Wednesday, April 01, 2015

God's Pesach Message to Orthodox Jewry

A guest post by @orthodiction

FROM THE DESK OF: The Almighty, Blessed be Me

Dear Jews:

Like roughly 93% of matzos three seconds after being packaged, Pesach is broken. And you broke it.

When I arranged for you to spend 210 years as slaves in Egypt, I wasn’t thinking, “Hey, I wonder if someone will really pay $11 for a box of potato cookies,” or “Maybe a guy should supervise the wheat 24/7 from the moment it is planted, looking away only briefly while it asexually reproduces.”

It was more like “If you’re going to be responsible for promoting justice on earth, you should probably have an appreciation of what injustice feels like, because, you know, experiential learning and all that.” Spoiler Alert, but if you read my novel, you’ll find that I intone “For you too were once strangers…” a lot more than I remind you to check for that third kosher sign on toilet bowl cleaner.

But somehow, you only seem to be able to relate to me through legalisms and loopholes, deciding when to build electrified fences around my commandments and when to dig tunnels. Is it cute to watch you legislate which materials can be Kashered and precisely how much nuclear fusion is required to Kasher each one? Sure. Do I smile a bit when Rabbis who never saw an olive spend multiple generations arguing about the size of one and somehow come up with something equal to two thirds of a matzo? I guess. But that’s not the point.

The point is very simple. Every spring, I want you to reflect on what it is like to be without freedom, and then I want you to do two things.

  1.  Think about what you can do to bring freedom to those that are lacking it. This can take many forms, and I am not picky. Donate, protest, click “Submit” on an online petition, or share a kind word with someone in a difficult situation. Not to get all metaphorical with you (enough of that in Genesis—am I right?), but there is bondage of all sorts in the world (no 50 Shades jokes, no 50 Shades jokes), of the physical, emotional, and even First World Problem variety. The more you can get rid of, the better. If someone hassles you about why you are only focusing on X when Y is clearly a much bigger issue, tell them they forgot to blowtorch their teeth for Pesach.
  2.  Think about how you are spending your own freedom. As bad as bondage is, it is a legitimate excuse for not getting things done. When you’re spending all day building pyramids (or, alternatively, seducing your mud-encrusted husbands in the fields, which is probably more difficult), no one can blame you for not answering the tent door when the Amnesty International guy shows up with a binder and a naive smile. But once you’re free, and your biggest crisis is the barista misspelling your name (it’s a Y, not a J, for the thousandth time), there is really no reason that you shouldn’t be doing something productive. Freedom is capital, and you need to account for it—to me, if that helps you focus, but ultimately to yourself. It’s not about Me’Avdut Le’Cherut, it’s about Me’Cherut Le’Something Meaningful.

So there you have it. After you’re done enslaving yourselves in grocery store lineup and under couches and squinting at lists of Rabbinically certified deodorant, take a minute (a minute and a half according to the Chazon Ish) to think about why I went through the whole Egypt routine in the first place. It certainly wasn’t so that we could see Christian Bale as Moses (two outstretched thumbs down!).

Read God's Sukkos Message to Orthodox Jewry

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Monday, March 30, 2015

The matzo longing for its mate

Several of us were confused this morning after reading All Grown Up and In Charge of the Seder a wonderful description of Seder nostalgia published in the Sunday Times by Jennifer Weiner.

She writes:
As a child, and as a young adult, I would savor the meal and collect memories — like, no matter where he was sitting, my brother Jake always ended up reading the portion of the Haggadah about bare breasts and the matzo longing for its mate
Having been teenage boys ourselves, we all knew where to find the passage about breasts --
and populous-- as it is stated:"I made you as numerous as the plants of the field. You grew and developed, becoming very attractive, your breasts firm and your hair grown long; but you were naked and bare."
-- but where does the haggadah say anything about a matzo longing for its mate?

Our Twitter pal Shlomo Kaye found the answer.

The excerpt above is from On Wings of Feedom: The Hillel Haggadah for the nights of Passover by Rabbi Richard N. Levy where this interesting recitation / meditation / kavanah is given for Yachatz. Its absent from Orthodox versions of the Haggadah, which explains why no one from my OJ set could place it.

Connecting the broken matzah to the verse from Songs is a clever bit of interpretation - note the verse's mention of reclining. and recall that the matzo is hid in the "place where [we] recline"  -  but whose interpretation is it? Is it something old that the Reform authors of this haggadah retained after Orthodoxy forgot it? Or is the interpretation an example of Reform creativity?

I went to Midrash Shir Hashirim first to see if any of Our Rabbis made this association, but came up empty. In that collection of interpretations, no one connects this verse to matzoh, or to Pesach reclining. 

