Meesh and RachelJewish social media has been bent all out of sorts these past few weeks after the Rabbinical Council of America, one of Modern Orthodoxy’s key umbrella organizations, passed a contentious resolution prohibiting its member congregations from employing Orthodox Jewish women if they’ve been ordained with the titles Rabbi, Rabba or Maharat.

The resolution, which squeaked by with just a small margin and was panned even by the RCA’s president Rabbi Shalom Baum as “ill-timed” and “unnecessary” given that the resolution reiterated a nearly identical one from 2010, is an unambiguous attack at the growing “Open Orthodoxy” movement and its Yeshivat Maharat in New York (as well as smaller institutions in Israel like Rabbi Herzl Hefter’s Beit Midrash Har’el) that have begun – audaciously in the official eyes of the RCA – to ordain Orthodox women as rabbis.

The RCA’s reactionary slap gave ample fodder to Orthodoxy’s more progressive pundits to bemoan the rightward drift of the movement; non-Orthodox leaders have been quick to condemn the decision as well. All of which led me to a very strange reaction.

“Who cares?” I asked to the surprise of our guests around the Shabbat table one afternoon. “I mean, why are we even having this conversation in 2015? Why should we still be debating whether women can or can’t do this, fill or not fulfill that role? Haven’t we moved past that? And in any case, we’re not exactly Orthodox anymore. Our congregation’s rabbi is already a woman. So why does it get us so upset?”

My wife Jody was quick to answer. “Things that have to do with gender inequality or sexism are bigger than any specific denomination.”

“OK, so maybe I’m asking the wrong question,” I responded. “Maybe what I meant to say is, why would someone who cares about women’s leadership roles choose to stay in a system that denies women the ability to fully actualize their potential? Why aren’t they running away from Orthodoxy, like Alice Shalvi did, to a framework that’s more welcoming and encouraging?”

In 1996, Professor Alice Shalvi, then the principal of the prestigious Pelech Religious High School for Girls in Jerusalem and the chair of the Israel Women’s Network, astounded the Modern Orthodox community by announcing that she was joining the Conservative Movement. She soon became the head of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, the movement’s theological seminary in Israel.

Nor is this question of “why stay?” limited to just issues of women and Orthodoxy. I could ask it about a whole range of modern day conflicts where western values clash with religious tenets. The problem of agunot (get refusal) in Orthodoxy is enough to make one head for the secular hills.

“It’s not easy to leave a community where you’ve spent many years, perhaps your entire life,” a guest at the Shabbat table said. She was right, of course. It took me more than 20 years to redefine myself as something less than Orthodox. My reasons for leaving were broader than the way women are treated, although the slow pace of egalitarianism in Orthodoxy definitely played a part. Nevertheless, it was a shock to the entire worldview I’d built up during that time, even though I was returning to something familiar from my pre-Orthodox youth, not heading off blindly into the unknown like Shulem Deen or Deborah Feldman whose book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hassidic Roots was chosen as one of Oprah’s “Ten Titles to Pick up Now.”

Once you’ve left the system, you start making friends with others who have either gone a similar way or are wavering. One friend has become a closeted atheist; he continues to live in a black-hat Anglo haredi community where he acts “as if.” His wife knows and has made peace with his self-proclaimed quiet heresy. Another friend has been threatening for years to take off his kippa. “But I would probably lose my job,” he sighs. Every time I see him, his head remains covered.

Not everyone has such existential angst. An article in Commentary Magazine last year by Jay Lefkowitz may help explain why people remain in the Orthodox world even when it comes into conflict with their changing values – on the role of women or even more heavenly matters. Lefkowitz defines a phenomena he dubs Social Orthodoxy – ”one of the fastest growing and most dynamic segments of the American Jewish community,” he claims.

Social Orthodox Jews, Lefkowitz explains, are fully observant, but “not because they are trembling before God.” They may not be “sure how God fit[s] into their lives [nor are they certain] if Jewish Law is divine or simply the result of two millennia of rabbinical interpretations,” but they still get up every morning to pray with Tefillin (phylacteries). They wouldn’t think of eating bread on Pesach even though they doubt its origin story.

“Much more important to [Social Orthodox Jews] than theology, Lefkowitz concludes, “is maintaining the continuity of the Jewish people. The key to Jewish living is not our religious beliefs but our commitment to a set of practices and values that foster community and continuity.”

