Be'chol Lashon

Be’chol Lashon
Be’chol Lashon


Abayudaya Leader to Israelis: “We Are Your Brothers and Sisters”

Andrew Esensten, My Jewish Learning, February 1, 2018



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This week, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya Jewish community and a member of Uganda’s parliament, visited Israel at the invitation of the Masorti (Conservative) movement. While there, he participated in festivities marking the movement’s 40th anniversary. He also met with Israeli government officials to discuss the difficulties that the Abayudaya have faced in recent years securing visas to participate in programs in Israel. Team Be’chol Lashon caught up with Rabbi Sizomu upon his return to Uganda and asked him about his visit.

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Remembering Julius Lester — And a Stop Along His Spiritual Journey

Robin Washington, My Jewish Learning, January 25, 2018



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As the Jewish world — and much of the rest — mourns the passing of Julius Lester, I remember the man I met when his spiritual journey was not quite complete.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Trip to the Holy Land

Andrew Esensten, My Jewish Learning, January 15, 2018



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Martin Luther King, Jr. felt uneasy as he and his wife, Coretta, landed in Jerusalem in the winter of 1959. They had come from Lebanon and were eager to see the Old City’s Christian holy sites. But it troubled King that Jerusalem was divided, the western part controlled by Israel and the eastern part by Jordan. “And so this was a strange feeling to go to the ancient city of God and see the tragedies of man’s hate and his evil, which causes him to fight and live in conflict,” he recalled.

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Black Jewish Prayers for Dr. Martin Luther King, Shabbat and Everyday

Dr. Tarece Johnson, My Jewish Learning, January 10, 2018



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Ahava means love. My love of Judaism and my cultural identity as a Black Jew are at the core of who I am. Shabbat is the highlight of my week. It is a sacred time for me to consciously reflect and heal. It is a time when I take a meditation walk and think about my week, a time when I lay in my bed and peer at the ceiling or close my eyes and think about how HaShem is reflected in my doing and being. It is a time when I sit and think about mitzvah s. It is a time when I am truly being and sharing quality moments with my children. Yet within the tradition, I found something lacking.

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Trip to Africa Redefines Family for African-American Rabbi

Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, January 4, 2018



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As we begin this new year, and the coldest months are still in front of us, I want to share with you a piece of my journey this year, and a personal moment of transformation. A moment which I could hear my ancestors, both my African and Eastern-European roots, singing along with me.

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The Best Multicultural and Racial Stories of 2017

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, December 27, 2017



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As poet Aaron Samuels narrates in the video above, a new year is beginning. Looking back over the year that was, there is no single way to tell the story of our many experiences of 2017 so our first annual roundup of multicultural and racial perspectives on Jewish life highlights, no surprise, a diversity of perspectives.

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Winter Poems As We Celebrate at Hanukkah

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, December 14, 2017



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Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, Francesca Aoki Biller, found the combination of her Russian-Jewish and Japanese-Buddhist heritage challenging and inspiring. Both her grandmothers and her struggles with identity and faith fueled her creativity. After years working as a journalist, she has recently turned to poetry which she has found to be a space for exploring the big questions about identity and the simple joys of daily life. This week, she gifts us two winter-themed poems as a way to enrich our Hanukkah celebration. Her first collection of poetry will be published in the Spring of 2018 with Zorba Press.

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A Latin Twist on Hanukkah Latkes

Julia Hernandez Nierenberg, My Jewish Learning, December 6, 2017



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This holiday season, I invite you to try a latke recipe with a bit more spice! In preparation for Hanukkah, I created a recipe that mixed my Latina and Jewish roots and my taste-testers and I couldn’t be happier with the result!

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Sephardic Hanukkah Cookies Bring Community Together

Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, November 27, 2017



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For Jonathan Arogeti this Hanukkah is about a return to tradition — personal and collective.

As a child, he never missed a Hanukkah Bazaar at Congregation Or VeShalom, Atlanta’s historic Sephardic Congregation. The Bazar was and still is a highlight not only of the Arogeti family calendar but of the entire Jewish community -Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike. His favorite aspect as a kid were the arcade games.

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New Multicultural Hanukkah Holiday Book #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, November 15, 2017



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Pamela Ehrenberg’s multicultural children’s book Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas is hitting the shelves just in time for the holiday season. Be’chol Lashon caught up with the author to learn more about the newest book and her hopes promoting #WeNeedDiverseBooks for children.

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Turning A Daughter’s Short-Term Loss into a Long-Term Win

Victoria Washington, My Jewish Learning, November 7, 2017



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The last week of September found me arguing before a jury and exhorting them to acquit my client of multiple charges. They didn’t. I lost.

The ramifications of this loss were huge: multiple natural life sentences consecutive to decades in prison. I had grown very close to my client and his family, so this loss stung. I cried bitter tears of recriminations and self-doubt, and, despite 15 years of being a criminal defense attorney with a caseload limited to just capital murder, I wondered if I was cut out for the job. My friends assured me that I “busted my ass for that kid”; even my client tried to console me.

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An Interview with Aaron Hahn Tapper
About His Book, Judaisms

Ben Karp, October 31, 2017



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Professor Aaron Hahn Tapper’s book Judaisms is titled in the plural to assert its lasting point: Jewish identity has never been the proprietary legacy of a particular community. As unsettling as some might find it, the Jewish story is far more varied than a singular, continuous and heritable religion. In fact, Judaism has been reconstituted in many times and places and with equally varied motivations.

Many groups have described themselves using labels such as Jewish, Israelite and Hebrew. This is a historical fact, and it should also be no surprise that in our own age of identity, a professor from progressive San Francisco wants to move his diverse students beyond a simple dyad of (mostly) Ashkenazi and (sometimes) Sephardi.

Judaisms, though plural, is nonetheless a singular grouping, a kind of unified diversity, which Hahn Tapper binds a personal and historical narrative together that tries to account for and even make sense of the multitudes and contradictions.

I recently spoke to Professor Hahn Tapper:

What do you think about the American Jewish community's changing relationship to the State of Israel?

There has been a prevailing “are you in or out?” model of what it means to be a Jew, largely perpetuated by the normative institutional Jewish community, which is ageing. Within the next twenty to thirty years there will be major turnover, and subsequent shifts, in regard to the State of Israel. And yet this community is holding on to the narrative they had when they were younger.

I think Jews in their thirties and forties are at the tail end of the terms set by older generations. And Jews in their twenties are largely somewhere else entirely. Many are disengaged from this issue. Others are passionately anti-Zionist. Then, of course, there are people (Jews and non-Jews) in the Boycott Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement who actually are not anti-Semites.

So all in all I think it’s the older generations digging in their heels and if anything, in the last few years, they’ve been doubling down, and it’s not working. Only in the last five years have I started to see a noticeable shift; the ceiling is starting to crack. Younger Jews are finally owning their own political identities in a way in which they don’t need the organized Jewish world to back them. And they’re slowly bringing their voices to the conversation. Open Hillel and If Not Now When are just two such examples.

To me the Jewish institutional community has such a glaring cognitive dissonance: they want to reach the Jewishly “unaffiliated” and the statistical “nones” (i.e., those Jews who identify as Jews in terms of culture, ethnicity or heritage, many of whom actively say they don’t have a religion), but only if they have particular views on the Jewish State. It’s “Yeah, you can be an atheist. You can be transgender. You can be all these different things that don’t fit the cookie cutter norm in America at large or the Jewish community at large. But when it comes to this—the checklist in terms of the State of Israel—you’ve got to be a card carrying member.”

To me it just doesn’t make sense on so many levels.

And this is to say nothing about how many American Jews, if they wanted to become a citizen of the State of Israel, would probably have a lot of trouble doing so because of the monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox in terms of defining who a Jew is. I mean, there are many ironies there, including, by the way, that an American Orthodox Jew would have more trouble becoming a citizen of the State of Israel than a Reform Jew (depending on their lineage).

In fact, let me frame it another way entirely. As I wrote in Judaisms, there are quite a few different tallies of how many biblical mitzvot, even based solely on what it says in the Talmud. But the norm is that halachically there are 613. I believe this is something 99.9% of all Jews agree on in terms of halacha.

Well, it’s as if the organized Jewish community have agreed on a Six-Twelver platform, with the belief that “Everything but.” It’s as if the communal blind spot really is on anything that bumps up against the State of Israel. Everything is on the table for debate, including, by the way, the fundamental question, “Who is a Jew?” But when it comes to the State of Israel, tow the party line or be damned.

Hahn Tapper compares the intransigence of mainstream American Jewish organizations on Israel and religious tradition.

If you ask a Haredi Jew, “Do you even know why you dress like that?” and the response is, “Well, ‘cause my Dad did and his Dad did, etc.” Right, but let’s go back six, seven, eight, nine generations and those trends are actually non-Jewish trends that the Jewish community at some point took on.

I see a similar pattern in the non-Haredi Jewish institutional world in trying to crystallize certain thought patterns about the State of Israel. And it’s problematic on countless levels.

But even just on a very basic level it’s problematic because that’s not how Judaism has flourished and thrived throughout the centuries. It has flourished and thrived because it has changed, and it’s always changing, always. So it is mistaken to think that you can crystallize Judaism. And although most of the Jews driving the institutional Jewish world would never say that the Haredi way of life is the way to go, because that’s not what they believe, many are running federations in a politically ultra-Orthodox manner vis-à-vis Israel.

If we consider the Jewish precedent critiquing the status quo, can you comment on Black Lives Matter:

There is intense Jewish precedent for critique, whether of the status quo or the fringe. I mean, the Torah ends with Moses not getting into the Promised Land. Perhaps there isn’t one Zion. Maybe Zion—Israel—is a metaphor, right?

The Israel situation obviously directly relates to Black Lives Matter. For example, when the Movement for Black Lives (MBL) drafted a lengthy platform —and as an aside, I must say that from an activist’s point of view, for that many different groups to come together and even be able to come out with a platform, this is an amazing feat. This already goes against the statistical possibilities, right? I can’t imagine the Jewish community agreeing on any platform across the board like MBL because there are so many disparate points of view.

So first off, just hats off to any organization, a consortium, that comes up with a platform. But the mainstream Jewish community hones it on one section; not everyone, but definitely loud, dominant voices of the American Jewish community.

Not surprisingly, it was the section that deals with the State of Israel and uses the word genocide. Put aside different definitions of what genocide actually means, which, frankly, as an academic, is an incredibly important conversation to have. How do we define genocide? Under President Clinton, when the U.S. government justified inaction in Rwanda by playing with the words “acts of genocide,” etc. So, that’s one thing.

But the organized Jewish community and dominant voices in it started throwing the whole MBL platform out the door because of the piece related to the state of Israel and use of the term genocide. One thing that comes to mind is how this is reflective of larger problems in the American government right now; you have people "crossing the aisle” all the time. For example, liberals and conservatives have recently come together against mass incarceration. For one group, it’s largely about wasting money and for the other it has to do much more with immorality of the prison population, and the targeting of racial minorities and those from lower socioeconomic groups. At the end of the day, if you’re going to lock arms with me because we’re both against mass incarceration, I should take that. This is how you can have Senator Orrin Hatch and the late Senator Ted Kennedy come together on particular issues. So, to me, back to the MBL, taking such an all or nothing approach was so reflective of this one issue, which has become hyper-politicized. Couldn’t some in the Jewish community have said “Listen, on the record I have a serious disagreement with your use of the term genocide, but when it comes to your general platform, I want to be an ally”?

Even Ben-Gurion—Ben-Gurion, who understood the realpolitik of things—is famous for saying, in 1939, something like, “We’ll support the British in the war as if there’s no White Paper [which limited Jewish immigration to Palestine] and we’ll fight the White Paper as if there’s no war.”

Isn't it easier having one simple story rather than having to sort out many narratives for an individual person and for a community?

Yes, life would be easier. For me, in my moments of flirting with absolutes in my twenties, it was easier to wake up and think, you know, “I believe in a personal god. I believe that everything in my life happens for a reason. This the only way to understand God.”

For me it started unraveling when I simply couldn’t get over the atrocities taking place all over the world on a daily basis. Some sort of personal god was allowing me to live in safety and privilege but these kids in Sierra Leone, along with their families, they were hacked to death in a civil war? A world of blacks and whites is so much easier to live in. (And, by the way, I am not saying what the actual state of the world is, theologically speaking. I have absolutely no idea.)

The film The Matrix comes to mind. In terms of — Is Neo going to swallow the pill and go down the rabbit hole and realize that his whole world is actually a complete fabricated construct? Or is he going to stay in blissful ignorance?

And he chooses to go down the rabbit hole. To some degree, I chose also. I, too, opted for historical reality as opposed to a black and white, faith-based leap. And it’s not an easy place to live, but to me that’s the world we live in. We live in a chaotic world. We don’t live in a world where it’s all simple, where everything makes sense. That said, there’s the part of me that wouldn’t want to live in that world. Right?

To put it differently, I’m more comfortable in the discomfort of reality. Because, at the end of the day, even if I lived in a black and white, ultra-orthodox way, well, at this point I can’t. It’s too late. Having seen and studied what I have studied, it just... there is a merit, I think, in standing in the uncertainty of it all.

Is the sense of discontinuity personal and new, or has it always roughly been this way for us as a community?

To me, there is uncertainty within the collective Jewish voice. For me, that’s where I find comfort. I don’t think that my opinions on Judaism are unique. Maybe, with Judaisms, I was able to connect some dots together, able to pull this from there and that from here and paint a certain picture. Maybe that’s unique. But, you know, I pulled from all these other pieces, and I didn’t create those pieces. In this sense, I don’t think that my ideas are so iconoclastic. I think they fall right in with Jews of the nineteen hundreds, twentieth century, twenty-first century.

I mean, like when I find something in the Talmud that, you know, Rabbi Shammai and Hillel, they argued for two and a half years about whether or not humans should have been created. And their answer is, after two and a half years, that we shouldn’t! But we are here, so let’s deal with it. I remember coming across that in my twenties and thinking “Okay. So my idea of cynicism has value. But these ideas of mine are not unique.”

There is continuity in Jewish history—across generations, and geographies, etc.—of uncertainty. There is an ongoing thread that disrupts simplicity. And marginalized Jews—for centuries—have been able to express their views, and these ideas have become part of the Jewish canon.

Take, for instance, the story with Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud. When I teach this to students at USF… so most of my students are not Jewish, and they are dumbfounded that a rabbi basically tells God to shut up. Non-Jews are struck by this brash impudence, but to me it really is a theological statement, like “mind your own business.”

But, then the epilogue to the story is that God smiles. Right? “My sons have defeated me. My sons have defeated me.” So the Talmudic self-understanding is still positive.

Is the sense of discontinuity personal and new, or has it always roughly been this way for us as a community?

You’ll have people who say Orthodoxy’s numbers are going up but it’s actually been pretty stable for a number of years. But I don’t know. I really don’t know about what’s to come.

I think it’s easy for twenty-somethings not to be affiliated. I think that’s just that time of life in America right now. And I think that the trends in the Jewish community are entirely reflective of dominant trends in the American non-Jewish community. I think the unaffiliated…if you look at how many Jews are unaffiliated in America versus non-Jews who are unaffiliated, like everything there’s a parallel. There’s virtually always some relationship between the Jewish norm and the non-Jewish norm in a given society in a given time period. So if I ever wanted to really think through what the next 50 years is going to bring in terms of denominational growth or what have you, I would probably study, first and foremost, the non-Jewish trends.

If we consider specifically the Muslim community - any similarities between the Muslim American future and Jewish American past?

I would say in the same way that there have been reinterpretations within the Jewish milieu that have created a space for what we call Conservative and Reform and Reconstructionist, Renewal and Humanist, I think you will have similar ideas in the Muslim American community and there will be new innovations and new spaces for different types of Muslims.

Especially those born in the United States, right? A 2007 Pew study of Muslim Americans said that 70% were born outside of the United States. That’s such a staggering statistic. I mean how many generations have most Jewish Americans’ families been in the US—three, four, five? Contextualized in this way, of course, within the next generation or two, you’re going to see major shifts of much more Americanized understandings of Islam.

Ben Karp

Ben Karp co-founded Shabtai, the Jewish Society at Yale University in 1996.

He is the CEO of Miryo, an education software startup in Tokyo, Japan, and an adjunct fellow at the Institute for Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.

An Ethiopian Jew Makes Aliyah A Second Time

Pnina Agenyahu, My Jewish Learning, October 25, 2017



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In November 1984 my mother left Ethiopia with me on her back, walking for 14 days and 15 nights through Sudan to travel to Israel. This summer, after four years in the United States as The Jewish Agency’s senior shlicha (emissary) for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, my journey to Israel continued, on what felt like my second aliyah. Only this time, I held my child on my back, as well as all that I had learned about my faith, my culture and my place in the world.

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A Puerto Rican Jew and the Aftermath of Hurricane Maria

Yanira Quinones, My Jewish Learning, October 17, 2017



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I am glad that the High Holidays are over, but not for the reasons that you might think. Even though I ate apples and honey, this holiday season was not filled with easy joy for me. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, the day before the New Year, I was doing my last-minute Rosh Hashanah runaround, but this time it was so different. My family in Puerto Rico was sitting in dark, hot rooms, with supplies they gathered days before.

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How the Jews of Uganda Inspire Jewish Life in America

Eli Medof, My Jewish Learning, October 10, 2017



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I can’t remember a time when I did not wear my special kippah. Dyed with shades of blue, you can tell it was made with care. I never really thought about where it came from, but when it came time to have my bar mitzvah, I looked a little closer and learned this kippah was made by hand by Ugandan Jewish women. I was not aware that there was a Jewish community in Uganda, but I have come to value and connect with this fascinating community.

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What Sukkot and the Day of the Dead Have in Common

Julia Hernandez Nierenberg, My Jewish Learning, October 2, 2017



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Looking past Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I am excited by the coming of Sukkot. Today, I primarily identify as Jewish but I grew up celebrating both Catholic and Jewish holidays. While I have left most Catholic ritual behind, there is no question in my mind that when it comes to Sukkot and Day of the Dead there is a great deal of overlap and I continue to honor my Mexican heritage.

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God Does Not Discriminate; People Do

Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, September 28, 2017



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Of all the words that I heard prayed as a child during the High-Holidays, there was one prayer that stood out and puzzled me:

…may it be God’s will …that peace spread across the world, with the entire Jewish people…

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A Laotian Recipe To Fortify Us for the Yom Kippur Fast

Souksavat Soukhaseum, My Jewish Learning, September 25, 2017



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I have a special treat that I make to fortify me for Yom Kippur. It blends my Laotian Buddhist background with my contemporary Jewish practise. In Buddhism, fast days are set according to the lunar cycle and there are many of them through the year. In order to have energy to sustain oneself through the fast, it is traditional to eat Kao Thaom (pronounced Cow Tom) before the fast and as a break-fast snack.

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A Prayer for Welcoming Change in the New Year

Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, September 14, 2017



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As the call of the Shofar echoes and reverberates throughout the synagogue, or as the honey twirls off the spoon splashing silently onto your warm round challah, or even as you watch the stream effortlessly flow to the river, we are reminded of our mortality and our perpetual state of bio-psycho-social-spiritual evolution. It will always be easier to say what is on our mind than in our heart. These symbols beckon us to be like them: Cry like a shofar, work hard for your honey, swim exuberantly like the fish and just flow like water that holds them.

These messages share a primary goal: to invoke within you your own Shofar cry; your own sense of accomplishment; your own departure from wrong to right; to sing your own song; and to write your own prayer. That is why you may notice that our prayer book keeps evolving and that our prayers keep changing, and that our twenty-first century Judaism beckons us to find ourselves within the narrative—by any and all means necessary.

Below is a closing prayer that a member of my Beis Community of Washington Heights, NYC wrote. She asks herself (and maybe, her Creator), “not ‘will you change,’ but ‘how will you change?’” This is a question that even the most powerful shofar blasts, all the honey in the world, and endlessly flowing waters cannot answer—but only your heart.

Closing Prayer

Nothing ever stays the same.

Everything changes.

Winds change direction, rivers change course,

Clouds change shape, caterpillars change form.

No one ever stays the same

Everyone changes

One cell becomes two: two becomes four.

What we were and what we are

Give way to what we will become.

And this is no choice,

Except for what we choose to become

The question is not, "Will you change?"

But, "How will you change?"


Happy New Year!

A New Rosh Hashanah Song and Album for a New Year

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, September 14, 2017



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Team Be’chol Lashon: We are excited to hear that you have a new album that has taken your work in a new direction, tell us about it.

Aroeste: Indeed! I’ve written a holiday album! While all my music has been considered “Jewish” by virtue of having been written and sung in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), I have, in the past, always written from an intentionally secular angle. This year, however, I found a new way to express myself by thinking about the messages I wanted to convey for my favorite Jewish holidays. And with a specific Sephardic bent in each. I wanted to celebrate, out loud, the Ladino poetry of Purim, my love of Hanukkah bimuelos (the delicious Sephardic fried dough), the international rhythms of Shabbat, and so much more. I have faced a lot of fear and self-doubt in my career, but I don’t know why I had been so scared to write Jewish songs before.

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Four Steps for Changing Your Life in the New Year

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, September 5, 2017



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Sandra Lawson is an expert in making big life changes. After serving as a military police investigator, she became a personal trainer and helped others change their lives. She went on to get a Masters in Sociology and become Jewish. In the spring of 2018, she will be ordained as a rabbi. As we approach the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we checked in with Lawson to see what advice she has to offer us on making changes in the year to come.

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Coming to Believe In Collective Prayers of Repentance

Rabbi Juan Mejia, My Jewish Learning, August 29, 2017



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One does not simply get off the couch and run a marathon. Runners train for months in preparation for the big day; beginners need at least a month to go from couch to 5K. The High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the Jewish religious equivalent of a 26 miler: long services, strange Hebrew poetry that we read only once a year, deep questions of life and death, and half of this done on an empty stomach.

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When The History of Anti-Semitism and Racism Come Together

Gal Adam Spinrad, My Jewish Learning, August 17, 2017



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Context can change meaning. I wrote this piece just before the events in Charlottesville, VA. Today I am even more deeply aware of the interconnectedness between black and Jewish experiences in the face of injustice, oppression, and racial hatred. Images of young, angry white men wearing swastikas and KKK symbols, holding torches, and chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” and, “Blood and soil!” fill my head and intersperse with those of Civil Rights activists being beaten by white state troopers, and others of Jews being marched to their deaths by S.S. officers aiming rifles at them.

With this new frame, I am asking with new urgency, How will you respond now that history is repeating? How will you fight for justice so that history takes a different course? What kind of world will you leave for your children?

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A Refugee from Laos Finds a Home in the Jewish Community

Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, August 8, 2017



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Souksavat Soukhaseum, or Souks as he is known, was born in Laos, grew up as a Buddhist, came of age in California and now lives as a Jew in Queens, NY. Be’chol Lashon caught up with him to learn more about his background and journey.

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Ugandan Jews Look to Jewish World for Help with Famine Relief

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, July 31, 2017



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As news of growing famine in East Africa is making headlines, we checked in with Rabbi Sizomu to find out about the impact on the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda. He is the leader of the Abayudaya and the first Chief Rabbi of Uganda. He is also an elected member of the Ugandan Parliament.

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#WeNeedDiverseBooks - Jewish Edition: A New Kind of Children’s Book

Sarah Aroeste, My Jewish Learning, July 19, 2017



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The gratitude I feel watching my older daughter’s thrill while singing a Ladino song with me cannot be measured. It is a tug at my heart I did not know was possible before I had children. While, at three-and-a-half years old, she might not understand the meaning of each word, she knows that they contain something joyous within them. Her face lights up as she sings the playful melodies with me.

Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, is the hybrid language that Spanish Jews developed after their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century. This beautiful language has survived for more than five centuries. It was the first language of my grandfather, and it is still spoken today by Sephardic Jews across the globe. But it is fading fast.

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Jewish Sephardi Wedding Recipes and Traditions

Marcia Weingarten, My Jewish Learning, July 13, 2017



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There are some wonderful Sephardi wedding and engagement customs that trace back to the Island of Rhodes, then Turkey (now Greece), where my family lived before coming to America. Traditions beginning with trays of homemade candies prepared especially for an engagement to delicacies for a party for the ‘Bano di Novia’ (Bath of the Bride, aka visit to the mikveh.)

Another custom takes place under the chuppah (wedding canopy). The parents drape the tallit (prayer shawl), that the husband will wear, over the bride and groom. This symbolizes the home the two will build together, one that we hope will be imbued with holiness.

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Jewish Beauty Queens and Movie Stars: The Unknown Story of Bollywood

Danny Ben-Moshe, My Jewish Learning, June 28, 2017



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The story of Jews of Hollywood is well known but what about the Jews of Bollywood? Bollywood produces over 1,000 films a year, more than double those made in Hollywood. And there is a deep Jewish Bollywood story to be told.

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Boy Connects Pennsylvania with Uganda

Morey Averill, My Jewish Learning, June 21, 2017



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I decided to do something a little different for a 13-year-old living in America. I decided to help a group of people I have never met, living somewhere I have never visited.

In part, I was inspired by the Torah teaching about the parah adumah, also known as the red heifer. The Torah teaches us that there is a long process to purify someone who touches a dead body. The first step is to find a red heifer that has never borne a yoke, which means it has never been used for work. It is then slaughtered and burned with other ingredients. Finally, the ashes are collected and are eventually mixed with holy water to use for the purification ritual.

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Learning from Laughter this Father's Day

Michael J. DeYoung, My Jewish Learning, June 14, 2017



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Growing up, while others went to baseball games or played catch with their dads, I never really did.

At an early age, my sisters and I went to live with our maternal grandparents, who later adopted us. Every time Father's Day would come around, it was spent with my grandfather. So Father's Day was always about the man who raised me, my grandfather Norman DeYoung.

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Loving Day is Every Day for Our Family

Marcella White Cambell, My Jewish Learning, June 12, 2017



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I am supposed to be writing a reflection on Loving Day, but it’s a Wednesday morning, a school day and a work day, and our family is already shipwrecked, knee deep in water, and trying, desperately, to bail out the one remaining lifeboat.
None of the four-alarm apps in the house went off, so my husband and I jerked awake, simultaneously, already 45 minutes behind. We hit the ground stumbling, lobbing kid tasks back and forth, haphazardly packing lunches, and barking terse commands. Just when it’s looking like this boat is going to drift to shore, after all, our youngest wanders out of his room bleary-eyed, still in his pajamas, holding his stomach. He’s got a fever of 101: someone’s going to need to stay home from work.

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Funny, You Don't Look German

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, June 6, 2017



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Julian Voloj has devoted his life to creating a more inclusive Jewish community. A talented photographer, he recently joined the team at Be’chol Lashon, and we caught up with him to find out what makes this Colombian-German-American Jew tick.

Team Be’chol Lashon: What was it like to grow up Jewish in Germany?

Voloj: Back then, I always felt like being a last remnant. My hometown, Muenster, had only 80 Jews when I was growing up. Most of the members were, like my grandparents, survivors from all over Europe who had re-established the Jewish community after the Holocaust.

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Salonican Shavuot Traditions

Ty Alhadeff, My Jewish Learning, May 24, 2017



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Next week, as Jews celebrate the festival of Shavuot the ancient Hebrew words of the Book of Ruth will be read out loud around the world. Among Sephardic Jews, there are many additional traditions that add to the wonder and joy of the holiday.

There is the custom of staying up all night to study selections from the Torah and the Zohar which is called velada, from the Ladino word meaning to guard or watch. There is the festive dairy meal which often features bourekas and other favorites. In many Sephardic congregations, the reading of Ruth is preceded by reading or singing the famous azharot, a poetical enumeration of the 613 commandments (mitzvot). Ladino-speaking Jews also included translations of this liturgy and added a unique Ladino song known as La Ketubah de la Ley, the marriage contract of the law, or Torah.

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From American Fashion Icon To Mea She'arim Chic

Mordechai Ben Avraham Hazzan, My Jewish Learning, May 17, 2017



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When I set out to study in a traditional religious academy in Jerusalem last year, I was expecting a spiritual change, not a fashion makeover. I got both.

Much of my professional life I worked in Los Angeles's entertainment industry where fashion was essential to my self-identification. In the entertainment business, your awareness of trends and styles are a reflection of your understanding of the marketplace, demonstrating how well you understand what is cool and what isn't cool, what's current and what's outdated.

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When a Black Jewish Teen Heads Off to College

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, May 10, 2017



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For Jewish kids of color, graduating from high school and stepping out into the world often means going from a place where their story is already known into spaces where their identity may be up for question. This week we talked with Aviva Davis, veteran blogger and former Camp Be’chol Lashon camper, to find out how she envisions the transitions ahead.

Team Be’chol Lashon: Mazel tov on graduating high school and going to college! Are you looking forward to this transition?

Davis: I’m going to Brandeis and I’m really excited. When I talk to people in California about wanting to go to college on the East Coast they say, “Do you know it is cold over there?” Lots of people expect me to be scared of the weather. I know it is cold, I am not going to let that stand in the way of my education. I’m most nervous about socializing.

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Youth Poet-Laureate Embraces Creole and Jewish Heritage

Tova Ricardo, My Jewish Learning, May 3, 2017



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Since I was young, I have pondered the social connotations of my blackness and my Jewishness in a divided society and how to embrace the beauty of my identities. I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area under the guidance of two socially aware and cognizant parents, one who is a Louisiana Creole Catholic and one who is a biracial Ashkenazi Jew.

As I developed along with my youthful curiosity, I found a troubling unease with the tension between my racial and religious identities. I did not understand why my sway to the Hine Ma Tov, occasional davening (praying) in tear-filled pleas to Hashem (G-d), and my routine vocalization of old gospel songs was not represented elsewhere in mainstream society. As a young child, it is quite difficult to grow into yourself when there are minimal examples of your experiences and perspectives broadcasted around you.

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Modern-Day Moses: The Heroes Who Saved Ethiopian Jews

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, April 24, 2017



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When he was 10 years old, filmmaker Avishai Mekonen walked from Ethiopia to Sudan and was eventually taken to Israel. As an adult, he began to wonder how that journey came to be and his research led to his newest project.

BL: Your first film focused on your own journey to Israel, how does this project differ?

Mekonen: When I got to Israel as a child, I never really thought about how I got there, I focused all my energy on fitting in in Israel. In becoming an adult and a filmmaker, I have tried to open up the story of Ethiopian Jews to better understand what happened. My first film was about my life and focused only a little on the broader community. This film is not about me but about the big picture about the heroes and the activists who made the exodus happen.

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Memories of Birthday Past Inspire Giving to Others

Jas Russo, My Jewish Learning, April 20, 2017



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On my 7th birthday, I got a Tropical Barbie Doll. You know the one where the swimsuit changed colors in the water? My mom and I lived in a not-so-great place, in a not-so-great area in North Carolina. A few months before, my mom sold our car to pay bills. Now her only transportation was a bike. I remember my mom hopping on it going to the nearest store, (a 7-11) and bringing back my gift. I loved the heck out of that doll and spent hours getting her wet, watching the swimsuit change while drying off then repeat.

This birthday stands out amongst the several throughout the years. My birthdays were never really parties, cakes or piles of gifts. We didn't have money for that. I never knew how bad it was until I was older and realized how other families celebrated.

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Memories of Birthday Past Inspire Giving to Others

Jas Russo, My Jewish Learning, April 20, 2017



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On my 7th birthday, I got a Tropical Barbie Doll. You know the one where the swimsuit changed colors in the water? My mom and I lived in a not-so-great place, in a not-so-great area in North Carolina. A few months before, my mom sold our car to pay bills. Now her only transportation was a bike. I remember my mom hopping on it going to the nearest store, (a 7-11) and bringing back my gift. I loved the heck out of that doll and spent hours getting her wet, watching the swimsuit change while drying off then repeat.

This birthday stands out amongst the several throughout the years. My birthdays were never really parties, cakes or piles of gifts. We didn't have money for that. I never knew how bad it was until I was older and realized how other families celebrated.

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Preparing for Passover with Poetry and Dance

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, April 6, 2017



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As we prepare for our Passover seder this coming year, Stacey Menchel Kussell and Aaron Samuels bring us a collaborative and film project combining dance, music and poetry to unpack the daily rituals that we practice in our lives.

The video, Ritual, follows four dancers as they rehearse in the studio. Their preparation is prayer-like, full of repetition, meditation, ecstasy, and reflection, reinforcing the sacredness of daily practice. Set to poetry by Black and Jewish spoken-word artist Aaron Samuels, Ritual's text reflects on his family memories of Passover, an ancient Jewish tradition that celebrates freedom from oppression. Ritual examines the tenacity and resilience that motivates us to keep our traditions and honor our histories, no matter our heritage or creed.

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“Who Knows One?” in Ladino: Songs at the Sephardic Passover Seder

Ty Alhadeff, My Jewish Learning, April 6, 2017



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For Rachel Shemarya (nee Capelouto), a native of the Island of Rhodes, Passover provided an opportunity not only to share her delicious holiday recipes but also to transmit the Passover story and Sephardic songs in her native language, Ladino, to her family right here in the Pacific Northwest. While most of the Shemarya relatives who remained in Rhodes tragically perished in Auschwitz, those who came to the United States carried the tunes to their new home as documented here in a 1971 recording.

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Searching a Family Tree for Raisins: A Passover Story

Robin Washington, My Jewish Learning, April 5, 2017



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Are there raisins in your haroset?

In years past, your answer may have been "Of course!" or "Eww! Who does that?"

Attitudes have since changed, thanks to recipe swapping on the net and a growing appreciation for the diversity of world Jewry.

But a box of Sun-Maid was certainly raisin' Cain 30-some years ago when my then-wife, Lynn, and I shared our first Passover together.

Of Polish and Russian Jewish ancestry, her take on my family's apples-cinnamon-walnuts-wine-(plenty!)-and-raisins mixture was that I didn't know what I was doing.

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Moroccan Passover Traditions and Recipe

Natasha Cooper-Benisty, My Jewish Learning, March 23, 2017



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The seders of my adult life are quite different than those I experienced in my youth. The main reason for this is that I am married to a Moroccan Israeli who has his own rich traditions from which to draw from. Early in our marriage, my husband experienced his first Ashkenazic seders at my parents home. However, once we decided that we were ready to host our own seders, we happily merged customs from both of our backgrounds to create our special family experience. Perhaps the most unique Moroccan custom of our seder occurs early on when the head of the household (in my husband’s family his mother would do this), holds the seder plate over the head of each attendee separately and chants the following, “Bibhilu yatṣanu mi–miṣrayim, halacḥma ‘anya bené ḥorin”. This roughly translates to the following: “In haste, we went out of Egypt with our bread of affliction and now we are free.” I have taken on this unusual ritual which has become one of the highlights of our Seder. Our Ashkenazic friends love this tradition and with a glass seder plate it is even more entertaining!

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What My Sephardi and Ashkenazi Grandmothers Taught Me About Cooking and Feminism

Tamar ZakenMy Jewish Learning, March 14, 2017



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I am temporarily living in my Grandma Gertrude’s house. So my kitchen is actually, my grandma’s kitchen.

She didn’t really like to cook. She did bake though: rich sticky brownies topped with marshmallows, enormous chocolate chip cookies with nuts and raisins, good neighbor cakes. She was a big feminist, my grandma, and we would sit around the table in that kitchen and she would tell me to study, to do what I want, to not let my gender stop me from achieving things in life.

I wonder if she felt stuck in her kitchen?

