First Day of Adamah

September 11, 2011

Today is the first day of the Adamah Fellowship, which I’ll be doing this fall, living communally with fourteen other fellows, working on a farm (which is mostly still under water from Hurricane Irene), and learning about sutainable, intentional, communal living and Jewish spirituality. I’m incredibly excited to be spending the Fall in New England for the first time in a decade. It’s only the beginning of September, but I can already feel that magical fall energy in the air.

Here’s the tent where I’ll be living for the next three month:

Although Irene was very destructive in many ways, she also had many beautiful effects. Diverse species of mushrooms have popped up all over the woods here (note the big ones in front of my tent), and streams, like this one, which runs right near my tent, are full.

Homemade Scattergories

September 9, 2011

I don’t know why it had never occurred to me earlier that one could create a more engaging, funny game by making up new categories to use for the popular Milton Bradley parlour game “Scattergories”, in which players attempt to come up with items in different categories that all start with the same letter. Under the influence of a few mixed drinks, my friends Kim and Rocky and I each made up four new categories to come up with the following list, which contrary to my expectations, worked even better than the standard lists that Milton Bradley includes with the game.

Our list:
Dental Procedures
“That Kid”
Articles of Clothing
Animals I would have sex with
Breakfast foods
Oral fixations
Premises for Horror movies
Bathroom Items

So next time you go to play Scattergories, try setting aside the boring standard-issue lists and make your own.

Norway, Maine, USA

September 8, 2011

At first, when I got off the plane in Portland, the cynical New Yorker in me assumed that those wooden rocking chairs looking out of place in the airport waiting area were some clumsily self-conscious attempt to exploit a certain image of folksiness for marketing and branding purposes. But after spending just a short time here in Maine, I’m pretty well convinced that Maine really is the kind of state where they put rocking chairs in the airport, because they think it’s a nice way to do things. People here are so artlessly friendly I can hardly believe it.

But beyond how simply nice people here are, I’ve been most impressed in my brief stay with the local food scene, which rivals anything I’ve seen in those foodie hotspots of Brooklyn and Northern California. What’s most impressive is not the selection of local foodie offerings, from organic sodas and mead and beer to tofu and cheese and sausages. What really impressed me is that eating local is not some fad of the foodie elite here: it’s a really mainstream idea in Maine. Ordinary people here brag on their loal products and advocate for shopping and eating locally in a way that I usually only see within rareified circles of lefty food nuts.

If eating locally and sustainably are not part of a passing fad, but are, as I hope, part of a sea-change in how Americans relate to their food, then it would seem Maine is in the vanguard of that shift.

The Cute-Guys!

July 13, 2011

Years ago (it’s becoming increasingly unpleasant to think about just how many years ago), when I was an undergraduate, I had a biology professor who would refer to any and all animals, especially lab animals, such as red-spotted newts or African clawed toads, as “the guys” or more often “the cute guys”.

Lately, my job has been really stressing me out, but in the last 24 hours or so, I’ve had three really neat run-ins with the cute guys that brightened my outlook and lowered my blood pressure. Last night, a really cute beetle with these awesome three-pronged antennae landed on my hat and hung out there for a good 20 minutes, while I davened maariv (trans. “prayed the evening service”). I played with this particular cute guy a bit, watching it fold up its antennae when I blew on them or moved my finger too close to them. Eventually the beetle got fed up with my harassment and flew at a lightbulb. I turned it off so it wouldn’t burn itself. I was somewhat sad to discover, upon looking the creature up, that my little friend, whose good looks had so charmed me, was in fact an invasive pest known as the Japanese beetle.

Then this morning, while I was running on a dirt road through the woods near camp along my usual route, I saw these two really big dark brown dogs that I didn’t recognize standing in the middle of the road. When they saw, me they started running towards to the woods, and from the way they ran, I realized they weren’t in fact dogs, but juvenile black bears. I stopped and listened to the bears crash through the underbrush for a few seconds before I continued running.

And this afternoon, after a long morning of meetings with counselors, teaching class and trying to study but being interrupted constantly by counselors with questions about the play, rushing in cloud of annoyance and stress, I saw this beautiful monarch butterfly flitting along the path, and I stopped to watch it for a minute as it would settle on the ground and then take off again flitting back and forth with no apparent destination or direction. This little colorful thing hovering over the dull, dusty earth seemed almost too beautiful to be real, like some kind of animation drawn into a frame of ordinary film, the way they used to do in the days before movies were made on computers.

In conclusion, thank God for the Cute Guys. Even when they are invasive pests.

Do it on my butt!

July 10, 2011

Last night during Shabbat dinner, the five year old child of one of the rabbis here in camp came up to my table. A couple of us were teasing her by tapping her on the shoulder when she wasn’t looking. She really liked this and kept telling us to “do it on my back.” This evolved into a game where she would say “do it on my back” and I would pretend not to understand some aspect of the instruction, no matter how explicit she tried to make it. The more dense I pretended to be, the more the child became frustrated and amused until she was literally rolling on the floor with laughter yelling “DO IT ON MY BACK!” Eventually I ‘caught on’ and tapped her on the back. Then it was “do it on my tummy”, I poked her tummy, “do it on my head”, I poked her head. Then “do it on my butt”. Now, I wasn’t sure whether it would be appropriate or not to poke this child, with whose family I am only slightly acquainted, on her butt, so I demurred, but the child kept insisting, calling out more and more loudly “DO IT ON MY BUTT!” in the middle of the staff dining room, much to the embarrassed amusement of my table-mates and I. Eventually someone else at the table acquiesced and poked the girl on her butt, and she began delightedly crying out “You did it on my butt,” again much to the puerile amusement of our whole table. It became difficult to hold it together when she began gesturing with her finger towards her own butt to indicate the action that was “done”, resulting in what she could not realize was quite a lewd gesture.

There is something as disconcerting as it is hilarious about small children innocently saying and doing things that, coming from an adult, would be simply obscene. I hope my friends and I didn’t skew this poor child’s worldview too much with our poorly masked amusement at her childish phraseology and antics. With any luck she’ll have forgotten the whole incident before she gets to the age when elementary school kids begin to titter at every variation on the phrase “do it”.

This week, on my day off from my surprisingly stressful job teaching drama at a Jewish summer camp, I visited the Jewish farm where I’m hoping to be living come September. This is what my day looked like:

  1. 6:00 a.m. Blindfolded trust walk, followed by meditation on a dock, followed by readings of poems by the two American nature poets most beloved by hippies and Jews(I’ll buy the first commentor to correctly identify both poets a beer) followed by skinny dipping (or what we Jews call “mikveh“) in a pond with virtual strangers.
  2. 7:00 a.m. Shacharit (morning prayers)
  3. 7:45 a.m. Breakfast (with real French press coffee, which I haven’t gotten to have in over a year)
  4. 8:30 a.m. Harvest cucumbers, weed carrots and leaks, tie up cauliflower leaves
  5. 12:00 p.m. Three on three basketball. Every time someone asks me to play basketball, I am beset by a wave of social anxiety and insecurity that’s been stored away unresolved since the first and last time I tried to play basketball for fun in the 5th grade. I always decline. This time, after being repeatedly pressed to join the game, I acquiesced. I don’t know if it was the fact that we were all Jewish, or the fact that we were mostly hippies and punks or the fact that we were of various genders, or just the fact that all of us were adults, but much to my suprise (A) I didn’t seem to be all that terrible compared to everyone else and (B) if I was, everyone was so nice and chill that I didn’t even notice it. Is it possible I don’t hate sports as much as I thought?
  6. 12:30 p.m. Lunch of delicious fresh local vegetables and pita with hippy-style hummus (light on the oil, heavy on the garlic)
  7. 1:30 p.m. Mincha (afternoon prayers)
  8. 2:00 p.m. Prepare toppings for a 40-person pizza party
  9. 4:30 p.m. Job interviews in the grass, in the shade
  10. 5:00 p.m. Causal inquiries into possible rides to the train
  11. 6:00 p.m. Milk some goats.
  12. 6:45 p.m. More urgent scrounging for a ride to the train
  13. 7:00 p.m. Eat pizza baked by the former chef of Brooklyn’s best gourmet kosher pizzeria
  14. 7:15 p.m. Last ditch effort to find a ride to the train
  15. 7:45 p.m. Give up on searching for a ride to the train and decide to spring for a cab
  16. 7:50 p.m. Discover that the local cab company is closed for the night. Search vainly for an alternative or competitor.
  17. 8:00 p.m. Frantic final effort to get a ride to the train
  18. 8:10 p.m. Someone I’d exchanged awkward OKCupid messages about a year ago offers me a ride to the train. Feel awkward accepting it.
  19. 8:15 p.m. Give up on a ride to the train. Make arrangements to stay the night and go home in the morning.
  20. 8:30 p.m. Run into the aforementioned chef, who offers me a ride to the train. Enjoy a 25 minute car ride through the New England twilight, enjoying the subtle beauty of the Appalachian landscape.

