Note: This is next in our series of posts on visions of fearless Jewish future, inspired by Naomi Adland’s dispatch from the GA, which we ran last week. We’ll be running one every week, and we want to hear from you – our creative, progressive readers- articulating a vision for a what a fearless Jewish future and community might look like. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Guest post” in the subject line.
Just now (it’s 6 am in Brooklyn), I woke abruptly from a dream that my MFA program was requiring us all to take a workshop in which we read Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. As soon as one of the workshop members started reading from the novel, the faces of everyone in the room became ghoulish, sharp toothed, black eyed. Terrified, I ran out the door of the building and into the street, but as I ran, I thought, you’ll go back, you have to go back. And I did. I turned around and went back into the building, which I think was a church, and as it turned out, there was a small group of people gathered in the lobby who had also decided they could not be in the room with the vampires.
I have a history of anxiety dreams, and of solving problems, literary ones of my own making, in my sleep. I might have been worrying about writing this piece for this series when I dreamt about the vampires, because in the awake version of myself, it’s obvious what the dream was about. It’s so obvious, it’s laughable: You are afraid, but you’ll go back. The vampires (self hate inflicted anti-Semitic imagery or result of watching too many horror movie trailers?) might be in the same building, but we can be in another room. They can’t have the whole structure. There are more of us than of them. We’ll get it all in the end. Maybe.
Here is where my painfully obvious dream parallels end. Judaism, particularly the observant part of it, and I are not on the best of terms right now, we have not been for a while. I could not build an organizational strategic plan based on my vision of a fearless Jewish community, but I am one hundred percent on the fact that it includes an active ingathering of those who scare us. Those who pose those questions that we can’t and/or don’t want to answer, they get a big space at whatever the table of the future is. Let everyone in, without a political or religious litmus test, if we say we want to be there, even if we’re not sure where exactly “there” is, even if we’re not sure if we can figure it out together, but that’s fine. Certainty is not a need any longer.
The future table isn’t convened by Islamophobia, or racism, capitalism, homophobia, misogyny, or people who have spent all their time sharpening one relentlessly narrow vision of a Jew. Men who claim to have beautiful politics but can neither listen nor hear simply don’t get space anymore, because it turns out, we don’t owe it to them. In the fearless future, that shit is over, because we are calling people out, and we don’t have to worry about what that calling out will do to our livelihood. Risk, intellectual and political, will be a value, but maybe even more important than risk will be accountability and challenge and, maybe here’s the center of it all : not running away, and not becoming a room or an organization or a building or a country full of panicked ghouls, powered by fear.
Editor’s Note: Inspired by this guest post, we’re looking for submissions from you – our creative, progressive readers- articulating a vision for a what a fearless Jewish future and community might look like. Email us at email@example.com with “Guest post” in the subject line. Look for posts on this subject from the Editors starting next week!
This is a guest post by Naomi Adland, a graduate student and Jewish professional living in Brooklyn, NY.
Three years ago, I sat down to write a personal statement for my application to the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and poured out my heart in an essay about the importance of honoring and respecting the work of those who came before us, as those communal roots are the ones that support our future endeavors. This week I had the opportunity to attend the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America with my Wexner class – my first serious introduction to the world of Federation professionals and lay leaders, and a real chance to explore what it might look like to engage with an institution that has shaped what it means to be a Jew in the Diaspora. And 45 minutes before I left the conference yesterday, I was still waiting for someone – anyone – to articulate a compelling vision for the Jewish future that wasn’t rooted in fear.
In its own words, the GA is meant to “inspire and engage current and emerging Jewish leaders, tackle the most critical issues of the day and showcase the best of the Federation movement.” Despite the inherent complexity of programming for a varied Jewish community, it seems to me that delivering a compelling narrative at the GA should not be so hard. After all, the work of the Federation is integral to the health and wellbeing of our community. The Federation funds some of our most vital programs and institutions – social services for a vast array of populations, summer camps, schools, synagogues and more. I have heard the Federation system explained as the government of the North American Jewish community, meaning the GA is a three-day State of the Union address – a chance to articulate a vision for the coming year.
