Tag Archives: Diversity

Finding Jewish Camelot

SionaSukkah

Artist Siona Benjamin teaching art in the Sukkah

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 spaceeven 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 communityeven if temporarycan 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.

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Posted on October 5, 2014

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Prayer for Diversity

shutterstock_193243367Change is difficult. It can only happen when we reflect on the present and imagine different possibilities for going forward. In the ten days between the welcoming of the New Year, Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition encourages to do just that. There are many prayers that serve as meditations on change. What follows is an adaptation of a traditional prayer meant to help focus our minds on the ways in which we might work to make the world a more tolerate of “others” and engage in the positive celebration of diversity. It wrote this piece with the assistance of Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder and hope you will print out a copy and bring it with you to synagogue or share it as a conversation starter with friends. May we all be inspired to create a better and more inclusive world.

ASHAMNU: We have been guilty. In the past year, I discounted the contributions that people unlike me could make to my community. Next year, I will actively search for ways that those people can be involved, constructively, in our communal efforts.

BAGADNU: We have betrayed. In the past year, I have betrayed my commitment to the mitzvah, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Next year, I will work to love my own “differences” as well of those of my neighbor.

GAZALNU: We have stolen. In the past year, I said things that stole away from other’s sense of legitimacy. Next year, I will find ways to bolster other peoples’ respect and acceptance in my community.

DIBARNU DOFI: We have been hypocritical. In the past year, I have held people unlike me to a standard to which I do not hold myself. Next year, I will work at equalizing those standards, either by raising my standards for myself, as well as relaxing them for others, or by relaxing my personal standards as well.

HE’EVINU: We have caused others to sin. In the past year, I have put up barriers to allowing others to participate fully in the Jewish community and tradition. Next year, I will help lower the barriers to participation in Jewish life.

V’HIRSHANU: And we have made others wicked. In the past year, I persuaded others, in my teaching and my speech, to shrink their boundaries. Next year, I will share messages of inclusion and expansiveness.

ZADNU: We have sinned intentionally. In the past year, I have behaved in ways that exclude others, knowing that what I was doing was exclusionary. Next year, I will listen to the whispering voice of my conscience and act on it, so that I do not exclude others.

CHAMASNU: We have been violent. In the past year, I have let the ends justify the means, ignoring the hurts that result from the methods I used to achieve my goals. Next year, I will pay attention to the process as well at the outcomes.

TAFALNU SHEKER: We have lied In the past year, I have ignored truths in order to maintain my social connections and status. Next year, I will speak truth and work to change opinions of those around me.

YATZNU RA: We have given bad advice. In the past year, I have not taken the time to give counsel those who really need my help. Next year, I will use the breadth of my experience to the best possible advantage.

KIZAVNU: We have been deceitful. In the past year, I lied to myself, saying that I was excluded for my differences, relying on my sense of exclusion, rather than relying on the ways that my actions contributed to difficulties. Next year, I will attempt to judge others favorably, giving them the benefit of the doubt, before placing all the blame on their shoulders.

LATZNU: We have mocked In the past year, I have laughed with discomfort, rather than engaging uncomfortable situations. Next year, I will venture into uncomfortable territory with curiosity, while having compassion on my own discomfort.

MARADNU: We have rebelled. In the past year, I have rebelled for the sake of rebelling, not always with an eye to the consequences of our actions. Next year, I will challenge myself to rebel constructively, in ways that enhance my community.

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Posted on September 22, 2014

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Learning from Little White Lies

Layout 1Growing up biracial in white Jewish family means that you don’t often see others who have your experience/look like you. It is always special to be in Jewish spaces that celebrate diversity and reflect my experience. It is nice to able to connect to others that understand the complexity of my story without extensive explanation, as well as the ordinariness of it.

Which is why I was so interested in seeing Lacey Schwartz’s documentary Little White Lies, which will be premiering at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on Sunday August 3rd. It is exciting to see someone who looks like me on the big screen. I’ve known Lacey for a few years and know her story. I know it is different than my own, but there is a fundamental overlap when it comes to mixed race Jewish identity. Having seen a preview as part of an educational evening at Camp Be’chol Lashon, there were parts of Lacey’s story that reminded me of my own story. After discussing it with the staff and older campers, it seemed that everyone who watched the film could find a part of Lacey’s story that they connected with.

One of the things that struck me about Lacey’s experience was that her identity wasn’t fully complete until she could express it. Lacey’s experience illustrates that a central part of navigating one’s identity is communicating it and sharing it with your friends, family and community. Because identity is not only how you see yourself, but the agency in making sure that how you see yourself is synonymous with the way that others see you. It is a difficult balancing act to make sure that we learn to stack the building blocks of identity into a supportive foundation, without letting them box you in.

We don’t often overtly talk about race in religious spaces, although in my opinion it is impossible to separate the two. My blackness and my Jewishness are equally central to who I am and how I experience the world.

Identity and race is something we all need to be able to talk about—even as Jews.

I’m looking forward to people of all races and ethnicities and religions seeing this movie. I’m curious to hear from all of you about how you relate to Lacey’s story.

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Posted on August 3, 2014

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How Did the Jews Become a Global People?

Jonah_Jacob“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.

Kenya_Menorah_2

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.

Art_Project

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!

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Posted on July 23, 2014

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Not My Mother’s Matzah Balls: My Moroccan Kitchen

I have often joked that I am the only woman in America who doesn’t cook anything that she grew up eating. Now this is not a reflection on my mother’s cooking abilities, but rather a result of my marriage to a Moroccan Israeli with very different ideas of what constitutes good food.

My husband was born in Marrakech and moved as an infant to Beersheva, Israel where much of his family still reside. There amidst the trials and tribulations of raising a family in the “ma’aborot” or tent cities, my heroic mother-in-law cared for her large family. Her main occupation in life was clearly feeding her family and in their home this meant the daily preparation of good Moroccan food translating into hours of daily cooking each day.

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The food and spices she used were completely different than those that constituted my Ashkenazic upbringing. Couscous was a staple and always made properly (no instant Osem for her) and could be combined with vegetables with chicken on the side for a meat meal or could be made dairy and eaten with leben, a yogurt-like cheese quite popular in Israel. Shabbat would include Moroccan fish and would always feature the Moroccan version of cholent called skhina (meaning “hot in Arabic) or hamin (like the Hebrew word for hot, “cham”) which would include foods like eggs in their shells and chickpeas. Other popular dishes were chicken with olives and different vegetable soups including chickpea pumpkin soup, traditionally served on Rosh Hashanah and my son’s favorite.

Moroccan cooks are also famous for their many salads which make their appearance primarily on Friday nights (carrot, beets, anise, pepper, eggplant etc). My mother in law was also busy pickling olives, peppers and carrots.

Of course one cannot discuss Moroccan food without emphasizing the spices. Onion powder and garlic powder, perhaps the staples of Ashkenazic cooking, have no place here. Instead saffron, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, paprika and allspice rule. Moroccan cooks also create their own blended spice called “mashia” which is great on ground beef. Lemons and olive oil are also staples with  preserved lemons often used to flavor various dishes.

Then there are the exquisite foods made for special occasions which I won’t go into here since they merit their own blog post!

I often kid that my husband will only eat food if it is from somewhere between Spain and Iraq (excluding Eastern Europe of course!). Having grown up eating exclusively Moroccan and some Israeli/Middle Eastern food at home, he is not interested in anything else. In fact, when we first started dating he wouldn’t eat anything at my parent’s home not due to any kashrut concerns, but just because everything was so foreign to him. Eventually he tried my mother’s chicken soup, but he prides himself on never having tasted a matzah ball nor gefilte fish.

moroc-salad

The fact is that I have never made these foods. Honestly, I prefer my adopted Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisine. My “mixed” kids get their fix at their grandparent’s home if they need it.  Otherwise, we are all happy embracing our Moroccan heritage.

Moroccan Chickpea/Pumpkin Soup

Ingredients
1 ¼ cups yellow split peas or chickpeas (if using chickpeas, soak for at least ½ hour)
1 large onion, chopped
2 ¾ quarts chicken stock (you can use Osem chicken mix as an option)
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons sunflower oil (I normally use canola)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon saffron
1 pound orange pumpkin, cubed (I use calabazzo pumpkin or a butternut squash will work.  I usually use about 2 pounds though the original recipe suggests 1 pound)
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leafed parsley

Directions
Put the yellow split peas and the onion in a pot with the stock.
Bring to a boil and simmer for at least a ½ hour or until the split peas are tender.
Add salt and pepper to taste, the oil, cinnamon, ginger and saffron and put in the pumpkin.
Simmer until the pumpkin falls apart
Use an immersion blender or a masher to make the soup smoother.
Sprinkle with flat-leafed parsley before serving.

