Many thoughts about the world, meditation, parenting, Judaism, pregnancy, teaching, cancer survivorship, moving from West Coast to East and more.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Chocolate Let-Down

So even though we live in an apartment, there is a sign-up downstairs for people who wanted to receive trick-or-treaters. I signed up but, alas, to no avail.

So we're stuck (oh, poor us) with too many M&M's. Then I read this and am reminded of my social responsibility even from my sweet tooth.

How easy is it to find Kosher Fair Trade chocolate?

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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Simchat Torah Follow-up

My dad sent me the following article from the Jewish Forward. Worth reading.

Dancing Around a Delicate Issue
By Shoshana Olidort
October 21, 2005

'Joy shatters barriers," says a well-known Jewish aphorism. It's a phrase that many Orthodox synagogues will take literally Tuesday evening with the beginning of Simchat Torah, one of the Jewish calendar's most joyous days. When the yearlong Torah-reading cycle comes to a close, all Orthodox congregations will dance with their Torahs. But some will do so in a sanctuary that's been altered temporarily. In some communities, the mechitzah (the barrier separating women from men) will be taken down.

Miriam Hoffinger, 70, remembers the mechitzah coming down in the Hasidic shtibl (prayer house) her family attended in Paris in the mid 1950s. "It was the one time during the year when the mechitzah came down and we were all together, celebrating in the same space," she said.

The tradition of removing the mechitzah when celebrating the Torah would seem to stretch back at least a century. A YIVO archival photo (circa 1900) of a celebration in honor of the completion of a Torah scroll in Dubrovno, Belarus, shows women and men in the same room looking on as the rabbi dances with the freshly penned Torah.

But as with everything in Judaism, there are gradations. Among the more stringent, women are not allowed to take part in the actual hakafot (the seven circuits made with the Torah). But more liberal Orthodox communities have found ways to accommodate women in the celebration of the holiday.

With the increased demand in recent years for greater ritual opportunity for Orthodox women, rabbinic authorities have been pressed to examine the tradition barring women from dancing with the Torah. Their findings showed that "from a purely halachic point of view, there is no prohibition at all preventing a woman from touching a Sefer Torah or even from reading from it — even while she is menstruating," according to Shlomo Riskin, founding rabbi of New York's Modern Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue and chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat. This position opened the way for women's hakafot in many synagogues.

Those opposed to women's hakafot — like Rabbi Herschel Schachter, professor at the Yeshiva University-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary — argue that the movement to allow women to dance with the Torah springs from the "impure motivations" of rebelliousness and self-aggrandizement rather than a pure desire to connect with God. Another issue of contention is the fact that according to rabbinic tradition, a long-held Jewish custom attains the status of a halachic ruling.

Women's hakafot, along with women's prayer groups, have been performed at a number of liberally minded Orthodox congregations for decades. But when Riskin introduced them in Efrat, the move was accepted in only five of the settlement's 28 synagogues. In one of these, the controversy caused a rift that led to a part of the community breaking away and forming a congregation of its own.

Rabbi Basil Herring of the Rabbinical Council of America, the primary Modern Orthodox rabbinical union, said that the RCA "takes no stance on the issue" of women's hakafot. The ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel's Rabbi Avi Shafran said that while the organization does not make policy, "it would be safe to say that no Agudath Israel-affiliated synagogue has women's hakafot." London's Beth Din thwarted efforts years ago to begin women's hakafot in Anglo-Jewry's 65 Orthodox synagogues. Some have persisted, but maintain a low profile. For those walking the tightrope between a stricter Orthodoxy and greater openness, dealing with issues in the gray zone requires finding compromises. In some Chabad synagogues women dance around, rather than with, the Torah scroll. And while a few do allow women's hakafot, most Chabad synagogues are more traditional in their approach.

Today, the notion of Simchat Torah as a man's holiday no longer holds true. With a fairly wide range of options available, women from across the Orthodox spectrum have found a way to make the holiday their own.

Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer living in New York.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Simchat Torah

Simchat Torah

The Artscroll Machzor (prayer book) for Sukkot gives the following introduction to the holiday of Simchat Torah:


Everyone’s Celebration

Simchas Torah is not just for scholars. Every Jewish male, even young children, receives an aliyah to the Torah and the privilege of singing and dancing with it. Just as the Torah reading of the morning is repeated over and over until everyone has an aliyah, the Hakafos are extended until everyone has been able to express his love and joy at being able to hold the Torah, possess it, study it, observe it.


Sounds pretty darn good, doesn’t it? It certainly would be if Artscroll (and many others) were willing to acknowledge that “everyone” does not include women.

There is no question in my mind that Orthodox Judaism is the path for me (with sprinklings and the spirit here and there of the Jewish renewal movement as long as it doesn’t interfere with Jewish law). And although it may seem counterintuitive to my non-observant friends, I’m really okay with such different roles in the synagogue between men and women for several reasons:

The first is that I choose to trust the Torah and the law to have a good reason for the differences whether or not I understand them.

Second, while I can’t prove it, I have seen evidence that when people choose to have egalitarian services, men often unfortunately become less interested in fulfilling their responsibilities in shul. So my assumption is that perhaps G-d’s secret reason for setting things up in this way is to keep men accountable. (Women already take on double-duty between work and home, especially in this generation.)

However, as I mentioned (and which Soferet echoes) in Hoshanah a lot happens in the holidays in this time of year that leaves women just standing by and watching. As always, this would be okay with me except for a number of things:

1. Declarations like the one quoted above about how wonderful that this holiday is for absolutely EVERYONE (oh, except women) which includes even children receiving an aliyah while women don’t are simply hypocritical and ignorant.

2. The fact that so many men just don’t understand why this is problematic. In one shul where I used to go, a man once said to me, “But why would you WANT to dance with a Torah? You’re religious?” What a paradoxical thing to say! If a woman is religious, it means she values the Torah. So why then wouldn’t she want to take part in celebrating it? (I find myself pounding the keyboard hard as I write this. I’ve become much less ANGRY over the years, but that absolutely ignorant notion still just infuriates me.) I could accept that this is the way it is if the people on the other side of the mechitzah at least would acknowledge that it might be difficult for some women. And by the way, I accept that for many women, Simchat Torah is NOT a challenge. I fully accept that others might be much more comfortable than I am with having a smaller (or different) role in shul, as long as I can be heard for my own opinion.

3. Finally, with lots of mitzvoth to which women are not obligated the attitude is, “Why would you want to if you don’t have to?” I’ve heard this in particular around the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah at Sukkot. When men say this, are they really saying that they hate doing all mitzvoth and only do so out of a sense of obligation? Yes, there is merit in doing something DESPITE not wanting to do it. But isn’t there obviously merit in WANTING to do a mitzvah whether or not you have to?

So, in short, in the past 6 or more years (the time during which I’ve been living in communities of my choice as an adult, post-college etc.) I have been very unhappy on every Simchat Torah but the last two. (I admit that as long as SOME good dancing is happening on the women’s side during Hakafot I usually have a pretty good/spiritual time, but once we get back in to actually read the Torah I become quite bitter and angry… not a nice feeling for one of the most joyous chagim of the year.)

Last year was good because we had a women’s reading in Vancouver.
This year we had one here.

Now, it was a controversial thing. I had heard wind of it weeks ago and assumed something would be announced. But it wasn’t until yesterday when the husband of one of organizers cautiously approached me and asked if I knew about the service that I actually learned about the details. The man who told me was very quiet when he came to me, like this was a bootleg operation. Apparently a number of people in the shul were not happy about the development of a women’s reading, but to their, and the shul’s, credit, this dissatisfaction was kept rather quiet, at least from what I could see as a relative newcomer.

The service was an enormous success. The planners carefully consulted the rabbi ahead of time to know what brachot were and were not appropriate, how to do the service etc. Many women had the opportunity to read from the Torah, and everyone had the chance to have an aliyah. (To approach the Torah as part of the regular reading.) I think there were about 30 women who participated, and probably half of them had daughters with them. It was quite moving.

The funny thing that always happens for me at these events is that I became very very conscious of our (the women’s) behavior near the Torah. It’s so important to me that nothing we do at all shames the Torah. I find at these times that I’m worried how the Torah, almost as a being, views us. I feel we have to work double to be approved of by IT. But when men are called to the Torah, all that matters is that they are Jewish. They could be violating Shabbos and it would make no difference. So this self-consciousness is really just some kind of shame I’ve unfortunately learned as a bi-product of this way of separating the sexes. It’s unfortunate and I hope other women don’t feel that the way I do. Please, as always, feel free to comment on this.

