21 May 2015

Sunflowers in the Drawing-Room: Some Notes on the 2015 Torah uMesorah Convention

As it turns out, the Torah uMesorah teachers' convention isn't a secret convention only for Real Teachers. There is a pre-convention for principals but (someone correct me if I'm wrong) that isn't exclusive either. There were high school girls babysitting and on their breaks they came to the lectures too. I wish I'd known this when I was in high school. Tell your students.

Our route took us through Torah uMesorah history, passing a number of cities I know only from the history of the day school movement. Liberty, NY – R' Shraga Feivel had a camp near there. Scranton – also R' Shraga Feivel. Ellensville – that name is familiar, too.

Then we walked into the hotel and into the Torah uMesorah present, a grand courtyard all draped with Torah uMesorah banners and filled with the murmur of mechanchim networking.

Networking means walking up to random people to ask them what they teach and how and how do you make class interesting to your twelfth-graders? It is the most fun I have had in a drawing-room, ever.

(Incidentally, my favorite answer to the question of how to engage teenagers came from the babysitters. Make it practical, they said. Practical, practical, practical.)

It was delightful to share a chatzer with a few hundred mechanchim. It was also delightful to giggle with all few hundred at once in response to amusing moments in the lectures. And it was a great privilege and delight to hear great talmidei chachamim addressing questions on Jewish education.

Here are some points that stood out to me from over the weekend. Some were new, some just timely.

Please read with caution – I often misquote people.

20 May 2015

How to Love Pesach

In the spirit of the Internet, here is my DIY guide to loving Pesach.


1. Identify the Quarry.
You can't love cleaning for chametz if you don't know what you're looking for. Call your friendly local halachic authority and find out what size and quality of chametz need to be out of your house by Pesach, rather than trying to “catch 'em all” when the pokemon in question are undefined. Know exactly what you're doing.

2. Put Your Ribbons in Glass Jars If It Makes You Happy.
Everyone says “Don't spring-clean!” and it's true that dirt is not chametz, Pesach-cleaning is not spring-cleaning, and the two should not be confused.
But Pesach-cleaning involves channeling the spring-cleaning instinct, not repressing it. So I say: start with spring-cleaning if that's what comes naturally. I started this year by rearranging ribbons on the sewing-shelf; we got to the kitchen cabinets eventually but every time I turned around I saw pretty ribbons in chromatic order and it felt... Pesachdik.

3. Appreciate that Love Is Born in Chaos.
Understand what the month of Adar is about.
Adar leads up to Nisan as Elul leads up to Tishrei. Pesach will not be all that it can be if you do not go through Adar first.
Adar is about chaos. Adar is about, I am so not in control of my life it's funny. Adar is about, Hashem is in control, not the king and not the vizier. Hashem.
Every Rosh Chodesh Adar something crazy pushes me into a corner so that I just have to throw my hands in the air and laugh. Will you will come into our school in ten minutes and extemporize teaching for four hours? The right answer is, No. But the righter answer is, Yes, and happy Adar to you, too.
Two weeks later, on Purim, we are so not on top of the situation that we can't even tell who people are by their clothes, and a good proportion of our social norms dissolve into one big happy day of giving food to everyone. If you try to maintain everyday order on Purim you'll short-circuit. It's a day when creation goes haywire.

Pesach flows naturally from Purim.

But suddenly people try to be in control again. Then they get frustrated and start wisecracking about how we give each other food for Purim just one month before all that food has to be cleaned out of every corner for Pesach.
What do you think, that G-d hates housekeeping? It's not an accident and it's not sabotage. While yes, you have to get all that chametz out, the very inefficiency of the arrangement pushes you to recognize that it's not about efficiency at all. It's not about having a clean house.

So, if not spring-cleaning, what is Pesach about?
It's about, Hashem came into Egypt suddenly to pull us out from nonexistence into existence and claim us as His own. The theme of the month is ahava, the love between G-d and the Jewish people. Pesach is the beginning of that relationship.
That relationship was formed in chaos. The feeling of not being ready is an essential part of Pesach. We threw the dough in the oven and ran.
No one said, “Wait a minute, G-d. This is too much chaos. I'd like to stay a slave in Egypt until my dough finishes rising.”
Lechtech acharai bamidbar be'eretz lo zarua, you followed me into the wilderness, into a place where the housekeeping was total chaos. Yeshuas Hashem k'heref ayin, it happened in the blink of an eye.
On Pesach we love G-d through chaos.
Just relax and enjoy it. You can get to places on Pesach that you can't get to the rest of the year. Make room for that.