Being Jewish, Lefkowitz adds, means “being a member of a club, and not just any club; a club with a 3,000-year-old membership, its own language, calendar, culture, vast literature including histories and a code of law, and of course, a special place on the map.” Judaism even adds the ultimate physical test for acceptance: circumcision. (It’s pretty hard to fake membership when something so sensitive is at stake.)

Yuval Noah Harari, author of the best selling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, describes what makes such a club a religion.

“Religion is a system of human norms and values founded on a belief in a super-human order,” he explains. “Super-human” is not the same as supernatural, Harari stresses. “The theory of relativity is super human, in that humans can’t change the laws just like that.” But relativity doesn’t include the second requirement of a religion: that the belief in this super-human order also establishes ways of behaving.

Harari says that the last 300 years have seen an “intense religious fervor” but with an emphasis on what he calls “natural law religions” – capitalism, nationalism, humanism, liberalism – all with their own immutable super-human (though not supernatural) truths (“all men are created equal”) and the legal and behavioral codes that result. In this light Lefkowitz’s Social Orthodoxy seems very much a piece with these more modern “religious” systems, despite its ancient Jewish origins.

That doesn’t make it any easier to leave, though. If anything, understanding and acknowledging the importance of the social element ought to give one added respect for those who remain, despite the cognitive dissonance that undoubtedly arises.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first Orthodox Jewish woman to be ordained at Yeshivat Maharat In New York, and now its dean, wasn’t looking for a way out. She would probably recoil at the appellation of Social Orthodoxy. In an article published a few weeks ago, she recalled that when the RCA issued its 2010 denunciation of women with rabbinical titles, she felt “isolated and unsure of the future of Orthodox women in my position, of which there were very few. She was shocked “by the threatening phone calls and emails I received.”

But five years later, the train has decisively left the station. Yeshivat Maharat has ordained 11 women and another 22 are currently studying there. Ha’rel graduates Rabbi Meesh Hammer-Kosoy and Rabbi Rachel Berkowitz made news in Israel earlier this year for doing the same. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin oversees the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, which gives women the title of morot hora’ah – essentially equivalent to ordination, although it’s not labeled as such.

After the RCA proclamation, an online petition “We Support Women in Orthodox Leadership Roles” garnered more than 2,000 signatures in 48 hours. “Today, I feel 100 percent certain of the future of Orthodox women serving as clergy in halachically committed communities across the United States,” Hurwitz says. “Trying to write us out of the narrative is no longer an option.”

Those who stay within the system, fighting against the scare tactics of groups like the RCA, deserve our respect and require our support, our lobbying and, yes, our social media outrage.

So let me ask the question again. Who cares about Orthodox women rabbis? I do.

This article appeared originally on The Jerusalem Post website.


Syrian civil war

As the civil war in Syria shows no sign of slowing down, prompting millions of refugees to flee from that war-torn shell of a country towards an overwhelmed Europe, a study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year added an entirely new perspective to my understanding of the causes of the current crisis. The broader implications of the research provide a chilling reality check for the future of our planet as a whole.

In the paper, lead researcher Colin Kelley claims that climate change was a key, contributing factor to the war in Syria that has claimed as many as 300,000 lives to date. A prolonged and devastating drought from 2006-2010, exacerbated by the Syrian’s regime’s failure to prepare or respond effectively, led to a mass migration of some 1.5 million rural workers who, without sufficient water, could no longer farm their lands and headed for the cities.

This unprecedented concentration of “angry unemployed men” – what Kelley calls a “huge population shock” in Syria’s most affected urban centers – may have helped “trigger [the] revolution,” says Aaron Wolf, a water management expert at Oregon State University. Other factors – broad feelings of discontent in rural areas and the growing gap between rich and poor during the 2000s – undoubtedly played a role as well, adds Dutch researcher Francesca de Chatel.

Now, a long-term decline in rainfall in the Fertile Crescent, which includes Syria, has been ongoing since 1931. But the researchers determined that “natural variability on its own” was unlikely to account for the trends that led to the massive drought. Their models only worked when they included man-made greenhouse gas emissions, which made the drought in Syria more than twice as likely and “was the reason it was the most severe drought they have ever had,” says Kelley.

If the research is correct, and climate change helped precipitate the events that have overtaken Syria and the region – including the rise of Islamic State, the ascendancy of Iran and direct Russian involvement, not to mention the wholly unpredictable effects such a large scale population movement will have on European political sentiment and the already faltering economies on the continent – then some of the bleak futures predicted in the post modern, ecological collapse branch of science fiction writing may be closer than we think.

