Kezayit: FRIDAY

FRIDAYWhat's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

+++++

This week, what happens when an internationally-acclaimed design firm partners with a Jewish non-profit determined to engage young and unaffiliated Jews?

Friday happens! Well, the app, at least – not the day of the week, which happens every seven days, just after Thursday and before Shabbat.

FRIDAY, an app created for the iPhone by IDEO in collaboration with Reboot, can be thought of as a digital riff on Kabbalat Shabbat (which literally means "welcoming Shabbat"). From the app press release:

"Each Friday, 30 minutes before sunset, your phone's screen recedes into a blissful twilight and serves up a short thought-provoking story and question to prompt a pause for personal reflection and lively discussion. Using head, heart, and humor, FRIDAY helps transition us from the stressful week into a more restful weekend state of mind. ... We know it’s ironic - an app that encourages you to unplug and connect with others. But maybe it will help you quiet the noise for 15 minutes. Or maybe you'll make it all night long without texting. It kind of doesn't matter. Either way, it'll be time well spent."

We encourage you to download the app and try it out. As the IDEO/Reboot team put it, if Friday night is "a time to press pause," the FRIDAY App is "a very shiny pause button."

Kezayit: Wall To Wall

Facebook_PlacingNoteInWallClose_YomHaAtzmautCelebration_May2016What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

+++++

When we reported on the delightfully fun Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration that took place at CBS on Sunday, May 15, we highlighted the handiwork of our talented CBS Family Preschool students:

"Outside, in Eva Gunther Plaza, congregants of all ages added personal aspirations and prayers to an amazing replica of the Western Wall made by the CBS Family Preschool Pre-K class. The students were inspired by photos of the Western Wall as well as memories and stories shared by children in the class who have visited the actual wall in Jerusalem. (The notes added to the replica wall yesterday will soon be carried to the actual Western Wall and placed there!)"

Indeed, this winter, during the Bay Area Conservative/Masorti Mission To Israel (December 22, 2016 – January 2, 2017), Rabbi Glazer will deliver all of the notes placed in the replica wall by members of the CBS community to the Kotel. (Todah rabbah, Rabbi!)

So why do we Jews have a tradition of inserting notes into the Kotel? Because the Western Wall is the last remaining remnant of the Second Temple, it is itself venerated as a sacred icon by many Jews -- some even believe it is a direct conduit to G-d -- and the handwritten notes placed in the wall's cracks are prayers or requests made to or of HaShem. Even non-Jews place personal entreaties in the wall, and it's become something of a requisite stop for foreign visitors to Israel, especially political figures.

Facebook_PlacingNoteInWall2_YomHaAtzmautCelebration_May2016According to the Jewish Virtual Library, "the Wall has been a popular place for prayer since the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., [and] the earliest example of placing notes at the Western Wall occurred in the mid-16th century. Rabbi Gedaliah of Semitzi visited Jerusalem and the Western Wall in 1699 and wrote the first recorded evidence of prayers being written down and left in the cracks of the Wall. The Wall became a popular destination during the 19th century as technology afforded more people the ability to travel the globe."

Fortunately, even if you're not a world traveler, you can place a note in the Western Wall. You can take advantage of services like that offered by Orthodox outreach organization Aish HaTorah, which allow people who can not visit Jerusalem in person to type in messages that are then printed and placed in the Western Wall by an Aish representative. Alternatively, you can add a note to the replica created by our preschoolers -- the wall is currently installed in the hallway between the synagogue and the preschool -- and know that it will find a home in the actual Western Wall later this year. Our preschoolers recommend this latter option!

Finally, we leave you with a joke: Every year, Shlomo visits the Kotel to place his special appeal in one of the wall's cracks. His petition reads, "HaShem, please help me win the lottery this year." Year after year, however, Shlomo fails to win any lottery prizes. Finally, after many years of this, as Shlomo departs from the Kotel, he is addressed by G-d. Startled and trembling on his knees, Shlomo looks toward the source of the incorporeal voice and asks, "HaShem, what do you ask of your humble servant?" G-d replies, "Nudnik, will you go and buy a lottery ticket?"

Kezayit: Burn, Baby, Burn!

Facebook_LagBOmerFlamingArrowWhat's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

+++++

Lag B'Omer is this Thursday, May 26 (18 Iyar). Although the holiday has been getting more press in recent years, it continues to go largely ignored by most Jewish Americans.

But maybe that's about to change? A concerted effort is being made by some contemporary Jewish leaders to make Lag B'Omer a centerpiece of the Jewish calendar, a holiday that secular Jews will appreciate as much as their religious brethren. Given that Lag B'Omer is traditionally observed by lighting bonfires, dancing, singing, and feasting, it should be an easy sell.

So why do we set things ablaze and party hardy on Lag B'Omer? What are we so colorfully celebrating? According to one content-aggregating website, "Lag Ba'Omer is a joyous holiday, but no one is sure what it celebrates."

