In the fall of 2010, I had recently arrived in Tel Aviv and had started my New Israel Fund Fellowship at ASSAF, a humanitarian aid organization helping asylum seekers and refugees in Israel. I met Guy around then at the ASSAF offices. He spoke English, so I explained to him that I was researching the refugee community. He quickly agreed to advise me, help me meet community leaders and translate interviews.
One evening we walked around south Tel Aviv together, discussing his future goals and desire to go to college and help his people. We entered an ad-hoc shelter where at least 100 Sudanese men slept each night. The shelter was the basement of a building that the Sudanese community had rented out. Guy and I sat there for hours, conducting a group interview with around 10 men. Guy translated for me with astounding patience and care. From the beginning, it was obvious to me that he was dedicated to helping his people.
Guy was an asylum seeker himself. During the genocide in Darfur, he fled while his village was burning down, ran for his life and left his family behind. Through a mix of luck, a friendly personality and survival skills, Guy made his way through Sudan and Egypt to Israel, where he felt he would be safe from harm. He arrived in Israel in 2008.
A portrait of the writer’s great-great-grandmother with amulet overlaid / Sigal Samuel
When my grandmother was pregnant with my dad, she got a terrible — and somewhat mysterious — mouth infection. It kept her from eating and talking. It was so painful that it landed her flat on her back; for days, all she could do was lie in bed. Then her bedroom door creaked open to reveal my great-great-grandmother, sidling up with something clenched tight in her palm. The object passed from the older to the younger hand, accompanied by a command in Hindustani: “Put this on — and don’t take it off until you get better.”
The object looked like a necklace, but it would be a mistake to call it that. Really, it was an amulet. Extraordinarily heavy, made of solid Indian gold, its cylindrical capsule — as long as an index finger — hung from an expensive-looking chain. Opening it, my grandmother saw a shriveled black root. She suppressed a shiver of disgust and closed it up again, then placed the chain around her neck. A few days later, she was healed.
A prized heirloom, that amulet has been in my family for five generations now. It’s traveled from Bombay to London to Montreal. These days, my grandmother doesn’t really believe that the ugly black root has magical healing powers; more than anything, she finds it creepy. But my great-great-grandmother, an uneducated Calcutta-born Jew who came from a family of kabbalists, believed it had the power to ward off the evil eye.
I love this amulet for many reasons, chief among them its weirdness. The sheer superstitiousness of it makes me smile — maybe because it reminds me that Judaism and rationalism didn’t always go hand in hand, whatever the diehard Maimonideans would have us believe.
I also love the way this artifact captures the centuries-long symbiosis that Jews enjoyed in India — a country that, until recent years, was strikingly free of anti-Semitism.
Young British Jews stake out a liberal stance on Israel. / YouTube
American and British Jewish communal institutions alike are presently grappling with the question of what to do with the “evil son” — he who, in the words of the Passover Haggadah, “by divorcing himself from the community…denies our very essence.”
In the United Kingdom, students are debating the place of Israel in Jewish life on campus, where political, cultural, and religious activities center around a confederation of Jewish societies (J-Socs) under the umbrella of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).
Since the last UJS conference in November, it is the clear policy of the UJS that the Union should defend Israel’s right to exist regardless of whether individual members support the Israeli government. Individual J-Socs are expected to have a conversation about Israel — not only the modern state, but Israel over 3000 years of Jewish history — and J-Socs are encouraged and advised to effectively counter the BDS movement on campus where necessary.
But Gabriel Webber — a member of Brighton & Sussex J-Soc — recently wrote in defense of a motion that failed at that conference, one that called for a wall of separation between Israel advocacy and the activities of J-Socs. While “all Jewish students want to go to a J-Soc where they can hang out with fellow Jewish students, to eat Jewish food and to be an active member of their religion or culture,” there remains a minority that don’t “want to wave flags and engage in an active campus-based fight against BDS.”
Freedom is always a primary theme on Passover, but this year, after travelling in Uganda for ten days as part of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) Global Justice Fellowship, the idea is heavy with real-world implications.
The Haggadah instructs: “In every generation, everyone must think of him or herself as having personally left Egypt.” And yet, some of the people we met in Uganda remain trapped in their own Egypt: LGBT people are ostracized, threatened and assaulted for being who they are; women and girls are beaten and raped; people living with HIV and AIDS are isolated and abandoned by their families and communities.
The idea that all human beings are of infinite value and are created in God’s image — B’tselem Elohim — is a pillar of Jewish tradition. And yet, so many of the struggles we witness every day — in the United States, in Uganda, and elsewhere around the world — require that we pursue human dignity in a global context.
