Neil Manel Frau-Cortes' blog on music, Judaism and new technologies


Admittedly, it would be disingenuous from me to tackle this subject without two big disclaimers. First, I come from a culture where openly commenting on what somebody is wearing is quite a taboo. One does not tell a person that her clothes are out of fashion, or that he is not dressed for the occasion, the reason being that you have no idea of this person’s circumstances. It may well be that he just does not own better clothes; or she could be too poor or too sick to spend time thinking about wardrobe. However, I am also an American. Here clothes make the man and, up to a certain point, I am willing to play with the rules of the game. The second major disclaimer is that those who know me personally will tell you that I am the kind of guy you see wearing Hawaiian shirts and noticeable large earrings to work, or that if we cross paths in the warmer season outside of work, I could be walking down the street in nice linen clothes but barefoot. It is the islander in me, what can I say. Nevertheless, I do know how to dress up in business suit or even in black tie. Knowing how, however, doesn’t mean that I accept it and even less that I like it.

Here you have three anecdotes so that you understand where I come from. First story: I was hired by some Jewish day school where I was supposed to teach music with an emphasis on Hebrew as vehicular language. It is the day before classes, so not a kid to be seen in the building yet. All the teachers are cleaning up classrooms, decorating, and preparing materials. It is a rather dusty environment so I am dressed comfortably, in a tie dye T-shirt and Thai pants. The principal calls me apart and comments on my attire: “That’s a beautiful shirt. Kids would love it… but from Monday on, please dress professionally.” Then she proceeds to inform me about their business casual dress code, which I ostensibly ignored for the rest of the year. Don’t get me wrong, during my tenure there, I was always correctly attired, but I wasn’t up for dressing boringly. Dress shoes and a tie do not make you more professional; they simply make you more conventional, and perhaps less threatening to the status quo. Second story: it happened to a friend but may as well had happen to me. He was invited to a local Pride fundraiser. A very committed activist for trans rights, he happens also to be a creative, rather unconventional fellow, so he arrived to the event wearing a tuxedo but barefoot, as he just never wear shoes. At this LGBTQ event celebrating diversity, mind you, the organizers were narrow-minded enough to deny him admission even after paying an outrageously expensive ticket for his dinner. His being a barefooter did not fit the mold of normalcy they aimed for. It makes one question when did queer identity become framed in such a narrow cage. Third and final anecdote: it is one of my first Shabbats at an unnamed synagogue. I was partnered with the rabbi, I am ordained myself, and yet I was working there as a volunteer, no salary; that is, I am offering for free services that in any other circumstances I would be well paid for. I am wearing dress pants, a nice silk shirt and leather sandals. A shul-lady wearing a sleeveless top looks me from head to toe with disapproval. Then she comments to the president of the synagogue: “I thought sandals for men were not allowed on the bimah.” Something tells me that if we were to abide by traditional tzeniut (and I do not advocate for that at all), a sleeveless woman would be slightly more objectionable than a guy in sandals.

Dress codes are about eliminating uniqueness and individuality. The concept of dress code often raises in us images of a necessary evil. People chose to believe that it is all in the name of professionality; that whenever there is no dress code, chaos and excess ensue; or even that we wouldn’t need dress codes if people were better educated regarding what is appropriate or not. In reality, dress codes are usually repressive and arbitrary rules with a single purpose: uniformizing and even depersonalizing people. The aim of the most strict dress codes (such as the army’s or that of dictatorial regimes) is to kill individuality so that we become a mass of anonymous peons, pieces of a well oiled machine. Furthermore, be it political oppression or company policy, dress codes operate on the assumption that the higher-ups know better and individuals do not know how to act. At its best, they are patronizing if not blatantly oppressive.

Dress codes are heteronormative (or, if you allow me, cisgender-normative). In our times, the general understanding of gender equality has remarkably improved, compared to that of previous generations. Nevertheless, we still have a lot to learn regarding the construction of gender and the full spectrum of gender embodiment. Dress codes are often a heteronormative relique. For instance, think of business casual and gender equality: while males are severely limited to dark suit and tie, women have a wider range of models and colors. If we add queer people and gender-bending individuals to the equation, dress codes force us to wear whatever is “appropriate” to the gender written in our IDs and to its conventions, no matter if it accurately represents who we are. In one of the schools I graduated from people did not wear academic gowns, but gender-specific attire. The unwritten dress code consisted of suits for men and whatever-is-dressy for women. I insisted on wearing a nice, colorful Indian shirt and dress pants. And yet, I was not dressed as a hippy because I am lazy. I was expressing my creativity and my identity as a queer man. In any way I was less elegant or respectful than my female classmates.

In fact, it is my opinion that we should all be as proactive on denouncing this heteronormativity as the boys who wore dresses to school in order to protest an unnecessary and restrictive dress code policy whose aim was avoiding that guys had long hair or earrings.

Dress codes limit creativity and self-expression. If the principal agreed that “the kids would love” my colorful shirts, and if I am supposed to teach them music, art, self-expression, how on earth is it going to help this purpose if I wear anodyne business casual stuff? Would that make me any closer to the young students? Schools and religious institutions are particularly fond of this paradox. We want people to feel connected with Spirit, to daven in a holistic, embodied way, to feel at home in their spiritual community, and yet we expect the clergy (or even the congregants) to dress like they are going to a board meeting. We want kids to fully develop their creativity and explore their artistic site, and yet we tell them open toe shoes and pink hair are a reason to be sent home with a note to their parents.

Dress codes are culturally homogenizing. Western world standards for dress code do not necessarily agree with what is expected in other cultures. Our work environment is diverse and multicultural, but we still think that there is only one way of correctness. Why shouldn’t it be acceptable for an Indian lady to wear an elegant sari to a work conference? What if males of a particular culture dress up by wearing kilts, dishdasha, or a Boukharian kippah? In what ways would you consider this or this to be underdressed for business or academic purposes? Inforcing westernized random dress codes may reveal a lack of sensibility to cultural diversity.

Dress codes are a not a Jewish value. Many of you will not agree with me in this. My idea is that as Jews we value diversity and individual expression. We value chidur, beauty, and art as a form of worship. We value equality, and we are called not to judge anybody by the price tag of their clothes, by the wealth, or by their appearance. We are challenged to treat everybody as equally worthy. It is true that some segments of our community seem rather obsessed with particular attires. I feel often rather concerned when people bring up tzeniut as a set of rules to be enforced, poorly hiding their sexism. Once one of my classmates –a guy who identified as modern Orthodox, and wore kippah and tsitsit– was ranting about tzeniut and how the school should offer advice to “non-observant” female students of what is appropriate to wear to class (of course by “non-observant” he meant “non-observant the exact way I observe”!). While I don’t share his view, I respect this tradition. The problem was that this fellow had a half open shirt and rather short cut-offs. It made me think that there is way too much written about female tzeniut and a lot less about men’s. Modesty in dress, as a value, has nothing to do with the length of your sleeves, but with your self-respect, and your demeanor.

Can we reconstruct a social use of dress code that is diversity affirming and educational? And, in a Jewish context, is it everything about dress codes, about tzeniut norms ultimately negative? Is there anything redeemable, something we can learn from it?  In my opinion, strict, one-size-fits-all norms are a mistake. Instead of norms, we should aim at teaching values. Both in the Jewish community and in broader society, the values we want to sponsor are diversity, self-expression in respect to other people, and positive embodiment. I think there is nothing inherently wrong about celebrating the human body and its beauty. However, there is something alarming at the way we voluntarily sexualize the body, and this is even worse when we objectivize women or when, chas ve-shalom, we sexualize children. If you have ever been to a bar mitzvah where the kid in question wears an alarmingly short skirt and a skimpy dress badly covered by her talit, ‘nuff said.



