Reading My Way Across America: Back to Bawlmer

After five months (finally!), I finished the book that I checked out of the library to fulfill the Reading My Way Across America challenge, stop #2 as determined by Siri: the 7th state to join the Union, my home state of Maryland.

Image result for maryland flag

The options were numerous, but I narrowed it down to two, one book about towns on the Chesapeake Bay, and one about Jewish Baltimore, which is also exactly where I grew up, as did both of my parents (in fact, I later found out that both of them had indeed read the book despite it being relatively recent). I read a book about Smith Island earlier this year, so I decided that the Western side of the bay deserved a shot, so Jewish Baltimore it is. It was quite the trip down memory lane and beyond, and interesting to learn about Jewish life in Baltimore before my family showed up in 1939.

On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore was written by Eric L. Goldstein and Deborah R. Weiner. It was published only last year, so it’s pretty up to date. My dad found it to be a little dense on history and less focused on narrative, to which I agree; the first half of the book was kind of a snoozefest with the occasional interesting tidbit or photograph thrown in. On the whole, the book talked about the different waves of Jewish migration and settlement in and around Baltimore, first downtown, then gradually toward East Baltimore and finally into suburban Baltimore County, where I grew up. The first Jewish settlers in the area were recorded as early as the 1770s, before Maryland even became a state, so it’s pretty clear that the Chosen People of Baltimore are truly among the OGs along with the Anglicans (Note: There were probably Native Americans in the area, but on the whole, the central part of Maryland has never had much of a Native American presence. Even today, Maryland is one of the few states without an Indian reservation or any recognized tribal groups.)

A lot of the book focused on the relationships that Jews had with their neighbors, both the white, Christian community, and the large (and historically, relatively affluent) African-American community of Baltimore. The theme of “middle ground” really hit home and reverberated the most when placing the Jewish community in between the other two. Maryland has historically been an even-Steven kind of place, neutral in the Civil War, geographically south of the Mason-Dixon line but culturally closer to the northern states. Baltimore was, for quite some time, host to both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Interestingly enough, back in the 1920s, the Jews of Baltimore were more closely affiliated with the Republican party, as the Democratic side leaned more towards the “know-nothings” and white Christians who wanted nothing to do with the Jews. This prompted both the growth of independent Jewish institutions as substitutes for areas exclusively reserved for white Christians, as well as the community’s turn towards an alliance with the similarly disenfranchised black community.

Speaking of the connections between the Jewish and African-American communities, there were quite a few which surprised me ,beyond the obvious demise of The Buddy Deane Show post-integration as chronicled in John Waters’ Hairspray. In 1927, a Jewish female doctor opened Baltimore’s first birth control clinic, which led to the 1938 founding of Northwest Maternal Health Center, the first hospital in the nation where black and white doctors worked side by side. Hot off the heels of Brown vs. Board of Education, the large Jewish presence on the county school board pushed for and ultimately achieved public school desegregation, one of the first districts south of the Mason-Dixon line to do so. And a year later, in 1961, Sinai Hospital (where I was born) became the only hospital in Baltimore to accept African-American interns among its staff, aside from the all-black Provident Hospital.

Of course, the Jewish contributions to life in Baltimore did not go unnoticed. Jews founded Baltimore’s earliest department stores, and had a hand in cultural institutions from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to Center Stage to the Baltimore Museum of Art. On the religious side, Baltimore’s first bat mitzvah occurred in 1936, only a matter or months after the first ever bat mitzvah took place in New York City. By 1951, Park Heights Avenue was known as “Rue de la Shul” (plausible although I’ve never heard anyone call it that, but then again we also have the so-called ‘Gucci’ Giant, the history of which is beyond me), and yeah, it’s still full o’shuls. And Ner Israel, Baltimore’s notable yeshiva, was the first institute in America to offer a doctorate degree in Talmudic law.

Probably the most interesting parts of the book were the details of Baltimore’s Jewish community during the civil rights movement, where private schools and even country clubs were restricted to white, Christian members only. A particularly interesting photograph of Meadowbrook Country Club’s sign warning against blacks and Jews intrigued me. Towards the end of the book, names of people and places became more and more familiar, and on page 223, there was even a picture taken in a classroom at my high school; obviously, a decade after I graduated, but still very recognizable and very…odd to see in a history book. And who knew about Jewish boxing? There could have been way more information about that in the book.

So anyway, upon finishing, I asked for a number 1-50 from Siri, and she picked 39, so North Dakota, here I come! I have already picked out a few books; hopefully it will not take me another five months to read and recap a book from that state.


Feminism, In Its Purimist Form

Well, after sleeping for almost 24 hours straight from Friday to Saturday, I woke up just in time to go to the Ovation Purim party last night. It was pretty enjoyable, plenty of hamantaschen to eat and a very nice megillah reading, then back home and to bed.

But this morning, I realized that us Jews and our holidays – well this one in particular – are surprisingly progressive for such an ancient religion. Allow me to explain.

Purim is a day when we celebrate the Book of Esther, and specifically, its heroine, the Queen herself. She was pretty much a bad-ass bitch, making her way into the palace to replace the dethroned queen, hiding her true identity, and then pulling off a pretty covert mission in order to uncover the wicked Haman’s plans to jettison the Jews. Long story short, Haman got hanged from a tree, the Jews of the Persian Empire were safe and happy, and in her honor, we dress up, get drunk, and eat cookies which are supposed to be shaped like three-cornered hats but sometimes end up looking like vaginas.

To me, feminism means disruption of the status quo in order to ensure a greater good, benefiting a marginalized group. And it’s no coincidence that it was a woman-led effort. I mean, what other mainstream religion has a day celebrating a woman, and only a woman?

