Celebrating the High Holy Days … while entirely missing the point

Sigh … sometimes (lots of the time?) I miss my own point. It takes me a while to get to my a-Ha(!) moment. In this case, having written one very long blog post, I still missed the point. I wrote an entire post about having trouble getting out of bed pre-High Holy Days and it didn’t occur to me until DAYS later that the shofar is our annual alarm clock. Bed … alarm clock … how did I miss this very obvious connection?!

I am thankful that for the grace shown to us during the Yamim Noraim. Every wrong can be made right. Rosh Hashanah signifies not just the beginning of a new year, but a new world where everything can be made right and new.

I hope these days of repentance have been meaningful for you and may we all have an easy fast!


Celebrating the High Holy Days … when you can barely get out of bed

My life looks a lot different now than it did at the time of my last in July. My husband and I moved to a different town in a different state so that he could make a big career change. So I am no longer working for Jewish organization where I have worked the past 3 years.

I left the organization exactly one month before the start of the High Holy Days. When I left, I quietly thanked G-d that I wouldn’t have to administrate another year’s holidays. For the past three years, holidays and Holy Days have been work. For me it was holy work, but it certainly wasn’t a holiday. Last year was the first year of my adult life that I didn’t truly fast on Yom Kippur. I could not have gotten through the work that I had to do if I had fasted. Those were busy and exhausting times during which I contemplating quitting my job roughly 47 times a day. It’s a lot of pressure to be in charge of other people’s High Holy Days experience.

This year, I thought I was being handed a great gift in that I am only responsible for my own High Holy Days experience. It turns out, this is even harder to manage. The pressure is on. Because no one can put pressure on me as effectively and deftly as I can. In short, I’m a good Jewish woman.

My husband recently went through a solid 24 hour period where he second-guessed his decision to move our family for this career change. We learned some pretty disappointing news and it sent us both into a bit of a funk. We talked about it and I admitted that I still feel the exhaustion of having moved to a new place. It’s been a month, but I still haven’t found a rhythm to life here. I like my life here. It’s a great town. I still believe that the changes we made are positive and will continue to be positive. But I still haven’t figured out the little things in life that you have to figure out anew when you’ve moved to a new place. I have to learn how to feed us without easy access to Trader Joes (90% of the food we bought came from Trader Joes). I’m thrilled that I have more time to cook food from scratch for us, but without my trusty grocery store and good stand-bys, we either eat 3 course meals that took me hours to prepare or we eat cereal. There is no in-between for us yet. We are driving more than we like because sometimes we misread the bus schedule and I have to drive my husband to work. I am working from home and … I don’t know what that means, yet. Who am I when I work at home? What is my purpose in a day. What motivates me to get dressed on days when I don’t leave the house? What does it mean that there are days that I don’t leave the house?

I’m not depressed. Life is good. But facing the new-ness in every day is exhausting. And then we got that disappointing news and, OK, I got a little depressed. And husband spent 24 hours second-guessing the changes we’ve made. And I spent almost 24 solid hours in bed.

Here’s the thing about bed in this modern era. You can do a lot from your bed. I worked. I responded to emails. I talked with people. I read books. I watched a little bit of television. It wasn’t like I spent 24 hours starring at the ceiling. I did, however, spend most of the day in bed. Which brings me to my dilemma. You can’t celebrate the High Holy Days from bed. With laptops and cell phones, you can accomplish a lot from bed, but not a lot of celebrating can happen.

You can’t bake round challah in bed. You can’t braise brisket from bed. You can’t get ready to head to synagogue in bed. You can’t attend services from bed (OK, maybe there are services available to stream online, but I am unfamiliar with this, so my premise stands). You probably shouldn’t eat apples and honey in bed, because the honey gets messy. So I guess I have to get out of bed, right?

While the community of Jews whom I love most in the world (they also happen to be the community of Jews who frustrate me most in the world) prepares for Erev Rosh Hashanah, I am preparing to attend services at a building I’ve never been to and with people that I’ve never met. It’s been a long time since I’ve sat in a service with nothing to do, but listen and pray. Here is a humbling thing for me to admit: After three years of kvetching that I never got to just sit and enjoy a service, here I am with the opportunity to just sit and enjoy a service and I am truly lamenting that there isn’t a task for me to perform at the service. When I have a job or task to do, I know where I fit into a community. Without a task, I perhaps feels like I DON’T fit into a community (OK, I definitely feel that way). I’m like a little kid trying to get out of going to school on the first day. I know I’m going to end up going, but I still have this image of my husband dragging me out of here, my fingernails clutching the door frame, while I yell “Don’t make me go!!!”

