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  • Sitting on a Seesaw, Finding Answers in Israel

    Posted on February 26th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    The ascension of the Member of Knneset Ruth Calderon got me thinking about children’s songs.

    The early Zionists, busy with politics, originally overlooked the genre of children’s songs. It was easy for the great poet Haim Nachman Bialik to rush in to fill the void. But he did much more than whip off a few ditties in the modern language of Hebrew. Worried that without new songs the minds of children would be filled with old ideas, he packed with re-interpretations of classic Jewish texts.

    Take for example, his poem about a see-saw,



    נד, נד, נד, נד,
    רד, עלה, עלה ורד!

    מה למעלה? מה למטה?
    רק אני, אני ואתה.

    נד, נד, נד, נד,
    רד, עלה, עלה ורד!

    שנינו שקולים במאזניים
    בין הארץ לשמיים.

    Seesaw seesaw
    Go down, go up

    What is up above, what is down below
    Only me, me and you

    Go down, go up
    The two of us are balance on the scale
    Between heaven and earth

    Below the surface of this simple poem lies the genius of secular Zionism. What appears to be the regular gobedly gook of children’s rhymes (I sang it to my kids for years while they played in the yard) is actually a critique of Mishna Haggigah 2:1 and the existence of God.

    מסכת חגיגה פרק ב
    א פרק ב הלכה א משנה
    אין דורשין בעריות בשלשה ולא במעשה בראשית בשנים ולא במרכבה ביחיד אלא אם כן היה חכם מבין מדעתו וכל המסתכל בארבעה דברים רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם מה למעלן ומה למטן מה לפנים ומה לאחור כל שלא חס על כבוד קונו רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם:

    Anyone who meditates upon four things, it would be preferable for them if they had not come into the world: what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after.

    And anyone who has no regard for the honor of their Creator, it would be preferable for them if they had not come into the world.

    Whereas the mishna makes clear that questioning the existence of God is a heretical, Bialik uses the language of the mishna not only to question the existence of what is above and below but to provide an answer –NOTHING. Using the simplest poetic form, Bialik engaged with tradition and turned it on its head. He used the words of the tradition to help express a new vision of Jewish reality.

    This ability to engage with but also question and transform traditional text is one of the greatest and most creative elements of Zionism. As successful as it was in the realm of children’s songs, this approach to text remained largely outside the realm of secular parliamentary politics. Until last week that is.

    Many have seen Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon’s speech to the assembly. Like all new MKs, Calderon was given the opportunity to address her colleagues. Instead of spelling out her policy goals, she chose to teach a section of Talmud. If you missed it, you can watch in the video below or read it here in English. Many have commented on the speech. Much has been made of her ability to engage with ultra-Orthodox MKs. Some have lauded her as the only hope for breaking the Orthodox monopoly on Judaism. Writing in the Daily Beast Zachary Braiterman critiqued Calderon for lacking policy and for setting a dangerous precedent mixing religion and politics.

    I have great admiration for Calderon. She earned a doctorate in Talmud from Hebrew University. She played a key role in creating the secular yeshivah movement in Israel and in promoting secular prayer for Shabbat and holidays.  Zachary Braiterman is correct, Calderon is not a veteran politician, she does not come into the Knesset with a step by step solution and a plan. However, I do see her mixing of politics and tradition as hopeful not as dangerous. One of her first acts in office was to set up a regular time for text study. She has reclaimed the project of the early Zionists and by doing so suggested a new vision for how we might go forward as we search for the proper path towards the future.

    Like the children in Bialik’s song, members of Knesset are searching for the definitive answers to life’s problems. Contrary to the mishna, far from being a heretical act it is a necessary one. The answers are not in the sky, or down below. They come from the dialogue that emerges from the back and forth that happens on the seesaw, the give and take of weight, of idea and positions. Anyone can make a policy speech but it takes creativity and vision to see that answers will come from and balancing between text and reality, between the ground and the sky.



