Reading about Israel and Gaza

August 11, 2014

gaza

Two pieces came across my computer screen yesterday that I think worth sharing with readers who want to understand the situation in Gaza and Israel. One is by an expert on Middle East politics, and it gives a broad view and some background. The other is a first-person, very personal account, a voice that I haven’t heard in all the noise, and that I think should be heard.

First, the broad piece by the expert: this  article in the Washington Post is worth reading if you want to get a handle on the background of the current situation. The author is Dennis Ross, who was chief negotiator for the Clinton Administration and who has worked for the Obama Administration. Pay no attention to the headline; Ross didn’t write it and the person who wrote it apparently didn’t read his article. Ross gives background to the current mess and a fair description of the parties involved. Then he suggests a path towards peace. I am not qualified to judge the latter, but the first part of that article is as reality based as anything I’ve seen.

The second item came my way this week via my colleague Rabbi Mark Hurvitz. I’m sharing it here on my blog because it offers a point of view on this war that has thus far not gotten much attention. It’s not polished, but it is eloquent.

First, I’ll let Rabbi Hurvitz introduce the piece:

While I have never met Mette Hvid Hansen. She lives in Denmark, but also spent some time on Kibbutz Hulda. Mette recently posted this to the Hulda Facebook page. You might want to share it with those who think that all Israelis are “bloodthirsty” and care nothing about their adversaries. She has given me permission to repost it. (Forgive the spelling errors, English is not her 1st language.)
Now, the post by Mette Hvid Hansen:

Yet another weekend ahead of me where I will send my thoughts and prayers to people at war.

My heart breaks whenever I read the horrorfying stories from Gaza – children and civilians trying to escape the bombardments but being held back by hamas – hospitals, mosques and schools are being used as weaponstocks and ramps for firing rockets bringing death and wounds to my friends and their children who must spend most of their time in bombshelters – even when a truce is called.

The “bloodthirsty” Israeli soldiers who are sons and husbands of my girlfriends – some of the soldiers I have known since they were born and all of them are soft,wonderfull young boys – with all the same kind of dreams and hopes that my own son have.

Boys who will protect their families against monsters that appear through tunnels build for some of my taxmoney – tunnels used to kill, maim and kidnap from the kindergartens where the tunnels end

Boys who feel surprice and despair against the society that condems their every step and for whom we almost do not dare show our worry, sorry and pain in public since they are officially named “the bad gys” – Who understands this? – Well I really dont!

I KNOW that these boys will stay scarred forever for what they have to go through and what they have to do – hamas knows this too and use the fact that these boys have the same way to see life as you and I – every life counts – not as dead people on horrifying pictures but as living people who can help build a society where peace and calm rules…

Those boys have a very short time – seconds to decide weather they can help the old wounded man on their parth or if he is just another dirty trick to collect as many people around him as possible before he push the botton on the explosivebelt
Those boys must decide if they can help the two children standing crying out for help – on a balcony – and when they decide to help they all get killed instantly when they step into the boobytrapped house.


Those boys have all but a few seconds to decide – boys at the age of 18-20 years – who would prefer sitting at the beach, play the computer – watch girls (or other boys – in israel homoseksuality is allowed..) or have a drink.

Im grieving for all the dead children i Gaza – but Im also grieving for the sons and husbands of my girlfriends – and Im impressed that they are able to stay focused.


I think of all my friends that miss their husband and sons and the fact that their whole life can be changed by a tekst or phonecall.

I think of all my friends who spend most of their time in bombshelters.

I think of my friends who have children and grandchildren who never slept in their own bed becourse of the risk of rockets and where the alarm can make the difference between life or death – within maybe 30 seconds – same amount of time if you are 6 or 90 years old 


I think of how they all must feel when they see how they are judged from the fact that their country decided to spend millions of dollars to protect its people – and now have to read that it would be more “fair” if more of them would die – who of my friends would have to die to make all this more fair so that all of us – here in Europe could feel better about my friends sons and husbands wiping out hamas? 

