The Absence of Presence

We landed in Vilnius after midnight in the pouring rain, further bolstering the picture of Eastern Europe as a dark, cold, rainy place that is not-so hospitable to the Jews. Fortunately, I’ve discovered that this is a mostly unfair image of what is actually a pretty vibrant place these days.

A short bus ride, and we arrived at our apartments for the week. Or rather, we arrived near our apartments for the week. The bus could not fit down the street, so we had to disembark (after midnight, in the pouring rain), and carry our luggage down a dark, winding alley (the streetlights were out). It looked exactly like what you might picture a winding, Lithuanian street to look like after midnight, in the pouring rain, with no illumination.

After searching for the address “Skäpo Street, between 8 and 10,” we were greeted by the proprietor, who promptly apologized that the street lights were out. “The city is trying to conserve energy,” he informed us.

And with that, our group was ushered into the courtyard, where we waited for our room keys (in the dark, in the pouring rain). Luckily, Lithuania is in the same time zone as Israel, so there was no jetlag to combat. I quickly fell asleep, only briefly admiring the Soviet-style decor of our room.

Awake the next morning (yesterday), I went out in search of coffee. I met the Lithuania that isn’t cold, dark, and wet, wandering the streets looking for the address that Foursquare had pointed me to for the recommended coffee shop. Turns out that Lithuania – or Vilnius at least – is fairly serious about their coffee, and I was pleased when the barista responded to my awkward pointing to the word on the menu that looked like coffee, asking in near-perfect English “which roast of freshly ground coffee would you like?”

Coffee in tow, I made my way back to our residence, noting the architecture that our guide has described as “Soviet-Style, also known as no-architecture.” It’s an intriguing mix of interwar generic Eastern European buildings with soaring pagan-influenced meeting places, but is mostly brutalist – typical of places which Communism has reached out and touched. I felt like I was in a pre-Pierce Brosnan James Bond movie.

The day was spent visiting places where the once-vibrant Jewish community of Vilna thrived. With virtually nothing left after the Nazis stormed through the city, the experience was more about seeing non-places. It was an encounter with the absence of presence – and the presence of absence.

An interesting question was posed to us – “given the opportunity, would you rebuild any of the great synagogues that were here?”

Perhaps an answer will come later after I have more time to reflect on the wider experiences. For now, I will only share that part of my own reflection on that question took place as I drove through the streets of Vilnius in a taxi cab, after getting lost from my group.

More on that later, as well.

This is About as Amateur Anthropology as you can Possibly Get

One of the highlights of this year living in Israel has been the Israel Seminar that takes place all day every Wednesday. In this class, we are engaged in the continual process of peeling back the layers of Israeli society, politics, history, and culture. As part of this class, I was recently sent with a team of fellow students out into the field to interview Israelis about their thoughts on local and national issues of importance.

Early in the morning a couple weeks ago, we boarded the train, taking the same route that the Ottomans used over a century ago to get to Jerusalem. We travelled to Beit Shemesh – a city about 30 km from Jerusalem – which over the past decade has been the focal point of tensions surrounding gender issues, immigrant rights, political corruption, and the relationship between Haredim and secular Jews.

Our goal was simple – speak with a diversity of people, ask them questions about their thoughts on the pressing issues of the day, and get it all on film. As our instructor slyly put it, “this is about as amateur anthropology as you can possibly get.”

You can watch our sheepish attempt at amateur anthropology (in Hebrew) up top. I’m working on getting English subtitles soon.

And Though The News Was Rather Sad


Yesterday, we were learning with Dr. Paul Frosh, Professor of Communications at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. We were discussing Israeli media coverage of Second Intifada terrorism, and the media’s role in constructing a national identity around the conflict. He introduced us to his thesis that Israeli news media has the ability to create “civic and national solidarity through… depictions of catastrophic events (especially terrorist attacks).” In Israel, television news has the ability (either inherently or deliberately) to bring people directly into events, addressing them (us?) in a way that assumes they (we?) are a part of the story from the very beginning. We were asked to question how nationhood in Israel is built and reinforced through coverage of collective trauma.