There are explanations, however. Lag B'Omer translates as the "33rd [day] in the Omer." The Omer, as devoted Kezayit readers will surely recall, is the 49-day period between the second night of Pesach and Shavuot. While we previously explained why the 49 days of the Omer are counted and why this count has taken on mystical significance, we didn't mention that most of the period of the Omer is understood to be one of semi-mourning. Halachically observant Jews may not get a haircut, shave, listen to instrumental music, dance, or have weddings or parties during the Omer. The Talmud explains that the semi-mourning memorializes either a terrible plague that killed 24,000 of the great sage Rabbi Akiva's students or the murder of those same students by Roman soldiers during the years of the Bar Kokhba revolt (132–136 CE). Modern rabbis have also suggested that the Omer should be seen as a time to remember the millions of Jews who were persecuted and killed during the Crusades, centuries of European pogroms, and the Shoah. Of course, anthropologists point out that many ancient cultures practiced "similar periods of restraint in the early spring to symbolize their concerns about the growth of their crops."

BonfireWhether it's an ancient rite of an agricultural people, a commemoration of a specifically Jewish experience, or some combination thereof, the Omer is meant to be a somber period. Lag B'Omer is the exception. All the restrictions of the mourning period are lifted; it's the one day during the Omer that we let it all hang out. Which brings us back to the holiday's potential renaissance.

As a recent article in J. makes clear, Lag B'Omer makes space for even the most secular of Jews to connect strongly with their Judaism. Joel Stanley, Director of Jewish Innovation at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center (OFJCC) in Palo Alto, saw an opportunity to draw a crowd with "live music, archery, dance, wilderness workshops, spontaneous chats about Kabbalah, activities for kids and barbecue"...as well as "towering fire sculptures." This year, the OFJCC is producing their first Burning Mensch celebration, a Lag B'Omer party designed to appeal to younger, more secular Jews, those of our tribe who generally eschew ritual or traditional spiritual experiences, but are eager to celebrate their Jewish heritage. Zack Bodner, Executive Director of the OFJCC, says Burning Mensch is part of an effort he dubs Judaism 3.0, "a vision for the future."

We salute such creative efforts, and hope that Burning Mensch is a grand success, both for the sake of its producers and sponsors (Kol Emeth, Jewish Study Network, and Milk + Honey) as well as for Jewish engagement, generally.

Kezayit: Counting the Omer

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

+++++

Gif_Omer1Another Pesach (Passover) has come and gone. The next Jewish holiday on the radar of many Jews is Rosh Hashanah, but even if we ignore the "minor" holidays and observances -- if, for example, you won't be fasting on the 17th of Tammuz (July 24) -- Shavuot is a big deal, and it's just over a month away!

Shavuot is such a big deal, in fact, that we have a countdown until it arrives...or maybe it's better called a "countup"? The 49-day period between the second night of Pesach and Shavuot is referred to as the omer, and it's a mitzvah (commandment) to count the days as they pass (Sefirat HaOmer).

So what's an omer, and why are we counting it? Way back in the days of the First Temple, an omer (a sheaf, or an ancient unit of measure) of barley was brought to the Temple as an offering to HaShem, an expression of gratitude for the harvest season. The Omer period begins with this barley offering, and the Torah dictates the aforementioned counting:

Gif_Omer8 Gif_Omer5You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to G-d (Leviticus 23:15-16).”

In the Torah, this counting seems connected only to the agricultural calendar, a way of reckoning when the wheat harvest should begin (i.e., when the count is completed, on Shavuot). Over time, however, Shavuot became associated with the giving of Torah to Israel at Mount Sinai. In fact, for contemporary Jews, Shavuot is more closely associated with divine revelation than with agricultural bounty.

Likewise, the counting of the Omer has also taken on metaphysical significance. Today, the Omer is interpreted as a bridge between Pesach and Shavuot. Writing for MyJewishLearning.com, Rabbi Jill Jacobs explains:

"While Passover celebrates the initial liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot marks the culmination of the process of liberation, when the Jews became an autonomous community with their own laws and standards. Counting up to Shavuot reminds us of this process of moving from a slave mentality to a more liberated one."

The remarkable transformation from close-minded slaves to liberated souls prepared to receive Torah didn't come easy for our ancestors, and it doesn't come any easier for us. To help Jews carry out the spiritual and personal work of the Omer, Jewish mystics of the 16th century assigned the weeks and days of the Omer count to particular characteristics or emotions, drawing on their knowledge of Kabbalah and the sephirot of the Tree of Life. The Chabad website includes a detailed primer about how observant Jews should "examine and refine" each attribute or feeling as they move through the Omer season. It's worth exploring this approach to the Omer; it has mystical roots, but it's a remarkably practical self-improvement system and offers us a wonderful way to make the season meaningful, even profound.Gif_Omer15

The animated GIFs that accompany this post are highlights from graphic designer and artist Hillel Smith's GIF the Omer: Best Omer Ever project, "a fun, daily typographic Omer counter" that Smith has launched as part of his ongoing effort "to create new takes on traditional forms, melding ancient practices with a contemporary aesthetic."

