Be’chol Lashon mourns the passing of Rabbi Hailu Paris, a native of Ethiopia who lived most of his life in the United States but never lost his connection to his native land.
Hailu Paris was born in 1933 in Addis Ababa. He spent his early years in an orphanage before being adopted by American Eudora Paris who had migrated to Ethiopia with Israelite leader, Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford. However, the arrival of Mussolini’s fascist forces in Ethiopia forced them to flee in 1936. When Nazis looking for Jewish passengers stopped their ship in Germany, they did not suspect that the Black passengers with the Ethiopian child and a tightly wrapped bundle containing a Torah scroll were, in fact, Jews. According to Rabbi Shlomo Levy, when Rabbi Paris related this story he joked, “This was one time when we didn’t complain when people assumed we could not be Jewish because of the color of our skin.”
He matriculated from Yeshiva University in New York with a BA in Jewish Studies and a MA in Jewish education. His passion for education knew no bounds and he taught in the public schools for many years. Eventually he pursued rabbinic ordination. He served as the spiritual leader of Mount Horeb Congregation, was a founding member of the Israelite Academy and was a teacher to many. A consummate bridge builder, Rabbi Paris was honored with the Brooklyn Jewish Heritage Committee esteemed Kiruv Award in 2010 with keynote speaker Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis.
In addition to being a teacher of Torah, Rabbi Paris worked tirelessly to help Ethiopian Jews. In the 1960s, long before American Jews really understood the plight of the Ethiopian Jewish community, Rabbi Paris joined early efforts to save the Beta Israel. According to Dr. Ephraim Isaac, another long-time activist, Paris never missed a meeting and worked throughout his life to promote understanding and support for Aliyah. He continued to make trips back to his native land and, according to Rabbi Capers Funnye, was planning one for 2015.
Rabbi Funnye, the leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, Chicago, is proud to have called Rabbi Paris “his mentor, teacher and friend.” As learned and knowledgeable as he was, Rabbi Funnye, knew Rabbi Paris to be, “an artist of humility, who understood that learning should never overpower our capacity to be humble.” He was the living embodiment of Torah, “For Rabbi Paris the words of Torah were written on his heart.”
Rabbi Paris left this world on the 10th of Heshvan 5775, November 3rd, 2014. The funeral service for Rabbi Hailu Paris will be held on Thursday November 6, 2014 at 11:00 am, at The Jewish Community Chapel, 630 Amsterdam Ave. (91st Street) Harlem, NY. Burial will be in New Jersey at Mount Moriah Cemetery following the funeral service. Donations can be made to a scholarship fund in his honor at Beth Shalom Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation.
Recently, über-quaint San Miguel de Allende– named a UNESCO World Heritage city in 2008– was picked as the #1 City in the World by Condé Nast’s Traveler magazine. Yes, we beat out Paris, Prague, New York, Budapest, and Florence. But one overlooked jewel in this city is its Jewish community.
According to some estimates, there are perhaps 10,000 “gringos” living in San Miguel de Allende, (SMA) Mexico, which would mean Americans and Canadians make up a little less than 10% of the population of this small colonial city in the geographic center of the country. North Americans have been settling here since right after WWII, lured initially by the GI Bill /SMA’s art schools and its colonial charm, friendly locals, temperate climate, and relatively inexpensive cost of living (well, if you live on US dollars, that is). Artists, writers, and the “bohemian bourgeois” have flocked here in the past few decades, as well has hordes of tourists, both foreign and national.
It’s hard to guess how many Jews live here in SMA, especially since many are part-time residents, and the vast majority are not affiliated with anything overtly Jewish. But let’s say a conservative estimate could put it at about 10% of the foreigner population; that would easily place us within the top 10 largest Jewish communities in Mexico (there are 45,000, of which 90% live in Mexico City.) Most of the Americans and Canadians are retired folks, here to take Spanish and/or art classes, do yoga, soak up the sun and tequila, and enjoy the myriad cultural activities available here. It would be fair to state that the majority of Jews here don’t come to San Miguel to identify with Judaism. And yet, for many years there has been a core of ex-pats who met for a Hanukkah party, prayed together on the High Holidays, and celebrated Passover at a local restaurant. This had eventually morphed into “Shalom San Miguel de Allende”, a group of 30-40 members who formed a legal asociación civil to promote Jewish culture and religious services in our adopted town.
