(JTA) — An awkward silence set in between me and Genghis after he tells me that I am welcome to spend the night at the Derbent Jewish Community Center, but that I first need to “get clean” in the mikvah.
I have not heard of congregations with mandatory ritual immersions for visitors, but this is my first visit to a center for Mountain Jews and I am open to believing almost anything about this tough and ancient community of Hebrews, with their elaborate system of superstitions, strong military tradition, unabashed disregard for women and, until recently at least, penchant for bride kidnappings.
But as it turns out, a new anthropological discovery is not in the cards for me. The shower in my room is broken and Genghis (“Like Genghis Khan,” he says, to make sure I spell it correctly) is simply offering that I lather up in the shower adjacent to the actual mikvah.
The Derbent Jewish Community Center in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan was thoroughly renovated in 2010, and now features a kindergarten for some 30 toddlers, a wedding and reception hall, kosher kitchen, small museum and tea corner open to the city’s 500-odd Jews.
On the flashier third floor are two rooms for guests, who pay about $30 per night to stay in this Jewish island in a predominantly Muslim ocean whose traditionally friendly attitude toward Jews has been marred in recent years by a radical fringe which may be growing.
I am in Derbent to find out how the community is coping after the near-fatal shooting last month of its chief rabbi, Ovadia Isakov, who was shot in front of his home at night by several assailants the government suspects were Islamists. It followed an earlier attack on the synagogue last year, when a small bomb went off in its interior yard.
This post originally appeared on the web site of the Dart Society, an independent association of journalists who cover violence and tragedy.
Nine days after Veronique Pozner’s son, Noah, was killed in the Newtown schools shootings, I interviewed her and other members of the family about their grieving process. The family had just finished observing the official Jewish mourning period.
I spent over an hour with Veronique; she talked me through her experience on December 14 and the days that followed. Her story was filled with moving and harrowing details: her dream of wandering an abandoned building calling out for Noah, her meeting with President Obama at a vigil at the local high school and her decision to get a tattoo of angel wings and Noah’s name the day after his death. The details that stuck with me the most — and the details which I felt most conflicted about putting in print — were Veronique’s descriptions of the damage to her son’s body. He was shot multiple times; she told me that his jaw and his left hand were mostly gone.
There were certain things Veronique wanted for Noah’s funeral. She felt that his body had suffered too many indignities already; she was adamant that he not be autopsied. She wanted him to be buried with a Jewish prayer shawl and with a clear stone with a white angel inside — an “angel stone” — in each of his hands. Veronique was only able to put the stone in his right hand because the left was “not altogether there,” she told me, crying for the first time in our interview. She asked the funeral director to put the other one in the left hand spot. “I made him promise and he did.”
Veronique told me that Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy visited her in the funeral home, and she brought him to see Noah’s open casket. I asked her why it was important for her and for the governor to see Noah’s body. “I needed it to have a face for him,” she said. “If there is ever a piece of legislation that comes across his desk, I needed it to be real for him.”
Are Jewish journalists exploiting Noah Pozner’s death because he was the only Jewish child killed in the Newtown school massacre? That’s the provocative question raised in a blog post by Simi Lichtman, the associate editor of New Voices magazine and a Forward contributor. And her answer is: yes.
Lichtman wrote that she is “more than a little disturbed” by the way Jewish publications latched onto every detail of Noah’s short life simply to sell a story, looking for any “obscure slant” that would make the nationwide tragedy a Jewish one. This, she says, is an aspect to her new profession that she finds “downright disillusioning.”
She’s pinpointed a genuine struggle that all of us who take our Jewish journalism seriously confront daily. Our professional lives, like our personal ones, are a balance between a strictly religious/ethnic focus and an interest in the wider secular society in which we (mostly) easily reside. Focus too narrowly on only the Jewish story and we seem parochial and self-obsessed. Open the lens too widely and we’re just like everyone else in media, losing our distinctive edge.
