Praying For My Children After Charleston

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Week after week, I light two small candles. I move behind my children and put one hand on each of their heads and I begin my prayer: Y’varech’cha Adonai V’yishmerecha. I ask that they be blessed and kept safe, favored and granted peace. I kiss each child on the forehead, oldest to youngest, as if my kiss affords them my own protection, and then give them into the keeping of a new week, bending towards a new Shabbat, where I will give them this blessing again.

It is an incredible act of hope, celebrating the week that has come and anticipating a week we are sure will follow. Shabbat after Shabbat, I have asked and prayed that my children be safe in the week to come.

Last week, I begged.

Last week, I truly realized that I cannot keep my children safe.

When I was a very new parent, I used to jolt awake in the middle of the night and turn to the newborn at my side. I strained to hear her almost inaudible breathing, to mark the movement of her chest in the half-darkness. To lie there and witness her existence was to keep her safe, and no sane or logical argument could have convinced me otherwise. That was my job, to protect the tiny, fragile creature that a creator with a lovely sense of humor had, implausibly, given into my exclusive care.

When I saw the words “Charleston” and “Massacre,” I thought, at once, of four little Birmingham girls going to Sunday school and then never coming home again. They were four innocent children whose parents would have given anything to keep them safe and alive and whole. A man carrying on the same hate that murdered those children had just walked into a place of peace and prayer and massacred nine more innocents.

Watching the first images filter in, I thought of stealing into my children’s bedrooms, to, for a moment, watch them sleep, and feel, again, that I was protecting them just by being there. But I can’t. I can protect them from hunger and rain, I can give them all the love I have, but I cannot protect them from this naked hatred. I have given them my singing voice, my nearsightedness, and the heritage of a people whose suffering gave birth to the blues, who, I once believed, had already demanded and received their freedom generations ago. And, with this, I passed on to them a danger that is always present, though usually ignored or even forgotten until a gunman walks into a place of peace and prayer.

Posted on June 29, 2015

Young Jews: Every Voice Matters

photo curtesy Camp Yavneh

“For they (the teachings) are our life source, and what lengthen our days, and so we meditate on them day and night.”— Siddur

This past week I arrived at Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire. It is my first time at a summer camp. Not knowing anyone or what to expect, I was surprised to hear my name being called. It turned out some of the graduating seniors from a high school class I taught were at camp. They ran over, hugged me, and asked if I would facilitate a meditation session — like I have previously done for them on high school retreats. A little flustered as the “newbie” at camp, I knew that if Jewish youth are asking from something Jewish, I have a responsibility to say yes. Soon after their counselor asked if the whole group could join, and before I knew it, I had 40 new friends!

We sat in a circle, began with a story, sang a few songs and began our journey through our breath and prayer, i.e. Jewish meditation. The primary aim of meditation, I told them, is to help one center and align their mind, body and spirit, in hope of reaching to the core of who we are as people. Ultimately, this practice can guide a person to their inner selves in a way that can be unfamiliar, but most valuable. I told them that not often enough do we hear our own voice, in our Jewish communities. I told them, that as the leaders of the future generation, they must find their voice, for if they don’t, fragmented and disconnected realities will eventually surface.

No matter the content or discussion I have with my students, I make sure they know that my sole priority as their rabbi is to awaken within them the confidence and capacity to take hold of their Judaism, not my Judaism, but their own. As King Solomon taught “Know well the condition of your flocks; give your attention to the herds.” Homiletically speaking, this proverb teaches to always be aware of oneself and one’s possessions, furthermore, it teaches to never think lightly about what looking at what your needs truly are (Rashi). I stress to them how important it is for them to find their voice, and how essential that discovery is in securing the future of the Jewish community.

Posted on June 24, 2015

Reb Zalman in the Andes

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This piece is being published on the yahrzeit of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory, may his teachings endure. 

It begins like an old Hasidic story.  A reluctant maskil (a defender of the rational reform of Judaism, an “enlightener”) is strong-armed into visiting a chasidic rebbe.  In Eastern Europe of yore, these meetings seldom ended well. Maskilim rejecting Hasidism as mystical hogwash for the masses, chasidim regarding maskilim as elitist heretics bent on zapping all magic out of Judaism.

Reb_Zalman_2005In this case, the rebbe was Reb Zalman and the maskil was myself.  I was to serve as the translator for a virtual yechidus, an intimate one-on-one meeting, between Reb Zalman and a grateful Latin American student, Dr. Juan Jimenez Bravo. Some years before, the Renewal movement had received Dr. Jimenez’s community and affiliated them as one of their own.  This is noteworthy because Dr. Jimenez’s community, Beith Etz Chaim, is not a suburban chavurah of baby boomers but a synagogue high up in the Peruvian Andes whose members are all converts to Judaism.

