We're outside shul on a snowy Friday night. Kid, aged about thirteen, is telling another kid not to make snowballs.

"Don't do that. You're carrying; you're touching snow, which is muktze; and you're wearing my gloves."

As Gabriel puts it - d'oraita, d'rabanan, and rude.
"A college bop," said Etienne expansively, "is a pre-fornicatory experience."

And the crowd of listening freshmen giggled and fancied Etienne a little bit more, which was presumably the intended effect.

A minimal amount of social bonding and aesthetic enjoyment occurs at a college bop, aided by coloured lighting, cheesy music, and subsidised alcohol, but overriding all is the naked desperation of all present to conclude the evening in carnal embrace.

That is to say, the degree of sexual awareness is practically palpable (as is a great deal else). Who is checking you out? Whom might you be checking out? At whom might you make a pass? What will be the flirty move here, the suggestive word there, that will get you successfully laid? Where is Etienne?

I mention this not because I think you, dear readers, are unfamiliar with these scenes, but because I have little taste for bops, clubs, and other such pre-fornicatory experiences; having avoided them for some ten years, I recently found myself once again in just such an atmosphere, but in the context of an Orthodox Synagogue, which incongruity bears examining.

Among the women, during davening, I wasn't expecting the immaculate makeup, the artlessly blow-dried hair, the tight, tight skirts (modestly below the knee) or the plunging necklines (over a skin-tight undergarment modestly covering collarbone and elbow, of course). I wasn't expecting the enthusiastic displays of piety in the men's section, or the self-conscious charm exerted during socialising afterwards.

Above all, I wasn't expecting that tense, searching, sexually aware atmosphere, where one is continually groped by other people's questing feelers. Where all members of the opposite sex are potential targets, and all members of one's own sex, competition. I was transported back ten years to the college bop; I found myself looking around for Etienne. Granted the aim isn't to get laid at the end of the night - rather to get married by the end of the year - but it's equally as intense, equally as hungry, equally as naked, and sadly unmitigated by loud music or freely-flowing alcohol.

I should perhaps have expected it. The shul describes itself as the nexus for committed, Torah-observant Jews to meet and develop their Jewish futures together; this is apparently code for kosher meat market. I just wasn't expecting shul to be a pre-fornicatory experience, and I didn't like it much.

Hilarious (read the product reviews)

Breaking news shocker, exercise won't make you thin if you're already at your body's optimal weight

scary - I didn't know heat from candleholders could ignite tables.

Serious effort to combat Artscroll's dominance in the siddur market. Winning quote: It is almost like the ArtScroll siddur is a household word - er, "almost"??

This made me very very happy and is completely non-political.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Apr. 5th, 2009 12:48 pm)
Three-day festival coming up, and that means a lot of time in shul, so you can spend your time doing research for the Etz Hayim Olympics.

Categories so far:
"Have you ever actually read the Torah?"
"Cheap Shots"
"Do you know what pshat even means?"

and any others you can think of; parallel categories for other chumash commentaries, of course, since not all of us are blessed with Etz Hayim. No mocking the mediaevals, but Artscroll's interpretations of the mediaevals are fair game provided you can demonstrate that the risible bit is Artscroll.
hatam_soferet: (toothpaste)
( Mar. 27th, 2009 01:04 am)
The Riverdale Press reports on last Sunday at shul. I posted then about keyrings with Hebrew names, which were apparently a Good Fundraiser.

I'm only posting this really because I like the photo, with the scary colouring. Hee.*

* (Additional commentary about root vegetables excised on advice of Rochester Potato Marketing Board)

I had the best time this evening. You know HaMelekh megillot, right? Esther scrolls which tweak the layout such that each column starts with the word HaMelekh, which means The King.

So R' Katz at CSAIR mentioned that he'd been thinking about a HaMalka (The Queen) megillah and fiddling about with it and only getting partway...

...and I, being a Total Nerd with Mad Leet Computer Tikkun Skillz, decided to give it a shot. And I did it. HaMalka megillah, looking pretty sweet.

Of course, the thing about HaMelekh is that King is allegorical for God, and since there isn't any God in the Megillah, the HaMelekh is a compensatory move. HaMalka obviously takes away from that, so if you are doing HaMalka you have to read it as riffing on the HaMelekh/God theme, rather than as a Stomping Feminist theme.

