We Were Strangers, Once

April 15, 2014
We're all in this together, after all.

We’re all in this together, after all.

Passover preparation this year was interrupted by horrible news: on Sunday, April 13, three people were murdered just outside Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas. From the news reports, it seems likely that a notorious anti-Semite chose that day to terrorize Jews.  Children were terrified. Three innocent lives were taken.

Here in the United States, this event was big news and the response was exactly what we would hope for in such a situation. Law enforcement rushed to the scene, and determined that the murders were indeed a hate crime. The President, religious leaders, and civic leaders rushed to the microphones to denounce the evil acts. The news services interviewed speakers from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and local synagogues. All the public voices agreed: the acts and attitude of the murderer stand completely outside the law and the public will.

We have reached a point in American history where it is assumed that violence against Jews and people who spend time with Jews is a bad thing.

Unfortunately, while we have made progress in this area, others still suffer under the assumptions that they are less than human, dangers to society, or are “asking for trouble” simply by being who they are. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, more than half of all victims of anti-LGBT hate crimes in 2012 were transgender women. Transgender women of color are especially at risk of violent attacks. For example, Islan Nettles, a young trans woman who had worked her way out of homelessness and was looking towards a bright future was beaten to death by thugs on the street.

I had dinner with a young trans activist last week, to find out how things were going at the nonprofit where he works. He told me that he is haunted by all the murders, that every week brings word of more violence against trangender people.

And then there is the violence that isn’t categorized officially as a hate crime, because it originates in the legal system itself. Last May, Monica Jones was arrested on the street in Phoenix, AZ, when police profiled her as a sex worker because she was a trans woman of color walking on a public street. She was given a choice of a Christian “prostitution diversion” program or to be tried on charges of prostitution. Never mind that she isn’t a prostitute. Never mind that she is a student in good standing at Arizona State. Never mind that if sentenced, she faces placement in a mens’ jail where she is almost certain to be the target of violence. An Arizona judge convicted Monica of “manifesting prostitution” which means she fit the profile: in her case, she was accosted by police for “looking like a prostitute” and then she asked them if they were police. That is her “crime.”

There was a time in America when ignorant people felt free to ask Jews about our anatomy (“Have horns? a tail?”) a time when Jews were assumed to be deceptive, a time when Jews had to fear violence on a daily basis. There are, sadly, people who still hold to anti-Semitic beliefs and who act on those beliefs. But when the chips are down, as they were in Kansas this past week, American Jews can depend on the system for justice.

Transgender people face intrusive questions about their anatomy anytime, anywhere: “What surgery have you had?”  “What do your genitals look like?” They are assumed to be deceptive: “He used to be a woman!” “She isn’t a real she!” They are acceptable targets for jokes, for violence, and for ridicule in too many venues. However, the sad fact is that trans folk cannot depend on the system for justice; sometimes our law enforcement and legal systems are the source of injustice.

We’ve been there. We know what it is like to be despised outsiders. This Passover, let’s mobilize our resources to fulfill the commandment:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Exodus 20:21.

We Jews are still targets of violence. We are still misunderstood and oppressed by the majority culture at times. We could take our anger and fear and turn inwards. But instead we have the choice to obey the commandment and turn outwards, to reach outwards, and take the hands of those who are still labeled as strangers in our society. We are commanded to challenge bigotry and ignorance. We are commanded to speak up for the stranger. Because we know what it’s like.

I wish all our readers a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover, an energizing festival, empowering us all to work for justice.

Image: By Koshy Koshy, Some rights reserved.

This post originally appeared on kol isha, the blog of the Rabbinic Women’s Network.

 

 

 

 


“You want to be Jewish and you live WHERE?” An Internet Mystery

November 14, 2013
Rabbi Jacob Saul Dwek and officials of the gre...

Rabbi Jacob Saul Dwek and officials of the great synagogue of Aleppo. Jewish life in Syria came to an end in the 20th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are places in the world where there are very few Jews, and where Judaism is officially or unofficially forbidden by the state.  One of the great mysteries of the Internet, to me, is that periodically someone in one of those countries will write to my friends at BecomingJewish.net and inquire about conversion to Judaism. 

All the folks at BecomingJewish.net can do is write back to them and explain that (1) it isn’t safe to convert to Judaism in their country and (2) there are few or no Jews there, so it isn’t possible to convert.

On the one hand, it makes me sad to think that someone who wants to be Jewish is living in a place where they simply cannot become Jewish. On the other hand, it speaks to a real misunderstanding of Jewish life, because even if they could convert, they could not have any kind of meaningful experience of Jewish life without a community.

Judaism isn’t something you do by yourself. It isn’t private, it isn’t personal. It is communal. We pray in a minyan, a group of ten or more. We have a minyan for important occasions, like a bris.  How can you have a seder, if you have no one with whom to discuss? We don’t even study alone!

This is why my first advice to anyone converting to Judaism is to find a rabbi, find a community, and to be regular at everything: services, events, and so on. It’s only by spending time with Jews that you can learn to be a Jew, and get the goodies of Jewish life.

As for the people writing letters from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to BecomingJewish.net, I have no idea what’s going on there. If they are real, I hope they can find their way to a place where there are more Jews.


Part Jewish?

October 2, 2013
Black and White Cookie @ Martha's Vineyard Gou...

(Photo credit: David Berkowitz)

“When I told the rabbi I was half-Jewish, he was not very friendly.”

The young man who said that to me had recently discovered that his father was a Holocaust survivor. His dad had felt it was not safe to be a Jew, so after the war he hid his Jewish identity, and only revealed it on his deathbed. Joe (not his real name) had been raised without religion, had become a Christian in college, and now was trying to deal with this new information about his family. He was also still grieving for his father, and exploring Judaism was one way to feel connected to his dad. He went to a synagogue (I do not know what synagogue, or which movement it was) and when he approached the rabbi after services and introduced himself with, “I’m half Jewish” the rabbi said, “That’s not possible.”

Joe was baffled and hurt. “What did I do?” he said.

Sometimes I hear people say, “I’m half-Jewish” or “I’m one-quarter Jewish.” That reflects their self understanding. What they need to know, though, is that in the rabbinic Jewish universe, there are categories labeled “Jewish” and “not-Jewish,” but that there is no “part Jewish.” An analogy: it’s like sitting in a poker game and suddenly yelling “GIN!” You know that the hand you hold looks like “gin” (and it does!) but that’s not a hand in the game of poker. “Part Jewish” may be accurate genealogy but Judaism isn’t genealogy.

Why is this? Go back in time, not even very far. Jews were despised by Christians, and not very well-thought-of by most Muslims. Being “half-Jewish” meant having the worst of both worlds: membership in a despised group, and outsider status within that group. Jews decided, sometime about two thousand years ago, to define any person who had a Jewish mother as a Jew, no matter who the father was. That way a child would not be labeled “half-Gentile” and suffer for it. Children with Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers would not be living in the Jewish community. They would be in the Gentile community with their mothers, so they were beyond the boundaries of the Jewish world, hence, not Jewish.

So if you have described yourself to someone as “half-Jewish” or “part Jewish” and gotten a strange reaction or a lecture about Jewish law, that’s what was going on. If you want to bypass the semantics, try saying that you have a “Jewish heritage.” That may make for an easier conversation.

And Joe? We talked at length. It turned out that he was a devout Christian. Ultimately he decided to say he was a believing Christian with a Jewish heritage. I was able to put him in touch with a program for children of Holocaust survivors, because he certainly qualified as a member there.

To my Jewish readers: we need to be careful in speaking to people who identify as part-Jewish, remembering that unkindness is never OK. And if you are a person who has Jews in the family tree, I hope that you will find friendly people with whom to explore as much as you wish.

We are in a time of changes for the Jewish community in the United States. I have a feeling that while traditional categories are not going to change, the number of people who identify as “part Jewish” will grow. It’s going to be an interesting millennium.

 


Five Needles

August 11, 2013

FiveNeedles

As a student rabbi I had the privilege of serving Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in the San Fernando Valley of California.  Today I received the current newsletter and learned about a new film based on the experiences of a Deaf Holocaust survivor.

