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.]

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A Big Jewish World: 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!

Being Jewish, Doing Jewish

A great question came up in class last night, and I’ve been thinking on it ever since. A student asked:

You say that Judaism is about actions, not about belief. But how does that connect to whether a person is Jewish or not?

Being Jewish is a state of relationship between an individual and the Jewish People. A person cannot become Jewish by him- or herself: a person is Jewish because of a particular relationship, either a birth into a Jewish family or an adoption-like process later in life. A person either is or isn’t Jewish; there are no intermediate states. (Note: “Who’s a Jew?” is a major source of disagreement in the Jewish world. If you have questions about your status, talk with your rabbi.)

Being Jewish is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is an identity which makes me part of something larger than myself and gives me full membership in the Jewish People. On the other hand, it makes me a potential target for antisemitism which can materialize anywhere, anytime. And yes, as a Jew I am responsible for many sacred duties. Even if I do not observe them at a particular time in my life, I know they are there.

Jewish actions include those sacred duties (mitzvot) but they also carry the real rewards of Judaism. “Doing Jewish” includes:

  • the weekly miracle of Shabbat
  • saying the Shema “when I lie down and when I rise up:” daily prayer
  • a cycle of holidays and observances
  • life cycle traditions that enrich my passage through life
  • teaching Judaism to my children and/or to newer members of my community
  • mobilizing to assist other Jews both nearby and far away
  • participation in a Jewish community where I can develop relationships with people and grow from those relationships
  • participating in social action, perhaps with other Jews, perhaps alone
  • a template for grief and mourning that will embrace me just as my life seems to spin out of control
  • access to the great treasury of Jewish thought, thousands of years of road-tested advice about how to handle life’s most challenging moments
  • and many, many more things

Many of those benefits are available not only to Jews but to others as well. Non-Jewish friends of the Jewish people are welcome at our Shabbat, seder and study tables. More and more synagogues are developing policies that make synagogue life available to non-Jewish spouses and relatives while preserving the boundaries that maintain authentic Jewish life.

Becoming Jewish, crossing that line between not-Jewish and Jewish, is a complex experience. Some things don’t change: I had been going to services and doing many other Jewish things for years. Some things were new after the mikveh: once I became a Jew, I was doing mitzvot not only because I wanted to, but because they had become part of my sacred duties as a Jew. And yes, there were things I could now do that I could not do before. My rabbi would perform a wedding for me. I could wear a tallit and be called to the Torah.

Being Jewish and doing Jewish are really two separate but related things. This is sometimes confusing to people from other traditions.

All in the Family

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.

What Kind of Jew are You?

Are you ethnically Jewish, or culturally Jewish? A religous Jew, or a secular Jew?

In all the loaded discussions of “who’s a Jew” we sometimes lose sight of the many ways that one can be Jewish.

Ethnically Jewish – Do you have a parent who’s Jewish? For much of the Jewish world, that question is worded: Is your mother Jewish? The American Reform Movement broadens that to “a Jewish parent,” provided you were also educated as a Jew. Another way to say it is that they have “Jewish blood” or a “Jewish heritage.” Judaism actually includes many ethnicities: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Persian Jewish, Iraqi Jewish, Ethiopian Jewish, Yemenite Jewish, etc. A person who is ethnically Jewish might or might not feel much connection to other Jews.

Culturally Jewish – Is there some aspect of Jewish culture in which you participate? Does your family mark Passover with some kind of seder? Do you belong to anything Jewish? Do you give to anything Jewish? “Cultural” implies some kind of participation in a culture. “I eat bagels” doesn’t quite do it – a Baptist in Omaha might eat bagels. But do you perk up your ears and feel a sense of kinship when you find out that such-and-such a movie actor is Jewish? Did you have a visceral reaction to the news about Bernie Madoff – did you feel linked to him, even though you never met the guy?

Secular Judaism – “I’m Jewish but not religious.” There’s a long tradition for secular Judaism. Sometimes Christians are puzzled by Jews who don’t go to synagogue or don’t believe in God but who feel fiercely connected to the Jewish People. That’s because Judaism is more than a religion, it’s also an ethnicity, a culture, a whole civilization and worldview. Secular Jews are no less Jewish than their religious cousins, and many are no less serious about their Judaism. Many of the founders of the State of Israel were (or are – a few are still alive) secular Jews.

Religious Judaism – In general, Jews who attend services, observe religious holidays, etc, although you’d be surprised at some of the overlap with other groups. Some synagogue goers go for the Jewish culture available there, not for religious content per se. There’s a joke that circulates about a man who goes to daily minyan and who tells a story about his friend Abe: “Abe goes to minyan to talk with God. I go to talk with Abe.” Synagogues were the first Jewish cultural centers, and they continue to fill that role for some Jews  today. But there are also Jews who believe in God, who have lively spiritual lives, and some of them go to synagogue – and some don’t.  Go figure.

There are also an increasing number of people in our communities who have been with us since Biblical times: people who live with Jews even though they themselves aren’t Jewish. Generally they find their way to us because they love someone Jewish. Some eventually choose to become Jewish; some have good reasons for not converting. But it is important to remember that in every gathering of Jews, there will also be some people who weren’t “born that way,” and others who are with us for love. Some raise Jewish children, and thereby participate in the Jewish future. At any rate, whenever you are in a Jewish community, remember that they are part of us, too: the Book of Ruth reminds us that King David had a Moabite great-grandmother.

How do you identify Jewishly? Do you find these labels useful, or limiting?

Is Judaism a Religion or a Culture?

