Tag: Religion

In Defense of the Simple Mistake

Perfection is overrated.

I’ve probably prepared well over 1,000 kids for their b’nei mitzvah, and by far, the number one fear any of them have expressed is that when they’re standing on the bimah, chanting their haftorah or a part of the service, they’ll make a mistake.

Well-meaning parents and other adults feed into this by assuring their kids that if they do happen to make an error, “no one will even notice,” or “it’ll be OK because people don’t know what you’re saying anyway.”

That’s helpful?

I, on the other hand, love mistakes. They bring variety and personality into the service. I have had kids lose their place in the text and look back at me in a panic. After I quietly feed them the next word, they go right on. Kids will start the tune for Hatzi Kaddish instead of Kaddish Shalem. Usually, they’ll realize their error about halfway through the text, and then I enjoy seeing that little glance over at me with “oops” on their face.

During one service, I was holding the Siddur for the bar mitzvah kid so he could hold the Torah and sing his part. I got distracted and moved the Siddur away before he was done with the page, causing him to fumble on the now hidden text. He looked up at me with an expression only a 13 year old can give to an adult–to which I muttered, “Oh, sorry.” That had to be over 20 years ago and I still remember it.

One of my favorite sights is when we begin marching around with the Torah–usually a stately procession around the sanctuary–but the nervous kid takes off like a drag racer down the middle aisle, causing a frenzy of lunging congregants falling over themselves trying to kiss the Torah before it rushes by.

Who needs another cookie-cutter, perfectly executed, robotic rendition of the text? When a kid makes a mistake, mangles a word, starts a wrong tune, inadvertently skips a page, has a voice crack, forgets to come in…then he or she has owned the service. It means they haven’t simply memorized a bunch of lines, but rather are reading and singing in real time, out of the Siddur, along with the congregation. The service becomes real and organic.

And to finally put that tired advice to rest–yes, the congregation noticed your mistake. But no one cared. It made them more connected to the service, more interested in how much effort you’ve put in, and given them an understanding that it’s really hard for any kid or adult to get up in front of people and make a presentation.

 

Wear this, or wear that.

Let’s try a little exercise:

If I mention the Jewish concept of modesty, tzni-ut in Hebrew, often referred to by its Yiddish pronunciation, tznius, what comes to mind? Stop reading for a minute and picture what modesty means within the Jewish religion. Then come up with some images in your mind.

Scroll down when you’re done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ready? Do you have some images in mind which reflect how we are supposed to exemplify tzni-ut in the context of Jewish practice and congregational life?

I bet I can guess right now what you thought of.

I predict that any or all of the images that came to your mind included things like women wearing wigs. Shoulders covered. Wearing skirts. Long sleeves.

How’d I do? If I succeeded in reading your mind, you have to like and share this blog post. That’s only fair.

So are you seeing a common thread? Modesty, tznius, is often just another excuse for the marginalization of women in the Jewish religion. You can be there, but don’t be seen. Don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t be a distraction to the men who are busy doing the real business of Judaism.

The Orthodox world has codified this concept–they proscribe even the sound of a woman’s voice, the so-called Kol Isha. According to this rule, a singing woman is so seductive and sensuous, the males will be unable to concentrate on their prayers and focus on the service.

But this is not just a screed against Orthodox Judaism–this message is alive and well in all of our seemingly modern, enlightened, and inclusive congregations. Why does every set of directions to future B’nei Mitzvah families include so many directions on proper dress for the service? And within those directions, why do we focus primarily on what the girls will be wearing?

Now of course we have standards for how we would like people to appear when they’re in temple, and especially on the bimah. And certainly we all have stories of wardrobe fails–sneakers, prom-like dresses, jeans, cocktail attire at 9:00 am–it goes on and on.

Yet like all the dress code rules in effect in schools, the burden falls mostly on our girls. Cover up as much of yourself as possible. Make sure your dress comes down at least this far. No shoulders! (We are obsessed with the scandal of bare shoulders even though the entire female professional world successfully wears sleeveless dresses to work everyday.)

We are communicating an insidious message: The congregation and the Jewish religion thinks that you–each one of you girls–should be ashamed of your bodies. Cover yourselves up. Completely. If the boys or other men are tempted to look at you and think a certain way, that’s your fault. You did that. YOU ARE A DISTRACTION.

