Often reality is stranger than fiction; The vote for the first major strike in American history was taken in Yiddish and involved an ancient Jewish oath.
Most of us take for granted the bathroom breaks and workplace safety that are, not always but generally, the standard in the United States. As Labor Day approaches, it is worth taking a moment away from the barbecues and the back to school prep to remember that some of these basic workplace amenities came to be through the hard fought battles of early labor organizers many of whom were Yiddish speaking women.
In the early years of the twentieth century the influx of immigrants combined with industrial mechanization gave rise to sweatshops and factories with grim conditions, low wages, and long hours. Workers were rarely in a position to negotiate time off, overtime, or even bathroom breaks. Workers were crammed together with little fresh air and breathing in the byproducts of their manufacturing process. Machine safety was an afterthought. Threats of strikes and unionization were undercut by threat of unemployment for the same workers who could ill afford it and the easy supply of replacement labor.
Still there were those who understood that the power for change would only come through unionization and strikes. Unless business owners faced real loss they would have no incentive to change. In 1909 there were a series of small strikes. These were grassroots affairs that engage a largely female Jewish immigrant population involved in the needle trades. But the bosses beat picketers, had them arrested and the strike fund dwindled. Time was running out.
Nonetheless the members of Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called a meeting inviting all the workers in the shirtwaist industry. Thousands came and listened to a roster of important union bosses, most of whom were men, speak in broad terms about the importance of strikes and the challenges to the efforts. The momentum might have been lost had not Clara Lemlich stepped to the podium for an impromptu speech.
Lemlich was a Russian immigrant and a self taught socialist who had become a union organizer in the United States. She had been arrested and beaten but felt compelled to act. She was frustrated by lack of action and new that something needed to be done. Speaking in Yiddish she admonished the union leaders and roused the crowd. “I am a working girl, one of those on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here to decide is whether we will or will not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared–now.” Following her lead, the assembled masses raised their right arms and swore loyalty to the union using the words “If I forget thee o’ union may my right arm forget its cunning.” Playing off the ancient oath not to forget Jerusalem. The vote to strike carried. The numbers swelled to 20,000 and it became impossible to ignore the workers needs. Though only some of the needed changes were made, a 52 hour week and 4 vacation days, it was the start of a new era.
Since those days Yiddish has largely become the language of Jewish jokes not of American politics or social reform. Yet in recalling the passion and purpose of Clara Lemlich and the other brave women she rallied that night, we remember that the story of those still struggling for safe working conditions and reasonable pay is our own story. We cannot distance ourselves from the farm, box store or fast workers who despite actively contributing to the economy cannot necessarily afford the basics of food, shelter, and healthcare or be assured safe working conditions.
In a few weeks it will be 5775 on the Jewish calendar, a Jubilee year when we are supposed to set our slaves free. Take a page from Clara Lemlich and begin this year with a call to justice. Write to your representatives and to the stores in which you shop, post to your communities on social media and remind them that we all need to work together to have a society in which work and human dignity and survival go hand in hand.
Is anti-Semitism like pornography? Do we know it when we see it? Absurd on the one hand, this analogy helps me make sense of my frustration with the recent quietude of some liberal Christians. Let me explain.
The idea that we know pornography when we see it is deceptive in simplicity. It suggests that there is one standard for pornography upon which we can agree. If this was the case there would have been no need for the Supreme Court of the United States to have heard Jacobellis v. Ohio to decide if the movie The Lovers was pornographic, which gave rise to the famous quote by Justice Potter Stewart. In reality, the line between art and exploitation is not fixed and does shift with the sensibilities of the viewer. And it is in this respect, that I see the similarity between anti-Semitism and pornography.
