The Caving Walls of the Study Hall

My favorite story in all of Judaism isn’t in the Torah. It’s in the Talmud, where it’s written that rabbis were arguing over whether a certain oven was ritually impure or not; one rabbi said it was, and others said it was not.

The rabbi who said it was said, “If I’m right, this tree will prove it!” and the tree to which he pointed uprooted itself. But the other rabbis said, “An uprooted tree isn’t an argument; do better than that.”

So the first rabbi pointed to a stream and said, “If I’m right, this stream will prove it!” And the stream began flowing backwards, but the other rabbis shrugged and said, “A stream isn’t an argument, either; do better.”

And finally the first rabbi pointed to the walls of the study where they were arguing, and said, “If I’m right, and Heaven agrees with me, the walls of the study will prove it!” And the ground shook, and dust fell from the roof, and walls of the study leaned, and tilted, and began to fall in on the rabbis, and the sky opened into light, and an angel appeared and cried, “Why must you argue with him, even as the study is about to bury you alive, since the whole world shows that Heaven is in accordance with his opinion!”

Upon which one of the disagreeing rabbis leapt to his feet and said, “How dare you!”

The walls stilled; the ground ceased to shake. And the disagreeing rabbi said, “The law is not in Heaven; the law was given to us, on Earth, at Mount Sinai. God wasn’t invited to this argument. God doesn’t own the Torah – humans do; and if the walls cave in on us, that won’t prove a thing. Walls aren’t an argument. Make a real argument, with reason and logic, with the law. Do better.”

And the walls stood upright again, and the stream began to flow in its natural path, and the tree rooted itself back into the ground. And the rabbis continued to argue; and the first rabbi, who had called the tree and stream and walls to move, was found to be incorrect, since the majority of the rabbis disagreed with him.

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The Jewish faith places a certain emphasis on duty and obligation. It’s at the heart of the way the Torah writes God: the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah go by, are discussed in terms of righteousness and obedience, of knowledge and ignorance. But it’s not until the story of Abraham that any Jews actually come into the narrative: the first Jew is Abraham, because God comes to him and says, “I am going to make a covenant with you.”

The word covenant means agreement; it carries the connotation of contract, of alliance, of bargain. The Jewish people’s bargain is this: they will be God’s people, and in return, God will be their god. God will give them a way of life, and in return, they will live it; they will choose God, and in return, God will choose them.

As I’ve said, I don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in Judaism. In this case, what that means is that I believe in bargains. I believe in debts. I believe that law is not just rules for rules’ sake; instead, law is duty, obligation, an action you owe to another person in exchange for what they have done for you. Duty is a debt to be repaid.

For that reason I think about this photo:


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On Loving the Stranger

The Torah calls on Jews specifically to welcome – precisely, to “love” – converts to Judaism. It’s forbidden to disclose a Jew’s status as a convert; it’s forbidden to say that they are somehow “unreal” Jews, that their Judaism is lesser. Because conversion is such a deliberately difficult process, and because the Jewish community is so tight-knit, this is necessary and has likely been necessary for thousands of years. It’s difficult to be a convert in the Jewish community; it’s a mitzvah to make it easier.

Ivanka Trump is a problem.

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Congress, Culture, and a New Year’s Resolution

American religion has been in the news lately, specifically regarding federal partisan politics: we’ve seen stories about Democrats’ “religion problem” (as code for a problem with middle-American white Christianity), Congress’ increasing religious diversity but stable amount of Christian members, and just yesterday, an explanation for the latter phenomenon: the complex place of religiously unaffiliated voters within American religious politics.

It’s the last story that I’m interested in. The author is seeking to explain the “demographic mismatch between Congress and the rest of the country” – specifically, the underrepresentation of the “religiously unaffiliated”, who make up 23% of the country but are only represented by one religiously unaffiliated member of Congress.

The explanations for this are sensible and coherent: that religiously unaffiliated Americans tend to be young and therefore rarely vote; that they aren’t a demographically coherent group – they’re made up of atheists and agnostics, but also converts-in-progress, people in mixed-faith homes, and people who just don’t care very much about their religious identity – and are therefore unlikely to organize with each other; that it’s also difficult to organize based on a lack of identity, an unaffiliation.

It is these factors, the author suggests, which keep Congress’ religious demographics standing as they do – and if religiously unaffiliated voters are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, “they can vote”.

The article is an excellent exploration of why the religiously unaffiliated are unlikely to be specifically represented in Congress. However, it does not explore what seems to me to be the more pertinent question: why this 23% of unaffiliated Americans should be almost universally represented by Christian members of Congress, instead of members of a variety of faiths.

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I first dye my hair in the fall of 2014. It’s a cool, windy fall, the kind that sets me pulling leggings on under my jeans, tugging my jacket closer around myself on my way to Rocky Horror; the island of Manhattan is just beginning to open itself up to me, after a long, nasty spring where I hobbled from classroom to classroom with a broken ankle and a pair of crutches.