I hear the arguments that Judaism is whatever, demeaning to women, second class, all that, but at the end of the day, without women like Esther and Ruth, we wouldn’t have some of our best holidays and our religion would lose a significant part of its meaning and importance.

I hope these inside-out hamantaschen turn out all right.




And here’s the long (…well, a few days) -awaited review of the second book I finished this past week. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the recent past, and I think a lot of people will find something about it they’d like, so here’s a review for Hush, by Eishes Chayil (pseudonym).

Hush takes place between 2000 and 2008/2010 in Boro Park, the most Jewish section of New York. Gittel Klein, a 9-year-old girl in one of the most religiously observant of sects, witnesses some unspeakably horrible occurrences revolving around her best friend Devory Goldblatt, and 8-10 years later, as a young newlywed, her life changes forever when old feelings from the past bubble up to the surface, threatening to explode her marriage, her family, and her community.

(Wow, that’s like, the most concise plot synopsis I’ve ever written. Good job, laconic me.)

It was hard to put this book down. On Friday night, I willed myself to stay awake until the words on the page became mush, and I spent Saturday afternoon, when I should have been studying, engrossed in Gittel’s world for several hours outside on my new chaise on the sixth floor terrace. Eishes Chayil (real name: Judy Brown) weaves a compelling tale that effortlessly jumps from past to present and back again. The only real criticism I have is that Gittel’s sister is alternatively referred to as “Surie” and “Surela” so it took me until about halfway through the book to realize that they were the same person. The emotions that I felt while reading this book ranged from shock to horror to embarrassment to shame. It was as if Gittel was navigating her own way in this world populated by crazy people, from her marriage-obsessed parents to her painfully awkward husband to her teachers, who said some of the worst things.

Although I have not experienced any of the kinds of domestic/sexual abuses seen in Hush (for which I am thankful), I can only imagine that this book provides a hint of the soul-crushing experience it can be, not just on the victim but on those who love her, and those who don’t understand what is going on to their friend. What makes it worse is that Gittel had nowhere to turn to, and no one who would (or could) tell her the truths which she deserved to know. It makes it seem understandable, then, why she acts the way she does as a 19-year-old who has the wherewithal to go to the police; the code of silence under which she has been pulled has pervaded her worldview to the point that she has no frame of reference, and that if she has been lied to her whole life by her family, why wouldn’t those outside her family lie to her as well. What’s even sadder than what happens to Gittel and Devory is again, how those who are older and presumably wiser (just about everyone else in the story) is so blinded by status and marriage prospects that the welfare of their own little girls suffers. And with how the abuser’s story goes – well, let’s just say that it makes Brock Turner’s punishment look harsh by comparison.

Of course, there was predictable backlash from within the Jewish community, especially Orthodox, and Chabad Lubavitcher circles. However, having read some of those reviews, like this one from JewishMom.com, there might be a case of tunnel vision going on; it’s not about that at all. For what I think is a more accurate review, from a Jewish standpoint at least, is this one from Hella Winston of The Jewish Week.

I can’t speak for the Chabad or Hassidic communities, but as an Orthodox Jewish person and a human, I thought that this book was absolutely necessary, and regardless of the Jewish facts and descriptions, it’s the story of a community, their behavior, and the consequences that result from willful ignorance of evil and wrongdoing. Even if the author exaggerated some aspects of Boro Park Jewish life – so what? It’s fiction and she had a point to make. She didn’t go out to write some kind of abuse expose – she could if she would have wanted to, and that would be a completely different book – it’s a story she has lived with for quite a while, and fictionalized in an artful way without pointing fingers at any one group of people, with all the fake names and pseudonyms she uses, all the way up to her own name, for the first year of the book’s publication.

Go pick yourself up a copy of Hush. Come on, don’t be too shy-shy.

This book review was brought to you by bad 80s pun, some delicious strawberry sangria, and The Bachelorette.

Here’s some music.


Bye, Bei, Bye

Now that I finally have a moment…

Here’s another pet peeve of mine.

The sentence “we stayed by my grandparents’ last night” is something that a Jewish person might say.

It is also horribly grammatically incorrect. I never actually noticed it until a few years ago when my dad pointed it out, but if you think about it, it makes sense.

By means via, as in “by train”, alongside, as in “pass by a house” or “sit by a window,” or indicates a creator, as in “a painting by Picasso”. It does not mean over, at, or with.

“But why do you call out Jewish people, Jacob?”

Because they’re the only ones whom I’ve heard use it that way. I used it myself until my dad corrected me.

Actually, it has a linguistic meaning. In German, the word bei means “with,” therefore making its usage in the aforementioned sentence about staying with grandparents grammatically correct. For some reason, this word kind over traveled over and became a false cognate in English speech.

For some reason, though, it irks me more and more each time I hear someone use it incorrectly. I don’t know why it does, but it is grammatically incorrect. One time, I tried to correct someone, and was greeted with a blank stare, so it is not something that I try terribly hard to change about others’ speech patterns.

But don’t start saying it now.

That, or singing the Maude theme song in public, or else Lady Godiva will be freedom riding through your brain for the rest of the day.


Dancing with the Enemy

So, yesterday, after the show, I went to watch the second of four films offered by this year’s Madison Israel Film Festival, Dancing at Jaffa, a documentary directed by Hilla Medalia and starring Pierre Fontaine and Yvonne Marceau. For someone who is a huge fan of documentary films, of ballroom dance, of human interest stories, and of Israel, I have to say that I was let down.

