Then what?

Once you’ve become really good at doing something, then what? I mean really good.

For the purposes of this musing, I’ll define “really good” as ‘when the thing you are doing becomes so natural, so effortless that you stop thinking about the thing that you’re doing.’

When that happens, then what?

Do you keep doing it ad infinitum?
Do you keep doing it until it behooves you not to?
Do you stop, and look for something new to do that might accomplish the same goal?
Do you stop, and move on to something entirely new?
Do you not even ask yourself this question?

I’m wondering about this both in a general sense, but also with specific reference to Jewish life.

When we can identify Jewish things we do that become rote, effortless, mindless, and entirely on the keva side of things, what should we make of this?


Updated: Jan 22. In under a week, the URJ has already raised over $500,000 for Haiti relief. That’s an outstanding effort. It has literally overwhelmed the Development department. If there’s something to be said about established organized religious movements, it’s that they can move quickly to act when necessary in ways other organizations can only dream of. It is both humbling and inspiring.

The total to date is now $650,000. Among the organizations to receive our grants are Direct Relief International, The United Nations Foundation, American Jewish World Service, The International Rescue Committee, UNICEF, and United Israel Appeal of Canada, which is providing funds for the relief effort to Isra-Aid: The Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid.

I should note that in a laudable, brilliant, and compassionate move, the Canadian government is matching all funds donated from Canada by Canadians to Haiti relief. Nicely done. At least Harper got one thing right…

At the Close of Chanukah, Canada’s Jewish Question Remains Key

At the risk of beating a clearly not quite yet dead horse, I need to talk about the relationship between the Canadian Jewish community and the current government. For those playing the home game, I’ve penned some critical/emotional analyses a few times before:

Most recently about the Conservative government’s use of public funding to target the Jewish community with a partisan smear campaign against the Liberals.

Earlier, about the Toronto Star’s examination of Harper’s Identity based Politics and the dangerous precedence it sets.

During last year’s election, I wrote about and critiqued the sudden shift in voting trends among Jews in my home riding of Thornhill.

And then I followed that up with my astonishment at the Thornhill Jewish community’s support of MP Peter Kent solely on the basis of how much he “supported” Israel.

Personal politics aside, the increase in institutional association between the Jewish community and the Conservative government has troubled me. I felt (and do now, to an even greater extent) that the government was stepping vastly out of its bounds in creating a political environment predicated on religious identity. And I was (and am now, to an even greater extent) dismayed with much of the Jewish community’s myopic predilection to support whichever Canadian politician was more vocal in support of Israel.

I’ve taken some flack for these arguments, which is understandable. As I’ve thought about it more and reflected on what I’ve written, I also admit that a few times I may have conflated the Thornhill/Toronto Jewish community with the greater Canadian Jewish community. They are not one and the same. However, in much the same way that the pulse of the American Jewish community can be felt in New York, you can get a sense of the state of the Canadian Jewish community by scrutinizing Toronto and Thornhill (and to an extent, Montreal).

Which bring us to this week’s observance of Chanukah, a celebration of Jewish independence against political and religious oppression by the state. How appropriate.

Canada’s newspaper of record, The Globe and Mail (which I should note is a centrist/moderately conservative paper in political alignment), recently published an article by Gerald Caplan on the very same issue I’ve been harp(er)ing on for over a year: What exactly is it with Stephen Harper and the Tories’ obsession with the Canadian Jewish community?

Caplan is quick to note that “it wasn’t always this way.”

You should read the article. It provides a broader context to the current state of affairs and sheds a little more light on the issue than has been covered by the pundits. It’s certainly more revealing than anything you’ll see in the Canadian Jewish media. A short excerpt:

“Why is this Conservative government so determined to woo Jewish support? Why is it so reflexive, so mindless, in its support for Israel? Given their single-minded pursuit of ethnic voters, politics seems a more plausible explanation than conviction. Yet Jews constitute only 1 per cent of the Canadian population and are a factor in only a tiny number of seats. Most Jews vote Liberal and while some have defected to the Conservatives over Israel, most still will. So the unseemly Conservative embrace just doesn’t add up.”

And what about the reflexive Jewish embrace of the Conservatives?

Last week, the Orthodox Union and NCSY created an award, the “Outstanding Award of Merit,” and bestowed it upon Stephen Harper. As reported in the Canadian Jewish News article covering the event, Harper received the award due to him being “a role model for all Canadians.” Well he is the Prime Minister, isn’t being a role model to Canada kind of his job? Shouldn’t getting to be the PM be his reward? According to Rabbi Glenn Black, the CEO of NCSY, and a gentleman I once conducted a personal interview with on the state of Canadian Judaism, Stephen Harper is worthy of this recently invented award

“because of his consistent support of the Jewish community… There has never [before] been a prime minister… who has been steadfast in their support of righteousness and freedom… Israel is a lone democracy in a sea of hatred… [Harper] understands his role is to stand up against the power of evil.”

