An Ultra-Orthodox Jew on Being Adrift, Searching for a Navigator

Writing in The New York Times, Leah Vincent reflects on her upbringing as one of eleven children in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and finding romance on the Q train:

I had been raised in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. As a girl, my life had revolved around modesty, obedience and dreams of an arranged marriage at 18, followed by a dozen children. Popular movies were irrelevant and forbidden.

But it had been six years since my parents ostracized me for having written letters to a boy, wanting to go to college, complaining when my father, a prominent rabbi, used a slur to describe an African-American person, and wearing an immodest sweater that highlighted my curves. Six years of wrestling with my forbidden desires.

I had finally given up on God and decided I would allow myself to be liberated from the confines of my faith. Now I was catching up on what I had missed.

I loved this paragraph:

Luke was different from those random flings. We talked like old friends about books, Brooklyn, our lives. The next morning, when we hugged goodbye, it felt as if we had already shed a layer of defenses that usually took months to peel away. Our connection seemed deep and profound. On my way home, I let myself imagine what it might be like to wake up every morning with him. I tried on his last name. I wondered what kind of father he might be.

There’s a twist in the story that I wasn’t expecting, but I liked the optimism of her final sentence.

If you enjoyed the piece, you might want to purchase Vincent’s upcoming book: Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood.

Overhauling the Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs in America

As Jews celebrate the new year tonight, leaders in the largest branch of Judaism, the Reform movement, are starting an initiative to stop the attrition by reinventing the entire bar and bat mitzvah process. Laurie Goodstein, writing for The New York Times:

The problem Jewish leaders are trying to tackle is deeper than the perennial lament about ostentatious bar mitzvah parties, revived last month with a YouTube video from Dallas of a bar mitzvah boy hoofing it with Vegas-style showgirls.

Their concern is that they have built up the bar mitzvah worship service as the pinnacle, putting children through a lot of time and effort geared to preparing them for a daylong event. Rabbis said in interviews that the event has become more a private service for the bar mitzvah family and friends than a communal event for the congregation.

Children and their families go through what some rabbis call an “assembly line” that produces Jews schooled in little more than “pediatric Judaism,” an immature understanding of the faith, its values and spirituality. Most students deliver a short speech about the meaning of the Torah passage they were assigned to read, but they never really learn to understand or speak Hebrew, only to decode the text.

The new initiative by the Reform movement, a liberal branch that claims 1.5 million of the nation’s estimated 6 million Jews, is called B’nai Mitzvah Revolution.

Interesting. I wonder how successful it will be. This comment at The Times is thought-provoking:

Laurie Goodstein’s article about reviving the bar/bat mitzvah is well written. Unfortunately, there is nothing new about the “new look” of the American bar/bat mitzvah. As a former Reform rabbi, I heard and read endless variations of responses to the dilemma of the bar mitzvah/religious school industrial complex for decades. Efforts to include good deeds and social action in the process of bnei mitzvah study have been underway for generations, as have efforts to rewrite the Sabbath morning service to make the bar/bat mitzvah more “meaningful”. Such efforts, however, ignore the basic truth that, for most Reform Jews (and Jews of the other reformed movements), Judaism is a matter of nostalgia, not belief. It is a cultural identity, to be taken out of the drawer during life cycle events and then put back again. There is no getting around the fact that Judaism is based upon a belief in a Jewish God who issued Jewish commandments, not just good or humane ideas. If a Jewish child grows up in a family that does not believe in or follow such a God or such commandments–however moral that family may be–that child will not feel he or she is entering a religious community in any real sense. Do I have the answer? The fact that today I am a Zen Buddhist will tell you. I wish these well-intentioned rabbis and congregants luck, but unless they look issues of belief–belief specific to Judaism–squarely in the face, their efforts will be frustrated.


The Aleppo Codex Mystery

How and why did 200 pages of the Aleppo Codex (Hebrew: כֶּתֶר אֲרָם צוֹבָא‎), the oldest, most complete, most accurate text of the Hebrew Bible, go missing? Ronen Bergman investigates in a thrilling piece for New York Times Magazine:

For a thousand years after the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, the Jewish holy scriptures — the five parts of the Torah and 19 other holy books — were copied and passed down in the various Jewish communities from generation to generation. Some of these texts, according to Jewish faith, were handed down directly by God and included signs, messages and codes that pertained directly to the essence of existence. The multiplicity of manuscripts and the worry that any change or inaccurate transcription would lead to the loss of vital esoteric knowledge created the need for a single, authoritative text. And beyond its mystical significance, a unified text was also necessary to maintain Jewish unity after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Roman Empire. As Adolfo Roitman, the head of the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls and parts of the codex are displayed, said: “One can regard the thousand years between the scrolls and the codex, the millennium during which the standardization of the text was carried out, as a metaphor for the effort of the Jewish people to create national unity. One text, one people, even if it is scattered to the four ends of the earth.”

According to tradition, early in the sixth century, a group of sages led by the Ben-Asher family in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, undertook the task of creating a formal and final text. The use of codex technology — a method that made it possible to record information on both sides of a page, in book form, as a cheaper alternative to scrolls — had already evolved in Rome. Around A.D. 930, the sages in Tiberias assembled all 24 holy books and completed the writing of the codex, the first definitive Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. From Tiberias, the codex was taken to Jerusalem. But Crusaders laid waste to the city in 1099, slaughtering its inhabitants and taking the codex. The prosperous Jewish community of Fustat, near Cairo, paid a huge ransom for it. Later, in the 12th century, it served Maimonides, who referred to it as the most accurate holy text, as a reference for his major work, the Mishneh Torah. In the 14th century, the great-great-great-grandson of Maimonides migrated to Aleppo, bringing the codex with him. There it was kept, for the next 600 years, in a safe within a small crypt hewed in the rock beneath Aleppo’s great synagogue.

The story of what happened next — how the codex came to Israel and where the missing pages might have gone — is a murky and often contradictory one, told by many self-serving or unreliable narrators. In his book, “The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible,” published in May by Algonquin Books, the Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman presents a compelling and thoroughly researched account of the story, some of which served as the catalyst for additional reporting here.

This piece is a contender for one of the best longreads of 2012. Continue reading here.