In Memoriam: Adrienne Cooper (1946-2011)

Just over a week ago, the world Yiddish community lost the greatest Yiddish songstress of our time, Adrienne Khane Cooper, who died on December 25, 2011 at the age of 65.   Adrienne was a person of enormous passion and talent who, as both a performer and teacher, molded a whole generation of young Yiddishists and klezmorim.

In her short 65 years on this earth, Adrienne zigzagged the map, both domestically (living in Oakland, Chicago, and New York), and internationally, touring and studying far and wide, bringing with her a love of Yiddish that was contagious as it was deep.  A scholar, a writer, a performer, and an innovator, Adrienne was a trailblazer in demonstrating to the world that the adventure of Yiddish has only begun. Adrienne’s profound love and respect for language, combined with her progressive politics made her the ideal figure for spearheading the contemporary Yiddish renaissance.

 

After working at the YIVO Language, Literature, and Culture summer program in New York City, Adrienne envisioned an intensified Yiddish cultural experience, and so, along with Henry Sapoznik, she created KlezKamp, the renowned annual Klezmer and Yiddish culture gathering in the Catskills, now nearing its 30th year.  These two programs, both of which Adrienne had a significant hand in shaping,  are  responsible for the outpouring of new Yiddish cultural expression—fueled largely by the enthusiasm of their young participants—that has emerged in recent years.

Among the countless Yiddish scholars and artists whom Adrienne mentored are such prominent figures in the Yiddish world as Yiddish scholar Jeffrey Shandler, acclaimed Yiddish singer Lorin Sklamberg, and outstanding Klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals. The assembled crowd at the New York memorial service for Ms. Cooper (which packed Ansche Chesed’s main sanctuary on Sunday, January 1st) was a veritable ‘who’s who’ in the Yiddish world, and each person in attendance seemed to have at least one story of how Adrienne had changed her/his life. Each of the twelve speakers who eulogised Adrienne at this memorial service shared thoughts regarding the varied and far-reaching aspects of Adrienne’s life and legacy. Upon exiting Ansche Chesed after the memorial service, I overheard an older man ask his friend, “Did you work with Adrienne?” his friend replied, “Of course. Who didn’t??”

As one  who delights in all things Yiddish and also sees in it a larger social mission, it warmed my heart when I heard dramatist and political activist Jenny Romaine read an excerpt from the Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer Risk Taker award, which was presented to Adrienne by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) in 2010: “For all of this, and for never working from a place of chosen-ness or nostalgia but from a place of justice, empathy, and complex Yiddish polyphony, JFREJ is deeply honored to present the 2010 Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer Risk Taker Award to Adrienne Cooper. ” Indeed, for Adrienne, Yiddish language and culture was not a quaint novelty trapped in a glass box in a museum,  but rather a living, breathing, and evolving hands-on process which could help create a better world.

Perhaps my favourite memory of Adrienne was a Yiddish song workshop she facilitated at the 2008 YIVO summer program, where both myself and Adrienne’s daughter, Sarah Gordon, who is a talented and innovative Yiddish songstress in her own right, were students.  At the aforementioned workshop, I witnessed the special beauty of the bond between Adrienne and Sarah, a bond, spanning the generations, of shared  dedication and love, both for Yiddish language and culture  and for each other.  This special bond was best summarised by the final eulogy delivered at the memorial service last Sunday by Sarah, who stated simply, but most eloquently, “She was my mother.”  All too often, when we speak of great figures, we forget the unique and personal relationships that  are truly the defining aspects of life—the relationships that make us who we are. After hearing eleven people speak beautifully of Adrienne as a legend, Sarah reminded us that she was also a “Yidishe Mame.”

Because of her dedication to helping create a better world, Adrienne served on the Board of Directors of JFREJ, and the family requests that donations in her memory be made to them: www.jfrej.org/Koved ir ondenk.

Mobius is for the #Occupation

The enemies of my enemies are my enemies.

The enemies of my enemies are my enemies.

As many know, Mobius, activist and founder of this blog, is known for his outspoken views ending on the Occupation and more recently for his leadership in Jewish slice of the the #Occupy movement (among his prodigious other accomplishments).

In a somewhat surreal turn of events, earlier this week as police evicted Sieradski and the rest of #occupy wall street from Zucotti Park, the Electronic Intifada denounced him for  being a tool of the Zionist PR machine. Got that?  They associated him with his twitter and real-life debate partner, William Daroff, who proudly clams that title.  Clearly, having posed together for a photo makes them philosophical bunk mates. Confused yet? It gets better.

Those who believe that Mobius was against the occupation are apparently incorrect, according to Adam Greenhouse and Electronic Intifada.  Huh?

Not only this, but he is, or was, and now is again- FOR the #Occupation.  Of course- and apparently Electronic Intifada is as well. But not THAT occupation.  And  Mobius is not entitled to be thus as he hasn’t been nearly outspoken enough about his views. Which E.I. is against because, well, he’s so clearly in bed with the rightwing Zionists. And Muppets.

Which they’re for- no wait, against.. Okay, I’m confused. Blame the Jews!

