The Rabbi, The Pastor and the Torah of Mankind

Downtown_Gondar

The baggage claim at the airport in Gondar, Ethiopia is still by far the most humorous way I have yet to collect my luggage after flying. A massive crate is hauled from the plane and dumped into a heaping pile of blues, blacks and greys, with all the creative markings to let each person know which bag belonged to them. As we all pushed and pulled bags aside looking for our own, I noticed other farengie–Amharic for light skinned people, claim their belongings. Though a few glared at my kippah and Tzizit in perplexity, I was used to it, and smiled in return. Later that night, as I walked from my hotel-room for dinner I passed by an open room and looked inside while passing. I noticed some of the same people from the airport! Before I was even a meter away from their door, one calls out “execuse me, man from the airport!” I turn back and stand at their doorway and begin interacting with them around global service.

It turned out they were on service trip as a part of their church from New Orleans, and the room that I was neighboring was the pastor herself! She exclaimed “I didn’t know that Jews like yourself do work like this!” I told her all about the organization my cohort was representing, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and how this organization has been honored by many high ranking officials for their work in the region, she was delighted. We exchanged words of Torah, discussed the power of religious values in helping the underserved populations around the world. Before leaving, I shook her hand and kissed my own. When asking me why I kissed my hand, I asked her: “what does one do when they drop the Bible on the floor?” she quickly responded with a smile and thanked me. I said the Bible has God in it, and so do you, to that I turned to leave and said “we are in this together.”

It is by way of logic that Mankind understands the importance of one another.  Everything from scientific discoveries within medicine to your community shopping center involves your fellow human being. We share the same air and benefit from the billions of organisms within nature. With all this in mind our religion, language, and personal egos drives us away from one another, limiting the opportunity to connect to other souls of G-d (Jewish and non-Jewish). But that is not the Jewish way…

“Rabbi Yehuda Ben Levi said if you see a black, red, white, fat, or short person, say Blessed are You our G-d King of the Universe who makes his creations different (Brachoat 59a).”

Regardless of our religious or political preferences, morals are at the core of our family framework and even societal practice. We are reminded of these morals on a day to day basis, because they are fueled by logic and common sense. The laws introduced to us in this week’s Torah portion are not only the focus of nearly one third of the Talmud, many of them are not dependant on ethnicity, religion, kind or creed. “These are the laws that you should set before them (21:1).”

In the heart of this week’s Torah portion the verse states “do not oppress the stranger amongst you for you know the essence of stranger-hood since you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” This is a law so significant that it is the essence of mankind, despite all this ritual purity triumphs, haughtiness penetrates and loneliness overcasts. Is this commandment logical? “To not oppress the stranger amongst you,” if one were stuck on an island with a total stranger, there is a greater chance of survival if the stranger becomes comrade. Unfortunately thought, these teachings placed before us have become a secret to the masses, and the disconnect between what we believe and what practice is still present.

Whether we shame ourselves for our ancestry because of evil’s undying power, or we believe that doubt and isolation is the cornerstone of our existence, we must remember that our continuous desire for clarity and comfort amongst each other, and even those who are foreign to us is acquired through common ties, and universal morale, stating clearly, that even in Gondar, Ethiopia, we are in this together.

Our very existence depends on the stranger amongst us. Remember you too are a stranger if not in your comfort zone, you too have been challenged by your neighbor and cast into isolation. Rabbi Akiva of the Talmud lived in a time when Torah was forbidden to be learned or even practiced, and he was murdered because of his desire to find residence within a time of chaos, to create a place for all strangers to go to. As he took his last breathes, his last words were “echad,” one. Rabbi Akiva brought all people together regardless of who they were, why? Because he too was a stranger — his last word: unity (Echad). There is not enough time in the world for us to remain divided. Unity is what will save our micro and macro, community and national identity.

