Pining for adventure? Missing the warmth and the sun? The Be’chol Lashon/Vanderbilt Hillel Student Trip to Colombia combined both together service learning for some incredible life lessons. The students themselves share some observations of this exceptional adventure.
Day 1: “Bienvenidos a Bogotá” the capital of Colombia, the thriving heartbeat of a vibrant nation, a city full of exciting people, and traffic. We met our Be’chol Lashon guide, Aryeh. Then it was off to visit Monserrate, the towering peak that overlooks Bogotá like a watchful sentinel. We were rewarded with spectacular views of the entire city sprawled out before us. At the Bogotá Chabad house, we experienced Shabbat services before digging in to a mouthwatering feast, complete with plenty of Hebrew songs and “l’chaims”. For many of us, it was a welcome reminder of the type of uniquely Jewish revelry we’d all enjoyed as children. (Gideon Ticho)
Day 2: The experience we shared at the Conservative synagogue, Asociación Israelita Montefiore, opened our eyes to a completely new Jewish perspective. We spoke to Adriano who taught us about what it is like to not only be a Colombian Jew, but also what it is like to be a “converso,” someone who converted to Judaism, in Bogotá. We also learned about new Jewish communities that are forming in other Colombian cities! Once Shabbat was officially over, we went out with Colombian Jewish students! We learned not only what it is like to be a Colombian Jew, but also what it is like to be a young Jewish person in Colombia! (Erika Slepian)
Day 3: Among the highlights of the day was the visit to Museo de Oro: Banco de la Republica, where we learned about the history of metallurgy in Colombia. The themes of eroticism, motherhood and animals in particular were emphasized in the museum; Zenú was a society run by women (!!), and controlled the politics and practices within it. Although indigenous culture largely disappeared after the arrival of the Spaniards, the fact that a society ruled by women was able to exist in Colombia so long ago was both fascinating and inspiring to me. This theme of feminine strength was echoed in Rabbi Yehoshua’s sermon from Shabbat morning about Purim, specifically the inner courage of Esther as both a woman and a fairly non-religious woman. (Nicole Rakusin)
Day 4: We went to the outskirts of Bogota, and explored the Salt Cathedrals and listened to our Colombian guide tell us the history and the meaning of the various rooms and crosses around the underground cathedral. It was a very beautiful area and unique to learn about the Christian history of this city. Following the Cathedral, we went to a delicious restaurant and feasted on native Colombian dishes. Our long meals are always filled with hilarious moments and meaningful conversations.
It is so humbling and unique to be able to discuss Israel and our beliefs in God while in such a small yet vibrant Jewish community in South America. I think we all are truly growing as individuals here and will return to America more knowledgeable, proud, and inspired to spread world Jewry. (Renee Lewis)
Day 5: I think everyone can agree that today’s experience at the Aldeafeliz EcoVillage was eye opening. We visited the community compost, walked through the one room schoolhouse, and admired the sights and sounds of the Colombian rainforest. Fabio helped us get in touch with our spirituality by leading a meditation on a sacred piece of land that has been used for prayer for over 5000 years. Prior to lunch, a few members of the group walked down to the river, waded in and sat among the rocks, and listened to the sounds of water rushing. We agreed that in that moment, we felt more tranquil and at peace with ourselves than we had in months. (Jacqueline Gottuso)
Day 6 -8: We arrived on the Caribbean coast city of Santa Marta. We played on the beach for before meeting up with the Jewish community of Santa Marta. We went through the Purim service and then proceeded to dance and party with the community throughout the night. (Darby Howard)
A little bit about Javura Shirat Hayyam: this is the facility used for all the Jewish life in Santa Marta. It is a house that was purchased by the Jewish community a short while ago and each room in the house serves a different purpose. There is a kitchen, dinning room, a schoolroom, two bedrooms and a sanctuary. This house does not look like a synagogue—so we were given the challenging tasks of painting two rooms, spreading gravel in the yard and decorating the schoolroom. We did it all and made the schoolroom look like a proper cheder (Yiddish for Jewish school) Thanks to the Brandeis Hillel Day School for all the artwork! (Daniel Reches)
Day 9: Our last day in Colombia and was filled with bittersweet emotion of most of us. In the afternoon, the entire group gathered to give Aryeh feedback on the trip and help him out with planning his future trips. We went around a circle and shared our highs and lows of the journey. Overall, it was clear that the highs outweighed the lows! (Danielle Honigstein)
Aryeh the guide reflects on the trip as a whole: The enthusiasm and thoughtfulness of this group is a sign of the strength and vitality of the Jewish future. The students themselves are a a diverse group with different points of view about the important issues in life but the engaging with a variety of Jewish communities in Colombia expanded the conversation further. Of course the swimming in the surf and the fresh coconuts were fantastic too!
