Blog: August 2008

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

NHC: shorter takes

There are still some focused entries I want to write about NHC (at least two), but in the meantime, some shorter bits:

I saw a T-shirt there that said "good grammar costs nothing". That sentiment appeals to me on its own, but I've been noticing something else since I came home: I am finally inclined to not add "imahot" and "imoteinu" in all the places that the Reform siddur has added those words. The traditional prayers refer to (e.g.) "avoteinu", literally "our fathers", but I understand it more generally -- especially if you then go on to name some who are women. Hebrew doesn't have gender-neutral words -- so if in English I accept that "he" can be neuter, how much the moreso should I accept this in Hebrew? I've been told by people who know more about Hebrew than I do that these additions are structurally unsound from a grammatical perspective, but (despite it setting off my PC alarms) I've gone along with it. Now, after trying on the original phrasing for a while, I think I'm prepared to say that I don't make those additions except when leading in a community that expects them. (Just to be clear: I do insert the names Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah in the avot prayer. But I don't think we need to say "avoteinu v'imoteinu" everywhere as well.)

It occurred to me (too late to do anything about it) that the NHC institute would be a good environment in which to "try on" observances that I'm not sure I'm ready for. If I experiment "back home" with something like tzitzit, for instance, then there will be people (at least one even if I wear them in) who will notice right away, so there's a level of apparent commitment there. If I then decide that no, I'm not going to do this, I have to "unwind" that. On the other hand, if I try it for a week among people I'll mostly never see anywhere else, no harm done if it doesn't stick. I should remember this.

Note to self: NHC dress code is casual, including on Shabbat. You can dress up for Shabbat, but you don't need to. The two things I regret allocating limited carry-on-luggage space to are dressier clothers and a Hebrew-English Tanakh. I needed the latter for classes, but mine is hefty and maybe I could have arranged to borrow from a local?

A collection of posts about NHC institute is here.

Shalom Hartman next year?

This Shabbat I finally got a chance to talk with the congregant who went to the summer program at the Shalom Hartman Institute this year. I had considered going, but it was hard to get useful information about the program in advance, and it was a lot of money to spend on a shot in the dark. (It would have cost 3-4 times what I spent to go to NHC.) My rabbi speaks highly of SHI in general (he's involved in a different program there), but didn't know details of this specific program. So I've been eagerly awaiting a report from the field.

She had a wonderful time, and from her description of the program I think I would too. The group was fairly small (~50 people?) and broken up into groups for study (so it's not all lecture-hall style). It sounds like the groups were fixed, which can be good and bad; she said there were some groups that came there together and they stuck with each other, reducing mingling opportunities for everyone else, but that it didn't get in her way. She has promised to let me look at the class materials she brought back; it sounded like a good, text-heavy program, neither overwhelmingly advanced nor "101" stuff that's too basic for me. She said the days were fairly full, which I consider an advantage.

Last time I posted about this I got a comment from someone at SHI (who, unfortunately, didn't leave contact info). I assume I showed up in web-site referrer logs. Anyway, if you're out there and see this, I'd like to talk with you about information you could put on your web site that would help people who are looking for you. (Psst. Could you indicate dates for next year's program?)

If I have any readers with experience with this program (or SHI in general), I'd love to know about it!


I received a comment from someone at SHI asking what information I was looking for about next year. I replied:

Thanks for the reply and contact info!

This far out I don't need much info -- dates when you have them, but obviously if that's not set yet you can't give them to me. Come spring, when I'll be making the decision, it would help to have more information on the content of the program. This year, it would have made a difference for me if I'd been able to see class topics, a typical day's schedule (how full is the day and what is it filled with?), a sense of how many people would be in classes with me (small groups vs. big lectures, etc), and academic level (too advanced for me? too basic?). This year I started sending email to the published contacts in February and didn't have anything more than the web site by the time I had to decide whether to commit the funds (tuition and plane fare). I couldn't find that sort of information on the web site.

