April 26, 2019

Confession from an Israeli

By Tamar Biala –

Editor’s note: This blog was featured in the final issue of our e-zine, 614, “How Moving to the U.S. Shaped My Judaism.” – 

Spinoza got the better of me long ago. My Judaism is not based on faith in the Torah as the divinely revealed word of God. Rather, it’s based chiefly on a national identification with the Jewish people, on the feeling of belonging and shared responsibility for its fate, on being drawn to Jewish culture, and the motivation to help shape it.

I identify with ideas and principles in Tanakh and the tradition as it developed over the generations, and accept upon myself the mitzvot, as best I can (while also rejecting other ideas and principles, and some mitzvot, as best I can). I feel entirely a part of the Jewish people; for better or worse, I feel responsible for the fate and the essential character of the people as a whole. And this is the me who I brought with me when we moved to America three years ago, when I was 43.

When we arrived, the chief anxiety that I encountered among the Jews with whom I became friendly, was for the Jewish identity of the next generation. While worrying about Jewish existence was very familiar to me, it was not for spiritual survival, but physical. In Israel, the continued existence of Jewish identity is clear; what is less clear, of course, is how this identity will survive in the Middle East, and by the same token, what is the nature of the Jewish identity worth preserving, developing, fighting for, and sacrificing, even dying for. My question had less been how to preserve my children’s Jewish identity, but what Jewish identity do I want to pass on to them? A question, not of strategy, but of essence.

In Israel, this sense of the continuity of Jewish survival is natural. Responsibility for Jewish physical and cultural survival is basic and is internalized from early childhood on through schools, youth groups, the army, and volunteer organizations. This sense of responsibility has wonderful sides: youth mature earlier, the sense of solidarity – change though it does – endures, and Jewish culture flourishes in wonderfully creative and riveting ways. Yet there are also dark sides to this unmistakable Jewish identity: chauvinism and patriotism that cost ‘the other’ dearly, racist interpretations of Scripture, abuse and exploitation of religious institutions for brutality and injustice, and more.

In our years in Boston, I discovered, to my surprise, that I have a very hard time feeling solidarity with the local Jewish community. Personally, I’ve made new and wonderful connections, and strengthened some old ones. I get and give love, and actively participate in the synagogues we’ve joined, but overall, I can’t shake off my severe judgment of the choice to remain in exile. I’m perplexed to discover just how much my worry for the “Jewish people” all these years seems to be limited to those who dwell in Zion (and there, largely to the Zionists). Again and again I wonder: Can I change my beliefs and accept the choice of exiled Jewry to stay here and develop a Jewish culture of their own?

Some days I feel the Jewish people is split into sub-peoples who don’t share a common fate. I am utterly aware of how unjust my judgment is: American Jewry, in one way or another, has, does, and will support Israel; and, anyway, what the hell am I talking about – every fellowship I’ve ever gotten that enabled me to study in university, learn in a beit midrash, that paid my salary for teaching, and enabled me to publish the book that is my life’s dream come true, all came from American Jews who have tried to support me, and support the Zionist enterprise. Is it the drastic difference in daily life between Israel and American Jewry that keeps me from accepting the latter, and feeling some sense of belonging? If this exile were more miserable, would my judgment be more easily dissolving? In the end, I understand the tension between Babylonia and Israel that I encountered so often in the Talmud: The jealousy, competition, resentments, and anger.

I ask myself, what is “Jewish fate”? Is it possible to speak of one “Jewish fate”? Will I, can I, agree to live a Jewish fate that isn’t Israeli?

I understand it would be worth it for me to grapple with these questions rather than avoid them, while contenting myself with waiting, exhausted and embittered, for our return to Israel, to my natural community. I take it upon myself to try to accept the fact that there always was and always will be an exile, that just as I am pluralistic when it comes to how different Jews shape their relations to Jewish culture, to Torah and mitzvot, so must I try to be pluralistic when it comes to the place of Israel in their Jewish identity. But, somehow, it’s very hard for me. Very, very hard.

TamarBialaHeadshot2.2Tamar Biala is a Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-Residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and co-editor of Dirshuni: Midrashei Nashim (Yediot Acharonot, 2009), the first collection of midrashim written by contemporary Israeli women. A podcast of her recent lecture, “Bastardy, Incest, and Siblings Who Look After One Another in Recent Midrashim by Israeli Women” is available here.

Do Jews Need God?