Aside from all that ride-scrounging, it’s hard to imagine that my life even for a few months could be so idyllic. Can I move tomorrow?

Well, I have a list of about half a dozen posts I wanted to write related to my final weeks in Israel, and my very complicated feelings about leaving to come back to my other homeland. But before I got around to writing any of them, I was back here and immersed in my much-more-than-full-time job as Head of Drama at a Jewish summer camp not far from New York City. So, instead of blogging about all the things I’m sad to leave behind in Israel, or all the the things I’m excited to be coming back to in the U.S., or all the things I’m happy to be leaving behind in Israel or all the things I’m nervous about coming back to in the U.S., or about my recent adventures with the bureaucracy of the Israeli Rabbinate, I’ll just relate a brief dialogue between me and the six-year-old son of another staff member here.

6-year-old: You’re lucky you have a beard and a mustache.

Me: Why am I luck I have a beard and a mustache?

6-year-old: Because you don’t have to wipe your face after you eat.

If only.

Happy Shavuot!

June 7, 2011

Tonight we will be celebrating Shavuot with festive meals and all-night Torah study marathons. Here’s a cute music video from G-dcast in honor of the holiday:

Last week, I spoke briefly at Pardes’ closing lunch, and I have adapted what I remember of the remarks here:

Two years ago, when I first arrived at Pardes, I was struck by something our dean, David Bernstein said during one of the various orientation/convocation events. He said that each of us certainly had at least one relative or ancestor, whether we knew who they were or not, for whom it was a lifelons dream to sit and learn Torah in Jerusalem, just as we were doing. Though I’d never met him, I immediately knew that for me, that ancestor was my great grandfather, Israel Marin (z”l), who brought his family to New York from Riga, and who was the last traditionally observant Jew in our family until me.

Over the last two years, as I’ve learned at Pardes and deepened my own relationship with Judais, I have occasionally thought of my great grandfather and what he would have thought of my complicated journey towards greater observance. Much more often, though, I’ve thought about other family and friends, most of whom are not religious, many of them not Jewish, for whom it isn’t a dream to come and study in Jerusalem, who don’t relate to my enthusiasm for Judaism, and who regard my newfound observance with mistrust, fearing, perhaps rightfully, that it will create a rift between us. These are the people whose image has been in my mind most often as I have sat and learned in the Beit Midrash.

Lately, as I prepare to leave Pardes and return to the United States, I’ve been thinking more about my great granfather, who left behind the Jewish community that had nourished him in Riga, and had to figure out how to build a Jewish life in America. In some ways, he succeeded very well: he raised a family, moved to a Jewish neighborhood in Far Rockaway, volunteered at his synagogue and studied a lot of Torah. In other profound ways, though, he failed. The model of Judaism that he cherished didn’t work for his children, and all four of them became secular.

Like my great grandfather, I face the challenge of building a life that is deeply grounded in the Jewish tradition, while also nurturing my relationships with secular friends and family, and the broader, non-Jewish American community. This is a balancing act, and I don’t expect it to be an easy one.

The week before last, in Parashat Bemidmar and last week in Parashat Naso, we read about censuses of the Israelites and the Levites. In both censuses, the Torah states that individuals were to raise their heads למשפחותם ולבית אנבותם, by family and by ancestral house (e.g., Num. 1:2, 4:22). I would like to bless all of us who have developed relationships to Judaism that put us at odds with our families and friends, that we all find a way to raise our heads by our families and by our ancestral houses, that we may successfully rise up as members and leaders of the Jewish people in a manner that honors our living families as well as our ancient tradition.

