As I write this blog post, I am preparing to teach at Occupy Wall Street on Monday. Following a successful Kol Nidrei service, a Jewish contingent there has constructed a sukkah — the temporary hut in which Jews traditionally eat — and even sleep — during Sukkot.
Since I don’t use the subway during the holidays or Shabbat, I won’t get to see the sukkah in person until tomorrow. But sitting in my own sukkah these past few days, I have been thinking a lot about the paradox of protection and vulnerability that characterizes Sukkot.The sukkah represents both of these poles—on the one hand, the fragile skhakh (covering of leaves, branches, and other natural materials) that constitutes the roof of the sukkah leaves us almost entirely exposed to the elements. Over the past few days, we’ve endured quite a few drizzles and gusts of wind, as well as bugs and the general banging and clanging of the Manhattan streets. (When the rain gets serious, though, there’s no obligation to remain in the sukkah—the holiday is supposed to be enjoyable.) On the other hand, the skhakh also reminds us of the anenei hakavod (clouds of glory)—the Divine Presence said to have accompanied the ancient Israelites during their trek to freedom. Sukkot doesn’t try to resolve this paradox—rather, the sukkah forces us simultaneously to experience both fragility and divine protection. Through this experience, we learn that the seemingly-strongest structures can sometimes fail to protect us, while the most fragile structures can help us feel protected.
The movement to Occupy Wall Street (and many other places around the world) has also played with these two axes of fragility and strength. In placing themselves physically in the centers of financial power, these protests force us to question our assumptions about what is strong and what is weak. We often assume that those with wealth and power will always have wealth and power, that corporations will always be able to call the shots, and that those with less access to wealth will never have power.
But the occupiers, who make themselves vulnerable by camping outside and by exposing themselves to arrest, have developed more strength than many of us might have expected.
I will teach tomorrow from a tiny, fragile sukkah. It will be cool and windy. It may rain. And yet, even within this vulnerability, I will feel myself protected by the strength all around me.
Happy Sukkot! This year, I managed to snag a great etrog — my brother-in-law, who’s a rabbinical student, picked it out. He knows all about the intricate system of bumps and blemishes, and what each of them means for me, spiritually, in the coming year. I’m clueless. But I’m okay with that. I like surprises.
Still, my nifty new etrog has nothing on the etrog that Heshy Fried and I picked out last year. Check out this video of us plundering Crown Heights and terrorizing its innocent etrog dealers…all in search of that one elusive diamond.
Yesterday, Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote about Sukkot and social justice. Her most recent book, Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community, is now available.
I started Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community with a question: Does place matter?
In today’s globalized world, it’s easy to say that place doesn’t matter at all. With a few clicks of a mouse, I can skype with friends and relatives all over the world. If I choose tomorrow to move to Fiji, I can do so. If I wanted, I could hire a secretary in India, outsource data entry to Cambodia, and telecommute from a cruise ship on the Atlantic. We no longer live in a world in which we grow up, go to school, work, and die in the same city or even often the same country.
And yet, I had a deep conviction that place does matter. Personally, I have prioritized doing justice work in the place where I live (New York City/the United States) and in Israel, where I have deep roots and much experience. At the same time, I cannot ignore the dire poverty in parts of the world far from where I live, and where I may never visit.
Place plays a fundamental role in Jewish tradition. We tell our people’s story in geographic terms—Abraham left the land of his ancestors and settled in Canaan;Joseph and his brothers went down to Egypt; the Israelite people came out of Egypt, journey through the wilderness, and found their place in the land of Israel. Our history includes sojourns in Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the Arab World. We continue to mourn the destruction of the Temple—once our central place—and the subsequent expulsions from many of the places we have lived. There is even a divine aspect to place—the rabbis call God “HaMakom”—“The Place.”
At the same time, we are a people whose history transcends place. We maintain our traditions even as we move around the world (though these traditions have shifted according to the places where we live). We speak of Am Yisrael—the people of Israel—as a unit not bounded by geography.
So does place matter or not?
