“Is she converting?”
“Clearly, she is not from around here, I wonder if she is even Jewish.”
“She must be someone’s nanny…”
These were not just the petty thoughts of those who saw me with my mother, but also at times the actual words spoken. Did these people aim to offend and to distance us? I pray not, but somehow and sometimes, the natural tendency of those who experience something foreign is to immediately cause distance for the sake retaining his/her individual comfort.
While our synagogue, school, corporate and communal settings include the value of diversity as a central tenet in their mission statements, it is all but natural to grow suspicious of the stranger and to create a distance, a separateness, and the “not me, not my problem,” mentality. Our mixed race family never asked to be objectified, and turned into a lifeless color scheme of browns and whites. All we wanted, and still want like others like us, is to dwell among our tribe(s) with respect, validity and with a communal concern for our well-being.
We see in this week’s Torah portion that Avram (later Avraham) recognized the need to distance himself from his nephew Lot, while making sure that he would remain a relevant presence; that a song of many notes not only can, but should exist in harmony. From the pathway of soulless objectivity to the recognition of pulsing subjectivity; from “someone else will welcome them,” to “I will welcome them!:”
“And Avram said… ‘Please let there be no fighting between me and you and between your shepherds and my shepherds, for we are men who are brothers. Is not the whole land before us, please separate from me, if you go left, I will go right, if you go right I will go left (13:8).’
Yes. Indeed, there are times when we must turn away from the other. When being around opposition does threaten our comforts and existence. For when that situation presents itself, it is in our very best interest to curl our backs; to skirt all potential communication and to distance ourselves…
But when? and how?! How do I harmoniously keep inclusion as a central value in my life, while also recognizing the need for boundaries? Should I debase the humanistic qualities of the other, like the Pharoah of Egypt, and the Haman and Hitler of yesteryear? No! Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (Cologne, 13th century) taught that allowing for borders and boundaries to exist is the recipe needed for containing and creating Shalom, it is what builds us up, not breaks us down.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Troyes, 11th century) suggests, that the meaning of Avraham’s statement “please separate from me” is not to convey that there shall be an eternal severance between the two, but rather “where your dwell, I will not distance myself from you, and I will stand by you as protector and a helper.” That although we must remain separate, I will never objectify you, I will keep you close to me.
As we open our eyes to the other, let us remember that like Avram, it is OK to create borders with she who is different than you, but only, only when it does not objectify them. Only when who they are is so important to who you are. Where their border is your border; where their needs are your needs. Then it will be, that our hearts will soar and join, in the call for diversity.
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While driving down Route 95 on the East Coast, one has the ability to survey hundreds of billboards along the way. They aim to tell the passerby that life without their product is a life that is incomplete. Without that specific phone, insurance plan, TV show or washing machine, one may run the risk of being an outcast, unaffiliated, and simply on the wrong train. All too often, the sole intent of the advertisement company is to draw one away from their current status of living and suggest that uniting with their agenda is the best way to succeed in the world, denying diversity, for the sake of uniformity.
In this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 11:1-9) we read about the demands of the nations to create a world of sameness and uniformity: the Tower of Babel.
“And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech… And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us build a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth… And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; … So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth… Therefore was the name of it called Babel…”
Rabbi Ovadia S’forno (Italy, 16th century) comments that these nations desired to create a world of homogeny because they believed that Man’s ability to proliferate as a species (remember we weren’t that old yet) would only be possible with universalized speech and thought, hence never causing separation and differences to surface. Surely there have been times where we may strongly relate to these nations’ desire for uniformity. By nature, avoiding conflict is one of the basic tenants set out by Anna Freud in her work on defense mechanisms. Granted, placed there in order for us retain our peace of mind, but this was not the intention of our Creator. God did not want us to look the same, speak the same or act the same, and thus the call for diversity caused the tower of exclusivity to crumble.
In the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 19th century), “Mankind must be scattered, must distribute itself among all the different regions of earth in order that the most divergent and contrary faculties of the human mind may find in nature the needed opportunities of development, in order that experience become full and complete…” We learn here that the Torah does not only welcome diversity, but insists on it. Though we may have been scattered to the far ends of the earth, our ability to create our own borders, languages, and theological premises, has been the gift that allowed for civilization to thrive economically, culturally, and intellectually from Noah until now.
It is our duty as Jews to not only welcome-in the other because it “feels” like the right thing to do, and more so, because God’s intentions were never to produce a world of uniformity, but strengthen us to call far and near for a world of diversity.