I suspect most people would assume it was a Stomping Feminist thing ("You changed HaMelekh? Don't you realise that HaMelekh refers to God?! Sheesh, you indulge your ridiculous ignorant feminism and just make yourself look stupid..."). One would get tired of explaining that no, one is very well aware of HaMelekh, and HaMalka retains the concept of sovereignty with its hints of God but adds a feminine aspect, as to say "My relationship with God is informed by my being female, and I can engage with ritual on that basis, and it is kosher and it is joyous."

You see I think people might not understand that. It makes me wonder whether alternating Melekh and Malka on the column heads would be a better move, but on the whole I think the feminine riff is worth it.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Mar. 22nd, 2009 07:42 pm)
Hebrew Name KeyringsThis is what I was doing this afternoon (clicky picture for bigger). The shul had a Lower East Side Nostalgia Fundraising Klezmer Concert Thingumajig, and I was being the Lower East Side Sofer stall, where people can get their Hebrew names written. I had a cracking time.

I do this writing-Hebrew-names thing a lot, and I rather enjoy it; names are easy, and people like them very much, so it's a very good investment-to-return ratio. I don't usually do it in my home shul, though, so today was a nice change; no travelling to speak of, and writing for people I actually know is nice also.

Normally I just write the names on parchment-look paper, but I had a Brilliant! Idea! in the form of keyrings, clear acrylic ones into which one slips the paper, and then it's cute and useful and all kinds of shiny. And my goodness they were flying off the shelf; from 12-3 I did 45 keyrings, as well as names-on-paper. I'd only brought about 35 keyrings with me, had to do the rest at home and mail them. People were buying them as afikoman gifts, which is very sweet.

I do feel a bit guilty for contributing to rampant consumerism - if Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is the thing, cutesy keyrings fail on the first step - no-one actually needs a cute keyring with their Hebrew name on it. So perhaps I should come up with something made of paper instead - a bookmark, or something - that is less wasteful of resources. Any bright ideas?
Women are allowed to chant the Scroll of Esther on behalf of men if no competent men are available, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardi community, ruled in a landmark decision liable to outrage many of his Ashkenazi counterparts.
From Vos Iz Neias, or Haaretz, and loads of people emailing me.

Let's start with how this isn't a landmark decision.

The above is roughly akin to saying "Prisoners should not be detained unlawfully, Democrats ruled today, in a landmark decision liable to outrage many of their Republican counterparts." It's not exactly an innovation. A lot of people have been doing it that way for quite some time, left-wing Orthodox Ashkenazim as well as the liberal movements, so it doesn't really count as "landmark." It also wasn't a "decision," in that he's been saying and teaching that way for some time, in line with quite a lot of rabbinic Judaism over the past couple of millennia. And he didn't "rule," it just came up in a class on the laws of Megillah reading. So, less of the sensationalism.

What is interesting is that suddenly people felt the need to make a big deal out of it. For some reason, the idea that women might read for men has become interesting enough to make headlines. Why should this be?

It's possible that it's part of "Who Owns Judaism?" - it made the news because the ultra-Orthodox said it. Basically all Jewish movements, from centre-right Orthodoxy and leftwards, look to the ultra-Orthodox for authenticity. So it doesn't matter that other flavours of Jew have had women reading Megillah for simply ages; it's only news when the ultra-Orthodox talk about it. Perhaps that's what's going on; if so, it's a great pity.

A tangent: It's a pity for what it shows about how other Jewish movements think about Judaism, perpetually looking over their shoulders measuring themselves against the ultra-Orthodox. Other kinds of Jews don't want to be ultra-Orthodox for a great many reasons, but there is the unfortunate tendency to assume, deep down, that it is basically laziness - that if we were just a bit more prepared to deal with discomfort, we too could be like that. This results in an unspoken but evident assumption that only ultra-Orthodox Judaism is the "real" Judaism, that only the ultra-Orthodox do it "properly," and the necessary corollary that if we're in another movement, there's no point committing to it with our whole heart, if it's just inauthentic toy Judaism.

Moderate Americans don't secretly feel that only hard-line Republicans are the "real Americans," do they? (I really hope they don't, anyway). With notable exceptions, Americans seem to manage the idea that first and foremost you're an American, and you can have political affiliations, and that different political groups are more or less equally valid. Democrats don't go around more or less identifying as Republicans who can't be bothered to do it properly, but an awful lot of liberal Jewish movements have an undertone of being lapsed Orthodox. Either this is a great shame and the liberal movements need a lot more self-confidence, or it is evidence that ultra-Orthodoxy is the only true Judaism. Speaking for the liberal movements (what hutzpah) it's our choice. End tangent.

