Battle of the Jewish Nose

14 Feb

A friend of mine recently got a nose job. She showed me a picture of her face post-surgery, enormous white bandages covering much of it. I tried to talk her out of it, but she was convinced that she would be happier and feel better about herself if she just didn’t have that little bump. I can’t say I’ve never considered the same.

My nose was my biggest insecurity growing up. I didn’t like the bump and I thought it was too big for my face. I would stand in the bathroom examining my profile, trying to convince myself that it wasn’t so bad. My mom used to tell me that I could get a nose job if I wanted to. As if every time you don’t like something, you just break it.

At one consultation I went to, the doctor told me it wasn’t my nose at all; the problem was that my chin isn’t “strong” enough.  He said, “It’s okay, sweetie, God just didn’t give you a chin.” He was a brilliant businessman, taking advantage of my insecurities and creating a new one for me to obsess about.

In light of my friend’s recent alteration, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own beauty practices. How can I be against plastic surgery when I perform similar alterations to my body like coloring my hair and plucking my eyebrows to make myself feel better? I suppose that because those things are  impermanent, much cheaper and far less gory, I find them more acceptable. We do what we feel we need to do to be beautiful, desired and loved. I admit that I do. I have no right to condemn what others choose for their own bodies. Yet real, lasting confidence can only come from within, and a shift in mindset about societal ideals can free us of our insecurities. This awareness creates progress, even little by little.

I have come to love my nose; it has character. I now accept that it’s a part of me and as long as I’m okay with it, nobody can make me feel bad about it. Shaving that bump down would almost strip me of my identity. I probably would never be able to sing the same without the resonating cavities I was born with, and I’d be missing that endearing, characteristically Jewish feature that proudly marks who I am.

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Converting to Americanism

27 Nov

I am an alien.

A Resident Alien, that is. I’ve lived in the United States for nearly 15 years and I am finally going through the process of becoming a citizen. I have been studying for the civics exam for the past few weeks. People ask me, “how hard can it be? Do you really need to study?” Although I caught up in high school, I missed the basic lessons from birth to fourth grade – the kids in my class couldn’t believe I didn’t already know the Pledge of Allegiance – and I didn’t grow up surrounded by the unparalleled American patriotism that natural born citizens did. (Canadians are generally pretty cool and low-key about everything…hence why our history is so much more boring). So no, the test is not that hard – it focuses on important historical events, people, presidents, laws and the way the government works – but I can bet that the majority of American-born citizens would not be able to answer every question cold, especially if they are not particularly involved in politics or history. Yet, because they were born here and somewhat expected to know these things, they don’t have to demonstrate their basic knowledge (or lack thereof) before a government official.

This reminds me of another part of my identity: my Jewish identity. There are so many Jews, especially in America, that identify as Jewish only because of chance; they were born in a Jewish family. How many of those Jews can name the Five Books of Moses, the laws of our people? How many know about all the Jewish holidays? About the basic history of the Jewish people and how we got here? I’d be very curious to see how many “Jews by birth” could pass a conversion test.

If you are trying to become a part of something you didn’t have the privilege of being comfortably born into, you need to work for it; you need to actually know about the commitment you are taking on, to know what it means to be an American, to be a Jew, to be doctor or a pastor or even a husband or wife. Does being inherently American or Jewish mean that you can’t get rid of those identities even if you wanted to, or do you need to be educated and participate to be able to identify yourself as such? Is the responsibility just as great for those who are already members to know about that which they belong to?

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Welcome to your flock, Moses

28 Sep

Lately I’ve been battling with some challenges and roadblocks in what I thought was supposed to be my path to Rabbinical/Cantorial school. And since this blog is all about chutzpah, I’m going to share some of the rather rebellious feelings I’ve been having.

**Warning: you must be under the age of 5,000 to continue reading. This material is not suitable for those aged antiquity or over and may cause increased heart rate, hair depigmentation, wrinkles, and plotzing.**

I’ve never really liked the exclusivity of Judaism. I can imagine how others must feel when they encounter a Jewish prayer service, celebration, or gathering.

“Why is everyone swaying back and forth?”

“Is that an animal on that guy’s head?” 

“Are you trying to clear your throat or was that a Yiddish word?”

I’ll admit to feeling like an outsider within my own people. I remember going to synagogue in my teenage years, having no idea what was going on or what any of the words meant, thinking to myself that I didn’t want to be Jewish. It was too hard and confusing; I didn’t know anything except that I wanted to belong. Coming from someone who grew up as part of a Jewish family, imagine how someone who didn’t would feel walking into this farkakte world. In many instances, if you’re not a “member of the tribe,” you’re not even welcome through the door. Lately I’ve been struggling with this even more than usual. Why have we turned Judaism into something that’s just for Jews, when from the birth of our existence we’ve had universal values and ideas which we’ve shared with the rest of the world?

