Archive for the ‘judaism’ Category


part 6: a gluten-free meditation on passover

April 4, 2012

Part 6 (and final) in a series on bread and baking.

This post is not about bread. It certainly has a place in this series, but it is not about bread, or even about baking.

What does it mean to be gluten-free and celebrating Passover? On Passover we clean our homes of hametz, anything yeast-leavened made from the five grain species: barley, rye, oats, wheat, and spelt. Anyone gluten-free knows that those are precisely the grains we are already avoiding 365 days per year. The only permissible form of food made from these grains is matzah, which has to be baked for 18 minutes or less. According to Jewish law, Jews are not permitted to own or eat any hametz during the eight days of Passover.

OK, so what. I’m one step ahead of you all!

The focus of Passover for me, growing up, was about restrictions. In addition to the restrictions on bread, pasta, and other yeast-leavened foods, because we were Ashkenazi (descendants of Jews from Eastern Europe), we were also restricted from eating kitniyot, which includes legumes, rice, and seeds. This meant Passover was eight days of being perpetually hungry. For a lot of Jews, Passover is akin to Yom Kippur.

But Passover is also the holiday of spring and rebirth! Such symbolism and beauty.

For me, the last few years of eating gluten-free have also coincided with my own development of a deep love and understanding of local food, which came with a new appreciation for the rhythm of the seasons. In Boston, spring means that crocuses have come up, daffodils are blooming (a little too early this year), perennial greens are returning. It also means that my farmer friends are starting seedlings in their greenhouses, and work crews return to the farm to begin cultivating the soil and readying the land for the new growing season.

Passover has become a time to focus not on food restrictions, but on the miracle of the shifting of seasons that turns snowy fields into homes for thousands of plants in a matter of months.

young beet seedlings

beets begin their initial ascent in the greenhouse, march 2012, at powisset farm, dover, ma

In her book Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection, Jessica Prentice writes a chapter on The Egg and its symbolism in spring. On chicken farms, springtime means an increase in egg production, as light stimulates hens’ pituitary gland to produce a hormone that stimulates their ovaries to produce eggs. (My farmer friend M was telling me yesterday that their chickens are producing so many eggs right now that they can’t keep up.). Factory egg farming increases production by lighting the factory 24 hours a day, creating a sort of perpetual summer for the hens. Adding antibiotics to the mix ensures a standard egg production all year round. But at small farms with actual free roaming chickens, springtime is truly when egg production booms.

hens at powisset farm

chickies at powisset farm, dover, ma (photo credit: powisset facebook page)

multicolored springtime eggs from powisset farm

multicolored springtime eggs from powisset farm

Eggs are a common springtime symbol, including in the big spring holidays of North America, Passover and Easter. Prentice writes, “Eggs, like seeds, are symbolic of hope and of a future that is fertile with life. They are an ancient icon of spring, rebirth, and renewal.”

As we move from winter, the season of scarcity, to spring and summer, seasons of abundance, let’s reframe Passover not as a time of restriction but as one of hope and abundance. Anyone with food restrictions (including gluten) can tell you that life is vibrant, colorful, and more fun when we focus on the abundance of foods that we can eat, instead of the ones we can’t. Enjoy the new greens, the richness of springtime eggs, and revel in the miracle of changing seasons.

springtime sky, jamaica plain, ma

springtime sky, jamaica plain, ma


bread and baking part 2: baking as a spiritual practice

February 22, 2012

Part 2 in a series on bread and baking.

“One eats in holiness and the table becomes an altar.” -Martin Buber

Like many people who grow up in the Conservative movement, I did not have a natural sense of spirituality associated with Jewish ritual, prayer, or liturgy. I am not sure this is Conservative Judaism’s strong suit. I struggled with what role God does or should play in my life, what the purpose of praying is, how to find meaning in the canon of Jewish liturgy.

Spirituality, what does that even mean? Right now it means a sense of a power larger than me, who partners with me in creating my life. I have a sense of feeling part of something else, something beyond my own decisions and actions. It also connects me with my history, both personally and communally. And it gives me the ability to look at everyday actions, beauty, friends, solitude, music – with a sense of awe, though I sometimes think of myself as a cynic.

I picked up baking. Bread, specifically. And the start of bread baking for me was also the beginning of a new chapter of spiritual practice. I could say that I baked bread for the purpose of having bread to eat – that would be simple enough. But I was living alone at the time. And as my “hobby” picked up, I started to have more bread than I could eat, so I would share it with co-workers and friends, which gave me a second layer of satisfaction beyond baking it and eating it in my own kitchen.

round challah rising

learning to slow down: a rosh hashanah challah is carefully braided and then rises again before being baked

Coming into this spiritual practice also required leaving New York. I needed to feel more connected to my body, my food, community – and I needed to slow down in order to do that. In Boston I had a more flexible schedule, more time to cook and bake. And at the same time, I was coming to the realization that I had a gluten intolerance. My body could no longer digest the magical bread I had started baking only a year earlier. I was devastated.

So here was the moment. What did I love about baking bread?
Slowing down. The slower the better. Mark Bittman’s No Knead bread was a revelation to me. All this bread needed was yeast, salt, flour, and water. And time.

no-knead bread

no-knead bread rising in a floured towel

Planning ahead. I have always been a planner. Baking bread really took full advantage of this skill. There’s something that I actually love about how you can’t eat bread 5 minutes after you thought to make it. The best bread takes thoughtful planning, no shortcuts or tips or “30 minute meals” here.

Presence. Bread does not bake itself. Whether it’s bread that requires kneading or overnight time or, in the case of gluten-free bread, careful measuring and balancing of flours, you need to be present. This might be the crux for me: much like meditation, bread baking requires mindfulness and focus. Just because you know the recipe by heart does not mean you can check out and think about something else. You might forget the salt, or overknead, or not leave yourself enough time for your bread to rise.

Magic. Here is where Shechina/God comes in. Bread is a partnership between humans and divinity. The fact that you can take a grass (I’m talking gluten here), grind it up into tiny disparate parts, mix it with water and live cultures and turn it into bread? There’s something magical happening there. I believe that even those chemical reactions are God.

Connection. Nourishing other people with your hard work – do I even need to get into this? What a blessing for everyone involved. We nourish ourselves by nourishing others.

With all of this in mind, I began a Community Supported Breadery (CSB) in my new community in Boston, and became known in some circles as “the bread person.” This was at the same time I stopped eating gluten. A lot of people were confused by this, but it made perfect sense to me: bread baking brought me so much spiritual and emotional nourishment and I could no longer eat it – so I needed an outlet for it. This was it. And it was wonderful. I was fully present, immersed in flour and yeast and caraway seeds and raisins two days per week, and was visited by new friends and community members, excitedly picking up warm loaves of bread from my home.

The CSB proved to be a perfect bridge between my short-lived bread baking and eating days and my gluten free days. It allowed me to continue the spiritual practice, to cultivate it multiple times a week, without having to eat all that bread.

pile of fresh bread

community supported breadery (CSB) breads awaiting pickup

I believe that each of these parts of bread baking are spiritual practices to cultivate on their own. And each time we practice one of them in our kitchens we work towards turning our kitchen tables into altars.

Upcoming installments: feminism and connections to the past; crossing over to the gluten free side of baking, and more.


heighten us, purify us

July 12, 2007

I just watched one of the most powerful visual images of occupation that I think I’ve ever seen. A Palestinian fruit grove in the village of Ertas, near Bethlehem, was destroyed a few months ago to make way for a new sewer system for Efrat (a Jewish settlement). The first half of the video shows some of the village’s inhabitants camping out on their land, discussing the IDF plans for the confiscation and razing of their land. There is an interaction between a Palestinian and a soldier that has an almost friendly tone to it. The second half of the video shows protesters being dragged off and apricot trees literally being uprooted while their owners look on from the side. It is so unbelievably heartbreaking. Part of the drama of the second half of the video is the melodramatic music playing in the background. For the unfamiliar, the song is from the Friday evening (sabbath) prayers. The translation of the lyrics:

Please, with the might of your right, untie the bundle:
Accept your people’s prayer song, heighten us, purify us, Mighty one:
Please hero, your uniqueness worshipers, guard them closely:
Bless them purify them, your rightfulness mercies, always reward:
Immune, proud, with your good will, manage your people:
Single, proud, address your people, who remember your holiness:
Accept our plea, and hear our cry, he who knows histories:
Blessed be his kingdom’s honor forever: (source)

Via Jewschool.


redefining the settler movement

June 6, 2007

In my mind, Jews moving to the West Bank because of religious fervor were the lowest of the low. During the time I spent in Israel, I learned to despise settlers. Where do they get off thinking that this is what God wants them to do? How can they justify this behavior with religious rhetoric?

But then, I find out that there are many American Jews who are moving to the West Bank to cities that are commuting distance from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for purely economic reasons. And then I throw up a little bit in my mouth. I am disgusted by American Jews who make sense of this unethical decision by citing how cheap it is and how they can have an even more lavish home than they had in the US.

Settlements near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have become a suburban paradise for North American religious Jews. They offer large homes with yards, lawns and swimming pools, and prices are low compared with those of the cramped apartments not only of Israel’s main population centers but also of such smaller cities as Beit Shemesh and Modi’in.

For the record, there is a water shortage in Israel. Israelis, settlers specifically, consume far more water than their Palestinian neighbors and Palestinians are frequently denied access to water that falls in the West Bank. (google ‘palestinian water crisis’ and you will find an endless number of hits). This new generation of settlers define their personal happiness not by God’s commandment to settle the land but by how many valuable public resources they can waste and how short their commute is. In a way, it is even more disgusting to me than religious settlers – at least the latter think they have God on their side.

Beyond that, I cannot even get into the rest of the ironies of this trend – the fact that these communities are “safer” than the ones they left in the US; that they have more security than cities in Israel proper; that the Israeli government cannot offer US olim (immigrants) economically comparable options within Israel proper; that these new communities are popular because they are “gated” communities, giving the olim a feeling of being part of an exclusive community for much less money than gated communities in the US.

Thank you, olim from Teaneck, for making it so clear that this occupation goes beyond religious rhetoric. At its core, this 40-year old occupation is about economic opportunities and natural resources.

““The take-home message is that whatever living standard you could imagine or dream is possible here.”

Right. As long as you’re Jewish and come from an upper-middle class community in the US and therefore feel entitled to all the land, space, and resources you like.


Do middle-class people have to play poor to make poverty newsworthy?

May 2, 2007

To prove how absurdly low $3/day is for food, a rabbi and his family in Portland, Oregon took on the challenge of eating on this budget for Shabbat. (I believe that $3 a day is what eligible Oregonians receive in foodstamps.). Rabbi Daniel Isaak was inspired by Governor Kulongoski’s Hunger Awareness Week challenge (p.s. Kulongoski’s challenge, and his shopping list, made it into the NYTimes last week). I think it’s a great lesson that this rabbi was trying to teach his congregants, and perhaps this is a lesson for all middle-class folks to learn. It might have even reached legislators. Beyond that, it’s kind of insulting that poor people in this country deal with these issues every day, without taking it on as a choice or an experiment, and their stories are not news- or blog-worthy.

This reminds me of the Oprah I caught a few months ago about Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame) and his fiancee’s challenge to live making minimum wage for 30 days. Spurlock went all woe is me on Oprah and I was thinking, couldn’t we get some people who actually make this amount of money as guests on this show? Why are their stories not newsworthy? The story makes some important points, though I would venture that they are points that poor people who don’t have a choice in the matter have thought about many times.

The Jewish piece of this also makes me uneasy. The article swallows whole the assumption that all Jews are middle- and upper-class when we know that this is far from the truth.

Thank you, Governor Kulongoski. I think your challenge is a very Jewish exercise. Many reasons are given as to why we fast on Yom Kippur. Among them is to remind us as we stand before God on this most solemn day in the Jewish calendar of those who have nothing to eat. And then when our stomachs begin to growl just after noon on Yom Kippur we read the words of Isaiah that I quoted two weeks ago calling on us to “Share your bread with the hungry, Take the wretched poor into your home, When you see the naked, clothe him, And not ignore your own kin.” Similarly we sit in the Sukkah in order to remind us of the innumerable people who do not have proper shelter and are exposed to the elements. On Passover we begin the Seder with an invitation to those who are hungry to join us in our celebration.

I shudder at the distance created between “we Jews” and “those poor people out there.”

I am committed to the notion that blogs and web 2.0 can be used as a tool for social change. But as I’ve learned in my community organizing, social change cannot happen unless, in this story, folks getting $3/day in foodstamps or working poor making minimum wage unite and speak out in their own voices, telling their own stories. Telling the world that their stories are what matter. I just wonder what good it actually does to tell stories about middle-class people “slumming” to learn (and subsequently teach) a lesson. It creates an incredible distance between people. Whose stories are worth telling and whose voices are silenced? Aren’t we just continuing a cycle that we think we’re breaking?

Via JSpot and Jewschool


The JTS Decision, part 1: On Pluralism and Foucault

April 8, 2007

Yesterday I called my parents’ house and interrupted Shabbat lunch. “Good shabbos!” my dad exclaims, “we were just talking about queer theory!”

Excuse me? I had apparently called during a discussion of Einat Ramon’s comments on chancellor-elect Arnold Eisen’s recent significant decision to allow out gays and lesbians into the JTS rabbinical school. You can read Dr. Eisen’s full statement here.

There are a few parts of this momentous decision and the discussions that have followed since it was made that have interested me in particular. The first is the debate about the significance of pluralism in the Conservative movement. Since the comparisons to JTS’ 1983 decision to ordain women as rabbis are so obvious, I appreciate that there are some bold leaders who are wondering aloud if pluralism is really a useful value for the Conservative movement. There’s this assumption that the more left-wing/ progressive/ whatever you are, the more you tout values of tolerance and pluralism above all others. How can you teach a girl that she is as worthy a member of a community as her boy peers if her participation in that community is “optional”? (thanks to Rabbi Ayelet Cohen’s wonderful drash, which I was lucky enough to hear during Pesach in my hometown synagogue, wherein she asked many of these important questions). And as Rabbi Jill Jacobs states plainly and strongly: “this type of pluralism cannot coexist with an ethic that values egalitarianism (both as related to women and GLBT Jews).”

Pluralism apparently also means that we have to respect homophobic bigots in our community, leaders in our community. Feh. Rabbi Einat Ramon, the dean of the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school in Israel, doesn’t even pretend that her disgust towards gay and lesbian life has anything at all to do with Halakha (Jewish Law). Unlike many of her colleagues, Rabbi Ramon doesn’t even bother dealing with the beloved Leviticus verses.

“Jewish theology regards the union between a man a woman who are sexually and emotionally different from one another as a complementary covenant of friendship and intimacy, which forms the basis for procreation and childrearing. This is why Jewish law has so fervently opposed sexual relations between members of the same sex”, she explained, “and why the heterosexual family has played such a vital role throughout the ages in the transmission of Jewish values and the survival of the Jewish people.” (source)

By Rabbi Ramon’s own logic, then, shouldn’t she be at home, raising her children and keeping a home for her husband? Hypocrisy aside for a second, Ramon seems to be using the word “theology” in place of “personal discomfort and homophobia.” Here’s where my family’s queer theory discussion comes in – Ramon has been doing her queer homework and reading up on her Foucault, as most deans of rabbinical schools should be doing.

Ramon stressed that her conclusion was based in part on the importance of the heterosexual family unit in traditional Judaism. She said that a discussion of “why people are feeling disenchanted and alienated by the heterosexual family today” should be undertaken in order to ensure the family unit’s survival. Ramon further contended that homosexuality is a choice, a position, she said, that is taken by “gay thinkers,” including Michel Foucault. (source)

Both of her quotes deserve some unpacking, I think. I find it hilariously ironic that Ramon is reading queer theory. Here’s some clarifying points that might shock and frighten Ramon and her camp:

-People feel disenchanted by the heterosexual family because marriage’s original purposes, which were mostly economic, are becoming obsolete. Love does not a marriage make, apparently.

-Like secular and Christian marriage, traditional Jewish marriage has historically had less to do with “friendship and intimacy” than it does with economic security. Read the text of a traditional ketubah (marriage contract) lately? This is not to say that Jewish marriages now are not based on love – the point I’m making is that she cannot talk as if Jewish theology has dictated marriages based on love and friendship throughout all of Jewish history. BS.

-Queer theory is not about gay sexuality per se, it is about the history of sexuality as a whole, about giving names and legitimacy to structures already in place.

-Queer theory, if you’re reading it in context and not to pull out key points to throw back at the evil gays, will tell you that the whole question of whether homosexuality is inborn or a choice is asked with a whole set of problematic assumptions behind it.

In the History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that “sodomy” (a behavior) only became “homosexuality” (an identity) when it was named as such by psychiatrists and doctors in the 19th century. We can pick at this theory forever, but for the moment I’ll just say that there are a million ways to track the history of gay identity – Foucault, for me, is one of the less useful ones. What is certain for me is that this identity developed historically and not genetically. The whole idea of choice is complicated by the powerful roles of historical and contextual forces. If we are reading queer theory (and we are, apparently), then we understand that the nature/nurture dichotomy is bunk.

Beyond Ramon’s vitriol, pluralism continues to rear its ugly head in the form of complete silence from Conservative leaders on Ramon’s conflation of Jewish history, theology, Halakha, and her own personal paranoid opinions on homosexuality. I have yet to hear a single strong voice of public condemnation of these statements. So this is how it’s done: we make a careful, painstaking decision based on many factors. We say that we stand by that decision, we respect The Gays, we want them as rabbis, they are wonderful leaders, etc. But the moment that this decision is tested – another leader speaks out in pretty clear opposition, homophobia, and bigotry, sounding more like a Christian fundamentalist than a Jewish leader – we remain silent, and all for the sake of pluralism (i.e. we are too scared to actually make a strong, critical point so we will stand behind a big sign that says “pluralism.”). Why hold on to pluralism, above other values, so tightly?


In part 2, I’d like to delve a little deeper into names and categories and their significance in this decision – particularly on the nominal and ideological exclusion of transpeople and queers. I’d also like to talk about why Dr. Eisen’s long statement about opening JTS’ doors to gay and lesbian rabbinical students is mysteriously void of any language of sexuality.

tags: Judaism, LGBT/Queer, feminism


Let’s talk specificity, shall we?

March 7, 2007

(this is a long one, so decide now if you want to read it. Topics: anti-religion progressive feminists aka women stuck in the 70’s, people who should STFU, the Haredi sex-segregated bus issues. The rant-y part is separated by that bold line about halfway down.)

Maybe it was the freezing cold weather last night, or the snow I woke up to this morning, or maybe it was the infuriating Jesus preacher woman who thought that 8:30 in the morning on a snowy, cold day would be just a perfect time to command all of her fellow commuting subway riders to accept Jesus as our personal savior.

Or, perhaps my morning got off to a bad start because of a bunch of “feminists” waxing self-righteous about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews in comments section of a Feministe post. A decent post reporting on an awful situation in Israel brought on comments from all kinds of brilliant folks. The situation: pockets of Haredi Jewish men in Jerusalem are attacking women on buses (city, not private) who refuse to conform to the sex-segregation imposed by the men. You can also read a personal account of a woman who experienced this last November (a different woman than the one mentioned in the NPR story linked above).

Just to get this out of the way: this is totally fucked, brings up a whole host of questions about the tenuous relationship between religion and democracy there; the increasing power of the Haredim (pl. for Haredi); the ways that religion can be completely bastardized by its supposed most devout (i.e. to protest the woman’s lack of “modesty,” they kicked her to the ground and pulled off her head covering); and the general violence that seems to permeate every corner of Israeli society; among many other questions. The last time I checked, this news piece does not involve:

-How Haredi Jews in Brooklyn are weird freaks who don’t understand pets or birdfeeders and who are in desperate need of your pity for their backward lifestyle.
-How religion, as a whole, is perverse and how the women who fall victim to it are helpless and in need of our (read: white-, middle-class, and American) feminist rescue.
-Questions of are there any religions out there in the world that love the wimmins, really and truly? (nothing like a completely nonspecific question to spark some real discussion).
-And a complete and detailed response to that question: I would find it hard to imagine a sect of Dianic Wiccans with fundamentalist extremists like that. And Haredi Judaism in Israel has what, exactly, to do with Dianic Wiccans?
-How Haredi Jews are just incredibly annoying (although their payos [sidelocks] are real cool!).
-Umm…I have no response for this one: Sometimes it seems, ironically given the history of the Jewish religion, that today’s pagans and Jews have so much in common 😉
-Factually incorrect statements like my friend’s sister’s mother’s great uncle married a Haredi, so I am therefore the expert: “they also refused to teach the kids how to read and write in English — only Hebrew.” (here’s a clue: if you can’t tell the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish, perhaps you should wonder what right you have to drop your opinion in this thread).

I could go on but I might seriously lose it. I feel like there are some basic rules that people seemed to just throw out the window here. First of all, if you do not know what you’re talking about, DO NOT SPEAK. Seriously. Ask specific questions. Second of all, stay on topic. The big underlying problem with second-wave feminism is that it lacked specificity (or should I speak in the present, lacks specificity, since sometimes I think we’re still in the 1970’s).

But I thought we were beyond that. Right? Because when you think about it, logically, a Haredi woman living in a Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem doesn’t want your feminism, white American college-educated woman! Hello? Why is that so difficult?

“Stop taking your value system completely out of context” rant ends here. Below, for any interested parties, is my own take on this issue.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The way I see it, we have here a situation that calls for a tremendous amount of tact and complicated thinking: two things that are, apparently, foreign to many. The problems here, as I see them, are twofold: one within the Haredi community and one with their relationship with the larger mainstream Israeli society (and a piggyback off the second question: how “religious” should Israel be as a democratic country?).

Haredi women seem to be fighting some part of this battle within their communities and their homes. It is not up to us (including me – and when I say us, I’m talking about women who live in the US, non-Jewish women, non-Orthodox women, even Israeli women who are not Haredi) to decide exactly how that battle should play out, what is at stake for these women in fighting against sex-segregation on buses. Our concern is not whether these women are oppressed in their marriages and their birthing of 12 babies or how in the world they wear those heavy black tights in 90+ degree sweltering desert heat in the summertime in Jerusalem or why they don’t just get on the train/bus to the secular part of town and see the (secular) light! If you’re all about autonomy, how about letting them speak for themselves, hmm? You may wonder about it, but it is completely irrelevant to this discussion. It starts to concern Israeli society at large if it comes to making high-court decisions regarding the permissibility of sex-segregated public buses – and indeed, it does. From the NPR story:

The bus company released a statement saying they let the ultra Orthodox enforce their own rules. The company says its own surveys show that the general public wants “to respect the Haredi-religious sector that uses public transportation and to let them behave in a way that is convenient to them.”

(one aside: Egged’s supposed “live and let live” attitude here is a total farce: Egged buses don’t run on Shabbat, for one – what about “live and let live” for all the secular Israelis who can’t travel on Shabbat?)

What I find really interesting is that Egged (the bus company) has some weird notion that the buses in question move between Haredi neighborhoods, never entering anyplace else, which is not true. The Haredim can’t live their lives isolated from the rest of Jerusalem 100% of the time, and we see the disastrous consequences of this fact when they react to gay pride parade in riots (and the riot police, who are quick to pull out rubber bullets in Bil’in, are strangely nowhere to be seen, but I digress). Egged, like many other bodies in the state of Israel, are completely scared of Haredim, and for good reason: they vote in blocs and they have tremendous political pull.

Religion is tricky – it pushes the public/private boundaries like nothing else that I know of, and in Israel this debate has a tremendous amount more weight. All Israeli Jews have complicated relationships with Judaism (not to mention Palestinians and Palestinian-Israelis, who have a differently complicated relationship with Judaism!); with negotiating their secular identities and the religious country that governs so many parts of their personal lives. I just beg that we keep the discussion in the context where it belongs: in Israel, on the topic not just of religion but of Judaism, and not on Judaism generally but its relationship with the (mostly secular) Israeli mainstream and the laws that govern the state of Israel. Just a little specificity is all I ask.