Blog #8: April Blog
As you may have read in the news, right now HUC is in the midst of major changes in its operating structure. Due to the economic downturn, the school will need to consolidate its locations to one or maybe two campuses stateside. It is a difficult and painful process, and we do not yet know the outcome. The letter we received from the President of the college said that "anything is possible" in terms of closures, so we are living with the awareness that the program or campus we so highly value may need to be the one that is cut.
I am, of course, hoping that Cincinnati is chosen to be the centerpiece of HUC's program. I think it's a great place to live, and the cost of living is comparatively low - so low in fact that I was able to buy a house with a backyard, even as a graduate student. It is also the birthplace of both the school and the reform movement.
More importantly, however, is the fact that Cincinnati is the location of the Klau Library, one of the largest Judaic libraries in the world. Access to a quality library is the life-blood of a dissertation writer, so its availability is critical to me.
For a while, there were wild rumors that they would close it down. But the leadership of the college has shown every indication that they fully understand the value of this resource, and we have heard repeated assurances from the President of the college that the library will not close. These announcements bring forth a palpable sense of relief.
But what if it should turn out that the rest of the campus would close? I would hate to see that happen, because I love this campus and all the people associated with it. Eventually, I think that I would be able to adapt and find a way to be successful under the new arrangement. The changes themselves won't be implemented for two years - and I am already intending to be done in two years. And if the work should go more slowly than anticipated, I still think that I shall be able finish, so long as I still have access to the library.
Regardless, I trust that a good decision will be made, based on the facts that are available. Honestly, between the two programs I've taken (rabbinical and graduate), I have been associated with HUC for nearly ten years now, and I have been consistently impressed by the administration's commitment to the education of its students. On a micro level, not everything goes as smoothly as it should - eventually you learn how to negotiate to get what you need - but on a macro level, the decision-making in this institution is closely aligned to its core values. These folks care profoundly about their mission, and they take it very seriously. And on that basis, I have abiding faith in their ability to lead in the midst of these serious challenges.
God willing, we may even emerge stronger for it.
Posted by Kari at 11:22 AM
Blog #7: March Blog
Taking notes, with help from Celeste
Good news: it looks like I'll be presenting a chapter of my dissertation at an academic conference sometime this year. I'm not sure yet which conference. I had sent it to one conference, and they liked it very much, but then my panel was cancelled due to budgetary constraints. They might have some other spot for me, but I have not yet heard back as to whether I can present on a different panel.
So, I sent my abstract to a second conference (AJS) and they liked it too. Hopefully at least one of the two conferences has a space for me.
In the meantime, I bought business cards - okay, technically they're referred to as "calling cards" because they're not advertising a business. I though it would useful to have these on hand for networking events, such as when I attend academic conferences.
So you may ask: why don't I use the business cards from my congregational job? The first reason alone is sufficient: I am leaving that position in May, to work full-time on the dissertation and teaching.
My son, the Jedi padawan, in his Purim costume
But there's a second reason as well, which would hold true even if I remained in my position in Middletown: I am not going there to be a congregational rabbi. At the conferences I want to be known as a grad student, i.e., as an academic. It's not that it's a problem to be a rabbi in an academic context: to the contrary, ordination is actually fairly common among academics in religious and biblical studies. My card, for example, lists my credentials on the second line, just after my name: "rabbi and doctoral candidate." I will acknowledge my ordination - actually, I'm rather proud of it - but that's not the reason why I am at the conference.
It's a distinction that's relevant in the classroom as well. When I teach Women in the Bible at UC, I often explain at the outset of the class that I am there not in my role as rabbi - rather I am there to be an academic. That means that I will not be preaching in class; I will instead look at the texts critically, in light of recent biblical scholarship. It's an important distinction to make in the context of a class on bible: the students need to know that I'm not there to uphold a certain reading of the text. I'm not there to reinforce faith or observance of faith. I am there to consider the bible as an ancient near-eastern text. It's one that has become profoundly important for the culture that nurtures me. But delving into the question of divine inspiration is not relevant in the classroom.
