I’ve been reading an array of obituaries and reflections on Mandela and his legacy since late Thursday night when I heard that he had died. When I had a chance to reflect on the news as I traveled from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv last night my thoughts turned to my parents and a shoe museum in Toronto, where I grew up. I also thought about why I came here in the first place.
When I was 13 years old, freshly Bar Mitzvah’d with an older teenaged brother spending weekends looking for fights with neo-Nazis, I first became aware that my mom was (and on some fronts still is) a politically active human being. She was a New York Jew of the baby boom generation, a Woodstock attendee, and she had, in those turbulent years of which I have no first hand knowledge, gotten involved in struggles for civil rights, against the war in Vietnam, and toward a feminist future.
Having recently gotten into the Dead, Snoop, and other musical accompaniments for my newly found enchantment with weed (which became the central destination for much of the bounty of my Bar Mitzvah gifts), I would proudly proclaim that my mom had been a “hippy” to my friends. When she was around to defend herself though, she would explain, slightly annoyed, “I was a radical, not a hippy”.
On December 8th, Swarthmore College Hillel became the first campus Hillel in the country to become an Open Hillel, passing the policy unanimously. You can learn more at Open Hillel’s Facebook page. Below is the full text of the editorial.
By Swarthmore Hillel Board, 2013-2014
On November 11, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset Avraham Burg was supposed to give a talk on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Harvard Hillel house. Instead, Hillel barred him from speaking at the Hillel house, and he ended up giving his talk in an undergraduate dormitory on campus. The reason he was barred? His talk was co-sponsored by the Harvard College Palestinian Solidarity Committee.
Sadly, for organizations bearing the name “Hillel,” situations like these are all too common. Across the country, many Hillels have banned Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli soldiers that facilitates talks about the Israeli military and West Bank occupation. Jewish Voice for Peace, which seeks “peace and justice for all peoples of the Middle East,” has never been allowed to affiliate with Hillels. On some campuses, JStreet has had a difficult time working with Hillels, and events co-sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine or Palestine Solidarity Committees have often been banned.
Across the country, Hillels’ suppression of the freedom to speak and believe thingthat are not narrowly pro-Zionist are the direct result of Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines. Right after stating in their “Political Pluralism” section that they object to excluding “students for their beliefs and expressions,” they declare that they “will not partner with, house, or host” – in other words, they will exclude – groups and speakers that espouse certain beliefs about Israel. These contraband beliefs include denying the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state and supporting boycotting, divesting, or sanctions against Israel. They also ban those who “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.” No further explanation is provided to clarify these guidelines, but their ambiguity has done nothing to ease the stifling effect they have on individual Hillels’ freedoms of speech, belief, and association. These guidelines would exclude speakers with views like those of Peter Beinart, Judith Butler, and Noam Chomsky.
Hillel, billing itself as the “Foundation for Jewish Campus Life,” is seen by many as the face of the American Jewish college population. And due to these policies, it is a face that is often seen to be monolithically Zionist, increasingly uncooperative, and completely uninterested in real pluralistic, open dialogue and discussion.
We do not believe this is the true face of young American Jews.
In fact, we do not believe there is only one face of young American Jews. We believe there are many faces of this diverse population. In our community, we find this diversity in the conversations we have with each other in our Sukkah, in the group of students meeting in a college coffee bar to discuss Talmudic conceptions of angels, and in the songs we sing together after a Shabbat meal. If we are truly devoted to fostering Jewish Campus Life, we need to constantly wrestle with how best to meet the collective needs of a diverse community. We need to create a space that is safe and welcoming for all. We need to a create a space that invites difference – difference of opinion, difference of belief, difference of background, difference of race, gender, and sexual orientation.
This is hard work. But if we are going to bear the name of Rabbi Hillel, we cannot expect anything less to be asked of us. Rabbi Hillel valued Jewish debate and difference – it was at the core of his practice. We do the same. For us, that is what the name Hillel symbolizes.
Therefore, we choose to depart from the Israel guidelines of Hillel International. We believe these guidelines, and the actions that have stemmed from them, are antithetical to the Jewish values that the name “Hillel” should invoke. We seek to reclaim this name. We seek to turn Hillel – at Swarthmore, in the Greater Philadelphia region, nationally, and internationally – into a place that has a reputation for constructive discourse and free speech. We refuse to surrender the name of this Rabbi who encouraged dialogue to those who seek to limit it.
To that end, Swarthmore Hillel hereby declares itself to be an Open Hillel. All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist. We are an institution that seeks to foster spirited debate, constructive dialogue, and a safe space for all, in keeping with the Jewish tradition. We are an Open Hillel.