Dancing at Jaffa documents the true story of an intercultural experiment aimed at uniting two groups of children in a very unusual way: through a ballroom dance class. French ballroom dance champion Pierre Fontaine returns to Jaffa, Israel – a suburb of Tel Aviv and the city of his birth – to see how he can best contribute to the people of a divided city in a divided nation. The idea of a ballroom dance class is brilliant, and especially the way he did it, by making Jewish boys dance with Palestinian girls, and Palestinian boys with Jewish girls. Of course, the program does not run smoothly; the scenes where the children meet for the first time are wonderfully awkward, and their reactions are candid and honest. Slowly, though, the resistance to look at, to touch, and to dance with the partner of the opposite sex and religion melts away, and by the end, they all (well, most of them) dance in a competition in front of a crowd of parents, family, and friends from both communities. Other than Pierre, two of the trajectories are those of Noor, a chubby Palestinian girl who can be either incredibly shy and withdrawn, avoiding everyone or hostile and belligerent, attacking and scaring everyone; and that of Lois and Alaa. We do not learn about Noor’s partner, but we do learn that Alaa comes from a very poor Palestinian home at which Lois is shocked, and that Lois’s thing is that she was fathered by a sperm donor, which prompts an adorable scene where she tries to explain to her partner what a sperm bank is, and then is followed by an awkwardly graphic scene where Lois’s mother gives Alaa the intimate details of her procedure and of the reproductive process. She’s a wily one, that lady. Noor’s arc basically ends with her in control of her emotions and actually proving to be a very talented dancer, and Lois and Alaa take us out with a scene where they row Alaa’s father’s boat and it’s all very Hand in Hand and gooey as the credits roll.

The concept of the film is great; cute kids and a fun project. If the synopsis weren’t enough, the trailers made me want to jump right up and buy a copy of the movie for myself. However, as I mentioned before, it was not a cakewalk to sit through.

Okay, disclaimer: granted, I missed the first 20 minutes because I was still at the theatre finishing up with the costumes, but for an almost 2-hour-long movie, missing 20 minutes shouldn’t be that big of a deal, and I was able to get right into it when I walked in. The main criticisms I had were the treatment of ballroom dance, the character development, and the camera work/filming style.

Okay, first, the ballroom dance. Obviously, I was not expecting to watch children do ballroom for two hours straight, because that would be boring, but they could have shown more of that and fewer tracking shots of school buses and checkpoints. The only dances that I counted were merengue (which is not something I know much about), rumba (a different style than what I’m used to, though, and tango. There was a tiny bit of foxtrot and waltz in the scenes where Pierre and his American partner, Yvonne Marceau, were demonstrating for the class, but they didn’t show them teaching it. It’s obvious that the children were not professional dancers or even actors, but I felt like I was either watching them dance the same steps over and over in different settings or just watching them talk about their lives. There was a lot left on the cutting room floor.

This leads into character development. I found it odd that almost nothing was mentioned about Noor’s partner; that would have been a great counterpoint to Lois/Alaa. It is clear that we were supposed to root for Noor, but she seemed like a whiner up until the very last moments. Unlike Lois/Alaa, the Noor scenes always seemed to be about someone other than Noor, and Noor’s relationship with that person (Noor’s mother, Noor’s teachers, Noor’s classmate, Pierre). Also, some of the adult characters were frustrating. Pierre seemed a little full of himself at times; Lois’s mother, while funny, clearly attempted to commandeer a documentary that was not about her; and there was something that one of the teachers said to a class that I thought was incredibly harsh and unwarranted. Also, there were like five different schools, and so many children that we barely knew anyone else’s name by the end.

Finally, the camera work. Pick a style and stick with it. You want to do it as if it’s a real movie, with no fourth-wall breaking? Do it that way. You want heavy confessional action? Do it with all the characters, or at least not just Pierre. And for goodness sakes, decide if you want your voice in it – there was one scene in the Palestinian neighborhood where they were talking to Alaa and some of the other boys, and it was clear that the prompts/questions were coming from the person holding the camera.

I would give it a 2 out of 5 star rating, and that’s only because I just love ballroom dance.

And hello to another six continent day, the first after a few! So, just who danced in today? North America (Canada and USA), South America (Paraguay and Colombia), Europe (UK, Hungary, France, Netherlands, and Czech Republic), Asia (India, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia), Africa (Burkina Faso), and Oceania (Australia and Papua New Guinea).


Paging American Mayors

Today, the news story that broke my Facebook news feed and the Internet worldwide (my apologies to Kim Kardashian) was what happened in Israel. When Israel hits the headlines, there’s a 75% chance that it’s bad news, and the newest incident/terrorist attack/”terrorist attack”/whatever CNN wants to call it felt particularly close to home.

Among the four dead, three were American citizens.

Here’s the rundown: Two Israeli Palestinian brothers storm into a synagogue in Har Nof, a very religious neighborhood in Jerusalem which has not been the scene of many acts of violence, armed with a gun, an axe, and a meat cleaver. Shouting “Allah’u akbar,” they attacked the men who were praying there. Nine were wounded, and four died: Moshe Twersky, a prominent rabbi from Boston; Rabbi Arieh Kupinsky, a Detroit native;  Cary William “Kalman” Levine, from Kansas City; and Rabbi Avraham Goldberg, originally from London and holding dual Israeli/UK citizenship. All were married and in their 50s/60s. Between them, they were fathers to 17 children and even more grandchildren. In addition, a Druze policeman who came to the rescue was shot in the crossfire, and died a short while after.



Kansas City.

My first instinct was to go to the websites of each city’s largest newspaper and see what they had to say about their lost denizens. I found the Boston Globe, the Detroit Free Press, and the Kansas City Star. Surely they had family, friends, and community leaders who were devastated.

In these articles, however, I noticed a trend.

