As summer approaches and we gear up for another terrific session of Camp Be’chol Lashon, I keep thinking about all the kids who—regardless of the camp they are heading to— are worried they might not feel like they “belong.” I relate.My own commitment to Jewish camping comes in part from my childhood experience where I was usually the only Black camper at a variety of Jewish camps. As a camp director, I am committed to making sure that all those in my charge feel connected. And recently, I got a real life reminder of just how important reaching out and connecting can be.
This winter I was honored to attend the Jewish Camp Leaders Assembly in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Attending “Leaders” opened my eyes to the vast world of Jewish camping, meeting and greeting numerous Jewish camp professionals invested in the varying interests and needs of our Jewish youth.
As exciting as this was, I once again had that familiar feeling of being on the outside looking in. I am a fairly new West Coast camp director of a small camp with a strong but still budding reputation. I was out on the East Coast by myself and knew only a handful of people heading into this largely regional powerhouse of Jewish camp staff. And, of course, the most superficial reason of all being that I am a man of color who, among his Jewish peers, looks out of place or invites inquiry as to the validity of my Jewish roots.
After our welcome dinner and schmooze time, like many of the participants I headed toward the hotel watering hole for some group reminiscing. Being new, after a round of small talk, I found myself with a tumbler of whiskey on the rocks playing a game of ‘one-on-none’ at the pool table behind the bar.
A gentleman whom I recognized from dinner approached the table.
He had spoken to the entire group in attendance regarding “Leaders,” touching on the overarching theme of the conference; one field, moving forward. He spoke about his previous work with Campbell Soups and how transitioning to the Jewish camp community allowed him to invest in a community that provided so much, not only to him but also to his loved ones. I had shed my name tag but he approached me and with familiarity said “Kenny, it’s great to have you out here from the West Coast. I get your monthly newsletter and enjoy reading it from top to bottom. I love the work you and your organization and camp are doing collectively.” He hung back and played with me for a bit before heading out. As I placed my empty glass on the counter, as newcomers I got the feeling that we shared a sense of being on the outside. Maybe not, but by coming over he had made me feel so welcome.
I finished my second round of libations and billiards on the solo and made my way to my sleeping quarters. I soon realized I forgot to pay for my drink, and to remove any potential stigma of the Jew of color not covering his bill, I headed back only to find that my tab was covered. I suspected my new friend had something to do with this and went to find him in the program.
It turned out that the same gentlemen who went out of his way to check in and give kudos for the work I do is none other than Jeremy Fingerman, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Jewish Camping. He is one of the greater movers and shakers in the field of Jewish camping.
The following morning at breakfast I sat with one of my former campers who now directs Camp Kee Tov in Berkeley, California. As Zach and I sat among a few familiar faces, I felt a gentle pat on my shoulder followed by “’Morning Ken, it was great talking with you last night!” from Jeremy as he headed to his table up front. Zach’s look of bewilderment, as he questioned how on earth the Foundation for Jewish Camping CEO and I were on a first name basis so quickly, if at all made me realize that now I was an insider. Even though they say it’s lonely at the top, one could argue the same on the side or down through to the bottom
Experiences like this remind me that in today’s Jewish community we each have a responsibility to advocate for one another, take interest in happenings beyond our initial scope, and welcome the idea of making new connections. Diversity and inclusion was more than a topic of conversation or presentation. It is at the heart of what we build as programmers, lay-leaders, directors, staff and campers. We build life-long memories and experiences, where each member leaves camp eager to return the following year and often with companions eager to engage and become members too.
Despite the fact that it’s a celebration, I have bittersweet feelings about Juneteenth.
Its origins are traced to Union troops arriving in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, bringing the news of freedom to that region’s slaves—months after the South’s surrender and 2-1/2 years past the Emancipation Proclamation.
That our ancestors were freed from slavery is wonderful. But that they toiled and lived, if they were lucky enough to, a bonus round in bondage because no one got around to telling them the news is horrible. Cynical. Sad.
My own experience for 10 years running is with the African American Men’s Group in Duluth. Every year, we cook and serve more than 400 free meals at the city’s public commemoration of the day.
