The Art of the Jewish Journey

This post is cross posted to the URJ KESHER Blog, where I’m also a contributor. They’ve got good stuff there, too.

Leonard Cohen – prolific songwriter, singer, musician, poet, novelist, and philosopher – is a music hero. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is also a Companion of the Order of Canada – our country’s highest civilian honour. These aren’t mere platitudes bestowed without good reason: his career spans six decades and is unwaveringly progressing; Lou Reed, front-man of The Velvet Underground, has labeled Cohen as being amongst “the highest and most influential echelon of songwriters.” Not bad for an observant Jew from the Montreal suburbs.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admittedly love his music, but what has impresses me most about Cohen is his desire to infuse his connection to Judaism in all that he creates. For him, Judaism isn’t just one sphere of many in his life, it is a ubiquitous reality. Listen to his music, read his poems, or watch him on stage, and it is clear that a Jewish stream flows through all he does. In his music and poetry, Cohen has incorporated Machzor liturgy, Torah ethics, and Tanakh stories (think the opening verse of “Hallelujah”). He also observes Shabbat, even while on tour. Impressive.

And yet, there are those who would accuse him of reneging against his Judaism. You see, Leonard Cohen also embraces a Zen-oriented lifestyle which – for some – is sufficient grounds to expunge him from the Jewish people. Heavy.

In his 2006 “Book of Longing,” Cohen responds to these accusations with poetic eloquence:

Anyone who says
I’m not a Jew
is not a Jew
I’m very sorry
but this is final.

The pen is mightier, indeed.

It seems to me that Leonard Cohen offers a pretty good model of pluralistic Judaism. His argument that a monolithic interpretation of Judaism is inherently antithetical to what Judaism is about is almost Talmudic in its essence. It bears a close resemblance to the oft quoted passage “shiv’im panim laTorah,” that “there are seventy faces to the Torah” (B’midbar Rabbah 13:15). Many Jews could learn from Cohen.

It also seems to me that this man would fit in well at Jewish camp – a place where Judaism isn’t just one sphere of life; isn’t just an item from 10:00-11:00 on the schedule; isn’t confined to the sanctuary or the library. Judaism at our camps is effervescent. Certainly, it manifests itself in different individual ways – music, sports, programming, environmentalism, prayer, and yes, Torah study – but it is most definitely akin to the life Cohen leads: omnipresent and profound.

At our camps, we embrace the notion that there is no monolithic definition of Judaism, or what it means to live a Jewish life. We know that the beauty of Judaism is that every Jew has the ability to find a different, unique face of the Torah and see it in their own way, even while we are all learning and living from the same Book. If Cohen went to a URJ Camp, nobody would tell him he’s not a Jew. Here, we embrace the journey that is Judaism.

So go find some of Leonard’s music or writings, and spend some time with them. Truly, there is a Jewish journey within his art.

People don’t come with bar codes

Since I started blogging regularly (let’s say about five years ago), there have been a few gaps in my writing schedule, mostly due to stage productions I’ve been in. Usually, following those absences, I post a half-assed apology and just get back to writing. So my most recent absence (hiatus?) from writing shouldn’t really come as a surprise to others or myself. It certainly hasn’t been my longest hiatus. It is, however, the longest I’ve gone without writing during a period of great personal upheaval. Much has changed since I left Canada for the grassy fields of Warwick, NY.

These have been an incredibly introspective few months. Normally, I like to share almost everything that’s going on in my life with those around me. I talk a lot. These past few months… not so much. I’ve really only spoken with a few people to get some insight into various life altering changes. To those people… thank you.

I am – according to Mr. Jung,and the folks at Meyers Briggs – an extrovert. an “E.” For those not familiar with the MBTI personality test, it is essentially a psychological tool used to asses how one interacts with and processes events and information. As an “extrovert,” I recharge my proverbial internal battery by interacting with others. While others need personal time to reflect and recharge, my “down” time is usually spent with others. I’ve always been that way; save for some rare occasions, I’ve always felt lonely and anxious when I’m alone for extended periods of time.

So as an “E,” I find it extremely odd that I’ve withdrawn from blogging and talking to people – even some of my best friends – over the past few months. At a time when I’ve required the greatest amount of recharging and reenergizing, I’ve drawn into myself and spent a great deal of time on my own. I stopped blogging. I haven’t spoken with my family as much. I haven’t spoken with my best friends. It has been a strange few months.

And yet, this sudden, seemingly strange change in my behaviour is also extremely comforting for me. Over the past few months (really years), I have been engaged in a great internal debate. If I hadn’t noticed a change in my normal behaviour, I fear my choices might have wound up being a little too callous or arbitrary. So while I am growing increasingly tired of people hiding behind their MBTI “bar code,” claiming that “oh, I’m an ‘F’ you’ll have to excuse me while I go hug someone…”, I am also quite relieved to have been acquainted with it, as it has been of great assistance to me.