Posted on February 12, 2015

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Does “Selma” Deserve an Oscar? Ask Butch and Sundance

butchWith the Wild West fading and the railway men closing in, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid head for the untamed terrain of Bolivia to continue a string of bank and payroll robberies, (spoiler alert) only to meet their end when an entire army descends on them

Except it didn’t happen that way. It was Argentina, not Bolivia, where they lived as comfortable ranchers for a few years until Pinkerton’s finally caught up with them, leading to a single, less-than-successful jaunt to Bolivia for a holdup that culminated in a murder-suicide at their own hands.

I cite that from among thousands of kinda-based-on-a-true-story movies because it’s history we all think we know that’s accepted as close enough. Yet the controversy over the historical retelling du jour, Selma, isn’t going away — not with the Oscar ceremony on Feb. 22, six remaining days of Black History Month after that, and the 50th anniversary of the actual Selma marches on March 7, 9 and 21-25 yet to come.

Among outrages that have poured in so far are that it improperly depicted an adversarial relationship between President Johnson and Martin Luther King, that Jewish participation in the Selma voting rights campaign was airbrushed out, and that Coretta Scott King was portrayed as something less than a strong, powerful partner to her husband.

Historians do treat Johnson kinder than director Ava DuVernay did. It’s a bit hard, though, to buy the assertion by former LBJ aide Joseph Califano in a Washington Post commentary that the president, not King, hand-picked Selma as a Neanderthal outpost guaranteed to deliver televised violence against blacks trying to register to vote. It’s possible Johnson believed he did; one tactic used by Jim Farmer and George Houser, King’s predecessors in the movement, was that a sure-fire way to get buy-in on a campaign was to let others think it was their idea.

The film’s failure to clearly depict Jewish activists is a curious omission, particularly in leaving out Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who walked side-by-side with King in Selma. That’s particularly noticeable because it goes out of its way to show King greeting Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos, though not by name. Actually, I applaud that scene. Elsewhere in the movie, the dialogue is painfully stilted when characters introduce themselves by slowly pronouncing their credentials or affiliations, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — far better known as SNCC (pronounced snick) to anyone remotely familiar with the movement.

And if no kippot are shown gracing the heads of background characters, I can deal with that. It hardly means Jews weren’t there — or for that matter, that they were exclusively among the white marchers. A major leader of SNCC leading up to the Selma campaign was Charles McDew, described by fellow activist Bob Moses as “black by birth, a Jew by choice and a revolutionary by necessity.”

So movie history is spoon-fed and facts moved around. Why does Selma spark such calls for accuracy and inclusion?

In part, it’s because this history is recent, with many of the participants still alive. It’s also because Selma is an ultimate good-and-evil battle, and everyone whose group was anywhere near the good side demands recognition. Even the son of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace has complained that Dad didn’t really want his state troopers to bash anyone’s head in as they’re shown doing with glee.

To that, DuVernay did well to ignore the revisionists, and go with the artistic license of movie-making, just as a thousand other directors have before her.

If you want a more historically accurate, and harrowing, account of Selma told through primary source interviews of the people who lived it — including segregationists Sheriff Jim Clark and Mayor Joseph Smitherman — find a copy or download “Eyes on the Prize Episode 6: Bridge to Freedom,” (as of this writing on youtube, though likely to be removed for copyright issues.) Every bit as compelling as the movie, it too received an Academy Award nomination, for Best Documentary in 1988, though producers Callie Crossley and James A. DeVinney fell short of taking home an Oscar.

And if you want an accurate telling of Butch and Sundance, check out the excellent American Experience documentary by the same name that aired last year, though it didn’t make the Oscar hunt.

The Butch Cassidy movie did win several in 1970, including for best original screenplay — a perfectly appropriate honor for a Hollywood rewrite of history.

Best picture for Selma? That’s not a stretch, either.

