Posted on July 25th, 2012 6 comments
Stories are an essential element of Jewish tradition, but they can also be an essential element of Jewish history and Jewish education. This week Melissa Cohavi shares her new take on stories we often struggle with passing on.
I love stories. I especially love stories about families, history, and people affected by history. Centropa is all about stories too, and perhaps this is why their materials speak to me on such a personal level. I am the Director of Education at Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut and learned of Centropa last winter. Centropa, based in Vienna, uses technology to tell the stories of elderly Jews in Central Europe who survived the holocaust, and then made the decision to live their lives in Central Europe and not emigrate to Israel, Western Europe, or the USA. Centropa has interviewed over 1250 Jews living in 15 countries between the Baltic and the Aegean. Centropa has produced more than 25 short multi-media films and has cataloged thousands of personal photos from the interviewees. Centropa’s goals include: connecting us all to the lands of Jewish heritage by creating programs about the entire 20th century, not only about the period of the Third Reich; using these programs in innovative ways so that Holocaust education will have relevance everywhere; combating anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial by creating programs that students carry out themselves, and share with other students across borders, oceans and ethnic divides. I know what you’re thinking. I have heard this before. But Centropa is different. Their films focus on the lives of Jews in Central Europe both pre-war and post-war. For me, when we teach our students about the Holocaust it is important to focus on the stories, not only about the tragedies. After all, stories are so much a part of Judaism and enhance learning in so many ways. Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe prior to World War II was so vibrant, and now it is gone. In fact, stories are what connect Jews around the world, and our students to their history. I don’t know about you, but my students (both youth and adult) love to talk about themselves. When we, as educators, can bring them stories of a previous generation that they can relate to in their own lives today, we have succeeded on so many levels. I lived this myself when I was at the egalitarian minyan on Saturday morning, July 14th at the West End Synagogue in Frankfurt. I attended services with five other Americans and one new friend from Stockholm. We had so much in common with the approximately 20 or 25 others in attendance that morning. We all knew the music and I was so happy when we sang Debbie Friedman’s Oseh Shalom. I was even honored with an aliya to the Torah that morning. The stories we shared with one another during the oneg brought us together on a very special level, and it was a morning I will never forget.
The Centropa summer academy brought Jewish life and history alive for me. I was able to visit places in Germany, such as Worms and Berlin that I had only had the opportunity to study about. Today there are no Jews living in Worms, but there is a small Jewish community in Berlin made up mostly of former Soviet Jews. It also allowed me to see that non-Jewish teachers in Vilnius, Krakow, Budapest, Bucharest and Vienna are both learning about the Holocaust and teaching it to their students. I learned that there is one synagogue in Vilnius today, where there were hundreds prior to World War II. I saw how Germany is taking responsibility for its past and learned how teachers in former Soviet-bloc countries are learning about how we live our lives in the West and that the connections between us and our students are so important. This trip was personally important to me on so many levels. I must admit that I was hesitant to visit Germany, given the history we all know so well. But I learned that Germans are aware of their mistakes and are working hard to make things right. There are memorials and museums remembering the holocaust everywhere. It is taught in schools from an early age and there are numerous exchange programs between Germany and Israel, all supported and paid for by the German government. There is even a memorial for homosexuals persecuted and murdered by the Nazi’s, located in Berlin. The connections I was able to make with educators from 14 different countries was probably the most invaluable and tangible thing I came home with. I learned about the Jewish communities in Stockholm and Helsinki, Vienna and Budapest. Centropa has allowed me to grow in so many ways, and I thank them for that. Share your stories, we all have something important to tell.
Posted on April 18th, 2012 5 comments
In the normal course of things, stuff happens, good stuff, bad stuff, fun stuff, difficult stuff. Then it passes and we forget most of it. We remember what is meaningful, or useful, or hard to let go of. Those memories inform our actions, which in turn create new stuff, good stuff, bad stuff, fun stuff, difficult stuff.
But when something catastrophic happens, when the stuff is beyond words, imagination, or of a scope that cannot be imagined, this regular chain of stuff, remembering, forgetting and incorporating is disrupted.
Growing up in a family that was, as my mother now calls us, second hand Holocaust survivors, I lived with the effects of catastrophic disruption. No one in the family that went to the camps survived but many did escape. It was not easy, (you can learn about how my family was interned in United States at the Holocaust Museum) and it left long and lasting imprints. Hitler and the Holocaust were ever present and our extended family ever absent.
On my path to figuring out how to cope with this legacy, I became a Jewish historian. My initial goals were purely feminist, but when I settled on the study of German Jews, I had to confront my sense of disruption, memory and family history.
