My Jewish Web #4: It’s All A Gift – Websites for Giving

Moving to Melbourne just as our daughter Abby turns 12 has been quite an experience.  From living quite on the physical and spiritual periphery of the Jewish community in Perth,  we are now more in the shtetl and Abby goes from one celebration to another, not to mention preparing for her own.  In Australia, as in the U.S., the process of “planning the bar/bat mitzvah” has often meant planning the party.  Only once so far has Abby been invited to actually be attend the service (outside of our shul) or ceremony itself.

In the wonderful book Putting God on the Guest List: How to Claim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah (or the equivalent book he wrote for children), Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin tries to bring us back to the original purpose and meaning of becoming bar/bat mitzvah:  to recognise the coming of a child to an age at which s/he is a Jew in his or her own right, not just because they are the child of  Jewish parents (or at least one).  Salkin discusses ways of “putting the mitzvah back in bar and bat mitzvah,” and of  “keeping the party in perspective” that resonate with much of what our progressive community aims for.

Clearly, 13 (or 12) is not today what it used to be.  Although our children are (with any luck) still a long way off from marriage, it is still a rite of passage and time for celebration.  And these come in all kinds – small, large and lavish – sometimes dwarfing the spiritual passage entirely.

What Gives?

One of the ways we can affirm the Jewish nature of the event is in what we give the bar/ bat mitzvah.  Not having attended many of these events as a child or as an adult, I have found myself asking friends.  More often than not, they’ve told me they’re giving the youth money or a gift card. “From Gold’s?” I ask. But in fact, mostly the cards are for Smiggles, Itunes, Myer, and the like.

That’s fair enough for a birthday.  But the way I look at it, our kids have the rest of their lives to receive gift cards. Someone becomes a bar or bat mitzvah once in a lifetime and  I prefer to honour that simcha with a Jewish gift.

Tzedakah

One way to do this is to give a gift of tzedakah in honour of the bar/bat mitzvah.  That could be a gift to a Jewish charity or to other organisations whose mission is consistent with Jewish values as the bar/bat mitzvah understands them.   Salkin also makes the case for the bar/bat mitzvah to give a gift of tzedakah in honour of reaching this rite of passage – an expression of the blessing of shehecheyanu.

There is of course an important role for material gifts. And in case you’re like me, and seek a wider range than our local Gold can provide, I thought I’d share some websites I have found that offer options in a price range all of us can afford.  (Disclaimer: The author has no stake in the companies named in this article.)

People of the Booko

Jewish books abound on every aspect of Jewish life and make wonderful gifts.  The Salkin book makes a good gift in advance of the simcha.  A friend of mine stockpiled copies of The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel , a favourite of mine, and gave one to every bar/bat mitzvah she knew.  I’m a great believer in supporting the dying breed of independent bookstore.  So before going online, if you’re looking for a book, I encourage you to try Gold’s, Readings or the local bookshop you know and love.  But if you can’t find what you’re looking for there,   jewishaustralia.com offers a good selection of Jewish books.  And although Booko.com.au is not a Jewish website,  it is good to know about because it searches online book sources for your book and lists them in order of the combined price plus cost of shipping to Australia.

Hiddur mitzvah

We are instructed by the Sages to beautify the mitzvah.  zazzle.com.au is a great resource for just this.   The portal hosts multiple stores from individual artists selling unique and often funny printed Jewish gifts.  I’ll bet you never considered a hamentaschen necktie (Adela Camille Sutton) or Girl with Torah mobile phone speakers (JudyWohlFineArt).  How about a Kabbalah design dart board (DoverPictura) or a “Talk to the Hamsa” iPad cover (SilberZweigArts)?  There is a dazzling array of gifts at any price — as little as $8.00 for a sheet of pomegranate “sweet new year” stickers your kids can afford, t-shirts, mousepads and posters in the $20s, and canvases and bags from a few dollars to hundreds.  A nice touch is that many of the products can be created online or just personalised with your own art or photos, or just customised with names and inscriptions.  The Tree of Life poster we chose and personalised with the bat mitzvah’s name turned out to be one of our friend’s favourite gifts.

