Posted in Writing

Jewish Wedding In Rozmberk – Poem

Is there a better time than now
To sing of my identity?
To wave my flag of Jewish pride
And dance beneath the golden glow
Of castle walls in Rozmberk

And in this town will sleep tonight
A dozen Jews with bellies full,
Content and warm, where once before
The Jews had but a footprint left.

Is this what Hitler thought could be?
If I could force that man to watch
As families unite with joy,
Unafraid and unashamed
Of who we are and how we live,
Drinking wine from silver cups
And passing on a diamond ring,
Free of fear and free of him,
That would be enough for me.

My people lives! My people lives!
And from the ashes, like a phoenix
We are born to live again.
And what a life it is. Amen.

Posted in Fighting WorldSuck, Living in Israel

Dear World, This Is Not What Judaism Really Is

“Give up,” my coworker says to me, as she watches me hack away at the keyboard angrily. “They’ll never listen to you. You can’t change the world.”

My coworker’s words of encouragement were said about my reaction to this article (sorry, can’t find English link just yet) which my friend posted on Facebook this morning. It talks about an Orthodox Rabbi in the community of Elon Moreh in Israel, who declared today that it is forbidden for a three year old girl to appear in a bathing suit during men’s swimming hours at the pool, to keep men from having “Impure thoughts.”

According to my coworker, who is more knowledgeable than me in the field of Orthodox Judaism, this Rabbi’s intentions were perfectly legitimate. He is trying to keep little girls safe from harassment. My argument is, whether or not that is true, what he said could only make things worse. Instead of standing up and saying “Rape is wrong!” he acknowledged the sexualization of three year olds as legitimate. Instead of saying “Three year olds are not sexual!” he essentially said, pedophilia is natural.

While this is so infuriating I am actually having trouble typing, the point I want to make here is that this kind of statement does not in any way represent the principles of Judaism. This is a case of extremism gone seriously wrong. It reminds me of when Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke for protesting about the expenses of birth control, and called her all sorts of nasty names on his show. Obviously Limbaugh’s behavior was outrageous, but it was clear that he’s a nutcase and he does not represent the majority of Republicans.

What happened immediately afterwards is what I see as an act of true leadership. President Obama called up Sandra Fluke on the phone and told her she was brave for standing up for her rights. In this small act of kindness, Obama told the world that Rush Limbaugh is not worth listening to, that it is wrong to degrade and humiliate women for standing up for themselves.

This is a perfect example of the bystander approach which Jackson Katz talks about in this mind-blowing video on TED.com. He says that in order to end gender based violence, we need men with power to stand up to other men.

In the case of Rabbi Levanon we need an act of leadership similar to Obama’s. My coworker may be right – they won’t listen to me. But there are people they will listen to – the chief Rabbi of Israel, other orthodox rabbis in the community.  These are the people who need to stand up and say, this is wrong. Instead of standing by silently and not getting involved, people with influence need to get up and make noise and say, this is not Judaism. This is not okay.

Posted in Fighting WorldSuck

Keep Moving Forward – On Holocaust Education

I have a confession to make.

I don’t like the holocaust.

I don’t like thinking about, reading about, or talking about the holocaust. I don’t like hearing disturbing jokes about the difference between Santa and the Jews. I don’t like confronting the horrors in our past. I admit it. I don’t like learning about the holocaust.

Mostly I find that anyone today who is teaching holocaust studies is aiming to terrify the student and impress upon them the level of horror which occurred in Nazi Germany in World War 2. People don’t like giving out dry facts; they have to be biased, painful and frightening.

But really, I have had my share of horror in holocaust studies. I’ve heard enough to be convinced that I’ll do everything I can to make sure it won’t happen again. I have holocaust related nightmares from time to time. I’m done with being scared. Seriously. I know what happened, OK?

Although I don’t rule out our responsibility as people to educate ourselves and the next generation. I often ask myself, how can I learn about the holocaust in a way that makes sense to me? How can I teach the holocaust without hurting myself too much?

I was recently having a conversation with the a friend of mine whose mother-in-law was rescued during World War 2 by a Non-Jewish man in France. As I understand, this man, at an enormous risk to his life, arranged for many Jewish children to be hidden in the homes of French residents during the Nazi invasion. Many. Not one Jewish child, many. To him, saving the lives of these children was as natural as saving his own. He did not see them as Jews – he saw them as nothing but people. People who deserved to live, simply because they were people.

This, according to Nomi, is the message we should take from the holocaust. We, all around the world, should learn to emulate this man’s behavior, or at the very least his philosophy. PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE no matter what shape, size, or color, and they do not deserve to be starved and slaughtered and godknowswhat else the Nazis did to the Jews back then. We must learn to see humans as humans. We must learn to recognize that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if someone looks, sounds, eats, drinks, talks, walks, drives, shaves, or thinks different from you. People are people.