Roosevelt, hoping to distract me from the books behind him
Strange, isn't it? Even students who are convinced atheists encounter difficulty in thinking of the bible in this manner. In our cultural context, it seems only natural to want to start interpreting the bible in terms of piety. What does this text mean to me? How do I interpret it and apply it to my own life? Or even more basic: is it true? If so, how is it true? These questions are profoundly important, yet they get in the way of academic research.
So why would we want to do something which (at least initially) feels artificial and contrived, to speak of the bible as if it didn't matter so profoundly to us? It's a complicated question to answer. But what I tell my students (who are only just encountering this issue for the first time) is that we are creating a neutral space in which all claims may be evaluated for validity, based upon the evidence that they present. The students are free to disagree, to question, or to decide as they will. That neutral space is what allows us to speak to each other meaningfully even if we do not share the same religious assumptions. That neutral space is what prevents the class from becoming an extended polemical debate. That neutral space is both delicate and necessary.
I hope that you enjoy the spring holidays.
Posted by Kari at 10:22 AM
Blog #6: February Blog
My son, home on a snow day, using my computer
It snowed yesterday, again, in a shimmering powder of a snowstorm. We do not receive a lot of snow here - by northeastern standards we barely have a winter at all - but when we do, the city stops to watch it fall. My son's school was off yesterday, plus a few days last week, so we have had a chance to make snowmen on our front lawn among the snowdrifts using a snowman kit my sister-in-law sent us. "This one," my son explains to me gravely as he smoothes down the snow, "is a spy." My son has decided so on the basis of the floppy black hat that obscures the snowman's black button eyes.
When my son is home, of course, it means I get less work done. Right now, I am not bothered by the interruption; during the quarters when I am teaching, however, I am busier and more likely to be annoyed by the distraction. Yesterday, I could just spend time with him without thinking of what needed to be done.
What I am working on right now is the syllabus for my class next quarter, "Jewish God Concepts." It is a new class for me, so I am not working from a previous class structure. I am enjoying the process, however, as this is the first class I'll teach that is specifically within my field of specialization. As a member of a Judaic Studies faculty, I can be called on to teach classes like "Women in the Bible" which are somewhat related to my own field of study, but not exactly my specialization. So it's a great thing when I do actually get to teach something that's so close to my heart.
Our backyard, after snow + ice storm + more snow
The hard part in putting this course together, I am finding, is that there's no one book that seems to make sense for it. I can't think of something that's exactly right, and I do need to come up with a specific course profile. In other words: according to the official course description, it is "a study of differing ways Jews have conceptualized the idea of God through history. Readings in English from the Bible, rabbinic literature, medieval Jewish philosophy (Saadia, Maimonides, Spinoza), mysticism (Luria), and 20th century philosophy and theology (Buber, Heschel, Kaplan and Soloveitchick)." I must abide by that definition; I am not at liberty to change it.
So, to get started I pull six or seven possibilities from my shelf -mostly books I already own, but also a few library books - to make a first pass at choosing textbooks. It's necessary to make this choice as early as possible, so that you can phone in your order to the bookstore well in advance of the class registration period. Woe to you if the books aren't there before the first day of class!
What am I looking for in a course textbook? I am seeking books that are clearly written, without a lot of technical jargon (most undergraduates are not going to be conversant in theological terms like "anthropopathism" or "panentheism"). They need to be widely available (I generally try to stick to books that can be bought on Amazon.com) and not out of print, and they need to be relatively inexpensive. By "relatively inexpensive" I mean "less than $50." I'd choose a book that costs more, only if: it was for a class for majors only; or if it was absolutely critical to the success of the course; or if it was the sole book for the course. These are 3-unit classes - meaning that students normally take 12 courses in a year - so if a student has to pay $100+ for the textbooks in each class, the costs add up very quickly. Perhaps I'm concerned with these issues because I am a student myself...at any rate, I am trying to find a set of textbooks that make sense.