The focus of my graduate work was the period from 1848-1914. I looked at the rythms and flow of domestic life. As I read diaries, letters, and cookbooks, the mundane elements of daily life came to life. There were joys and frustrations, aspirations and limitations. It was stuff, good stuff, bad stuff, fun stuff, difficult stuff –normal stuff.
Somewhere in between the Anschlus and the liberations of 1945, my namesake, Razel Lowy Brody known as Rufi was murdered. My mother never knew her grandmother. Never got to experience her cooking, her drawing, her singing. She never had a chance to get annoyed with her grandmother, bored that she told the same old stories, or argue with her about the way she dressed. She missed out on all the stuff. She never got to remember, forget and incorporate the way one normally does in the ebb and flow of life.
It goes without saying that we can never forget the brutality of the Nazis and the callousness of the millions of bystanders. That is what Holocaust Remembrance day is for.
But if we only remember that, we are in danger of handing Hitler a posthumous victory. Reducing the memories of those who perished to their final helpless moments robs them of the complex legacies they would have passed on if the richness of their lives had been lived out in the proper order of things.
When the candles go out at the end of Holocaust Remembrance day, take some time to engage with the past. Learn about Jewish life in Greece, the complexities of ethic Jewish identity in Yugoslavia, or domesticity in Germany. Take some time to get to know the people who did not live to share their stuff.
Posted on March 2nd, 2012 1 comment
Is writing a cookbook a feminist act?
As women’s history month begins there is much to debate. I for one would struggle to make the argument that Martha Stewart is a feminist, though in 2004 Elaine Lafferty, the editor of Ms. magazine at the time of Stewart’s sentencing for insider trading, suggested that there are some reasons to think otherwise.
And yet, when I read Lina Morgenstern’s Illustriertes Universal-Kochbuch für Gefunde und Kranke, The Illustrated Universal Cookbook, I read it as a feminist tome. Containing thousands of recipes, Morgenstern’s opus was literally a work of art. Under her tutelage, even simple dishes, such as mayonnaise, are plated on platters and adorned with edible carvings that would make Martha green with envy. Pages upon pages of exquisite drawings portray not only the dishes but the variety of food stuff and kitchen tools. Morgenstern spares us no detail, there is a drawing of a pea splitting knife and a recipe for reindeer meat – though not native to Germany she did not want anyone to be unprepared. Like Stewart does today, Morgenstern presented an impossible vision of womanhood and set unattainable standards.
Morgenstern wrote her cookbook in1886. She wrote it as part of a broader vision and mission of pushing the boundaries of women’s roles. Born in 1830, she was one of five daughters born to wealthy Jewishly observant family that stressed g’millut hassadim, good works. Her first public act, at age 18, was to establish a charity that would provide school supplies for children in need.
Much like those who argued for women’s suffrage, she parlayed the limits placed on women –their caretaking capacity, their compassion –into reasons to enter new areas of activity and create new and varied instructions. Women were responsible for child care, so she opened the first Kindergartens in Berlin. Women were responsible for food preparation, so she open a cooking school to ensure true mastery. Women were responsible for the ill and poor, so she opened a soup kitchen. Women were meant to be patriotic but not fight in wars, so she cared for wounded soldiers. Women were expected to be proper managers of middle and upper class households, so she established Housewives associations at a time when the idea of women gathering in public was pushing the boundaries. Women were peaceful by nature so she became political activist.
Her cookbook was over the top. The very act of creating a larger than life book, which in hindsight I cannot help read with a touch of irony, highlighted the weightiness of the work women did in the home, the attention to detail and thought they put into something that might seem as simple as a meal. Additionally, at time when all the other cookbooks written by German Jewish women were committed to upholding kashrut, Morgenstern, who came from a traditionally family, broke with the rabbis and set forth a broader vision. She was willing to break traditional expectations.
In many ways, Morgenstern’s life connects closely to that of ancient heroine of the Purim story. Esther used her very traditional role as a beauty queen & wife to change the course of history and so did Lina. So in my not so humble and outspoken opinion, Martha Stewart’s New Pies and Tarts is not feminist, but Lina Morgenstern’s The Illustrated Universal Cookbook certainly is!
Posted on February 8th, 2012 No comments
When we think of chaplaincy in the military it is often in the context of serving those who serve. But there are roles for clergy in the American Military policy that cannot be played by other members of the armed services. Rabbi Jon Cutler (DMin HUC-JIR NY) is a congregational rabbi as well as Captain US Navy. He has just returned from and has just returned from a 16 month tour of duty Director of Religious Affairs for Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) Horn of Africa. His account of some of what he did while on active duty, taken from a talk given in Norfolk at the Institute for Global Engagement, is as inspiring as it is informative.