4.  It's All about the Bottomless Supply of Chocolate.
A member of our community recently raised the question of how to explain the concept of chametz to her two-year-old.

My first thought was that before she switches her kitchen to Pesach mode, she could show the child how yeast produces bubbles (Loops like to cheer it on - “Eat, yeasties, eat!” - like Klara drilling Latin), and how those bubbles manifest in the finished loaf, but not in matzah.
But the truth is that when Loops was two, I didn't bother trying to explain chametz. It was all about look at these fancy pretty dishes with blooming irises on them, special for Pesach and here is your fancy new dress with pretty sparkly buttons, special for Pesach and here is matzah, special for Pesach. I hide all the things I want to buy her anyway in the closet for months and then give them to her special for Pesach.

Adults are big two-year-olds and the same principle applies.
In practice (says the halacha) this usually means that men buy meat and wine for themselves, dresses for their wives, and nuts and sweets for their children.

(My inner two-year-old also likes that the logo on the kosher-for-Passover seltzer bottles is the heroine from East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon, which is my favorite fairy tale because it reminds me of Jewish history: the wife wandering the world with a candle in her hand looking for her polar bear husband.)

Childish pleasures are a real part of loving Pesach (thus codified in halacha) and not to be sneezed at.

5. Get a Handle on the Haggada.
The haggada is totally incomprehensible until you put in effort to understand it but then it unrolls and it seems obvious that each paragraph couldn't have been anything else. Apportion some time before Pesach to learn where it takes us and how.
Here is Rav Leuchter's explanation. (truffles truffles truffles)

Apart from that, the four cups correspond to the four stages of the exodus:
1. And I will take you out
2. And I will save you
3. And I will redeem you
4. And I will take you to me to be a nation

This isn't a number game, it's the progression the seder follows. In the course of the evening we relive the experience, starting with being slaves in Egypt, and ending with Hallel for having come out and then Nirtzah. On top of that there is a custom to stay up and recite the Song of Songs.

At the beginning of the seder we put away half the bread for later, “just in case”. By the end of the night, there is no more concern about “just in case”. We take out our reserve and eat it, before G-d, as a korban.

The seder is not about “each person comes out of his own personal Egypt” and it isn't necessary to go down that route to make the seder meaningful. It is about a historical, national experience. You were there.

To review:


1. Know exactly what you're cleaning for.
2. Start with spring-cleaning if that's what comes naturally...
3. ...BUT recognize that Pesach is about ahava, not spring-cleaning.
4. Please your inner two-year-old. This is halacha.
5. Get up an understanding of where the seder takes us and how.

Happy Pesaching!

28 April 2015

Purim Vinz - 20 Adar -- and its Megilla

20 Adar is the anniversary of the downfall in 1616 of a man who called himself "the new Haman of the Jews," of the foiling of his plans to murder the Frankfurt Jewish community, and of the return of the Jews of Frankfurt under imperial protection and with imperial fanfare.

The community established the date as a sort of mini-Purim, "Purim Vinz," with its own customs, including the reading of a special "megilla" describing the events.

The Frankfurt community continued to flourish for a few hundred years, years that gave us the Maharam Schiff, R' Nosson Adler and his talmid the Chasam Sofer -who mentions the custom of Purim Vinz - and Rav Hirsch's kehilla, which is one of the models for American Torah as we know it.

The Koach Yehuda writes, 'Some rememberance of the Ventz miracle must remain with us. It is a constant reminder to us that we must thank and praise the Almighty who protects us from all our enemies.'

So although the Frankfurt community has been mostly destroyed (so much for imperial protection) I like to tell people about Purim Vinz; and this year I went in search of a copy of its Megilla.

First I called KAJ, the Frankfurt community in America. They told me that Rav Breuer reinstated Tachanun on 20 Adar when the Nazis took over Frankfurt. People remember that it is the "Frankfurt Purim" but that's about it.

But then I found this.
Can we have a round of applause for Professor Ulmer for putting this in the public domain? She went to the trouble to put it together and her book is still in print. SO nice of her.

Megillas Vinz in four languages from Prof. Ulmer. You made my day.

And here it is only in German, but with sheet music and a portrait of the villain, from Goethe Universitat.

16 April 2015

My Idea of Pesach's Freedom (2015)

[A guest post on Torah by Jonny Schneeweiss! He's better known to the Internet for his Schneeblog, an insightful treatment of writing technique, fantasy/sci-fi/otaku, and human nature. Check it out – some great stuff. --Ed.]

