Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Ninth of Av (part 3) The Torah

The ceremony of reading the Torah is done as part of the morning service three times during the week - Shabbat (Saturday), Monday, and Thursday -  and on holidays. The readings, which are divided into 54 portions called Parsha, proceed through the five books of Moses that constitute the entirety of the Torah . As described on the Chabad web page 'The Torah reading service begins when a member of the congregation is given the honor of opening the Ark and taking out the Torah, with much respect and ceremony. The Torah is then taken to the podium (Bimah). When it is necessary to read two or three different portions, two or three scrolls may be taken from the Ark...... As the Torah .... passes by, members kiss it as a sign of love and respect.'

Members of the congregation are called in a particular order to the Torah to recite a blessing before the rabbi reads several paragraphs. There are usually at least three people called to recite the blessings.  The first aliyah (literally meaning 'to go up') is performed by a person descendent from the ancient tribe of the Kohanim (priestly families who served in the time of the Temple), the second is performed by someone of the tribe of Levi, and the third by a member of the congregation whose lineage is untraceable or who is descended from any other tribe. Tradition prescribes that the person performing the aliyah should wear a tallit (prayer shawl). The rabbi points with a silver pointer called a yad to the word which begins that particular portion, the participant takes a corner of his shawl to touch that word and then kisses his shawl, and then recites the blessings.

As for the lineage, it is maintained by the hebrew naming convention which prescribes a name in three parts: the person's hebrew name followed by the hebrew word ben meaning 'son of', the name of the person's father, and finally the designation of lineage - either haKohane (meaning of the tribe of Kohane), haLevi, or nothing.

The Torah itself is made of pieces of parchment attached by sewing them together to make a long continuous scroll. The rituals for creating a Torah are very strict and controlled by more than 4,000 laws which a scribe (called a sofer) must know. There are 304,805 letters in the entire Torah and each one must be written in a certain manner to conform to what is considered to be the form of the letters and words as handed down by G-d to Moses on Mount Sinai. Comparisons have been made of modern Torah scrolls to those found to be thousands of years old, and they are identical in every respect. My portfolio website has images, which are part of an ongoing project, of Torah scribes writing and completing a scroll.

 A member of the congregation takes the scroll from the ark and walks amongst the congregants:

The rabbi points to a specific place in the writing to be touched with the Tallit before saying the blessings:

The rabbi reading from the scroll:

Holding the scroll before replacing it into the ark after the reading ceremony. Being made of parchment and wood spools, the Torah is very heavy, weighing upwards of thirty pounds.:

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Ninth of Av (part 2) The Torah

Since the question was raised about my previous post, to clarify(and I'm certainly not an authority on the matter) Tifilin are black lacquered leather boxes that contain parchment scrolls with hand written prayers on them. The prayers are from the book of Deuteronomy. The religious injunction is for the observant Jew to don the Tefilin once a day and recite particular blessings and the most sacred prayer in the Jewish liturgy entitled the 'Shema' which declares and affirms that G-d is One. The intimation is that since G-d is one and there is one G-d, G-d is in everything and everyone, and we are all one with G-d. It's the cornerstone of Judaism and historically the first unequivocal affirmation of monotheism.

In this first image you may notice that there are only men present. Hasidic and very religious  observers recite prayers separated from women, who are in an adjacent room separated by a wall (in the second image the person holding the torah scroll has brought it to them so they can touch and kiss it). Many people feel that this separation of men and women puts women in a subservient position. Nothing could be further from the truth. Women in Judaism are considered to be the bearers of the faith, and a child is considered Jewish if the mother is Jewish. This is because the newborn child and toddler spends his entire life in the mother's arms, and she gives to the child his first exposure to Jewish morality and ethics, called 'yiddishkeit'. The separation during prayer is done because of the recognition of the weakness of the men to being distracted during prayers, which are a communication between the individual and G-d, by the women. In the third image below the rabbi is conducting the prayers and is wearing a ritual belt around his waist to symbolically separate his soul and mind from his  organs, allowing him to communicate with purity of thought. In the final image the rabbi is reading the weekly portion from the Torah scroll. More on that in the next post.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Ninth of Av (part 1)

This past Sunday I was invited to participate in an observance of the Jewish holiday Tisha B'Av. It's a sad day commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. It's 'celebrated' by fasting and a complete abnegation of personal comfort. This year the day fell on Saturday, which of course is Shabbat, so the observance was on Sunday.

Almost all of the work up to now on my long term project about Jews in the Diaspora has been focused on either Hassidic or highly observant communities in the New York area. But there's much more to the 'tribe'. I was raised in a 'conservative' Jewish home and my family engaged in all traditional Jewish practices pretty ...... well, religiously.  But this was an opportunity for me to explore and participate in an observance that was a bit different.

The spiritual leader of the group, Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky, is a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi. One of the basic tenets of Judaism is that it does not engage in proselytizing. But the Chabad people have a very active outreach program to find and encourage Jews to participate in rituals that bring them into the spiritual core of the tradition. I've posted many photos of the experiences I had on the Mitzvah Tanks in New York and at the world headquarters of the Chabad movement which is at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. This time, however, the observance of Tisha B'Av was at a local shul (a yiddish word meaning synagogue) in my town. Being present gave me the opportunity to not only participate, but also to engage with observant people in my local community. It was a very different and enlightening experience.

A 'minyan' - a group of ten men - is necessary for congregational observance of prayer services. That's not ever a problem in Hasidic communities where there is a constant ongoing cycle of people praying and studying. But in a small New Jersey suburban community gathering ten men can sometimes be problematic. I was one of the ten (eventually the group became eleven). The feeling was very intimate, and it brought the engagement with the rituals to a very personal level.

Working on an image on my computer screen, it's easy for me to fall in love with every one. I wouldn't spend the time to 'develop' each image if I didn't like it. But actually posting it on my blog forces me to see each image very differently. So, for each of the next few blog entries I'll post a series of images, hopefully not too repetitious.

The rabbi:

Helping a congregant to put on Tifilin (a small leather box with parchment prayers inside):

Carrying the Torah scrolls from the ark before the reading:

Dressing the Torah after the reading (engaging in the ritual of reading the Torah is an uplifting experience which often fills people with a sense of joy. That's me on the left.):

Reading a Haftorah (a section of one of the later books of the Bible):

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Saturday on the High Line

When the summer weather is fine, New Yorkers come out in droves in spite of the crowds of tourists. I hadn't been to the High Line for more than a year, and I was pleasantly surprised to find the final leg extending from Tenth av. and 30th st. to the Hudson River was paved and open. There's no plant life yet so it's wide open to the sun, but that Hudson River breeze was very refreshing. I walked south to the Gansevoort st. entrance. The trees that were struggling saplings the last time I was there are tall and leafy, providing beautiful shade and in some places an arbor-like tunnel. At the bottom end of the High Line the Whitney Museum was open and busy. There was just one downside. The Meatpacking District and Chelsea gentrification and construction boom has hemmed in the open feeling, and in some places destroyed the view of the Hudson River. Bummer.

But there were some compensating views to be had.

Leggo City at the 30th st. entrance, for kids of all ages:

It's over there:

As for those compensating views (for my friend Darko):