The big action this week is focused on turkey, pie and football –as it should be. At Be’chol Lashon we are quietly and joyfully marking a year since the launch of Jewish&. On the one hand this anniversary feels like no big deal because in many ways these stories have always been there, the blog has just given them a different form. Sharing stories is one of the best ways we know about how to celebrate diversity and the richness of both the historic and contemporary Jewish experience. On the other hand, it has been a fabulous year with so many wonderful stories, contributors, readers and conversation. And for this and all that is to come, we are thankful.
We have learned much this past year.
Jews love to cook. Together we have cooked our way across the array of Jewish identities, from traditional Moroccan and Indian dishes to modern Chinese inspired challah and soup, Kosher Soul and Jewban soon to be classics. And we know we will have to do a reprise of global haroset round up again for Passover this year!
Families are families. A large portion of our posts relate to family experiences. Some of the themes are unique to 20% of American Jewish families that are not just a combo of white and Ashkenazi. Each story is as unique as the teller, some sweet some complex, some defiant. But by in large what comes across both in the content and comments from readers is the degree to which those unique stories of ethnically and racially diverse Jews often resonate as universal. When we share the specifics of who we are, we can see each other as fully human and part of the Jewish people.
We are a global people. From Mexico to Spain, Ethiopia to Chile and Hong Kong, there are threads that connect the Jewish experience across vast cultural and geographic divides. We have only begun to scratch the surface to tell the stories of Jewish life around the world. Look forward in the year to come for more stories of global Jewish life –including Be’chol Lashon’s Alternative Spring Break trip to Colombia with Vanderbilt Hillel and Taglit Birthright in the summer.
Look to the arts for the cutting edge of Jewish life. We have featured comedians, songwriters, authors, singers and poets. Their work sometimes recalls the past and at other times pushes us to think forward. For example, our own Lacey Schwartz’s personal documentary, Little White Lie, which we discussed here, has brought the conversation to public venues not used to talking about Judaism and race.
There are many stories yet to tell. There is no single voice of Jewish experience. We have had over 40 different authors write on a variety of topics from the personal to the big picture. There is no simple way to tightly summarize the range of voices and points of view that we have featured on Jewish&; diversity cannot be essentialized.
If you have a story to tell, be in touch. We are looking forward to a continuing to highlight the cultural and racial range of Jewish life in the year to come!
“And the boys ran about inside her, and she [Rebecca] said, If this is so, then why am I? and she went to seek God. And God said to her ‘two nations are in your womb, and two are in your insides, and one nation will be stronger than the other and the older shall serve the younger (26:27).”
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (France, 12th century) notes that Rebecca expected to mother just the Jewish people and have a singleton birth from which would come the Jewish people. Instead two separate entities grew within her, two powers, two forms of kingship.
But what forms of kingships exactly?
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches (Ukraine, 18th century) that “there are two forms of kingship in the world: one that is hidden for our sake, and one that is revealed for the sake of the world.”
Esau is called “the man who knows game, the man of the field.” While YJacob aakov is called the “simple man who dwelt in the tents.” Esau was called the revealed kingship, with billboards and banners, while Jacob is perceived as modest, without complexity, “a simple man.” Total opposites. An extrovert and an introvert. One of words, and one of action, one voice, and the other of hands.
But it is Rebekah’s vision to bring these two oppositional forces together. And she does so covertly and with implicit intentions. When Jacob, approached Isaac his father, he touched him. His father then states: “the voice is the voice of Jacob, and the hands are the hands of Esau (27:22).” Both sides come together, Rebekah’s vision was complete.
At last, Jacob must leave his tent, and learn about the second kind of kingship, the one of the field, the one of subjectivity Jacob must embrace the world of difference. Who did Jacob become? As the verse states “the voice of Jacob with the hands of Esau.” This verse teaches us the ability to know when to use our words softly, as if in a tent, but also to know when to scream as if in a field was what made Jacob a worldly and appropriate individual to father the Jewish nation. To have the splendor of multiple realities existing simultaneously.