Five Needles offers an unusual angle on Shoah history. It tells the story of a small group of Deaf women caught in the Shoah. The survival of any of these women was remarkable, since the Nazis were thorough in murdering anyone (Jewish or not) with a disability. However, some women were able to hide their deafness and still find one another in the camp. A very few of them survived.

You can see the film at BSL Zone, a website of the The British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust (BSLBT). It commissions television programs made in British Sign Language by Deaf people for Deaf people.

The true story behind the film may be found in an issue of the newsletter of the Jewish Deaf Community Center of Los Angeles. If you read the true story, you will see that the filmmaker has combined a couple of different stories. Five Needles is a fictionalized account of the story of real Deaf Jews.

While this film has some rough edges, and I could quibble about some historical details, the story and acting and the mood they evoke are well worth the viewing time.


The Class I Hate to Teach

April 24, 2013

English: Antisemitic graffiti in Venezuela

English: Antisemitic graffiti in Venezuela (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I enjoy teaching basic Judaism: it’s my true love, my mission, my passion. “Intro,” done well, can make it much easier for outsiders to become fellow travelers in Jewish community, whether they are Gentile relatives of a Jew, or Jews who got no Jewish education, or someone looking to become a Jew.  It has to be more than facts and how-to’s, because Judaism isn’t just a religion, it’s a vast array of ethnicities, customs, history, and culture – as Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan famously titled his book, Judaism is a civilization. As an “Intro” teacher, I’m a tour guide, den mother, demystifier, and spiritual director.

But there’s one class in every series that I hate to teach. Not coincidentally, it is the only class specified by the tradition as a requirement. Rabbinic tradition is rather vague about what converts to Judaism must be taught before they go to the mikveh, but it is adamant that they understand that Jews have been a despised and persecuted people. In other words, they need to be acquainted with anti-Semitism.

It’s the one class to which I bring a printed-out lesson plan, because I know I will go off-topic like a giddy puppy at the first opportunity. I march through the list: the misgivings about Jews in classical civilization, Christian attitudes about Jews that took shape in both church doctrine and in civil law, and the obsession with Jewish ancestry that surfaced in Spain in the 16th century that presaged full-blown ethnic hatred of Jews in the Western world.  I talk about Herzl’s realization, as he covered the Dreyfus affair, that the Jews of Europe faced something terrible. I talk about all of that as a prelude to the Shoah. And then we talk about the “New” anti-Semitism.

We talk about the memes that have dogged Jews through history: blood libel, moneylending, court Jews, conspiracy, communism, socialism, anarchism, pinko-Commie-whatever-ism. I tell them about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  I tell them about the origins of the term “Anti-Semitism,” that it was invented by a German journalist as a sophisticated-sounding substitute for Judenhass, Jew-hatred.

Some students who have been engaged Christians at some point in their lives practically writhe with discomfort. I name those feelings, and acknowledge that when you’ve got one foot in each community, this can be very hard listening. I share the fact that it was hard for me, when I took the class long ago. Some Jewish students look distant, and I suspect they are running through unpleasant memories and feelings. Maybe, like me, they just hate the topic.

My impulse is to comfort. I bring cookies. I reassure. But I march relentlessly through that lesson plan, because it is important that they know this stuff. I have a duty to see to it that they understand that when you sign up to be a Jew, you sign up for this, too. For Gentiles in the class, it is important to know why Jews seem “sensitive” about some things, why some topics are funny only if you are a genius like Mel Brooks and can take them all the way off the deep end.

Usually the evening ends off topic: I get to the end of the list, and we trail off from “Jews run the media” into jokes and trivia about Hollywood and Jews. If I’m artful, we’ll leave on an upbeat note.  But I’m always relieved when the evening is over, because I hate this topic.  I hate, hate, hate it.


Never Forget – But Do More Than Remember!

February 19, 2013
Ester och Ahasverus i Vänge kyrka

Scroll of Esther (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Esther 3:1  After these things, Ahasuerus promoted Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and elevated him, and set his seat above all the nobels that were with him.