So I understand how liberal Christian groups like the United Church of Canada and the Presbyterian Church of the United States and I differed in our understanding of their denominational condemnations in recent years of the policies of the Israeli government. To be clear, I do not endorse the occupation; I favor a two state solution and disagree with many of the specific policies of the Israeli government. Nonetheless, I could not shake my sense the resolutions and public condemnations by liberal Christians of Israel but not of other oppressive governments such as that of China, Iran, or Russia was tinged with an element of anti-Semitism, the expectation that a Jewish State be held to a higher standard. Overlapping with liberal Christians on many political and theological fronts, I nonetheless feel that historic legacy of Christian anti-Semitism places upon them a special responsibility to consider how they approach modern Jews and Judaism. Calling out Israel as a unique oppressor of human rights cannot in my mind be separated from historic anti-Semitism. But my liberal Christian friends and colleagues were quick to defend their denominational policies and assure me that no anti-Semitic overtones tinged their these movement policies. Publically these denominations asserted that there was no condemnation of Judaism or special singling out of Jews. Where I saw anti-Semitism, they assuredly did not. They would know anti-Semitism if they saw it. Had they seen anti-Semitism, they would have certainly acted differently.
I wish I could be sure.
In recent weeks, since the fighting between Hamas and Israel has intensified, there has been a range of reactions to the conflict. But there have also been reactions, which while correlated with the conflict, seem to overstep its boundaries. Synagogues across Europe have been attacked. Flyers blaming all Jews for the war have been distributed in the United States. Calls for “death to the Jews” have been heard at rallies in Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris. Hashtags like “hitlerwasright” have been attached to support for the Palestinians. Writing recently for Reuters, John Lloyd, pointed out that Jews are unique in becoming targets for disapproval of the actions of a foreign governments. “We should mark how unique this is. There’s a very large, and often very rich, Russian community in London — and there are no attacks on Russians or their mansions, restaurants or churches because of the Russian seizure of Crimea and sponsorship of uprisings in eastern Ukraine.” Similarly, we have not stopped eating in Chinese restaurants because the Chinese government occupies Tibet. Jews, however, seem to be fair game. While we might disagree about how to understand the situation in the Middle East, surely liberal Christians would have no difficulty in seeing these attacks on Jews outside of Israel who are not Israeli as anti-Semitism.
And yet there has been no broad scale condemnation. There have been no circles of solidarity created around Jewish centers by Christians to stand physical guard against anti-Semitism. Liberal Christian groups have not flooded social media with calls for civility in interactions with Jews living outside of Israel. There have been no official letters of support or condemnation of firebombings and personal attacks.
This silence and lack of action undercuts Church claims to hate the occupation just as much as they hate anti-Semitism. I am left to wonder what kind of anti-Jewish action would have to take place before it might be viewed as anti-Semitism and worthy of response. Anti-Semitism is no small charge. It is one that I am loath to trot out. My own personal experience with anti-Semitism has been limited to a few uncomfortable playground incidents when I was a child and the odd off hand remark in my adult life. Working in the field of inclusion and diversity, I have long seen those kinds of incidents as part of the complex residue of unfamiliarity that often fosters distrust of the “other.” But there is a line between misunderstanding/misinformation and outright hatred/brutality. There is no question in my mind that the recent events in Europe and in France in particular are the latter. And the deafening silence from Christians in the face of overt anti-Semitism is in and of itself a form of action and complicit endorsement. It is time that Church groups, who have attempted to distinguish between condemnation of Israel and anti-Semitism, to show moral leadership and take a stand against this current wave of anti-Semitism.
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My husband does not do birthdays. When I first met him over 20 years ago, this truly puzzled me. Birthdays were simply not a big deal and when I pressed for a reason he fell back on tradition, reminding me that Jews don’t believe in birthdays. Personally, I think his lack of birthday enthusiasm is related to his late August birthday falling on the seam between the school year blowout and the camp hoopla, and being resigned to it never being that huge celebration. But he is not so wrong. Birthdays are not a big deal in Jewish tradition.
