How Do You Jew An educational, informational, conversational blog and (someday) podcast about Judaism, Jewish practices, customs, and rituals, Israel, and whatever else we decide to talk about.

May 18, 2006

The Fire Inside

Filed under: Commentary,Israel,Jewish holidays — howdoyoujew @ 22:11

I am thrilled that, before I’ve really gotten a chance to publicize the site, it’s already become a collaborative effort. A few days ago, my mom sent me a piece written by the son of a friend of hers in Israel. Oded Mazor is getting an MA in Jewish philosophy at Hebrew U in Jerusalem and studying to become a rabbi at HUC-JIR (following in his father’s footsteps in that latter regard). He wrote the following in Hebrew, I translated it, and I reproduce both versions here with his blessing (the minor variations in references to time are to accommodate for the fact that I’ll be delivering it as a d’var Torah this Shabbat).

***

Tongues of Fire – Fires of Change

In less than two months (and slightly more than 10 months ago) the Jewish people mark the 17th of Tammuz, the day the walls of Jerusalem fell, three weeks before the destruction of our Temple. Some will fast, some will study, too many will ignore the day entirely, but most of us will hear once again the familiar story of the rich man who hosted a feast, sent out his servant to bring a friend, and instead ended up hosting his enemy. Kamtza & Bar-Kamtza, two Jerusalem characters who are memorialized, together and around the destruction. Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza, the host who commanded, kum tze – “Get out!”, and the wise men who sat there and remained silent. Eviction, expulsion, a deafening silence – kum tze!

This past week the Jewish people marked Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer, 17 days before Shavuot, the spring harvest festival and the day we received our Torah. Lag BaOmer is the day of a break in the plague that killed the students of Rabbi Akiva who didn’t respect one another (according to some, they rebelled against the kingdom).
Without getting into the environmental problems inherent in lighting bonfires, this day has come to be a break in the period during which the traditional community minimizes the observance of smachot/joyous occasions, and in the Zionist world, it is a day when we light bonfires, eat, sing, and talk.

The fire of destruction – the fire of sin’at chinam, baseless hatred – is still glowing in the embers and between the weeds. The cry “Get out!” still echoes in the hills and in our hearts. Yet here we come to repair, to stoke a fire of friendship, conversation, eating and singing in community, to uproot the flames, to exchange the cry “Get out!” with the inviting phrase, “kum zitz” – Yiddish for “Come, sit!”

Whether you chose to build a bonfire or contented yourself with watching potatoes roasting in an oven, I hope you found some free space – in a circle around a fire, among the singing voices, between listening to stories both happy and sad, space in your hearts – to call out to one another kum zitz, ta’al ij’lis (Arabic), s’ditis pejalsta (Russian) – Come, sit with us, it’s nice and warm here, and we have room.

Happy days.
***

לשונות של אש – לשנות באש / עודד מזור

בעוד חודשיים בדיוק (וגם לפני עשרה חודשים) יציין העם היהודי את יום י”ז בתמוז, יום נפילת חומות ירושלים, שלושה שבועות לפני שחרב בית-מקדשנו. יש שיתענו, יש שילמדו, רבים מדי יתעלמו, אך רובנו נשוב ונשמע את הסיפור הידוע על בעל-הבית אשר ערך סעודה, שלח את שמשו להביא את אוהבו ובטעות זימן אליו את שונאו. קמצא ובר-קמצא, שתי דמויות ירושלמיות אשר שמן נזכר מאז ,וייזכר לעד, יחד וסביב החורבן. קמצא, בר-קמצא, בעל הסעודה אשר ציווה “קום צא” והחכמים שישבו שם והחרישו. גירוש, שילוח, שתיקה רועמת –
קום צא!