*note that when using chicken powder I omit the salt.  Also the soup can get very thick so feel free to add water to it if it feels too thick.


Moroccan Carrot Salad

Ingredients
2 lbs carrots
2 garlic cloves
2 lemons
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons paprika
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
Flat leaf parsley or coriander
Peel and clean carrots.

Directions
Peel and clean carrots.
Boil carrots until a fork easily pierces the thickest carrot.
Rinse carrots with cold water and then slice them about ¼ to ½ inch thick.
Crush or finely chop the garlic.
Mix the garlic with the juice of two lemons, all the spices and the olive oil.
Toss the carrots with the mixture.
Sprinkle chopped coriander of flat leaf parsley on the top of the carrots and toss.

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Posted on July 17, 2014

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What’s YOUR Jewish&

Group photo“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&?

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Posted on July 7, 2014

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Tikkun Olam on Juneteenth

juneteenth

African American Men’s Group members Carl Crawford, left, and Phil Allen prepare burgers for a free meal for 400 as part of Duluth, Minnesota’s annual Juneteenth celebration. The event commemorates the emancipation of American slaves but also marks the delay in telling them of their freedom. Photo by Ivy Vainio.

Despite the fact that it’s a celebration, I have bittersweet feelings about Juneteenth.

Its origins are traced to Union troops arriving in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, bringing the news of freedom to that region’s slaves—months after the South’s surrender and 2-1/2 years past the Emancipation Proclamation.

That our ancestors were freed from slavery is wonderful. But that they toiled and lived, if they were lucky enough to, a bonus round in bondage because no one got around to telling them the news is horrible. Cynical. Sad.

My own experience for 10 years running is with the African American Men’s Group in Duluth. Every year, we cook and serve more than 400 free meals at the city’s public commemoration of the day.

We’re there because we want to be, the value of our volunteering made ever clear by the heart-rending encounters—especially when the day is marred by rain or unseasonable cold—of those who wait in line a half-hour or more, who are there because they have to be, to eat.

For me, another part of Juneteenth is planning of the event—should we do chicken this year or burgers and brats? — and when the day comes, the priceless faces of preschoolers when asked if they want baked beans or corn. The thank-yous we get in return are payment enough.

Add in singing groups and family activities and a bouncy castle, how could you not have fun? Still, what tinges the day with sadness for me is not its commemoration but its origin, best summed up in two words of black vernacular guaranteed to give any wannabe Chris Rock a field day:

“We free?”

It’s not the embarrassment of the language but the concept of its truth that depresses me. It wasn’t the first time slaves were deceived about their freedom, and not just in the South. Here in Minnesota, as far North as you can get, Dred Scott summered with his so-called master, only to be told by others after returning to Missouri: “Hey—did you know you were free when you were up there?”

That’s what the whole case was about. Look it up.

We free yet, boss?

Maybe I’m just a stick in the mud, or over-internalizing long-ago oppression. Of course freedom is worth celebrating, even if slavery ended with a whimper instead of a bang. That, after all, is what Passover is about, and there’s no question that holiday is a celebration and should be.

But the Jewish liberation theology had a liberator—Moses—let alone God, “with a mighty hand and outstretched sword.” Freed African Americans had only weary Union soldiers mustering out, an assassinated Great Emancipator, and Radical Republicans thwarted by a racist and intransigent Supreme Court. And instead of reaching the Promised Land, black former slaves arrived in the land of Jim Crow, with continued state-sponsored dehumanization.

The result? It’s in the faces of hungry people today, in food lines like ours, where I celebrate freedom and try to repair the world by taking my place in a serving line.

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Posted on June 16, 2014

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Praying for Dad

FatherDaughterDance2

For many, Father’s Day is a time to honor our fathers, and this year, it has particular significance to my family. After my dad, Alan Skobin, survived an emotional battle with a rare form of pancreatic cancer, I am thrilled we get another opportunity to celebrate such an extraordinary man.

When life gives my dad lemons, he isn’t the type to make the tried-and-true lemonade you can get anywhere. He’s the one who turns them into world-class lemon meringue pie. He’s always reaching for the next level, his motto being, “Above and beyond.” He began his involvement with law enforcement as a teenager in the police explorers program, and continued to show his commitment to protecting and serving our community by ultimately finishing as police commissioner. My dad takes this philosophy when it comes to parenting, too. When I attended Northwestern University, he nearly bought out every Northwestern retailer, so he could sport purple pride from every inch of his body, every corner of his office, and every crevice of our home. That’s how proud he was.

