My mysterious new identity

As some of my readers know, I’m really into genealogy.  I’ve done lots of research on my family’s roots and have even created a Google Map showing the various villages in Europe they lived in.  I’ve done a DNA test and am about 93% Ashkenazi Jewish, which squares with the Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Romanian locations I was able to piece together on my family tree.  I did extensive research, including using Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Ellis Island records, and more.  Technically speaking, this project really started in my childhood Hebrew school class when we did family trees.  Jews love knowing where we’re from.  And as the name of my site suggests, roots matter to me- big time.

Roots place us in a moment in time.  Ultimately, all people are from the same creation, from the same roots.  But there’s something about knowing where your ancestors lived, breathed, ate, cried, laughed, and lived that puts things in context.

And this week I got a new piece of information that totally scrambles my sense of self.

As confirmed by a relative, my great-grandmother (father’s mother’s side) Baila/Beile/various spellings of “B” names, was descended from Romanian gypsies.  The more correct term (which I’ll use from now on): Roma.

Not familiar with this group of people?  You might have heard someone “gypped” you.  It’s a degrading colloquial expression (not coincidentally synonymous with “to Jew” someone) that means to rip someone off.  And is based off the word gypsy.  Maybe you’ve seen countless bands or stores or brands use the word “gypsy” (considered a slur by many in the community) to market their products.  Anything wandering, mysterious, unsettled, and filled with smells of the East.  A metaphor for something exotic, not from here.

I’ve met Roma.  Other than the fortune tellers I’ve sometimes seen in American cities, I met Roma when studying immigrant students in Spain.  Parts of Spain (as well as apparently Hungary according to a friend from there) actually have separate schools for Roma- both Spain-born and migrants from elsewhere in Europe.  While in Spain this is billed as a “progressive” tactic for “integration” into the marketplace (instead of presumably wandering into a life of crime), in Hungary my friend explained it was simply a racist tactic.  One with which we’re familiar in the American public school system.

I’ve also met Roma in Romania.  For my frequent blog readers, you may have noticed I’ve been to Romania three times.  More than any other country in the past two years other than Israel.  It’s a country that has intrigued me for over a decade.  When I was 21, I first discovered the magic that is manele music.  This Romanian gypsy pop is infectious, and you can see I actually wrote a blog about it years ago on my previous website, Culturally Curious.  To this date, people continue to read the post to get an introduction to this unique style of music.

I fell in love with this music before I really knew about my Romanian roots.  I have 15 hours of it on my iTunes and another 4 hours on my phone.  It’s fun and ingrained into my soul, like somehow this rather obscure style of music was perhaps meant to be a part of my life.  Or blood.

Something drew and continues to draw me to Romania.  Its music, its mamaliga, its incredible Jewish history and civilization.  Its gorgeous mountains, some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.  It’s a complicated place worth visiting and I highly recommend it for a more raw, authentic view of Europe than going up the Eiffel Tower.

What threw me for a loop, then, was that my Romanian roots aren’t just Jewish.  In fact, they may not be Jewish at all.

Beile D. (as most of her records show her name) was born in Bucharest.  One of her parents was from Galicia (a highly Jewish region of Eastern Europe) and one was from Romania.  She spoke Romanian according to American Census records.  Nowhere have I been able to find her last name or birth records.  Given her possibly nomadic, highly oppressed background, this is less surprising.  Roma are known for being wanderers in many cultures and for being highly discriminated against, even today.  So 1880s birth records for this community may be scarce, although I’ll continue to look now that I realize the papers may not be in Jewish community archives.

Now my grandmother on this side of the family grew up speaking Yiddish, so her father was clearly Jewish.  And perhaps her mother was of a mixed Roma-Jewish marriage, or a Roma who converted to Judaism- it’s not clear.  What is clear is that if Beile D. was in fact Roma and *not* Jewish, then technically my entire dad’s branch of my family tree is not Jewish by Orthodox standards.  In Judaism, with the notable exception of my own branch (Reform), Judaism is matrilineal, meaning it is passed down exclusively by your mother.

For me personally, it doesn’t matter according to Jewish law.  My mother’s family is 100% Jewish (though really, after learning about this revelation, should we really assume anyone is?  Haven’t we been a mixed people since the time of Ruth’s conversion?), which means by even the strictest standards I’m a Jew.  And certainly culturally both sides of my family are Jews by both self-definition and practice for generations.

On some level, the question is a bit irrelevant.  For the reasons above, I’m Jewish no matter what my genealogical research has revealed this week.  And yet something gnaws at me.  That DNA survey I did showed I was 93% Ashkenazi Jewish.  What about that extra 7%?  As much as it excites me to be part of a new ethnic group, does it make me less Jewish?  Does it explain why when I was a kid someone at my synagogue teased me for not looking Jewish?  Does it explain my caramel skin- or is that simply a function of my Mediterranean genes going back 2,000 years?  Or both?

When I did several further analyses on GEDMatch.com, it was clear that most of my ancestry was in fact Mediterranean.  That my Ashkenazi DNA was most similar to that of Syrians, Lebanese, Sicilians, Greeks, and yes, Palestinians.

What was also strange at the time, but makes more sense now, is why “South Asian” and “Anatolian” kept coming up as well.  Which matched with what my FamilyTreeDNA.com results showed for 6% of the non-Ashkenazi component.  The remaining 1% being “other European”, whatever that might mean.

At first, I thought this was statistical noise.  After all, while I love bhangra music and mango lassis, I couldn’t be South Asian.  And while people have always noted my darker skin and facial features (I’m usually confused for Hispanic in the U.S.), I thought this test must have just been a bit off the mark.

