by Marisa James

I was walking through Penn Station last night and saw a headline on the cover of one of those I-was-abducted-by-aliens papers which claimed that the skeleton of Jonah had been found inside the skeleton of a whale. Finally! Further proof that the Bible Really Happened!

Of course my first question was “Do people actually buy this crap?” But my second question was less rhetorical: why on earth would the article imply that Jonah never escaped from the whale? Would even the most ecstatic bible-thumper want to believe that Jonah never arrived in Nineveh, that the people did not repent and were not saved?

I’m always wavering back and forth myself between optimism and cynicism, wanting on one hand to believe that people will eventually open their eyes and start actively working to protect the earth, end war, make sure everyone has a place to live and food to eat, and buy those hip little eco-friendly cars… but on the other hand being resigned to knowing with absolute certainty that it won’t happen in my lifetime, if ever.

Jonah was certain that no matter what the people of Nineveh did, he wouldn’t be happy with the outcome, but one lesson we’re supposed to learn from the story is that you have to make the effort no matter how much you believe it won’t pay off the way you want it to.

But it worries me that people would want to buy into a version of the story where Jonah never makes the effort, where he just sits in the whale’s belly for the rest of his life, refusing to even try, content to be shut off from the world and devoid of responsibility. I worry that too many people quit too easily, shut themselves off from the world, pretend that none of the problems with the world are their responsibility.

I also worry that I take tabloid headlines too seriously, but that’s another issue.

crossposted from Jewschool

In returning to our regular routine post-Yom Kippur, I know I am emotionally and spiritually inspired by the holidays, and feeling the impact of the work a bit on my body.

I also feel the presence of the many conversations and discussions I didn’t have.

Many (and I do think this is the majority of people these days) know how hard it is for most synagogue leaders to discuss Israel and Palestine with congregants where it is not only an unconditional support for Israel. I know for myself, even at shuls where I am used to hearing the Rabbis talk about human rights for Israelis and Palestinians, these past few days the only refrain and atonement I heard from the bima was of not doing enough to support Israel.

So I am grateful that post Yom Kippur, those of us in New York are offered another opportunity–an extension if you will–to look at the Israeli occupation with other Jews and to stretch ourselves once again for the silences that we have maintained and for the many times we have looked away from the occupation.

The play, An Olive on the Seder Plate, is a multimedia performance about how American Jews wrestle with the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

I have seen the play before when it was originally produced around the time of the Passover. Indeed that is where the name of the play comes from, as many Jews now include an olive on their seder plate as a symbol for the ongoing occupation of Palestine, or more specifically for some, for the olive groves that have been destroyed during the occupation.

What I really love about this play is that is written by and for Jews, and it is written to reach Jewish audiences using art, humor, song and humility to talk about a difficult subject with audiences that often do not know how to begin having these discussions.

This play has traveled throughout the country, visiting numerous communities and synagogues and hebrew schools to not only put on a great show, but to also have in-depth, heartfelt discussions afterwards with audience members and to try to move dialogue in places and in hearts where the issue has sat stifled, stagnated or silenced.

In a review of the play, director Deb Shoval said that: the words spoken on stage during her latest creation aren’t as important as the dialogue she hopes to spark once the curtain falls. “I needed to speak directly to my own community, the Jewish community,” Shoval says. “The play is a tool to create dialogue and to get people thinking about the issues.”

Indeed, I will be there this weekend with my family members, some of whom I have barely been able to have conversations with because it is such a loaded conversation. I look forward to this opportunity, for the discussions I didn’t have, for the many discussions I imagine many of us didn’t have during the High Holidays. I hope many of you will join me this weekend and that you will also bring at least one other person who you wish you had talked to about Israel and Palestine.

An Olive on the Seder Plate: High Holiday Edition 5767
* Friday, Oct 6, 8pm
* Saturday, Oct 7, 8pm
* Sunday, Oct 8, 2pm & 7pm
at the Times Square Arts Center located at 300 W 43rd St.

Below is some of their promotional material. Visit the website to view a trailer and to buy tickets. Undoubtedly, it’s worth it.

This revised and expanded High Holiday Edition responds to present-day issues of the meaning of security, as well as Israel’s relations with neighbors.

An Olive on the Seder Plate is a collaboration between over a dozen Jewish musicians, performers, and artists. The play doesn’t end when the cast takes their final bows, but continues with an optional post-performance dialogue.

An Olive on the Seder Plate presents history, humor, politics and Midrash through a collection of Jewish voices. The production aims to speak to a wide spectrum of audience members, and addresses the realities of anti-Semitism.

An Olive on the Seder Plate is a creative, innovative contribution to ongoing peace and justice work within Jewish communities and beyond. Please join us for a show after this year’s Days of Awe.