Stranger still, Electronic Initifada did this in the context of announcing the delivery of a message of Palestinian solidarity with the #Occupy movement in NYC.  They announce solidarity, denounce Sieradski for being an anarchist statist capitalist communist jew sellout.

And btw, since we’re off the topic, the Muppets also deserve a state of their own too. Who doesn’t anymore (except Kurds, Boriquenas and American Indians)?  Personally, I believe the @Muppets should be free to live everywhere.  As long as its not in my backyard because my 6th cousins are moving in as soon as UNESCO declares their right to return to my #basement.  I also wish to denounce those who would deny them the right to both have the state of #Muppestine and the right to denounce such states on principle!  Really, this totally made sense when explained by the Electric Meyhem.

Somewhere I hear Bill Murray turning to Harold Ramis and saying, “Wait, I thought you said the Occupation was baaaaad.”  DOWN! with the evil #occupiers of the anti-zionist non-entity!  No wait- FREE Palestine! End the #Occupation! Muppets!  No, wait, we support the occupiers just not the #occupation!  Reverse that.  We are with the 6 million!  Wherever we stand, it is in opposition to the opposition of the opposition of the occupation, except when we’re not.  And then we are.

At least the Palestinian Solidarity movement got its support of #occupy straight on one point, and that was… failing to make a clear point. Nice work and way to muddy the waters for the enemies of progress.  Thanks for the giggles!  But not really.

“Other Zions: From Freeland to Yiddishland” Exhibit Ending this Tuesday

If you’re in New York this week, you should check out the “Other Zions” exhibit, currently on display at YIVO. Curated by Krysia Fisher, this absolutely fascinating exhibit showcases the impressive ambitions and efforts of three related Yiddish organisations, all committed to establishing a Jewish homeland within the Diaspora, documenting an oft-neglected chapter in the history of modern Jewish settlement.  The exhibit marks the 70th anniversary of the all-Yiddish publication Afn Shvel, the 30th anniversary of the League for Yiddish, and 75 years since the establishment of the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization.
In July, YIVO hosted an opening for the exhibit, featuring acclaimed Yiddishists, both young and old. The evening centered on the accomplishments and ideological legacies of prominent figures in the Yiddish-speaking world, such as Abraham Rosin, the first editor of the Yiddish literary-cultural journal Afn Shvel; Dr. Mordekhe Schaechter, Yiddish linguist and third editor of Afn Shvel, and founder of Yugntruf;  I.N. Steinberg, exiled religious, leftist Freeland activist;  and other members of the Freeland movement.  Several of the speakers and performers, children and grandchildren of the aforementioned figures, spoke first-hand about the legacy of their forbearers.

To get a schmeck of the history of the Jewish Freeland League, you can watch “No Land Without Heaven: I.N. Steinberg and the Freeland League,” featuring Dr. Adam Rovner (University of Denver),  here and learn about the little-known history of the Freeland League, which included attempts to establish Yiddish-speaking Jewish settlements in such places as SW Tasmania, Surinam, and NW Australia.  These efforts were ultimately thwarted, most notably by the establishment of the modern state of Israel, and perhaps that is why these stories are seldom related in standard histories of Jewish settlement.

Today, Mordekhe Schaechter’s grandson (and one of the speakers at the “Other Zions” opening this summer), Naftali Ejdelman, is working to achieve his grandfather’s vision with the establishment of Yiddish Farm in Goshen, NY. Naftali spoke of his grandfather’s attempts in the 1950’s to found a Yiddish-speaking colony on farmland in Roosevelt, New Jersey.  Yiddish Farm opened its ‘doors’ to the public this summer with its first annual Golus Festival, an outdoor Jewish culture camping festival with live entertainment. Schaechter’s project unites secular and religious Jews through common love of Yiddish language and agricultural work.  On a more micro level, other Schaechter progeny are discussing the establishment of a Yiddish-speaking Moishe House in New York City. If you are potentially interested either in working on the Yiddish Farm or living in a Yiddish Moishe House in NYC, please feel free to contact Naftali at naftali@yiddishfarm.org …and maybe you can live in “another Zion.”

Occupy the language

Photo credit: Jeffrey H. Campagna

x-posted to Justice in the City

One young man in Zuccoti Park in New York, part of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, holds up a sign which boldly declares: “We’re here, we’re unclear, get used to it.” This tongue in cheek message gets to the heart of what is uncomfortable for many in the media and the chattering class about the Occupy movement (OWS and its many many offshoots in all major American cities and many cities around the world). There is an expected, almost ritual nature to American political discourse. There are critiques, followed by demands, supported by emotional anecdotes and statistics, followed by the suggestion of legislative remedies. The chattering class then gets to work vetting these remedies on two levels. First, and most important, is the “horse race” analysis. The political climate will not allow this or the votes are there but only if the opposing party will compromise on this. And so on and so forth. Somewhere farther down, or on the inside pages, the wonks get to work dissecting the numbers. Within a week at most (usually a news cycle), its all old news. Nothing has changed. Perhaps a catch phrase has been added to the stump speech of this or that candidate.