Nonetheless, the idea of longing - for God, for redemption, for freedom - is not an idea that's foreign to Pesach or the Seder. 

In fact, the theme of longing - by which I mean a strong, persistent desire or craving - is one that runs through Shir Hashirim, the love poem that has been allegorized as the story of Israel's relationship with God. This allegorization is one reason why Shir Hashirim has become a Pesach text, second only to the Hagadah. 

I rather like the idea of picking up these delicate threads, however tenuously, at Yachatz. I like using the separated matzohs as a symbol for the break that exists between God and His people and for the mutual craving that followed. I like the idea of starting the Seder with the idea that we are separated from God, and the thought that the ritual meal will reunify us with Him. Orthodox Jews aren't taught to think about Yachatz this way. For us, this interpretation is revelatory. 

Framing Yachatz this way, also connects the separation of the matzo to the separation of the two Yom Kippur goats, and all that represents, and to the two birds that are brought to cure us of various forms of impurity. One piece of matzo, remains on the table while the other is hidden away. Likewise one goat remains in the Temple, while the other is sent into the wilderness and one bird is sacrificed as an olah, while the other becomes a chatas. Both the birds and the goats are considered "mates" to each other. 

Its a simple thing, imagining the matzo longing for its mate, but it unlocks so much excellent and powerful symbolism!

Fire theodicy: Wallenstein

As a community can we please resolve not to tolerate conclusions such as the one reached by Zecharia Wallenstein? He is the clown who allowed himself to be videotaped giving a religious explanation for the fire that killed 7 children.

His conclusions are too stupid and too convoluted to summarize in full, but briefly Wallenstein worships a monster God, and this monster God murdered seven innocent children in a specific way because He doesn't like it when we use the 18 minutes to finish our shabbos presentations. See it here

Now I want to be fair. I don't think Wallenstein's approach is entirely invalid. I agree that its proper and constructive to introspect after a tragedy. I support any efforts at self-improvement.

But what I can not abide - what I insist that we as a community refuse to tolerate - is this idea that we have the ability to reliably uncover whatever one-to-one connections between tragedy and sins that may exist.

You can use the fire to strengthen your shabbos observance if you wish - that's fine - but don't allow yourself to become convinced, as Wallenstein has become convinced,  that God murdered seven children for the sake of delivering this message to you. God's ways are inscrutable.  

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Men Seder

Our friends at the Wall Street Journal seem to have just discovered that men like to drink alcohol in the company of other men. They are running a story today about a Congregation in Michigan that hosted a Man Seder complete with ribs and scotch. The purpose of the event was to draw men together to learn about Pesach and the Seder in a congenial atmosphere.

Capitalizing on base male instincts - yes, surprise:  we like meat, booze and hanging-out- for Jewish outreach purposes is certainly a good idea, but is it news? Is it a trend?

Moreover, and  though its only briefly eluded to in the article, I think the really interesting thing is how men tend to drop out of roles and occupations after women arrive and assert themselves. For examples, see the nursing and teaching professions, and the whole of heterodox Judaism.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Cardinal in shul again

I see on the Interwebs that Cardinal Timothy Dolan was invited to preach in a shul* one Friday night last February. Naturally, I find this horrifying.

*Temple Emanuel, the Reform prayer house. Let's not quibble over my use of the word shul

Back in 2013 an Orthodox shul made the same mistake. What I said then, applies now and I repeat it here:

The Church is an anti-Semitic organization that subjected us to two-thousands years of suffering, while cultivating the soil of Europe for the Holocaust. To date, they haven't repudiated their anti-Semitic Popes, or their bulls or their encyclicals; in fact, the Church currently is in the process of beatifying one of these Jew hating popes. During the Holocaust, which, let's be clear, the Church helped cause and did precious little to prevent, churchmen stole Jewish children and, with the blessing of every subsequent Pope, refused to return the ones who had been baptized. But their representative should be welcomed into a shul on Shabbos and invited to preach?

In short: To allow a Cardinal to address a Jewish congregation on shabbos is demeaning. It demeans the shabbos. It demeans the sanctuary. It demeans the congregation. To celebrate it is a confession of insecurity and an act of obsequiousness. Until the Church renounces its shameful past, and completes a true and painful teshuva process, there's no reason for Jews to kiss the toes of St. Peter. The Church, by the grace of God, no longer has any power over us, and nothing to offer us. Self pride demands we remember that, and also what they did to us.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Fairy Tale?