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?
Imagine Purim by the crystal clear and warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. No need for warm costumes or shoveling out the entrance to the synagogue. This week not one but two Jewish communities will have the opportunity to do just that, in a modern and multicultural celebration of an ancient Jewish holiday.
The blue sea is the only backdrop the Jews of Santa Marta Colombia have ever known to Purim and other Jewish holidays. They are an emerging community made up exclusively of Caribbean converts who, in the past decade, have built a small but strong chavurah, prayer community. Generally they are on their own when it comes to Jewish life. But this week, students from Vanderbilt University Hillel are joining them.
The 10 day alternative spring break for the visit, organized in conjunction with Be’chol Lashon is introducing these American Jews to the richness and diversity of Jewish life in Colombia. They started in the heights Bogata, where they met the established historic Jewish community before setting off for the shores of Caribbean.
In coming to Santa Marta, these young American Jews will be exposed to a community which, like a time machine, mirrors the origins of their own communities in North America many decades or centuries ago (picture the first Jews of New Amsterdam, or the first Jews to wander into the Tennessee frontier). There is a one-room synagogue with one little Torah and a small Hebrew Sunday School. There is no fancy buildings, no rabbi in site, but bucketfuls of enthusiasm to make Jewish life thrive and grow in a place where it had not before.
At the same time, the Colombian Jews will be confronted with the image of complex hyphenated Jewish American youths coming from a place where Judaism feeds the surrounding culture and is in turn nourished and morphed by it: almost a utopian dream for such a small minority culture, still in its institutional and demographic infancy.
However, as it has happened in the past with other visiting Jews, the common threads of our story will bind us together. The American students will not be eating hamentaschen this year, but rather, they will feast on a very different gastronomy. The music coming out of the speakers (louder than most American are accustomed to) during the Purim celebration will be ripe with foreign cadences. And yet, it will still be Purim. Unequivocally Purim. With Esther and Mordechai and gifts for the poor, and mishloach manot. Haman will be cursed not only in one but in many languages. Despite their differences, in the illustrious tradition of Jewish travelers throughout time, both groups will find common ground.
And it is particularly fitting that this encounter of two cultures is happening on Purim, the first truly global holiday. A people dispersed throughout the 127 provinces of the vast reaching Persian Empire, from India to Ethiopia (meHodu vead Kush) found joint reasons for revelry, and, in doing so, started to take responsibility for one another across the broad expanses of Diaspora, language, and culture. The encounter between Vanderbilt Hillel’s alternative spring break and the local Jewish community of Santa Marta will honor and renew the commitment “assumed and received” by the Jewish people on that first Purim of finding common ground in the face of adversity, but also, not less profoundly, in the promise of shared joy.
This idea came from a Holocaust survivor, no less, who decided in the death camps that he can determine the fate of his inner world, and later suggested in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that your identity does not need to depend on what is going on around you, and that you can control the spirit’s choice as how to respond to any given the situation. Indeed, also under the harshest realities of the African slave-trade, what did many of them do? They stood above their oppressors by singing soul songs, Spirituals, to channel their souls cry of inner yearning. Yes, while in the net of captivity, the heart soared with the eagle’s eyes protecting the soul, but what about the lions kinship to protect their physical freedoms? Would the spirituals freedoms be enough?
“Build for me a sanctuary so that my presence may dwell among you (25:8)”
Busying up nearly 1/3 or the Biblical text, the Mishkan takes the cake as the single most important Biblical creation made by Man. One artistic craft found in the Mishkan’s blueprint, that joins the sacred and the profane, the subtle opposites found in our human experience, are the curtains which serve as the inner and our ceiling covers. From within the Tabernacle, says the Talmud (Yoma 72b), one could see “A lion from this side, and eagle from that side.” From above the Tabernacle, one could see the Tachash hide, which as mentioned by the great Biblical commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (RaSHI), was multi-colored animal that only lived during that specific generation (26:1).
An Eagle (spiritual) and a Lion (physical), have you, needed to be interwoven into the very fabric of our existence—literally. For without this space, and joining of dualities, Mankind, and the legacy of Abraham would cease to exist. This edifice of hope, this manifesto, of the spiritual to dwell in context, and freely among the physical, was the Tabernacle, the Mishkan.
That is why, according to Rav Kook (Orot HaKodesh 2:439), that the holiness of the Holy of Holies only comes into creation, after we separate a location as something above what the individual relates to, and rather to name it as a light-house for all to reference. Because by saying that you and me both can call the same thing special, is the way that the Lion comes to lead on soil and the eagle comes to lead in the skies. It is by joining the song within the sanctuary that causes the outer to reflect the inner: A Tachash, a diverse, colorful people with many layers, many colors, and many thoughts, to all dwell within the Holiest of places.
Similarly, Purim is just two weeks away! And today marks the head of the new month of “Adar!” J J J Our Rabbis teach that one reason why King Achashreirosh was considered an evil person was because he confused the Jews out of spiritual longing, by creating lavish parties, a physical place without a soul. He caused others to think that the soul’s deepest desires do not come from the same place as your neighbor’s, namely the Temple (Mishkan), but rather “according to each person’s desire (Esther 1:8).”
Mordechai the Jew would not show to these events, but waited always, at the “Kings gate,” he stood above. But as the story unfolds, it was not enough to dwell with individual holiness, a Mishkan was needed so that fate of my soul and yours are linked. The place of the Lion and Eagle could not be forgotten.
“Ba’yamim HaHaym, Bazman Hazeh—In those days, and in these.”
The baggage claim at the airport in Gondar, Ethiopia is still by far the most humorous way I have yet to collect my luggage after flying. A massive crate is hauled from the plane and dumped into a heaping pile of blues, blacks and greys, with all the creative markings to let each person know which bag belonged to them. As we all pushed and pulled bags aside looking for our own, I noticed other farengie–Amharic for light skinned people, claim their belongings. Though a few glared at my kippah and Tzizit in perplexity, I was used to it, and smiled in return. Later that night, as I walked from my hotel-room for dinner I passed by an open room and looked inside while passing. I noticed some of the same people from the airport! Before I was even a meter away from their door, one calls out “execuse me, man from the airport!” I turn back and stand at their doorway and begin interacting with them around global service.
It turned out they were on service trip as a part of their church from New Orleans, and the room that I was neighboring was the pastor herself! She exclaimed “I didn’t know that Jews like yourself do work like this!” I told her all about the organization my cohort was representing, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and how this organization has been honored by many high ranking officials for their work in the region, she was delighted. We exchanged words of Torah, discussed the power of religious values in helping the underserved populations around the world. Before leaving, I shook her hand and kissed my own. When asking me why I kissed my hand, I asked her: “what does one do when they drop the Bible on the floor?” she quickly responded with a smile and thanked me. I said the Bible has God in it, and so do you, to that I turned to leave and said “we are in this together.”
It is by way of logic that Mankind understands the importance of one another. Everything from scientific discoveries within medicine to your community shopping center involves your fellow human being. We share the same air and benefit from the billions of organisms within nature. With all this in mind our religion, language, and personal egos drives us away from one another, limiting the opportunity to connect to other souls of G-d (Jewish and non-Jewish). But that is not the Jewish way…
“Rabbi Yehuda Ben Levi said if you see a black, red, white, fat, or short person, say Blessed are You our G-d King of the Universe who makes his creations different (Brachoat 59a).”
Regardless of our religious or political preferences, morals are at the core of our family framework and even societal practice. We are reminded of these morals on a day to day basis, because they are fueled by logic and common sense. The laws introduced to us in this week’s Torah portion are not only the focus of nearly one third of the Talmud, many of them are not dependant on ethnicity, religion, kind or creed. “These are the laws that you should set before them (21:1).”
In the heart of this week’s Torah portion the verse states “do not oppress the stranger amongst you for you know the essence of stranger-hood since you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” This is a law so significant that it is the essence of mankind, despite all this ritual purity triumphs, haughtiness penetrates and loneliness overcasts. Is this commandment logical? “To not oppress the stranger amongst you,” if one were stuck on an island with a total stranger, there is a greater chance of survival if the stranger becomes comrade. Unfortunately thought, these teachings placed before us have become a secret to the masses, and the disconnect between what we believe and what practice is still present.