As I prepared for the trip, I studied materials about Uganda with the other Global Justice Fellows in my group, drawing upon my own experiences growing up in Colombia and travelling in many parts of the world. I read about the activists and projects in Uganda that AJWS supports and brushed up on facts. But nothing could have prepared me for the courage, ingenuity and dignity I encountered once I arrived.
(JTA) — Chelsea Clinton’s announcement Thursday afternoon that she and Jewish hubby Marc Mezvinsky are expecting their first child has set off a fairly predictable wave of reactions Jewish-wise, not unlike the interest their 2010 wedding generated.
Interfaithfamily.com quickly seized the pregnancy as an “opportunity to share with ALL expecting parents” its various resources for new interfaith parents, including a booklet called “To Circumcise or Not: That is the Question.”
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, The Jewish Press chose this headline: “Chelsea Clinton Pregnant With Non-Jewish Child.” Calling the former first daughter “America’s poster child for intermarriage,” the Brooklyn-based Orthodox newspaper noted that in marrying four years ago the pair was “effectively pruning away that 3,300 year old Jewish branch of the Mezinsky family.” (And apparently also pruning away the “v” from the groom’s name.)
The Jewish Press also reminded its readers of Rabbi David Stav’s apparently clairvoyant question posed to Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs at a meeting back in November about Israel’s adherence to Orthodox standards: “Do you want me to recognize Chelsea Clinton’s child as a Jew?”
Under the traditional policy of matrilineal descent, adhered to by Orthodox and Conservative Jews, the child will not be Jewish unless s/he undergoes a conversion, but Reform and Reconstructionist Jews will recognize the baby as a Jew if s/he has a Jewish upbringing.
Not surprisingly, Stormfront, the anti-Semitic website, does recognize the child as a Jew, as evidenced by its charming headline: “Chelsea Clinton pregnant with jew spawn.”
And now, bring on the months of intense speculation: If a boy, will the child have a brit milah? Will s/he be given a Jew-y name? Jewish nursery school? Hebrew school? And, of course, how will all this affect Grandma Hillary’s prospects in 2016?
The most tasteless YouTube video ever has just been released – by our friends at Jews for Jesus. Entitled “That Jew Died for You,” it is – I am not making any of this up – a three-minute video showing Jesus Christ among a group of Jews arriving at Auschwitz. And you thought the Easter Passion Plays were offensive.
According to Jews for Jesus, the video was made because “Jesus has often been wrongly associated with the perpetrators of the Holocaust.” The film, which includes Jesus helping a Jewish woman when she stumbles during a forced march and, later, being selected for the gas chambers by a Mengele-like Nazi, is meant to clear that up. Actually, Jesus was “just another Jew,” and suffered with the Jews in the Holocaust.
A “making-of” video available on thatjewdiedforyou.com elaborates: “The Holocaust, perhaps more than any other event or topic, has kept Jewish people from being open to considering Jesus as the Jewish messiah.” If only we didn’t blame Christians for the genocide of our people, the reasoning goes, we’d be more open to converting to Christianity.
White House Photo
What would you do if you’d have to choose between spending the second night of Passover with your family (and with your twins celebrating their birthday on that same day) and laboring in someone else’s kitchen for hours?
For acclaimed chef/beloved wife Vered Guttman, there wasn’t much of a dilemma. She gladly left me and the kids with a sink full of dishes from the previous night’s (first) Seder and went on to roll matzo balls for another family’s second Seder.
The fact that this Seder was hosted by Barack and Michelle Obama and that the kitchen was located in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, can perhaps make leaving your family behind a bit more understandable.
For the settlement movement, there is poignancy in the fact that the Hebron Jewish community has branched out into a previously Palestinian neighborhood just before Passover. It was Passover 1968 when settlers first got their foothold in Hebron, after renting out a hotel and refusing to leave.
For critics of the settlement movement, the echo of 1968 is also relevant. When the Israeli government decided yesterday that settlers could move into a building surrounded by Palestinians, it was a reminder of just how much Hebron settlers have increased their holdings over the years.
In ’68 they left the hotel in exchange for the promise of a settlement next to Hebron. Today, they have this adjacent settlement as well as four (or, as of yesterday, five) enclaves in Hebron itself.
The author and his grandfather / Courtesy of Hody Nemes
The Exodus happened 3,000 years ago. But today, in the year 5774, we are still supposed to see ourselves as if we had experienced slavery and left Egypt, according to the Haggadah.
For me, that’s always been a tall order.