The Book of Esther doesn’t say why Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the bad guy of the story. What the book does say is that he was the son of an Agagite, which provides a link back to Israel’s Biblical enemy, Amalek.

Agag, the king of Amalek, appears first in the blessing of Balaam (Numbers 24:7) but he comes up again and again, finally to war again with Israel and be killed off by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 15.  Amalek was an enemy we first encountered in the wilderness, where that nation preyed upon the stragglers on the margins of the camp (Exodus 17: 8-10). At the end of that chapter, God says to Moses:

Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.

This verse makes a puzzle:  how can we memorialize Amalek, rehearse the story of Amalek, but utterly blot out remembrance of Amalek?

First, and simplest, this is why we boo and make the groggers roar at the name of Haman. We are “blotting out” his name.

But more importantly, this is a warning about all the enemies to come in Jewish history as it unfolds, whether it is Rome, or Ferdinand & Isabella of Spain, or Hitler.  On the one hand: don’t forget. And on the other hand: don’t give these guys too much attention. Don’t reduce Judaism to ONLY remembering.

Purim reminds us that as long as we are here to celebrate it, Amalek has not prevailed.  So yes, we remember all the stories from the bad old days, but also we live vital lives of Torah in the here and now.  The Holocaust is important to remember, but it is also important not to make it the sum total of our identity as Jews. We are more than what has been done to us.

I’d say that’s something to celebrate.

 

 


jonathan lace

theologian | musician | developer

חי-er ed

Soul Mentorship is Finding, Asking, Directing

Cooking with a Wallflower

Cooking. Baking. Crafting. Writing.

ReBlogIt

Great Content from around the web ......

morethanenoughtruth

Words of truth are the bricks and mortar of reality.

From guestwriters

A tiny WordPress.com site based in Belgium

Living ~400lbs

... and believe me I am still alive

Metrowoman

... It can only get better...

Teela Hart

Surviving Domestic Violence

Unload and Unwind

A place to talk about the past, present and thoughts of the future

rabbimarcbelgrad

Website for B'Chavana, a Jewish Community with Intention

Jewish Gems - Anita Silvert

Judaism is a many-faceted thing

Rabbi Neal's Weekly Commentary

Parshat Hashavua from the Heart of the Hudson Valley

Convert Confidential

A Twenty-Something Converts to Judaism

Off the REKord

Ramblings and Reflections of a Reform Rabbi

Sheri de Grom

From the literary and legislative trenches.

Thy Critic Man

I am your superhero. I fight against awful television, terrible movies & horrendous videogames

Craig Lewis - The Lincoln Rabbi

Spirituality Through Rationality

WRITE IN ISRAEL

with JUDY LABENSOHN

Silicon Hutong

China and the World of Business • China Business and the World

Stuart Orme

Historian, Folklorist, Writer, Re-enactor, Museum Professional. Follow me on Twitter: @stuartorme

CaptainAwkward.com

Advice. Staircase Wit. Faux Pas. Movies.

SHEROES of History

Telling the stories of historical heroines

A Palatable Pastime

Let's have fun with food!

asian's cup of moonlight

Nothing beats a kid at heart. Let's travel the universe together. You and me: Together.

Attenti al Lupo

www.attentiallupo2012.com

Grover Anderson

Singer/Songwriter • Oakland, CA

willowdot21

An insight to a heart mind and soul.

Rabbi Audrey Korotkin

AltoonaRav: Reflections from a rural rabbi

Talkin' Reckless

Thoughts on feminism, health, and education

cuisinexperiments

adventures in cooking

dogtorbill

“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

That Devil History

Historian Jarret Ruminski muses on how the past continues to shape contemporary politics, culture, and society in the United States.

timelychanges

Any major dude with half a mind surely will tell you my friend...

My Jewish Yearning

A great WordPress.com site

My Siyach

שיח Siyach: Hebrew, meaning: to put forth, meditate, muse, commune, speak, complain, ponder, sing

Amsterdam Centraaal

(with triple A)

Eat Bark Hike

Musings on Cooking and Hiking with Pepper

Susan LaDue Writes

The Kristen Maroney Mysteries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,339 other followers

%d bloggers like this: