January 1, 2012

Honesty about Modesty

Filed under: Israel, Judaism — marcstober @ 12:14 pm

Many of you have probably seen the Israeli news story about eight year old Na’ama Margolese being called a “whore” and spat on walking past a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) synagogue on her way to school. In case you haven’t, it’s on YouTube with subtitles. (I’d also recommend reading how “they messed with the wrong crowd” for some interesting background.)

Two images are stuck in my mind from the video. The first is of a woman covered up almost Taliban style.

And the second is of Na’ama’s mother, Hadassah, dressed attractively in a sweater, boots, and skirt that meet her own standards of tzniut (modesty). She looks like she could fit in among the women I pass walking home from their Modern Orthodox synagogue down the street from my Conservative one. And here’s the honesty part: I can see how she would be a little bit distracting.

But what I think is totally messed up is to think there is anything at all wrong with that. Certainly that doesn’t make her deserve to be called a “whore.”

Caring about how one looks and noticing how other people look is a hard-wired part of being human. The value of Judaism is that it provides a way to sanctify the human experience. The rabbis long ago recognized that the yetzer ha-ra–the temptation to do bad–was not something that can be just covered up but a part of life that we can try to turn to good.

In secular culture the message sometimes seems that only a woman who can look like a supermodel is attractive, and only a guy who sleeps with a lot of supermodels in accomplished. But Jews believe every individual deserves respect: “If you have saved one life, you have saved the world.” And so, in my community, as in many other non-Haredi communities, we have norms where every woman gets to be beautiful, every bar mitzvah boy funny, every grandfather wise, and every child give his parents something to kvell over (be proud of). For example, Mayim Bialik, who is both an Orthodox Jew and TV star, recently blogged about finding a dress for an important Hollywood party that looked good and was still respectful. Doing Jewish stuff means there are ways for men and women to interact that don’t require cheating or hurting anyone or acting irresponsibly. Not that every Jewish community is perfect (we’re still only human after all!) but on the whole, I think Judaism has survived because it has a lot of wisdom about how to cope with human nature.

Maybe some men really can’t deal with seeing a woman on the street. But then it’s them who should be staying off the sidewalk.

December 6, 2011

Introducing Siddur Ruach Shabbat: Temple Emanuel’s New Family Service Prayerbook

Filed under: Judaism, Newton, Prayer — marcstober @ 9:23 pm

Cross-posted to JewishBoston.com.

This Saturday morning at Temple Emanuel’s lay-led Ruach Shabbat family service we’ll be unveiling our new prayer book, Siddur Ruach Shabbat. The product of over a year of collaboration between the synagogue’s volunteers and professional staff, the book aims to be “just right” by capturing the spirituality of a traditional Shabbat morning service and making it accessible to all. It also features 40 full color illustrations by the children of Temple Emanuel.

The book features a number of innovations to make it easy to understand and use:

  • Only the prayers needed for a regular Shabbat morning service are included, so there is no getting lost flipping pages.
  • Every prayer begins on a new page with English, Hebrew, and transliterated titles.
  • All prayers (except the silent Amidah) have transliterations.
  • Key phrases are bold.
  • And more…

As editor-in-chief my goal was to share with my fellow TE families and the Jewish world what I found so meaningful about Shabbat morning prayer. The book was a truly collaborative effort, from the first draft produced by committee Vice Chair David Goldstone, to the extensive editorial work by committee Chair Pamela Weinfeld, to substantive input from Religious School Director Ilene Beckman, Hazzan Sheini Daniel Nesson, Rabbi Michelle Robinson, and others. It may have taken longer than we thought but the result was far better than expected.

For now the only place to see the whole finished book is at Ruach Shabbat Family Services this Saturday at 10:45 a.m. in Temple Emanuel’s lower level activity room, and monthly thereafter. Please join us! For more information contact me at marcstober@gmail.com, Pam Weinfeld at drpamw@dermandskincare.com, or Wayne Goldstein at wgoldstein@templeemanuel.com.

September 9, 2011

Adonai Tz’va’ot: The Lord of “Hosts”?

