Page 1

rethinking jewish affiliation

get off my blog issue four

I wish I lost sleep reflections of a darfur activist Spring

The World in My Voice

2008

jewish music goes multiethnic

PresenTense $5.00

www.PresenTense.org

First Course

garlic, a jewish love story


your* photo here?

yourADV ENTURE yourBIRT

ourGIF

HRIGHT

T

Taglit-Birthright Israel provides free, ten-day trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26. Register now at

WWW.BIRTHRIGHTISRAEL.COM

contents PresenTensemagazine.org

issue four 2008




contents features

editor and publisher Ariel Beery managing editor Deborah Fishman senior editor Esther D. Kustanowitz society editor Chloe Safier israel editor Flo Low arts & ideas editor Michael Rose incoming arts & culture editor Allison Sheren web editor Bonnie Goodman assistant editors Ben Brofman, Phil Getz, Samuel Grilli, Tiferet Zimmern-Kahan, Rena Katz, Dana Raviv, Natasha Rosenstock, Ariella Saperstein, Ilya Zaychik copy editors Rachel Berger, Meira Levinson, Jo Mandel, Maya Norton, Erica Schachne theater editor Lonnie Schwartz art director Lina Tuv assistant art director Hillel Smith (cover) photography editor Brian Goldfarb photographers Avital Aronowitz, Judith Belasco, Andrew Duany, Sarah Feiglin, Brian Goldfarb, Jonathan Kahn, Axel Kuhlmann, Ruth Lozano, Stacey Menchel, Diarmid Mogg, Batsheva Moshe, Benjamin Muller, Rus Pearlman, Daniel Roth, Itta Roth, Ken Tsukamoto, Deenah Vollmer, Markus Wagner

22

Putting the Social Back in Socialism

responsible communities 2.0 Flo Low

24

not just a history lesson rejewvenation of the lower east side Miriam Bader

26

the lein in spain

a glimpse of life in the new sefarad Stacey Menchel

28

large knit kippas and flowy skirts not required

advertising and circulation director Simi Hinden

neo-soul hippie culture in israel

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialNoDerivs 2.5 License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons. org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.5/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 543 Howard Street, 5th Floor, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.

30

CC

Creative Commons: we think the creative commons approach to content is smart because it gives creators flexibility in their licensing choices and it allows for seamless sharing of content. At PresenTense, our exclusive rights to content expire after no more than 120 days. at that time, we encourage our authors and photographers to adopt a cc license for their work.

Alex Margolin

get off my blog

meet-ups and the modern jew Leah Jones

WWW.PresenTense.ORG PRINTED IN THE USA PresenTense is a grassroots effort to invigorate Jewish Life and Hebrew Culture made possible by a network of volunteers around the world. Special thanks for help on this issue goes to: Tal Fishman, the Goldfarbs, the Hindens, Benita Lebow, Itzhak Beery and Bleecker and Sullivan Advertising, the Salzberg-Horwitz’s and the Mandel Institute. This issue is dedicated to to the memory of Maryana Zavadivker, who was a source of kindness, generosity and strength. PresenTense is an all volunteer effort with 501(c)3 nonprofit status thanks to the fiscal sponsorship of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, and supports itself by selling advertising and group subscriptions. If you would like to reach a young Jewish audience through our pages, subscribe to our publication, or purchase a bulk order for your organization or event, please contact Simi Hinden at simi@Presentensemagazine.org.

Photos by Avital Aronowitz

If you would like to support PresenTense in its mission to enrich Jewish life, please make checks payable to the Foundation for Jewish Culture, noting “PresenTense” in the memo line. Checks can be mailed to: PresenTense, 214 Sullivan Street, Suite 2A, NYC, NY 10012 PresenTense accepts submissions, pitches and letters to the editor by email: editor@presentensemagazine.org.

contents PresenTensemagazine.org

issue four 2008




contents 03

letters to the editor

07

editorial

08 Woman to Watch naomi less Perel Skier

09 man with a plan michael oshman Maya Wainhaus

10

around the world from rallies to renaissance? six week in the new jewish berlin Brauna Doidge

12 the mu shoo jews jews in beijing

Manuela Zoninsein

14 new jews of nola

high tide of volunteerism in the bayou Nathan Rothstein

16

rules of engagement rethinking jewish affiliation Josh Whisler

18

society I wish i lost sleep reflections of a darfur activist

20

features 32 shabot spot

antisocial networking Wlliam Levin

33 wandersurfing in the online shtetl

jews and social media Jerry Silverman

35 WAlking the talk trekking for the kids Flo Low

36 it takes a village

tiferet artists’ colony hits cleveland Benjamin Muller and Matthew Ackerman

37 the urge to emerge

new communities blossom

Joshua Avedon and Shawn Landres

38

paradigm shift Judaism of the Brain how college life has changed judaism Deborah Fishman

40

photoessay i come from a shul down under melbourne’s st. kilda reveals its history Sarah Feiglin

44

reviews BOOKS jews, power and the return to zion a guide for the politically perplexed

46 BOOKS sofer so good the septembers of shiraz Ariella Saperstein

47 BOOKS Jew in or jew out reviewing the jewing in contemporary fiction

Lilit Marcus and Lisa Benjamin Goodgame

49 BOOKS candy to chew on

matthue’s star meets her maker Matthue Roth

50 music the world in my voice

jewish music goes multiethnic Margaret Teich

51 film who’s there

bob dylan and the ever-changing jew Yishai Freedman

52 theater why did she dai? when violence becomes performance Lonnie Schwartz

53 performance

Jews’ line is it anyway? why the chosen people choose improv Esther D. Kustanowitz

55

arts portrait of an artist eve grubin’s modest sensuality Michael Rose

57 first course

garlic, a jewish love story Rus Pearlman

58 Gringolandia an excerpt

Leora S. Fridman

Rebecca Stone

Polly M. Zavadivker

20 inheriting the holocaust

45 BOOKS freedom writers

60

Melody Ahdout

Matisyahu Tonti

survivors’ grandchildren connect worldwide Chloe Safier



issue four 2008

jewish-iranian women explore post-revolution life

backpage shwarmonic convergence PresenTensemagazine.org contents


letters

to the editor a bright new day

the biblical caSe for intermarriage issue three

Funny, you don’t look jewish converts on the true colors of the jewish community

iron lion zion

forging ethiopian life in israel

hebrew Slanguage f a l l

2 0 0 7

unpacking the junk from israel’s trunk

fetal attraction why orthodox jews will prevent jewish extinction presentense $5.00

www.presentense.org

Toddlers of the Mosaic persuasion The latest issue of PresenTense (Fall 2007), Ariel Beery et al’s new mag, is filled with articles about Jewish babies. As I might have mentioned, I think the most ridiculous thing about Judaism in America today is the community’s emphasis on making more of us, as though, by refusing to marry a non-Jew, you’re retroactively sticking it to Hitler. Surprise: racial anti-Semitism encourages neither conversion to Christianity nor Jew-Gentile mixing. If you’re a Jew (or gay, disabled, Roma, etc.), anything short of suicide is sticking it to Hitler. It’s that easy!

But back to PresenTense. First there’s Ben Brofman doing the unthinkable and praising birthright israel for its emphasis on hookups. But it’s a joke. Kind of. He even suggests, tongue in cheek, that the organizers distribute “intentionally defective condoms.” Of course no Jews have STDs, so unlike secular hookup-fests, birthright skankiness is nothing but a force of life and continuity. Eric Ackland, in what appears to be utter seriousness, suggests Jews look to Orthodoxy if they want to have Jewish babies. In this he is correct—it is hypocritical, not to mention ineffective, for parents letters PresenTensemagazine.org

to be open-minded about their children’s dating partners but then demand that these same children, after a few decades in the secular world, surface with Jewish spouses. While I don’t share these natalistic views, it’s indisputable that more Orthodoxy would lead to more Jewish babies. In his bio, Ackland writes of himself, “He’d love to walk the walk and have a large family, he’s just gotta get hitched first. That’s the trick.” And if the most promising candidate turns out to be a nonJewish woman? Here’s where we get to Ariel Beery’s article. Ariel argues that Jews can stop worrying about intermarriage. Kind of. His point is that the threat to continuity is indifference, of which intermarriage is just a symptom. If you care about being Jewish, your spouse will too, whatever he may have been raised. After giving examples from the Torah of men marrying out, Beery discusses a Jewish woman whose husband not only converted but “ended up co-founding and co-directing NYU’s program for nonprofit management and Judaic Studies.” A Jew is thus one who feels Jewish. Works for me. The catch with the communal vision of Judaism is, aside from the inevitable halachic arguments, where does this leave born Jews who’ve opted out? If the point of Ariel’s definition is to expand the numbers of those who count as Jewish, wouldn’t it ultimately lose at least as many Jews as it brings in? Phoebe Maltz. whatwouldphoebedo. blogspot.com/2007/09/toddlers-ofmosaic-persuasion.html

“To” is a preposition, “Pork “is a verb “Orgy Yiddles”—That was the original title of Ben Brofman’s piece in the latest issue of PresenTense (Fall 2007) titled “More Orgies, More Babies: A Modest Proposal.” Perhaps they should have stuck with Ben’s initial title suggestion—when you try to riff off of Jonathan

Swift, you have some mighty big shoes to fill. Ben begins his piece, as did Mr. Swift some 278 years ago, with a concise description of the problem. While Swift’s pamphlet, commonly referred to by its abbreviated title “A Modest Proposal,” discusses the urban poverty in Ireland occasioned by the Industrial revolution, Brofman talks about how the secular Jewish population is shrinking. Swift suggested that the Irish sell their babies as a culinary treat to wealthy Englishmen, while Brofman suggests mass institutionalized Jewish orgies utilizing defective birth control. Of course massive orgies as suggested by Brofman would solve nothing—most of the women in the demographic at issue are on the pill and if they should suffer the misfortune of getting pregnant before they complete their college and professional degrees and get a fast track job to a life of material comfort, well, there is no doubt that they’d end that pregnancy in less time that it takes to say “I’ll take that Prada purse please! Thank you!” This is especially true if they aren’t sure who the father is. Single Motherhood and Jewish women? That’s even more outlandish an idea than mass orgies for Young Jews. While Brofman’s piece lacks the sustained irony that Jonathan Swift is associated with, his was a nonetheless thought-provoking article. What is most ironic about it is that essentially aren’t all programs created by the Organized Jewish Community for young adults designed to get the yiddles to bump booties and make babies of the mosaic persuasion? I mean yeah, they add a thin veneer of meaning and content to the programs, but aren’t these all kinda, sorta ritualized mating rituals? And like the Organized Jewish Community, Brofman’s obviously tongue in (ass?) cheek orgy proposal would fail to solve the problem because neither efforts answer the all important

question that many young, secular Jews wrestle with—Why be Jewish to begin with? Why indeed. David Abitbul. jewlicious.com/?p=3825

Demography Focus “Myopic” Thanks much for Ben Brofman’s “More Orgies, More Babies” article in Issue Three (Fall 2007). It was, by a great margin, the funniest thing I have ever read in any Jewish publication, and also, to add to its credit, makes a serious point worthy of consideration. Myopic attention to the threat of demographic decline has taken organized Jewry’s attention away not only from that decline’s underlying causes but also from consideration of how the problem can be successfully countered. We must ask and answer the larger questions (Why be Jewish? Is a lethargic and growing Jewish world preferable to a shrinking and lively one?) before throwing ourselves blindly toward greater procreation. Matthew Ackerman. New York, NY

End Racism...It’s a Mitzvah We should have a personal commitment to end racism, as it’s the challenge and responsibility of every single person in our society. As a New Yorker of color, I have seen the benefits of affirmative action in my community. I am an immigrant (recent naturalized citizen) from the Dominican Republic and due to continual AA efforts in NYC, I was able to successfully earn a scholarship to both private high school and private university. Currently, I’ve made it one of my mitzvahs to seek underrepresented individuals in order to serve as a mentor to their success. If we all engaged in this endeavor, we would reach substantial improvement for the many generations to come.

PresenTense is one of those pioneers, making sure to spread the word for all those willing to hear and help. For this I’m thankful. Susie Roman Luna. New York, NY issue four 2008




CONTRIBUTORS contributors worldwide worldwide

Ann Arbor Allison Sheren Chicago Deborah Fishman Leah Jones Brian Goldfarb Lina Tuv Josh Whisler

Toronto Brauna Doidge Montreal Bonnie Goodman Boston Chloe Safier

Milwaukee Perel Skier

Jerusalem Flo Low Alex Margolin Jo Mandel Beer Sheva Maya Norton

Beijing Manuela Zoninsein

Tel Aviv Leora Fridman

San Francisco Polly Zavadivker Los Angeles Melody Ahdout Shawn Landres Hillel Smith

Baltimore Yishai Freedman Washington Phil Getz Natasha Rosenstock New Orleans Nathan Rothstein Austin Lisa Goodgame



issue four 2008

New York Matthew Ackerman Miriam Bader Ariel Beery Rachel Berger Ben Brofman Samuel Grilli Rena Katz Esther Kustanowitz Will Levin Meira Levinson Lilit Marcus Stacey Menchel Benjamin Muller Dana Raviv Michael Rose Matthue Roth Ariella Saperstein Erica Schachne Lonnie Schwartz Jerry Silverman Rebecca Stone Margaret Teich Maya Wainhaus Tiferet Zimmern-Kahan

Melbourne Sarah Feiglin

PresenTensemagazine.org contributors


American Friends of Magen David Adom Opening New Sderot MDA Station in march

Architectural rendering of the new Sderot MDA Station

While rockets continue to pound Sderot and the western Negev every day, American Friends of Magen David Adom has kept faith with the people of Sderot by building a new, reinforced 2,500 sq. foot state-of-the-art MDA Emergency Medical Station. AFMDA will dedicate this facility in March 2008. This new Station will house standard and Mobile Intensive Care Unit (MICU) ambulances as well as the staff and volunteers who serve the 25,000 people of Sderot and the entire western Negev Region. Less than a mile from the Gaza Strip, Sderot has endured seven years of Qassam rocket attacks. Magen David Adom is a vital and essential part of the city, responding to every incident to treat the wounded and bring injured and ill patients to Barzilai Hospital, 13 miles to the north.

The current MDA Station in Sderot is a single level structure built in the 1950s. It is outdated and in such poor condition that the municipality has declared it a hazard.

Magen David Adom and AFMDA will always be there for Sderot and its people. Your gift will help the people of Sderot and the western Negev. Limited naming opportunities are still available. New Sderot Station is nearing completion

888 Seventh Avenue, Suite 403 • New York, NY 10106 • Toll free 866-632-2763



In Israel: 057-761-4220 issue four 2008

www.afmda.org

IsraelOffice@afmda.org PresenTensemagazine.org contents


No one has seen them, no one at all. There’s been nothing. This is why I’m asking you to raise your voices to demand a sign of life from my husband and his colleagues. Karnit Goldwasser July 16, 2007 outside United Nations Headquarters in New York

Bring Israel’s Soldiers Home Now 

issue four 2008

american zionist movement \ www.azm.org PresenTensemagazine.org contents


editorial

as we emerge

W

hy is it that we seek community? Well, not all of us—but for the most part, we humans tend to get lonely when we’re alone. Or is it that we just have more fun with others? Either way­­—a denial of pain or an increase in pleasure—community has certainly been a core value for Jews across the ages, and from the number of Facebook Groups and Events invites sent a day, it seems it is a core need today as well. As the all-volunteer staff of PresenTense brought together the voices for this issue, we were amazed by the range of issues and identities around which communities can gather. Communities can be forced into formation by the hard facts of geography (see “Not Just a History Lesson,” page 24, and “The Lein in Spain,” page 26), form locally due to spiritual calling (see “Judaism of the Brain,” page 38, and “Large Knit Kippas and Flowy Skirts Not Required,” page 28), or operate across vast distances and spot encounters that grow into lasting friendships (see “Get Off My Blog,” page 30). But more than anything else, communities tend to have a purpose (as are the communities featured in “Putting the Social Back in Socialism,” page 22). In making clear that purpose, communities provide a meaning for the life of each and every member of who joins. We’re working to make PresenTense a community of purpose, and lately we’ve grown. PresenTense started as a Magazine, a volunteer, grassroots operation spanning multiple timezones and continents, whose fifth issue you have before you now (the first was called Issue Zero—which we admit, might have been a mistake in hindsight; but when we did it, it was cool). PresenTense Magazine held events across the US and Israel, including salons, concerts and art exhibits. But we realized that our mission to provide a platform for encouraging Jewish creativity was only partially realized; you can only do so much with a magazine. So in the summer of 2007, the Magazine was joined by the PresenTense Institute, a center for socially-minded pioneering based in Jerusalem that provides fellowship opportunities to entrepreneurs, open-to-the-public lectures on topics affecting the Jewish here and now, and workshops for up-and-coming leaders in the third sector from Israel and around the world. In the summer of 2007, 18 fellows were accepted, 12 projects were launched from across the disciplines, and six projects are seeing early success less than half-a-year since graduation. Over the next few years, the Institute will expand to offer yearlong fellowships and opportunities to equip pioneers with the tools and networks they need to bring new ventures into the world, and will expand seminars and discussion series to locations around the world. Another thing we learned about communities in putting together this issue is that communities of purpose can thrive when they spread their vision and look to build partnerships with others who share common ideals. Recognizing that the Magazine and the Institute serve as an action tank, generating new ideas, methods and best practices, PresenTense has launched a Consulting Group to help translate these findings for organizations seeking to adapt to the new reality created by the digital revolution and the rise of social networking technology. And finally, to help coordinate and focus this vast energy, PresenTense will soon launch the PresenTense Network to provide an organizing framework to direct the unique skills, passions and abilities of people around the world towards the needs of the Jewish People. Since we believe that each and every Jew has a unique spark of creativity that can benefit and be benefited by a collective framework, and that the Jewish People has a collective potential that can be best realized by individual actualization in conversation with communal challenges, we want to provide the framework to realize Jewish creativity. To be a community of communities, to help new visions emerge—to be a platform for Jewish life—is our way of being true to the ever-changing here and now.

editoral PresenTensemagazine.org

issue four 2008




Woman to Watch

naomi less

W

atch her because: She’s going to teach your daughters how to stand proud and sing loud. When Naomi Less envisions Jewish chicks rocking, she sees an ocean of teenage girls in her mind—“a sea of voices,” she says, “not afraid to speak out and state their opinion, not seeing a glass ceiling, not seeing, ‘No, you’re not supposed to do that’.” Jewish Chicks Rock, Less’s trailblazing new project, is in many ways a confluence of these voices. Equally composed of the fearless rock passion she channeled as frontwoman for the band Less Nessman and the keenly observational nurturing instinct she developed at the Foundation for Jewish Camping, Less found herself dismayed by the dearth of identifiably Jewish, relatable female role models for teens and tweens, particularly in the self-expressive realm of music. Most chart-topping female artists, she notes, are “certainly not selling empowerment or self-esteem;” the few who emphasize such values “tend to be off-genre, like the Ani DiFrancos,” unlikely to reach girls who crave guidance but define their taste in media based on popularity, not individual interests. Pause, as Less would say. “I’ve been very interested in helping these girls develop into resilient, strong Jewish women in my work,” she explains. “Rock to me is always about not being afraid to say what you want to say, to say it loud, say it proud, say it with some shredding going on on the guitar—and in Jewish mainstream rock, the girls aren’t seeing any role models doing that, so there’s nothing to perpetuate.” Now, guitar in hand, the experiential educator proposes to change all that. Behold: Jewish Chicks Rock, a program whose daunting scope and reach seeks to revolutionize the music industry and Jewish youth culture from the ground up. For starters, Less plans to develop a unique blend of Torah values and punky girl-power pop that will equip Jewish teens with the tools they need to build their own identities and hone their individual voices to express what is hitting them right now. This new music will be well-produced pop music—“like Pink meets Avril Lavigne”—but the messages will be “very now, powerful, and Jewish-values laden,” Less says. Case in point: the first song Less has written for the endeavor, an upbeat stomper titled “Responsibility,” details the inner struggle of an uncomfortable adolescent watching from the sidelines as two bullies pick on another girl. Yet while her own music is a crucial component of Jewish Chicks Rock, Less outlines an even more intriguing second phase: a traveling tour with a killer backup band and a few different Jewish rocker chick frontwomen. “They will share how they got to where they are, what their struggles were, what they’re proud of, whatever they’re good at that embodies the ‘them’ that they are right now: scars, skeletons and all.” Less explains. “I’m not proud of everything I’ve done, but it made me who I am.” Eventually, she hopes, “there will be little pockets of girls around that will want to begin this in their own communities, that will want to express themselves creatively and through their Jewish identities.”



issue four 2008

Perel Skier Photo provided by Naomi Less

naomi less Age

thirtysomething Profession

soul rocker The definitive Jewish Chick who Rocks? “A work in progress,” Less says: a garden, growing the self-confidence to voice her beliefs and the passions that make her unique. And—of course—someone who totally rocks. Perel Skier is a freelance writer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin who currently resides in Manhattan. She rocks a Washburn guitar and chocolate cake, not necessarily in that order. PresenTensemagazine.org front of book


Man With a Plan

michael oshman

Maya Wainhaus

Photo by Andrew Duany

michael oshman Age

36 Profession

green visionary

H

e’s tikkuning the olam one restaurant at a time. Today, there are green restaurants in over thirty U.S. states and Canada, but in the early years of environmental awareness, it was difficult to convince restaurant owners that environmentalism could also make financial sense. “Initially, there was a polarization between the business world and the environmentalist world,” says Oshman. “We were perceiving each other as having opposing interests. Back then, having a green business was a novel concept, but thankfully, it’s part of our culture now.” As founder and director of the Green Restaurant Association (www.dinegreen.com), Michael Oshman is at the vanguard of this green dining movement. Combining his business skills with a deep desire to change our world and environment, which stems from the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, Oshman established the GRA in 1990, at age 19. At the time, scientists were first becoming aware of ozone depletion and that human actions had caused this environmental problem. Oshman realized that he had to do something. front of book PresenTensemagazine.org

