Iris Aluf Medina was born and raised in Turkey and now lives in San Francisco. We met up with this Be’chol Lashon board member ahead of our annual retreat where she will be teaching traditional Turkish Jewish cooking.
Is it true that the Sultan once courted your grandmother?
(Laughs) Yes and no. It was my great grandmother, my mother’s mother. She was very striking, bright blond hair and blue eyes.
So you look like her?
That’s what they say.
Her family dealt in gold and was very wealthy. The family made sure she was educated. She spoke Ladino, Turkish, English and French, which was very unusual. She could also play the piano. Very educated, very refined.
The Sultan came to visit her school and wanted a child to read a poem. The Sultan spoke Ottoman, which was its own language, which no one spoke, but he also spoke French and English so they had to find a kid who spoke one of those languages. They chose my great grandmother because she was 16 blond and pretty, old enough to marry young enough to go to high school. Apparently the Sultan liked what he saw so he sent her a broach as an invitation to his harem. You could not say no to the Sultan.
So what did they do?
The only way out was if she was engaged. So her family got her engaged very quickly. They were wealthy so they made a good match.
At least it ended well.
Not really. Her father was transporting gold one day after the engagement when he was attacked. They took all his gold, beat him and put him in a pit. He was eventually found and rescued but he lost his mind and as a result his business. The engagement fell through. We suspect the Sultan had something to do with this but of course we could not prove it.
What did your great-grandmother do?
She did not marry until she was 26 which in those days was pretty old. She did not know how to cook or clean. She was educated in French and music but not in running a home. They found a French teacher for her to marry. It was the best match but it was a bad marriage.
We say it was the Sultan’s curse: she was never happy again.
Hanukkah is observed with joy and celebration in Jewish communities around the world. There are 8 nights of lights and blessings the world over but there are also many ways different communities make the holiday uniquely their own. Here are 8 customs and ideas to help you make your celebration just a little more global.
1) In Alsace, a region of France, double-decker Hanukkah menorahs were common with space for 16 lights. The two levels, each with spots for 8 lights, allowed fathers and sons to join together as they each lit their own lights in one single menorah.
2) There is a custom of placing your menorah in a place where people will be able to view the lights burning and appreciate the miracle of the holiday. In some Jerusalem neighborhoods, there are spaces cut into the sides of buildings so people can display them outside. Historically in countries like Morroco and Algeria, and even some communities in India, it was customary to hang a menorah on a hook on a wall near the doorway on the side of the door across from the mezuzah.
3) In Yemenite and North African Jewish communities, the seventh night of Hanukkah is set aside as a particular women’s holiday commemorating Hannah whose sacrificed seven sons rather than give in to the Greek pressure to abandon Jewish practice and in honor or Judith, whose seduction and assassination of Holofernes, the Assyrian emperor Nebuchadnezzar’s top general, led to Jewish military victory.
4) Gift giving at Hannukah time is primarily a North American custom, but it is easy to make it global by gifting Jewish items made around the world like hand made necklaces from Uganda, challah covers from Ghana or kippot from China.
5) In Santa Marta, Colombia, Chavurah Shirat Hayyam a new Jewish community, has started their own traditional Hanukkah recipe, instead of eating fried potato latkes, they eat Patacones, or fried plantains.
6) The Ethiopian and parts of Indian Jewish communities split off from the larger Jewish community in ancient time before Hanukkah was established as a Jewish holiday. They only began celebrating Hanukkah in modern times, when their communities were reunited with other Jewish communities.
7) In 1839, thousands of Jews fled Persia, where the Muslim authorities began forcibly converting them, and settled in Afghanistan. While some of them lived openly as Jews, others hid their Jewish identity. When Hanukkah time came around they would not light a special menorah, for fear it would attract the notice of Muslim neighbors. Instead they would fill little plates with oil and set them near each other. If neighbors stopped by, they could simply make the menorah disappear by spreading the plates around the house.
8) The rich culinary traditions of the Moroccan Jewish community know not of potato latkes or jelly doughnuts. Rather they favor the citrusy flavors of the Sfenj doughnut, which was made with the juice, and zest of an orange. Notably, from the early days of nation building in Israel, the orange came to be associated with the holiday of Hanukkah as the famed Jaffa oranges came into season in time for the holiday celebrations.