About 6 years ago a most unexpected thing happened: a few Mexican nationals started to come to services. We didn’t think twice about it; our doors were naturally open to everyone. We had no real idea how difficult it was for non-Jewish Mexicans to be accepted into a synagogue or Jewish event here in Mexico. Some claim Jewish ancestry (hard to prove, and often not matrilineal), and others are simply drawn to Judaism intellectually and/or emotionally. For whatever reason, these dedicated young people were seeking to learn more about Judaism, be accepted into a welcoming Jewish community, and many wanted formal conversion—something not well accepted in the mainstream Mexican Jewish communities. Our first wave was taught for several years by lay-leaders of our community, and eventually 3 Conservative rabbis, including Bechol Lashon’s very own Rabbi Juan Mejía, came down from the US to form a Bet Din to formally and halachically convert 7 people.
Since then, Rabbi Mejía has taken the initiative to educate and guide the conversions of subsequent candidates, and in total has helped 36 souls in our neck of the woods to find their spiritual home in Judaism. Aside from doing this great mitzvah for the sake of the gerei tzedek, these young people have greatly enriched and re-vitalized our aging demographics. Although there are still a few cultural and language barriers to be negotiated, the integration of these newest members of the community has proceeded well. Diversity is, was, and will always be a wonderful strength of the Jewish people everywhere!
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I was born and raised in a traditional Jewish family in India. My father Dr. Samuel Solomon was a professor in the College of Agriculture, Pune where I spent the first 16 years of my life. On Simchat Torah morning, the gardener used to bring a basket of jasmine buds and roses as a gift. I would spend the morning making garlands of jasmine and roses for our living room doors and windows. By evening, our rooms were full of fragrance of the jasmine blossoms. I made a special thick Veni—traditional Indian garlands—of jasmine buds for my long braids.
Simchat Torah was one of my favorite holidays. I could wear new clothes with some of my mother’s jewelry. My mother would make Sat Padar (see gluten -ree recipe below) stuffed with fresh coconut and jaggery, which I would eat to my heart’s content.
We would go the Succath Shlomo synagogue early in the morning. It was a custom in our community to raise funds by auctioning off various honors related to the holiday and to collect the money after the holiday was over. My daddy would bid for honor of having my two brothers carry around the small Torah. This honor was always seen as particularly important and raised a premium for the community. As I watched my younger brothers carry that beautiful little Torah in red velvet case and silver crown, I envied them. I used to be in the women’s gallery with my mother and gave flying kisses to the Sefer Torah being carried around in a circle with song and dance. In general, my parents insisted that three of us should share everything. Why couldn’t I carry that Sefer Torah for a little while? I asked my mother and she simply said: “Girls are not allowed to carry the Torah.”
We moved to Bombay to live with my granddad Solomon Moses when I was 17 years old. While my maternal grandfather Dr. Elijah Moses was Orthodox, my paternal grandfather was Liberal. The Liberal prayers had a lot of English and women participated along with the men. Rabbi Hugo Gryn and Rabbi Naativ changed the sequence of prayers and celebrated Simchat Torah on Shemini Atzeret eve.
During the sixth and seventh circuits, women made a circle and the Torah was passed from one woman to another. I cannot describe how emotional I felt when I held the Torah for one minute in my arms. I kissed it, said a prayer for my family’s well being and embraced it tight. A shiver went through my spine and tears welled up in my eyes. I felt truly blessed to be so close to the holy Torah.
On Simchat Torah day, my mother did not go to work in her clinic. We would rise early to shower and to have our breakfast of gluten-free pancakes. My mother always bought a bright colored sari for me for Simchat Torah. She used to braid my hair and decorate it with a string of jasmine flowers or chrysanthemums. I was allowed to wear my mother’s jewelry.
After getting me decked up, mummy used to take me to my granddaddy’s room. “How does your granddaughter look today?” she would ask him. He would say: “Very nice. Put a black dot under her foot to ward off the evil eye.” She would follow his suggestion.
