To Cry for You: Remembering Arik Einstein z”l

The death of Arik Einstein z”l highlights the jagged seam line where Israeli and Diaspora Jews meet.  Or don’t meet. JJ Goldberg comments on this in the Forward and  Liel Leibowitz rips the seam wide open in Tablet Magazine. Initially I laughed through my tears at Leibowitz’s in-your-face comments:  I have nothing to say to you about Arik Einstein. I’m sorry to sound like a prick, but you wouldn’t get it…But then he went in an altogether different direction to where my own heart was headed.

So I will try to say something to you about Arik Einstein, as many were just recently commenting about what the loss of Lou Reed means to them personally. I never listened much to Lou Reed, but Arik Einstein’s music changed my life.

An Israeli friend from my Hashomer Hatzair group gave me Einstein’s 1971 album, Badeshe Etzel Avigdor (vinyl) in 1974 That album introduced many to the anthem of my generation  – Ani Ve Ata. . Members of Hashomer Hatzair were singing it years before it became the go-to song for American Jewish tikkun olam projects. But other tracks on that album touched me more deeply in unexpected ways. The song about his own experiences in Hashomer Hatzair, HASHRIKA SHEL HATNUA  placed people like my friends and me at the center of a rock star’s view of the world.

I was one of those marginalized, radical, intellectual but “bad” kids born too late to be part of the Jewish Catalogue crowd of DIY Jews but too early to belong to the Gen X reimagining of alternative Jewish community. In the mid-1970s, our idea of a good time was watching Arik Einstein’s comedy Lool in tandem with Monty Python. How better to understand the absurdity in being Ber Borochov quoting socialist Zionist Jewish kids in mid-1970s north America?

Fast forward to November, 1995. Right after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Einstein released “Zeh Pitom Nafal ָAleha” זה פתאום נפל עליה‬‎ -. a public outpouring of sorrow and compassion for Rabin’s widow Leah. I imagine there are those who wish there had been such a song for Jackie when JFK was assassinated.

Arik Einstein seemed to create the soundtrack to which many of us living away from Israel healed from the restach (assassination) from miles away. An Israeli friend sent me Shalom Chaver, the 2 CD live recording of the Rabin memorial concert and, had it been on vinyl, I would have worn down the grooves.  All of Israel’s great musical artists offered moving tributes to the slain Prime Minister at that long, poignant gathering. But, as the first disc opens with Einstein’s rendition of Aviv Geffen’s iconic lament, Livkot Lekha–(I am going to cry for you) and closes with his classic Uf gozal-(the little bird flies away) , his iconic baritone voice was like a comforting embrace, enclosing the rest of the music.

Of course, Einstein induced laughter at least as often as tears. My friend Rabbi Leila Berner captured this in an e-mail, writing that  “sometimes I cried so much when I listened to his songs…and sometimes I laughed so hard when he realized that (as Reinhold Niebuhr once said), “laughter is a no man’s land between faith and despair.” Arik gave us laughter when we couldn’t find our faith and when despair was an all too frequent visitor.”

Fast forward to Limmud Conference in the UK, 2008:

I  invite a new Israeli friend to join me at a late night sing-along, but he was afraid it would be mostly English tunes he didn’t know. He want on tell me that it was the eve of Arik Einstein’s 70th birthday and he was afraid nobody in the room would understand.  He was going to call it a night. I began to sing one of Arik’s silly songs, אני אוהב לישון-‬‎Ani ohav lishon (I love to sleep). My friend decided to come along. And many people there did get where he was coming from.  Arik Einstein’s songs turned a random group of people, who ranged in age from around 16 to over 60 and who came from places as far flung as Stockholm and Cape Town, into a community celebrating the birthday of a cultural hero.

The beauty of it was that the songs surely meant something different to each singer. For me, it was much more than simple nostalgia. It spoke directly to the piece of me that feels alienated almost everywhere these days, as I feel that most of the Diaspora Jewish world seems to have split into two groups, neither to which I belong: the one for non- and anti Zionists, the other for   center to right-wing Zionists. That night, Arik’s music brought me home for a short while.

