I am loathe to make Passover references at this point in the year, but this one is most applicable. Recently, someone referenced Reb Mimi Feigelson on cleaning your house of hametz-in addition to the removal of physical materials, you should also be cleansing yourself of narratives that no longer apply to you. I spent this weekend at the J Street conference, hoping to find new narratives, people who could supply me with inspiration, and the ability to confront my anxieties about peace and what it would mean to make real concessions for it.
Sometimes I scare myself with my knee jerk reactions. Example: in a session on American Jewish and Muslim efforts to work together, Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council discussed the idea of having preconditions in relationship building. Convergence is the result of meaningful relationship building, and so we can’t have preconditions if we want people to sit together sincerely and purposefully with this goal in mind.
Chanel’s brain: But I need there to be the precondition that we all renounce violence so that I feel safe sitting with you.
Chanel’s other brain: Yeah, well, Muslim and Arab folks probably need you to check your assumption that they all support terrorism and re-evaluate who has power in this situation,so, there you go. How does it feel to need?
I am worried about J Street and the potential for leadership saturation. As in, we’re so happy to see it that we expect it to fix everything, the way we expect Obama to reverse 8 years of stupidity and trauma within the first 20 minutes of being President. And at the same time, what I most wanted in the moments following my two brain dialogue was someone to raise the question of how, in order to do this work, we have to confront the anti Arab and Muslim rhetoric, that, consciously or not, we all believe. (I know, I could have asked the question myself.) We’re not exempt because we’re peace activists, in the same way that progressive, feminist identified men aren’t incapable of sexist behavior. In spite of our efforts to resist it, it’s made it in, and triggered by feelings of vulnerability (real or perceived).
On a panel regarding the American role in the Middle East, J Street cofounder and Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation Daniel Levy spoke of the need to create confidence “between the occupier and occupied 18 years after Oslo,” and “the need for a new language. You can’t treat the Arab population as a demographic threat and also advocate for equality within Israel.” It’s not okay to express opinions from the press box (clapping, booing), but my colleague and I almost passed out with surprise and joy. Hypocrisy named, exposed, opened. I found myself smarting with how hard Levy’s words struck me. There are so many layers of work to do, so much facing of ourselves and what we’re willing to put on the line in the name of peace, so easy is it to get lost in the abyss of process and policy and theory and fear.
Remember the ‘Macaca’ incident that ended the Senatorial campaign and presidential aspirations of George Allen? You may recall that in the ensuing fallout he denied his Sephardic Jewish heritage, inherited from his Tunisian mother Etty Allan (nee Lumbroso).
So far, however, Bibi has condemned the psak din, but has not done anything to fire the rabbis who issued it. So too, the ruling has not been countered by the chief rabbis, or by any of the rabbis who guide Netanyahu’s coalition partners. In other words, while Netanyahu may profess outrage, this does seem to be the normative halachic ruling for the State of Israel.
Would 50 Israeli civil servants be so stupid as to piss off all 6 billion goyim on the planet, including over a billion Christians? You betcha!
After all, the Israeli Orthodox establishment has gone to great lengths to alienate 5 million non-Orthodox American Jews. They’ve declared the child of one of our top theologians to not be Jewish; they’ve arrested our religious leaders for the crime of carrying a Torah in public; and they’ve decreed that Sabbath observance is the only defense against forest fires.
They’ve kicked us in the face, and the leaders of American Jewry — the Jewish Federations and the Jewish organizations — did nothing but applaud and defend the government that empowered them. There was no price to pay.
Back in 1988, the Jewish establishment had balls (I’m looking at you, Shoshana Cardin). Yitzhak Shamir was on the verge of forming a coalition with the haredim by giving in to Habad-fomented demands to ammend Who Is a Jew. A high powered delegation of American Jewish machers flew to Jerusalem… and the result was Israel’s first national unity government.
But that was then. Now, not so much noise from American Jewry. No real push-back as the Israeli Foreign Minister announced, at the UN, his plan to remove the citizenship of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. No, nothing but applause. This disastrous coalition of Lieberman and Ovadia, of racist nationalists and racist fundamentalists, doesn’t offend the American Jewish establishment.
The question is, will American Christians be so forgiving?
The attack ad practically writes itself:
“”My opponent voted to give billions of dollars in foreign aid to a country where government supported clergymen preach hatred toward Christians….”
If AIPAC leaders care about Israel (rather than the Republican party), they might want to look up from their porn and give Bibi a call. Because this time, Bibi’s buddies are playing with fire.
Image taken of Judith Frieze after her arrest in Jackson, Mississippi on June 21, 1961. Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Living the Legacygrew out of a need for requests from teachers of social justice education for materials. In their search, educators and researchers at the Jewish Women’s Archive discovered that what was missing from what already existed: the story of Jews in social justice movements.
JWA tackled the topic of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement as its starting point, and, including traditional Jewish texts, paid particular attention to “complicating the narrative,” said Judith Rosenbaum, Director of Public History at the Jewish Women’s Archive. The nuanced educational tool would talk about not only the activism of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement, but acknowledge the fissures, the fallouts, and what the impact of it all has been on the social justice movements of today.
