יום חמישי, נובמבר 30, 2006


AJC to PM: Don't

Continuing a theme I mentioned a few days ago (just scroll down), Haaretz reports:

The heads of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) sent an unusually harsh letter Tuesday to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, warning that if a proposed change goes through in the Law of Return excluding converts in the definition of a Jew, it could seriously impair support for Israel among American Jews.

No kidding.

Back at the start of the Intro course, our rabbi asked us to list what we considered the main challenges to the Jewish people. I said: Increasing divergence of interests between the Diaspora and Israel. This issue of converts and the Law of Return is a more or less perfect demonstration of what I had in mind.

Haaretz again:

In the letter, AJC president Robert Goodkind ... said if the bill became law it would alienate precisely those groups that are the basis for support for Israel in American society.

I think that is a risk to be taken seriously. On the other hand, given that another of my concerns is that the institutional voices of American Judaism all too often take "support for Israel" to mean support for the right wing in Israel (e.g. regarding the Territories), maybe a little alienation would be a healthy thing.

יום ראשון, נובמבר 26, 2006


The Jews of Egypt

The diversity of backgrounds one can find within the Jewish community never ceases to amaze me. This past summer, one Shabbat morning we met a man who had just moved from the East Coast and was engaging in some "shul shopping." He is originally from Egypt, having left shortly after the 1956 Anglo-French-Israeli war with that country.

I will simply call him 'N' to respect his privacy. N mentioned that he was Sephardic and spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and that his family had lived in Turkey prior to Egypt. That is interesting enough right there. But I never knew before that French had once been the lingua franca (appropriately enough) of the Egpyptian Jews. N spoke beautiful French--at least as best I could tell--with a congregant.

An article by Joel Beinin on Egyptian Jewish Identities in the (now defunct) Stanford Humanities Review (1996) notes:

In 1860 the Paris-based Alliance Israëlite Universelle embarked on a Jewish "mission civilisatrice," to uplift and modernize the Jews of the Middle East by imbuing them with French education and culture. French opposition to British imperial policy in Egypt throughout the nineteenth century allowed many Egyptians, not only Jews, to embrace French culture as an acceptable form of European modernity, and, by the late nineteenth century, French was the lingua franca of the entire Egyptian business community. Knowledge of a European language was virtually a requirement for a white-collar job in the modern private sector of the economy and constituted significant cultural capital, so many Egyptian Jews willingly underwent de-Arabization.

As for the Jewish community of Egypt more generally, an article by Trudy Rubin of the Christian Science Monitor and the Alicia Patterson Foundation from September 17, 1974, notes:

In the 1930's the city [of Cairo] held 30-40,000 Jews. Today there are 200 left. They were a cosmopolitan group, engaged largely in trade, banking, and commerce, owning rich villas and apartments, traveling frequently to Europe, and sending their children to Jewish or European-run schools. Their first language was French, followed by Italian, but many also spoke some Greek and English, and the men at least usually spoke Arabia [sic]. They moved in the extensive foreign communities, which have nearly disappeared since the French-British-Israeli invasion of Suez in 1956, and the nationalization of most large businesses by 1961.

The article notes how increasingly difficult life became for this community after 1948, but especially after the 1973 war, about one year before the article originally appeared. The article also includes two photos of synagogues in Egypt: the 12th century, C.E., Ben Ezra and the more modern Adli St. Synagogue, both in Cairo.

Also interesting on this topic is the page by the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, entitled, "A Short History of The Exodus Of Jews From Egypt."

I wonder about the status of these synagogues and any remnant community today, more than thirty years later.

Thanks to N for enlightening me about the French-speaking Jews of Egypt.

I was inspired to post this here by a post at Point of no return, which I just ran across today.


Lentil soup

The past week's sidra, Tol'dot, contains the reference to Jacob giving Esau bread and lentil soup as Esau sold his birthright. Concidentally, in a blog that I just discovered today ,and am enjoying, The Jews of Lebanon, there was a post in October about the culinary traditions retained by Middle Eastern Jews in New York.

Ours is the real, original cooking of the Jews,” said Vicki Maijor, whose grandmother was born in Aleppo, Syria. In the Bible, she pointed out, when Esau sells his birthright, “it is for lentil soup, isn’t it?”

Some virtual menu samplers:

sambusak, crisp little half-moons stuffed with allspice-scented meat or tangy white cheese; mujadara, lentils and rice cooked together and thickly piled with gold-brown strands of onion; mahshi, vegetables like tiny eggplant and finger-size zucchini stuffed with spiced meat and rice; and kahk, sesame-sprinkled rounds of crumbly pastry.


Ms. Hasson is famous in the community for her typically Lebanese fruit preserves, like tiny apples cooked in sugar syrup, jellied quince paste and finely shredded and candied spaghetti squash...

...a green Egyptian soup called melokhia, spiked with vinegary scallions to cut its richness...

...chickens mounded with rice and pine nut stuffing; brisket in a sweet and sour sauce; a roll of roasted kibbe [described elsewhere in the post as "ground beef stuffed into an impossibly thin shell of bulgur wheat"] in cherry sauce; braised celery root and fennel in turmeric

Wow, this all sounds fantastic!

יום שישי, נובמבר 24, 2006


One step forward, one step back?

In news from Israel this week, one big advance for individual rights, and one proposed large setback.

On the one hand, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages performed abroad must be recognized as valid under Israeli law.

On the other hand, the Chief Rabbinate has prepared a bill, which may be supported by some cabinet members, that would remove converts from the Law of Return. As noted by Haaretz:

The bill was initiated by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar in an effort to block the possibility that the High Court of Justice could recognize Reform conversions carried out in Israel...

The main element in the bill is a change in the clause defining a Jew for the purposes of the Law of Return. At present the clause defines a Jew as a person born to a Jewish mother or who converted to Judaism. The bill proposes that an the only individuals recognized as Jewish by the Law of return will be those born to a Jewish mother.

If this bill passes, it will be all that much harder for us non-Orthodox converts (or converts to be) to identify with the State of Israel, given that the 'Jewish State' would not see us as Jews. Not that I plan to make aliya claim Israeli citizenship as a Jew, but still, this rankles.

יום שבת, נובמבר 11, 2006


Chanukah and freedom

Today is the 21st of Heshvan, and so Chanukah is just over a month away. Besides, it is one of the next topics in our Intro class, and thus a good moment to reflect on the holiday and my relation to it.

Chanukah was certainly the first Jewish holiday I ever learned about. For that I can thank Mrs. Klein, whose daughter was a classmate in my elementary grades and who came one year to class to give a presentation about this "different" December holiday. That was many years ago, but I remember the latkes and the dreidel game, and perhaps more vaguely, the menorah. Of course, there was presumably no lesson on any religious significance.

I have no such precise recollection of when I first learned of any of the other Jewish holidays, though I am certain that I learned of Yom Kippur because of something I read as a pre-teen about Sandy Koufax and his not playing a World Series game because of the holiday. At any rate, it was much later in life that I learned that Chanukah is not all that important a holiday to Jews after all. But, while it lacks the Biblical basis of the major holidays and festivals, it certainly deserves great celebration. And not because it is an "alternative" to Christmas. In fact, it is far better than Christmas! (And better not because it lasts so much longer.)

At our house, signs of Christmas (in honor of my original religious traditions) ceased to appear some years ago. As long as we have been married, we have always kindled the candles of the Festival of Lights. I find the lights of Chanukah beautiful and inspiring, and I can hardly wait for this year's holiday to begin!

While I have enjoyed Chanukah now for several years, only recently have I learned what a great historical event the holiday commemorates. It is a celebration of one of history's earliest recorded successful guerrilla wars of liberation. Not only did the Maccabean rebels take to the hills to fight for religious freedom; their rebellion was also a struggle for political self-determination against imperialist oppression.

