Holiday thoughts, part II: Jewish v. Not

Tonight is New Year’s Eve so before I get into the substance of this post, I would like to wish all of you a Happy and Healthy New Year! 🥳


So… New Year’s…

Growing up in America, this was not a holiday that I marked in any way, shape or form. Truly, I did not understand what all the fuss was about. Why was the transition between December 31st and January 1st any more significant than that between any two other calendar days?

The funny thing is that New Year’s Eve had once been a very big deal to both of my parents. You see, my mother had grown up in Lithuania, and my father had grown up in Russia, both under Soviet reign, both celebrating Novy God (Новый Год), which designates the Russian New Year’s celebration. Today, this holiday remains extremely popular in countries that were formerly part of the USSR, as well as in Soviet emigrant communities worldwide.

The elimination of religion was an objective of the USSR’s official ideology, with the goal of establishing state atheism. Therefore, most of the traditions that were originally associated with Christmas in Russia (Grandfather Frost, a decorated fir-tree) were moved to New Year’s Eve after the Revolution and remain associated with Novy God to this day.

For my parents, Novy God belonged to the regime they had escaped from in the mid-70’s, the regime, which had nearly succeeded at obliterating their Jewish heritage. While they both considered themselves secular, they strongly embraced their Jewish and Israeli identities, shedding themselves of Soviet culture and traditions.


I was eight or nine years old when I first met my father’s parents.

My father had been lucky enough to get out of the USSR in the mid-70’s, but his sister and his parents were only permitted to leave in the late 80’s, just before the Soviet Union’s final collapse. Developing a relationship with my formerly non-existent (from my perspective) grandparents at that age left me with some very vivid memories, including a seemingly insignificant moment that I only came to appreciate many, many years later.

It so happened that upon one of our visits to my grandparents in Rockville, Maryland, I was flummoxed to find that my grandmother had purchased place mats with Christmas trees for their little apartment. As an Israeli-born and American-raised Jewish boy, I was truly flabbergasted. “We’re… Jewish. Why would you buy these?”

That’s when my parents somewhat casually explained the holiday of Novy God and its symbols to me. My grandmother hadn’t intended to purchase Christmas place mats – she’d intended to purchase them for Novy God. Still, even then, upon my first exposure to the concept of Novy God, the significance and complete pervasiveness of this secular Soviet national holiday was not made clear to me; and I didn’t reflect upon the fact that my parents had never, ever mentioned this tradition to me before.


For many years, I continued to regard Novy God with suspicion as a non-Jewish holiday that had incorporated Christian symbols. To me, it represented assimilation, which was the ultimate threat to the Jewish people. However, having moved [back] to Israel as an adult changed my perspective and attitude dramatically for several reasons.

First of all, in today’s Israel I encountered many Jews who had repatriated to the Jewish State after the USSR fell apart. Whereas my parents had been among the lucky few to be granted permission to leave the USSR in the 70’s, and whereas their citizenships had been revoked due to their betrayals of the Motherland, those who emigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union were no longer considered traitors. These new immigrants retained their ties to Russia, Ukraine, etc., wherever their families lived; and they could visit them freely.

Also, whereas during the late 1960s and the 1970s, only ~163,000 Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate to Israel, immigrants and descendants of immigrants from formerly Soviet Jewish communities residing within the State of Israel today number around 900,000. In fact, Russian-speaking Jews in Israel include an enlarged population of 1,200,000, including non-Jewish members of Jewish households, which represents ~15% of Israel’s total population. By virtue of sheer numbers, elements of Russian culture have become mainstream here.

Of course, many Jews in Israel continue to look askance at Novy God as a non-Jewish phenomenon, but a sizable percentage of the population continues to celebrate it. My secular Babushka (my mother’s mother) who moved to Israel in the seventies stopped celebrating Novy God because of the Israeli culture of those years, but she confided in me on more than one occasion that Novy God remained her favorite holiday. I’m certain that had she emigrated later, in the nineties, she would have continued marking this secular holiday.


Now, on a very personal level, Novy God has entered my life through my wife of nine years. Her extended family, including her mother and her grandparents, still reside in Russia, and they continue to celebrate Novy God, as do all Russians.