הערב יציין העם היהודי את היום ה-ל”ג בעומר, י”ז ימים לפני חג הביכורים ומתן תורתנו, הוא היום בו פסקה המגפה אשר קטלה את תלמידי רבי עקיבא שלא נהגו כבוד זה בזה (ויש אומרים: מרדו במלכות). מבלי להתייחס לבעייתיות הסביבתית שבהבערת המדורות, הפך היום הזה לרגע של שבירה בתקופה בה ממעטת החברה המסורתית משמחותיה, ובהקשר הציוני הכללי- זהו יום בו יש עילה תרבותית להבעיר מדורה, לאכול, לשיר ולשוחח.

אש החורבן, היא האש של שנאת-חינם, עדיין לוחשת בגחלים ובין העשבים. הצעקה “קום צא!” עדיין מהדהדת בהרים ובלבבות. והנה אנו באים לעשות תיקון, להבעיר אש של חברות, שיחה, אכילה ושירה משותפת, לתקן את שורשה של האש במקום עליון, להחליף את הצעקה “קום צא!” באמירה מקבלת של “קום זיץ” – ביידיש: בוא שב.

בין אם נבחר להבעיר הלילה מדורה ובין אם נסתפק בצפייה בתפוחי-אדמה ניצלים בתנור, בואו ונמצא מקום פנוי באמת – במעגל, בין קולות השירה, בהקשבה לסיפורים שמחים ועצובים, מקום בליבותינו – לקרוא איש לרעהו “קום זיץ”, “תעל איג’ליס” (ערבית), “סדיטיס פז’אלסטה” (רוסית).

בואי, שבי עימנו, נעים וחמים אצלנו, ויש אצלנו מקום.

ימים שמחים.

May 16, 2006

Did I mention that I’ll be podcasting soon?

Filed under: Blogging,Podcasting — howdoyoujew @ 10:53

The idea for How Do You Jew originated as a podcast; it’s “limited” to a blog right now because of time constraints, but I have a moment to talk about how I turned in this direction and point to a piece I just found about why I’m so excited to be involved in this new medium.

I’ve been listening to Adam Curry‘s Daily Source Code podcast for…what, nearly a year now? More? It’s hard to keep track, since 1) it’s produced each weekday, so I’ve heard well over 100 shows already, and 2) the technology and the podosphere develop so fast. Suffice it to say that Adam’s work inspired me before I even knew what I was going to podcast about. Then he provided the inspiration for my content as well. I’ll talk about the specific item that did it in my first show.

Today, like every day, I got the Site of the Day email from refdesk.com. The site for today is Talking History (worth a visit). One of the people behind that is Prof. Gerald Zahavi, and it was through his site that I discovered Radio College, where I in turn found the article, How Podcasting Will Save Radio, which might give you an idea of why I’m so excited.

May 15, 2006

News about/from Israel, without the politics, the conflict, etc.

Filed under: Arab-Israeli Conflict,Israel,News — howdoyoujew @ 12:47

Impossible, you say? Israel21c (Israel 21st Century), I respond. My dad sent me a link to a Fox News story (Flash video) from April about a futuristic military defense development that could help the American forces in Iraq (not to mention Israeli forces in their own work), and I found the story on Israel21c.

May 14, 2006

Good news, bad news… just news.

Filed under: Arab-Israeli Conflict,Commentary,Israel,News — howdoyoujew @ 15:47

Life & death in Israel:
U.S. teen hurt in Tel Aviv suicide bombing in April dies of wounds, while on the same day, The terrorist who planned the attack is killed by the IDF
One of the things I want to encourage with this blog (and the discussion I hope will ensue shortly) is a well-informed audience. To that end, I want to reccommend news sources about Israel that the general public (and even some of the Jewish public) may not take advantage of regularly or even be aware of (I’ll put these in the sidebar, as well):

Mainstream:

  • Ha’aretz – Israel’s newspaper of record, available in English and Hebrew.
  • The Jerusalem Post – An English-language daily published in Jerusalem.
  • Galei Tzahal – Israeli Army radio; the web site, in Hebrew only, is updated often with breaking news. Two radio feeds are available as free Windows Media streams: 1) Galgalatz, an all-music station, the only broadcast radio I listen to any more (it is usually on all day at work), and 2) the original Galei Tzahal, which includes a lot of talk shows and interviews, as well as music programming.