Oklahoma City, where I live, has an amazing Jewish community. And, unfortunately, this amazing Jewish community is an expert in dealing with disaster. From the Oklahoma City bombing to the relentless wave of deadly tornadoes that have hit the area, Okie Jews (as we proudly call ourselves) respond with generosity, gumption, and optimism. So when this week our rabbi told us that two relatives of members of the community were in the affected area of Typhoon Haiyan, the community sprung into action. Donations were requested, support for the concerned families was arranged and we decided to help with our prayers by reciting the entire book of Psalms in the coming month (5 Psalms a day covers it all).
In Jewish tradition, whenever disaster strikes it is customary to accompany our physical response together with a spiritual response: prayer, action, and tzedakah (charitable deeds) are the Jewish response to tragedy. Traditionally, prayer come from the book of Psalms with its evocative language of raw humanity and hope has been a preferred tool to raise our awareness of the suffering of those affected but also to inspire us to compassion and proactivity.
As part of my work with Be’chol Lashon, I teach Torah online to Spanish speaking Jews and Spanish speakers interested in Judaism. Inspired by the Okie response, that night I invited my Spanish language learning community on Facebook to join us in the recitation of Psalms for the victims.
“Why are you doing this?” some wanted to know. The answers came from the students themselves. A student from Honduras recalled the help they had received when Hurricane Mitch hit this country. A student from Colombia emphasized the responsibility he felt as a human being with any kind of human suffering. A Mexican student quoted the words of Hillel ”If I am only for myself, what am I?” The support was overwhelming. Scores of people volunteered to connect with my brick and mortar community in Oklahoma to reach out in prayer and action for a community halfway across the world.
These feelings of altruism and generosity are not new but what is surprising is the way in which living in a wired world has expanded the breadth of the planet´s capacity for empathy. In this world where no longer are we separated by six degrees (latest studies calculate it at four and plummeting) of separation. A synagogue in Oklahoma might be the vehicle for scores of Latin-Americans to connect with a tragedy halfway around the world and to do so in unmistakably Jewish ways. Tehilim are being said, and donations are being gathered by total strangers for total strangers. For all of its downsides, our global village has allowed the highest forms of tzedakah (in which both the donor and the recipient do so anonymously) to break the barriers of the pushke and the local synagogue and go global.
“Ensuenyo Te Vi”
Three words that normally don’t go together: Ladino, Pop, Pregnant. But in my world they make a perfect fit. Ensuenyo Te Vi is a music track off my latest Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) album, Gracia, named after the 16th century Sephardic heroine, Dona Gracia Naci. She is one of the great women of Jewish history, and yet her story is little told. Born into a family of conversos, Jews who converted to Christianity to save themselves from the Inquisition, Dona Gracia always understood the importance of preserving her Jewish identity. Widowed at 28 as a single mother, she amassed a great fortune and became the richest woman in Europe of the time. And what did she do with the money? She used it to secure safe passage for other Jews escaping the Inquisition and led them to safety in Tiberias, Israel. She saved multitudes through her immense courage, commitment to culture, and her feminine wisdom. And yet, she is but a footnote in most history books.
I wanted to pay tribute to her through many of the songs on my album. I wanted to say gracias to her for leading the way—for serving as a light and role model to me and to so many others.
The choice to include Ensuenyo to Vi, a contemporary Ladino song, not a traditional one from ages past, was a conscious one. Much of what people know about Ladino music comes from a standard repertoire that has been circulating for the last 500+ years. One thing I admire so much about Dona Gracia, is that she was seldom looking backwards; instead she was looking ahead. That is one of my primary goals for preserving Ladino culture as well. In order to keep the culture alive, we need to be writing and performing new works in the language. We need to be reimagining how Ladino culture, in its universality, can appeal to a wide audience today.
I am also indebted to my own family, who came from Macedonia and Greece, for working so hard to preserve our Ladino heritage through hundreds of years and many displacements and wars. As the culture continues to fade, I feel compelled to do what I can to highlight the most beautiful, uplifting message of Ladino. So this song has the simplest of themes, love: I dreamed of kissing you in my sleep, and when I woke up you were right there next to me. When thinking about how to present this song, I decided to literally breathe new life into the accompanying video. I purposely filmed it while 6+ months pregnant!
