By Education Fellow Benjamin Chaidell
The weekend after Thanksgiving I had the opportunity to speak about my experience as an Education Fellow at my home synagogue in New York City, the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale.
It is always inspiring to return to where I was bar mitzvah’ed and where, as a baby, I took my very first steps amid the dancing on Simchat Torah. This, though, was extra special. It was a chance to share just what I am doing in the South with the folks who always ask my parents what I am up to. It was a time to explain to born and bred New Yorkers that there are not only Jews in the South but also vibrant Jewish communities. Finally, it was an opportunity to show this loving community that has supported me throughout my life how their investment in me has paid off, that I’ve grown into someone who can share their vision of Judaism with others.
The reaction could not have been better. People were intrigued by the work we do and by the opportunities that I have been given, which made me appreciate this fellowship all the more.
With help from my coworkers at the ISJL, I crafted a dvar Torah on the week’s Torah portion of Vayetzei. I focused on the line that Jacob exclaims after his dream of a stairway to heaven: “Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16).
From this jumping off point, I described how I have discovered Jewish communities and God in the places that I least expected and how those discoveries have transformed my views of other people and of the divine.
I talked about three kinds of places: physical places, cultural/idea spaces, and spontaneous/ improvisational places, and how God has surprised me in each of them.
Among the numerous locations I’ve visited, a few stand out. I experienced a moment of joy next to a huge shofar sculpture outside the Congregation Ahavas Chesed in Mobile, Alabama, and enjoyed heartwarming Rosh Hashannah meals in a garage in Greenwood, Mississippi, where over 25 family and friends gather with the nine remaining Jews of Greenwood to celebrate the holiday.
Beyond the pshat (literal interpretation) of a physical place, I’ve realized that we can find God in cultural spaces and “idea places” that I once thought had nothing to do with religion. I’m now an accomplished paper bag puppeteer, having performed a Purim play with my coworkers for small children in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I’ve also found that “When the Saints Come Marching In” can infuse new energy into Adon Olam.
Finally there is the very place of the unexpected: spontaneous, go-with-the-flow, improvisational space. What I’ve learned most from this job in Jewish education is that it is OK for life not to go according to plan. Man plans, God laughs; the best thing to do is to embrace those surprises as God-given gifts.
I think back to the intimate impromptu hevruta text study I had with a man named Alfred in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Alfred was the only one that showed up for my program, and we were both locked out of the Temple. So we went to a nearby congregant’s bakery. at the bakery, two folks from Mississippi introduced themselves when they saw my kippah. Their son had converted to Judaism and they were looking for a kosher turkey for their Thanksgiving meal in Hot Springs. Alfred knew where to find one! Because we took our setbacks in stride, we were at the right place to help someone else maintain his own practice.
Judaism is all about being present and open to the unexpected. Surprises spice up life, reminding us to live in the moment, to learn and to explore and to wonder at the beauty of the world we live in.
“Surely the LORD is present in this place”…and maybe we do know it.
What do Yiddish-speaking chickens, screaming latkes, and a pig who really, really wants to be kosher have in common?
They’re all characters featured in Jewish Books Cooking, a children’s theater show that brings eight popular, contemporary children’s books to life with bright characters and catchy songs.
Jewish Books Cooking (JBC) is a project made possible by The Covenant Foundation. The show debuted earlier this year in New York City. Created and directed by Liz Swados, the New York production of Jewish Books Cooking was mounted at several venues around the city. This December, along with a new director, new music director, and new cast, the show is also going to have a whole new destination – the Deep South.
How does a show like JBC wind up traveling through the South? It happened how it always happens in show biz, baby: “ya know a guy.”
While preparing for the inaugural New York production, the staff at Covenant thought about how great it might be to bring a peppy show like this to smaller communities. They would need a director for the touring show, and an organizational partner with connections to smaller communities…
But they knew a guy – or, in this case, a gal – and they knew of just such an organization. So they made a few phone calls. They called me (because I’m a theater nerd who lives in Mississippi, and was lucky enough to intern with Covenant awhile back). They called the ISJL (since they’re an organization located in Mississippi, accustomed to partnering and delivering programming to smaller communities). They posed the question: what do you think about teaming up to bring JBC to Southern cities – smaller communities that aren’t always reached by this sort of performance?
