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.
I am often asked whether I feel more Cuban-American than Jewish, or vice versa, and it has always struck me as an odd question. That’s like asking whether I like my right eye better than my left. Sure, if you close one eye, you can still see, but the world looks so much better with both eyes open. That is sort of how I feel about my two cultures. On the surface, it may seem like my Cuban culture is in direct conflict with my Jewish one, particularly when it comes to the pork-friendly nature of Cuban cuisine and the dietary laws of the Jewish faith, but just like seeing the world with both eyes open, I feel most comfortable when my cultures work in conjunction with each other.
Fortunately, there is plenty of common ground between the two. Given the fact that both place a high priority on family and tradition, and get-togethers almost always revolve around food, my family has been blurring the cultural dividing lines for decades. This melting pot approach jumps into high gear around the holidays and other family gatherings. My “Jewban” family has been known to serve a creamy flan during Shavuot, a citrus and garlic-infused Cuban-style chicken for Shabbat, and minty Mojito-scented quinoa during Passover. These incredible dishes aside, nothing holds a candle to my family’s recipe for Ropa Vieja, Cuban comfort food at its very best.
Ropa Vieja, which literally translates to “old clothes,” or as my paternal grandmother would call them, “shmatas,” is the Cuban answer to a traditional Jewish brisket. Both use inexpensive cuts of meat that are slow-roasted until tender and falling apart, but Ropa Vieja takes it a step further, and actually calls for the chunks of meat to be shredded to resemble rags. This may seem like it would diminish the allure of the dish, but as Jewish brisket is usually reserved for the holiday table, a good Ropa Vieja is truly cause for celebration. Additionally, as it is important in the Jewish culture to pass our traditions from generation to generation, most Cuban families have had a recipe for Ropa Vieja for ages.
The recipe I feature originated with my Abuela (maternal grandmother), but was passed to me by my Tia Pipa (Aunt Felipa), both seriously tough culinary acts to follow. And while I have the added benefit of modern kitchen electrics like the slow-cooker, the spirit of the recipe remains the same. The perfume of a traditionally Cuban sofrito, made from garlic, onions, and sweet bell peppers, marries beautifully with the warm smokiness from the cumin. And while the brine-y capers that adorn the meat and add a splash of color may seem like a distinctly Mediterranean choice, they act as a nod to the migration of Spaniards that made their way to Cuba and the other Caribbean islands in days of old.
One bite may make you want to close your eyes and savor the moment, but I challenge you to resist the urge. See the world with both eyes open, and celebrate the diversity that makes Cuban-Jewish families unique.
Ropa Vieja, by Jennifer Stempel of TheCubanReuben.com
• 5-7 lbs. Brisket, trimmed of most visible fat
• 2 onions, divided
• 6 cloves of garlic, divided
• 2 large red bell peppers, divided
• 2 bay leaves, divided
• 4 cups beef stock
• 3 tsp. Olive oil
• 1 Tbs dried oregano
• 1 Tbs ground cumin
• 1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
• 1 8 oz can tomato sauce
• 10 stuffed green olives, sliced in thin rounds
• 2 Tbs capers, plus 1 Tbs. of the brine.
• Salt and Pepper to taste
1. Cut your brisket into 2-inch wide strips.
2. The night before you want to serve, add the brisket, 1 onion, roughly chopped, 2 whole cloves of garlic, ½ a bell pepper, 1 bay leaf, and beef stock to a slow-cooker, and set to cook on low for 6-7 hours.
3. Remove the beef and set aside. Once the beef is cool enough to be handled, use 2 forks to shred the beef.
4. Strain the cooking liquid, and reserve for later use in a medium bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate long enough for the fat to solidify on top (about 20-30 minutes). Skim the fat from the liquid.
5. Discard the rest of the contents from the slow cooker.
6. Meanwhile, finely dice the remainder of the onions and half of the remaining bell pepper. The rest of the bell pepper should be sliced in short, thin slices.
7. Mince the remaining garlic.
8. Heat a large pot (dutch oven style) over medium-high heat. Add olive oil.
9. Add the diced onions and both diced and sliced bell peppers, and cook for 5-10 minutes, or until onions become translucent. Add the garlic, and cook for 2 more minutes.
10. Add the shredded beef to the pot, as well as ½ of the now-skimmed stock, the oregano, the cumin, the diced tomatoes, and the tomato sauce. Stir to combine.
