When 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.
I 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
4 bunches of leeks
3 medium onions
1 tablespoon parsley (dry)
1 tablespoon dill (dry)
¼ cup matzo meal
½ pound ground meat Optional
Oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
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.
More than anything Nalugya Rehema wanted to be a mother. She was very happy when she got pregnant, but she lost the baby. She became pregnant again, but again she lost the baby. Five times she became pregnant, five times she lost the baby. She went to the local herbalist. She sold her cow to pay for treatments that did not help. Her husband threatened to leave her. Her life seemed hopeless.
The miracle of Hanukkah is bringing light to places of darkness. Unlike most parts of the world, the winter is not a dark time in Uganda. Because we are at the Equator, there are 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness all year round. We do not crave sunlight. But like people everywhere, we crave spiritual light. We crave hope. We crave possibilities. Hanukkah represents the possibilities. When we light the Hanukkah candles we remember that there is hope. And we are supposed to share this hope. This is called pirsum haness, publicizing the miracle. This is why we put our Hanukkiyah with our lit candles in a public place so everyone, no matter their religion, can share in the hope and light of the holiday.
The Abayudaya Jews of Uganda believe in sharing the miracles in our lives with all our neighbors. We built wells so that there will be clean water not only for Jews but for Muslims and Christians too. We have distributed mosquito nets to the entire community and in the last four years there have been no deaths from malaria. And the Tobin Health Center is open to everyone, regardless of religion.
Like the Hanukkah miracle, we publicize these miracles. We hold community forums. We have advertisements on the radio.
This is how Nalugya Rehema heard about the Tobin Health Center—on the radio. She met with Dr. Baniru Masaba. He found that the problem was with a rhesus blood incompatability. Dr. Masaba was able to treat her and she got pregnant. With his help during the pregnancy, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
She named him Gift.
Gift is now 2 and a half years old. Nalugya Rehema is a good mother but she needs to work. There are no childcare centers in our area, only in the capital. Gift cannot go to school until he is seven years old which is hard for the family. Again they need a miracle.
We are planning to build a childcare center for mothers and children like Nalugya and Gift. A facility for young children will mean that they will be safe and healthy, with access to proper nutrition. Their mothers will be able to pursue careers, help support their families, and play a part in the economic health of the community.
Hanukkah literally means rededication. We are rededicating our commitment to women and children by building a childcare center in 2015. The on-going support of Be’chol Lashon and all of our friends around the world is a miracle that allows us to improve our lives in Africa.
“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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Celebrating Sukkot on the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario, as I did as a child, was fraught with complications. Evening temperatures often necessitated hats and heaters and our hot soup cooled before it had a chance to warm our insides. But the thrill of the holiday, the opportunity to sit out on nights it did not rain, under the green and the stars made it worthwhile. We lived in a middle-sized city with a small Jewish population but on our block there were two other families who sat in Sukkot. Our differing approaches to religion meant that we rarely shared meals but sitting out in the back yard we could hear each other repeat the same blessings and sing the same tunes and with that, our community felt expansive, our medley of practice seamless, and being Jewish was perfect.
That expansive safe inclusive feeling is essential to Sukkot. The holiday, which follows the hopefulness of Rosh Hashanah and the solemnity Yom Kippur, has us sitting in huts for seven days of ‘our joy,’ as our tradition calls this holiday. Sitting in Sukkot is supposed to remind us of the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. Though the people of Israel complained pretty much non-stop during the trek, it was in many ways a pretty wonderful time. Despite living in temporary dwellings, throughout, they were guided by God’s presence; they were provided with ample food and drink in a dry, sparse dessert landscape. Outsiders attacked them but God assured their safety. And those who wandered in the wilderness knew God through miracles and revelation. Temporary and rough though it might have been, in many ways it was a time of joy and possibility like no other. Jews of many tribes lived together in peace, they had deep sense of the holy in their midst and their basic needs were more than adequately take care of. Being Jewish was perfect.
As the celebration of Sukkot nears, I’ve been thinking about what it takes to make a perfect Jewish space—even if only a temporary one. For my daughter that place has been summer camp. For my son, it is his school fall retreat. I’ve been blessed over the years to have many temporary Jewish spaces that capture the expansive, inclusive, joyful feeling that Sukkot is meant to inspire but one that has gained particular meaning for me in the last few years is the Be’chol Lashon Family Camp.