Living the Legacy is designed for use in grades 8-12. Last year, 7 teachers used in the classroom, and during JWA’s Institute for Educators this past July, 26 teachers were trained to use it.
Through primary sources, the curriculum directly confronts questions of personal identity in relationship to history and contemporary issues: who are you, what does that have with what you do in the world, and where and how does your Judaism come into play? When does it feel scary to be Jewish, when is it safer to hide, and when do you put yourself on the line for the cause of justice?
A 1956 letter from the Greenville Hebrew Union Congregation to Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the Reform movement), regarding their disapproval of the statement that desegregation is a Jewish issues and that Jews should act on behalf of it, shows that Southern Jews saw themselves in a precarious position. “We know full well that any public utterance showing that Jews as a whole favor desegregation will have the direct effect of hurting the Jews’ position in the South…Southern Jews have established a very fine relationship with the white non Jews of the South. We believe that this harmonious relationshjp between the Jews and non Jews in the South is due in a large respect to the personal conduct, cultural progress and adherence to the customs that make for harmony between the Jews and non Jews.” The letter goes on to implore Eisendrath not to “embarrass and injure the Jews of this community and other Southern communities who feel as we do.”
In addition to highlighting the complicated relationships of Jews to race and assimilation, Livingthe Legacy also explores the impact of the Jewish relationship to the Civil Rights movement in the context of a shared history of resistance. Rosenbaum’s favorite letter is to a young woman known as “Chicky,” who had gone to the South as part of Freedom Summer, from her father, a refugee from Europe. While he worries about her safety, she “should not construct your parents’ concern about your safety as a disapproval of your present activities.”
The curriculum also tackles questions of which modes of activism are recorded in our collective memory, as well as the how the perceived solidarity of Blacks and Jews fell apart and the impact of movements such Black Power on Jewish culture and history. The establishment of Black and African American studies departments, for example, prompted an interest in reclamation of Jewish culture and the emergence of Jewish studies departments, among other things. “Other minority groups have these conversations too,” Rosenbaum pointed out. “We wanted to show that.”
Together with Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Rosenbaum collected Jewish texts to dovetail with each section, aimed at creating the opportunity to think Jewishly and provocatively about the material, particularly in the context of contemporary issues. The curriculum provokes questions of Jewish responsibility, giving students the opportunity to consider issues such as segregation in their home communities, and the question of whether equal marriage is a civil rights question.
Living the Legacy is full of challenging and vulnerable pieces which make the process of unpacking the Jewish past in the Civil Rights movement a fascinating project. It’s well worth taking a spin through the primary sources on the website, even if you don’t consider yourself to be an educator. “It’s a newer, more inclusive way of looking at history,” said Rosenbaum. “People are excited.”
My pregnant wife sitting at home, I stood in the grocery store aisle with two bottles of grape juice in my hand–in the one hand I had the bottle of Kedem grape juice (I usually buy the organic, but they were all out) and in the other hand, a bottle of organic Santa Cruz 100% Concord Grape juice. I didn’t know what to do. My wife and I are dedicated to maintaining an organic diet. Some consumers choose organic products only when available; we choose to ONLY purchase organic products, if there’s not an organic option, we don’t get it. But here it was, Friday afternoon, too late to run around to more stores to look for organic juice that had a hekhsher. What to do… Can I, a soon to be rabbi ordained by the Conservative Movement, say kiddush on juice without a hekhsher? It’s not something I had ever done before… would I be willing to start? I was.
Unlike some, I have read and learned quite a bit about stam yeinam. Literally meaning ‘their wine,’ it refers to the practice of maintaining that when it comes to grape products, only Jewish hands may be a part of the production from start to finish. Dating back to Talmudic times, this practice was solidified, codified and reinforced by the work of the Tosafot (Franco-German medieval Talmudic commentators specifically interested in halakhic legal theory). In theory, the practice has two reasons, as far as my research has shown me. 1) There was the fear that wine purchased for kiddush could have been used or dedicated for avodah zarah (idol worship), and 2) that in certain areas blood was used as a purifier (the salts would act to separate out impurities in the wine). So today, in 2010, when there is no more avodah zarah as it was meant by the Talmud and there is hardly a winery in the world that would use blood as a purifier, what do we do with this tradition? (Hebrew readers who are interested in this topic should DEFINITELY check out Hayim Soloveitchik’s book on the topic titled “יינם”) More »
Your life is a mess. You’re tired of the routine, you’re constantly craving more of what you’ve already attained, and you find true satisfaction in nothing and in no one. Well here’s the quick fix: 1. Plan an expensive get-away. 2. No, actually, scratch that—plan three expensive get-aways. 3. But it’s not just the location that’s getting to you. You’re also sick of your significant other. So dump the schlub, give no real reason for your decision to break-up, and then… 4. Swear with almost-compelling adamancy that you’re not looking to be in a relationship— 5. then sleep with a string of people who look nearly indistinguishable from your former sig-o. The key here is that they all must be young, virile, and totally whipped. 6. All the while, make sure not to deny yourself any culinary pleasure. 7. Gleefully declare your independence from weight concerns, as you claim to gourmandize your way around the world, eat more—while still fitting magically into your ever-expanding wardrobe of size 2 sartorial splendor. 8. Seek counsel from at least two oppressed Third World women who are visibly ‘ethnically Other.’ 9. But in the end, make sure that it is you who gives them advice. After all, what are you if not the paragon of discipline, self-control, and loving-kindness? 10. Find yourself…in the arms of a ruggedly handsome Brazilian.
