I spend a lot of time with Conservatives in the South. Conservative Jews, in this case (probably not what most people picture when you say “Southern and Conservative”).
With all of the information about the downfall and slow death of the Conservative/Masorti movement flying around the Internet (check out some examples here and here), there have been many responses from rabbis and lay leaders all over to the contrary (like this one and this one). One perspective that’s been missing, however, is that of Conservative Judaism in the South.
We here at the ISJL are trans-denominational – which means we value and teach those things that most all Jews share – the importance of Torah and Jewish knowledge, acts of loving-kindness, and meaningful relationships with God, other Jews, and the rest of the world. It also means that we partner with any Southern Jewish congregation, regardless of its denomination.
As an Education Fellow traveling throughout the South, I manage to intimately interact with many different synagogues throughout our region, including many Conservative synagogues from Waco, Texas to Greensboro, North Carolina, and many others in between. Based on my observations, I can say that some of the concern is true – the Conservative movement is shrinking in numbers and that membership and religious school rolls are down throughout our region. However, I am not convinced that it is “dying.” In fact, I’m convinced that in many ways it’s stronger than ever.
After visiting these synagogues on the ground, seeing and talking to real, involved Conservative Jews, I see a much different picture than the one conjured up by the variety of commentators out there. I see a larger community that is being reborn. I see things like:
Able, involved, knowledgeable and inspired laypeople. I’ve seen many laypeople able and willing to lead Shabbat evening and morning services, entirely in Hebrew, without the assistance of a rabbi or cantor: a 13 year old boy leading the entire Musaf service – with repetition, a man in his mid-60s leading all of Shacharit. I’ve witnessed laypeople go out of their way to make sure that services happen.
New innovations all over the place. One rabbi hands out a source sheet to go along with his short Friday night d’rash, so people can follow along. Another one leads Kabbalat Shabbat with the assistance of an MP3 player, for some variety – and since it’s before sunset – there’s no violation of the Sabbath in using electronic devices. I can’t forget to mention the rabbi who plays the accordion as little children dance around and learn how much fun it can be to be Jewish. Several educators have instituted Shabbat School, to bring kids and parents to both participate in services and learn at the same time.
Passion for Judaism and an involved Jewish life. In every congregation, even before I’ve been introduced, people have gone out of their way to meet me and tell me about the congregation and ask me about myself. I’ve been surprised to see packed houses at almost all of the Shabbat services I’ve attended at these congregations.
Engaged and interested youth. Through the work of amazing, talented educators and rabbis, the youth I’ve worked with care immensely about being Jewish. They are proud to be Jewish. They’re willing to sample any wild lesson I might bring with me that weekend, and they’re able and interested in having conversations about important issues.
Based on the Southern and Conservative communities I work with down here, I’m excited about the future of Conservative/Masorti Judaism. I see transformation, growing meaning and vibrancy, and true innovation. Traveling through the South, I see congregations ready to adapt to the changing face of Conservative Judaism, and the changing face of the Jewish world head on. They’re revitalizing Judaism for the future. Likewise, I’ve seen the same characteristics in the Jewish congregations of other denominations I’ve visited throughout the South.
I’m excited for the future of Southern Conservative Jewish life, and truly that of Southern Judaism overall – whether Conservative, Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, or unaffiliated. If you ever get a chance to check out one of these Southern Conservative congregations, or really any Southern Jewish community, check it out. I guarantee you won’t regret it!
In this season of Thanksgivukkah, I’ve started to think a lot about cultural syncretism. I’ve come to the conclusion that, as a Jewish banjo player playing Hebrew prayers, I’m a very good example of cultural syncretism.
Cultural syncretism can be defined as combining aspects of two different and separate cultures, traditions, or belief systems. Some good examples of cultural syncretism in Jewish life would be the Passover seder being based on a royal meal in Ancient Greece, Ashkenazi challah being a Jewish take on German sweet bread, or the convenient similarities between Purim and Mardi Gras.
