Posted in Fighting WorldSuck, Living in Israel

Gay Pride and Prejudice

For three days I’ve been trying to write something. I’ve been sitting in my apartment, not particularly busy on the weekend, trying to think of something to say about the most recent events in Israel. But the truth is, I’m speechless. I have no words. But just because I have no words doesn’t mean I can sit back and say nothing. So I’m going to try and put words to my feelings. Bear with me.

I’m going to address two main events that happened in the past few days in Israel: 1) On Thursday, six people were stabbed at the Pride March, and 2) early Friday morning two Palestinian homes were set on fire and as a result four family members were hospitalized and a baby died.  It’s horrifying enough just to read the headlines without thinking too deeply about it. But unfortunately both of those events comes in a context of a long and painful history, spattering more blood on the already stained pages.

The Jerusalem Pride Parade is one of my favorite things that happens in my city. Obviously I agree with what it stands for – the protest demanding equal rights under the law. I also just like being there. I feel safe there. I feel like I belong. Forget the fact that I identify as Bisexual – that’s the B in LGBT – it’s a place where everyone feels like they belong. Even if you are straight, female, single, socially awkward, none of those things matter at Pride. Pride is all about feeling good about who you are. For a few hours once a year, people who are bullied and discriminated against can finally feel normal and accepted. We can finally feel safe. On Thursday someone burst into that bubble and took away the safety of thousands. Not just the people he stabbed. Not just the people who were at the parade. He took away the safety of every religious, closeted LGBT person in the city. He gave a voice to all the hatred that is harbored towards LGBTs everywhere and especially within the Orthodox communities in Israel.

I was flipping through the comments on one of the articles discussing this event. I saw several comments insinuating that Israelis are a savage, blood-thirsty nation who just kill everyone we hate: Palestinians, gays, etc. I spent some time being patriotic and defending my people on the internet, only to wake up the following morning to the news about the Palestinian homes burned down.  I wasn’t shocked. It’s happened before. I just couldn’t help think about all those anti-Israeli commenters on the internet who had just been proven right. My insides squirmed at the notion that someone who identifies with the same nationality as I do would commit such a heinous act as burning a baby. This time the media was full of lots of posts talking about how the Jewish faith condemns any type of murder, and people who stab at the Pride parade or who kill anyone “aren’t really Jews.”

Except that they are Jews. And they are Israelis. And the world is looking at us now, in this moment, watching us cast off this act as the doings of a couple of crazy fanatics. Maybe it’s true – maybe it’s really only a handful of crazies committing these crimes. But as Brigitte Gabriel wisely said, “The peaceful majority are irrelevant.” It only took a handful of crazy fanatics to bring the twin towers to the ground.

But as a friend of mine said, there’s a reason these radicals attacked Palestinians, and not Russians, for example. There is a reason the stabber went to Gay Pride instead of going after red heads. The reason is that our culture tolerates hate.

Maybe instead of saying “they’re not really Jews” or “they got Judaism wrong,” it is time for us to take responsibility for the actions of our brethren and take a look at what messages in our culture could have led to this kind of violence. Maybe it’s time to just stop and say, we’re sorry. We screwed up. And now we are going to do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  For example, our politicians are now going to refrain from making racist and homophobic comments, even in jest. Our schools are going to stop tolerating racist teachings and ideas in the classroom. Our rabbis are going to stop giving legitimacy to discrimimation against gays. Our country is now going to catch up with the rest of the modern world and finally pass marriage equality. Those would be some nice places to start.

So, in the name of all Israelis and all Jews everywhere, I’m sorry. We’re sorry. To the Palestinians and the family of sweet baby Ali, we’re sorry. I know it’s not enough and will never be enough. But I’m saying it because I want you to know that there are people in this country and in this world who reject hate and condemn violence of any kind. We are sorry. We screwed up and we hurt you.

To my brothers and sisters at Jerusalem Pride, we are sorry. We screwed up. We let too much homophobia settle into our culture. Don’t let it discourage you even for a moment. Keep Pride alive.

That’s all for now. Wishing everybody that the month of August may bring upon us a time of love and peace and coexistence and harmony. Alla yisalmakum.

Liora Sophie.

Posted in Fighting WorldSuck

It’s Our Fight Too

It is with great pride that I announce to you that today, my step-dad was detained by the police for “disturbing the peace” at the Western Wall, when he participated in smuggling a Torah scroll to the Women of the Wall. This is a source of pride because it was for a noble purpose that he was standing in the way of a violent man who charged forward and knocked him to the ground, giving him a minor concussion.

