashanah and remarked to myself that the conflict between Sarah and Hagar, between Ishmael and Isaac still haunts us today; that the words jump off the page because of their resonance with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  But each year, as my own relationship with Israel changes and matures, I see the story with slightly different eyes.

This year, my reading of the story of Ishmael and Isaac is informed by something Imam Sohaib Sultan, the new Muslim Life Coordinator here at Princeton said to me last January in the middle of the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.   We were speaking about the great effort that was being made by Muslim and Jewish students to plan a joint public event despite our radically different views of the war.  In the end, there was not one word the Muslim and Jewish students could agree to say publicly so we decided to stand together in silence, for fifteen minutes, outside Firestone library to honor the relationship we had built through dialogue and to express our shared hope that there would soon be an end to the loss of life on both sides of the conflict.   I was explaining to him how hard it was for me personally and for many members of the Jewish community to speak publicly about the suffering of the Palestinians while still feeling loyal to Israel and her right to defend her citizens.   Sohaib responded by saying that the relationship between the Jewish and Muslim communities could only be sustained, could only grow to the degree that we were willing and able to hear each other’s conflicting narratives.  That is why I am so struck by the fact that the central narrative that we read on Rosh Hashanah, the story of the binding of Isaac–  the troubling and quintessential test of Abraham’s faith– is told from a completely different perspective in the Muslim tradition.

In the Torah, Abraham does not tell Isaac in advance what he plans to do.  There are no details about whether Issac fully cooperated or resisted, but we call this story the binding of Isaac because Abraham binds Isaac to the altar before raising the knife to sacrifice him.  In contrast, in the, Qu’ran, Abraham’s son knowingly and voluntarily submits to being sacrificed; there is no need to bind him to the altar, rather he prostrates with his forehead to the ground.  Significantly, it is unclear in the Qu’ran which son is being sacrificed.  The majority of Muslim commentaries claim it is Ishmael, not Isaac, who submits to this ultimate test of faith.  But there are a minority of commentaries, some prominent, that claim it was Isaac.  Though it is tempting to simplify matters, to present a stark contrast between Isaac and Ishmael, between Judaism and Islam, I think it’s important to highlight here that even within the Muslim tradition there are multiple and conflicting voices.

As Jews, as much as we struggle with this story, we hold it sacred; we believe it is Isaac who is the direct link between God and Abraham and us; the link to the promise of being a great nation in the Land of Israel.  So what are we supposed to do with the information that Muslims tell this same story from a different perspective?  How can we hear and understand that Ishmael was almost sacrificed, without losing all the claims staked on our own version of the story?  As liberal, post-modern Jews who see the Torah as a sacred inheritance, but not as the literal word of God, it may be possible for us to acknowledge the truth of our own story and the truth of the Muslim story. But the challenge is to not let the existence of multiple sacred stories erode our own sense of truth while at the same time not denying or at least not ignoring the truth for the “other.”  I am not claiming that this is easy to do, with regard to religious beliefs or in any situation where we have a conflict enmeshed in competing narratives, but I am saying that I believe to move forward, to heal, to hope for peace, we must try to stand in that space of conflicting narratives, to learn from each other by talking and by listening.

Sometimes, our challenge comes not from a conflict between narratives, but from the conflict revealed within our own story.  In the chapter preceding the binding of Isaac, we read the story of Abraham kicking Hagar and Ishmael out of the household, sending them into the desert with only bread and a skin of water.  Whether or not Ishmael is at fault, the text makes clear in the very next verse that it is not possible for both sons to stay and inherit within the same land.  Sarah says to Abraham, garish ha-amah hazot v’et b’nah ki lo yirash ben ha-amah hazot im b’ni, im Yitzchak, “Cast out the slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son, with Issac.”  After so many years of living side by side in the same home, Sarah does not even refer to Hagar and Ishmael by name, but rather as the “slave woman.”  What does it mean when we are unable or unwilling to refer to the “other” by name?  What is the Torah suggesting here by showing us that Hagar the Egyptian is the one enslaved and we are the ones who hold the power?

Sarah’s request greatly distresses Abraham, but God affirms that Sarah is right, that Isaac is meant to be the primary heir and Ishmael must go.  God also assures Abraham that God will make Ishmael a great nation as well.  The Torah underscores that there are hard realities that cannot be avoided if the Jewish people are going to inherit the Land of Israel. I still wonder why Abraham had to send Hagar and Ishmael away into the desert with only bread and a skin of water, placing them in a desperate, life-threatening situation.  Is it to highlight that God hears Ishmael’s voice too?   We could debate whether Abraham should have sent Hagar and Ishmael away more compassionately and in a sense that is what the Torah is asking us to do by including Abraham’s actions and their consequences.  Our tradition is telling us pieces of both sides of the story and asking us to struggle with the full complexity of what happened.

