Monthly Archives: January 2016

Hevenu Shalom Aleichem

asefchavar.org

For most of my childhood and adolescence, I had considered myself to be a Christian, but it wasn’t till I was 15 that I received what I thought was “The Holy Ghost” at my Pentecostal high school’s church and started taking my faith more seriously. One of the events that spurred this was attending a “passion play” the church was holding just in time for Easter. My science teacher of all people was going to play Jesus, my principal Pontius Pilate, my English teacher Nicodemus, etc.

I almost didn’t go. I could’ve done so much other stuff on a Friday night besides watching a play about a story I already knew, but for some reason, I felt spiritually compelled to attend. Once I arrived, I took my seat and the lights dimmed. Then, out of the darkness, a light appeared onstage and the first thing that caught my eye was near the ceiling. This church’s sanctuary normally has a small cream-colored cross just underneath the ceiling.

In place of this cross was a star of David.

And then the music started.

A bunch of actors in Biblical era clothing gathered on stage, some I recognized from my school faculty and student body, some I had never met from the church. A lively Yiddish musical soundtrack began playing, and everyone on stage danced around and singing in Hebrew. I could make out what they were saying: “Hevenu shalom aleichem.” I knew the last two words, but later found out the whole sentence means, “We brought peace upon you.”

This was my first live experience with Jewish music, and sitting there in that dimmed sanctuary hearing a language that was mysterious, yet somehow very familiar deep down in my soul, was totally mystifying. It was joyful and echoed centuries of love and life and learning with each beautiful chant. It even brought me closer to God, just not in the way I was used to as a Christian. I loved it. It fulfilled a part of me that conventional Christianity didn’t, and I wanted more.

This was most likely the event that spurred an “applied” interest in Judaism. While I never began studying Hebrew, I started referring to Jesus as Y’shua. It made me feel more authentic as a Christian and as an ethnic Jew. I researched Messianic Judaism, and the idea that I could marry my Christian upbringing with Jewish belief and practice made me absolutely joyous. Of course, my following research into why non-Messianic Jews rejected Jesus made me realize why the two religions aren’t compatible, but you get my point. It reawakened an interest in this part of myself and led me to where I am today.

Case in point: I was at Friday night Shabbat service this past week, and during the oneg, the Rabbi led us in some light singing to accompany our noshing. One of the songs was “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem.” A wave of nostalgia ran over me, and I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. Here I am, 26 years old, sitting in a Reform synagogue with a Sephardic kippah on my head, equipped with a different (yet equally fulfilling) relationship with God, singing a Hebrew song that I heard for the first time in a Pentecostal church.

It’s kind of funny: Those actors really did help bring peace upon me.

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Let Them Carry

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jewishrecon.org

As somewhat of a critic of organized religion (despite converting to an organized religion), one of my biggest complaints has always lied within some religions’ problem of misogyny. Religious texts placing questionable constructs on women have shaped civilization throughout the centuries, with the 19th and 20th centuries seeing a sharp and necessary advent in women’s rights, paving the ground work of creating equality with men. This has been seen in both secular and religious settings, the former providing women with access to education, jobs, and civil rights, and the latter encouraging egalitarianism in liberal synagogues and even rabbinic certification.

Regardless, more work needs to be done, and this is clearly evidenced by the recent actions of the Orthodox Jewish Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland. According to a Haaretz.com article, two female students, Lea Herzfeld and Yakira Zimand, wanted to carry their school’s Torah scroll around the sanctuary like their male classmates.

“We just felt like we were sitting in davening and didn’t have a meaningful experience. We don’t participate with anything with the Torah,” said Herzfeld. “We go to the back of the room whenever the Torah is being passed around and kiss it from a tiny spot behind the mehitzah.”

“It feels really uncomfortable to have a ton of girls try and squish into that really small spot to have any contact with the Torah,” said Zimand.

The students’ request was denied by the school’s headmaster, Joshua Levisohn. He stated that if the students acquired enough signatures on a petition, the issue would be reexamined. However, since their Change.org petition is “public” and not within the “school community”, the signatures are invalid. This controversy comes a decade after the school finally allowed boys to carry the Torah to the girls’ side of the sanctuary, permitting them to touch or kiss it.