It is very frustrating when a large group of Americans peacefully assemble to air their grievances without participating in these tried and true rituals. When they do not attempt to position themselves behind a candidate or leverage a powerful constituency, but, rather display their disaffection without feeling the need to issue bullet points which any politician or pundit could easily digest and regurgitate. And then they stick around. For a long time. And they do not feel the pressure of the news cycle to make decisions or appoint telegenic spokespeople. They just put up tents, hold long meetings which need to reach a consensus for a decision, put themselves in danger by reclaiming public space and using non-violence as a trigger and a weapon to reveal the repressive reflexes of the financial and political elites. It is maddening. More »

Jews at OWS: Huge Surprise!

A local here in DC asked me to write a bit about how there came to be Jewish practice at Occupy Wall St, Occupy K St and elsewhere. I wrote a bit and thought it might be interesting to other folks. So, here ’tis:

Since the industrial revolution, and perhaps even before, Jews have figured prominently in the intellectual and practical movements that created capitalism as well as those that opposed it. Jews have always been disproportionately represented on both sides of the inequality debate. In the 1980s Milton Friedman wrote a famous essay on what he viewed as a paradox–if Jews have benefited a great deal from capitalism why do they tend to oppose it. Jews working against inequality and capitalism is not new, it has existed as long as capitalism has (thanks to Brent Chaim Spodek for pointing me towards this essay).

The question of Jews and Occupy Wall St/Occupy K St/etc was never one of whether we would be involved, but when and how. As the high holidays approached, many were split between wanting to focus on the spiritual discipline that comes with this season in the Jewish calendar and the activist fervor that was building. The idea sprung up that we wouldn’t have to chose! We could host services in solidarity with the emerging movement.

This is not just any year. We are in a state of moral crisis as a country. The richest among us continue to live lives of great wealth (perhaps even opulence), while our nation, the richest on earth, sees families go to bed hungry. Many felt that praying in a new and different way was more appropriate on that night and many nights since. Rather than in a big beautiful synagogue, sometimes it’s better to pray in the street.

DC Kol Nidre

More »

Quick fisk: Commentary’s hack job on Occupy Yom Kippur

We’ve already written about the Kol Nidre service that Jewschool founder Dan Sieradski organized at Occupy Wall Street, as well as the companion services at other Occupy events around the country.  Other media took quite a bit of notice as well, including this rather shoddy Commentary piece:

Last week, a self-described “new media activist” posted a Facebook event page for a Kol Nidre service at the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. The turnout the event generated, as well as the discussion it has so far provoked, are deeply troubling trends that all who care about the Jewish future would do well to take seriously.

Aren’t we usually concerned that the Jews of today don’t care about being Jewish anymore?  Yet when an event comes along that brings together hundreds of Jews on less than a week’s notice, it gets criticized because it’s too effective?

During the years, those whose politics tend toward the right have had to accustom themselves to the unthinking sanctimony of leftists who rage against any semblance of an alliance of religion and right-wing politics…

“Those whose politics tend toward the right” vs. “leftists.”  Notice the difference in language?  It’s an attempt to paint “those whose politics tend towards the right” as inherently more reasonable than those crazy “leftists.”  Liberals are blinded by their rabid ideology, while conservatives hold informed and moderate beliefs.

Furthermore, what we liberals tend to object to is not the “alliance” of religion and politics.  Rather, we object to the use of political power to advance a religious agenda.  Occupy Yom Kippur is the opposite of that: it’s a call for political change based on religious beliefs about morality.  Having religiously-based opinions on political issues is perfectly legitimate: it’s protected by the free exercise clause.  Using political power to influence religious matters is prohibited by the same (or by the establishment cause, depending on the context).

It must be said there is of course justification to be found for specifically economic protests of a leftist variety in the prophets, perhaps most especially Isaiah. But it stretches truth far beyond the breaking point to claim such texts based on conditions in ancient Israel offer much guidance for the policy questions of our day…

Here’s a post on Commentary’s blog that describes Itamar, the settlement where the Fogel family was brutally murdered, as located in “Samaria,” “an area with biblical significance.”  I expect Commentary will quickly correct that language, since it’s “based on conditions in ancient Israel” that don’t “offer much guidance for the policy questions of our day.”

Oh, and I found that post by searching “Samaria” on Commentary’s site.  It was the top hit.  Here are two more recent articles from the first page of results where Commentary uses or expresses support for the biblical name for the territory now known as the West Bank.

Let their successes be few, and the passage of their movement from the American Jewish scene swift.

Seriously, I just can’t get over the pretension implicit in so much of the Jewish mainstream media.  One minute they’re telling us all to stick together in the face of adversity, dire threats to Jewish peoplehood, and (gasp!) anti-Zionism.  The next they’re condemning a Jewish grassroots movement that has a lot of people very excited.  I understand that they disagree with the movement’s goals.  That’s their right.  But the condescension with which they approach it is reminiscent of, well, the rest of the mainstream media.  In other words, they’re not exactly in good company.