I had a wonderful conversation with my former Birthright leader/mentor/dear friend yesterday. I spilled out all of this frustration, and after a slight pause during which I thought God might smite me or maybe just disconnect the call, the first thing he said was, “Five words. Welcome to your flock, Moses.” He continued that the people I’m part of isn’t perfect and in many ways still stuck in old ways of thinking. But it’s my family. I retorted, “But aren’t we all part of the same human family?!” He said yes, of course, but within that huge family there are smaller families who have different ways of understanding and interacting with the world we’ve been brought into. Based on my “blood” family’s heritage, I most closely identify with the Jewish family. We don’t always like our families all of the time, but that’s what we’ve got. Moses wasn’t too happy with it either.

Anyone can be part of a family if they are welcomed and nurtured – the duties of the receiving family – and if they learn the crazy stories and weird traditions, search for the understanding of what it means to be part of that family, ask the right questions, even if you get confusing answers or none at all. And just like going to Costco or BJ’s, you have to do something in order to be a member.

Judaism is not for everyone, nor should it be; it’s for anyone who wants to be a part of it – the good, the bad and the meshuganeh.

Zumba and Judaism

7 May

Last week I got my Zumba teaching certification (woo hoo!!). It was a 9-hour day of training, including lectures, breakdowns of steps, and LOTS of heart-pumping, sweat-dripping dancing. Amidst all of the merengue, salsa, pelvic thrusts and shimmying, one thing stood out more than anything else I learned.

The instructor made it a point to tell us over and over again that a Zumba class must be distinct. You have to be able to walk into a Zumba class anywhere in the world and identify it as such, without question. A class shouldn’t look too much like aerobics, dance, or any other group fitness class. This, she said, is how Zumba will continue to thrive and remain as popular as it is now.

This reminded me a lot of Judaism. There are those who feel that Judaism needs to be uniform amongst all Jews, and even those who believe that it should be as close to the “original” as possible. One of the most beautiful things about Judaism is the Hebrew language; it links Jews from all over the world, and even with variations of dialect, liturgy, culture, and tradition, Jewish prayers are written in Hebrew, our common language. However, many Jews today outside of Israel lack even the most basic Hebrew skills, and trying to pray in Hebrew can seem foreign and uncomfortable. On the other hand, there is something comforting about walking into a synagogue in Florence, Italy and hearing the Shema, knowing that Jews all over the world are saying the same words.

I struggle with the idea of trying so hard to preserve something purely for the sake of authenticity  when there is no openness to move forward and renew things that may no longer work. If we want to progress, perhaps we all need to be on the same page for it to still be called Zumba, or for it to still be called Judaism. Judaism, like Zumba, is a network of people and we are never in it alone. I suppose a balance needs to be practiced; continue to be forward-thinking and open to change, yet honoring the past and what brought us to where we are now. We can’t make up our own new kind of dance-aerobics class and still call it “Zumba,” or completely reinvent a religion and call it “Judaism.” There would have to still be hints of it. Could you call it “Zumba 2.0″? Well, Zumba Fitness LLC wouldn’t like that and might try to come after you for misrepresenting their brand. Maybe that’s how some ultra-Orthodox Jews feel; Judaism has evolved so much and in so many different ways that it looks too different in too many different places to be called Judaism anymore. I suppose that’s why we have different names for it: “Reform Judaism,” “Orthodox Judaism,” etc. There is something greater that connects us, though. Even Orthodox Jews will recognize Reform Jews as Jews if they are Jewish according to halakhah. Even if they don’t practice the way that the black hats do, or at all. There’s something connecting us that’s deeper than any measure of observance or practice. I want to say it’s our souls or something, but maybe it’s just the ideas that have been passed down to us that are branded as Judaism and those ethics and values are universal amongst Jews (and others, too, but not all call it Judaism).

Whether I’m practicing Judaism or Zumba, I am also practicing the delicate balance of tradition (traditioooon!) and innovation.

Soul Hugs

24 Apr

I woke up in the middle of the night to pee. I was away from home, and sometimes when you’re in unfamiliar place, your mind and body get confused. But that’s not the important part. The important part was that when I got back into the bed, I tried to snuggle up in the thin sheet and worn blanket. I wanted a hug. I wanted someone to hold me, or just a touch, an arm draped over my tired shoulder. But there was no one. Even trying to hold myself didn’t soothe me. Nothing was there to physically comfort me.

I automatically went to the next option, trying to soothe my soul. For the first time in a very long time, I reached out to “God,” or whatever I think it is that’s greater than me. Please hold me. But God can’t hold us. We can’t run to him and cry in his non-existent arms. We can’t even imagine what he might look like, because he’s not a human being. He can’t speak to us with words or sing us to sleep.