We would first go to Magen Hasidim Synagogue to see a couple of circuits of Sefer Torah and the dancing by young and old men, and to socialize with mummy’s relatives and friends. Some of them would glance at me and ask: “What does your daughter do?” Mummy would answer: “She is studying in college.” Then we would visit the Eli Kadoorie School where the celebration of Simchat Torah attracted big crowds. It was like a fair with stalls for different types of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food with soft drinks and ice cream. I remember eating biryani and samosas and drinking Roger’s raspberry drink. “Meet my son so and so, he is studying to be … or working for …,” I would hear from time to time. I had to follow mummy’s instructions: “Be nice. Don’t show an attitude. Your manners reflect on my upbringing.”
Soon I would be complaining to my younger brothers: “Tell mummy that we are tired. Let’s go home.” One of my younger brothers would take up my cause: “Mummy I am feeling tired. Tomorrow we have to go to college. Granddaddy must be waiting.” On the way back home, mummy would be muttering to herself: “Once a year Simchat Torah comes. We get an opportunity to meet people of our community. With this attitude you will either remain a spinster or you’ll get married to a non-Jew and break the Jewish line of past so many generations.” Well, neither of my mother’s fears came true. I married my second cousin and have continued the wonderful legacy of our religion and customs. I have passed on the baton to my children. I hope and pray they pass it on to their children too.
Sat Padar: Gluten Free Coconut Pancakes
This version of Noreen Daniel’s recipe is adapted for American style kitchens. It is naturally gluten free and delicately sweet.
Makes 8-10; Can be doubled.
For the pancakes:
1 cup rice flour
1 cup water
1/4 coconut full fat coconut milk (or whole milk can be used if making for a milk meal)
Mix ingredients until all the lumps are gone and the batter is smooth.
Heat, over medium heat, an 8 inch pan over medium non-stick heat and grease lightly.
Pour batter into the pan, it should be slightly thicker than a crepe.
Cook briefly until pancake is firm and easily removed from the pan.
Place the finished pancake on a plate and repeat until all the batter has been used.
For the Filling:
1 cup sweetened coconut flakes
3/4 cup sliced blanched almonds soaked in hot water
2/3 cup raisins
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
½ tsp ground cardamom (or to taste)
Mix ingredients except raisins together in a bowl.
Heat a 12 inch non-stick pan over medium heat.
Place filling in pan and gently stir until coconut is brown and fragrant and sugar is melted.
Remove and cool slightly.
Put half the mixture in food processor or mortar and pestle and pulverize until a paste.
Add raisins to chunky half.
Recombine to halves of filing until uniform in texture.
Place small amount filling in the middle of pancake.
Gently fold pancake in four.
My daughter is wise beyond her years. She teaches me. Recently a family with older children handed down to us a plastic toy kitchen set. My 15-month-old was delighted. As she happily played, I “Facetimed” my parents so they could join me in watching her fun. However as soon as Bubie and Zada’s faces appeared on the iPhone screen, my daughter lost all interest in her toys. She had eyes only for the grandparents she loves and engaged them in a rousing game of peek-a-boo.
Watching Eliyana’s developmental leaps is wonderful. Just yesterday she was grabbing the iPad and looking behind it for the people. Today she understood she could interact with the people on the screen, that she could initiate play with them. I learned too. I learned that she values relationship far more than “things.”
When my husband and I first arrived in Ethiopia to meet our beautiful child, I was appalled by the starkness of her orphanage. There were no colors to brighten the walls. There were less than half a dozen toys, and no books. Our daughter was happy and thriving, perhaps because of her inner strength and love of life, perhaps because the nannies there carried the babies in their arms as much as possible. The gifts of board books and games I brought on my second trip were received politely but with puzzlement. “Of what use could these possibly be to a baby?” I read on the faces of the nannies.
When we brought our daughter home, we filled it with love, toys, and many many books. We made the rounds of doctors, each marveling at Eliyana’s sociability and her easy smile. “This child has been loved” they each said to us. We would discuss this concern or worry and the doctors would repeat “She has received love and attention. That is the most important ingredient to her development.” We settled into becoming a family and Eliyana thrived.
Many of my fellow Ethiopian adoption parents tell me their children did beautifully in daycare, having been socialized to being around other children and waiting their turn already in the orphanage. My daughter was miserable. No one would play with her. At first I wondered if there was racism involved. Finally I realized it was culture. The room was filled to the brim with every kind of wonderful toy and the expectation was that the children would play independently with the toys. My child wanted relationship but was instead offered Western materialism. With help and support I came to understand I was allowed to listen to the needs my daughter was broadcasting loudly for me on all frequencies. She wanted people, not things. We found a way to provide this while I work. Happiness has been restored.
