Rosh Hashanah: Come, Whoever You Are

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In 1939, my mother, of blessed memory, emigrated to the United States on the SS President Harding. She was three years old. She and her family made it out because her father, my grandfather, had an American birth certificate. He was born in New York in 1908 to Russian parents who returned to Europe when he was a baby. He and his wife and child fled Prague in 1939. I don't need to tell you what became of those who remained behind.

Also in 1939, a ship called the MS St. Louis -- carrying 900 Jewish refugees, many of them children -- attempted to seek refuge on these shores. They were denied entry and had to turn back. Some committed suicide rather than face concentration camps or death camps.

That same year, Congress rejected a bill that would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children to be rescued from the Holocaust. The bill's opponents took an "America First" approach to immigration, arguing that America should care for "our own" rather than serving as a safe haven for outsiders. The President's own cousin testified that "20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults." US immigration policy at the time had strict quotas. A senator -- who would later become one of the nation's leading segregationists -- amended the bill so that the 20,000 refugee children would count against the quota of Germans allowed to enter the country. As he intended, that killed the bill.

Seven weeks ago, at Tisha b'Av, we heard the haunting words of Lamentations, the scroll of the Hebrew scriptures that describes the destruction of Jerusalem and our people becoming refugees in 586 BCE. We heard it interspersed with some contemporary lamentations: "We are kept in a cage. It is very crowded. There is no room to move... We have to sleep on the cold, concrete floor. The lights are on all the time... My sisters keep asking me, 'when will mommy come get us?' I don't know what to tell them."

As of now there are countless migrants and refugees in custody at our nation's southern border. (I literally couldn't find out how many.) At least 2,654 children have been separated from their parents (at last count). Migrant testimonies describe heart-rending realities: children weeping for their parents, use of the hielera (icebox) as a punishment, inedible food, lack of adequate sanitation. A pediatrician who visited the border camps decried the inhumane and unlivable conditions as "comparable to torture facilities."

This is not okay. It shouldn't be okay with anyone. And it especially shouldn't be okay with us. 

Not just because within living memory, Jews were denied entry into the United States, and were sent back to the hellish persecutions from which we were trying to flee, and suffered horrendously, and died. (Though all of that is true.) But because our nation's current immigration policies and response to refugees, especially as unfolding on our southern borders, are profoundly counter to Jewish values.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. It's a human right, guaranteed by international law -- law that was written partially in response to the Jewish experience in the Shoah. And yet, today's migrants and asylum-seekers on the southern border are treated like criminals.

Meanwhile, those seeking to enter via means other than the southern border are also being turned away in numbers that are unprecedented in recent history. The United States has drastically reduced the number of refugees we accept each year. In 1980 we took in 200,000 refugees. The average in the last decade had been 70,000 a year. Last year, the number of refugees allowed into the United States was only 30,000. And now the cap has been cut to 18,000, a shameful historic low.

It's easy to think that this doesn't impact us directly. After all, we're not refugees. But the national climate impacts everyone -- whether it's a climate of welcome, or one of closed doors. And to say "hey, our people made it out of a burning building, it's not our problem if someone else's home is on fire" is inhuman. That is the opposite of Jewish values.

Besides: the same language being used to target refugees and asylum seekers is also used to target us. Last month, the El Paso shooter released a manifesto that said, “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” That word invasion reminded me of the manifesto released by the shooter at Chabad of Poway in April, which said that Jews are "invading" this nation, and that it was his white nationalist Christian obligation to kill us on sight. The shooter in Pittsburgh last November also accused Jews of being "invaders." 

This is the hateful language of white supremacy. White supremacists see immigrants and refugees and people of color as "invaders" taking jobs and homes and resources that are rightfully theirs... and they see Jews the same way, regardless of the color of our skin.

And all of this brings echoes of something we've heard before. Maybe you're thinking of Nazi rhetoric and propaganda that spoke of Jews as invaders and vermin infesting the Fatherland. But this is far older than the 20th century.

In Torah we find this language in Pharaoh's mouth. Pharaoh describes the children of Israel as vermin, overrunning Egypt, a danger to his land. Our ancestors had come into Egypt as starving refugees escaping famine. Maybe you remember that story. It began with Joseph being sold into slavery. Through a long and twisting series of events he wound up as Pharaoh's chief vizier, helping him prepare for a time of famine. And when the famine came, Joseph's family went down into Egypt as migrants, as refugees. But then a new Pharaoh arose who saw us as an infestation. He ordered the wholesale slaughter of our sons, and then he ordered us enslaved.

Speaking of any human being as though they were part of an infestation is antithetical to Jewish values.  Torah teaches that every human being is made in the image of the Divine, period. And speaking of migrants and refugees in this manner is even more antithetical to Jewish values. That's the dehumanizing rhetoric of Pharaoh, who said the children of Israel "swarmed" like vermin.  Pharaoh is Torah's exemplar of evil, craven power gone awry. Pharaoh is exactly what we don't want our leaders to be.

Meanwhile, the commandment most often repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Torah says this thirty-six times. Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Love the stranger. Love the stranger.

Maybe Torah says this over and over because it's a difficult commandment for human beings to follow. It can be hard to love someone who's not like us. To love people who don't look like us, or dress like us, or talk like us, or pray like us? To welcome people who are fleeing trauma and seeking safety and a better life, when we might fear there won't be enough jobs or resources here for us? Sometimes that's a tough ask.

