Learning about spirituality from Oliver Sacks

Decades ago I was a Judaic programming director at a camp for children (and also a vacation lodge for adults later on in the summer) who were  developmentally disabled or had a dual diagnosis .

While the actual programming was an exciting challenge (I wrote an appropriate sidur, planned experimental learning challah baking and  homemade havdallah candles), when it came to the staff training I was stumped.

By necessity, the staff were a combination of Jews and non-Jews (who cared about developmentally disabled people and wanted to work in a camp with a good reputation). And the majority of the Jewish staff were there primarily for the same reason.

My training was to convince the staff that all this Jewish programming and prayer was worthwhile despite the fact that some of the people we were served were non-verbal or non-Hebrew speakers or not able to articulate the concepts of religion. And since this was the first few days of camp, this was my chance to win or lose the respect  of the staff.

To my rescue came Oliver Sacks. In his books there are few very moving essays about how church and shul routines and songs helped comfort and support people people like our campers.

For my training of the staff I got up and read theses essays. I  spent no time on explaining  shabbat or brachot.

And it worked. There was less grumbling during prayers ( not none, but less). People gave me and Judaism at camp a chance. One of the French Canadian kitchen staff, who was under no obligation to do so learned the first paragraph of birkat hamazon so he could sing along with us. And he asked me what it meant.

That time more than 20 years ago was the first time I saw how Dr.Sacks was a powerfully spiritual man and writer ( though that is not how we usually see him).

Yesterday was the second time I was struck deeply by his spirituality, when I read his essay on finding out he is dying. A beautiful prayer and lesson.


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A light-hearted guide to women’s kippot

The Forward recently published a guide to yamulkes and what they mean. Disappointingly, they did not included any kippot worn by women. And that is where I come in…

When Women Wear Kippahs

images-9 images-6

(I did not choose the title)

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Frog and Toad Christmas story – a Jewish FAIL


For whatever reason this is one of my most liked blog posts of all time- for those of you who missed it the first time around…

Originally posted on Rainbow Tallit Baby:

As a huge fan of the Frog and Toad series, I have read all the books with two of my kids (so far). On the most recent reading of Frog and Toad All Year, I noticed something odd about the last story which is a heart-warming Christmas story. It is obvious that the author, Arnold Lobel, has never experienced Christmas, even though he tries hard to fake it.

Here is the story, Christmas Eve, and how it screams “Arnold Lobel is a Jew”.

The opening line: “On Christmas Eve Toad cooked a big dinner.”

Yes, Toad is expecting Frog for a big dinner he cooked and plans to serve on Christmas Eve. Arnold, even though Jewish holidays start the night before, with a big meal (of course) and even though the day before Christmas is called Christmas Eve, Christmas dinner is actually eaten on Christmas DAY. Also note the focus…

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It wasn’t the “grassroots” of Orthodoxy. It was liberal Jews.

There is a fascinating (to me anyway) and respectful debate about Partnership Minyanim going on in a multi-part series over at Modern Torah Leadership. It starts off with an essay by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper,  Are Partnership Minyanim Orthodox?  and then includes responses from Rabbi Dr. Martin Lockshin, Malka Simkovich, Shira Hecht-Koller, and Dr. Yoel Finkelman.

While the essays contain very interesting exchanges on the nature of rabbinic authority and how vital it is for Orthodoxy and how Partnership minyanim challenge it, I could not help focusing on another aspect of the exchange.

In his pro-Partnership Minyanim essay, Rabbi Lockshin writes on the issue of enacting change that does not come from rabbinic innovation but is driven by the will of the laity:

Partnership Minyanim do not have the support of the “gedolim,” the great Torah sages of our generation. In this, PMs are like many other innovations introduced into modern Orthodoxy in the last two hundred years—they proceeded from the grass roots. Many of them later won the (often grudging) approval of some gedolim. In this category I would list, among others:

  • Sermons in shul in the vernacular.
  • Beardless rabbis.
  • Believing that the world is more than 6000 years old.
  • Bat mitzvah celebrations.
  • Orthodox Jews studying humanistic subjects in a university.
  • Women’s tefillah groups.
  • Women teaching Torah to men.
  • Women reciting mourner’s kaddish in shul.