Following my (relatively) recent post about dragons and mermaids in the Bible, today I want to explore another subject that has to do with mythical beasts: the symbolism of horns and unicorns in Judaism. If you thought that unicorns are just honor members of a much-later medieval bestiary, you will be surprised to know that the King James Bible uses the word “unicorn” no less than six times (Num 23:22, Num 24:8. Job 39:9-10, Psalm 29:6, Psalm 92:10), although surprisingly other versions of the Bible translate the same word as “ox,” “wild-ox” or other horned animals. The problem is that these oxes seem to have a single horn, as implied by a text we recite twice every Shabbat: “you raise my horn (not ‘horns’) like that of the triumphant ox (or unicorn).” So these are the questions: are there unicorns in the Bible? And how do we read the metaphor of raising somebody’s horn in Jewish culture?

The Hebrew word usually translated as “unicorn” is ראם (re’em), a term of uncertain meaning. G. Dennis defines the re’em as a mythic giant ox-like animal with horns, or perhaps with a single horn. Let us explore what rabbinic literature and Jewish myth tell us about these unicorns. Very strong and agile, the re’em is so big that its horn touches the clouds and its droppings can dam the river Jordan (Yalkut II: 97d). The re’em was created on the sixth day of creation, that is, at the same time that the Divine created human beings and the rest of animals not included on the 5th day. Apparently, the legend says that there are only two re’emim (plural of re’em) at a time, and that they only mate every 70 years. After mating, the female re’em kills the male. The next pair gestate in the female for at least 12 years, and then the female dies while giving birth. It is said that King David inadvertently mistook a re’em for a mountain and climbed on it (B.B. 73a). Of course, the biblical and rabbinic legends about the re’em are later conflated with popular beliefs about unicorns in medieval writings.

The essence of this mythological beast is, obviously, his prominent horn, in Hebrew קרן, keren. Horns are the symbol of power, of alarm and of other-worldliness. A midrash says that Cain sprouted a horn from his forehead as a mark given by God in order to protect him, but his semi-blind grandson Lemach accidentally killed him thinking he was a game animal. Based on Ex. 34:29, early Christians depicted Moses as having horns, as light was radiating from his face, and because the Hebrew language uses the word keren also to mean “rays of light” (קרני אור). This representation of a horned Moses (see, for instance, Michelangelo’s sculpture) influenced the Christian myth that Jews were minions of the Devil. Popular belief was that Jews actually had real horns under their head cover, a myth reinforced by the mandatory wearing of horned hats.

The fact is that in medieval Europe Jewish males were forced to wear a single-horned skull cap or pilleus cornutus. It begun by being just another shape of the traditional head covering, but quickly became mandatory in order to distinguish Jews from Christians. The law was based on the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215), which ruled that non-Christians must at all times be distinguishable by their dress, less Christians engage in sexual intercourse with them by mistake. Through the centuries, the wearing of the horned hat was substituted in other countries by the wearing of a badge, a trend that continued down to Nazi Germany. Rules of distinctive garb for Jews were also enforced in the Muslim world continuously at least until mid 19th century. In European art, the wearing of the horned hat is often symbolic: Egyptian magicians are depicted wearing it too, as a sign of being “like Jews,” that is, on the wrong side of the dispute depicted in Ex. 7:10-12; in scenes of Judgment Day conversions, removing the Jewish hat is a symbol of abandoning infidelity and recalcitrant Jewishness. On the other hand, antisemitic depictions of the male Jew –not unlike later prejudices against black males in our country— regularly included being a sexual predator that targeted gentile women, and some authors argue that a long “shapely” nose was nothing but a code for the Jewish phallus.

The point is that, for some primal, etiological reason, many cultures have equated the symbolism of the horn to that of the phallus, with implications of strength and ruling power. Going back to the Bible, the word “horn” appears often in the text in a literal, functional way, but also in a metaphorical sense. Here and there we have faint hints of horns and magic-ritual uses in the Bible. Thus Zedekiah made for himself (or perhaps for the king) a cap with horns of iron, saying “thus says Hashem: with these you shall push the Syrians until they are destroyed” (1Kings 22:11), the idea being that the wearer of the horns would be transformed in an invincible, triumphant bull. The concept of kings as “young bulls with horns” was quite common in the ancient Near East (Shalmeneser III, Thutmose III and Seti II all receive this epithet). The whole tribe of Efraim is poetically described in these terms: “his glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together” (Dt 33:17). Once again, the King James Bible’s “unicorn” is none but the re’em in the original Hebrew.

In another interesting biblical epithet God is described as “the horn of my salvation” (Ps 18:2, 2Sam 22:3). This implies that horns not always have the connotation of attack or destruction, but also positive implications of deliverance and not-so-veiled phallic allusions, as the texts imply vertical representations of raising horns. Such is the case of “my horn is lifted up like the horn of the wild-ox (or unicorn, re’em), I am anointed with fresh oil,” which arguably could represent the erection as a symbol of power and victory. Redemption and strength for the future messiah are reflected in the phrase “I will make a horn to sprout for David” (Jer 48:25). One can easily read a castration metaphor when “the horn of Moab is cut” (meaning that Moab’s political domination is over). Note that in all of these cases, the texts mention one single horn, not a pair of them.

Despite the contemporary commercialized, sanitized version of the unicorn myth, unicorns also have a close link to phallicism, that is, the veneration of the generative principle in the form of a phallus. As both phallus and horn are symbols of primal masculinity (only male animals have horns), as such they have connotations of both destruction-agression (the horn as a weapon) and generative powers. The cornucopia –the “horn of abundance,” a classical symbol of Western art, often related in America to Thanksgiving– is depicted as a horn-shaped container overflowing with produce, flowers and nuts. This is an interesting symbiosis, as the masculine/horn symbol has a fecundity effect in the feminine/earth abundant harvest. Of particular interest are the many mythical beings depicted with horns, often inspired in anthropomorphic gods, as many of the moon-cult (think of the inverted crescent shape in the head of a figure) and bull-cult deities are represented with horns. Pan, Apollo Carneus and Dionysus are all horned gods with phallic implications, and they have been linked to fertility, a certain ritual madness, and religious ecstasy. We find similar connections in the myths related to Shiva, Osiris, Priapus, Hermes, Cernunnos, etc. It is quite interesting that Christianity turned the images of these horned gods into representations of the devil, the antithesis of God and incarnation of destructive passions as much as of unruly sexuality. To me, it is a symbol of the Christian discomfort, if not plain rejection, of anything related to the body and to sexuality.

And thus we close the circle. In this totum revolutum of popular imagination, Jews –perceived as horned creatures of insatiable and disorderly sexuality— conflate with images of alterity, of ancient gods and modern devils, sitting together around the fire, dancing the primal, generative dance of the unicorn.



Bienstock Anolik, Ruth and Douglas L. Howard, edit. The Gothic other: racial and social constructions in the literary imafination. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2004, p. 188.

Davis, Christian. Colonialism, antisemitism and Germans of Jewish Descent in Imperial Germany. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015, p. 103

Dennis, Geoffrey W. The Encyclopedia of Jewish myth, magic and mysticism, Woodbury MN : Llewellyn, 2007, pp. 117, 122-123.

“Jewish hat,” Wikipedia [, accessed Dec. 29, 2015]

Mystery, Mel, “Unicorns and phallic horns,” Discovering the male mysteries podcast, episode 10, May 18, 2014 [, accessed Dec. 29, 2015]

Süring, Margit L., “The horn-motifs of the Bible and the ancient Near East,” Andrews University Seminary Studies, Autumn 1984, Vol. 22 no. 3, pp. 327-340

There are subjects one cannot afford to write about right away, things that need some time and reflection, cooling down, perhaps a change of circumstances like not having a pulpit anymore. So there you go, let’s talk about bene mitzvah (that’s the plural of bar / bat mitzvah), the quintessential rite of passage we all love to hate.