The groom mentioned in the below article from February 24, 1954 is the current day Rachmastrifk Rebbe of Boro Park. The bride is the sister of the current Skver Rebbe of New Square. 

The article refers to another paper's report of people pushing to "touch" the bride's father Yaakov Yosef Twersky, founder of New Square. However, a family member told the reporter that "there was no such foolishness about touching the father of the bride or that kind of thing."

Did this family member lie about Chasidish thought and practice for the purposes of not appearing foolish to the general public? Even if there honestly is no concept of benefiting from touching a Rebbe, is it so much different than the other forms of Rebbe veneration shown, ie shirayim? I've seen chasidim push or wait on lines for a long time to shake a Rebbe's hand. I was even trampled over once by a crowd of non Chasidim pushing to run along side a car containing a Rebbe. 

Rebbes are miracle workers in the minds and tales of Chasidim. It is not hard to understand how the devolution of the Zaddik system resulted in this possible mind set. 

(Unnecessary disclosure: the groom was my 'sandek'.) 

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Ground rules for a #midrashchat

I'm going to be blunt and unkind: Most people I know, both here on the blogs and in real life, are in the grips of false and indefensible ideas about midrashim. People on the right are too eager to accept everything literally, while people on the left have the maddening habit of waving everything away as a "metaphor"* Meanwhile, neither group attempts to consider what the author of the midrash has in mind or is attempting to do. When you have a #midrashchat with either group the end result is anger, frustration and then you get accused of either (a) being a heretic or (b) demeaning the Rabbis

*Also frustrating is the serial misuse of the word metaphor. Lefties who label every midrash a "metaphor" almost always have in mind an "allegory" not a "metaphor"

So in the interest of my own piece of mind, I am establishing the following ground rules for a #midrashchat

KEY RULE #1:  A #midrashchat must be about the midrash qua the midrash itself. As a result, we will avoid people who:
  • Think every word of every midrash is capital T true in a literal historical sense. These people are not interested in discovering what the midrash is actually saying. They are interested in announcing facts about the world. 
  • Think its cool to present the midrash's hidden or "real" meaning when they haven't bothered to consult the original source material. As with the first group, these people are not interested in dealing with the midrash itself. They are interested in spreading a message, and they are using the midrash as its vehicle. 
KEY RULE #2: A #midrashchat is best enjoyed with people who have been nominally educated. As a result we will avoid people who: 
  • Are not aware that many of our most cherished midrashim are first found in some form or another in the Pseudepigrapha
  • Are not aware that midrashim often contradict other midrashim
  • Are not aware that some midrashim actually do contain literal or historical truths
  • Are not aware that Chazal composed midrashim and,  at times, modified the midrashim they inherited. 
KEY RULE #3: To participate in a #midrashchat you need to be able to think historically. This means:
  • You must be able distinguish the facts of a midrash from the views of its author. For example, you need to be able to wrap your head around the possibility the Rabbi XYZ firmly believed that [whatever] happened even if you and I and other residents of the 21st century are positive that [whatever] could not have happened.
  • You must recognize that ancient standards of proof were much lower than modern standards of proof, in part because our epistemology is different,(we've become more skeptical.) As a result, our ideas of what constitutes science and history are very different from theirs.
  • You must be ok with the possibility that Chazal believed things you and I and other residents of the 21st century  find fanciful or barbaric, and you must be able to recognize that saying this is not a criticism of Chazal. 
Without a promise, I am hereby promising not to get sucked into any more #midrashchats that would violate any of these rules.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Fire the NYT fact-checkers

This is just a bad job by the Times.

This is NY. The paper employs plenty of Jews and a team of professional fact checkers. To get two, basic, easily verified things wrong in the same article speaks to the sort of casual arrogance I get from my non-Jewish friends and neighbors who are certain I'm lying when I, e.g, tell them that kosher food hasn't been "blessed by a rabbi" or that a Bar Mitzvah isn't a confirmation.

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Haroset Ice Cream

Internet research tells me that Ben & Jerry has been offering Charoset flavored ice-cream since 2012 at least, but I heard about it for the first time this morning.

My initial reaction was ewwww. My second reaction was to tweet suggested Jewish-themed flavors that seemed even more vile (herring ice cream anyone?) But by my third reaction I had realized that this charoset ice cream idea might work: Cinnamon, nuts and apples - all of it ought to play well with premium ice cream.

Grossest ice cream flavors?

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Friday, March 20, 2015

2017 election results are in!

A guest post by Y. Bloch
Let me apologize again for our earlier error. We mistakenly reported that the Pirate Party had won 79 seats; what we meant to say was that the Pittsburgh Pirates won the '79 World Series. We were looking up the results on our phone, and it isn't Hebrew-enabled... Never mind.

