Editor’s Note: As part of the Forward’s Our Promised Lands project, which will cover 50 states in 50 weeks, Anne Cohen and Sigal Samuel are setting out on a Southern adventure. Over the next eight days, they will travel to Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana, so keep an eye on this blog to follow their shenanigans. To get you in the mood, here’s a brief history of Jewish road trips.
He may not represent the tribe anymore, but Jesus hails from some pretty hardy Jewish road trippers. Mary and Joseph trekked the 80 miles (a 33-hour walk according to Google Maps) from Nazareth to Bethlehem with only a donkey to lighten their load. In case you’re wondering, that’s roughly the distance from New York to Philadelphia.
Dubbed the “Jewish Marco Polo,” Tudela was a medieval Jewish traveler who visited Europe, Asia and Africa in the 12th century. In what began as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Tudela traveled through France, Italy, Greece, Constantinople, Syria, Lebanon and what is now Israel before reaching Baghdad. After a stop in Persia, he cut through Egypt and North Africa to return to his homeland of Spain. The things you can get done when you don’t have to go through airport security!
Josh Nathan-Kazis checks out his roots in Fort Kent, Maine.
Everyone in the Facebook group called “You know you grew up in Fort Kent, Maine, when…” is talking about my great-grandfather.
I’ve been lurking all day.
The great thing about travel writing in 2014 is that you can eavesdrop on locals’ reactions to your story when you’re back home. I don’t know what the guys having coffee at the Napa Auto Parts store in Fort Kent are saying about “The Rise and Fall of the Potato King,” my article about my great-grandfather’s ambitions and failures in northern Maine, which the Forward published on Tuesday.
But I can read what they’re posting online.
Camp Modin, in the Belgrade Lake district, is New England’s oldest summer camp. // Courtesy of Camp Modin
1) Jewish population as of 2012: 13,890
2) The Portland JCC opened in 1938.
3) Camp Modin, established in 1922 in the Belgrade Lake district, is the oldest Jewish camp in New England.
4) Susman Abrams (1743-1830., a native of Hamburg, Germany, was the first known Jewish resident of Maine. He came to the state in the post-Revolutionary period and lived in Waldborough, Thomaston, and finally in Union, where he operated a tannery. Abrams married a Christian woman but did not himself convert to Christianity.
5) Captain Harold H. Gordon, Jewish chaplain for the North Atlantic Division, Air Transport Command, took a Torah, on loan from the Beth Israel Synagogue in Bangor, on his rounds in 1945. Gordon and the Torah racked up more than 75,000 miles on a circuit that covered bases as disparate as Reykjavik, Iceland and Bermuda.
6) Nearly two-thirds of Maine’s resorts refused to accept Jewish guests in the 1950s, the highest percentage of any state in the union.
7) Shaarey Tphiloh was the first synagogue in Maine, built in 1904. Etz Chaim Synagogue came into being because of a dispute that started in 1915 between Rabbi Chaim Shohet and the board of directors of Shaarey Tphiloh Synagogue over the dismissal of Cantor Lebovitz. Rabbi Shohet’s support of Cantor Lebovitz culminated in the rabbi’s dismissal in 1917. According to popular legend, the rabbi’s chair was removed from the sanctuary and placed in the bathroom.
8) The Maine Jewish Film Festival is held every March in Portland, the smallest city in the nation to host an independent and professional Jewish film festival.
Moroccan Jews living in the Jewish ghetto in Marrakesh circa 1955 / Getty Images
I wish I could cheer the latest bill approved by Israel’s Knesset. I should, theoretically, be happy about it — the new law is designed to address the issues of people like me. And yet, when I read about it, I felt more worried than anything else.
The law sets up November 30 as the national day to commemorate the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands following the founding of Israel in 1948. Every year, on this day, the country’s attention will be directed toward the troubles they endured. Israeli children will learn about the history of Mizrahim — Middle Eastern and North African Jews — who have for decades been sidelined in Israel, despite the fact that they now make up about half its population.