I ended up devoting much of the second chapter of the book to a particularly intriguing text that considers how to prioritize our own needs with those of the people of another place. In this text, the people of one town have a well from which they take water to drink, to feed their animals, and to do laundry. People of another town, in which there is no well, stop by to ask for water. The ensuing several centuries of discussion considers which of our own needs take priority, when to share the water, and what responsibility to place on the residents of any individual place to care for their own needs.
The conclusion: Place isn’t everything, but it still matters.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community and There
Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all through Sukkot.
I don’t know whether to believe it. Many news outlets are now reporting that Israel has struck a deal with Hamas and in exchange for a lot of Palestinian prisoners (1027) Israel is getting back Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured in June of 2006 and held in Gaza since then.
I have an uneven relationship with the Shalit situation. I’m not one of those people who used his picture as my facebook profile picture, or constantly tweeted how many days he had been gone. I mostly have felt strange and angry about how his capture led to him being a pawn in an enormous game of national chess. How strange it must be to be him, most likely cut off from all current events, until suddenly he will be thrust into the limelight. And how awful for his family, the years of protracted waiting and worrying.
I will admit, though I don’t feel super invested in the Shalit situation, I cried when I first saw the video that proved he was alive in 2009. And today, I feel a surge of joy in the knowledge that he will (hopefully) be soon returning home to his family.
I find myself thinking, “So, I guess Israel does negotiate with terrorists.” And then I think…isn’t that good?
This is a good thing, this mediated settlement between two groups. Many people get to go home, and I’m happy for them, on both sides. But somehow, it all makes me so sad. How did we get here? Why did it take so long?
“We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door.”
– Nicole Krauss
Thousands of years ago, after our first exile in Babylonia, the Jews returned to a land and a covenant that was distant from them. Ezra the Scribe gathered the people and took out a Torah scroll and read to them what they had been missing. And the exiles wept for all that had been lost. Ezra and Nehemiah told them not to cry but to rejoice for it was Rosh Hashanah. “This day is holy to the Lord your God: you must not mourn or weep.” They were told to eat, drink and give of their portions to those who had none. The mood changed from one of guilt and sorrow to one of celebration.
A few weeks later, the people were told to go to the mountains and bring leafy branches to construct sukkot, booths to remind them of life in the wilderness. “The whole community that returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths – the Israelites had not done so from the days of Joshua son of Nun to that day – and there was very great rejoicing.” It must have been a remarkable scene, watching the Israelites after years of exile, rejoicing together in their sukkot, recreating Jewish life from fragments.
Nicole Krauss, in her novel Great House, captures some of the joy and the pain of a house you once knew that is reconstructed in your memory, the only place in which it exists. We live, she says, to preserve a fragment of a memory and those fragments are made up of the small pieces of our lives that we are trying somehow to return to.
Each year when we build a sukkah, we are trying to recapture the fragments of ancient life in a wilderness, a historical landscape we never experienced. It is a house of our imagination but also built on real memories. We take out the faded decorations that were made by our children years ago. And we understand that building this strange house is the way we erect an altar to layers of memory. We physically put ourselves inside this memory house and live in it for a week.
There is a custom to begin building a sukkah right after Yom Kippur is finished. I personally recommend breaking your fast before getting out the hammer, but the sentiment makes a great deal of sense. Yom Kippur drains us physically and mentally. It puts us in close contact with our mortality. It sobers us up. When we are finished petitioning God and beating our chests with our wrongdoings, we need to rebuild ourselves and we do so by building a house of joy. Every year at this time I quote Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who famously explained this custom this way: “If you’re a new person, you need a new house.”
Not just any house. The house that we build will only be temporary and not fancy in any way. It is a house where we are mandated to invite a lot of people to join us precisely because our new house is not fancy. The sukkah reminds us that the core of a Jewish house is the table and the people around it. It’s never the carpet, the paint or the furniture. Those are just incidentals. The sukkah helps us filter what is essential to a Jewish house and what is not. And we have a custom on Sukkot to read ushpizin, prayers that welcome our ancestors into our sukkah. Our guests are not only the living but also our historical role-models, and this invitation makes us pause. Is my house a home where Abraham and Sarah would feel comfortable? Is it a place where Torah is shared and joy is doubled through song?
“And there was very great rejoicing.” Those who built sukkot for the first time after exile must have experienced the tang of newness and the slight cringe of having lost something that they were trying desperately to recapture. Once built, they understood that the sukkah is our Jewish house of memory and joy.