My wife was raised celebrating this holiday, and she loves it. Every year, she prepares various traditional Russian dishes in advance of December 31st; every year, she chats long-distance with her family members in Russia, as they celebrate Novy God together; and every year my wife and daughter visit my mother-in-law in January who leaves presents for her granddaughter underneath her Novy God tree.

This year, for the first time, my wife will be putting up a little tree for Novy God here in our home in Jerusalem, which she brought back from her last visit to Russia… and I am totally unbothered by it. In fact, I’m happy to support her and to participate. I’m happy that this makes her happy.

You see, living in Israel has removed the threat of assimilation from my personal calculus. It has become a non-issue for me. Furthermore, my wife and I are both Torah observant Jews by choice. We not only live in Israel, but we also keep the Sabbath and maintain a kosher kitchen. By personal choice, we have become the religious Jews in an extended family of secular Jews and gentiles, and we live this way because this is how we choose to express our Jewishness.

Today, secure in our family’s religious, cultural, and national Jewishness and Israeliness, I can comfortably embrace other facets of our family’s collective identity. And, so, I’m happy to wish all of you a Happy New Year! 🍾

Holiday thoughts: Jewish v. Not

Chanukah ended, and though I haven’t written a word about it yet, I have been mulling something over quite a bit.

Traditionally, there’s a song that Jews sing after reciting the blessings and lighting the candles of the chanukiah 🕎. This song is called Ma’oz Tzur (“Strong Rock”), and there exists a popular, non-literal English translation called “Rock of Ages”.

Here is the full song in Hebrew. There are six stanzas:

This is a tune that I find myself humming throughout the year, even when it isn’t Chanukah; I just love it. Unfortunately, I don’t know the words to all of the stanzas by heart so I can only sing it with a prayer book in front of me.

While I speak Hebrew passably, it is not my mother tongue, and memorizing multi-stanza songs in Hebrew takes me some effort. On the other hand, as I observe my daughter, born and bred in the Jewish homeland, I delight in her Hebrew fluency. Also, traditional Jewish songs like Ma’oz Tzur have infused every moment of her comprehensively Jewish life in Israel. She hears Jewish songs at home; at school; at the mall; in taxis; pretty much everywhere.


Growing up in the USA, Christmas carols on the radio and Halloween songs at school were the norm for me, and while I never thought twice about my diaspora reality, these were not my family’s holidays.

I still remember the messaging that was directed at me in the eighties and the nineties when I was a child, attending Hebrew school (an afterschool program) at my synagogue. We were discouraged from trick-or-treating on Halloween; from marrying non-Jews; from falling for the wiles of Christian missionaries; etc.

This messaging was born of the Jewish establishment’s fear of Jewish assimilation, which was heightening, along with the rate of intermarriage (i.e., Jews marrying gentiles) in the USA. (As the years rolled on, the Jewish establishment gradually lost this messaging battle and had to find new strategies. Assimilation proved itself unstoppable.)

By the way, there is nothing new under the sun. You see, the Jewish community’s concern over the threat of assimilation is millennia old. The Chanukah story, which took place in the 2nd century BCE, was no less than one of a vicious and bloody Jewish civil war over Hellenization. In other words, Jewish traditionalists were pitted against Jewish Hellenizers who wanted to adopt many elements of Greek life and culture. You can guess who won.

It’s important, I think, to put this historic Jewish concern over assimilation into perspective. As of 2015, there are some 2.168 billion Christians, 1.599 billion Muslims, and less than 15 million Jews worldwide.


I honestly don’t quite know why I care so passionately about my people; but I do, and I have cared for as long as I can remember.

As a modern, I support and can respect people’s personal choices, as long as they do not cause harm to others; and, believe me, I well understand the appeal of assimilation for all minority groups. In all honesty, I was once very judgmental of more assimilated Jews, but my judgmentalism has profoundly dissipated over the last decade or so, as I’ve increasingly begun to appreciate and seek to understand the contexts of people’s decisions. You do you; I do me. Let’s aim to understand one another.

On the other hand, as a Jew, I am deeply invested in my people’s continued existence, for the Jewish people is my extended family. So what can I do to maximize the odds that my child(ren) will not assimilate?

