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Monday, August 31, 2015


I come from a strictly Orthodox family that values three things above all: the worship of G-d, the learning of Torah, and strong family bonds.

There are some cultural differences.

My mother's side of the family is "Litvish." Literally this means "from Lithuania." The yeshivot in Lithuania were renowned for the quality of the Torah scholars they produced. So in practice this cultural tradition places an emphasis on learning halacha in a yeshiva setting. The meaning of life comes from accurate observance of the laws.

My great grandfather, Reb Dovid Garfinkel, a"h, was a Torah scholar in the Litvish tradition. I am not sure if he meant this humorously or not, but I am told he used to say that a person should not be grandiose in their aims: "Just don't make the world worse."

Reb Dovid emphasized the importance of taking care with one's words. You may have heard the saying "speech is silver and silence is gold." He emphasized the Jewish prohibition against gossip and its discouragement of idle talk generally.

My mother's side of the family reflects the influence of Litvish culture generally and Reb Dovid specifically, as follows:

  • Law-centric - life is about following the law and discussions are about interpreting it accurately
  • Accuracy - don't add to the Law and don't subtract from it
  • Rational not emotional; we hold the children but adults take physical space; they're not "huggers"
  • No idle talk, no gossip, no "shmooz"
  • No bragging or self-promotion - "all jaw and no paw" was a family insult - it means that someone is "all talk and no action"
  • Keep to yourself and don't proselytize (this has changed somewhat as many Jews have become non-religious; a good example of modern outreach is the Aish.com organization; before that it was NCSY).
  • Timeliness

That's my maternal grandmother, Muriel Garfinkel, a"h, in the forefront of the photo above. She was married to Reb Dovid's son, my grandfather Murray a"h. The two of them were so much alike the uncles and aunts used to call them "Mur and Mur." Routinely they would pick up the telephone at the same time when I called.

Grandma was a true feminist. It seems to me that her values went beyond the traditional Jewish ones of home and family. She had a kind of holistic, humanistic view of the world we don't see articulated very clearly now. But she was Rosie the Riveter:

  • Devoted to Grandpa
  • Had and raised six kids
  • Cooked from scratch 
  • Stood up for the "girls" including her daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters 
  • Loved all the children equally
  • Was fiercely devoted to the family
  • Worked professionally, independently and with Grandpa and urged the girls to do the same

Much of my childhood, or at least the part of it that I spent in Grandma and Grandpa's house, was spent actually litigating the difference between Chassidim and non-Chassidim, or Litvish tradition, which they never called out in my earshot. Probably because for them it was the default view of the world.

Why did Grandma and Grandpa get so exercised about Chassidim?

Because it was personal for them: My mother married my father.

That's Bubbie, Matilda (Mattie) Stroli a"h, in the center of the photo above. She came from Cluj, Hungary-Romania. Like my Zayde, Rabbi Valentine Stroli, she was imprisoned in the camps (my grandmother was in Auschwitz). Bad things happened to her family. She was one that got away.

She married Zayde after the war and they had my father, Alex. He and my mother married, in the late '60s and my childhood was full of discussions that led me to learn the following.

  • Litvak versus Chassidish is a very gut-level argument for strictly observant Jews. They don't see themselves as ultra-Orthodox or fundamentalist. They see themselves as authentically Jewish. 
  • For strictly observant Jews, Conservative, Reform, etc. don't even enter into the conversation. (Today, the term "Open Orthodox" wouldn't mean anything at all.) 
  • Women are the center of the family and therefore the community, but men control the money and the ritual. Feminism is not a valid ideology because the focus is on Judaism; any ideology separate from religion is not compatible with a focus on religion.
As for Chassidism itself:
  • Chassidus, initiated by the Baal Shem Tov in the late 1700s, was a reaction against the caste system of the time. Torah scholars were revered, but if you weren't a scholar you weren't considered much at all. And many Jews were not learned.
  • According to Chassidus you could form a personal relationship with G-d through personal retreat and prayer and meditation, and in this relationship there was valid spirituality whether or not you were learned. This could lead to great holiness. In practice the emphasis came to be one's connection to the Rebbe, since such a level of focus was rare.
  • Chassidim are ideologically oriented toward protecting the community from bad influences that can corrupt their focus on G-d. They are also oriented toward protection from the "evil eye," which derives from Jewish mystical belief about the influence of one's thoughts and the corresponding judgments these can invoke on the part of G-d. Anti-Semitism, especially after the Holocaust, is another factor; there is an intense focus on keeping the community safe from potentially hostile civil authorities. 
  • Chabad Chassidim are a separate sect which believes that the purpose of the world is to "redeem the sparks," e.g. to turn evil into good, meaning to bring non-religious Jews back. The other groups believe it is dangerous to mingle with bad influences and seek mostly to protect their families from it. 
  • Chassidim are deeply invested in emotion and relationships. Chassidic events typically start late and run late because the clock is considered more of a starting point for human connection rather than a regulator of it. The exception of course is Jewish law, so where time is fixed it is not negotiable (e.g. the start time of the Jewish Sabbath.)