Carnival, Mardi Gras, Carnaval. These words convey exhuberance, dancing, masks, and overflowing joy (and often excess). From Rio to New Orleans, from Venice to Antigua, the week before the beginning of Lent has always been punctuated with explosions of color, music and parades. And although our own Jewish carnival (Purim) is usually just around the corner and this custom is strongly attached to the Catholic calendar, it is very hard for any local citizen or visitor, Jew or Gentile, to strange himself from the celebrations. The cities that follow this ancient custom usually close down completely during the revelry and just by stepping out of the house one is usually swallowed up in the celebrations.
A few weeks ago, I was celebrating Shabbat with an emergent community of Jews in the port city of Barranquilla in Colombia. I had been invited to perform some weddings and oversee some conversions over a weekend that happened to be coincide with the one of the most splendidly colorful carnavals in the world: the Carnaval de Barranquilla (declared one of the Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity). Given that hosting our Shabbaton in Barranquilla during carnaval would make it a logistical nightmare, we decided to take a break and move it to a quiet resort in the nearby city of Santa Marta. The Shabbaton was a moving and peaceful event full of song, words of Torah, and white linen. But as the sun set and we celebrated the weddings for the new couples, the distant carnaval caught up with us. We had not finished sweeping the broken glass from the chuppah when out of nowhere jumped a reveller in the multicolored persona of the Monocuco (a masked and veiled harlequin with a scepter that teases the crowd). The little girls changed their Shabbat best for red polka dotted dresses and crazy hairdoes, portraying “la Loca” (the crazy woman). And, here and there, through the crowd one could distinguish the undisputed traditional symbol of the the carnaval, the Marimonda (a cheeky anthropomorphic character with the trunk and ears of an elephant, a necktie and big round eyes). The joy of the newlywed Jewish couples mingled with the traditions of their beloved city to create a perfect celebration that lasted well into the dawn of the next day. oung and old, costumed and more collected, danced the night away covered in corn starch and foam to the rhythms of traditional horas punctuated with salsas, merengues, porros, and chirimías.
Throughout history, Jews have collected the traditions and flavors of the places we have been blessed to call home. With time, these traditions (like the pagan eastern european braided challah) become part and parcel and even representative traditions of Judaism. When I was in Barranquilla I asked the community baker to bake some challot for the Shabbaton in a shape that was unique to their city. He was hesitant, given that these Jews in the warm shores of the Caribbean have adopted the Ashkenazi braided loaf as their Shabbat standard. I insisted. Just before Shabbat I was presented with the most wonderful challah one could want in the Shabbat of Carnaval, a challah that was at once uniquely Barranquilla and deliciously kosher: a Challah in the shape of a Marimonda. I hope that in centuries to come this will be a tradition treasured by these new Barranquillean Jews, proving once again, that the great power of the Jewish people is to absorb the best of the beautiful world around us and by integrating it into our millenary system of holiness, elevate and preserve snapshots of the beautiful diversity that has always surrounded us.
Judaism has been a part of my life since I was born. My mother snuck Shabbat candles into the hospital in preparation for my birth and I was born on Shabbos afternoon surrounded by my family and future friends, all welcoming Shabbat and my existence. As a child, I was raised primarily by my Jewish, African-American mother, Denise. I am honored to say that she converted to this amazing religion and that I am 100% Jewish.
As soon as I turned five, she signed me up for Hebrew school. For seven years, I studied the Hebrew alphabet and dozens of prayers. By the time my Bat Mitzvah rolled around last year, I had memorized every prayer I had studied, but I was nervous. So I used my Bat Mitzvah folder as a memory tool and looking down helped avoid the stares of the 200 guests!
For as long as both my mother and I can remember, I have been attending Be’chol Lashon; a place where I immediately feel at home, surrounded by my fellow Jews of all colors. At Be’chol Lashon, I am free to be who I am: an energetic, fun-loving, Black, White, and Jewish teenager. About five years ago, I, along with a few other young Be’chol Lashon regulars were asked by my mother, Denise Davis, and a co-founder of Camp Be’chol Lashon, Diane Tobin, whether we would enjoy a Judaism-based summer camp for us, the kids. We all replied “yes” immediately. The first year of Camp Be’chol Lashon in 2009 was a blast. It is amazing to see the intense diversity of our community. We explore this diversity by “traveling” to different countries where Jews live, and we examine the culture of those countries through art and cooking projects and dancing.
My Jewish summer camp loyalties are divided. In 2011, I began attending a month-long Judaism-based overnight camp in Ojai called Ramah. Every day, teachers inform us campers about Israel and Judaism. Every morning, we participate in Shacharit services, the morning service, before breakfast. This is a challenge, but after services, food tastes even better. On Friday evening, everyone on the campgrounds cleanses themselves and changes their clothes to welcome Shabbat with songs, a service, and the best part; food.
However, Ramah and Be’chol Lashon are not the only places I stay connected to my Jewish heritage; I celebrate Shabbat every week with dinner on Friday nights and by attending services on Saturdays. I love celebrating Shabbat with my friends and family because it reminds me that I am surrounded by such a wonderful community. Though, with my busy schedule, I do not attend synagogue every week, I do my best to drag myself out of bed in time for the service. As I continue to grow and mature, Judaism will continue to be a large part of my identity and heritage.
There’s a not-so-funny joke that goes, “A man walks into a Chinese restaurant and says to the waiter, ‘Excuse me sir, but are there any Chinese Jews?’ To which the waiter replies, ‘No, sir, we just have orange juice, apple juice, grapefruit juice…'”
It’s slightly bearable if the delivery includes an awful impression of a Chinese accent. But there are apparently many people who do appreciate this joke, and they make sure that it makes its way through the grapevine to me, a Chinese Jew.
I enjoy being a Chinese Jew.
I eat plenty of matzo balls and potstickers, I celebrate three New Years, and in high school I crushed my math classes.
I’ve often had to convince people that I’m Jewish, which is amusing and usually results in a new friend feeling like they can connect with me better due to a shared religion. Other than that, I can’t say I really thought about what it meant to Chinese and Jewish while I was growing up.
The only time my Chinese Jewishness got me into trouble was during my dating days in New York. Jewish guys with “yellow fever” would take me on casual dates to casual places, but the second they discovered I was Jewish, things got weird. Suddenly I wasn’t a casual date, suddenly I was the first Jewish girl that didn’t remind them of their mother and do I want to get married.
Speaking of boys.
I recently followed a Norwegian one out to rural North Dakota, population six Jews and about 10,000 Scandinavian descendants. Things are quiet here, people are Midwestern nice, and the small town life is pretty darn wonderful.
For the first time in my life, I feel a bit like an oddball, in a sea of light-haired Lutherans, but people embrace me when I introduce them to challah. North Dakotans love challah! And I love their food too, like Lefse and dessert bars of all sorts.
All of my Challah here is homemade. As are my latkes, kugel, matzo balls… you get the picture. There’s not a deli in sight. Not even a bagel. I do miss bopping down to Zabar’s for babka and bagels, but on the other hand, with the necessity to make everything from scratch comes the opportunity to put my own spin on things and mash up my Chinese/Jewish/Midwesternness.
Brisket in my potstickers, ginger sugar beet latkes, egg rolls with home cured pastrami from a cow that I’ll one day raise…
I’m getting carried away.
Makes one large loaf
Basic Challah Dough
Based on Food 52’s Recipe
1 tablespoon instant yeast
3/4 cups warm water
2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon sugar
3 cups flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons honey
1/3 cups vegetable or canola oil
Filling and Topping
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2-3 stalks scallions or green onions, minced
salt, pepper, and red chili flakes to taste
Egg wash: 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon of water
A few pinches of toasted sesame seeds and black sesame seeds
In a small bowl, proof yeast in 1/2 cup warm water mixed with 1 teaspoon of sugar.
While yeast is proofing, mix flour, salt, and remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar in a large bowl.
In a medium bowl, mix remaining 1/4 cup of water, honey, oil, and eggs.
Once yeast has finished proofing, add it to the flour, followed by the wet ingredients. Mix with a large wooden spoon until dough becomes too thick to stir. Empty dough onto well-floured surface and knead by hand. Knead dough until smooth and no longer sticky, adding flour as needed.
Transfer to an oiled bowl and cover with a damp towel. Let rise for about two hours, or until doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 375.
Divide dough into three equal parts and then roll each part into a 1-foot log. Gently flatten each log so that it is about 3 inches wide.
Brush each with toasted sesame oil and then sprinkle with salt, pepper, chili flakes, and scallions. Roll them up length wise like a jellyroll, and then braid.
Place the loaf on a parchment lined baking sheet and then brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds and black pepper.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until the top is golden brown and the challah is cooked through.
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.