Thursday, August 11, 2011

Beit Cafe

Last night we performed at the HUC Beit Cafe (coffee house/talent show). Check out our performance in the video below.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Destruction and Mourning

Last night, on erev Tisha B’Av, we went to the Western Wall and had a fascinating experience. Below, our conversation and the event that followed.

The Kotel on erev Tisha B'Av 
I have conflicted feelings about Tisha B’Av. Traditionally, the holiday commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples. From my observation, mourning the loss of the Temple necessarily means hoping for a Third Temple. Indeed, just outside the Kotel Plaza, we saw miniature models of a rebuilt Third Temple. Are people suggesting that we destroy The Dome of the Rock? On other days in the Old City, we’ve seen dream-like paintings of the Jerusalem countryside with the Third Temple in its center, smoke from the sacrificial offering ascending to heaven. Is the ethical Judaism we practice today not sufficient?

What has sustained the Jews for thousands of years is adaptability to change. Jews have been their most successful in the Diaspora. The Middle Ages in Spain saw a blossoming of Jewish religious, cultural, and economic life. Jews in America today are the most prosperous Jewish community in history. The Purim story in Sushan, problematic as it is, stands as the first account of Jewish triumph in the Diaspora. Our intransigence has cultivated our creativity. And yet, life in the Diaspora has been hard for the Jewish people. In Spain and in Shushan, our golden ages eventually met a tragic end. Tisha B’Av reminds me of our frailty.

For 2000 years, our people have hoped to return to the land of Israel, to Jerusalem. Today we’re here. As a professor at HUC put it, we’ve already achieved a modern Third Temple—the State of Israel. I was moved on Tisha B’Av by the sight of an Israeli flag flying in the Kotel Plaza. This is a symbol of our triumph.

And yet, Israel itself is frail. Were the country ever to collapse or be destroyed, Jews worldwide would feel the effects. For all its complications, I love deeply what Israel symbolizes. I get physical anxiety thinking of the consequences of a destroyed Jewish state. It gives new resonance to Psalm 137, written after the Destruction of the First Temple: “By the rivers of Babylon we wept, remembering Zion.”

To me Tisha B’Av is a day to remember and acknowledge our scars—the scars of our people as well as our personal scars. When I said this to Daniel, he asked, “Then why do we gather here at the Kotel, at the ruins of the First and Second Temples?” After some thought I offered, “It’s like visiting the grave of a loved one that has passed. We don’t bring flowers and weep over a tombstone in hope that the deceased will come back to life. We go to remember, to mourn. To try to find closeness to that which has been lost.”

When we break a bone or tear open our skin, we are left with scars, some that we will see for the rest of our lives. Yet these scars are often far less painful than the unseen lacerations we carry within. We’ve all had destructions in our lives, things that have quite literally shattered us. Regardless of why and how we’ve been shattered, these destructions are a part of our history. To let them go unacknowledged diminishes the power of our resiliency. That is to say, I believe that we are stronger and more resilient for our tragedies than for our triumphs.

Suffering is not a concept that I often indulge in. I’ve always had a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel kind of attitude, and not a sit-in-the-tunnel-and-throw-a-party-for-the-darkness kind of attitude. But this is a holiday that encourages us to stay in the darkness, to remember our destructions. As we sat on the stones that line the Kotel Plaza, my invisible scars came to light—images of heartbreak, loss, personal exile, and true devastation. As the tears fell down my face, I mourned. I grieved for the broken pieces of my past and faced the scars that they’ve left. Faced with these scars, I found tremendous faith, faith in the resiliency of the human spirit. With time and with love we heal. Our scars can serve as a poetic reminder of all that we’ve overcome.

On Tisha B’Av we come to the Kotel, a living wound of our broken past, and we mourn. On this day, acknowledging our scars is a way of owning them. We return to the destroyed temple to grieve our losses and hopefully to understand our resiliency, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.

The Talmud teaches that the theological reason for the destruction of the Temple was senseless hatred.