And yet, while I have a lot more research to do about this new revelation, most experts agree that the Roma originally come from Punjab and northern India.

Furthermore, if in fact one of my great-grandmother’s parents was Roma, that person would account for approximately 6.25% of my own DNA.  Which matches starkly well with the 6-7% figure of non-Ashkenazi material detected by the test I did.

Some of this is conjecture.  I can’t know for sure because my great-grandmother isn’t alive, a reminder to all to do this kind of research while you can talk to the living, not just research the dead.

Yet the numbers seem to add up.  Beyond the metaphysical element of me liking Romanian Gypsy pop and then turning out to have precisely this descent (does feel a bit bashert, right?), family folklore, my own research, and my DNA test seem to match up.

Where does that leave me?  On a new journey.  That ties me to a new people, to a new culture, to a new part of me.  To the shared struggles and cultural heritage of Roma and Jews, including musical traditions that apparently led to more than a few musicians intermarrying.

I hope it leads me to love even more my olive skin, to wonder exactly when and where it came from, and to embrace who I am as a full person.  And as a unique mix of human cultures.  And to want to explore my difference.

So who am I?  I’m Matt.  I’m Matah.  I’m a Jew.  Like the Russian Jews in Israel, like the Ethiopian Jews, like the many others who have mixed heritage- or heritage viewed with suspicion by the Israeli Rabbinate.  It leaves me more empathetic to people who’ve been excluded from our people for looking differently or intermingling with their neighbors.  Nobody is pure-bred anything- we’re all from Africa after all.  A poignant reminder in a time of rising nationalism around the world.

So perhaps that’s part of the message I take away.  While I’m no less Jewish (who knows, maybe Beile even converted!), a part of me feels a bit “lesser”.  And that’s a part I want to work on and understand.

Because in the end, Roma, Jewish, or both- I’m a person.  Just like everyone reading this.  And if the Jewish people (including myself) can focus a little less on who looks “like one of us” and more on what makes us a great people, then that’ll be a positive influence on humanity.

In the meantime, I’ll be wandering.  It’s something both Jews and Roma have been doing for years.  For all our roots are, in the end, portable.  Even as their shape changes with each bit of new soil they seep their foundations into.  Deeper and deeper until the new generation of seedlings flock to far flung pastures.  Keeping some of the old and integrating the new.  Like my ancestors at Ellis Island, me at Ben Gurion Airport, or anywhere in between.

The biggest difference between Israeli and American Jews

Over the past few years, the gap between American and Israeli Jews seems to have widened considerably.  Debates have included religious conversion, access to the Western Wall, and the degree to which each party should be allowed to exert influence in the other’s political sphere.  It’s given more than a few Jewish leaders headaches and heart break to see the world’s two largest Jewish communities at each other’s throats.  And personally, I find it disturbing for the future of the Jewish people.  Compromise and understanding, coupled with a healthy dose of empathy and intercultural understanding, could do a lot to repair this relationship.

While this deepening rift poses a threat to the Jewish people, I think the greatest difference between Israeli and American Jewry is systemic and structural more than (what I hope is) a temporary rift.

That difference is positioning.

To be a Diaspora Jew is always to be a minority.  Even if you happen to live in one of the heavily Jewish areas of the world (Crown Heights, Boro Park, Williamsburg, and not a small number of suburbs and towns across France, the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere), you are exceedingly aware of the fact that you are a minority.  While you may feel more comfortable being visibly Jewish and have a great reservoir of community to call upon to foment your identity, not a single person would doubt their minority status.  Jews form 2% of the American population and an even smaller percentage in other countries.

As I’ve written before, this creates a certain ethnic solidarity that often blurs or softens boundaries between different types of Jewish communities.  I noticed this when traveling in Antwerp, where I found the local Hasidic community quite warm to me.  I have traveled a lot in Haredi communities around the world, but there was something about doing it in the Diaspora that felt different.  Despite our own differences, we have a certain sense of being in it “together”.  Against a rising (or perhaps never disappearing) anti-Semitism, and for Jewish peoplehood.  We know that ultimately someone seeking our destruction won’t ask whether we’re Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox.  What they’ll care is whether we’re a Jew.

While that doesn’t mean to suggest there aren’t conflicts between different Jewish communities outside Israel, the conflicts tend to play second fiddle.  Our first priority is Jewish survival- against prejudice, against violence, and for a stronger Jewish community which can navigate the complicated territory of assimilation.  This has been more or less the modus operandi of Jewish communities for about 2,000 years since exile from Jerusalem.

On the other hand, Israel was built to ensure Jewish survival in a very different fashion.  While Diaspora communities have to focus on building interfaith partnerships, innovative programming, and lobbying local governments, Israelis have a very different approach.  As the only country in the world with a Jewish majority, Israelis have the right and responsibility to protect themselves with arms.  And because Jews are the majority, the rifts which take a back seat in the Diaspora become the flame wars we see in the Knesset.

Because while Israel faces threats (ISIS, Hamas, the Iranian regime, Hezbollah, etc.), it has developed an astonishing military capacity to handle them.  Therefore, in some ways (contrary to what you might see in the news), some of the most intense conflicts in Israel are between different types of Jews.

While some would argue these enemies of Israel are capable of exterminating it, I feel confident that the IDF and security apparatus of the state are in capable hands and able to deal with existential threats.  Some might disagree, and certainly the greater the external threat, the less prominent the internal debate about the nature of Judaism becomes in Israel.  In other words, a high degree of external threat (perhaps a reflex of 2,000 years of brutal anti-Semitism) can actually decrease Israeli internal societal debates.  Our survival instinct, after all, is part of why we’re here and Akkadians only occupy chapters of history books.

When the external threats seem under control, the Israeli internal debate truly rages- among Jews.  You can even see this in the most recent unprecedented call for second elections in Israel.  Prime Minister Netanyahu found himself unable to form a coalition not because of the Arab-Israeli conflict nor economic issues.  He found himself unable to form a coalition because parliamentarian Avigdor Lieberman refused to agree to the demands of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) political parties.  Despite having sat with those parties in multiple coalitions in prior times.  Perhaps an indication of Israel’s position of relative strength vis-a-vis external threats relative to past elections.  Otherwise, such internal debate would probably be less of a priority.

Which leads us to the original point.  In Israel, socio-religious debates about public transit on Shabbat, religious family law, and the role of non-Orthodox Judaism in public life are only possible because Israel is a Jewish majority country.  While various types of Jews certainly debate Jewish philosophy in the Diaspora, it doesn’t have the practical impact of necessitating a change in government policy.  Not even the most strident Satmar Hasid in Kiryas Yoel, New York would propose the state close the subway on Shabbat.  It’s a laughable suggestion because as a minority, we would never even think to ask such a thing.  And our priorities are radically different given our positioning.  The average Satmar Hasid in New York is more concerned with his or her family’s continuation of Jewish tradition and how the state interacts with their educational system.  The idea of exerting control over other Jews’ behavior through government policy doesn’t even really figure into the agenda.

In Israel, Jews freed from the need to focus on Jewish continuity have the great responsibility of debating the future of Judaism itself in the only place on the planet where its existence is secure.  And Jews in the Diaspora, freed from the need to debate the role of Judaism in public governance, are able to find greater common ground and develop a more pluralistic tradition.  And have the great responsibility of finding ways to make sure such a community can continue to exist within the context of being a tiny minority.

One Judaism is not necessarily better or worse than the other, but they are most certainly different.  And when we view today’s challenges through the prism of minority and majority status, perhaps it can give us the necessary context and empathy to resolve the rifts driving our people apart.  Israeli and American Jews will never be the same, but perhaps we can use the tension of our different identities for the kind of creativity that has spurred our people’s success across generations.  Instead of letting things degenerate.

May it be so.

The Birthright to be Jewish

Recently I had the blessing to lead a Birthright trip.  When I was 18, I went on my first trip to Israel.  At age 13, after my Bar Mitzvah, I decided to learn Modern Hebrew with a private tutor.  It’s not a step most teenagers take, let alone on their own initiative.

I fell in love with the country.  A country I had not yet been to, but a culture so alluring, so filled with life that I went by myself to a Sarit Hadad concert in suburban Maryland as a high schooler.  And loved it.

My own Birthright experience as a participant was mixed.  My tour guide was pretty right-wing and the group of people on my trip were so wild that they hooked up in front of the rest of the group…multiple times.  It was not my scene.

What I did love was Israel itself.  The landscapes, the history, the smells, the food, the Judaism, the curious nature of a country halfway around the planet somehow tied to those Hebrew lessons I took every week for three years in Maryland.

This time, the tables were flipped.  Whereas once I was an engaged participant, this time I was a leader.  While as a teenager and college student I had been an avid community organizer and counselor at various summer camps and activist institutes, it had been a long time since I had led a group of people.  I work in communications and public relations, but corralling a group of 50 college students with only two other staffers is a challenge.  At age 33.

The first few days were exhausting.  Between the jet lag, the hectic pace, being in a completely new social structure with nobody I knew, and the heavy responsibility of watching out for dozens of people’s lives, I was exhausted.  And frankly, not having a very good time.

All that changed with Shabbat.  The trip came to a slow, gentle pause as we joined the country in resting and reflecting.  As I had many times before in other places, I led the group in Kabbalat Shabbat services, a challenging and exciting opportunity given the very diverse backgrounds of the participants.  Some of them had never observed Shabbat before.

But what was so amazing, and indeed is the magic of Jewish wisdom and tradition, is how it completely transformed both the group and the trip for me.  Physically, we had a chance to practice the self care our bodies desperately needed.  No hikes, no bus rides, no planes.  Just rest.

Spiritually, we had a chance to come together as a new community.

One thing I mentioned to my participants at the end of our trip (by which time we really had become a loving, kind, tight-knit group of people who I really miss) was the difference between an experience and a community.  An experience is something that ignites, that binds people together in a moment.  Birthright is definitely that and I highly recommend going if you haven’t had the chance to yet.

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A community, however, is something deeper and more long-term.  It is a valley filled with overlapping emotions, care, and responsibility.

It’s something that only happened for me once we had a chance to celebrate Shabbat.

Because Shabbat is not a place, is not an attraction, is not a sight to see.  It is a time to behold the spirit and to feel its presence in our selves and in those around us.

That is what I saw happen on Shabbat.  A group of 50 thoughtful college students started to share their inner feelings and ideas with each other.  They started to look more at each other than at their phones.  And I started to feel more connected to them as they made themselves vulnerable talking about their families, the complexity of intermarriage, their Jewish values, and so much more.

What started as a moment in time became the seed of a growing community.  A community that initially I felt I was responsible for.  But eventually stood in awe as it became responsible for itself.  For each other.  Even for me.

This is the magic of Judaism.  Judaism is not a thing you can touch nor buy.  It is something you can practice anywhere at any time.  Even just by sharing an act of kindness.

It is something you have to do to make real.

At least if you live outside Israel.