But that's exactly what Torah demands. Torah demands the spiritual practice of loving the stranger, the Other, the one who is Not Like Us. Torah demands the spiritual practice of protecting the welfare of the widow and the orphan and the refugee. In the Biblical paradigm, those were the people who were most vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse. Maybe today those who are most powerless are the migrant, the transgender person, the person of color... and, still, the refugee. That one hasn't changed.

What our nation faces today is not new. It did not arise overnight. And the fact that I wasn't this horrified about it five years ago is in part because it's genuinely gotten worse, and in part a testament to the rose-colored glasses through which I used to see our country.

Racism and xenophobia have been part of the United States for as long as there has been a United States. Tragically, our nation has a history of mistreatment of non-white peoples. It began with violence against the Native inhabitants of this land. It continued with centuries of human chattel slavery, which literally regarded Black people as subhuman. And then there were laws restricting immigration. And rhetoric painting communities that were not white or not Christian as un-American and antithetical to American values. And all kinds of legal discrimination, including laws aimed at keeping certain kinds of people out: Chinese people, or Irish people, or Jewish people.

Discrimination has often been the law of the land. It was legal to own slaves. It was legal to turn back the MS St. Louis, sending Jewish children back to the inferno. It was legal to keep non-white immigrants out. These things were legal, but they were never right.

It's tempting to say "this isn't America." No: this is America, or part of it, anyway. But it doesn't have to be. We can make our nation better than this.

At my mother's funeral, the pianist played three songs that she had requested. One was "Taps," in honor of the bugler that she married. The other two were "Jerusalem of Gold," because she loved Israel and the promise it represented, and "America the Beautiful," in appreciation for this nation that welcomed her when she fled Europe in 1939.

I grew up on the Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant story of America as the goldene medina, where we can be full citizens, where we can be who we are without fear. I still cherish that dream. I cherish the dream of this nation made stronger by its diversities. I cherish the dream of the United States as a beacon to the world, a place where human rights are upheld and uplifted. I cherish the promise that Emma Lazarus evoked when she wrote, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!"

Some have said that "give me your tired, your poor" should be amended to indicate that we only want wealthy immigrants, or perhaps white immigrants. I believe that statement is profoundly counter to Jewish values, and it betrays the core of what I understand the American promise to be.

Our theme for the Days of Awe at CBI this year is "Come, come, whoever you are." Of course this is a spiritual teaching. Whoever we are, no matter what our relationship with Judaism or with God, we are welcome at CBI now and always, and the covenant of Jewish life and practice is open to us now and always. 

And of course "Come, whoever you are" is also political. Not partisan, taking one side or the other, "red" or "blue." Political means "having to do with the polis," the community. To say "come, whoever you are" is to say "the doors of our community are open because we seek to embody the Torah's imperative to love the stranger."

Our theme this year is a reminder of Torah's repeated refrain of welcome. Torah demands that we love the stranger for we were strangers in the Land of Egypt.  Torah reminds us that we know the heart of the migrant and the refugee, because that's been us, that's been the Jewish people time and again.

But we say "come, whoever you are" not only because our people's story has been one of migration and refugee status over and over for thousands of years. We welcome the stranger because that's the moral and ethical compact that Judaism asks of us.

And that means we have a moral and ethical obligation to grapple with our nation's civic life today. It's not my job to tell you which politicians are best-suited to uphold Jewish values. You should do your own research and reach your own conclusions on that. But it is my job to tell you what Jewish values are.

Jewish values tell us to love the stranger. Jewish values tell us to protect the immigrant and the refugee and all who are vulnerable. Jewish values tell us that every human being is made in the image of God and that our diversity is part of God's creation.

Jewish values call us not to separate ourselves from community, not to turn away from our nation's challenges. Talmud teaches, “When the community is suffering, one must not say, ‘I'll go into my home and eat and drink and be at peace.’” (Taanit 11a)

Jewish values call us to seek justice and pursue it. Jewish values call us to embody an existential welcome, like the patriarch Abraham, famous for his tent that was open on all sides. May our Judaism live out that promise, now and always.

 

Come, come, whoever you are

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving

Come, come, whoever you are

Ours isn't a caravan of despair.

 

It doesn't matter if you've broken your vows

A thousand times before: and yet again,

Come again, come, and yet again...

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.

 

מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים

אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב - בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב ...

 

This is my sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Ottoman rule

Sharkey-croppedWhat sparks the writing of a book? Probably no two authors have the same answer to that question, but here's the answer I heard from Dr. Heather J. Sharkey earlier this week. Her latest book arose, she tells us, in part because she was teaching within a combined Arabic and Hebrew track. (Wow, do I wish I could have done that kind of learning as an undergrad!)

Unsurprisingly, many of her students in that dual-language track came from Jewish or Muslim backgrounds. She set out to teach a class, geared in part toward those students, on the history of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East -- which led to her latest book, which was assigned reading for my cohort of LEAP fellows.

Dr. Sharkey cited The Emergence of Modern Turkey -- Bernard Lewis, 1961 -- as one of her formative scholarly influences. She came away from her first reading of it (at nineteen) with the sense that equality between Christians, Jews, and Muslims was truly achieved in the Ottoman empire during the Tanzimat period in the 1800s. Rereading it more recently, she came to recognize that she had misread it. "He didn't say that equality happened; he said that there were proclamations of equality."

What did those proclamations of equality actually do? On what terms could and did non-Muslims actually live in an Islamic state? Her book attempts to answer those questions in a way that will work for all of her students -- Muslims, Christians, Jews, Arab-Americans, etc. "We have to be able to sit in a room and disagree even when we're coming from different positions," she noted. "I didn't want anyone, reading the book, to feel an us-versus-them or to feel that insults were being hurled."

