In Sarah’s Honor: Singing our Stories

Singing has had a strangely magical effect on me since I was a small child. Something visceral occurs.

For decades I didn’t speak to anyone about this. I believed that I was imagining the whole thing. Or, at least what happened when I sang.

But I repeatedly found myself helplessly giving in to That Thing That Happens every time I started singing. My surrender was especially marked when I was leading services. I could be cranky, exhausted, or even unwilling; as soon as the service began, I would succumb in the first tender notes of the first prayer.

During High Holy Days, the magical nature of that strange Thing That Happens turns into a kind of sorcery. It would have frightened me all these years if it wasn’t – every time – so beautiful.

Many years ago, I just reached the haftarah for Rosh Hashanah, the story of Hannah, who longs so desperately for a child. Before I began, I asked my congregants to name an ancestress. Predictably, I heard names like Miriam, Sarah, and Leah. My husband, Ralf, who is an expert in throwing intellectual and spiritual curveballs, suggested Lot’s wife.

I sang in Hebrew and then sang spontaneous English translations. At some point I no longer remember, I began singing the stories of all the foremothers my congregants had mentioned. All the trope melodies landed in the right places. Miriam’s joy and power, Leah’s sadness – I composed as I sang, but the text seemed given to me, rather than invented by me.

When I came to Lot’s wife, I sang of her looking back at children she had lost and the neighbors she would never see again.  I sang of how she became an inhuman thing – for looking, for longing. She lost everything — including herself.

This will read just as weirdly as it sounds: from the small windows at the very top of the sanctuary, I became aware of soft voices – all seemingly female. “Tell my story,” one said. “Tell my story,” said another. The voices were gentle enough, but they were insistent, clamoring. Countless Jewish women of some ages past were suddenly asking me to tell their stories. And they wouldn’t stop asking  –  even as I continued singing, inventing, telling the stories I knew from Tanakh.

At some point, I said (thought?) helplessly: “I can’t tell all your stories – I would never have the time to do that.” I paused. “But I will try. I will do my best in the years I have.”

And the voices were still.

Recently, I have realized that my whole life – all my academic research, all of my teaching, any activism I’ve engaged in – has been devoted to telling the stories of those whose voices have been lost or suppressed. The outcome saddens me. I have achieved so little. I have longed for so much.

Am I, in the end, a descendant of the unnamed Lot’s wife? Will I, too, turn into some form that even while it crumbles, can only leave behind near fruitless efforts to combat the toxic uses of power that continue to rain down upon the vulnerable?

But of course, that sort of sadness is a useless exercise. There is a deeper learning here. Whatever that Thing That Happens is, it is for the good and to the good and about the good. I plan to be grateful for that.

And to all those pleading voices, I say: Yes. I am still here, and I will tell your stories.


The Rebbe(s): On Titles, Power, and Ethics

For many years, I taught at the ALEPH Ordination Program, where I had, many years earlier, earned a rabbinic ordination. I did not go by “Rabbi” or “Reb.” My students sometimes used those titles, but not at my request.

I was then and remain now reactive to the idea so often promulgated in Renewal circles: that students need a “rebbe.”

Almost all of the students I taught were in their second careers. They were teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, psychiatrists, political activists and so, so much more. They brought experience, wisdom, knowledge, and joy to the classroom. They were my emerging colleagues.

I did not walk into Jewish Renewal to find myself a “rebbe.” I was instantly wary of the term and of the peculiar glorification of the role. Those then so attached to the term had often been students Reb Zalman. They called him their “rebbe.”

They loved and honored their teacher and, it seemed, many owed him their Jewish lives. Many needed spiritual healing, and from what I could see, they felt he gave them that healing, that wholeness.

I cannot comment on their experience; only my own. What I met was a cadre of human beings who wanted to be rebbes.

A good number (not all) were charismatic individuals; powerful and passionate speakers, charming and witty service leaders. A talented bunch, for the most part.

And just as often capable of using their skills to attain admiration, affirmation, and adoration. I repeatedly saw leaders manipulate their followers in pursuit of those things. Some appeared to get regularly and emotionally drunk on the good feelings their students and congregants gave them about themselves.

