This summer Lindsey Newman and Josh Rothstein are going to be leading the first free Taglit Birthright Israel trip with a focus on diversity. We asked Lindsey what draws her to Israel.
Israel is a place where I learned about diversity– before I could articulate what diversity meant, I was able to see it and live it. As a Jew of color growing up in a mostly white community in New York City, it was sometimes hard to find diversity and diverse role models to look up to. But when I first arrived in Israel at age 7, my sense of what Jewish looked like expanded immediately.
My family returned to Israel the next summer, when I was 8, this time staying for two months and living in Jerusalem. I was among an international contingent of American, Israeli and Israeli Arab children all enjoying the best that summer camp has to offer. Most of what I knew of Israel at that time was watermelon ice pops, flying kites on the Jerusalem promenade, and Bisli. For a Jew of color, from a mixed race background and multiracial family, it was one of the first times in my life that I felt I fully belong among the rich tapestry of Jewish life.
Later I returned as a teen, for a summer program that brought together participants from all across the US and Israel, I became friends with Jews whose parents and/or grandparents were born in Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran, Russia, France, Greece and elsewhere. While I still have a soft spot for brisket, the traditional meal I had at my friend’s Iraqi-Algerian home is still the best Rosh Hashanah meal I’ve ever had. (Although I must admit, I passed when the fish head was offered to me even though it’s good luck.)
Through art, travel, study and just getting to know each other, we wrestled with what it means to be Jewish, what it means to us personally to be a Jew, and what it means to live with other Jews. We tested each other, and we learned from each other. We were reminded that Judaism is not a singular experience– we are a diverse global people with different customs, complexions and experiences.
Israel was one of my first positive experiences with Jewish diversity in all its iterations. Of course, with diversity comes complexity, and exploring Israel meant coming face to face with its triumphs and its challenges. But facing this complexity can be incredibly valuable, for out of struggle can come strength.
These Israel experiences inspired me to create a Birthright trip with a focus on diversity. Diversity is a universal issue but it is also a Jewish issue and in my experience there is no better place to experience it than Israel. I’m looking forward to sharing the many flavors, sounds, and customs of Israel’s many multicultural communities and individuals. I’m looking forward to discussing and debating the challenges of diversity and identity –in a setting that deals with these issues all the time. I’m looking forward to getting to know a bus filled with Jews from all over the United States who represent the many ethnic, racial and cultural heritages that are the contemporary community. And of course I’m looking forward to Bisli and just hanging out by the pool.
My husband, Grant and I have worked together to rear our children in the Jewish faith. We made a conscious effort to place our family in diverse cities: New York, Los Angeles and now the Bay Area – to expose them to a variety of cultures and ethnicities.
What challenges have I really faced? What have I done to remind our children that they aren’t just Jewish but Filipino. What have I done to help them embrace the culture that I grew up in?
Filipino culture is rooted – for the most part – in three major areas: religion, family and food.
I grew up Catholic. Went to Catholic school from high school through college and even after graduating and living in San Francisco I would still attend mass every Sunday. Partly because I knew my Mom would ask if I went and I couldn’t be dishonest with her.
I remember big dinners on Sundays or celebrations where everyone came together and there was always a table filled with almost every traditional Filipino dish you could imagine. Every get together had its share of both family drama and laughter.
So when I think about what I have done to make an effort to infuse my Filipino background with our family – I don’t see challenges – if anything I see similarities.
We stress the importance of our Judaism, especially in a world where we try to explain to our children why we don’t celebrate Christmas when one set of grandparents do, that the Easter bunny will never come hopping by our home, and that matzoh for a whole week can be rather tasty – you just have to know how to bring out the flavor.
We are doing our very best to give our children the strongest foundation we can. With that foundation we stress the importance of being true to who you are – embracing the beauty and traditions of our religion and the legacy of all the Jewish people before us.
We light the candles every Friday and have family Shabbat dinner. We spend time with family and friends over the Jewish holidays – surrounded by food and laughter – creating memories.