Tactics and Strategy

Unsurprisingly, Jewschool and Jewschoolers have been all over the Occupy Wall Street movement. From organizing the widely successful Kol Nidre services to playing hacky sack and even demanding justice for the 99% or whatever they are demanding. However, this Jewschooler (admittedly the most “The Man” of any) is a bit put off by this movement.

I have had conversations about Occupy Wall Street with a number of people from across the spectrum and except for my friends on the far left, most “understand the frustration” but don’t feel like what is going on in Lower Manhattan is good. It is clear to me that this movement has no direction. Simply saying you are against greed is like saying you are for breathing. Who besides Gordon Gekko, who in fact later revised his statement, will say that greed is good?

My major complaint is that this is no “there” there in this movement. The demands are amorphous and without any sort of path to achievement. There is real anger in this country and around the world at the actions of the Financial Industry. This moment provides a huge opportunity to mobilize average, non-political folks—those soccer moms and NASCAR dads—around this issue. But sleeping in a park for a few weeks isn’t fixing anything nor is it bringing more attention to the problem. Rather it is bringing attention to the protestors and their on-the-street interactions with police and the so-called 1%. More »

Occupy Kol Nidrei NY: “The fallacy that gold is God!”

(Photo by David A.M. Wilensky (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0))

My friend Getzel Davis, a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, delivered a tremendous sermon at the Occupy Wall Street Kol Nidrei here in New York.

All English during the service had to be shouted in short phrases, then shouted back by the crowd. (This is in keeping with the protesters who also use this method because they have no sound permit.) I vote that all sermons should be delivered in this fashion from here on out. I’ve never been among a congregation paying such rapt attention to a sermon.

Anyway, presented here in its entirety is Getzel’s sermon. Just imagine what it sounded like broken into short bits, shouted out in a call and shouted back in a response.

Getzel Davis about an hour before Occupy Kol Nidrei (Photo by David A.M. Wilensky (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0))

Friends – we are here tonight to celebrate the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur has been misunderstood to be a sad day. But really, an early rabbinic texts calls Yom Kippur one of the two happiest days of the year. What makes this day happy? It is the day of forgiveness. This is what Yom Kippor means “The Day of Forgiveness.”

According to our myth, Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshipping the golden calf. What is the golden calf? It is the essence of idol worship. It the fallacy that gold is God. How do we become forgiven for worshiping gold?

I believe that G!d is infinitely forgiving. The harder question is how we forgive ourselves. How can we forgive ourselves for failing to live up to our own ideals? How can we forgive ourselves for failing to recognize others’ humanity? How can we forgive ourselves for remaining silent for so long in the face of injustice?

Forgiveness is important because once we can mourn our mistakes then we are no longer ruled by them. We are free to create things anew.

This is what Kol Nidreh is about. It is releasing ourselves from the oaths that we mistakenly took.

When people think about oaths, they usually think of verbal promises. In Judaism though, most of our oaths are “Chazakas” – or oaths taken through repeated action. By doing things again and again, we make internal promises about how we want to live. Other names for these might be habits, preferences, or addictions. These chazakas rule our lives, making things simpler by allowing us to live on autopilot .

The problem with this is that while chazakas are easy, they are often not skillful. It is easier to not make waves. It is easier to not make eye contact with those suffering. It is easier to trust others to run society. It is easier to sit on our butts.

Tonight, you are offered all the internal freedom that you can imagine. How do you want to live the next moments of
your life? Do you want to love more? Do you want to be more joyous? Do you want to speak your truth? What does
your truth say?

Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year because it gives us the radical option of being here now. We don’t work. We don’t eat. We don’t drink. We don’t have sex. We dress in white robes.

We do these things because Yom Kippur is a ritual death. It is the way that we allow our old selves to die.

Tomorrow, when we break our fasts, we step into newness. We step into being the people we want to be and not just the people we have been.

You know friends, it is hard not to worship gold, or power, or any of the other idols that our society shoves down our throats. I believe that this is why the Torah tells us that there is something else created in the image of G!d.

Us.

In the first chapter of Genesis the first human was created in the image of G!d If we need something to serve here on earth, we are given humanity. Service to humankind is sacred and a reflection of service of G!d.

“Occupy Wall St.” and the Path of the Righteous

(cross posted to Justice in the City)
After a few persistent weeks of peaceful non-violent protests, the “Occupy Wall Street” folks or the “99 percenters” as they are beginning to call themselves, are appearing on the radar of the mainstream media. After a few days of lazy journalistic descriptions of the protests and protesters as disorganized and unfocussed some reporters and columnists are beginning to ask what these protesters want. One of the more interesting answers to the question was given in an interview conducted by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post with David Graeber who was one of the initial organizers of the protests. His answer was that the protesters, rather than making specific demands of the existing institutions (which created the income inequalities and precipitated the financial meltdown and yet were still in their offices controlling vast amounts of wealth) were attempting to “create a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature.” This raises the question: What is the society that we want? What would a just society look like? At this moment, it seems to me, there is no more important question to ask. As it happens, this is precisely the question I seek to answer in my book “Justice in the City” — and since that book is not yet out, I will attempt the short form answer here. More »

Kol Nidrei. Occupy Wall Street. Arthur Waskow. Be there.