Anyway, here are the confirmed results. In what is being called (by us right now) "a once-in-a-millennium revolution," Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu is the stunning winner, as the right-wing parties have scored 42 seats. Remember how last time it was 44, and the time before that 43? Undoubtedly, this is the most significant event in human history since the earth cooled 2.5 billion years ago. (CORRECTION: Bibi's likely haredi coalition partners are telling us that it was 5776 years ago.) Apparently, his slogan: "Third Intifadah, Fourth Gaza War, Fifth Term" truly resonated with voters.

Labor Leader Meirav Michaeli was stunned by the results, as her party received only 20 seats. In her concession speech, she said, "What? You didn't want another journalist? But I'm the scion of an important family too! Don't you think--" At this point, she was replaced by Eitan Cabel, who promised a new direction for Labor.

Within the right, Naftali Bennett was mystified as to why his party has shrunk to 5 seats. Some have criticized his choice to rename it the Jewish No Homo Party, but Bennett remains convinced that he will take over the Likud within 18 months.

Avigdor Lieberman has scored 8 seats, with his Red-handed Army initiative, committing him to bring to Knesset only politicians who are under ethics investigation. Of course, he faced some stiff opposition from Aryeh Makhloufeasance Deri's Maranimum Security Party, which includes only convicted felons. Readers may recall that Ehud Olmert was granted early parole in order to run, in the famous Supreme Court ruling We Don't Really Give a Flying F Anymore (And Before You Ask, Zoabi and Marzel Can Run Too).

BREAKING: Eitan Cabel has been replaced by Stav Shaffir.

The biggest surprise may be that the Righters' Bloc cleared the electoral threshold. "We kept trying to forge alliances between the political right and the religious right," said a spokesman, "but then we realized we needed the economic right, right-fielders, and right-hand men (and women. Just kidding, obviously no women)."

Meretz gained a seat, but leader Zehava Gal-On was heard to say: "We used to have 12! Forgive me, Mother Shulamit!" This statement was a bit muffled, as she had her head in an oven at the time. As the Israeli medical establishment has never had to treat a case of accountability, Deputy Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman has recommended she be transported abroad for treatment. As leader of United Torah Judaism, neither Litzman nor his followers will accept the title of minister, though they will take the office, car and money. It is unclear if Bibi's tactic of making everyone else in the party chief rabbi is sufficient, as Satmar Hasidim cannot make do with only one. Bibi contacted the Shahidy Pines Retirement Home to see if Abu Mazen can offer Neturei Karta a Chief Rabbi of the Palestinian Authority position, but Abbas was too busy eating tapioca pudding to take his call.

BREAKING: Stav Shaffir has been replaced by Tzipi Livni, but no one knows if she's still in the party. Her whereabouts remain unknown at press time. Also her whyabouts.

However, the greatest comeback of this election cycle must be that of Eli Yishai. Just last month, he won a primary for the polygamist slot in the Joint List, and he has already taken over the party by offering women chocolate bars for each room they clean for Eid al-Adha. When asked how she felt about his new wives, the first Mrs. Yishai had no comment, because she is invisible. Ousted leader Ayman Oudeh noted that like haredi women, Arab citizens of Israel "were used to being screwed by Jewish men."

Undoubtedly, the true power lies in the brand-new centrist socio- economic party, filled with brilliant people who are political novices, led by former Likudnik Gideon Saar, Mistaarim. With his dozen seats, he plans to take over the Finance Ministry and "blah, blah, blah." When his predecessor Moshe Kahlon was asked why he was still smiling after failing to pass the electoral threshold, he responded,
"No, my face is stuck this way. Help." Yesh Atid held on with four seats, and leader Yair Lapid lamented, "At least Kahlon gets to go home. What the hell am I supposed to do?" Then he remembered that he is still hot and rich, and started smiling as well.

BREAKING: Tzipi Livni has been replaced by Shimon Peres, but no one tell him, because he's 93 and the shock might kill him.

But the question remains if Bibi can govern after some of the extreme statements he made in the last days of the campaign. He clarified that when he said "Blow the Dome of the Rock and rebuild the Temple," he meant: "I know to take stock and restrain my temper." As for his infamous "towelhead" comment, he explained: "That was taken totally out of context. I was talking about that scene in romantic comedies when the female lead comes out in a bathrobe and a towel wrapped elaborately on her head. I find it trite and cliched." As for his statement to President Hillary Clinton that "America can suck a dick," he elucidated, "I meant that one. But don't get me wrong, America is still Israel's greatest vassal--I mean, ally."