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An Online Community of Jewish Moms that is Transforming Lives

Team Be'chol LashonMy Jewish Learning, March 9, 2017



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Atlanta, Georgia is home to one of the world's largest and most active communities of Jewish moms, the online Facebook group Jewish Moms of Atlanta or JMoA has nearly 3,000 members and is a vibrant daily meeting place and resource. Be'chol Lashon caught up with Nicole Marcellus Wiesen, one of the founders and moderators of JMOA. BL: How did the idea for JMOA come about? Marcellus Wiesen: I'm originally from San Diego by way of Miami and moved to Atlanta when I got married. As a new mom, I was looking for ways to connect with other Jewish moms. We were still shul shopping and had not yet found a congregation that met our needs. I wanted a Jewish mom's group. There was not much out there. I went to a mommy and me group that was being hosted by Chabad Intown. I met a friend there and we were discussing the lack of places for Jewish moms with little kids to connect, so we decided to start one.

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Growing Up African-American and Jewish Leads to a Life of Service in Georgia

John Eaves My Jewish Learning, March 3, 2017



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PI am an oddity: I am both African-American and Jewish.

This dual identity has shaped my life and worldview. Even though the African-American community and the Jewish community have had some historical collaborations, such as those during the civil rights movement, these two groups don't mesh as well as they should. In the past, I have been reluctant to share my story for fear of acceptance, but today I talk openly with confidence and without hesitation.

My grandfather, Cecil Reginald Eaves, converted to Judaism after immigrating to America from Jamaica in 1913. He passed his faith to my father, John Henry Eaves Sr., who in turn passed it on to me.

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A Global Purim Menu and Identity Discussion Guide

Ruth Abusch-Magder My Jewish Learning, February 23, 2017



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Purim is all about the hiding. Esther hid her identity from King Ahashverosh. Haman hid his evil side from the King. And as our tradition teaches, the name of God does not appear in the written account of Purim, because even God is hidden in the Purim story.

As a result, Jews have a custom of wearing costumes on Purim. Dressing as Darth Vader or as Harry Potter gives us a chance to either give voice to a part of ourselves that might be hidden on more typical days or conversely the costume might hide away parts of ourselves that we prefer not be seen.

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What It Was Like To Grow Up Multiracial and Orthodox in a Hasidic Enclave

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, February 15, 2017



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They were older than me, by at least five years, and I was afraid. Though my Satmar Hasidic neighbors were my friends, their cousins usually approached me with disdain whenever I'd go over for a playdate. On one occasion, they bullied me and lifted my shirt up. He asked "where are your tzitzis?" feeling uncomfortable I stammered, they said "you call yourself a yid!? Gai ahein you goy!" I tripped as I begged my feet to carry me towards the door, but then it got worse, they poured cold water on me, and repeated the abusive slurs. I walked home crying to never tell a soul until over a decade later. -How?!

I learned, from a very young age, how complicated modern Jews and Judaism are. I grew up in a mixed-race Chabad-Lubavitch family in Monsey, New York, where I was exposed to all walks of Orthodox Jewish life. My mother, a convert into the Orthodox community, my father a "Ba'al Teshuva" someone who sees themselves as a returnee to higher levels of spiritual consciousness and Jewish practice, made a point to educate us on our rich Jewish and African history, and always encouraged us to be Dorshei Chochmah, those who see the deep wisdom, Chochmah, the diverse wisdom, found in our world.

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Large Multicultural Family Finds a Jewish Home In North Carolina

Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, February 7, 2017



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Though they did not start off life as Jews, Puah Millsaps and her multiracial family have never felt more welcome than they do in the Jewish world. Be'chol Lashon caught up with this busy mom between homeschooling lessons to hear more about her family's unusual journey, their joys and challenges.

Team Be'chol Lashon: Tell us a bit about your family.

Millsaps: We have five children and one on the way this summer.

BL: Is it a challenge to be such a big family?

Millsaps: Of course. Especially when my husband Brett is at work, and I am doing the parenting on my own. When it is the two of us it is easier. Now that we have older kids, it's easier. It flows. We have our routines.

When we go out without Brett, the most common comment is "you have your hands full." Today's society is not set up for big families. With both parents working, most people can't have big families. We don't have family-oriented homes. It is not as intimate as it once was. There are not used to seeing big families. In Asheville, [where we live] we get lots of positive comments about a beautiful family.

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Inspired to Reach Across Fences

Brandie Itman, My Jewish Learning, January 25, 2017



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The final process of converting to Judaism is to meet with the beit din (a rabbinic "court" of 3 learned Jews, usually clergy, who meet with a candidate for conversion). During the beit din, the council asks questions of the person converting; to assess their sincerity. When I went through the process 2 years ago, I was asked two important questions that are very relevant to what is going on in the world today.

How would I honor the Jewish faith and how did I plan to share and spread the word of the Jewish practices? The answer was yes, I was ready to honor it, and would eventually do so by opening a kosher bakery.

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African American Republican Congressional Candidate Turned Yeshiva Student

Mordechai Ben Avraham Hazzan, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, January 19, 2017



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For some people, fitting into the status quo is soothing, comforting, peaceful. Not for me. For me, seeking a life of truth, has brought me peace. Knowing truth exists is comforting, and experiencing virtues of truth has been soothing to my soul.

Today I am a yeshiva student studying Torah full time. Before this, I was a Republican candidate for Congress. Before that, I was an entertainment executive. And before that, I was a Christian who was born in a small farm town, raised by thoughtful, hard working spiritual seekers.

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The Making of A Modern Kosher Baker

Team Be'chol Lashon, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, January 3, 2017



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On December 1st, baker

Brandie Itman moved her small home business into kitchen of the Beth El Synagogue adding a kosher option to the Minnesota landscape. Team Be'chol Lashon caught up with the busy mother of two to talk about cake, keeping kosher, and being an entrepreneur.

BL: Tell us about how you got started in the bakery business.

Itman: My oldest daughter was born four years ago, and two weeks later my husband got laid off. It was the height of the recession. I started baking to keep busy and keep up the morale.

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How Can Jews Talk About Race?

Ruth Abusch-Magder, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, January 10, 2017



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How can Jews talk about race? How can Jews not talk about race? Race is part of all of our lives no matter the color of our skin or Jewish background.

Throughout the country and the Jewish community, discussions about race, racism and how to navigate the legacies of slavery and civil rights as well as the complex contemporary landscape are as important and challenging as ever. At Be'chol Lashon, these issues are on our mind all year round, as they are for many Jews. But we recognize that there is heightened attention and concern as we mark the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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The Making of A Modern Kosher Baker

Team Be'chol Lashon, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, January 3, 2017



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On December 1st, baker

Brandie Itman moved her small home business into kitchen of the Beth El Synagogue adding a kosher option to the Minnesota landscape. Team Be'chol Lashon caught up with the busy mother of two to talk about cake, keeping kosher, and being an entrepreneur.

BL: Tell us about how you got started in the bakery business.

Itman: My oldest daughter was born four years ago, and two weeks later my husband got laid off. It was the height of the recession. I started baking to keep busy and keep up the morale.

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A Hanukkah Lesson for Our Turbulent Political Times

Aaron Isaac Asher Breceda, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, December 19, 2016



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As we approach our upcoming Festival of Lights, learning the stories about the Maccabees, and our nation's triumph over religious and political oppression is a great thing to be sure. But almost as soon as Hanukkah starts, it begins to fade away, and we find ourselves back in our lives, and it just as important that we learn about the darkness that came after the light. Because that story has much to teach us about our current turbulent times.

Very few people know what happened after the victory of the Maccabees. In just a few hundred years after what made of been our greatest victory, the Jewish people became religiously divided as a nation, the descendents of the Maccabees became corrupt political figures that would match any Greek drama, and we caused our own downfall into Roman control. While there is so much history to be learned, it is better to focus on the biggest events, to learn what they can teach us now.

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From Israel to America: Sephardi Inspiration for Hanukkah

Tamar Zaken, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, December 14, 2016



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For many years, I worked in the most special place I could imagine. A radical Beit Midrash (house of study) in Jerusalem- Memizrach Shemesh, the Social Action Beit Midrash, inspired by the traditions of Jews from Arab lands. At Memizrach Shemesh, we used Jewish texts, with a special emphasis on Sephardic and Mizrachi Rabbinic texts, as tools for awareness-raising and social change. We trained leaders, educators and activists in Israeli society with the perspective that good community workers need to learn before taking action. I directed Memizrach Shemesh's Youth Leadership Department for a decade.

Towards the end of my time at the Beit Midrash, I came upon a beautiful text that summarized the purpose of my work. Rabbi Hayim Yosef David Azulay (Born in Hebron, active in North Africa and Italy 1727-1806) tells us that "Everyone in Israel got his or her part at Sinai, and each needs to make efforts to engage in the Torah so that they can bring to light their part, and this is something that can be done by no other..." We all have a responsibility to find our place in the Torah. As a Jewish educator, I want all Jews to feel like a welcome part of this Torah, to realize that the community is incomplete without their voice.

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My Black Brother Deserves What I Have

Dahlia Spinrad, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, December 6, 2016



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When I was eight years old, our family began looking into adopting a child. I was nervous and excited about the possibility of becoming a big sister. During the adoption process, I had a feeling that we would get to adopt an African American baby boy. It turned out I was right. A few months after I turned nine, my little brother was born and became part of our family.

For the last three and a half years, we have been a multiracial Jewish family. This has opened my heart and eyes to the diversity in the Jewish community, in our country and in the world. It has also made me more aware of the inequality and racism in our country. Before we adopted my brother, I knew racism and inequality existed, but now they affect me personally because my brother is black and we are part of a multiracial family. I don’t want my brother or anybody else to be discriminated against because of their race or color. I want to help do something positive to raise awareness about the diversity of the Jewish community and our larger communities.

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Just Your Typical Egyptian Mexican American Jew

Aaron Isaac Asher Breceda, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, December 1, 2016



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It is interesting to grow up in an old world family with new world ideas. My childhood dinners were created by eyes looking back at recipes thousands of years old, but also forward toward the wonders the future might bring. I was told from a very young age that I was Jewish, but that was all the information I received from my family. Like many others raised in a non-religious household, by the time I was an adult, the only associations I had with Judaism were my grandparent’s food and language: Molokheya and Judeo-Arabic. What could be more Jewish than that?

I was born in Los Angeles to my Egyptian mother and my Mexican father. It wasn’t a union that my grandparents could have even imagined when they were living in Cairo. But they accepted it, cognizant of the decision they made to raise their daughters as secular Americans. They made that decision after a lifetime of forced travels brought on by their Judaism. From their own modern-day Exodus from Egypt to France (forced upon them by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s), to the difficult times in France as they awaited approved passages to America, until they arrived to an Ashkenazi community in Wisconsin who was ready and willing to accept and support Jews….but not Arabs. From Wisconsin they saved everything they could to get someplace warmer and where they could re-invent themselves. So they ended up in Los Angeles, spoke nothing but French outside the house, and put a Christmas tree in the window.

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A Letter to My Black and Jewish Daughter in Light of the Election

Marcella White Campbell, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, November 17, 2016



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Dear Maia,

Remember when you were in day care? (Of course you don't.) I was in grad school and, back then, I was still really new to this parenting thing. I was trying to figure out how to raise a small-but-mighty Black-and-Jewish feminist, a girl who was not just cute but fast, not just sweet but smart, not just pretty but strong. I was studying literature, so I peppered you with action words: run! climb! I wanted you to rush out into the world, grab it by the collar, and catch it by surprise.

One day, I came into your classroom and found all the little citizens in a tiny circle around your teacher, giggling and chattering, waiting to hear a story. Before your teacher opened the book she said, very clearly: "Okay, friends. Put on your listening ears. Listen." One by one, every toddler in the room reached up to cup his or her hands around their ears and the room was silent-or at least as silent as it was ever going to be. Then all their faces turned up towards your teacher and the story began.

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7 Global Jews To Enrich Your Sukkot Celebration

Ruth Abusch Magder, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, October 13, 2016



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At Sukkot the custom of Ushpizin, offers us a chance, to be as welcoming and as inclusive as we would like to be. Traditionally, the Ushpizin are biblical figures who we symbolically invite to join us in the sukkah, bringing their legacy in to guide us in the here and now. Whether or not you have a sukkah, we invite you to get in on the fun. We have created a list of global Jewish figures who we can invite to join us at the table during Sukkot (October 17-23). Have one ‘visitor’ join you each day, or have them all come together! We think their stories are worth celebrating and will remind us of how the historic diversity of Jewish life can enrich our modern lives.

Lady Judith and Sir Moses Montefiore –This 19th-century couple were a ‘mixed’ marriage. Lady Montefiore was born into a prominent Ashkenazi family and he into a prominent Sephardi family. In coming together they formed a formidable team that not only socializing at the highest levels of British society but also advocating for Jews around the world. In 1840 they went to Damascus to defend the community against a Blood Libel (accusation that Jews murdered Christian babies). In 1846, they went to Russia to protest expulsions of Jews from borderlands. Additionally they were frequent visitors and strong supporters of Jewish life in the Holy Land. They are a timeless model of the global nature and value of Jewish community.

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On Shofar Blowing and Racism

Maya Resnikoff, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, September 26, 2016



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Out of the tight place I called to the LORD; God answered me with great enlargement. -Psalm 118:5

Rosh Hashanah is more than a New Year. It is the beginning of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the 10 Days of Repentance, or Return, during which Jews traditionally take an inventory of their own actions, and make apologies for misdeeds both to other people and to God.

The Shofar, the ram’s horn, is sounded on Rosh Hashanah to awaken each person’s soul to its state of disrepair, and its work of repentance. Each time the Shofar is blown, it sounds 9 notes, in 3 units of 3 calls each. Each “sandwich” begins with a Tekiah, a long note, followed by one of three sorts of short notes, and ends with another Tekiah. Many Jewish communities have a custom to blow 100 Shofar blasts for each day of Rosh Hashanah, divided into several sections, of which one is during the Torah service and another is during the Musaf service, the additional service for Shabbat and holidays. The final blast of each full set is Tekiah Gedolah, a Big Tekiah- one that lasts as long as the shofar blower’s breath can hold out.

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The Sound of Jewish Diversity

Team Be'chol Lashon, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, September 21, 2016



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What is Jewish music?

For some it is the violins of Klezmer. For others it is Leonard Bernstein. For Sarah Aroeste it is contemporary tunes in Ladino. For Reuben ‘Prodezra’ Fromey it is hip hop with Torah values.

Aroeste and Fromey have very different musical backgrounds and very different sounds. Aroeste trained in classical opera before discovering a passion for the Jewish language of her Sephardic ancestors. Now she devotes herself to creating new materials in the ancient Sephardic language of Ladino. Fromey grew up in a traditional Jewish household in the Savannah, GA. His large African American family loves music and he began his career making beats for family members. Today, he has his own approach to hip hop, bring together the sounds of his childhood with a positive message.

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Humor and My Authentically Black Jewish Self

Rosie Poku, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, September 15, 2016



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“How does Moses make his tea? Hebrews it. Happy Passover y’all.”

This was the caption that I wrote on one of my most recent Facebook profile pictures. The photo featured my smiling face some with poorly edited-on Jewish and Passover-themed animations (matzah, a torah, etc). My profile picture update was a fun and humorous way to spread holiday cheer to my Jewish Facebook friends. And it also served as a reminder to all of my friends and family online that I am, in fact, Jewish.

Being a black Jew, I have been asked to explain and verify the extent of my Jewishness more times than I can count. Even in predominantly (and exclusively) Jewish spaces like synagogues and URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) summer camps, my faith has been questioned by my peers, younger children, and adults alike. “Are you Jewish? Like really Jewish?” they ask. “How exactly are you Jewish?”

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5 Multicultural Recipes for Rosh Hashanah

Ruth Abusch Magder, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, September 7, 2016



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The summer is over, the school year has started, and so it follows that Rosh Hashanah can't be too far away. The holidays are a month away which gives us all enough time to plan and try out a few new recipes to add to our Rosh Hashanah table. Here are five of our favorite multicultural Jewish food recipes that we are sure will certainly add flair the Rosh Hashanah celebrations. Don't take our word for it, make them yourself, now or any time of year!

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From Looking Jewish to Being Jewish

Esther Hugenholtz, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, August 30, 2016



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Cultural anthropologists call it ‘going native’. You find yourself in the field as a participant observer of your host culture and before you know it, the lines blur. You fall in love with this culture, you want to transition and be part of it. You adopt language, mannerisms, dress, philosophical outlook and eventually you consider yourself one of them.

I was doing cultural anthropological fieldwork in New York in 2004 and I went native. In my case, the order of affairs was reversed. I had already fallen in love with Judaism, wanting to convert. So I adapted my graduate project to suit my needs by traveling to one of the epicenters of Diaspora Jewish life. I moved to Brooklyn, davened (prayed) at a shul (synagogue) in Park Slope, hung out with independent minyans such as Kehillat Hadar on the Upper West Side and meanwhile interviewed Jews for my fieldwork while at the same time studying towards conversion. And in order to facilitate entry into the community for the sake of my fieldwork, I dyed my blonde tresses an unassuming dark brown.

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Conversion: A Black Jewish Can-Do Story

Stephanie Ambroise, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, August 24, 2016



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Why would you want to do that?!

You do realize that no observant Jewish people will ever accept you, right?

You're kidding!?


Those are some of the questions/comments I heard when I shared the news that I would actively be working on the process to convert to Judaism.

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#BlackLivesMatter: The Right vs Wrong Side of History

Marcella White Campbell, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, August 16, 2016



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When I was nine years old, my family sat me down to watch the landmark documentary Eyes on the Prize. After I watched the story about Emmett Till's horrible murder and his murderers' eventual acquittal, I lay awake in my bed, too terrified to sleep. The idea that a child who looked like me could be brutalized just because he was black was so frightening, in part, because of how immediate it felt. It had happened a whole twenty years before I was born; at the same time, it had only happened twenty years before I was born. The injustice was so stark, so clear, that the rise of what we would come to call the Civil Rights Movement seemed the natural response.

I grew up on stories like these. It was the eighties; our retrospective of the Civil Rights Movement, in all its complexity, was crystallizing into one dominant, mainstream narrative, where the march towards freedom was linear, public opinion was on the right side of history, and Martin Luther King, alone, represented millions of voices. I was born in San Francisco, so I knew that the story had been a little more complicated; I tasted the occasional bean pie from the Black Muslim bakery in Oakland, and I knew my grandfather had been a Black Panther for all of about two days until he chose feeding a family of six over the revolution. These complicated and sometimes uncomfortable voices, just as much part of the Civil Rights movement as SNCC and MLK, weren't part of the history I learned in school.

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Snapchat's Top Rabbi

Team Be'chol Lashon, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, August 11, 2016



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When the list of the top ten Jews you should follow on social media platform Snapchat came out this week there were the inevitable comedians and foodies but only one rabbi made the cut! Vegan, Black and a bodybuilder, Sandra Lawson, a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical School, has been attracting quite a following. Be'chol Lashon caught up with her to learn about her social media rabbinate and her newfound Snapchat fame.

BL: What got you involved as a rabbi on the Snapchat platform?

Lawson: Three years ago when Snapchat came out, I played around with it and I could not figure it out, so I took it off my phone. Then last year when I was studying in Israel, I put it back on. I found out that Snapchat was doing better for than twitter and it designed for millennials not 46 year olds.

I'm always thinking about how to connect with Jews where they already are. You know the Jews who are not coming to synagogue or the JCC but are still proud of being Jews. I thought Snapchat would be a good place to reach them.

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Camp Rabbi, Role Model, Match-Maker

Team Be'chol Lashon, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, July 27, 2016



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This week rabbinic student Isaama Stoll is heading up to Camp Be’chol Lashon to teach Torah, pray and hang with other Jews of Color. We caught up with this dynamic leader on the rise to find out more about her journey to the rabbinate, being a role model and her match-making hobby.

BL: When did you first decide to become a rabbi?

Stoll: I’ve been talking about becoming a rabbi since I was six yrs old. I remember being in shul and looking at the rabbis and thinking that is what I would do one day. People always ask me, if I have one great rabbi role model or a rabbi who pulled me in. The answer is no. Being a rabbi was always what I was called to do. I was called to serve my community, to serve God.

Throughout my life, my family has been as supportive as possible in providing me with whatever Jewish opportunities I wanted.

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Jewish Music with A Caribbean Flair

Rabbi Juan Mejia, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, July 18, 2016



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Judaism and Calypso? An unexpected combination? For Oscar Sarmiento, Duvan Vargas and Ruben de la Hoz, living on the shores of the Caribbean, nothing could be more obvious. And once you've had a listen to their version of Adon Olam (video below) you will likely agree.

Judaism is one of the world's most musical cultures. Our prayers are not just recited but sung. Our Scriptures have a detailed musical system in which they should be chanted. In our long and broad wanderings we have picked up unfamiliar instruments, rhythms and tunes and made them fully our own. With time, what was once new and innovative, forms into a cannon, fully formed and unchangeable.

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Race in America: It's Personal

Gal Adam Spinrad, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, July 11, 2016



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I have a black son.

I have a black son and I am his white mama.

I have a black son who is too young still to know that society

fears him,

mistrusts him,

doubts him,

considers him a threat.

I have a black son and I am his white mama.

It’s personal.

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An African American Jew Journeys to Orthodoxy

Yasminah Respes, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, July 8, 2016



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Life is a journey for each of us. It’s full of twists and turns and sometimes things happen to us without us understanding the reason why. Both sides of my family came to Judaism from Christianity. My paternal grandfather began to learn more about Judaism after he already had children. He went to a Jewish book store and since there wasn’t a Rabbi at the time who was willing to teach him, he taught himself through books. Over time, he became very knowledgeable and began to teach other colored people about Judaism. He founded a congregation originally in Philadelphia called Adat Beyt Moshe, then moved the family to a small town called Ellwood, NJ outside of Hammonton. My mom, in her adulthood, started to feel that she wanted something more spiritually. She began attending various synagogues, learned more about Judaism, and eventually decided to pursue a conversion within the Conservative movement.

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Lessons Learned from Multicultural Jewish Asian Families

Team Be'chol Lashon, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, June 28, 2016



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What does it mean to be Jewish and Asian? Amidst the complex conversations about race in America comes JewAsian, a groundbreaking book that explores Jewish Asian identity. What have authors and parent Helen Kiyong Kim and Noah Samuel Leavitt learned about JewAsian multicultural identity? What lessons can parents learn? What might the Jewish community do to welcome JewAsians? Team Be’chol Lashon talked to the husband/wife team to find out!

BL: What drove you to write this book?

Helen Kim: We wrote this book in large part because we were seeing couples like us where one partner who was Jewish in a cultural or/and religious sense and another partner who was racially Asian and of a different ethnic or cultural background. We were curious if there was hard and fast statistical data so we went searching and asked lots of people who had lots of interest in social studies data about intermarriage but there was really nothing quantitative or qualitative about racial composition. Nothing on multicultural Jewish families. This was back in 1997, but everyone said you have to talk with Gary and Diane Tobin of the IJCR and Be’chol Lashon. They encouraged us to look into it.

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Race: Pushing Myself & the Jewish Community

Diane Tobin, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, June 22, 2016



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"Everyone has a different tolerance for complexity." This is a concept that was introduced to me in anticipation of adopting my son in 1997, and it has stuck with me over the years. Tolerance for complexity is not only a predisposition towards the way one approaches life, but is also ideally constantly evolving. There is accommodating the change that happens whether we want it to or not, and then there's the change that we actively seek in order to achieve our goals and make the world a better place.

When Gary and I decided to explore adoption we already had biological children. My only criteria was that I wanted a baby. Beyond that, I felt it was beshert or "meant to be," reflecting the expansiveness of adopting - that anybody could be your child. That meant, given the odds, we would probably end up with a child of color and likely a boy, because they tend to be at the bottom of the adoption hierarchy. I realized that the race of the child would not matter to me.

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Reimagining A Holocaust Classic

Lior Ben-Hur, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, June 14, 2016



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Music and Judaism go hand in hand. Every Shabbat service, lifecycle event, Jewish holiday or Israeli holiday has a specific song or melody that relates to that special day. "A Walk to Caesarea," commonly known as, "Eli Eli"("My God, My God") written by Hannah Senesh and composed by David Zahavi is one of the main Jewish songs relating to Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom Hashoah).

While I love, appreciate and respect the original musical composition to Hannah Senesh's poem, I would like to introduce a new composition and approach to her poem, which aims to revive the feelings of this young, Jewish poet had at the moment she wrote the song.

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Greek Burekas, A Treat at Shavuot or Year-Round

Marcia Weingarten, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, June 9, 2016



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The Shavuot holiday is upon us. We celebrate our becoming a people committed to living the gift of receiving and living Torah. Shavuot also marks the spring harvest season. Growing up, I recall marking the holiday with 'first fruits' of the season. We now share the tradition of serving dairy foods as part of the holiday festivities.

In our Sephardic community, our roots being Ottoman Rhodes, we make a few special dairy foods for the occasion; sutlach, a creamy rice pudding is one, and burekas, a community and family favorite, is another.

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Soulfood for Shavuot

Michael W. Twitty, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, June 6, 2016



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Shavuot is one of the rare Jewish holidays that really specifies a dairy meal. Some say its because the Torah came with the promise of a land of "chalav u'd'vash," a land of milk and honey. Some say its because this is the time of the year when cows, goats and sheep give lots of milk. Some say its because the Israelites didn't fully know the laws of kashrut. Whatever your explanation, for Jews of different backgrounds, Shavuot means cheesecake, blintzes, burekas, and pasta dishes made with soft cheeses. Why all the carbs? In ancient Israel, Shavuot was the time of the wheat harvest!

One of the things I like to emphasize about my KosherSoul side is that both the Jewish and African diasporas have been absorbed and have absorbed all of the places we have been. Where have we been? Every corner of the earth. Inasmuch as other peoples have contributed to our cultures, to be both Black and Jewish means that I have incredible freedom in creating my holiday recipes. It also means we have the opportunity to make new meanings and draw people's attention to different aspects of our heritage. Furthermore, our food speaks to all the peoples who have been a part of it's is an invitation to see our mutual tradition as larger than the boxes of Black or Jewish, color, ethnicity or faith; this is an opportunity to see where we have been as a human family, and the glowing possibilities of where we can go, with peace and mutual understanding. Food is no small thing-it is a scripture of its own.

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When Counselors Go To Camp

Team Be'chol Lashon, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, May 31, 2016



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Where do seasoned camp veterans go to learn more about camp? Why camp, of course! Camp Be’chol Lashon is the only majority multiracial Jewish camp in the world and more intimate than other Jewish camps but last week, Camp Be’chol Lashon (CBL) staffers Michael DeYoung (right) and Jonah Tobin (left with Rabbi Avi Orlow) attended the Foundation for Jewish Camping’s Cornerstone Seminar to be with hundreds of other camping professionals. We caught up with Jonah to hear about his experience and what he is taking back to CBL this summer –there are still spots available if you want to join us!

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Finding the Calling of My Soul, A Conversion Story

Avigail Rivkah Hasofer, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, May 17, 2016



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Sometimes your soul knows, before your mind, where it needs to go.

I was born in Louisville, Kentucky. My father is Willie Taylor. His mother was Native American, but she passed away when he was young. His father was African as far as I know. My father had a hard life as a sharecropper with his father and his only brother working the land. My mother Anna Lou had a different background. Her parents owned their farm, her grandparents owned a plantation, I am told. The value of education was instilled in her at every stage.

My parents were people of good deeds, helping strangers. My father was one of the founding deacons at our church.

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Mothers, Judaism's Heroes

Isaiah Rothstein, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, May 4, 2016



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What does it mean to be hero in Judaism, and who to me represents that more than anyone?

For me, a hero is someone who in spite of adversity, still manages to build a world around her that is for the sake of growth, of positivity and of Shalom.

My personal model of this sentiment, and a woman who has lived and continues to live with the models the Torah sets out, is…you guessed it, my mother.

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Mimouna: Taking the End of Passover to Whole New Level

Team Be'chol Lashon, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, April 25, 2016



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What are your plans for Saturday night?

As Jews around the world conclude the observance of Passover, many will be rushing to pizza parlors to fill their stomachs with delightfully leavened food. But Jews of North African descent take the party to a whole new level, with the observance of Mimouna, a feast and celebration, with festive dress, special foods and music.

As JIMENA explains:

Mimouna is a traditional festival celebrated by Moroccan Jews at nightfall on the last day of Passover and throughout the following day until sundown. Families open their homes to the public as they host a celebration involving family, friends, neighbors, and food. A family’s kitchen table features many different cuisines including assorted fruits, vegetables, eggs, cakes, sweet meats, milk and wine, butter, honey, jams, and the popular pastry called Mufleta. Since the celebration coincides with the last day of Passover breads, cakes and leavened breads previously prohibited from being eaten during Passover are particularly present in the celebration. Mimouna is a time to celebrate luck and good fortune as well as the start of the spring season. Foods eaten symbolize fertility, joy, abundance, success, health, and prosperity.

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Passover, Then and Now

Yasminah Respes, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, April 18, 2016



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Pesach is my favorite holiday. I enjoy reading about the journey from slavery to freedom and the journey of spiritual growth. I connect with Passover, or in Hebrew Pesach, because I’ve gone through my own journey.

My mother is a convert to Judaism and my dad was born Jewish. We were traditional, observed all of the holidays, kept Kosher, but we did drive on Shabbat. Though we belonged to a Conservative synagogue in Southern New Jersey, we periodically attended my family’s synagogue, which is Orthodox. Our family synagogue was founded by my paternal grandfather, Rabbi Abel Respes. Prior to relocating to Hammonton, New Jersey it was originally based in Philadelphia. My brother and I received a Jewish education, we were involved in USY, and we both made Aliyah-to moved to Israel. There I married and became Orthodox. Today I live with my husband in Canada.

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A Sephardic Passover Meat Pie

Marcia Weingarten, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, April 11, 2016



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We are Sephardic Jews. Originally from Spain, most of our families fled in 1492, expelled by the Monarchy to avoid a forced conversion to Catholicism under threat of death. Many of our families were welcomed into the lands of the Sultan, under Ottoman rule. There our families stayed for near 500 years..

My family found refuge and a home on the Island of Rhodes, in the Mediterranean. Rhodes is now a Greek island, from 1912-’43 an Italian protectorate, and in the time of my family, under the rule of Turkey. Our Jewish culture and traditions are influenced by our Ladino language, a form of medieval Spanish we’ve carried for hundreds of years, and the Turkish cultural of Rhodes

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Bsisa: A Tasty Women's Tradition To Begin The Passover Season

Adam Eilath and Tamar Zaken, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, April 6, 2016



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What is the best way to usher in the Passover season? Not with handwringing and housecleaning, but with celebration, blessing and sweet joy!

On Rosh Hodesh, the first day of Nissan, the Jewish month during which we celebrate Passover, Jews from Tunisia and Libya partake in a ritual called “Bsisa” or “El Bsisa”. The ritual serves as a bridge between the holidays of Purim and Passover and takes place entirely in the home. The ritual is centered around a dish called the “Bsisa” which is made in a deep bowl and is filled wheat, barley, dried fruits, honey, olive oil and other sweets. Since in the biblical narrative, Rosh Hodesh Nissan is the culmination of the building of the Mishkan, the holy tabernacle in the desert, the dish is meant to replicate what Moses made in celebration of completing the building of the Mishkan.

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The Global History of Ma Nishtana

Ruth Abusch-Magder, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, March 30, 2016



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Each year, Jewish children around the world learn the Four Questions. After all the image of the small child chanting their way through the Four Questions is one of the most endearing images of the Passover seder. The image is so strong that for many it automatically conjures music and words. This simple piece of the Haggadah liturgy is one the first Jews learn but few of us know about the history of this text and the music that has now become the classic tradition!

The Four Question come down to us through the generations. The original Ma Nishtana (Why Is This Night Different?) questions found in the ancient codes of law, the Mishnah and subsequently in variations in the Talmud. Included in these early versions was a question about roasting the Passover sacrifice - which was the practice when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem. As the Temple rites faded from memory, the question about sacrifice was replaced with a question about leaning while eating.

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Sephardic Songs Add Merriment to Purim

Ty Alhadeff, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, March 21, 2016



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And what is a drinking party without drinking songs? As in other Jewish communities, drinking alcohol was part of the celebration of Purim, and an extensive corpus of rhymed, Ladino poems known as koplas (or komplas) developed by Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire. Arranged in stanzas, often with refrains, sometimes as acrostics, and intended to be memorized and sung in groups during moments of recreation and celebration, mourning and lamentation, koplas dealt with myriad Jewish themes, including holidays, faith, history, morality, life cycle events, religious practices, folkways, hopes and fears, and politics and satire. Initially composed by rabbis, who sought to make traditional Jewish knowledge more accessible to the Jewish masses in their spoken language, and later by popular authors, koplas served as a foundation of Sephardic Jewish culture for generations.

Perhaps the most famous genre of koplas dealt with the holiday of Purim.

At the Sephardic Studies Program of the UW Stroum Center for Jewish Studies,, we are fortunate to draw on our large Sephardic collection as well as the personal recollections from first-generation Seattle Sephardim whose families came to the United States from the Ottoman Empire — today’s Turkey and Rhodes — during the early 20th century, to learn more about the songs and their role in the Purim celebrations.

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A Recipe for Glamorous Global Purim Cocktails

Marcella White Campbell, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, March 16, 2016



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Want the secret recipe to the perfect global Jewish cocktails? Read on. After all, the story of Purim is, in part, a story about "passing" — hiding your identity because it is disadvantageous or even deadly to be who you really are. Esther’s dilemma has always struck me on a very personal level; growing up in an upwardly-mobile black family in the American South, my grandmother used to hear stories about cousins, uncles, or aunts who just vanished one day. It was understood that, because of their light skin, they’d simply chosen to “pass” as white for the rest of their lives, assuming a different racial identity because their own felt like a dead end or even a death sentence. Yet they always lived in fear, because they could be suddenly recognized at any time, and the consequences of being found out were catastrophic.

Queen Esther lives in that same kind of fear while Haman rises to power. She’s justifiably afraid to reveal her Jewish identity to Ahasuerus and the world, given that a death sentence is hanging over her entire community; she’s even reluctant when her beloved older cousin Mordechai comes to ask for help. It’s frightening to reveal our true selves when we don’t feel safe to be who we really are.

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Recipe: Sephardic Cookies for Purim

Marcia Weingarten, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, March 14, 2016



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Purim is right around the corner! Among the traditions of the holiday is the exchanging of gifts of food with one another. Many communities exchange mishloach manot (Hebrew: sending of portions). In our Ladino community, I’ve always heard it referred to as Platikos di Purim (Purim plates). As part of the Platikos, my mother usually makes biscochos, boulicunio and baklava.

Biscochos are often called tea biscuits. We think of them as a "biscotti", a crunchy treat! Biscochos are a bit sweet and are wonderful with your morning coffee (could be afternoon or evening coffee or tea or even milk, for that matter!!) If you want to add a little flair to your Purim celebration, my mother’s recipe for biscochos is below!

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Many Homelands, One Identity for Norwegian American Jewish Teen

Aryeh Lande, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, March 8, 2016



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The day was bleak and windy. At best, I figured, there would be maybe six hours of daylight. The clouds above me swirled, preparing to unleash a fresh snowfall as I sat in the warm Synagogue in Oslo, Norway. It was a typical Saturday morning service, but the crowd was limited to 40 members due the countrywide Christmas break. In the small, sacred space a mix of Hebrew, Norwegian and even a few words of English drifted up, filling the space with prayers.