After many years of separation, Isaac and Ishmael meet again, briefly, to bury their father in the cave of Machpelah (Genesis 25:9).  The cave of Machpelah is located in Hebron, near the village of Beit Omar, where Osama Abu Ayash, one of the Palestinian participants in The Parents Circle – Family Forum lives with his wife Antisar.  The Parents Circle – Family Forum began in 1995; “it is a world precedent where bereaved families, victims from both sides, embark on a joint reconciliation mission while the conflict is still active.”  These several hundred families include Osama, who was tortured by the Israeli Defense Force and his wife Antisar, who lost two brothers in the conflict; they initially protested their brother even allowing a Jew in his home and later, after hearing the stories of several bereaved Israeli families, came to understand, in their words, “that the pain was the same pain, the suffering the same suffering, and the tears the same tears.”  The hundreds of families also include Robi Damelin, an Israeli mother who lost her son David while he was serving on reserve duty in the Occupied Territories.  Hesitant to join the group at first, Robi eventually wrote a letter to the mother of the Palestinian sniper who killed her son, a letter that was hand delivered by two of the Palestinians from her dialogue group; in the letter Robi wrote, “I am the mother of David who was killed by your son.  I give this letter to people I love and trust to deliver, they will tell you of the work we are doing, and perhaps create in your hearts some hope for the future.  I hope that maybe in the future we can meet.”  I bring the example of The Parents Circle – Family Forum because of the powerful example they set for us by what they do.  In the words of the groups’ Israeli co-founder, Roni Hirshenson who lost two sons in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “If we who have paid the highest price possible can talk to each other, than anyone can.”

In the Talmud, the idea that the difficult case proves the easier case is called a “kal v’chomer.”  Put in other words, according to Talmudic reasoning if bereaved Palestinian families can talk to bereaved Israeli families, then Jewish and Muslim students at Princeton can speak to one another.  And if the Muslim–Jewish dialogue program at Princeton can aim to increase our understanding of each other and create an environment where competing narratives can coexist, than all the more so within the Jewish community we should be able to speak openly about our different views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  More than any specific moral lesson or matter of Jewish practice, the Talmud teaches on every single page, by recording majority and minority opinions in conversation with each other, that the Jewish tradition values a multiplicity of voices.

I believe that the time for the American Jewish community to speak about Israel with only one voice and the time to support Israel by never talking about the suffering of the Palestinians has passed.  Our sacred texts ask us to remember that even our enemies are also human beings.  There is a midrash that speaks about the angels celebrating the destruction of the Egyptians after the ten plagues and the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea.  God stops this celebration saying, that the Egyptians are also My people.  For this same reason, we take a drop out of our wine cups as we recite each of the ten plagues at our Passover seders.  This tradition teaches us that if God can show compassion towards the suffering of the Egyptians without being disloyal to the Israelites, so too we can have compassion for the suffering of the Palestinians without being disloyal to the State of Israel.

There is a sparkling glimmer of hope immediately before our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, a quick story of a peace treaty between Abraham and Avimelech, King of the Philistines.  Their direct communication and reconciliation models for us the type of direct conversations for the sake of forgiveness that our tradition demands of us at this time of year.  After Abraham reproaches Avimelech for the well of water which the servants of Avimelech had seized, Avimelech responds, lo yadati…lo hegadta li, v’ lo shamati, “I did not know, you did not tell me, and I did not hear of it until today.”  Avimelech’s words underscore our dual responsibility to both tell each other the complaints in our hearts and to listen to what we are being told.  One of the most powerful teachings of the Jewish tradition is that we must seek forgiveness from family, colleagues, and friends, and even adversaries directly; this often requires us to listen to another side of the story that may be different from our own.  As hard as it can be to know, to tell someone, to listen, I hope we will all be inspired by the courage of the bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families in the Parents Forum – Family Forum, by the committed students in the Muslim-Jewish dialogue program at Princeton, and by the conflicting opinions lovingly recorded on every page of our sacred Talmud.  I hope we will be inspired to engage in even the difficult conversations – to speak and to listen with the hope that by honoring each other’s stories we strengthen our relationships with “the other” and with each other; we bring healing to ourselves and to the broader world.    May this be a sweet New Year for all of us.  Shanah Tovah.