11. Lower the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until liquid reduces and thickens a bit.
12. Add the olives, brine, and capers, and cook for 15 more minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
13. Leave simmering on low on the stove until ready to serve.
14. Serve with white rice.
To read more about Jennifer’s culinary adventures, check out her blog.
This summer Lindsey Newman and Josh Rothstein are going to be leading the first free Taglit Birthright Israel trip with a focus on diversity. We asked Lindsey what draws her to Israel.
Israel is a place where I learned about diversity– before I could articulate what diversity meant, I was able to see it and live it. As a Jew of color growing up in a mostly white community in New York City, it was sometimes hard to find diversity and diverse role models to look up to. But when I first arrived in Israel at age 7, my sense of what Jewish looked like expanded immediately.
My family returned to Israel the next summer, when I was 8, this time staying for two months and living in Jerusalem. I was among an international contingent of American, Israeli and Israeli Arab children all enjoying the best that summer camp has to offer. Most of what I knew of Israel at that time was watermelon ice pops, flying kites on the Jerusalem promenade, and Bisli. For a Jew of color, from a mixed race background and multiracial family, it was one of the first times in my life that I felt I fully belong among the rich tapestry of Jewish life.
Later I returned as a teen, for a summer program that brought together participants from all across the US and Israel, I became friends with Jews whose parents and/or grandparents were born in Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran, Russia, France, Greece and elsewhere. While I still have a soft spot for brisket, the traditional meal I had at my friend’s Iraqi-Algerian home is still the best Rosh Hashanah meal I’ve ever had. (Although I must admit, I passed when the fish head was offered to me even though it’s good luck.)
Through art, travel, study and just getting to know each other, we wrestled with what it means to be Jewish, what it means to us personally to be a Jew, and what it means to live with other Jews. We tested each other, and we learned from each other. We were reminded that Judaism is not a singular experience– we are a diverse global people with different customs, complexions and experiences.
Israel was one of my first positive experiences with Jewish diversity in all its iterations. Of course, with diversity comes complexity, and exploring Israel meant coming face to face with its triumphs and its challenges. But facing this complexity can be incredibly valuable, for out of struggle can come strength.
These Israel experiences inspired me to create a Birthright trip with a focus on diversity. Diversity is a universal issue but it is also a Jewish issue and in my experience there is no better place to experience it than Israel. I’m looking forward to sharing the many flavors, sounds, and customs of Israel’s many multicultural communities and individuals. I’m looking forward to discussing and debating the challenges of diversity and identity –in a setting that deals with these issues all the time. I’m looking forward to getting to know a bus filled with Jews from all over the United States who represent the many ethnic, racial and cultural heritages that are the contemporary community. And of course I’m looking forward to Bisli and just hanging out by the pool.
Judaism has been a part of my life since I was born. My mother snuck Shabbat candles into the hospital in preparation for my birth and I was born on Shabbos afternoon surrounded by my family and future friends, all welcoming Shabbat and my existence. As a child, I was raised primarily by my Jewish, African-American mother, Denise. I am honored to say that she converted to this amazing religion and that I am 100% Jewish.
As soon as I turned five, she signed me up for Hebrew school. For seven years, I studied the Hebrew alphabet and dozens of prayers. By the time my Bat Mitzvah rolled around last year, I had memorized every prayer I had studied, but I was nervous. So I used my Bat Mitzvah folder as a memory tool and looking down helped avoid the stares of the 200 guests!
For as long as both my mother and I can remember, I have been attending Be’chol Lashon; a place where I immediately feel at home, surrounded by my fellow Jews of all colors. At Be’chol Lashon, I am free to be who I am: an energetic, fun-loving, Black, White, and Jewish teenager. About five years ago, I, along with a few other young Be’chol Lashon regulars were asked by my mother, Denise Davis, and a co-founder of Camp Be’chol Lashon, Diane Tobin, whether we would enjoy a Judaism-based summer camp for us, the kids. We all replied “yes” immediately. The first year of Camp Be’chol Lashon in 2009 was a blast. It is amazing to see the intense diversity of our community. We explore this diversity by “traveling” to different countries where Jews live, and we examine the culture of those countries through art and cooking projects and dancing.
My Jewish summer camp loyalties are divided. In 2011, I began attending a month-long Judaism-based overnight camp in Ojai called Ramah. Every day, teachers inform us campers about Israel and Judaism. Every morning, we participate in Shacharit services, the morning service, before breakfast. This is a challenge, but after services, food tastes even better. On Friday evening, everyone on the campgrounds cleanses themselves and changes their clothes to welcome Shabbat with songs, a service, and the best part; food.
