Being a full-time student is not a job!

This was originally posted on my old Angelfire site in late 2008. It’s edited down from a rambling 2,807 words.

We ran a longer version of this article in the local newspaper I work for, and the sentiment of these ultra-Orthodox rabbis responsible for this “day of prayer” really pisses me off. There’d be no need for this organised effort to pray wealthy philanthropists donate money if these guys studying 24/7 had actual jobs. And prayer doesn’t always get answered the way we want it to.

David Ben-Gurion granted a draft deferment because there weren’t that many Hareidim at the time, and he felt sentimentality towards them for how they represented old-world Judaism, and believed that in another generation or so, they’d largely die out. Instead they kept getting more and more populous, though the vast majority of Israelis aren’t religious.

Total nonsense to seriously claim secular Jews feel embarrassed by the Orthodox. How can a small, albeit vocal, minority make a huge majority feel embarrassed or ashamed?

We have an entire generation of men who won’t work and have to depend upon the government (whom they ordinarily despise and do everything to weasel out of having to deal with) to give them a stipend so they can support their gigantic families.

Oh, what a crisis, Rabbis Elyashiv and Shteinman. These poor kollel men have such troubles at home when they can’t bring in enough money, and it leads to strained marriages and relationships with their children. If they worked real jobs, they’d earn enough money to support a wife and kids.

Nothing’s stopping them from devoting an hour or so every day to studying. They just won’t be able to do that all day, every day. They’ll have more important priorities, like going to work. A lot of ultra-Orthodox women often have to bring in the bacon (so to speak), because their husbands won’t hear of working in the secular world.

Studying all day and producing an army of children doesn’t constitute a real job. Why the hell should they get any stipend? They’re letting their families starve and live in poverty because they feel nonstop studying is the only way to go.

A Midrash on the ten spies who brought back a bad report says that their sin wasn’t so much bringing back a bad report of Eretz Yisrael, but rather giving this bad report on purpose so the people would stay in the desert, closer to God, living a highly spiritual life, studying Torah and doing mitzvot all day.

But that wasn’t what God wanted. They were supposed to engage in the real world when they crossed over into Israel, not sit meditating and praying all day long. Because of this sin, of that entire generation, only Joshua and Caleb were allowed to enter Israel and not die in the desert, and the people were condemned to stay in the desert for 38 more years. These modern-day kollel men are committing the same exact sin!

It’s not bad to become a rabbi or full-time scholar, but not everyone’s cut out for those roles. In the past, most men didn’t study 24/7, since community leaders recognised most guys didn’t have what it took to be brilliant scholars. Quality, not quantity.

Maybe Hashem was trying to tell Rabbis Shteinman and Elyashiv something. Foreign philanthropists haven’t contributed enough money because Hashem disapproves of the entire system. If this isn’t the will of God, that “day of prayer for philanthropists” didn’t have the desired effect of “storming the gates of heaven.” Maybe the entire yeshiva/kollel system will be dismantled and these guys will be forced to get real jobs and live in the outside world. Sometimes the answer to a prayer is “no.”

How childish can they be, seriously believing this day of prayer would help them out so much? Hashem wants us to be proactive in our own destiny, not just sit back praying, pleading, begging, and waiting for him/her to do it for us.

These rabbis’ view of God is like that of a child, praying to a Superman or candyman up in the sky, someone who’ll give us whatever we want because we asked for it, dammit, and really want it!

Nothing will cure these ultras of their smug arrogant triumphalism. Only they practise Judaism properly. Things weren’t like this even 50 years ago. People worked real jobs and didn’t just study all day long.

They can claim these guys are great scholars all they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re glorified unemployed, unskilled, uneducated, unproductive members of society.

Writing about the Three Weeks, the Nine Days, and Tisha B’Av

Siege and destruction of Jerusalem

Seeing as we’re in the thick of the Three Weeks, and the Nine Days will start this Friday at sundown, it’s as good of a time as any to write something about this area of the Jewish calendar. Not many Gentiles know about it, and indeed many non-observant folks don’t know about it either. If you’re one of those thrice a year folks who only does Pesach, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, chances are you don’t know this about your own native religion.

If you’re writing about Jewish characters during the summer, or are just curious about this point in the calendar, here are some things to keep in mind:

The Three Weeks start with a semi-fast on the 17th day of the month of Tammuz, Tzom (Fast) Tammuz. A semi-fast only lasts from sunup to sundown, instead of going from one sundown to the next sundown. As with all other fasts, if your life or health is at risk, it’s absolutely okay to eat and/or drink. You can consult with your doctor and rabbi to determine how much fasting is safe. You may be able to drink small amounts of water throughout the day, or eat a few very small portions.

The 17th of Tammuz marks the day when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans in 70 CE, and by the Babylonians in the days of the First Temple. Legend also states this was the day when Moshe Rabeynu (Moses Our Teacher) broke the first set of tablets with the Ten Commandments.

Vespasian and his army on their way to destroy Jerusalem

Prohibitions during the Three Weeks include:

Weddings. Engagement parties sans music are allowed until the Nine Days.