And this is where I feel I fit into holocaust education. Instead of focusing on the horrors that were done to us and the torture we went through, we can educate ourselves by counteracting what the Nazis thought of us – as sub humans – and treating all people equally. Instead of focusing on the wounds of the past, we can look into the future and change the way we see ourselves and everyone in order to ensure that this will never ever happen again. And I mean this, guys. I really mean it. When I say people, I mean everyone – even if they’re not Jews. Tall, short, male, female, pretty, ugly, thin, fat, black, white, brown, beige, yellow, purple, Jewish, Christian, Muslim(forget it, I’m not naming all the religions here, you get the point), American presidents, celebrities, royal, smart, stupid, rich, poor, believers and non believers alike.

If we can learn to see people as people, we will never be in danger of treating them as less.

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

Posted in Fighting WorldSuck, Living in Israel

Women Talk to a Wall – and Get Arrested

On the first day of every Jewish month, women all over the world hold their breath. Some of us cross our fingers; some of us pray or meditate. Some of us can’t be there to support them, so wherever we are we hold still and hope really hard that the Women of the Wall don’t go to jail this month. We know what they are doing is illegal. We know it upsets people. We know it’s looked down upon by authorities. But for some reason we get it into our head that maybe this time it won’t bother anyone.

The Women of the Wall struggle with a limitation of religious freedom in the state of Israel. Personally, it baffles me that this is a problem in a state which is one of the most socially progressive in the whole world in equality for women, where we have free health care, free day care, and such fierce laws protecting women’s rights. Moreover, it seems ironic that it would be a problem to practice a Jewish custom in what is supposed to be the Jewish state. (I’ll elaborate in the next few paragraphs.)

Women of the Wall

As it turned out this month not many people were bothered, and still ten women got arrested. The Women of the Wall gathered as usual and held an inspiring, exciting prayer on the women’s side of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. They danced and sang and wore prayer shawls. These actions are what have been deemed illegal by the Supreme Court of Israel.

1. Wearing a prayer shawl. For those unfamiliar with the different religious practices: in Orthodox Judaism it is traditional only for men to wear a shawl during prayer, and if a woman wants to wear one it is looked down upon, but it is one hundred percent allowed and backed up by some of the greatest Rabbis in our history.

2. Conducting a religious service. It seems odd to me that this sort of thing would be prohibited at a holy site. But the law is the law.

3. Singing and dancing. These actions are prohibited because in Orthodox Judaism it is considered immodest for a woman to sing or dance in the presence of a man (who is not her husband). As far as I understand, the idea behind this tradition is that a woman’s singing voice (or dancing) can cause a man to become sexually aroused. So to avoid adultery, we (women) avoid public singing and mixed dancing.

At this point, I would like to recommend this post I read on one of my favorite blogs, the Good Men Project. It talks about why saying ‘men are slaves to their sex drive’ is offensive to men. Please take a minute to look over it, it’s awesome.

With all this in mind, I would like to express my confusion about why the Women of the Wall get arrested. It seems to me that the ruling of the Supreme Court which prohibits these women’s prayer was made out of fear. If religious extremists complain that a group of women are ‘being provocative’ and ‘disrespecting the holy site’, and threaten to start a riot, obviously we should take action to make sure no one gets hurt. But last time I checked, threatening, black mail, and violence were illegal. So the Supreme Court appears to be telling us that we, the Jewish people living in the state of Israel, give in to fear instead of standing up for religious freedom. It seems like the Women of the Wall get arrested because someone out there might get angry and start acting violent. It sounds like we’re blaming the victim. It seems like we are holding women responsible for the actions of men. Here’s where the Good Men Project would say we’re wrong. Men are responsible for their own actions. They can control themselves and make their own decisions, and saying otherwise sets us back centuries. We should hold these extremists responsible for their own actions. People who use violence should be arrested, not people who just want to worship God in their own way.

In the Israeli national anthem, called ‘Hatikva’ which means ‘Our Hope’, we sing about our hope to one day be a truly free nation in our country. We hope to have full religious freedom. We hope to have liberty to make decisions based on our principles, not our fear. The Women of the Wall are the manifestation of this hope, just like the paratroopers who liberated the Wailing Wall in 1967.

Posted in Fighting WorldSuck

The Jewish Woman’s Cloak of Invisibility

Do you ever find yourself walking down the street on an ordinary day, and experience a stranger purposely avert their eyes from you as you walk by them?

