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

Roots

The premise of this blog is that one needs roots in order to grow, to thrive.  I’ve seen this idea in action.  By connecting to my ancient roots in Israel, my family’s history in Europe, and by understanding where I grew up in the States, I understand myself better than I did a few years ago.  After being in Israel, I know why people think I look Greek, Turkish, Italian, Spanish (and Hispanic)- it’s because my DNA is from the Mediterranean.  After being in Hungary, I now know why my family cooked so much with paprika when I was a kid- the country is covered with it.  And it’s where two of my great-grandparents were born.  And after re-visiting where I grew up, I understand a lot of the challenges I’ve faced and continue to overcome.  And I remembered how the diverse hot pot of cultures known as Montgomery County, Maryland helped nourish my passion for multicultural exploration.

Which brings us back to my premise.  One needs roots.  You can live without them, but to not know where you come from- both as an individual and as part of a broader collective- is to miss out on some fabulous new understandings of the world.  Of your community.  And of your self.

Another benefit of understanding your roots is that you realize how diverse they are.  How generation after generation, my ancestors have planted and re-planted their Judaism and their bodies in new soil.  Often forced by governments and people who hated Jews, or by grinding poverty, they forged their way from Israel to Europe to North America.  And, in my case, back to Israel.  Thankfully, by choice.  Although millions of Jews expelled by Arab governments or whose families were hollowed out by the Holocaust made Israel their home with no other option.  Thank God- and to our pioneers, our soldiers, our brave entrepreneurs- for giving us a place to call home no matter what.

One thing I’ve realized about roots is that they can be nourished by various soils.  Take, for example, the Italian synagogue in Jerusalem.  After the Holocaust, Italian Jews were worried that their already decimated community would find its 2,000 year heritage erased.  Rather than leaving the synagogue to decay in post-World War II Italy, they shipped the entire synagogue to Jerusalem.  I had the blessing to visit it and it is stunning.  Not just because of the outstanding architecture, but because it, like the Jewish people, is the ultimate survivor.  And the fact that it remains an active congregation only makes it more majestic and inspiring.

Like the Italian synagogue, I too am nourished by diverse terrains.  Whether its the deep green of the Galilee, the churches of Eilaboun, the beach of Ma’agan Michael, or the ancient stones of Jerusalem, my heart is in Israel.  And if it’s the eleven Jews of Satu Mare, Romania keeping their community alive, or the pluralistic Jewish community center in the tiniest of buildings in Ljubljana, Slovenia building bridges with non-Jews, or the descendants of conversos in Lisbon who do Shabbat every week in an apartment first rented by Holocaust refugees.  My heart is in Europe too.

And if it’s the smell of whitefish salad, the dozens of times I get to speak to new Arab immigrants about Judaism- and their own memories of their countries’ Jewish communities, and the deep pluralism and tolerance that pervades Jewish institutions, then my heart is in America too.

So in the end, it’s not that roots are overrated.  It’s that you’re allowed to plant them in various places at different times and reap the challenges and rewards that that climate has to offer.  We are each able, to the best of our legal and financial capacity, to explore new places and incorporate new knowledge into our tree rings.  So that as each year passes, we hopefully grow wiser, with a bit thicker skin, and remain sensitive to our selves and our surroundings.

We can only be physically in one place at one time.  With the grace of modern technology, we can communicate across great distances and share ideas faster than ever before.  It’s a conundrum and opportunity wrapped into one.

Like the other day when I sat at Gratz College holding a centuries-old Tseno Ureno and dozens of pre-Holocaust Yiddish and Hebrew books.  Books whose owners may have perished in the fire of Nazi terror, or who after surviving it, may no longer be alive today to read this post.  Let’s hope they died of old age, but we know both possibilities exist.