I've been noticing lately how there are cultural trends of values just like cultural trends of fashion and entertainment etc. People don't really think into these values, but they're just caught up in the current so to speak. It ends up being this dichotomy of either you agree with the culturally supported dogma or you disagree with it and there's no other option.  If you're too swayed by the questions of the opposing side, your only recourse is to either switch to the anti version of your idea or be stubborn and irrationally stick to your guns.

A big example was something I noticed looking into Korean culture. In American culture, what's important is being "successful", which is a) something we as a culture haven't really thought out, and b) no one really knows what it means. But we want to be successful. There are only two sides to this discussion: either you are ambitious and try to make money and achieve success, OR you naively follow your dreams and passions and are not as successful but you're following your dream, so screw success and screw the man!

In Korea, NO ONE talks about success. They DO NOT care about success at all. For them, the cultural dogma is all about hard work. Every instance when, in the West, you'd hear someone use the word "success", in Korea it's replaced with "hard work".  Women don't want to marry someone who is successful, they want to marry someone who works hard.  In school, you're not told to do your homework so you can get a good job and be successful, you're told to do your homework because you should be working hard.  Are you working hard or are you playing? Success? Who cares about that? Are you working your hardest? Even if you're not making any money or moving up in the world, are you working yourself to death? That's what matters.  What else COULD matter?

There must be hundreds of examples of this, where the thesis/antithesis phenomenon as it applies to cultural values is seen as the ONLY way of thinking, when in the country next door there's a completely different thesis/antithesis argument dominating the national discource.  This reality is a sign of a) how unthought out cultural values are and b) how inescapable they are when it's literally all you're surrounded by. People can't escape the binary yes/no morality they're raised in. They don't even know they're being confined. It's like Flatland.

The nation we belong to as Israelites was founded on an event where the most dominant cultural dogma of the time was completely and utterly shattered right before our eyes. Bnei Yisrael were raised in an Egypt where priests probably argued about which gods were supreme and politicians vied for pharaoh's favor. That way of viewing the world was inescapable. But then in the very forging of our nation we were shown through events that the entire foundation was wrong.

Throughout our history, we've stood as a broken nation on the edge of more powerful nations who refuse to accept us. We grow up exposed to the culture of whatever nation we've been exiled to while still knowing that we have our own system of values and our own ways of thought. Just knowing that--that there IS another way of looking at each facet of life we hear about--is the most powerful tool humans can have against being swept up in the cultural force of values and thought trends. Even if we don't understand the values of our own tradition, we know they exist, which means we never have to be confined to the thesis/antithesis cycle going on around us. We have the freedom to say "I know there MUST a different way of viewing ALL of this, there must be a third dimension in this 2-d world, so let me think some more and see if anything else makes sense." This is just an option many people don't have. They don't KNOW they can do that, because why would they? Whom have they ever seen or heard about who has done that? Our national identity IS "a stranger in a strange land." Breaking out of cultural dogmas is who we are, and even when we failed to build our own successful culture as a nation, we were exiled for the purpose of reforging that identity in the midst of countless other cultures that refuse to accept us.  That's the freedom I was thankful for this Pesach.

31 March 2015

This Thought Has Been Brought to You by a Zucchini Peeler

Two thoughts fell into my mind just before Purim and then I saw a connection between them.

1. Hester panim is an illusion.

2. I was reading about the Norman oath of vassalage and wondered
whether there is any parallel in Judaism. We do not exactly place
our hands in G-d's and swear to be His from this day forward of life
and limb and unto Him to be true and faithful... do we?

The later thought that connected them is:

'Hester panim is an illusion': this is the message of Purim.

And our oath of vassalage is - Pesach.

Zrizus: Notes from a Matzah Bakery

The matzah bakery is an overwhelming experience. It is in an unimproved basement, rough as a factory can be, half-painted and in shambles. In this concrete labyrinth are chasidim in their shirtsleeves and aprons, and other visitors: little boys in long coats and long payes and those beautiful velvet caps whose name I always forget.

The kneading room: three gleaming silver kneading pins hinged to gleaming silver tables, operated by hydraulic pumps. The noise of the chasidim banging these down and the pumps slamming them back up is sufficiently loud that some of the workers in this room wear protective headphones. Others do not: their ears swim in the holy racket of matzah-making.

At a fourth gleaming silver table, one man rolls the dough out into logs, and a second slices it with a knife (curled at the top into a self-handle) into parcels, weighs them, and throws them deftly through the air into the next room.