One of the best answers I have found to this question is quite simple: I can raise my child(ren) in the Jewish state of Israel, in a society which is mostly Jewish, which celebrates Jewish holidays, which speaks a Jewish language…

I am certain, thankful and proud that my daughter will not need to read the stanzas from a prayer book when she sings Ma’oz Tzur with her children during Chanukah.

The heartwarming house sale

Home alone

For Mama, everything changed dramatically [following Papa’s death]. Where would she live? What would she do with the rest of her life? Whom would she do it with? Clearly, she still had to sell her too large house, but then– what?

-Me, ‘When the rabbi’s wife died’, Nov. 27th, 2020

Following my Papa’s death ~2.5 years ago, Mama went through a long process of selling the house. She put it on the market; took it off the market; put it on; took it off… Finally, as of this week, the house has acquired new ownership.

Now, this would have been a relief under any circumstances for all of us. The house, after twenty-one years, had to go. It was entirely too big for one woman, and nearly every corner of it reminded her of Papa. From my perspective, it had become for her an enormous prison cell. The phrase that would constantly come to my mind was: Mom is rattling around inside that big house all by herself.

I remember Babushka (my mother’s mother) also worrying regularly about this after my Papa died. How can she live alone in that huge house? She would say. She simply cannot stay there by herself. Poor Svetachka. She tells me she’s okay… but I know my daughters.

Anyway, we all knew the house had to be sold, and we were all worried for Mama.


The lovely, lovely family

The new owners are a family of church-going, Zionistic Christians, originally from India, and they have simply exuded kindness towards Mama.

In one of their exchanges, they wrote to her the following [edited for grammar]:

… Yes, definitely, your beautiful home will be in good hands… [We’re from] a Christian home with values and ethics… from India… Almost everyone… [has] visited Israel from [our] family… so we do have tons of respect for Jewish families; and we are so glad that we are buying from you…

For Mama, who had found herself and her family free from the USSR in the mid-70’s to begin life anew in their Jewish State of Israel, this was profoundly moving. She mentioned that she would love to some day give this delightful Indian Christian family a personal tour of Jerusalem, where I live now.

And:

Whenever you miss your home, please stop by. [We] completely understand it’s very emotional; plus you stayed for 21 years, so you are part of the house.

All of this was obviously far above and beyond what one might expect from the people who purchase one’s house, but what made us cry was the following: The new owners purchased Papa’s book and vowed to keep it forever in his office where he had written it.

Wow, right?


Moving [on]

Mama is now living in a lovely apartment in Princeton, NJ, which both of my parents had always loved visiting for its museums, theaters, parks, etc.

Of course, unpacking all of the many boxes is a tremendous project for her, but things are gradually coming together, and she seems to me genuinely happy in her new space.

When we ordered a bouquet of flowers for her, we did so, in part, as a gesture of support to help her through a challenging transitionary period, but it actually seems that she’s doing quite well, thank goodness!

From my perspective as a son, the sale of my younger brother’s childhood home could not possibly have gone any better. My mother and father had lived in that house for longer than they had ever lived anywhere else, but the time had definitely come to move on…

And my Mama is doing well, which was my only real concern.


P.S. America, or: Jerusalem

I wrote a poem shortly after completing this post. Click here to read it.

First grade for my Israeli daughter

Thank goodness for Israel

Moving [back] to Israel as an adult has had its ups and downs for me, but I can honestly say that I’ve never doubted my decision for one simple reason: our daughter’s Jewish upbringing and education.

I’ve written in the past about the simple comfort and fulfilment of living as a Jew in the Jewish State:

Israeli Jews speak Hebrew, the Jewish tongue. The State’s work week runs from Sunday through Thursday (just like in the Arab states), and its national holidays include all of the Jewish religious holidays…

Even my daughter’s Jewish education is of no serious concern, unlike it would have been elsewhere…

Every moment is a Jewish moment here. The notion of assimilation is… laughable.


A moment of truth

Our daughter will be entering first grade next year.

This means that we will be selecting a school for her and thus making the first of several major decisions governing her education. In Israel, the education system consists of three tiers: primary (grades 1–6), middle school (grades 7–9) and high school (grades 10–12). The major decisions about schooling have to be made for 1st grade and 7th grade.