My friend, the musician Stuart Rosenberg, remembers Einstein’s music like this: In 1971 I was 15 years old, away from home for six-month exchange program, living in an Israeli boarding school while studying Hebrew and working in the fields. That was the summer of Arik Einstein’s hit song Ani V’Atah…. Lying awake at night… with the aroma of night blooming jasmine in the air and the sound of Arik Einstein playing beneath my pillow, I was as far as I could be from my own bed, yet listening to those words I knew I was home. I eventually returned to the states, but forever after that summer that song and those words have been at my core, and, like the aroma of night blooming jasmine, it only takes a few notes to transport me back to those moments when I truly became who I am.

Another friend told me that she watched the memorial ceremony in Rabin Square. In my mind I immediately heard Arik Einstein singing about the night Rabin was assassinated, so I listend to  ‫ Shalom Haver‬‎ – .Then I played Einstein’s cover of the Geffen song, from the Shalom Haver album:

When we are sad, we go to the sea.  / That’s why it’s salty.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                And it’s sad —That we can return borrowed equipment   But it’s not possible to give back this longing…

Shalom, haver.  Let’s take it slow. Se le’at. – סע לאט.

A Palestinian, and Israeli, and a German Walk into a Malmö Theatre….

So a small group of Palestinians, Israelis, and Germans –all in their 30s–are having drinks in Malmö, Sweden with a bunch of Jews, Muslims, Christians and other people of all ages who don’t identify with any religion.

That is not a joke. It happened a few days ago. I was there.

The group was the ensemble cast of Third Generation: “work in progress,” a brilliant performance piece conceived by Israeli playwright and director Yael Ronen (who was also there) and developed as a joint project of Berlin’s Schaubuhne and the Habimah National Theatre of Israel.

At the start of the show, Niels Bormann appears alone in front of the curtain; dressed in grey sweatpants, a red t-shirt emblazoned with 3G in large black letters, and a kefiya.  He introduces the play with one apology after another: He is sorry that the costumes are not more sophisticated, but the show was developed in the Middle East, not Europe. He is sorry for making that politically incorrect statement. He is especially sorry for the role that Germany played in the murder of so many diverse groups of people. He polls the audience;

“Are there any Jews here?” Many hands go up. He apologizes.  More »

Giggles and fear: One day more as a Jew in Malmö

I believe that journalist Patrick Kelly’s heart was in the right place when he donned a kippah to experience life as a visible Jew here in Malmö, then wrote about it for the on-line magazine that features “Swedish News in English,” The Local.

Kelly wished to understand the experiences of, and to offer support to, our mutual friend Shmuel Goldberg and other kippah-wearing Jews here (especially Rabbi Shneur Kessleman) who have been threatened repeatedly. Unfortunately, however, Kelly’s nuanced article has been cut and spliced by several careless American Jewish writers who, in their rush to paint my adopted hometown—and perhaps the entire country of Sweden, and sometimes all of Scandinavia or even northern Europe as a whole—as dangerously anti-Semitic, do an injustice to Goldberg’s experiences, and to Kelly’s desire to honor rather than exploit them.

A few nights after Kelly’s piece appeared in The Local, I had a long talk with Shmuel. He does not enjoy being stared at, pointed to, or threatened when he walks around Malmö wearing a kippah. At the same time, he thinks that a) the number of people who behave like this is small, compared to the number of immigrants and other minorities in Malmö who also receive unpleasant treatment; that b) more useful than moaning about anti-Semitism in Malmö would be if the community held a “Jewish pride” type cultural festival and that c) if something good can come out of these negative experiences, it might be this:

Sweden is a very secular society; Shmuel and I both know several non-Jews who wear their religion on their head, or around their neck, and are also mistreated or teased. He has spoken with devout Christians and Muslims who do not feel safe declaiming their faith in public. According to Shmuel, the freedom to express one’s religion should, along with the freedom to be out as gay, or the freedom to celebrate one’s ethnicity, be part and parcel of the open society that Sweden aspires to be.

The Middle East Peace Orchestra performed in Malmö last week.