To hold such books is magic.  Because the great spiritual endeavor, indeed fervor, of the Jewish people lies not as much in our biblical narrative so much as in the reality of our own survival.  That as much as I love our religious heritage, the fact that I’m performing the same act or saying the same words or thumbing the same pages as my ancestors is what draws me to God.  More than the obligation to do so.

Yet what has become clear to me is that if Jewish history, indeed our truth and our reality, is what holds the deepest spirituality for me- our culture, our music, our food, our togetherness.  It is also true that our community survives thanks to obligation.  That even if that space is an uncomfortable one for a liberal-minded Jew to inhabit, it’s one worth exploring.  Because if we don’t find ourselves obligated to a broader set of ethics and laws, even as they evolve, how do we continue to survive?

In short, that is why I’ve found myself, the die-hard Reform Jew who was the RCVP of his Temple TYG, who was on the NFTY-MAR Social Action Committee, who led his campus’s Reform Chavurah, who traveled with the URJ to Argentina, who helped write a Reform sex ed curriculum, who led services in Tel Aviv, who visited Reform shuls on four different continents.  I’ve found myself in a new space.  I’m the Reform Jew who walks to an Orthodox synagogue.  Where for the first time in my life, I’m now a member.

It’s not because I disavow myself of Reform Judaism.  I love a lot of the values and intellect of Reform Judaism and will continue to feel awe-inspired by its willingness to challenge and to change.  I am a proud Reform Jew who thinks this movement has a lot to contribute to Judaism.

It’s just that much like I don’t need to limit myself to being Israeli or American or Ashkenazi, I can be gam ve’gam.  Both this, and that.

So I’m the American who also votes according to Israeli interests.  I’m the Israeli who speaks Arabic.  I’m the left-of-center voter who has voted for four different American parties (yes, once even for a Republican).  I’m the Reform Jew who goes to an Orthodox shul.  I’m the diverse, multicultural, exploring, driven person who likes to travel and see new points of view.  The gay man who hangs out with the Amish in Yiddish.

So what are roots?  Roots are a start.  They’re a movable foundation.  Whose soaking up of nutrients changes their very composition.  They are a beginning, they change, they are stability.

I find myself, as my blog suggest, bearing fruits.  Making new friends, reconnecting with old ones, writing a new future even as I use my past to inform it.  Not to dictate it.

I will continue to bear fruits wherever I find myself planted.  Bringing nuance, change, hope, and compassion- and seeking it from those around me.  Learning, growing, and contributing to the communities I love.  And discovering new ones to explore.

That’s how you sow an orchard.

Cover photo: “Bereshit” (Genesis) – Tseno Ureno Yiddish Bible,

Gratz College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The “Jew Bill” and America’s Future

Proud to share my latest piece, published in the Baltimore Jewish Times: https://jewishtimes.com/90308/the-jew-bill-and-americas-future/opinion/.

The ‘Jew Bill’ and America’s Future

A few weeks ago, I found myself at the Maryland Historical Society. I’ve always liked Baltimore. As a suburban Marylander from Montgomery County, I suppose I should have some sort of enmity towards my ever-so-slightly northerly neighbor, but I like your town. I’m so Maryland that I once sat in the Annapolis harbor and tried to take a “shot” of Old Bay — the handful of powder quickly suffocating my taste buds as I laughed in disgust and glee. No matter where I am, I’m always a Marylander and a Jew through and through.

What, then, brought me to this interesting archive? A simple question: What is the future of American Jewry? Or, on a more primal level, my passion for archives. What’s hidden in history’s past that can en-lighten our present and stabilize our future?

I learned an interesting lesson. The ambiguous, if fruitful, relationship between Jews and the rest of America has its roots as far back as our state’s founding. And that if we want to understand the trajectory of our people, we need to know our local history as well as we do our Torah, our tikkun olam or our favorite falafel stand in Tel Aviv.

