We’ve moved! (literally and figuratively)

We’ve moved! (literally and figuratively)

Hi friends-

Since making aliyah in July, I’ve created a new blog to chronicle my journeys as a new citizen of Israel.  Thanks for joining me as I blogged here about all sorts of cultural interests and I’ll continue to share my stories here in Israel.

Join me on my new adventure at http://plantingrootsbearingfruits.wordpress.com/.

Have a blessed day,

Matt

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“Jewish Radicals” – an interview with Tony Michels

“Jewish Radicals” – an interview with Tony Michels

I had the pleasure of reading the book Jewish Radicals by Professor Tony Michels.  I was on a quest to learn more about the history of American Jews and in particular, find out more about the roots of social justice and radical politics in our community.  Tony’s book was well-organized, readable, and deeply informative about important topics that don’t tend to be front-and-center in our typical Hebrew school curriculum.  One thing I took away was that even among the left-wing of the Jewish community, there have always been a wide variety of ideologies.  That can certainly be a challenge and it can also be a source of richness and progress.  In addition, we often think of our ancestors as more conservative than ourselves, and this book shows that’s not necessarily true.  I’m grateful to Professor Michels for the opportunity to interview him via email and below are his insightful thoughts.  As befits a Jewish interview, I asked four questions 🙂


1) What was your goal in writing the book “Jewish Radicals”?

My goal was to assemble a variety of documents that could bring readers into the history of Jews and their diverse experiences with the socialist movement, broadly defined.   In order to be historically accurate, I wanted to cover as many left-wing perspectives as possible: anarchism, Bundism, socialism, communism, socialist-Zionism, Trotskyism, and other ideologies.  At the same time, I didn’t want to tell a history reduced to heroic struggles and victories, which I think is a temptation for many historians of the American left.   I wanted to capture the ups and downs, mistakes, ironies, sometimes humorous ironies, and so forth.

2) There seems to be a renewed interest in left-wing politics among young Jews – learning Yiddish, advocating for refugees, even confronting major Jewish organizations in recent months.  Do you see a revival of some of the spirit of the activists in your book?

I’m not sure I know enough to answer intelligently.   Like you, I have noticed a revival of interest in socialism since, especially since the recession of 2008 and the Bernie Sanders campaign.  And I have noticed an interest in the history of the old Jewish labor movement among some Jewish activists today.  In the 1960s, Jewish activists expressed a similar interest in the involvement of immigrant Jews in the labor movement and socialism, and that urge to recover the past has been evident in every decade since.  The difficult thing is that the history of the left in the U.S. is one characterized by discontinuities.  There are connecting threads between generations, organizations, ideas and so forth, but not a great many continuities.

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3) What is the greatest misconception American Jews have about their own community’s political past?

Good question.   I’d say many Jews don’t understand how widespread sympathy for socialism was between the 1880s and 1930s.  I’d also add that many people—I have my own students in mind—seem to believe that all immigrants from Eastern Europe were very traditional and religiously devout, and that secularization came later with Americanized generations.  That immigrants were often daring and open to experimentation seems surprising.  And finally I’d say American Jews don’t seem to be familiar with the extensive body of writings on Jewish identity and culture, many of them produced by Jewish intellectuals writing in English and Yiddish who thought seriously about what it means to be a modern Jew in America.

4) As a historian, what do you find most rewarding and most challenging about your job?

I enjoy the detective work of uncovering the people, events, and ideas of the past.  Studying the past helps me gain an understanding of myself in relation to the world around me, and that’s satisfying.   And writing about the past, shaping a story out of whatever information I can find, satisfies a creative urge.  One thing I didn’t understand when I started graduate school was that, in a sense, history is a form of creative writing, in as much as it requires imagination to interpret documents—which do not often yield all the information I’m looking for or do so in an obvious way—and get into the minds of the people who produced them.  Writing history requires inferences, sometimes speculation, in addition to facts and evidence.

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Why I don’t make fun of Hasidic English

Why I don’t make fun of Hasidic English

Recently, I saw a fellow young progressive Jew write a pretty nasty Facebook post.  With all the rancor going on about the election, you might assume it was about politics.  But actually, it was about language.

The person had taken a picture of Kosher food packaging that had misspelled the word “cookies” as “kookies”.  All sorts of giggling ensued.

While perhaps a small chuckle is warranted – after all, we all make mistakes – I was concerned when I saw some pretty nasty comments making fun of how ignorant Hasidim were.

This, frankly, is where I draw the line.  Let’s start at the very beginning (to quote one of my favorite musicals).  With the exception perhaps of the Chabad community, Hasidic Jews largely speak Yiddish as a first language.  It’s a phenomenon almost unknown in the language preservation world.  Most minority languages that have survived to this day are doing so thanks to government support (see: French in Quebec or Catalan in Catalonia).  The fact that Yiddish is starting to rebound is due in large part to the resilience of the Hasidic Jews who speak it.  So let’s give credit where credit is due.