So how is a Jewish banjo player an ultimate example of this phenomenon? This calls for a brief history lesson:
The banjo began not in backwoods America, but in medieval Africa. During the colonial period, the banjo was brought over to the Americas by enslaved Africans who found similar materials easily available in their new environment. Soon enough, European Americans soon learned about the banjo from the enslaved African Americans, and by the mid-18th century, European Americans were touring around the country playing banjo in rural and urban settings (typically in minstrel fashion, including the infamous blackface). They also merged it with other musical traditions they were familiar with such as Irish, English, and Scottish music. Everyone was doing it!
Although the banjo waned in popularity in the early 20th century, it was re-popularized in the 1940s with the advent of bluegrass music (a combination of jazz and blues), most Jewish players of the banjo didn’t begin to learn it until the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. And nowadays, these Jewish players also have brought the banjo into many modern Klezmer bands, combining it with our own old-time Eastern European traditions. They’ve also created their own genre – Jewgrass. Check out Lucky Break, Banjo Billy, and The Sinai Mountain Boys!
It’s one of those ideas that it is hard to wrap my head around. When I’m playing Debbie Friedman’s Havdalah on the banjo, using chords and lyrics from the handy Shireinu, I’m not combining just African and Jewish traditions. Instead, I’m really combining African, Jewish, Irish, English, Scottish, American, and Eastern European musical traditions into one.
If that’s not cultural syncretism – I’m not sure what is. Bring it on, Thanksgivukkah!
The Daf Yomi (Hebrew for “page a day”), is a program for learning Talmud. Participants study one page a day, individually or in groups, and after 7 years they have read all 2,711 pages of Talmud. Last time the cycle finished, there was a huge celebration at Met Life Stadium. Of the 90,000 people who attended, the vast majority were Orthodox Jewish men.
Despite being interested, I hesitated because I like to look at the sources through a critical historical lens—a very different approach than that used by Orthodox Daf Yomi resources. One day, I read about an Unorthodox Daf Yomi group on Facebook. After checking it out, I was inspired; I had to do it. So with the help of the Koren Steinsaltz Talmud, the JCAST Network’s Daily Daf Differently podcasts, Adam Kirsch’s weekly Tablet column on the Daf Yomi, and Rabbi Adam Chalom’s Not Your Father’s Talmud blog from a few years ago, I have read through about 60 full pages.
Through this process, I have begun to make the Talmud my own. I read the laws, discussions, and stories, and visualize how they would have applied in the Ancient Jewish world, but I can also reinterpret them to be applicable to my own life as a religiously liberal American Jew in modern times.
One of these gems is the only Talmudic mention of our current holiday, Chanukah! While the High Holidays, Purim and Passover get their own sections, Chanukah is only mentioned once, in tractate Shabbat. In it, along with many of the other laws of Hanukkah, the rabbis discuss how many menorahs each household should light:
The Rabbis taught: The law of Chanukah demands that every man should light one lamp for himself and his household. Those who seek to embellish the mitzvah have a lamp lit for every member of the household. (Shabbat 21b)
This passage echoes one of my favorite ideas of Judaism, that there is often more than one correct way to observe a tradition. I would argue further that there are many ways to lead a Jewish life, including my own non-Orthodox reading of Talmud through Daf Yomi. There is no single correct way to celebrate Hanukkah, so if you want to light one menorah for the entire household that’s great. But if you want to light one menorah for each person in the household, that’s great too. In my house growing up, we would occasionally put up decorations and occasionally give gifts. But always, each of us always lit his or her menorah, and every year we would take a family picture—including the dog—behind all of our Chanukah lights.
Many families light the candles, play dreidel, and sing maoh tzur or other songs. Other families, especially in this Southern land of fried food, revel in eating fried sufganyot and fried potato latkes. I’ve heard of some people making beignets or fried chicken! A lot of Jewish children in the South (and throughout the United States) have at least one set of non-Jewish grandparents, and some families celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, with traditions shared to acknowledge their entire family – since family, of course, is so important to us all. However you celebrate it, and however you spell it (I used a couple different spellings in this post …), have a wonderful festival of lights!
What are some of the special ways that your family celebrates Hanukkah?