By founding the Green Restaurant Association, a national nonprofit organization, Oshman transformed the restaurant industry by making it more sustainable, efficient and environmentally friendly. With consulting services that include research, environmental consulting, education, PR and marketing, and community organizing and consumer activism, the GRA sets the standards for the industry; restaurants that meet those standards are awarded a green certification. The GRA has also created the world’s largest database of environmental solutions for the restaurant industry to aid dining establishments in rethinking their businesses from a greener perspective. Seventeen years later, Oshman acknowledges that inspiration also comes from the motivational force of another Jewish value —teshuvah, self-improvement. “Sustainability is an elusive word,” notes Oshman. “There’s no such thing as being perfect, only the process of trying to perfect.” This process has allowed Oshman, and the Green Restaurant Association, to continuously strive for new ways to help restaurants green their business, from packaging and lighting to food distribution. With the growing awareness of environmental issues comes an elevated profile for the Green Restaurant Association. Oshman has appeared on national television and radio news programs and has given lectures about the organization and its goals to groups across the country. “Our goal is to help restaurants make changes in the right way,” says Oshman. “We’re helping them do it without making the mistakes that seventeen years of history have taught us. We have an unprecedented ability to make changes in our dayto-day lives.” Maya Wainhaus is a writer, jewelry designer and avid recycler living in Brooklyn. issue four 2008




around the world

B

from rallies to renaissance?

erlin was once host to Nazi rallies; now it is home to what has been termed the “German Jewish renaissance” by everyone from the Boston Globe to the German embassy in Washington. Indeed, for each Jewish cultural event that occurs in Germany—the ordination of rabbis, the renovation of synagogues or a new Jewish museum—there is nothing short of a media frenzy. Many have a stake in this “renaissance”: Germans want to show their Synagoge Beth Or, Oranienburger Street country has normalized, Jews want to celebrate growing Jewish communities, and the community itself is eager to prove it has recreated life in this formerly thriving center of Jewish activity. But for all the exciting news my Google results offered me, I found an all-too typical Jewish community: racked by in-fighting and pettiness and a mere shadow of its former glory. One evening this past July, I was strolling down Oranienburger Street, a hot spot of Jewish Berlin, with a list of kosher restaurants I had found online. Of the four places listed, both the Israeli places were out of business, one kosher place had listed the wrong hours and long since closed, and the “kosher-style” restaurant was just plain traif (unkosher). Before despairing entirely, I noticed one Middle Eastern restaurant with a bulletin board out front reading “Kosher.” The place wasn’t on my list, but maybe this was the Jewish Berlin I kept hearing about in the news, in books and on “Jewish Berlin” tours…beneath the official radar, contributing to the Jewish presence in Berlin! I asked the man behind the counter if the food was kosher; he looked confused, shook his head and said: “No, no; Halal!” The bulletin board was to lure tourists seeking an Photo by Axel Kuhlmann “authentic” Jewish experience. It was not an expression of Jewish life in Berlin; it was a way to make a buck from The older members of the community are not a part of the proud gullible tourists. So far, no “Jewish renaissance” to be found. long-standing German-Jewish heritage, which traces itself back 1,700 Jewish life in Berlin does exist, but if you’re looking for functioning years (German Jews of this cut were the type to move to Israel and insist synagogues, a Jewish bookstore or kosher shops, you generally have upon speaking their much-hated mother tongue). About one half of to go West. In what once was East Berlin and the center of Jewish these Jews had fled Germany before the war; present-day “German life before the Holocaust, only a handful of Jewish institutions still Jews,” therefore, are relative newcomers. Most newly liberated Eastern exist, such as the Fraekelufer Synagogue. Attending Friday night European Holocaust survivors had to pass through Berlin—the Naziservices at the shul, Paul Egan, a master’s student studying German, capital-turned-Allied-occupied city. A small minority stayed in Berlin was struck by how difficult it was to get through security (one woman (and other major German cities) and very slowly rebuilt their lives. yelled “don’t let them in!” when his friend approached) and how old In the 1990s, the city experienced an immigration of Jewish Russian the congregants were. Said Paul: “Saddest was a sweet old man, who speakers with numbers on par with Israel. Now, the Jewish population kept saying with a smile ‘Gutte Shabbes’ to me, perhaps thinking of Germany is purported to be 200,000 strong. I would be back again.” Although services are held in a beautiful But like most of what I read about the “German Jewish renaissance,” sanctuary, the appearance is misleading. This room once held the this statistic turned out to be misleading. Between 90-95% of the youth service; there is no need to rebuild the much larger sanctuary, German-Jewish population is the result of immigration, not natural destroyed on Kristallnacht. increase. Of an estimated 200,000 German-Jews, only half are registered

10

issue four 2008

six weeks in the new jewish berlin

Brauna Doidge

PresenTensemagazine.org around the world


with the Gemeinde, the official Jewish community, which operates similarly to the official “churches” of the country, providing member benefits through government-allocated tax dollars. The missing 100,000 Jews are by-and-large Russian-speakers, many of whom are justifiably embittered with the community. First persecuted for being Jewish in their home countries, they came to Germany only to find out that the Gemeinde, deciding “who is a Jew” based on halakhah (Jewish law) using matrilineal descent, did not consider them Jewish. The Gemeinde’s membership criterion, stringent even though a small percentage of the community is Orthodox, is but one manifestation of a deep rift between those who proudly call themselves “German Jews” and the Jewish immigrants of the FSU. The irony is stark: while at the turn of the last century assimilated Jews in Germany looked down upon the Ostjuden (traditional Eastern European Jewish immigrants), many of today’s established “German Jews” are Eastern European displaced persons from the War. Ignoring the sad history of intra-Jewish conflict, they now turn their noses up at Jews from the Far East. Even within the community fold, Jews are in-fighting. After meeting with Stephan Kramer, the secretary-general of the Zentralrat (the organizing body of Jewish communities in Germany), Nadine Blumer, a Berlin-based PhD student, was shocked by what she heard: “After defaming Jewish immigrants of the former Soviet Union for using the Jewish community for its social services and better economic prospects, Kramer spoke about the importance of making community life “sexy” for Jews living in Germany—as long, I guess, as those Jews fit his conception of ‘proper’ community members.” Blumer had higher hopes when she met with the head of the liberal Abraham Geiger Rabbinical College, Walter Homolka. “Unlike

Jewish life in Berlin does exist, but if you’re looking for functioning synagogues, a Jewish bookstore or kosher shops, you generally have to go West. Kramer, he spoke more favorably about the influx of former Soviet Jews,” she recalled. But “unfortunately, there were enough other rhetorical similarities. Homolka spent much time praising the liberal community in opposition to the alleged corruption of the Orthodox establishment.” And on and on it goes. My six weeks in Germany provided me with other stories of ugly public battles between Orthodox and Masorti rabbis and German Jewish leaders laundering money from the community. But I call attention to the community’s problems with a purpose: to talk of a “German Jewish renaissance” obscures the very real and very dangerous social rifts within the Jewish community. The community must stop being compared and comparing itself to what it was once was and instead focus on how it has become all too similar to other Jewish communities steeped in petty politics. Until this can be achieved, a Jewish renaissance in Berlin will remain the stuff of Google searches. Brauna Doidge is a Jewish Studies major in her last semester at the University of Toronto.

You may think you know JNF. During Alternative Spring Break, volunteers cleared branches that were burned by rocket attacks.

Through JNF activities, you can meet others who share your passion to strengthen Israel and improve the environment.

Jewish National Fund is committed to bringing together a global community of Jewish students and young professionals who feel passionately about improving the environment and getting involved in social action projects to improve the lives of all Israelis. Through JNF, you can join thousands of others who are forging a more meaningful relationship to the land and people of Israel. The new JNF offers: �

GoNeutral: An Environmental Movement for Tomorrow, which empowers people to help curb climate change. Go to www.jnf.org/goneutral to learn about lifestyle changes that can reduce carbon emissions. Individuals can offset the emissions they are unable to reduce by calculating their annual output and either planting trees with JNF or making a donation to our vital environmental work.

JNF/Shorashim Taglit-Birthright Israel for Jewish young adults, up to 26-years old, who can participate in this free 10-day Israel experience that has proven to transform lives. Register at www.shorashim.org. or email rkahn@jnf.org. for information.

JNF Alternative Spring Break to Israel, which enables young professionals and college students to participate in service projects across Israel, including building new communities. For information, call 212-879-9305 ext. 248 or email rkahn@jnf.org.

Join with people around the world helping JNF continue its vital work to improve the environment and care for the land and people of Israel.

Get to know us! Call 1-888-JNF-0099 or view www.jnf.org to learn more about our work

You can join JNF in working with Israel’s new PresenTensemagazine.org pioneers to develop the Negev. contents

FORESTRY • WATER • COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT • SECURITY EDUCATION • RESEARCH • TOURISM & RECREATION • ECOLOGY

issue four 2008 www.jnf.org

11


the mu shoo jews

jews in beijing

Manuela Zoninsein

Photo by Judith Belasco

M

aybe the Sassoons had it right all along. A Jewish family of Iraqi descent, they prospered for four generations in China, variously dominating shipping, opium trading and real estate development from their base in Shanghai. Even today, beyond Israel and the coastal United States, Zhong-guo might be the next best place to be a Jew. “Every time I mention that I am Jewish to a Chinese person, the reaction is virtually the same: ’Oh, Jewish people are very smart... very, very smart!’” explains one Beijing-based American Jew (who asked to remain anonymous prior to the launch of his new online media business). “It’s almost as if we are these mythical creatures with special powers.” My experience has been similar. I’m in Beijing on a Princeton-inAsia Fellowship to teach, study and write, and though Christmas has already come and gone, the detritus of good cheer, jingles, pine trees and Chinese Santa Clauses remains on every corner, supermarket, restaurant and lobby. As a result, I frequently find myself telling people that I’m Jewish, in order to explain why on December 25th, I conventionally ate Chinese food, and watched a movie—rather than unwrapping St. Nick-delivered booty. I’m regularly told we Jews (youtairen) are among the cleverest in the world, along with Indians and Chinese. It seems broadly recognized that, after Buddha himself, Jewish people most closely approximate “enlightened” status.

12

issue four 2008

However, in capital-crazed Communist China, I wonder: is this because we’re stereotypically good with money? Marx, Freud and Einstein are three of the most respected thinkers here in China; the first is required reading within the Chinese Communist canon. It is not lost on nationals that all were Tribesmen. Although China’s national policy is increasingly oriented toward “opening up” and free-market values, that the social fabric is informed by book titles inspired by some imagined Jewish business acumen and not Das Kapital only perpetuates an appreciation of what is perceived as a largely money-oriented Judaic world view. Best-sellers include The Eight Most Valuable Business Secrets of the Jewish, Jewish People and Business: The Bible of How to Live Their Lives, and Jewish Entrepreneurial Experience and Business Wisdom. For a nation obsessed with financial success, it makes sense that Shawn Medelovich, an Israeli-American in the import/export business, found that “upon learning I’m Jewish, [the Chinese] immediately compliment me on my financial skills.” While this exists as a negative characterization in some cultures, it is a highly-valued ideology here, one which has evolved since Deng Xiaoping initiated China’s “Opening Up” in the late 1970s into a key driver of policies in contemporary China. My eager and newly-independent freshman university students initially defined Chinese national “values” as success, fame and riches—before a few loyal Party adherents corrected everyone that Communist China is more concerned with ensuring that everyone has food, a warm coat and a job in which to work for the greatness of the State. In a country whose government excludes Judaism from its five “recognized religions,” and whose recent history survived the organized suppression of any religious expression, it’s astounding that the Jewish religion is recognized at all. Perhaps the perception involves some knowledge of Silk Road traders, some of whom settled and constructed a synagogue in Kaifeng in the 1100s. Or an awareness of the Sephardi merchants, like the Sassoons, who joined Westerners at the start of colonialism. There were Jewish refugees fleeing the World Wars and Nazi hatred, who might have inspired sympathies in their escape from the Japanese-supported Axis powers; and through the latter half of the twentieth century, a proportion of expatriates

It’s almost as if we are these mythical creatures with special powers. happened to be Jewish. And yet, not one of the aforementioned historical appearances of Jews in China in and of themselves inspire caricaturing of Jews as rich rulers. Amongst my Chinese colleagues, I’ve been reminded that the founders of Lehman Bros. and Goldman-Sachs are Jewish. Some PresenTensemagazine.org around the world


e title: Jews in Beijing le: The Mu Shoo Jews(you r: Manuela Zoninsein bio: Manuela is a Princeton-in-Asia Fe eek, the Engineering News-Record, and up to the 2008 Olympics. ut Quote 1: "It's almost as if we are thes s." ut Quote 2: In the mainstream mindset It seems broadly recognized that, after Buddha himself, Jewish s than 2% of Americans pull all the strin people most closely approximate of the perceptions border on “take over the world” conspiracytheories, especially within the finance sector, and end up incorrectly attributing successes and wealth to Jews simply because it is assumed that’s where Jews tend to excel. Apparently there are numerous books claiming the Rothschild family controls the U.S. Treasury; unbeknownst to me (or anyone else), J.P. Morgan and even the Roosevelts were Jewish. In the mainstream mindset of the Middle Kingdom, it would seem that the less than 2% of Americans who are Jews pull all the strings behind the machinations of the United States. This echoes Japan’s 1919 “Fugu Plan” which was motivated by the Russian-disseminated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A scheme named after the poisonous delicacy, the Fugu fish, Japanese sought to control the “venomous” Jews while enjoying the fruits of their supposed wealth and power. By attracting the highly valuable Jews into Manchuria, the Japanese believed they could keep “Zion’s” dangers at bay. The history of Chinese-Japanese struggles, most recently those of this century such as the Nanjing Massacre, might be a possible explanation for Chinese sympathy toward Jewish struggles, though few have written about that topic just yet. Many of the Jews living in Beijing understand the dark underbelly of these compliments, and try to convince Chinese that our successes are not the result of some inherent racial or ethnic quality. For example, when the stereotype is mentioned in conversation, the aforementioned Net entrepreneur will “explain to them that, actually, in any large enough population, intelligence (i.e. IQ) is likely to be normally distributed...” An argument that takes the steam out of genetic supremacy becomes more difficult in a nation that has historically relied on racial and ethnic essentialization to claim global ascendancy and racial superiority. It is not called the Middle

“enlightened” status. Kingdom for nothing. And its recent resurgence in geopolitical power and presence is often seen as the nation’s birthright, dating back to its ancient inception. Yet, that ancient inception serves as additional explanation for the appreciation of Jews witnessed in Beijing. The Chinese are proud of their 5000 (by some accounts 6000) years of history. At year 5768, the Jewish calendar might be the only one which surpasses it in length. By Chinese standards, that means wisdom and righteousness. Not one of the Jews I’ve spoken with has experienced antiSemitism. Mendelevich realizes “that [financial acumen] is a stereotype of Jews that can have negative connotations...however, when I hear it from a Chinese person I feel they mean it sincerely and with admiration.” He went on: “If anything, I’ve experienced pro-Semitism”—or what Jeremy Goldkorn, the founder of Danwei, a leading website covering Chinese media, advertising and urban life, coined “semitophilia.” It’s funny that as a response to this characterization, some cardcarrying ex-pats have seen a renaissance in their Jewish lives. More

“the mu shoo jews” in chinese

than just a reaction to this stereotyping, however, is a noticeable proactive move by almost all Beijing-based Jews toward the dynamic, tightly-knit local Jewish community, the importance of which becomes intensified by the transient nature of the local expatriate community. The aforementioned web entrepreneur began going to Chabad Beijing for Shabbat dinner, and met Jews from all over the world who were also “looking for a sense of community in China.” Shawn also attended Chabad, as well as the Reform congregation Friday night services. “From those places I formed friendships that I have maintained.” Beijing’s Jewish institutions are crucial for Ori Elraviv, a young Israeli father who heads up Dragon Post, a company that customizes, optimizes and tests mobile applications. The Elraviv family usually spends time at the Israeli Embassy, or at Chabad House—where the eldest son of the two children is enrolled in school (and where he studies Hebrew, English and Mandarin). Likewise, the more progressive Kehillat minyan brings Michael, who works in the U.S. Embassy, and his wife Devorah a community with which they can share their pride—a newly-born daughter. With the Israeli Embassy, Dini’s Kosher Market, a kosher restaurant, and Chabad all within walking distance—soon to be complemented by the new U.S. Embassy building—it becomes quite easy for Jews in Beijing to associate and meet. That said, these communities, like all previous Jewish gatherings in China, are fleeting. Devorah and family will return to the States within the year. The Elravivs are already looking for an exit strategy, or at least some means to reduce their time in China. Shawn and the entrepreneur came only to test their luck and business acumen in the world’s largest market, and plan to stay as long as it takes to establish their respective companies. Like the other ex-pats in Beijing, most people come either to study or to serve a rotation for their company or for the Foreign Service. A few others come on a whim, seeking adventure—and even the rare ones who settle roots here often return home once they’ve turned a profit or learned Chinese. As a result, the importance of such institutions as Chabad, the Kehillat minyan, or foreign embassies becomes heightened. Regardless of the strength and prominence of said institutions, and the increased importance of religion for Jews who live in Beijing, the transient nature of the Jewish community means that few Chinese have opportunities to develop lasting friendships with us. In a country whose citizens are legally barred from learning about Judaism, personal relationships may be the only way for the Chinese to learn who we are beyond the stereotypes. As individuals move on, fewer Jews are left here to defend our religion, our culture—or to explain why, come December 25th, it’s better to wish Americans “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”

seems broadly recognized that, after Bu ximate "enlightened" status. Count: 1576 around the world PresenTensemagazine.org

Manuela Zoninsein is a Princeton-in-Asia Fellow based in Beijing writing for Newsweek, the Engineering News-Record, and City Weekend’s dining section in the year leading up to the 2008 Olympics issue four 2008

13


New Jews of NOLA

high tide of volunteerism in the bayou

M

ore than two years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is a community in the process of re-imagining itself. The natural disaster left in its wake terrible destruction—and, with it, the rare and tremendous opportunity for rebuilding and reshaping a community, literally from the ground up. Responding to this challenge, there has been an influx into New Orleans of talented young professionals, aka YURPs (young urban rebuilding professionals). A majority moved to the city out of a desire to lend a hand to fellow Americans in rebuilding their city in a socially just way. Others grew up in New Orleans and returned to help the city and their parents rebuild. Many of these YURPs (five of twelve profiled in August 2007 in the New Orleans Times-Picayune) are Jewish. Their work is not only a natural outlet of the Jewish value of social justice, but it is also a fitting next chapter in the ongoing story of Jews in New Orleans. The community has always been very civically engaged: Jewish philanthropy money helped Dillard University, Touro Hospital, and programs at Tulane University, and Jewishowned stores were among the first to integrate during the Civil Rights Movement. Young Jews have come to New Orleans with the aid of traditional organizations, such as Hillel, which organizes trips for college students to engage in social action, and the Jewish Federation of Greater New

14

issue four 2008

Orleans, which offers financial incentives encouraging Jews to make a move. Once they join the community, YURPs find New Orleans more than just a place for new ideas, but also a unique juncture where ideas can be turned into action. The organizations they helped develop, just ideas a year ago, now reach thousands of people. Gill Benedek Gill first came to New Orleans as part of UMassAmherst Hillel’s spring break trip. Following graduation, he returned with the AmeriCorps Program. He began work with the Neighborhoods Partnership Network (NPN), which educates neighborhood associations about city-wide decisions that will affect daily lives of residents and serves as a forum for neighborhood collaboration. Gill also is a co-founder of the Trumpet, a community-written newspaper which shares stories of New Orleans recovery. Jess Garz Jess came to New Orleans to rebuild the city—literally. For her senior thesis in architecture, she worked with a professor with H3 Studios, which holds meetings with residents to gain an understanding of what they would like their neighborhood to look like, and then maps out plans to make it happen. After graduation, she joined H3 Studios and came to New Orleans. She now coordinates an innovative art collaborative, Transforma, which uses art to rehabilitate neighborhoods. Through creating art studios in poor areas, the collaborative allows local artists to invest in their neighborhoods,

Nathan Rothstein

Photos by Deenah Vollmer

transforming them with community gardens and artwork in public spaces. Jeff Good Having himself grown up Jewish in New Orleans, Jeff feels passionate about reviving New Orleans’ Jewish community. While pursuing a law degree at Tulane, Jeff brings together young Jews currently in the city. He works to bridge the gap between the local Jewish community and the many Jewish graduate students in New Orleans, who may not be thinking of staying in the community long-term. His monthly

PresenTensemagazine.org around the world


Naomi Chalew Naomi works for Good Work Networks, a nonprofit organization that helps small businesses be sustainable in New Orleans. She works with small day-care providers, assisting them in re-establishing themselves in New Orleans through developing and marketing their businesses and by helping them gain skills in business management.

networking events attract between 50-75 people—numbers he has seen increase as young, socially-minded Jews flooded into New Orleans after Katrina.

The natural disaster left in its wake terrible destruction—and, with it, the rare and tremendous opportunity for rebuilding and reshaping a community.

Nathan Rothstein is the executive director of the NOLA YURP, www.nolayurp.org, which builds a support network to connect, retain and attract young professionals to a sustainable New Orleans.

Tasted a short term Israel program?