This snowman is a spy
Once I have a few possibilities identified, I start thinking about which chapters would be read as assignments, and in what order. Do I want to organize this information historically? The first line in the course description makes it sound like this course could be a historical survey - but as soon as I try to divide the material I discover that it just seems more natural to me to talk about God thematically. At least, when I picture myself lecturing to the students, I find it easier to envision a thematic approach, one that is specifically organized around various "God concepts" rather than a "history of God concepts." Each of those concepts, however, would include a historical sampling, to stay true to the course description.
In so doing, I come up with four concepts: "God as the Creator and Source of All Being"; "God as the Source of Goodness (...and also the Source of Evil?)"; "God as the Source of Revelation"; "God as a Personality (...or is it an Impersonal Force?)"; and "God as the Source of Ethical Conduct". Each of these concepts includes a series of class sessions devoted to the subject. The section on "God as a Personality," for example, includes class sessions about Maimonides' Via Negativa as well as sessions about Rachel Adler's discussion of divine metaphor and feminist theology in Engendering Judaism. It's not an exhaustive list, of course, but it's a good start for a survey course.
The course description also mentions "readings in English from the Bible, rabbinic literature, medieval Jewish philosophy...(etc.)" Do I want the students to tackle the primary literature on their own, as part of their reading assignments? Or would it make more sense to bring in excerpts that we go over in class? I decide in favor of the latter, using the reasoning that the primary literature is harder to understand than the secondary literature. It makes sense to go over the primary texts with them rather than make them figure it out on their own. If this were a graduate-level class, however, I would assign them both.
And then, having gone through this process, as a last step I need to assign readings and lectures to specific dates, and decide when the midterm will take place. I end up choosing in favor of a take-home midterm because I didn't want to devote a class session to it - we are already missing two days due to the Passover holiday. And take-home midterms are always popular, anyway. Now, should they do a paper or a final, or both? Hmm....
Whiskers thinks that napping is the best use of a snow day...
Posted by Kari at 12:33PM
Blog #5: January Blog
In December, we were scheduled to fly to Spokane, Washington (my husband's home town), but the unusually heavy snowfall in those parts caused us to cancel our trip. They received an entire winter's worth of snow in a week!
Here in Cincinnati, we have had less snowfall than usual; normally by this point in the season we would have had a snow day - or at least enough to make a snowman! But this year, most of our snow has been of the "dusting" variety. I've included a picture of our first measurable snow, taken the same week that Spokane received 37 inches of snow. This climate is just not as cold as the inland northwest.
But now, as I write this post in mid-January, things are fairly quiet, largely because I am not teaching this quarter. In the Spring I'll return to UC to teach the course "Jewish God Concepts," but in the meantime I have a much larger stretch of time in which to get work done.
Normally I'd really miss the teaching work: you know how some jobs wear you out, but others just add to your energy? For me, teaching is an endless source of positive energy. I genuinely enjoy the give-and-take of classroom discussion, and the theatrics of good lecture delivery. I enjoy hearing what the students are thinking about, and I enjoy helping them look at religious issues with a critical-scholarly eye. It's usually something very new to them.
But this quarter, I am not missing it as much as I normally would. I have wanted to get some real work done on the dissertation, the kind of work that takes clarity of mind and constancy of purpose. I have been reading Kant, a notoriously complex thinker, and I'd like to just immerse myself for a while in his philosophy until I've worked out the problems I've been considering over this past year.
So I've been spending most of my weekdays making cup after cup of mint tea, reading and taking notes. And exactly what kind of notes do I take? Usually, if it's one of my books, I just underline passages that are interesting and write notes in the margins, but if there's a sentence or two that really captures the issue then I'll write it in my notebook, to keep for use once I start writing. The notebook is also for the purpose of keeping track of what I've read: by reading the notes I've written or a few lines from the text, I'm usually able to remember which book had the information I'm looking for, so that I can pull it out and use it during the writing process. I'll also write out thoughts about the work as they come to me; last year these scattered notes eventually formed the basis of the outline that I used to construct the dissertation proposal.
It's no small thing, actually: this task of keeping track of all of those books is a much larger project than you might imagine. For example, when you write a term paper, you only have a small stack of books to consider, maybe a dozen at most. But, by way of contrast, my working bibliography already spans 21 pages and it could grow larger still. Part of the learning curve in writing a dissertation is the process of figuring out how to manage all of that information in some usable format.
