Vermont: Vitamins and Juice-Transcript

This is the episode transcript. You can listen to the episode here.

All people interviewed in this project speak solely for themselves. Their opinions are their own.

(Justin Regan) Welcome to American Rabbi Project, a podcast about American Judaism from the perspective of rabbis across the country. I’m Justin Regan.

(Regan) I was on the road between August and December of 2018. Or to put it another way, it started in 5778 slightly before the High Holidays and ended slightly after Chanukah of 5779. However, if you believe a trip really isn’t over until you clean out the car then mine ended last week. Regardless, I celebrated plenty of Jewish holidays on the trip. That includes Rosh Hashanah in South Dakota, Yom Kippur in Canada, Shabbat dinners in Maine and Virginia and Sukkot in Vermont.

Episode 6: Vermont: Vitamins and Juice

(Regan) The message of Sukkot is protection comes from the heavens and not the physical world. Jews build temporary tent-like structures called sukkahs where starlight and most elements can make it through the simple roof and many who celebrate the eight-day holiday spend a good amount of time eating meals and praying in them. It represents when the Jews wandered through the desert and also has a lot of ties to the autumn harvest. Which made it fitting that I went to a Sukkot celebration on a farm near Montpelier. It was at Living Tree Alliance, a Jewish intentional community, a place where multiple Jewish families live on a shared property. It’s a movement that’s growing in the United States as a way of reconnecting to the Jewish community and this event also focused on reconnecting to the land. We prayed, sang, chanted and meditated in sukkahs made of hay, branches and regional flora. And that was pretty useful for me. Because at this point in the trip things were starting to blur from all the driving. So here it was nice to get some quality time with the Vermont countryside especially as the leaves changed colors. 

This sense of connection, or re-connection, is the M.O. of Rabbi Jan Salzman, one of the people who led us in prayers and chants. So after Sukkot, I made sure to pay her a visit when I went through her hometown of Burlington. 

(Rabbi Jan Salzman) Hi, my name is Rabbi Jan Salzman I am the rabbi and founder of Ruach haMaqom a Jewish renewal synagogue in the heart of the old North End in Burlington, Vermont. We’re entering our third year and it’s a happening scene.

(Regan) The North End has historically been the Jewish neighborhood or “little Jerusalem”. The tribe’s been in town since the 1880’s when Jews came from Lithuania fleeing persecution. It wasn’t long before they built a synagogue. It’s gone by many names across the century like Ohavi Zedek and Ahavath Gerim or ‘the red brick building’. Today the oldest synagogue in the state is the location of the newest congregation in Burlington. Because Ruach haMaqom is so young Salzman gives herself a variety of titles ranging from Executive Director to Chief Cook and Bottle Washer. But like many rabbis interviewed for this podcast from congregations new and old, her most important role is teacher.  

(Salzman) A rabbi is there to answer someone’s questions with the background the lens through which Jews have looked at the world. I like to describe Judaism quite often as a game of Jeopardy. The rabbis tend to have the answers but you have to ask ‘what was the question the rabbi was asking?’ So whenever you’re studying commentary, you’re really playing this game of Jeopardy. Very few of us had an education in the Jewish world, that went beyond being Bar or BatMitzvahed.

(Regan) Salzman was one of those people for many years. After getting Batmitzvahed she swore to herself she would never step foot in a synagogue again.  

(Salzman) It had nothing for me. We were Jewishly, we were a family, we had Friday night dinners every week. But we were not synagogue goers. We were the three day a year Jews who came to the High Holidays and that was it. And sort of drive-by BatMitzvahs you know? The Conservative movement was just dead in the water at that point, and it had lost its juice, there was no juice. It was the 60’s! And we all wanted juice! Things were alive! And we were dancing, rock n roll and everything was so alive. So there wasn’t anything there for me.

(Regan) But things changed when Salzman moved to a small town in Vermont. She missed being part of a Jewish community. Her kids were the only Jews in their elementary school. 

(Salzman) One of the Kindergarten teachers at the public schools said ‘Oh, Jan, you’re Jewish. Why don’t you come teach the kids something about Chanukah?’ I went ‘Sure!’ And then I realized I didn’t know anything about Chanukah. I had no idea there was another story there. So I began to do research and I rediscovered my joy that I’ve always taken with the history of ideas and the history of people. So that was one in.

(Regan) Through teaching others and herself, Salzman found her joy for Judaism. And it was through the Renewal movement she found the juice.

(Salzman) I was doing a lot of improvisational dance and I was taken to a retreat with the early movers and shakers of Jewish Renewal. Reb Zalman, Oliver Shalom, Chana Seigal and Arthur Waskow and Michael Lerner and all of these people were beginning this Chasidic infused, but very contemporary form of Judaism. I was dancing the sveeroht and I was like ‘woah, I can do that? I can move and do improvisational dance to Judaism? I’m in.’