We were sitting in the Kotel Plaza having this emotional conversation about Tisha B’Av. Leah put her head on my shoulder, and I put my arm around her back. A few seconds later, an older man walked up to us with an angry look on his face. (It’s forbidden to engage in romance on Tisha B’Av.) He motioned at us, shooing us away from each other, telling us in Hebrew that we shouldn’t be hugging. “We’re comforting each other,” I said in English. He moved closer and continued to scold us. I tried to tell him to leave us alone, but he grew more enraged. Not wanting to make a scene, we got up, grabbed each other by the hand, and left the Plaza.

What if we had been two men or two women comforting each other? Would this have been forbidden?

We went to the Kotel seeking an honest and nuanced connection with this challenging holiday. We sat and discussed and grew and remembered. And then, with the simple flick of a hand, our connection was destroyed.

We came to the Kotel to mourn. We left with a new scar.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

How Do You Spell the Word "Yarmulke"?

This post is by Daniel

On the first day of rabbinical school, I started wearing a kippah. Having grown up at Jewish summer camp, the tradition of wearing a yarmulke always felt a bit formal. While working at Hillel, I would wear a kippah for Shabbat services, but would usually take it off for dinner. It just seemed like another article of clothing to have to straighten.

During HUC orientation, we listened to a talk from the VP of Academic Affairs, Dr. Michael Marmur. He spoke about his difficulty answering students when they ask: “Will we be expected to know (blank)? Will there be a test on (blank)?” As future leaders of the Jewish people, he says, we will be expected to know just about everything. We’re taking on the responsibility of bearing a 3,000-year-old heritage. It is important for us to realize, Dr. Marmur notes, that there is no way a five-year program could ever teach us the entirety of Jewish tradition. For exactly this reason, we can never take off our Judaism. That is to say, we can’t live a life divided between what we need to know and what we don’t.

HUC asks us to come to Shabbat services at the College a certain number of times throughout the year. That doesn’t mean that during the other weeks, we have Shabbat off. It isn’t as if the College has a certain quota of Shabbat services they expect us to fill. Rather, there’s a certain life they hope we’ll choose to live. Dr. Marmur wants each of us not to be a “bifurcated person”—a person who is divided. As Jewish leaders living Jewish lives, we must strive to be a whole person—to be as wholly ourselves as we can be in all situations.

It’s a natural tendency to for a person to act one way in certain groups and act another way in other groups. For example, when spending time with family, I have a tendency to revert to old behavior patterns, based on historical family roles. I become the youngest child again, the baby, quietly watching the action unfold around me, often irritable when I don’t get my way. When I act this way, I usually regret it and wish instead that I could at all times be “my best me.” I’m working hard on this balance.

For this reason, I really connected with Dr. Marmur’s words. I came home that afternoon and told Leah I was thinking about starting to wear a kippah full time. A couple days later, I was talking with a classmate who wears a kippah and mentioned I was thinking of starting. The next day, we passed each other on the way to class. He stopped me, reached in his pocket and pulled out a kippah. “I thought you might want to have this.” That was the start.

I have a dark-colored kippah for everyday use and a white one for Shabbat, holidays, and special occasions. I wear the dark one so as not to attract unwanted attention. In Israel, a kippah is often a religious or political statement. Various groups wear their kippot in different positions, colors, and sizes. (For more on this topic, see the film The Transparent Kippah.) In some neighborhoods and on some occasions, I choose not to wear one at all. I'm not wearing a kippah to make a statement. I'm wearing it for me.

I recognize what a growth opportunity this year in Israel and this rabbinical training represents. The way I see it, I can sit back, take everything in, and let the change happen to me. Or I can reach out and grab it, embrace the change.

Several folks have asked if I plan to keep wearing it when I get back to the States. As of now, I don’t know. Other folks have asked me how it’s going so far. It has its ups and downs. Unsurprisingly, putting on a kippah didn’t suddenly make me self-actualized. It does, however, serve as reminder to strive to be my best me, while at home and while away, when I lie down and when I rise up.