It might seem like a daunting task, but it helps that you have already received significant training before you get to this point. In the process of passing the comprehensive exams, for example, you've already had to manage a fair bit of information: generally, it takes three months to a year to prepare for the comprehensive exams, so you've already had some experience in managing a large number of books over an extended period of time - and in that context you were expected to keep track of the information and be able to recall salient features on demand.
So the critical thing in putting this thing together, it would seem, is to know your own mind, to understand how you process information, and to set up systems that save you from your weaknesses!
Posted by Kari at 2:51 PM
Blog #4: December Blog
Coffee at Starbucks
One of the harder parts of researching a dissertation is staying on track. At this point, you are no longer answering to daily or weekly or even semester-long school assignments. Rather, at this stage, you are expected to work independently, holed up in your office or carrel, reporting back to your advisor every month or so.
So, is it better to work full-time on the dissertation, or to work part-time? For some, the latter option is the only option, as financial necessities may well dictate the pace of your dissertation work. But if you have the option of devoting yourself to it, which option is better? The answer is not obvious, because there are advantages both ways.
Requisite cat picture. This one is Roosevelt, asleep on the bed.
The advantage of writing it full-time is that you have the luxury of completing a thought before moving on to the next thing. It's possible to concentrate solely on the issue at hand rather than having to interrupt the work to go to work.
The advantage of writing it half-time (provided that you are spending enough time on it) is distance: you can come to it with fresh eyes each time. Also, working with the knowledge that you only have so much time to devote to it, then at those times when you do sit down to work, you're less likely to waste time on distractions (e.g., Facebook, daytime TV).
Okay, back to work
As I see it, this is the critical question: is the work moving you closer to your goal? If, for example, you have the possibility to teach in a university setting, then the experience gained from that employment far outweighs the time commitment. But if the work is not necessary for sustenance, then it should be assisting you in moving toward your goals.
You also have to take some time for yourself – in my case, I paint
Posted by Kari at 3:51 PM
Blog #3: A day in my life...
My desk upstairs
6:45 am: Wake up and pray.
When I was taking classes, it was possible to join the regular weekday services at HUC, but now that I am on my own most of the time it's difficult to swing by campus to attend. Since I missed having the opportunity to engage in daily prayer, my husband and I have started praying together first thing in the morning.
7:15 am: Breakfast with the family.
My parents live next door (a wonderful thing) so we all have breakfast together. They also take my son to his school in the morning.
Our backyard in early summer
8:45 am: Head out to University of Cincinnati.
There is not much traffic here in Cincinnati, which is a very good thing. You can get to nearly anywhere in 20 minutes. I live about 10 miles north of both UC and HUC in a small brick house in a suburban neighborhood. I bought this house before I was married, when I started the part-time congregational position. The cost of living here is relatively low, as are housing prices, which is why I was able to buy while still in school.
9:30 am: Women in the Bible at UC.
I am teaching a course this quarter as adjunct instructor in the Judaic Studies department at UC, which I have done for the past three years. Today's lecture is about Ezra and Nehemiah, based on a chapter from Tikva Frymer-Kensky's book, Reading the Women of the Bible.
11:45 am: Lunch with my husband.
We have lunch out at an Indian restaurant. These are quite numerous in Cincinnati, and our favorite is Baba India.
1:00 pm: Rest.
I am a night owl and I find it easier to read when all is quiet, late into the evening. So I am therefore a dedicated napper.
Sylvie hiding in the curtains upstairs
2:00 pm: Email, Facebook and phone calls.
You might be surprised to learn that many rabbis use Facebook as a way to stay connected with other rabbis!
Today I also need to order more books for the Religious School, since the kids in the aleph class are finishing their lessons too quickly.
2:30 pm: Research sermon ideas.
I will often read a variety of sources on-line to get ideas and then use my growing library of books for additional resources. Today I am just looking for ideas; tomorrow I will spend the afternoon putting it together into a sermon or study session.
3:30 pm: Dissertation research.