The hamas that wont recognize Israel and actively work on the destruction of Israel?
The hamas where proof have shown that they use civilians and children as human shields in front of the schools,hospitals and mosques where they hide and use their weapons ?
The hamas that do not recognize basic womans rights?
The hamas who executes people on the street without any kind of trial and many time just on a suspicion?
The hamas who spend my taxmoney to build huge and long tunnels – each tunnel could have finansed maybe 19 medical clinics?
The hamas who wants to kill so bad that they dont care if their rockets backfire and hit their own hospitals, schools and powerstations and thereby kill they own people(this is also proven) ?

The sons and husbands of my friends fight against all that – they DONT fight the children that are used by hamas OR the civilians who are theatend by hamas – all they want is to return to my girlfriends and their families and work for peace and calm..

Hoping for a shabbat shalom for all
Mette/Tikva

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You’re welcome to discuss these articles in the comments – that would be great. Disagree and/or discuss all you want, but please remember that there are other human beings behind your computer screen. Please choose both your words and their tone accordingly.

The Mitzvah of Rebuke

August 2, 2014

"Hatred" by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly

“Hatred” by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly

If someone is misbehaving, it is a mitzvah (a commandment) to rebuke them. We get this from the Holiness Code in Leviticus:

.לֹא-תִשְׂנָא אֶת-אָחִיךָ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ; הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת-עֲמִיתֶךָ, וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, and you will surely rebuke him, and you will not bear a sin because of him.  (Leviticus 19:17)

There are three parts to the commandment: (1) don’t hate other people (2) definitely tell them if they are doing wrong and (3) don’t bring sin upon yourself in the process.

We Jews excel at part (2) of that commandment. We love to tell other people when we think they are in error. However, lately we in the Diaspora been doing a lousy job of (1) and (3).

For the past three weeks on various social media, Diaspora Jews have melted down into a frenzy of rebuke. Pro-Israel, anti-Israel, anti-Israel but anti-Hamas, pro-Palestinian but anti-Hamas, seeking one state, seeking two states, words flying like shrapnel. The name-calling is out of hand, with Jews hurling words like “Nazi” and “traitor” at one another. In some cases, these are educated Jews, too: people who should know how to conduct an argument for the sake of heaven. Our tone has too often grown hateful. If we do not yet actually hate other Jews, we are paving the way there with these words that dehumanize the other. 

And then there is the matter of “don’t bear a sin because of him.” Rebuking another person in public, causing them shame (or hoping to shame them) is a sin. In Bava Metzia 58b, the rabbis liken public shaming to murder. Immediately after that passage, they tell the story of Akhnai’s Oven, in which the rabbis cause Rabbi Eliezer shame, with tragic results.

Talking about others is lashon haraevil speech, another sin. It is not simply gossip (rechilut) or spreading lies, but also speech that damages another’s reputation. Saying about another person, “She is a traitor to the Jewish people” or “He is a bloodthirsty murderer” when your talk about it does not have an important purpose (to save a life, for instance) is lashon hara. One may say, “well, that’s my opinion” but the point is, we are forbidden to spread around opinions like that. If you have a problem with a person, talk to him directly and privately.

With the backdrop of the dreadful situation in Israel and Gaza, emotions run high. However, we can and must control our tongues and our keyboards. Hateful speech does not help Israel, and it does not help the innocent victims of violence. Statement of the facts, pointing to sources, giving tzedakah: those things can help. Organizing peaceful demonstrations can help. Letters, emails and phone calls to powerful people can help. And yes, some situations may call for proper rebuke: rebuke that happens quietly, without name-calling, that asks for specific changes in behavior.

This week, when we observe Tisha B’Av and remember the great disasters in our history, our teachers will remind us that the Temple was lost because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred.  