Al Gore as Jonah

29 Sep 2006 In: Arts and Culture, Education, Jewish Identity, JVoices, Politics, Torah

Al Gore is our comic hero this week. This is Shabbat Shuva and since seeing Gore’s movie we have tried to redeem ourselves environmentally. Thus, he gets our nod as Jonah the Green. Come to think of it, these days ol’ Al looks like he could use a bit of fasting. As long as we’re talking the Gorester, there’s still a lot of good stuff happening over at

Picture it: a bar. It could be any bar, or perhaps it is a cafe. Elegant, pale-skinned men recline against comfortable chairs amid decor that is at least avant garde, if not always impeccable. Cell phones glimmer wand-like, lips murmuring platitudes or denials, incantations that invoke the lucrative urban deities of status and prestige. Perhaps a man here or there allows his voice to hover at an octave just a few decibels above inaudibility as he discloses salary or sexual proclivities, a catechism equivalent to the soldier’s recitation of military rank and file among this set.

The casual observer will note almost immediately the subtle uniform required for entry to this social tier. Youth is everywhere, flaunting its smooth cheeks and bleach highlights, a few scattered and self-consciously exotic types positioning themselves at intervals across the room as if by assigned quota. There are no wheelchairs, almost never skin darker than the faintest olive, and few words of broken English other than those of wait staff frozen into their servile positions by barriers far more formidable than language. Posters on the walls may boast of liberation and diversity, but there is more variety among those two-dimensional paper men than in this place.

A man walks in wearing business slacks and a neatly pressed, blue shirt. He is shorter than these Mayflower heirs, his hair a darker brown than the creamy lattes poised like handguns near a dozen slim trigger fingers. He walks to a table with high-backed, red leather booths filled with what appear to be his friends. He orders a drink. It does not matter which drink. A dozen thirsty eyes glide like tongues from neck to crotch, sampling this new addition to the menu. The lattes foam, frothing and neglected as the man joins his apparent companions.

Let us imagine this man laughing at the jokes of his companions, taller men whose angular, pale faces assure onlookers of their membership in this curious cult of image. The men banter about life and politics, their eyes occasionally darting toward their newcomer friend, as if expecting him to shock them or object to one comment or another. Let us imagine that the conversation turns to sex as it invariably does.

One man insists that he will not do without leather harnesses and rope in his encounters. Not to be outdone, his neighbour to the left recounts a daring adventure with his married college professor while the professor’s unsuspecting wife played piano in the adjoining room. Another friend regales the group with the story of how he met his current boyfriend, a museum curator who plays baseball on the weekends. They know this game well, their lines flowing seamlessly in tendrils of witty banter that stoke the firelight of this fraternal hearth.

After revelling in the dish and braggadocio of these able-bodied men, the observer experiences an increasing sense of discomfort, the source of which is impossible to pinpoint. The unaffected gestures and genuine warmth reverberating between these men entices the observer with its stark contrast to the vapid stares and machinating smiles at other tables. As the observer glances back at this table to admire these carefree, honourable brethren, the locus of his discontent becomes apparent.
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Revisioning Unetaneh Tokef

26 Sep 2006 In: Ideas, Rosh Hashanah, Spirituality, Vision, Yom Kippur

One of the reasons I love going to CBST is that there is always another perspective, if not from congregants or clergy leaders, than in the various texts that are offered on the holidays. One that I have enjoyed, and that my sister upon visiting for Rosh Hashanah immediately turned to copy, is an interpretive vision of Unetaneh Tokef by Jack Riemer.

Let us ask ourselves hard questions
For this is the time for truth.

How much time did we waste
In the year that is now gone?

Did we fill our days with life
Or were they dull and empty?

Was there love inside our home
Or was the affectionate word left unsaid?

Was there a real companionship with our children
Or was there a living together and a growing apart?

Were we a help to our mates
Or did we take them for granted?

How was it with our friends:
Were we there when they needed us or not?

The kind deed: did we perform it or postpone it?
The unnecessary gibe: did we say it or hold it back?

Did we live by false values?
Did we deceive others?
Did we deceive ourselves?

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It is just after Rosh Hashanah, mere days after I chose to protest racist comments in my synagogue by praying at home on two of the holiest days of the Jewish year. Appalled by the bigotry of references to the genetic inferiority of African-Americans, aware that my rabbi shared my anti-racist views but was unable to enforce them, I chose the only ethical response available to me after my numerous anti-racist challenges failed to alter the social climate: I left. For a traditional Jew whose way of life emphasizes Jewish unity and communal loyalty, this statement was as potent as it was painful to make. For a moment, I deluded myself into believing that I had triumphed over evil. I had fought against injustice and won. This self-congratulatory inner dialogue yielded to deep uneasiness. What, exactly, had I won; the freedom to be a solitary Jew, to maintain my ethics at the price of my community?