Very often we are presented with difficulties that are out of our reach. We call them problems. We complain, we sigh, we scoff, and we cry because we believe the problem to be an outside influence, and not something that is a part of me and my experience. When such a struggle surfaces, how do I react, do I embrace the conflict as an opportunity like Rebekah, do I encourage fusion of ideas or perspectives? Or do I run? Do I allow for conflict to remain for always? Do I even try?
And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (33:4)
Beatrice W. Hudson, known to me as Be Be, was my great-grandmother. She was one of the strongest, and most caring people I have ever met. Born May 10, 1918 in Suffolk, Virginia, she was the oldest of 13, and played a major part in raising her many siblings. Being a Black woman in the racially divided South presented many obstacles. Everyday, the Black minority experienced segregation and daily oppression by the White majority, yet my great-grandmother never strayed from her religion. She attended church every Sunday, celebrated every holiday, and said a prayer before going to bed each night.
Growing up as a bi-racial Jew, I struggle(d) with my identity on a daily basis. I was raised in a predominantly white town, and attended a Jewish day school and synagogue with little diversity. “Are you Jewish,” and “what are you?” were questions I was asked far too often. People’s doubts and confusion about my religious identity made it hard to feel accepted in the Jewish community. Knowing that my great-grandmother was able to live through times where being Black resulted in beatings and deaths, yet still maintain such strong religious beliefs inspired me to be proud of my Jewish heritage. Though the puzzled glares and questions still persist, my doubts have been extinguished. Judaism is an important part of who I am, and my great-grandmother understood and respected that. She knew who I was: her great-grandson.
Though we were of different faiths, she attended almost every religious event I was part of. In fact, the picture we took on my Bar Mitzvah became one of her favorites. Every time I came to visit, there it was on the table, housed in a beautiful frame. She would often tell people amusedly, “look at my handsome husband,” and smile. At the time, I was outwardly abashed hearing this so often, but internally, I was happy to have gotten this title. I could truly be myself around her; she loved me unconditionally. She was so proud to be my great-grandmother. She was Christian, I was Jewish, but we were family.
As her age began to take its toll, she struggled to remember who I was. On my final visit with her, I sat next to her bed, holding her hand for about an hour. She liked when people held her hand. Though the TV was playing in the background, she still wanted to make conversation. She would fluctuate between thinking I was Michael, or another family member. From time to time she would have me remind her who I was, and where she was. Interestingly, she was never startled when she didn’t recognize me. She still saw me as a member of her family. She often asked how are we were related. When I explained the connection, the expression on her face was like that of a child being presented with a trip to Disneyworld. She was so happy she was a great-grandmother and that she had, “such a good looking family.” It was very hard for me when my great-grandmother did not know who I was. The woman to whom I felt so connected, who loved and accepted me unconditionally, who would inspired me, did not know me for me. Yet, there was comfort in knowing that she sensed a familiarity with me. I was her great grandson, her husband, her brother, her cousin…her family, her future.
Diversity is like a pizza pie. When I get my slice of pizza, I may feel as if no one is about to take part in this mouth watering experience, this mushroom-onion slice is mine, and mine alone. But as I finish, pay and make my way towards the door, I notice others, with a slice almost identical to my own. I pause, and I realize I am seeing double. And as I look at the pizza tray behind the closed glass, I take note, at times against my will, that the pizza others eat comes from the same place mine did. My experience is my own but is it also connected to theirs.
Parashat Chayei Sarah, is a portion of doubles and seeming contradictions, distancing and connecting: While Abraham claims his identity as a “resident” during his negotiation process of Sarah’s burial plot, he also identifies himself as a “stranger” amongst them. Similarly, Rebecca, our second matriarch, was a righteous woman, who carried the weight of living with “Laban the Deceitful,” but was able to remain true to herself. A conflict for some, possible for Rebecca. Finally, Isaac too brings together two things that often are seen as opposite. When he standardizes the afternoon, Mincha prayer, he connects day and night.