When asked about the prospects of this government serving a full term, all 120 members of Knesset issued a rare joint statement: "You've gotta be f-cking kidding me."

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The truth behind why Orthodox Jews really like Shabbos

This post from January 3, 2011 was a big hit here and on Facebook, for the same reason any of my posts succeed: Lots of people think I'm dead right, while simultaneously lots of people think I'm dead wrong.

In the Secular Orthodox Jewish Shabbos I discuss the dozens and dozens of secular benefits offered to those who observe an Orthodox Jewish Shabbos and argue that, as a whole,  these benefits outweigh any of the individual inconveniences shabbos haters moan about.

So which side are you on? Am I dead wrong, or dead right? See the post here.

Click here to see the full collection of countdown posts!

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Let's not ignore the social aspects

Click here to see the full collection of countdown posts!

For your entertainment today, I've combined two classic posts from 2007 in which I attempted to popularize a new and improved way of describing Orthoprax Jews. It failed to catch on, but I think the idea is sound. With all the focus on ritual law, and serving God, we often forget that the social aspects of Orthodox Judaism are among its top draws.

In previous generations, non-Jews went out of there way to create fraternal clubs and orders like the Freemasons, or the Moose Lodge, or the Elks, or any WASP country club,  that replicated some of the wonderful features that are built right in to Orthodox Jewish culture. Some of those features include:
  • A safe zone, where you can more or less be as racist or misogynistic as you wish 
  • A privileged zone where you can imagine your devotion to secret rituals and rules affords you various benefits 
  • A party zone, where you can eat and drink and hang out
  • A business zone, where you can network with likeminded people from similar backgrounds
See more of what I mean after the jump

Monday, March 16, 2015

What would Moses do? Vote!

There's just something about late winter in Israel that feels like elections. Every single national contest we've held in this country in this century has been between mid-Shevat and late Adar (February-March). Maybe it's the realization that we're not getting any more snow days, so we need another reason for a day off.

[Today's countdown post is right here > ]

But another 21st-century Israeli electoral trend is much more troubling: citizens just aren't that into it. Consider the turnout for the last five elections, percentage-wise: 62.3, 67.8, 63.6, 64.7, 67.8. Compare that to the last five elections of the 20th century: 78.7, 79.3, 77.4, 79.7, 78.8. When once nearly four in five voted, now we're not even averaging two out of three.

For a bit of insight, let's turn to the man whose birthday and yahrtzeit fall smack in the middle of this season: Moses. What was Moses' deathbed wish? To cross over the Jordan and enter the Land of Israel. But why?
R. Simlai expounded: Why did Moses our teacher yearn to enter the land of Israel? Did he want to eat of its fruits or satisfy himself from its bounty? But thus said Moses, "Many mitzvot were commanded to Israel which can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel. I wish to enter the land so that they may all be fulfilled by me."
That's what we find in the Talmud (Sota 14a), but it is still pretty vague. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 816) narrows it down further: "This is the appointment of the king." Moses wasn't looking forward to the first fruits or tithes or sabbatical or jubilee: he was anticipating "the appointment of the king"--not the coronation, not the reign, but the appointment.

Who are the people in your synagogue?

Yep, still doing countdown posts. Don't be a hater. Some are really great! Click here to see them all.

Every Orthodox synagogue I visit has the same type of people. Two years ago I tried to list these archetypes, though as per usual, some of the best ideas came from the comments. Also, as per usual, one or two people thought the post was mean, when really it was (for the most part) written with affection. These are my people after all.  In today's countdown post I reprint that famous list and invite you to evaluate and update it. (and to put in on Facebook, please!)