It's also possible that women-reading-Megillah made the news this particular year because the concept of women participating in things has risen in the public consciousness enough that it's now something people are ready to think about.

Over the past - I don't know, decade? couple of decades? - women's participation in this sort of thing has been increasing. It's now easier for Orthodox women to learn how to read Megillah, and it's a good deal more acceptable these days for women to have women's Megillah readings, for instance. As long as women participating was strictly a non-Orthodox thing, the Orthodox world could comfortably ignore it, writing off the non-Orthodox practices as not really Judaism, but perhaps once it's made its way into the left wing of the Orthodox world it's harder for the right wing to ignore? In other words, perhaps this is creeping feminism crossing a threshold?

So the idea that women might participate in ritual a little more, in the form of a comment about women reading megillah, may have crept into the Sephardi real-world setup. Having crept into the ultra-Sephardi world doesn't mean it's crept into the ultra-Ashkenazi world - doesn't mean it hasn't at all, just evidently less so - which means that the looking-over-their-shoulders-at-the-ultra-Orthodox Jews can't feel authentic about involving women yet. But that's okay, because they ought to be acting on conviction anyway.

In any case, such events are pieces of evidence that even ultra-Orthodoxy is influenced by ideas percolating in the rest of the world, which itself is evidence that exchange of ideas goes both ways, into ultra-Orthodoxy as well as out of it. That is, there is not one true Judaism and a host of lesser Judaisms, but many symbiotic Judaisms.

R' Yosef, being Sephardi, might possibly agree.

But possibly not.

On to part 2
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Mar. 2nd, 2009 05:55 am)
In the four-plus years I've lived in this city, I've never actually had to ditch professional obligations because of snow, but this morning I have a commitment to read Torah at the shul's morning minyan, and there is a respectably large amount of snow out there. I've heard of these quasi-mythical beasts called Snow Days, but I've never had to find out, at 6am, whether it Is One, and I don't actually know how it works.

That is to say, I can see from the internet that schools are closed, but does that mean minyan is cancelled? It's minyan! Minyan is about struggling to shul under adverse conditions in order to assemble ten people for morning prayers! Granted "adverse conditions" tends to mean "ugh it's too early for this" rather than "that's quite a lot of snow," but to my sleep-befuddled 6am brain, they seem equally adverse, and if exertion for the one is expected in the normal way of things, why not exertion for the other?

From the mighty scrapings and rumblings out there, I deduce that the main road is probably more or less clear (I can't see it from my windows), but on reflection, given the demographic of our morning minyan, it seems unlikely that a minyan's worth of people will be out there clearing the ground between their cars and the main road, or between their front doors and the place their ride usually collects them.

Which, I think, means I can go back to bed.
I nearly ran out of the sermon screaming this week.

Our rabbi is great, and his sermons are unusual - they're actually worth listening to. He's one of the rare people I will make an effort to hear, rather than sneak out to avoid; he doesn't say obnoxious stuff or stupid stuff, and quite often he says really thoughtful, interesting, intelligent stuff. So this week, when he said something that made me go hot and cold and trembly, it was an experience out of the ordinary.

I'm going to tell you about it because it's interesting, but remember that our rabbi is the nicest, kindest, most menschlik person you could imagine, and what happened is the fault of the culture we live in, not the fault of our rabbi. Our rabbi is a simply splendid chap and you should think very highly of him, please.

The subject was the Ten Commandments, and what the mystical commentary the Zohar has to say about "Do not murder," "Do not steal," and "Do not commit adultery."

Basically the Zohar chooses to blur the moral absolutes - i.e. there are many impulses which in moderation are very good things, and in extremis are really really bad. For example: the impulse that leads to stealing isn't actually bad, because Wanting Things fuels things like art and civilisation, just when it goes bad it becomes stealing. Getting inspiration from someone else is a sort of stealing, if you look at it one way, but it's not bad stealing. There's generally moderate versions of things which are good.

When giving a sermon you're supposed to bring an example from real life so that your congregation can connect on a personal level. Our rabbi knows his homiletics, and he told a story about a friend who wanted to lose weight. The friend would be so good denying himself fat or carbs or whatever it was, and then he would crack and eat steak and ice-cream and things and Stop Dieting because he had Failed.