Conflicts have torn the social fabric of the African societies, displaced millions of people, traumatized communities, and drained the continent from material and human resource resulting in destabilizing governments and communities. Religion leaders in Africa play a crucial role in conflict resolution and restoration of peace.
The American Military has a strong presence throughout the world. The role of the military chaplain is to engage with key religious leaders to help promote regional stability through interfaith dialogue, to dissuade conflict by capacity building and to demonstrate a commitment to facilitate African religious leaders in addressing the issues in African Muslim and Christian communities. It is through religious leadership building that there is potential to stem violent extremism such as the influence of Al Shabah along the Swahili coast and to hamper their effort to recruit Kenya Muslim youth to their cause. This process relies on building a trusting relationship over a period of time. The point emphasized is trust. The chaplain has to be an honest broker
Being engaged with religious leaders in East Africa is complex. Engagement takes place on many levels with multiple end goals. The nations of East Africa that I am tasked to partner with are Djibouti, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania. Within each nation are numerous tribes with their diverse culture and language and their set of problems. Then religion is added on top of this with its distinct set of problems. Even though Christians and Muslims are present within each nation the percentage of Christians and Muslims varies from nation to nation for example Djibouti is 99% Muslim and Ethiopia is 80% Christian. Christianity has its own internal dynamic and it varies from nation to nation such as in Ethiopia where the dominant form of Christianity is Ethiopian Orthodox with growing Evangelical Protestant presences or in Kenya the dominant denomination is Anglican but along the coast the dominant religion is Islam (80%).
The same holds true for Islam. Even though the majority of Muslims are Sunni in East Africa there is a significant presence of Sufi (Ethiopia), Aga Khan (Uganda) and Salafists (Tanzania Coast and Zanzibar). Adding to the complexity is the extremist elements within Christianity and Islam. The extremist Islamic group Al Shabah based in Somali is a direct threat along the Swahili Coast of Kenya and Tanzania actively seeking Muslim youth to fight in Mogadishu or the extremist Protestants groups building their churches in exclusively Muslim villages actively seeking converts. There, also, is a small Jewish presence in Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya. It takes a significant amount of time to grasp the religious complexity within East Africa and even more so the cultural and tribal. The issues concerning women are barely addressed.
In addition there is another layer of complexity with direct engagement and that is who is the chaplain engaging with – the local imam or the Mufti for all of Uganda, the parish priest or Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the local Assemblies of God pastor in a remote Tanzanian village or the Security General for all Evangelical Independent Churches of Africa? Each encounter will have a different dynamic, agenda and end state. Each stakeholder has a distinct personality style as well. And there are times that the chaplain engages with religious organizations which mean that the engagement is with small to large number of people – councils, boards, elders, etc. With it comes its own internal dynamic and politics. These organizations can be local, national, regional, continental, or intentional.
The additional challenge is trying to explain my role as a military chaplain and director of Religious Affairs for CJTF-Horn of Africa to the religious leaders. Since there is no context that they can relate to, I explain in terms of representing the US military as a religious leader wanting to partner with them to help bring peace and stability to the region.
In my role as chaplain, being a rabbi is a surprising advantage. No one religious leader or group of people that I have met ever encountered a Jew before much less a rabbi. I have found that the religious leaders have a rudimentary understanding of Judaism which then opens up great opportunities for in depth discussion about comparative Judaism and Islam or comparative Christianity and Judaism. In the end it has been an educational experience in understanding a religion besides Christianity or Islam with hope of broadening their world view and increased tolerance. For example, the Supreme Judge of Ethiopian Islamic asked that I return to teach him about Judaism.
Meeting the objectives of the mission is extensive. I will discuss two of the means to meet the mission. First, due to my ability to travel throughout Combined Joint Operational Area (East Africa) I am able to identify the religious atmospherics within the region. I am able to identify fault lines between Christian and Muslims groups, fault lines within exclusively Christian groups and/or Muslim group as well as the tension points. For example, talking with Evangelical Protestant ministers their fear is that Uganda will be enacting a law that Sharia law will be part of the Constitution. With the fear came anxiety about their own security in Uganda and strong negative view towards Muslims. The purpose is to gage the atmospherics and in the future such information can be useful. In the meantime if possible due to one’s skill try to address the concerns in order to lessen the tension points. Out of this process can come a greater understanding and appreciation for the other. And through this process of engagement is the ability to identify Christian and Muslim leaders who share the same goal for peace and stability.
