Hey everyone! Hope your holidays and winter breaks have been super swell thus far. I don’t know about you, but I’m heading back to school next week for training, so I’m already experiencing preemptive nostalgia. You’re welcome to join me in the process.
At any rate, I’ve had the really wonderful opportunity to go back to Hadar’s Singing Communities Intensive Program, catch up with friends and family, and meet some incredible new people throughout. I’m guessing that my next thoughts have materialized because of the self-perception that goes into the process of getting to know new people (or getting reacquainted with old friends), and perhaps as a result of the singing program, which was focused on Yom Kippur. I’ve been launched into a frenzy of seemingly impromptu cheshbon nefesh and habit-reevaluation. Another factor could be the secular new year, but that may just be an opportune coincidence. Regardless, I have been taking much of this break to think about why I do what I do and why, and how that fits into the communities in which I have and continue to take part.
A few days after coming back home, my best friend’s little brother had his Bar Mitzvah. That sounds like many degrees of separation, but they’re really mishpocha. Aside from the really beautiful and nearly teary-eyed moments (it’s either hormones or weddings are going to be mad challenging), I felt more at home at my shul than I had since high school. I would be hyper-critical about over-attachment to the Conservative Movement, or how Jr. Congregation wasn’t the same, or how such-and-such member was going to make some ludacris conservative comment to me. The list goes on. But this weekend wasn’t about tearing apart Pew Study taboos and sputtering pretentious “well at my school…” comments. It was about appreciating what was there, and how much I’ve capitalized on (or neglected) skills I gained leading up to my Bat Mitzvah. It was about recognizing that growing up in Queens made me critical of posh-oriented communities, while still being retroactively wary of the tribal separation which characterizes the fine borough and even my questionably rag-tag Jewish elementary school. Most importantly, I admittedly spaced out a number of times in shul (you can call it finals fatigue if you want) thinking about how those elements inform my Jewish practices.
In community organizing parlance, there is a lot of talk about accountability politics. In practice, this means that you can map exactly whether an individual or organization is matching values and actions. If there is any discrepancy in behavior, you as an organizer (or really anyone with a particular stake in the issue) are responsible for holding that party accountable. So for our purposes, we can flip this around to be more of a personal process, following the same model. As people who think critically about our surroundings, we at least attempt to take that extra step to hold certain expectations of ourselves, requiring our actions to represent the values we seek to uphold. There are a couple of elements in particular which have become recurrent struggles for me, particularly in terms of my Jewish identity. And to respect your time and patience, I’m only going to stick to two (if you’re dying to learn more, we can talk in person).
An issue that has become increasingly important is egalitarianism in religious spaces. Over the past few years, this has meant very different things to me. You can scroll back in the blog for a refresher- but in short, when I started college, egalitarianism was inevitably inaccessible on campus in prayer spaces that felt right to me. I fell into a pattern of neglecting the requisite cognitive dissonance that came about when I was behind the mechitza. I would tell myself, “No worries, Hannah. You just happen to not be leading.” Last year, I began to unpack that mentality, and become increasingly critical of my experiences in non-egalitarian spaces, but would still find myself in such spaces by default regardless. Recently, I’ve taken to avoiding those spaces, but still attend to feel a part of the observant community, and tend to be insufferably snarky about gender segregation, my naturally abrasive overt sexuality, etc. As someone from the conservative end of the Conservative Movement, the only time I as a female have been in a sea of tallis and tfillin-clad women is at Mechon Hadar. Last week, while at the program, I came to the conclusion that I need to be working through the reasons behind my reluctance to be tallis and tfillin-clad as well, and confront this aspect which critically dilutes the legitimacy behind the feminist fervor I feel when in non-egalitarian spaces.
At the last Sha’ar service of the semester, I gave a dvar torah on my relationship with the concepts of chosen-ness and ethnolinguistic nationalism. Not only was it entertaining that very few people were surprised that I chose that topic, but I also had a byline that kind of sounded like a jingle or subway add for Jameson: Use responsibly. As some one who prefers to stick to the traditional liturgy, I tend to tense up around lines that say “You chose us from all of the nations, languages, etc.” and am livid about the modern application of those principles (the recent arson attack on the Hand-in-Hand Bilingual School in Jerusalem). Ironically, I don’t have the same respect for prayers that are “altered” (whatever that means) or readings in English. The thesis of my talk was that we all make decisions regarding language-use, and we simply need to understand that our choices are our own and not actually superior to the choices of others. But perhaps that line was too moderate and apologetic, as it didn’t really tackle the universalist principles being suppressed by the liturgy according to their literal meanings. That too is something I need to work through, perhaps consulting Kaplan in the process.
This project of mapping values and actions is difficult, but as I get older, I see that the process becomes all-the-more significant. For me, this also carries over into the discrepancies between vegetarianism and leather use, between condemning structural racism and extent of participation in recent protests, etc. When push comes to shove, we tend to go with our instincts, for better and for worse, and our job is to stop for a moment and reevaluate.
So with that, I wish you all a happy and healthy new year and Shabbat Shalom! I look forward to hearing your thoughts and writing more soon!
Hannah Z. Kober