Some may argue, “Well, it’s Orthodoxy. They’re obligated to follow all 613 mitzvot.” True, except there is no rule that says women cannot carry the Torah. Anywhere. It’s a social construct with ZERO halachic value. Still, the headmaster asserts that allowing girls to carry the Torah “narrows the separation between men and women in davening” and creates a “slippery slope, of using unorthodox methods for change in Orthodox practices.” I wholly disagree.

Women carrying the Torah around their sections do absolutely nothing to break the congregational divide of women and men in shul. It gives them the right to actively live and breathe their Judaism, to celebrate the physical evidence of their bond with God and Israel.

Additionally, women are carrying the Torah in more Orthodox congregations than ever now. Levisohn stated that “only” 20% of Orthodox congregations in the D.C. area allow women to carry, as if that’s supposed to justify his ruling. 20% is not a majority, but it’s also not scant. That’s a solid 1/5th of D.C. Orthodox Jewry openly saying that women have just as much a right to carry the most sacred of Jewish objects as men do. That number needs to grow, but it’s a damn good start.

But let’s put aside that this rule is clearly based on misogyny and has nothing to do with halacha. It’s giving Jewish girls and women a clear message that they aren’t good enough to embrace the Torah; and that, of course, drives them away from Judaism.

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, the Executive Director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, weighed in by saying, “I’m not sure why it should be problematic to give women a moment with the sefer Torah, our holiest object,” adding that because of this baseless rule, “women aren’t showing up” to daven due to alienation. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems like a pretty big responsibility of congregations is to NOT lose members.

Judaism, no matter the branch, is supposed to encourage all Jews to “do God” without judgment or shame, particularly by performing a ritual that honors their sacred yoke without breaking it. Forbidding an act solely for being “unusual” halts progress and contradicts the very values that make Judaism such a rich and beautiful religious civilization.

I encourage all Orthodox clergy to reexamine this rule, and more importantly, to ask their girls and women what they think. They may very well be surprised at how many people want to see a change take place; a change that can and will bring even more female congregants closer to their Judaism, and in turn, could very well change the world.

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Creep (2014)

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*my review reposted from ForcedViewing.com*

Mark Duplass is a pretty awesome dude. He’s proven himself to be a fantastic director, sceeenwriter, and producer, as evidenced by his indie comedies, such as Cyrus and Jeff Who Lives at Home, just two of the features co-written, produced, and directed by him and his brother Jay. Not to mention the fact that he’s made a name for himself as an actor, from FXX’s fantasy football bro-sterpiece The League to other indie comedies like Safety Not Guaranteed. He’s even branched out into horror, with one of his latest films being the creepy-as-fuck looking The Lazarus Effect.

Speaking of horror, there’s another entry in the genre he has under his belt: the little-known independent found footage flick Creep.

Duplass portrays Josef, a socially awkward loner who owns a cabin in the remote mountainous forest who enlists the help of a Craigslist ad videographer named Aaron (Patrick Brice, also the film’s director) to film a short video diary for his unborn son before he dies of brain cancer. As we are introduced to this man, we instantly feel sympathy for him, but as Aaron’s camera continues to roll, we see that he’s not simply quirky. There are deep issues bubbling beneath the surface that slowly come to light.

Brice plays the typical jaded yet kinda stupid millennial protagonist in over his head, and he’s someone who probably should be doing background checks on his clients before meeting them in remote cabins in the mountains. Regardless, when shit gets real, we can’t help but feel sorry and scared for the poor sap, but also want to see just how far his life spirals after encountering Josef.

Speaking of Josef: Duplass has always struck me as a fine actor, mostly from his comedic environments in which he typically plays the “straight” man. His role as Josef, however, absolutely floored me. He fits the titular role of a “creep” exceptionally well, from his bizarre confessions to his sole confidant to his blank, glossy eyes and that innocently sinister smile. Yet despite his inherent…well, creepiness, you can’t help but also feel a bit sorry for him. Something within him snapped to turn him into the manipulative, violent person we’re introduced to, and I was sincerely skeeved out BIG-TIME by the film’s end.

The cinematography and editing are both not unlike what you’d get from a well-made found footage movie, but what especially struck me was the genius staging and lighting of certain scenes. The scene in which Josef invites Aaron back into the cabin for a drink before he leaves is particularly chilling, for we see Josef completely blackened in front of his cabin lights, a shadowy spectre warning our poor protagonist of what’s to come.