Here is a list of everyone who was quoted in the articles:

President Barack Obama. Richard M. Joel (Yeshiva University). Eric Nelson (Maimonides School). Yehuda Yaakov (Israeli Consul, Boston). Michael Zwick (friend of Kupinsky). Jordana Wolfson (Akiba Hebrew Day School). Beverly Phillips (Jewish Community Relations Council of Metro Detroit). Rabbi Michael Cohen (Young Israel of Oak Park). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Secretary of State John Kerry. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Yosef Posternak (Witness). Yohanan Danino (Israeli Chief of Police). Alan Edelman (Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City). Jonathan Bein (Brother-in-law of Kalman Levine). Shimon Kraft (Childhood friend of Kalman Levine).

Who is missing?

Let’s see…the mayors of the cities of Boston, Detroit, and KCMO. State governors. Representatives. Congressman. Senators. Anyone from the United States of America who is not either in the federal government or a representative from the Jewish community. Where are they, and why haven’t they said anything? After all, these were their constituents, their taxpayers, and first and foremost, residents and natives of their hometowns. And they were brutally murdered in a terrorist attack, while praying in a house of worship in a foreign country. Remember Natalee Holloway, the Alabama girl who never returned from her trip to the Caribbean? Her state governor Bob Riley wagged his finger at the entire island of Aruba and issued a travel boycott. What about you, Governor of Michigan?

I considered the chance that maybe the reporters and news wires had missed the cities’ mayors in their rush to get the word out, so I decided to go to each mayor’s personal website and see if he put up something, a statement or a picture or anything, about what happened to a resident from his city. In the Press Room section of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s website, an article about the arts in Boston from a few days ago. Sly James, from Kansas City? Wrote about Summer Youth Employment yesterday. And today’s news from Mark Duggan in Detroit? Auto insurance.

Now, I’m not implying that employing our youth and insuring our automobiles is unimportant, but people in these cities may not be aware of the fact that someone who once lived in their ZIP code was murdered today. And those who do get word of it could wonder: what does this mean if I go to Israel, or anywhere abroad; would I be safe, and if not, would any public official who I might have campaigned for or voted for or shaken hands with give a darn? And would they make it public? How public? Would there be a memorial day for me in my hometown? Would my parents, siblings, children receive any sort of encouraging message from those who claim to have their jobs at the hands of “the people,” act for “the people,” and represent “the people” of their city to the United States and to the world?

It’s only been two days, but even in just two days all of the people listed above came out of the woodwork and said something. Elected officials, where have you been? If something like this happened in your city, by now you would have addressed the public, called an investigation, and offered public/private sympathies to the family. And one of the victims was the son of an actual person, with a Wikipedia entry, and everyone knows that if it’s on Wikipedia, that shit’s legit, # sarcasmbutyeahitskindatrue.

Most likely, no mayors, governors, senators or city councilmen will happen to bounce on over here and read this, and because I have a paper to finish, a suitcase to pack and some pizza that’s calling my name, I can’t contact every single one of them. But if I could page these three mayors, I’d tell them the truth and if they didn’t believe me, I’d give them the names of the families.

And if they happen to be reading this, then, welcome, and please don’t sue me 🙂 I am nicer than this normally, I promise.


Works Cited

Adler, Eric. “Two rabbis killed in Jerusalem attack have Kansas City ties.” Local. Kansas City Star. 18 November 2014.

Rosen, Andy, John R. Ellement and Peter Schworm. “One of four men murdered in Israel has ties to Boston area.” Metro. The Boston Globe. 18 November 2014.

Warikoo, Niraj, Zlati Meyer and Tia Goldenberg. “Rabbi killed in Jerusalem attack grew up in Oak Park.”


Turbulence: You May Experience Jerks

The title pretty much says it all.

But to give you some context, it started this morning, when I was supposed to be getting ready for class but reading Facebook on my phone as usual, and I came across an article from a newspaper in New Zealand about this. By the time I had thought of a response, I had long lost the link, so I found an almost identical article here, in the Washington Post.

The article I linked above adds some scenarios that I didn’t encounter in the New Zealand article, so I’m just going to focus on the first one. It happened on an El Al airplane leaving New York (Kennedy, presumably) for Tel Aviv. Several dozen Orthodox Jewish men, some of them rabbis, refused to take seats near women, as Jewish law forbids close contact with non-related women, see one of my negia posts for more on that. After getting all the men seated, the plane finally took off, only for the men to stand back up during the flight and congregate in the aisles, rather than sitting next to women. This made life difficult for everyone else on that eleven hour trans-Atlantic flight, especially when the men offered passengers money to switch seats before takeoff.

I have to say, well done rabbis. You sure showed that plane full of people your true colors. Well, your true monochrome, that is. Now, you’ve not only gotten yourselves a reputation for being jerks, but this stunt will absolutely do wonders for the image of Jews, specifically the Orthodox, around the world. The world is not tailor-made for Jewish people; I’ve learned that the hard way, going to school on Jewish holidays and not being able to eat much from menus in places like Applebee’s, Wendy’s or the entire state of Louisiana. You’re right in the fact that it’s just not fair sometimes. But you have to pick your battles, and when you’re faced with being stuck in a giant metal tube for eleven hours with one hundred or so other people who are trying to live their lives, just sit your ass down and make your your seat belt is securely fastened. This whole not-sitting-next-to-women crap has gone way too far. The Talmud says that men and women may touch in unavoidable situations or during goal-oriented tasks, such as passing plates around a table, doing the laundry, or moving furniture. Why can’t travel fall under the same category? After all, nobody goes on a plane just to sit there and do stuff for the rest of their lives; it’s a temporary situation, so open your book, crank some Miami Boys Choir up to full volume and suck it up. The fact that it’s almost Rosh Hashanah makes it even worse. It’s like, you want to get written in the Book of Life? Try acknowledging other human beings.

