World Traveler Becomes World Musician

 

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

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

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

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

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

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  Many of these songs were outdated and not surprisingly, that my students didn’t relate to them.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

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

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

See the wind flowing by

See the stars up high

See the sand on the ground

See the rocks all around

My God, your God, One God.

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Posted on August 7, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Learning from Little White Lies

Layout 1Growing up biracial in white Jewish family means that you don’t often see others who have your experience/look like you. It is always special to be in Jewish spaces that celebrate diversity and reflect my experience. It is nice to able to connect to others that understand the complexity of my story without extensive explanation, as well as the ordinariness of it.

Which is why I was so interested in seeing Lacey Schwartz’s documentary Little White Lies, which will be premiering at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on Sunday August 3rd. It is exciting to see someone who looks like me on the big screen. I’ve known Lacey for a few years and know her story. I know it is different than my own, but there is a fundamental overlap when it comes to mixed race Jewish identity. Having seen a preview as part of an educational evening at Camp Be’chol Lashon, there were parts of Lacey’s story that reminded me of my own story. After discussing it with the staff and older campers, it seemed that everyone who watched the film could find a part of Lacey’s story that they connected with.

One of the things that struck me about Lacey’s experience was that her identity wasn’t fully complete until she could express it. Lacey’s experience illustrates that a central part of navigating one’s identity is communicating it and sharing it with your friends, family and community. Because identity is not only how you see yourself, but the agency in making sure that how you see yourself is synonymous with the way that others see you. It is a difficult balancing act to make sure that we learn to stack the building blocks of identity into a supportive foundation, without letting them box you in.

We don’t often overtly talk about race in religious spaces, although in my opinion it is impossible to separate the two. My blackness and my Jewishness are equally central to who I am and how I experience the world.

Identity and race is something we all need to be able to talk about—even as Jews.

I’m looking forward to people of all races and ethnicities and religions seeing this movie. I’m curious to hear from all of you about how you relate to Lacey’s story.

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Posted on August 3, 2014

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How Did the Jews Become a Global People?

Jonah_Jacob“How did the Jews become a global people?”

“They got pushed around a bunch.”

“They had to go to different places.”

Indeed. Looking at the diversity of faces in the room the global nature of the Jewish community was not in dispute but the process of migration, the economic opportunities, the persecution, the trade that is at the root of Jewish experience needed to be unpacked and understood. And thus began our conversations about the global nature of Jewish life and our adventures at the 2014 session of Camp Be’chol Lashon.

Jews have always been a people on the move. The word Ivri, Hebrew for a Hebrew person, comes from the word to cross, because the very first words uttered by God to the first Jews, Abraham were “Go forth.” And so migration is the starting point for our exploration of Jewish communities around the world. India, Yemen, Uganda, Spain, Italy, Poland, Bazil and Mexico each of these countries has a unique Jewish experience that adds texture and complexity to the collective Jewish experience. For modern Jewish kids, who have friends of all ethnicities and live in a connected world where travel and news make the distances seem small, the international nature of Jewish life is something they relate to.

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Talking will only take them so far, so once we set up the framework, we began exploring the music, food, dance and culture of different Jewish communities. The taste of homemade hummus brings to mind the falafel stands of Jerusalem, while the quickly fried chapatti calls forth the tastes of Jewish life in Uganda. The fine metal work of our curiously small menorahs opens up the craftsmanship of Yemenite Jews. The modern Ladino music of Sarah Aroeste reminds us of the value of the many Jewish languages that have been spoken through the years. Making mosaics helps us piece together the complex culture that was Jewish life in the Golden Era of Spain. An exploration of Italian Jewish history brings to life not only the words on the page of Talmud but they way the debates got laid out on the page. Our global activities and crafts help bridge the divide between past and present and across geography. Encountering the other we learn to appreciate the diversity of our community even as we explore points of connection. This is the basis for camp and for the global Jewish curriculum we are developing at Be’chol Lashon.

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And after we ran through the timeline of Jewish history from the ancient past to the present, all the campers, counselors and specialists added their own important dates to the chart on the wall. Because ultimately that is what it is all about, writing ourselves into the ongoing history of a storied people. That and of course a swim at the lake!

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Posted on July 23, 2014

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Not My Mother’s Matzah Balls: My Moroccan Kitchen

I have often joked that I am the only woman in America who doesn’t cook anything that she grew up eating. Now this is not a reflection on my mother’s cooking abilities, but rather a result of my marriage to a Moroccan Israeli with very different ideas of what constitutes good food.

My husband was born in Marrakech and moved as an infant to Beersheva, Israel where much of his family still reside. There amidst the trials and tribulations of raising a family in the “ma’aborot” or tent cities, my heroic mother-in-law cared for her large family. Her main occupation in life was clearly feeding her family and in their home this meant the daily preparation of good Moroccan food translating into hours of daily cooking each day.

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The food and spices she used were completely different than those that constituted my Ashkenazic upbringing. Couscous was a staple and always made properly (no instant Osem for her) and could be combined with vegetables with chicken on the side for a meat meal or could be made dairy and eaten with leben, a yogurt-like cheese quite popular in Israel. Shabbat would include Moroccan fish and would always feature the Moroccan version of cholent called skhina (meaning “hot in Arabic) or hamin (like the Hebrew word for hot, “cham”) which would include foods like eggs in their shells and chickpeas. Other popular dishes were chicken with olives and different vegetable soups including chickpea pumpkin soup, traditionally served on Rosh Hashanah and my son’s favorite.

Moroccan cooks are also famous for their many salads which make their appearance primarily on Friday nights (carrot, beets, anise, pepper, eggplant etc). My mother in law was also busy pickling olives, peppers and carrots.

Of course one cannot discuss Moroccan food without emphasizing the spices. Onion powder and garlic powder, perhaps the staples of Ashkenazic cooking, have no place here. Instead saffron, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, paprika and allspice rule. Moroccan cooks also create their own blended spice called “mashia” which is great on ground beef. Lemons and olive oil are also staples with  preserved lemons often used to flavor various dishes.

Then there are the exquisite foods made for special occasions which I won’t go into here since they merit their own blog post!

I often kid that my husband will only eat food if it is from somewhere between Spain and Iraq (excluding Eastern Europe of course!). Having grown up eating exclusively Moroccan and some Israeli/Middle Eastern food at home, he is not interested in anything else. In fact, when we first started dating he wouldn’t eat anything at my parent’s home not due to any kashrut concerns, but just because everything was so foreign to him. Eventually he tried my mother’s chicken soup, but he prides himself on never having tasted a matzah ball nor gefilte fish.

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The fact is that I have never made these foods. Honestly, I prefer my adopted Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisine. My “mixed” kids get their fix at their grandparent’s home if they need it.  Otherwise, we are all happy embracing our Moroccan heritage.

Moroccan Chickpea/Pumpkin Soup

Ingredients
1 ¼ cups yellow split peas or chickpeas (if using chickpeas, soak for at least ½ hour)
1 large onion, chopped
2 ¾ quarts chicken stock (you can use Osem chicken mix as an option)
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons sunflower oil (I normally use canola)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon saffron
1 pound orange pumpkin, cubed (I use calabazzo pumpkin or a butternut squash will work.  I usually use about 2 pounds though the original recipe suggests 1 pound)
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leafed parsley

Directions
Put the yellow split peas and the onion in a pot with the stock.
Bring to a boil and simmer for at least a ½ hour or until the split peas are tender.
Add salt and pepper to taste, the oil, cinnamon, ginger and saffron and put in the pumpkin.
Simmer until the pumpkin falls apart
Use an immersion blender or a masher to make the soup smoother.
Sprinkle with flat-leafed parsley before serving.

*note that when using chicken powder I omit the salt.  Also the soup can get very thick so feel free to add water to it if it feels too thick.


Moroccan Carrot Salad

Ingredients
2 lbs carrots
2 garlic cloves
2 lemons
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons paprika
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
Flat leaf parsley or coriander
Peel and clean carrots.

Directions
Peel and clean carrots.
Boil carrots until a fork easily pierces the thickest carrot.
Rinse carrots with cold water and then slice them about ¼ to ½ inch thick.
Crush or finely chop the garlic.
Mix the garlic with the juice of two lemons, all the spices and the olive oil.
Toss the carrots with the mixture.
Sprinkle chopped coriander of flat leaf parsley on the top of the carrots and toss.

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Posted on July 17, 2014

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What’s YOUR Jewish&

Group photo“I’m Jewish& Black”

“I’m Jewish& Environmental Activist/writer”

“I’m Jewish& a Rabbinical Student”

“I’m Jewish& part Chinese part Catholic”

“I’m Jewish& Indian & a businessman”

“I’m Jewish& Australian, Japanese and American.”

“I’m Jewish& very into rock climbing”

“I’m Jewish& a mom, a lawyer, and too often a chauffeur”

“I’m Jewish& adopted & multiracial”

“I’m Jewish& Irish American and Gay”

“I’m Jewish& Arab”

“I’m Jewish& white and a Zayde”

“I’m Jewish& Proud of it!”

Jewish& is as open-ended as the Jewish people themselves. There is not now, nor has there ever been a single way to be, look or act Jewish. Jews are the original multicultural people, imbued with the varied influences of a history of migration that has taken us to every corner of the earth and back. The faces on this page are just some of the many many way Jews look Jewish. This blog exists to give voice the variety of Jewish identity. It highlights the ways in which Judaism not only coexists, but thrives with complementary identities. This blog explores the ways in which Jews have built and continue to build complex identities. It is a forum that celebrates the ways in which all Jews are Jewish&.

So tell us, what is your Jewish&?

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Posted on July 7, 2014

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¿Cómo te llamas?…How Do Latino Jews Identify?

GoodmoviephotoI’m a Latina Jew. I live in New York City, famous for the diversity of its population; after all, 37 percent of the city is foreign born. But still now in 2014, the fact that I identify myself as Latina and Jewish, creates a bit of wonder among some Jews and Latinos.

First of all, people ask me what is the difference between Hispanic and Latino. The two words are often used interchangeable nowadays. While this article is from my own perspective, I use the definition of “Hispanic or Latino” stated in the 2010 United States Census: “Hispanic or Latino refers to a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”

The truth is that Latino or Hispanic are words used mainly in the United States. In Argentina, I’m Argentinian. If you ask a Colombian he will say he is Colombian. If you ask a Mexican he will say is Mexican. We only are “Latinos” in United States.

According to the 2010 Census, 50.5 million people (or 16 percent) were of Hispanic or Latino origin. In New York City near a third of the population (28.6 %) are Hispanic.

I have encountered some Jews who are used to identifying Latinos with people from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. For them, I’m not Latina. I’m from Argentina. That happens because most Jews in New York City know that Argentina has a big Jewish population, and they are aware that I can be Jewish and Argentinian.

In fact, “There are about 14 million Jews around the world, representing 0.2% of the global population. Jews make up roughly 2% of the total population in North America.  More than four-fifths of all Jews live in just two countries, the United States (41%) and Israel (41%). The largest remaining shares of the global Jewish population are in Canada (about 3%), France (2%), the United Kingdom (2%), Germany (2%), Russia (2%) and Argentina (between 1% and 2%)”, according to data from a report produced by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.

So, although Jews in Argentina are only 1 to 2% of the population, it is still one of the largest Jewish communities in the world.

What do American Jews know about Argentina? Many Jews also know about the Nazis who fled to Argentina after the Second World War, and that there were two suicide bombings against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the Jewish community (AMIA). Sometimes I’m asked if I know Rabbi Marshall Meyer, who founded the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano.

How many people identify as Latino Jews? According to The Pew Research Center’s 2013 National Survey of Latinos and Religion, “a majority (55%) of the nation’s estimated 35.4 million Latino adults identify as Catholic today.” About 22% are Protestant and 18% are religiously unaffiliated. Around 1 percent belongs to other religions. So Latino Jews are less than 1% of Latinos.

It is hard to talk about issues of race and religion. I’m white. My family came from the former Soviet Union. My dear Bobe came from Kishinev. So some people would tell me “you don’t look Latina.” They are confusing being Latino with race. Let’s go back to the US Census definition that clearly states, “Hispanic or Latino refers to a person of  Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”

Jews sometimes assume I’m Sephardi. Here the confusion comes because I speak Spanish and I’m from Argentina. Well, first of all, Sephardim spoke Ladino, which is different than Spanish. But, in fact most of the Jewish community in Argentina arrived from Germany and Eastern Europe and are Ashkenazi.

I think it is very important for Jews to learn more about Latinos and for Latinos to learn more about Jews. We work together. We live in the same cities.  As the Hispanic population in the United States keeps growing fast, Jews will need to interact more with Hispanics. The Jewish population also keeps changing and is time to accept each other’s differences. Education is the best defense against prejudice and intolerance.

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Posted on July 1, 2014

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Breaking Barriers to Create Community

Foundation For Jewish Camp CEO Jeremy Fingerman

Foundation For Jewish Camp CEO Jeremy Fingerman

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.

Camp Be'chol Lashon Co-Director Kenny Kahn

Camp Be’chol Lashon Co-Director Kenny Kahn

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.

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Posted on June 24, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Tikkun Olam on Juneteenth

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African American Men’s Group members Carl Crawford, left, and Phil Allen prepare burgers for a free meal for 400 as part of Duluth, Minnesota’s annual Juneteenth celebration. The event commemorates the emancipation of American slaves but also marks the delay in telling them of their freedom. Photo by Ivy Vainio.

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:

“We free?”

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.

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Posted on June 16, 2014

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Praying for Dad

FatherDaughterDance2

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.

DadMom2I 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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Posted on June 10, 2014

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A Recipe for Judaism

fried fishWhat 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.

Gefilte_fishIn 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.

That Judaism is thoroughly creolized is not new. What, after all, were the Roman Judaism of Josephus, the Andalusian Judaism of Moses Maimonides, and the American Judaism of Abraham Joshua Heschel?

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.

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Posted on June 2, 2014

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