Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pulling Rabbis out of a Hat

For the past three days, I've hung out with rabbis. Hundreds of rabbis. Young and middle-aged and of advanced years. Male and female. Illustrious and of modest achievement. Fashionably attired and less so. Celebrity rabbis and counter-cultural rabbis.

During these days, I've gathered with rabbis in lecture halls and dining rooms and synagogue sanctuaries and in the passage ways of old stone buildings and modern classrooms and chapels and on street corners. I've even gone to the bathroom with rabbis.

For nearly 72 hours, I've listened to rabbis and talked to rabbis and heard jokes from rabbis and hugged rabbis and learned from rabbis. I've reconnected with rabbis I first met years ago, during their rabbinical school training. I've gossiped with rabbis and taken note of weight loss and gain, new hair styles that are flattering and not. I've heard about the births, deaths and divorces, career dislocation, disappointment. I've seen at least one former boyfriend in this collection of rabbis. He greeted me with a smirky nod of the head.

The reason for this rabbi-fest is the annual gathering of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional association of Conservative and Masorti rabbis worldwide and as their publicist I get to schmooze with the Jews, becoming a kind of pseudo-rebbe or at least, a kid-sister facsimile of a rabbi.

Though it might sound like a decidedly unglamorous assignment or the opening of an ethnic joke: "So, five hundred rabbis met in New York City the other day...." the RA convention is always spiritually, intellectually and socially charged, not to mention great fun. Yet this fact sometimes eludes those nearest and dearest to me.

"Do you really have to go on the boat ride tomorrow night with those rabbis?" pressed HOBB earlier this evening. "I mean, do you want to be stuck with them on the Hudson river for three hours??"

Uh. Yeah. And they will have a DJ. And a bar.

You see, I really like rabbis, especially of the Conservative/Masorti persuasion, who feel to me like kin. I like their blending of God-consciousness and social awareness. I like their caring and devotion, the weird fusion of old fashioned values and instruments of the cyber-age. I don't know why, but it makes me happy that rabbis use BlackBerries and send text messages. I adore that they come to sessions with laptops and I-Pads. I even like that their cellphones ring annoyingly during plenaries and important programs.

I like the serious attention that is paid to interpersonal ethics within this movement-- the awareness of the importance of observing boundaries. I do not take this for granted, having met other clergy who egregiously violate boundaries. I like the sincerity, the poetry, the prophetic voice I glean at these gatherings.

When I am together with rabbis of this movement, I find that there is a common cultural language we speak -- a blending of tradition, belief and socialization. There is also the camaraderie that arises from being a member of the denomination that once ruled the Jewish demographic charts and has, according to social scientists, fallen. Hard.

Yet I hold fast to the belief that Conservative Judaism is still the anchor of American Jewish life.

In the parlance of The Three Bears, this brand of Judaism is not too hard, not too soft. Just right.

Readers of this blog will note that I have never written about the work that I do nor the clients whom I represent. But there is something up close and personal about my work with the Conservative rabbis, something real and authentic. Aspects of our lives have been shared and traded in hallways and on bus rides and field trips and late at night in hotel lobbies and around Shabbat and lunch and dinner tables. I've climbed pyramids with the rabbis and hotel staircases. We've shared wine and tequila and lots of coffee. I've marveled at the spirit of the Latin American rabbis who will sing Hebrew songs late into the night. Together, we endured good and bad press at these conventions. We've cleaned hurricane-whipped schools and visited political hot spots. Once, we almost got arrested at a protest. We've met dignitaries and important leaders. We've talked endlessly about the development of Magen Tzedek, our ethical kashrut seal. We praised new publications of the assembly. With these rabbis, I've talked about matters of the heart and soul: I've even cried with some of them. And on several occasions, I've danced joyously with the rabbis, most recently this past Sunday night when Neshama Carlebach performed with her band and the Green Pastures Baptist Choir in Feinberg Auditorium of the Jewish Theological Seminary where Big Babe had his Bar Mitzvah in 1997.

And when the rabbis grant a glimpse of what it means to be a spiritual leader in the 21st century, I am positively breathless...and not a little bit envious.

This is the eighth RA convention I have attended as a publicist. Every year, former classmates of my dad, who was ordained a Conservative rabbi in 1955, ask eagerly if my father is in attendance (he is usually not, having left the rabbinate and the movement when he became a clinical psychologist in 1977) spurring me to call him on the spot from my cell phone.

Invariably, I lose access to my phone for at least half an hour as my dad eagerly reconnects with a dear friend, reminding me that I am, and will always be, the daughter of a Conservative rabbi, a post-denominational, egalitarian Jew who nevertheless clings stubbornly to this first identity for it shaped me in innumerable ways, rooting me, enriching me, providing me with a portal into Jewish Peoplehood, a personal path, a vantage point from which to gaze at God.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Elena Kagan, Bat Mitzvah Girl

Gay, shmay.

