Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Journey Back

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juliana-maioLittle did I know what I was getting myself into when one day I decided to delve back into my Jewish Egyptian roots. I was born in Egypt but expelled with my family during the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis when I was 3 years old. We moved to France but ended up immigrating to the United States when I was 17. My life had been too busy and chaotic to journey back into the past until one day I was struck by a sort of midlife crisis. It was not the passage of time nor the meaning of life that kept me awake at night, but rather the nagging need to discover the truth about my people’s roots. Who were those Jews living in Egypt? What were they doing there? And what went wrong? I did not want anecdotes. I wanted hard facts.

Soon I started hitting the history books, and while I knew that Jews had been living in Egypt since biblical times, I learned that the largest wave of immigration occurred in the mid-nineteenth century when the country underwent a massive modernization and the Suez Canal was built. Jews came from all over the Mediterranean basin, and that’s when my family came. I was so proud to discover the integral part Jews played in the building of the country. They were doctors, lawyers, bankers, legislators, athletes, and movie stars. They built the greatest department stores and hospitals. They helped draft the Egyptian Constitution and were advisors to the king. By the advent of World War II Egyptian Jews were on top of their game. They were thriving.

But the Jews were not thriving in a vacuum, they co-existed famously with the many other foreign minorities that had also come to settle in Egypt—Italians, French, Belgians, Armenians, Greeks, Syrians, Turks, and of course the English, who had colonized the country. My research grew exponentially as I became fascinated by this unique, cosmopolitan Levantine society, who built a city that mirrored Paris in the heart of Cairo with grand boulevards and exquisite gardens.

My research grew wider when the next natural step was to understand how the Egyptian people reacted to that onslaught of foreigners. I was delighted to learn how tolerant and accepting they had been—that is until World War II, when the English held the country with a tight grip for fear of losing the vitally strategic Suez Canal. Factions of all kinds began to seriously challenge the Brits, and it was with extraordinary interest that I learned about young, rebellious army officers like Sadat and Nasser, the emerging Muslim Brotherhood (which also started attacking Jews and spreading anti-Semitism), the young dashing King of Egypt, and all the various political groups of the day.

Factions are usually based on ideologies and soon I found myself immersed in researching huge, topics that are as relevant today as they were then: colonialism, Arab nationalism, fundamentalism, and Zionism. It was all new and fascinating to me, and I remember when I first read about Theodor Herzl and the birth of Zionism, jumping out of my desk chair and proclaiming, “I’m a Zionist!” And then the next day, taking it back, “Maybe not.” But the following day, I wavered again.

Learning about Egypt during the war led me to investigating what was happening in Palestine, in Iraq, in Syria. It was all connected, and it was all so profoundly interesting. I had discovered a secret treasure that had been buried for decades, and it’s no wonder I decided to write about it.

After 10 years of researching and writing, my midlife crisis is over. My hunger for the truth has been satiated—at least for now. I know there is so much more to learn. Stay tuned!

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on April 7, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

International Transgender Day of Visibility: A Jewish Perspective

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s-bear-bergmanFor a while, just as Transgender Day of Remembrance was getting established as an observance, a competing movement emerged. That competing movement, well-intentioned but wrong-headed, had the following idea:

“Trans Day of Remembrance is a sad and depressing situation. We mope around mourning our murdered community members, and if that’s our only public observance it makes non-trans people think that transgender lives are only and ever nasty, brutish, and short. Instead, let’s take the day and make it celebratory! We’ll have a dance and a film screening and maybe a sexy party!”

Communities battled over this, and the source of the battle was people’s feeling that mourning and celebration were opposite to one another. With some time to reflect, I have been able to understand that this is a way that my Jewish values inform and infuse my understanding of the world so completely that sometimes it takes a while for me to notice why I don’t quite grasp some piece of mainstream, Christian-inflected, thinking.

Coming from a tradition in which the prayer we say for dead people mentions exactly nothing about death but has to be said every day for a year, and whose mourning rituals involve both profound self-abnegation and constant food and family, it’s no wonder I might be slow to understand. Jewish mourning is complex and communal; it invites us into a long contemplation of the dead person and their place in the world, now emptied. Continue reading

Posted on April 3, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The One Thing You Should Do the Day Before You Die

bellThe Talmud says that on the day before we die, we should be sure to do “teshuva”—turning your awareness to God.

“How is that possible, since we don’t know what day we’ll die?” I asked Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement.

He laughed. “That’s why we need to do teshuva every day.” He said this can be as simple as, while talking to a friend, watching T.V. or cooking dinner, turning your thoughts to God. “If I’m talking to my friend, there’s the divine in her, and if I remember that, I’m also paying attention to God.”

When you eat dinner, he said, think about how the food and drink come from God.

If you need a reminder, he suggested hanging a bell in your car, so when you hit a bump and it rings, you can say, “I’m aware of you, God,” or “Thank you, God, for a car that carries me where I need to go.” He’s had a bell in his own car for years. “If, God forbid, I should die in a car crash, my last thought would not be, Oh shit, but a prayer to God.”

You could also hang the bell in a doorway in your home, low enough so it rings when you pass. Or you can try other cues: each time you stop for a red light, let it remind you that God created light.

If you make this a habit, Reb Zalman told me, you’ll be sure to fulfill the commandment to do teshuva the day before you die.

As I stood up to leave, he reached in a box and gave me a small brass bell to hang on the rear view mirror of my car. Then, as was his habit, he broke into song: “The bell is ringing, for me and my God.”

All riiiiight.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on April 2, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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