Tag Archives: Jewish community

Not My Father’s Jewish Museum

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

 

I am not prepared for the profusion

of colors and thought that are persuasive

here in the Jewish Museum of New York,

expecting gray shadows of smoke rising,

of twisted corpses and mournful dirges.

Look! There is a hanging chandelier

blinking on and off at irregular times,

as if one language doesn’t work,

another will, in this case in Morse Code.

All languages, sadly, are an approximation

of the truth, an attempt to get to the core

of what it means to be Jewish.

I am unsure of what that is,

in any language, art, script, whatever.

I see artists trying to answer that very same question

in forms more varied than my own imagination.

The medium differs, the search continues.

Imagine a room full of stuffed animals – a Bear-mitzvah!

I may not know exactly who I am,

but the comfort here in this museum

reminds me I am not alone in my quest.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Filed under American Jewry, Brooklyn Jews, Jewish identity, Judaism, poetry

Building Community with Soul

by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

I can no longer live a meaningful life without my Jewish community. My teenage son calls it an addiction. But my love for my community does not stem from mere habit, nor am I guided by compulsive need or blind infatuation. On the contrary, it has taken years of soul searching and trial and error to find the appropriate community where my family has been able to take root, grow and contribute.

Since ancient times, philosophers like Aristotle (Politics, 1.1253a) and more recently, Spinoza (Ethics, IV, prop 35) have argued that we are social animals. As Rabbi Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:14) In other words, “All Israel are responsible for one another” (Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 39A, Sifra Bechukotai 7:5).

The Talmud actually defined the type of society where scholars were allowed to live: The chosen city had to include a beit din (law court), an honest charity fund, a synagogue, public baths and toilet facilities, a mohel (circumciser) and a surgeon, a notary, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and a teacher (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17b). As Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, has explained, “in order to be a suitable place to live, a community must provide for all its members’ spiritual and physical needs” (www.myjewishlearning.com).

Yet, it was not until my own father’s death ten years ago that my longing for such community became so urgent. I had once asked him whether he would wish to be buried in the same cemetery as his parents and extended family in Toronto, Canada. “We should be buried within the community where we live,” was my father’s reply. By that time, he had been residing in Melbourne, Australia, for more than 30 years.

He was espousing the teachings of both Rabbis Hillel and Tzaddok, who urged us not to separate ourselves from the community (Ethics of the Fathers 2:5, 4:7). Indeed, Judaism teaches that those who are not prepared to feel their community’s pain and help out when the going gets tough, will not enjoy comfort in the good times either. As the Talmud warns, “The man who secludes himself from the community, which is in distress, shall not see the prosperity of the community” (Ta’anit, chapter 1).

A midrash goes even further, maintaining that removing yourself from the community is like overthrowing the world. It tells the story of the dying Rabbi Assi, who was depressed because although he had been a great scholar and kind and generous man, he had not been involved in communal matters or disputes. As he told his nephew, “I might perhaps have been able to render some service, had I not kept to myself but taken upon me the burden of communal affairs” (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2).

When my father died, I did not know where to turn. Although we had belonged to various Orthodox synagogues in the past, my husband and I had not been able to find a spiritual home since moving to a new city some years earlier. As a result, we had flitted from one synagogue to the next, sampling a different one on each Jewish holiday but not feeling “at home” in any of them.

Nevertheless, I was touched when one of the rabbis, whom I had met in the course of my search, rang several times to see how I was faring. When upon my father’s first yahrzeit (anniversary after death), the same rabbi offered me his synagogue for a memorial service, we finally made up our minds to join his congregation – after such generosity on his part, we believed it was the least we could do.

That sense of welcome, warmth and support through both tough and good times remain major factors in why we renew our membership each year. Judaism ensures that mourners do not grieve alone, stipulating that Kaddish, the prayer for the dead in which God’s name is sanctified, only be recited publicly in the presence of a minyan (ten Jewish adults – the minimum number required for community). Celebrations also become more meaningful when enjoyed together in community.

