In Praise of Holiday Time

Since my planner was empty, I decided to take the evening off from commitments and just watch TV and get some chores done around the apartment. Then, I remembered what I wanted to write about.

Growing up, Shabbat and holiday time was a time to unplug. No computer, no phone, no music…just the noises of people, and silence. And no car either, so your feet were the way to go. I think it started around college, when I was far from home and the work piled on. And that began my less-religious streak.

These days, I try to spend as much time as I can on Shabbat and holidays being observant, but I’ve either got some sort of commitment, have work to do, or just get too bored and realize that I’m an adult and I can do what I want.

But yesterday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, changed that…a little.

A parent of one of my students (at the elementary school, not from college) invited me over for lunch. I knew they were a religious family, but they lived kind of far away to walk so I drove and parked a few blocks away from their beautiful house. I waited for about ten minutes, thinking they might’ve forgotten, or got held up at shul, when I saw a little salmon-colored dot run down the street towards me. That dot became little Michael, who wrapped me in a big hug, and his mother, Sarah, wasn’t far behind, with his little sister, and another couple and their two kids (again, all names changed for privacy). We went inside, made kiddush, and enjoyed a lovely homemade lunch, courtesy of Sarah. The golden ratio of 5 adults and 4 kids (well, more adults than kids is a golden ratio any way you slice it), we enjoyed our food in leisure. No one was checking their email, and only once did a phone ring (it was the house phone, and Sarah ignored it). I ate my fill of challah and honey, salad with pomegranate seeds, fish, stuffed chicken, corn muffins, mashed potatoes, spinach, and cherry pie for dessert, all while enjoying conversations about the plight of Roma in Central Europe, where to find the best kosher food in town, remembering our favorite food products from when we were kids that no longer existed, using FaceTime to keep up with family, and more. After saying Birkat Hamazon, there was no rush to clean up; people just brought in plates, forks, and food items leisurely, and we continued to schmooze in and around the kitchen. I updated Sarah on what we were covering in school, and chatted with the other couple about theater and Jewish customs, and our upbringings, and such. I was having such a casual and happy time that I was honestly shocked when I looked over at the oven clock and it was 5:00 PM, for a lunch that began at 2:00 PM.

Upon walking back to my car, getting in, and driving home, I was simultaneously on a holiday high and kind of sad to be returning from the religious world to the “real world.” When I got home, I realized that I had a meeting I wanted to go to at 5:30, but as I watched the clock tick by, I was like…nah, not a chance. I’m staying in bed and watching the sun set, and doing nothing else (well, at least until dance class at 9:30).

For all those times I hated Shabbat and holidays from preventing me from doing what I wanted as a kid, I started to really miss those days. I don’t know what my future will bring, but this year I really do want to at least try to get back to the comforting way things were back then. I was so busy the rest of the holiday with meetings, school, work commitments, that I barely got any Rosh Hashanah this year. This year, if and when I can, I will do my best to at least get a few solid hours of Shabbat/holiday time each time it comes up. Not necessarily being in shul all the time, but trying to eat meals in the sukkah, going to a Simchat Torah event, and spending at least a little of my Saturdays either meditating, or reading for fun, or just doing nothing but existing, completely disconnected from anything with an on/off button and not thinking about anything that might take up residence in my planner.

Long live happy days of religious bliss, no commitments, and nothing but time on my hands.


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


Tick, Tick…Oy.

I’d like to return to my current read, Elana Maryles Sztokman’s The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World. I’m still about halfway through, and while Sztokman is dealing with a limited perspective of mostly Israelis, some of the larger concepts about Orthodox Jewish men that she tackles in the first half of the book (Chapters 1-5) are, for the most part, true. Some of those reasons are why I feel the way I do about things, why I’m annoyed at Orthodox Judaism today, and why I continue to identify as Orthodox in spite of all those feelings.