In the next room, women stand at a long silver table covered in paper, rolling with wooden pins, those perfect parcels into perfect circles. The individuality of this process is striking. One elderly woman stands and rolls, firmly and simply, as if she has done nothing else since 1936; another has made almost a dance of it. There is an air of incongruity about the group – all of these women engaged in labor together; where are their families? --I ask my husband who these women are and he says the custom is to hire widows. Above the table, a rack of fresh rolling pins. At the end of the shift the women will send the current ones to be sanded. The rolling pins will narrow from sanding over the months of matzah-making.

A man comes round with a paper-wrapped pole; the women flip the matzos off their rolling pins onto it.

He swings the pole round to another table, where one man rolls a shining reddler (perforator) over the matzos, once and back again; zip-zip! the sound is like an electronic vibration. Across the table, his fellow hangs the matzos on a fresh paper-wrapped pole. There is much laughter surrounding this man as he brings in a fresh load of poles and pours them into the rack above his head.

A beckoning: we may step into the next room.

A chasid thrusts the matzah-laden pole through a small doorway into a large oven of white-glazed bricks and twirls the pole to lay the matzos on the oven floor. Beside them, the fire neither flickers nor licks at the piled logs but rolls up them in earnest. It is 1000-something degrees Fahrenheit, by the thermometer.

The chasid loading the oven thrusts each unloaded pole behind him expertly, not looking, and it sails into a narrow trough, its paper now smoking or, occasionally, afire. Glowing bits of paper fly into the air. If nothing else in this room is inflammable, still it seems as if those sparks would ignite the very clatter of the operation. A worker strips the paper from the pole into a bin and inserts the pole into a pole-twirling machine to wind on fresh paper. On the wall behind him, a machine-operated wheel endlessly unspools paper for this purpose.

The matzos are done – the chasid at the oven flips them, smoking, into a wagon. Another chasid wearing thick gloves arranges them in neat rows. When the wagon is full they will be boxed.

The shift ends – the chasid at the oven passes by and I see that he is wearing two sets of sleeves, one sooty, the other nearly black with his good work.

It could be 200 years ago, it could be a Kacyzne photograph; what happens in this room is not confined to time.

It is time for Mincha – my husband is swept into the crowd of men; the women remove their gloves and collect their rolling pins. The men are in the next room talking to G-d. The paper on the tables is changed. Then boom, boom, like the drums of Tolkien's Moria but o so much nobler, one by one the kneading pins start up again.

A contemporary description of the beis hamikdash flutters into my mind, like one of those glowing bits of paper: an image of the kohanim, or was it the leviim, passing from hand to hand a gold vessel, then a silver, then a gold, then a silver, a dazzling array in perfect synchronization. This matzah bakery is the closest thing to the beis hamikdash that I have ever witnessed.
(OK, the Jewish home is.)

No one rushes. Whistles blow, clocks display the time, the matzos have to be in and out of the oven within 18 minutes of the water hitting the flour – time is absolutely of the essence – but no one rushes. They do good work in good time, lshem matzos mitzvah, they smile, there is a little kibbitzing, anyone is welcome to walk through and watch. The people working are focused with all the powers of human focus. There is no haste.

The instinct to feel at home in this modest but great enterprise is overpowering. I told my husband I want to become hasidic and take up smoking. I don't; I have just fallen in love with a matzah factory. This is a thing exactly as it is meant to be. If you painted that factory, if you cleared the hall corners, if you did your very best to make the place look respectable, let alone beautiful – you could not make it any lovelier than it is already.

Notes from Bryant Park

Manhattan is an unspoilt wilderness of tall buildings. In the midst of this landscape of native species is an art installation of ungainly and asymmetrical sculptures. They are short, which contrasts strongly, almost pathetically, with their surroundings. These artificial structures are called “trees”. They are really striking. I can't stop wondering how someone came up with the idea to interrupt the Manhattan landscape with such an alien species.

We walked through Times Square, where the sides of the buildings are large screens. Everything in Times Square is moving, flashing, fast. When the advertisements in Times Square want to call your undivided attention to their product, therefore, they cannot get your attention with color, contrast, or speed. The only thing they can do that really stands out is... to slow down the film and show the product in slow motion.
A fast-paced society can either go faster and faster until it runs itself into the ground, or decide that speed is outmoded and the hip thing is to go slowly. Rome just kept expanding and expanding until it burst. The advertisers of Times Square have made the wiser choice. I feel like in Times Square I see the future, or the end, or both, of this civilization.

