Everybody's Got Something to Hide

...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Sunday, May 17, 2009

One of these things is not like the others

Books acquired this afternoon at Powell's:

1. Working Out in Japan: Shaping the Female Body in Tokyo Fitness Clubs, by Laura Spielvogel;
2. The Flesh Made Word: Female Figures and Women's Bodies, by Helena Michie;
3. Breasts: Women Speak About Their Breasts and Their Lives, by Daphna Ayalah and Isaac J. Weinstock;
4. The Complete Artscroll Siddur [prayer book], nusach Ashkanaz.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Does that line ever work?

I was waiting for the bus last night around SE Pine and Grand when a short twenty-something guy with long brown hair came right up to me. He was dressed all in black and wore pentagram necklace. "It's too bad Andy & Bax [a military supply store in the area] closes so early," he said, looking at me. "Uh huh," I said, in my frostiest Do Not Talk to Me voice. "Yeah...I really need a knife," he said. I took a step back and looked down Grand to see if the bus was coming yet. "I need it to do magic. A knife is very important for magic." I don't know what response he was expecting to get from me, but he clearly didn't get it, because he backed away and started rambling about how he would just go to Andy & Bax the next morning. Then he turned back to me suddenly and grabbed his pentagram. "What do you think of this?" he said, jangling it in my face.

When the bus arrived, I made sure to sit as far away as possible.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Tzariah, Metzorah, liminality, feminism, and embodiment (part 1)

(This is really long. I'll post part 2 sometime next week, probably. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts about this part and any issues it raises for you.)

One of the things I love most about Judaism is the way the calendar works. The Torah is divided into fifty-four portions, one of which is read every week (in non-leap years, like this year, there are a couple weeks that have two portions); at Simchat Torah, the cycle ends with the last portion of Deuteronomy and begins again with the first portion of Genesis. It's a cycle, but it's not quite circular; the Jewish year is more like a spiral. Each year when a particular portion rolls around you have the insight of what you learned about it last year and the growth that's taken place over the year; you're in the same place in the Torah, but you're not in the same place personally. It was an exciting time in my life as a baby Jew when I had experienced a whole year's cycle, and could remember last year's learning about a particular portion. It made me think of years in the future, when I'll have twenty or thirty experiences of a particular portion--all the learning and study and discussion from different communities that I'll have experienced by that point. It was such a happy, contented feeling--a satisfaction with and awe of the inheritance into which I've come.

(I think the same could be said of the traditional liturgical Christian calendar--not just the holidays, but the division of the year into different church seasons, and among churches that follow a lectionary. The UCC churches I grew up in only paid lip service to the Christian calendar, however, so it was never really my experience growing up. I'm curious to hear from my Christian friends if you have the same experiences with the Christian year.)

I have a Jewish calendar pinned to the wall of the kitchen to help me keep track of the Jewish months and days and the cycles of the moon and the Torah portions. I glanced at it a week ago and said, "Huh!" Daniel, who was sitting at the table, was like, "What 'huh'?" That week there were two Torah portions, Tzaria and Metzorah. I told Daniel that I said "huh" because last year I kept intending to write a blog post about Tzaria and Metzorah, and now I've officially been procrastinating for a year on that blog post.

Tzaria and Metzorah (which you can find in Leviticus 12:1-15:33) are some of the most challenging portions for modern Jews, especially for feminists: they're all about different kinds of skin diseases, emissions from the body, and other conditions that render someone tumeh (impure--roughly and perhaps inaccurately translated). I actually remember being at P'nai Or two years ago when these portions came around; it was the only service that Daniel ever attended, and we were both somewhere between amused and uncomfortable with reading about how seminal emissions rendered a man impure until he could immerse in a mikvah (it's not exactly the most date-friendly of Torah portions). That night at his house, we were talking about it and joking that (sacrilege alert) Orthodox communities should have drive-through mikvaot so that frum men could purify themselves at any time. I believe I suggested that the slogan of such a mikvah should be: "So you can daven great, even late!"