Fortunately, several initiatives that address the many nuanced issues of celebrating diversity in this place that was, until recently, quite homogeneous, are currently under way here.  Just last week, Copenhagen’s Middle East Peace Orchestra performed together with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra. Musicians and audience members included Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahais,  and people who do not identify with any religious group. Songs were song and stories told in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Arabic as well as Danish and Swedish. Watch this space for more information on such initiatives and events in the months to come.

From Berlin on Tisha B’Av: Commemorating Racist Violence

A Jewish friend who used to live here once commented that, in Berlin, it is impossible to walk more than a few blocks without bumping into another Holocaust memorial. This year, on the 80th anniversary of the Nazi rise to power and the 75th anniversary of the Kristalnacht pogroms,  the entire city is part of a “theme-year”;a memorial to the lethal seeds that were planted here.

 

“Diversity Destroyed. Berlin 1933-1938-1945. A City Remembers” is the way in which Berlin is teaching its residents and visitors precisely how the diversity and democracy of Weimer Germany so quickly gave way to the rise of the brutal fascism that led directly to ghettoes, concentration camps, and extermination centers. In addition to the permanent Holocaust memorials, there are temporary exhibitions, lectures, films and other programs. These are publicized all over the city on kiosks, in subway stations, in the newspapers. It is impossible to avoid them.

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We Do Need More Heroes—on Yom Hashoah

Everyone calls it Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Day, but the official Hebrew name translates as Memorial Day for Martyrs and Heroes. A cursory glance at my Facebook feed makes clear what we all know: Jews are very good at remembering our martyrs. There are yellow stars, yahrtseyt (memorial) candles, photos of concentration camp prisoners, and a gut wrenching riff on the Pesach haggadah stating that each of us is obligated to feel as if we ourselves had been unable to leave Germany.

My own post was no different. I have martyrs enough in my own family, including the great-grandmother for whom I am named. But what I had not known until perestroika and glasnost allowed me to become acquainted with my cousins in Moscow, is that I also have a hero in my family.

Jewish Red Army hero explaining what his many medals mean

Vidya, my mother’s first cousin, was a liberator of Auschwitz. That was one of countless heroic acts that he undertook with his Red Army tank battalion. I have become close with him over the past two decades, and in the process I have come to understand that hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews—women and men—risked their lives in order to defeat the Germans. It is one of the great ironies of our era that many of these Red Army veterans, like Vidya, now live in Germany. On some of my frequent visits to Munich, I have had the privilege of accompanying him to the Jewish community center, where these veterans gather for coffee and conversation.

 

I am in awe of these people, who were truly forced from the frying pan into the fire. After recovering from his third serious wound, which punctured his lung, Vidya had no real home to which to return. His father had been sent to a gulag and his mother—the only one of my grandmother’s siblings to survive the war—followed her husband there. Vidya was one of thousands of Red Army veterans who learned that their loved ones had either been killed by the Nazis or been imprisoned by Stalin’s increasingly brutal regime. Far too often, both were the case.

 

Growing up in the 1970s, knowing that I had relatives in Moscow that I had not yet met, I attended every Save Soviet Jewry demonstration. I wore a prisoner of conscience necklace. Our family ”adopted” recent immigrants and helped them adjust to life in Chicago As a member of Hashomer Hatzair, I learned about the young heroes of the Warsaw and Vilna Ghettos, who fought back against the Nazis in any way possible. But due to Soviet policies, I never learned about the many Jewish heroes who fought in the Red Army, only to have their identities disappear at the end of the war.

 

In school we were taught that the Americans were the good liberators, and the Russians were the evil ones. Reality, as always, is far more complex. Thanks to the VETERAN ORAL HISTORY PROJECT of the Blavatnik Archive Foundation, which is systematically archiving the testimonies of Jewish Red Army veterans and creating books, DVDs, and impressive traveling exhibits of these materials, it is possible for us to get a glimpse of these heroic women and men.

If you do not have time to explore this material for Yom Hashoa, you can do it on the date that the Red Army veterans observe: May 9, or Victory in Europe Day. As Vidya always tells me, though, every year there are fewer and fewer veterans at the May 9 commemoration. So don’t wait.

Sweden’s Jews Say, “I’m a learner, not a fighter!”