If all that isn’t terrifying enough, a new book by Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder argues that climate change could lead to a resurgence of Hitler-esque geopolitical thinking – and not just in the Middle East.

“The Holocaust may seem a distant horror whose lessons have already been learned,” Snyder wrote in a New York Times Op-ed. “But sadly, the anxieties of our own era could once again give rise to scapegoats and imagined enemies, while contemporary environmental stresses could encourage new variations on Hitler’s ideas, especially in countries anxious about feeding their growing populations or maintaining a rising standard of living.”

Snyder’s book is called Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. In it, he argues that Hitler believed in a concept called Lebensraum, German for “habitat” or “ecological niche.” According to Snyder, Hitler posited that races need “ever more Lebensraum in order to feed themselves and propagate their kind.” But natural resources are limited and Hitler “denied that [advances in] agricultural technology could alter the relationship between people and nourishment.” Hitler’s first conquests, then, were countries with fertile soil, like Ukraine, that could help feed the German people.

In order to allocate these limited resources, Hitler held that “nature demanded that the higher races overmaster and starve the lower,” Snyder writes in his book. This struggle “was indefinite and eternal.” It did not bode well for the Jews. (Snyder clearly doesn’t side with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s widely discredited “the mufti made me do it” hypothesis for the Holocaust.)

Looking at the contemporary landscape, Snyder is alarmed that climate change deniers, particularly in the U.S. (“the only country where climate science is still resisted by certain political and business elites”) have an “intellectual stance that is uncomfortably close to Hitler’s.”

But the real problem may be in places like Asia. “The danger is not that the Chinese might actually starve to death in the near future, any more than the Germans would have during the 1930s,” says Snyder. “The risk is that a developed country able to project military power could, like Hitler’s Germany, fall into ecological panic, and take drastic steps to protect its existing standard of living.”

Reading these dual analyses – Snyder’s warnings of how another Holocaust could evolve and the way in which climate change has already led to mass murder just across Israel’s northeastern border – has left me profoundly distressed about the future of humanity.

I always maintained a basically optimistic outlook; that the future held nothing but promise. The world was becoming less violent and more moral; technology was addressing all manner of malady: disease and hunger and poverty. We cracked the human genome; how long until we come up with a cure for cancer…and old age itself? After all, we’ve put the power of a super computer in the hands of billions of people. Certainly we will come up with a solution to climate change too.

But maybe we’re too late already.

Extreme weather, in just the past few years, is becoming “normal.” This past summer was the hottest on record, just about everywhere. The crazy dust storm that blanketed much of the Middle East in September may have been a climate change casualty, impacted by the decline in farming in Syria and Iraq as a result of both drought and war, which harmed the soil crust, says Professor Arnon Karnieli of Ben-Gurion University. That storm, which traveled mostly at ground level, carried along dirt and dust particles that were already precariously loose. The size of the dust particles in the air in the September storm were larger than any that had been previously recorded.

Climate has felled civilizations before ours. Between 1250 and 1100 B.C.E., nearly all the great civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean – Egypt of the Pharaohs, Mycenaean Greece and Crete, the large Canaanite city-states – were destroyed. A study in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University from a few years back tried to understand why. Researchers investigated pollen grains at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee. Radiocarbon dating revealed 150 years of severe drought in exactly the years those civilizations collapsed.

While we may not be able to reverse the inevitabilities of contemporary climate change, Israeli technology could address some of the more immediate problems of lack of water. Seth M. Siegel’s new book Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World documents Israel’s remarkable water history – from the creation of the Mekorot national water corporation in the 1930s and the establishment of the national Water Carrier in 1964, through the development of drip irrigation, to the modern marvel of desalination and sewage treatment that has given Israel, which just a decade ago was considering importing water from Turkey, an actual water surplus.

Calling Israel a “water superpower,” Siegal suggests that if countries currently at war with or boycotting Israel could put aside politics, Israeli innovation could be enormously beneficial.

It’s already happening in China where the Chinese-Israeli “Water City” project in the city of Shouguang is designed to promote commercial-scale implementation of Israeli water technologies, in areas such as desalination, sewage treatment and irrigation. Why not elsewhere in our fraught region?

“The time to act is now,” Siegal told The Jerusalem Post’s Sharon Udasin in a review of his book. When it comes to water technology, “Israel has shown [it knows] how.”