My brothers and sisters, we in the Diaspora cannot afford to scream at one another on Twitter and facebook. We cannot afford to hurl hateful speech at one another. We have seen in the past what comes of this behavior. 

Our Israeli cousins are running for shelters, IDF soldiers are dying and wounded, and civilians are dying in Gaza (never mind for a moment whose fault, people are dying.) Around the world, we are seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism that smells sickeningly like the 1930’s in Europe. Mobs are marching in Europe, chanting “Death to the Jews.” Jews were beaten in the street in Canada. Canada! 

Now is a time for purposeful action and purposeful speech. There is indeed much that must be done. It can be done without name-calling and without public screaming matches. No matter what your opinion, those are wastes of valuable time and energy, and they carry the seeds of tragedy.

Ribbono shel olam, You who know our inmost hearts, help us to act and to speak with holy purpose. 


Weather and the Jewish Year

July 31, 2014

 

A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.

A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.

Queentimely wrote in response to a recent post:

I don’t know how many readers you have in the southern hemisphere, but it might interest those in the north to be reminded that it’s actually winter here — cold (in Melbourne terms), blowy and dark early.

Excellent point!

One of the quirks of living in California is that the climate and the seasons match that of Israel pretty closely. That’s very handy for us, because the Jewish calendar is rooted in the seasons of the Land of Israel. I am prone to forget that for most of the world, it isn’t so tidy.

For instance, Jews worldwide begin praying for rain on Shemini Atzeret, the day after the close of Sukkot. In both Israel and California, that day falls at about the earliest date one might reasonably expect some rain. Therefore the weather is perfect for eating and sleeping in the sukkah: not too hot, not too cold, and certainly not too wet. However, if one is celebrating in Minnesota or in Sweden, the sukkah is apt to be downright soggy and cold, because autumn had already arrived weeks before.

The same goes for Passover: it’s a spring holiday, hence the parsley and the egg on the seder plate. However, the 14th of Nisan may be a bit early for spring in some northern climes. In the southern hemisphere, Jews sit around the seder table in the fall.

So why not simply attune the holidays to the local climate? Long ago, when Jews were forced into Diaspora, outside the Land of Israel, we decided to keep our calendars aligned with that of our homeland. So Jews in Spain, Jews in South America, Jews in Australia, and Jews in Finland keep the same calendar, no matter what the weather is doing in their local neighborhoods. Just as we face towards Jerusalem for prayer, we align the Jewish year with that of the Land of Israel, because it is, and always has been, home.

So, readers: if your climate or seasons are radically different from that of Israel, how does it affect your observance of the calendar? If you have celebrated the Jewish Year in the far North or south of the equator, I hope to hear from you.


For Beginners: Israel in Conflict

July 18, 2014

The situation in the Middle East grows more and more grim as Shabbat approaches. A couple of thoughts, especially for those readers who are beginners in Judaism:

1. Those of you who are feeling upset and disturbed, this is a time to reach out to your teachers and your community. Go to services this Shabbat. Contact your rabbi, or your teacher, and let them know what’s going on with you. Simply be in Jewish space; it will help.

2. One way to feel less helpless is to do something to help innocents who are suffering.  The International Committee of the Red Cross has an an “Israel and Gaza Appeal Fund” to assist those who are suffering in the current conflict. It coordinates and assists both Magen David Adom (The Red Star, in Israel) and the Palestine Red Crescent Society. The International Rescue Committee also works in this area. Every gift of tzedakah, no matter how small, will help sufferers and will also help the giver feel less helpless.

3. If you are just beginning to study about Judaism, let this be a time to learn, not a time to attempt to teach others. Some may approach you and ask you to explain the conflict, knowing that you are interested in Judaism. If you don’t want to engage on the topic, say so. All you need do is say, “The situation in Israel and Gaza breaks my heart. Can we talk about something else?”