Now go for a semester/year MASA program

Choose from 150 programs – post high school, semester abroad and post college – from life changing community service and stimulating academic programs to resume building internships. And everything in between. Grants for all participants from $2,000-$4,500. Ages 18-30. contents PresenTensemagazine.org

issue four 2008

15


rules of engagement

rethinking jewish affiliation Josh Whisler

all the food which is always synonymous with a Jewish celebration. Photo provided by Chris Silver

Chris Silver is 24, originally from Los Angeles. He now lives in the Moishe House of DC and works for a human rights organization. PT: So, in this age of labels and classifications, who are you? Chris: People often try to label me as Reform, but I don’t ascribe to any of the main denominations; I consider myself culturally secular. I am very interested in our people’s history and tradition. Even though I won’t necessarily observe many of the traditions I still have a great appreciation for all those in the past that have paved the way for me to be here today. PT: Do you feel underrepresented or misrepresented by the general Jewish public? Chris: There are a lot of people out there like me, interested in Judaism but would not necessarily go to synagogue. I’ve come across lots of twentysomethings, who went to a liberal university and are really fascinated by our heritage, but want to practice in their own ways. We want to take the old but put a fresh twist on it. For example, when we conduct our Tu B’shvat seder at the Moishe House we don’t partake in the fruits in the traditional way, but rather blend them into a soup and enjoy it. It’s our way of adding meaning and creativity to the tradition. PT: When I say Judaism, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Chris: I enjoy the inclusiveness of the holidays, seeing all my family, and eating

16

issue four 2008

PT: What makes you feel Jewish? Chris: Speaking Hebrew; I give free Hebrew lessons to people who want to learn in DC. It’s my small way of giving back to the community and hopefully passing on something which I hold dear. Participating in a traditional Shabbat also is a time when I feel my Jewish inner self. PT: And how about Israel—any connection? Chris: It’s a part of my heritage, I look at the past and the present and I see all of it as my history, my story. Again it’s the mix of old and new. Tel Aviv was built from nothing, it represents all that we have accomplished and

American Jewry today is looking deeper and asking more questions about its past. No matter your affiliation or spiritual inclination there are many opportunities and venues, and room for everyone to find their own special connection.

are providing to the modern world but I also feel a connection to my roots. There was a revered Moroccan Rabbi who died in Netivot; every year 10,000 Jews make the pilgrimage to his grave. I never met this Rabbi, but knowing that things like that happen remind me of where I came from and the rich history that contributed to who I am now. PT: With all the technological change going on, do you think it’s possible for teachers or religious leaders to relate and connect to the youth of today? Chris: The previous generation may not be as relatable as we’d like, but they provide us with the necessary rough draft. We can then take that draft and make changes and amendments just like a bill of legislation, but it’s still a necessary process that needs to be undertaken. PT: What do you see as the greatest challenge facing Jews today? Chris: The greatest challenge is making sure Jewish identity is not confined to how religious one is. We can’t let our community break down to considering someone not Jewish just because they’re not religious. PT: : Are you optimistic about the future of American Jewry? Chris: Yes. American Jewry today is looking deeper and asking more questions about its past. No matter your affiliation or spiritual inclination there are many opportunities and venues, and room for everyone to find their own special connection. At the Moishe House our aim is to provide Jews who aren’t synagogue affiliated with an outlet to practice their Judaism in a comfortable fashion. PresenTensemagazine.org rules of engagement


C onservative. Orthodox. Reform. Reconstructionist. Secular. Unaffiliated. When annual surveys about the state of American Jewry are conducted—or JDate profiles are filled out—many of today’s young Jews feel misrepresented by the limited choices they are offered. In today’s information age, online communities are proliferating at an astounding rate; prayer groups or social justice events are created with the click of a mouse and the pressure to associate with Judaism as our parents’ generation defined it is deteriorating. Young Jews of all backgrounds are finding alternative ways to connect to their past and at the same time create a vibrant new synthesis for the future. In this series, PresenTense Magazine aims to uncover the many shades of Jewish living today and hear from those on the ground as to how they are associating and connecting to their heritage.

Alan Sufrin is a musician based out of Chicago. He has a new album coming out this summer, which can be sampled and bought at StereoSinai.com. PT: So, in this age of labels and classifications, who are you? Alan: I would associate myself with Modern Orthodoxy. I would describe myself as an observant cultural Jew, who connects with God through music. PT: Do you feel underrepresented or misrepresented by the general Jewish public? Alan: People always refer to Orthodoxy [as a denomination] or would like to simplify things and make me identify as Orthodox, but that’s not always a fair representation since I wouldn’t identify or associate myself with many in that group. PT: When I say Judaism, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Alan: Family. In college I spent a lot of time studying other religions. There are so many rich lessons which can be taken from other beliefs, so I stopped and asked myself the inevitable question… why not be part of one of them? And then I thought of my family, and all the rich, beautiful traditions which were passed down. If all the previous generations found something special, both spiritually and culturally, who am I to come along and say it wasn’t really that important.

girlfriend Miriam Brosseau: my new venture is in Jewish music. Music combines different feelings and emotions, it includes the studying of text and the instrumental aspect which we know was done in the times of the Temple. The most rewarding part of playing is that I get to have an effect on others. PT: Does the formal Jewish community offer you the opportunities you’re looking for or do you have to go outside its walls? Alan: Growing up, it was “you have to be either A, B or C.” But our generation, we are starting a new Jewish culture, we no longer join synagogues instead we join Internet groups. Instead of prayer groups we have put on soul concerts. There’s a new Jewish alternative culture out there, which has become the new mainstream for me. This new movement of young people coming from all over and connecting in an alternative way is a very exciting development in the way Judaism is practiced. PT: Do you feel a formal Jewish education is important today? Alan: It’s helpful, and important. Everyone’s different. Even if we could educate everyone, everyone would have a different outlook. For those out there that never had a formal Jewish education but still connect in their own way is just as meaningful as someone who grew up with it.

PT: What makes you feel Jewish?

PT: With all the technological change going on, do you think it’s possible for teachers or religious leaders to relate and connect to the youth of today?

Alan: Previously, I made pop music, but now I’m starting something new with my

Alan: Everyone’s struggling with this dilemma today not just in religious circles. It

rules of engagement PresenTensemagazine.org

Photo provided by Alan Sufrin

remains a serious problem. There are countless examples of a major disconnect between the generations. The generation of old is living in a vertical, top-down world and we live in a horizontal realm where collaboration is key. The only way to move forward is to understand each other better so we can make our community more effective.

There’s a new Jewish alternative culture out there, which has become the new mainstream for me. PT: How do you think you can make Judaism more appealing for those not already associated or connected? Alan: We need to find parallels to what’s already out there. If you can create content for YouTube and MySpace you have a better chance of connecting to the technologically savvy youth of today. Now with the Internet, we can get our ideas out and circulated, it’s not as difficult as it once was back in the day to reach out to one another. Josh Whisler is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC, and is the author of The Iranian Track blog (www.iraniantrack.blogspot.com).

issue four 2008

17


society

I Wish I Lost Sleep

reflections of a dar fur activist

Rebecca Stone

Photo from www.flickr.com/photos/genocideintervention

T

his week I met a Sudanese refugee named Abul Asal, Abu Asal who was the featured speaker at a Darfur advocacy event in New York City. Abu Asal currently teaches English in Worcester, MA , where he moved after having escaped Sudan through Egypt. In Khartoum, Sudan, Asal was tortured and imprisoned for conducting peaceful protests against the Darfur genocide on his college campus. Asal spoke straight from the heart about his experiences in Darfur, his childhood, and the family that he left behind, expressing his pain as a genocide destroys the lives of millions just like him in his country. Watching him speak, I couldn’t even look him in the eyes. I felt like I had betrayed him. A few years ago I considered myself a Darfur activist, a college student mobilizing my campus to fight genocide. I gave impassioned speeches across the country and believed that a population would be saved because of my actions. Each night of lost sleep was a small sacrifice when I considered the lives I was saving. Each time I missed class to raise awareness about Darfur I was choosing heroism over the banal existence of a college student. I took a personal approach to healing the suffering in Darfur, to the

18

issue four 2008

point where I once begged my father to let me adopt a refugee and keep him in our small Manhattan apartment. My father would not tolerate my impractical and childish ideas. But all I wanted was to help and save. Or maybe I wanted to be a savior. Regardless of the root of my intentions, my actions were good. Four years later, the genocide rages on; millions of people are displaced, living in makeshift refugee camps with no food or shelter. Hundreds of thousands have been brutally murdered. Malnourishment and lack of education only add to the plight of the survivors. Though I work for American Jewish World Service, an organization dedicated to ending the genocide, I am not as talkative about the genocide as I used to be, and not as quick to respond to the Darfur petition emails. Now, when I meet money managers, I no longer blurt out, “Please divest from Chinese oil companies! You are funding a genocide!” Though much progress has been made through advocacy and awareness campaigns, the world still cares too little about Darfur. The New York Times recently exposed that no country (the U.S. included) has heeded the United Nations’ call for a multinational peacekeeping force in Darfur. The international community is simply too busy with other affairs.

Most Americans still do not know what or where Darfur is. The Americans who do know don’t care enough to fight for the Darfuri people beyond their yearly rally attendance. And my question is: why? How, in a world of globalization and Google E arth, does the plight of Darfuri refugees not haunt us and spur us to action? After hearing Abu Asal, I tried to imagine myself in his shoes, exposing my soul to urge people to act. I imagined having to relive physical torture and losing my home in front of a group of strangers. I imagined believing for a split second that this speech would help save my family from death—only to go home and acknowledge for the hundredth time that my speech had done nothing. It had moved people for a few minutes, until they went back to their shopping, their Starbucks, and their cell phones, while my sisters across the world were gang raped. Why does an impassioned speech or a heart-wrenching documentary affect me but not compel the masses? And why have I, with my conviction and passion, lost my drive to compel them? I am tired of feeling responsibility and guilt for a nation so far away. I am tired of PresenTensemagazine.org society


feeling that my actions aren’t making the difference that I want them to make. I am tired of watching my friends and family care about Darfur one day and forget it the next. I have seen three Darfur documentaries over the course of the past year, and in each film I am affected most by refugees crying. Unlike the pictures of dead bodies, which leave me numb, the firsthand accounts and displays of emotion move me. It is the experience of relating to the displaced people of Darfur that motivates my activism. Perhaps

optimist in me still refuses to believe that. The psychologist Paul Slovic researched why genocides have been allowed to occur repeatedly throughout history. He writes: “Confronted with knowledge of dozens of apparently random disasters each day, what can a human heart do but slam its doors… We didn’t evolve to cope with tragedy on a global scale. Our defense is to pretend there’s no thread of event that connects us, and that those lives are somehow not precious and real like our own. It’s a practical strategy,

psychologists that our hearts do not have to slam their doors. We have the potential to disprove their studies and empathize with hundreds of thousands of people we do not know in Darfur, Sudan. And it is my responsibility to lose sleep again. My hope is that, even if I can sleep tomorrow night, someone reading this article will toss and turn. Because the least we can do, not as activists but as human beings, is to care so much it hurts.

Most Americans still do not know what or where Darfur is. And the Americans who do know don’t care enough to fight for the Darfuri people beyond their yearly rally attendance. And my question is: why? the activist community should work harder to humanize the stories, the numbers, and the faces. Or perhaps the activists have tried every angle and our community and society will never care the way they should. But the

to some ends, but the loss of empathy is also the loss of humanity, and that’s no small tradeoff.” It is our responsibility to reclaim our humanity, to prove to Paul Slovic and other

Rebecca Stone currently works for American Jewish World Service (AJWS) as a Development Officer. Her Darfur activism was originally inspired and continues to be inspired by AJWS and their critical work around the globe.

SACH objectives and achievements: ! Providing life-saving cardiac surgery for more than 1700 children from 27 different countries at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, ISRAEL with pre- and post-operative care at the SACH Children’s home. ! An open cardiology clinic every Tuesday for Palestinian children from Gaza and the West Bank. ! A full outreach-training program for medical personnel from developing countries. ! Medical missions to partner sites such as Ethiopia, Zanzibar, Nigeria, China and Moldova which include: • Evaluating pre and post operative patients, together with local personnel in joint cardiology clinics. • Operating on patients together with local personnel in partner sites. • Offering onsite training in various related fields: cardiology, cardiac surgery, intensive care, anesthesia etc.

Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) is an extraordinary Israel-based humanitarian organization, providing free pediatric cardiac care for children from across the globe, regardless of nationality, religion, color, or gender. Supported by:

Join us in saving thousands more lives in the future. For information on creative fundraising ideas and volunteer opportunities please visit:

www.saveachildsheart.org

contents PresenTensemagazine.org

1 Borochov St. Azur 58012 • P.O. Box 121, Azur 58008 Tel: (972)-03-5589656 • Fax: (972)-03-5589657 • e-mail: sach@013.net

issue four 2008

19


Inheriting the Holocaust

sur vivors’ grandchildren connect worldwide

Chloe Safier As the Third Generation matures into adulthood and begins to come to terms with its traumatic family history, members are beginning to connect around their shared past. Photos provided by Lina Tuv of Rayzman and Tuv families

I

n the last room of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, there is a photograph of a two-yearold in the ghetto of the post-war displaced persons camp, standing on a curb and clutching a doll by its plaster pinky finger. My mother believes she is that child. It is powerful to see a parent’s picture in a Holocaust museum at the end of a series of exhibits that expounds the tragedy and loss of the Shoah. But I’m not alone: I’m a member of the “Third Generation,” a constructed term that describes anyone with a survivor for a grandparent. As the Third Generation matures into adulthood and begins to come to terms with its traumatic family history, members are beginning to connect around their shared past. In my pursuit of self (and generational) understanding, I recently hosted a salon on the topic of the Third Generation through the young adult program where I work, GesherCity Boston. We met with the specific intention of finding out why we were inclined to come together—what was it about this identity,

20

issue four 2008

this sense of familial belonging, that prompted us to find out what we had in common? I’ve often wondered about the ramifications of having grandparents who survived Auschwitz and a mother born in Bergen-Belsen; how my personality, my life and my choices have been shaped by the continuous Holocaust discourse that encompassed my childhood. In the salon, I found that many of us had similar questions, and all were grateful for the venue, the community, and the opportunity to explore how this enormous event, foreign yet familiar, had molded our identities. The grandchildren are perhaps the last to have a personal relationship with survivors, and certainly the last to see a picture of a parent in a Holocaust museum. Through new Third Generation community groups, research initiatives and programs spanning the globe, the role of the Holocaust is coming into the spotlight for twenty-something grandchildren of survivors grappling with their identities and communal roles. PresenTensemagazine.org society


In February of 2005, Daniel Brooks met with other grandchildren of Holocaust survivors to talk about their shared familial history. The meeting became a jumping off point for a new community group, called 3G. “After looking, I realized that 3G groups and/or initiatives didn’t exist,” says Brooks. He wanted a forum in which to discuss “what our family history meant to us, how this connection influenced our identity as Jews, and also how it influenced our politics, world view, etc.” Since Brooks’ initiative, the community has grown rapidly. Today, 3G in New York has a mailing list of six hundred and a steering committee of ten. It is a registered non-profit organization, and runs a variety of events such as lectures, film screenings, wine tastings, and Shabbat dinners, where attendance can range from ten to one hundred young people. “We’ve already fostered a sense of community among our members,” says Brooks. Still, the group is looking to expand even further in membership and mission. To that end, 3G New York plans to invite more survivors to speak to the group and to host inherited trauma. “The work that 3GH aims to do is to encourage further discussions on the subject of intergenerational transmission and invite ourselves to process our personal, cultural Jewish identities, of trauma. “Many of us feel that although Holocaust education is to talk about what was once silent—the silent scars.” standardized,” says Brooks, “[people] don’t have opportunities to As the last living link to the Holocaust begins to deal with discuss with others like us the meaning of the Holocaust, how it’s issues of trauma and community, it is clear that the effects of the viewed in the mainstream, and what it means to us.” Holocaust extend beyond its survivors. At GesherCity’s salon, The Third Generation community has had wider success attendees found that the conversations were tinged with a certain online. On Facebook, Aaron Biterman started the “Grandchildren indescribable weightiness; we felt guilty about intermarriage because of Holocaust Survivors” networking group. The online community of the Holocaust and we felt pressure to succeed because of the boasts nearly five hundred members and seven virtual administrators Holocaust. But there was solace in talking to each other. We felt from as many cities. bound by a collective sense that we were bonding because of an event “I would like to see more 3G groups established in local areas, we didn’t experience ourselves, and an inherited weight we could which is why I created this group,” says Biterman. “It’s very important never really negotiate or understand. Reclaiming this event and that 3Gs connect to each other…our families are a very significant terming it “Third Generation” goes beyond the righteous demand piece of history’s puzzle.” to preserve the memory of the Shoah; it is about recognizing that The Third Generation has also been fodder for new psychological just like the genes we inherit, whether we want them or not, we are research. After interviewing over twenty individuals on their Third bound to the memories of our family. Generation identities for a research paper towards her psychology degree, Natalie Krasnostein, an Australian native, took the project further with a Chloe Safier lives and works in Boston, creating social justice opportunities for six-week workshop involving ten descendants. The workshop, conducted Jewish young adults through GesherCity. Her grandparents are survivors, and her with a grant from the Melbourne Holocaust Museum, became known mom, born in the displaced persons camp of Bergen-Belsen, is now a Holocaust as 3GH (an acronym for “Third Generation Holocaust”) and produced oral historian and educator. a documentary titled Somewhere Inside of Us. “It was a powerful, profound and deeply successful process,” says Krasnostein, “in that it allowed us [descendants] to confront PresenTense Magazine is designed by Talina Design! who we were.” The success of the workshop is spreading. This December, Krasnostein will be sponsored by the Wiener Library to bring the 3GH workshop to London. She is also in conversation with the group created by Brooks to raise funds for a March workshop. “We hope to create a global network, to encourage a deep and honest ’working through’ of intergenerational effects of Holocaust trauma,” says Krasnostein. logos Stressing the importance of both communal ads and individual needs to reconcile a www.talinadesign.com devastating family history, the workshop postcards info@talinadesign.com serves as a powerful tool to collectively brochures 847.962.0425 work through participant issues related to

catalogs

society PresenTensemagazine.org

issue four 2008

21


features

Putting the Social back in socialism

responsible communities 2.0

Flo Low

Photos by Batsheva Moshe and Daniel Roth

W

hen newlyweds Batsheva and Shai Moshe were searching for a place to live, they weren’t looking for someplace quiet and isolated; instead, they wanted to settle somewhere that encouraged communal responsibility. Glancing through ads in a community newsletter, Batsheva happened across an advertisement for Garin Ometz, a young community in Acco. Though Shai had never been to the city, they jumped at the chance to spend Shabbat with families there. “We were so impressed by their ideals, by how much they believed in what they were doing, and how everything in their lives—even their incomes!—came from community-building activities. My eyes lit up—I wanted my life to be that way. By the end of Shabbat dinner, we knew we wanted to be here.” garin ometz—planting seeds of courage In 1997, a small group of young religious Zionists from all parts of Israel moved to Acco with a vision: to build a community that the residents of the region would be proud to be a part of. “The city of Acco was deteriorating,” explains Yishai Rubin, manager of the Garin seed-group. “Young people didn’t have any reason to stay here, and they were leaving in droves; there was a real lack of balance. We wanted to help make Acco a healthier and better place.” Settling in apartments throughout the city, members of the newly-formed Garin began initiating educational and social programs

22

issue four 2008

to infuse the community with quality services and young energy. They created programs for at-risk youth, sponsored communitywide gatherings and celebrations, and began bolstering local social services. These activities, they believed, would ensure that equal social and educational opportunities existed throughout Israel, and not just in the privileged urban areas of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and on established kibbutzim. “Our vision is to create cultural opportunities and better educational systems in order to change the periphery into a place that is attractive to young people and where locals want to stay,” says Rubin. And it is working. Today, the Garin includes 50 young families who conduct over 16 educational and social welfare programs for over 1,500 local residents. More importantly, because of the Garin, the city is growing. Children from the surrounding communities now commute to Acco to attend the local school, and 15 or 20 families with roots in the city have returned. “Creating community has saved the city,” reflects Rubin. “kehillot shachaf”—active social partnerships Garin Ometz is just one example of 50-80 similar “seed communities” in Israel today. Known locally as “Shachaf ” communities —a Hebrew acronym for Active Social Partnerships—their members integrate within existing infrastructure and partner with local forces to effect long-term social change. PresenTensemagazine.org features


“We emerged as a result of the conflicts,” relates Nomika Tzion, one of Migvan’s founders. “Troubled by the ills of capitalism, the failure of [the] welfare state, and gaps between the rich and poor, we are building a new model of human relations based on social solidarity.” Skepticism abounded. “My wife’s father, who came from a kibbutz of over 1,000 members, called us ‘the Ironic Kibbutz’ [a play on the Hebrew word for ‘Urban Kibbutz’],” remarks Nitai Schreiber, CEO and founder of Gvanim, the non-profit foundation that serves as the operating body for Migvan’s activities. “Now, his community no longer functions as a cooperative and is struggling for survival; we, on the other hand, are still proudly creating, persisting, and renewing ourselves and our community.” Today, Migvan includes ten member families and an additional five families who are part of the group but not kibbutz members. Gvanim operates over 35 local programs for toddlers, at-risk children and youth, immigrants, and people with disabilities. The programs employ 200 workers in partnership with the government, the private sector and other NGOs, benefitting over 2,000 local residents. Nomika attributes their success to an ‘ironic’ revolutionary aspect of their ideology: the emphasis on the individual. Unlike the traditional kibbutzim, which sacrificed individual needs for the sake of the collective, Migvan believes the individual is the primary locus of social change. “We give each person the support he or she needs to accomplish things they couldn’t do alone.” In addition,

“The goal is not to be separate, not to be on the outside, but to be a part of the local community,” clarifies Rubin. “The function of the group is to serve as the engine that creates change.” Amidst the raging social, political and ethnic gaps that characterize Israeli society, these small groups of motivated, idealistic young Israelis are creating vibrant, flourishing communities with an active civic culture. Working from within, they bolster what social theorists call “social capital,” a term for the trust and reciprocity that results from strong social networks. According to Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam, who catapulted social capital onto the policy agenda with his 2000 study, Bowling Alone, people living in communities with high degrees of social connectedness are likely to be happier, healthier, and have a longer life expectancy. In addition, communities with higher levels of social capital are likely to demonstrate higher local educational achievements, better performing government institutions, faster economic growth, and less crime and violence. Shachaf communities, therefore, may prove an invaluable model to community-minded citizens and policymakers worldwide. “the ironic kibbutz”—kibbutz migvan In 1987, ten years before Garin Ometz began recruitment, one of the first Shachaf communities in Israel began to take shape—the Urban Kibbutz Migvan. Six young graduates of Israel’s largest and most well-established kibbutzim arrived in the development town of Sderot to create something different. Nursed on the values of collective action and social responsibility, they felt that the kibbutz had diverged from its promise of social equality and only reinforced existing dichotomies of “strong” versus “weak,” and “us” versus “them.” Determined to correct this flaw, they moved to an urban area and developed a cooperative that works in partnership with residents of the city rather than in isolation. features PresenTensemagazine.org

A small group of young religious Zionists from all parts of Israel moved to Acco with a vision: to build a community that the residents of the region would be proud to be a part of. members of Migvan are committed to remaining much smaller than the kibbutzim from which they came, which they believe is fundamental to sustaining a lifestyle based on true partnership. next steps: creating a network of social change “Something very serious is happening here,” maintains Nomika. “Young people today are looking for new models, based on social activism and involvement. I don’t think this is a passing trend, but an evolving phenomenon with the capacity to revolutionize Israeli society.” The next step, already in process, is to link the communities to a national network, sharing resources and attracting additional Israeli, Jewish and international partners. Such a network will facilitate the exchange of ideas between Shachaf communities, improving the efforts within each community and enabling new groups of young, motivated individuals to replicate their success. The extent of the trend is unpredictable, but its nascent success is promising. Flo Low is writing her MA thesis on Kehillot Shachaf at the Federmann School of Public Policy and Government at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A graduate of Barnard and JTS and an officer in the IDF, she dreams of joining a Garin in the future. issue four 2008

23


Not Just a History Lesson

rejewvenation of the lower east side

Miriam Bader Photos by Avital Aronowitz

A

sk a random Jewish tourist about the Lower East Side (LES) and you are likely to hear about a historic community, built on cobblestone and filled with the noisy haggling of pushcart vendors and Yiddish chatter. Many mistakenly presume that the Jewish Lower East Side community died almost a hundred years ago with the mass Jewish exodus to Brooklyn and upper Manhattan suburbs. The complete story of this unique community does include its growth and decline from the late 18th to the early 20th century, but contrary to common belief, it doesn’t stop there. Along with the powerful memories of past lore is a tale of a contemporary Jewish community continuing to redefine itself. Evidence of these facts exists in the recent establishment of the grassroots Committee for the Jewish Lower East Side. The group strives to reinvigorate the neighborhood’s observant Jewish presence by attracting new residents and assisting newcomers with the apartment search, along with sharing information about the varied Jewish communal events thriving within the LES’s streets. This is just one small example of how the community aims to bring new life to the neighborhood and provide young Jews with something more than just a history lesson. David Kelsey of Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery, home of the World’s Finest Knish, sheds light on the confusion experienced by visitors who presume the Jewish Lower East Side lives purely as a historic vestige. “Sometimes we are treated like a museum. That’s what people think of when they think Yiddish… But we are not a museum. This is living Yiddish culture.” Today people still value a tasty traditional treat, and Schimmel’s keeps its head above water by giving people what they want. One hint to the changing

24

issue four 2008

of the times, however, can be found on his menu: Along with the traditional Eastern European potato and kasha knish, today a cheese and jalapeno variety is available, influenced by the growing taste for Mexican food throughout New York City. The Educational Alliance (EA), another century old Jewish institution, continues its tradition of service to the downtown neighborhood. Originally opened as a settlement house and agent of assimilation for Eastern European Jews, the EA provided tools for the newcomers to establish themselves as Americans, such as English and dance classes. Today, its involvement with Jewish life aims to invigorate Jewish culture, hoping to attract urban Jews back to their roots. At “Menorah Horah,” one of the many programs sponsored by the EA, attendants sing and dance with the who’s who of Jews on the cabaret scene as they celebrate the Chanukah miracle. The popular event harkens back to and acknowledges the tradition of Jewish theater born on the LES a century ago, while providing a contemporary and relevant Jewish spin for its packed audience.