We’re there because we want to be, the value of our volunteering made ever clear by the heart-rending encounters—especially when the day is marred by rain or unseasonable cold—of those who wait in line a half-hour or more, who are there because they have to be, to eat.
For me, another part of Juneteenth is planning of the event—should we do chicken this year or burgers and brats? — and when the day comes, the priceless faces of preschoolers when asked if they want baked beans or corn. The thank-yous we get in return are payment enough.
Add in singing groups and family activities and a bouncy castle, how could you not have fun? Still, what tinges the day with sadness for me is not its commemoration but its origin, best summed up in two words of black vernacular guaranteed to give any wannabe Chris Rock a field day:
It’s not the embarrassment of the language but the concept of its truth that depresses me. It wasn’t the first time slaves were deceived about their freedom, and not just in the South. Here in Minnesota, as far North as you can get, Dred Scott summered with his so-called master, only to be told by others after returning to Missouri: “Hey—did you know you were free when you were up there?”
That’s what the whole case was about. Look it up.
We free yet, boss?
Maybe I’m just a stick in the mud, or over-internalizing long-ago oppression. Of course freedom is worth celebrating, even if slavery ended with a whimper instead of a bang. That, after all, is what Passover is about, and there’s no question that holiday is a celebration and should be.
But the Jewish liberation theology had a liberator—Moses—let alone God, “with a mighty hand and outstretched sword.” Freed African Americans had only weary Union soldiers mustering out, an assassinated Great Emancipator, and Radical Republicans thwarted by a racist and intransigent Supreme Court. And instead of reaching the Promised Land, black former slaves arrived in the land of Jim Crow, with continued state-sponsored dehumanization.
The result? It’s in the faces of hungry people today, in food lines like ours, where I celebrate freedom and try to repair the world by taking my place in a serving line.
For many, Father’s Day is a time to honor our fathers, and this year, it has particular significance to my family. After my dad, Alan Skobin, survived an emotional battle with a rare form of pancreatic cancer, I am thrilled we get another opportunity to celebrate such an extraordinary man.
When life gives my dad lemons, he isn’t the type to make the tried-and-true lemonade you can get anywhere. He’s the one who turns them into world-class lemon meringue pie. He’s always reaching for the next level, his motto being, “Above and beyond.” He began his involvement with law enforcement as a teenager in the police explorers program, and continued to show his commitment to protecting and serving our community by ultimately finishing as police commissioner. My dad takes this philosophy when it comes to parenting, too. When I attended Northwestern University, he nearly bought out every Northwestern retailer, so he could sport purple pride from every inch of his body, every corner of his office, and every crevice of our home. That’s how proud he was.
This is why he has so many friends. In fact, my dad is a professional friend collector. Everywhere we go, he either makes new friends or runs into old ones. Once, while walking down the streets of Amsterdam, my dad heard someone in the distance shouting, “Hey, Alan!” Even clear across the world, people look for opportunities to call him out as a friend. His old friends, like my father-in-law, Larry, know that he does anything to bring them joy. Since Larry loves all things Chicago Cubs, my dad once arranged for Larry’s favorite ballplayer, Ernie Banks, to come for dinner, just to see the grin on Larry’s face.
I am never more thankful for my dad’s army of friends than when he is sick, because they play a significant role in his recovery. I remember one of the earlier times we dealt with a medical obstacle. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and if he survived, we were to expect a completely different man than we knew and loved. Before surgery, the phone rang off the hook and the doorbell chimed endlessly, as all his friends shared their prayers for a speedy recovery. Regardless of differing religious beliefs, “We’re praying for you, Alan” replaced good-bye as the normal send off. I’m not certain that G-d heard these prayers, but my dad did, and at recovery’s toughest moments, they reminded him that he was important to many. Miraculously, he recovered with minimal side effects. This year, as my dad fought pancreatic cancer, my brother and I used social media to update his community. With every post, the support was astounding. As my dad awakened from surgery, amazed that he had survived, he groggily exclaimed to my mom, “Can you imagine the power of prayer?” Afterwards, while he rested in bed, we read him the online responses, and his spirits lifted as he drifted to sleep.