Interesting concepts for a group of North Americans who have little-to-no connection to collective trauma. I asked myself: “In the intersection between traumatic events and the discourse prompted by news outlets, is there a parallel in Canadian society?” I cannot think of any. Those who accuse Canada of being a boring place may be blissfully right in this respect. Things are pretty quiet in the Great White North.

So I moved to thinking about American society. Of course, the immediate inclination is to hold up news coverage of 9/11 as the obvious American mirror to Israel. But I would actually argue that this is not an exact parallel; it’s more of a simulacrum. While the news coverage of 9/11 depicted trauma on a national scale, it was a singular event. While the event remains a touchstone of supreme importance, after a while the story – at least on a national level – was able to be “wrapped.” Contrast this to Israel, where coverage of intifada terrorism never truly wrapped up; you can hear this in the language of newscasters at the time, who opened their broadcasts with phrases like “This time, it happened…”and “A particularly bad day of attacks.”

So is there a more direct parallel in American society, and if so, what are we to make of it; how can it help us understand the intersection between media and trauma?

I think the closest phenomena you can get to in the United States is mass shootings. While the spate of shootings in recent history are not as common as terror attacks in Israel, they are more frequent than you’d think, with the death toll often higher than in past suicide bombings. In their coverage, many news outlets have used language similar to that of the Israelis, establishing a patchwork connection between attacks. It’s actually gotten to the point where officials are searching for new language just to describe such shootings:

“The growing number of mass killings over the past five years left the country in search of a term that would distinguish mass murder by gun from those using other weapons.”- Huffington Post

And yet, outside of anti-gun advocacy groups, there does not appear to be a narrative on a national scale linking these events together through the media. While dismay is certainly conveyed at another attack, most appear to be treated as tragic, local events (with notable exceptions such as Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook – though I would argue this is due to the unique child-oriented character of each trauma). I’m curious as to why there is no national trauma evoked at the senseless murder of American citizens and subsequent ongoing national conversation. Shouldn’t there be?

Traumatically, mass shootings in America and terrorist attacks in Israel appear different, as the motives behind the attacks are not the same. In America, they are not necessarily directed at a population solely based on their collective identity. But should this negate a collective response on a national scale? Couldn’t American news media adopt a sense of national responsibility and direct itself towards mobilizing responsible civic nationhood?

Ultimately, the question we were presented with by Dr. Frosh – and the one which I believe should be directed towards the leading American national newsrooms – is this: How does a country comes to discuss with itself how to move past trauma? In Israel, this has meant searching for ways to overcome the national trauma of terrorism and move forwards in support of peace negotiations.

In America, this question is different, since the discourse is not yet taking place in a substantial way on a national scale. America needs to ask itself: How do we discuss with ourselves how to respond to a gun-oriented culture that makes mass shootings possible?

As Dr. Frosh argued, the ability for a country to have a national conversation is built upon a great deal of national consciousness. Without the ability to consider or express these concepts, the trauma can’t be dealt with. As a result, America is bleeding-out from thousands of open gun wounds.

The Bedouin of Anatevka

Originally published for Jewschool and crossposted at The Times of Israel.

Israel’s Negev Desert is not a hospitable place. Vast, dusty, and scorching hot, it takes a great deal of effort to live on this land. Yet it was out of this very land that the Jewish people emerged, and from which the modern State of Israel was birthed. Anyone who has walked its canyons can attest to the feeling of ancient history pulsing out of the stones. Anyone who has laid their head down on the rocky bed and gazed up at the bowl of stars has felt the awe-inspiring power that emanates here. This is the place of the still, small voice.

Unrecognized Negev Bedouin Village, October 2013

David Ben-Gurion said that it is in the Negev that the creativity, vigor, and spirit of Israel will be tested. He prophesied that it would be there that the standing of Israel in the history of humankind would be determined (The Significance of the Negev, 1955)

Perhaps he was more correct than he knew. Today, close to 60 years after Ben-Gurion presciently spoke of the relevance of the desert, Israel faces a monumental test in this place. Israel’s treatment of its Negev Bedouin population is a trial that has the potential to unravel the dream Ben-Gurion envisioned over half a century ago. The Negev is not only the place where the creativity, vigor, and spirit of Israel are tested; it is the place where the conscience, values, and social values of Israel are being tested today.

