Honoring Dad, Forgiving Myself for Rosh Hashanah

The Jewish month of Elul is a month of contemplation and introspection leading up to Rosh Hashanah. For Victoria Washington it has meant coming to grips with loss and learning to forgive herself. Her inspiring story reminds us all that generosity and love are essential for renewal. -Be’chol Lashon

Washington_VictoriaphotoMy parents divorced when I was six and my mother remarried the man who would raise me. I consider this man my father in every single sense of the word. My biological father was still very much a part of my life, but he did not raise me per se. He died of complications from Multiple Sclerosis when I was 25.

My dad, the man who raised me, was the strong and quiet type. He was also dedicated to preparing me for the world I would face as a black, gay woman. He once told me he knew I was gay when I was 5 years old. He let me buy jeans and sweaters and sneakers for back to school, whereas my mother tried to dress me less “tomboyish.” On more than one occasion, I eavesdropped as he told my mother alternately to “leave that girl alone” or “let her make her own decisions.”

He was everything to me growing up. He always said, “excuse me” if he cussed in front of me, never failed to take my hand when we crossed the street even when I was an adult. He taught me what it meant to be valued as a person. In short, he was the perfect father. Although we weren’t blood, when he and my mother were having marriage problems and divorce seemed a possibility my mother related that he told her, “you can walk out that door, but you are NOT taking my child.” Me. He loved and valued me just that much.

My mother once told me, “although I carried you, God created you for him”.

Two years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. March, 2012. April 12th he fell and broke his hip. He went downhill very, very quickly and hospice was called in to help us. He wouldn’t take food or medicine from anyone but me. I would just sit by his bed and read or hold his hand.

May 4th, 2012 I was holding his hand, his grip tightened, he took one last breath and his grip slackened. The man who never, EVER let go of my hand did. I haven’t forgiven him for letting my hand go and leaving me here without him. Without his steadiness, his calmness, his confidence in me; leaving me without his buffer between me and a “challenging” mother.

When he died my mother looked at me and said, “please ask him to breathe. He will breathe for you. He will breathe for you. Please ask him to breathe.” I told her, “I can’t mom. I can’t.” I don’t think she has forgiven me for not asking him to breathe.

Some days I haven’t forgiven myself for not asking him to breathe, but then I realize that I loved him more than enough NOT to ask.

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Posted on September 16, 2014

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Amazing and Improbable Transformations for the New Year

throne2Change is an inevitable part of our lives. Most changes, however, happen to us from the outside: we age, we move, the world changes around us regardless of our desires to frame it in a moment. And yet, the most meaningful changes are often those that we set in motion on our own: our voluntary transformations. In the Jewish tradition, the New Year is a time for collective soul-searching and metamorphosis geared towards a positive transformation of ourselves and the world around us.

Central to the liturgy of the New Year is a recurrent Medieval poem which describes God as “a King sitting in a throne of Mercy” (Melekh yoshev ‘al kisse Rachamim). But there is something awkward about “a throne of Mercy.” Throughout the Bible and Midrash, the idea of a throne is associated with judgment and power. Kings, including the King of King of Kings (God), sit in high and lofty thrones that separate them from the ground. It is from this high and separate place where they dispense justice to the people below. The throne is a symbol of the power possessed by one party and not possessed by the other. Power and judgment seem to depend on differences, on distances and on separation; ideas we seldom associate with mercy, which we imagine thriving in contact and intimacy. As any playground kid knows, forgiveness (mercy´s delicious byproduct) is never really true unless sealed by that handshake or, better yet, a hug. And yet it is incredibly difficult to shake or hug someone who is sitting high above you in a throne.

Thus, the idea of a throne of mercy seems strange, even oxymoronic.

However, it precisely because of this contradictory nature, this image seems to be a perfect metaphor for the time of the High Holidays and the possibilities it encapsulates. The Jewish idea of repentance, teshuvah, is connected to the view of our own free will and our power to create- a power we share exclusively with God. Although we are constrained by limitations set by our physical, social and behavioral surroundings, there is a component in us that is absolutely free and, at any moment, can choose to act in a completely unexpected way. In the same way that a throne does not seem a fitting tool of mercy but rather just the opposite, the power of repentance is such that it can alter the expected shape and function of an object into something that it did not seem it had the power to be.