Implementing these innovations, it was argued in almost every case, would ultimately lead people to abandon Orthodoxy. Rabbi Henkin has made the same claim about PMs. Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik took another approach when he gave his unenthusiastic support to women reciting mourner’s kaddish in an Orthodox shul. He said that if we did NOT permit this, women would be likely to go to a Conservative shul to say kaddish.

While Rabbi Lockshin is a scholar and real mentch and is paving an admirable path in a difficult landscape, I have to disagree with him here.

The list of innovations he lists above did not originate directly in the Orthodox laity. Every innovation listed (OK so maybe not the university thing) was something that was started by liberal Jews and which they were ridiculed, called ‘treif’ and rejected by Orthodox Judaism of the time for. Do your really think that Orthodox women would have begged to say Kaddish in droves if that was something that was not done without comment for decades by their liberal sisters? Rabbi Soloveitchik’s response reveals the truth- that women wanted basic ritual rights they saw in other denominations and would have left Orthodoxy to get them. So while the laity may have asked for these changes, they originated elsewhere. And while he is less blunt, Rabbi Lockshin echos the idea that modifying Orthodoxy to meet women’s needs is far preferable to having them go to a Conservative minyan.

Within Orthodoxy, change driven by the demands of the laity are indeed threatening, but more so is change driven by innovations in other denominations.

Advocates of Partnership Minyanim and other forms of Open Orthodoxy  are facing a lot of threats with Orthodoxy and a lot of pressure. They are threatened with being called illegitimate and having their rulings  and their conversions declared invalid. Being the face of these movements requires a fair amount of courage.

I wish these advocates also had the courage acknowledge their links and debts to liberal Judaism, without shame, and not discount the history, contributions and the validity of religious innovation that originated within it. I say this even though doing so I know would create more problems for their reputations in the eyes of their more fundamentalist colleagues.

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An Orthodox-Friendly, Egalitarian Bencher: Something Old, Something Very New

I am delighted that the TORCH of JOFA  (Jewish Orthodox Feminist alliance) published my post on the new Orthodox-friendly Egalitarian bencher.

My points are that while egalitarian benchers are not new (see my list in the article) and this one is not really innovative in its egalitarianism it is innovative in its desired audience- Modern Orthodox Jews. What does this mean for observant non-Orthodox Jews? his post is my take :

An Orthodox-Friendly, Egalitarian Bencher: Something Old, Seder Oneg Shabbos Very New



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Judith Kaplan Eisenstein’s Own Reconstructionism: a brief exegesis on “Hannuka O Hannuka”

This post is inspired by comments from my Dad.

While Judith Kaplan Eisenstein will always be most famous for having the first Bat Mitzvah in 1922, she was an accomplished scholar in her own right as a Jewish musicologist and teacher, publishing many books and articles on Jewish music eventually earning a PhD.

For example, the English translation of the originally Yiddish song, Hannuka O Hannuka that Jewish children everywhere sing was composed by her.

It is in this song we can see how her father’s Reconstructionist teachings influenced her.

Here are the original Yiddish lyrics, their literal translation and Kaplan Eisenstein’s familiar translation.

