Hot Off the Shtender: Delighting in Our Learning

by Laynie Soloman, Associate Rosh Yeshiva

As we wrapped up our semester of weekly learning for the Teaching Kollel, I declared (as I often do!), that the text we had learned is my favorite sugya. One Fellow noted, “Laynie, I’d love to find some time to hear more about what you love about this sugya.” The text hadn’t quite landed for them in their body, they noted, and they wanted to do some extra thinking and learning together to explore the “magic”  that’s underneath this text. This is the true blessing of learning at SVARA, y’all.

In 2020 we’ve learned more text than ever before: we’ve explored the mishnah in Masechet Avot through daily study over the past 10 months (and learned almost 70 mishnayot in almost 250 sessions!), we’ve learned over a dozen sugyot (sections of Talmud), we’ve sat with folks in countless Fairy Hours, and we’ve had our hearts expanded infinite times. 

More SVARA-niks are learning more Torah, and finding new ways to bring the wisdom of our ancestors to life. We’ve spent this past year deepening our learning personally, and deepening our learning together as a yeshiva. For many of us this year brought the first time we’ve delved into Mishnah, or the first time we worked our way through a page of Talmud. For some of us this year we learned a new grammatical structure, explored a new root-meaning (or found new meaning from a familiar root!). For others this year brought our first moments of owning a text, or new realizations about the role we want our tradition to play in our lives. We’ve experimented with new practices, taken on different forms of observance, and we’ve lived our tradition in new ways. 

As I am clapping up this learning community for the deepening we’ve done, for the ways in which we’ve moved along our spiraling non-linear paths to becoming players—people who are transformed by and in turn transform—our tradition, I’m struck by the invitation from our Fellows to take the time to name and unpack the places of love that we’re experiencing in our learning and our teaching.  Read More

Hot Off the Shtender: Saving Our Lives: The Rest of the Story

Saving Our Lives: The Rest of the Story

by R’ Benay Lappe, Rosh Yeshiva


My father loved radio. As a child, we had radios in every room of our house. There was the little black AM-FM transistor radio that sat on a shelf in the bathroom medicine cabinet, the big old-fashioned-looking vintage replica that sat on his dresser, a boom-box-style radio-cassette recorder perched next to his chair in the family room, and the tv-radio that sat on the window sill above the kitchen sink that he’d listen to—the radio, never the tv—as he washed the dinner dishes every night. I grew up listening in as he listened. We all did. You couldn’t help it in our family.

My dad’s favorite radio show was Milt Rosenberg. It must’ve had another name, but he just called it Milt Rosenberg. My favorite was Paul Harvey. Paul Harvey was a wildly popular radio news commentator who also had a short three- or four-minute daily segment called The Rest of the Story. And I loved it. In each episode, he’d tell the story of some unheard-of person or event and, then, at the very end, he’d reveal this seemingly obscure story to be the missing link in some well-known story that you thought you knew but now that you had the missing link that you never knew was missing, you really understood the story you thought you had already understood before, but didn’t really. Whatever the particulars of each day’s story might have been, the meta-message was always the same: There’s inevitably more to a story than what you think you know. So hold your stories lightly. And: That which is apparent or evident is never all that there is. So always keep looking for more pieces of what you thought was an already-completed puzzle. Thinking about it now, it was really very talmudic! 

After Paul Harvey would reveal the connection between that little-known but now enlightening and perspective-shifting backstory to the story you thought you knew before, he’d always end each episode by declaring in his characteristic sing-song voice: “And now you know…the rest of the story!” 

Well, today I’d like to tell you a story, Paul Harvey-style. It’s the story of a Jewish concept called pikuach nefesh. In our Tuesday night Queer Talmud for Beginner’s Mind bet midrash, we’re learning the text which is the locus classicus (OK, I just like saying that) of the concept of pikuach nefesh Read More

Hot Off The Shtender: Take Off Your Shoes

by R’ Dev Noily, SVARA Fellow

Take off your shoes from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. –Ex. 3:5

These are the first words YHVH says to Moses after calling to him from the burning bush. Moses is a wanderer then, a refugee. He doesn’t live in the homeland of his ancestors, or in the land where he was born. This holy place where he finds himself, and finds YHVH, is in the wilderness, where Moses is tending the flock of his father-in-law Yitro: [Moses] drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to the mountain of G-d, to Khorev. – Ex. 3:1

I also live in a place that isn’t the homeland of my ancestors, and that isn’t where I was born. I live in Huichin, the territory of the Lisjan Ohlone people. They have lived here for over 5,000 years – about the span that we count in Jewish mythic time from the moment of Creation to the present. For the last 250 or so of those years, they’ve experienced wave after wave of colonial terror, genocide, displacement, and erasure of their history, language and ceremony. 

Corrina Gould, Spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, said:

(I)f you live in the San Francisco bay area, you have to know that this place is full of magic. There’s movements that have come out of the Bay Area, like the takeover of Alcatraz, the American Indian Movement, Indians of All Tribes, the Brown Berets, the Black Panthers, all kinds of technology and ideas have come out of here. But why would this bubble place be that place? Because our ancestors for thousands of years put down prayers on this land. This land is magic.

It’s our responsibility to take care of this place in such a way. But, taking care of this place is not just for us to do. There are thousands of people that live in our lands now, and so now that you live in our lands, it is also your responsibility. Because this land also takes care of you. Those prayers that our ancestors put down for thousands of years also take care of you and your family. [speaking at Landless in the Bay Area, October, 2019] 

Corrina Gould, Spokesperson for the Corrina with members of the Lisjan Ohlone tribe; Confederated Villages of Lisjan

Living here, I am standing on holy ground. 

Wherever we are, we are on holy ground. Sometimes covered with asphalt and concrete, and crusted over with histories and current realities of violence and cruelty. What if this weekend, we went outside, and took off our shoes and let our bare feet feel the land where we live? Or let our eyes rest on the sky above our heads? What if we closed our eyes, and felt the ancestors of this place? What if we asked those ancestors what they want from us, what they need from us, to feel peace, to feel whole? What repair is needed? What are our obligations to them, and to their descendants? What if we listened for their voices with the same longing and attunement that we bring to the Beit Midrash, when we strain to hear the voices of our beloved rabbis whispering in our ears those glittery teachings that see our souls so clearly and blow our hearts wide open? Read More