We encourage you to visit GIF the Omer regularly to check out more of Smith's animations. (You can even opt to subscribe for daily email updates.) And, hey, if you decide to start working the Omer program, so much the better!

Image credits and captions:
All GIF artworks by Hillel Smith, 2016
From top:
Day 1 of the Omer
Day 8 of the Omer (Note: 8 = ח)
Day 5 of the Omer (Note: Numeral systems depicted include Arabic, Burmese, Braille, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Korean, Sundanese, and a bunch more.)
Day 15 of the Omer (Note: 15 = טו)

Kezayit: Moadim L'sim-wha?

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

+++++

MoadimLSimchaSome of our congregants were thrown off last week when Rabbi Glazer enthusiastically greeted them with "Moadim l'simcha!" Many community members looked confused -- "Moadim l'sim-wha?" -- and several asked for an explanation, which Rabbi Glazer happily provided.

In case you're still in the dark, though, we thought we'd share the explanation here. What's up with the greeting?

Literally translated, "moadim l'simcha" means "times for joy," but you can think of it as "happy holidays!" Yet this isn't a greeting that should be used for every Jewish holiday. Technically, it should be reserved for use during Pesach (Passover) and Sukkot; even then, it should only be used during the Chol HaMoed.

Chol HaMoed? Pesach and Sukkot both take place over multiple days. During Pesach in the Diaspora, the third through sixth days of the holiday (second through sixth in Israel), are called Chol HaMoed, which translates as the "weekdays [of] the festival." These days are regarded as the secular (or less holy) part of Pesach. Similarly, during Sukkot, the third through seventh days of the holiday (second through seventh in Israel) are also Chol HaMoed.

During both Pesach and Sukkot, then, it is most appropriate to greet fellow yidden with "Chag sameach!" ("Happy holiday!") during the beginning and end of the holidays (the first, second, seventh, and eighth days of Pesach, and the first, second, and eighth days of Sukkot) and "Moadim l'simcha!" during the intermediate days.

So there you have it! If you really want to show your Hebrew greeting chops, when someone greets you with "Moadim l'simcha!" during Sukkot, you should reply with "Chagim u’zmanim l’sasson!" This is a traditional response to the first greeting, and translates as "Holidays and times for celebration!"

Kezayit: Not Every Jew Looks Like You

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

+++++
Kone-Miller-family- Writing recently in Tablet Magazine, author David Margolick acknowledged the Jewish people's chauvinistic tribalism.

"Why is it we Jews are not only quick to claim someone as our own, but insist upon claiming all of him? For better or worse, though, we do: our fierce feeling of specialness is something we don’t want to share with anyone else. [...] Our chauvinism knows no bounds, and tolerates no asterisks."

Margolick made this admission in an essay exploring the Jewish antecedence of Supreme Court Justice nominee Merrick Garland, which he penned after reading a New York Times profile of Garland that included the following biographical detail.

"Friends say Judge Garland’s connection to Judaism runs deep. His father was Protestant, but he was raised as a Jew — he had a bar mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue — and he spoke movingly Wednesday of how his grandparents left Russia, 'fleeing anti-Semitism and hoping to make a better life for their children in America.'"

Upon learning that it was "only" Garland's mother who was Jewish, Margolick "felt instantly deflated," and became determined to dig deeper to see what could be turned up about Garland's paternal ancestry. In fact, Margolick learned, Garland's father is Jewish; the Times piece had reported Garland's father was Protestant in error. When the Gray Lady printed a correction, according to Margolick, "everywhere, Jews cheered."

Actually, this Jew didn't. If Garland identifies as a Jew (and is halachically Jewish as well!), why does it matter whether or not both of his parents are Jewish?

Louis-Jeff-used-for-BART-ad_smallerMargolick's article is a reminder that, for many contemporary, secular Jews, ethnic and genetic "purity" -- or yichus -- matters as much if not more than one's behavior or personal identification. Moreover, many members of the tribe (M.O.T.s) tend to prioritize our particularistic "subtribe" (e.g., Ashkenazim discounting Sephardic practice as alien or misguided rather than simply different, or Modern Orthodox Jews looking askance at their Reform brethren), further eroding the virtuous notion of klal Yisrael (the interconnection of all Jews).

Disappointingly, I can recall numerous conversations with fellow Jews, friends as well as relatives, who observed that Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel), Indian Jews (including the Bnei Menashe), and all manner of converts (gerim) "aren't real Jews." When I blanche, they'll often add something like, "You know what I mean, not genetically."

To be fair, whereas Judaism, the religion, and Jewishness, our ethnic/cultural identity, used to be inextricably intertwined, the two are now viewed as distinct by a large majority of Jewish Americans, and the comments of my friends and relatives reflect their prioritization of Jewishness over Judaism. They accept that Ethiopian Jews are Jews in the sense that they practice Judaism, but they lack any yiddishkeit, which is what qualifies them as "real" M.O.T.s.