Whether we shame ourselves for our ancestry because of evil’s undying power, or we believe that doubt and isolation is the cornerstone of our existence, we must remember that our continuous desire for clarity and comfort amongst each other, and even those who are foreign to us is acquired through common ties, and universal morale, stating clearly, that even in Gondar, Ethiopia, we are in this together.
Our very existence depends on the stranger amongst us. Remember you too are a stranger if not in your comfort zone, you too have been challenged by your neighbor and cast into isolation. Rabbi Akiva of the Talmud lived in a time when Torah was forbidden to be learned or even practiced, and he was murdered because of his desire to find residence within a time of chaos, to create a place for all strangers to go to. As he took his last breathes, his last words were “echad,” one. Rabbi Akiva brought all people together regardless of who they were, why? Because he too was a stranger — his last word: unity (Echad). There is not enough time in the world for us to remain divided. Unity is what will save our micro and macro, community and national identity.
L’chaim- to life, but to celebrate without knowing, would merely divert those from seeing my true being. You see, what you see is nothing short of brilliance, of strength, of success and triumph. But that is something that took decades to discover.
My entire life has been surrounded by the question, what are you? Rather than who are you? And though they say your past makes your present it was never a present hearing that question.
My personal favorite, are you like actually Jewish? Because we were just wondering what you are because I mean, obviously you don’t look Jewish.
I stared blankly, suddenly overcome with true emptiness. I responded with … Nothing, because an answer would mean just that, nothing. Because I would never look Jewish enough and I would never sound authentic enough because to them I wasn’t enough. But I felt like I should have been more than enough.
My life consisted of not black enough, not white enough, not Jewish enough. Hair not straight enough, not curly enough. Skin not light enough not tan enough. Hips not small enough, nose not big enough. Lips well … Lips … just shut enough to never utter a word about how I felt.
How I felt hearing the phrases nigger, kike, schvartse, dirty Jew, Oreo, mullato, outcast, different, rare and exotic.
Lips just shut enough to never tell anyone how it felt to be me. How it felt to see your mouth drop when my black father attended events at my all white elementary school. How it felt to hear you say that I was just another money hungry Jew. How it felt to see you cringe and clench at the sight of a black man walking down the street. How it felt to hear your forced apology after making a sick Holocaust joke.
And how it felt to hear you deny me of myself, deny the very essence and make-up of my being.
Now, here I am. And from this point forward I will not, and can not be silenced! I am here to give voice to the voiceless. To speak for those who never got the chance. For those who were disregarded, beaten, and forced into slavery. For those who were stripped of their family, dignity, and life, in the Holocaust.
I am here, and I am proud because I am mixed with the two races whom experienced the most hatred, bigotry, discrimination, and racism in the world, but still manage to be here.
I know what it’s like to hate everything about yourself. I know what it’s like to pray to Hashem, my G-d, to make me like everyone else. I know what it’s like to have my own relatives make excuses for my racial identity. I know what it’s like to stand out, and to be the outcasted other. I know what it’s like to hear your closets friends make slurs and remarks that could kill, about who you are. I know what it’s like to want to run and hide from the world.
But I also know what it’s like to discover that all of that gave me the strength I needed to share this with you.
Now, I smile at the reflection in the mirror. Now, I thank G-d everyday for making me who I am. Now, I couldn’t wish to be anything less than what I am. And now I pray, in the words of my Hebrew brothers and sisters.
ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקנו מלך העולם שעשני כרצונו Baruch Atah Adonai, Alohaynu melech Ha’Olam, sha-asani keertsono. Blessed are you Lord our G-d, king of the universe, who made me according to his will.
ותודה לה’ שנתת לי כוח V’ Todah L’Hashem shenatata li koach.
And thank you G-d for giving me strength.
There is a myth that Jewish music is “always in a minor key,” and often echoes themes of pieces like “Hava Nagila” and “Kol Nidrei.” So last spring when I met with Judi Lamble, the coordinator and Michael Olsen, the conductor of the Twin Cities Jewish Choral, we knew that a global Jewish music concert was the best way to debunk the myth!