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Posted on February 9, 2015

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Created In G-d’s Image

Paige_2L’chaim- to life, but to celebrate without knowing, would merely divert those from seeing my true being. You see, what you see is nothing short of brilliance, of strength, of success and triumph. But that is something that took decades to discover.

My entire life has been surrounded by the question, what are you? Rather than who are you? And though they say your past makes your present it was never a present hearing that question.

My personal favorite, are you like actually Jewish? Because we were just wondering what you are because I mean, obviously you don’t look Jewish.

I stared blankly, suddenly overcome with true emptiness. I responded with … Nothing, because an answer would mean just that, nothing. Because I would never look Jewish enough and I would never sound authentic enough because to them I wasn’t enough. But I felt like I should have been more than enough.

My life consisted of not black enough, not white enough, not Jewish enough. Hair not straight enough, not curly enough. Skin not light enough not tan enough. Hips not small enough, nose not big enough. Lips well … Lips … just shut enough to never utter a word about how I felt.

How I felt hearing the phrases nigger, kike, schvartse, dirty Jew, Oreo, mullato, outcast, different, rare and exotic.

Lips just shut enough to never tell anyone how it felt to be me. How it felt to see your mouth drop when my black father attended events at my all white elementary school. How it felt to hear you say that I was just another money hungry Jew. How it felt to see you cringe and clench at the sight of a black man walking down the street. How it felt to hear your forced apology after making a sick Holocaust joke.

And how it felt to hear you deny me of myself, deny the very essence and make-up of my being.

Now, here I am. And from this point forward I will not, and can not be silenced! I am here to give voice to the voiceless. To speak for those who never got the chance. For those who were disregarded, beaten, and forced into slavery. For those who were stripped of their family, dignity, and life, in the Holocaust.

I am here, and I am proud because I am mixed with the two races whom experienced the most hatred, bigotry, discrimination, and racism in the world, but still manage to be here.

I know what it’s like to hate everything about yourself. I know what it’s like to pray to Hashem, my G-d, to make me like everyone else. I know what it’s like to have my own relatives make excuses for my racial identity. I know what it’s like to stand out, and to be the outcasted other. I know what it’s like to hear your closets friends make slurs and remarks that could kill, about who you are. I know what it’s like to want to run and hide from the world.

But I also know what it’s like to discover that all of that gave me the strength I needed to share this with you.

Now, I smile at the reflection in the mirror. Now, I thank G-d everyday for making me who I am. Now, I couldn’t wish to be anything less than what I am. And now I pray, in the words of my Hebrew brothers and sisters.

ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקנו מלך העולם שעשני כרצונו   Baruch Atah Adonai, Alohaynu melech Ha’Olam, sha-asani keertsono. Blessed are you Lord our G-d, king of the universe, who made me according to his will.

ותודה לה’ שנתת לי כוח V’ Todah L’Hashem shenatata li koach.

And thank you G-d for giving me strength.

Posted on February 3, 2015

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Balanced Like the Trees

shutterstock_79269655“He (Moses) said: “If you will listen diligently to the voice of HaShem, your God, and you will do what is just in His eyes, and you will give ear to His commandments and observe all His statues, then any of the diseases that I placed upon Egypt, I will not place upon you, for I am HaShem your Healer (Exodus 16:26).”

When God originally created the world, there was neither order nor disorder, it simply just was. Darkness and light shared the same time and space, the world was filled with chaos, and the physical realm was void of all order (Genesis 1:2). It was then that the Holy One spent the week ahead, a busy workweek it was! defining the boundaries of the universe, creating balance, creating Shabbat.

Man, as commanded by God, was not only given the responsibility to build up and guard the world (2:15), but also to be the master-crafter of each organisms’ fate (2:19), with uprightness and with justice.

Our rabbis tell us that when Adam was in the Garden of Eden, God took Adam on a tour of Eden and pointed to all of God’s creations. God then said to Adam “see to it that you do not destroy My world, for if you do, no one will be after you to fix it (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).” We learn that it was Man’s role to steer the world towards uprightness. But just as quick and twice as subtly, as Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel explains (Avot 1:18), Adam was also warned that if people’s actions may corrupt and bring the world to a place that is no longer sustainable.