This is a guest post by Avi Goldblatt, an old school Hebrew stuck in a relatively young man’s body. He is a classical liberal (ie Conservative Republican) which makes him about as popular as transfats in a NYC restaurant and as rare in the Jewish community as women’s suffrage in Dar al-Islam. He can be reached here.
In a piece published on ejewishphilanthropy, Joshua Einstein claims that Zionism is “multifaceted, multilayered and multi-streamed” regarding Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Many subscribe to this notion of Zionism as big tent coalition. They are wrong.
While the Zionist movement had many internal trends and streams they were all united by the central notions of aliyah and ending anti-Semitism. Whether it was the top down bourgeois methodology of the Herzlian’s (the Political Zionists), the utopian-socialist world vision of AD Gordan, Ben Gurion, or the utopian-messianism of both Rav Kook’s – all believed anti-Semitism would abate after the creation of the Jewish State.
Mr. Einstein is also wrong in asserting that “the miracle of the Zionist endeavor” was “a living and breathing Jewish State after over two thousand years without one…” A Jewish state was never the goal of the Zionist movement. Rather the Jewish national home was a means to an end – it would serve to assimilate the Jew on a national level where the Haskalah (enlightenment) had failed to on an individual level. More »
Open Hillel is a student-led campaign to change Hillel’s policies to better reflect our community’s values of pluralism and inclusivity. The statement below is a response to “Working Together to Expand Support for Israel on Campus,” written byHillel’s President and CEO Eric Fingerhut AIPAC’s Leadership Development Director. The article announces a new partnership between Hillel and AIPAC.
Open Hillel Responds to AIPAC and Hillel’s new Partnership
Hillel has consistently demonstrated an admirable commitment to religious pluralism, welcoming students who span the full spectrum of Jewish religious practices and beliefs and encouraging students to connect with Judaism in ways that are meaningful to them. We are worried that this pluralistic spirit, so beneficial to Hillel and the Jewish community, is lacking in the political arena. In particular, we are deeply troubled by Hillel President and CEO Eric Fingerhut and AIPAC Leadership Development Director Jonathan Kessler’s recent declaration that Hillel and AIPAC “are working together to strategically and proactively empower, train and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus.” We fear that this new partnership will alienate Jewish students whose views do not align with those of AIPAC, stifle discussion and debate on issues concerning Israel-Palestine, and undermine Hillel’s commitment to creating an inclusive community.
AIPAC’s policy positions are highly controversial among Jewish college students and the American Jewish community at large. Thus, if Hillel operates with AIPAC’s definition of “pro-Israel” as the benchmark for what is and is not acceptable within the Jewish community on campus, it will alienate many Jewish students. For instance, Point 6 of AIPAC’s 2012 Action Plan calls for “the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.” However, since Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital, many students believe that Jerusalem should be divided or shared. Indeed, 82% of American Jews support a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in exchange for full diplomatic recognition of Israel by the surrounding countries. Similarly, AIPAC’s national council voted down (by a large majority) a measure calling on Israel to dismantle “illegal settlement outposts,” the small minority of settlements that are illegal under Israeli law – not to mention, of course, that it tacitly supports the rest of the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, all of which are illegal under international law. In contrast, nearly three times as many U.S. Jews believe that settlement construction hurts Israel’s security as do believe that it helps. Hillel is an umbrella organization serving all Jewish students, as its vision and mission statements express. AIPAC supporters can and must have a voice in Hillel. But that voice is just one voice; it is not and cannot be THE voice.
In their article, Fingerhut and Kessler describe the AIPAC-Hillel partnership as strategically necessary to combat “anti-Israel” activity on campus. However, in order for Jewish students to truly engage with Israel in a thoughtful manner, we should have the opportunity to hear a wide range of perspectives on Israel-Palestine — including voices that speak to Israel’s shortcomings and criticize its policies. For instance, in pointing to “anti-Israel organizing” at Stanford University, we assume that Fingerhut and Kessler refer to a national conference held at Stanford by Students for Justice in Palestine. Though SJP takes controversial positions, it raises important questions about the Occupation and human rights abuses in the Palestinian Territories. Many Jewish students (and American Jews in general) from across the political spectrum care deeply about these issues; indeed, many American Jews oppose and protest the Occupation. While some seek to write off conferences and events like these as malevolent and silence their efforts, we believe that Hillel, the campus center for all Jewish students, should provide a space for discussion and debate so that students can better understand the complexity of the situation in Israel-Palestine. As one Jewish student at Stanford explained last spring, when the Jewish community refuses to talk about controversial issues, it creates an image of unity but actually divides the community and alienates students who hold ‘dissident’ views or who simply are looking for honest and open discussion.
We also are saddened that AIPAC, in Fingerhut and Kessler’s piece, implied that the success of Hillel at Stanford’s Shabbat Across Differences somehow justifies this new AIPAC-Hillel partnership. Part of what made that Shabbat event so wonderful was that it was not run by AIPAC or any other one Israel/Palestine-related advocacy group. Students of all different political persuasions, as well as Hillel staff, worked together to create that Shabbat — and we believe that that is a model for other schools to follow. The picture that the article painted, of Hillel needing AIPAC to rally more students on campus in support of their form of pro-Israel advocacy, was not the reality and it should not be in the future.
AIPAC deserves a place within Hillel, as one of many voices on Israel-Palestine. However, given AIPAC’s specific and narrow policy agenda, it should not define what it means to be “pro-Israel.” Even more fundamentally, no political advocacy organization should set the boundaries of what is encouraged, acceptable, and forbidden within the Jewish community on campus; and we worry that this partnership means that AIPAC will be asked to do so. Just as, at Shabbat dinner, students of all denominations come together, share their experiences, and learn from one another; Hillel should encourage students with different political views to come together and discuss relevant issues for the sake of dialogue and mutual understanding. Ultimately, a strong community is one that acknowledges and embraces its own diversity.
Last year a friend who had just finished participating in a Birthright program was telling me of his harrowing journey and mentioned that they had gone to the City of David. I said something along the lines of, “Right, Silwan. The tour through people’s backyards” in a tone that implied that I thought my friend, a fellow politically active organizer, would know what I was talking about. But, instead, he said something like, “Wait, that was Silwan?”
It became clear at that moment that the JNF’s aim via subsidiary support for ELAD to dispossess Palestinians of their homes in Silwan and replace them with settlers and a tourist site at the City of David was working. The process is barely noticeable to those who don’t know to look, which is most people. More »
This piece of satire is a guest post by Clark Kempt, a mild-mannered reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper. By day.
A Toronto fundraising dinner set to be the largest of its kind ever held in Canada was thrown into turmoil Thursday when local organizers found themselves in caught between their donors and the cause they hoped to support.
The fundraiser aimed to raise money in support of the Jewish National Fund, a 112-year-old trust established to purchase land in Palestine for Jewish settlement. Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the JNF held large swaths of land and used the flow of donations to maintain much of it for public parks, recreation, and bird sanctuaries.
But controversy erupted in Toronto when the Canadian chapter of the JNF accidentally broke one of the Fund’s core principles in its effort to raise money to plant trees in Israel.
The Canadian chapter hoped to sell sell eight-person dinner tables to donors, aiming to bring 4,000 people together in support of Israel. However, the local chapter may have promoted the event too widely, and sold tables to not just within the Jewish community but to Torontonians at large, including to several city law firms, local real estate developers, city councillors, and other officials.
But someone failed to notify local JNF volunteers the Fund has a strict policy to not sell tables to non-Jews. Senior executives quickly learned of this oversight and informed the local chapter that the sale of tables to non-Jews violated the founding charter of the institution. But it was too late. More »
This is a guest post by Jesse Paikin. Jesse is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, where he has also received a Graduate Certificate in Jewish Education. Before attending HUC-JIR, he worked for a Jewish nonprofit, running educational youth travel programs around the world. He currently lives in Jerusalem and also blogs at jessepaikin.wordpress.com and The Times of Israel. Follow him at @jessepaikin.
Unrecognized Bedouin Village, Negev Desert, October 2013
Israel’s Negev Desert is not a hospitable place. Vast, dusty, and scorching hot, it takes a great deal of effort to live on this land. Yet it was out of this very land that the Jewish people emerged, and from which the modern State of Israel was birthed. Anyone who has walked its canyons can attest to the feeling of ancient history pulsing out of the stones. Anyone who has laid their head down on the rocky bed and gazed up at the bowl of stars has felt the awe-inspiring power that emanates here. This is the place of the still, small voice.
David Ben-Gurion said that it is in the Negev that the creativity, vigor, and spirit of Israel will be tested. He prophesied that it would be there that the standing of Israel in the history of humankind would be determined (“The Significance of the Negev,” 1955)
Perhaps he was more correct than he knew. Today, close to 60 years after Ben-Gurion presciently spoke of the relevance of the desert, Israel faces a monumental test in this place. Israel’s treatment of its Negev Bedouin population is a trial that has the potential to unravel the dream Ben-Gurion envisioned over half a century ago. The Negev is not only the place where the creativity, vigor, and spirit of Israel are tested; it is the place where the conscience, values, and social values of Israel are being tested today.
The death of Arik Einstein z”l highlights the jagged seam line where Israeli and Diaspora Jews meet. Or don’t meet. JJ Goldberg comments on this in the Forward and Liel Leibowitz rips the seam wide open in Tablet Magazine. Initially I laughed through my tears at Leibowitz’s in-your-face comments: I have nothing to say to you about Arik Einstein. I’m sorry to sound like a prick, but you wouldn’t get it…But then he went in an altogether different direction to where my own heart was headed.
So I will try to say something to you about Arik Einstein, as many were just recently commenting about what the loss of Lou Reed means to them personally. I never listened much to Lou Reed, but Arik Einstein’s music changed my life.
An Israeli friend from my Hashomer Hatzair group gave me Einstein’s 1971 album, Badeshe Etzel Avigdor (vinyl)in 1974 That album introduced many to the anthem of my generation – Ani Ve Ata. . Members of Hashomer Hatzair were singing it years before it became the go-to song for American Jewish tikkun olam projects. But other tracks on that album touched me more deeply in unexpected ways. The song about his own experiences in Hashomer Hatzair, HASHRIKA SHEL HATNUA placed people like my friends and me at the center of a rock star’s view of the world.
I was one of those marginalized, radical, intellectual but “bad” kids born too late to be part of the Jewish Catalogue crowd of DIY Jews but too early to belong to the Gen X reimagining of alternative Jewish community. In the mid-1970s, our idea of a good time waswatching Arik Einstein’s comedy Lool in tandem with Monty Python. How better to understand the absurdity in being Ber Borochov quoting socialist Zionist Jewish kids in mid-1970s north America?
Fast forward to November, 1995. Right after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Einstein released “Zeh Pitom Nafal ָAleha” זה פתאום נפל עליה -. a public outpouring of sorrow and compassion for Rabin’s widow Leah. I imagine there are those who wish there had been such a song for Jackie when JFK was assassinated.
Arik Einstein seemed to create the soundtrack to which many of us living away from Israel healed from the restach (assassination) from miles away. An Israeli friend sent me Shalom Chaver, the 2 CD live recording of the Rabin memorial concert and, had it been on vinyl, I would have worn down the grooves. All of Israel’s great musical artists offered moving tributes to the slain Prime Minister at that long, poignant gathering. But, as the first disc opens with Einstein’s rendition of Aviv Geffen’s iconic lament, Livkot Lekha–(I am going to cry for you) and closes with his classic Uf gozal-(the little bird flies away) ,his iconic baritone voice was like a comforting embrace, enclosing the rest of the music.
Of course, Einstein induced laughter at least as often as tears. My friend Rabbi Leila Berner captured this in an e-mail, writing that “sometimes I cried so much when I listened to his songs…and sometimes I laughed so hard when he realized that (as Reinhold Niebuhr once said), “laughter is a no man’s land between faith and despair.” Arik gave us laughter when we couldn’t find our faith and when despair was an all too frequent visitor.”
Fast forward to Limmud Conference in the UK, 2008:
I invite a new Israeli friend to join me at a late night sing-along, but he was afraid it would be mostly English tunes he didn’t know. He want on tell me that it was the eve of Arik Einstein’s 70th birthday and he was afraid nobody in the room would understand. He was going to call it a night. I began to sing one of Arik’s silly songs, אני אוהב לישון-Ani ohav lishon (I love to sleep). My friend decided to come along. And many people there did get where he was coming from. Arik Einstein’s songs turned a random group of people, who ranged in age from around 16 to over 60 and who came from places as far flung as Stockholm and Cape Town, into a community celebrating the birthday of a cultural hero.
The beauty of it was that the songs surely meant something different to each singer. For me, it was much more than simple nostalgia. It spoke directly to the piece of me that feels alienated almost everywhere these days, as I feel that most of the Diaspora Jewish world seems to have split into two groups, neither to which I belong: the one for non- and anti Zionists, the other for center to right-wing Zionists. That night, Arik’s music brought me home for a short while.
My friend, the musician Stuart Rosenberg, remembers Einstein’s music like this: In 1971 I was 15 years old, away from home for six-month exchange program, living in an Israeli boarding school while studying Hebrew and working in the fields. That was the summer of Arik Einstein’s hit song Ani V’Atah…. Lying awake at night… with the aroma of night blooming jasmine in the air and the sound of Arik Einstein playing beneath my pillow, I was as far as I could be from my own bed, yet listening to those words I knew I was home. I eventually returned to the states, but forever after that summer that song and those words have been at my core, and, like the aroma of night blooming jasmine, it only takes a few notes to transport me back to those moments when I truly became who I am.
Another friend told me that she watched the memorial ceremony in Rabin Square. In my mind I immediately heard Arik Einstein singing about the night Rabin was assassinated, so I listend to Shalom Haver – .Then I played Einstein’s cover of the Geffen song, from the Shalom Haver album:
When we are sad, we go to the sea. / That’s why it’s salty. And it’s sad —That we can return borrowed equipment But it’s not possible to give back this longing…
Whether you love it or hate it, “Thanksgivingukah” has reached the highest political echelon of America: President Barak Obama issued a Thanksgivingukah best wishes. Complete with recipes for the dual holiday by Susan Barocas of DC-based Jewish Food Experience! Full message pasted below the fold.