We spent some time with The Pact of Umar -- exploring what it says, exploring how it was or wasn't enacted. On the upside, the pact indicates that Christians and Jews could continue practicing their religions; on the downside, the pact stipulates restrictions of various kinds. Part of what I found interesting is that the pact is both more liberating, and more restrictive, than I expected.  (And that may be the primary takeaway from LEAP this week: everything is more complicated than binaries allow.)

It's interesting to consider the extent to which ideas emanating from the French Revolution about citizenship and egalitarianism impacted how citizens of the Ottoman Empire thought about themselves and each other. Dr. Sharkey also noted the increase of  Christian missionary work in the Ottoman Empire during that period, which caused a deterioration of Christian-Muslim relations. And she noted that rich Jews and poor Jews experienced very different things under Ottoman rule. 

To me the most interesting part of her talk was when she reprised her remarks from the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, asking, "if Balfour had not happened and Israel had not arisen, how well could Jews have expected to live in Islamic states, judging from what came before?" She made the argument that it wasn't inevitable, in that moment, that Jews would necessarily need a state of our own. She reminded us that a hundred years prior, in 1817, there had been real hope of equality and reform.

In 1817 there was legitimate hope that the Ottoman Empire as an Islamic state could have revised its structure to truly accommodate Jews and other non-Muslims. But it never achieved the ideals of social parity that it tried to implement in the 1850s, and then the Empire came to its end. Today we have a map of Middle Eastern states that continue to identify as Islamist, and there doesn't seem to be room in those states at this time for rethinking how Muslims and non-Muslims coexist.

The best place where there is an opportunity to rethink Muslim / non-Muslim relations, she argued, is outside of that region -- e.g. someplace like the United States, where there is no official state religion, where we (aspire to) live alongside each other as equal citizens and to form friendships and partnerships as equals. Unsurprisingly, I find that vision incredibly compelling.  I don't think the United States entirely lives up to that ideal yet, but I'm hopeful that together we can aim in that direction.

 

This week was the first gathering of this year's LEAP Fellows at the Katz Center at the University of Pennsylvania; I offer this with gratitude to the Katz Foundation for making me a Katz Family Fellow.. This is the second in a pair of posts processing some of our learning. Thoughts / comments welcome.

 


Arab Jews, and complicating our binaries

Hebrew-Arabic

We've all heard the term "Judeo-Christian." (And many of us have objected to it strenuously on the grounds that it erases important distinctions between Judaism and Christianity, and that when our traditions are conflated, often Judaism is appropriated to bolster Christian values that aren't our own.) But "Judeo-Islamic" isn't in the same kind of common parlance.

According to Bernard Lewis (in his book Jews of Islam), the term "Judeo-Islamic" was never adopted either by Jews or by Muslims in Islamic lands, because neither side saw their relationship in that light. But the Jews who lived in Muslim lands manifested a distinct strand of Jewish tradition, and Jews who come from Muslim or Arabic places complicate our mental binaries between Arab and Jew.

That's part of what I took from Dr. Yuval Evri's presentation to this year's LEAP fellows (of whom I am one) at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at Penn. Each year, leading scholars of Judaic studies gather at the Katz Center to engage in research on Jewish civilization past and present... and each year, Clal invites a diverse group of rabbis to join those scholars and to (ideally) translate what we learn from them into "accessible, meaningful, and usable wisdom." 

This year, the fellowship focuses on the study of Jewish life in Muslim contexts. Our first speaker at our first session was Dr. Yuval Evri, who began by noting that Jews and Muslims have coexisted -- sometimes under Muslim majority rule, sometimes as parallel minorities  -- for centuries. He invited us to think beyond easy and simplistic narratives, both the pretty story of interfaith utopia and the ugly story of inevitable persecution, as we engage with the ideas and realities of Jews in Arab lands.

(You can glimpse his work here: Katz Center Fellow Yuval Evri on Arab Jewish Thought.)

In Ashkenazic / European-centered Jewish historiography, he pointed out, Sephardi / Mizrahi / Arab Jews are mostly ignored. When they are mentioned, it's as passive actors or bystanders. There's a problematic Eurocentrism in that lens. The underlying assumption of that approach is that Jewish modernization began in Europe, and from there spread to other parts of the Jewish world. But that's not fair or correct. It's more accurate to say that there are multiple modernities, not just the one.

Dr. Evri repeatedly used the term "Arab-Jewish."  I love the way that phrase elides, or even erases, a binarism that many of us in the European / Ashkenazic diaspora take for granted. The Ashkenazic (some would say "Ashkenormative") perspective presumes a tension between Arab and Jew, but Dr. Evri's work is a reminder that that's a false binary. And it's been a false binary for a long time. One can't study Rambam (Maimonides) properly, he noted, without knowing Arabic!

When we broke into small groups to discuss texts, my small group looked at Nissim Malul's "Our Status in the Country, or the Question of Learning Arabic," which offered a fascinating window into how one intellectual regarded the need to learn and teach Arabic to Jewish children in Ottoman Palestine in 1913, and how he regarded Arabic as a way to connect with his "brothers" in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. What a different paradigm for Jewish-Arab interaction that would have been.

