Around Our House

In honor of our new look, just some fun little tidbits from around our house:

After R talked about textual difficulties between versions of the Yerushalmi:

Jessica: There we go! We don’t argue, we have girsa issues!

At the beginning of the school year:

R: You know you’re going to the right school when you get cool points for having borrowed your wife’s Mishna Berura for class

At Shabbat dinner with R’s chevruta:

Me: I end up getting 30 minutes of backstory to explain the puns.
Chevruta: I feel your pain, I’m there when he makes the puns.

In my Medieval Jewry class:

Professor: I thought about bringing my [medieval] Kabbalistic sex manual, but decided that would be too much.
Student: Oh man, that sounds like fun!

A friend, after a management class:

Friend: I met my friend for coffee the other day, and she’s having trouble at her job. I was able to give her advice, and know what I was talking about. GRAD SCHOOL WORKS! *high five*

Leaping forward or left in the dust…

The Sharansky Plan features a proposed permanent egalitarian space in the Robinson’s Arch area. This is what it would look like. (photo credit: JTA) {Post by Melissa}

I have had many questions recently about my feelings about the proposed and so-called “Sharansky Plan” to fix the issues of davening spaces at the kotel and to make it more accessible to all Jews. I’ve been hesitant to share what I think because I am very torn, but I like to share my opinions when they are requested, so I’ll do my best to pull apart my conflicting viewpoints.

To start with, I have to commend Natan Sharansky for stepping up to the plate on this one. I know it can’t be easy to be in his position, but this is a big step forward and shifting the realities of the kotel as a space for all Jews. His plan to expand Robinson’s Arch to be a continuous part of the kotel plaza and with full access to the public is brilliant. This is more than a trichitza – it is a new space for egalitarian Jewry to daven in a way which is meaningful and consistent. I think it is amazing that the plan has been endorsed by American Jewry across the spectrum and accepted by Women of the Wall. There are many logistical issues to be sorted through, but if it comes together, it will be a huge step forward for egalitarian Jews.

That said, it is a step backward for me and other women who hope for the ability to sing and dance and pray aloud at the kotel who are not egalitarian.

While it is hard to say if the kotel police will arrest women for praying aloud at the kotel when not wearing tallitot and who are not affiliated with Women of the Wall, the precedent has been set and this plan does nothing to counter that. The mechitza section of the kotel will essentially remain a Charedi synogauge, and the newly expanded egalitarian section will be governed by the Jewish Agency.

Where does that leave Modern Orthodox Jewish women who are looking for women’s tefillah? Where does that leave all the Orthodox supporters of Women of the Wall? Where does that leave seminary girls who want to sing and dance and celebrate together in the holy space? Where does that leave a non-egalitarian woman who wears a talit or wants to say kaddish for a loved one?

From what I can see, it leaves us standing in silence in the minuscule women’s section – not exactly the big win for everyone that many would like to believe.

So while I want to celebrate the (potential) leap forward for my egalitarian friends and celebrate the liberation of part of the kotel from Charedization, I can’t help but be saddened that they have left their fellow supporters of women’s tefillah at the kotel in the dust.

The women's section remains that that small shady area between the brownish mechitza wall and the white tarp/bridge. (Photo by Melissa)

The women’s section remains that that small shady area between the brownish mechitza wall and the white tarp/bridge. — And anyone who wants to claim Kol Isha as the reason, look at this photo and tell me you *must* daven close enough to the women’s section to hear us. (Photo by Melissa)

Melissa is a Wrap Star!

Post by Melissa

Post by Melissa

One of our new favorite blogs is Wrapunzel – a great resource for hair covering ideas and inspiration, and one of the regular features is interviews and photos of women who cover in different ways.

I was honored to be interviewed and featured as this week’s lady wrap-star so be sure to hop on over and check it out!

Andrea (the princess Wrapunzel herself) asked some great questions for the interview, and I did my best to give thoughtful and insightful answers. There are also lots of fun photos for your viewing pleasure. :)

Why is this year different from all other years?

Post by Melissa

If I added a fifth question to the seder this year it would have been: Why is this year different from all other years?

The simple answer is of course – because we’re in Israel! But that is only the tip of the iceberg, it runs so much greater than that and I hope I can find the words to convey it.