Enter Debbie Rosenfeld-Caparaz of Lehrhaus Judaica and Dawn Kepler, Director of Building Jewish Bridges, who co-curated the photography exhibition, This is Bay Area Jewry, currently on view at Temple Sinai in Oakland. Kepler, quoted in a J Weekly article about the exhibition, points out that "many refer to the Bay Area as a diaspora of the diaspora," a region where Jewish identity is complex-compound. Kepler states that the exhibition aims to “[push] folks to think more deeply about what Jewish heritage means and to realize that there are lots of Jews, and not very many of them fit into that Ashkenazi stereotype.”

If, as some leading sociologists contend, the Bay Area offers a portrait of the future of American Jewry, Margolick will need to accept the fact that many dedicated and active Jews look very different from him and/or have very different origin stories. Moreover, a great many of us may have only one Jewish parent...or none!

Kol HaKavod to Rosenfeld-Caparaz and Kepler for conceiving of This is Bay Area Jewry, and to photographer Lydia Daniller and writer Robert Nagler Miller for their efforts, as well. For more information on the exhibition, click here.

Image credits: Both photographs by Lydia Daniller for This is Bay Area Jewry, 2016 -- Top: The Kone-Miller Family, members of CBS!

Kezayit: Kitniyot

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

+++++

Kitniyot2CBS prides itself on the relatively diverse make-up of our community but, like the majority of synagogues in the United States, most of our members identify as Ashkenazim or subscribe to Ashkenazi minhag (custom). For observant Ashkenazi Jews, Pesach (Passover) dietary restrictions are especially onerous. Like other Jews, Ashkenazim refrain from eating hametz (leavened foods) during Passover, but they also eschew kitniyot, a catch-all term used to describe rice, corn, soy beans, peas, lentils, and many seeds. All of these foods are off limits for Ashkenaz Jews during Pesach.

In recent years, there's been much debate about the kitniyot minhag. Should Jews of Ashkenaz provenance continue to practice the prohibition? Or is it high time we put tofu on our Pesach menu? Let's unpack this a bit...and maybe settle any disputes occurring in your kitchens.

First, the ban on kitniyot was only codified in the 16th century; it's a relatively recent minhag. There are competing explanations for its origin, but the general consensus is that rabbis were concerned that European Jews would mistake a hametz flour for a grain flour, thereby unintentionally violating halacha. The rabbis banned anything and everything that might confuse Jews during the holiday. Today, when we can easily tell the difference, is there really any need for the custom to continue?

Second, it's important to remember that minhagim should not be confused with mitzvot. A minhag is not part of written or oral law, and might be widely practiced (e.g., the kitniyot prohibition) or confined to one particular family (e.g., that goofy thing your bubbe did that your dad does and you've started doing, too). Perhaps not surprisingly, many Jews prioritize minhag over halacha, especially if the custom was practiced by their grandparents and parents. You know the score – tradition!

But even the most strict among us should keep the principle of minhag avoteinu beyadeinu ("the minhag of our forefathers remains in our hands") in mind. Even if you're reluctant to reconsider long-held customs, our rabbis are doing just that. On December 24, 2015, the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law & Standards adopted two Responsa (sheelot u-teshuvot,) concerning kitniyot. You can read the full papers here and here, but the summaries are supplied below.

The first of the two responsa was authored by Rabbi David Golinkin, the President of The Schechter Institutes and Past President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he currently serves as Professor of Jewish Law. Rabbi Golinkin's paper does not include a formal psak, but concludes that the kitniyot minhag should be eliminated. It was adopted by a vote of 15-3-4.

The second responsa was authored by Rabbis Amy Levin and Avram Reisner, the Interim Rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom (Bridgeport, CT) and Rabbi Emeritus of Chevrei Tzedek (Baltimore, MD), respectively. Their paper was adopted by a vote of 19-1-2. The concluding psak of this rabbinic Responsa is: "In order to bring down the cost of making Pesach and support the healthier diet that is now becoming more common, and given the inapplicability today of the primary concerns that seem to have led to the custom of prohibiting kitniyot, and further, given our inclination in our day to present an accessible Judaism unencumbered by unneeded prohibitions, more easily able to participate in the culture that surrounds us, we are prepared to rely on the fundamental observance recorded in the Talmud and codes and permit the eating of kitniyot on Pesach."

It's none of our business what goes on in your kitchen or dining room, but we encourage you to feast on kitniyot this Pesach...if you want to.

Kezayit: Micrography

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

+++++

Waugh_FullBrooklyn-based artist Michael Waugh is best known for producing large-scale, ink-on-mylar drawings, but with a twist. From the artist's website:

"For the past few years, my drawings have utilized an ancient Hebrew form of calligraphy called micrography, in which minute words are written out so that when you stand far away, you see an image. Those ancient drawings typically employed a sacred text; the purpose of the drawings was either devotional or magical. The texts used in my drawings are neither sacred nor magical, and it is doubtful that they deserve any form of devotion. The text used in these drawings comes from government reports commissioned or headed by US presidents (i.e. presidential commission reports)."