“Go back to your country and stop taking American jobs.” This accusation from a stranger unravels the apparent order of my morning. I am standing at the bus stop on an otherwise quiet street. The warmth of the sky belies the ugly chill cast by my detractor. I have convinced myself that I am whole and beautiful, that I should wear my Mizrahi garments without fear of derision. My detractor pours his words over me like gasoline, staining my djellaba with the dirt of judgement. He brands me thief, infiltrator, enemy. It does not matter that he thinks I am Muslim or Arab, not Persian or Jew. I am as much a part of those things that he hates as he believes I am.

I have not yet fastened my battle armour for the day; it takes shields to simply be myself and refuse to be destroyed by public condemnation. Once armed, I bear the invincibility of detachment; I sacrifice my natural empathy in exchange for thick skin that alienates me from my soul even as it buffers me from external attacks. I am not yet thick-skinned; In the peculiar mathematics of disenfranchisement, I have convinced myself that dangerous people do not awaken before 10 a.m., and so I am caught off-guard by this early morning racist. I must revise my battle plan. I must resolve to screen potential enemies more carefully. My elemental joie de vivre is endangered by each exposure to the public sphere; when was I so free that I could be myself without knowledge of the risk involved?

I counter my detractor’s argument with intellect. I note that most of the people who now claim this land were immigrants, not the original inhabitants of North America. I brandish the standard verbal weapons to combat his claim.

Now the accusation shifts. A man who argues with words instead of fists is not a man at all, goes the unspoken rule of a culture so foreign to me that I can barely comprehend its existence. “Why do you talk like a girl?? he forages, a hint of menace prickling down my back in a hot, spiky trail. I mutter disagreement out of unwillingness to admit defeat, sheer tenacity that hints at a will I do not feel. I weave down endless back streets until I reach the safety of my office. I wonder when my world became a cage.
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the calendar has come around again to the time of one of the many proud jewish traditions that has gone out of practice in recent years, though not one that gets mentioned very often.

in ashkenazi communities from nyu-york and buenos (aires) to varshe and london (and i assume to durban and sydney), each fall, on the 10th of tishrey, radical jews – mainly anarchists, though also bundists, communists, and other socialists – held a celebration. the community would turn out in full force, dressed in their best clothes, and pack the hall, sometimes spilling out into the street. they would generally begin by sitting down to a banquet, followed by a musical program that would lead into dancing until the late hours of the night. the event would be held in a hall as close as possible to the official center of the jewish community, the synagogue.

the yom kippur ball drifted out of common practice as the first half of the twentieth century waned. radical jews’ inclination to confront the religious authorities declined as those authorities wielded less and less practical power; their impulse to acknowledge the date of atonement for halakhic transgressions declined as the secular jewish culture they created grew stronger. so why, every year at about this time, do i – three generations of secular radical jewish life past that era – have an urge to throw a really rowdy party?

a majority of jews in the world are secular. u.s. jews are more so than most*, and have been since the earliest days of mass ashkenazi immigration. the allure of the goldene medine was one factor in leaving the old country, but alongside if not ahead of it stands the intense repression experienced by most jews in communities ruled by the traditional alliance of rabbinical authority and economic elite, endorsed and defended by halakhic dictates. similarly, on the other side of the atlantic, rumenye and besarabye have their place of adoration in yiddish song in part because they were seen as the seats of secularism in eastern europe, areas where halakha held less sway. this decided tilt towards secularism continues in the u.s. down to this day. even the synagogue-oriented u.j.a. couldn’t manage to find more than 44% occasional synagogue attendance among new york jews in its 2003 survey – which largely relied on its own membership list (which the survey results show to be disproportionately observant) to find research subjects. religious adherence is the exception in our communities; but you’d never know it from listening to how folks talk about u.s. jews.

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I’ve never spent the High Holy Days on the east coast before.

I’m from Seattle. There’s a joke (well, there’s a joke as of right now):
Q: How do you tell a Seattle Jew from a Seattle goy?
A: There’s a difference?

I did my latke presentation in kindergarten like everyone else, the song and dance of why is this girl different from all other girls; you all have heard (or lived) that story before.

I moved to New York about 9 months ago now. One thing I did not expect to get when I came here was the Jewish community I never knew I was missing. Growing up, I went to religious school every year from kindergarten through 10th grade, but other than that and one family with which my family was friends, I lived in a goyishe world. I was okay with that and then, as I came out as a big queermo and again as an anti-occupation Jew, it was pretty much guaranteed that Judaism and I were on a break. You all have probably heard (or lived) this story too.

And you might have heard the story about how shocked I still am, shocked and thrilled, that since I have moved to New York I have started to find radical queer Jews committed to all three of those identities; people who are messy queermosexuals, just like me, and yet deeply and learnedly Jewish.