Every fall, Be’chol Lashon organizes a weekend of Jewish learning, living and sharing in the rolling hills just north of San Francisco. Like the Sukkot singing of my childhood, the diversity of this community helps me experience the Jewish world as inclusive and accepting. There are people of all ages, races, sexual orientations, family configurations. Some people come alone, others come with several generations in tow. There are many different kinds of religious Jews and secular Jews too. The scholars-in-residence have ranged over the years from Indian-American artist Siona Benjamin, to chef and Afro-culinary historian Michael Twitty, to this year’s Rabbi Gershom Sizomu from Uganda. This range embodies my belief that there are many ways to be a Jewish leader and help me to see the full vibrancy of modern Jewish life. Black, Asian, Latino and white Jews share meals having serious conversations about race as well as fun and silly discussions about pop culture. It is a safe space and one in which Jewish life is inclusive, expansive and vibrant. And though it is temporary, like Sukkot, the retreat gives me hope and inspires me for the complexities of daily Jewish life.
Literally and figuratively Sukkot are essential for Jewish life. We all need oases where we feel the pure joy of being Jewish in an accepting, inclusive safe environment. Just as the holiday of Sukkot gives us hope during the somber High Holy days, having a Jewish space that lives up to your vision of Jewish community—even if temporary—can fuel the fullness of Jewish life at other times. Creating or finding that space, can be as challenging as wandering in the dessert or sitting in a Sukkah with a space heater, but making the effort is definitely worth your while.
“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!
“I’m Jewish& Black”
“I’m Jewish& Environmental Activist/writer”
“I’m Jewish& a Rabbinical Student”
“I’m Jewish& part Chinese part Catholic”
“I’m Jewish& Indian & a businessman”
“I’m Jewish& Australian, Japanese and American.”
“I’m Jewish& very into rock climbing”
“I’m Jewish& a mom, a lawyer, and too often a chauffeur”
“I’m Jewish& adopted & multiracial”
“I’m Jewish& Irish American and Gay”
“I’m Jewish& Arab”
“I’m Jewish& white and a Zayde”
“I’m Jewish& Proud of it!”
Jewish& is as open-ended as the Jewish people themselves. There is not now, nor has there ever been a single way to be, look or act Jewish. Jews are the original multicultural people, imbued with the varied influences of a history of migration that has taken us to every corner of the earth and back. The faces on this page are just some of the many many way Jews look Jewish. This blog exists to give voice the variety of Jewish identity. It highlights the ways in which Judaism not only coexists, but thrives with complementary identities. This blog explores the ways in which Jews have built and continue to build complex identities. It is a forum that celebrates the ways in which all Jews are Jewish&.
So tell us, what is your Jewish&?
As summer approaches and we gear up for another terrific session of Camp Be’chol Lashon, I keep thinking about all the kids who—regardless of the camp they are heading to— are worried they might not feel like they “belong.” I relate.My own commitment to Jewish camping comes in part from my childhood experience where I was usually the only Black camper at a variety of Jewish camps. As a camp director, I am committed to making sure that all those in my charge feel connected. And recently, I got a real life reminder of just how important reaching out and connecting can be.
This winter I was honored to attend the Jewish Camp Leaders Assembly in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Attending “Leaders” opened my eyes to the vast world of Jewish camping, meeting and greeting numerous Jewish camp professionals invested in the varying interests and needs of our Jewish youth.
As exciting as this was, I once again had that familiar feeling of being on the outside looking in. I am a fairly new West Coast camp director of a small camp with a strong but still budding reputation. I was out on the East Coast by myself and knew only a handful of people heading into this largely regional powerhouse of Jewish camp staff. And, of course, the most superficial reason of all being that I am a man of color who, among his Jewish peers, looks out of place or invites inquiry as to the validity of my Jewish roots.
After our welcome dinner and schmooze time, like many of the participants I headed toward the hotel watering hole for some group reminiscing. Being new, after a round of small talk, I found myself with a tumbler of whiskey on the rocks playing a game of ‘one-on-none’ at the pool table behind the bar.
A gentleman whom I recognized from dinner approached the table.
