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Archive for the ‘Identity’ 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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This Thursday a document called “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” written by a group of three Orthodox rabbis and signed by Orthodox rabbis, educators, mental health professionals, and communal leaders, was released into the blogosphere. It lays out a set of principles on how to address the issue of homosexuality in the Orthodox Jewish world, an issue that Orthodox Judaism is struggling and grappling with today.

Somehow, the document manages to balance a very hard Orthodox stance on homosexuality with an emphasis on the importance of respect for homosexual people. Personally, I think it is important that the first principle is this:

All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (kevod haberiyot). Every Jew is obligated to fulfill the entire range of mitzvot between person and person in relation to persons who are homosexual or have feelings of same sex attraction. Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.

It sets the tone for a set of principles that seems to me to be based around the idea that no matter what one’s view on homosexuality is, homosexuals are people, and all people deserve respect and dignity—an important thing to remember, especially in the Orthodox world, where homophobic attitudes abound and homosexuals struggle for life with the fact that who they are by nature goes against what they have been taught. (A side note, kind of: Rabbi Blau, one of the creators of the document, moderated a panel on the issue of being gay in the Orthodox community at Yeshiva University a couple of years ago.)

But again, the document does take a hard stance: it says that heterosexual marriage is “the ideal model and sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression”; that all male and female same-sex sexual interactions are prohibited; that because an “entire congregation must be fully comfortable with having that person serve as its representative,” homosexuals most likely cannot serve in many religious offices; and that Judaism “cannot give its blessing and imprimatur to Jewish religious same-sex commitment ceremonies and weddings, and halakhic values proscribe individuals and communities from encouraging practices that grant religious legitimacy to gay marriage and couplehood.” These statements make it clear that the people signing the document are not interested in compromising on the idea that the Torah prohibits homosexual relations.

Even so (and I know I’m going back and forth here, but I think that is the point), many of those very statements are qualified to show the empathy and compassion that the signers want other people to exhibit. For example, immediately after saying that homosexual relations are prohibited it says: “But it is critical to emphasize that halakha only prohibits homosexual acts; it does not prohibit orientation or feelings of same-sex attraction, and nothing in the Torah devalues the human beings who struggle with them.” I think that this line is a very important one because it provides legitimacy to homosexuals and their feelings, something that should not be overlooked, as in many communities homosexuals are pushed towards therapy treatments to try and push them towards becoming heterosexuals. In fact, this document addresses those therapies and affirms homosexual people’s rights to refuse to undergo those treatments, something that I personally find to show compassion and acceptance.

Update (7/26/10): However, there are still many problems with the document: namely, that it seems to be somewhat of an apology for the current Jewish laws rather than a tangible idea for the future. Rather than discussing the biblical prohibition and dealing with it, the statement just takes it as it currently is and apologizes for it. Yes, creating a document like this is a very difficult and precarious thing to do in the Orthodox world, and I do think that this is a step in the right direction by emphasizing sensitivity and caring towards all human beings. However, I wrote this update after thinking about it and realizing that I’m not sure that is enough: I’m not sure that Orthodoxy will ever allow homosexual marriage or condone homosexual relations because of the prohibition in the Torah, but I’m also not sure if not allowing it can continue in the world we live in indefinitely. I think that given the fact that this seems progressive for the Orthodox community, this is definitely a positive document and is definitely a good way to get discussions generated about how the Orthodox community should deal with homosexuality (the growing list of Rabbis is a good sign), but I do not think that this is the final word on the issue.

What do you think? I’m really not sure, in case you couldn’t tell, so I would love to hear comments on this.

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My stepmother just sent me this note from NIF (the New Israel Fund), an organization that is near and dear to her heart. What separates NIF from other US-based groups dealing with Israel is its focus on domestic issues, which are often overlooked in light of Israel’s international political symbolism. Domestic issues all around the world are in large part comprised of issues of women’s rights, which, as we know quite well, intersect with marriage rights.

Check out this release from NIF:

This Sunday, for the second year in a row, NIF is sponsoring a wedding. It’s Tu B’Av, Israel’s Valentine’s Day, and like most Jewish weddings in Israel there will be flowers, dancing and a chuppah. But unlike most weddings in Israel, this one will be a Jewish alternative ceremony, joining the lives of two young people without the assistance or interference of Israel’s Orthodox-only Chief Rabbinate.

In Israel, the only way to have a legally recognized wedding is to have an Orthodox ceremony, and the only way to have an Orthodox ceremony is to meet the ever-harsher requirements of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.  Yulia and Stas, the bride and groom, are choosing a public ceremony in Tel Aviv to help raise awareness about the need for a civil marriage alternative in Israel.