What is so special about Israel is that by experiencing life in a majority-Jewish country, you don’t have to do Jewish.  You can simply be Jewish.  The nature of the place is that the street signs carry the names of famous rabbis, the boulevards of Jewish heroes.  The Hebrew language is plastered on every pizzeria and we hold our fate in our own hands with the ability and responsibility of having an army to protect ourselves.

That is the nature of Judaism in Israel.  You don’t need to do anything to feel Jewish- it’s just around you all the time.  The degree to which you engage it is up to you, but the holidays and culture will happen whether you participate or not.  It’s a miracle of the complicated and sometimes fraught ideology we call Zionism.  That for all its varying shades, victories, and failures is ultimately the only ideology that successfully found a way for people to simply exist as a Jew by virtue of being one.  And to succeed to passing that unique state of being on to future generations.

If my words are unclear, think about it this way.  If you want to be Jewish in America, you can certainly choose to identify as a Jew and do nothing to actively pursue that identity.  However, that identity will ultimately not find any manifestation in your day-to-day life unless you act on it.  Lighting Shabbat candles, learning about the Holocaust, studying Jewish texts, having Jewish friends- these are some of a myriad of ways in which you can “do Jewish” in the Diaspora.  And if you don’t find some way to do so, Judaism as a faith, tradition, and culture will not be a visible part of your life.

So the gift (and challenge) of Israel (and of Birthright) is the uniqueness of Judaism in this place.  Israel allows Jews to exist as Jews while doing nothing (consciously) Jewish.  It is the only place on the planet where all schools shut down for Jewish holidays and you feel the presence of Shabbat by the absence of buses on the roads every Friday night.  Whether you like it or not, or whether you pray or not.  You’re a Jew.

So I want to share a special message with my Birthright participants (Bus 354 woo woo olé!) and with the secular Israelis who move to the States and with Jews in America looking for a way to engage.

My message is you have to do Jewish to be Jewish.  Unless you live in Israel, Judaism won’t happen for us the way it did on Birthright.  It’s something I’m sure you’ll miss when you go back home and it’s truly a special experience to walk the streets of Jerusalem emptied of cars on a Saturday afternoon.

The good news is your Judaism doesn’t have to stop there.  Obviously it’s great to go back to Israel and there are many ways to do so, including subsidized programs through MASA.  Explore in more depth.  Learn about the complexity of Israel, including its diverse non-Jewish communities such as the Druze, Arab Christians, Arab Muslims, Circassians, Bedouin, and more.  The tent we stayed at in the desert is only a meager taste of what these amazing communities have to offer.

But also take Judaism with you in your own way.  It could be choosing to put your phone on airplane mode for a few hours on Shabbat to get that feeling of mindfulness you got during our trip.  It could be taking a stroll with a friend in nature.  It could be finding time to catch up with friends from the trip, keeping our newfound community alive.  It could be learning about Jewish history or music or news or visiting a museum.

It also could mean plugging into your local Jewish community.  Places like Hillel on campus, Moishe House after you graduate, or the dozens of organizations and synagogues in your local Jewish Federation– these are places where you can find fellow Jews to connect with wherever you are.  And get that feeling of togetherness we had on our trip.

My greatest hope for you and for all Jews outside Israel is to see that the magic of Judaism doesn’t have to stop at Israel’s borders.  Although it will never be exactly the same and there is something so unique and special about the spontaneous Judaism that happens there.

The spirit of Shabbat and of Jewish life that you experienced is all around us if you access it.

Take the moment, take the experience, and build it into a community.  A community of our bus, of our friends, of our people.  And let it nourish you now and for many years to come.

Amen.  Miss you guys 🙂

Gratitude

Gratitude is not an easy concept when you’ve been through a lot of hard experiences.  I’m not someone who falls for the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “it happened for a reason” ideas.  Some people find those valuable, and from time to time I suppose I can too, but I don’t think it’s a useful organizing principle.  What doesn’t kill you can still hurt and wound you and create painful consequences.  Everything “happens for a reason” but I don’t necessarily buy that it was preordained nor that good can only come out of evil or harm.  Something bad doesn’t have to happen in order for good experiences to be enjoyed later.  If it’s something you’ve come to the conclusion of, then that’s fine.  It’s not for everyone or for every experience- and certainly not an idea to push on others feeling pain.

Gratitude is a difficult but important concept.  And two stories come to mind when I think of the ways in which I’m fortunate.

One time in Belgium I felt someone else’s gratitude open my heart.  I was in the village of Dinant in the French-speaking region of Wallonie.  I had dreamed of going to Belgium for years.  I love tiny countries, especially multilingual ones like Belgium, and it’s a great place to speak French.

I was trying to get directions somewhere and I asked this older woman for help in French.  She gruffly pointed and told me where to go.  It wasn’t a very pleasant experience.  As any solo traveler knows, relying on locals for help and kindness is a crucial part of making your adventure a success- and feeling good.  And I wasn’t very happy with how she treated me.

My French is quite good, so I thought perhaps she thought I was a tourist from France, and maybe Belgium and France have some sort of rivalry.  Maybe she was old and miserable and in a bad mood.  I really wasn’t sure- I just knew I didn’t really want to be around her, so I made my way up a funicular to the top of a cliff to see the town from above.

It was a beautiful, beautiful place.

After chatting with some other tourists, I made my way down.  And who did I see at the bottom of the cable car?  The grumpy woman.

She approached me, perhaps feeling guilty for her rude behavior earlier, and we chatted for a moment in French.  She pointed me towards an interesting village she had mentioned earlier.  And asked where I was from.

While during my travels I sometimes vary in whether I say American, Israeli, or both, this time I decided to say American.