(I apologize in advance, but I simply can’t translate all the Hebrew words in this post. I think those who don’t understand will likely be able to get the jist without it, and if you really get stuck, feel free to ask in the comments.)

The uniqueness of the year started before Pesach even started, actually. We got out of school a whole week before Pesach! Presumably it is so other girls in the midrasha could go home and help their families to clean, but for most of us over-seas girls it meant a week of vacation – basically spring break. I spent that week working a lot and taking some time to relax and see my husband, who also had the week off. We did run errands which we had been putting off until we had time and dealt with assorted apartment things, but we didn’t really clean our place until the last day and we were totally fine. One small benefit of living in a shoebox I suppose!

Also, having spent the past month leading up to Pesach learning about various laws and customs (including a fabulous mock seder) I was in the mindset already and excited for the chag  to start and the feel was in the air. Products in the grocery stores were abundantly heckshered for Pesach, though the kitniyot/non-kitniyot distinctions were not always so clear. Restaurants all over and shops in the shuk had up new teudot. No one could deny the impending holiday!

Then it was seder night! We were caught off guard with the davening  of Hallel out loud at aravit/maariv, but relished the unique opportunity before heading off to our hosts home. We were surprised to realize it was just his family, his in-laws from America, and two other Pardes students. Not only was it a small group, it was a very well educated group and we went through the entire hagaddah in Hebrew, reading not quickly but not slowly, moving right along, with a few questions and good discussions, and even checking in the Gemara for the language of one mishna which we weren’t sure was the original language. (A far cry from my childhood of reading the Maxwell House haggadah in English, with just my grandfather (z”l) and me reading the segments after dinner to ourselves.)

At the end of the seder we approached the famous line “l’shana haba b’Yerushalim” and rather than end there as is so often the case, we really put the emphasis on the last word: ha’bnuya. Remining ourselves that while we are in Jerusalem this year, we want to be in a “rebuilt” Jerusalem next year – one with the Beit HaMikdash standing and the return of the Korban Pesach. After that, we sang songs (again, all in Hebrew) and then we were introduced to a lovely family tradition which we are going to keep for ourselves – singing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem. It was a truly special moment to stand together in an apartment in Jerusalem singing Hatikva and celebrating the freedom we have today.

The next key difference was something I never expected to write here. I ate kitniyot at home. (See this post for my past views on this topic.)  I still hold strong to my familial roots and minhagim, but somehow, this year in Israel I felt it was time to test the waters. I initially pondered eating kitniyot because I have basically become a vegetarian again, with the general goal of being MOoShY again (meat only on Shabbat and Yom Tov) and hummus has become a staple source of protein for me. I knew I wanted to be functional and not make myself sick as I have in years past, so I started there. But I as thought about it more, I decided that if I was going to do it, I would do the whole thing, then I would have an experience to base my future decision off of. To paraphrase a rabbi friend: before you decide not to do something, you should do it for a year  – so this was my year of kitniyot. And I’m surprised to share that it was oddly not as weird as I expected and it still felt 100% like Pesach. I actually joked around that I was going to write a children’s book entitled: How the Rice Cake Saved Passover.*  (Let’s be honest. It could still happen, so just remember you saw it here first!) I only ate matzah at the chag/Shabbat meals and otherwise ate a lot of rice/rice cakes and veggies with hummus and tahina. It was a lovely experience and I look forward to repeating (and refining) it next year.

We relished being able to be home and not having to worry about missing work or school, and the strains that has put on us in years past. We had nowhere to be, and nothing to do but enjoy Pesach. Unfortunately between D and I, one of us was sick all week so we did not get to enjoy the country in the way we hoped to, but instead just spent a lot of time relaxing together and thinking about the fun things we can do in the summer and next year.

This year was truly a special Pesach experience. Beyond what I’ve described, there was just something in the air which made it a really amazing moment. Perhaps after next Pesach, I will be able to describe it better but for now, we will resume our chametz eating and keep praying that l’shana haba b’Yerushalyim ha’bnuya.

*Copyright Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, April 2013.

A different kind of holy water

Photo from tumblr – Post by Melissa

Being in Israel, the prayers for rain feel so much more powerful and connected than they are in the US.