I am pleased to say that my dissertation proposal was accepted, which means that my dissertation topic is "Between Maimonides and Kant: Hermann Cohen's Religion of Reason." So, right now I am working my way through Kant's Critique of Pure Reason with great deliberation and care. Of the three thinkers, Kant is the one most foreign to me, which is I why I begin with him, and I will at some point read nearly everything he wrote. Right now, however, my focus is getting a good grounding in his philosophy, beyond the survey I undertook in preparing the dissertation proposal. I was asked recently by a first-year student, "How do you go about mastering philosophical material?" Assuming that you have not taken a course specifically about the philosopher in question, then the answer is to start with books about your intended subject, such as the Cambridge Companion to Kant, and use them as a resource to identify key ideas and terminology before you read the primary material. That way, if you see a technical term such as "transcendental analytic" used frequently in the secondary sources, you know to pay attention when it shows up in the primary sources. This part of the process sounds overwhelming, but it's not. We receive a lot of training before we get to this point.
6:00 pm: Pick up my son from aftercare, followed by dinner and relaxing with my family.
Cincinnati has a lot of excellent schools and a lot of child-care options. When he was very young, my son was enrolled in JELC (the Jewish Early Learning Cooperative), which is a cooperative day-care program located on-campus at HUC. He's in aftercare three days a week; on the other days, I spend the afternoon with him.
8:30 pm: Dissertation research.
Once my son is in bed, I normally head back upstairs to our joint office and get back to work, usually reading until almost midnight. I work most evenings, but not all: earlier this week, for example, we attended a concert downtown, which was quite wonderful. So I do get out sometimes; but I must admit that I only rarely watch TV.
...and that's what I have been doing on this particular Thursday in November.
All the best,
Posted by Kari at 2:32 PM
Blog #2: October Blog
Working on my dissertation proposal (with help from Celeste the cat).jpg
My new husband and I decided to build a sukkah this year. You might think that as a rabbi, I have this sort of thing mastered, but I must admit that my attempt last year was not exactly successful: I had created a masterpiece out of lumber and roof brackets which promptly fell over within the first hour of its construction, mangled beyond repair. This year, we could not re-use the lumber since it had been repurposed for our attic refinishing project, when we installed new insulation and drywall to create a proper office for my work-from-home spouse. So we needed to find a new approach.
At first I thought we might buy a kit, and so I researched options on-line for several days. But my husband Tom was not convinced: why should we pay several hundred dollars for a prefabricated hut? Would it not be more in keeping with the holiday to create our own, preferably something less permanent, and more likely to blow in the wind?
The fact that neither of us had ever successfully designed a sukkah before did not actually deter us. He is a convert to Judaism, just like me, so we spent some time going over the rules for the sukkah. "Could tree branches count as the roof?" - "Yes," I explained, "So long as they are no longer attached to the tree." Hmmm. "Do we need to be able to see the sky?" - "Yes, we should see a little bit of sky." Hmmm.
In considering the problem at some length, Tom noticed is the fact that we have three trees standing in our yard about 12 feet apart in a roughly equilateral triangle. The weeping cherry and the red maple both have straight trunks, but the crabapple has a branched shape. So we came up with the idea of stringing rope from the trees to create four walls for our sukkah, using two branches of the crabapple to form the fourth wall.
We ran a length of rope from tree to tree about seven feet from the ground, and hung fabric shower curtains (fabric, so they would let the wind blow through them, but for showering, so that they wouldn't mildew if it rained). We then strung a separate length of rope about a foot off of the group along three of the walls and attached binder clips to the bottom of each curtain so that they were strung along the line at the top and at the bottom.
Receiving my Master of Philosophy Hood
But what about the roof? Shower curtains on twine are not exactly the most rigid material for building walls, so we knew that they would not be particularly helpful in holding up the roof. What to do about it?
As it happens, my parents just recently bought the house next door. And in the detritus of the objects left by previous owner we found a gold hula hoop. Aha. Tom had an idea.
Tom took the hula hoop and strung it up in the trees, so that it hung down like some sort of crown over our sukkah. And then we took corn stalks (which are readily available at this time of year in this part of the world), lashed one end of each stalk to the hula hoop, and then hung the opposite end of the stalk so that it merely rested on top of the twine holding up the shower curtains. It was quite lovely, really.