Filmmaker Alexander Bodin Saphir presents on the rescue of the Danish Jews at OresundsLimmud 2013

On March 5, our almost-a-minyan who comprise the steering team of  Limmud Oresund 2013 was holding the penultimate meeting prior to our second annual Limmud day of Jewish learning and culture. Over 160 people had pre-registered, and we were concerned about logistics: Would there be enough space for a Limmud that had doubled in size since last year? Had we ordered enough food for lunches and snacks? Did Folkuniversitet, an adult education school that was again openomg its facility to us free of chage, have a room large enough for all participants to close out the day together with singing, learning, thanking the volunteers, and tasting the cholent made during a morning session?

Imagine my surprise, then, to find my various in-boxes filled with messages from concerned friends all over the world. I had posted here on Jewschool about last September’s explosion at the Jewish community center of Malmö, where I live, so the Tablet Magazine artical entitled “Swedish Jews Continue Their Fight: In Malmö, kippah walks are part of a resurgence of identity” had them worried.
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What would Henrietta Szold do?

While building up excitement for their Centennial celebration, Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Org of America was all abuzz about prayer services at the Kotel with Women of the Wall.

Today, following the arrest of several participants and the violent detainment of Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman, Hadassah isn’t saying much at all.

Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman arrested at the Kotel

Nobody attends a Women of the Wall service without knowing that being arrested for wearing a tallit or praying aloud is a distinct possibility. At the group’s monthly Rosh Chodesh services, some women choose to save their voices and their prayer shawls for the Torah service that takes place at a nearby location. Others take the risk. Regular participants advise first-timers regarding how to avoid arrest.

It stands to reason, then, that the Hadassah leaders who were building up anticipation for the joint Women of the Wall/Hadassah prayer service on Tuesday evening were prepared for possible police action against the group of 200 women. One might also imagine that they were set to offer a statement in the event that such action occurred. As of now, however, Hadassah has declined to take a public stand on this issue. Their website and Twitter feed (@Haddashorg) refer the public to JTA articles and Women of the Kotel statements. Hadassah leaders remain silent on the violent detainment of Nashot Hakotel leader Anat Hoffman, or the general mistreatment of women who pray at the Kotel.***

Meanwhile, Hadassah plans to present PM Netanyahu with an award named for Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold.

What would Henrietta Szold do in such a case?

Given that she struggled to be admitted to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and was finally allowed to matriculate together with rabbinical students under the condition that she never ask to be ordained, in all likelihood she would have been at the Kotel, determined to find a way for women to pray there.

At the very least, no doubt Anat Hoffman is correct when she says that the Women of the Wall organization is more deserving of the prize than Bibi is. The vision of Henrietta Szold, whose unique brand of leadership encompassosed the social feminist movement of her day as well as an inclusive, diverse vision of Jewish peoplehood, was much more akin to the work of Women of the Wall than to any aspect of the current Israeli government’s leadership. In any case, the women’s Zionist organization should not be silent now regarding this violation of the rights of women in Zion.

Anat Hoffman in her own words:

Police Shackle Anat Hoffman for Saying Sh’ma at Kotel – The Sisterhood – Forward.com.

 

*** Update: Hadassah has published a one-sentence resolution regarding this:


In Jerusalem, at the National Business Meeting of the Centennial Convention of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, delegates unanimously approved a resolution reaffirming its commitment to and support for freedom of worship for women at the Western Wall.

It is worth following the replies to this by Hadassah members, which have a little more bite:

www.hadassah.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=keJNIWOvElH&b=8347749&ct=12246339&notoc=1

 

Please Come to Malmö in the Springtime*

 

Somebody threw heavy stones followed by an explosive device at the Jewish community center in Malmö, Sweden late Thursday night.  Contrary to the headlines in the world Jewish press, though, the blast did not “rock” the building. I live on the fifth floor, and my houseguest and my dog both slept through the event. I had been awake, and  heard a repetitive pounding followed by single loud bang. “Firecracker” was my first thought. There were no further noises, so I did not investigate it.

By morning, I had forgotten about it.  Around 9 AM a friend texted me a one-liner from Stockholm: “Are you OK?” I had no idea what she was referring to; perhaps the Yom Kippur services I had led?

My visitor and I had been schmoozing over a slow breakfast so we had not heard the news yet. Something about that text message still unnerved me, so I asked,  “Do you think something happened, maybe even something major, and we just haven’t heard about it yet?”

