Friday, August 13, 2004

Housekeeping Interlude....
On a completely arbitrary basis, the first baynonim challenge, along with other priceless emoluments, goes to Velvel for dreaming up Miss-orah. Sample sentance, "Wachnacht is part of our miss-orah."

Check out the sidebar. It is how we say thank you.

Boys, boys, boys
Re: The scuffle in the comment section of the previous entry

Skeptic, I'm sure MOChassid didn't mean to dismiss the whole collective history of German Jewry, or to pretend that his own version is the only legitimate history. Moreover, if you invited MO to your house for a potato-less cholent, he'd be there with bells on, and he'd lead the zmiros, to boot. Cholent, incidentally, is French for slow and hot (chaud lent.) I'm glad no one thought of boycotting that during our Freedom-Fries phase.

...We welcome a new blog
A great writer and old friend has set up an outpost in the J-blog echo chamber. Stop in and say hey to GoldaLeah at Go West, Young Jew.

Kugels, friday night dinner, Shabbos concerts, upshurins... what else belongs to this motley collection of Jewish customs we call... we call... um... You know, readers, it would sure be helpful if we had a word for this motley collection of customs.

Meantime, here are a few more examples, sent in by readers:

Wachnacht: For the uninitiated, this consists of putting a knife under an infant boy's pillow on the night before his circumcision. The purpose? Scaring off monsters. Yes, the ritual has other elements aside from the knife: we say shema at cribside, distribute candies, and the baby's father keeps an overnight vigil. Still, per the Jewish Encyclopedia, it's all about the monsters.

This, incidently, is one of several customs that I, a day school/yeshiva graduate who paid attention, first discovered well after my formal education had ended.

Red String: Madanna may think it's mesorah. I'm not altogether convinced.

Shrayim: AKA the Rebbe's leftovers. The Hasidic Rebel tells a very good story about this very strange practice. Scroll to August 4 I've seen it just once, at a hasidic bris. I did not partake. No one booed.

Shul Balconies: This, I was very surprised to learn, is not a recent innovation. Woman were sequestered upstairs as long ago as the 16th century, and perhaps even earlier. (see the first comment) Smaller, house-based prayer meetings are of much more recent origin. Nonethless, the average RN says that the balconies are modern (feh!) and the shteebles are not.

Post Shachris Psalms: Many ashkenazic shuls have begun saying a chapter or two of Psalms after shachris and maariv. This practice is less than three years old. Sfardim say mizmor l'dovid, also a chapter of Psalms, after the Friday night maariv. The ashkenazic practice was introduced in response to 9/11 and several attacks in Israel. Perhaps the sefardic practice was introduced under similar circumstances. Does anyone know?

Also, I'd like to know how the sefardim reacted when this practice was first introduced. We ashkenazim, for the most part, have reacted, by ignoring the practice and walking out before the chazzan is finished. Still, I have faith in the failure of Jewish memory. I fully expect my great-grandchildren will insist the practice of saying two Psalms after shachris originated with the Ari, or maybe Amran Gaon. Kabbalistic reasons are sure to be adduced. With luck, it may even feature prominently in a story starring the Baal Shem Tov. Anyone who tries to ignore it in my great-grandchild's shul will be disgraced.

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I didn't get nearly as many emails as I expected telling about forgotten Jewish practices. (I got none.) I must sit with Oma and grill her about pre-war Vienna. Again, if you know of a Jewish practice (and it could be as simple as cholent with no potatoes) that Jews no longer keep, please email baynonim at hotmail dot com. I'm drawing up a list.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

We gave my son his first hair cut when he was 18 months old. I took him to the Russian barber and sat him up on the wooden plank the barber uses to make small kids seem taller. He didn't squirm. We took some pictures. Afterwards, the barber gave him lollipop, and that was it.

When my neighbor, MM the Lubovitcher, celebrated his own son's first haircut he hired a band, and a balloon magician, and a caterer. The rabbi spoke. The decorations were extravagant. The boy's hair was not cut by a hired stranger, but by the assembled guests. MM, and then his father, made the first snips; afterwards other guests were offered the scissors (and some vodka. This, after all, was a Lubovitch celebration. At the end of the afternoon a professional barber was called in to repair the mess we, vodka-sipping hair stylists, wrought on the poor boy's hair.)

Why did MM deploy all the resources at his disposal for the sake of his son's first haircut? Because MM keeps the custom of upshurin. Why did I take my son to the Russian down the block, and celebrate with a lollipop? Because I do not.

Are you surprised? Have you suddenly begun to doubt baynonim's fidelity to Judaism? Don't feel bad. Many people assume that upshurin is an hoary old custom observed by all Orthodox Jews, the world over. It isn't, though I come face-to-face with this mistake all the time. (I sure could use a word for it, too. See the first baynonim contest.)