Once identified to bring them together to start working on joint projects. The conversation about religion is essential, interfaith dialogue is necessary but the conversation must turn into action. The cause for instability and the lack of peace in East Africa is grassroots issues – lack of opportunities for African youth, poverty, HIV, etc. The role of the chaplain is to facilitate bringing like minded individuals and/or groups, Christian and Muslim, who want to address the hard core issues that are the root causes for lack of peace and stability. The role chaplain is then to work with US Embassy officials in the respective nations to introduce the collective working group of Muslim and Christians to funding sources. The chaplain is very much involved in the 3 D process (Defense, Diplomacy and Development). By working on joint project Christians and Muslims will become inter-dependent on another, therefore, Africa for Africans. Such joint projects have the potential to become self sustaining. This has broader ramifications because it demonstrates to the ‘world’ that Muslim and Christian can live next to each and to work together. The goal is to make violent extremism irrelevant. The goal is to fulfill Micah’s 4:3-4 vision: “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning shears; nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken of it.”
Posted on January 10th, 2012 No comments
It seems like coincidence, but I don’t think it is.
On Wednesday and Thursday of last week, respectively, two distinct but very similar videos dominated my social media community. Both videos focused on the experience of teens proud to be Jewish and gay. In and of itself, this is not particularly notable, but the context for both was. Both teens focused on how the national synagogue youth movements in which they participate, USY and NFTY respectively are the places where they feel most able to be completely themselves.
The first video was a speech that the outgoing USY president, Daniel (D.J.) Kaplan gave at the national USY convention and was posted by David Levy and shared widely from his blog. Levy, himself a graduate of USY and now a professional in the Jewish community, wrote “When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to be able to get up in front of my USY friends and make a speech like this, but I wasn’t able. Seeing a leader do so makes me incredibly hopeful for the future.” The second video, which was posted by many of Reform folk in my network (you may have been one of them). Often those who posted it wrote little more than “YOU MUST WATCH THIS!” or “Amazing.” Some like Rachel Gurevitz used it to write about how inspired by and proud they are of NFTY.
To my mind these videos are not just inspiring or hopeful, they are also instructive.
I thought of these videos sitting in shul on Shabbat morning. One of my husband’s students at the local day school was celebrating his bar mitzvah. The son of a Jewish Ashkenazi father and a Korean mother, he stood on the bimah wearing a colorful Hanbok, the traditional Southern Korean dress as well as a batik tallit. After beautiful Torah and Haftorah readings he shared insights about the parasha using wisdom gleaned from stories from both his Korean and Jewish ancestors. Brachot were offered in Korean on behalf of his grandparents who were unable to be there. Though few in the congregation understood, many people were moved to tears by the emotion that came through. Afterwards many of the adults spoke with reverence of the interweaving of Korean cultural elements into this traditional Conservative service. Since Shabbat I have checked in with a number of the kids who attended and asked them what they thought of the service. Not a one mentioned the Korean elements, and when I probed they simply took in stride, noting that there was nothing strange about it, it was just, as one girl said, “it is just who he is.”
There is no question that the videos that made the rounds last week owe a great deal to the LGBTQ rights movement in this country, but it seems to me that there is more. Young people today, more and more, are growing up with multiple identities. In earlier generations, people often felt compelled to choose sides, privileging one identity over another. But all of these young people are unwilling to choose. Their allegiance to the Jewish community comes because they are welcome to be fully themselves within the Jewish world. They are Jewish and…..
For the last two summers, I have worked at Camp Be’chol Lashon which stresses the global diversity of the Jewish community and serves a predominantly ethnically and racially diverse group of kids. This fall, I was invited by a local rabbi to speak about the camp and one of the campers, a member of the synagogue joined me. She explained that unlike any other place in her life the camp was the space where she could be Jewish and African without having to choose.
In an era of multiple identities, creating spaces that are just Jewish is not enough. It is not easy to create spaces where some but not all the values of the community are shared but where the differences are not just tolerated but celebrated. These teens suggest that we can and have created spaces where our young people feel comfortable being Jewish and… In contrast to a vision of Jewish life as parochial or internally focused, this accepting approach has the potential to make Jewish space not only attractive and engaging, but also a prime example of how to be fully human.
Posted on September 21st, 2011 2 comments
“Why do these people want to be Jewish?”
I was telling an old friend about the work I do with emerging Jewish communities in places like Peru and Uganda. It is a reasonable question, the kind of question anyone on a beit din is likely to ask of a potential convert. But as my friend spoke, I heard an edginess emerging, one that suggested more than simple curiosity. I have become familiar with this underlying current which sometimes shows itself more overtly, “Are they trying to get out of [name of homeland] and go live in Israel?” [no] “Are they in this for the money?” [again, no]
I countered gently, “is it so hard to believe that there is enough to love in Judaism and in living a Jewish life that people would simply choose this path?”