This Shavuos, the talk of the town will likely be the delicious fact that, thirty-seven years ago, Elena Kagan celebrated her bat mitzvah at Manhattan's famous Lincoln Square Synagogue by reading from the Book of Ruth on a Friday night, marking the shul's very first female rite of religious passage.

If you haven't seen the New York Times article, it is accessible here:

For contemporaries of Kagan such as myself, the details of her long-ago bat mitzvah are delectable...and maddening, for all the obvious reasons having to do with Orthodoxy's halakhic restrictions on women. For residents of Manhattan's Upper West Side Jewish community, the article also provides a clubby, insider feeling. It is always fun to know every single person quoted in a Times article, in this case -- Rabbis Shlomo Riskin and Ephraim (Effie) Buchwald, Cantor Sherwood Goffin and Shuly Rubin Schwartz, dean of List College at JTS and an assistant professor of Jewish History.


Elena Kagan had her bat mitzvah at Lincoln Square Synagogue on May 18, 1973.

That November 18th, I also turned 12, the age of bat mitzvah.

But the ironic fact is that I -- the daughter of a Conservative rabbi with a pulpit in Douglaston, NY -- did not have a bat mitzvah. The reasons for this have to do less with halakha and more with my parents' lower-case c conservative tendencies, their discomfort at staging a ritual that was seen as daringly feminist and decidedly un-feminine. While my younger brother had a blow-out bar mitzvah three years later -- and while scores of girls were indeed bat mitzvahed by my dad during his 21 years as the spiritual leader of Marathon Jewish Community Center -- neither my sister nor I had that religious rite of passage.

Which leaves me pondering the power of this ritual in directing one's life journey, feeling at once a sense of communal kinship with Elena Kagan and subdued sadness for the bat mitzvah girl that I never was.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Heaven on a Monday Morning

A thousand hours ago, I felt the sunlight upon my flickering lids, intuited the morning, loosened my grip on the last threads of sleep, rose from my bed -- warm and tousled -- and hailed the new day.

Brushing my teeth, I thought I heard one of my most beloved songs -- Heaven by the Talking Heads. Little Babe, I thought, must be playing his iPod, plugged into speakers.

Shuffling into our dining room, I was stunned to find my ninth grader, singing and playing a perfect rendition of Heaven on the guitar he had restrung and tuned the day before, a hand-me-down from MOBB (mother of Bungalow Babe); an artifact from the era in which she taught young children and envisioned herself as Maria from The Sound of Music.

Seeing my expression of shock, Little Babe nonchalantly informed me that there is an app for guitar chords on his iPod. He simply entered "Heaven" and the music popped up.

Oh. That explains it. Except for the fact that Little Babe has never had guitar lessons. Nor, as far as I knew, had he ever learned how to string musical instruments.

Fifteen minutes later, I was helping Little Babe out the front door, hauling his cello, which is his main instrument. As a member of his high school band, he had rehearsal after school. As my youngest rode the elevator downstairs, I returned to the urban bungalow to commence my work week, wonderfully calm in the face of Monday.

I opened Outlook and began reading the 45-plus emails that had arrived overnight, catching myself up. I was about to release an important news item for a major client in an hour and needed to get final revisions to an official letter. I checked my calendar for the day's appointments. The sky outside my window grew brighter, though the temperature was oddly autumnal.

A humming overtook me as I worked. Heaven had taken root in me. I marvelled once again at my son's musical prowess and good taste. I felt a personal sense of thrill that the very song that moved me more than twenty years earlier also spoke to him.

Soon, I was searching through YouTube for videos of Talking Heads performances. I took out headphones and plugged in. I listened/watched about five videos. I felt unaccountably happy, then sad/moved. Tears filled my eyes and ran down my cheeks.

Tip-toeing into the waters of his Monday, reading the New York Times on the couch, feeding the goldfish, praying the morning service, HOBB seemed horrified by the spectacle of this woman, plugged in, tuned out, weeping.

Heaven followed me throughout my Monday. I sang it with abandon while walking across Central Park several hours later; I listened to it on my iPod at the gym during my lunch hour; in true adolescent fashion, I pondered the lyrics. Heaven kept me buoyed all day long. Heaven infused my heart. It was the soundtrack of my day. And when I returned home from my swing dance class at 9 pm, Little Babe greeted me with surprise.

"Hey," he said. "I was just plaving Heaven before you got home. It's funny that you're humming it now. "

Not funny ha ha or funny strange, but funny wonderful.

Play it once again. Play it all night long.

Music and Lyrics by David Byrne and Jerry Harrison

Everyone is trying to get to the bar.
The name of the bar, the bar is called Heaven.
The band in Heaven they play my favorite song.
They play it one more time, they play it all night long.

Oh heaven, heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens.
Heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens.

There is a party, everyone is there.
Everyone will leave at exactly the same time.
When this party's over it will start again.
It will not be any different, it will be exactly the same.

Heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens.
Heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens.

When this kiss is over it will start again.
It will not be any different, it will be exactlythe same.
It's hard to imagine that nothing at allcould be so exciting, could be this much fun.

Oh, heaven, heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens.
Oh, heaven, heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens.