Archive for March, 2009

Kitniyot unchained

Pesach has always been my favorite holiday.  I love the stories, the songs, and the leisurely meal.  Cleaning doesn’t bother me, and it’s a great excuse to muck out the freezer and dark corners in the back of the cupboards once a year.  And I enjoy many of the foods that are special to Pesach.

One thing I do NOT like about Pesach, however, is the absurd attitude of Ashkenazim to kitniyot.  Those little beans, grains of rice, and seeds are NOT the enemy.  Chametz IS.

And yet the ban on kitniyot, of murky origin and astonishing durability, is allowed to endure and even to expand.  American corn (maize), peanuts, edamame, string beans, and even quinoa are prohibited by some (if not most) Ashkenazi authorities, despite being New World foods never imagined by Europeans when kitniyot-phobia took hold.

We traditional Jews are picky about our food; the Torah tells us to be.  But picky and deranged are two different things, and when it comes to Pesach and what we’re supposedly not allowed to eat, deranged is a better description of our behavior.  The ban was called “foolish” and “mistaken” by rabbis at the time the French community first took it on in the 13th century, but no one listened to them.  Rav Moshe Feinstein did not advocate abandoning the ban, but urged against expanding it to new foods.  In both cases, the will of the people to be barking mad was stronger than the authority of their own sages.

We Crunches went along with the kitniyot nuttiness back in the States.  It was the custom of our community (minhag hamakom), and while we were getting our frum feet under us, we didn’t ask too many questions.

So what finally tipped me over the edge?  Let me count the things:
1)  We made aliyah, and the tight sense we used to have of our surrounding community has loosened since we’ve been here.  People around us keep so many different minhagim, and there is not the centrally recognized authority that our American community had with its rabbinic guidance.  People here go by their family’s customs, psak from their rav from yeshiva, or from some other rabbi with whom they’ve forged a relationship.  As for family minhagim, our families customarily ate pasta and bacon cheeseburgers during Pesach, and we don’t really have a relationship with any rabbis here yet, so we are on our own either to hold on to our American customs or to adopt new Israeli ones.
2)  Two years ago, I began to ask more questions about the practice, including where it had originated, why it’s still clung to, and practical questions such as, “Does serving kitniyot make your Pesach dishes treif?”  The custom, as explained by my teacher (whom I consulted on this and most other issues), was initiated by French Jews whose community had been badly hit during the Crusades, who hoped by adopting a chumra (stringency) to demonstrate their faith to Hashem and thereby escape further persecution by their Christian neighbors.  I understand the cloud of fear under which those Jews must have lived, and if their response to it was to take on chumrot, that was for them to decide.  I cannot say, however, that I agree that their very local and timely custom should bind all of us for eternity.  And kitniyot reside in Limbo in the Passover food world: not eaten by most Ashkenazim, but not chametz, either, and certainly not treif.
3)  Last year, a rabbi in our community gave a shiur on quinoa.  We didn’t go, because the year before he had announced that it was acceptable and besides, quinoa is a vegetable (from the beet family, to be specific), not a grain.  Afterwards we found out from a friend who had gone to the shiur that the rav had explained again that quinoa is not a grain and is halachically permissible, but the rav had actually reversed his ruling because of the concern of ma’arit ayin (fear of appearing to be eating kitniyot).   In other words, he said we cannot eat chametz, or kitniyot, or (adding a third layer of prohibition) even appear to be eating kitniyot.  One of the things I have admired over the years about traditional food laws has been the sophisticated knowledge of food science (and other sciences) required of rabbinical authorities when making rulings about certain foods or practices.  When this rabbi reversed a responsible, scientifically sound, halachically-informed opinion because of ma’arit ayin, he caved in to the forces of ignorance, gossip, and judgmental behavior—an attitude from which I try to keep my distance in the Jewish world.
4)  I remember years ago some friends telling us about how one Pesach they had made and served a salad during Pesach, and the wife had accidentally put snow peas in the salad.  Their guests gawked and the balabusta nearly fainted from embarrassment, but I was left after hearing this story wondering, “Who the hell makes bread out of snow peas?  And will a few snow peas lead to mixed dancing?  Or the end of civilization as we know it?”
5)  Rav David Bar-Hayyim, shlit”a, a Jerusalem rabbi known affectionately by some (and derisively by others) as “the kitniyot rabbi,” has finally liberated both kitniyot and Ashkenazi Jews living in Israel from their chains of stupidity, allowing for their happy reunion.  Ruling that there is no minhag in Israel to avoid kitniyot, and that Ashkenazim who come here to live should adopt the local minhag, he has ruled in favor of a community of Israeli Jews who can eat in one another’s homes for Pesach and throw off some of the fears, bad memories, and chumrot that continue to drive Jewish practice in other parts of the world.  (Rav Bar-Hayyim also posits that the pascal sacrifice does not require the Temple in order to be performed—there was no Temple in Egypt, after all—and that families should be getting together to slaughter and eat lamb as in days of yore.  He also doesn’t agree with the kula of selling chametz before the holiday.  We’re on a lower madrega spiritually than those two things, but are working our way up year by year.)