This wondrous act of transformation is made so much more powerful when it goes viral and the entire Jewish people does it together. That is the true power of the High Holidays: focusing the entire attention and energy of a people into the sole purpose of betterment and transformation. When we, collectively as well as individually, choose to do something unexpected and seek for unity instead of division, for connection instead of hierarchy, for closeness instead of judgment, our true potential as a people and as Jews becomes unlocked.

My personal blessing for these powerful days, pregnant with possibilities, is that we look into those things that we think as unchangeable and set in our lives: our surroundings and ethnicity, our situation and our language. And like the throne of Judgement, see ourselves transformed into an improbable but amazing new people with less hangups, less distance between us and other Jews, between us and our fellow human beings.

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Posted on September 11, 2014

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An Afro-Ashkefardi Recipe For Rosh Hashanah

From black-eyed pea hummus spiked with homemade horseradish harissa to matzoh-meal fried chicken cooked in shmaltz, to peach noodle kugels touched with garam masala, Afro-Ashkefardi is my way of cooking Jewish. While some of my DNA goes back to old Jewish genes, I converted to Judaism in 2002. For 14 years I’ve been working on creating a working Jewish identity grounded in my love of being African American and the African Diaspora melded with my love and appreciation for the Jewish people, my other Jewish family. Around my table, only kashrut fences me in. On my plates there are no limits!Sorghum-chicken

Front and center is sorghum. I love sorghum, it’s a gluten-free grain that can be crushed to produce a sweet syrup that doesn’t crystallize. Domesticated in Africa thousands of years ago, it was once grown across the South and Midwest as a cheap sweetening agent. Today in the new Southern cooking based on local ingredients and traditional flavors, sorghum has made a comeback.

In honor of Rosh Hashanah and in hopes for a sweet year to come, I offer these geshmakht sorghum chicken wings, so good your Ima, Umi, or Mameleh will have to run for cover (to avoid the obligatory mama-smacking). As I begin writing my forthcoming food and family memoir, The Cooking Gene, I hope for more discoveries linking my table with the past and stories to share that will inspire us all to nourish our stomachs and family trees.

Wishing you all a Shanah Tovah U’mitukah, a sweet New Year and a tasty one too!

Ingredients:

Chicken:

5 pounds chicken wings, separated at the joints into drummettes and flats, (wing tips reserved for other use such as soup)

1 tablespoon kosher powdered chicken broth or bullion

2 tablespoons of vegetable or canola oil

1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Sorghum Glaze:

1 clove of minced garlic

2 tablespoons of minced onion—yellow or red

1 tablespoon of vegetable or canola oil

¼ cup of water seasoned with 1 ½ teaspoons of powdered kosher chicken broth

2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons of prepared chrain or red horseradish

¼ cup of sorghum molasses

Directions:

In a large bowl, season the chicken wings with the broth powder, oil and black pepper, tossing to coat well. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and line two baking sheets with 1-inch sides with aluminum foil.  Place cooking racks on foiled sheets and spread chicken and roast for 45 minutes.

While the wings are baking, in a medium pot, saute the garlic and onion in the oil.  Add the broth-water, vinegar, chrain and sorghum molasses.  Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a low simmer, stirring frequently for about 7-10 minutes or until the sauce reduces significantly or coats the back of a spoon.  Remove from heat, and allow it to thicken for 20 minutes.  Remove the roasted wings from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F.

Place the roasted wings in a large metal or ceramic bowl. Drizzle half the prepared sauce over the wings, reserving the other half for dipping, and stir several times to coat well.  Place the wings on a new set of racks with and allow them to glaze in the oven for another 15 minutes.

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Posted on September 9, 2014

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Easy Cross Cultural Rosh Hashanah Meal

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One of our favorite bloggers Jennifer “CubanRueben” Stempel has done it again! She has come up with a wonderful holiday meal with an authentic Cuban flair. For the busy family prepping for the holiday this is the perfect way to create a holiday meal that will surpass all expectations. Get the recipe here.

Posted on September 8, 2014

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Lessons from Catholic Mass for Rosh Hashanah

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Growing up in a very Reform household, I was never completely comfortable at the prospect of being called to the bima for an honor.

Until I attended Mass. Most every Sunday, for more than a year.

washington_03_72dpiThe reason wasn’t religious, but journalistic; as part of the Boston Herald’s “God Squad” a dozen years ago, covering the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal. I was initially hesitant, not wanting to encroach on the sacred space of the then-archbishop, Bernard Cardinal Law, regardless of his misdeeds. But I soon became familiar with the liturgy, including parts that might yield news—such as when he failed to annunciate “the victims of clergy sexual abuse” among those for whom he offered intentions.