Maybe it is because I am a political scientist--and not only that, but a passionate consumer and advocate of the ideals of Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and their freedom-fighting compatriots--that my more recent understanding of Chanukah is so appealing to me. In that regard, it is more significant that Chanukah follows that most American of holidays, Thanksgiving, than that it precedes (and sometimes, as in 2005, coincides with) Christmas. And, to take the relationship of Thanksgiving and Chanukah full circle, originally Chanukah was a delayed celebration of Sukkot, the eight-day celebration of the bountiful harvest, upon which Thanksgiving itself is presumably based.

Many guerrilla wars in our time have been fought in the name of liberation from imperialism and dictatorship. Far too many of them have produced even worse forms of political and religious repression ("Meet the new boss, same as the old boss"). The American Revolution itself was a genuinely radical expression of the freedom that the original celebrants of Thanksgiving sought in the New World. Yet too often, we, the descendants of our political ancestors--Jefferson, Madison, and Washington--have forgotten the lessons. We have elevated the ideology of our assumed rectitude as "freedom-loving" Americans and the virtual idol-worship of our Constitution to a secular religion. And in doing so, we have acquiesced in oppression committed in our own name at home and abroad. And, sadly, too many Jews here and in Israel acquiesce in acts of oppression committed in the Occupied Territories and recently in Lebanon in the name of the freedom and security of a State for the Jewish People.

Chanukah is thus a time to remember that we must never to take our political or religious freedom for granted, nor be blind to others' lack of such freedoms. It is a perfect time not only to rejoice in the miracle of 25 Kislev, 165, B.C.E., and in the mystical beauty of the Festival of Lights, but also to remember that one of our mandates as Jews is Tikkun Olam--repairing the world. That spirit surely includes promoting liberation from oppression--most especially oppression committed in our name as Americans or as Jews--in any way that we can. Of course, the challenge is to find the worthy contemporary counterparts of the Maccabeean freedom fighters. Alas, that is the hard part.


The US election result

This is a blog about Judaism, and one person's discovery of it. But that one person happens to be a political scientist, so I have to make some observation about the elections just concluded in the USA:


Not because Democrats are so terrific. They are not. But because this breaks the unity of control of America's first (and, please, please, last) ideological party. Oh, nothing against ideology. In fact, in the pre-Bush years I used to lament that American politics was insufficiently ideological. It is a lament I might return to.

The problem is when one ideology prevails, endorsed by not even a majority (or not even a plurality, as in the 2000 election), and the policy-making process fails to reflect the real diversity of ideologies in the country it is supposed to represent. That is what America has endured for six years.

I never thought an ideological and generally disciplined party such as we have seen for these six years could gain control over our fragmented-by-Madisonian-design political institutions. But it did.

So the thing to celebrate is that once again the Congress will be controlled by politicians--most of them not very ideological--who have an electoral incentive to make checks and balances work.

Now, back to Judaism. Well, not Judaism, per se, but Israel. As Jewshool reminds us, those of us who want our country to be a force for progressive change in the Middle East will be disappointed, of course, by the new congressional majority.

For those of us who yearn for peace in Israel and an end to the occupation, yesterday’s Democratic victory in the U.S. House of Representatives and ... Senate is a hollow one. Whether or not the Democrats can bring disparate factions together to present a true exit strategy for the failed war in Iraq, we can be entirely sure that they will be strongly united behind the failed policies of the current Israeli government - so evident by yesterday’s massacre [in Beit Hanun]. Though Republican accusations of Democrats as “anti-Israel” appear to have been entirely ineffective in swaying the Jewish vote (87% voting for Democrats), expect the Democrats to find every opportunity to prove time and again how “pro-Israel” they truly are.

Indeed, that is sure to be the case.

I close with two of my favorite quotes from Madison, which express my feelings about this election and what it is, at last, putting in check:

The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.

[On designing checks and balances:] …so contriving the interior structure of government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.


The birthday of Bahá'u'lláh

I do not know much about the Baha'i faith, though much of what little I do know is appealing. If I were not already confident that Judaism offers me everything Baha'i could (and more), I'd consider it. In any event, this weekend marks the birthday of the Bahá'u'lláh, the most recent of the Baha'i messenger-prophets.