People who make errors in Standard English often do so because they are native speakers of another language.  For example, a Spanish-speaker from Bolivia might accidentally write “Jonathan” as “Yonathan” because the Spanish “y” more closely approximates an English “j”.  An Arabic-speaker from Syria might write “Bebsi” instead of “Pepsi” because there are no “p” sounds in their dialect and the “b” is the next closest thing.  I promise you English-speakers do the same thing when they speak other languages.  It’s natural and a part of the learning process.

In the case of Hasidic Jews, there is also evidence that actually a new dialect is forming.  That, notwithstanding this one spelling mistake, Hasidic Jews (somewhat like other American Jews) have developed a Yiddish-infused English.  Some scholars call this “Jewish English“.  If I think about myself, a Reform Jew, I could see how sometimes I speak this English.  I could say, for instance, “I’m going to put on my yarmulke and go to Shabbat services.  I’m going to stay for the oneg to shmooze and do some tikkun olam with my friends from NFTY.”  Most Reform Jews would understand this thought.  But the average non-Jewish American would probably be lost.

Hasidic Jews do much the same thing.  Take this sentence, for example: “We do all that shtik to be mesameach the chosson v’kaloh.”  In Standard English, this means: “We do all those routines to entertain the groom and bride.”  If that’s not a dialect, I’m not sure what is.

A lot of cultures do this.  Growing up, I learned Standard Spanish.  I was exposed to different accents, but all of them were varieties of Spanish.  When I started working at a Mexican-American non-profit, I was exposed to Spanglish.  I had to reconfigure the way I spoke both English and Spanish to learn this new way of using the language.  “Órale pues, let’s go to the cine but afterwards, quiero bailar.”  You might translate this as “Ok, let’s go to the movies but afterwards, I want to dance.”  It’s a new thing, and once you get used to it, it can be kind of fun.

If you’re not inclined to make fun of a Latino for either misspelling something in English or speaking Spanglish, then I hope you’d reconsider whether it makes sense to ridicule a Hasidic Jew for doing the exact same thing.

This isn’t to say you can’t disagree ideologically with Hasidic Jews- I certainly do (and a lot of them disagree amongst each other!).  As the Yiddish saying goes: “tsvey yidn dray shuln” or “two Jews, three synagogues”.  I also don’t mean to suggest there isn’t a role for more secular education in the Hasidic world, as some advocates like Lipa Schmeltzer have pushed for.

All I’m saying is this: treat others with kindness and respect.  Hasidic Jews are keeping the Yiddish language alive and inventing a new dialect of English.  They’re busy!  If they misspell something in English once in a while, give them a break and I’m sure they wouldn’t mind a correction.  Show a little rakhmones!

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Interview avec l’activiste gay tunisien Mounir Baatour

Interview avec l’activiste gay tunisien Mounir Baatour

J’avais l’opportunité de faire un interview avec Mounir Baatour du groupe activiste Shams de la Tunisie.  Je suis très fier de la communauté LGBT tunisienne pour son courage et pour lutter pour leurs droits.  Bien que la situation c’est difficile pour les gays en Tunisie, je suis un peu plus optimiste grâce aux efforts que font les activistes comme Mounir.  Merci beaucoup à Mounir pour parler avec moi.  Voici l’interview:

1) Comment avez-vous créé le groupe Shams et quel est son objectif?

Nous avons crée l’Association SHAMS sous forme d’une page Facebook qui appelle à la dépénalisation de l’homosexualité en Tunisie, on a vu qu’il ya beaucoup de réactions au sujet alors on a décidé de déposer une demande d’autorisation pour une association LGBT ce qui a été accepté par le gouvernement le 18 mai 2010.  Les Objectifs de SHAMS sont :

  • Militer pour la dépénalisation de l’homosexualité en Tunisie
  • Lutter contre l’homophobie
  • Faire de la prévention contre le suicide chez les jeunes LGBT
  • Faire de la prévention contre le MST/Sida
  • Agir devant la Cours Constitutionnelle pour l’abolition de l’article 230 du code pénal tunisien qui criminalise l’homosexualité.

2) Pouvez-vous décrire la situation des homosexuels dans l’histoire tunisienne?

L’homosexualité masculine et féminine est criminalisée en Tunisie depuis 1913 sous le protectorat Français, c’est la France qui a instauré l’article 230 du code pénal en Tunisie.

La situation des LGBT en Tunisie est la suivante :

En matière de législation et des textes juridiques :

Dans une atteinte claire à la déclaration universelle des Droits de l’Homme et des articles 21, 23 et 24 de la Constitution tunisienne, l’Etat tunisien n’a pas encore abrogé l’article 230 du code pénal. Cet article interdit la relation homosexuelle entre deux personnes adultes et consentantes du même sexe. La peine appliquée via cet article est de 3 ans de prison fermes. L’Etat tunisien s’est opposé farouchement à la recommandation du conseil des droits de l’homme de l’ONU en 2012 à Genève à ce sujet. En effet, Samir DILOU, l’ex ministre des droits de l’Homme de l’époque, a formulé son opposition contre la recommandation d’abolir l’article 230 du code pénal tunisien.