(Regan) Renewal Judaism was started by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, or “Reb Zalman” as many call him. He was a hasidic rabbi who sought to bring a new look to Judaism through experimenting with different types of spirituality and the occasional hallucinogen. He met and worked with sufis, monks and even the 14th Dalai Lama. Salzman says he crafted a movement that blends the hassidic ethos of joy with egalitarianism, environmentalism, modernity and a willingness to learn from other spiritual traditions. It’s incubation period was the 60’s and 70’s when Jews were affected by the counterculture movement and a desire to revitalize the religion after the horrors of the Holocaust. 

(Slazman) So if you imagine after the Holocaust especially, Judaism was dead on the ground, it had been cut to its roots. Analogously to what had happened after the destruction of the second temple. It was just destroyed. So it lay quiet a couple of years. A couple of generations. And all of us who left Judaism didn’t stop being spiritually oriented people. We went to Yoga, we went to meditation and we went to Buddhism, and we went to chanting and we went to all these other spiritual technologies and then came back to Judaism and said ‘hmmmm. I wonder if there’s something like that that existed in Judaism’ well, sure enough, there was. And the infusion of what Reb Zalman used to call ‘vitamins’. So all of us leaving Judaism came back with the vitamins to revitalize it. 

(Regan) Jewish Renewal works to in their own words ‘recover meditative practices from the dusty attic of Jewish tradition’ and serve as an ‘R and D department’ for Judaism. That includes things like “davenology” or prayer labs and yoga Torah study, something Salzman’s congregation does from time to time. 

(Salzman) It looks very much like a yoga class. But the leader will infuse the movements with teachings from the weekly parsha. From the Torah portion of the week. And there might be some chanting, a Jewish call and response trance music. So you use the Torah to inspire as you go through the motions.  

(Regan)Environmentalism is also an important tenet of the movement and Salzman says those messages are found all throughout the traditional texts.

(Salzman) The pilgrimage holidays of Shuvuot, Pesach and Sukkot take on a very different flavor when you are looking at it as they were originally intended which were agriculturally based festivals. One of the core teachings of Torah is the schmetah year. Where every seven years, you have to give the land a rest. The land gets Shabbas! That’s amazing. So you have to rotate your fields so once every seven years your land just recovers. This is a monumental awareness that the land itself has agency in our world. Certainly the Noah story we just came through with the wiping out of all of creation and starting a new is loaded with environmental impact. There’s other parts of the Torah that talks about in matters of war you’re allowed to cut down certain trees but not other trees. Even the idea of Eden we got out by eating the fruit of the tree right there the natural world is spurring us on to be more aware of the choices that we make.

(Regan) After Salzman was ordained, she became an assistant rabbi and cantor at the Conservative synagogue in Burlington. When she left, someone suggested she form her own congregation and Ruach haMaqom was born. Salzman shares a common belief that the role of rabbi is changing and says it’s important to be where she’s needed.  

(Salzman) In Jewish Renewal you learn to speak Jewish in a lot of dialects. If you’re a Reform Jew I can talk to you, if you’re an Orthodox Jew I can talk to you. I embrace all the forms of Judaism in my training. It’s all good. What’s not good is when people say ‘I’m a better Jew than you’. Then we got trouble.

(Regan) Salzman says it’s about looking past the mentality of who’s more Jewish and instead viewing it like one of her mentors Rabbi Arthur Waskow who says in America every Jew is a Jew by choice. 

(Salzman) Because in this moment we don’t have to be Jews. We can become nothing, we can be anything we want. So it’s kind of a challenge. Fortunately or unfortunately the rest of the world doesn’t let us forget that we are Jews. Right now we are experiencing an uptick in racial and religious based bias and even violence. I don’t know where to put that information yet. I think we’re in it now. And part of why we’re in that is because we have this media which is focusing on the aberrations rather then on what is common. So I want to believe that living in the United States in this place in this time is going to ultimately end up being a safe place for all people to reside in safety. We’ll see. That’s all we can say is we’ll see. 

(Regan) For Salzman, one aberration is the concept that Jews were always discriminated against before coming to America. She says that’s not entirely accurate. 

(Salzman) We in fact spent most of our lives most of our history integrated into societies that had lots of different kind of people in it. What we did have was a strong sense of who we are. Our neighbors generally respected our boundaries as well. For example, a Jew’s not supposed to work on Shabbas. Well who’ll milk the cow? So your gentile neighbors would come in and take care of your animals on Shabbas. And they would get the eggs and the milk and you would do the same for them when they couldn’t get to their barns. We have in some way this false sense of our history where we always had these hard lines between us and the other but that wasn’t true. I think that’s a real source of strength. To learn more about our actual history, not just what we think our history was but what actually happened and find those examples where we were in very good communion with our neighbors. Until of course our neighbors came and slaughtered us. So by all means it didn’t always work out.

(Regan) For Salzman, it’s important to put things into context. That not only means reexamining the narrative of always being persecuted in the old countries. But also that it isn’t a given things are perfect for Jews and all people in the new world.