So no, by putting kitniyot back on the menu we’re not converting to Sefardi Judaism, or throwing off the mantle of frumkeit, or advocating mixed dancing.  We’re just adopting a local minhag.

For more information on kitniyot, Wikipedia has an entry, there is a blog called The Kitniyot Liberation Front, and our late beloved friend and teacher, Rabbi Richard J. Israel z”l, wrote an informative and amusing d’var Torah back in 1997 which explains the practice and origins of the kitniyot ban, and gives the reasons for the Conservative movement’s call for an end to the ban.

Tune in again tomorrow when I share two quinoa recipes, one of which includes—gulp!—KITNIYOT!

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I love movies, and some of the lines from them have stuck with me for decades.  Here are a few of my favorite movie lines (in no particular order).  See if you can guess which movies they come from:

1. All right, everyone out of the room!  Not you, Scott.  Not you, Number Two.  Not you, Random Henchman with a wrench…
2. Can we have your liver, then?
3. She’s a drag, a well-known drag.  We turn the sound down on her and say rude things.
4. Look in the mirror—see what a bad girl looks like?
5. Laz im geyn!
6. Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day!  Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day!
7. I’ll have what she’s having.
8. I know everyone on island is complete and total crazy.  But you Whitaker Walt—you are crazy too?
9. On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot.  ’Tis a silly place.
10. Excuse me, stewardess.  I speak jive.
11. Don’t tell me about the English!  Because while the Greeks were building roads and cities and temples, what were the English doing?  I’ll tell you what the English were doing: they were running about in loincloths plowing up the earth with the assbone of a giraffe!
12. We thought you was a toad.
13. I never had it off with no Black man, dawling…
14. No capes!
15. What’s taters, Precious?

What are the lines that stick in your head long after you’ve seen the movie?

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The name’s Bond…

Who gets schooled in tactics, hand-to-hand combat, defensive driving and shooting?  All by a team organized by a guy named Yehuda?  If you guessed agents from the U.K.’s MI5 you’d be wrong.  The correct answer is “West Bank settlers.”

The Cap’n and I were never “survivalists” in the U.S., and our idea of roughing it has always been Motel 6.  We had the police to take care of us, and terrorist incidents in the greater Boston area were pretty rare.  But life in the West Bank is different, and while we have every desire to live here, we know that there are certain safety issues one must be aware of besides just looking both ways before crossing a street.

To prepare ourselves a little better for life in this part of the world, we’ve been partaking in a course offered by the security services here in Efrat.  It is aimed at people like us (new to the area, clueless, English-speaking, whose idea of a wild night is a post-election costume party at the neighbors’ house), and the other people in the class with us are middle-aged parents of kids who want to learn more about safety in our homes, around the yishuv (settlement), and on the roads.