Jewish Renewal does more than make a home for such leaders; it seeks them. The charismatic, the gifted, the powerful “rebbes” of Jewish Renewal are valued, admired. But the price their congregants or students pay for their leaders’ needs for affirmation, adoration, and “success” is not minor.

When unhealthy power imbalances govern spiritual relationships, emotional and psychological manipulation, coercion, and sexual harassment can follow. I have seen “spiritual intimacy” at work. I have seen it lead to the abandonment of healthy boundaries in favor of emotional dependency and even, sadly, abuse.

When I taught for one year in Taiwan, my students also had a name for me. They did not call me “Dr. Thiede” or “Professor Thiede.” They called me “Teacher.”

Over the past four decades, this was the only title I loved to hear. To teach is to guide, to hold, to nourish, to lift up. To teach is to learn; students are our colleagues in that endeavor.

We claim a “rebbe” is a teacher. But those we call “rebbe” have been enthusiastically invested with power that no teacher with a modicum of self-awareness would claim.

If Jewish Renewal could reconsider what it values in its spiritual leaders – if we valued ethics more than a lovely voice, a clever stage presence, a charming and spontaneous performance of liturgy – what titles would we choose? Any?


Art by Adamah: Jewish Inheritance, Jewish Future

I asked Clay Adamah Mil, Jewish artist, how they felt their own artwork fit into the lineage and history of Jewish art.*

I received a work of art, one that referenced multiple Jewish artists of the last two millennia. The piece presents the viewer with a midrash on, at the very least, a minyan of creative, brilliant, Jewish minds. It also offers us a Jew of our own time in all their particularity.

Carrying the Flames by Clay Adamah Mil

Clay’s figure floats in the center of the work, sleeping in a sky filled with triangular stars of many colors. Marc Chagall’s “Over Vitebsk” (1913) comes immediately to mind. In Chagall’s painting an elderly beggar hovers in the sky, a heavy sack slung over his shoulder, a cane in his hand. When that painting was completed, Vitebsk was home to a Jewish community that constituted over half the city’s inhabitants.

It is hard to feel the gut punch of loss when looking at Chagall’s work; that world was destroyed in the Shoah.

Here, Clay’s sleeping figure is peaceful, safe. They dream while surrounded by allusions and reference to the Jewish art of centuries – art made new and original (all over again). It is a kind of tikkun, this commentary.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim’s (1897) work, “Pashal Eve” has contributed the delicate chandelier that Clay Adamah Mil holds over the earth below. In Oppenheim’s painting, the original hangs over a seder table and those gathered around it. It is muted and hard to make out, even though the human faces at the table are so brightly lit.

In Clay’s work, the chandelier lights the dark sky, casting light on the beach that undulates gently to the sea. For Oppenheim, the chandelier illuminates people gathered together; for Clay, the chandelier illuminates the earth – an earth without humans walking, resting, or working in its folds and shadows.

Instead, their resting figure floats above the feathery grass. Only a stone hamsa lying on the beach seems to betray a human presence. But perhaps not.

This too – an earth drawn both at peace and safe from harm, is a tikkun. The human presence above protects, holds, cares for its quiet beauty. No flight from danger or painful labor is evoked; there is no heavy burden on the back of the human figure in this work.

Designs from the works of David Bomberg, El Lissitzky, and Sonia Delaunay, abstract or intricate; bright and fine, are part of the work’s backgrounds, frames, and tender references.

Artists whose names we do not know appear in this work, too. There are those who created zodiac mosaics in ancient synagogues. A gracious commentary on the traditional Jewish art of paper cutting appears; on one side of the picture we see a papercut as it would look facing forward; on the other side, the paper cut is drawn reversed. The design is evocative: the papercut border features the seven species twining along the frame.

Here is a Jew whose art is an extension, an expansion, a new beginning.

It is Jewish renewal at its very best, and it is the kind of thing that offers hope to those who hope to see what renewal looks like when it is deep, expert, and, above all, honest.