On my way to work, and given the season, I pass in front of a neighbor’s yard, scarcely decorated for the holidays, where a lawn sign reminds passers-by that it is time to “keep Christ in Christmas.” To me Christmas is overwhelming: the crowds going crazy at the malls, season’s songs pumping from loudspeakers since shortly after Halloween, and the overall commercialization of the event. I imagine that if Jesus’ birth were central to my faith, this pageant of consumerism would be almost insulting. My neighbor’s message is clear: celebrating Christmas is all good and well if you believe, but do not take away the real meaning of the holiday.

I believe we have done pretty much the same with bene mitzvah (from now on, BM), a name that means “sons or daughters of the precept.” We have just taken the mitzvah away and made it all about sons and daughters, introducing in it a serious devirtualization. This rite of passage –rather new in our cultural history– marks the moment where Jews are considered adults, and thus responsible for the observance of the commandments, a new status they mark by getting the honor of being called to the Torah and counted for minyan for the first time, an action often accompanied by another adulthood responsibility, leading the prayers. Therefore, let’s ask ourselves what should BM be and what have they become instead.

1. BMs are not passive sacraments. In spite of the common usage, the passive participle barmitzvaed does not exist. Kids reach the age of BM or celebrate their BM, but the ritual is not sacramental, that is, not an hocus-pocus that makes you Jewish. What is more, it will happen anyway, at age 13, ready or not, ceremony or not: you will be an adult in Jewish terms. You may skip your birthday cake the day you turn 18, but you will still be an adult and have the right to vote.

2. BMs are a community celebration, not a family affair. The congregation receives a new member with full rights by giving him or her a role in the service. Instead, it has become a day where families exert full pressure on ritual committees imposing their demands, and everybody accepts it thinking that it’s a “family function” and not a kehilah function. I have seen parents requesting that for their BM the whole congregation should use a children’s siddur, or that all aliyot should be given to family members, or that they want a minchah BM so that only family and friends attend and the kid doesn’t feel intimidated. So much for a kehilah affair.

3. BMs are a beginning of a life of learning and mitzvot, not a graduation from Judaism. Let’s face it: as soon as the last of their kids is “barmitzvaed” most families leave the synagogue. Parents can’t wait for Hebrew school obligations to finish and they shamelessly verbalize it. What is worse, rabbis, cantors and ritual committees buy into it without sounding the alarm. After all, the kid will come back when they have children of their own in order to repeat the circle of non-sense.

4. BMs are a challenge to make kids competent and proud of their achievement, not a watered down version for show off. Some kids are really prepared and take it seriously, but for most of them it is all about memorizing 3 Torah verses without understanding a word, and reading a transliterated haftarah in a Hebrew so poorly pronounced that no Hebrew speaker can follow. But G-d forbid we dare to delay their BM: the magic rite has to happen at the right time. And who will ask the parents to go through another year of the agony of participating in Jewish life? By the way, unless you consistently pronounce Ashkenazi Hebrew, please try to pronounce it “haf-tah-RAH,” less people go around thinking they learned their Torah and their half-Torah.

5. BMs should be meaningful, not superficial. This should be obvious, until you encounter frivolities like a shopping themed bat mitzvah, with the bimah adorned with huge palm trees in giant shopping paper bags, and parents’ speeches praising the kid’s high fashion taste and complaining about shopping sprees on their American Express. Yes, this was the main message, and no, I am not making this out.

6. BMs should be culturally reaffirming and deeply Jewish. It is all right to borrow from other cultures: Jews have done it successfully throughout history. Even some Christian weddings borrow from us and use a flower-adorned huppah. However we should know what are we borrowing and why. This is the case of beginning the BM banquet by lighting 6 or 7 candles, a ritual borrowed from Hispanic quinceañera celebrations You call your family and friends by turns to light a candle in memory of a deceased relative or for celebration. The problem is that you just became obligated by the mitzvot and the first thing you do is to transgress Shabbat by inviting people –including your hazzan– to make a fire on Shabbat. Yes it is cute. Now, can it wait until sundown?

7. A BM should be an opportunity for non-practicing Jews to experience vibrant Judaism, not to overtake and kidnap the service. This can be a great family opportunity to learn: anybody can learn aliyot, compose poems, learn how to raise the scroll, etc. This should be carefully planned. Do not assume people know what they are supposed to do (remember they often left the synagogue as soon as they turned 13!). Otherwise you end up with your cousin looking totally puzzled when asked to open the ark, as if it were the first time he sees an ark in his whole life. Later he will probably greet the rabbi and make excuses such as that he belongs to another Jewish denomination and that’s why he didn’t know what to do. By the way, disaffected relatives are an interesting phenomenon in itself. How can you tell a non-Jew from a disaffected BM relative? The non-Jew wears kippah and stands and sits with the congregation out of respect. The disaffected relative sits there with a blank stare, not opening the siddur or reading in English, looking at the rabbi in the eye as if saying: “I don’t buy into this and I will let you know with my attitude.”

8. BMs should be reaffirmations of identity, not insurances of identity. We do not extend tribal certificates, and yet people will argue that they are indeed Jewish because they were “batmitzvaed and all” or tell you they are very bad Jews because they even didn’t “get barmitzvaed.” In our days, progressive parents would rather skip circumcision than BM. And yet, BM is not sacramental, nor magically imbues the person with Jewish identity. Rather, it makes kids stand in the crowd and proclaim their Jewishness, even in spite of being part of mixed families. We should focus on this reaffirmation of identity.

9. Most kids are not operatic singers. They are there to act as shelihe tzibur. The rest of us is not there to admire their often cracking voice, but to participate in the prayers he or she is leading. Why should we stop saying the Shema so that we can hear a kid mumble through it?

10. A BM is not about kids, it’s about newly minted adults being welcomed to the kehilah. We should be moving on from pediatric Judaism. In fact, it is time to evaluate what pediatric Judaism has brought us: BM mills, school-centered versus mitzvah and limud-centered synagogues, dumbing down and loss of richness. A good example of it is using Shabbat morning melodies all the time, from Friday night to Yom Kippur, just “because that’s what kids learn at Hebrew school.” There are plenty of examples more, such as sanitized divre torah; model seders as the only seder the family will attend this year; school Sukkot parties as the only Sukkot; the total disappearance of Shavuot simply because it falls outside of Hebrew school calendar, etc.

11. Finally, BM celebrations should be socially mindful and not wasteful. What is the value we are teaching the youngsters when a BM becomes a crazy mini wedding? Welcoming a kid to the community and celebrating it should be an equalizing event, not a display of the economic cliff between the haves and the have-nots. Let us plan real mitzvah projects that teach kids and adults that we live in a broken world but that we can do a lot to fix it. Placing a couple of empty boxes at the entry of the synagogue so that other people can bring cans of food, or spending two afternoons at the animal shelter playing with puppies may give the kid a check-out of a mitzvah project, but will hardly teach her anything about responsibility towards humanity

As a maturity rite of passage, it is perfectly ok to delay a BM. Some of the best BM I have seen are celebrations involving adults and older children. So let’s bring the mitzvah back where it belongs.


In many other occasions I have compared the dynamics of Jewish American identity with that of minority cultures in Europe. Being of Catalan origin and having dealt with this kind of situations a good part of my life, I can’t avoid discovering in Jewish identity the unequivocal trends of endangered  cultures I witnessed and studied in my own country of origin, as a sociolinguist amateur of sorts. Just last week, a good friend of mine sent me an interesting article about the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico, knowing my deep affection for this community. My friend’s reflection on the subject was a true eye-opener: he hoped that this NPR segment would become viral so that “finally people get to see and understand that not all Jews look like Tevye.” He also remarked that the author of the beautiful pictures admitted that what he witnessed did not fit the Jewish narrative of his life. “When did our Jewish life-narrative get so small?” asked my friend.

