At Purim, We Shall Overcome

purim1This past week I had the pleasure of attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. With inspiring speakers, expressions of hope and dreams for a better world, and an unflinching defense for the State of Israel, I felt a deep pride to be a Jew during the only time since Alexander the Great, that Jewish community in the Diaspora was able to partner with the foreign governments—this is historical. Last night though, as I walked out of the convention center, dozens of people with their anti-Israel sentiments, signs, and slurs called me a murderer, called me a Nazi, called me a an animal. As I walked through the groups, some I tried to speak too, but my words had no voice, and my reasoning was beyond the possible, and so, myself along with a just five of my Jewish brothers and sisters (including Rabbi Shmuely Boteach) started to sing.

We stood with each other in solidarity in a sea of peering hatred. We stood in prayer, we stood for the thousands of years that our people were killed before they could even utter a breath—we stand, because we can, we stand because in every generation we are commanded to. Our Freedom Song, our story to tell is a story of every generation, and this time, it will be heard. It is a story that speaks not only to the heart of the Jewish nation, but to all nations, all peoples.

“In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, rescues us from their hands (Passover Haggadah).”

In every generation there is a call, a command, and for the righteous few, a scream against the injustice committed against the innocent—this generation is no different. Now, more than ever, the world is hungry the world is thirsty, and as the prophet Amos projects (8:11) not just for food, not just for water, but for the idea that one day the flood-waters will subside, and that “their swords will be beat to plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4).”

As the darkness of humanity spreads further West and people desire to push me, you and our values into the sea; as the Haman’s and Hitler’s challenge our every step and creed, I grow more and more concerned, more and more despondent and faithfully stirred. But almost in that same moment, I remember the resilience and grit of our Queen Esther, I recall the eternal command of Mordechai to remember what Purim represents for every generation:

 “and that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their offspring (Esther 9:28).”

Our Purim holiday calls for us to believe that despite the hardships found in every generation “we shall overcome.” In spite of the hatred found in the hearts of so many for the Jewish nation, we must still seek to blot out such hatred. No matter what they say, not matter what they do, we must walk hand in hand, we must stand among our enemies in the streets of Washington, and we must not falter in knowing that the time of Purim is perpetually among us, and that “Although you have been abandoned and hated, and it (this hatred) has not passed, I will make you the everlasting pride and the joy of all generations (Isaiah 60:15).”

Purim empowers our generation to realize that we are charged with the ability to defeat, with God’s help, and with glory, love and words, the hatred of our world, for the voice of Esther has been heard.

In the words of W.E.B Du Bois

“Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.”

Posted on March 3, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Purim in Paradise, from Nashville to the Caribbean

Purim

Imagine Purim by the crystal clear and warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. No need for warm costumes or shoveling out the entrance to the synagogue. This week not one but two Jewish communities will have the opportunity to do just that, in a modern and multicultural celebration of an ancient Jewish holiday.

The blue sea is the only backdrop the Jews of Santa Marta Colombia have ever known to Purim and other Jewish holidays. They are an emerging community made up exclusively of Caribbean converts who, in the past decade, have built a small but strong chavurah, prayer community. Generally they are on their own when it comes to Jewish life. But this week, students from Vanderbilt University Hillel are joining them.

The 10 day alternative spring break for the visit, organized in conjunction with Be’chol Lashon is introducing these American Jews to the richness and diversity of Jewish life in Colombia. They started in the heights Bogata, where they met the established historic Jewish community before setting off for the shores of Caribbean.

In coming to Santa Marta, these young American Jews will be exposed to a community which, like a time machine, mirrors the origins of their own communities in North America many decades or centuries ago (picture the first Jews of New Amsterdam, or the first Jews to wander into the Tennessee frontier). There is a one-room synagogue with one little Torah and a small Hebrew Sunday School. There is no fancy buildings, no rabbi in site, but bucketfuls of enthusiasm to make Jewish life thrive and grow in a place where it had not before.

At the same time, the Colombian Jews will be confronted with the image of complex hyphenated Jewish American youths coming from a place where Judaism feeds the surrounding culture and is in turn nourished and morphed by it: almost a utopian dream for such a small minority culture, still in its institutional and demographic infancy.

