Monday, March 26, 2007

State of Origin

I'm writing this post from NYC. I came to see the Hunter College High School production of Damn Yankees. I'll write a complete review later, but I will say that the kids did a great job and I enjoyed it thoroughly--both times that I saw it!

I'm staying in NYC for a week, taking advantage to see as many friends as I can. I'm also going to check out an exhibit at the Museum of Design and go to some Judaica shops to buy some books. I've already picked up some shoes, and I'm eyeing another pair. It's great to traipse around the City. New York has one of the most extensive public transportation systems in the world. And unlike San Francisco, you can walk most anywhere and not have to face any hills on route.

As much as I'm enjoying myself, I do feel a change in my relationship with the City. It's the little things. I tend to wait for lights to turn green before crossing the street, not just forge ahead, dodging the cars like most New Yorkers. There has been so much turnover in the buildings, both the physical structures and the commercial occupants that make many places unrecognizable from my memory. Although I have more of a familiarity here, the comfort level I feel is not much more that what I feel when I'm visiting Brent and Sharon in Sydney.

I grew up on Long Island always aware of living in a suburb of Manhattan. I worked in Manhattan for ten years and lived there for eight of those ten. Those were formative times in my life, and had a great influence on who I am. April 1st will mark 21 years of living in San Francisco. It is the place I feel I was destined to be--the place I truly came into my own.

Am I a New Yorker or am I a San Franciscan? I suppose I can be both. But I'm still not sure what to answer when asked, "Where are you from??"

Sunday, March 18, 2007

What a Good Publicist Can Do

I use a personalized page as my browser home page. I choose to get the AP Entertainment News headlines among the available categories. Today, the headline Israeli Sings for her Estranged People caught my eye. The lead paragraph reads:
"A mainstream pop album is an unlikely place to encounter an ancient tongue known to a total of 705 people in the Holy Land. But tucked between the smooth chords and Hebrew vocals on Israel singer Sofi Tsedaka's debut CD, listeners can hear the lilting language of the Samaritans."
The article goes on to recount the Samaritan background of Ms. Tsedaka, an apparently well-known Israeli actress, seen in soap operas and children's TV. She left the ancient sect, now numbering 705 by their own count, after finishing high school and converted to Judaism. The Samaritans excommunicated her.

My interest was piqued, and I googled "Sofi Tsedaka" to find out more, but the same AP story came up on different sites, with the one from the Boston Herald containing a photo. Now, I'm no where near famous, but there are more hits when you google my name than hers--even when you discard the German pages that deal with Marilyn Monroe and "Some Like It Hot." ("heiss" is "hot" in German). So there was no presence of her as an actress that I could find. And if you want to listen to her, you're out of luck. I couldn't find a place to buy the cd nor could I find a download.

Now, maybe some AP reporter in Israel needed a human interest piece and found her. Excuse my cynicism, but it seems more likely that this story was planted. She knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody, etc., at the AP.

I wonder if this will pay off, and news of her music spreads. One piece of advice to her manager. If you're going to plant an article internationally in order to influence people to listen to her music, you shouldn't include this quote from Ms. Tsedaka, "I'm not a great singer - I'm not Whitney Houston." I'm glad she's no Whitney Houston, but I don't know how smart it is to admit your failings as a singer when you're publicizing your new cd. . .

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Don't Mess with the Rally Rabbi

Last night the Golden State Warriors played the Dallas Mavericks in Oakland at the Oracle Arena. The Mavericks are the best team in the NBA right now, coming into the evening with a 17 game win streak and the top candidate for MVP, Dirk Nowitzki. The Warriors are struggling to make the final playoff spot in the West, praying that Baron Davis' knee will stay strong enough to keep him on the court.

Last night was also Jewish Heritage Night at the Arena. There was a tailgate party before the game hosted by Chabad and T-shirts with גו ווריורס - Go Warriors in Hebrew - printed under the Warrior logo for all who got their tickets through the participating Jewish community groups.