Think about it. Given the Jewish propensity for celebration and ritual there is a notable lack of birthday celebration. Judaism pays particularly close attention to the anniversary of the day someone dies, the Yahrzeit by saying prayer, lighting candles and remembering the good done during a life. The quiet around birthdays, derives in part from the association of celebration of births as a non-Jewish practice. The only birthday mentioned in the Bible is that of Pharaoh. In the Mishnah the only celebration of birthdays comes in connection to that of pagan rulers. Rabbi Louis Jacobs explains “…in ancient times, Jews saw a birthday as a gloomy reminder that life is drawing closer to its end; a day for solemn reflection and repentance rather than festivity.” But by the time of the Talmud, there was a budding appreciation for the birthday, owing to the idea that famous rabbis birthdays overlapped with the day when another rabbi passed away so that the aggregate Torah knowledge was maintained.
Birthdays may be a less emphasized in Judaism but I’m not buying my husband’s approach. Like most Jews, I love a good birthday celebration and in fact the lack of religious ritual allows for creativity without obligation when it comes to the day!
But with the state of affairs in the Middle East, with so many lives cut short and no clear end to the violence in view, joyful abandon just does not feel like the right approach as we near his birthday.
Instead we have decided to focus on one of his passions, one that puts the power of saving lives in the hands of ordinary people, donating blood. Since he was 17, he has donated over 90 times. He is hoping that in his lifetime he will reach 180 donations. And I hope to honor David Abusch-Magder (also known as Dr. D) by encouraging others to make a donation. Wherever you live, whether you know him or not, we want to encourage you to donate. He won’t derive any direct benefit from what we are calling “a virtual blood drive,” but many others will. Can’t donate? Then encourage others to do so. The summer months are slow giving times. Those of us who are able should take an hour out of our busy lives or vacation time and take this important step.
Let us know if you donate any time in the next six weeks. We have put together a simple form to fill out. We will collect all the names and are taking suggestions on how to celebrate those who are able to give.
Jews may differ on celebrating birthdays but we can all agree on saving lives.
“Yes,” I told the baffled American immigration official, “I was in Belarus for a roots trip.” But this in no way captured my experience of touring in the environs of Minsk with a German speaking group out of Austria. One of the challenges for me starting the journey in Austria is the automatic connection I feel with the place. I was very close with my grandmother who was born and raised in Vienna. She spoke German, ate Austrian foods, used cosmetics that had a European appeal. As complex as it is, I resonate strongly with the smells, flavors and sounds of Austria. Austria is one of my “homelands.”
By contrast Belarus, which was home to so many many Jews, is completely foreign to me personally. I spent 5 days in Belarus, which was 4 days more than my great grandmother. Reisl Hanni Brody was deported from Vienna, September 14th, 1942. Four days later she arrived in Minsk, was taken to Maly Trostinec and together with all the other Jews in her transport shot. The language and the culture of Belarus do not resonate with me on an individual level. The only thing that connects me to this place is pain and death. This distinction is profound. When I am in Austria I feel compelled to better understand this culture from which I come, in Belarus I felt largely disconnected. Ironically, this disconnect was part of what made the overwhelming and challenging content of 5 days of Holocaust touring, bearable.
Bearable however, is a relative term. Over the 5 days, I heard so many horrid things that my capacity to distinguish between mass murder, horrid brutality and interesting fact has eroded. For example, from Vienna to Brisk, the urbane Jews of Austria travelled in the relative comfort of passenger trains. This helped Jews buy into the imagined hope that they really were,as the Nazis promised, relocating. Only after days of disorientation and hunger were they transferred to the cattle cars that carried them to their death. By this point they could barely protest. Apparently this ‘interesting fact,’ out of the context of other things I learned (which makes it seem kind of mild), comes across more on the horridly brutal when shared over a cup of tea.
Even the positive day of our trip offered little relief. We saw first hand the 200 meter long tunnel dug in 1943, which allowed 250 Jews to escape from a prison work camp near Novogrudok. The work, perseverance and imagination this took is astonishing. Miraculously, most made it to the woods and were able to the join Bielski resistance detachment made famous in the movie Defiance. I am inspired by the acts of heroism in face of horrific odds and grateful for every life that was saved, but the suffering and horrific circumstances and that led to the need for heroism cannot be redeemed.
