Monday, July 25, 2011

Reflections On Daily Kaddish - part 2

For the past few days I have been saying kaddish at Toronto's largest Reform temple, Holy Blossom. It is quite a different experience than both my own Reconstructionist synagogue and the Conservative shul, Beth Tzedec, that I had attended the week before.

First off, the service is short. It takes them approximately 23 minutes to do the full 25 page service. At Beth Tzedec it takes them about 35 minutes to cover approximately 90 pages – so while one could say that Beth Tzedec is more “efficient” – i.e. they get more pages done per minute because they "speed daven" - the conservative service takes what seems an awful lot longer than the Reform one. Additionally, because the text of the service at Holy Blossom is shorter, it can be recited at a slower pace, and about half of it is in English, so you can get more kavanah (intentionality) – if you want to.

A far as content is concerned, the reform service has been shortened partly by removing most of the more “objectionable’ prayers about asking God to bring punishment on evil doers - particularly those who have “oppressed your people Israel.” They also removed all of the psalms of praise (which – lets face it – get kind of repetitive in the traditional service.) But it would have been nice, in my opinion at least, to keep one two of the more uplifting ones. It also would have been nice to keep in the Birkhot Hashchar (morning blessing) which enumerate many of God’s better attributes and – and for those of us who believe in predicate theology, point the way for our own behaviour.

… Blessed are you All Seeing One, who makes the blind to see.
Blessed are you Merciful One, who clothes the naked.
Blessed are you Champion of Freedom, who frees the prisoner.
Blessed are you Source of our Pride, who raises up the humble.
Blessed are you Our Strength, who makes firm a person’s steps. ....
It is one of my favourite prayers. Too bad they cut it.

One would have thought that with all the cutting they might have done a bit of adding or modifying in order to avoid some of the problems with the traditional prayers. But there is – as with the Conservative service – no mention of the matriarchs – or any women at all – to accompany references to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses in the pantheon of ancestors and role models. And while they did see fit to remove explicit reference to resurrection of the dead, the Reform service apparently sees no problem with proclaiming Jewish chosenness or that Torah was revealed to Moses - whole and as is - at Mount Sinai. (How this can be, since Reform doesn’t even pretend to treat Torah as binding, is beyond me.)

As with the conservative service, I find myself adding words under my breath or skipping passages I cannot condone.

An additional weirdness for me is that I am one of the few people wearing a tallit; and except for one person in one service, so far I have been the only person to wear tephilin. (Today the prayer leader came up to me after services and said he was glad to see someone wearing tephilin: that they encourage it. He himself had not been wearing tephilin, so how exactly they encourage it, I am not sure.)

But the weirdest part of the experience for me is how few people attend the morning service. On the first day I attended, there were exactly 10 people. If I had not been there, they would not have had a minyan. And I am not sure what they would have done in that case. The next day there were 12 people. To be fair, on Sunday there were 30 people, and today there was a baby naming and substantial crowd, and I have not seen what kind of attendance there is at their Minchah services. But how it is a that one of the largest congregations in the world – with approximately 6000 adult members – can barely get a morning minyan, is mystery to me, and says something significant about their state of affairs – more so perhaps than the details of the prayer service itself.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Reflections On Daily Kaddish

Since my mother died on June 30, I have been saying kaddish every day: and since the shiva ended at local synagogues. Since my own synagogue does not have daily minyans (why, is a good question)I have been attending at other shuls. It has reminded why I like my own Reconstructionist synagogue.

At Beth Tzedek - the largest Conservative Synagogue in Toronto (and maybe in the world) - there is a robust daily minyan. They do the full and completely traditional shaharit service. And I am reminded about how much of the traditional prayers I don't like. There is no acknowledgement of women, several references to resurrection, and - most incompatible for me - several references to Jews as the chosen people. I find myself adding words about the matriarchs, and changing, adding or deleting entire sections of the prayers under my breath.

One day, without thinking, I agreed to an aliya laTorah, and almost gagged at having to say the traditional prayer "asher bachar banu mekol ha'amim." ("who has chosen us from among all nations.") For me, rejection of choseness is the most significant and positive things that Reconstructionism has done in its theology and in its updates to the prayers. It is simply not true, and certainly not healthy to believe, that Jews are exceptional and have a unique cosmically ordained fate. It is simply untrue that, as the traditional Alenu prayer states, Jews are "not made as all nations of the earth, and ... our lot is not theirs, nor our fate as all their teeming masses." The effects of global warming, atomic war, or a world wide depression will be felt by all of humanity. Jews will not be exempted. As for the holocaust and antisemitism, in absolute numbers more Russians than Jews died in WWII, and in relative numbers more native Americans died because of the European invaders than Jews because of the Germans.

