Mizrahim, the Jews of the East

Image: Persian Jews in Iran, 1917. Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Some of the longest-thriving Jewish communities in history are the Mizrahi communities of the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa. Their stories have gone largely ignored by Western Jews, which is a real shame.

The first big Mizrahi community goes back to the first diaspora of Jews: the Babylonian captivity. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in 587 BCE, they carried off many of the educated Jews to be clerks in their vast bureaucracy. To this day we hear their grief and pain in Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy.
They said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” – Psalm 137:1-3

Seventy years later Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians, and the Jews of Babylon were free to go home. Some headed west to rebuild Jerusalem and its Temple. Others had made a home in Babylon, and they chose to stay. Thus when the Temple was destroyed again and Jewish life in Israel was in disarray, Babylon was set to emerge as a center of Jewish life and learning. Indeed, the scholars of Babylon assembled the great Babylonian Talmud.

The Babylonian academies gave birth to the other centers of Jewish life and learning: Sepharad in Spain, Askhenaz in Europe. Elsewhere around the Mediterranean other Mizrahi communities sprang up: in Egypt, in Morocco, in Syria, and Persia (modern Iran), to name just three of many.

Mizrahi Jews lived under Ottoman rule by 1492, and when the Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492, the Mizrahi communities opened their doors to the refugees. Most of Christian Europe wanted nothing to do with the Sephardic exiles, so for many of them, their best chance was to head east to Muslim lands. In some of those places, the Sephardic rite of liturgy and the language became dominant. That’s why some refer to Mizrahi Jews as Sephardic.

The 20th century brought huge changes to the Mizrahi world. The events of 1948 and the emergence of the new State of Israel as the victor in its War of Independence against Arab armies triggered angry responses in the Muslim nations of the Levant. One after another, the nations which had been home to Mizrahi Jews took up active programs of persecution. 850,000 Jews were kicked out as penniless refugees, stripped of their assets. Most went to Israel. Others emigrated to the United States and Canada.

Today there are large communities of Mizrahim in Israel, in New York, in California, and in Canada. Life has not been easy; most lost everything when they were expelled from the lands that had been home for thousands of years. If you want to learn more about the individual communities, a wonderful organization called JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) has their stories, past and present, in more detail on its website and its Instagram account. I recommend you click the links and take a look; my choices for photographs were rather limited for this blog, but the photos on both the JIMENA website and its Instagram account are breathtaking.

It’s all too easy, if you are a synagogue Jew in most of the USA, to think that most Jews are Ashkenazi. That, too, is a trick of history: most of the Jews in the U.S. arrived as refugees from the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since 1924, we’ve had quotas that kept out many others. The Mizrahi communities were not seriously stressed until later, so we see fewer Mizrahi Jews in the USA.

The Jewish world is wide and beautiful. It encompasses a variety of people with many skin colors, cultures, and customs. We are all richer when we recognize our cousins for what they are: mishpacha [family.]

 

Women Rabbis Making History

Image: Photo of Rabbi Regina Jonas believed to have been taken after 1939. (Jewish Women’s Archive)

Tonight was the event I most looked forward to at the CCAR Convention: the Women’s Rabbinic Network gathered for our annual dinner.

One of the most moving aspects of the dinner is roll call. The president calls us by ordination years, beginning with the soon-to-be ordained rabbis: “Class of 2017!” A few of them were with us, and we clapped and cheered for them. Then the newest rabbis: “Class of 2016!” When she got to “Class of 2008!” I stood up with my classmates and enjoyed the warmth. As the years count down, we get to the pioneers, women who carved the way for the rest of us, right down to “Class of 1972!”

At that, one woman stands up. Her name is Rabbi Sally Priesand. We go crazy, standing and cheering for her, because she is the trailblazer for the rest of us, ordained on June 3, 1972. Since that day, the Reform Movement in the United States has ordained over 700 women as rabbis. We serve as congregational rabbis, as military chaplains, as academics, and as counselors. There are major scholars among our ranks, and teachers like myself. Two of us have served as presidents of the CCAR, and many women rabbis are on faculty at rabbinical schools worldwide.

