How Do You Pray?

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Prayer and spirituality matter to Ann Zivitz Kientz.

Prayer and spirituality matter to Ann Zivitz Kientz.

As a Jewish woman living in the South, who proudly identifies as a spiritual person, I am often engaged in “God-talk.”

My friends feel comfortable telling me about their thoughts, feelings, and spiritual experiences. They also always encourage me to share mine, and this leads to a lot of wonderfully enriching conversations. Of course, living in New Orleans, while I do have a wonderful Jewish community – the majority of my friends are not Jewish. But in these God-talks, we have much more in common than one would imagine from the outside looking in, despite the differences in our religions.

The other day, my devoutly Christian hairdresser shared a story with me about selling her house. She told me that she prayed for two weeks straight, and it sold. Despite my comfort with spiritually focused conversations, I internally bristled at this statement. Praying to God for something like a home sale? Is that, well… prayer-worthy? Despite all my frequent conversations with friends of other faiths, in my Jewishly-shaped perception of prayer, daily-life-requests or personal-situation prayers are not exactly front and center.

But then, I quickly thought to myself: When your son was on the road in the rain at night, driving a 15’ moving van from Tennessee to Texas, didn’t you pray for his safety? When he finally arrived at 2:00am safe and sound, didn’t you thank God for this, and all of your blessings before you slept? That’s a daily-life, personal-situation prayer, too. Who am I to judge what another prays for or attributes thanks to God for, anyway?

I don’t know how this wireless communication with God, which we call “prayer,” actually works. I do know that when there is nothing else that I can “do,” it brings me comfort to connect with God through prayer. Jews do pray for the healing of others through our Mi Shebeirach prayer. We do ask God to bless us with peace, and we pose many other requests through our prayers. I do know that those around me who are filled with gratitude for their blessings seem happier with their lives.

Posted on April 23, 2015

Beyond “Cute” & “Sweet”: Truly Respecting Our Elders

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The author's grandmother in 1947

Geri (the author’s grandmother) in 1947

I recently watched this great animated clip from StoryCorps. The woman featured in the clip, Kay Wang, immediately reminded me of my maternal grandmother.Similar to Kay Wang, my grandmother, Geraldine “Geri” Eisenstadt, was incredibly strong-willed and outspoken. She wasn’t afraid to tell you what she thought, and certainly did not censor herself when calling someone out for doing something wrong. Similar to Kay’s granddaughter, I often giggled in response to bold remarks made by my grandma. Her lack of fear about what others thought of her both inspired and intimidated me.

Unlike Kay’s granddaughter, I did not have the chance to sit down for an oral history interview with my grandmother before she passed away. Although the last time I saw my grandmother, I filled my phone’s memory with videos of her stories, I regret not asking more. It’s been about a year since she passed away.

I remember telling her about my recent hire at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. I was used to people immediately responding to the news with comments like “there are Jews in the South?!” or, “why would you want to go there?” Instead, my grandma lit up and said, “What an incredible opportunity. Did you know we had family in the South?”

I didn’t know we had family in the South. But then again, I never asked.

This got me thinking about the way we generally treat elderly members of our communities. My grandma was fiercely independent- she lived alone until she was 94. Yet when strangers met her, they would often note how “cute” or “sweet” she was. I can assure you, she was neither cute, nor sweet, and would not have appreciated either description.

She was a feminist before her time. She worked as an accountant in a clothing factory before women generally held jobs of that nature. She told me stories of her boss hitting on her, over and over again, and demeaning her abilities due to her gender. One day she found a huge mistake in the books and publicly called him out on it. He didn’t bother her again. I didn’t hear this story, or many others like it, until I graduated college. Up until at point, I didn’t really have any interest in learning about her life-her hardships, accomplishments, regrets, and dreams. Not because I didn’t care about her, but because I sort of just thought of her as a loving, maternal presence in my life—as, simply, my grandmother.

Posted on April 20, 2015

A Bigger View of Service

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I listened to a recent episode of the NPR show  On Being  (formerly Speaking of Faith) called “The Calling of Delight: Gangs, Service, and Kinship.” The piece focused on the mutuality of service, a topic we have covered many times in our community-engagement-focused blog posts.

ISJL community engagement partners in action

The guest on the show was Father Greg Boyle, author of Tattoo on the Heart. Father Boyle is a Jesuit who leads Homeboy Industries. Homeboy Industries is a business that employs former gang members in a Los Angeles neighborhood which, as host Krista Tippett notes: “…was once the poorest parish in the city and had the highest concentration of gang activity in the world at that time. And there’s so much grief and so much heartbreak in these kids’ lives and in the stories that you tell.”

Father Boyle’s approach has been, in his words, less about helping other and instead: “…this is fundamentally about our common call to delight in one another.”  He says that service, on the whole, is “not an end in itself but a beginning, towards finding real kinship with others.”