Pharoah did not see the Hebrews, as a people of values that would soon plant the riches of praiseworthy mores for all civilizations to follow. Pharoah knew not (of Joseph) about or the Jewish mission to strike the balance of the spiritual and physical, and so Pharoah committed the greatest injustice against humanity—human enslavement. He threw the world into imbalance.

With the Exodus, came new possibility. At Sinai a new seal and covenant would begin, the seal of responsibility. At the mountain Jews claimed their responsibility to uphold higher moral standards so as to prevent further injustice around the world.

Moshe was shown the tree, the symbol of steadfast balance of sun and water, and the waters sweetened (Exodus 15:25). Reminding the world yet again, that balance can be achieved, and that prejudice, enslavement and human corruption will inevitably crumble.

Jews are about to celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the trees. And this year we are in the seventh and final year of agricultural cycle, Shmeettat Karka’ot. Both Tu Bishvat and the shemitah cycle remind us that the earth’s rest produces for us the greatest results. That by allowing for the world to exist uninterrupted, we create balance and healing. “You may sow your land for six years, and gather its crops, but during the seventh year you must leave it alone and withdraw from it, so the needy of your people will be able to eat (from your fields) just as you do, and whatever is left over will be eaten by wild animals (Exodus 23:10-11),” Stating clearly that harmonious existence of all living things must reign over dysfunction.

Posted on January 28, 2015

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For Afro-Yiddish Performer, the Past is not Past

Anthony_Russell_finger“The past is never dead. It’s not even past…”

When William Faulkner wrote these words in Requiem for a Nun, I’m pretty certain he didn’t have a formerly opera-singing African-American performer of Yiddish in mind. Nonetheless, for me Faulkner’s words still manage to apply.

I spend most of my time dealing with one past or another. There’s my ethnic past and present as an African-American. There’s my acquired past as a convert to Judaism and a Jewish educator. And finally, there’s the past in my work as artist: previously as an opera singer and presently as a performer of Yiddish. In my professional life, I’ve impersonated everything from an 18th-century Spanish peasant to a Union soldier to a shtetl shames calling Jews to prayer. My future seems firmly rooted in the past, and I thoroughly enjoy it.

Singing in Yiddish really brought this stuff we all so dismissively call “the past” sharply into focus. I didn’t have to imagine the lives and customs of the Hasidic world my repertoire often describes. I just took a train one Shushan Purim to Brooklyn and experienced it for myself. I didn’t have to pull out a library card to find artists and critics who worked in Yiddish. I just had to stop by a bar to hear Sarah Gordon perform and wait for Rokhl Kafrissen to accept my Facebook friend request. (She totally did, by the way).

Last Slichos, I picked up an old book from a used book sale at a synagogue I was performing at in Irvine, CA. When I first cracked it open, it struck me as a little odd. First the book was in Yiddish. Then it was in English. And then Yiddish again.

The title page read in Yiddish and English, “Key to the Exercises of Ollendorff’s Method by Alexander Harkavy.” The Yiddish inscription differed from the English by stating that it was Ollendorff’s Method “tsulernen english”—”to learn English.” The English stated that it was published in New York by the Hebrew Publishing Company in 1908. In 2014 I took it home and started using it to improve my reading in Yiddish.

Anthony_address2I used the book backwards (undoubtedly to the horror of Ollendorff and Harkavy), the English giving way to English words and phrases transliterated into Hebrew letters and then, eventually, instructions on the rudimentary elements of the English language written in Yiddish. It was in this last (first if you read in the other direction) section that the past popped up to declare itself, well…not past. A brown, very fragile scrap of paper was between pages 88 and 89. It had been there so long that the acid from the paper had left dark impressions on the pages. In a beautiful cursive hand, it read: “Mrs. Silberstern 1018 E. 163 St Bronx.”