That sounds pretty great, right? Remembering the half-forgotten histories of marginalized people is, generally speaking, a good thing. And on a personal level, I’m grateful for it. My family comes from Iraq (on my dad’s side) and Morocco (on my mom’s side), and they were among the hundreds of thousands of Jews pushed out of those countries in the 1950’s. For me, this bill and the national day it establishes isn’t just an abstraction — it speaks directly to my family and the story of why we are where we are today.
So why am I so wary of this November 30 business? Because the campaign for greater recognition of the plight of Arab Jewish refugees is often part of a larger political campaign to block recognition of the plight of Palestinian refugees. It’s about countering the narrative of the Palestinian people — a people that, after all these years, still insists on the right of its refugees to return to their homes in what is now Israel. And it’s about countering the narrative of the “delegitimizers” who question Jewish Israelis’ right to be there in the first place.
As a college student often working on my resume, I am always given impersonal directions. “Keep the sentences concise and specific — subject-verb-object, then get out,” college advisor wags; “Move that ‘Award’ section where it can be seen,” Mom presses; “Strong verbs are critical. Throw in an ‘Achieved’ or ‘Progressed’ for best results,” career center lady assures.
And yet replace my name with North West or Apple Martin and it’s as if I never existed. Turns out the greatest tip I might have received is to emphasize my name by adding the single, most personal of identifiers to my resume: Jewish.
A recent study out of the University of Connecticut discovered that adding religious affiliation to 3200 fake resumes sent to 800 jobs in a 150-mile radius of two major Southern cities hurt the applicants’ chances in all cases except one — Jews.
“Jewish applicants received significantly higher employer preference rates than all other religious treatments,” the research team wrote in their conclusion. “They were more likely to receive an early, exclusive, or solo response from employers, compared with all other religious groups combined.”
Elliot Kukla, first out transgender rabbi ordained by the Reform movement / Nic Coury
Reactions to the Forward’s transgender and Jewish series varied from “after a decade of acceptance, this is news?” to “the synagogues are being overrun by sex maniacs” to an attitude of open curiosity, perhaps best espoused by Sheila Rubin in Naomi Zeveloff’s piece about transgender converts:
“Look, I don’t want to embarrass you, but I need to know if you need me to call you by another name or another pronoun. I don’t want to call you by your old name if that is going to hurt you.”
It is in answer to her question that I suggested we provide a glossary to our new Ebook (also available in print edition) “Transgender and Jewish”. After all, we try to explain Jewish terms like Torah (the Five Books of Moses or, metonymically, the word of God or, more broadly, wisdom), bimah (central dais or stage from which synagogue services are led) or aliyah (literally “ascent” it means taking up Israeli citizenship and going to live in Israel or being called up to the bimah to read the Torah).
Transgender Jews celebrate Shabbat at a California synagogue
My friend and colleague Jay Michaelson’s op-ed “Include Me Out of This Jewish Community” calls into question the value and utility of “LGBT inclusion” in the mainstream Jewish community. I agree with some of Michaelson’s overarching points that being included in the mainstream without participating in fundamental change lacks meaning. But my experiences working for full equality and inclusion for LGBT Jews for the past 14 years as Executive Director of Keshet have led me to a radically different conclusion than Michaelson’s.
I do not believe that inclusion of LGBT people simply translates to the status quo with queer window-dressing. When LGBT Jews get a seat at the table, we have the chance to change not just the seating order, but the very structure of the table itself.
When a transgender rabbinical student is brought on as the rabbinic intern at a traditional Conservative shul, the look, feel and structure of the institution starts to shift.
When a Jewish film festival turns to a transmasculine Keshet leader who grew up poor to speak on a panel about Israeli women’s films, I see rigid conceptions of gender start to soften.
When a federation hosts a Keshet program and our staff explain why we are putting “All-Gender” bathroom signs up, the Jewish establishment begins to look different.
This month, I will be speaking at several Pride Shabbat services around the country and will challenge the congregations I meet to think critically about who is absent from their community and why; who is seen and who remains invisible. When people remain engaged in these conversations, the gulf between the margins and the mainstream begins to close. I believe LGBT Jews can change the Jewish community from the inside out. It is happening already.