When I have to explain the standards of proper dress for services to families, I like to keep it simple: Dress appropriately–period. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. But the vast majority of people know perfectly well what that means. I find it objectionable to use the “what to wear to services” conversation as a set of prohibitions about all the ways that girls’ outfits can be inappropriate.

The real definition of modesty has nothing to do with covering up your body. It’s about self-respect. It’s about how you act and how you speak around others. It’s about wearing a kipah in shul because you realize that you’re not the most important person in the world. It’s about giving tzedakah anonymously. It’s about doing for others rather than wondering what’s in it for you.

Let’s allow our girls to spend more time practicing their Torah readings rather than worrying that their dresses might offend the congregation.

Got Any Dip for These Chips?

The Four Questions.

Do any other three words strike as much fear into the hearts of little Jewish kids around the world as those? Generations of Jews remember having to stand up in front of everyone present (and especially nasty old Aunt Ida who never had a good thing to say) and sing these questions while trying not to make a mistake.

The Four Questions serve as a starting off point for the Seder. You’ll notice that the Four Questions are not in fact followed by the Four Answers. If that were the case, the Seder would be over by about 7:30. No, you have to learn and discuss the story of Passover, as told in the Haggadah, to figure out the right answers.

Still, I wonder whether everyone can actually answer each of the Four Questions. To review, here they are:

  1. On all other nights, we eat bread or matza. (Question 1A: why would anyone eat matza if you didn’t have to?) Tonight, why do we only eat matza?
  2. On all other nights, we eat any kind of herbs. Tonight, why do we eat bitter herbs?
  3. On all other nights, we don’t dip our foods. Tonight, why do we dip our foods twice?
  4. On all other nights, we eat while sitting or reclining. Tonight, why do we eat while reclining?

(I wonder whether this is where Jerry Seinfeld got his comedic inspiration: Hey guys, what’s the deal with bitter herbs….?)

So go back and read that third question again. It’s a particularly strange one–I suspect everyone sings it but doesn’t pay too much attention to what’s it’s really asking.

On all other night, we don’t dip our foods. Tonight, why do we dip our foods twice?

That’s actually two questions built into one: Why do we dip our foods, and what are the two times we do it?

The first time is easy of course. We dip our celery or other green vegetable into the salt water, to combine the images of the Festival of Spring with the tears of the Israelite slaves. But what’s the second dipping?

When I ask this question to kids and adults, they often answer that we dip our fingers into the wine during the recitation of the Ten Plagues. Good guess, except that our fingers aren’t food, unless you’re attending the Donner Family Seder.

In fact, when it’s time to make the blessing over maror and eat it, you’re supposed to dip it into a little charoset–to mitigate the bitterness with a little bit of sweetness.

OK, so now we have our two dippings–but it doesn’t answer the larger question: Why? What does dipping foods have to do with Passover? The other questions are pretty obvious and straightforward: matza, bitter herbs, reclining at the table. Is dipping foods some weird Passover custom that we never learned?

In fact, like reclining at the table, dipping your foods (which On All Other Nights might reflect poor table manners) is a sign of luxury. Slaves have to grab whatever is there, eat it fast, and get back to work. But now we’re a free people–we can sit, take our time with our food, dip one kind into another, and really savor the meal.

And now we can see that the Four Questions make a lot more sense. They’re structured in such a way to progress from slavery to freedom.

The first two questions–matza and maror–deal with what the Israelites experienced as slaves, while the last two questions–dipping and reclining–are a demonstration of how free people act.

Now go practice some more so Aunt Ida doesn’t give you the stink eye.

It’s Snark Week

One of the most important ways of understanding the Bible is to remember the saying of the Rabbis:

דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם
The Torah speaks in the language of mankind.

That is, the text is purposely presented in a way that we can relate to. So it should come as no surprise that as we read of various Biblical characters communicating with each other, we occasionally find priceless examples of dry wit, irony, and downright sarcasm. Who can’t relate to that?

Therefore, I present to you my:

Top Five Sarcastic Biblical One-Liners:

5. God rolls His eyes at Jonah
Jonah 4:4

Anyone who raised a teenager can relate to Jonah. Filled with melodrama and narcissism, Jonah always makes everything about him. Towards the end of the story, Jonah complains to God that the entire errand of warning the Ninevites of their impending destruction was just one big waste of his time. So later, while Jonah was sitting in the unbearable heat, God provided a big plant to provide shelter and relief. The next day, God took the plant away. Jonah, attempting to win Best Actor in a Short Film, raised the back of his hand to his forehead, and cried to the heavens, “Oh! I would rather die than live like this!”