Listening to music and playing instruments. Some folks are more lenient and only refrain from listening to live music.

Getting a haircut or shaving. Many Sephardic communities, however, allow this until the Nine Days. Seeing as I follow the Italian–Sephardic customs relating to permitted and forbidden foods during Pesach, I’m going to start following this custom as well.

Reciting the Shehecheyanu blessing, which thanks Hashem for giving us life and enabling us to reach this joyous occasion.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70, by David Roberts

Prohibitions of the Nine Days, which start on the first day of Av:

Swimming. You can, however, get wet in other ways. When I was a counselor at the local Orthodox daycamp, the kids were allowed to go sprinkling, hit one another with water balloons, and get hosed. One year we all washed the school rabbi’s van, and all got very wet from all the hoses and water involved.

Eating meat and drinking wine.

Washing clothing (except for a baby’s) and wearing freshly-laundered clothing.

Expanding or remodeling a home.

Planting shade and fragrance trees. Fruit trees, however, are allowed.

Buying or making clothing, unless it’s for the purpose of a later mitzvah (e.g., wedding clothes), you’ll miss a sale, or the garment won’t be available later.

Cutting nails.

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez

All these prohibitions are lifted on Shabbos or a celebratory occasion such as a b’rit (circumcision), bar or bat mitzvah, or siyum (completion of a tractate of the Talmud). Many people hold a siyum during the Nine Days as an excuse to have a barbecue.

A lot also depends upon the community. Traditional, very Orthodox Ashkenazic communities will observe all these customs and probably put fences around the laws as well, while Sephardic communities are typically more lenient. Many people in the non-Orthodox denominations won’t follow all of them, or may not observe any of them.

Tisha B’Av, observed on the 9th of Av, is the longest, saddest, most difficult fast of the year. Like all fasts except Yom Kippur, if it falls out on Shabbos, it’s pushed off till Sunday. It starts in a darkened synagogue, with people sitting on the floor or around the bima (raised platform in the front of the sanctuary), as the Book of Lamentations (Eicha) is chanted in a very melancholy trope.

Many people have the custom of sitting on the floor or low stools all day and sleeping on the floor. Bathing, sexual relations, leather shoes and garments, and anointing oneself with non-medicinal oils and creams are all prohibited.

Detail of Hayez painting

Tisha B’Av marks the day both Temples were destroyed, as well as many other catastrophes in Jewish history: the expulsion from Spain (31 July 1492), the expulsion from England (18 July 1290), the expulsion from France (22 July 1306), the launching of the First Crusade (15 August 1096), Germany entering World War I (1–2 August 1914), Himmler getting final approval to carry out genocide (2 August 1941), and the start of the deportations to Treblinka from the Warsaw Ghetto (23 July 1942).

Tisha B’Av is extremely difficult for me and many other contemporary people. Some years I didn’t make it all the way through, or never started. I try to fast, and for as long as possible, but it’s really hard when the Temple just isn’t relevant to our lives. We’ve been doing just fine without Temple worship and animal sacrifices for almost 2,000 years, and prayer has taken its place. We also have the State of Israel, and are no longer all in Diaspora.

This is one of those reasons I’ll never be 100% Orthodox. I find the quasi-fetishistic worship of the future Third Temple in some quarters to be really creepy, irrelevant, and cult-like. If there is ever a Third Temple, I want it to be a universal house of prayer for all peoples, with no animal sacrifice, and built in another location. World War III would erupt if fanatics destroyed the beautiful Dome of the Rock to build the Third Temple!

Beginnings Blogfest

My Horny Hump Day post is here.

Beginnings

Today, 9 January, L.G. Keltner of Writing Off the Edge is holding a blogfest in which participants write about various beginnings—blogging, books, writing, jobs, relationships, life, etc. It’s in honor of her first blogoversary.

I was strongly leaning towards writing one of the stories of how I got into any one of my favorite bands, but decided against it. (If you don’t like those bands, you might not like my stories!) I also considered the story of how I was inspired to write my first Russian novel, since my 20th anniversary of that beginning is coming up at the end of this month. (Where did all that time go? Was 1993 really twenty years ago?!)

I decided to go with my story of how I began moving towards greater religious observance, excerpted in part from a blog entry I wrote in October. Until I was 22, I’d believed all the stereotypes about Orthodox Judaism, and didn’t realize what a diverse community Orthodoxy is. At the moment, I’m still not in a position to officially affiliate Orthodox, and I may never be 100% of the way there, but I would love to someday be part of a Liberal Modern Orthodox community. None of the Orthodox people I’ve ever known are the crazy fanatics who get all the bad press, people who throw rocks at women at the Western Wall or making blurry glasses so men can’t see women.

***

In late February 2002, I decided to take an Orthodox friend up on his invitation to go with him and a few other friends to Chabad after the Hillel services and dinner. I believed all these stereotypes about the Orthodox, and hated the idea of sex-segregated services. But he said we were going there for dinner, not more services.

