Jewish Pirates and Other Treasures


It’s the end of the summer, and my children are educating me about Jewish pirates.

“They lived in the Caribbean in the 16th and 17th centuries,” my teenage daughter insists. “Hebrew was their secret language, because no one else around them spoke it.”

“And,” my ten-year-old son adds, “they never raided on Shabbat.”

The kids go off to draw pictures of Jewish pirates. I may have trouble wrapping my mind around the concept, but it doesn’t occur to me to ask where the children learned about Sabbath-observing buccaneers. I can already guess: camp.

My children have spent five summers at Camp Be’chol Lashon, where, every summer, the Passport to Peoplehood™ curriculum takes campers and counselors on a three-week adventure through Jewish history and time. Every day, they explore places and cultures that are far outside their personal experience of Judaism, and every discussion will further underscore the Jewish concepts and values they’ve been living and learning their whole lives. Each new story — yes, even Jewish pirates of the Caribbean — will draw them into deeper waters.

Certainly, pirates are far from the average camper’s experience of Jewish culture. But, by awakening children’s natural curiosity, Passport to Peoplehood helps children to see that these long-ago sailors aren’t so very exotic. What did these pirates eat? They’ll discover the answer by preparing, cooking, and eating jerk chicken, a highly-spiced method fugitives used to preserve meat. What music might the sailors have heard, docking in unfamiliar ports far from their native lands? The kids will dance and listen to reggae, which evolved from traditional Jamaican folk music. These hands-on activities help them to really experience the differences between this culture and theirs, while acknowledging the similarities: after all, everyone dances, and everyone eats.

Spending an entire day on Jewish history in the Caribbean means that kids can dig deeper, moving on to discussions that range far beyond eye patches and mainsails. These pirates were much more than rogues on the open sea; many were Anusim (forced converts) who secretly fought to maintain their faith and identity under constant threat of the Inquisition. They had to be brave, quick-thinking, and resilient. They supported one another and, ultimately, survived and thrived. It’s not difficult for kids to see that the story of the pirate Anusim isn’t unlike the stories of other past and present Jewish communities—and, by extension, even connected to modern Jewish kids like them.

Posted on May 27, 2015

How to Welcome the Stranger: A Modern Midrash


1 in 6 contemporary Jews are new to Judaism. How are we supposed to welcome these converts? Rabbi Juan Mejia, a convert himself, provides a modern reading of the biblical story of Ruth to find some guidance. 

An uneasy minyan stands at the gates of Bethlehem. The sun gilds the fields covered in grain, and every one of them eagerly wants to return to his harvest.  The case at hand: the redemption of Elimelech’s field.  Elimelech had left many years ago, during a famine, to live across the Dead Sea in the land of Moab. Tragically, Elimelech died without leaving an heir, his sons having perished as well without having children, and his land must be redeemed by his closest relatives.  Someone from the family must take care of the land and purchase it from the widow.

The closest kin is offered the land.  He gladly accepts to buy it. Then Boaz reveals the catch: “When you acquire the property from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabite, you must also acquire the wife of the deceased, so as to perpetuate the name of the deceased upon his state.” (Ruth 4:5) The man freezes where he stands. Me? Marry THAT woman?  A Moabite?!  Stuttering, he backs down: “Then I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own estate. You, Boaz, take over my right of redemption.” (4:6)

What was this man´s name?  We do not know. The Bible calls him “Peloni Almoni,” that is, John Doe, Everyman.  Because he refused to redeem a soul, his name was forgotten. Because he was willing to accept the land, but not willing to reach out to the stranger, his memory was blotted out from the land.