Martin Buber wrote, counter to the psychology of his time, that identity begins in relationship, not in individuality. In Ethiopia, this was understood. I wonder now at my Western arrogance, my shock at an Ethiopian orphanage’s lack of toys and books. Here in the West, where we have everything, we have much to learn about what is important. I am learning every day.
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What makes a secular Israeli connect to his Jewish identity, roots and spirituality? What makes secular Jew from Jerusalem become a Jewish educator in San Francisco? The answers are music, spirituality and the relationship between the two.
If someone had told me ten years ago that I would become a Jewish educator, I would never have believed it. Moreover, if someone had told me that I would write Jewish music, I would most likely laugh in his or her face. The world of Judaism was never a motivation in my life until I left Israel and arrived in San Francisco.
My parents originally came from Greece and Iraq but I was born in Jerusalem. Raised as a secular Israeli, my Jewish identity was always a given fact. Meaning, I am Jewish because I was born to this nation and religion, because of my family’s history, because Hebrew is my language, etc. Aside from reading from the Torah at my Bar Mitzvah and celebrating Jewish holidays, Judaism was not something I practiced. Coming to the US, particularly to the Bay Area, and connecting with local Jewish communities and their definitions of being “Jewish,” I gained a new understanding of my Jewish identity and spirituality.
People relate to spirituality in different ways. It’s not something that’s just given to you. It’s not only something you practice or learn, but something you feel. Spirituality doesn’t exclude anyone. It includes Jewish ideals, but it does not stand exclusively on Jewish beliefs. Spirituality involves global ideals, thoughts and understandings. Most importantly for me, music is the medium, guide and driving force in my own spiritual path.
I emphasize the importance of music not only because it is my love, my passion, my profession and in many ways, the essence of my being, but because music is an incredible educational tool that builds bridges reaching people’s hearts and souls. In fact, it is the reason I became involved with the Jewish community in the US from the first place.
When I arrived in San Francisco ten years ago, I worked as a song leader at Congregation Sherith Israel. While taking these first steps in the world of American Judaism, I learned many songs commonly taught to Jewish children in the US. Many of these songs were outdated and not surprisingly, that my students didn’t relate to them. These songs don’t represent or resemble anything close to the music young American Jews are listening to in their secular lives. Moreover, I felt that most of these Folk/Rock genre Jewish-American songs didn’t represent the story of the whole Jewish diaspora. So I decided to write new Jewish music that speaks to the hearts of the Jewish youth, represents a variety of Jewish communities from around the globe and connects the souls of the listeners with their Jewish identity on a spiritual level.
In 2011, I formed Sol Tevél, a band that focuses on connecting Hebrew roots while engaging world cultures. A year later, we released our debut album, World Light, which aims provide a contemporary interpretation on traditional Jewish texts, ideals and mysticism.
How can we learn more about spirituality? The truth is that it’s not my intention to teach nor preach spirituality, but to share my personal journey into this realm. Teaching for the past 10 years showed me that my students were my best teachers and could (often unintentionally) answer many of the questions we struggle with. And as for “God” or “spirituality,” Austin Branner, one of my 3rd grade students expressed it best with the words that would become the title song for my album World Light:
See the wind flowing by
See the stars up high
See the sand on the ground
See the rocks all around
My God, your God, One God.
“How did the Jews become a global people?”
“They got pushed around a bunch.”
“They had to go to different places.”
Indeed. Looking at the diversity of faces in the room the global nature of the Jewish community was not in dispute but the process of migration, the economic opportunities, the persecution, the trade that is at the root of Jewish experience needed to be unpacked and understood. And thus began our conversations about the global nature of Jewish life and our adventures at the 2014 session of Camp Be’chol Lashon.
Jews have always been a people on the move. The word Ivri, Hebrew for a Hebrew person, comes from the word to cross, because the very first words uttered by God to the first Jews, Abraham were “Go forth.” And so migration is the starting point for our exploration of Jewish communities around the world. India, Yemen, Uganda, Spain, Italy, Poland, Bazil and Mexico each of these countries has a unique Jewish experience that adds texture and complexity to the collective Jewish experience. For modern Jewish kids, who have friends of all ethnicities and live in a connected world where travel and news make the distances seem small, the international nature of Jewish life is something they relate to.