Clearly the people who charged him with such a crime have a different idea of peace than I do. Their idea seems to include a status quo in which a minority group is prevented from practicing their religion in a democratic country. Somehow my idea of peace failed to recognize that kind of situation. As a consequence, my interpretation of “disturbing the peace” includes fighting for your religious freedom.

You might be wondering, what was my step-dad doing getting in a fight that was related to the Women of the Wall? Why should an affair relating to the Women of the Wall concern him in the first place?

Here is what the group that call themselves “The Men of the Women of the Wall” have to say on this topic:

It’s our fight too.

To an outsider it is easy to conclude that the Women of the Wall are all about feminism, rebellion, or even provocation, attention-seeking, and publicity. After all, the whole thing seems to be about what women are allowed to do at the Western Wall. That’s not how the men see it. Rightfully so, they view this battle as a battle for religious freedom. The protest of the Women of the Wall is an attempt to make the holy site a place where all types of religious practices are accepted. This is one of our most basic rights as citizens of a democratic state – and yet here is a striking example of its violation, and in Israel, of all places.

The point here being, a fight for religious freedom, even if it is initiated by women, affects men as well. The outcome of this fight affects them. It’s very nice that men have full religious freedom at the Wall, but just because they do now, doesn’t mean they will forever, certainly if there is another group that is openly denied their rights.

Thankfully, there are so many strong female leaders fighting for women’s rights all over the world. But what would the fight for women’s rights be if only women cared about their rights?

I apologize for being cliché, but I can not resist pasting my favorite TED talk here. Jackson Katz on the importance of male leadership and its role in combating gender violence:

To be even more cliché, I’m now going to bring quotes said by…my family members.

My stepdad said about this,

As in the case of any minority group, if the only one concerned with their rights is them, it will never affect change.

And my mom,

The blacks did not get civil rights in the United States until white people marched.

And how proud I am to be their daughter today.

Posted in Fighting WorldSuck, Living in Israel

To You, With Love From A Fellow Human

To the invaluable human soul behind the screen reading my words,

I want to talk to you about this week. Sunday the semester starts, and that’s not enough time to recover from the emotional impact of this week’s events. It’s not fair. Yesterday, a crazy person killed a baby with a car. Today, both Jews and Arabs threw rocks at each other. We’re all upset. Nobody can focus. It’s a terrible, horrible situation.

I want you to know that no matter what you think, no matter who you are, I feel your pain. Because pain is not something which belongs on any side of the political spectrum. Pain is human. As are all of us. So why can’t we stand together, hold hands, comfort each other?

If you’ll stick with me for just a moment longer, I’d like to share with you some beautiful words I heard from a speaker about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict several weeks ago. His name is Ali abu Awwad. It begins with the definition of hope.

“Hope is a place where people create, not just expect,” he says.

Ali Abu Awwad preaches non-violent action. Take action, but not violent action. His first experience of this concept was participating in a 17-day hunger strike in prison, as a protest against the separation of families inside the prison. He wanted to be reunited with his mother. This kind of action, he says is something powerful – it’s fighting with your humanity, more than violence, more than your political rights. “Non violence is to be an artist for your humanity.”

What is the most powerful tool of non-violent action? “Non-violent action causes the other side to see their own actions.” It creates a mirror for your opponent, rather than fueling his violence. “By not giving legitimacy to their violence, you create a safe place for them to give up.”

At 31, Ali’s brother was violently killed by an IDF soldier. The pain of loss and mourning led Ali to realize that there is no revenge good enough. Taking the life of another person can not ease the pain and will not bring back his brother. What keeps a person who has lost something so huge from turning into a murderer? Ali says that even though he lost his brother, his dreams, his land, and his rights, one thing he didn’t lose – his mind. When his brother was killed, a group of bereaved Israelis asked to come and meet his mother. For the first time in his life, Ali witnessed an Israeli person cry.

Israelis can cry? He asked himself. He was shocked. Before this incident he couldn’t imagine that Israelis could cry.

And what about forgiveness? How can you forgive someone for killing your brother? But Ali says he learned about forgiveness from a Sount African mother who told him, “Forgiveness is not giving up your right to justice, but giving up your just right to revenge.

It couldn’t be more clear that Ali does not believe war is any kind of solution. “Palestinian freedom has to go through Israeli hearts, not bodies.” He impresses the interdependence of the two nations by saying, “If Israel is not secure, Palestineans will never have freedom – but if Palestine doesn’t have freedom, Israel will never have security.”

