“Tzi-tzit tzitzit tzitzit, where are you today?
I need you for a bracha, I need you right away!”
This was a common refrain for my three-year-old daughter Dahlia in the morning as she goes through my closet while I get dressed. She sings the song every morning in her class when each child chooses whether to take a pair of tzitzit, ritual fringes, from the box. In our house she will often playfully put on my tzitzit, but the one morning I spent in her nursery school class, none of the girls chose to.
And that’s just fine. None of the women she knows wear tzitzit, and I wouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if she didn’t either. But with her fourth birthday coming up, my wife and I thought about what tangible rituals might be relevant and meaningful for a little girl.
Enter Atara Lindenbaum, Rabbi Roni Handler, and their JOFA UnConference session on reinventing rituals for early childhood. Atara shared that her daughter began lighting Shabbat candles when she was three, and I thought that was a beautiful idea. In a conversation with Atara after the session, she recommended that we not only engage Dahlia with the ritual, but also make it a bit more of a meaningful ceremony—invite the rabbi or do something special in synagogue. I loved that idea, and with Dahlia’s fourth birthday coming up, we ran with it.
Since we had no template for a ritual like this, I posted a note on Facebook to solicit ideas for how to make this moment special. You can read the full back and forth here, but it spawned debates over how many candles she should light, whether to do the first lighting at home or in synagogue, and whether having the rabbi attend reinforces the perception that a male rabbinic presence is required to legitimate Jewish ritual experience. We received recommendations for what candlesticks to use, blessings to make, and texts to incorporate. It was a great discourse.
What we settled on was a very small ceremony at home with our immediate family and our community’s rabbi. We bought Dahlia a beautiful set of travel ceramic candlesticks, and my sister sent a box of colorful candles. With only a few minutes before Shabbat, I spoke to Dahlia a bit about what it means to be growing up and connected it to Moses’ growing up in the Torah portion, the rabbi said a few words about how Dahlia is now part of a tradition of lighting candles that goes back thousands of years, and then she lit the candles and said the blessing together with my wife Adina. After the rabbi left for synagogue, Adina and I blessed Dahlia, and then we sat down to read some emailed notes from grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
I had imagined that this would be a memorable (and perhaps formative) experience for Dahlia. I thought it would be serene and we would all be present in the moment. But she’s four years old, and within seconds she was much more concerned about her brother taking a balloon than the significance of her candles. And that’s alright. Because I know that again this Friday afternoon, the next, and—please God—many hundreds to follow, she will stand next to my wife, light her candles and say her blessing.
“To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism a’ la carte.”
A recent article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic Monthly outlines the argument for reparations to be paid to African Americans for the injustices of slavery, and the subsequent economic disadvantage and discrimination they have suffered for more than a century. As convincing as Coates’ is regarding the systemic injustice meted through the Jim Crow period, and the way decades old housing discrimination continues to hold back blacks even today, there is one question that nags: “why should I be paying for reparations on something I had nothing to do with?”
I didn’t enslave anyone, nor has anyone I know. While my family actually does have ties in the US dating back to the mid-1800s, I have no reason to think they were involved in slavery. On my wife’s side, her father immigrated from Germany as a child in the 1950’s, and her mother’s family fled Russia in the early 1900s. What culpability could we possibly have in the enslavement of Africans from 1619-1865?
Coates answers with this:
A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.
If we are Americans, and we benefit from being American, want to remain American and might even be proud to be American, we need to own the whole thing. We can’t take the Constitution without slavery; we can’t have 21st century Manhattan without 19th century Mississippi.
And this is exactly what we reenact every year on Tisha B’Av. We sit on the floor, eat ashes and weep. We read Lamentations with its horrific descriptions of the siege of Jerusalem and the city’s ultimate destruction. Wanton hatred destroyed one Temple, and lasciviousness destroyed the other. We do this every year, but what did I have to do with the Temple being destroyed? Those weren’t my sins. I can’t even relate to the concept of there being a functioning Temple, and now I’m expected to feel remorseful and seek atonement for its destruction? I wasn’t there! Can’t I just have a Passover Seder, read Megillat Esther and dance on Simchat Torah without having this random day of mourning in the middle of the summer?
