Archive for February, 2010

A few years ago, when I was working as the education director of a small synagogue, I was assigned the task of preparing the Purim celebration. I started hunting around the Internet for an abbreviated version of Megillat Esther (the scroll of Esther), which I would divide up and email to our volunteer readers before the spiel. The scroll in its original form was much too long, and I was hoping for an easy way of cutting it down.

And that’s when things got interesting.

There are, I discovered, plenty of shortened versions of Esther to be found on the Internet. The problem is, they all came from websites and proudly touted that they are “true to the story!”

They are true alright. And if you’ve ever looked closely at the details of the Purim story, that’s maybe not such a great thing! Here are just some of the troubling aspects of the story:

1:20: When Vashti refuses to obey the king, the king sends out a decree to the countryside ordering that “all women will respect their husbands” and that “every man shall be a master in his home.”

2:3: The King’s attendants sweep the countryside looking for “virgins” to add to the King’s “harem”. Esther didn’t so much “win” a beauty pageant as be forcibly selected and “taken” to the King’s palace.

7:8: When Esther reveals to the King that Haman’s edict to kill all Jews means she too will be killed, it appears that Haman tries to sexually assault her. Haman is then sent to the gallows and hanged.

8:11: Rather than merely nullify Haman’s edict, the King issues an edict allowing the Jews to “annihilate, kill and destroy every army of any nation or province that might attack them, [including their] children and women, and to plunder their possessions.”

8:17: This bloodlust is celebrated a few verses later, where we read that: “In every province and city to which the king’s edict and law reached, there was happiness and joy for the Jews, a celebration and a holiday. Many of the gentiles converted to Judaism, for fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.”

9:6: The Jews of Shushan kill 500 men, and then a few verses later, Haman’s 10 sons are hanged at the gallows.

It might bring you comfort to know that no serious academic believes there is any historical truth to the events recounted in Esther. The narrative, which takes place in the time of the ancient Persian empire (539 BCE – 333 BCE), is rife with chronological problems, which are too numerous to list. Furthermore, no evidence of the key events of the story has ever turned up in biblical or extrabiblical sources, including from Persian literature, much of which has been preserved.

The author of the book does show some familiarity with details of life in the Persian empire. The author knows, for example, about its size, its postal system, and a considerable number of details about its court life (3:13; 8:10). The story uses a number of words and a few names of indisputable Persian origin.

But there are other parts of the story that contradict what we know about Persia, or simply strain credulity. Esther herself is a historical improbability. According to Herodotus (3:84), the Persian king could only marry within seven noble families, and there is no reason to think any of them were Jewish. There is no evidence for the existence of 127 provinces or satrapies (1:1; 8:9) in Persia. It doesn’t make sense that a decree go out in a multitude of languages, when the only language spoken was Aramaic (1:22, 3:12, 8:9). And how could a banquet last 180 days (1:1-4)?

Scholars believe that the book of Esther is best seen as a historical novella set within the Persian empire. As the authors of Etz Hayim We: Megillat Esther (The Reconstructionist Press) explain, “This is not to say that the book is false, only that its truth, like the truth of any piece of literature, is relative to its genre, and the genre of Esther is not that of the historical annal, even though it sometimes imitates the style of a historical annal.”

Etz Hayim We is a wonderful resource for an adult education group that is interested in spending a few weeks engaged in a close text study of Megillat Ester. Visit http://www.jrf.org for more information.

Image above: “The Cracow Wedding” Purimshpil

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We’ve all been there when it worked – in that mysterious, ineffable way that is so impossible to describe but unforgettable to experience. And we’ve all been there when it hasn’t – one of those interminable religious services where thoughts of a Chinese torture chamber become genuinely appealing.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating. But only a little.

What is it that separates the first kind of experience from the second? What are the qualities, traits or techniques that make a prayer experience really impact the people involved?

I have recently returned from the fourth and final week of a program called the Davennen Leadership Training Institute – or DLTI – which is all about those questions. For one week, four times, over two years, a group of 50+ adventurous souls gathered on the shores of a picturesque lake in western Connecticut, at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. We ate delicious mostly vegetarian food; percolated in the hot tub under crisp, starry skies; and in the rhythm of our most ancient Jewish traditions, came together to daven (pray) three times a day in cycle with the sun.