I was surprised to discover that the overwhelming narrative at the GA was not one of communal successes and impact, but rather one of fear. Ostensibly, the theme of the GA was “the world is our backyard.” Meant to evoke the importance of collective action, the exhibition hall was decorated like a backyard replete with picnic tables and fake picket fences. However, the three plenaries I attended over the course of two days and in breakout sessions, meals, and discussions in the hallway, the theme of collective action was consistently couched in the vocabulary of crisis. Be afraid of the imminent fall of the State of Israel. Be afraid of the dwindling Jewish population. Be afraid of BDS on campus. Be afraid of anyone who disagrees with our narrative. Be afraid of change. Be afraid.
Fear was present in the words of Michael Siegal, Chairman of JFNA, when he said he was “concerned that we have reached a plateau with interfaith families. Being Jewish is very much a numbers game, and some of the numbers should be keeping us all up at night.” It was in Vice President Joe Biden’s comparison of Israel to a survivor of domestic abuse, and it was in the words of the three young women, all campus leaders, who vocalized anxiety about being Jewish on campus while standing in front of a banner branded with a swastika underneath the words “Boycott Israel.”
Perhaps there are moments when it makes sense to turn to a narrative of fear. After the complex events of the summer’s war in Gaza, the tensions of the past few days in Jerusalem, and with rising anti-Semitism in Europe, it is understandable that our communal conversations touch on themes of conflict and survival. When we are concerned for our own safety, we tend to act swiftly and respond from a place of deep emotion.
Despite the recent indications to the contrary, the Jewish community is living in a context of unprecedented safety and opportunity in a larger number of places than ever before. In committing to a narrative of fear, we miss an opportunity to elevate what Judaism and the work of the Federation is actually about. In caring for an aging population, supporting Jewish education, and strengthening the global Jewish community, the Federation is living out deep Jewish values of justice rooted in the notion of b’tzelem elohim (that we are all created in the image of God), and creating and supporting communities of joy and vitality.
Arguing that “we must support the Federation because if we don’t, Judaism as we know it will disappear” assumes that Jews who support the Federation are incapable of recognizing the value of the sacred work the Federation system is doing, and makes it impossible for those who don’t already feel a connection to the community to create one. Rather than operate from a place of fear, the Federation should be fearless – articulating a vision for the coming years that includes not just the power of collective action as a defense strategy, but the power of collective action as a way to build relationships between disparate parts of the Jewish community, that engages with complex value questions in a serious, thoughtful fashion, and that roots the work of caring for members of our community in rich Jewish values and traditions. The Federation already has a powerful legacy and a compelling narrative. Why try and supplant that with a message that is so far off the mark?
This is a guestpost by Liya Rechtman.
My family’s Passover Seder this year marked two firsts for my boyfriend: his first time meeting my dad and his first time eating homemade gefilte fish. As we read the haggadah around the table, I felt myself tensing up: ‘oh no, what if he gets that passage about Hillel and Shamai and he can’t pronounce the weird Hebrew town names?’ and ‘Worse! What if he winds up with “Tell me morano, my brother” and he has no idea what it’s about?’ When a reading did finally fall on him, and my boyfriend started on with “I am a Jew because…” I sort of giggled, loudly. My mom, tactful as always, told him that perhaps they would let someone else read the passage and come back to him. The first minor, awkward, interfaith hurdle had been managed gracefully by all parties involved.
The Seder moved on that night, and for several months to come the disparity between my Jewish tradition and his ex-Muslim atheism were significant parts of our identity, but not prohibitively so in the context of our relationship. Our faith/non-faith perspectives consistently yielded to thoughtful, extended discussion and debate about God, materialism, and meaning, among other things. That is, until three boys were declared dead in Israel and I stayed up all night crying. More »
My two year old is starting preschool tomorrow. In his 27 months of sweet and innocent life, he has spent less than 27 hours apart from me. Tonight I went to our first parents’ meeting with butterflies in my stomach, anxious for both of us about this emotional milestone.
This is how it began: “Hi, I’m Ruchama, the head teacher. The first thing I want to tell you is that my son Moshe, my Moshiko, served in Gaza this summer. On the twenty-second day of the war, he was killed. He would have been 21 this summer.”
Ruchama went on to tell us that this has (understandably) been a very difficult summer for her, and that she was sure it would continue to be a hard year, but that when her son left for the war he left behind an early birthday card in which he urged her to “watch over the children” – our sweet children. And she told us that “ילדים זה שמחה - children are happiness”, and that she hopes and believes caring for our children will make the coming year, with its heartbreaking difficulty, a little bit brighter and more joyful for her.
