Author Archives: Beth Kander

Beth Kander

About Beth Kander

Beth Kander is a writer, who also helps coordinate communication and development efforts for the ISJL.

“It’s The Thought That Counts” Isn’t Good Enough

“‘It’s the thought that counts’ is not a Jewish concept. What you do matters more than what you just think about doing.”

blogelul2014My mother said this at least a thousand times to my brothers and sister and me. And it truly stuck, because as I sit here pondering today’s #BlogElul writing promptDOher words are playing on a loop in my mind.

“‘It’s the thought that counts’ is not a Jewish concept. What you do matters more than what you just think about doing.”

My mother would often follow this admonition with an acknowledgmenta warning, even!that it’s often easier to think about something than do it. To think about visiting someone in the hospital, to think about showing up for the highway cleaning event, to think about attending a funeral. But that’s too easy, and not effective enough.

While people might say, shrugging and smiling and forgiving, “Hey, it’s the thought that counts,” the question is … counts for what?

To use one of the examples my mother might have drawn on in my youth: If your friend mentions she’s thirsty and you think about getting her a glass of water, but you don’t give her any water, why should that count? Pouring her a glass of water and addressing her thirst is what will actually make a difference. Doing counts.

This is what my mother would remind us, as she drove us to the senior citizens’ center to read and sing and spend time with residents there. It is what she would repeat as we went to life cycle events, happy and sad alike. It was her mantra when we volunteered at the soup kitchen as a family, when we visited a cranky relative, when we sent thank you notes for every present ever received.

And as an adult, it’s why I push myself to “do” as much as I can. I saw, time after time, how much it mattered to be there rather than to “keep so-and-so in our thoughts.” When we have the ability to actively do, we also have the responsibility.

We see this reflected throughout Jewish culture and tradition. The Hebrew word mitzvah, which we use to connote good deed, literally means an obligation. We are prescribed to celebrate with bride and groom, to visit the sickto do, to do, to do.

To actively do applies on scales both big and small. When we see an injustice, it’s not enough to notice it. We have to address it. When someone is hurting, it’s not enough to sympathize or empathize with themwe need to find out what they might need, and then whether it’s a hug or a primal scream or to be left alone or whatever, we need to do our best to actively do that.

The balance, of course, comes in the value inherent in thinking. In Jewish tradition, and in life. After all, action without thought, reckless knee-jerk responses without reflection, can be fruitless and even dangerous. I’m a pretty reflective person, and with every fiber of my being, I still want to emphasize thinking. When something challenging is on the news, I still want to ask myself what I really know, and push myself to think and listen and research before settling on what action I will ultimately take. As a first question, I want to ask others “What do you think about this?” and listen to their responses.

But I need to challenge myself, and challenge others, by posing a slightly more difficult second question… not just “What do you think about this?”, but also “What are we doing about this?”

Sometimes, of course, there is nothing we can do. Or we don’t have the ability to take action. But when we can do, we should doand despite what Yoda might have to say about it, sometimes we can at least try, and perhaps the attempt will count for something, too.

It’s not always going to be easy, but hey. Who said it would be easy? Especially when it comes to Jewish stuff? “It’s the thought that counts” is not a Jewish concept. Taking action, and doing the right thing even when it’s hard… that’s a Jewish concept cultivated right down to my core.

Thanks, Mom.

This post was written as part of the #BlogElul project. Today is the first day of Elul, traditionally a time of reflection before the High Holidays. We welcome your reflections, too!

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Posted on August 27, 2014

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

Team Jewish

Jews get lumped together a lot. Polls refer to “the Jewish vote.” We hear about the “Jewish response.” Labels of Jewish are smacked across everything from “Jewish humor” to “Jewish tradition” with little acknowledgment that Sarah Silverman’s fans aren’t necessarily Mel Brooks enthusiasts, and the traditions found in one Jewish household may vary wildly from the traditions found in a household one state over… or just down the block.

When representing a “Southern Jewish” organization, I’ve been asked frequently what makes “Southern Jews” different from “Northern Jews.” My response keeps evolving, but I do think there’s a difference.

Or, y'know, Team Miriam...

Or, y’know, Team Miriam…

There’s a difference because we are all products of our environment. With the exception of communities that choose to be expressly insular, we are all shaped by multiple forces. The Southern Jewish experience, particularly the small-town Southern Jewish experience, is one shaped by having fewer massive Jewish organizational infrastructure, and more overtly Christian neighbors. It is shaped by the music and the culture of the place, as is any other ethnic or religious group living here. In many ways, Southern Jewry has its own flavor, metaphorically and literally. It is connected to the larger Jewish experience, while being unique.