Another website, etsy.com, is a portal for original artists and designers where you can buy a one-of-a-kind tallis, a matching set of tzitzis, a mezuzah scroll scribed by a woman, and more.

The options are more abundant than ever. Explore and enjoy.

This article previously appeared in Hakol, the monthly newsletter of Etz Chaim Progressive Synagogue. 

Who Strengthens Our Steps

Strengthens Our StepsRecently, when I daven (pray) nisim b’chol yom (prayers of gratitude for daily miracles), one has been particularly meaningful:  ha-mechine mitzadei gaver – who strengthens our steps.

Not so long ago, I was restricted to sitting on the couch much of the day, cobbling together systems for making myself lunch and bringing it to where I like to eat it.  I made use of a kitchen bar stool to rest items in between the counter and the stove or microwave, a picnic backpack for transporting lunch, packed into sealed plastic containers, and a wine bottle cooler, in which I could to carry my coffee — in a plastic cup with a lid.  I hobbled around in a cast or moonboot, and was pushed around in a wheelchair for longer distances.  It was an experience which taught me a little about the challenges presented by that kind of a disability — having to plan each step, to think ahead to how I would get to where I needed to go, to get Abby to where she needed to go, and whom I would need to ask for help.

But for a month now, I’m actually walking, unaided, on two feet, and cycling again.  My steps have been strengthened through the skills of others and the natural healing powers of my body.  For this I am grateful.

Living on the Mitzvah Plan

Originally posted on Coffee Shop Rabbi:

To climb out of a tough place, it helps to have a plan.
To climb out of a tough place, it helps to have a plan.

Depression is an old companion of mine. It doesn’t run my life, but it shows up periodically and moves into the guest room of my mind, helping itself to my energy and attention.  In almost 59 years of living, I’ve acquired a lot of strategies for dealing with it (therapy, medication, exercise, meditation, etc) but one of the most powerful is something I call the Mitzvah Plan.

The basic idea is this: with 613 mitzvot to choose from, there are always mitzvot waiting to be done, from washing first thing in the morning to saying the bedtime Shema at night. Using the Mitzvah Plan, whenever I begin to be bothered with the thought patterns of depression, I look for the first available mitzvah and do it. Then I look for the next one, and I do that…

View original 544 more words

Doing Jewish

Etz Chaim, You Make It Happen

I emerged full of hope from the Annual General Meeting of my shul, the Etz Chaim Progressive Synagogue in Bentleigh.  Naturally, our president and treasurer gave reports, and our administrator  had compiled an informative Annual Report, “You Make It Happen” with reports from our leaders and committees.   And how apt that cover is.

Many of us drew great inspiration from the words of our new rabbi,  Allison Conyer.  From her position at the dais, Rabbi Conyer called upon us as individuals to “open the door to your own Judaism,”  and as a congregation to “create a culture of questioning.”

Open Door,  Missing Mezuzah

  

Congregations are often desperate to bring in families with young children but  focus on the children and treat the parents as merely vehicles, bringing them into the world and transporting them to and from Hebrew school.  But “If you want children to be Jewish,” Rabbi Conyer pointed out, “you have to start with their parents.”  So often, children are sent to Hebrew school or even Jewish day school only to return home to a Jewish vacuum, where what they learned is not reinforced or even contradicted.  Sometimes it seems that Hebrew School serves to expiate parents for inattention to their own Jewishness.  

But to educate adults, we have to move congregants away from what she referred to as “pediatric Judaism” — that “dumbed down” Judaism taught to children who often are too smart for it even then.  A key part of that is working with the group she calls as inhabiting the Jewish community’s “black hole” — those between youth movement age and becoming parents.   This is going to be a very exciting few years at Etz Chaim.  I hope you’re lucky enough to be part of it.

