Posted on May 31st, 2012 No comments
When a good teaching session crosses over and becomes a good study session then it sticks with you.
According to the description in the brochure, I was teaching about the ancient view of non-Jews, and I did. But it was also much more than that. With the caveat that recent scholarship has brought into question the theory that book Ruth was written as a counter polemic to the book of Ezra, I set out for the group the ways in which the books are both similar and different. Addressing the similar theme of exile and redemption, return to the land, geneology and proper inheritance there is much in common between the two.
Yet stylistically they could not be more different. Ezra is a book of history, dry and systematic. Ruth is a family story that focuses primarily on the experiences of women.
Making my theological point, that the choice to read Ruth on Shavuot, speaks to a welcoming vision of community that is not a modern Reform choice, but an ancient rabbinic one, was simple.
But we did not stop there. Building on the comparison that I had introduced the group moved into a conversation about policy and personal experience. As, they saw it, Ezra portrays the reality he sees from a bird’s eye view. Not once does he stop to look at the effect his directives will have on individuals. Nowhere does he consider the emotional devastation that being sent back to their mother’s houses will have on the women he demands be divorced. He sees all the foreign women as one common threat, not as individual women with stories and varying degrees of commitment or connection to Judaism.
By contrast the book of Ruth focuses on the personal, getting to know the real story and understanding the complexities that lie below the assumptions of the selfishness, debauchery, and malevolence associated in the Bible with the Moabites as people.
In endorsing gay marriage, President Obama cited his personal relationships with LGBT couples as essential to helping him make the transition. As a rabbi working with an organization that celebrates racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community, I meet Jews have encountered Ezra’s approach when they attempt to access the Jewish community. But I also meet Jews, who have been seen by rabbis, educators, teachers and congregants as full people with complex stories and experiences. The former need much reassurance and often question their place as part of our people. The latter wear their Judaism with pride, often like Ruth, they become leaders and spokespeople for our community.
As I write there are riots going on in Israel against African and foreign workers. In the United States there are still those fighting against gay marriage. Big ideas and policies are important, but listening to the stories of the individuals affected by those policies is important too. If we really listen, it will likely complicate our assumptions and challenge our hatreds.
Posted on May 22nd, 2012 No comments
With Shavuot upon us, Jews around the world prepare for reading the biblical story of Ruth. For Rabbi Seth Goren the biblical story and the message of the holiday have a highly personal meaning.
The story of Ruth resonates strongly with me in part because of its similarity to the account of how part of my family left Eastern Europe. My paternal grandfather was born in the village of Obodovka, then a part of the Russian Empire. His father ran the town’s general store and was relatively well off. After the Russian Civil War broke out in 1917, the central government ceased paying its employees, and the local postmaster, who was not Jewish, could not afford food for his family. Nevertheless, my great-grandfather allowed him to make purchases on credit so that the postmaster’s family would not go hungry and starve to death in the frigid Ukrainian winter of 1918-19.
One day in May 1919, just a few weeks before Shavuot, word spread that a band of Cossacks was riding toward the town bent on attacking the local Jewish population. My great-grandfather loaded the family onto a wagon and began heading westward. They were intercepted by the postman, who informed my family that they were heading in the precise direction from which the Cossacks were coming. “Come with me,” he said, “I’ll hide you in the basement of the post office.” My grandfather and his family remained hidden for the next two days, during which time they heard the postman repeatedly ward off Cossacks, telling them that there were no Jews in the building. When they finally emerged, all of the other Jews of Obodovka were dead, with my grandfather and his family being the only survivors. In this way, my great-grandfather and the postman, strangers to each other’s traditions as surely as they were neighbors, had saved each other’s families.
Looking back, the histories of both my family and our people hinge on relatively small acts whose broader implications could not have been appreciated at the time. Had Ruth and Naomi not taken responsibility for each other, King David’s genealogical line would have foundered, and the entire course of Jewish and world history would be completely different. On a more personal level, if not for the relationship between my great-grandfather and a Ukrainian postman nearly a century ago, my family line would have ended in an Eastern European shtetl like so many others did. In both cases, it is difficult in retrospect to imagine events unfolding any differently. Nevertheless, these episodes show how even a small act of caring for a stranger can reverberate generations later and thousands of miles away.
We cannot always anticipate how we will welcome others emerging from their isolation or where we ourselves will stumble upon sanctuary when we are lost among the unknown and unfamiliar. The unexpected twists in the lives of Naomi, buth and my grandfather could not have been predicted in advance. There will be times when we will be strangers, as we were in Egypt, and times when there will be strangers among us. Nevertheless, deliverance, both for ourselves and for those whom we help, is possible when we take care of each other and provide a haven to the stranger who seeks shelter among us.
Posted on May 8th, 2012 1 comment
Jewish mothers often get a bad rap. Comedians, movies, books portray Jewish moms as the biggest impediment to the development of healthy Jews. Yet, when I started to ask around, there are lots of us out there who see our mothers -Jewish or not- as essential to our growth into the proud Jews we are today. What follows are three moving tributes to three wonderful moms.
We would love to hear more, feel free to share your comments on what values or teaching that you learned from your mom and how they made you into the person you are today. -Ruth Abusch-Magder, editor
Lessons from Estelle
One of the biggest lessons I learned from my mother, Estelle or Essie as every one called her, was really a lesson in feminism although she wouldn’t characterize it that way, but it really was. My Mom had me later in life. She was already in her forties. My older sister was in college and she felt her child bearing days was over. She grew up in an era before the Great Depression and got married soon after high school. She worked as bookkeeper from the age of 16 out of necessity not having the luxury of a college education. Even after she married, she worked in the family business, was active in the life of the community, as Hadassah president, Sisterhood president, temple fundraiser and took care of her parents as well. She raised my sister and ran a household.
She was active in National Council of Jewish Women and so she taught me by example to be involved Jewishly. But my mom would also say to me, “Don’t be any man’s schmatta.” By that she was trying to tell me to be my own person. Go to School. Find a career. Be self supporting. It wasn’t a dig at men or marriage (My parents were happily married 58 years until my father’s death!). But it was her way of conveying the importance of being your own independent woman! And she taught me well. I was the first to graduate college in my family and then of course to go on to seminary and the blessings of a Rabbinic calling! I am no one’s shmatta today. I am my own person and I treasure my mom’s advice and encouragement to grow and learn and embrace the world. –Denise Eger
Learning to be a “mom”
I came out to my mother as gay when I was 27. While I’d like to say that this particular step out of the closet took superhuman levels of courage on my parts, that’s not exactly (or even remotely) true. More accurately, my comfort sharing who I am flowed from many of my mother’s attributes; because of her nurturing love, her subtle kindness and her perseverance in the face of challenge, it was far more natural to share than to withhold.
Getting older, I find that I, too, carry these qualities that allowed me to be open with my mother. They enable and strengthen my rabbinical life, from pastoral conversations to community building. For this reason, perhaps my mother’s greatest ability was how she was able to mold me into the kind of person she is.
About a year ago, I became a father to a daughter. Since then, I’ve been struck by how many people have asked me, “Since you’re a single man, how are you going to make sure she has good female role models?” I suppress my urge to give a snarky response, smile politely and say, “I think we have that covered.” -Seth Goren
What I Learned From My Mom
One of the most important things I learned from my mom was to tune into and value feelings. My mom would always say to me, “Don’t keep it in, it will fester.” Even though I didn’t know what “fester” meant, I understood by her statement that she not only saw me, but felt me. I was always a little surprised that she was aware, often before I was, that I was hurt or concerned about something. (She’d also say “mother’s always know…”) She intuitively knew that experience was layered and that there was more going on than what appeared on the surface. She taught me pay attention to what lies below. This skill has profoundly influenced
my work as a rabbi. I’m not afraid of feelings and teach that becoming aware is a first step toward wisdom and change. Also, this was probably why my love and enthusiasm for Torah study has been so deep. I teach that the surface layer is only one part of reality and by delving deeper into the nuances and multiple meanings of the text, we can learn more and more about our own souls. –Jill Zimmerman
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 July 14th, 2011 1 comment
There has been a great deal of discussion of late about women and the rabbinate stemming from the difficulties that the female rabbinic graduates from the Jewish Theological Seminary faced in finding jobs this year. But the conversation has pushed out beyond that, opening up questions of mothering and professionalism for those who are leaders in Jewish life. This week Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who blogs as Ima on the Bima weighed in from her vantage point as an accomplished professional and mother of four. With her permission I have reprinted here and invite comment and conversation about family-work balance for those of us who serve the Jewish community.
Recently, I noticed a tweet from Rabbi Jason Miller, sharing with me an article written on the Forward’s Sisterhood blog.
I read it at about 5am, while nursing the baby. A little ironic, no?
It struck me particularly hard, since I have had a little bit of a difficult week in terms of balance. Let me explain.
I’m currently serving on faculty at camp. With me at camp are my husband and three children (the oldest is a camper, so I’m not only not responsible for him, I don’t even get to see him very much!), and we are accompanied by a teenage babysitter. The babysitter generally shepherds the two older kids to their activities, while my dear husband spends his time with the baby. Often, the baby accompanies me to programming as well, since he likes very much to be the center of attention! Camp is a great place for my family – everyone has something that they enjoy doing, and we fall into a nice routine of sharing our lives with our friends at camp.
For various reasons, my husband kindly agreed to go along on a 3 day camping trip with one of the older units. He left early Monday morning. On Monday, my babysitter started to feel a little ill and began to run a fever…so she went home, ideally just overnight, to speed up her recuperation (she is fine and will be back soon, I hope!). So…I was left all alone with my kids AND my responsibilities to camp. So far, so good. I’ve weathered this minor storm, my friends have helped out and pitched in, and it’s been fine. I am definitely looking forward to both of them returning to share the work, but I am not overly upset about how this has gone. But it’s definitely on my mind, making sure that everyone gets what they need from me.
Yesterday morning and this morning, the three kids accompanied me to morning tefillah (prayer). The older two sat quietly during the service (You’ve got to love the outdoor chapel that makes a little bug hunting during tefillah possible) and the little one was snug in the sling. (I got Sammy to snap this picture for me right before tefillah began, because this blog post was ruminating around in my brain since I had read the article at 5am.)
I do not know the writer of this article. And I do not actually feel that her post was, in fact, an appropriate response to the post that she cites, a post about young mothers in the rabbinate. Instead, I feel that Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer is trying very much to attack other mothers while justifying her own choices. This is remarkably common and prevalent on the internet – there are so many “mommy bloggers” who want to judge, rebuke, comment upon, and generally dismiss anyone who makes choices different from their own. The comments that I received when I posted this article on Facebook helped me to feel a little less alone when reading Chasya-Uriel’s post – it was definitely a case of “I thought it was just me.” But I was relieved to know that I am not the only one insulted by her simultaneous dismissal of my rabbinate and parenthood.
“I don’t think congregations are concerned with how motherhood might interfere with a mother’s ability to do the job as rabbi; rather, I suspect congregations are concerned with hiring someone who is obviously allowing a rabbinic job to interfere with motherhood. And I have to agree. I would rather see at least one parent at home full-time with her/his baby or toddler — ideally the birth mother, unless the child is adopted. This is what is best for the baby.”
Wow. This is quite a statement, Chasya-Uriel. There are some truly remarkable jobs (not just the rabbinate) held by mothers of young children. Do you also feel that mothers should not be doctors, lawyers, professors, social workers, teachers, artists….? And are you honestly telling me that fathers cannot be full-time caregivers of their children, if that is what works for the family? (Oh, and by the way, that IS what works for my family.)
Chasya-Uriel continues: “I do think that ima eventually belongs on the bima.”
“I agree with Rabbi Levy that all women, mothers or not, should be given the same chance to serve the Jewish community as their male counterparts. But women and men who are parents should be prioritizing serving their babies and toddlers before they prioritize serving the Jewish community. We also need to honor the unique relationship a new mother has with her baby. The attachment formed, especially when breastfeeding, is unparallel to that of the second parents, whether a father or another mother.
We need to allow what rabbinic work we have accomplished up until now to be put on hold, trusting that we will be much better mothers because of our earlier experience as rabbis. If we have set up our lives in which we tell ourselves that we “have” to work or attend school while having a baby, perhaps it is time to reexamine our lives and reprioritize so that we can find a way to be with our children.”
Oh my goodness.
I am both a mother and a rabbi. Some days I’m more ima. Some days I’m more bima. (See blog title.) Some days, I’m trying to make it all work. But I don’t think I’m doing it wrong. I just know that I’m doing it. I’ve created four wonderful little people and my husband and I delight in their growth of body and spirit. We definitely juggle, we definitely argue over who goes where and when. My children do not play multiple sports or attend a lot of extra programs. I do serve in small ways on the PTA but I’m not in the classroom helping out. I don’t “do it all” but I do what I do. I try to do it all as well as I can, with as much love and attention and energy as possible. My children are washed and fed and cared for and loved by their parents. Most of their care is done by my husband or by me, or by Grandma or Bubbie & Zeyde, or some of our wonderful team of babysitters and friends who help us out. My congregation never fails to share my delight when my oldest sings in the Junior Choir or the baby accompanies me to Torah Study on Shabbat morning. I am often scolded for not having them around, since many people feel love and “ownership” of my children. I feel so lucky and blessed to have so many people who care about the well-being of my children and my family.
