Despite its air of frivolity, or perhaps because of it, the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim offers the opportunity to explore the challenges we face when it comes to identity inclusion and race. Both the story of Purim and the rituals of the holiday speak directly to a contemporary sensibility and provide us with some important lessons for living in a diverse multicultural world.
The king of the story of Purim, Achashverosh lived in the city of Shusan in ancient Persia. But his kingdom was vast, stretching over 70 nations from India to Africa. People of many backgrounds and religions came under his rule, including Jews and he was glad to host all at his palace. According to the legends of the Indian and Ethiopian Jewish communities, Jews had lived in those lands even before the Purim story era. The king had a Jewish advisor, named Mordechai (Esther’s uncle and guardian) but that did not mean he was aware of the value of the Jews as part of his multicultural empire. The king allowed Haman to threaten to destroy the Jews.
Ultimately redemption of the Jews serves not only as an omen of Jewish good fortune but also as a reminder of the folly of any society that does not value all its people. Among the many nations, the Jews as a group were singled out because of one element of their identity. By contrast, we need to be able to see people for who they are and not judge them negatively for being different; otherwise we will be no better than Haman.
Esther, the heroine for whom the biblical story is named, is a complex character. Born to a prominent Jewish family, she hides her Jewish identity to become queen. There is no record of what she looked like but her look must not have stood out as distinctly Jewish to others, allowing her to ‘pass’ undetected as a Jew. All of us have elements of our identities that are immediately visible to others and elements of our identities that are hidden. Esther’s ability to conceal her Judaism allowed her to navigate the politics of the palace community.
Every one of us, to greater and lesser degrees, learns to navigate different social and cultural settings, putting forward or concealing elements of who we are. At the same time, we often are seen as who we are on the surface, which can be misleading or not tell the full story. Haman, might have been more strategic about his approach to the Jews had he understood that one of the king’s favorite wives was a Jew. Living in a diverse society demands both the capacity to navigate elements of our own identity as well as be aware of our biases and assumptions about others.
And as everyone knows, the customary costumes provide a real life opportunity kids and adults alike to try on different identities. But even the foods, hamantaschen cookies filled with sweets, the raviolis that Italian Jews eat, or the kreplach of Eastern European Purim tradition, all have a hidden element, challenging us to look beyond the surface.
Purim is a festive holiday with much fun and good food. But concealed in the story and in the rituals of the day are a series of complex and meaningful issues that demand our attention in an increasingly global world.
Drake’s recent SNL skit (see below), perhaps unwittingly but then again perhaps not, highlighted how a bar or bat mitzvah can deeply impact how a young person views his or her Jewish identity in the context of other identities. A bar or bat Mitzvah can be a defining moment in the development of one’s Jewish identity, but it can also feel like prioritizing one identity over others. Especially for the growing population of Jews from mixed racial, ethnic, religious and other backgrounds, the bar or bat mitzvah may be the first setting where the varied familial and sometimes non-familial influences of a young Jew come together under Jewish auspices. It can be a valuable opportunity to celebrate and honor the multiple elements of a child’s identity. One need not leave heritage at the door when stepping forward as a Jew. On the contrary, it is perhaps the best time to reassure young Jews that participation in Jewish life does not diminish any other aspects of one’s self.
Below is a list of some general suggestions on how a family or community might create multicultural b’nai mitzvah celebrations. These are general in nature and we would love to hear from families, clergy and communities that have found their own ways to engage multiple heritages.
Music: Jewish services rely on music and even the Torah is chanted. Most American synagogues rely on music that is either American, or European in origin. However, there are multitude of rich Jewish musical traditions representing the myriad of places there have been or are currently Jewish communities. Ask about learning to chant Torah in a different nusach or tune, or bring in piyyutim or prayers that represent a different Jewish cultural heritage. There is a long tradition of adapting secular tunes to sacred words. This can similarly be done to connect the songs of one culture with the prayers of Judaism.
Torah Study: Bar and Bat Mitzvah students usually share some insights into the weekly Torah portion. If your family traces origins to Spain, for example, ask your rabbi if there are any sources he or she can recommend that are Spanish or descended from Spanish Jews. Indian? Then draw on the wisdom of Indian Jewish tradition. Throughout the generations, rabbis have learned from the wisdom that lies beyond the Jewish community. Not specifically Jewish sources of wisdom can also be consulted in helping to shape or answer questions that will be addressed by the child in question.