Because Jews have settled in countries around the world throughout history and have adopted the sounds, tastes and customs of their host countries, our music has often taken on the styles of the countries we have lived in. So it is not unusual to have a Jewish folk song that sounds like a Yugoslavian dance, a “L’cha Dodi” that rocks to an African beat, or a love song written in Ladino, which grew out of Medieval Spanish.
When I was in my first year of cantorial school in Jerusalem, Eli Schleiffer, the director of the cantorial program, took us to Shabbat evening services in different synagogues every few weeks. Afterwards, we would gather in someone’s home for Shabbat dinner, and Cantor Schleiffer would lead Kiddush in the musical style of the synagogue we’d just visited! I was astounded that the same text could be sung to so many different tunes, and thus was born my fascination with Jewish music from around the world. I loved that we had this treasure trove of wildly varied music that we could call ours.
This intrigue led me to write my senior cantorial thesis, accompanied by a recital of the same theme, about Sephardic wedding music. Under this one umbrella, I was able to write about and sing music from Greece, Morocco, Spain and Yugoslavia. I was even able to study directly with Flory Jagoda, a Bosnian Jewish living legend, who has perpetuated a centuries-old tradition by writing new Sephardic music including “Ocho Kandelikas,” a well-known Hanukkah song.
So when I had an opportunity to plan a concert with another choir, I mentioned the possibility of featuring Jewish music from around the world. The idea was met with great enthusiasm. Our children’s and teen choirs are deep into rehearsing a Yiddish song, a Sufi-tuned “Hinei Mah Tov,” a Ladino children’s song, and a psalm from Calcutta. I am proud to pass along the chain of Jewish tradition that has so many interesting links, and the kids love it. Our adult choir, along with the Twin Cities Jewish Chorale is learning a choral arrangement of “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Ugandan “Hinei Mah Tov,” and, of course, some Israeli music.
I look forward to presenting this concert in our sanctuary, designed by the German Jewish architect, Erich Mendelsohn for a then Classical Reform American synagogue that now features Jewish music from around the globe and throughout history. I know there will be much interest, many surprises and, hopefully, a lot of questions.
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.
Before attaining my Master of Social Work, I had the honor of helping many sick people live out their final months comfortable in hospice. Clients passed away, loved ones wailed as the coffin is lowered, and me, the social work intern, was left to support, love, guide, facilitate. Out of all of the things I have learned (so far) in this capacity, the most compelling is that the fragility of life calls to the healthy to breathe deeply, laugh loudly. Let the sobriety of personal grit and ambition keep you sensitive to what life has in store for you.
Easier said than done.
Regardless of age, the thought that lays at the base and forefront of most human consciousness is the uncertainty as to what will become of our existence. A person may be an established teacher, CEO or other sorts of professionals, and may have eloquent and intellectual capacities, and even have the riches of a king but no matter what they achieve, each and every person carries an unknown fate – we do not know when we will die. The billions of eulogies throughout world history cause the same emotional response in the listeners. As the deceased is lowered in the ground, we wonder, “what will become of me?”
In this week’s Torah portion we learn about the death of Jacob and then his son Joseph: the two individuals whose stories engage nearly half the book of Genesis, and whose blood lines ultimately establish the Jewish people as a nation. Jacob’s death was no happenstance. Jacob awaited to see his son Joseph and his brothers, though in a foreign land, together again.
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) teaches that before Jacob, there was no illness to indicate death was imminent. Death was sudden. A person would sneeze, and his soul would depart. Jacob prayed for sickness so that there would be a sign for the individual, so s/he could properly prepare a will for his offspring and bid farewell to the physical realm systematically. As the Torah tells us in Genesis 48:1, “And it was, after many things transpired, he said to Joseph ‘behold your father is ill.’ He took his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh with him (to be blessed).” Illness provided Jacob time to say his good byes and bestow blessings.
Death is inescapable, and happens to each person regardless of financial status, skin-color or political party. We cannot pray for immortality, but there is something worth praying for! We can pray for the gift of time-consciousness, the living reminder to bless, feel blessed, and be blessed. We can pray for that inner voice to remind us periodically, that health is a privilege not a guarantee. We should take the time we have and make the most of it.
“Heal us HaShem and we shall be healed, Save us HaShem and we will be Saved.”
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.