My wife and I are an interracial couple. I am a White, Ashkenazi Jewish man from New York. She is a Black woman from Detroit, raised in the Lutheran faith, who converted (to Jewish, not to White. She’s still Black). Our 3 year old Biracial son is Jewish.
When I talk about my wife’s conversion, rather than saying she converted I like to say that she’s Jewish by choice. I do this because conversion sounds like the process by which a sofa becomes an uncomfortable bed. Or it sounds like something that happens by magic. I wave my magic wand and “poof” you’re Jewish. Whereas being a Jewish person by choice requires a conscious affirmative decision.
And make no mistake, being Jewish is a choice, whether you were born into our Tribe or whether you joined us midway through the show. Because being Jewish isn’t easy. For starters, there’s the fact that lots of people hate us. Then, there’s the fact that in this nation and the world we’re outsiders. Yes, we manage to assimilate wherever we reside, but as history shows us, Jews, no matter how much a part of the society in which we live, are still always a bit on the outside. And, of course, there are all the rules. Don’t eat this. Don’t eat that. Don’t eat at all. Love the stranger, but don’t intermarry with them. Don’t wear wool and linen together. Wear a tiny hat that’s exactly the right size to never stay on your head. Sit outside during football season in a shed that has porous walls and no roof. Pursue justice, but by the same token, it’s not a problem to have slaves if you’re generally nice to them. Count the Omer (once you figure out what the Omer is). Read, study and love this book that’s inconveniently not provided on an iPad but is in the form of a giant, heavy scroll. And, if you drop that book, you’re not allowed to eat for a day (or 40).
Given these inherent challenges to leading a Jewish life, why did my wife choose to be Jewish. Well, obviously, it’s because being a Black woman in America was just way too easy, and she needed a challenge.
In America, as we know from demographic data (and from walking into synagogue on Saturday mornings . . . that is, for those of us who wake up early enough to do that), there aren’t that many Jews “of color” in America. There are some, and the numbers are growing all the time. But, if you walk into any Congregation Bet Something or Temple Something Shalom and for sure if you walk into Agudath Something (the Orthodox shul) on any given Saturday, even in New York City, you’re not going to see that many Black people.
And, that’s unfortunate for any number of reasons. First of all, given where Jews—Hebrews—originated (just a stone’s throw from North and East Africa), it’s a good bet that many of us were Black (or to use a modern phrase “Blackish”). Did Abraham or Moses look like Denzel Washington? Maybe not. But, it’s likely that they looked more like him (or maybe Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia) than they looked like your Uncle Sol or your Grandpa Murray. Which means somewhere along the way we lost some color.
Second, there is a parallel between the Jewish experience in Egypt (and the Exodus therefrom) and the history of African-Americans. Indeed, as we approach the Passover holiday, it is apt to remember that the struggle for freedom and self-determination in Ancient Egypt and in this country are stories with similar narratives. In fact, the parallels are so strong, that because of my wife’s (and our son’s) background, and to make her family feel more at home when they celebrate the holiday with us, we’ve modified our Seder to create a fusion of these two stories and created a Haggadah that reflects the flight to freedom of both cultures:
“When we were slaves in Egypt . . . and the Southern United States. Moses . . . and Dr. King said, “let my people go.” When they were refused, God . . . and the NAACP, set forth 10 plagues . . . and many lawsuits. And, the people went out, and they searched for years, till they could find a homeland where they could be free and enjoy self determination. We speak of course of the land of Brooklyn. Where Blacks and Jews roam free, even to this day.”
Then we eat matzah and play the game “guess which Biracial Hollywood actor is Black and Jewish.”
We don’t actually say all that, but I do think it. Because our family isn’t just Jewish. It’s Black and Jewish, and it’s important to remember the history of both those cultures and how much they sync up.
So, why did my wife choose Judaism? Well, I like to think it’s because she loved me and becoming Jewish was just a small price to pay to be able to spend a lifetime with me and my neuroses.
More importantly, though, I think it’s because she saw in the story of the Jewish people a story that she already knew from her vantage point as a Black person, and that story was comfortable and familiar and filled with the same themes of exodus and freedom.