Either way, it’s worth it to me to face that challenge rather than abandon Halakhah or Orthodoxy and defect to an egalitarian minyan. I just wish more communities were willing to allow the possible for women within them.

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Friday, October 21, 2005

The Big Day

How odd... it took a beautiful email from a friend to remind me:

TOMORROW is my two year anniversary for being in remission. Tomorrow. 2 years. So hard to believe.

I know am celebrating next week when my friend comes to town in honor of the Hebrew date of the anniversary, but what will happen tomorrow?

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Boredom Resolved

Took my bike out on its first spin in New Jersey. We (me and the bike) clocked ourselves at about 15 minutes plus to the Tenafly Nature Center (See "Guest What Happened to Me" in August 2005. Don't feel like linking right now.) where I volunteer every other Sunday. Then went to the farmer's market, but sadly, all their parsnips got rained out in the storm two weeks ago. We'll have a parsnip-less soup this Shabbos.

Doing nothing is way more interesting on a bike, and once home again I was raring to go and now feel like I don't have enough time today at all.

As for boredom... and how much I'll wish I was bored again once work starts again... I'm a naturally obsessive person and always am struggling with the following paradox:

Life is too precious to waste a minute.
Life is too precious to worry about whether or not I'm wasting any minutes.


Bad At Free Time

I'm on break and I'm embarrassed to say this but I'm really bored. I just can't seem to get around to doing anything I either want or need to do.

I think I function better in a constant and resentful crunch for time. Adrenaline.


Wednesday, October 19, 2005


Well, the first two days of Sukkot have just ended. I've eaten way too much and been in lots of sukkot (the booths we build during this holiday... they symbolize a lot of things, including living in an incomplete dwelling and deepening your faith as G-d is protecting you more than the incomplete roof above you). We had amazingly nice weather, especially after getting soaked to the skin by rain (and catching a cold) during Yom Kippur.

One part of the Sukkot service is called the Hoshanahs. Usually just the men do it, they carry their lulavim and etrogim and walk around the Torah chanting "Hoshanahs." Truthfully I don't know that much about why we do them.

The holiday of Sukkot leads into Simchat Torah and, as much as I love all the holidays, these are sometimes a little difficult because so often men do things while the women just look on. So yesterday, on the first day of Sukkot, the men of our shul were saying their Hoshanas in the parking lot of the shul. I was the only woman who walked out (eager to be in the sunshine) and watched from the side. The rabbi called me over by name to join them. "Come on, ______," he said.

"I can?" I answered, and a few of the men chuckled a little.

"Well, it's not like we're holding hands and dancing," he said. (Orthodox men and women avoid physical contact with each other unless we are family.) More laughter.

So I joined. I felt self-conscious, awkward and in awe. I was too shy to go near the Hoshanas again today, but I felt like I was breaking ground, and showing bravery, to be the only woman who joined them. I wished others did too and wonder if at some point more women will get involved because I do. (There are a lot of times when I am the only, or one of the first, of the women at shul.)

Granted, there are many women who are extremely dedicated in other ways, or are way more knowledgeable than me, but I still feel like I'm making a special quiet impact, if only on my own soul.

Best of all, it felt so good to be welcomed in like that. That has never happened before, and I was sincerely moved. I want to tell all the people in the old places I've lived who thought that could never happen.

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Monday, October 17, 2005

Jewish Architect Friend

This article is about a friend of mine.

In other words, I've been in this house many times.


Saturday, October 15, 2005

Poetry Project

I'm on "vacation" now with all these chagim (Jewish holidays). I put the "vacation" in quotations because a chag is not quite the same as a vacation, but the days in between are.

I'm using this as an opportunity to work on a project I've had in mind for awhile. I have SO many writing projects floating around, incomplete and in the works and abandoned, and SO many old pieces that I haven't wanted to lost into the filing cabinet that I'm trying to sort of collect and compile it all for myself. The first phase of this is to make myself an anthology of all the poetry I still like, and the second phase MAY be to try and get some of it into a published book where others can see it. (I really want to do this but have to do some research about getting poetry published.) Later I'll move on to my fiction and nonfiction. These pieces are fewer but significantly longer.