The same is true of Argentinian Jewry. Or Japanese Jewry.

There’s a difference. But there’s also something more. There’s connection– and there’s conflict.

Ever since Jews started living in different places, we have always had things that have distinguished us. But now, more than ever, we seem to have an increasing number of things that not only distinguish us but also divide us. While the larger world might continue to lump us together, it is harder for many of us individual Jews to do so.

From egalitarianism to the equality movement, interfaith families to Israel, we are a polarized people. And in an era where we out our positions on Facebook, contend with new issues daily, our differences are surfaced quite quickly and clearly. When Jews are united on… well, probably nothing… how do we connect?

How do we remain “a people,” whatever that means?

I don’t know. But I do know this: somehow, we do. Somehow, there is still a Team Jewish affiliation that transcends Just-Southern-Jews or Just-Progressive-Jews or Just-Conservative-Jews. The team spirit doesn’t stop simply at our politics, be they progressive or conservative, or at our address, be it in the American South or South America.

It’s hard to define, this invisible thread. It’s a gut feeling. It’s our hearts twisting when the Holocaust is mentioned, and getting riled when it is invoked unjustly (even if our definitions of “unjust use” vary). It’s our ears perking up when there’s a mention of Something Jewish in the news. It’s feeling deep pride (maybe over different things) and feeling deep guilt (definitely over different things) and it’s wrestling, and wrestling, and wrestling.

Somehow, there still is a Team Jewish. But we sure are passing/throwing/swatting/dribbling/hitting a whole lot of different balls/pucks/shuttlecocks/you get the idea. Actually, when it comes to the sports metaphors, maybe Team Jewish is best characterized as a wrestling team? But I digress.

We feel it, but we don’t always show it. Or we show it in different ways. And we disagree, more and more heatedly. And there are seismic shifts and growing rifts in what that tricky “Jewish vote” looks like to the rest of the world, too.

What does that mean for the Jewish future?

Well. I don’t know that, either. But I’m pretty sure there will be a Jewish future. So that’s something.

At various times in my life, my own observance, stances, and struggles have varied. So too have the commitments and connections that kept me playing for Team Jewish. This has been one of those years where it’s challenging to define what exactly those “ties that bind” me might be, as the world continually unravels.

But I keep going to the mat.

Or the stadium. Or whatever.

What are your thoughts? From the cultural to the religious and the inane to the innate… what makes or breaks Jewish identity? How much is it shaped by where you live and what you experience?

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Posted on August 21, 2014

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

Mezuzah Spotting

“Look… a Jewish home!”

MezuzahAs a small child, I found mezuzah spotting to be a very exciting game. We were the only Jewish family where I grew up, and anytime I spotted a mezuzah on a door frame (on the door frame of another resident’s apartment at my Bubbe’s retirement building over in Toledo, Ohio, for example) I was thrilled. It was like a little clue, a code for those in the know.

Spot a mezuzah, find a family like yours.

Especially when families “like yours” are few and far between, there’s something special about finding each other. From a very young age, I understood that Jewish families could look very different, but that there were still certain things we shared—and for me, the mezuzah was one of the most tangible of ritual items, alerting us to one another.

I haven’t lived in a truly rural area since I was 17 years old. But as an adult, I’ve still mostly lived in smaller cities where houses with mezzuzot were still few and far between. When I traveled as an Education Fellow, or went to a friend’s home in Mississippi for a Shabbat dinner, I always paused to smile and sometimes even kiss that little marker on the door that signified I was at another Jewish home. In a small town, it matters even more.

There’s something powerful and welcoming for me about the mezuzah, something that serves as a physical reminder of some of the most important elements of our culture. The tilting-inward, inviting guests into your space; the words within, “the watchwords of the faith,” from the beginning of the Shema. While many aspects of my personal Jewish life and observance have shifted, I have always had this symbol upon my door.

Recently, my husband and I moved to a new place. As we began unpacking and getting set up, my husband—who was not raised in a Jewish home, incidentally—said: “Hey, where’s the mezuzah?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “One of these boxes. We’ll find it eventually.”

“We have to find it now!” He insisted. “Otherwise people won’t know it’s a Jewish home!”

In the sea of boxes surrounding us, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. But we found the mezuzah, and mounted it. He was right—the other boxes could wait; we needed to get that little guy in place. Because now, anyone else who might be mezuzah spotting could see our door frame, and perhaps feel that same flutter of excitement and connection.

Spot a mezuzah, find a family like yours.

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Posted on July 22, 2014

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