Along with the Lower East Side’s powerful memories of past lore is a tale of a contemporary Jewish community continuing to redefine itself. PresenTensemagazine.org features


“Sometimes we are treated like a museum. That’s what people think of when they think Yiddish…But we are not a museum. This is living Yiddish culture.”

The Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy is another example of the reinvigoration of Jewish life on the LES, as well as its memorialization. The organization works towards the preservation of the historic LES synagogues and provides unique tours of its sacred sites, shedding light on the worshipping Jewish communities of the past and present. Of the over 400 synagogues that originally existed in the area, it points out those that flourished, those that were abandoned or converted, and those whose doors have remained open, testifying to the neighborhood’s evolution. Eldridge Street Synagogue, the first great house of worship built on the LES in 1887 to rave reviews, has recently been restored to its former splendor after decades of decay. During its glory days, thousands participated in religious services, including the artist Ben Shahn, performer Eddie Cantor, and scientist Jonas Salk. Today, the highly decorative Moorish-style synagogue is not only home to prayer services, but also to the newly created Museum at Eldridge Street, which utilizes this powerful setting to house programs exploring cultural continuity and change. At the annual “Egg Rolls and Egg Creams Block Party,” Azhkenazic and Chinese culture interface to commemorate the long history of both groups’ overlap and coexistence in the neighborhood. The festival sets the stage for contemporary New Yorkers to experience the music, dance, storytelling, folk art—and of course the food—of both cultural groups, giving tribute to their vibrant life in the LES. Nearby on Stanton Street standsone of the last functioning tenement synagogues. Built in 1914, thirteen years after its founding by Eastern European Jews, Congregation Bnai Jacob Anschei Brzezan, known today simply as the Stanton Street Shul, is home to a diverse Jewish congregation. It claims an Open Orthodox philosophy, welcoming all Jews. The shul’s Facebook page, the existence of which testifies to the type of community they’re hoping to draw, describes it as a place where “The Hip Meets The Hip Replacement!” As it continues to reinvent itself as a community synagogue, Stanton Street is attracting younger Jewish families and increasing its membership. For the first time in years, children can be seen running through its hallways during Sabbath services. The Jewish LES draws myriads of tourists daily. My own fascination with the LES began with its history, when my first grade teacher introduced Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family. I can still hear her voice reading the tales of the five mischievous sisters living in Manhattan’s LES at the turn of the 20th century. “The East Side was not pretty,” Taylor describes, but it was filled with fabulous urban adventures that I never could imagine experiencing myself as a young girl growing up in clipped and clean suburbia. That sort of life could only take place in the most densely populated area of New York and the largest Jewish community in the world. The stark contrast of most contemporary Jews’ ordered suburban lifestyles to the urban reality and congestion of the historic LES fosters a fascination with the neighborhood, leading to preservation efforts and growing tourist numbers. People come to explore their roots, to buy sour pickles from barrels, and marvel at age-old architecture. But the present area isn’t only a tribute to its own illustrious past. Jews indeed continue to eat, pray, perform, and live on the streets of the LES. The dynamic nature of the LES facilitates the mingling of old and new. For many, the combination of old world and contemporary life is compelling. For others, the neighborhood’s immense popularity, gentrification, and memorialization facilitate its demise. Some of the scenes often frustrating to residents are the tourist groups crowding street corners gesturing wildly at building facades, long lines at neighborhood eateries, and the constant snapping of digital cameras at every turn. Not to mention that the neighborhood’s hipness drives real estate values higher, causing many long time Jewish residents to sell their apartments for a profit. Only 20 out of over 400 synagogues that thrived a century ago still exist. According to one longtime resident, “Even God left the East Side for suburbia.” This point remains to be debated. For the present-day community that continues to make its home on the streets of the LES, Jewish life is not only a tribute to the neighborhood’s history, but also represents its transformation. The complex relationship between preservation efforts and revitalization speaks to the precarious line that the Jewish Lower East Side walks between inadvertently creating a kitschy attraction while striving to remain a dynamic, living neighborhood. Miriam Bader is a museum educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. issue four 2008

25


the lein in spain

a glimpse of life in the new sefarad

Stacey Menchel

Photo by Stacey Menchel

I

t was a breezy June evening in Madrid’s Plaza de Oriente, the public garden area in front of the Spanish Royal Palace. The crowd, a densely-packed group of three-hundred people, clapped their hands to the sinuous rhythm of the Ladino melody. Cheering began and a group of women formed a dancing circle, a whirlpool of bodies pulling the crowd inside to spin and twirl in Jewish folk dancing—a spectacle loaded with sadness, defiance, and forgiveness, epitomizing so much change. Sefarad, Hebrew for Spain, is the birthplace of Sephardic culture. The grand Jewish history of Spain includes Maimonides, Kabbalah, Yehuda Ben Levi, and a peaceful coexistence under Muslim rule. Yet Spain is also the site of infamous Jewish tragedy. The Inquisition and later expulsion of Iberian Jews in 1492 is a universal symbol of genocide, and an event that forever changed the demographics of Mediterranean civilization. In light of this ambivalent history, it is fascinating that the modern Spanish Jewish community, based primarily in Spain’s two biggest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, has doubled in size in the past twenty years and continues to grow. While the numbers are dwarfed in comparison to the American Jewish community (48,000 people nationwide, maintains the Federación de Comunidades Judías de Espaňa) the renewal of Spanish Jewish culture, in a land known for religious repression, is a remarkable event. The modern Spanish Jewish experience is something altogether new, a hybrid of Sephardic past with a multicultural Jewish future.

26

issue four 2008

Jewish renewal in Spain began in the late 1950s with an influx of Moroccan Jews escaping the violence of the Moroccan War of Independence, followed by Jewish immigrants, primarily from Argentina, settling in Spain throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The most recent wave of Jewish immigrants have come in the last ten years from both South America and Israel, fleeing financial collapse or political instability. “First the Moroccans came, then the Argentineans, and now it’s the Venezuelans and the Israelis,” explained Rabbi Ruben Sternschein. “Spain has turned into this Jewish melting pot, and we’re continuing to diversify.” Isaac Querub embodies the modern Spanish Jew. Clad in white leather Adidas sneakers, a colorful t-shirt, and European-tight jeans, he is the Spanish playboy. A Madrid native, he lives up late-night street parties and revels in an afternoon siesta nap. Isaac is also an active member of Madrid’s Jewish community. His parents are among the “originals,” Moroccan immigrants who laid the foundation for Madrid’s Jewish institutions. Tall and slender with light, curly brown hair and blue eyes, he claims that his blondish coloring (rubio in Spanish) was a gift from his Ashkenazi mother. His Moroccan father was responsible for his surname—Querub, a word related to querubim, Ladino for small angels. The Querubs are considered tradicional by Madrid standards. They observe Shabbat, with occasional driving. (There are few synagogues located in the city residential areas, so it is common for many to drive PresenTensemagazine.org features


to services). They keep kashrut, except for Papa Querub who has a penchant for chorizo. Still, everything Jewish in Madrid has a Spanish twist. Friday dinner begins with local olives, wine, and gazpacho. The Querub children—in their late twenties and early thirties—live at home and will do so until marriage, a super-Castilian custom. While in many ways Isaac blends in perfectly with the colorful Madrid landscape, his support for Israel places him in a minority. Spain has historically aligned with Arab countries on political matters, and the Spanish press is notorious for Israel-bashing. Most Spaniards, separated for five centuries from contact with active Jewish culture, have never met Jews. Their ignorance can result in confusion about Jewish culture and Israeli politics, and often foments anti-Semitism.

“First the Moroccans came, then the Argentineans, and now it’s the Venezuelans and the Israelis. Spain has turned into this Jewish melting pot, and we’re continuing to diversify.” Minority status aside, modern Spain has provided a good home for Jewish culture. The death of Francisco Franco, the suppressive fascist dictator, in 1975 coincided with increased Jewish immigration. What emerged was a democratic, religiously tolerant Spain interested in redefining its past. While the country provides room for the Jewish community—supporting educational initiatives and the restoration of historic sites—at times the Spanish Jewish community does not provide enough space for its own diversity. The merging of Latin Reform Ashkenazi, Sephardic Orthodox Moroccan, and secular Israeli traditions has created a Jewish culture shock, and significant internal tensions have emerged. “It’s a blessing that we have diversity because it shows we’re sophisticated,” states Rabbi Sternschien, the founding rabbi of ATID, the first Reform Congregation of Barcelona. “However, it’s also a curse. It divides us, and in a community [this small] that can be devastating.” ATID, Hebrew for future, was formed in 1992 after a break with the CIB (Comunitat Israelita de Barcelona) the city’s original Orthodox synagogue. “They [the CIB] consider us goys,” laughed Victor Sorrenson, ATID’s youth program director, “but we’re just from a different culture. Our parents’ Judaism, from Argentina and Latin America, is pluralistic and much less observant. Many of those in the CIB are very insular. They maintain their Moroccan customs and don’t try to open themselves to the rest of the community—even worse, to the rest of the world.” What is consistent throughout the community is the effect of Barcelona on Jewish culture. Barcelona, the largest city in Catalonia, is an artistic, industrious city that maintains levels of political and economic autonomy from the Spanish nation. The CIB synagogue has various paintings that blend Catalonian and Jewish styles, including paintings of menorahs in the surrealistic style of Joan Miró. ATID congregants even have dreadlocks, play guitar and drums in their features PresenTensemagazine.org

services, and hand-roll cigarettes at post-Shabbat parties, displaying the funkiness of Barcelona youth. “We’re a bit rebellious,” says Sorrenson. “We’re doing our own thing here as a reform movement, and that is, in many ways, very Catalonian. Catalonia has its separation from Spain. I think, being a Jew in Barcelona, you can’t help but want your own form of separation. Barcelonan identity seeps into your skin.” Madrid, blessed with the excellent leadership of Jacob Israel Garzon, manages to keep things more unified than Barcelona does. Garzon organizes a community board with representatives of all the city’s denominations to help navigate tensions and promote understanding. “We try to provide the minimum Jewish experience for all levels and types,” explains Garzon. “We have a few synagogues, a Jewish school, and a kosher butcher shop. But the interpretation of how to do things ‘right’ will always vary. We just to try keep things adjustable, so that the community can move forward.” Regardless of internal divisions, Spanish Jews come together to promote renewal and growth in the new Sefarad. Working with nonJews in the Spanish community, Spanish Jews demonstrate their support for Israel, educate about Jewish and Israeli culture, and commemorate their glorious Spanish past. While Sephardic Jews connect to the land of their roots, all types of Spanish Jews are proud of their emerging culture. ATID member Maaian Zelman explains, “Even though I’m Ashkenazi, I’m proud of the [Spanish Jewish] community. It’s very young, but it’s growing. It is an exciting time to be here.” The re-growth of Spanish Judaism and the development of a neoSephardic culture exhibits how much national identity shapes Jewish expression. It demonstrates Jewish survival—and evolution. As the concert continued and the cadence grew stronger at the Plaza de Oriente, more and more people circled around and clapped their hands to the violin, clarinet, and tambourine. The conductor changed to a klezmer tune, and a woman from the group grabbed my hands, pulling me into the dizzying dance. Jewish dancing on the site of the Inquisition! It was truly thrilling. Not only did the concert celebrate Jewish history, it was also making it. Stacey Menchel received her Master’s degree in European and Mediterranean Studies from New York University. Her research examines identity and renewal in the modern Jewish communities of Spain. Her interests include Jewish multiculturalism, European/Islamic relations, and the performing arts.

Photo by Ruth Lozano issue four 2008

27


large knit kippas and flowy skirts not required

neo-soul hippie culture in israel

I

Photo by Jonathan Kahn

28

issue four 2008

Alex Margolin

t was raining in the Old City on Friday night and the Western Wall plaza was empty—except for the members of Ezra Amichai’s minyan, or prayer group, who took advantage of the inclement weather to turn the holy place into the shul of their dreams. What began as a small gathering of people with a taste for singing, dancing, and exuberant prayer quickly grew in ways no one expected. One after another, crowds began to appear. First a birthright group from Australia showed up, and then another from America. A short while later, a crowd of Israeli soldiers came looking for a minyan and decided to join in as well. “By then it seemed like there were a hundred people dancing with us in the rain. Israelis, Americans, Australians, the hippie Bat Ayin crowd in our minyan,” Amichai recalled. “And then, to top it off, my friend shows up with a group of Sikhs he’d been showing around the city. All of the sudden I look to my left and there are 30 men in long white robes, and they all joined us, dancing all together.” Amichai said the minyan that night demonstrated a key value for him and his community—the need to remain open to the world. “We can learn from everyone. The world is a beautiful place,” he said. “But we need to be strong in ourselves, in what we’re doing, so that we really can be a light to the nations.” It is a role Amichai had been playing since college, when he discovered the Carlebach shul, or synagogue, in New York. Soon he was organizing Friday night meals for students from the minyan. A few years later, in Israel, he began hosting wildly popular Shabbat meals at his home, attracting dozens of people each week for his unique community experience. Eventually, he expanded his activities, opening the Jerusalem Soul Center two years ago. The center runs events on Shabbat and holidays for people looking to deepen their relationship to Judaism. It is one of a growing number of institutions associated with Israel’s “neo-soul” culture—a loose collective of people and communities bound by a burning desire to connect to traditional Judaism on a deep spiritual level. The culture contains people of all ages and backgrounds and touches many communities, including the Bat Ayin yeshiva [Torah study center], Moshav—or cooperative village—Mevo Modiin, and Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood, which is home to numerous intersecting neo-soul communities. Nachlaot’s central location and bohemian atmosphere make it attractive to artists, students, and spiritual seekers. It also hosts Simchat Shlomo and Sulam Yaacov yeshivas, and minyanim such as Kol Rina, Va’ani Tefilla, and Mayanot. Every community has distinctive elements, but the neo-soul culture is generally marked by an emphasis on spiritual searching, particularly through Hassidut; expressive, joyful prayer with lots of singing and dancing; openness to the wisdom of the world; adherence to traditional, halachic [Jewish legal] practices; creativity; and struggling with the boundaries between the holy and the secular. The culture is also welcoming to non-religious people and people from other religious movements who want a more soulful way to connect to Jewish ritual and prayer. “You show up and everyone accepts you,” said Amihai Zippor, a Jerusalem resident who moved to Israel in 1999. “It’s very inviting, and the prayer services are just so different from what you would get in a typical American Jewish setting.” The open environment is particularly attractive to people in transition, those discovering traditional Judaism for the first time, and those experimenting PresenTensemagazine.org features


neo-soul cultur e h e is T by an em d e k r pha generally ma rching, particula sis on spiritual a e s rly t e ; x t p u r d e i s s sive hrough Has ts of singing , joyful prayer o l h t wi and t o s s t e h dancing; n e n wis ope d ld; adherence to om of the r o w ic [Jewish le traditional, h c a l gal ha ] pra a ; n y t d i v i s t t a r ctices; u e ggl cr i n s e i b etwe ndar en g with the bou the ecular. s holy and e th with different life paths. As a result, many neo-soul communities are transient. “There is not one central idea we’re all following,” said Shaul Judelman, a teacher at Simchat Shlomo in Nachlaot. “What holds us together is where we’ve decided to look for answers. We’re looking— together—in the Torah, in the Jewish people, in the present moment, in what’s going on in the world. “I don’t have to say something isn’t truth because I didn’t find it in the Torah,” he added. “But I feel the Jewish tradition is alive in my search for truth.” Judelman said the high level of acceptance in the culture can be traced back to the teachings of Shlomo Carlebach, the singing rabbi who helped establish Moshav Modiin and whose spirit—and melodies—permeates across the neo-soul communities. Carlebach passed away thirteen years ago, but the many people he influenced in his life continue to spread his legacy. “Carlebach shuls,” known for joyous, expressive singing and dancing, have sprouted across the Jewish world. His stories and teachings, with references to Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and the Ishbitzer Rebbe, helped bring those Hassidic traditions to a new generation. “Shlomo is still the number-one giver of the message people need to hear,” Judelman said. “That no matter where you are, you are a Jew and there is a place for you in the community of Am Yisrael.” The writings of Rebbe Nachman, a 19th century Hassidic master, also strongly influence neo-soul culture. The appeal, according to Bat Ayin yeshiva founder Rabbi Natan Greenberg, is Rebbe Nachman’s relevance to contemporary life. “He wrote about issues of personal loneliness, the breakdown of the community, tremendous wealth and how to deal with it, the deterioration of morality,” Rabbi Greenberg said. “To me, these issues feel modern and post-modern.” Rabbi Greenberg describes Bat Ayin as a place for people looking for a personal spiritual pathway that is expansive and not insular. “The world needs a place that will teach Judaism rooted in the Hassidic teachings of Avodat Hashem [serving God] and seeing God’s presence features PresenTensemagazine.org

Photo by Markus Wagner

everywhere but also in the Rav Kookian idea of being in an era of redemption,” he said. For Bat Ayin alumnus Ezra Amichai, the neo-soul outlook helps infuse his Jerusalem Soul Center events with a powerful energy. “The combination of the Hassidic side and the modern side—nothing like that existed before,” he said. “There is a real demand for an open, religious, spiritual environment.” Alex Margolin is a writer in Jerusalem and a blogger at www.Spreadingthenews.wordpress.com. issue four 2008

29


get off my blog

meet-ups and the modern jew

Leah Jones

I like you. :) Photo provided by Tamara Eden

I

n April 2006, Tamara Eden wrote a short post on her two-year old blog about the failures of her Jewish education. Avi, a Canadian blogger who was studying for conversion, left a comment which turned into a long conversation about education, prayer, and spirituality. Comments led to phone calls, which led to vacations in Canada and Los Angeles and in the fall of 2007, the two bloggers married. “My online and my offline life are one and the same,” said Tamara Eden, “I met my husband via my blog—that’s about as ‘one and the same’ as you can get.” Tamara and Avi, who now both write at JewsByChoice.org (where I occasionally guest post), may have met through their blogs, but there are still plenty of people who find being online and Jewish incompatible or expect the Internet to be an alienating place. In 2005, Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications surveyed Internet users and found that while the majority thought it improved life, over 50% of the respondents said they felt the Internet is weakening interpersonal relationships. Psychologist Daniel Goleman often writes about cyber-disinhibition and the risks of communication that is not face-to-face, but face-to-computer. During face-to-face interactions, asserts Goleman in his book Social Intelligence, we have the benefit of reading