Shul casting call

Originally posted Monday, May 13 2013

You're opening a new shul. Along with a rabbi to make speeches and a control-freak to serve as gabbai what are some of the roles that must be filled if your shul is going to feel "authentic?" My list:
  • Banger A guy to bang a table to remind people to say prayers that aren't part of the daily liturgy such as ya'aleh v'yavo. This role can be filled by the gabbai, but most proper shuls have at least two or three self appointed tablebangers.
  • Shevach screamer If your shul is going to recite Kel Adon responsively, you will need a least one guy to say the word "Shevach" really loudly right before the congregation recites the last stitch. 
  • Shushers (1 for every 35 members): Whenever the talking gets a little robust these guys play the important role of adding to the noise and the general sense of no-decorum by hissing - sshhhhhhhhh - really loudly. At least one shusher should also be a glarer.
  • Eye-rollers (1 for every 50 members) Because its near-impossible for a speaker to sparkle week after week, your Rabbi will occasionally say something ludicrous or barbaric. Once upon a time it was correct to ignore the offending statement or to nod in agreement. Not anymore. Your shul will need a guy or two who can, via their animated responses, let the rest of the congregation know when the Rabbi has stepped over the line. 
  • Kiddush shlepper and Shtriemel fetcher. In general, the holier a shul is, the more its congregation disrespects musaf. Generally, this disrespect is achieved in two ways: (1) The kiddush is unpacked the moment kedusha ends; (2) The men participate in a mass exodus to the alcove to fetch hats and shtreimals, a mass exodus that starts as soon as kedusha is finished. If you wish to disrespect musaf in the proper Toirah true fashion your new shul will need a few burly fellows to interrupt chazeres hashas by carrying in the boxes of cake and soda and by folding up the chairs and tables. You'll also need a lithe, little man to slip through the hordes to bring the Rabbi his shtreimal. (Heaven forbid your rabbi should be forced sit through the chazan's repetition with a talis on his head like some kind of lowlife.)
  • Rabbi hogger A truly excellent shul needs a guy who buttonholes the Rabbi at the end of every service. Ideally, you want someone innocent and sincere who naively believes that regularly subjecting the Rabbi to nonsense questions, inane anecdotes, or recycled divrei torah is appropriate and welcome. If you can't find such a simple soul, get a cynical creep who thinks his status is enhanced whenever he's seen chatting up the Rabbi. 
What else do we need?

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To spare you the embarrassment of having your name mentioned on this blog, I've used initials only. If you'd like a proper hat-tip let me know
  • The chazen sheni who never takes the amud himself, but always gets in the chazan's ear, davening as loudly as possible, usually off key. (D.S)
  • Candy man (by RJY) 
  • Sleeper. Every shul needs a guy who drifts off the second a speech starts (D.S) 
  • The learner: Studies instead of davening, always conspicuous (D.J)
  • The three alcoholics who step out as soon as they do pesicha and start doing shots in the kitchen, pausing only to answer BRRRICHI and UMEIN to everyone's aliyah. (LF)
  • The gangs of kids stampeding through the shul every so often. (LF)
  • The guy who ignores the whole service until the Tefillah for the Medinah is said. Then he stands up and declares his allegiance to Israel by casting mean looks at people who haven't stood.
  • The "What is this? A Young Israel!" person. Utters his motto as a quick and easy way to discredit any new idea. Example: We really shouldn't set up the kiddush during musaf.... What is this? A Young Israel!
  • The little kid with the HUGE bag of food. Raised by parents who believe starvation can happen in less than an hour. Also, someone in his family survived the war, and BY GOD MY CHILDREN WILL NEVER GO HUNGRY
  • Yaamod guy. Without him how will chatanim and bar mitzvah boys get aliyahs?
  • Dagger eyes aka Red face. Whenever the shul deviates from its own established nusach or custom or style in any way, however minor the deviation might be, this guy lives up to his name
  • Hatzola guys- in shul with their radios squawking just loud enough for others to hear and know that he's "on Hatzolah" (SM)

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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Why do you pray, DovBear?

Another day, another countdown post as we slowly approach Pesach. Click here to see them all.

Today I refer you to a post from 2008 in which I argued that while prayer can't possibly change perfect, omnipotent God it does change us. When people ask me why I pray, I always point them to this post. It's succinct, complete, firmly sourced and, represents my true and actual point of view. See it here:

Thanks for reading and sharing. (hint, hint)

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Cholent, Kugel, the Tish and some pre-Shabbos fun

Tonight, we have a series of  Countdown Posts for you, all having to do with shabbos.  See all previous Contdown Posts here

The first one dates to the primordial days of the blog and describes my first Tish experience. Naturally, I saw it in terms of other religions.

Next come some reflections on kugel and cholent. The kugel post is not about the biblical scholar, but about the clot of noodles and/or potatoes we Jews adore. Its noteworthy only because it received a furios comment, now lost, from Alan Nadler. The cholent post discusses how a ban on everyone's favorite stew is actually a confession of impotence on the part of those issuing the ban.  Cholent lovers might also enjoy this excerpt from Henrich's Hein's The Sabbath Princess in which he glories of cholent are recounted in poetic paragraph after poetic paragraph 

Finally we give you one of the blog's sadly infamous posts: A style guide for the pre-shabbos happy hour  To cleanse your palate check out this powerful rendition of Kedusha performed by a fellow who would likely be denied entry to your local Orthodox shul. It's awesome all the same.

See all the good stuff after the jump

Originally Posted December 22, 2004
A few days ago, I went to my very first Tish. Here's my review:

Music: C 
It was certainly loud, and energetic, but my tastes in Jewish music run here; not here.