There was a slide in Dr. Evri's presentation (that he didn't actually get to read when we were in session -- time was too short) that I want to excerpt for y'all, because it's such a beautiful encapsulation of the tensions his session was exploring. (This is one of the upsides of participating remotely: I had his slide deck, which meant I was able to see even the slides he didn't get to!) This is from his "Conversation with American Jew Sami Shalom Chetrit," and here's the part that really reached me:

Excuse me for prying, but I just have to ask you, are you Jewish or Arab?
I'm an Arab Jew.
You're funny.
No, I'm quite serious.
Arab Jew? I've never heard of that.
It's simple: Just the way you say you're an American Jew. Here, try to say "European Jews."
European Jews.
Now, say "Arab Jews."
You can't compare, European Jews is something else.
How come?
Because "Jew" just doesn't go with "Arab," it just doesn't go. It doesn't even sound right.
Depends on your ear.

The first speaker argues that it doesn't make sense to say "Arab Jew" because Arabs want to kill us; the second speaker retorts that the phrase "European Jew" is equally complicated because of European history of trying to kill us! I love how this piece skewers the fallacy that Arabs or Europeans maintain a single attitude toward Jews -- and the fallacy that "Jew" is any more (or less) incompatible with "Arab" than with "European." (Also the dig at American Jews not knowing that Arab Jews exist.)

Dr. Evri made the point that for Arab Jews, both historically and today, the divisions we're accustomed to presuming -- Zionist vs. anti-Zionist, Arab vs. Jew, East vs. West -- don't necessarily apply. In one sense this is kind of Jewish diversity 101 (of course Arab Jews exist, and of course these binaries are limited!) At the same time, his talk gave me an opportunity to ponder: given the existence of Arab Jews (historical and current) who shatter that binary, why are we still working with that binary at all?

 

This week was the first gathering of this year's LEAP Fellows at the Katz Center at the University of Pennsylvania; I offer this with gratitude to the Katz Foundation for making me a Katz Family Fellow. This is the first in a pair of posts processing some of our learning. Thoughts / comments welcome.

 


Tears and celebration

Why do we break a glass at the end of every Jewish wedding? There are many answers, but one of the interpretations which resonates for me is this: we break a glass to remind ourselves that even in our moments of greatest joy, the world contains brokenness. That's how I feel today - mourning the Charleston shooting and today's news of horrific terror attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France; celebrating today's news about the SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality across the USA.

Imrs

This image made me cry. [Source]

Back in 2012 I wrote:

I hope that by the time [our son] is old enough to understand, the notion of a state passing a law against gay marriage will seem as misguided, plainly hurtful, and outdated as the notion of a state passing a law against someone of one race marrying someone of another. (I'm far from the first to note the painful similarities there.) I don't know who he will love; right now I'm pretty sure he loves his family and his friends and Thomas the Tank Engine, and that's as it should be. But I hope and pray that by the time he's ready to marry, if and when that day comes, he (and his generation) will have the right to marry, period. And not just in a handful of states, but anywhere in this country.

I hoped then that by the time our son was grown, our nation might have risen to the new ethical heights of granting the right to marry to all of its citizens, regardless of their gender or gender expression, and regardless of the gender or gender expression of their beloved. I never in a million years could have imagined that it would happen before he even started kindergarten. I'm grateful to everyone who devoted heart and soul to the work of making this possible now, in our days.

It's hard to wrap my head and heart around the disjunction between the sheer joy which I feel at the prospect of the right to marry being granted to every American, and the grief which arises at the news of today's terror attacks around the world. Though I think that kind of disjunction is part and parcel of ordinary life. It's a little bit like having a parent in the hospital while one's child is celebrating a joyful milestone -- love and sorrow, joy and grief, intertwined. Most of our lives contain these juxtapositions.

One of the pieces of framed art on my synagogue office wall contains a famous quote from the collection of rabbinic wisdom known as Pirkei Avot: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either." Our nation is still marred by many inequalities, and there is much work yet to be done. Our world is still marred by endless brokenness. But I believe it's also important to stop and celebrate what we can, when we can. Our hearts need that.

Today we celebrate the SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality. Tonight we celebrate Shabbat, and may imagine that the Shabbat bride looks a bit more radiant than usual in reflection of this joyful news. And when the new week comes, it will be time to put our shoulders to the wheel and keep working toward the dream of a world free of hatred, free of violence, free of bigotry, where everyone on this earth truly knows and feels that we are all made in the image of God and all deserve safety and joy.

May those who are grieving lost loved ones in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France -- and for that matter Charleston SC, and everywhere else tarnished with acts of hatred -- be comforted along with all who mourn. May we gather up the shards of their broken hearts and cradle them lovingly as we celebrate today's victories for human rights. And for those who celebrate, may tonight's Shabbat be sweet.

 

Edited to add: ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal's official statement.


Reprint from 2004: Blog is my co-pilot

Cover-issue-26In 2004 I wrote an article for Bitch Magazine about women in what some of us were then calling the godblogosphere. It ran in their fall 2004 issue. I titled it "Women Who Blog Faithfully." They titled it "Blog is my co-pilot: the rise of religion online."

Here's my original post exhorting readers to buy the issue, which links to all of the bloggers I interviewed for the piece.  Amy Wellborn is now on Twitter, and The Revealer still exists. All of the other blogs I cited are now defunct, except for this one.

Anyway, I think the article is an interesting snapshot of what at least one corner of the religious internet used to look like. (Also, wow, I used to like long paragraphs!) Enjoy.

 

Blog is my co-pilot: the rise of religion online

In the beginning (or “in a beginning,” or “when God was beginning,” depending on which translation you favor) God created the heavens and the earth. Some millennia later, the earth’s stewards created blogs.