Waugh_Detail2The image you see above is Waugh's The Grace Commission, part n, a 2007 work measuring 36 x 78 inches. Just to the left, we've included a detail of the work, which shows the handwritten script that forms the greyhound's head and the background landscape. As the title of the work suggests, this image was created using the federal report about President Ronald Reagan's Grace Commission, a 1982 investigation into governmental "waste and inefficiency."

Whereas Waugh uses micrography for conceptual reasons -- the imagery in his drawings is a comment on the texts he uses -- its invention was precipitated by a very different need. The second commandment, read strictly, prohibits religious Jews from creating artwork that may be deemed idolatrous and blasphemous. Although Jewish tradition has proven generally amenable to visual art, micrography ensured that Jewish artists wouldn't need to worry -- the potentially dangerous image was rendered harmless because it was formed by written sacred text that formed it.

Micrography arose as an art form sometime in 10th century Egypt and Eretz Israel. Although most scholars attribute its invention to Jews, it was heavily influenced by the surrounding Islamic culture and calligrams. From the catalog essay for Micrography: The Hebrew Word as Art, an exhibit at the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary:

"Hebrew micrography was the creation of the Masorah scribes of Tiberias in the production of Bible codices (the book form of the Tanach that included marginal notes of the masorah and nikudot). The Leningrad Codice from 1009 written in Cairo, has sixteen diverse carpet pages presenting the small but fully legible masorah text in architectural and abstract designs surrounded by beautiful gold and red illuminations reminiscent of Middle Eastern carpets. This art form spread throughout the Levant, with Yemen as an especially important center, and then to north into medieval Europe. The Sephardic scribes of Spain utilized micrography, especially in some of the Catalonian Haggadot. The Ashkenazi scribes, with their micrographic specialty of medieval grotesques and bestiaries decorating the margins and front pages of luxury Bibles, and Haggadot also flourished from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. After the invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century, the use of micrography expanded to ketubbot, omer counters, amulets, and other independent works on paper, eventually to its use in portraits and secular Jewish illustrations. Throughout the centuries it has remained a predominately Jewish art form."

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): A Proper Purim Greeting

Purim is almost here! It won't be long before we're masked, spieling, ring tossing, and bottoms upping! Mark your calendars for Sunday, March 12, 2017, when our PURIMPALOOZA: Community Purim Carnival & Spiel To Support CBS Educational Programs will take place!

+++++
Invert
According to Wikipedia, Quora, and just about any website we could find, there are three traditional Purim salutations: "Chag Purim Sameach!" ("Happy Purim Festival/Holiday!" in Hebrew); "Freilichin Purim!" ("Happy Purim!" in Yiddish); and "Purim Allegre!" ("Happy Purim!" in Ladino). Indeed, when you've come to CBS Purim carnivals and megillah readings in past years, it's a sure thing you were welcomed with one of those greetings.

The thing of it is, "Chag Purim Sameach!" ain't exactly exact. Although the greeting is widely used and accepted, Purim isn't technically a festival, or chag. The only chagim we observe are the Yom Tovim, the six Biblically-mandated festivals: the first and seventh days of Pesach (Passover), the first day of Shavuot, both days of Rosh Hashanah, the first day of Sukkot, the first day of Shemini Atzeret, and Yom Kippur. In the Diaspora, the redundant, second-day iterations of some of these are also considered Yom Tovim or chagim. Purim is notably absent from the list. Somewhere along the line (l'dor va'dor -- generation to generation), however, the greeting that should be reserved for true chagim was also attached to Hanukkah and Purim.

In a recent discussion with Rabbi Glazer, your CBS Communications Coordinator learned of a more appropriate greeting for Purim, one you might consider using this year. "V’nahafokh hu!" ("We shall invert things!") Rabbi Glazer explained that this greeting, which is drawn from two verses in the megillah (Esther 9:1 and 9:22), is the most incisive option. It speaks to Purim's most significant theme, namely that "everything should be inverted in a cruel and broken world, leaving only compassion and random acts of selfless lovingkindness."

Rabbi Julia Andelman (of the Jewish Theological Seminary) breaks things down further in a 2014 article:

"Purim is a holiday of reversals—written into the megillah itself. Haman creates an elaborate ritual by which the king should honor him, but his enemy Mordechai is honored with that same ritual instead. The gallows Haman builds for Mordechai end up being the instrument of his own death. And the fate of a nation changes from doom to victory in the blink of an eye: 'And so, on the 13th day of the 12th month—that is, the month of Adar—when the king’s demand and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, v’nahafokh hu — the situation was reversed—and the Jews got their enemies in their power instead' (Esther 9:1). Reversals of fortune, narratives doubling back on themselves in opposing incarnations, are to be found everywhere in the Book of Esther; and so the theme of a holiday — v’nahafokh hu — is born. Cross-dressing, inebriation, public parodies of teachers and friends—all of these traditionally questionable or forbidden boundary crossings are sanctioned and even celebrated on this one day of the year when norms are freely reversed."