Ehud, our primary instructor, is Israeli with experience in the army and post-army with anti-terrorism.  He spent the first class outlining some of the issues we should be aware of in our unfenced settlement.  He gave us a list of things we should keep in our cars, encouraged us to have informal drills with our families to get everyone into the mamad (secure room) safely, and what to do if we hear shooting in the streets.  He told us the rules governing the Arab workers in our settlement, and gave us the security hotline number to call if there is any suspicious activity to report.  He also told us about the first response team we have in the yishuv, and how they work in cases of emergency.

The second class was practical self-defense.  I missed this one because it was the day after Bill was born and I was still not quite in fighting shape yet.  The Cap’n went, though, and returned black and blue from drilling with another man in the class with 20 years of martial arts experience.  I’m pretty well prepared for unarmed fighting, but the Cap’n passed on some practical suggestions related to knife fighting (i.e. keep the knife back rather than holding it out like a fireplace poker, and slash rather than stab).

The third class was defensive driving.  We were encouraged to know our cars well: their braking distance, what sorts of obstacles we can drive over, and which we need to drive around.  Ehud set up a roadblock of tires and cones for us to drive toward at high speed, and only slam on the brakes when he gave the signal, about 3 meters in front of the block; we then put the car in reverse and hit the gas again, since such roadblocks are often set up for ambushes.  We drilled how to drive the car from the passenger seat if the driver is shot and wounded (grab the wheel with eyes on the road, push the incapacitated driver back in his seat, steer until a safe distance away from the gunman, then when ready to slow down, lift the driver’s leg and foot from the gas pedal and slowly pull up on the hand brake).  We learned how to pull an incapacitated adult from the car (without throwing our middle-aged backs out), and practiced climbing from the front seat to the back seat to exit out the rear passenger doors (no mean feat in a straight skirt with a rear-facing carseat in the middle of the back).  We drove over burning wooden boards, and through another block set up with road obstacles and rioting classmates armed with water balloons–a kinder, gentler version of stones.  (Ehud tried to limit people to three water balloons per car, but we got a little carried away.  When we were finished, the road was littered with the detritus of our “rioting” and looked like a toddler’s birthday party the morning after.)

There is one more class, which will take place at the range.  A few people already have sidearms, and some of the rest of us will be acquiring them in the next few months.  (The Cap’n and I will get a trainer and sidearms when Bill’s a little older and the madness of the spring holidays is over.)

My friend Rachel thinks we should go on Fear Factor after this class.  (She particularly liked the driving through fire part, though it was basically a non-experience for us since we were instructed to drive normally and felt none of the thrill one might expect.)  But like most self-defense courses, this is not meant to make us fearful, but to make us less so.  The more safety-conscious we are, and the better prepared we are to deal with unusual situations, the safer we can feel living here.

Would I rather not have to take these classes?  Of course.  God willing, we’ll never have to use any of what we learn.  But I think more and more that we live in a world (certainly a country) where this stuff is all relevant, and that we’re much better off knowing as much as we can how to keep ourselves and our children safe.

So until the Mashiach comes and Redemption begins, the name’s Bond…Jane Bond.

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Nosy questions

A woman once wrote to Miss Manners (aka Haragamam) with a story about a man she had sat next to on a plane trip.  In the story, the man had asked her, “Are you a career girl?”  What should she have answered? asked the woman.  Miss Manners answered that she was perfectly within her rights to answer in the affirmative (since she was indeed a “career girl”) and, in the spirit of friendliness and reciprocity, ask the man if he was a “career boy.”

