a thought

Just finished reading Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus, which made me think seriously about my love/hate relationship with spirituality. Here’s the part that stood out for me the most:

…to my surprise, I saw a thangka [a Tibetan devotional painting] depicting a dakini, or goddess, dancing next to a large Jewish star. In tantric Buddhism, the six-pointed star is a symbol of the cervix. This is a coincidence worth meditating on. In Judaism, the star is proudly displayed on the flag of Israel. It represents the magen david, the shield of King David. A shield is the outermost layer of protection, what one thrusts out to the world as a mark of identity and a sign of God’s protection. A cervix is in a sense an esoteric part of the body, hidden within, a mystery, the neck of the womb, the channel through which all life emerges. It is purely and uniquely feminine.

In part, this coincidence shows once again how Jewish and Tibetan culture have common historical influences. The six-pointed star originated in ancient Mesopotamia as a symbol of fertility. It did not become a specifically Jewish symbol until the late Middle Ages. The same symbol came into India with the Aryans, where it represented Shakti, the Mother. It entered Tibet along with the teachings of the Hindu tantric tradition.

Think about that next time you put on your necklace. It’s common for women to wear shields. What if it were as common for men to wear doors?

Some problems with naming

The term “Jewish feminism” specifically refers to feminism within Judaism – ie, making the religion and its practices more egalitarian. What about secular Jewish feminists? Jewish feminists who want their feminism to be within an ethnic Jewish framework, with a culturally Jewish support network? Jewish feminists whose hearts beat faster when the words women and radical and Judeo-Arabic/Ladino/Yiddish are all in the same sentence? What does such a feminism even look like in practice?

And if I light candles on Friday nights and, throughout the rest of the week, crave the calm that follows, am I still completely secular?


What’s the word for someone who believes that if the nation-state system is what we’re dealing with, then Jews have the right to an autonomous nation-state, and that it’s pretty noticeable when people seem the most eager to talk about questioning nation-states when the topic is the Jewish one – BUT that there’s no way to form an ethnicity/religion-based nation-state without displacing/oppressing another group of people, and doing so is contrary to doikayt anyway – BUT that since the Jewish state already exists, the question is moot, and now we should all just stop arguing and focus on equal rights for non-Jews in Israel and Palestine – BUT that it won’t be moot anymore if the non-Jewish population in Israel/Palestine continues to rise? As I’ve written before, I can put on Zionist, anti-Zionist, non-Zionist and post-Zionist caps within the course of a single thought, and remain solidly leftist all the while.


What do you call it when all your dreams center on women, but in waking life all you’re into is men? What do you call it when you perform pretty femme, and enjoy performing femme, but don’t often feel very femme? (“Poor body image,” maybe? How many of my issues are socially constructed, and how many just come from personal baggage? Almost every time I played pretend as a kid, I’d pretend to be a male character. In this video interview I chalked it up to a lack of good female characters in kids’ pop culture, and I think that’s true – but over the past couple of years, I’ve begun to suspect that there was more to it than that.)


Is the term “guerrilla gardener” offensive to actual guerrillas?


I personally identify as and feel white, but I hate it when people claim that Ashkenazi Jews are required to identify as and feel white, because many of us don’t. If the construction of whiteness – see Noel Ignatiev’s essay “Immigrants and Whites” for an explanation – is designed to be an absence of markers, are you still white if you’re visibly marked with sidelocks or a headscarf? I’ve heard Orthodox Jews report that no, they aren’t – or, well, they don’t feel like it, at least.


When I was growing up, Jewishness was defined solely in terms of religion, and more specifically, in negatives: Jews didn’t believe Jesus was the messiah, Jews didn’t celebrate Christmas. I never wondered how, if I did celebrate Christmas and belonged to an interfaith family that did believe, at least on the surface, that Jesus was the messiah, I could still be a Jew – I just knew that I was, or a half-Jew at least, and figured that it would make sense eventually. One of my first deep philosophical questions was whether I could believe Jesus was the messiah and not believe it at the same time.

Alain Badiou defines a Jew (although is it really his place to go around defining Jews? I know he made a controversial statement about the Holocaust, although I never read it firsthand) as anyone who can’t say they’re not a Jew. Again with the negatives – but given issues like intermarriage and conversion (either to or from Judaism), it does make a lot of sense.


“Calendula” is not just a fancier name for “marigold.” Different types of marigolds have different blooming seasons. The owners of the website that listed calendulas – a winter flower – as a good companion crop for basil need to be sacked.