Boaz, knowing the kindness of Ruth, her enduring love for Naomi and for her God, then responds: “You are my witnesses today that I am acquiring from Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to his sons.”   (4:9) Even though they strayed away from the land and estranged themselves from their people, I am willing to take them back.  “I am also acquiring Ruth the Moabite.” Yes, because it is no shame that she is a Moabite. “The wife of Machlon,” Yes, she has a story. I honor and recognize it. “…as my wife.” For I see her as she is: all love and intention, not the conglomerate of her past and her lineage. “You are my witnesses.” I do this. not secretly, not shamefully, but publicly sanctifying and welcoming her into the loving arms of my family, and through this, my faith and my people.

What was Boaz´s reward?  “Boaz begot Obed, Obed begot Jesse, Jesse begot David.” (4:21-22) One single act of kindness, of openness, of inclusion of this unpopular stranger led to the greatest king in our history.  A king whose lineage, we believe, will help the world achieve its original intention. Because he redeemed a soul, he brought redemption to the world. May we live in his example always.

Posted on May 18, 2015

A Real Cuban Mojito

The first time I tasted a mojito, and I mean really tasted a mojito, I was in Havana with my family, and my dad had whisked me away to a local hotspot after a long, sweaty day of delivering humanitarian aid to those in need. That night was particularly warm, and the cool drink refreshed me from the trials of the day. I remember the salsa music playing in the air and watching through the open windows as the locals danced til their hearts content. This was the taste of Cuba I had heard so much about from my mother’s stories.

These days, my volunteer work includes a more local approach with my participation in the Los Angeles Jewish community as the leader of the young adult group at my synagogue, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. When our new rabbi approached me about an idea for a Cuban-themed Shabbat dinner, I knew exactly which elements would help bring authenticity to the table. Rum, music, and dancing, of course!

The Jewish community in Cuba is very similar to the Jewish communities in the rest of the world. Comprised of a very warm, welcoming group of people, one of the highlights of my family’s frequent trips is visiting both the communities in Havana as well as in Santiago. Several years ago, while visiting Santiago, I had the privilege of teaching Israeli dancing to the community there. This is a culture that celebrates music and dance in a way that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Music is in their soul, and movement and dance is more than just an artistic expression. It’s a way of life!

I happen to love when my two cultures intersect, as they often do, and on May 15th, I get triple the joy, as some of my favorite Jewish organizations come together for an authentic taste of Jewish Cuba. First, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, where my husband and I have found a spiritual home, nurtured deep friendships, and lead programming geared towards inspiring fellow young adults. I can’t think of a better location for such a fun and engaging evening than this. Second, B’nai B’rith Young Leadership Network – Los Angeles, known internationally for promoting Jewish values on a global scale, has invited an expert on all things Jewish Cuba. And third, Bechol Lashon, which promotes and supports diversity within Judaism, and whose incredible staff was the first to reach out to me personally, as a Cuban-American Jew, from a place of inclusion, rather than as the “other.” With these three organizations involved, there is no doubt in my mind that this will be a memorable event.

Posted on May 11, 2015

My Jewish Mother the Hero


My family has always been the foundation of my life. I have very strong bonds with both my parents. Over the years, I have come to appreciate how my parents raised me based on their life experiences. My parents have been married for 33 years, and I always look to them for guidance and support. I think of them as my heroes. Although I think of my dad as a hero as well, since it is Mother’s Day, I’d like to highlight the reasons that I think my mother is a hero.

mommyMy mom is my hero because she has the strength to accomplish the seemingly impossible. In 1975, as one of the top students in the state, she was forced to drop out of college to make ends meet. She was sleeping from couch to couch when finally someone took her in. Around this time, she got a job working for GM on the production line. After being laid off for a few years, she said that enough was enough and went back to working as an apprentice electrician. However, on the day she was supposed to take her tests for her journeyman certification, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She told the doctor, “Hold that thought. I don’t have time for this right now. I have two finals that I must take, and I’ll deal with this diagnosis after I take my final.” My mom ended up scoring the highest grade on the test and earned the right to call herself a journeyman electrician. She was then transferred to a factory called Pontiac Truck and Bus, also known as Pontiac Assembly Center, where she was subject to extreme racist and sexist attacks and threats of violence (I don’t want to get started about the years of lawsuits my family went through). Due to these conditions, my mom was forced to retire, after almost 30 years with GM. Furthermore, due to the stress from work, her MS was exacerbated and she was forced to use mobility aids to move around.