I am a Norwegian-American Jew. I live in New Jersey, but I have had the privilege of traveling to Norway multiple times every year with my family. Through my experiences, I have acquired an undying love for Norway, its vibrant culture, its rich history and its remarkable people. I also care deeply about my Judaism. Over the years I have struggled to juxtapose my Judaism with my ethnic nationalism. On one side, Norway is a beautiful, free nation, but its government and people have historically endorsed occasional efforts to undermine Judaism and Israel. For instance, the Norwegian government continues to impose a law that forbids the kosher butchering and there was recently a serious public discussion about the banning of circumcision. Additionally, common opinion in some municipalities is very hostile toward Israel, as is shown in Trondheim, Norway's third largest city, which has enacted a boycott on Israeli goods.

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Children's Album Renews Jewish Ladino Tradition

Team Be'chol Lashon, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, March 1, 2016



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It was not until she was already on her way to adulthood, that singer Sarah Aroeste discovered the connection between her Sephardic roots in Greece and her love of music with the Sephardic musical traditions in Ladino. Becoming a mother for the first time, she did not want her daughter to wait as to learn to love Ladino music. Not finding kid-friendly Ladino music, she did what any singer song-writer would do, she began to write her own!

The results of that effort will be out this month, with the release of Ora de Despertar – Time to Wake Up – a groundbreaking album of children’s music entirely in Ladino. Though it is the first of its kind for children, the album is also one of the few works made up of entirely new songs. Ladino was the language spoken by Jews, not only from Greece and Macedonia, like Aroeste’s family members, but throughout the Sephardi diaspora. Ladino was the language the Jews took with them from Spain when they were forced to flee in 1492. But over time fewer people use Ladino as an everyday language. “Although I didn’t grow up speaking Ladino myself, I heard my relatives speak it,” explains Aroeste, and she wanted to pass it on to the next generation.

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Rabbi Elected to National Office in Africa

Diane Tobin, MyJewishLearning: Jewish&, February 25, 2016



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Yes, it's true. The Chief Rabbi of Uganda has been elected to parliament in his home country. A remarkable feat for a rabbi outside of Israel, not easily achieved.

As Rabbi Gershom Sizomu (see above in photo taken by Judith Gigliotti/Be'chol Lashon from the campaign trail) reported on Sunday February 20, 2016 "I'm happy to inform you that I was announced winner of the Bungokho north seat for Uganda parliament. The contest was very close and the loser is petitioning court claiming that there were some irregularities. I thank you so much for your support and for believing in me."

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Celebrating Heroes During Black History Month

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, February 16, 2016



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If you had to pick one figure from Black history who inspires you, who would it be? An unfair question to be sure, as there are so many deserving possibilities and at different moments and for different reasons, we may be inspired by different individuals. But this was the question we put to Jewish leaders of color in an attempt to capture the diversity of understanding of history and the array of ways in which those who came before us continue to influence us. Their answers, kept intentionally brief are meant to peek your curiosity. Let us know how you would answer this question!

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Facebook Likes to Real World Love

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, February 10, 2016



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Their love was evident to everyone who was there on that beautiful day in October when Yechochanan and Aminah Perkins stood under the huppah. Three years later, the couple still glow in each other's presence. "There is so much I love about Aminah," says Yechochanan, "She is nurturing, patient and beautiful. She is great with children. She knows how to get the house ready for Shabbat." Aminah loves that "he takes time to explain and understand. He is patient, loving and caring. He will make a great father."

Given the strength their love for each other is, it seems like these two were meant to be together. But as for many Jews of Color, finding a match was by no means guaranteed. The path to matrimony was part luck, part technology, and a whole lot of Torah. Romance was really an afterthought.

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The Year of the Bar Mitzvahs

Debbie Derby, My Jewish Learning, February 4, 2015



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The “Derby Bunch”, or “Six Pack” as my parents like to call them, are a motley crew of grandkids – three of each gender – born within a six-year span to my two siblings and myself. We are spread geographically along the Eastern seaboard, from New York down to Atlanta. And though all Jewish, we are spread across the ethnic and denominational map as well.

This was most clearly brought home to me in the “Year of the Bar Mitzvahs.” My siblings and I each have a son born within a one-year period. Thus, three Bar Mitzvahs along the Eastern seaboard within a 12-month period.

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What Does the End of Racism Look Like?

Lindsey Newman, My Jewish Learning, January 28, 2015



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The question was simple: "What would the world look like if there was no more racism?"

I turned to my partner and the first thing I could think of, besides a vision of a perfect world and the resultant celebration of course, was that I guess now I’d have to find a new job. With the end of racism, there would be no need for a program manager at an organization that advocates for racial and ethnic diversity. Racial justice would be complete — Hooray! — and our programs would be unnecessary. But then as I considered the question more, I began to think about all the time I currently spend, both personally and professionally, combating the systems built and dependent upon racism and the countless hours in my life spent dealing with the the large and small ways racism shapes my experience.

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MLK Day: My Second Birthday

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, January 18, 2015



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Many see Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a day off, but for my family, it’s a second birthday. The reason why my family always cherished this day is because in its essence, MLK Jr. Day captures my very existence, and is a reminder for my family that justice, no matter how long the road, will always prevail.

The interracial marriage of my grandparents, Curtis Robertson and Catherine Dove Gibbs, in Chicago, Illinois during the 1940s was quite the story, seeing it would be two decades before interracial marriage would become legal throughout the United States. Grateful for their union, they brought into existence not only a woman who would eventually be my mother, and a righteous convert to Judaism, but a story of American history that is rare and mostly unconsidered.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates and King Solomon, Telling it Like It Is

Eytan Kenter, My Jewish Learning, January 14, 2015



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"I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world."

― Ta-Nehisi Coates,Between the World and Me

There are any number of inspirational and uplifting texts in the Bible. In the Five Megillot, the Five scrolls, that make up a portion of the Ketuvim/Writings section of the Bible, we have a number of wonderful examples of this. We read of the Jewish people overcoming assured destruction in the Book of Esther. We travel with two young lovers in Song of Songs. We see the restorative power of companionship in the Book of Ruth. Even in the Book of Lamentations, we conclude with a hopefulness for a better future. There is one book in the set, however, that often leaves us feeling even more depressed than we started, the book of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes.

According to tradition, the book was written by King Solomon in his later years, we are presented with 12(!) chapters that discuss the inherent challenges and perils of the world in which we live. In the community I serve, we read only three chapters a year; it often feels overwhelming and daunting to even get through that modest portion of the text.

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Navigating Jewish and American Slavery Narratives

Steven Sirbu, My Jewish Learning, January 11, 2015



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As Jews, we know about the power of narrative. The slavery narrative presented in the Book of Exodus and retold around the Passover table is probably the most powerful because it is the foundation of so many Jewish values: faith, compassion and justice, just to name a few.

At Passover, we do not sit down to the Seder table and simply open the Book of Exodus. Rather we open our Haggadah, which over time has developed into a narrative in which God is the hero, where the Pharaoh represents not only his own excesses of power, but tyranny across the centuries. Rather than start with Exodus, with the slavery itself, one of the first quotes is from Deuteronomy 26:5 referring back to the Book of Genesis: 'Arami oved avi—My father was a wandering Aramean.'

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Breaking the Cycle of Unwelcome in Jewish Life

Alexandra Newman My Jewish Learning, January 5, 2015



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For many of us going to a new synagogue or Jewish environment is tough. We spend time beforehand wondering if we will know anyone, will we feel comfortable, or something as simple as will anyone say hello to me.

For me, this last piece has always been something I’ve spent my time thinking about. When my sister and I walk into any Jewish setting we can get looked at differently and asked strange questions. This is because I am the white biological child of two white parents, and my sister is biracial adopted child of the same two white parents. We have always encountered the issue of welcoming and inclusion, even from an early age, and as we grew up we experienced the nuances and subtle unwelcoming that can happen, intentionally and unintentionally within the Jewish community. However, because of our parents we know who we are and that being a Jew is important to us. I have spent a large part of my adult life trying to find my own Jewish self and find what speaks to me about my faith. In this process I somehow always go back to the idea of community, welcoming and inclusion, that sense of belonging that we are all looking for.

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My Jewish Son's Love of Christmas

Alex Barnett, My Jewish Learning, December 15, 2015



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My wife and I are a multiracial couple. She's Black. I'm White. Our 4-year-old son is biracial.

My wife grew up Christian and converted to Judaism. She is, as they say, a "Jew by choice." Her choice, to be sure (though, if pressed, I'm sure my mother would say it was her choice as well).

Although my wife converted, her family did not (though I continue to work on that in an effort to get my picture on the wall of the Knesset as "Jewish Person of the Month").

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Modern Maccabees: An African Hanukkah Story

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, My Jewish Learning, December 7, 2015



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This year, Hanukkah has special meaning for the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda. Hanukkah is not a major holiday like Shabbat or Passover because it is not written about in the Torah. But its story is important to us. It is a story of the few against the many. It is a story that is ancient but also new.

For many years the Abayudaya practiced Torah Judaism, following the rules set out in Torah. In 1919, Chief Semei Kakungulu read the Torah and was inspired to live according to its laws with his followers. As time passed and the Abayudaya connected with Jews around the world and adopted rabbinic as well as Torah Judaism, our traditions evolved. And we began celebrating Hanukkah as well. The community comes together in the evening after work. Unlike other holidays, there are fewer halakhic (Jewish legal) restrictions, so we play guitar and drums and play games. The community lights candles together, and we provide candles to those who want to light them at home.

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A Recipe for Homemade Hanukkah

Marcella White-Campbell, My Jewish Learning, December 1, 2015



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As a convert, I have always felt a special responsibility to actively choose Judaism. Each new choice I make reminds me to live a Jewish life with kavanah, with loving intent. I have to make being Jewish happen.

My fledgling faith was galvanized by the charge to make Shabbat. I was just building my Jewish home back then, balancing a young toddler and graduate school, and there was something magical about cleaning house and setting the table because the very week depended on it. This special charge, to choose and make my faith, informed my observance of other mitzvot, other holidays. I could and did make them my own, and, throughout the Jewish year, it was empowering and moving…

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For My Camper, Ezra Schwartz

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, November 24, 2015



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As I approached the Temple Sinai of Sharon, Massachusetts the words of King David’s Psalms could be heard from the street, and the pulsing prayers on Ezra’s behalf were rising skyward. Police and security were stationed every few meters, their faces somber and respectful. I stood outside of the synagogue with hundreds of others because the main sanctuary had already been filled to capacity nearly two hours before the actual ceremony. The tears from above and the tears from below came together, the cold rain chilled our bones. I saw some of my campers; we held each as we cried. When they saw me crying, I felt as if they saw me as inviting them to do the same. We stood together, we stand together.

To have told you that because you are a Jew, you should have been at Ezra Schwartz’s funeral this past Sunday, would have been asking a lot of you, not to mention, totally not my place. I went because I knew Ezra from Camp Yavneh, and because my heart felt pulled to go. Not only because I knew him personally, but also, because I am a Jew, and because Ezra’s “Jewishness” is what got him killed (in a terrorist attack last week in the West Bank), and nothing more. But I can tell you that there was once a dream placed before us at Sinai. A dream of a people that no matter what would always stick together, and that these people of the book, The Children of Israel are not just a nation, but a family. As if from, the same mother, we are brothers and sisters.

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Eating Greek at Hanukkah

The Be'chol Lashon Staff, My Jewish Learning, November 16, 2015



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We fought the Greeks and the victory was ours! -traditional Israeli Hanukkah song

Eating Greek at Hanukkah might seem like a contradiction. After all, at Hanukkah time, there is a stark dichotomy drawn between Jews (good) and Greeks (bad). According to the historical account, Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the small band Maccabees over tremendous military forces of the Syrian Greeks led by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The Greek culture, with a focus on idol worship and beauty was a clash with Jewish values. So getting rid of the Greeks, rededicating the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to a monotheistic God was a triumph of good over evil.

But on the flip side of this dichotomy are centuries during which Greek-Jewish flourished with Jews living and thriving in Greece. And the Jewish food of Greece can add so much to Hanukkah celebrations.

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Can I Identify with the Struggles of Others?

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, November 12, 2015



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As a youth, I often felt as if I had two worlds and two cultures that were always with me (Genesis 25:2). Born and raised in Monsey, NY in a context of the Chabad Lubavitch community, with an African-American and Dutch mother who so deeply felt connected to the Jewish mission that she converted nearly 35 years ago, and has officially categorized my siblings as survivors of an Egyptian Slavery, and American one. Today, I am devoting my time to the service of all people and all Jews as a rabbi. No matter the kin, color or creed.

As a Jew of Color, and at times being subject to much speculation as to the source of my Jewish roots, I wonder and still wonder… How has it come to this?

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Jamming in Jerusalem with My Landlady's Husband

Sandra Lawson, My Jewish Learning, November 10, 2015



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My name is Sandra Lawson, and I am rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I'm spending this semester in Israel studying at the Conservative Yeshiva, in Jerusalem. I'm having a great time studying Talmud, Jewish spirituality and Hebrew. I'm learning a lot, but the best part for me is making a real connection with other human beings and it's even more special when this connection happens through music.

Recently, I met the landlady's husband. His name is Michael. He came to collect the rent, and what I thought would be a more formal conversation turned out to be another awesome encounter with a wonderful human being.

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African-American Pioneer Seeks Rabbinic Models

Isaama Stoll, My Jewish Learning, November 3, 2015



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When I was 6 years old I told my parents I was going to become a rabbi. I was blessed to grow up with extremely supportive parents and a community full of great Jewish role models. Nonetheless, there is no one person who inspired me to be a rabbi. I wanted to be a rabbi because I was sure it was my destiny, I felt like it was what God had called me to do.

Now, as a second-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the rabbinate is actually in sight. I spend my weekdays engaged in the academic study of Jewish law and tradition, and many weekends I serve as the student rabbi of B'nai Israel Synagogue in North Dakota. In many respects, rabbinical school is exactly what I hoped it would be, and the affirmation that comes from doing what I am called to do is astounding. This feeling of pursuing a calling to the rabbinate and the affirmation it brings is one I share with many of my colleagues in school and in the field. In fact, just this week I got to learn this first hand as I learned the stories of five remarkable women on whose shoulders I am standing.

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Owning My Identities

Evan Traylor, My Jewish Learning, October 27, 2015



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Since I was a little kid growing up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, I've always known that I was somehow different in the Jewish community. I didn't look like the other kids in Hebrew school. I was the only one to have Black family members at their bar mitzvah ceremony. And I eventually took on the expectation of providing the perspective and feelings of Black people to my Jewish friends in youth group and at camp. And for most of my life, I made the conscious decision to go with the flow. I figured that just letting these things happen and not really questioning their importance or impact on myself would allow me to somehow continue my life as usual.

However, throughout my time at college, I've had incredible professors, organizations, and friends that have challenged me to explore the roots of my past, including my relationships, and how they have shaped my life.

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Not the Jewish James Bond: Parenting in Unchartered Waters

Alex Barnett, My Jewish Learning, October 12, 2015



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I remember the exact moment when I realized I'd never be the Jewish James Bond.

It was right after our son was born four years ago. We were still in my wife's hospital room, and I thought to myself: "well, there goes the globe-trotting, the international intrigue, the fast cars, and the faster women."

Instead it was diapers, daycare, and, now - four years later - answering the question "why?" 14 jillion times a day.

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Embracing A Jewish Henna Wedding Tradition

Natasha Cooper-Benisty, My Jewish Learning, October 7, 2015



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When my then fiance and I were planning our wedding, I told him that I didn't want to circle around him under the chuppah (wedding canopy). His reaction was not what I expected. Instead of him saying, "Okay" or "Why not?," I got something along the lines of, "What are you talking about?"

This was not a man with few religious ties. On the contrary, he was the son of prominent rabbi; however, a Moroccan Sephardic one. In my Askhenazic worldview, I knew next to nothing about Moroccan Jewish ritual, but in fairness, my fiance knew nothing about Ashkenazic traditions. It turned out that he had never been to an Ashkenazic wedding even though he was already in his early 30s. He grew up in a huge family with many siblings and tens of cousins and had lived solely among a variety of ethnic Sephardim when growing up in Beersheva, Israel. In stark contrast, I was born in London and moved to Long Island at age 6 and had barely met any Sephardim stateside. I certainly had never been to a Sephardic life cycle event and in fact, my wedding at the Sephardic Temple on Long Island was my first Sephardic wedding.

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A Family Ritual for Blessing the New Year

Marcia Weingarten, My Jewish Learning, September 9, 2015



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With joy we share our family tradition of "Lavar la Cara" (washing our faces in the ocean). It seems that this tradition combines many elements of two ceremonies. The first is "Tashlich" from the Hebrew "to cast off," referring to the custom of tossing bits of bread in the water to symbolize the casting off of our sins. The second is a healing ritual of the Rhodeslis - those who trace roots to the island of Rhodes, tossing ailments into the ocean and receiving renewed health from the ocean, HaShem and the incantations and blessings of our elders.

Over the generations, our family tradition had been to go to the beach on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Now that we live in disparate parts of Los Angeles, have differing synagogue schedules and levels of observance, our extended families (about 40 of us) come from throughout the greater Los Angeles area and meet at Venice Beach on the Sunday morning between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, bringing our beach chairs and something to share at our informal brunch that follows.

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A New Year: Another New Beginning

Prodezra/Reuben Fromey, My Jewish Learning, September 1, 2015



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If I've learned anything being a black, observant, Jewish Hip-Hop artist, it's that it takes time and patience for something new to be accepted and to catch on. I was told years ago that Rap had no place in the Jewish world and I could never hope to really touch anybody with this kind of music. I wondered, was I being too radical? Did a genre of music that affected me so much for so long stand any chance of being incorporated into the system of Jewish values that inspires and invigorates our connection to the Creator?

At that point in my life, I was embarking on a journey of new beginnings. After a few years of walking a path towards trouble, I was adjusting to living in the Holy Land of Israel, studying at yeshiva, and a whole new outlook on making spirituality an integral part of my everyday life. I prepared myself to be told that this new way of life meant having to turn away from many of the old things. And indeed it did. But what would I do if I was told that my love of creating music, something so dear to me, had to cease? I prepared myself for whatever was to come. After all, it wasn't all about me, but about establishing a new relationship with G-d, on His terms, not mine. Besides, look at the mess I had gotten into by doing it "my way."

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Blessed Are Thou Lord Who Multitasks

Rabbi Juan Mejia, My Jewish Learning, August 25, 2015



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Rosh Hashanah is a magical time. Or at least, we seem to think so. According to the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1.2), on this date "all of creation passes in front of God like sheep in a flock." Our High Holidays liturgy takes this idea of "the Day of Judgement" and runs deep with it. In the Ashkenazi holiday prayer book, the Unetane Tokef painstakingly details the different ways in which God decides on this day how we might die (or live) next year: "Who by fire, and who by water, who by the sword and who by famine." The theological underpinning of this belief is that Rosh Hashanah is a heady textured time in which God is busy with deciding the fate of all creatures for the next year, and that our behavior in this time might swing God's judgment in our favor: "but prayer, charity and repentance annul the severity of the decree."

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Praying with My Feet Because #BlackLivesMatter

Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, August 18, 2015



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What was it like to walk in the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land?

In my own life and in my rabbinate, I often draw on the story of journey from Egypt to the land of Israel. But usually it is a metaphor. This past week, it became much more tangible, literally embodied.

Together with a group of other Jews, including four other rabbis, and a Torah, I participated in the NAACP #JusticeSummer a march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, D.C. The march is raising awareness and highlighting the issues that are still barriers to civil rights: economic inequality, education reform, criminal justice reform and voting rights. The march is being done in 20-mile increments with marchers joining in for as much as they can. There are teach-ins in the evenings and rallies for different causes at each state capital.

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Crossing Borders and Connecting Jews

Stephany Hemelberg, My Jewish Learning, August 13, 2015



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Talking about your country seems like such a simple task: culture, food, costumes and art. But when you come from such a complex country like mine - Colombia - the "simple" categories can disappear. Every single fact has a deep and sometimes tough story to tell.

A few weeks ago, an opportunity presented itself. After a serendipity kind of evolution, I found myself surrounded by young and bright eyes craving knowledge, empathy and with the expectations that always come with something new. I had the opportunity the play the role of "ambassador" of my country at Camp Be'chol Lashon. It was one of the most meaningful experiences I have ever had.

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From Monsey to Istanbul

Tema Smith, My Jewish Learning, July 29, 2015



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Whenever I visit somewhere new, whether in my country of origin or somewhere foreign, I typically stand on the periphery at first to "take it all in." As Friday night services ended at a new place recently, I watched the locals exchange the global sabbatical salutation of Shabbat Shalom (Good Shabbos). Like the usual prayer attendees, friends asked about each other's well being, they exchanged hugs and handshakes, and like any community, they eventually made their way toward the door. Only something was different. No matter their appearance, no matter their observance level, no matter if they were lay-leader or rabbi, one by one they removed their kippot. One by one they tucked away their (tzitzit) fringes. Just as the "Shabbat Shalom" blessing can leave one's lips without much consciousness, so did they remove their kippot i.e. the common external identifier that qualifies them as a Jew.

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On Passing and Not Trying to Pass

Tema Smith, My Jewish Learning, July 22, 2015



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I am black, and I am Jewish.

I've always found comfort in the and of my identity - that simple part of speech that joins together two disparate things: two families, two histories, two cultures, two heritages, two skin colors, two lineages of trauma, two pathways to North America. As the offspring of both, I am equally neither.

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A Rabbi Mourns African American Christians

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, July 16, 2015



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"'…But, mother, I won't be alone. Other children will go with me,

And march the streets of Birmingham to make our country free.' 'No, baby, no, you may not go, for I fear those guns will fire. But you may go to church instead, and sing in the children's choir…'

The mother smiled to know her child, was in the sacred place,

But that smile was the last smile, to come upon her face… She clawed through bits of glass and brick, then lifted out a shoe. 'O, here's the shoe my baby wore, But, baby, where are you?'"

-by Dudley Randall, "Ballad of Birmingham"


Yes…it was arson…

The House of Prayer: A symbol of faith longing for itself in the deepest and darkest of history's many trials, and the home for so many while living homelessly in exile. The sanctuary of dreamers longing for freedom, and the house of refuge for enslaved millions who felt less than human all but in this place, the temples of our peoples, destroyed. These sanctuaries have housed our pain and struggle and have guarded our faith in faith for millennia. And yet, with tremendous sadness, these very same buildings have constantly been under barrage, and the target of our enemies so as to weaken our spirits and ultimately destroy our eternal identity.

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Passing for Black?: Another Perspective

Julius Lester, My Jewish Learning, July 7, 2015



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My maternal great-grandfather was a German Jewish immigrant named Adolph Altschul. His wife was a freed slave woman, Maggie Carson. She was so light-skinned she could have passed for white, and one of Adolph's and Maggie's daughters did when she grew up. In the 1870 census records Adolph and Maggie's names appear. Everyone's race is indicated by a "B" for black, except for Adolph. Beside his name there is a "W" for white. Even though he was white and Maggie could have passed for white, they chose to live in the black community.

Part of my childhood was spent in Kansas City, Kansas, during the time when that city, of all the ones in Kansas, chose segregation. My father was a minister, and in his church there were two women named "White.:" One was referred to as "Miz White," the other as "Miz White White." Miz White was black; Miz White White was white. She was not married to a black man, and I do not know why she chose to live in the black community. But she did, and she was accepted as one of us.

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Praying For My Children After Charleston

Marcella White Campbell, My Jewish Learning, June 29, 2015



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Week after week, I light two small candles. I move behind my children and put one hand on each of their heads and I begin my prayer: Y'varech'cha Adonai V'yishmerecha. I ask that they be blessed and kept safe, favored and granted peace. I kiss each child on the forehead, oldest to youngest, as if my kiss affords them my own protection, and then give them into the keeping of a new week, bending towards a new Shabbat, where I will give them this blessing again.

It is an incredible act of hope, celebrating the week that has come and anticipating a week we are sure will follow. Shabbat after Shabbat, I have asked and prayed that my children be safe in the week to come.

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Young Jews: Every Voice Matters

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, June 24, 2015



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"For they (the teachings) are our life source, and what lengthen our days, and so we meditate on them day and night."- Siddur

This past week I arrived at Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire. It is my first time at a summer camp. Not knowing anyone or what to expect, I was surprised to hear my name being called. It turned out some of the graduating seniors from a high school class I taught were at camp. They ran over, hugged me, and asked if I would facilitate a meditation session - like I have previously done for them on high school retreats. A little flustered as the "newbie" at camp, I knew that if Jewish youth are asking from something Jewish, I have a responsibility to say yes. Soon after their counselor asked if the whole group could join, and before I knew it, I had 40 new friends!

We sat in a circle, began with a story, sang a few songs and began our journey through our breath and prayer, i.e. Jewish meditation. The primary aim of meditation, I told them, is to help one center and align their mind, body and spirit, in hope of reaching to the core of who we are as people. Ultimately, this practice can guide a person to their inner selves in a way that can be unfamiliar, but most valuable. I told them that not often enough do we hear our own voice, in our Jewish communities. I told them, that as the leaders of the future generation, they must find their voice, for if they don't, fragmented and disconnected realities will eventually surface.

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Reb Zalman en los Andes

Rabbi Juan Mejia , My Jewish Learning, June 22, 2015



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Esta historia comienza como un antiguo cuento jasídico. Un maskil (un defensor de la reforma racional del judaísmo de acuerdo a los principios del iluminismo) es obligado renuentemente a visitar a un rebbe jasídico. En la Europa oriental de antaño, estos encuentros rara vez terminaban bien. Los maskilim rechazaban al jasidismo como charlatanería mística para las masas, mientras que los jasidim veían a los maskilim como herejes elitistas obcecados en extraer toda la magia del judaísmo. En este caso, el rebbe era Reb Zalman y el maskil este servidor. Mi función era la de servir como traductor simultáneo para un yejidus, una entrevista íntima, entre Reb Zalman y un agradecido estudiante latinoamericano, el Dr. Juan Jiménez Bravo. Algunos años atrás, el movimiento de Renovación Judía (Jewish Renewal) había recibido a la comunidad del Dr. Jiménez y la había afiliado a su organización. Esto es notable ya que la comunidad del Dr. Jiménez, Beth Etz Chaim, no es una javurá suburbana de baby boomers en los Estados Unidos sino una sinagoga empotrada en la cima de los Andes peruanos cuyos miembros se han convertido al judaísmo.

En su mayor parte los miembros de Beth Etz Chaim son descendientes de tercera y cuarta generación de judíos polacos y rusos -en su mayoría hombres- que llegaron a la ciudad de Huánuco en Perú durante la "fiebre del caucho", la bonanza cauchera en la Amazonía a comienzos del siglo veinte. Perdidos en las montañas, estos judíos se casaron con la población local y su judaísmo casi desapareció. Cuatro generaciones después, sus descendientes están reclamando su fe.

Lejos de ser una rareza, la experiencia de Beth Etz Chaim está siendo replicada en ciudades y pueblos a través de América Latina. Ya sea reclamando un judaísmo ancestral perdido y queriendo reafirmar su identidad o simplemente buscando al judaísmo como una forma de vida plena de sentido, miles de latinoamericanos se han convertido (o en ciertos casos revertido) al judaísmo. La mayoría de ellos, incapaces de integrarse a las comunidades establecidas existentes, han optado por crear sus propias comunidades. El establecimiento judío en todas sus denominaciones, tanto local como internacionalmente, ha sido reticente a darle una mano o abrirle las puertas a estas "comunidades emergentes". Y, como siempre, Reb Zalman se adelantó al futuro cuando, seis años atrás, permitió la afiliación de Beth Etz Chaim al movimiento de Renovación Judía. Al escuchar que el rebbe estaba muy enfermo, mi amigo el Dr. Jiménez, quería agradecer personalmente a Reb Zalman por abrirles las puertas.

Beth Etz Chaim hoy en día

Nuestra conversación, la cual ocurrió un par de meses antes del fallecimiento de Reb Zalman, fue breve y llena de interrupciones. Skype no se portõ bien. Todo tenía que ser dicho dos veces: en inglés y en espaथol y vice versa. Y a pesar de ello, Reb Zalman escuchaba de verdad. Sonriendo mientras el Dr. Jiménez hablaba, repitiendo las palabras en español que entendía, y cuando yo traducía su sonrisa se iluminaba expansivamente. Aunque no entendía la mayoría de lo que el primer interlocutor decía, Reb Zalman nos hizo sentir a ambos profunda y activamente escuchados y tranquilos.

Más impresionante que su compasión, concentrada como un láser, fue su sorprendente intuición. Tras escuchar la historia de la comunidad, su aislamiento y la discriminación que han tenido que combatir, Reb Zalman tomó una breve pausa, respiró lentamente por sus tubos de oxígeno, y en diez minutos procedió a aconsejar al Dr. Jiménez sobre el futuro de su comunidad. Y a pesar de que las características de esta comunidad son bastante singulares y fuera del area de pericia de la mayoría de rabinos, Reb Zalman fue extremadamente acertado en determinar sus necesidades y deseos. Lo que a muchos activistas nos ha tomado décadas de experiencia de campo, Reb Zalman intuyó en diez minutos de escucha intencional. Estos son, en resumen, los tres consejos que nos dio ese día.

Las bendiciones del aislamiento: muchas comunidades emergentes lamentan no tener una conexión confiable con el establecimiento judío, tanto en sus países de origen como internacionalmente. Reconociendo la necesidade de establecer conexiones judías, Reb Zalman comentó sobre la gran ventaja que tienen las comunidades emergentes en comenzar su judaísmo sin muchos de los prejuicios y los traumas de las corrientes principales del judaísmo. Un judaísmo global, especialmente después de la Shoá, necesita judíos menos cargados de miedo y de dolor. Necesitamos judíos que puedan traer un poco de alegría de vuelta al judaísmo. En su opinión, los latinoamericanos estamos providencialmente bien dotados para esta labor.

Cuidado con las marcas: Cuando le comentamos a Reb Zalman que muchas comunidades emergentes estaban peleando entre ellas sobre qué patrón judáico seguir, ashkenazí o sefaradí, jasídico o liberal, prorrumpió en risa. La verdadera fuerza de estas comunidades está, nos dijo, en crear un un judaísmo renovado que cuadre orgánicamente con su temperamento, con su gastronomía y su música; un judaísmo que descolle en los sabores y colores del entorno de la comunidad. Las comunidades emergentes tienen a su disposición toda la sabiduría judía y la tecnología espiritual (especialmente en esta era virtual), éste ciertamente debe ser el punto de partida. Pero a dónde llegue cada comunidad partiendo de estos bloques básicos está en sus manos y en las del Ribbono shel Olam, el Amo del Universo. A fin de cuentas, nos dijo, el modelo más exitoso de crecimiento es ser consecuente con la propia naturaleza. (Incidentalmente al discutir esto, me hizo dar cuenta que él había tenido la idea de usar ponchos como talitot casi tres décadas antes de que yo.)

Sed visibles y valientes: en una era interconectada, las comunidades emergentes se harían un gran daño si se quedasen acobardadas en una esquina esperando a "hacer lo correcto" antes de salir a la luz pública. La torá y forma de ser judío que emerge de las montañas de Perú o de las playas del Caribe puede ser justamente lo que necesita una comunidad en Israel o en los Estados Unidos para inspirarse, o vice versa. Las comunidades emergentes deben usar todas las herramientas disponibles, especialmente aquellas de acceso global, para compartir su visiõn del judaísmo con el mundo y para conectarse a esa matriz orgánica de creencias y prácticas del pueblo judío en las que cada comunidad y generación es tanto un consumidor como un productor.

En retrospectiva, es claro que su consejo no es sólo relevante para las comunidades emergentes sino también tiene un alcance universal. Yo quedé muy impresionado por mi conversación con Reb Zalman, y me entristecí grandemente cuando oí de su deceso unos meses después. Y a pesar de seguir siendo un maskil y todavía muy lejos de ser un jasid, la visión de Reb Zalman sobre las comunidades que sirvo ha sido una guía importante para mi trabajo desde entonces. En este aniversario de su partida, esta preciosa torá debe ser compartida con todos aquellos que estén listos para recibirla.

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Reb Zalman in the Andes

Rabbi Juan Mejia , My Jewish Learning, June 22, 2015



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This pieces is being published on the yahrzeit of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory, may his teachings endure.

It begins like an old Hasidic story. A reluctant maskil (a defender of the rational reform of Judaism, an "enlightener") is strong-armed into visiting a chasidic rebbe. In Eastern Europe of yore, these meetings seldom ended well. Maskilim rejecting Hasidism as mystical hogwash for the masses, chasidim regarding maskilim as elitist heretics bent on zapping all magic out of Judaism.

In this case, the rebbe was Reb Zalman and the maskil was myself. I was to serve as the translator for a virtual yechidus, an intimate one-on-one meeting, between Reb Zalman and a grateful Latin American student, Dr. Juan Jimenez Bravo. Some years before, the Renewal movement had received Dr. Jimenez's community and affiliated them as one of their own. This is noteworthy because Dr. Jimenez's community, Beith Etz Chaim, is not a suburban chavurah of baby boomers but a synagogue high up in the Peruvian Andes whose members are all converts to Judaism.

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Fathers - Look for those (Jewish) teaching moments

Noah Leavitt, My Jewish Learning, June 15, 2015



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"Hey Buddy!"

Whenever I hear that term, so common coming from the lips of dads in my generation, I invariably pause to reflect on the Fifth Commandment which instructs children to honor their parents ("kibbud av va-em"). Will a child whose father calls him (or, almost as frequently, her) "Buddy" come to regard that parent with the undercurrent of awe that Judaism deems appropriate?

For some reason, I have been particularly sensitive to this use of language this spring.

Maybe this awareness has to do with passing the two decade mark since my own father's death. As one of our town's few ophthalmologists, he worked long days and often on weekends and I still recall how much I treasured the times when he was at home or when we could go on a family vacation together or when he helped me prepare my bar mitzvah ceremony. After more than 20 years - nearly half of my life - I work hard to hang on to some of what he taught me about responsibility, persistence, supporting a family, adhering to an ancient religious tradition, taking care of community needs. And, while I recognize how many details I have forgotten, I know for certain that he never referred to me in this way.

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Born Jewish or Not, You Matter

Elle Shayna Wisnicki, My Jewish Learning, June 8, 2015



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I'm a convert. I converted. I wasn't "BORN" Jewish, whatever the heck that means.

The way I look - my golden complexion and the abundance of ringlet curls on my head - combined with the difference in my upbringing have always challenged my place in society and even in the Jewish community. It brings me joy to say that actually, I feel more accepted today than ever before, but that's not how it always was.

It's hard being a little girl. Being born with a vagina isn't always the easiest, especially being of color in a "non-traditional" family. I was raised with a single mom in Hollywood. I attended a private school in Los Angeles' infamous valley but lived a very urban life with my filmmaker mom. I lived between black and white and didn't really have any sense of grounded identity, which created a lot of self-doubt and issues that manifested particularly in middle school and probably still have effects today. I continually faced people who told me, "You're not Jewish because your mom's not Jewish," which angered me because it denied me of my own identification and reminded me that my parents aren’t together, and that many viewed my existence as illegitimate.

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Seamlessly Chinese and Jewish

Davi Yael-Cheng, My Jewish Learning, June 1, 2015



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Recently at work, one of my co-workers, who is a Chinese originally from Taiwan, stopped by my desk to ask me a question. He spotted the calendar on my desk.

"You have a Jewish calendar," he said.

"Yes?" I replied.

"A Jewish calendar?" he asked again.

"I am Jewish," I said.

He looked at me and smiled, "You are? Really?"

"Yes, I am Jewish"

"Really? You are Jewish?"


"Really?" he asked again.

This has been my normal experience, people Jews and non-Jews alike would ask me exactly three times if I am really Jewish when I tell them that I am Jewish.

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Jewish Pirates and Other Treasures

Marcella White Campbell, My Jewish Learning, May 27, 2015



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It's the end of the summer, and my children are educating me about Jewish pirates.