On page 36, Sztokman cites Paul Kivel’s “Act Like A Man” box, and through the remainder of Chapter 2 (and bleeding over into the next few chapters), creates what she calls the “BOMB” or “Be an Orthodox Man” Box. Kivel’s box consists of three concentric rectangles. The innermost contains the things that men try to hide, such as anger, love, and sadness; the middle box contains actions that men do to protect themselves such as yell, fight, and be stubborn; and outside the box are the abuses which men (usually boys) are subject to when they fail to meet these criteria such as name-calling, hitting, and sexual abuse.

So, yeah. Rough stuff.

I can definitely see where Sztokman finds her parallels. Instead of quoting her, however, I can use hers and Kivel’s information to synthesize some thoughts of my own.

Let me start off with a story.

It was senior year of high school, and the junior and senior classes were all going to a pro-Israel rally on the grounds of the Capitol in Washington, DC. It was mandatory, and with the world being the way it was in 2005, everyone was pretty much on the edge about coming back alive. So we loaded ourselves into buses with posters and set off for DC. We got to the rally and it was a lot bigger than most of us expected. High school students had come in by the busload from as far away as Boston, New York, and Atlanta, not to mention all the families that attended. It was also longer, hotter, and sunnier than most of us expected, and a lot of people, including myself, came home that day with horrible sunburns. As anyone who’s been to a rally knows, when the rally ends, people disperse en masse, and this dispersion was of Pamplona-proportions, only with Jews running down the street and not bulls. We were put into groups to make it back to the bus, and hopefully find some cold beverages along the way since those of us who brought water had finished it long ago. I was in one of the smaller groups, about six guys and one of our teachers, who was also a rabbi. Of course, where there are Jews, there are Chabadniks, always trying to engage Jews in conversation at inopportune times and places. As we walk/jog down the street trying to find a 7-11 or something, a Chabadnik pulls aside our teacher – who is a rabbi – and asks if he put on tefillin that morning. My teacher didn’t respond and just kept moving, probably because he was as hot and tired as us students and was wearing a suit, looking very much like a rabbi, which he was.

A few blocks later, when the crowd thinned out and the stragglers caught up, my teacher turned to me and said, “Can you believe that guy? Asking me if I wore tefillin this morning. Just look at me; who does he think I am? Who does he think he is? Bastard.”

Okay, so I added the “bastard” in there for effect (although I’m not entirely convinced he didn’t say it under his breath as we were walking or in his mind) but he was insulted. He didn’t know the guy, but it sat on his mind for several blocks and he felt so challenged that he had to blurt something out to his students. His sour reaction to the event is a good lead-in to the concept of competition in Orthodox Jewish manhood – a topic which Sztokman heavily focuses on in her book.

It’s the truth. Orthodox Jewish men are competitive, from childhood to adult. It’s about how high your education is, how young you were when you got married, how many children you have, how much halacha you observe, how much you pray, how much you study, what you do for a living, what you look like, what you eat, and what you wear. People say that these things don’t matter, but to Orthodox Jewish men, they do. Looking at myself through this “be an Orthodox man” box, my score is pretty low. I am 26 years old with no wife and children (practically “old bachelor” age in the Orthodox world), I don’t wear a kippa every day, I don’t observe all the laws of Shabbos every week, I don’t wear the Orthodox Jewish uniform (white Oxford, black jacket, black pants) 24/7, I never went to yeshiva or did much in the way of Jewish learning/limmudei kodesh past-high school, I don’t go to minyan three times a day, and I got my education in non-Jewish colleges (pretty much anywhere besides YU, Brandeis, Touro, or an Ivy) and I studied theatre. At least I have an advanced degree and am working on my second, I still observe kashrut, and I have a mezuzah on my door; those things should count for something, I guess. Still, if I were to register myself with a shidduch, I’d probably strike out before getting up to bat.


Hava Negia

After a long period where my reading consisted of scripts and books on theory and not much else, I’m returning to the piles of books I currently have out from the library. One of my current reads is The Men’s Section by Elana Maryles Sztokman. I haven’t finished the book yet, so I can’t write a proper review, but I do want to address one of the topics that Sztokman has only touched lightly so far.

