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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

I’ve been MIA here for a while because my group went on a trip down to the south of Israel for two weeks, leaving me computer-less and wifi-less (but it was a lot of fun, so that wasn’t really an issue). No worries, I’m back just in time for Passover!

This morning I happened upon an interesting and relevant piece in The New York Times by Andre Acimano, a Jew raised in Alexandria whose family was forced by Nasser to flee Egypt in 1965. On the eve of Passover, he reflects on the discomfort and strangeness he feels as a disbeliever at Seders today, and how every Seder he attends brings him back to his last Seder in Egypt on the night before his family left the country.

I found these passages to be particularly poignant:

After almost three centuries of religious tolerance, we found ourselves celebrating Passover the way our Marrano ancestors had done under the Spanish Inquisition: in secret, verging on shame, without conviction, in great haste and certainly without a clear notion of what we were celebrating. Was it the first exodus from Egypt? Or maybe the second from Spain? Or the third from Turkey? Or the fourth, when my family members fled Italy just before the Nazis took over?

Or were we celebrating the many exoduses that went unrecorded but that every Jew knows he can remember if he tries hard enough, for each one of us is a dislodged citizen of a country that was never really his but that he has learned to long for and cannot forget. The fault lines of exile and diaspora always run deep, and we are always from elsewhere, and from elsewhere before that….

Tomorrow night is the night for it. For on that night all Jews remember the night when Jewish memory began. That night each one of us thinks back to that private Egypt we each carry with us wherever we are. We may not always know what to remember, but we know we must remember.

I, too, often feel that I’m not sure what I’m celebrating or remembering; I know what story or event relates to every holiday, but I also know that any feelings that stir inside me could not possibly be related to those events because I feel so distant from them. And yet, just as he so poetically describes, I feel that I must remember, and so I try, and often do remember something.

Recently, I’ve realized how easy it is for my generation (myself included) to forget about modern exoduses. Being on my program here in Israel has led to a lot of conversations and arguments among my friends about Zionism, Judaism, the reasons for a Jewish state, and what a Jewish state actually entails–too many things to discuss here. And over the course of the conversations, people have often questioned the need for a Jewish state, arguing that Jews live peacefully and happily in the Diaspora. Personally, I think that Judaism can and does thrive in the Diaspora, and has done so for thousands of years; however, I often feel the need to remind myself that throughout history–and more importantly, within the last 50 years, even after the Holocaust–Jews have been exiled from their homes and left without a place to go. In the case of Andre Acimano, his family left for Italy; before and during the Holocaust, Jews scattered across the globe. Whether this is justification for a Jewish state is another issue entirely, and not one that I want to engage with here; the point I am trying to make is that because so many Jews live securely in the Diaspora, it is often easy for us to overlook Jews who recently did not, or do not now. We forget that exodus is not simply an ancient term.

Perhaps this year, as I struggle to figure out what exactly I’m remembering, that is what I’ll remember–as we recall the Jewish exile from Egypt thousands of years ago, I’ll remind myself of the many
modern exoduses of my people. And in doing so, perhaps the idea of exodus, both the dusty and foreign kind that I read about in the Haggadah and the raw and visualizable kind of the 20th and 21st centuries, will become real to me, distancing me from the comfortable and safe lifestyle that I lead and forcing me closer to what has made up much of the history of my people. (And, just to throw it out there, the history of many other peoples, as well–Jews are not the only ones with a history of exile. Can anyone say Armenians?)

On that somewhat depressing note (but at least maybe it’ll give you something to think about while the verses of Chad Gadya go on and on and on?) I’d like to wish you a Happy Passover. May you stay awake throughout the whole Seder, not get too drunk, and find, in whatever way you can, a way to feel that “you yourself were there”.

