Author Archives: Ruth Abusch Magder

Ruth Abusch Magder

About Ruth Abusch Magder

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD. is the Rabbi-in-Residence at Be'chol Lashon and the editor of the blog Jewish&. A culinary historian and mother of 2, she lives and meditates in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @rabbiruth

Jewish Men Behaving Badly

discrimination_warning“Wear red lipstick when you meet with him,” warned a grad student. I only vaguely understood what she meant. The man in question was a revered academic scholar. His taking time to meet with a lowly undergraduate was an honor. His advanced years and disheveled fashion clouded my naïve ability to see him as a sexual predator. But after he began calling me sweetheart, asking me to sit up in the front row during class, and putting his hands on my thighs under the table, the meaning of her warning became crystal clear. I always wore lipstick and stopped going to closed door meetings.

The arrest and charging of Rabbi Barry Freundel was a terrible shock to most. But in reading some of the first-person accounts of encounters with Freundel, a pattern has emerged of a man whose abuse of power was not entirely unknown but never publicly challenged. From Toronto, in the county in which I grew up and love, similarly the story of Jian Ghomeshi, a former rock star turned popular radio host, has uncovered tales of years of abuse and exploitation spoken about quietly and never explicitly published or charged.

Reading these now public accounts has opened up floodgates of personal memory and laid open the implicit challenge that comes when men in power abuse or harass women, in particular young or vulnerable ones. And having grown up in and become a professional in the inner circles of the Jewish community, the memories and stories come from inside our “kodosh kodoshim,” our holiest of places and institutions.

When I was 19, I was invited to a high-level meeting of my student group being held in the Old City in Jerusalem. As Shabbat descended, I found myself in a small private bedroom where the only other female leader was sleeping soundly. I was flattered that our executive director had sought me out to discuss some of the upcoming business; I was political, ambitious and believed in the causes we were activists for. But at some point he began undoing the zipper on my dress and pushing me down on the bed. I told him to cut it out but that was only mildly effective. I remember my confusion. Young and sexually inexperienced, I was not attracted to this man. He was someone I respected. I did not want to wake my roommate. He told me not to fuss. The Shabbat siren wailed; my roommate woke and we went to pray. Over the mechitzah, he continued to leer at me and my confusion turned to anger.

At dinner, I made sure not to be seated with him, but at some point when he made a comment about changing that, I stood up and said before all assembled that I had not come to be physically or religiously pressured. All conversation stopped. I looked a fool, I am sure, but the harassment stopped there.

I was proud of myself. I felt empowered. But it was no easy feat. No one, not even the other female on the board, ever asked about my outburst. This was not surprising. At other retreats I had seen board members stick their penises in the faces of sleeping friends, and others prey on underage girls. Sexualization and harassment were part of the culture, and if I wanted to play in the big leagues I had to be strong enough to deal with it. So as hard as it was, I internally spun the story as one of pride for my ability to talk up, playing down the utter humiliation and isolation.

My brashness came in no small part from an understanding of my self worth (thanks to my ima for that) and the Jewish values that were part of the same education package the men I knew had grown up with. But there was also a piece that I would come to understand only with time. The stakes were low and the violation, while upsetting, relatively minor. I had little to lose by speaking up. The harassment, while troubling, had not crossed in my mind that imaginary line that often makes the shame too hard to overcome for the sake of reporting. This man, while in a position of power, was of increasingly little consequence in my life and I did not worry about direct retribution. And finally, I was young and still not fully aware that holding men accountable for abuse of power could and often does have repercussions that can add layers of trauma.

I wish I could say that that is the end of this story. Through the years I’ve supported women who have had to sit and watch their rapists lead tefillot, or suffer as their abusers are celebrated as among the great Jewish leaders. I personally have had to face inappropriate behavior from men in the Jewish community. Sometimes I’ve spoken out, and sometimes not. I’ve avoided some very bad situations because even when women don’t speak up publicly they share information quietly. With the help of this informal network, I’ve avoided getting into elevators alone with particular men. I’ve chosen not to engage in conversations with certain men or pursue specific opportunities.

The good men of the Jewish world far outweigh those who abuse their power. But abuses, small and large, exist and come at a cost. Women rarely have the opportunity to speak up and push back, for when we do, we risk at best being told that we are too sensitive (what I was once told by a colleague when I objected to being told to “stop acting like a wife”) or at worst that we brought it on ourselves (what I was told when I recounted the Old City story to a loved one). We risk being labeled as difficult, getting a reputation as too outspoken or jeopardizing employment if we challenge the wrong people. Sometimes we walk away from the Jewish world, because it is just too hard to live in close quarters with those who betray our trust or because the values that are supposed to come from the holiest place are the same ones that are used to overlook deplorable behavior.

As I watch a new generation of young women begin to take their places in the Jewish world, I wish for them more safety and less exploitation. But barring that, I pray that they have the strength to find the support that they need when they need it, so that they remain safe and holy in body and spirit. In lieu of protection I cannot guarantee, I offer this advice: take the rumors to heart. No level of observance, power, or privilege is immune to men who exploit their manhood. And if bad things happen, do not blame yourselves. It is not your fault. You did not bring it on yourselves. You are holy, created in the image of God. No one has the right to treat you otherwise.

Posted on November 20, 2014

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Freundel: Not Just an Orthodox Problem

mikvah2Much has been written about the impact of Rabbi Barry Freundel on the Orthodox world. In a community that sees the mikveh as essential to their practice of Judaism, this is a fundamental tear in the fabric that weaves together ideals of halakhic observance with the messy realities of daily life. But much less commented upon are the ways in which this tragedy has implications beyond the Orthodox world.

Jewish feminists of all stripes, and mikveh activists like Mayyim Hayyim in Boston have been working to help reimagine mikveh. In my own life and rabbinate, I’ve been to the mikveh with women after abortions and miscarriages. I’ve seen its healing powers provide a balm to those struggling with illness or dramatic life changes. I’ve had the privilege of celebrating brides, b’not mitzvah and mothers of b’nai mitzvah with a spiritual dip. For many, the power of this ritual exceeds rational expectations and is profoundly meaningful.

Unfortunately, this scandal has reinforced preexisting negative assumptions about mikveh which abound in the liberal Jewish communities I inhabit. Part of this emerges from a feminist critique of the laws which link women’s menstruation with the need for purification. There are concerns about privacy, cleanliness, and irrational outmoded rituals. The extent to which Freundel’s alleged corruption focused around mikveh has put the healing and spiritual potential of this ritual even further from the reach of liberal Jews. Since news broke, I have been part of many conversations, on line and in person, where people are seeing Freundel’s actions as vindication for having avoided the ritual in their lives to date. Others, looking for life cycle rituals, have voiced trepidation about going to the mikveh in the future. The loss of trust and the positive potential of this ritual has been compromised beyond the narrow confines of the Washington, Orthodox community.

Additionally, while the majority of non-Orthodox commentators have been thoughtful in their reactions, I have been troubled by the tendency of some to wonder why any Jewish women stay in the male-dominated Orthodox world. Some cite the exclusively male rabbinate as reason enough for women to leave. Others suggest that given the more egalitarian options in the Jewish religious landscape, women should be moving out of Orthodoxy.

This line of thinking is highly problematic. Whatever denomination or affiliation a particular Jew holds, it is important to recognize that other streams of Jewish life have their own value. If we are intellectually honest, most of us can recognize that there is no perfect religious community. But more troubling than the dismissal of Orthodoxy as a valid approach to Jewish living is the victim-blaming implied by such critiques. Let us be clear: None of the victims of Rabbi Freundel’s alleged misdeeds bears any fault or blame for what has happened. We should not underestimate the intelligence, passion or thoughtfulness of the women in Rabbi Freundel’s community. That these women might have chosen less male-dominated forms of Jewish living does not by any means lessen Rabbi Freundel’s responsibility or the obligation of the RCA to live up to its own standards and those of secular law. They bear the entire responsibility. No one should expect or put up with abuse of power or sexual abuse.

Finally, the focus on Rabbi Freundel and the RCA should not obscure that the abuse of women or rabbinic power is not unique to the Orthodox. Seeing abuse as primarily an Orthodox problem minimizes the pain and suffering of those who have been sexually harassed or abused by non-Orthodox rabbis and Jewish leaders in non-Orthodox settings. The limited circles of Jewish power and community often have a chilling effect on women’s ability to stand up to abuse, no matter the denomination. Furthermore, I have worked with converts from all denominations who have had rabbis charge exorbitant fees for conversions or required favors be performed, exploiting their spiritual vulnerability. Across the board, Jews have to condemn sexual and religious exploitation within our communities.