Chanukah, Oh Chanukah

English version Yiddish version Yiddish literal translation
Hanukah, Oh Hanukah Come light the menorah
Let’s have a party
We’ll all dance the horah
Gather ’round the table, we’ll give you a treat
Dreidels  to play with, and latkes to eat
חנוכה אוי חנוכה
אַ יום-טוב אַ שיינער
אַ לוסטיקער אַ פריילעכער
נישט דאָ נאָך אַזוינער
אַלע נאַכט מיט דריידלעך שפילן מיר,
פרישע הייסע לאַטקעס, עסן אָן אַ שיעור.
Chanukah, Oh Chanukah
A beautiful celebration.
Such a cheerful and happy one,
There is none like it.
Every night with the dreidels we will play,
Fresh, hot latkes we will eat endlessly.
And while we are playing
The candles are burning bright (or low)
One for each night, they shed a sweet light
To remind us of years long ago
One for each night, they shed a sweet light
To remind us of years long ago.
געשווינדער, צינדט קינדער
די חנוכה ליכטלעך אָן,
זאָגט על-הניסים, לויבט גאָט פאַר די נסים,
און לאָמיר אַלע טאַנצען אין קאָן.
זאָגט על-הניסים, לויבט גאָט פאַר די נסים,
און לאָמיר אַלע טאַנצען אין קאָן.
Come quickly children
Light the Chanukah candles
Say “Al Hanissim”, praise God for the miracles,
And we will all dance together in a circle!
Say “Al Hanissim”, praise God for the miracles,
And we will all dance together in a circle!

What she takes out:

  • The reference to God performing the miracles of Hannuka, faithful to both a rejection of a super-natural God and faithful to historical records and the  Books of the Maccabees’ accounts of the events of Hannuka.
  • The reference to the “Al ha-Nissim” prayer which is one that thanks God for the miracles of Hannuka (see above)  and the wars God fought on our behalf
  • The connection of lighting candles to “Al ha-Nissim” which is traditionally sung immediately  after we light the candles.

What she leaves in:

  • Dancing
  • Latkes
  • Dreidles
  • Candle lighting
  • Remembering “years long ago”

For extra fun you can take a look what is left out of and what is added in to the Hebrew version, written by  Avraham Avronin and released in 1953. Continue reading

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If they were sons

It is early on  a weekday morning and my 8-year-old comes into our room and jumps in bed with me and with  our two year old who has been sleeping next to me. We move over to make room for her and we hug each other. We cuddle each other. We tickle. We roll over each other. We make “sandwiches” where one child is the “cheese” and the other child and I are the “bread”. There are horsey rides and human sculptures. There are squishy group hugs. Despite my desperate desires for more personal space and more sleep, this is the “hug time” that my daughters treasure and that I am sure I will miss when it ends. (We have already lost my 13 year old, who, understandably and typically for her age, wants to sleep and needs the physical disctance. She still cuddles and tickles with the younger ones, just not at “hug time” with me).

But this weekend as I was engagingly our usual wild and unselfconscious hugging, tickling and playing, I thought to myself, “If I had sons instead of daughters would I be doing this exactly the way I am? Would my eight year old son be here in the same very physical way?”  And the fact that I could not quickly and easily say “Yes, of course” stopped me cold.

Those of you who know me or my blog know how hard I work to reduce the effects that gender stereotypes have on how I interact with the world in general and especially how I interact with  my children. But I couldn’t honestly and quickly say yes to my own question.

In the wake of the recent Jian Ghomeshi scandal  (a famous CBC radio host is accused of physical and sexual assault of numerous women), I have had a lot of conversations with people about how our culture enables sexual assault.  People mentioned the pervasive cultural objectionable of women  and the linking of sexuality to violence. We focus on how bad it is for boys to grow up in this culture of violent pornography and the constant  social messages they get about women, sexuality and consent, and rape culture .  The local paper had an essay by Gabor Maté on  the problem of narcissistic male rage  where he writes

We live in a society steeped in male narcissism, one in which aggression towards women is deeply entrenched in the collective male psyche. Nor is male sexual predation confined to a few “sick” individuals: that we see it portrayed, relentlessly and voyeuristically, in movies, TV shows, and advertising is beyond obvious, except for those mired in denial.

Ghomeshi’s reported behaviours arise from a misogynistic culture that degrades and confuses people of all genders. Few men enact extreme hostility, but few are those who do not harbour anti-feminine aggression somewhere in their psyche.

When we are talking about confusing physical affection with aggression, of getting physical affection wrong, I can’t help wondering, how many boys who aren’t very small get “hug time”? How many real, unperfunctory, unselfconscious hugs does a boy get in week?

And what does that do to them?



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