And afterward, every encounter with Josef somehow becomes creepier than the last, popping up in ways and places that could inspire even the most constipated of viewers to collectively shit their pants. The lack of music throughout the movie is especially important, for it creates a genuine, organic sense of fear and paranoia, with only our dark thoughts and predictions as the accompanying soundtrack.

I’ve always been of the opinion that an actor doesn’t need range to be a master at his craft, but it certainly helps, and Mark Duplass proved he definitely has it in spades in this movie. If you want to see a genius filmmaker give arguably the best acting role of his career to date, definitely check Creep out. Just be sure to wash it down with a few of his adventures with Taco and Ruxin on The League so you don’t go completely insane.

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From “Finding God” To “Doing God”

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“I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell. And if I was good, I’d go to heaven. And if I’d ask Jesus, he’d forgive me and that was that. And here y’all are saying there ain’t no hell. Ain’t sure about heaven. And if you do something wrong, you got to figure it out yourself. And as far as God’s concerned, it’s your job to keep asking questions and to keep learning and to keep arguing. It’s like a verb. It’s like … you do God.”

– Tova bat Avraham v’Sarah (“Black” Cindy Hayes), Orange is the New Black

Most practitioners of the art of “binge watching” recognize that monologue, given by an inmate of the fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility. In a rather humorous attempt to fake Jewishness to score better-tasting kosher prison food, Cindy ironically discovers that she wants to convert to Judaism, taking on the Hebrew name Tova (טוֹבָה).

Her speech inspires the rabbi, whom she solicited to be in her beit din (conversion court), and he instantly approves her to become Jewish. This is not how conversion works, since the rabbi would have her spend months reading, debating, and practicing Judaism and THEN approve her, but for all intents and purposes, after she took a dip in the nearby (also halachically-questionable) lake, she’s Jewish.

I really like this speech for two reasons. First, her experience mirrored my own (aside from the whole prison thing). I was raised in the A.M.E.C. (African Methodist Episcopal Church) and attended Christian school for most of my childhood. I’m grateful for this, considering I believe church and private school kept me out of trouble and instilled certain values which I still hold to this day. Additionally, as I matured, so did my faith, since Jesus became more of an authentic positive force in my life as a teenager, as opposed to just a living embodiment of God that I revered as a child.

However, I was also raised to believe in heaven and hell, the former for saved and baptized Christians and the latter for sinners and Christians who haven’t confessed their sins to Jesus. As a child with a fear of the unknown, the concept of hell terrified me. Eternity in a lake of fire? For committing even a minor sin like lying or swearing? It was what kept me praying all the time. Before every meal, before bedtime, even at random points during the day. I wanted so badly to be on God’s good side that I prayed to the heavens for forgiveness of my sins, always ending with, “In Jesus’ name, amen.”

The phrase “to the heavens” is important, because this is one of many instances where certain sects of Christianity and Judaism differ. This is not only because Jews are unsure of the existence of heaven, but also because God is not something “above” me, God is both beyond me and within me; God simply “is”. As humans, we partner with God, not simply bow to her.

This is why we say blessings over wine and bread as opposed to grapes and wheat. What’s not as crucial is the fact that God created grapes and wheat, but rather our partnership with God to create wine and bread as nourishment. The application of taking what is and transforming it into something else entirely for the good of mankind is “doing God.”

By observing Shabbat, I’m doing God. By communing with my friends and family, I’m doing God. By exercising and eating right, by writing and reading, by creating a life that brings happiness to myself and others and repairing the world, I’m doing God.

As a Christian, I worshiped God by flattering him. I prayed to the heavens in exaltation, I shouted and cried to God, getting lost in her, as if I were on some drug no man could ever duplicate. Jews exalt God during prayer too, but as a more focused (and emotionally collected) means to an end. Prayer and study bring us closer to God not because it flatters her, but because it empowers us. It gives us the strength and confidence to fulfill our goals and destinies, to change the world, to “do God.”

I have no need to find God. God has already been there even when I didn’t fully believe in him and even when I hated him. What matters to me now is seeing God not just as a proper noun, but as a proper verb.

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