A nineteenth-century haggadah by Charlotte von Rothschild shows up in this work. Leviticus 19:34 appears, too, reminding us of the central commandment to remember that we were strangers and therefore, must love those who are strangers among us.

There are all the regions of the world that were home to Clay’s ancestors.

Who is Clay Adamah Mil?

A Jewish artist in a rich and beautiful line of Jewish artists. A human being whose ancestors lived on many parts of the planet. A human being whose life story inhabits the corners of this work as well as its center.

For those of us who seek the beauty of our inheritance, Clay’s work is both tikkun and hope.

It gives us ourselves, our inheritance, and our future.**

*I ask readers to please pay attention to pronouns.

** To see more of Clay’s work, go here and/or here.


Kaddish for My Imagined Life

“I think it will be sometime this summer,” I said. “By that time, I might have mourned long enough, processed long enough.” I paused. “We say kaddish for eleven months for those we lost. Maybe I am saying a kind of kaddish for the life I’ve lost…?”

I was mourning the life I’d imagined, the future I had celebrated.  I lost the innocence I had in such dreaming nine months ago; I cannot recover it.

Last summer, my husband, Ralf and I left for the Blue Ridge Mountains to celebrate our fortieth anniversary.

We spent a week exploring the gardens atop the ridge, the gardens below it. We clambered up one path after another to stand at the feet of waterfalls. We walked through dark forests.  Ralf took pictures of mushrooms, insects, and summer flowers. We sat and looked out at the mountains every night from our cabin.

We talked, again and again, about how lucky we were. Aging, together. In love, still, and best friends, still.

As the sun set, we would dream our future, swinging gently to and fro. Our son and daughter-in-love settled and happy. Grandchildren someday. Resting, writing. Gardening, crafting.

We ignore the Damocles sword above our heads so that we can live mindlessly – as we must – until it wavers, drops lightly to prick at us, or falls altogether.

Almost exactly four weeks after those nightly mountain talks, Ralf was in the hospital. Diagnosis: wasting disease, malnutrition, heart failure. The surgeon was blunt; Ralf had days to live without emergency open heart surgery.

Nine months later, Ralf’s heart is doing well. We are mindful that his new atrial valve has a life span that is shorter than he hopes to live. There will be more surgery in his future.

He is also facing another medical concern, one that requires various procedures and tests which elicit predictable scenarios, old associations. Me, in the waiting room. Him, laid out again on some table of some sort or another, some machinery, some surgical implements. Both of us: the Damocles sword glinting above in some dark recess of the mind.

We keep the worst-case scenarios at bay (but still, they crouch, however irrationally, in the corners).

Mourner’s Kaddish is a glorious, gorgeous thank you song. As we grieve – even bitterly – we pronounce our gratitude. In the end, mourning is always an affirmation of life, of love.

The kaddish I must write? A thank you for all that I have and all that I have had. It is an extraordinary, gracious plenty. Gratitude for my heightened consciousness of the fragility of all life. This, too, is a kind of gift.

It is true: if I start dreaming now, my body reminds me with a tender warning: the future will unfold in ways I cannot predict.

But this, too, is something to be thankful for. I must be quiet. I must move more slowly in a world I consciously permit to unfold before me. It never was as possible for me to control it as I would have liked, anyway.

And there is this knowledge, too, and it is just as fine.

I have not yet been shorn of my capacity to dream.

This post is dedicated to Rabbinic Pastor Nancy Shapiro who suggested I write my kaddish for innocent dreaming.


No Spring in My Pesach Step: On Diversity, Rage, Exhaustion, and Hope

Of all the adjectives I use to describe the way I move through the world, “tired” is not one I normally apply. Especially not now, not during Pesach.

Pesach is a time to celebrate the energy of a renewed natural world, a spring that has, both mysteriously and inevitably, come again. It is a time for imagining (or performing!) a dance of liberation on behalf of all sentient beings living on the planet that supports, even now, their existence.

And yet.