In order to feel like a slave, I wanted to know the details of individual slave life. What emotions did a Hebrew slave feel as the taskmaster walked by, holding a whip? Did he love the land of Goshen, the only home he knew – or did he curse it? Did he sing songs as he worked? Was he too tired to dream of freedom? The book of Exodus is remarkably silent on these questions.
But sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather.
The big story in Israel is no normal decision to build a few extra settlement homes; it is a highly unusual development for the occupied West Bank.
According to an as-yet unconfirmed report, the state is setting the wheels in motion for an appropriation of nearly 250 acres of territory in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc near Jerusalem.
Israeli settlement announcements in recent years have generally focused on building within the existing borders of settlements. In fact, one of the defenses of settlement announcements in government circles has been that building isn’t even settlement expansion, because it’s just a matter of increasing the housing density within settlements. The argument has often been that given the footprint of settlements isn’t growing, Palestinians should stop worrying about settlements.
However, if today’s report is correct, the government will actually be increasing the settlement footprint. An outpost which is currently illegal in state eyes will be legalized, in a sense creating a new settlement, and the rest of the land to be appropriated would be available for zoning for brand new settlements.
As well as the appropriation report, today has been party day in the Jewish community of Hebron, which received go-ahead from the Ministry of Defense to move in to a new enclave in the city.
In early 2007 some Jewish Hebron families lived in the four-storey building where the ceremony took place. However, after 18 months the Israeli government ordered them to leave. While they claimed that they were entitled to live there, because one of their supporters in America, Morris Abraham, purchased the property, the original Palestinian owners claimed the purchase was fabricated.
Last month, an Israeli court ruled that Abraham does own the building, and now the Ministry of Defense has said that the Jewish community can move back in.
If the peace process doesn’t get back on track, today may well be remembered as the day when Israel threw caution to the wind and backed settlements with a whole new gusto.
Photo credit: Getty Images
This week is prime time for Passover shopping and cleaning. But in Jerusalem, hundreds of people will be engaged in a very different type of preparation for the festival — witnessing the slaughter of a lamb, just like in the olden days.
The Seder has its origins in ancient times, when the Israelites slaughtered, roasted and ate lambs — Paschal lambs.
According to the Torah, the Children of Israel were commanded “in perpetuity” to sacrifice a young lamb or goat on the anniversary of the Exodus. But this sacrifice was to be conducted in the Temple, and was therefore suspended after the Temple’s destruction nearly two millennia ago. With some innovation from rabbis the Seder morphed in to the more domestic affair we know today.
Contemporary Seders, with their many commemorations of the sacrifice, such as the shank bone on the Seder plate, are largely a tribute to the offering. But some Israelis want to go a step further.
In a few hours, in a yeshiva in the neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe, a religious non-profit will give a demonstration of the original Paschal service. Their slaughterer will kill a lamb as a choir sings of praise, and as a state veterinary inspector looks on. He will then sprinkle the blood as-per Biblical instruction. The lamb will be roasted and, as-per the Biblical procedure, everyone in attendance — men and women — will get a portion. The diners will include rabbis from a broad ideological spectrum within Orthodoxy.
“Passover is not about matzo ball soup; it’s about the Passover offering,” Chaim Richman, International Director of the Temple Institute which is running the event, commented to Forward Thinking.
Referring to the reams of rabbinic texts written on the Paschal sacrifice he said that is important, educationally, to give a more vivid insight in to what it looked like. “The logistics is a Jewish art discussed and clarified throughout the generations,” he said.
He said that the slaughter is poignant, as lambs were considered sacred in the ancient world when the sacrifice was instituted. The ceremony is “literally to slaughter all of the idolatry in the entire world and stand up for what we believe in, namely one God,” said Richman.
While the Temple Institute has been known to stray from religious education to politics, in its quest to increase Jewish rights on Temple Mount, it didn’t attempt to hold this even on or near Temple Mount, where it may have increased Jewish-Arab tensions. However, as the Forward has reported,, in previous years right-wing activist has tried to organize a sacrifice there, but was stopped by Israeli authorities.
Jewish charity goes largely to Israel-related groups. Our readers think that’s a bad idea.
The results, embedded below, suggest that Forward respondents think that education-related Jewish charities should get the largest share of contributions, followed by health care and social service-related charities. Israel-related charities rank fourth.
These poll results are far from scientific. Still, they shed light on the opinions of Forward readers, as Jane Eisner wrote in her editorial this week.
Close readers confused by the disparity between the “How They Spend It” figures reported below and the numbers reported in our story on this two weeks ago, take note: We excluded two categories from the poll for the sake of clarity, which resulted in tweaked figures.