My conviction is that in the measure that people reduce their Jewish identity to a series of cultural stereotypes, they narrow down the collective identity to just a tiny segment of it. The main reason why Hispanic, black and Asian Jews,  do not “fit in” in some people’s idea of Jewish identity is because they break the comfort of their own identitarian schema. And this can happen only because, once divested  from its core essentials (such any connection to Judaism, for instance), their Jewish identity is fragmentary and folklorized, not unlike the Catalan identity I grew up with in Mallorca. To me, it is an eloquent trend that does not reveal a dynamic, alive culture, but one that is in deep crisis and whose survival is endangered.

In past postings I talked about the self-deprecating, stereotypical image of Jews in the American media, and about the use of swearwords as the only remnants of Yiddish language. At a certain stage in the process of minorization of a culture, individuals begin to consider it as something heart-warming, sweet, small and frankly goofy. That’s the way we are, our essence. We can even be proud of our heritage, but we can’t see why anybody else not born in our culture would ever want to embrace it. A painful majority of Mallorcans would speak Catalan at home –a sweet, beloved, hybridized version of if, full of “cozy” swearwords– and even preserve some traditional dances to show to the tourists, but would frown at the idea of a Catalan book on quantum mechanics or any other manifestation of high culture. And they would certainly frown at the idea of a non-Mallorcan trying to learn their language. In fact, they would not help this person learn, but rather always switch to Spanish or English as soon as the outsider tries to articulate a phrase in Catalan. For them, Catalan culture is something dear, even a source of pride, but essentially useless and clearly lower than all other surrounding, modern cultures. I am pretty sure we could find the same patterns of behavior in Native American collectives: the native culture is a source of pride, can even be shown to tourists, but it is not to be adopted by outsiders and can never compete as equal with the modern, western cultures of the world.

What defines the identity of your average secular Jew in America? A vague memory of Old World stories, some Yiddish expressions here and there, a taste for bagels and kugel, perhaps. Nothing alive, vibrant, that they want to share with their neighbors. When the average Josh encounters Jews by choice, Sephardic Jews, or New Mexican cryptos, he can’t recognize them as members of the same tribe. Moreover, he may occasionally feel that his cozy identity is endangered by these alterities. I heard many stories of non-white Jews feeling questioned, even rejected in our JCCs and shuls, sometimes in the name of outdated religious rules, but more often for the lack of a warm, welcoming crowd. I dare to adventure that part of the current obsession with mixed marriages and assimilation is coming from the upsetting conviction that in the not so distant future, average Josh will no longer recognize the folks at the shul where he “was barmitzaed” (note the passive) and never cared to join. Mainstream American identity is so strong and dynamic that it can assimilate millions of immigrants every decade; Mallorcan identity (and American Jewish identity for that matter) tends to see itself as so irrelevant that the assimilation of outsiders constitutes a direct thread to its very existence.

Another thing we can learn from the situation in Catalonia is that minorized cultures seem to have a tragical trend towards fundamentalist visions of the self and to the fragmentation of the collective.  Colonial metropolis often use fragmentation as a tool of political and cultural assimilation of the colonies. In the Valencia region, the tactics have been successful: against any scientific definitions and against the academic community, the government not only convinced the population that their dialect was in fact a language different from Catalan, but also created a legal and institutional framework (which included an extemporaneous Academy of the “Valencian” language) in order to consummate the fragmentation. Why? Because it is is easier to make a language disappear when it is perceived to have only a couple million speakers instead of being part of a bigger, stronger culture. Today in America, a minority of us insists on calling themselves Torah Jews, thus implying that they are in and the rest of us are out. We all know how the Orthodox world is turning to the right, and how questioning of other denominations’ conversions is reaching absurd levels (oh no! what if your grandma’s conversion was Reform?). Does it happen because of a misunderstood, zealous fidelity to Yahadut, or rather because we humans seem to love being “the real thing,” the pure remnant always on the defense from the perfidious outsider? Readers can reach their own conclusions.

We can choose to mourn the seamlessly unified people we never where, or we can embrace our diversity and move on. I think that the cornerstone of Jewish survival in America resides in consciously planned efforts aimed towards regaining cultural dynamism. For some people, Jewish engagement will come through Judaism as a spiritual practice, in its many forms. For some others, engagement will come through literature and the arts, from the emergence and popularization of a new Jewish American culture proud of its past, but definitely grounded in our times, fearless and innovative.


The other evening my dear friend Eric Eldritch –the amazingly creative artist behind the Red Dragon Festival– brought to my attention an interesting Biblical verse: Job 30:29. I’ll transcribe it here so you don’t have to look it up: “I am a brother to dragons, a companion to owls” (KJV, which most probably implies something like Job is as hurtful and lonely as these two animals). Eric’s questions were if there are dragons in the Bible, and if dragons are part of Hebrew mythology.

If the King James Version surprised me, the wide variations between other translations were no less perplexing: dragons and owls became in other Biblical translations jackals and ostriches respectively. The subject piqued my curiosity and I decided to find out about the dragons and the apparently incongruous variation between translations. What lied behind the metaphor of these lonely animals howling at the moon?

For many generations, believers and religious leaders have thought that the Bible was the perfect word of God, divinely inspired letter by letter, even scientifically flawless and historically accurate. Rivers of ink had been spent trying to harmonize each and all contradictions of the text, and struggling to make the text be –or appear as!– perfectly homogenous. It begun with the redactors of the Biblical documents (JEPD) and has not ceased until contemporary fundamentalist commentators. It comes as no surprise that for centuries the Church preferred the Vulgate over the Hebrew Tanakh: any unequal, fragmentary text does look nice, smooth and coherent if translated with enough skill. However, the tireless efforts of generations of editors and translators have never been able to devoid the Bible of all traces of Hebrew myths: the Goddess, Lilith, the Leviathan, Azazel, demons, and giants have left their footprint in the Biblical text and it is relatively easy to uncover them.

Going back to Job 30:29, the Hebrew terms used in the text are tanin (תנין) and ya’en (יען). Sometimes the Bible uses hapax legomena, that is, words whose meaning is unknown because they appear only a few times in the text and we have very few or no other external texts where the word is used, so that we can deduce its meaning. Although tanin is technically not one of these words, its exact meaning is equally unknown. The term tanin seams to designate a wide range of creatures. The Even Shoshan Hebrew dictionary includes some of the meanings for this word: from crocodile and gecko, to a wide range of marine monsters and unknown humongous creatures. Thus, Gen 1:21 seems to refer to the creation of marine monsters, or at least of very big wales. Is 27:1 offers us a glimpse to a gallery of mythical monsters, including the Leviathan and another marine tanin, here often translated as “dragon.” When Aaron casts his rod in front of Pharaoh, it becomes a tanin, some sort of monstrous serpent that ends up eating the other serpents (Exod. 7:9).

In his Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism (p. 71), Dennis defines the tanin asan archetypical monster, usually resembling a serpent. Some readers understand it to refer to a monstrous serpent or dragon that is a menace for navigation (Is 27:1; Neh 2:13; Baba Batra 74a-b). Although in some instances it may be a synonymous of Leviathan, in the apocalyptic literature it designates a dragon of huge dimensions in Sheol that feeds on the souls of the wicked (3Baruch 4-5). Demons can take the form of taninin, dragons, according to the Talmud (Kid. 29b). In fact, the demon Samael is often given the title “serpent” or “dragon.” A cosmic blind dragon or Tanin ‘Iver serves as the steed of Lilith (Daniel Septuagint, 3Baruch, Treatise on the Left Emanation).