If any of you would like to know about the different tracks of Jewish education available here in Israel, you can take a look at what I wrote in a previous post of mine; I laid everything out there. As always, if you are curious to know more, I would be happy to answer your questions. However, for the purposes of this post, only two school systems are relevant for us:

  1. State-Secular;
  2. State-Orthodox

Nota bene:

Most people in Israel would translate ‘State-Orthodox’ as: ‘State-Religious’, but this is not quite accurate. For historic and political reasons, the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations (Conservative, Reform, and others) continue to have a very limited footprint in Israel. For this reason, the Hebrew word ‘dati’, which means: ‘religious’ has long come to mean: ‘Orthodox’ in the minds of Hebrew speakers.

However, in reality, an individual could be a ‘religious Conservative’ or ‘religious Reform’ Jew, and(!) one could also be a ‘non-religious Orthodox’ Jew. This is why I more accurately term Israel’s ‘religious’ Jewish schools as: ‘Orthodox’, for they only represent a very limited range of flavors of Jewish religious expression.

This may be a lot to take in for those who are not very familiar with Jewish life and culture, but if you have any questions for me – I will do my best to answer them.


So… our two school options are:

State-Secular

State-secular elementary and high schools provide a general studies education, including a minimal amount of Tanakh (Bible) study. Some of these schools offer a limited Jewish enrichment program.

State-Orthodox

State-Orthodox elementary and high schools offer a dual curriculum of Judaic and general studies. There is a commitment to both a Torah-observant lifestyle and to the values of religious Zionism.


Our take on Jewish tradition

Despite observing the Sabbath and keeping a kosher kitchen, my wife and I are very non-ideological. We don’t believe that all Jews “have to” follow traditional Torah law. We don’t think that being “religious” or being “Jewish” necessarily makes one “good”. At home, we don’t require our daughter to participate in any religious norms and rituals unless her choices would affect the entire household.

Both of us, having had secular or non-Jewish upbringings, chose for ourselves to live our lives according to Jewish tradition. Our extended families are mostly comprised of non-religious Jews and gentiles, and we embrace them as they are, just as they do us.

Personally, I harbor deep skepticism about the theological underpinnings of all faiths, as well as of the involvement of any supernatural power in our lives. My wife is definitely more of a theist than I am, but she’s very much a pluralist, in the sense that she doesn’t believe that any particular religion has a monopoly on humankind’s access to the Almighty.

Still, for ourselves, we have chosen to live in Israel because we love being Jews. We are proud of our national identity and ancestries. We both find great beauty in many of our rituals and holidays, and we are both reluctant to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” when it comes to Jewish tradition.


Our take on secularism

Neither one of us is uncomfortable with secular life. Most of our friends and family, as it happens, are not religious by their own definitions.

Also, by virtue of our daughter growing up in Israel, it’s highly unlikely that she would marry a non-Jew, which is of concern to me in particular. In principle, therefore, why should it matter how familiar she becomes with Jewish texts and history? Her national identity is essentially guaranteed.

The reality is that the level of ignorance among secular Jewish Israelis on all subjects related to traditional Judaism is very high. They would be, of course, able to navigate the Torah and other historic Jewish texts in their original forms because their fluency in modern Hebrew would enable them to decipher Biblical Hebrew and its later incarnations… but they usually don’t care to do so.

Sadly, we live in a very polarized and reactionary world, and this is no less true of religion than it is of politics. State and religion are not separate in Israel and infringe upon the lives of its secular citizens, and Orthodoxy is broadly accepted in Israeli society as the “one true faith”, so many secular Israeli Jews are turned off to Judaism as a historic way of life. By virtue of living in Israel, they are members of a predominantly Jewish society and participate in what one might call “social” religion, but I dare say that for most of them, being Jewish in the Jewish State is not so much their choice as their default.

Now, I well know that this is a controversial thing to say, and there are plenty of people who will disagree with me. And, yes, I am aware of the growing trend among some young secular Israelis to study traditional Jewish texts and incorporate Jewish rituals into their lives. Still, I maintain that this is a tiny minority in Israel, and I believe that my perspective is borne out in the curriculum taught to secular Israeli school children, which contributes to their general ignorance of traditional Judaism.