As our sons have grown older and undertaken preparation for their Bar Mitzvah, our family has come to attend synagogue every Shabbat. Our shule of choice is Conservative (Masorti): Integrating tradition with modernity, it allows us to sit together as a family instead of banishing me behind a mechitza (partition to separate men and women).

This egalitarian ethos is particularly important to me as I do not have any daughters and would otherwise be sitting apart from my husband and sons. Nevertheless, it was several years before I felt comfortable being counted in a minyan and agreed to be called up to the Torah. Not that there was ever any pressure on me to do so – our synagogue accepts a certain variety of Jewish practice.

It also gives us the freedom to question and acknowledges our right to consider different interpretations and viewpoints. As Robert Gordis, chairman of the Commission on the Philosophy of Conservative Judaism, has explained: “Pluralism is a characteristic not only of Judaism as a whole, but of every Jewish school of thought that is nurtured by the spirit of freedom” (JTS: Emet Ve’Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, 1988, Introduction p14).

In addition to my synagogue, the Jewish day school my children attend is another pillar of my community. Pluralistic and egalitarian too, it welcomes students of all backgrounds, who come together in mutual respect and are encouraged to work for tikkun olam, making the world a better place. So committed have I become to this philosophy that I decided to volunteer for the School Board when my oldest son was in first grade and have remained actively involved ever since.

According to Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi, “Those who work for the community should do so for the sake of heaven” (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:2). In other words, the early rabbis were urging us to be ethical when we undertake communal work. As Rabbi Yehudah Prero explains, “We must act with pure intentions, with no ulterior motives” (“Community – Then, Now, and Forever, www.torah.org/learning/yomtov/holocaust/no3.html).

Humility is also an important factor: The Talmud not only regards leaders as the “servants” of the community (Horayot 10a), but also stresses that they should always carry “a basket of reptiles” on their back so that if they “became arrogant”, they could be told to “Turn around!” (Yoma 22b). In other words, never forget that family skeleton hidden in your closet!

Recognizing the frailties of human nature, the ancient rabbis resorted to divine reward and punishment as a means of encouraging ethical communal leadership: those who cause others to do wrong will not be “given the opportunity to repent”, while those who lead others to do good will be credited with their community’s merit (Ethics of Our Fathers, 5:18).

Sure, as Rabbi Yitzchak Blau has pointed out, the rabbis did not think it fair that communal leaders should enjoy heaven while their followers rotted in hell, but is there really no hope of redemption for those who lead others down the wrong path? Here scholars disagreed, with some arguing that while God would not help the wrongdoers, they were still free to repent on their own. In contrast, the medieval scholar and physician Moses Maimonides is much more damning in his assessment: for him, there is truly no hope of salvation for such wicked leaders (Hilchot Teshuva 4:1, http://blog.webyeshiva.org/teshuva/inights-in-pirkei-avot-the-implications-of-causing-others-to-sin).

Admittedly, such threats have little effect in this day and age when many of us don’t even know whether we believe in God. Nevertheless, it is still possible to contribute altruistically to and derive meaning from community based on religious civilization. Conservative (Masorti) Judaism recognizes this position as valid: “One can live fully and authentically as a Jew without having a single satisfactory answer to such doubts; one cannot, however, live a thoughtful Jewish life without having asked the questions” (Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, p17).

My oldest son has commented that without faith, a prayer service is just “a group of strangers singing together”. Yet, I have certainly discovered a sense of inner peace, spiritual uplift and intellectual stimulation through regular attendance at synagogue services and communal celebrations like the Pesach Seder.

To quote the writer Alain de Botton: The “relevance” of such religions as Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism “to the problems of community are arguably never greater than when they … remind us that there is also value to be had in standing in a hall with a hundred acquaintances and singing a hymn together … or in sitting at a table with neighbors and partaking of lamb stew and conversation, the kinds of rituals which, as much as the deliberations inside parliaments and law courts, are what help to hold our fractious and fragile societies together” (2012, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, London: Penguin Books, p50).

De Botton – who was born Jewish but describes himself as a committed atheist – argues for the removal of religion’s “supernatural structure” before it can help solve “many of the problems of the modern soul” (pp311-312).

My soul, however, does not need to be quarantined from the full gamut of my religion in order to thrive. Indeed, I am quite happy to keep on exploring the laws and customs of my heritage and culture, practicing rituals and contemplating ideas from within Judaism. All I need is my community.

Shira Sebban, a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, worked as a journalist for the Australian Jewish News. She previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She also serves as vice-president on the board of  Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. You can read more of her work at: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/category/australian-jewry/ http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13636  and at http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/

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The Warmth of a Familiar Blanket

By Linda K. Wertheimer (Lexington, MA)

Ambivalent Jew. That was me through childhood. I knew very few Jews. For the latter half of my childhood, we were among just a handful of Jews in our small Ohio town. Sunday school was a drag. It was decidedly not hip to be anything but Christian where I lived. I had no desire to switch religions, but I was very unsure about my faith and what it meant to be Jewish. I hunted for answers by burying myself in books about Jews. Through reading, I often found what I lacked – a community of Jews.

Now, I am confident with my Jewish self. I celebrated my adult bat mitzvah in 2006 at age 41 and still can feel the shivers that traveled down my spine as I chanted from the Torah. I have found my rhythm and place as a Jew. I still can immerse myself in a Jewish-themed book and experience an invaluable treasure.

In my teen years, Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, and Golda Meir’s My Life provided very different pictures of Jews. Marjorie Morningstar, a teenager in the 1930s, is a part of an American family of Eastern European immigrants living free of persecution in an area where it is normal — and largely accepted — to be Jewish. They do what I never experienced in childhood: have Sabbath dinners every Friday with chicken soup, and pot roast, with the blessings over the wine and the Challah. They are steeped in tradition, even as Marjorie seems intent on assimilation and only attends temple (her father bemoans) for dances. Marjorie, who uses Marjorie Morningstar rather than Morganstern as her stage name, is a glamorous substitute for the Jewish girls I rarely encountered during my teens. She is beautiful and mostly graceful, though at times she seems shallow as she flits about New York City with friends and beaus. She matures as the world becomes darker, and the Nazis come to power in Germany. She volunteers with a Jewish refugee-aid committee. She marries and returns to the traditions of her faith. I was mesmerized by her, a person unlike any I had ever known.

Golda Meir, Israeli’s prime minister from 1969 to 1974, was born in Russia, and the pogroms drove her family away to America when Golda was very young. She could have been one of my great-grandparents, fleeing as a young child to America. The first page of her autobiography shook me to the core as she recalled how she felt as she watched her father and a neighbor barricade their home with wooden boards to thwart an expected pogrom.

Wrote Meir, “And, above all, I remember being aware that this was happening to me because I was Jewish, which made me different from most of the other children in the yard. It was a feeling that I was to know again many times during my life – the fear, the frustration, the consciousness of being different and the profound instinctive belief that if one wanted to survive, one had to take effective action personally.” She described exactly how I felt at times when I was tired of being one of the only Jews in my public school and neighborhood. Reading her story also gave me a Jewish female hero to admire.

Recently, once again hungry for Jewish literature, I read The Tenth Song, the newest novel by Israeli author Naomi Ragen. The story is a more modern tale than most of her other novels. It chronicles a present-day American Jewish family whose leader, an accountant, is accused of a horrible crime – helping to funnel money to terrorists. The novel at times resembles a high-class soap opera as Ragen shows us the ripple effect of the father’s supposed misdeed on his wife, daughter, and even his shul. For three evenings, I stayed up late turning page after page, drawn to this community of eclectic characters, some likable and some despicable for their apparent love of material wealth. The story has several twists as the man’s wife and daughter evolve into more soulful human beings.

Like the books I found in my youth, The Tenth Song put me in the middle of a Jewish community. It showed me once again just how diverse Jews are. Unlike during childhood, I did not struggle to understand some of the Jewish religious and cultural references. I realized I was no longer looking for answers about Judaism. Now, I was enjoying the warmth of a familiar blanket.

Linda K. Wertheimer, a veteran journalist, is writing a memoir about how her journey through grief after the loss of her brother led her deeper into Judaism. She left her most recent full-time post – education editor and staff writer at The Boston Globe – to pursue writing her book and spend more time with her toddler.

“The Warmth of a Familiar Blanket” first appeared with a different title, “Books Create My First Jewish Community,” on the author’s blog, Jewish Muse, A Writer’s Blog on Faith and Family, and is reprinted with permission of the author. Her blog and website are at http://lindakwertheimer.com.

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Finding My Place

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Standing outside the temple,
I hesitated at the door, deciding
whether I would enter for the High Holidays.
“You speakin’ to me?” I asked when
I thought I heard Him inside my head,
beckoning me to come in and pray.
I was reluctant to go inside.
Honestly, I’m just not that comfortable
with the old men chanting in indecipherable tongues,
with standing up, sitting down, repeated too many times.
But then the thought came to me, (through Him?)
religion is not a matter of comfort, but gratitude.
I thought of not being pressed into a cattle car,
thought of living three score and more,
thought of having two fine sons,
and finally, of being, at least tangentially
a part of a 5,000 year old legacy, reasons enough
to rethink a few procedural questions.
“Well,” He said, “coming in?”
“Yes,” I said, firmly, walking in, finding my place.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

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As the sequoias

by Chaviva Edwards (Storrs, CT)

The first time I went to a Conservative synagogue, I was told by a friend that when the mourner’s kaddish is recited, to stay seated unless I actually am in mourning for a lost loved one. I sat there as a few of the 20 or so people there stood up on old, worn ankles, tired hips mustering the strength to stand tall in the sanctuary while reciting the prayer that does not once mention death. I mouthed the words to myself, because it was what I knew — when reciting kaddish, the congregation stood together with those mourning, each holding each other up. This is an across-the-board kind of thing, though it varies from shul to shul. I can confidently say that most Conservative/Orthodox shuls are the kind of places where only the mourners will stand.

But last night at Erev Rosh Hashanah services, the rabbi gave probably the most poignant explanation for why all congregants should stand during the kaddish. He told the congregation about an article he had read about the seqouias — the tall trees that grow thin and high. The roots of these trees are pretty much at surface level, that is, they do not grow very far below the immediate surface. So how do these trees stand so very tall when threatened to be blown over by the smallest breeze? The roots are intertwined across entire forest areas. The roots lace together, creating a strong, solid structure, a base of root upon root that allows each tree to hold his neighbor up, and in turn, to hold up the entire collection of sequoias. Without one, they all would falter.

How appropriate is this? How beautiful an analogy for why a congregation should stand, arms intertwined and souls laced together tightly in a sanctuary space with those mourning and those not mourning, simply to support one another in a time of extreme sadness? Like the sequoias, Jews, too, should interlace themselves, standing tall and help one another brave the wind that blows soft, then hard, across our cheeks.

Chaviva Edwards, currently residing in Storrs, Connecticut, is in her second year of the master’s program in Judaic studies at the University of Connecticut. In her past life, Chaviva was a copy editor for such publications as The Denver Post, The Daily Nebraskan, and The Washington Post. Alongside her master’s work, she is rekindling her insatiable desire to edit through special projects involving Judaism and Jewish topics. She is an avid photographer, devotee of her many blogs, and a Web 2.0 connoisseur.

You can find more of her work at www.kvetchingeditor.com, chaviva.yelp.com, www.twitter.com/kvetchingeditor, and flickr.com/photos/kvetchingeditor

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