What is happening in the Negev? Here are a few facts on the ground – the desert floor, as it were:

  • Bedouins comprise more than 25% of the population of the Negev, yet have lived on only 5% of the land since before 1948.
  • In 1948, Israel forcibly created a confinement area in the Negev known as the Siyag (enclosure/fence). Bedouin who didn’t live inside of the Siyag were forced into it. Subsequently, the government zoned the area for military and agricultural purposes, and those living in the Siyag lost their legitimate land claims, even if they predated the founding of the State of Israel.
  • Israel upholds that many of the Bedouin lack deeds affirming their land ownership, but those who were moved into Syiag weren’t given any land claims. Furthermore, many have claims to land outside of the Siyag that predate the State’s founding, when ownership was traditionally based on oral agreements – these understandings were accepted by and predate Ottoman and British control.
  • In the 1960s, half of the Bedouin population was moved out of their rural communities and into seven urban towns set up by the government. Over 75% of the remaining villages were unrecognized by the government, and thus do not receive any public services – water, sanitation, or electricity.
  • Now, the Knesset is set to approve the Prawer-Begin Plan, which will displace 30,000-40,000 Bedouins and demolish their homes.

How can we respond to this situation? Like most things in Israel, it may be viewed from a number of paradigms. Politically, it is crucial to understand that this is not simply a matter of people alleged to be living illegally on land in unrecognized communities; Israel itself created the legal “status” of the Bedouin communities and imposed it on them. Much like the desert land itself, this is a rocky and precarious situation.

More importantly, this is clearly an issue of basic human rights. As a rabbinical student, this is the most pressing paradigm for me. There is no dearth of Jewish commentary on human rights and the paramount supremacy of protecting the rights of the strangers living under Jewish rule. Yet perhaps the most pointed call for the need for Jews to protect the rights of the Bedouin comes not from our ancient texts, but from a rather unlikely source…

Summoning the voice of the fictional Tevye, actor Theodore Bikel recently called on us to not forget the lessons of life in the shtetl. He passionately and poignantly shared: “What hurts is the fact that the very people who are telling them [the Bedouin] to ‘Get out’ are the descendents of the people of Anatevka. My people.”

With the pleas of Tevye in my mind, I have added my name to a petition to the Israel government from 780 other clergy members and clergy-in-training to protect the basic human rights of the Bedouin. The petition and letter from Rabbis for Human Rights and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, calls on Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop the Prawer-Begin Plan. In addition to my own signing, I am proud of the principled and courageous stand that my Movement has taken in standing up to this injustice.

Certainly, the Israeli government has the right to determine how to best respond to the needs of the land and its citizens. Yet the current proposal is one which disenfranchises a significant population, further reduces their access to basic human necessities, and only exacerbates a problem that the government itself created through misguided and inhumane policies.

It is incredibly painful to view this situation as a Jewish resident of Israel. With the recent decision to evict Bedouin residents of Umm Al-Hiran and replace the village with a religious Jewish community, it hard to not presume that the government is simply destroying the Bedouin communities to make room for new Jewish settlement of the Negev. Israel already has one demographic crisis on its hands (see: Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians) – why would it willfully create another?

Heeding Ben-Gurion’s charge, we must ensure that the Negev is the birthing ground of Israel’s moral vigor, not an ethically desolate and suffocating environment.


Israel, the gorgeous klutz

With fiery and insulting rhetoric coming from Netanyahu about the Iranian nuclear negotiations, and firebrand (and sometimes racist) Avigdor Lieberman freshly reinstated as Israeli Foreign Minister stating that the US and Israel should hide their policy disagreements, it has certainly been an interesting 24 hours in Israel.

Sometimes it feels like I’m watching a bad romantic comedy, where one of the people in the relationship keeps messing things up and saying stupid things, even though they’re so close to having a meaningful and fruitful relationship.