But, most importantly of all, I think it’s because choosing is at the very core of what it means to live a fulfilling life, especially a fulfilling Jewish life. Indeed, to my mind, that we are the “Chosen People” refers not to the fact that we were chosen for some special status so much as it refers to the fact that each day, each Jewish person must affirmatively choose whether they will follow the mitzvot or not.
So, why did my wife choose Judaism? For the same reason the slaves of Egypt chose it—she wanted to be free to live life on terms she consciously agreed to rather than those that had been selected and mandated for her.
Why do you choose?
“Usually I would say I want to go to camp to see all my old friends, but to be honest they are not friends. They are FAMILY! Every summer I count down the days until I go to camp because it’s that exciting. Every year I learn something new about myself. Camp Be’chol Lashon is my second home, and I can’t wait to go back this summer. I am always making new friends that I will probably know for a lifetime.” –Kenya Edelhart, age 12 Camp Be’chol Lashon
“You can pick your nose, you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.” — My father
This past July I met Kenya during my first summer at Camp Be’chol Lashon. I showed up for my first day at camp excited for a summer of new experiences, but also fairly confident I knew what to expect for the next three weeks. I went to Jewish summer camp as a child. I know exactly when to bang the table during Birkat, I’ve won my fair share of Ga-Ga matches and I take special pride in my friendship bracelet making ability.
While I was expecting all of those things that go along with the traditional camp experience, I guess I wasn’t exactly expecting how quickly and how deeply I would fall in love with this particular place and these people. There are many reasons this could be. It could be the tight, close knit feel. We are not a big camp. In fact, we barely make a football team. But this intimacy means we also rely on each other.
It all came together for me during some free time one early evening when I found myself in the girls bunk while the regular counselors had their daily staff meeting. While still feeling new, I was still trying to memorize camper names and personal details, like favorite hobbies and personality quirks. To pass the time, the girls were deciding on a game to play. I had a bunch of suggestions (most of which happened to be games I am also very good at), but resisted my urge to butt in as I saw that they were consumed within their new friendships. It didn’t take long before the most popular suggestion was Truth or Dare.
As the sole adult in the room, red flags went off. With memories flashing of hushed games of truth or dare ending in tears or bitter arguments, I offered a timid, “Hey guys, don’t you want to play charades instead?” Utterly failing in the age old child-supervision techniques of distraction and diversion, no matter what I said, they were intent on playing Truth or Dare. I decided to let the game play out until the inevitable moment came when things were about to get too real and I would no doubt have to Shut It Down. Except that moment never came. I watched, silently in awe of these young women, who were playing the most respectful, entertaining game of Truth or Dare I had ever witnessed.
First of all, there were ground rules. No one had to answer a question or complete a dare that they didn’t feel comfortable doing. There were your typical truths and dares: questions about love interests and dares that involved combining the most unappetizing, barely edible contents of the cabin into drinkable concoctions. The point of the game wasn’t to put people on the spot. It was apparent that the rules set in the beginning of the game allowed everyone to feel safe enough to participate and to trust those girls around them, which made them more inclined to explore their boundaries and in turn learn about themselves and others.There was room for everyone; those who were maybe a little more shy and needed to watch a few rounds before jumping in, and those that felt comfortable in this space right off the bat, even volunteering for dares that weren’t directed at them, or making their dares potentially more embarrassing.
The story of Jewish camp is one that’s been told a million times, and there are studies that say that kids who go to Jewish camp are that much more likely to be Jewishly engaged as adults. I suspect this has something to do with the power of connection. It is a powerful thing to be a part of something, to feel that there is a place where you belong, a space that would not be the same without you in it. At our camp, this is something that is apparent from the first day kids show up. So my dad was right, you can’t pick your family, but you sure can build one.
What could be funnier than a black man marrying a white woman?
Before you say “Loving v. Virginia,” hold on, there’s more: Make that a white Jewish woman. Isn’t that a stitch?
If same-sex marriage in Alabama hasn’t convinced you we might actually be in 2015, the premiere of the Lifetime reality show, Kosher Soul, arrives Feb. 25 to dutifully turn back the clock.