My father proposed to my mother on the first date. The story goes that he picked her up and took her out to eat and asked her what she wanted.

"A hot dog."

My mother is simple and lovely and loving. That's her in the photo below, on the left.

That's me in the middle. My husband caught me young; we've been married for nearly 25 years. My older daughter Minna is on the right. (Rebecca is not pictured here.)


Minna and I came to New Jersey yesterday for the wedding of my sister's oldest daughter. I took lots of pictures but am not allowed to show them to you because the family is worried about ayin hara (evil eye).

What I can tell you about the wedding is that it was beautiful and fun and holy.

The wedding hall was in Lakewood, New Jersey, a center of yeshivish Jewish life.

Litvaks and Chassidim were in attendance, and they were just fine sitting side by side.

Everyone was welcome.

We spent a good long time in the makeup room getting ready.

The bride had a friend there to keep her calm.

We bonded over makeup. I felt bad for the makeup artist because the women just kept coming and coming.

There were beautiful, sweet children and babies overflowing the hall, k'neina hora.

Unlike what we see in secular culture, the focus was overwhelmingly on the family.

Everywhere you looked there were mothers, fathers, grandparents, uncles and aunts and extended family holding, hugging, feeding, and talking to their children.

People talked about their jobs and some people seemed to have high level job titles. But it was clear that there was no such thing as a "career ideology" the way there is in the secular world.

Religious people do not derive their identity from the workplace.

* * * 

All in all, it was a wistful throwback for me personally. I had re-entered "my world," except as an adult that left it many years ago.

You can't go back in time. And I don't think I could live in this world anymore, at all. I am a secular person and a feminist. I don't live a life dictated by all the rituals they do.

But I can remember all the good that lived there when I was young. Which I took very much for granted.

I can share with you a limited amount, in words. That you don't get to see very much of, at all.

Because they're trying to protect what little they have left.

* * *

It's easy to throw stones at religious people.

But when you talk without knowing, or from cynicism and hate, you're not really telling the story.

Mazel tov to my niece and her new husband. Two really nice people. May they be healthy and happy and have a beautiful life.

Mazel tov to my sister and her husband, to my nieces and nephews.

Mazel tov to my mom and dad and to my brother-in-law's parents.

Mazel tov to the whole family.

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All opinions my own.










Saturday, August 29, 2015

Photo by Steve Corey via Flickr

The focus of today's D'var Torah (Parshas Ki Teitzeiwas the laws of the so-called "beautiful captive." This term refers to a non-Jewish woman seen and desired by a Jewish male soldier at war. The law gives him the right to kidnap her, bring her home and rape her, after a waiting period of a month.

The right to rape a woman seen and desired in wartime, albeit with certain conditions, is conferred on all soldiers, although it is true that the ancient Rabbis frowned on it. They predicted that those who took advantage of this accommodation to human fallibility would suffer in the end. 

But as the Rabbi explained, they ancient sages understood that war created savages out of decent human beings.

Still, it's a very concerning section.

How do we understand the seeming sexism in Judaism that is displayed in this law and elsewhere? Including:

  • Rationalizing systematic rape, albeit in war.
  • Allowing a married man to have sex outside of marriage, albeit with a woman who is single - not "owned" by another man. (If a woman commits adultery she is killed, and if a man commits adultery with a married woman he is killed as well.)
  • Enabling ongoing abuse by allowing a man to refuse divorce despite his wife's wishes.

On top of this we have the prohibition against homosexuality. This is called an "abomination," despite the fact that we know many men have an insurmountable sexual orientation towards other men.

Why is the lust that leads to rape a disability requiring accommodation - but the lust that leads to consensual male sex a sin no matter what?

Why does the Torah seem to care only about a man's urges, and not about the shattering impact of rape - not to mention kidnapping from one's home, family and nation - on women?

To bring in a contemporary horror, how can we criticize ISIS for sexual brutality, slavery and trafficking, when the Torah seems to sanction the same thing - albeit on a much smaller and more "humane" scale?

We have to ask these questions and come up with real answers. If the Torah is to really be our living Scripture, it's not okay to wish and rationalize such troubling issues away.

One thing is clear: When women are not represented in the yeshiva, men don't do a very good job representing our interests. 

We need more female scholars in the academy.

Update 8/30/2015: discussion going on at my Facebook page.

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All opinions my own.

Photo by Matthew Paulson via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Today we had a visitor to our synagogue, Magen David Sephardic Congregation, North Bethesda, Maryland. 

It seems like our shul draws interesting people and this week was no exception. I was drawn to this woman and we talked.

She said, "I wanted to pray in a Shabbat service" - even though she is not Jewish!

All people are welcome at our shul.

I could tell that she was a spirit-teacher.

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All opinions my own.