There is absolutely no question that I would be a different rabbi if I did not have children. Would it be better for my children? Would it be better for my career? Would it be better for my congregation? Would it be better for the Jewish people?
I strongly believe that the answer to all of these questions is NO.
Please enjoy the time that you are spending with your daughter. Cherish every moment. Please know that many people (women and men) who came before you have enabled you to spend that time and make that choice.
Please know that many others have made choices different from yours. I do not judge you for your choice. Please do not dare to judge me for mine. I am intensely proud of the life I lead. I work incredibly hard at all that I do, trying to be the most fulfilled person that I can be – while loving and growing and raising my family. I respect and admire my friends in all forms of their rabbinate – women and men who are juggling and balancing and maintaining remarkable families, careers, lives.
Our choices change over time, we make new decisions based on the situations in which we find ourselves. Lives change. Goals change. Purposes change. Focus changes.
Please remember that like the rabbinate, motherhood comes in all styles.
I am most definitely enjoying mine.
Posted on June 13th, 2011 No comments
This is LGBT Pride month. HUC-JIR is proud of all of our LGBT alumni. As a tribute, this week we are reposting a piece by Rabbi Victor Appell the Specialist for Marketing, Outreach & New Communities for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Congregational Consulting Group. His story, while highly personal, speaks to both traditional and contemporary visions of Jewish family. This post originally appeared on the URJ blog and is reposted here with permission.
They Needed Parents, We Needed Children
When my partner and I were adopting our first child, the adoption agency required that all families it worked with take a class. The class was about becoming a multi-racial family. At one session, the presenter, an adoptive parent herself, prepared us for some of the questions we would be asked, often by perfect strangers. As two white men planning on adopting an African-American child, we knew we were in for it. We have gotten just about every sort of reaction. At my pulpit, one congregant actually asked if we were going to raise our son as a Jew. Did she think that because Avi was black, we would raise him as a Baptist? I didn’t ask. Sometimes we get strange looks and sometimes on Sundays, black women, still in their church finery, stop and give us tearful hugs while we are shopping in Target.
Sometimes, people ask me if my children are adopted. These people usually answer their own question before I have to. But my favorite question is, “So, did you want to have children?” I am tempted to respond that we adopted by accident, or that we woke up one day and found we had a child, or that the condom broke. Last time I checked it was pretty difficult to adopt a child “by accident.” Fortunately, the inner rabbi wins out over the snarky gay man and I politely reply that yes, Colin and I have always wanted children.
In fact, on our first date we talked about our desire to one day become parents. When people ask me why we adopted our sons I say because they needed parents and we needed children. As Jews, we knew we wanted a family in which we could pass on thousands of year’s worth of traditions and values. We dreamed of raising Jewish children, of blessing them at the Shabbat table, of them chanting the Four Questions, of raising children who would become menschen.
It was not so easy to become a family. At first, we assumed that like so many other Jewish couples, we would bring home a baby girl from China. We soon learned that no foreign country allows openly gay people to adopt internationally. The only way to do it was for one of us to adopt as an individual and work with a social worker who was willing to go along with the ruse when working with a foreign adoption agency. Plenty of gay and lesbian couples do this but this was not how we wanted to begin our family. Turning our attention to domestic adoption, we were turned down by a large adoption agency in Chicago, where we lived at the time. They had no experience in working with gay couples and did not want to get our hopes up. The next agency was willing to work with us though they had only worked with one lesbian couple before and did not seem prepared to work with a male couple. At an information session, they handed out a price list. White baby boys were out of our price range, as were white girls. Hispanic children seemed to be on sale and African-American children on clearance. Welcome to the world of domestic adoption.
Eventually we found our way to a wonderful agency that placed African-American and bi-racial children. Here, everyone was the same price. We knew we had found the agency that would help our family of two become three. Remarkably, nine months after completing the paperwork, we brought our three day old son home. At the time, Illinois would not allow two people of the same gender to adopt a child simultaneously. But they could consecutively. Yes, I know, this makes about as much sense as asking me if I planned on raising my son a Jew! So, I adopted Avi first, and then six months later, Colin also adopted him. Though this “minor” indignity cost us twice as much in legal fees as heterosexual couples, we have a birth certificate with both of our names on it.
When I was looking for my next pulpit, our search was limited to states which not only allowed but were receptive to gay adoption. We wanted a little brother for Avi. Florida, which prohibits LGBT people from adopting, was out of the question. Our search led us to New Jersey. Though New Jersey has yet to pass marriage equality, it has some of the gay family friendliest laws in the nation. Here, we pursued a public adoption. Despite the beurocratic frustrations of working with a public agency to create a family, our being gay was never an issue. In fact, the social workers used to vie over who would do the home visits. They all told us how much they loved we way we had decorated our home. Hey, I’m happy to wear a stereotype when it serves my purposes! Again, in just nine months from beginning the process Lev completed our family.
I cannot imagine being told that because Colin and I are gay that we would not be fit to be parents. Just like any other parents, our days are filled with getting the boys off to school in the morning, checking homework in the afternoon, and reading bedtime stories in the evening. And our weekends are filled with taking our boys from one sporting event to another. Our sons have never met a sport they did not like! And Colin is the coach of Lev’s t-ball team. What do you think of that, Florida?
Posted on April 8th, 2011 No comments
by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD.
I often think that Passover is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. Both are holidays for which there is significant preparation, anticipation and expectations. Both are holidays when we make a special effort to reach out to family and gather together in celebration. Both have rituals and customs but also meanings that go beyond what is openly stated and done. And both holidays share much in the way of culinary and entertaining/ritual advice to be found on how to do the holidays ‘right.’ But one place where Christmas has the advantage is in the acknowledgement of how the reality of these expectations and family gatherings –or in many cases lack there of- mixed together with the pressure of doing it ‘right’can create its own stress and disappointment.
In addition to helping Jews understand the importance of Passover, it is incumbent upon Jewish professionals to help provide tools and frameworks for coping with our anxieties and the very real complexities of the holiday. Recently, I spoke with Sarah Spencer a Marriage and Family Therapist in San Francisco and a director of Camp Be’chol Lashon who pointed out that many of the rituals and forms of the Seder provide a fantastic structure for dealing with difficulties. Discussing her understanding of the Seder as a model of how to create diverse community, I have a new appreciation for how the Seder might provide a some clues to diffusing the tensions it creates.
1. Our stories are the starting point, they resonate with other and echo through the generations. The whole reason to have a Seder is to tell our story so that we can embrace freedom and revelation. Long before Sigmund Freud made it popular, Judaism recognized that in order to be free we need to In order to be free we need to tell our story. We must speak of that which is difficult in order to move forward. But we need not see this speaking, nor even the existence of difficulties as out of the ordinary. Indeed according to our traditions, each of us is obligated to recall our places of slavery and darkness. The presumption is that we all have those places and difficulties and that we all have the potential to move beyond them. Keeping this in mind, we can embrace the Seder not for the perfection it represents but as the opportunity to move forward which all of us need.
2. We are opening our homes to strangers. The assumption that we know those who are sitting around the table, is often just that. When real strangers join us at the table, we understand that there will need to be listening and patience to help bridge the lack of familiarity and we work towards doing that. If however, those at the table are family, we may not extend the say level of courtesy and patience. Given that there are many families that come together only a few times a year, and even those who know each other well may make assumptions about who the others at the table are, we would do well to approach those invited to Seder as though they were strangers and treat them with thoughtful courtesy as opposed to presuming we already know and understand them.
3. Ask questions. Many of them. How are we to know the strangers with whom we travel? How are we to understand the stories others tell? As Spenser reminds us, asking questions is the essential ingredient for speaking across differences. An expert in diversity and community building, she reminds us that asking questions about differences is the only way to really understand and engage with others. The asking can start before the Seder. Talk with guests and ask how they want to make this night different from other nights. Using the four questions as a guide, encourage the framing of question of curiosity not of accusation. Remind yourself and your guests that questions can lead to hurt or openness; the difference lies in how we ask and how open we are to answers.
4. There are 4 children. We know this so well that sometimes we forget that at every table, and within each of us, there are indeed 4 different children. If we are hoping just to have wise sons and daughters gathered then we have not really prepared and anticipated the difficulties that are inevitable. If we can step back and remember that the challenges, the indifference, the inability to pay attention is not personal, but universal then we can gain important perspective on the matter and formulate responses that are appropriate and able to be heard not just reactive and ignored.