By sundown on Sunday, Yulia and Stas will have had a Jewish wedding, but not one recognized by the laws of the State of Israel. Like many couples who wish to avoid the involvement of the Orthodox rabbinate in their wedding, Yulia and Stas will have to get married outside of Israel in order for their union to be legally recognized in their own country.

The need for a civil wedding option in Israel was driven home dramatically during the last few weeks, as emotions have flared in Israel and throughout the diaspora over the Rotem bill legislation introduced into the Knesset that, if passed, will grant the ultra-Orthodox an iron monopoly on conversion and on who is a Jew.

It’s one thing to get married in the United States, where a marriage does not have to involve religion and where the core issue at hand is denial of same-sex marriages. In Israel, there is another issue that falls under the umbrella of marriage equality: denominational representation. The ultra-Orthodox rabbinate controls marriage laws in Israel where there is not an option for a justice of the peace AND there is no such thing as a marriage that is not performed by an Orthodox rabbi in observance of very specific halakha.

The scary part is that many of these ultra-Orthodox rituals and observances go against the beliefs of the majority of the population. A marriage, an act that is supposed to create a union of two identities, ends up contradicting the beliefs of the two people who are united.

So take action now and contact Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to recognize all forms of Judaism as valid.

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Name: Sophia Henriquez

Age: 16

Place of Birth: New York City

Neighborhood: New York City

Denomination: Reform

Race: Caucasian

Ethnicity: Hispanic

Sexuality: Heterosexual

Profession: Student

“So, who are you interviewing next?”

“Sophia Henriquez from Peer Leadership,” I answered.

“But I thought your project was about Jewish feminism,” my mom replied, her face scrunching into a contortion of confusion that accompanies assumptions proven incorrect.

My mother is not the only one who responded like this when I mentioned that Sophia was my next interviewee. With a common Hispanic last name and a self-identified Latina, she is not the most likely Jew and that makes her a fighter for her religious identity, someone who goes the extra mile to prove to people that she is, in fact, Jewish not in spite of but in conjunction with her last name.

Sophia is not only Jewish, but Christian as well. She has grown up embracing diversity. After going to camp with her when we were younger, we have reunited in the Peer Leadership classroom, a place where high school juniors and seniors are taught to acknowledge differences and use them to construct individual identity. I knew she would be an ideal candidate for this project when she said during a lesson on family identity that what she loves most are the traditions her family has created, traditions that stem from a fusion of practices generally thought to run parallel, but to never intersect. This is precisely the beauty of the Henriquez interfaith and interracial household: it proves that this intersection is possible and that Judaism has a place in it.

I meet Sophia in the Senior Inquiry classroom. There are teachers bickering in the background and the din makes her assert her responses just like she asserts her unique and occasionally unaccepted identity. As with many young Jewish women, the first example that comes to mind when I ask Sophia to describe her religious upbringing is her Bat Mitzvah. The least genetically Jewish of all the women in her immediate family, she and her sister were actually the first ones to have Bat Mitzvahs.

She describes her mother’s influence, “My mom wasn’t a force on [my sister and I having Bat Mitzvahs] because she didn’t have one herself and neither did my grandmother so it was very individual for my sister and I because it was always a question of where we belonged.”

Sophia is a representative of what happens when you choose religion and religious practices. She puts choice back into religion and tradition. She took the initiative in having a Bat Mitzvah. This initiation is the most mature step to take in a ceremony that has the intention of a coming of age.

Just as she defined her desire to have a Bat Mitzvah, she defines other rituals on her own terms. Flexibility with Judaism is vital for this reform Jew from Stuyvesant Town. Her take on religion is beautiful and modern, containing elements of acceptance and comfort. As someone who is a part of two religions, she is able to take Judaism into a greater context.

(more…)

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Name: Lucille Weisfuse

Age: 88

Place of Birth: Bay Ridge, Brooklyn

Neighborhood: Boca Raton, Florida

Denomination: Conservative

Race: White

Ethnicity: Jewish (very strongly)

Sexuality: Heterosexual

Profession: Math Teacher

There is a look people have when they have everything they could possibly want in life. There is a glimmer in their eyes, a posture in their bones not of resignation, but of contentment. But even more telling than those physical attributes is their willingness to reveal absolutely everything about their lives to the world. When people have nothing to hide, they shine with the verbosity of their stories.

As I sit in the dining room of my grandmother’s Century Village (this is the name of her retirement community where I am convinced people live for centuries) apartment, she has this look and intense need to tell her story as much as and to whomever she could. For the purpose of this narrative, however, she is not my grandmother; she is Lucille Weisfuse because her life began way before she was a grandmother, a mother, or a wife. She has a long story to tell.

Our discussion begins with Lucille revealing bits about her Jewish upbringing as a Conservative Jew born and bred in Brooklyn. She grew up with a concern for the Jews around the world, those whose homes were being burnt in Eastern Europe and those whose fates were unknown in faraway ghettos. Her heightened sensitivity to anti-Semitism is apparent.

Attending a Conservative synagogue her parents helped to open, Lucille reveals that “women did not go up to the bima and they could not really participate, but [men and women] did sit together as equals. There was no separation between men and women in synagogue.” Because of where she comes from, Lucille and I identify separation and sexism differently. I begin to wonder if she is blinded by the myth of sexist traditions that do not allow women to the bima or if she is simply more respectful than me of an institution (Judaism) that is greater than the values of one person.

She was confirmed in that synagogue. Bat Mitzvahs were not as popular or accepted in 1935, when the Conservative movement was still deciding which ancient laws to follow and which to reform. A Bat Mitzvah means that girls read from the Torah. In most synagogues at the time, that was still an exclusively male role yet the Conservative movement wanted to find some way for women to participate. Then came the creation of the confirmation. Lucille says of the ceremony, “They had a confirmation class. It was all in English and I gave a talk.” The English is what makes a confirmation different from a Bat Mitzvah. While the talk she gave was meaningful, it was not holy in comparison to the sanctity of Hebrew in a Bat Mitzvah in an assimilated society where only the most educated and devout spoke this founding religious language. The initial intention of a Bat Mitzvah is to provide a ceremony for hard-learned Jewish literacy to be showcased. A confirmation is cultural, but less literacy-based.

(more…)

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I was reading The Forward today and I stumbled upon this, a comic created by Eli Valley. It’s about a sociologist who is asked by a customer to investigate why a Jewish girl, Melissa, has lost her Jewish identity. He goes out to investigate and discovers that like Melissa, Jews across the New York have lost their identities. Why? Melissa has lost hers because Arabs are evicted from their Jerusalem homes because of property laws, one of her friends because Israel arrested women for wearing prayer shawls, and another friend because he learned that half of Israeli teens opposed equal rights for Arab citizens: they have been turned away from Judaism because they disagree with events in Israel.

The detective concludes that if Jewish identity is to be restored, Israel must be “removed from the equation.” However, the woman who had asked him to do the inquiries tries to pay him off to conclude that “ties to Israel must be strengthened to save Jewish identity.” He turns her down, declaring that he is “a sociologist for hire,” implying that he is above accepting the bribe.

Even though I think that it kind of presents only one side of Israeli politics, I find the comic very interesting. Although I personally do not support every single decision that Israel makes, I still find that much of my Jewish identity is tied to Israel and to the fact that Israel is a homeland for all Jews. Even when I disagree with decisions in Israel, I feel that criticizing and engaging in discussions about Israel only serves to strengthen my ties to Israel.

However, I also agree with some of what the “sociologist” said—I think that if the Jewish community in America is serious about trying to engage more Jews and strengthen Jewish identity, American Jews need to be engaged on issues outside of Israel. A 2006 survey by the American Jewish Committee found that 79 percent of Orthodox adult Jews under the age of forty feel “very close to Israel,” while only 16 percent of non-Orthodox Jews under the age of forty felt that way. There is clearly a divide between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox, showing that secular Jews seem to need more to tie them to Judaism than Israel.

So what happens to Judaism now? In school, I have actually had many discussions about this in a class I take about Jews in the news—how possible is it to be a Jew without a connection to Israel? While I personally do not plan to live that way, it seems that many Jews in America do, and consequently is a reality that needs to be dealt with. I believe that Jews should be able to be Jewish without needing to be tied to Israel; Israel does need the support of the international Jewish community and cannot be abandoned, but a connection to Judaism should not only be based on a connection to Israel. While learning about Israel is one important way to establish a Jewish identity, why can’t there be other ways? What ever happened to cultural Judaism based on Jewish literature, plays, and heritage? What happened to having a unique Jewish culture?

The Holocaust happened, and the creation of Israel happened, and the culture that once was has somewhat died. But perhaps it is time for a new Jewish culture, formed by the modern Jewish thinkers and scholars that exist across the globe. Instead of saying that “ties to Israel must be strengthened to save Jewish identity,” maybe what will save Jewish identity is a reshaping of Jewish identity: a Jewish identity based around involvement in aspects of modern life—something like Jewish feminism, for example. American Jewry should not give up on trying to educate American Jews about Israel and connect them to it, but American Jewry should also not forget that Judaism can be about more than just Israel. Restoring Jewish identity may very well rest on the creation of a new type of Jewish identity that will fit with the growing secular Jewish community in America that is in need of something new to push them towards Judaism.

Correction: this is slightly embarrassing, but in the end of the comic the sociologist actually does take the money. Hence the name, “sociologist for hire.” This does not really affect the rest of the post, but I wanted to clear this up.

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