Idit Klein is the Executive Director of Keshet.
An Israeli observes the Iron Dome system in action / Getty Images
Almost one in two Jewish Israelis think that their country could withstand a substantial decrease in American support.
In a new poll by the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, conducted in the light of U.S.-Israel tensions over the end of the peace process, 44% of Jewish respondents took this view. This is remarkable in itself, given the massive funding that the U.S. provides, and the fact that the most admired defense innovation of recent years, the Iron Dome missile defense system, was made possible by the United States. But it’s particularly remarkable given the domestic political tensions.
The defense establishment is facing large budget cuts, and claiming that this will impact on its ability to perform. And so, the confidence of such a large proportion of the Israeli population at this time that loss of U.S. funding could be sustained is highly odd.
What’s more, if you look only at Israeli Jews who define themselves as right wing, this belief that Israel could dispense with U.S. funding is very dominant. Some 70% of those rightists think Israel could withstand a substantial diminution of American funding.
Yet it’s always the political right that is most emphatic that defense spending can’t decrease — and it’s no different with the current budget cuts. Unfortunately, the poll didn’t ask respondents for names and addresses of those who they reckon will fill the gaping hole that a U.S. funding cut would leave.
Burmese girls at school in Thailand’s Mae La refugee camp / Getty Images
Even though I was raised in a Washington, D.C. suburb, I never spent much time in the district and definitely never toured the White House.
But last month, I joined 150 Jewish activists from 18 states to lobby my elected officials to support the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) — part of the inaugural Policy Summit of American Jewish World Service (AJWS). My civic participation helped me identify the pronounced incongruities between culture on the Hill and the lives of Burmese refugees in Thailand on whose behalf I came to speak.
This moment was a long time coming. Last August, I applied to the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship. I traveled to Thailand with 20 Global Justice Fellows — rabbinical students, graduate students and law students — to learn more about the humanitarian crisis on the border of Thailand and Burma. We met with local organizations, supported by AJWS, that are working to advance basic civil and human rights for Burma’s ethnic minorities and Burmese refugees in Thailand.
My most meaningful encounter in Thailand involved the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO). The Karen State in Burma is largely undeveloped; people are mostly subsistence farmers and have weathered atrocious human rights violations during the decades-long conflict with the ethnic Burmese military government.
Over rustic yet delicious green curry, I sat with KWO leader Zion Dany, who described abominable conditions in the nearby Mae La refugee camp. More than 50,000 Burmese refugees live there, many since the camp opened in 1984. Zion spoke of a young woman who was raped and murdered in the camp weeks earlier. After the incident, camp officials cremated and disposed of her remains without conducting an on-site rape kit to identify and bring the assailants to justice. Zion spoke with conviction about the absolute necessity to establish protocols so that rape victims receive justice and legal protection, regardless of their citizenship or refugee status.
Tikkun Olam. Repair the world.
If you’re anything like me, the mere mention of the phrase is enough to make you cringe.
Not because we don’t want to do our part for a better world. But for many in my generation, brought up with the idea that you wouldn’t get into college or get a job unless you spent three months building houses in Uganda or took a selfie meditating with the Dalai Lama, the concept has all but lost its meaning.
Millenials have a bad reputation when it comes to engagement. We are “lazy,” “nihilistic,” and “apathetic.”
Unlike our parents, who came of age protesting against the Vietnam War, or working to free Jews from Soviet oppression, we don’t have a uniting cause. We’re the social media generation, who would rather casually “like” or retweet a plea to #BringBackOurGirls than actually get up and do.
In the Jewish world, the recent Pew survey showed a significant rise in Jews of no religion, who are less likely to be involved in Jewish causes or communities. Still, the same survey showed that 94% of us are proud to be Jewish.
In the end, actions speak louder than words. In an October editorial in response to the Pew survey, Jane Eisner wrote: “A Jew is what a Jew does.”
All across the country, young Jews are working to improve their communities. We want to find those people and share their stories.
We’re looking for The Do-ers.
We’re looking for young Jews between the ages of 16 to 26 who are impacting their community in a significant way. This can be a geographic community, ethnic community, religious community, identity-based community, etc.