Tzaria and Metzorah can be difficult for contemporary Jews to accept or understand because, for one thing, now we know that semen, menstrual blood, and skin rashes are not things that we have to be afraid of; and for another thing, the prescribed purification rites--sacrificing different kinds of animals and things like that--are so foreign to our context. But these parshaiot are especially troublesome from a feminist perspective because of the associations they can suggest between women's bodies and processes and impurity. A woman can't enter the sacred sanctuary while she's menstruating, and for several days afterward; after giving birth to a boy child, she is tumah/impure for thirty days, but for a girl child, the impurity lasts double the length of time. How can we understand this in a non-misogynistic way?

I've heard a few different suggestions. Ancient cultures feared death. (Do we fear death any less?) Not understanding the scientific nature of bodily fluids, any loss of seemingly essential fluid was seen as a kind of death: not just because, augh! you're bleeding and it's scary, but because a loss of semen or menstrual blood represented the loss of a potential life. Ejaculation, menstruation, and childbirth were and, perhaps, still are liminal moments in life when an individual was believed to be especially close to the dividing line between life and death. To make as clear a distinction between life and death as possible, someone who passed through one of those liminal places needed to separate from the community and reestablish his or her ties to the living. (This explains why a woman who gave birth to a girl needed to separate for double the amount of time: her baby girl would grow to experience more liminal moments through menstruation and childbirth than would a baby boy).

At P'nai Or last year I remember discussing these portions--I knew more than I did the first year, when Daniel and I were there together, and I was increasingly interested in bringing a feminist analysis to bear on the parashiot. Different people shared their thoughts, and one of the dominant points that emerged was that there is some truth to the fact that certain experiences in life are so powerful that afterwards, you needed to take some time away from the community before you are ready to reenter it. A few women shared their experiences giving birth, saying that all they wanted to do was retreat to be with their baby and not have to deal with the obligations of the community. Could the proscriptions of the Torah have been crafted with these feelings in mind? Reb Aryeh suggested that a contemporary understanding of "pure" and "impure" could be "ready for community religious obligations" and "not ready for community religious obligations."

Something about that still doesn't satisfy me, though. I appreciate the new lens through which to consider Tzariah and Metzorah, and I think it's absolutely true that after a life/death experience, it's natural to want to retreat from community obligations. But what does it mean that women, by nature of menstruation and childbirth, spend far, far more time then men in the state of "not ready for community religious obligation?" Is there any way to think about this without falling into the old association of women with the body and men with the mind--with Woman as the earthy, fleshy, bleeding body and Man with the lofty spirit and intellect? These were the questions I brought to Tzariah and Metzorah when it cycled back around this year.

To be continued...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Birkat HaChamah and Passover

Clearly I fail at blogging.

April 8 was a holiday that only comes once every twenty-eight years: Birkat HaChamah, the Blessing of the Sun. The tradition has it that once every twenty-eight years, the sun returns to the same place in the sky relative to the stars and the Earth where God placed it on the 4th day of creation. (The same place as viewed from the Earth, obviously, since the sun and stars themselves don't move). The calculations are totes confusing and I gave up on trying to understand exactly why it was that particular morning, and why the Jewish year (5769) isn't divisible by 28, and just tried to enjoy the fact that this is an unusual occasion that last occurred in 1981 and won't come again until I'm in my 50s.

P'nai Or met at the gardens behind Pittock Mansion at 6am and sang and danced until we realized that it was too overcast to see the sunrise, at which point we said a shortened version of the blessing (you have to actually be able to see the sun to say the full blessing), said the Kaddish, and trickled off. Afterwards I went out to breakfast with some Pnai Orniks then got dropped off at work, feeling very disoriented, sleepy, and off-rhythm. Whenever I do something before work, even something as mundane as getting up early to finish a Netflix movie so I can send off the disk that day, it makes work feel really strange. It makes it feel like just one of several things I happened to decide to do that day, rather than something I have to do. By the time I got to work at 9am, it felt like it was noon because I had gotten up so early.