There is still room for the optimism of my youth. Indeed, human ingenuity has made some pretty breathtaking breakthroughs in other areas. Consider energy. Yuval Harari, in the online course version of his best-selling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, notes that, “the common fears that we are running out of energy [in the form of fossil fuels] are probably exaggerated.” In the past, “every few decades we discovered a new energy source as our knowledge became better and better. So the sum total of energy at the disposal of humankind keeps growing, not shrinking.” The world does not lack energy, Harari argues. “What it really lacks is the knowledge necessary [so far at least] to harness and convert existing energy [such as the sun] to our needs.”

Can we do the same thing for climate change – that is, develop the knowledge to halt its man-made effects in time, before it leads to irreversible planetary damage, endless population upheavals and multiplying murderous unrest?

I’m not giving up my optimist card just yet. And I have a feeling that Israel is going to play a big part in the ultimate drama of our lives.

This article originally appeared on The Jerusalem Post website.


Pepper spray“At the beginning of the day, we had four full boxes with 50 in each,” Yaakov says, gesturing to the one remaining carton and the hastily hand-scrawled sign above the window reading “pepper spray” at the Talpiot Jerusalem branch of the popular trekker supply store La’metayel. “And now look,” he says, “there are just 8 left.” We bought two, as did a woman standing next to us at the cash register.

Welcome to the new Jerusalem, where pepper spray has become the latest fashion accessory in the defense against the knife attackers who have terrorized our city and much of the rest of Israel.

As Yaakov showed us how to open and close the pepper spray canister safely and exhorted us to always wash our hands after use, and “to never, ever touch your eyes,” I was filled with questions. Do you need to hold it in your hand whenever you go out, safety catch off, or can you leave it in a pocket until you see someone suspicious and then whip it out? How many sprays are in each bottle? What good will it do if someone lunges at you from behind? What if you spray someone innocent by mistake?

The Internet and social media have been full of suggestions these past weeks, and not just about pepper spray. If you see someone you’re not sure about, don’t take chances, just cross the street, advised one person. Carry something you can use as a club, advocated another: hiking poles, an umbrella or a selfie stick will all work. One Jerusalem resident asked if a toy Star Wars light saber would do the trick. Don’t wear headphones, don’t read your email on your phone while you’re waiting at a bus stop, do wear heavier clothing or a backpack. Walking with a dog probably makes you less of a target. (Indeed, one enterprising Jerusalem dog walker who is regularly seen with at least five large hounds in tow has offered to escort kids to school.)

As this latest incarnation of terror drags on with no end in sight, strange questions arise. “What’s scarier?” a Shabbat guest asked the other day. “A suicide bomb exploding in a café or a bus, or a knife attacker?” The fact that we were even having this conversation was profoundly depressing.

“The suicide bomber, for sure,” I replied. “If you’re at an Aroma and a bomb goes off, you’re pretty much going to die. But most of the knife attack victims have survived.” But with what scars and injuries, both physical and emotional? I thought to myself.

“How about missiles?” another guest asked. That one was not so clear. On the one hand, we have the Iron Dome system to protect us, and it has worked remarkably well. On the other hand, the warning siren has a visceral, cumulative effect; if it goes off too many times before bed, like Pavlov’s dog, you’ll imagine the Code Red alert sounding just as you’re nodding off to sleep and jerk awake repeatedly.

Still, knives are so much more personal. The image of an individual terrorist with hate in his or her eyes coming towards you, rather than a faceless missile or a bomb, generates a more intimate, primal fear.

They are also more unpredictable. Unlike with missiles, “people just don’t know what to do,” explained Gila Sella who directs the help line at Natal – the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War. Speaking with reporter Judy Maltz of Haaretz, he said that “last summer, during the war…you knew that you had to run into a safe room. As a result, people felt in control. Today, they don’t.” Similarly, during the Intifada, people could soothe their fears by avoiding crowded buses or cafes; today there are no safe spaces.

For immigrants from the U.S., the knife attacks have stolen from us one of the clearest contrasts we had with the Old Country: that it’s generally safe to walk the streets in Israel, even at night. I remember living in Berkeley and being nervous all the time, looking over my shoulder, when I was out alone. When I lived in New York in early 1980s, I was almost mugged twice. Israel has known great sorrow and interminable anxiety, but random violent crime on the streets was not part of it…until now.