“Opposites attract,” the show’s promos blare, suggesting the protagonists might just be different species. A freelance stylist, Miriam Sternoff, 38, grew up Jewish in Seattle. O’Neal McKnight, 39, her stand-up comedian fiancé, is African American from Lynchburg, S.C. With cameras following their every antic, the pair slapstick their cultures together on the way to their wedding day.
“The fact that I’m wearing a yarmulke, it shouldn’t be a problem for Miriam to wear a grill,” McKnight says, explaining the bejeweled dental appliance’s deep spiritual significance to black America by declaring: “Martin Luther King had a grill.”
He didn’t mention Justin Bieber. But it goes on.
“When you marry a man like O’Neal, you gotta make certain sacrifices,” Sternoff says in her concession to preparing unkosher food. “If he wants me to fry up some catfish real quick, I’m going to fry it up because he has made huge compromises for me.”
One of those is McKnight’s conversion to Judaism, including an adult bris (symbolic circumcision), done to prove his love for her and appease his mother-in-law. In return, she accompanies his family to church and actually buys the grill, though secretly vows never to wear it.
All the while, he calls her white and gives her lectures on black culture (black people don’t go to the beach), punctuated with jokes about Stevie Wonder driving and starving kids in Africa with flies on their faces.
Is this offensive?
Yes, but not for its unfunny attempts at humor. Nor am I the only one suggesting the show is just more of the same old black and Jewish stereotypes, packaged as a “docu-sitcom.” To a person, those in my circle of African American Jews who’ve heard of the show have questioned its portrayal of the match as a freak show oddity.
It wasn’t news 65 years ago, when my mother of Western European Jewish descent married my Baptist (though atheist) African American father. It’s barely a blip on the post-racial radar screen today. According to Be’chol Lashon, 20 percent of American Jews are of color or of similarly diverse heritage.
As anyone who says “blacks and Jews” should be reminded, the two terms aren’t mutually exclusive. Judaism knows no race and black people come in every religion, and to be both is to be 100 percent of each.
Surprisingly, and off-camera, the couple agrees.
“I like that,” Sternoff says of the duality that describes her husband and hoped-for children, echoed by McKnight: “I like that a lot.”
In the real world of a cross-country phone interview to Los Angeles, where they now live, the couple departs from their reality-show personas, with McKnight clarifying he did not convert solely for her. In South Carolina, he’d never met a Jew or spoken to an Asian person, he says, a cloistered world that changed when he moved to New York.
“I was around a lot of different cultures, a lot of different people, and I just really was drawn into Judaism,” he says. “For me, the thing about Judaism, it’s mostly a tug of war between you and God. You’re supposed to ask questions. You’re supposed to be intrigued and curious. And the way I was brought up (as Methodist) was ‘this is what it is, you don’t doubt it, you don’t question it.’”
That intrigue led him to consider converting before even meeting his future wife, he says.
For her part, with skin Kardashian tan or a shade darker (and virtually the same as McKnight’s black former girlfriend), Sternoff has also examined her identity.
“When people ask me what’s my nationality, it’s because I look more ethnic,” she says. “The first thing I say is ‘I’m Jewish.’ And then people say, ‘Yeah, I get it, but you look like you’re Hispanic or something else.’ So I always then follow it up with my background is Russian.”
Depending on who’s asking and their level of persistence, she may say she’s white. “It’s a tricky thing,” she says. “Jews, we think of ourselves as kind of a whole separate entity.”
So if she’s perceived as “other” and they’re both practicing Jews (his conversion was Conservative), is there a story here without playing to stereotypes? Two Jews get married. So what?
“I would dispute that it is stereotypes. I think that Miriam and O’Neal are who they are,” Michael Hirschorn, the show’s executive producer, says from New York, acknowledging dialogue like “I want to have Shabbat dinner with my Jewish husband”/“But she’s going to have sex with a black man.”
“Saying ‘this is a stereotype’ and ‘this is not a stereotype’ gets you into kind of a Talmudic cul-de-sac,” he argued.
Perhaps, but there are guides for the perplexed, the obvious being other Black Jews who can clearly tell you what’s over the top. Hollywood has many — from director Chris Erskin to rapper Drake to actress Rashida Jones — though Hirschorn (who is Jewish and not black, and has a co-producer who is black and not Jewish) says he doesn’t know any.
Still, he concedes that Kosher Soul and its “opposites attract” tagline capitalize on seemingly incompatible differences.
“I don’t want to be too coy because obviously that is the name of the show and that’s the way it’s being pushed,” he says. “I think that (when you) watch the show, there’s just a lot of pleasure in it.”
There certainly is in the story of how the couple met, in New York nine years ago when McKnight was a personal stylist to Sean “Puffy” Combs and Sternoff was freelancing in the same field.
It was in an elevator. He was impressed by her pixie cut. She could not help but notice him.
“I literally was holding two little poodles under my arms,” McKnight explains, dogs belonging to Combs that he’d been asked to retrieve.
Or so he says.
“Right!” Sternoff responds, laughing at the suggestion that maybe it was a ploy. “He was riding, literally up and down, up and down, waiting for the perfect girl to come on. You know, I have to say, if that’s what he was doing, I’m glad he was there.”
It’s a wonderfully charming story but it’s nowhere in the show. Not surprising: It’s reality, not reality TV.
My daughter Maya and I had been walking along 125th Street in Harlem, past the larger-than-life statue of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., pastor, politician, and Civil Rights activist; the Studio Museum of contemporary African art; and the landmark Apollo Theater that launched so many careers. Somewhere along the way, we saw an enormous American flag, all in red, green, and black, the African American colors.
“Hey wouldn’t it be cool if the stars were six-point stars?” my biracial daughter said as she fingered the silver Jewish Star pendant she always wore.”That would be me.”
Realizing that Maya did not consider herself to be a large rectangular piece of fabric flapping in the wind, I thought about what the colors represent. They come from the flag adopted by the UNIA (United Negro Improvement Association) in 1920. Red signifies the blood that unites people of Black African ancestry – and that they shed for liberation; black represents the Black people; and green color represents the natural wealth of the continent of Africa.
Combine that with a Magen David, so named because the design adorned King David’s shield when he led the Israelites into battle, and you have an unnecessarily militaristic mash-up. These days, though, both images are really more cultural symbols than anything else.
So when it came time to get a gift for Maya, I thought that a Star of David necklace with the UNIA colors would be perfect.
Easier said than done, though, as it turned out.
I searched a myriad of stores and pawed through countless street hawkers’ tables all over New York City. I waded through innumerable online venues getting seasick by the frightening quantity of options, none of which quite fit the bill. I even considered making a necklace for my kid, but a quick trip to the local crafts store put an end to that whim. I wanted something she would be proud, not embarrassed, to wear.
“There’s such a thing as trying too hard,” a friend told me. But, honestly, I like a good treasure hunt, especially one with nothing serious riding on it; life would go on if Maya didn’t get a necklace that she didn’t even know was out there. Or, perhaps I should say, a necklace that didn’t yet exist.
Then, one evening, I was determinedly scrolling through more online options and saw a vendor who offered Star of David pendants in a variety of pastel shades. Not exactly what I had in mind. But I figured if she could offer different color options, perhaps she could create the design with the hues I had in mind?
I emailed the artist and asked; she was happy to give it a shot. Her first attempt involved a mint green that didn’t quite fit the bill. I sent her a Google image of the Black Liberation Flag – and she came back with two beautiful options. I had it in my hands in just a few days.
When Maya unwrapped her gift, she gasped. (It’s not easy to surprise a teenager.) She took off the silver pendant she’d chosen herself in Jerusalem, put on the mash-up jewelry – and has worn it ever since.
Over the last few weeks, as America waited for the Grand Jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we have been touring with our documentary, Little White Lie, encouraging proactive, positive conversations about race and identity with Americans of all backgrounds. The outrage expressed at the grand jury decisions tells us two things. One, race remains a volatile and potentially dangerous third rail in American society and two, so long as we continue to wait for moments of crisis to talk about race, it will remain so. It is difficult for us as Americans to talk about race, and even harder to do so when we do not have to. As the mother of a Black teenager, I know that in the current racial climate, no matter how much my son individualizes, he will be forced to deal with the harsh reality of toxic racial dynamics.