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In a way, I think I’m lucky to be writing about “Living the Legacy” as a student. It’s a new free online curriculum created by the Jewish Women’s Archive to explore the role of American Jews in the Civil Rights Movement, including both the men that are usually studied and women who are sometimes overlooked in order to create a “gender inclusive history.” Looking through the website, the lesson plans and teaching strategies look completely familiar to me: jigsaw discussion groups, a mix of Jewish and secular primary sources, and use of technology to enhance learning, among other elements. Having attended a Jewish day school for my whole life, “Living the Legacy” seems to me to be another unit in Jewish history class.

Not that that should belittle it in any way–I think that “Living the Legacy” is an incredibly rich, thorough resource, and one that teachers, especially in schools like mine, should consider taking advantage of. It is clear that Rosenbaum put immense effort into the planning of lessons, as she has succeeded at creating a diverse curriculum that encourages analytical thinking rather than portraying Jews as consistently benevolent and without fault.

Take Unit 3, Lesson 2: Growing tensions I: Black-Jewish Relations, about the tensions that began to sprout with the inception of the Black Power movement as many whites, and therefore Jews, were forced to leave many civil rights organizations, and Jews accused blacks of anti-Semitism and began to resent affirmative action, for example. The lesson plan starts out with a discussion about the similarities and differences between black slavery and Jewish slavery in Egypt. Next, groups of students in the class are assigned primary sources to read and discuss, followed by a class discussion about the similarities and differences between Jewish and black involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Following this, the class watches a clip from PBS’ Jewish Americans about slavery, immigration, the Ocean Hill/Brownsville school boycott, and Julius Lester’s radio show, and then discuss a long list of questions. Finally, the lesson concludes with students participating in a poetry slam. Ignoring the fact that this seems to be a lesson plan long enough for three classes, what I like about this lesson is the fact that it encourages students to empathize with both Jewish and black people rather than simply Jews.

I guess what I like best about “Living the Legacy” is that even after attending a Jewish school for 13 years, I’ve never really spent time studying specifically Jewish and black relations, so this is a topic that I can honestly say I’d be interested in learning about. Which I think is a good sign, seeing as the curriculum is aimed at students in grades 8-12. Overall, I’d say that “Living the Legacy” is definitely worth exploring, even if you’re not an educator or student, because of the vast quantity of primary and secondary sources it has on file and the thought-provoking questions it raises. And, of course, the fact that it brings up a lot of female figures who are sometimes overlooked in other curricula.

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For a while now I’ve been struggling to figure out what I want to say and formulate a post about this:

And I’m still not completely sure what to say. On the one hand, the video is beautiful, in that special wow, there really could be hope in this world way and terribly sad in the wow, there are so many girls out there living lives that they should not be living way. When I first saw the video I had to watch it a couple of times to actually think about it. And then I was curious, so I looked up the website of The Girl Effect. They have a fact sheet with some interesting and relevant facts, such as the fact that “an extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 25 percent” and that “out of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth, 70 percent are girls.” The statistics clearly show that there is a gap between what I (and many people in Western society) believe girls deserve and what they are getting.

But here’s the thing: it’s hard to change a society, and this video is, to say the least, quite the oversimplification. How can you give a girl independence in a society that is structured around her dependence? How can you make a society pay attention to girls when for thousands of years it has not? The answer: slowly. That’s where my hesitation is–not in the ideas behind The Girl Effect, but in the idea that everything is going to be easy. If you read “Girls Count: An Investment and Global Action Agenda,” you’ll see that the people at the Center for Global Development have some very logical and seemingly important ideas, like increasing access to secondary education for girls, working to get laws passed that fight discrimination against women, and getting girls official identification so that there is an official record of what happens to them.

I read these ideas and immediately said to myself, yes, of course these need to happen. And I still think they need to happen–but sadly, I’m just a little skeptical. NGOs like the World Bank have been for years and continue to build schools for girls, and what happens? Some girls get to go to school; in many cases, thousands upon thousands of girls get to go to school. But there still remain thousands and thousands who don’t. If a law gets passed that encourages equality, a law gets passed–but it is still up to the government, police, and other officials to enforce the law, and many times corruption inhibits that from happening. This is not to say that efforts should not be made–I think they should. However, I think it’s important to remember that even though the small pieces themselves may seem simple to achieve, it is much more difficult to change an entire society. The Western world functions very differently than other cultures, and changing a society’s mores and expectations takes time. It took, and is still taking, time for women to be seen as equal in America, and that time applies in the same way, if not more, when talking about changing foreign cultures and their perceptions of gender equality.