It takes a village to battle serious health issues, and sometimes those of us who acutely support the sick need lifting, too. My mother’s devotion to my dad never waned, and she stayed with him in the hospital even when it was unclear how long his stay would be. She never left his side, and would advocate for him when he wasn’t able to do so for himself. This type of support takes both physical and emotional strength, and as my dad found his through the prayers of his supporters, so did my mom. Stoically, I comforted my family, voicing confidence in our doctors, as we remained publicly optimistic, but privately feared the worst. I learned quickly that the way to excellent post-operative care was through the stomachs of the nursing staff, and I stopped at our favorite Cuban bakery for some treats.
I also prayed. Seeking comfort in the traditions of Judaism, I never missed a Shabbat service. One of the most poignant moments of Shabbat for me is when the rabbi circles the room during the mi shebeirach, or prayer for healing, and the congregants voice the names of the ill. At one particular service, I was ready to say my dad’s name, but before the rabbi reached me, I heard his name called by someone across the room. I felt the power of the prayers reaching me, and for the first time, I cried.
Because of my dad’s army, I understand that his significance goes above and beyond his role as father to my brother and me. He is also a loving husband, a wise grandfather, a giving mentor, and most of all, a good friend. This father’s day, as I reflect on the lives my dad has touched, I will include the other men who have influenced me, and send them a meaningful prayer. After all, you never know who’s listening.
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What makes a fish taste Jewish?
For some, the immediate answer will be pickling and a former home in freshwater. For others, the fish must be salmon-colored and, of course, smoked. For others still, Jewish fish is carp—poached, sweet, and served cold. For Jews in Jamaica, however, the fish will be whole and therefore small. Lightly fried, it will then soak in vinegar with thin slices of white onion and habanero peppers, grated carrot, sprigs of thyme, whole coriander seeds, and allspice balls. For the Jewish Colombians, add lemon.
What accounts for the range?
When describing how Jewish communities have embraced or resisted being changed when making homes in new and different circumstances, commentators typically turn to the metaphor of the bubble or the sponge.
In the first, a fragile and transparent but definite outer boundary insulates the (singular) Jewish community. It can see out and be seen but moves intact through a range of times and places. The bubble would burst if it actually landed and so Jewish people remain Jewish by avoiding becoming like others in their midst.
In the second model, we Jews are defined by our porousness, by unqualifiedly absorbing whatever is in proximity to us. The absence of any outer boundary amounts to an essential orientation of assimilation and openness. Who we are, in terms of any specific content, necessarily shifts with the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
But there is and has been another alternative, one evident in the range of ways to make your fish taste Jewish and in cookbooks like Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York.
Called creolization, it offers a more accurate account of how Jewish communities have remained distinctively Jewish as they have become local to a variety of different parts of the globe. As my husband, Lewis Gordon, often emphasizes: for non-Eastern European Jews, Eastern European Jews seem very Eastern European. For non-Indian Jews, Cochim appear very Indian. But these ways of being local are salient precisely because we also recognize the Jewishness of and in each.
For those who understand Jewish strength as purity and any break from how things were done as dilution or pollution, the historical range of ways of being Jewish is a liability. For them, to be Jewish is to carry on the one, most familiar branch of a far vaster Jewish genealogical tree—to taste Jewish, the fish will be poached and served cold.
But there is also a way of being who we are in and through our relations with others. We might best express core Jewish values by adopting symbols and elements of ritual local to Istanbul, Albuquerque, or Kaifeng, Prague, Mbale, or Santiago. These might offer us the possibility of continuing who we have been through what is new.
Products of creolization typically pose a fundamental challenge to our previous self-understandings. They unsettle us because while they implicate us as Jews—they too are expressions of who we are—they take forms and suggest future trajectories that our standard conceptions of our people’s past and present would not have anticipated.
What is novel is the opportunity to look into the refracted mirror of our 21st-century community and to grapple with what it means for who we want to become. We would do well to add to the models of the bubble and sponge, the creolizing quality of our Jewish past and present.