For many years, we thought Rabbi Priesand was the first woman ordained as a rabbi. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall did the world learn of Rabbi Regina Jonas, a German woman who was ordained in Berlin in 1935 by Rabbi Max Dienemann (1875–1939) director of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis. Rabbi Jonas served the Jews of Berlin and elsewhere faithfully until 1942, when she was sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. There she provided pastoral care, teaching, and services for the Jews in the camp, until she and her mother were transferred to Auschwitz on October 12, 1944. They were likely murdered that same day.

Although Rabbi Jonas worked alongside Rabbi Leo Baeck and the psychologist Viktor Frankl at Theresienstadt, neither of them ever mentioned her after the war. Were it not for the records in East Berlin, including her rabbinic thesis, we would never have known about her.

If you are interested in learning more about women in the rabbinate, there’s a wonderful new book out that explores the topic. It won a National Jewish Book Award this year: The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate. I recommend it highly.

There are now many women rabbis in America and around the world. For synagogue-going Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Renewal Jews we are no longer a curiosity. Even in the Orthodox world, where change happens very slowly, there are now women with rabbinic educations, doing rabbinic work under various titles. When I looked around that room tonight, I felt honored to be a member of this group of women who have dedicated their lives to Torah and the care of the Jewish People. I felt honored to be part of history.

This Chanukah: New Dedication

Image: Eight candles, and the light that serves them. Photo by Saildancer/Pixabay.

 

Chanukah is a holiday with a complex history. For Jews today it’s usually celebrated as another of the “they persecuted us, we won, let’s eat” holidays, a simple story about Greek outsiders and Jewish patriots.

If you know the history, though, you know it’s more complicated than that. It was a civil war as much as a war against outsiders. The Books of Maccabees tell us that there was terrible bloodshed. At first, it was celebrated as a great military victory; a few hundred years later the triumphalist slant on the holiday was rejected for the miracle story in the Talmud. And much later, in the 20th century, the story was complicated again by the establishment of a Jewish State and the necessity of military power to defend that state.

I am left with the name of the holiday: Chanukah. It means “dedication.”

I ponder this holiday, and the present situation in U.S. politics. It seems to me that this is a time that calls for clarity in how we dedicate ourselves.

Amalek, those raiders who became the embodiment of evil in the Bible, made their first attack on the stragglers: the old, the disabled, and the sick at the rear of the caravans of Israel. So I take my cue from our scripture that one way to recognize evil is to watch for those who prey on the weak.

So I dedicate myself to quit the usual labels. I’m not going to use the old labels for “us” and “them.” I’m going to see who picks on the weak: the sick, the disabled, the poor, the disenfranchised, the “strangers” that Leviticus tells me to love.

I’m going to see who picks on the weak and I’m going to fight them.

  • I’m going to fight them by writing letters (old fashioned letters!) and making phone calls to my elected officials.
  • I’m going to fight them by showing up at rallies.
  • I’m going to fight them by helping to spread verified information via social media.
  • I’m going to fight them by giving financial support to organizations that fight them.
  • I’m going to fight them in the voting booth, the next chance I get, probably some local election.

I’m going to pay close attention to local politics. That’s where everything starts, and it’s where my efforts are going to pay off the most. And again, I’m going to apply the Amalek rule to see whom I will support. If a local politician speaks up for the weak, I’m going to support them. If they prey on the weak, I’m going to fight them.

The old labels do not serve us. We have settled into our camps, and it looks to me like outsiders, people like Vladimir Putin, are profiting off our automatic enmities. So if a politician calls herself a conservative, but she looks to me like a person who fights for the underdog, I’m going to support her. If a politician calls himself a liberal, but he serves the powerful, I’m going to fight him. I am done with party names, too. I will not automatically support anyone.

For those who serve only themselves, I ask Hillel’s question: What ARE you?

 

 

Where Was the First Synagogue?

Image: A gathering of Jews pray and read Torah. Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Rabbi Sarah Schechter leads Jewish services, at 332 AEW Jt. Base Balad, Iraq.  Public Domain.

Where was the first synagogue?

If you want the answer from archaeology, the answer is, we don’t know. We have some ruins and inscriptions from the 3rd century before the common era that are definitely from synagogues, but it’s entirely possible that synagogues existed for a long time before that.

However, that’s only one way of looking for the answer.