Jewschool founder Daniel Sieradski is organizing a Kol Nidrei minyan in at Zuccotti Park, home base of the Occupy Wall Street folks, at 7 p.m. this Friday night.

I don’t believe it’s set in stone yet, but Rabbi Arthur Waskow may be delivering a devar and or leading the service. Sieradski is looking for knowledgeable service leaders. If you can help and you’re interested, get in touch with him on Facebook or twitter.

This will be a service, not to mention a Kol Nidrei, of once-in-a-lifetime coolness. Let me know if you’re coming so I can make sure we say get the chance to wish each other a Gemar Chatimah Tovah.

Check out the Facebook event for details and updates.

Updated, 10/5: Sieradski tell meWaskow is no longer coming for health reasons. Sad times.

My Problem With BDS

Growing up in Israel, I joined a lot of organizations: Youth Against Racism, Hashomer Hatza’ir, Reut Sadaka, and maybe one or two groups even further to the left. I attended Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam and Meretz Youth weekend seminars, a kind of experience I’ve never seen in the US, not even when I was a college student. At these seminars, high school students would listen to Members of Knesset, well known professors and journalists, professional youth educators and others as they dissected Israel’s social issues.

During this entire formative period, regardless of where you stood in the left wing spectrum, certain things were true:

  • Our side was in favor of dialogue with the Palestinians, while right wing Israelis were racists who denied the Palestinians essential humanity, let along their human and national rights.
  • Our side addressed a combination of moral elements and enlightened self-interest. The occupation might be wrong, but it is also suicidal.
  • Our side drew inspiration from Western values that flowed from the enlightenment. Rationality, skepticism, a slight fear of the mob, an emphasis on individual identity over collective identity.
  • Our side was focused on liberating Israelis (Jews and Arabs alike) from the burden of having to represent anything else other than who we were. In other words, even the hard core Zionists were often in favor of ‘post Zionist’ measures like removing religion from identity cards, affirming the validity of the Palestinian narrative, and de-mythologizing the founding of Israel.

I was part of the lucky minority of Israel Jews that interacted with Israeli Arabs and Palestinians from the Occupied Territories on a regular basis. They represented a fairly diverse range of opinions and backgrounds, though less from among the poor and seriously religious, a bit more from the upper and middle classes, the Christians, and those from larger cities and villages. At a certain point, my identity as an Israeli changed into one that wholeheartedly embraced the reality of Israel: one fifth Palestinian, one fifth Russian, inclusive of countless racial, ethnic and religious minorities, with a tragic mix of conflicting impulses. Together, we were Israeli, and deserved to be truly equal for all our sakes. More »

A Clergy Report on Working Conditions at Hyatt Hotels

Guess what?

This report, the result of direct conversations with Hyatt workers across the U.S., details a broader practice by Hyatt that we find contrary to the religious traditions we uphold.

There is no real shocker here. However, the broader problem, the war on the working class, is wonderfully and bitterly laid out here by J.J. Goldberg at the Forward.
If you don’t think that its a war, you’re not paying attention.

Dispatch from the Human Rights International Film Festival, Number 2: “This Is My Land, Hebron”

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L, my companion for the evening, wonders if we can say we actually saw Wallace Shawn, who appears to be sitting three rows ahead of us. It’s definitely him, right? We strain our ears for his trademark voice,  but the din proves too much for us discern properly.

This is not really important, of course, a celebrity sighting at the screening of  “This is My Land, Hebron,” at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. It is, however, a reminder to myself to be observant of the audience, which I have come in worried about. The theatre is full, and this is both joyous and disconcerting. Who are these people? Did someone make a phone to right wingers to come and start a ruckus? Is someone going to say something anti Semitic? Some people walk onto the stage and sit down. The audience applauds. I sweat.

The three people, introduced by the moderator, are Dotan Greenvald, a former solider/ activist with Breaking the Silence, and the directors, Giulia Amati and Stephen Nathanson. The moderator asks if anyone would like to say anything before the film starts. Greenberg says that serving in Hebron has changed his views and how he’s active in the society he lives in.

“This is My Land” is a documentary composed primarily of footage and interviews from Hebron, one of the first of which is of a home covered with a wire cage. The owner of the house, a Palestinian woman in hijab, tells the camera that the wire is necessary to keep the stones thrown by Jewish settlers from hitting the people who live there, but that they’ve adapted by throwing smaller stones.

The film interviews some of the Jewish settlers (there are 450? 600? 800?),  and settler leadership who live in Hebron among 150,000 Palestinians. The settlers claim that Hebron is the  place in which the matriarchs and patriachs were born, making it “the heart of the Jewish people.”

A Jewish settler, a woman with covered hair and glasses, walks up to the wire where the Palestinian woman is standing. “Sharmuta (whore),” she shouts, and then, softly, “Sharmuuuttaaa.” It’s chilling and relentless, and the two women scream at each other, while the camera records. After this scene, every time a settler comes on the screen for the next hour and a half, the audience gets twitchy and tense and starts to whisper.