A perfect example of how we have effortlessly combined Filipino and Jewish tradition happened on the night of Yom Kippur. I asked the family what they would like for Shabbat dinner and the unanimous vote was chicken adobo – a traditional Filipino dish – with green beans and garlic, rice and of course, a challah.
One would immediately think, “What an interesting pairing…” but it showcases our family off perfectly.
This is who we are.
We are Jewish and Filipino. The integration of both cultures has been a seamless one because we have adopted the same value system from each one. We value our religion. We value our family. And. We love food.
We celebrate our diversity and feel so blessed that our children will grow up being proud of not only being Jewish but being Filipino.
This piece was first shared from the bimah at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos, California.
Drake’s recent SNL skit (see below), perhaps unwittingly but then again perhaps not, highlighted how a bar or bat mitzvah can deeply impact how a young person views his or her Jewish identity in the context of other identities. A bar or bat Mitzvah can be a defining moment in the development of one’s Jewish identity, but it can also feel like prioritizing one identity over others. Especially for the growing population of Jews from mixed racial, ethnic, religious and other backgrounds, the bar or bat mitzvah may be the first setting where the varied familial and sometimes non-familial influences of a young Jew come together under Jewish auspices. It can be a valuable opportunity to celebrate and honor the multiple elements of a child’s identity. One need not leave heritage at the door when stepping forward as a Jew. On the contrary, it is perhaps the best time to reassure young Jews that participation in Jewish life does not diminish any other aspects of one’s self.
Below is a list of some general suggestions on how a family or community might create multicultural b’nai mitzvah celebrations. These are general in nature and we would love to hear from families, clergy and communities that have found their own ways to engage multiple heritages.
Music: Jewish services rely on music and even the Torah is chanted. Most American synagogues rely on music that is either American, or European in origin. However, there are multitude of rich Jewish musical traditions representing the myriad of places there have been or are currently Jewish communities. Ask about learning to chant Torah in a different nusach or tune, or bring in piyyutim or prayers that represent a different Jewish cultural heritage. There is a long tradition of adapting secular tunes to sacred words. This can similarly be done to connect the songs of one culture with the prayers of Judaism.
Torah Study: Bar and Bat Mitzvah students usually share some insights into the weekly Torah portion. If your family traces origins to Spain, for example, ask your rabbi if there are any sources he or she can recommend that are Spanish or descended from Spanish Jews. Indian? Then draw on the wisdom of Indian Jewish tradition. Throughout the generations, rabbis have learned from the wisdom that lies beyond the Jewish community. Not specifically Jewish sources of wisdom can also be consulted in helping to shape or answer questions that will be addressed by the child in question.
Dress: Nowhere is it written that one must wear a suit or a dress and heels on the bimah. Kimonos, saris, or kilts are all perfectly acceptable for the child and the family members. Kippot can be made from any kind of material and look great in tartan, African cloth or Thai Batik. Similarly, tallitot, prayer shawls, can be made from any cloth as long as there are four corners with proper tzitzit knotted on each.
Language: English is not a sacred Jewish language. American Jews use English because it helps us understand the Hebrew -which is a sacred language, which most of us don’t know. So if your family speaks Korean, Amharic, or Flemish, send out multilingual invites or consider sharing some of the blessings in that language. Worried your guests won’t understand? Don’t be. Many don’t get the Hebrew either but we know from experience that they can find that meaningful.
Food: There is nothing holy about lox and cream cheese. Kimchi or Jerk chicken are just as appropriate for a Kiddush or for your party. If your caterer is unfamiliar with a dish that you hold dear, consider sharing some family recipes. Just check in with the synagogue that to be sure that what you are serving accords with the dietary policies.
Artwork: Art from another culture can be incorporated into the celebration in a variety of ways, on the invitation, the insert in the prayer books, as decorations in the synagogue or celebration hall. I attended a celebration at an Orthodox synagogue recently to find Japanese origami garlands festooned in the sanctuary to honor the mother’s culture. Let the creativity extend to flower or table arrangements as well.