But, but…

But the Orthodox schools are run by Orthodox Jews.

😮‍💨

I cannot speak to other religious communities, but I assume that the following also holds true outside of the Jewish world: Jewish religious schools are operated by and taught by people who are more religiously conservative and less favorably predisposed towards secularism and skepticism than the families who send their children to these schools.

Prayer is obligatory, girls are required to wear skirts, classes are only co-ed until 4th or 6th grade, and the Torah is taught to the students as the undeniable Truth, rather than as a historical cultural document.

Ugh.

Now, luckily for us, we live in Jerusalem. Living here is expensive, but there are great advantages, including a wider range of religious communities than can be found in many other places throughout Israel. This means that several of the local Orthodox schools are somewhat religiously liberal, given the communities that they serve. This means that in our neighborhood we are not the only ones with one foot firmly planted in the non-religious world. This means that teachers are somewhat more prepared for students and parents to push back on them.

We’ve done our research, and it seems that there are three or four Orthodox schools in the area that are open-minded enough for our tastes. That is exactly the number of schools we are required to register for, so we are not left with any flexibility (outside of Jerusalem, we would have even fewer suitable alternatives, if any at all). Hopefully these schools are good enough. Hopefully our daughter will be okay.


Providing what we cannot give

Ultimately, parents supplement their children’s school educations, and the reality is that we cannot give our daughter the substantive Jewish education that we never received ourselves.

That is what it comes down to.

Priorities.

When the rabbi’s wife died

Jewish wedding: No rabbi? No problem!

Did you know that according to traditional Jewish law, no rabbi is necessary for the performance of a Jewish wedding? That’s right: Jews don’t need rabbis to get married.

Okay, so what are the essentials?

  • The groom gives the bride something of at least a certain minimum value (usually a wedding ring that he puts onto his bride’s right index finger) and then makes a formulaic proclamation about her now being consecrated to him, all of which must be performed before two kosher witnesses;
  • A ketubah (wedding contract outlining the husband’s obligations to his wife) is signed by two kosher witnesses (not necessarily the same ones) prior to the wedding ceremony and then given to the bride during the ceremony.

That’s it.

Now, there are various ways to give honors to family and friends at a Jewish wedding, and I would say that no honor is considered greater than serving as one of these kosher witnesses. After all, it is they, rather than the officiating rabbi, whose roles are required by Jewish law.

Theoretically, if one of the kosher witnesses is revealed to be unkosher (not living up to certain religious standards) that would invalidate his testimony as a witness and render the wedding illegitimate.

Okay… so what?

Well, when my wife and I were planning our wedding, we really delved into the [religious] details of the ceremony and celebration.

We thought about how to strike a balance between Jewish tradition and feminism; how to ensure the comfort of our ultra-Orthodox wedding guests at our modern minded ceremony; how to make Jewish tradition accessible to our many secular friends and family members; whom to give which honors to…

My wife and I each assigned a witness to sign the ketubah and observe the ceremony beneath the chuppah (wedding canopy). Understanding the fundamental significance of these two kosher witnesses, and wanting our marital union to be religiously ironclad, each of us picked the most pious, God loving people that we knew. My wife picked the father of her adopted Israeli family, and I picked one of my Torah instructors, Rabbi Meir:

I starkly remember a rabbinic panel on prayer, held at the Pardes Institute. One devout rabbi (a teacher of mine whom I had specifically asked to sign our ketubah out of awe at the earnestness and intensity of his relationship with God) explained that he felt closer to God than he ever did to other people. He related that he would pour his heart out to God in prayer every single day in a way that he couldn’t with others. Upon hearing this, a second rabbi shed tears before the other panelists and demanded, “How do you get that way?”

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish #5’, Sept. 7th, 2018

Oh… I see where this is going

Years passed.

I hadn’t seen this rabbi in more than half a decade when I read that his wife had very unexpectedly died.

She was such a lovely woman; I had been to their home for Shabbat several times over the years and would also chance to speak with her every year at our community retreats. Truly, I cannot say enough good things about her; she was incredibly humble and gentle. While both had been born only children, together they raised a gorgeous family of nine in Israel.

Nobody expected her death.