Filed under: Judaism, Prayer — marcstober @ 12:49 pm

For the Family Service Siddur I wanted a translation for “Adonai Tzeva’ot” that people wouldn’t need an English dictionary to understand like the venerable yet archaic “Lord of Hosts.” Siddur Sim Shalom actually leaves it untranslated, so I posted a question for the creative people in the OpenSiddur Facebook Group:

Anyone have a favorite translation for “Adonai Tzevaot” in the Kedushah? “Hosts” always makes me think of the person who takes you to a table at a restaurant.

After getting responses from Aharon Varady and Shmueli Gonzales as well as posing a few alternatives to my daughter, Hannah, as a representative of the target age the latest draft has:

Holy, holy, holy is the God of heavenly forces.

This made me really think about this peak moment of the service, and how it represents the fullness of God in three ways: as a force throughout the universe, as something not here but “up there” (mim’komo=”His place”), and specifically as God of Israeli (Elohayich tziyon).

I think perhaps the important thing you are saying is that while צְבָאוֹת (tz’va’ot, tzevaot) literally means “armies,” the reference is to forces of the universe being imagined as armies, as opposed to the human armies of nations.

Indeed I would say that imagining God as the master of gravity, black holes, quantum physics, and other mysteries of the physical universe very much fits in with my own theology and seem analogous to how it was formerly used by people who looked at starts but didn’t have the Hubble Space Telescope. (Or NOVA on PBS.)

Which brings me back for “forces” as translation which could mean physical forces like gravity, as well as being a direct modern PC translation for army as in “Israeli Defense Forces.”

Note: The image above was drawn by Hannah and illustrates the page across from this passage in the Siddur.

July 6, 2011

Fun With Hebrew Fonts: Liturgical Use of Meteg

Filed under: Judaism, Software Blog — marcstober @ 7:00 am

For the Family Service Siddur I’m editing, we set the Hebrew text in Times New Roman1 using Microsoft Word, because this was a volunteer project and we all had that software available, and because that font is actually quite nice at rendering Hebrew with vowels as needed for liturgy.

A reviewer noticed an error in Mah Tovu:

The quamats2 that should be under the resh is under the kaf. It’s not a typo; I had typed the letters correctly: kaf , shva , resh , qamats , meteg .

I realized the issue was with the meteg. (In liturgy, meteg is used to indicate the stressed syllable, particularly when it’s not the last syllable, which is usually stressed in Hebrew.) Without the meteg, the vowel is centered below the “point” of the resh, not the center of the letter:

So far, so good; this contributes to the readability of the letters. The problem is that Times New Roman shifts vowels to the right when followed by meteg. This is okay if the vowel starts off below the center of the letter:

But when the vowel is centered under right edge of the letter to start with, it ends up appearing under the previous letter, incorrectly. For example, the font Cardo doesn’t shift the vowel when a meteg is added, which I think is better:

It’s worth noting that not all Hebrew fonts even include meteg, which is not used in modern Hebrew.
I solved the problem using the overstrike feature of Word’s equation editor:

To reproduce this:

  1. Press ctrl-F9 to insert the special equation editor brackets.
  2. Paste in the following: eq \o(רָ,ˌ)

Note that the character used here is actually the Unicode MODIFIER LETTER LOW VERTICAL LINE character (hex 02CC), because Hebrew points without a consonant are rendered with a dotted circle by the software. I think this character is used as a phonetic symbol to indicate stress anyway, so it’s not inappropriate. However, I consider this a work-around; in a perfect world, I’d like to have an accurate digital text that renders into print without pretending it’s an equation.

Hope someone finds this helpful or at least interesting!

1This would be version 5.01 of Times New Roman from Microsoft. I’m pretty sure the original 1930’s version of the font for the London Times didn’t include Hebrew!

2I am not a not usually fan of the letter “q” in Hebrew transliterations, but I am using the standard Unicode names of Hebrew characters.

March 22, 2011

Reflections on Japan, Itamar, and some events closer to home

Filed under: Israel, Metaphysics, Newton — marcstober @ 5:27 pm

Two of the top news stories of the past few weeks have been about the earthquake and subsequent nuclear accident in Japan, and the murder of a family in Itamar, Israel. Both are a tragic human loss. I’m not sure which is more challenging to understand.

