Saturday, June 15, 2019

Someone she can look up to: Proud, strong, smart, gorgeous religious women we're not afraid to show our daughters

Not long after we moved to Israel, I found Naomi Rivka, who was 8 at the time, playing with her Barbies.  The Barbies were all dressed up, as usual, but there was something new: one the head of one, Naomi Rivka had wound a delicate assemblage of toilet paper and lace, towering high and graceful over the doll's pretty, slender face.

Here in Israel, we were suddenly surrounded by beautiful, graceful, slender young married Sephardi women, for whom a tichel, piled as high as possible, is the de rigeur headware -- and that was exactly how Naomi Rivka wanted her Barbie to look.

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And because 8-year-old girls are reasonably transparent, chances were good that that was how she herself wanted to look someday.  Tall, slim, high cheekbones, okay... those may be genetic factors.  But gloriously crowned in a high, swirling tichel... that's something you learn from your environment.  That's something little girls pick up from looking around and role playing years, and even decades, before they're in a position to dress

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Very Wild Things: a Shavuos Dvar Torah for 5779 / 2019


Just in time for Shavuos, I want to tell you a very serious, very important story about the Jewish people and yetzias Mitzrayim and our history and Matan Torah. I had a little help with some of the writing.

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind

and another

his mother called him “WILD THING!”

and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!”

so he was sent to bed without eating anything.

image11Now, I guess I should mention that the help with the writing came from the author Maurice Sendak, a giant of a writer in the children’s literature world. But this is not unrelated, because as a Jewish child, growing up in the U.S. in the shadow of the Shoah, there were some very real monsters in Maurice Sendak’s world… and some very Jewish ideas.

Like this idea of the WILD THING. In Yiddish, we’d say “vilde chaya.” A wild animal. Max is being wild – but more importantly, he’s being immature, just as Yosef was, we’re told, before he was taken off and sold to Mitzrayim. Okay, Yosef didn’t wear a wolf suit – but you know who did? His father Yaakov. Okay, maybe not a wolf suit. But it does sound more than a little Jewish, if you think about it, putting on this hairy suit, acting more wild than you actually are.

And look what happened to Yosef – I mean, Max:

That very night in Max’s room a forest grew

and grew-

and grew until his ceiling hung with vines

and the walls became the world all around

and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max

and he sailed off through night and day

and in and out of weeks

and almost over a year

to where the wild things are.

Now, the Torah says it was a passing caravan

Shavuos: The Great Equalizer, a short dvar Torah for 5778 / 2018

Oops – posting this a little late!

When a person comes to study Judaism, although I certainly hope they’re welcomed and greeted warmly in shuls and classes, the stark truth is – we don’t need you. The message isn’t quite “go away,” but just, “we don’t need you.”

I grew up knowing Jews don’t proselytize: we don’t seek converts. In general, we believe that as long as a non-Jew follows the seven laws of Noach’s descendents, they’re doing okay. “We don’t need you.”

But the truth is, the world wasn’t in great shape after Noach’s time. Hashem promised he wouldn’t send another flood, but we know the majority of people were ovdei avodah zara. The world was desperate for a message of truth, a messenger of Hashem.

And then, along came Avraham and Sara, the spiritual parents of every geir, every convert, ever. They were originally Avram and Sarai, but they shed their old names as they stepped into the greater role that Hashem had prepared for them: bringing Hashem’s truth into the world.

We know that when Avraham had the courage to leave his family and become the first geir, Hashem didn’t just promise to give him a bracha. He said “Veh’yeh bracha” – and you shall be a bracha.

What does it mean to be a bracha? It means “we need you.”

The entire Jewish world needs geirim and giyoros tzedek. They don’t just bestow bracha, they are a bracha for their energy, their depth of learning, and also perhaps just to make those of us who were born Jewish more aware and more proud of our own heritage. We should never take it, or them, for granted.

Whenever a geir or a giyores steps into the waters of the mikveh, they are saying, just as Rus and Naomi promised each other, that their fate, their future, is forever bound up with ours.

“Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba zeh.” All of klal Yisrael are responsible for one another.

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis challenges us with this responsibility. “Will we parrot the infamous words of Kayin, "Hashomer Ochi anochi?  - Am I my brother's keeper?" or will we respond like

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Hineni: Here I am. A Shemos dvar Torah for my father’s 10th yahrzeit

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In this week’s parsha, Moshe proves he’s ahead of his time, most strikingly in the first question he asks when he starts addressing Hashem.

When Hashem calls to Moshe from the bush, Moshe responds with “Here I am,” hineni. In Hebrew, it’s one word, one concept, הנני מוכן ומזומן–I’m here and I’m ready. Not just presence, it’s total presence.

But what’s the next thing Moshe says? Hashem first tells him all about the plan, that Moshe’s going to go to Paroh, going to bring out bnei Yisrael. And suddenly, Moshe isn’t so sure. What does he say? “Who am I?” מי אנוכי / mi anochi? He thought he knew, but now all of a sudden… he isn’t so sure.

Which of us haven’t been there? In that spot where we thought we were brave, we stepped up, put up our hands, applied to make aliyah or signed up for grad school. Whatever it was, we are about to take that leap, and then suddenly, we wonder. Is this the right thing to do? Is this really who I am?

This is actually a very modern question. Throughout most of our history, we didn’t need to ask who we were. Wherever we lived, Poland, Morocco, Egypt, Spain, everybody around us was all too happy to answer: “You’re a Jew.” “You can live in these places, you can do these occupations, you can pay these taxes.” They were happy to show us the fences around our Jewish identity and inside those, we were Jews.

That doesn’t mean we always got along. Chassidim and mitnagdim, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, more observant and less observant. In Europe, different professions had their own shuls: carpenters didn’t want to daven with candlemakers, or whatever. There were always lines we put ourselves on one side of or the other. But whether or not to be a Jew—that wasn’t a choice, or rather, non-Jews made the choice for us.

Then, all of a sudden, for those of us in Europe, there was. With the Enlightenment, there was the promise of no more fences. After thousands of years, we could ask, Mi anochi? We could be whoever we wanted to be. Things went wrong in Europe, but they kept trying in America, building on the idea that nobody could tell you what it meant to be a Jew.

“Who am I?” we asked. Mi anochi? There were so many answers: Zionists, Reform, Orthodox,

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Hanukkah and the Holocaust: What stories are we telling our Jewish kids?

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If, as Jewish parents, we care so much about sharing Judaism with our kids, why aren’t we doing it through the books we read them???

Only slightly frustrated by a flood of Chanukah books coming at me from all sides, I decided to go to my friendly local online library (in Toronto) and search for various keywords of Jewish life, just to rank which categories were most important to us, as parents and readers, based on how many kids’ books turned up in each category.

So it turns out we’re telling our kids a whole lot – about Hanukkah and the Holocaust. And not much else.

I want to point out up front that this search was never

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Moments of regret: Small, medium, large

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Maybe regret isn't the right word.  But I’ll use it here anyway.
Because here in this dark, dark, cold time of year, I'm finding myself deluged with it -- three moments of regret, large and small.

Regret, small:

Driving in a hurry to pick up a crying baby from daycare.  Rushing and it's clear out, bright sunny sky, middle of the day, but I try to get through a red light and I don't make it.  Or rather, I make it but the car doesn't.

That one instant -- there's the regret.  The wish that I could turn back the clock, like Superman, just 30 seconds.  Not try to make the light.  Wait there patiently, even though the baby has a fever; even though she's crying; even though she probably has some kind of horrible infection.

I am constantly scrambling with that baby.  I missed her jaundice, failed to notice because we were locked up together in a cold winter bedroom that she was turning colour, turning yellow like a bog man, until her grandmother came over and said, "That baby is yellow."  It's been a lifetime of scrambling ever since.

But if only, I think.  If only I could turn off the scrambling for just half a minute and sit still.  She'll wait.

She did wait.  It takes a lot longer to get a tow truck than it does to