Through all of this, my mom still had faith in G-d and always looked at the positive side of things when life dealt her a bad hand. Every day my mom reminds me how important it is, as a woman, to remain strong and to learn to survive by yourself. I’m so lucky to have my mom in my life, and also my father, who has provided my mom with the support I want my husband to provide since they first met 37 years ago. I think that it’s important that I always remember the fight my mom went through to get where she is today. My mom will always be my hero.

Posted on May 5, 2015

My Chinese Daughter’s Jewish Roots

RLR-Family Kneeling with Dogs

This is the final in a short series on adoption in Jewish families. Enjoy!

In 1988, I had my entire life completely worked out. I was ordained as a cantor, married the love of my life and moved from New York to a community just west of Boston. We would live in Massachusetts for a couple of years as I got my career going; then we would have a couple of babies and move back to NY and raise our kids near our families. We plan. God laughs.

By 1994, my husband and I had gone through thousands of dollars of fertility treatments and had experienced the physical and emotional devastation of five miscarriages. My sixth time expecting turned out to be an ectopic pregnancy which ruptured and resulted into being rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. When I awoke from the surgery, I was ready to find out when we could begin trying again. But my husband was at my bedside and said the following words, “That’s it. No more. I’m not losing you over this. Now we’re going to look into adoption.”

A year later, we found ourselves in Changsha, China, bringing home our daughter, Madison, who at six months old, weighed only 11 pounds. We could never have anticipated the joy and richness that this tiny baby, with her jet black hair and her beautiful almond eyes, would bring to our lives. From the moment she became ours, we began raising her as a Jew, but celebrating her Chinese heritage, as well. At her Hebrew naming ceremony, we included the traditional Red Egg ritual used for babies in China. We joined groups like FCC (Families with Children from China) so that she would see other families that looked like ours. And when she was five, Madison spent a glorious six months on Broadway in Miss Saigon. One of the reasons that we encouraged her to pursue that was so that she could spend time with other Asians and be around people who looked more like her.

But Madison’s identity was firmly entrenched in Judaism. Unlike many children of clergy, she embraced temple life and she forged her own place as youth group president and at Jewish summer camp. And it was her first summer in Israel that brought everything together. For the first two weeks of the trip, the kids spent time in Poland and Czechoslovakia and they visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. When she came home from this extraordinary trip, she told us that she had found her roots. We gently explained that while we were thrilled that she was embracing her Jewish identity, her roots were really in China, to which she responded, “I love that my hair and my eyes are Chinese, but my heart and my soul are Jewish. I feel it every day.”

Now finishing her sophomore year at UConn, Madison is the VP of Engagement at Hillel, and she will be spending this summer doing an internship in Jerusalem. She is quite lovely on the outside, but her real beauty lies within. We are blessed.

Posted on April 28, 2015

Uncovering Awe and Joy in Israel

aliyah“Ima, I’m eating breakfast. It tastes like home. I want to live here forever.”

The simplicity and joy of my daughter’s phone call from her first morning in Israel keeps replaying in my head. It is a balm on my soul and a window into the blessing that is the State of Israel.

Today, Israel celebrates 67 years since its founding. For many, the initial thrill that a Jewish state could possibly come into existence has given way to the complex realities of nation building, security, economic growth and world politics. And these complexities have opened up nuances and ambivalences.

My daughter’s call was a reminder not to disregard the simplicity. Because, even if we acknowledge the complexity, there is so much to celebrate.

If my daughter had had time, the call was all of a minute and a half, I would have shared with her that the Israeli breakfast she devoured so lovingly is the product of the daily rhythms and realities of the early agricultural settlers. These young European Jews would head out to work the fields before the heat of the sun was unbearable. They would return to a big breakfast whose focus on milk products, fruits and vegetables came from the limited options that were available. Simple foods, the product of their own hands, the product of their land, came to taste like home.

Home is an important element in the wonder that is the State of Israel. My husband, a chaperone on my daughter’s trip, relayed an encounter with a doctor in a small northern town. The doctor, a man in his eighties, had his office in his apartment on the top floor of a walk up apartment building. Waiting for the physician to finish with the student, my husband looked through an impressive library. Among the books were a Zionist encyclopedia, German language medical journals, English classics, as well as volumes in Arabic and Polish that he could not identify. When the doctor finished with the treatment, my husband asked about the Polish. Informed that the gentleman had been born in Poland, my husband asked when he had come to Israel. “In 1949, on one of the first boats.”

Posted on April 23, 2015

Eating Bacon?

This is the third in a short series about adoption and multiracial Jewish families that Be’chol Lashon will be running over the next few weeks. We look forward to your comments!

“Did you like bacon before you were Jewish?”

This question from one or both of my sons comes up periodically, at the dinner table, or in the car. There often seems no clear context to the question. It just pops up, now and then.

I generally answer “Yes, I did, but I don’t really want to eat bacon now. There are other things that I used to eat that aren’t kosher, that I really do miss.”

“Like what?”, the questioner will ask.

“Well, like crab cake (a specialty of the state I have resided in for most of my Jewish life), or eel sushi, or blue cheese on hamburgers.” I usually reply.

“What about pepperoni pizza?”, asks our younger son, who is currently fascinated with pepperoni pizza, and feels that this restriction is the ultimate deprivation of kashrut.

“No, I never really liked pepperoni pizza.” I usually neglect to mention that a favorite of my childhood was a Hawaiian pizza – ham and pineapple on a bed of cheese. Yum!

If my husband is in on the conversation, he will often volunteer that he used to eat traif, even though he was born Jewish. It’s a lovely gesture of solidarity, although it raises yet more questions – how can you be Jewish and eat non-kosher foods. Of course, the fact that some Jews eat non-kosher foods is increasingly familiar to our boys, as they meet more friends at their public school who fit that demographic. It’s yet another reminder of how much easier observant Jewish living would be with our boys in a Jewish Day School (along with the constant conflicts with holidays, and deciding where the balance lies in attending school versus observing the Jewish calendar).

Our older son, now aged nine, sometimes bursts out with the accusation that, if we had not adopted them, they would have been able to eat pork. But, the truth is that they were born into a Muslim family, so they likely did not have pork as a dietary option even in their native family.

Posted on April 21, 2015

A Letter to My Son

This is the second in a short series about adoption and multiracial Jewish families that Be’chol Lashon will be running over the next few weeks. We look forward to your comments!

To My Beautiful Son,

Two years ago today we met for the first time. You were two days old, and we had known about you for just one day, since the adoption agency director had come to find me the day before to tell me that a baby had been born whom she believed was meant to be our son.

Two years ago today I met your father in the hospital lobby – I was coming from work and he was coming from school. We walked into the same hospital we had walked out of together just two years before – after I delivered the twins who had stopped growing inside me – heavy with grief in spite of how hollow I felt, into the grey cold snow of Midwestern winter. In the moment we walked back in to meet you – hopeful, excited, curious, nervous – the wound from that day two years before healed more completely. Because of the gift of you.

Two years ago today we got into the elevator, arrived at the third floor and told the special care nursery receptionist that we had come to meet our son. Our beloved adoption agency director met us there too, perhaps as excited as we were after waiting and anticipating with us for a year and a half. There had been other possible babies during that time, all with some real and serious challenges we were not prepared to take on after all we and our older daughter had already been through. We knew that we could have done it, that we would be an amazing family to any child, but we recognized and honored our limitations. We knew that any adoption is complex, and that transracial adoption was something we were prepared to take on with pride, respect and responsibility for our son.