As it should, Rabbi Freundel’s arrest has rocked the Kesher Israel community and the Orthodox circles that held this man in great esteem. Yet the implications are much broader. We should take the opportunity to open conversations about what are often taboo subjects. Rabbi Freundel’s alleged actions have shined a light on mikveh, abuse of power in the Jewish community, and the challenges of conversion. None of these issues is unique to the Orthodox world.

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Posted on October 23, 2014

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Facing Loss at Rosh Hashanah

StengelThe images of the secular New YearTimes Square, Champagne in fancy glasses, funny hats and noisemakersare all fun and happy. By contrast the images of Rosh Hashanaha shofar, people praying, apples dipped in honeyare more subdued and complicated. They suggest introspection mixed with hope, intention and possibility.

And I’m glad it is this way because this combination of emotions allows both for the celebration of that which might be in the year to come and face the reality of loss of all that is no longer possible.

Sitting in the same space we sat in last year and hearing the same somber tunes we hear year after year grounds us in continuity. We know that come what may, we can be sure this place, these sounds, these words will be here again next year, just as they were here last year, just as they were here ten years ago.

But the continuity also reminds us of what has changed in the last year. Some of the changes are for the better, the new love, the child now wearing a tallit for the first time, the new job, the new home. But not all the changes are for the good. Looking around the sanctuary, or the dining room table, at familiar faces we may be acutely aware of those who are not there. Or maybe the tunes and prayers are familiar but the sanctuary and all the people because you have had to move communities after a messy divorce or a job change. Maybe the clothes are old because buying new ones was simply not an option with this year’s finances. Our losses, whatever form they take, can be painfully clear at Rosh Hashanah.

The liturgy of the season returns to the refrain, “Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha, V’nasuvah, Hadesh Yameinu K’kedem” “Return us Adonai to you and we will return, renew our days as in the days of old.” The traditional understanding of this prayer speaks to the need to rededicate ourselves to the path of Torah so that the presence of God will be as profound as it was in ancient times. But my own experience with the loss of loved ones at Rosh Hashanah, gave me a different way to understand it. Loss can alienate us from God and from that which is holy, we need help and support to be able to feel grace and the presence of the sacred. We want to feel the feeling of blessing that has slipped away.

My favorite version of this prayer, one set to the Rosh Hashanah nusach or tunes, is somber and has the power to bring me to tears. I remember the last day of my grandmother’s life, the first day of Rosh Hashanah over 25 years ago. It was the only time I ever saw her pray, I got to hear her sing the traditional tunes. The next day she was gone. Each year since, on Rosh Hashanah I am returned to that special relationship and to her absence.

At Rosh Hashanah, we do need to look forward and imagine how we will improve ourselves, our communities and our world in the year to come. But we also should allow ourselves to grieve for that which has been lost and is not retrievable. Services might be somber, but it is also appropriate cry and feel the power of the music, the sounds, the liturgy and the visuals the moment. Our sense of loss can and should propel us to reach out to those who are still with us, to seek help and support for that which we cannot change on our own. Judaism gives us permission and space to feel both the joys and the pains of life. Unlike the celebration of the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah encourages us to take stock, not to ignore the bad, even as we hope for a better year to come.

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Posted on September 22, 2014

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An Ancient Oath Renewed for Labor Day

1903sweatshopchicagoOften reality is stranger than fiction; The vote for one of 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.

Clara Lemlich

Clara Lemlich

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.

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Posted on August 28, 2014

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Time for Christian Voices Against Anti-Semitism

antisemitismIs 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.

Posted on July 31, 2014

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Jews Don’t Believe in Birthdays but in Saving Lives

Blue_candles_on_birthday_cakeMy 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.

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Posted on July 24, 2014

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Explaining the Unexplainable in Minsk

sacred books“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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Posted on June 26, 2014

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To Minsk on a Prayer

“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

shutterstock_182202344

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.

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Posted on May 22, 2014

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Today Matters

Credit Charlie Kalech  j-town.co.il

Credit Charlie Kalech j-town.co.il

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.

Posted on May 1, 2014

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3 Passover Suggestions Inspired by The Good Wife

download“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.

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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

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