30

issue four 2008

social cues from body language and can adjust to subtle communications. “We are wired to connect,” Goleman says. “Neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person. That neural bridge lets us affect the brain—and so the body—of everyone we interact with, just as they do us.” But without another person to connect to, does the Internet alienate us from each other? And if the Jewish community has classically been based around central texts studied in small, cohesive but dispersed communities, is the Internet the antithesis of Jewish tradition? not a new conversation The Jewish press has been talking about the effect of the Internet on the Jewish community for years. The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California quoted Rabbi Don Weber of Temple Rodeph Torah in 2000 as saying, “For all the talk about its impact, the Internet hasn’t changed basic Jewish institutions.” However, in his Yom Kippur sermon in 2007, Rabbi Weber offered to pay for six-month memberships to JDate for single congregants. Asked if this signaled a change of mind, Rabbi Weber said, “Actually, no. One of the people in the original article said we are communicating more, but not better; I think that is still true. In all my work with hundreds

of college students and 20- and 30-somethings, I have not heard of even one who feels their Jewish community is located online.” “That said,” Weber continued, “I think online communities are an excellent opportunity for people to meet in preparation for meeting in person. That’s the value of JDate, in that it allows people with common interests to find each other more easily. But JDate works specifically because it leads to people meeting.” Rachel Luxemburg, a blogger at The Jew and The Carrot (jcarrot.org), remembers a Jewish singles chat room on AOL in the early 90s—she formed friendships with women and men, and even met her husband through the room at one offline gathering in New York. Over 10 years later, Luxemburg does not consider herself a formal member of any online Jewish community, and stresses the importance of having a synagogue as a focal point for the Jewish community. “Unless extreme physical or geographic hardship intervened, would you consider davening in front of your PC to be any kind of replacement for going to shul? I know I wouldn’t.” Still, she makes a point of reading Jewish blogs. “It helps me feel more connected to Klal Yisrael [the Jewish People] at a time when I don’t have a formal synagogue affiliation.” Blogging isn’t just for students and lay leaders; blogging rabbis have also met readers and bloggers in person. Eric Eisenkramer,

from The Fly Fishing Rabbi, has tapped into a niche of Jews that are interested in fly fishing and makes introductions between readers that share the same hobby and geography. “I have been able to put people in touch with PresenTensemagazine.org features


one another who want to fish in Israel, and learned about a small but vibrant community of Israeli Jews who love to cast a fly.” Rabbinical student Rachel Barenblat began blogging to connect with other Jews and other people of faith online. “I wanted a space where I could meditate aloud on Jewish subjects of interest to me, and could do so in conversation. Velveteen Rabbi [her blog] has offered me that and much more.” Some Jewish bloggers are also getting together for group meet-ups similar to those often seen in tech circles. In spring 2007, when a PresenTense editor came to town, I was charged with organizing a welcome dinner. I put up a blog post and the Jewish bloggers—including bloggers from Frumhouse on the Prairie and Everyone Needs Therapy, fellow PresenTense writer Matthue Roth, local arts organizer and blogger Adam Davis and occasional blogger Jon Shalvi—quickly arranged to meet at a

with Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Beach Hillel, the Hillel for the University of California, Long Beach. This February in Long Beach, Rabbi Yonah and the team at Jewlicious are looking to welcome over 700 young Jews to Jewlicious 4.0, the fourth annual three-day festival of “Jewnity,” in an exploration of Jewish life, tradition and culture. The growth of the Jewlicious Festivals has been staggering. In 2007, over 500 Jews from all streams spent the weekend together. “Jewlicious Festivals are organized online and peer-topeer, at meetings, and events too,” said Rabbi Yonah. “There are many ways that students use Jewlicious to help them broaden their Jewish community and find new friends, and strengthen bonds with long time friends.” When asked how the Internet was changing things at his Hillel, Rabbi Yonah said, “The effect on students is very positive, absolutely a force for growth. We use the

“The Torah says ‘choose life.’ I say choose a full, enriching, multidimensional human community life with living, breathing, sweating, human beings.” small kosher restaurant, illustrating that the diversity of the Jewish blogosphere can build bridges between Jews living very different lives. About the dinner, Everyone Needs Therapy’s Therapydoc wrote, “I’d like to think we’re all in it to bridge differences and forget about them. The divisive thing has to go in Judaism, and maybe blogging can be a way of accomplishing that.” more than dinner Online communities are also beginning to bring together hundreds of Jews who don’t blog and maybe barely identify as Jewish. Jewlicious.com is a popular group blog that works with birthright israel to host buses for young Jews on their first trip to Israel. Jewlicious writers have also been working

Internet to communicate, build community, and students use it to plan Shabbat dinners, social events, and for activism, all in a Jewish context. One could say that people replace real contact with Internet contact. However, our experience is just the opposite.” One example of this fusion of Internet and real life is Eli Winkelman. Winkelman is the founder of Challah for Hunger, a student group with two challah-baking chapters that have raised over $30,000 to support hunger relief in places like Darfur. She is also a Jewlicious veteran who parlayed her success into participation in the ROI Global Summit for Jewish Innovation and became a fellow at the PresenTense Institute for Creative Zionism last summer. “PICZ brought people together,” Winkelman said of her summer at the sister organization of this magazine, “and there were days when we all sat around at our computers working on our own projects, but we could still glance up and smile at each other. I think smiles are underrated.” “utterly incompatible” This summer, McGill University Professor Gil Troy said to a summit of 120 young Jewish innovators, “the Internet and Judaism are utterly incompatible.” Most bloggers wouldn’t

features PresenTensemagazine.org

agree. “The Internet has no moral valance,” Barenblat says. “It’s a tool which can be used for connection and communication and community-building, all of which strike me as profoundly Jewish values.” “The acts that make one Jewish can’t happen online,” said Jon Shalvi, who doesn’t consider himself a member of any online community. “You can’t daven online, you can’t have a minyan. For those who feel very strongly about their Jewish identity but live in a largely non-Jewish society, the Internet is a panoply of resources and community-building opportunities. The Internet fills the gaps that ‘brick-and-mortar’ Jewish institutions cannot fill.” “As Jewish thought evolves to embrace the medium of the times, the Internet is the new medium for the scribe,” Alan Wilensky, a Silicon Valley blogger, added, citing Aish HaTorah, Chabad.org, and JDate as examples. Dr. Troy defended his position. “Let’s face it,” he said. “Judaism and the Internet are incompatible in many ways. What I meant— and still mean—is that much of Judaism is built around face-to-face real-time in-person relationships. Much of the Internet is about individuation and about partial, scripted, fragmented interactions, rather than the multidimensionality of human interactions in a community of people who get together regularly and, quite literally, ritually. “The Torah says in VaYikrah or Leviticus, u’vaharta bahayyim, that is, ‘choose life’,” Dr. Troy explained. “I say choose a full, enriching, multidimensional human community life with living, breathing, sweating, human beings.” Moreover, he said, for the ROI audience of Jews in their 20s and 30s, “I wanted to challenge what I see as a trend to replace much of traditional Jewish life with online interactions, which I argue are often (not always) less satisfying.” Leah Jones is a Chicago-based writer, blogger and coffee drinker who has been meeting Internet friends offline since 1994. Her blog, Accidentally Jewish, is a resource for people considering conversion or in need of a laugh. issue four 2008

31


32

William Levin (Ben Baruch) is known as The Jewish Robot. issue four 2008

PresenTensemagazine.org PresenTensemagazine.org contents features


Wandersurfing in the Online Shtetl jews and social media

Jerry Silverman Illustration by Hillel Smith

W

ithin the last year, I’ve had to disable most of my Facebook e-mail notifications in order to avoid the glut of all the Jewish group invitations. The Say-Tehillim-ForMy-Sick-Pet-Gerbil groups. The I-Went-To-Salt-LakeCity-Community-College-Hillel-In-December-1976 groups. The Neighborhood-Shul-Bulletin-For-ThoseWho-Don’t-Have-Patience-To-Navigate-Our-OfficialBut-Poorly-Designed-Website groups. And yet my Inbox hasn’t received a single invitation to join any of the “Jewishly-branded” social networking sites, the JewTubes, the WebYeshiva’s, the Shmooze.com’s. Everyone seems to be migrating away from their own self-contained, privately-hosted domains and charging full-speed-ahead into the “cloud” of remote wireless data accessibility, entrusting larger and larger amounts of sensitive information to social network hosting companies by “accepting” their Terms of Use and Privacy Policies without even reading them. While it seems that Western society has begun transitioning its vast knowledge and communications base into the cloud with boundless, even reckless enthusiasm, there seems a lack of Jewish specificity. Why hasn’t the proprietary, “keep it in the family” mentality of the Jewish community led to a coagulation into a viable, independent, parallel presence online? Why have all the exciting, relevant Jewish groups migrated to hot “secular” social networking sites instead of setting up their own meticulously-guarded “shtetls” out on the periphery? Does Facebook (for example) provide something more fundamental to the contemporary human experience, so we can continue our supposed “identification” with the rest of humanity? Are we just instinctively turned-off by the thought of submitting our organic, ever-changing online social identities to the exclusionary, self-referential claustrophobia of another online Jewish shtetl? Or is free, professionallydeveloped software just easier and more intuitive to use than trying to design and maintain our own complex interactivity from scratch?

Even before the technology age, we’ve always been people of the cloud. According to the Torah, in the times of our wanderings in the desert, a cloud appeared during the day (and was replaced by fire at night) to lead us in our journeys. It pretty much represented the same thing that our new cloud represents: omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence. It mysteriously sheltered us, we followed it, and sustenance rained from it. We could access its Host remotely with the Tabernacle of the Ark of Moses, perhaps the world’s first smartphone (or as one of my editors suggested, the TabernacleBerry), whose connectivity seemed to dissipate once it got settled in one place (Jerusalem) and stopped moving. Jews have always had an insatiable collective wanderlust, which is why our online Jewish social groups can’t settle in one

because a poem

Carly Sachs

features PresenTensemagazine.org

Because these words existed before they could fill our mouths Because our parents said them and our grandparents and greatgrandparents because they echo until they shed their meaning becoming syllables of ember, lit matches winging to yartzeit candles. Because Warsaw, Because we slam doors on those we love Because the floor boards creak as we walk room to room because someone knows where we are, where we belong. Because months, because fire, because sweets, because crumbs, because holes, because seeds, because we are born to repeat and they are born to tune out until it is the voice of memory and her hands stitching a loop: because I love you, because I said so, because I love you, I love you, I love you Carly Sachs is an Arts Fellow at the Drisha Institute. Her first book of poems, the steam sequence, won the 2006 Washington Writers’ Publishing House book prize. issue four 2008

33


place for two seconds without morphing into something completely unrecognizable from last week. Those really were the Jewish glory days—not during Temple times or any of that Tanach-type stuff—but

WHY have all the exciting, relevant Jewish groups migrated to hot “secular” social networking sites instead of setting up their own meticulously-guarded "shtetls" out on the periphery?!

34

issue four 2008

those Tabernacular days, wandering in the desert, never settling in one place for too long. All our holidays are centered on that period, and while the vast majority of the canonic prayer literature refers to Jerusalem and the Temple, our love for change and for getting things going, is what kept us moving. With the Tabernacle, the real godliness wasn’t about abstract omniscience; it was about creating the space for a holistic embodiment of the sublime in our world. As today, our world becomes more diversified YET more unified through technology, a strange paradox emerges. We are more disparate and disconnected, yet more interconnected. Even as we pray and yearn for a unified place of settlement for God, our lives are spent obsessing about finding new places for God to dwell. And none of those places seem good enough, for long enough. Facebook is already over. MySpace has been over for years. YouTube, let’s not even talk about. For a nation of wandering Jews, the Tabernacle moves on and on... Jerry Silverman is a wandering Jew who currently does Web Solutions Engineering. His tent is pitched in Riverdale, NY with his wife Sarah and their two children.

PresenTensemagazine.org contents


Walking the Talk

trekking for the kids

Flo Low

Photo provided by Bradley Cohen

U

pon meeting Bradley Cohen— who only recently arrived for an extended stay in Israel after extensive travels throughout Japan, Nepal, India and Africa—it’s hard not to think of the familiar fable of the traveler who journeyed far beyond his village, only to discover treasure in his own backyard. The founder of All for the Kids, an initiative that aims to break the cycle of poverty, disease and other problems resulting from a lack of education and resources, Bradley has extensive experience working with vulnerable populations and disadvantaged youth throughout the world, most notably in Bihar, India and in Malawi, Africa. But he only recently re-located to Israel, where he immediately set out to put his vast experience working with youth and his newfound passion for Judaism to good use. “When I arrived in Israel I was saddened to find that, as in all countries, there is deep features PresenTensemagazine.org

poverty and other problems related to the developed world, such as familial abuse resulting from alcohol and drug use,” Bradley explains. He realized that his extensive experience gave him the insight necessary to make a real difference. “It’s very easy to talk about giving to children when they are just random children. They all have dreams—as children do—but they have no chance to fulfill them, which is quite sad when you know them each by name and you know who they are and what they want to dream they will do.” An avid trekker, Bradley’s first project is a trek across Israel to raise awareness and funds to the plight of disadvantaged youth. Beginning March 25th, he and friend Rob Oyen will begin the grueling trek in the north, journeying southward along the Israel Trail. Their goal is to reach Jerusalem and cross into the desert for the start of Pesach, completing the entire path within 40 days. To do so, they

will have to hike 15 miles (or 7-10 hours) each day, carrying 33 pounds of supplies each, including water, clothing, and tents. As for the challenge, it was an easy choice. “I have always wanted to walk across a land that is rich in culture, historical adventures and natural beauty,” explains Bradley. Plus, he sees the added value of the project in perpetuating an alternative and positive image of Israel. The funds they raise will benefit Beit HaYeled and The Forgotten People Fund in Israel and the Kuunika Foundation, with which Bradley worked in Malawi. These are all smaller-scale projects that seek to address the source of the problems facing disadvantaged youth, creating sustainable solutions within the community and helping the children become valuable members of society. In addition, a pillar of All for the Kids is the lack of overhead—all the money he raises will go directly to help the kids. “I want to reach out and improve the quality of life of youth in Israel and instill inspiration and hope into their lives, with the hope that in the future, those who have benefited from this project will create their own projects and give back to the community, as well.” For more information about All For the Kids and its beneficiaries, and to support Bradley’s first trek: visit www.allforthekids.org. Flo Low, a Jerusalem-based writer, frequently treks the holy urban metropolis but has yet to tackle the Israel Trail. issue four 2008

35


It Takes a Village

tiferet artists’ colony hits cleveland

Benjamin Muller and Matthew Ackerman Photo provided by Yakov Travis

C

leveland, Ohio has been known for baseball futility and urban decay, but now one American rabbi wants to make it a center of Jewish spiritual renewal. Many Americans have long been enticed by the prospect of creating ideal spiritual communities. Whether as notable participants in experiments like Esalen, the California New Age collective known for naked massage and radical religious experimentation, or as builders of black-hat fundamentalist enclaves, Jews have been influential in these efforts for decades. Tiferet Village, a Cleveland Heights-based community housed (for the moment) mostly in the mind of its founder, Rabbi Yakov Travis, is a recent stab at creating a free-form spiritual commune. Travis received his ordination in Israel and his PhD from Brandeis, where he focused on Kabbalistic thought. When he talks about Tiferet Village, he draws on his studies in Kabbalah to explain the cornerstone of the community’s existence and says his vision of the community is embodied in its name, which means splendor. He calls participants “cultural creatives,” by which he says he means people who embrace a “universally applicable spirituality.” The community’s intended core is a study hall for daily learning in Jewish texts. Travis hopes to emphasize an open approach to

different types of study methods and that Tiferet Village residents will share a three-fold commitment to textual study, participation in a communal environment conducive to spiritual expression, and some form of social activism. While the group’s website notes that it is still searching around the country for a home, it has for now settled on Cleveland Heights, a choice that seems based at least equally on its proximity to Siegal College (where Travis is a professor) as to the livability and affordability of the area. For now, Tiferet Village has not yet settled on a permanent home, but it seems clear that it intends to acquire a physical space for the focus of its aspirations. If Tiferet Village is different from the mostly-failed American communal experiments of the 1960s and 1970s it is in its insistence on its Jewishness. It shares with those prior groups a belief in each individual’s absolute freedom but also seeks to maintain what it calls a commitment to “the rhythms and practices of Jewish spiritual wisdom.” That the idea has gained any degree of momentum is probably best seen as one more sign of the longing for truth, spirituality, and community felt by many young American Jews and their sense that established Jewish institutions don’t or can’t meet that felt need. Benjamin Muller serves on the board of the Columbia Bayit, a Jewish student cooperative attached to the university. Ben is from Antwerp, Belgium and lives in New York City. Matthew Ackerman received a Master’s degree from the graduate school of the Jewish Theological Seminary in May 2007. He lives in New York.

We’re sorry. We can’t use more poems with g dash d and words of longing for the land and the cry of the shofar that leads to the avenue of meaning. We received five of those last week. Your piety drags you down, like the damp raincoat you wear on a bright morning, your bag heavy with Tanakh, your foot limp. Better to wear little and write nothing. Did you notice the taut skin of the last summer blueberry lingering in the earthen bowl this morning? In your best moment, you would have caressed the dish you would have made yourself, had you not been writing pious. Your foot would have controlled the tread, the moving wheel a life between your knees, now wide open like an empty book, glorious, offering you one single spot to toss your fistful of earth, feel the whack shifting on the wheel, speeding now, your one moment to seal it steady, dead center, the clay mushing between your fingers, your mind a sharp sword. Had you not been writing, the waiting vessel would have been your prayer, and lying in grace at its bottom, the season’s final blueberry, laid bare.

The Offering a sonnet

Amy Gottlieb

Amy Gottlieb’s prose and poetry have appeared in Lilith, Nashim, The Forward, Puerto del Sol, Other Voices, Country Living, and elsewhere. She is currently an Arts Fellow at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education.

36

issue four 2008

PresenTensemagazine.org PresenTensemagazine.org contents features


the urge to emerge

new communities blossom

Joshua Avedon and Shawn Landres

Photo by Brian Goldfarb

S

omething is happening in the fields of the Jewish world, where new communities are sprouting up like colorful wildflowers amidst the tall drying grass of old school Jewish institutions. In the past decade, this flowering has occurred across the globe: not just in the usual major Jewish population centers like New York and Los Angeles, but across North America, Israel, Europe, and even Australia. The wildflowers are a diverse bouquet, but they share some key characteristics. For starters, they are fiercely independent. These emerging communities are usually bootstrap efforts, supported by the community members themselves, and led by a new breed of Jewish social entrepreneurs. For most, prayer is a core activity; they exude hospitality and inclusivity; and they focus on authenticity and community-building. We have been nuturing and studying these emerging communities for the past few years, and have identified four main varietals:

alternative communities which may not focus on prayer, but still pay considerable attention to spirituality

young, disproportionately women, and less likely to be married than members of established synagogues. They are far more likely to reject categorization or denominational labels than their parents, especially those who were raised Reform. The plurality in most of these communities were raised Conservative, but have not joined traditional Conservative synagogues. They go to services more frequently than their parents, and like to do so in a variety of places. Many, but far from all, have stronger Jewish educational backgrounds. While they do feel connected with Jews and the Jewish people—and they usually have very high levels of Israel experience—they do not share synagogue members’ anxiety about Jewish continuity. And why do they go? These communities are inherently about relationships, personal and communal—it isn’t about obligation or programs or buildings. What are they doing? Building dynamic Jewish community, often infused with prayer, spirituality and music, as they work to repair the world through education and action. Although we have been working with emerging Jewish leaders for some time, until recently we knew very little about the thousands of people associated with these new endeavors. So the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute, in collaboration with Mechon Hadar, decided to conduct a survey. We hoped to find out more about the participants, members, partners, and friends of these new spiritual communities. The fruit of this work is the first ever portrait of the interests, values, and concerns of a fertile new development in American Judaism.

conventional synagogues transforming themselves under the leadership of an emergent rabbi.

Stop and smell the flowers for yourself at www.jewishemergent.org/survey

lay-led independent minyanim rabbi-led emergent communities

The participants are as diverse as the gardens they grow in—but the populations are distinct from more mainstream synagogues. So, what are they like? Emergent community members are mostly features PresenTensemagazine.org

Joshua Avedon and Shawn Landres manage The Jewish Emergent Initiative (www.jewishemergent.org), a Synagogue 3000 (S3K) project that networks emerging Jewish leaders to learn from, teach and inspire one another. issue four 2008

37


paradigm shift

O

ne day in Hebrew School, a bored classmate of mine wriggled out of the classroom window, started walking home, and didn’t stop until he got there. This story is hardly shocking. While this was just one instance in a suburban Connecticut after-school class, it’s no secret that young Hebrew School students across the country wish for a firstfloor classroom to plot a similar escape. The deadly “Hebrew School illness” hits every Tuesday and Thursday at 4 p.m., as students across the country take to their beds to wait out the period when they are expected to show up. While teachers and parents worry about the delinquency of the present generation, young Jews are running away from Hebrew School because they haven’t a clue why they were there in the first place. They may be under the impression that they are there in order to be able to recite a bunch of Hebrew prayers and then have a big birthday party at age 13. Some may even be nominally in favor this goal, secretly knowing that best use of their newfound Hebrew is actually as a cool way to pass notes in transliteration to fellow Jews in public schools. “None of my peers were particularly interested in being there, and we spent no time at all, as far as I can recall, justifying our presence,” says William Friedman, raised in the Conservative Movement. He does recall one incident, when “in response to one

38

issue four 2008

judaism of the brain

how college life has changed judaism

Deborah Fishman

Photo provided by Brian Goldfarb

student’s goofing off during ‘tefillah time,’ the teacher (a college-aged Orthodox woman) snapped that by goofing off, the student would be unable to say Kaddish [the prayer for the dead] for his father when the time came.” The truth is that most if not all of us were there because our parents put us there. As an institution, Hebrew School fairly represents many of our parents’ views on the optimal relationship between Judaism and other aspects of life. Whereas a solid, secular education provides the steppingstone to succeeding socially and financially in mainstream American society, Hebrew School is relegated to the category of extracurricular activities—enriching and character-building, to be juggled somewhere between piano lessons and soccer. Of course, the issues motivating Hebrew School attendance are far deeper than those propelling piano practice every afternoon. In a society that valued consensus and labels, our parents faced existential questions that Hebrew School was supposed to address: how can one raise children to have a strong sense of being Jewish without them being “too Jewish”? At a time when the miracles of modernity included cars and egalitarianism, how can one preserve Jewish tradition in a meaningful way and still embrace progress? Our parents struggled with a quintessential theme in Jewish American history—embracing an American identity while maintaining a sense of Jewish self. Their solution involved compartmentalizing their Judaism so it would occupy specific times and places, including a few once-yearly holidays and family gatherings, and, of course, PresenTensemagazine.org paradigm shift


after-school Hebrew School. The rest of the time—at school, in the workplace, and socializing with non-Jewish friends—they did their best to make sure faith wouldn’t ‘get in the way.’ But fundamental assumptions have changed since the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, Jewish identity and American identity are no longer viewed as two opposing forces in need of reconciliation. As Bill Plevan, a young leader of the Conservative Movement and an ordained rabbi, points out, “Negotiating being American and being Jewish is not as difficult anymore, because it’s a very comfortable time to be Jewish in America.” In addition, rather than adopting an identity solely out of membership in any one group, it is the fashion today for individuals to forge their own paths out of personal searches for authentic meaning. The combination of these two trends is resulting in the possibility of a third trend, small but strong, and often not taken into account

Hebrew School is relegated to the category of extracurricular activities—enriching and character-building, to be juggled somewhere between piano lessons and soccer team.

though, young adults are freely and seriously exploring forms of Jewish affiliation other than those espoused by their parents. For many young adults coming from the Hebrew School mentality, college is the first time they come into contact with peers who practice a higher level of religious observance. They watch their peers celebrate Shabbat, they are turned down when attempting to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex, and they experience new holidays, whose existence previously was hazy, at best. Throughout all this, some feel they are recovering pieces of a puzzle possibly lost to that day when they pretended to be sick to get out of going to Hebrew School or climbed out the classroom window. As they learn about the why’s and how’s of religious observance, some find, much to their own surprise, that they actually prefer a holistic system of observance to the compartmentalization of religion with which they were raised. This is why it has become more broadly accepted—even, in some circles, hip—to be openly and conscientiously Jewish, because the decision to live an identity through all aspects of one’s life comes across as respectable and authentic. Now that it has become less necessary to navigate the boundary between being an “American Jew” and a “Jewish American,” our generation feels free to navigate ways to our own amalgamation of Jewish life. Whether it is an observant Judaism, a bagels-and-lox-eating Judaism, an environmentally-friendly Judaism, or something new altogether, thoughtful young Jews are finding themselves on college campuses through creating their own identities which they find intellectually viable and personally satisfying. How they will teach these identities to their children remains to be seen. Deborah Fishman married a nice Jewish boy she met in college and they now live

in community surveys. Young people are exploring an internal and intellectual approach to a Judaism which is not just conventional tradition, but a holistic way of life: a Judaism of the brain. The emerging spiritual communities where these new trends are percolating and coalescing is the same place where societal trends have always percolated and coalesced: on college campuses. College is the socially accepted time for experimentation. When young adults leave home to live on their own for four years, their parents have the latent expectation that they will change somehow, hopefully grow up, and maybe even find themselves (or, failing that, at least find a spouse). Given a new, stimulating environment filled with opportunities for independence, young people reinvent themselves—several times over, if necessary. It used to be that Jews were merely tolerated on college campuses. Now, they are actively lured to themed Shabbat dinners and studybreaks, which have ushered in a new era of Jewish creativity and bad puns, as events such as “Hookah in the Sukkah” and “Pizza in the Hut” vie for young Jews’ attendance. Our own peers solicit our membership in groups such as klezmer bands, Jewish a cappella, Israel clubs, Jews for Social Justice, Jewish women’s groups—and the list goes on. In the aggregate, these events and groups provide much more than opportunity for Jewish socialization. They build a Jewish community—a very unique and new kind of Jewish community, composed of diverse young people who eat, live and learn together. This community is founded in an intellectual environment, where professors come to speak at Shabbat dinners, where conversations flow freely between secular and religious topics. In this open environment of experimentation, young Jews are even given the ability to drift between different styles of services, which might have aroused consternation in other contexts. In college, paradigm shift PresenTensemagazine.org

an observant lifestyle in Chicago.

Transform the Jewish Future... One Classroom at a Time Prepare for a rewarding career as a Jewish Studies teacher The Pardes Educators Program in Jerusalem offers traditional Beit Midrash text study and an optional Masters in Jewish Education from Hebrew College. Scholarships and generous living expense stipends are granted for this 2-year program leading to a career as a teacher in Jewish day schools in North America.The Pardes Educators Program was developed with and is funded by a grant from The AVI CHAI Foundation. The Pardes Summer Curriculum Workshop is a subsidized professional development program in Jerusalem for Novice Judaic Studies Day School Teachers, July 15-29, 2008. Pardes also offersYear, Advanced and 2 to 3-week Summer learning opportunities for men and women of diverse backgrounds.

Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies P. O. Box 8575 Jerusalem 91084, Israel 972.2.673.5210 • info@pardes.org.il

PARDES Institute of Jewish Studies ¯¢Ú†È„‰ȆÍÂÈÁφ҄¯Ù†ÔÂÎÓ

w w w . p a r d e s . o r g . i l

American Pardes Foundation 5 West 37th Street • Suite 802 New York, NY 10018 212.447.4333 • info@pardesusa.org

issue four 2008

39


photoessay

I Come From a Shul Down Under

melbourne’s st. kilda reveals its histor y

Sarah Feiglin

entry to shul

P

erhaps because Jews were part of the fabric of Australian society from its inception— aside from Israel, Australia is the only country in the world whose founding members included Jews—the country’s first synagogues, established in the 1800s, are mostly

all still in use. While the majority of the country’s 120,000 Jews live in Melbourne and Sydney, smaller communities exist in Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide. Melbourne’s St. Kilda Shul, pictured here, was founded in 1878, and designated an Australian Heritage Site in 2004.

40

issue four 2008

PresenTensemagazine.org photoessay


group led by a representative of Australia’s Jewish Museum

A

s a relatively “young” country, many of Australia’s shuls are fairly modern and utilitarian, with less intricate detail in their design and architecture. After growing up attending these type of shuls, entering St. Kilda Shul for the first time was quite overwhelming for me—the imposing, high dome of the ceiling, the rich warmth of the well-used wooden furniture, the glow of sunlight through the stained glass windows, the brightness of the lamps, the magnificent, exquisite detail and rich colors adorning the many surfaces. All these attributes work together to create a grand atmosphere, reminiscent of the traditional European world the early Australian Jewish community attempted to recreate. Even when the building is empty, I can imagine the voices singing long after the choir has finished on a Shabbat.

In some ways, St. Kilda resembles old synagogues in communities the world over, which speaks to the common bond and shared reference points of Jews everywhere. Look closer, though, and its story is uniquely Australian—due to the memorial plaques honouring those who made a difference to the community and country over the years, and the koalas and kookaburras under the eaves (just kidding!)—and in no small part, because its story continues….

View looking up from next contents PresenTensemagazine.org

to Bimah

issue four 2008

41


O

n my first visit to the shul, I couldn’t help but spend a lot of time looking up, down and around. Architecture and interior design are passions of mine, so I tend to notice details anywhere and everywhere— several motifs are apparent in the shul’s decorative architecture: the ubiquitous symbol of the magen david, which shows recognition of the State of Israel; ornamental floral designs, domed, semi-circular shapes and geometric patterns used to embellish plain surfaces. The interior and exterior are beautifully maintained. Bygone days and present life collide, with today’s congregants praying in the same building used by their ancestors hundreds of years ago.

42

issue four 2008

Blue, red and white are the colors of the Australian flag.

This star with seven points appears on the Australian flag.

View from Bimah to front of Shul

PresenTensemagazine.org photoessay


World War I Book of Remembrance

Detail above Aron HaKodesh

Sarah Feiglin is a graphic designer and photographer in Melbourne. More of her photography can be seen at Sarah’s View http://sarahsview.com.au.

photoessay PresenTensemagazine.org

issue four 2008

43


reviews

book

Jews, Power and the Return to Zion

a guide for the politically perplexed

F

or many young American Jews, Israel’s existence raises uncomfortable questions about Jewish power. Our generation seems to have rejected the Jewish pride of our parents. We do not share the memories of those previous generations who witnessed the Jewish people salvaged from the refuse pile of history, empowered to determine their collective fate through the formation of a state. American Jewish leaders are up in arms about the growing distance between young American Jews and Power Jews and Israel, but what is it exactly (Hardcover) about Jewish power that remains so by Ruth R. Wisse elusive—and so alienating—to young 256 pp, Schocken, 2007 American Jews? $19.95 The strange relationship between Jews, power and politics is an influential, but rarely acknowledged, facet of modern Jewish identity. A stateless people throughout all of Diaspora history, Jews were assumed to be immune from politics. The idea of a Jewish political tradition was entirely subsumed by the perception of Jewish victimhood and oppression. But when interpreted through the rubric of power, Jewish history is cast in a strikingly different light; Diaspora Jewry practiced a peculiar politics of powerlessness, constrained by the hatred and power of their enemies, and animated by their will to survive. Sovereignty, prosperity and M-16s notwithstanding, modern Jews have inherited—and continue to play out—a tradition molded by centuries of dependence and accommodation. Though Jewish sovereignty in Israel provided a radical alternative to the historic conditions in which these politics emerged, it is not clear if Jewish power really began in 1948. As Ruth Wisse brilliantly articulates in her recent book, Jews and Power, the historic patterns that underlie contemporary tensions between Arab anti-Zionism, Israel’s ongoing struggle for existence, and Jewish adjustments (political, intellectual and moral) to the ongoing siege are key to understanding our current situation. Wisse argues that Jews have always been creative political strategists within their limits, exchanging external dependence on local rule for internal religious and cultural autonomy. This approach allowed for marvelous feats of survival, but produced two painfully unintended effects: a “foreign policy” that made the Jews ideal targets for genocide, and an internal political culture whose currency relied on moral (rather than physical) strength. This enabled an ability to accommodate, adapt, and regenerate following each successive catastrophe; however, over time, an emphasis on sheer survival replaced

44

issue four 2008

Polly M. Zavadivker the potential for real power. Wisse maintains that by describing existence alone as a “miracle” of survival, Jewish political values may have crossed “the moral line into veneration of political weakness.” In the context of anti-Semitism, the morality of such a cultural trait itself is called into question. How have young Jews internalized this tradition? Arab antiZionism has effectively cast Israel as a pariah nation, and Zionism as a pariah ideology. Using the tools of mass media, geographic spread, and ties to one billion Muslims worldwide, the anti-Zionist movement has formed a vast empire with its propaganda, penetrating and visibly shaping mainstream perceptions about Israel’s behavior. Arab anti-Zionism has already demoralized much of Israeli society, where the legitimacy of the State is routinely questioned in both mainstream and fringe sectors. A vicious cycle of hostility and threat have imperceptibly eroded its people’s confidence, self-respect and support for their own country. As Israel drifts from her own Zionist moorings, her existence seems all the less appealing and necessary in the eyes of dispersed observers. Recent trends confirm that today’s Jewish youth, like their predecessors, are sensitive to external influences in both positive and negative ways—witness the widespread appeal of hipster Judaism (and its roots in Diasporist queer Yiddishkeit culture). Trends toward anti-Zionism are a byproduct of this encounter with mainstream culture. Young people instinctively know which qualities distinguish them from others, and in today’s world, Zionist beliefs set one apart. It’s a potent combination for “a l ienat ion”: t he influential and ubiquitous message of anti-Zionism that preys on otherwise well-meaning liberals, the characteristic of young people to seek acceptance from the majority, and the Jewish political tradition of accommodation. Young American Jews are, of course, American, and therefore profoundly anti-ideological, inclined towards faith in solutions, but not necessarily at the cost of comfort or life. Before he fled the Nazis in 1933, Karl Mannheim theorized that material prosperity correlated with a decline in utopian thinking.

The answer lies with thinkers like Wisse, who provide a basis for exploring the ways that political history defines current narratives of power, and alert us to the ways that Jews continue to keep themselves from being free. PresenTensemagazine.org reviews


Post-war America marked the “End of Ideology” (similarly, much of the Zionist canon has become irrelevant for many Israelis, particularly as the country embarks on a path of economic growth). If they study Zionism at all, most young American Jews are taught Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, whose philosophies did not predict the complexities, or worse, enemies faced by the modern State today. Herzl assumed the Arabs would be moved to join the Jewish “model nation,” while Ha’am’s vision of a Hebrew cultural mecca had no need for a military or means of self-defense. The Jewish political tradition, as described in Jews and Power, is a force that many have sensed but few have been able to put into words. Jewish patterns of adjustment have aided the anti-Zionist movement in grinding down the moral confidence of many Jews with a force of great momentum. Programs like birthright israel

offer hope, as they enable transformative experiences on a collective scale, connecting young American Jews to Israel with unprecedented success. But in the long term, tourism will not be able to sustain an intellectual framework that ties Jews to the Jewish State; experiential knowledge will fade and be replaced with old habits. Rather, the answer lies with thinkers like Wisse, who provide a basis for exploring the ways that political history defines current narratives of power, and alert us to the ways that Jews continue to keep themselves from being free. Works like Jews and Power mark the beginning of a new conversation, one that will introduce this generation to a discourse based on political logic, moral confidence and strength. Polly M. Zavadivker is a founding member of PresenTense Magazine. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

book

freedom writers

jewish-iranian women explore post-revolution life

Melody Ahdout

The Septembers of Shiraz

Journey from the Land of No:

(Hardcover)

A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran

by Dalia Sofer

by Roya Hakakian

352 pp, Ecco, 2007

272 pp, Three Rivers Press, 2005

$24.95

$13

My voice, my very ability to express myself, was in itself a privilege I almost did not have.

I

wrote my first song at the age of four. My ambition at that time was nothing short of monumental: I was going to be the first ever Jewish Persian pop singer. My voice was going to get me on a stage in front of thousands of screaming fans.

reviews PresenTensemagazine.org

Little did I know that my voice, my very ability to express myself, was in itself a privilege I almost did not have. I had been born into one of the most repressive eras of modern time: post-revolution Iran. The year was 1982. My parents—young, in love, and idealistic in Tehran—believed they could wait out the revolution, and, unlike many of their family members and peers, did not race to leave the country. Their resilience was astounding. And then I was born—their first child, a daughter—and they became a little less idealistic. As a Jewish woman in post-revolution Islamic Iran, I would be targeted twice over. Women were to be covered in veils, silent, timid, inferior; Jews as a group were considered second-class citizens. My parents wanted me to be free, so they paid a smuggler, packed a single suitcase, and traveled through Pakistan and eventually into Israel with a child not even six months old. I struggled for months to regain my health, for the trek through the mountains proved almost too difficult for me to bear as an infant. But I had inherited my parents’ resilience—and the world had yet to hear my voice. I know I am lucky. With the recent emergence of works by Jewish Iranian women writers who grew up in Iran after the revolution, I am able to see what my life could have been. The Septembers of Shiraz, a semi-autobiographical novel by Dalia Sofer, and Journey from the Land of No, a memoir by Roya Hakakian, are two examples of works that capture life for Jews in Iran after the 1979 takeover. Each page of these works is a vivid illustration of daily Jewish life during the years following the Islamic revolution, a life filled with confusion, oppression, fear, sacrifice, love, hope, and ultimately determination. Despite the gravest of circumstances, the characters in these books flourish, steadfast in their identities while bravely facing change, a hallmark of Jewish tradition. Dalia Sofer and Roya Hakakian have authored works to show the world their distinctive Jewish-Iranian identities. Whether it is through fictional characters or passionate prose, both of these women reveal their experiences following the revolution to create a record. Each has spoken candidly, proving that silence is issue four 2008

45


not an option when one manages to escape such extreme oppression. They write, revealing the intricate beauties and poignant realities of Jewish life in a country with a centuries-old tradition that has sadly been tarnished at the hands of an extremist regime. Dalia Sofer, who herself escaped Iran in 1982 when she was only ten years old, details the effects of the revolution through the story of the Amin family. Sofer often interweaves her own personal experiences into the lives of the fictional Amins, offering multiple perspectives on life for Jews in Islamic Iran (see below for review). But it is Hakakian’s riveting first-hand account of life as a Jewish teenager in post-revolution Iran which most provides a vivid glimpse into the life I could easily have led and the strength I would hope to have if faced with such circumstances. With the revolution, life as a Jew meant being targeted by the Islamic regime and fundamentalists at every turn: Jews were relegated to separate drinking fountains and toilets, were made to identify their businesses as non-Muslim, and encountered disturbing antiJewish graffiti such as swastikas. However, as Hakakian illustrates in Journey from the Land of No, her quest to forge her identity as a creative Jewish woman was never derailed, despite the government’s acute efforts. Using intensely detailed imagery and lyrical language, Roya Hakakian crafts her memoir honestly, thoughtfully, and, above all, bravely. She details how Jewish life was about having the strength to start over, despite overcoming the greatest of obstacles, while never sacrificing one’s voice or identity. Most importantly, Hakakian’s voice is always optimistic, despite watching the Islamic Morality Guards

whisk away friends who were never to return, or being detained by the police and searched, merely for being a Jew. The revolution provided the catalyst for Hakakian’s own intellectual rebellion, and her voice is tremendously inspiring. For me, the bitter taste of oppression, the threat of an imposed silence, is so deeply ingrained that every moment presents an opportunity to relinquish the albatross of post-revolution Iran. My identity, this fluid, ever-changing concept, is firmly rooted in the most fundamental aspects of who I am: a Persian Jewish woman. Despite escaping Iran at such a young age, the struggle is still in me. I consider my alternate existence, my life, had I remained in Iran. Would I still sing? Would I be studying to become an attorney? Would I be able to proclaim to the world that I am a Jew without fear of retaliation? Would I have the strength of Roya Hakakian to find my voice despite the obstacles? I see myself, and realize that my current identity is one premised on freedom, and that sadly, had I remained in Iran, the answers to most of my questions would be no. And so it is for her, this other woman, this woman that is not me, but represents so many Jewish women who remained in Iran after the revolution, each of whom could write their own Septembers of Shiraz or Journey from the Land of No, that I have this overwhelming compulsion to exist fully and freely, sharing my voice with the world. Melody Ahdout currently attends Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, and will join the firm of Christensen, Glaser, Fink, Jacobs, Weil and Shapiro this Fall. In addition to singing, her interests include reading, writing, travel, cooking, and art history.

R

book

Sofer S0 Good the septembers of shiraz Ariella Saperstein

eleased in a year which witnessed Iranian-American intellectuals held for months in Iranian prisons, the country’s Revolutionary Guard deemed a terrorist group by the U.S. government, and women in Sudan and Saudi Arabia face life-threatening beatings under Islamic law for contrived crimes, Dalia Sofer’s The Septembers of Shiraz is right on time. Loosely based on Sofer’s own experiences in post-revolution Iran, the book is set in a world where seemingly ordinary decisions can suddenly have devastating consequences. The story follows the lives of Isaac Amin and his secular Jewish family, who had flourished financially under the Shah’s regime. The country’s growing Islamization does not appear to threaten the Amins until Isaac is jailed on trumped up charges of spying for Israel, while his family is left to imagine the worst. Ideas of faith run throughout the novel, as the family’s belief systems are constantly challenged. Rightly shunning sentimentality, Sofer unsparingly recounts the moments when the strongest faith is undercut by disloyalty or malice, while demonstrating the dangers of nihilism and despair through Isaac’s incarceration. If there is criticism to be had, it is that the novel’s ending might seem contrived in light of the harsh realism which came before. This is a minor quibble, however, for a story whose themes are surprisingly universal given the often dire experiences depicted. It would be a shame to limit Sofer’s book to the category of “Jewish Literature” when it deserves a much broader audience. The Septembers of Shiraz is a triumph, and Dalia Sofer a writer worthy of wide recognition. Ariella Saperstein fights anti-semites for the Anti-Defamation League. When not reading voraciously, she can be found hanging out her apartment window trying to get cell reception.

46

issue four 2008

PresenTensemagazine.org reviews


book

Jew In or Jew Out?

reviewing the jewing in contemporar y fiction

Lilit Marcus and Lisa Benjamin Goodgame

Photo by Brian Goldfarb

L

iterature has always served as a mirror for societal conditions of the time. Works by Jewish-American writers are no exception: novels by Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yezierska and Henry Roth at the turn of the 20th century naturally focused on the immigrant experience and adjustment to life in a new land; the next generation saw Philip Roth usher in the era of the upwardly mobile Jewish anti-hero. These were different times and different experiences, but the characters were always unmistakably Jewish. In our less affiliated times, with which elements of Jewish identification do Jewish writers imbue their fictional Jewish creations? The most prominent Jewish writers of today—Chabon, Safran Foer and Englander, among others—are throwbacks to the era of Roth, Malamud and Singer, focusing on Jewish worlds which no longer exist or sometimes never did. The Jewish writers who speak to the Jewish condition of our time are, perhaps fittingly, less well-known. We asked a couple of PresenTense writers to review their favorite recent reads by Jewish authors, with an eye toward examining the Jewishness of their protagonists. If fiction is indeed a mirror of how we view ourselves or our places in society, then in Mischa Berlinski and Tasha Darsky, the main characters of the novels Fieldwork and Overture, respectively, we can be seen as Jews who acknowledge our Judaism tacitly, but who do not consider it an essential part of our identities. Read on:

reviews PresenTensemagazine.org

by lilit marcus At some point about halfway through Mischa Berlinski’s debut novel, Fieldwork, I forgot that I was reading a novel at all. It’s easy to blur the line between fiction and nonfiction when the author eponymously names his main character Mischa Berlinski, but unlike Jonathan Safran Foer, who used the same technique in Everything is Illuminated, Berlinski’s writing is mesmerizing instead of pointedly ironic. Fieldwork is set in contemporary Thailand, where Mischa and his girlfriend Rachel have ended up after college. While there, Mischa comes across the story of Martiya van der Leun, a Dutch-Indonesian anthropologist who died in a Thai women’s prison. Ultimately, Mischa is just a vessel for the real story, the fascinating and ultimately tragic life of Martiya. Berlinski made the right decision by focusing the bulk of his pages on Martiya’s more interesting narrative.

Fieldwork: A Novel by Mischa Berlinski 336 pp, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007 $24

issue four 2008

47


One notable exception is when Mischa meets with a missionary family with whom Martiya interacted during her life. The missionaries inquire about his religion and are pleased to learn that he is Jewish—after all, they consider the Jews “God’s chosen people.” Although he does not join their mealtime prayers, they respect him in a way they never respected the godless Martiya. While Mischa identifies readily as Jewish, he fails to back up his religion with any personal connection. It seems that the missionaries know far more about his faith than he does. Nowhere else in the story does he pray, acknowledge Jewish holidays, or even pass up a pork dinner. Ultimately, this is the most striking of the characters’dichotomies: Mischa doesn’t believe in much of anything, and Martiya believes far too much in everything. It is clear from Mischa’s—and his author’s—lack of interest in Judaism that he views Jewishness as his ethnicity and not his religion. However, mentioning Judaism and then letting it essentially disappear from the text does a great disservice to the book, as it could have been a perfect point of entry to Mischa’s inner life. It is never revealed whether Mischa actually believes in Judaism or whether he identifies that way because he simply can’t think of anything else to say. It would have been better to simply eliminate Judaism from the text entirely than to float the concept and then ignore it. While the book is well-constructed and an enjoyable read, it’s hard to get past the fact that the audience seems to barely know the man entrusted to lead them through the narrative. He remains an enigma, and ultimately, we know no more about him at the end of the book than we do at the beginning. It is a disappointing aspect of an otherwise engrossing book.

by lisa benjamin goodgame For Tasha Darsky, the beautiful protagonist of Yael Goldstein’s debut novel Overture, music is constantly a work in progress, even when it was written 300 years ago. Known as “the femme fatale of the violin,” Tasha becomes perhaps the best violinist since Paganini. But her professional success comes at the expense of personal struggles that eventually play themselves out on stage night after night—until a moment comes when it seems the sound and fury signify nothing. The daughter of prominent art dealers, Tasha grows up with a profound fear of failure, driven by an understanding that artistic creation is of the highest value. Ask Tasha Darsky what she wanted to be when she was seven, and she would have said “one of God’s Chosen…” In her mixed-up world of art, music, and fantasy, she’d “taken [her] parents’ pagan beauty-worship and confused it just enough with the Jewish heritage that [her] grandparents [had tried] to sneak into…bedtime stories,” so that “God’s Chosen” was a strange pantheon that included the great painters her parents loved, the avant-garde musicians they enjoyed, and the writers they knew—all of whom possessed an achievable immortality. Apparently, it didn’t matter if they were Jewish or not. As she imagines her complex definition of chosenness, Tasha asks herself, “[H]ow and when will I know whether I matter in the world, I wonder. What can I do to ensure that I do? What will happen to me if I don’t?” Her struggle is to define an identity and to create a life that matters. In the end, Tasha’s lament about chosenness is the singular element of Jewish thought in her life. Many other aspects of her life could have been shaped by her Jewish heritage—her immense fear of failure, her continued inability to please her father, and her desire to be “more” than her mother managed to be. Jews who read this novel will recognize a stereotypical family dynamic, but the characters are Jewish only in tangential ways. Tasha is a Jew whose religion is art, and whose Jewish identity is subordinated to everything else in her life. Her tenuous connections to her Jewish heritage come through her family and loved ones, and while left unsaid, it seems that she connects to her heritage through the history of Jewish violin virtuosos and the mournful, emotional evocation she draws out of the violin in her playing. Lilit Marcus is the co-founder and Editor-in-

Overture: A Novel

Chief of www.savetheassistants.com, “a blog

by Yael Goldstein

for the beleaguered.” She lives, writes, and

304 pp, Doubleday, 2007

does yoga in Brooklyn, New York.

$24.95

Lisa Benjamin Goodgame is a Jewish communal professional in Austin, Texas. She is the former co-chair of the Austin Jewish Book Fair.

48

issue four 2008

PresenTensemagazine.org reviews


book

Candy to chew on

matthue’s star meets her maker

Matthue Roth

Photo by Itta Roth

F

requent PT contributor Matthue Roth’s new novel, Candy in Action, is filled with exactly what you’d expect from Matthue Roth—quirk, humor, and more than a few surprises. The book follows a young Jewish pre-med student who models in her spare time; when she receives a little too much attention from an unwelcome admirer, she puts her childhood kung-fu lessons to work. Here, Roth is interviewed by his creation, the novel’s heroine Candace Cohen:

He’s letting his body guide him through these movements.

CC: So, I don’t know how to say this, but…

MR: I got you.

MR: Just say it.

CC: So, not to burst your bubble, but is this all just some huge fantasy of yours? Writing yourself over as a cheerleader instead of an Orthodox Jewish geek?

CC: You’re not exactly the sort of person I expected to write a book like this. MR: Yeah, I’m getting that a lot. CC: Supermodels, kung-fu…you’re an Orthodox Jew. Are you people allowed to think about these things? MR: One of the basic tenets of Orthodoxy is that the whole world is Orthodox. Models, kung-fu, kosher food, everything…it all comes from G-d. I mean, the Biala Rebbe in Boro Park is probably not thinking so much about Bruce Lee movies. But you watch those movies and you see the way he moves, and you realize there are profoundly religious undertones to what he does. His way of bending his body, it’s totally Chassidic. reviews PresenTensemagazine.org

CC: Uh-huh. And, uh, models? MR: Same thing, different world. I wanted to take a character that I’d have no way to identify with—popular, blonde, gainfully employed—and force myself to get into her head. CC: And so you got me.

MR: Right after I finished writing Never Mind the Goldbergs, I was learning a lot of Talmud with my friend Haggai, who studies Iaido, a Japanese martial art. And he was teaching me Talmud and Iaido together, and I thought, wouldn’t it be awesome if life were like kung-fu films, where there’s a dramatic scene and then, suddenly, someone calls out “FIGHT!” and everyone and their grandmothers are kung-fu fighting? CC: Not only that—they’re all experts, too.

CC: It’s super disorienting. In those films, the grandmothers are all third-degree black belts [laughs]. Thanks for not making me a wimp. It’s like, so many authors have a tendency to just, like, put their characters through hell. And I didn’t want to be one of those characters—I wanted to be more like Buffy. You know, just like, talking through her personal issues with her best friend, but, at the same time, she’s beating up vampires. “My boyfriend is SUCH a pain”—she gets even madder—and, wham, she stabs a vampire through the heart. MR: But Buffy had its own problems. Even Buffy, which I love, did it. Over the course of the show, Buffy was used and abused by her boyfriends time and time again. She was almost raped. Her mom died, her best friend’s girlfriend died…and it made us identify with her, it brought out great character moments; I think the show’s writers were geniuses, but, to be frank, they treated her like crap. CC: So, you wanted to make something that was different? That was the same? MR: I wanted to create something that was all its own. I wanted to write an allegory for kids so they’d know they’re allowed to kick ass. They’re allowed to win. Matthue Roth is a performance poet, and the author

MR: Totally.

of Never Mind the Goldbergs, Yom Kippur a Go-Go, and Candy in Action. Get the free soundtrack at www.candyinaction.com. issue four 2008

49


music

The World in My Voice

jewish music goes multiethnic

Margaret Teich Photo by Avital Aronowitz

Y

itz Jordan, aka Y-Love, may be many things: skilled with the microphone, passionate and articulate; typical, however, isn’t one of them. African-American and Puerto Rican in descent, but undeniably a member of the tribe with his full beard, tzitzit, and yarmulke, Y-Love redefines the notion of what a Jew looks like. With his latest album, This is Babylon, featuring innovative raps mixing English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic and even Aramaic into one flow, Y-Love also redefines what a Jewish musician sounds like. Spitting out kabbalistic gems and Talmudic wisdom, Y-Love never drops the beat. If boring verses and poor delivery were bacon and lobster respectively, then Y-Love is 100% glatt kosher, sticking with an unrushed, smart and utterly composed rhyme style. Likewise, if tired reinterpretations of klezmer music were a bagel from Dunkin Donuts, then Sarah Aroeste would be fresh cheese bourekas served at your favorite kosher Greek restaurant (assuming you have one). Aroeste is of Spanish-Greek Jewish descent, and through her music she reinvigorates a Sephardic sound as well as lyrically conveys a life cycle from the Sephardic Experience. “Ladino lyrics make me blush,” Aroeste admits. “The female singers were traditionally singing for other women, and they came from hot places (in multiple senses) in the Diaspora. They did not shy away from embracing bodies and spirit and sensuality,” says Aroeste. Her newest album, Puertas, incorporates these provocative Ladino lyrics and features instruments like the oud and dumbek alongside the electric guitar, bass and drums. Aroeste has been on the music scene for over seven years, but it is only recently that her voice and perspective have really gained public awareness, and for multiple reasons. Firstly, there are more Jewish Music record labels now than ever in the past. Secondly, there are more Sephardic bands and singers, as well as mainstream famous Jewish musicians like Matisyahu, shining a spotlight on the entire genre. Perhaps more importantly than all of this is the increased general disillusionment that young people feel towards established religious Judaism, US politics, American culture, and reality TV. Aroeste’s music is honest and authentic, in a time where singing other people’s music makes you famous. She could be viewed as the anti-American Idol, although ironically enough, she could be a contestant with her looks and singing voice.

50

issue four 2008

Jordan and Aroeste are representative of a larger trend in Jewish music that includes such popular artists as Idan Raichel, Balkan Beat Box and Pharaoh’s Daughter. These groups have expanded and redefined what Jewish music sounds like by recognizing and embracing the hybrid aspects of Jewish identities. The decidedly un-African Raichel laces Hebrew and Amharic lyrics with Ethiopian instrumentals and pop sensibilities; Balkan Beat Box is a mostly Israeli group of musicians who have a geographically indecipherable sound—just when the listener thinks they understand the music to be Gypsy, or East African, or maybe ska or even punk rock, the group switches to an entirely different beat for the next track in their set; Pharaoh’s Daughter appreciates the varied flavors that world music has to offer (think Michael Franti or Manu Chao) but basks in the unending source of lyrical inspiration that Judaism provides—and all this delivered through the divine pipes of lead singer Basya Schechter. By incorporating their religious, ethnic and geopolitical realities into their work, artists are bringing fresh life to Jewish music, and fans are taking notice. It’s among this mix that we get Y-Love throwing down clever rhymes (“lyrical paragon, run this rhythmic marathon, faces similar to candlesticks in shapes like hexagons”), alluding to Hassidic thought and Jewish lessons to beats set for a club, and Aroeste, whose band rocks hard and makes her CD a good musical selection for a downtown lounge/bar or a sophista-funk dinner party. In the seventh song on Aroeste’s Puertas, called “Shabat,” Sarah Aroeste sings, “The food is ready and the table is set, the candles are burning, Shabbat has arrived.” The image of Shabbat dinner is familiar if not ingrained, but the musical aspect of the track is exotic, exciting and different. Likewise, track three on This is Babylon, “Bring it Down,” incorporates a very common technique in hip hop songs: dance instructions (e.g. “I put my hand upon your hip/when I dip you dip we dip”—”Da Dip” by Freak Nasty, a one-hit wonder from the late 90s, if you’re having trouble placing those genius lyrics). Similarly, Y-Love leads us to dance to the last line of “L’Cha Dodi” when we greet the Shabbat Queen in the Kabbalat Shabbat service: “Bow down, left right/ talk to me about who rides/Bow down, left right/united stand on all sides/Bow down, left right… Remind me what the angel said, I forgot/all my people stay rabbinical, we up in the spot.” The contrast of the predictable with the unexpected in both Jordan’s and Aroeste’s music exemplifies why new multicultural voices are gaining such wide acclaim in Jewish circles. Different voices in Jewish music provide an outlet to explore other cultures, but all within a Jewish context. This music provides a less foreign and more accessible way to venture into the cultural unknown, all the while strengthening and enriching the integrity of the tribe. The trend towards multiethnic music is reflective of what is happening in the larger realm of Jewish youth culture—with great study abroad programs, multicultural majors in universities and ethnic cuisine on every corner, young Jews are exposed to much greater cultural diversity than previous generations. We like what we see, and I imagine as the world shrinks to even smaller proportions, we will incorporate more and more of it into our Jewish lives, our art, our literature and our music. In fact, I’m creating a playlist right now for my iPod called “Multiethnic Jewish Music of the Future Which Actually Represents the Present”—and klezmer (unless played by the punk-fusion band Golem)—isn’t on it. Margaret Teich produces The Lazy Environmentalist, a live daily program about greening your life in style on Sirius Satellite Radio channel 114. PresenTensemagazine.org reviews


F

ilm writer and director Todd Haynes has made several films about the rise and fall of celebrities and notables, such as 70’s pop musician Karen Carpenter, 19th century French poet Rimbaud, and glam rock stars David Bowie and Iggy Pop. In these films, Haynes hypothesizes a theory of celebrity gravity—nothing rises into the gaze of public scrutiny without being shot down, chewed up and spit out, or run out of town. There might be one unexplainable exception, to Haynes’ law, however: Bob Dylan, the subject of his latest film, I’m Not There. That Dylan never appears in the film, and that the six personas representing different aspects of his life are played by six different actors, none of whom are named “Bob Dylan,” only highlights Dylan’s inscrutability and the shifting nature of his identity, a particularly Jewish construct. Not only can we not seem to explain Dylan’s rise to celebrity status, his enduring appeal, nor the “message” of his lyrics, but he also seems to defy death, in both the physical and cultural senses. You can crash his motorcycle, convert him, overdose him, run him into hiding, or boo him off stage, but Dylan keeps coming back, and in platinum. His story is not the rise and fall of celebrity, but the rise and fall and rise and fall and rise and fall… The history of the Jewish people reflects this absurdist notion of identity: we rise and fall and rise and fall ad absurdum. G-d made us an eternal people with the eventual promise of Messianic Redemption and therefore we endure, generation after generation, reinventing ourselves. We may put on different hats, streimels, turbans, and caps, but we know that our headgear (or current ideologies) are only temporary garments, and are not what define us. This echoes King Solomon’s statement in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of Vanities, all is vanity. There is nothing new under the sun.” T he Hebrew word for vanity, havel, can also be translated as either breath or emptiness. Breath is the origin of the soul: “G-d formed man from the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis, 2:7). The message is clear: we only find our true selves in emptiness or in lack of definition. With Dylan as such an obvious parallel for the enduring mystery and constant reinvention of the Jewish people, it is interesting that the only mention of his Jewishness in I’m Not There is when a BBC journalist, determined to deconstruct the rock star Jude Quinn (Dylan as played by Cate Blanchett) reveals to the world that underneath the Quinn persona lies Aaron Jacob Edelstein from rural Massachusetts. Following this revelation, the Jude Quinn story ends with a near fatal overdose and a near fatal motorcycle accident. If constant reinvention is a survival tactic, Aaron Jacob Edelstein (or in Dylan’s case, Robert Zimmerman) is a birthmark that jeopardizes because it limits the ability to reinvent. It is an identifier, rather than an identity. The challenge of Jewish survival is to continuously reinvent the signifiers of Jewish identity, without confusing the signifier (matzoh ball soup, for example) with identity itself. No one said Jewish identity is easy. Neither, it turns out, is I’m Not There. Aside from keeping track of the different personas representing Dylan, what makes the film exceedingly difficult is that the characters and the worlds they live in are not linked by a familiar narrative. Any student of film and semiotics (like the Ivy League-educated Haynes) will appreciate how the film is not a narrative about the life of Bob Dylan, but about how such narratives are created. What the different personas in the film all have in common is that they are each a type of unique talent, struggling to maintain a sense of identity and integrity. They are Dylan, and they are us, attempting to find meaning and self in a rapidly shifting world. contentsPresenTensemagazine.org reviews PresenTensemagazine.org

film

who’s There

bob dylan and the ever-changing jew

Yishai Freedman

You can crash his motorcycle, convert him, overdose him ... or boo him off stage, but Dylan keeps coming back, and in platinum. What we can learn from I’m Not There and its depiction of Bob Dylan is that identity is a constant creative task, and a necessary skill for survival in a mass consumer exile. Though not a Jewish film, as Jews, we need I’m Not There, and we need it to be difficult. To study Jewish history as a personal history, one must get comfortable with a difficult structure, multiple beginnings, and (false) endings, happening in multiple places. As a result of our extraordinarily long history, Jewish people recognize the temporality of identity. Every generation of Jews is charged with learning what it means to be a Jew in the modern world, an essential, but possibly unanswerable question. When we stumble in that quest, there is Bob Dylan to give us strength and continuously reminds us, “All I can do is be me, whoever that is.” Yishai Freedman is artistic director of the Jewish Theatre Workshop in Baltimore. A graduate of The New School, he plans to join the Tiferet Village Artist’s Colony in Cleveland this September.

51

Photo by Ken Tsukamoto issue four 2008


the ater

why did she dai?

when violence becomes per formance

Lonnie Schwartz

Photo by Diarmid Mogg

D

ai (Enough) is a terrifying hour of theater. Iris Bahr, the play’s writer and sole performer, creates a multicharacter portrayal of a Tel Aviv suicide bombing that shocks the system more than perhaps any other work currently running on the New York stage. An Israeli herself, the writer/actress imagines and embodies numerous personas representing the spectrum of those currently residing in Israel. Utilizing a simple stage comprised of café tables and chairs, Bahr, with minor clothing adjustments and voice alterations, morphs into these eclectic figures, many of whom have nothing in common beyond their physical space. Because the play is advertised with the foreshadowing of a suicide bombing, audience members will likely sense before the show begins that they’ll witness the death of one if not numerous characters. And because the play lasts only an hour, they know they won’t have long

Iris Bahr creates a multicharacter portrayal of a Tel Aviv suicide bombing that shocks the system more than perhaps any other work currently running on the New York stage. to get to know the characters before losing them. Thus, the audience not only predicts the death of each major character but also actively anticipates it, like seeing a Shakespearean tragedy having already read the story. But unlike classic tragedy, these deaths will occur without the fleshed-out presence of an adversary and without the acknowledgement of personal flaws that precipitate demise. Though several of the people Bahr depicts would have great animosity toward each other, such as

52

issue four 2008

the ardent right-wingers and the ardent left, the actual enemy is an outside party with no personal knowledge of his victims. As a result, what makes this play powerful is also what makes it at times unwatchable. The play, and Bahr in particular, force the audience to sit on pins and needles for the duration of the performance, awaiting death at every turn. That Dai suspends the audience with powerful terror is undeniable. It conveys a mere glimpse of the shock and horror present in an actual suicide bombing. What is questionable, however, is whether this is a desirable theater experience. It’s important to note that Dai, while frightening and somber, is also remarkably funny. Bahr has proven her comic genius before, perhaps most hilariously as an Orthodox Jew on Curb Your Enthusiasm (she’s the one who jumps off the ski lift to avoid being alone with Larry David after dark). In Dai, her mastery of Israeli vocal intonations— from the weathered middle-aged man with a son in the Israeli army, to the wealthy, extravagant woman who prefers the United States—is so spot-on that the way Bahr delivers her lines is as memorable as what her characters say. It’s evident she knows these people, whether personally or observationally, and she portrays them with equal parts mockery and respect. While Bahr’s performance is nuanced and deeply moving, the plot of Dai is not complex. And while the Arab/Israeli conflict that serves as the play’s backdrop is multi-faceted and complicated, the specifics of the killings in this play are not: they’re simply upsetting and sad. The play’s effect, of course, is clear: to live in Israel is to live with the fear that one’s life may be blown to pieces at any moment. To live in Israel is to be always on edge, constantly suspenseful and perpetually anxious that death is as close as the nearest stranger in your coffee shop. Dai is, without question, an arresting and shockingly powerful work; however, there is a point when arresting and shockingly powerful work extends beyond its peak and becomes oppressive. And there is a point when disturbing material in art begins to be known for its disturbance almost more than its content. Lonnie Schwartz is PresenTense’s Theater Critic. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Dramaturgy at Columbia University. PresenTensemagazine.org reviews


performance

Jews’ Line Is It Anyway?

why the chosen people choose improv

Esther D. Kustanowitz improv: a safe space for kosher performance “Religious observance isn’t improvisational,” says Evi Simons, 27, a member of an improv troupe called Improvodox (www.improvodox.com). “Our lives are guided by strict principles—we turn to comedy to counter that.” While comedy performance might be largely perceived as immodest or unkosher, Improvodox is out to prove that stage performers don’t have to violate Jewish law and observance. Several players are Provided by Brian Fox Orthodox, and all consciously respect the religious boundaries—like inappropriate language or men and women touching—of the group members and audience. And of course, they “don’t roll on Shabbos.” “I could not be in another improv group,” says Talya, one n Manhattan’s Upper East Side, an of Improvodox’s members. “I feel safe because of the religious improv group gathers for rehearsal. guidelines.” After some warm-ups, an improvised Improvodox founder Andrea Steiner, 30, had been on “secular” scene begins, set in the fashion world improv teams where she recalls being “always the observant one,” and featuring a designer who has created a line of clothing with and where “Jewish subjects were handled in a shallow way.” After flaps on the posterior. “Those tush flaps aren’t tznius (modest),” one portraying a Palestinian happy about having Jewish settlers kicked performer notes with concern. off her land, she understood: she needed a Jewish improv group. So For years, actors and comedians have used improv as a tool—to Improvodox was born, giving Jews of all denominational stripes an prepare for shows, create characters, and flesh out storylines in a observance-sensitive way to improvise. process known as “yes-anding,” agreeing with their fellow actors Mor d y L a h a s k y o f T h e He br e w S c h o o l D r o p o u t s (saying “yes”) and advancing the established situations (saying (www.jewprov.com), 41, who identifies as Orthodox, admits that “yes, and…”). Now that improv has emerged as a performance although his primary involvement is “about doing improv, it’s nice to form in its own right, on campuses, in theater venues, and on do something Jewish, to address an issue or something that’s going television (for example, Whose Line Is It Anyway and Thank God on. It gives us a niche that’s more interesting.” Within the group, You’re Here!), young Jewish improvisers are using it to explore Lahasky is known as “the dirtiest” on stage, which he explains by their Jewish identities and as a Jewish educational tool. Improv’s admitting that in yeshiva growing up, he wasn’t allowed to talk to girls. off-the-cuff style is remarkably appropriate for members of a tribe Now he makes up for it “by talking about shtus (foolishness), shmutz that has spent much of its life wandering, making it all up as they (filth), and shiksas” (you really need that last one translated?). go along. “We are the only people to mourn a city after losing her—not building creativity: judaism and the art of improvising as refugees for a generation or two…we’ve been doing this for 2,000 Jews are notorious for answering questions with other questions. years,” says Joel Freimuth, 32, a former improv player and comedy “What should I do?” “What do you think you should do?” This path writer. “Jews have certain collective traits that are either ours or can lead to a rabbinical career, or for the performance-inclined, to an attached to us that help to form a collective identity.” improv game called “Questions.” You learn to ask “the right questions,” Of course, within a collective identity there are always individual the ones that move the scene forward instead of deadlocking it. voices of dissent, but as L.A.-based educator and improviser Brian “Judaism is not supposed to be stagnant,” says Mimi Yasgur, Fox, 36, notes, “anyone can improvise because it’s not about how 25. “It’s about constant growth and creativity. And improv gives a funny you are. It’s about bringing your experience to the scene, how set of rules that support a kind of creativity that builds one step on you view the world.” another.” Yasgur, who studies improv and theater toward becoming a

O

reviews PresenTensemagazine.org

issue four 2008

53


Study at The Shalem Center in 2008! The Shalem Center, Jerusalem Founded in 1994, The Shalem Center in Jerusalem is a research and educational institute devoted to the study of Jewish thought and Israeli public policy.

drama therapist, sees a divine source. “Hashem [God] has infused in us boundless creativity with infinite possibilities: how to build a story, how to respond in an instant. There is so much potential in a split moment, and Judaism harnesses that moment.” Just like spiritual development, Yasgur notes, improv requires practice, focus, and study. Improvodox’s Marc Spear, 33, who runs Riverdale Improv (www.riverdaleimprov.com), notes that “Judaism is unlike many religions” in that it involves “a lot of ritual and active learning techniques. People learn the messages better because they have done it and feel it viscerally.” Team member Elli (a.k.a. Elli the King of Broadway), a rabbi and educator, notes that there’s “improvising in everything. Even with students who seem unmanageable [improv games] bring a whole new dimension to the classroom.” Fox, 36, feels so strongly about improv’s educational power that he founded Judaism On Both Feet, which uses improvisational theater techniques to internalize Jewish values with the aim of improving communication, enhancing relationships, and developing leadership skills. “On a very basic level, if we’re in a scene together, we support each other. I have to take care of myself and other people at the same time. As Hillel said, ’If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?’ That’s the basis of improv—the balance of taking care of yourself and others.” “There are a number of parallels between what one learns in religious school and improv classes,” the Chicago-based Freimuth observes. “Sometimes you interpret words literally, and other times, you twist [them] ever so slightly to produce an unexpected result.” Similar skills are used in studying religious texts, he says. “Seriously, could anyone have expected ’don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk’ to become a ban on cheeseburgers?”