I established my own rhythm for the flow of the service, determining when appropriate to sit or stand (but never kneeling.) One instance was comical: Law had just said something interesting before the Eucharistic Prayer and I hurriedly completed my notes while sitting, then jumped up. The press gallery, by that point used to following my lead, all rose with me.

And then there was the time when a TV reporter who shared my first name took the pew next to me. We were two Robins watching a cardinal.

Most extraordinary was the Sunday that Law departed from what I would presume to be Catholic orthodoxy to articulate a very familiar passage: That for transgressions against God, the gates of repentance are always open, but for sins against your fellow human, you must seek forgiveness from that person.

Huh? I thought—that’s straight out of the High Holiday prayer book, and not quite consistent with the concept of priestly confession.

Abuse victims who regularly protested outside the cathedral heard word of it too, some immediately getting in line to be served the Eucharist by Law. “Forgive me,” he said as he recognized each.

It was a moving moment, though not enough to undo the years of pain and trauma, nor keep it from continuing throughout the church today.

If Law had gone rogue religiously, it wasn’t the only time the service went off-script. I noticed minor differences on occasion, including once when chimes didn’t sound as the wafer was broken.

“Does that mean transubstantiation didn’t occur?” I asked a priest friend afterward, not at all in jest or meant to insult.

“It’s just for show,” he said with a wink—referring to the chimes, I assume, not the transformation.

In that spirit I began to notice we too made mistakes in shul. Despite being in one of the colder places on Earth, Duluth’s Temple Israel is the warmest I’ve ever been a part of, and its small congregation is quite willing to inform the rabbi—lovingly so—if he’s on the wrong page, or if the gabbai has passed someone by.

So it’s easy to stand on the bima now, knowing any worship is anything but perfect. What matters is not how beautifully you say words or prayers, but how real you make them in the rest of your life; through actions to repair the world, for love and peace, justice and life.

My honor this year is calling the shofar sounds, and I’ll be thinking of those aspirations as I say tekiah, shevarim, teruah, tekiah gedolah, even if there are other, more accurate interpretations.

I’ll try to pronounce them right. But if not, it’s no cardinal sin.

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Posted on September 4, 2014

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Iron Chef Rosh Hashanah: Be Fruitful and Multiply

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My daughter Mia often watches Iron Chef, a cooking show on TV in which they designate a secret ingredient that is required to be in every dish. For Rosh Hashanah we wish for a New Year bright and full of possibilities. And so we knew the secret ingredient needed to be, pomegranates! Red and bursting with seeds they are a wonderful way to symbolically capture those hopes. Coming into season just as Rosh Hashanah is celebrated, the pomegranate’s ancient beginnings are referenced in the Torah, describing Israel as “a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey.” (Deuteronomy 8:8). It is reported that pomegranates were one of the fruits that the scouts brought back to Moses to show that the “promised land” was fertile. And they are a traditional New Year’s treat.

Not surprisingly, our ancestors were on to something. In addition to the current popularity of pomegranate flavored soda and candy, pomegranates have long been used in Indian and Chinese medicine. Western scientists are conducting clinical trials looking at pomegranates for a variety of health benefits. Apparently eating pomegranates does have the potential to make the year a good one.

In addition to health benefits, the spiritual side of the pomegranate should not be overlooked. I have never counted but legend has it that there are 613 seeds. This coincidentally is the same number of mitzvot or good deeds we should strive to observe. Among the many mitzvot, the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” is particularly pertinent to modern Jews. Growing the Jewish people is a wonderful and important part of modern Jewish life. Seeds bring to mind birth, but, the Jewish people can “increase like the seeds of a pomegranate” through adoption, intermarriage, and conversion. And the from the outside the pomegranate is a solitary piece of fruit, but like the Jewish people, its diversity and complexity as well as its sweetness are only revealed when you take time to open it up and explore inside. Which is what we at Be’chol Lashon do all year round.

We found the perfect source, a lovely little book called Pomegranates by Ann Kleinberg which has inspired some of our cooking. Pomegranate molasses, a thick concentrate of pomegranate juice, can be found in Middle Eastern markets or online.

Blessing:

This is the blessing for a new fruit at Rosh Hashanah, said after the blessing over the wine and before washing hands for the blessing over the bread.

First, the Shehechiyanu blessing thank God for keeping us alive and bringing us to this season:

You are blessed, Adonai our God, Ruler of the world, Who has kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.