Jews often site the history of non-proselyzation as the source of Jewish discomfort with converts and conversion. Halakha is on our side when it comes to pushing people away. Historically this made sense. Today, we as Reform Jews, recognize that a different attitude is needed. Still difficulties remain. Yet in talking to people on a regular basis about conversion, converts and potential converts, I have recognize that at the core of much of the discomfort with conversion to Judaism comes from discomfort with Judaism.
Those of us who have chosen to make the celebrating of Judaism our life’s work know how powerful and wondrous living fully engaged Jewish lives can be. But we also know that many of those we serve –and even more so those who circle on the edges of our communities- are less sure about the positive value to being Jewish. In a twist on the Groucho Marx quip, that discomfort can translate into discomfort with those that choose to join our club.
When I was in college I was friends with a man who became Jewish in his early twenties and was studying for the cantorate. I have memories of long drawn out conversations in which I repeated pushed him to explain what possible brought him to choose Judaism. In retrospect, he was extraordinarily patient with me. Perhaps he recognized that his answers were part of what I was searching for as I, from the family of survivors, sought to see my Jewish inheritance as more than an inescapable burden.
Fully loving and embracing Judaism (though not without arguments –after all that is part of what I love) helped bring to the rabbinate. Reading statements for a beit din and working with converts inspires and deepens my appreciation of our tradition and community. Judaism and Jews –all Jews- need to these stories, these affirmations of what we have inherited. To borrow language from our Christian friends, we need them to witness for all of us.
Sitting with my friend, I began to share some of the themes and stories that I have been encountering in my work. I told my friend about the African Chieftan for who the first part of the Bible given to him by Christian missionaries resonated so strongly that he laid aside the second half and circumcised his tribe, the beginning of today’s Abayudaya. I shared from the inspired conversation I had had with a single mother by choice who was raising her children as Jews with the blessing of her Black Baptist mother. I talked about the Annusim in Columbia –who after 100s of years away from Judaism- are making sacrifices so they can come together and live in Jewish community.
In getting ready for Tishrei, I have personally been focusing on the concept of hakarat hatov, recognizing the good. In the traditional framework of mussar we are encouraged to see the deep good in ourselves and in others. As I sat with my friend and confronted her familiar line of questioning and doubt, I recognized that we need to add another critical element to this mix, one that converts inherently understand, the deep good in our tradition, that which can draw us to this path as the means to affirm our lives and relationship with our collective inheritance. Why do they want to be Jewish, for the same reasons we all should remain Jewish: hakarat hatov.
Posted on July 6th, 2011 3 comments
For Jews, German history casts a long shadow over modern Germany. It can be a challenge to know how to make sense of this legacy as we go about building a vision for the Jewish world. In recent years several groups of HUC-JIR students from across the programs and campuses, have traveled to Germany Up Close. This week, Andi Milens, Vice President at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs reflects on what she has learned from her experiences with the program. This January, a select group will initiate the first HUC-JIR alumni travel program with Germany Up Close. Applications for the program can be found by clicking on this link.
It’s amazing how something as mundane as a bus stop can change your whole perspective on something. I guess the fact that the bus stop was in the heart of Berlin rather than in Manhattan, where I live, might have made a difference.
It was October 2004, my first visit to Berlin, although not my first trip to Germany. I was a participant in a trip called Bridge of Understanding, a precursor to the Germany Close Up program. Walking rather absentmindedly down the street, out of the corner of my eye I caught the outside of a bus stop. I almost passed it up, but then I realized that it was an explanation of the role the building opposite the bus stop had played during the Third Reich. A few paragraphs into reading it, I realized that the explanation was entirely in English. That struck me as odd until it occurred to me to walk around to the inside of the bus stop. There was the same explanation, in German.
In that moment, I began to understand something about German society. They get it. They know how to do memory. They have accepted their history and figured out how to collectively remember and memorialize it. There wasn’t any German on the outside of the bus stop because Germans won’t stop to read it while they’re hurrying along their way. The German explanation is on the inside of the bus stop because that’s where Germans will read it.
This thoughtful addressing of both the past and the present struck me in sharp contrast to my visit to Poland two months prior. In all fairness, I met very few Poles on that trip. But based on observation and hearing only about Poles as victims of the Nazis with no acceptance of responsibility for their actions toward the Jews (and others), it made me appreciate all the more how far Germany has come.