In early 1999, there were about 23 webblogs; today, there are thousands, many of them eschewing the characteristic links-and-commentary format in favor of straight-up personal pontificating. The blogosphere has turned out to be a great place to discuss the kinds of things we’re discouraged from airing in polite company: among them, politics, sex, scurrilous gossip, and religion. It’s this last subject that had always interested me—after all, God tops the list of polarizing topics one isn’t supposed to bring up at the dinner table. But since I’m the kind of person who itches for a good theology throwdown, godbloggers are, well, my people.

Continue reading "Reprint from 2004: Blog is my co-pilot" »


Chess

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No one knows who these men are or why their photograph has been handed down in our family. If I had to guess, I would say that this photo is probably from Belarus, childhood home to my grandfather Isaac, a.k.a. Eppie (may his memory be a blessing). It is a tiny photo, only three and a half inches by two and a quarter inches. It was in a box of miscellaneous family photographs at my parents' house; I found it in a small envelope labeled "treasures old and new" in my mother's handwriting.

Who were these men? Religious Jews, it seems clear; they are bearded and wearing yarmulkes. Then again, they don't have peyos, the sidecurls which are seen on many Hasidic or Orthodox Jews, and their beards are trimmed neatly. (Though apparently peyos were banned in the Russian Empire in 1845.) It appears that they're wearing long black coats and black kippot, though that may or may not have been a signifier of anything in that place and time, whatever that place and time were.

I looked through The Family History of Alice Fried Epstein and Isaac Epstein, M.D., a volume which contains the transcript of oral history interviews conducted with my maternal grandparents. I remembered that the book contained a variety of black and white photographs, many of which were taken in Europe and date to the early years of the last century when my grandparents were young. But I didn't find either of these men in any of those pictures from early 20th-century Belarus or Prague.

Every time I look at this photograph I'm drawn to the man on the left, with the white beard, who has looked up from their chess game to regard the unknown photographer. I am charmed by his subtle smile. Presumably he knew whoever was taking this picture. Maybe he was winning the chess game. Maybe it was just a beautiful day in the park and he was happy to be alive. Could he have imagined this print traveling across the ocean and surviving more than a century to wind up in my hands?

 

I'm taking advantage of the #throwbackthursday / #tbt meme -- which usually involves posting old photos on Thursdays -- as an opportunity to write short snippets of remembrance, sparked by whatever old photo I find to post.


In Akko: Crusader-era ruins and the Jezzar Pasha mosque

13358289154_bf1dcfd468_nAnother new-to-me destination on my family's travels was Akko -- one of the oldest continuously-inhabited sites in the region. (Bet She'an has evidence of habitation for about 6000 years; Akko, about 4000 years.) From the city's Wikipedia page I learned that the first settlement on this site was in the early Bronze age, about 3000 BCE. I also learned that "The name 'Akka is recorded in Egyptian sources from about 2000 BCE, with three signs (the initial guttural, "k" and "a"; followed by the sign for 'foreign city.')" How cool is that?

At one time Akko was ruled by Rome; then became part of the Byzantine empire; then spent a while under Muslim rule; then the Crusaders took control. By the 1130s it had a population of around 25,000 and was the biggest city in the Crusader kingdom except for Jerusalem. Eventually the Ottomans ruled there; then it became part of British Mandate Palestine. In 1929 there was a pogrom during which Arab residents demolished the synagogue in the old city. Tensions between Arabs and Jews were high again between 1936 and 1939. In 1948, when the city became part of the modern state of Israel, about 3/4 of its Arab inhabitants were displaced. But today it remains a "mixed city," with both an Arab and a Jewish population.

What reading I was able to do before the trip suggested that the relationships between the Arab and Jewish populations here are still complicated: see Arab rock attack at home in Acre, 2013, or The Israeli TV guide to cheap Arab lives, 2014. (Note that those reports come from very different news sources, so they paint quite different pictures.) I'm heartened to read about places like the Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Center -- though I don't know enough to know how to balance the existence of a place like that against the other stories to which I just linked.

13356256385_92f1ed8d39_nAnyway: given the link that my sister sent out before the trip (Underground Crusader city revealed beneath streets of Acre, Ha'aretz) I suspected Akko was on our agenda for primarily archaeological reasons, and I was right. Here's a glimpse of that Ha'aretz piece to whet your appetite, as it did mine:

Preparing to open a new subterranean section to the public, workers cleaned stones this week in an arched passageway underground. Etched in plaster on one wall was a coat of arms — graffiti left by a medieval traveler. Nearby was a main street of cobblestones and a row of shops that once sold clay figurines and ampules for holy water, popular souvenirs for pilgrims.

All were last used by residents in 1291, the year a Muslim army from Egypt defeated Acre's Christian garrison and leveled its remains. The existing city, built by the Ottoman Turks around 1750, effectively preserved this earlier town, which had been hidden for centuries under the rubble.

"It's like Pompeii of Roman times — it's a complete city," said Eliezer Stern, the Israeli archaeologist in charge of Acre. He called the town "one of the most exciting sites in the world of archaeology."

I know that archaeology is often political -- especially in the "Holy Land;" here's a great article about that, actually: Digging for the Truth -- but I couldn't help being excited at the prospect of seeing ruins like these, especially given that the whole Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

13356287753_a024faee29_nWe began with the Ottoman-era Citadel, and then entered the Hospitallers' Fortress, the vast vaulted halls built and used by the Hospitallers knights during the Crusader era, which had been buried for centuries beneath the Citadel and nearby prison. Our guide explained that the structures above them had caved in during an invasion (perhaps the Mamluk invasion? it's hard to keep track!) and it was apparently easier to just fill the spaces with sand and build on top than to clear them out. So for a time, prisoners in the local prison yard did their exercises on top of these ancient hidden halls.