The voices of the  Israeli left featured in the film are prominent names -Uri Avnery, writer, former Member of Knesset, founder of Gush Shalom;  Jessica Montell, Executive Director of Btselem: the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories , and Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy. “There is no place in the Occupied Territories I hate more than Hebron,” says Levy. ‘It is a place of evil.”

Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, spent 14 months in Hebron during his army service (he was actually Dotan Greenvald’s commander.) “One day, you’re looking in the mirror, and you see horns on your head. You think, it’s not me, doing this things, but it is you.” Now, in addition to giving testimonies and traveling with the organization, he gives tours of Hebron.

While escorting a group down Shuhada Street-the principal street for Palestinian residents and businesses and at one time, a prominent market place, now closed to Palestinian traffic- Shaul says to his group, “You’ll only get one perspective today, and I’m sorry for that.” Standing near by, shaking his head, is David Wilder, Hebron settler spokesperson. According to Shaul, Wilder won’t talk to “traitors.” “In any other country,” says Wilder, later in the film, “(Shaul) would be charged with treason and hung.”

There’s footage of a young Palestinian man who’s shackled for 14 hours, allegedly for protecting his sister from IDF forces invading his home. He tells the camera that he’s been beaten on his back. Settler children yell at and knock down internationals from the Christian Peacekeepers. “That’s what you get for defending Arabs,” one girl says. In another scene, Palestinians picking olives while settlers look on, and then eventually face off with soldiers, who tell them that the Palestinians are allowed to pick from their own groves. There is screaming and swearing and accusations. At some points, I’m so uncomfortable that I try to re read my notes in the dark theatre, which is of course, impossible.

“I’m deeply ashamed,” says Levy. “It’s on my behalf, all Israelis are paying the price. The idea is to drive the Palestinians out, create impossible circumstances. We’ve become a country who only cares about ourselves, and maybe not even that…this is proof that the Palestinians are some of the most tolerant and non violent people in the world. Anyone else would have exploded.”

When the film is over, the audience is restless. Nathanson, Amati and Greenvald return to the stage. Amati talks about how hard it was to obtain the settler’s point of view, and without it, making the film would have been useless. And now, the questions. One woman asks why so much of the focus of the film was on Shuhada Street, instead of on the rest of the city. Greenvald: ”If you went to Manhattan, and Broadway was closed and only white people could walk on it, wouldn’t that be a story?” She’s not satisfied by his answer and has to be shushed into sitting down.

Every time someone gets called on, I hold my breath anticipating the question.  ”Why did you only focus on settler violence against Arabs?” asks an audience member. “In Hebron,” says Greenvald, “Palestinians know the recourse. You don’t see Arab on Jewish violence because everyone is aware of the consequences-curfews, collective punishment. The soldiers are there to protect settlers, and they know the consequences of looking like if they side with Palestinians. That’s why the consequences for Jewish kids throwing stones are different from those of Palestinian ones.” Amati adds that while filming, they never witnessed any Palestinian violence against settlers.

Greenvald is also asked to comment on his experience with Breaking the Silence  in Israel. “Settlers in Hebron are very extreme,” he says, “Not like most Israelis. Most Israelis don’t respond like they do.” The film has not yet been distributed in Israel, but there are plans to do so.

When the q/a is over, and everyone is leaving, I hear a woman’s voice behind me. She’s been making comments to her friends the entire time (“Yeah, that will go well,” re-distributing the film in Israel) and sighing gustily after each of the right wing-y questions. “”Those people,” she says, disgustedly, gathering her things, “Why don’t they go back to Brooklyn where they came from?”

Memoir with a Message: An American Radical

I read a lot of nonfiction, and more than a few memoirs. But my pleasure-reading tends towards showbiz tell-alls (next up: Tina Fey and Betty White) and pop-history (think Sarah Vowell). So when I was asked to review Susan Rosenberg’s An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country, I knew I’d be wandering out of my comfort zone.

Jewschool readers may know Rosenberg from her work as director of communications at American Jewish World Service. Those with longer memories may recall the 1990 documentary Through the Wire, which detailed a fight that Rosenberg and her fellow prisoners at the Female High Security prison in Lexington, Kentucky fought and won against the government protesting the cruel and unusual treatment they received. Rosenberg’s book connects the dots, detailing her transformation from radical activist on the FBI’s most-wanted list to non-profit Jewish professional.

In some ways, this book is hard to read. First, we are asked to sympathize with Rosenberg, a leftist radical advocating violent resistance to the US Government. She came of age in the 1970, when, she tells us, so much of the world was engaged in violent upheaval, it felt like the only way to stop the government’s racist, colonialist, misogynistic and anti-gay policies was through violence. She got involved with the Black Liberation Army and landed on the most-wanted list by being implicated in the Brink’s Robbery of 1981. While I can understand the enormity of the abuses she and her compatriots struggled against, it was hard for me to feel much sympathy for someone advocating for violent means to a political end.