I’m all for turning the tables on people who ask jarring questions.  And one of the silliest questions I and other converts to Judaism are asked is, “Why would you convert to such a nutty religion?”  If the asker wants to discuss the ways in which Judaism is nutty, well and good; I can partake.  But if the question is really just a thinly-veiled insult (another way of saying, “How could you have been so stupid?”), a snappy answer may be called for.  Here are a few responses to consider for those who want to answer the question in the same spirit:
1) because the Jews have all the money;
2) because the Moonies rejected me;
3) because Jews control the world.  Just read the papers;
4) because the Scientologists are too nutty, and the Unitarians aren’t nutty enough;
5) because I heard Jews aren’t supposed to ask nosy questions.

One can also ask the asker, “Why would you ask such a question?”  After all, why a convert did what she or he did is not anyone else’s business.  (This retort also works for people who ask if your triplets are “real,” how much money you make, and why you don’t cover your hair.  Thanks to Heather for the tip on this one.  Another Miss Manners response, I believe.)

Of course, one is always welcome to plumb the depths of one’s soul and come up with a real answer if the asker is someone with any right at all to know.

But I have a fourth way to deal with this situation.  Converts or potential converts should try asking born-Jews why they stayed Jewish.  If they think it’s so nutty, why don’t they convert to something else?  Bet they haven’t thought about that one.  (If you get the opportunity to ask this question of a born-Jew who has opened the subject, please come back and write about what happened.)

How do you think one should answer a question like this?

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Go, Dames!

Yesterday I took the Crunch girls to a children’s matinee performance of “Dames of the Dance 2: The Pesach Story.”  The Dames are made up of Gush Etzion’s women’s dance teachers and their students, and following their highly praised show of last year, they were back this year with a series of 17 dances around the theme of the Exodus and the Pesach seder.  Among the many dance styles were tap, hip-hop, Israeli, jazz, and modern dance, the Charleston, and belly dancing (with lots of jingling but no visible jiggling).

Peach and Banana love shows, but Beans often loses interest after the first ten minutes.  Yesterday, though, the cockles of my heart were warmed by the sight of all three of them completely enraptured by the dancing.  Children, teens, moms, and grannies partook in the performance, telling the story with beauty, grace, wit and humor.  Here were a few highlights:

  • A video of little girls dressed as slaves dancing to Lenny Solomon’s “Into the Sea” (a parody of “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid; lyrics here);
  • A graceful modern dance by a group from Tekoa called “Desert Voices” which showcased the importance of water in the Hebrews’ sojourn in the desert;
  • A small tap ensemble dressed in Egyptian garb (lots of gold lamé) to demonstrate the Egyptian credo that everyone should dress and act like them (performed to the Bangles’ song, “Walk Like an Egyptian,” of course); and
  • A processional dance by women wearing “Dames of the Dance” aprons, providing percussion with metal bowls and colanders, spoons and whisks, forks, knives, and plates, enacting the cooking and table-setting part of seder preparation.  The kids were mildly interested here; the mothers and grandmothers in the audience were busting their guts laughing.

Despite the fact that the Gush is much smaller than Beit Shemesh (around 25,000 as opposed to 75,000), and we have far fewer Russian musicians and no conservatory, there is a wealth of culture here, especially for women.  There are the Dames, of course, and Raise Your Spirits, a group of women who do musical theater, writing and performing shows on Jewish themes.  (Raise Your Spirits began during the early part of this decade to provide entertainment for people in the Gush when there was nightly shooting by Arabs on the road to Jerusalem.)

What I love and admire best about these groups is not only their guts and their talent, but their initiative in making these wonderful events happen.  Some of that comes from this being a community with a very high percentage of immigrants (and children of immigrants) who are accustomed, when they don’t see something they want or need, to making it themselves.  With Raise Your Spirits, it came out of necessity, and with both, it provides a venue for women to perform who do not feel comfortable (because of the laws of modesty) performing for men.  But above all, it showcases local amateur talent, raises money for charity (half the price of each 40 NIS ticket goes to help the needy), provides entertainment for women of all ages, and shows that all women, regardless of shape and size, can build strength and flexibility, move gracefully, and create something beautiful.

Go Dames!