This is why he has so many friends. In fact, my dad is a professional friend collector. Everywhere we go, he either makes new friends or runs into old ones. Once, while walking down the streets of Amsterdam, my dad heard someone in the distance shouting, “Hey, Alan!” Even clear across the world, people look for opportunities to call him out as a friend. His old friends, like my father-in-law, Larry, know that he does anything to bring them joy. Since Larry loves all things Chicago Cubs, my dad once arranged for Larry’s favorite ballplayer, Ernie Banks, to come for dinner, just to see the grin on Larry’s face.

DadMom2I am never more thankful for my dad’s army of friends than when he is sick, because they play a significant role in his recovery. I remember one of the earlier times we dealt with a medical obstacle. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and if he survived, we were to expect a completely different man than we knew and loved. Before surgery, the phone rang off the hook and the doorbell chimed endlessly, as all his friends shared their prayers for a speedy recovery. Regardless of differing religious beliefs, “We’re praying for you, Alan” replaced good-bye as the normal send off. I’m not certain that G-d heard these prayers, but my dad did, and at recovery’s toughest moments, they reminded him that he was important to many. Miraculously, he recovered with minimal side effects. This year, as my dad fought pancreatic cancer, my brother and I used social media to update his community. With every post, the support was astounding. As my dad awakened from surgery, amazed that he had survived, he groggily exclaimed to my mom, “Can you imagine the power of prayer?” Afterwards, while he rested in bed, we read him the online responses, and his spirits lifted as he drifted to sleep.

It takes a village to battle serious health issues, and sometimes those of us who acutely support the sick need lifting, too. My mother’s devotion to my dad never waned, and she stayed with him in the hospital even when it was unclear how long his stay would be. She never left his side, and would advocate for him when he wasn’t able to do so for himself. This type of support takes both physical and emotional strength, and as my dad found his through the prayers of his supporters, so did my mom. Stoically, I comforted my family, voicing confidence in our doctors, as we remained publicly optimistic, but privately feared the worst. I learned quickly that the way to excellent post-operative care was through the stomachs of the nursing staff, and I stopped at our favorite Cuban bakery for some treats.

I also prayed. Seeking comfort in the traditions of Judaism, I never missed a Shabbat service. One of the most poignant moments of Shabbat for me is when the rabbi circles the room during the mi shebeirach, or prayer for healing, and the congregants voice the names of the ill. At one particular service, I was ready to say my dad’s name, but before the rabbi reached me, I heard his name called by someone across the room. I felt the power of the prayers reaching me, and for the first time, I cried.

Because of my dad’s army, I understand that his significance goes above and beyond his role as father to my brother and me. He is also a loving husband, a wise grandfather, a giving mentor, and most of all, a good friend. This father’s day, as I reflect on the lives my dad has touched, I will include the other men who have influenced me, and send them a meaningful prayer. After all, you never know who’s listening.

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Posted on June 10, 2014

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A Recipe for Judaism

fried fishWhat makes a fish taste Jewish?

For some, the immediate answer will be pickling and a former home in freshwater. For others, the fish must be salmon-colored and, of course, smoked. For others still, Jewish fish is carp—poached, sweet, and served cold. For Jews in Jamaica, however, the fish will be whole and therefore small. Lightly fried, it will then soak in vinegar with thin slices of white onion and habanero peppers, grated carrot, sprigs of thyme, whole coriander seeds, and allspice balls. For the Jewish Colombians, add lemon.

What accounts for the range?

When describing how Jewish communities have embraced or resisted being changed when making homes in new and different circumstances, commentators typically turn to the metaphor of the bubble or the sponge.

Gefilte_fishIn the first, a fragile and transparent but definite outer boundary insulates the (singular) Jewish community. It can see out and be seen but moves intact through a range of times and places. The bubble would burst if it actually landed and so Jewish people remain Jewish by avoiding becoming like others in their midst.

In the second model, we Jews are defined by our porousness, by unqualifiedly absorbing whatever is in proximity to us. The absence of any outer boundary amounts to an essential orientation of assimilation and openness. Who we are, in terms of any specific content, necessarily shifts with the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

But there is and has been another alternative, one evident in the range of ways to make your fish taste Jewish and in cookbooks like Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York.

