Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Looking Back on Tisha B'Av

DH tells me that he decided to begin fasting on Tisha b'Av when he first paid attention to the words of Eicha. It was not the laments over the loss of the Temple that moved him, but the descriptions of human suffering: people falling by the sword, dying of starvation during the siege, mothers eating their children. When I have cried on Tisha B'Av, it has not been for the Temple, either. It has always been for the same parts of Eicha, and for the kinot that we read in the morning, about the victims of the sack of Jerusalem, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust . . . It is a lot to handle in a single day.

I wrote about this aspect of Tisha b'Av a while ago. But after reading the book of Eicha this year, after reciting the kinot (lamentation poems), and, of course, after reading a few thoughtful blog entries, I began to see things a little bit differently. Tisha B'Av is fundamentally about Jerusalem and the Temple. To turn it into a day of general reflection on human suffering -- or even on Jewish suffering -- is to neglect what was the heart of Tisha b'Av for millennia.

Our present situation is very different from that of past generations of Jews. They could dream of the resettlement of Jerusalem, which would, naturally, be accompanied by the rebuilding of the Temple and bring an end to all their suffering. Today, it is possible to listen to Eicha in a beautiful, rebuilt Jerusalem, full of Jews. At the same time, it is evident that our troubles have not come to an end. Traditional Jews have redirected their focus from the resettlement of Jerusalem to the rebuilding of the Temple, which, it is believed, will usher in the messianic age. But most of us -- even those who truly believe that the Temple will one day be rebuilt -- are not particularly energized by the idea. (I must admit, the very thought of the infighting that would ensue when we tried to reinstate the Temple service makes me shudder.)

This is not only an issue on Tisha B'Av. One of the central themes of the Jewish liturgy is our hope for the restoration of the sacrificial order, and our sadness at having to substitute mere words for cows and goats. Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist prayer books alter, downplay, or omit the portions of the liturgy that emphasize this theme, but the idea is too pervasive to be completely eradicated.

Out of Step Jew asks, "can we still cry for Jerusalem? And if that answer is no – then have we lost some of our Jewishness?" Perhaps. But I would rather think that this aspect of our "Jewishness" has simply changed in nature. If we are unable to pray for redemption in exactly the form that our ancestors envisioned it, what can we pray for instead? What should we mourn for on Tisha b'Av? And what is the role of Jerusalem in all this -- real, physical, contemporary Jerusalem?

Monday, July 26, 2004

Yuter On Tisha B'Av

This is worth reading.

Another Darfur Post

They heard how I was sighing, yet there was none to comfort me.
--Lamentations 1:21

ZSB posted a few words on the crisis in Darfur yesterday. A friend of his, who works for Concern, apparently told him that the best one can do to help, aside from donating money, is to "just keep talking about it." Well, my blog doesn't get much traffic, so I doubt it'll make any real difference, but I am certainly willing to do my part as far as that goes. I'm good at talking.

אין כל חדש תחת השמש -- There is nothing new under the sun. Human nature doesn't change. At least we can try not to repeat our mistakes. As a nation, we've ignored this sort of thing too many times. As individuals -- well, I can only speak for myself, but I know I've never put much effort into tikkun olam. It's time, isn't it?

To those who will be observing Tisha B'Av tonight and tomorrow, have an easy and meaningful fast.
As always, pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and the world.

Friday, July 23, 2004

In one of my "typical American Jew" moments...

To the Editor:

In the July 22nd article, “Israel continues barrier work despite UN resolution,” Ramit Plushnick-Masti reports both Israel’s claim that the fence is needed for security and the Palestinian claim that it is a “land grab” intended to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Plushnick-Masti then offers support for the Palestinian position, noting that “in some areas where the barrier already has been built, Palestinians have been cut off from their land, schools, and other towns and villages.” If the report were even-handed, it would also note that since the construction of the fence began, the number of annual terrorist attacks has decreased by approximately 90% (

Unfortunately, the most reliable source I could find for the statistics was an Israeli government website. What can you do?

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Unanticipated Consequences of Egalitarianism

I first began to wear a tallit gadol when I was married, about a year ago. It was a full tallit, in plain white: not particularly feminine, but not too masculine either. I figured it wouldn't clash with any of my outfits.

I assumed that it would take a while to get used to wearing a tallit, but I didn't anticipate the degree of difficulty I'd have keeping it on. When I stood up, it slid off. When I sat down, it slid off again. What was particularly strange was that I'd learned how to put it on from my husband, and he didn't seem to have this problem.

Finally, I realized what the trouble was: my shoulders aren't broad enough. See, I'm a chick.