So what are the tanin and the ya’en? When linguists do not know the meaning of hapax legomena or of a particularly obscure term, we try to find out how ancient translators understood them. It is quite probable that ancient Biblical translators from the beginning of the common era were more knowledgeable than us regarding these two words: they were fluent in both languages and conversant with both cultures and their socio-historical contexts. Ya’en doesn’t seem to be much of a problem: other than its meaning of “owl” we only find another alternative, that of the Septuagint, which translates the term as Στρουθος, “ostrich.” However, the word tanin is another story, and the options of the ancient translators do not but increase our perplexity. The Vulgate chooses to translate tanin by draco, “dragon.” The Targum translates the plural form taninin as yerurin or yelulin (ירוריןילולין) derived from a root (ילל) that means to howl or to cry out with full voice. Whatever the monstrous tanin was, it was understood to be howly and noisy, and therefore some translators thought it had to be a lonely jackal. The Peshitta follows the same reading and translates it as yerura (ירורא), with the same meaning.

Most surprising to me was the Septuagint, which decides that a tanin has to be a howling, marine monster of another kind: a seiren (σειρήν-σειρηνος), that is, a siren. As we know from the Odyssey, the sirens were two mythical sisters on the south coast of Italy, who enticed seamen by their songs, and then slew them. They tried to seduce Ulysses with their chants, but luckily he was tied to that mast (Od. 12.39 ff.). Strange how the alluring appeal of the siren’s song and the mournful, loud howl of the dragon converge in our story. Seiren is also one of the epithetic names of Zeus, possible related to a verb that means to scorch. The funny thing I find out is that the word σειρήν, generally feminine, can be used in a masculine form, particularly with the meaning of a kind of solitary wasp. The tanin, by the way, is definitively masculine, and so is draco. My wild imagination can’t avoid but to conjure images of Odysseus seduced by a leviathan, a serpent, a dragon, a masculine siren whose chants have the allure of wale songs and the dirge of jackals. 


Some years ago, in Tel Aviv, an Israeli friend of mine told me –in a mixture of wonder and puzzlement–: “I don’t understand how can you call yourself dati (religious), when it’s obvious you are not.” What he meant was clear to me: I don’t wear kippah all the time, only when I feel like doing it, and when I don my yammy, it is definitely colorful, not plain black velvet. My tsitsit do not hang ostensibly outside of my clothes. I observe Shabbat, but I don’t mind turning on lights, taking showers or using my electric kettle on that day. To me, Shabbat is about rest, enjoyment, connection with the divine and other human beings, about spirituality, not about making myself a pretzel considering if pouring soy milk over my cereal is tantamount of forbidden cooking. All these details brought my proudly secular friend to repeat the common motto: “it’s all or nothing!” Either you observe or you do not. Translated in plain words: stop appropriating the beautiful, meaningful, ethically sound aspects of Judaism and discarding the retrograde, anachronistic aspects they define as equally essential. According to this theory, it is hypocritical to light Shabbat candles, bless the wine, smell the sweet havdalah spices, celebrate the new moon, or cry like a baby at neilah, if you are not ready to accept the laws of mamzerut, pray for the restoration of animal sacrifice, and discriminate against random folks (women, agunot, LGBTQ, converts, liberal Jews and anybody who doesn’t look like us). This is just a fallacy, a mistake that is hurting more than helping.

More recently, while writing an article, I was trying to find a good definition of “repentance” in Judaism and I did what most of us do these days: I begun by googling the corresponding Wikipedia articles. The articles on ba’ale teshuvah stirred me and brought to my memory the story I just told you. For those of you that may not know, a ba’al teshuvah (literally “penitent” or “somebody who has repentance,” for short a “BT”) is a person who was born “legally Jewish” but never practiced, and later in life has a religious awakening and comes back to Judaism. Therefore, most of us, average committed Jews of all denominations are ba’ale teshuvah in some form or other. A number of us –born Jewish or not– has experienced the transformative miracle of discovering the richness of Judaism at a point of our lives.

The problem comes when you use the concept of ba’al teshuvah in an exclusive, discriminating way. The fact is that most people have bought into the idea that a BT is somebody who didn’t grow up Orthodox and has later adopted this denomination. If you were secular, a moderate Reform, a committed Conservative Jew, or even a Conservadox all your life and suddenly you “don the black velvet kippah” so to speak, congratulations, now you are a BT, and you are a “real Jew.” However if you were secular and then come back to any progressive way of Jewish observance, you are out of luck: you have not upgraded to BT.

On a deeper meaning, from its inception, the current use of the term BT was intended to discriminate against newbies. The auto-denominated religious will say that somebody is a BT in order to differentiate this person from an FFB, a frum from birth, somebody who is born “into families that are already religiously observant, and who have been conceived, born and raised Jewishly” (quoting the Wikipedia article). And if you are a FFB you can always go wrong and become an OTD (“off the derech”), somebody who has left Orthodox practice, no matter if he is still a very observant liberal Jew.

You see, sad as it might be, it is perfectly Ok if Orthodox people use these terms and look at the rest of us as unauthentic and fundamentally wrong. There is very little I can say or do to change their opinion. My many Orthodox friends know that we will never agree in this subject, so we just don’t bother. But why in the world should the rest of us buy into it and use these words in the same terms? I have already ranted about the need to stop using the term frum or “religious” among us to mean only “Orthodox”, which invalidates the religious experience of must of us. Maybe it is time that we become aware of this other language co-optation and stop using BT with the same implications. Then we’ll realize that the so-called BT movement is immensely bigger than what they tell us. Everywhere I turn I see people who (re-)discover in Judaism a beautiful, ages-old, moving, profound, and living wisdom. And, believe me, not all of them wear black velvet kippot.

No matter where I go, in my many and diverse communities, I find plenty of Jews exploring alternative spiritual paths, but quite often estranged from their own Jewishness. Sometimes I wonder why people’s spiritual quest necessarily leads  them to other venues; why their search for community hardly ever drives them to seek Jewish community.

Much has been written about this trend. It is obvious than one of the main factors of this estrangement is that for many years the established Jewish community did not offer space for these people’s interests nor for the kind of spirituality they are seeking. And yet, now that any individual can easily find a niche for her or his spiritual practice within the Jewish world, why don’t they come en masse to join and embrace all these new possibilities?

The answers to this question are many, but today I want to focus on something that is not often considered: the fact that a number of secular Jews have “folklorized” their identity, reduced it to the merely anecdotical. For years sociology and sociolinguistics have described the process of assimilation and dilution of minority cultures. I happen to be born in one of them, the Catalan nation, a biographic accident that often helps me draw parallels with the Jewish community. Contemporary Mallorcans in their vast majority are anything but a proud nation, not only because Catalonia is colonized and divided by fictitious borders, but also because they lack what I would call national awareness. That does not mean they do not have a Mallorcan identity, but this identity is folklorized, reduced to some foods they like, phrases and proverbs in the Catalan language, and to an otherwise incomprehensible taste for Mallorcan swearing words, often used even by people who never learned –and has no intention to learn– the Catalan language. There are a good number of self-deprecating Mallorcan stand-up comedians that enjoy great popularity by using and abusing these stereotypes. At the same time, other Catalan cultural manifestations like literature and the arts –both traditional and contemporary– are frown upon and perceived as goofy, provincial and uncool. This new Mallorcan identity is quite comfortable, in the sense that it does not demand any commitment, neither is core to a person’s values or vision of the reality. It is not necessarily informed by a deep self-hate, but it is certainly lacking of any pride in the cultural identity itself. Furthermore, sociology proves that this only is a stage towards the final assimilation of the minority culture into the mainstream.

