About Ilana Newman

I'm a full-time student in the fourth year of my undergraduate studies at University of Toronto. I'm majoring in Jewish Studies with a double minor in sociocultural anthropology and music. In my spare time, I write music and play at small venues around downtown Toronto. I also enjoy cooking stuff with interesting vegetables, reading speculative fiction, knitting, and spending too much time online (I was a child of the information age and no one can wrest my laptop from my hands!)

I do have faith, but I don’t seem to have will.

A drawing of a woman, looking worriedly at an image of the Torah on her computer screen.

I read Chaviva’s post on faith this morning, and it made me resolved to write about and post what I’ve been thinking about lately.

I’m not having a crisis of faith, but I think I have been having a crisis of observance. I mean, it doesn’t feel much like a crisis— I’m not panicking or self-flagellating; there have been no tears (or, well, not many) or fear that G-d will forsake me… but I am confused and unsure. I think this confusion will probably be a permanent condition my whole life, I mean, uncertainty is a part of the human condition. But a few months ago, I felt more sure of what I was doing, observance-wise.

The last three or four Shabbats, I did not observe the way I had been for the previous six months. The first time, I was really sick and completely miserable. I spent the day in my pyjamas, drinking tea and watching old episodes of 30 Rock. The second time, I was studying for finals, cramming for an exam for which I was not prepared. The last two times, I was at my childhood home, with my family.

I don’t actually really have any guilt about the most recent two Shabbats. I observed the way I always did as a kid: Shabbat dinner with my family, candle-lighting and my mom’s challah and kiddush on non-kosher wine. Electricity and internet and even the gym on Shabbat afternoon. I enjoyed it. I was with the ones who love me most, and I had the comfort of the familiar.

At home in Toronto, with my roommate R, I got accustomed to observing Shabbat the Orthodox way, taping over light switches and remembering to grind the coffee before sundown on Friday afternoon. I like that too— I’ve ended up reading more actual books for pleasure over the last six months than I have in years, just on Shabbat. I love the peace of it. When it was still warm enough, I went on long walks in nearby Trinity Bellwoods Park on Shabbat mornings, and sometimes again in the afternoon. In summer, R and I and often friends sometimes had Shabbat lunch picnics in the park, watching hipsters lean their fixies against lampposts and break out the the PBR. We watched them attempt to tightrope walk and they watched us make kiddush on juice in plastic cups. We ate the challah I’d baked and sat around in the oppressively humid Toronto summer heat.

I’m learning, again, that it’s really hard to be shomer shabbat (let alone shomer mitzvot) on one’s own. Too many shabbats alone are, well, lonely and isolating. I’m often too shy to invite people I don’t know well (and who are mostly much older than me) to lunch at my house. Thank G-d for Friday night services at the College Street gallery with Makom; I just wish it was more often than twice a month. I don’t know what I’ll do when I’m no longer living with Rachel. My mother said (wisely, I think) that it doesn’t all have to be black and white, that I don’t have to do the exact same thing every single week, that I can “do as the Romans do,” depending on where I am, who I’m with, and how I feel.

I think she’s right. That’s all I can do, at this point in my life. Taking things one Shabbat, one day, one moment at a time. I wish I had a cohesive and consistent practice with regards to observance, but maybe that’s an impossible wish right now. (Maybe it’s impossible wish ever, considering the inconsistencies of halakhah itself, but that’s another post.)

I still believe, as I always have, in G-d. I want that closeness, I want that deep and perfect fire. For me it facilitates observance. Maybe I just need to find that feeling more often.