To which God, in an uncharacteristic instance of perfect understatement and not just a little sarcasm, replied,

“Are you really upset?”

 

4. On behalf on an ungrateful nation
Exodus 14:11

Just what do you have to do to get any respect? The Israelites, enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years, are finally free. They personally witnessed the power of God, and watched the Egyptians suffer 10 devastating plagues, including the death of every first born son. They were guided by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night (early GPS–God Positioning System). So it was pretty clear by this time that Moses and God had their backs.

As they were approaching the shore of the Red Sea, with the pursuing Egyptian army in the distance, one guy, obviously the ancestor of a modern day temple president, went up to Moses and asked,

“There weren’t enough graves in Egypt, so you had to bring us out here to die?”

 

3. Animals? What animals?
I Samuel 15:14

The story of King Saul and King Agag is a deeply poignant and troubling episode. Saul was instructed by God to wage war against the tribe of Amalek and utterly wipe out everyone and everything. In a time when putting the males to death might be common, this command was way over the top–it specifically included not only the men, but every woman, child, baby. And every animal. Complete genocide.

King Saul, probably in way over his head, obviously had major reservations about carrying out such an order. He ended up sparing his counterpart King Agag (letting the vanquished king live was common in war–sort of like professional courtesy), and allowing his soldiers take some of the cattle.

God sent his prophet Samuel to confront Saul and call him out on his disobedience. Samuel asks Saul, “Did you completely follow God’s command?” Saul replies confidently, “Yes, I did everything God asked me.”

Samuel uses his dry wit to make his point, as he looks around and sees a bunch of cattle that used to belong to the Amalekites. With pinpoint timing, he asks Saul,

“So what’s this bleating of sheep I hear all around?”

Busted.

 

2. For this we sent you to Brandeis?
Judges 14:3

Before there was Fatal Attraction, there was the story of Samson. What most people know of this gem of a story is a guy who likes to wear his hair long and the femme fatale who tricks him into getting a haircut with dire consequences. In fact, the entire narrative of Samson is a story of romance, desire, betrayal, anger, and violence. It was also written with a great deal of irony and comedy.

First we read of Samson’s beginnings. Because his parents, Manoach and Mrs. Manoach (that’s correct–the Tanach can’t even bother giving her a name), had great trouble conceiving a child (a common motif in Biblical stories), they pledge their soon-to-be-born son to the service of God as a Nazarite. Among other restrictions, that meant no wine and no haircuts. Samson is born, gets older, and goes on Spring Break to a city called Timnah, where he meets and falls for a Philistine woman. He returns home and excitedly tells his father that he’s getting married to this woman.

Samson’s father asks his son the question that is destined to reverberate throughout the next couple thousand years of Jewish life:

“What, there were no Jewish girls for you to marry?”

 

1. Dude, that’s my wife
Esther 7:8

The story of Esther that we read on Purim is one of the most familiar and well-known narratives of the entire Bible. It also happens to be a perfectly constructed short story, filled with effective literary techniques–foreshadowing, conflict, irony, and yes, a good deal of comedy.

There are a few points in the story that don’t get as much attention. One such passage provides what I think is the best laugh-out-loud moment of the entire Tanach. Towards the end of the story, Haman’s plot has completely unraveled, and he finally knows the jig is up and he’s in big trouble. Esther has identified him to King Achashverosh as the person who is seeking to wipe out her people, the Jews. The King is furious and in his anger, storms out of the room. Haman, overcome with the fact that he’s pretty much dead man walking now, feels faint and collapses right on top of Esther, who’s lying on her couch.

At this precise moment, King Achashverosh walks back into the room, takes in the scene in front of him, and with a timing and delivery bordering on sheer perfection, asks:

“So you thought you’d shtup my wife, too?”

 

B-B-B-Bad to the Bone?

You gotta hand it to those ancient rabbis–they sure knew how to tackle classroom management. In fact, we read about their nuanced understanding of effective pedagogical techniques each year at the Passover Seder.

Forget everything you thought you knew about education. The rabbis had it all figured out: there are simply four kinds of learners–the familiar four sons that appear in the Haggadah:

The Wise Son
The Wicked Son
The Simple Son
The Son Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask

(Of course, in true traditional Jewish fashion, the women-folk were relegated to the kitchen, so we’re not sure what the daughters were up to.)

So which kind of kid do you think is the best? Which one might go on to become a Jewish professional or effective leader? Who is more apt to make Mom and Dad proud?

No brainer right? I think it’s the wicked child.

Like a lot of kids who seem to resist learning, I think the wicked child is the most misunderstood. Let’s take a closer look at how the Haggadah presents this type of learner.

We might imagine that he simply disappears during the Seder. Maybe he announces to everyone, “This is stupid!” and storms off to go partying and have an illicit bagel with his other hoodlum friends. But that’s not what happens at all. This kid is engaged. He’s present. He’s asking questions and challenging authority. Rather than absenting himself, he wants answers. And most surprising, he’s knowledgeable about the Seder and the Torah. He uses a direct quote from Exodus–What does this service mean to you?–and puts a sarcastic twist on it by emphasizing the words “to you,” challenging the adults in his life to explain why and how he should embrace these rituals. He wants in–but needs to see more.

In other words, what the rabbis of the Haggadah called the Wicked Son is really just a typical teenager.

And here’s where actually understanding the Hebrew text comes in handy, because in most translations I’ve read, this next part is simply omitted. When asked how we should handle such an awful child, the text reads:

.אף אתה הקהה את שיניו
Smack him in the teeth.

Obviously, those guys had very little patience for anything but blind obedience. That’s why they loved the wise child, an annoying little goody-two-shoes who sat right up front, always raised his hand first, and begged to be called on with the correct answer. (Good thing the Jews never believed in gym class, because this kid would have been toast.)

As for me, give me the wicked child any day. I much prefer to be around students who ask difficult questions, challenge established beliefs, and rethink the best way for them to engage in Jewish tradition.

Finger Puppets and Genocide

Long ago, I think some corporate executives within the Organization of Jewish Religion decided that they had a ratings problem.

Christian merch was flying off the shelves and their branding was expanding around the globe. The Jews felt they had something special–after all, it was their legacy product that set the stage for everything that came after. They had secured all the important celebrity endorsements–

“I’m proud to call the Jews My chosen people!”–God

–and had established their headquarters in a desirable Jerusalem neighborhood.

Still, the Christians were killing it. So the marketing executives in the corporate office set out to find out why. They quickly realized what every modern company knows so well–get the kids hooked and the customer stream will follow. Christmas was introduced with their new mascot–Santa Claus–which was also a brilliant piece of cross promotion with Coca Cola and brought in needed revenue. They unveiled the Easter Bunny–a bit controversial since the Bunny character inexplicably laid eggs and didn’t even have a passing connection to the Resurrection of Jesus, but it was an instant success and had a lasting effect on public school calendars for all time.

The report got sent upstairs–Target the kids!

Everyone got to work right away. It wasn’t easy. Many of our Jewish holidays deal with serious, complicated, and violent themes. There’s brutality and sexuality throughout. How do you turn an R-rated subject into something G-rated?

They began with Purim, and took a cold hard look at the holiday. A dubious leading man, Mordechai, schemes to place himself at the pinnacle of power using every Machiavellian trick in the book. He pimps out his nubile underage niece to the non-Jewish middle-aged king to secure a presence in the palace. He skulks around the grounds until he spots an opportunity to turn in would-be traitors to ingratiate himself with the king. He sets up the mighty but ultimately dim-witted Haman to take the fall for attempted genocide. Finally, in the climax of the story, the newly powerful Mordechai leads the Jews on a killing rampage throughout Shushan, wiping out 75,000 non-Jews who had been bent on their destruction.

The solution: Let’s get the kids to dress up and make a ton of noise. We’ll market character costumes and manufacture promotional noise-makers with Jewish stars and Torah logos on them.

Next came Chanukah. This one was tough. It was a rather dry festival commemorating a military victory. To further complicate matters, the victors in the story–the Hasmonean Dynasty–never made much of themselves after this episode. They themselves ended up assimilating and falling victim to the very thing which their recent ancestors had fought against. It was a fairly decent story of underdogs overcoming the odds, but how can you repackage this one for the kids?

The solution: We’ll create a new back story. Snazz it up with special effects–a divine miracle–and introduce a product that everyone has to have. Before this point, no one even knew what a menorah was, but soon enough it became the hot button product of the time, with people lining up around the shuk all night to get the latest release. Throw in a dreidl (with a hint of gambling to appeal to parents), and Chanukah became the must-celebrate holiday of the year for the whole family.

The marketing department even looked at stories from the Torah–in particular the story of Noah and the Flood. The team took a unflinching look at this story–how could they spin the needlessly violent and agonizing death of all humanity, not to mention the horrible suffering of all the animals on earth?