If I’d known that Julie is, in the minds of 99% of the English-speaking population of the world, not a nickname for Julia but rather a completely different name, I would have never started going by it. Every time I meet someone! “Is your name Julie or Julia? Both? But… but… how? How!?” It’s too late to turn back now – I no longer see myself as a Julia, except on paper.


For a brief time in high school, my sister wore a cross necklace and attended Christian rock concerts at Angel Stadium. She would have been within her rights to call herself a Jewish Christian, even though it would have driven people up the wall. She’s never identified as Jewish, though. Instead of two half-Jews, my parents produced one Jew and one WASP. I’ve always thought it has something to do with the fact that I look Jewish and she doesn’t. We don’t look like sisters at all.

She’s having a chuppah and a glass at her wedding, though! I was thrilled when she asked my advice about it, even though that advice was whether our Jewish relatives would think it was weird. My response: “Of course they won’t think it’s weird! Why in the world would they think it was weird!? I was afraid they’d think my wedding was weird, too.”


The name of this site is Modern Mitzvot. Is what I’ve written mitzvot? No. Well, yes. Okay, sort of.

The Recession and the Rabbinate

The Jerusalem Post gives us news that apparently the apparatus of North American Judaism is threatened by this recession. Or at least, the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rabbinical schools are threatened. It actually does go farther than that, I’ve been told; the URJ is restructuring now, into new sort of units so that the needs of, say, western Canadian Reform synagogues are being addressed primarily from Los Angeles. I’m sure that LA knows intimately the sorts of issues western Alberta might deal with and be able to address them. Anyway.

I would be immensely saddened to see the original Cincinnatti campus of HUC close down, as I’m sad when we lose any piece of our history. The bottom line here, however, is that we’ve faced these kinds of problems before and come out possibly much stronger than before.

When our First Temple was destroyed by Babylon and we were exiled, we turned to the Torah. When our Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans and we were exiled again, we turned to the rabbis and the synagogues as the primary mode of worship. Some of us still pray for the return of the Temple, some of us don’t.

While I would certainly agree that this is an oversimplification, what I’m trying to say here is this: our institutions have been threatened before and survived, and they will again. And no matter what happens, we will emerge. At worst, there might be some radical restructuring required, but if American Judaism is in a state of crisis right now, wouldn’t we need it anyway?

They’re More Jewish Than We Are, Mommy ~ by Jay

Just a few days before Julie wrote her elegy in search of community, Sam and I took Eve to Target to buy some jeans. You know that thing kids do when all of sudden everything they’re wearing is too small? Saturday afternoon, after dance class and lunch, we headed off to the shopping center. We drove up our street and passed a family walking home from the Orthodox shul.

Mommy, where are they going? They’re wearing kipot. Are they Jewish?

Yes, they are. They’re going home for lunch after services.

How come they’re walking? It’s cold out.

Some people don’t drive their cars on Shabbat.

We drive our car.

Yes, we do. Every family and every community makes their own decision about how to observe Shabbat.

So they’re more Jewish than we are.

No, they’re not. We’re all Jewish, and we’re just as Jewish as anybody else.

And I pray that she believes me. I don’t want her to feel what I felt. I don’t want her to stand on the fringes of Judaism, feeling inauthentic, fraudulent, uneducated. Between the English lit degree and the years of singing choral music, I found myself at 35 more comfortable in a church service – almost any Protestant service in the US – than in a synagogue that didn’t use the Union Prayer Book of my youth. I tell Eve that everyone who is Jewish counts the same, but I sure didn’t feel that way.

My parents never seemed to question their authenticity as Jews. My mother had to stop competing in figure skating because Jews weren’t allowed in the state finals. My father was admitted to an Ivy League school in the days of an overt Jewish quota, and his father went to medical school because Jews weren’t admitted to the PhD program in biology at Johns Hopkins. If that didn’t make you authentic, well, what did?

I needed more, and I found it. I learned to read Hebrew and lead services. I started using the lit crit skills I’d developed to swim in Torah. I replaced the Missa Solemnis in my head with four different tunes to Mah Tovu. I want to save my daughter from the sense of inauthenticity that set my feet on that path, but I know that it is the journey – for I am still traveling – that makes my life deeper and richer. I have claimed my own Judaism. If I had learned as a child everything I feel I missed, I would still have had to dive into something unknown to make it mine. That is who I am.

Eve will have to claim hers. I don’t know yet what it will look like; neither does she. She will have the education I lacked, but she doesn’t have a biological connection to Judaism. She tells us now that she will become Christian (it’s all one religion to her) when she’s a grownup, so she can have Christmas trees and Easter candy, and perhaps she will. All I can do is hold my belief that she is Jewish; she is authentically Jewish; we are all diferent, but we are all really Jews.