This was the point where I wanted to get up and leave, get out, run away. You see why I was so distressed?

What are the sins in this sermon so far?




Being fat.


Not on purpose, you understand. That wasn't the point of the sermon. Nonetheless, that's what just happened, and it knocked me sideways.

The rabbi is speaking in the vocabulary of our cultural narrative, and we have a very powerful cultural narrative that says eating is a morally dubious act. To diet is to be virtuous; to eat as much as you want is to be grossly inappropriate. We surround ourselves with the message that no effort is too extreme, no sacrifice too great, if thinness will result. To be thin is a constant, all-consuming goal for an enormous number of people.

The cultural narrative, in other words, does seem to put eating on a par with murder, theft, and adultery, so it should come as no surprise that our rabbi chose eating to illustrate a point about impulses which have the potential to be socially destabilising on a grand scale.

For me, this eating-message isn't compatible with the Jewish message. The eating-message says: your body is gross and you are gross for letting it be that way, and if you work very very hard, it might one day be marginally closer to acceptable than it is now. But my Jewish message says: every human being is worthwhile; the world is good; to live is to reflect the Divine glory.

So it distressed me to hear eating being semi-consciously compared to murder. Validating the idea that bodies are inherently repellent by speaking about dieting in a sermon validates the idea that you can only be happy and healthy if you are thin. It validates a corrosive, body-hating, self-hating philosophy.

The stated message of the sermon was this idea that many things are good in moderation but damaging in extremes. I'm okay with this. I accept that too much eating can be damaging. (Likewise breathing too much oxygen.) That's a perfectly reasonable message for a sermon. But it concerns me that the subtle message, the one that is heard by the brain and not by the ears, the one that lurks in the subconscious, was far more sinister.

That was what I heard from the pulpit this Shabbat, and that was why I wanted to run out screaming.

P.S. Please remember to blame the culture and not the rabbi. It's not. his. fault. Okay?
I went to two Elie Kaunfer sessions at LimmudNY, both on liturgy. Elie likes liturgy, and it's usually fun to hear people talk about things they like.

We looked at two parts of the central prayer, the 18 Blessings Which Are Really 19. One, the part which asks God to do destructive things to people we don't like, and two, the part about We Can Haz Sakrifis?

This post's about the first one, Shmuel HaKatan and the Curse Against The Heretics - you can download a recording of Elie teaching it here, and the sourcesheet is here. You should listen to it - it's an hour and a bit.

The Curse (or Blessing) Against the Heretics is the one that goes something like this: And for the slanderers let there be no hope; and may all evil perish in an instant. And may all your enemies be swiftly cut off, and the evil sinners soon uproot, smash, throw down, and humble, soon, in our days. Blessed Are You God, who smashes enemies and humbles wilful sinners.

From the sources, it seems Shmuel haKatan didn't like the content of this Blessing much either - he was a bit of a liberal, one who cared about how people were feeling (!). But he said some form of it anyway, and that says to me he had a complicated relationship to this part of the liturgy.

I like this. It says to me that parts of the community have always found this blessing problematic; this isn't new. This is interesting because people don't usually keep doing things that are absolutely against their natures. Stuff that's really really vitriolic I think we tend to tone down over time, and stuff that becomes completely irrelevant we smooth out - since we still have it, the saying of this blessing is accomplishing something we're invested in. Shmuel haKatan and Elie between them prompt me to think about what it might be.

The words themselves are saying something we all want to say, if we're honest about it. There's part of all of us that wants to defend our communal boundaries, and reacts very strongly to people who challenge that. When one's (communal) identity is threatened, saying God, Please Squish People I Don't Like In Nasty Ways is natural enough.

However, I think the experience of saying such words and finding it icky is also doing something important, and that's possibly part of why we're still invested in the blessing. The icky feeling is reminding us that such ideas can be extremely destructive, that being on the receiving end of such sentiments isn't nice at all, that this Isn't A Very Nice Thing To Be Saying. That's why we find this text problematic, after all. We don't want to legitimise those feelings by having them in the liturgy.

From where I am, cutting out the words would, I think, be tantamount to denying that we all feel that way sometimes.* That would be comfortable, but leaving them in is perhaps more useful from a personal/communal moral development perspective. Saying the words and being disturbed by them acknowledges the undeniable sentiment and reminds me that I ought to be aware of it, and I ought to keep it in check. Embracing the ick forces me to stop denying that I have those sorts of defensive feelings, and reminds me that they're not very civilised, simultaneously.