Called creolization, it offers a more accurate account of how Jewish communities have remained distinctively Jewish as they have become local to a variety of different parts of the globe. As my husband, Lewis Gordon, often emphasizes: for non-Eastern European Jews, Eastern European Jews seem very Eastern European. For non-Indian Jews, Cochim appear very Indian. But these ways of being local are salient precisely because we also recognize the Jewishness of and in each.

For those who understand Jewish strength as purity and any break from how things were done as dilution or pollution, the historical range of ways of being Jewish is a liability. For them, to be Jewish is to carry on the one, most familiar branch of a far vaster Jewish genealogical tree—to taste Jewish, the fish will be poached and served cold.

But there is also a way of being who we are in and through our relations with others. We might best express core Jewish values by adopting symbols and elements of ritual local to Istanbul, Albuquerque, or Kaifeng, Prague, Mbale, or Santiago. These might offer us the possibility of continuing who we have been through what is new.

Products of creolization typically pose a fundamental challenge to our previous self-understandings. They unsettle us because while they implicate us as Jews—they too are expressions of who we are—they take forms and suggest future trajectories that our standard conceptions of our people’s past and present would not have anticipated.

That Judaism is thoroughly creolized is not new. What, after all, were the Roman Judaism of Josephus, the Andalusian Judaism of Moses Maimonides, and the American Judaism of Abraham Joshua Heschel?

What is novel is the opportunity to look into the refracted mirror of our 21st-century community and to grapple with what it means for who we want to become. We would do well to add to the models of the bubble and sponge, the creolizing quality of our Jewish past and present.

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Posted on June 2, 2014

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The 70 Faces of Shavuot

shavuotAccording to Jewish tradition, the Torah has seventy “faces,” but is still one, unified Torah. On Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai with customs that celebrate the gift of Torah, and show the same diverse presentation of a few unifying core ideas. Each Jewish culture is unique, and at the same time, integrated with the worldwide Jewish community.

There are many special foods for Shavuot, in different Jewish cultures. Dairy is popular because, when the Israelites in the desert received the Torah, including the kosher laws, there was no kosher meat yet available. Torah is compared to honey, so many traditional Shavuot foods are sweet, as well. Persian Jews make “Polao mastin” a dish made of rice and milk, and “koltcha shiri,” a dairy cake, while in Greece there is a special dairy porridge made with cinnamon called “sutlag.” In Poland, cheesecake is the traditional Shavuot dessert. Libyan Jews make necklaces strung with cookies or pretzels in symbolic shapes for their children. Iraqi Jews make “sambusak,” a savory pastry filled with cheese. The exact details of the menu are fluid—any interpretation of a dairy meal and dessert would be appropriate. This is an excellent opportunity to try out a new recipe, symbolic of our renewed relationship with Torah, or to take the time for an old family favorite, to celebrate your roots.

It is common for communities to prepare their synagogues for Shavuot with natural decorations. Greek Jews historically decorated their synagogues with green branches and a variety of flowers. Even today Bukharan Jews use red roses. In Poland, synagogues were decorated with flowers, branches, and paper cuttings called “reizelach,” or roses, in Yiddish. German Jews would place two flowering branches on either side of the Ark, as a symbol that Torah is our Tree of Life. Consider decorating your synagogue or home with local, in season, flowers and greenery.

Traditional communities hold a “Tikkun Leil Shavuot,” a nighttime Torah study session which can last anywhere from a couple of hours to all night long. In some communities this is held in the synagogue, while in others, it is located private homes. People may recite specific passages from different traditional texts, while others prepare different topics, which change from year to year. Study is a potent way of renewing our understanding of Torah.

Shavuot is full of opportunities for communal gatherings and fun. Libyan and Moroccan Jews spray water onto passersby, because the Torah is compared to water, and our reconnection to Torah is a source of blessing. Ethiopian Jews gather together, bringing bread and other grains for the Kes, their religious leader, to bless, after which the entire community eats together. On some Israeli Kibbutzim, people have revived the agrarian side of Shavuot and have a parade with baskets of the first produce of the season. Whether you want to make a meal with seasonal produce, or have a picnic and water balloon fight, you will be in good company among the global Jewish community.

Around the world, Jews celebrate Shavuot in a variety of ways—but at their root, they come back to the same sources and the same ideas. It celebrates the diverse ways in which we relate to Torah, all of which are true, just as we have diverse ways of celebrating, all of which are the real Jewish way to do things. One thing is for certain—whichever way you choose to celebrate Shavuot this year, you will meet one of Torah’s seventy faces.

Posted on May 27, 2014

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