Can you see any parallels with today’s American Jewish culture? I am sure that we all know fellows for which being Jewish translates mainly on the way they eat and talk. They enjoy bagels and matzah ball soup; they even sprinkle their English with plenty of words borrowed from Yiddish, Hebrew or Ladino –languages they do not know and have no intention of learning. What is worse, they perceive that being Jewish is something nice, sweet, but kind of goofy, funny, uncool. Their relationship with their Jewish identity is often humorous and self-deprecating.

The media feed American Jews with an abundance of equally self-deprecating icons, of characters that pride in the details and stereotypes of being Jewish, but don’t seem to take Jewish identity seriously. To an untrained eye, these cultural products may seem a normalization of the Jewish presence in mainstream America. However, rather than celebrating Jewish culture, they often reinforce its “uncoolness.” I am persuaded that this self-deprecation is not but a mild form of self-hate of equally devastating consequences. Unlike in the past, these TV scripts are not the work of anti-Semitic writers. They come from within our own ranks.

Two popular TV characters come to mind: Josh, the werewolf of Being Human, and Howard, one of the eccentric scientists of the Big Bang Theory. From the first episode it is clear that Josh Levinson is Jewish and wears a magen David. He is also characterized with Jewish stereotypes. He is nerdy, socially awkward, goofy, short and not as attractive or Aiden the vampire; he is insecure, obsessive and a little paranoid. Unlike Aiden, he is the epitome of everything uncool, a fact often stated by the other vampires, who treat Josh the werewolf, quite literally, as a doggie. Aiden’s vampirism is sexy and controlled, Josh’s lycanthropy is unruly and shameful. Josh’s Jewish identity is peripheral to the plot, but it is important enough to appear both in the British and the American version of the show. Other characters of the show have defined ethnic backgrounds, but these are never explored or hyper-characterized: Suren is a girl of Mongol origin who knows the “torture traditions” of her warrior ancestors, but no allusion is ever made to her Asian identity; Sally Malik has an Arab name, but she could equally be Hispanic, Greek or mixed: her ethnicity is irrelevant and does not define the character like Jewishness defines Josh’s.

In the case of the Big Bang Theory, Howard is unequivocally Jewish, and so is his loud, strident and unsophisticated mother. Short and goofy, Howard often makes fun of his Jewish identity, complains that the price of pork makes it harder and harder to be a bad Jew, dates a Catholic only to bother his mom, only goes to synagogue on Kippur –the only time of the year he is not available to play role games– and celebrates Hanukkah, a holiday depicted as funky and lacking the pizzazz of Christmas. Of the group of guys, he is the only one that still lives with his mother and has never finished his doctoral degree. Both Josh the werewolf and Howard the nerd are sweet, goofy, lovable characters who are somehow conflicted with a Jewish identity that is portrayed as profoundly uncool, marginal and folklorized, something not worth taking seriously, an accident, if not a nuisance.

Compare this to the unequivocal and unapologetic Italian-American identity of the family depicted in Everybody loves Raymond. Their names and the food they eat are clearly Italian, they hang out at Nemo’s pizzeria, they go on vacations to Italy. Rob, a third generation American, speaks a rudimentary Italian but is able to get by well enough to date an Italian girl that speaks no English. Here the roles are inverted: despite the dysfunctional vis comica of the Barone’s, they are the norm. What is more interesting: it is them against the world. Their relationship with the majority culture is proud and self-asserting. Anglo-Saxons are here represented by Debra’s parents and they are depicted as snob, richer, sophisticate but vain and hypocritical, people who smile all the time but hide their true emotions. In case you are unfamiliar with these characteristics, all these are stereotypes of Anglo-Saxons you may hear anytime from the mouth of many Hispanic, Greek or Italian Americans. Unlike the Jewish characters’ identity, the Barone’s Italian identity is anything but accessory and self-deprecating.

Five centuries of political persecution had not been able to erase Mallorca’s Catalan national identity. However, the folklorization of this identity is succeeding to do it. Identity is not something inherent and immutable, monolithic and life-long stable, something based in our feelings, some sort of a fixed quality that resides in the individual and never changes. Way too often we see our Jewishness as a birthright, something we can never loose no matter how far from the Jewish community we step aside. In fact, I believe that socialization is inherent of Jewish identity. It is about what Jews do and how they interact and connect. That is why tradition has emphasized minyan and kehilah. Socialization is also a good predictor of Jewish engagement: how many of our relatives and friends are Jewish definitely shapes our own Jewish identity. If one doesn’t live as a Jew, once ceases to be one. I am not suggesting that people forcefully need to practice Judaism no matter what they think. I am suggesting that people should build a more assertive, unapologetic, rich and fulfilling Jewish identity. The American Jewish community should try to find means of reclaiming a healthy, self-aware Jewish identity, both secular and religious. One can only hope that we will react on time, and not keep struggling with our Jewishness as if dancing with werewolfs.

Sectarians of all kinds


First of all, my excuses for this time of silence. I had a very busy Spring: finished my PhD, left my teaching job, and got a full time job in the Washington DC area, which of course implies an impossible commute, since my family and my other two part-time jobs are in PA! I always intend to write regularly, but sometimes it is quite challenging. In any case, I thank you for your patience and for asking me what was going on. And as I always like to start my posts with an anecdote, here it goes.

A couple of weeks ago I was surfing the net and found an interesting site that deals with Sephardic Judaism and contemporary Iberian communities. I am not going to add a link to their page for reasons you will soon understand. They offered their own study materials in Hebrew, Portuguese and Spanish, so I thought it would be interesting to check what they were doing, since I believe that study is the long forgotten mitzvah. I was a little surprised to see that all materials were password protected and that one needed to request access by email. The reason? Apparently their study materials have been “maliciously misused” by “some people and organizations,” so they had to protect everything and reserve the access strictly to those “really interested on Torah study.”   I thought it was quite bizarre but, perhaps moved by my endless curiosity and love for limud, I dropped them an email nevertheless. The answer took more than a week and it was even more surprising: before giving me a password they needed to know the name of my synagogue –the small Reconstructionist synagogue where I work and daven–, a description of its weekly programs, URL, and the name of my rabbi. Quite annoyed, I reluctantlycomplied and sent that information. Their answer took barely a few hours and it was cold as stone: “we are against anybody who wants to ‘reconstruct’ the Torah. Your access is denied.” Even if you think that all non-Orthodox are recalcitrant heretics in need of teshuvah –I thought– how in the world did you come to the idea that the best way of facilitating this teshuvah is barring these heretics’ access to Torah study? Human nature never ceases to surprise me.

Like many other animals, we humans are gregarious. Take your typical high school and see how kids have this imperious need to identify with a group, to which they keep an almost blind fidelity.  In a way, our brains are wired for tribalism and, unfortunately, for sectarianism. Humans are seduced by sects, and I am not necessarily talking about your good old spooky brain-washing, booklet-selling cults. We just seem to need to affiliate with close, dogmatic groups that make us feel secure, safe, and on the winning side of the match.

However, time and maturity, for most of us, brings moderation. One day your teenager grows out of his obsessions and discovers it is quite alright not to wear whatever the fashion is, or to listen to un-cool but interesting music. I think this coming of age has a parallel in most people’s increasing unease with Jewish denominational affiliation. It was just to be expected that, in a post-modern society where identities are very fluid and affiliations are multiple, the need of, and delimitation between, Jewish denominations is probably becoming a thing of the past.