As she shared her story, Ruchama was not crying. She smiled gently throughout. I pictured her crying so much this past month that she simply had no tears left.
Aside from hers, though, there were very few dry eyes in the room.
I contributed a blogpost to our friends at At Big Questions for this month’s theme of Seeing and Being Seen, which they encouraged me to cross-post here. Check out more of their work!
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”
– Ralph Ellison, Prologue to Invisible Man
We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words. But which words? And how do we know? And what is it, exactly, that we know?
To continue, click here.
You all know what I’m talking about. As much as Jews are working to combat Antisemitism, so do Jews love to refer to anyone who is rude to them or disagrees with them as an Antisemite. And now, as it turns out, anyone who is rude can always be implied to be a Hamas supporter who is also anti-human rights and definitely a misogynist.
Here’s the conversation as reported by the victim herself which took place on the subway in NYC: More »
The Forward has a short piece online about the changing nature of Social Media news coverage and its impact on the public perception of Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza. This article – like every article bemoaning the rapid fire, limited nature of the platform – notes that the speed at which information is disseminated changed the way we experience conflict. But that isn’t it alone. The fact that both sides have these tools, I have to say I don’t think it is the platforms “fault” for the way we see this conflict.
The New Yorker published the translated Yediot Ahronot piece by Etgar Keret about the degradation of the civil discourse in Israel. In “Israel’s Other War” Keret laments the perversion of the deeply held value of true democratic (and Jewish) societies: that the voice of the minority has value. The phrase “Let the IDF Win” has again become a popular refrain in Israel during this conflict. Keret notes this phrase has nothing to do with the external enemy but rather the subversive voices on the home-front. Lefties and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are lumped together with Hamas terrorists for simply disagreeing with their elected officials or expressing concern for the dead children in Gaza.
I encourage you all to read this piece but the thesis delineates that Israelis “are faced with the false, anti-democratic equation that argues that aggression, racism, and lack of empathy mean love of the homeland, while any other opinion—especially one that does not encourage the use of power and the loss of soldiers’ lives—is nothing less than an attempt to destroy Israel as we know it.”
But as an American living a charmed life in California I still feel this false choice forced upon me by the Jewish world. The anonymity of the key board and safety of our curated social networks insulate us to a degree that we only see and experience this conflict in the way we want to believe that it is happening. More »
by Danya Lagos
The first two chapters of the Book of Amos warn its reader that the Gaza and Jerusalem of that time might ultimately end up sharing the same shitty, terrible, catastrophic fate under the same sky that they uncomfortably share with each other. Because of certain injustices that have been allowed to continue, or be unatoned for, it is said that fire will be sent down from the sky and destroy them both (Amos 1:7, Amos 2:5). The wording in the original curses is exactly the same for both places – all you need to do is switch the names, and it becomes clear that the standards and are quite parallel: “I will send a fire upon (INSERT HERE) and it shall devour the palaces of (INSERT HERE).” There are other cities also cursed in these chapters for whom the same formula is applied (Damascus, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Basra, etc.), but the point that Amos is making is that when it comes to practical matters of justice and oppression, the Jewish people are not judged any differently or given any lesser punishment for non-compliance than their neighbors. More »
I know. I know, Gawker was trolling with this post calling for Israel — or a Jewish state — in Germany. I also know that if we check our bias at the door we could see some logic in this suggestion. But you can’t ignore the complexity of history or the complicated nature of the present reality. Beyond the ignorant black-and-white ahistorical narrative of “Holocaust leads to Israel,” there are a couple of statements made as fact that are way beyond the pale.
It starts with the general intellectual argument against Zionism, which is fine if dishonest, but goes much further into the land of fantasy.
No matter where you stand in the “Israelis vs. Palestinians” political arguments—in which both sides are hopelessly entrenched and unmoving—it seems fair to acknowledge that there are some fundamental problems with the location of the nation of Israel. For one thing, it was carved out of land already occupied by someone else. Whether or not you think Israel was justified in carving itself a nation out of Palestine, you must admit that the act of doing so was bound to cause some resentment.
This ignores too much history. Of course there were people in the now state of Israel, most of them were Arabs and some were Jews. And before you jump up-and-down on me as mouth-breathing right-wing fascist, the facts are pretty clear: Zionism started its colonial exercise of Palestine in the late 19th Century in a more-or-less legal manner.