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Like everyone else, I have down days.  The baby has me up at an ungodly hour (though this is blessedly rare), the news has me deeply depressed, I miss my family and friends in the U.S., I lie awake thinking about how much I have to do the next day, or an interaction with one of the girls that didn’t go well, or how I can get Banana to stop tantrumming every afternoon after gan.

But even on my worst days, I find myself thinking how lucky I am to live in this particular time in history.  Yes, the economy looks rather bleak, Iran is plotting my nuclear demise as we speak, and the whole world seems to have it in for the Jews.  But consider these things:
1) Immunizations.  Despite how hard it is to see pain inflicted on my children, I am grateful that there are vaccines for the worst illnesses that plagued prior generations.  I can have a baby nowadays in the almost certain knowledge that it will live to age 5, where a few generations ago the odds might have been 50/50.
2) Birth control.  For parents to be able to plan their families removes much of the dread that I imagine came from married life.  Psychologically, economically, and biologically, people have more power to choose for themselves the family make-up they want.
3) Feminism.  This has become “the other f-word” to some, but I think that’s unfair.  Rather than putting pressure on women to achieve and set aside their personal lives (which is how many people interpret feminism), I think it’s about choices.  Women should be able to choose career, motherhood, and personal relationships at the time they deem appropriate in their lives.  They should be free to move about in society without fear of censure, discrimination, or rape.  While the work of the women’s movement may not be finished, it’s come a long way, baby.
4) Suffrage.  In the biography I’m reading about John Marshall, I learned that voting in the U.S. was originally not done by secret ballot.  Tables would be set up on the village green, candidates and election officials would sit behind the tables, and white, male property owners of age would line up, step forward, and say out loud who had their vote.  It would be recorded, the lucky candidate would stand up and shake the man’s hand and say, “I appreciate your vote.”  On a small scale, this made for tense social situations in small communities, and on a large scale, didn’t take into account the will of the majority of people in the country.  A few centuries later, there is universal suffrage in the U.S. and most of the rest of the Western world (including Israel, but not including its neighbors).  People may fret about election fraud and a politicized Supreme Court deciding the winner of an election, but it is still better than what was.  Those who stay home on their keysters and refuse to vote on principle (Joseph Heller was one) are letting everyone else make their choices for them.  Not me.
5) Careers and education.  We no longer live in a time when what our father did for a living determines what we do.  Universal education is a battleground for people who want to thrash out the details of how it should be done, where the money should come from, and what the curriculum should include, but still it exists.  When made accessible to all, education and the openness of the working world to those with talent and interest rather than those born into a profession makes for a society of freedom, innovation and mobility.
6)  Technology.  Just the thought of hand-washing cloth diapers for Bill gives me the screaming mimis.  The Cap’n and I hand-washed dishes for two years before buying a dishwasher here in Israel.  (Now when we turn it on we close our eyes, smile, and say, “I love this dishwasher.”)  And the Internet.  People used to have to go to the library, own encyclopedias, and simply go without information.  Now we research vaccines for the kids, download dosages for medications (Israeli pharmaceutical companies don’t print them on the package, but enclose them in the box which invariably gets thrown out), listen to songs we’ve long forgotten about, buy stuff, and look up an actor who appears on West Wing whose face we recognize but can’t remember where we’ve seen him.  All with a few clicks of the mouse.  Absolutely amazing.

We have all this stuff now, which allows us to choose.  The Amish can still ride around in their horse-drawn buggies, people can do without dishwashers, and some parents choose not to have their children vaccinated.  Having choices doesn’t eliminate risk, but it does increase personal freedom.  I ask myself nearly every day, How did people manage without this stuff?  I don’t know, but we’re blessed not to have to.

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The other night when getting ready for bed, 5-year-old Peach started to take off her turtleneck, but left the neck stretched around her crown, the shirt dangling inside-out down her back.  “Ima,” she said to me, “you have a Bat Par’o” (Pharaoh’s daughter).  I chuckled along with her, and we proceeded with her bedtime routines.