There’s a girl in my Gender and Communication class – well, not a girl; she says it’s all right to call her she, and her, but that she’s actually got no gender at all. She has a pair of black combat boots, a green pixie cut, and a sarcastic retort for every boring or bigoted comment someone makes in class, and I fall a little bit in love with her that fall.

Well – not quite love, in the same way that she’s not quite a girl. It’s the peculiar ache in so many queer people’s chests: what is this admiration, this immediate tug of kinship and understanding? Do I want to kiss you, or do I want to talk to you, do I want to be you?

What I want, I decide, is her haircut.

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Family History About the Holocaust

Sorry for the lack of updates, folks. There’s really only one reason for it, which is that it feels so difficult to talk about anything other than Judaism; I’m having adventures, I’m going places, I’m making plans, I’m making friends, but these all feel increasingly like B-plots. Being a Jew living in Europe – the difficulty, the discomfort, the pride, the grief – feels like it underlies everything else.

It also feels, paradoxically, increasingly difficult to write about. I don’t know if I’m capable of analyzing it in the way it deserves right now. What I can do is talk about something that happened on Wednesday – visiting a Nazi historical site with one of my classes – and relate some family history that I learned.

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A Collection of Images and Sensations, In Order

Fall in Oakland meant the arrival of two things.

The first was a religious ceremony: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I would roll black tights with long runs in them up my pale legs, pull on a blouse the color of salmon, and along with my brother in his khakis and last year’s too-small button-down shirt, climb into the stuffy darkness of the car. We’d follow the click, click, click of my parents’ shining shoes down the sparkling pavement to the Paramount Theater. It would be late – or late for children; the September or October wind would bite at my cheeks, my arms. When I was small enough that I didn’t know what goosebumps were, that was where I learned – hurrying after my mother’s quick stride, watching my legs pebble pink under the sheer grey of my tights.

The other was a tradition that my parents had helped begin, and something that I assumed quite casually every block in every neighborhood in every city in America did until I was almost thirteen. It was a block party – a large block party, with nearly every house on both sides of the street bringing out food, setting up volleyball nets, filling water balloons, calling their friends and their children’s friends and their children’s friends parents to come and talk and laugh in the street. This, too, was a place of unexpected pain: I’d walk barefoot down the middle of the road, sharp rocks and the heat of the pavement pricking the soles of my feet. My sandals would be back at the house, just by the door. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to go and fetch them.

Where most of my childhood memories I see as through some sort of haze – a contextless image of an enormous redwood stump that surfaces whenever someone says camping, a bloom of preteen recognition at the smell of a particular brand of shaving cream, the vague and gently unsatisfying nostalgia of rereading Where the Wild Things Are – these are never blurred, never out of focus. I know, if you ask me, whose driveway would have a collection of mini-pumpkins waiting to be painted in anticipation of Halloween, and where the fire truck would come in just before the sun began to sink low in the sky; I know the exact shade and texture of the chairs in the Paramount Theater, how they felt when I wore velvet, how they felt when I wore cotton. I know how the apples they gave the children on Rosh Hashanah mornings tasted, crumbly and left-out-too-long, and I can sing the Hamotzi in the same voice I sang it as a child: hamotzi lechem min haaretz, we give thanks to God for bread. I know the slap my flip-flops made as I jogged through the aftermath of the water balloon fight, and the way my wet T-shirt felt on my shoulders and my stomach.

The block party was almost always after Rosh Hashanah, unless Rosh Hashanah came very late in the year. There was no danger of them being on the same day – though it was not true, as I assumed as a child, that everyone celebrated the Jewish holidays, there were certainly more Jewish families on the block than just our own – and besides, it wouldn’t be a block party without Yaron, our Israeli neighbor, cooking falafel.

It was a strange thing, though, that no matter how early Rosh Hashanah came, no matter how late we held the block party, the latter would be warm and the former cold. Oakland would fill up with fog and rain and cold winds for Rosh Hashanah, and on the day of the block party give us a perfect, golden afternoon.

Summer always did last longer in California than it did anywhere else. It was as if the sun, crossing from east to west around the planet, hung on a little harder to my little corner of the northwest – as if, even as the leaves turned brown and gathered in whispering piles on the pavement, the warm gold in the air and snapping blue of the sky that made the rest of America think of June and July came there when it was done with the East and the Midwest, and spread itself over October like a cat over a blanket.

Rosh Hashanah marks the end of the growing season. The prayers for its companion holiday, Yom Kippur, read, on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die, who shall die at his time and who before his time, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast… It is, in a more modern image, the moment when the Jewish people hand in our test to the teacher and wait, breathless, for the grade. It is the day when there is nothing more to be done for the crops, for the fields, for the harvest; it is the day when you put down the year, dust yourself off, and stand back to take a long look at what you’ve done.

It’s perhaps right, then, that fall should be a time of memory for me.