This is a guest post by Chava Shervington. A passionate and committed Jewish diversity advocate, Chava co-founded an organization which created opportunities for Jews of Color to connect in safe spaces across the East Coast. Currently, Chava is honored to serve as president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, an organizational leader in a movement to make Jewish racial/ethnic diversity fully embraced in American Jewish life.
In recent years there have been a rash of documentaries of Muslim converts (or reverts as they are called in Islam), as there seems to be a particular fascination with white Westerners who decide to take on Islam. Most of these documentaries focus on the motivation of the convert, the reactions of their families and communities, as well as their adjustment to adopting Muslim law and social customs. ”Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim” is both a unique story and a missed opportunity. While there have been many stories of converts to Islam, this one had the potential to explore an entire range of issues besides the usual family tension and personal struggle, but it barely scratches the surface of the story of Maor, a young Jewish woman in Israel who converts to Islam.
While there is definitely focus on Maor’s family (a hodge podge of characters, including an anti-religious brother, a Kahane supporting father, an increasingly observant mother and younger brother, a confused younger sister, and feisty grandmother), we only seem to get half of the story. Everyone outside of her grandmother seems to be supportive of her religious choice and allows her to exist on the periphery of their traditional Jewish lives. For the most part they seem to express apathy with her choice, but support her out of love. Her grandmother is the only one who ever vocalizes strong opposition to Maor’s new religious conviction, although even though her mother vocalizes her support, under the surface their seems to be a genuine hope that this is only a phase. There seems to be a concerted effort not to ostracize her for her conversion. While her family makes Kiddush and hamotzi for Shabbat dinner, Maor sits silent at the table in her hijab, at a Yom Hazikaron ceremony she stands silently while her family and others proudly sing Hatikvah, she’s obviously strongly connected to her family members, but at the same time completely disconnected from their Jewish identities.
Unfortunately, that disconnection is never truly explored. Maybe it’s because as with many converts (to any religion) she finds the motivations for her conversion difficult to express. When asked by her younger sister, the answer is couched in a metaphor of white roses, but essentially boils down to “because that’s what I think G-d wants from me”. But for us as an audience it feels like we a) came into the story halfway and b) only get half of the story.
As a Jewish watcher I was left with so many questions: What was Maor’s Jewish background prior to her conversion?; Did she ever explore Judaism further? How are the things that appeal to her about Islam-modesty and interactions between women and men-different from traditional Judaism? How does she relate to her Jewish identity? Did she experience any emotional conflict with changing her identity? Has her conversion affected her relationship to the state of Israel? We learn of her strong connection with Arab Muslim classmates from an early age, and the death of one in particular seemed to affect her strongly, but because we know so little about her interaction with the Jewish community all we’re left with are questions.
There are so many topics introduced and barely covered, particularly those things that make this such a unique conversion story. As a Jewish Muslim convert in Israel, Maor, must do more than take the shahada (Islamic creed declaring the oneness of Gd), she must undergo a formal conversion with the government so that she will be allowed to marry a fellow Muslim. We learn absolutely nothing about what that involves, how long it takes, or what she must undergo. When she changes the nationality on her identity card, does she experience hesitation or only relief? (Spoiler—she does find a Muslim husband, but we learn absolutely nothing about the process and/or how her unique circumstances factor into her decision.) One minute she’s talking about starting to look for a husband, the next she’s looking at his picture online, two minutes later she refers to him as her fiancée. It’s a completely unexplored whirlwind.
One thing we do understand throughout this film is how incredibly lonely Maor’s journey is. When not at home or running an errand with her family, she’s shown walking and sitting alone. No one in her community speaks to her; she is the constant subject of stares and is questioned by both Arab Muslim and Jewish communities. The story flows from one scene in a restaurant when she’s questioned by Muslim customers and workers: “Is she Arab, is someone in her family Arab, where does she live, is she married” to a Yom Hazikaron ceremony where she faces the same questions from Jews, along with assumptions such as that she must have grown up not surrounded by Jews, she must have no connection/relationship with her family, etc. It isn’t until almost three quarters through the film that we meet a friend outside of her family, Lital, another Jewish convert to Islam.
As the film ended, I was left with so many mixed emotions; I could only wish her happiness in her journey, yet feel sadness about her path, and continue to wonder how she got there. I’m not sure it’s a story I as a committed Jew could ever feel completely comfortable with, but still wish I could appreciate her story and motivations, but this film left so many topics unexplored, I’m not sure we as the audience can get there.
Kosher supermarkets are curious sites of cultural consumption. And the upscale supermarket, Pomegranate, is no exception to the rule. Displaying a bag from Pomegranate is a visible social marker of Bourdieuian “taste”–a type of conspicuous consumption not found at KRM Kollel or other affordable kosher supermarkets in Brooklyn. As explained in a well-deserved critique published in The Forward about a David Brooks article in The New York Times, Pomegranate caters to the top 1% of the religious community.
After attending a Hasidic friend’s wedding recently, I wish to return to a song newly minted in the religious wedding circuit repertoire, “Ya’alili” (performed by the Chabad band, 8th Day), where the aisles of Pomegranate become a dizzying dance floor of choreographed Jewish multiculturalism:
I learned of the song when it was released two years ago. I’m partial to it, but not simply because a friend of mine dances in the music video. Its richness lies in its social commentary on the hybridity of form. The song plays with and against the blurring of Sephardi and Ashkenazi cultures. But as much as it plays with mixing and matching (as the chorus rings out: “tantz, tantz, chabibi”), it maintains distinct boundaries. The stanzas line up Sephardi and Ashkenazi cultures in the Structural grammar of a Lévi-Strauss diagram:
את החתן ספרדי/כלה נאה אשכנזי”
“רחל אמנו ספרדי, מאמע רחל אשכנזי
“The groom, Sephardi/the attractive bride, Ashkenazi
Straddling back and forth between moments of mimicry and of radical alterity, between convergence and separation, illuminates the contemporary tension of Sephardi-Ashkenazi relations. In the logic of multiculturalism in the reign of late capitalism, the video screams: “we have the freedom to both pray separately and to shop at the same upscale supermarket!”
Supermarkets peddle exotic goods. And so does the video. Supermarkets are, after all, secure, mediated sites of consuming other cultures. But the danger of mediation lies in what obscures. There is no actual contact between cultures performed in the transaction. It’s unidirectional. You can buy without reciprocation. And that’s precisely what happens in the music video. A caricatured image of Sephardi culture appears–for the pleasure and consumption of Ashkenazi eyes. The musicians we are to identify as “Sephardi” bear the trappings of the exoticized, Orientalized subject.
How Ashkenazim simultaneously reproduce hegemony while claiming to resist it–under the banner of Jewish “multiculturalism” (reframed in religious vernacular as achdus)–is a phenomenon I encountered while conducting preliminary fieldwork research in Uman (among friends at Chulent). A former professor and now mentor, David Roskies, recalls a conversation with noted academic of Hasidic historiography, David Assaf (in an article recently published in Bounded Mind and Soul: Russia and Israel, 1880-2010):
Assaf, our expert on all matters Hasidic, is not merely underwhelmed by what greets the visitor to Braslav, he is angered by the millions in profit made by the Braslaver from Israel who control the Rebbe’s grave and man, which attracts over 15,000 pilgrims a year. He scoffs at the sterile design of the tomb, so reminiscent of the fake tombs of Moroccan saints that make such a mockery of religion and Israel. Did we notice the name Israel Meir Gabi emblazoned on the wall outside? Gabai, the Johnny Appleseed of Hasidic grave sites, is a Braslav Hasid of Sephardi descent. Why, young Sephardim, Assaf protests, are so brainwashed by the Braslav notion of tikkun neshamot, the perfection of dead souls, that they show up at the Ministry of Internal Affairs to adopt an Ashkenazi surname (like Bernstein and Rabinvoich) and a Braslavian proper name (like Naftali, Nahman, Nathan)…
As described by one of my informants, a living Chabad oral history archive, “gullible” Sephardi baalei teshuva have become infantilized with the same white paternalistic “concern” as the colonial subject–an uncritical, superstitious mass who, already engaged in pietistic devotion at the hillulas of their revered Babas, can be led easily astray. In the recent sex scandal of the Breslev leader, Rav Berland, Sephardi baalei teshuva became scapegoated (among some) as the source of the problem. As Toyte Hasidim (lit. “dead Hasidim”), Breslevers do not follow a living rebbe or tzadik (in contradistinction to other Hasidic courts). Rebbe Nachman is, at least in theory, their one and only master; to unflinchingly follow a living tzadik comes at a cost. Berland’s scandal was displaced by some Breslevers onto the Sephardim Berland recruited, who in the optic of Ashkenazi hegemony, cannot be trusted to maintain the purity of Breslev’s status as Toyte Hasidim.