They are timed here differently to perfectly coincide with the holidays (and people’s travels home from Jerusalem after Sukkot during the Temple Era when people made the great pilgrimage on foot) and the agricultural seasons in Israel.

They have a deeper meaning as everyone is aware of the water crisis here in the desert. While people may be annoyed with days of rain, they are always also very excited and recognize its critical importance. People actually discuss the water levels of the Kinneret (The Sea of Galilee, our largest source of water) on the street and around Shabbat tables, and it even has its own twitter account.

We noticed the first major rains came right around the start of the davening (praying) changes in the fall, and now with spring upon us, people have been debating when the rains would end. Many people said that because it had been so long since our last rain storm we were done. Others put their faith in the fact that we have another week or so to ask for rain, so we were due for one last storm.

Apparently, Hashem is paying attention to our “local calls,” because we had a nice bit of rain right before Pesach (and another surprise shower this morning) – gives a whole new meaning to holy water!


On Being Frum and an Ally

marriage equality rings

Post by Melissa

I initially wrote this post about two years ago and it has lived in draft form with periodic edits ever since. At the time I wrote it, “gay marriage” was a hotbed issue in CO and was gaining national attention, I’ve edited it as it has been revisited time and again in CO and CA and now, with the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) hearing cases about whether or not both Proposition 8 (a CA state amendment which legally defined marriage as being between one man and one woman) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA – which restricts both federal marriage benefits and inter-state marriage recognition to opposite-sex marriages) are in fact constitutional.

In this moment, it feels like the time is absolutely right to finally post my very emotionally charged attempt at rationally explaining my views and how I reconcile being a frum (religious/Orthodox) Jew and a straight ally for gay rights.

I support the rights of all consenting adults to have a civil marriage which is recognized to the fullest extent of the law.

To explain what it really means requires a bit more explanation.

Quite simply, I have two separate marriage documents: a civil one and a religious one. The first was issued to me by the State of Colorado. It was signed by two friends in my synagogue on my wedding day, but it just as easily could have been signed in the city and county office building or on a mountaintop. This says that D and I are married in the eyes of the law. I can change my name to his, add him to my health insurance, get the tax benefits both on a state and federal level, and make medical decisions for him should he ever need me to. The second was issued to me by my religious institution. My ketubah was signed by two kosher witnesses (men who keep the laws of Shabbat and Kashrut) under my chuppah. This document recognizes my marriage in the Jewish community and affords me a few specific rights as such. So while it is very important to me that I have them both, neither has any bearing on the other.

So why does religion become a component of civil marriage? My best guess is that for many, it is harder to see this clear distinction. My two documents were signed by different people (spouses actually) at different times, and are handled in a very different way. My ketubah is also a piece of art which hangs on my wall and my civil marriage license (which is how we refer to it) is in a pocket on the back of it. (Ironically, we brought a copy of only the civil one to Israel with us.) I know that both are important to me, but neither one is more or less important to me. They grant me separate but equal things which I as a heterosexual, religious, married woman am blessed to be able to sometimes take for granted. To me, they are the quintessential statement of the separation of church and state.

Basically, my theory is that first part, the part I had to go to the courthouse to get and affords me legal rights, not only in the state I live in but also in any state I ever travel through or move to and also on a federal level, should be available to consenting adults – regardless of who they are marrying. (Lets not get too much into the nuances there.) That should be the only component which is handled legally, and in a way which carries inter-state legal weight also. Then if you so desire, you can have another ceremony and/or celebration with any religious, spiritual, or other special rituals which are relevant to you and your community. The couple can seek out a way to embrace it in their own way, with as much or as little religion as is appropriate in each unique relationship. I truly believe that this is the only way to secure civil rights for all, while also maintaining the religious freedoms so many in the United States of America cherish.


Melissa’s current profile photo

So yes, I changed my profile picture for these two days of the hearing to one of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) red equality symbol spinoffs and while I know it won’t actually make a difference to SCOTUS just how many of us did and they won’t make their decision for months – it makes a difference to my friends and family. For those for whom this isn’t a hypothetical question, for those who  are not able to have their marriages recognized, for those who can’t file taxes jointly or legally change their names, for those who want the chance to have what so many of us take for granted – to all those people in my life, it makes a difference that I stand with them. I am not in DC. I cannot stand up and share my thoughts at SCOTUS. But I can change my profile photo for two days (though, I think I’m going to keep it all week), I can publish this blog post, and I can continue to hope and pray that those in the position to make the change can see this as the civil rights issue it should be and not the religious issue it has become.

