Thursday, March 29, 2012

Denominational Dilemma: Or the Fun of Not Adequately Having a Description of Your Jewish Denominational Affiliation

Warning: though I try to make my posts on Judaism accessible to Jews and non-Jews alike, I feel that this particular post may be particularly difficult for some less used to the Jewish denominational tussle. Sorry!

To start:

I'm Conservative/Masorti, with very heavy Reconstructionist practice influence, and a bit of liberal Modern Orthodox influence, who swings between Reconservastructionism and Conservadoxy, who also has fondness for Sephardi practices and a really weird view of Halakha. Oh, and the fact that I'm out of the closet makes things deliciously complicated at times.

That's how I think of my Judaism. But that's too long. And it boxes badly. And people want boxes.

I identify as needed sometimes. In certain contexts, "Reconstructionist-" particularly in regards to certain wordings in prayers vis-à-vis the idea of a "chosen people" (a concept on which I could write another lengthy blog post). In most contexts, "Conservative" - I look for Conservative synagogues, I read various things from a Conservative point of view, I strongly prefer Conservative siddurim (Va'ani Tefilati or Sim Shalom), and, well, I was raised in a liberal Conservative shul. When I'm bridging the gap, "Conservastructionist."

Sometimes I simply say "not Orthodox, not Reform." Even then, that can occasionally run into strange questions. My prayer group (Conservative/Reconstructionist/Reform that has a generally liberal Conservative service) uses a generally Reform siddur, and then my grandparents - like most South African Jews - are nominally Orthodox, so I've been exposed to a lot of Modern Orthodox practice as well.

"Not Orthodox, not Reform," however, is probably the most accurate at this point.

Even within the streams that I do identify with, I have some issues with that identification. This problem is particularly acute with Reconstructionism for me - I sometimes feel that very beautiful aspects of  Judaism, or G-d, or tradition, gets reduced or thrown out of the window in thought and practice. Sometimes, I also have problems with identifying as Masorti - particularly in regards to the main movement's understanding of halakhah.

Then we hit the question of being gay and Jewish. Traditionally, Reform and Reconstructionists have been the most welcoming, but Conservative Judaism is really warmly welcoming now, too. However, I still get some odd feelings occasionally. The movement is pretty split on homosexuality, and one can find the whole range of opinions. It is not always the best idea to mention being queer in a Conservative/Masorti environment.

But I don't think that really matters. I've been in a Conservative service with a majority LGBT crowd (NUJLS, anyone?), and I've also felt a really warm welcome in many Conservative communities, even though most of the time I say nothing about my being on the "rainbow spectrum." Halakhic disputes aside, I do not think it would be a contradiction to say "I am an openly gay Conservative/Masorti Jew."

Does denomination matter? I would like to think not, but for many people, it does. I must admit, it matters for me too - from basic things like finding a place to be on Friday night, to more complex questions of approaches and ideas. Then there are the questions. I'll consider the garbled statement above, then, my own declaration of denominational identity, or lack thereof. If a shorter answer is needed, I might just start saying "that is difficult to explain."

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

11 Notes from Israel: Friday-Sunday

1. My one-year-old cousin Emmanuel is awesome. He's adorable, smart, and really active and fun to be around. And very well-behaved. He's my first cousin once removed - the son of my cousin Shelly. I saw him on Saturday with the rest of my mom's family and it was wonderful.

2. My four-year-old cousin Amalya is also awesome. She's Emmanuel's big sister. She's also very well-behaved. She also runs around singing Hanukkah and Purim songs all the time. (Turns out my cousin's husband is very involved in the Israeli Reform movement, so this is what Amalya gets to hear)

3. Conservadox services with Sephardi nusach. Unlike Masorti services in the US, which tend to be very "Ashkenormative," Masorti people in Israel often blend in Sephardi influences - particularly in communities that have a lot of Latin American immigrants. I went to Friday night services in Herzliyya, maybe 500 meters from my grandparents, and the tunes were almost all Sephardi. This (very) Ashkenazi boy was content.

4. Palestinian ladies who sell homemade baklava outside supermarkets. Nom. The ladies who sell in my grandparents' town come from a village on the Israeli side of the West Bank border that is known for their food and their incredibly huge clans.

5. Not as awesome: Secular-Haredi bitch-slaps on airplanes. This one is a bit difficult to explain. Let us say that a lady was a little upset that Haredi people use overhead bins, too.

6. Coffee. Israelis know how to drink coffee. I miss the coffee already.

7. Arabic is finally taking its place as the country's second official language. The Supreme Court ruling a few years ago noted that many services that legally must be available in Arabic (for the 20% Arab and 10% Jews-who-speak-Arabic-and-Hebrew populations) are not - particularly road signs and social services. Since my last visit, there are more road signs in Arabic, and Arabic speakers who go to the ER now don't have such a mess to deal with if they need interpretation. There's still a ways to go, but things are changing. The need is a bit mitigated by the fact that most of the Arabic-speaking population is pretty fluent in Hebrew.

8. My grandmother gave me thirteen haggadot that she collected over the years. Among them: a newspaper haggadah from the early '80s in Israel, and my dad's haggadah from his conscription days.

9. My aunt's braised lamb shoulder recipe. Yum.

10. I always miss how the radio in Israel broadcasts the news every hour, on the hour.

11. My grandmother's propensity for inappropriate jokes at the Shabbat dinner table.

A man of fifty goes to the doctor. The doctor says, "You're as fit as a man of thirty! Tell me, how old was your father when he died?"

The man responds, "Died? He's alive - he's seventy-five!"

The doctor raises his eyebrows. "And your grandfather?"

The man responds, "He's still here! He's one hundred and three! And he's getting married next week!"

"Why is he getting married?"

"Did I say he wants to?"

(I love my grandmother.)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Notes on my relatives

Most of my visit to Israel has involved my relations of various flavors. Some things I've thought about:

1. Everyone is on a road to diabetes. All my relatives consume colossal amounts of sugar. Cakes, dried fruit, chocolate, and sugary drinks: every one of my relatives is in a relationship with the sugar cane and it is complicated.

2. My family has an intimate relationship with snark. My grandmother makes plenty of witty commentary about the world, and my more distant relatives have some snappy opinions too.

3. We are crazily stubborn. My grandparents argue about the same things, every day, as they have for fifty-eight years.

4. Everyone in my family has very strong color preferences. Thing is, each person has their color. No one understands my grandmother's thing for yellow, or her cousin's thing for turquoise. It happens.

5. We forget Hebrew when we're stressed, but when others are stressed we speak it fluidly. I forgot my ticket on a bus and started muttering in English, but I've also interpreted for my grandfather several times this trip. My grandmother is exactly the same.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Adventures in Israel: Photos

I'm primarily here to visit relatives: my dad's parents, who I am staying with, my uncles, my aunt, my cousins, and their kids. However, the calendar of who's available when left these past two days largely free. I spent the mornings and evenings with my grandparents, who don't leave their town much - my grandfather is ninety, mind you - but I did some exploring during the afternoons.

First day: attempted trip to Holon Design Museum; trip to Tel Aviv Museum of Art
Second day: Binyamina, a small town halfway between Hadera and Haifa. I was supposed to do this with someone, but they had to move their day off from work.

I have right- and left-wing commentary in this post. Deal with and delight in the swimming contradictions.
A train station in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Israel's train service has seen huge improvements in recent years; this line was recently completed. A lot of the stations are new, like this one. It's off peak, and a train just left, so it's quite empty. Holon is a town that is not particularly noted for anything - a dormitory suburb that really got going after Jewish refugees arrived post-1948.

Typical urban Israeli residential architecture. This style dates from the 1950's, during the resettlement of refugees from the ma'abarot - tent cities built to accommodate 700,000 Jews who left Arab lands and Iran after 1948. The style kept going as more immigrants came in. Unfortunately, Israeli cities are often pretty monochromatic - light beiges, whites, and greys predominate throughout the country. Jerusalem, Tzfat, Jaffa, and anywhere with a large Arab population counters this trend with lots of wonderful stone. 

This building bucks the trend and has some fantastic colored tiling - appropriate, since it's a day care.

Sculptures in a city park in Holon

There, in the distance, is the Design Museum!

And arriving...the entrance is very hard to find.

The media center next door has this very creepy sculpture of a fish.

From the courtyard of the Design Museum. The website did not mention at the time that the museum was to be closed this week. However, the gift shop was still open!

The Kirya - the military headquarters, near the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The Museum does not allow cameras to be used on its premises.

A bus stop in Binyamina. Bus stops like this are common in rural areas and small towns throughout the country.

Looking over Binyamina's main street - Mount Carmel is slightly visible in the farther distances.

The processing center of the Binyamina winery. Israeli wine isn't known for being all that great, but  wineries are pretty cool nevertheless.

All the barrels!

An old grape press

"Sauvignon Blanc" - a sample vine

Cat cat cat cat cat. Cats are not only common house pets here, but there are tons of stray cats too. This prevalence comes from before 1948: Palestinians, like many Islamic peoples, kept cats - which are seen as clean, and of course, pleasant companions. (It should be noted that cats are everywhere in the Middle East, and the West Bank particularly has tons and tons of kitties). Palestinians got pushed out, but the cats stayed. 
A city park with the seven species from the Tanakh growing within.

Fields and the start of Mount Carmel in the background.

Roadside sculptures on the way to Jabotinsky Park and Shumi fortress.

Forest land - people forget that this part of the world actually has some forested areas.  A lot, in fact.

View of the countryside stretching out over the Sharon plain. On a less hazy day, the hills of the West Bank are visible.

The KKL - or Jewish National Fund - owns this area, which is supposedly kept in trust for the Jewish people. As you can imagine, it's a rather controversial organization.

This park is known for awesome sculptures.

And again.

A memorial to members of the Irgun - a Jewish paramilitary troop during the 40s  that fought against the Mandate - that died while coordinating an escape from a prison. The Irgun is really controversial, particularly because they were terrorists. Which is a statement you cannot say in Israel today. I'm not terribly fond of the portrayal of the Irgun that right-wingers tend to stick to. 

A glen with a great, majestic tree.

The old Ottoman Shuni fortress. Shuni means "granary" in Arabic - after its military life, this fortress was converted into a grain silo for local Arab villages. Then rats figured out how to get in, so it was unused for a while. Then (official history starts here) it was used by the Irgun and Etzel - a British-aligned Jewish nationalist group that fought for the Allies in Iraq - as bases at various points. Now, it's a picnic spot.

Shuni's built on the ruins of a Roman-era village.

Another view of the countryside.

Leaving Jabotinsky Park - The sign reads "go in peace."

Misspelled road signs are pretty uncommon in Israel.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Quotidian Bits of an Israel Visit

I'm in Israel! I'm visiting my grandparents, who live north of Tel Aviv, and my mother's family, which is spread out. While I will do some big things (which you will hear about tomorrow), most of the stuff I'm doing is pretty quiet - visiting relatives and such. I've been here before...

We had to make a quick trip to the hospital this morning for my grandfather - although all is well now. Israeli hospitals are efficient.

So I have three little pictures from you - little things that I saw today - and one anecdote.

Eshel is a type of yogurt/cottage cheese. It's not readily procured outside of Israel, and it's somewhat sour. It's also amazingly delicious (and fatty). I go through tons of the stuff. This is the classic Israeli breakfast food, and price rises for eshel and other forms of cottage cheese sparked Israel's version of the Occupy movement this summer.

A vintage Beetle, parked on the street! One very, very rarely sees vintage vehicles in Israel, and most cars are pretty new. Traffic is terrible during rush hours partly because the roads were planned when much fewer people drove.

A modern apartment block. Israeli apartment buildings are almost always white or beige, and balconies and white windows are pretty standard. Israel has a very specific urban-planning aesthetic that goes back to settlement arrangements for Jewish refugees in the '50s.

19:14, 18 March 2012, Herzliyya I'm walking on the main street in the middle-class section of Herzliyya (as opposed to the wealthy section closer to the sea). It's pretty quiet; the rush hour has just ended. An old man is dragging along a child, who is throwing some sort of tantrum. Among the other things the child says,

"I'll run away to Chicago, so you'll freeze before you can make me..."

Given the recent weather, that would be an unwise assumption, young man.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Errata: Israel Notes, and π-Themed Recipe

I told myself I wasn't going to blog until both of my papers are in. They are in. So I am back!

Today is pi day! In honor of that:

Pi Apple Cake

π apples, chopped up
π /2 cups flour
π eggs
π /4 cup sugar
π /5-π/4 cup milk
1/π tsp. salt
cinnamon to taste

1. Preheat oven to 120π degrees. Grease a 3πx4π cake pan.

2. Layer the apples in the pan, leaving space in between at places.

3. Mix the ingredients into a thick batter. Pour into the pan and spread evenly over, letting the batter seep into the apples.

4. Bake for 12π-18π minutes, or until a fork comes out clean. Remove, cool and serve.


I'm going to Israel for a week next week during the university break. I found a really cheap ticket, and I haven't seen the family for a while. My grandfather just turned 90, and my grandmother turns 85 in a few days, so they can't really come to the US anymore. Expect a couple of posts on Israel. I'm really excited, and I'm super-grateful that I have the chance to go. I really miss my relations.

I am going primarily to visit relatives. But I will want to see the facts on the ground.

I'm pretty worried about the way Israeli politics are swinging. So extreme! I'm not referring to the West Bank and Gaza issue - everyone is extreme on that count (Erekat refused to even sit down with the Israeli negotiators last time), and that's been around for a hell of a long time. I'm talking about the clampdown on the press within Israel, and on criticism of dogma. It's a domestic thing.

Don't get me wrong: Israel is still pretty damn free. There has to be a reason that the press is still so lively, that 5,000 refugees from Arab countries a year come to Israel so that they won't be killed for being gay, that German tourists are flocking to Tel Aviv.

 But it's worrying when the main critical TV station gets threatened with closure, when 51% of the population thinks criticism of the state should be punished, when certain things can and cannot be broadcast and the reason isn't the old security thing. It's worrying when eight-year-old girls get spit on and called sluts for not dressing "modestly" enough - all while the spitters themselves violate tzniut themselves by acting immodestly.

So I will want to see how things are. How ordinary life has been affected. When I go back, I become Israeli for a few days - and I'll be able to notice the little changes in things. What's on the radio? What's being said? What if I say something to someone? What are the bumper stickers? Does anyone have a bumper sticker from the time Clinton said farewell to Rabin in Hebrew still? What do the posters say?

I may be in Haifa on the same day as Israel's first SlutWalk (an awesome anti-blamethevictimforrape demonstration movement), visiting relatives (or second, Tel Aviv might be a few days earlier). Should I go if I can? I need to take an early afternoon train because the public transport system shuts on Shabbat.