March 2010 Archives

The Brightness of Worship

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Last night, I had the unique opportunity to visit an Orthodox synagogue while substituting for an Oakland Midrasha class. The building was cool to see, including the mikvah, and I enjoyed learning more about the Orthodox philosophy, but the rabbi said one thing that really resonated with me.

We were sitting in a small chapel, and the rabbi asked us what looked different from our own (non-Orthodox) synagogues. One kid, probably jokingly, remarked that the walls are white. But the rabbi said that there was an important story there: the walls used to be paneled with a very dark wood, and he pointed out some trim that was still dark. But all of the paneling had been painted a bright white.

Why? Because you shouldn't feel closed-in and dreary when you worship. You should feel happy and inspired, and bright paint on the walls directly affects the mood within. This struck me, because the synagogue I grew up going to was a prime example. Dark wood paneling, dark red velvet seats, only a few dim lights for the entire sanctuary. I felt incapable of joy when I was inside, so I stopped going.

When I returned from college, I was surprised by a newly-completed renovation of the sanctuary. Someone I know says it looks trendy like a hotel lobby, but I'm in love with all of the bright, happy colors. Tan carpets and walls, light-colored wood on the pews, and enough lighting to - OMG - read a prayerbook. You can't repair a synagogue's sprititual base with a simple remodel, but it sure didn't hurt.

Feast of Jewish Learning

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On Sunday, I got to attend the coolest Jewish event! Entitled "Feast of Jewish Learning," the SF Bureau of Jewish Education brought in about 20 Jewish educators to teach sessions on everything from Fiddler on the Roof to Talmudic sex stories. I chose three sessions that were tremendously fun, and all of the 350 young adult attendees had a great time!

My first session was about Fiddler on the Roof, and how the producers (of the original stage show) formed their particular image of Anatevka. Beyond its obvious sentimentalization and lack of authenticity, it turns out that all of the sources used were politically biased. From a set of photos (funded by the Joint Distribution Committee to get people to donate), to an "anthropological" book (funded by the American Jewish Committee to improve the image of American Jews), to various Yiddish and Ukranian films that perpetuated stereotypes for various political goals, every single source that the producers used had been subjectively created to serve one goal or another. Thus, the imagery of Fiddler on the Roof is based on intensely political source material. Cool stuff!

The next session I attended examined alcohol from the Jewish perspective. We read the story of Noah, in which he is totally righteous and solid until the very end of the story, when he plants a vineyard, gets drunk, and gets naked, after which his son walks in on him. I LOVE a good text study, and we had a lot of fun learning about the different names used, and the story's various contradictions and problems. Plus, it was led by the amazing Jhos Singer, an incredible maggid who comes up to Camp Tawonga every once in a while. Always a good time when he's around.

My last session was about King David's alleged adultery with the wife of one of his soldiers. (You know: "Your faith was strong, but you needed proof, you saw her bathing on the roof") Anyway, after examining David's resultant actions, in which he sends the husband into battle to die, and then marries the wife, we looked at the Talmudic justification for David's actions, which - it turns out - weren't actually adulterous. In the end, though, he got stuck with the murder, and God punished him for it by killing David's son. Interesting justice, and the Talmud has tons of different perspectives on it... I love a good text study.

The only bad part of the Feast was the lunch itself (kosher, provided). They had bagels, which I enjoyed, but only cream cheese and vegetables to put on them. A couple cheese slices would have killed you? God forbid you provide a little lunchmeat? Even some hot dairy food would have satisfied me. Overall, though, it was a great event, and I really enjoyed learning there. I wish it were held more frequently than once a year...

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