“It was the day before Passover, and our Division Chaplain, of the 42nd Rainbow Division sent out a notice that we were going to have Passover Services. I got two other Jewish GIs and went, joining about 100 other GIs, and to my amazement out came dozens of Jewish civilians who had been in hiding and were crying with joy. For the first time in a few years to be free to have Passover, it really touched me and made me feel I was very sad and yet happy that we were helping. Fellow Jewish GIs back at our base continued to celebrate our own Passover with some Kosher Salami and Matzos that my wife Sophie sent to me the day before Passover started. Plus very delicious French wine I had learned to acquire.”
This was the story that Isaac S. Morhaime, would tell every Passover. He did not need to live Passover “as though” he had come out of Egypt. He had seen liberation with his own eyes. 70 years ago, as part of the 42nd Rainbow Division, Morhaime had helped to liberate Dachau outside of Munich just a month after the celebration of that modest but poignant Seder.
“Going on we pushed ahead and finally got to Munich. A beautiful city but half bombed out. While I was up front with the infantry, we moved ahead and liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp. I was right up front as we rushed the gates. Just then we saw a Kraut on an open boxcar firing his rifle into the railcar, and we all opened fire and shot him. I jumped up and with my little camera took pictures of the prisoners. Most were dead, and the few still alive were mostly skin and bones in the boxcars. Meanwhile in the prison, there were a lot of various people: some American Soldiers, some Air Force, a lot of captured civilian Jews, a few French – all half starved. The following day I went and took more pictures of the prison camp. There were the cremating ovens, there was a 7-foot wall that the prisoners would scale to try to escape, and on the other side about a dozen Great Dane dogs were set loose to kill the Jewish prisoners. There were various other sickening things and tortures.”
Morhaime was an American Jew of Turkish ancestry. His parents, like so many Greek/Turkish Jews were in the fish business. Their grocery and fish shop in Seattle did well and in 1942, Ike, as he was known, married Sophie, a Greek Jew, who he had known from childhood. Ike, who had joined the National Guard in high school, was already active army in 1942 and the wedding took place on a three-day pass. Still stateside in 1943, baby Stan was born but when Ike shipped out in January of 1945 Sophie was left on her own to care for the baby. After the war, Ike returned to Seattle, where he was very involved in the Sephardic Bikur Holim congregation where he had been raised and where he and Sophie would raise Stan and later Sue Ann.
Ike passed away in 2011 and was buried just hours before the family Seder. The Morhaime family committed to carrying on Ike’s tradition of telling the stories of WWII. So that evening, as Ike’s son Stan tells it, still grieving they gathered to celebrate Passover and commemorate the ancient Exodus and the life of their beloved Ike who had played a part in the modern Exodus. This story telling, according to Stan, is a tradition they continue to this day.
According to legend, at Passover Elijah the Prophet visits ever Seder table around the world. As he travels he must marvel at the diversity of traditions that can be found in different communities and regions. These global traditions provide wonderful ways to prompt new questions and interest at any Seder.
While many communities use a special Seder plate to hold the edible and visual supplies for their Seder, Persian and Yemenite Jews place the different items directly on the table, or in small bowls in front of each person, so that they surround the participants, creating a truly immersive environment. Others use a basket covered with a decorated cloth to hold all the different ritual items, as do the Jews of Tunisia, so that they are ready to take them off the table and leave Egypt right away–it adds to the feeling of reenacting the Exodus.
Tactile and visual clues provide another way to enhance the experience. Lately, “plague bags” with different toys for each of the ten plagues have become popular. The Tunisian community has had the same sort of idea for a lot longer. They place a fishbowl with live fish swimming in it on the table next to the Seder plate, to evoke crossing the Red Sea by seeing the fish that swam in the walls of water on either side.
The Jews of Kavkaz, in the Caucasus mountains, took advantage of the tradition outside of Israel of holding two Seders by holding their first night Seder in Hebrew, and the second night in their own language, so as to both hear the language of our ancestors and also be able to deeply understand what is going on. Following their example or modifying it to fit your needs can bring richness and depth to a Seder.
