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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The evidence of polygamy is in our genes?!? Poor Science writing and the danger of sociobiology

The Washington Post recently reported on a genetic study that found more genetic diversity in female ancestors than male ancestors. The article was headline:

The evidence of polygamy is in our genes

The article explains the finding:

In the genetic history of our species, the mamas outnumber the papas. A new study in Investigative Genetics reports that females have made a bigger contribution than men.

By studying the DNA of 623 males from 51 populations, the researchers found more genetic diversity in the DNA inherited from mothers than they did in the DNA inherited from fathers.

At first glance, these results could be taken to mean that there used to be more women than men. But if you know anything about history, it makes more sense to blame reproductive habits: In many cultures, more women reproduced than men.

And then it goes off the deep end of speculation via sociobiology (a field based on the assumption that social behavior has resulted from evolution and is sometimes used to justify such behaviours):

Polygamy —  the practice of one man marrying multiple women — was historically pretty common (and probably much more common than the opposite group marriage arrangement, polyandry). If most men have multiple wives, and the richest can support a whole bunch, that’s going to leave some men without reproductive partners. So even though an individual male might have had more offspring than most individual women, the gender as a whole was making fewer contributions to the gene pool.

How we get from the fact that more women reproduced than men to any information about marriage in prehistoric people is a bit beyond me. First, (and I know this may be a shock here) people can reproduce with out being married. In fact whole societies may have had no marriages at all and still produced the pattern of more females reproducing than men. It is not like we found a huge stack of marriage certificates from 10,000 years ago and saw individual men married to multiple wives. But if you are looking at reproduction as marriage (an unscientific approach perhaps biased by living in  today’s 1950s society), then you might miss a more obvious answer. (At least this is what I thought of).

Prehistoric women probably had enormously high rates of dying in childbirth (validated by many scientific studies). That alone could account for the effect of more women reproducing than men, if men took up new partners when their partners died.

But you won’t see that if you are looking to justify the cultural idea that men are polygamous but women aren’t polyandrous.

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Girls are Easy: A Rant

I have three daughters. When people hear this, be they co-workers, parents I meet in the playground or people in the supermarket, they very often say, “You are lucky; girls are easy” or “Girls are easier to__” . People say this whether they themselves are the parents of boys, boys and girls or have no children. They say these things whether my kids are screaming and running or playing quietly. I have heard this so often and for so long it has inspired this rant.

I have been told girls:

  • are easier to toilet train
  • are easier to discipline
  • don’t run away
  • are better at listening
  • are less likely to avoid homework
  • are more willing to do housework
  • are less likely to get lost
  • are more responsible
  • are better at communicating
  • are better at introspection
  • are less clumsy
  • less likely to eat bugs
  • are less violent
  • are more trustworthy
  • can do errands earlier and more reliably
  • are quieter
  • can cross the street at an earlier age than boys
  • can take care of their siblings, whereas boys can’t or won’t
  • can remember instructions better
  • are less likely to take things apart to see how they work
  • dress themselves earlier
  • can sit still
  • are less likely to make poo and fart jokes and noises
  • will clear their own dishes
  • are better at school
  • are more polite
  • are cleaner
  • are more organized
  • understand adults better
  • are more patient
  • are more persistent
  • are more  independent
  • mature earlier (both in the infant/toddler range and the teenager range)
  • learn better
  • follow directions better

So after hearing this kind of thing for more than 13 years here is my question:

If according to this cultural knowledge/ set of stereotypes boys seem to be slow, unreliable, immature and irresponsible idiots then by what magic do they then suddenly turn into men who seen are as more competent, more professional, smarter,  with more valuable opinions and more deserving of jobs of with higher pay and higher responsibility? How does that work?

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My daughter on Kippah and tfillin

I generally don’t post my kids’ achievements on my blog or facebook, but I couldn’t resist this one as it is so close to the themes of this blog. Here is Tefillin and Standing Out  by  my eldest.  It is short so you can head over to V’Tzivanu to check it out. Here is a quote:

Later, the first week after bat mitzvah, when I could wear tfillin, I left my tfillin — which my parents gave me — at home the first time because I was embarrassed to put them on when no other girls were. I eventually took them to school and one of the male teachers who put them on every week showed me how. The teachers were very friendly and made me feel more at ease. A few people gave me weird glances but nobody really cared. I felt different and a little on edge. The tfillin helped me feel like a Jewish adult, but I felt a little unsure of what to do. The next time I put them on I still needed help tying them, but I remembered more. I was more comfortable wearing my tfillin because I had done it before.

On an interesting note, she never mentions tallit, which she saw women wearing since birth, and which her school presented as non-optional (unlike tfillin).



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Atereth Zekaynim, The Crown of the Elderly – On the death of Reb Zalman

       עֲטֶרֶת זְקֵנִים, בְּנֵי בָנִים 

Children’s children are the crown of the old (Proverbs 17:6)

Reb Zalman, z”l, of blessed memory was not my Rebbe, though I did meet him several times. He was the Rebbe of my parents when they very young, in the mid-1960s in Winnipeg, Manitoba. At that time Reb Zalman was a professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department of the University of Manitoba, where my parents were students (in other departments). This was in the time period after he was a dynamic youth emissary of the Lubavitcher rebbe, and after he founded Bnai Or (the beginning of Renewal) and just before he founded Havurat Shalom in Somerville, MA.  The Judaism my parents knew  at that time consisted of what we would now call big shul Conservadox, and also the rich secular, often communist (or at least socialist) Jewish culture of the Bundists and the Yiddishists and a taste of more modern Judaism through the Brandeis Camp Institute. What they were finding in their secular lives as university students in the 1960s was Ruach- in the sense of spirituality and in the sort of Camp Ramah sense of spirit and joyous community.

What Zalman did for them, and indeed for all of us, is create a Judaism that had Ruach, in both the spirituality sense and the joyous community sense.

So, my experiences I want to share of Reb Zalman, are not what it was like to hear him teach or lead prayers, as others have so eloquently  done (Reb Zalman Married Counter Culture to Hasidic Judaism …Rest in Peace Reb Zalman: My Rebbe Died Today), but two different things. First, wherever I travelled in my Jewish life, geographically, spiritually, over many years, when I landed in a community that I admired or felt at home in, within a few minutes I would find out that it had either been found by Reb Zalman, or by one of his disciples, or the current leaders were inspired by him. Like the Johnny Appleseed of Jewish spirituality and renewal, his reach was everywhere.

The second is that since it was my parents who were inspired by Reb Zalman, I had the privilege of growing up in a Judaism  where ideas and practices he started were woven into the fabric (see blog title) of my Jewish life, and did not seem new, or odd, but normative and authentic. For this I am very grateful, as it has allowed me to explore without the fear of change and with the confidence of a native. He literally invented the Rainbow tallit (see Jewish Chronicle version or Yonassan Gershom’s version) that I was metaphorically wrapped in. 

And both of these are a true legacy of what he gave to Judaism, and a true crown to his achievements.


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