I actually have two personal stories about this. The first happened in Israel. I was flying back from Cyprus, and my then-girlfriend surprised me at the airport to accompany me back to Jerusalem in a sherut (shared taxi). The principle of the sherut, especially at Ben Gurion Airport, is that you hand the driver your suitcase and pile in, sitting wherever there is a seat. Not a hard concept. It was late at night, and in our sherut there happened to be, other than us and the driver, five others: an elderly couple, a secular Jewish guy, another guy, and a younger Haredi woman traveling alone, which is a rarity. There were plenty of seats in the van, so we clambered into the back row. The couple sat in two of the front seats, and the Haredi lady sat alone next to a window. The secular Jewish guy enters the van and sits right next to Haredi lady, who asks him to give her some space, because she’d rather not sit next to him. He moves, but as soon as we’re all packed in and the motor starts, he lets Haredi lady have it, laying into her for being a Haredi, always wanting her own way, not living in this century, having so many extra privileges for being religious, and so on. Keep in mind that it’s creeping close to midnight, and we’re all tired. Haredi lady says something back to him, and he keeps going. I can barely see her face in the moonlight, but she looks like she’s on the verge of tears, so the other guy and the elderly couple come to her rescue, while we watch bemusedly from the backseat. It basically lasts the whole ride back to J’lem, not letting up until he gets out. Thankfully, he’s the first stop. After he is off, she breathes a sigh of relief.

The second story happened at Kennedy Airport on New Year’s Eve. I was on my way to Vienna, Austria, to meet DAT for the Slovakia Winter Retreat and I was boarding the plane for the first leg of the trip: New York to Zurich, Switzerland on Swiss Air. Not a lot of people fly on NYE, which is fantastic, because there is plenty of leg room. It seemed like I was among the only American on the flight. Everyone else was either going back to Switzerland, a religious Jew connecting to Israel, or a brightly-clothed African who, as I later learned, were all connecting to Douala, Cameroon. I get to my seat, and there is a super-religious Israeli girl about my age sitting in the window seat of the row. In my pajama pants, Edward Gorey t-shirt, and bright green DAT headband, I look anything but Jewish. She very visibly rolls her eyes and starts chattering in Hebrew to her friend who is standing right there. I did not catch all of what she was saying, but she was mostly bitching about having to sit next to a boy the whole time and how much this flight was going to suck. All while I’m sitting right there, pretending to stare off into space but actually listening and understanding most of their conversation.

People are starting to settle into their seats, and a lovely flight attendant comes over to me and asks me for my meal preference. She then asks if the religious girl is also sitting in this row; by this point, she has gotten out of the seat and is standing in the aisle pouting. She then addresses her directly, that she needs to sit down so she can get her meal preference, and the girl either ignores her or does not understand her English. I whisper to the flight attendant that I can speak Hebrew, and I proceed to get Miss Orthodox Jewish Bitchface’s attention by locking eyes with her and saying in rapid and pretty-well-accented (if I say so myself) Hebrew something along the lines of:

“Listen, honey. This nice lady wants to know if you’re sitting here, so you can get the food you want.”

The religious girl doesn’t look so much surprised as she does disgusted that I’m even talking to her (in her own language!) and says something like:

“Maybe I’ll sit here, maybe I’ll sit over there with my friend, I don’t know, whatever.”

I translate this to the flight attendant, who tells me she needs the girl to sit down in a seat because we are preparing for takeoff and she needs to know what the hell this girl wants to eat. Just doing her job. I translate this into Hebrew and convey it to the religious girl, who walks off in a huff with her nose in the air. Turns out I will not be seeing her for the remainder of the flight.

I turn to the flight attendant:

“Yeah, so from the bitchy display we just saw, I take it she’s not going to be eating on this flight. And if she gets hungry, well, tough luck.”

I earn some brownie points with the flight attendant, whose life is made easier by drawing a line through the religious girl’s name on her list. I feel powerful, and a little bad that she won’t get any food, but frankly, with the way she talked about me in front of my face and how she brushed off both me and the flight attendant, she didn’t deserve the delicious hot rolls and free champagne. If you don’t want to cooperate with me, someone who is trying to help you potentially get the food that you want/need, fine. But don’t take it out on a lady who’s just doing her job.

People. Entitled people.

Anyway, gentlemen…you can always swim across.


Works Cited

Sullivan, Gail. “Ultra-Orthodox Jews delay El Al flight, refusing to sit near women.” Morning Mix. The Washington Post. 26 September 2014. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/09/26/ultra-orthodox-jews-delay-el-al-flight-refusing-to-sit-near-women/&gt;


Born and Raised in the Ortho-docks

Today, while enjoying a tuna melt at Cool Beans Cafe, I finished reading The Men’s Section by Elana Maryles Sztokman. I’ve already cited her book in a few past posts as I was reading it, so this won’t be merely a review; rather, the third in a series surrounding the topic.

Just go with it.

The Men’s Section is an examination of Orthodox egalitarianism in the twenty-first century. Sztokman starts with her “Orthodox Man” box, and then goes into ethnographic interviews with her subjects and explanations of the mechanisms behind Shira Hadasha, her Israeli egalitarian minyan. At the end, she offers some conclusions; some far-reaching, others not.

Let me start off by saying that on the whole, I enjoyed the book. I felt like it applied more to Israelis than Americans, but having lived in Israel I could see both sides. There are huge differences between Israeli Orthodoxy and American Orthodoxy, and Sztokman covers it well. In American Orthodoxy, we tend to err on the right side – not right as in “correct” but right as in “conservative.” When a question arises, generally the stricter opinion wins out and becomes fact, which is why American Orthodoxy is moving in that direction.