The solution: Focus instead on the very few animals that were actually spared, and portray Noah as a benevolent and avuncular figure who was simply along for the ride. Instead of worrying about the devastating effects of the flood, transform the ark into a cruise ship with lovable animals, bobbing happily along the waves on an extended tour of the ancient Middle East. Using the rainbow as their logo, this story of a happy man with cute pairs of animals became enshrined in children’s hearts forever.

Fast forward to today. This once-brilliant marketing campaign has become a victim of its own success. Every facet of Judaism seems tailored only for kids. The medium has become the message. This became apparent when I recently spied a certain product intended for kids at a Passover seder–Ten Plague Finger Puppets. Some Jewish company thought this was a good idea? OK, frogs are pretty amusing, and in fact, that particular plague was itself intended to be a somewhat comical jab at the Egyptians. But blood? Vermin? The Death of Every First Born Son and Animal??

In our Siddur, it explains that during Passover, except for the first two days, we recite an abbreviated version of Hallel, the series of Psalms and blessings added for every festival. The reason for this, according to Jewish tradition, is because our own joy and celebration must be tempered by our acknowledgment of the deaths of so many Egyptians, during the plagues and then their drowning in the Red Sea. An incredible Jewish concept–we don’t take pleasure in the suffering of our enemies. That’s also the reason why we remove a drop of wine from our glasses during the recitation of the Ten Plagues at the seder. So should we wear our Finger Puppets while we take a drop of wine out of our cups?

Let’s make Judaism an adult religion again. Let’s not infantilize kids and teens and assume they can’t handle any serious subjects. Let’s struggle with reconciling the violent and anachronistic episodes of our tradition with living a life of holiness and community. Let’s come up with ways to explain a modern concept of what God is, what God means, and what God can be, and move away from the white-bearded father and king who lives in the sky that so many people learned about as children without the possibility of any more sophisticated and adult alternative.

I’m fully confident that our ratings will go up and we’ll once again establish brand loyalty.

 

The Blooper Reel: Not-So-Great Moments in Cantorial History

Everyone loves watching the outtakes from a movie–sometimes presented during the credits or as part of the bonus features of the DVD. (Does anyone watch DVDs anymore??) Unfortunately, all of my scenes are live presentations with no chance to redo them.

I’ve had more than a few bloopers in my many years as a cantor. A few memorable ones come to mind:

Early in my career, I was soloing at services for one of the first times, and I was pretty nervous. When we got to the part when we announce the yahrzeits (the anniversary of a death) for the coming week, I not-so-eloquently announced, “The following yahrzeits will be celebrated during the coming week.” No one said anything to me after services, so either they weren’t paying attention, or they took pity on a newbie cantor.

Being inexperienced isn’t just nerve wracking–it can also be dangerous. At one of my first funerals, it was time for me to cut the mourner’s black ribbon with the little razor that the funeral home gives out. In a bit of nervous energy, I not only made a cut in the ribbon, but also succeeded in slicing my finger. But the show must go on–I surreptitiously grabbed a tissue, kept it wrapped around my finger for the entire service, and only bled on my book a little. No one ever noticed. Still, I’m happy that most funeral homes now use the self-tearing ribbons.

One Shabbat morning, it was the week before Rosh Chodesh, the new Jewish month, when it’s traditional to add a prayer announcing the coming new month and exactly when it begins. That would have gone very smoothly had I actually bothered to look at a calendar ahead of time and seen not only what day the month began, but also which month it was. Before I started chanting the page, I had no choice but to do the walk of shame over to the rabbi’s side for a quick whispered conversation. Lesson learned.

Finally, one of my all time favorite and memorable moments in the history of services. During a bar mitzvah many years ago, the family had assigned the honor of reading the Prayer for Peace to a friend who had traveled in from South America.

Do you know what happens to the Prayer for Peace when it is recited with a South American accent? It turns out that the long ē sound in the word “peace” doesn’t quite make it all the way. (Go ahead, I’ll wait till you try that out.)

And so, while the guest proceeded to recite the now unfortunate line, “And may a great peace fill the earth as the waters fill the sea,” I stared laser beams into the carpet in front of me.

Does anyone else have any good work-related bloopers to share? Do accountants find it funny when they add two numbers wrong? Do doctors ever say, “So there I was about to cut the left arm…”

I guess it’s just a cantor thing.

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