"They lived in the Caribbean in the 16th and 17th centuries," my teenage daughter insists. "Hebrew was their secret language, because no one else around them spoke it."

"And," my ten-year-old son adds, "they never raided on Shabbat.

The kids go off to draw pictures of Jewish pirates. I may have trouble wrapping my mind around the concept, but it doesn't occur to me to ask where the children learned about Sabbath-observing buccaneers. I can already guess: camp.

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How to Welcome the Stranger: A Modern Midrash

Rabbi Juan Mejia, My Jewish Learning, May 18, 2015



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1 in 6 contemporary Jews are new to Judaism. How are we supposed to welcome these converts? Rabbi Juan Mejia, a convert himself, provides a modern reading of the biblical story of Ruth to find some guidance.

An uneasy minyan stands at the gates of Bethlehem. The sun gilds the fields covered in grain, and every one of them eagerly wants to return to his harvest. The case at hand: the redemption of Elimelech's field. Elimelech had left many years ago, during a famine, to live across the Dead Sea in the land of Moab. Tragically, Elimelech died without leaving an heir, his sons having perished as well without having children, and his land must be redeemed by his closest relatives. Someone from the family must take care of the land and purchase it from the widow.

The closest kin is offered the land. He gladly accepts to buy it. Then Boaz reveals the catch: "When you acquire the property from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabite, you must also acquire the wife of the deceased, so as to perpetuate the name of the deceased upon his state." (Ruth 4:5) The man freezes where he stands. Me? Marry THAT woman? A Moabite?! Stuttering, he backs down: "Then I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own estate. You, Boaz, take over my right of redemption." (4:6)

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A Real Cuban Mojito

Jennifer Stempel, My Jewish Learning, May 11, 2015



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The first time I tasted a mojito, and I mean really tasted a mojito, I was in Havana with my family, and my dad had whisked me away to a local hotspot after a long, sweaty day of delivering humanitarian aid to those in need. That night was particularly warm, and the cool drink refreshed me from the trials of the day. I remember the salsa music playing in the air and watching through the open windows as the locals danced til their hearts content. This was the taste of Cuba I had heard so much about from my mother's stories.

These days, my volunteer work includes a more local approach with my participation in the Los Angeles Jewish community as the leader of the young adult group at my synagogue, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. When our new rabbi approached me about an idea for a Cuban-themed Shabbat dinner, I knew exactly which elements would help bring authenticity to the table. Rum, music, and dancing, of course!

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My Jewish Mother the Hero

Alyssa Bracha McMillan, My Jewish Learning, May 5, 2015



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My family has always been the foundation of my life. I have very strong bonds with both my parents. Over the years, I have come to appreciate how my parents raised me based on their life experiences. My parents have been married for 33 years, and I always look to them for guidance and support. I think of them as my heroes. Although I think of my dad as a hero as well, since it is Mother's Day, I'd like to highlight the reasons that I think my mother is a hero.

My mom is my hero because she has the strength to accomplish the seemingly impossible. In 1975, as one of the top students in the state, she was forced to drop out of college to make ends meet. She was sleeping from couch to couch when finally someone took her in. Around this time, she got a job working for GM on the production line. After being laid off for a few years, she said that enough was enough and went back to working as an apprentice electrician. However, on the day she was supposed to take her tests for her journeyman certification, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She told the doctor, "Hold that thought. I don't have time for this right now. I have two finals that I must take, and I'll deal with this diagnosis after I take my final." My mom ended up scoring the highest grade on the test and earned the right to call herself a journeyman electrician. She was then transferred to a factory called Pontiac Truck and Bus, also known as Pontiac Assembly Center, where she was subject to extreme racist and sexist attacks and threats of violence (I don't want to get started about the years of lawsuits my family went through). Due to these conditions, my mom was forced to retire, after almost 30 years with GM. Furthermore, due to the stress from work, her MS was exacerbated and she was forced to use mobility aids to move around.

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My Chinese Daughter's Jewish Roots

Cantor Jodi Schechtman, My Jewish Learning, April 28, 2015



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This is the final in a short series on adoption in Jewish families. Enjoy!

In 1988, I had my entire life completely worked out. I was ordained as a cantor, married the love of my life and moved from New York to a community just west of Boston. We would live in Massachusetts for a couple of years as I got my career going; then we would have a couple of babies and move back to NY and raise our kids near our families. We plan. God laughs.

By 1994, my husband and I had gone through thousands of dollars of fertility treatments and had experienced the physical and emotional devastation of five miscarriages. My sixth time expecting turned out to be an ectopic pregnancy which ruptured and resulted into being rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. When I awoke from the surgery, I was ready to find out when we could begin trying again. But my husband was at my bedside and said the following words, "That's it. No more. I'm not losing you over this. Now we're going to look into adoption."

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Uncovering Awe and Joy in Israel

Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, April 23, 2015



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"Ima, I'm eating breakfast. It tastes like home. I want to live here forever."

The simplicity and joy of my daughter's phone call from her first morning in Israel keeps replaying in my head. It is a balm on my soul and a window into the blessing that is the State of Israel.

Today, Israel celebrates 67 years since its founding. For many, the initial thrill that a Jewish state could possibly come into existence has given way to the complex realities of nation building, security, economic growth and world politics. And these complexities have opened up nuances and ambivalences.

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Eating Bacon?

Janaki Kuruppu, My Jewish Learning, April 21, 2015



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"Did you like bacon before you were Jewish?"

This question from one or both of my sons comes up periodically, at the dinner table, or in the car. There often seems no clear context to the question. It just pops up, now and then.

I generally answer "Yes, I did, but I don't really want to eat bacon now. There are other things that I used to eat that aren't kosher, that I really do miss."

"Like what?", the questioner will ask.

"Well, like crab cake (a specialty of the state I have resided in for most of my Jewish life), or eel sushi, or blue cheese on hamburgers." I usually reply.

"What about pepperoni pizza?", asks our younger son, who is currently fascinated with pepperoni pizza, and feels that this restriction is the ultimate deprivation of kashrut.

"No, I never really liked pepperoni pizza." I usually neglect to mention that a favorite of my childhood was a Hawaiian pizza - ham and pineapple on a bed of cheese. Yum!

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A Letter to My Son

Gal Adam Spinrad, My Jewish Learning, April 15, 2015



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To My Beautiful Son,

Two years ago today we met for the first time. You were two days old, and we had known about you for just one day, since the adoption agency director had come to find me the day before to tell me that a baby had been born whom she believed was meant to be our son

Two years ago today I met your father in the hospital lobby - I was coming from work and he was coming from school. We walked into the same hospital we had walked out of together just two years before - after I delivered the twins who had stopped growing inside me - heavy with grief in spite of how hollow I felt, into the grey cold snow of Midwestern winter. In the moment we walked back in to meet you - hopeful, excited, curious, nervous - the wound from that day two years before healed more completely. Because of the gift of you.

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My Daughter is as Beautiful as a Doll

Rabbi Tziona Szajman, My Jewish Learning, April 8, 2015



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As a child I was pretty dissatisfied with my hair. It was neither straight nor curly. It was neither blond nor brown. It didn't look like the hair of the women I saw on TV or in magazines. It didn't swish in a ponytail and bits always stuck up on picture day.

Years later, a friend told me that her biracial daughter hated her African hair. The child wanted her hair to look like Barbie. Perhaps it was my own hair issues at play but I felt compelled to search high and low for a Barbie with natural African American hair, found a collector's version, and paid an exorbitant price to buy it. Alas, the child didn't like the doll. She said it was ugly.

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Passover and the Need for Wiser Questions

Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, March 24, 2015



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In college, David Abusch-Magder (then David Abusch) decided to take a class in African dance. Over the years he had watched every semester as the class was often held outside. People seemed to be having fun and the movement was so easy and fluid.

His experience comes to mind each year at Passover when we read in the Haggadah (Passover prayer book) that there are four children, the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one that cannot even ask. My husband David, of the aforementioned story, who is now a Jewish educator, often teaches about these differences to help remind us about the different types of learners we need to be able to reach to be successful in Jewish education.

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Passover, 70 Years After the Liberation

Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, March 24, 2015



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"It was the day before Passover, and our Division Chaplain, of the 42nd Rainbow Division sent out a notice that we were going to have Passover Services. I got two other Jewish GIs and went, joining about 100 other GIs, and to my amazement out came dozens of Jewish civilians who had been in hiding and were crying with joy. For the first time in a few years to be free to have Passover, it really touched me and made me feel I was very sad and yet happy that we were helping. Fellow Jewish GIs back at our base continued to celebrate our own Passover with some Kosher Salami and Matzos that my wife Sophie sent to me the day before Passover started. Plus very delicious French wine I had learned to acquire."

This was the story that Isaac S. Morhaime, would tell every Passover. He did not need to live Passover "as though" he had come out of Egypt. He had seen liberation with his own eyes. 70 years ago, as part of the 42nd Rainbow Division, Morhaime had helped to liberate Dachau outside of Munich just a month after the celebration of that modest but poignant Seder.

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Celebrating Passover Around the World

Maya Resnikoff , My Jewish Learning, March 16, 2015



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According to legend, at Passover Elijah the Prophet visits ever Seder table around the world. As he travels he must marvel at the diversity of traditions that can be found in different communities and regions. These global traditions provide wonderful ways to prompt new questions and interest at any Seder.

While many communities use a special Seder plate to hold the edible and visual supplies for their Seder, Persian and Yemenite Jews place the different items directly on the table, or in small bowls in front of each person, so that they surround the participants, creating a truly immersive environment. Others use a basket covered with a decorated cloth to hold all the different ritual items, as do the Jews of Tunisia, so that they are ready to take them off the table and leave Egypt right away-it adds to the feeling of reenacting the Exodus.

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Colombia: Encountering the Other, Finding Ourselves

Vanderbilt Hillel, My Jewish Learning, March 11, 2015



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Pining for adventure? Missing the warmth and the sun? The Bechol Lashon/Vanderbilt Hillel Student Trip to Colombia combined both together with some incredible life lessons.

Day 1: "Bienvenidos a Bogotá" the capital of Colombia, the thriving heartbeat of a vibrant nation, a city full of exciting people, and traffic. We met our Be'chol Lashon guide, Aryeh. Then it was off to visit Monserrate, the towering peak that overlooks Bogotá like a watchful sentinel. We were rewarded with spectacular views of the entire city sprawled out before us. At the Bogotá Chabad house, we experienced Shabbat services before digging in to a mouthwatering feast, complete with plenty of Hebrew songs and "l'chaims." For many of us, it was a welcome reminder of the type of uniquely Jewish revelry we'd all enjoyed as children. (Gideon Ticho)

Day 2: The experience we shared at the Conservative synagogue, Asociación Israelita Montefiore, opened our eyes to a completely new Jewish perspective. We spoke to Adriano who taught us about what it is like to not only be a Colombian Jew, but also what it is like to be a "converso," someone who converted to Judaism, in Bogotá. We also learned about new Jewish communities that are forming in other Colombian cities! Once Shabbat was officially over, we went out with Colombian Jewish students! We learned not only what it is like to be a Colombian Jew, but also what it is like to be a young Jewish person in Colombia! (Erika Slepian)

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This Passover Choose Judaism

Alex Barnett, My Jewish Learning, March 10, 2015



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My wife and I are an interracial couple. I am a White, Ashkenazi Jewish man from New York. She is a Black woman from Detroit, raised in the Lutheran faith, who converted (to Jewish, not to White. She's still Black). Our 3 year old Biracial son is Jewish.

When I talk about my wife's conversion, rather than saying she converted I like to say that she's Jewish by choice. I do this because conversion sounds like the process by which a sofa becomes an uncomfortable bed. Or it sounds like something that happens by magic. I wave my magic wand and "poof" you're Jewish. Whereas being a Jewish person by choice requires a conscious affirmative decision.

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At Purim, We Shall Overcome

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, March 3, 2015



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This past week I had the pleasure of attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. With inspiring speakers, expressions of hope and dreams for a better world, and an unflinching defense for the State of Israel, I felt a deep pride to be a Jew during the only time since Alexander the Great, that Jewish community in the Diaspora was able to partner with the foreign governments-this is historical. Last night though, as I walked out of the convention center, dozens of people with their anti-Israel sentiments, signs, and slurs called me a murderer, called me a Nazi, called me a an animal. As I walked through the groups, some I tried to speak too, but my words had no voice, and my reasoning was beyond the possible, and so, myself along with a just five of my Jewish brothers and sisters (including Rabbi Shmuely Boteach) started to sing.

We stood with each other in solidarity in a sea of peering hatred. We stood in prayer, we stood for the thousands of years that our people were killed before they could even utter a breath-we stand, because we can, we stand because in every generation we are commanded to. Our Freedom Song, our story to tell is a story of every generation, and this time, it will be heard. It is a story that speaks not only to the heart of the Jewish nation, but to all nations, all peoples.

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Purim in Paradise, from Nashville to the Caribbean

Rabbi Juan Mejia, My Jewish Learning, March 2, 2015



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Imagine Purim crystal clear and warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. No need for warm costumes or shoveling out the entrance to the synagogue. This week not one but two Jewish communities will have the opportunity to do just that, in a modern and multicultural celebration of an ancient Jewish holiday.

The blue sea is the only backdrop the Jews of Santa Marta Colombia have ever known to Purim and other Jewish holidays. They are an emerging community made up exclusively of Caribbean converts who, in the past decade, have built a small but strong chavurah, prayer community. Generally they are on their own when it comes to Jewish life. But this week, students from Vanderbilt University Hillel are joining them.

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But Can You Pick Your Family?

Lindsey Newman, My Jewish Learning, February 25, 2015



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"Usually I would say I want to go to camp to see all my old friends, but to be honest they are not friends. They are FAMILY! Every summer I count down the days until I go to camp because it's that exciting. Every year I learn something new about myself. Camp Be'chol Lashon is my second home, and I can't wait to go back this summer. I am always making new friends that I will probably know for a lifetime."
-Camper, age 12 Camp Be'chol Lashon

"You can pick your nose, you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family." - My father

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How Kosher is "Kosher Soul?"

Robin Washington, My Jewish Learning, February 2, 2015


©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: Richard Knapp


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What could be funnier than a black man marrying a white woman?

Before you say "Loving v. Virginia," hold on, there's more: Make that a white Jewish woman. Isn't that a stitch?

If same-sex marriage in Alabama hasn't convinced you we might actually be in 2015, the premiere of the Lifetime reality show, Kosher Soul, arrives Feb. 25 to dutifully turn back the clock.

"Opposites attract," the show's promos blare, suggesting the protagonists might just be different species. A freelance stylist, Miriam Sternoff, 38, grew up Jewish in Seattle. O'Neal McKnight, 39, her stand-up comedian fiancé, is African American from Lynchburg, S.C. With cameras following their every antic, the pair slapstick their cultures together on the way to their wedding day.

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The King's Gate

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, February 19, 2015



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"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." -Viktor E. Frankl

This idea came from a Holocaust survivor, no less, who decided in the death camps that he can determine the fate of his inner world, and later suggested in his book Man's Search for Meaning that your identity does not need to depend on what is going on around you, and that you can control the spirit's choice as how to respond to any given the situation. Indeed, also under the harshest realities of the African slave-trade, what did many of them do? They stood above their oppressors by singing soul songs, Spirituals, to channel their souls cry of inner yearning. Yes, while in the net of captivity, the heart soared with the eagle's eyes protecting the soul, but what about the lions kinship to protect their physical freedoms? Would the spirituals freedoms be enough?

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Welcoming the Bride Modern Style

Lior Ben-Hur, My Jewish Learning, February 17, 2015



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Since I released my latest music video, "Boee Kala", many friends, fellow musicians, and community members have asked me questions regarding to the meaning of the song, its title, the choice of location for shooting the video as well as my personal connection to the text.

The song title relates to my own Jewish roots. While 'L'cha Dodi' is the common Jewish title used for this old liturgical Piyut (written by the well-known 16th century poet, Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz, I discovered that Iraqi Jews used the title 'Boee Kala' for the poem. Therefore, I chose to use the traditional, Iraqi song title to be true and highlight to my Iraqi-Jewish heritage.

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The Rabbi, The Pastor and the Torah of Mankind

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, February 12, 2015



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The baggage claim at the airport in Gondar, Ethiopia is still by far the most humorous way I have yet to collect my luggage after flying. A massive crate is hauled from the plane and dumped into a heaping pile of blues, blacks and greys, with all the creative markings to let each person know which bag belonged to them. As we all pushed and pulled bags aside looking for our own, I noticed other farengie-Amharic for light skinned people, claim their belongings. Though a few glared at my kippah and Tzizit in perplexity, I was used to it, and smiled in return. Later that night, as I walked from my hotel-room for dinner I passed by an open room and looked inside while passing. I noticed some of the same people from the airport! Before I was even a meter away from their door, one calls out "execuse me, man from the airport!" I turn back and stand at their doorway and begin interacting with them around global service.

It turned out they were on service trip as a part of their church from New Orleans, and the room that I was neighboring was the pastor herself! She exclaimed "I didn't know that Jews like yourself do work like this!" I told her all about the organization my cohort was representing, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and how this organization has been honored by many high ranking officials for their work in the region, she was delighted. We exchanged words of Torah, discussed the power of religious values in helping the underserved populations around the world. Before leaving, I shook her hand and kissed my own. When asking me why I kissed my hand, I asked her: "what does one do when they drop the Bible on the floor?" she quickly responded with a smile and thanked me. I said the Bible has God in it, and so do you, to that I turned to leave and said "we are in this together."

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Does Selma Deserve an Oscar? Ask Butch and Sundance

Robin Washington, My Jewish Learning, February 9, 2015



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With the Wild West fading and the railway men closing in, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid head for the untamed terrain of Bolivia to continue a string of bank and payroll robberies, (spoiler alert) only to meet their end when an entire army descends on them.

Except it didn't happen that way. It was Argentina, not Bolivia, where they lived as comfortable ranchers for a few years until Pinkerton's finally caught up with them, leading to a single, less-than-successful jaunt to Bolivia for a holdup that culminated in a murder-suicide at their own hands.

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Created In G-d's Image

Paige Jones DeYoung, My Jewish Learning, February 4, 2015



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L'chaim - to life, but to celebrate without knowing, would merely divert those from seeing my true being. You see, what you see is nothing short of brilliance, of strength, of success and triumph. But that is something that took decades to discover.

My entire life has been surrounded by the question, what are you? Rather than who are you? And though they say your past makes your present it was never a present hearing that question.

My personal favorite, are you like actually Jewish? Because we were just wondering what you are because I mean, obviously you don't look Jewish.

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Balanced Like the Trees

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, January 28, 2015



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"He (Moses) said: "If you will listen diligently to the voice of HaShem, your God, and you will do what is just in His eyes, and you will give ear to His commandments and observe all His statues, then any of the diseases that I placed upon Egypt, I will not place upon you, for I am HaShem your Healer (Exodus 16:26)."

When God originally created the world, there was neither order nor disorder, it simply just was. Darkness and light shared the same time and space, the world was filled with chaos, and the physical realm was void of all order (Genesis 1:2). It was then that the Holy One spent the week ahead, a busy workweek it was! defining the boundaries of the universe, creating balance, creating Shabbat.

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For Afro-Yiddish Performer, the Past is not Past

Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, My Jewish Learning, January 27, 2015



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"The past is never dead. It's not even past…"

When William Faulkner wrote these words in Requiem for a Nun, I'm pretty certain he didn't have a formerly opera-singing African-American performer of Yiddish in mind. Nonetheless, for me Faulkner's words still manage to apply.

I spend most of my time dealing with one past or another. There's my ethnic past and present as an African-American. There's my acquired past as a convert to Judaism and a Jewish educator. And finally, there's the past in my work as artist: previously as an opera singer and presently as a performer of Yiddish. In my professional life, I've impersonated everything from an 18th-century Spanish peasant to a Union soldier to a shtetl shames calling Jews to prayer. My future seems firmly rooted in the past, and I thoroughly enjoy it.

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The World of Jewish Music

Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker, My Jewish Learning, January 22, 2015



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There is a myth that Jewish music is "always in a minor key," and often echoes themes of pieces like "Hava Nagila" and "Kol Nidrei." So last spring when I met with Judi Lamble, the coordinator and Michael Olsen, the conductor of the Twin Cities Jewish Choral, we knew that a global Jewish music concert was the best way to debunk the myth!

Because Jews have settled in countries around the world throughout history and have adopted the sounds, tastes and customs of their host countries, our music has often taken on the styles of the countries we have lived in. So it is not unusual to have a Jewish folk song that sounds like a Yugoslavian dance, a "L'cha Dodi" that rocks to an African beat, or a love song written in Ladino, which grew out of Medieval Spanish.

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My Big Happy Greek-Ashkenazi Family

Adam Kofinas, My Jewish Learning, January 20, 2015



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When I was in Israel this fall, I ended up going to a Sephardic synagogue one Shabbat morning, and served as the impromptu teacher for the rest of my group who very clearly had never been to a non-Ahskenazic Synagogue and were unfamiliar with the unique and different customs, tunes, and liturgical readings that came along with the shul. The following shabbat, I found myself in a traditional Ashkenazi shul, like any you would find here in the US, and was fully able to participate in the davening. I was able to successfully pass in both communities.

In reflecting on my experiences, I was reminded of a line that I heard from time to time growing up, "so your dad is Greek and your mom's Jewish," an assumption that was wholly incorrect. I am the product of an intermarriage of sorts, but not the kind you're probably thinking of. My mother's family hails from various parts of Eastern Europe, and my dad's family comes from Greece, and all sides of my family are historically Jewish. When I explain this, I usually get the line, "so then that makes you Sephardic right?" Not exactly. The Greek Jews that I descend from are called Romaniote, with a history in Greece dating back to Roman times. According to the legend, when the Romans were sending slave ships back to Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple (so around 70-80 CE), one of the ships hit some sort of rock and was sinking. The captain of the ship let the slaves free, saying if they could swim to shore, they were free to go. They ended up coming ashore on the coast of Greece, and thus followed thousands of years of history, unique liturgy, tunes, and foods.

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A Lesson from Moses to Martin Luther King Jr.

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, January 14, 2015



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During my childhood, I never understood why I found myself needing to adapt differently depending on which parent I was walking with: my black mother, or my white father. But then the stares grew longer, the presumptuous comments and questions never seemed to fall-short of an insult, and well, as a family we learned to know when to guard, deflect or just turn around and walk out the door.

It's one thing when an individual discriminates against you, but it's whole other thing when it's a group or community. When a community, organization or country perpetuate distant values of discrimination, it sticks, and becomes a part of who you are, your DNA.

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'Selma' A Jewish Take

Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, January 8, 2015



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This week I had the privilege of viewing an early showing of 'Selma,' a movie about the historical events that took place in Alabama during the summer of 1965. The bombing of the 16th St. Church, in which 4 young girls were killed in 1963 and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were not far from the public consciousness then. And the battle between hate and rights that unfolded that summer in Selma changed the course of American history in profound and essential ways.

There are those who will and have already begun to quibble with the historicity of "Selma" but as a white rabbi who trained as a historian and has devoted the last five years to civil right in the Jewish community through my work at Be'chol Lashon, it is my hope that ALL Americans, no matter race or religion go to see the film.

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We Need More than a Sneeze

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, December 31, 2014



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Before attaining my Master of Social Work, I had the honor of helping many sick people live out their final months comfortable in hospice. Clients passed away, loved ones wailed as the coffin is lowered, and me, the social work intern, was left to support, love, guide, facilitate. Out of all of the things I have learned (so far) in this capacity, the most compelling is that the fragility of life calls to the healthy to breathe deeply, laugh loudly. Let the sobriety of personal grit and ambition keep you sensitive to what life has in store for you.

Easier said than done.

Regardless of age, the thought that lays at the base and forefront of most human consciousness is the uncertainty as to what will become of our existence. A person may be an established teacher, CEO or other sorts of professionals, and may have eloquent and intellectual capacities, and even have the riches of a king but no matter what they achieve, each and every person carries an unknown fate - we do not know when we will die. The billions of eulogies throughout world history cause the same emotional response in the listeners. As the deceased is lowered in the ground, we wonder, "what will become of me?"

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My Magen David, My Identity

Beth Leibson, My Jewish Learning, December 30, 2014



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My daughter Maya and I had been walking along 125th Street in Harlem, past the larger-than-life statue of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., pastor, politician, and Civil Rights activist; the Studio Museum of contemporary African art; and the landmark Apollo Theater that launched so many careers. Somewhere along the way, we saw an enormous American flag, all in red, green, and black, the African American colors.

"Hey wouldn't it be cool if the stars were six-point stars?" my biracial daughter said as she fingered the silver Jewish Star pendant she always wore."That would be me."

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Lighting to be Seen

Isaiah Rothstein , My Jewish Learning, December 22, 2014



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"He was a tall man with broad shoulders, the type we used to call 'a real goliath,' powerful and with an unusual personality to boot. Unlike most of the Jews, he had no problem walking to his work, upright and with confidence. Instead of leading the line from the barracks, he insisted on bringing up the rear, and the whole way he would support the backs of those who had trouble walking. Avrum deh pusher (Avram the pusher), Avram deh Shtipper (Avram the booster), they used to call him in Yiddish. With his right hand, he picked up the weak, with his left he straightened the bent, and with his chest he pushed them forward. If he saw one of fellow Jews sway and fall, he would grab him quickly and give him a push so that the man could continue walking on his own. Everyone thought of him as a remarkable figure."

This story is the eyewitness account of Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, and the youngest survivor of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. It was he, like Judah the Macabbee in ancient time, who helped save lives in the camp with courage and love. During one of the darkest moments in Jewish history, Avram helped those along the way by instilling belief and hope that light can not only be found, but created, in the darkest of times.

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BlackLivesMatter, A Jewish View

Diane Tobin, My Jewish Learning, December 17, 2014



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Black Lives Matter, on the first night of Hanukkah and also on the second night, the third night and every other night and day of the year.

On the first light of Hanukkah, some in the Jewish community are taking the opportunity to express the sentiment that "Black Lives Matter." We at Be'chol Lashon could not agree more. We dedicate ourselves to making the Jewish commitment to racial equality part of the everyday fabric of American Jewish life.

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Sephardic Hanukkah Traditions

Adam Eilath, My Jewish Learning, December 16, 2014



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As a Jew with North African roots, I have always felt that my culture's rich and diverse traditions set me apart from my peers and classmates. On Pesach, I have always felt grateful that rice and hummus found their way into every meal and felt sympathy for my Ashkenazi friends who tried to feel satiated on potatoes. Mizrahi seder tables included hitting one another with leeks or green onions and rotating a plate of matza around someone's head while singing "Ha Lachma Anya." While most of my classmates celebrated Rosh HaShanah with only apples and honey, Mizrahi Jews also celebrate the New Year with dates, beets, and fish's or lamb's head. However, on Hannukah, there was nothing that separated me from my Ashkenazi friends. My mom fried latkes, we stuffed ourselves with jelly-filled donuts, played with dreidels and lit the Hannukiah. Much to my dismay, the only thing that set me apart from my peers was that I didn"t receive eight nights of gifts. According to my mom, "that isn't our custom."

When I moved to Israel after college, I intentionally sought out as much information as I could about my Mizrahi heritage. Yet, even in Israel, it felt like Middle Eastern and North African Jews preferred to celebrate Hannukah with only the customs that were consistent across the country, rather than those they brought with them from their communities. During my first year in Israel, I wasn't able to learn more than a few Sephardic songs about Hannukah and that some North African Jews preferred calling sufganyot "spanj."

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Hanukkah Light for Women in Uganda

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, My Jewish Learning, December 15, 2014



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More than anything Nalugya Rehema wanted to be a mother. She was very happy when she got pregnant, but she lost the baby. She became pregnant again, but again she lost the baby. Five times she became pregnant, five times she lost the baby. She went to the local herbalist. She sold her cow to pay for treatments that did not help. Her husband threatened to leave her. Her life seemed hopeless.

The miracle of Hanukkah is bringing light to places of darkness. Unlike most parts of the world, the winter is not a dark time in Uganda. Because we are at the Equator, there are 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness all year round. We do not crave sunlight. But like people everywhere, we crave spiritual light. We crave hope. We crave possibilities. Hanukkah represents the possibilities. When we light the Hanukkah candles we remember that there is hope. And we are supposed to share this hope. This is called pirsum haness, publicizing the miracle. This is why we put our Hanukkiyah with our lit candles in a public place so everyone, no matter their religion, can share in the hope and light of the holiday.

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Throw a Global Hanukkah Party

Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, December 11, 2014



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Who doesn't love a holiday party? Adding a global theme to this year's celebrations can both to add to the festivities and the educational elements of the holiday, bringing in new elements that both surprise and challenge accepted ideas of the holiday. A global theme allows for as much or as little guest participation as you might like. It can be extravagant or relatively simple depending on your approach to entertaining. Either way, a global approach to Hanukkah reminds us that the light of the holiday reaches Jews in every corner of the world.

Serve a global fried food feast. The small jug of oil, that instead of burning for one night miraculously burned for 8 nights has inspired generations of fried foods. The latkes with which are most commonly associated with Hanukkah highlight the many years during which Jewish life flourished in cold European climates where the winter months were often a steady diet of potatoes. But Jewish life extends far beyond that historic reality. There is not a region in the world where Jews have not lived, and so, any fried food is fair game for Hanukkah fare. Try these Cuban Frituras de Malanga or these Colombian Patacones or these Moroccan Sfenj.

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Achieving Shalom

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, December 10, 2014



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Commonly defined as peace, hello and goodbye, Shalom cannot simply be translated and then understood by its English description. In Western society peace of mind, is often described as a getaway to the Bahamas where you are never to be concerned with anything. In this week's Torah portion we see the absence of Shalom as the greatest recipe for destruction.

Joseph the Dreamer, blessed with such beauty and charisma, and yet is still the source of strife and disharmony among the remaining tribes, and consequently the Nation of Israel. His brothers angered by his very existence, Shalom, in its most true definition was impossible to attain.

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From Ferguson Child, to Cop, to Criminal Attorney

Victoria Washington, My Jewish Learning, December 9, 2014



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When I think about Ferguson, Missouri I think about the Star Wars Trilogy. I spent every summer between the ages of 10 and 25 in Ferguson; and, I also spent a few weeks over the winter holiday there as well. So, I always waited with baited breath for summer, and the next movie in the trilogy. Every Saturday during those times, we ate Faraci's pizza. When the riots first happened, I remember thinking, "I hope they leave Faraci's alone because I really want some when I go back"…and I was grateful to see Faraci's still standing when I went back to Ferguson for my mother's 85 birthday party.

I also remember trudging to Schnucks grocery store during the "great blizzard" and I got my very first job bagging groceries at that same store. The summer I turned 24, I spent jogging the streets of Ferguson as I prepared for the physical agility part of the police application process.

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Defusing the Racial Timebomb

Diane Tobin, My Jewish Learning, December 4, 2014



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Over the last few weeks, as America waited for the Grand Jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we have been touring with our documentary, Little White Lie, encouraging proactive, positive conversations about race and identity with Americans of all backgrounds. The outrage expressed at the grand jury decisions tells us two things. One, race remains a volatile and potentially dangerous third rail in American society and two, so long as we continue to wait for moments of crisis to talk about race, it will remain so. It is difficult for us as Americans to talk about race, and even harder to do so when we do not have to. As the mother of a Black teenager, I know that in the current racial climate, no matter how much my son individualizes, he will be forced to deal with the harsh reality of toxic racial dynamics.

When I adopted my son Jonah in 1997, one of my primary concerns was that he would not see himself reflected in the American Jewish community–that his Jewish identity and his Black identity would be in conflict. I am gratified that after attending Jewish day school and growing up participating in Be'chol Lashon programs, he knows many other racially diverse Jews and takes his Jewish identity for granted. Now that Jonah is 17, I am aware that my concern has shifted and that in everyday life, the unique identity Jonah has developed will often be disregarded in favor of assumptions about his skin color.

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Mis Abuelos and the No Dilemma December

Jennifer Stempel, My Jewish Learning, December 3, 2014



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Most of the Jewish kids I knew growing up partook in a handful of familiar traditions during the holiday season. They would light their menorahs, eat latkes and jelly doughnuts, and squeal in delight of the gelt they'd win from a few festive rounds of dreidel before bedtime. In my house, the traditions were very similar, except we sometimes swapped Cuban–style malanga fritters for potato pancakes. Despite the fact that my extended family represents many different religions, my parents made it clear from the start that in our Jewish home, we celebrate Hanukkah.

Conversely, my abuelos, or grandparents, native Cubans and devout Catholics, hosted an annual Christmas party. As it was the one time in the year where every single member of my large extended family would be in attendance, my parents felt strongly that we accept the invitation, as well. These parties boasted beautiful decorations ornamenting the entire house, piles of colorful gifts for the grandkids under the tree, and echoes of laughter and warmth from family members reuniting. Of course, these elements were certainly a big draw, but the main event was always the food. Oh, the food! My abuela, the original culinary matriarch of the family, made sure nobody left hungry, and always had enough food for everyone to take home leftovers of the scrumptious Cuban feast she'd make. Her Christmas parties offered the all'star dishes from her culinary arsenal: succulent roasts, creamy black beans spooned over white rice, a variety of seasonal vegetables, and just like our Hanukkah dinners, Abuela's Christmas parties would not be complete without malanga fritters.

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Why Are We Called the "Children of Israel?" and Not Jacob?

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, December 1, 2014



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As a Jew, do I respond to the needs of the stranger as I am repeatedly commanded to do so? As a Jew, have I fought to recruit a jury and politicians that stands for equality and justice? As Jew, should my voice be raised high, discontented and repetitive until justice is met?

For me, as I recall the anti–Semitic struggle of my European ancestors, and as I seek to understand how my grandfather's grandmother, Lucille Mcgruder, was born enslaved in West Virginia during a segment of America's darkest times, these questions burn in my mind. But as we learn from the story of how Jacob became Israel, these questions are fundamental to all Jews.

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A Year of Stories and Thanks

Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, November 24, 2014



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The big action this week is focused on turkey, pie and football - as it should be. At Be'chol Lashon we are quietly and joyfully marking a year since the launch of Jewish&. On the one hand this anniversary feels like no big deal because in many ways these stories have always been there, the blog has just given them a different form. Sharing stories is one of the best ways we know about how to celebrate diversity and the richness of both the historic and contemporary Jewish experience. On the other hand, it has been a fabulous year with so many wonderful stories, contributors, readers and conversation. And for this and all that is to come, we are thankful.

We have learned much this past year.

Jews love to cook. Together we have cooked our way across the array of Jewish identities, from traditional Moroccan and Indian dishes to modern Chinese inspired challah and soup, Kosher Soul and Jewban soon to be classics. And we know we will have to do a reprise of global haroset round up again for Passover this year!

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Embracing the Contradictions

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, November 20, 2014



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And the boys ran about inside her, and she [Rebecca] said, If this is so, then why am I? and she went to seek God. And God said to her ‘two nations are in your womb, and two are in your insides, and one nation will be stronger than the other and the older shall serve the younger (26:27).

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (France, 12th century) notes that Rebecca expected to mother just the Jewish people and have a singleton birth from which would come the Jewish people. Instead two separate entities grew within her, two powers, two forms of kingship.

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My Christian Great-Grandmother, My Jewish Inspiration

Michael J. DeYoung, My Jewish Learning, November 18, 2014



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Beatrice W. Hudson, known to me as Be Be, was my great-grandmother. She was one of the strongest, and most caring people I have ever met. Born May 10, 1918 in Suffolk, Virginia, she was the oldest of 13, and played a major part in raising her many siblings. Being a Black woman in the racially divided South presented many obstacles. Everyday, the Black minority experienced segregation and daily oppression by the White majority, yet my great-grandmother never strayed from her religion. She attended church every Sunday, celebrated every holiday, and said a prayer before going to bed each night.