Whether it’s launching an after-school program in an underserved neighborhood, creating a Torah-themed comic strip or striving to document recipes from the Old Country, the work they’re doing must be informed by their Jewish identity. Nominations close June 7.
Maya Angelou, who has died at 86, was a celebrated poet, author, and chronicler of the African-American experience.
Angelou also had several memorable interactions with the Jewish community. Here are six Jewish memories of Maya:
1) Poignant Poetry
In one of his final acts in office, President Bill Clinton appointed Angelou to the board of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in 2001. During meetings, she would occasionally read poems to focus board members on their shared mission.
“Maya Angelou brought a unique voice,” recalled Sara J. Bloomfield, the museum’s director. “(She) would take us beyond the business at hand and remind everyone of the importance of the museum’s mission in promoting human dignity for all people.”
2) Farrakhan Flap
Angelou’s seemingly straightforward appointment to the museum’s board was not without some controversy. She came under fire from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who criticized Angelou for accepting a speaking invitation from Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam who is considered by many Jews to be an anti-Semite. Angelou had recited a poem at the 1995 Million Man March organized by Farrakhan, which brought hundreds of thousands of blacks to the Washington Mall.
She “bestowed her name and prestige upon a man whose anti-Semitism and racism were by then unquestionable and who referred to the murder of Europe’s Jews as ‘the so-called Holocaust of the so-called Jew, the imposter Jew,’” Cohen wrote.
“Maya Angelou doesn’t belong in its board room. She belongs, instead, in the museum’s exhibition rooms. She has lots to learn.”
Israeli Jewish youths fix a menorah in Jerusalem’s Muslim quarter / Getty Images
There’s a received wisdom that in Israel, everyone is polarizing, and that with a right-wing government and stalled peace process, Arab citizens are feeling increasingly antagonistic towards the state. But a new survey suggests that this isn’t the case.
There has been a rise in the percentage of Arabs who recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. In 2012, 47% of Arab citizens accepted this, but in 2013 — the figure just released — this rose to 53%.
The Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates
In the Hebrew tradition prophets cry out in the wilderness in part because their audience tends to be uninterested in the message. If the people were ready, after all, they wouldn’t need a prophet. “The prophet faces a coalition of callousness and established authority, and undertakes to stop a mighty stream with mere words,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote. “The purpose of prophecy is to conquer callousness, to change the inner man as well as to revolutionize history.”
Last week, The Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations,” a remarkable piece that in many ways calls to mind Rabbi Heschel’s portrayal of prophetic literature: Facing a coalition of callousness and established authority, Coates offers “mere words,” with the intent of revolutionizing history. How might an American Jew respond?
Tasked with considering “The Case for Reparations” from a Jewish perspective, however, I must first make some disclaimers: I’m not a rabbi and don’t by any stretch represent all Jews or Jewish opinion. Furthermore, Coates and I have known each other online for several years, via his blog; I’m a long-time member of his commenter community. I’m not objective.
Yet for all that, the Jewish space opened by Coates’s words is, to my mind, inescapable. At base, “Reparations” is a call for collective action in response to collective injustice, a demand for “the just return of honest industry,” and an insistence that “a delinquent debt [cannot] be made to disappear if only we don’t look.” These ideas resonate with the Jewish experience at every level — in our prayer, Scripture and history.
Judaism — it’s a big religion; America — it’s an even bigger place.
But one man — one brave, self-sacrificing man — has taken upon himself the weight and burden of serving both constituencies, of being just the Jew that this country needs, of being: America’s Rabbi.
I’m sorry, did I say “one man”? I meant “five men.”
There are five American men (and yes of course they’re men) currently laying claim to the title of “America’s Rabbi.” Five, can you believe it? Why, that’s as many books as we have in the Torah! We’re going to have to add a chapter to our Holy Scriptures, or at the very least create a field guide, to sort them all out.
So allow me to present to you: A Field Guide to “Rabbis, America’s”
Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf is a JCC macher, but is not Jewish / Flicker: WolfForPa Campaign
(JTA) — In his coverage of last night’s primary elections, Slate political reporter Dave Weigel mentioned an odd fact: Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania’s newly crowned gubernatorial nominee, has given so much to his local Jewish community center in York, Pa., that many reporters assumed he was Jewish. Only he isn’t.