The beginning of the Seder, like the opening scene of a good play, needs to engage and interest the participants. Instead of simply announcing the start, you could begin with the Seder leader or another participant circling the Seder plate over the head of each of the participants three times, reciting “In haste we came out of Egypt,” as is done in Morocco and Tunisia. Each individual responds with “Ha Lachma Anya” “This is the bread of affliction” or with “Avadim hayinu” “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”. This physically immerses you in the sights and sounds of the Seder.
Alternatively the Jews of Persia, ask each participant to take a turn holding up the plate of matzot and reciting the 14 steps of the Seder in order, ending with “Ha Lachma Anya,” “This is the bread of affliction.” This gives each participant the chance to take a first step into the experience individually, and to commit to this year’s journey to freedom.
As we come to the Maggid section, in which the story of the Exodus is recounted, our core desire is to experience and understand what it meant to go from slavery to freedom. Many communities mixed readings with theater to recreate the sense of adventure and urgency. Consider doing as the Jews of Romania were accustomed to do. When you read the piece of the Haggadah that begins “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” (In Hebrew “Avadim Hayinu”), take a pillowcase filled with heavy objects, and carry it on your back, around the table. First an older person might trudge around the table with his or her back bent under the load, and then each child could take a turn. In Uganda, they retell the miracle of the modern redemption of the Abayudaya from religious slavery. In Romania, adults would say “difficult to be a slave” over and over as the children experienced the weight of slavery.
Or you might begin your Seder as Iraqi Jews do- then be “interrupted” by a knock on the door. One member of the family dresses up as a nomad, with a hat, knapsack and walking stick. The leader of the Seder quizzes him or her: “where are you coming from?” (Egypt) “Where are you going?” (Jerusalem) and finally “what are the supplies for your trip?,” which cues the ‘actor’ to begin singing the 4 questions.
The recital of the 10 plagues is a disturbing moment in the Seder, as we realize that our freedom comes at the price of someone else’s suffering. At many Seders, each participant removes a small amounts of wine or grape juice from their cup as each of the 10 plagues are read, symbolizing the lessening of our joy because of their pain. Most Ashkenazi Jews remove some with their finger and place each drop on their plates. Other communities make the symbolism more visible. Some Sephardim pour wine off into a bowl of water, so that by the end it looks red, and we see in front of us the blood of those who suffered so that we could go free. Indian Jews take a slightly different approach and have a Cup of Pharaoh from which the wine is taken, diminishing the power of the one who caused the plagues, and the suffering of his people, through his refusal to let his slaves go free.
One of the challenges of a long Seder is keeping the young ones involved. The Afikomen, the last piece of food eaten at the Seder is, in many communities, one way that we keep children engaged. Often the afikomen is hidden, and children are asked to find it, so that we may end the meal. Other children steal it, and demand that it be ransomed back. Still others follow Bukharan custom, and let children use a towel to gently mock-whip the person who hid it until the location is divulged.
Iraqi Jews take a different approach, and do not hide the Afikomen, but rather tie the afikomen to the back of a small child and tell him or her to guard it, which helps the little one stay awake and aware of their special role in the Seder.
The story of the Exodus from Egypt is the core the story of the Jewish people. It is a universal tale that speaks to global themes of suffering, freedom and faith. Bringing the global custom to your Seder this year can not only bring new meaning to familiar rituals but also connect you with the global traditions of our people.
Pining for adventure? Missing the warmth and the sun? The Be’chol Lashon/Vanderbilt Hillel Student Trip to Colombia combined both together service learning for some incredible life lessons. The students themselves share some observations of this exceptional adventure.