More information, including application forms is available online www.shalemcenter.com Application deadline has been extended to: February 29, 2008

in the moment: jewish improvisers living in the now Yasgur further connects improv with “spiritual receptiveness.” “When an audience offers a suggestion, improvisers must quickly accept. In a way, religion also requires an element of blind acceptance. Even if you don’t always understand an aspect of halakhah (Jewish law), at times it’s important to accept it. Not that you can’t research it after the show, but sometimes the moment requires you to build blindly but confidently.” One of The Hebrew School Dropouts’ co-founders, Kimberly Rae Miller, 25, points out that their show is set in a classroom, and players ask the audience for a suggestion of something they’d learn in Hebrew school. “We introduce the [improvisation] by asking the audience about various topics like Israel or lashon harah (gossip),” says twentysomething Michelle Slonim, another of the group’s founders. “Sometimes audience members share a funny anecdote or tell their own experiences. Regardless, it gets people thinking about Jewish topics and sharing those experiences with others.” “Improv, at its core, is about living in the now,” says Freimuth. “Rather than being motivated by an eternal punishment or reward yet to come, the Jewish improv player focuses on what just occurred and responds to it appropriately, for the sake of doing what’s right, right now.” And by supporting the other players on stage, you “create something beautiful and, hopefully, funny.”

For more information please contact:

Esther D. Kustanowitz, senior editor of PresenTense Magazine, has been improvising

Tanya Cawthorne, Campus Affairs Coordinator Tel. 972 (2) 560-5516 Fax: 972 (2) 560-5907 E-mail: 54tanyac@shalem.org.il issue four 2008

for nearly a decade. Read into that what you will. You can find more of her work at

Summer internship program (June 22 – August 14, 2008) The Shalem Center will accept outstanding undergraduates and recent graduates for an eight-week summer program at the center. The program provides a unique opportunity to combine intellectual study with practical work experience in a variety of departments at a leading Israeli research institute. Graduate fellowship program (October 2008 – June 2009) Applications are invited from students in the fields of history, philosophy, political science, archaeology, International and Middle East studies, economics, religion, cultural studies, Bible, Talmud, Jewish history and philosophy, Zionist history and related disciplines. How to apply

EstherK.com.

PresenTensemagazine.org reviews


arts

Portrait of an Artist

eve grubin’s modest sensuality

Michael Rose

Photo provided by Eve Grubin

O

ften invoking Jewish symbolism, Eve Grubin’s powerful poetry collection, Morning Prayer (The Sheep Meadow Press), takes a luminous look at the small bridges separating sanity and instability, desire and purity, and time and memory. Poetry editor for Nextbook and director of Drisha’s Arts Fellowships Program, Eve blogs at Modestly Yours (http://blogs.modestlyyours.net/) and is at work on new poems as well as a book of essays that explores connections between poetry and modesty. She teaches at City College and The New School. Her essay on the origins of modesty appears in the forthcoming anthology The Veil: Women Writers on its History, Lore, and Politics (University of California Press). Eve spoke with PresenTense’s Michael Rose on poetry, modesty, spirituality, and the significance of white space.

arts PresenTensemagazine.org

MR: Do you consider yourself a Jewish poet, a poet who is Jewish or a Jew who is a poet? How do you think the larger literary world views you in this context? Do you feel that view does you justice? EG: I grew up on Blake, Sharon Olds, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Keats, Jean Valentine, and Fanny Howe (none of whom are/were Jewish); since these were my “poetry parents,” so to speak, I can’t say that I think of myself as a Jewish poet. With that said, I am Jewish! And as I began to become observant, Jewish concepts and language found their way into the poems. I don’t really know how the larger literary world views me in this context. MR: The poems in Morning Prayer are sensual, but I was especially struck by how modestly that sensuality is conveyed. On the Modestly Yours blog posts, in contrast, you speak very candidly about sexuality (in the context of championing modesty)—why the difference?

EG: Poetry by nature is so intimate and private, that it doesn’t need to be graphic or explicit. Its intimacies are already magnified. Graphic language is usually gratuitous in poetry; references of a sexual nature in a poem require just a small gesture or hint of the sensual to suffice. An essay or blog, on the other hand, is public and less delicate, less vulnerable. The form can withstand more explicit language. MR: What is modest poetry? How do you write intimately and privately knowing that your work is likely to be seen? EG: Modesty acknowledges the sacredness of the erotic. Poetry works in a similar way because it is a slanted (or modest) art (“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—” wrote Emily Dickinson): a poem’s intimacies are hidden or shielded slightly by the slant in which it has to be written. Poetry’s intimacy depends on its modesty and its modesty depends on its intimacy; you can’t have one without the other. issue four 2008

55


I always have in mind when writing, that if the poem feels too personal, then I just won’t publish it. I don’t think that has ever happened though. The best poems go beyond the private and intimate. When they become real poems they don’t even feel a part of me anymore. They are a part of language or some other realm entirely.

Join Drisha’s Learning Community See for yourself why the Slingshot resource guide cited Drisha for innovation and impact in Jewish adult learning. Beginner, intermediate or advanced level for women of all backgrounds

Beit Midrash Program Arts Fellowships Scholars Circle Yesodot (skill-building) Program Apply by April 1 for a fellowship for full-time or part-time studies.

For information or an application:

DRISHA INSTITUTE FOR JEWISH EDUCATION

37 West 65th Street, New York, NY 10023

212.595.0307 inquiry@drisha.org www.drisha.org

MR: In a number of your poems (“What Happened,” “How the Rain,” “Brooklyn Window”) you make reference to the white spaces, the “white slivers” between words. I know there is an idea that the white spaces in the Torah contain words not yet revealed, but what lies in the white spaces of your poems? And why does the idea of white spaces resonate for you? EG: The white space between the black letters of a poem is the essence of the poem. What do the letters frame? What is not being said? What are the blank spaces telling us? Another way of looking at it: the text is the conscious speaking and tfhe white spaces are the unconscious. The reality that exists beside the knowable physical world pulses in those spaces. When a poet tries to communicate in letters what belongs in those white spaces, the poem dies, its energy leaks out. Often, revision of poems mostly involves cutting. The lines that the poet cut are still breathing in the white spaces of the final poem. And the reader can feel their vibrations. MR: Biblical figures, most particularly Adam and Eve, also feature prominently in a few poems. What responsibility, if any, do you feel towards maintaining their place of reverence within Jewish tradition? EG: A good deal of literature, until recently, has been informed by the Torah—look at Moby Dick or Paradise Lost, and the poems of Hopkins, Herbert, Dickinson, Jonson, and Donne. Many of those writers were religious themselves and all of them were raised with a rigorous religious education (Milton knew Hebrew and Rashi, for instance). There is a long tradition of poets and writers who feel connected to religious material, and their writing is filled with that material. I don’t think they felt they were compromising their reverence for the Biblical figures.

They probably felt that their own faith was deepened by engaging with the text. If we don’t try to understand and connect to Biblical figures on a deeply personal level, then their place of reverence within tradition has little meaning. MR: Does that same feeling transfer to your own poems....do your poems which engage spiritual subjects serve to deepen your faith? What is the difference between poetry and prayer? Have you ever used your poems as prayers that you speak out? EG: When I write a poem that engages with the Torah, it means that I am in a phase of strong connection with the text, so I would say that the poem reflects that connection, and yes, the process of writing is deepening. The attention to language and sound is hypnotic and connects me to the text on a sensual and visceral level. Poems are prayers because they are small cries of longing, praise, gratitude, or distress towards an invisible listener. I do not use my poems as prayers to speak out. The months or years it takes to write and revise them may represent a kind of prayer. But when they are “done,” I don’t turn to them anymore, unless I give a reading. MR: Is being a poet ever in conflict with your spiritual life? You have called religion a “wild sanity.” Can you elaborate on what that means? EG: My poems and writing them are not in conflict with my spiritual life. They are in conjunction with my spiritual life. Sanity is wild because it embraces the imagination and depends on flexibility and irrationality—dreams are beautifully sane, for instance. Contrary to popular thought, insanity is rigid and lacks imagination. Wild sanity simultaneously involves intuition and learning, doubt and loyalty, commitment and conflicting perspectives, and faith. This is Judaism. Michael Rose is Arts and Ideas Editor at PresenTense. A writer, editor, and artist, he is at work on a lyric novel set in Jerusalem and Tzfat.

PresenTensemagazine.org arts


First Course

garlic, a jewish love stor y

Rus Pearlman

L

ike most defining moments of my life, my passion for garlic can be traced to my brother. When the younger of my two older brothers, Naftali, discovered Orthodox Judaism, his change sparked a number of changes in me (what younger sister doesn’t idolize her big bro?). The first: I stopped wearing shorts and tank tops. The second: I added “yeshiva attendance” to my five-year plan. And the third: garlic became a staple of my Shabbos diet. In the old city of Jerusalem, where he was living, Friday night meals were often started with Mediterranean appetizers like pickles, olives, hummus, and of course, the bulb of garlic. The top of the entire bulb was sliced off and drizzled with olive oil. Stuck in the oven with the rest of the Shabbos food, it came out sticky, spreadable, and delicious. It turns out that the Friday night garlic connection was no coincidence. Many religious Jews make a point of eating the savory, yet pungent, dish on Shabbos eve due to an enactment of the Prophet Ezra during the time of the Babylonian Exile. Witnessing the devastation that intermarriage was causing in the Jewish community, Ezra, with all of the authority of the law, proclaimed that men should eat garlic on the eve of the Sabbath to “ensure Jewish continuity.” Reading between the lines, it is unmistakable—Garlic, a Biblical aphrodisiac. Regardless of its origins, the garlic appetizer has become one of my favorite parts of the meal. In many of my friends’ households, it has become common to stretch out the first course with lots of challah, Mediterranean spreads, maybe some gefilte fish or salad, and some form of garlic. For years, my family stayed true to the roasted whole garlic bulb. Slowly, my sister-in-law introduced a new element—dozens (if we had the patience to peel them) of cloves warmed in straight olive oil. Friends added variations of their own, chopping the cloves or even using minced garlic from a jar. My relationship to garlic changed again when I married a man who grew up on a farm. Garlic is one of the farm’s heartiest crops, used by my mother-in-law in stir-fry, soup and most often, salad dressing. As it is an organic farm which produces especially robust and flavorful garlic, I gained a whole new appreciation for the subtleties of taste: Garlic could be buttery, rich or spicy. By my second visit to the in-laws, I shyly suggested roasting a few bulbs for our Shabbos dinner. My mother-in-law appropriated the custom, and did so again months later, when I suggested warming the peeled cloves in oil.

This year, my brother instituted perhaps the greatest Friday night garlic innovation to date. Looking to streamline the first course of challah, garlic in oil, hummus, matbucha (a Mediterranean tomato salad), olives, and fish, he made the following modification: olives, tomatoes and garlic all roasted together as one dish. My sister-in-law, Raizy, who really knows her way around the kitchen, produced the masterpiece: shmooshkela

1dry pint grape tomatoes 6 - 8 ounce jar pitted green olives 7 - 9 garlic cloves or to taste ¼ C olive oil or as much as it takes to get a pool of oil on the bottom of the pan Heat at 350 degrees for at least 40 minutes; the garlic smell will permeate the kitchen and the cloves will be squishy. As a bonus, the hot tomatoes will burst in your mouth in a way that I really like. Serve as a side or use as a spread. This recipe is incredibly flexible. I’ve varied the proportions of tomatoes and olives to suit my family’s palette. Originally, I sprinkled the dish with salt, but after forgetting it one time, and not really missing it, have since left it out. Considering the dish a work in progress, I have been encouraging others to tweak it to meet their tastes. One memorable suggestion was adding grapes (yeah, I panned that one); another, courtesy of my mother-in-law, was to leave the cloves unpeeled and let them pop open themselves. This recreates the experience of eating garlic from a roasted bulb and extracting the “yum” from inside the paper-like membrane. Much like the Jewish people, garlic enhances the flavor of what’s around it while retaining its own very specific taste. Without intending to sound risqué, my family is doing its part to ensure Jewish continuity by continuing the garlic tradition around our Shabbos table. We share our beliefs with our friends; we teach our son about the commandments; and we let the lesson of the garlic speak for itself. Rus Pearlman is a Jewish communal, chocolate and shabbos junkie. She blogs about chocolate at Haute Chocolate (www.millionblogs.org/Chocolate/).

Photo provided by Rus Pearlman

contents arts PresenTensemagazine.org PresenTensemagazine.org

issue four 2008

57


Gringolandia

T

he piano bench was much colder than Noah expected. The last time he’d sat at a piano he had remembered it for weeks, from the way his calves ached from dangling. This time he could settle his feet flat along the carpet next to the pedals, his pant legs shifting upward to expose his white socks and the hair around his ankles. He pressed down on the balls of his feet and looked up at the square room around him. There was no comfortable space in the small den for the piano, not even an angle at which it was appropriate to place it. It stood in the center of the room, its black lid cracked, half of it dusty, the other shiny in streaks. Noah

58

issue four 2008

took one finger, slipped it under the keyboard cover and pushed upwards. The cover was heavier than he’d expected, and his whole hand slipped immediately under his finger to steady it as he raised and pushed it back. The piano had come from Noah’s grandmother, Abuelita. Abuelita Dora, they called her to others. If he told someone about the newest addition to their home, this was how he’d have to explain it: the piano had come from Abuelita Dora. “Lidia?” Noah called out. He’d been waiting for his wife at the piano bench a good ten minutes, and she’d promised to come see the instrument right away. “I’m here, I’m here,” she said, coming around the corner from the kitchen and adjusting her belt. Lidia was forever adjusting her belt, forever making new holes in it to get it tighter or looser, more exact to the width of her waist. She did not smile when she saw the piano. “Sure is big,” she said. The maroon lines along the outside of her small mouth moved toward each other, closing the gap of natural lip color between the two lines of bright pink liner. The last time he’d seen that tight face was when he’d crunched fried, salted crickets between his molars and told her it reminded him of family. Noah looked up at her now and tried to smile, tried to focus his eyes on the freckles along the bridge of her nose. He tried to pretend he didn’t see the tension in her face, the way a small smudge of red stayed at the corner of her mouth when her lips pressed together and then away. Noah’s right hand slid forward onto the keyboard as if of its own accord. Two black keys fit neatly between his three fingers. “I mean, we just don’t have room for it,” Lidia said. Noah swiveled his legs around the bench and turned to face her. As she shook her head slowly at him,

an excerpt

Leora S. Fridman Lidia’s bangs dangled over her eyes and high forehead, as if the short cropped bits were teasing the rest of her dark hair in its slicked, smooth ponytail. Her hands were laced together, hanging in front of her just below her hips at the spot where her black skirt creased into itself under her small belly and then continued down straight past her thighs toward the floor. It had always struck him; the way that clothing could cut shapes and folds into surfaces that on their own were smooth and round. He had always been fascinated by those kinds of splits in bodies that clothing made, the places where low-cut jeans squeezed rolls out around women’s hips that shifted and protruded when they sat. He pictured the way his grandmother’s hips had turned outward when she sat open legged at this same piano bench. “I thought you said you wanted our kids to play piano.” Noah knew his voice sounded childish, disappointed. He wished he’d breathed in deeper before he spoke. He wasn’t used to arguing with Lidia. Whenever they disagreed on something, he preferred to back down and let her have her way, whether it was with the curtains or the brand of the refrigerator. He looked down at the strips of brown paper in curling piles around the piano. He’d been too eager to open the package to throw away the packaging material. The piano had been delivered just after he’d returned home from work, just before she’d gotten home, and he hadn’t even thought to wait for her to peel back the cardboard. He hadn’t thought she’d mind. “What I said was that I wanted our kids to play an instrument,” Lidia said. “One they could carry in a backpack would be wonderful.” She came toward the piano as if to approach him, but two feet from the bench she pivoted and turned away. She made a firm fist with her small pointer finger sticking out, drew the finger in a careful straight line across the dusty side of the piano lid, then turned it at a right angle across the grey surface. She turned another, then another, and drew a square in the dust. It struck Noah that the foot-square spot she had drawn would be the perfect spot to put his music books if he still had any. The last time he had handled a stack of music books had been the last time he’d seen his Abuelita. PresenTensemagazine.org arts


Mis pensamientos son masivos, Abuelita had told him then, My thoughts are massive. It was on his last trip to Mexico City, a year ago, when he went to tell her that he was getting married and she told him to take a piano. She had four in her small apartment in el D.F., and she was paying far more in insurance than could possibly make it worth it to keep them around. She could hardly keep them tuned. That was the trip when he and his cousins started to laugh at Abuelita to her face. Every trip back to the City had involved some form of joking with her, some level of tolerance of her made-up stories and out-dated opinions on minority groups. Their tolerance was down this time, and their giggling unhidden by polite hands. When Abuelita said antiquated things, they laughed, and she looked away. It had been years since she had the clout to reprimand them. She had always been too insistent upon her own opinions for them to actually engage her in arguments. Once, soon after Noah had learned to drive, he’d picked her up in New York City and driven her back to his parents’ house in Ithaca. He was seventeen, and tentative enough in his driving that he was quiet in the car until she began to comment on the landscape along Route 13. Look at all the corn, she told him,

there must be a lot of redskins around here. He’d tried to argue with her, tried to tell her kindly that “redskin” was not the polite term, but she was firm. No soy racista, she insisted, I’m not being racist. I’m just saying what they look like. Noah didn’t feel like arguing with her observation of color, and he found it easier to stay in his lane if they drove in silence. On that last trip to the City, the only things that Abuelita said that made sense had to do with furniture and food. She rarely left the apartment in those days, and he could just barely picture the way she’d looked when she was younger, selecting nopales and hunks of queso Oaxaca for the maid, her hands strong and sure and her fingers rough and red at the tips. Noah could just see the woman who’d officiated so firmly over twenty-person Passover Seders, with her crisply-ironed silk blouses, white knuckles, and perfectly-timed courses from soup to meat. It was nearly impossible to locate that woman in the abuelita who stood before him in her fraying blue nightgown and knee socks and seemed to talk more about the virtues of frozen food than anything else. The microwave oven seemed to make her especially eloquent. Los taquitos necesitan el de-frost, she’d say, the little tacos need the de-frost, and point him to the “Defrost”

button. She seemed almost proud of the grey, partitioned containers that she crowed could be ready with just three minutes in a microwave on high. Perhaps it was the efficiency of frozen dinner that she loved, or its high saline content. The first time Noah feared for her mental state was that one afternoon when he came up behind her in the kitchen. She was smiling brilliantly at the neat puffs of steam that rose from a plastic bowl of microwaved picadillo and muttering something to herself about Abraham. “Que haces, Abuelita?” he’d asked her, “What are you doing?” and she’d whirled angrily at him, her face changing suddenly from calm to distraught, her eyebrows dancing. “Que haces tu aqui?” she’d yelled, what are you doing here? And, switching suddenly to English, “This is no place for a young man. Sit outside. Go to the piano. Sit. Sit.” And with each word she’d bumped up against him gently, the flag of her old woman arms directing him out the door of the kitchen and back toward the living room. He hadn’t dared to go into the kitchen after that. Leora S. Fridman is a Dorot Fellow living in Tel Aviv, where she writes and teaches. She recently graduated from Brown University, and hails from Belmont, Massachusetts.

issue four 2008

59


backpage

Matisyahu Tonti strives to make art that is educational and inspirational. When not playing with art supplies, he can be found in near-perpetual bliss with his wife Julie and daughter Mayira.

60

issue four 2008

PresenTensemagazine.org backpage


You’ve read it. Now support it.

@

Subscribe PresenTense.org

contents PresenTensemagazine.org

issue four 2008

61


62

issue four 2008

PresenTensemagazine.org contents

Profile for PresenTense

PresenTense Issue 4  

PresenTense 4 brings Social back

PresenTense Issue 4  

PresenTense 4 brings Social back

Advertisement