I find it interesting that one of the holiest places for the Baha'i, the shrine of the Bab, is located in Haifa, which also happens to be the most mixed (Arab/Jewish) major city in Israel. Baha'i have been much oppressed in Islamic countries--especially the faith's birthplace in Iran--but their holy site thrives in Israel.

Among the central tenets of Baha'i are the absolute unity of God, that "God is unknowable, limitless, outside time," and that humankind will one day unite and form a peaceful global civilization.

Isn't that precisely what God chose the Jews to teach the world thousands of years ago? Perhaps if humans have yet to figure that out, we Jews need some help. And if it takes the Baha'i, and their notion that "God has sent messengers for each era," including Zoroaster, Abraham, Buddha, Krishna, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh, to teach these ideas, then I welcome their assistance.

Happy birthday and shalom, Bahá'u'lláh!


On Atheism

As I alluded to in the previous post, I was once a (nominal) Lutheran. I was baptized (though I can't say that I recall) and confirmed (though I barely recall more of that than of my baptism). I guess that means I was a Lutheran--at least in the institutionally recognized sense. But I never really was a Lutheran, or any kind of Christian, for a very simple reason: The Jesus Gap. I could not bridge the gap between the story of Jesus as related over and over again in Christian teachings, and my own beliefs--whatever those might have been, and whatever those might be now.

I probably last attended a Christian service (other than weddings or funerals) in my late teens or very early twenties. I just ceased to have any interest. I don't think I ever believed in Jesus as Son of God, and at some point I simply stopped even asking myself whether I believed in God at all.

Somewhere in my later twenties I came to be interested in Judaism, but I still did not address the issue of God, per se. I was interested in the cultural and historical aspects of the Jewish tradition, but I considered myself agnostic. I never considered myself atheist, but I was probably pretty close. It just did not matter to me.

The subjects of atheism and what it means, and the relation of concepts held by agnostics and atheists of how the world works and our place in it, have been on my mind again recently, for two reasons.

First, our senior rabbi made an interesting remark during the Kol Nidre service about atheism and Jewish concepts of God. She said that atheists who look closely at their beliefs might find that their ideas actually match a Jewish concept of God pretty closely. (As an aside, I wonder if atheists examine their beliefs any more than some of the most fervent Christians do.)

The rabbi's comment began with the observation that we all "wrestle with God" (a formulation I never heard in my Lutheran days, but have heard over and over since attending a synagogue--a reform synagogue--regularly). She added that Judaism has given us a broad spectrum of beliefs about God, with many contradictions, but a general notion that God, to Jews, is simply beyond any genuine human ability to describe.

The rabbi then related a story of a man who went village to village searching for God. In one village, the rabbi assured the man that if he stayed a while in the village, surely he would come to know God. Whenever he felt lonely, he went to the house of study, where villagers engaged him in uplifting stories about Judaism's long and rich history. At one point, he became ill. Villagers cared for him.

The man ended up staying for many years. Then one day, the rabbi asked him if he had found God yet. He replied that he had indeed, right here in the village, in study and in the people who were so kind.

The lesson in the story, of course, is that God can be found everywhere.

The second reason for thinking about atheism and responses to it was an item in the local newspaper, originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, about a new book defending atheism. (Another aside: If it has to be defended as a set of beliefs--or even as a set of non-beliefs--is atheism just another religion after all?)

The newspaper story is an interview with Richard Dawkins, a professor at Oxford who has written a recent book called The God Delusion, in which he aims to advance the notion that:

All religion is superstition... and faith breeds ignorance, oppression and strife. We respect it too much and question it too little; meanwhile, evolutionary science, which offers a brilliant and beautiful explanation of origins and existence, is bashed by ignoramuses...

In addition to that remark about science and evolution--which I will come back to--a few things in the interview struck me. For instance, Dawkins was asked about the great works of art and architecture that have been inspired over the generations by religion. Dawkins responded:

We can look at a lot of those things as historical or cultural relics. One reason art has historically been linked with religion is because works were commissioned by the church. Had that not been the case, perhaps Bach's oratorios would have been inspired by the beauty of the Milky Way; perhaps Michelangelo's gifts as displayed in the Sistine Chapel would have been laid out elsewhere in praise of scientific principles, which also can inspire great wonder.