By Michelle Cove

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614: The HBI eZine

That’s a question I’ve been thinking about ever since the Pew Research Study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” came out in 2013 showing that two-thirds of Jews polled said it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.  I remember being shocked at the statistic when I first read it, although I’m not sure why exactly. I know many Jewish people who don’t believe in God, and are perfectly comfortable with their Jewish identity. I also know some atheists, to be fair, who struggle to feel connected to our religion given all the patriarchal language in prayer books and Torah stories. In a religion inundated with stories and prayers centered around God, there seems to be so much room and space to be Jewish and not believe. What makes some Jewish atheists feel at peace while others feel at odds?

For the latest issue of 614: the HBI eZine, I asked a rabbi, a few women authors, and an artist for their viewpoints on what it is to be a Jewish atheist and what the repercussions are. All of them struck me as confident and unapologetic about their beliefs.  After all, Jews are not only allowed to have our doubts, we are encouraged to grapple and question, which is pretty unique. Says Rabbi Lev Baesh, who is featured in the issue: “You should never be asked to agree blindly or to demean your own views for others (or theirs for yours, for that matter).”

There are plenty of Jewish leaders and thinkers who worry that Judaism can’t sustain without a central belief in God. In a September-October, 2011 article in Moment, entitled, “Can There Be Judaism Without Belief in God?” Senator Joe Lieberman stated: “There can be Jews who are good people without belief in God, but ultimately Judaism cannot continue to exist without belief in God because the Jewish historical narrative depends on it.” Rabbi David Volpe of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles, California, in the same article says: “Yes, there can be Judaism without God, but only briefly, as it cannot reproduce itself. Judaism without God is running on the momentum of past generations.”

What do you think? How important is a belief in God to our religion? Can Judaism sustain without a belief in God? We hope you’ll read the issue with an open mind, grapple, and weigh in with your own thoughts.

Michelle Cove is the editor of 614: the HBI eZine

A Dose of Inspiring Courage – and “Thinks” – For the New Year

by Michelle Cove

“What you are is what you have been. What you’ll be is what you do now.” – Buddha

140811_cover_v8_i5When I ran across that quote this week, it stopped me in my tracks. It’s not that I don’t like what or where I have been, although I, like many, sure would have done things differently at certain points of my life if I knew then what I know now. But, that said, I wouldn’t change much because all roadseven the ones lined with glaring and oh-so-humbling mistakesled me right here. Still, there is power in this idea of taking time to reflect on the choices we are making right now because they determine what we will become.

That’s what I cherish about Rosh Hashanah. It stops us all in our tracks every year and requires us to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are, and what changes we’d like to make for the upcoming year. It’s kind of like an Oprah-retreat, Jewish-style. It’s all too easy to avoid this self-reflection and grappling and stay put. We can easily go through the motions again that we did yesterday and the day before that: eat the same cereal, tell the same jokes, talk to the same people, crank out the same work. There’s a comfort in that sometimes, and the rituals can even be nourishing. But how many of us take the time to ask, “Is this really where I want to be right now?”

That’s why I am excited to present our newest issue of 614: New Year Special: 5 Inspiring Tales of Starting Over.

In this issue, you’ll find five tales of Jewish women who made a major life transformation and jump-started their Jewish identity. Author Leah Vincent, for example, talks about how she separated from ultra-Orthodoxy and trekked into the unknown. Former HBI intern Fabulous Flores (best name ever, right? Yes, it’s real.) writes about why she was so determined to convert to Judaism at the age of 16.  Ornat Turin, a scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute recently, explains how traveling to America from Israel made her fall in love with Shabbat.

We hope this issue will inspire you to consider where you are in your life, as a Jewish woman and in general, and whether it’s where you want to be. If it is, fantastic, this is something to be honored and celebrated. If it’s not, we hope the stories will give you the extra dose of courage you may need to head towards where you’d rather be. It all starts right now. You may just have to look at your life from a few new angles. To quote Dr. Seuss: Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!

To a sweet and bold new year filled with thinks you can think up,

Michelle Cove, is the editor of 614, the HBI ezine.

In Consideration of “Going Rogue” this Passover

By Michelle Cove

140130_cover_v8_i2It’s time. This is when we dig through the family recipe box, or “Google,” to find the perfect charoset recipe, hunt down a more challenging location to hide the afikomen, and locate the right person to get the shank bone this year: not Uncle Alan who purchased chicken wings last year. The rituals, even when they can be hassles in our chaotic lives, comfort many of us. Here we are again, preparing for this same, age-old ceremony conducted by millions of other Jews on the same night. It’s pretty amazing, really.