Tablet Magazine: My Jewish Web #6

tablet-logo _ v2Is Paul McCartney planning to convert?
Jewish South African reflections on the life and death of Nelson Mandela.
A video about how to make the ultimate hamentaschen.
The best Jewish Children’s Books of 2013
An article about an Orthodox woman’s relationship with her wig.

On the Table

These are sample tastings from the buffet offered by tabletmag.com, “a daily online magazine of news, ideas and culture.” Tablet.com is reader-supported and the only broadsheet-style website I’ve written about in my series on Jewish websites, and the truth is I’m only beginning to tap into its extraordinary value.  The site covers current events, has several distinct sections including News and Politics, Arts and Culture, Life and Religion.  These sections cover different beats and feature regular columnists, including Joan Nathan who writes about food, including recipes for holidays and year-round enjoyment. “Longform” includes book reviews, commentary, features and other longer pieces.  The Scroll is “Tablet Magazine on the News.”  It also has a section on Holidays that includes the basics of how to observe our major holidays and compiles related articles from the Tablet archive.

Interactive Tablet The Scroll

All the best websites take advantage of the internet’s ability to be interactive.  Vox Tablet produces weekly podcasts of audio interviews with authors and others on interesting topics such as “Four-Letter Words: Why Jews Have Led the Making and Defense of Obscenity in America” and a Jewish perspective on the threat that texting and other digital obsessions pose to family life.   As is the case with most websites these days, tabletmag.com allows you to comment upon and share any article or media clip right then and there.  Maybe this piece was just what you were talking about with your daughter the other day.  Maybe that video clenches the case you were making to someone in the congregation after shul.  Readers can subscribe to newsletters and feeds from the different sections, as well as comment on articles, entering into a conversation with other readers.  An easy way to do this is on the Tablet Magazine Facebook page

I hope you’ll join me in learning with tablemag.com.  I welcome your thoughts at Amy.Bachrach@gmail.com.

 

On One Foot: Jewish Texts for Social Justice – My Jewish Web #5

Rabbi Hillel was asked to summarise the entire Torah while standing on one foot.  His response: “That which is hateful to you, do not to others. All the rest is commentary. Now, go study.”

On1Foot is an amazing, open source web tool developed by The American Jewish World Service, for helping us all to explore the rich meanings of Rabbi Hillel’s words, and to develop our own social justice commentaries based on Torah and other texts.

We Jews are seldom at a loss for words, and never was that more in evidence than on this site.   On1Foot is an interactive database of 338 divrei torah and hundreds of classes based on 1811 Jewish source texts – all uploaded to this website.  The sources can be filtered by era – biblical, rabbinic, medieval, modern and contemporary – and by category including tikkun olam, labour rights, the environment, poverty, ethics, migration, gender, sexual orientation, ethical consumption and tzedakah. The classes can be filtered by educational level from early childhood to adulthood.  And the divrei torah can be filtered by parsha, by holiday, by age level and by category.

Who Counts?

So, you’ve lucked out and are asked to give a d’var torah on, oh, just to pull one out of the air, Bamidbar.  Bamidbar is, in a nutshell, the census and camping arrangements of our tribes – troops — in the desert, and a d’var torah about that seems like it would be about as dry.  On1Foot to the rescue!  Seek, and you shall find several commentaries to inspire you, or even to use, addressing important issues about that census.  In particular, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster discusses those who were not counted in the census:  anyone not able, or deemed incapable, to bear arms or serve as a priest, namely women, children, the elderly and the disabled.  I broke my leg a month ago, and have experienced, baruch ha-Shem only temporarily, a taste of the exclusion from the mainstream of life, that physical impairment brings and many of us have experienced invisibility of one kind or another.