There is so much that will never be recovered. Belarus sits between Ukraine and Poland, in a place where borders were not so fixed. Nearly the entire Jewish population was destroyed. Some of the greatest Yeshivot, such as the Mir Yeshiva and the Brisk Yeshiva were located here. This was the birthplace of Marc Chagall. Historian Lucy Dawidowicz put the number of Jewish dead at 375,000.
The Jewish devastation is an important piece, but nonetheless only one piece, of the destruction that took place in Eastern Europe during WWII. While there is no consensus on the total numbers of the general population that died, it is estimated one third of the total population-Jews and non-Jews- lost their lives. Those who survived often did so by collaborating. Old ethnic tensions were excuses for violence that the Nazis were all too glad to exploit. The property damage was extensive. Almost nothing remains of pre-war Minsk. It was all destroyed at the start of the war by the Germans. These types of scars do not heal easily. We see them on show today in the Ukraine.
Those of us whose relatives lived in this part of the world, and took the chance emigrating in the 1880 or thereabouts, should be eternally grateful.
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“Eastern Europe’s outcast, Belarus lies at the edge of the region and seems determined to avoid integration with the rest of the continent at all costs. Taking its lead from the Soviet Union rather than the European Union, this pint-sized dictatorship may seem like a strange choice for travelers.”
- Lonely Planet: Eastern Europe
I am going to Minsk. It is a strange choice indeed. All I keep thinking in my head is, “didn’t our people work hard to get out of there?” More than that, my great grandmother was taken there against her will. Brought by train to a forest and along with thousands of other cultured, educated, Viennese Jews she was shot.
So why the heck would I choose to go there voluntarily?
I keep telling myself it is to honor and support my mother, who wants to honor her grandmother.
All of this is true. I do want to honor and support my mother and honor my great grandmother.
But this still feels a bit crazy.
I grew up breathing the Holocaust. It was a topic spoken of at almost every meal. Hitler’s Mein Kampf sat on the bookshelf right outside my door. For years I suffered from nightmares that I was being deported. I found my own way to deal with the pain in my family and our community. I eschewed all things Holocaust. I did not read books that were not assigned reading. I did not see Schindler’s List. Even as I pursued a PhD. In Jewish history, I chose to focus on the lives of German speaking Jews until 1914. I actively chose to remember those who were murdered as they lived and not only as the victims Hitler wanted them to be.
I am filled with trepidation. Clearly this will not be a fun trip. In addition to the guidebook description, we have been told to bring bug repellant and raingear to manage the swampy conditions we may encounter. One cannot visit Belarus without getting a visa which is obtained through a complex and archaic process.
You have to be part of an organized tour or work program. And very clear limits on the duration must be set in advance. So we are heading on a four day trip that heads out from Austria, my grandmother’s birthplace. The trip is organized by an Austrian woman named Waltraud Barton who is not Jewish. She dedicates her time to placing markers on the graves or former homes of Jews deported from Austria. My mother connected with her last year when she and my children dedicated a tripping stone outside the home from which my great-grandmother was deported. Waltraud is bringing a group of like-minded Austrian with her. My parents and I will be the only non-Europeans. While we will meet briefly with the Reform rabbi of Minsk, we will be the only Jews for most of the journey. I am bringing a tallit and yizkor candles. The entire tour will be conducted in German and my language skills will be stretched to their limits. My borders, rabbinic and otherwise will be pushed.
I do not know what remembering the Holocaust will look like for the coming generations. In my work on global Judaism with Be’chol Lashon I often teach about the expulsion from Spain which like the Holocaust displaced a whole community, destroying physically and spiritually much of the core. Yet centuries later it is often relegated to a footnote in history.