The 8th was doubly auspicious (truly a mazel tov--literally "good constellation!") because it was also the first day of Passover (which actually began that evening, since Jewish days begin at dusk). Birkat HaChamah and Passover are not always aligned, it was just just a coincidence--one that made my day all the more weird and off-rhythm. A friend from P'nai Or invited me to her house for the first night seder. She warned me that it would be a long evening, so I planned to get off work at 3pm, go home to take a nap, then another person would pick me up....the seder started around seven-thirty or eight; dinner was served at 10:30 and at midnight, the person who gave me a ride and I left because he was exhausted. Dessert hadn't been served yet; I can only imagine how late the seder must have gone. Two in the morning? Although it was a strange day and a really late night, I was happy to have been invited and to have a place to spend the first night seder. This friend has two college-age children, and it was fun to spend the holiday with a family. They're also on the more observant/halakhic end of the spectrum for P'nai Or and I'm always interested in learning about how people blend a Jewish Renewal consciousness with halakhic observance.

The next night P'nai Or had a community seder at St. Mark's. I got a ride with my friend Jess, and sat with my friend Helana (another Lewis & Clark graduate, but we got to know each other at P'nai Or). P'nai Or's seder was big and sprawling and semi-chaotic (there were eighty people there and there was a ton of unnecessary drama about moving chairs around and seating arrangements...I'm so burned out on synagogue politics right now), but also sweet and emotional and touching. We used a Haggadah that Reb Aryeh had put together, and I think everyone cried a little at different points.

Finally, last Sunday Daniel and I had our own seder at our apartment. Our guests were my parents, Daniel's parents, Amy, Carla, Helana, my friend Jade from work, and her fried Kat. I invited several more people, but I think the mixture ended up being exactly right and anyways, it would have been difficult to fit any more chairs around the table. We used the Velveteen Rabbi haggadah. I think it went well--I can't speak for the others (Amy?) but I know I had a great time and I appreciated that everyone contributed their energy, insights, voices, and laughter. It was my parents' first seder, and I think they enjoyed it and found it relatively accessible. We started the seder by lighting yartzeit/memorial candles for people who have passed away. After the seder ended and the table had been cleared, we left the candles burning. It was my understanding that yartzeit candles burn for about twenty-four hours, but when I got home from work on Monday (26 hours after they had been lit), all of them were still going strong...as they were the next morning. Two of the candles ended up burning for about forty hours.

So now Passover is officially over. It's been a crazy week and a half, but a meaningful and moving one too. I can say that I'm looking forward to eating chametz (leavened products) again. I kept a box of matzah in my classroom to eat at lunch and after several inquiries of "Teacher Jessica, what's that big giant cracker?" I gave all the kids a little bit to taste. Most of them loved it and it was really a sight to see twenty three- to five-year-olds gnawing on jagged pieces of the Bread of Affliction. At least I know where I can get rid of our leftover matzah!

Monday, March 09, 2009

Two months later

It's been two months since I last posted on my blog. I never meant so stop writing, really, it's just that given the gravitas of my last post it didn't feel right to pop in and say "Hello, I'm brewing kombucha," or "Yay, I got an awesome job in Ohio over the summer" or "Here's this fun song I sing with the kids" or even "Here are my semi-deep reflections on this aspect of religious phenomenology." Because while all of those other fun things, life things, are going on, there's this pressing sadness that I'm not sure how to write about. But now it's been two months and I think it's time to start writing again. Tonight is Purim, though, the Feast of Lots, and right now I'm hard-pressed to tell the difference between "Blessed is Mordechai" and "Cursed is Haman" (in other words, I've been drinking; it's Purim!) and writing will have to wait.

Thank you to those who commented on my last post, or expressed condolences to me in person. It means a lot. And to the last commenter on my last post--did you really think that that was an appropriate time to try to evangelize me? Really?