“It’s good that you’re getting out of here,” my daughter Merav’s friend said to her as we were sitting around the Shabbat table a few weeks ago. She was referring to the fact that Merav was about to leave for Texas, where she will spend the next several months selling Dead Sea products from an Israeli-run kiosk in a local mall.

“You think she’d somehow be safer in Texas?” I asked Merav’s friend, feeling surprisingly irked. “Gun violence in America is out of control! Look what just happened in Roseburg, Oregon. Remember the Virginia Tech shooting? Newtown, Connecticut? Aurora, Colorado?”

My friend and colleague Ilene Prusher just moved from Jerusalem to Boca Raton to teach journalism at Florida Atlantic University. In a recent blog post, she began listing schools that have seen shootings recently, including Texas Southern University, just a couple of hours drive from where my daughter will be working.

Ilene then cited a sobering statistic from The Washington Post: there is more than one mass shooting involving four or more people every day in the U.S. She wondered whether she should heed the suggestions of U.S. presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson to bring a firearm to her classroom, but dismissed the idea. “I never [carried a gun] in Jerusalem, Kabul or Baghdad,” all places where she was posted as a journalist, she wrote. “So why start doing so in Florida?”

“Malls aren’t necessarily safe either,” I added, recalling the video released earlier this year by the terrorist group al-Shabaab, which called for attacks specifically on shopping malls in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. (and even mentioned specifically the iconic Mall of America in Minnesota). It was the same al-Shabaab that besieged the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013, killing 67 people.

Merav was conflicted. On her blog a few days later she wrote, “I may just be afraid to admit out loud that I actually feel a slight relief to be getting a break from the hate and the fear, even if just for a short while. Unfortunately, the cringing feeling I get every time I open Facebook seems to have packed itself into my carry-on.”

Guns in America, knives in Israel, and we haven’t even gotten to the rest of the Middle East – is there any place that’s not teetering on the edge of violence today? It’s no wonder that when friends came to Israel to celebrate their son’s bar mitzvah last year, in what has become a new hip ritual for American families, they invited us to spend the afternoon with them at Caliber 3, a shooting range outside Efrat that offers a two-hour “anti-terrorism” program for tourists of all ages.

Led by several pumped up Israeli instructors in army fatigues, this “fun-filled” bar or bat mitzvah activity includes interactive demonstrations of how the army takes down terrorists, live gun play for participants, and – in a segment that at the time felt like the weakest link in the program but now seems remarkably prescient – krav maga practice specifically in how to disarm an attacker coming at you with a knife.

If there is any comfort in these difficult days, it is that this too will pass. Maybe it will be some action Israel takes; maybe it will come with a shift in the weather. (Last year’s car ramming terror attacks petered out with the rains.) Maybe it will be next week, maybe not for a year. It will be replaced by something else, possibly more benign, possibly even worse. Even publishing this article is a risk; by the time it appears in print, the situation could have morphed into something entirely different.

The bottom line: Everything changes; it’s the first lesson in mindfulness meditation and the only calming take-away I can offer in a profoundly anxious time. How do we survive until we get to that point? Some people will place their faith in God. My wife Jody described it differently. “I have faith in temporality,” she says.

Amen. But while you’re at it, go out buy some pepper spray. If you can still find any on the store shelves.

I first wrote about the latest matzav in The Jerusalem Post.


The slippery slope

by Brian on October 19, 2015

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

Nava Tehila at the Nature Museum 2

There’s an old Jewish joke poking fun at religious prohibitions and the inevitable “slippery slope” that comes when one errs too far on the side of permissiveness. A soon to be married man goes to his rabbi to ask about what is allowed in the bedroom. “Can I kiss her here?” the man asks pointing to his neck. “Of course,” the rabbi replies. “How about here?” he continues, gesturing towards a more intimate location. “Absolutely,” comes the reply. “Can we do it in this position?” the man asks, twisting his arms and legs into an awkward but apparently quite admissible entanglement. The rabbi nods enthusiastically.

“What about standing up?” the man finally asks. “Oh no!” the rabbi responds in horror. “That could lead to mixed dancing!”

While the progression in this story is meant to elicit a knowing smile, the concept ofoiding the slippery slope at all costs in Judaism is one that has both stifled innovative thinking and caused not a small amount of consternation in my own family over the years. Every time a change is proposed that’s a bit out of the box from traditional Jewish practice (usually by me although not exclusively), my wife Jody is overcome with the equivalent of a halachic hot flash.