  • Israel in Six Words: What We Love about the Jewish State -Happy Birthday

    Posted on April 20th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 38 comments

    Volumes have been written about the State of Israel. But in honor of Israel Independence Day, Yom Haatzmaut, this week we are looking for just six words about what you love about Israel, what makes it special, extraordinary!

    Add your own thoughts by replying in the comments section. The more the merrier. Send in more than one! Encourage your friends to share their own.

    Here is some of what we have so far:  - Click on comments to read more!


    Bowls of humous with warm pita – Josh Weinberg


    Feel more at home than anywhere -Lori Sagarin



    Cool water, warm people, hot neighborhood -Lori Sagarin


    Too important to leave to Israelis -Lisa Levenberg

    Nearly Zero emissions on Yom Kippur - Josh Weinberg HUC-JIR Jerusalem


    Like family. Not perfect, but loved. - Lisa Koppel

    My son lives in Tel Aviv. Mindy Portnoy


    להיות עם חופשי בארצינו ארץ ציון – Josh Weinberg HUC-JIR Jerusalem

    The Dry Bones live in Israel – Reuven Werber


    Three faiths in one holy city – Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Hebrew alive, Torah real, people real-er -Paul Kipness


    I love Israel’s flaws and aspirations – Jeremy Burton

    Israel my second home. Libi bamisrach – David Young

    Jews in every size shape color -Kari Hofmaister Tuling


    Lo yisa goy el goy herev – Laura Novak Winer


    Walking in Israel I found myself -Anonymous

    National Liberation Of The Jewish People – Mark Hurvitz

    Land, peoples, histories, emotions, hopes - Amy Greenbaum


    ההרים,החול,הירק והים במקום אחד -Lori Sagarin


    Eretz zavat chalav u’dvash. Oooh Ah. -Jason Miller


    Gave my grandparents renewed life post-war -Yonah Kliger


    (Keep it short, keep it simple. We are serious that missives of more than six words will not be included. And as it is a day for celebration we are focusing on the positive. We reserve the right not to post all entries.)


  • But Israel is Different: Some truth to those ads

    Posted on December 7th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    By Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Recently there was a little bit of an uproar in our community; a family was hosting a party for the 9thgrade alumni of our Jewish day school. Many parents were shocked that the host parents were not planning on staying home to supervise. Talking with a concerned friend, I suggested that someone speak with the mother who might have a different cultural context adding, “after all she is an immigrant.” The response, “She’s not an immigrant, she is an Israeli.”

    Last week, only days after it’s launch, the Israeli government cancelled an advertising campaign targeted to Israelis living in the US and aiming to get them to “come home” to Israel. The cancellation was a response to the outcry which was led in part by Jeffery Goldberg of the Atlantic and echoed by many American Jews. The objections for the most part centered on the negative tone that the ads took towards the quality of American Jewish life. Yet it seems to me that missing from much of the conversation that I was privy too, was a discussion about what it means to define Israelis as a group distinct from American Jews.

    I had to laugh when my friend told me that the Israeli mother hosting the party was not an immigrant. I grew up in exactly the kind of mixed household derided in the ad about Israel’s Memorial Day. My father is third generation Canadian and my mother was born in Tel Aviv. Hot dogs in my home were served in pita with tehina on top and tabuleh on the side. In addition to attending a Jewish day school, I was tutored in Hebrew after school to assure fluency. July was spent hiking Massada not at a summer cottage paddling canoes. I was different than the other children I knew growing up because being Israeli is not the same as an imagined universal Judaism, nor is it the same as the Canadian Judaism I learned at school.

    The Judaism I learned at school was built around prayer and religious ritual, using Torah as our guide. At home, we celebrated the same holidays but with very different meanings and points of reference. At home, history and nationalism replaced Torah as the touch stone for our identification.