These are the Days of Awe. On a whim, I looked up the Merriam-Webster definition of awe. Awe : an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred. Sigh. Yep, that sounds about right.

So this morning, really unsure of how to motivate myself, I put on the Maccabeats. I feel like my neighbors might notice if I just listen to Book of Good Life on repeat, so I’ve also been listening to Aleinu, Oseh Shalom, and Adon Olam, you know, just to mix things up.

The lyrics to “Book of Good Life”:

Woke up and realized yesterday
Think it’s a bummer end of the summer
Kinda nervous that we’re almost there
At the days of awe

Prayers in a language that I don’t know
Standing for hours and hours more
I wish that someone would please tell me-e-e-e
What it is we’re praying for

Oh put me in the book of good life
I just wanna live the good life
This could really be a good life, good life

Say oh, we’ve got feelings that we should fight
Make sure that we’re choosing right
Gotta earn my own place in
The book of good life

Time for reflection on the past year
Time to figure out what we’re doing here
Replace the guilt with inspiration
And everything is clear

Life in the present, the here and now
Easier than regret and planning out
Living in the moment, lasts for a moment
Got my future to think about

When you’re sitting there in shul
Wishing it was over
You gotta take a beat
And let it all sink in

Oh put me in the book of good life
I just wanna live the good life
This could really be a good life, good life

Say oh, we’ve got feelings that we should fight
Make sure that we’re choosing right
Gotta earn my own place in
The book of good life

This year will bring us happiness and peace
Sensitivity to others will increase
We’ll open our eyes and think more consciously
Cause Hopefully
We’ll go from where we are to where we want to be

Oh put me in the book of good life
I just wanna live the good life
This could really be a good life, good life

Say oh, we’ve got feelings that we should fight
Make sure that we’re choosing right
Gotta earn my own place in
The book of good life

Oh yeah
Book of Good life

Time for reflection on the past year
Time to figure out what we’re doing here
Replace the guilt with inspiration
And everything is clear

Life in the present seems more fun
Easier than regret, what’s done is done
Living in the moment, lasts for a moment
Shanah Tovah to everyone

This year what sticks out to me most as I listen to the song is “Hopefully.” I may not be full of energy and I may not be full of motivation, but I am full of hope. We moved here, left the town where I’d lived for a decade and our frustrating/dear community of crazy/wonderful Jews, because of hope. We’ve pinned a lot of our hopes on the year ahead of us … no pressure or anything. However, I refuse to be ruled by fear at this time of year. Exhaustion is not the antithesis of this time of year, but fear is. We are meant to ask forgiveness without fear, offer forgiveness without fear, and hope without fear. So hope is what gets my tuchus out of bed and into a synagogue full of strangers, who, duh(!), won’t always be strangers. My heart will be open, because hope allows it to open easily.

I am excited to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar. I am excited that we already know of a pond nearby where ducks gather (for Tashlikh). I am excited to dip apples in honey, while hoping for a sweet new year. I am even, or especially, excited for transformation of teshuvah

And so, after a process that took me a few days, I finally am able to echo “The Book of Good Life” and wish a “Shanah Tovah to everyone!” I hope that 5774 is kind to you and may you be inscribed in the book of life.

PS. The Maccabeats cover of “Brave” is also pretty wonderful. As is Sara Bareilles’ original video. Definitely another song in the spirit of being full of hope for 5774.

Tikkun Olam Tuesday: The Purity Myth

I have already mentioned my love for Rachel Held Evans’ blog, but I have specifically been enthralled by her year-long series about Sexuality and The Church. Many of the books on the reading list for this series didn’t seem like a good fit for me – I would get too frustrated reading them, too focused on hermeneutics, or I feared that they would make me cry. However, Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth seemed right up my alley. Just the kind of thing that this one-time Cultural Studies major would love.

Having finished The Purity Myth, I am beyond frustrated and not sure what I think exactly. I am particularly confused because I expected to fully support her argument/writing from beginning to end. I was cheering Jessica on through all of Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, but hit a wall in Chapter 3.

I love where Jessica began. What I kept thinking as I read the beginning of her argument was that she makes such a good point – counter-culture is just the other side of the same coin that is mainstream culture. You can’t shift paradigms with a counter-culture; large shifts can only be made when one thinks out of the box. If there is mainstream culture and counter-culture, what is most compelling is to think about the 3rd option. This is where I thought she was heading.