Malka had led an active life and suddenly she found that walking up the stairs was presenting a challenge… The doctors were shocked, given her healthy lifestyle and outward appearance, that she needed to undergo triple bypass surgery. Over the course of several days following that surgery, Malka fought and then faded. And then- she was gone.

Visiting the rabbi

In Jewish tradition, mourners accept guests to comfort them for seven days following the funeral. These seven days are called the ‘shiva’, which is derived from the Hebrew word ‘sheva’, meaning ‘seven’.

Based upon my own experience as a mourner, it has become very meaningful to me to show support for others in mourning, particularly those who are dear to me. Thankfully, a friend [with a car] who had also studied with Rabbi Meir proposed that we visit him at the shiva together.

Beyond wanting to show my support to my teacher, I was curious to see how a man of iron faith such as Rabbi Meir might deal with the unexpected death of his wife of fifty years. He spoke of Malka and shed tears before his visitors (something I had never imagined I’d see him do); and, somehow, through it all, he continued to exude that deep grace and dignity, which he is known for. He was shattered, but his faith in God remained unassailable.

Rabbi Meir shared that he had just retired after more than forty years of teaching Torah, and they had been discussing how they would spend their years together after the COVID-19 insanity settled down. Malka died very shortly after his retirement.


Split screen in my mind

Writing about Papa is difficult for me, but perhaps writing about Mama is even more so because she is alive. After all, Papa doesn’t have to live with the consequences of what I write about him.

My parents had been planning on selling their home (the house where my younger brother grew up) and moving to North Carolina. With him permanently out of the house and me far across the ocean, they no longer needed their large house. They hadn’t found a buyer for the house yet, but that was their goal.

I was rocked by Papa’s death, but I didn’t have to physically face its reality on a daily basis if I didn’t want to. After all, I was still living with my wife and daughter far away in Israel and working at the same job. That surreality of returning to “normal” was, in large part, what prompted me to recite kaddish for Papa every day, as well as to pursue my Skeptic’s Kaddish writing project during my year of mourning.

For Mama, everything changed dramatically. Where would she live? What would she do with the rest of her life? Whom would she do it with? Clearly, she still had to sell her too large house, but then– what?

That was another reason why I started blogging about my mourning experience – I wanted to feel closer to Mama and Eli, and I aspired to helping them feel closer to me, despite the more than ~9,000 kilometers between us.

As I sat at that shiva several weeks ago, listening to my dear teacher crying over the unexpected and sudden loss of his beloved wife Malka, part of my mind found itself with Mama on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean…

… wishing that we were not so far apart.

A fishy lockdown

Last night and the night before I wanted to take some time to write, but I ended up falling asleep while putting my daughter to bed each time.

For me, perhaps the most frustrating thing about Israel’s current (2nd) pandemic-related lockdown is the diminished amount of time and space that I am left with for myself, which I primarily use for writing, reading the news, and watching the occasional movie. Even under regular circumstances, most of my free time is at night when I am not working and not parenting.

My wife and I are lucky to still have our jobs during these lockdowns, rather than being furloughed, as so many Israelis have been. In fact, my wife has a very dear friend who works as a chef for a major Jerusalem hotel who is also a single mother; and her financial situation is challenging even under normal conditions. In this regard, we have humility enough to appreciate our blessings.

Still, these lockdowns are challenging for us emotionally, and, dare I say, more so for me because my more flexible work hours mean that I end up assuming the majority of parenting responsibilities for our child during such periods (one of the reasons that her English reading and writing abilities have improved over her Russian language skills).

Perhaps I would be less frustrated with this government directive, were it not for the politics of COVID-19 in Israel. Putting aside the “why” of the matter, it is simply a fact that rates of infection in our state are significantly higher in ultra-Orthodox and Arab neighborhoods. However, despite health professionals recommending that local measures be applied to those areas, the ultra-Orthodox political parties have strong-armed the government into shutting down all of society.

Still, I am trying to remain positive.

* * *

Yesterday, our daughter had a playground playdate with a friend who showed up in a cranky mood. The little boy was mourning over his inability to attend preschool during the lockdown. I tried explaining this to my daughter, and she was clearly befuddled. “Really? I like being with you and Mama’chka more than preschool!” From her perspective, you see, lockdowns are like extended vacations.

