which box should I check?

by Leah Bieler

There's been a fair amount of hand-wringing in the American Jewish community about why support for Israel is flagging in our community. But there doesn't seem to be the same kind of introspection coming from the Israeli side. In today's TOI I explore what it means to be the kind of person who never quite fits in.


“Among large sections of American Jewry, there is a real question today about how much Israel is home to them”
– Alan Hoffman, director-general of the Jewish Agency, speaking in Ha’aretz, 22 January 2018

I had to fill out a form recently for one of my kids. It asked whether said child was White, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, Black or African American or Hawaiian. And, as is the case every time I encounter one of these questions and there’s no box for ‘other,’ I’m stymied.


Is this really worth bothering about? They most likely want to know if I tick off any of the enumerated ‘non-White’ categories, anyway. And while I’ve never experienced myself as White per se, I understand the privilege that I have. That I have benefited in so many ways by virtue of my not being seen as belonging in one of those ‘non-White’ boxes.


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thinking and praying

by Leah Bieler

Dear Republican politicians -



Thoughts and prayers. Thinking and praying. A whole lot of Jews in America, and around the world, spent many hours in the past week and a half doing just that. Thinking and praying.


In order to ensure our complete focus, we fast. Traditionally, we fast not once, but twice in one seven day period. And we apologize. For all of our bad behavior, big or small. We look people in the eye, and make promises to do better.


Swathed in our cloaks of ascetic righteousness, we literally beat our breasts as we confess our communal sins. It’s all very dramatic, made even more so by our dry mouths and rumbling bellies. Usually someone faints, and an ambulance is quietly summoned. It can all make a person feel quite virtuous, really, this thinking and praying.


The rabbis knew this. That there would be danger in our self-satisfaction. So they chose a reading from the prophets - not about repentance, or forgiveness - but about the false picture we paint of ourselves on Yom Kippur. The prophet castigates, quoting God:


Is such the fast I desire? A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush, and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast?...No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free...it is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58, 5-7)


Thoughts and prayers that don’t spur us to act are an insult. Prayer is a powerful tool for introspection, for building community, for developing a relationship with the divine. But when other people are hurting - they can’t eat our prayers. They can’t be comforted by our thoughts. Prayer is an essentially selfish act. It only stops being selfish if it changes your perspective, if it helps remind you what your responsibilities are to others.


I remember watching my children after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. We lived only a half hour drive away from the scene, and their own school did repeated lockdown drills in the aftermath. But my kids weren’t stupid. Their spread-out leafy New England prep school campus had been a selling point. But now, they became anxious. How can anyone protect all these buildings? What if someone with a gun appears as we’re walking along the paths? Unless the school had been willing to have the children constantly accompanied from one class to another with groups of well trained armed guards - I really had nothing to tell them.


Americans are not just naturally more violent, more callous, more murderous than people from other countries around the world. There is nothing in our DNA that causes the proliferation of gun violence. But none of those countries has an NRA, a gun manufacturer’s lobby that pays too small a price for your silence. The right to bear arms does not trump literally every other right. The right not to live in fear. The right to walk to class without armed guards. The right to our actual lives.


No more thoughts. No more prayers. Nobody cares what’s in your heart. Enough praying and thinking, thinking and praying. It won’t save a single life. Act, stand up against those craven gun salesmen, or be complicit in every murder, every suicide, every stupid, senseless ‘accident’ that follows.  


a mother's perspective on leading on the high holidays

by Leah Bieler

After a couple of years' hiatus, I'm back to leading high holiday services this year. It's always been complicated, managing this and still having a family holiday. In today's Forward, I describe how leading is different for me than for my teachers.


When I was a little girl, my father always led the shacharit (morning service) on the High Holidays. The tunes permeated our house, beginning whenever he decided the season should. Sometimes he started ‘practicing’ as early as Purim. He knew it all nearly by heart, and even as a young child, I sensed that he didn’t really need the practice, except as a way to begin to focus his mind on the task ahead.

I also remember watching as the cantor would prepare himself in the days and weeks before Rosh Hashanah. He would be careful only to speak when absolutely necessary so as to save his voice. And the morning of that first day, he would don that funny looking crown, and his whole demeanor would change. He would sit, ramrod straight in his oversized clergy throne, and you could feel the gravity of the day radiating from his face.

And then there’s me.

Read more: http://forward.com/life/faith/382661/leading-high-holiday-services-and-catching-a-break-from-motherhoods-demands/

on hurricanes, memories, and a secret path to Jerusalem

by Leah Bieler

Hurricane Irma has mostly passed, and it seems Florida has been spared from the worst of it. But other places were not so lucky. In the Times of Israel, I mourn for a place that was taken from me, even though it was never mine to claim.


I’m watching hurricane warnings on the news, and it all seems so far away as the crisp hint of fall air hangs over New England evenings. It has been uncharacteristically cool, this last month of summer. Visiting Cape Cod, we explored the tidepools and I didn’t even bother with a bathing suit, certain I would regret swimming the moment I exited the water and got hit by the ocean breeze. The kids ran out, teeth chattering, demanding towels.


Though we live in MA, and spend our summers mostly landlocked in Jerusalem, their primary experience of the ocean is from St Martin. For more than 25 years, my family spent vacations on the beach there. My parents, in a transparent bid to keep their teenagers, and later their grandchildren, spending a chunk of time together, provided the setting. They would rent a house big enough to fit the entire family, and simply wait as the positive responses poured in.


As a teenager, it was so freeing not having to fret about a scene around a hotel pool. The house was so far down the beach that few people passed by. I swam for hours at a time and listened to the waves roll in. If it rained, we played cards, or read, not bothering to change out of our PJ’s till the sun peeked through the clouds.


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