For me, this sort of information is especially important for a program far from home where I won't know anyone. It's hard enough to travel overseas alone; it would be even more difficult if it turned out that, say, formal activities ran for six or seven hours a day and you were expected to do stuff on your own the rest of the time. I'm shy, kind of an introvert, and not fluent in the dominant language; that would challenge me. It wouldn't be insurmountable, but it's the sort of thing I would want to plan for (bring friends or something). I'm not saying that this is what your program is like; from what I heard last Shabbat, I'm pretty sure it's not. But I didn't know that in May. (And I'm not making up the example; a program I attended last year ended up having that kind of schedule. But it was in a US city where I knew people, so it was recoverable.) And I'm certainly not saying that my personal insecurities are in any way your problem; I'm just saying that I have them and feel a perhaps-irrational need to try to assuage them in advance, so that's where it bumps into your web site.

Does that help? I am not trying to be a complainer.

Class: the art and spirit of prayer leading

My afternoon class at NHC was "the art and spirit of prayer leading", taught by Julia Appel, a rabbinic student at Hebrew College. (I think she just finished her first year, so I hadn't met her before.) The class involved text study and discussion; this was not, as they say, a lab class.

I missed the first session but scored a copy of the handout. The first topic was "what is the purpose of prayer?", with sources ranging from Julius Greenstone (who?) (it's for you, not God) to Mordechai Kaplan (yearning, praise, affirmation is the goal) to Yeshayahu Leibowitz (it's about accepting the yoke of the commandments). This must have led to some interesting and lively discussion in this group of a dozen students, given what I saw of them in the days to follow.

Day two was "creating koved rosh", which is about focus, directing one's heart, and generally getting into that space that makes you a suitable agent of the congregation. I took from this class an excellent teaching that has been following me around to services since then:

Consider a triangle, with the corners representing God, the congregation (tzibbur), and the prayer leader (shaliach tzibbur). Which line in that triangle do we usually talk about? Bringing the congregation closer to God. And which is the one line in that triangle that we aren't connected to? Yeah, that. We think that's our job, but we can't do anything about it, really. Instead, she said, consider the indirect effects of working on our own relationships with God on the one hand and the congregation on the other. If we get that right, maybe that helps with the third line indirectly.

Recurring theme: what are you trying to do? If you don't know that, you're not ready to lead a service. And it's not always a "duh" response; sometimes you're trying to create an enriching spiritual experience, and sometimes you're trying to get through a reasonable weekday shacharit before people have to leave for work. Ask the question and know your answer. (Tied into this, and one of the lines on the triangle: what does the congregation need today? Did you notice?)

Texts for day two were assorted mishna and gemara from B'rachot (not surprising). There was a small-group exercise where we each took a problematic service scenario and tried to work through ways to address the issues. I wish we'd spent a little more time in the large group sharing what we'd come up with and, more importantly, why and how.

Day three was on balancing keva (the fixed liturgy) and kavanah (intentionality). We started with texts about keva -- gemara in B'rachot again on handling mistakes (when do you have to go back how far when you mess up?) and from Leibowitz on prayer as pure obligation. The first (B'rahcot 29b) says that if you notice the omission fairly soon you go back to right before where it should have been and then go on, but if you get to the end of the whole prayer and only then notice, you start over. Why the difference? My own thought: if you get all the way to the end before you notice, you were probably on auto-pilot the whole time, so it's all called into question, so you should go back and try again. I think that's what the rabbis are saying here.

On the kavanah side we had more in B'rachot and a reading by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the latter saying that we must set aside time each day for a private conversation with God -- all kavanah here, essentially. (Key term: "hitbodedut".) According to Rebbe Nachman, this is the pinacle. My thought: note that he doesn't say that this fixed time need occur during the liturgy; his kavanah is not at all inconsistent with the keva called for by others.

Day four was "the spirituality of being a shaliach tzibbur", and focused mainly on a longer reading from Rebbe Nachman that we didn't completely get through. I'm still digesting that, so don't have much to say yet. Maybe later.

This was, I think, one of the smaller classes (and one of the few that were available for transfer at all when I asked). I think the small group was an advantage, though, and I hope the folks evaluating classes don't assume that smaller = less worthy of future offerings. This would have been a lot harder with twenty people in the room.

Pennsic pictures

A few pictures from Pennsic: Read more…

Report from the pews: Mishkan T'filah

Friday night I arrived to find copies of Mishkan T'filah, the new siddur published by the Reform movement, in the racks. There have been some services with photocopied subsets of this book (probably copied from earlier drafts), but this was our first chance to use the real thing.