Aesthetics: F 
The room was done in a style I could only call "no taste." There were peeling ceilings and worn-our rugs. The lighting was bad, and it was cold. Woman, obviously, aren't ever permitted in that clubhouse.

Drasha: A 
Fast, and incomprehensible. My translator said it was ok, though.

Food: N/A 
I don't eat food that's hand-delivered. Especially when the waiter picks his nose.

Overall: B 
The whole experience was very catholic. When the presiding Rabbi entered, we rose and sung, much in the way a cardinal is welcomed into the cathedral for mass. We sang hymns, and ate an offering of kugel. Though we weren't asked to fall to our knees, and accept the instrument of Godly salvation on our tongues, the food was passed by hand, and the hasidim fought for a morsel as if they thought it offered the blessings of God himself

Perhaps if I'd permitted myself a taste, the whole carnival might have made some sense.

Kvelling about kugel

Originally posted: September 28, 2005

Today the Dining and Wine section of the heiliga New York Times turns its august attention to kugel:
I didn't know until recently, though, that this homey casserole of noodles or potatoes was credited with mystical powers. Allan Nadler, a professor of religious studies at Drew University, studied references to kugel in Hasidic texts and ate it in Brooklyn and in Jerusalem at about a dozen rebbes' tishes, or tables, where male followers of a Hasidic rabbi gather to eat, sing and study the Torah. According to Hasidic interpretations of Kabbalah mysticism, he said, kugel has special powers. "Clearly the spiritual high point of the meal is the offering of the kugel," Professor Nadler said. At that moment the rabbi has the power to bestow health and food, and even to help couples conceive.
And I didn't know until recently that Alan Nadler was a raging lunatic. Mystical powers, including the power to impregnate are wrapped up in one little nasty clot of eggs and noodles? Is he serious? Worse, do entire cults of Jews believe this to be true?

The end of Thursday night cholent

Originally Posted July 5, 2011
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Some of the great holiday weekend news from Israel includes the following.

Thursday night cholent is now banned.

This is a big deal for yeshiva boys, many of whom consider the Thursday night chow down to be the highlight of their week.  

I'm not sorry to see this ritual abolished. The yeshiva boy's glorification of food, terrible food especially, never seemed to me to be especially frum. Also the mad desire for a particular food, at a particular time, seems to speak of some kind of emptiness in the yeshiva boy's soul. Who but an unhappy person sees something holy and fulfilling about a plate of over seasoned beans? A well rounded person doesn't consistently plan his week around a trip to a greasy spoon for a plate of guaranteed indigestion.

Though I won't miss Thursday night cholent, I am sorry to see this latest confession of impotence on the part of the rabbis. Had they any power or charisma at all, wouldn't they simply order or convince yeshiva boys to channel their cholent energy into something more edifying? The fact that they are instead using the threat of canceling kosher certifications to coerce honest, hard working, shopkeepers into closing early suggests a certain weakness and uncertainty on the part of the rabbis. Why blackmail shopkeepers? Can't yeshiva students be instructed? Won't they listen if told by their teachers that Thursday night cholent is gross and unbecoming? All pious talk about how the yeshiva world honors and obeys rabbis, and hangs on every precious rabbinical word, desiring only to learn and improve under loving rabbinical direction, seems badly undermined if the single most obedient cohort --yeshiva boys -- can't be bothered to follow rabbinical directives.

Guys got to eat: Pre- Shabbos Happy Hour

Originally Posted: May 7, 2014
Is DovBear transitioning into lifestyle blog? Not likely. I'm just sharing my thoughts and experiences as per usual

Now that we're in early-shabbos season, many of the men in the audience are escaping to their decks and patios for a pre-shabbos happy hour. In most neighborhoods, you start around 6 p.m. and wrap things up as close to mincha as possible. Usually, no more than five guys attend, and twosomes and threesomes are not uncommon, with most staying for 25 minutes or less. These are quick things.

** Pre-shabbos Happy Hour might not work for everyone. It can be hard to pull off if you have small kids, a disorganized, last-minute personality (or a  wife like that) or an inflexible work schedule. However, I don't think its fair to assume that it only happens if the wife gets screwed. There are other models.

As a veteran of dozens of these small, informal gatherings I can tell you there are generally three ways to pull it off.


The Drink: Want to strike out? Put out a low end beer, like Bud or Coors. There is literally never a good excuse to serve these horrible beverages. And you lose points for using a Red Solo Cup.

The Snack: Chips and salsa. You think you're playing it safe. Really, you're being cheap and boring.