So why is a non-Jewish businessman one of the biggest donors to his local JCC — so big that, in the midst of a gubernatorial campaign, he’s also co-chairing the JCC’s new capital campaign?
There are a couple parts to this answer. One is that Wolf and his family have deep roots in the York community — in fact, one of the York’s boroughs, Mount Wolf, is named for Tom Wolf’s great-great-grandfather — and he’s been a generous donor of time and money to local civic life.
The second part is that the York JCC is one of a number of JCCs around the country where the membership is majority gentile. (I wrote about this a few years ago for the Forward.) In these communities, the Jewish population is too small to support a decent JCC on its own, so the local leaders have decided to actively recruit members from outside the Jewish community. The Jews get a nice big JCC (and I can attest that the York JCC is very nice, even before its newly planned expansion) with lots of Jewish programming, and the non-Jews get a nice gym and another good local preschool.
So, in that light, Tom Wolf’s JCC donations make sense — he’s just supporting another York civic institution, the way his family always does.
There’s one more twist to the story, though: Tom Wolf, the man so many people believed was Jewish, just beat out Allyson Schwartz — a woman who is, in fact, Jewish — in the Democratic primary race for governor.
Still from a video produced by anti-miscegenation group Yad L’Achim
Imagine this: You’re a young guy in Israel. Scrolling through Facebook, you see the profile of an attractive Jewish girl. She seems interested in finding a date, so you send her a message. She writes back! The two of you make plans to meet up in person next week. When the big day arrives, you show up at the appointed spot, excited and nervous. You hear a sound behind you and turn around, expecting to see the beautiful girl. Instead, a bunch of guys pounce on you and punch your lights out.
The reason? You’re an Arab, not a Jewish, Israeli.
Welcome to Jews Against Miscegenation, a far-right group of male teens and 20-somethings who pose as Jewish women on Facebook to bait and lure Arab “predators” into the open and then beat them up.
These young men made headlines in the Israeli press today after they were indicted at the Jerusalem District Court. Police were able to identify and catch them, thanks to a security camera mounted at the site of one of their attacks.
It’s a relief to see these youths finally taken into custody — not just because their actions are racist (mere Arabness is enough to get you targeted) and sexist (women clearly can’t be trusted to choose for themselves), but because reports over the past few years have suggested that Israel’s police and municipal governments were actually supporting and funding these bigots.
Chabad Lubavitchers bring religious Jewish life to Laos in 2008.
If you saw the Anti-Defamation League’s scary new report on global anti-Semitism, you might have been intrigued to learn that the least anti-Semitic country in the word is…Laos.
Laos? Yes, Laos.
But why Laos, you ask? Good question. Maybe the landlocked Southeast Asian country has an amazingly tolerant and morally evolved population? Perhaps it’s been impressed by the wit of the Talmud, the humor of Seinfeld, the literary prowess of the Jewish Nobel winners, the breakthrough research of Israeli scientists? Do they just really like knishes over there?
Probably not. A more likely answer can be found in the Wikipedia page devoted to “History of the Jews in Laos” — yes, there is such a page, and here it is in its entirety:
Laos has no established Jewish presence, but as this communist country gradually opens up to foreign tourism, Chabad has secured permission to establish a permanent presence in Luang Prabang in 2006, where the young Rabbi Avraham Leitner provides meals and shelter to Jewish travelers. In all, there are only four permanent Jewish residents in the country, who serve the Israeli backpackers, tourists, and diplomats visiting Laos.
Wait a minute. Four Jewish residents?
Has the ADL considered that the low incidence of anti-Semitism in Laos may be due to nothing more than the tiny size of its Semitic community?
And why is the community so tiny?
It should be said that if there’s a lack of Jewish life in Laos, it’s not for lack of effort. Chabad Jews have been very keen to bring Yiddishkeit to the country — which, being communist, doesn’t look too kindly on religious activity. That hasn’t stopped this guy from trying.