The story of Jewish sects is as ancient as our faith. The reader is encouraged not to buy into the Orthodox view that, before the advent of Reform, Judaism was this idilical alle briden group of harmonious coreligionists. Far from true, our history is full of miss-encounters between pharisees and sadduccees, rabanites and karaites, maimonideans and traditionalists, hasidim and mitnagdim, etc., not to mention the eternal rivalry between people who follow different minhagim. What happen in the 20th century is that some of these denominations and sects reached a higher degree of institutionalization, and managed to create their own seminaries, yeshivot and synagogue federations. Now, are these structures still valid in the second decade of the 21st century? I think the pulse of the street is telling us otherwise.

No doubt, I am persuaded that one of the biggest factors for decreasing affiliation is the fact that Jews got used to having services for free. Why support a synagogue if after all you only need it for your wedding day, funeral and –just maybe– to listen to a decent Kol Nidre once a year. However, another factor that few people seem to have in mind is the increasing difficulty to identify with the global of a denomination, with its organizational culture, beliefs, and decisions. We may identify with some of the ideology of a denomination, but it is really hard not to be very critical of the realization of these postulates.

If I can make a parallel, Judaism has no “party discipline”: we do not feel compelled to support the “vote” of our denominations, nor is our dissension a sine-qua-non like it happens in some political arenas. Furthermore, we have no real dogmas, which makes very difficult to define who is in, and who is out, who is normative and who is heretic. And yet, human nature gets on our way and we still have a tendency to act sectarian. The well-known Orthodox trend to deny legitimacy to everybody else (progressive rabbis, other interpretations of Torah, Jewish identity of some people) is a blatant example, but none of us is totally exempt of this sin. We are happy when the Other comes to our terrain: some are happy to see Conservative kids done talit katan, some are happy to see Reform shuls use more Hebrew, some rejoice when seeing any timid apertures toward women rights in Orthodox milieus, etc. Some get really excited when most of the incoming students at RRC on a particular year are not Reconstructionists but Renewalists.  It is like we are so convinced of our ways that we rejoice whenever the Other gets closer to what we consider the true spirit of Judaism.

Maybe we should stop and reconsider if we aren’t all like those Sephardic folks of my anecdote, if we are not basking in our own groupthink and isolationism. Perhaps we’ll discover that our lack of critical thinking may be one of the factors that is keeping many Jews from affiliation. In my own case, I found it more and more difficult to label myself as belonging to an univocal denomination. What is more, I don’t see the purpose or the benefit of it. I was ordained by the Reconstructionist movement and feel a strong identification with some of its core ideas about Torah, the Divine, retribution, etc. And yet, I’ll never understand or accept the movements lack of definition on hot topics, its negative to the integration of cantors into their rabbinical association, its lack of vision regarding international expansion, or the (willing?) ambiguity of its “trademark” (how many of you can pinpoint the main differences between Reconstructionism, Reform and the Renewal movement?). And since there is no Reconstructionist cantorial association, I do belong the the Conservative Cantors Assembly. I feel identified, again, with some of its core postulates, but do I agree with all of their realizations?

Why so many new congregations and independent minianim choose to be post-denominational? And yet, those shuls which choose to belong are often difficult to label: Conservadox, Reconstructinewal, Reform-but-Traditional, etc. Why should a Jew living in the second decade of the third millennium wear labels created a century ago? I think that maturity is bringing us moderation, and that we are regaining the ability of thinking outside of our denominational box. Here may lay the key of our future.

Creativity as an excuse.

An apology to everybody for this time of silence: I have been wrapping up my dissertation and getting ready to defend it very soon! As I take a tiny break from higher education, I finished this post precisely about some disturbing trends in Jewish and secular education.

I was brought up in an educational system which, quite unfortunately, did not value creativity. One learned to draw by copying Freixa’s artwork to the smallest detail. One learned piano by playing Bach’s Inventions. Piano improvisation or creative drawing just was not for beginners: first you had to prove that you mastered the technique, then you’d be free to create. Far from me to sing the praises of an education that was frankly castrating, but I think that today we may have gone to the other extreme, emphasizing individual development and creativity up to a point where rules and hard-work learning are frown at. I think that this cartoon gives a good hint of what is happening:

The other day, one of my third graders was trying to play a new song on the recorder. He’s been playing for around seven months but is still unable to produce more than three basic notes. “Jacob, the left hand goes up and the right hand goes down” –I tell him. It is to no avail: Jacob answers that this is the way he plays, that it’s a lot easier than my way. “See? It works just fine!” –says little Jacob with a challenging, slightly impertinent tone of voice. I spend some minutes showing Jacob that, although his current fingering may seem to work fine for the few notes he knows now (from high C down to E), he will never be able to play lower notes just because using the wrong hand, his pinky will not be able to reach the lowest hole. We have been repeating this same dialogue for some months now and Jacob –otherwise a normal, intelligent kid– still does not change his mind. It is a phenomenon I observe very often in my music classes: in this boy’s mind, his way of doing things is as good as –if not better than– the teacher’s. Like most of my young American students, he doesn’t perceive any hierarchy between us. He sees me as a peer whose opinion can safely be ignored. As teachers, we are encouraged to let him learn at his pace, in his way, leaving nobody behind and not forcing our learning schemes on anybody.

Without any doubt, creativity and individual self-expression are values we ought to cultivate, cornerstones of personal development and education. However, they cannot be a good excuse for the lack of knowledge, for the bliss of ignorance. As my former composition teacher used to say, if you chose to ignore what the experts say, you may reach similar results –supposing that you are really lucky– , but not without having wasted a long time “reinventing the chicken soup.” Of course there are great composers that never took a class on counterpoint, but there’s no guarantee you’ll be one of them.

It may well be that the misuse of creativity as an excuse is a problem restricted to my area of teaching, but something tells me that it is a trend affecting not only our educational system, but also our synagogue life. Not so long ago, I was reflecting on the excessive use of creative midrash among lay leaders and even among a few rabbis and cantors. Confronted with the need of delivering a devar torah, it is always easier to come out with a creative midrash or some gematria interpretation than to ponder what Rashi and Sforno wrote about the text. The smaller our knowledge of Talmud, codes, and halachah, the bigger our recourse to creative allegories, pseudo-kabbalistic interpretations and the like.

Our tradition had always put high value on received knowledge and careful study. And yet, do we value Torah expertise today in our synagogues? We like to think that we do, but the changing reality might teach us otherwise. I have already posted a couple of times about the so-called Pediatric Synagogues, that is, shuls where absolutely everything turns around the children school and the benei mitzvah. How many shuls do you know where there is virtually no adult education? Aren’t we supposed to be a religion of lifetime learning? And yet, mysteriously, American families join a shul whenever the kids are of age and stay through the bar/bat mitzvah, only to disappear from active Jewish life soon after. Admittedly, the performance of the b. mitzvah kid looks brilliant, so nobody seems too concerned that he or she never learned Hebrew properly and just memorized a haftarah in transcription. Like in a day school, we put out beautiful displays of our kids’ works so that all parents can see it when they come for Open House night. Yes, it is true that we gave the kids all the pieces cut and marked so that  they only had to add a drop of glue, and thus learned near to nothing, but doesn’t it look dazzling?

At the same time, an increasing number of synagogues show a concerning trend when hiring a new rabbi or cantor: they essentially look for somebody who can teach haftarot to kids, say El Male in a funeral and chant a decent Kol Nidre. After all, the majority of their members will only be in shul in those very occasions. Of course, it will be a part-time job: the cantor or rabbi will only have to lead a couple services a week, teach children, and be available for funerals. What’s that? 6 to 10 hours a week? We don’t need more than that.

