More Diverse Than You Think: Blogs by Jews of Color

In this part of my series, More Diverse Than You Think, I’d like to introduce you to the voices of Jews of color via some excellent blogs. I’m a regular reader of most of these, and I discovered some new ones in the process of researching this post. Some of these folks are well-known outside the blogosphere; most are not. All are well worth your click and your time reading.

If you are thinking, “Who is a Jew of color?” you aren’t the first person to ask that question. I recommend you check out Erika Davis’ post Who Is A Jew of Color?

This is not an exhaustive list. I’ve left off some people whose blogs seem to be dormant right now, and I am absolutely certain there are blogs that I’m yet to discover. If you are aware of a currently-active blog I’ve missed, I hope you will share it with a link in the comments.

Individual Bloggers:

black, gay, and jewish: a gay black woman’s discovery of her jewish self is a blog by Erika Davis, who also writes for the JMN blog. To learn more about her, check out the About page on her blog. I like reading her because she challenges my assumptions and makes me think.

Afroculinaria is the blog home for Michael Twitty, a food writer and culinary historian. He works to preserve the food heritage of the South, and to holding up the culinary contributions of Africans and African-Americans to the American menu.  He’s a feeder and a healer, and quite a writer, too.

Manishtana is one of the longest-running blogs in this group, at various addresses since 2009. It’s tag line is “100% Black, 100% Jewish, 0% Safe.” The blogger describes himself as “Born Jewish, Frum From Birth.” He’s an interesting man with a lot to say; be sure to check out the extensive archive.

Sandra Lawson blogs at My Musings. She bills herself as “Sociologist, Personal Trainer, Food Activist, Weight Lifter, Vegan, Writer, Public Speaker & I’m Queer.”   She’s also the first African-American student accepted into the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Rabbinical Program. I had the pleasure of meeting Sandra at a retreat for LGBTQI Jewish clergy last winter and I can vouch for the fact that she has lots of interesting things to say.

PopChassid is the blogchild of Elad Nehorai, whose tweets I have admired for some time, although I only discovered his blog today. I learned about the blog reading Who Is A Jew of Color? on Black, Gay and Jewish. I am looking forward to reading his longer-form work, since I already enjoy what he writes in 140 characters. Elad describes himself as “wacky secular turned religious Jew who’s just trying to make the world a better place.”

Institutional Blogs:

The Jewish Multiracial Network sponsors the JMN Blog. It features a group of bloggers who are in themselves a diverse group, including a college student, a psychiatrist, adoptive parents, and a labor doula. They address a wide variety of topics.

Be’chol Lashon, the topic of yesterday’s post, also staffs Jewish&, an excellent blog on the My Jewish Learning website.  One thing I’ve noticed about Jewish& is its rich “Comments” sections – discussions there are remarkably civil and pertinent.

Check out these blogs and expand your Jewish world. I hope that readers who know of other blogs that should have been on this list will add them via the comments!

More Diverse Than You Think: Meet Be’chol Lashon

Be’chol Lashon is Hebrew for “In Every Tongue.” It’s also the name of an organization that fosters “an expanding Jewish community that embraces its differences.” They’re very serious about it, sponsoring research, community projects, grants, and not least a remarkable website full of resources for education about the wild variety of Jews in the world.

Here in the United States, we have a tendency to think that most Jews are of Ashkenazi descent. In fact, even here in the US roughly 20% of the Jewish population is something else: Sephardic, Persian, African-American, Asian, Mizrahi – and there I’m talking solely about born Jews.  There are also a lot of us who don’t look Ashkenazi because we converted to Judaism, and our ancestors are Irish, Dutch, German, or from somewhere else, like the Pacific Islands.

Be’chol Lashon seeks to stand on our common ground of Torah while celebrating the differences among Jews worldwide. It’s an ambitious project but one that I find inspiring.

Some critics may ask if this vision of Judaism is authentic: will such an embrace of diversity loosen our grip on Torah? Is this a fad? It’s a fair question. For an answer, I look to the stated goals of Be’chol Lashon:

  1. Build networks of global Jewish leaders
  2. Strengthen diverse Jewish communities around the world
  3. Educate Jews and the general public about Jewish diversity
  4. Increase the Jewish population by encouraging those who would like to be part of the Jewish people

It seems to me that these goals address a core value of Torah, the love of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People. They strive for an ingathering of the exiles, in this case, not a physical ingathering to the Land, but an ingathering of neshamot, of spirits. Too many Jews have been exiled from the larger Jewish community on account of superficial matters (“You don’t look Jewish!”) and in this generation after the Holocaust, it’s time we got over such trivial things.

If you are interested in expanding your own Jewish horizons, or if this dream of a larger, vibrant Jewish community speaks to you, check out their website, especially the educational resources.

The Jewish world is both larger and smaller than most of us imagine. It’s time we embraced our whole mishpocha [family.]

More Diverse Than You Think: Meet JIMENA

Jewish Population in the United States 2013 estimated the US Jewish population at just over 6.72 million, with more than 80% of US Jews are of Ashkenazi descent. That means that their ancestors hail from Eastern Europe and likely spoke some form of Yiddish. When someone talks about a person “looking Jewish” they are referring to this majority group.

However, the remaining 20% (more or less) of the Jewish population is quite diverse. The two next largest groups are the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, whose ancestors hail from Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East.

If all you know about American Jewry is Ashkenazim and Fiddler on the Roof, you’re missing out. There’s a wonderful online resource for learning more about Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews: the website of an organization called JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. There you can read history, sample video, find recipes, and listen to music. JIMENA also has a speakers bureau and sponsors programming to raise the profile of these often-forgotten communities.

It’s a great big Jewish world out there, and a very diverse one here on our continent. Check out JIMENA and begin to get a taste of it!

The Wonders of Shabbat

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There is a Jewish mystical tradition that holds that every Shabbat a Jew receives a neshamah y’teyrah, an extra soul. The first time I heard that, I thought it sounded a bit excessive: I have my hands full with the soul I’ve got.

The concept of the extra soul holds that on Shabbat, we are given extra capacity because of the holiness of the day and the opportunity for learning Torah. Torah study is not just an intellectual activity, although it is certainly that. It also has the power to transform our souls. Traditionally, study on Shabbat is even more powerful: we can take in more Torah than on an ordinary day, and the Torah we take in is more potent than usual.

I confess that I’m a rational little person, and I don’t know how seriously I can take all that. If someone asked me to locate for them the mind or the soul I would have no idea where to look. I think of the mind as attached to my head and the soul to my heart, but I have no evidence for either. (Nor does it explain why I feel sick to my stomach when I feel guilt.)

However, I do experience something different about Shabbat, something that I cannot simply move to a different day. Those who are mystical will have their explanations of that, and I have my own. For me, Shabbat is the time when we, the Jewish People, build that “cathedral of time” that Rabbi Heschel wrote about in The Sabbath. Whether it is given from above or created by human beings, there is power in the intentional pause that so many Jews make as the sun sets on Friday. We stop and take a collective breath, and then for 25 hours, we simply are.

Any individual can opt out, of course, and many do. Many Jews go on to work, or to sporting events, or to the shopping mall, and they don’t feel that they are missing anything. There are Jews who have experienced Shabbat, but for whom it has been marked with the stink of deprivation (“No, you may not listen to the game,” “No, you may not color,” “No, you may not make mud pies!”) and for them, being able to make or do is an expression of freedom their Jewish souls crave.

Anyone who has read this blog for long knows that I think there are many ways to be Jewish. When I think of the world on Shabbat, I think of the vast sphere of the planet revolving on its axis, and as it turns, candles light in Jerusalem in some homes. In other homes, in Tel Aviv, music plays on the radio as people enjoy their dinner. In London, a group gathers for Kabbalat Shabbat, and somewhere in Dublin, another Jew meets friends at a pub. A little later, as the sun sets in New York City, a young adult group meets for potluck in Manhattan while Chabadnikim walk home from shul with dinner guests in Brooklyn. In Cincinnati, Kabbalat Shabbat begins at the Plum Street Temple; in Denver, young families gather for Tot Shabbat. An hour later, in Berkeley, a group parks on the street near Urban Adamah where they come for singing, and prayers, and dinner; afterwards, they’ll drive home. And even later, on the Kona Coast of the Big Island, a few Jews light Shabbat candles and welcome the Sabbath Queen on the beach. And some simply watch the sunset and marvel at the wonder of it all.

It’s all Shabbat, and it is all authentic and good. What will happen in your life when the sun goes down for Shabbat this week? Whatever it is, I wish you Shalom.

Happy Birthday Israel

Originally posted on Walking Humbly. Seeking Justice. Living with Hope.:

Tonight we begin the celebration of Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s 67th Independence Day.   Happy Birthday Israel! It was 67 years ago that the modern State of Israel was born. But it was really a rebirth of our ancient nation state, reborn after 2000 years!

The Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel reads: THE DECLARATION:

ERETZ-ISRAEL (the Land of Israel) was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.

 

After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.

 

Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove…

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Meet Ben Azzai: “Despise No One!”

Ben Azzai used to say: Despise no one and think nothing impossible, for every person has their day, and every thing has its place. – Pirkei Avot 4:3

So who was this Ben Azzai? His full name was Shimon Ben Azzai, and he lived in the early years of the second century. He was a brilliant student of the rabbis, famous for his diligence in study and for his piety. Despite his youth, his words appear in several places in the Talmud. However, his is a sad story, because he had a very short life. He died young in a tragic accident and never married, so he left no children.

There’s a very famous story in the Talmud about Ben Azzai’s death. He was one of four pious Jews who were doing mystical meditation or kabbalah. Rabbi Akiva was truly ready for the experience and survived it. Ben Zoma was driven mad by it. Elisha ben Abuya rejected the vision and caused great destruction. Shimon ben Azzai died.

When you hear that a student “should be married and older than 40″ to study Kabbalah, this is the story behind that saying. Even though these four were brilliant, only Rabbi Akiva survived the mystical union with God, because he was the only one sufficiently prepared for the experience. Ben Azzai became the example of the pure, young, brilliant soul who flew too high and too fast, a Jewish Icarus.

So back to our passage from Pirkei Avot. The first time I read it, I was reassured by it. It seemed to say to me that there was hope for me, even though I was beginning my studies late in life, even though I struggled to learn Hebrew. “Despise no one, even yourself!” I imagined Ben Azzai saying to me.

Then I learned who he was, and the saying deepened in its meaning. “Despise no one” is a nice thing to say, but when it comes from the mouth of a young prodigy it is particularly touching. When one is young and brilliant, so brilliant that Rabbi Akiva invites one to study with him, one is rarely wise enough or humble enough to say, “Despise no one.” Now I imagine Ben Azzai saying it to himself: “Yes, Ben Azzai, you have been given brains and great teachers – but despise no one!”

“…for every person has their day…” Each of us has some important piece of Torah to do in our lifetime. We don’t know what that piece of Torah might be. Maybe I’ve already done mine; maybe it’s still ahead of me. But if I skip some mitzvah, dodge some responsibility, I might miss it, and what a tragedy that would be!

Ben Azzai argues for the importance of every life, no matter how humble. He is arguing even for the importance of things: every little part of creation has its place. We must never forget that every one of us is included in God’s summary of creation, on the sixth day:

And God saw every thing that God had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. – Genesis 1:31

The Magic of the Minyan

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I started my day with the Tuesday Morning Minyan, and at sundown, I will join a shiva minyan at the home of a bereaved gentleman in our congregation. In the morning we had learning, and prayers, and then coffee with the guys (this week they were all guys, except me.) In the evening, we’ll have some quiet visiting, and prayers, and then some nosh and more quiet visiting.

“Minyan” literally means “a quorum for Jewish prayer, or 10,” but beneath the surface, it means so much more:

– a group that comes together daily or regularly to pray and share the connections of community

– a group that comes together to comfort the mourners among us

– a group that can represent Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, standing before God in prayer

– a group of Jewish adults: the magic about the age of 13 for bar mitzvah is that that’s the age at which one counts for the minyan

– a group of Jewish adults: when women began to “count for a minyan,” it was a major step forward for liberal Jewish women

– Ten: the minimum number to say certain important prayers, such as Kaddish and the Barechu blessings

– Ten: the number needed for certain important activities, like reading Torah.

Why ten? The traditional answer is that that is the number of the “spies” who persuaded the Israelites that the Land was too scary to enter in Numbers 13-14. God refers to them as eda’ah hara’ah hazot – “this bad congregation.” (Num. 14:27) Their number was sufficient to drown out the good report of Caleb and Joshua; ultimately their voices spoke for the whole people.

I like to think of it in a more positive way: ten is the number of toes on my feet. A person who loses a toe can still walk, but balance will be impaired and speed will be impaired. Even the little toe is critical for the complex architecture of our feet. In the same way, each member is critical to the functioning of the minyan, from the 13 year old awash in hormones to the 93 year old who cannot see the prayer book anymore. Each has a part to play, even though it may be mysterious to us.

I knew everyone at the minyan this morning; odds are, I won’t know many people at the minyan tonight. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is the presence of every person in the room. What matters, for the Jewish people, is that we show up.