I instantly went to Google Maps street view in order to look up the address and there it was: an old, pre-war-looking building with three people—a young black boy, a young black girl down the block and, perhaps, their mother, caught in a blur of movement—exiting the building. This was the place where Mrs. Silberstern lived.

Was the book hers? Or somebody who knew her? Was the owner of the book teaching another Yiddish-speaker English, perhaps Mrs. Silberstern? Or maybe Mrs. Silberstern was teaching herself English? And how in the world did the book get from the Bronx to Irvine, CA? How did Mrs. Silberstern get to the Bronx?

I’ll probably never find the answers to these questions. Between this scrap of paper, this book and Faulkner’s statement, I just find more questions.

Is the past ever really past?

Posted on January 27, 2015

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The World of Jewish Music

worldThere is a myth that Jewish music is “always in a minor key,” and often echoes themes of pieces like “Hava Nagila” and “Kol Nidrei.” So last spring when I met with Judi Lamble, the coordinator and Michael Olsen, the conductor of the Twin Cities Jewish Choral, we knew that a global Jewish music concert was the best way to debunk the myth!

Because Jews have settled in countries around the world throughout history and have adopted the sounds, tastes and customs of their host countries, our music has often taken on the styles of the countries we have lived in.  So it is not unusual to have a Jewish folk song that sounds like a Yugoslavian dance, a “L’cha Dodi” that rocks to an African beat, or a love song written in Ladino, which grew out of Medieval Spanish.

When I was in my first year of cantorial school in Jerusalem, Eli Schleiffer, the director of the cantorial program, took us to Shabbat evening services in different synagogues every few weeks.  Afterwards, we would gather in someone’s home for Shabbat dinner, and Cantor Schleiffer would lead Kiddush in the musical style of the synagogue we’d just visited!  I was astounded that the same text could be sung to so many different tunes, and thus was born my fascination with Jewish music from around the world.  I loved that we had this treasure trove of wildly varied music that we could call ours.

This intrigue led me to write my senior cantorial thesis, accompanied by a recital of the same theme, about Sephardic wedding music. Under this one umbrella, I was able to write about and sing music from Greece, Morocco, Spain and Yugoslavia.  I was even able to study directly with Flory Jagoda, a Bosnian Jewish living legend, who has perpetuated a centuries-old tradition by writing new Sephardic music including “Ocho Kandelikas,” a well-known Hanukkah song.

So when I had an opportunity to plan a concert with another choir, I mentioned the possibility of featuring Jewish music from around the world.  The idea was met with great enthusiasm.  Our children’s and teen choirs are deep into rehearsing a Yiddish song, a Sufi-tuned “Hinei Mah Tov,” a Ladino children’s song, and a psalm from Calcutta.  I am proud to pass along the chain of Jewish tradition that has so many interesting links, and the kids love it.  Our adult choir, along with the Twin Cities Jewish Chorale is learning a choral arrangement of “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Ugandan “Hinei Mah Tov,” and, of course, some Israeli music.

I look forward to presenting this concert in our sanctuary, designed by the German Jewish architect, Erich Mendelsohn for a then Classical Reform American synagogue that now features Jewish music from around the globe and throughout history.  I know there will be much interest, many surprises and, hopefully, a lot of questions.

Posted on January 22, 2015

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My Big Happy Greek-Ashkenazi Family

GreekWeddingA2When I was in Israel this fall, I ended up going to a Sephardic synagogue one Shabbat morning, and served as the impromptu teacher for the rest of my group who very clearly had never been to a non-Ashkenazic synagogue and were unfamiliar with the unique and different customs, tunes, and liturgical readings that came along with the shul. The following Shabbat, I found myself in a traditional Ashkenazi shul, like any you would find here in the US, and was fully able to participate in the davening (prayer). I was able to successfully pass in both communities.

In reflecting on my experiences, I was reminded of a line that I heard from time to time growing up, “so your dad is Greek and your mom’s Jewish,” an assumption that was wholly incorrect. I am the product of an intermarriage of sorts, but not the kind you’re probably thinking of. My mother’s family hails from various parts of Eastern Europe, and my dad’s family comes from Greece, and all sides of my family are historically Jewish. When I explain this, I usually get the line, “so then that makes you Sephardic right?” Not exactly. The Greek Jews that I descend from are called Romaniote, with a history in Greece dating back to Roman times. According to the legend, when the Romans were sending slave ships back to Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple (so around 70-80 CE), one of the ships hit some sort of rock and was sinking. The captain of the ship let the slaves free, saying if they could swim to shore, they were free to go. They ended up coming ashore on the coast of Greece, and thus followed thousands of years of history, unique liturgy, tunes, and foods.

As I have set out on my own, apart from my parents, I have come to realize that I have a foot in both worlds, but at the same time, in neither. During Barak Obama’s first presidential campaign, I remember seeing a news talk show talking about how he was too Black for white people and too white for Black people, and feeling a sense of “that’s how I feel too,” everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong, I have an amazing family and wouldn’t change them for the world, but each time someone says “so you’re half Jewish,” or in the Greek world jokes that I’m not “fully or really” Greek, it feels like a punch to the gut.

leeks1I grew up on matzah ball soup, but also on prassa keftedes, a Greek food made of leeks, onions, scallions, and spices all shredded, mixed together, and fried in small patties (think potato latkes, but sub leeks for potatoes). I am reminded of a story I heard countless times growing up. My mom and her parents were invited by her fiancé (my dad) to his family’s seder, replete with Greek tunes and customs. Out came the meal, and my maternal grandmother was shocked and confused to see what looked like mini hamburgers that looked extra well done. Little did she realize that these were leek patties, something that she would enjoy for years to come. Fast forward about 25 years to the first year I was married and we had all the sides of our family over for an all-encompassing seder, replete with all the trimmings, both Greek and Ashkenaz. Sure enough, when we went to serve the soup course of matzah ball soup, members of my Greek family looked puzzled and asked what it was, since it was a food that they were unfamiliar with.

Unlike the questions from strangers that felt intrusive, the questions posed by my grandparents felt welcome. They came from a place of love and relationship not random curiosity. My personal Jewish story is unique, like so many American Jewish stories. I don’t want to be treated like an exhibition in a museum and have people prey and prod. Rather I welcome opportunities to share my story and my unique Jewish knowledge, like I did in Jerusalem. It is my hope that we can change the conversation from one of “how you are Jewish?” to one of “I’d love to hear about your Jewish experience.”

Praso Keftethes -Leek Patties

recipe2

The handwritten original, stains and all.

4 bunches of leeks
3 medium onions
1 tablespoon parsley (dry)
1 tablespoon dill (dry)
1 egg
¼ cup matzo meal
½ pound ground meat Optional
Oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Cut off the heads and ends of leeks leaving only about an inch of the green.
Slice each leek length wise and then into three pieces.
Rinse well in cold water to ensure that all the sand is removed.
Boil until very soft.
Remove from water but leave water boiling for other onions.
Drain well in colander and squeeze until as much excess liquid is possible is removed.
Finely chop with meat cleaver or food processor until all are finely chopped and a little wet.
Put leeks in mixing bowl.
Chop onions and put into pot to boil until soft and translucent.
Drain onions in colander.
Add parsley, dill, egg, matzo meal, salt and pepper. Optional ground meat can be added at this point as well.
Mix well then form into 2-inch patties.
Heat about ½ inch of oil in a pan.
Fry patties until crusty and very dark brown almost burnt.

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Posted on January 20, 2015

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A Lesson from Moses to Martin Luther King Jr.

