Blog: May 2009

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.


Thursday night was our first community-wide tikkun leil shavuot, or late-night torah study for the holiday of Shavuot. There were three sessions with eight classes each to choose from, taught by a total of 19 local rabbis. My goal was to take classes from rabbis I'd never studied with before. This ended up producing one Reform and two Chabad rabbis (I knew the one was Reform and had never heard of the other two), which wasn't quite the mix I was expecting.

The first class was called "the ups and downs of the Sinai journey: a close reading of Moses's two sojourns atop Mount Sinai". (Actually there were at least three, but he meant the two that involved bringing tablets down.) This class had promise (that's why I went), but the rabbi was trying to cover way too much territory for the time allotted, so that "close reading" wasn't very close. This would have been a good class at twice its length or with tighter editing. Oh well.

The second class was called "from Sinai to cyberspace: how ancient wisdom guides a modern world". I expected this to be about applications of torah law, or perhaps about ethics, or something like that. It was, in fact, a class about the oral law and an attempt to prove it must be correct. It was a very good class; the rabbi started by demonstrating that even "just" reading the text relies on a fair bit of oral tradition (how do you know what vowels to use and where the punctuation goes? and yes that does matter), and then went to various rabbinic teachings trying to substantiate the oral law being given at Sinai. One of these was a passage where Hillel tells a student, basically, "look, if you trust me to correctly teach you the alef-beit, you should trust me to teach you the oral law correctly". That doesn't actually follow, and I wouldn't have expected that from Hillel. A search for broader context might be good.

After the class I asked the rabbi who he is and where he teaches, and he said Chabad (and assured me that yes, women can learn there). I'm not sure how I feel about Chabad, but it's worth knowing about this particular rabbi (R. Yisroel Altein). I later looked at their (local) web site and they're very much oriented toward college students; I am visibly not in that age group, but the rabbi didn't comment on that. (They don't publish individual email addresses.)

The third class had little to do with its published title and was a rambling monologue (not interactive as the previous class had been). I found it hard to follow and would have left in search of something more appealing if I hadn't been sitting in a place that was hard to slip out of.

(I later asked one of the organizers, who said it had been like pulling teeth to get some of the rabbis to commit to topics. It sounds like some did not feel particularly constrained even after making that commitment. Sigh.)

A class I didn't take but was curious about was called "Shavuot and the Grateful Dead". I'm told the room was packed with younger folks. It wasn't about music; it was about midrashim about the revelation in which the Israelites died from the shock and had to be resurrected by angels. I wish I'd gone to that; it sounded like it was lively.

I heard there were about 400 people there. This was the first year, so no one knew what to expect, but the organizers were happy. I wish it had gone one more hour; after the last class ended at 1AM, people from the JCC were trying to push us out of the building so they could lock up and go home, but some of us were talking torah in the hallways and didn't want to leave. I could have gone from there to Kollel or Shaare Torah to continue learning, but it would not have been the same kind of cross-denominational interactive experience that I'd just had, so I ended up just going home.

Friday morning I went to my congregation for services and, as is becoming habitual, was asked to be one of the readers for the book of Ruth. This time I got the first chapter, which contains the "wherever you go I will go" declaration. It had some special resonance for me, and I had to concentrate a bit to stay on track during the reading. I've never gotten to read the first chapter in shul before. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Review: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (CLO, Pittsburgh)

This afternoon Dani and I went to see the CLO production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I am fond of the soundtrack and had seen one other production; Dani was unfamiliar with the show and I think didn't quite realize the tone it would take. We both enjoyed this production quite a bit. (If you don't know the story, see Genesis chapters 37-46, approximately. If you don't know the flavor of the show, you can find clips at the CLO site.)

There is schtick that doesn't come through on a soundtrack and that you have to see the show to get. I'm not sure what of this is written into the script and what is the work of the director. For example, I had not previously encountered the bit at the end of "One More Angel in Heaven", where the brothers are telling Yaakov about Yosef's "death" and pretending to mourn. Yaakov leaves the stage and the performance gets more enthusiastic -- a celebration instead of mourning. Then Yaakov comes back on stage and we get an "oh, oops" moment. That's not on the soundtrack I know. :-) Similarly, there's a bit of schtick after Paro "the King" performs his big piece where some of the children on stage rush him for autographs. Nicely done. Read more…

Digital estates

What happens to your digital life -- your email, your online games, your social-networking sites, your online banking, etc -- when you die? Some companies are selling services akin to safe-deposit boxes, so your heirs will be able to get your passwords and stuff. It's an interesting idea, but I think it has some (human-engineering) flaws.