We humans have a proclivity for individualism. It helps us determine our own self-image, and define who we are in any situation. We carry this instinct to compartmentalize and differentiate from that which is other than the self. I may share the same pie of pizza with four strangers, but struggle to identify with them and their experience.
As the Torah states in Genesis (23:19): “and after this (the sale of the plot of land) Avraham buried his wife Sarah in the Machpeila cave in the fields, opposite Mamre, Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And the field and the cave transaction became established for Avraham as a burial place.” Avraham purchases a cave to preserve the life of Sarah and their legacy together. But also the field which can be planted, allowing him to begin to fulfill the destiny of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel.
Later in the same portion, we read of Rebecca. Her opening scene points to her enthusiasm and personal responsibility to connect at every moment to HaShem. “She (Rivka) finished giving him drink, she said, I will draw water even for your camels until they have finished drinking.” So she hurried and emptied her jug into the trough and kept running to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels.” The word Rivka (Rebecca) means to link. In addition, the Hebrew letters R.V.K.H are the same letters as H.B.K.R (the morning). And just as her husband linked day to night with twilight, she connected night to day.
As we navigate a world filled with complex paradoxes and certain ambiguity, this portion teaches us we should embrace dualities and reach out to connect with that which is beyond our selves and personal experience. Just as Avraham created a connection through the generations and Rebecca created spiritual connections. We cannot be consumed by our own experiences, whether mundane like eating pizza or grand like loosing loved ones, but rather like our fore-parents we need see our experiences as opportunities to connect.
Some people want to find the nearest fresh fruit and veggie stand. Other people seek out good, fast take-out Chinese. When my family showed up in New York City—a white woman, an African American man, and two biracial children—we went shul shopping.
I was looking for diversity, though fully aware that most American Jews are white. Most of us are, like me, Ashkenazi, immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe. Yet according to Be’chol Lashon’s numbers, about 20% of Jews in America are non-White or non-Ashkenazi. Less than ten percent of American People of the Book are non-white (which is actually more than I’d thought before I looked it up). Some are historically Jewish, other joined the Jewish people from international adoptions, and there is a small but growing group of biracial marriages and mixed-race children.
So I tried to temper my expectations. After all, this may have been NYC, but it was still the USA. And, in fact, we saw diversity in terms of congregation size, clothing fashion, and number of women wrapped in talitot, but we were pretty much looking at white faces.
We decided, instead, to seek out a friendly environment and were busy on Friday nights, checking out services at Reform and Conservative synagogues.
We had thought Reform was our best bet, but it was actually a Conservative synagogue where the rabbi hopped down off the bimah while the cantor was leading a prayer, to say hello. He was very friendly and very genuine and made us feel right at home, if a little singled out. We introduced each other and he promised to chat during the oneg, which we did.
OK, this was a place where we might integrate the congregation but at least we felt welcomed. There was a smattering of diversity; I was sure I saw an Asian face.
When we signed up for Hebrew School, though, it turned out that we had hit the jackpot. Maya would be in the third grade class with a bunch of boys, which was her preference at that stage. But, somehow, Ari entered a preschool Hebrew class with four other children: one with two black parents, one from a single-mother-by-choice family, and another with an Asian mother. And one plain old double-Caucasian girl.
The older generations at the synagogue were all white, but Ari’s class gave us hope that the future would be more colorful and that our children wouldn’t be alone in ushering in that changing demographic. Maybe when they go shul shopping they won’t need to look so hard.
This week, I’d like to focus on the self, not as the observer, but as the observed. Not when we felt comfortable enough to notice the difference in the other, but more the moment my insides pinch from when realizing everything we believe ourselves to be, is called into question. It is because in those moments that my identity has been threatened that I not only retreat inwardly, but fend off all potential opposition—losing not only myself, but connection to a community and lifestyle.
Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, teaches us that in order to reach the goal of the self-actualization, a person must feel comfortable in their environment and develop a sense of identity. This need, or the “esteem need” is bedrock of the human experience. In his work, A Theory of Human Motivation, Maslow explores this need, and what happens when it goes unmet:
“All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, (usually) high evaluation of themselves, for self respect, or self-esteem, and from the esteem of others…the desire for strength, for achievement, for adequacy, for confidence in the face of the world, for independence for freedom.”
We need people to see us in a positive light, and we do things constantly in order to be perceived the way in which seems fitting in our own eyes for their eyes.
How difficult the journey when I am the stranger in a world that does not welcome me? How sad the setting that causes me to feel so estranged that my basic human need, values, beliefs and my very identity is lost?
In Genesis 21:6, on the surface, we read of barren woman without a child to call her own, but with a deeper look, we see a woman barren of identity, lost within an environment that belittles her for her inability to give birth. Sarah, caught in a net of self-estrangement and difference, cannot believe that at her old age of ninety that she would give birth.
“And Sarah Said: ‘God has made laughter for me; everyone that will hear, will laugh because of me.’ And she said: ‘who would have said to Avraham that Sarah could breast-feed.’ ‘For I have bore him a son in his old age?’”
In the social jungle of the human experience, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity. When I am incapable of adapting to a setting, I am left with few options or coping strategies. Some people laugh and some disengage. Some stay in the corner, and others leave, but here we learn of our Matriarch, a woman with enough confidence to leave her entire life behind for a new one, but loses herself when she realizes it is her who does not fit in.
As our world grows further apart and closer together, as we get thirstier for connection in a desperate kind of way, the opportunity is upon us to welcome in the other, to tolerate ritual and spiritual expression in its many facets. To proclaim loud, “I know you are different, but come closer…I’m different too!” For without doing so, diversity is rejected, and our Jewish identities will remain a far cry from being our own.
Be’chol Lashon mourns the passing of Rabbi Hailu Paris, a native of Ethiopia who lived most of his life in the United States but never lost his connection to his native land.
Hailu Paris was born in 1933 in Addis Ababa. He spent his early years in an orphanage before being adopted by American Eudora Paris who had migrated to Ethiopia with Israelite leader, Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford. However, the arrival of Mussolini’s fascist forces in Ethiopia forced them to flee in 1936. When Nazis looking for Jewish passengers stopped their ship in Germany, they did not suspect that the Black passengers with the Ethiopian child and a tightly wrapped bundle containing a Torah scroll were, in fact, Jews. According to Rabbi Shlomo Levy, when Rabbi Paris related this story he joked, “This was one time when we didn’t complain when people assumed we could not be Jewish because of the color of our skin.”
He matriculated from Yeshiva University in New York with a BA in Jewish Studies and a MA in Jewish education. His passion for education knew no bounds and he taught in the public schools for many years. Eventually he pursued rabbinic ordination. He served as the spiritual leader of Mount Horeb Congregation, was a founding member of the Israelite Academy and was a teacher to many. A consummate bridge builder, Rabbi Paris was honored with the Brooklyn Jewish Heritage Committee esteemed Kiruv Award in 2010 with keynote speaker Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis.
In addition to being a teacher of Torah, Rabbi Paris worked tirelessly to help Ethiopian Jews. In the 1960s, long before American Jews really understood the plight of the Ethiopian Jewish community, Rabbi Paris joined early efforts to save the Beta Israel. According to Dr. Ephraim Isaac, another long-time activist, Paris never missed a meeting and worked throughout his life to promote understanding and support for Aliyah. He continued to make trips back to his native land and, according to Rabbi Capers Funnye, was planning one for 2015.
Rabbi Funnye, the leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, Chicago, is proud to have called Rabbi Paris “his mentor, teacher and friend.” As learned and knowledgeable as he was, Rabbi Funnye, knew Rabbi Paris to be, “an artist of humility, who understood that learning should never overpower our capacity to be humble.” He was the living embodiment of Torah, “For Rabbi Paris the words of Torah were written on his heart.”