Pour prouver l’homosexualité des accusés, la police et le tribunal se basent sur le test anal. Une pratique qui a été classé de la part de l’Organisation Mondiale Contre la Torture (OMCT) comme acte de torture et contradictoire à l’Article 23 de la Constitution tunisienne ainsi que la déclaration universelle des Droits de l’Homme dans son 5ème article. Même la position du Conseil de l’Ordre des Médecins tunisien était claire et publique en condamnant ce genre de pratique contre la déontologie de la médecine.

Au niveau social et culturel :

Avec la tolérance législative de l’Etat envers la discrimination basée sur l’orientation, Shams a enregistré plusieurs violations sociales et l’absence très claire de toute stratégie nationale pour combattre ce phénomène. Ainsi, les minorités sexuelles sont confrontées à la menace de se faire expulser de chez eux et Shams a enregistré de nombreux cas qui ont contacté l’association pour demander de l’aide car leurs parents les ont mis à la porte après avoir découvert leur orientation sexuelle.  Avec l’absence de tout encadrement, ces personnes généralement adolescentes, se retrouvent sans soutien financier ou psychologique. Pire encore: A cause l’article 230, ils préfèrent se taire au lieu de se diriger vers l’une des structures de protection de l’enfance de peur se faire violenté ou incarcéré par les agents de l’Etat.

Dans ce cadre, Shams a enregistré via les canaux de communication directs, environ 50 cas, dont 15 mineurs qui ont été violentés physiquement puis renvoyés de chez eux à cause de leur sexualité sans qu’ils aient le droit de se diriger vers un service de protection, ou un abri ou encore moins le Tribunal pour demander ce qui leur est de droit. Ceci en résulte une augmentation exponentielle des taux de suicide chez les minorités sexuelles. Sans parler des dépassements gravissimes enregistrés dans les médias tunisiens et les mosquées incitant au lynchage et la haine contre ces personnes de la communauté LGBT.

A propos des droits et des Libertés fondamentales :

Dans un autre volet, Shams a enregistré un grand nombre d’harcèlements des personnes de minorités sexuelles dans la vie professionnelle tel que le mauvais traitement infligé par les employeurs ou la discrimination à la nomination. Cette pratique est très courante au sein de l’institution militaire. Shams a ainsi enregistré deux cas : Une fille homosexuelle a été virée du corps militaire après que son identité sexuelle a été découverte et un jeune homme dont le recrutement a été refusé sans raison valable, surtout qu’il avait toutes les prédispositions physiques pour devenir militaire. Mais ce refus vient après que son homosexualité fût aussi découverte par les militaires. Ce genre de pratique est également enregistré au sein de  l’administration et les entreprises. Ce qui constitue une violation des articles 21 et 39 de la constitution tunisienne.

L’institution pénitentiaire tunisienne applique également un traitement discriminatoire envers des personnes incarcérées et qui font partie de la minorité sexuelle (violence verbale et physique, torture, etc.) ce qui en complète contradiction avec l’article 30 de la constitution tunisienne.

Les autorités tunisiennes, et le ministère de la santé en particulier, continuent à ignorer le droit d’accès au traitement contre le HIV/Sida aux malades. Sans parler de la discrimination et du mauvais traitement (insultes, harcèlement moral, etc.) contre ces malades dans les hôpitaux et ce sans le moindre encadrement psychologiquement. Ce qui représente une violation à l’article 38 de la constitution tunisienne qui déclare l’accès aux services de santé comme un droit fondamental à tous les citoyens.

Shams a également enregistré une violation de l’Etat tunisien contre les droits des personnes transsexuelles. La législation tunisienne interdit, en effet, le changement du nom et du sexe de la personne sur les papiers administratifs et les extraits de naissance, même si c’est motivé par un dossier médical, sauf sous ordre du tribunal.

3) Est-ce que la société tunisienne est plus progressive quant aux enjeux gays/féministes que les autres pays arabes?

La société tunisienne est aussi conservatrice que les autres pays arabes quant aux enjeux LGBT, c’est une société matchiste et masculine qui ne respecte pas les droits des minorités en général, un matchisme teinté d’arrière pensée islamique sachant que l’islam est une religion homophobe.

4) Il y a aussi des groupes pro-gays au Liban, un autre pays arabe avec plusieurs francophones.  Pensez-vous que les liens avec le monde francophone ont influé les changements sociaux en Tunisie?