As for Sztokman’s descriptions and arguments for the egalitarian minyan, I agree with some and disagree with others.

On women carrying the Torah: I agree with her that women can and should hold and carry the Torah. The reasons why they cannot are antiquated and need to be changed; there’s absolutely no reason why the Torah should be taken away from the hands of an Orthodox Jew. Women like my grandmother carried families over from Europe, and they carry families into the future, so being denied the privilege of carrying the Torah seems rather gauche and silly in those terms.

On women reading the Torah: Initially, I was taken aback by this, and when Sztokman shared the vignette about Lisa, the congregant who volunteered to read Torah but dropped out at the last minute because she had other things to attend to, I felt like maybe Sztokman was wrong. But then again, that only contributes to the pressure-cooker nature of leining, and sometimes men have similar excuses. On the other hand, I have heard some pretty impressive women leading services and some pretty unimpressive men. This is one I’ll have to experience before deciding upon.

On American vs. Israeli Orthodox levels: Sztokman brings up that being labeled as “Conservative” or “Reform” could be considered emasculating for some Israeli men, even more so than “secular” connotates, and how identification with American Orthodoxy can add to that sentiment. Americans, whether Jewish or not, have a tendency to be thought of as spoiled, since unlike the soldiers and kibbutzniks of Israel, Americans are Starbucks and iPhone wielding luxury car drivers who’ve never had to put their life on the line for their country, spending all day sitting in air-conditioned offices and sleeping comfortably without a care for the rest of the world. At least a secular Israeli Orthodox Jew has most likely done army service, had a bar mitzvah, and paid his dues religiously, physically, and financially for the state, and is taking a hiatus (whether temporary or permanent) from the derech. With “secular,” there remains that idea of “I can jump back in anytime I want,” whereas “Conservative” and “Reform” require changes in doctrine sometimes seen as “excuses” by the Orthodox. Because secular Judaism isn’t as much of a thing here as it is in Israel, I’d say that American Orthodox men have a much rougher time deviating at all from the mainstream.

But enough about Sztokman. This post is called “Born and Raised in the Ortho-Docks,” so let me transition from repeating some of the same information as in the two previous entries on this book and go a little further into the “docks.”

In one of the earlier entries, I mentioned a rabbi/teacher of mine who was incredulous at a Chabadnik’s proffering of tefillin on the streets of Washington, DC. One year, I had that rabbi for a tanach (bible) class, and we were studying the part of Genesis focusing on Noah’s Ark. We embarked on a class discussion about the story and the midrash (commentary) behind the flood. I mentioned a book that I had – actually, the delightfully illustrated and aptly-titled Stories of the Flood by Uma Krishnaswami – which told stories of flood mythology around from China to Liberia, and that we should look at other cultures’ flood stories and see how they compared. Several people in class were interested in the idea and eventually borrowed the book from me, but our teacher disapproved of this conversation. I asked him about it after class, and he said that it wouldn’t be worth our time. Curriculum notwithstanding, the fact that he wasn’t even interested in enriching the discussion with inclusions of other cultures – not to change our views, but to compare and contrast, and maybe even learn more about Noah and his ark – told me that he wasn’t interested in anything else but one way of seeing things. Another time, a rabbi said that feng shui is “avoda zara” which is a fancy way of saying sinful. When the yearbook interviewed a new rabbi at the school, when asked his favorite book, of course he answered “the Bible,” which almost makes me wish I hadn’t just used that Jennifer Aniston “what a load of crap” gif last week. Such a textbook, cop-out rabbi answer. I mean, would it kill your reputation to admit that you had other interests, by picking, oh, I don’t know…Eat, Pray, Love, Fahrenheit 451, Winnie the Pooh or any of the other bazillions of books out there that you AREN’T paid to teach, and that you haven’t obviously spent the majority of your adult life studying? And would it kill you to wear colors, or ANYTHING other than the interchangeable black-jacket-white-shirt-black-pants combination that makes you look like you only own one outfit?

This was my world. At least, my public world, my high school, my community. Stick to the formula and you’ll be fine. Even though I did feel the pressure, especially when I didn’t fit in with the “in-group” at my synagogue or my school, I knew that others were not as lucky as I was. At least I had television, secular music, secular books, and the freedom to choose my own interests outside of school. I had the freedom of going to college where I wanted and studying what I wanted. Had I not had access to those things, who knows where I’d be today and what I’d be doing. Though my parents grew up in different parts of Baltimore, both of them had life experience that mixed Judaism with secular life in a healthy way. They had no interest of imposing a TA/TI/Bais Yaakov environment on me and my sister; it wasn’t the way that they grew up. Both of my parents had been to religious schools, secular schools, private colleges, and big universities. Both have had jobs that have taken them deeper inside and further outside the Jewish community, and there were things that they liked and disliked about both oeuvres. Even my dad, whose upbringing was more observant than mine, attended mixers and socials that don’t exist Orthodox Jewish Baltimore today. He also got to dance on The Buddy Deane Show. To their credit, my parents allowed me and my sister to have non-Jewish friends, and took us to shows at the Mechanic and at CenterStage.

When my parents were out of the picture, however, Judaism could get stone-cold. Emotionless. Sometimes I felt less-than because in my family, we did use the telephone and television on Shabbat; the former, due to elderly grandparents, and the latter, because my dad resented not being able to watch Saturday baseball games growing up, and never the one to emit a double-standard, let the TV babysit us on Shabbat when we were not occupied by friends. Sometimes I felt less-than because my mom wore pants and did not cover her hair, like some of my female teachers and other friends’ mothers. Sometimes, I felt restricted because I couldn’t go to the theatre or play on the computer on Shabbat, like the rest of the world could, especially at times like when Cartoon Network held a Friday-night cartoon screening at Towson University or that Friday night when the seventh Harry Potter hit the shelves on a Friday night and bookstores went bonkers. Not being able to go to a fast food restaurant or have expensive, gelatin-laden candy was a bummer, although future me is grateful that I didn’t have those things.