I've never been much of a Crusader buff. Jews didn't fare well during the Crusades, and that's never been a period of history into which I've wanted to delve too deeply. But leaving aside for the moment the problematics of the Crusades as violent holy wars, this complex of early medieval halls and great rooms is dazzling.

Toward the end of our time in the Crusader complex we walked through a tiny underground tunnel which once served as the sewer conduit between this underground complex and the sea -- and then through the Templars' tunnel, which is believed to have been a secret Crusader escape route which allowed them to flee to their waiting boats on the sea. Running water flowed beneath our feet as we trod on a well-constructed wooden walkway, sometimes crouching beneath a surprisingly low vaulted ceiling, and made our way underground to the shore.

13357463725_8113d7aa81_nWe also visited the largest mosque in Israel outside of Jerusalem, the Jezzar Pasha Mosque , built in 1781. I hadn't known we were coming to a mosque today, so was wearing short sleeves. The friendly gentleman at the entrance to the compound passed out dark blue cloths which several of us used to cover in various ways in order to be appropriately-respectful. Once we were adequately draped, we stepped inside.

I'm not sure I would have been much of a fan of Jezzar Pasha himself, whose nickname was "The Butcher." (Sounds like he wasn't very nice to his Jewish chief advisor, Haim Farhi.) But the mosque which takes his name, constructed on his orders in a single year, is quite beautiful.

The Jezzar Pasha mosque inhabits a lush, peaceful courtyard where birds sing and a water fountain (with faucets for wudu) flows merrily. The inlay on the outside of the building is gorgeous, as is the green dome. Inside, names of God twine around the building in gold letters on blue, and beautiful inlay and painted ornament rest side-by-side with an LED clock which displays the time until the next prayers.

13357956374_2ae768fa41_nWe spent a while walking around its courtyard, admiring the artistry of the Byzantine and Persian ornamentation, and standing in small groups quietly inside the doors of the mosque (not on the prayer rugs, but on a little wooden area just inside the door which was clearly meant for visitors) just letting the space wash over us.

After visiting the mosque, we walked back to the Crusader ruins -- and heard the adhān about two minutes later, while standing in a small grassy square just outside one of the main entrances to the ruins. We stopped and listened to its haunting melodies. God is great! rolled out like auditory calligraphy, floating on the sea-scented air.

 

All photos in this post come from this trip's photoset, which I'm doing my best to add to each day (wifi permitting.)

 


An historic synagogue in Rhode Island

Touro synagogue 3Stepping inside the Touro Synagogue feels a little bit like stepping inside an Old World Sefardic shul. There's a good reason for that. All of the oldest congregations in the New World were founded by Sefardic Jews, including this one.

There's no mechitza; instead there's an upstairs section and a downstairs one. The bimah (pulpit) from which the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) leads prayer and reads Torah is in the middle of the sanctuary, almost in the back, so he's leading from within/among the community, not standing in front of them Protestant-style. The ceiling is lofty and painted and ornamented in simple, elegant Colonial fashion. There are twelve big columns (one for each of the twelve tribes, naturally) and twelve smaller ones in the women's gallery above.

It is, I learn when we visit, the oldest still-standing synagogue in North America. (There was one founded earlier, in what was then New Amsterdam, though it burned down. It was rebuilt and the congregation is still extant, as is this one, but that makes this the oldest still-standing Jewish worship space in the country.) The community is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year.

Two hundred and fifty years may be a mere eyeblink in terms of human history -- certainly there are many European houses of worship older than that! -- but for a house of worship on these shores, 250 years is a very long time. And somehow there's something extra-special about being in a North American synagogue which is that venerable.

Its history is really cool. The first Jews came to Newport in 1658, of Spanish and Portuguese origin. (You might recall that Jews were unilaterally cast out of Spain in 1492. Thanks a ton, Ferdinand and Isabella.) Some of them came from Curaçao, and for a bit of a first, they came because they were interested in the colony's experiment in religious liberty, not because they had just been kicked out of where they'd been living. Rhode Island's colonial charter said, among other things:

No person within the said Colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion, who does not actually disturb the peace of our said Colony ; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his own and their judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land heretofore mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others

Synagogueinterior2009It's worth remembering that the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned Catholics in 1647, and weren't particularly fans of Quakers, Baptists, or Anglicans either. In Colonial days, suspicion of "Jews, Turks and Infidels" was pretty standard fare. But Rhode Island set out to be different, and that attracted a handful of Jewish families from early on.

In its earliest years the community davened in each others' homes. They began constructing a building in 1758. The architect, an English fellow named Peter Harrison, had never seen a synagogue before. (Most non-Jews probably hadn't.) He designed the interior based on what he learned from the community's prayer-leader, Reverend Isaac Touro, who had recently emigrated from Amsterdam and had been part of that city's great Portuguese synagogue.

During the American Revolution, many of Newport's homes were destroyed by the British army (not only because pillaging is a time-honored form of wartime violence, but also because the houses were wooden and New England winters could be awfully cold -- the troops needed firewood.) Our tour guide confided in us that Touro himself was a Loyalist, rather than a supporter of the Revolution. One way or another, he convinced the local British invaders not to burn the synagogue but to use it as their field hospital. Its beautiful chandeliers and brass fixings went to New York for safekeeping until after the war, and the sanctuary became a place where the wounded could convalesce.

After the revolution was over, when the new president George Washington was traveling the colonies in hopes of getting the Bill of Rights passed, the congregation's then-leader Moses Mendes Seixas wrote to the president pressing him on the question of whether non-Christians truly had the right to worship in this country as we pleased. In response, President Washington wrote a fairly remarkable letter. He wrote, in part:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support...

