For the last couple of years, I’ve admired the creativity of several of my Facebook friends who have posted photos of their Elves on the Shelf staged quite mischievously each night leading up to Christmas. It seemed Jewish families just didn’t have a good option available for such a doll in their house. And then, last year, I stumbled on the Kickstarter campaign for the Mensch on a Bench and was very impressed to see a Jewish version of this toy.
The Mensch, named Moshe, is a one-foot tall plush doll. To my eye, he looks stereotypically Jewish: he’s got a beard, a black hat, and a scarf resembling a tallit (prayer shawl). He’s got a Hebrew name (Moshe) and could have jumped off the screen of Fiddler on the Roof. When I see the Mensch, he looks nothing like most Jews I know.
Most Jews I know never wear a tallit. Most Jews I know never wear a black hat. And, most Jews I know don’t have beards. Only some of the Jews I know are men. And only some are white.
I understand that the Mensch’s creator had to choose one “look” for the Mensch, and so it’s impossible for him to represent us all. Admittedly, I’m not sure what the Mensch should look like. But I can’t help but wonder if this Mensch is inadvertently perpetuating some stereotypes – conveying that this is what “authentic” Jews look like.
If the Mensch looked more like the Elf but was wearing blue and white, I’d be happier. Or, if there were different versions of the Mensch showing the diversity of the Jewish community, I’d be way happier (and I’d probably buy them all!).
Also problematic is the book that accompanies Moshe the Mensch. That story opens with an illustration of a family lighting a Hanukkah menorah. You guessed it: a white family with a mom and a dad and a son and a daughter. A family in which the dad and son wear yalmulkes as head covering. While some families I know look this, others do not. Some have two dads, some have only a mom, some have a child or parent of a different race, some have no children. And while some Jewish men (and women!) wear yarmulkes, most do not. When we designed coloring book pages at OurJewishCommunity.org for Hanukkah, we purposefully included images that reflected diversity: interfaith families, Jews without yarmulkes, kids in wheelchairs, same-sex parents, etc.
Sadly, I think the images reflected in this opening illustration of the Mensch book present the most traditional approach, one that simply doesn’t reflect the identity of most Jews today. While Moshe may be typical of how Jews are most often portrayed, I think it misses an opportunity to more accurately reflect the diversity of the Jewish community.
A few months ago, I had an opportunity to meet with the Mensch’s creator (and he was nice enough to give me a Mensch!). A former Hasbro employee, now a dad and an entrepreneur, Neal Hoffman is an impressive guy.
Overall, I like the Mensch and think it’s nice that there is a Jewish version of the Elf. Also great is that the the Mensch encourages mensch-like qualities. He comes with a set of Hanukkah rules, one of which is to choose a night of Hanukkah to give gifts to people in need.
It turns out I’m not the only one evaluating the Mensch this week. The Mensch on the Bench will be on Shark Tank this Friday night, so we’ll see what the sharks think. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the Mensch’s looks; please share your comments here.
While on the surface, the last two posts on this blog from my colleagues, Laura Duhan Kaplan and Joshua Ratner, are about two very different things, they are, I believe, both reflections on the shifting culture in which our Jewish lives and worlds are embedded. Sometimes, in our analysis of our field of focus, we can lose sight of a broader set of dynamics that may have as much, if not more, to tell us about a situation we are examining than some of the specifics of the situation itself.
Let’s start with Joshua’s concern that, at a recent rally for the three kidnapped boys in Israel, there was a stark lack of young people present. Likewise, he notes, at communal Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut events, the presence of a younger generation is often lacking. Is it that they don’t care? Are we dealing with a more self-centered generation than in the past? These are some of Joshua’s questions.
While there may be some partial truths there, I think a step back to look at the worlds that many of our teens and young adults are living in may be more instructive. And not just our teens and young adults, but many other segments of our communities too. One of the things that I’ve observed is that often, regardless of the topic or the issue, any Jewish gathering that aims to or claims to bring all sections of the community together often reaches none, or very few. Perhaps only those who are comfortably self-identified as the Jewish establishment will appear (those are the 50+ folk that Joshua saw in his crowd). They know that we are addressing them. Others may not be so sure unless we break things down and are more explicit about who we mean.