However, as it has happened in the past with other visiting Jews, the common threads of our story will bind us together.  The American students will not be eating hamentaschen this year, but rather, they will feast on a very different gastronomy. The music coming out of the speakers (louder than most American are accustomed to) during the Purim celebration will be ripe with foreign cadences. And yet, it will still be Purim. Unequivocally Purim. With Esther and Mordechai and gifts for the poor, and mishloach manot. Haman will be cursed not only in one but in many languages.  Despite their differences, in the illustrious tradition of Jewish travelers throughout time, both groups will find common ground.

And it is particularly fitting that this encounter of two cultures is happening on Purim, the first truly global holiday. A people dispersed throughout the 127 provinces of the vast reaching Persian Empire, from India to Ethiopia (meHodu vead Kush) found joint reasons for revelry, and, in doing so, started to take responsibility for one another across the broad expanses of Diaspora, language, and culture. The encounter between Vanderbilt Hillel’s alternative spring break and the local Jewish community of Santa Marta will honor and renew the commitment “assumed and received” by the Jewish people on that first Purim of finding common ground in the face of adversity, but also, not less profoundly, in the promise of shared joy.

Posted on March 2, 2015

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But Can You Pick Your Family?

Kenya (third from left) and her Be'chol Lashon "Family"

Kenya and her Be’chol Lashon “Family”

“Usually I would say I want to go to camp to see all my old friends, but to be honest they are not friends. They are FAMILY! Every summer I count down the days until I go to camp because it’s that exciting. Every year I learn something new about myself. Camp Be’chol Lashon is my second home, and I can’t wait to go back this summer. I am always making new friends that I will probably know for a lifetime.” –Kenya Edelhart, age 12 Camp Be’chol Lashon

“You can pick your nose, you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.” — My father

This past July I met Kenya during my first summer at Camp Be’chol Lashon. I showed up for my first day at camp excited for a summer of new experiences, but also fairly confident I knew what to expect for the next three weeks. I went to Jewish summer camp as a child.  I know exactly when to bang the table during Birkat, I’ve won my fair share of Ga-Ga matches and I take special pride in my friendship bracelet making ability.

Beza_LindseyWhile I was expecting all of those things that go along with the traditional camp experience, I guess I wasn’t exactly expecting how quickly and how deeply I would fall in love with this particular place and these people. There are many reasons this could be. It could be the tight, close knit feel. We are not a big camp. In fact, we barely make a football team.  But this intimacy means we also rely on each other.

It all came together for me during some free time one early evening when I found myself in the girls bunk while the regular counselors had their daily staff meeting. While still feeling new, I was still trying to memorize camper names and personal details, like favorite hobbies and personality quirks. To pass the time, the girls were deciding on a game to play. I had a bunch of suggestions (most of which happened to be games I am also very good at), but resisted my urge to butt in as I saw that they were consumed within their new friendships. It didn’t take long before the most popular suggestion was Truth or Dare.

As the sole adult in the room, red flags went off.  With memories flashing of hushed games of truth or dare ending in tears or bitter arguments, I offered a timid, “Hey guys, don’t you want to play charades instead?”  Utterly failing in the age old child-supervision techniques of distraction and diversion, no matter what I said, they were intent on playing Truth or Dare. I decided to let the game play out until the inevitable moment came when things were about to get too real and I would no doubt have to Shut It Down. Except that moment never came. I watched, silently in awe of these young women, who were playing the most respectful, entertaining game of Truth or Dare I had ever witnessed.

First of all, there were ground rules.  No one had to answer a question or complete a dare that they didn’t feel comfortable doing. There were your typical truths and dares: questions about love interests and dares that involved combining the most unappetizing, barely edible contents of the cabin into drinkable concoctions. The point of the game wasn’t to put people on the spot.  It was apparent that the rules set in the beginning of the game allowed everyone to feel safe enough to participate and to trust those girls around them, which made them more inclined to explore their boundaries and in turn learn about themselves and others.There was room for everyone; those who were maybe a little more shy and needed to watch a few rounds before jumping in, and those that felt comfortable in this space right off the bat, even volunteering for dares that weren’t directed at them, or making their dares potentially more embarrassing.