The service went remarkably smoothly, and especially so given that the two rabbis and one cantorial soloist had not had substantial planning time. (The books just came, people were just getting back from various trips, etc.) When the leaders stuck to the intended usage pattern and when the book stuck to its own format, things were smooth. When someone decided to insert an English reading for something we'd just done in Hebrew, or the book broke from the two-page spread, things were a little rougher but still ok.

The intention is that for each passage there is a two-page spread: Hebrew, transliteration, and translation on the right page, and alternate English readings (usually two) on the left page. The English readings usually end with the Hebrew chatimah (concluding line), so if you follow the editors' intent, every time you say (or hear) a chatimah you turn the page. That works. A few times someone on the bimah decided to do an extra reading, which (1) repeated the chatimah (I'm one of a small set of congregants who care) and (2) added ambiguity (do we turn now or not?). We will work this out over time, I'm sure. (We also need to be careful not to interrupt the flow in order to explain things about the book. Do that up front or just don't do it; congregants are smart and can follow a clear lead. IMO.)

For reasons unknown to me (but I can guess), the editors sometimes chose to break with their own format, having the service simply proceed from right page to left page and on again. They do this, for example, during kabbalat shabbat. And it gets weird around Aleinu, where they have multiple versions of the prayer and don't follow the format. (I'm liturgically fluent and I have trouble finding my way around their Aleinu.) I had to read the introduction to the book to pick up on the subtle cue they introduced to signal "we're breaking the two-page format here". I don't expect most people, or anyone with vision problems, to pick it up without having it pointed out.

I imagine that they did this to reduce the amount of paper, but it's a false economy: it seems to me it would have been better to cut out some of the extra content -- and reduce the amount of gratuitious white-space, for that matter. They could have easily either trimmed the books an inch smaller or bumped up font sizes a point without damaging the aesthetic of the book. (I would have liked the Hebrew to be a bit bigger. It is crisp and clear, just a tad small.) Rolling out a new format (with new usage pattern) and then being inconsistent about it seems the worst of both worlds. The new format is good -- I wish they'd been more dilligent in using it.

By the way, we also used the book for mincha on Thursday, which has its own set of problems with regard to flow. The biggest problem is that the left-side readings in the weekly Amidah were Hebrew passages with English translations (things from Pirke Avot and the like), which means they look just like the right-side pages, which makes people think this is one of the "read every page" sections, but it's not. Most Reform Jews don't know their way around a weekday service to begin with, so I would have preferred that the editors not add that particular stumbling-block.

As for content: the translations I looked at were faithful, and it looks like they fixed the systematic problems in the transliteration that I noticed in our evaluation back in 2002-2003. The English readings we used were evocative and not grating; I obviously haven't had a chance to review all of them. The Hebrew text mostly represents a gradual progression from Gates of Prayer; the drafts had tried some innovative things that didn't make it to the end, which is fair, but some did (all the psalms in kabbalat shabbat), and except for the Aleinu mess I have no complaints so far. There is some sort of short commentary or annotation at the bottom of more pages than not, and it's usually useful. And let me call out how refreshing it is to actually have more complete prayers with faithful translations in this siddur. Coming on the heels of Gates of Prayer, which played fast and loose with both, this is both welcome and overdue.

I had been assuming that I would buy my own copy of Mishkan T'filah. I'm a bit of a prayerbook junkie, and it's a natural thing to join my copies of GoP (both blue and gray) and a draft MT (2005). Now that I've seen the final edition, though, I'm not sure. I want to use it in my congregation for a while longer before deciding. It might turn out that the draft meets my home needs, and for travel I am more likely to take Eit Ratzon (which I just purchased, and which I had not heard of two weeks ago) because it's more complete, it's not as big, and it still has the niceties (commentary, meditations/kavanot, etc) that make either a better choice for me than Sim Shalom or Artscroll if I've got the room for a larger book. So, would I actually use MT if I bought it, or would I just be being a completist? I don't know yet. There's no rush.

NHC: services

The "H" in "NHC" stands for "havurah" [sic :-) ], which suggests a certain style of prayer: participatory, musical, casual. (I don't know if it's fair to equate chavurah with the Renewal movement, but there's clearly overlap.) The institute actually had a variety of services, and some of what I found surprised me.

First, there was a lot more of a traditional baseline in the contents than I expected. Most services used the Conservative siddur Sim Shalom, and there was often a tendency to not skip much. I don't know if that's typical of Renewal or if my characterization of this as Renewal is incorrect.