That is when we learned that someone had set off a very week blast at the front door of the community building, likely preceded by stones thrown at the glass.  The Jewish center  houses several apartments, the offices of the Jewish community, Chabad House, a Jewish pre-school, and a kosher caterer. Nobody had been hurt. The only real damage was the glass at the front door. By the time we got downstairs, it had been cleaned up, the window sealed with special tape. The pre-school was operating as usual and the ground floor smelled of baking challah, as it does every Friday. Apart from the taped up door, the only evidence of criminal activity were the two police offers stationed in front of the building.

Messages of concern began pouring in, but I had not anticipated the notice from Malmo’s Network for Faith and Understanding.  A solidarity vigil was already planned for 6 PM that evening. Rebecka H, the organizer, called to say that she wanted to hold the vigil immediately and on site, but she also wanted to respect Shabbat. She understood many Jewish people might be at home preparing;  her intention was to bring the community together to show their support and concern for us.

Indeed they did. About 70 women, men and children gathered in front of the building with large candles. Leaders of several Christian churches, two Muslim groups, and other spiritual and social organizations offered speeches, all brief and moving. Rebecka herself sang a poignant tune, accompanied by musician on a small drum. Journalist Barbro Posner represented the Jewish community. Rebekah  invited me to speak, but I had nothing to add to the absolute rightness of the moment.

Rebecka ended the vigil just prior to Shabbat, requesting that the crowd be aware that the Jewish Sabbath was beginning.  After many hugs and a few words with the local press, I went upstairs to finish preparing dinner. My friend from London, who doesn’t understand Swedish, was moved to tears.

The real jolt came after Shabbat, as I read the Jewish press. That ubiquitous hyperbolic headline about the blast “rocking” our building irritated me, but the articles were essentially accurate. I was disappointed that nobody had followed up with a story about the multi-faceted vigil. Readers all over the world who have been following the story of anti-Semitic hate crimes in Malmö should also learn about our concerned neighbors who literally rushed to our side. What made me explode, though, was that the Jewish Journal of LA had the chutspa  to publish a Reuter’s photo of the vigil next to an  indefensible rant  by the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper.

Rabbi Cooper has already declared Malmö an unsafe travel destination for Jews. Now he suggests that those of us who live here might soon need to flee for Israel or elsewhere. “Ayn Soamchin Al Haness—we cannot rely on miracles to secure the safety of Jewish children. Clearly time is running out for Malmö,” he writes, along with other overstated claims. Rabbi Cooper must know that it is dry season in the Jewish blogosphere. Pamela Gellar, she of the Isalmophobic ads on New York City busses,  borrowed from Cooper’s screed to come to the offensive conclusion that “Malmo has become as bad for Jews as Berlin at the height of the WWII. With its very large Muslim population, Islamic attacks against the Jews are part of the social fabric in Malmo. It’s pure hell.”  Such mendacity desecrates the memory of those Jews who died in Berlin and dishonors those who survived. She cynically uses their name to buttress her anti-Muslim fabrications, which have zero to do with the Jewish community of Malmö.

Time has not run out for us. On the contrary, while the bursts of hate are anonymous and cowardly, the eloquent expressions of support are said aloud by well-known community leaders and residents from all over the region. It is time for Cooper and Gellar and the countless Jewish bloggers who quote them to stop crying wolf.

Yes, there are hate crimes against Jews here. Yes, the mayor has repeatedly exacerbated this problem with odious speech of his own. It is understandable that some Holocaust survivors and their children have been traumatized and felt the need to leave.  A  rabbi who has been the victim of countless incidents of verbal and physical attacks to his person and his property feels that he and his family are under siege, and I have great empathy for them.  Yet he always encourages me to be “out” as Jewish everywhere, especially among my Arab and Iranian classmates at my Swedish for Immigrants school.

Jewish communal leaders who declare that the municipality and the Swedish government must provide Malmo’s Jews with a more robust security program, including at the building in which I live, are correct.
But Jews should not feel chased out of Malmo. Rather, the Wiesenthal Center should remove the absurd Travel Advisory that it slapped on my adopted hometown, and instead encourage more Jews to visit.  Anyone who does will see that Malmö is a diverse city with all of the joys and challenges that this brings.