Three fast stories about upshurin:

1 - An RN once suggested that upshurin was equal to women covering their hair as an indicator of Orthodox commitment. "You don't practice upshirin, but your wife covers her hair?" were his exact words.

2 - My local Hasidic Rabbi asked, "When are you making for him pais" and, to my everlasting shame, I didn't have the guts to say, "Well, to tell you the truth, Rabbi, he's had his hair cut already. Twice." Neither did I have the courage to correct his grammar, nor did I think to ask, "Isn't his hair a little too short for you to be asking that questions?" (Don't let my tone mislead you. I hold the man in high regard.)

3 - Soon after my son's third birthday, another RN said, with a disappointed look across her face, "Well, I guess we missed the upshurin." You could tell she was hurt. She sighed and everything. There may even have been hand wringing. I hope their was no gossip about the mean old, snobby baynonim family.

So, please, if any of my own personal RNs are reading the blog, let me say, "hi, please stop." But first, I have two remarks: (1) This blog isn't about you. Really; and (2) You were not snubbed. There was no upshurin and I promise we'll all dance together, please God, at the bar mitzvah.

Why I don't keep the upshurin custom

I'm not Hasidic, and upshurin is a Hasidic practice. My ancestors from Austria and Germany never heard of it; my ancestors from Lithuania and Poland knew about it, but did not practice it. To paraphrase Ralph Kiner, if they were alive today they'd be rolling in their graves if they knew how widespread this Hasidic practice has become.

Some people, I say with hesitation, argue that even Hasidim themselves should reject upshurim because the custom began as a Muslim practice. I read history, but I am not a historian; I can't and won't evaluate that particular claim (though the argument, briefly outlined, can be found here.) I do know the custom first appeared among the Hasidim less than 200 years ago. That's yesterday, when you consider our Mesorah was revealed 3000 years ago.

Here are a few questions about upshurin.

Why doesn't it have a Hebrew name? Upshurin is Yiddish. I can't think of any other Jewish practice that has no Hebrew name. Can you?

Do boys from families who keep this custom go through their early childhood imagining themselves to be girls? Their hair gets very long; most sport ponytails for the last few months. I know one woman from an upshirin background who swears she thought all the little longhaired kids running around on her playground were girls. She remembers feeling disappointed, she recounts, at age three when -poof!- some of her playmates suddenly became boys, and she remained a female. But that's just one little girl's point of view. I don't know what the boys thought.

Over the last twenty years, more and more Jews who are not of Hasidic extraction have adopted this custom. Several live in my neighborhood. Why is this so popular? I, for one, do not understand the appeal. To me, other Hasidic practices are much more attractive. And though I could speculate irresponsibly on the reasons for upshurin's ever increasing popularity, this, too, is one of the mysteries.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The posts about kugel and concerts suggest a contest, so here we go:

Introducing: The Very First Baynonim Challenge

In the kugel and concert posts I discussed (1) authentic Jewish practices that have been forgotten and (2) Jewish practices with long histories that are mistakenly considered "modern." Tomorrow, we'll discuss (3) Jewish practices that are thought to be very old when they are, in fact, brand new.

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it: Invent a new word for our community's inability to remember when its own customs originated. Cleverness combined with aptness will be rewarded with a suitable prize - yes! a suitable prize -though the final decision will be completely arbitrary.

(No, not a date with Luke Ford. Something suitable. I promise.)

Submit your suggestion via email (baynonim at hotmail dot com) titling entries "Word Fugitive."

If you have additional examples of this phenomenon, send them, too.

Note: Unless I have express, written permission to use your name (you must write "It is ok for you to use my name") I won't use it. Period. Exception: If you post your entry to the comments, I'll presume you've given me permission to cite you per the name you used to comment. And yes, my not-so-brilliant "Period. Exception" also reminded me of the Spanish Inquisition skit.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

When L heard I went to the shul last shabbos, and not to the shteeble, he had this comment: "How can you stand it there?? It's sooooooo modern. "

Modern? Examples please.

All that singing, he answered. Very American. Very Young Israel.

Oh really? A few moments with The Timetables of Jewish History: A Chronology of the Most Important People and Events in Jewish history. and I had the information I needed.

From page 193:

1623: The Council of the Four Lands(1) limits the number of musical compositions sung in the Sabbath service, evidence of an abundance of creativity on the part of synagogue cantors

In other words, as I explained to L, there was too much singing at Jewish services as far back as 1623. Yet we call this "modern." Meanwhile, newer innovations, like the Prince Albert(2) that L, himself, recently donned as evidence of his fidelity to the ways of his forefathers, are thought of as authenticly, and more legitimately, Jewish.