I’d like to list more sources, including new media. I’m open to suggestions. Please send them to howdoyoujew @ gmail dot com (remove the spaces and replace the word “dot” with… well, you know).

May 10, 2006

Hooray for Hillel!

Filed under: Hillel,San Diego Jewish Community,SDSU,UCSD — howdoyoujew @ 23:05

Hillel of San Diego is having a good month. Last night, the San Diego City Council brought a half-decade-long legal and logistical process to a close by voting to approve the sale of an unused parcel of city-owned land to Hillel at UCSD. Up until now, UCSD Hillel has not had a home, and many of the residents in the neighborhood where this parcel sits were determined to keep Hillel out of their proverbial back yard. While some members of both camps raised the ugly specter of antisemitism in the course of the long debate, in the end it came down to mundane, albeit important land-use regulations, and Hillel (and the law) prevailed, to the benefit of the community at large, and the Jewish college students at UCSD.

Coincidentally, an even longer process regarding the relocation and/or building of a new facility for Hillel at SDSU is coming to its conclusion in the days ahead. According to my sources (I sit on the Board of Directors, so this is on good authority), we should be closing escrow on our new location early next week (the Board is meeting tomorrow to approve getting a loan for the purchase price). This struggle has gone on for nearly TWENTY years, and involved private party land owners and the SDSU bureaucracy. Getting to this point makes me (and Jenn, both of us SDSU alumni) very proud to be a Hillel member, supporter, and lay leader.

Speaking of my wife, I need to get to bed if I want to keep her. Laila tov.

May 8, 2006

Our Difficult Texts

Filed under: Arab-Israeli Conflict,Commentary,Israel,Shabbat,Torah Commentary — howdoyoujew @ 22:50

בראש השנה, בראש השנה…

On Rosh Hashana (the Jewish new year) 5766/2005 I had the honor of delivering a d’var Torah at Ohr Shalom Synagogue here in San Diego. I first met Rabbi Scott Meltzer in 1998, and our relationship has evolved and progressed quite a bit in the near decade since. I am proud to consider him a friend as well as a teacher, and I’m grateful for the repeated opportunities I’ve had to address his congregation.

***

Shana Tovah! First, I want to thank Rabbi Meltzer for this opportunity to speak about our Torah reading today. Several years ago, Rabbi Meltzer taught me that a good Dvar Torah should be brief, it should be personal, and, of course, it should teach some Torah. I hope I fulfill these conditions today with my 18-page thesis.

The story we read each Rosh Hashana, about the expulsion of Hagar & Ishmael from Avraham’s house, is a difficult one. I thought long and hard about how to spin the story positively. I considered the “new beginnings” and new home Hagar & Ishmael were forced to find and the connection to the new year, but I believe that would have been disingenuous and evasive. The bottom line is, this is a distressing, intensely disturbing story, and I wanted to tackle it head-on. (Incidentally, if you find it hard to believe that the Torah treats us to challenging tales at seemingly inopportune times, you should come to shul more often (wink & nudge to Rabbi).)

Seriously, though… If we take this time of year – well, seriously – it shouldn’t come as such a shock that each year on Rosh Hashana we’re forced to read a story that compels thorough introspection and self-reflection. Let’s recap: Avraham and Sarah failed to conceive children; Sarah gave Avraham permission to sleep with her handmaiden Hagar; the resultant offspring was Ishmael. In the portion we will read today, it is years later. Husband and wife are well into their golden years, and God tell Sarah that she will, in fact, have a child of her own. She laughs this silliness off, but then carries and gives birth to Isaac. She then experiences what is arguably one of the most severe bouts of post-partum depression in human history, and orders Avraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael. The father of the Jewish people initially protests, but then none other than God the Almighty tells him to listen to Sarah and accede to her wishes, whatever she says. Of course, as we know from reading ahead (or recalling from last year), Avraham tends to be the “follow God’s orders first, ask questions later (or not at all)” kind of guy, so the forced evacuation of Hagar & Ishmael is carried out. They are sent out into the desert with some bread and a skin of water.