There is any number of examples of how Germany does memory. Shortly after my 2004 visit, the Berlin Holocaust Memorial opened. Beyond the significance of its architecture and its location -in the heart of Berlin, steps from the Brandenburg Gate, is its name: The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The name is important and powerful, a constant reminder that the Jews of Europe were murdered by Hitler and the Nazis and all those who participated or stood idly by. A memorial to homosexual victims was opened in 2008, across from the Jewish memorial, in Berlin’s equivalent to Central Park. Brass plaques on Berlin street corners bear the names of the Jews from that street who were taken away (granted, a controversial installation). There is no hiding the past; reminders are everywhere and occupy the time and space of everyday life.
What struck me most, though, was our visit to the Reichstag, the home of the German Parliament. From the outside, it looks like the old Reichstag – Gothic, imposing, and intimidating. Much of the building’s interior is made of plexiglass (or some other like material). As you look through a floor to ceiling window on a memorial to those who died trying to escape over the Berlin Wall, you understand the architect’s vision. The purpose of the architecture is to serve as a constant reminder of the importance of the transparency of democracy.
That’s a powerful thought. There are people who look at any German over a certain age and wonder what they were doing during the Holocaust. Now I look at that same person and consider that here is a person who understands what it’s like to live without democracy. I’m 41 years old, born in America. No matter how angry I am about our civil liberties that have been taken away since 9/11 or that are still denied to segments of our society, I have never known what it’s like to live without democracy.
In a small town outside Bad Arolsen, where the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains an archive of 50 million original Holocaust records, I visited a tiny Jewish cemetery that has been restored by volunteers. When they restored the low cemetery wall, they inserted plaques with the names of the Jews who were taken away. And they left empty spaces representing the absence the community feels. In the next town they’ve restored the synagogue, and schoolchildren visit as part of their curriculum. In the next town volunteers have turned a house into a museum remembering the Jews that were lost.
I learned a new piece of history when I was in Bad Arolsen: the week before Kristallnacht, the Nazis did a trial run to see what the reaction would be. If there was no huge outcry, they’d do it on a larger scale. So there was a pogrom in Bad Arolsen. And there was no outcry. Why not? Maybe the Germans didn’t care about their Jewish friends and neighbors; maybe they agreed with what the Nazis were doing. And yet again, maybe they were confused and terrified. Maybe they were afraid that if they raised an objection, their home, too, would be burned, or worse.
Our guide did not have a definitive answer. I think he wanted to believe the fear theory. Many in the American Jewish community, including those who chastised my parents for letting me travel to Germany when I was 17, would probably choose to believe that none of the Germans in Bad Arolsen objected to the pogrom. I don’t know the answer.
I have now been to Germany 4 times — to Berlin twice, to Frankfurt, Weimar and Dresden, and to a surprising number of small towns. I’ve been to Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. My experiences in Germany have shown me that as a society, Germany deals with its past. It isn’t easy; it is painful and sometimes overwhelming and unrelenting, perhaps to a fault. They deal in different ways, but they deal with it. We could all learn something from the German experience.
Most importantly, for me, is this. Germany makes me think. It makes me rethink my view of history. It makes me ask questions. It challenges me to form my own opinion, even if it’s not very popular in some circles. It makes me appreciate the choices individuals and societies wrestle with. It makes me think about the past and the present and the future. I have been forever changed by my experiences in Germany, none of them easy – and for that I am grateful.
Posted on May 23rd, 2011 No comments
Esther is blue. So is Vashti. And it is hard to take your eyes off of them. Born and raised in Bombay in a Bene Israel Jewish family and educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian Schools, artist Siona Benjamin brings many influences and cultural understandings into the bold art she creates –much of it based on Jewish stories. Her current exhibition at the HUC-JIR Museum – New York, The Croll Center for Jewish Learning and Culture, is an illustrated Esther Megillah and is on display until the end of June.
Benjamin recently returned from a spending four months as a Fulbright scholar in India. She is thoughtful and passionate about the work she does and her desire to express the complexity of contemporary Jewish life. I sat down with her to talk about her art.
Ruth Abusch-Magder: Much of your art revolves around Jewish themes, especially those of Jewish women, how did you come to this focus?
Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my work is about issues of identity and social and political identity and my role as a woman and a Jew and as an Indian. When I was studying in art school, my professors said only big abstract bold paintings will sell and will make you lots of money. But that was not really me. My paintings are small, decorative, feminine, mythology based. Why is myth not high art? Why is decorative art not high art? When you speak in your true voice people really start seeing it.
Ruth Abusch-Magder: How do you engage Jewish content in your work?
Sonia Benjamin: I study midrash with Rabbi Burt Visotsky. The whole process of studying midrash is the starting point. Then I have to make it my own. If I just drew Ruth walking with Naomi or Rebecca by the well, it would be redundant. People would say, how skillful or how beautiful, but it would not be compelling. It would be redundant. But midrash is about having a take on the story. I am making visual midrash that will affect not just Jewish people, but all kinds of people. They can connect in their own way. I’m striving for that.
