Throughout the high holiday season, we think a lot about judgment. It’s a heavy word, and also a word that brings to mind lots of possibilities. In the month of Elul, God is judging us to see what we have done in the past year and what will happen to us in the future. Knowing this we reflect and pass judgment on ourselves and, often, others.
I am going to borrow a phrase from Rachel Stern’s #BlogElul post and say: life is about perspective. She used this phrase to encourage people to see things as blessings. Here, I’d like to remind everyone that our judgments are also a matter of perspective.
When I tell people I work for a Jewish organization in Mississippi I occasionally get a response like, “there can’t be a lot of Jews there!”… and it’s true that there are not as many Jews here as there are in New York or Los Angeles. But I am sad when people say things like “It’s great that you are helping those Jews, they must really need it.”
I think this statement reflects a judgment, intentional or not, lacking in firsthand knowledge. It also reflects a judgment about what a Jewish community should look like, that it should look one certain way, when in fact there are lots of different ways to build a Jewish community. The Jewish communities that I visit have rich Jewish lives, they just might not look like the life we know in New York or Los Angeles.
“Those Jews” don’t need judgment. None of us do—but we can all use support.
I also have to be careful of my own judgments. I am a visitor in the communities I serve as an ISJL Education Fellow, and it is my job to empower educators. It is not my place to judge what a community’s priorities should be, how they should spend their resources, or which values they should hold most dear. And it is also not fair for me to judge them against any other community, Northern or Southern. Each congregation is its own special place.
Throughout this month of Elul, as I begin my fall visits and my second year as a Fellow unfolds, I will have to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the communities with which I work, so that I can help them plan for a successful year. As I do this I am being extra careful to evaluate, but not to judge. I want to help each community be the very best versions of themselves, whatever that might be; evaluating their needs will help guide me to what support will be most helpful.
So, too, as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, should we strive not to judge, but rather to evaluate. To take a personal inventory of what worked for us and against us in the past year, and how we can—and what support we need.
Each congregation I work with deserves respect, evaluation, and support—not judgment; each of us deserves the same. We are all “those Jews” who “really need” that!
Fellow Standard Time: (noun): Nothing standard about it all…
Thriday (noun): The combination of Thursday & Friday, used when Thursday is the last day in the
office. Common element of Fellow Standard Time.
There’s a lot of talk about the differences between Jews in the North and Jews in the South. Some differences certainly do exist. But in a world where the Jewish experience can be so drastically different based on where you live, there is one thing that binds all Jews together, from New York to Alabama: Jewish Standard Time.
In the Jewish world, when events are late to start or people are late to arrive, you’ll often hear it blamed on “Jewish Standard Time.”
Person A: “It’s ten after. When do you think we’ll get started?”
Person B: “Oh, we run on Jewish Standard Time around here.”
OK, in the South there might be a “y’all” thrown in there, but the conversation would sound more or less the same anywhere. Hearing this phrase uttered so often in my community and the communities to which I travel got me thinking about life as a Fellow and the way we spend our time. What is Fellow Standard Time?
Turns out it has even more to do with calendars than with clocks. Our whole week is shifted off-kilter from the rest of the world’s week!
For most people with full-time jobs, the week starts on Monday and ends on Friday. It’s a little different for an ISJL Education Fellow. On Fellow Standard Time, our weeks generally start on Tuesday and end on Sunday (yes, you read that right). On Tuesday and Wednesday we are in the office having meetings, brainstorming, touching base with our communities, and planning for our upcoming visits. Then comes Thursday, the day most others celebrate as a final push before the weekend. It’s a final push for us too, but in a different way. At the ISJL office, Thursday becomes “Thriday” (the natural hybrid word of Thursday/Friday) since Thursday is our last day in the office before we head off on our trips.
“Thriday” is an exciting day full of shopping, cutting, gluing, printing, and even sawing. You name it, we’re doing it. When the week is winding down for other folks, we’re getting pumped up.
On Friday, we hit the road. While you might be getting home at 5 PM, heading to Shabbat services or getting into your PJs, watching your favorite TV show, and looking forward to some R&R, we are just getting started with the most fulfilling part our job. We are lucky enough to spend our weekends with communities and in homes, teaching and learning. And then, on Monday morning, when everyone is gearing up for another week, we’re the ones in our PJs, enjoying our “weekend.”
Yes, it’s official: there really isn’t anything “standard” about Fellow Standard Time after all!
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!