I’m looking at you, Israel. Stop being the douchey guy. Stop being the gorgeous klutz.

Far be it from me to offer relationship advice to the masters of the house in which I live. But sometimes I just want to cringe. 

If you want to be in a relationship with the United States (which, let’s be honest, you absolutely need to if you want to have any semblance of positive international relations), then perhaps it’s time to stop shooting yourself in the foot.

Israel doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s shocking to watch it’s leaders acting as if it does.

This is a serious prayer. Time to get serious.


I have a difficult relationship with the prayer, Kaddish Yatom.

When I was younger and learning how to pray Jewishly, I assumed that what I learned about praying Kaddish Yatom was the same for all Jews – that everyone in the congregation stood and recited the words together. As I prayed in communities beyond my own, I learned that this was not the case – that this was a mostly Reform Jewish minhag (custom), and that in most other Ashkenazi communities, only the mourners themselves rose to recite the text. As it happens, the Reform minhag mirrors that of the Sephardi rite, although I imagine this is purely coincidental and that the two practices evolved separately.

Since learning of the difference in methods of praying Kaddish Yatom, my own practice has evolved. Especially since my own Bubby Jeanne passed away, I have come to appreciate the value and personal meaning found in having a specific moment to myself (along with other mourners in the congregation) to honor her memory and pray to God. This was particularly apparent when I was praying at a Conservative shul during shloshim. For three times every morning, for thirty days, during shacharit, I rose to say the words of Kaddish Yatom and praise God in memory of my Bubby. As one of the only people standing in the congregation, I felt as though my words carried a unique gravitas. This wasn’t just something that everyone did because it was the proscribed time in the service, this was a particular responsibility and honor that I had.

The Reform innovation of having the entire congregation rise to say Kaddish along with the mourners evolved out of a desire to have the community unite in support of the bereaved during their difficult time. There is also a minhag that this is an opportunity to say Kaddish for those that have nobody to remember them – particularly those who perished in the shoah. While I appreciate and understand these motivations – and even find myself compelled at certain times to utter the words of Kaddish for these reasons – I find that they ultimately detract from the deeper meaning of this part of our worship.

If one says the Kaddish Yatom every time they pray – even if they are not mourning or observing a yahrtzeit – how is the kavannah of that prayer distinguished from when it is being said specifically in memory of someone who has died? Does this not detract from the gravitas, uniqueness, and separateness (a critical component of the Jewish notion of holiness) of it being used only during times of mourning and memory?

This conception is not foreign to Reform Judaism – elsewhere in our liturgy, there are countless examples of prayers that are used only at specific times to ascribe additional holiness and significance. Yet for some reason, within Reform worship practices, the Kaddish Yatom seems to already hold this level of added import. In virtually every Reform congregation and community I have prayed in, the same scenario plays out upon arriving at the Kaddish Yatom: Faces become somber. The tone of voices change; you can hear the added reverence. This is not a prayer you just say. Elsewhere in the service, distractions may abound, but when it comes to Kaddish, the transformation in attitude among worshipers is palpable. This is a serious prayer. Time to get serious.

Even in so-called creative services in summer camps or youth groups, where there may be a near-complete departure from the more traditional keva of the liturgy, the elevation of the Kaddish Yatom can be observed. Amidst a service abounding with joyous Beatles, Phish, Bob Marley, and Mumford & Sons songs, you can be sure that at some point, the attitude of the prayer leaders will change. A serious look will come over their faces. And the community will be instructed to rise for the Kaddish. You can’t mess with THE Kaddish.

So as I prayed mincha earlier this week at school, I was pleasantly surprised when Ally, our shlicha tzibbur (prayer leader) for the day, instructed the community to remain sitting before Kaddish Yatom. She shared with us that many people in the community had been saying Kaddish particularly for loved ones who had recently died, and that she wanted to give these individuals an opportunity to share their stories and honor their memories aloud before the entire community. One by one, these people rose on their own, told us for whom they were praying Kaddish, shared a person story of their connection, then rejoined the community.