When I adopted my son Jonah in 1997, one of my primary concerns was that he would not see himself reflected in the American Jewish community—that his Jewish identity and his Black identity would be in conflict. I am gratified that after attending Jewish day school and growing up participating in Be’chol Lashon programs, he knows many other racially diverse Jews and takes his Jewish identity for granted. Now that Jonah is 17, I am aware that my concern has shifted and that in everyday life, the unique identity Jonah has developed will often be disregarded in favor of assumptions about his skin color.
Recently, Jonah came home and announced, “Mom, the supermarket security guy just asked for my receipt and took all the things out of my bag. I was racially profiled.” I realize that I must have conversations that I did not have with his white siblings—like making sure his hands are visible at all times if he happens to be stopped by the police. It is unsettling to instill distrust in my son for police officers. While it may be a necessary defensive measure, it reinforces how important it is to proactively work to reduce racial tension.
The racial dynamics on display recently present more than a physical danger—they threaten to derail the identity development of millions of young people of color. In middle school, Jonah was encouraged to write about himself in anticipation of applying to high school. In a particularly poignant poem he wrote, “I am not Jordan or Malik, I am Jonah. Why don’t people ‘see‘ that I am part of my family? Why do they only see ‘difference’?” Good question and one being asked by the growing population from mixed racial, religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds who identify beyond the boundaries of America’s racial divide. Teaching our children to keep their hands visible around police does little to answer this question. The safety of our children, both physical and emotional, lies in our ability as a society to broaden the discussion abut race beyond events such as Ferguson.
Jeff Chang insightfully articulates in his latest book, Who We Be, (http://whowebe.net/) that, “We can all agree that race is not a question of biology. Instead it is a question of culture and it begins as a visual problem, one of vision and visuality.” Race was created as a social construct and as such it can only be unraveled through social engagement and discussion. Who We Be chronicles racial progress through cultural commentary. In one example from the early 60s, cartoonist Morrie Turner drew kids having profound discussions about race and community. In Wee Pals, Oliver, a white kid, introduced the neighborhood kids to each other—Peter “the Mexican-American,” George “the Oriental,” 11 Rocky “the full- blooded American Indian,” and Randy, who, Oliver paused to note, was “a Afro- American, Negro, Black, Colored, Soul Brother.” “And what are you?” Peter asked Oliver. “Very careful!” Oliver replied.
A half-century later, even though Americans have elected their first Black president and are in the midst of dramatic demographic and cultural shifts, works similar to Turner’s groundbreaking cartoons are no less important. Fortunately, the torch is being carried and with the revolution in social media, the opportunity to impact Americans through pointed social commentary is greater than ever.
Notable contemporary efforts include Kenya Barris’ new sit-com Black-ish and Justin Simien’s film Dear White People which, although rife with stereotypes, manage to be humorous while authentic and compelling, putting questions about race front and center. Journalist and NYU professor Liel Leibovitz comments, “We laugh because…the conversation about race is one enough of us are eager to have honestly and openly.” He suggests that these conversations are not just about race, but are about self, community, traditions, and history.
As an organization that celebrates multicultural traditions and history of Jewish communities around the world, we executive produced Lacey Schwartz’s touching tour de force documentary about her family hiding a Little White Lie and her journey to come to terms with her mixed black and Jewish heritage. It offers a unique and compelling personal narrative that speaks directly to the changes in American demographics and Jewish identity. Little White Lie is a powerful and timely educational tool to engage in necessary conversations about race, a crucial step in an effort to make sure our children will be “seen” as who they are.
The tragedy highlighted by both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases is that we still live in a world where Black men are seen as in fundamental conflict with law enforcement. This is a dangerous juxtaposition that underlines the fact that racial tension in America remains volatile and potentially violent. It pushes back directly against my desire to raise my son with a sense of agency over his own life. I will do my best to teach Jonah how to manage the perceptions of others and how to stay safe in a dangerous world. And I will continue to work daily to change the way the Jewish community talks and thinks about race. But Jonah’s safety, like that of many others, depends upon our collective ability as Americans and as Jews to push the conversation about race forward, even when there are no grand jury decisions to spur us on.
“Is she converting?”
“Clearly, she is not from around here, I wonder if she is even Jewish.”
“She must be someone’s nanny…”
These were not just the petty thoughts of those who saw me with my mother, but also at times the actual words spoken. Did these people aim to offend and to distance us? I pray not, but somehow and sometimes, the natural tendency of those who experience something foreign is to immediately cause distance for the sake retaining his/her individual comfort.
While our synagogue, school, corporate and communal settings include the value of diversity as a central tenet in their mission statements, it is all but natural to grow suspicious of the stranger and to create a distance, a separateness, and the “not me, not my problem,” mentality. Our mixed race family never asked to be objectified, and turned into a lifeless color scheme of browns and whites. All we wanted, and still want like others like us, is to dwell among our tribe(s) with respect, validity and with a communal concern for our well-being.
We see in this week’s Torah portion that Avram (later Avraham) recognized the need to distance himself from his nephew Lot, while making sure that he would remain a relevant presence; that a song of many notes not only can, but should exist in harmony. From the pathway of soulless objectivity to the recognition of pulsing subjectivity; from “someone else will welcome them,” to “I will welcome them!:”
“And Avram said… ‘Please let there be no fighting between me and you and between your shepherds and my shepherds, for we are men who are brothers. Is not the whole land before us, please separate from me, if you go left, I will go right, if you go right I will go left (13:8).’
Yes. Indeed, there are times when we must turn away from the other. When being around opposition does threaten our comforts and existence. For when that situation presents itself, it is in our very best interest to curl our backs; to skirt all potential communication and to distance ourselves…
But when? and how?! How do I harmoniously keep inclusion as a central value in my life, while also recognizing the need for boundaries? Should I debase the humanistic qualities of the other, like the Pharoah of Egypt, and the Haman and Hitler of yesteryear? No! Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (Cologne, 13th century) taught that allowing for borders and boundaries to exist is the recipe needed for containing and creating Shalom, it is what builds us up, not breaks us down.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Troyes, 11th century) suggests, that the meaning of Avraham’s statement “please separate from me” is not to convey that there shall be an eternal severance between the two, but rather “where your dwell, I will not distance myself from you, and I will stand by you as protector and a helper.” That although we must remain separate, I will never objectify you, I will keep you close to me.
As we open our eyes to the other, let us remember that like Avram, it is OK to create borders with she who is different than you, but only, only when it does not objectify them. Only when who they are is so important to who you are. Where their border is your border; where their needs are your needs. Then it will be, that our hearts will soar and join, in the call for diversity.
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My daughter is wise beyond her years. She teaches me. Recently a family with older children handed down to us a plastic toy kitchen set. My 15-month-old was delighted. As she happily played, I “Facetimed” my parents so they could join me in watching her fun. However as soon as Bubie and Zada’s faces appeared on the iPhone screen, my daughter lost all interest in her toys. She had eyes only for the grandparents she loves and engaged them in a rousing game of peek-a-boo.
Watching Eliyana’s developmental leaps is wonderful. Just yesterday she was grabbing the iPad and looking behind it for the people. Today she understood she could interact with the people on the screen, that she could initiate play with them. I learned too. I learned that she values relationship far more than “things.”
When my husband and I first arrived in Ethiopia to meet our beautiful child, I was appalled by the starkness of her orphanage. There were no colors to brighten the walls. There were less than half a dozen toys, and no books. Our daughter was happy and thriving, perhaps because of her inner strength and love of life, perhaps because the nannies there carried the babies in their arms as much as possible. The gifts of board books and games I brought on my second trip were received politely but with puzzlement. “Of what use could these possibly be to a baby?” I read on the faces of the nannies.
When we brought our daughter home, we filled it with love, toys, and many many books. We made the rounds of doctors, each marveling at Eliyana’s sociability and her easy smile. “This child has been loved” they each said to us. We would discuss this concern or worry and the doctors would repeat “She has received love and attention. That is the most important ingredient to her development.” We settled into becoming a family and Eliyana thrived.
Many of my fellow Ethiopian adoption parents tell me their children did beautifully in daycare, having been socialized to being around other children and waiting their turn already in the orphanage. My daughter was miserable. No one would play with her. At first I wondered if there was racism involved. Finally I realized it was culture. The room was filled to the brim with every kind of wonderful toy and the expectation was that the children would play independently with the toys. My child wanted relationship but was instead offered Western materialism. With help and support I came to understand I was allowed to listen to the needs my daughter was broadcasting loudly for me on all frequencies. She wanted people, not things. We found a way to provide this while I work. Happiness has been restored.