He had spoken to the entire group in attendance regarding “Leaders,” touching on the overarching theme of the conference; one field, moving forward. He spoke about his previous work with Campbell Soups and how transitioning to the Jewish camp community allowed him to invest in a community that provided so much, not only to him but also to his loved ones. I had shed my name tag but he approached me and with familiarity said “Kenny, it’s great to have you out here from the West Coast. I get your monthly newsletter and enjoy reading it from top to bottom. I love the work you and your organization and camp are doing collectively.” He hung back and played with me for a bit before heading out. As I placed my empty glass on the counter, as newcomers I got the feeling that we shared a sense of being on the outside. Maybe not, but by coming over he had made me feel so welcome.
I finished my second round of libations and billiards on the solo and made my way to my sleeping quarters. I soon realized I forgot to pay for my drink, and to remove any potential stigma of the Jew of color not covering his bill, I headed back only to find that my tab was covered. I suspected my new friend had something to do with this and went to find him in the program.
It turned out that the same gentlemen who went out of his way to check in and give kudos for the work I do is none other than Jeremy Fingerman, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Jewish Camping. He is one of the greater movers and shakers in the field of Jewish camping.
The following morning at breakfast I sat with one of my former campers who now directs Camp Kee Tov in Berkeley, California. As Zach and I sat among a few familiar faces, I felt a gentle pat on my shoulder followed by “’Morning Ken, it was great talking with you last night!” from Jeremy as he headed to his table up front. Zach’s look of bewilderment, as he questioned how on earth the Foundation for Jewish Camping CEO and I were on a first name basis so quickly, if at all made me realize that now I was an insider. Even though they say it’s lonely at the top, one could argue the same on the side or down through to the bottom
Experiences like this remind me that in today’s Jewish community we each have a responsibility to advocate for one another, take interest in happenings beyond our initial scope, and welcome the idea of making new connections. Diversity and inclusion was more than a topic of conversation or presentation. It is at the heart of what we build as programmers, lay-leaders, directors, staff and campers. We build life-long memories and experiences, where each member leaves camp eager to return the following year and often with companions eager to engage and become members too.
Young Jews today are growing up in a hyper-connected, globalized world. That means they must contend with challenging viewpoints, contrary experiences and differing values. They must not only deal with the multitude of identities to which they are exposed, they must deal with the fact that they, themselves, are developing multiple identities. No Jew is “Just Jewish.” Jews sport all sorts of identities, the ways they express and identify are countless; all Jews are “Jewish&”—hyphenated identities are the norm.
But this is nothing new. The original multicultural people, Jews have lived around the world for millennia. The center of Jewish life has shifted through massive migrations—the Crusades, Inquisition, the Holocaust and other persecutions. Not only is Jewish practice compelling and relevant, Jews are also skilled at adapting to changing circumstances.
Today, Jewish communities are highly dispersed. Even in communities with significant Jewish populations, people are more likely to be scattered among the general population than in previous generations. Jews act like other Americans. And whether through birth, intermarriage, conversion or adoption, we are more diverse than many assume. Approximately 20% of American Jews identify as either non-white or non-Ashkenazi. Race and ethnicity are important elements in shaping Jewish identity and expression.
My son Jonah is a high school student, the youngest of six siblings; he is an avid lacrosse player, who likes to skateboard and hang out with friends & he is African American. When my husband Gary Tobin, of blessed memory, and I adopted Jonah we wanted to find other African American Jewish role models for our son. What started as a research project became Be’chol Lashon, an internationally active growing organization dedicated to celebrating the historic and contemporary diversity that is the global Jewish community.
Young Jews develop and embrace global identities and diverse friendship circles. Diversity and inclusion are important components of the value system of most young people today, and a key lens through which they make choices about engagement in Jewish life. Cultural competence, the ability to interact with, learn from, navigate and incorporate different cultures, is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.
Like Jonah, many Jews simply do not fit into single categories. And this isn’t new. Many of us never have. Peoplehood involves taking seriously the diversity of Jews and the complexity of our history. Jewish& provides an enriched understanding of the many rivers, as Langston Hughes put it, flowing through our veins and into our family’s collective memory. My son Jonah has many elements to his identity, he is Jewish&. In launching this blog, Be’chol Lashon hopes to share some of the many stories and takes on what it means to be Jewish.
More than at any time in the past, we live in a global world. Judaism looks different in different places. We know that there are many Jewish tales to tell and in telling them we will learn and grow together. Stay tuned as we meet Jews who live around the corner and around the world. Join us as we explore the challenges of building an inclusive Jewish community. Take some time to get to know Be’chol Lashon and the work we do. Let us know if you have a story idea, an issue to cover, or a Jewish& experience to share.