Growing up as a bi-racial Jew, I struggle(d) with my identity on a daily basis. I was raised in a predominantly white town, and attended a Jewish day school and synagogue with little diversity. "Are you Jewish," and "what are you?" were questions I was asked far too often. People's doubts and confusion about my religious identity made it hard to feel accepted in the Jewish community. Knowing that my great-grandmother was able to live through times where being Black resulted in beatings and deaths, yet still maintain such strong religious beliefs inspired me to be proud of my Jewish heritage. Though the puzzled glares and questions still persist, my doubts have been extinguished. Judaism is an important part of who I am, and my great-grandmother understood and respected that. She knew who I was: her great-grandson.

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Seeing Double

Isaiah Rothstein , My Jewish Learning, November 13, 2014



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Diversity is like a pizza pie. When I get my slice of pizza, I may feel as if no one is about to take part in this mouth watering experience, this mushroom-onion slice is mine, and mine alone. But as I finish, pay and make my way towards the door, I notice others, with a slice almost identical to my own. I pause, and I realize I am seeing double. And as I look at the pizza tray behind the closed glass, I take note, at times against my will, that the pizza others eat comes from the same place mine did. My experience is my own but is it also connected to theirs.

Parashat Chayei Sarah, is a portion of doubles and seeming contradictions, distancing and connecting: While Abraham claims his identity as a "resident" during his negotiation process of Sarah's burial plot, he also identifies himself as a "stranger" amongst them. Similarly, Rebecca, our second matriarch, was a righteous woman, who carried the weight of living with "Laban the Deceitful," but was able to remain true to herself. A conflict for some, possible for Rebecca. Finally, Isaac too brings together two things that often are seen as opposite. When he standardizes the afternoon, Mincha prayer, he connects day and night.

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Shul Shopping for Diversity

Beth Leibson, My Jewish Learning, November 11, 2014



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Some people want to find the nearest fresh fruit and veggie stand. Other people seek out good, fast take-out Chinese. When my family showed up in New York City-a white woman, an African American man, and two biracial children-we went shul shopping.

I was looking for diversity, though fully aware that most American Jews are white. Most of us are, like me, Ashkenazi, immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe. Yet according to Be'chol Lashon's numbers, about 20% of Jews in America are non-White or non-Ashkenazi. Less than ten percent of American People of the Book are non-white (which is actually more than I'd thought before I looked it up). Some are historically Jewish, other joined the Jewish people from international adoptions, and there is a small but growing group of biracial marriages and mixed-race children.

So I tried to temper my expectations. After all, this may have been NYC, but it was still the USA. And, in fact, we saw diversity in terms of congregation size, clothing fashion, and number of women wrapped in talitot, but we were pretty much looking at white faces.

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Sarah and the Struggle of the Barren Identity

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, November 6, 2014



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This week, I'd like to focus on the self, not as the observer, but as the observed. Not when we felt comfortable enough to notice the difference in the other, but more the moment my insides pinch from when realizing everything we believe ourselves to be, is called into question. It is because in those moments that my identity has been threatened that I not only retreat inwardly, but fend off all potential opposition-losing not only myself, but connection to a community and lifestyle.

Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, teaches us that in order to reach the goal of the self-actualization, a person must feel comfortable in their environment and develop a sense of identity. This need, or the "esteem need" is bedrock of the human experience. In his work, A Theory of Human Motivation, Maslow explores this need, and what happens when it goes unmet:

"All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, (usually) high evaluation of themselves, for self respect, or self-esteem, and from the esteem of others...the desire for strength, for achievement, for adequacy, for confidence in the face of the world, for independence for freedom."

We need people to see us in a positive light, and we do things constantly in order to be perceived the way in which seems fitting in our own eyes for their eyes.

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African-Born Rabbi and Activist Dies

Team Be'chol Lashon , My Jewish Learning, November 3, 2014


photos credit Chester Higgins


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Be'chol Lashon mourns the passing of Rabbi Hailu Paris, a native of Ethiopia who lived most of his life in the United States but never lost his connection to his native land.

Hailu Paris was born in 1933 in Addis Ababa. He spent his early years in an orphanage before being adopted by American Eudora Paris who had migrated to Ethiopia with Israelite leader, Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford. However, the arrival of Mussolini's fascist forces in Ethiopia forced them to flee in 1936. When Nazis looking for Jewish passengers stopped their ship in Germany, they did not suspect that the Black passengers with the Ethiopian child and a tightly wrapped bundle containing a Torah scroll were, in fact, Jews. According to Rabbi Shlomo Levy, when Rabbi Paris related this story he joked, "This was one time when we didn't complain when people assumed we could not be Jewish because of the color of our skin."

He matriculated from Yeshiva University in New York with a BA in Jewish Studies and a MA in Jewish education. His passion for education knew no bounds and he taught in the public schools for many years. Eventually he pursued rabbinic ordination. He served as the spiritual leader of Mount Horeb Congregation, was a founding member of the Israelite Academy and was a teacher to many. A consummate bridge builder, Rabbi Paris was honored with the Brooklyn Jewish Heritage Committee esteemed Kiruv Award in 2010 with keynote speaker Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis.

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Lot, the Subjective Stranger: A Call for Diversity

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, October 30, 2014



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"Is she converting?"

"Clearly, she is not from around here, I wonder if she is even Jewish."

"She must be someone's nanny..."

These were not just the petty thoughts of those who saw me with my mother, but also at times the actual words spoken. Did these people aim to offend and to distance us? I pray not, but somehow and sometimes, the natural tendency of those who experience something foreign is to immediately cause distance for the sake retaining his/her individual comfort.

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A Jewish Jewel in the World's #1 City

Dan Lessner, My Jewish Learning, October 28, 2014



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Recently, über-quaint San Miguel de Allende - named a UNESCO World Heritage city in 2008 - was picked as the #1 City in the World by Condé Nast's Traveler magazine. Yes, we beat out Paris, Prague, New York, Budapest, and Florence. But one overlooked jewel in this city is its Jewish community.

According to some estimates, there are perhaps 10,000 "gringos" living in San Miguel de Allende, (SMA) Mexico, which would mean Americans and Canadians make up a little less than 10% of the population of this small colonial city in the geographic center of the country. North Americans have been settling here since right after WWII, lured initially by the GI Bill /SMA's art schools and its colonial charm, friendly locals, temperate climate, and relatively inexpensive cost of living (well, if you live on US dollars, that is). Artists, writers, and the "bohemian bourgeois" have flocked here in the past few decades, as well has hordes of tourists, both foreign and national.

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A Call for Diversity: The Tower of Babel

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, October 23, 2014



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While driving down Route 95 on the East Coast, one has the ability to survey hundreds of billboards along the way. They aim to tell the passerby that life without their product is a life that is incomplete. Without that specific phone, insurance plan, TV show or washing machine, one may run the risk of being an outcast, unaffiliated, and simply on the wrong train. All too often, the sole intent of the advertisement company is to draw one away from their current status of living and suggest that uniting with their agenda is the best way to succeed in the world, denying diversity, for the sake of uniformity.

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Our Dreams of Home

Sarah Aroeste, My Jewish Learning, October 21th, 2014



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When I think of home, I imagine the physical space I return to at night, the one with the white-washed façade, the apple trees in the backyard, and of course my daughter's contagious toothy grin waiting for me inside. But I also feel home, that indescribable sense of peace, safety and grounding.

I suspect that I am not the only one who has felt a little ungrounded lately. In a world that has been marked recently by so much violence and insecurity, and one in which so many people have been physically displaced, it is no wonder that many of us are feeling that lack of "home."

The times in my life when I have most often struggled to retain that feeling of being grounded, I have turned to music. It is not coincidence that the first song I ever wrote is about a young girl trying to find her way home. The song, "Chika Morena" is about the iconic Sephardic girl who has been kicked out from her homeland, and has been searching the world over to return home. Along the way, she simply longs to be guided by her ancestors to return to the comfort of her roots.

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Gluten–Free Indian Treats Sweeten Torah Celebration

Noreen Daniel, My Jewish Learning, October 12th, 2014



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I was born and raised in a traditional Jewish family in India. My father Dr. Samuel Solomon was a professor in the College of Agriculture, Pune where I spent the first 16 years of my life. On Simchat Torah morning, the gardener used to bring a basket of jasmine buds and roses as a gift. I would spend the morning making garlands of jasmine and roses for our living room doors and windows. By evening, our rooms were full of fragrance of the jasmine blossoms. I made a special thick Veni–traditional Indian garlands–of jasmine buds for my long braids.

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Eating Ashkenazi-Sephardi Style at Sukkot

Natasha Cooper-Benisty, My Jewish Learning, October 7th, 2014



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Sukkot appears to be one holiday in which the Moroccan and Ashkenazic customs and rituals are fairly similar. We both use the lulav and etrog and we both build a sukkah. I imagine that the sukkah building materials might have differed in Morocco than the materials my family used in London, England and before that in Russia and Poland.

One thing that do I know was different was the temperature outside when sitting or sleeping in the sukkah. My husband, Motti, is not sure about whether families slept in their sukkot during the holiday back in Morocco though the average temperatures in Casablanca during the months of September and October range from 66 - 73 degrees Fahrenheit (I checked!) so it does seem possible. He does, however, remember once sleeping in the sukkah as a kid in Beersheva, but it did not seem to be a family tradition.

My paternal great grandfather, on the other hand, did sleep in the sukkah and had an ingenious way of dealing with the London rain. He had a retractable roof which he used when the weather was not cooperating. Apparently he always slept outside during the holiday which is remarkable when you consider the rain and the chilly temperatures (55-61 Fahrenheit on average - yeah I checked that out too!).

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Finding Jewish Camelot

Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, October 5th, 2014


Artist Siona Benjamin teaching art in the Sukkah


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Celebrating Sukkot on the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario, as I did as a child, was fraught with complications. Evening temperatures often necessitated hats and heaters and our hot soup cooled before it had a chance to warm our insides. But the thrill of the holiday, the opportunity to sit out on nights it did not rain, under the green and the stars made it worthwhile. We lived in a middle-sized city with a small Jewish population but on our block there were two other families who sat in Sukkot. Our differing approaches to religion meant that we rarely shared meals but sitting out in the back yard we could hear each other repeat the same blessings and sing the same tunes and with that, our community felt expansive, our medley of practice seamless, and being Jewish was perfect.

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Confronting Murderers and Finding Forgiveness

Victoria Washington, My Jewish Learning, September 30, 2014



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I think about the nature and concept of forgiveness literally on a daily basis. As a lawyer, my practice consists solely of defending persons facing the death penalty; my clients are either facing the death penalty at trial or they have already been convicted and are in the state appeals process. Persons on the outside would be astonished to learn how much justice, forgiveness and peace color the many decisions my clients make that impact their future.

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Prayer for Diversity

Maya Resnikoff, My Jewish Learning, September 22, 2014



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Change is difficult. It can only happen when we reflect on the present and imagine different possibilities for going forward. In the ten days between the welcoming of the New Year, Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition encourages to do just that. There are many prayers that serve as meditations on change. What follows is an adaptation of a traditional prayer meant to help focus our minds on the ways in which we might work to make the world a more tolerate of "others" and engage in the positive celebration of diversity. It wrote this piece with the assistance of Rabbi Ruth Abusch–Magder and hope you will print out a copy and bring it with you to synagogue or share it as a conversation starter with friends. May we all be inspired to create a better and more inclusive world.

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Honoring Dad, Forgiving Myself for Rosh Hashanah

Victoria Washington, My Jewish Learning, September 16, 2014



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My parents divorced when I was six and my mother remarried the man who would raise me. I consider this man my father in every single sense of the word. My biological father was still very much a part of my life, but he did not raise me per se. He died of complications from Multiple Sclerosis when I was 25.

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Amazing and Improbable Transformations
for the New Year

Rabbi Juan Mejia, My Jewish Learning, September 11, 2014



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Change is an inevitable part of our lives. Most changes, however, happen to us from the outside: we age, we move, the world changes around us regardless of our desires to frame it in a moment. And yet, the most meaningful changes are often those that we set in motion on our own: our voluntary transformations. In the Jewish tradition, the New Year is a time for collective soul–searching and metamorphosis geared towards a positive transformation of ourselves and the world around us.

Central to the liturgy of the New Year is a recurrent Medieval poem which describes God as "a King sitting in a throne of Mercy" (Melekh yoshev 'al kisse Rachamim). But there is something awkward about "a throne of Mercy". Throughout the Bible and Midrash, the idea of a throne is associated with judgment and power. Kings, including the King of King of Kings (God), sit in high and lofty thrones that separate them from the ground. It is from this high and separate place where they dispense justice to the people below. The throne is a symbol of the power possessed by one party and not possessed by the other. Power and judgment seem to depend on differences, on distances and on separation; ideas we seldom associate with mercy, which we imagine thriving in contact and intimacy. As any playground kid knows, forgiveness (mercy´s delicious byproduct) is never really true unless sealed by that handshake or, better yet, a hug. And yet it is incredibly difficult to shake or hug someone who is sitting high above you in a throne.

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An Afro–Ashkefardi Recipe For Rosh Hashanah

Michael W. Twitty, My Jewish Learning, September 9, 2014



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From black–eyed pea hummus spiked with homemade horseradish harissa to matzoh–meal fried chicken cooked in shmaltz, to peach noodle kugels touched with garam masala, Afro–Ashkefardi is my way of cooking Jewish. While some of my DNA goes back to old Jewish genes, I converted to Judaism in 2002. For 14 years I've been working on creating a working Jewish identity grounded in my love of being African American and the African Diaspora melded with my love and appreciation for the Jewish people, my other Jewish family. Around my table, only kashrut fences me in. On my plates there are no limits!

Front and center is sorghum. I love sorghum, it's a gluten–free grain that can be crushed to produce a sweet syrup that doesn't crystallize. Domesticated in Africa thousands of years ago, it was once grown across the South and Midwest as a cheap sweetening agent. Today in the new Southern cooking based on local ingredients and traditional flavors, sorghum has made a comeback.

In honor of Rosh Hoshanah and in hopes for a sweet year to come, I offer these geshmakht sorghum chicken wings, so good your Ima, Umi, or Mameleh will have to run for cover (to avoid the obligatory mama–smacking). As I begin writing my forthcoming food and family memoir, The Cooking Gene, I hope for more discoveries linking my table with the past and stories to share that will inspire us all to nourish our stomachs and family trees.

Wishing you all a Shannah Tovah U'mitukah, a sweet New Year and a tasty one too!



5 pounds chicken wings, separated at the joints into drummettes and flats, (wing tips reserved for other use such as soup)
1 tablespoon Kosher powdered chicken broth or bullion
2 tablespoons of vegetable or canola oil
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Sorghum Glaze:

1 clove of minced garlic
2 tablespoons of minced onion–yellow or red
1 tablespoon of vegetable or canola oil
1/4 cup of water seasoned with 1 1/2 teaspoons of powdered kosher chicken broth
2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons of prepared chrain or red horseradish
1/4 cup of sorghum molasses


In a large bowl, season the chicken wings with the broth powder, oil and black pepper, tossing to coat well. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and line two baking sheets with 1–inch sides with aluminum foil. Place cooking racks on foiled sheets and spread chicken and roast for 45 minutes.

While the wings are baking, in a medium pot, saute the garlic and onion in the oil. Add the broth–water, vinegar, chrain and sorghum molasses. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a low simmer, stirring frequently for about 7–10 minutes or until the sauce reduces significantly or coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat, and allow it to thicken for 20 minutes. Remove the roasted wings from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F.

Place the roasted wings in a large metal or ceramic bowl. Drizzle half the prepared sauce over the wings, reserving the other half for dipping, and stir several times to coat well. Place the wings on a new set of racks with and allow them to glaze in the oven for another 15 minutes.

--> Originally published here:

Lessons from Catholic Mass for Rosh Hashanah

Robin Washington, My Jewish Learning, September 4, 2014



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Growing up in a very Reform household, I was never completely comfortable at the prospect of being called to the bima for an honor.

Until I attended Mass. Most every Sunday, for more than a year.

The reason wasn't religious, but journalistic; as part of the Boston Herald's "God Squad" a dozen years ago, covering the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal. I was initially hesitant, not wanting to encroach on the sacred space of the then–archbishop, Bernard Cardinal Law, regardless of his misdeeds. But I soon became familiar with the liturgy, including parts that might yield news—such as when he failed to annunciate "the victims of clergy sexual abuse" among those for whom he offered intentions.

I established my own rhythm for the flow of the service, determining when appropriate to sit or stand (but never kneeling.) One instance was comical: Law had just said something interesting before the Eucharistic Prayer and I hurriedly completed my notes while sitting, then jumped up. The press gallery, by that point used to following my lead, all rose with me.

And then there was the time when a TV reporter who shared my first name took the pew next to me. We were two Robins watching a cardinal.

Most extraordinary was the Sunday that Law departed from what I would presume to be Catholic orthodoxy to articulate a very familiar passage: That for transgressions against God, the gates of repentance are always open, but for sins against your fellow human, you must seek forgiveness from that person.

Huh? I thought—that's straight out of the High Holiday prayer book, and not quite consistent with the concept of priestly confession.

Abuse victims who regularly protested outside the cathedral heard word of it too, some immediately getting in line to be served the Eucharist by Law. "Forgive me," he said as he recognized each.

It was a moving moment, though not enough to undo the years of pain and trauma, nor keep it from continuing throughout the church today.

If Law had gone rogue religiously, it wasn't the only time the service went off–script. I noticed minor differences on occasion, including once when chimes didn't sound as the wafer was broken.

"Does that mean transubstantiation didn't occur?" I asked a priest friend afterward, not at all in jest or meant to insult.

"It's just for show," he said with a wink–referring to the chimes, I assume, not the transformation.

In that spirit I began to notice we too made mistakes in shul. Despite being in one of the colder places on Earth, Duluth's Temple Israel is the warmest I've ever been a part of, and its small congregation is quite willing to inform the rabbi—lovingly so—if he's on the wrong page, or if the gabbai has passed someone by.

So it's easy to stand on the bima now, knowing any worship is anything but perfect. What matters is not how beautifully you say words or prayers, but how real you make them in the rest of your life; through actions to repair the world, for love and peace, justice and life.

My honor this year is calling the shofar sounds, and I'll be thinking of those aspirations as I say tekiah, shevarim, teruah, tekiah gedolah, even if there are other, more accurate interpretations.

I'll try to pronounce them right. But if not, it's no cardinal sin.

--> Originally published here:

Iron Chef Rosh Hashanah: Be Fruitful and Multiply

Diane Tobin, My Jewish Learning, September 2, 2014



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My daughter Mia often watches Iron Chef, a cooking show on TV in which they designate a secret ingredient that is required to be in every dish. For Rosh Hashanah we wish for a New Year bright and full of possibilities. And so we knew the secret ingredient needed to be, pomegranates! Red and bursting with seeds they are a wonderful way to symbolically capture those hopes. Coming into season just as Rosh Hashanah is celebrated, the pomegranate's ancient beginnings are referenced in the Torah, describing Israel as "a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig–trees and pomegranates; a land of olive–trees and honey." (Deuteronomy 8:8). It is reported that pomegranates were one of the fruits that the scouts brought back to Moses to show that the "promised land" was fertile. And they are a traditional New Year's treat.

Not surprisingly, our ancestors were on to something. In addition to the current popularity of pomegranate flavored soda and candy, pomegranates have long been used in Indian and Chinese medicine. Western scientists are conducting clinical trials looking at pomegranates for a variety of health benefits. Apparently eating pomegranates does have the potential to make the year a good one.

In addition to health benefits, the spiritual side of the pomegranate should not be overlooked. I have never counted but legend has it that there are 613 seeds. This coincidentally is the same number of mitzvot or good deeds we should strive to observe. Among the many mitzvot, the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" is particularly pertinent to modern Jews. Growing the Jewish people is a wonderful and important part of modern Jewish life. Seeds bring to mind birth, but, the Jewish people can "increase like the seeds of a pomegranate" through adoption, intermarriage, and conversion. And the from the outside the pomegranate is a solitary piece of fruit, but like the Jewish people, its diversity and complexity as well as its sweetness are only revealed when you take time to open it up and explore inside. Which is what we at Be'chol Lashon do all year round.

We found the perfect source, a lovely little book called Pomegranates by Ann Kleinberg which has inspired some of our cooking. Pomegranate molasses, a thick concentrate of pomegranate juice, can be found in Middle Eastern markets or online.


This is the blessing for a new fruit at Rosh Hashanah, said after the blessing over the wine and before washing hands for the blessing over the bread.

First, the Shehechiyanu blessing thank God for keeping us alive and bringing us to this season:

You are blessed, Adonai our God, Ruler of the world, Who has kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.

Then the blessing for the fruit: You are blessed, Adonai our God, Ruler of the world, Who creates fruit from the trees.

After the fruit is passed out for everyone to eat, the food's symbolism is explained:

May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our forbearers, that our merits increase like the seeds of a pomegranate.

Quinoa Salad with Herbs and Pomegranate

We like this salad because it is so colorful and gets its flavors from the many different ingredients. Like the Jewish people it relies on the parts to make the whole outstanding!
(Serves 4)

1 cup quinoa
2 cups water or clear vegetable stock
1 cup baby peas or cooked edamame
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese (if making for a meat meal cheese can be left out)
1/2 red onion, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1/2 orange pepper, diced
1/2 cup mixed chopped fresh basil, flat–leaf parsley, and cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1/4 cup pomegranate juice
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed orange juice + zest from one orange rind
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Clean and rinse the quinoa in a sieve to remove dust and natural coating.

In a saucepan over high heat, bring water or vegetable stock to a boil, stir in the quinoa, and return to a boil. Decrease the heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed. The quinoa should be tender but not mushy. Remove from the heat and fluff up the quinoa with a fork. Transfer to a serving bowl and let cool.

If peas or edamame are not cooked, then place the peas and enough water to cover them in a saucepan. Bring the water to a boil, then decrease the heat to low and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and rinse with cold water until they are cool to touch.

Add the cooled peas, feta, onion, bell peppers, mixed herbs, tarragon, and pomegranate seeds to the cooled quinoa. Toss to mix well.

In a small bowl, whisk together the pomegranate juice, orange juice and zest, vinegar, lemon juice, and olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Just before serving, whisk the dressing again, pour over the salad, and toss.

Chicken and Fall Vegetables, Pomegranate and Fruit Sauce
(Serves 6 to 8)

This sweet and tangy chicken dish brings together the best of the fall harvest with the traditional flavors.

Preheat the oven to 400°F
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
Tbsp honey or date honey (optional)
2 tbsp olive oil
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
12 chicken thighs, drumsticks or 6 breasts


2 tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 yellow onion, chopped
6 shallots, peeled
1 carrot, peeled and cubed
1 celery root, peeled and cubed
1 parsnip, peeled and cubed
3/4 dried apricots
1/4 cup raisins
3/4 cup dried cranberries
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup water
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 1/3 cup pomegranate molasses
2 tbsp chopped fresh basil leaves
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves


1/4 cup chopped fresh flat–leaf parsley leaves, for garnish
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds, for garnish


Baking Chicken

Combine the pomegranate molasses, olive oil, honey/date syrup (if using), garlic, and red pepper flakes in a plastic bag. Place the chicken pieces in the mixture, and massage to ensure all pieces are well coated. Leave for 1/2 an hour. Transfer the chicken to a roasting pan and bake for 30 minutes. Decrease temperature to 350°F and bake for 10 minutes longer.

Making sauce

Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, onion, shallots, carrot, parsnip and celery root and sauté for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the mixture starts to brown. Stir in the apricots, cranberries and raisins, season to taste with salt and black pepper, and cook for 5 minutes longer. Add the water, lemon zest, pomegranate syrup, basil, and thyme. Stir while brining to a boil, then decrease the heat to low and cook for 30 minutes longer, or until all the vegetables have softened.


Arrange the baked chicken pieces on a serving platter.
Pour the sauce over the chicken and sprinkle with the parsley and pomegranate seeds.

Originally published here:

Maimonides' Home and My Grandmother's Song

Talya G. A Sloan , My Jewish Learning, August 26, 2014



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Ladino first cast its magic spell on me in childhood. It always struck me as a graceful, rolling language, one of emotion and longing, filled with desire. It was a secret language that my mother spoke with her mother, my grandmother, of blessed memory. My grandmother immigrated to Israel from Bulgaria, arriving as Ladino-speaking Tanya and eventually becoming Hebrew–speaking Shoshana. But when my mother and grandmother wanted to speak without us girls understanding, they spoke Ladino. And so Ladino took root for me as the language of women.

In 2004 I founded the Israeli Ethnic Ensemble, which appears around the world with a rich and fascinating program of Sephardic music. Sephardic musical culture has been preserved for hundreds of years. Ladino songs originated in the 9th–13th centuries, when Jewish life flourished in Spain. It continued to develop after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. And it is this music that inspires me and my ensemble.

As a professional, delving into magical musical materials preserved in Ladino, I discovered that the preservation of this tradition by women was not unique to my family. When the Jews were expelled from Spain and spread across Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Morocco, etc., it was the men who worked outside the home, mingling with the locals and the language of the place. By contrast women rarely left their homes, did not integrate into the local population and continued to exclusively or dominantly speak Ladino. Women continued to create songs and melodies in Ladino expressing their feelings, difficulties, joys and grief. The vast majority of Ladino songs are songs "feminine;" wedding songs, lullabies, love songs, etc. Through women, the language has been preserved as it was spoken centuries ago.

One of the historic Jewish centers in Spain was in Cordoba. Moses Maimonides, one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of all time, was born there circa 1135. But he left, as Muslim rule made Jewish life difficult. Later Christians ruled the city and in the 15th century the Jews of Cordoba were expelled or forced to convert along with their fellow co–religionists. So it was particularly meaningful when the Israeli Ethnic Ensemble was invited by the City of Cordoba to appear in the 13th International Sephardic Jewish Music Festival in Spain.

We arrived in Cordoba late at night. Our group of passionate Israeli musicians includes Gilad Ephrat on double bass, Idan Toledano on guitar and oud, the violinist Chen Shenhar and myself singing the vocals. We woke in the morning and set out to discover this warm, sleepy town. We went to the Old City in search of the statue of Maimonides. We had heard about the blessing and good fortune that befalls those who touch the feet of the statue and pay tribute to the great scholar. A short tour of the alleys of Cordoba's Old City taught us that the current vibrancy of the modern municipality is tied to the ancient culture and heritage left by our ancestors when they were expelled. It was amazing to see intense tourist activity in the Old City. The statue of Maimonides is a focal point of an attractive tourist center. The municipality of Cordoba has already embarked on an extensive public relations campaign and refurbishment of the Jewish synagogue to be completed in 2015 on the 700th anniversary of its founding.

Originally published here:

Cross–Cultural Parenting: Materialism vs Relationship

Rabbi Tziona Szajman , My Jewish Learning, August 19, 2014



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My daughter is wise beyond her years. She teaches me. Recently a family with older children handed down to us a plastic toy kitchen set. My 15–month–old was delighted. As she happily played, I "Facetimed" my parents so they could join me in watching her fun. However as soon as Bubie and Zada's faces appeared on the iPhone screen, my daughter lost all interest in her toys. She had eyes only for the grandparents she loves and engaged them in a rousing game of peek–a–boo.

Watching Eliyana's developmental leaps is wonderful. Just yesterday she was grabbing the iPad and looking behind it for the people. Today she understood she could interact with the people on the screen, that she could initiate play with them. I learned too. I learned that she values relationship far more than "things."

When my husband and I first arrived in Ethiopia to meet our beautiful child, I was appalled by the starkness of her orphanage. There were no colors to brighten the walls. There were less than half a dozen toys, and no books. Our daughter was happy and thriving, perhaps because of her inner strength and love of life, perhaps because the nannies there carried the babies in their arms as much as possible. The gifts of board books and games I brought on my second trip were received politely but with puzzlement. "Of what use could these possibly be to a baby?" I read on the faces of the nannies.

When we brought our daughter home, we filled it with love, toys, and many many books. We made the rounds of doctors, each marveling at Eliyana's sociability and her easy smile. "This child has been loved" they each said to us. We would discuss this concern or worry and the doctors would repeat "She has received love and attention. That is the most important ingredient to her development." We settled into becoming a family and Eliyana thrived.

Many of my fellow Ethiopian adoption parents tell me their children did beautifully in daycare, having been socialized to being around other children and waiting their turn already in the orphanage. My daughter was miserable. No one would play with her. At first I wondered if there was racism involved. Finally I realized it was culture. The room was filled to the brim with every kind of wonderful toy and the expectation was that the children would play independently with the toys. My child wanted relationship but was instead offered Western materialism. With help and support I came to understand I was allowed to listen to the needs my daughter was broadcasting loudly for me on all frequencies. She wanted people, not things. We found a way to provide this while I work. Happiness has been restored.

Martin Buber wrote, counter to the psychology of his time, that identity begins in relationship, not in individuality. In Ethiopia, this was understood. I wonder now at my Western arrogance, my shock at an Ethiopian orphanage's lack of toys and books. Here in the West, where we have everything, we have much to learn about what is important. I am learning every day.

Originally published here:

The Risks of Being an Interracial Family

Alina Adams, My Jewish Learning, August 12, 2014



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Less than a year ago, two blond children in Ireland were taken from their Roma parents because the police decided they didn't look related, even though legal documents, including passports, were produced. Meanwhile, the same thing happened to a blond girl in Greece. Even though her DNA didn't match anything on record in the Missing Child database, and even though her biological mother was found and insisted she had voluntarily left her daughter with a Roma couple, the State decided that little Maria should not be returned to her foster parents, but placed in an orphanage, instead.

I followed both cases closely because, in our house, my three kids are darker than I am, but lighter than my African–American husband. I've been asked in the past if I were their babysitter. And so has he. Even when I'm with them. The idea that the police or other authorities could just swoop in and take them away because, for instance, my oldest son has blue eyes and his father doesn't, or my middle child is coffee–colored and I, according to my aforementioned blue–eyed son, am the color of chalk, was not a comfortable one.

I comforted myself with the thought that this was a European problem. Prejudice against the Roma and their lifestyle runs deep there, to the point where official country websites urge tourists to stay away, and local children are told to behave, lest they be kidnapped by Gypsies. (Because, you know, people living in poverty just love stealing other mouths to feed.)

Then, last week came the news that just across the state line from me, in Nyack, New Jersey, a white father shopping at Home Depot with his African–American daughter was followed into the parking lot by a security guard taking photos of his car's license plate—just before four squad cars arrived. And this was after the dad had addressed his daughter by name, and the 4–year–old child herself identified the woman waiting in the car for them as her mommy. (My husband's response was, "A little black girl? Good. Usually nobody cares about them.")

But he's a lot more sanguine than I am. As he says, he's used to policemen stopping him just because he's running to catch a bus, and a black man running has obviously committed a crime. It's all still relatively new to me.

Meanwhile, in Kansas, a Walmart greeter called 911 on an Asian dad leaving the store with his (white–looking) biracial daughter. This time, the police actually came to the couple's house, despite the little girl in question also confirming to the greeter that she was with her dad.

I suppose this shouldn't come as a surprise. In the last few weeks, the media has been inundated with stories of "Good Samaritans" calling the police on children playing by themselves in parks or walking unaccompanied by an adult.

While anyone who has read my previous accounts of leaving my 6–year–old home alone and letting my fourth grader navigate his way through a blizzard can probably guess how I feel about this latest nanny–state trend, I can, at least, offer the benefit of the doubt to those whistle–blowers who genuinely believed the children in question were in some sort of danger.

But for those who'd like to hide behind the shield of "better safe than sorry" (i.e. what if that poor child really were being abducted, and I'd done nothing to stop it?), your logic is flawed.

About 800,000 children under the age of 18 were reported missing in 2013. Roughly half of them were runaways, and 200,000 on top of that were abducted by their own family members. The rest are either temporarily lost and returned home shortly, or taken by someone they know. Only 115 were victims of so–called "stereotypical" kidnappings by a stranger.

So, statistically speaking, instead of calling the police when you see a child with an adult who doesn't look like them, you should call them when you see a child who does. They're much more likely to be the victim of a kidnapping. Especially if the child is throwing a tantrum, or being fussy, or refusing to go somewhere with the adult. (No child would ever behave like that with a parent, right? Better safe than sorry, after all!)

Am I being flip? Yes, I am. But A) I'm pissed off, and B) a good way to demonstrate just how ridiculous something is, is to take it to its ridiculous extreme. If people feel justified suspecting a multiracial family because "you never know," then logic and basic math says they should be about 7000 times more suspicious of a homogeneous family.

Yesterday, it was calling the cops on parents who don't meet your own personal standards, be they cultural, religious, financial, or social. Today, it's calling the cops on families who don't look the way you expect them to.

And the bigger problem isn't so much people sanctimoniously thinking they have every right to call. It's the fact that cops—and courts—are taking these calls seriously. Four squad cars in the NJ Home Depot case? Really?

To paraphrase Martin Niemöller's infamous, "First they came for the....And I didn't speak up because I wasn'..." rest assured, they're coming for you next.

Originally published here:

World Traveller Becomes World Musician

Lior Ben-Hur, My Jewish Learning, August 7, 2014



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What makes a secular Israeli connect to his Jewish identity, roots and spirituality? What makes secular Jew from Jerusalem become a Jewish educator in San Francisco? The answers are music, spirituality and the relationship between the two.

If someone had told me ten years ago that I would become a Jewish educator, I would never have believed it. Moreover, if someone had told me that I would write Jewish music, I would most likely laugh in his or her face. The world of Judaism was never a motivation in my life until I left Israel and arrived in San Francisco.

My parents originally came from Greece and Iraq but I was born in Jerusalem. Raised as a secular Israeli, my Jewish identity was always a given fact. Meaning, I am Jewish because I was born to this nation and religion, because of my family's history, because Hebrew is my language, etc. Aside from reading from the Torah at my Bar Mitzvah and celebrating Jewish holidays, Judaism was not something I practiced. Coming to the US, particularly to the Bay Area, and connecting with local Jewish communities and their definitions of being "Jewish", I gained a new understanding of my Jewish identity and spirituality.

People relate to spirituality in different ways. It's not something that's just given to you. It's not only something you practice or learn, but something you feel. Spirituality doesn't exclude anyone. It includes Jewish ideals, but it does not stand exclusively on Jewish beliefs. Spirituality involves global ideals, thoughts and understandings. Most importantly for me, music is the medium, guide and driving force in my own spiritual path.

I emphasize the importance of music not only because it is my love, my passion, my profession and in many ways, the essence of my being, but because music is an incredible educational tool that builds bridges reaching people's hearts and souls. In fact, it is the reason I became involved with the Jewish community in the US from the first place.

When I arrived in San Francisco ten years ago, I worked as a song leader at Congregation Sherith Israel. While taking these first steps in the world of American Judaism, I learned many songs commonly taught to Jewish children in the US. Many of these songs were outdated and not surprisingly, that my students didn't relate to them. These songs don't represent or resemble anything close to the music young American Jews are listening to in their secular lives. Moreover, I felt that most of these Folk/Rock genre Jewish–American songs didn't represent the story of the whole Jewish diaspora. So I decided to write new Jewish music that speaks to the hearts of the Jewish youth, represents a variety of Jewish communities from around the globe and connects the souls of the listeners with their Jewish identity on a spiritual level.

In 2011, I formed Sol Tevél, a band that focuses on connecting Hebrew roots while engaging world cultures. A year later, we released our debut album, ‘World Light’, which aims provide a contemporary interpretation on traditional Jewish texts, ideals and mysticism.