While problematic in its representation of Sephardim, “Ya’alili” engages in a subtle politics of refusal. As Hasidism becomes increasingly untethered from Eastern European culture and history, the invention of the “global Hasid” (to borrow the phrase of my friend, Zach Cohen) has emerged in its stead. And Rebbe Nachman has most curiously been re-branded as a universal symbol of devotion, which ultimately obscures historical reality and pivots Ashkenazi identity as unmarked and universal, Sephardi identity as marked and particular. But the video refuses this cultural hegemony. It marks Baba Sali as a “Sephardi” symbol, Rebbe Nachman as a “Ashkenazi” symbol. Because if all things were actually equal, quotes from the “Baba Sali” would be embroidered on white kippot the world over.
For further cultural analysis of Hasidic music, listen to the episodes 05 and 06 by Sol Fuerwerker and Sam Katz over at The After Life Podcast.
“Chain gleaming, switching lanes, two-seater.
Hate him or love him for the same reason.
Can’t leave it; the game needs him.
Plus, the people need someone to believe in.”
–Nas, “Hero” (2008)
In the past couple of days, since Rav Ovadia Yosef died at 93, the Jewish media, both published and social, have been abuzz with tributes about his towering scholarship, bold rabbinic leadership, controversial political and cultural impact, and his frequent episodes of vituperative and hostile verbal violence, especially late in his life. I have also seen comments by progressive Jews expressing surprise that so many progressive friends of theirs were showing the love to Rav Ovadia. As one friend put it: “My FB page is full of love for Ovadia Yosef-from lefty people? I thought he was kind of terrible?”
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.
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.)
Today, the Israeli Foreign Ministry launched a social media campaign “I am a Refugee” to deflect criticism from Israel’sappallingtreatment of African asylum seekers. In the 1948 founding of the State of Israel, while Jewish extremists were shooing Palestinians from their villages, many Arab countries ejected their Jewish populations and seized their properties. Conveniently this is two-for-one issue for the nationalist camp, shifting blame over the lack of Israeli-Palestinian peace progress back on Arab countries.
I would think that Jews of Arab origin would be outraged that their dispossession is again raised only as a talking point against Palestinian refugees. As a decidedly secondary and repressed narrative in Israeli society, the true-to-life injustice suffered by Jews from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and other places is shunted aside because of the uncomfortable consequences such an equivalence would have on the Palestinian refugee issue. Meaning, if Mizrachim are granted repatriation or compensation back in the Arab world, then such would grant Palestinians the same in Israel.
So by raising this issue in such a way, Danny Ayalon and the Israeli government seem to implicitly say that invoking justice for Mizrachim is just a political game. There won’t be any justice — but they’re happy to abuse that memory for political gain. More cynical injustice to heap upon an already unfair situation. I can only hope that Danny Ayalon cooked this up himself without involving the helpless foreign service professionals who painfully chafe at this government’s incessant foreign affairs stupidity.
If I’d written this before July, I’d be saying different things.
On my mother’s side we are mixed race, and descended from Jewish refugees who fled to America. On my father’s side, we are mixed race, and there is an intertwined narrative of Irish Diaspora and life after the Indian Reservations were left behind. My family is expert in the words and story of exile and Diaspora, loss and flight. I grew up as a part of that narrative, and for years it was both pride and a source of comfort. I was encouraged to pass for white whenever possible, and we attended Protestant Christian services. No one breathed a word of being anything but white, claiming English ancestry and being coached by the generations before us to speak with practiced diction and without accent.
