“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.
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What makes a secular Israeli connect to his Jewish identity, roots and spirituality? What makes secular Jew from Jerusalem become a Jewish educator in San Francisco? The answers are music, spirituality and the relationship between the two.
If someone had told me ten years ago that I would become a Jewish educator, I would never have believed it. Moreover, if someone had told me that I would write Jewish music, I would most likely laugh in his or her face. The world of Judaism was never a motivation in my life until I left Israel and arrived in San Francisco.
My parents originally came from Greece and Iraq but I was born in Jerusalem. Raised as a secular Israeli, my Jewish identity was always a given fact. Meaning, I am Jewish because I was born to this nation and religion, because of my family’s history, because Hebrew is my language, etc. Aside from reading from the Torah at my Bar Mitzvah and celebrating Jewish holidays, Judaism was not something I practiced. Coming to the US, particularly to the Bay Area, and connecting with local Jewish communities and their definitions of being “Jewish,” I gained a new understanding of my Jewish identity and spirituality.
People relate to spirituality in different ways. It’s not something that’s just given to you. It’s not only something you practice or learn, but something you feel. Spirituality doesn’t exclude anyone. It includes Jewish ideals, but it does not stand exclusively on Jewish beliefs. Spirituality involves global ideals, thoughts and understandings. Most importantly for me, music is the medium, guide and driving force in my own spiritual path.
I emphasize the importance of music not only because it is my love, my passion, my profession and in many ways, the essence of my being, but because music is an incredible educational tool that builds bridges reaching people’s hearts and souls. In fact, it is the reason I became involved with the Jewish community in the US from the first place.
When I arrived in San Francisco ten years ago, I worked as a song leader at Congregation Sherith Israel. While taking these first steps in the world of American Judaism, I learned many songs commonly taught to Jewish children in the US. Many of these songs were outdated and not surprisingly, that my students didn’t relate to them. These songs don’t represent or resemble anything close to the music young American Jews are listening to in their secular lives. Moreover, I felt that most of these Folk/Rock genre Jewish-American songs didn’t represent the story of the whole Jewish diaspora. So I decided to write new Jewish music that speaks to the hearts of the Jewish youth, represents a variety of Jewish communities from around the globe and connects the souls of the listeners with their Jewish identity on a spiritual level.
In 2011, I formed Sol Tevél, a band that focuses on connecting Hebrew roots while engaging world cultures. A year later, we released our debut album, World Light, which aims provide a contemporary interpretation on traditional Jewish texts, ideals and mysticism.
How can we learn more about spirituality? The truth is that it’s not my intention to teach nor preach spirituality, but to share my personal journey into this realm. Teaching for the past 10 years showed me that my students were my best teachers and could (often unintentionally) answer many of the questions we struggle with. And as for “God” or “spirituality,” Austin Branner, one of my 3rd grade students expressed it best with the words that would become the title song for my album World Light:
See the wind flowing by
See the stars up high
See the sand on the ground
See the rocks all around
My God, your God, One God.
“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.
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.
It is an incredible responsibility to raise a child. In choosing foreign adoption, we have become parents to a beautiful daughter and added a new culture to our family life.
Our daughter, Eliyana Bracha Nuhamin, became legally ours on Nov 18th, 2013. As part of our adoption hearing we promised to bring her up with pride in her Ethiopian heritage. This was a joyful promise to make as we have fallen in love with the beauty of our daughter’s homeland. However, the reality of making it happen must go beyond clothing and food and reach the core of Ethiopian values and pride.
The first time we met our daughter at the Ethiopian orphanage the nanny told us what a good baby she was. She was polite. “Polite” is the highest praise for children in Ethiopian culture. It means they are not demanding. They are patient. They are accepting. Eliyana Nuhamin is a pretty happy and content baby. When she is not laughing, a quiet serenity emanates from her.
I have always prided myself on my Jewish inquisitiveness. Questioning is talmudic value. How will this mesh with the Ethiopian values of patience and quiet acceptance? We will have to keep our eyes open as we navigate these waters.
The depth of poverty in Ethiopia is truly shocking. In America, where we have so much: It is a blessing but it spoils us. If we are to be true to our daughter’s roots, to the values of her country of birth, we will have to guard our daughter’s precious Ethiopian politeness and learn from her .
Love in Ethiopia is given to children with cuddles and caresses and layers upon layers of clothing. (Bundling children in clothing is a sign of love.) A school child often receives new clothing as a reward for school work. There are few toy varieties. Storytelling, singing, and dancing are the main entertainment and for children they always hold lessons of cultural value. The Jewish parallel here warms my heart.
Family togetherness is highly valued. Farm village children are still excused from school to help the harvest. Women wear their babies wrapped on their backs so that they are always together.
The Ethiopians are a beautiful people, very polite, usually smiling. Haggling in the market is just as often done with smiles and giggles as it is with serious concentration. Traditional meals are communal: Injera bread, coverered with stew is placed in the center of the group for all to enjoy. Time is taken every day to meet with neighbors and family over coffee and popcorn in the traditional coffee ceremony. Hospitality is important. These too are Jewish values.
These are a people of deep pride. Dinknesh, meaning “you are lovely,” is the Ethiopian name given to the 4 million year old remains of the first human. (The English world calls her Lucy.) Seeing her tiny skeleton surrounded by the tremendous pride of the Ethiopian people was very moving. This is the country from which emanated humanity.
Ethiopia, birthplace of coffee, is the only African country never to have been colonized. The Italians tried in 1935 but were ousted by 1940. The royal family traced it’s ancestry to King Solomon of Jerusalem and the Ethiopian church claims guardianship of the lost ark of the covenant. They are a people of deep pride and beauty. There are over 70 different Ethnic groups in the country each with their own distinct language. When I asked someone why the children of Ethiopia are so beautiful, he answered it was the blending of all that was best of these different groups.. then he smile and said, but mostly it is God.
Beauty and dignity are everywhere in Ethiopia. A church holiday gave us the treat of watching lines of Ethiopians in traditional white robes walking along the road to church carrying colorful umbrellas. The farm homes may have been quiet mud huts but the churches and mosques were elegant colorful buildings announcing their congregations joy. I loved the many groups of animals we passed in the countryside: cattle with desert humps on their back, spotted goats and sheep and donkeys driving carts of farm produce behind them. Often it was the children moving the animals from one place to another.
I know it pains the Ethiopian people to see their children adopted out of country. These children lose the blessings of belonging wholly to this beautiful country. But I also know that our longing for a child is matched equally by the orphan’s longing for parents. I pray that God’s holiness rest in this match: a mother from Toronto, a father from Brooklyn, a baby from Addis Ababa. May our cultures of Ethiopia, Judaism, and American blend in love and Torah.
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In my early 30s, I had exciting opportunities to visit and work with public health projects in Uganda several times. I was relatively young, dating and childless. It was pretty easy for me to pick up and oversee the work of Be’chol Lashon in Africa, to make my base with the Jewish Abayudaya community working to build infrastructure for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Six years after my last visit, I am married with a 4-year-old daughter, working full-time. So when I returned to Uganda for a 10-day visit to plan for a new community center, I was grateful for an egalitarian husband who’d take on more childcare responsibility during my absence, an excellent pre-school for working parents.
Feeling the full weight of the working mom’s dilemma, I wanted to better understand the Abayudaya women and their Christian and Muslim neighbors, and the types of childcare and working assistance needs they have. As more Abayudaya women receive educational grants to attend college, they emerge seeking employment, empowered to become economic contributors to their families. However, we were seeing signs of stagnation after college, and often a return to traditional gender roles for women. Educational assistance is a successful trend – but something needs to be addressed in order to make economic sustainability for women a reality. While I did not want to make assumptions about what might help, I was left wondering if childcare would be part of the solution.
Spending time at the Tobin Health Center in Mbale, I was daily confronted by the all female nursing staff and their brood of kiddies running around the health clinic. Interviewing the mothers, I asked why they have their kids at work with them. Most said they have family members who can sometimes watch their children, but often have to pass them off at inconvenient times to attend to their own work or household needs.
A couple of the nurses have hired part-time help to stay at home with their kids and the kids are brought to them at different time during the day for nursing. These women have husbands who are also well-employed so they can afford that luxury. That option was rare – and definitely ideal. The nurses were in effect creating their own childcare center in order to meet their needs.
I admired their ingenuity and even the sense of “work family” similar to the one I enjoy at Be’chol Lashon, but when I stopped to look around at the environment the children were being exposed to, it gave me pause. Many of the patients in the clinic during my stay were critically ill. Healthy children watched on with apprehensive looks. While I understood their lack of options, I was not convinced that they could thrive at their job while also trying to take care of their own needy children. In addition, while bonding with mom is crucial to child development, didn’t these kids deserve the same opportunity for stimulating and age-appropriate early childhood education that my daughter was receiving back home?
I wondered if a childcare center would be welcomed by these and other women in the community. Conducting interviews with women, both educated and uneducated, often with babes in arms, the overwhelming response was YES – we do need better and consistent childcare options while we pursue jobs, work in the fields, or in professional environments. The model for child care centers is not foreign to Ugandan women, but unfortunately it exists exclusively in the capital and not in their communities. Were it accessible to them, they would be glad not only for the opportunities it would open for them but for the education it would provide their children.
One of the main purposes of the trip was to help plan for the building of a new synagogue for the Abayudaya that will also serve as a community center; a gathering place for Jews, Christians and Muslims. As a result of my conversations with the women Uganda, we decided to put in a day care center as well. Building and staffing the center is a long term project, and I’ll be blogging about it as it goes forward. Stay tuned, because I truly hope that it will be the game changer these women need.