The stereotype that “Jews run Hollywood” didn’t come up much when I was a little kid; I doubt it comes up for most kids. This is not only because, hopefully, we’re spared from some stereotyping when we’re really small—but also because as a little kid, if Jews were running Hollywood, well, you sure wouldn’t know it from children’s entertainment.
As the only Jewish family in our little town, I didn’t see a lot of other Jewish families around. I also never saw my family reflected in the television or movies we watched. I mean, like, other than our annual Passover screening of The Ten Commandments, or our way-too-early introduction to Fiddler on the Roof. But both of those movies had been made a long time ago, and were obviously For Grown Ups. I fully expected that, like all of my friends and neighbors, the characters in the movies and TV shows I watched would celebrate Christmas, not Chanukah.
Until the Jewish mice.
When I saw Don Bluth’s now-classic animated feature, An American Tail, I was thunderstruck. The movie begins with the Mousekewitzes, gathered together to celebrate Chanukah. They even pronounced the “ch” right. The father played a violin, just like in Fiddler on the Roof, but for kids! And then, of course, the Cossacks raided their little Mouskewitz home in The Old World, and then the little mouse family was off to America, going through Ellis Island… just like my family.
Those mice are Jewish, I thought. Fievel and Tanya, they’re Jewish. They’re like me.
But here’s what I really loved about those Jewish mice: Their Jewishness was just part of who they were, and the story was about big ideas that everyone could relate to—starting somewhere new, family, growing up. The same way that in most of the other movies and TV shows I watched, the show wasn’t about them being Christian—they just were Christian, and therefore celebrated Christmas and Easter and everything, but their stories were about big ideas. My friends who weren’t Jewish still loved Feivel and related to his little Jewish-mouse family.
Even later, when I started going to Hebrew School and watched Torah-toons and holiday specials that reflected Judaism in the characters onscreen, there was something special to me about those Jewish mice. When Fievel is searching for his family, he didn’t stop along the way to explain what “kosher” is, or to teach the viewers how to play dreidel. He wasn’t a token Jewish character in a holiday special, designated as “The Jewish One.” He was Fievel, a lost immigrant kid who happened to be Jewish (and happened to be a mouse). I loved that in his little mouse family, they just were Jewish, and that fact was treated as casually as other movies treated the Christianity of their characters.
That felt like my own American tale. Being Jewish is part of my story, and influences my experience. Even when I’m not “doing something Jewish,” it’s still part of who I am. Those are the characters that still resonate with me most: not the ones overtly teaching us something about Something Jewish (or, sadly, playing into one of those old Jewish stereotypes), but the ones who just are Jewish. Like Fievel.
Seeing that reflected onscreen as a little kid had a lasting impact on me. Maybe that’s why I still tear up when I hear Somewhere Out There.
Mickey and Minnie are great. But Fievel and Tanya? Those mice helped me feel a little more included. They helped me believe that somewhere, out there – all of us can be represented.
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For my family, like many Jewish families, holidays play an important role in our life. Holidays are the times when we all get together. There are endless, crazy traditions. Holidays meant coming home, and being with my family.
I grew up in Florida, and went to college in Florida. When my parents moved from Florida to Texas, I suddenly had a to plan on a plane ride instead of a two-hour drive to be with my family for the holidays. Then I graduated from college and started a real job, forcing me to face the reality of not spending every holiday with my family. Being “home for the holidays” was no longer a given.
I certainly am not alone. Every recent college graduate balances making it home for celebrations with our families to what our “grown up life” and holiday celebrations will look like. Luckily, with my first out-of-college job, I literally am not alone.
When I moved to Jackson to start work for the ISJL, I knew that I was joining a new family. My Education Fellow cohort has family dinners together. We look out for each other. We bring each other pints of ice cream with a Shabbat candle for birthdays, squeal over the sweet story of a fellow Fellow’s engagement, and make sure that everyone has a family with whom to spend the holidays. We celebrate together. And yes, we have even and taken family portraits at JC Penney together.
This year in particular, I have been truly blessed in the holiday-celebration regard. One of our board members invited anyone who was in town to spend all or part of the High Holy days with her family in Greenwood, Mississippi. Even though I wasn’t able to spend Yom Kippur with my family, another family opened its arms to welcome me in. I fasted, watched football, and broke fast with M&Ms and Diet Coke—just as I would have done with my family of origin.
As Education Fellows, this happens to us all year round. We each have six or seven communities that we visit and, with the gift of home hospitality, we are lucky to be welcomed into many families throughout our two years. We light the candles at Shabbat dinners in these families’ homes, and hear about how everybody’s week has been. They allow us to truly be part of the family and the greater community; in addition to celebrating many Jewish holidays, I have also cheered at soccer games (even though I don’t entirely remember the rules), attended local craft and historical festivals, and participated in a charity fundraiser.
Other Fellows have enjoyed family movie nights, gone on afternoon hikes, and visited kids’ art shows; there’s no end to the possibilities!
Not only do our hosts welcome us into their families for the weekend, but we also share our lives with them. We tell stories about the shenanigans and adventures of group summer visits. Especially as second year Fellows, we want to contact our hosts or education directors when exciting things develop for graduate school or plans for Life After The Fellowship.
I still love getting to be with my family. I also love how much more “family” I have now. When I first started at the ISJL in June 2013, I added 8 Fellows to my family. Over the last 18 months, that family has grown exponentially with every summer, fall, and spring visit I make. Not every recent college graduate gets so warmly embraced by so many families, who make us feel at home even when we’re far from home. I look forward to continuing growing my Southern Jewish family this year, and staying in touch as the world takes us in all different directions.
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Flashback: a few weeks ago, on this very blog, a post about Jewish conferences is published… authored by yours truly (shameless, right?). The piece was about how valuable such gatherings are – so valuable that they should be placed above sleep on our collective priority list. Just weeks after writing that piece, I found myself in Cambridge, Massachusetts for… you guessed it: another Jewish conference.
I was at Harvard University for the weekend conference, along with a few hundred others from around the country – in fact, 8 states out of the 13-state ISJL region were represented there! We had all come together for the first-ever conference of Open Hillel.
Open Hillel is a campaign that seeks to broaden the parameters of permissible conversation about Israel and Palestine at Hillel chapters around the country. Those who attended this conference feel that the value of machloket l’shem shemayim, spirited debate for the sake of heaven, should manifest itself even on the question of Zionism; that especially on questions related to Israel and Palestine, which often touch us in the deepest corners of our neshamot (souls), we should be open to a vast array of differing perspectives. Open Hillel believes that all Jews – even those who aren’t Zionists – deserve to be heard and included in Jewish communal conversations.
I learned an unbelievable amount at this inspiring event, attending sessions about human rights, the bounds of the Jewish “Open Tent,” even exploring issues like intermarriage and gender identity. I met wonderful students, recent college graduates, and older community members who were united by their desire to lay it all on the table – to staunchly debate the topics about which we disagree and, as a result, to grow in our knowledge of the issues.
But I had a funny thought while at this conference. Does it relate to my work at the ISJL at all?
The ISJL serves a geographic region; my department, the education department, specifically serves religious schools. The premise of our work is that every Jewish child should have access to an excellent Jewish education. We serve communities with twenty-five students, or five students, or even one single student. They receive access to the same resources that a community with 300 students gets. Every community is welcomed, and none is valued more than any other.
Open Hillel does not serve a particular geographic region. It does, however, serve a Jewish constituency, including a group which, like smaller communities, is occasionally overlooked: those whose perspectives differ staunchly from many Jewish institutions’ stances on Israel and its policies. Open Hillel recognizes that, regardless of any individual’s political stances about Israel, our Jewish institutions must provide a space for all to engage equally; that every Jewish person should have access to an excellent Jewish community.
I believe our Jewish community can and must uphold the ideal of “Eilu v’eilu div’rei Elohim Chayim” – “These and these are the words of the Living God” (Talmud Eruvin 13b). In Talmud, in our synagogue board meetings, and even at our dinner tables, we engage in rigorous debate about issues we deem important. Valuing and participating in debate is not merely part of being Jewish – it is perhaps the basic premise from which the rest of our tradition follows.
Though the focus areas are different, Open Hillel addresses issues of inclusion and empowerment– as does the ISJL. The ISJL knows that the existence and experiences of our wonderful Southern Jewish communities might be totally unknown in other places. Through our work, we build awareness and ensure that Southern Jews are viewed as a vital piece in the beautiful puzzle that is American Jewish Life.
Open Hillel wants to do something similar by demonstrating that harsh critics of Israel – even Jews who are not Zionists – are a crucial part of our community’s make-up. That so many of these people, who some might believe are just apathetic about their Judaism or actively “self-hating,” are as deeply in love with their Jewish identities as those who think differently. The goal these organizations have in common is to foster a diverse Jewish community that will thrive for centuries.
That goal can and should be our Jewish communal Torah. The rest is commentary. Let’s go and do it.
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