Je constate que sur les 127000 fans de notre page FB, il y a 108000 fans qui sont francophone ce qui prouve que l’élite francophone en Tunisie est plus sensible à la question LGBT et plus tolérante.  Nous saluons l’intervention du premier ministre canadien au 17ème sommet de la francophonie à Madagascar, qui a appelé à respecter les droits de la minorité LGBT. Mais malheureusement nous constations que plus que 30 pays francophone continuent de criminaliser l’homosexualité dont la Tunisie, le Liban, le Maroc et l’Egypte pour ne pas parler que des pays de culture arabo-musulmane.

5) Comment collaborez-vous avec les autres organisations tunisiennes, arabes, et internationales?

Nous avons crée un front LGBT en Tunisie avec d’autres associations et le réseau Euromed droit nous collaborons avec l’association Helem Montréal qui est une association libanaise basée au Canada et nous avons crée l’association SHAMS France pour les LGBT maghrébins résidents en France. Nous avons des actions communes avec l’association française ADHEOS qui nous aide pour lutter contre le discours intégriste homophobe en Tunisie.

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Stop stereotyping Chasidim

Stop stereotyping Chasidim

I’m a gay socialist anarchist Jew raised in the Reform Movement.  You won’t find anyone to the left of me on the political spectrum or prouder to be a gay man.  And I have a message for my progressive Jewish friends: stop stereotyping Chasidim.  If I of all people can see Chasidim as a diverse community of human beings with real value to offer the Jewish people, so can you!

I was raised in the Reform Movement and am proud to say so.  I founded and led teen services at my synagogue, served on youth group boards, helped re-write the movement’s sex-ed curriculum, did service work in Argentina with Reform Jews, led the Reform Chavurah on my college campus, and currently help craft young professionals programming at my Reform shul.

One of the values I was taught as a Reform Jew was to respect and honor other cultures and communities.  The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism does a tremendous job of advocating for social justice for African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, the disabled, LGBT people, and other minorities.  This is in our blood and our neshama and we rightfully view tikkun olam as essential to our Judaism.

Yet I’ve heard, from Reform, Conservative, and secular Jews many comments that caused me to think of Chasidic and “ultra-Orthodox” Jews (we’ll come back to why I hate that term- I prefer Chareidi) as monolithic, hateful, and bigoted.  Against Reform Jews, women, gay people, you name it.  I was taught about the Reform Kindergarten in Israel burned down by extremists, I read in the press about Orthodox men stabbing people at pride parades, and I was told that Chasidim are overly hierarchical and chauvinistic.

While some of these stories are true and in every stereotype there may be a bit of reality, I wonder why we don’t afford our Chasidic brothers and sisters the same understanding we offer other minorities.  For example, African Americans tend to be more socially conservative than Reform Jews, with 76% of Jews supporting same-sex marriage, but only 42% of African Americans.  And yet, progressive Jews’ support for African American civil rights is a matter of our faith and values, not whether they have the same values (though a growing number certainly do- they are a diverse community like all others).  My support for African American civil rights is not conditioned on them supporting my civil rights, though I certainly welcome it.

If we can show beautiful solidarity and support for African Americans, why are we so reluctant to engage with our Chasidic brothers and sisters from our own faith?  First of all, without realizing it, many progressive Jews have a double standard.  Bigotry in other minority communities is correctly diagnosed as only one perspective among a diverse group of people.  And yet, we don’t offer that same generosity of spirit to Chasidim.  We say they are all chauvinistic, they are all homophobic, they are all violent extremists.  To this, I say “sha!”.

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I recently read an interesting poll from the Pew Center.  It said that 70% of Chareidi Jews (both Chasidic and Litvish) think homosexuality should be discouraged.  There are two ways to read the poll, one pessimistic and the other quintessentially Jewish.  The pessimist (who already may view Chasidim with suspicion) would say: “wow what a bunch of bigots!”.  To which I say, “I never would’ve possibly imagined that a full third of this community would not want to discourage homosexuality”.  How beautiful it is to find this nugget of truth- that among “ultra-Orthodox” Jews there are a lot of people who don’t want to make their Judaism about ignorance and hate.  It gives me hope.

Speaking of diversity, for example, we acknowledge diversity within Latino communities (national origin, age, geography, language, etc.).  That is fantastic and very important in figuring out how to reach out and understand another group of people.  But Reform Jews (and I think progressive Jews in general), have done precious little to understand “ultra-Orthodox” Jews.  And let’s dissect that term for a moment.  I find it deeply prejudiced.  Ultra implies excess, fanaticism, too much, overwhelming, and out of control.  Since “ultra-Orthodox” Jews don’t call themselves that, let’s use “Chareidi” to talk about the Litvish and Chasidic Jews that term compromises.  Furthermore, the term “ultra-Orthodox” lumps almost a million people into one group.  Besides the fact that Litvish and Chasidic Jews have had ideological differences for centuries (which were quite passionate back in Eastern Europe), even within Chasidic Judaism you have different ideologies.  You’ve got the “outward looking” Chabad movement that seeks to bring non-Chasidic Jews into their community.  And you have the other Chasidic sects like the Satmars, Bobovers, Skeverers, and others who are more focused on preserving what they see as the essence of Judaism internally.