In 1826, the Maryland General Assembly passed what is commonly called the “Jew Bill.” Fifty years after independence, our beautiful black, red, gold and white state was the last one where Jews couldn’t legally serve as legislators. It’s a notion difficult to understand. In a country marked by the separation of church and state, how is it that our enlightened sliver of beach, mountains, ports and piedmont could deny our community the right to serve?

Oddly enough, the debate raged. Some argued against our rights, some for. I had the great blessing of holding some of these original documents in my hands, including the very statements by both our opponents and our supporters made before the assembly.

What struck me most is how the case for us was made. One of our most ardent supporters, Mr. H. M. Brackenridge, made his case for us based on our Americanness. In an argument that would grate on the ears of some today, he argued that American Jews should be able to serve because we’ve assimilated American values. That we were superior in character to the “Jews of Portugal and Turkey.” But there is a bit more to this argument.

In fact, Mr. Brackenridge, who wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds in today’s “gotcha” culture, was making a sophisticated argument, if one that bodes a bit poorly for our future here. He argued that when a culture oppresses its Jews, the Jews become more deficient. He even said, “Will one seriously compare the Jews of England of the present day with the same people a few centuries ago, when degraded and op-pressed by the British kings?” In other words, while I find fault with the assumption that western countries were inherently more enlightened towards their Jews than eastern ones (indeed, history shows that was not always the case), he has an interesting framework, that if he overstates his culture’s “enlightenment” of our people (after all, we contribute to the societies we’re in too), he is arguing that oppression of Jews is wrong. America’s openness to our people is precisely what improves our condition to the point where we are suitable members of the legislature, having Americanized, yet retained our Jewishness in a manner that necessitates changing the law to include us.

In the end, what remains is a fascinating paradox. American Jews are worthy, in Mr. Brackenridge’s argument, by virtue of our Americanness. But also because of our Jewishness. In his words: “[Is there] nothing in the Jewish race … in the religious doctrines which necessarily disqualifies the Jew from discharging the duties, and fulfilling all the obligations of a citizen of Maryland?” For him, the answer is no. We are entitled to serve just as anyone else. Both by virtue of us being thoroughly American(ized) and because our Jewishness is seen as acceptable. Our similarities and differences are the source of our rights. If it was a simple issue of civic equality, then there’d be no need to make an argument based on our Judaism — why not simply say all religions are welcome? And if it was a matter of including us because of our acceptable Jewish values, why vouch for us in terms of our Americanness?

These are complicated questions. I don’t have easy answers. Mr. Brackenridge, as I see it, is making a difficult argument that continues to grant us both privilege and pain in this country. That our positive uniquely Jewish essence makes us good potential Americans, and that our assimilation into American society makes us better than Jews elsewhere. It’s a paradox that today sometimes manifests itself in questions about our loyalty. Because our perceived fidelity to American values is what makes people like Mr. Brackenridge grant us the very rights that make us free to be different.

In other words, our right to be different is contingent on a certain level of assimilation, which creates endless opportunities for us on a level not experienced in any other civilization. But it also creates a tension that can undermine our ability to preserve our distinct traditions in peace.

All of this was best summed up by my conversation with a cab driver the other day. When I said how I loved being in Israel, surrounded by my culture, he asked “well isn’t American culture your culture?” It is. But it’s not my only culture. I’m thoroughly American and thoroughly Jewish. It’s what makes us rich contributors to both civilizations.

In a phrase you’ll hear a lot in Israel, we’re “gam vegam.” Both this and that. And that will continue to confound people who try to put us in boxes. But it’s a dual and overlapping identity worth preserving, for the sake of our peoples, American and Jewish.

Before my visit to the archives, I can’t say I knew much about Maryland Jewish history. But I know this — handling it myself and reading the words in my own way has opened up new inquiries and ways of understanding myself, and new questions to probe and perplex.

If you find yourself curious about where we’re heading as Jews and Americans, perhaps a visit to your local archive will shed some light, or at least keep you entertained and engaged on a rainy afternoon in Charm City. I wish you a fruitful exploration.