While very few video examples exist of other pop-style contemporary Ladino songs, I’m proud of the fact that Ensuenyo Te Vi is probably the only Ladino pop video featuring a pregnant singer. Ladino culture is full of life and I hope that my message comes out clear—this is not a dying culture. Far from it. Ladino is pregnant with possibilities to continue and thrive for a new audience and generation to come. I hope Dona Gracia would be proud.
Sarah Aroeste is an international singer of contemporary Ladino music She can be booked for appearances. Her third album, ‘Gracia,’ a mix of feminist, experimental and original Ladino songs, was released last year.
In my early 30s, I had exciting opportunities to visit and work with public health projects in Uganda several times. I was relatively young, dating and childless. It was pretty easy for me to pick up and oversee the work of Be’chol Lashon in Africa, to make my base with the Jewish Abayudaya community working to build infrastructure for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Six years after my last visit, I am married with a 4-year-old daughter, working full-time. So when I returned to Uganda for a 10-day visit to plan for a new community center, I was grateful for an egalitarian husband who’d take on more childcare responsibility during my absence, an excellent pre-school for working parents.
Feeling the full weight of the working mom’s dilemma, I wanted to better understand the Abayudaya women and their Christian and Muslim neighbors, and the types of childcare and working assistance needs they have. As more Abayudaya women receive educational grants to attend college, they emerge seeking employment, empowered to become economic contributors to their families. However, we were seeing signs of stagnation after college, and often a return to traditional gender roles for women. Educational assistance is a successful trend – but something needs to be addressed in order to make economic sustainability for women a reality. While I did not want to make assumptions about what might help, I was left wondering if childcare would be part of the solution.
Spending time at the Tobin Health Center in Mbale, I was daily confronted by the all female nursing staff and their brood of kiddies running around the health clinic. Interviewing the mothers, I asked why they have their kids at work with them. Most said they have family members who can sometimes watch their children, but often have to pass them off at inconvenient times to attend to their own work or household needs.
A couple of the nurses have hired part-time help to stay at home with their kids and the kids are brought to them at different time during the day for nursing. These women have husbands who are also well-employed so they can afford that luxury. That option was rare – and definitely ideal. The nurses were in effect creating their own childcare center in order to meet their needs.
I admired their ingenuity and even the sense of “work family” similar to the one I enjoy at Be’chol Lashon, but when I stopped to look around at the environment the children were being exposed to, it gave me pause. Many of the patients in the clinic during my stay were critically ill. Healthy children watched on with apprehensive looks. While I understood their lack of options, I was not convinced that they could thrive at their job while also trying to take care of their own needy children. In addition, while bonding with mom is crucial to child development, didn’t these kids deserve the same opportunity for stimulating and age-appropriate early childhood education that my daughter was receiving back home?
I wondered if a childcare center would be welcomed by these and other women in the community. Conducting interviews with women, both educated and uneducated, often with babes in arms, the overwhelming response was YES – we do need better and consistent childcare options while we pursue jobs, work in the fields, or in professional environments. The model for child care centers is not foreign to Ugandan women, but unfortunately it exists exclusively in the capital and not in their communities. Were it accessible to them, they would be glad not only for the opportunities it would open for them but for the education it would provide their children.
One of the main purposes of the trip was to help plan for the building of a new synagogue for the Abayudaya that will also serve as a community center; a gathering place for Jews, Christians and Muslims. As a result of my conversations with the women Uganda, we decided to put in a day care center as well. Building and staffing the center is a long term project, and I’ll be blogging about it as it goes forward. Stay tuned, because I truly hope that it will be the game changer these women need.
As part of a gap year between high school and college, I spent six months in Santiago, Chile. I was there partly to improve my Spanish, and partly to study music. I wasn’t expecting to meet any other Jews while in Santiago, Chile—the country is predominantly Catholic, and the Jewish population is vanishingly small compared to that of the US. Through a stroke of luck (and some of those Jewish connections that pop up where you least expect them), I ended up finding a home stay with a Jewish family in Santiago just a few weeks before arriving in Chile – and of course I immediately took the opportunity.