Non-Chabad Chasidim, because they are more focused on preserving their learning and culture rather than recruiting new members, place a strong emphasis on Yiddish.  For these Chasidim (and to a degree Chabadniks), language, kashrus, and clothing are what help keep their community distinct from the goyish world they’re surrounded by.  One of the things I appreciate about this, besides the fact that they’re sustaining the Yiddish language more than any other Jewish movement in the world, is that they don’t want to assimilate.  While the Reform Movement today has a healthier balance of innovation and tradition, in its early days it was formed as a way for Jews to assimilate into Protestant culture (at the time, in Germany and the U.S.).  Services reflected Protestant norms so Jews could “fit in” with their neighbors.  While I certainly understand the impulse for Jews to want to fit in after 2,000 years of persecution, I think assimilation is the wrong solution.  Why do the persecutors’ work for them?  We should embrace all that is different, “weird”, and unique about Judaism rather than aiming to pleasure the majority.  I love this radical rebelliousness on the part of Chasidim and I think there is great value to progressive communities in learning about it as we craft our own practices.

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Which brings us to an interesting point.  So many progressive Jews (and non-Jews) decry the poverty rate of Chasidic Jews and their high unemployment.  If some of the words progressive Jews used to describe Chasidim were applied to other lower-income minorities, they’d be seen as prejudiced.  Rather than bemoan the fact that Chasidim “study all day” (something we wish our own kids would do!), why can’t we appreciate the good Chasidim are doing for the Jewish people?

An entire language would be dead by now if it weren’t for the Chasidic community’s diligence.  After World War II, American Jews rapidly assimilated and part of the compact they made in exchange for social advancement was to leave “weird” Jewish stuff behind, like Yiddish.  At one time spoken by millions of American Jews, it rapidly declined over the subsequent decades.  The few secular or progressive Jews trying to keep the flame alive (I’m one of them- I recently started studying the language) get little or no support from Jewish funders or institutions.  While there is somewhat of a renaissance of people (especially my generation) learning the language thanks to groups like the Workmen’s Circle, YIVO, and Yugntruf, most American Jews are uninvolved.  Their parents and grandparents didn’t pass on the language.

Yet recently, something curious happened.  While up to 2000, the number of Yiddish speakers in New York was declining, it jumped from 113,515 speakers to 121,917 in 2010.  This might sound small, but that’s a 7.4% increase in 10 years, at a time when other immigrant languages from the 20th century like Italian and Greek are rapidly declining.  They don’t have a core of passionate, dedicated speakers like Yiddish does, and we are blessed to have them preserving 2,000 years of Jewish history every day.

Due to high Chasidic fertility, you can expect those numbers to go up rapidly over the next 10, 20, 30 years and beyond.  Rather than criticizing Chasidim for having large families, I frankly think we should thank them.  Not only are they pulling off a tremendous feat, bring a child into the world (and on a low budget), they are nourishing that child with Torah, with Chesed, with love.  Would that we had the kind of energy for 7 children!  It’s truly astonishing and while we might not choose it for our own families (progressive women, breathe a sigh of relief), we can acknowledge and appreciate the tremendous sacrifice these families are making.  And they are strengthening the Jewish people at the same time.

If progressive Jewish leaders were creative, they’d see this burgeoning Yiddish resurgence as an opportunity.  Rather than telling Chasidim to learn English or take “modern” jobs (though contrary to stereotypes, many do work), let’s think about some ways in which this could benefit our own Judaism.  For example, often for ideological reasons, some Chasidism choose to leave the community.  Estranged from their background but in search of something new, they are forced to leave Yiddish in the home, since our capitalist economy has decided it’s not a valuable “work skill”.  Putting aside the speciousness of the idea that speaking such a rich language is not a valuable skill, let’s acknowledge that many ex-Chasidim have trouble in the job market.  How about this for an idea.  While some ex-Chasidim, although fluent in Yiddish, may not want to work as teachers, some may.  What if we pooled our resources to train those interested in teaching the mameloshn and created a corps of teachers who could revive Yiddish teaching in progressive Judaism?  While obviously this is a proposal for Ashkenazi Jews (though certainly anyone could learn it!), it could be inspiration for similar programs for Ladino or other Jewish languages.  Let’s give deserving people new job opportunities while creating Jewish richness for our own community.

All of which is to say, Chasidim are people.  Just as we would never assume that the unelected heads of the hierarchy of the Reform Movement or Conservative Movement speak for all members of those movements, we should apply similar scrutiny to statements from Chasidic rabbis.  Yes, Chasidim often revere their rabbis, but there are also plenty of schisms in communities, competing rabbis, and more importantly, grassroots Chasidim who may have different opinions, voiced or not.  Like we’d approach any sociological setting, let’s not assume that one person talking on behalf of thousands speaks for them all.