Although Hanukkah is long past, you could say that "A Great Miracle Happened Here." The Warriors smoked the Mavs, ahead by as much as 32 at one point, winning by 17. They were able to neutralize Nowitzki and cause a ton of Dallas turnovers. The crowd was electrified and it was just a great night.

During the first period, the stadium MC stood with Rabbi Yosef Langer, a Chabad rabbi complete with black hat and beard, while he blew the shofar in his role as the official Bay Area "Rally Rabbi." You've got to wonder whether this made the difference. . .

Friday, March 09, 2007

Hard to Imagine, But One Can Dream . . .

Some made it happen; some had it made from birth; some took what they had and made even more. Forbes has released the list of the world's billionaires. I haven't looked at all of the 946 names, but of those I've seen my favorite is J.K. Rowling, the only author on the list. She has the rags to riches story that is most writers' dream.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

We Can Do It and We Will

This month marks my six year anniversary of taking on the mitzvah of wearing tefillin. I had been attending minyan for five months at that point, and was ready for the next step. I will always remember that first moment of standing in the Beth Sholom chapel, slipping the yad tefillin--the one for the arm---up above my elbow, tightening the loop, feeling the box touch my breast. It was like an electric current traveled straight to my heart and soul. I said the first blessing and wound the leather strap seven times around my arm. I donned the head piece and finished the wind for my hand, forming the shin, dalet, yud representing Shaddai--one of the names of God. I had, in the words of the Shema, bound the sign on my hand, and the frontlets between my eyes.

I still get that electric feeling when I put on my tefillin. I've been on a bit of a journey with the sets that I've used, but that's added to my appreciation of the ritual. I bought my own set when I first made the decision. I then switched with my brother, who couldn't use the set he received on the occasion of his bar mitzvah because the straps were not long enough. I never felt comfortable with his set. One reason was that they wound away from me Sephardic-style and I prefer the Ashkenazic-style of wounding towards me. Plus there was this inherent feeling that they just were not my tefillin.

I then got a set from my dad that was part of our family heritage. He didn't know whose tefillin they were, maybe they belonged to his dad, maybe one of my grandmother's brothers. I had them checked and although they were probably about one hundred years old, they were still kosher. I replaced the straps and had them reblacked and they were mine. I loved those tefillin. They were small and fit me well. It gave me a tie to past generations, although I'm not sure how the original owner would have felt if he knew someone of my gender was using them. I like to think that he would be proud that they were being used.

About this time last year a bag with my tallit, yad, kippot, and those tefillin were stolen from the trunk of my car. I was devastated. It was like stealing a piece of my past. I went back to wearing my brother's set, but now they felt even more foreign to me. I spoke with my brother, and he agreed to switch back. So I've now come full circle.

I still mourn the lose of my ancestor's tefillin but I have to admit that the set I use--the set that I bought when I started--feel closer to me than those. They really feel like mine. I own them, just as I own this ritual that so many would like to keep from me.

But we, Jewish women, have always been able to take on this mitzvah and more of us are now doing so, proudly and publicly.

כן יהי רצון Ken y'hi ratzon - May it be so.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Gladness, Joy, and Fear

Although I've been reading and studying Torah weekly for about 9 years, I often find verses that are new to me. That is part of the joy of studying Torah. I often hear something similar from Rabbi Lew, although for him it's more of a new way of thinking about the words rather than the words themselves.

I'm not as familiar with the Prophets (Nevi'im) and the Writings (Ketuvim) parts of the TaNaKh as I am with the Torah. When I read those sections there are large parts of the stories that are new to me. Megillat Esther, the section of Ketuvim that we read on Purim, falls into that category. Sure, I know the basic story from my childhood but the written tale has complexities that they never taught us in Hebrew school. As I found with the story of Hanukkah, there is a level of violence and bloodshed that is excluded from the children's version.