For the most part the members of Beith Etz Chaim are third- and fourth-generation descendants of Polish and Russian Jews –mostly men-  who came to the city of Huanuco in Peru during the “rubber fever,” the boom in the rubber trade high in the Amazon at the beginning of the 20th century. High in the mountains, these Jews married local people and Judaism became a memory. Four generations later, their descendants are reclaiming their faith.

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Beth Etz Chaim today

Far from an anomaly, the experience of Beith Etz Chaim is being replicated in cities and towns across Latin America. Claiming a long-lost Jewish heritage and wanting to reaffirm their identity, or simply seeking Judaism as a way of life and connection, thousands of Latin Americans have converted (or in some cases reverted) to Judaism. Most of them, unable to integrate into established existing communities, have opted to create their own. The Jewish mainstream across the denominations, both locally and internationally, has been slow to open the doors or lend a hand to these “emerging communities.”  And yet, ahead of the curve, Reb Zalman had decided over six years ago to affiliate Beith Etz Chaim to the Renewal movement.  Hearing that the rebbe was sick, my friend, Dr. Jimenez wanted to thank Reb Zalman personally for opening the doors for them.

Posted on June 22, 2015

Fathers – Look for those (Jewish) teaching moments

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“Hey Buddy!”

Whenever I hear that term, so common coming from the lips of dads in my generation, I invariably pause to reflect on the Fifth Commandment which instructs children to honor their parents (“kibbud av va-em”). Will a child whose father calls him (or, almost as frequently, her) “Buddy” come to regard that parent with the undercurrent of awe that Judaism deems appropriate?

For some reason, I have been particularly sensitive to this use of language this spring.

Maybe this awareness has to do with passing the two decade mark since my own father’s death. As one of our town’s few ophthalmologists, he worked long days and often on weekends and I still recall how much I treasured the times when he was at home or when we could go on a family vacation together or when he helped me prepare my bar mitzvah ceremony. After more than 20 years – nearly half of my life – I work hard to hang on to some of what he taught me about responsibility, persistence, supporting a family, adhering to an ancient religious tradition, taking care of community needs. And, while I recognize how many details I have forgotten, I know for certain that he never referred to me in this way.

Maybe I’m noticing “Buddy” because of Father’s Day this month and my anxiety about whether I’m fulfilling my own paternal responsibilities for my 7-year old son, Ari, and my 4-year old daughter, Talia. A frequently cited passage from the Talmud concerning the duties incumbent on fathers is found in Kiddushin 29a, which includes teaching them Torah. Am I instructing Ari and Talia to be kind, and to respect and be self-confident about who they are? Am I teaching them to swim?

Perhaps I am noticing the use of “Buddy” because my wife, Helen Kim, and I are in the final stages of editing a book about our multi-year research project that looks at households that blend Jewish and Asian traditions and backgrounds, which will be published next spring by The University of Nebraska Press.

Posted on June 15, 2015

Born Jewish or Not, You Matter

EllePreforming

I’m a convert. I converted. I wasn’t “BORN” Jewish, whatever the heck that means.

The way I look — my golden complexion and the abundance of ringlet curls on my head — combined with the difference in my upbringing have always challenged my place in society and even in the Jewish community. It brings me joy to say that actually, I feel more accepted today than ever before, but that’s not how it always was.

It’s hard being a little girl. Being born with a vagina isn’t always the easiest, especially being of color in a “non-traditional” family. I was raised with a single mom in Hollywood. I attended a private school in Los Angeles’ infamous valley but lived a very urban life with my filmmaker mom. I lived between black and white and didn’t really have any sense of grounded identity, which created a lot of self-doubt and issues that manifested particularly in middle school and probably still have effects today. I continually faced people who told me, “You’re not Jewish because your mom’s not Jewish,” which angered me because it denied me of my own identification and reminded me that my parents aren’t together, and that many viewed my existence as illegitimate.

I think I always wanted to be Jewish because that would validate the white side of my heritage, the “right” side. Societal ideology has played a huge part in my life. I never wanted a black baby doll growing up: Blue eyes were always my favorite, and it always stung that the blond girls in elementary school didn’t accept me because I didn’t look like them.

Seventh grade was a formative year for me. That year, we studied the Holocaust, propelling me to reach out to my paternal grandmother who is a survivor. Her story inspired me to find my identity through the deliberate representation of my heritage and the honoring of her legacy. Finding an identity is an integral step to growing up in this crazy, confusing and kind of hostile world.

