Author Archives: Mel Weiss

Live from the Lilith Blog

April 7, 2017 by

“The World’s Least Likely” Multicultural Seder Prep in Small-Town Maine

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It bears mentioning that very little about Jewish life in our small town in central Maine resembles the larger world. And it also bears mentioning that, in a lot of ways, this is the most traditional community I’ve ever been part of.

It can be hard to tell if some of our idiosyncrasies are cutting-edge or a throwback to an earlier era. When I have kosher meat ordered in bulk through our local Maronite Lebanese butcher, am I embracing a post-modern, consciously interfaith model of community… or just trading on a historic relationship between the two “other” groups in town? When my wife and I schlep kosher items from Portland, Boston, and points south up to our town, are we ironically embracing an intersectional understanding of our Jewish and female identities and responsibilities… or are we just doing the modern version of what women of our congregation have been doing since they had boxes of groceries shipped up on the bottom of a Greyhound bus?

And, maybe first and foremost, when I gather the world’s least likely group of women to clean, kasher, and cook for days straight before our rowdy community seder, am I doing the radically innovative… or the most boringly practical? (And as long as the chametz gets destroyed and the matza ball soup doesn’t, should I care?)

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Live from the Lilith Blog

September 18, 2013 by

Dispatches from Lesbian Vacationland

medium_252409289As the new school year begins, I want to take one moment to reflect on the summer. And my biggest lesson this summer? To be honest, it was about Jewish education. And who says a Jewish education can’t be fun? (Okay, it’s possible that I did, for much of my childhood. That was back in an earlier period for me before I fell in love with Judaism, a rabbi, and the small town where she landed a pulpit – in that order. These days, since she’s the basically village rabbi and I work as the Jewish educator, we not-so-jokingly call ourselves the Lesbian Chabad.)

The Lesbian Chabad, as I’ve mentioned, is stationed up in Maine – which in the winter months does a striking imitation of the Eastern European shteppe from which we both hail. Come summer, though, this place magically morphs into Vacationland, and you’d think there’s not a lot of room for Jewish learning in Vacationland.

You’d be wrong, however, and vastly underestimating both the efforts of my wife R. and myself – and the absolute love of Judaism our Hebrew school kids have up here (not to mention the devotion their parents have to making sure they have Jewish experiences as often as possible). They so love spending time “doing Jewish,” whether it’s in the single room where we teach several grades of Hebrew school at once, at synagogue, on Shabbat hikes – whatever, wherever, our kids are in. They’re an educator’s dream.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

February 5, 2013 by

The Creep Factor in “Dress Up America”

Image via Wayfair.com

It should be admitted that I am not your average, or ideal, consumer. But sometimes, it seems that I am in the majority in looking at a product and asking, What in the name of all that is holy and sane were these people thinking?

Recently, when Facebook and Twitter both blew up with news of the Jewish costumes in the “Dress Up America” line available through Walmart, everyone seemed to be saying what I was say; namely, “Wha?”

Let’s break it down a little. Fast forward past the creep factor of small children in “Rabbi” and “Grand Rabbi” gear, clearly modeled on the love child of an Eastern European rebbe and Ovadia Yosef. Oh, sorry – did I say children? Because I meant boys. Boys dress up as rabbis (or “rabbis”) and girls can dress up as “mother Rachel” or “mother Rivka.” And you know, keep on fast forwarding past the fact that the “mother Rachel” costume includes what appears to be a nun’s habit, and a picture on the costume itself of kever Rahel, Rachel’s tomb, in Bethlehem.

So, what? Boys can be rabbis – even “grand rabbis” – and girls can be foremothers? How is it possible that it’s 2013 and this still somehow scans as normal?