This is why there are many independent communities and minyanim that have popped up in recent years. Not necessarily identified along established denominational lines, they are, in part, a result of young Jews who are less interested in simply “belonging” to an established Jewish entity because it is already there, and are more interested in creating something that fits who they are, where they can be with like-minded folk. It is why, within a more established kind of Jewish congregation—one like my own where we are the most significant gathering place for Jews who come to us from 20 different towns—our ability to engage and connect with our members requires us to correctly identify many of the different groups and interests within our larger membership and provide a range of doorways in for those specific needs (creating many small gatherings and opportunities within the large). Its why many congregations realized that when you simply advertise “adult education” you always seem to get the same group of, primarily, empty-nesters and retirees in attendance. Its not that others aren’t interested in learning; it’s just that its only when the kids have left home that you finally have some time to do study for its own sake. Or perhaps you now begin to seek new realms of meaning now that not so much of that meaning-making is invested in raising children. That doesn’t mean we can never get other groups to come and learn with us. It just means we have to be really smart about what it is they need at other junctures of their lives.
So I’ve found teens and young adults to be very engaged with Israel, and deeply able to connect with the impact of the Shoah on Jewish peoplehood, but in places where they come to be with each other. Joshua and I shared the same community for a while. The year that we brought our annual Yom HaShoah observance into our community High School Tuesday evening gathering, it was very powerful to see a couple of hundred teens watch Holocaust survivors light candles, and hear the testimony of one of them. Several teens every year did the “Adopt a Survivor” program and personally got to know one survivor and commit to tell their story. It was clear that they had a connection in our debrief the following week. But do they come on a Sunday afternoon for a “communal” event? Not so much.
Laura’s very honest reflections on how, at an event that was meant to bring community together, she felt somewhat uncomfortable and disconnected from narratives being offered by Jewish leadership from another denomination is, I believe, another dimension of some of the same cultural phenomenon. On almost no topic are we a “one community” mindset. It is almost impossible for anyone to speak anymore and be accepted as “the voice” of the people, or even of a particular moment. Perhaps there was a time, in a more modernist era, where we were willing to let voices of authority speak on behalf of all of us—a Chief Rabbi (in the UK, for example; something that was far more accepted a few decades ago than it is now), a communal leader at a rally, an Op-Ed in a newspaper. But today, some of the most successful Jewish communal events are ones that focus on and celebrate plurality and diversity of voice—take the enormous world-wide success of Limmud, for example. Even on something where you might have assumed that, at least publicly, we’d all stand with one voice, it is the right to have even the minority voice heard that overrides any sense that doing so might undermine a perceived communal unity. Take the position of Jewish Voice for Peace on BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), for example, and their recent role in a Presbyterian Church vote to partially divest from three companies doing business in Israel. Some are outraged by their presence in the public square of debate on Israel. But, if we take a step back from the issue and better understand our cultural context, in which we have celebrated and empowered those who are drawn to define and act upon their own sense of justice in a plurality of ways, we shouldn’t be surprised by the result.
Just to be clear, I’m not mourning the lack of perceived unity and peoplehood. Neither am I celebrating it. I’m simply describing the cultural landscape that I believe we are living in the ways that I see it. Simply better understanding it can, I believe, help us do our work in connecting Jews together, engaging Jews in communities, activities and causes, with more successful outcomes. Trying to get everyone at the same event, on the same page, and caring in the same way is a fruitless exercise. We can, however, be successful in creating or supporting many gateways, many voices, and many opportunities to be and do Jewish with each other.
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“Why do we pray?” I asked before we entered our makeshift sanctuary. We had gathered at the cabins. Dressed in white, we walked along the road accompanying the Torah, the quiet solemn march was visually powerful. But even with this wonderful set up, part of me worried. I attend a great many Shabbat services in a variety of settings, formal and informal, Orthodox, Reform, unaffiliated. Far too often the young people have trouble engaging. They don’t sing along. They fidget. They talk. They don’t seem to pray.
So while the question was genuine, I was also hedging my bets. Trying to have the campers set up a framework that made sense to them and would allow them to find their own way into prayer. But I need not have worried. Kids pray at camp.
Throughout the summer, my social media networks –which admittedly have a strong clergy faction -have been filled with reports of inspiring prayer services at camps across the country. Early in the summer I had dinner with a woman in her 70s, who recalled the yearly ritual of a day spent in prayer each summer, mourning the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Over 50 years later, it remains one of the most powerful prayer experiences of her life. I can still recall sitting under the trees by the lake when I was not even ten years old and writing my own prayers. My pride at having my words included in our prayer book still resonates. I often hear adults mourn the really spiritual praying they were able to do at camp but eludes them as grown ups.
At Camp Be’chol Lashon where I work now, the campers lead the service. Some are very familiar with Jewish prayer while others are encountering it for the first time. In pairs or small groups they take their place in front of the community, explain, lead and engage. There is lots of music, some discussion, and tons of participation. It is a tight community. There is a sense of intimacy. The atmosphere is serious but relaxed. Campers easily offer up thing for which they are grateful, the names of those in their lives who are sick, the memories of those who have passed.