Yesterday, I read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that focused on professorial fears. Teachers nationwide are worried and frightened about missteps they cannot know they are making (and aren’t sure they’ve made). Take the sociologist who taught a seminal text by W.E.B. Du Bois in her field – a text that used the word “Negro.” That teacher was reported to her administrators. She, like all of us, is watching the walls close in on her classroom.[1]

I am a professor of Judaic Studies at a southern and public university. A new front in the culture wars of our time has opened up before our eyes; our Republican-controlled legislature recently demanded a list of all the DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) trainings we run, information about whether said training was voluntary or mandatory, and the names of those who have attended such trainings.

My spouse and I attended a training focused on gender last December. We are on our legislators’ “little list.”[2]

At the same time that I am grieving about all of the above I grieve about what happens down below. My own reactivity is part of the mix.

The University of North Carolina Charlotte, where I work, features an administration (and a faculty body) that is predominantly white, male, and Christian. Depending on the day, I am reactive to any one of these categories.

Let’s choose a day. Last Thursday was first-day Pesach.

It was no surprise that a major meeting of an important administrative body was scheduled on first-day Pesach. Ignoring Jewish holidays has been so chronic on the part of UNCC’s administrators over my time there that it is practically their practice.

The administrators were told that they had scheduled a meeting to pass an important resolution on professorial free speech (yes, the ironies here are interesting) on a day when Jewish faculty might well be observing an important holiday. They neither named nor acknowledged what had happened. No email went out, no apology was proffered. Instead, said administrators waited until the meeting. Then, they made the meeting moot where voting on the actual resolution was concerned. Instead, they asked the faculty that could attend for permission to conduct the vote electronically.

Yes: the non-Jewish faculty delegates were asked to vote on whether to make it possible for Jewish faculty delegates to vote.

The next day, everyone in the College of Arts and Sciences received our regularly issued newsletter. It began with a colorful banner wishing everyone a “happy Easter.”

Did I mention reactivity? Did I mention feeling tired?

UNCC’s administrators are aware that there are some faculty who represent minorities. Maybe some administrators even want the diversity they claim to support. Maybe some are downright glad to have us at UNCC.

I am not convinced that they feel the need to make us feel glad we work here.

And yet.

Do I want to be one of the cacophony of voices pointing out the missteps they haven’t known they were making even when these seem very real to me? Do I want to complain yet again about the extraordinary dominance of Christian premises governing so much of the operation of a presumably secular institution?

I am tired. I am afraid. I don’t know which battles to pick because everyone everywhere around me is fighting all the time.

This Pesach, the liberation I need is one from rage and anger — even as I know that there is so much to be justifiably enraged about.

I want to know what hope looks like.

[1] I must note that conservative websites have, for years, encouraged students to report on their teachers (see Campus Reform and Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist).

[2] See these lyrics for reference.


Get Thyself a Student: Thoughts on Teaching — and Hope

Our son, Erik Thiede, looked uncharacteristically baffled. “I can’t take it in,” he said. “I’m just that random guy, wolfing salad down in the cafeteria… working out at the gym.”

Erik had just accepted a position as a professor of chemistry at Cornell University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. He was standing in a liminal space, one we regularly encounter in Tanakh. Someone is suddenly called to a position they aren’t prepared for, that they didn’t see coming, that they hadn’t imagined. Or, perhaps, like Joseph, they’ve dreamed their future for years and still are taken unawares when it arrives.

Last week, as I was reading T’tzaveh, I imagined Aaron thinking “I’m just a random guy…”  I imagined the oddity of authority, the fear of the power that is literally in-vested in the clothing YHVH invents and decrees for Aaron, now to become Israel’s High Priest.

“I was just taking a good, long walk around the camp…!”

There is so much said in Tanakh, in rabbinic texts, in Chassidic stories about the spaces between being, seemingly, a “random” individual and taking a some position of authority.

In Exodus 28:12, YHVH commands Aaron to wear “stones for remembrance of the Israelite people, whose names Aaron shall carry.”   In a tender reading of this verse, Hayyim of Czernowitz (1760-1816) wrote that Aaron was to carry Israel’s names on his shoulders “like a father carrying a young child on his shoulders to keep the child safe” (B’er Mayyim Hayyim).