The story of Jewish camp is one that’s been told a million times, and there are studies that say that kids who go to Jewish camp are that much more likely to be Jewishly engaged as adults. I suspect this has something to do with the power of connection. It is a powerful thing to be a part of something, to feel that there is a place where you belong, a space that would not be the same without you in it. At our camp, this is something that is apparent from the first day kids show up.  So my dad was right, you can’t pick your family, but you sure can build one.

Posted on February 25, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

How Kosher is “Kosher Soul?”

©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved. Photo Credit: Richard Knapp

©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: Richard Knapp

What could be funnier than a black man marrying a white woman?

Before you say “Loving v. Virginia,” hold on, there’s more: Make that a white Jewish woman. Isn’t that a stitch?

If same-sex marriage in Alabama hasn’t convinced you we might actually be in 2015, the premiere of the Lifetime reality show, Kosher Soul, arrives Feb. 25 to dutifully turn back the clock.

“Opposites attract,” the show’s promos blare, suggesting the protagonists might just be different species. A freelance stylist, Miriam Sternoff, 38, grew up Jewish in Seattle. O’Neal McKnight, 39, her stand-up comedian fiancé, is African American from Lynchburg, S.C. With cameras following their every antic, the pair slapstick their cultures together on the way to their wedding day.

“The fact that I’m wearing a yarmulke, it shouldn’t be a problem for Miriam to wear a grill,” McKnight says, explaining the bejeweled dental appliance’s deep spiritual significance to black America by declaring: “Martin Luther King had a grill.”

He didn’t mention Justin Bieber. But it goes on.

©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved. Photo Credit: Richard Knapp

©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: Richard Knapp

“When you marry a man like O’Neal, you gotta make certain sacrifices,” Sternoff says in her concession to preparing unkosher food. “If he wants me to fry up some catfish real quick, I’m going to fry it up because he has made huge compromises for me.”

One of those is McKnight’s conversion to Judaism, including an adult bris (symbolic circumcision), done to prove his love for her and appease his mother-in-law. In return, she accompanies his family to church and actually buys the grill, though secretly vows never to wear it.

All the while, he calls her white and gives her lectures on black culture (black people don’t go to the beach), punctuated with jokes about Stevie Wonder driving and starving kids in Africa with flies on their faces.

Is this offensive?

Yes, but not for its unfunny attempts at humor. Nor am I the only one suggesting the show is just more of the same old black and Jewish stereotypes, packaged as a “docu-sitcom.” To a person, those in my circle of African American Jews who’ve heard of the show have questioned its portrayal of the match as a freak show oddity.

It wasn’t news 65 years ago, when my mother of Western European Jewish descent married my Baptist (though atheist) African American father. It’s barely a blip on the post-racial radar screen today. According to Be’chol Lashon, 20 percent of American Jews are of color or of similarly diverse heritage.

As anyone who says “blacks and Jews” should be reminded, the two terms aren’t mutually exclusive. Judaism knows no race and black people come in every religion, and to be both is to be 100 percent of each.

Surprisingly, and off-camera, the couple agrees.

“I like that,” Sternoff says of the duality that describes her husband and hoped-for children, echoed by McKnight: “I like that a lot.”

In the real world of a cross-country phone interview to Los Angeles, where they now live, the couple departs from their reality-show personas, with McKnight clarifying he did not convert solely for her. In South Carolina, he’d never met a Jew or spoken to an Asian person, he says, a cloistered world that changed when he moved to New York.

“I was around a lot of different cultures, a lot of different people, and I just really was drawn into Judaism,” he says. “For me, the thing about Judaism, it’s mostly a tug of war between you and God. You’re supposed to ask questions. You’re supposed to be intrigued and curious. And the way I was brought up (as Methodist) was ‘this is what it is, you don’t doubt it, you don’t question it.’”

That intrigue led him to consider converting before even meeting his future wife, he says.

For her part, with skin Kardashian tan or a shade darker (and virtually the same as McKnight’s black former girlfriend), Sternoff has also examined her identity.