Ruth Abusch-Magder: The Esther Megillah was a commission, so how did you decide what to illustrate and how to do the drawings?
Sonia Benjamin: The person who commissioned me had a lot to say, and so did Rabbi Visotsky. I also did historical research. Haman’s hat, for example, was it supposed to be three cornered like a hamantashen? There were no hamantashen in Persia. So I asked what could he have been wearing? Then I exaggerated it to show his character.
There is a scene where Achashverosh is receiving Esther and Modechai is presenting her. I was doing sketches, and I went back and forth with the rabbi and the guy about the throne. I wondered if I should go back to the Persian miniature and copy Moghul miniature painting which showed King Akbar or Gihangi sitting on thrones. But there is actually there is a midrash about the throne that Achashverosh sat on. There is a contemplation that he sat on the looted throne of King Solomon. Now, what does that look like? It is said in the midrash that it had a lion, a falcon, a bull and human face on it. According to the midrash Solomon’s throne was looted by the Persian kings and this is what Achashverosh sat on. So I used this as the basis in my painting. It is a hidden secret, no one will know unless it is pointed out but it will make it more interesting.
Ruth Abusch-Magder: Which is your favorite character? Who do you identify with in the megillah?
Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my work is feminist, I like marginal characters Vashti, Lilith, dina, tziporah. So I was disappointed that Vashti disappears [from the story]. She is like the ex-wife who wants to come back. So in the scroll painting in one of the scenes when the King is married to Esther and she is planning to save the Jewish people and she is pouring wine in the background there are arch ways and the marriage bed. In the background I painted the shadow of Vashti, she is watching, maybe approving, saying this king is finally getting what he deserves.
Ruth Abusch-Magder: Why are the women in your paintings blue?
Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my characters are blue because a lot of times people don’t recognize what I am, I get asked if I am Moroccan, Puerto Rican, Pakistani, Persia. If I say Indian then they say Hindu, Muslim? Then what are you. When I explain that I am Jewish, they often want to touch me –I’m exotic. There have been Jews in India for thousands of years. When I was painting self portraits I tried all these brown colors but none seemed right. But blue is the color of the ocean and sky it could belong anywhere. It is the color of Israel all the synagogues in India are painted this blue, and Krishna is a God who is blue. It became a symbol for me of being a Jewish woman of color. It became a joke that I could play. Feminist writers have said, that I am the other 3x removed, Jewish, woman and in a foreign land, so your blueness gets amplified, you get bluer and bluer.
Posted on April 12th, 2011 No comments
This year, the story of liberation from Egypt is being told on the back drop of a contemporary story of liberation in that same country. In 2006, Rabbi Ruth Sohn who is the Director of the Leona Aronoff Rabbinic Mentoring Programas well as the Rabbi of the Lainer Beit Midrash at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, spent 6 months living in Egypt with her husband Reuven Firestone. Sohn is currently working on a book about that experience and took some time to share some thoughts on how the ancient story and the modern reality come together. -Ruth Abusch-Magder
The bitter and the sweet
Everyone loves charoset and I have always been intrigued by the tradition of dipping the maror in charoset before we offer the blessing and ingest the bitterness of slavery. Only in the presence of something sweet can we fully take in the bitterness of the maror. Only when hope glimmers can we allow ourselves to feel the full force of the bitterness of our suffering.
While we now know that some of the young Egyptian activists had been preparing for months and even years for a moment such as this, when the time would be ripe for mass protests against the regime, what made this moment the time? More than the sad, desperate self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit-vender in Tunisia, it was the success of Tunisian protestors in overthrowing their ruler of 23 years sparked hopes in Egypt. Suddenly, people could taste the sweet hope, that the freedoms that had for so long seemed unattainable, might now be within grasp. And suddenly, thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets in Cairo and other cities and towns in Egypt, ready to risk beatings and arrest and worse, to stand up and say No More.
Freedom from… Freedom for…?
In calling for the end of the regime of their modern day Pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptians were able to come together in inspiring and moving ways, across lines of religion, gender, class, and education. Their ability to stand together against forces that sought to divide them, even in the face of violent attack, and their success in ousting Mubarak stands as an enormous achievement. And yet, there is no time to lose celebrating. Freedom from the oppressive regime has not yet been fully accomplished. The military, first celebrated by the Egyptians as supportive of the revolution, is now increasingly coming under attack as Egypt’s reviled Emergency Law is still in place, allowing for the continuing arrests and imprisonments, sexual harassment, and torture.
