Thursday, March 31, 2011

Passover: It's All in the Telling

by Larry Kaufman

A recent post on the Reform Judaism blog ( described the experience of someone newly converted to Judaism who attended his first seder at his congregation, and found himself seated next to a Christian divinity student who was there to gain insight on the roots of his own religion. The blog post went on to describe their conversation, and it was interesting to read about a seder with the perspectives of an outsider and of a newcomer.

As it happened, I just taught a one-session class on Passover as part of Beth Emet’s adult education program. I had no idea who might attend, and thus was at a loss as to how to prepare. Remembering that Passover is about "zaicher litsias Mitzrayim," remembering our departure from Egypt, I decided to focus on memory.

When the class convened, there were only three students, and I quickly learned that all three were Jews by choice – who therefore had no Passover memories of their own. Rather than impose my memories, I let them set the agenda; and it was interesting to listen to the range of their questions and to observe the depth of their interest.

In many ways, the simplest question was the hardest to answer: how do I choose a Haggadah for my family's seder. Rabbi London happened to drop in to say hello, and, on request, showed us a number of interesting haggadot from her personal collection. We talked about the three Reform haggadot (Union, Bronstein, and Elwell), and about special-agenda haggadot, and they seemed particularly fascinated by the story of the Maxwell House haggadah.

Not to totally lose the memory theme, I told them about the way family traditions develop, resulting in things that aren't on the haggadah's printed page, but might as well be -- as when my Tante Anna would serve the soup, invariably accompanied by her apology that the (light-as-a-feather) matzo balls were a little heavy this year.

Another question dealt with the historicity of the Exodus story, which we decided after brief discussion didn't really matter very much, but that what mattered was the importance of the re-telling of the story, whether it was fact or fiction.

Perhaps most important, we talked about freedom, including examples of personal liberation. We compared the Passover celebration with that of Independence Day -- where the one retains its symbolic significance, whereas the other is a day for hot dogs and lemonade, where only if we turn on the radio are we likely to hear the Star-Spangled Banner.

Did my students get out of the class what they were looking for? I don't really know. But echoing the story of the rabbis who pulled an all-nighter in telling the Passover story until their students interrupted because it was time for morning prayers, we were still there long after the scheduled time for the class to end, until the building staff reminded us they needed to lock up and go home.

So to my store of Passover memories, I now add this experience -- which, among other things, will add to the table conversation when my family gathers around the seder table to learn, sing, eat, and wait for Elijah.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Jews Under Construction

It’s a Sunday morning in early spring and the fifth graders enter the classroom, one at a time.

The substitute is waiting to greet each one with a smile and name exchange.

The first walks through the door, acknowledges the teacher, and sits down quietly.

The second bursts in doing cartwheels.

The third, half asleep, walks in … slowly.

One sits down, and taps tzedakah coins on the table.

Another heads right to the teacher, handing her an assignment from the week before. Another heads to a chair and asks if he can stand instead of sit.

They all come into the room on the second floor of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, in various states of consciousness. But they come.

Conversion is the conversation for the day. On the board is the line from Leviticus’ about how to treat the stranger. The substitute points out that the word “ger” in Hebrew means convert. A student is asked to read it. He reads it very slowly, on purpose. There is much giggling. He is giggling. It makes the substitute giggle a little. But then a question. And then another. Soon it is a discussion. A student asks to get a drink of water. Yes, but come right back. Another asks to go to the bathroom. After he returns.

Students are asked to pair up and read together. There is more giggling.

Some clarifying questions. There is a writing assignment. They write, except for one student who is still playing with tzedakah. The teacher asks for tzedakah. Then he writes.

The cartwheel-doing student asks if there will be any playacting today. The substitute asks her to read one of the conversion stories as if she were the person who wrote it.

The gymnast does a great job. So does the quiet one. And the one who read Leviticus, really slowly.

Then someone asks, “What does it really mean to be Jewish, anyway?” The substitute asks students to offer their thoughts on that. There is some discussion about how Jews treat others and interpret Torah and their direct relationship to God. The substitute notes that this is a fairly high level of discussion for pre-Bar and Bat Mitvahed 10-and-11 –year-olds. She is very pleased indeed.

It’s time for services. The substitute escorts her students to the sanctuary and then takes a bathroom break. In 30 minutes, another group of fifth graders will enter her classroom. She will be ready.

(With thanks to Benjamin Goldberg for his lesson plan and students on Sunday, March 27.)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Make Some Noise

When Purim came around during the years I taught religious school, the question of how to address the many moments of “bad behavior” would regularly pop up among my fellow teachers.

After all, the story of Purim focuses on a king who threw decadent parties; a queen who was executed because of her defiance; a Jewish woman named Esther who has to hide her faith and is chosen to marry against her will and an uncovered assassination scheme.

It’s an epic tale, and every year it posed a challenge to those of us wanting to unpack it for the younger souls in the congregation. We’d usually come up with reenacting the self-sacrifice of Mordecai or the bravery of Esther. We always found something meaningful to extract.

Sure, most kids got the message about Purim from our readings and play-acting. But every year, more than anything else, it was the costumes and the groggers that left an impact. It was about noisemaking and laughter.