Michelle and I send warm wishes to all those celebrating Hanukkah.
For the first time since the late 1800s – and for the last time until some 70,000 years from now – the first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving. It’s an event so rare some have even coined it “Thanksgivukkah.” As we gather with loved ones around the turkey, the menorah, or both, we celebrate some fortunate timing and give thanks for miracles both great and small.
Like the Pilgrims, the Maccabees at the center of the Hanukkah story made tremendous sacrifices so they could practice their religion in peace. In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, they reclaimed their historic homeland. But the true miracle of Hanukkah was what came after those victories almost 2200 years ago – the Jewish Temple was cleansed and consecrated, and the oil that was sufficient for only one day lasted for eight. As the first Hanukkah candle is lit, we are reminded that our task is not only to secure the blessing of freedom, but to make the most of that blessing once it is secure.
In that spirit Michelle and I look forward to joining members of the Jewish community in America, in the State of Israel, and around the world as we work together to build a future that is bright and full of hope. From my family to yours, Chag Sameach.
“We all are sinners, won’t you send us to Bible study faster/Your hypocrite-esque reaction a blasphemy”
–Kendrick Lamar, “Rigamortus”
Get ready for the strangest 45 seconds of your day. #whatthewhat
This happened today on the floor of the Israeli Knesset. MK Dr. Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) completed a speech with an unhinged, unprompted, upbraiding of young men in ultra-Orthodox (Hareidi) dress for coming and observing Parliamentary sessions from the visitors’ gallery instead of learning Torah.
A few key Hebrew phrases:
*Hillul Hashem — a desecration of God’s name, i.e., terrible public behavior by someone clearly recognized as Jewish, that brings disgrace to the Jewish people and their God
*Talmid(ei) Hakham(im) — Torah scholar(s)
*Bittul Torah — “wasting Torah”; it means slacking off when you could be learning Torah; this is the ultimate insult in the yeshiva world, what overbearing rabbis and sanctimonious veteran students accuse younger students of doing when they have a casual conversation.
“The last thing I want to say in the 27 seconds that I have [left] is this daily hillul hashem of people dressed like talmidei hakhamim who sit here, up in the gallery, slacking off, without a book, hour after hour, it drives me out of my mind! It shames the dress of a talmid hakham, it shames the value of bittul Torah, and I request of you, either bring books, or go to the beit midrash and learn. Thank you.”
I’ll never understand why Israeli leaders — who annually welcome some 150,000+ migrant workers into the country from Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe — are continually trying to deport, imprison and make life difficult for a African refugees from genocide.
These Africans are not recognized yet as refugees before any authority, who are seeking that recognition as they flee horrible war in Sudan and nearby countries. They have often been trafficked into Israel, tortured and raped, and owe thousands of dollars to criminal ransomers in the Sinai Peninsula. Instead of granting them the quarter that Jews wanted and did not find in Europe or America in the 1940s, they are refused any status or work permissions, and treated as criminals.
Recently, Israel’s supreme court ruled unconstitutional a law allowing their mass arrest and incarceration. Now, the Knesset is going to pass another law that tries to flout the ruling. Instead of mass arrests and imprisonment without trial with a jail sentence of 3 years, now it will just be 1 year. The prison in the Negev will further cost the Israeli public 440 million shekels and necessary firing 560 public sector jobs.
The alternative is easy — grant them work visas just as Filipinos and Ukrainians are, grant them the same Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process as in other western countries, and work with the international community to repatriate those that Israel cannot handle itself. But until Israel offers a RSD process, no country will allow Israel to flout the international refugee system that the Jewish state itself fought to create in the 1950s.
This is a guest post by Chava Shervington. A passionate and committed Jewish diversity advocate, Chava co-founded an organization which created opportunities for Jews of Color to connect in safe spaces across the East Coast. Currently, Chava is honored to serve as president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, an organizational leader in a movement to make Jewish racial/ethnic diversity fully embraced in American Jewish life.
In recent years there have been a rash of documentaries of Muslim converts (or reverts as they are called in Islam), as there seems to be a particular fascination with white Westerners who decide to take on Islam. Most of these documentaries focus on the motivation of the convert, the reactions of their families and communities, as well as their adjustment to adopting Muslim law and social customs. ”Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim” is both a unique story and a missed opportunity. While there have been many stories of converts to Islam, this one had the potential to explore an entire range of issues besides the usual family tension and personal struggle, but it barely scratches the surface of the story of Maor, a young Jewish woman in Israel who converts to Islam.
While there is definitely focus on Maor’s family (a hodge podge of characters, including an anti-religious brother, a Kahane supporting father, an increasingly observant mother and younger brother, a confused younger sister, and feisty grandmother), we only seem to get half of the story. Everyone outside of her grandmother seems to be supportive of her religious choice and allows her to exist on the periphery of their traditional Jewish lives. For the most part they seem to express apathy with her choice, but support her out of love. Her grandmother is the only one who ever vocalizes strong opposition to Maor’s new religious conviction, although even though her mother vocalizes her support, under the surface their seems to be a genuine hope that this is only a phase. There seems to be a concerted effort not to ostracize her for her conversion. While her family makes Kiddush and hamotzi for Shabbat dinner, Maor sits silent at the table in her hijab, at a Yom Hazikaron ceremony she stands silently while her family and others proudly sing Hatikvah, she’s obviously strongly connected to her family members, but at the same time completely disconnected from their Jewish identities.
Unfortunately, that disconnection is never truly explored. Maybe it’s because as with many converts (to any religion) she finds the motivations for her conversion difficult to express. When asked by her younger sister, the answer is couched in a metaphor of white roses, but essentially boils down to “because that’s what I think G-d wants from me”. But for us as an audience it feels like we a) came into the story halfway and b) only get half of the story.
As a Jewish watcher I was left with so many questions: What was Maor’s Jewish background prior to her conversion?; Did she ever explore Judaism further? How are the things that appeal to her about Islam-modesty and interactions between women and men-different from traditional Judaism? How does she relate to her Jewish identity? Did she experience any emotional conflict with changing her identity? Has her conversion affected her relationship to the state of Israel? We learn of her strong connection with Arab Muslim classmates from an early age, and the death of one in particular seemed to affect her strongly, but because we know so little about her interaction with the Jewish community all we’re left with are questions.
There are so many topics introduced and barely covered, particularly those things that make this such a unique conversion story. As a Jewish Muslim convert in Israel, Maor, must do more than take the shahada (Islamic creed declaring the oneness of Gd), she must undergo a formal conversion with the government so that she will be allowed to marry a fellow Muslim. We learn absolutely nothing about what that involves, how long it takes, or what she must undergo. When she changes the nationality on her identity card, does she experience hesitation or only relief? (Spoiler—she does find a Muslim husband, but we learn absolutely nothing about the process and/or how her unique circumstances factor into her decision.) One minute she’s talking about starting to look for a husband, the next she’s looking at his picture online, two minutes later she refers to him as her fiancée. It’s a completely unexplored whirlwind.
One thing we do understand throughout this film is how incredibly lonely Maor’s journey is. When not at home or running an errand with her family, she’s shown walking and sitting alone. No one in her community speaks to her; she is the constant subject of stares and is questioned by both Arab Muslim and Jewish communities. The story flows from one scene in a restaurant when she’s questioned by Muslim customers and workers: “Is she Arab, is someone in her family Arab, where does she live, is she married” to a Yom Hazikaron ceremony where she faces the same questions from Jews, along with assumptions such as that she must have grown up not surrounded by Jews, she must have no connection/relationship with her family, etc. It isn’t until almost three quarters through the film that we meet a friend outside of her family, Lital, another Jewish convert to Islam.
As the film ended, I was left with so many mixed emotions; I could only wish her happiness in her journey, yet feel sadness about her path, and continue to wonder how she got there. I’m not sure it’s a story I as a committed Jew could ever feel completely comfortable with, but still wish I could appreciate her story and motivations, but this film left so many topics unexplored, I’m not sure we as the audience can get there.
When I saw the link for the new Maccabeats video, I was excited! Another song to play ad nauseum on youtube as I sit in my office. Those Maccabeats, they’re so catchy. And I love showing the videos to my students.
Then, a friend’s comment gave me pause. She noted that this video (now “unlisted” on youtube) was (probably inadvertently) really awful to Sigma Delta Tau (ΣΔΤ, pronounced “SDT”), a national (and it just so happens, historically Jewish) sorority.
Full disclosure, I was in a (different) sorority at a large state school and am a graduate/alumna in good standing. I was in the sorority for the food, mostly, and didn’t really enjoy it like many of my friends did. It (being in a sorority) seemed like the thing to do at my school, so I did it. While I felt that the Greek system was mostly silly, some of my friends flat-out hated it. My feelings of mild dislike for the system and my modicum of tolerance for the silliness within the walls of my own house stayed with me for the 4 years of school and beyond.
Sigma Delta Tau is a national sorority, formed in 1917 when other sororities at Cornell closed their doors to these Jewish women. Today, many chapters of ΣΔΤ exist, and while they’re no longer 100% Jewish, they are filled with lovely (and, I’m sure, not-so-lovely) young ladies who enjoy the sorority life. I’ve always said that if a ΣΔΤ existed at my school, I would’ve joined it, because I like that the letters look like EAT.
In the video, a pack of stereotypical high school bullies (decked out in Glee-like letterman jackets and hats with Greek letters on them) harasses a kid at his locker. Too bad ΣΔΤ is not a fraternity. It is not a group of high school boys. (If I had to guess, I’d hazard that the Maccabeats chose the letters on the hats of their video’s bullies because the Greek characters look like “EAT.”) Why use letterman jackets and Greek letters to transform “nice” guys into “mean” guys, just by throwing on some emblematic gear? Bullies come in all shapes and sizes, and by stereotyping Greeks and Greek life, you’re not really doing much better than the people you’re attempting to mock.
Maccabeats. Guys. You have to “earn” your letters when you join a Greek house. The nice girls of ΣΔΤ wouldn’t just give their letters to mean high school boys. In fact, a quick perusal of their website shows that, as a national sorority, Sigma Delta Tau supports organizations like Jewish Women International. If you’re going to use Greek letters, do your research. I don’t care if your school doesn’t have a Greek system. Don’t (inadvertently, I hope) falsely make a Greek organization out to be a bunch of teenage bullies.
I know there’s a Greek aspect to the Chanukah story. Those Greeks and the kids in Greek letter organizations are totally different.
It’s Chanukah, guys. Time to rededicate your video. Fix your error. Or, at the very least, apologize to the women of ΣΔΤ.
But the Israel Project nevertheless wants you to help them undermine President Obama’s current success with Iranian negotiations. You know, only the first President in, oh, 40 years to reopen diplomatic relations with that country, halt several Israeli strikes that would have cost Israeli and American lives, and put a permanent, peaceful solution within reach. So yeah, infographic notwithstanding, I think I’ll support Secretary of State Kerry’s amazing accomplishments in the region.
The tagline of this year’s Jewish Feminist Alliance (JOFA) 8th annual gathering on Dec 7-8 has sparked a conversation: “It’s not just for feminists anymore.”
Long time JOFA supporter Jennifer Moran’s Facebook feed blew up when she posted this status: ”Just received an ad for the 8th International JOFA Conference, which proclaims, ‘It’s not just for feminists anymore…’ How I wish that I could convince my fellow women’s rights activists to stop disparaging, diminishing, or distancing themselves from feminism.” Others wondered if JOFA’s mission had changed, if social norms in the Orthodox community had led JOFA to shift its recruitment strategy away from the “radical” notion of feminism.
What’s the motivation behind this tagline and what’s happening at the conference? We spoke with Sarah Blechner, Marketing Chair for the upcoming conference. Blechner was raised in an Orthodox feminist household and has attended JOFA conferences since she was in high school.
Jewschool: What can we expect from this year’s JOFA conference that’s different from previous years?
Sarah Blechner: Whereas many of the past conferences have focused on the Orthodox community writ large, this year, while we will still be tackling those large, community issues, we are also talking in a much more personal way than ever before. We are really looking forward to bringing many of the “big” issues down to an individual level and discussing how many of these issues impact the everyday, the individual, and the quieter moments. More »
Kosher supermarkets are curious sites of cultural consumption. And the upscale supermarket, Pomegranate, is no exception to the rule. Displaying a bag from Pomegranate is a visible social marker of Bourdieuian “taste”–a type of conspicuous consumption not found at KRM Kollel or other affordable kosher supermarkets in Brooklyn. As explained in a well-deserved critique published in The Forward about a David Brooks article in The New York Times, Pomegranate caters to the top 1% of the religious community.
After attending a Hasidic friend’s wedding recently, I wish to return to a song newly minted in the religious wedding circuit repertoire, “Ya’alili” (performed by the Chabad band, 8th Day), where the aisles of Pomegranate become a dizzying dance floor of choreographed Jewish multiculturalism:
I learned of the song when it was released two years ago. I’m partial to it, but not simply because a friend of mine dances in the music video. Its richness lies in its social commentary on the hybridity of form. The song plays with and against the blurring of Sephardi and Ashkenazi cultures. But as much as it plays with mixing and matching (as the chorus rings out: “tantz, tantz, chabibi”), it maintains distinct boundaries. The stanzas line up Sephardi and Ashkenazi cultures in the Structural grammar of a Lévi-Strauss diagram:
את החתן ספרדי/כלה נאה אשכנזי”
“רחל אמנו ספרדי, מאמע רחל אשכנזי
“The groom, Sephardi/the attractive bride, Ashkenazi
Straddling back and forth between moments of mimicry and of radical alterity, between convergence and separation, illuminates the contemporary tension of Sephardi-Ashkenazi relations. In the logic of multiculturalism in the reign of late capitalism, the video screams: “we have the freedom to both pray separately and to shop at the same upscale supermarket!”
Supermarkets peddle exotic goods. And so does the video. Supermarkets are, after all, secure, mediated sites of consuming other cultures. But the danger of mediation lies in what obscures. There is no actual contact between cultures performed in the transaction. It’s unidirectional. You can buy without reciprocation. And that’s precisely what happens in the music video. A caricatured image of Sephardi culture appears–for the pleasure and consumption of Ashkenazi eyes. The musicians we are to identify as “Sephardi” bear the trappings of the exoticized, Orientalized subject.
How Ashkenazim simultaneously reproduce hegemony while claiming to resist it–under the banner of Jewish “multiculturalism” (reframed in religious vernacular as achdus)–is a phenomenon I encountered while conducting preliminary fieldwork research in Uman (among friends at Chulent). A former professor and now mentor, David Roskies, recalls a conversation with noted academic of Hasidic historiography, David Assaf (in an article recently published in Bounded Mind and Soul: Russia and Israel, 1880-2010):
Assaf, our expert on all matters Hasidic, is not merely underwhelmed by what greets the visitor to Braslav, he is angered by the millions in profit made by the Braslaver from Israel who control the Rebbe’s grave and man, which attracts over 15,000 pilgrims a year. He scoffs at the sterile design of the tomb, so reminiscent of the fake tombs of Moroccan saints that make such a mockery of religion and Israel. Did we notice the name Israel Meir Gabi emblazoned on the wall outside? Gabai, the Johnny Appleseed of Hasidic grave sites, is a Braslav Hasid of Sephardi descent. Why, young Sephardim, Assaf protests, are so brainwashed by the Braslav notion of tikkun neshamot, the perfection of dead souls, that they show up at the Ministry of Internal Affairs to adopt an Ashkenazi surname (like Bernstein and Rabinvoich) and a Braslavian proper name (like Naftali, Nahman, Nathan)…
As described by one of my informants, a living Chabad oral history archive, “gullible” Sephardi baalei teshuva have become infantilized with the same white paternalistic “concern” as the colonial subject–an uncritical, superstitious mass who, already engaged in pietistic devotion at the hillulas of their revered Babas, can be led easily astray. In the recent sex scandal of the Breslev leader, Rav Berland, Sephardi baalei teshuva became scapegoated (among some) as the source of the problem. As Toyte Hasidim (lit. “dead Hasidim”), Breslevers do not follow a living rebbe or tzadik (in contradistinction to other Hasidic courts). Rebbe Nachman is, at least in theory, their one and only master; to unflinchingly follow a living tzadik comes at a cost. Berland’s scandal was displaced by some Breslevers onto the Sephardim Berland recruited, who in the optic of Ashkenazi hegemony, cannot be trusted to maintain the purity of Breslev’s status as Toyte Hasidim.
While problematic in its representation of Sephardim, “Ya’alili” engages in a subtle politics of refusal. As Hasidism becomes increasingly untethered from Eastern European culture and history, the invention of the “global Hasid” (to borrow the phrase of my friend, Zach Cohen) has emerged in its stead. And Rebbe Nachman has most curiously been re-branded as a universal symbol of devotion, which ultimately obscures historical reality and pivots Ashkenazi identity as unmarked and universal, Sephardi identity as marked and particular. But the video refuses this cultural hegemony. It marks Baba Sali as a “Sephardi” symbol, Rebbe Nachman as a “Ashkenazi” symbol. Because if all things were actually equal, quotes from the “Baba Sali” would be embroidered on white kippot the world over.
For further cultural analysis of Hasidic music, listen to the episodes 05 and 06 by Sol Fuerwerker and Sam Katz over at The After Life Podcast.
Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish debuted in 2005 and has been a perennial bar mitzvah gift ever since. The book, which features interviews by Abigail Pogrebin with about five dozen celebrities about their Jewish identities, is now an off-Broadway musical. Pogrebin is no stranger to the musical stage; she chronicled her experience as an original cast member of the infamous Stephen Sondheim flop Merrily We Roll Along in her 2011 Kindle Single Showstopper. This morning I chatted with her about the experience of writing Stars of David, both book and musical, and how her evolving Jewish identity has shaped the project.
In the introduction to the book, she discusses that part of the impetus for the project was that Jewish identity had crept up on her. She was married to a Jewish man, had two children approaching the ages when they might want to know something about what being Jewish meant, and she realized that she didn’t have an answer to that question. “I wasn’t necessarily honest with myself about why I started the book in the sense that I didn’t know how at sea I was, in terms of my own Jewish identity, when I approached famous people,” Pogrebin said. “I think sometimes stories are generated by some subconscious impulse to understand something for yourself. And I don’t want to over-analyze my motivations in starting the book, but I would say that having these frank conversations with some of our highest achievers made me look much more candidly at myself, and I realized I hadn’t answered a lot of the questions I was asking, personally.”