In the end, Chasidim are diverse.  They have real problems, ranging from chauvinism to sexual abuse.  Real problems that our communities have experienced too.  Let’s not be afraid to point out those problems to address them, but let’s not forget our shared humanity and fallibility.  Chasidim come in all shapes and sizes, just like us.  I challenge my progressive Jewish friends- Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Yiddishist, atheist, secular, Humanist, and Renewal- to join me in committing to learn more about the fascinating Chasidic community.  Read a book, visit a website, learn Yiddish, go to Chasidic neighborhoods, go to the source.  The more stuff you engage with actually written by or produced by Chasidim, the more authentic your knowledge of them will be.

When I visited New York in March, I wore jeans and a sweater (with a teal streak in my hair), and headed to Williamsburg, a Chasidic neighborhood.  I went to a bakery and found the man very quiet.  But once I started speaking in Yiddish and said I was visiting from Washington, D.C., his eyes lit up as he grabbed me some babka.  I spent hours perusing a Judaica store as well, filled with the latest in Yiddish illustrated books for children.  These books were gorgeous and creative and engaging.  If they were translated with pretty covers and called “graphic novels”, you might be curious enough to buy them for three times the price at an independent bookstore.  The shop owner was generous and kind and welcoming, even though I clearly wasn’t a member of the community.  I bought a black velvet yarmulke, to fit in a little and as a keepsake, but my teal streak still strong enough to make clear I was a bit of an outsider too.

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That is my hope for your engagement with Chasidim.  There’s no need to lose your “teal streak”, that progressive bent which makes your Judaism unique and powerful.  Instead, come with your authentic voice, show respect for the local community like you would with a Muslim community, and engage.  Chasidic people may never write this kind of blog encouraging their community to engage with progressive Jews (though that’d be awesome).  But in the end, I don’t care.  I’m not doing it for them so much as I’m doing it for my own Jewish values, taught to me by the Reform Movement.  Ve’ahavta le’reacha kamocha.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Your Latino neighbor, your black neighbor, your disabled neighbor, and yes, your Chasidic ones too.

It’s time to step outside our comfort zone and get to know our fellow Jews, our fellow human beings.

Amen.

-Matt Adler (פסח מיכאל)

 

Jewish Prayer for Diversity

Jewish Prayer for Diversity

At a time in which politicians in the U.S., U.K., and other countries are pouring forth hatred against minorities, it’s important for us to remember the beauty of diversity as we stand beside out brothers and sisters in solidarity. I wrote this Jewish prayer out of love for diversity:

Blessed are you Adonai our G-d
Ruler of the universe
who created all types of wondrous people.

Whole Grain Judaism

Whole Grain Judaism

What most people recognize as the “Jewish World” today is a series of businesses. The Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement, AIPAC, JStreet, the Orthodox Union, and Hasidic sects. To varying degrees, these groups and ones like them are organized as economic units- the Jewish Industrial Complex, if you may. Each one relies on extensive fundraising efforts, courting of big donors, and hierarchical leadership which chooses how to direct the funds just like a CEO. Sometimes that leader even carries the title of Rabbi, though it’s questionable how studying Talmud and how to give a good Dvar Torah makes one fit to be a CEO. Or whether a Rabbi, originally a teacher and servant of the community, is really meant to be such a thing.

Am I exaggerating? Here’s a quick test for the Jews reading this piece:

  • How many High Holiday services have you attended where there was no appeal from the Bimah for making a donation?
  • How many Jewish groups have you been a member of that didn’t cost anything?
  • How many synagogues have you seen where donors aren’t acknowledged with engraved plaques?

Now if you can count up your answers and the result be more than zero, you are a unique Jew. Mazel tov! Perhaps you belong to the budding chavurah movement, which I think gets many things right about how to organize Jewish life. And perhaps there are some variations by sect and organization, but the overall point remains the same: today’s Jewish institutions revolve around money. And the more you give, the more influence you have. If you’re thinking that it’s unfair for me to call this a uniquely Jewish phenomenon, you’re right- other cultures and religions suffer from this problem too, but I’d like to primarily focus here on how it affects my community.

I can recall as a child seeing the plaques in the synagogue entrance with donors’ names and being perplexed. Why were there plaques? And why were some plaques much bigger than others with weird phrases attached to them indicating just how much they gave? The Howard County Jewish Federation, for example, takes Jewish icons and turns them into fundraising slogans: the Maimonides Society for doctors who give $1800 a year, the Knesset Society for those giving $1200 a year, and the Lion of Judah Society for women who give a minimum of $5000 a year (and who get a fancy pin to show for it to show others of course). Why not go all the way? How about a “Guardian of the Gates of Repentance” for $6000, a “Queen Esther for a Day” for $8000, or maybe even “Become a Cohen” for $10000? Do these sound absurd? Perhaps. But is it really that much different than a Chabad shul in Israel charging $7250 for being called to the Torah at the beginning of Kol Nidre?. Before my Reform friends get high and mighty about that, some Reform Temples have historically sold the prime sanctuary seats to big donors who, of course, got plaques with their names engraved on the seats.