But then Jessica got really bogged down in telling the reader not only what Conservative Christianity is doing to set women back a century, but also what their “true intentions” are. It is her value judgments about what Conservative Christian writers/churches/etc “really believe” that I found difficult to wade through.

There were glimmers of what I was hoping she would say and the arguments I was hoping she would make. In Chapter 3 “Forever Young,” p.62-63, Jessica writes

“Bratz dolls, provocative Halloween costumes, and panty-less pop singers dominate public discourse and outrage, while even more obvious (and, arguably, more dangerous) sexualization of girls – like trafficking, rape, and child pornography – isn’t given nearly the same amount of attention. It’s no coincidence that these more serious issues are ones that overwhelmingly affect low-income girls, girls of color, and young women who don’t match the American virginal ideal.”

I was really hoping that she would discuss human trafficking, rape, and the plight of women outside of the United States in more detail. It’s like the story Rachel Held Evans wrote about Zarmina; her experience impacted how Rachel felt about your own experience as a Christian and a woman. What do the stories of women elsewhere in the world tell us (women of any faith or religion) about how we should treat women in the United States? And is the way we treat women in the United States complicit somehow in the way women are treated around the world? If we, in “developed nations,” reduce women to their sexuality, do we and can we have any authority to protect women in the rest of the word from being reduced to their sexuality and suffering because of it? Which is to say nothing about violence against women in these “developed nations.” I kept waiting for her to go in that direction, but instead she spent the bulk of Chapter 3 telling me what was “really going on” at Purity Dances.

Jessica actually echoed the frustration that I was feeling in a footnote in Chapter 3, on page 67,

“When I first came across purity balls, I wondered if my feminism had jaded me too much. Maybe they were just daddy/daughter dances that I was imbuing with sexual meaning. So I showed my father some video footage of a purity ball and asked what he thought. The color drained from his face and he said, ‘Jessica, that’s truly fucking weird.'”

Sigh… perhaps her father wasn’t the best audience for that question? I don’t know.

I can’t speak about Purity Dances with any authority, so while I may think they are ‘weird,’ I can’t speak to what is “really going on” within that particular area of Purity Culture. And, problematically, I just didn’t feel like I could trust that Jessica had any more authority to evaluate Purity Dances than I did. I am so frustrated by my lack of reliable primary sources on this topic. The only place I could think to come from was to compare a Purity Dance to a Bat Mitzvah. While the Bat Mitzvah as an institution is fraught with its own complicated pitfalls – particularly as it relates to the potential cost of the event – as a rite of passage I think it’s focus is good. The process of becoming Bat Mitzvah focuses not only on Biblical education, but also on ownership of one’s own Judaism. There is actually a prayer that the parents say during a Bat Mitzvah, abdicating all responsibility for the child’s ritual life from that day forth. This, when done correctly, is empowering and seems like a much better model for our daughter’s stepping into religious life as young women. However, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to write off any Father-Daughter dance as all-bad. In fact, while I was reading this chapter, Sarah Bessey wrote beautifully about her father taking her daughter to a dance. It would seem that from Jessica Valenti’s writing in this chapter, that she would see no value in any (Grand)Father-Daughter dances. It seems to me that Jessica’s focus, while not entirely wrong, is at least slightly off.

I kept reading the book, rushing through it in fact, hoping that she would revisit the groundwork that she laid down in the first two chapters. And she did at the very end of the book, but only in a footnote! Here is what I was hoping she would say the whole time, but she hid it in a footnote! In Chapter 10, “Post-Virgin World,” on p. 213, Jessica says

“For the record: I think virginity is fine, just as I think having sex is fine. I don’t really care what women do sexually, and neither should you. In fact, that’s the point. I believe that young woman’s decision to have sex, or not, shouldn’t impact how she’s seen as a moral actor.”


(In all fairness to Jessica, this message echoes throughout the book, but I felt like she consistently buried it, devoting only a sentence here or there to this idea. Like in Chapter 4, “The Porn Connection,” on p. 96, when she said “the thing is, naked women aren’t the problem – a woman believing her only value is sexual is what’s dangerous.” Yes, Jessica, Yes! I so wanted her to say more about this. And I just felt like she didn’t.)

