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Archive for the ‘Travel’ 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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Every post I write is about something that happened a week or two before. This one (it’ll be brief) is about attending Shabbat services at Shira Hadashah, a self-proclaimed “Orthodox, feminist congregation in Jerusalem.” I had a great experience there–out of all the Orthodox services I have attended, it was by far the one I found to be most meaningful.

What makes Shira Hadashah special (in addition to the fact that so many people there seemed to have amazing voices) is the way that they incorporate women into the service. Women and men pray on separate sides of a mechitza, with the bima in the center of two equally sized prayer spaces–allowing both men and women access to the bima. Women lead “optional” parts of the service, like Kabbalat and Pesukei Dezimra, which are parts that Orthodox Judaism halachically permits them to lead. In addition, women say Kaddish, are called to the Torah, read Torah, and say Kiddush.

Shira Hadashah is not a place I’d want to pray every day–I want to pray in a place where women can lead everything, and are seen as having equal obligations as men. However, my views will never line up with those of Orthodox Judaism, and I don’t think that they need to–there’s room for many different strains of Judaism out there. Because of this, I very much appreciate and admire the way that Shira Hadashah blends peoples’ desires both to observe Orthodox Halacha and create a community based on principles of gender equality and inclusion. Praying at Shira Hadashah, I felt like I was surrounded by a group of thinking and caring people who are trying to create a Judaism that blends tradition with their modern values.

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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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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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Today is Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day). It is a day to honor the lives of those who both survived and were murdered during this tragic genocide. Dina and I believe that it is vital to provide a space where the experiences of women in the Holocaust can be honored because, as in all cases of intersectional discrimination, women were put into a position that was different and, some might say, even more grotesque and terrifying than that of male victims.

In my Gender Studies class, we examined Harriet Jacobs’ quote, “Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women.” This seemingly innocent saying can truly bring about a heated discussion because slavery is one of the worst acts of cruelty and many believe that what is slavery is slavery; what is genocide is genocide and to break it apart will take away the unity of the victims and present a hierarchy of struggle. This is valid, but there is something to say for the varied experiences of women and how they innately, structurally, and socially differ from those of men. I remember being in middle school and utterly obsessed with reading YA Holocaust novels about young women (The Devil’s Arithmetic, Number the Stars, The Upstairs Room, you name it), experiences that could just not be translated into a male lexicon. Once sexism is compounded with a genocide on the basis of anti-Semitism and general xenophobia, the oppressors are able to use women as tools of war in ways that a patriarchy does not deem possible for men.

The only attribute of Jews in the Holocaust that could keep them alive was their potential for physical labor. Seen as mules, if they could not work, they were murdered on the spot. This made women incredibly vulnerable because if they were pregnant or recently had children (keep in mind, birth control wasn’t readily available in Nazi Germany so this was a large population of the women brought to the camps), they were deemed incapable of work and sent off to be killed. Not to mention that many of the women “capable of work” were sent to a separate women’s camp at Bergen-Belsen, where they suffered extreme brutalities.

What distinguished women from men most in the Holocaust was their role of motherhood. “Women and children first” does not apply in the case of genocide in case you add “to kill.” At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, I was moved most by the children’s memorial, which was also a de facto memorial of the mothers who lost those they birthed and the mothers who died simply for parenting. In my thoroughly-filled stream-of-consciousness Israel journal, I wrote of the memorial,

The most moving moment of the place (Yad Vashem is not just a museum; it is a complex series of multimedia memorials) was the children’s memorial. Hundreds of candles were lit in one room, each commemorating a child murdered as the names of these children, along with their ages (many five years old) rang out. Who were these beings, unfinished souls without bodies, a half-painted canvas a divine artist left unfinished? Did they play hand games in multicolored playgrounds until the giant jungle gym was replaced with walls that little hands clutched in a useless, innocent effort to escape the fatal gas? Did they hang on to their mother’s every word, to the nutrients in her breast until euphemisms were muted by terror and the 200 calories she consumed a day prevented the milk from giving her child any more than parched skin and small, brittle bones?

Some might say it is impossible to separate discrimination, but to reveal the lives of women in the Holocaust does not separate discrimination; it brings to light stories that would otherwise not be told. Read more about women in the Holocaust so that you remember lives that are ignored every day. Remembrance does not only lead to action. It is action.

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Today is International Women’s Day and I think that it’s a great time for us at from the rib? to honor, commemorate, and respect the very different and simultaneously connected lives of women everywhere, especially the Jewish feminists we talk about/to on this blog.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to acknowledge the plethora of definitions that exist for who is considered to be Jewish. A friend of mine who is very active in her synagogue, had a Bat Mitzvah, and has been raised with a Jewish father and Christian mother, is considered the token Jew in Ohio and utterly non-Jewish according to the Israeli Knesset. A girl who has two Jewish parents, but who practices Islam is still considered a Jewish woman. The elderly woman davenning on the subway at 7am is Jewish woman who happens to express her Judaism publicly in one of the most assimilated settings. And the women sitting at the Kotel, waiting for a chance to pray, are certainly Jewish women.

This is only a glimpse of what it means to be a Jewish woman in an international context. It gets even more complex and beautiful if we look at what it means to be a Jewish feminist all over the world – from the woman believing that her daughters deserve just as much as her sons in rural Ethiopia to the woman who seems subservient but is really defiant getting out of her house in Meah Sharim to, well, teenage girls blogging in their urban homes like me and Dina.

So this is a day to celebrate the wide range of definitions we have for what it means to be a woman, a feminist, and Jewish, and just what that combination means. This is also a day for us to take action with this knowledge – to know that what we say necessitates cultural awareness and with that comes a responsibility to represent one’s own story and experience.

It’s a bit dated, but here’s a video of the American Jewish World Service commemorating this day two years ago:

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