I’m talking about negia.

Negia (alternately spelled negiah/negiyah) is the Jewish concept of touch. More specifically, negia laws refer to the halachic concepts of physical contact between the sexes. In Orthodox Judaism, men can be shomer negia and women can be shomeret negia, both of which basically mean “watch your touching.” Those who make this choice do not come in contact with members of the opposite sex unless they are related to them by blood or marriage, and usually will refrain from touching others in public. Observance levels run the gamut from merely no physical contact (handshakes/dancing/hugging/kissing) to avoiding any chances of contact such as sharing a bus seat (I have a story about that), an airplane row, or even standing close to the opposite sex in a crowded room or while posing for a photograph. Negia rules do not apply to babies and small children. Arbitrary contact is permitted, such as if fingers touch when passing something at the dinner table. And of course, accidents happen; one time, I was at a Chabad house, standing and talking with someone with one hand on a chair and one on my hip, and the rabbi’s wife walked right into my right arm (the one that was resting on my hip) by accident. I felt so guilty for standing with my elbow in her way, but she said not to worry, that it was her own fault for not watching where she was going.

Even though I grew up Orthodox, negia was never a huge factor in my life. At my synagogue, it was a non-issue; if someone was shomer negia, which some probably were, it never became an issue, and most people greeted each other with a handshake or a hug, regardless of gender. Even as a teenager and young adult, I would greet my mother’s and grandmother’s female friends with a hug.

In high school, the rules of negia became a little blurry. According to school rules, touching the opposite sex was not banned, but it wasn’t promoted either. I remember dancing with girls in school plays, but still, I got yelled at more than once for walking arm-in-arm with a female friend through the halls or for hugging a girl in the presence of a teacher. Some students chose to become more observant, negia included, and that was okay, but my school never made a statement outright about the matter one way or the other. Still, they sent me and others mixed messages over whether it was appropriate or not.

After high school, I definitely became more aware of negia. In college, I made more than a few faux-pas by reaching to hug a girl who was indeed shomeret, so I began to assume everyone was. One time, though, a girl who I thought was shomeret gave me a hug, and when I asked her, she said “Me? Shomer?” So I began the habit of asking girls if they were shomeret when I met them, and every single time I did so, I got a laugh or a confused look. Only once did I actually ask a girl that question and she answered in the affirmative. Talk about bad negia-dar.

This brings me to my first question…why don’t I become shomer negia?

It would make things a lot easier; I would be following halacha. I would chop my time saying hello and goodbye to people in half. I wouldn’t feel obligated to shake a woman’s hand or hug a woman I didn’t like. I wouldn’t have to worry about getting someone else’s germs on me. I wouldn’t have the awkward handshake, or too-long hug. I would still have the awkward eye contact thing, but I guess I don’t have a choice on that one. I’d be at less of a risk of getting makeup or food on me. It would also be something that might make people more interested in me, asking me why I made that life choice or thinking of me highly for having strong convictions. On the other hand, though, it would totally ruin my dating life. Plus, I would miss the physical contact. Studies have shown that people who lack physical contact in their lives are sadder and die sooner. And it sure would make ballroom dancing tough.

Although touch means different things to different people, I feel that as humans we have evolved to the point where contact between the sexes shouldn’t be so much of an issue. If a person feels that he/she wants to be left alone, then that’s perfectly fine, but for the rest of us, we can control ourselves in public situations.

That brings me to my second question…would I ever become shomer negia?

Answer: highly unlikely. I don’t really care what other Orthodox Jews think about me. I’ll continue to assume that people are shomer in public, Jewish situations, unless she makes the first move, but in the vast realm of my life, refraining from physical contact with the opposite sex would not be in my best interest. As an academic and a conference-goer, some women might be taken aback should I offer the man in the conversation a handshake and not them; or, if I turn down a handshake, it could lead to an awkward moment. Plus, I have too many wonderful female friends who I like to hug. And if it meant that I could never ballroom dance again (or, only with another man), I’d say no, thank you.