Shopping at J&R Music World always felt weirdly haimish.
Despite the fact that the electronics retailer owned an entire (and very lucrative) block in Lower Manhattan, there was something endearingly shabby about the chainlet founded by Israeli immigrants Joe and Rachelle Friedman (J. and R., get it?) as a basement record store in 1971.
On Thursday, J&R’s brick-and-mortar operations ceased to exist. As the New York Daily News reported, the Friedmans issued a statement today to announce the closings.
“On April 10th, J&R will close its doors so that we can rebuild this location into what we hope will be an unprecedented retailing concept and social mecca,” the statement said. “A lot has changed in these 43 years, including not only the way we listen to music and the technology products we sell, but the way people shop and socialize.”
In recent years, the Friedmans had already started consolidating their retail business, compressing an unruly row of shops along Manhattan’s Park Row into a single – and sterile – vertical mall at the end of the block. The stores had been “struggling amid a difficult environment for consumer electronics retailers,” the Daily News wrote.
Anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali / Getty Images
To begin with, let’s clear up a few details of the flap over Brandeis University’s decision to revoke an invitation for Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree and address the graduating class: Hirsi Ali is emphatically not being “silenced,” as she and her defenders claim.
The university, in tandem with its notice to Hirsi Ali that her award was rescinded, invited her to campus to expound on her views in a forum that did not confer upon her any honor.
That latter invitation was the lynchpin in Brandeis’s strategy to correct its mistake — the initial offer of an honor — in the best way possible: by preserving the notion that universities should be bastions of free thought, even for deeply unpopular ideas.
And it is that invitation which renders moot Hirsi Ali’s complaint that “neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced.” The issue with honoring Hirsi Ali was never what she may say — hence the standing invitation to speak — but rather what she has said.
Hirsi Ali’s record is plump with remarks that any tolerant, liberal institution should view with caution. Her personal narrative and work on women’s rights may tell a different, laudable story, but not one that outweighs the pattern of hostility toward a major world religion.
This hostility crosses boundaries beyond atheistic skepticism and into literal militant opposition to one faith in particular: Islam. Hirsi Ali claims her “critics have long specialized in selective quotation – lines from interviews taken out of context – designed to misrepresent me and my work.”
A Passover Seder in prewar Europe.
Every other spring, the Zionist-Socialist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair takes its bogrim, the group of usually 16-year-old leaders from around the world, on a weeklong trip to Poland. When it was my turn in 2006, the dates fell on Passover.
The nine of us from Vienna boarded a night train to Warsaw on the second or third night of Passover. Working together with the youth group had turned us into a tight-knit friend group, and we were excited about the trip that would reunite us with peers from across the globe.
The fact that we’d be visiting the places where many of our ancestors had perished – the Warsaw ghetto, Majdanek, Auschwitz and Treblinka – didn’t dampen our mood. We had grown up with the stories of our grandparents, many of whom had barely escaped Europe before the Holocaust, or survived in concentration camps or hiding. But even more importantly, the movement stressed the role of those who had been resistance fighters. After all, Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943, was a member of Hashomer Hatzair. We went to Poland first to celebrate our heroes; mourning our dead came second.
Israel’s Naftali Bennett / Getty Images
On Wednesday, the multi-portfolioed Naftali Bennett – Israel’s Minister of the Economy, Minister of Religious Services, and Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs – sent a letter to his Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
In that letter, according to Israeli Army Radio, Bennett called for a cabinet meeting “to begin the process of imposing Israeli sovereignty on the areas of [the West Bank] that are under Israeli control.” This he called “Plan B,” saying Plan B is necessary because negotiations with the Palestinians have failed – because “the Palestinians have broken new records of extortion and rejectionism.”
Now. It must be acknowledged that this is some phenomenally well-honed and impressively brazen Orwellian doublespeak. Truly.
Because imposing Israeli sovereignty on huge chunks of the West Bank has never been Bennett’s “Plan B.” Unlike Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (who – whatever else his faults – has publicly advocated a two-state solution since 1977), Bennett has never aspired to a two-state peace. Ever. Indeed, one might say that Bennett’s entire political career has been one of rejectionism and extortion. How do I come to this conclusion? By reading his words.
Photo by Martyna Starosta
Editor’s note: Whether it’s a silver kiddush cup, a siddur that survived the Holocaust, or a wedding ring — heirlooms tell the story of our families. Please share your Jewish heirloom stories with us below by April 25. Several submissions will be featured in the Forward in May.
In my family, we call our grandmother (at least) once a week. A reminder clinks around on my wrist almost every day.