This idea of complete ownership over our heritage isn’t only relevant when considering problematic historical events. The same applies to our relationship to the modern State of Israel. As someone who loves Israel and prays for her future, there are some things I just want nothing to do with, and I think that’s true for everyone. Whatever your politics, there are things you love about Israel and things you hate about it. Whether it’s Haredim serving in the IDF, bombs falling in Gaza, misogyny in the workplace, income inequality or a myriad of other issues—there is something about Israel that makes you upset. There is something about Israel you wish you could disown. We all have an obligation to work on changing these things, but we don’t have the luxury of pretending that the Israel we love and support doesn’t include them. We can’t have the hike through Ein Gedi without grappling with the armored bus to Ariel. We can’t have the yeshivas in Jerusalem and the cafes in Tel Aviv while trying to ignore the conditions in Ramla or the deportations of Ethiopian refugees.
Orthodox Feminists are often asked (from both the left and the right) why we remain Orthodox. If we are so troubled by certain interpretations and applications of halakha, why not just jump ship? Wouldn’t it be so much easier to keep the parts we like and drop the parts we don’t? The answer is obvious. This is our heritage, and this is our history. We understand that as members of this kehillah, community, we can’t ignore the problems. We will remain committed to the halakhic process, while working to fix it, because it is ours—for better or worse.
Tisha b’Av is the time to reflect on the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, but not just for the sake of self pity. It is our opportunity to understand how we went down a path towards destruction, and to identify the tikkunim, improvements, we can implement in our own lives to avoid the same fate in the future.
I’ve been pushing off writing this post all week. I’ve been hoping that the boys would return home, that the girls would return home, that all children around could go to sleep at night safe and sound, surrounded by people who love and care for them. But alas they are not.
On Tuesday, a colleague and I had the privilege to represent JOFA at a Bring Back Our Boys rally to demand the release of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach — three teenage students (one of whom is American) who were abducted on their way home from school two weeks ago. Three teens who could have easily been my cousins or my friends. It was a moving event filled with touching speeches, heartfelt songs, tears and prayers. But the situation feels hopeless. What can we do to help? What can we possibly do to bring them home? I’ve called the White House to ask what is being done, I’ve written to the New York Times to demand greater coverage, but how much sway can we really hope to have over the actions of terrorists and people committed to hatred and violence?
And the same is true with the 219 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped from their school by Boko Haram (and even more kidnapped this week). How can we possibly expect a terrorist group that lives in the woods, and in the jungle, to return these girls home? Where is the army supposed to look for them? Who can put pressure on this group? Who can possibly convince them to free these girls?
But what has made me despair the most this week is a story making headlines about young immigrants who have illegally entered the United States alone. Over 50,000 children have dared to cross the border on their own, or with smugglers, in the hopes of finding better lives. These children are being housed in barracks and given the barest of necessities in preparation for deportation. Apparently there’s not enough room in this country and there’s not enough room in our hearts to accept these children and provide them with warm homes, accommodations and the chance to begin a new life.
I don’t know what I can do to bring back our boys or bring back our girls, but maybe I can help these kids who have literally shown up unannounced asking for help. I can advocate on behalf of these children who are alone, and cold and homesick within our own borders. I know who to appeal to on their behalf — their names are Schumer, and Gillibrand, and Obama. The policy for dealing with these children should be dictated by compassion, not xenophobia.
Maybe through the zechut (merit) of our efforts on behalf of children to whom we have no tribal connection, but towards whom we have the most fundamental human responsibility, we will live to see miracles performed in Israel and Nigeria. Maybe by emulating the behavior that we expect from the rest of the world — compassion and safe passage for all children — we can appeal to God with even greater legitimacy to bring back those children to whom we feel the closest.
Hamalach hagoel oti mikol ra y’varech et han’arim.
May the angel who has delivered me from all harm bless these children.
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Something you hear a lot from feminist men is that it all started with the birth of a daughter. So powerful is this effect of a daughter on a father that a friend of mine recently told me of her elation at hearing that her synagogue rabbi had a new baby girl—this could only be good news for the women in his congregation!
But for me, that was not the case. I found myself dealing with issues of gender equality in Judaism years before I had kids, and even presented at the 2010 JOFA Conference—a couple of months before I would know what kind of baby was about to join our family. (That baby has grown to become a bright, beautiful, inquisitive little girl!). Having her in my life has definitely concretized some issues of feminism I had never dealt with before (“a girl in a blue stroller?”—“Make-up makeover sleepover!”), but it’s been relatively straightforward for my wife and I to navigate.
For now, our job is fighting the efforts of outside forces to pigeon hole her into pink toys, or “girl activities,” or excessive focus on her external trappings. Her favorite game right now is batting practice, favorite movie is Frozen, and if it was up to her, she’d wear patent leather Shabbat shoes with a tye-died t-shirt and shorts to school. I think we’ve struck a nice balance. As she gets older I’m happy to say that we are part of a synagogue community where women and girls have the opportunity to read from the Torah, lead services and speak from the pulpit. The roadmap is there—we just have to follow it.
But since the birth of my son less than a year ago, I feel the need to be a feminist dad much more, and I’m not as clear on what I need to do. My wife and I are doing our best to ensure that both kids have every opportunity to learn and grow to be the best people they possibly can. We will work our hardest to give them both exactly what they need to grow as committed Jews, contributing members of society, and ultimately to become good parents themselves. But for my little guy there’s something more.
What are the jokes he’s going to hear on the school bus, in the cafeteria and at summer camp? What examples will be set by his teachers, rabbis and other male role models outside the home regarding their attitudes towards female peers? There’s no way to shield him from all instances of misogyny or bigotry, but I do hope we can instill in him core values that will cause him to recoil (or rebuff) upon exposure.
At only 10 months old, he has no clue the uphill battle we will wage together to help him avoid the pitfalls of objectification of girls and discrimination against women. As an Orthodox feminist dad, I will also have to guide him through the still very narrow path those before us have forged on the boundary between traditional Judaism and gender equality.
With my daughter I have the very tangible task of exposing her to as much Jewish practice and leadership experience as possible. But for my son, there’s this amorphous task of helping him realize the importance of others expressing their Jewish selves to the fullest. I’m not sure how to do that, and thankfully I have a strong partner to figure that out with.
This Father’s Day, as I’m enjoying a special cup of coffee and some hand-drawn cards, I will also be reminded that raising our kids is the most difficult and important job we will ever have. And I love it.
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When my family sits down to the seder table on April 14, we won’t be passing around the Maxwell House Hagaddahs. We don’t use the Sacks one, anything by Artscroll, or even something from JPS. We will be using “Our Family Haggadah.”
The brainchild of my mother and Savta in the mid-90’s, this DIY publication has been a work in progress that is currently in its fifth edition. While the first versions most likely contained dozens of copyright infringements, the current version is getting closer to an original family document.
We realized that the people around the table wanted something traditionally authentic, intellectually challenging, and unique to our family. As you can see, we have cut many portions of the traditional hagaddah, but have done our best to maintain the essential pieces while creating more opportunities for discussion and questions. Without the pressure to get through so much text, we have the comfort and opportunity to truly be open to any questions that might arise.
If you don’t want to use our haggadah, and don’t have the time to make your own, consider cutting out a few sections and replacing them with open discussion or guided Q&A. You will be surprised to see people refreshed by the change and the chance to make the seder experience more personal.
Seder Table Activities
The other way we’ve adapted our seder is by adding in new activities and games each year. We realized that there is often down-time during the meal (shulchan orech): as soup is being served, between courses, and during dessert. So we play games! We’ve tried a number of different activities over the years including our own versions of Cranium, Mad Gabs and most importantly Jewpardy. It’s not so simple to create your own games, so use the ones other people have already made. Pick a game, print it out, and you’re good to go!