On Tuesday it was the 17th of Tammuz - a fast day commemorating the day when the Roman legions first broke through the walls of Jerusalem in 70 CE, before destroying the Temple 3 weeks later on the 9th of Av. The Beth Tzedek Rabbi chose to give a short sermon on the significance of the day. According to him it was all about the loss of Jewish sovereignty, and the day should remind us of how important sovereignty and independence should be to us as Jews. But this is completely untrue. It is a revision of meaning based on political Zionism which has totally taken over most current mainstream Jewish thinking. The 17th of Tammuz, the three weeks, and the 9th of Av are about the loss of the Temple, the suffering of the war victims, and exile. Jewish sovereignty had been lost long before the 17th of Tammuz 70 CE: officially in 6 AD when Rome deposed the puppet vassal kings of the Herodian dynasty who had ruled Judea in Rome's name since 37 BCE. There is no fast day to commemorate the loss of Jewish sovereignty. This was not a major concern of the ancient Rabbis. For most of Jewish history, even prior to the destruction in 70 CE, Jews had not been sovereign in the land of Israel. What was important to them was a presence in the land, freedom of religious practice, and the Temple. Associating the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av with the need for Jewish political sovereignty is ... well a Zionist spin to say the least.

More on my adventures in Kaddishland in future postings.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Every Day Racism

In a racist society, the racism is everyday and so casual its purveyors and witnesses hardly notice. Like the casual way white Mississippians might have used a phrase like "the good white folk of this state" circa 1952. So pay close attention to this quote, from member of Israel's Knesset and Kadima representative on the Knesset Finance Committee, Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich. Speaking at a demonstration (actually a tent city "sleep-in") in Tel-Aviv against high rents in that city, she said:
"The housing crisis didn't happen because we don't have money. It's because we don't have compassion. We're lacking values. [So far so good - but wait.]... I won't tolerate a Jewish State where Jews don't have homes. I want Israel to be the best place to live." [See full article in the Jerusalem Post.]
The fact that 20% of the population is not Jewish and many of them are living in overcrowded or even third world conditions, is simply not a concern of this member of Knesset from Israel's "liberal" opposition party - the one that is supposed to give us "lefties" hope if only they can come to power.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Boycott !

Today the Israel Knesset passed the anti-boycott law.

In response, I am asking all my readers to boycott Israeli wines made in the occupied territories or from grapes grown on settlements in the occupied territories. These include wines from the following labels:

  • Golan

  • Teperberg 1870 Winery

  • Binyamina

  • Tishbi

Carmel wines have also been named by some as having vineyards in the territories, but the exact status of this is not clear (at least not to me.)

You can find a complete list of smaller Israeli wineries in the territories in this report (pages 40 and 41.) I am asking readers to boycott such wineries as well. In fact, this report shows how most of the Israeli wine industry is involved in exploitation of the occupation, but tries to hide the embarassing facts from overseas buyers.

The reason to boycott these labels is that they exploit the land and water of the occupied territories for the exclusive benefit of Jews and Jewish owned industry without asking permission of the Palestinians or compensating them fairly. Israel rules these territories for the benefit of its citizens almost exclusively, and not, as both law and morality require, for the benefit of the native inhabitants - the Palestinians.

Peace Now is also calling for a boycott of settlement products. I hope more such calls will follow.

We must not be cowed by this anti-democratic law. And, for the record, my Israel ID number is 6554089.

Proud To Be A Reconstructionist

Today I am proud to be an active member of a Reconstructionist synagogue.

Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, President, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, published a very significant and, given the mood in mainstream American Jewry, a very brave article in the Huffington Post. In it he calls for breaking the near total identification of Judaism with the State of Israel, and for basing Jewish identity and unity not on support for or identification with Israel, but on shared values of peace and justice.

Is the State of Israel the sole embodiment of Jewish peoplehood? The answer is no...

We Jews should try to see ourselves as united by our bond with the Jewish people--in our collective efforts to bring peace, wholeness and justice to the world.

I am surprised this has not been picked up in the Jewish or Israel/Palestine blogosphere. It is a significant statement from the leader of 100,000 American (and Canadian) Jews.

Read the full statement here.

My Mother

My mother passed away on June 30 (28 Sivan) after a long illness. Her life was bound up with 20th century Jewish experience, and she has certainly influenced my own views of Judaism and the world, and, of course, she helped shape my personality.