It goes on and really gets away from facts:
Let’s stipulate that [Zionist and Arab] positions, at the time of the founding of modern Israel, were reasonable:
Jewish people: We have been persecuted too long. We want our own state!
Palestinians: Okay, but don’t take my stuff to get it, please!
So the establishment of Israel, regarded by many as a towering achievement of historic justice, will forever be tainted by the fact that it was established by taking land from people who had done nothing wrong. That act laid the groundwork for the nonstop conflict that continues to this day.
If it was only that easy or simple. Or even close to the truth. There was an infrastructure in place well before WWII and in fact a number of wars (or violent uprisings) that had happened before the international establishment of the state of Israel. The Partition Plan, complete with its flaws, was the defining international legal document of the establishment of Israel. The ensuing wars against the Arabs shifted boarders but for the love of all things good, this idea that the organized Palestinians (and the rest of the Arab world at that time) would have said anything like this is ludicrous.
I am all for having a real conversation about the mass populations transfers or ethnic cleansing (depending on your prospective). I will happily discuss Zionism as the answer to historical Antisemitism or Zionism causing its nouveau rise in Europe and elsewhere. I will always go toe-to-toe with absolutists on any side of an argument because I believe that no political situation is completely black or white (and I like to argue). But what we all can’t allow is the pure distortion of the facts and history. It helps no one.
So, good job Gawker, you got me with your trolling. But next time perhaps you can take an aggressive and controversial position, perhaps you can do it based on fact.
Tonight at the JCC in Manhattan, the Jewish Multiracial Network will co sponsor a panel called Mixed Multitudes: Race and Ethnicity in the Jewish Community in which panelists Erika Davis, Yitz “Y-Love” Jordan, Eric Greene, Tamara Fish, and Deborah Vishnevsky will discuss their experiences being a Jew of Color in light of communal issues, such as continuity and identity.
Here’s our 2012 interview with Erika Davis, about racism, real diversity, and the hard work of making change.
Q: Tell us what we can find at Black, Gay and Jewish.
ED: I started to write Black, Gay and Jewish when I realized that converting to Judaism and talking about Jewish things was taking up a lot of space on my now defunct blog about lesbian dating in NYC (I’d just come out). I started writing it as a sort of personal journal through the process of converting to Judaism and also because there was only one other blog penned by a black, gay and Jewish woman. (This isn’t to say that there weren’t awesome blogs out there about conversion; there are so many that it boggles the mind. A few are written by gay Jews and by Jews of Color, but rarely did I find anything on the web that had all three.) More »
This is a Guest Post by Edan Nissen, a graduate of Hashomer Hatzair Australia, now living in Israel. Edan has a BA from Monash University, Majoring in Politics and History of the Middle East with a Minor in Conflict Resolution.
A teacher stops a history classroom in the middle, the students are learning about the various tragedies of history. “Could all the students please stand up, we are going to have a minute of silence for the victims of the Nakba”. Most of the students stand is silence, thinking of the relatives that were affected, their homes destroyed and families that were forced to flee. Others had relatives that were killed. Two Students stand to the side, and during the silence they begin chatting. Their classmates are openly outraged, jaws are dropped but most students stand silently in their outrage. For these two students, it’s not that they don’t respect the loss of life, it’s that the tragedy of the Nakba is not relevant to them. They aren’t of Palestinian descent; they have their own national tragedies.
Shocked, aren’t you? This is a true story, well almost. The differences between this scenario and what actually happened are relatively minor. Swap the Nakba for the Holocaust, and the two boys for Israeli Palestinians and this scene has been played out several times, over several years and in several different locations. Yom Ha’Shoa, the day of remembrance for the Holocaust, was about a month ago and this happened again. I received a call from a friend who was in shock as two Arab students in her course spoke to each other while the nation- wide siren marking Yom Ha’Shoa rang out. The act was a mark of incredible disrespect for the loss of life, and destruction.
Jews are more successful financially, Pat Robertson said on his TV show, because they are “polishing diamonds, not fixing cars.”