But what Lichtman fails to appreciate is that every community in America — racial, religious, geographic, gender-based — looks at the news through its own prism. And, in fact, it is our duty and our privilege to provide those stories to the Jewish world, and beyond.
If in the days after the shooting everyone we know is talking about Newtown, shouldn’t we? If readers are flocking to these stories online — visits to the Forward’s website on the day of Noah Pozner’s funeral hit an all-time high — shouldn’t our work reflect our community’s interests and concerns?
Seth and Hindy Poupko Galena freely admit they do not know what it feels like to be affected by senseless gun violence.
But the Jewish couple does know the pain of losing a young child, having struggled as their 2-year-old daughter, Ayelet, fought a losing battle with a rare bone marrow disease.
When Seth Galena heard the eulogies for Noah Pozner, the Jewish boy who died in the Newtown school shooting, he wanted to do something to ease the pain of the family. He came up with“Tacos For Noah.”
“I read the eulogies given by Noah’s mother and uncle, both of which mentioned his love of tacos. The tacos really stuck with me,” Seth Galena, 35, said. “I printed out Noah’s photo Tuesday morning and put it up on my office wall and kept looking at it.”
Seth Galena told some of his co-workers at VML, an advertising firm, about his thoughts. In not much time at all, the idea to create a virtual taco factory for Noah was generated.
“You wanted to be a doctor, a soldier, a taco factory manager. It was your favorite food, and no doubt you wanted to ensure that the world kept producing tacos,” Veronique Pozner said in a eulogy for her son Noah at his funeral on Monday.
Six-year-old Noah, who was murdered in the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., will tragically never get a chance to fulfill any of his dreams.
However, people can honor his memory by making the Mexican dish he so enjoyed. Some have posted online that they will have actual taco dinners and parties. Alternatively, others are making imaginary tacos as a sort of virtual comfort food for his bereaved family.
Tacos For Noah went online Tuesday, allowing anyone to post via Twitter the kind of taco they would like to make for Noah (or the variety they would have ordered from Noah’s taco factory).
“Noah Pozner wanted to work at a taco factory when he grew up. Tacos were his favorite food, and no doubt he wanted to ensure that the world kept producing tacos,” reads the introductory text on the website. “Help us create a virtual taco in his memory. Add your special ingredient below and tweet it. Voila! Tacos for Noah, all in memory of this very special Little Man!”
UPDATE: JFNA defends reference to Homeland Security grant program
The Jewish Federations of North America chose an odd way to offer condolences to the Sikh community over the weekend shooting rampage that killed six people at a temple in Wisconsin.
After offering its “deepest sympathy” to the victims, the JFNA claimed the mass shooting spotlights the value of a federal Homeland Security grant program dubbed the “Jewish earmark.”
There’s no reason to doubt the JFNA’s sincerity. But in fact, the Sikh killings would seem to be an object lesson in the failure of that program to protect a more diverse slice of Americans.
Not one of the 109 organizations that received the $10 million in nonprofit security grants distributed in 2012 are Sikh.
As the Forward reported, 97% of the funds went to Jewish groups.
“It is with the deepest sympathy that The Jewish Federations stand with and extend our prayers to the Sikh community following this weekend’s deadly attack on the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin,” the JFNA statement began.
It closed: “At this time of national reflection, we must ensure that people of all faiths are safe in their places of worship. Programs like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program are vital to protecting at-risk communities and institutions, enabling us to work, worship, gather, and learn without fear.”
JFNA vice president for public policy William Daroff defended the statement, claiming that 400 non-Jewish groups had received grants during the program’s seven-year lifespan.
“The attack that occurred on Sunday is exactly the sort of attack that we are hopeful that nonprofit security grant funding would go towards preventing, or least safeguarding against,” Daroff said.
Daroff said that the majority of the program’s funding goes to the Jewish community because of threat assessments made by Homeland Security officials.
“It doesn’t meant that the program should be limited to us, nor is it,” Daroff said. “The question is, why is the federal government whittling away this program that is necessary and should be expanded as homegrown risks grow for both the Jewish community and for other communities.”