Which is also true for the grownups at Beth Emet. Sure, there’s the service and the music and the reading of the Megillah. All good. But Purim has also come to mean spiel-making. Purim reminds us about the importance of funny. Wacky. Nonsensical. And loud. And chaos. (Just a little.)

For those of us who work hard and take our lives seriously (most of us, right?) we need this reminder once a year. To lighten up a little, even in the face of tough stuff. There will always be tough stuff. But finding the humor in the midst of tough stuff – now that’s something to make some noise about!

To get you in the mood, click here for a music parody of Purim by The Fountainheads:

And then, consider this:

Purim @ Beth Emet 5771: That 70's Spiel!

Shake your grogger on Saturday, March 19 and Sunday, March 20

Do a little dance, read a little's Purim time! Boogie with the best of them beginning Saturday, March 19 from 7:00-9:00 p.m. at our annual Megillah reading and Purim Spiel! Experience all that the 70's had to offer (without all the pesky side effects) as the Beth Emet Purim band brings the funk and the noise to the classic story of Mordechai, Esther and...Haman (boo!)

The groove fest continues on Sunday, March 20 with a Beit Sefer Megillah reading and tefillah at 9:30 a.m. and Megillah reading/skit and costume parade for children under 5 at 10:30 a.m, followed by early access to the most funkadellic Purim carnival around. At noon, the Purim carnival will open to all for boogying until the wee hours (or 1:30 p.m.)

So get ready for a fun-filled Beth Emet Purim March 19-20. It's going to be DY-NO

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Story Catcher Becomes a Story Teller

When I’m not blogging in this space, I teach writing. I work with middle, high school, college and graduate students on their academic writing; business people on workplace writing and, more recently, adults of varying ages who want to write stories from their lives.

The life story writers may not always come into one of my workshops with a specific idea. That’s part of my job: To get them to resurrect scenes and sensations. I provide prompts to help jigger their memories loose: Draw a map of a neighborhood you once lived in. List 10 life-defining choices and five pivotal people. Dig up old photographs and write a profile of a family member. Start writing with the opening line, “I remember…” It doesn’t take much. Or very long. Memories – and even storylines – always rise to the surface.

So it’s interesting to me in retrospect that when I heard, and reported here, about the Jewish Journey Story Booth project at Beth Emet, I wasn’t compelled to be one of the first to sign up. Little else compares with being present when someone accesses a story from their past. One that bubbles up with rich details, like it was yesterday. To hear them! To read them! To help people shape them into artful forms like personal essays and memoirs! Such joy.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in contributing to this noble project – it’s a mission I can get behind - it’s just that I didn’t think my story was all that interesting. What could I possibly talk about for 20 minutes that would hold anyone’s interest, much less my own? Which is, I now realize, what a lot of people first think.

Some gentle nudging from members of the Story Booth team (thank you, Susan Fisher and Debbie Render) and a cautious yes from my husband David Barish (thank you, David) to record with me - got me to sign up. David wrote down some of his memories to prepare. I didn’t. I was hoping, praying, that something would “come to me.”

On the way to Beth Emet for our appointed recording time yesterday, after some back and forth, we decided to treat this like a conversation.

It’s amazing what can happen when you are asked to do something a little different in an environment that is so familiar. The synagogue was bustling with religious school activity. Parents were reading the newspaper, eating bagels and drinking coffee in the front hall. The copy room was turned into “The Green Room” - for preparation and contract signing. (Thanks, Nina Kavin.) The library was turned into a recording studio, in which Heidi Goldfein, who in her radio-ready position as director of production at Chicago Public Radio, made us feel so comfortable. (Thank you, Heidi!)

After the sound levels were approved, we got the go ahead to start. I think I threw out the first question. Something like, “What are some of the defining experiences of your childhood that make you feel Jewish?” Off we went.

The next thing I remember is Heidi putting her hand up to signal that we had only a few minutes left. Oh the parts we hadn’t gotten to yet! So much more to say!

Tonight is the last night of taping, so if you read this after Monday, March 7th, you have missed the chance to speak your story.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t an opportunity to tell your story in other ways. I know you think your story isn’t that interesting. I did, too. But I urge you to take a look at the questions below. See if something sparks you. Find a comfortable position at your laptop or on your couch with a tablet and writing utensil in hand. Start writing. For just 10 minutes.

You may reintroduce yourself to your self. You may rediscover how interesting you are.

Questions for reflection:

What path led you to Beth Emet?

How has being part of Beth Emet influenced your Jewish journey?

Who has been the biggest Jewish influence on your life? What lessons did they teach you?

What are the most important Jewish/spiritual lessons you’ve learned in life?

How has your spiritual life been different than what you’d imagined?

What is your earliest memory of something religious or spiritual? Your happiest memory?

What makes you feel Jewish?

Has there been a particular turning point or event in your Jewish or spiritual life?

Is being Jewish something that’s difficult for you or easy for you? Why?

Has being Jewish always been important to you? How has that changed over the years?

What would you like your children/grandchildren to know about your Jewish journey?

What does God mean to you?