I’m not sure who is worse in this clip, Robertson or his guest, anti-gay wacko Rabbi Daniel Lapin. In the jaw-dropping segment of Robertson’s 700 Club , courtesy of Right Wing Watch, Lapin was stumping for his book about how the Bible wants you to get rich:
“When you correctly said in Jewish neighborhoods you do not find Jews lying under their cars on Sunday afternoons, no, I pay one of the best mechanics around to take care of my BMW, I’d be crazy to take my time doing it myself,” Lapin said. “Or for me to mow my lawn, I’m the worse lawnmower in the world, but the young man who lives down the street from me, he’s one of the best and he’s happy to do it and I’m happy.” More »
You may have seen the controversial photos released this past week: patrons of a German restaurant in Minnesota decked out in SS Guard uniforms; Harel High School students in Mevasseret Tzion parading in Klansmen “glorysuits” before an Ethiopian absorption center.
"Nazi Party" at Gasthof zur Gemütlichkeit (photo credit: City Pages)
Whereas the local city council did nothing official to condemn the high school students who on Purim masqueraded as members of the KKK for such an egregious display of racism, a group of local Minnesotans banded together to express their disappointment and hurt at the Minneapolis restaurant’s shocking display of insensitivity in hosting the now-notorious annual “Nazi Party.”
For anyone trying to hold on to those last breaths of Purim, here is my piece from the recent Jerusalem Sermon Slam on the theme of Amalek, in which I consider a bizarrely persistent custom about about language, Amalek’s relationship to sexual violence and degradation, and how we capture that dystopic reality theologically. It was a provocative evening — a safe space for dangerous Torah (h/t for that phrase to my student, Rabbi Eric Woodward). Check out the other videos from the event, as well. My personal favorites are by Charlie Buckholtz (Amalek, predatory housing corruption, and more), Candace Mittel (remembering so that there’s no room left for Amalek), Bonna Haberman (how we produce Amalek), and Julie Seltzer (finding Amalek through its physical letters). To find out more about Sermon Slam and to support its next steps, you can check out the Kickstarter campaign. Check out upcoming Sermon Slams March 24 in Philadelphia, March 27 at Brandeis University, April 3 triple-header in Berkeley, Boston, and NYC-Washington Heights, April 7 in Philadelphia (Interfaith), and April 10 in Providence.
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.
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.
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.
This is a guest post by Eliana Fishman, who lives, works, and prays in Washington DC. (See the response by Raphael Magarik here.)
What is the American Jewish story, and how do we tell it?
The question of whether or not to say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut has become a symbol of the division between religious Zionists and religious anti-Zionists. Religious Zionists, in particular followers of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, recite Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut with a blessing, while religious anti-Zionists do not say Hallel at all. On Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgical choice represents political orientation. This binary leaves American Jewish congregations in a bind. Is Yom Ha’atzmaut a day when American Jews can pray together? How can a community committed to a multitude of opinions around Zionism also share liturgy?
I don’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Not because I am an anti-Zionist (I’m not), not because I have lefty politics (I do), and not because I’m not a daily davener (I am). I don’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut because I am an American Jew. Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut is not about Zionism, and it’s not about joy over the establishment of a Jewish state. Hallel is about narrative.
One of the earliest references to Hallel’s recitation is in Masechet Pesachim 117a. The Talmud explains that Hallel is not about simple joy, but about the narrative of redemption. A baraita specifies six cases where the entirety of the Jewish people (or what Chazal considered to be adequate representation of the entirety of the Jewish people) faced life-threatening adversity (e.g. at the Red Sea, when Joshua faced the Canaanites, when Deborah and Barak faced Sisera, etc). In each situation God redeems the entirety of the Jewish people, and a prophet established Hallel. The seventh instance that the baraita brings is either a summary, or a distinct case. The unnamed chachamim state that in each and every era that the Jewish people experience danger, Israel’s prophets establish the recitation of Hallel, and, when the people are redeemed, Israel says Hallel because of their redemption.
In each of these cases Hallel is recited first for extreme danger, and then for redemption. There is never any sense of “redemption is about to occur”, or “redemption is continuous”. Additionally, according to this baraita, Hallel is only recited when the entirety of the Jewish people are redeemed.
Did the establishment of the State of Israel redeem the entire Jewish people, or did it redeem only Jews in the land of Israel? Were American Jews redeemed on May 14, 1948? In order to answer that question we have to explore what redemption may or may not have occurred with the establishment of the State of Israel. I have three possible responses to that question—the Holocaust answer, the Arab army answer, and the continual answer.