Birkat Hachamah on Colbert!

Funny Colbert clip (via The Black Jewish Experience):

(Seems like I’m never able to embed Comedy Central videos…) http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/224061/april-08-2009/birkat-hachama—stephen-frees-his-jews

So, uh, quick poll – how many of you knew that, when the Jews came out, they’d be 100% white (looking) men?

Because either I should start telling fortunes for a living, or the kyriarchy is pretty predictable.

Haggadah Inserts!

If you’re like me and found it a little impossible to have a seder on a Wednesday night, then you have some time to peruse these. If not, HURRY! HURRY before the sun goes down! (Happy Birkat Hachamah, by the way!)

J Street!

Jewish Voice For Peace!

Progressive Jewish Alliance!

Also take a look at FeministGal’s post on Passover (via Feministe)!

What haggadah do you use? How do you incorporate anti-oppression theology/theory into your service? I ask partly because I’m still shopping around for my Friday seder.

Because I have no meaningful commentary

Here are some gratuitous pictures of Israeli models.

Haaaappy Purim!


I was curious about this book until I saw this little gem by the author on Jewcy:

Whatever we say about women and men being equal now and tomorrow – I have three daughters who I want to see beat the world – throughout the whole human past, including the Jewish past, men and women have had different rules, different roles, different thoughts, and different lives.

Biology and common sense both tell us sex is something women have and men want. We can try as hard as we want to talk our way around this, but we can’t make it any less true–for the Jews or any other people.

But I’m sure your book is very smart. Jewish men? You guys have got a long way to go. (That goes for all you Gentile fellas, too.)

PS – So, when I feel aroused, is that really just the need to unload myself of all that pesky sex? Or maybe Judith Butler has just brainwashed me into imagining that I enjoy it.

Dang, think of the poor lesbians – so much sex and nowhere to put it.

UPDATE: The author has responded to a comment I left on the Jewcy post, defending what he wrote as “an exaggeration, but a useful one.”

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)

Has anyone heard of this…?

Birkat Hachamah? Far out. From the Forward:

Jewish Groups Prepare for Rare Blessing of the Sun

As sunrise broke over New York City on the morning of April 8, 1981, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — at the time he was known just as Zalman Schachter — stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and sounded the shofar.

For more than two hours after, Shachter-Shalomi led some 300 mostly young adults in an obscure Jewish ritual known as Birkat Hachamah, or blessing over the sun, a prayer recited once every 28 years when, the Talmud says, the sun reaches the same spot in the firmament as when it was created.

According to an account of the service in The New York Times, participants raised their hands in prayer, asked for healing for individuals and the earth, and released 70 balloons. At the conclusion, some worshipers joined in the singing of a Hebrew version of “Let the Sun Shine In” from the rock musical “Hair.”

The rite, Shachter-Shalomi told the Times, “helps us renew our relationship with the solar system and increase our awareness of the sun as a source of energy.”

Twenty-eight years later, Jews across the denominational spectrum are gearing up again for the observance with a range of planned celebrations, many of them environmentally focused. The sun prayer will be said, as it will several times in the 21st century, on April 8, which this year falls on the eve of Passover.

I kind of wish I could be in Safed for this:

In the northern Israeli city of Safed, an eight-day festival is planned featuring several environmentally and kabbalistically inspired events, including the ceremonial burning of leavened bread on the morning before Passover by concentrating the sun’s rays through an optic lens.

“Over the last 28-year cycle, we have suffered from pollution and the depletion of natural resources,” said the festival founder, U.S.-based artist Eva Ariela Lindberg, in a news release. “Let us use this extraordinary opportunity to co-create the next cycle by seeking alternative solar energies and a purer environment, recharging ourselves and learning how to honor the earth, our neighbors and ourselves. This is a time to renew, and bring fresh blossoms to our world for the next 28-year cycle.”

See also Blessthesun.org.

Oh! And before I forget, there’s a Yiddish musical in L.A. tonight called Our Zeydes and Bubbes as Children. See the California Yiddish Institute’s website for details.


When I was a kid, I was always a little puzzled by the practice of adding a new candle each night of Hanukkah. If the light in the temple was static – that is, the same amount of oil burned for the whole time – why do we add more and more each night?

(I should note that Hanukkah was pretty much the only holiday we celebrated when I was a kid, and even then, “celebrating” usually meant wrapping presents in blue and white paper. This says a lot about American Jewish culture.)

Here’s one interpretation of the accumulation of candles: hope builds. Sure, the original light was just one lamp, but imagine what it must have felt like to gradually realize, as the nights went on, that they were going to make it.

Happy Hanukkah!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.