That is all quite valid. And, indeed, those who would deny evolution--and its teaching in schools (whether public or private)--in the name of religion are indeed "ignoramuses." But can anyone claim that science has an answer to all of the mysteries of the universe and creation? Of course not. Maybe it will some day, maybe it never will. But if we are inspired by the "beauty of the Milky Way" or the "great wonder" of scientific principles, or the majesty of mountains and trees and other things in nature, what are we doing? We are seeing the unity of the many components of time and space that are beyond our full comprehension.

And while I am new to this whole idea of Jewish spirituality, that all sounds like a very Jewish conception to me.

One last comment about Dawkins. He is asked in the interview, "What would you most like to tell people of faith?" He responds:

Be skeptical -- truly examine your faith. Ask yourself if there is evidence for your beliefs.

Well, indeed. And that sounds like wrestling with God. (Do atheists wrestle with their "a-God"? Would that be the same thing?). Dawkins continues:

Reflect on the fact that you are most likely of the faith you happen to have been brought up in, and that if you'd been born into a different faith, you'd be equally fervent about it.

Ah, most likely, but not necessarily!


Twice in as many weeks and two memories

I could really get used to this. For the second time in as many weeks, I had the pleasure of being called up to the bimah with a group of congregants to receive the priestly benediction. Last Friday night it was to bless those with birthdays or anniversaries coming up in November, but because we October folks got preempted by the High Holidays, we got to be included, too. Then this past Friday night it was part of the welcome of new members to the synagogue. I was impressed by how many new members there are! (I don't really feel like my wife and I are "new" members anymore, given that we have been attending now for almost ten months. One member of the congregation even commented, with an ironic tone, as I walked back to my seat: "You aren't a new member." The entire experience was very welcoming, and I will gladly accept the priestly benediction any time!)

There are not many things from my former days as a (Trying-to-be-) Lutheran that I remember very fondly, but now that I am a (Working-on-becoming-) Jew, two things in particular have connected me to those earlier days. One is the priestly benediction. Back in those days, so many years ago, when I would attend Lutheran services with my mother, I always enjoyed any occasion in which I would get to hear the pastor give someone the benediction. (I like it even better in Hebrew, especially with our cantor's stirring voice!)

The other item from those Lutheran services so long ago that I loved, and that stayed with me even through my years wandering in the spiritual wilderness as a (maybe-but-never-fully-) atheist, was Psalm 23—in particular the line in the middle of the second verse:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;

but also the famous opening line:

The Lord is my shepherd...

I am not even sure now, so many years later, what captivated me about this psalm; it is very powerful, but why this and not any other specific passage that I might have heard at various times in my childhood? I do not know. But the most recent experience I had with this psalm was its inclusion in the yizkor service that concluded Sukkot on Shemini Azeret. In the warm and welcoming company of our typically small and intimate (non Bar/Bat-Mitzvah) Saturday morning group of regulars, reciting this passage in memory of those close to us who are no longer on this earth, the impact was intense. I know it was not only the words of the psalm, nor was it only the memory of my mother; it was the two together, because many years ago, when I tried (and failed) to accept my mother's religion, I used to recite this psalm with her. She was very much with me on Shemini Azeret. I sure hope she approves of my becoming a Jew. I am pretty sure she does.

Above, I quoted the line, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil," which is how I remember it. That's the King James version. However, it is interesting to see the many variations in the translation.

In particular, the new New JPS translation reads:

Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm...

Is that more true to the Hebrew? I must admit, I always felt moved by the imagery of the "valley of the shadow of death." I suppose the New JPS version calls our attention to situations well short of death when things seem hopeless. Compare the Contemporary English Version:

I may walk through valleys
as dark as death,
but I won't be afraid.

In any of these versions, it is a stirring passage, always has been for me, but was especially so on Shemini Azeret.

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