Search terms

Or how people got here. I think most people get to this blog because of the link at my facebook page, or from the masthead at Global Jewish Voice, but some people come across my blog when they’re looking for something else. Below, some search terms:

    1. “Can I stamp my name inside a siddur?”: I think so, yes.
    2. “Pretty siddurim”: there are lots.
    3. “ilana newman” and “ilana newman university of toronto”: ooh I’m popular
    4. “L’cha dodi Leonard Cohen”: well, I’m sure he’s someone’s dod.
    5. “Demon’s prophets”: this is not a Satanist blog.
    6. “ilana newman engaged”: Nope, I am single *wink*

Something’s happening here, and I’m not really clear on what it is

Yesterday I posted an article at Global Jewish Voice about Canada’s first mainstream yeshiva and rabbinical school. (You can read that here.) I’m not really sure how I feel about this institution— I don’t want to speak to soon because a) it’s still the only thing we have in Canada and b) it’s all of three days old, but there are a couple things I didn’t mention in my article that concern me about the Canadian Yeshiva.

Firstly, they don’t say whether of not they’re going to ordain women. I’m guessing the answer is no, but I find it, well, slightly disingenuous that they won’t just come out and say it. They’re supposedly non-denominational, or, rather, they adhere to what they’re calling “classic Judaism.” And that’s ok. But there’s something to be said for nomenclature: words mean things, and “left-wing Orthodox” or “right-wing Conservative” are terms that make sense to people, and give them a clear(er) and immediate idea of what you’re talking about. Google “classic Judaism” and you find information about Jewish practice during a historical period: “Classic Judaism is not a contemporary phenomenon lying somewhere on the scale between Orthodox and Conservative; Classical Judaism is a historical phenomenon that precedes the Orthodox and Conservative denominations, the soil out of which the denominations grew.” [-- Wikipedia.]

I understand (on a personal level, even) the appeal of non-denominational Judaism; personally, I feel that’s the future of Judaism. So I like this “pre-denominational” Judaism in theory, but I don’t think we can go back. We can only go forward. (And the concept of returning to the 19th century and before doesn’t sit entirely well with me on a number of levels.) And this– “On both sides, the new denominationalism skewed the halakha. What previously had been the glue was now the object of contention”– doesn’t ring true to me, frankly. In my experience, halakhah is contentious. What is the Talmud if not scores of scholars squabbling over their differing interpretations of the word of G-d and those sages who came before them? Modern and post-modern denominational disagreements over halakhah (whether they are about the system as a whole or about the intricacies of one particular law) aren’t fundamentally different; they just happen on a different scale.

Besides, ordaining women as rabbis is not necessarily a leniency (“[we are] inclusive where [we] can be—when it comes to custom—but not where halakha disallows”): it’s not explicitly disallowed by halakhah, and that makes me think that the only reason for not ordaining women is capitulation to right-wing Orthodoxy. And really, if you’re not going to ordain women, come out and say so.

I might be being too harsh here. After all, the faculty is very exciting: R. Daniel Sperber (of whom, you might know, I’m a big fan) is serving as Chancellor, my friend R. Aaron Levy will teaching, Dr. Hindy Najman of U of T’s Centre for Jewish Studies is teaching also, as well as many others. Maybe I’m just too hard to please; I read a lot of Haviva Ner-David and Danya Ruttenberg’s writing at a formative age (which isn’t showing any signs of being over yet), and my identity as a feminist coalesced years ago, whereas I’m still figuring out what kind of Jew I want to be and how I want to observe.

Anyway. If anyone associated with the Canadian Yeshiva happens to read this, please know that I mean no offence, and that I’m fully aware of the many holes in my Jewish education. I know I have a lot to learn, and that I’m young. But (as I told my tolerant mother, at the age of five) “I’m argumentative, and that’s the way I am!” I think I’ll mellow given time and (MOAR) education, but for now I’m liable to get fired up.

Stuff I cooked: Shabbat edition

Today my roommate is super busy, but I am not, so I took on the Shabbat prep and cooking responsibilities. Fortunately for both of us, I love cooking, so I didn’t mind. (My roommate makes a killer chocolate mousse from silken tofu, though; it’s unreal. That I can’t replicate.)

Here’s the stuff I made:

We have apple and banana cake, challah, and cholent in progress (the eggs and tofu are going in later with the water).

Shabbat shalom!

Demons, prophets, and the law

I’m taking a break from studying for – what else – my Judaism and Feminism term test to bring you a post on the beautiful work of illustrator Ilene Winn-Lederer, whose book Between Heaven and Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary I ran across when I happened to be in Indigo last week. I haven’t been able to get her illustrations off my mind: they so enraptured me that they’ve really been helpful spiritually as well as simply being beautiful (let no more be said about Jews and aniconism); they remind me of what the divine in humanity looks like, if one really looks. (Maybe this is a little woo woo. Too bad. My new age tendencies exhibit themselves very rarely, so I think you can handle it.)

"A Balance of Powers," by Ilene Winn-Lederer

Because illustrating the entirety of the Tanakh (or even just the Torah) would be pretty much an impossibly huge task, it’s understandable that Between Heaven and Earth takes selections from each of the five Books, choosing verses here and there as representatives of the text as a whole. The result is a glimpse into the world of the Torah, and while the book is thick and full of gorgeous images, it still leaves you wanting more, and more.

An illustration on the prohibition of tattooing. Property of Ilene Winn-Lederer.


The artist also does delightful, clever pieces on subjects other than Judaism, like the one of this Thom Yorke-ish hipster:

Property of Ilene Winn-Lederer

Winn-Lederer runs the Magic Eye Gallery and has a blog, Imaginarius, which you can find linked to the right in my blogroll. You can buy Between Heaven and Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary at Amazon, as well as some of Winn-Lederer’s other books.

Some topical music for you today!

This (terrific, and terrifically cheesy) video is a musical rendition of a piyyut called Adon HaSelichot, the translation and transliteration of which can be found here. I make no secret of my deep and abiding fondness for cheesy muzika mirachit and liturgical music*, so this song is hitting all of my spots. Gmar chatima tovah, may you be inscribed for a good year, and may you have an easy and meaningful fast!

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*Sometime I’ll do a post outlining my favourite Jewish religious music. Stay tuned.

Irrationally annoyed: a rant

Generally, I’m fairly easy-going with regards to davening. I’ve been to quite a few different types of services (Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, traditional egalitarian, Conservative) and enjoyed them to varying degrees and in different ways, and nothing, nothing, bugs me more than setting a prayer to the tune of a pop song. It takes me right out of the experience and makes me irrationally pissed off. Part of this is due to a certain ritual conservativeness that I’ve come to ascribe to: it’s distracting to me when I associate a certain tune not with Shabbat or prayer but with light rock radio and cheesy movie soundtracks. Another part of it is the fact that the chosen melody really doesn’t go well with the text: the scansion is all off, and that’s distracting, too.

The minyan I daven most frequently with on Friday nights usually has kabbalat shabbat led by a woman, and ma’ariv led by a man. (This kind of bugs me, too, but that’s rational, and the subject of another post.) A friend of mine, who is studying for smicha (and an amazing singer and all-around awesome person) is a frequent leader of kabbalat shabbat, as she knows the liturgy well and has a strong voice. Unfortunately, she often sets L’cha Dodi to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. This is a great song (everyone and their mother and their second cousin’s dog loves it), but it doesn’t work for me on any level as part of the service. When I’m singing L’cha Dodi, I want to be singing L’cha Dodi, not feeling like I’m singing “she broke your throat and she cut your hair…”

The short version of all of this? It bugs me. Irrationally. In fact, one of the main reasons I’ve been invested in learning the kabbalat shabbat liturgy is so that I can lead services at some point, and use tunes I actually like, that actually work with the service, both in terms of feeling and scansion.

Does anyone else find the use of secular/pop tunes in davening annoying? Am I alone here? I don’t know. Thoughts?

Help me pick a siddur!

This siddur is pretty badass.