Rabbi Julie Roth is the Executive Director of the Princeton Center for Jewish Life/Hillel. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, she has lived in New York City, Boston, and Washington where she worked for Hillel on the local and international levels. She and her husband Justus love living in Princeton with their twin boys, Ilan and Rafael.

Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2005, Rabbi Roth is a recipient of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and holds a BA in Comparative Religion from Brown University. Her passion for pluralism, Jewish life, and multi-culturalism make campus work an ideal match. When she’s not building a framework for a vibrant Jewish campus life, Julie enjoys ballroom dancing, swimming, movies, and cooking vegetarian food.

This essay was delivered as a sermon at the Princeton Hillel in September, 2009, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Israel Jewry

Shabbat and the Single Girl

by Leah Jones (Chicago, IL)

I’m 28, single and Jewish in Chicago. Like most single Jewish women, that means JDate, JCC events, and being set up by well-meaning friends. What sets me apart is that I’m also a JBC—a Jew by Choice. I started studying with my rabbi when I was 27 (and single) and met with the beit din (legal body convened for conversion), went to the mikvah(ritual bath), and took my Hebrew name at 28 (and single).

I converted for the same reasons most people convert, so that my children will be Jewish. I am simply missing the one detail most people have before they make this choice—a Jewish partner. On the night that my synagogue publicly welcomed me into Jewish life, a good friend said, “I understand converting for children, but why these young, single people would convert is beyond me.”

She said that to me and my friend Brad, another single JBC in my congregation. Her own husband is a JBC and he converted when their son, who was raised as a Jew, was 18. He certainly didn’t convert for the sake of the family, but when it was right between him and God.

Getting to God

All right, fine, I’ll admit it. My conversion wasn’t “pure.” Along the way, there was a Jewish man. In my opinion, he was Jewish enough that he wouldn’t marry a non-Jew, but too secular to ask a non-Jew to convert. I had enough respect for him that before I made my move I wanted to decide if conversion was an option.

I went to a bookstore and got a copy of The Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism by Rabbi Benjamin Blech. I read the book and read it again. I got online and read conversion stories, learned about different movements within Judaism, ordered more books on Judaism. I decided, “Yes. This makes sense to me, if it came down to it, I would convert for him.”

By the time December rolled around I’d completely forgotten him, was dating somebody else, and had also read Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. Add to the mix my twin sister starting her own family and my grandmother dying from a three week battle with pancreatic cancer. I was ready to admit there was something more to the world, that there had to be a higher power.

On December 24, Christmas Eve if you are keeping track, I met with my Rabbi for the first time and went to my first Shabbat service. Instead of agreeing that it was obvious I should convert, he gave me a list of books and asked me to “try it on and see if it fits.”

Trying it On

Over the course of the next year, I officially tried on Judaism. I joined a synagogue, went to services every week, tried to study Torah, and taught myself Hebrew. I also read more books on Judaism than anyone thought possible. The first couple months I was parched for knowledge and raced through books as if someone might take them away from me the next day.

I went to every special program at the synagogue and was invited into people’s homes for holidays and life events. It was fascinating to experience each holiday and moment of the calendar for the first time as an adult. I hope that I approached it with a child-like sense of wonder.

There were moments when I was certain that I would never feel Jewish or learn it all. Once, just before Passover, I was at a large Jewish bookstore and the number of books was so overwhelming that I started to cry. At Shavuot, I’d stayed up all night studying Torah with 50 other Jews. Nobody questioned my Jewishness, but at the morning minyan I didn’t know the prayers and couldn’t follow along.

But in September, I went to a havdalah service with the Jewish Community Center. I was outside of the safety of my synagogue and this time I didn’t just follow along mumbling, but I knew the songs and the prayers. I felt like a Jew, I knew it was starting to sink in.

The week before my conversion, I went to a bris (circumcision) and sat shiva with friends. With the exception of a wedding, I’d experienced the entire calendar and life cycle moments. I could safely tell my rabbi, “Yes, this fits. Judaism fits and I’m certain that this is the right choice.”

Organizing a Library

I’m a bibliophile and love books. I have books on every surface of my condo, bookshelves are two deep in places, and unread piles sit next to my bed and couch. Finding Judaism, for me, has been the same as coming home and finding my piles organized into a library. In Judaism, I found the words to describe how I’d always felt and the resources to make decisions in the future. Words like tzedaka and tikkun olam, sources like the Torah, Talmud, my rabbi and my community.