So watch the video, share the video, and talk to people about it. It raises a lot of issues, from the idea of the imposition of Western values onto other cultures to the debate about the efficacy of micro-finance initiatives. And hopefully, slowly, girls across the world will get the opportunities they deserve–from education to not having to have a child at age 14–and be able to live up to their full potential.

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Today, August 26, is Women’s Equality Day, created in commemoration of the passage of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote. In 1971 Congress designated this date to remember the amendment that gave women an equal say in the voting process, as well as to think about and focus on equality looking forward. JWA has a great roundup of recent interesting articles relating to women’s suffrage, as well as a post on the lessons we (in the U.S.) should take away from it. I’d recommend checking them out.

Meanwhile, I’d also like to take some time to think about the lack of equality that still exists for many women today across the world. Yes, there are some issues in the United States, but there are some huge and pressing issues across the world. For example, take Equality Now, an organization whose mission is to protect the human rights of females across the world. Currently, it has campaigns focusing on rape, domestic violence, reproductive rights, human trafficking, female genital mutilation, and denying women equal access to economic opportunity and political participation. Some of these things we think about on a regular basis, but most often we, or I at least, just live our regular lives. Think about it—how often do you think about girls sold into prostitution or the fact that female genital mutilation can lead to infertility, hemorrhages, urine retention, and open sores, among other things? And the fact that 98% of women in Somalia go through genital mutilation? For me, it’s not that often. So today, I’d say, think about those things for a while. And tell people. Maybe do a Google search and find out some things, and send some links around to raise awareness. And then, if you feel inflamed, take action by writing a letter to officials around the world about issues that are going on right now. (Examples: raids on women’s shelters, giving women equality under laws, etc.) Maybe it won’t do that much, but maybe it will—and the act of investing yourself in an issue will probably make you feel more connected to it and more likely to care about and discuss it with others.

Also, if you’re interested: President Obama’s speech about Women’s Equality Day. He talks about the gender pay gap, lack of women in science, business, and Congress, and other issues in America, as well as his hopes for working on women’s equality issues inside and outside of the U.S. He also talks about how he established the White House Council on Women and Girls in order to try to deal with these issues (did you know it has its own blog?). The creation of the council is in itself important as a symbol, but it also seems (from reading through this blog) that the administration is interested in furthering women’s equality, from the rights of Native American women to women entrepreneurs across Africa. That’s also worth a read.

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This is cross-posted at Jewesses with Attitude.

I’ve been thinking a lot about literacy lately. Maybe it’s because I’m working for a children’s book company this summer or maybe it’s because I am now open to seeing the holes in my own literacy. Of course, when I think of literacy, I tend to associate it with Judaism because that is where many of my holes originate. I was given opportunities for Jewish literacy through Hebrew School, synagogue, and family gatherings all throughout my elementary school years, but I was not ready to take it in, to absorb it, to fuse that into my New York City culture. So instead I decided to become feminist literate, reading The Feminine Mystique, bell hooks, and Gloria Steinem. I abandoned anything that showed a hint of sexism (with the exception of the guilty pleasure teen literature that shall not be named) because I immediately assumed there would be nothing I could learn from it.

I was wrong. It took a trip to Israel and interviewing my grandmother to learn that Jewish literacy in all forms and capacities is a path to empowerment for Jewish women. When I interviewed my grandmother for my senior project, she said of Jewish literacy in her synagogue, “The women come up for Haftorah. Women if they’re knowledgeable. They come up and read English prayers. We’re getting a more egalitarian siddur. They want to replace the one we have so that it incorporates women.” I realized that there can be multiple definitions of “egalitarian” and those multiple definitions can be different manifestations of a feminist philosophy. To include women “if they’re knowledgeable” goes by the feminist principle of gender being secondary to knowledge, forming a meritocratic rather than sexist society.