“It’s a slippery slope,” she said, when we first agreed to eat vegetarian out of the house while traveling abroad. Because everyone knows what the next step would be: reindeer steaks au gratin! When I suggested that reading eBooks on a Kindle on Shabbat was not in the same category of Sabbath prohibitions as lighting a fire or completing a circuit and that even our rabbi was doing it, Jody’s shoulders winced in sad resignation. “It’s a slippery slope.”

My problem with slippery slopes is that they, by their very wording, imply a downward movement; a negative retreat from the righteous path on a decline well greased for a faster descent into inescapable decadence and depravity.

Is that really true, though? Must every deviation, large or small, away from what’s perceived as traditional Judaism result in a hand wringing, Pew-cringing assimilationist nightmare in waiting? Or can the slope be an exhilarating trip into the positive; a place where creativity, joy and authenticity thrive at the end of a gently rising incline?

I don’t have to look far to get an answer. Perhaps our family’s biggest collective slippery slope of the last decade was becoming regulars at an egalitarian, musical minyan that pushes the boundaries of halacha by permitting musical instruments to be played on Shabbat and holidays. Rather than destroy the sanctity of the day, it brought us together at a time when the kids and I had become inconsolably bored with traditional shul, opting out of attendance more weeks than not, while the one person who was still into going was on the other side of the mechitza, the curtain separating men from women, leaving me alone and miserable as I muttered prayers that had long lost their meaning to me.

We heard about Jewish Renewal congregation Nava Tehila in 2005 and, even though I was already severely synagogue-challenged by this point, Jerusalem’s Nava Tehila still struck me as too much, too far out. What kind of synagogue allows you to sit next to your spouse…let alone to hold her hand while singing Lecha Dodi? And instruments – OK, music was a big part of the service by the Levites in the ancient Temple, but wasn’t that forbidden after its destruction? No, I could never…

But we tried it, out of a mix of desperation and curiosity, off and on for the first few months until the novelty wore off and we began to appreciate the way we left Friday night services invigorated and energized. We were excited by shul again! The all original musical compositions, more rock and roll than 60’s folk Carlebach, with plenty of eclectic world music flourishes, were nothing less than magical. The timing couldn’t have been better: we were back in the shul groove again.

From its original core of fifty or so people meeting in the rabbi’s living room, Nava Tehila has grown to a standing room only dance-friendly service of hundreds. The band too has grown, from a couple of guitars and a darbuka for percussion to up to 20 acoustic musicians – including at various times cello, harp, flute, saxophone, banjo and even an accordion and didgeridoo. Moreover, two of our kids joined in. Rather than dread going out on a Friday night, we now race to prepare everything on time so we can get there early enough to find a seat close to our children in the inner circle.

Although every service is wonderful, the highlight of the year is clearly Nava Tehila’s annual Simchat Torah service. On the holiday, which took place on Monday of this week, there must have been 400 of us outdoors at Jerusalem’s old Nature Museum, witnessing the Jewish Renewal custom of unfurling of the entire Torah in a giant circle, each member of the congregation grasping the top of the scroll with a tallit while the musicians serenaded us from the center. If you’ve never seen a Torah scroll open all at once, it’s truly a sight to behold.

As I reflect back on a decade of this particular slippery slope and its ultimately positive outcome, it occurs to me that the language that is so often used to vilify practices that veer from the Orthodox norm – that you are breaking Shabbat, that you are no longer shomer mitzvot (keeping the commandments) – is all wrong.

If I read The Jerusalem Post on my iPad on Shabbat, or turn off the air conditioning on a Friday night before bed because I value not harming the overly environment more than conforming to the strict letter of the law, I’m not breaking Shabbat. I’m just doing it differently. My egalitarian minyan is not OTD (“off the derech”), it’s just a different and equally valid way of communal celebration.

Getting my head around this concept turned out to be incredibly freeing. Guilt evaporated. The fear of slipping and sliding was gone. Because one way of observing is not better or worse than the other. As long as one professes an earnest desire to mark the day as unique from the six that preceded it, there is no inherently right or wrong way to do it. As long as one is engaged with Jewish tradition, studying it, arguing with it, loving it with all the ups and downs that come with any truly intimate relationship, who would dare to stand in judgment?