So this helps me combine the icky feeling of those words with my reluctance to prune the liturgy, and helps me see it in a way that's useful to me. This I like very much. Cheers, Elie. :)

* Yes, I know some rites already have this cut. Don't go taking that as a moral judgement of intellectual dishonesty or something. I mean for me, right now, to deal with the discomfort by not saying the words wouldn't be quite right.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Dec. 25th, 2008 07:54 pm)
Listening to BBC Radio 4, as per usual; yesterday was, of course, the Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College Cambridge. Later, listening to the Christmas Midnight Mass from Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, and it was an interesting contrast between flavours of liturgy.

I was especially struck by a prayer in the Liverpool service which observed that in 2009 Liverpool will no longer be an European City of Culture, and seemed to be requesting strength to deal with the spiritual darkness which must inevitably follow, but in general it wa noticeably more Reform/Renewal in tone and vocabulary; the congregation speaking in its voice to God and the Church speaking in the same voice to the congregation.

Myself, I prefer more traditional liturgical forms, as represented in the King's College service. In not attempting to match the pace of change outside, they achieve the impression of timelessness, which to my mind is what high liturgy is for; by performing apparently timeless ritual, you connect with the eternal infinite.

In not moulding to the contemporary voice of the congregation, a liturgy heavily influenced by tradition risks appearing remote and uncaring, yes, but that suits me; the eternal infinite is remote and uncaring, it seems to me. The genius of liturgy is to expose its beauty by moving the congregation, meditation-like, from focus on the specific to a transcendental focus on totality.

Practically, the challenge is to elevate divine service sufficiently that it does not become mundane, but to moderate the elevation such that it remains within reach of the congregation. Kings no longer gives service in Latin, it uses English, but it is still quite High Church in style and tone. Very elevated - hopefully very elevating, but perhaps the Liverpudlian cathedral's prayers, coming as they do to meet the congregation where it is, are more within reach.

It's rather lovely how it all matches up. I happen to be writing this about two Christian congregations because they happen to be what're on the radio, but obviously this particular aspect of the liturgy transfers smoothly into the Jewish realms. Right now, I like my liturgy traditional-flavoured, which means largely Hebrew and Aramaic and no European Cities of Culture, but when prayers in the Aramaic vernacular were introduced into the service, they spoke in the voice of the congregation, and talked about Babylonian Cities of Culture.

As they say, בצאתי לקראתך, לקראתי מצאתיך - when I went out to meet you, I found you coming to meet me. We do rather tend to forget that it's a dynamic relationship, not a static one. Not that I'm suggesting anyone should do anything drastic - quite the contrary - but nonetheless, to those who do Christmas, have a good one.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Nov. 13th, 2008 04:35 pm)
On the verse ויאמרו אליו איה שרה אשתך ויאמר הנה באהל.

Genesis 18:9; where some angels disguised as random travellers have arrived at Avraham's tent during siesta time, and he's bounded out to meet them with abundant hospitality. And: ויאמרו אליו איה שרה אשתך ויאמר הנה באהל

Vayomeru elav, ayei Sarah ishtekha? vayomer, hineh baohel - They [the angels] said to him [Avraham], where is Sarah your wife? And he said, see: in the tent.

Now, the commentators point out that angels are from God, and therefore they know perfectly well that Sarah is in the tent. Why on earth do they ask Avraham where Sarah is?

Some commentators say that Sarah was in the tent because she was so modest, and the angels knew that if they said "Where's Sarah?" Avraham would say "In the tent" and would remember "because she's so modest. Wow, my wife is so virtuous and feminine and sexy. Hooray!"

So I read this, me, a product of my time, and thought "yuk," because I tend to think that an overemphasis on feminine modesty is rather too closely associated with not letting women do anything interesting. I don't like being told I ought to be more invisible.

And then I thought: isn't it funny that I can look at Avraham's immense hospitality and think "cor, impressive" and at Sarah's immense modesty and think "erk, icky." Because why should one value last so long and one be rejected so fast? Something's wrong there.

It happened that I was thinking about the relationship between the rabbi and the sofer. A pulpit rabbi takes Judaism and gets up into her pulpit and says Hey, people! This is the Torah! This is Judaism! Isn't that great?! A sofer, by contrast, sits in her scriptorium and writes a scroll, which says exactly the same thing, but not from the pulpit. So in a way, the sofer is like Sarah, working behind the scenes, and the rabbi in the pulpit is like Avraham, being the public face.