I do not worry that the Holocaust will have the same fate. In our modern era we have done well recording and memorializing the atrocities perpetrated by everyday people against Jews in Europe. But the process of remembering forward the collective loss is a collective responsibility. When I was younger, I was content to leave that responsibility of remembering the horrors to others but now, as my parents age, and the generation that knew the Holocaust first hand is disappearing, my sense of obligation is changing.
I honestly don’t know what that means exactly. I am trained as a historian but there are some things that cannot be reasoned from an armchair. I suspect that going to this place which on so many levels repels me will help me better understand what I think and feel. In general, we are taught to set out expectations and proceed towards goals. But this is different. This trip is an act of faith, faith that it will be all right in the moment, faith that emotionally I will be able to grapple with what I encounter, faith that this is not really a crazy thing to do, faith that meaning will be illuminated. Somewhere beyond reason, I believe that this trip is the right thing to do.
At a construction site at the Jerusalem bus station there is a multi-paneled chalkboard with space for people to fill in what they are grateful for.
If I were making the list today it would read, the ocean, the stunning weather, my children’s health. A shift in the carpool this morning gave way to an extraordinary view of the Pacific on the way to work. On another day, I might have not even seen it and concentrated on the flowers or trees instead. The weather today is oddly perfect for San Francisco. There is little chance we will have many more days like this. And despite their general good health, I know better than to believe in the false security that this is in any way a guarantee for my children’s future. I am grateful for the graces of the moment. For that which I see, appreciate right now.
We are counting the Omer. It is a strange practice, which I don’t fully understand. I can of course quote the meanings and explanations that the tradition gives but it remains a bit mysterious to me. Why the need to number our days, to account for the passing of time so very carefully?
But I know it is too easy to let time pass. Days go by without notice. One set of flowers, blends into a sunset, into a fight with a loved one, into a day at the office and errands and then a year goes by. Last week when we observed Yom Hashoah, I was struck by how in my remembered lifetime the pervasive presence of survivors has given way to the dominance of memory and recordings. Time, which once stood still in ghettos and camps, has gone by quickly. In my children’s lifetime the Holocaust will pass into distant memory.
Every day and every moment matters, but for these seven weeks, between Passover and Shavuot we stop daily and take a moment to mark the passage of time. We heighten our awareness of the ancient journey that Israelites took from slavery to revelation. Like the passersby near the Jerusalem bus station, we are given an opportunity to consider the gifts that we have. Noticing does not make the time go any faster or slower but it does help us appreciate what we have in the moment.
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“Be kind to fans of “The Good Wife” today,” CNN extolled, “They’re seriously struggling.” The New York Times weighed in. So did National Public Radio. The unexpected death of Will Gardner was news. The fact that he was a fictional character and that the actor who played him, Josh Charles, was alive and well was irrelevant. For avid fans, the shock and dismay were real. As a close friend told me, a week later, “Don’t talk to me about it. I’m still in mourning.”
When it is well done, a good story can touch us as though we ourselves are part of the drama. We walk out the theater with tears in our eyes. We don’t put down the book for hours because the joys and challenges of the characters have become our own.
That is exactly what we are meant to do at the Passover Seder. We read in the Hagaddah that “in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself [lirot et atzmo] as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.” But as we rush through the text and the rituals we don’t always feel the dramatic flow with the intensity of the fans of The Good Wife.
Here are three suggestions for helping you create a Seder that helps you put yourself into the story:
Act it out: Instead of retelling the story of the Exodus turn your Seder into a dramatic retelling. Middle Eastern Jews have been doing this for generations, dressing the part and packing sacks that they carry over their shoulders or playfully beating each other with scallions a reminder of the whippings the Israelites received at the hand of their Egyptian overlords. You can make it as elaborate as you like, giving out parts and creating a script with costume changes as the night goes on and liberation occurs. Or you can have people ad lib and be in the moment. Literally getting into the story does help you feel like it is your own.