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Speaking of plaques, this seems like a kind of filthy bacteria contaminating the otherwise admirable white teeth of the Jewish people. As the son of a single mother who had limited income, I often felt segregated, looked down on, and excluded from Jewish events. Although I actively participated in youth group, led services, tutored Bar Mitzvah students, joined Federation programs, and took Hebrew lessons, I can conclusively say that there is a pernicious class divide within the Jewish community. It’s not that I remotely begrudge people donating to Jewish institutions- I think they’re largely well-intentioned, good people. The question is why does our community feel a need for aggrandizing its wealthiest members? And what effect does that have on middle class or lower-income Jews trying to preserve their heritage as well?

Which goes back to the original point- today’s Jewish institutions are businesses. There are the leaders (CEOs- read: highly empowered Rabbis, non-profit Presidents, sometimes even movement or synagogue Presidents). There are also the workers (Hebrew school teachers, Jewish Day School staff, synagogue janitors, cantors, sometimes even Rabbis). And there are (brace yourselves) the customers- that’s me and you.

Well that’s a really ugly way to think about community. Especially because I think most people involved, be they clergy, board members, or community members, would rather not think of the synagogue or a Jewish organization as a financial transaction (especially the workers who are often underpaid and underappreciated- I’m looking at you Jewish communal workers!). So clearly something needs to change to make this community work for all of us.

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What I find most compelling about Judaism (especially since we became a kind of anarchist Diaspora community 2000 years ago) is our lack of bureaucracy. I often like to point out to Catholic friends of mine that I’m quite proud of the fact that we don’t have a Pope. The fact that we are a dispersed, loosely organized (organized is generous when talking about Jewish communities!) people has allowed for a wide variety of interesting philosophical and cultural movements within our people. It stimulates debate and foments creativity. That’s why we literally have two Talmuds! It’s why we have Renewal, Humanist, Yiddishist, Sephardic, Yemenite, Persian, Ashkenazi, Atheist, Socialist, Communist, Zionist, non-Zionist, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Conservadox, Modern Orthodox, Hasidic, and Charedi Jews- and more! Such a vitality and diversity of thought is almost unparalleled for such a small group of people! It is kind of like the city of Austin, TX. Because Austin has laws that specifically limit chains and large corporations, for a small city, it has a wide variety of restaurants and bars and stimulated people. Judaism’s lack of central organization and hierarchy allows for the most beautiful proliferation of cultural and spiritual energy.

This is why I’m so concerned about the corporatization of Judaism. Judaism is both a culture and a religion, but it is emphatically not meant to be a commodity. When you look at the Jewish movements growing most rapidly today it is the ones that do not charge membership fees. For instance, independent chavurot and minyans around the country don’t charge you to participate, so people are more interested in joining. Nobody wants to feel like their spiritual and cultural belonging feel more like paying rent than connecting with G-d. Another example is (not withstanding the bizarre Chabad practice in Israel described earlier) Chabad. While I was a student at Washington University in St. Louis, I led a Reform Chavurah for progressive Jewish students. We were very successful in building up an organization (the largest on campus) that was centered around community rather than membership or fees. The only other Jewish organization on campus that had similar success was Chabad. Despite the movement’s decidedly conservative politics and religious beliefs, the simple fact that Chabad emissaries make their meals, services, and programming free attracts people of all different backgrounds. It just feels more welcoming to be approached as a Jew and a human being, rather than a potential member or donor.

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I’ve explained how a profit-centered Judaism is taking hold of the Jewish community. But how does this affect Judaism itself? In one word: barriers.

As each Jewish organization or movement builds its customer base, it doesn’t want to lose anyone to competitors. And so lines harden. Reform Jews, rightfully rejoicing in their egalitarianism and creative musical worship, have utterly abandoned Ashkenazi Hebrew and Yiddish. Conservative Jews, rightfully proud of their high levels of Jewish camp and day school participation, look down on Reform Jews while failing to recognize their policies on women and gays are taken from the Reform playbook but with an agonizing 10 year delay. Modern Orthodox Jews, rightfully proud of their tight knit communities and passion for Judaism, have adopted the Protestant model of Judaism as a religion only and have neglected Jewish culture- Ladino, Yiddish, calligraphy, art, social justice, and a concern for the “other” (read: Palestinian). Ultra-orthodox Jews, rightfully proud of being the only Jewish community to successfully preserve Yiddish as a daily language, have attacked women for praying at the Western Wall, forgetting the Biblical injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself”.

What this means is that each type of Judaism- be it a religious movement or a cultural one- needs to break out of its shell so our community can learn from the best of what each tradition has to offer. The only way to do this is to (sorry to quote Ronald Reagan because I’m not a fan!) “tear down this wall!” Rather than being little pieces of a much more interesting whole, we must start to practice “Whole Grain Judaism” where we’re confident enough to be able to see the good and bad in all Jewish movements and take what we need to build a holistic, healthy philosophy and community.