For years Erik and I have talked about what makes a wise and caring teacher, what is needed to mentor others safely and well. We spoke about student fears, insecurities, and anxieties. Where else are you judged every single week of your life by teachers who don’t always know your name, let alone something of your heart, your soul, or your life experience?

I think of Aaron – his mistakes and his grace. His ability to walk through a field of death, tending to his people. His silence when his sons Nadav and Avihu die – and perhaps only because they were too excited, too hopeful, too interested in serving YHVH to know just how dangerous that service could be?

Aaron’s work was fraught with danger.

Truly: so is the work of teacher. We live in a world in which our students are increasingly challenged. They suffer from emotional and mental distress at much higher levels, according to our data. They are financially strapped. States across the country are attacking efforts to make college education more inclusive and friendly for people of color. Rampant legal assaults on LGBTQ+ individuals are likewise making their way through various legislatures. Teachers have roles to play, jobs to do, to help keep our students safe.

Even through his doctoral and postdoctoral work, Erik mentored younger scholars. He loves teaching, mentoring. His group lab page, which he launched just in the past days, says it all. Under “Lab Values,” he wrote:

We are curious. Science is about learning, not knowing. We are always looking for new ways of thinking, and are comfortable showing that we don’t understand everything. We are open. Science is a team sport. To help out teammates, we take pains to share our science freely amongst the scientific community and with the world. We are caring. Doing good science requires delving deep into the unknown: an experience both exciting, and terrifying. On our journey, we celebrate each other’s achievements and support each other through setbacks. We are inclusive. We actively strive to make science a place where everyone thrives, no matter their background and identity. We resist oppression of any kind, including but not limited to sexism, classism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and xenophobia. Although we may not complete this work within our lifetimes, we refuse to desist from it.”

Today, Erik is traveling back to Ithaca to meet and greet incoming graduate students. This morning, I reminded him of that famous mandate in Pirkei Avot: “get thyself a teacher” (1:6). I joked that we needed a version from imot:

“Shulamit Sapir said: ‘And get thyself students, to keep thee humble, considerate, understanding, and kind. And to remind thyself how damn scary this whole thing is.’”

We are all just that person wolfing down the salad, working out in the gym. Hopefully, we are also doing our level best to do a kindness to and for this broken world.

Doing so makes us anything but random individuals. YHVH has in-vested in us.

We, then, must invest in the world.

This drash is dedicated to Erik Henning Thiede, whose heart is as open as his mind.


Live Like an Egyptian… Reflections on Bo and B’shallakh

In Parsha Bo, we learn that an erev rav, a “mixed multitude”went up with the Israelites to worship YHVH (Ex. 12:38). Nice, right?  We can rejoice in our diversity (there from the get-go!) and take all sorts of self-congratulatory pleasure in pointing to Tanakh to confirm it.

What follows in Parsha B’shallakh? A celebratory, militaristic text. YHVH repeatedly declares his intention to win glory in the battle against Egypt (Ex. 14:4, 17, 18). He* can prove, now, that he is the biggest and most powerful deity by taking down the biggest, baddest nation around, one with a ruler who imagines himself a god. The Egyptians will die horribly – either sinking like lead in the water (Ex. 15:5, 10) or, after a divinely-induced tsunami, left dead on the seashore (Ex. 14:30). The triumphal notes sounded here are part and parcel of midrashic treatments, too, which claim that neither the sea nor the land wanted to take Egyptian bodies.

The Egyptians can be accepted only so long as they adopt the Israelite project, it would seem.

I’ve been the Egyptian, victim of attempts to defeat and erase me with the better god. If I expressed any interest in a Christian friend’s theologies and practices, I was assumed to be an unhappy Jew. Conversion attempts ensued. As a rabbi invited to speak to a local church, I had to be prepared for comments and questions which either a) told me I was simply wrong to be Jewish or b) reminded me that my job at the church was to provide some magical historic reenactment of the Way Jesus Lived. I could be accepted if I supported, somehow, the Christian project.