When I was 12 years old, nearing my bat-mitzvah, my mom and grandmother sat me down and presented me with two gold bracelets — sturdy, but thin, carefully engraved with a vine-like pattern. “Don’t lose them,” they said. (Confession: I did, for about two years. Sorry, Mamie.)
My mother had gone through the same rite of passage, and my grandmother before her. The bracelets have been passed down from eldest girl, to eldest girl, brought to Montreal from Morocco, where my great-grandfather purchased them for my grandmother for her 7th birthday, in December 1944.
The gold engravers of Marrakesh were known for their craftsmanship, my grandmother recently told me.
Both my parents were born in Morocco, my father in Meknes, my mother in Marrakesh. In the early 1970s, when so-called “Arabization,” and nationalism forced many Jews to leave the country, my mother’s family followed.
Chances are you are just a tiny breadcrumb trying to make a life in New York, one of the most expensive cities in the world.
You never hurt a fly. You did all the right things. But you somehow failed: You found your way into the house of a nice Jewish family, you got a free ride for a couple of months but suddenly there’s bad news, really bad news.
It’s nearly Pesach and your Jewish host family has decided to get rid of all hametz.
But how does this sophisticated cleaning operation work? How much does it cost to outsource it to specialists?
And most importantly, what are the loopholes in Jewish law that allow you to keep all that forbidden-for-Passover stuff around for after the holiday?
Watch and learn — and spare a tear for the littlest victims of our most ancient tradition.
The author with her parents a few weeks before the Passover Seder / Courtesy of Masha Leon
I don’t remember having a Pesach Seder as a child in pre-war Warsaw. There must have been matzo. But what I do recall is my parents’ presentation of the Exodus saga as an exemplar of liberation, of courage, of “Yiddish” ethos.
Not until we got to Vilnius (Vilno) in 1940 did I experience an authentic Seder at the home of a cousin. Fluent in Yiddish, I could not decipher the Hebrew Hagaddah text, but my Orthodox-raised parents — Zelda and Matvey Bernstein — blitzed through the Seder with lightning speed. The Lithuanians were in power. We felt safe. But in June came the Soviet occupation, my father’s arrest by the NKVD and his imprisonment in Lukishki Prison with fellow cellmate Menachem Begin. Then my mother and I got our life-saving Sugihara visas to Japan.
In Kobe, Japan, my mother and I celebrated a Seder of sorts with fellow boarders: Warsaw refugees Yosl Mlotek, Lonia Oler and her twin daughters Hannah and “Hinda.” I do not remember matzos — perhaps JewCom, the local Jewish community council, provided some. Our landlord was a former Russian general who believed that the Tsar was coming back. Since our Seder coincided with Easter, the general, in a be-medaled full regalia white uniform with saber at the side, asked us to toast the portrait of the Tsar that hung in the main room.
1. The world’s oldest illuminated Haggadah
This 14th century Haggadah is the earliest known Ashkenazi attempt to artistically depict the story of Passover. It’s a pretty creative retelling of the story, mainly because the people depicted in the story have the heads of animals — hence the manuscript’s title, “The Bird’s Head Haggadah.” This is believed to have been an attempt to avoid displaying a “graven image” alongside a sacred text. It’s also the first text to include the baking of matzo in the Exodus story. The images are not extraordinary, but you can imagine that it was a pretty big deal at the time it was published.
2. The Haggadah that revolutionized the Haggadah
Seder books have evolved over the years in no small way. But if there’s one Haggadah that served as a prototype for books later to come, it was the the Gershon Cohen Haggadah, published in Prague in 1527. This book wasn’t the first illustrated Haggadah, nor was it the first one copied using the printing press. But it was the first, so far as we know, to prove that the contemporary printing method did not have to come at the expense of the evolved tradition of decorating the text. Gershom ben Shlomo Ha-Kohen’s beautifully decorated Haggadah used printing woodcuts and was the first printed Haggadah to include “Adir Hu.”
3. The world’s most beautiful Haggadah
The Szyk Haggadah is considered one of the most beautiful Seder books out there. Though published in the 20th century, the book, hand-lettered and hand-painted, harkens to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. Drawn up amidst the rise of the Nazis, Arthur Szyk’s book draws a parallel between the Third Reich and the Ancient Egyptians. In an early sketch, Hitler’s mustache reportedly appeared on Pharaoh’s face. He had a hard time finding someone to publish the manuscript, even after fleeing to England. But after years of financial stress, his friends helped him sell 250 editions of the book for $500 each. Today, a deluxe edition costs nearly $9,000.