My initial venture into Jewish social justice came my first year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Determined to learn something about Harlem — the neighborhood that bounded my school to the north and east—I got involved with a community organizing effort to help residents avoid eviction and ensure safe living conditions. At the time, New York City was in the process of ridding itself of thousands of buildings that had defaulted to city ownership when landlords abandoned them during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. In the late ’90s, as housing prices in Harlem were rising, the city began selling these buildings to for-profit landlords, who often found ways to evict long-term tenants or to push them out by refusing to turn on the hot water, or to do needed repairs.
Several times a week, I would walk ten minutes east of JTS, to 123rd and Harlem, and spend time with elderly women trying to get their landlords to turn the hot water on, or families fighting eviction as rents rose. I would then walk back to school, where I would break my teeth over Aramaic grammar, and immerse myself in conversations about Shabbat and Jewish mourning practices. All of these felt important, but I struggled to understand the connection between what I saw in Harlem and what I was learning in school.
My peers and my teachers supported my work, but couldn’t guide me toward anything that would help it all make sense. At the time, nobody in my world was talking about Jewish social justice. Most of the organizations that now define the Jewish social justice landscape either did not yet exist, or were tiny players in the Jewish landscape.
I started studying Jewish texts about the relations between landlords and tenants and, to my surprise, found dozens of rabbinic conversations from 1500 years before, about when one is allowed to evict a tenant, what repairs the landlord must do, and what repairs fall under the tenant’s responsibility.
I took a risk and wrote a short piece about my own experiences both organizing in Harlem and tutoring children in a transitional housing center nearby. I wrote about the Jewish paradigm of the sukkah — the temporary structure meant to be lived in only for a week—and the ma’akeh — the guardrail built on the roof of a home to prevent falls. I wrote about an eleven-year-old boy I had met who was exceedingly bright — but who had never learned to read probably because his family’s frequent moves meant that he never stayed in one school long enough to learn. I wrote about the need for stable, long-term housing that protects the physical and emotional health of its residents.
On a whim, I sent this piece to Tikkun Magazine. I was 23 years old, and had never published anything in a national publication. To my surprise, they took it. To my greater surprise, people read it. And, to my amazement, numerous people told me that they, too, had been looking for connections between Judaism and social justice.
This all happened before such publications had an on-line presence, before blogging existed, and before we could facebook or tweet articles to the world. So it was shocking that so many people read a paper publication, and then e-mailed or called me to tell me what they thought.
This initial experience led me through a long process of working in social justice organizations, both inside and outside of the Jewish world. I wanted to know more about urban politics, so I got a degree in Urban Affairs. And, eventually, I decided to write more. I kept getting calls from people looking for a book that would provide a Jewish approach to contemporary issues. I couldn’t find a recent one to recommend, so I decided to write my own. This led to the publication of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition, which came out in 2009. This book looked at criminal justice, housing, labor, the environment, and other justice issues through the lens of Jewish text, social science, and real people whom I have met in my work.
And then I thought I was done. Writing a book is quite a project—especially when one has a full-time job. I spent Sundays, late nights, and early mornings crouched over my computer writing and editing. I drafted my husband and several friends into editing. So I promised not to write another book for a very long time.
But then, I started touring with There Shall Be No Needy. I went to Barnes & Nobles, synagogues, Board of Rabbis meetings, and JCCs around the country. And, at every stop, someone raised his or her hand and said, “It’s good to hear that Judaism has so much to say about social justice. But my synagogue’s social justice committee is struggling. What should we do?”
And so I realized that I needed to write another book. Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide To Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community starts where There Shall Be No Needy leaves off. It gives the theoretical background for why Jews should do social justice work. It walks through how to choose where to focus one’s justice work. And then I get practical. Based on my own experiences, as well as textual precedent, I talk about how we can do effective service, organizing, and advocacy in our own communities. I talk about how we can form strong partnerships with other religious, ethnic, and social welfare organizations. I talk about how we can use power effectively.
I’ve told everyone I know that I’m really not writing another book for a very long time. But I do look forward to hearing from individuals and institutions about your own experience implementing the ideas in Where Justice Dwells.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition. She will be blogging here all through Sukkot.
Was it just me, or did this year’s Yom Kippur seem a lot less, well, dire than usual?
It started Friday night. Usually, Shabbat is a time of eating and plentifulness where we stuff our faces through three colossal meals crammed into one 24-hour span, but when it overlaps with Yom Kippur, there’s fasting all around. But the whole thing sort of felt like a joke — starting that morning, when I read this treatise from Shlomo Carlebach that stressed how Yom Kippur was a time of great happiness, and how everyone is supposed to act like they’re sure God is going to be happy with us and give us a good year instead of worrying that, well, we’re going to be smitten or something.
In synagogue, everyone was pretty chill. Afterward, instead of hurrying home to our Shabbos meals, we all stood outside and chatted. It was like Tisha B’Av in that we were hungry and wary and not 100% sure how to behave — we were wearing sandals and tallises at night and we’d just finished this super-long, super-intense prayer service and now there was nothing, Jewishly-speaking, that we had to do — but unlike Tisha B’Av, tonight we were standing around and talking and laughing. This one businessguy who’s sort of a secret undercover hippie was talking about our favorite synagogue in Crown Heights, and I was telling him how we’re planning to walk there on Simchas Torah (it’s about an hour’s walk). Other people were telling jokes. There was an underlying sense that, even though we were being judged, it was all going to be okay.
Really, though, the fun times are supposed to begin now. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all about ascending to God’s level — they’re focused on yirah, which literally means “fear of God,” although it’s really more about being in awe and amazement and un-understanding of God. Sukkot, in Jewish liturgy, is nicknamed zman simchatenu — literally, “happy time.” First we’ve gotten into the habit of cowering and awe-ing before God, and ascending to a divine level. And now we’re prepared to bring that Godly power down into our own lives and have a good time and rave on — specifically, inside a sukkah, which is yet another Jewish holiday, but it’s a Jewish holiday that’s singularly about a whole week of parties.
Even the lone restriction of Sukkot — that is, that everything you eat has to be inside a sukkah — is an enticement to partying: Go find a sukkah! See what everyone else is doing inside it! Get outside your life and outside yourself for a bit. (And, if you’re me, trek across the city and actually breathe some real air while you’re scavenging for a bamboo hut in midtown Manhattan.)
Can an anti-Semite reach correct conclusions about Jews? Here is Jeffrey Herf in his book Reactionary Modernism on the work of Werner Sombart, a leading German sociologist of the early twentieth century:
“Sombart stressed four aspects of European Jewish social history that contributed to the origins of modern capitalism. First, the Jews were dispersed in different countries and thus had international contacts. Second, their existence as outsiders forced them to be more attentive to new economic opportunities and to favor economic rationalism over local custom and tradition. Third, because Jews had been excluded from full citizenship rights, they turned their attention away from politics to economics. Fourth, Jewish wealth made banking and lending possible, activities from which modern capitalism was born.”
All those points seem both valid and interesting out of context, and indeed Sombart’s 1911 book The Jews and Modern Capitalism was not seen as anti-Semitic when it was published. Furthermore, the records of Sombart’s feelings on Nazism is vague and contradictory, and his views seem to have fluctuated over his lifetime. Nonetheless, reading more about Sombart, one feels certain he was basically pretty hostile to Jews – at one point he even wrote that he didn’t like Berlin department stores because their ‘crass juxtapositions’ were a product of Jewish sensibilities.
So where does that leave his sociological insights? The fact is, anti-Semites do spend a lot of time thinking about Judaism – more time than a lot of Jews spend thinking about Judaism. Occasionally, they are going to come up with something solid. When I was researching the history of anti-Semitism for Boxer, Beetle, I encountered this problem often, and it seems to me that at a hundred years’ distance, maybe it’s finally time to go back to some of these old sources – even if we have to employ the intellectual equivalent of those steel boxes with built-in lead-lined gloves like they install in nuclear research laboratories.
Ned Beauman is the author of Boxer, Beetle. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize upon its initial UK release last year, and has recently been praised by the New York Times as ‘funny, raw and stylish’. He has been blogging all week for MyJewishLearning.com and the Jewish Book Council‘s Author Blog.