I wish I was exaggerating, but after almost two years of applying to jobs, it is hard for me not to reach to this conclusion: as we are losing our emphasis on lifetime education, we are also losing our reverence for clergy as our sages and teachers.  It hasn’t been too long until the creation of fast-track rabbis. There are at least a couple of rabbinical training programs in the US for people who are too busy to learn. One single Skype meeting a week, and in a year you could call yourself a rabbi, with semikhah and all. Certainly, for El Male, Kol Nidre and haftarah teaching it is probably enough, but is it enough for adult education, pastoral care, serious Jewish learning, etc? To me, this is like learning 5 songs on the violin through the Suzuki method and then printing business cards that read “John Doe, violinist.”

Now you can think that there have always been funky ordination tracks and that they are in the fringes, not representing any generalized trend. I dare to differ: the curriculum of some well-established rabbinical schools is also being changed with the pretext that they are tailoring it to the needs of a 21st century synagogue. However, this does not account for the considerable reduction of admission requirements (lower Hebrew level, if any) nor for the elimination of scholarly subjects in favor of “more spiritual” and professional courses. In these new curricula we see a lot less Talmud, less Codes and Responsa, and more creative midrash and social activism. Rabbinical seminaries are feeling the crisis and they need to keep a steady flow of incoming students if they don’t want to close their doors. They are also competing with new rabbinical programs whose requirements are clearly lower. As a result, we will have more rabbis than ever, with less knowledge of traditional texts but with lots of creativity. If a serious congregant wants to learn Gemara, the rabbi may have to refer him or her to somebody else.

The value of higher Jewish education is in question. Whenever I apply to a job, any cantorial soloist is taken on equal foot as an ordained cantor like me. What is worse, any fast-track rabbi will be given preference over my degrees, since I don’t have an “R” in front of my name. Some months ago, when I complained about this subject on this blog, I received a quite vitriolic comment that deeply saddened me. Paraphrasing the message, this is what this person told me: “I am a part-time cantorial soloist with a day job as a college teacher; I don’t feel underpaid nor underemployed at my shul; stop complaining, go back to school, get a degree and find a real job; then you’ll be able to afford this lifestyle.” The “lifestyle” referred was simply  being a cantor.

For weeks I debated with myself what to do. I didn’t hit the “approve” button and the comment wasn’t published on my blog. It just laid there, hidden in my inbox, lurking and waiting for an answer. I was very ready to write a quite bitter response to this person, maybe even publicly in the blog. Then I decided that this –hopefully well-intentioned– friend didn’t know me from Adam, and assumed I was some uneducated bum. In a way, she was a victim of the very same trend I am talking about. This cantorial soloist saw herself as equal to an ordained cantor. Since probably she had invested very little money and time in her own cantorial education, she couldn’t see a need for a fair compensation. To her, this was a hobby, and being paid at all for something you enjoy and you would do anyway is the cherry on the pie. Like many others, this reader thought that being a cantor or a rabbi was not so much of a vocation –or a ministry, as other religions say– but some “lifestyle,” an occupation that can equally be done by lay individuals in their free time. What is more alarming: she didn’t see any added value on being a clergy person, of having spent five or six years in seminary.

Today, any lay person leads services; independent havurot pride themselves on being lay-led. Don’t get me wrong: every Jew should know enough to be a sheliach tsibur. However, sometimes you need an expert that can explain the rationale of it all and take you to the next step.  The rabbinical and cantorial placement lists of all denominations are probably at the lowest they have ever been. The vast majority of these jobs are very part-time. Meanwhile, in my opinion we may be losing the reverence for our sages and experts. We are holding our little plastic flute the wrong way, we smile and say: “see? It works just fine!”









There are so many things happening in the field of Jewish music that sometimes it is hard to keep track, since –even in the age of the internet– excellent new books and recordings do not get the exposure and diffusion they deserve. If it is hard enough for us in the US to know what is being done opposite coast, what to tell about new publications in Israel or Europe. Today I would like to take some time to present four new books on Jewish music, the new, the old and even the hidden.


First for the new songs: some months ago Shalshelet published its 4th International Festival of New Jewish Liturgical Music 2010 Festival Songbook and accompanying CD’s. Like the preceding volumes, this is a must-have for cantors, lay shatz and shul musicians. You will find numerous musical settings that fit the needs of religious services, educational venues and formal music interpretations by choirs and soloists, from quite elaborated contemporary music to congregational, simple tunes that work very well in most synagogues. The book is organized by subjects: psalms, songs of love, songs of memory and healing, etc. Among my favorite melodies I will mention Aaron Blumenfeld’s Song of Songs, Jessi Roemer’s Ahavat Olam, and Marcia Dubrow’s Va-tikach Miryam. There is a wide array of styles, from folk to jazz, pop to Hasidic and mizrachi. Musical creativity in the Jewish world is alive and well! A number of the musical pieces are recorded in a double CD, that is sold separately, but unfortunately the recordings do not cover the whole collection, so it is well worth getting both items, and thereby supporting Shalshelet‘s great task. By the way, the songbook includes a piece of yours truly, Shachar Avakeshka, in a jazz style for choir and piano.


The other three books I want to introduce to you are written by the same author and, in my opinion, form an impressive collection that any person seriously interested in Jewish folk music will enjoy. The author is Liliana Treves Alcalay, and the titles are Canti di corte e di juderia, Melodie di un Esilio, Canti della diaspora, all published by Giuntina in Italy. Do not let the Italian text scare you out: they all come with abundant music transcriptions, original lyrics, a CD that contains a selection of the analyzed melodies, etc. Canti della Diaspora [Songs of the Diaspora] is a short, well-written book that serves as a good introduction to the variety and richness of Jewish folk song. After a brief exposition of the major trends of Sephardic and Ashkenazi musical traditions, Liliana Alcalay offers a very nice selection of songs in Ladino and Yiddish, accompanied with Italian translations (although without any music transcriptions).


In Canti di corte e di juderia [Songs of Court and Jewry], Alcalay focuses on the origins of Sephardic music and tries to establish the features that make it different from non-Jewish Iberian folk-song. The author compares a number of Sephardic songs to their “original” (for lack of a better term) Iberian versions. It is very interesting to see how both cultures elaborated the same melodies and lyrics according to their own idiosyncrasy. After some chapters of delimitation and contextualization, Alcalay exposes the different treatments of seven musical and literary themes, such as tragical deaths, forbidden loves, lullabies, etc. One of the assets of Alcalay is that –unlike other musicologists that assume a nonexistent medieval “Spanish” cultural unity– her research includes the exploration of the Aragonese-Catalan tradition. For instance, the book contains a comparative analysis of the Catalan song La dama d’Arago and La bella in missa, a romanza from Salonica.


In Melodie di un esilio: percorso storico-musicale degli ebrei e marrani spagnoli [Melodies of an exile: a historic and musical survey of the Spanish Jews and the Marranos], Alcalay offers part of her field work among Cryto-Jews, while intending to establish if there is an actual marrano musical tradition, a subject that is highly controversial. In my opinion, this is the most interesting book of the series, although due to the nature of the subject it is prone to be contested, and even more when the author does not go into the academic minutiae but rather tries to expose broad concepts. To begin with, how would a hidden minority make public display of a distinctive musical tradition? How could we “sound different” in a society that punishes the difference? Furthermore, most Crypto-Jewish communities have received the modern influx of music from mainstream Jews, thus making very complicated to establish what is Crypto tradition and what is something brought in only recently. The book opens with some chapters on the history of the Iberian expulsion, immigration of marranos to the New World, and an analysis of the Crypto-Jewish religious practices. If in Canti di corte Alcalay presents a detailed analysis of how Sepharadim have “de-christianized” the traditional Iberian romanzas, most of the affirmations of Melodie di un esilio regarding Crypto-Jewish music are somehow conjectural, although that does not hinder from the high value of the book and CD.