And her eyes lit up.

She thanked me.  Thanked me?  For what, you might ask?  She is from a generation of Belgians that remembers the sacrifices Americans made to protect their country in both World War I and World War II.  Sacrifices like those of my great uncle Barney.  For those who don’t know, Belgium was a battleground in both- and large parts of its countryside laid desolate and decimated.  The graveyards are still present to this day, often flanked by American and British flags.

Her gratitude was palpable.  It was a beautiful moment, one which I totally didn’t expect.  Traveling as an American or Israeli abroad is often tricky, especially in Europe where both logical and deeply illogical negative reactions abound.  Before I have a chance to share who I am as a person.

In this case, I felt nothing but love.  It was this immediate bond and I thanked her for her kind words.  She then, like a cute little grandma, made sure I knew exactly how to get to the next village and even followed me for a bit just to help.

It’s stories like these that make you realize the power of a word.  Her gratitude made my day so much better.  I’m thankful for people like her, willing to open their hearts to a stranger.

Stranger is one of the most repeated words of the Torah, for those who don’t know.  The commandment to welcome the stranger is so incredibly present in the text.  And Jews, as one of the most mobile people on the planet, have often been treated as “the other”.  As strangers, sometimes even centuries after our arrival.

Which makes my second story all the more important.

I found myself in Ljubljana, Slovenia.  I hadn’t really come to this country for its Jewish community- it numbers only 1,000 and its main historic synagogue which I wanted to visit was quite far from the capital city.  I really came to this country for its mountains- and mountains it really does have.  It’s the second greenest country by percentage of land covered in forest after Finland.

I spent about a week in Ljubljana and at this point in my journey, I started feeling a bit lonely.  Lonely not only because traveling alone can be hard, but also because I saw a Hitler salute in the middle of the town square.  While I wouldn’t want to suggest that most Slovenians are anti-Semitic, the experience of seeing a teenage boy dabble in Nazism in front of my face at noon in the town square was horrifying.  While in the end I didn’t feel physically unsafe, I certainly felt alone and kind of sad.

Which led me to seek out Jewish community.

I googled and found the local Jewish museum.  Being originally from D.C., I think of the Smithsonian or other large institutions when I hear the word.  After traveling to other countries (and other American cities), I realize how lucky I was to grow up with such a dazzling institution for free at my doorstep.

Because this museum was a simple two room set up.  The size of an apartment.  Yet its power is much greater than its size.

In a country with only 1,000 Jews, the most prominent message displayed in this little space was one of tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

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It really astounded me.  I think if I lived in such a small community, while I would want positive relations with my neighbors (who in some cases collaborated with Nazis- so not an easy feat), my focus would be on Jewish continuity.  I would probably double down on building strong Jewish-centric institutions.

Yet this museum managed to find a delicate and thoughtful balance between introspection and outward engagement.  There were old relics of Torah scrolls and ritual objects and histories of the Jewish community.  Right alongside the very active programming the center does to engage the broader Ljubljana community in educating not only about Jews, but generally building a cultural of tolerance for all.  It’s a complex and nuanced approach to Jewish community that far exceeds the size of the building.  It’s one that much larger communities continue to grapple with- where does the particular intersect with the universal- if at all?

All of which made me feel both impressed and grateful.  Impressed at how this tiny community had taken such a small space and turned it into a meaningful educational endeavor.  At their resourcefulness and at their interconnectedness.  All in the space of two rooms.  You don’t need fancy equipment or huge fundraisers to make a difference- you need willpower and a strong moral fiber more than anything else.

My gratitude goes to the Jewish Museum of Ljubljana for reminding me of this lesson.  And it made me even more grateful to be part of the two largest Jewish communities in the world- America and Israel- where we have so many resources to explore our identity and pass it on to the next generation.  Something we should not take for granted.

To be part of these communities is a privilege that some Jews don’t enjoy.  Some Jews have fewer members of our tribe in their country than live in just one American suburb or an Israeli kibbutz.  Yet, as the Jews of Ljubljana show, it is possible even with such a small, dedicated group of people to make a difference in the world.

May they continue to remind me, and all of us, of the power of one.  Of the power of a small group.  Of the spirit of the Jewish people.  And, in the case of the woman from Belgium, the power of just one word to change someone’s day: thanks.

Dialoguing in the face of hopelessness

Let’s face it- things look dire when you read the news lately.  North Korea this, Iran that, the Middle East generally speaking a mess.  Democrats who won’t speak to Republicans who won’t speak to Democrats who won’t speak to moderates who won’t speak to liberals.  It’s a dizzying and dismaying amount of isolation and siloing of society.

A friend recently messaged me upset about this breakdown in communication.  A liberal herself, she found it frustrating when she met people on her own side of the aisle who refused to recognize the humanity of those who disagreed with them.  That while some people clearly lie outside the pail of rational debate, there is room for disagreement in a democratic and pluralistic society.  And that if we resort to the tactics of extremists on the other side, what do we, in the end, become?

To this end, I’d like to share a story.

I found myself in need of an adventure.  And my adventure begins with Yiddish.  Yiddish is a Jewish language I speak, the language my own ancestors have used on a daily basis for countless generations.  A mishmosh (a Yiddish word itself!) of Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Old French, medieval German, Polish, Russian, and more- it is a mixed language much like English.  Enriched by its various components.  It allows for a degree of nuance.  For instance, the word in Yiddish for an acquaintance is “froynd” (“friend” in German), whereas a close friend is a khaver, which means friend in Hebrew.  It indicates a lot about the society Yiddish speakers lived in and how social and familial ties developed.  As did persecutions.