While this was clearly a creative addition to the structure of the mincha service, it was actually very much in keeping with the meaning of Kaddish Yatom. As I saw it, this was an opportunity for individuals to stand and recognize this period of mourning or memory as separate from their ordinary/daily lives, for them to ascribe additional significance and holiness to the prayer at this time of mourning or memory, and afterwards for them to sit down among the community and receive their support.

Sitting, listening to these stories as part of the framing of Kaddish Yatom was incredibly refreshing. For me, it is often challenging to remain sitting during this prayer. Usually I am the only one, or one of a very small minority. I feel different and separate – ironically, the very feelings I look for when I am saying Kaddish for someone in particular.

Ultimately, the kavannah of other worshippers is their own domain, and I’m not making a blanket suggestion that the dominant Reform minhag is wrong. However, I think some significantly meaningful aspects of the prayer for individual worshippers may be lost through the current practice. And while Reform worship styles are generally quite flexible and open to innovation, there is a remarkable level of orthodoxy when it comes to Kaddish Yatom. As a result, most Reform Jews have never been exposed to a different approach to this prayer.

For such a significant part of our life-cycle commemorations, this troubles me. It being a prayer that is held to such serious standards, shouldn’t it merit an equally serious approach in our search for understanding and meaning within our worship?

Postscript: Ironically, as I was searching for some sources for this post, I stumbled across an article with a very similar thesis that was written earlier this year for Reform Judaism Magazine.

Does my bus stop en route to Mesopotamia?

Jerusalem, 1967

I’ve come back to this city where names
are given to distances as if to human beings
and the numbers are not of bus routes
but: 70 After, 1917, 500
B.C., Forty eight. These are the lines
You really travel on.

Yehuda Amichai, Poems of Jerusalem

Like New York, Paris, or Rome, Jerusalem is the type of city where two realities exist: the one you see out the windows of your tour bus, and the one you see from within the crowded confines of a public bus.

Last week as I rode bus #74 to school, I was sandwiched between a young kippah-wearing soldier with an M16, an elderly hijab-wearing Muslim woman, and a older French man with a lit cigarette in his mouth. This is the true Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alahthe heavenly Jerusalem.


It was recently pointed out to me that the bus routes in Jerusalem aren’t arbitrarily given. They don’t go in any geographical/numerical order. Like the Zohar, they contain a secret code. Hiding in plain sight, they actually have great meaning.

Bus route numbers in Jerusalem correspond to important dates and gematria-related concepts. I take either the 71, 72, 74, or 75 buses to school. And since nothing in Jerusalem is light or easy, this means I actually take the following buses:

  • The “Destruction of the Second Temple” bus (71)
  • The “Siege of Masada” bus (72)
  • The “Fall of Masada” bus (74)

(I’m having trouble tracking down what happened in the year 75 (BCE or CE). It could be either the birth of Hillel, the authorship of Josephus’s The Wars of the Jews, or maybe the Sinai Interim Agreement of 1975 CE… or something entirely different.)

Of course, you could also take the “Babylonian Exile” bus (586), the “Reunification of Jerusalem” bus (67) or the “Chai” bus (18).

This is how we travel in Jerusalem. Nothing in the city is without hidden or deeper meaning. Yehuda Amichai would caution – poetically – against imbuing inanimate objects with meaning at the exclusion of human beings, but there is something to be said about how a culture sanctifies ordinary and everyday things – like riding a crowded bus – with elements from a sacred and holy past.

Are We Irrational Jewish Hypocrites?

Crossposted from The Times of Israel Blog.

In just a few days, an interesting phenomenon will take place. Groups of Jews around the world will mark the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem with ceremonies of mourning. At the same time, many (most?) of these Jews have absolutely no desire to see the Temples rebuilt. Is this an act theological hypocrisy?

Tisha b’Av has always flummoxed me. I understand the practice of considering the day a memorial for the many additional tragedies which have befallen the Jewish people. To be sure, there’s probably a psychological benefit to the ethos of the Jewish people for an annual opportunity to vent and take thousands of years of weight off of our communal chest.