Since the barriers between our different Jewish silos are partially financial in nature, we must turn our attention to how we can de-financialize Judaism. Are we raising money for things that we could do ourselves? The most successful religious movement in the U.S. today (in terms of growth) is non-denominational evangelical Christianity. What do they do that’s so enticing? First off, this is largely a low-budget operation. While we do see images of megachurches and the like, a lot of prayer meetings are small and open to all (like minyans- see we have precedents for this in our history!). Perhaps “small and open to all” a good guideline for how to reconceptualize Judaism. Rather than big synagogues with big expenses where few people know each other, what about small, deeply personal chavurot that are largely self-run? There may in fact always be some expenses in putting on events or educational programs, but I think that without an expensive building and all the maintenance it requires, this would greatly reduce the cost of Jewish community participation. For communities that want to further reduce expenses, why couldn’t they run their own educational programming? The Hebrew school model (I’m thinking mostly of Reform and Conservative shuls here) is outdated and while there are many passionate and engaging teachers who I adore from my youth, for most kids it’s a bore and a chore. If community members themselves were the educators (and if the youth could take leadership roles), it’d increase everyone’s investment in the process and make for a more creative effort.

If you want to go further, you could reduce or eliminate the role of a paid rabbi, since Judaism, unlike Catholicism, doesn’t require a rabbi to do most prayer services or functions. Making rabbinic training less expensive, less bureaucratic, and more driven by local community needs would be one way to reduce costs as well. Local mentorship of rabbis by other rabbis instead of long seminary programs could be one way to train more leaders for less money. In additional, communal leaders could take on aspects of the rabbinic role or share clergy across chavurot.

Another benefit of decentralized Judaism is the ability for each chavurah or cultural group to set its own policies. Rather than obeying the mandates of the Union for Reform Judaism (which in turn eats a lot of synagogues’ money!), why not give each community the flexibility to choose what’s right for them? There is Jewish precedent for this. In Jewish tradition, it was considered the norm for a traveling Jew to follow the minhag (tradition) of the new community he or she encountered. This means that even going back hundreds and thousands of years, Jews have always maintained different traditions across time and boundaries and yet still managed to thrive as a people. Unity is a fascist concept. What is really beautiful is diversity and we ought to encourage it. What might work for Jews in D.C. may not work for Jews in Tehran or Jews in France. Let’s stop pretending we’re one people (by the way, having rigidly defined competing hierarchical movements doesn’t exactly contribute to that goal anyways) and embrace that we are one people with many faces.

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Speaking of decision making, “Whole Grain Judaism” must include a strong emphasis on the democratic process. Currently, I can’t think of a since Jewish institution that lets all of its members choose its leadership. As a current member of the Reform Movement, I can’t think of a single time I’ve been asked to vote for the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, yet my movement emphatically urges me to vote for the President of the USA. I suppose it’s easier to preach democracy than to practice it. But I insist that Whole Grain Judaism allow people an equal voice in the decision making process. No plaques, no privileges, just equality. It’ll make for greater inclusion and involvement in the community because people will feel greater ownership.12885746_10100982715916252_8899510398616850012_o

There are different types of whole grains and so Whole Grain Judaism will mean different things for different people. For me, it means a Judaism that proudly embraces, teaches, and speaks its various languages (Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Bukharan, and more). It means a Judaism where all have an equal say and the community actively and passionately participates throughout the year- at home and as a whole. It means a Judaism that is egalitarian and progressive, but is also proud of our traditions- embracing aspects of Kashrut, holidays, tekhines, and piyyutim. It means a Judaism that shows a deep and abiding love for the world’s many cultures while also sharing and embracing our own- Jewish literature, history, music, cuisine, poetry, comedy, art, and architecture. After all, when we know our heritage well, we are better able to relate to and engage with other people’s cultures. It means a Judaism of loving our neighbors as ourselves and standing for justice, peace, friendship and cultural understanding with all peoples, learning from others and sharing our insights too.

The important thing is to find the whole grain that makes your Judaism fulfilling, rich, healthy, and delicious. Maybe you’re barley, maybe you’re wheat, but in the end, you can’t let the artificial barriers that separate us stop you from finding your path. There will always be disagreements among Jews- that’s what makes us Jews! But don’t let that convince you that you can’t learn from your fellow Yidden even if you continue to disagree on important issues.

In the end, I think most rabbis, cantors, Jewish communal employees, synagogue board members, donors, members, and unaffiliated Jews are good people because most people are good people. But let’s face it- this system sucks! Judaism is best when it’s not a financial institution, but rather a constellation of cultural, personal, and philosophical relationships that tie us together with love and curiosity. Let’s make it our mission to go against the grain and make ourselves whole.

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