So Yiddish, for all its various components, is probably about 70% comprised of medieval Germanic words (words which occasionally differ in meaning from their Modern German counterparts, but bear a strong similarity).  Pennsylvania Dutch, as the famous scene from The Frisco Kid goes, is remarkably similar to Yiddish.  As a pre-standardized form of German passed down from generation to generation here in the U.S., I’ve found it rather comprehensible to me.  I tested my theory out by speaking Yiddish to an Amish woman in Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia- she smiled from ear to ear and responded back in Pennsylvania Dutch.  She said she had heard of similarities between the languages and you could tell she was tickled to find out it was true.  As was I 🙂 .

A few weeks later, I hopped on a train to Lancaster, PA, home of the Amish heartland.  I went to another market and tried out my Yiddish while buying some whoopie pies (a delightful cream-filled dessert made by the Amish- they are really good at making dessert!).  Some young women smiled and liked chatting with me.  A few didn’t speak Pennsylvania Dutch, but were nonetheless happy to see me reaching out to learn and share about our shared cultural heritage.

And one woman was just mean.

After buying her decidedly delicious whoopie pies and complimenting her on them, I tried out my Yiddish-Amish experiment.  Her response was to tell me a story about a Jewish woman she knew who she used to call a “dummer yud”.  That’s German for “dumb Jew”.

Dumb-founded, I didn’t know what to say.  I tried to ask her why she would use such a mean phrase, even about a woman she may not have liked.  She simply smiled, my religious or social or emotional arguments completely ignored.

I left deflated.

This dichotomy explains the rough terrain we’re operating in today.  Especially when it comes to dialoguing across cultures.  Faced with mistrust, I understand the impulse to protect yourself.  It’s actually a positive one because we all deserve safety and to be treated with respect.

It can also be a negative one if taken to an extreme.  If I don’t ever make myself vulnerable, then I won’t see moments of light, like when the young woman smiled from ear-to-ear in the market while I spoke Yiddish.  The first time she had ever heard my language or experienced my culture.

And if I always make myself vulnerable- or hadn’t distanced myself from the mean anti-Semitic woman- well, then I won’t be particularly happy or self-fulfilled.

This is the great challenge of communicating in a time of deep polarization.  It’s not easy and I’m always learning and re-learning my boundaries and trying to protect myself while putting myself out there.  Because if we never take risks, we never reap rewards.  For ourselves or for those lives we could touch with compassion and kindness.

So be the voice of love.  When in a group of like-minded people, offer a word of kindness about “the other”.  Whether that other be a Republican or a Democrat, a Muslim or a Jew, an atheist or a religious person, an African American or a white straight cis-man from Appalachia.  We are people.  It doesn’t mean all ideas fly or should be accepted as true.  It means that we ultimately share a lot in common with more people than we think- and should take advantage of that to build more compassion in our society.

If there is a solution to our polarization, perhaps it lies in each of us stepping just enough outside our comfort zones to provide some meaningful contact with people of different backgrounds.  Even some backgrounds that could make us feel scared- sometimes justifiably, sometimes maybe surprising us with their kindness.  Or a combination of both.

And it lies in being understanding.  Having spoken with five or six different Amish people in Yiddish and gotten positive or neutral reactions from all but one of them, I am better able to see nuance.  So that instead of sitting only with the “dumb Jew” comment (which should, nonetheless, be noted to protect myself), I can also recall the smiles of the young women touched by my actions.

As I left Lancaster filled with whoopie pies, I felt a dash of hope.  A hope I wish for all of you.  That nuance need not mean being neutral, nor negating our fears or feelings.  But that stepping outside and adventuring and getting to know our neighbors as equals- that is a true step towards happiness and wholeness.  For us, and for the greater society we share.

Whole Grain Judaism Part 2

Almost exactly three years ago, I wrote a blog post on a previous site of mine called “Whole Grain Judaism“.  I proposed some radical ideas that reflected both where I was politically and personally.  While some of the ideas have faded into my past subconscious, some seem relevant today.  In particular, the very title of the article.

The previous article focused a lot on the financial structure of Judaism and how it keeps us unnecessarily apart.  Some of the ideas no longer resonate as much with me, but some do.  There is a hyper-financialization of Judaism especially in the liberal settings I know best.  It’s one of the reasons that the Chabad financial model attracts so many Jews.  More Jews, less dues, more do’s, less inhibition to give on your own accord.

Nonetheless, acknowledging that life is more gray than black-and-white (liberal congregations are striving for financial stability, and I support their efforts), I’d like to focus on a different aspect of Whole Grain Judaism.

That aspect is our ability to cross the boundaries which keep us apart Jewishly.  Not financially, but socially and interpersonally and religiously.  Culturally.  How can we take our Judaism and make it a source of connection rather than isolation?

Isolation, as I define it, is when you keep to your own- exclusively.  Now everyone does this to a degree and if you never preferred one institution over another, you wouldn’t be telling the truth.  We all have our preferences and I think that’s healthy.  Different ideologies and life choices can strengthen the dynamism of the Jewish community and all religious and cultural groups.  Even sometimes when it creates tension.

However, when taken to an extreme, it can lead to the destruction of the Jewish people.  Or at a minimum, a severe exacerbation of the internal conflicts we experience.  Which, if left unchecked, stretch the creative tension to the kind of dissension and chaos that allows external threats to tear us apart.  It’s not a light subject- there have been multiple anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. in recent months (not to mention in Europe, Israel, and around the world, where they are sadly more accustomed to them).  If we don’t manage to have a bare minimum of internal solidarity, how are we supposed to face such threats?  We are two percent of the U.S. population- on a good day.  There are times we need to put aside our differences and work for our common good.  It’s not as if an anti-Semitic shooter is going to distinguish us based on where we pray, how progressive (or not) we are, nor our belief in God itself.