Maybe if I could get a loophole for professional activities and activities such as dance where contact is required for a purpose…

Yeah. No.


I Write The Songs That Make the Whole World Sing…Except the Ladies

After looking back on some recent posts where due to time constraints, post-length constraints, tiredness, or otherwise, I did not have a chance to express all of my thoughts on a particular subject. So tonight, I’d like to come back to tzniut, a topic I discussed in “A Modest Proposal”, only move away from skirts to sopranos in an exploration of another element of tzniut: kol isha, or “the voice of a woman” as it is said that the voice of a woman can inspire men to do bad and think impure thoughts.

First, let me preface by saying that even among the Orthodox, there remains no hard-and-fast rule. Some institutions, like my high school, allowed it, but gave the men the option of leaving the room (quietly) or not attending at all. Others, such as at another Jewish school, allowed girls to sing in a choir, with the function being that no individual voice could be discerned from the others, or allowing “mixed singing” of a choir of boys and girls singing together, with the intention that the boys’ singing could “cancel out” the harmful effects brought about by a woman’s singing. (Some religious schools who wanted to take it even further would schedule performance events featuring girls/women singing for only other girls/women, which didn’t really help their case other than the necessity of establishing a woman’s space). Other groups only permit the singing of women in prayer, or singing z’mirot around the Shabbos table. And in the most ultra-Orthodox homes, sometimes women are scarcely heard at all. And then there’s the issue of recorded voices; since voice-recording devices are rather recent in the scope of human history, there’s the issue of separating the image of the woman from the voice. If I can’t see who’s singing, how do I know who it is? How can I even picture her? How do I know that the girl moving to the beat is actually singing, or if it is indeed an African-American gospel singer providing the vocals, C + C Music Factory?

Let’s look back at the Talmudic roots here. The main two Talmudic passages dealing with this issue are in Berachos 24a and Kiddushin 70a. The former talks about the sin of uncovering a woman’s nakedness, and as the rabbis conjecture their thoughts on what this might mean, Rav Shmuel references Song of Songs 2:14, “…for your voice is sweet and countenance comely,” to back up his opinion. Um…okay, so women’s voices are sweet. In case you haven’t read it, Song of Songs says a lot of things about women, and a lot of it is allegory, referring to the relationship between God and the Jewish people. So there’s that. In the latter, the former is explained in more detail and is boiled down to the recitation of the sh’ma prayer, which is arguably the holiest in Jewish worship. Here, it is discussed that the holiness of the sh’ma prayer cannot be recited while a woman sings, for that could interrupt the man’s focus while in prayer, because he might imagine her naked. Okay, I’ll give you that one. But if all a man can think about is a woman naked while he prays, I think he might have voices in his head that are more dominant than the voice of a woman. But then, Rav Hai Gaon remarks that if a man can focus on his prayer to the point of blocking out the woman’s voice from distracting him, then the fact that the woman is singing makes no difference.

So there’s not too much to go on here, except that a woman’s voice may expose her and may distract a man. I don’t see enough for a case to be made here, especially not in modern times. Yes, there are female singers that are intentionally sexy, but it’s seldom that the sound of their voice turns a man on, especially if he’s never seen a picture of her; if you’ve never seen a picture of Marilyn Monroe, “Happy Birthday Mr. President” might not have any sexual meaning to you, after all it’s just another version of a song popularly sung at birthday parties. The birth of the music video and MTV has increased the level of sexuality for some female singers (Britney’s “…Baby One More Time”, Christina’s “Genie in a Bottle”, Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, J.Lo.’s “If You Had My Love”, to name a few), but not everyone has seen those videos, and not everyone immediately thinks of a music video whenever they hear a song (well, except Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” You’d have to be living under a rock to let that one miss you) They think of the first place they were when they heard the song, a commercial for footwear or candy or soda that it was the tune to, or how Jamie killed it last week at the karaoke bar. Finally, not all female singers transmit the message of sex through their music. Finally, for every singer whose image and vocals, when combined, are primarily about sex, there are five female singers whose music doesn’t particularly emit the same emotion, whether it’s by the purpose of the singer or their presentation style. In fact, in the preceding paragraph, I named six singers whose vocals/imagery have been known to inspire sexual thoughts in men (and women), so now I’m going to name 30 current female singers (young and old) whose lyrics and image are not always sexual in nature, yet are successful and feminine, nonetheless.