 

*Maybe for  Limmud Oresund 2013.

Gut yuntif, gut yor…shana tova….a good year

30 years ago my father died suddenly, shortly before Rosh Hashanah. He was 54 years old. I remember being unable to sit through services that year, refusing to hear the words of the u’netaneh tokef prayer; the ones proclaiming that who shall live and who shall die is all signed, sealed, and delivered. My father was an exemplar of teshuvah and tsedakah: his life’s work was about reconciling people who were hurt and angry at one another, and he believed, fiercely, in justice. And although as a self-defined agnostic, tefila, prayer, had not been a major part of his life, he went to shul every day to say the mourner’s Kaddish after his parents died. And then, because he saw how vital it was to have a minyan for those saying Kaddish, he continued to attend the morning service as often as possible so that others could recite it in a minyan. That is the kind of person he was, and I was devastated and furious that he died so young.

That year I also stopped sending New Year’s greetings wishing my friends to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life. What did that superstition matter?

The Book of Life had no meaning for me for several years after that. Then I encountered a teaching by the renowned mystic Rabbi Judah Leib Alter of Gur, known as the Sfat Emet (or Sfas Emes, meaning The Language of Truth), after the title of his signature book. This lesson was filtered through the eloquent translation of my teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green:

The human heart is the tablet on which God writes. Each of us has the word life engraved in our hearts by God’s own hand. Over the course of the year that engraving comes to be covered with grit. Our sins, our neglect of prayer and Torah study, the very pace at which we live all conspire to blot out the life that life written deep within our hearts. On Rosh Hashanah we come before God having cleansed ourselves as best we can and ask God to write that word once again and to seal it up on Yom Kippur, so that the sensation of being truly alive may not depart from us through the entire year.

I understand this to mean that, regardless of how we understand God—or whether we believe in such a Being at all—we have the opportunity to cleanse our hearts of the grit that stems from guilt or grief and interferes with us feeling truly alive.

Perhaps the traditional Jewish spiritual practices of teshuvah, tefila, and tsedakah, when translated as “repentance, prayer, and charity”, do not sound life altering. Today, I understand this text to mean that we have the opportunity to return our truest selves; to find a path to prayer, meditation, or reflection that makes us mindful of life’s myriad gifts; and of using our own gifts to make the world a more just place.

This is what allows us to clean our own hearts and stand open and ready to have the word life engraved upon them once again.

In the year to come, may our hearts be open to the “life” that is written deep within our hearts.

Shana tova…Gut yuntif, gut yor….A good year.

We’re Here. We’re Jews. Get Used to It.

Last month, while attending a workshop in Israel, I introduced myself as a new resident of Malmö. Before I could finish my next sentence, I was interrupted by a man with a kipa and a North American accent.

    “Why on earth did you move there? It’s the most anti-Semitic city on the planet!”

I tried to deflect the disruption with humor, but he wouldn’t shut up until the facilitator intervened.

Ironically, this was during a “listening circle,” designed to create a mood of awareness and attention to other people’s stories. The goal of this session was to encourage Palestinians, Israelis, and international visitors to listen closely as each participant shared a single, brief story that would allow us to understand something about her or him.

I thought about that experience last Shabbat, as I joined hundreds of people—Malmö residents and visitors, Jews and non-Jews, politicians and neighbors, religious and secular people of all ages—on a “kipa-walk” through the streets of Malmo. It was a significantly larger, very highly publicized version of the Shabbat afternoon walks that have been occurring almost monthly since December. Those walks were all low-key strolls attended by 15 to 30 people, Jews and some allies wearing kipot and other Jewish symbols. The “kipa-walks” are in response to the increased anti-Semitism that has emerged in Malmö over the past few years. A local rabbi and his wife have even been physically attacked in broad daylight on several occasions, and a peaceful Jewish demonstration was assaulted by a mob. Most of the aggression has been verbal, however, and these walks have most emphatically been a positive, prideful response to countless dim-witted, ignorant comments made by Malmo mayor Ilmar Reepalu following these attacks. More »