“When people ask me what’s my nationality, it’s because I look more ethnic,” she says. “The first thing I say is ‘I’m Jewish.’ And then people say, ‘Yeah, I get it, but you look like you’re Hispanic or something else.’ So I always then follow it up with my background is Russian.”

Depending on who’s asking and their level of persistence, she may say she’s white. “It’s a tricky thing,” she says. “Jews, we think of ourselves as kind of a whole separate entity.”

So if she’s perceived as “other” and they’re both practicing Jews (his conversion was Conservative), is there a story here without playing to stereotypes? Two Jews get married. So what?

“I would dispute that it is stereotypes. I think that Miriam and O’Neal are who they are,” Michael Hirschorn, the show’s executive producer, says from New York, acknowledging dialogue like “I want to have Shabbat dinner with my Jewish husband”/“But she’s going to have sex with a black man.”

“Saying ‘this is a stereotype’ and ‘this is not a stereotype’ gets you into kind of a Talmudic cul-de-sac,” he argued.

Perhaps, but there are guides for the perplexed, the obvious being other Black Jews who can clearly tell you what’s over the top. Hollywood has many — from director Chris Erskin to rapper Drake to actress Rashida Jones — though Hirschorn (who is Jewish and not black, and has a co-producer who is black and not Jewish) says he doesn’t know any.

Still, he concedes that Kosher Soul and its “opposites attract” tagline capitalize on seemingly incompatible differences.

“I don’t want to be too coy because obviously that is the name of the show and that’s the way it’s being pushed,” he says. “I think that (when you) watch the show, there’s just a lot of pleasure in it.”

There certainly is in the story of how the couple met, in New York nine years ago when McKnight was a personal stylist to Sean “Puffy” Combs and Sternoff was freelancing in the same field.

It was in an elevator. He was impressed by her pixie cut. She could not help but notice him.

“I literally was holding two little poodles under my arms,” McKnight explains, dogs belonging to Combs that he’d been asked to retrieve.

Or so he says.

“Right!” Sternoff responds, laughing at the suggestion that maybe it was a ploy. “He was riding, literally up and down, up and down, waiting for the perfect girl to come on. You know, I have to say, if that’s what he was doing, I’m glad he was there.”

It’s a wonderfully charming story but it’s nowhere in the show. Not surprising: It’s reality, not reality TV.

©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved. Photo Credit: Richard Knapp

©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: Richard Knapp

Posted on February 23, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The King’s Gate

Grand_Choral_Synagogue,_St._Petersburg,_Russia,_main_hallEverything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.–Viktor E. Frankl

This idea came from a Holocaust survivor, no less, who decided in the death camps that he can determine the fate of his inner world, and later suggested in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that your identity does not need to depend on what is going on around you, and that you can control the spirit’s choice as how to respond to any given the situation. Indeed, also under the harshest realities of the African slave-trade, what did many of them do? They stood above their oppressors by singing soul songs, Spirituals, to channel their souls cry of inner yearning. Yes, while in the net of captivity, the heart soared with the eagle’s eyes protecting the soul, but what about the lions kinship to protect their physical freedoms? Would the spirituals freedoms be enough?

“Build for me a sanctuary so that my presence may dwell among you (25:8)”

Busying up nearly 1/3 or the Biblical text, the Mishkan takes the cake as the single most important Biblical creation made by Man. One artistic craft found in the Mishkan’s blueprint, that joins the sacred and the profane, the subtle opposites found in our human experience, are the curtains which serve as the inner and our ceiling covers. From within the Tabernacle, says the Talmud (Yoma 72b), one could see “A lion from this side, and eagle from that side.” From above the Tabernacle, one could see the Tachash hide, which as mentioned by the great Biblical commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (RaSHI), was multi-colored animal that only lived during that specific generation (26:1).

An Eagle (spiritual) and a Lion (physical), have you, needed to be interwoven into the very fabric of our existence—literally. For without this space, and joining of dualities, Mankind, and the legacy of Abraham would cease to exist. This edifice of hope, this manifesto, of the spiritual to dwell in context, and freely among the physical, was the Tabernacle, the Mishkan.

That is why, according to Rav Kook (Orot HaKodesh 2:439), that the holiness of the Holy of Holies only comes into creation, after we separate a location as something above what the individual relates to, and rather to name it as a light-house for all to reference. Because by saying that you and me both can call the same thing special, is the way that the Lion comes to lead on soil and the eagle comes to lead in the skies. It is by joining the song within the sanctuary that causes the outer to reflect the inner: A Tachash, a diverse, colorful people with many layers, many colors, and many thoughts, to all dwell within the Holiest of places.

Similarly, Purim is just two weeks away! And today marks the head of the new month of “Adar!” J J J Our Rabbis teach that one reason why King Achashreirosh was considered an evil person was because he confused the Jews out of spiritual longing, by creating lavish parties, a physical place without a soul. He caused others to think that the soul’s deepest desires do not come from the same place as your neighbor’s, namely the Temple (Mishkan), but rather “according to each person’s desire (Esther 1:8).”

Mordechai the Jew would not show to these events, but waited always, at the “Kings gate,” he stood above. But as the story unfolds, it was not enough to dwell with individual holiness, a Mishkan was needed so that fate of my soul and yours are linked. The place of the Lion and Eagle could not be forgotten.

“Ba’yamim HaHaym, Bazman Hazeh—In those days, and in these.”

Posted on February 19, 2015

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Welcoming the Bride Modern Style

liorSince I released my latest music video, “Boee Kala,” many friends, fellow musicians, and community members have asked me questions regarding to the meaning of the song, its title, the choice of location for shooting the video as well as my personal connection to the text.

The song title relates to my own Jewish roots. While “L’cha Dodi” is the common Jewish title used for this old liturgical Piyut (written by the well-known 16th century poet, Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz, I discovered that Iraqi Jews used the title ‘Boee Kala’ for the poem. Therefore, I chose to use the traditional, Iraqi song title to be true and highlight to my Iraqi-Jewish heritage.

Boee Kala means, “Come my bride,” and this Piyut (Jewish liturgical poem) is sung traditionally on Shabbat evening as a way to prepare for and welcome Shabbat metaphorically, as we would welcome a bride to her wedding.

How does this concept relate to my composition of the Piyut and this music video?

I am an Israeli living in San Francisco. Although I lead Shabbat services around the Bay on a weekly basis, I myself do not observe Shabbat the way my grandparents did in Iraq or Greece. My very secular celebration of Shabbat relates to the San Francisco Jewish experience. I drive to temple, play instruments and sign songs, and when the service is over, I might even go out for a drink in a bar – a far cry from how my ancestors observed this weekly tradition.

Therefore, there is a transformation of the meaning of Shabbat in my personal experience from a very holy, almost solemn tradition of observation to one of celebration. I want to express this transformation in the music video and song composition. I often play this song on secular venues where people don’t necessary know the meaning of the text but they feel the energy of the music and dance as if they were in a Kabalat Shabbat service, anticipating the celebration of Shabbat and the change of pace to daily routine that it represents. The music video was filmed in an alley in North Beach with the goal of bringing the music to the streets to share with every day San Franciscans, and experience the reaction of strangers passing by as they hear the song. While the people walking by the alley did not know the Jewish meaning of the song they responded in a way that corresponded with its essence; the happiness and festivity of Shabbat. This spirit of shared, even viral festivity and celebration is captured in the music video.

Posted on February 17, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Rabbi, The Pastor and the Torah of Mankind

Downtown_Gondar

The baggage claim at the airport in Gondar, Ethiopia is still by far the most humorous way I have yet to collect my luggage after flying. A massive crate is hauled from the plane and dumped into a heaping pile of blues, blacks and greys, with all the creative markings to let each person know which bag belonged to them. As we all pushed and pulled bags aside looking for our own, I noticed other farengie–Amharic for light skinned people, claim their belongings. Though a few glared at my kippah and Tzizit in perplexity, I was used to it, and smiled in return. Later that night, as I walked from my hotel-room for dinner I passed by an open room and looked inside while passing. I noticed some of the same people from the airport! Before I was even a meter away from their door, one calls out “execuse me, man from the airport!” I turn back and stand at their doorway and begin interacting with them around global service.