A traditional way to look for Jewish answers about history is to look in Jewish texts. Then the answer appears very early in our story, in the book of Leviticus:

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, “Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments, and the anointing oil, and the bullock of the sin-offering, and the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread, and assemble all the congregation at the door of the Tent of Meeting.” – Leviticus 8: 1-3

Various artists have pictured the camp of Israel in the wilderness following the descriptions in the Torah. This image by Johann Christoph Weigel (1654-1725) is fairly typical and consistent with the text:

Weigel

At the very center of the picture stands the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting. The Israelites are camped all around it, organized by tribes. The Levites are closest to the Tent of Meeting (orange squares on three sides of it) and the blue, green, yellow and pink squares are the camps of the other tribes. Look back to the center: the area in front of the Tent of Meeting is an open space. That is where God has commanded Moses to “assemble all the congregation” for the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests of Israel.

The words here are also significant: the words for “assemble” and “congregation” are words we still use in the names of congregations: “Kahal” (in a verb form here) and “Adat.”

The first synagogues were not buildings. They were assemblies of Jews, brought together by a common worshipful purpose.  This is different from the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting, and later, the Temple: those were places of sacrifice, and parts of them were only open to the Levites and the priests.

Another example of a gathering of Jews that certainly looks like a synagogue:

All the people gathered themselves together as one person in the open space before the Water Gate [in Jerusalem.] They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Eternal had commanded for Israel.

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly [kahal], which was made up of men and women and those who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And the ears of the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. – Nehemiah 8: 1-3

This is an account of the first public Torah reading on record. Jews still gather to read Torah from the Scroll; we gather to read from the sefer Torah, the “book of the Law,” in either a permanent synagogue building or in a place that for that time is designated for the purpose.

The essential element is not the building – the essential element is the gathering of Jews. This has been true from the very earliest days.

 

As a practical matter, most congregations choose to build or purchase a synagogue building. That allows for safe storage of Torah scrolls and books and for learning space. It is also convenient to have these things in a dedicated space. But it is important that we remember that the congregation is not the building; the physical plant is not nearly as important as the people who gather there.

So where is the world’s oldest synagogue? The Mediterranean is dotted with ruins of ancient synagogues. However, the oldest synagogue isn’t a building. A synagogue happens whenever and wherever Jews gather to study and pray.

 

 

 

One Question: Light Dawns!

Image: a cartoon light bulb by ElisaRiva via pixabay.com.

Today, teaching a class about Sephardic Judaism, I was burbling along with the usual lecture about the Golden Age of Spain when a student asked me a brilliant question:

So, all this had to be in private, right?

Earlier I had outlined the rules under which dhimmis operated in Islamic Spain. One of those rules was that all Jewish or Christian religious activity had to take place in private – no public menorahs, no creche in front of Town Hall. So the question made perfect sense: if Jewish religious activity had to take place in private, wasn’t all Jewish activity private?

If I were a cartoon, I would have had a light bulb over my head at that moment. Suddenly I understood why it was that so much of Sephardic cultural accomplishment took place in the secular realm. The Sephardic Golden Age saw accomplishments in love poetry, in music, in mathematics and medicine.

The religious accomplishments of the culture were mostly scholarly – things that could happen in a quiet private space. Also, while there is a deep spirituality in Sephardic Judaism, it too is private: much of it is mysticism and of that, much was secret.

So my answer to the question was that no, only the religious accomplishments were private. The rock star poets of the Golden Age circulated their secular poetry in the public sphere, keeping their religious poetry for the synagogue. Science and mathematics are purely secular. And philosophy deals with even religious subjects at arm’s length.

It was a moment in history when Jews were welcome to participate in the secular culture. Jews could excel in the secular realm, because the surrounding culture didn’t force us into a religious straightjacket.

One question opened up a whole aspect of Sephardic history to me.

This is why I love teaching. This is why we never finish learning Torah.

 

The Wind Report: Jews & Politics

Would you like to read some solid Jewish analysis of politics in this election year? I recommend The Wind Report, a blog by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

WindmuellerOne of the many interesting and valuable classes I took in rabbinical school had to do with Jewish community organizations and life. Dr. Windmueller was one of the teachers for that course. He has since retired from the faculty of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and now his expertise is available to readers with wifi and a smartphone or computer.