Now this suits me just fine, because I rather like working behind the scenes. If this is what's meant by modesty, that's no such bad thing. This year, our shul honoured, as Kallat Bereshit, someone who keeps the whole shul in order; no matter what it is, she's hovering on the sidelines making sure everything goes smoothly. If the angels were, essentially, saying to Avraham, Your Sarah is awesome like that Kallat Bereshit is awesome, that's pretty cool. Certainly the Kallat Bereshit's husband was pretty chuffed that she got honoured for her largely-unseen work.

Maybe that's what those commentators meant, and maybe not, but going "ick" at something a time-honoured commentator says certainly doesn't get you the most mileage from it, let's just say. If I can understand them in a way that doesn't make me go "ick," that's probably a good thing. And besides, it reminded me of the people who work unseen, and it reminded you too, and that's no such bad thing either.


That's two divrei Torah from one verse, today. I can haz pulpit? :P
Before I forget - I've invented a brilliant metaphor: shacharit is like breakfast. Most days, you just want to have some cereal and get on with your day. Some days you have a little something extra. Occasionally you have a gigantic fried breakfast. If you have a huge rich breakfast every single day you get tired of it and it takes the whole morning; if you always have really boring economy cereal you get tired of that too.

I think this can stand quite a lot of extending, as well. I won't do it now, it's bedtime, and I'm sure you can do it for yourselves. Thought it was fun, though.
The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale describe themselves as Open Orthodox, which means Tolerant and Nice and so on, so when they said did I want to come and speak about me-and-my-stuff between mincha and maariv on Shabbat, I said yes. Then I got there, and I haven't been so scared in a long time. It was very strange. I normally anticipate such affairs quite happily.

HIR is where I generally go on Friday nights, I'll start by saying. It's a nice place, friendly space, I'm comfortable there, I like to think I'm part of the community. The clergy are the sweetest people in the whole world, and the congregants aren't far behind.

However, I'm not usually there in a professional capacity. Coming to Orthodox space in my professional role as Jen the Soferet reminded me that this is a space where I am more liable than usual to encounter hostility because I am a woman. It's sad but true that what hostility I encounter comes from the Orthodox world - by no means are all Orthodoxim hostile, and I don't suppose any of the people at HIR hate me, but to a degree Orthodoxy is Orthodoxy, and emotions don't always listen to intellect.

I got there Shabbat afternoon for mincha, and the way the space is divided - mechitza, solid wooden fence, right down the centre - hit me, smack. Suddenly it was giving me a more compelling message than usual. It was making Men's Space and Women's Space, and saying, You are Other. You must stay over There. Your Otherness is such that we must make a fence. I was Other. Very powerfully, compellingly, Other.

When they have talks between mincha and maariv, any women in the women's section come over into the men's section - that's where most people in the room already are. So, having gone into the other space, I looked at the people assembled, and there was this sea of men in suits. Perhaps four or five women amongst them, but mostly, men. Lots. And. Lots. Of. Men. Feeling out of place? I felt out of place. Not part of the group, not even remotely.

I wasn't even there to talk about controversial stuff, either, I was attempting to convey how it is that being me, and delighting in life, results in what I do. And I was so scared because I felt so out of place and Other and liable to be rejected.

Of course, they were all very nice and it was perfectly fine, just as I'd known it would be. But it was an unexpected and startling experience, which I am sharing. I will not attempt to draw general conclusions from a single data point, but it is perhaps worth thinking about the messages we send as groups, and the messages we hear as individuals.

x-posting to jewschool, when my login gets fixed :)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Oct. 22nd, 2008 08:50 pm)
Want to hear about my Simchat Torah? I got to dance with my friend Hillel.

He really loves Torahs, which suits me just fine. On Shemini Atzeret afternoon, Hillel helped me change the Torah covers - they take off their special white High Holy dresses and go back into their workaday velvets - and on Simchat Torah I got to dance with Torah on one arm and Hillel on the other. I think that was probably the best bit of my Succot. It was great.

The rest of the time: mostly logistics; I'm Torah Girl at my shul, and it's my job to make sure the Torahs are all a) rolled to the right places b) in the right locations. Making sure the lightest Torahs are upstairs for the dancing, but also that the ones we actually read from are accessible and not mixed up, and that the Holocaust ones are in the right place for the memorial service, and so on, and so forth; quite a lot of work. Definitely had sore feet by the end of it all.