It turned out they were on service trip as a part of their church from New Orleans, and the room that I was neighboring was the pastor herself! She exclaimed “I didn’t know that Jews like yourself do work like this!” I told her all about the organization my cohort was representing, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and how this organization has been honored by many high ranking officials for their work in the region, she was delighted. We exchanged words of Torah, discussed the power of religious values in helping the underserved populations around the world. Before leaving, I shook her hand and kissed my own. When asking me why I kissed my hand, I asked her: “what does one do when they drop the Bible on the floor?” she quickly responded with a smile and thanked me. I said the Bible has God in it, and so do you, to that I turned to leave and said “we are in this together.”

It is by way of logic that Mankind understands the importance of one another.  Everything from scientific discoveries within medicine to your community shopping center involves your fellow human being. We share the same air and benefit from the billions of organisms within nature. With all this in mind our religion, language, and personal egos drives us away from one another, limiting the opportunity to connect to other souls of G-d (Jewish and non-Jewish). But that is not the Jewish way…

“Rabbi Yehuda Ben Levi said if you see a black, red, white, fat, or short person, say Blessed are You our G-d King of the Universe who makes his creations different (Brachoat 59a).”

Regardless of our religious or political preferences, morals are at the core of our family framework and even societal practice. We are reminded of these morals on a day to day basis, because they are fueled by logic and common sense. The laws introduced to us in this week’s Torah portion are not only the focus of nearly one third of the Talmud, many of them are not dependant on ethnicity, religion, kind or creed. “These are the laws that you should set before them (21:1).”

In the heart of this week’s Torah portion the verse states “do not oppress the stranger amongst you for you know the essence of stranger-hood since you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” This is a law so significant that it is the essence of mankind, despite all this ritual purity triumphs, haughtiness penetrates and loneliness overcasts. Is this commandment logical? “To not oppress the stranger amongst you,” if one were stuck on an island with a total stranger, there is a greater chance of survival if the stranger becomes comrade. Unfortunately thought, these teachings placed before us have become a secret to the masses, and the disconnect between what we believe and what practice is still present.

Whether we shame ourselves for our ancestry because of evil’s undying power, or we believe that doubt and isolation is the cornerstone of our existence, we must remember that our continuous desire for clarity and comfort amongst each other, and even those who are foreign to us is acquired through common ties, and universal morale, stating clearly, that even in Gondar, Ethiopia, we are in this together.

Our very existence depends on the stranger amongst us. Remember you too are a stranger if not in your comfort zone, you too have been challenged by your neighbor and cast into isolation. Rabbi Akiva of the Talmud lived in a time when Torah was forbidden to be learned or even practiced, and he was murdered because of his desire to find residence within a time of chaos, to create a place for all strangers to go to. As he took his last breathes, his last words were “echad,” one. Rabbi Akiva brought all people together regardless of who they were, why? Because he too was a stranger — his last word: unity (Echad). There is not enough time in the world for us to remain divided. Unity is what will save our micro and macro, community and national identity.

Posted on February 12, 2015

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Does “Selma” Deserve an Oscar? Ask Butch and Sundance

butchWith the Wild West fading and the railway men closing in, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid head for the untamed terrain of Bolivia to continue a string of bank and payroll robberies, (spoiler alert) only to meet their end when an entire army descends on them

Except it didn’t happen that way. It was Argentina, not Bolivia, where they lived as comfortable ranchers for a few years until Pinkerton’s finally caught up with them, leading to a single, less-than-successful jaunt to Bolivia for a holdup that culminated in a murder-suicide at their own hands.

I cite that from among thousands of kinda-based-on-a-true-story movies because it’s history we all think we know that’s accepted as close enough. Yet the controversy over the historical retelling du jour, Selma, isn’t going away — not with the Oscar ceremony on Feb. 22, six remaining days of Black History Month after that, and the 50th anniversary of the actual Selma marches on March 7, 9 and 21-25 yet to come.

Among outrages that have poured in so far are that it improperly depicted an adversarial relationship between President Johnson and Martin Luther King, that Jewish participation in the Selma voting rights campaign was airbrushed out, and that Coretta Scott King was portrayed as something less than a strong, powerful partner to her husband.

Historians do treat Johnson kinder than director Ava DuVernay did. It’s a bit hard, though, to buy the assertion by former LBJ aide Joseph Califano in a Washington Post commentary that the president, not King, hand-picked Selma as a Neanderthal outpost guaranteed to deliver televised violence against blacks trying to register to vote. It’s possible Johnson believed he did; one tactic used by Jim Farmer and George Houser, King’s predecessors in the movement, was that a sure-fire way to get buy-in on a campaign was to let others think it was their idea.

The film’s failure to clearly depict Jewish activists is a curious omission, particularly in leaving out Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who walked side-by-side with King in Selma. That’s particularly noticeable because it goes out of its way to show King greeting Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos, though not by name. Actually, I applaud that scene. Elsewhere in the movie, the dialogue is painfully stilted when characters introduce themselves by slowly pronouncing their credentials or affiliations, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — far better known as SNCC (pronounced snick) to anyone remotely familiar with the movement.

And if no kippot are shown gracing the heads of background characters, I can deal with that. It hardly means Jews weren’t there — or for that matter, that they were exclusively among the white marchers. A major leader of SNCC leading up to the Selma campaign was Charles McDew, described by fellow activist Bob Moses as “black by birth, a Jew by choice and a revolutionary by necessity.”

So movie history is spoon-fed and facts moved around. Why does Selma spark such calls for accuracy and inclusion?

In part, it’s because this history is recent, with many of the participants still alive. It’s also because Selma is an ultimate good-and-evil battle, and everyone whose group was anywhere near the good side demands recognition. Even the son of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace has complained that Dad didn’t really want his state troopers to bash anyone’s head in as they’re shown doing with glee.

To that, DuVernay did well to ignore the revisionists, and go with the artistic license of movie-making, just as a thousand other directors have before her.

If you want a more historically accurate, and harrowing, account of Selma told through primary source interviews of the people who lived it — including segregationists Sheriff Jim Clark and Mayor Joseph Smitherman — find a copy or download “Eyes on the Prize Episode 6: Bridge to Freedom,” (as of this writing on youtube, though likely to be removed for copyright issues.) Every bit as compelling as the movie, it too received an Academy Award nomination, for Best Documentary in 1988, though producers Callie Crossley and James A. DeVinney fell short of taking home an Oscar.

And if you want an accurate telling of Butch and Sundance, check out the excellent American Experience documentary by the same name that aired last year, though it didn’t make the Oscar hunt.

The Butch Cassidy movie did win several in 1970, including for best original screenplay — a perfectly appropriate honor for a Hollywood rewrite of history.

Best picture for Selma? That’s not a stretch, either.

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Posted on February 9, 2015

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Created In G-d’s Image

Paige_2L’chaim- to life, but to celebrate without knowing, would merely divert those from seeing my true being. You see, what you see is nothing short of brilliance, of strength, of success and triumph. But that is something that took decades to discover.

My entire life has been surrounded by the question, what are you? Rather than who are you? And though they say your past makes your present it was never a present hearing that question.

My personal favorite, are you like actually Jewish? Because we were just wondering what you are because I mean, obviously you don’t look Jewish.

I stared blankly, suddenly overcome with true emptiness. I responded with … Nothing, because an answer would mean just that, nothing. Because I would never look Jewish enough and I would never sound authentic enough because to them I wasn’t enough. But I felt like I should have been more than enough.

My life consisted of not black enough, not white enough, not Jewish enough. Hair not straight enough, not curly enough. Skin not light enough not tan enough. Hips not small enough, nose not big enough. Lips well … Lips … just shut enough to never utter a word about how I felt.

How I felt hearing the phrases nigger, kike, schvartse, dirty Jew, Oreo, mullato, outcast, different, rare and exotic.

Lips just shut enough to never tell anyone how it felt to be me. How it felt to see your mouth drop when my black father attended events at my all white elementary school. How it felt to hear you say that I was just another money hungry Jew. How it felt to see you cringe and clench at the sight of a black man walking down the street. How it felt to hear your forced apology after making a sick Holocaust joke.