Happily, perhaps, the company’s bizarre gender-enforcement doesn’t only come down on its Jewish or oddly philo-semitic customers. A quick perusal through Wayfair.com – the website of the retailer – reveals discrepancies between the fire fighter’s costume (labeled “boys”) and a Red Cross nurses costume, which wins this week’s disturbing time-machine award. Or the fact that there are separate boys and girls chef costumes, and the girls version has a skirt, not pants. I want to call up all the fierce women on the ragingly popular Food Network shows, and ask them if they find that skirts work better when they’re throwing knives around the kitchen.

Or at least, that’s what my fiancé – female, and a rabbi – suggested I do.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

July 23, 2012 by

A Busman’s Holiday in Tel Aviv

Sunset in Tel Aviv-Yaffo beach

There’s seriously nothing like a two-week stint in Israel, with an extended weekend layover in New York City, to throw one’s shlicha mission in mid-Maine into a serious sort of relief. At least, that’s how it was for R. and me, coming back to the small town in Maine where she basically serves as the town rabbi and I, well, I do many of the things a rabbi’s partner does in a small town, even though in the old days, the rabbi wasn’t a woman—nor was she partnered to one. We returned to what we jokingly, or not so jokingly, refer to as our role as the Lesbian Chabad of Mid-Maine.

We’re just back from a well-deserved vacation, in a place where even the vacation have a veneer of the hectic. (Plus, a rabbi on vacation in Israel can, at times, feel a bit like a busman’s holiday.) Having eaten schwarma, spoken Hebrew, argued in the shuk and visited a vast array of friends, teachers and family, we’re back in the Northeast, having lugged as much of the Middle East home in our backpacks as we could.

It was a fun experience, telling Israeli friends about what we’re doing up here. The Lesbian Chabad joke works both much better and far worse: some of our friends laugh harder than any American at the idea, while my extremely secular cousin worriedly asks if I have to pass out candles in the bus station on Friday afternoons.

And the fact of the matter is that it is hard—it might actually be impossible—for Israelis who haven’t spent time in America (outside, perhaps, of New York and LA) to imagine not only why on earth we’d want to spend our time doing what we do, but how such a thing could possibly be necessary.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

July 9, 2012 by

Fridays with French Fries

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It’s a system I have just about down, and R. knows it.

Fridays, particularly when school is in session at the college where she advises the Jewish student group, are frankly epic. By the time she stumbles out of our bedroom at what most people would describe as a normal hour, I have inevitably brewed some coffee, cranked up my Rachel Maddow podcast, rolled up my sleeves and started chopping onions as though we’re going to have to feed an army. And, well, sometimes, close enough.

R. launders the tablecloths and sets the table, unfolding the plastic chairs we’ve borrowed from the college. We estimate the number of student dinner guests in intervals of a half-dozen. I proceed from chopping veggies to rubbing down chicken with herbs, roasting homemade spicy French fries, setting the slow cooker with beans, garlic, onion, root veggies, kosher meat—tonight will be yet another night of explaining what cholent is to wary-looking teens.

Maine is, as you might know, pretty far north. This means that in the summer months, R. and I have a leisurely day of cooking that will still result in us bringing in an early shabbos. In the winter months, which are incidentally the months when we’re most likely to have twenty hungry students over for dinner, and another ten lined up for Shabbat lunch, our prep time shrinks precipitously. The week Shabbat rolled on in before 4pm—well, I won’t admit to frustrated crying. I might admit to a frustrated early cocktail hour.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

June 12, 2012 by

A Near Miss

It ended up being one of our favorite lesbian Chabad stories, but it was almost a tale of tragedy.

Mid-January, mid-Maine—even in the era of global warming, we sometimes get snowstorms that blanket the streets and muffle every possible noise. When R called me moments before I entered a staff meeting, I expected a gripe about shoveling out the car. Instead, she was calling to tell me that our favorite octogenarian congregant was in the hospital, and it didn’t look good, and could I make some calls to find someone to cover her class?