This year, let's turn things upside down and shake out what's broken or cruel. V’nahafokh hu!

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): What's In A Name? (Or What's With Orev?)

CoverDesign2_RavenNow and again, someone asks me why I sign my CBS emails with a two-part first name: Christopher Orev. Fair question.

In day-to-day life, I prioritize my given, secular name, Christopher. In this respect, I'm like most Jewish Americans. My patronymic Hebrew name, Orev ben Avraham Avinu v' Sarah Imanu, is known by very few people and used by fewer still, generally reserved for use in a ritual context.

So why, then, do I insist on writing Christopher Orev? Because my Hebrew name is very important to me, and I feel it should appear in formal correspondence, especially in a Jewish context. Because the name itself is unusual, however, I'm often asked what it means. Not long ago, Rabbi Glazer suggested that I share the origin of the name on the CBS blog in the hopes that a handful of readers might find my explanation of interest.

+++++

Those well-versed in Tanakh might worry that I've chosen Orev in some misguided tribute to one of the two Midianite chieftains killed in Shoftim 7:25. But, no, the ill-fated Midianite is not my namesake.

Because Orev means 'raven,' some friends of mine have assumed that my choice stems from my fondness for natural history and especially for reviled and misunderstood species. I am fascinated and excited by ravens, but that partiality isn't my principal motivation, either. Instead, I chose Orev because of the raven's mysterious role in the story of Noah.

"And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. He sent out the raven, and it kept going and returning until the drying of the waters from upon the earth. And he sent out the dove from him to see whether the water had subsided from the face of the ground." (Bereshit 8:6-8).

Where did the raven go?

Contemporary biblical critics contend that the raven's disappearance is evidence of the biblical narrative's many sources. According to these scholars, when the stories of Torah were first edited and assembled, scribes often included details from differing accounts (rather than choosing between them). By this reckoning, one of the ancient riffs on the flood story had it that a raven was released while another, slightly different version of the tale assigned the recon flight to a dove. The two versions were simply spliced together so that Noah released the raven and then the dove.

The literary, analytical, and rational inclinations of this particular Torah reader make me appreciative of such striking examples of narrative juxtaposition and mythmaking. But while I appreciate our sacred text through a decidedly non-supernatural lens, I also invest Torah with much social and mystical power. These two, very different approaches to Torah — one universalist and secular, the other specific and traditional — place me in a grey zone of contemporary Jewish identity, but I consider this balancing act (this push-pull or hybrid position) to be the very essence of the Conservative movement’s philosophy.

But what does this have to do with my name? Back to Noah’s raven; what became of it? There are a number of traditional drashs that explain the raven's disappearance, but I view the stray bird as an analog of my Jewish neshamah (soul). This particular orev "flew the coop," so to speak, for a few generations, but has at last come back to the ark (through the covenant of conversion).

I find a satisfying etymological riff on this interpretation in the Hebrew name itself, עורב. Ayin means "eye," Vav means "and," Resh means "beginning" or "head," and Beit means "house" or "home." Orev, therefore, can be read as "eye and head home," an oblique reference to the raven's "seeing" his way home. Likewise, my neshamah has turned anew (or returned) to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood.

Another gratifying etymological connection has been made between orev and erev, meaning 'evening' or 'dusk.' Both words are comprised of the same letters, and Hebrew linguists believe that the word orev was derived from erev, a reference to the raven's dark plumage. If so, the raven’s name is born of the gloaming, my favorite time of day, one electric with magic and possibility, and ideal for sustained rumination.

But the etymology can be (and is) taken one step further. Ervuv is the Hebrew word for 'mixture' and, just as day mixes with night at erev, some rabbis point out that, although it is officially deemed treif, the raven is the only bird species to split the difference on the Mishnah's four kashrut qualities; it possesses two kosher attributes and two treif attributes, and is therefore a "mixed" creature.

This mixture angle is also important to me. When I emerged from the mikveh, I was a new Jew. If you had asked me then if I stood at Sinai, I would have confidently replied, ‘Yes.' Yes, at least, with respect to metaphysics and psychology...but my personal history is not that of Hebrew school, kugel, or Camp Ramah. My Gentile past informs my Jewish identity in unexpected, generally positive ways, but the individual ger, like the individual shul, will never please klal Yisrael. Because I am actively engaged in the Jewish community (across the denominational, political, and theological spectrums), my very "Jewishness" is sometimes challenged. Some fellow Jews review my attributes and deem me kosher; others say I'm treif. I'd be fibbing were I to claim that this limbo doesn't trouble me, but I also recognize that it provides me with a special opportunity to examine questions of identity. I will be wholly Jewish and yet I will be "the stranger that sojourns among" my fellow Jews. The name I have chosen embodies two themes that are important to me: my (re)turn to Jewish peoplehood and also the peculiar/particular Jewish identity of the ger.