Below is the eulogy I gave at her funeral.

Eulogy for Jeanette Nestel
June 30 2011

What can a son say about their mother? And how can anyone sum up another person's life, trying to put together a few pithy adjectives that neatly wrap up a complex human being, who herself changes over the years. And how can one tell of their own mother, without telling more about their own relationships and fantasies, than they tell about the objective truth? And do I really know the objective truth. Does anyone? So I won't try. But I will try to share a few, perhaps disconnected and necessarily subjective memories and vignettes, to give you a flavour of this remarkable woman, Jeanette Nestel.

My mother was born in 1923 in Stanlavov Poland. Her parents were, what today we might call modern Orthodox, while her grandparents, uncles and aunts were, what today we would call ultra-orhodox. One of my favourite pictures of my mother is in a large family portrait taken in 1929 when she was 6 years old. Standing in the middle, is an impressive array of bearded Hasidim, besides their matronly solid wives. In the back row stand fashionable looking 1920s teens – some pious, some left wing Zionists, maybe a closet Communist. And in the front row the little kids, my mother among them – wearing a short skirt a sweater and woollen tights, arms crossed with both a bored and piercing look in her eyes, that seems to be saying – you can force me to sit here for this dumb photo, but you can't make me smile. I'd rather be out digging in the back yard.

My mother was a great story teller, and the stories of her childhood evoked a now lost world of Jewish life in interwar Europe: of great piety and brewing revolution, of great dreams for a better world, crashing on the bitter reality of an evil rising all around them.

One story that my sister Gail reminded me of yesterday was when my mother went to visit her own grandmother, the wife of the saintly Froike Shoykhet, in their shtetl. Once on Erev Shabbat, her grandmother took my mother around as she collected donations of food and other necessities from the local shop keepers. Then she carried the baskets full of shabbat supplies, my mother in tow, to the doors of various homes scattered throughout the village. As she did so she said to her young granddaughter “Don't ever tell which houses I dropped these goods off at. No one must ever know who needs charity. These people are poor, but they should not be deprived of their dignity.”

What is remarkable about this story for me, is not just that it happened, but that my mother re-told it so often and in such remarkable detail – more detail than I have. It made a deep impression on her. Not only did it idealize the life of those pious Jews in her eyes– it imbued in her a sense of justice and charity and decency that she, in turn passed to me and my sisters Irene and Gail, each in our own ways.

But my mother herself was not pious. She was a bit of a rebel and a bon vivant - as she liked to tell us. She told of the time as a pre-teen, she tried to put on make up and tweeze her eyebrows, something strictly forbidden in her home. Not only did she managed to cut off most of one eyebrow completely, but worse, much worse, she had to face her father's wrath when he found out. She also told of later, when as a young teenager, she took the streetcar downtown to meet her boy friend to go a movie – on Shabboss no less! She was ratted out by her sister, and when she emerged from the movie theatre, on her boy friend’s arm and eating a ham sandwich, there was her father - waiting. He literally dragged her home by her ear. There are many other stories in the same vein.

During those years she joined the socialist Zionist movement Hashomer HaZair. There she was taught to dream about an idyllic life of peace, equality, creativity, and freedom on a kibbutz in the land of Israel. In her later years, she idealized those beautiful teenagers and young adults who dreamed, together with her, those beautiful dreams. Though most of these dreams came to naught, these Shomrim stood tall in her pantheon of ideal human types, together with her pious grandfather and grandmother. And to the very end she remained a bit of a lefty, largely as an influence from those 1930's days in Hashomer.

Sadly the biggest influence in my mothers life was the Holocaust. Almost all of her family and friends were killed, and she herself witnessed things no one should have to see. My mother wrote a book detailing her Holocaust experiences. For those of you who have not read it, I highly recommend it. It is a real page turner, and proof that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. But the take way point of her holocaust experience is this: that while it deeply scarred her, it also honed her defiant will power, her sense of justice (though often falling into an exaggerated sense of self-aggrievement), and her sheer will to live and survive. After the war she just wanted to LIVE! She often described her immediate post war years first in DP camps in Europe and then as a poor immigrant in Toronto as the best years of her life. After the horrors of WWII and the constant fear and struggle to just survive, living free and hopeful and safe and within a like minded community of Jews must have seemed like heaven. Though a life long Zionist – believing fiercely that Israel was necessary for the physical survival of the Jewish People – she always loved Canada for taking her and her a family in, when no one else would. She often said – without any sense of irony – that Canada was the best place in the world. Maybe it is significant that her funeral is on Canada Day.

As my parents began to make it economically in Canada, my mother blossomed. She became very active in Haddassah, founded a chapter of “greener” Haddassah ladies, and won several awards for raising 'record' sums of money – or so she told us. She worked first as a milliner, than a rooming house owner, and later she dabbled in real estate – buying older houses, fixing them up and reselling them. In the mid 50s she started a career as an artist, first painting and then sculpting. Again she won several awards and had numerous shows and sold many of her pieces. (My sister Irene, has clearly inherited many of our mother's artistic genes.) My mother always thought of herself first and foremost as an artist and was very proud of her art, and if you come to the shiva you will see some of her work. In addition my mother always had a great sense of style, of aesthetics, and an amazing eye for, and memory of, physical details.

My mothers zest for life, especially in the 60 and 70s sometimes expressed itself in certain neveau riche trappings – though in my mothers case they were always tasteful. In the stylish evening dress she wore to my sister Irene's wedding in 1960, she looked like a movie star, and she knew it and she revelled in it. My own bar mitvah looked like something out of Good Bye Columbus. In the videos we have my mother looks radiant and beautiful. Friends of hers, who knew her in those years described her as “a ball of energy”, “a Spitfire”, “feisty,” “strong willed”, and “a morale booster.” Part of this was due to the love and support she received from my father Julius. He had met her right after the war, and swept her off her feet and supported her with his own confidence, competence, generosity, and joie de vive. Though they had their tense moments – like all couples – they also deeply met each others needs and re-enforced each others better attributes.

My fathers passing in 1979 was another major turning point in my mother's life. Though she actually coped more than competently with the family finances and with her own living arrangements and continued art career, she seemed to lose some of her confidence. She often asked me for advice and support which I felt completely inadequate to give. For all her spunk and talent she seemed to feel she needed a man to support her – at least emotionally – and without my father, she slowly seemed – at least to me – to lose some of her confidence and joy, and as the years went by, more and more often, to let her fear overwhelm her hope.

While the Holocaust had always been simply a fact of life in our family, my mother dwelt on it more and more as she got older. But often in a paradoxical way. While obviously a great tragedy and source of immense and deep sorrow for my mother (she would often cry when remembering her own much loved and murdered parents) it was also a source of pride and hope. Pride that she had beat the odds and survived. And hope because of those good people who risked their own lives to help her survive. Human beings, she seemed to have concluded, are capable of great evil, but also of great courage and goodness. But it sometimes escaped her that most people were between these polar opposite types. Sometimes she would equate a shoddy car repair man with the anti-semites who blackmailed her and stole from her during WWII. Incompetence or laziness was sometimes construed as evil and malign intent. Or so it seemed to me at times. But then, at other times, she emitted a deep belief in the potential goodness of people and a hopefulness for a life daringly and forcefully lived. Her grandchildren Dan and Hadar were telling me yesterday of the strong impression it made on them when, years ago, my mother showed them baby clothes of my sister Irene that she had saved from the war. The clothes had been patched so many times that all that was left were the patches. The original fabric was all but gone. And they recalled the dress my mother had made for Irene from a flour sack. And Irene herself likes to tell of how, after the war in the DP camp, my mother made Irene a birthday, and for a balloon, gave Irene a blown up condom, somehow obtained from an American GI. It was this resourcefulness and relentlessness, and energy and will to life - as much as sadness and cynicism - that my mother carried with her. The two fighting for dominance, especially in her later years.

I want to finish on a totally personal note. For me, my mother was a dominant, and in many ways larger than life personality, even into my adulthood. (I suppose that is not so unique for a child of survivors.) She was fiercely loyal and protective and proud of me - often without good reason. And that has given me a sometimes insufferable sense of self confidence - which has mostly stood me in good stead. She could be extremely generous and had a fierce sense of right and wrong. All of which I admire and have learned from. But my mother could also infuriate me with her sometimes cynicism, sometimes pushiness, sometimes self absorption, and sometimes complete arbitrariness. She was and is a complete ball of contradictions to me. And not only can't I sum her up easily, my feelings and opinions about her, have and do change often. I am not even sure if what I have just told you now is truth or mythology. All I know for sure is that she loved me a lot and I loved her. For me that is more important than the biographical details or any single interaction. My mothers' death is the end of an era. She was a guide, a support, a foil, a link and an anchor. For me she was both real and mythological. And now she is gone. And I don't really know how that will effect me, or what new stories I will construct about her in the years ahead.

May her memory be a blessing.

* * *

[My mother published the story of her Holocaust years - a remarkable tale and a good read. You can order the book here.]