Over the course of these months, I have reached the culmination of one of the greatest personal challenges I have ever faced. It has been an ongoing struggle – one that has lasted for many years. Three weeks ago, I woke up at camp and was pleased to realize that I had finally made a decision that I had been pondering for years. I made what is likely going to be one the most important decisions of my life. Three weeks ago, I called my directors at school and withdrew from my studies at the National Theatre School of Canada.

And I feel good. Great, really. To get a sense of how long it took me to come to this decision, look at this post of mine from two years ago. Or this one, from three and a half years ago. The internal debate has been raging for quite some time now, and thankfully, it is over.

Over the course of the year at theatre school, I had felt as though I’ve been sacrificing a little too much of myself for the sake of theatre. For someone who has lived and breathed theatre for as long as I can remember, this was a very painful revelation. So while theatre will remain close to my heart (and body), I will be returning to Jewish youth work, where the sacrifices will be more rewarding and hopefully a little less painful.

And that’s the story of the past few months.

Outside of my personal developments, I am pleased to note that this has been the greatest summer at camp I have ever had. I will write more on that later.

The dangers of encyclopaedic Zionism

The notion of having one day dedicated to particular cause, or a certain ideology, or even a specific person has always been somewhat foreign to me. Even as a child, I recall wondering why we needed to set aside specific days to love our parents. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day just didn’t make sense to me.

Which is why today – Yom Yisrael at camp – continues to puzzle me.

Why do we need a specific day to learn about Israel, to express our love for our home, and to give our Israeli shlichim a chance to shine? Certainly, Israel education is an important part of the pedagogy at camp… but so is God. Do we have Yom God? Do we have Yom gay rights? Do we have Yom Egalitarianism? What is it about Israel that requires a separate day? To be sure, we also offer Israel programming on other days throughout the summer. Why the need for a day?

When NFTY chose its study theme for 2006, I was similarly confounded. The theme was P’Kichut Eineinu L’Tziyonut: Opening our Eyes to Zionism. “Great!” I thought at first. “I like Zionism. I like opening people’s eyes. This should be good.” But then the wheels started turning in my head, and I thought, “But shouldn’t we always be opening eyes? Shouldn’t that be a part of what we do always, not just for one year’s study theme?” Let me be clear, excellent programming has come out of this study theme, as it has from the many Yamim Yisrael that have been held. But what does it mean when we put something up on the pedestal of a study theme, or a dedicated day at camp?

It means that it’s not down amongst the people where it belongs. It means that it is elevated to such a level that some people are intimidated by it. It means that it is seen as a singular issue that can be looked at, dealt with, and then tucked away as a completed task.

Israel is not completed. The Zionist project has not been finished. Far from it. There is much to do. With Yom Yisrael, no matter how dynamic and fantastic our programming is, we run the danger of creating the impression that Israel and Zionism are encyclopedia entries that can be pulled of the self when needed, looked at, and then re-shelved.

So what do we do on Yom Yisrael? We highlight facts about Israel. We eat Israeli food. We play Israeli games. We listen to Israel music. We look at maps and pictures of Israel. And we talk to Israelis. [See above comment on encyclopedias]

Encyclopedias have their uses; they’re great for one-shot info sessions. But that’s not how I want to interact with Israel, and it’s not how I want others to, either. This is not the kind of Zionism I’m interested in. I’m not even sure if it can be called Zionism. I’m more interested in developing a bookshelf of Israeli and Zionist education. Of creating an entire library of experiences that will truly shed light on this country that is clearly so central to our people (Hey, it gets its own day at camp!). The encyclopedia might be fine for some, but it reminds me too much of a travel brochure. I’m more interested in the magazines, op-eds, novels, biographies, and the essays of Israel.

So what is the purpose of Yom Yisrael… Is it get people more interested in Israel? To get them to travel to Israel? If this is the case, aren’t we woefully nothing more than a tool of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism? We’d like to think that we give Israel its own day in an attempt to foster a love of and greated connection to her, but can one day really do justice? Israel education – if it really is as important as we say it is – needs to become as natural to us as tikkun olam is. It needs to become a part of our zeitgeist and ethos.

Perhaps next year in its place, we should hold a Yom Fair Trade Coffee instead.

From chaos, order

It has been an exceptionally busy two weeks. Such that I haven’t even had time to sit down to read the news, satisfy my facebook addiction, or peruse other people’s blogs. I start reading, and am inevitably interrupted by an (allegedly) more pressing task.

I’m counting my blessings that the chaos seems to have subsided… for the time being.

Here’s a checklist of what I have been meaning to write about. I’ll be getting to each of these items as soon as I can.

  • Rabbi Yoffie’s most recent editorial in the current edition of Reform Judaism Magazine
  • A philosophy of t’fillah that I happened upon, courtesy of some unaware teens.
  • Yiddish Curses
  • My time in NYC this summer
  • For now, I’ll briefly address one of these items, with this delightful Yiddish curse:

    Migulgl zol er vern in a henglayhter, by tog zol er hengen, un bay nakht zol er brenen.

    Translation: May you be transformed into a chandelier, to hang by day and to burn by night.