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Ten-commandmentsTo bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. It's not just a matter of the privileged "tolerating" otherness. At our best, our nation has always been about something better than that. (Indeed: the first item in that Bill of Rights which President Washington was trying then to pass is a clause enshrining freedom of religion in this nation.)

The Touro synagogue is a relatively modest structure, though a very lovely one. (I particularly like the mural of the ten commandments over the ark, and seeing the community's antique Torah scroll, now behind glass -- it's more than 500 years old, written on deerskin.) What makes it most remarkable to me is the realization that for two hundred and fifty years, people of my religious tradition have been gathering there in joy and in sorrow, davening the daily and weekly, monthly and yearly liturgies. It's sanctified by its very longevity.

And it feels holy to me because it's an early symbol of the religious liberty which is so foundational to this country. It was by no means obvious, two hundred and fifty years ago when this nation was new, that all people would be free to worship here as we pleased; that this wasn't simply a place where Christians of one stripe or another could be free from the prejudices of other Christians, but a place where Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, people of every religious persuasion and of no religious persuasion whatsoever could together form the fabric of a nation where we walk in our own paths and cherish our differences.

I'm glad to have had the chance to sit, however, briefly, in this hallowed space. On my way out the door, I said a silent prayer of gratitude for its existence and for the principles of religious freedom which allowed it -- and every other community in this nation -- to flourish.

 

Photos from this gallery.


Remembrance

Birkenau, Poland, Jewish women and children on the platform waiting for German orders after getting off the train, 27/05/1944. Image courtesy of the digital photo archives at Yad Vashem.

 

Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. I want to bear witness, but the words don't want to come.

Everyone I know who is descended from Eastern European stock lost family in the Shoah. As a girl I became obsessed with Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, reading and rereading it so many times I practically had it memorized. I would lie in bed at night imagining what I would try to bring with me if we, like the Frank family, were forced to flee in the night.

Many years ago I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel. Before we entered, our guide reminded us that while the photographs we were about to see were black-and-white, the reality of the Shoah was in living color. The skies over Auschwitz and Birkenau and Theresienstadt were blue. The emaciated figures in the photos weren't greyscale shadows: they were real people in three dimensions who were herded into cattle cars and into camps ravaged by disease and famine -- if they weren't gassed and burned. The old photos and jerky newsreel footage had been comfortably distancing, but those words from our guide unlocked something in me which made the unspeakable horror newly-real.

I'm not always comfortable with what's done in the name of the six million or with the ways in which their memory is used. But as Emily Hauser notes in her post Holocaust Day 2011, Yom HaShoah isn't the day to make that critique. It's a day to remember, and to mourn.

And now -- the day after that remembrance day -- it's time to once again shoulder the burden of trying to create a better world, a world in which this kind of atrocity is unthinkable...for us; for anyone.


Jews in medieval Christendom

The Jewish situation in medieval western Christendom was a most difficult one. Constituting only a tiny minority of the population, the Jews were widely viewed as latecomers and interlopers. In a society that was highly homogenous, united primarily by the Roman Catholic Church and its standards of Christian practice and belief, the Jews stood out as the major dissenting element in society, a people in fact stigmatized not only by religious dissent but by the charge of deicide as well... Thus the basic realities of Jewish existence were isolation, circumscription, and animosity.

So writes Robert Chazan in his book Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages. I've moved into a section of my Medieval Jewish History class which looks at the experiences of Jews in medieval Christendom. Since I posted a while back about the early history of Jews in medieval Islam, I figured I would share some of what I'm learning about Jewish life under Christian rule, too.

In the medieval Christian world, Jews tended to be geographically isolated into separate neighborhoods, limited economically to plying trades which Christians would not or could not ply, and forced to limit their numbers in towns lest they make the Christian authorities nervous. There was, Chazan tells us, "a constant, unabating hostility" from Christians toward Jews, which was kept in check during good times but which flared into devastating violence during periods of stress.

Intriguingly, although the Roman Catholic Church fostered a great deal of anti-Jewish animosity, the church's basic position on Jews included safeguards for Jewish life and property, Chazan writes. Every scholar I've read agrees that Jews had a right to practice Judaism in the Christian world. (Though it appears to me that during the later medieval period, that right was largely abrogated by increased anti-Jewish hostility, which had support from certain quarters within the Church -- more on that toward the end of this post.)

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The early history of Jews in Muslim lands

When you hear the name "Cordoba," what comes to mind? Maybe, in light of recent events, you think of Cordoba Initiative, the umbrella organization beneath which the much-bruited Park 51 is contained. When I first heard the name, I thought immediately of the so-called "Golden Age" of Jewish-Muslim relations in al-Andalus (medieval Spain). The Cordoba Initiative's FAQ page explains that they chose the name because "A thousand years ago Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted and created a prosperous center of intellectual, spiritual, cultural and commercial life in Cordoba, Spain." But I've learned, since Park 51 became a major subject of conversation in my corner of the blogosphere, that to some conservative commentors the name Cordoba implies an era of Muslim rule when Jews and Christians had second-class status and lived under a set of restrictive rules. Here's one fairly representative post which ascribes to the Cordoba Initiative the desire for Muslim rule in the west: "Cordoba House" suggests Muslim triumphalism. Here's another fairly representative post which reads the name as an indicator of the desire for religious coexistence: The Meaning of 'Cordoba.'