Read the rest here.

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I am standing on my side of the mechitza (divider that separates men and women to prevent distractions) at Yakar, an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem. This is my first Friday night service since my sister’s makeshift Bat Mitzvah one year ago. I stand with my prayer book, squinting at the foreign alphabet I can barely read and whose words I can never understand. I suddenly realize that although I might never know the meanings of these words, I can make out names I recognize, names whose stories I know.

There is singing and amidst the singing, fierce communal prayer. This is not an egalitarian synagogue. I knew that when I walked in and saw my friends disappear behind a white curtain and the rabbi follow suit. Yet this truly hits me when I look down at the page and the only names I recognize are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

I grew up learning that their wives – Rachel, Rebecca, and Sarah – are equally important. I wanted to read more about them – the women who persuaded their husbands to change the face of Judaism, who gave birth to tribes responsible for my existence in red tents. I went to synagogues where, immediately after we chanted “Avram v’Yishmael, v’Yaakov,” we chanted “Sarah, v’Rebecca, v’Rachel, v’Leah.” Yet miles away from home, I realize that these names are missing. The mothers are gone. How are there sons without mothers?

How could we forget Sarah, the woman who birthed a nation when she was told she was infertile, who lost all hope of getting pregnant, who wanted to be a mother so badly that when she finally gave birth to Isaac, she made certain she raised a son capable of continuing a religion?

And Rebecca? A woman who obeyed her father’s orders to marry up, to marry Isaac, and to give birth to Judaism’s first twins, she was strong-willed and pragmatic. She went to any length to make sure Judaism – the birthright of one of her sons – was put in the right hands when her husband died, tricking her husband on his deathbed. Why is her epic story not mentioned with the simple courtesy of a name?

As for Leah and Rachel, where are they? Where are the names of sisters who loved the same man, but who were able to realize that sisterhood is what matters above all else? They raised each other’s children and lived a life of pressure in polygamy, all the while known for their individual identities – Leah for being intelligent and having a good eye of judgment and Rachel for being staggeringly beautiful and too mature for her age.

It is crucial that we remember the matriarchs. Too often, they are left out and forgotten, their contributions to Judaism ignored while their husbands sneak in all the credit. To honor the matriarchs means we hear the whole story instead of half of it. We empower ourselves as women by honoring those that came before us.

These women must be remembered not exclusively in the context of men. We must remember them as women in their own right, women who possess identities beyond wifedom and motherhood, women with lives and stories of their own and with a perspective that just might differ from that of men. These four women are symbols for thousands more that live today. It is my job to hear their stories in Shabbat melodies so that I can live out my own.

That is why on a hot Jerusalem night I stand as the white cloth waves with the too short and unexpected breeze and I hear the Aleinu being read. And I hear my Orthodox friends sing “Avram v’Yishmael, v’Yaakov.” And I make a decision. I decide I will no longer be passive. I decide I will say the names of the mothers – metaphorical or not – that made it possible for me to stand here in the first place. As the congregation moves onto the next verse, I whisper with triumph, “Sarah, v’Rebecca, v’Rachel, v’Leah,” the names of my metaphorical mothers.

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This is cross-posted at Jewesses with Attitude.

As I embark on my final days of high school, I am working feverishly hard (well, let’s face it – senioritis makes me say I’m going to do so) on my senior project. My project, a collection of interviews with New York Jewish women on the intersection of Judaism and feminism (how appropriate!), is an exploration of how personal identity can be shaped by external forces/movements.

I started out the project by interviewing my grandmother who is eighty-seven. When asked if she experienced anti-Semitism, she answered “all the time.” When asked if she experienced sexism, she answered, “never.” My next interview was with Sophia who is sixteen.  When asked the same question, she gave the inverse answer, experiencing sexism all the time, but never anti-Semitism.

Read the rest here.

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