But that changed the moment of Rosenberg’s capture, when she received a 58-year sentence for stockpiling weapons — the longest sentence ever given for a possession offence. Labeled a terrorist in the courts, Rosenberg was plunged into a prison nightmare so hellish, it challenges everything we want to believe about our land of the free, home of the brave. This too, makes the book hard to read, because the ugly underbelly of our justice system and the struggles of the women inside it are overwhelming.

At times, particularly in the first half of the book, I found myself wondering what Rosenberg was leaving out. Surely she must have provoked her captors to elicit some of the cruelty she encountered. But there is no justification for the torture she documents — and make no mistake, it is torture. Even more horrifying is Rosenberg’s admission that her status as a political prisoner, and a member of the white middle class, brought privileges even within the prison system that she credits with her survival.

As the book progresses, and Rosenberg herself matures and begins to not only examine the system but also her own beliefs, it becomes easier to root for her. Woven throughout her experience is a growing connection to her Jewish heritage. Although not religious, she finds strength in connection to her people and her heritage, and ultimately finds allies including a Chabad rabbi who makes prison rounds and Rabbi Matalon of B’nai Jeshurun in New York City. She writes of sharing a Passover seder in prison, one of her first moments of contact with the “general population” after months of segregation, and of teaching about the Holocaust in prison education classes to young women of color who had never encountered the subject. Even as she chafes at the rise of a more fundamentalist streak in prisoners of other faiths, Rosenberg manages to find grounding in a secular attachment to Judaism.

This book isn’t for everyone. I can’t imagine a reader who isn’t at least somewhat predisposed to liberal politics having any sympathy Rosenberg, especially because such readers are unlikely to make it far enough into the book to confront the abuses of the prison system. Those who are triggered by depictions of abuse and misogyny are also likely to have a difficult time with the book.

But it’s worth pushing through the discomfort, for there is real wisdom in these pages. And the network of individuals who coalesce around Rosenberg, and her own eventual emergence into nonviolent social activism and human rights work add a glimmer of hope to the otherwise bleak picture presented.

Sad About Not Finding My Place

Warning: this post is sort of about me.

Coming of age in Israel, I encountered quite a few reminders of how strange politics can be. In the mid-80s, I went with members of the scouts (Tzofim) to protest Meir Kahane outside a venue in Petah Tikva. An elderly man came to argue with us. He didn’t yell and wore a forgiving smile. And a kippa. He said that Arabs are dogs, they only look human. Looking back, I can finally appreciate how bizarre he was. Only… he was one of the more normal Kahane supporters. And he didn’t try and assault anyone (that I saw). Not like the other guys spitting and throwing punches at us.

A few short years later, Kahane came to my little hometown. I only found out because the bus passed the town square he was using. A couple hundred folks had gathered – more than I’d ever seen assembled (outside of the soccer games). I got off the bus, put away my schoolbag, put on my keffiyah, and marched over there to protest. By myself. While I didn’t have a sign, I did have bright yellow stickers reading ‘say no to racism’. I held one up and stood not four meters away from him.

Again, looking back, I have to say that was stupid. Even if thugs hadn’t followed me in a car and given me a stomping outside my apartment building in front of all the neighbors.

Later still, when I was a soldier, I was forced to attend a lecture by the commander of our corps. Which is to say, he was above the head of our training base and in charge of all sorts of things related to our specialty, though he would never again lead troops into battle. In this lecture, he gave a military-political survey of the situation with Lebanon and the Occupied Territories. When he opened up the Q and A, I said: “Officer sir, since the conflict with the Palestinian people can only have a political solution, not a military one, aren’t you deceiving us by talking about ‘winning’?”

Boy was he mad. I never got punished though. Just ostracized.

These incidents surely paint a picture of the young man as a foolish dissident. But grant me that I had heart – lots of heart. Whatever my politics, however wrong headed my political analysis or ideology, it was sincere and flowed from a sense that my reference group, my peers in Israeli society, included both Palestinian and Jewish comrades. Whenever some right winger or patriot made a bloviating reference to ‘we’ meaning Israeli Jews, I always thought to myself – yes, ‘you’, because my ‘we’ is made up of Arabs AND Jews. Of all Israelis, exactly in the way that in America, ‘we’ includes whites AND blacks.

How odd then, to find myself dismissed as a ‘Zionist’ here and there in the Palestinian solidarity movement. Not like so many people actually know me or anything. But… there was that JATO woman at the UFPJ gathering, the trainer at the Student PSC conference, the outright verbal assualts on the activist listserve, and a picture comes to mind.

The Palestinian solidarity movement, especially as it has coalesced around the strategy of BDS, has two faces. One face is warm, friendly and intelligent. It says that BDS is a tactic not a preferred political solution. It doesn’t require B, D and S, and it can be directed at the occupation or at Israel in general – no coercion. It makes Gush Shalom feel right at home.

The other face is quite clear that the one state solution is preferred and the two state solution is dead – and good riddance. Anyone in support of an Israeli identity is a Zionist. Anyone seeking compromise with Zionists is a Zionist. Anti- or non-Zionists who refrain from calling for an end to Israel are ‘soft-Zionists.’ Israelis are ‘butchers’ who commit ‘massacres’, their peace camp isn’t really for peace except for a handful, the Palestinian Authority is not only corrupt, it is ‘only corrupt’, lacking in any other attributes or identity. It’s everything awful about the 90s campus culture wars/identity politics madness, with the eager pleasure in despising whatever isn’t politically correct.