Apparently, there was some drama in Laos back in 2008, when local police expelled Chabadniks from the country after they organized a Rosh Hashana celebration for 200 backpacking Israelis. The Chabadniks were arrested and interrogated, then put on a plane (along with their Torah scroll) to Bangkok, where they landed just one hour before the start of Yom Kippur.
So, establishing Jewish life is a tricky endeavor in Laos; there’s almost no permanent Jewish presence there; there’s also almost no anti-Semitism there. Should we be scoring that in the victory column?
At first sight, the ADL’s stats seem to tell a clear story. But they leave us with some murky questions. Laos is one of them.
Nigerian women call for the freedom of Chibok’s kidnapped girls / Getty Images
Last month, an Islamist armed group called Boko Haram abducted 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria. Presumably, these girls will be killed or sold into slavery and child marriages.
Even though I sit here in Los Angeles, this crisis affects me personally, deeply and immediately. You see, I am a Jewish mother of three daughters: Zohar, Ella and Hadar. And even though I do not know the names of the 276 girls, I know who they are. I see them clearly. They are my Zohar, my Ella, my Hadar.
I know what slavery means. I grew up reciting, every year at the Passover Seder, “In each generation, each person must envision being freed from slavery in Egypt.”
If I can imagine that, how can I not imagine what the mothers (and fathers and sisters and brothers) of those girls are feeling? And how can I not act upon my feelings of sadness, fear and outrage? After all, the Torah teaches, “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34). Those girls and their families are not strangers to me. They are my family.
Princeton student Tal Fortgang / Fox News
By now, you’ve probably heard about Tal Fortgang, the white male Princeton freshman who’s taken the phrase “check your privilege” to the next level. He’s actually claimed to have checked his, and in an article that’s now gone viral, he admits that he has privilege but insists it’s nothing to apologize for.
His family’s story, he writes, is one of triumph against all odds: His grandparents, survivors of the Holocaust, came here as penniless immigrants and had to work their way up the socio-economic ladder. They passed on their hard-earned privileges to the next generation, who passed them on to Fortgang. So the privileges he now enjoys are to be celebrated: If anything, his family’s tale proves that the American dream is attainable. “It was their privilege to come to a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character,” he says.
Fortgang and I are similar in a lot of ways. I grew up in the Jewish day school system, I attend an expensive university and my ancestors arrived here in the United States as penniless immigrants, albeit a long time before his. I grew up thinking that it was to their hard work that I owed my privilege.
But, inspired by Fortgang, I’ve decided to check my privilege as well — and sorry Fortgang, but you’ve cut your inquiry short. Our Jewish families’ climb to success had everything to do with race.
Palestinians celebrate new Fatah-Hamas unity // Getty Images.
A few days ago, Israel was engaged in a bitter blame game with the Palestinians, with each side accusing the other of being responsible for sabotaging peace talks. Now, Israel is competing for recognition as the party that brought the flagging talks to an end.
The Palestinians aren’t prepared to extend talks beyond their deadline on Tuesday unless Israel fulfils certain criteria which the right-wing government is Jerusalem is set against, including a release of the Palestinian prisoners who were scheduled to be freed in late March and a building freeze.
But Jerusalem is apparently not content that the talks would come to an end because of Palestinian refusal to renew them, and announced yesterday that it is walking away. Israel declared that it is suspending talks, due to its fury about the reconciliation accord which the Palestinian Authority and its rival, Hamas, have just signed.
The declaration is strange. Israel is taking a principled stance not to take part in peace talks that aren’t happening. And on the grounds that rival Palestinian factions have signed a reconciliation pact, which they have done before only to fail to implement it.
And of the reconciliation does pan out, would silence not have served Israel better? By taking peace talks off the table in a scenario of real Palestinian unity, Israel has lifted from Hamas any real pressure to make tough decisions if it does make it in to a coalition within the Palestinian Authority. Is won’t need to respond to pressure from moderate Palestinians to be prepared to talk, because Israel will have closed the venue of talks.
Israel’s hardball response to Palestinian unity may play straight in to Hamas’ hands.