Al Pi Adonai, B’yad Moshe

But, try as we might, we cannot always find the right words to express ourselves.  When I hear callous government attitudes about asylum seekers and  — pregnant, young, old and infirmed – how Australia denies them safe shores, I long for better words than I am able to generate myself.  Here’s what I came up when I searched On1Foot:

“You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.”  Exodus 22:20-23

This phenomenal resource is free for the taking.  But it is not only for us to take, but also to give.  As an open source database, we are all invited and encouraged to upload our own sources,  divrei torah and classes and the site makes that easy to do.

I hope you will avail yourselves of the immense resource On1Foot offers.  And hopefully, by the time I write the next article in this series, I’ll be back on two feet.

It’s All A Gift – Websites for Giving — My Jewish Web #4:

girl_with_torah_speaker-r77013467a1f947de875b4fa15bbeda9a_vs8xj_8byvr_324Moving to Melbourne just as our daughter Abby turns 12 has been quite an experience.  From living quite on the physical and spiritual periphery of the Jewish community in Perth,  we are now more in the shtetl and Abby goes from one celebration to another, not to mention preparing for her own.  In Australia, as in the U.S., the process of “planning the bar/bat mitzvah” has often meant planning the party.  Only once so far has Abby been invited to actually be attend the service (outside of our shul) or ceremony itself.

In the wonderful book Putting God on the Guest List: How to Claim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah (or the equivalent book he wrote for children), Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin tries to bring us back to the original purpose and meaning of becoming bar/bat mitzvah:  to recognise the coming of a child to an age at which s/he is a Jew in his or her own right, not just because they are the child of  Jewish parents (or at least one).  Salkin discusses ways of “putting the mitzvah back in bar and bat mitzvah,” and of  “keeping the party in perspective” that resonate with much of what our progressive community aims for.

Clearly, 13 (or 12) is not today what it used to be.  Although our children are (with any luck) still a long way off from marriage, it is still a rite of passage and time for celebration.  And these come in all kinds – small, large and lavish – sometimes dwarfing the spiritual passage entirely.

What Gives?

One of the ways we can affirm the Jewish nature of the event is in what we give the bar/ bat mitzvah.  Not having attended many of these events as a child or as an adult, I have found myself asking friends.  More often than not, they’ve told me they’re giving the youth money or a gift card. “From Gold’s?” I ask. But in fact, mostly the cards are for Smiggles, Itunes, Myer, and the like.

That’s fair enough for a birthday.  But the way I look at it, our kids have the rest of their lives to receive gift cards. Someone becomes a bar or bat mitzvah once in a lifetime and  I prefer to honour that simcha with a Jewish gift.

Tzedakah

One way to do this is to give a gift of tzedakah in honour of the bar/bat mitzvah.  That could be a gift to a Jewish charity or to other organisations whose mission is consistent with Jewish values as the bar/bat mitzvah understands them.   Salkin also makes the case for the bar/bat mitzvah to give a gift of tzedakah in honour of reaching this rite of passage – an expression of the blessing of shehecheyanu.

There is of course an important role for material gifts. And in case you’re like me, and seek a wider range than our local Gold can provide, I thought I’d share some websites I have found that offer options in a price range all of us can afford.  (Disclaimer: The author has no stake in the companies named in this article.)

People of the Booko

Jewish books abound on every aspect of Jewish life and make wonderful gifts.  The Salkin book makes a good gift in advance of the simcha.  A friend of mine stockpiled copies of The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel , a favourite of mine, and gave one to every bar/bat mitzvah she knew.  I’m a great believer in supporting the dying breed of independent bookstore.  So before going online, if you’re looking for a book, I encourage you to try Gold’s, Readings or the local bookshop you know and love.  But if you can’t find what you’re looking for there jewishaustralia.com offers a good selection of Jewish books.  And although Booko.com.au is not a Jewish website,  it is good to know about because it searches online book sources for your book and lists them in order of the combined price plus cost of shipping to Australia.