Everything I used to hate and fear about the Israeli right wing: the extremist language, the eagerness to demonize the other, the closing of ranks around a narrow set of ideas, the very harshness of the voice and tone. It’s the flattening of every nuance into a slogan or holy truth. It’s the utter impossibility of dialogue with people who feel differently.

I used to be part of that first group. Some days, I still am. But… I keep running into that second group and it turns my stomach. Sometimes it’s the same person displaying one face or the other, depending the audience. It’s as if all the experiences I have growing up in Israel and ‘putting myself out there’ as a refusenik, participant in militant demonstrations, getting arrested, working inside of majority Palestinian political organizations – count for nothing. Because I’m insisting on the slogans of my youth (Arab/Jewish unity, two states for two peoples, down with the occupation, negotiations yes/war no) somehow I’m excluded from the cool kids lunch table at the Palestinian solidarity middle school. Back in Israel, that’s who I sat with. Now they sneer at me.

But I can’t sit with the Zionist kids anymore! Not after all that stuff I said about not being a Zionist…. sniff.

I guess I’ll go sit by myself. And I am NOT a Zionist! I’m just another Israeli yored  in New York waiting for the occupation to be over. So I can go home.

Christian Arab, Hadash leader and last member of first Knesset dies

I had never heard of Tawfik Toubi before today, but it seems he was a remarkable man:

A Christian Arab, Toubi was elected to Israel’s first parliament in 1949. He was a founder of Maki, the Israeli communist party and its offshoot Rakah. He was later the Secretary General of Hadash, the Jewish/Arab socialist party.

He was elected to Knesset 12 times and served as an MK continuously from 1949 to 1990.

He was born in Palestine in 1922 and died yesterday, age 89.

I don’t write about Israeli internal politics much, but reading Haaretz’s obit today, I was struck by the unbelievable determination an Arab must have–Christian or not–to remain in Israel’s often revolving-door parliament for 40 straight years.

From Haaretz:

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said on Saturday that Toubi was a “valued and impressive parliamentarian” that “left his mark on the Israeli parliament,” adding that he was a member of a confronting movement but “nevertheless insisted on respecting the rules of the game and knew how to apply them to himself in practice.”

Like his politics or not, the struggle for Jewish-Arab cooperation in Israel is one good soul lighter today.

Zichrono Livracha

Round up: J Street conference – first full day

I was fortunate enough to get interviews (on video!) with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative and Mona Eltahawy, both incredible thinkers and speakers.  The internet at my hostel (and at the conference) is incredibly slow, so I’ll post them once I’m back at home.

More generally, though, the conference this year has a different feel than the last.  The moments of complete inspiration are a bit fewer, but there’s much more of a sense of cohesiveness between sessions.  J Street has really matured as an organization, and I think a lot of the credit for this goes to the work of the locals, who provide a reference to the real conditions that activists face in attempting to advance the Israel-Palestine discussion on the ground.  This isn’t to enforce the view of all Washington politicians as part of a bubble, totally disconnected from the outside world, just to say that a connection to those who are actually the constituents is an invaluable asset for an organization that values its supporters’ views.

Now more than ever, I feel that J Street values mine.

Why I (still) support J Street

This weekend, several of us from Jewschool will join over 2,000 other people in DC for the 2011 J Street conference.  The reasons for my continued involvement with and support for J Street are complex.  On the one hand, I harbor deep moral reservations concerning the idea of religious or ethnic states.  Yet I find the idea of a binational state completely unworkable, in that I don’t think it would materially improve Palestinians’ lives (I tend to think it would worsen them).

J Street conference 2011So what’s a Jew to do?  I realized early on in my activism that J Street was a unique organization.  Unique not only in its policy positions, but in its belief of how those positions should be articulated, advanced, and discussed.  J Street’s dual function – advancing a liberal view of Israel that treats Palestinians as partners in nation-building rather than obstacles to Jewish self-determination while simultaneously establishing a robust space where Israel-Palestine activism can stem from real, respectful discussion – is often criticized as a weakness, but I view it as a strength.  Having spent the last few years getting more and more deeply involved with J Street, and, as a consequence, surrounding myself more and more with like-minded Jews, it’s easy for me to forget the guttural fear and hatred that J Street still inspires in some of its foes.  That fear, itself a symptom of close-mindedness, is what convinces me that J Street is doing something right.  It’s what keeps me passionate about my activism.  And it’s what keeps me excited about the vast amount of work that still remains to be done.

Working with J Street has caused me to question how the traditional pro-Israel narrative is presented, and to reflect on how this narrative permeates so many aspects of Jewish cultural and religious life.  This weekend, I’m looking forward to fresh inspiration from people who’ve dedicated their careers and lives to democratizing that narrative and opening it to criticism, revision, and ownership by those of us who for too long were defined out of its constituency.

If you’ll be at the conference, let us know!  We’d love to see you there.