James Edward Johnson

my thoughts from right to left

Posts Tagged ‘davening

The meditating Jews of Fairfield, Iowa …

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… is the topic of my recent piece in PresenTense magazine (available here).  The community is very unique and I hope people find the piece worthwhile.

However, there was also much that I was unfortunately unable to include in the piece due to space limitations.  Here just a few of them:

One of Fairfield’s residents is Emo Baer.  You can buy his self-published autobiography through resellers at Amazon.  It is an interesting book that follows a diary-like story written by Emo later in life, but recalling the earlier events in his life.  It illustrates his life fleeing Nazi Germany, settling in pre-state British Palestine, serving in various wars, and, eventually, following his family into Transcendental Meditation (TM) and half-way around the globe to Fairfield.

Haim Menashehoff is briefly mentioned in my PresenTense piece, but his story is much more interesting than I had room to describe.  He got tired of “running from Muslims” in the streets of Tehran, even during the time of the Shah.  After making aliyah to Israel, he traveled the world as an artist and settled in South Africa for a while before eventually being more fully drawn to TM.  That interest eventually pulled him to Fairfield.

An issue I could not explore in the article is something that our Orthodox Jewish friends would find familiar.  I mentioned the golden domes (note the plural) in Fairfield, but never explored why there was more than one.  TM is, presumably for reasons not dissimilar to Orthodox davening, practiced in gender separated environments.  There is a men’s dome and a women’s dome in Fairfield.  This is just one of a few more traditional aspects of a practice that is seen as non-traditional by many outsiders.

Fairfield is a very interesting place and it is worth visiting if you want to get a picture of one of Iowa’s more diverse communities.  Congregation Beth Shalom has a nice background on the Fairfield Jewish community on their website if you are interested.

One more thing.  I also was unable to properly recognize Ben Winkler and Yael Yaar for their help on the story.  Ben spent a fair deal of time with me helping me get a feel for Fairfield.  Yael was indespensible for helping me understand the intellectual, ideological, and religious dynamics at play.  Even though they were not mentioned in the final edited draft, both played a huge part in the story.

Written by JamesEJ

Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 11:18 pm

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This Shabbat in Iowa City … The importance of egalitarianism in the Jewish hinterland (3 of 3)

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Devra the Davener?

This is part one of a three part series. – Read Part 1 – The Torah portion – Va-ethannan Part 2 – Getting a minyan and Part 3 – The importance of egalitarianism in the Jewish hinterland.

Judaism cleaves largely between liberal Judaism and orthodox Judaism.  Within each there are many subcategories, but these are the two most significant groupings.  The principal difference is the role of Jewish law, known as halacha.  Orthodox Judaism accepts very few modifications to halacha and those modifications are grounded heavily in major historical realities, like the destruction of the Temples.  Liberal Judaism revises halacha to better suit Judaism to modern life.  Even orthodox halacha  allows adaptations to modern life, but those adaptations tend to be oriented towards practical solutions that allow adherents to both obey halacha and live a modern life without any direct modification of halacha.

Iowa City’s synagogue is affiliated with two liberal streams of Judaism.  There is also a Chabad House in Iowa City  that observes orthodox halacha.

A few innovations implemented by most streams of liberal Judaism have helped Iowa City have minyanim far more regularly:

First, driving (which is generally forbidden on Shabbat) is permitted for the purpose of attending religious services.  Driving involves creating a spark or fire, which is prohibited in orthodox Judaism, but liberal Judaism creates an exception for the purpose of attending services.

Second, conversion to Judaism under liberal Jewish auspices is recognized in liberal congregations, but not orthodox congregations.  In a place like Iowa City, where there are many mixed marriages that lead to conversion for the originally non-Jewish spouse.  The broader rule is helpful here because many of those conversions are not orthodox conversions.

Third, and most importantly, liberal Jewish congregations, with very few exceptions, count women for the minyan.  Traditionally, only men counted.  There were many reasons for this, some of which were more legitimate than others, but all of which had the practical effect of excluding women from minyanim.   Obviously, counting women doubles the number of potential people who are available for a minyan.

On this past Shabbat, counting women was critical.  Without the women, there would have been no minyan.  We would not have read from the Torah.

If you need a male-only orthodox minyan, it can be obtained in Iowa City, but it is much more difficult.  Chabad will be of tremendous help in such a case, but it is wise to seek such a minyan well in advance.  Certainly, expecting an orthodox minyan to appear on a weekly basis (let alone at weekday times for mourners’ and others’ needs), is foolish in Iowa City … particularly in the summer.

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Monday, July 26, 2010 at 5:30 pm

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This Shabbat in Iowa City … Getting a minyan (2 of 3)

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Agudas Achim Congregation in Iowa City, Iowa.

This is part one of a three part series. – Read Part 1 – The Torah portion – Va-ethannan Part 2 – Getting a minyan and Part 3 – The importance of egalitarianism in the Jewish hinterland.

A minyan is an assembly of ten Jews.  Who counts in determining if you have ten will be considered in the next post.  The focus here is the number ten.

Certain religious activities require a minyan.  One is reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer.  Another is reciting the Torah in the morning service.  Both of these are routinely important reasons to gather a minyan – even among more liberal Jews.

The problem that some communities in Iowa have is that there aren’t ten Jews in town …  or at least not ten who are healthy enough to regularly make it to the synagogue.  There are a fair number of dwindling and aging communities.  A handful of Iowa City Jews make a periodic trip to Ottumwa, an Iowa town experiencing this problem, just to bring a minyan to them.