* A little background for those unfamiliar with the phenomenon: In ultra-religious Judaism there are strict rules about separation of men and women. There are many reasons behind these rules, some of which are perfectly sensible, and some which are not as clear. One of the implications of these rules is that often, an ultra-religious man will avert his eyes when a woman is in sight, whether or not he knows her, regardless of other people present. My understanding of this action is to avoid sexual temptation.

I don’t dress provocatively. I usually wear loosely fitted jeans, a baggy sweatshirt and clashing colors. And yet when I experience a person purposely averting their gaze from me in a situation such as crossing the street, I feel dehumanized. I am made into a sex object. Because what they say with their eyes, at least what I receive is, it doesn’t matter if you dress modestly, or act modestly, the fact that you are a woman means you are automatically a sexual tempation.

Well, most of the time that is not how I view myself. I try to keep a positive self image. I’m a musician, a writer, an artist. I’m a mathematics student. I’m not such a bad cook. I’m a sister and daughter and friend. Of course, I’m not one to give power to a stranger by letting them reduce me to a sex object. I’m just saying, they’re obviously wrong if they think that’s all there is to me. And I think I can say in the name of most women that that is true for them as well.

Objectification of women goes beyond strangers on the street. In some extreme cases – and do note these are extreme cases – children and babies are sexualized in a similar way. Young girls above the age of three are criticized for dressing immodestly if their skirts do not fall below the knee and their sleeves are not elbow length. Male siblings avoid changing baby girls’ diapers. In my opinion there is a message in these actions which is wrong, and that is the message that all things female are sexual temptations. Babies are not sexual. Girls are not sexual. People who sexualize girls and babies are called pedophiles.

Once, while I was working at the hospital for National Service, a man came up to me and, staring at the floor, asked if he could get by. I was standing next to the food cart preparing meals for a patient. There were a clear two meters behind me, and yet this man wanted me to put down the food I was balancing and step back so he could pass in front of me. I did not understand why that was necessary since I was not blocking the hallway. Luckily the head nurse saved the day by explaining to me that this man held by a tradition which prohibited walking between two women. I glanced across the hall and noticed a woman standing there, talking to someone else. The hall was wide enough so he wouldn’t have any contact with either of us as he walked by, and yet I had to put down the tray I was organizing and step back from the food cart to let him pass.  The whole time the man refused to look up at me and stared at the floor. I was wearing a standard hospital scrub three sizes too big for me (provocative?). It made no sense to me. I felt humiliated and belittled.Why did he feel he couldn’t walk between me and the other woman, seven feet away? And regardless, why did he feel he couldn’t look me in the eye when asking me a favor? Where was his respect for an eighteen year old serving her country? I’ll never know. All he saw in me that day was a sex object. And I was probably feeding his father.

In conclusion, let me just say what I think is the core of the Jewish religion. Love and respect for the other overrides the little everyday rules we’re supposed to follow. When someone offers you their hand to shake, a person should use their judgement and decide whether it’s more important not to touch a woman or not to cause her shame, a much worse offense people tend to forget about sometimes. It seems that some streams in Judaism have forgotten that loving our neighbors like ourselves is our highest law. Unsure about that? I learned a song in kindergarten about how Rabbi Akiva says, “Love your neighbor like youself, that is the entire Torah.”

Posted in Living in Israel

Hero or Sidekick?

I think Yom Kippur is about Superheroes.

I hate Yom Kippur. I hate fasting, I can never concentrate when I’m hungry, so before this abysmal day begins I’m going to share some thoughts while my mind is still awake.

On this day we do two things which do not come naturally to humans: fasting and forgiving. Forgiveness is the hardest thing in the whole universe. It is a brutal confronation with our mortality and vulnerability. It’s a sacrifice we make to maintain connections that are important to us. Sometimes we can be too forgiving and suffer from that as well. And yet we take an entire day and devote it to this terrifying act.

Fasting is torture. I was told once that it’s good for your body, that it gets better with practice. Still, I spend all year praying I’ll get a stomach virus on Yom Kippur so I won’t have an appetite because I would rather be sick than hungry. The fact that we willingly do not eat for an entire day is, in my opinion, superhuman. It shows that we have powers above our instincts and basic human needs. We have the ability to connect to something greater – the spirit – a place where we are strong enough to not need physical satisfactions. That is our superpower. The ability to conquer ourselves.

With that in mind, the last step is to take these powers we have and use them to triumph over our greatest enemy – our doubt in ourselves. On this day we have to act in the face of fear and forgive ourselves for being human. Only then can we rise to our full potential and save the world.

“Triumph begins with try and ends with Umph!” – Happy Feet

Fun fasting everyone!

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