While plenty of Jews prefer to replicate the same experience every year, many others search for new rituals that will connect the story of the Exodus to current times: whether it’s finding a way to tie in the Ukraine; reading new poetry or excerpts about freedom; baking Matzo Almond Brittle from Gourmet magazine; passing out toy plagues (here’s your plastic frog and locust!) to the kids; or asking an additional “Four Questions” like, “When have you most longed for home?” to dinner guests.

We often get so set in our Jewish ritual ways that we forget, or never acknowledge in the first place, that we have the right to make up our own. Yes, there is beauty in following the same actions and re-making the same Seder plate every single year. But there is also comfort, joy and exhilaration that arise from establishing new Jewish rituals, ones that may be even more meaningful.

One of the aspects I love about editing 614 is the constant challenge of coming up with “fresh ways of thinking about Jews and gender,” the HBI mission. Last fall, I wrote an essay about adapting the Rosh Hashanah ritual of Tashlikh, casting away our sins symbolically by throwing breadcrumbs into the water. I took my pre-teen daughter to a lake and replaced “sins” with “bad feelings about my body.” We vowed to have kinder, gentler thoughts about our bodies this year. If you have or know a pre-teen daughter, you understand what a pressing issue this can be. I heard back from many moms saying they will replicate this idea, and wondered what other ritual adaptions I could share.
So, for the current issue of 614, we partnered with Ritualwell.org, and included rituals that mark the loss we feel when we move away; help us connect with family members at dinner time; honor a child’s transition to double digits; and celebrate the end of cancer treatment with a mikveh. In past issues, we have asked our readers “What would you make the 614th commandment?” and pondered surprising “aha Jewish moments.” If there’s a new way to think about living our lives as Jewish women, we want to explore it.

If you like your rituals traditional, that’s fine. Keep going. But if they sometimes feel rote, give yourself permission to change the rituals—or make new ones—that feel meaningful. I know, I know, it can feel like one more thing to add to our spilling-over to-do list. It’s much easier to go with the flow and follow directives. But, if we want religion to be a significant and valuable part of our lives, we must keep finding ways to make it relevant for our families and ourselves.

So, is there a new ritual you’ll be trying out this Passover?


Michelle Cove is the editor of 614: the HBI eZine
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Jews, Tattoos and Plenty of Controversy

131212_cover_v8_i1By Michelle Cove

I remember one of my Jewish women friends telling me in tears about how her 20-something son got a tattoo (the first time). He did it without telling her, knowing she would be horrified and view the act as a betrayal against their religion. She did. There were many tears and screams. The two have gotten through it okay, but it took my friend awhile to find any kind of peace with this.

This past week, a colleague of mine, another Jewish mom, told me with sadness about her 18-year-old son coming home recently with a tattoo. While she was (somewhat) touched he chose a symbol to honor his deceased grandfather, she couldn’t help but feel that her son crossed a Jewish line. “It’s hard to put into words exactly what upsets me,” she confessed, “but I do worry he may be a little less connected to his Jewish heritage, or that the tattoo may be some kind of deal breaker for what could have been a future Jewish wife.”

All around the country Jewish parents and their grown-up children are having heated discussions around tattoos; the fact is, 40 percent of Americans age 26 to 40 have a tattoo now, according to Pew Research.

What’s the exact problem here? It depends on whom you ask. Some parents consider it against the Jewish law, referring to Leviticus 19:29, which states “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.” Others find it, if not unlawful, then extremely disrespectful to the Jewish community. Some find it low-class, and plenty of parents just worry it’s an impulsive bad decision that will last a lifetime.

Here’s what’s fascinating: Many young Jews are getting tattoos as ways to solidify and strengthen their feelings of Jewish identity. They are choosing tattoos of a Biblical quote, Hebrew word, or Jewish symbol, such as a hamsa or Star of David. An increasing number of young Jews are even having the Holocaust number of a deceased relative tattooed on their forearm. Can tattoos make a young Jewish person more connected to their religion?

This question is creating a tremendous amount of discussion and controversy, and questions about what this latest trend means for the Jewish people. That’s why 614, the online magazine of the HBI, decided to devote the Jan/Feb issue to “Jews and Tattoos.” We hope you’ll read through the collection of essays, see where you stand, and join the conversation.

Michelle Cove is the editor of 614. Additionally, she is the author of I Love Mondays: And other confessions from devoted working moms (Seal Press, 2012) and I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You: A new understanding of mother-daughter conflict (Viking, 2012), as well as the filmmaker of “Seeking Happily Ever After” and “One and Only”. Visit michellecove.com.

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