There was a traditional egalitarian service every day at 7AM, which I never went to because (1) I wanted to try other things and (2) ahem, 7AM. Thursday morning I went to the "cathedral of the pines" service (more on that below), which was somewhat similar to my weekday Conservative service but with more active participation. This service was described as "havurah style". (Maybe I just don't know what that phrase means; I think of my Shabbat morning minyan as chavurah style, and it involves more singing, participation, and ruach (spirit) than most of what I experienced at NHC.) Read more…

NHC round-up (part 1)

I'm home from the National Havurah Committee gathering (which I've come to think of informally as "JewCon"). As you might have guessed, I didn't write entries while there, so you get a dump in arbitrary order now. :-) Read more…

Baruch dayan ha-emet

Damn damn damn.

During Pennsic we learned that the reason Baron Len and Baroness Anna were absent (he was baron when I joined the SCA and she soon joined him on the thrones) was that she was in the hospital with a mysterious malady. Later in the week we learned that it had been diagnosed as pneumonia. She was in the hospital, being treated. That's supposed to be treatable these days. (She was not extremely old or in very poor health.)

In the last week there have been a couple messages on the baronial mailing list saying "still in ICU, still no visitors allowed". (I was watching this go by while out of town.) And today we got the message no one wanted to have to see.

What's especially sad about this to me is that, about a year and a half ago, Len fell ill with something mysterious. She was there for him and helped him recover once he got a diagnosis. Things were getting better. And now, after all this, she was stricken.

Len and Anna welcomed me into the SCA when I was a clueless college student, and taught me grace and maturity and how to live in society. If I learned a tenth of it, I count myself lucky.

NHC day 1 (brief)

My flight to Boston was uneventful (which is just what I want in a flight). Right before boarding I heard someone say "Monica? you're going to Boston?" -- it was someone returning home from Pennsic. I said something like "sorry, I didn't recognize you in regular clothes", and then someone sitting across from us (whose name I didn't learn) waved. Heh.

Magid kindly picked me up at the airport (yikes, Logan makes the Pittsburgh airport look like Hicksville -- glad I didn't have to navigate out of there), and after lunch at Ta'am China and a missed connection with someone else, we headed up to the NHC summer institute. Programming relevant to me started at 4 with a newcomers' orientation, which was more of a meet-and-greet than what I expected. This was followed by an opening session for everyone during which it became very, very clear that most of these people know each other (or at least know the movers and shakers). I felt very much the outsider; I'm glad I had Magid and TL and family to lean on a little. There are 370 people here, their biggest in a while.

There were two options for the evening program, offered by the institute's two artist guests of honor. (Ok, they call it "artist in residence", I think, but SF-con terminology has taken root.) They're different enough that scheduling them opposite each other didn't seem wrong to me. Magid and I were both feeling undecided when we were recruited to set up chairs for one of them and decided to stay. It was a one-man play, about which I might write more later.


I don't know when I'll get around to writing a fuller report, but here are a few bits. (Pictures will definitely have to wait until I get back from NHC.)

House: We almost certainly need a new axle. I have a lead (from Dave Cooper) on someone who can do the work, and Dave says the house can sit in N10 for a couple weeks while we arrange that. Whew! I was worried that they would need to move it to storage next week (as a different Cooper had implied), and that the bent axle would damage the new wheels and tires we just put on.

My camp-mates are wonderful for dealing with a lot of the hassles this caused for us this Pennsic. And I'm told that they changed tires today while I was at home for Shabbat. My ratio of problem-solving (or general usefulness) to problem-causing (directly or indirectly) was down this Pennsic, to my embarrassment. (Not just the house, though that's most of it.)

People: Christof who used to live here decided on the spur of the moment to come to Pennsic, so we were treated to his company for a few days. It was good to see him again, and I hope we can lure him back again soon.

Thursday night was my night to cook, and I was delighted that Galeran and his ensemble were able to come play background music for us (in exchange for dinner). They are entertaining, and I admire any group that tries to keep two harps in tune in Pennsic conditions. (If you have one many-stringed instrument, you simply mandate that everything else will retune to it during a performance if needed. Two is harder.)