I thought, the early Israelites, the idol-smashers, must have had a really hard time. That was the first time the concept of a formless, omnipotent God was introduced to the world. They couldn’t look at a statue to try to conceptualize the idea of a god or rub someone’s belly for good luck (I’m not even sure if that’s an actual custom, but the sentiment fits here). That would be considered idolatry.

This is one of the hardest things about being a monotheist. Sometimes I think maybe it would just be easier to give up on the idea. But because this ruler of the universe is completely detached from a physical state, it makes our connection even deeper. Physical comforts don’t last very long, are not very effective, and can even be damaging. We eat and then we get hungry again. We drink and then we become sober. We sleep with someone and they leave when they’re finished with us. God isn’t going to give us instant gratification. Sure, we need physical comforts to some degree in positive, healthy ways, but the greatest peace must come from a place that is far beyond our limited human understanding. It’s more worthwhile in the end. It’s the deepest comfort we will ever know.

A Happy, Gay Passover

26 Mar

matzaThis week’s Supreme Court cases on Prop 8 (banning same-sex marriages in California) and DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) couldn’t be happening at a more pertinent time. Occurring today and tomorrow, they coincide with the first two days of Passover. This morning in Washington, D.C., people of all sexual orientations gathered outside Capitol Hill to demonstrate support for marriage equality. Today’s case will decide whether Prop 8 unconstitutionally discriminates against homosexuals.

Last night at our Passover seders, we commemorated our exodus from Egypt. That Egypt may have been literal, but it also represents other kinds of slavery and bondage. We as a Jewish people know about oppression all too well. We know what it’s like to have to hide, practice our religion in secret, to be condemned, to be excluded, to be treated as second-class citizens, and in some parts of the world, this is still a devastating reality for us. While we celebrate our the most important aspect of our freedom today – freedom of religion in the United States – we must also stand with our fellow Americans who are fighting for freedoms most important to them. 

Judaism began as a reaction to injustice in the world. The idea that a formless, ethical God existed gave humans the responsibility to act morally and treat one another with compassion, in juxtaposition to the human sacrifices to please the whims of angry Sun gods or rain gods of the surrounding peoples. One of the core principles of Judaism, tikkun olam, or “repairing the world,” teaches that we have a social responsibility to take care of one another. Everyone. Not just the people we like or that are like us. 

Seeing pictures of people in a sea of red in front of the Capitol reminds me of the Hebrews standing before the Red Sea, waiting with fear and hope and wondering what was going to happen. Were they going to be captured once again, or would the barrier be broken, allowing them to live self-governed lives according to their beliefs? We have all been there, whether as an individual or as part of a group. The Hebrews made it through somehow. Now more than ever, upon the celebration of our emergence as a free people, is the time to use our strength to fight for freedom and justice for all humankind. It’s the Jewish thing to do.

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The REAL Passover Story

20 Mar

hebrewslavesinEgyptI often find myself questioning (shocker!) whether the stories in the Torah actually happened. Don’t you? I mean, it’s a really nice idea to think that thousands of years ago, maybe before humankind was as terribly corrupted as it is now, the miracles in the bible were true. They’re great stories. But if they really happened, where has God been for the last 3,000 years? Did he just get lazy or run out of ideas?

So, Passover is less than a week away, and in my attempt to gain some spiritual value from the holiday rather than mindlessly eating Hillel sandwiches for eight days, I have been thinking about the [hi]story. The story (note that that’s what we usually call it in English during the seder rather than the “history”) is a very important part of Passover; a large, usually boring part of the seder is the maggid, or “telling.”  It attempts to explain why we observe the holiday and why we do the meshugena things we do (dipping our fingers in our wine glasses, opening the door for a ghost-prophet to drink our wine, drinking four glasses of wine in a very short amount of time…getting drunk so we don’t really taste the matzah…). So does it make our shtick any less fun or valuable if the story isn’t exactly true?

I subscribe to the academic theory that the “Hebrew” slaves were actually a bunch of nomadic tribes who came together and rose up in a religious revolution against the Egyptians’ idolatry and slavery. There is no archaeological evidence that there were ever specifically Hebrew slaves in Egypt. So if we weren’t really slaves, or if the slaves that were there were not only Hebrews, what’s the point?

I don’t care if it happened or how. The point to me is that there is  a story, and it’s not just a Jewish story, but a human story. Even if we weren’t enslaved in Egypt, there were other times in recorded history that we have been, and not just us, but also our fellow human beings of other religions, races, and cultures. For me, the Passover story is a timeless metaphor for all peoples and all ages. There is always something enslaving us as humankind and as individuals. I’ll be the first to admit that I am my own Pharaoh.

This Passover, don’t get hung up on the details of the story. Use it however you need to. Change the characters up a bit. Reinvent it. It won’t matter whether it happened the way the Torah says it did thousands of years ago, if at all. Make it real.

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