And since then, he’s been an activist for Palestinian rights. He marches and speaks in favor of non violent action. One incident he told of stood out to me. When speaking at an Israeli school in the West Bank, one of the students, a nineteen year old, called him “a babboon.” Ali flattened him with heart-piercing dialogue, appealing to his humanity and commanding his respect. The student fell silent and later approached him, apologizing for his words and admitting that he had never met a Palestinian before. “I never imagined Palestinians had feelings.”

Do you see the striking parallel in these two stories? Each is a tale of a human experience, a raw encounter with our more basic instincts and our ability to overcome them in order to be civilized. Each tells about a person who had never met someone so different from them, but then learned that the other is human just as they are.

Ok, time to wrap things up. I just want to say to my friends at school, my neighbors in the dormitories, my friends in the West Bank and my friends far away in the United States and everywhere, at the end of the day, we’re all human, we can all cry, and that’s okay….

I’m going to leave you with a final quote from Ali, about what he sees as the definition of peace:

“Peace is the courage to engage in each other’s rights.”

Much love and wishes for a quiet weekend,

Liora Sophie

Posted in Fighting WorldSuck, Living in Israel

Why We Need Pride In Jerusalem

Too many people have asked me that question, so here’s your answer.

I am so incredibly proud to be a resident of Jerusalem right now. For one shining moment, no matter who you are – gay, lesbian, bi, trans, queer, pan, in, out, religious, secular, in between…for one moment you can just live in a bubble of freedom and acceptance. If you are at the parade you are cool by definition. For one blissful afternoon you can live your life without fear of judgment, discrimination, and violence. You can walk through the streets of this holy city and be totally free.

But here’s the catch: One afternoon every year or two is not enough. We march because we have the guts to expect more than that.

Before I go on about how much fun the parade was, I’d like to clear up a few misconceptions about the event itself. Some people feel that the Pride Parade is not appropriate in Jerusalem, the holy city. I’d like to clarify why I believe that there is no place more appropriate than Jerusalem, the capital of Israel.

  1. A religious man marches wearing a Gay Pride flag with Star of David, a mix of Pride and the Israeli flag.

     Inappropriate dress. This is not true for the Jerusalem Pride Parade. Out of 3,000 people, there were only two men who were not wearing shirts. And a male to female transgender in a dress does not count as cross dressing.

  2. Public Display of Affection. Again, out of 3,000 people I saw one couple kissing and a few couples holding hands. Yeah, PDA is gross! But straight PDA is not any less gross than gay PDA.

  3. It’s a secular event. In case you aren’t familiar with the demographics of Jerusalem, a large percentage of the population here are religious Jews / Christians / Muslims / Other. The Pride Parade was packed with kippas and tzitzit, skirts and hair coverings – our symbols of a religious lifestyle. Some of them are out of the closet religious people, some are straight supporters. There were far too many religious people at the parade to say that it is not relevant in a largely religious city.

  4. It’s a sex parade. It’s not. In Jerusalem, it’s a protest. We march for social change. We march because we deserve to live a life without violence, discrimination at work or anywhere else. We deserve health and marriage equality. And we’re not going to get those things by sitting down and being quiet.

In case you still aren’t convinced, let me address a specific moment of the parade. As we marched down Ramban street – which borders on a mainly religious neighborhood but does not go through it – somebody threw a stink bomb. I have to admit I was impressed. It seems like it would take quite a lot of premeditation and preparation to do such a thing. It seems like an enormous amount of energy to waste on hating someone. I’m glad to report that the person who did it was arrested while the parade was still going on, and what a shame, in the end he just stank up his own street.

Seriously, though. It wasn’t as if we didn’t know that was coming. It’s not the first time that has happened. Don’t you think it takes a good deal of courage and purpose to walk down the roads when you know you could be hit by a bag of someone else’s crap? So it smelled a little bad. It stopped no one. The parade marched on. Honestly, what’s a little stink bomb to the LGBT community, who endures far worse on a daily basis?

With that in mind, let’s not forget that a lot of people who march in the parade are not L, G, B, T or Q, but they recognize that this is a protest for human rights. The needs of the LGBT community are relevant to straight people as well. Because bullying and violence, discrimination based on race or gender, hate crimes, equality in health care and marriage are issues that hit every one of us close to home, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

So next year, pick a basic human right you feel you need, make a rainbow colored sign and come march with us. And if you feel you enjoy complete freedom and full human rights, come get your face painted and stand up for someone who doesn’t.