The Modern Miracles: The miracle of the Exodus can feel abstract. But there are many modern versions of the Exodus that bring the story home in very real terms. Share Rabbi Gershom Sizomu’s recollection of the liberation of the Jews of Uganda or watch the retelling of Natan Sharansky’s liberation from Soviet Russia or liberation of Ethiopian Jews. These three modern powerful Jewish stories demonstrate that the Exodus narrative continues to resonate even today. Let these compelling broad narratives open a conversation about how each person at the Seder has experienced liberation. The examples might be dramatic, such as an emigration or kicking a drug habit, or they might be lesser in scale such as getting out of homework or moving to a new division with a new boss. Whatever the examples, we can all find ways to relate from our own lives.
The Contemporary Challenges: Sadly, slavery is not a thing of the past. There are many people for whom freedom and fair work conditions are not a reality. The Seder is a perfect opportunity to make these stories our own by sharing them and discussing the changes that we can be part of to liberate those who are not free. T’ruah, the rabbinic call for human rights, suggests putting a tomato on the Seder plate to call attention to the plight of field workers whose conditions are often inhumane. Not For Sale provides information and action items about the estimated 30 million people worldwide who are currently enslaved. For those who want to mix traditional text and contemporary discussions American Jewish World Service (AJWS) has thoughtful resources about the challenges faced by some of the most disadvantaged workers.
Each week, I put out a call on Facebook for those in need of blessings. I time these calls to connect with ritual making bread for Shabbat. It is customary to set aside a portion of dough, as a token of recognition of God’s generosity, when making a large amount of bread. Fulfilling of the obligation provides a unique opportunity for prayers of healing and divine intersession. Most weeks I make a large quantity of bread and have always offered personal prayers for those who I knew were in need. But within the last year or so, I have been placing calls on social media to add names to my list.
At the beginning, I was unsure what this odd call into the wilderness would yield. Was Facebook, the forum for cute babies and cats, breaking news and political commentary a place for prayer?
The results have been instructive.
Unlike the cute baby photo of my kid that I recently posted, I don’t get a deluge of responses. Each week not many more than handful of people take me up on the offer and simply like my post and I add them to my list.
But it is not quantity that matters. Many just leave a name or a ‘like.’ Sometimes I know from their feed what the issue is, sometimes not. But opening up this venue has lead to some of the most meaningful sharing and connecting that I have experienced on social media. I have learned some amazing and difficult truths about what is going on in people’s lives.
Here is some of what I know, that you might have missed completely.
- Your friend with the perfect kids in the amazingly cute dance outfits is not sleeping at night because it has been more than a year since her husband had full time employment
- All the photos of food in fancy restaurants are the way B. recovers from another bout of bad news at the fertility clinic.
- The increased posts about the family dog are in inverse proportion to the level of affection M. is feeling for her husband. Any day now she is likely to replace her spouse of 11 years with another pet.
These are not of course the precise details of what people share with me weekly, but they are typical of the kind of sharing that does happen.
The real secret is that if we push beyond the surface sharing that typifies social media, we have the power to connect and create something truly sacred. As one father in crisis, wrote me that he was grateful for my weekly offer because he is working hard not to make his child’s suffering and trauma the focus of any more attention than it need necessarily be. But as a result, he is without support that he desperately needs. Even though he rarely remarks on my post, my weekly offers reach him like a beacon of connection in sea challenging isolation.
Prayer has that power to move us beyond the facile connections of Facebook in no small part because it offers the recognition that that there something more, possibly painfully so, than high scores on Candy Crush, sunsets on beaches, or reports of snow days. In Jewish tradition prayer is best said in a community. In no small part gathering together, physically challenges the isolation that so many of us feel.
But we need not turn to prayer to create holy or deeply meaningful connections. Consider taking a Facebook post ‘offline’, with a phone call or an email or even in person. Remind the person what they mean to you and the value they bring to your life. Take time to share some of what is going on in your life, the real stuff not just the fluff. Listen for the challenges and difficulties that they face.
That is the secret of meaningful transcendent connection.