Many Jews by Choice find Judaism through a Jewish partner, which I didn’t. But in Judaism, we find the same things—a way to live in the world, a way to raise our children, a community, thousands of years of tradition, and a relationship with God.

Sometimes I worry that I should have waited, I should have found my Jewish husband before I converted. Let’s be honest, I’ve shrunk the dating pool considerably. I risk being a single, Jewish woman for years to come. In the end, I decided that I’d rather be a single Jewish woman, than just a single woman.

Leah Jones is the owner of Natiiv Arts & Media, where she is a social media coach for rabbis and rockers. She’s been writing her personal blog Accidentally Jewish since 2003 and chronicled her conversion to Judaism on the blog. While she’s based in Chicago, she finds excuses to travel the US and spends as much time as possible in Israel.

To read more of Leah’s work, visit her blog as well as her website Natiiv Arts & Media and Twitter

And if you’re considering Conversion, here are a few books, as well as web resources, that Leah recommends:

Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant
The Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism by Rabbi Blech
Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin
Search for God at Harvard by Ari Goldman
How To Handbook for Jewish Living by Kerry M. Olitzky and Ronald H. Isaacs

On the Web:

This essay was originally published on her blog, Shebrew, in January 2006 and is reprinted here with permission of the author. You can visit Shebrew at

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity

On High Holiday music

by Rachel Barenblat (Lanesboro, MA)

This past week I had two very different liturgical experiences. I spent Shabbat Shuvah weekend at Jewish Renewal retreat center Elat Chayyim, and I went to Yom Kippur services at the congregation I just joined here in North Adams. (Technically it’s a Reform shul, though the congregation was Conservative for a century, so they tend towards a Hebrew-intensive kind of Reform-ness.)

I’m a big fan of Elat Chayyim, in part because I really like the way they handle prayer services. Services are egalitarian and creative; they do interesting things with God-language; they often incorporate meditation into their davvening (they regard prayer as, among other things, a vehicle for becoming more spiritually awake). They also sing a lot: often chants based around one line or one phrase from a particular prayer, and always melodies that are easy to learn and follow.

My little shul uses a fair amount of song in our Shabbat services…but I learned this year that we handle the Days of Awe in a special way. We hire a cantorial soloist to lead us in song. And I didn’t like that one bit.

My problems with the cantor were twofold. First, half the time she sang for us rather than with us, and I don’t like having someone else pray on my behalf. (I’m interested in a grassroots kind of worship, in which the rabbi or chazzan is there to lead us, not to do things for us.) And secondly, she was using ornate, flowery melodies that most of us didn’t know and couldn’t guess, so even when she was trying to lead us in song, we weren’t following very well.

Because I’d just come from Elat Chayyim, where the chants and niggunim are so intuitive and everyone sings everything, the contrast was remarkable.

I know that a lot of people like having a cantor, especially for the High Holidays. And I expect my rabbi was happy to have someone to co-lead services with him; leading a congregation through the intense and intensive Days of Awe has to be exhausting, and I’m sure it’s nice to have someone to share that burden with.

I know that there are special melodies, a special nusach, for the Days of Awe. And I imagine that the cantor probably loves singing this stuff, because it’s the only time of year she gets to do so. If you train to be a cantor, and you learn all of these different melodies for different liturgical seasons, you probably want to use them all, right?

But as a worshipper, I have to say, it really put me off. Because when I’m spending a whole day in shul, I want to be involved. I want to be singing. And since I didn’t know many of the the melodies our cantor was using, I couldn’t follow along. Half the time I just sat there, trying not to be surly, looking at the words and humming the easy melodies I’ve encountered in other congregations under my breath.

Now and then we returned to a melody that everyone knew. And then our voices rang out, and it really felt like a holiday again. Which was great; but it served to highlight how frustrating the rest of the experience was.

So I want to argue against the use of flowery High Holiday nusach. I think it perpetuates a kind of disempowerment. Only the people who happen to know the special melodies can participate, and everyone else is left silenced and subdued: hardly conducive to feeling involved or even uplifted by the shul experience. And isn’t that what we’re there for?

Rachel Barenblat is beginning her fifth year as a student in the ALEPH rabbinic program, and holds an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington. Author of four poetry chapbooks, she’s been blogging as The Velveteen Rabbi ( since 2003. She lives in Lanesboro, MA, where she and her husband Ethan are expecting their first child this December.

This essay first appeared on The Velveteen Rabbi in October, 2003 and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

For more information about Rachel, you can read this interview:

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry