Author Archives: Lili Kalish Gersch

Just You Wait

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

One of the stand-out sessions for me at this year’s LimmudNY was a panel called Can You Hear My Now? Fixed Liturgy and the Crisis of Prayer.

It included such luminaries as Rabbis Michael Strassfeld, Reuven Hammer, and Andrea Cohen-Kiener.

They each had a lot of interesting insights on prayer,the possibility/necessity of change to the service, and more.

At the beginning of the question and answer portion of the session I raised my hand and asked a question that all of the sudden seemed very important:

How can I balance my own spiritual needs–my desire to have a deep and meaningful prayer experience–with the education and care of
my young child?

I sat back and waited for their words of wisdom. Interestingly enough, only Andrea Cohen-Kiener, the sole woman on the panel, chose to answer the question. And she answered in a way that I truly didn’t expect. Especially not from a feminist (and female) Renewal rabbi.

First of all, she said, you should know that there’s a heter (exemption) for you that allows you not to be obligated to fixed prayer during this time in your life. (A misleading statement–in the tradition it’s not so much a heter as a lack of obligation altogether–and covers a woman’s entire life).

Also, she continued, though in the ancient period a women spent most her short life childbearing, for this is only a short period in your life, and before you know it, it will be over, and you’ll probably miss it. And meanwhile, you’re engaged in some of the most spiritual work of all, shaping a young spirit.

That doesn’t mean, she said, that you don’t need “the pause that refreshes” that prayer offers. You just may not be able to get it at 9:30am on Saturday morning.

Her advice? Form a Rosh Hodesh group or create some other form of woman’s prayer group. Or set aside time each night to read something spiritually uplifting. Find the time, inside or outside synagogue, to nurture your soul.

I appreciated her advice, but I also found it somewhat troublesome…she essentially advised me to give up on finding spirituality in my Shabbat prayers until my children are older. I don’t think that I’m ready to do that, and I’m sure that I’ll continue to search for ways to make it work.

And as for forming women’s groups…an interesting idea, but most of the women in my circle don’t have the time or the inclination to join yet another group and take away from the already limited time that they get with their children.

But she also reminded me that having my son with me in shul–even as he pulls off my hat, throws cookies, and shouts at the rabbi–adds a level of joy and truth to my prayers that would have been totally unachievable without him. And with every “amen” he utters, I can feel pride in the beautiful Jewish soul that is developing within him.

Had her advice come out of the mouth of an Orthodox rabbi, I most certainly would have taken issue, seen in it hints of the “women are on a higher spiritual level” idea that is used to exclude women out of so much of traditional Jewish public life.

But coming from a female Jewish renewal rabbi, it was something else entirely, and so I listened with an open heart. And that’s how I came to remember that though communal prayer will always be an important part of my Judaism, there are many types of spiritual experiences to be had in this life.

Posted on January 21, 2008

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Shabbat at LimmudNY

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OR: Tales of a Postdenominational Jew at a Postdenominational Conference.

This is my first year at LimmudNY, and I didn’t quite know what to expect. One thing I knew, though–with the multiplicity of Shabbat prayer choices–traditional egalitarian, Sephardic, Shira Chadasha style, mechitzah non-egalitarian, meditative, instrumental, yoga-infused–this was my chance to explore the unknown.

To try things that weren’t available–or at least not to me–back in Washington, Dc, without fear of of judgment or reproof. And I tried to. I showed up ready to meditate my way through Kabbalat Shabbat. But 10 minutes into it they were still discussing what they were GOING to do. We’re going to meditate, we’re going to sing, we’re going to breath. And contemplate–boy are we going to contemplate.

And, with the strains of a spirited service wafting through the air from several rooms over, I was ready to just DO already. So off I went to the next stop…traditional egalitarian, which that night was being led by a Latino Jewish man teaching the mostly-Ashkenazi crowd some Sephardic tunes. But with a room full of newbies to Sephardic singing, the atmosphere was muted, and I was unmoved.

And so I followed the strains of the music across the hall to the the mechitzah Carlebach service. My husband looked over at my quizzically–with all these options, and with all my stated desires to “break free,” how had I wound up back in what was, essentially, the Orthodox service at LimmudNY?

I simply went to the most beautiful tefillot I could find. The mechitzah minyan won not because of the mechitzah but despite of it, and together with my son, husband, and hundreds of Limmud-niks, I had a great time.

Maybe there’s something to be learned here about pluralism, or about self-exploration. At very unique events like LimmudNY, you can forge your own path through spiritual marketplace, and follow it wherever it may lead…even if it brings you right back where you started.

Posted on January 20, 2008

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Watch the Money

This entry was posted in History on by .

Leave it to the Federation of Silicon Valley to figure out how to use technology compellingly and effectively. 

This cute video does a great job of explaining what the Federation actually does with all that money.

Thanks to JTA for the head’s up!

Posted on January 15, 2008

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Interview with Merle Feld

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

I recently had the opportunity to interview poet and educator Merle Feld, author of A Spiritual Life: Exploring the Heart and Jewish Tradition. Her book recently came out in a revised and updated edition that includes a readers and writers guide.

LKG:

61488_cov.jpgHere’s an excerpt from your most famous poem, We All Stood Together:

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there

Since the first time I read this poem, I’ve definitely thought of your poetry as a form of contemporary midrash. As a young woman it really freed me to look at the untold stories in the Tanach, gave me a peek into the authentic experience of women living during that time.

Reading a spiritual life, however, I notice that the bulk of your poetry is much more personal. And yet, as you go from community to community, these very personal poems are allowing others to deepen their own spiritual lives. This is the very reason that you created the reader’s and writers guide for the new edition of your book–to facilitate these types of encounters with your text. I find this fascinating–has the story of your spiritual life itself become the midrash to be interpreted?

MF:

Lili, this is such an interesting question. In all the work I do*, I see the stories of my own experience, my feelings, questions, sorrows, fulfillment, as an invitation – to readers, to audiences, to my many students – I am extending a hand, I am trying to encourage you to see your own life as sacred, as worthy of self-examination and reflection. One former student from years ago, now a highly successful rabbi herself with a large loving following, said to me when A Spiritual Life was published, “This is a gift, you give so much of yourself to others, you give so deeply.”

In the way I wrote this memoir, I don’t see it as egotistical – after all, a memoir can be “look at me and all the important things I’ve done” – no. Mostly A Spiritual Life is about what I’ve felt and thought, how I’ve struggled to make a meaningful life and especially how I’ve struggled to value myself and be empowered to live fully. But I see the purpose of sharing personal stories and poems as all being in the service of supporting the development of the reader. I strive to establish a really deep place as the place that it’s worth talking from – that’s the place I write from, and I’m trying to inspire readers and students to go to that deep place within themselves, to have the courage to do that, to do that work, to find their own authentic voice and to speak, write live, from that personal authenticity. And also to be in their communities and out in the world relating to others in that daring and true way.

Yes, you’re right, that’s exactly why I created the Readers and Writers Guide for this new book – I chose seven themes that were very important to me, that constitute the substance of the book, and the Guide helps readers focus on these themes, use the questions I provide to open conversations and deepen the level of intimacy and meaning in their book groups, adult ed study classes, in their havurot or synagogues. Readers can also use the Guide to focus their own personal journaling, exploring the feelings and the issues of these poems about our ordinary lives that are anything but ordinary when you stop to really look and listen – so much holiness there in our everyday lives, waiting to be noticed.

*My work for many years was with a very diverse, widely ranging constituency; now I focus on teaching rabbinical students (Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform and nondenominational) to develop writing as a spiritual practice – that’s a story in and of itself! Continue reading

Posted on October 22, 2007

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Shana Tova, Ima

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Since the beginning of Elul I’ve been participating in a project that has surprised and delighted me every step of the way: Ima Shalom–a Jewish mothering blog.

I started it because I was vaguely aware that there is something deeply thoughtful and spiritual about being a Jewish mother, and I wanted to use the blog to explore the complexities of Jewish parenthood. I invited a few smart, funny mamas (and one daddy) along for the ride.

Tonight is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. With the High Holidays looming large, all of this week’s posts have been devoted to the process of preparing for the holidays, both spiritually and physically. Bake the challahs, cook the chicken, figure out how to make your holiday spiritual while chasing after crazy, happy babies.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a new mother during the most reflective time of the year, but these posts resonate deeply–the conflicts, the joys, the hopes for the future.

I invite you to take a bit of time today to share the journeys of these Jewish mothers. With any luck, they will enrich your High Holidays as much as they have mine.

And be sure to check out MyJewishLearning’s fantastic Rosh Hashanah content!

Best wishes for a Happy New Year!

Posted on September 12, 2007

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True Joy, Through Water

This entry was posted in Holidays, Practices on by .

Canfei Nesharim, a terrific organization that works to inspire the Orthodox Jewish community to understand and act on the relationship between Jewish Law, traditional Jewish sources and modern environmental issues, has a wonderful and innovative Sukkot program called True Joy, Through Water.

The program invites families and communities to recognize the importance of water on Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret.

Canfei Nesharim also has excellent resources for families and communities available for sale on their website, including Sukkah decorations, environmental reminder stickers for children, coupons for eco-friendly paper products, and eco-friendly lulavim and etrogim.

For all of their great Sukkot resources, visit http://canfeinesharim.org. The deadline for orders of Sukkot packages is September 19th, so act now!

Posted on September 11, 2007

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JewWalking

This entry was posted in General on by .

Check out this hilarious video from the National Jewish Outreach Program.

When I saw the title–a take-off of The Tonight Show’s “JayWalking,” a segment devoted to mocking the so-called ignorance of the masses–I was all poised to feel over-educated and intellectually superior. But the truth is, even with my day school education and year in yeshiva, there were more than a few answers that were nowhere near the tip of my tongue.

So either I’m not as smart as I think I am (shocking!) or I’ve lost some of the hard-won Jewish knowledge I gained along the way because I took too much of my learning for granted. In any case, I think it’s time to go review my Aleph Bet

Posted on August 31, 2007

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Eat Your Plov

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

What is plov? And why is it an Uzbeki favorite?

Find out the answers to all these questions and more in the latest installment of Adeena Sussman’s MJL food column, “The Inspired Kitchen.”

Posted on August 30, 2007

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The Pressure Cooker

This entry was posted in General on by .

Don’t get me wrong. Academic pressure is nothing new. Case in point: when I was in third grade my teacher called my parents in and told them they had to ease up on me.

They had no idea what the teacher was talking about, because they weren’t putting any pressure on me at all. It was all my own eight-year-old self.

Let’s face it. Once you move past the protected bubble of blocks and naptime and graham crackers that is preschool and kindergarten, school is HARD. It is serious work. Perhaps even more difficult than so-called “grown-up jobs,” where you are at least allowed to stand up and stretch whenever you please.

But school is also fun. The new friends, unique experiences and even–maybe especially–the learning. So how do we give our children a love of school and learning that will take them through their ABCs, SATs and beyond?

On our homepage this week, Sharon Duke Estroff offers age-old parenting lessons for a new school year, showing us how we can help our children succeed academically without driving them–or ourselves–crazy. And reminding us that:

…even if you conclude that your child is not a budding Albert Einstein, you’re in good company. At the end of the day most of our kids are, well, regular old kids–good at some things, not so good at others. And counting on us to love and support them in all their wonderfully regular-kid glory.

Posted on August 21, 2007

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Elul Musings

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

This is my first Elul as a mother, but not my first as a daughter. WOW do I have a lot of apologizing to do.

When I was pregnant and miserable, we joked around a lot that my various sufferings would be “a kapparah”–like Yom Kippur, they would expiate my sins. But now that I am a mother, I’m only beginning to realize the depth of my wrongdoings–not just this year, but just about every year since I turned 12.

What have I done that’s eating away at my conscience so badly? Nothing that most every child in the free world hasn’t done–given my parents the occasional bad attitude, criticized them publicly when they were embarrassing me, failing to call or email for days at a time. And every year, when Yom Kippur came around, taking the easy way out and not apologizing.

But this year I get it. Only 9 months into the experience of being a parent, I understand the depth of the sacrifices parents make for their children. The emotional and financial investment. The unconditional love that exposes you completely and leaves you deeply touched but also deeply vulnerable.

My little boy has just begun crawling, but already sometimes he chooses to crawl away. For now, he always crawls back. But in my more thoughtful moments, I wonder to myself…will we still be so close when he is talking, walking, going to school? When he gets married and has a family of his own? After less than a year of living together as a family I can already sense that if the answer were to be “no,” it would break my heart.

So this Elul, join me is asking yourself: have your truly respected your parents? Loved them? And when appropriate, feared them?

If, like me, you all too often haven’t, let’s make this year different. Let’s apologize–and mean it. And let’s make a vow–a real, binding, vow–to show our love and respect for the people who created us, now and in the future.

Cross-posted to Ima Shalom.

Posted on August 15, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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