I must admit that it’s very affirming for me to hear that our child likes being at home with us. It would seem that we’re doing something right.

[In that vein, we’ve also noticed a shift in her daily discourse over the past half year. Whereas she used to constantly ask, “Do you love me?” (and she still does occasionally). She now much more often prefers to say, “I love you” and kiss us; and since we parents are also human beings, I am not too shy to admit that we like hearing this.]

* * *

One other party in our household has benefitted from the lockdown, and that is Goldie the goldfish.

In truth, we’re learning how to take care of Goldie as we go – taking fish seriously as pets is not so simple, it seems.

Several weeks ago, we decided to get an airstone and pump for Goldie, which provides better circulation and aerates the tank water. This is not an absolute necessity, but it is generally considered healthy for the fish, and increases the efficiency of the filter. All of this was new to us.

Then, at a later date, we decided to upgrade to a bigger aquarium because the smaller tank was leaking from the top. In doing so, we learned that the water level in the smaller tank had been too high – that it should have been a bit lower than the bottom of the filter. (We also received 3 free Buenos Aires tetra fish with our purchase)

During that pet shop visit, we picked up a large, plastic “rock” with “plants” on it. However, what we came to realize is that the hollow “rock” was accumulating dirty water beneath it (leaving us to wonder why hollow aquarium decorations are sold in the first place). The “rock” has since been replaced with a sunken ship of the British Empire with a solid bottom, and our daughter is has taken to using the “rock” for her Playmobil figures’ adventures (don’t worry – we washed it).

Now our current and continuing challenge has become determining just how much to feed the four fish, as tetra fish should be fed more often than goldfish. In our research, we’ve also learned that tetra fish and goldfish are not necessarily the best tank mates, and the tetras, which are tropical, are not likely do well in colder temperatures… so they may not survive the coming Jerusalem winter.

In any case, the important thing is that our daughter is very happy to have pet fish. She takes feeding them very seriously and is still trying to decide upon names for the three tetras. We’ve warned her, of course, that they may not be long for this world… but we’ll get some replacements for her if they don’t make it.

Being home every day during this lockdown is providing us with an opportunity to monitor the aquarium… so I suppose there have been some hidden benefits to the ongoing insanity…

I wanted to be a rabbi

It was during college that I first considered the notion of studying to become a rabbi. I was an awful engineering student and apathetic about my studies. Clearly, my greatest passion in those years lay in community building and learning about Judaism. After four years, I graduated with an engineering degree, poor grades, and no ambition to find work as an engineer.

I could have pursued the rabbinate at that point, but I didn’t.

What if my eagerness was merely directionless floundering? What if I was only grasping at straws? What if mine was nothing more than a youthful fantasy born of desperation?

Four years later, I had earned a graduate degree in public policy and moved to Washington, DC as a contractor at the Department of Energy. During my interview for that position, I was asked to speak at length about my graduate research, leading me to believe that my work at the DOE would be equally stimulating. Unfortunately, several months later, enveloped on all sides by the inflamed bowel linings of the US government, I knew with certainty that it would be nothing of the sort.

Meanwhile, I had made my kitchen kosher as soon as I moved into my own apartment in DC and enthusiastically started hosting weekly Shabbat meals. I quickly became active in two different Jewish communities, and my dearest friends in Washington were among those who attended a lay-led, local Torah study program with me every week.

Through members of my extended Jewish community, I learned of an institute in Jerusalem that offered an intensive, yearlong text study program for Jews of all persuasions. My weekly, hour-long learning was meaningful and empowering, but more than anything else it whetted my appetite for deeper understanding of Torah, Talmud, and other classic Jewish sources. At nearly thirty, I was still sloshing about in tradition’s shallows.

After three years in Washington, DC, I decided to quit everything and move to Israel for a year of learning. I could still become a rabbi, I thought. It wasn’t too late for me.

During my first year of study in Jerusalem, I surfed waves of boundless enthusiasm over the sea1 of the Talmud. I knew that I would be staying for another year long before it came time to fill out the application form; and I preemptively met with representatives of a suitable rabbinical school in America. I was on track.

* * *

Then, during my second year in Israel I started dating my wife and decided to remain permanently in Israel. (a story for another time)

This decision derailed me.