Friday, January 09, 2009

Baruch Dayan Emet

That's what a traditional Jew is supposed to say when witnessing or learning of a death: "Blessed is the one true judge."

Around 1am, early Wednesday morning, I learned that my beloved rabbi, teacher, and guide Aryeh Hirschfield drowned while snorkeling on vacation in Mexico with his family. (Here is the article from The Oregonian). Cassandra, the woman I spoke to on the phone, said "Aryeh drowned," and I kept turning it over in my head and trying to come up with a way that "drowned" wouldn't mean "died."

The words "baruch dayan emet" popped into my head but I couldn't say them. It didn't seem right. I thought that if I said those words it would be suggesting that Reb Aryeh's death was just. I can't see it that way.

Last night there was a community gathering at St. Mark's, where P'nai Or holds services. I rode there in silence with three other people. There were at least 200 people there, completely broken and devastated. After I found a seat I saw my former thesis adviser and teacher Sylvia walk in. She said "Oh, Jessica" and held out her arms and I fell onto her sobbing. I heard and felt her crying as well. The last time we had seen each other was at my bet din, at which Aryeh officiated.

I can't believe he's gone.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Leap Frog: designed to keep children passive and dumb

Take a minute to watch this commercial for the Leap Frog reading ("reading") toy. The toy system seems to consist of electronic books about different TV and movie characters. When a child runs the corresponding Leap Frog electronic wand over the words in the "book," the character's voice speaks the words. This is touted as a great way to make kids love reading FOR LIFE!

This commercial, and the Leap Frog reading system in general, makes me so angry. Speaking as an early child educator, I feel that Leap Frog is actually doing children a tremendous disservice. Let me count the ways:

First: I find objectionable the crass commercialization and plasticization of children's toys and materials. I don't like reading books about TV and movie characters to children because I think they limit children's own imaginations. I'm thankful that my preschool uses mostly wooden toys and natural materials and non-commercial books. I don't have anything against intelligent children's TV, but I find that intelligent programming is becoming increasingly hard to find.

Second: The colors of this toy are garish and ugly. I think it's insulting to the intelligence and sensitivity of children to assume that they don't have an eye for subtlety and beauty in their materials. The Journal of Amphibious Species or whatever the commercial positions as the Anti-Leap Frog is, in my opinion and according to the philosophy of Reggio Emilia as I understand it, a much healthier material for a child that will actually stimulate and encourage his/her natural curiosity and inquiry into the natural world. It doesn't talk, Mr. Garish Frog Man, because books aren't supposed to talk.

Third: The commercial suggests that kids need the Leap Frog system to make reading fun. Bullshit. Reading can be and should be fun, but children who use the Leap Frog system to support their reading are being sold a bill of goods. Cartoon characters are not always going to be able to read to them; what happens when they outgrow Leap Frog and actually have to start exerting effort to read words themselves? Having been trained by Leap Frog and similar toys to be passive rather than active learners, reading will seem difficult and unrewarding. Reading becomes a novelty that can be shunted aside as soon as the next shiny plastic piece of junk comes out. Instead of helping kids love reading for life, Leap Frog helps kids love reading for five minutes.

Fourth: Children who use this toy are not actually reading. Reading is an active process. Even being read to by an adult, looking at the pictures, following the words on the page, talking about the story, making predictions, etc. can be an active process. The Leap Frog system encourages passivity. It's not education, it's edutainment.

Fifth: I find the Leap Frog system to be indicative of a general societal discomfort with difficulty. It's true that it can be difficult to learn to read; I was a late reader myself. But many valuable things are difficult; to paraphrase Rilke, the fact that they are difficult is all the more reason to pursue them. Achievements that come easily are often valued little. If a child is struggling to learn to read, I don't think giving him or her a Leap Frog reading toy will make it any easier, at least not in the long run.

What do you think? I'm curious if anyone can parse out more reasons to hate this commercial.