Dress: Nowhere is it written that one must wear a suit or a dress and heels on the bimah. Kimonos, saris, or kilts are all perfectly acceptable for the child and the family members. Kippot can be made from any kind of material and look great in tartan, African cloth or Thai Batik. Similarly, tallitot, prayer shawls, can be made from any cloth as long as there are four corners with proper tzitzit knotted on each.
Language: English is not a sacred Jewish language. American Jews use English because it helps us understand the Hebrew -which is a sacred language, which most of us don’t know. So if your family speaks Korean, Amharic, or Flemish, send out multilingual invites or consider sharing some of the blessings in that language. Worried your guests won’t understand? Don’t be. Many don’t get the Hebrew either but we know from experience that they can find that meaningful.
Food: There is nothing holy about lox and cream cheese. Kimchi or Jerk chicken are just as appropriate for a Kiddush or for your party. If your caterer is unfamiliar with a dish that you hold dear, consider sharing some family recipes. Just check in with the synagogue that to be sure that what you are serving accords with the dietary policies.
Artwork: Art from another culture can be incorporated into the celebration in a variety of ways, on the invitation, the insert in the prayer books, as decorations in the synagogue or celebration hall. I attended a celebration at an Orthodox synagogue recently to find Japanese origami garlands festooned in the sanctuary to honor the mother’s culture. Let the creativity extend to flower or table arrangements as well.
Mitzvah Project: Many communities have made doing good works, Tikkun Olam, a part of the process of preparing for becoming bar or bat mitzvah. From collecting money for a project in a distant land to volunteering to help new immigrants from a familial country of origin, there are countless ways the bar or bat mitzvah can use their Mitzvah project to bridge the components of their identities.
Israeli Maor Sanbata came to the United States this past summer to be a counselor at Camp Be’chol Lashon. Born in Ethiopia, his personal experience opens a new perspective on what it means to be Jewish.
Tell us a little about your childhood.
I was born in a small village in Ethiopia called Amder close to the provincial capital city of Gondar. Even though I was young, I worked as a shepherd. My family lived as Jews, observing Shabbat, celebrating holidays, and reading Torah.
My grandfather was a Holy Man, a Kes. He had a special way of talking to God. He could make miracles. I saw them with my own eyes. In our village the houses are built one next to each other in a line. And there is a fire for cooking in each house. Once, a young wild girl started a fire in her hut. There was no fire department and if it had spread it would have burned down the whole row of houses. My grandfather bowed down to God and prayed the fire would not spread. And it did not. Not to any other building. So strong was his connection to God.
How did you come to Israel?
I specifically remember the longing to go to Israel. I will never forget the stories my mother would tell me of a Holy Land flowing with milk and honey, and praying to go to Jerusalem one day. In 1991, my mother and father and three of my sisters and three of my brothers walked for a full month from Gondar to Addis Ababa. From there, we came to Israel.
When I came to Israel, I did not know one word of Hebrew. I had never been to school. Never. I did not know how to read or write. They sent me to school and for three years I did not understand anything. Anything. But I’m smart and hard-working. I became a commander in the Israel Defense Forces. After my release from the army, I decided that only through education could I play a key role in Israeli society. I studied law and now advocate for Ethiopians in Israel.
Why did you come to Camp Be’chol Lashon?
Despite academic achievement and integration, I sometimes feel like a stranger in my country and some of the Israeli public doubts my Judaism. I work towards a time when not a single person will be judged because of his or her skin color or outlook on life and that all human beings are treated equally before God that created us all.
I identify with the ideology of the camp, to accept who you are and where you are from and no matter what kind of family you come from – black, white purple – be proud of who you are and your identity. I connect with this approach. This is my approach.
What surprised you about coming to the United States and Camp Be’chol Lashon?
Well it is my first time in America so everything is surprising. It is also surprising that there is an organization like this, that wants to create unity between people but not be embarrassed of who you are.
What do you think that the campers learned from you?
Israel is a country for Jews of all colors. They also learned about my story and successes and struggles. It is not always easy to be Black, Ethiopian, Jewish or Israeli. Also they learned that wherever you are there are the same issues of acceptance.
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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.