Archive for the ‘Israel’ 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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You’re probably going to start noticing some differences in the content of my posts here pretty soon (and perhaps the frequency with which they’re written).

Tomorrow, I’m going to be leaving for Poland with my grade, where I will spend approximately 10 days visiting concentration camps and the remains of what used to be a thriving Jewish community there. I’m expecting an emotional but very interesting trip.

Then, we’ll leave Poland and spend three months in Israel, touring and volunteering. I’m super excited–I’ve been to Israel many times before, but never for so long, and never with my friends. It’s going to be a great experience, full of learning, beautiful weather, and lots of hummus.

That being said, I’ll be sure to share whatever relevant experiences and thoughts I have while there (when I get computer/internet access). A Jewish teenage girl spending three months in Israel–who knows what Jewish feminist issues I’ll encounter? (Well, I have an idea–probably less American pop culture issues and more Israeli ones, for certain. And the sometimes absurd laws passed in Israel that majorly infringe on women.)

So, rather than saying goodbye, I’d prefer to say “see you from the other side of the world.”

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I’m very excited to be writing this post from a couch in my grandparents’ apartment in Israel–I’m visiting over winter break.

The last time I visited Israel was a year and a half ago. When I arrived here a week ago, I soon realized how much had changed within my family now that three of my cousins are in the army. They’ve been in the army since earlier this year, but before I arrived I didn’t quite grasp what that meant and how much it changes things. My grandfather is turning 80 this weekend (the reason for my family’s visit), and one of my cousins simply won’t be able to come to our party because he isn’t allowed to leave his base this weekend. The only communication I’ve had with him since being here was a quick phone-call. Another cousin is training to be a pilot, and while I will get to see him at the party, I have yet to see or hear from him during our entire visit here. The more my family misses the absent cousins, the more it seems we do nothing but talk about them and the work they’re doing.

What I’ve found strangest is seeing people my age prepare for the army right now. As I’ve been working on applying to college and thinking about what I want to do with my life, they’ve been going through testing to see how they’ll be serving their country for the next few years. Even though I know quite a few people going into the army here, it still surprises me that I’ll be starting college at least two or three years before them–and that while I’m spending time thinking about myself and trying to have a “college experience”, they’ll be learning to think less about themselves and instead to think about their unit and the goals of a group.

In America, I feel like I’m constantly being told that I’ll figure everything out in college–that I’ll make my best friends, discover a career path, and somehow manage to explore a million different new things. While I’m not sure all of that will happen (I hope it does), I do know that for many Americans, college is a chance to live away from your parents, feed yourself, and begin to get a taste of what independence feels like. But in Israel, you don’t live alone after high school–you live and work with a group of people all the time. Even the most raucous and rambunctious teenagers are forced to learn discipline. And, instead of trying to go as far away from home as possible (what? never!), many Israelis my age look forward to coming home every other weekend and getting a chance to take a break from their tiring work.

This trip has been kind of a reality check for me. I know America and Israel are very different countries with very different security needs and capabilities, and that at least in the foreseeable future, there won’t be a draft in America, so I’ll never have the experience of being required to serve my country. But I do think there’s something I can learn from the way Israelis look at serving in the army. I’ve talked to quite a few people about their impending draft and asked them why they didn’t just say they were crazy, get out of the draft, and go to college–and they looked at me like I was crazy. They told me that they want to serve because they know that Israeli soldiers, both fighters and those who do administrative work, allow Israel to flourish and prosper as it does–that without them, Israel could not be the what it is today. Even though to me giving up two or three years of my life seems like a burden, to many Israelis it is not just a duty, but something they look forward to.

That, I think, is what I want to remember as I head towards college. During senior year, I’ve often fallen into the habit of stressing so much about my college essays and potential acceptances that I forget to think about other people. I can only imagine what it will be like when I don’t have my family around me to yell at me and keep me somewhat grounded. And so, when that happens, I hope to think about my cousins and friend serving their country in Israel, and remember that there’s an entire world out there of needs and responsibilities that are bigger than myself–and that even though my needs may seem incredibly pressing, I need to take time to think about other people and my community as a whole.

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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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I learned about Nahshol (the Hebrew word for “large wave”), the world’s first unit dedicated to combat intelligence missions that is comprised only of women, this week from this article in Ynet. Trained as intelligence gathering combatants in the Israeli Defense forces, the women in the unit undergo basic training as well as a four-month training on the operation of advanced scouting and observation equipment. They are sent out in ambushes based on army intelligence information, and specialize in camouflaging themselves, their weapons, and their surveillance equipment. Their main jobs are to spot enemy forces and to guide IDF troops and gunships to their target. They focus on preventing illegal immigrants, drug smugglers, and smugglers of women from entering into Israel. According to the IDF website, what makes Nahshol different than other intelligence units is that the women gather intelligence from the field, rather than from a command center.

The unit sounds really cool—it was started four years ago as a pilot project, but because it has been so successful it has become a regular part of the IDF. It was hard to find information on Nahshol, and there did not seem to be any kind of explanation as to why an all-female intelligence unit was necessary, as opposed to a co-ed one, and I wonder. But according to the IDF website it’s been successful, and has allowed women to play an important role as a part of the Field Intelligence Corps, so it seems to be a good idea.

The one thing I found weird was the way that the article in Ynet was written—one of the sections in the article was called “Back home we wear high heels,” and the section includes, among other similar quotes, this quote from unit member Gal Bero:

“My nickname here is ‘the cosmetician,'” she says. “There is no way anyone here would see me unkempt.”

I would guess that the author is trying to show how even women who have traditionally male roles, such as combat and intelligence positions, can still be feminine. However, I found that section to be incredibly superfluous—most likely, some of the girls are feminine in the traditional sense, and some of them are not. But being feminine or not being feminine while not on duty really does not matter in terms of how they can perform in the field. Personally, I was put off by that whole section.

I was surprised for similar reasons by this quote:

Beyond the physical and mental difficulties inherent in their mission, female fighters also need to contend with adverse weather conditions, sleepless and showerless nights, and long hours of sitting in lonely ambushes (they’re not allowed to stand) that often bring no results.

Clearly, female fighters do need to contend with unpleasant conditions. But their being female has nothing to do with it—men in similar units have to face those same conditions. I found it weird that the author tried to paint the difficult parts of the Nahshol experience as one that is unique to women, while really what they are going through is an experience that is unique to the army as a whole.

I think that while it is important to have women serving in intelligence and combat units, it is also important to treat those women’s experiences not as womanly experiences, but as military experiences, or Israeli experiences. Doing so allows women to be seen not as a separate part of the IDF but rather as soldiers, just like all other soldiers, who are serving their country.

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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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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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