So over the past few weeks, during my writing time (about half an hour to an hour on Saturday nights, it seems...) I've been going through pages of old work, mostly from when I was actually officially studying writing at Oberlin. (I still have to locate a poetry journal or two.)

At Oberlin I had a particular poetry teacher who was intense, dramatic and you might say eccentric. I was always so overwhelmed by him and ultimately was happy to be finished with his class. For the past, oh, 9-10 years, I have hated almost everything I produced in his class.

Tonight I reread the three pages of commentary he wrote about my final project - a chapbook of the semester's work. I feel like it has taken this long for me to finally understand it. Suddenly I GET what was wrong with a lot of the pieces, but also see some of what was right about them. More importantly, some of the criticism he gave me then could apply today. Most of all, I am impressed that he treated me as having the true potential of being a professional poet, despite how hard it was to slog through the work that semester. Three pages of typed commentary (on a typewriter, not a computer)! That's great. And he kept telling me to stop asking readers to be gentle with my work.

Sound familiar from any blog entries I've ever made?

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One week from today, October 22nd, will be my two year anniversary for being in remission.

A week later is the Hebrew anniversary.


Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Whose Job Is It?

A poem in honor of Yom Kippur, good for thinking about what you'd hate to leave undone in these world:

Whose job is it?

There are those
who deal with death
for a living.

Undertakers bury the body.
Lawyers examine the will.
Insurance agents support
the family left behind.

But whose job is it
to sift through the poetry
the decades of journals
the urgent revelations
scribbled onto torn
corners of used papers?

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Monday, October 10, 2005


It's so disturbing that there have been so many disasters lately. Katrina, Rita, now the earthquake in Pakistan. I've got a friend there with whom I'm not sure how and when I should try to make contact. She's a hard person to reach anyway and I'm reluctant to flood phone lines.

Now this. And while a fire in an animation studio is nothing compared to lost lives, there's something deeply saddening about it anyway. The Wallace and Gromit movie was just making me so happy just a day ago, and within less than 24 hours, all the THINGS that hold their history have been destroyed.


Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit

Today we went to see Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit.

Our fears:

Can Wallace And Gromit handle starring in a full-length feature film?
What will happen with a full cast of characters?
Will Wallace's technology be too great now that it is on a larger scale setting?

There was absolutely nothing to worry about. We had a GREAT time. Really fun movie. If there is anything to complain about it is that the bad guy in this movie was not terribly interesting, and certainly couldn't live up to the Penguin (/chicken) villain of "The Wrong Trousers," but we were still very happy.

The best part is the facial expressions. There is a particular moment when Gromit's face suddenly seriously registers fear by a mere tilt of the head. Wonderful.

It also helped that we found a theater where admission was only $5 per person!


Thursday, October 06, 2005

After Rosh Hashanah

Now THAT was an awfully good Rosh Hashanah.

I prepared well, had a good kavanah (usually defined as intention, this kind of means the intensity of what people are doing, particularly in prayer), was not interrupted too much by people talking in shul, and when there were interruptions it was because people I like were chasing after kids I like and it was very well meant. (Last year was very hard for me primarily because of people talking in shul. A little whispered chat here and there is one thing, but when strangers come to the shul and talk audibly throughout the most important parts of the service it is a major distraction.) I did not know what to expect for kavanah in this community. This is not the kind of shul where people chat about spirituality a whole lot. But the kavanah was there, and I was willing and able to let myself open up (albeit hidden behind my machzor) on both days without feeling too self-conscious.

And on the other hand, once I had reached my spiritual peak, the davening went fast and didn’t drag on forever. Hooray for that. Sometimes singing and singing and singing just wears me out and makes me feel frustrated that I can’t stay “high” with the davening. Forcing it is counter-productive.