I can’t begin to comprehend having your home and family washed out to sea, to be left on the shore without food, medicine, or electricity. Or, to live with the danger of invisible radioactive fallout. But this doesn’t shatter my worldview. We live in a universe formed by supernovas and plate tectonics, awash with cosmic radiation, where the basic laws of physics mean that we need to use energy sources that can sometimes be deadly. To me, the miracle is not that the universe was created with Man at the center in Copernican style, but that we so improbably thrive when it wasn’t.

On the scale of universe, tragedy in a single household in Itamar shouldn’t seem like much, but I find it even harder to understand. Bad stuff happens, and people get angry, but ultimately, we find a way to share a small planet. Or so I like to think, which is why breaking into a house just to murder an unknown family with children is something I just can’t comprehend.

Then again, just this week, we heard helicopters and learned the State Police were searching for the perpetrator of shooting at a store here in Newton. No one was hurt, but it was bizarre that it wasn’t attempted armed robbery as much as pure intentional violence.

Yet we survive.

October 22, 2010

Something I’ve been working on…

Filed under: Education, Information Politics, Judaism — marcstober @ 5:57 am

Crossposted to JHacker.org.

Here’s my submission (alas, not a winner) to the Jewish Futures Conference. I am drawing on my experience in the software/IT industry and thinking about how much could be done for Jewish education.

Jewish Technology R&D Vision (via marcstober)

Judaism is a culture that has been transmitted through text and community and that has so many synergies with the potential of the Internet.

February 11, 2010

Putting on my Left-Handed Tefillin Again

Filed under: Judaism — marcstober @ 10:30 pm

Seems we’ve been hearing a lot about tefillin lately: The plane diverted because they were a suspicious object. The World Wide Wrap and related events going on at synagogues.


I recently participated in a mind-body medicine program at a major hospital. It’s given me new appreciation of the ritual, as tefillin connect prayer (mind, spirit) to the body and through that connection strengthen the experience of both. Specifically, the shel yad and shel rosh (hand and head tefillin), reflect body and mind. I learned in the mind-body medicine program that neurologically, achieving a higher level of awareness meant increasing the high-level activity in the prefrontal cortex (as opposed to the primitive brain stem) which is the area the shel rosh sits just on top of (and apparently the same area is significant in other spiritual tradtions).

I bought my tefillin at the beginning of my semester in Israel in 1995. I’d been exposed to the practice as that summer as a counselor at Camp Ramah. My first roommate at Tel Aviv University, Steven, was a fellow American Jew who was a bit more advanced than I was in Israeli and Judaic knowledge. Eventually he used that knowledge to leave the dorm for an off-campus apartment but, first, we took a trip to Jerusalem together where he took me to a sort of tefillin factory in Mea Shearim and ordered me a pair. Mine are “smoli,” left-handed, and tied in the Ashkenazi manner; the sofer tied them and cut the outer plastic case to that specification at the time. They were one of if not the largest single purchase I made as a student that semester, costing around 900 shekels, which was around $300 at the time, if I recall. I think they are a bit larger that what you could buy in the States at that price which impresses people in some circles.

My tefillin go on my right hand because I’m left handed. I drew this cheat sheet for wrapping shel yad on the hand, based on reversing the diagram in a book (possibly Aryeh Kaplan’s Tefillin) I found in the Hillel library back in college. I’ve added color to show how it spells out the name of God Shaddai. I’m not sure I’m parsing the letters in an entirely traditional way here, but it looks right.

While I never put them every day, after Hannah was born I did not use them for years. Largely because by the time I got children off to daycare or school I was late to work, but also because I’d heard from Orthodox sources that tefillin should be inspected regularly and putting on a pair that was no longer kosher was worse that wearing none at all. Then, about a year ago, my own Conservative rabbi held a tefillin “learners minyan.” I asked him about the need for inspection, and he said that we didn’t need to worry about it when in our community we just needed to get more people to use tefillin at all; and besides mine seems to be in better shape that others in our congregation.