So I’m trying to find the ~perfect siddur~ (that is, the perfect one for my purposes) for months now and have remained kind of stuck. I’ve gotten fairly used to the Artscrollified Orthodox service (since that’s what I end up using when I go to services, mostly, and it’s bearable if not ideal), but there are plenty of things that bother me about it, so I’m not in the market for one of those. I still have a great fondness for my Mishkan Tfilah (some of the translations and interpretations are lovely), but I have the weekday+Shabbat hardcover edition, which is massive and too heavy to cart around (and it’s the Reform liturgy, which is less my thing these days). I also have my ancient Gates of Prayer, which has my notes from when I was studying to be a bat mitzvah (things like, “say ‘please rise’ here!!!” and my name in enormous script on the inside cover), but I frankly like that even less than my Mishkan Tfilah, and it’s also hardbound, so.

I’ve been using a copy of the Metsudah Siddur that my aunt gave me a few years ago, which is ok, except the translations are pretty clunky. It’s also daily prayers only, no shabbat, which is a minus, and I’m… not actually sure what nusach it is? (My community does sefard, but I guess I’m not paying enough attention.) It’s pocket-sized and travels well, so it’s getting the job done. But I’d prefer something more egalitarian, with some nice(er) translations, as my Hebrew’s still pretty shaky. (Thankfully I don’t need transliteration, or this would really be the impossible siddur search.) I like what I’ve seen of Koren’s siddurim, but I don’t really know where to start.

I have a budget of up to fifty dollars in an amazon certificate, though obviously less money is better for me. If you have any suggestions (or warnings, I guess) put them in the comments!

Choose-your-own Judaism

So apparently there’s this Reform university student who took a week to increase her observance by observing kashrut, tzniut, daily prayer, and other mitzvot. She then wrote about her experiences in a column published in Reform Judaism magazine, the URJ’s official publication; I read Ben Dreyfus’ excellent dissection of the experiment and its coverage across the web, and have a few thoughts of my own.

I remember my dad (who is, in fact, an active member of a Reform congregation) mentioning this article to me a while back, and while I was a little surprised at its inclusion in an official Reform publication, I wasn’t overly put off by the idea. At the time, I actually found it kind of validating, being myself an in-the-process observant-ish person with a Reform background.

Anyway, upon reading the article itself and Dreyfus’ problematization thereof, I find this individual’s experiment as problematic as Orthodox Judaism itself. It’s one thing to find strict observance of mitzvot difficult (it is! Trust me, as someone living day-to-day trying to be shomer mitzvot, I find it really hard, and I fail constantly), but for that – and not the troubling sexism inherent in (most) Orthodox application of halakhah – to be the major concern, troubles me. If the student finds being shomer mitzvot is not for her, she should try a stream of Judaism that does not mandate mitzvot. But not to critically engage in the problems of sexism and halakhah is puzzling to me.

More importantly, it seems to me that she undertook the experiment without a clear idea of why she wanted to do it. She says she wanted to know “why [she chose] to observe one ritual or commandment and not another,” and that to understand that she had to live “observantly”. But all of us – ultra-Orthodox, secular, or anywhere along the spectrum of observance – make choices regarding observance. “Spectrum” isn’t even really the right word. Modes of observance are so radically varied across time, between cultures, at different ages in an individual’s life— I am not now “more religious” than I was five years ago; my “off-the-derech” friend L. who left her Chassidic community on the north stretch of Bathurst and moved downtown to daven with a more varied group of Jews is not less so.

The author of “Campus Life 201: Trying Out Frum” didn’t take a week to experience a more religious lifestyle: as Dreyfus noted, she experienced “a week in the life of a 21st-century American Modern Orthodox college student.” Which is fine, if that’s what you want, but I think it’s odd to say this experience was an application of “every Jewish ritual [the author] could think of – big or small, no exceptions – to see whether rituals I had never tried or been mindful of would be meaningful to me.” Was this Yale student really unable to consider Anat Hoffman, Danya Ruttenberg, and Haviva Ner-David‘s richly varied interpretations of halakhah? Or even to explore more mainstream options that differ from Reform Judaism, like the Reconstructionist or Conservative movements?

Edited to correct a factual error; thanks BZ.