The meals were nice too. We had the first two out, and both were very pleasant. The third meal (second night) we had quietly at home, and then on the last we had our very first guests. It became a ridiculous point of anxiety. I ventured to mincha (afternoon prayers) on the first day and was the only woman except for someone new who seemed to need a place. So on impulse I invited her and her two kids to come to lunch the next day where we had invited just one couple who had been carefully warned that there were unpacked boxes still lying around and that we wouldn’t have anything too fancy. Only when I got home and spoke to U. about it did I realize the table wasn’t big enough and that in fact we might not have enough food. I worried obsessively about it, trying to decide if I had done the right thing. I had invited her out of a sense that I would be doing a mitzvah, but then hadn’t checked in with my husband first when it’s also a mitzvah to respect each other in that way. Had I been counting on a miracle to make there be enough food? Had I been too self-righteous in trying to invite someone.

I told myself again and again that it would work out, but I didn’t believe it.

Guess what. It did. There was plenty of food and all the guests seemed happy and grateful. Maybe I even made a difference to the newcomer.

Why do I (and others like me) carry around worry and baggage like that. It’s so useless. It’s just what I do I guess.

However long and rambly this entry is, I have one more thing I really want to share.

I really spent a lot of time preparing myself for the holiday this year and knew I should give myself some down time in between. On the morning of the first day I spent some time really meditating and preparing for the davening, but then during breakfast wanted some light reading to clear my head a little. I’m not in the middle of anything right now so I went to read some poetry. I was reaching for Williams but my hand hit Whitman instead. When I opened it up I just couldn’t believe how appropriate to the day and just how beautiful the writing was about the self and about mortality, both of which need to surrender to G-d in this season more than ever.

A couple of excerpts, all from parts of the very long poem called “Song of Myself:”

…People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself….

(Two sections later in section 6 he talks about grass. I’m so sorry for breaking this up into smaller quotes. But I want to pick the lines that caught me and the piece itself is long.)

A child said “What is the grass?” fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

…I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation….

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps….

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old mean and mothers, and the offspring taken out of their laps….

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Flip Out

Last note tonight... I just love watching this. It makes me happy.


Preparing for Rosh Hashanah

Every year when Rosh Hashanah gets close I panic a bit feeling like I'm not ready.

It's appropriate then that this year I am reading This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared by Alan Lew. I highly highly recommend it. It discusses the progression from Tisha B'av into Rosh Hashanah and then into a kind of rebuilding at Sukkot (again, after the destruction at Tisha B'Av). I'm not going into a lot more detail right now. But I heard Lew speak in Portland two years ago when he was on a book tour and he really helped me make sense of this season as part of a long progression and not just a 2 day holiday thrown into the first month of the school year. I've been taking it much deeper than that but, again, don't want to go into that right now.

Today I did something else to prepare too. As fearful as I was about moving to this part of the country, I've always looked forward to the fact that in the NY/NJ area I would have much more opportunities for Torah learning. Sadly, I haven't actually been to any classes at all except a single Shabbos shiur that became more of a chat. I think that Teaneck, which is only 10 minutes away, might ultimately be promising for me. But today I went into Manhattan to Yeshiva University. I found out about the weekly classes there through a friend of mine who used to live in Portland and who lives very close to both the university and the GW bridge. And the truth is I would have been too shy to trek out to it if not for her. Honestly, I'm not sure if the classes themselves were so spectacular that they would be worth such a trek, but for today it was really good that I went and I did learn some things, namely about the history and purpose of Unesaneh Tokef. (Again, I won't go into it here right now unless I'm asked. I might put more details in the comments section, if I am asked.)

It didn't hurt to be able to see an old friend again either. Nice not to have to figure out "the rules" of the relationship. I already know them with her.

The tricky part was getting there. And for better or worse, I'm so proud of how I solved this that it almost overshadows the actual learning. No buses go from our area that early in the morning, so U. gave me a ride to the GW bridge and I WALKED ACROSS. In practice, it wasn't such a big deal. It's a little less than a mile across and I walked it (fast) in almost exactly 25 minutes. I told my dad once that it wasn't possible to bike across it, but I was quite wrong about it. Lots of bikes crossed, leaving me wistful for my own bike which badly needs to be reassembled after the movers messed with it. The bridge even has this sort of gutters in the stairs up to it on which you can roll the bike rather than carry the full weight yourself. It was a gorgeous morning with the sun shining and the water looking blue and beautiful. I felt so accomplished doing it.

It actually quite reminded me of walking across the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland. Just way longer, way louder, and way more famous.

In any case, to summarize. I walked from New Jersey to New York today to learn Torah. Go me!

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