How can we learn more about spirituality? The truth is that it's not my intention to teach nor preach spirituality, but to share my personal journey into this realm. Teaching for the past 10 years showed me that my students were my best teachers and could (often unintentionally) answer many of the questions we struggle with. And as for "God" or "spirituality," Austin Branner, one of my 3rd grade students expressed it best with the words that would become the title song for my album ‘World Light’:

See the wind flowing by

See the stars up high

See the sand on the ground

See the rocks all around

My God, your God, One God.

Originally published here:

Learning from Little White Lies

Lindsey Newman, My Jewish Learning, August 3, 2014



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Growing up biracial in white Jewish family means that you don't often see others who have your experience/look like you. It is always special to be in Jewish spaces that celebrate diversity and reflect my experience. It is nice to able to connect to others that understand the complexity of my story without extensive explanation, as well as the ordinariness of it.

Which is why I was so interested in seeing Lacey Schwartz's documentary Little White Lies, which will be premiering at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on Sunday August 3rd. It is exciting to see someone who looks like me on the big screen. I've known Lacey for a few years and know her story. I know it is different than my own, but there is a fundamental overlap when it comes to mixed race Jewish identity. Having seen a preview as part of an educational evening at Camp Be'chol Lashon, there were parts of Lacey's story that reminded me of my own story. After discussing it with the staff and older campers, it seemed that everyone who watched the film could find a part of Lacey's story that they connected with.

One of the things that struck me about Lacey's experience was that her identity wasn't fully complete until she could express it. Lacey's experience illustrates that a central part of navigating one's identity is communicating it and sharing it with your friends, family and community. Because identity is not only how you see yourself, but the agency in making sure that how you see yourself is synonymous with the way that others see you. It is a difficult balancing act to make sure that we learn to stack the building blocks of identity into a supportive foundation, without letting them box you in.

We don't often overtly talk about race in religious spaces, although in my opinion it is impossible to separate the two. My blackness and my Jewishness are equally central to who I am and how I experience the world.

Identity and race is something we all need to be able to talk about—even as Jews.

I'm looking forward to people of all races and ethnicities and religions seeing this movie. I'm curious to hear from all of you about how you relate to Lacey's story.

Originally published here:

How Did the Jews Become a Global People?

Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, July 23, 2014



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"How did the Jews become a global people?".

"They got pushed around a bunch."

"They had to go to different places."

Indeed. Looking at the diversity of faces in the room the global nature of the Jewish community was not in dispute but the process of migration, the economic opportunities, the persecution, the trade that is at the root of Jewish experience needed to be unpacked and understood. And thus began our conversations about the global nature of Jewish life and our adventures at the 2014 session of Camp Be'chol Lashon.

Jews have always been a people on the move. The word Ivri, Hebrew for a Hebrew person, comes from the word to cross, because the very first words uttered by God to the first Jews, Abraham were "Go forth." And so migration is the starting point for our exploration of Jewish communities around the world. India, Yemen, Uganda, Spain, Italy, Poland, Bazil and Mexico each of these countries has a unique Jewish experience that adds texture and complexity to the collective Jewish experience. For modern Jewish kids, who have friends of all ethnicities and live in a connected world where travel and news make the distances seem small, the international nature of Jewish life is something they relate to.

Talking will only take them so far, so once we set up the framework, we began exploring the music, food, dance and culture of different Jewish communities. The taste of homemade hummus brings to mind the falafel stands of Jerusalem, while the quickly fried chapatti calls forth the tastes of Jewish life in Uganda. The fine metal work of our curiously small menorahs opens up the craftsmanship of Yemenite Jews. The modern Ladino music of Sarah Aroeste reminds us of the value of the many Jewish languages that have been spoken through the years. Making mosaics helps us piece together the complex culture that was Jewish life in the Golden Era of Spain. An exploration of Italian Jewish history brings to life not only the words on the page of Talmud but they way the debates got laid out on the page. Our global activities and crafts help bridge the divide between past and present and across geography. Encountering the other we learn to appreciate the diversity of our community even as we explore points of connection. This is the basis for camp and for the global Jewish curriculum we are developing at Be'chol Lashon.

And after we ran through the timeline of Jewish history from the ancient past to the present, all the campers, counselors and specialists added their own important dates to the chart on the wall. Because ultimately that is what it is all about, writing ourselves into the ongoing history of a storied people. That and of course a swim at the lake!

Originally published here:

Not My Mother's Matza Balls: My Moroccan Kitchen

Natahsa Cooper-Benisty, My Jewish Learning, July 17, 2014



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I have often joked that I am the only woman in America who doesn't cook anything that she grew up eating. Now this is not a reflection on my mother's cooking abilities, but rather a result of my marriage to a Moroccan Israeli with very different ideas of what constitutes good food.

My husband was born in Marrakech and moved as an infant to Beersheva, Israel where much of his family still reside. There amidst the trials and tribulations of raising a family in the "ma'aborot" or tent cities, my heroic mother in law cared for her large family. Her main occupation in life was clearly feeding her family and in their home this meant the daily preparation of good Moroccan food translating into hours of daily cooking each day.

The food and spices she used were completely different than those that constituted my Ashkenazic upbringing. Couscous was a staple and always made properly (no instant Osem for her) and could be combined with vegetables with chicken on the side for a meat meal or could be made dairy and eaten with leben, a yogurt like cheese quite popular in Israel. Shabbat would include Moroccan Fish and would always feature the Moroccan version of cholent called skhina (meaning "hot" in Arabic) or hamin (like the Hebrew word for hot, "cham") which would include foods like eggs in their shells and chickpeas. Other popular dishes were chicken with olives and different vegetable soups including chickpea pumpkin soup, traditionally served on Rosh Hashanah and my son's favorite

Moroccan cooks are also famous for their many salads which make their appearance primarily on Friday nights (carrot, beets, anise, pepper, eggplant etc). My mother in law was also busy pickling olives, peppers and carrots.

Of course one cannot discuss Moroccan food without emphasizing the spices. Onion powder and garlic powder perhaps the staples of Ashkenazic cooking, have no place here. Instead saffron, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, paprika and allspice rule. Moroccan cooks also create their own blended spice called "mashia" which is great on ground beef. Lemons and olive oil are also staples with preserved lemons often used to flavor various dishes.

Then there are the exquisite foods made for special occasions which I won't go into here since they merit their own blog post!

I often kid that my husband will only eat food if it is from somewhere between Spain and Iraq (excluding Eastern Europe of course!). Having grown up eating exclusively Moroccan and some Israeli/Middle Eastern food at home, he is not interested in anything else. In fact, when we first started dating he wouldn't eat anything at my parent's home not due to any kashrut concerns, but just because everything was so foreign to him. Eventually he tried my mother's chicken soup, but he prides himself on never having tasted a matzah ball nor gefilte fish.

The fact is that I have never made these foods. Honestly, I prefer my adopted Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisine. My "mixed" kids get their fix at their grandparent's home if they need it. Otherwise, we are all happy embracing our Moroccan heritage.

Moroccan Chickpea/Pumpkin Soup

1 1/4 cups yellow split peas or chickpeas (if using chickpeas, soak for at least 1/2 hour)
1 large onion, chopped
2 3/4 quarts chicken stock (you can use Osem chicken mix as an option)
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons sunflower oil (I normally use Canola)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon saffron
1 pound orange pumpkin, cubed (I use calabazzo pumpkin or a butternut squash will work. I usually use about 2 pounds though the original recipe suggests 1 pound)
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat–leafed parsley


Put the yellow split peas and the onion in a pot with the stock.
Add salt and pepper to taste, the oil, cinnamon, ginger and saffron and put in the pumpkin.
Simmer until the pumpkin falls apart
Use an immersion blender or a masher to make the soup smoother.
Sprinkle with flat–leafed parsley before serving.

note that when using chicken powder I omit the salt. Also the soup can get very thick so feel free to add water to it if it feels too thick.

Moroccan Carrot Salad


2 lbs carrots
2 garlic cloves
2 lemons
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons paprika
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
Flat leaf parsley or coriander
Peel and clean carrots.


Peel and clean carrots.
Boil carrots until a fork easily pierces the thickest carrot.
Rinse carrots with cold water and then slice them about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick.
Crush or finely chop the garlic.
Mix the garlic with the juice of two lemons, all the spices and the olive oil.
Toss the carrots with the mixture.
Sprinkle chopped coriander of flat leaf parsley on the top of the carrots and toss.

Originally published here:

What's YOUR Jewish&

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, July 7, 2014



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"I'm Jewish& Black"

"I'm Jewish& Environmental Activist/writer"

"I'm Jewish& a Rabbinical Student"

"I'm Jewish& part Chinese part Catholic"

"I'm Jewish& Indian & a businessman"

"I'm Jewish& Australian, Japanese and American."

"I'm Jewish& very into rock climbing"

"I'm Jewish& a mom, a lawyer, and too often a chauffeur"

"I'm Jewish& adopted & multiracial"

"I'm Jewish& Irish American and Gay"

"I' Jewish& Arab".

"I'm Jewish& white and a Zayde".

"I'm Jewish& Proud of it!"

Jewish& is as open-ended as the Jewish people themselves. There is not now, nor has there ever been a single way to be, look or act Jewish. Jews are the original multicultural people, imbued with the varied influences of a history of migration that has taken us to every corner of the earth and back. The faces on this page are just some of the many many way Jews look Jewish. This blog exists to give voice the variety of Jewish identity. It highlights the ways in which Judaism not only coexists, but thrives with complementary identities. This blog explores the ways in which Jews have built and continue to build complex identities. It is a forum that celebrates the ways in which all Jews are Jewish&.

So tell us, what is your Jewish&?

Originally published here:

¿Cómo te llamas?...How do Latino Jews identify?

Graciela Berger Wegsman , My Jewish Learning, July 1, 2014



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I'm a Latina Jew. I live in New York City, famous for the diversity of its population; after all, 37 percent of the city is foreign born. But still now in 2014, the fact that I identify myself as Latina and Jewish, creates a bit of wonder among some Jews and Latinos.

First of all, people ask me what is the difference between Hispanic and Latino. The two words are often used interchangeable nowadays. While this article is from my own perspective, I use the definition of "Hispanic or Latino" stated in the 2010 United States Census: "Hispanic or Latino refers to a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race."

The truth is that Latino or Hispanic are words used mainly in the United States. In Argentina, I'm Argentinian. If you ask a Colombian he will say he is Colombian. If you ask a Mexican he will say is Mexican. We only are "Latinos" in United States.

According to the 2010 Census, 50.5 million people (or 16 percent) were of Hispanic or Latino origin. In New York City near a third of the population (28.6 %) are Hispanic.

I have encountered some Jews who are used to identifying Latinos with people from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. For them, I'm not Latina. I'm from Argentina. That happens because most Jews in New York City know that Argentina has a big Jewish population, and they are aware that I can be Jewish and Argentinian.

In fact, "There are about 14 million Jews around the world, representing 0.2% of the global population. Jews make up roughly 2% of the total population in North America. More than four–fifths of all Jews live in just two countries, the United States (41%) and Israel (41%). The largest remaining shares of the global Jewish population are in Canada (about 3%), France (2%), the United Kingdom (2%), Germany (2%), Russia (2%) and Argentina (between 1% and 2%)", according to data from a report produced by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.

So, although Jews in Argentina are only 1 to 2 % of the population, it is still one of the largest Jewish communities in the world.

What do American Jews know about Argentina? Many Jews also know about the Nazis who fled to Argentina after the Second World War, and that there were two suicide bombings against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the Jewish community (AMIA). Sometimes I'm asked if I know Rabbi Marshall Meyer, who founded the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano.

How many people identify as Latino Jews? According to The Pew Research Center's 2013 National Survey of Latinos and Religion, "a majority (55%) of the nation's estimated 35.4 million Latino adults identify as Catholic today". About 22% are Protestant and 18% are religiously unaffiliated. Around 1 percent belongs to other religions. So Latino Jews are less than 1 per cent of Latinos.

It is hard to talk about issues of race and religion. I'm white. My family came from the former Soviet Union. My dear Bobe came from Kishinev. So some people would tell me "you don't look Latina." They are confusing being Latino with race. Let's go back to the US Census definition that clearly states, "Hispanic or Latino refers to a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race."

Jews sometimes assume I'm Sephardi. Here the confusion comes because I speak Spanish and I'm from Argentina. Well, first of all, Sephardim spoke Ladino, which is different than Spanish. But, in fact most of the Jewish community in Argentina arrived from Germany and Eastern Europe and are Ashkenazi.

I think it is very important for Jews to learn more about Latinos and for Latinos to learn more about Jews. We work together. We live in the same cities. As the Hispanic population in the United States keeps growing fast, Jews will need to interact more with Hispanics. The Jewish population also keeps changing and is time to accept each other's differences. Education is the best defense against prejudice and intolerance.

Originally published here:

Breaking Barriers to Create Community

Kenny Kahn, My Jewish Learning, June 24, 2014



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As summer approaches and we gear up for another terrific session of Camp Be'chol Lashon, I keep thinking about all the kids who —regardless of the camp they are heading to— are worried they might not feel like they ‘belong.’ I relate. My own commitment to Jewish camping comes in part from my childhood experience where I was usually the only Black camper at a variety of Jewish camps. As a camp director, I am committed to making sure that all those in my charge feel connected. And recently, I got a real life reminder of just how important reaching out and connecting can be.

This winter I was honored to attend the Jewish Camp Leaders Assembly in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Attending ‘Leaders’ opened my eyes to the vast world of Jewish camping, meeting and greeting numerous Jewish camp professionals invested in the varying interests and needs of our Jewish youth. As exciting as this was, I once again had that familiar feeling of being on the outside looking in. I am a fairly new West Coast camp director of a small camp with a strong but still budding reputation. I was out on the East Coast by myself and knew only a handful of people heading into this largely regional powerhouse of Jewish camp staff. And, of course, the most superficial reason of all being that I am a man of color who, among his Jewish peers, looks out of place or invites inquiry as to the validity of my Jewish roots.

As exciting as this was, I once again had that familiar feeling of being on the outside looking in. I am a fairly new West Coast camp director of a small camp with a strong but still budding reputation. I was out on the East Coast by myself and knew only a handful of people heading into this largely regional powerhouse of Jewish camp staff. And, of course, the most superficial reason of all being that I am a man of color who, among his Jewish peers, looks out of place or invites inquiry as to the validity of my Jewish roots.

After our welcome dinner and schmooze time, like many of the participants I headed toward the hotel watering hole for some group reminiscing. Being new, after a round of small talk, I found myself with a tumbler of whiskey on the rocks playing a game of ’one–on–none’ at the pool table behind the bar.

A gentleman whom I recognized from dinner approached the table.

He had spoken to the entire group in attendance regarding ‘Leaders,’ touching on the overarching theme of the conference; one field, moving forward. He spoke about his previous work with Campbell Soups and how transitioning to the Jewish camp community allowed him to invest in a community that provided so much, not only to him but also to his loved ones. I had shed my name tag but he approached me and with familiarity said "Kenny, it's great to have you out here from the West Coast. I get your monthly newsletter and enjoy reading it from top to bottom. I love the work you and your organization and camp are doing collectively." He hung back and played with me for a bit before heading out. As I placed my empty glass on the counter, as newcomers I got the feeling that we shared a sense of being on the outside. Maybe not, but by coming over he had made me feel so welcome.

I finished my second round of libations and billiards on the solo and made my way to my sleeping quarters. I soon realized I forgot to pay for my drink, and to remove any potential stigma of the Jew of color not covering his bill, I headed back only to find that my tab was covered. I suspected my new friend had something to do with this and went to find him in the program.

It turned out that the same gentlemen who went out of his way to check in and give kudos for the work I do is none other than Jeremy Fingerman, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Jewish Camping. He is one of the greater movers and shakers in the field of Jewish camping

The following morning at breakfast I sat with one of my former campers who now directs Camp Kee Tov in Berkeley, California. As Zach and I sat among a few familiar faces, I felt a gentle pat on my shoulder followed by "Morning Ken, it was great talking with you last night!" from Jeremy as he headed to his table up front. Zach's look of bewilderment, as he questioned how on earth the Foundation for Jewish Camping CEO and I were on a first name basis so quickly, if at all made me realize that now I was an insider. Even though they say it's lonely at the top, one could argue the same on the side or down through to the bottom

Experiences like this remind me that in today's Jewish community we each have a responsibility to advocate for one another, take interest in happenings beyond our initial scope, and welcome the idea of making new connections. Diversity and inclusion was more than a topic of conversation or presentation. It is at the heart of what we build as programmers, lay–leaders, directors, staff and campers. We build life–long memories and experiences, where each member leaves camp eager to return the following year and often with companions eager to engage and become members too.

Originally published here:

Tikkun Olam on Juneteenth

Robin Washington, My Jewish Learning, June 16, 2014



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Despite the fact that it's a celebration, I have bittersweet feelings about Juneteenth.

Its origins are traced to Union troops arriving in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, bringing the news of freedom to that region's slaves–months after the South's surrender and 2–1/2 years past the Emancipation Proclamation.

That our ancestors were freed from slavery is wonderful. But that they toiled and lived, if they were lucky enough to, a bonus round in bondage because no one got around to telling them the news is horrible. Cynical. Sad.

We're there because we want to be, the value of our volunteering made ever clear by the heart–rending encounters–especially when the day is marred by rain or unseasonable cold–of those who wait in line a half–hour or more, who are there because they have to be, to eat.

For me, another part of Juneteenth is planning of the event—should we do chicken this year or burgers and brats?7—and when the day comes, the priceless faces of preschoolers when asked if they want baked beans or corn. The thank–yous we get in return are payment enough.

Add in singing groups and family activities and a bouncy castle, how could you not have fun? Still, what tinges the day with sadness for me is not its commemoration but its origin, best summed up in two words of black vernacular guaranteed to give any wannabe Chris Rock a field day:

"We free?"

It's not the embarrassment of the language but the concept of its truth that depresses me. It wasn't the first time slaves were deceived about their freedom, and not just in the South. Here in Minnesota, as far North as you can get, Dred Scott summered with his so–called master, only to be told by others after returning to Missouri: "Hey—did you know you were free when you were up there?"

That's what the whole case was about. Look it up.

We free yet, boss?

Maybe I'm just a stick in the mud, or over–internalizing long–ago oppression. Of course freedom is worth celebrating, even if slavery ended with a whimper instead of a bang. That, after all, is what Passover is about, and there's no question that holiday is a celebration and should be.

Originally published here:

Praying for Dad

Jennifer Stempel, My Jewish Learning, June 10, 2014



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For many, Father's Day is a time to honor our fathers, and this year, it has particular significance to my family. After my dad, Alan Skobin, survived an emotional battle with a rare form of pancreatic cancer, I am thrilled we get another opportunity to celebrate such an extraordinary man.

When life gives my dad lemons, he isn't the type to make the tried–and–true lemonade you can get anywhere. He's the one who turns them into world–class lemon meringue pie. He's always reaching for the next level, his motto being, "Above and beyond." He began his involvement with law enforcement as a teenager in the police explorers program, and continued to show his commitment to protecting and serving our community by ultimately finishing as police commissioner. My dad takes this philosophy when it comes to parenting, too. When I attended Northwestern University, he nearly bought out every Northwestern retailer, so he could sport purple pride from every inch of his body, every corner of his office, and every crevice of our home. That's how proud he was.

This is why he has so many friends. In fact, my dad is a professional friend collector. Everywhere we go, he either makes new friends or runs into old ones. Once, while walking down the streets of Amsterdam, my dad heard someone in the distance shouting, "Hey, Alan!" Even clear across the world, people look for opportunities to call him out as a friend. His old friends, like my father–in–law, Larry, know that he does anything to bring them joy. Since Larry loves all things Chicago Cubs, my dad once arranged for Larry's favorite ballplayer, Ernie Banks, to come for dinner, just to see the grin on Larry's face.

I am never more thankful for my dad's army of friends than when he is sick, because they play a significant role in his recovery. I remember one of the earlier times we dealt with a medical obstacle. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and if he survived, we were to expect a completely different man than we knew and loved. Before surgery, the phone rang off the hook and the doorbell chimed endlessly, as all his friends shared their prayers for a speedy recovery. Regardless of differing religious beliefs, "We're praying for you, Alan" replaced good–bye as the normal send off. I'm not certain that G–d heard these prayers, but my dad did, and at recovery's toughest moments, they reminded him that he was important to many. Miraculously, he recovered with minimal side effects. This year, as my dad fought pancreatic cancer, my brother and I used social media to update his community. With every post, the support was astounding. As my dad awakened from surgery, amazed that he had survived, he groggily exclaimed to my mom, "Can you imagine the power of prayer?" Afterwards, while he rested in bed, we read him the online responses, and his spirits lifted as he drifted to sleep.

It takes a village to battle serious health issues, and sometimes those of us who acutely support the sick need lifting, too. My mother's devotion to my dad never waned, and she stayed with him in the hospital even when it was unclear how long his stay would be. She never left his side, and would advocate for him when he wasn't able to do so for himself. This type of support takes both physical and emotional strength, and as my dad found his through the prayers of his supporters, so did my mom. Stoically, I comforted my family, voicing confidence in our doctors, as we remained publicly optimistic, but privately feared the worst. I learned quickly that the way to excellent post–operative care was through the stomachs of the nursing staff, and I stopped at our favorite Cuban bakery for some treats.

I also prayed. Seeking comfort in the traditions of Judaism, I never missed a Shabbat service. One of the most poignant moments of Shabbat for me is when the rabbi circles the room during the mi shebeirach, or prayer for healing, and the congregants voice the names of the ill. At one particular service, I was ready to say my dad's name, but before the rabbi reached me, I heard his name called by someone across the room. I felt the power of the prayers reaching me, and for the first time, I cried.

Because of my dad's army, I understand that his significance goes above and beyond his role as father to my brother and me. He is also a loving husband, a wise grandfather, a giving mentor, and most of all, a good friend. This father's day, as I reflect on the lives my dad has touched, I will include the other men who have influenced me, and send them a meaningful prayer. After all, you never know who's listening.

Originally published here:

A Recipe for Judaism — The Creolizing quality of our Jewish past and present

Jane Gordon, My Jewish Learning, June 2, 2014



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What makes a fish taste Jewish?

For some, the immediate answer will be pickling and a former home in freshwater. For others, the fish must be salmon–colored and, of course, smoked. For others still, Jewish fish is carp–poached, sweet, and served cold. For Jews in Jamaica, however, the fish will be whole and therefore small. Lightly fried, it will then soak in vinegar with thin slices of white onion and habanero peppers, grated carrot, sprigs of thyme, whole coriander seeds, and allspice balls. For the Jewish Colombians, add lemon.

What accounts for the range?

When describing how Jewish communities have embraced or resisted being changed when making homes in new and different circumstances, commentators typically turn to the metaphor of the bubble or the sponge.

In the first, a fragile and transparent but definite outer boundary insulates the (singular) Jewish community. It can see out and be seen but moves intact through a range of times and places. The bubble would burst if it actually landed and so Jewish people remain Jewish by avoiding becoming like others in their midst.

In the second model, we Jews are defined by our porousness, by unqualifiedly absorbing whatever is in proximity to us. The absence of any outer boundary amounts to an essential orientation of assimilation and openness. Who we are, in terms of any specific content, necessarily shifts with the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Called creolization, it offers a more accurate account of how Jewish communities have remained distinctively Jewish as they have become local to a variety of different parts of the globe. As my husband, Lewis Gordon, often emphasizes: for non–Eastern European Jews, Eastern European Jews seem very Eastern European. For non–Indian Jews, Cochim appear very Indian. But these ways of being local are salient precisely because we also recognize the Jewishness of and in each.

For those who understand Jewish strength as purity and any break from how things were done as dilution or pollution, the historical range of ways of being Jewish is a liability. For them, to be Jewish is to carry on the one, most familiar branch of a far vaster Jewish genealogical tree–to taste Jewish, the fish will be poached and served cold.

But there is also a way of being who we are in and through our relations with others. We might best express core Jewish values by adopting symbols and elements of ritual local to Istanbul, Albuquerque, or Kaifeng, Prague, Mbale, or Santiago. These might offer us the possibility of continuing who we have been through what is new.

Products of creolization typically pose a fundamental challenge to our previous self–understandings. They unsettle us because while they implicate us as Jews–they too are expressions of who we are–they take forms and suggest future trajectories that our standard conceptions of our people's past and present would not have anticipated.

That Judaism is thoroughly creolized is not new. What, after all, were the Roman Judaism of Josephus, the Andalusian Judaism of Moses Maimonides, and the American Judaism of Abraham Joshua Heschel?

What is novel is the opportunity to look into the refracted mirror of our 21st century community and to grapple with what it means for who we want to become. We would do well to add to the models of the bubble and sponge, the creolizing quality of our Jewish past and present.

Originally published here:

The 70 Faces of Shavuot

Maya Resnikoff , My Jewish Learning, May 27, 2014



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According to Jewish tradition, the Torah has seventy "faces," but is still one, unified Torah. On Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai with customs that celebrate the gift of Torah, and show the same diverse presentation of a few unifying core ideas. Each Jewish culture is unique, and at the same time, integrated with the worldwide Jewish community.

There are many special foods for Shavuot, in different Jewish cultures. Dairy is popular because, when the Israelites in the desert received the Torah, including the kosher laws, there was no kosher meat yet available. Torah is compared to honey, so many traditional Shavuot foods are sweet, as well. Persian Jews make "Polao mastin" a dish made of rice and milk, and "koltcha shiri," a dairy cake, while in Greece there is a special dairy porridge made with cinnamon called "sutlag." In Poland, cheesecake is the traditional Shavuot dessert. Libyan Jews make necklaces strung with cookies or pretzels in symbolic shapes for their children. Iraqi Jews make "sambusak," a savory pastry filled with cheese. The exact details of the menu are fluid–any interpretation of a dairy meal and dessert would be appropriate. This is an excellent opportunity to try out a new recipe, symbolic of our renewed relationship with Torah, or to take the time for an old family favorite, to celebrate your roots.

It is common for communities to prepare their synagogues for Shavuot with natural decorations. Greek Jews historically decorated their synagogues with green branches and a variety of flowers. Even today Bukharan Jews use red roses. In Poland, synagogues were decorated with flowers, branches, and paper cuttings called "reizelach," or roses, in Yiddish. German Jews would place two flowering branches on either side of the Ark, as a symbol that Torah is our Tree of Life. Consider decorating your synagogue or home with local, in season, flowers and greenery.

Traditional communities hold a "Tikkun Leil Shavuot," a nighttime Torah study session which can last anywhere from a couple of hours to all night long. In some communities this is held in the synagogue, while in others, it is located private homes. People may recite specific passages from different traditional texts, while others prepare different topics, which change from year to year. Study is a potent way of renewing our understanding of Torah.

Shavuot is full of opportunities for communal gatherings and fun. Libyan and Moroccan Jews spray water onto passersby, because the Torah is compared to water, and our reconnection to Torah is a source of blessing. Ethiopian Jews gather together, bringing bread and other grains for the Kes, their religious leader, to bless, after which the entire community eats together. On some Israeli Kibbutzim, people have revived the agrarian side of Shavuot and have a parade with baskets of the first produce of the season. Whether you want to make a meal with seasonal produce, or have a picnic and water balloon fight, you will be in good company among the global Jewish community.

Around the world, Jews celebrate Shavuot in a variety of ways—but at their root, they come back to the same sources and the same ideas. It celebrates the diverse ways in which we relate to Torah, all of which are true, just as we have diverse ways of celebrating, all of which are the real Jewish way to do things. One thing is for certain–whichever way you choose to celebrate Shavuot this year, you will meet one of Torah's seventy faces.

Originally published here:

The Gift of Generations: A Mother's Song

Sarah Aroeste, My Jewish Learning, May 20, 2014



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Mom. Mommy. Ima. Madre. Mother. No matter how many ways I say it, the concept still catches me by surprise sometimes. I am a mother now. Up until 7 months ago when someone would ask me a defining attribute of myself, I would have said I'm a Ladino singer. That's what I do; that's what I am.

Being a Ladino singer has always been more than an occupation for me—it's the fabric of my identity. Its roots run deeply through me—it's a responsibility I have to my Sephardic ancestors to keep their traditions and stories alive and to make sure they get passed on to future generations. And now I am responsible for a member of that future generation. I am a Ladino singer, and a mother.

As I look at my beautiful daughter now, I have been asking myself how I want to transmit my family tradition to her. What part of my Sephardic heritage do I want to pass down? Do I try to speak to her in Ladino, aware that she will have few people to speak it with as she grows older? Do I sing her Ladino songs each night so they get planted into her subconscious?

There is no doubt being a mother has already changed my performance repertoire. Although I pride myself on writing original music in Ladino, I have recently added a song into my sets that hails from the traditional canon. "Durme, Durme" is a song about how your heart actually aches when you watch over a loved one as (s)he sleep, because all you want now is to protect him/her from ever feeling sorrow.

Sleep, sleep beautiful one
Sleep without worry or sorrow.
Here is your slave whose only desire is
To watch over your sleep with the greatest of love
As time goes by my heart aches
With the love I have for you
Listen, listen my love
Listen to the song of my heartache.

Originally published here:

Samurai Yenta

Francesca Biller, My Jewish Learning, May 13, 2014



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It is hard to kvetch about being a Japanese Jew when you're being spoiled by ladles of chicken schmaltz spoon–fed to you by your father, while your mother asks if you would like some more teriyaki sauce on your beef yakitori.

And did I mention my parents arguing about whether both challah and rice should be served at every meal?

Let's just say they both usually got their way, which was a good thing. What's not to love about a dinner table with both borsht soup "and" miso soup, alongside beef brisket, sashimi and some latkes just for good measure?

While that may sound like an overly-exotic combination for some, the sharing of cultural recipes passed down from both cultural sides is what brought us closer together as a family.

As a kid, I assumed everyone had parents who debated whether lox or sautéed salmon was the healthier choice well before ‘Omega 3 Fatty acids’ was ever a religion, while I enjoyed both macaroons and mochi balls for dessert.

And the generation of food–love didn't end with my parents. My Jewish grandfather "Booby" made a hearty feast of sweet and sour cabbage stew. And my Japanese grandma "Hatsuyo" was known for her Sukiyaki, also known as ‘steamboat cooking’, made with beef, vegetables, soy sauce, sugar and sake.

Not so shabby.

You can bet my house was popular in my all-Jewish neighborhood. And I thought kids liked me for me. Who was I kidding? They just wanted to get closer to my mom's home–cooking.

Word got around alright, and I couldn't blame friends for wanting charoset and mandelbrodt served alongside chicken gyoza and udon noodles. And to make things brighter, my father was the resident stand–up comic with his borsht–belt humor and one–liners we awaited each night.

Dinnertime was "the time" we felt most connected; a moment when we could forget about the angst we often felt as a culturally blended family, in the days when interfaith families were far from being accepted.

Comedian Milton Berle once observed, "Any time a person goes into a delicatessen and orders a pastrami on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies."

Uncle Milty, perhaps that once "seemed" to be the case, but today there are Jews who enjoy a much more diverse palette. For example, at a Japanese restaurant last week, there were more Jewish patrons who knew varieties of California rolls than I did.

Soy Veh, this is a great thing.

Today, I am blessed with daughters of my own who I can lavish with tasty dishes that have been passed down from both sides of my food–obsessed family.

And yes, I will admit that I have officially become both my mother and my father, which used to be my greatest fear.

I recently guilted my older daughter when she wouldn't eat my larger than usual matzah balls. Under my breath I muttered, "Is it too much to ask that you should want to eat your own mother's food I spent all day cooking?"

And I channeled my father today when I asked my younger shayna maidel to tell jokes for people at the market, bribing her with some tasty knishes..

"Oh, don't be such a nudge," she said to me as she gave me a quick hug and prepared to deliver a joke that could rival my father's.

This is bashert, I thought. Each generation carrying on traditions that can only be described as poignant and even sweeter than my famous babkas.

Below you will find two favorite family recipes. May you serve and enjoy eating them with your family and friends.

And if you don't, worries. I'll just sit here in my kimono in the dark, eating a knish or two.


Grandfather Booby's Sweet and Sour Cabbage Stew


1–quart water
2 pounds beef brisket
2 onions, chopped fine
1–quart broth (beef)
2 cups tomatoes
1–cup tomato sauce
1 1/2 – 2 pounds cabbage, shredded fine
1 teaspoon salt
1–teaspoon ground pepper
2 tablespoons sugar

Extra ingredients such as potatoes, peas, and other vegetables can be added as well for variety.

Combine water, broth, and brisket in a large pot and bring to a boil, watching over carefully. Simmer and add other ingredients, stir as needed and simmer with cover for 2 and a half to three hours until meat is tender and soft.

Happily sample the stew and add additional seasoning to taste. The stew is best when accompanied by bread, potatoes, rice, and sides of horseradish and salads.

Grandmother Hatsuyo's Easy & Delicious Sukiyaki


1 cup water
2 pounds tender stew meat
1/4–cup sugar
1–teaspoon salt
1/4–cup soy sauce
1/2–pound baby carrots
1/2–cup Japanese sake
3 potatoes, peeled and chopped

Extra ingredients such as peas, cabbage, and fish are delicious too!

Simply put all ingredients into crock–pot on high for 4–6 hours or on low for 10–12. Can also be cooked on low heat in a large pot or skillet on stove.

Great for freezing and reheating for all hungry family members and guests for both lunch and dinner.

Originally published here:

Jewish Mother; Universal Mother

Lewis Gordon, My Jewish Learning, May 7, 2014


Patricia Gordon


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I am remembering a Jewish Universal mother. This woman was small in stature yet grand in her effect. A mother of three boys, she was an extraordinarily beautiful, dark–skin Black Jewish woman who left the island of Jamaica in the late 1960s. She had only $5 in her pocket, but she was rich with perseverance. After spending some time with relatives, she found work and then secured a modest one–bedroom apartment in the Bronx, where she managed to reunite with her boys, and over the years, in several other apartments and then a small two-bedroom townhouse, the only home she ever owned, took care of many relatives, friends, and their children.

Always facing the brutality from those who saw a young black woman as there for the taking, she fought hard to maintain her dignity and that of others. She became a union representative at her job; an organizer for the Democratic Party; a fighter for community resources here and there; and so much more for so many. She was so proud the day she became a U.S. citizen. She was well aware of the nation's racial and class contradictions. But she saw the best of what the country promised as something worth fighting for. She was not only a mother of three boys and then eventually a boy and girl whom she adopted but also a community's mother. As Sinead O'Connor would say: a universal mother.

Author Lewis Gordon and his mother, Patricia

So many people reached to her in times of need. Her closest friend, who I also consider to be a universal mother, twenty years ago faced every mother's greatest fear: Her son on his deathbed. He held on because he wanted to see his mother's best friend, whom he called his aunt, before he passed. It was in the midst of a snowstorm, and although his aunt was afraid of flying and most flights were grounded, she managed to secure a chartered flight that took her to him a thousand miles away. He died in her arms within an hour of her arrival.

We could think of such mothers all across the globe who held together otherwise devastated communities. They embrace so many in arms that although comforting and empowering are also fragile and mortal. The woman to whom I dedicate this mother's day died in an automobile accident en route to a birthday celebration for her eldest grandson. She received a funeral audience of nearly 2,000 people on short notice. Every one of them had a story of how she uniquely affected their life. Many called her their mother. Yet I knew this universal mother in a special way; I am one of the children from her womb.