It was such a lovely community. I immediately took to it. It’s easy to dismiss something when you’ve never experienced it, but when the real and the ideal conflict, you often change your perspective. I suddenly wasn’t offended at the fact that I couldn’t shake hands with the rabbis, or that men and women had to dance separately, or that the married women wore wigs.

At the end of March (the day the Queen Mum died), I bit the bullet and went for a Saturday morning service. It was my first time at an Orthodox service, and I ended up really enjoying it and feeling at home. I really liked the separate davening (praying), and how we have our own secret little world the men don’t know about. It’s easier for me to concentrate behind the mechitza, and I like the old-world feel to it. There tends to be a smaller crowd in the women’s section, and I’m usually one of only a few women who’s there for the entire service instead of popping in and out, but that just makes it feel more special, gives me even more private space to talk to Hashem.

For the first time, I was called by my Hebrew name, Chana. My full name is Chana Esther Dafna, but it’s not always easy for people to remember a triple name. I became Shomeret Shabbat (guardian of the Sabbath, or observing all the Sabbath prohibitions against things like using electricity). I added long skirts to my wardrobe and stopped wearing pants. I was Orthodox in all but name.

Sadly, I had to go back to the Berkshires after graduation, and all that beautiful forward momentum was lost for many years. I’ve been unmarried and childfree way longer than I ever dreamt I’d be. But at least I’m finally back on track with my spiritual identity.

Oh, How I Miss You Blogfest

If you’re looking for my Wildest Moments blogfest post, it’s here.

Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh, along with Andrew Leon and Matthew MacNish, are hosting the Oh, How I Miss You Blogfest. Participants will spotlight one to three bloggers they really miss, and one to three more they would really miss if they stopped blogging. Then go leave a comment on those blogs.

One of the blogs I miss most is Pitch University, the brainchild of Diane Holmes. This blog was really really hopping last year, with lots of great series, PitchFests with agents, a message board, consulting sessions, you name it. Then suddenly the posts got fewer and farther between, and a huge, biggest-ever PitchFest that had been promised for last September never happened. The message board is also pretty dead too.

The last post is from this January, giving us a bit of an update on what happened. Diane had to take a break from her responsibilities of running Pitch University because of chronic fatigue. I really hope her health improves and she can come back to running the blog, even in a lesser role, because so many people benefitted so much from her articles and words of advice. I know I benefitted a lot from the two Skype consulting sessions we had about my Russian novel. She got me to finally understand how to write a query for a saga, and how to get across that it’s a historical novel first and foremost, not some superlong romance novel.

ETA:  How could I forget about Nice Jewish Girl of the Shomer Negiah blog! NJG rarely posts anymore, but when she does, she still has such a loyal following who immediately post very heartfelt, encouraging comments. Her blog posts tend to be very long (like, the length I used to routinely write), but everyone takes the time to read these heartfelt, honest, raw posts.

In a nutshell: NJG is in her early forties now (I believe), didn’t have her first kiss till she was maybe 35, and is still a virgin. Her blog chronicles how hard it is to be her age and not know what it feels like to touch and love a man, due to being shomer negiah. Shomer negiah (really shomeret for a woman) means guardian of touch, and refers to someone who won’t touch members of the opposite sex unless they’re close blood relatives, not even to shake hands.

As someone who was a virgin WAY longer than most people, I can really relate to many of the struggles she’s posted about. (If you’re wondering, I was 28 when I made my sexual debut.) I truly hope NJG eventually finds her beshert (destined one, soulmate) and can have at least one child, and that she finally finds true peace of mind with whatever path her life takes. The Orthodox community needs to wake up and realize what laws like this are doing to people who haven’t found a spouse at the normal age.

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One blog I would truly miss is A Nun’s Life, which is primarily written by the lovely Sister Julie and Sister Maxine, two young, modern nuns. I’ve been following the blog for many years now, and watched it get bigger and better. One of my favorite parts of the blog is the weekly Ask Sister podcast with Sister Julie and Sister Maxine.

It probably sounds kind of odd, coming from someone from a different religion, but I’ve always really loved, admired, and respected nuns. They do so many good things for so many people, in so many different ministries. And nuns historically had freedoms most women didn’t have till very recently, like the ability to get a higher education, get advanced degrees, and work.

Even though most modern North American nuns no longer wear full habits and therefore aren’t as visible anymore, that doesn’t mean they’ve ceased to have an impact on those around them. I’ve read so many nun books over the years, and I love seeing habited nuns out and about. Seeing and hearing nuns stereotyped really burns my toast, so it’s very important we have a blog like this to show what modern nuns are really all about.

Sisters Julie and Maxine, and their guest bloggers, are doing such a wonderful service in demonstrating the diversity, meaning, relevance, vibrancy, and appeal of the sisterhood in the 21st century, for both Catholics and non-Catholics who just like nuns or are curious. You’d be so surprised to see some of the very modern topics they’ve discussed, like if being sexy can glorify God, hairstyles, sensible shoes, gay saints, balancing Facebook and life, dieting, and cosmetology.