Summarized (in case we’ve lost you already): Eat without gaining weight, pray without believing, and love without…well, loving. In case you have not sacrificed 133 minutes of your life watching the film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling Eat Pray Love (which I have not read), the 10 rules outlined above will help you attain enlightenment, according to the film’s impeccable logic. Writing a review of this film, pointing to its almost laughably offensive hypocrisy and disturbingly classist, racist, and sexist messages, is like shooting fish in a barrel, and many have beat me to this task already. Instead, I want to reflect on the larger trends that this film and the book upon which it is based represent and how we can use Judaism to deal with some of these cosmic issues that the EPL cult supposedly tackles and resolves.
In this month of Elul, leading up the earlier-than-usual battery of Jewish holidays this year, we are charged with the task of intensive cheshbon nefesh, a kind of introspective reflection on our actions over the past year. In the current climate of crassly classist and gender-coded self-help quick-fixes, traditional Judaism offers us a much-needed antidote to the kind of ‘me first’ mentality of NSA new-agey spirituality that this film so strikingly emblematizes. EPL has to be one of the least Jewish films out there: despite the protagonist Liz’s insensitive and exploitative treatment of most of the other characters in the film, never once does our well-fed world-traveler express any genuine remorse for her cavalier treatment and attitude towards others. Perhaps most notable in Liz’s string of careless actions towards others is her bizarrely under-explained, sudden, seemingly arbitrary abandonment of her spouse at the very outset of the film. While classically “Jewish guilt” can be stretched to unhealthy limits, at the very least it affirms that which is most essentially human about us—our ability to feel, our ability to be accountable to others.
In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, chapter 41, we are told that we should regard even the slightest wrong we commit against another with utmost seriousness; whereas we should not dwell on the good deeds we have performed for others. This is a near 180 reversal of the EPL approach which dangerously conflates boundless personal enlightenment with boundless self-entitlement. In the EPL film, protagonist Liz Gilbert’s single outward act of kindness to others –the scene in which she ‘selflessly’ emails her friends, appealing to them for donations to help a natural healer and her daughter build a house in Bali—is piously prefaced by Gilbert’s self-righteous declaration that this request comes in lieu of her annual birthday celebration. The dramatic montage that follows of her friends receiving the email appeal signals to us that this Liz’s ultimate moment of enlightenment; this is her defining moment of ‘giving,’ Beyond the obviously paternalistic quality of the rich-white-woman-saves-the-struggling-natives, this scene smacks of the kind of crass, self-congratulatory armchair philanthropy that lulls people into self-righteous complacency: ‘I’ve written the check; I am now absolved of further responsibility towards my fellow humans.’
Real loving-kindness involves a long-term investment in the sanctity of the Other. And no, not just that supposedly ‘significant Other’—rather, the acknowledgement of all other people as significant, and the realization that we must invest in them not only materially, but also personally. The way to grow with others is to take responsibility by being present in their lives. What Liz lacks is a sense of rootedness, the sense of unity upon which community is based. All of Gilbert’s globetrotting points to an inability and lack of desire to commit to other human beings and forge authentic relationships.
Again, it is entirely unclear what exactly propels Liz to leave her husband at the outset of the film—all we’re told is that ‘things can’t continue this way,’ although we see nothing particularly alarming onscreen. In fact, what we see is all fairly typical and benign; Liz and her adoring husband are engaging in light banter. All we know is that Liz cannot handle her life as it is any longer. What present-day in-vogue spirituality misses is the point that one can actually discover boundless meaning in the routine of real, mundane life. Patience and forbearance might be considered passé, but it’s the real deal.
Case in point: even the National Geographic-quality cinematography, with its wide lens doting lovingly on EPL’s glamorously sun-soaked characters and sweeping, exotic landscapes and, bursting with exuberantly lush colour, still fails to make us love the film or the figures portrayed therein. In this film, everything—and everyone—is relegated to the status of ambient scenery…a Potemkin village populated by poorly developed stereotypes. Despite a good chunk of the film taking place in India and Indonesia, we are basically spared any unpleasant and ‘unpalatable’ scenes of actual poverty and suffering.