Away from camp, young people pray –but mostly it is a private affair- when the personal needs strikes. Judaism encourages communal prayer but outside of camp the tone is different, the sense of empowerment and fun can be lacking.
Spaces where children take the center stage for prayer are less common. Schools come with the baggage of expectations and evaluation. Youth group gathering are few. Most sanctuaries are dominated by adults and even on the occasion of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service when a child is welcomed into their growing role in the community, the adults, their rules, their seriousness and tunes dominate.
The campers at Camp Be’chol Lashon easily provided answers to my “why pray” query. “To talk with God.” “To let our wishes be known.” “To give voice to our hopes.” As I facilitated the short conversation, which also touched on the fact that one need not believe to participate, their answers reminded me that young people understand prayer in the abstract. The inspiring service that followed, was proof positive that given the tools, freedom and encouragement, young people can and do pray.
There are white Jews, Black Jews, Asian Jews, and Arab Jews – but blue Jews? No, no such thing exists. Which is exactly why artist Siona Benjamin paints them. Blue is the color of water and sky. It belongs everywhere and nowhere, so when Benjamin paints her figures are often blue. If the Jews are blue, one cannot simply assume a race or identity to them, they could be anyone, at any time.
Born in Bombay, Benjamin grew up amidst Hindus and Muslims and attended Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. She understands the ability of Jews to blend into their environment. An accomplished artist whose fine brushwork and vivid colors evoke the cultural themes of her native land, the subject of many of her paintings engage the stories of Jewish texts. One look at her illustrations for the story of the biblical Queen Esther and I find myself considering this familiar tale from an entirely new point of view, how did she not stand out? What makes us able to choose not to see difference?
At this time of year Judaism can seem overly cerebral. Lots of praying, listening, talking and of course the exception to the rule, the eating. But the moment we finish with Yom Kippur we prepare for Sukkot. By contrast to High Holidays, Sukkot is about doing. It celebrates the very physical work of the harvest. It has us building physical structures and taking holy objects in our hands and shaking them about. Even the eating, with the moving in and out, is much more physical.
And then there is the art. A Sukkah is meant to be decorated. Sure you can just buy a few premade chains or hang apiece of fruit, but you can also take the opportunity to stretch your Jewish thinking and engage with art as text or in creating new art. There is a tradition of inviting ushpizin, mythical guests from the Jewish past into our Sukkot. Peruse Benjamin’s art online and ask yourself how her depictions of Jewish biblical figures might shape your own take on these potential guests, or inspire you to create your own artistic interpretations and representations. Who might you invite from ancient or even modern Jewish history? What would they look like? How would you depict them?
Those lucky enough to be in Northern California can come hang out with Benjamin and make art at Sukkot Under the Stars. But even if you are not in the area, or not even building a Sukkah, take some time this season to gather some friends, create and consider the possibilities inspired by Siona Benjamin and her blue Jews.
I’m going to be busy this coming week. I’m heading to Israel, England, Iran, Canada, China and Jamaica. There will be music, exotic foods, late night parties and lots and lots of learning. My passport is ready, because on Sunday, I head off to Camp Be’chol Lashon.
Jewish camps are a cornerstone of Jewish life. And in many ways they all build on a similar set of ingredients. In our day to day lives we exist in multiple communities in multiple settings. At camp, we exist in one community and come together with a focus on Jewish identity. So while we swim, hike and sing, we are able to look around and know what we share.
Much of that holds true at Camp Be’chol Lashon, but instead of setting aside our multiple identities, we embrace and celebrate them, making them the focus of our Jewish conversation and connection. Camp Be’chol Lashon takes the diversity of the Jewish people as our starting point. Each day the camp “travels” to a different country using our camp passports to record our impressions as we experience Jewish life around the globe through art, music, dance and crafts. These explorations not only teach us about the traditions of Indian or Ugandan Jews, for example, but also provide the platform from which we launch conversations about complex contemporary issues such as living as a minority in a majority culture or the place of tradition in keeping a community strong.
The campers at Be’chol Lashon come from around the world and from right in our neighborhood. Their racial backgrounds and personal histories are as varied as those of the Jewish communities that we “visit” each day. In many settings Jews of Color have to choose which part of their identities they will put forward and which they will leave at the proverbial door. At Camp Be’chol Lashon, they have the opportunity to be their full selves in a community that celebrates racial and ethnic heritage and the reality of modern Jewish life.
Jewish camps are treasured places but all too often they are seen as places that inoculate Jews against the complexities of the broader world. At Camp Be’chol Lashon we embrace the complexity, for not only does it represent the reality that most of our young people encounter, it represents the world that they will grow into. By grounding their vision of their Jewish selves in the complexity, we hope to prepare them to lead us into the Jewish future.