And how it felt to hear you deny me of myself, deny the very essence and make-up of my being.

Now, here I am. And from this point forward I will not, and can not be silenced! I am here to give voice to the voiceless. To speak for those who never got the chance. For those who were disregarded, beaten, and forced into slavery. For those who were stripped of their family, dignity, and life, in the Holocaust.

I am here, and I am proud because I am mixed with the two races whom experienced the most hatred, bigotry, discrimination, and racism in the world, but still manage to be here.

I know what it’s like to hate everything about yourself. I know what it’s like to pray to Hashem, my G-d, to make me like everyone else. I know what it’s like to have my own relatives make excuses for my racial identity. I know what it’s like to stand out, and to be the outcasted other. I know what it’s like to hear your closets friends make slurs and remarks that could kill, about who you are. I know what it’s like to want to run and hide from the world.

But I also know what it’s like to discover that all of that gave me the strength I needed to share this with you.

Now, I smile at the reflection in the mirror. Now, I thank G-d everyday for making me who I am. Now, I couldn’t wish to be anything less than what I am. And now I pray, in the words of my Hebrew brothers and sisters.

ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקנו מלך העולם שעשני כרצונו   Baruch Atah Adonai, Alohaynu melech Ha’Olam, sha-asani keertsono. Blessed are you Lord our G-d, king of the universe, who made me according to his will.

ותודה לה’ שנתת לי כוח V’ Todah L’Hashem shenatata li koach.

And thank you G-d for giving me strength.

Posted on February 3, 2015

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Balanced Like the Trees

shutterstock_79269655“He (Moses) said: “If you will listen diligently to the voice of HaShem, your God, and you will do what is just in His eyes, and you will give ear to His commandments and observe all His statues, then any of the diseases that I placed upon Egypt, I will not place upon you, for I am HaShem your Healer (Exodus 16:26).”

When God originally created the world, there was neither order nor disorder, it simply just was. Darkness and light shared the same time and space, the world was filled with chaos, and the physical realm was void of all order (Genesis 1:2). It was then that the Holy One spent the week ahead, a busy workweek it was! defining the boundaries of the universe, creating balance, creating Shabbat.

Man, as commanded by God, was not only given the responsibility to build up and guard the world (2:15), but also to be the master-crafter of each organisms’ fate (2:19), with uprightness and with justice.

Our rabbis tell us that when Adam was in the Garden of Eden, God took Adam on a tour of Eden and pointed to all of God’s creations. God then said to Adam “see to it that you do not destroy My world, for if you do, no one will be after you to fix it (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).” We learn that it was Man’s role to steer the world towards uprightness. But just as quick and twice as subtly, as Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel explains (Avot 1:18), Adam was also warned that if people’s actions may corrupt and bring the world to a place that is no longer sustainable.

Pharoah did not see the Hebrews, as a people of values that would soon plant the riches of praiseworthy mores for all civilizations to follow. Pharoah knew not (of Joseph) about or the Jewish mission to strike the balance of the spiritual and physical, and so Pharoah committed the greatest injustice against humanity—human enslavement. He threw the world into imbalance.

With the Exodus, came new possibility. At Sinai a new seal and covenant would begin, the seal of responsibility. At the mountain Jews claimed their responsibility to uphold higher moral standards so as to prevent further injustice around the world.

Moshe was shown the tree, the symbol of steadfast balance of sun and water, and the waters sweetened (Exodus 15:25). Reminding the world yet again, that balance can be achieved, and that prejudice, enslavement and human corruption will inevitably crumble.

Jews are about to celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the trees. And this year we are in the seventh and final year of agricultural cycle, Shmeettat Karka’ot. Both Tu Bishvat and the shemitah cycle remind us that the earth’s rest produces for us the greatest results. That by allowing for the world to exist uninterrupted, we create balance and healing. “You may sow your land for six years, and gather its crops, but during the seventh year you must leave it alone and withdraw from it, so the needy of your people will be able to eat (from your fields) just as you do, and whatever is left over will be eaten by wild animals (Exodus 23:10-11),” Stating clearly that harmonious existence of all living things must reign over dysfunction.

Posted on January 28, 2015

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