This resonates with me, and my own convictions as a community engagement professional. Also, as someone who has been working on community engagement for a Jewish organization while living in the Bible Belt of the South, Father Boy’s religious perspective was intriguing.

Father Boyle evokes numerous Christian personalities and stories from the New Testament to support his characterization of service as mutuality. As I listened, I was moved but I wondered whether some of his message would be lost on a Jewish blog or to a Jewish audience.

I thought about what might be the Jewish equivalent. Does the concept of b’tzelem elohim (each and every person is created in the image of God) suffice?

Then, he began to talk about God.

Leaving out any debate as to the existence or nature of God, I’ll say that I did think of many of the Jewish teachings about God with which I am familiar. Father Boyle used the word “spacious” to describe God, and I immediately thought of the many ways in which Judaism characterizes God: omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Judaism, like Christianity, hinges on the idea that the mission of human beings is to emulate God. How does one emulate this grandiose version of God?

Posted on April 14, 2015

Passover in the Mississippi Delta

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Rabbi Kassoff (far right) singing “Who Knows One?” with Greenville congregants and guests

As Passover draws to a close, I’m reflecting on the seder I attended this year—a small and joyful gathering of Jews in the Mississippi Delta.

Greenville, Mississippi is a community I hold very near and dear to my heart. Though membership at the local synagogue has decreased over the past several decades, there remains a committed group of Jews, maintaining vibrant Jewish life in this Delta town. Their steadfast commitment to Judaism is downright inspiring. Ever since moving from New York back down South, I have been proud to celebrate holidays with this Delta community.


Seder in Greenville

Rabbi Debra Kassoff did a wonderful job leading the seder. The food, cooked Josephine Bender and Ann Walker, was all terrific. Ann is the temple secretary; Josephine is an African American, Christian Greenville resident who has helped with the cooking at the congregation for years. Josephine’s entire family was there to help serve the Passover dishes, and they all joined us for the fourth cup of wine.

The atmosphere was warm, and the conversations were interesting. I got to visit with two very special ladies, Vivian Piltz and Corkie Goodman, whose memories extend back many decades and who continue to attend the seder every year. They talked of times when they had to bring in extra chairs for High Holiday services.


Young seder goers in Greenville participate with the rabbi

There were Christians in attendance at this Delta seder; Jews and Christians in small towns like Greenville often support their faith traditions. Rabbi Kassoff was careful to explain the Seder customs to everyone in attendance, including more modern additions such as including an orange was part of the Seder plate. Scholar Susanah Heschel chose to include an orange as a symbol of inclusion of gays and lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community.

Posted on April 10, 2015

FINAL GAME! Mensch Madness 2015

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Little Donkey. Big Fish.  Game On.

Little Donkey. Big Fish. Final Round. Game On.

This post was co-authored by Lex Rofes and Allison Poirier.

Well, sports fans, Mensch Madness 2015 has been a whirlwind. There have been shouts of joy and tears of sadness, ecstatic victory and heartbreak on the court. After all of the drama, we find ourselves with only two competitors left, facing off in the final game for the championship match-up.

First up, we have the famous Donkey from parashat Balak. This scrappy little donkey pulled off two come-from-behind wins to make it this far: first, she was able to slither past the serpent from the Garden of Eden, and then outshine the Golden Calf. She’s earned her spot, every four-legged step of the way.

Our other final competitor is the Big Fish, most famous for swallowing Jonah when he tried to run away to Tarshish. In this tournament, the Big Fish swam past the Golem and the Scapegoat in early-round play, but now the competition is getting really tough. Will he be strong to the fin-ish? Or are his hopes about to drown?

The capacity crowd of 55,000 at Manischewitz Arena is absolutely rocking. A few celebrities have even been spotted, including Kanye West, Taylor Swift, and Hillel the Elder. Hillel looks at his watch, and is a bit annoyed that the game is starting late. He bellows “If not now, when?!” and the referees quickly gather the competitors at halfcourt for the opening tip.

Game on! And… wait, what just happened?!

Donkey won the jump ball, but Big Fish (no relation to Phish or Reel Big Fish) immediately SWALLOWED HER WHOLE.

What a move! It’s just like that time it swallowed that poor soul Jonah. The referees vigorously search through the rule book to find out whether this strange swallow breaks any rules, but alas, they find nothing and cannot even call a personal foul! So, as the crowd boos, Big Fish racks up a massive 17-0 lead.

Just as things are beginning to look desperate, a mysterious and magical looking man strolls onto the court. Balaam, despite being kicked out of Manischewitz Arena for life earlier in the tournament, has snuck his way back in to help out his loyal companion with words of blessing and encouragement. Looking up into the crowd, he yells “Blessed are those who bless you, Cursed are those who curse you!” (Numbers 24:9)

Posted on April 9, 2015

Mensch Madness Game 8: Semifinals, Scapegoat vs. Big Fish!