Iowa City is the sort of place that should not have this problem.  There are at least a couple hundred Jewish families here.  Unfortunately, this is also a University town and that means people are gone a lot in the summer (not to mention that many are apathetic year-round).  On Friday evenings during the academic year there is usually a minyan at both the one synagogue and Hillel.  But, in the summer it is not surprising if a Shabbat morning service fails to get its required ten.

On this past Shabbat, it looked like we might fail to get a minyan about an hour after the service was scheduled to begin (services often run over two hours, but they start late and the minyan really matters about an hour or so into the service).  In Iowa City, it is routine that someone will leave  services and start making calls (Jews reading this should consider the Halachic implications) to gather the last few of a minyan.  I work about two blocks from the synagogue and, for occasional non-Shabbat services, I have received such a call and made the minyan.

This Shabbat turned out to be ok.  We actually had twelve Jews gathered together by the time we read from the Torah.  If we had been missing just three of them we would not have read it.  That is a small margin upon which to rely.

Many Jews in more densely Jewish areas never have this experience.  In Iowa, one in 500 people are Jewish; in New York, one in eleven are Jewish. Many places that are more Jewish than Iowa have many minyanim throughout the week.  It is a unique challenge to be a Jew in Iowa and this is a big part of that challenge.  Jews in places like this have to be proportionately more active just to meet basic religious needs.

Written by JamesEJ

Sunday, July 25, 2010 at 12:02 pm

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This Shabbat in Iowa City … The Torah portion – Va-ethannan (1 of 3)

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Mezuzah

A mezuzah, which is affixed to the door posts of Jewish homes, contains a scroll with the Hebrew words of the Shema.

This is part one of a three part series. – Read Part 1 – The Torah portion – Va-ethannan Part 2 – Getting a minyan and Part 3 – The importance of egalitarianism in the Jewish hinterland.

On every Shabbat morning, Jews read a part of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, at morning services.  On the Jewish calendar, we read a section of the Torah each week such that we read the entire Torah every year.  This week, we read Va-ethannan, which is the second portion of Deuteronomy, or in transliterated Hebrew, Devarim.

This portion is unusually significant.  It contains two passages that are of major importance.  The first, which is recognizable to Jews and Christians alike, is that the portion contains one of the recitations of the Ten Commandments.

While Jews have 613 commandments in the Torah, there is no doubt that these ten are of elevated importance.  They appear in Jewish iconography and, as tablets, were the material representation of the entire Torah covenant between God and the Jewish people.    While today synagogues have arks to hold their Torah scrolls, the original ark in the Tabernacle and later in the First Temple contained these tablets.

Hearing the Ten Commandments read aloud in the synagogue in Hebrew is an important experience that happens only twice a year.  They are read first in Exodus, or in transliterated Hebrew, Shemot.  This week was their second reading.

The other passage of tremendous importance this week was the recitation of the Shema.  In English it reads, “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”  In transliterated Hebrew, it reads, “Shema, Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad.”  This is the only time it is recited in the Torah and if there is a single passage of Hebrew that a Jew knows, it is this one.  Observant Jews recite it every morning and every night and at every service.  According to the command following this verse, they bind the words in little boxes on their arms and forehead each morning, and affix them in little containers to their door posts.  If able, Jews should try to make these their last words.  Even very non-observant Jews do some of these.  There is no other verse that receives even remotely this level of attention.

In short, if one is compelled to come to services based on the content of the portion, this week was uniquely compelling.  It is interesting, therefore, that in Iowa City, there was a risk that we would be unable to read it.  And, indeed, in many Iowa towns, they probably did not read it.  That will be the subject of the next part.

Written by JamesEJ

Saturday, July 24, 2010 at 8:45 pm

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Fasting and not on Tisha B’Av.

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I have always thought Tisha B’Av (which commemorates various calamities experienced by the Jews), was the worst Jewish holiday.  You are not supposed to enjoy things on this day, which ended at sundown on Tuesday.  I slept on the floor without a pillow, abstained from caloric food and drink, did not wear leather shoes at work, avoided greeting people …

However, my fasting was not all it ought to be and was considerably less (except the sleeping on the floor part) than what I do for Yom Kippur (the Jewish day of atonement).  I went to work, drank non-caloric liquids, wore antiperspirant, showered, biked to work, worked, and probably a few other things I ought not have done.

While I feel some guilt, I don’t feel much.  Tisha B’Av is, in some ways, an un-Jewish Jewish  holiday.  The Jewish spirit is not defined by lamenting our suffering, but by overcoming it.  It is not about wallowing in death and pain, but in celebrating life.  So, my failure is, in some ways, an expression of my Jewish spirit.

However, this year, I had two friends recount good memories of past experiences during Tisha B’Av.  We read Eicha (Lamentations) by candlelight in a beautiful service.  The melody of Eicha captures the mood in a stirring way.  I am not sure I will believe it is not the worst holiday, but these friends deserve credit for giving it new light.

Written by JamesEJ

Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 8:00 am

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Wrapping tefillin

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I began wrapping tefillin on Monday. It takes some effort to awaken oneself in order to properly daven first thing in the morning. However, it is worth it.

Usually, I might wake up, hit snooze a few times, take a shower, … until finally I had regained my consciousness. Davening in the morning compels me to be awake just moments after I arise from my slumber. It starts my day right and allows me to be directed as I begin my day. Hopefully, I’ll keep it up.

Written by JamesEJ

Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 7:23 am

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