Posted in Fighting WorldSuck, Living in Israel

Bridges, Walls, and Leadership

“There was a large crowd of people…They were throwing things and shouting…”

This is not a quote from the Women of the Wall, but it might as well be. I was killing time on Facebook yesterday when I read this status update:

wow_status

and it reminded me of something from a children’s book I used to love when I was a little girl, “The Story of Ruby Bridges” by Robert Coles . In the book, he describes how Ruby Bridges,  six year old African American girl was volunteered to be one of the first children to attend a white school. In the quote she describes walking to school, escorted by police men, through the crowds of protesters shouting and throwing things. One morning, her teacher watches through the window while Ruby stops in the middle of the crowd and refuses to move for several minutes. “I saw you talking,” Mrs. Henry told her later when Ruby finally agreed to enter the school building. “I wasn’t talking,” said Ruby, “I was praying.”

IMG088

Ruby was six years old at the time. She was the only black girl in a school full of white children with angry parents, and somehow she found it inside her to pray for the people who crowded around and shouted and threw things at her. And thank goodness that she did that. Thank goodness that she kept going with the police men every day even though so many people tried to silence her. In the end, she paved the road for integration in schools. Eventually she was able to go to school without being accompanied by police.

I loved The Story of Ruby Bridges. She was like a hero to me. I even used her character once in a project in ceramics, because to me she was proof that great leadership can come in any size or color. And that is what the Women of the Wall show young girls all over the world.

Thank goodness that the Women of the Wall refuse to be silenced. Thank goodness that despite all the people who try to discourage them, they keep fighting. I hope that soon we can see them going to pray at the Wall without being escorted by the police. The Story of Ruby Bridges teaches us that equality and tolerance will triumph in the end. And boy will that be awkward for the people on the other side.

IMG087

Posted in Living in Israel

Three Tiny Moments

You know those grumpy old men who order you around like they own the world? I encountered one of them today, followed by two gentlemen who totally made up for his royal grumpiness. All within the space of half an hour, I went from being on the verge of tears to truly believing that peace in the middle east is possible.

I got on bus no. 7 at the university, heading toward my boyfriend’s house. The driver was driving like a complete maniac, speeding a stopping without slowing down. My stomach turned over. I put on my sea band but I was still nauseated. I finally got up and sat in the seat right behind the driver, which was a small improvement. About ten minutes later, a man got on the bus and tried to sit next to me. The problem was, the bench wasn’t big enough for two people. I told him this, and he said, “So move!” .When I didn’t, he sat down practically on top of me. I asked him if he was comfortable, and he replied:

“No, you should stand up. I’m handicapped, see? I have an electronic device here! You’ll never get to be my age, I curse you that you’ll never get to be my age, and you’ll remember that!”

Needless to say, I was a lot less motivated to stand up for him then. I told him I was feeling sick and was afraid that if I got up I’d throw up. People behind us started shouting that I should get up. (It’s important to know that there were other seats available on the bus.) But I didn’t get up, because I didn’t want to throw up. I got off the bus two stops later to switch to the number 8, and I said to him, “I hope you have a great day, may you be blessed with grandchildren and great grandchildren and everything good.” Why? Mostly because I wanted to make him feel bad about himself.

I did feel a bit bad afterwards. Maybe I should have gotten up for him. If there had been nowhere else to sit I would have in a heartbeat. But because I felt so sick, and there were other seats available, and he had cursed me to die young, I decided it was OK that I just didn’t feel like getting up.

When I got off the bus to wait for the next one, another old man sat down next to me at the stop. I recognized him as the security guard from my high school. I remembered his name, and asked him how he was doing. He smiled so broadly and seemed so happy to see me, even though I was sure he’d have no idea who I was. He knew I was from the high school where he used to work. We had a friendly discussion about his job and my degree. He told me he was very happy to see me. I was shocked. I used to greet him every day when I walked into school, but I doubt he ever knew my name.

The number 8 driver was just as bad as the previous one, and this time there was no room to sit. I held on to two of the yellow columns so I wouldn’t fly out the windshield. On one particularly quick stop I groaned and a man sitting in front of me said, “Are you okay?”