Rabbi Paris left this world on the 10th of Heshvan 5775, November 3rd, 2014. The funeral service for Rabbi Hailu Paris will be held on Thursday November 6, 2014 at 11:00 am, at The Jewish Community Chapel, 630 Amsterdam Ave. (91st Street) Harlem, NY. Burial will be in New Jersey at Mount Moriah Cemetery following the funeral service. Donations can be made to a scholarship fund in his honor at Beth Shalom Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation.
“Is she converting?”
“Clearly, she is not from around here, I wonder if she is even Jewish.”
“She must be someone’s nanny…”
These were not just the petty thoughts of those who saw me with my mother, but also at times the actual words spoken. Did these people aim to offend and to distance us? I pray not, but somehow and sometimes, the natural tendency of those who experience something foreign is to immediately cause distance for the sake retaining his/her individual comfort.
While our synagogue, school, corporate and communal settings include the value of diversity as a central tenet in their mission statements, it is all but natural to grow suspicious of the stranger and to create a distance, a separateness, and the “not me, not my problem,” mentality. Our mixed race family never asked to be objectified, and turned into a lifeless color scheme of browns and whites. All we wanted, and still want like others like us, is to dwell among our tribe(s) with respect, validity and with a communal concern for our well-being.
We see in this week’s Torah portion that Avram (later Avraham) recognized the need to distance himself from his nephew Lot, while making sure that he would remain a relevant presence; that a song of many notes not only can, but should exist in harmony. From the pathway of soulless objectivity to the recognition of pulsing subjectivity; from “someone else will welcome them,” to “I will welcome them!:”
“And Avram said… ‘Please let there be no fighting between me and you and between your shepherds and my shepherds, for we are men who are brothers. Is not the whole land before us, please separate from me, if you go left, I will go right, if you go right I will go left (13:8).’
Yes. Indeed, there are times when we must turn away from the other. When being around opposition does threaten our comforts and existence. For when that situation presents itself, it is in our very best interest to curl our backs; to skirt all potential communication and to distance ourselves…
But when? and how?! How do I harmoniously keep inclusion as a central value in my life, while also recognizing the need for boundaries? Should I debase the humanistic qualities of the other, like the Pharoah of Egypt, and the Haman and Hitler of yesteryear? No! Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (Cologne, 13th century) taught that allowing for borders and boundaries to exist is the recipe needed for containing and creating Shalom, it is what builds us up, not breaks us down.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Troyes, 11th century) suggests, that the meaning of Avraham’s statement “please separate from me” is not to convey that there shall be an eternal severance between the two, but rather “where your dwell, I will not distance myself from you, and I will stand by you as protector and a helper.” That although we must remain separate, I will never objectify you, I will keep you close to me.
As we open our eyes to the other, let us remember that like Avram, it is OK to create borders with she who is different than you, but only, only when it does not objectify them. Only when who they are is so important to who you are. Where their border is your border; where their needs are your needs. Then it will be, that our hearts will soar and join, in the call for diversity.
Recently, über-quaint San Miguel de Allende– named a UNESCO World Heritage city in 2008– was picked as the #1 City in the World by Condé Nast’s Traveler magazine. Yes, we beat out Paris, Prague, New York, Budapest, and Florence. But one overlooked jewel in this city is its Jewish community.
According to some estimates, there are perhaps 10,000 “gringos” living in San Miguel de Allende, (SMA) Mexico, which would mean Americans and Canadians make up a little less than 10% of the population of this small colonial city in the geographic center of the country. North Americans have been settling here since right after WWII, lured initially by the GI Bill /SMA’s art schools and its colonial charm, friendly locals, temperate climate, and relatively inexpensive cost of living (well, if you live on US dollars, that is). Artists, writers, and the “bohemian bourgeois” have flocked here in the past few decades, as well has hordes of tourists, both foreign and national.