Mine host for this excursion said we must walk past the wax museum, because the statue in front of it looks so lifelike that we would do a double-take.
I did not do a double-take. The difference is that a real human face is more luminous.

The Chrysler building is beautiful, not because its design is inherently beautiful – really it's a bit spiky – but because it is more story than building. That is excellence in architecture. I want to sit here for a long time and read that building.

M & J Trimmings is proof that G-d loves humanity.

New York is a generous city, probably one of the most generous cities in the world. I've always said that I love New Yorkers because they keep up both sides of the conversation. The city is the same: it furnishes you with such diversity of experience that you could live here for a long time before you ever felt the need to become anything. At one point I found myself walking down the street, not because I was headed anywhere in particular, but because the sixteen people around me were walking that direction. With such richness of company, who needs direction? You could easily forget about going anywhere. Every one of those people is a small world in himself; and their histories are diverse. The buildings are richly and beautifully ornamented. You could walk around New York and just admire and admire and admire all its richness and its people for a long time before it would occur to you that you need to have your own life, too. Then you would have this incredible trove of artistic inspiration to draw on.

Even the acanthus on the columns of Bowery Bank is not flora but people: New York's flowers are its faces.

Observations in the park. Skinny artists smiling into their mail the smile of the loved. At their feet, obese pigeons.
Young Italianate men in shirtsleeves and fisherman's caps tossing wooden balls: a scene from a hundred years ago.
As I am making these notes on the passersby I notice that two of them are also making notes on me.

You can see in the style of many buildings that this used to be New Amsterdam. It is Amsterdam writ about ten stories taller.

Grand Central Terminal has a view of constellations on its ceiling. Mine host says that when this ceiling was finished, someone pointed out to the designer that the constellations are shown in mirror-image. “O, yes,” he said, “that was deliberate. It is God's view of the heavens.”
So you can stand at the bottom of this tall hall and look down on the world.

Starbuck's. Q. What is the connection between the noble, self-sacrificing First Mate of the Pequod, and a cup of coffee?

Ruskin says, and I agree, that wrought-iron is suited to sculptures of flora, and to nasty fences keeping robbers out. Wrought-iron fences are not suited to friendly, inviting delineations of space.

The English language is in a fair way to run out of profanity. Those words that were once unspeakable are now commonplace, and there are no worse words lined up to replace them.

Q. Why does the large button sculpture in the Garment District have five holes in it?

In the library, a replica is shown of the pencils manufactured by Thoreau. They don't look like pencils at all – more like glorified twigs. How fitting.

I went into the library, not because I had anything particular to look up, but because I like to browse and admire long shelves of expertise in every conceivable subject.
It is a long climb before you get to the reading rooms, as if the star of the place is not books but stair-steps. In the reading room I saw many people on computers.
“I have a dumb question,” I said to the librarian. “Where are the books?”
She drew from behind her desk an illustration – I guess a lot of people ask the question. “There are seven stories of books under your feet,” she said. They are populated by dwarves. You look in a card catalog, identify the book you want, and send down your request by pneumatic tube. The dwarves mine that book for you and send it up. The stacks extend even under Bryant Park.
(That must be where the trees came from! They sprouted from all the paper.)
You may not look at the books.

Oh. So, for my purpose of browsing and wondering, I went to the room of manuscripts.
You have to buzz in. I buzzed.
The Butler of Manuscripts came to the door. “Yes?”
“Must one have a particular quest in mind to enter this room, or does general interest suffice?”
“It does not,” said the Butler of Manuscripts. “This room is for Researchers.”

I cannot wrap my mind around the New York Central Library. It is the only library I have ever seen where you can do anything but look at books. It is, I suppose, excellent training in focused thought and delayed gratification. You have to first identify your Quest, then the book you want, then wonder and wonder what it is going to be, and know that human labor brought it to you. No wonder 90% of the young people in the reading room are on computers.

It is appropriate, then, that the library's lions are named Patience and Fortitude, since those are what it takes to get a book in the library.

The reserve of the library is in striking contrast to the in-your-face generosity of the rest of the city.

Loops says her favorite thing in New York is the subway, because it is spicy.

Whatever New York is, it is enthusiastically and uninhibitedly – grimy, ornamented. To a certain degree, what Jerusalem is in kodesh, New York is in chol.

New York is like Adar: the chaos of it, the very extremeness of its pratius, points to it not being under the control of any mortal.