4. Another things you can do is study. A popular recent book on the subject is My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit. Another excellent book is Israel is Real, by Rich Cohen. He is not a scholar, and I have some quibbles with details, but it’s readable and honest. Or ask your rabbi for a recommendation!

5. Do not believe everything you see on the Internet.  Again, if something disturbs you, contact your teacher or rabbi. Also, be careful what words and images you spread. Unsubstantiated rumors do not help the situation, no matter whom they allegedly favor.

I wish you a Shabbat of peace and learning, of goodness and grace, of light and love. Shabbat shalom.


Reflections on Israel, July 2014

July 9, 2014

My heart is in the east, and I am at the farthest west.

How can I taste food? How shall it be sweet to me?

How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while

Zion lies beneath the fetters of Edom, and I in Arab chains?

It seems to me a small thing to leave all the good things of Spain,

Seeing how precious in my eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

                                              – Yehuda HaLevi, 12th c.

This 12th century poem is the best way I know to communicate the relationship of Jews to Israel. The poet who wrote it was a Jew who spent much of his life as a refugee from various regimes that were unfriendly to Jews. He was born in Spain, but he was never able to put down roots anywhere. If you asked him, he would tell you that Israel was his home, even though he had never seen it.

He disappeared en route to Israel. We hear the last of him in Cairo, where he could have stayed. He was a celebrity in the Jewish world of his time, a superstar poet and philosopher, but he wanted to go home. He insisted on going, despite the fact that Jerusalem was in the hands of Christian armies who slaughtered every Jew they found. We don’t know if the old man was on a boat that sank at sea, or was taken by pirates, or whether he did indeed reach the holy city and was (as legend has it) trampled to death by a Crusader’s horse.

My heart is in the east right now. I have heard from friends and colleagues who have scrambled to bomb shelters again and again over the past week. I am worried about friends from whom I haven’t heard. It has also stirred my memories of being in Israel during another difficult time, 12 years ago. I moved to Israel to learn Torah, and wound up learning more about bomb shelters and gas masks than I ever wanted to know.

I am angry at the handling of this story by the news media. The rockets and bombs hitting Israel for ten days were not deemed newsworthy. Only when Israel at last began to defend herself again the bombing did anyone take notice, and then it was to talk about “escalation.” What escalation? What other country on earth would be asked to sit quietly and accept bombardment? One million Israelis will sleep in or near bomb shelters tonight.

And yes, I am aware that there have been a terrible number of Palestinian civilian casualties. Their leadership has chosen to shelter their rocket launchers and military facilities in civilian settings, using their own people as human shields. That’s why Israel held off for so long. But I do not apologize for the fact that my people have chosen to keep military targets away from civilians. I do not apologize for the fact that Israel does not use old people and children for human shields. I wish that Hamas would do the same.

Not all the “photos of Gaza” published in social media right now are actually photos of Gaza, or of the current conflict. For more information about that, go to Grasswire.com or follow them at @grasswirefacts.  I am angry at the lies, at the manipulation of public perception.

I cannot imagine where this will end, because I know Israelis, and I know how the Jewish heart feels about the Land. No bombardment, no kidnapping, no murder, no harassment, no threat, no propaganda will change the fact that for thousands of years, Israel has been the home of the Jews, the home of our hearts. I wish that the world would not encourage Hamas in its murderous deception, and its use of innocents for military purposes. I wish that there could be two states, and that we could find some way to agree that Israel can exist, and a Palestinian state can exist.

My heart is in the East, and I am at the limits of the West, praying for peace.


We Can’t Have It Both Ways

July 7, 2014
Four Boys

Four Boys

My regular readers have probably noticed that I’ve been unusually quiet for the last week. Events in Israel this past week have left me speechless. I wish I could say something useful about what’s been going on there, but between the storm of my own feelings and the swift winds of events, I’ve been silent.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Rabbi Yitz Greenberg‘s comment about Jewish theology after the Holocaust: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” In other words, words are not sufficient to express the disaster of the Shoah, much less to “make sense” of it. It was senseless, mindless evil.

So, too. was the murder of Mohammed Abu Khieder, another burning child. The Israeli police have arrested several Jews for this crime, and the full weight of the law will be brought to bear. But what has given me as much pain are the comments I have been reading and hearing in the wake of the crime.

  • “The murderers do not represent us.”
  • “They are not real Jews.”
  • “They (the Palestinians) are still worse than we are.”

This, from people who scoff when someone says that pizza parlor bombings are not true expressions of Islam. This from people who would be incensed at the suggestion that the Holocaust was not the action of “real Germans.” This, from people who read the news stories about Jews marching in the streets of Jerusalem, of the Holy City, chanting “Death to the Arabs.”

We, who were so noisy about how Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal were “our children,” are now hastily disowning six other young men who chose to act out what other Jews were saying in the street.

It is easier to be connected with blameless victims; we can grieve, and people will feel sorry for us. We can be angry at the Other. But when the criminals are our own, it is much more difficult. It is hard to say, yes, that child is mine.

We can’t have it both ways. If we are going to hold all Palestinians responsible for the murders of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, then we must not be surprised if they hold us all responsible for the terrible death of young Mohammed. On both sides, we have innocents, on both, we have the guilty.

Until we are willing to claim both for both sides, and admit both for both sides, there can be no peace.

 


What is the Priestly Blessing?

May 26, 2014

May the Eternal bless you and keep you.

יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ

Yeh-vah-REH-che-cha Adonai v’YISH-meh-reh-chah

May the Eternal cause His face to shed light upon you and be gracious unto you.

יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ

yah-AIR Adonai pan-AV eh-LEHcha vee-choo-NEH-ka)

May the Eternal lift up His face to you and give you peace.

יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

yee-SA Adonai pah-NAV eh-leh-kha v’yah-SEM leh-KHAH sha-LOM.

 This text, from Numbers 6:24-26, is known as the Birkat Kohanim, or priestly blessing. It is one of the most familiar passages of Torah to a synagogue-going Jew. In the synagogue service, traditionally it is pronounced by the adult male kohanim (descendants of Aaron) daily in Israel and on certain days of the year in the Diaspora. (For a video of kohanim giving the blessing at the Western Wall, click this link.)

The priestly blessing is also used for blessings on other occasions. Parents may say it over children on Shabbat evenings, and a chazzan (cantor) or rabbi in the Reform movement may say it on a solemn occasion for blessing, such as a baby naming, a conversion, or a birthday.

It is associated with a hand gesture that is often pictured on the grave markers of kohanim (see photo below).

This text is the content of the oldest Biblical inscription currently known, the Ketef Hinnom inscription, found in 1979 near the Old City of Jerusalem. The words were inscribed in paleo-Hebrew on thin silver strips and rolled into an amulet to be worn on a string around the neck. They are estimated to be from the early 6th century BCE (1st Temple period) based upon analysis of the script.

Earlham Cemetery, Norwich, England, UK

Earlham Cemetery, Norwich, England, UK

 

 Image by LEOL3O, some rights reserved.


Why I am a Zionist

May 5, 2014

I am a Zionist.

I wasn’t always sure about that. I am not quite as old as the State of Israel, and during the first part of my life, before I was a Jew, I watched from a distance, detached, as Israel struggled for survival. There was no reason to feel invested: I was not yet a Jew. Some things I thought inspiring, some disturbing.

Then I became a Jew. That meant I could not be neutral on this subject; I am invested. So I studied.

In the year 136 of the common era, the Romans put down the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Judea. The Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to make an example of the Jews, lest any other subject nation get the idea of revolution. The majority of the population of Judea was killed, exiled, or sold into slavery. Torah law and the Hebrew calendar were prohibited. Torah scholars were executed in droves. In an attempt to obliterate the memory of the Jews, the Roman province was renamed Syria Palaestina. Jerusalem was destroyed, and the new Roman city of Aelia Capitolina was built on its ashes. Jews were forbidden even to enter the city except on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of mourning for the lost Temple. 