I truly felt like this was the message of the book, but it got so lost in her condemnation of Conservative Christian women writers. And yet, I didn’t feel like Jessica offered a flushed out model to replace the specific Conservative Christian model that she spent so much time condemning In Chapter 5, “Classroom Chastity,” on p. 120,

“I believe it’s time to take a stance on sex education that isn’t so passive – young people deserve accurate and comprehensive sex education not just because they’re going to have sex, but because there’s nothing wrong with having sex. Allowing educators to equate sexuality with shame and disease is not the way to go; we are doing our children a great disservice. Not only are we lying to them, we’re also robbing them of the joy that a healthy sex life (as a teenager or in adulthood) can provide.”

So I’m left wanting more from Jessica. In Chapter 10, Jessica discusses ways for women to get involved in pro-women causes and conversations, but I wanted more. How do we teach young women that they are so much more than their sexuality, while also answering the question of what they should “do with” their sexuality? Can a teenager even have a healthy sex life? She puts that claim out there, but where is the evidence to back that up? Just because I don’t believe that teenage or pre-marital sex condemns a woman to a life of poverty/shame/disease, does that mean that necessarily it follows that teenage or pre-marital sex is necessarily healthy and joyful?

I also wish that Jessica had handled with more care the Conservative Christian women writers with whom she disagrees. How do we find a way to support women whose view of sexuality and gender roles is so radically different from our own? Are we really pro-women if we can’t find a way to respect those women who disagree with us? As I have been reading recent news stories about the Women of the Wall and I pray that they will be safe, I can’t stop thinking about how hard it is to be a woman. It should always be safe to be a woman when you are with other women, right? Can’t we at least start there?

Do we *have* to fight about the High Holy Days?

It was a long morning.

We have a committee in charge of the High Holy Days and this morning I became aware of the first fight they were having amongst themselves and with members of the Board. It’s hard working for a Jewish organization during the High Holy Days. It should be wonderful, but instead it’s just really, really hard. I thought I would have more of the Spring and Summer free of this fighting, but it’s already begun.

What do we fight about? We fight about: (to name a few) ritual and schedules and timing and announcements and typos and any and every imperfection (real or imagined). We fight about whether we are committed enough, welcoming enough, participating enough, and doing enough. In an effort to recognize and observe the significance of the season, we are unkind or downright mean to one another and we inevitably strip the season of all its joy and awe.

And it’s so unnecessary. There has to be a better way, but – mere cog in the machine that I am – I don’t know how to get us there.

So I turned to my Google Reader for solace (seriously, what am I going to do when my Google Reader disappears in 12 days) and when I got to the end of this article about Jewish Life and Time Management from Kosher on a Budget:

Ask yourselves: What must I do, halachically? What do I want to do, personally? What’s important to my husband? My children? Me?

And – most importantly – What can I let go of?

And I almost shout out loud to my computer, “YES!!!” And in thinking of what can be let go, I am reminded of something I was told a long time ago. To THINK: Is it Thoughtful, Honest, Intelligent, Necessary, and Kind. And if it isn’t, let it go.

Shabbat in the Modern World

A while ago now, I saw this post on the Velveteen Rabbi’s blog, titled Shabbat in the Modern World. My heart lept into my throat when I saw the blog title pop up on my Google Reader. How to observe Shabbat in the Modern World is a not-uncommon topic amongst my friends.

Velveteen Rabbi was not writing about the challenge of observing Shabbat in a modern world. Instead, she was writing about the gift of being able to celebrate Shabbat with her parents utilizing modern technology, specifically Sykpe. Her words were really touching, but not was I was expecting based on my own baggage with the topic.

So now, here I am, writing about the challenge of observing Shabbat in the modern world. For one, I live in a town that isn’t friendly to cyclists or walkers. In short, I have to drive everywhere. The only synagogue in town is several miles and a semi-major highway away from where I live, so I’m absolutely not walking to shul. Annnnnnnd … I work in a synagogue Sunday-Thursday. So it usually feels like work, not Shabbat to go back to shul on Friday night or Saturday morning for services. I could serve a traditional Shabbos dinner, but I always forget to bake challah until the absolute last minute (and, unfortunately, bread isn’t really something you can make at the last minute).

I do feel like, despite all of my excuses, I still have a desire to observe the Sabbath in some capacity, so I should do something. I should start somewhere. But where?!

For me, I touched on the answer of where I should start when I was reading 30 Ways to Make Yourself Happier This Shabbat on Kveller. I thought it was a good list full of good places to start. But 3 days later, only one of the suggestions comes to mind when I think of the article and the list.