Many people with Chicago roots had a grandparent who attended this shul. Today it is a shambles, and following a public fight to save it this spring, the once magnificent synagogue where Martin Luther King Jr. later made a famous speech has been be torn down for good, another scar on the face of North Lawndale. Nobody cares, nobody can change it, we can only mourn it and the tragic history of the neighborhood that once was home to 175,000 Jews within a square mile on the west side of the city. And so, an eicha for North Lawndale and the Russische Shul, Anche Kenesses Israel:
Eicha for North Lawndale
The Russiche Shul looms large on Douglas, decades since it changed to a church.
The now falling ceiling covered three thousand souls who traversed the world to pray freely,
and those who once gathered to hear Reverend Dr. King preach on justice and and equality. More »
THIS looks awesome. Finally, an event that appeals to Jews who speak Ladino, Jews who speak Yiddish and Jews who speak neither. Its inclusive of all, and even caters to, literally, the kosher set with delicious dainties from the kitchen of Leah Koenig.
Yes, whether you like baklava or babka, this 1st Non-Annual Festival of Pan-Judeo Music and Pastries has something for you. It features the three major streams of Jewish culture and geography- the Mediterranean Sephardi, the Eastern European Ashkenazi and the ubiquitous New York Indie.
About a year ago I was watching a young Israeli physician examine an Eritrean boy at the Physicians for Human Rights clinic. The boy sat looking at the ground as his cousin explained that he wasn’t sleeping at night, often waking up sweating in terror. He said the boy was wetting the bed and that he couldn’t keep his food down. When he was asked to get up and walk to the examination table, he wrapped both his hands around his thin right thigh and lifted- left, lift, right, left, lift, right. Only 13, he was thin and weak because of his trek across the Sinai desert. Along the way he was kidnapped and held captive for three months by a Bedouin criminal organization where he was tortured, deprived of food and water and forced to wait as his family in Eritrea was extorted of thousands of dollars. That day in the clinic, wearing donated clothes that hung off his frame, was his second day in Tel Aviv. More »
In addition to her own distinguished career, Achinoam Nini (aka Noa) has a history of working on behalf of peace and reconciliation. Notably, she has partnered with Israeli-Arab singer Mira Awad, a Christian and resident of Haifa, on a concert tour and as the country’s entrants 2009 entrants into the Eurovision contest. This creative collaboration brought them wide attention around the world, mostly of the positive sort.
On Yom Hazikaron, the acclaimed international Israeli musical artist performed for a gathering of Combatants for Peace, an organization of former fighters and their families on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This recent performance brought on attention of a much uglier, vile sort from extremist corners in Israeli and North American Jewish corners.
Calling her “Garbage” and “Rat” and far worse. They’ve taken to facebook calling for a boycott of Noa’s performances, and Noa has responded.
It wasn’t over when the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor, but it is for the Gamma Chapter of AEPi at Penn. The oft quoted words of Animal House’s Brutus hang in the air as, in the wake of serious hazing infractions, the chapter voted to return its charter to the National Headquarters and go Pseudo greek, whatever that means. After being put on double secret probation, the fraternity chapter, which had a 98 year history on campus and was one of its consistenly highest achieving academically, the University had enough.
Yes, they are bastions of male objectification of the female, yes, a source of aggravation and lack of academic seriousness, yes they throw great parties (and sometimes bad ones) but they’re not all bad, and they’ve come a long way since the Animal house era and even the 1990′s. That’s especially true for AEPi, which is nationally, engaging in leadership training for college men (that phrasing does sound parochial I admit), partnering with Hillels and raising significant funds for important charities. It shouldn’t be painted with the saime brush as those undergrands at Penn. In fact, the fraternity has posted very public statements on its website and its President Andy Borans was quoted as having exerted pressure to close the chapters.
I respect that. For the Gamma and Zeta Deuteron Chapters of AEPi, yes, it is indeed over. For now…