Growing up American and Orthodox, there definitely is a “prove yourself” factor that Israelis have less of. In America, Jews are a minority, and Orthodox Jews, a minority within a minority; in Israel, it’s the opposite. Plus, the American spirit of competition urges us – yes, men and women – to compete with one another and the outside world to “prove” our Jewishness. This is where the masculinity element comes in as well. Even though it’s refreshing to hear that jerks who call out when the Torah reader messes up occurs in Israel, in America, it’s always been a huge turn-off for me. For some reason, I’m reminded of that line from the Salute Your Shorts theme song, “get it right or pay the price.” Only in this case, the price is temporary public humiliation in the name of correctness of tone and phrasing. I do understand that it is important; but how important is it? And why must the reaction be so visceral for the congregation? Well, there’s the masculinity element for you. Going over to another area, as I mentioned before, the shidduch market is all about status, and “proving yourself” to be the Jewiest of the Jews so that a girl/boy will want to marry you. People change, you know, in both directions.

On the flip side, there are things about Orthodox Judaism in America that whether by conditioning or personal preference, that I like. I do like the unity that it offers, and some of the strictness does have an effect in building the community. Speaking the same language and praying in the same way help affirm who we are both as individuals and in a group. Part of it is about being able to express yourself both publicly and privately, and part of it is the feeling of being welcomed in a circle. Rituals are a key factor in the survival of any group, and life-affirming rituals such as Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and a bar mitzvah are all ways that Jews can stand stronger together than apart.

I defend Orthodoxy because it’s the way I grew up, and I don’t want to be made to feel like the first 17 years of my life were a lie, regardless of how much society or anyone says otherwise. I stand by Orthodoxy because my grandparents didn’t come to this country at the risk of their lives for me not to embrace the freedom that they were denied. I can hate on Orthodoxy all I want in my mind and call for change and reconsideration of traditions, but it will always be a part of me that nobody can take away. I’d like to think that the Bible is undeniably a holy text written by divine hand but I’d like to think that it’s a skeleton, written to inspire humanity to breathe the same life into the words that God breathed into us, to provide us with the tissue, marrow, and muscle  needed to help us comprehend our existence, learn from the past, and model our lives not on indoctrination but on intelligence and inspiration. To me, Orthodoxy isn’t about the length of your sleeves or your skirt, how loudly you sing in synagogue or how many rules you follow; it’s a state of mind that Judaism is more than a culture, but as a way of life that connects past, present, and future. Judaism isn’t something that comes one-size-fits-all, and it’s definitely not something you can order from a catalog and get rid of when you’re bored with it. It’s not just bagels, matzo ball soup, and gefilte fish; it’s the challah that is braided every Friday before Shabbat to remind us of the elements that make up who we are as people. In my life so far, Orthodoxy has been the best avenue to capture those essential feelings of belonging, with room for individuality and striving for more.

Overall, I think that Elana Maryles Sztokman is on to something with her ideas, but her interview subjects are not that impressive. She could do a better job proving her points by casting a wider net, one that encompasses more Americans, the men for whom Orthodoxy has changed the most in their lifetimes. This article I found on H-Net by Yoel Finkelman confirms what I felt: the men in the study were all subscribers of the same egalitarian mindset, or had at least tried an egalitarian minyan. Then again, I can totally imagine mainstream American Orthodox men being unwilling to talk to Sztokman, so to her credit, she probably worked with what she had.

Also, welcome to Kuwait, who popped up for its first visit, as well as being my first six-continent day (If I can count Brunei/Malaysia as Oceania? Yes? No? Maybe?)

Works Cited

Finkelman, Yoel. Review. “Men of the Minyan.” H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews (April 2012) http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=34942

Sztokman, Elana Maryles. The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World. Waltham, MA: Brandeis UP, 2011.


Prayaz Club

Another way in which Orthodox Jewish men compete with one another is in prayer.

This might surprise you, but it’s true, and not just because Elana Maryles Sztokman talks about it in her book. It’s something that I’ve experienced firsthand.

Gents to the left, ladies to the right.

I’d say that prayer is probably the number-one thing that divides up the Jewish people. Everything about prayer says something about the person who’s in the group, and the person who chooses to not join the group. In the Orthodox tradition, men and women pray in separate rooms or in the same room, but divided by a partition called a mechiza. They never sit together. Orthodox women do not lead services, or read or carry the Torah (at least in a mixed group, womens’ minyans are growing in popularity), but in other forms of Judaism, they do those things. Orthodox services are generally conducted entirely in Hebrew; other services may or may not include any Hebrew. Some Orthodox services have singing, but none (at least those on Shabbat and holidays) include live instruments or recorded music. And it gets even more specific than that. At the synagogue I grew up attending, the mechiza is relatively small; upon standing, you can see the women from the waist up, which some Orthodox Jews would find distasteful. In other congregations, they have a trellis dividing the men and the women, and I’ve heard that for the women it’s not so much fun having to watch a group of men stand, sit, and bend through wooden slats. I can imagine that would be headache inducing. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, there is currently no space where men and women can pray together; it is divided in “half” by a trellis. I put “half” in quotation marks, because every year, the trellis seems to magically move a few inches closer toward the womens’ section, making it easy for men to go up to the wall but a virtual scramble for women to get anywhere close.