The members of the group came from all over: The Southwest, New York, Maryland, Alaska, two even schlepped over from Germany. Several of us welcomed babies over those two years – and three of those babies joined the holy chevra at one retreat or another. Several others experienced the loss of a parent, surgeries, separations from loved ones. It became, in short, the kind of kahal (community) one typically finds in a synagogue family – only our family would be, we knew at the outset, only a temporary one.

People join DLTI for different reasons. Quite a few of the participants are enrolled in rabbinical or cantorial studies programs. But there were several members who were already ordained clergy working in congregations, and who simply wanted to improve their service-leading abilities. Still others had no plans to pursue Judaism as a profession, but hoped to help grow and nurture the prayer experiences in their home communities.

We were not, by any means, all “uber-Jews” or “prayer freaks” whose lives revolve around three-times-a-day davenning. In fact, for most of us, it was an intensity and experience of prayer that we had never experienced before, and which was alternately enriching and exhausting, uplifting and maddening. How I felt at any given moment at any given retreat pretty much spanned the spectrum, which in the end, I think, is a good indication of just how authentic and deep the DLTI experience really becomes.

So, enough of the abstracts! What exactly do we do at DLTI?

Well, in the weeks before each retreat, we would receive a series of reading and study assignments about a particular aspect of Jewish prayer (for example, the Amidah and Kabbalat Shabbat were the focus of one week; learning the nusach and prayers for the weekday Shacharit service was the focus of another). We were also given service-leading assignments with anywhere from one to three other students, for either a Shacharit, Mincha or Maariv service.

Each day was built around those thrice-daily davenning experiences, and in between them, we would have “class” in the beit midrash (synagogue) overlooking the lake. Some classes were from the teachers on prayer-related topics (often based on a text rooted in Jewish mysticism); some were nusach (melody) labs with Hazzan Jack; and others were interactive exercises designed to get us to think about issues like transitions and role-sharing during service-leading.

One major component of each day was what they called a “lab” – usually on the morning’s Shacharit service. It is here that the teachers would call up the service leaders to do instant replays of small, specific parts of the service, and then, with the most-gentlest of suggestions, tweak it and make it better.

It’s hard to describe what this process was like – both to experience it and to witness it – but it was something akin to watching a flower open its petals. It was breathtaking to see what were, to my novice eyes, perfectly wonderful prayer pieces, and watch them ascend to a level I hadn’t even conceived of.

Not infrequently, it made people cry. A lot. And these were the good, transcendant kind of tears.

DLTI-5 is a community only on the Internet now; we will continue to communicate through Yahoo Groups and Facebook and small get-togethers when we can manage them. DLTI-6 is a community just now beginning to form, with their first session planned for August 2010.

The word on the street is that enrollment for DLTI-6 is already half-filled. My advice? Run, don’t walk, to the registration line. For more information, visit Isabella Freedman’s website here.

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This semester I’m taking a course on modern Jewish literature. We began our studies with the interesting question of: What defines Jewish literature anyway? It turns out, it’s a question that isn’t so easy to answer, and which has spurred countless ruminations in academic journals.

Surely, there is more to being Jewish literature than being written by a Jewish author. Then there are the conundrums raised by such wonderful books as Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, which won a national Jewish book award two years ago, and its author wasn’t Jewish at all! Is it the themes or subjects that make a story Jewish? Messages of diaspora, identity, Otherness, living in two worlds, wrestling with tradition? Do those themes only count as Jewish if they involve Jewish characters?

Perhaps the best way to think about this question is through the open-ended nuance offered by poetry. This poem, by Myra Sklarew, appeared in her collection From the Backyard of the Diaspora, published in 1976.

what is a Jewish poem

does it wear a yarmulka
and tallis
does it live
in the diaspora
and yearn for homeland

does it wave the lulav
to and fro inside
a plastic sukkah
or recite
the seven benedictions
under the chupah

I wonder
what is a jewish poem
does it only go to synagogue
one day a year
attaching the tfillin
like a tiny black stranger
to its left arm

does it open
the stiff skins
of the prayerbook
to reveal the letters
like blackened platelets
twisting within

little yeshiva bocher
little jewish poem
waving your sidecurls
whispering piyyut to me
in my sleep
little jewish poem
in your streimel hat
little grandfather
sing to me
little jewish poem
come sing to me

– Myra Sklarew

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