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The Scapegoat pulled a surprise victory in his last game, and he’s back with more confidence and a new nickname: “Ozzy” Azazel is coming into this looking like the sure winner. He’s been to hell and back[1], but his koach (strength) has rebranded him “Ozzy,” from another Hebrew word for strength, oz. Now he’s ready to ram the ball into the net to bring home this championship.

Though there is no known Billy Goat curse in basketball like there is for baseball’s Chicago Cubs, Ozzy is taking nothing for granted. Just in case he accidentally got someone’s goat since the tournament began, Ozzy is doing some preemptive atonement, usually reserved for the High Holidays: s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, Capricorn lanu.

So who’s Ozzy up against? His big challenger is none other than the Big Fish.

Big Fish, too, is a bit cockier this time around than he was in his first game. He’s filled to the gills with pride over last week’s comeback win against the Golem. After slinging mud in the trenches, he’s ready for the more elite competition of the Semifinals. No stranger to the High Holidays himself, the Big Fish expelled all his inner struggles in anticipation of and preparation for the physical demands that this game will require of him.

Big Doug “Dag” Collins throws the jump ball and the game begins. A quick snag by Ozzy gives him an early advantage. He heads down the court and easily leaps up to drop the ball in the can as his fans bleat their approval. Shofar so good for Team Ozzy, but things don’t seem to be going so whale for Big Fish, who appears to be feeling a bit blue-ga on the court. That pre-game cockiness has worn off, and it’s clear that Big Fish will have to swallow his pride and flap up a storm if he’s going to win this thing.

And that seems to be exactly what he’s doing! Suddenly, everyone’s attention is focused on Big Fish, sneaking down the sideline as he weaves in and out of Ozzy’s legs. The Scapegoat can just barely keep pace with Big Fish’s swift and sleek movements. The crowd thinks the finned favorite is getting cocky again, flaunting his moves without reserve, but Big Fish doesn’t think he’s gone overboard—he’s got scales—er, skills!—to show off!

Posted on April 8, 2015

Mensch Madness Game 7: Semfinals, Donkey vs. Golden Calf!

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Here we are in the Mensch Madness semi-finals, with both opponents having vanquished their morally-inferior opponents in order to earn their spots here tonight. This tournament is all about
and at least when it comes to teaching important lessons about right and wrong… both have a lot going for them.


Image remixed from Sweet Media Bible Stories image / Wikimedia Commons

On one side, we’ve got a co-ed pack animal with more awareness of the Divine than any human – the little underdog of this tournament, the DONKEY.

On the other side of the court is a 24-karat ruminant whose mere existence causes “retribution for every generation[i]”, the controversial crowd-constructed cow baby, the GOLDEN CALF.

If left to logic alone we’d clearly have a draw, but fortunately we can use athletic competition to discover the ultimate altruist. Formidable opponents to be sure, but they are not without their weaknesses. In addition to being an affront to God, the calf has a real maturity deficit coming into this round. But will the donkey’s wisdom be enough to overcome her treyf little un-cloven hooves?[ii] Folks, we are in for quite the contest tonight!

The players are out there on the court and it’s obvious the fans are pulling for the calf in this contest. The roar is deafening here in the arena. I’ve never seen anything like it: they are worshipping this calf. It’s got to be discouraging for the donkey facing this crowd.

And the game begins!

Well, this is a quite a surprise. Sure enough, despite some fancy hoofwork, the donkey has poor ball control. She’d be out of this contest if it wasn’t for the calf’s performance tonight. We knew his 6.5 tons might pose a problem but this is just ridiculous. I swear he hasn’t moved since the whistle. He is literally a statue out there on the court!

This game is all about the crowd. They’re giving everything they’ve got, but it just doesn’t seem enough to get the calf to actually moo anything—er, DO anything. Meanwhile the donkey is running circles around him. Actual circles! Still, she seems unable to get that ball into the basket. Going into the half, we’ve got a very close game, tied 0-0.

Posted on April 6, 2015

Seder Variations – A Passover Tradition!

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Image source: Vadim Akopyan, Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Vadim Akopyan, Wikimedia Commons Variation

I love Passover.

I love spending time with my family, I love the food, and I love that we have a holiday centered on teaching each other meaningful lessons from our shared history, while welcoming strangers to the table each year. We have all these props and symbolic foods to help us tell the story of the exodus, and then at the end of the lesson we get to eat everything. Also, have you ever thought about how cool the seder plate is? It’s a license to play with your food!

This is my kind of holiday.