Here’s the thing: Hagar, as previously mentioned, is a “handmaiden” – essentially a slave. So this expulsion is explained by some commentators, based on the laws of slavery at that time, as her being granted her freedom. What could be better than freeing slaves?! They live happily ever after, end of story, right? We now return to Avraham, Sarah, and Isaac, already in progress.

That doesn’t sit well with me. Hagar was an integral, even intimate member of Avraham and Sarah’s household for a very long time. Her relationship with the ancestor of our people was clearly more than slave and master, so the whole “you’re free now!” argument holds about as much water as the skin Avraham gave her and their son when he sent them out to the middle of the desert.

There are many possible moral lessons hidden in this tale. Many commentators view Ishmael unfavorably. With or without this prejudice, he is considered the father of the Arabs, with whom the Israelites of course have a long and, er, shall we say complicated history (I’ll refrain from getting into political or historical details here; maybe I’ll tackle those next year, if I get invited back).

Rather, I want to stay with Hagar & Ishmael on their journey. One particular turn of phrase, highlighted in the Etz Chayim chumash commentary on page 115, struck me this year.

After wandering in the desert for some time, their provisions run out, and Hagar leaves her son under a tree and goes to sit at some distance so as not to see him suffer and die. In chapter 21, verse 8, God speaks to her, saying,

קומי שאי את הנער והחזיקי את ידך בו – Get up, lift up the boy, and (as the translation has it) hold him by the hand.

But my familiarity with modern Hebrew (and, conveniently, the Etz Chayim commentary, as well) tells us that the literal meaning of “hachaziki et yadech bo” is “make your hand strong in his” – that is, draw strength from him! In contemporary Hebrew, we still use this phrase, although almost exclusively in parent-child relationships. In Hebrew-speaking households, “tachzik li et ha-yad” – hold my hand, or make my hand strong in yours – is the phrase invoked by parents and children for protection when crossing the street or walking in a crowded, potentially threatening place.

Hand-holding is relegated mostly to parents and children, and additionally to couples in love who aren’t afraid of “public displays of affection.” When we hold each others’ hands, literally or figuratively, we are capable of acts of courage or strength we wouldn’t be able to accomplish on our own. Thus the sense of protection and safety we feel crossing the street. But this strengthening extends beyond the personal realm, to the communal and the global levels. Our Jewish community organizations serve as financial, social, and spiritual hand-holds for needy individuals in our midst. And, at times, our entire community together can extend its hands in aid to other communities in need, as we just did in gathering aid for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and in response to previous disasters.

It is powerful indeed for me, as an Israeli-American Jew living in the 21st century, following centuries of conflict and bloodshed, to take such a potent lesson for strength and cooperation from the mother and son whose descendants we are trying to make peace with today. I pray that this year and always, we will be empowered by the example of Hagar & Ishmael, and remember that it is with our hands held that we strengthen each other and are able to accomplish the greatest acts of chesed and tzedek – lovingkindness and justice.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life. Shana tovah u’metukah – a sweet, healthy, and happy new year.

Setting up shop

Filed under: Uncategorized — howdoyoujew @ 21:54

I’m spending time these days – between work, life at home, and catching up on the last couple of weeks of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report – tweaking the links, categories, and other items in the HowDoYouJew domain so it looks nice and professional before I announce it to the world. I realize as I write this, though, that part of the point of the site is to engage with my audience and respond to ideas, advice, requests, suggestions, and feedback. So I’ll be finishing the mass email shortly and sending it out, and I’ll continue tweaking after I go “live.”

May 5, 2006

Spam is NOT kosher; our Shabbat dinner is.

Filed under: Israel,Shabbat — howdoyoujew @ 18:06

I got my first comment today, and I got briefly excited because it meant someone had found my blog before I publicized it to anyone (including my family and friends), but I was quickly cured of my elation by the content. I duly marked it as spam and let WordPress do its thing.