There is no short cut around the stress of Passover. The tensions are built into the anticipation and the importance of the holiday. Yet if we are able to frame and understand the difficulties within the contexts set up for us by our tradition, then we will find that we hold many tools for approaching the hard places and setting ourselves free.
Posted on January 31st, 2011 1 comment
A Filipino who speaks Yiddish.
Arabs living in Jerusalem speaking in Hebrew about identity.
A Jewish grandmother returning to home of her youth –in Djerba.
These are some of the people I’ve encountered recently through the new Israeli arts site Omanoot.com.
The importance of the arts for Jewish education is an axiom among those of us who make Jewish learning a central element of our lives. YouTube and services like Netflix have made it possible for us to access a growing amount of artistic content for use in connecting with and inspiring our communities. Yet much of Israeli film continued to lay beyond the reach of those of us in the US, either because it was not available for viewing on our systems or because of the language barrier. Enter Omanoot.com. The site’s claim that it is “Omanoot is Israel’s HULU, Amazon, iTunes and virtual MOMA all in one” is a bit grandiose but it does hit its mark of making “Israeli, literature, and visual art) accessible for cultural, educational, and entertainment purposes,” by streaming many films, providing subtitles, searchable indexes and educational materials.
Moving far beyond the Hasbara films of the Israeli foreign ministry, the site provides a great deal to explore. But I was particularly intrigued by how the offerings might be used to enhance Jewish education. The founders of Omanoot worked with artist and master educator Robbie Greengrass of Makom in conceptualizing the site. The thoughtfulness has paid off. Though the educational materials are for the time being quite limited, the lesson plans that have been posted are particularly strong. Mixing classical Jewish sources with contemporary ones, pairing when appropriate Jewish and non-Jewish sources, and providing educational activities for different settings. A particular favorite of mine was a lesson that used Israeli Reggae Band Hatikva 6’s song “If I Met God” in conjunction with Bob Marley’s “Forever Loving Jah” to open up conversation about the nature of the Divine.
But the site should inspire educators far beyond the prefab lesson plans. Nor should Omanoot.com be limited to Israel ed moments. The content on the site is appropriate for opening conversations on many topics. For example, Yossi and Jaeger about gay Israeli soldiers, for example is available for streaming here and quite relevant as we look towards the repeal of DADT.
The short lesser known films from the students at the religious film school Maalot, are especially easily adapted for classroom and youth group triggers. The Yiddish language film A-Maiseh which looks at a moment in the life of an elderly Jew and the young Filipino who cares for him might be used in a class on aging or on immigration –not necessarily Israeli. Of interest in this short piece are not only the dynamics between the police and the illegal immigrant but those within the family and among the friends. A class on world Jewry would undoubtedly warm to the story of Aunt Diya, who with scrimping and saving makes her way back to Tunisia to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer in the synagogue she grew up in on the island of Djerba. The story is at once very familiar to those who know the genre of similar roots films retracing Jewish life in Europe and at the same time new and novel given the setting and the customs. Students with whom I watched the film had little knowledge of Jewish life in Arab lands and were curious not only about Diya’s reasons for leaving but also for going back.
I highly recommend Omanoot.com to the bookmark list of any Jewish professional who knows the value of the arts to make deep connections and lasting impressions.
Posted on January 24th, 2011 No comments
by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder Ph.D.
Bubbe Meises, literally, grandmother tales, have come to be synonymous with superstition. And superstitions are by modern standards ridiculous, right?
Maybe. Or on the other hand. Maybe Not.
A few years ago when my family moved into a new house in a suburb of Chicago, Rabbi Michael Weinberg and his wife Jody brought us a house warming gift, a basket with bread, salt, and honey. The bread and salt, they explained, were traditional while the honey was in honor of the quickly approaching New Year. I have since learned that the tradition of bread and salt seems to likely draw on historic Russian customs of presenting honored guests or new brides with bread and salt as a sign of hospitality and welcome signifying the prosperity of a full larder.
Calling this practice a bubbe meise is not necessarily out of place. While we cannot know exactly how Jews came to adopt this general Russian custom it is not hard to imagine it being passed down in the doing from mother to daughter. As modern Jews, we are unlikely to believe that the bread and salt will be the cause of prosperity, so it is possible to understand it as a superstition.