There is no explanation for the loss of someone so spiritually powerful that we expected her to live forever. It shakes the soul to lose someone who seemed invulnerable. To my mother, Yvonne Patricia Solomon, I love you. I miss you. A thousand years with you would have still been too short. I thank G–d, in spite of my anger and sorrow at my family's loss, for all you gave to so many in the little under 61 years you spent in this world.

Originally published here:

Katy Perry is no Sasha Baron Cohen

Aryeh Weinberg, My Jewish Learning, May 6, 2014



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So Katy Perry thinks she's Sasha Baron Cohen, in possession of that subtle talent that turns offense into parody. Problem is, she is missing one very crucial element to her "shtick." She's not funny.

A video circulating on the interwebs features Ms. Perry dressed up in a variety of intentionally ridiculous getups, from an aged Las Vegas showgirl to an animal farm operator, each character ranging from odd to creepy. This is fine for abstract characters, but her depiction of a Jewish Bar Mitzvah DJ willing to do anything for money among her cast of characters raises a host of questions, not just about the diva herself, but about prejudice and power in America today.

Katy is no Sacha. She displayed all of the base offensive aspects of risky humor without any of the brilliant subtext that can make racially, ethnically and religiously oriented humor funny and, at times, poignant. In fact, Perry's Jewish stereotype was so devoid of any redeeming quality, it makes one question whether she even understands the difference between ridiculing a rodeo clown and a Jew. Maybe she doesn't.

This is not Katy Perry's first foray into racial politics. She was widely lambasted for a video that many argued used offensive stereotypes about Asians. One might have expected that the backlash would have made Katy and her handlers a tad more careful. The introduction of "Yosef Shulem," (who doesn't do funeral's...but will for the right price) seems to indicate otherwise.

So what's the deal? Is Katy Perry a bigot? Does she feel similarly free to caricature other races, ethnicities and religions? Or does she feel uniquely emboldened vis–à–vis Jews and Asians? The truth is that we don't know for sure what Perry's personal views are, there is something else going on here.

Jews and Asians share a precarious place in American society. They are the "model minorities," still differentiated from general American society by their racial, ethnic and cultural attributes, but simultaneously regarded as having "made it." The politics of prejudice in America are closely tied to perceptions of power and barriers against bigotry diminish for groups that are seen as privileged. In a sense, minority success brings with it a decreasing ability for the minority group in question to dictate what is or is not offensive.

No matter Perry's true personal views of Jews or Asians, it is very unlikely that these two groups were selected by happenstance. Katy is cultivating, like her contemporaries, a risqué reputation. Instead of wagging her tongue and twerking like Miley Cyrus, she is playing with cultural taboos. Unfortunately for her, she does not have the cultural bandwidth to intelligently, and humorously, riff off of racial and ethnic stereotypes. We do not see her bravely representing anti–Black, anti–Latino, anti–Muslim or anti–LGBTQ characters for a reason. She can't do it in a way that would not simply be offensive. Instead we see her picking the low hanging fruit, dabbling in anti–Semitism and Orientalism without much thought about what it means, either in the context of general society, or in her shows. But given her cultural influence, such disregard has broad implications. We have every right to expect better.

Originally published here:

Tarnished Sterling: The Moral of the Story

Diane Tobin, My Jewish Learning, May 2, 2014



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Donald Sterling's conversation with his former girlfriend is a veritable cornucopia of dysfunction. Bubbling to the top is the obvious racism, no doubt bolstered by a long history of discrimination in his real estate holdings. But intermixed with his bigotry, Sterling displays a host of other character flaws, from elitism to vanity to hypocrisy. It takes a special type of racist to tell his half–Latino half–black, less–than–half–his–age girlfriend not to be photographed with black men. But what many overlook is the near crippling fear that Sterling is operating under.

For the purposes of National Basketball Association, or most of American society for that matter, it is not particularly important why Sterling holds the views he does, only that he be reprimanded. In the Jewish community, however, it matters a great deal. You see Sterling is not simply expressing hatred toward black people. He is doing that, undoubtedly. But what seems to be motivating him is his fear of what association with black people could mean for his girlfriend and by extension, himself. He is operating according to a worldview in which racial or ethnic identity is the determinant factor in whether one succeeds or fails in life, and it seems very much as if he is afraid of being ousted as a fraud.

Why would a man who arguably faces no barriers to entry in all walks of life, with enough money to do as he wishes, be afraid of what others think of him? Enter the complex dynamics of a once pitiful and oppressed minority operating within the racial construct of the United States. Jews came to America for opportunity, as did many. Jews were not alone in seeking legitimacy in America, but perhaps differently than other peoples who were differentiated by the color of their skin, Jews were able to attain acceptance, in part, by passing as, and eventually, becoming white.

American Jews owe no apologies for embracing their dominant European identity. The security to choose how we want to live our lives regardless of the social realities around us is a newly found luxury. However, this does not absolve us of recognizing the ways in which the transition to "whiteness" in America has impacts our community. Part of becoming white in America has meant becoming embroiled in the racial politics, and while Jews have often been on the right side of the fight against racism, pretending that racism hasn't crept in would be folly. Racism is not dead yet, neither in general American society, nor within the Jewish community.

It is dying, however—at least in its current incarnation. The changing demographics of the American population make it all but a foregone conclusion that the America that Donald Sterling lives in will end as a more multicultural America takes its place. As people of color become the majority of the country's population over the next few decades, a transition that's already happened among the nation's youngest residents, it is important for the Jewish community to understand what this means for us.

The Jewish community, tragically, risks irrelevancy if it remains stuck in a past where whiteness is perceived as necessary for survival. Tragic, because whiteness, or any form of mono–culturalism is foreign to the long history of Jewish identity. The American future portends a dramatic reversal, where groups stuck in a racialized past, unable to embrace multiculturalism in America, and more importantly, within their own communities, become relics. The good news is that multiculturalism is natural to Judaism. Jews represent perhaps the most culturally, ethnically, and racially mixed people on the planet. It is this narrative of the Jewish people that the American Jewish community must embrace while sloughing off the fear–based perspective clung to by the Donald Sterlings of the world.

Originally published here:

For Cryin' Out Loud, It's A Culture, Not A Race!

Deborah Jiang-Stein, My Jewish Learning, April 29, 2014



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There's not a "look" to Jewish, you just are. This is what I was raised to believe in the Jewish family that adopted me. So why is being Jewish equated with race, with a skin color and ethnicity? I am multiracial. While I'm still in the midst of DNA testing, so far I've learned I'm part Taiwanese, Greek, a possible thread from East Africa, and more. I check the "Other" box on forms.

When my parents took our family to temple every year for the High Holidays, all I wanted to do was crawl under the chair in the sanctuary and hide. When my brother had his bar mitzvah, I wanted to hide, too. When my mother sent me to Sunday school and Hebrew class while she volunteered, I wanted to hide. And throughout my early adulthood, I actually did hide that fact that I was raised in a Jewish home.

Why do people stare I wondered? "You're exotic," my parents told me in their desire to help. It didn't though. Nothing helped my non–Jewish features and caramel skin color look more Jewish. But wait. What is that look? Is Muslim a color, or does Christianity have a skin color? Israelis have olive skin, and some even look like they could be from Latin America, or India. Some of my friends are atheist Jews, which is something I adore about the religion. One can be atheist and still considered Jewish. Judaism is as much a cultural practice as it is a religion, and culture is important in shaping identity.

When I entered motherhood began to raise my daughters, I reconnected with Judaism. As with else, "I take what I like, and leave the rest." I sought out the meditations and music and beliefs of Judaism that I felt would support our family in a spiritual journey.

"So how did you come to Judaism?" a teacher in my oldest daughter's Jewish school once asked. I knew the implication: she'd assumed I married into the faith, or I converted. I identify as Jewish even though people don't see it. We are a mixed Asian Jewish family, and the values of Judaism teach us to include everyone. "There is not one face of Judaism, but many," one of my daughters once said when she was in grade school.

Before my adoption, I was in foster care, and before that, I was born in a prison. While I no longer hold any shame or stigma about my roots, there's an unspoken aspect of secrecy I sense in the Jewish culture, a sense of a need for secrecy and shrouding of the wounds and pain of the past. I've seen it in the hesitancy of the offspring of holocaust survivors to hide the deep pain of those inhumane atrocities. Yet, as the younger generation, we need to witness the pain and share it so that we can tell the stories and make sure we triumph over future anti Semitism, racism, and other persecutions and cultural malfunctions and viciousness.

This topic of secrecy can hit a raw nerve in the Jewish community. It's also reflected in other cultures that come out of persecution, to keep the in–talk "amongst ourselves." Why is that? Is it out of a history of persecution, where safety is threatened if "outsiders" know "insider info?" But I think raising our voices will strengthen us, not weaken us.

When a (most likely) Eastern European Jew casts an inquisitive look in my direction, I bear any off–putting look by keeping in mind the history: Jews were once slaves in Egypt and strangers in another land. You'd think the web of acceptance would cast wide for The Other. I–m raising my children to include the stranger, to reach out to those who may feel the outsider. And we are not strangers, as the Torah makes clear–all are invited and we are obligated to be inclusive.

A wave of Jews of color is flooding mainstream Judaism and, I hope, raising awareness in communities of all colors and religions, non–Jews and Jews alike. These days when I encounter the comment, "But you don't look Jewish" I use it as a teaching moment, to look that person in the eye and voice the truth: "But this is what a Jew looks like."

Deborah Jiang–Stein is a national speaker and founder of The unPrison Project ( a 501(c)3 nonprofit working to empower incarcerated women and girls with life skills and mentoring to prepare for a successful life after prison. Deborah is the author of the memoir, Prison Baby, published by Beacon Press, described as "One woman's struggles–beginning with her birth in prison–to find self–acceptance, proving that redemption and healing are possible, even from the darkest corners."

Originally published here:

Our Jewish African Roots

Isaiah Rothstein, My Jewish Learning, April 14, 2014



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Though the Ethiopian sun beat down on our necks as we layed mortar and brick for the school's foundation in Gondar, Ethiopia, no suntan lotion could prevent the mark our ancient discovery would bring us as we made our way through buried past of our Jewish family, the Jews of Ethiopia...

Last winter I had the distinct pleasure of joining the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) cohort of twenty–five young professionals on a journey to Ethiopia. Charged with passion for social justice, and a commitment to peoples in need, each of us brought a unique perspective on Judaism, Ethiopians and the world of poverty. Each of us came with stories; each longed to heal the fractured world, but none shared the perspective of being an Orthodox Jewish rabbinical student who is empowered by his dual heritage of both African and European descent; who proudly identifies as a Jew of Color. None, that is, except me.

I was captured in a state of knowing that a part of my family once originated just west of Ethiopia, I was entangled in a state of feeling that I was among the few who were lucky enough to explore the story of the African Jews of yesteryear, and I was saddened by the living conditions of the "Third World," and wondered how it got this way.

After an entire day of supplying medication to dozens of shifts of schoolchildren who get repeatedly sick because of the disease infested water, our JDC cohort began a new and uncharted journey through the tall grass on the outskirts of the Gondar village. Soon we saw a large enclosed area in the middle of the field. We hopped in. Dan, a member of the JDC year–long fellowship was the first one in, I was the second. "I'm pretty sure this is the Jewish cemetery," he murmured as we took our first steps. Dumbstruck, I stammered "wh–where?..." He turned around to look at me, and then at the ground, then back at me and said sharply "right. here." I felt lost for a moment, and then notice a rectangular formation of rocks and realized we were walking over graves.

After coming to my senses, I called for the group to go around the enclosed field and meet us at the other side. Dan, myself, and the few others plowed through until we were at the peripheral area. As we reached the end of the field, there were four tombstones standing strong with Amharic chalked onto the stone. Maybe they were wealthy Jews? A rabbinic family? Recent deaths (within the last 200 years)? we had no idea. Like Jacob in the Torah (Genesis 28:17), we did not know the greatness of this struck me.

Standing around these graves we looked to one another. I realized no matter how far the cultural and religious ties from the reality of most of our current communities, as a future rabbi, as the only clergy on the trip, I knew words must be shared, and the silence had to be broken.

"One of the most vicious ways to go to war against a people is through destroying their culture and way of life. Many cultures would bury total cities to erase their opponents from history, and yet, the very fact that there is knowledge that there is a Jewish cemetery shows the intense commitment of our ancestors before us. Despite religious practice, wealth or pressures from the outside world, these Jews in their hundreds, stuck together. Child after child, parent after parent joined in life and as we see, in death with their Jewish roots.

"In a world of so much fragmentation, we must not mistake that brokenness will not find itself in the strongest of families. As we the Jewish people engage in the struggle unify our communities, let this experience remind us that if our ancestors died together, through all the troubles of exile, then we, the living, must live together despite all that challenges to do otherwise."

We recited King David's Pslams 23 "The Lord is my Shepherd I shall lack nothing..." and we began our walk back to the center where our Jeeps and JDC personnel took us back to civilization. As the cohort was in the distance, I walked slowly and I took one last glance at the graves of my people, and said "thank you, thank you, thank you."

So the sun may wane, and the mark may fade, but the blessing in the Amidah to "gather the exiles from the four corners of the earth," will forever include not just those close to my community, but also our Jewish brothers and sisters in Ethiopia, thousands of years old.

Originally published here:

How Much is Dayenu? $35

Robin Washington, My Jewish Learning, April 14, 2014



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It was at his older brother's bar mitzvah that 9–year–old Josh Levy gave the answer to a question we all wanted to know:

How much money is enough?

"$35," he said from the front–row pews of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in suburban Minneapolis.

Although I had been encouraging call-and-response in my Dvar Torah in January, I didn't quite understand what he meant (which I'll get to it in a bit) and went on talking about the concept of Dayenu. The impetus was the Parshat Beshalach, which deals with the liberation from Egypt and the crossing into Sinai, though Dayenu isn't in it.

"It's a much later poem first appearing in the 9th century," Rabbi David Steinberg of Temple Israel in Duluth told me.

However it got into the liturgy, would it really have been dayenu — good enough — to have been freed from slavery only to die in the desert?

It also conflicts with a passage that says the children of Israel celebrated their liberation with a song — Shirat HaYam — before kvetching to Moses about life in the desert. And a concept that seems almost sacrilegious to me are the verses stating it would have been good enough to have been fed on manna for 40 years and led to the Promised Land but not to have gotten the Torah.

What kind of religion is that — where you get tons of good stuff but don't have any obligations in return? That's even better than getting permission from a Bet Din to have a beer at Target Field on Pesach.

None of this is to say I don't appreciate the fundamental value of liberation, which the late James Brown explained as cogently as the rabbis who stayed up all night:

"We'd rather die on our feet than live on our knees," he sang in "Say it Loud!" (rhyming the line with "the birds and the bees.")

That too was call and response, and a key word in both his song and Dayenu is "we" — a personalization of affliction, past and today.

So I get it, though to truly understand good enough, you also have to deconstruct "good" and "enough." Was manna good? It's described as being tasty, though interpretations suggest it could have been anything from mushrooms to bird droppings. Regardless, the passage says the people tired of it after a while. Maybe it was more than enough of a good thing.

As for "enough," exactly how much is enough — especially when it comes to money?

Fortunately, Josh was paying attention, and gave the $35 answer to the $64,000 question. The amount, his grandmother explained afterward, was the remaining cash he needed to buy an iPod.

Good answer. And enough said.

Originally published here:


Meaningful Conversations about Difference at Passover

Sarah Spencer, My Jewish Learning, April 10, 2014



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Passover is a time for people to gather around tables, share stories, food, and rituals. It can be joyous and exciting. But like with any communal setting, it can also be complicated to navigate the different needs and agendas people bring to the table. Still, if we follow Jewish tradition, we will find Passover can be a model for how to create positive diverse communal connections. It's rituals and structures teach us to talk across differences and celebrate commonalities.

Passover is about story telling. And good communication is based on the ability to tell our own stories. Before we gather to celebrate our common identity, we must each own our personal story. Judaism has an oral history, and we have survived by telling those stories and passing them down through the generations. Passover brings us together to celebrate a universal experience of slavery to freedom, a concept everyone can relate to in some way or another. This is the theme around which the story telling takes place on this particular evening. Having a common theme around which to tell stories, a theme with which people from different places or times can identify, is one of the ways in which people can connect across differences.

Originally published here:


Children's Passover Books

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, April 8, 2014



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Passover is a time for storytelling. One of the main purposes of the holiday is to allow one generation to tell the next generation the story of how we came out of Egypt and journeyed from slavery to freedom. There are many children’s books that engage young minds by going beyond the telling found in the traditional Passover haggadah. In choosing among the possible additions the Seder, we have focused on books that celebrate the diversity of Jewish families and those that introduce the themes of Passover in new or particularly engaging ways:

A relatively newcomer to the Passover scene is the colorfully appealing Afikomen Mambo, by Joe Black and illustrated by Linda Prater. Sold together with the book is a CD with performance by Black, who is well known for his music. Geared to the 3–7 set, this playful combination of illustration and song, do exactly what the Afikomen is meant to do — pique the interest and engagement of the younger set so they stay awake until the end of the Seder. Somewhat puzzling is the plethora of children and the paucity of adults seated around the table. From the looks of it, one set of parents has invited a whole brood of young ones to join in the Passover fun. But at least everyone looks happy doing the Afiokmen Mambo.

Originally published here:


7 Charoset Recipes to Give Passover an International Flair

Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, April 1, 2014



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Charoset is the star of the seder plate. Amidst the parsley leafs and lamb shanks, this sweet sticky treat teases and tantalizes as we make our way through the story telling. Charoset recalls the mortar used by the Israelites when they were slaves. Jews, spread over the four corner of the earth, and brought the story of the Exodus and the celebration of Passover to every land.

With time, the recipes for Charoset reflected local ingredients and tastes. Whether you make one, two or all of the seven classic and modern recipes we have collected, we doubt that you will be able to wait until the seder to taste these outstanding Charoset!

Uganda: Tziporah Sizomu's Charoset Recipe

Tziporah Sizomu is a leader in the Abayudaya community in Uganda. Passover is an especially meaningful holiday for the Abayudaya. Her husband Gershom is the community rabbi and Tziporah is responsible for the Shabbat and holiday meals that are eaten together by the Abayudaya as a community. Apples are expensive, as they must be imported from South Africa, while peanuts, known as groundnuts, are local to Uganda. This Charoset makes a fabulous spread for Matzah all week long! (Note: peanuts are legumes and there are some Jews who do not eat them during Passover. They can be replaced them with cashews.)

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Preparing for Passover in Guatemala

Jeannette Orantes, My Jewish Learning, March 27, 2014



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Wow!! Again, the time is almost here and there are plenty of things to do. One of our favorite holidays is near and we have to prepare everything. PESACH IS COMING!

For Adat Israel in Guatemala City, Passover is a special celebration. We are a community with 30 members, with Rabbi Elyse Goldstein who is our rabbi. We all feel like going out from Egypt being released and we are not slaves any more. The first step is to gather the money. We have to buy our matzah in Guatemala there is only one store where we can buy it, so we wait until they have the price. We also have matzah ball mix and Passover cake from Canada. Delicious!!

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A Modern Passover Miracle

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, My Jewish Learning, March 25, 2014


(Seated left to right). Rabbi Yonadav Keki (Rabbi Sizomu's father), Rabbi Samson Mugombe (Rabbi Sizomu's Grandfather), Rabbi Zakayo Mumbya, Rabbi Yaakov Were. (Standing left to right, Gabbaim) Solomon Ndu, Yechu Wetege, Eliyahu usamba, Yaakov Kasakya, Peter Mubbale, Yechoas Kaweke)


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This modern Passover Miracle story is perfect for sharing with friends and family at your Seder.

At Passover, every person is supposed to feel as though he himself left Egypt. For me and the Jewish community of Uganda, we do not need to imagine. In our lifetime, we were rescued from ‘slavery’ and saved by divine intervention in order to celebrate.

When Field Marshal Iddi Amin Dada took power in Uganda by way of the gun in 1971, he outlawed Judaism and confiscated our synagogues and most of the Hebrew books. Practice of Judaism was punishable by death. He was a modern day Pharaoh. He gave the community two alternatives, either to convert to Islam or Christianity, or remain unaffiliated. He murdered anyone suspected of opposing his rule and judicial executions were the order of the time. Many Abayudaya feared for their lives and converted to the two majority religions, Islam and Christianity. However, things did not go well for the Christians either. The Archbishop of the Church of Uganda was run over by army trucks in a stage–managed accident; and the chief Justice, who was also Christian, was shot dead on Amin's orders.

Growing up during this era was a hard pill to swallow. Adults and children would shout insults at Jews and no one did anything to stop them. We were not permitted to wear any Jewish symbols including kippot. Nor were we allowed to appear anywhere near the synagogue premises. We dared only to pray and learn under the cover of the night in our bedrooms. My father, Rabbi Yondav Keki, was caught studying Torah in the Sukkah that he had built in the back yard of our house and only survived after the arresting officer demanded a bribe. Three leaders of the community, including Yaakov Were and Yaakov Kasakya, were arrested and tortured for collecting iron sheets that had been blown off the roof of the Moses Synagogue in Nabugoya.

In that same year when a hijacked plane full of Jews was held at Entebbe by Palestinian terrorists with the permission of Amin, a fast was secretly declared and silent prayers were conducted, each family praying in their bedrooms. The daring rescue of the hostages gave hope to community members that soon or later Amin would go.

This came to pass on Wednesday 11, April 1979, corresponding to 14 Nisan, 5739, Erev Pesach when the new Government, comprised of Ugandan rebels and Tanzanian troupes, declared freedom of worship. This was considered a miracle from above and was celebrated in a special style. More than four cups of 80% proof Uganda banana wine were served making everyone excessively happy by the end of the Seder. No more than 300 of the nearly 3,000 earlier members remained steadfast and loyal to Judaism, which makes me think that had Amin's regime continued for another five years, the community would not have survived.

Passover remains a special moment for all us. I will always remember my first Seder ever. It is amazing that the reign of terror ended and that freedom of worship was reinstated at the season of freedom. Each year as the community grows, Passover is the moment that we celebrate both our ancient and modern freedom. With the help of Jews from around the world the synagogue that was destroyed is being rebuilt to be better and stronger than ever and the numbers of our community have nearly returned to their earlier size. That Uganda would have been a Jewish state had Herzl's proposal been successful, that the hijackers chose Entebbe airport as their final resting place, and that Amin like Pharoah was humiliated on the Eve of Pesach could not have simply been a mere coincidence. It was our Passover miracle.

If you would like Rabbi Gershom Sizomu to visit your community please contact

Originally published here:


My Interracial Marriage Isn't That Exotic

Alex Barnett, My Jewish Learning, March 18, 2014



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Those of you who follow my comedy know that my wife is a Black woman who converted to Judaism. What you also know is that we have a young son who is Biracial and Jewish. As a result, I can tell you that Black–Jewish relations in our family are at an all–time high.

But, we are not an anomaly. Since time immemorial, there has been a connection, a bond, between Black and Jewish people. Perhaps it's our respective histories of oppression. Perhaps it's because of our mothers, who are overbearing, intrusive and force us to eat. Perhaps it's because without us, there would be no music industry. Whatever the reason, the simple fact is that there is a bond between Blacks and Jews.

My wife and I are not the first mixed–race couple ever. Far from it. Nor will we be the last. Our union is not even particularly ground–breaking. Neither of our families threatened to disown us if we got married. Crazy people in sheets didn–t commit violence against us. Racist law enforcement officials didn't threaten us with jail–time if we, in fact, got married.

No, we just got married one Sunday morning. Then, we went home from the synagogue, and, as our honeymoon, we took a nap. The world kept spinning on its axis. The Sun rose and set that day, and everyone more or less went about their business. No one had a conniption fit (except for our families because we didn't invite any family members to the ceremony).

Like I said, uneventful.

But, in retrospect, I realize it was not so uneventful. While the number of mixed–race families (and, indeed, mixed–race people) is growing all the time, mixed–race couples still are not so common as to be the norm. Admit it, when you see a Black person with a White person, you notice. How can you not? It's different. It's Black skin juxtaposed with White skin. There is a contrast. It is not, as my fashion designer wife would say, "so matchy–matchy."

So, being in a mixed–race couple still is different. It still engenders looks, still raises eyebrows, still causes people to stop, look, point, stare and/or comment. And, by the way, I'm not simply accusing others. I do it myself. If I see a mixed–race couple when I'm walking around, I notice them too. (Then, I usually offer them a subtle head nod, as if to say, "yep, me too. Peace.").

And I'm okay with that. I'm okay with being noticed. Who wants to be the same as everyone else? That's so Scandinavian.

So, yes, it's fine that people look. But, while they are noticing that we may look a little different than an "average" or "normal" couple (whatever that may mean), they shouldn't assume that we are any different. But, they do. People are convinced there's something afoot. They cannot believe it's possible that we could just love each other. Surely, there must be a story. Surely something must be up. Surely I must be trying to rebel against my parents. Rebel against my parents?! I waited until I was 44 years old to get married. That was the rebellion, and I won. At this point, the only way left for me to rebel would be to steal their Social Security checks.

Or people think we got married because we find each other exotic. My wife is not exotic. Exotic is a woman, whose father is a wealthy, French diplomat and whose mother is an artist from a Third World Country. Exotic is a woman who is a beauty pageant winner turned political dissident who's in the U.S. because she's seeking political asylum. Exotic is a woman who speaks three languages besides English. Exotic is a woman who gives up the fame and riches of her modeling career to work in an orphanage in a place where the median wage is 50 cents a day. My wife is not those things. My wife is just a person. She just happens to be a Black person. Don't get me wrong. My wife is beautiful, intelligent and independent, but she's not exotic. Her favorite outfit to wear around the house is jeans and a sweatshirt or sweatpants and a hand–knitted cardigan sweater. In short, my wife is a special person (especially to our son and me), but she's not a Ninja–slash–runway model.

Oprah is more exotic than my wife because Oprah is a Black, female billionaire, and there's only about 1 of those in the whole World. If I were married to Oprah, then, yeah, you could say I'm looking for something exotic. You could also say I'm incredibly lucky because I just became a billionaire by marriage. But, I'm not married to Oprah. I'm married to my wife, who I love, but who is about as exotic as the oatmeal that she eats for breakfast everyday.

And, I'm only exotic if you're a home–schooled, evangelical Christian from Kansas who's never met a neurotic Jewish hypochondriac before. I'm only exotic if you've never seen an episode of Seinfeld.

Point is, what my wife and I have done by getting married is not yet commonplace, but it's not otherworldly. We are an interracial couple, not inter–species. Neither of us has a tail or a ridged forehead. She's a Black woman, not a Klingon. And, I'm White. I'm not Casper. Not transparent. Not see–through.

So the next time you see us (or a couple like us, by which I mean a couple where the partners have different skin colors but who are otherwise remarkably human in their appearance), feel free to wave and say "hi" or just ignore us like you ignore everyone else while you're busy with your day. Because remember, we're just like you . . . except much, much cooler.

Originally published here:


Jewish Joy At Carnival

Rabbi Juan Mejia, My Jewish Learning, March 14, 2014



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Carnival, Mardi Gras, Carnaval. These words convey exhuberance, dancing, masks, and overflowing joy (and often excess). From Rio to New Orleans, from Venice to Antigua, the week before the beginning of Lent has always been punctuated with explosions of color, music and parades. And although our own Jewish carnival (Purim) is usually just around the corner and this custom is strongly attached to the Catholic calendar, it is very hard for any local citizen or visitor, Jew or Gentile, to strange himself from the celebrations. The cities that follow this ancient custom usually close down completely during the revelry and just by stepping out of the house one is usually swallowed up in the celebrations.

A few weeks ago, I was celebrating Shabbat with an emergent community of Jews in the port city of Barranquilla in Colombia. I had been invited to perform some weddings and oversee some conversions over a weekend that happened to be coincide with the one of the most splendidly colorful carnavals in the world: the Carnaval de Barranquilla (declared one of the Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity). Given that hosting our Shabbaton in Barranquilla during carnaval would make it a logistical nightmare, we decided to take a break and move it to a quiet resort in the nearby city of Santa Marta. The Shabbaton was a moving and peaceful event full of song, words of Torah, and white linen. But as the sun set and we celebrated the weddings for the new couples, the distant carnaval caught up with us. We had not finished sweeping the broken glass from the chuppah when out of nowhere jumped a reveller in the multicolored persona of the Monocuco (a masked and veiled harlequin with a scepter that teases the crowd). The little girls changed their Shabbat best for red polka dotted dresses and crazy hairdoes, portraying “la Loca” (the crazy woman). And, here and there, through the crowd one could distinguish the undisputed traditional symbol of the the carnaval, the Marimonda (a cheeky anthropomorphic character with the trunk and ears of an elephant, a necktie and big round eyes). The joy of the newlywed Jewish couples mingled with the traditions of their beloved city to create a perfect celebration that lasted well into the dawn of the next day. oung and old, costumed and more collected, danced the night away covered in corn starch and foam to the rhythms of traditional horas punctuated with salsas, merengues, porros, and chirimías.

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Esther's Secret Identity

Robin Washington, My Jewish Learning, March 11, 2014



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Several years ago, I started a new job in a new city and wanted to check out a local synagogue. A co–worker, Francine, also Jewish though less practicing than me, came along for the ride.

"One thing," I told her before we went in. "Don't tell them we're Jewish."

She agreed. Then promptly blew it.

"Hi. We're both Jewish and my friend just moved to town, and..."

What I had wanted to know was how they would perceive me: bi–racial and not easily ethnically identifiable, and with a surname rapidly becoming recognized as the blackest in America. (I also thought a covert operation might help in finding out if new members were to be socked with a building fund.)

Jews have been traveling incognito centuries, though not necessarily undercover from other Jews. From Crypto–Jews to escapees from the pogroms and the Holocaust, it's a story of survival that encompasses every permutation of identity, secret or otherwise. Clark Kent may not have been Jewish, but who can say about Superman?

And then there's Esther, whose beauty so strikes King Ahasuerus of Persia that he marries her without even asking what religion she is (who performed that ceremony?) Though her cousin and legal guardian Mordecai seems to be the most public Jew in Persia, the king never connects those dots, and Mordecai instructs her to stay mum. Full disclosure comes only after Haman plots to kill all Jews, including, he learns too late, the king's beloved wife.

I've never been sure what to make of the Purim story. It and the Song of Songs are the only two books in the Torah in which God doesn't make an appearance. Maybe it's something about kings falling in love with beautiful women.

More likely the message is "don't be prejudiced," with which I agree, and "or else," which I find more troubling: The hanging of Haman, his 10 sons, and the slaying of 75,000 others is more than a little excessive. Sounding a noisemaker is one thing. Decimating a population the size of Evanston, Ill., is another.

All this, and the Jews' subsequent good fortune under Ahasuerus, is made possible by Esther's timing in outing herself. Had she made that revelation earlier, Haman – if he had exercised more opportunism than racism – could have done away with Mordecai and not the rest of the Jews. But because she waited we saw his true colors.

I've experienced something like that: white people saying the n–word in front of me, and Jews using schwartze, not knowing I'm black; blacks speaking derisively of Jews unaware of that part of my heritage. I'm happy to say it happens infrequently these days, but maybe less because of improved racial understanding than the way I pre–empt it by introducing myself: "Hi, I'm Robin Washington. I'm a Black Jew."

Still, there are other times when it's best to let my ethnic ambiguity speak for itself. Not to hide anything, just not volunteering; and with race an illusion created by humans, letting people draw whatever conclusion they want.

That also works with my name, by the way. A surefire sign that someone doesn't know me is when I get a letter or email addressed to "Ms. Robin Washington."

She sounds lovely, but I doubt as beautiful as Esther.

Originally published here:


Celebrate Purim with Persian Flare—and Hamantaschen

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, March 6, 2014



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With Purim on the horizon, we’ve got Queen Esther—and hamantaschen—on the mind.

If you're looking for a way to introduce children to the story of Purim but also want pay homage to its Persian roots, this children’s book, The Story of Queen Esther, weaves the classic tale of the woman who saved the Jewish people with bold and colorful Persian-inspired illustrations.

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Beyond Hamantaschen: Purim Celebrates Diversity

Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, March 4, 2014


Join us for Purim Unmasked at the JCCSF on March 16th!


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Despite its air of frivolity, or perhaps because of it, the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim offers the opportunity to explore the challenges we face when it comes to identity inclusion and race. Both the story of Purim and the rituals of the holiday speak directly to a contemporary sensibility and provide us with some important lessons for living in a diverse multicultural world.

The king of the story of Purim, Achashverosh lived in the city of Shusan in ancient Persia. But his kingdom was vast, stretching over 70 nations from India to Africa. People of many backgrounds and religions came under his rule, including Jews and he was glad to host all at his palace. According to the legends of the Indian and Ethiopian Jewish communities, Jews had lived in those lands even before the Purim story era. The king had a Jewish advisor, named Mordechai (Esther's uncle and guardian) but that did not mean he was aware of the value of the Jews as part of his multicultural empire. The king allowed Haman to threaten to destroy the Jews.

Ultimately redemption of the Jews serves not only as an omen of Jewish good fortune but also as a reminder of the folly of any society that does not value all its people. Among the many nations, the Jews as a group were singled out because of one element of their identity. By contrast, we need to be able to see people for who they are and not judge them negatively for being different; otherwise we will be no better than Haman.

Esther, the heroine for whom the biblical story is named, is a complex character. Born to a prominent Jewish family, she hides her Jewish identity to become queen. There is no record of what she looked like but her look must not have stood out as distinctly Jewish to others, allowing her to ‘pass’ undetected as a Jew. All of us have elements of our identities that are immediately visible to others and elements of our identities that are hidden. Esther's ability to conceal her Judaism allowed her to navigate the politics of the palace community.

Every one of us, to greater and lesser degrees, learns to navigate different social and cultural settings, putting forward or concealing elements of who we are. At the same time, we often are seen as who we are on the surface, which can be misleading or not tell the full story. Haman, might have been more strategic about his approach to the Jews had he understood that one of the king's favorite wives was a Jew. Living in a diverse society demands both the capacity to navigate elements of our own identity as well as be aware of our biases and assumptions about others.

And as everyone knows, the customary costumes provide a real life opportunity kids and adults alike to try on different identities. But even the foods, hamantaschen cookies filled with sweets, the raviolis that Italian Jews eat, or the kreplach of Eastern European Purim tradition, all have a hidden element, challenging us to look beyond the surface.

Purim is a festive holiday with much fun and good food. But concealed in the story and in the rituals of the day are a series of complex and meaningful issues that demand our attention in an increasingly global world.

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A Jewban Family Tradition: Ropa Vieja

Jennifer Stempel, My Jewish Learning, February 25, 2014



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I am often asked whether I feel more Cuban–American than Jewish, or vice versa, and it has always struck me as an odd question. That's like asking whether I like my right eye better than my left. Sure, if you close one eye, you can still see, but the world looks so much better with both eyes open. That is sort of how I feel about my two cultures. On the surface, it may seem like my Cuban culture is in direct conflict with my Jewish one, particularly when it comes to the pork–friendly nature of Cuban cuisine and the dietary laws of the Jewish faith, but just like seeing the world with both eyes open, I feel most comfortable when my cultures work in conjunction with each other.

Fortunately, there is plenty of common ground between the two. Given the fact that both place a high priority on family and tradition, and get–togethers almost always revolve around food, my family has been blurring the cultural dividing lines for decades. This melting pot approach jumps into high gear around the holidays and other family gatherings. My "Jewban" family has been known to serve a creamy flan during Shavuot, a citrus and garlic–infused Cuban–style chicken for Shabbat, and minty Mojito–scented quinoa during Passover. These incredible dishes aside, nothing holds a candle to my family's recipe for Ropa Vieja, Cuban comfort food at its very best.