Jenn and I love entertaining, having people over for holiday and weekday meals, game nights, and just because. Sometimes, these occasions are planned a couple or a few weeks in advance, other times – like this evening – they come together in a few days. Among the friends coming over tonight are a couple who just got back from almost two weeks in Israel, and another who we haven’t seen in a while. We’ll be serving a crockpot roast and some meat cupcakes (meatloaf in cupcake cups).

Looking forward to the weekend. Shabbat shalom!

May 4, 2006

On Selective Reading of Our Texts

Filed under: Torah Commentary — howdoyoujew @ 23:10

This d’var Torah was delivered September 17, 2005, on Parashat Ki Tetze:

The opening of this week’s parasha concerns the treatment of female prisoners of war. While this topic is ripe for all sorts of discussion, this is not what I chose to concentrate on today. I want instead to first point to the curious turn of phrase that opens the parasha: Ki tetze lemilchama – when you go to war. When, not if. What does this statement say about God’s (or the writer’s, if you prefer) opinion and expectations of humanity in general, and the Israelites in particular? The passage jumped out at me especially because I’m hyperaware of the efforts at diplomacy undertaken by my namesake, Yiftach the Gileadite, before he went to war with the Ammonites, as recounted in Judges, chapter 11.

This seemingly lowered expectation of the behavior of people, however, is misleading. It relates, too, to the other main point I want to make this morning: that we must take great care in reading our sacred texts, so that we don’t isolate certain ideas, take them literally and make them inviolable, while conveniently ignoring others simply because they are inconsistent with our beliefs.

To illustrate this point, I’ll refer to the rules regarding the ben sorer – the wayward and defiant son, as explained in verses 18-21 of chapter 21. First, the Torah itself, as in many other places, does not specifically elaborate on what it means exactly to be “wayward and defiant.” That is left to the rabbis of the Talmud and beyond – to us, as well – to determine. Well, what DOES it mean? How disobedient and unruly does a child have to be to warrant this diagnosis, which, if confirmed, carries no less than the DEATH PENALTY?!

And at what age do the parents decide they’ve had enough? It’s implied, on the one hand, that the parents have tried to discipline the child for some length of time; but on the other hand, the boy is still young enough that they’re able to “take hold of him and bring him to the elders of the town”. Wouldn’t the child resist if he were able? Especially considering how wayward and defiant he is to begin with?!

Through the generations, our sages interpreted the conditions for the ben sorer in such a way as to make them virtually impossible to meet. And we’ve obviously gotten away from following many of the mitzvot as they are written. So why is it that some people, who are fond of bringing up biblical commandments and prohibitions to back up their moral and legal beliefs, choose to ignore other biblical concepts that may not agree with their worldview?

Perhaps you’re aware that there’s been a lot of discussion in recent months and years about homosexuality, and the rights of gay people to marry or otherwise enjoy the same rights and privileges afforded to heterosexual couples who wish to affirm their relationships according to civil or religious laws and make them legally binding as well. People opposed to this concept often bring up Leviticus 18:22, which states that a man lying with another man as with a woman is an abomination (to’eva), as justification for their position.

The same people, however, don’t often (if ever) mention other interesting biblical regulations, like the ben sorer, or the rule about both parties in a case of rape in an urban setting being subject to the death penalty, or any of myriad other rules from the Torah that have been discarded as archaic or interpreted out of enforcement by generations of scholars. I should say that such people IN THIS COUNTRY don’t usually mention these other rules; there are a few places still where, for example, an unmarried woman’s sexual relationship with a man makes her liable to fall victim to what is euphemistically called an “honor killing,” as in “she dishonored her family,” and is then murdered by her brothers.

An open letter, originally addressed to Laura Schlesinger (radio’s Dr. Laura), made its way around the Internet almost a decade ago and has enjoyed several revivals. This letter pointed out some of these discrepancies and contradictions, the rules we DON’T follow due to their being inconsistent with our society. These include the laws of sacrifice, slavery, some rules of farming, animal husbandry, clothing, and more. Conveniently, of course, as I mentioned, many literalists ignore these regulations and only refer to the ones that agree with their world view. I urge us all not to fall into that trap, but to remember instead our rich tradition of discourse, disagreement, interpretation and insight. It is those values, not narrow-minded fundamentalism, which will continue to sustain us and help us thrive.