And so… I’d be asked: do Jews believe that Jesus was crucified? (If I did, I wouldn’t be Jewish, right?) I was asked if I had read the New Testament in order to be certain I had made the right choice. (Ditto.) If I taught a song in Hebrew, the minister might intone later: “Now we have learned a song such as Jesus might have sung.” (In this case, the song was Hevenu Shalom Aleichem, which was composed in the 20th century.) Then there were the seders I was asked to lead in order to teach Christians how Jesus celebrated Passover.

And… reading militaristic, self-congratulatory texts of Torah is tough if I take a moment to be the Egyptian to be beaten and erased. I don’t want to be reminded that texts that are foundational to my Jewishness can be painful, even ugly, reeking with something like the self-righteousness and ignorance that have hurt me when I experienced them as a Jew.

Recently, I spent two hours teaching nineteen graceful individuals at All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Concord, NC. I’ve been teaching there for at least a decade or so, and usually several times each year.

My long-standing relationship with All Saints took years to create. At the time my little congregation was founded, the then minister at All Saints and I had a painful conversation when he told me that Jewish friends of his were coming to the church to teach Christians about the seder. He was speaking about several Jews for Jesus who were known to harangue Jews for purposes of conversion to Christianity.

But just a couple of years later, the next minister, The Rev. Nancy Cox, invited me to have lunch with her. And during that lunch I felt safe enough to say yes to coming to her church.

Year in and year out I have gone to All Saints** and repeatedly deconstructed biblical texts for a Christian audience. I have talked about humor – even burlesque – at work in texts Christian parishioners grew up taking very seriously. I have turned Levitical texts used to harm LGBTQ+ folk on their heads (I hope). I have introduced the deity of Tanakh as he often can be found in the Hebrew text: neither omnipotent nor omniscient but very certainly male and, often, bumbling, grumbling, and fumbling.

I recently discovered that the classes and lectures I offer every year fall under a particular rubric at the church. It’s called “Christian formation.”

When I heard this, I laughed out loud. The local rabbi forming Christians?

And then, suddenly, I was so utterly delighted and happy to imagine such a thing. I had the most wonderfully naïve and loving moment of pure joy. What if we knew for certain that every interaction would be free of any expectation or demand? What if anything other than growing our Selves in the light of what we could learn together were our goal?

No winning glory at anOther’s expense. No self-congratulation about our own readings, our own interpretations. No othering.

What kind of (healthy) mixed multitude could humanity become?

*I am deliberately choosing the third-person masculine form; that’s the deity we encounter her.

**This blog post is actually a love letter to All Saints and the folks therein. I owe them more than I could actually explain for their patience, their welcome, and their trust in me.


Seeing the White in Their Eyes

I hope that my reading of Ruth will function as a form of learning that will enable Native people both to understand more thoroughly how biblical interpretation has impacted us, and to assert our own perspectives more strongly.

Laura E. Donaldson, “The Sign of Oprah: Reading Ruth Through Native Eyes.”

Recently, I read the work of a white female feminist biblical scholar on 1 Samuel 25. In the text, David uses the most courtly language imaginable in, it appears, a bit of extortion. Nabal, a wealthy farmer, is about to celebrate a sheepshearing. David suggests to Nabal that, but for him and his men, his shepherds would have nothing to sheer and suggests a payoff for their services (1 Sam. 25:6-8).

Nabal, whose very name means “fool,” is not so willing. He openly insults David (10-11), who, in turn, gathers 400 armed men to confront the ungrateful farmer (25:13). For good measure, David curses Nabal, too, threatening him and his line with wholesale extermination (25:22).

Enter Nabal’s wife, Abigail, who saves the household (though not her husband) by making obeisance to David (18, 23-31). She loads herself down with bread, wine, meat, and baked delicacies. She delivers the goods to David, along with some pretty fulsome flattery (25: 18-31). In the end, Nabal is conveniently struck dead, and Abigail becomes another of David’s wives (37-40).

The scholar in question seeks to point out Abigail’s limited opportunities and choices, so she points out that Israelite wives shared experiences of physical subjugation with enslaved people. Indeed, even as a wealthy farmer’s wife, Abigail must navigate a violent hegemonic masculine system. Biblical law does not offer women “human rights” but largely focuses on organizing male access to female bodies. A woman is always under the control of some man. Indeed, wives and enslaved women are often grouped together, and women are also referred to alongside a man’s material possessions (Exodus 20:14, for example). Wives and enslaved women are both physically dominated and controlled by men. This is a condition they have in common, she explains.

Her explanation serves to justify using a particular text as a jumping off point for her discussion of the biblical Abigail. This text was written by Hannah Crafts, a formerly enslaved woman. In it, Crafts describes how she must constantly attune herself to the moods of her mistress and master. Living in violence forces her to accommodate and assimilate, to propitiate and placate. Those are her survival skills. They do not always succeed in protecting her from her owners’ violent tendencies.

The scholar assumes, as far as I can tell, that when her readers confront the texts of a formerly enslaved Black woman, they will better understand Abigail’s situation. She, too, so her argument, had to navigate the violent potential of male power figures.

But when a white scholar uses the experience of people of color who have been historically subjugated, colonized, and oppressed (and still are) to try and help explain Tanakh, there is another kind of violence at work, and that is the violence of appropriation.

It needs to be said: any white person – whether scholar or spiritual leader or any other person of power – who uses the trauma of people of color to elucidate the very literature that regularly served to justify their enslavement and oppression is perpetuating trauma.

White people cannot read through indigenous eyes. They cannot read through enslaved ones.

Scholars and spiritual leaders have the task of making these biblical texts real for their readers. They need to interrogate the texts and challenge the violence they contain rather than normalize it. But if they are white, they need to do that work without reinscribing the exploitation of people of color. That means seeing the white in their own eyes.


Emojis, a Game of Jeopardy, and the Jewish World

I discovered rituals of head bowing and hands placed palm to palm in prayer when I moved to the south. I grew up outside of Chicago and such things did not occur either in my childhood home or in the synagogue my parents (intermittently) visited. No, people looked at each other when they prayed and every “amen” was made with eyes wide open.

But here in North Carolina, I experienced a great deal of head bowing and prayerful hands. When, for example, I worked for Reed Gold Mine, a state historic site commemorating the location of the first documented discovery of gold in the United States (no, really, North Carolina was first in this, if not first in flight), I regularly experienced both. The then manager opened our meetings with head bowing, prayerful hands, and words of blessing in Jesus’ name. Never mind the separation of church and state stuff I assumed would govern a government-run site – it didn’t.

Later, as the (only) local rabbi in my southern town, I found myself regularly invited to do some version of the ubiquitous “What is Judaism” program for local religious and civic organizations. I learned to watch and listen for the words that beckoned my hands to meet and my chin to drop. Generally, this happened just before I was introduced.

When I was asked to give invocations at various events where Christians not only outnumbered any other denomination, they were almost always the only denomination present (aside from me), even my own Jewishly-framed words magically produced the same response. I wore a kippah. I had the look and the task of a religious functionary. Such individuals bow their heads and place their hands together. I didn’t, but everyone else did.

And so I learned to understand head bowing and hands placed palm to palm as particularly Christian practices.

This led to major confusion when I finally decided that texting constituted a mode of communication.

Most of the people I was texting with were (and still are) Jewish. Nevertheless, they frequently responded to my missives by sending me an emoji that featured two hands placed palm-to-palm.

I was pretty sure that my correspondents were not all the products of a mass conversion induced by social media. Admittedly, I generally do my best to ignore such platforms. I have yet to rely on Facebook as a venue for sharing my life story, Twitter as a location for Pithy Thoughts I have had whilst showering, and Instagram for providing the world with pictures of my meals. Tik Tok has never even been on my radar.

Recently, after receiving yet another folded-hands emoji (from a rabbi, no less), I went to my dearest friend and spouse of many decades.

“Why are all these Jews sending me a Christian image?” I asked.

“Ah, no,” Ralf said kindly, “Look it up. That emoji is often described as ‘folded hands’ which symbolize please or thank you in Japanese culture.”

“Look up an emoji?” I asked.