Which of these is the correct interpretation of "Cordoba?" The answer may depend on who's telling the story. So much depends on who's looking at that moment in history, what their agenda is, and what point they want to make about the politics and religion of that era -- or of this one.

In part because of recent conversations about Park 51, and in part because interfaith dialogue (and particularly Jewish-Muslim interaction) is a passion of mine, I've been wanting a more nuanced picture of that period in interreligious history. Fortunately for me, one of my fall courses is an independent study in medieval Jewish history. I'm following the syllabus for the class which Reb Leila Gal Berner offered last spring, when I was too wrapped-up in babycare to be able to participate. And I'm going to blog about what I'm learning, both because I find writing about ideas to be a great way to cement them in my memory and because the subject of Muslim-Jewish-Christian relations seems awfully timely this season.

This week I'm reading excerpts from Dr. Robert M. Seltzer's Jewish People, Jewish Thought, from Haim H. Ben-Sasson's A History of the Jewish People, and from Norman Stillman's The Jews of Arab Lands. (As a side note: in my past experiences with Reb Leila's history classes, she's intentionally assigned us texts which don't necessarily offer congruent interpretations of history. Caveat lector: different historians will inevitably offer different slices of the story! It's part of our job, as responsible students of history, to try to form a whole picture out of these different texts -- and also to discern each historian's stances and biases as we go.) Anyway, here's some of what Seltzer, Ben-Sasson, and Stillman have to say about how the relationship between Muslims and Jews evolved during the early centuries after the advent of Islam onto the political and religious scene.

At the beginning of the seventh century of the Common Era, Jews were largely in diaspora, scattered from Spain to Persia and from central Europe to the Sahara. Seltzer writes that although the institutions which had preserved Jewish unity in the past -- primarily Davidic kingship and the Temple -- no longer existed, they were preserved in the liturgy and as subjects for study. "Above all," writes Seltzer, "messianic hope for eventual ingathering and restoration served as an overarching bond between all the branches of the Jewish people." Onto this scene emerged Muhammad, and with him, the birth of Islam.

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Yerushalmi on memory & history

The first book assigned for the medival Jewish history class I'm taking is Yosef Haim Yerushalmi's Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. It's short but powerful. Because I learn best through writing, I jotted down some of the passages which spoke to me most deeply, and offer them here with some commentary -- if this is interesting to you, please read on!

"The Jews, after all," Yerushalmi writes, "have the reputation of being at once the most historically oriented of peoples and as possessing the longest and most tenacious of memories... We should at least want to know what kind of history the Jews have valued, what, out of their past, they chose to remember, and how they preserved, transmitted, and revitalized that which was recalled."

Yerushalmi writes that "[m]emory is always problematic, usually deceptive, sometimes treacherous...Yet the Hebrew Bible seems to have no hesitations in commanding memory. Its injunctions to remember are unconditional, and even when not commanded, remembrance is always pivotal." But the Biblical injunction to remember has, he argues, little to do with history or with curiosity about the past. We're commanded to remember the Exodus from Egypt and to remember the revelation of Torah at Sinai, and these are not historical events.

Yerushalmi goes on to argue that in Talmudic times, memory remained essentially ahistorical. Even into the medieval era, the relationship between memory and history in the Jewish community was not one we would recognize today.

We find in almost all branches of Jewish literature in the Middle Ages a wealth of thought on the position of the Jewish people in history, of ideas of Jewish history, of often profound and sometimes daring reflections on exile and redemption, but comparatively little interest in recording the ongoing historical experience of the Jews. There is much on the meaning of Jewish history; there is little historiography. Interpretations of history, whether explicit or veiled, can be encountered in works of philosophy, homiletics, biblical exegesis, law, mysticism, most often without a single mention of actual historical events or personalities, and with no attempt to relate to them.

Yerushalmi attributes this to the ahistorical character of rabbinic thinking which shaped Jewish priorities and possibilities. Talmudic Judaism was, he argues, the substructure for all of medieval Jewish life and creativity, and the sages of the Talmud were essentially uninterested in history as we understand it today. Exile and suffering were understood as fundamentally religious experiences, occasioned by the Jewish community's sins -- not by anonymous or areligious historical forces.

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History and haskalah

"History was like a mirror for humanity, reflecting its real image and enabling a new identity to take shape." That's a quote from Shmuel Feiner's Haskalah and History, and as the history class I'm taking unfolds, I find that I keep returning to it. I like the idea that we can treat our history like a mirror. When we face our history, what new sides of ourselves might we see?

We're studying the Haskalah: the Jewish Enlightenment, a movement among the Jews of Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s which centered around adopting Enlightenment values and integrating with European society. (That link goes to its Wikipedia entry, which is worth reading if you're curious.) The shift was sparked by external phenomena (particularly Jewish emancipation, which made Jews citizens; France was the first to emancipate Jews, in 1791) but I suspect it was motivated by some internal yearnings, too, among them a nascent or latent desire to bring Judaism into engagement with the wider world.

In a certain way, the class itself is a product of its subject matter, since the Haskalah legitimized the Jewish study of history. Feiner writes that "[t]he maskilic legitimization of history, which turned Torat ha-adam (in its broad sense as a store of knowledge, a mode of thought, and a system of humanistic ethics) into the organizing principle of history, was perceived as a threat to the values of traditional culture." The views of the maskilim (Jewish enlightenment figures) didn't necessarily go over well in traditionalist communities where the study of secular history was viewed as either unimportant or threatening, and engagement with the wider world was perceived to have dubious value at best.

Unsurprisingly, it's that engagement with the wider world that attracts me most to the Haskalah.

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