I’ve done everything “right”: given my children Jewish education, sent them to Jewish camps, spent time with them in Israel and modeled engaged Jewish living. But with the celebration of my second child becoming a bat mitzvah and officially beginning her journey as a Jewish adult, I can now say with certainty that my children will not be Jews like me.
That this was ever a consideration is on many levels absurd. Happily, from the moment a child first rolls over on its own, children work mightily to dispel the arrogance of parents who misguidedly assume their offspring exist to replicate their values and approach to life. They refuse to eat reasonably, they sleep on their own schedule, they make their own friends, choose their own clothes, challenging us at each step until we understand that while they absorb much from us, children will make their own way in the world.
And yet, when it comes to Judaism (and sports or alma matter affiliation which are like religions to many- but that is another article) people somehow expect continuity and are surprised and frightened by change. In no small part, I believe that this comes from a vision of what religious tradition is or is meant to be. As Jewish tradition teaches, God gave Moses the Torah as Sinai and Moses passed it to Joshua and Joshua to the elders, the same words the same Torah passed down generation to generation. We change and religion remains eternal.
As a historian, I know this was never true. Judaism has survived in no small part because of its ability to adapt and change. I will cede that in the past change was less possible, because of external limitations, and slower to occur because of the limitations of technology. But with the emancipation of the Jews and the industrial revolution, change has become the reality. If we presume that our children should replicate our vision for the Jewish future, we will be disappointed.
Absurd then. It should not even be a consideration. And yet. And yet, what is the point of investing in Jewish education if they will not guarantee continuity? And yet, how can we not feel like we have failed? I hear these questions frequently from parents who have done all that they thought “right’ “are now launching children who are “walking off the path” and making different Jewish choices than their parents would envision for them. Some are becoming less religious, others more so. Some are more left wing, others lean more to the right.
As a rabbi, I understand where they are coming from. On the day I was ordained, a rabbi I respect greatly, placed his hands on my shoulders and entrusted me to pass on the tradition to the next generation. But even as I gladly took on this challenge, I was keenly aware that my children’s Judaism could not be my own –for in an era of change each generation will have to find its own.
There is loss and uncertainty that comes with letting go. Some of the institutions and customs, which I have long benefited from and loved, are loosing relevance and others will undoubtedly disappear. And it can be painful and scary. The fluidity of religious life in America means that experimenting is inevitable. Some of the experiments will be ones that will disappoint me and others in my generation personally and collectively.
Over thirty years ago, my parents pushed the envelope of what was Jewishly possible by finding a synagogue that would allow me (albeit under my father’s blessing) to read from the Torah. It was a move that must have both puzzled and bothered their parents and one that ultimately opened the door for me to become much more religious than they ever imagined.
I am not alone. It is hard to imagine a more committed and creative group of rabbis than the ones who populated my community of Rabbis Without Borders. Going around the table with the first cohort, it turned out to our surprise that only a small fraction of the rabbis represented same denomination of Judaism as in which they grew up. Commitment yes, continuity yes, but also real and meaningful change.
Today, there is a Jewish creative cultural renaissance that is showcasing Jewish themes and values in every aspect of artistic endeavor. There is a renewal of Jewish learning that is taking new forms. A sense of global Jewish life is being renewed with the help of technology and travel. As a community, we are more inclusive and diverse than we have been in decades. Some of this I could and did imagine, other aspects were beyond my own envisioning. Without a willingness to change and challenge the received Jewish wisdom, none of this would have been possible.
Launching children onto the path of adulthood is bittersweet. As they make their own path, children will make their own choices many of which will not be your own. But there is also tremendous hope and possibility that comes from allowing the next generation to imagine and then create their own truth and reality. Both as a parent and as a rabbi, I look forward to seeing how the next generation takes the tradition they receive to create Judaism that will in time be passed down and transformed.