I also love the traditions my family includes in our Passover seder. When we were little, my cousins and I would reenact the 10 Plagues by throwing cotton balls and paper frogs around the dining room. Now that we’re older, we’ve gotten even cleverer. In the last few years, we have developed a tradition of transforming the Maggid, the storytelling part of the seder, into some clever skit. I believe it began with Beatles themed seder songs, like 8 Days a Year and He Freed Us, Yeah Yeah Yeah.

Ever since then, we’ve been putting our own twist on the story of the exodus. One year we were all really into the TV show Lost, and my sister rewrote the whole Passover story to take place on a desert island. In 2012 we had the Presidential Primary Seder, in which all the candidates running for office found themselves competing to be the prophet who would lead the Israelites to freedom.

And this year, well I think this year is the best theme yet: Super Bowl XLIX Pats-Sover seder. In this year’s retelling of the Maggid, the New England Patriots have not won a Super Bowl in over a decade. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick must lead the Patriots/Israelites out of this desert and into the Promised Land of victory. Plagues include a mess of injuries that hop up on us (like frogs), a swarm of defense (like the locusts), and the plague of darkness that descends upon us whenever the New York Jets come to town.

Posted on April 3, 2015

Mensch Madness Game 5: Scapegoat vs. Kosher Pig!

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Welcome back to Mensch Madness! We’re already at Game 5.

Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to be Kosher, put up a good fight in his preliminary match. But he has a tough game ahead against his opponent, the one, the only, the hapax legomenonAzazel[1] himself: the Scapegoat!

"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt. Public domain. And check out that sweatband!

“The Scapegoat” by William Holman Hunt. Public domain. And check out that sweatband!

Today, Manishewitz Arena is packed – even though both competitors hail from farms, these are no farm teams!

Now, of course, Baxter is a tenacious pig. He will stop at nothing to go for his goals, even when they seem impossible. He is not intimidated by the press saying there is no way he can win. He’s also heard that “pigs aren’t kosher,” but even that did not deter him from achieving his dream to become the first
’d ham.

The Scapegoat is the favorite going into the game. Famous for saddling the blame for the Israelites in the Days of Awe, the Scapegoat is a lucky guy. He seems to always win the lot drawing, narrowly escaping the sacrificial altar.[2] Many ESPN commenters have been so bold as to say, “I-bex the Scapegoat will run away with the game.” Further, the energy is in his favor tonight as many of his fans are here sporting tournament goat-ees.

Baxter, tournament-tested, is eager to correct the mistakes from his first match up. Guest referee, Jason Kidd, tosses the jump ball and Baxter takes advantage. His early game performance is
fic! That pregame pickle eating ritual seems unusual, but sure is doing the trick.

The Scapegoat, used to travelling in the wilderness, gets called, and Baxter makes his way to the net. And it’s good! He jumps and whoops, though his excessive celebration does not get called. Baxter milks the moment so much that the Scapegoat gets feta-ed up!

BZZZZ! That’s the halftime buzzer—Baxter is leading and feeling good headed to the locker room. But the Scapegoat is not afraid. He is used to being a second half player, improving upon the tres-passes he made during the first half and promising to be better in the second. After a rousing halftime speech urging him to “caper-diem,” the Scapegoat is ready for a comeback.

Posted on April 1, 2015

Mensch Madness Game 5: Ram vs. Golden Calf!

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Welcome back to Mensch Madness!

Today’s game has a lot of media attention. We’ve all heard the hype about these two teams as they give us a proverbial David and Goliath matchup. We have the challenger the Akeidah Ram, our second-lowest seed, who has now appeared out of nowhere TWICE to surprise the entire world with a twist ending.

But the element-of-surprise Ram might meet his match today, because, (uh)holy cow is his opponent a contender! Everyone expects The Golden Calf, our #1 seed to, crush the Ram, especially considering he is a literal heavyweight. But that’s why we play the game, folks!

Does the Ram have the legs to go the distance in this game, let alone two more to win the championship?! Can he somehow pull off a miracle greater than USA over USSR in 1980??? As we watch him do his suicide sprints, it appears he can move to and fro as if he was created on the sixth day of creation specifically for this purpose![i]

The lights have gone down. The music has started. Look at those pyrotechnics, ladies and gentlemen! Out on a pedestal, our #1 seed, the Golden Calf seems to have jumped out of the fire and onto the court. Certain detractors say his seeding comes from pedigree and that he passed his prime in 1999, however, his biggest fans say he is still relevant and can school anyone on the court today.

Hold on a moment, folks. It appears the crowd here is getting a little antsy. People have started smoking in the rafters. Not only that, but they are drinking, dancing, and… wait… yes, some fanatics have taken off their shirts to reveal their chest-paint spelling out C-A-F. Apparently the “L” in this crew took the night off. The crowd really is getting out of control, with fisticuffs breakout out in section G. We might have to cancel this game, folks.


Well. That quieted things down.

Posted on March 31, 2015