It’s 133 minutes of tantalizing culinary, spiritual, and pseudo-sexual foreplay. Nothing ever really materializes, except for the sheer ubiquity of the material forces driving the ‘action’ (if you can even call it that). Set against only the most breathtaking of landscapes, we watch Robert’s character shamelessly indulging in an endless parade of epicurean delights, nearly interchangeable, conventionally attractive young men, and more generally, snorting up the cocaine of petty affirmation through the regurgitation of self-help platitudes. EPL, with its ‘money and men can cure all’ approach is panglossian at best, and is inhumanely narcissistic at worst. In this past week’s Parasha, Parashat Ki Tetse, we read towards the beginning of the portion of the sin of gluttony (Deut. 21:20-21); a gluttonous son technically qualifies for death by stoning. Indeed, death by stoning would have made the film considerably more interesting.
One of the more amusing points of the film, which is replete with instances of consoling consumption and too many delightful moments of conspicuous product-placement to mention, is when Liz seeks “whatever” (let’s just call it that, since her Self seems like a lost cause) at an Ashram, and is told she can purchase a “silence” tag at the bookstore. Even the choice to remain silent must be purchased! Indeed, instead of appealing the Master of the Universe, we are advised to whip out our MasterCard.
Interestingly, God is never really mentioned in the film. Only at one point, when Liz first decides to “pray,” does she sort of address ‘God,’ but, like everything else in the film, “God” here functions ornamentally, much in the same way as all of her beaus blend into the landscape as figures she uses instrumentally, solely for the purpose of her immediate personal edification and comfort. Clearly, Liz’s ‘prayer’ is more a signifying act than a genuine appeal or promise for anything. Indeed, that very brief ‘prayer’ scene typifies today’s NSA spirituality.
According to an April 2010 article in USA Today, a whopping 72% of the members of generation Y in the U.S. self-identify as “more spiritual than religious”: a diffuse, general sense of “spirituality” seems to prevail among the younger generation. Exactly what such figures mean is an interesting question. Perhaps young people, jaded by the perceived hypocrisy of societal institutions involved in questionable military adventures abroad and failed economic and social policies at home, wish to avoid the stuffiness of institutional structure as they seek personal meaning. This avoidance of established institutions, while perhaps explainable, is, nevertheless, regrettable. While more structured and specifically religious forms of meaning-making can be stifling, this is not the time to abandon all forms of committed/practice-oriented devotion. If anything, the young have the potential to infuse these older traditions with a new, updated kind of meaning and help build a form of worship and practice that is better attuned to the needs and desires of today’s meaning seeker. But practice-based, community-oriented religion has received an unnecessarily bad rap these days.
Don’t get me wrong—spirituality is a beautiful thing in its genuine form. But every intention needs a structure—a calendar and a location—and most importantly, a community. As social animals, even the seemingly solitary act of self-improvement relies heavily on our interaction with others. Admittedly, at a certain point, it is difficult to draw a line separating ‘religion’ and spirituality.’ Ideally the two converge to create the ultimate meaningful devotional experience. In a way, the two share many of the same potential dangers: exploitative leadership, false promises, extortion of money, and so on. But in today’s cult of “take time for You,” these dangers seem to proliferate with the false comfort of ‘all you can eat’ spirituality that cuts you off from any real sense of empathy, participation and activism.
Is Javier Bardem holding a banana? Really??
Getting back to the film for a moment though: even in her supposedly most vulnerable moments in the film, there is something decidedly smug about Liz’s spiritual odyssey, which culminates in a neatly-resolved scene where she pursues a relationship with yet another attractive man. Having found ‘love’ (or at least lust), Liz’s journey comes to a eminently photogenic close. As we move through the month of Elul, it is critical for us to keep in mind that true seeking never finishes in a Hollywood ending, but rather, is more challenging and also more beautiful and infinitely more subtle.
As we reflect on the past year and plan how we can create more genuine religious (or spiritual, if you like) experiences in the year to come, remember the words of André Gide who said, “”Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”
I can only imagine the pitch meeting: “What if the Swedish Chef was a Zionist?” “But the Swedish Chef is kind of a psycho, totally unaware of the havoc he’s wreaking on everyone around him while he’s trying to make his meal.” “Exactly! It’s perfect!”
I’ll admit, after watching the first one I stumbled across (“Jew Bread“), I turned to my office-mate and asked if she tell whether this was anti-Semitic or Zionist. After watching a few more, I think the answer is clearly “both.”
It’s like a train wreck… Each clip I watch repulses me in new and different ways, but I can’t look away…
So the the question is… who’s funding/making/distributing these?
JTA reports that thousands of Hareidim went out to protest today, claiming that racism is – apparently- ordained by God, that -as usual- those nasty Supreme Court people are godless atheists in their insistence that they integrate a school, and that a vote for integration is a vote for “flotilla terrorists.”
Just another day in the life:
You have to give it to them, they certainly stand for Torah and are willing to fight for what they believe in, even if it has nothing to do with anything actually in Torah whatsoever, or if in fact, it opposes Torah altogether. No, no, what they say is Torah, it is Torah.
Why are they protesting? Well, hard to say since the Ashkenazi mothers fail to show for jail term, although 35 Ashkenazi fathers show up for their two week sentence. But as we know, they have the god-given, nay, God-demanded right to segregate their daughters from those nasty Sephardi girls, after all, as one mother pointed out, “The court and media don’t understand that this is another world,” a mother who is keeping her daughter out of school said. “The Hasidic program was created because of a different religious outlook. Only pure children attend it,” and we mustn’t forget that, “No court ruling or Education Ministry decision can bring the two groups together,” an Immanuel resident said Wednesday, “It’s like putting Americans and Africans together. They can’t study together with such huge mental differences,” he said.
Everyone and your fossilizing bubbe could tell you that Drake, the raucously popular pop-rapper, is “half-Jewish.” Born to a African-American father and Jewish mother in 1986, Drake grew up in a wealthy Jewish neighborhood in Toronto, attended a Jewish Day School and celebrated his Bar Mitzve. Now he’s at the pinnacle of hip-hop stardom, and his lyrical glosses on Jewishness are blaring. Take for example:
By the way I’m Jewish and turnin 22
Gets depressing wen u see yo favorite rappers goin thru it
Tryna re-invent themselves showin no improvement
Gettin crushed by this lite skin youngen on sum new shit
40 just record it and we’ll drop this here
I mean, he did grow up in the predominantly wealthy Jewish Forest Hill neighborhood in Toronto, and now he is umbilically linked with Lil-Wayne, who is currently serving a sentence at Rikers Island for weapons possession. That would confuse me dearly, too.
…And so you might expect a load of hip-hop wise-men analyzing Drake’s pilgrimage from a privileged, multi-racial Jewish child in Canada to a hip-hop entertainer reaping the fruits of America’s urban, black pop-star landscape.
But, surprisingly, Drake himself seems to be the only one not tip-toeing around the issue. In an interview with Heeb, Drake reflects on growing up in the Canadian Jewish mix:
I went to a Jewish school, where nobody understood what it was like to be black and Jewish,” he says. “When kids are young it’s hard for them to understand the make-up of religion and race.” He recalls being called a schvartze, repeatedly. “But the same kids that made fun of me are super proud [of me] now. And they act as if nothing happened.” He wears a diamond-studded Chai (prominently displayed on his Vibe cover) and plans, at some point after the release and promotion of his debut, to travel to Israel. He says his mother has expressed hope he’ll marry “a nice Jewish girl.” As far as public acceptance goes today, by all accounts, religion has been a complete non-issue.
Yet, Thomas Chatterton Williams at The Root dismisses the whole issue:
In a recent profile in Heeb magazine — Drake is Jewish on his mother’s side — Drake himself identifies astutely, if unwittingly, one of the main weaknesses of the album: ” ‘The internet has f**ked the game up so bad, that if I don’t [sell a lot of records], I’m curious to sit back and watch whoever does … I honestly can say, the steps we’ve taken, the way that how passionate we are about this … ‘ He trails off..
So I’ll make a claim The Root dismisses: Drake’s Jewishness is central to understanding his rise, his fame, his appeal and his success. Is he the Moses Mendelssohn of Hip-Hop? Is he translating contemporary Jewishness into a marketable hip-hop vernacular and suggesting a conversation about race and Jewish culture? Or does he just want to celebrate human brotherhood? Will his children convert to Christianity?
The recently posted NYTimes Article about East Haven, CT Police smacks some childhood memories back into my head.
I grew up in Connecticut, in a part of Connecticut that was heavily working class with some ironic mixture of aristocracy and decaying housing projects. It was also not a particularly Jewish place, but being in the tri-state area, it possessed a medium sized Jewish community. I was raised in a town with a small Jewish population, and went to shul in the larger, exceptionally poor city to the immediate southeast. When I read this article about allegations against the East Haven Police Department, I remember and identify with the diseased kind of racist-garbage corruption among the police and town government, which stands accused of police bias, brutality and violence against its burgeoning Hispanic population. As I think more and more, I see my own upbringing in this news and remember odd moments in which racial prejudice, growing ethnic diversity, and the heavy presence of white ethnics, like the Irish, Italians and Greeks, always smashed into my Jewishness. I always felt that my Jewish self, how I understood its history and all that shiz, was really fired in a kiln of bigotry and national resentment. Mix recent, Latino immigration with the generations of working-class blacks and white ethnics that had been working CT land for generations, and you get people sweating. How did the Jews fit into the history of this working-class New England town? Did Jewish tradition, or even ritual life, have express anything about the the material conditions of my upbringing? I just think today of all the Jewish kids who are experiencing something like East Haven up close, and to hear their voices. We are still dwelling most deeply in Bovel.
To read about recent accusations of Police Bias in East Haven, CT, read the NYTimes article here.
Shalom from Israel! I’m spending the week in Haifa through the generosity of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, working on a pilot project for the Jewish Identity and Education subcommittee of the Boston-Haifa Steering Committee (aka שותפות חיפה-בוסטון). Although I’ve been here since Tuesday working with a team from my school and a team from our sister school, tonight was the official kick-off to the Steering Committee meeting.
As far as kick-offs to Federation sponsored meetings go, it was pretty kick-ass. First off, one of two leadership awards was presented to Dr. Eshetu Kebede, the Haifa-side co-chair of Shiluvim (“Integration”), a program to empower and integrate Ethiopian residents of Haifa into mainstream Israeli society. Dr. Kebede took the opportunity to highlight the educational work Shiluvim has done, busing Ethiopian children into schools across the city, noting how far we’ve come in the areas of student commitment and parental support. But then he acknowledged how far we still have to travel in the third pillar of student success — relationship with teachers. And he specifically called out the racism still rampant in some Israeli classrooms, where some teachers tell their Ethiopian students they aren’t Jews, aren’t Israelis, and aren’t worthy or capable of an education.
You can imagine the shitstorm unleashed behind the scenes as the professionals involved with the project leap into damage-control mode. Sitting at a table full of Israeli educators, I could feel the tension in the room, and yet despite the discomfort, it was clear that many recognized the truth in his words. I know that there are many excellent teachers in the Haifa schools who work hard as partners in their Ethiopian students’ (and all students’) success — some of them were at my table. But that doesn’t discount the work left to be done. I hope Dr. Kebede’s call to arms will be taken seriously, galvanizing the community to continue the important work this program has begun.
After some more speeches (and another leadership award presented to Bostonian Debbie Kurinsky), the evening took a decidedly less serious turn with the introduction of Kolot Min HaShamayim (“Voices from Heaven”), an Orthodox Boys’ Choir, to be the evening’s entertainment.
Maybe it’s jet lag, maybe I needed something to relieve the tension left from Dr. Kebede’s speech, or maybe my inner USY dork simply came alive, but I was totally sold on them. Their style is best described as “Glee set in a yeshiva.” Their repertoire ranged from traditional and liturgical settings to a Caribbean take on Adon Olam and a mash-up of Kabbalat Shabbat and O Sole Mio. I didn’t have my Flip camera handy, but thankfully my Blackberry takes video. It’s not the best footage I’ve ever recorded, but I do hope you enjoy it. (And somebody, please get these guys a record deal!)
Haaretz correspondent Akiva Eldar calls out American Jewish foundations which support terrorists who call for the killing of Palestinian babies.
How can President Barack Obama object to furthering education in a settlement like Yitzhar, located in the heart of the West Bank? After all, his own tax revenues contribute to the flourishing of the Od Yosef Chai Shechem yeshiva, the settlement’s crowning glory.
This is the same yeshiva whose rabbi said it is permissible to kill gentile babies because of “the future danger that will arise if they are allowed to grow into evil people like their parents.” In his latest book, the head of the yeshiva, Yitzhak Shapira, who bears the honorable title of rabbi, even permits killing anyone “who, through his remarks and so forth, weakens our kingdom” (Obama, beware!).
On November 17, this column reported that the Education Ministry’s division for Torah institutions transferred more than NIS 1 million to this yeshiva in 2006 and 2007. The Welfare Ministry made do with a mere NIS 150,000.
A report on donations submitted by the yeshiva to the registrar of nonprofit organizations revealed that the American public also participates in financing the message coming out of Yitzhar. It states that in 2007 and 2008, the yeshiva received NIS 102,547 from an American foundation known as the Central Fund of Israel.
Its about frickin’ time somebody did something. Oh I know—I’m sure NGO Monitor is on it.
Full story here.
(h/t to Shaul)
When I heard the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts was hosting an event featuring Rabbi Capers Funnye, I wondered how they would frame the program. Would the Council see this as an opportunity to foster discussion, encourage member synagogues to engage with diversity in the Jewish community? I hoped that the event would be a starting point, a chance to reflect on how we can better include Jews of all colours in our community, then start discussing what actions to take. At worst, I feared this evening would be purely congratulatory, a pat on the back that, just by inviting Rabbi Funnye to talk, our synagogues are obviously inclusive and welcoming!
Luckily, the introductory remarks by members of the Synagogue Council executive set the right tone: Representing 120 synagogues across Massachusetts, the Council encourages learning and dialogue, embraces diversity, and promotes pluralism. Officially, their website notes that they “nurture a respect for diversity within our Jewish community.”
And then we launched into the main event. Rabbi Funnye was there to talk about his journey to, with, Judaism. In telling it, he suggested that his story could actually be that of many African-American Jewish converts. And that story started with a cruise. A “free cruise,” organized by a “travel agent,” with too many people in too small a space (and the food wasn’t good either). At the conclusion of the trip, they were given new names, and introduced to a new G-d who, coincidentally, looked a lot like their new captors. Within the span of three minutes, Funnye wove his personal journey in with over 100 years of African-American history. Ending in the 1960’s, Funnye talked about how reading up on civil rights led to re-reading the bible with an understanding that these stories weren’t just happening to an abstract people, but was the history of a people with whom he felt a connection, an understanding.