Tefillin still seem strange. I’m wired to my iPod and smartphone and it seems perfectly normal even though these were futuristic dreams a few years ago. Tefillin have been around for hundreds of years and I never lose the sense that they are foreign. Some people translate the word into English as “phylacteries,” which I think is an inside joke: is there anyone who does not know what “tefillin” means but knows what “phylacteries” are? I picture an ancient equivalent of Reform Jews coming up with a Greek word to make them seem more normal; they must have seemed foreign even then.

January 25, 2010

Does the Pope’s Message about New Media mean anything for those of us who follow different religions?

Filed under: Judaism, Software Blog — marcstober @ 9:51 pm

Pope Benedict wrote yesterday:

Priests can rightly be expected to be present in the world of digital communications as faithful witnesses to the Gospel, exercising their proper role as leaders of communities which increasingly express themselves with the different ‘voices’ provided by the digital marketplace….
No door can or should be closed to those who… are committed to drawing near to others. (The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word.)

Aside from the specifics about Jesus, I pretty much agree with his message.

Are Jews similarly obligated to spread a religious message through Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other new media? (That is, mainstream Jews–Chabad obviously considers themselves obligated.)

Should we even be reading much less caring about what the Pope thinks?

Can we survive if we don’t?

December 7, 2009

Pancakes on Saturday Morning

Filed under: Food, Judaism, Parenting — marcstober @ 11:17 pm

In my family, we have a ritual on Saturday morning. Max and I are usually the first ones up, so I take him downstairs and let the girls sleep. And by the time they are up, I’m doing actual cooking for breakfast, which we don’t do any other day of the week. At one point, challah french toast was the favorite; more recently, it’s been pancakes or banana muffins or even vegan double-chocolate waffles and pumpkin scones.

Saturday, of course, is also the Jewish Sabbath, Shabbat. Shabbat should be about resting and recharging and spending peaceful time together as a family, and my ritual fits nicely with this. Waking up early, rushing out the door after a bowl of cereal and stopping to buy coffee on the way to where we’re going would not be in the spirit of Shabbat. The only problem is that cooking breakfast isn’t really in the spirit of Shabbat, either; cooking itself is a type of work that traditional Jews don’t do on the Sabbath at all.

This past week I did something different. Every Saturday at 8:30 a.m. our rabbi holds a study session. He e-mails the congregation the day before with the topic. It’s always an interesting topic, but not usually reason enough to leave my wife with both children on her hands on the one day she can stay in bed a little late. This week, however, the topic was so personally compelling that I put a batch of banana muffins in the oven, kissed the family goodbye, and went to learn about why Jacob Neusner, a prominent academic Conservative Rabbi who was raised Reform (like I was) was is returning to reform.

The interesting topic is not Neusner’s choice per se, but what differentiates two denominations that, in real ways, are competing and converging. Our rabbi said that he and a colleague in the Reform movement he is friends with both describe their jobs as encouraging congregants to “make Jewish choices,” and if that meant they are much the same, so what?

Having been fairly involved myself in both movements for different parts of my life I have my own ideas about the differences, and think that when lifelong Conservative Jews call our left-of-center (using “left” colloquially in a non-political sense) Conservative synagogue “like Reform” it’s because they don’t really know the Reform movement. It’s like when people say France is Americanized because of McDonald’s and a Disney park, ignoring the system of laws, work ethic, decentralized public education, religious history, etc. that make America unique.

The next day, I recalled a conversation that made the difference crystal clear. A couple years ago, I had the chance to talk to a local Reform rabbi about my Shabbat observance as a participant in CJP’s Ikkarim program. I asked him specifically about my pancakes-on-Saturday-morning conundrum: how it felt appropriate for my young family, but wasn’t the highest level of observance that I hoped to eventually (like, when the kids went off to college) achieve. His answer was that if cooking breakfast is the Shabbat practice that works for me, I should do it. From the Reform perspective, making a Jewish choice was not about making a choice guided by Jewish law, and there was no “credit” given to a choice that was not meaningful just because it honored Jewish law. This appeals to a lot of people, but it left me unsatisfied. And that’s why even though I agree with Jabob Neusner’s platform, I’m still not a Reform Jew.