Two years ago today we walked into your warm room in the nursery and saw the tiny swaddled bundle that you were. You were so small, six weeks early and less than four pounds. But healthy and breathing on your own.

Posted on April 15, 2015

My Daughter is as Beautiful as a Doll

This is the first in a short series about adoption and multiracial Jewish families that Be’chol Lashon will be running over the next few weeks. We look forward to your comments!
Mommy and E

As a child I was pretty dissatisfied with my hair. It was neither straight nor curly. It was neither blond nor brown. It didn’t look like the hair of the women I saw on TV or in magazines. It didn’t swish in a ponytail and bits always stuck up on picture day.

Years later, a friend told me that her biracial daughter hated her African hair. The child wanted her hair to look like Barbie. Perhaps it was my own hair issues at play but I felt compelled to search high and low for a Barbie with natural African American hair, found a collector’s version, and paid an exorbitant price to buy it. Alas, the child didn’t like the doll. She said it was ugly.

When my husband and I decided to adopt our daughter, we studied and discussed what it would be like as white Jewish parents raising an African American child. One thing we decided early on was that we wanted our child to always feel she is beautiful, that she belongs, and that she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to. So we filled our home with mixed artwork, books, and toys and encouraged our friends and family to do the same.

We held off on dolls until recently. On a trip to our local Children’s Museum, Eliyana returned again and again to embrace a lifelike African American baby doll. She crooned to him, cradled, kissed, and rocked him happily. So after the museum, we went to the local toy store to buy a doll. To my chagrin I learned there were no dark skinned baby dolls to be had at any of the three stores I visited. The one token doll of color was very light skinned which given my daughter’s dark skin was unacceptable. I was frustrated. Don’t all our beautiful little girls deserve to see themselves reflected in the reality media, toys, and society present to them?

We found a suitable baby doll online that didn’t break the bank. Her hair, however, was doll-straight and not nearly as curly as my daughter’s. So, I undertook to transform her hair from straight to natural African fabulous. The process was simple. Sections of doll hair were wound around pipe cleaners then the doll head was dipped in boiling water. (Done after Eliyana went to bed.) After two days drying, the pipe cleaners were removed and Eliyana enjoyed helping me comb the doll’s hair into this wonderful do.

Posted on April 8, 2015

Passover and the Need for Wiser Questions

African danceIn college, David Abusch-Magder (then David Abusch) decided to take a class in African dance. Over the years he had watched every semester as the class was often held outside. People seemed to be having fun and the movement was so easy and fluid.

His experience comes to mind each year at Passover when we read in the Haggadah (Passover prayer book) that there are four children, the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one that cannot even ask. My husband David, of the aforementioned story, who is now a Jewish educator, often teaches about these differences to help remind us about the different types of learners we need to be able to reach to be successful in Jewish education.

But it is more than that. My husband was, by his senior year, a confident and accomplished student. He was the epitome of the wise child, eager to ask, engage in discussion and to explore new terrain. His achievements in both Jewish studies and physics highlighted both his intellectual flexibility and capacity.

As it turned out he stunk at African dance and gratefully relied on a generous pass/fail system to make it through a class he had undertaken precisely because it would be a break from the stress and strain of the rest of his studies.

The four children of Passover exist not as static solitary characters but are exist as parts of our unified self. Before arriving on campus, David, like the one who did not know how ask, had no idea that the University offered such a class. As a senior, David the wise physicist became David the simple African dancer. In different areas of knowledge or competence, we may move between being the wise, the wicked, the simple or the child who does not know how to ask.

At Be’chol Lashon we work on inclusion in the Jewish community. No one in the Jewish community is against inclusion. And yet, because of the range of ways to include, there are different approaches depending on the individuals being addressed. So It is not surprising that people who are wise about one form of inclusion, are not necessarily so about our area of focus, racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community.

Posted on March 31, 2015