Ropa Vieja, which literally translates to "old clothes," or as my paternal grandmother would call them, "shmatas," is the Cuban answer to a traditional Jewish brisket. Both use inexpensive cuts of meat that are slow–roasted until tender and falling apart, but Ropa Vieja takes it a step further, and actually calls for the chunks of meat to be shredded to resemble rags. This may seem like it would diminish the allure of the dish, but as Jewish brisket is usually reserved for the holiday table, a good Ropa Vieja is truly cause for celebration. Additionally, as it is important in the Jewish culture to pass our traditions from generation to generation, most Cuban families have had a recipe for Ropa Vieja for ages.

The recipe I feature originated with my Abuela (maternal grandmother), but was passed to me by my Tia Pipa (Aunt Felipa), both seriously tough culinary acts to follow. And while I have the added benefit of modern kitchen electrics like the slow–cooker, the spirit of the recipe remains the same. The perfume of a traditionally Cuban sofrito, made from garlic, onions, and sweet bell peppers, marries beautifully with the warm smokiness from the cumin. And while the brine–y capers that adorn the meat and add a splash of color may seem like a distinctly Mediterranean choice, they act as a nod to the migration of Spaniards that made their way to Cuba and the other Caribbean islands in days of old.

One bite may make you want to close your eyes and savor the moment, but I challenge you to resist the urge. See the world with both eyes open, and celebrate the diversity that makes Cuban–Jewish families unique.

Ropa Vieja, by Jennifer Stempel of

Serves: 6-8


5-7 lbs. Brisket, trimmed of most visible fat

2 onions, divided

6 cloves of garlic, divided

2 large red bell peppers, divided

2 bay leaves, divided

4 cups beef stock

3 tsp. Olive oil

1 Tbs dried oregano

1 Tbs ground cumin

1 14 oz can diced tomatoes

1 8 oz can tomato sauce

10 stuffed green olives, sliced in thin rounds

2 Tbs capers, plus 1 Tbs. of the brine.

Salt and Pepper to taste


1. Cut your brisket into 2–inch wide strips.

2. The night before you want to serve, add the brisket, 1 onion, roughly chopped, 2 whole cloves of garlic, half a bell pepper, 1 bay leaf, and beef stock to a slow–cooker, and set to cook on low for 6–7 hours.

3. Remove the beef and set aside. Once the beef is cool enough to be handled, use 2 forks to shred the beef.

4. Strain the cooking liquid, and reserve for later use in a medium bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate long enough for the fat to solidify on top (about 20–30 minutes). Skim the fat from the liquid.

5. Discard the rest of the contents from the slow cooker.

6. Meanwhile, finely dice the remainder of the onions and half of the remaining bell pepper. The rest of the bell pepper should be sliced in short, thin slices.

7. Mince the remaining garlic.

8. Heat a large pot (dutch oven style) over medium–high heat. Add olive oil.

9. Add the diced onions and both diced and sliced bell peppers, and cook for 5–10 minutes, or until onions become translucent. Add the garlic, and cook for 2 more minutes.

10. Add the shredded beef to the pot, as well as half of the now–skimmed stock, the oregano, the cumin, the diced tomatoes, and the tomato sauce. Stir to combine.

11. Lower the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until liquid reduces and thickens a bit.

12. Add the olives, brine, and capers, and cook for 15 more minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

13. Leave simmering on low on the stove until ready to serve.

14. Serve with white rice.

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My People, My Birthright

Lindsey Newman, My Jewish Learning, February 19, 2014


Register now for the Be'chol Lashon Taglit–Birthright Israel Trip! Space is limited!


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This summer Lindsey Newman and Josh Rothstein are going to be leading the first free Taglit–Birthright Israel trip with a focus on diversity. We asked Lindsey what draws her to Israel.

Israel is a place where I learned about diversity—before I could articulate what diversity meant, I was able to see it and live it. As a Jew of color growing up in a mostly white community in New York City, it was sometimes hard to find diversity and diverse role models to look up to. But when I first arrived in Israel at age 7, my sense of what Jewish looked like expanded immediately.

My family returned to Israel the next summer, when I was 8, this time staying for two months and living in Jerusalem. I was among an international contingent of American, Israeli and Israeli Arab children all enjoying the best that summer camp has to offer. Most of what I knew of Israel at that time was watermelon ice pops, flying kites on the Jerusalem promenade, and Bisli. For a Jew of color, from a mixed race background and multiracial family, it was one of the first times in my life that I felt I fully belong among the rich tapestry of Jewish life.

Later I returned as a teen, for a summer program that brought together participants from all across the US and Israel, I became friends with Jews whose parents and/or grandparents were born in Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran, Russia, France, Greece and elsewhere. While I still have a soft spot for brisket, the traditional meal I had at my friend's Iraqi–Algerian home is still the best Rosh Hashanah meal I've ever had. (Although I must admit, I passed when the fish head was offered to me even though it's good luck.)

Through art, travel, study and just getting to know each other, we wrestled with what it means to be Jewish, what it means to us personally to be a Jew, and what it means to live with other Jews. We tested each other, and we learned from each other. We were reminded that Judaism is not a singular experience— we are a diverse global people with different customs, complexions and experiences.

Israel was one of my first positive experiences with Jewish diversity in all its iterations. Of course, with diversity comes complexity, and exploring Israel meant coming face to face with its triumphs and its challenges. But facing this complexity can be incredibly valuable, for out of struggle can come strength.

These Israel experiences inspired me to create a Birthright trip with a focus on diversity. Diversity is a universal issue but it is also a Jewish issue and in my experience there is no better place to experience it than Israel. I'm looking forward to sharing the many flavors, sounds, and customs of Israel's many multicultural communities and individuals. I'm looking forward to discussing and debating the challenges of diversity and identity—in a setting that deals with these issues all the time. I'm looking forward to getting to know a bus filled with Jews from all over the United States who represent the many ethnic, racial and cultural heritages that are the contemporary community. And of course I'm looking forward to Bisli and just hanging out by the pool.

Originally published here:


Diversity and Pride at My Jewish Summer Camp

Aviva Davis, My Jewish Learning, February 12, 2014


Carrying the Torah at Camp Be'chol Lashon

Learn more about Camp Be'chol Lashon


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Judaism has been a part of my life since I was born. My mother snuck Shabbat candles into the hospital in preparation for my birth and I was born on Shabbos afternoon surrounded by my family and future friends, all welcoming Shabbat and my existence. As a child, I was raised primarily by my Jewish, African–American mother, Denise. I am honored to say that she converted to this amazing religion and that I am 100% Jewish.

As soon as I turned five, she signed me up for Hebrew school. For seven years, I studied the Hebrew alphabet and dozens of prayers. By the time my Bat Mitzvah rolled around last year, I had memorized every prayer I had studied, but I was nervous. So I used my Bat Mitzvah folder as a memory tool and looking down helped avoid the stares of the 200 guests!

For as long as both my mother and I can remember, I have been attending Be'chol Lashon; a place where I immediately feel at home, surrounded by my fellow Jews of all colors. At Be'chol Lashon, I am free to be who I am: an energetic, fun–loving, Black, White, and Jewish teenager. About five years ago, I, along with a few other young Be'chol Lashon regulars were asked by my mother, Denise Davis, and a co–founder of Camp Be'chol Lashon, Diane Tobin, whether we would enjoy a Judaism–based summer camp for us, the kids. We all replied "yes" immediately. The first year of Camp Be'chol Lashon in 2009 was a blast. It is amazing to see the intense diversity of our community. We explore this diversity by "traveling" to different countries where Jews live, and we examine the culture of those countries through art and cooking projects and dancing.

Camp Be'chol Lashon

My Jewish summer camp loyalties are divided. In 2011, I began attending a month–long Judaism–based overnight camp in Ojai called Ramah. Every day, teachers inform us campers about Israel and Judaism. Every morning, we participate in Shacharit services, the morning service, before breakfast. This is a challenge, but after services, food tastes even better. On Friday evening, everyone on the campgrounds cleanses themselves and changes their clothes to welcome Shabbat with songs, a service, and the best part; food.

However, Ramah and Be'chol Lashon are not the only places I stay connected to my Jewish heritage; I celebrate Shabbat every week with dinner on Friday nights and by attending services on Saturdays. I love celebrating Shabbat with my friends and family because it reminds me that I am surrounded by such a wonderful community. Though, with my busy schedule, I do not attend synagogue every week, I do my best to drag myself out of bed in time for the service. As I continue to grow and mature, Judaism will continue to be a large part of my identity and heritage.

Click here to learn more about Camp Be'chol Lashon

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Jewish & Filipino

Christine Wedner, My Jewish Learning, February 4, 2014



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My husband, Grant and I have worked together to rear our children in the Jewish faith. We made a conscious effort to place our family in diverse cities: New York, Los Angeles and now the Bay Area – to expose them to a variety of cultures and ethnicities.

What challenges have I really faced? What have I done to remind our children that they aren't just Jewish but Filipino. What have I done to help them embrace the culture that I grew up in?

Filipino culture is rooted – for the most part – in three major areas: religion, family and food.

I grew up Catholic. Went to Catholic school from high school through college and even after graduating and living in San Francisco I would still attend mass every Sunday. Partly because I knew my Mom would ask if I went and I couldn't be dishonest with her.

I remember big dinners on Sundays or celebrations where everyone came together and there was always a table filled with almost every traditional Filipino dish you could imagine. Every get together had its share of both family drama and laughter.

So when I think about what I have done to make an effort to infuse my Filipino background with our family – I don't see challenges – if anything I see similarities.

We stress the importance of our Judaism, especially in a world where we try to explain to our children why we don't celebrate Christmas when one set of grandparents do, that the Easter bunny will never come hopping by our home, and that matzoh for a whole week can be rather tasty — you just have to know how to bring out the flavor.

We are doing our very best to give our children the strongest foundation we can. With that foundation we stress the importance of being true to who you are – embracing the beauty and traditions of our religion and the legacy of all the Jewish people before us.

We light the candles every Friday and have family Shabbat dinner. We spend time with family and friends over the Jewish holidays – surrounded by food and laughter – creating memories.

A perfect example of how we have effortlessly combined Filipino and Jewish tradition happened on the night of Yom Kippur. I asked the family what they would like for Shabbat dinner and the unanimous vote was chicken adobo – a traditional Filipino dish – with green beans and garlic, rice and of course, a challah.

One would immediately think, "What an interesting pairing..." but it showcases our family off perfectly.

This is who we are.

We are Jewish and Filipino. The integration of both cultures has been a seamless one because we have adopted the same value system from each one. We value our religion. We value our family. And. We love food.

We celebrate our diversity and feel so blessed that our children will grow up being proud of not only being Jewish but being Filipino.

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Kung Hei Fat Choy from Our Jewish Home to Yours

Erica Cohen Lyons, My Jewish Learning, January 30, 2014



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Shabbat Dinner Menu for 15: Egg drop soup with crunchy noodles, Stir Fried Vegetables, Dan Dan Noodles, Roasted Chicken with Duck Sauce, Garlic Broccoli, Five-Spice Glazed Salmon, Mandarin Oranges and Almond Cookies.

This is not merely a Chinese-themed Shabbat for us. This is our Chinese-themed life.

It's a bit hectic here now. Tonight can best be described as essentially erev Chinese New Year. It's a half–day for work and school. Even the supermarkets will close early. And because it's the Lunar New Year, it of course is also Rosh Chodesh (and it's my turn to host). The rhythms of the two traditions seem to naturally fit together.

For Rosh Hashanah we make amends. For the Gregorian calendar New Year, we sometimes feel compelled to make resolutions. By Chinese New Year, we merely make plans and merriment.

In Hong Kong, as in other parts of China, Chinese New Year (referred to as the Lunar New Year) is the focal point of the season rather than Christmas and that is certainly a welcome change for us. This is a festival that we as Jews can fully participate in.

Children go to school in traditional Chinese dress before the festival, a custom that the Jewish Day School here fully embraces too and there is nothing cuter than a room full of toddlers in brightly colored silk Chinese costumes with kippot on too.

My children make colorful cards and decorations complete with Chinese calligraphy in class. We add the new ones to the growing pile of decorations which we take out annually to decorate our home. I even managed to buy a banner this year that carries wishes for honey and sweetness, one that I will now use on Rosh Hashanah as well.

Businesses all close and families gather together. A schedule–free four day weekend is much welcome in our hectic city lives. For the children it–s a full week off though. I make plans to bake traditional egg tarts (kosher, of course) one afternoon with a friend as an activity for our younger children. We will all run from one lion dance performance to another.

The Chinese festivals have many similarities to our own Jewish traditions. They too follow the moon and are deeply rooted in ancient tradition. Chinese New Year traditions such as sweeping and thereby casting away the bad, wearing new outfits in purposefully chosen symbolic colors, giving gifts of money in denominations that are lucky and abstaining from haircuts are all things we can certainly relate to.

While as Jews New Years is filled with apples and honey and pomegranates, for Chinese and now for us too it is also mandarins, candied dried fruit and lotus and melon seeds. Families gather and enjoy foods rich with symbolism and platters piled with tradition. This is something that just comes naturally.

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Drake & YOUR Multicultural Bar or Bat Mitzvah

Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, January 28, 2014



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Drake's recent SNL skit (see below), perhaps unwittingly but then again perhaps not, highlighted how a bar or bat mitzvah can deeply impact how a young person views his or her Jewish identity in the context of other identities. A bar or bat Mitzvah can be a defining moment in the development of one's Jewish identity, but it can also feel like prioritizing one identity over others. Especially for the growing population of Jews from mixed racial, ethnic, religious and other backgrounds, the bar or bat mitzvah may be the first setting where the varied familial and sometimes non–familial influences of a young Jew come together under Jewish auspices. It can be a valuable opportunity to celebrate and honor the multiple elements of a child's identity. One need not leave heritage at the door when stepping forward as a Jew. On the contrary, it is perhaps the best time to reassure young Jews that participation in Jewish life does not diminish any other aspects of one's self.

Below is a list of some general suggestions on how a family or community might create multicultural b'nai mitzvah celebrations. These are general in nature and we would love to hear from families, clergy and communities that have found their own ways to engage multiple heritages.

Jewish music from Ugandan Jews.

Music: Jewish services rely on music and even the Torah is chanted. Most American synagogues rely on music that is either American, or European in origin. However, there are multitude of rich Jewish musical traditions representing the myriad of places there have been or are currently Jewish communities. Ask about learning to chant Torah in a different nusach or tune, or bring in piyyutim or prayers that represent a different Jewish cultural heritage. There is a long tradition of adapting secular tunes to sacred words. This can similarly be done to connect the songs of one culture with the prayers of Judaism.

Sasha Lifsitz celebrates becoming a bar mitzvah wearing a Korean hanbok and a Jewish tallit

Torah Study: Bar and Bat Mitzvah students usually share some insights into the weekly Torah portion. If your family traces origins to Spain, for example, ask your rabbi if there are any sources he or she can recommend that are Spanish or descended from Spanish Jews. Indian? Then draw on the wisdom of Indian Jewish tradition. Throughout the generations, rabbis have learned from the wisdom that lies beyond the Jewish community. Not specifically Jewish sources of wisdom can also be consulted in helping to shape or answer questions that will be addressed by the child in question.

Dress: Nowhere is it written that one must wear a suit or a dress and heels on the bimah. Kimonos, saris, or kilts are all perfectly acceptable for the child and the family members. Kippot can be made from any kind of material and look great in tartan, African cloth or Thai Batik. Similarly, tallitot, prayer shawls, can be made from any cloth as long as there are four corners with proper tzitzit knotted on each.

Language: English is not a sacred Jewish language. American Jews use English because it helps us understand the Hebrew—which is a sacred language, which most of us don't know. So if your family speaks Korean, Amharic, or Flemish, send out multilingual invites or consider sharing some of the blessings in that language. Worried your guests won't understand? Don't be. Many don't get the Hebrew either but we know from experience that they can find that meaningful.

Syrian Pastries

Food: There is nothing holy about lox and cream cheese. Kimchi or Jerk chicken are just as appropriate for a Kiddush or for your party. If your caterer is unfamiliar with a dish that you hold dear, consider sharing some family recipes. Just check in with the synagogue that to be sure that what you are serving accords with                                                                  the dietary policies.

Artwork: Art from another culture can be incorporated into the celebration in a variety of ways, on the invitation, the insert in the prayer books, as decorations in the synagogue or celebration hall. I attended a celebration at an Orthodox synagogue recently to find Japanese origami garlands festooned in the sanctuary to honor the mother's culture. Let the creativity extend to flower or table arrangements as well.

Mitzvah Project: Many communities have made doing good works, Tikkun Olam, a part of the process of preparing for becoming bar or bat mitzvah. From collecting money for a project in a distant land to volunteering to help new immigrants from a familial country of origin, there are countless ways the bar or bat mitzvah can use their Mitzvah project to bridge the components of their identities.

Originally published here:


Challah with a Chinese Twist

Molly Yeh, My Jewish Learning, January 21, 2014



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There's a not–so–funny joke that goes, "A man walks into a Chinese restaurant and says to the waiter, ‘Excuse me sir, but are there any Chinese Jews?’ To which the waiter replies, ‘No, sir, we just have orange juice, apple juice, grapefruit juice...’"

It's slightly bearable if the delivery includes an awful impression of a Chinese accent. But there are apparently many people who do appreciate this joke, and they make sure that it makes its way through the grapevine to me, a Chinese Jew.

I enjoy being a Chinese Jew.

I eat plenty of matzo balls and potstickers, I celebrate three new years, and in high school I crushed my math classes.

I've often had to convince people that I'm Jewish, which is amusing and usually results in a new friend feeling like they can connect with me better due to a shared religion. Other than that, I can't say I really thought about what it meant to Chinese and Jewish while I was growing up.

The only time my Chinese Jewishness got me into trouble was during my dating days in New York. Jewish guys with "yellow fever" would take me on casual dates to casual places, but the second they discovered I was Jewish, things got weird. Suddenly I wasn't a casual date, suddenly I was the first Jewish girl that didn't remind them of their mother and do I want to get married.

Speaking of boys.

I recently followed a Norwegian one out to rural North Dakota, population six Jews and about 10,000 Scandinavian descendants. Things are quiet here, people are Midwestern nice, and the small town life is pretty darn wonderful.

For the first time in my life, I feel a bit like an oddball, in a sea of light–haired Lutherans, but people embrace me when I introduce them to challah. North Dakotans love challah! And I love their food too, like Lefse and dessert bars of all sorts.

All of my Challah here is homemade. As are my latkes, kugel, matzo get the picture. There's not a deli in sight. Not even a bagel. I do miss bopping down to Zabar's for babka and bagels, but on the other hand, with the necessity to make everything from scratch comes the opportunity to put my own spin on things and mash up my Chinese/Jewish/Midwesternness.

Brisket in my potstickers, ginger sugar beet latkes, egg rolls with home cured pastrami from a cow that I'll one day raise...

I'm getting carried away.

Here is an Asian twist on my all time favorite challah. It's inspired by the scallion pancake.

Asian Challah

Makes one large loaf

Basic Challah Dough

Based on Food 52's Recipe

1 tablespoon instant yeast

3/4 cups warm water

2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon sugar

3 cups flour, plus more for dusting

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons honey

1/3 cups vegetable or canola oil

1/3 cups vegetable or canola oil

Filling and Topping

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

2–3 stalks scallions or green onions, minced

salt, pepper, and red chili flakes to taste

Egg wash: 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon of water

A few pinches of toasted sesame seeds and black sesame seeds


In a small bowl, proof yeast in 1/2 cup warm water mixed with 1 teaspoon of sugar.

While yeast is proofing, mix flour, salt, and remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar in a large bowl.

In a medium bowl, mix remaining 1/4 cup of water, honey, oil, and eggs.

Once yeast has finished proofing, add it to the flour, followed by the wet ingredients. Mix with a large wooden spoon until dough becomes too thick to stir. Empty dough onto well–floured surface and knead by hand. Knead dough until smooth and no longer sticky, adding flour as needed.

Transfer to an oiled bowl and cover with a damp towel. Let rise for about two hours, or until doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 375.

Divide dough into three equal parts and then roll each part into a 1–foot log. Gently flatten each log so that it is about 3 inches wide.

Brush each with toasted sesame oil and then sprinkle with salt, pepper, chili flakes, and scallions. Roll them up length wise like a jellyroll, and then braid.

Place the loaf on a parchment lined baking sheet and then brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds and black pepper.

Bake for 20–25 minutes until the top is golden brown and the challah is cooked through.

Originally published here:


African American Jews on the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King

Team Be'chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning, January 14, 2014



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Across the country next week, Americans of all faiths and ethnicities will remember and celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Be'chol Lashon asked seven African American Jewish leaders, of all ages, backgrounds, religious affiliations, geographic regions and sexual orientations, to share short impressions of what Dr. King's legacy means to them.

Dr. Lewis Gordon, an international scholar and teacher, is a professor of Africana philosophy, politics and religion at the University of Connecticut. His roots are in Jamaica and he is a frequent social commentator.

Twenty years ago my eldest son and I had a conversation on Martin Luther King Day. As I recounted Dr. King's many great deeds, I mentioned his incarceration in Birmingham where he wrote his famous letter, "Why We Can't Wait."

My son was shaken. "Wasn't Dr. King a good man?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied.

"Why, then, was he in jail?"

Forced to explain that unjust societies punish people who stand up for what is right, I found myself engaged in one of the great lessons of Torah continued through the ages and illuminated by the courage of Dr. King: the revolutionary idea that ethics is the face of G–d, and dignity demands commitment to that extraordinary responsibility.

Sandra Lawson, a military veteran and social activist, calls Atlanta home. She is currently a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

I grew up in a pretty typical black family in the 1980's, we had a picture of King on our wall and my parents had records of a few of his speeches. My parents were not activist, they grew up poor, as sharecroppers in the south, but they instilled in me a black pride that one could hear in the song from James Brown's "Say it Loud! I'm Black and I'm Proud." King helped my parents see a better future, not just for me and my brother but for themselves as well.

As a rabbinical student, and a child of southern sharecroppers, I see King as one of the most prophetic voices ever and he reminds me of why I want to be a rabbi which is to help to make the world a better place for all.

Rabbi Capers Funnye is the Rabbi of Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, Illinois.

In 1966 Dr. King came to the Marquette neighborhood where there was vitriolic expressions of hatred as African Americans moved in. Just four blocks from my synagogue was the headquarters of the Nazi Party. Dr. King said, "he had never seen anything so hostile and hateful," as he did in Chicago. The Rabbi of this shul, Rabbi Schultz, was only 5'3," but he stood up against the hatred. He let Dr. King know that if there was need to take sanctuary during a planned protest march, Rabbi Schultz would gladly welcome them and provide a safe haven. The violence stopped the march after two blocks. But the circumstance of this synagogue and this rabbi were some of the fantastic elements in the Jewish community that Martin Luther King touched and they reciprocated. I am proud to know men who worked with Dr. King and the representation they gave of Judaism enlivens me every day.

Dr. Denise Davis lives in the Bay Area where she practices medicine. She is a co–founder of Camp Be'chol Lashon.

Martin Luther King's birthday is yom tov, a holy day reminding me that a prophetic voice can change the world. It is day of awe, recalling both oppression and courage. As a girl I was barred from enrolling in a segregated ballet school, but King's transcendent oratories, and the principled commitment of Heschel made a change; these heroes are my heroes. I am an African American Jew. On MLK Day, I celebrate the power of transformation, and the resilience of human dignity. I celebrate a man and a movement close to the Divine.

Robin Washington is the editor of the Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota. Born in Chicago to a family of African American and Jewish civil rights activists, his journalism and activism are nationally acclaimed.

For me, King is an unfinished story; largely because the Civil Rights Movement was over–identified with him to the exclusion of unsung others equally significant. That focus nearly took the movement with him with the widespread belief that it died when he died.

Indeed, no true successor has ever emerged; even President Obama would claim to be more of an inheritor than an architect of social justice.

But I refuse to bury the movement, and maybe that's King's legacy: Because he didn't get there with us, the longing for his Promised Land remains, and his sacrifice demands we strive for it with all our being.

Lindsey Newman lives and works in New York. She is spearheading and leading Be'chol Lashon's first Birthright Israel trip.

I most admire Martin Luther King, Jr. as a seeker of justice and a lover of humanity. When King says that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," I am reminded that I am responsible for the world that I live in, whether I have caused harm or have merely witnessed it. Similarly, when the Torah insists "Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue," it is this pursuit of justice which is at the core of my identity as a Jew and a human being. King embodied this calling in his life and work, and his legacy is a reminder of this eternal struggle.

Michael "Kosher Soul" Twitty,is a world renown scholar of African American foodways and a Jewish educator living in Washington DC.

The most stunning moment of the Civil Rights era to me was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King in Alabama. That iconic image and conversation is part of my spiritual genealogy, they are my ideological ancestors. Their souls were the parchment, the electrifying oratory and moral suasion their ink, their living Torah was a new covenant with the American dream, without which my dreams would be impossible.

Originally published here:


A Remarkable Journey from Ethiopia
to Israel to Petaluma, CA

Rabbi Ruth Abusch Magder, My Jewish Learning, January 7, 2014



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Israeli Maor Sanbata came to the United States this past summer to be a counselor at Camp Be'chol Lashon. Born in Ethiopia, his personal experience opens a new perspective on what it means to be Jewish.

Tell us a little about your childhood.

I was born in a small village in Ethiopia called Amder close to the provincial capital city of Gondar. Even though I was young, I worked as a shepherd. My family lived as Jews, observing Shabbat, celebrating holidays, and reading Torah.

My grandfather was a Holy Man, a Kes. He had a special way of talking to God. He could make miracles. I saw them with my own eyes. In our village the houses are built one next to each other in a line. And there is a fire for cooking in each house. Once, a young wild girl started a fire in her hut. There was no fire department and if it had spread it would have burned down the whole row of houses. My grandfather bowed down to God and prayed the fire would not spread. And it did not. Not to any other building. So strong was his connection to God.

How did you come to Israel?

I specifically remember the longing to go to Israel. I will never forget the stories my mother would tell me of a Holy Land flowing with milk and honey, and praying to go to Jerusalem one day. In 1991, my mother and father and three of my sisters and three of my brothers walked for a full month from Gondar to Addis Ababa. From there, we came to Israel.

When I came to Israel, I did not know one word of Hebrew. I had never been to school. Never. I did not know how to read or write. They sent me to school and for three years I did not understand anything. Anything. But I'm smart and hard–working. I became a commander in the Israel Defense Forces. After my release from the army, I decided that only through education could I play a key role in Israeli society. I studied law and now advocate for Ethiopians in Israel.

Despite academic achievement and integration, I sometimes feel like a stranger in my country and some of the Israeli public doubts my Judaism. I work towards a time when not a single person will be judged because of his or her skin color or outlook on life and that all human beings are treated equally before God that created us all.

Why did you come to Camp Be'chol Lashon?

I identify with the ideology of the camp, to accept who you are and where you are from and no matter what kind of family you come from — black, white purple — be proud of who you are and your identity. I connect with this approach. This is my approach.

What surprised you about coming to the United States and Camp Be'chol Lashon?

Well it is my first time in America so everything is surprising. It is also surprising that there is an organization like this, that wants to create unity between people but not be embarrassed of who you are.

What do you think that the campers learned from you?

Israel is a country for Jews of all colors. They also learned about my story and successes and struggles. It is not always easy to be Black, Ethiopian, Jewish or Israeli. Also they learned that wherever you are there are the same issues of acceptance.

Originally published here:


The Jews of Uganda —
Leading by Example to Create Peace

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Kehilla, January 2014


Donate to the Abayudaya Synagogue & Community Center


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When I decided that I would follow my grandfather's footsteps and become the rabbi of my community, I knew I would be taking on an enormous challenge. My community, the Abayudaya, had suffered persecution since its early establishment. In 1919, there were 8,000 members, but when the Israeli Embassy opened in 1962, there were less than 2,000 Jews left. Many had converted to Christianity in pursuit of education and health care. The despotic rule of Idi Amin began, and Jewish practice was outlawed. We were not allowed to wear kippot, have a Bar Mitzvah or even step into the synagogue. When Idi Amin was defeated during Passover 1979, we were overjoyed and celebrated with banana wine during seder that year.

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu's graduation from the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.

At times, it is hard to imagine how far we have come since that seder. I recently returned from a trip to the United States where I was raising funds for the Abayudaya Synagogue & Community Center, a project that embodies the progress we have made as a community. The Center will help to realize the return on many of the investments we have made in my community over time, with a focus on increasing gender equality and alleviating chronic food shortages.

The death of Idi Amin meant that we were free, but the lifting of religious restrictions was only the first step toward the reinvigoration of my community. We faced a host of problems endemic to many African communities. Then, in 2002, I received an email that changed my life, but more importantly, it dramatically improved the collective prospects of the Abayudaya. I was awarded a Be'chol Lashon fellowship to attend the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

My time in America, the friendships I made and the comprehensive health and development plan we formed with Be'chol Lashon has positioned my community not simply to survive, but to thrive. We began by addressing the health risks draining the resources of the community and tragically ending lives much too early. We drilled wells, distributed mosquito nets and built the Tobin Health Center in Mbale. I am proud to say that there have been no deaths from malaria since 2010. It has been nothing short of a miracle born on the wings of modern medicine and community organization.

Most importantly, all of our services are provided to anyone, regardless of religion. In the name of tikkun olam, we are leading by example, working to create peace with our Christian and Muslim neighbors. In doing so, we are making great strides to combat anti–Semitism locally through cooperation and goodwill.

Economically, we have established a variety of small businesses in my community, from the community guesthouse to a taxi service. We are working to send our young people to university to return with the training needed to continue to grow our local economy. This includes women. After working with my female study partner at rabbinical school, who is now a rabbi in San Francisco, one of my first actions when I went back home was to make clear that we are going to have a fundamental change. I told them, "Women shall go to school, and shall lead services. Women will not kneel down for men." Women are taking an ever–increasing role in our community.

These successes have led us to our most recent and, for me, most meaningful project. The Synagogue & Community Center will be at the very center of spiritual and communal health. It will provide space for a Childcare Center, freeing up time for women to engage in our economy, marking a significant step in the growth of my community. Our successes benefit not only the Abayudaya, but provide hope for many other emerging Jewish communities across the globe. As we continue raising funds for the Synagogue & Community center, I look forward to returning next spring and growing the network of friends and colleagues working together toward an optimistic Jewish future.

Originally published here:


Camp for Jews of color gets a visit from
suddenly famous culinary star

Alix Wall, Jweekly, January 2, 2014



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Some people have an exact date or event when their lives were forever changed. Culinary historian Michael Twitty is one of those people.

Twitty, who lives in Rockville, Md., is an independent scholar studying the foodways of African American slaves in the South. He was a scholar–in–residence at a three–day Be'chol Lashon Family Camp — a retreat for Jews of color — held last month in Petaluma.

For years, Twitty, 36, who is a black convert to Judaism with some Jewish ancestry on his mother's side, was working in relative obscurity as a scholar, supplementing his income by teaching Hebrew school.

Last year, a June 25 post on, his personal blog, changed all that.

Incensed by the controversy over Food Network star Paula Deen's use of the "N–word," Twitty posted an open letter to Deen in which he called Deen and the mainstream food establishment to task for constantly celebrating Southern cuisine without ever mentioning the fact that much of it was either first cooked by or was heavily influenced by slaves.

"There is so much press and so much activity around Southern food, and yet the diversity of people of color engaged in this art form and telling and teaching its history and giving it a future are often passed up or disregarded...," he wrote. "We are surrounded by culinary injustice where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating."

He ended his letter by inviting Deen to cook with him at a fundraiser he was putting on at a former plantation, with food cooked with methods used by slaves. While Deen never answered him, other chefs did. Hugh Acheson, a James Beard–nominated Southern chef, ended up cooking with him at that event.

And perhaps most notably, René Redzepi, the chef at Noma — a two–star Michelin restaurant in Denmark that the British magazine Restaurant named best in the world for 2010, 2011 and 2012 — invited Twitty to a conference in Copenhagen he organizes with the movers and shakers of the food world.

All of a sudden, Twitty found himself rubbing elbows with celebrity chefs from around the globe, and being invited to speak at universities across the United States.

Considering he has spent much of his career bringing the voices of slaves to light, and speaking for the invisible, suddenly he had the ear of the food world's elite. "The ability to be exposed to that crowd and be among some of the greatest voices in food and cuisine that day was really astounding, and to be heard on that platform was really amazing to me," he said shortly after the Be'chol Lashon retreat.

Never could he have imagined what one blog post could do.

"I put it on my blog expecting maybe five people would read it," Twitty said. Before that post, the most visits one of his posts had gotten was 600. Once the Huffington Post picked up his letter and it went viral, some 300,000 people clicked on it within two days, and more than 500,000 by day three.

"It's weird to see things you've done take on a life of their own," he said.

Diane Tobin, founder and director of Be'chol Lashon, said that while she had known of Twitty for a while, it became harder to secure him for the Dec. 13–15 retreat once his popularity soared after the Deen incident.

At the retreat, Twitty was greatly moved to see so many children of color, most of whom have been adopted by white Jewish parents.

"Seeing all those kids together was really remarkable, and I was really impressed with how articulate they are," he said. "It was beautiful to see how they see themselves and how they're coming into their own."

Twitty led a discussion on Jewish and African American migrations and diasporas, and led a cooking workshop in which he made black–eyed pea hummus.

The theme of the retreat was "global cuisine" — Twitty presented on "meaning through food" and Turkey native Iris Aluf Medina, who lives in San Francisco, presented on "Jewish stories through food" and gave a Turkish–Jewish cooking lesson.

Twitty also led a session for teens, and got emotional about what he shared with them. In previous generations, he said, biracial Jews often fell to the margins because the community wasn't always adept at making them feel they belonged.

Twitty also led a session for teens, and got emotional about what he shared with them. In previous generations, he said, biracial Jews often fell to the margins because the community wasn't always adept at making them feel they belonged.

Originally published here:


Becoming a Jewish Ethiopian American Family

Rabbi Tziona Szajman, December 31, 2013



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It is an incredible responsibility to raise a child. In choosing foreign adoption, we have become parents to a beautiful daughter and added a new culture to our family life.

Our daughter, Eliyana Bracha Nuhamin, became legally ours on Nov 18th, 2013. As part of our adoption hearing we promised to bring her up with pride in her Ethiopian heritage. This was a joyful promise to make as we have fallen in love with the beauty of our daughter's homeland. However, the reality of making it happen must go beyond clothing and food and reach the core of Ethiopian values and pride.

The first time we met our daughter at the Ethiopian orphanage the nanny told us what a good baby she was. She was polite. "Polite" is the highest praise for children in Ethiopian culture. It means they are not demanding. They are patient. They are accepting. Eliyana Nuhamin is a pretty happy and content baby. When she is not laughing, a quiet serenity emanates from her.

I have always prided myself on my Jewish inquisitiveness. Questioning is talmudic value. How will this mesh with the Ethiopian values of patience and quiet acceptance? We will have to keep our eyes open as we navigate these waters.

The depth of poverty in Ethiopia is truly shocking. In America, where we have so much: It is a blessing but it spoils us. If we are to be true to our daughter's roots, to the values of her country of birth, we will have to guard our daughter"s precious Ethiopian politeness and learn from her.

Love in Ethiopia is given to children with cuddles and caresses and layers upon layers of clothing. (Bundling children in clothing is a sign of love.) A school child often receives new clothing as a reward for school work. There are few toy varieties. Storytelling, singing, and dancing are the main entertainment and for children they always hold lessons of cultural value. The Jewish parallel here warms my heart.

Family togetherness is highly valued. Farm village children are still excused from school to help the harvest. Women wear their babies wrapped on