The 21st century has seen prayer undergo many changes, especially in the Orthodox world. Congregations such as the one I grew up with are doing away with cantors, otherwise known as the prayer leaders that pick the tunes and control the services (I actually can’t say anything too bad about cantors since my grandfather was one, and an awesome one, and I still remember when he called me up to the Torah on my Bar Mitzvah, one of my all-time favorite memories, and probably one of his, too, since I was the only grandson he got to do that for) and instead, just having members of the congregation assume those roles. Technology is also a factor. In the 1990s, when my synagogue’s crowds swelled for the High Holidays, we had a rabbi-approved sound system installed by members of the congregation. Generally, sound systems are not kosher in Orthodox synagogues but one of our illustrious and industrious congregants, an engineer, designed and installed it under the supervision of the rabbi, and placed the microphone close enough to the lectern to capture the voice of whoever was leading, but far away enough that it would not physically interfere with anyone and would not need to be adjusted. Needless to say, it caused controversy in the community, with some members (and non-members) branding us as “not Jewish enough” or “not as Jewish.” Some people left, but most of those who disapproved wouldn’t have come anyway, due to our mechiza, or the fact that some women came with uncovered heads or in long pants, or anything that they could find to criticize us.

The point I’m trying to make here is that prayer and competition go hand-in-hand in the Orthodox Jewish world; there is always someone or some group that is “not as Jewish” or “too frum” for someone. Everyone is a judge.

And of course, there’s “who’s praying the hardest?” a competition of masculinity usually seen amongst hoys in Jewish high schools, who have to pray every morning and afternoon. The mornings are usually when the most competitive sides of guys come out, mostly because they’ve just had breakfast and are amped for the day. It usually starts with who has the shinier tefillin, and who can tie them quicker and faster? Who can say the Amidah the fastest? Who can shuckle the deepest? Who can read the Torah the fastest? And who has the strength to  lift the Torah for Hagboh (answer: I never even tried), and how many columns can you open it to? Seven? Six? Only three? Psshhh…

The worst were the student prayer leaders, who would organize who’s doing what with the meticulousness of the United Nations and the drive of a swarm of gnats. They thought that they were running the show, but actually were super annoying and probably turned a lot of people off from coming to prayer or staying the whole time. Most of the time, I would avoid them, and after awhile they would stop trying to recruit me to do stuff in the service. One guy, though, found one of them to be so aggravating that he posted a fake Craigslist ad with a picture of a hot girl and what he thought was the prayer leader’s cell phone number, but was actually his home number, which caused his parents’ phone to ring all night with horny guys wanting to speak to Candy or whatever name he’d chosen, and that’s how you get kicked out of a Jewish high school. This is not to say that the annoying prayer leader didn’t have it coming, but it’s not saying that he didn’t.

Oh, Frank McCourt, how your angsty Irish prose got me through many a morning prayer service.

I chose not to partake in these games. In fact, most mornings of my junior year found me sitting in the second row, praying quietly along with the group, and waiting for our rabbi to give his morning sermon so I could break out the copy of Angela’s Ashes I’d been hiding under my tallis for a few pages of reading and attempting to not cry.

Speaking of judgment, try reading the Torah in an room full of Orthodox men. So far, I’ve only done it once in my life – at my own bar mitzvah – and there are probably people reading this who are judging me right now, but I don’t really care. But yes, I did read a whole Torah portion from an actual torah scroll, in Hebrew, and a Haftarah which was thankfully relatively short. Though I studied for an entire year, I was still terrified the day of, because whenever the reader makes a mistake, there are always at least three voices from the crowd pronouncing the word correctly and loudly. Could you imagine, giving a speech in front of 100 people, and saying something like, “pajamas,” rhyming the word with “llamas,” only to have five, eight, ten voices from the crowd spitting back at you “paJAAAAMas,” rhyming it with “Alabamas,” until you backtracked and said “paJAAAAMas?” Talk about pressure, especially for a 13-year-old.

I’m with you, sister.

As far as I’m concerned, I feel most comfortable praying in Hebrew and since I’ve been doing it my whole life, in a men’s space. Whether or not there is a physical mechiza doesn’t really matter; even men sitting on the left and women on the right would be fine, as long as it’s separate. The first time I sat with my mom in shul, it felt incredibly awkward. I’m also not a fan of choirs or musical instruments. Gospel music is lovely, but when there’s a choir standing there in robes, it makes me feel more like I’m in Sister Act than in a synagogue. And one time, I went to a service where they handed out tambourines and played guitar, and that made me feel a little bit silly, as if we were in a Montessori school, or around a campfire, or something.

In Sztokman’s book, she talks about egalitarian minyanim, where the quorum consists of ten men and ten women, instead of the traditional Orthodox tradition of ten men. This is one potential solution, but for every Jew that would buy into it, there would be two who would be against it. I think I’d need to try it to see if I liked it. Sztokman does say that there is a mechiza, which is good, and that both women and men do the leading and reading, which is something I’d really like to experience; there are some very talented female cantors out there with voices that fill you up with spirit and love for God. The whole theory why women shouldn’t touch a torah scroll is pretty ridiculous, and I won’t go into it here, but believe me when I say that as a society, we’re past that.

Most of all, prayer is supposed to be, at least for me, a time of spiritual introspection and personal communication with God, with a few rousing community-building songs thrown in. A good mix of solitude and togetherness is key, as a Jewish person and a member of a Jewish community that is larger than myself and those that are in the room with me. My dad always told me that he raised me and my sister so that we’d always have a sense of community, a family wherever we go in our lives because we can walk into any synagogue anywhere in the world, Orthodox or not, and know exactly what’s going on. Though people pray in different ways and for different reasons, I think that competition should be the last thing that comes to mind.

Well that was fun.

Now, please enjoy these dancing rabbis.

teach me how to rabbi, teach me teach me how to rabbi