The Drink: You owe it to your guests to pour something decent, plus you don't want to look chintzy. At around $50, Oban fits the bill. Its sweet with a pleasant hint of smoke without being peaty. Larceny is a good up-to-the minute option for your bourbon lovers, and Blue Moon is your can't miss beer.

The Snack: Toss your favorite variety of Jack's Sausages on the grill, and serve them in thirds with a good mustard. No one wants to overeat or get full right before shabbos, so cut them up.  Put out some olives and pickles to go with the chips.


The Drink: You'll still need a whiskey/bourbon option for the unadventurous, but you can show you're trying by offering to start things off with a cocktail.

Don't bother with something complicated, and stay away from anything that requires weird ingredients or fruity garnishes.The Lime Rickey (air conditioning in a glass) is nothing but ice, lime, bourbon and seltzer. Thanks to Mad Men, the Old Fashioned is enjoying a reawakening. You can make one in your sleep: Just splash some bitters* on a sugar cube. Soften it up with some water or seltzer and add a slug or two of Rittenhouse Rye.

The Lime Rickey goes in a Collins glass like this nice looking number from Stolzle, Set of six - $37.99 (three left!).

Use a low ball glass for the Old Fashioned. This Borgovo Gotico- $56 costs way too much ($56!)  but feels great in your hand.

Angostura Aromatic Cocktail Bitters are certified kosher, and can be used to mix up a great OF. $12 bucks from Amazon (and about $8 in your local grocery)

Draper makes an Old Fashioned, but because he's gay he added a cherry and an orange. Don't make this mistake. All you need is a sugar cube, bitters, ice, a splash of water and Rittenhouse Rye

The Snack: While the sausages are on the grill, serve up some dips like matbucha or chumas. Bonus points if you, or better yet your wife, can make them from scratch. [Recipes here] If you are going to use a store-bough chumas, freshen it up with some oil and lemon juice before serving. If you have skills, make some wings, too. Be aware that at a minimum you'll need to section your wings, and render out the fat before applying your sauce.

Make it heimsih: Add kugel of course.

What should you wear? Don't be the dork who shows up in the suit and tie he wore to work. Take a minute to put on a polo (like this black one from Nautica) and a pair of chinos. (I like Bonobos but this flat front pair from Dockers is just fine.)

If you have some better ideas, please share them in the thread.

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Friday, March 13, 2015

What if it turns out God's a monster?

Hello and welcome to another amazing countdown post. Click here to see them all.

Today's post dates all the way back to 2006, a glorious time in the life of this blog. I don't remember writing this post, let alone what I was thinking as it was composed. But I do remember what it was like to blog before Facebook. You could sneeze and get a hundred comments (though after Facebook page-views did skyrocket) This post isn't a sneeze. Its a well thought out wail of concern.


My nightmare
Originally posted August 30, 2006
What do we do if it turns out God's a monster? I mean what if after 120 we discover the extreme Haredi/RW Zionist conception of God is true, that He's basically this overlarge sky demon who likes watching us do bizarre things.

It's not impossible.

I can conceive of a 7 year old tormenting smaller, stupider, weaker creatures with absurd demands. Why not extend the analogy? Why couldn't God be a brute, but a benevolent brute who took us out of Egypt and as payment wishes for us to keep our meat and milk separate (which I do, religiously) and slaughter Arabs (which I don't do, religiously or otherwise) and all the rest?

Maybe the extreme Hasidim are correct about God wanting men to avoid woman and secular wisdom they way other men might avoid the plague. Maybe God wants us to devote ourselves to a life of wearing fur hats and white socks. Maybe the sight of all those little people dressed in black, singing songs and eating kugel, makes the creator happy, in the way it pleases my son to see the residents of his ant farm scurry about. Is it impossible? Why?

Maybe the extreme non-Hasidic Haredim are right to be hostile toward science. Perhaps it's all a test, and the non-benevolent Trickster God did bury all those dinosaur bones, and fiddle with the carbon levels just so he could see for sure if we loved Him or not.

Maybe the extreme religious Zionists are right about Arabs. Perhaps we are supposed to be stacking their bodies like cordwood, and razing their villages and orchards so that the next generation of Kachniks have a place for trailers and target shooting.

If any of them are right, it means the Rambam was wrong, and that his rationalist conception of God and the Law was about as accurate as his views on medicine. It would mean that those Rishonim-accepting Jews who believe that the Torah was given to us only for our own benefit, have half the picture.

But it would also mean that a lot of what chazal said about God, is true. The idea of a monster God even fits a lot of what God said about himself in the Torah. Oh dear.

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