Hiddur mitzvah

We are instructed by the Sages to beautify the mitzvah.  zazzle.com.au is a great resource for just this.   The portal hosts multiple stores from individual artists selling unique and often funny printed Jewish gifts.  I’ll bet you never considered a hamentaschen necktie (Adela Camille Sutton) or Girl with Torah mobile phone speakers (JudyWohlFineArt).  How about a Kabbalah design dart board (DoverPictura) or a “Talk to the Hamsa” iPad cover (SilberZweigArts)?  There is a dazzling array of gifts at any price — as little as $8.00 for a sheet of pomegranate “sweet new year” stickers your kids can afford, t-shirts, mousepads and posters in the $20s, and canvases and bags from a few dollars to hundreds.  A nice touch is that many of the products can be created online or just personalised with your own art or photos, or just customised with names and inscriptions.  The Tree of Life poster we chose and personalised with the bat mitzvah’s name turned out to be one of our friend’s favourite gifts.

Another website, etsy.com, is a portal for original artists and designers where you can buy a one-of-a-kind tallis, a matching set of tzitzis, a mezuzah scroll scribed by a woman, and more.

The options are more abundant than ever. Explore and enjoy.

Mamish (Authentic) Bagels

I must say it was a relief to learn from Sam Lipski’s “Something to Chew On” (Australian Jewish News),  that there are others who complain that Melbourne’s bagels aren’t the real thing.  It’s such a sensitive subject that I never had the courage to say anything about it.  They do come closer to the ones I grew up with than those I’d encountered in Perth.  I would complain to friends there who would commiserate and tell me to try the bagels at their preferred provider.  Off I would go, brimming with hope, only to be disappointed.  The Perth bagel – even the better ones from the Kosher Food Centre or Lawley’s, seemed to be no more than, you guessed it, a “roll with a hole.”

Over time, I came to understand that what I thought of as an authentic bagel was actually only one style.  You see, I’m from New York City, where I cut my teeth, just about literally, on the shiny crusts and chewy dough of H & H Bagels,  right across the street from Zabar’s.  I’m no baker; I’d never even known what it was that made a bagel a bagel, but I sure knew one when I tasted one. And nothing I found in Perth had that mamish bagel taste and texture.

Or that’s the way it was until a few months before we relocated from Perth to Melbourne.  That’s when The Daily Bagel opened up, claiming to make a real, New York style bagel.  Believe me when I say I was skeptical, especially since the small chain had no apparent connection to the Jewish community.   But the proof of the bagel is in the tasting, and this one tasted like it slipped out from under cover of a sheet of cream cheese and a blanket of smoked white fish and salmon.

I now understand that Melbourne’s bagels  are simply a different style.  Maybe from a different village in the old country.    Because when H & H Bagels, z”l,  closed its shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, there were some surprising responses.  Even the bagels whose superiority was a truth I held to be self-evident were criticised by a minority as inauthentic, a charge equivalent to heresy on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.   Maybe those critics would have preferred the bagels of the “Melbourne troika.”   Kol ha kavod to Mr Glick and I wish no offense to the bagelocracy of my new hometown.  Nevertheless, I’m a wandering Jew and will keep searching for a bagel that makes me feel at home.

My Jewish Web #3: Chag Sameach!

As I write this, we’ve been wishing each other shanah tovah.  We’ve fasted and broken our fast.  We’re setting up temporary shelters and preparing to welcome guests into them, or to be guests in each other’s.  We’re buying a lulav and esrog.  Soon, we’ll be celebrating the gift of the Torah.  So now is clearly the time for me to be discussing a website devoted to… Pesach, right?  Of course right.    Why now?  Because the website I want to share with you this month is Hagaddot.com, a brilliant do-it-yourself Haggadah website which you’ll need to visit soon, if you’re planning to make any use of it.

One, Two, Many Haggadot.  We don’t know exactly when the first Haggadah was compiled.  We know it couldn’t have been before approximately 170 C.E. because that is when Rabbi Yehuda bar Elaay lived, the latest Rabbi to be quoted.  Since then, who knows how many distinct haggadot have been compiled.   I myself have at least twelve unique haggadot, including the one we sped-read at my grandparents’ Seder table, The Union Haggadah (1923), A Passover Haggadah (CCAR) and one my friend Tom Canel created.