But memorializing and remembering thousands of years of tragedies is different from engaging in an act of mourning over the loss of an institution which many (most?) do not have any real desire to return to.

Mourning is different from remembering. Mourning implies a manifest sorrow for the loss of something and the desire to have it back. Especially within Judaism, it has specific connotations separate from memory. So while we can remember and appreciate the centrality of the Temple in its time, I would imagine that most non-Orthodox Jews don’t truly mourn on Tisha b’Av. Is it possible to reconcile an outward religious act with a conflicting inward belief?

To be sure, many Jews do mourn the destruction of the Temples and do wish to see the Temple restored. While I disagree with this vision on religious, political, and social grounds, I’m not debating it here. I appreciate this religious belief for what it is, and am in fact somewhat envious of those who hold it. For them, I imagine Tisha b’Av presents no hypocrisy whatsoever, and is a day filled with kavannah (intention) and great liturgical focus.

For most other Jews, we are left with Tisha b’Av as a day of solemn remembrance. But communal historical memory is part and parcel of almost all Jewish holy days. Napoleon and Chaim Weizmann shared a common philosophy when they both observed that Jews have a long memory. It’s no surprise to say that we need to recall our past tragedies.

So what’s going on with Tisha b’Av? What’s taking place in the kishkes of Jews around the world who mark the day?

Rabbi Lewis M. Barth, professor emeritus of midrash at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has posited a modern, progressive approach to the day:

Tishah B’Av could be a day that we spend in self-reflection and self-examination regarding (1) the legal, economic, social, moral, and religious issues of our own time, (2) the ways our congregations and communities might measure ourselves and society against our commitments to social justice, and (3) the obligations we have to take responsibility for helping to make this a better world.

Ok, that’s a good start. Great, actually – a perfect model of modern Jewish practice. But it’s no innovation to suggest that as Jews, we need to think about how to better our society. Do we need Tisha b’Av to highlite the importance of tikkun olam?

Even Maimonides has tapped into the quandary of what to do with this day:

There are days when all Israel fasts because of the troubles that happened to them, in order to awaken the hearts and open the pathways of repentance… so that in the memory of these matters we will return to doing the good.

– Mishneh Torah, (Ta’anit 5:1)

The Rambam had a pretty prescient view of modern Jewish life. He cautions us to be unsatisfied with stagnant practices and beliefs solely for the sake of maintaining the status quo. (It should be noted that Maimonides also envisioned the rebuilding of the Temple and the resumption of sacrifices as soon as possible.)

Does that solve the problem of potential hypocrisy in mourning? Is it rational to mourn on Tisha b’Av when we have no desire to see the Beit Hamkidash restored?

Absolutely not. Why mourn something you don’t want back? The reason we mourn things is because we lament their loss, and I would argue that in that light, it’s fairly irrational to mourn the destruction of the Temple. But I also think that’s ok.

When everything is rational; when everything makes sense; when everything is smooth and polished in perfection, we stop thinking. It becomes easier to glide through life without thinking about our actions. When everything is simple and easy and clean, we are robbed of opportunities for kavannah.

Sociologists teach that it is moments of tension that result in opportunities for personal and communal growth. So perhaps Tisha b’Av is the perfect time to engage in a little irrational Judaism. Tisha b’Av can be a time when we embrace the irrationality that exists within a tradition and stretch ourselves a little. Instead of “mourning” and fasting appearing as hypocritical actions, they instead become useful tools for personal and communal growth as Jews.

When we “mourn” the destruction of the Temples, what is hidden behind the irrationality of that mourning is the opportunity to rouse our dormant souls, and awaken ourselves from our otherwise easy day-to-day lives. In that way, we are better able to follow Maimonides’ clarion call and “return to doing good.”

So Tisha b’Av may be a little irrational, but it’s certainly not hypocritical. And while it inextricably rooted in the past, for me (and I think Maimonides, too), it presents a vision directed more towards the present and the future.

That future may or may not include a rebuilt Temple… but I’m not the one who gets to decide that.