A long service isn't kugel; no one fetishizes a three-hour morning service. Still, isn't it odd that our generation imagines itself the very first Jews to suffer through shabbos morning concerts?

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(1) From 1580 to 1764, the Council of Four Lands (Va'ad Arba' Aratzot) in Lublin, Poland was the central body of Jewish authority in Poland. 70 delegates from local kehillot met to discuss taxation and other issues important to the Jewish community. The "four lands" were Great Poland, Little Poland, Ruthenia and Lithuania.

(2) A long double-breasted frock coat for men favored by Lubovitch Hasidim

Houskeeping Interlude

The post on women's prayer groups and Yiddish has been updated.

Scroll down for the update. Drop a note to baynonim at hotmail dot com if you have anything to add.

Also, I finally read Simcha on the subject of women's prayer groups. They aren't halachic, so I recant. If Rav Schachter says it's osur, it is osur.

Some musings:
I was happy to see that neither Simcha nor the Rabbis he cites made a meal of the "motivations" of the women who participate in these groups. Their "motivation" is irrelevant. It's none of our business, for starters, and they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

And even if their private motivations are wrong, doesn't "Mitoch lo lishma, bo lishma" matter? You should always continue to do good actions even if your reasons are bad.

Finally, it does seem to me that some of Rav Schacters objections to women's prayer groups, could be applied to other, fully sanctioned, Jewish practices. I'm not a posek. I'm not trying to make trouble. If Rav Schachter says it's osur, it is osur. But, in my heart of hearts, I am going hmmmm over some of the reasons Simcha cites. I would love to see the Lion of YU (Rav Schachter, not Simcha) apply some of those objections to certain other Jewish practices.

Perhaps I'll get into it one day. But today is not that day.

As for this question, which touches upon my own thread I have a one word answer. Feminism is about choices.

Monday, August 09, 2004

I don't understand why people fetishize kugel. (1)

I'm not saying anything against kugel. It's fine, like six-dozen other good things to eat. But why does it provoke such mass hysteria? It's just a clot of fat and potatoes. Half the caterers don't even make it properly.

My own AC (2) doesn't even bother. Too much work. Too little pay-off. Besides her own holy ancestors never went near the stuff. They were Austrian Jews, from Vienna, oberlanders that is. Potato dishes were for the country mice, the unterlanders. They were the ones who ate kugel, not her and her neighbors. In fact, until she arrived in America, the AC's grandmother never once saw a cholent with potatoes in it.

As a child, the AC's grandmother ate a regular Friday night dinner that simply wouldn't fly in America. The main course was fish. No chicken. No soup. Just a large stuffed fish, with trimmings. And according to her, all her Jewish neighbors did the same. The so-called "authentic European Friday night meal" of soup, chicken and kugel was unknown to her. (3)

Isn't it a little sad? Today very few religious Jew would serve fish, and fish alone, for Friday night supper. Yet, if my grandmother-in-laws recollections are sound (and I am sure they are) this was an authentically European practice, followed by authentically Jewish families, in at least one European city. American Jewry, with it's kugel, rushes to romaticizes European Jewry, but, in fact, only one small corner of Europe is being remembered. The ways of central and western Europe are gone, and largely forgotten.

One more crime to put on Hitler's account, I suppose.
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(1) Examples of kugel being fetishized: (a) The mothers who, on Friday afternoon, bring trays of the stuff to their sons at sleep-away camp. (b) The reaction at any kiddush when kugel is served (c) The RN who pulled a piece of uneaten kugel out of a garbage can at one kiddush saying, "its shabbos" as if that explained it all.
2) Ayshes Chayil, or wife.
3) Also she, like her mother and grandmother before her, is an Oma, not a Bubby. And there are many more examples, examples I'll discuss in future blogs.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Uplifting Story Interlude

I haven't been feeling myself lately. Down. Depressed. Blue. In the Dumps. The reason, I think, is the whiff of failure. I catch it's moldy scent everywhere. Or almost everywhere, anyway. More than half of the things I've tried lately have failed. More than half.

I was in this unhappy mood when the big pediatrician invited me to accompany him to a ball game. His brother-in-law, a Brit, came, too, for his first look at baseball.

The Brit was full of questions. I played native guide. When the first batter was announced, the Brit asked about the numbers the scoreboard flashed.

That's his batting average, I said.

.340? Not very good, 'eh?

What do you mean? I retorted. If he keeps that up, he'll go to the Hall of Fame.

The Brit gave me a look. The Hall of Fame? On that batting average? He only does his job 34 percent of the time. He fails more than half the time he bats.

He fails more than half the time, I thought. And he's on pace for the Hall of Fame.

Every day, a bas kol.(1)
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(1) ie a heavenly voice. The Mishna says one goes forth every day with words of encouragement or advice.

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