So I need to tell you, it’s really weird being called onto a jury the day before Yom Kippur. When I tell people, they’ve mostly been quick to freak out about the religious rules about it — mostly, that I’ll be in court until an hour before the holiday starts, and apparently you’re supposed to have a great, grand feast the day before Yom Kippur. In the exact words of the Talmud (I don’t remember; I’m totally paraphrasing) — “Anyone who stuffs his face the day before Yom Kippur, it is like he fasted for two days.”
Something tells me people don’t eat in courtrooms. I don’t know this for sure, but I feel like I’d remember it if I saw someone on Ally McBeal or Law & Order crunching on some Dipsy Doodles. (Or, on Ally, probably unpeeling a suggestive-looking banana.) I actually don’t know at all what to expect, beyond the specifics of the trial. Officially, I’m not allowed to share it with you, but let’s just say I found it strange that they still accepted me as a juror — considering my new book came out last week, and I told them all about the accident at the center of the story. *whistles*
I know I should have tried to get out of it. Believe me, as a small nonprofit employee who writes a daily email and a father of two, it’s really freakin’ hard to make the room in my life for it. (And I guess you could make the case that I did try to get out of it — see above, the part about my book.) The real kicker came when I asked a lawyer-friend, and he said, “You’ll get off without a hitch. They never choose Orthodox Jews for a jury.” And now I sort of feel like I’m the first Hasidic Jew who’s ever served on a jury, and I’ve gotta make a good run of it, or else everyone will think Hasidic Jews are draft-dodgers. Jury-dodgers. Whatever.
But as the trial date gets closer and closer, I find myself getting both more apprehensive and more excited. Partly it’s that I’m going to be put in charge of somebody’s future, someone’s fate, and maybe a lot of money. Partly that it’s reflexive. Just like this person’s going to be standing in front of us, I’m going to be standing in front of God, defending my lifestyle choices and excusing my slip-ups and asking for another shot.
I don’t think any of this renders me partial to the defendant or the plaintiff. Or maybe it does? That’s all any of us can really do, right? — take our life experience and apply it to our verdict. I’m talking about the New York District Court case, and to my own divine case.
So I probably won’t get to have my pre-Yom Kippur feast this year. But I have a feeling it’ll still be meaningful. Plus maybe I’ll meet Lucy Liu?
Henry Ford might be the most famous American anti-Semite, but it’s not widely known that the industrialist only narrowly escaped having to answer for his vitriol in court. In 1927, the heroic Jewish lawyer Aaaron Sapiro sued Ford for remarks that Ford had made about Sapiro in his book The International Jew (later popular among the Nazi Party). Unfortunately, the libel case ended in a mistrial, and had been pretty precarious from start to finish. As Time magazine reported: ‘During the life of the Sapiro-Ford trial the following events were chronicled: Henry Ford was badly battered in an automobile accident. Stuart Hanley, lawyer for Mr. Ford, suffered a back strain. Two of Aaron Sapiro’s children came down with scarlet fever. Milton Sapiro (brother) splintered a wrist in another automobile crash. Senator James A. Reed of Missouri, chief counsel for Mr. Ford, went to the Henry Ford hospital with an acute attack of gastrointestinal trouble. Superstitious observers whispered that the trial was hoodooed.’
What the article neglects to mention is that Ford probably contrived his injuries in order to avoid appearing in court. There’s something almost Ballardian about an automobile tycoon deliberately staging his own automobile accident. But what I like even more is the bluff that followed. Sapiro’s team were having trouble serving a subpoena to Ford. ‘Eventually the server threw it on Ford’s lap through the open window when he stopped his car at an intersection,’ writes Hadassa Ben-Itto in The Lie That Wouldn’t Die, his history of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. ‘Ford suffered severe loss of face when the judge summarily rejected his lawyer’s argument that the service of the subpoena was faulty, claiming that the document had not actually landed in his client’s lap, but slipped to the floor of the car between his knees.’ One imagines that Ford was soon fantasising about a luxury version of his own Model A with two new features perfect for the busy anti-Semite: triple-gauge crash simulator and velvet-upholstered subpoena guard.