Day 1: “Bienvenidos a Bogotá” the capital of Colombia, the thriving heartbeat of a vibrant nation, a city full of exciting people, and traffic. We met our Be’chol Lashon guide, Aryeh. Then it was off to visit Monserrate, the towering peak that overlooks Bogotá like a watchful sentinel. We were rewarded with spectacular views of the entire city sprawled out before us. At the Bogotá Chabad house, we experienced Shabbat services before digging in to a mouthwatering feast, complete with plenty of Hebrew songs and “l’chaims”. For many of us, it was a welcome reminder of the type of uniquely Jewish revelry we’d all enjoyed as children. (Gideon Ticho)
Day 2: The experience we shared at the Conservative synagogue, Asociación Israelita Montefiore, opened our eyes to a completely new Jewish perspective. We spoke to Adriano who taught us about what it is like to not only be a Colombian Jew, but also what it is like to be a “converso,” someone who converted to Judaism, in Bogotá. We also learned about new Jewish communities that are forming in other Colombian cities! Once Shabbat was officially over, we went out with Colombian Jewish students! We learned not only what it is like to be a Colombian Jew, but also what it is like to be a young Jewish person in Colombia! (Erika Slepian)
Day 3: Among the highlights of the day was the visit to Museo de Oro: Banco de la Republica, where we learned about the history of metallurgy in Colombia. The themes of eroticism, motherhood and animals in particular were emphasized in the museum; Zenú was a society run by women (!!), and controlled the politics and practices within it. Although indigenous culture largely disappeared after the arrival of the Spaniards, the fact that a society ruled by women was able to exist in Colombia so long ago was both fascinating and inspiring to me. This theme of feminine strength was echoed in Rabbi Yehoshua’s sermon from Shabbat morning about Purim, specifically the inner courage of Esther as both a woman and a fairly non-religious woman. (Nicole Rakusin)
Day 4: We went to the outskirts of Bogota, and explored the Salt Cathedrals and listened to our Colombian guide tell us the history and the meaning of the various rooms and crosses around the underground cathedral. It was a very beautiful area and unique to learn about the Christian history of this city. Following the Cathedral, we went to a delicious restaurant and feasted on native Colombian dishes. Our long meals are always filled with hilarious moments and meaningful conversations.
It is so humbling and unique to be able to discuss Israel and our beliefs in God while in such a small yet vibrant Jewish community in South America. I think we all are truly growing as individuals here and will return to America more knowledgeable, proud, and inspired to spread world Jewry. (Renee Lewis)
Day 5: I think everyone can agree that today’s experience at the Aldeafeliz EcoVillage was eye opening. We visited the community compost, walked through the one room schoolhouse, and admired the sights and sounds of the Colombian rainforest. Fabio helped us get in touch with our spirituality by leading a meditation on a sacred piece of land that has been used for prayer for over 5000 years. Prior to lunch, a few members of the group walked down to the river, waded in and sat among the rocks, and listened to the sounds of water rushing. We agreed that in that moment, we felt more tranquil and at peace with ourselves than we had in months. (Jacqueline Gottuso)
Day 6 -8: We arrived on the Caribbean coast city of Santa Marta. We played on the beach for before meeting up with the Jewish community of Santa Marta. We went through the Purim service and then proceeded to dance and party with the community throughout the night. (Darby Howard)
A little bit about Javura Shirat Hayyam: this is the facility used for all the Jewish life in Santa Marta. It is a house that was purchased by the Jewish community a short while ago and each room in the house serves a different purpose. There is a kitchen, dinning room, a schoolroom, two bedrooms and a sanctuary. This house does not look like a synagogue—so we were given the challenging tasks of painting two rooms, spreading gravel in the yard and decorating the schoolroom. We did it all and made the schoolroom look like a proper cheder (Yiddish for Jewish school) Thanks to the Brandeis Hillel Day School for all the artwork! (Daniel Reches)
Day 9: Our last day in Colombia and was filled with bittersweet emotion of most of us. In the afternoon, the entire group gathered to give Aryeh feedback on the trip and help him out with planning his future trips. We went around a circle and shared our highs and lows of the journey. Overall, it was clear that the highs outweighed the lows! (Danielle Honigstein)
Aryeh the guide reflects on the trip as a whole: The enthusiasm and thoughtfulness of this group is a sign of the strength and vitality of the Jewish future. The students themselves are a a diverse group with different points of view about the important issues in life but the engaging with a variety of Jewish communities in Colombia expanded the conversation further. Of course the swimming in the surf and the fresh coconuts were fantastic too!
My wife and I are an interracial couple. I am a White, Ashkenazi Jewish man from New York. She is a Black woman from Detroit, raised in the Lutheran faith, who converted (to Jewish, not to White. She’s still Black). Our 3 year old Biracial son is Jewish.
When I talk about my wife’s conversion, rather than saying she converted I like to say that she’s Jewish by choice. I do this because conversion sounds like the process by which a sofa becomes an uncomfortable bed. Or it sounds like something that happens by magic. I wave my magic wand and “poof” you’re Jewish. Whereas being a Jewish person by choice requires a conscious affirmative decision.