It’s hard to guess how many Jews live here in SMA, especially since many are part-time residents, and the vast majority are not affiliated with anything overtly Jewish. But let’s say a conservative estimate could put it at about 10% of the foreigner population; that would easily place us within the top 10 largest Jewish communities in Mexico (there are 45,000, of which 90% live in Mexico City.) Most of the Americans and Canadians are retired folks, here to take Spanish and/or art classes, do yoga, soak up the sun and tequila, and enjoy the myriad cultural activities available here. It would be fair to state that the majority of Jews here don’t come to San Miguel to identify with Judaism. And yet, for many years there has been a core of ex-pats who met for a Hanukkah party, prayed together on the High Holidays, and celebrated Passover at a local restaurant. This had eventually morphed into “Shalom San Miguel de Allende”, a group of 30-40 members who formed a legal asociación civil to promote Jewish culture and religious services in our adopted town.
About 6 years ago a most unexpected thing happened: a few Mexican nationals started to come to services. We didn’t think twice about it; our doors were naturally open to everyone. We had no real idea how difficult it was for non-Jewish Mexicans to be accepted into a synagogue or Jewish event here in Mexico. Some claim Jewish ancestry (hard to prove, and often not matrilineal), and others are simply drawn to Judaism intellectually and/or emotionally. For whatever reason, these dedicated young people were seeking to learn more about Judaism, be accepted into a welcoming Jewish community, and many wanted formal conversion—something not well accepted in the mainstream Mexican Jewish communities. Our first wave was taught for several years by lay-leaders of our community, and eventually 3 Conservative rabbis, including Bechol Lashon’s very own Rabbi Juan Mejía, came down from the US to form a Bet Din to formally and halachically convert 7 people.
Since then, Rabbi Mejía has taken the initiative to educate and guide the conversions of subsequent candidates, and in total has helped 36 souls in our neck of the woods to find their spiritual home in Judaism. Aside from doing this great mitzvah for the sake of the gerei tzedek, these young people have greatly enriched and re-vitalized our aging demographics. Although there are still a few cultural and language barriers to be negotiated, the integration of these newest members of the community has proceeded well. Diversity is, was, and will always be a wonderful strength of the Jewish people everywhere!
While driving down Route 95 on the East Coast, one has the ability to survey hundreds of billboards along the way. They aim to tell the passerby that life without their product is a life that is incomplete. Without that specific phone, insurance plan, TV show or washing machine, one may run the risk of being an outcast, unaffiliated, and simply on the wrong train. All too often, the sole intent of the advertisement company is to draw one away from their current status of living and suggest that uniting with their agenda is the best way to succeed in the world, denying diversity, for the sake of uniformity.
In this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 11:1-9) we read about the demands of the nations to create a world of sameness and uniformity: the Tower of Babel.
“And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech… And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us build a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth… And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; … So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth… Therefore was the name of it called Babel…”
Rabbi Ovadia S’forno (Italy, 16th century) comments that these nations desired to create a world of homogeny because they believed that Man’s ability to proliferate as a species (remember we weren’t that old yet) would only be possible with universalized speech and thought, hence never causing separation and differences to surface. Surely there have been times where we may strongly relate to these nations’ desire for uniformity. By nature, avoiding conflict is one of the basic tenants set out by Anna Freud in her work on defense mechanisms. Granted, placed there in order for us retain our peace of mind, but this was not the intention of our Creator. God did not want us to look the same, speak the same or act the same, and thus the call for diversity caused the tower of exclusivity to crumble.
In the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 19th century), “Mankind must be scattered, must distribute itself among all the different regions of earth in order that the most divergent and contrary faculties of the human mind may find in nature the needed opportunities of development, in order that experience become full and complete…” We learn here that the Torah does not only welcome diversity, but insists on it. Though we may have been scattered to the far ends of the earth, our ability to create our own borders, languages, and theological premises, has been the gift that allowed for civilization to thrive economically, culturally, and intellectually from Noah until now.
It is our duty as Jews to not only welcome-in the other because it “feels” like the right thing to do, and more so, because God’s intentions were never to produce a world of uniformity, but strengthen us to call far and near for a world of diversity.