When she climbed into bed, however, I asked if she wanted to take off the shirt.  “No,” she answered.  I asked why not.  “Because I want to be tznu’ah,” she answered, looking at me a little reproachfully.

I’ve been dreading this sort of confrontation for a while now.  How do I explain to a 5-year-old kid that it is possible to be modest without covering one’s hair?  And that hair-covering is not the only measure of modesty?

It is true, I don’t cover my hair. I did for a few years after my wedding, then stopped.  It wasn’t the community standard where I lived, and after Beans was born, I was less interested in broadcasting my status as a married Jewish woman.  I had become much more comfortable with who I was as a convert, a Newtonian, a wife and mother, a modern person, and just me.  Covering my hair no longer felt comfortable with how I saw myself.

When we made aliyah, however, I knew that hair-covering was a community standard and while I still planned to wear trousers occasionally, I decided to start covering my hair again while I assessed the lay of the land in Israel.  We moved into a community that was modern, but not as modern as Newton.  While most women cover their hair in that community, I was noticing that a good number of the women who became my friends, to whom I related particularly easily, were non-hair-coverers.  Despite hair-covering being so prevalent, I began to feel uncomfortable again, and after six months stopped covering my hair for good.

Before making aliyah, I did some research on hair covering.  I had studied the sota story in the Torah, the basis (so I’ve been told) for the practice of women covering their hair, but I wanted to know more.  A fellow congregant directed me toward the book Hide and Seek: Jewish Women and Hair Covering by Lynne Schreiber, a collection of stories by women about their own experience of hair-covering (or not).  As I read the book, I took careful note of why women were covering their hair.  The answers ranged from the dubious to the preposterous:
1) because it’s halachic (perhaps, though I’m not entirely convinced);
2) so people know I’m married (I have a ring that says that);
3) because I want to save it as something special only for my husband to see (I think we all have more special things set aside for our husbands than that);
4) because I don’t want men to have indecent thoughts about me from seeing my hair (then why is your sheitl so much prettier than your actual hair?);
5) because Hashem wants me to (nowhere does it say that in the Tanakh).
Upon finishing the book, I was convinced that covering my hair was not the right thing for me to do.

Certain things I have agreed to do in Judaism “because Hashem says so.”  I keep kosher, not because it had any health ramifications in the ancient world (it didn’t), but because the Torah says to, because it is meaningful, and because it’s a basic community standard to be met in the world I inhabit.  It’s challenging, especially when one lives in the Diaspora, but it is a challenge I’m up to, that I think is worthwhile.  I go to the mikvah too, not because I need to make sure I get a bath in once a month (though sometimes that can be a challenge with a newborn around), but because it is a Torah imperative.  But I’m not willing to cover my hair because it means nothing to me, it doesn’t do what women think it does, and while it’s supposedly based on a very circumstantial story in the Torah, I suspect the real reason is that for hundreds of years women in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East covered their hair because that was a cultural norm, and while women in many of those regions no longer cover their hair in the modern era, Judaism has chosen to make continued hair covering a halachic imperative.  (And it would not be the first popular custom to be made halachic in that way.)

So Peach is right when she says accusingly, “You hardly ever cover your hair.”  But it’s also true that I am a modest person.  Modesty is not just how one looks; it’s how one behaves.  I don’t flirt with men, do things to call attention to myself, or wear alluring (i.e. trendy) clothing.  I am shomeret nigiah, and while I sometimes bristle at the lengths some religious Jews go to avoid the sexes being in the same vicinity (on buses or in lectures), I don’t make a scene.

I guess my challenge with my daughters will be to show them that hair-covering is not a deal-breaker in the realm of modesty.  In Israel, where people are quick on the draw with labels (realtors often ask women how they cover their hair when deciding which neighborhoods to show them), this won’t be easy.  Wish me luck—I’m going to need it.

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