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Ethiopian Jews meet with Israeli President Ezer Weitzmann

A lot of Americans are puzzled when they look closely at the Jewish community, because sometimes it looks like religion isn’t very important to Jews. Many Jews only go to synagogue at the High Holy Days. Many more never go to synagogue at all. We have lots of “secular Jewish” organizations that do social justice work or poor relief or jewish community service of some kind. Some Jews refer to themselves as cultural Jews. (When was the last time you heard someone refer to themselves as a cultural Christian?)

It gets even more confusing when you look at world Jewry, because Judaism encompasses a number of ethnicities. Here in the US we are most familiar with Ashkenazi culture (think Fiddler on the Roof.) Ashkenazi means “Jews from Eastern Europe.” However, the first Jewish Americans were Sephardic, meaning that their ancestors had at one time been part of the Jewish culture of Spain. There are also Mizrahi Jews, Jews of the Middle East, who have rich and interesting subcultures such as Persian Jews, Moroccan Jews, Egyptian Jews, Yemenite Jews, and so on. Most of the Mizrahi communities today survive in Israel or the US, because they were evicted from their home countries in the 20th century, but the music, the food, and the liturgy survive and are distinct from anything else in the Jewish world.

Judaism is a religion, but it is more than that. It includes religion, worldview, lifestyle, a calendar and a sense of connection to the other Jews of the world. It is rooted in a Teaching, which we call Torah, and the language of that Teaching, Hebrew. Jews disagree about the pronunciation of Hebrew or about the interpretation of Torah but even the most a-religious Jew is linked to other Jews by those two things. Our concepts of justice, of law, and our priorities of life find their sources in Torah. Our ways of measuring time, of eating and drinking, of welcoming children and mourning the dead are rooted in Torah. We do not agree on interpretation, but that is interpretation, not the source itself.

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan said it best when he called Judaism a civilization. It defies limitations like “religion” or “ethnicity;” it is one of the oldest civilizations on earth.  That is why, when the sage Hillel was asked to sum it up while standing on one foot (in the 1st century!) he concluded his precís with the words “Go and study,” and why the sage Ben Bag Bag said, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”

So, go and study. Turn the scroll and learn, but resist any temptation to confine Judaism to a tidy package. There’s nothing tidy about it.

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Who’s the Most Jewish?

René Molho
René Molho z”l

Image: A screenshot of an interview with Dr. René Molho, no longer available online as far as I’ve found.

If you’ve been around the Jewish community for a while, you’ve probably seem some version of the game, “Who’s the Most Jewish?” also known as “More Jewish Than You.” It’s one of our less attractive things.

For example, if you are a convert to Judaism, sooner or later someone is going to try to tell you that you’ll never be really Jewish. (My standard answer: “Take that up with my rabbi.”) Others may try to tell you that you’re more Jewish because you had to study and learn.  Either way, it’s unpleasant.

This used to bother me a lot more before I heard the story of Dr. René Molho (of blessed memory.) René was a survivor of Auschwitz and one of my teachers. He devoted his last years to retelling his story to combat the rising tide of Holocaust denial. René and his brother grew to young manhood in Salonica, a Greek island with a famous Sephardic community.  Just as Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish, Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino, a language closely related to Spanish. When René and his brother arrived at Auschwitz, the Jews there refused to believe the two young men were Jewish because they didn’t speak Yiddish. It was quite a while before they stopped treating the Molhos with suspicion.

René was in Auschwitz with a yellow star on his chest, and there were Jews who thought he wasn’t Jewish enough.

This sad, stupid business has many roots. The Jews René met in Auschwitz had been terrorized. Many of them had never met Sephardic Jews, and it must have seemed like some new and horrible trick. From the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages, it was often illegal for Jews to convert Christians or Muslims to Judaism, so a ger tzedek [convert] could bring huge fines or violence down upon the community. Jews are obligated by Jewish law to welcome and assist fellow Jews, so frauds were not welcome.

But in my experience, most of the “More Jewish than You” game in modern times comes from insecurity. Jews who worry about their own legitimacy salve that insecurity by finding someone to look down upon. It’s not just converts to Judaism, either: I have heard people say that someone is less Jewish than so-and-so because:

  • he doesn’t “look Jewish.”
  • her last name is Smith.
  • he goes to a Reform synagogue.
  • she doesn’t keep kosher, or doesn’t keep kosher enough.
  • so-and-so is a decendant of the Baal Shem Tov.
  • so-and-so looks SO Jewish.
  • so-and-so goes to such-and-such a synagogue.
  • so-and-so speaks Yiddish.

If something about your status as a Jew worries you, talk to a rabbi and figure out what you need in order to feel legitimately Jewish. If you have a tendency to think about and comment on other people’s legitimacy as Jews, you are worried about your own legitimacy.

If only an Orthodox conversion will make you feel Jewish enough not to pick on other Jews, go for it! If in your heart of hearts you feel you really ought to be keeping kosher, do it! If you need to do more mitzvot in order to feel legitimate, run to do those mitzvot! If you feel sorta-kinda-Jewish and wish you had papers to prove you are really, absolutely Jewish, talk to a rabbi about conversion or some other way to ritualize your identity.  Learn Hebrew, learn Yiddish, learn Ladino. If general insecurity is the problem, get some therapy. But don’t let stupid words from insecure people make you miserable.

But whatever you do, don’t find someone to label “Less Jewish than Me” so that you have someone to look down on, too. We can all be tempted by this at times – to say that well, so-and-so is Orthodox and all that, but she’s really a hypocrite (thus not as Jewish as Me.) We might be tempted to throw around some Hebrew when we know that some of the people at the table don’t speak Hebrew, because hey, it may make them feel bad but Can You See How Jewish I Am? You’ve seen the game played – just make sure you are never the player.

And may the day come soon when we are all kind and wise, and there is no more insecurity, and no temptation to cruel games or defenses against them! Amen.