Mitzvah Project: Many communities have made doing good works, Tikkun Olam, a part of the process of preparing for becoming bar or bat mitzvah. From collecting money for a project in a distant land to volunteering to help new immigrants from a familial country of origin, there are countless ways the bar or bat mitzvah can use their Mitzvah project to bridge the components of their identities.
It is an incredible responsibility to raise a child. In choosing foreign adoption, we have become parents to a beautiful daughter and added a new culture to our family life.
Our daughter, Eliyana Bracha Nuhamin, became legally ours on Nov 18th, 2013. As part of our adoption hearing we promised to bring her up with pride in her Ethiopian heritage. This was a joyful promise to make as we have fallen in love with the beauty of our daughter’s homeland. However, the reality of making it happen must go beyond clothing and food and reach the core of Ethiopian values and pride.
The first time we met our daughter at the Ethiopian orphanage the nanny told us what a good baby she was. She was polite. “Polite” is the highest praise for children in Ethiopian culture. It means they are not demanding. They are patient. They are accepting. Eliyana Nuhamin is a pretty happy and content baby. When she is not laughing, a quiet serenity emanates from her.
I have always prided myself on my Jewish inquisitiveness. Questioning is talmudic value. How will this mesh with the Ethiopian values of patience and quiet acceptance? We will have to keep our eyes open as we navigate these waters.
The depth of poverty in Ethiopia is truly shocking. In America, where we have so much: It is a blessing but it spoils us. If we are to be true to our daughter’s roots, to the values of her country of birth, we will have to guard our daughter’s precious Ethiopian politeness and learn from her .
Love in Ethiopia is given to children with cuddles and caresses and layers upon layers of clothing. (Bundling children in clothing is a sign of love.) A school child often receives new clothing as a reward for school work. There are few toy varieties. Storytelling, singing, and dancing are the main entertainment and for children they always hold lessons of cultural value. The Jewish parallel here warms my heart.
Family togetherness is highly valued. Farm village children are still excused from school to help the harvest. Women wear their babies wrapped on their backs so that they are always together.
The Ethiopians are a beautiful people, very polite, usually smiling. Haggling in the market is just as often done with smiles and giggles as it is with serious concentration. Traditional meals are communal: Injera bread, coverered with stew is placed in the center of the group for all to enjoy. Time is taken every day to meet with neighbors and family over coffee and popcorn in the traditional coffee ceremony. Hospitality is important. These too are Jewish values.
These are a people of deep pride. Dinknesh, meaning “you are lovely,” is the Ethiopian name given to the 4 million year old remains of the first human. (The English world calls her Lucy.) Seeing her tiny skeleton surrounded by the tremendous pride of the Ethiopian people was very moving. This is the country from which emanated humanity.
Ethiopia, birthplace of coffee, is the only African country never to have been colonized. The Italians tried in 1935 but were ousted by 1940. The royal family traced it’s ancestry to King Solomon of Jerusalem and the Ethiopian church claims guardianship of the lost ark of the covenant. They are a people of deep pride and beauty. There are over 70 different Ethnic groups in the country each with their own distinct language. When I asked someone why the children of Ethiopia are so beautiful, he answered it was the blending of all that was best of these different groups.. then he smile and said, but mostly it is God.
Beauty and dignity are everywhere in Ethiopia. A church holiday gave us the treat of watching lines of Ethiopians in traditional white robes walking along the road to church carrying colorful umbrellas. The farm homes may have been quiet mud huts but the churches and mosques were elegant colorful buildings announcing their congregations joy. I loved the many groups of animals we passed in the countryside: cattle with desert humps on their back, spotted goats and sheep and donkeys driving carts of farm produce behind them. Often it was the children moving the animals from one place to another.
I know it pains the Ethiopian people to see their children adopted out of country. These children lose the blessings of belonging wholly to this beautiful country. But I also know that our longing for a child is matched equally by the orphan’s longing for parents. I pray that God’s holiness rest in this match: a mother from Toronto, a father from Brooklyn, a baby from Addis Ababa. May our cultures of Ethiopia, Judaism, and American blend in love and Torah.
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If you could only cook three dishes for Shabbat dinner what would they be?
This was the question we posed to culinary historian Michael “Kosher Soul” Twitty, author of the Afroculinaria blog and a Jewish educator. Twitty, who was most recently featured on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s The African Americans on PBS will be the chef-in-residence at Be’chol Lashon’s upcoming retreat.
The Shabbes table is reminiscent of the way my grandmother would frame occasional Sunday dinners and holiday meals, white tablecloths and candles. So that Jewish esthetic makes sense to me. It engenders respect and sacredness. I would polish candlesticks and set out tablecloths. I’m not great at setting the table but how the food looked was important to my mother and my grandmother. Julius Lester says, “the Shabbes Table is a banquet for God.” The table becomes a crossroads between the divine and earth, a sacred circle. In both the African and Jewish Diasporas, the sacred circle, where multiple parts of ourselves meet, is an important theme. That is what helps make the table be a mizbeach, a holy alter. I find myself cooking for Shabbes with a great spirit of urgency and putting as much kedusha [holiness] as possible. People sometimes forget this ;— kedusha is the greatest spice.
If I could only cook three dishes it would have to be all the parts of who I am.
Number one would be Kasha Varnishkes. I make a mean kasha varnishkes in its pure form with onions browned and a little bit of garlic. Really earthy. I’m not a groats and seed feeder but there is something is very satisfying about a plate of kasha varnishkes. It is brothy, I use 3-4 kinds of onions. The whole garden goes in the broth. So simple and so pleasing.
In Jewish cooking you have foods dictated by text, food that the Torah talks about. Then you have foods that speak to the land of Israel and what grows there. Then you have foods that come from the places we have been, from our diaspora. And then there is identity cooking. The foods that are tied up with your sense of self and the place you are in, where you are and how you are connected to that place.
When I make kasha varnishkes, that is straight up s’htep food. When you can master traditions like that it is a way of saying I’m here. I’ve arrived here and I’m not going anywhere.
My second food would be barbecue beef ribs. Because you can’t get Blacker than barbecue. That is our unique contribution to American cuisine above the rest. It is not a food you make just because you feel like it. You make it for a special occasion. It makes your clothes smell a certain way. Your hands smell a certain way. You plan for it, work for it. And I don’t mean making it in the oven. You marinate it. You rub it. Out comes the hickory. It cooks for three to four hours and then you cut them up and there they go.
Barbecue connects me with my father and my grandfather. Very male food in terms of who made it. A patrilineal dish. We get it passed down to from our fathers, and from their fathers. I make two recipes, one more traditional; marinate forever, rub forever and smoke forever. And the other I call Yiddishe Ribbenes which takes all the flavors from all the parts of the Jewish Diaspora and makes the same flavor profile I grew up with. I like to do both.
For the third dish, I have to say Kosher Soul Rolls. Kosher soul rolls are Black Jewish egg rolls. Instead of cabbage, collard greens. Instead of ham or pork, I use pastrami. One thing Blacks and Jews have in common is loving Chinese food. Deep-fry them, of course.
Can I add a bread? My favorite challah recipe is the Beigel Family Challah from Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today. It is best challah I’ve ever made or tasted so that’s the one I make. And every time I make the challah the story comes with it. This was a family that survived the Shoah and made their way to Israel. Tribute challah.
Iris Aluf Medina was born and raised in Turkey and now lives in San Francisco. We met up with this Be’chol Lashon board member ahead of our annual retreat where she will be teaching traditional Turkish Jewish cooking.
Is it true that the Sultan once courted your grandmother?
(Laughs) Yes and no. It was my great grandmother, my mother’s mother. She was very striking, bright blond hair and blue eyes.
So you look like her?
That’s what they say.
Her family dealt in gold and was very wealthy. The family made sure she was educated. She spoke Ladino, Turkish, English and French, which was very unusual. She could also play the piano. Very educated, very refined.