#2 – Light candles on Friday night.

It just clicked in my head this morning. For me, this is the perfect, logical place to start. Just light the candles. Usher in the Sabbath. Jews light the candles at the beginning of Shabbat. In other words, it forces me to STOP. It forces me to stop and acknowledge that it is, in fact, Shabbat! No longer will my head hit the pillow with regret as I acknowledge that I “forgot” to do anything to observe Shabbat. Once I’ve lit the candles, they are lit and I can’t go anywhere. My mother taught me better than to leave the house with a candle burning. And once I’m home with my family, candles lit, then I have the chance to make the most of the Sabbath. I still don’t think that observing Shabbat in the Modern world is intuitive or easy. But now I know where I want to start.

Thankful Thursday: Random Acts of Kindness

It feels like we’ve been living in a season of National tragedies – Hurricane Sandy, the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, and the Boston Marathon bombing, just to name a few. I have been experiencing and contemplating tragedy fatigue.

Then this morning, I read this – let’s face it – completely wonderful story about a cat who found it’s way back home 6 months after it disappeared during Hurricane Sandy. And while the story warms my heart and reminds me of Homeward Bound and all sorts of wonderful things, it was this part of the story that stood out most:

Fortunately Porsche appears to be in good shape, indicating people had likely been kind to him and fed him along the way.

With all the tragedy in the world, somehow little Porsche found strangers to take care of him and feed him on his difficult path home. What a mitzvah! There is untold power in the truly random act of kindness. Mitzvah literally means “commandment” and it is no wonder that G-d commanded us to do these mitzvot. We do not even know how far-reaching an impact we can have. And while there are countless stories about random acts of bravery and kindness in the midst of national tragedies, it’s the thought of Porsche’s nameless caretakers who I will keep in mind as we face future tragedies. It’s hard to face tragedy after tragedy and to still hold tight to goodness, but it what we are called to do.

Today, I’m thankful that Porsche made it home.

Rubbernecking or Tragedy Fatigue

Many years ago as a young college student I was kvetching with a professor about rubberneckers. If you’re not familiar with the concept, rubbernecking is the act of stopping – in the middle of rush hour traffic – to look at a nearby accident. Rubbernecking is responsible for many traffic jams. My point to this professor was that rubbernecking was an example of the worst part of our human nature, the base parts of our nature, a part of our nature that causes draws up toward the most macabre moment of other people’s lives. The professor made the point that, instead, rubbernecking actually proves our humanity. In her mind rubbernecking signified our inability to witness other people’s tragedies and simply look away. How could a decent person look at an accident and not want to know more, not want to look further?

I have been contemplating her words for the better part of a decade. I have had many an opportunity, sitting in a traffic jam caused by rubbernecking, to debate the source and value of our obsession with other people’s tragedies.

It was this idea – that our humanity calls us to witness and invest ourselves in other people’s tragedies – that spring to mind when I read this article honestly about Amanda Berry. I kept thinking about it until my husband turned to me last night and asked, with some sadness and tragedy-fatigue in his face, “Is this story going to be with us forever. Are we going to be talking about these girls forever?”

And by that time, I had my answer: Probably. Elizabeth Smart’s novel won’t be released for months and yet I’m already seeing article after article discussing it. Jaycee Dugard’s story has been referenced again and again in articles about the 3 Cleveland abductees. I would guess that the stories of the Cleveland women will be on our tongues for a long while.

So what is the implication of what Emily Bazelon calls “our morbid fascination”? And in the context of this blog, what does is mean for us as Jews? I have worked in many office environments and I can say with absolute certainty that the synagogue office takes the cake with regards to involvement in each other’s personal lives. News, whether it be good or bad, rides a fast horse around our small Jewish community. I suspect this does not make us unique amongst synagogues or even religious institutions as a whole. But still, it begs the question, what is the implication of this for our Jewish community? 

I see the ugly side with some frequency, when sharing becomes over-sharing and over-sharing becomes gossip. But mostly, I would like to believe my professor, that it’s the best of our nature that calls us to not simply witness each other’s tragedies, but to dwell within these difficult times. I suppose my opinion hinges on what follows. It is perhaps just as easy to see something horrible and to either tap the breaks to get a better look OR to press on the accelerator and speed away. The hard work comes later when we have to really be there for each other. It is, I think, how we help each other pick up the pieces following a tragedy that says the most about our humanity.