Dr. Windmueller’s expertise is not purely academic. From 1973-1985 he served as Executive Director of the Jewish Federation in Albany, NY, and for the following ten years he was the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation‘s Community Relations Committee. His tenure at the LA Federation took place during a particularly tumultuous period for the city. In short, Dr. Windmueller knows politics, and he knows Jews and politics.

I also recommend his book, The Quest for Power: A Study in Jewish Political Behavior and Practice. In it, he puts the situation of 21st century American Jews into a historical and sociological context.

Don’t rely on random social media messages from who-knows-who for information about “the Jewish vote” in this election – check out The Wind Report for good information.

 

The Story of the Four Chaplains

Image: The Four Chaplains were honored with a commemorative 3¢ stamp issued in 1948, showing their four faces above the sinking Dorchester, with the words “These Immortal Chaplains… Interfaith in Action.”  Image is in the public domain.

This week in 1943, U.S. Army Transport ship Dorchester carried 902 troops, merchant marines and civilian workers from Newfoundland to an American base in Greenland. The icy waves were a prowling ground for German U-boats, and one of the Coast Guard cutters accompanying the Dorchester had picked up a shadow on its sonar. The men on the Dorchester were under orders to keep their life jackets on, but down in the bowels of the ship, many disregarded the order because of the heat of the ship and the difficulty of sleeping in a bulky life preserver.

On Feb 3, 1943, a German U-Boat silently surfaced at 12:55 a.m, hidden by the night. The officer in charge of U-223 took aim and fired three torpedoes at the troop ship. One torpedo hit the Dorchester below the water line amidships, opening the hull to the frigid Atlantic and knocking out the power and with it radio contact with the three Coast Guard escorts. A lookout aboard the CGC Comanche spotted the flash of the explosion, and radioed for help.

Aboard the Dorchester, men awakened by the explosion had to find their way topside in the dark. Many were killed in the initial explosion; many more were wounded. Many had undressed to sleep, and when they emerged on the tilting deck, they were without lifejackets. This was the Arctic; no one could survive long in those waters even with a lifejacket, but without one, he would be doomed.

According to survivors, there were four rays of light on that dark deck. Four chaplains: Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed moved quickly and quietly among the men, calming them and directing them to lifeboats. They prayed aloud for the dying and encouraged the living.

Petty Officer John J. Mahoney tried to go back to his cabin for gloves, but Rabbi Goode stopped him.  Goode answered. “Never mind, I have two pairs.” The rabbi pressed his own gloves into the young man’s hands. Later, in safety, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode didn’t have two pairs of gloves. The rabbi had already decided that he was unlikely to leave the Dorchester.

The chaplains opened a locker on deck and began distributing life jackets to those who had left theirs below. When all the jackets were given out, they removed their own and handed them out, too. The chaplains did not inquire whether the next man in line was a believer, much less was he someone of their own faith; rather, the chaplains simply gave the life-saving gear to the next person in need.

The Dorchester sank that night, with only 240 survivors out of the 902 souls aboard. Survivors report hearing the chaplains on the deck of the ship, singing together to the very end.

On Dec. 19, 1944, the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross were awarded posthumously to each of the four chaplains. Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor on them, but could not do so because of the strict requirement that it be given for “courage under fire.” Instead, the Congress issued a special “Four Chaplains Medal” for them and them only.

The four chaplains served together and with a common purpose. Their story caught the imagination of the nation, since at that time the majority of Americans did not think of Jews and Catholics in the same way they thought about white Protestant ministers. Before this time, Jews in the United States were generally regarded as non-white foreigners, no matter their place of birth. This event was a crucial step on the road to change in U.S. interfaith relations.

As one of my teachers (I wish I could remember which!) pointed out to me, before the Four Chaplains one did not hear the phrase “Judeo-Christian” in American discourse. While I admit to mixed feelings about the ways to which that phrase is used (often ignoring real and important distinctions between Jewish and Christian belief) I can never forget that underneath it lies a conviction that we have essential ties.

I look forward to the day when the essential ties among all people of good will are appreciated and celebrated: when no religion is seen as lesser, when no one is “white” because everyone is truly equal. Then, and only then, will the legacy of the Four Chaplains bear its true fruit.