“Emojipedia,” he said.

I groaned. “Really?”

“Really,” he said. (Ralf is also not much attracted to social media platforms. But he knows what that jazz is and does.)

Indeed, he was correct. Down to the Japanese connection.

Clearly, I had jumped to conclusions.

I had been made curious, however, about whether there were such things as specifically Jewish emojis. You already know there are, dear reader, because you are not, as I am, crawling into the past all the time and thinking it’s better to stay there with the evils you know rather than to force yourself to face the evils that are headed at you at warp speed this very minute.

Ralf encouraged me to look and see.

“Guess,” I said. “Jewish symbols for $500!”

“A building with a Magen David.”

“Score: a synagogue,” I muttered.

“A channukiah described as a ‘menorah,’” he added.

“Another five hundred points for Ralf!” I added. “And don’t say it, ‘cause you know it’s there: the Magen David. And that’s it for Jewish emojis.”

There was a long pause.

“I think I need to say a prayer for the invention of new Jewish emojis,” I said. I looked at Ralf. I paused meaningfully. Then I folded my hands together and bowed my head. “May the emoji makers of the world offer us Jewish emojis with the power to renew emojiland. All of it.”

Ralf, who had Jewishly not bowed his head or put his hands together answered, “Amen.”

I take this moment to apologize to my blog. It has been woefully neglected for many years, largely because of my attempts to renew the Jewish world (though not with emojis). I promise to visit you more often. Chag sameach!


The Honeymoon Tallit

Assaults on transgender individuals, assaults on women’s rights to control their own bodies, assaults on the environment… the list is long, the sadness and anger is overwhelming.

I am not great at hope. It’s hard to be, as a historian of the human experiment. We are a short-sighted species, woefully arrogant and selfish. Our much-vaunted intellectual talents are more often used to take than to give. We say much more about love than we should; our words are not commensurate with our deeds.

Still: my soul has to say otherwise. Now and again, I come face-to-face with an innocence and courage that sustains me, that offers a model of hope for my saddened soul.

Early this past summer, an old student of mine from the ALEPH Ordination Program sent me an email. His grandson, a transgender child, was having a b-mitzvah and he was looking for a tallit.

The making of Jewish ritual wear is a hobby and side-business of mine, one that initially grew out of my frustration with the kind of kippot and tallitot that were marketed for women. In those olden days, there were “women’s colors” and “women’s themes.” Kippot were inevitably the same as those meant for men, just in the shades that, presumably, men would never wear.

Over the years, I found I was making ritual wear for all sorts of folks – LGBTQ+ individuals often showed up at my Etsy shop, Not My Brother’s Kippah. Some cisgender and heterosexual men, too, who were just as interested in smashing binary expectations as I was.

I told my former student that I would be thrilled to take on the job of co-creating a tallit with his grandson. Said young person and I started by talking on the phone about his interests.

I asked simple questions – learning the nature of the person is key to the design of any tallit. The child, I learned, loved insects – especially bees. And then I heard about a passion for all things heavenly – stars, moons, constellations.

“Goodness,” I said. “You want it all on your tallit, then. Bereishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz. At the start of it all, God created heavens and earth.”

“Yes,” he answered, and I could hear the grin in his voice.

A tallit with everything. A tallit of all creation at once. I went to all my favorite embroidery sites and started sending my new client links to embroidery patterns of bees, stars, and moons.

But nothing I chose was his choice. In the end, he found the pattern that said it all.

A crescent moon, covered with a fine honeycomb, dripping with honey. Bees buzzing around the moon. A honeymoon.

Here is a child who has forthrightly told the world who he is, regardless of how the world might want (or insist) on seeing him. Here is a young person whose playful nature and whose innocent energy has led him to rejoice in his impending adulthood Jewishly. He is acting, I think, out of hope and love for the world he lives in. There is courage in him.

Who am I to disregard such strength? And who am I to feed sadness, rather than joy, despair rather than hope?

The knowledge of the historian is not always commensurate with the knowledge of the soul. And the human experiment must be a repository for courage and hope, too. Else, there is no experiment.


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