You may note that I did not address the “biblical issues” around homosexuality, and that is on purpose. I think it is very deep, dark, muddled waters which I am in no way prepared to address in such a public way. [And even if I was, who am I (or any of us really) to say that every American should be held to my understanding of religious texts? I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that is protected by the First Amendment.] It is because of this that I am turning off comments on this post. If you have something to say, you may email me directly and if you like the post, feel free to share it or simply “like” it via the built in WordPress function below.

Who is Lily Montagu?


Lily Montagu – Post by Jessica

One of the nice things about being back in school, particularly in grad school, is that there is often the thrill of discovery. With the Non-Profit Management side of my degree, it’s often about some new technique or approach that I’m putting in my “bag of tricks” for later use. In the Jewish Studies program, it’s generally more intellectual, the kind of thing that’s like “wow, the world is more interesting than I thought.”

Those moments make all the late nights worth it. Because I was taking a LOT of Jewish Studies last semester, I needed paper topics. I was floundering for one in particular, until I asked a friend what he thought. He suggested someone named Lily Montagu. I needed to analyze a primary source, and apparently, she had written a memoir. As it turned out, she had written a lot of things.

Born in 1873 to a very wealthy Orthodox family, Lily decided early on that Orthodox Judaism as it currently stood had very little to offer her as a woman. With little access to religious texts, yet still with an interest in a personal religious experience, she began to create religious services that spoke to her, first in the form of a religious service ostensibly for children (although often attended by women), and then through services held by the Jewish Religious Union, who held additional services on Shabbat afternoon. For a long time, she continued to try to work within the system, but eventually, it became clear that they were outside the realm of Orthodoxy, and began, in earnest, to try to create a movement. Through her alliance with Claude Montefiore, they began to form congregations.

This was a very painful break for her personally, since her father rejected the idea of reform, and in his will, forbade her from using the money towards the cause. As the movement grew, however, she remained heavily involved, helping to create the World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), and even housing their headquarters in her home for many years, until they were moved to New York. She also regularly led services and spoke from the pulpit, with her address at the WUPJ conference in Berlin in 1928 the first time a woman had spoken from the pulpit in Germany. To this day, Liberal Judaism, the new name of the Jewish Religious Union, is still housed in The Montagu Center.

I found her story fascinating in general – but there were two aspects that made it even more interesting. First, the reasons she left Orthodoxy, and second, that her story is largely unknown and unstudied. Lily was given a secular education comparable to the non-Jews around her, while at the same time being denied access to Jewish texts. She saw the difference in what was offered to her brothers, and felt the injustice. This not only meant that she felt isolated from Judaism, but that her ways of thinking about religion were shaped by secular study rather than Jewish knowledge. Her language when discussing religion uses secular imagery more often than not; religion was used as a tool for personalizing secular values. That many women and men found this vision compelling speaks to the fact that this kind of education was common. But it also meant that, aside from her personal feelings of connection to Judaism, she was preaching a version of Judaism that was not compatible with Orthodoxy. It’s impossible to know what Lily would have done with a more rigorous Jewish education.

Still, why her story is largely unknown, even among liberal and progressive branches of Judaism? Ellen Umansky, until recently the only scholar who had studied her in depth, thinks that it might largely be the “fault” of Lily herself. Certain of her activities, such as preaching, were public. But many others, like her efforts to start the JRU and WUPJ were behind the scenes, and Lily deliberately described her own participation as non-essential. Umansky’s research, however, has unearthed evidence that she was often entirely instrumental in these efforts, both doing ground work and providing or gaining access to funding. That Lily’s attitude played better for the historians of the time is debatable – how would they have reacted if she had taken credit where the credit was due? Would there have been greater pushback? Or would it have just made it easier for historians of our time to understand where she fit in? The fact remains that, having grown up in a community connected to hers (both in South Africa and in Illinois), I had heard of Leo Baeck and of Samuel Montefiore, but not of Lily Montagu.

The little hidden gems of history. And hopefully, with a new book coming out about her, she’ll be a little less hidden than before.