An Activity for Every Family
This last suggestion is more than a game – it’s an interactive reimagining of a 2,000+ year old tradition. Anyone can run this activity at their seder:
Whatever the true origin of the orange on the seder plate, the idea of placing symbolic items on the seder table feels as old as Passover itself. But in addition to the six symbols on the seder plate, the orange, and Cup of Miriam, we can add our own symbols.
Before the seder, send out a casting call to your participants asking them to bring their own Passover symbol to place on the table. They can bring anything they want, but must be ready to explain how it is symbolic of a Passover theme or concept. Before the seder begins, place each of the symbols on the table. As the seder progresses, take periodic breaks to allow the table to discuss one of the objects. Solicit suggestions from the group as to what the item might symbolize and then ask the person who brought it to explain what it means to them.
At the end of the seder, or once all of the symbols have been presented, vote on which item added the most to the seder experience. The winner gets a reserved space at the table next year!
I wish you the best of luck with a meaningful Passover seder. If you’re looking for divrei torah and other content for your seder, visit http://www.jofa.org/Education/Holidays/Holidays for some great articles and resources.
We’re getting really excited about the JOFA conference, less than a week away! The 8th International JOFA Conference, set for December 7-8 at John Jay College in New York City, will be full of hot-button issues and interesting speakers from around the world.
Topics to look forward to are: unconventional families, LGBT inclusion, new mikveh rituals, eating disorders, educating for sexuality, gender segregation in Israel, raising feminist boys, Women of the Wall, “slut-shaming” in the Orthodox community, and the emergence of new Orthodox feminist communities around the world, including the newly formed JOFA UK.
Our goal is for participants to leave not only with new information and resources on these vital issues, but also with inspiration and vigor in order to promote social change in their own communities.
Some of the speakers we’re most excited about are: Rori Picker-Neiss, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Gabrielle Birkner, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Susan Weiss, Dr. Ronit Irshai, Dr. Melanie Landau, Blu Greenberg, Dr. Rachel Levmore, and more. The conference includes speakers from the US, Canada, UK, Israel, and Australia. You can see the whole program here.
Notice also that we are using fun new technology to enable you to build your own program online in advance. Please let us know how you like this and how it affects your conference experience.
Since the first JOFA conference, in 1997, which paved the way for a new movement to change the way Orthodox women and men experience Jewish life, every conference has been a watershed event, instigating important transformation within the Jewish community – from equal educational opportunities to sexual abuse to women clergy and more.
“This JOFA conference is different from past conferences because the world has changed so much over the past few years, and it’s time for Orthodoxy to address these new realities,” said conference coordinator Bat Sheva Marcus. “We are looking at new rituals, new family structures, and new communities, and we are particularly interested in reaching the younger women in our community and addressing the issues that are foremost concerns for them.”
Other innovations in this conference include a special Educators Track for day school educators, a teen track with a poetry slam, live-streaming and live-tweeting, and a Saturday night musical program including Ofir Ben Shitrit, “Girls in Trouble,” an indie band with midrashic themes, a cappella singing groups S’madar from Barnard and Tizmoret from Queens College, and Peninnah Schram’s acclaimed storytelling. There will also be opportunities for networking, with lunchtime affinity tables.
If you have any comments or questions, please contact us anytime.
Hope to see you there!
To register for the 8th International JOFA conference, December 7-8 at John Jay College, go to http://www.jofa.org/2013conference
Watch this great studio performance by Alicia Jo Rabins of “Girls In Trouble:”
Watch Ofir Ben-Shitrit on Israel’s The Voice:
Join us in Times Square today (Wednesday) as JOFA celebrates five of the thousands of women and men raising their voices every day for Orthodox Feminism. We will be meeting at 12:00 Noon at the Southeast corner of 47th and Broadway to watch the exciting new JOFA Times Square billboard. And there will be free coffee too!
The billboard will be promoting the 8th International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy. The conference, set for December 7-8 at John Jay College, will feature 40+ packed sessions, panels, musical performances and workshops. Topics include: Men’s role in feminism, slut-shaming, single mothers by choice, LGBT issues, hair covering, new rituals, women’s leadership and lots more – something for everyone who is interested in the intersection of religion and gender in the Jewish community.