(Salzman) When I was a kid in the Suburbs of Chicago, it was still part of people’s real estate contracts  that they were not allowed to resell a home to a Jew or a Negro. That’s only in the 60’s that those laws fell a part. I’m the daughter of someone who fought in World War 2. There was the promise that America, the United States was going to be a place where we could be free of discrimination and do anything. And by and large that is true. Why? Because we can pass for white. 

(Regan) Jews come in all races from all over the world, but Salzman is specifically referring to Ashkenazi Jews who come from Eastern Europe. Depending on what source you use, they make up 80-90% of the U.S. Jewish population. The discussion on whether or not some Jews are “white” or “white-passing” is, to put it as diplomatically as possible, up for personal interpretation. But for Salzman, it’s a key part of the narrative of being Jewish in the United States. 

(Salzman) We have to include that in the conversation on why Jews have done so well in America, it’s because we’re white, generally speaking, and we can pass in a society. So that’s a really nice thing to be able to pass and not be labeled according to what we look like.

(Regan) Salzman says while many Jews can passively be safe in the U.S. to be actively Jewish can require more assertiveness. And the front lines are the holidays. 

(Salzman) One of the things that defines a culture is the calendar they live by. Trying to live the Jewish calendar is a real challenge. Parents end up having to advocate for their kids so that things don’t happen on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. So part of the difficulty is can a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu. All of whom have different calendars then the Western calendar. To what extent can those three groups, and there are probably others, advocate for their calendars? That’s the best piece of technology we have with helping stay identified. Is to live according to our holiday calendars. And that’s a place of learning as well because again, most people don’t know there’s such a thing other than Passover and Chanukah. We barely know about Sabbath. So reintroducing the idea that there is a calendar by which we live, is a great way to start inviting people back into or forward into a Jewish identity within the secular world.

(Regan) It’s all part of the balance of integrating into a relatively safe society while also maintaining identity.

(Salzman) I guess another thing about Judaism is they ask the question ‘why has it survived so long?’ Part of it is we have this tradition that began in 586 BCE with the destruction of the first temple where we began to riff with our rules. We began to be creative with how we understood what we’re supposed to be doing in this world. That what I call improvisational thinking ability is astounding. Again, because we tend to be an uneducated people now about our history, we have no idea about how flexible and improvisational and creative we are and have been in the past.

(Regan) One way Salzman is flexible is when it comes to intermarriage. She herself married a non-Jew who later converted. Salzman will perform interfaith weddings although she has her “lines in the sand”. She says the priority is creating Jewish homes not Jewish marriages and the non-Jewish spouse can play a key role in this.  

(Salzman) So Geertohshav is a hallachic designation. It means the people of other faiths who are living around us. Literally means the stranger within. The people who are not Jewish in a family tend to be really interested in creating a Jewish home. Because they might not come from any identity and they’re really interested in it. By working with a couple and introducing the concept that the person from a different faith actually has a role in creating the identity of the family is wonderful.

(Regan) Despite approaching interfaith marriage from this angle, in many ways, Salzman shares a common concern that assimilation could lead to more and more Jews losing their sense of identity. 

(Salzman) However, quite often and I work with people who convert to Judaism. Quite often two or three generations down, ‘I had a Jewish Grandmom. And I’ve always been interested. And I really want to become a Jew again.’ There’s a hard to identify lineage that will always exist I think.

(Regan) It’s a thread that Rabbi Jan Salzman knows all too well. Though she once thought she’d never go to schul again she now is there almost everyday heading a congregation of her own. It’s all to serve the community she loves with the vitamins she acquired to help people find connection. 

(Salzman) So my job is to embody the archetype of being a rabbi which really takes great delight and joy in peeling away the husks that keep us separate in the world. So that’s something that comes from the chassidic and cabalistic perspective. But there’s great amount of light in each of us. And sometimes we have it covered up. And so my job as a rabbi is to help people peel away those husks that are keeping them from relating to being alive.

(Regan) Vermont was around the time I was entering another phase of the road trip. The weather was changing and I was about to enter the vast east coast metropolises of Boston, Philly and D.C. I was starting to peel away some husks of my own and figure out what was the real purpose of this trip. And I still don’t know if I have an answer to that. It’s my own conversation with myself that never seems to end. But that’s not a bad thing. As long as I keep asking the right questions. 

(Regan) American Rabbi Project episode 6 Vermont Vitamins and Juice was written and produced by me Justin Regan. Derek Povah handles the web stuff and makes a good hiking buddy. I also want to thank Jeremy Krones, Beth Vanderstoep, Sarit Rathbone, Dylan Abrams and my parents for the assistance. Also thanks to some more people who hosted me on my travels including Quinn Kawamoto, Adam Fox and Parker Olsen. A special thanks to the Melon family for hosting me for a shabbat dinner when I was in Maine. They make, one helluva frittata, and it’s parve! More episodes of the podcast and an index of Jewish terms are available on my website rabbiproject.com and feel free to contact me by emailing justin@rabbiproject.com. I’m also on twitter with the handle @rabbiproject and facebook.com/rabbiproject. And until next time, Shalom and Safe Driving.


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