And even as the Egyptians continue to push for freedom from the oppressions of the past, the next question is already upon them, and will shape the formation of political parties going forward. What should this freedom be for? What kind of society do they want to build? What is the vision of a modern Egypt that calls them forward? For many, the idea that Islam should play some kind of role in their society is appealing. But what kind of Islam? And what kind of influence? And at the same time, for many, the experience of protest in Tahrir Square holds an important piece of the vision: a celebration of the diversity of the Egyptian people, and the dignity of every human being. But the vision needs to be given fuller shape and expression, which will include but not be limited to the establishment of new laws. Moving toward Freedom For involves even harder work and is a lot messier than fighting for Freedom From. The Egyptians and the rest of the world need to be prepared for a sometimes slow and circuitous journey.
Freedom from… freedom for…? The experience of the Egyptians points us back to one of the great challenges of our own Exodus. We relive and celebrate our own humble beginnings as slaves with a transformative journey from slavery to freedom, but we are reminded that this freedom is only the first step of a long journey through the wilderness, toward a fuller freedom that still needed to be defined. From our first steps into freedom from slavery, we had to begin to chart that journey, a journey that took us to Sinai and beyond, that included far-reaching laws and teachings, toward a fuller redemption for us and the world. If our journey had not included Sinai, (or Shabbat, or Israel, or a few other things listed in Dayenu?) would we still be around to tell the tale of the Exodus?
So the journey continues, and in every generation, every year, we ask ourselves at Pesach, how, this year, are we enslaved? What is the liberation that calls to us most deeply? What do we need freedom from? What do we need freedom for? And what is the path to this liberation? What is our maror, and our charoset? What is the bitterness for us, and what offers the sweetness of hope that can wake us up to the full bitterness of our current oppression, and galvanize us forward to seek liberation? We are invited to look inward and outward in asking these questions, to consider the broadest political landscape as well as the deepest inner spiritual terrain, and to realize that we do not need to choose between them, but rather can seek new connections between the two realms we too often see as separate.
Our seder tables may hold the best possibility for exploring these questions together, so we can all experience again the promise of the holiday, and perhaps, be able to take a few real steps forward on our journeys.
Chag Pesach sameach.
Posted on February 16th, 2011 No comments
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This past Shabbat I prayed with the international community that is the World Union of Progressive Judaism. The t’fillot were spirited following the familiar rubric. The passion and commitment of the congregation came through in the level of participation. But it was the language –the diversity of it- that really stood out.
It is easy to dismiss “Jewish Peoplehood” as just the latest of trends in organized Jewish communal life. But behind the slogans lies a complex reality of global Jewish diversity. There were no quotes around those praying together, we are Jewish peoplehood. The diversity of our languages of prayer spoke to the complexity and beauty of the reality of Jewish peoplehood, a reality that moves beyond slogans and embraces the challenges and possibilities of seeing ourselves as a global community.
Sitting with my young daughter, I reveled in the many different languages spoken from the bimah. As each reader came forward, we discussed the language and considered the fact that there are Jews not only that can speak these languages but that live in so many different countries. On this most simple level it is indeed cool to remember that there Jews everywhere and to recognize that this is not just an abstract concept but an embodied reality. Our world is as Thomas Friedman has pointed out, increasingly flat, we communicate and connect with people around the world all the time. Our Jewish world must mirror that reality. Global Judaism provides the means by which we can help make these connections. If Americans who increasingly see themselves as global don’t see their Judaism as global, then they are likely to see Jewishness as a marginal or parochial element of their identity. If however, we embrace the global Jewish reality, not only for ourselves but our communities, then Judaism will be a passport that they take with them as they enter into global connection.
At the same time as I was inspired by the diversity in the t’fillah, as I listened to various readings in languages which I do not understand at all, I was aware of my own discomfort at literally not being able to comprehend what was going on. My literal inability to understand, while a minor perturbation in scheme of things, points to the larger challenge of engaging with global community. People from other places, even when they share a commitment to liberal Judaism, have different ways expressing and experiencing Judaism. Embracing peoplehood means that we will inevitably experience some disconnect. Acknowledging the places where we differ is essential if we are to truly embrace global diversity and not simply impose our own vision of self on others. Anticipating and accepting that some of these differences may make us uncomfortable is critical for building a sense of Jewish peoplehood that goes beyond slogans.
Our ability to come together as a people across our differences resonated loudly during the group aliyot which called to the Torah individuals whose native languages mirrored the diversity of the congregation. Chanting the brachot in Hebrew, the differences in inflection and intonation were notable but the unified meaning came through loud and clear.