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): Mistaking Cupid For A Cherub

cupid-valentine_10This week, elementary schools and drug stores across the United States are filled with red and pink decorations and illustrations of a fat, winged baby with a bow and arrow. This portrayal of Cupid, the Greco-Roman god of desire (or, according to medieval Christians, "the demon of fornication"), was popularized by Greek artists during the Hellenisitic period, over 2,000 years ago. Ancient vintage notwithstanding, the depiction remains the most common one today.

Pop quiz time! Do you call that chubby, winking Cupid a cherub or a putto? Or perhaps you believe the two are the same?

If you're like most people, you identify this "cute" Cupid as a cherub, or think that a cherub and putto are equivalent. But most people are wrong, at least technically speaking. (If we want to get really technical, a fat, winged Cupid is a particular type of putto called an amorino.)

So what exactly is a putto, and what does any of this have to do with Judaism? According to Wikipedia, a putto is "a figure in a work of art depicted as a chubby male child, usually nude and sometimes winged." Putto is just the singular of the more familiar putti. Erstwhile art history students should recognize the latter term (as well as this celebrated ceiling fresco by Andrea Mantegna, which features a number of putti doing their putti thing).

Importantly, in the context of Jewish theology, a putto is most definitely NOT a cherub! Cherubs (or cherubim) are much more exciting and mysterious than the baby-faced, winged chubsters most of us have in mind when we describe someone as "cherubic." Cherubim figure prominently in Jewish angelology -- although, as with all things Jewish, there is much disagreement about what exactly they are. In Genesis, two cherubim guard the path to the Tree of Life, but these guards aren't described in detail; we're told only that they're armed with flaming swords. The prophet Ezekiel, however, describes cherubim much more vividly.

CoverDesign_Terumah"Every one had four faces: the first face was the face of an ox, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle. ... The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it."

Ezekiel's astonishing, even frightening vision is generally dismissed by modern rationalists as the product of an addled mind, but there is symbolic and philosophical value in appreciating cherubim as terrible agents of G-d. Jewish mystics understood this. Perhaps recalling the fiery exchange of Ezekiel's cherubim, they came to prioritize the charged space between the sculpted cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant (described in this week's parsha) as a kind of spiritual singularity. This week's Shabbat handout artwork (pictured just above) is an abstract depiction of that creatively and spiritually charged space.

So it's your call. When you hear the word cherub, you can think of a butterball who shoots you in the butt with an arrow and giggles sweetly. Or you can ponder chimeric manifestations of a sublime and terrible force. While we acknowledge that the latter won't sell Valentine's Day cards, we think one is a lot more interesting than the other.

Image credit: Top, Cupid emoticon by Symbols & Emoticons; Bottom, Christopher Orev Reiger, for CBS

Kezayit: Tu B'Shevat In A Nutshell

With Tu B'Shevat less than a week away, we're sharing another Kezayit feature here. What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

+++++
Trees
This coming Monday, January 25, is Tu B'Shevat (literally translating as "the 15th of Shevat").

Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (in 70 C.E.), Tu B'Shevat was a fiscal and agricultural year turnover, the date on which Israelite farmers calculated what tree and fruit crop tithes they owed the Temple.

Once Jews were living in diaspora, however, the rabbis reconceived Tu B'Shevat as a minor holiday during which Jews recalled and celebrated their ties to the Holy Land. For 1,500 years, Tu B'Shevat was a relative blip on the Jewish holiday calendar. That began to change in the 16th century, when the date became a spiritual locus for Jewish mystics. Rabbi Isaac Luria and his Safed disciples created a Kabbalistic Tu B'Shevat seder that emphasizes spiritual nourishment of the Tree of Life. The language of the seder roughly maps the sephirot, the ten Divine Emanations of G-d according to Kabbalah, as a tree -- roots, trunk, branches, and leaves.

Fast forward another 300 years or so, and Tu B'Shevat was given yet another makeover. The Jewish National Fund began celebrating the holiday as a kind of Israeli Arbor Day, a way to raise public awareness of and international support for their afforestation campaign. Because of this new association, many Jewish Americans would come to think of Tu B'Shevat as a "Jewish Earth Day."

Today, Tu B'Shevat is growing in popular observance, and is flavored with a little bit of mysticism, a little bit of environmentalism, and a lot of nuts, olives, figs, and other tasty treats.

Oh, and apparently the holiday precipitated a rap song and video that's so embarrassing it's almost endearing. Click the screenshot below to subject yourself to three minutes of incredulity and aural vexation. Do it for the trees.


Lead image credit: "South lake view; Angora Lakes Resort; South Lake Tahoe, CA; September 2015," Christopher Orev Reiger

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): Man As Technicolor Dreamcoat

In the wake of David Bowie's passing, we're sharing another Kezayit feature here. What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

16741acb-70ef-4391-a22f-25b6855a5c0c+++++

On Sunday, January 10, the world lost a great pop culture trendsetter and zelig, David Bowie (1947-2016).