However, Ramah and Be’chol Lashon are not the only places I stay connected to my Jewish heritage; I celebrate Shabbat every week with dinner on Friday nights and by attending services on Saturdays. I love celebrating Shabbat with my friends and family because it reminds me that I am surrounded by such a wonderful community. Though, with my busy schedule, I do not attend synagogue every week, I do my best to drag myself out of bed in time for the service. As I continue to grow and mature, Judaism will continue to be a large part of my identity and heritage.
My husband, Grant and I have worked together to rear our children in the Jewish faith. We made a conscious effort to place our family in diverse cities: New York, Los Angeles and now the Bay Area – to expose them to a variety of cultures and ethnicities.
What challenges have I really faced? What have I done to remind our children that they aren’t just Jewish but Filipino. What have I done to help them embrace the culture that I grew up in?
Filipino culture is rooted – for the most part – in three major areas: religion, family and food.
I grew up Catholic. Went to Catholic school from high school through college and even after graduating and living in San Francisco I would still attend mass every Sunday. Partly because I knew my Mom would ask if I went and I couldn’t be dishonest with her.
I remember big dinners on Sundays or celebrations where everyone came together and there was always a table filled with almost every traditional Filipino dish you could imagine. Every get together had its share of both family drama and laughter.
So when I think about what I have done to make an effort to infuse my Filipino background with our family – I don’t see challenges – if anything I see similarities.
We stress the importance of our Judaism, especially in a world where we try to explain to our children why we don’t celebrate Christmas when one set of grandparents do, that the Easter bunny will never come hopping by our home, and that matzoh for a whole week can be rather tasty – you just have to know how to bring out the flavor.
We are doing our very best to give our children the strongest foundation we can. With that foundation we stress the importance of being true to who you are – embracing the beauty and traditions of our religion and the legacy of all the Jewish people before us.
We light the candles every Friday and have family Shabbat dinner. We spend time with family and friends over the Jewish holidays – surrounded by food and laughter – creating memories.
A perfect example of how we have effortlessly combined Filipino and Jewish tradition happened on the night of Yom Kippur. I asked the family what they would like for Shabbat dinner and the unanimous vote was chicken adobo – a traditional Filipino dish – with green beans and garlic, rice and of course, a challah.
One would immediately think, “What an interesting pairing…” but it showcases our family off perfectly.
This is who we are.
We are Jewish and Filipino. The integration of both cultures has been a seamless one because we have adopted the same value system from each one. We value our religion. We value our family. And. We love food.
We celebrate our diversity and feel so blessed that our children will grow up being proud of not only being Jewish but being Filipino.
This piece was first shared from the bimah at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos, California.
Shabbat Dinner Menu for 15: Egg drop soup with crunchy noodles, Stir Fried Vegetables, Dan Dan Noodles, Roasted Chicken with Duck Sauce, Garlic Broccoli, Five-Spice Glazed Salmon, Mandarin Oranges and Almond Cookies.
This is not merely a Chinese-themed Shabbat for us. This is our Chinese-themed life.
It’s a bit hectic here now. Tonight can best be described as essentially erev Chinese New Year. It’s a half-day for work and school. Even the supermarkets will close early. And because it’s the Lunar New Year, it of course is also Rosh Chodesh (and it’s my turn to host). The rhythms of the two traditions seem to naturally fit together.
For Rosh Hashanah we make amends. For the Gregorian calendar New Year, we sometimes feel compelled to make resolutions. By Chinese New Year, we merely make plans and merriment.
In Hong Kong, as in other parts of China, Chinese New Year (referred to as the Lunar New Year) is the focal point of the season rather than Christmas and that is certainly a welcome change for us. This is a festival that we as Jews can fully participate in.
Children go to school in traditional Chinese dress before the festival, a custom that the Jewish Day School here fully embraces too and there is nothing cuter than a room full of toddlers in brightly colored silk Chinese costumes with kippot on too.
My children make colorful cards and decorations complete with Chinese calligraphy in class. We add the new ones to the growing pile of decorations which we take out annually to decorate our home. I even managed to buy a banner this year that carries wishes for honey and sweetness, one that I will now use on Rosh Hashanah as well.
We join the millions of locals who rush to the holiday fairs and outdoor markets, where delicate orchids, curly bamboo and peach blossoms are all sold to bring fortune and luck in the New Year. We too again buy a new orchid, complete with hanging miniature red lanterns, for our home. (With my limited horticulture skills, though, luck for our orchid will be just surviving the taxi ride home.)