    Recognizing elements of Israeli culture as distinct from generalized Jewish identity challenges the concept of a singularly unified Jewish people, an idea that the organized Jewish community on both sides of the Atlantic has long been invested in. It challenges the idea that American Jews will feel naturally at home in Israel. This reality is fundamental to understanding what it will mean to be a Jewish people going forward. We cannot assume, as my friend did, that we understand each other.

    As Reform Jews, we have long recognized that some of the unique elements of Judaism as we have constructed it in North America have a great deal to offer Israelis. Our ability to engage creatively with prayer, text and ritual can serve as a model as Israel continues to grapple with what it means to be a modern Jewish state. Conversely, if we can figure out how to connect with Israelis, both here and in Israel, we have the potential to broaden the paradigms for Jewishness with regards to community and language with the possibility of opening new paths for defining the our sense of ethnic heritage.

    Growing up one foot in Canada, one foot in Israel, I struggled to figure out how to make sense of what were significantly different frameworks for being a modern Jew. Though often spiritually challenging, what I learned from both rooted my sense of self more deeply than either could on its own. I arrived ready to enter rabbinical school drawing not only on a depth of Hebrew language skill but with an understanding of how Israelis use the texts of the past in all manner of cultural construction. In becoming a rabbi, I was able to see beyond the limitations put on me by the Orthodox vision of religion I learned in school because I had Golda and chayalot as role models. There is no single way to put together modern Jewish life but if we want to move forward, we would be foolish to ignore the differences and what we can learn from them.


  • Living is learning: Israel Lessons at the Y

    Posted on June 24th, 2009 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    grant1Dr. Lisa Grant Associate Professor of Jewish Education on the New York campus is our guest blogger this week. Dr. Grant will be one of our three faculty for our upcoming Israel course in the fall.  Her reflections remind us that it is not just curriculum and content that shape education; experience is a critical element in our learning, solidifying and challenging the knowledge we acquire in more formal settings.


    Currently, I’m in Israel as part of the faculty for the culminating seminar of this year’s cohort of Mandel Fellows, a group of seven HUC rabbinic-education students from New York and Los Angeles.  Since I’m here for almost all of June, I decided to join the pool at the YMCA for the month.   Navigating these waters has been a lesson in cultural literacy.

    First there are the hours. I swim first thing in the morning. On Monday and Shabbat (or more accurately in the Y world, Saturday) there is mixed swimming.  On Tuesday through Friday, men and women alternate between the early shift (5:45-6:25 am) and late (6:25-7:05). I discovered this after arriving at 6:00 am on a Tuesday to find the door into the pool from the women’s locker room locked up tight.

    In good Christian fashion in this Jewish state, the Y is closed on Sunday.

    Then, there are the people.  By far the friendliest face is that of the Arab man who sits at the desk.  Then there’s a cast of regulars who come at these early hours, older women who are rather fixed in their ways.  My first day in the pool, I was stared at but no one said a word.  If there was a pattern to how these women swim, it was beyond me to figure out.  It seemed where ever I swam I was in someone’s way.  I basically wove my way through the lanes, trying to avoid the onslaught.  This went on for a couple of days. Then I decided to hug the wall and take up as little space as possible.  That worked for about 6 laps and then a woman arrived who immediately told me to move.

    “I swim back stroke so I need this space,” she said.

    “But I’m swimming here now,” I said.

    “You are in my space,” she replied emphatically.

    So I acquiesced and moved over.  Not only did this woman take my lane, but her stroke was so wide that she spilled over into my lane as well, resulting in inevitable bumps and brushes as we swam past each other.  After a few laps, she stopped me and started yelling in Hebrew.

    “Don’t you see I’m swimming here! She said.

    “But I am staying in my own lane.  You come over into my space!” I replied.

    “You keep hitting me.  You must stop. This is unacceptable,” she said.

    “But, you are hitting me as well,” I said.

    “Just stop it!” she yelled.

    “I’m trying, you try too” was my retort.  And then I swam off.

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