This year there was one verse that stood out as I was following the reading. It's the last verse in Chapter 8, verse 17:
"And in every province, and in every city, whithersoever the king's commandment and his decree came, the Jews had gladness and joy, a feast and a good day. And many from among the peoples of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews was fallen upon them."
When I heard and read that, I was particularly struck by the idea that people became Jews out of fear of otherwise being attacked. This fear was understandable, given the massacres that occurred when King Ahasuerus empowered the Jews to slaughter their enemies. It just seems like such a role reversal.

The history of the Jews in the Diaspora is filled with persecution. I'll never forget a comment of one of my classmates in Western Civilization 4A class at CCSF, which covers ancient times up to the Reformation. She said, "you know, when things aren't going well, they just blame the Jews. " Sad, but true. Throughout the ages we have been the ones in fear, constantly in exile, constantly in danger of annihilation. Many are the stories of Jews who had to hide their identity in order to survive.

Even Queen Esther had to hide her Judaism from the King. It was only through her courage and the courage of Mordechai that the tables were turned and our people were saved. And while we read about our triumph over our enemies and celebrate their downfall, we are also told to ". . . keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, yearly, the days wherein the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor." (Esther, Chapter 9:21,22) Even at our most joyful we must remember those less fortunate than us.

I'm not sure why the verse with "the fear of the Jews" strikes an uncomfortable chord with me. But it does, which means it is something to note and come back to in the years to come. It opens another opportunity to see what our ancient texts have to teach us in our modern world.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

21st Century Esther

The Purim of my childhood was definitely a kid event. Okay, maybe because I was a kid at the time. But the Purim I remember was basically a Hebrew School event. I have a dim memory of some evening readings, but not with adults dressed up in costumes, only the kids. I certainly don't have any pictures in my mind of adults drinking in the sanctuary.

Since joining Beth Sholom in 2000, I have been able to celebrate Purim to the fullest, with the participation of both children and adults. This year was no exception. The only difference with years past is that since our building is under construction we joined with the two other Conservative congregations in San Francisco, Ner Tamid and B'nai Emunah, to make it a community event. But most of us--from the youngest to the oldest--were decked out in some semblance of a costume. And many of the adults were tasting different sorts of alcoholic beverages that were making the rounds. After all, the Talmud says you are supposed to drink until you can't tell the difference between "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordechai."I will say, quite modestly of course, that my etrog infused vodka was particularly tasty this year. We had a costume parade accompanied by our very own community klezmer band, a Purim shpiel put on by the religious school students that was a hoot, and the reading of the Megillat Esther with the requisite noisemaking to drown out the name of the evil Haman.

At Beth Sholom we read the Megillah at morning minyan once again. It is important, since the tradition says that every Jew should hear the megillah read each year, and many either can't come in the evening or, like me, prefer to concentrate on the festivities rather than the story. We also chant Torah on Purim morning--the verses from Exodus in which the Israelites prevail against the attack of Amalek just after they cross the Red Sea (Ex17:8 - 15).

Although I was almost called into service this year, I have managed to get away with not yet learning the trope for Megillat Esther. I would much rather celebrate in the evening with no responsibilities. So for the morning service I volunteer to read Torah each year. The service itself is usually a low key affair--no costumes, although we still make noise to blot out Haman's name.

This morning, I decided to go in costume. There was something empowering for me to have "Queen Esther" read the Torah--in tefillin, no less. In many ways, I stood there for all the little Jewish girls who dress up like Esther on Purim--a most popular Purim costume for many generations past and one that I dare say will continue for generations to come. But when I was a young Esther there was no Torah reading for me. I wasn't counted in minyan or allowed an aliyah.

The girls and women of today can have that access to our traditions. I often wish it had happened sooner--my life path might have taken a very different route. But at least it happened soon enough for me to partake fully in the practice of Judaism, and to help the next generation of Jewish women to fully realize their spiritual potential within this rich tradition.

So to all the young Esthers out there, I say...