Shabbat shalom.

Lech Walesa in San Diego

Filed under: Commentary — howdoyoujew @ 18:00

I wrote this following the Polish leader’s appearance on the SDSU campus last Friday. My thanks to Don Harrison for his kindly and helpful editing:

When Lech Walesa, the upstart Polish labor union leader who became Poland’s first democratically elected president, spoke at San Diego State University recently, I welcomed the opportunity to see and hear him firsthand. This was a man, after all, who had a significant part to play in the collapse of Communism, the tearing down of the Iron Curtain, and eventually the end of the Soviet Union.

Little did I know that I would find out exactly how much of a part he played – 30% is his own estimation (he gives 50% of the credit to Pope John Paul II, a Pole himself; the remaining 20%, although Walesa didn’t explicitly state this, must go to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev). The rest of Walesa’s April 28 lecture, delivered in Polish through an interpreter, maintained this charming, if somewhat simplistic, view of the world.

His thumbnail sketch of the complex sociopolitical forces at work at the time of his historic elevation from lowly (and then unemployed) shipyard electrical worker to international human rights icon completely ignored the role of then-President Ronald Reagan, except that Walesa referred to the USSR using Reagan’s “Evil Empire” moniker. Similarly, Walesa’s ideas about a global parliament and security force to take the place of the ailing, some would say impotent, United Nations, are also unsophisticated.

On the plus side, Walesa is funny (his humor was deftly transmitted by his interpreter, Magdalana Iwinska, timing and all to the 1,700 students and faculty members who filled Montezuma Hall), and it’s easy to see how his charisma helped him become the revolutionary he ended up being.

Unfortunately, his ideas about ameliorating the world’s ills in the age of globalization are at best naïve, and at worst dangerous. His underlying concept of a global parliamentary body has potential, but his suggestions for how such a body would handle disputes and conflicts leaves something to be desired.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner recommended that such a body primarily deal with three issues affecting the global community: 1) border conflicts; 2) anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of prejudice and discrimination leading to violence; 3) terrorism.

It was a little deflating to hear his solution to these pressing problems: give the offending party 48 hours to comply with the global parliament’s warm and fuzzy demands, or… well, Walesa didn’t talk about potential consequences, either, leaving his audience to come up with appropriate reprisals. After repeating several times that we live in a new era (of information, globalization, etc.), he failed to provide any practical guidance about conflict resolution to the 21st century generation.

His comparison of the world’s most intractable conflicts to a cockfight that could be solved by “plucking the feathers” from the birds (read: cutting off military and economic aid to the warring parties) would be laughable if the bloodshed in the Middle East, Sudan, and other regions wasn’t so incalculable. It’s hard to take seriously a man who posits that factions that won’t disarm according to the global parliament’s conditions “should move to the North Pole.”

Walesa’s review of Eastern European history and Poland’s central place in it was painfully incomplete to Jewish listeners. The Poles certainly have suffered at the hands of the Germans and Russians (and then Soviets), and they certainly are a proud and opinionated people upon whom the yoke of Communism weighed particularly heavily.

But Walesa utterly bypassed his own people’s contributions to the history of discrimination, especially anti-Semitism, and ethnic cleansing, beginning long before World War II. This wasn’t intended to be a mea culpa lecture, to be sure, but it’s difficult to take anything a man of Walesa’s stature says at face value when he so brazenly whitewashes such a significant part of his own nation’s history.

***

When I asked for family feedback before publishing, my dad’s response was: “…he is obviously one of those many people in history who led a revolution but were unfit to govern (Washington was an execption). And it’s OK. his place in history is already reserved. ” Now I didn’t live under Walesa in the new Poland (and neither did my dad) so I can’t speak to his ability to govern there, but he’s certainly not 21st century leader material.

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