That being understood, what does this mean in practical terms?

It’s not as if any of us have a magic wand and can magically rearrange the Jewish world to institutionally promote the kind of ahavat yisrael, love of your fellow Jew, that would be needed to build such solidarity on a national level.

And yet, we all do have the capacity to make a difference.

My theory is that while institutional change is necessary, that shouldn’t get in the way of the little daily actions that, when combined, can create the kind of safety net of kindness that can preserve our people for generations.

I grew up in a Reform community.  Not in a small way- I became incredibly involved on my own accord.  I taught Hebrew school, led teen services, was on my youth group board, went to synagogue almost every week, and even almost went to rabbinical school.  I’ve visited or led services at Reform congregations from St. Louis to Barcelona, Budapest to Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires to Washington, D.C.  The Reform Movement’s intense fervor for caring about the other, for inclusion, for ethical living, for fervent prayer (as best embodied by its youth group NFTY)- those values still resonate with me in many ways.

I go to an Orthodox synagogue.  Not in a small way- I’ve become incredibly involved.  Especially for someone who has absolutely no Orthodox upbringing, relatives, or anything of the like.  I go weekly to synagogue on Saturday mornings.  I almost always go to mincha and maariv and havdalah.  I am usually at a shul member’s house for Shabbat lunch.  I rarely use my phone and I usually walk.  I love the rabbi.  He knows I’m gay.  I feel largely accepted and welcomed and I go because I love the people there.  It is not out of rejection of my past nor of the Reform values I still identify with.  I would still say I am a Reform Jew.  And I’m kind of an Orthodox one too.

This seeming dichotomy is how I live.  I am a fully-out-of-the-closet gay man who loves marching in Pride parades (and has done so two or three times under the banner of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center).  I am the same gay man who savors every bite of gefilte fish at the restaurant Shtiesel in ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak (the famous show is named after it!).  And who savors that gefilte fish at Chabad in the States.  Who speaks Yiddish at both a secular socialist summer camp and in Hasidic book stores in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

If you can’t untangle where one part of my Judaism starts and another stops, good!  Because I’ve prayed in Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Renewal, Modern Orthodox, Hasidic, and Litvish communities.  I am just as happy accepting my culturally-Jewish friends who may not believe in God as I am davvening at shul on a Saturday morning.  Not because we have the same preferences all the time- we don’t.  But because we share important things in common.  And out of a love for my fellow human being, not to mention my fellow Jew, I try to focus on those commonalities as a way to build connection.

I don’t run the American Jewish Committee nor the Jewish Federations of North America.  I don’t sit on a synagogue board and I am not a rabbi.  I am a writer.  I’m an adventurer, an explorer, and every-day Jew trying to make a difference through words and actions.  Just like you- wherever you work or play.

I’m grateful to all the Jewish professionals, lay leaders, and ordinary citizens who try to bridge the gaps on a daily basis.  Who, instead of bemoaning the news or incessantly refreshing the page of the Jerusalem Post or Ha’aretz (it’s tempting, I’ve done it!), decide to take some power into their own hands.  To be the moderate-tempered person willing to talk to reasonable people of different backgrounds.  So that if we don’t have to deny our differences, we shouldn’t be prisoner to them either.

Do you.  Live Jewishly in a way that lets you experience the best of all worlds- from Hillel to Chabad, from peaceful protests to quiet Shabbat reflection.  Or just some of the worlds, but with a desire to respect people who inhabit the others.  And if you’re not Jewish, try taking this idea and applying it to your own community.  After all, we’re all part of the human community.  And if we don’t find a way to explore other cultures and ways of thinking and be those bridges of sanity during this time of confusion, then we will collapse.  Bring the healing yourself, and find yourself both challenged and rewarded for it with the richness a textured understanding of life has to offer.

To conclude, I’ve seen a lot of signs in both America and Israel with the same gist: “ve’ahavta le’reacha kamocha”.  Love your neighbor, your companion, your colleague, your friend, your stranger, your person squishing over into your seat on the bus.  Love.

It’s not easy.  And sometimes, there are other emotions we should allow ourselves to feel.  I don’t love when people are cruel and I don’t love when people threaten innocent human beings or animals.  Love is a commandment, but not the only one.

And love we must.  Because if we don’t take it upon ourselves to get to know each other, it’s not as if our newspaper will do it for us.

Grab the only thing you can control, your self, and go for a ride somewhere you’ve never been.  And your open eyes are the best gift you can endow your soul, two little holes that let it breathe fresh air.  An air whose wisdom may eventually, God willing, come out of our mouths a little cooler than usual.  As kindness.  And whose spirit will allow us all to live Whole Grain lives.

The Hebrew letters you can’t read

What’s in a word?  When we think about linguistic changes over time, we usually think about words and accents.  How did the Ancient Greeks pronounce Homer’s Iliad? Why does the word “mashber” in Biblical Hebrew mean precipice or edge, but today means “crisis”?

One thing you might not think of is how our script changes.  After all, even if English words are different today than 400 years ago, they’re still written in Latin letters.  Even if you’d be surprised at how some of them have changed.

But some languages have had their scripts completely change alphabets over time.  For one thousand years, Turkish was written in Arabic characters. For only the past hundred years has it been written in Latin letters.  Which means a Turkish person today who does not read Arabic characters cannot read his own history.  She has to rely on a translator to re-write old texts in the modern alphabet. It’s a pretty strange thought.  Think in reverse- what if the original Shakespeare had been written in Arabic characters? And you had to rely on someone to connect you to your own history.

It’s a question that is very relevant for Jewish studies.  First things first, Ancient Hebrew wasn’t written in today’s aleph bet.  It was written in letters that look something like a cross between Japanese and hieroglyphics.  Take a look:

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Today’s Modern Hebrew alphabet is descended from our sister language, Aramaic.  Aramaic is the language of the Talmud, of the Kaddish prayer, and of not a small number of Kurdish Jews in Jerusalem and Christians in the Galilee village of Jish.  This same Aramaic alphabet has been used for a lot of Jewish languages, including Yiddish, the native tongue of millions of Ashkenazi Jews across time.  Take a look at this 19th century bilingual Yiddish-Hebrew machzor, or High Holiday prayerbook, from our collection.  Or the 11,000 Yiddish books digitized online- for free- at our friends the Yiddish Book Center.  Or pick up a copy of Der Blatt in Bnei Brak.  Or visit Beit Shalom Aleichem’s library in Tel Aviv.  You’ll see those Aramaic letters everywhere.  Telling the story of the Jewish people.

What’s interesting is that even these letters have changed over time. One of these different forms is called Ktav Rashi, or Rashi script.  This alternate way of writing is named for the famous medieval rabbi.

What’s really inspiring about Jewish history is that what happens one corner of the globe inevitably ends up in another.

Rashi script (and its sister Yiddish script called vaybertaytsh), although named for a famous Ashkenazi rabbi, is actually of Sephardic origin.  Jews originally from Spain and Portugal, expelled and persecuted by the Inquisition, sometimes successfully escaped to other countries. They brought with them an amalgam of different Romance languages- medieval Catalan, Castilian Spanish, Portuguese, and more.  Often containing Arabic and Hebrew influences.

These Jews, often from distinct parts of Spain and Portugal with different languages, eventually melded their tongues into a new one: Judeo-Spanish.  Sometimes popularly called Ladino, but most scholars prefer the former term, so we’re going to use it. This tongue developed in a variety of new countries, such as present-day Turkey, Greece, Serbia, and more.

Judeo-Spanish then came to take on local influences in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation.  Making it as mixed and rich a language as Yiddish or another hodgepodge tongue you’re reading right now: English.

This language was written in the same Aramaic alphabet we use today in Israel and in synagogues around the world.  But with a twist: it was written in a form of the Rashi script. Take a look below at our copy of Istanbul’s Sephardic newspaper “El Tiempo” from January 2, 1896.  To this day, even in Modern Spanish, this remains a popular title for newspapers.  In Washington, D.C., you’ll find newsstands with “El Tiempo Latino”.

Here’s the news out of 19th century Istanbul*:

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If you’re a Hebrew speaker, you’ll notice something curious.  The title of the periodical and the headlines are written in the Modern Hebrew block alphabet we see today.  But the content is all written in a strange font, unfamiliar to the modern eye: the Rashi script!

There are words here and there you can catch.  But if you haven’t learned the script before, there are letters you won’t even recognize!  At best, you might find yourself staring in wonder as the somewhat familiar letters begin to entrance your mind and confuse you into curiosity.

This script has a version for handwriting too.  It’s called Solitreo, an ancestor of the Hebrew cursive you’ll see in Israeli classrooms today.

What does all of this mean?

In short, even if you spoke Modern Hebrew and fluent Judeo-Spanish but didn’t know this alphabet, you might not be able to read it!  Even though your Sephardic grandparents probably could. What’s more, Judeo-Spanish underwent yet another change as today it is mostly written in Latin characters!

When we learn about our heritage, who is teaching us?  Are we able to read the original texts ourselves and come to our own conclusions?  Or do we need someone to interpret them for us?

What does it mean that these texts, unless expensively re-printed in Modern Hebrew letters, are out of reach for most of today’s Jews or people who study our heritage?

You could ask the same question of our Turkish neighbors who can’t access the majority of their history in their current alphabet.

One solution is to re-print the texts.  A time-consuming one and while a good idea, can be above the budget of many institutions.  Especially for a minority language. Which limits how many texts can be made accessible to the modern reader.

Another solution is for people studying Judeo-Spanish (or any Jewish text written in Rashi characters) to learn the new script!

David Bunis, a professor at the University of Washington, is doing just that.  Here’s his take on why he’s teaching his Judeo-Spanish students the Solitreo and Rashi scripts.

While re-printing texts is great because it makes them more accessible to others, being able to read them in the original makes you the source of information.  And empowers you to read history anywhere. You are the judge, you are the interpreter. And your capacity to read is only limited by your time and effort, not by the letters you know.

No matter what, it’s great to learn about your heritage or different cultures around the world.  Preserving Jewish heritage for Jews, for Israelis, and for all our friends around the world.  To learn the lessons of the past and apply them to our present and build a better future.

Maybe you don’t have time to learn Rashi script or Solitreo, although if you’d like to give it a shot, try this free resource online.  It claims it can have you reading in 10 minutes!  Then you can peruse our catalog and find more news from Istanbul and across the Sephardic world to learn about.  Or old Yiddish prayers written by and for women.  Or maybe you want to pump up some Judeo-Spanish music in your car as you brave the traffic to work.

But no matter what you do, access this beautiful heritage.  The more you learn about it, the richer you are. And you don’t have to spend a cent to put it in your mental grocery cart.

*Image credit: National Library of Israel and Tel Aviv University