Well, actually, a lot of people. Over the last month of holidays, I devoured Shulem Deen’s riveting new memoir All Who Go Do Not Return. Deen, a former Skverer Hasid – one of the most fanatic of all haredi sects – eventually “chooses a different way of expressing his Judaism” (my words) that does not conform to the standards of his insular community. His wife warns him explicitly of the slippery slope.

“It starts with the radio and the next thing you know, you’re eating treyfe [non-kosher food] and driving on Shabbos,” she cries out. Deen is eventually deemed a heretic and essentially excommunicated. He loses his home and eventually his family along with his faith. There is no room for questioning or authenticity in Deen’s former hometown of New Square, New York.

Jay Michaelson writes a lot about authenticity – or rather the “myth” of it. In an issue of The Forward from a few years back, Michaelson wonders how many of us “share the understated assumption [that to be ultra-Orthodox] is ‘really Jewish’ [and] to be secular is not really Jewish.” He then proceeds to demolish this supposition.

“The entire notion of [Jewish] authenticity is a false projection of particular historical quirks onto an imagined ideal of ‘realness’ that artificially freezes culture and thus spells its demise,” he writes. “There is no single authentic Jewishness. Like any living culture, [Judaism] evolves over time in order to remain vibrant. Of course there are certain core values, myths and cultural traits that remain relatively constant. But bagels, bookishness and bar mitzvahs all evolved historically; none is more ‘really Jewish’ than sushi, sports or a Sweet 16.”

“Authenticity,” he concludes, “isn’t about form. It’s about getting to what matters.” To say something as simple as you know what, this works for me – if said so meaningfully and with intent – “is a mark of integrity.”

So let’s make a pact: let’s banish the term “slippery slope” from the lexicon of Jewish derision and embrace the dance of differences and authenticity.

Well, just as long as it doesn’t lead to mixed dancing.

I first slipped and slid over at The Jerusalem Post.


Aurland“It’s called re-entry syndrome,” my therapist friend Nomi explained to me as I was describing the difficulty I was having returning to Israel after our recent vacation abroad. “It happens to everyone.” It’s especially acute, she added, when you’ve just come from an especially polite country such as Norway, where we’d just spent two weeks hiking up waterfalls, gazing at glaciers, and most pertinent to my surprisingly strong resistance to coming home, re-discovering the meaning of the words “customer service” and “patience.”

I certainly won’t be the first person to point out that Israel can be a tough place to live. It’s a rough neighborhood, yes I know, and our history has given us ample reasons to dispense with many of the social pleasantries that our neighbors in the West so value. Moreover, my wife and I were, after all, on vacation in Norway, interacting with service providers primarily in the tourism industry, not the general population. Who knows what life is really like in a place like that?

But still, it can be jarring. At least on the surface, everyone in Norway was just so nice. Like Eden at the front desk of the Vangsgaarden Guest House in Aurland, who went out of her way to strategize the best trekking routes and let us borrow the hotel’s bikes for an hour at no charge. Or the manager at the sweets shop in Geiranger who, after we ran into her and her staff on a team building day and took their picture, insisted we come in for hot chocolate on the house. Or all those drivers on the narrow switchback mountain roads who never tailgated or honked or flashed their lights at us, and never, ever tried to pass when it wasn’t safe. If a tour bus needed room to maneuver at a tight curve, car drivers would simply wait.

On our return, the contrast came as quick as the ride from Ben-Gurion Airport back to Jerusalem. Our taxi driver cut between other cars with feckless abandon, while texting on his phone most of the time. A few days later, my wife and I were in a clothing store. Could the saleswoman have looked less dour? At the evening concert at the annual Hutzot HaYotzer arts and crafts festival, a burly guy with a crew cut and a white t-shirt insisted on sitting on the back of his seat. Why should he care if he was blocking the view of those behind him? Megiah lo – he deserves whatever he can take.

Israel can be a wonderful place, I thought to myself. If only it was filled with Norwegians.

When I told my kids about my bout with re-entry syndrome, they were quick to offer excuses for their fellow countrymen. “Maybe that salesperson had a boyfriend in the army on the border with Gaza and she’s really scared,” said one. “Or maybe the guy at the concert lost someone to a terror attack,” suggested another.

“I’m not trying to blame anyone for their behavior,” I replied. “I accept that this is the way it is here. I just wonder sometimes if it’s worth it. I mean, is this how I want to live out however many years I have left?”