A lot of that entire week is a blur. Once it became clear that this congregant was out of imminent danger, I remember holding an exhausted R, who’d spent the whole day in the most chaotic day-long pastoral visit of her life. I remember driving through the night snow—my very first time, shekhekhiyanu!—to the hospital, chatting with our friend for a couple of hours, trading Yiddish jokes and explaining the punchlines to her kids and grandkids. I remember some sort of cook-a-thon, stepping back an hour before Shabbat to realize I miraculous had enough food for the twenty guests we’d have over the next 25 hours.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

June 7, 2012 by

Lesbian Jewish Missionaries

Let me start by saying this: the whole “Lesbian Chabad” thing began as a joke.

Okay, actually, maybe that’s not the clearest point to pick up. Let’s try that again: my name is Mel, and I’m one-half of what is jokingly (sort of) known as the Lesbian Chabad of Mid-Maine.

Okay, one more time: my name is Mel. My partner is a rabbi, and though I’ll just refer to her as “R.” here, if you’re even a remotely talented Google-stalker, yes, you can probably figure it out. I am a New Yorker, born and bred, but I spend my time these days a bit farther north. Maine, to be specific, a lot of it, along with R., in the town where she serves as the rabbi for a local synagogue. 

(This would be a good time to state, for the record, that in my house we don’t use the word “rebbitzen.” Rather, I am the only one ever allowed to use it. This is not intended to offend anyone who chooses the term. It’s just that quirk of courtesy that lets us reclaim words that pertain to us, and screw anyone else who tries to use them.)

So, anyway, though I’m from New York and R’s from New Jersey and between us we have a pretty serious case of mid-Atlantic-accented potty mouth, along with a seriously dorky habit of making Talmud jokes, we spend half our time up in a town about twenty minutes north of Augusta, that for reasons I’ll also ascribe to quirks of courtesy, I won’t call by its real name. Let’s just call it C-town.

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Posts from the Field

November 15, 2010 by

On Israel and Aggression

Krauss I’m a third-generation born New Yorker. Aggression in random interpersonal relations has never been my issue. I have been known to slap the hood of an anxious cab that barely skidded to a stop, to icily and brutally reject late-night propositions on subway platforms, to push as good as I got pushed. And then, I moved to Israel for a year.

Part of my sudden feeling of meekness is surely just that my Hebrew isn’t great, and I’ve been learning a new city.

But here, on the streets of Tel Aviv, I’m no longer the aggressive one. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. We’re not even on Broadway.

Look, it’s not that everything you’ve heard about all Israelis being hyper-aggressive is true. There are people here who avoid public confrontation, who respond to a yelling shuk vendor by shrinking away or allow the ever-present bicycles to roll over their toes unremarked upon. It’s just that there aren’t very many people like that. At all. And, it’s worth noting, there doesn’t seem to be much of a gender bias for who gets included in such a group.  (more…)

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Live from the Lilith Blog

March 18, 2010 by

All Those Who Are Hungry

Allow me to state the obvious: the weeks leading up to Pesach are a time for thinking about food. That’s not only my very Jewish opinion—it’s my assertion as a designated foodie. This might sound ridiculously obvious, but the case deserves to be made anew: thinking about food is profoundly Jewish. Worrying about the feeding of others has been the purview of the Jewish woman since time immemorial, and the need to combine food with both elevated consciousness and a sense of commandedness is, basically, the root of kashrut (and the basis for Jew-foodie-ism). What you eat matters, how you eat matters, when you eat matters, and how that food got to you certainly matters. Straightforward, no?

I am swayed by this argument, not least of all because I like to frame my own food preoccupations—the local/organic/free-trade/non-GMO—as channeling the Jewish imperatives towards consciousness and justice through the too-often downplayed power of consumer purchases. You can’t avoid buying food, I always say, so why not buy food that works toward the greater good?

Of course, I forget about those who can’t buy food in that neat little construction, which is why I’m glad that there are things like AJWS’s Global Hunger Shabbat to help remind me. Global Hunger Shabbat, coming up this weekend, is “a day of solidarity, education, reflection and activism to raise awareness about global hunger.” As we prepare to invite “all those who are hungry” to our tables symbolically, we have a chance to do some learning, some communal and personal planning and committing, to the cause of global hunger—to the simple idea that there are people whose most basic human needs go unmet, and that that is wrong. That we have the power to do something about it. And more than just the power—perhaps the imperative.

AJWS seems more and more drawn to providing Jewish substance for the work they do, the work they enable and the work they encourage all of us am ha’aretz folks to join in on. Whether or not you’ve signed up for the Shabbat experience itself, check out the fantastic resources AJWS provides. They’ve got me thinking not only about the biblical roots of attending to the hunger of others as we are able to, but about the nature of our obligation. Tzedek, a word not infrequently tossed around, is generally accepted to translate in all its intricacy to “justice,” and justice is not optional. Without wandering off into theology, basically a Jew exists to serve God and strive for justice. Putting the tzedek back into tzedakah puts us on the hook to look at these issues with new eyes and a new sense of dedication. Without wandering off into sociological history, it also allows us to further elevate the still-underplayed role that so many Jewish women have committed themselves to throughout the ages: filling those bellies that need filling. Sounds like a good deal to me.

–Mel Weiss

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Live from the Lilith Blog

July 20, 2009 by

Israel, America, and the changing political status quo

Sometimes, Israeli politics and U.S. politics can seem very far apart, very separate, very disconnected. And then there are months like this one.

As the question of settlement expansion in the West Bank gets hotter and hotter, the question of what President Obama will, can and should do is burnin’ up as well. Furthermore, it seems to have suddenly come to the attention of many Jewish communal leaders that not everyone shares their stance on settlement expansion (and, more systemically, how the U.S. should engage with Israel). Depending on whose figures you trust, it sounds like that coveted youth demographic stands largely to the left of the line.

The exact nature of this back-and-forth is sometimes obscured; basically, the idea being pushed by Obama and his Jewish supporters both in the U.S. and in Israel is that settlement expansion in the West Bank needs to be curtailed. The settlements, of highly dubious legality, ought not be allowed to grow, including via “natural growth,” which is a made-up term with all the scientific accuracy of “partial-birth abortion.” The thinking behind this line of argument is that the ideal end to The Situation is a two-state solution; part-to-all of the Palestinian state will be made up of the West Bank; it may be way too late to remove settlements there, but it will be easier to work through the excruciating minutiae of redrawing the maps—as well as convincing everyone to approach the table seriously—if those settlements stop growing. As in, right now.

The opposition to this idea, headed by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and agreed to by many Jewish American organizations, including AIPAC, is that “natural growth” is a legitimate right of Israeli settlers. (Sometimes, to be fair, the argument has been that Netanyahu can’t keep his coalition together without ceding that right.) The Israeli Supreme Court has already ruled that the government’s right to set policy in the settlements overrides the rights of settlers there, and, in general, governments are usually granted land-use rights superceding those of individual citizens. (In the U.S., a verison this right is known, and occasionally abused, as eminent domain. There’s also the concept of zoning laws, which is underpinned by the same principle.)

If the issue is totally confusing to you, well, maybe that’s because it’s meant to be. Obama’s firmer stance is seen as indicative of some loss of support for Israel, and it’s got at least one segment of American Jews worried. Of course, that may be because the rise of an alternative stance threatens their political hegemony.

Obama, meanwhile, keeps trying to remind the Jewish world that he’s working on striking a very difficult balance in making progress with both sides, though informal reports indicate that he looks good doing it.

And, in other news, the politician described as “Israel’s Sarah Palin” is getting her moment in the spotlight. There are some great—I mean, awful—“But can she see Russia from her house?” jokes that I won’t make. I do suppose that it’s a sign of some kind of progress to have women on all sides of an issue. Tzipi Livni received such a large amount of media attention before the election; it’s of course only right and expected that other female politicians receive their due as well. It’s great to see that women can lead on the political left and the political right; that doesn’t require any women do automatically conclude that either is correct.

–Mel Weiss

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