The article raises privacy concerns, but that's the least of the practical issues to my mind. I don't know how I would blend encryption and the ability for a non-tech-savvy recipient to use it, but I think that problem could be solved. (Aside: the non-technical user is going to need a lot more than just a list of username/password pairs.) The much bigger problem I see is maintenance. How many passwords do you have? How often do you change them? Are you going to remember to update the records in your digital safe-deposit box every single time? Only for the important ones, you say? So when you created that throwaway account on eBay to buy one item you didn't bother, and then later you started selling there and didn't think to add it? Until the stored copy is as easy to use as clicking "remember password" in your web browser, it's going to be hard for people to use such a service properly. (And even "remember password" doesn't always do the right thing when you change a password.)

There's also a behavior issue on the other end: the service, of necessity, relies on someone asking for the stored contents. How does the heir know to do that? Can he do it via a phone call? I'm picturing my mother trying to deal with something like this for my father's accounts -- my mother who has never so much as used a web browser or sent email. It's a foreign world to her. Would she realize that it could be important for her to access my father's email? (Would she know if his email provider is auto-billing his credit card until he says to stop?) Or would she assume there's nothing there that matters, if she even thought about it at all?

All that said, the article does make me realize that this sort of thing is important. If something were to happen to Dani, I wouldn't know where all his digital homes are and which ones matter. Having this information available -- if we can also remember to keep it up to date, of course -- would be valuable. But we don't need a service with unproven security and high subscription fees for that. I think it's time to buy a pair of $5 thumb drives to keep in the drawers with the passports and insurance papers.

See also: accidental duplicate post with its own comments.


This Shabbat was my congregation's annual shabbat retreat. I look forward to this every year -- sorry to anyone who was looking for me at AEthelmearc War Practice this weekend, but this takes priority. This year was also exactly my tenth "anniversary" -- ten years ago on the 36th day of the Omer, on a Friday, in the morning I went to the mikveh and then in the afternoon I went to my first shabbaton. This past Friday was again the 36th day of the Omer. Nifty that it lined up like that. My rabbi let me read torah and he gave me a special blessing, there with the core community. Nice.

Friday night after dinner and services and usually some teaching, we have a singalong. Usually everything sung is at least one of: a Hebrew song, a folk song from the 60s, or an easy song whose lyrics are in the songsheets or Rise Up Singing. This year there was a second guitarist (so my rabbi didn't have to do it all) who brought his own musical preferences. So there were a lot of songs from the 40s, and I found they really didn't resonate for me at all. I wonder if today's college kids feel the same way about the music of the 60s as I do about the music of the 40s.

My rabbi always prepares a bunch of material for study, more than we ever get to. This might be the rabbinic equivalent of the Jewish mother: heaven forbid we should run out of food, so cook twice as much as you need. :-) (To be clear: I'm not complaining, and I would probably do the same thing in his place.) This year I perceived that he had not gone so far as he usually does, and I think he was also more relaxed. Some years it feels like everybody else gets to rest on the shabbaton but he doesn't; this year I think he did too. Whatever changed, I hope we can keep it.

There was an amusing glitch in communications with the campground. We're not sure how this happened, but as we were eating lunch someone came in to tell us that the climbing wall would be ready for us at 1:30. Climbing wall? Someone apparently thought we'd booked a climbing wall. We always have some unscheduled time at the shabbaton and this was during it, so a few people went and reportedly had fun (and no one broke anything). Since the description of the facility did not include big piles of fluffy pillows, I decided to pass. :-) (Actually, I don't think I'd be uncomfortable climbing up; it's getting back down that would bother me.)

I get different things out of the shabbaton each year -- sometimes the learning stands out, sometimes the prayer, sometimes other things. This year what stood out is the connection with the other people in the group. There were a few people there who I don't know well, and I got to know them a little better. And with everyone, it felt like we were all there for the same thing and people cared about each other. It was neat.

In a "small world" moment, as we were driving out at the end we drove past an archery range, and one of the people I was riding with said if he'd known he'd have brought his bow. So we talked about archery at one point, and in the process I mentioned the SCA, and he said "do you know Gwilym?". Heh. They were coworkers for many years.

Midrash session 6

When last we left our heroes, Avraham and Yitzchak were on their way to the sacrifice and the satan was stirring up trouble between them. Continuing: Read more…

Changing worship modes

This is nothing new, but in recent months I have become more attuned to the variety of so-called "innovations" in worship -- everything from meditation to yoga to poetry (replacing liturgy) to interpretive dance (!) -- and I finally figured out one of the things that bugs me about it. Understand that, at some level, if it works for you then it's no bother to me except to the extent that you then interfere with me. But it doesn't tend to work for me, and I realized recently a big reason why: I have barely begun to plumb the depths of the traditional forms, and not only am I not ready to stray beyond that, but I feel I would be incapable of understanding a change of this sort if I didn't already understand the foundation upon which it's supposed to be built.

(There are other reasons, including that some of this tickles my "weird" meter, but that's a separate discussion. I mean, there's plenty of weirdness in mainstream Judaism too. Like, rejoicing while waving three branches and a piece of fruit around? Really? But I digress.)

A couple things have brought this to mind: Read more…