Then the blessing for the fruit: You are blessed, Adonai our God, Ruler of the world, Who creates fruit from the trees.

After the fruit is passed out for everyone to eat, the food’s symbolism is explained:

May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our forbearers, that our merits increase like the seeds of a pomegranate.

 Quinoa Salad with Herbs and Pomegranate

We like this salad because it is so colorful and gets its flavors from the many different ingredients. Like the Jewish people it relies on the parts to make the whole outstanding!
(Serves 4)

1 cup quinoa

2 cups water or clear vegetable stock

1 cup baby peas or cooked edamame

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese  (if making for a meat meal cheese can be left out)

1/2 red onion, chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, diced

½ orange pepper, diced

1/2 cup mixed chopped fresh basil, flat-leaf parsley, and cilantro leaves

2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves

1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

1/4 cup pomegranate juice

2 tablespoons fresh squeezed orange juice + zest from one orange rind

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Clean and rinse the quinoa in a sieve to remove dust and natural coating.

In a saucepan over high heat, bring water or vegetable stock to a boil, stir in the quinoa, and return to a boil. Decrease the heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed. The quinoa should be tender but not mushy. Remove from the heat and fluff up the quinoa with a fork. Transfer to a serving bowl and let cool.

If peas or edamame are not cooked, then place the peas and enough water to cover them in a saucepan. Bring the water to a boil, then decrease the heat to low and simmer for about 5 minutes.  Remove from the heat and rinse with cold water until they are cool to touch.

Add the cooled peas, feta, onion, bell peppers, mixed herbs, tarragon, and pomegranate seeds to the cooled quinoa. Toss to mix well.

In a small bowl, whisk together the pomegranate juice, orange juice and zest, vinegar, lemon juice, and olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Just before serving, whisk the dressing again, pour over the salad, and toss.

Chicken and Fall Vegetables, Pomegranate and Fruit Sauce (Serves 6 to 8) 

This sweet and tangy chicken dish brings together the best of the fall harvest with the traditional flavors.

Preheat the oven to 400°F

¼ cup pomegranate molasses

Tbsp honey or date honey (optional)

2 tbsp olive oil

6 cloves garlic, crushed

½ tsp red pepper flakes

12 chicken thighs, drumsticks or 6 breasts

Sauce

2 tbsp olive oil

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 yellow onion, chopped

6 shallots, peeled

1 carrot, peeled and cubed

1 celery root, peeled and cubed

1 parsnip, peeled and cubed

¾ dried apricots

1/4 cup raisins

¼ cup dried cranberries

salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ cup water

grated zest of 1 lemon

1 1/3 cup pomegranate molasses

2 tbsp chopped fresh basil leaves

1 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves

Garnish

¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, for garnish

½ cup pomegranate seeds, for garnish

Directions

Baking chicken

Combine the pomegranate molasses, olive oil, honey/date syrup (if using), garlic, and red pepper flakes in a plastic bag. Place the chicken pieces in the mixture, and massage to ensure all pieces are well coated. Leave for ½ an hour. Transfer the chicken to a roasting pan and bake for 30 minutes. Decrease temperature to 350°F and bake for 10 minutes longer.

Making sauce

Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, onion, shallots, carrot, parsnip and celery root and sauté for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the mixture starts to brown. Stir in the apricots, cranberries and raisins, season to taste with salt and black pepper, and cook for 5 minutes longer. Add the water, lemon zest, pomegranate syrup, basil, and thyme. Stir while brining to a boil, then decrease the heat to low and cook for 30 minutes longer, or until all the vegetables have softened.

Serving

Arrange the baked chicken pieces on a serving platter.

Pour the sauce over the chicken and sprinkle with the parsley and pomegranate seeds.

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Posted on September 2, 2014

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Maimonides’ Home and My Grandmother’s Song

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Ladino first cast its magic spell on me in childhood. It always struck me as a graceful, rolling language, one of emotion and longing, filled with desire. It was a secret language that my mother spoke with her mother, my grandmother, of blessed memory. My grandmother immigrated to Israel from Bulgaria, arriving as Ladino-speaking Tanya and eventually becoming Hebrew-speaking Shoshana. But when my mother and grandmother wanted to speak without us girls understanding, they spoke Ladino. And so Ladino took root for me as the language of women.

In 2004 I founded the Israeli Ethnic Ensemble, which appears around the world with a rich and fascinating program of Sephardic music. Sephardic musical culture has been preserved for hundreds of years. Ladino songs originated in the 9th-13th centuries, when Jewish life flourished in Spain. It continued to develop after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. And it is this music that inspires me and my ensemble.

As a professional, delving into magical musical materials preserved in Ladino, I discovered that the preservation of this tradition by women was not unique to my family. When the Jews were expelled from Spain and spread across Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Morocco, etc., it was the men who worked outside the home, mingling with the locals and the language of the place. By contrast women rarely left their homes, did not integrate into the local population and continued to exclusively or dominantly speak Ladino. Women continued to create songs and melodies in Ladino expressing their feelings, difficulties, joys and grief. The vast majority of Ladino songs are songs “feminine;” wedding songs, lullabies, love songs, etc. Through women, the language has been preserved as it was spoken centuries ago.

One of the historic Jewish centers in Spain was in Cordoba. Moses Maimonides, one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of all time, was born there circa 1135. But he left, as Muslim rule made Jewish life difficult. Later Christians ruled the city and in the 15th century the Jews of Cordoba were expelled or forced to convert along with their fellow co-religionists. So it was particularly meaningful when the Israeli Ethnic Ensemble was invited by the City of Cordoba to appear in the 13th International Sephardic Jewish Music Festival in Spain.

We arrived in Cordoba late at night. Our group of passionate Israeli musicians includes Gilad Ephrat on double bass, Idan Toledano on guitar and oud, the violinist Chen Shenhar and myself singing the vocals. We woke in the morning and set out to discover this warm, sleepy town. We went to the Old City in search of the statue of Maimonides. We had heard about the blessing and good fortune that befalls those who touch the feet of the statue and pay tribute to the great scholar. A short tour of the alleys of Cordoba’s Old City taught us that the current vibrancy of the modern municipality is tied to the ancient culture and heritage left by our ancestors when they were expelled. It was amazing to see intense tourist activity in the Old City. The statue of Maimonides is a focal point of an attractive tourist center. The municipality of Cordoba has already embarked on an extensive public relations campaign and refurbishment of the Jewish synagogue to be completed in 2015 on the 700th anniversary of its founding.

The International Sephardic Festival which takes place every year in June is one of the city’s main music events. For the last 13 years, Spain has hosted musicians from around the world. This year, the beautiful botanical gardens were the site for six days of performances from Spain, Poland, Portugal and Israel. After visiting the Old City and the dark, horrifying museum of the Holy Inquisition, we headed towards the botanical gardens where the festival was to be held. There was a wine tasting workshop, followed by the opening act of the festival. The transition to the pastoral calm of the setting and the beautiful music was jarring, but we had come for a short visit to a city with a glorious but troubled past and it could not have been otherwise.

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Posted on August 26, 2014

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Cross-Cultural Parenting: Materialism vs Relationship

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My daughter is wise beyond her years. She teaches me. Recently a family with older children handed down to us a plastic toy kitchen set. My 15-month-old was delighted.  As she happily played, I “Facetimed” my parents so they could join me in watching her fun. However as soon as Bubie and Zada’s faces appeared on the iPhone screen, my daughter lost all interest in her toys.  She had eyes only for the grandparents she loves and engaged them in a rousing game of peek-a-boo.

Watching Eliyana’s developmental leaps is wonderful. Just yesterday she was grabbing the iPad and looking behind it for the people. Today she understood she could interact with the people on the screen, that she could initiate play with them. I learned too. I learned that she values relationship far more than “things.”

When my husband and I first arrived in Ethiopia to meet our beautiful child, I was appalled by the starkness of her orphanage. There were no colors to brighten the walls. There were less than half a dozen toys, and no books. Our daughter was happy and thriving, perhaps because of her inner strength and love of life, perhaps because the nannies there carried the babies in their arms as much as possible. The gifts of board books and games I brought on my second trip were received politely but with puzzlement. “Of what use could these possibly be to a baby?” I read on the faces of the nannies.

eliyanaWhen we brought our daughter home, we filled it with love, toys, and many many books. We made the rounds of doctors, each marveling at Eliyana’s sociability and her easy smile. “This child has been loved” they each said to us. We would discuss this concern or worry and the doctors would repeat “She has received love and attention. That is the most important ingredient to her development.” We settled into becoming a family and Eliyana thrived.