Adele. Alicia Keys. Anne Murray. Aretha Franklin. Avril Lavigne. Barbra Streisand. Bonnie Raitt. Candice Glover. Carly Simon. Carole King. Corinne Bailey Rae. Cyndi Lauper. Esperanza Spalding. Florence Welch. Imogen Heap. Janelle Monae. Jennifer Hudson. Kelly Clarkson. Lily Allen. Loretta Lynn. Martina McBride. Mary J. Blige. Miranda Lambert. Norah Jones. Reba McIntire. Sara Bareilles. Susan Boyle. Taylor Swift. Tori Amos. Wanda Jackson….I think that’s 30.

On the flip side, there are also some male singers whose voices are traditionally thought of as backing vocals to hookup sessions. What about Lionel Richie? Marvin Gaye? Justin Timberlake? And then there’s the epitome of sexually impure thoughts, “Careless Whisper,” by George Michael. Don’t believe me? Ask Jenna Marbles.

Probably the worst case I’ve ever heard for kol isha was after my high school’s production of Hello, Dolly!. The next day, people were talking about in class, and one of my classmates (who I’ll call Yitzy) said the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard:

“When I saw Dolly at the top of the staircase, and she turned around to sing the first words of “Hello, Dolly” over her shoulder at the audience, I knew the meaning of kol isha.”

What a cop-out, if I ever heard one. So the pretty girl in the body-covering red dress sang on key and in character, and you got turned on. That’s your problem (or a problem in your pants), not hers. Stop blaming the ladies, men, and look at yourselves. But not in public.

In conclusion (and I do have one), I think that kol isha is severely outdated and quite misogynistic. I’d like to think that we’ve come further in time, to a place where men can control their baser instincts, and where a woman’s voice does not automatically summon the devils of lust. And not every man finds every female singer, no matter how sexy her image or music, attractive. It really serves no purpose other than to suppress someone’s voice just in case it might arouse someone else, which, again, doesn’t solve the problem of the perpetually horny man. Blaming it on all women is not fair to either sex.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, listen to Barry Manilow, and think dirty thoughts.

In other news, shout-outs to my first hits from Benin (bienvenue, Lauren!) and Azerbaijan (xoş gəlmisiniz, Zahid!). I don’t know how much having two friends give you hits for just logging on from their home countries because you asked, but I also got my first visitors from Venezuela (bienvenidos!) and Senegal (bienvenue!), two countries where I know no one. I know that this post materialized in full on the morning of February 18, but my internet went out at 12:54 AM, after I had done a bunch of edits but hadn’t pressed the update button, but I’m hoping that I continue my uptick of hits just the same…


A Modest Proposal

With the way people are dressing these days, they could use a little tzniut.

No, tzniut (if you’re in a more Yiddishized circle, tznius)is not the latest Swiss fashion accessory, but the Jewish concept of modesty for men and women that dates back to the Talmudic era. It literally translates to “modesty” or “privacy” and refers mostly to clothing, but also the way people lead their lives.

Is it worth it? Let me work it.

Just about every Orthodox Jewish girl (and definitely every Hassidic Jewish girl) covers themselves up with long-sleeved shirts, long skirts, and closed toed shoes. When she gets married, she might cover her hair with a hat, a scarf, or a full-on wig. It doesn’t end there, though. Included in the umbrella is negiah, or rules of touching, which are followed by avoiding physical contact with unrelated members of the opposite sex, and kol isha, or female voice, which mandates that hearing a woman’s singing can distract a man and lead him to impure thoughts. This rule does not apply for prayer, singing z’mirot at a dinner table, or a choir of mixed voices. Some even say that even a recorded female singer violates these laws.