Well there you have it, folks. According to the largest Jewish movement in Canada, the barometer for how “Outstanding” and “Merit”orious a Prime Minister you are is how much you support Israel.

But wait! Lest we conflate support of Israel with support of the Jewish community (something nobody would ever do, right?), along comes Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, who said to the crowd: “We’re… proud to be part of a government that has taken a zero tolerance approach towards anti-Semitism.” One can rightfully assume that Kenney’s comment was in reference to the CPC’s misguided belief that the Liberals somehow have a less-than “zero tolerance” approach to antisemitism. What, do the Liberals oppose some forms of antisemitism?

(As a humourous aside, I should note that a search of for “Outstanding Award of Merit” only links to an article about cookie recipes for Pesach. Could it be that the OU’s headquarters know that this is ultimately the bestowal of empty platitudes in an attempt to crawl further into bed with the government?)

For a moment, let’s set aside the fact that given Canada’s diminishing role in international affairs, no single party can claim the highest level of support for Israel (whatever that means). Let’s also momentarily dispense with the fact that, as Caplan noted in his Globe article, “by any conceivable standard, we Canadian Jews are surely among the most privileged, most secure, most successful, most influential minorities in Canada and indeed in the entire world.” Having rid ourselves of the weightiness of these actualities, we’re left with two resounding questions:

Even if one political party could claim greater support of Israel and the Jews, should they?

And should the organized Jewish community jump into bed with a domestic political party solely on the grounds of a single yet nuanced and complex foreign affairs issue?

As I’ve noted before, I believe the answer to both questions is a loud “no!” Truly, we must not allow for the blind conflation of religious beliefs and political voting patterns. In Canada, the line between Synagogue and State is being dangerously blurred. It’s clear others agree with me, and are starting to be a little more vocal. If you’re not convinced yet, let’s use the Chanukah narrative to learn a little more.

Our observance of Chanukah instructs us that we need to resist government intervention in matters of private and communal religious life. It also teaches us we need to be weary of those within our community who rush to support political parties for the sake of short-term gains. Let’s not forget that the war wasn’t just an external one against Antiochus, it was also a civil war within the Jewish community. As Adam Bronfman at Jewcy writes:

The Jews at the time of the Maccabees were struggling with how much influence they should allow from the Hellenistic culture which surrounded them… In this regards the story also tells a tale of oppression from within. Some Jews were assimilating completely into the Hellenism of the dominant culture…Chanukah is a tale of Jewish struggle, demonstrating both the internal and external battles our community has contended with.

I recall hearing a rabbi say once that while the institutional separation of synagogue and state needs to be closely guarded, politics and religion can enjoy a more nuanced and symbiotic relationship. The Maccabees were surely aware of this. Are we?

It’s all in my head

And on it.

“Sometimes I wish I could just do this normally.” There are times when I’m out – at the mall, on the streets of the East Village, at a pub… wherever… that I catch myself thinking this. Ordering a beer has become an entirely new enterprise.

“Will she be more attracted to me if she only looks at the front of my head?” There are times when I wonder if girls think different of me because they have to make assumptions as to who and/or what I’m interested in.

I’m no stranger to second-guessing things a little too much, but a month and a half into the great kippah experiment, I notice that in my mind, I’ve started to equate not wearing a kippah with “what was normal” and wearing a kippah with “abnormality” (no pejorative intended). Maybe it’s supposed to be that way. Maybe that’s what this experiment is all about. On that note is it even legitimate to experiment using ritual garb? Is it taking advantage of a holy object? Is it being a little too egocentric and selfish?

There are times when I imagine it would be easier to just not wear it. But I think it’s partly all about the struggle. In fact, I’m GLAD I’m struggling with it. If at some point wearing a kippah became a mindless act, akin to wearing jewelry… wouldn’t that defeat the point?

Case in point: I wear an earring. When I got my ear pierced in grade ten, it was partly an act of defiance, partly an act of shedding my perceived earlier dorky appearance, and partly an act of impressing the girl who sat next to me in math. It was her idea. At the time, I thought about it everyday, and I knew that people looked at me differently. And that was the point! Now… it’s just a part of who I am. I play with it occasionally when I’m bored, and I suppose that it’s become a little bit of my persona. But it’s no longer an item which I consciously use to project a part of my identity.

At this point, the kippah is like the earring was in Grade 10. It’s a direct external signifier of an internal message. A flag. A billboard. After six weeks, this is where I am. Struggling, but thinking that the struggle is part of it all. Yisrael and all that.

I’d be curious to hear if those who wear kippot on a daily basis think about it each day. I hope they do. I hope I will a year from now.

Billboard Judaism: Week 1: A (too brief) Review

I’ve had the kippah on for a week. And in that week, some interesting things have happened. Here are two. More to follow.

– A taxi driver in New York launched into a ten-minute, mostly one-sided conversation with me about how his rabbi wanted him to drive him to tashlich, how he loved old Jewish music, and how he wanted to wear a kippah also because he thought it would make him more moral and a better person, but wasn’t sure how to start. I smiled and told him you can really just start, but that it’s not a magic talisman. Or maybe it is.

– At a pub last night, a burly guy in overalls and a tank-top – clearly drunk – sauntered up to me and yelled above the music “Shana Tovah, eh!” This guy would have terrified me normally. I would have avoided him on the street. But now, I was able to smile and say thanks. He yelled “What are you doing here?” I replied, “It my buddy’s birthday!” His response? “OH! Well tell him yom huledet sameach, eh?” He walked off. A brief interaction, but something that would never have happened if it weren’t for the billboard on my head.

To summarize: Wow.

With the kippah, I have attracted attention. And I like it. I feel a little more communal. A little more a part of a whole. What intrigues me – really what delights me – is that the attention I’ve received comes from people who I wouldn’t otherwise have known were Jewish. We’ve had brief connections, been able to smile in something shared that was previously hidden. I’ll unpack this more next week after Yom Kippur.

In keeping with the theme of yom kippur, I will briefly confess that I’m hesitant when walking around some streets of New York, extremely self-conscious about what friends and others think, curious about what goes through peoples’ minds at work, and worried that I’ll be judged any random group of people – Jews or otherwise – walking around.

I still like it. It keeps me on my toes. Keeps me thinking about what being Jewish should mean on a daily basis. And that’s the whole point, eh?

If it’s your thing, have a meaningful fast. G’mar Chatima Tova.

Billboard Judaism

Required reading:When a Kippah is not just a Kippah

Background story: It’s 1999. I’m fifteen years old and in grade 10. At the NFTY Northeast Lakes Debates event, I’m dressed in a suit and speaking as eloquently as a geeky fifteen-year-old with a cowlick can. I don’t remember what the topic of the debate was, but I distinctly remember one of my arguments. It went something like this:

The Oxford Dictionary defines religion as ‘a specific fundamental set of beliefs.’ Therefore, religion is based on what you think, not what you do. Judaism is a matter of personal beliefs, not actions…

Oops. I’ve learned a little bit since then. Like not to use dictionaries to support your theological arguments. Fast forward a few years to the 21st century, and I’ve embraced the notion that Jewish religion is based almost entirely on actions, not catechisms. I’m repeatedly struggling with the action of wearing a kippah full-time. It’s quite literally an on-again off-again love affair.

Two years ago, I commented on this blog that if you’re going to wear a kippah (or really any religious article), you need to accept the fact that you’re essentially erecting a giant billboard on top of your head with an arrow pointing down that says “JEW!” Moreover, I argued that if you’re going to put up a billboard, you damn well better know what you’re advertising. While Chabad’s outreach efforts may sometimes make you think otherwise, Judaism isn’t an infomercial – you can’t just spew out as much advertising as possible with the hopes of catching someone’s attention. I would argue that – borrowing some more advertising parlance – if you’re going to wear a kippah 24/7, you need to have a pretty comprehensive marketing plan. You need to know what message lies behind the “JEW!” billboard. Why do you wear a kippah? What does it stand for? What do you hope to gain by wearing it? What does it mean to you to wear it? How does it fit into your life’s mission/vision? What do you say to others who ask you about it? With whom are you casting your lot by wearing it?

And on that note – my struggle has primarily been with how to deal with the Orthodox hegemony vis-a-vis the small, round, knit item. When a non-Orthodox Jew wears a kippah 24/7, it can be like Reebok switching their logo to a swoosh. How can I take part in an important Jewish action without getting lumped in with an ideological group that I have no desire to be conflated with?

Tough questions. Important questions. I don’t have the answer to them yet, but I’ve recently realized that I’m not going to find the answer to “what’s on the billboard?” if I don’t even put the billboard up. In that light, I’m giving myself a new project:

The challenge: Billboard Judaism. This weekend, after leaving shul on the second day of Rosh Hashana, I’m going to keep that kippah slapped on my head. For at least a whole Jewish year. And I’m going to use this blog to record all of the shit that will inevitably roll around in my head by doing so: What I feel like when people look at me. What I think of when walking into a seedy bar. What I think of when I need to remember one more thing when heading out in the morning. And so on and so on…

What I hope to get by the end of this is my Jewish marketing plan. And I hope to be able to distill it down to one simple thing: the answer to the question, “what’s on your Jewish billboard?”

Musings forthcoming…