But that need not mean dismissing this or other similar grandmother tales as valuable to our contemporary Jewish lives.
Instead of rejecting bubbe meise (and by implication the women who believed in them) might we not learn from the process by which Reform Judaism has grappled with the Torah passed through the generations of men? The stories that our grandmothers told one generation to another resonated for them. They held kernels of wisdom and understanding. Distancing ourselves from those truths and those understandings closes off paths to engaging and meaning. In other words, can we look at the specific grandmotherly tales and belief, examine the ways in which they do and do not resonate for us today? Can we reengage and reinterpret with them as we do with tallit or standing for Torah reading?
I believe very strongly that we can and should.
Recently I was asked to bring a spiritual presence to a housewarming for a woman who had moved into a new home after a difficult divorce. While our modern Reform liturgy offers pieces borrowed from other places to contextualize the hanging of a mezuzah, the grandmother tales offered inspiration that not only spoke directly to the situation but also drew from similar contexts in different times and places. Drawing on the North African and Yeminite traditions involving the making of candle, we lit and broke candles to symbolize from which this home represented a break. Considering the salt and bread, we not only connected to the historic hopes for prosperity but also delved into the ways in which bread and salt represented to transfer of holiness from one centralized fixed place, the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem, to the multiple homes that it has lived since.
Before we dismiss the bubbe meise, consider what might be lost if you do.
Posted on December 13th, 2010 1 comment
Erev Rav: God, this dessert is awful, there is ABSOLUTELY NOOOOOO food worth eating
Moses ben Amram: Wondering, yet again, why I ever took this job…..
God “the one and only”: You are such a kvetch. Meet up in 30. Bring 70 of your closest with you.
The world of online social networks is complex and persuasive. The fluid nature of the medium makes it both compelling and problematic. Even as governments struggle with how to navigate the open platforms that allow national secrets to be shared world wide, the traditional challenges of adolescence and identity formation are amplified in an era that blurs the boundaries between public and private. Things that might have, only a few years back, remained knowledge between a close group of friends, such as a first kiss now become the news of thousands of ‘friends.’ A misspoken remark or bullying in the playground, now gains permanency creating havoc for the victim and the perpetrator. Young people, parents and educators are increasingly concerned about how to help children navigate the complexities of this new social and media reality.
While it is impossible to inoculate children against all the challenges of modern media consumption, clergy and Jewish educators have an important tool in our box that is often overlooked in the complex discussions about living on-line. The Bible, though clearly very much “old media,” is a great tool for helping young people consider the value and weight of their words.
Overwhelmed by the sheer volume and content of what they are exposed to in the media, and still developmentally grappling with the concept of consequences, the permanence of the online world can be hard for young people to grasp. The Bible shows us some of the enduring impact of writing down our every action. What is it that we know about Avraham Avinu at this distance? Yes, we know he was chosen by God but we also know that he passed his wife off to the King of Egypt and that he tied his son up and prepared him for sacrifice. When working with young people I ask them if they think that Abraham would be happy with the record we have of his actions. How would he like to be remembered? How would they like to be known in the world?
While it may seem flip, it is not hard –as I did above -to read much of the narrative element of the Tanakh as a series of facebook or twitter posts. Frequently, the biblical narratives come not in long flowing prose but in short burst – often, dare I say of less than 140 characters a passuk. One of the great joys of the brevity of the biblical narrative is that it leaves much room for commentary. We are left to guess at the motivations at the contexts. And we do.
David ben Jessie: Just saw the most beautiful woman bathing on her roof
Commentator one: Seriously man, you’re married.
David “father of the Messiah” ben Jessie: I’m just looking…
Commentator two: Go for it Dave, after all you’re the King, whatever you do is cool
The short pieces we see in the Bible regarding events, such as David’s sighting of Batsheva, make it possible for us to layer meanings onto the text. While that has provided many generations of learned Jews with much to work with, I’m sure that the “reality” of the original events was lost long ago. Today, such commentaries on the short bursts of information that we put out about our daily lives accrue with lightening speed. We don’t wait generations between Rambam’s and Rashi’s thought but seconds between Susan’s and Deryck’s responses. Reality can get lost quite quickly as can our control over the perception of events.
Gone are the days of the long meaningful missive. Short texts with a series of Roshei Tevot communicate volumes in an economy of space and leave much to the imagination. Going back to biblical commentaries is not going to change the mode of communication but it can be a means by which we help young people unpack their use of modern media.