Michael Chabon, in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (admittedly a novel, not religious teaching) writes about the “shortfall…. Between commandment and observance, heaven and earth, husband and wife, Zion and Jew. They called the shortfall ‘the world.'” Pancakes on Shabbat are part of “the world.” Figuring out how to live in the world is the challenge.

November 18, 2009

Thoughts on the Jewish Future after a Lecture by Adin Steinsaltz

Filed under: Judaism — marcstober @ 9:49 am

For a class in college, I was required to buy a volume of Adin Steinsaltz’s translation of the Talmud from Aramaic into Hebrew. We mostly worked off photocopies of an English translation in class, though, and as a testament to my ignorance, 13 years later, I still have just that one of the 63 tractates on my shelf.

So, when I heard that the famous Talmud scholar was giving a lecture in my neighborhood–at the JCC, where I take Max to preschool every day–I decided to attend.

The topic of the lecture was “love and hatred,” and it was essentially a talk on the direction the Jewish community needs to take. Because we already know how to cope with hatred, but we don’t know how to cope with being loved, which is the situation today.

He gave the example that animals either have a shell or a backbone. For an animal to survive outside of its shell, it needs a backbone. All too often, it has been the shell–the response to an external threat–that has kept Jews together. (I’m not sure if he meant this an an evolutionary metaphor, but it sounds good to me to say we must make an evolutionary leap.)

He also gave the example of a Jewish woman who become a Buddhist nun, who says she doesn’t find anything in Judaism because it’s about kneidlach, and she’s a vegetarian. And he admitted that kneidlach aren’t enough. Which I wholeheartedly agree with, but it’s a pretty radical idea. The voice of the typical Jew that I imagine, perhaps not of my generation, but certainly of Steinsaltz’s, would be offended. Jews who prided themselves on secular learning and achievement and on sticking together for chicken soup and to remember the Holocaust would be quick to respond to such an idea with a litany of people who still hate us.

I think that we may have, very recently, reached an inflection point, accelerated by the weakened economy. Jewish institutions that speak to people’s needs for meaning, connection, celebration and wisdom are thriving; those that exist now simply for historical reasons are threatened. People who maintained a traditional life out of guilt have fallen away, and people who practice out of personal motivation have joined. (Though I might have a skewed perspective, because I have sought out a certain sort of community and base my knowledge on that.)

In response to a question, he indicated that a single lecture to a general audience could not provide specific solutions, but rather was a way to get people in thinking about certain questions. The main point was the need to focus on the “backbone” problem. Which is not entirely black-and-white, because there is still antisemitism; and Judaism already has a strong backbone of culture, philosophy, ritual, literature, etc. (but far too few learn it).

It seems obvious to me, but I’m often surprised how often Jewish institutions don’t see it as their fundamental mission to get as many people as possible “turned on” to Judaism. When I worked at United Synagogue (which does, in fact, have a few programs that do “turn on” people) I was struck that the talk was more about service to members or at best outreach to a static group of members rather than a a true mission to reach as many people as possible with something we believe in. This is not to ignore that different organizations have different tactics and competencies and will reach different people; but we also can’t ignore the sacred mission that we all (should) share.

On this topic, Steinsaltz quoted from Alice in Wonderland: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” (This was somewhat déjà vu, too, because I seen a children’s theater program perform Alice in Wonderland on that same stage earlier this year.) Jewish life is just like an other endeavor in this regard: if you’re focused on what you’re doing, and not growing in some dimension, you may feel like you’re running but you’ve actually been left behind.

I suspect that sometimes Jewish groups are reluctant to promote their work because it is a special mission, so let me be clear: When I say “turned on” I don’t mean converting people or anything on that level. As in other enterprises, a great product still needs to be sold. In my field, computer software, a developer can write a perfect, elegant, efficient program and no one might use it; while a company with a less perfect program and great marketing wins in the marketplace. Similarly, keeping the treasures of Judaism locked up in books accessible only to scholars does not protect it; it is only preserved as much as people can learn it. We don’t want to be hated; the more learning, the more we can cope with being loved.

Steinsaltz (quoted on Wikipedia) said, “I never thought that spreading ignorance has any advantage.” I agree with that. There are many organizations, some of which I’m a part of, that are already doing a great job spreading Jewish knowledge, but there is much more that can be done.

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