Men do not have as many restrictions; just refrain from touching women and wear clothes that cover your body.

Growing up in Orthodox-Jew-Land, I was well aware of all of this. At my school, girls and women had freedom of choice to wear long pants if they wanted to; some did, but most stayed within the guidelines above. Touching was not explicitly forbidden, but it was generally frowned upon, and I don’t really think we ever had any huge singing issues; if you didn’t want to hear a girl sing, you wouldn’t come to any school musicals, or if you did, you went elsewhere whenever a woman was singing alone. Kind of hard, given that we were a high school and did musicals with plenty of parts for girls, no 1776 here.

I started noticing it more as I went to college and started seeing the stark differences between how people dressed in such mixed environments. As a male, it’s pretty easy for 99% of what you wear to be acceptable every day, and if you make the choice to become more religious, you probably won’t have to go to much trouble to buy new clothes. Girls have it a bit rougher; making the tznius choice means goodbye to bare shoulders, t-shirts, short skirts, and any type of pants, so usually a significant wardrobe overhaul is necessary.

Today, I feel that modesty is something our society is definitely lacking, promoted by corporate trends and celebrity couture. Sometimes a strapless or mini version of an outfit is tasteful, and then you have Miley Cyrus (sorry Miley, but I needed an extreme comparison). This might sound a little pander-y, but I think that women should be able to choose what they wear, and while most women pull off this look effortlessly, maybe tznius should be reexamined in our times. For example, long sleeves and long skirts are probably quite uncomfortable, even thin/airy fabrics, in hot summers and for Jewish women in tropical countries or Houston. While yes, it’s argued in the Talmud, a lot is based off of what women wore in the shtetls of wintry Russia or Poland where the wind chill made these outfits practical. Furthermore, I don’t see a huge problem with pants, either. Not all pants are skinny jeans, and many tznius girls have a tight denim skirt or two. A pair of slacks or trousers can even make an outfit look sleeker and more elegant, and it would make riding a bike or climbing a ladder a lot easier. I don’t see tznius clothes as being restrictive in any way or out of fashion, but give girls a break. As long as they’re dressed appropriately for the weather, occasion, and activity, you’re good to go right there.

This leads me to talk about my own personal tzniut appearance and behavior. I made the decision awhile back to stop wearing shorts of any kind; not just because I don’t like my legs, but I just don’t see any reason why they need to be exposed – and also a bit of solidarity with my Orthodox Jewish sistas. With tank tops/wife beaters/muscle shirts, I didn’t grow up wearing them, and they certainly weren’t allowed in my school, so they never really joined my wardrobe. I love t-shirts, but since I live in Wisconsin now, I’ve been layering them over long sleeve shirts, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. The only time you’ll probably ever see me in shorts is when I am in going swimming, and even then, I’m underwater, so ha ha you can’t see me.

Probably the most surprising thing about my personal style is that this applies even at the gym. I’m always the guy in the long pants (the stretchy kind, not sweatpants, who does that?) and a shirt that covers most of the top half of me.

Orthodox Jewish girls know what’s up…and I stand with them (but not in a skirt) when I call on all my menfolk to display some tznius and look like a gentleman.

I mean, do you see what most guys wear to the gym these days?

Also – if anyone knows why my stats are skyrocketing, (1000 views today, thank you very much!), please tell me, because I’ve spent most of the past forty-eight hours bewilderingly watching people (mostly across America) click on my site, yet I only have about 120 followers, and 67 comments, most of which are my own. This blog is kinda lame most days, so either I’m doing something right or the Internet is going bonkers. So, if you’re reading, please leave a comment about what you think and how you got here (so I can get a sense of what’s going on, did someone put me on BuzzFeed or something? – I’m not that amazing of a writer), or a like, or an idea of something you want me to write about. Oh, and keep visiting, Americans. You too, other countries.