The first rain, of course, immediately brought most of our handiwork down, so that it had to be rebuilt in the morning. But that seemed to be a fine thing to us, actually: it merely reinforced the idea that this is not a permanent structure. When our sukkah blows and rustles with the wind, it reminds us how temporary all of our structures - even our snug little brick house that stands just a few feet away - really are.
The sukkah also provided a fine distraction for this period of waiting: on Monday I turned in my dissertation proposal to the Graduate Executive Committee for their approval, and it will be at least two weeks before I find out whether it has been accepted.
This is what happens as a PhD student: once you finish your coursework, you study for your comprehensive exams in three subjects (one major area and two minors) of your choosing. My major subject area was Jewish thought with Dr. Barry Kogan, and my two minors were modern German-Jewish history with Dr. Michael Meyer, and Midrashic literature with Dr. Richard Sarason. That step in the process took me about a year to complete.
Then, once you've passed the exams, you receive the Master of Philosophy degree and you start working on your dissertation proposal. That's what I submitted to the committee this week. It has taken about a year to put the proposal together; I started working on it when I passed my comprehensive exams last summer.
Then, once your proposal is approved, your status changes to "ABD," otherwise known as "All But Dissertation." I am hoping that my case the dissertation proposal is accepted without needing any revision - but if it turns out that a revision is needed, I think that it would better to find out now than to waste time on unnecessary or counter-productive work.
So I am trying not to think about it while I observe this holiday. Hag sameach!
Our shower curtain sukkah
Posted by Kari at 3:34 PM
Blog #1: First Blog
First the easy part: I am a graduate student in Cincinnati, working on my dissertation in Jewish thought. I am also an ordained rabbi, (HUC Cinci, '04), working part time as a solo in a small congregation nearby, and as an adjunct instructor in the Judaic Studies department at the University of Cincinnati.
The harder part is explaining how I got here. It is difficult to know where to begin, because there seems to be so much to explain: how I came to the rabbinate as a convert and a second-career student; what it was like to go through some major life changes while in school (pregnancy, new baby, divorce, single motherhood, dating, and recent remarriage); why I decided to continue here and pursue a PhD; and how I balance family with congregational work, adjunct teaching and a dissertation.
Under the Chuppah
I decided to become a rabbi not long after my bat mitzvah at the age of 26. I had joined the adult b'nai mitzvah program and loved having to go to the Temple at least once a week for classes; it wasn't long before I worked up to a fairly regular attendance at Friday night services and the Saturday morning Torah study group. By that time I had also been asked to join the board and was getting involved in outreach to intermarried couples, having once been one myself.
My career at that time was going well, but I hated it, mostly - I was the senior manager of marketing communications for a health care management company - I disliked its oppressive rigidity, continuous stress and incessant demands with little emotional return. The trappings were nice, but it all seemed rather hollow. I applied to HUC in the fall of 1997 and left for the Year-in-Israel in June 1998.
So, ten years later, what am I doing now? At the moment I am recovering from ankle reconstruction surgery, to correct the damage from when I fell during my morning walk last October. I knew that the surgery would be very disruptive of my daily life, which is why I had scheduled it for the relatively less-busy summer months. This September, for example, I'll have to juggle High Holidays, the start of religious school, the beginning of the fall quarter at UC, and the due date for my dissertation proposal.
My congregation gave me several weeks off in August to recover - but, as I have learned, as a solo rabbi there are times when you have to get up and work anyway. Evelyn, a life-long member of my congregation, passed away in the early hours of the morning, on the day of my surgery - which meant that 48 hours after the surgery, still numb from the nerve block, I officiated at the funeral from my wheelchair. The family was deeply grateful - which is one of those moments as a rabbi when you know that what you do is meaningful and worthwhile. But it is an elaborate calculus we do in determining whether our personal needs (recovering from surgery) or the congregational needs (officiating at a funeral) take priority.
Shanah tovah - may you have a sweet new year.
Posted by Kari at 4:40 PM