Israel, you see, is where rabbis from around the world dream of retiring to. They serve their congregations, teach at their various schools and institutions, and perform life cycle events for the members of their communities. Then, ever so nostalgically and with due pride, they hand their reins to the younger generations of Jewish leadership and move to the Holy Land.

Due to the sheer number of rabbis in Israel, it is nearly impossible for the vast majority of religious leaders to sustain themselves here as Jewish professionals. Rabbinical students come here to learn, perhaps even to be ordained, and then they move away to build their careers. Those who move here before retirement knowingly give up their rabbinic careers and seek other prospects.

For several years following my decision, I continued studying, profoundly struggling to accept reality, but the truth was unbendable. I couldn’t have it all. I had given up my entire life in America to pursue the rabbinate, only to give up the rabbinate for Israel. I struggle to find words to describe my inner turmoil during that period of my life.

By coincidence, I was actually offered a plum job as a Jewish educator shortly after my daughter was born, which would have required me to travel regularly to Europe to work with young, Russian-speaking Jews. Painfully, I turned it down. Before Israel, before fatherhood, it would have been a dream for me, but I couldn’t be away from my family for nearly half of the year, including most Jewish holidays.

* * *

After reading my blog post ‘Resting on Religious Laurels’, my brother asked me if I had any regrets about pursuing Jewish studies in my early thirties. “You at least learned a bunch.”

“No,” I responded, “I wish I had immediately started studying Judaism after college and become a rabbi at a young age.”

* * *

Footnote

Shir haShirim (The Song of Songs) contains the following verse, in which a lover is describing her beloved (5:14):

יָדָיו גְּלִילֵי זָהָב, מְמֻלָּאִים בַּתַּרְשִׁישׁ; מֵעָיו עֶשֶׁת שֵׁן, מְעֻלֶּפֶת סַפִּירִים. His hands are like rods of gold set with beryl; his body is like polished ivory overlaid with sapphires.

In Shir haShirim Rabbah, an aggadic midrash on Song of Songs, the author expounds upon this verse, offering an interpretation. He writes, in part:

מַה גַּלִּים הַלָּלוּ בֵּין גַּל גָּדוֹל לְגַל גָּדוֹל גַּלִּים קְטַנִּים, כָּךְ בֵּין כָּל דִּבּוּר וְדִבּוּר פָּרָשִׁיּוֹתֶיהָ וְדִקְדּוּקֶיהָ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה הָיוּ כְּתוּבִים. מְמֻלָּאִים בַּתַּרְשִׁישׁ, זֶה הַתַּלְמוּד, שֶׁהוּא כַּיָּם הַגָּדוֹל, הֲדָא דְאַתְּ אָמַר (יונה א, ג): תַּרְשִׁישָׁה, הֲדָא מַה דְאַתְּ אָמַר (קהלת א, ז): כָּל הַנְּחָלִים הֹלְכִים אֶל הַיָּם. What are these ‘waves’ (galim)? Between all the big waves, there are small waves, and so too between all the sayings, the sections and the nuances of the Torah were written. ‘מְמֻלָּאִים בַּתַּרְשִׁישׁ’ (‘m’mulayim ba’tarshish’) refers to the Talmud, for it is like a great sea; so you say (Jonah 1:3): ‘תַּרְשִׁישָׁה’ (‘Tarshishah’); so you say (Ecclesiastes 1:7): ‘All the rivers run into the sea’.

This is classic midrash, in that the author deliberately reinterprets several words from the verse in Song of Songs in order to make his case, which is that the Talmud is like the sea:

  • The ancient Hebrew word ‘galim’ in the Song of Songs is generally translated as ‘rods’ in that specific context, but this same word can mean ‘waves’.
  • The ancient Hebrew word ‘tarshish’ is generally understood to mean ‘beryl’, but it is also the name of the kingdom that God commanded the prophet Jonah to visit.
    • And – since Jonah traveled to ‘Tarshish’ first in a boat and then in the belly of a fish (i.e. through the sea), the author understands this to suggest that the verse in Song of Songs is referring to the ‘sea’, as described in Ecclesiastes.

So – in case you were wondering – the Talmud is often compared to the sea.

QED?