Jerusalem Day

June 3, 2011

Yom Yerushalayim, which was observed this week, celebrates the reunification of the old city of Jerusalem under Jewish control in 1967, after 19 years in which the city was divided between Jewish and Arab control. Unsurprisingly, given the historical, political and moral complexity of the events it commemorates, Yom Yerushalayim is not a universally beloved holiday even among Jews in this country, and remains a holiday primarily of the Dati Le’umi (Religious Nationalist) community. Even among religious Jews there are questions about how it should be celebrated, whether it merits recitation of a full Hallel (collection of psalms recited on holidays and moments of national celebration), and if so, if the Hallel should be preceded by a blessing (implying that the recitation is statutory).

Left-winger that I am, when I prayed at home in the morning, I didn’t recite Hallel, and I made no plans to visit the Old City, a place where I often feel claustrophobic and alienated. But mid afternoon, after running into a friend on his way back from the Old City, I had second thoughts. After all, for all the politcal, historical and humanitarian consequences, the return of the Temple Mount to Jewish sovereignty after a 2,000 years of hiatus, is a moment worthy of commemoration. So I hopped on a bus headed downtown, and got off next to Yemin Moshe, one of the first Jewish neighborhoods built outside the walls of the Old City in the 19th century. I crossed the valley and climbed up to the old city, imagining what this place looked and felt like 44, 100, 2000 years ago.

I was suprised when I got to the kotel (the “wailing wall”), to find that it wasn’t actually that crowded. There, inconsistently, I grabbed a prayerbook and recited Hallel (with a blessing!) before joining a minyan for mincha (afternoon prayers). By that point, they had started blasting religious and Jerusalem-themed dance songs on the plaza, and it was almost impossible to hear the shaliach tzibbur (service leader) over the music. I made sure to include everyone who ever suffered and died on all sides of the struggle for this holy site in my prayers, but to be honest, it wasn’t a terribly powerful or intentional prayer experience.


In Israel, when crowds of religious, patriotic young men have an occasion to celebrate, they put their arms around each other and dance. If I try to imagine their American cultural analogs (flag waving, beer-drinking, church-going sports fans) doing the same, it’s laughable, but in Israel, it seems quite normal.

In America, I would never go anywhere near such a rowdy, flag-waving crowd, and to the extent that I feel like Israel is my country, I find such displays totally offensive and unappealing here as well, but to the extent that it is not my country, I feel like I can enjoy the experience as an outsider, part-observer, part-participant. And so, when I took leave of the kotel, I hestitated for a moment before joining one of the many rings of dancing men weaving in and out among the crowds of flag-bearers.

I selected the only circle where I wouldn’t have been the oldest person in the group, an incomplete circle of mostly senior citizens dancing slowly. Suddenly, a man looking to be in his 70s wearing a black suit and a black velvet kipah, stepped into the center of the circle, and began whirling about, waving his arms this way and that, his face radiating joy, every movement manifesting grace and dignity. He was so clearly being moved by a spirit and a moment greater than himself, everyone in the circle seemed aware that we were witnesses to a something special. Then the old man left the circle and was replaced in the center of our circle by an overexuberant, rhythmless young man who demonstrated some breakdancing moves with no real skill or grace before grabbing my arm and dragging me into the circle with him. We danced together very awkwardly for a moment, but I quickly ducked back out and follwed after the old dancer, who was strolling about, clapping, looking perfectly pleased with everything.

I joined a chaotic, spiraling conga line, my hands on the back of a very sweaty dwarf. Then I noticed that we were circling a giant blue and orange banner, whose slogan I didn’t understand, but which I suspected was something politically reprehensible. As I absented myself from the dancing, I ran into a friend who pointed out a few orange “Eretz Yisrael l’Am Yisrael” (roughly, “Israel for the Jews”) flags. The fact that I was surrounded by, even dancing with thousands of right-wing nationalists suddenly hit home, and I became ashamed of myself.

It was time to go. I was running late for dinner with liberal, Anglo friends in undisputed territory in South Jerusalem.