My role model for conversion was my aunt Kathy. She converted upon marrying my uncle, and I always loved going to her Passover seders. My memories of Judaism were always positive and included being with family, my cousins, the food, the smells and the sounds of the Hebrew language. My aunt and my uncle got divorced when I was in seventh grade, at the exact time I was struggling with those identity issues and going through the dreaded dark ages of puberty. Their divorce cut me off to all that I knew of Judaism; I felt like I had lost half of my identity, because my dad didn’t really do Judaism in a traditional way. So I decided to go to a black women’s meeting at my middle school, to which I unfortunately didn’t connect. I craved a way to embrace both my matzah-loving side and my cornbread-eating side with no problem, but I didn’t know how to have those two worlds co-exist without knowing much about either.

Posted on June 8, 2015

Seamlessly Chinese and Jewish

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Recently at work, one of my co-workers, who is a Chinese originally from Taiwan, stopped by my desk to ask me a question. He spotted the calendar on my desk.

“You have a Jewish calendar,” he said.

“Yes?” I replied.

“A Jewish calendar?” he asked again.

“I am Jewish,” I said.

He looked at me and smiled, “You are? Really?”

“Yes, I am Jewish”

“Really? You are Jewish?”

“Yes.”

“Really?” he asked again.

This has been my normal experience, people Jews and non-Jews alike would ask me exactly three times if I am really Jewish when I tell them that I am Jewish.

I am a Hong Kong-born Chinese immigrant, I came to the United States with my family in 1971. I embraced the covenant and became Jewish in 1997, I am also a lesbian. At times I am too Chinese to fit in with my American friends, or I am too American to fit in with my Chinese friends, now I’m just too gay to the Chinese, and too Chinese to the Jews! One way to look at this is that I don’t fit in anywhere, the other way to see it is that I belong to multiple communities and can serve as a connector to the differences.

I love studying Jewish texts, and have been doing so almost every week for the past 18 years at the Torah study class at my shul. Because I am a visual person, I see images as I read these texts. I also love to create art, and along the way I began to create art from Torah texts. I started out just sketching and doodling scenes from the Torah, but when my synagogue Beth Chayim Chadashim  decided to create stained glass windows for the sanctuary, my illustrated design based on the parting of the sea (and other Jewish symbols) was chosen. More recently, I was honored and excited to be accepted into the Women of the Book project – a visual, midrashic Torah scroll created by 54 Jewish women artists around the world. My piece is from the Torah portion Pekudei where the glory of God fills the Mishkan in the form of clouds. Inspired by my Hong Kong childhood superhero and images of Chinese clouds, I created this piece.

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Recently, one of the esteemed artists of the Women of the Book project, Judith Margolis, nominated me to participate in a Facebook Art Challenge…to post five pieces of art in five days.

Hamsah-artMy first post was a piece from my portfolio, a Hamsa (the ancient “open hand” symbol of peace and protection) that I had created using Chinese bamboo brush  The “Likes” on my Facebook page inspired me to continue with the bamboo brush and ink as my medium, and to stay on the Chinese and Jewish theme.

On my second post, I thought of the ram and the shofar (ram horn), because we had just celebrated the Chinese Year of the Ram and it reminded me of the shofar since I love sounding the shofar during the Days of Awe. So I wrote the Chinese character “ram” (羊), drew the head of a ram and a shofar, and noted the three New Years that I celebrate — Jewish, secular, and Chinese.

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I’ve long had a fascination with calligraphy, especially Chinese characters, its strokes and meanings, and the calligraphy I used for the ram inspired me to continue in that vein for my other posts. Many of the Chinese characters derive from pictographs; to me they are such amazing images. Maybe because Passover was coming up, I thought about Moses and the burning bush, and thought it would be interesting to put the actual Chinese character for “fire” or “flame” (火) on some branches, and I used the colors of the flame instead of black ink.

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From the burning bush I thought of the Israelites traveling in the desert, and how God came in a column of cloud by day and column of fire by night — hence my fourth piece. Sun (日), moon (月) clouds (雲) fire (火).


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Lastly, I did the parting of the sea from Exodus (which is at the top of this post.) Again using the characters as my images, I included the characters human (人), male (男), Female (女), Child (孩), goat (羊), cow (牛) and gold (金). The shimmering gold ink can only be seen if one views the original piece from a different angle. It made me think about how often what shimmers (the gold within each of us) remains hidden to ourselves or others until we look from a different angle.

The positive reactions from my Facebook friends to these art pieces amazed me; and made me reflect on my inner being: I was merely expressing who I am through art, and how the many pieces of me — the Jew, the Chinese, the lesbian — come together and become one.

Posted on June 1, 2015

Jewish Pirates and Other Treasures

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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

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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

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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

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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