Throughout, his talk was punctuated with humour. At first, these jokes were met with silence. Slowly, the audience started chuckling quietly. It was as if the audience, mostly white folks in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, were afraid to laugh. But Funnye was funny. And, slowly, the audience realised that they could relax and enjoy his message while also learning from it.
Funnye had the great ability to weave a story that included not only a version of his own personal journey, but also that of Jews in Africa today. Through his work with Be’chol Lashon, he’s travelled to many countries in Africa to work with the local Jewish populations. Explaining the differences between American and African Jews, he told a story of a woman who was her village’s mohel (the person who performs the bris milah – circumcision). This particular Nigerian community was described as being somewhere within the realm of Orthodoxy by American standards, and yet a woman was the mohel. When Funnye asked her about that, she explained that as a woman she couldn’t read the Torah, she couldn’t sit with the men in synagogue, she was not required to perform as many commandments as the men, but it said in the Torah that she was to circumcise the men. Her proof? Tziporah, Moses’ wife, a Cushite woman, was in charge of circumcising their youngest son.
So what was the point of these stories? Throughout the talk, Funnye repeated his message of the need for inclusion, acceptance, and a better understanding of how a diverse Jewish population can learn from each other. He gave examples of how African-American Jews can help build bridges between synagogues and churches and mosques. He spoke to the importance of welcoming all Jewish souls and hearts to Judaism, and the reasons why we need to have more welcoming, while still halakhic, conversion processes. And he spoke to the Jewish establishment needing to see and serve the full range of colours that Jews come in. (As an example of the shortcomings of Jewish institutions, Funnye talked about his small rabbinical school in Queens, NY that serves the African-American Jewish community. It was started when an African-American Jew, who had two degrees from Yeshiva University, was denied entry to their rabbinical school because of his skin colour).
I have no doubt that the audience was moved by his talk. I just hope that conversations continue, individual members of the Jewish community, congregations, and the Council alike all put plans in place for ensuring that our community is actually as welcoming as the audience was last night.
I should apologize for the crap quality of the video. Arriving 15 minutes early, I found a seat at the back and on the far left side of the sanctuary. And using this Flip camcorder for the first time, I didn’t know how poor the sound quality would be. (Crank up your volume.) That said, what a fun gadget! Once I rig up a tripod for it, it’ll be much more useful.
This is the fourth post in a series on Social Justice Showtunes. The series starts here with a post about the 1937 Broadway musical Pins and Needles and continues here with a post about the 1932 song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and here with a post about South Pacific’s “Carefully Taught.”
Many of the best musicals had their origins in earlier theatrical works, from Oklahoma! (based on Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs) to The Fantasticks (based on Edmund Rostand’s Les Romantiques) to West Side Story (based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). Today’s entry comes from the musical version of Clifford Odets’ 1937 play Golden Boy. The original told the story of an Italian-American kid in the Depression who dreams of a career as a concert violinist, seeing a career in boxing as his only way out of the lower class.
For the musical version, Odets was recruited to adapt his own play on the strength of the new lead – multimedia sensation Sammy Davis, Jr. In the musical update, the hero’s struggle was given an added dimension in the form of an interracial love affair — still illegal in many states, and mirroring Davis’s own real-life marriage to May Britt. Odets was at a low point in his career, suffering from the blacklist and nearly broke, so despite his ambivalence towards musical theater, he was happy to be working and thrilled to have Sammy Davis, Jr. signed on.
The show was fully integrated, and it featured a kiss between the lovers, which caused quite a stir during the show’s tryouts. Davis and the rest of the company reported receiving death threats for the involvement in the show, but it was ultimately successful.
This song comes about halfway through the second act, when (SPOILER ALERT!) the lovers have broken up. Soon after the show’s opening, Martin Luther King, Jr. attended the show and admired its message, citing this song as his favorite.
In his recent autobiography, Put on a Happy Face, Strouse recalled the difficulties involved in putting on this production and working with a star of Davis’s caliber. For instance, Davis’s contract gave him approval over every single song in the score, quite an unusual agreement for a Broadway production. Since Davis was performing a blockbuster club act in Vegas at the time, this meant lots of flying back and forth between New York and Vegas for the songwriters who had to audition new songs for the star at three in the morning following his “midnight matinees.”
Sammy’s only previous Broadway outing had been Mr. Wonderful, which was essentially Sammy’s club act placed within the slightest of stories. So being part of a collaborative process for the good of the dramatic work as a whole must have been new to him. Strouse wrote:
Lee and I didn’t write the pop-style, Sammy Cahn-Jimmy Van Heusen songs that Sammy could metamorphose into jazz-sounding phrases, and Sammy wouldn’t/couldn’t/didn’t want to sing our versions of “black.”
Strouse explains at great length in his book that much of the tension between himself and Davis really revolved around Davis’ desire to swing the score in opposition to the composer’s desire to hear the score sung as written. Because jazz singing was still so closely associated with being black, Strouse fretted that his musical proclivities were being misinterpreted. He wrote:
Lee and I had wanted to write a musical true to the pain, hopes, and culture of African Americans. So, naturally, everyone involved in the writing was white and Jewish–except for Sammy, who was only Jewish… Race relations played out behind the scenes as well as on the stage. For example, if I was drinking a Coke, Sammy liked to take a sip from the same glass. He confided in me that it was really a test to see whether I liked black people. He never told me whether I passed.