So the Jews were scattered across the world: some to Europe, some to Asia, some to Africa, a stateless people clinging to a memory of home. Periodically individual Jews and small groups would decide to go home to join the small, stubborn remnant that persisted in the land, the Old Yishuv. Some Diaspora Jews sent their bodies home for burial. Particularly after a disaster, like the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, there would be movements to return in larger numbers.

History took a vicious turn in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even the most enlightened and scientific societies of Europe had an ugly and growing tendency to Jew hatred. In the rest of the world, there was enough of this hatred that doors began slamming. Theodore Herzl, a journalist, read the writing on the wall in the Dreyfus Affair. By the time the Jews of Germany realized what the Nazi regime would bring, there was nowhere for Jews to go, because nowhere in Europe or America or South America or Asia or Australia was their home.

I don’t need to tell you the rest of that story.

Zionism is the belief that there needs to be somewhere on the face of the earth where Jews are in charge of their own destiny. Through the actions of Jews, and through the agreements of the nations of the world, as well as through history, that place has been the small plot of land at the far east end of the Mediterranean, bounded on the north by Mt. Hermon, and at the southeast by Egypt.

There were other people, Muslims and Christians, with homes there when the Jews went home. There were nations with interests in seeing to it that they and the Jews did not live peacefully together. There have been great wrongs done on all sides. But there have also been moments of promise, moments when we could glimpse the possibility of what could be.

I am left, at the end, with the conviction that there needs to be an Israel. I believe that the 7 million Jews living there, many of them born there, have a right to be there. And I believe, as well, that the Palestinian people have a right to live in peace. I believe that as impossible as it seems to find peace, after all the years of war and bitterness, that there is nothing to do but keep trying and keep living.

This week we are observing Yom HaZikaron – the day that we remember the 23,169 who have died defending Israel and in acts of terror. Then, when the sun goes down, we observe Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. This is the week for remember that nothing can be taken for granted, least of all freedom and dignity.

This week we pray for the strength of spirit to do those things which need to be done. We pray for leaders on both sides who can see past their own self-interests. And most of all, we pray for hearts that can transcend cynicism and despair to lead us all the rest of the way home.

 

This article was slightly amended for clarification. See comments for details. Thank you to my readers for helping me express myself clearly!

 

 


What are “the Yoms?”

April 29, 2014

Declaration of State of Israel 1948

David ben Gurion reads the Declaration of the State of Israel, 1948


Every spring, after Passover, the Jewish calendar marks four days to commemorate events in modern Jewish history:

Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day  usually on 27 Nisan (click on the link for more info on Yom HaShoah)

Yom HaZikaron – Israeli Memorial Day usually on 5 Iyar (yom ha-ZEEK-a-rohn)

Yom HaAtzma’oot – Israeli Independence Day the day immediately after Yom HaZikaron, usually 6 Iyar (yom ha-atz-ma-OOT)

Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day, marking the day in 1967 when the city was reunited, on 28 Iyar (yom Yair-oo-shah-LIE- eem)

Israeli Memorial Day and Israeli Independence Day are always paired. In Israel’s short history (less than 70 years, at this writing) the price of independence has been the deaths of too many of its citizens. Unlike Memorial Day in the United States, which is seen as many as “the first day of summer vacation,” Yom HaZikaron is a true day of mourning in Israel, because nearly every citizen spends the day remembering one or more loved ones who have died in defense of their country.

The mourning of Memorial Day turns to exuberance at sundown, when Yom HaAtzma’oot, Independence Day begins. Israelis and Jews worldwide celebrate the birth of the Jewish State with speeches, picnics, fireworks, and general celebration.

Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, also marks a dramatic moment in modern Jewish history. Under the 1947 UN Partition Plan, Jerusalem was to be a “international city” for ten years, after which the citizens of Jerusalem would vote to decide whether they would be part of Israel, or part of a new Arab state. While Jewish leaders agreed to this plan, Arab leaders rejected it. Immediately after the signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, armies from all its Arab neighbors invaded. By the end of the War of Independence, Jerusalem was a divided city, the western portion in Israeli control and the eastern portion and the “Old City” under occupation by the Jordanian Armed Forces. No Jews were allowed to remain in the Jordanian-controlled areas, the synagogues were demolished and the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was plundered.

Such was the situation in Jerusalem until 1967, when increasing hostility between Israel and its Arab neighbors boiled over into the Six-Day War. Israel sent word to King Hussein of Jordan that it would not attack Jerusalem or the West Bank  unless provoked. With encouragement from Egypt, the King ordered the Jordanian army to shell civilian locations in Israel; Israel responded by opening a new front against Jordan on June 6. The next day, Israel succeeded in capturing the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, bringing the holy site back under Jewish control for the first time since 70 CE. Yom Yerushalayim marks the reunification of the city.

The four “Yoms” (Days) recall the dramatic course of Jewish history in the 20th century.

Image: Rudi Weissenstein, in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

All in the Family

April 24, 2014
Different flavors of Jews on the streets of Jerusalem.

A wild diversity of Jews shop at Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem.

Tonight in “Intro to Judaism” class the topic was Ashkenazi history and culture. It’s a big topic for just 90 minutes.

Ashkenazi Judaism is that portion of world Jewry with its roots in Europe, except for Spain and Portugal. It is partly an ancestral thing, but also a category of ritual, custom, and Jewish law. The vast majority of American Jews are Ashkenazim (more than 80% by conservative estimates.) There are many subgroups and topics within the big umbrella of “Ashkenazi,” but one thing I noticed was that we kept wandering off topic.

One minute we’d be talking about Askhenazi customs, and then a student would ask a question that was more about Sephardic Judaism.  A few times there were questions about Mizrahi Jews, and other, smaller groups. And it hit me: we really are Am Echad, one People. As diverse as we are, it was impossible to talk only about Ashkenazim. The other groups, the other threads just kept creeping into the discussion.

Here in the United States it is particularly impossible to separate the ethnic groups. The first Jews in North America were Sephardim, Jews with roots in Jewish Spain, even if they actually arrived from Brazil, or England, or the Netherlands. While they are today a minority of American Jews, it was they who set the tone for Jewish life in America, who served in the Revolutionary Army, who were well-regarded by George Washington.  They built the first synagogues here.

Not all individuals with Sephardic ancestry go to Sephardic synagogues, either: I know several Reform rabbis of Sephardic descent, and many more families who claim both a Sephardic heritage (or a Mizrahi heritage) and attend Reform or Conservative synagogues.

As our discussion went on tonight, I stopped trying to drag the discussion back to the Ashkenazim. It was clear that the topic would wind up back there soon enough. I watched what we were doing, and realized that this is what we always do: you just can’t talk about one corner of Jewry without eventually talking about all of Judaism.  If we talk about something Reform, sooner or later someone will reference “the Orthodox” (which drives me crazy, since Orthodoxy is hardly a monolith – there are divisions within it, too.)  Next week, when we talk about the Sephardim in class, I’m sure we’ll be back to the Ashkenazim before I make it out of the 16th century. If we talk about American Jews, sooner or later the topic will come around to Israel, and if you talk about Judaism in Israel, here comes the Diaspora! And this past week, everyone’s been worrying about the Ukrainian Jews!

What I learned tonight in class is that while Jews are diverse, we are also truly one big noisy sometimes dysfunctional family. We are so much One that we are truly inseparable, living in relation to one another.

Am Echad – One People.

Image: Emmanuel Dyan, some rights reserved.

 


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