As the months went by, I seemed to be getting better at keeping it on (although when I was given hagbah or gelilah, I had to pretty much wrap it around my neck if I didn't want it to end up on the floor). Then summer rolled around, and suddenly I had major slippage problems again. It took another woman who wore a full tallit to explain that silk and satin blouses are particularly condisive to slippage. Unfortunately, all my dressy summer blouses but one are silk or satin. (I have four in total. I really need to go shopping.)

Today, I finally went to Brookline and bought myself a clip. It was the cheapest one they had, in a yellow metal, to match my rings. I hope it helps.

Update: The clip helped a lot :-)

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Story By Me

In honor of everyone I know who works at a shul, has worked at a shul, or plans to work at a shul, here is a short story that I wrote with my father. (He wouldn't want to take any credit, but he helped a lot.)

Monday, July 19, 2004

Our Good Friend Michael Moore

Cathy Young assures us that this quote is not distorted:

"Of course many Israeli children have died too, at the hands of the Palestinians. You would think that would make every Israeli want to wipe out the Arab world, but the average Israeli does not have that response. Why? Because in their hearts, they know they are wrong, and they know they would be doing just what the Palestinians are doing if the sandal were on the other foot."

Oh, I see. Israelis oppose genocide, which proves that they're wrong. Palestinian leaders who preach genocide must be right, then. I'm glad he cleared that up.

The more I read about this guy, the more he seems like the Ann Coulter of the Left. Is it any wonder that I don't want to see his movie?

A Recipe for Every Occasion

It seems that every Jewish occasion is somehow associated with food. The Jewish cookbooks that I own even have special sections for Yom Kippur and other fast days, because, well, du'h: you have to eat before and after the fast. They wouldn't want that we should starve.

It is customary to refrain from eating meat during the nine days before Tisha B'Av (except Shabbat) as a sign of mourning.* However, mourning (like Yom Kippur) has positive gastronomic traditions as well. Lentils and hard-boiled eggs are often eaten on account of their round shape, which symbolizes a closed mouth and/or the cycle of life. Mengedarrah, a simple combination of lentils and rice, is a traditional Nine Days food among Middle Eastern Jews. (Egyptians call it koshari.) This information,** and the following recipe for mengedarrah, come from Gil Mark's World of Jewish Cooking. (I've tried it. It's good.)

1 pound (about 2 cups) green or red lentils
1/4 cup vegetable or olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, chopped (about 1 cup)
2 cups rice
4 1/2 cups water
About 1 1/2 tsp salt
Ground black pepper to taste
Fried onions or yogurt for garnish

1. Rinse the lentils and soak in water to cover for at least 2 hours. Drain.
2. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and saute until golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the rice and saute until well coated, about 1 minute.
3. Add the lentils, water, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until tender and the water is absorbed, about 30 minutes.
4. Remove from the heat and let stand covered for 5 minutes. Stir with a fork to fluff. Transfer into a large serving platter and scatter fried onions over the top or serve with yogurt.

*The Nine Days began today.
**Meaning, the information relating directly to lentils and mengedarrah.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Charity Doesn't End at Home

I posted something to this effect on Hirhurim, but Simcha appears to have removed his comments feature. In any case, I think it's worth repeating.

The question that arose was, should Jews commit time and money to causes that don't specifically benefit other Jews. I think there's a case to be made for either side. None of us have unlimited supplies of time and money. We can't help everyone. There is merit to the notion that "charity begins at home;" if each community took care of its own needy, the world would be a much better place.

On the other hand, many needy people are not cared for by their own. While I think that it is respectable for a Jew to decide to donate primarily to Jewish causes, he or she must be careful not to allow that policy to become an excuse for ignoring the suffering of non-Jews. What does it say about me if I turn away from the local homeless man because he isn't Jewish? Will the quarter I didn't give him go to a worthy Jewish cause, or will I spend it to upgrade to a larger size caramel latte? How much time does it take to send a few letters on behalf of the residents of Darfur? What will you do with that time if you don't send the letters?

As always, I intend this mussar for myself as much as anyone.

Simcha did not remove his comments feature. For some reason I was simply unable to view the comments the last time I visited the site.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

How to Help

The Velveteen Rabbi has posted on the crisis in Sudan a number of times, and she's linked to Passion of the Present, which is full of information and resources. In her most recent post, she links to this Forward article, which discusses efforts by Jewish organizations to address the crisis. As I tend to be skeptical of human rights organizations, I was pleased to discover this appeal, by the American Jewish World Service. I haven't done any real research on AJWS, so I can't vouch for it, but they claim that "[a]ll emergency appeal funds (minus a five percent overhead) go directly to supporting relief efforts." Just as importantly, the appeals are compartmentalized, so you can choose to donate exclusively to the relief fund for the Sudanese.

The site also has a pre-written letter that can be sent electronically to George Bush, Colin Powell, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte, as well as to your senators and representative. As Lawrence has reminded me a number of times, paper letters are more effective than e-mail, so it's even better if you make a few copies of the message and drop them in a mailbox.

That's my two cents for the day. Shalom.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

I could have stayed home and baked cookies. Oh, wait...

It would be disingenuous to suggest that I disapproved of cookie baking, by First Ladies or anyone else. (The same goes for other desserts. I even briefly -- very briefly -- considered contributing to the Edwards campaign during primary season in exchange for the senator's mother's recipe for peanut butter pie.)

That said, when it becomes a matter of public relations importance for publicly successful women to prove that they can also produce tasty, homespun baked goods, something has gone seriously awry. Where does the impetus come from? Don't Americans realize that these women have other things to do?

I wouldn't want to deprive the world of Laura Bush's Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk Cookies or Teresa Heinz Kerry's Pumpkin Spice Cookies. It's just that I don't understand why they, in particular, should be stuck in the kitchen. Why not have a vice-presidential bake-off instead? I wouldn't mind a recipe for Dick Cheney's Chocolate Chippers, or John Edwards' Jelly Thumbprints. In the meantime, we might be able to get an interesting debate out of Laura and Teresa. How about it, America?

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Entering the Three Weeks

Once, I went to large suburban Conservative shul for Tisha B'Av. It was the least sad Tisha B'Av service I've ever attended, mostly because no one seemed to know exactly why they were there. This included the rabbi, who delivered a (mercifully short) sermon addressing the age-old question: Why should we mourn the destruction of the Temple?

Every year, I'm sure, many rabbis in many synagogues deliver sermons on this subject. The question is particularly troubling to leaders of progressive congregations who tend to think that the termination of animal sacrifice was a good thing. So they think about it, like good intellectuals, and they come up with answers like the one that this rabbi came up with: it's not the building itself that we're mourning, but the unity that it symbolized.

Now, I'm all for unity, and some of my closest friends are vegetarians. But I'll be frank: if that's the best answer you can come up with, you've either never read Eicha (Lamentations), or you've forgotten it.

Eicha is about the destruction of the Temple, yes. And it's about the loss of unity and national pride that the Jewish people suffered as a consequence. All this is very important, and we should think about it on Tisha B'Av. Most of all, though, Eicha is about the unspeakable suffering that human beings inflict on one another. That is why, no matter what you think of Jewish nationalism or animal sacrifice, you can't read Eicha without grieving.

I mention this now because we've just entered the Three Weeks, a period of mourning that begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz (this past Tuesday), and culminates in Tisha B'Av. It is during these weeks, in the year 586 B.C.E., that the transition from a long and painful siege to full-scale slaughter took place. These weeks are related to the destruction of the Temple, but they're not quite about it, so if we are going to focus on the human side of this historic tragedy, now is the time.

There is a lot to think about. Every day, war and terrorism claim more victims. There is a slow-motion genocide going on in Sudan. When we read Eicha this year, the words will resonate.

Isaiah (58:5-7) tells us that when we focus exclusively on fasting and mourning, we're missing the point. We're supposed to be feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and freeing the oppressed. I'm not very good at remembering to do these things, but maybe if you all plug your pet tikkun olam projects in the comments, you'll embarrass me into taking action. God knows, the world is desperately in need of repair.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Making it Yontif

"The Zionist dream is shattered. It doesn't energize us as it once did. The American dream, too, is shattered; the 4th of July used to be such an important yontif [holy day] for me! What will fill these gaps?"
--R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (via the VR)

With all due respect to Reb Zalman (and I mean that sincerely), I don't think the situation is that bleak. All people are flawed; nations are more so. But we don't give up on the people we love when they make mistakes, and I'm not giving up on the U.S. or Israel, either.

We've all heard Winston Churchill's line: "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried." I think that the Americans among us can probably agree about a few things. First, we're very fortunate to live in a country where a place like Elat Chayyim can flourish. Second, we're fortunate to be able to criticize this country openly, as Reb Zalman has. Finally, we ought to be grateful for the opportunity to change the our country's course every four years.

I'm sorry if I sound preachy. Right now, my goal is simply to make July 4th the yontif it ought to be. DH and I made patriotic cupcakes for Shabbat. Tomorrow we'll watch the fireworks. Little American rituals that don't seem to signify much, but I think they're important.

THERE'S MORE: This year is the 350th Anniversary of American Jewry. Stephen Whitfield reminds us how good we've had it.