Strouse and Davis eventually bonded when they traveled to Selma together for the famous march. But knowing now the way that Strouse perceived what was going on behind the scenes, it’s hard to imagine the moment when he and Lee Adams first presented this song to Davis, asking him to sing lines like “I ain’t your slave no more.”
If you’re interested in learning about a Jewish organization working on fostering a Jewish community that brings together all Jews, whether they look like Charles Strouse or Sammy Davis, Jr., check out Be’chol Lashon. As they put it in their vision statement,
Imagine a new global Judaism that transcends differences in geography, ethnicity, class, race, ritual practice, and beliefs. Discussions about “who-is-a-real-Jew” will be replaced with celebration of the rich, multi-dimensional character of the Jewish people.
This is the third post in a series on Social Justice Showtunes. The series starts here with a post about the 1937 Broadway musical Pins and Needles and continues here with a post about the 1932 song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
Today’s entry to the series is probably the most well-known of the songs we’ll be examining. “Carefully Taught” was introduced in 1949, when South Pacific premiered on Broadway. Based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s show addressed racial intolerance head-on, which went on to win its own Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950.
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(Performed by William Tabbert, from the Original Cast Recording.)
As a stand-alone number, the song is a strong message against racism in general, and against unquestioningly accepting the values of one’s parents more specifically. Although there wasn’t a great deal of public backlash against the song, Michener recalled that the authors had faced some pressure to drop this song from the show, but, in Michener’s words, “This number represented why they had wanted to do the play and even if it meant failure of the production it was going to stay in… Courage and determination such as this counts for something in art.”
The show holds a special place in the history of the American musical, and a special fascination for fans of the form. The show represented a big step forward in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s creation of the musical-drama (as opposed to musical comedy), and Josh Logan’s direction was produced one of the first stage plays to adopt cinematic scene transitions. The show has been filmed twice (once for cinemas, once for television), and an all-star concert was also captured for PBS. The show has become a permanent feature of the high school and community theater circuits, and in the 1999-2000 season (the 50th anniversary of the show’s premiere), I must have seen a half-dozen productions around Los Angeles.
Today, South Pacific is once again running on Broadway, in a smash-hit revival at Lincoln Center. This summer, I saw the show live again for the first time in about ten years. In context, the song is sung by a young lieutenant who has fallen in love with a native Polynesian girl. He’s singing to a older French planter whose love affair with a young nurse has fallen apart over the nurse’s disgust at discovering her planter has previously been married to a Polynesian woman.
I attended the show with a dear friend of mine, who happens to be Jewish and biracial, and her parents. Her parents were swept away by the show, but my friend was left with a bad taste in her mouth. You see, for all Lt. Cable’s protestations of his love for Liat, the Polynesian girl, all we’ve seen of their relationship has been strictly physical. They don’t even speak a common language. My friend, unable (or unwilling) to be swept up in the romantic idea of the white air force office rescuing the native girl from her arranged marriage to a wealthy, elderly planter, could only see a naive young girl being rescued from one kind of concubinage only to enter a different kind of love-slavery. (It doesn’t help that both relationships — the one with Cable and the one with the planter — are orchestrated by Liat’s wily mother, Bloody Mary.)
Honestly, I was sort of split on the issue – I hadn’t considered it in that light before. I was also very sleepy the night we saw the show, so I jumped at the chance to catch a matinée later in the summer, this time with my parents and brother. Again, I found the show to be a little long for my taste — director Bartlet Sher has restored a song cut from the original production and added some extra lines here and there (in part to emphasize the young nurse heroine’s racist upbringing), and if you ask me, a two-and-a-half hour show doesn’t need any lengthening. But aside from the length, I couldn’t get my friend’s criticism out of my head, and this time I could only see the relationship between Cable and Liat as exploitative (albeit exploitative in both directions).
And yet, it’s hard to deny the impact the story had on its original audiences, and that it still has on audiences today. The song itself still resonates, and artists continue to record it sixty years after its debut. One of my colleagues in the world of Jewish education keeps the lyrics framed on his office wall alongside quotes from great rabbis as a reminder of the full range of our responsibilities as educators.
As we enter the new year together, I hope we can all think about the ways we teach the next generation and renew our commitment to creating a future free from hate and fear.
If you’re interested in learning about a Jewish organization working on creating a Jewish community free from hate and fear, check out The Jewish Multiracial Network. To quote from their mission statement:
The mission of the Jewish Multiracial Network is to build a community of Jews of color and multiracial Jewish families for mutual support, learning, and empowerment. Through education and advocacy, we seek to enrich Jewish communal life by incorporating our diverse racial and ethnic heritages.
They’re doing important work. Check out their website for information on upcoming events and the resources they have to offer, and consider how you may help make your own Jewish community more inclusive of all Jews.