Hillel is five, by the way. Just in case you'd got all disappointed thinking I'd gone and got coupled up.
Our shul is a no-phone zone. I don't give a damn what you do from sundown on Friday to dark on Saturday - I mean, I'd prefer that you were happy, warm, and well-fed, but you know what I mean - use your phone if you like, but don't use it in my shul, the one that says TURN OFF ALL PHONES AND BEEPERS on the door.

If your phone does go off, it will offend me, firstly because my Shabbat is a phone-free space and I am not expecting that to be violated in my shul, and secondly because you are obviously disregarding my community's request, which is rude. However, I understand that everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Therefore, if you silence it immediately and have the grace to look embarrassed, and then leave and turn it off outside, I will forgive you. You can come back in when you've turned it off.


If your phone rings, what you do not do is dig it out of your pocket, look at it, take it still ringing out of the sanctuary, and answer it in the foyer. You do not. I do not need to hear your ringtone all the time it takes you (ring ring) to get out of your pew (ring ring), go up the (ring ring) aisle (ring ring), pass along (ring ring) the back (ring ring), and go through (ring ring) into the foyer. I do not need to sigh in relief when the noise stops, only to hear you explaining very loudly to your phone that you are in synagogue right now. I am not so inclined to forgive this.

It disturbs my prayer space when I am thinking how much I would like to drop you into a vat of crocodiles. It's really hard to feel holy when I'm wondering if I could cram your phone down your throat. I don't like thinking about toilets in shul, but I have to when I'm thinking how nice it would be to flush your phone away into the sewers.

Plus it's inconvenient to have to bring crocodiles to shul. So just turn the phones off before you get here, 'kay? Thanks so much.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Aug. 17th, 2008 12:51 pm)
[livejournal.com profile] livredor and I spent Shabbat in the centre of Stockholm, borrowing a flat in the city centre for convenience's sake.

And it was really, really nice.

decadence, gospel choirs, and tube stations )

daylight and islands )

immense and startling shul )

mind-broadening )

culture, protein, opera, and celestial commentary )
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Jul. 7th, 2008 08:55 pm)
This is a post about a fun things scribes do with layout, but you need to know about Birkat Cohanim, the Priestly Blessing, before you read it.

The Priestly Blessing is both a piece of Torah and a piece of liturgy. In the Torah, it's Numbers 6:24-26, and the text goes:

May the Lord bless you and keep you; May the Lord shine His countenance toward you and be gracious to you; May the Lord lift up His face toward you and give you peace

Liturgically, it's chanted on certain occasions by any cohanim who happen to be present, and while they do it, they hold up their hands in a Vulcan salute (the two are actually related, although the Vulcan thing is from the Jewish thing and not the other way round).

See Wikipedia for more on this.

OK, on to the scribal bit.

Each of the verses in the Priestly Blessing is separated by a white space. The white spaces are part of the text of the Torah; you have to have them in the right places relative to the text, but their positions on the page aren't prescribed, so they can be bigger or smaller depending on how you want to space the text out.

At some point, some scribe realised that if you're a bit canny with how you place the white spaces, you can arrange them so that the white spaces around the words of the Blessing make the shape the Priests' fingers are in when they say it:

Birkat Cohanim and Torah page
Neat, huh?

PS - the hand in the picture is not touching the text. It is about a centimetre above it.
Here's how to take an aliyah:

Touch the fringes of the tallit to the Torah, where the reader shows you.
Kiss the fringes.
Roll the Torah closed and say the blessings.
Roll the Torah open again and listen to the reading.
The reader will point to the end of the reading. Touch the fringes to that place.
Kiss the fringes again.
Roll the Torah closed and say the blessings.

The thing is that getting an aliyah is an honour, and often enough honours mean dressing up. And for a lot of people, dressing up means lipstick.

Kiss the fringes.

It sometimes happens that lipstick gets left on the fringes.

Touch the fringes to that place.

And accordingly it sometimes happens that lipstick gets transferred to the Torah.

Lipstick, being greasy, is really difficult to get out of a Torah. And it looks pretty awful; the holy Torah smeared with lipstick as if it were a coffee cup.

Just be careful, is all. Use kissproof lipstick, or take a different fringe for the second set of blessings. Don't get lipstick on the Torah.