That was how I felt, a few months earlier, when I had a near meltdown at the bank. After waiting close to an hour, the clerk in charge of my account couldn’t find the papers she needed and yelled at me (or maybe she was just speaking normally, it’s hard to tell in Hebrew), telling me to come back another time and rudely dismissing me with neither an apology nor an explanation.

As I walked home, I was drained, defeated, and found myself questioning some pretty big life choices. “Why are we even here?” I blabbered, as I recounted my experience at the bank to my wife Jody. “I’m just so tired, all the time. Maybe we should consider leaving.”

“What would that look like?” Jody asked, entertaining my question seriously.

The truth is, I’ve pictured this scenario before. But it always crosses into the realm of fantasy. The only way I can relieve the existential angst of leaving Israel and all the messages of betrayal and cowardice it brings up is to imagine going totally “Jewcognito.” That is, moving to a place and ditching any remnants of an Israeli – or for that matter a Jewish – identity in order to blend in without baggage.

It would have to be some city where we didn’t know anyone. That rules out all the places we’ve lived in the past as well as anywhere near family. We wouldn’t join any kind of organized Jewish community and we’d take neutral stands on all the burning Jewish questions of the day – BDS, Iran, anti-Semitism – that is when we weren’t ducking having opinions entirely. I doubt we’d move to Norway – that would be too far-out – but a small town in Iowa might fit the bill. We’d have to invent an elaborate backstory and stick to the script, like Don Draper from Mad Men. (Wait a minute, that didn’t work out so well for him in the end, did it?)

Fantasies, of course, are just that; black and white escapes routes born out of frustration that don’t take into account the 67 shades of grays that give life its real richness. Short of the ultimate extreme makeover, coming to terms with Israel as it is would probably be a better long-term solution. Worse comes to worse, I can always retreat into the Anglo bubble that characterizes my southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka and leave the interacting with the outside world to more stoic souls like my wife.

Now, I’m aware that my post-vacation beef with the boorish behavior of my neighbors might come across as trivial; a wimpy whine expanded into an artificial crisis obsessed primarily with the most superficial of qualities. “Israelis may not always be the easiest on the outside,” one of my kids pointed out, “but they will always have your back.”

I know that, along with all the other big picture arguments for making a go of the Jewish state: the historic opportunity of Zionism and the ingathering of the exiles, a country run by the Jewish calendar, the casual creativity that infuses everything from startups to wedding attire, the positive qualities of aggressive openness, the democratic responsibility of prodding change in those systems that are infuriatingly broken, the excellent humous. But that’s missing the point: I needed some help with getting past my very real re-entry syndrome.

My therapist friend Nomi used to work at the AACI where she counseled new immigrants on coping with culture shock. There are some interesting overlaps with re-entry syndrome, she explains. For aliyah, Nomi cites a five-stage process developed originally by Lucy Shahar, co-author of Border Crossings: American Interactions with Israelis.

The first stage is ”euphoria,” a honeymoon period where everything Israeli is wonderful. This is followed by “depression,” however, “characterized by a sense of homesickness, nostalgia for the familiar and a sense of loss,” Nomi goes on. “This second stage is also marked by a negative stereotyping of Israelis; a sense of them and us, and of not wanting to be around them.”

Fortunately, the depression usually passes, followed by an “adjustment” phase. But it’s also short lived, and about a year into one’s aliyah, a new downer arises, “disillusionment,” with a feeling of “is that all there is? Wasn’t aliyah supposed to improve my life in a more meaningful way?” If you can get past the disillusionment, and you make the choice to stay, you finally reach the fifth and final stage, “bi-culturalism,” where you can function and live a full life in both your original and new Israeli milieus.

“The Catch 22 is that you have to wait until you’re bi-cultural in order to decide if you want to be bi-cultural,” Nomi adds, wryly.

Nomi uses the five stages to give immigrants insight into their initial transition, but every time you leave and come back to Israel, she says, you go through the entire process again in miniature. In my case, I seem to have skipped over the euphoria phase and landed somewhere between stage two, depression, and stage four, disillusionment.

“Eventually you’ll get over the re-entry syndrome and regain your previous sense of equilibrium,” Nomi reassured me. “It may take a few weeks, or even longer.”

I hope so. Living in this livid limbo is no fun. I’m pretty sure I’ll get back to my version of Baka bubble bi-culturalism and I’ll be fine.

That is, until the next vacation.

I first wrote about re-entry syndrome at The Jerusalem Post.


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