Why do so many exist? The primary mitzvah of Pesach is to tell the story of our liberation from Mitzraim, and to do so in a way that makes it real and relevant to everyone present.  Toward this end, we Jews have developed thousands of unique haggadot designed to be meaningful to us– to reach us in languages we understand, to speak to us as children, as Ashkenazim and Sephardim,  and with references that make Pesach feel applicable to us.

In his introduction to The Shalom Seders (1984), Arthur Waskow reminds us that the Haggadah itself instructs us to rewrite it – that those who expound upon the telling of the departure from Mitzrayim are praiseworthy.  The traditional Haggadah did this by telling not just about our liberation from Egypt but also of the (then) more contemporary resistance to Rome. Likewise, The Shalom Seders connect Pesach to the American civil rights movement, the historic kinship of Jews and Palestinians and to the movement for women’s liberation.  One of my favourite haggadot, A Different Night (Zion and Dishon, Shalom Hartmann Institute, Israel) draws connections with Russian Jewry, the establishment of the State of Israel, the Holocaust and other events.  It also adds dimensions to our change-agent, Moshe, noticeable by his near absence from the traditional Haggadah.

Mitzraim is not a place.  It does not mean “Egypt.” Mitzraim means “narrow place.”  We can use this time of year to review what tight spots we find ourselves in — be they stubborn habits we can’t break free of, jobs we don’t enjoy, a relationship that’s gornisht helfn , substance dependencies or other restrictive situations.   Haggadot.com is a great, if somewhat overwhelming, tool to shed new light and meaning on our timeless ritual.

How Haggadot.com works.  After signing up (free), you have a choice of using one of their templates – traditional or liberal, or a blank one which allows you to create the haggadah using only the bare bones of the Seder.  The next step is to put meat on the bones by filling it with clips – passages, pictures, songs and even videos (to show separately or if your haggadah is digital) — to narrate the story your way.  Using any of the more than 1000 clips, or even creating your own, you can craft a haggadah that tells our story from any perspective – traditional, feminist, interfaith,  gay and lesbian, — with emphasis on any theme, such as tikkun olam, fair trade, racial equality, immigration, Shoah remembrance and more.  The clips include many activities, such as Seder Bingo, Yoga for the Seder table and a Four Children drawing activity, as well as beautiful graphics and interpretations of the Seder’s sections.   You can also develop a haggadah in collaboration with others, where several people have access to the same document. You are then free to share it with the rest of the community.  Although Haggadot.com is free, the site is funded by user contributions.  It is a project of Jumpstart, a research & design lab for Jewish & interreligious innovation and social entrepreneurship.  The clips and haggadot are under the Creative Commons agreement.

I hope you explore and enjoy this innovative website.  I welcome feedback on this or other reviews.  Feel free to contact me at Amy.Bachrach@gmail.com.

 

Shanah Tovah u’Metukah!

Rosh ha-Shanah approaches like a snowball rolling down a steep hill – first it’s small and seems very far away, and then all at once it’s enormous, white and here.  And I haven’t got my gloves on for holding it.  I love this holiday, for the opportunity it offers me to catch my breath, look around me and take stock of where I am.  I love that we have ten days, making teshuvah a process,  not an event.  What have I been working on this year? What have I learned?   What am I proud of?  Whose toes have I stepped on along the way? Which are the stubborn stains that won’t come out? 

I remember taking the train from Penn Station, New York to South Station, Boston and writing the entire five hours about the year just gone in preparation for the New Year.  I think I expect to be able to do this each year.  But I enter this new year having learned a little more about how my ambitions can get in the way of making progress. That said, although I hoped to write more in preparation, I’ll accept that a little is better than nothing. 

I wish us all ketivah v’chatima tovah” (כתיבה וחתימה טובה) 

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.