Talking will only take them so far, so once we set up the framework, we began exploring the music, food, dance and culture of different Jewish communities. The taste of homemade hummus brings to mind the falafel stands of Jerusalem, while the quickly fried chapatti calls forth the tastes of Jewish life in Uganda. The fine metal work of our curiously small menorahs opens up the craftsmanship of Yemenite Jews. The modern Ladino music of Sarah Aroeste reminds us of the value of the many Jewish languages that have been spoken through the years. Making mosaics helps us piece together the complex culture that was Jewish life in the Golden Era of Spain. An exploration of Italian Jewish history brings to life not only the words on the page of Talmud but they way the debates got laid out on the page. Our global activities and crafts help bridge the divide between past and present and across geography. Encountering the other we learn to appreciate the diversity of our community even as we explore points of connection. This is the basis for camp and for the global Jewish curriculum we are developing at Be’chol Lashon.
And after we ran through the timeline of Jewish history from the ancient past to the present, all the campers, counselors and specialists added their own important dates to the chart on the wall. Because ultimately that is what it is all about, writing ourselves into the ongoing history of a storied people. That and of course a swim at the lake!
“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&?
I’m a Latina Jew. I live in New York City, famous for the diversity of its population; after all, 37 percent of the city is foreign born. But still now in 2014, the fact that I identify myself as Latina and Jewish, creates a bit of wonder among some Jews and Latinos.
First of all, people ask me what is the difference between Hispanic and Latino. The two words are often used interchangeable nowadays. While this article is from my own perspective, I use the definition of “Hispanic or Latino” stated in the 2010 United States Census: “Hispanic or Latino refers to a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”
The truth is that Latino or Hispanic are words used mainly in the United States. In Argentina, I’m Argentinian. If you ask a Colombian he will say he is Colombian. If you ask a Mexican he will say is Mexican. We only are “Latinos” in United States.
According to the 2010 Census, 50.5 million people (or 16 percent) were of Hispanic or Latino origin. In New York City near a third of the population (28.6 %) are Hispanic.
I have encountered some Jews who are used to identifying Latinos with people from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. For them, I’m not Latina. I’m from Argentina. That happens because most Jews in New York City know that Argentina has a big Jewish population, and they are aware that I can be Jewish and Argentinian.
In fact, “There are about 14 million Jews around the world, representing 0.2% of the global population. Jews make up roughly 2% of the total population in North America. More than four-fifths of all Jews live in just two countries, the United States (41%) and Israel (41%). The largest remaining shares of the global Jewish population are in Canada (about 3%), France (2%), the United Kingdom (2%), Germany (2%), Russia (2%) and Argentina (between 1% and 2%)”, according to data from a report produced by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
So, although Jews in Argentina are only 1 to 2% of the population, it is still one of the largest Jewish communities in the world.
What do American Jews know about Argentina? Many Jews also know about the Nazis who fled to Argentina after the Second World War, and that there were two suicide bombings against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the Jewish community (AMIA). Sometimes I’m asked if I know Rabbi Marshall Meyer, who founded the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano.
How many people identify as Latino Jews? According to The Pew Research Center’s 2013 National Survey of Latinos and Religion, “a majority (55%) of the nation’s estimated 35.4 million Latino adults identify as Catholic today.” About 22% are Protestant and 18% are religiously unaffiliated. Around 1 percent belongs to other religions. So Latino Jews are less than 1% of Latinos.
It is hard to talk about issues of race and religion. I’m white. My family came from the former Soviet Union. My dear Bobe came from Kishinev. So some people would tell me “you don’t look Latina.” They are confusing being Latino with race. Let’s go back to the US Census definition that clearly states, “Hispanic or Latino refers to a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”
Jews sometimes assume I’m Sephardi. Here the confusion comes because I speak Spanish and I’m from Argentina. Well, first of all, Sephardim spoke Ladino, which is different than Spanish. But, in fact most of the Jewish community in Argentina arrived from Germany and Eastern Europe and are Ashkenazi.
I think it is very important for Jews to learn more about Latinos and for Latinos to learn more about Jews. We work together. We live in the same cities. As the Hispanic population in the United States keeps growing fast, Jews will need to interact more with Hispanics. The Jewish population also keeps changing and is time to accept each other’s differences. Education is the best defense against prejudice and intolerance.
What 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.
In 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.
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.
According 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.