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What gift to get for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? The challenge with gifts for a life cycle event is two fold. On the one hand you want to give something that is relevant and meaningful to who the person is. On the other hand this gift is meant to mark an exceptional moment and as such we might hope for a gift that either endures or creates meaning. Most of whom a child is at 13 is not likely to endure, and for the most part is a good thing. So finding a fitting gift can be complicated. Moreover, becoming bar or bat mitzvah is about moving towards adulthood not necessarily about staying where you are. And if you opt for trendy you might end up with one of many which for many years ago was personalized Lucite and for my brother calculators. So finding the ‘right’ gift can be challenging.
My daughter and her friends are in the midst of becoming bat and bar mitzvah and I’m hoping to side step the accumulation of Lucite and calculators which besieged me and my brother when we reached that stage. Here are some of the better ideas I’ve gathered so far. I’d love to hear from you about the best (or worst) gifts that you have given or received.
Books: Sure books are old fashioned and may not be relevant in twenty years but they can be meaningful on several levels. Becoming bar or bat mitzvah is in no small part about Jewish learning so helping set up a basic Jewish library is entirely appropriate. What to give? A Bible (I’m partial to The Jewish Study Bible) a haggadah with cool commentary or pictures (Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday) other basics include books on Jewish humor, Jewish women or the The Book of Jewish Why.
Secular books can also have staying power. I still have the complete works of Shakespeare cousin Tamar gave me and the atlas cousins Phil and Gil gave me was used up until google maps took over. Jewish educator, Tamar Rabinowich, recalls that, “ I got an entire beautiful collection of the Bronte sister’s books – loved them especially in my late teens.” Similar kinds of classic works can be influential.
Art: Nice art endures. As Debbie Fein-Goldbach of Toronto explains “My favorite Bat Mitzvah gift was a limited edition framed print. Owning some ‘art’ made me feel so grown up.” A print I was given at 13, hangs I my living room even today.
Jewish ritual items: There are particular items that one needs to fulfill Jewish rituals. Many make quite lovely gifts. Everyone can use candle sticks, a Kiddush cup, a Hanukkah menorah, havdalah set, and a mezuzah. The more religious types might appreciate a yad (the pointer used when reading Torah), tefillin or a tallit. Some of these can get kind of pricey, so Andrea Hodos of Moving Torah recommends doing what she and some friends did for a child in their community, “getting together to purchase tefillin.” You may of course not be the only one thinking in this direction, as Career Coach and mother of two Pearl Mattenson warns, “kiddush cups were so popular among my boys’ friends that we can open up a store at this point.” A tallit is often given by a family member so check in before going ahead with a purchase.
Cash: Yes, admittedly it is crass but it is also very useful and is often used by kids to make some of their first adult purchases. My husband pooled his money and bought himself a computer which in the early 1980s put him ahead of the curve on his way to a life time love of technology. Others have used it for buying cars, a trip to Israel, or paying for college. It is also common for b’nai mitzvah to give a portion of their gifts to charity so it may go to a good cause. Denominations of 18 (which is linked to life) are considered good luck.
Tzedakah: Teaching kids about philanthropy as a means of helping them grow is a wonderful gift. I’ve seen several people give two checks, one for the child and the other one to be filled out for the organization of the young person’s choosing. Sometimes a straight donation will do wonders, especially if there is a cause that is near and dear to the heart of bar or bat mitzvah. Author Amy Meltzer gives out Kiva Cards which help to facilitate the giving process.
Sports Memorabilia: Sport team affiliation endures and memorabilia from a beloved team or player are likely to mark both the moment and feel timeless. If you want to give it a Jewish spin, educational consultant and Hebrew School teacher Nancy Martin suggests a “rare baseball card and poster of famous Jewish player who played for bar/bat mitzvah’s favorite team.”
Jewelry: This is a popular choice. Wearing jewelry is part of being grown up and nice pieces can endure as we grow. Items can be Jewish or not!
A truly personal gift: If you know the kid well, you know better than anyone what might be the right thing. Tickets for an outing? A photo of the family dog? A framed copy of the invitation?
You tell us, what is best to give or to avoid?