I played visit-tag (that's like phone-tag, but in person) with assorted friends unsuccessfully. I did get to visit with Hlinspjalda and and Mr. Fixer for a few hours one day. It was nice to catch up with them. Their child is now as tall as I am.

Placeholder: Mr. Fixer and I had a thought-provoking conversation about Tisha b'Av that won't fit in the margin of this journal entry.

One of my camp-mates became ill Saturday night, to the point where they took her away in an ambulance. Initial suspicions involved food poisoning or a bug. Actual prognosis: gallbladder attack requiring surgery the next day. Oof. That sucks at any time, but especially when it costs you your vacation.

I visited with Yaakov and Rivka on their last planned day at Pennsic. Eventually I left so they could finish packing; a few hours later Yaakov came by my camp ("aren't you supposed to be gone by now?") to say that his car loved Pennsic so much that it decided to stay a while longer. We agreed that if all went well I would drive him to the repair place to pick up his car tomorrow, and if things went less well I would drive them all to the airport so they could get home for Shabbat and Tisha b'Av and deal with it later. (There was also an offer of hospitality in there, of course.) Things went well, so they were able to leave the next day.

Sign of changing Pennsic patterns: I was not too concerned about finding a parking space for my car on Thursday of the main week, because of all the cars I'd seen driving through the camp that day. And, in fact, I found a spot in row 9, an improvement over where I'd parked the previous Friday. Friday there were also lots of cars driving through camp; the break-down that used to be mainly on Saturday (with spill-over to Sunday) is now starting Friday or even Thursday for lots of people.

Performances: I thought our joint choir/consort performance went very well, and I heard a lot of good comments about it. I attended and enjoyed performances by I Sebastiani and I Genesii, both commedia dell'arte troupes. I missed the Pennsic Choir this year; I was cooking at the time, but they were doing a program of Christmas music so that wasn't high on my priority list anyway. Next year Arianna will be directing that choir.

Courts: Hrefna's elevation to the Order of the Laurel was Sunday night, at a baronial reception in the royal encampment. It mostly went well and she seemed to be very happy. Because she was trying for a period-appropriate ceremony (Norse), we waited until afterwards to present her with the ancestral fruitcake. (Well, some orders have ancestral medallions...) She got to pass it on on Tuesday night in kingdom court to much amusement. ("Is there a medallion? Is there a cloak? Is there an ancestral fruitcake?" I haven't seen the fruitcake openly called for before.)

I was pleased to see Byron and Ariella inducted into the Order of the Gage, AEthelmearc's mid-level fighting award.

Classes: The published class list left something to be desired -- specifically, a time-ordered listing. They published class descriptions sorted (not very well) by subject, and those descriptions included time and location, but this did nothing for the "I have time now; what's available?" problem. Some enterprising person noticed this and made up a schedule that was being sold for a couple dollars; we got one mid-week. Lots of people were grumbling about this, so I trust that this format won't be repeated next year.

Anyway, in part due to that and in part due to many classes having already passed by the time I arrived, I only went to one class -- the symposium on the Boreal Master. (Go ahead and Google it.) I shall have to give some thought to presenting a paper next year; this was too much fun. Especially fun was Dofinn-Hallr Morrisson's presentation on lyre technique. I didn't know a lyre could make those sounds...

War: The king of the East decided that the sides were too unbalanced to make for a fun war, so he conceded all the war points up front so the contests could be "just for fun". This struck me (and others) as kind of odd; I guess there are people who take winning Pennsic really, really seriously, but I don't tend to hang out with them. Fighting with wildly-unbalanced sides isn't fun; I've fought in wars where the ratio was 2:1 or 3:1, and either you get clobbered right out of the gate or you never get to engage, depending on which side you're on. So gross imbalance I understand. What I don't understand is what that had to do with this year; an interview with the Eastern king published by the newspaper quoted him as saying that they were down by 250 fighters. There are, what, 2000 or so fighters at Pennsic? 250 sounds like an advantage but not an insurmountable one.

Weather: Better than normal. It was often hot and humid but temperatures were in the 80s, not in the 90s. There was rain but mostly in shorter bursts, not the hours-at-a-time rains of years past (to say nothing of the days-at-a-time rains we've seen). A lot of the rain came at night, even.

There's other stuff I should probably write about, but we have to go back up tomorrow morning to finish breaking down the camp, and then I'm headed off to NHC, so I don't know when that will happen.