And make no mistake, being Jewish is a choice, whether you were born into our Tribe or whether you joined us midway through the show. Because being Jewish isn’t easy. For starters, there’s the fact that lots of people hate us. Then, there’s the fact that in this nation and the world we’re outsiders. Yes, we manage to assimilate wherever we reside, but as history shows us, Jews, no matter how much a part of the society in which we live, are still always a bit on the outside. And, of course, there are all the rules. Don’t eat this. Don’t eat that. Don’t eat at all. Love the stranger, but don’t intermarry with them. Don’t wear wool and linen together. Wear a tiny hat that’s exactly the right size to never stay on your head. Sit outside during football season in a shed that has porous walls and no roof. Pursue justice, but by the same token, it’s not a problem to have slaves if you’re generally nice to them. Count the Omer (once you figure out what the Omer is). Read, study and love this book that’s inconveniently not provided on an iPad but is in the form of a giant, heavy scroll. And, if you drop that book, you’re not allowed to eat for a day (or 40).
Given these inherent challenges to leading a Jewish life, why did my wife choose to be Jewish. Well, obviously, it’s because being a Black woman in America was just way too easy, and she needed a challenge.
In America, as we know from demographic data (and from walking into synagogue on Saturday mornings . . . that is, for those of us who wake up early enough to do that), there aren’t that many Jews “of color” in America. There are some, and the numbers are growing all the time. But, if you walk into any Congregation Bet Something or Temple Something Shalom and for sure if you walk into Agudath Something (the Orthodox shul) on any given Saturday, even in New York City, you’re not going to see that many Black people.
And, that’s unfortunate for any number of reasons. First of all, given where Jews—Hebrews—originated (just a stone’s throw from North and East Africa), it’s a good bet that many of us were Black (or to use a modern phrase “Blackish”). Did Abraham or Moses look like Denzel Washington? Maybe not. But, it’s likely that they looked more like him (or maybe Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia) than they looked like your Uncle Sol or your Grandpa Murray. Which means somewhere along the way we lost some color.
Second, there is a parallel between the Jewish experience in Egypt (and the Exodus therefrom) and the history of African-Americans. Indeed, as we approach the Passover holiday, it is apt to remember that the struggle for freedom and self-determination in Ancient Egypt and in this country are stories with similar narratives. In fact, the parallels are so strong, that because of my wife’s (and our son’s) background, and to make her family feel more at home when they celebrate the holiday with us, we’ve modified our Seder to create a fusion of these two stories and created a Haggadah that reflects the flight to freedom of both cultures:
“When we were slaves in Egypt . . . and the Southern United States. Moses . . . and Dr. King said, “let my people go.” When they were refused, God . . . and the NAACP, set forth 10 plagues . . . and many lawsuits. And, the people went out, and they searched for years, till they could find a homeland where they could be free and enjoy self determination. We speak of course of the land of Brooklyn. Where Blacks and Jews roam free, even to this day.”
Then we eat matzah and play the game “guess which Biracial Hollywood actor is Black and Jewish.”
We don’t actually say all that, but I do think it. Because our family isn’t just Jewish. It’s Black and Jewish, and it’s important to remember the history of both those cultures and how much they sync up.
So, why did my wife choose Judaism? Well, I like to think it’s because she loved me and becoming Jewish was just a small price to pay to be able to spend a lifetime with me and my neuroses.
More importantly, though, I think it’s because she saw in the story of the Jewish people a story that she already knew from her vantage point as a Black person, and that story was comfortable and familiar and filled with the same themes of exodus and freedom.
But, most importantly of all, I think it’s because choosing is at the very core of what it means to live a fulfilling life, especially a fulfilling Jewish life. Indeed, to my mind, that we are the “Chosen People” refers not to the fact that we were chosen for some special status so much as it refers to the fact that each day, each Jewish person must affirmatively choose whether they will follow the mitzvot or not.
So, why did my wife choose Judaism? For the same reason the slaves of Egypt chose it—she wanted to be free to live life on terms she consciously agreed to rather than those that had been selected and mandated for her.
Why do you choose?
This 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.”
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.
“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.
While 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.
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.
“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.
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.”
Since 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.