Isaiahfamily2During my childhood, I never understood why I found myself needing to adapt differently depending on which parent I was walking with: my black mother, or my white father. But then the stares grew longer, the presumptuous comments and questions never seemed to fall-short of an insult, and well, as a family we learned to know when to guard, deflect or just turn around and walk out the door.

It’s one thing when an individual discriminates against you, but it’s whole other thing when it’s a group or community. When a community, organization or country perpetuate distant values of discrimination, it sticks, and becomes a part of who you are, your DNA.

“And He (Pharoah) said to his nation: ‘behold the nation of the Children of Israel they are larger and stronger than us, come let us devise a plan to outsmart them with trickery and deception.’ (Exodus 1:9)”

This verse always reminds me of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous words: “We should never forget that everything that Adolf Hitler did in Germany was legal.” King’s letter, written from the Birmingham jail cell during the 1960’s challenges the reader to not only speak up against the individual who displays hateful behavior, but to note that just because an institution does something “legally,” it doesn’t make it right.

When we go to the big picture it is not just Joseph and the sibling strife that led to a cry which still murmurs today. When we shift from the individual to the big picture the power and damage is amplified. That is what happen when a new Pharaoh rose us in Egypt, just 3300 years ago.

It’s the pain of collective estrangement that causes collective enslavement. It is society’s of silence that do not condemn their citizens behavior that cause the breakdown of moral justice and civil liberties. Pharoah tells his entire nation and no one speaks up. Freedom was lost…until someone spoke up.

According to Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (12th Century-Girona, Spain) “he went out to his brothers,” meaning he realized what his household (the home of Pharoah in which Moses grew up) had done, and to which ancestry (Abraham) he truly belonged to. Moses takes stage in the public sphere once it becomes known to him that his home was the center of institutionalized discrimination, and that he was a member of both parties: the oppressors and the oppressed! It was then that the Exodus began. Though this week’s Torah portion shows us reinstilled leadership directed by the elders and the heads of tribes, it was Moses’s simple action to leave his home that brought about physical, spiritual and moral freedom.

Could I have said something when I was a little boy and my ancestry was called into question? Sure, but you could have also. But each of the individual Jews in my community could have been the Moses for us, and you still can be. Learn from Moses. Learn from Dr. Martin Luther King. Speak up, for once you begin to speak, you create the opportunity for even a sea to split.

Posted on January 14, 2015

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“Selma” A Jewish Take

selma-movie2

This week I had the privilege of viewing an early showing of Selma, a movie about the historical events that took place in Alabama during the summer of 1965. The bombing of the 16th St. Church, in which 4 young girls were killed in 1963 and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were not far from the public consciousness then. And the battle between hate and rights that unfolded that summer in Selma changed the course of American history in profound and essential ways.

There are those who will and have already begun to quibble with the historicity of “Selma” but as a white rabbi who trained as a historian and has devoted the last five years to civil right in the Jewish community through my work at Be’chol Lashon, it is my hope that ALL Americans, no matter race or religion go to see the film.

Telling the story of a movement set in the context of 200 years of history, in 127 minutes means that inevitably some of the lines between history and myth will be blurred. But do not underestimate the power in the cinemagraphic telling of history. Color returns dimensionality to images that we know only in shades of black and white. Camera angles bring out the intimacies and tensions that go into the small moments that make up epic events. In the rabbinic tradition we call filling in of the official narrative, midrash, or interpretation. And midrash is one of most powerful tools we have to teach us about the past, remind us of our values and focus our actions for the future.

Copyright limitations, for example, mean that the words spoken by the fictional Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are not direct quotations. Nonetheless, the power with which David Oyelowo delivers his portrayal of Dr. King provide us not only with the inspirational Moses figure to whom a monument stands in Washington DC but also the flesh and blood man who struggled with frailty and doubt even as he rose to the challenges of leadership. These nuances encourage us to reach beyond our failing and to see the possibilities of action.

Watching, it was hard at times for me to engage with Oprah Winfrey’s portrayal Annie Lee Cooper. In contrast to the real life powerhouse and billionaire Winfrey, Cooper was a middle school dropout and worked in an old age home. Cooper came to fame after her repeated attempts to register to vote led to a confrontation with the county Sheriff and her punching him. On the one hand I was too aware of Winfrey’s sophisticated real world persona to fully embrace the portrayal. But on the other hand, I saw the casting as a tribute to the extraordinary power of the everyday African Americans who, in standing up to Jim Crow white power, were no less regal than the real life Ms. Winfrey.

Within the Jewish community I hope that white Jews will look beyond the desire to have Jewish contributions to the historic Civil Rights movement recognized. Past involvement is no free pass for present day obligations. This movie should inspire white Jews to take a look within our synagogues, schools, picture books, and organization and to consider how to engage with African Americans and other Jews of Color not as the “other” but as members of our own communities. Are white Jews able to say that we do not question their membership? Their right to vote? Or legitimacy? There are many tools and approaches that we can incorporate into daily Jewish life that can and will make a profound difference, now, today and for the future for how Jews think and act around race and ethnicity.

Our sage Hillel, one taught that the entire Torah can be summed up in the maxim, we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The rest he assured is commentary, but it is commentary that we are obligated to learn. If the movie Selma does not fulfill all the historical details faithfully, or speak to all of our needs, it does present us with a strong case for the importance how we treat our neighbors. If we walk away inspired to aim higher in creating a more fair and inclusive world, to learn and do more, then we have achieve something momentous.

Posted on January 8, 2015

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We Need More than a Sneeze

sneeze2Before attaining my Master of Social Work, I had the honor of helping many sick people live out their final months comfortable in hospice. Clients passed away, loved ones wailed as the coffin is lowered, and me, the social work intern, was left to support, love, guide, facilitate. Out of all of the things I have learned (so far) in this capacity, the most compelling is that the fragility of life calls to the healthy to breathe deeply, laugh loudly. Let the sobriety of personal grit and ambition keep you sensitive to what life has in store for you.

Easier said than done.

Regardless of age, the thought that lays at the base and forefront of most human consciousness is the uncertainty as to what will become of our existence. A person may be an established teacher, CEO or other sorts of professionals, and may have eloquent and intellectual capacities, and even have the riches of a king but no matter what they achieve, each and every person carries an unknown fate – we do not know when we will die. The billions of eulogies throughout world history cause the same emotional response in the listeners. As the deceased is lowered in the ground, we wonder, “what will become of me?”

In this week’s Torah portion we learn about the death of Jacob and then his son Joseph: the two individuals whose stories engage nearly half the book of Genesis, and whose blood lines ultimately establish the Jewish people as a nation. Jacob’s death was no happenstance. Jacob awaited to see his son Joseph and his brothers, though in a foreign land, together again.

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) teaches that before Jacob, there was no illness to indicate death was imminent. Death was sudden. A person would sneeze, and his soul would depart. Jacob prayed for sickness so that there would be a sign for the individual, so s/he could properly prepare a will for his offspring and bid farewell to the physical realm systematically. As the Torah tells us in Genesis 48:1, “And it was, after many things transpired, he said to Joseph ‘behold your father is ill.’ He took his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh with him (to be blessed).” Illness provided Jacob time to say his good byes and bestow blessings.

Death is inescapable, and happens to each person regardless of financial status, skin-color or political party. We cannot pray for immortality, but there is something worth praying for! We can pray for the gift of time-consciousness, the living reminder to bless, feel blessed, and be blessed. We can pray for that inner voice to remind us periodically, that health is a privilege not a guarantee. We should take the time we have and make the most of it.

“Heal us HaShem and we shall be healed, Save us HaShem and we will be Saved.”

Posted on December 31, 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