Bowie, born David Robert Jones in South London, wasn’t Jewish, but he was among the first celebrities to dabble with Kabbalah. In the title song of his 1976 album, Station to Station, he sings,

"From where dreams are woven
Bending sound, dredging the ocean, lost in my circle
Here am I, flashing no color

Tall in this room overlooking the ocean
Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth
There are you, you drive like a demon from station to station


At the time, even Bowie’s most ardent fans were confused — what are Kether and Malkuth? A clue was provided by the photograph that appeared on the back cover of Station to Station. The picture shows Bowie at his most androgynous drawing the Tree of Life, the diagram representing the relationship between the Ten Sefirot, the Divine Emanations of G-d according to Kabbalah. Kether (or Keter, crown) and Malkuth (or Malchut, kingdom) are the top- and bottommost sefirot, respectively. Bowie’s lyrics seem to suggest that he and his companions "overlooking the ocean" had tapped into some esoteric knowledge that allowed them direct access — “one magical movement” — from the realm of the Earthly (Malkuth) to the realm of the supernal (Kether), a channel not accessible to most of humanity, who need to “drive like demon[s] from station to station.” There are, of course, both healthy and unhealthy ways to tap into mystical revelation, and according to many sources, the Station to Station portion of Bowie’s career was informed by his being “bombed out of his mind on cocaine.”

Bowie’s legacy, though, will not be his flirtation with Jewish esoteric traditions, his battle to overcome drug addiction, or his acting and painting forays. As Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times obituary, "Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called 'plastic soul,' but it was suffused with genuine soul. […] Throughout Mr. Bowie’s metamorphoses, he was always recognizable. His voice was widely imitated but always DB-Transformation-Colourhis own; his message was that there was always empathy beyond difference.”

We leave you with an animated representation of Bowie’s metamorphoses by illustrator Helen Green.

Lead image credit: "David Bowie draws the Tree of Life," photographed by Steve Shapiro, 1975

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): A "Jewfish"?

KezayitThe closing section of each CBS HaLuach newsletter features a Jewish-interest news item or curiosity. We generally prioritize the obscure and offbeat, and we welcome suggestions.

What's with the name? A kezayit (literally meaning "like an olive") is a Talmudic unit of measure. Halachically speaking, it is the minimum amount food or drink one can consume in order for a rabbi to be satisfied that you've actually eaten. (And, no, a kezayit's worth won't satisfy your mother! You're a growing boy!) In the context of our newsletter feature, we're using kezayit in a more metaphorical way -- it's a morsel, a tidbit, something light, but tasty, and totally worthy of your consumption.

Today, we thought we'd provide you with a taste of the Kezayit feature...and it's a tasty taste, at that!

+++++
Full
The ever-interesting Jewniverse recently posted a short article with the title "How the Jewfish Got Its Name." From the piece:

"There are several theories for how the jewfish (Promicrops itaiara), an Atlantic saltwater grouper..., got its name. It may derive from the Italian giupesce, which means 'bottom fish,' or may have originally been named 'jawfish' for its large mouth. A less flattering theory is that in the 1800s, jewfish were declared inferior and only fit for Jews.

The Maryland-based American Fisheries Society received complaints about the name for decades. It announced in 2001 that the name was deemed 'culturally insensitive' and was changed to Goliath grouper – not for the biblical Philistine Goliath who was slain by David, but because of the fish’s ability to grow up to 700 pounds.
"

We love Jewniverse, but that's not the full story. Because your Kezayit writer is also a natural history nut, CBS is able to provide you with the scoop on the provenance of the jewfish name!

Jewniverse is correct to assert that the origin of the original name remains unclear, but most historians believe it came about as a result of Jamaican and Cuban Jewish communities eating so much of the fish species. Why did they eat so much of it? It just so happens that the grouper species is both kosher -- it has fins and scales -- and very tasty!

One of the primary sources for this naming account is a 1697 book titled A New Voyage Round the World, by explorer William Dampier. According to Dampier, during an expedition to Jamaica, he encountered Jews who considered Promicrops itaiara to be the best (and largest) kosher fish in that part of the world. Dampier wrote, "The Jew-fish is a very good Fish, and I judge so called by the English, because it hath Scales and Fins, therefore a clean Fish, according to the Levitical Law."

So, although the name jewfish was deemed offensive and changed, it seems clear that it wasn't initially intended to be a pejorative label. In any case, despite the renaming, many fishermen continue to call the species by the more familiar appellation. In time, with the turning of the generations, jewfish will fade from use; for now, though, even Chabad still uses the name.

Finally, we leave you with a fun video of a very excited man in a kayak catching a 550-pound Goliath grouper off Sanibel, Florida.


Image credit: "Jimmy posing with a large jewfish from the Gulf of Mexico off Key West in 1985," via collection of The Florida Keys--Public Libraries (CC BY 2.0)