Businesses all close and families gather together. A schedule-free four day weekend is much welcome in our hectic city lives. For the children it’s a full week off though. I make plans to bake traditional egg tarts (kosher, of course) one afternoon with a friend as an activity for our younger children. We will all run from one lion dance performance to another.
The Chinese festivals have many similarities to our own Jewish traditions. They too follow the moon and are deeply rooted in ancient tradition. Chinese New Year traditions such as sweeping and thereby casting away the bad, wearing new outfits in purposefully chosen symbolic colors, giving gifts of money in denominations that are lucky and abstaining from haircuts are all things we can certainly relate to.
While as Jews New Years is filled with apples and honey and pomegranates, for Chinese and now for us too it is also mandarins, candied dried fruit and lotus and melon seeds. Families gather and enjoy foods rich with symbolism and platters piled with tradition. This is something that just comes naturally.
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.
There’s a not-so-funny joke that goes, “A man walks into a Chinese restaurant and says to the waiter, ‘Excuse me sir, but are there any Chinese Jews?’ To which the waiter replies, ‘No, sir, we just have orange juice, apple juice, grapefruit juice…’”
It’s slightly bearable if the delivery includes an awful impression of a Chinese accent. But there are apparently many people who do appreciate this joke, and they make sure that it makes its way through the grapevine to me, a Chinese Jew.
I enjoy being a Chinese Jew.
I eat plenty of matzo balls and potstickers, I celebrate three New Years, and in high school I crushed my math classes.
I’ve often had to convince people that I’m Jewish, which is amusing and usually results in a new friend feeling like they can connect with me better due to a shared religion. Other than that, I can’t say I really thought about what it meant to Chinese and Jewish while I was growing up.
The only time my Chinese Jewishness got me into trouble was during my dating days in New York. Jewish guys with “yellow fever” would take me on casual dates to casual places, but the second they discovered I was Jewish, things got weird. Suddenly I wasn’t a casual date, suddenly I was the first Jewish girl that didn’t remind them of their mother and do I want to get married.
Speaking of boys.
I recently followed a Norwegian one out to rural North Dakota, population six Jews and about 10,000 Scandinavian descendants. Things are quiet here, people are Midwestern nice, and the small town life is pretty darn wonderful.
For the first time in my life, I feel a bit like an oddball, in a sea of light-haired Lutherans, but people embrace me when I introduce them to challah. North Dakotans love challah! And I love their food too, like Lefse and dessert bars of all sorts.
All of my Challah here is homemade. As are my latkes, kugel, matzo balls… you get the picture. There’s not a deli in sight. Not even a bagel. I do miss bopping down to Zabar’s for babka and bagels, but on the other hand, with the necessity to make everything from scratch comes the opportunity to put my own spin on things and mash up my Chinese/Jewish/Midwesternness.
Brisket in my potstickers, ginger sugar beet latkes, egg rolls with home cured pastrami from a cow that I’ll one day raise…
I’m getting carried away.
Here is an Asian twist on my all time favorite challah. It’s inspired by the scallion pancake.
Makes one large loaf
Basic Challah Dough
Based on Food 52′s Recipe
1 tablespoon instant yeast
3/4 cups warm water
2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon sugar
3 cups flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons honey
1/3 cups vegetable or canola oil
Filling and Topping
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2-3 stalks scallions or green onions, minced
salt, pepper, and red chili flakes to taste
Egg wash: 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon of water
A few pinches of toasted sesame seeds and black sesame seeds
In a small bowl, proof yeast in 1/2 cup warm water mixed with 1 teaspoon of sugar.
While yeast is proofing, mix flour, salt, and remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar in a large bowl.
In a medium bowl, mix remaining 1/4 cup of water, honey, oil, and eggs.
Once yeast has finished proofing, add it to the flour, followed by the wet ingredients. Mix with a large wooden spoon until dough becomes too thick to stir. Empty dough onto well-floured surface and knead by hand. Knead dough until smooth and no longer sticky, adding flour as needed.
Transfer to an oiled bowl and cover with a damp towel. Let rise for about two hours, or until doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 375.
Divide dough into three equal parts and then roll each part into a 1-foot log. Gently flatten each log so that it is about 3 inches wide.
Brush each with toasted sesame oil and then sprinkle with salt, pepper, chili flakes, and scallions. Roll them up length wise like a jellyroll, and then braid.
Place the loaf on a parchment lined baking sheet and then brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds and black pepper.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until the top is golden brown and the challah is cooked through.
Across the country next week, Americans of all faiths and ethnicities will remember and celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Be’chol Lashon asked seven African American Jewish leaders, of all ages, backgrounds, religious affiliations, geographic regions and sexual orientations, to share short impressions of what Dr. King’s legacy means to them.
Dr. Lewis Gordon, an international scholar and teacher, is a professor of Africana philosophy, politics and religion at the University of Connecticut. His roots are in Jamaica and he is a frequent social commentator.
Twenty years ago my eldest son and I had a conversation on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As I recounted Dr. King’s many great deeds, I mentioned his incarceration in Birmingham where he wrote his famous letter, “Why We Can’t Wait.”
My son was shaken. “Wasn’t Dr. King a good man?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Why, then, was he in jail?”
Forced to explain that unjust societies punish people who stand up for what is right, I found myself engaged in one of the great lessons of Torah continued through the ages and illuminated by the courage of Dr. King: the revolutionary idea that ethics is the face of G-d, and dignity demands commitment to that extraordinary responsibility.
I grew up in a pretty typical black family in the 1980’s. We had a picture of King on our wall and my parents had records of a few of his speeches. My parents were not activists. They grew up poor, as sharecroppers in the South, but they instilled in me a black pride that one could hear in the song from James Brown’s “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” King helped my parents see a better future, not just for me and my brother but for themselves as well.
As a rabbinical student, and a child of southern sharecroppers, I see King as one of the most prophetic voices ever and he reminds me of why I want to be a rabbi which is to help to make the world a better place for all.
Rabbi Capers Funnye is the Rabbi of Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, Illinois.
In 1966 Dr. King came to the Marquette neighborhood where there was vitriolic expressions of hatred as African Americans moved in. Just four blocks from my synagogue was the headquarters of the Nazi Party. Dr. King said, “he had never seen anything so hostile and hateful,” as he did in Chicago. The Rabbi of this shul, Rabbi Schultz, was only 5’3,” but he stood up against the hatred. He let Dr. King know that if there was need to take sanctuary during a planned protest march, Rabbi Schultz would gladly welcome them and provide a safe haven. The violence stopped the march after two blocks. But the circumstance of this synagogue and this rabbi were some of the fantastic elements in the Jewish community that Martin Luther King touched and they reciprocated. I am proud to know men who worked with Dr. King and the representation they gave of Judaism enlivens me every day.
Dr. Denise Davis lives in the Bay Area where she practices medicine. She is a co-founder of Camp Be’chol Lashon.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is yom tov, a holy day reminding me that a prophetic voice can change the world. It is day of awe, recalling both oppression and courage. As a girl I was barred from enrolling in a segregated ballet school, but King’s transcendent oratories, and the principled commitment of Heschel made a change; these heroes are my heroes. I am an African American Jew. On MLK Day, I celebrate the power of transformation, and the resilience of human dignity. I celebrate a man and a movement close to the Divine.
Robin Washington is the editor of the Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota. Born in Chicago to a family of African American and Jewish civil rights activists, his journalism and activism are nationally acclaimed.
For me, King is an unfinished story; largely because the Civil Rights Movement was over-identified with him to the exclusion of unsung others equally significant. That focus nearly took the movement with him with the widespread belief that it died when he died.
Indeed, no true successor has ever emerged; even President Obama would claim to be more of an inheritor than an architect of social justice.
But I refuse to bury the movement, and maybe that’s King’s legacy: Because he didn’t get there with us, the longing for his Promised Land remains, and his sacrifice demands we strive for it with all our being.
Lindsey Newman lives and works in New York. She is spearheading and leading Be’chol Lashon’s first Birthright Israel trip.
I most admire Martin Luther King, Jr. as a seeker of justice and a lover of humanity. When King says that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” I am reminded that I am responsible for the world that I live in, whether I have caused harm or have merely witnessed it. Similarly, when the Torah insists “Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue,” it is this pursuit of justice which is at the core of my identity as a Jew and a human being. King embodied this calling in his life and work, and his legacy is a reminder of this eternal struggle.
The most stunning moment of the Civil Rights era to me was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King in Alabama. That iconic image and conversation is part of my spiritual genealogy, they are my ideological ancestors. Their souls were the parchment, the electrifying oratory and moral suasion their ink, their living Torah was a new covenant with the American dream, without which my dreams would be impossible.
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.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.