Many of my fellow Ethiopian adoption parents tell me their children did beautifully in daycare, having been socialized to being around other children and waiting their turn already in the orphanage. My daughter was miserable. No one would play with her. At first I wondered if there was racism involved. Finally I realized it was culture. The room was filled to the brim with every kind of wonderful toy and the expectation was that the children would play independently with the toys. My child wanted relationship but was instead offered Western materialism. With help and support I came to understand I was allowed to listen to the needs my daughter was broadcasting loudly for me on all frequencies. She wanted people, not things. We found a way to provide this while I work. Happiness has been restored.

Martin Buber wrote, counter to the psychology of his time, that identity begins in relationship, not in individuality. In Ethiopia, this was understood. I wonder now at my Western arrogance, my shock at an Ethiopian orphanage’s lack of toys and books. Here in the West, where we have everything, we have much to learn about what is important. I am learning every day.

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Posted on August 19, 2014

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The Risks of Being an Interracial Family

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It is true that every family is different, but for multiracial families that difference can bring with it specific challenges. Married to an African American, Russian born Alina Adams struggles with how her family looks to others and the implications.

 

Less than a year ago, two blond children in Ireland were taken from their Roma parents because the police decided they didn’t look related, even though legal documents, including passports, were produced. Meanwhile, the same thing happened to a blond girl in Greece. Even though her DNA didn’t match anything on record in the Missing Child database, and even though her biological mother was found and insisted she had voluntarily left her daughter with a Roma couple, the State decided that little Maria should not be returned to her foster parents, but placed in an orphanage, instead.
I followed both cases closely because, in our house, my three kids are darker than I am, but lighter than my African-American husband…Continue reading

Posted on August 15, 2014

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World Traveler Becomes World Musician

 

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What makes a secular Israeli connect to his Jewish identity, roots and spirituality? What makes secular Jew from Jerusalem become a Jewish educator in San Francisco? The answers are music, spirituality and the relationship between the two.

If someone had told me ten years ago that I would become a Jewish educator, I would never have believed it. Moreover, if someone had told me that I would write Jewish music, I would most likely laugh in his or her face. The world of Judaism was never a motivation in my life until I left Israel and arrived in San Francisco.

My parents originally came from Greece and Iraq but I was born in Jerusalem. Raised as a secular Israeli, my Jewish identity was always a given fact. Meaning, I am Jewish because I was born to this nation and religion, because of my family’s history, because Hebrew is my language, etc. Aside from reading from the Torah at my Bar Mitzvah and celebrating Jewish holidays, Judaism was not something I practiced. Coming to the US, particularly to the Bay Area, and connecting with local Jewish communities and their definitions of being “Jewish,” I gained a new understanding of my Jewish identity and spirituality.

People relate to spirituality in different ways. It’s not something that’s just given to you. It’s not only something you practice or learn, but something you feel. Spirituality doesn’t exclude anyone. It includes Jewish ideals, but it does not stand exclusively on Jewish beliefs. Spirituality involves global ideals, thoughts and understandings. Most importantly for me, music is the medium, guide and driving force in my own spiritual path.

I emphasize the importance of music not only because it is my love, my passion, my profession and in many ways, the essence of my being, but because music is an incredible educational tool that builds bridges reaching people’s hearts and souls. In fact, it is the reason I became involved with the Jewish community in the US from the first place.

When I arrived in San Francisco ten years ago, I worked as a song leader at Congregation Sherith Israel. While taking these first steps in the world of American Judaism, I learned many songs commonly taught to Jewish children in the US.  Many of these songs were outdated and not surprisingly, that my students didn’t relate to them. These songs don’t represent or resemble anything close to the music young American Jews are listening to in their secular lives. Moreover, I felt that most of these Folk/Rock genre Jewish-American songs didn’t represent the story of the whole Jewish diaspora. So I decided to write new Jewish music that speaks to the hearts of the Jewish youth, represents a variety of Jewish communities from around the globe and connects the souls of the listeners with their Jewish identity on a spiritual level.

In 2011, I formed Sol Tevél, a band that focuses on connecting Hebrew roots while engaging world cultures. A year later, we released our debut album, World Light, which aims provide a contemporary interpretation on traditional Jewish texts, ideals and mysticism.

How can we learn more about spirituality? The truth is that it’s not my intention to teach nor preach spirituality, but to share my personal journey into this realm. Teaching for the past 10 years showed me that my students were my best teachers and could (often unintentionally) answer many of the questions we struggle with. And as for “God” or “spirituality,” Austin Branner, one of my 3rd grade students expressed it best with the words that would become the title song for my album World Light:

See the wind flowing by

See the stars up high

See the sand on the ground

See the rocks all around

My God, your God, One God.

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Posted on August 7, 2014

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