But all that isn’t what I want to write about. More »

The Akeda

21 Sep 2006 In: Arts and Culture, Torah, Tradition

Whatever else you say, you’ve got to give us some props for the degree of difficulty of this one. The Hannukah story of Hannah and her sons is violent and tragic. In one version of the tale, after her first six sons are slaughtered, Hannah tells her youngest and last surviving son that when he meets Abraham he should inform the patriarch that she had performed a scarifice even greater than his.

We didn’t know much about Judaism and martyrs, and still don’t. But we now remember that Judiasm, the civil rights movement, the American revolution and darn near everything else worth struggling for has its martyrs.

In our fantasies, maybe we’d respond to a existential challenge the way Hannah did. Then again, the great taste of ham is also from G-d.

But if there is a special section for martyrs in olam haba (the world to come), Hannah should be queen of it.

Halacha dreams

19 Sep 2006 In: Jewish Identity, LGBTQ, Queer, Spirituality, Tradition

My interest in leading a more observant Jewish life seems to have saturated my subconscious. Several times a week for the past few months I have had vivid dreams about myself as a more observant (and often Orthodox) Jew. It started with a series of itense dreams in which I go to a mikvah. I woke up each time moved, disturbed, and scared of my own desire for religious community and faith. There have been other themes as well. In some dreams I am a frum Jewish woman married to a man. In some I am a frum Jewish man married to a woman who wears long skirts and covers her hair.

I have had dreams where I get laughed out of an Orthodox synagogue due to my gender ambiguity. Dreams of kashering my kitchen. Dreams in which I am physically or verbally assaulted when the members of my congregation learn that I am not a zionist. Dreams in which I am bringing my mother to a mikvah to do a ritual so that she can get pregnant (at the age of 54, no less!). In one recurring dream I am trying to figure out which side of the mechitzah to sit on.

I grew up in a small, rural Reconstructionist synagogue that had formerly been a Conservative congregation and retained some of that traditionalist spirit but did not emphasize halacha. My liberal Ashkenazi family didn’t keep kosher, but we did Shabbat dinner and prayers every Friday night together and went to synagogue nearly every week. My mom was agnostic but insisted we go to Hebrew School. After my Bat Mitzvah I didn’t go to shul as regularly, but maintained a strong Jewish identity and when I left home I found myself gradually moving towards more observance.

I have gone to services at Reform, Conservative, Renewal and Reconstructionist synagogues on both the east and west coasts. I go to a Conservative shul right now. I would like to see what services are like at the Modern Orthodox shul but worry about how I’ll be received, a boyish looking masculine woman wearing pants in a strongly gender-binary environment. My attraction to religious observance is interwoven with a lot of anxiety about peoples’ perceptions of me, making other people uncomfortable, and being the focus of attention.

I am increasingly drawn towards halacha, and towards having a strong, faith-based Jewish community… Despite my discomfort with some of it. The brand of egalitarian Judaism that I once assumed was more progressive (no gender-based rituals, avoidance of male pronouns to refer to G-d, replacing the word “Adonai” with “Shechinah”) actually feels somewhat contrived to me these days as I become more comfortable being a woman and struggle to embrace gender-specific experiences. The constant re-creation and changing of rituals and prayers in Renewal and Reform Judaism can sometimes even feel like an act of disrespect towards our tradition. But I don’t know that I have the option available to me to be part of a more traditional Jewish world, as a very non-traditional Jew… So where do I belong? I feel like a reactionary in the egalitarian-progressive Jewish world and like a radical freak in the traditional Jewish world. I hope as I find a way to integrate my religious practice and my radical political beliefs I’ll find a space where I can be all of who I am.

As a non-zionist, butch, queer woman it scares the living daylights out of me that I am drawn towards a more traditional Jewish practice that I learned to demonize in my 2nd wave feminist past and still feel much discomfort with. This journey is forcing me to confront internalized anti-semitism and rethink the ideas I had about religious people. My Reconstructionist upbringing feels like a liability at times. I don’t know how to even begin to learn all the things about Judaism that I feel I should already know… as if all Jews but me were born knowing all the complexities of Jewish practice! I haven’t yet started reconciling my identity and politics with my religious leanings. Most of all, I am unsure of how and where to find community. But I am making small steps towards observance. I recently stopped working on Saturdays, and started going to Torah service every week and using the rest of the day for restful purposes. I have started saying prayers every evening. I have stopped mixing milk and meat together in my meals and started eating only kosher meat. I am reading Jewish texts and commentary on a regular basis. For someone raised by ex-hippies in a haymish, non-traditional Jewish environment where my father often brought home shrimp for Shabbos dinner, these are big steps. Each small thing I do to make my life more Jewish makes me feel connected to G-d and connected to other Jews.