The Sultan came to visit her school and wanted a child to read a poem. The Sultan spoke Ottoman, which was its own language, which no one spoke, but he also spoke French and English so they had to find a kid who spoke one of those languages. They chose my great grandmother because she was 16 blond and pretty, old enough to marry young enough to go to high school. Apparently the Sultan liked what he saw so he sent her a broach as an invitation to his harem. You could not say no to the Sultan.
So what did they do?
The only way out was if she was engaged. So her family got her engaged very quickly. They were wealthy so they made a good match.
At least it ended well.
Not really. Her father was transporting gold one day after the engagement when he was attacked. They took all his gold, beat him and put him in a pit. He was eventually found and rescued but he lost his mind and as a result his business. The engagement fell through. We suspect the Sultan had something to do with this but of course we could not prove it.
What did your great-grandmother do?
She did not marry until she was 26 which in those days was pretty old. She did not know how to cook or clean. She was educated in French and music but not in running a home. They found a French teacher for her to marry. It was the best match but it was a bad marriage.
We say it was the Sultan’s curse: she was never happy again.
In my early 30s, I had exciting opportunities to visit and work with public health projects in Uganda several times. I was relatively young, dating and childless. It was pretty easy for me to pick up and oversee the work of Be’chol Lashon in Africa, to make my base with the Jewish Abayudaya community working to build infrastructure for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Six years after my last visit, I am married with a 4-year-old daughter, working full-time. So when I returned to Uganda for a 10-day visit to plan for a new community center, I was grateful for an egalitarian husband who’d take on more childcare responsibility during my absence, an excellent pre-school for working parents.
Feeling the full weight of the working mom’s dilemma, I wanted to better understand the Abayudaya women and their Christian and Muslim neighbors, and the types of childcare and working assistance needs they have. As more Abayudaya women receive educational grants to attend college, they emerge seeking employment, empowered to become economic contributors to their families. However, we were seeing signs of stagnation after college, and often a return to traditional gender roles for women. Educational assistance is a successful trend – but something needs to be addressed in order to make economic sustainability for women a reality. While I did not want to make assumptions about what might help, I was left wondering if childcare would be part of the solution.
Spending time at the Tobin Health Center in Mbale, I was daily confronted by the all female nursing staff and their brood of kiddies running around the health clinic. Interviewing the mothers, I asked why they have their kids at work with them. Most said they have family members who can sometimes watch their children, but often have to pass them off at inconvenient times to attend to their own work or household needs.
A couple of the nurses have hired part-time help to stay at home with their kids and the kids are brought to them at different time during the day for nursing. These women have husbands who are also well-employed so they can afford that luxury. That option was rare – and definitely ideal. The nurses were in effect creating their own childcare center in order to meet their needs.
I admired their ingenuity and even the sense of “work family” similar to the one I enjoy at Be’chol Lashon, but when I stopped to look around at the environment the children were being exposed to, it gave me pause. Many of the patients in the clinic during my stay were critically ill. Healthy children watched on with apprehensive looks. While I understood their lack of options, I was not convinced that they could thrive at their job while also trying to take care of their own needy children. In addition, while bonding with mom is crucial to child development, didn’t these kids deserve the same opportunity for stimulating and age-appropriate early childhood education that my daughter was receiving back home?
I wondered if a childcare center would be welcomed by these and other women in the community. Conducting interviews with women, both educated and uneducated, often with babes in arms, the overwhelming response was YES – we do need better and consistent childcare options while we pursue jobs, work in the fields, or in professional environments. The model for child care centers is not foreign to Ugandan women, but unfortunately it exists exclusively in the capital and not in their communities. Were it accessible to them, they would be glad not only for the opportunities it would open for them but for the education it would provide their children.
One of the main purposes of the trip was to help plan for the building of a new synagogue for the Abayudaya that will also serve as a community center; a gathering place for Jews, Christians and Muslims. As a result of my conversations with the women Uganda, we decided to put in a day care center as well. Building and staffing the center is a long term project, and I’ll be blogging about it as it goes forward. Stay tuned, because I truly hope that it will be the game changer these women need.
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.