I told him I was fine, just a little nauseated, and he told me he also got nauseated so times from the bus. He insisted I take his seat. I refused but he got up anyway, so I sat down next to his wife and thanked him graciously. They were Muslims, not that that matters. It made me realize that there are people who are capable of seeing past the invisible lines drawn by our societies and our governments. It made me believe that peace in the Middle East is really possible.

These three people managed to impress upon me the power of kind words and small acts of kindness. You never know what saying “Good morning” might mean to a person, or what giving up your seat on the bus for them might make them believe.

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: Akiva’s Orchard by Yochi Brandes

הפרדס של עקיבאהפרדס של עקיבא by Yochi Brandes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an important book if you are interested in Judaism or Jewish history, or Jewish. The main thing it does is takes the million Rabbis you’ve heard of and organizes them in your head: Who lives when, whose student is whom, where they taught, how they were related and how they interacted with each other. When reading about them in the scriptures these things are never clear, and one can easily get the illusion that they sit around a table and discuss things, although many of the characters at that table lived in different times. Each Rabbi is depicted as unique, so it is impossible after reading this book to forget who Rabbi Akiva studied with and who his students were.

Yochi Brandes takes the time period (70-135 A.D.) with its central characters and brings it to life. She reframes the famous stories we already knew, telling them from a different point of view or using her imagination to explain missing details. Because the stories are familiar, the book is engaging from the first page to the last, and often surprising when she presents a different view on a story you thought you knew. The language is not pure literary Hebrew (probably why I managed to read the book), it is diluted with references from the Bible and the Mishnah, so that famous phrases will jump out at you and often help you get deeper into a character’s mind by understanding what their situation reminds them of.

The book takes you on a journey through the lives of these beloved characters. Through their experiences the foundation of modern Judaism begins to bud. The author uses the lifestyles of the leaders of the time in order to critique the way we interpret Jewish laws today. For example, where the privilege of studying torah full time and not working was once reserved for the wealthy, today it is common for people to choose not to work and accept their poverty as a consequence. One rabbi may have emphatically objected to teaching Torah to women, but the fact that other rabbis in his own time taught their daughters teaches us that there was never a consensus on the matter, and no excuse for the concept that the Torah solely belongs to men. There is much conflict regarding the relationship which develops with Christianity, which was just beginning to blossom at the time and had not yet been declared its own religion, but it’s clear that while some rabbis believe they should be shunned, others believe that there is nothing more important than keeping peace with those who are different, whether or not they are Jewish. A main theme throughout the book is the changing of the Jewish religion – mainly the removal of God from the religion. You might be raising your eyebrows but truth be told, we don’t realize how much less the concept of God is present in our religion now than it was back then. The temple was still standing until 70 A.D. Prophets and miracles were common and accessible. The teachings of Rabbi Akiva were revolutionary in the way that they took the Torah from heaven and brought it down to earth, where it is now ours to interpret whichever way suits us best. The free interpretation is a controversial topic these days, but it is clear from the book that it shouldn’t be. According to Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, we are allowed to understand it in our own way.

The book is told from the perspective of the famous Rabbi Akiva’s wife, Rachel. Jewish scriptures describe their loved her as passionate and romantic. They say that although they were poor, he promised to give her Jerusalem of Gold. We know that Rabbi Akiva leaves her for twelve years to study Torah. One sources says that at the end of twelve years he came home with a trail of thousands of students, and before he saw her, turned on his heels and returned for an additional twelve years. I was glad that this approach was not followed in the book. Brandes describes Akiva and Rachel’s relationship as romantic at first. Then Rachel begins to pressure her husband to travel to the Yeshiva and study torah, believing (correctly) that he is gifted. As a man who learned to read at age forty, Akiva begrudgingly leaves, swearing not to return until he becomes a Rabbi. This aspect of the relationship was difficult for me to swallow, because we see it so often in ultra-orthodox couples. Rachel is the image of the original ultra-orthodox woman, whose only wish is for her husband to study, and works around the clock to support her family on her own. Akiva is the original ultra-orthodox man, forswearing contact with women and immersing himself in his studies. The phrase often attributed to Rabbi Akiva, “Love your neighbor like yourself,” stands in contrast with many decisions his character makes in the book.

The ending is difficult, even for those who know how the lives of these Rabbis ended. It seems that the cruelty of the Roman Empire knows no limits. Each one of ten famous rabbis of the time died tortured, humiliating public deaths at the hands of the Romans (Jesus being nailed to a cross doesn’t even come close to what these guys went through). It seems like in the last chapter, the entire world turns upside down. The horrors are impossible to digest. Read it anyway.

View all my reviews