Martin Buber wrote, counter to the psychology of his time, that identity begins in relationship, not in individuality. In Ethiopia, this was understood. I wonder now at my Western arrogance, my shock at an Ethiopian orphanage’s lack of toys and books. Here in the West, where we have everything, we have much to learn about what is important. I am learning every day.
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.
“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.
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.
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!
Passover is a time for storytelling. One of the main purposes of the holiday is to allow one generation to tell the next generation the story of how we came out of Egypt and journeyed from slavery to freedom. There are many children’s books that engage young minds by going beyond the telling found in the traditional Passover haggadah. In choosing among the possible additions the Seder, we have focused on books that celebrate the diversity of Jewish families and those that introduce the themes of Passover in new or particularly engaging ways:
A relatively newcomer to the Passover scene is the colorfully appealing Afikomen Mambo, by Joe Black and illustrated by Linda Prater. Sold together with the book is a CD with performance by Black, who is well known for his music. Geared to the 3–7 set, this playful combination of illustration and song, do exactly what the Afikomen is meant to do — pique the interest and engagement of the younger set so they stay awake until the end of the Seder. Somewhat puzzling is the plethora of children and the paucity of adults seated around the table. From the looks of it, one set of parents has invited a whole brood of young ones to join in the Passover fun. But at least everyone looks happy doing the Afiokmen Mambo.
The theme of grandparents passing on traditions to grandchildren is a familiar part of Passover; less familiar is the twist it takes in Abuelita’s Secret Matzahs, by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and illustrated by Diana Bryer. Jacob loves to prepare for Easter with his grandmother, but one day she tells him a secret. Like many others whose Jewish ancestors who were forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries, this family of anusim continued to practice Judaism their Judaism in secret. For the 4–8 set, this is a wonderful introduction to an element of Jewish history that still plays out today. We love that this story brings attention to the stories of individuals who are now, after hundreds of years, finding their way back to their Jewish heritage.
Mindy Avra Portnoy’s A Tale of Two Seders, also offers a different take on the classic family themes of the holiday. The story follows a little girl who after her parents divorce spends one Seder at her mother’s and one at her fathers. Over the years the Seders vary and as Valeria Cis’s illustrations highlight how the people attending the two Seders are themselves varied. Adding to our sense of possibilities are the four recipes for charoset that are included. This book acknowledges the difficulties that the young protagonist faces, without presenting her situation as a tragedy.
The diversity of Passover observances around the world take center stage in two different celebrations of global Jewish life. From the National Geographic Holidays Around the World series comes Celebrate Passover and from Tami Lehman-Wilzig, Passover Around the World. As one expects from National Geographic, there are bold, beautiful photos depicting Jews from Africa to China, from Budapest to Ohio. Lehman-Wilzig’s book moves from place to place as it goes through the Seder, beginning in America and ending in Morroco; the journey is depicted in softly colored illustrations by Elizabeth Wolf.
Elements of the Exodus story can be frightening for children ages 4–8, but in this telling of a traditional tale, facing fears pays off. Nachson, Who Was Afraid to Swim: A Passover Story, by Deborah Bodin Cohen and illustrated by Jago, is a retelling of the rabbinic story of Nachshon ben Aminadav, who had to wade into the Red Sea until the water was up to his neck, in order to make the waters part and let the Israelites to escape the Egyptians on dry land. In the gentle illustrations, the characters’ features and skin tones blend and shift with the background, giving the book warmth and no clear racial focus.
Children ages 9–12 who are reading on their own may enjoy Private Joel and the Swell Mountain Seder, by Bryna J. Fireside and illustrated by Shawn Costello. Set in the Civil War, it tells the story of how Union soldiers improvise to make their Seder happen, even in the midst of a war. While not raising the possibility that there are Jews with dark skin and of African decent, the story does highlight the parallels between the African American experience of slavery and the ancient Israelite experience. The book shines a light on the possibility of sharing stories and traditions.