Everyone was excited about the idea. I mean, who wouldn’t want to bring something totally different to Southern audiences … namely, a children’s show filled with moxie-rich Jewish stories, not to mention all the kooky, rapping, dancing, hilarious characters?
In short order we had actors, venues, and everything else the recipe called for to stir up a Southern helping of Jewish Books Cooking. Though a lot to wrangle, this has been a fun and rewarding process. The stories included in the show are all upbeat, sometimes poignant, sometimes zany, but never dull. The music gets stuck in your head for days — in a good way, as the entire cast can assure you. And even the craziest of the characters is charming and relate-able, especially as conveyed by our talented actors. (These guys are pros: they go from being rats to parrots to witches to fried foods, without batting an eye!)
Directing JBC has been a treat. But best of all, knowing that this show will travel around and delight audiences who might not see anything like it all year … well. It’s practically a theatrical Chanukah miracle.
Next week, this show hits the road, traveling to Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Memphis, and closes out right here in Jackson, Mississippi. The show is free, and the Southern touring production will be followed by a family program focused on exploring Jewish stories and sharing family bedtime rituals. The program was written and will be implemented by the ISJL Education Department staff – so it’ll be just as fun as the show itself.
Welllllllllll, maybe it’ll be more fun. I mean, the show is pretty hard to beat. Did I mention there’s a Yiddish-speaking chicken?
If JBC is coming to a city near you, find more info here and go check it out! In the meantime, tell us: what’s your favorite Jewish children’s story?
By Education Fellow Reva Frankel
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox community, so when I came to work at the ISJL, I knew that I would need to modify my Shabbat observance. During my interview, I remember thinking that my compromises would be well justified by the chance to share meaningful Jewish experiences with our partner communities. Though I anticipated that this would be difficult, I have been surprised to realize that changing my practice is the easy part. The biggest challenges for me have been the contradictions between my new experiences and the mindset that I developed in day school—beliefs that I never realized were so ingrained in my thought.
The biggest struggle has been reconciling my views on intermarriage. The belief in my community at home, at least among my teachers, is that intermarrying is the worst thing a Jew can do. It is better to separate completely from those who have intermarried, become more insular, and focus on perpetuating Judaism, than it is to accept such a transgression and risk the erosion of traditional Jewish identity and practice.
I don’t think I ever truly believed that this was the best response to intermarriage, but I realized one day during a webinar with Rabbi Kerry Olitzky from the Jewish Outreach Institute that I had been deeply affected by what I heard when I was younger. My mind latched onto Rabbi Olitzky’s words, understanding that the way to include Jews in Judaism is to accept those who intermarry, embrace their spouses and help them teach their children how to be Jewish. My body, however, was tense and uncomfortable. The thought kept cropping up—that intermarriage will bring about the end of Judaism.
I understand why the community I grew up in was so insular. It is easy to believe other Jews are less Jewish if you don’t know them, haven’t spoken to them, haven’t seen them be Jewish. On a recent community visit, I spent the weekend with a family in which only the father is halachically Jewish. The mother, who referred to her own family as interfaith, and I had many conversations over the weekend about religion and Judaism. Three years ago this woman knew very little about Judaism; now she is the only teacher in her children’s religious school. She has gone out of her way to understand Judaism and figure out the best way to teach it to her children as well as the other children in the community. During one of our conversations she again referred to her family as interfaith. We both laughed out loud, recognizing how absurd it was that she should still separate herself out, still hesitate to claim a stake in the Jewish faith. I was impressed with this woman and her awareness that some people just could not get over the fact that she is not halachically Jewish.
I understand the reasoning behind halachic Judaism. I understand that Orthodox conversion is important for halachic and traditional reasons. However, I cannot accept the stark lines we draw and the barriers we place between different factions of what is supposed to be one people. I don’t think that the Orthodox should change their standards and tell their children it is OK to marry anyone they want, but now I also don’t believe that people should only be considered Jewish if their mother is Jewish or they had a conversion with a beit din and went in the mikvah.
I knew that spending two years at the ISJL would challenge me, and truthfully I was looking to be challenged. My experiences on the road have fundamentally changed the way I think and who I am. Now I feel like I am trying to live simultaneously in two worlds, but I am not sure if that is really possible.
What are your thoughts on pluralism, and the “multiple worlds” of Judaism?