Just a few days after arriving in Chile, I went to my first Shabbat services with my host family, not really knowing what to expect. For Adon Olam the Rabbi sang a mariachi tune (complete with sombreros and guitars), which was by far the weirdest yet most entertaining rendition of Adon Olam that I’ve ever heard. I was fully prepared to accept this as Chilean Judaism, but, as I eventually figured out through my garbled Spanish, the mariachi was just a pre-Purim special. (In general services were much more similar to what I was used to from home, but now I’m starting to wish that home had a special pre-Purim Adon Olam performance too).
Before going to Chile, I’d only ever been a part of the Jewish community that I grew up in, so I can only guess which parts of my experience were uniquely Chilean and which were just a part of Judaism I had yet to see. For example, I suspect that there are not very many Jewish wedding receptions with all-night dancing outside of Chile. (My host mom told me ahead of time that it would be rude to leave much earlier than 3 am). I may be wrong about that, though, since the only other Jewish weddings I’ve been to were as a little kid. It wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong, since I already found out that Hashkiveinu is not in fact a lullaby unique to Chile. (Imagine my surprise showing up at the my first Shabbat in college only to hear them singing a Chilean melody!)
Having already found this unexpected connection between Judaism in Chile and at home, I’m hopeful I’ll rediscover many of my Jewish experiences from Chile: meeting new friends at every Shabbat dinner; accompanying Shabbat melodies on my violin; celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut el Estadio Israelita (think Chilean JCC); going to the spunky, 100% student-run Chilean branch of Hashomer Hatzair. It’s a fantastic thing to have a thread of shared experience that connects me to others living in a country halfway across the globe, and I’m still discovering just how deep the connection goes.
Young Jews today are growing up in a hyper-connected, globalized world. That means they must contend with challenging viewpoints, contrary experiences and differing values. They must not only deal with the multitude of identities to which they are exposed, they must deal with the fact that they, themselves, are developing multiple identities. No Jew is “Just Jewish.” Jews sport all sorts of identities, the ways they express and identify are countless; all Jews are “Jewish&”—hyphenated identities are the norm.
But this is nothing new. The original multicultural people, Jews have lived around the world for millennia. The center of Jewish life has shifted through massive migrations—the Crusades, Inquisition, the Holocaust and other persecutions. Not only is Jewish practice compelling and relevant, Jews are also skilled at adapting to changing circumstances.
Today, Jewish communities are highly dispersed. Even in communities with significant Jewish populations, people are more likely to be scattered among the general population than in previous generations. Jews act like other Americans. And whether through birth, intermarriage, conversion or adoption, we are more diverse than many assume. Approximately 20% of American Jews identify as either non-white or non-Ashkenazi. Race and ethnicity are important elements in shaping Jewish identity and expression.
My son Jonah is a high school student, the youngest of six siblings; he is an avid lacrosse player, who likes to skateboard and hang out with friends & he is African American. When my husband Gary Tobin, of blessed memory, and I adopted Jonah we wanted to find other African American Jewish role models for our son. What started as a research project became Be’chol Lashon, an internationally active growing organization dedicated to celebrating the historic and contemporary diversity that is the global Jewish community.
Young Jews develop and embrace global identities and diverse friendship circles. Diversity and inclusion are important components of the value system of most young people today, and a key lens through which they make choices about engagement in Jewish life. Cultural competence, the ability to interact with, learn from, navigate and incorporate different cultures, is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.
Like Jonah, many Jews simply do not fit into single categories. And this isn’t new. Many of us never have. Peoplehood involves taking seriously the diversity of Jews and the complexity of our history. Jewish& provides an enriched understanding of the many rivers, as Langston Hughes put it, flowing through our veins and into our family’s collective memory. My son Jonah has many elements to his identity, he is Jewish&. In launching this blog, Be’chol Lashon hopes to share some of the many stories and takes on what it means to be Jewish.
More than at any time in the past, we live in a global world. Judaism looks different in different places. We know that there are many Jewish tales to tell and in telling them we will learn and grow together. Stay tuned as we meet Jews who live around the corner and around the world. Join us as we explore the challenges of building an inclusive Jewish community. Take some time to get to know Be’chol Lashon and the work we do. Let us know if you have a story idea, an issue to cover, or a Jewish& experience to share.