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Reconstructing Judaism

 

My synagogue belongs to a small branch of Judaism called Reconstructionism. I think there are something like a hundred Reconstructionist congregations, and three hundred and fifty Reconstructionist rabbis, in North America, so it is a small, but not invisible movement. I’ve never quite considered myself a Reconstructionist Jew, though, the way some people identify as Modern Orthodox or Reform or Conservative. I’ve only belonged to this synagogue for six years now, so it’s more that I like my congregation in particular. I still just consider myself Jewish, without a specifier.

I like that the Reconstructionists emphasize that we can make our own choices, about what to believe and how to practice, instead of having to go to the rabbi for his or her dictum. I like that the Reconstructionist movement ordained one of the first female rabbis (way back when), and celebrated the first official bat mitzvah (even further back), two things that are now common place in liberal Judaism. But I get overwhelmed by the social activism, or Tikun Olam, that is emphasized daily at my synagogue. It’s hard to watch eighty year olds go on protest march after protest march and retain any sense of self-respect when I say that I can’t go, or don’t even want to.

I was not educated by Reconstructionists as a child. I went to a Conservative day school and sleep away camp, and then to a Modern Orthodox junior high and high school. Pressure came from every direction, to fit in, rather than to choose for myself or think for myself. And it took a long time for me to find a synagogue, as an adult, where I felt comfortable just as myself. I like that I can choose to get involved in the things that fit me, like Friday night services and discussions, and avoid the things that don’t fit me, like committees, or getting on a bus to Albany to try to convince politicians to change laws. And really, until they accept dogs on these marches and trips, why would Cricket ever let me go without her?

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“Don’t leave me!”

My graduate program in social work has a (very) activist bent as well, so I get a lot of pressure from certain teachers to pursue societal change, rather than to focus on individual people and hearing their stories (which is my favorite part of social work). The fact is, I don’t want to convince people of things; I want to know them, and I want them to know me. And if that changes something for each of us, so much the better.

All of this came up recently because a couple of speakers from the Reconstructionist movement came to speak to my congregation on a Friday night. I was hoping for some wisdom and inspiration, but instead they talked about branding, and the need for more resources from us (money and time, two things I don’t have). It was exhausting, and alienating, and I had to work very hard not to walk out. Cricket would have been barking her head off if she’d been invited to the service, which may explain why she, and her doggy cohort, was not invited.

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“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mommy. I’m a good girl.”

For legal reasons that I still don’t understand, the leadership of the Reconstructionist movement had to change its official name this year, and they came up with Reconstructing Judaism. One of the speakers told us, defensively (because they’ve heard a lot of pushback), that it’s a great name because it’s a verb and implies action. And I felt like she was saying that being a Reconstructionist is an activity rather than an identity.

We are Jew-ing instead of Jewish.

But, what if I’m not up to Jew-ing one day? What if I’m tired and need a nap, does that mean I lose my identity? I don’t want to be told that my belonging to a community depends on the activities other people want me to do; that’s the same kind of rigidity I experienced growing up with Orthodoxy, just with a new set of rituals.

So maybe I will just remain a Jew, without a specifier. The fact is, I don’t mind doing the daily work of reconstructing my own version of Judaism, at my own pace, and based on my own feelings and beliefs. I just don’t want to be told that we all want, and think, and do, the same things; or that we should, if we want to belong. That’s not reconstructing Judaism, that’s reconstructing me to fit into Judaism. And I’m not okay with that.

Cricket thinks it’s ridiculous too. No one tells Cricket who to be.

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“No one tells me what to do, Mommy. No one.”

The Book of Job

 

I’ve been missing the bible study class at my synagogue for the past two months, because it’s on one of my internship days. When I come home from work, I can barely move, let alone get back in the car after dinner and make sense of the Book of Job. My brain is like a block of ice by the end of the day, and it takes hours and hours for any melting to take place in order to allow room for new information to come in.

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“You want me to go out, again?”

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Cricket refuses to go.

I like bible study at my synagogue. It’s nothing like the way we read the books of the bible in my schools growing up. In elementary school (liberal) we read each book like a story, straight through, looking for plot twists and heroes and villains. In Junior high and high school (orthodox) we read everything line by line, or word by word, with three sets of commentators arguing about the deeper meaning of each spelling oddity.

My current rabbi likes to take a literary/historical approach, giving us a sense of when each book was written, and what lessons the stories were meant to convey, and who decided to include them in the canon.

I was in class for a few of the early chapters of the book of Job, where Job is pissed off at God, and wishing for an early death, and his “friends” are self-righteously correcting his thinking and telling him to trust in God and he’ll be fine.

Bullshit. That’s what I was thinking as I sat there reading those annoying passages about how a good person would think and act and speak, accepting fate and God’s judgement and blah blah blah. I came very close to screaming at my poor rabbi for making us read this crap. Can’t they see that this man is in pain?! What kind of friends would have such a lack of compassion?!

            Okay, so I actually said this out loud. But my synagogue is full of social workers and teachers and social activists, so I was not alone in my plaint.

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“We’re with you, Mommy!”

The rabbi rolled his eyes at me (he does this a lot) and said, they’re not really his friends. It’s a literary device (with a look at me, like I should have recognized this). Job gets to criticize God and cry out and get his words published for the world to see, as long as these straw men can put up their empty counter arguments too. Why else would the rabbis have chosen to include the Book of Job, about a non-Jewish man, in the Jewish Canon, if not to offer room for anger at God? They know their people. The Jews need to complain and rail at God, and this was a way for the rabbis to give them permission.

            You have no idea how disappointing this was for me. All this time I thought that my railing against God and orthodoxy and, you know, the weather, was unique to me and a sign of my special insight and intelligence and bravery. But, no. Everyone feels this way, or at least a lot of us, and the rabbis wanted to give us a safe container to express those feelings, without getting excommunicated.

I know that the trend is to do gratitude journals and focus on the positive and say all of the “right” things. But, in my experience, we all have things to complain about and if we can get those complaints out, and find validation with our friends, we’ll have a chance to survive the stress. Whenever people complain to me about something, and then apologize for complaining, I automatically tell them there’s no reason to apologize. Complaining is one of our best tools for maintaining good mental health. Make two complaints and call me in the morning. If we just pretend that everything is okay, and swallow the pain, and spout self-righteous messages on how to be perfect, our heads will explode. Poof! Poof! Poof! Brains exploding all around me.

It’s possible that I learned this lesson about complaining from Cricket, who never lets a complaint go unbarked. Or from Butterfly, who sits down when I try to pull her leash and just waits for me to get the message, I know what I need, Mommy, now f*** off. Though I don’t think Butterfly would ever use that kind of language. I would. But she’s a much better person than I am.

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Cricket is contemplating all of her complaints, and trying to choose the one to bark next.

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Butterfly demonstrating her sit-in techniques.

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And now they are exhausted.

Passover

 

I feel like I want to take a pass on Passover this year. I’ve done it before. I tried to do the whole thing last year – closing up cabinets and shopping for matzo meal and gefilte fish and kosher for Passover candy. I spent an inordinate amount of time looking up articles about kitniyot (some Jews say that beans and corn and rice are fine for Passover, others say no, based on which crops used to grow next to other crops way back when). It is, of course, a fascinating debate. I made a double recipe of Sephardi Charoset (dates and figs and chestnuts and wine and on and on) and resolved to think Passover thoughts for the whole week. But, I didn’t have a Seder to go to, and I hate (really, really hate) Matzo.

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Sephardi Charoset on Matzo is much yummier than it looks (not my picture).

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Here the Charoset is shaped into balls (not my picture). I’ve even seen these covered in chocolate. Seriously.

The problem is that Passover is a family holiday; it’s not a pray-in-synagogue holiday. Everyone comes back to the synagogue the next week with stories about their uncle Zephyr, who drank all of the wine before dinner, and second cousin Zoodle who has a matzo allergy but refuses to abstain and then spends the rest of the night complaining about his belly pains. It’s a badge of honor to come back with the most unbelievable family stories, and I had none.

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“I could eat some matzo!”

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“And chopped liver?”

I used to love Passover when I was little. I loved Grandpa standing at the head of the table, reading from the Maxwell House Haggadah. I loved falling asleep in the guest room, still wearing my dressy clothes. I loved chopped liver, and Brisket and Tzimmes, and super sweet gel candies pretending to be fruit slices.

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There were things I loved about it after my grandfather died, too, just not as many, and not in the same whole sort of way. I loved learning the Yiddish versions of Hebrew songs from the Haggadah, and how the Yiddish words made me feel drunk and silly (in a good way). But I didn’t like when we had guests to our Seder who couldn’t read Hebrew, and my father still insisted on doing the whole thing in Hebrew, making them feel stupid. I hated fighting with my father, every year, because I didn’t want to drink four whole glasses of wine, and to end the argument he called me an apikores (an apostate, but in a bad way).  I remember having to carry all of the boxes of Passover dishes in from the shelves in the mudroom, because my father’s diabetic neuropathy had mostly crippled one of his arms, and I remember scrubbing out kitchen cabinets on my own, because my mother had to escape my father’s screaming abuse.

I remember the last Passover at my parents’ house, just before the divorce, when my father calmly told me that he felt better when he knew my mother was in pain. And I just stood there, frozen, with no more arguments or suggestions or strategies to make him into a real Dad.

Passover is the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt, from slavery into freedom, because we need celebrations to remind us that we really did escape, and the past is over, even though, sometimes, it just doesn’t feel that way.

This year, I’m going to celebrate the exodus by trying to help people at my internship, and studying for my future, in the hopes that that’s what will make the past seem more like the past for me. I’m pretty sure that Cricket and Butterfly are willing to help me with that project, though they were really looking forward to the Brisket.

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“No Brisket? Is she kidding?”

100 Blessings a Day

 

Recently, apropos of something else, my Rabbi mentioned that there is a custom in Jewish life to try and say one hundred blessings a day. Of course, I had to look this up right away. Despite a childhood in Jewish day schools, I had never heard of this one – which means nothing, really, because there’s too much for any one person to learn in a lifetime, let alone in elementary or high school.

There are text-based reasons for the choice of one hundred as the magical number of blessings, but that’s not what interested me. I tend to think you can find text based excuses for anything if you try hard enough. But the idea of one hundred blessings sounds whole and beautiful and challenging enough to encourage the kind of gratitude Oprah used to talk about with her gratitude journals. Saying a blessing is more than just gratitude, it’s a way to make yourself aware of the world around you.

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“Only a hundred blessings? Not a problem.”

The more Orthodox websites said that you could meet your hundred blessings a day quota simply by saying the three set prayer services (morning, afternoon, and evening prayers), plus blessings over meals and handwashing, and you’re golden. But, what if you are a liberal Jew and not up to praying three times a day? Can you still reach an adequate blessing count?

I feel too resentful saying many of the blessings in Hebrew, especially in the formal language of the prayer book, but what if I could make up my own blessings, about the many things that really do jar me from the mundane into the extraordinary every day?

If you are somewhat compulsive in the handwashing arena, you could knock off dozens of blessings a day on that. You could get a lot of blessings in by hanging out with a friend who has allergies and saying Gezuntheit (God Bless You) every time she sneezes. You could eat many small meals a day, to have the chance to say blessings over food over and over again: Thank you God for this Jelly bean that I am about to eat; Thank you God for this piece of chocolate that has saved me from yelling at strangers in the parking lot.

How about: Thank you God for this medication that lowers my blood pressure and keeps my heart pumping; or, Thank you God for this crossword puzzle that allows me to not think about Donald Trump for ten whole minutes; or, Thank you God for the smile on my puppy dog’s face when I say the word “chicken.”

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“Chicken?”

Trying to come up with one hundred blessings a day forces you to think about what you really feel grateful for on a daily basis. There are formal Hebrew blessings for tons of things: for fruit, bread, wine, and cake; for thunder and rainbows; and for the ability to go to the bathroom (Blessed are you, Lord, Our God, King of the universe who created man with many openings…if one of them were to be ruptured or blocked it would be impossible to survive).

Here’s one of mine:

Thank you God, the Universe, and Mother Nature, for the water I drink, the food I eat, the bed I sleep in, and the puppies who make me laugh every single day.

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Amen.

Mourner’s Kaddish

I have felt, for a long time now, that I have mourning to do, without the rituals with which to do it. My grandfather died when I was eight years old and I was not required, or even allowed, to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for him. I have lost dogs, but there is no ritual of Jewish mourning for a dog. There is also no mourning ritual after a betrayal or divorce. There are rituals for birth, coming of age, marriage, and death, but there are more events in life than that.

Delilah at the beach.

Delilah at the beach.

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Dina loved peanut butter.

The Mourners Kaddish is not actually about death, it is about reiterating faith in God. The prayer is mostly in Aramaic, rather than Hebrew. I never studied ancient Aramaic, so I only really understand this prayer because of the English translation. But the sound of the words, sung or spoken, has power, maybe because it sounds different from the largely Hebrew prayers in the rest of the service. It’s almost like the words have magic because of their otherness, as if secrets are hidden within them.

My favorite line of the prayer is a long list of the types of praise we offer. From the Artscroll Siddur: “Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed is He beyond any blessing and song, praise and consolation that are uttered in the world.”

It sounds better in the Aramaic, but it’s this long list of the ways we express love. And yes, we say them about God, but I think of them as being about us, about each other. These are all of the ways we experience and express our love for each other – with glory or comfort, with praise or song, and yet we can never capture all of that love in words because it is beyond the words we have available to describe it. So, yes, we are being reminded to have faith in God at our lowest moment, when we might feel as if God has forsaken us, but for me, it is a moment to acknowledge the love we still feel for the person we have lost, and for the people we still have.

Cricket, giving thanks for a leaf.

Cricket, giving thanks for a leaf.

Butterfly, in silent prayer, for chicken.

Butterfly, in silent prayer, for chicken.

The Mourner’s Kaddish can only be said with a quorum (ten Jews, some congregations still count only men) as part of the service. People who would otherwise say a hasty version of their morning prayers at home before work, will, for the year of mourning, make a point of finding an early service at their own or another synagogue, and hope that at least ten people will show up in time.

The Mourner’s Kaddish is said at the end of the service, not at the beginning, and I can think of a couple of reasons for this: one, so that the mourners will stay for the whole service in order to maintain the quorum and allow for all of the communal prayers to be said; and two, because there is healing energy in being there for the regular daily prayers, with your community, and in deep mourning you may not be able to believe that and choose it for yourself if it were not required.

At my current congregation the custom is, basically, for mourners to stand and the rest of us to sit, for the Mourner’s Kaddish. But over the years the instructions have become more convoluted and the rabbi has had to come up with a paragraph-long list of instructions: if you are in a period of mourning, or have a yahrzeit (the anniversary of the death of a loved one), or are supporting a friend who is in mourning, or think this is a good time to stand and remember…

Earlier in the service, a shortened version of the same prayer is sung, rather than spoken (as it is for the Mourner’s Kaddish) and the feeling is more joyful and light, with the same exact words. It seems to me that using the same prayer for both purposes is a way to gently remind mourners that they used to sing this song, and some day they will again. Until then, they will speak the words with the community, be part of and apart from them, and know that they are seen and that they are not alone.

Most of Jewish ritual is meant to be practical. When it’s not practical, it is either out of date for its original purpose, or the practical purpose is a little more hidden and requires some time and repetition to discover. So I wonder what the ancient rabbis meant by leaving other losses unritualized and unmourned. Maybe some of the prayers just didn’t make it into the canon, or were lost along the way. Maybe one day there will be an excavation of a little town outside of Jerusalem, and inside of an ancient stone dog house they will find the lost book of prayers for how to mourn a beloved dog. I think a lot of people would appreciate that.

I found this stone dog house online. I especially like the potted plant in the window.

I found this stone dog house online. I especially like the potted plant in the window.